The 46th New York Film Festival: Che

by |
10/06/2008 5:15 PM |

The Argentine, the two-hour Cuban Revolution procedural that makes up the first half of Steven Soderbergh’s Che, is interspersed with black-and-white flash-forward footage of Che Guevara visiting New York in 1964. Asked, in an interview that takes place late in the film, whether he’s comfortable being a symbol of revolution, Che (Benicio Del Toro) says yes, he is, symbols inspire. This is exactly the problem one goes into Che expecting: “symbolism,” is a Che T-shirt, and what it actually symbolizes is vapidity rather than action, and an abstracting of the revolutionary ideal, sidestepping the complexity of the political and moral issues at stake. In coming out pro-Che T-shirt, Soderbergh is telling us something we’ve maybe already realized by this point in the movie: Che is essentially apolitical.

Made up of two compare-and-contrast war movies, the aforementioned Argentine and
, about the ill-fated late-60s Bolivian campaign where our hero
became immortal by dying, Che is, says its director, an investigation
into the “conditions” in which revolution takes place. By “conditions,”
Soderbergh mostly means military tactics.

Those conditions seem pertinent in Guerilla, which deals in less of a
vacuum with matters of factionalism and financing, with
counterinsurgency tactics and the (often either clumsy or forceful)
battle for hearts and minds. That The Argentine is a widescreen epic
while Guerilla is shot hand-held in a more constricted frame has been
frequently mentioned by other critics; less has been said about the
less obviously “this directorial choice represents this thematic
element” bits in the latter film — verdant Cuba becomes mountainous,
drought-and-deluge Bolivia, with Indian peasants scrapping out a more
isolated subsistence than the engaged Cuban populace, or else caught up
in the sprawlingly urban capital; the whole thing feels meaner and more
mercenary, which it was.

But the conditions for armed insurrection and the conditions for
revolution aren’t the same thing, and Soderbergh never quite opens out
from the latter into the former. (Despite moments in Guerilla when
Che’s campaign seems to liaise with specific microcosms of the larger
social fabric, and Cold War geopolitics and proxy wars.)

“The Revolution” has just started, Che warns an underling at the
triumphant climax of The Argentine, but he and the movie skip off to
fight new battles almost immediately thereafter. The (true-to-life)
incident that leads us into the intermission portents a more critical
look at the long, hard work of revolution; the promise isn’t kept.

What about governance? What about the implementation of Marxist
principles? A movie like The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which seems
more and more to be one of the more crucial films of recent years,
found the struggle to be inextricably linked to the social and
political ideals informing it — and, for that matter, offered a
genuinely ambiguous account of ideologically pure acts of violence. (In
The Argentine, Che executes a little self-critical justice on some
raping, pillaging deserters — like Rumsfeld’s bad apples, they don’t
reflect any larger truths about the uniform they wear.) (It’s possible
that a more difficult scene was cut between the film’s Cannes premiere
and here; Soderbergh awkwardly dodged J. Hoberman’s question about the
scene at his press conference.) This weighing of the rough justice of
symbolic murder is an important thing for us to think about when we
think about Che (my god The Motorcycle Diaries is a vapid
movie), and for that matter the revolutionary ideal in general.

Arguably, the very rare acts of popular self- defence committed by
Lavalas partisans are examples of what Walter Benjamin called “divine
violence”: they should be located “beyond good and evil”, in a kind of
politico-religious suspension of the ethical. Although we are dealing
with what can only appear as “immoral” acts of killing, one has no
political right to condemn them, because they are a response to years,
centuries even, of systematic state and economic violence and

That’s Slavoj Zizek, from a recent book review
. I present it without
comment, thus one-upping Soderbergh, who neither comments on nor
presents the intellectual Left’s debate over political violence.
(Cameo mentions of Sartre and Bertie Russell are the only signs
of Che’s existence in a larger, distinctly un-proletariat conversation.)

So, ok, credit where it’s due, Soderbergh does shoot a very spatially
coherent shoot-outs, but making two two-hour war movies seems an
inorganic structural approach to a complicated person (and symbol) —
even if you grant the appropriateness of a dialectic structure, it’s a
single principle that strains patience over four-plus hours of
practice. It’s just such a poor use of running time — yes the intense
focus is preferable to the standard laughable feature-length biopic
treatment, but then again, during an early scene of Che wheezing his
way through the Cuban jungles, I found myself thinking, “I am so glad
that the perniciously capitalist global filmmaking industry didn’t
force Soderbergh to compromise on the subplot dealing with Che
Guevara’s asthma.”

The distribution of Che was an open question from Cannes, in May, to
Toronto last month; despite my ridicule, I am enormously relieved that
Che will see theatrical release in its intended form (for a week in
December, it’ll play here and in other major cities in a retro-styled
“roadshow” version with an intermission and specially printed credits),
through IFC Films (which, ironically or inevitably, is owned by Rainbow
Media, which is a subsidiary of Cablevision. No corporate apparatus, no
art, apparently). And for that matter I’m glad Che exists, to help
start (if not commit itself to) a conversation about the value of this
man and his project; I’m glad American filmmakers can be ambitious, and
paint on a multimillion dollar canvas even when the conglomerates own
most of the art supplies; and glad a system is in place to support our
artists even when they fail.

Che plays at the New York Film Festival tomorrow. It is sold out,
though tickets may become available online or via the standby line. IFC
Films will show the movie here for a week in mid-December.