Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Film Nerd: "Che"

In Steven Soderbergh's sprawling biopic "Che" we are reminded that the 19th Century's priest could have easily been the 20th Century's communist guerilla.

"Che" is a detail-heavy depiction of two brief chapters in its subject's otherwise large life.

Soderbergh's portrait of the Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto Guevara suggests that for all the erudition, training and talent, Che was a man whose breadth narrowed to a single dimension as his life went on.

And in spite of its considerable length, Soderbergh's artistic proposition is humble in its conceptual reach.

Part One covers Guevara's time as a young revolutionary comandante in Cuba's Sierra Maestra, which, as we all know, turned out very well.

This portion of the film benefits from a narrative back-and-forth that captures the Cuban jungle fight in full color and a 1964 trip to the United Nations in grainy black and white.

The editing technique works well at many levels, breaking up the military effort's drudgery and contrasting Guevara's guerrilla exploits with an appearance at a party peopled by urbane and liberal romantics cut from the same clothe as the author of this piece.

We/they look silly when in the company of a young man who threw over a promising medical career and middle-to-upper-class comforts for a life dodging bullets on behalf of the poor.

But that's a story for Bill Kristol or Rush Limbaugh (if he could write) to have fun with.

The United Nations segment depicts a multi-faceted Guevara, in from the jungles, off from his day job as Minister of Culture, addressing a hostile diplomatic corps with the facility you'd expect from a guy who'd written a trio of future contributions to the pop culture canon and a guide on guerilla warfare to boot.

But, as folks who have launched a successful venture and failed when paid to repeat the trick will tell you...it's hard to repeat the trick.

Part Two is a new encounter with Guevara in Bolivia where he tried to do exactly that and learned the same costly lesson.

From the beginning the feel is different. The tropical exuberance of Cuba is replaced by the taciturn indigenous peasant and corresponding moodiness of the Bolivian highlands.

A peasant here is not the same as a peasant over there and Guevara's rebels can hardly find a friend to join them in spite of his field-tested methods for garnering popular support.

In Part One, Che lauds Fidel Castro for entering the historic annals of armed revolution, and El Comandante responds that, "It's not just me Ernesto. It's all of us. Alone I could never have done this."

Maybe Che wasn't listening closely enough, because in Bolivia sorely misses Castro's political genius and the ebullience of field commander Camilo Cienfuegos.

Literally trapped in the jungle, bound to a prosaic effort of avoiding death rather than advancing toward any tangible goal, Guevara shrinks into a product of the good communist book.

He is a fair and noble leader who never forgets his own guerilla guide, adhering to its precepts like a bible, finding an answer to every situation in its memorized text, no matter how absurd the proposed remedy.

Down to a handful of fighters, trapped in a ravine, hungry and desperate, Che is still ordering his beleaguered followers to guard positions requiring many more boots than those available, or dispatching a "vanguard" of three rag-tag fellows to their certain and sad demise.

It's been a long time since "The Wall" came down and even longer since western fascination with the communist call waned, so we must remember there was nothing original in this approach, that it was prototypical communist behavior, monkish, blind, and inflexible.

We find this one-dimensional activist in literature.

In "I Married a Communist," Philip Roth referred to his rebel protagonist Ira Ring as a "justice-making machine."

We find the type in nonfiction as well.

"New York Times" columnist Murray Kempton's communist portraiture, "Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments from the Thirties," rendered union leader John L. Lewis and his legal henchman Lee Pressman in a manner most appropriate to our purposes here:

"John Lewis and Lee Pressman were the impersonal force of history; in them innocence did not die but history triumphed, and all material honors accrued to its representatives. As John Lewis said once, the strong move forward and the weak fall behind. But he who would be history's engine must move ahead without slackening or lesser men will tear him down. And when he goes, very few will mourn his fall, for men do not weep for an impersonal instrument."

Impersonal instrument seems to have been Guevara's ultimate personal choice, a walking talking justice machine of a laser-like focus which blocked out constructive considerations and limited his efforts in the way Soderbergh's approach limits his film's.

highwayscribery, of course, loved it, but that's no measure of project's popular appeal.

The script was drawn from Guevara's own memoirs of the two campaigns and, as historical figure he is something of a gift to his own scholarly fans, because he was apt in recording what he clearly anticipated to be a life of adventure as it unfolded.

Walter Salles' "Motorcyle Diaries" became the first cinematic beneficiary of Guevara's personal writings, but that film was more a traditional filmic "story" whereas "Che," in a true-blue fidelity to its sources generates a faux documentary along the lines of Gillo Pontecorvo's "Battle of Algiers."

As such, the film does not render the whole of Guevara's story, but it does get at a hard grain of truth about the man.

(The image is a work by Rafael Serrano)

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