Sunday, January 31, 2010
Like Steven Spielberg's A.I., Steven Soderbergh's Che is defined by dichotomies. The former split along the lines of the deceptively opposed visions of its two primary auteurs, while Che is openly structured as a dialectic. Split into two parts but originally shown in America only as a whole, Che uses its division more as a marker of contrast, clearly separating the two revolutions in which Ernesto "Che" Guevara participated and the vast difference in their outcomes. Soderbergh shot each part with different actors, in different styles, even in differing aspect ratios, further emphasizing the distinctions between the two.
Of course, few directors' careers are so defined by dialectics as Soderbergh's, who balances mainstream endeavors with experimental features; in 2009 alone, he released a broad comedy about corporate avarice and deception starring an A-list player (The Informant!), and also an avant-garde deadpan satire on the same topic featuring a porn star playing an escort (The Girlfriend Experience). The great Terrence Malick was once assigned to the film before dropping out to make The New World, leaving Benicio del Toro to turn to Soderbergh, who'd originally agreed to helm the project when they collaborated on Traffic, to once more take over the wheel. It was a cunning decision; only Soderbergh could have made a biopic that as blatantly unconcerned with biopic conventions as Malick, though the styles of the two -- poetic elision vs. fussy, detail-oriented deconstruction -- could hardly be more different.
Che's first half, The Argentine, concerns the revolution in Cuba from 1957-58. Soderbergh gives us sparse background for the movement, opening with a verité, grainy 16mm show of a victorious Che conducting an interview in Havana in 1964 and a brief flashback of Guevara meeting Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) and a handful of other future revolutionaries as they dine in cozy postwar accommodations, wearing button down business shirts that seem so alien compared to the images we have of these figures, ever sporting military uniforms. They speak only fleetingly of their dissatisfaction with Cuba's status as a pawn of American imperialism; this meeting is the final confirmation of plans, not the initial trade of ideas and rhetoric. Soderbergh then cuts to Cuba, studying the manner with which the band of rebels managed to overcome a U.S.-backed dictatorship.
Che with future wife Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Isn't it nice when couples like the same things?
As Amy Taubin astutely notes, Soderbergh films Che always in medium- or long-shot, never in close-up, emphasizing his Marxist commitment to being one of the people, as well as the perception of Che as the great rock star of extremist intellectuals. Furthermore, he hasn't yet proven himself among the Cuban soldiers: they refer to him as "Doc," "the Argentine" or "Che" (Argentinian slang for "boy" or "dude"), truly just one of the fighters and an unproven one at that. His asthma occasionally makes him a liability -- one suspenseful sequence involves Guevara attempting to hide from Batista troops while stifling a coughing fit -- and his services as a doctor initially prove far more valuable than his tactics. Indeed, his medical assistance plays a significant part of winning over Cuban citizens as the 26th of July Movement advances through the forest, and many of the farmers he treats regard him with confusion and awe, simply because they've never seen a doctor before. One child remarks after Che tells her mother to eat more meat "That guy's lying. He tells everyone that," but you can see the malnutrition and neglect among the rural populace, a sharp contrast to the wealth enjoyed by Batista's government and the major cities that bustle with American business (somewhere in Havana, Michael Corleone is disinterestedly eyeing a solid gold telephone given as a gift by a corporation to Batista).
Despite the sweeping grandiosity of the beautiful establishing shots of the Cuban forests and the focus on the battles to take Cuba, Soderbergh crafts The Argentine into a strikingly experimental endeavor: he gives us battle scenes but replaces the audio with Che's musings from his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, the memoir that forms the foundation of this film's narrative, as well as out of sequence clips from his trip to New York in 1964 to speak before the U.N. While the cutting between the two settings can be at times questionable, even borderline haphazard, it allows us to see how Che's actions in the field craft his image, to the point that he can arrive in New York as the toast of bourgeois intellectuals, all of whom would likely be wearing those damn T-shirts with his face on them if they existed then. In fact, their vacuous, obliviously ironic worship of the guerrilla, combined with his natural rock star presence and Soderbergh's decision to shoot these scenes in grainy, monochrome 16mm, makes it all but impossible not to see Che as the predecessor of Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. Che suffers the platitudes of fans who don't understand him and the scorn of conservatives who fear him, and he reacts to his cult of personality with sneering derision. The parties Che attends in New York provide a sharp contrast from the brief, on-point discussion between Che, Fidel and the other founders of the 26th of July Movement at the start of the film: where that meeting showed intellectuals who'd already decided to back up their beliefs with action and merely needed to hear the others voicing support, the well-dressed peons sit around and prattle incessantly, munching too-expensive, too-pretentious finger foods as they attempt to set themselves up as sympathetic to the plight of the poor in Latin America and elsewhere.
Back in Cuba in '58, Che's confidence grows as he rises through the ranks, and he uses his increasing authority to exert rigid conformity to the ideals of the revolution. Slowly, the darker side Soderbergh never reveals of Che (not even in the second part, but more on that later) begins to seep into the periphery: he uses slurs to mock those whose commitment falters when hardships befall the guerrillas and executes a pair of deserters for stealing harvest from local farmers and raping a young woman, all while posing as high-ranking officers in the movement -- Che's tone of voice suggests the latter tidbit enrages him as much as the actual crimes. Yet he also displays the more egalitarian and populist side of his devotion to Marxist ideals: at the end of the film, after Che and Fidel lead the revolution to victory, Guevara spots some revolutionaries driving a stolen car in the convoy and orders them to return it. Even if it belonged to a loyalist soldier, the movement cannot expect to bring about massive change if they do not hold to their ideals; indeed, following the last major engagement, Che tells one impatient soldier, "We've only won the war. The Revolution starts now."
Those ideals are sorely missing, however, when Che heads to Bolivia in 1965. Part Two of Che, Guerrilla, shows the doctor attempting to start another revolution from scratch in the heart of South America, not too far from his homeland of Argentina. If The Argentine profiled a revolt that succeeded, Guerrilla depicts one that fails catastrophically. Also based on one of Che's memoirs, The Bolivian Diaries, Part Two dissects the mounting troubles of Guevara's attempted coup and the effect of inevitable loss on the fighter. Compared to the epic wide-screen panoramas and lush color scheme of The Argentine, Guerrilla shrinks the frame nearly to a square, boxing in the protagonist as his youthful idealism turns to ruthless pragmatism. Soderbergh slightly mutes the colors and brings the soundtrack to the fore, mixing the faint sounds of chirping birds and running water with Alberto Iglesias' haunting minimalistic score -- at once even more wildly inappropriate for a biopic and even more perfectly suited to the material than his different approach to the first film -- to create an aural isolation to match the somber visuals.
Del Toro performs an about-face with the character in Part Two, and Guerrilla can frustrate at times as the dynamic presence of The Argentine gives way to a somber, increasingly withdrawn and paranoid figure, slumped over and covered in a blanket that distorts his shape. The rainforest exacerbates his asthma, and the ragged beard he allows to envelop that iconic face destroys the last remaining indication of the man we just followed to victory.
If one takes both parts in one sitting, Guerrilla might easily strike the viewer as repetitive: Che arrives in Bolivia more or less as he did in Cuba, as a foreigner who has to convince natives that he's one of them. He cannot capitalize on his image at first, as he must disguise himself as a nobody to prevent attracting attention before he can marshal forces. When he does mount a campaign, the U.S. moves to intervene, sending anti-insurgency forces to train the Bolivian army. And so, while each action never turns out as it did in Cuba, the actions are nevertheless similar, occasionally identical, to ones when saw in the last half. Yet this decision reveals a subtle direction by Soderbergh to delve into the legend without directly commenting on him: the Che of Part Two abandons the ideals he embodied in the first part (the director devotes a telling close-up about halfway through of a Rolex watch Che wears), and his willingness -- eagerness, even -- to renounce his position in the Cuban government at the start of the film to go back to a jungle somewhere and train an army reveals that the intellectual can only truly function as a force of destruction; social revolution is just an excuse to shoot people. The first part of Che was called The Argentine, reflecting how Guevara had to become the legend we know today after starting only with his background. Soderbergh dubbed Part Two Guerrilla, an indicator that he'd cemented his reputation by the time he went to Bolivia but also as a clue of his identity: in the first he was defined by his homeland, here as a guerrilla. Not a political leader or an ideologue, but a guerrilla, a fighter. By essentially restarting the narrative of the first half, Soderbergh shows how Che was willing to throw away everything simply for the chance to keep fighting somewhere, without openly commenting upon Che's more twisted actions.
(I confess I was somewhat peeved that Soderbergh never addresses the mass killings Che headed as the leader of military tribunals in the wake of the victory in Cuba, not even in the brief text scroll preceding Guerrilla. Though he never builds Che up as a saint, he gives us only two vague indications of his more criminal side: at the end of The Argentine, he tells a soldier to spare a prisoner and ominously declares, "He will be judged by tribunal." At the end of Guerrilla, Guevara attempts to dismiss Cuban-American CIA agent Félix Rodriguez by saying "I don't talk to traitors," only for the agent to mention, "You executed my uncle." Considering how well the film mines dialectics, it's disappointing that these are the biggest examples given of Che's cruelty, but then I suppose Soderbergh would have had to have portrayed him openly as heroic in places to balance it out.)
Compared to the jumping timeline of its predecessor, Guerrilla progresses in such a linear fashion that it even gives us the day of operations every few scenes to break down the passage of time. Soderbergh also uses more handheld shots instead of the more formal ones in The Argentine, the grittier look better suited to capturing the slow downfall of a myth in what is, basically, a horror film. Following the initial recruitment, Che never seems to attract any more followers, only losing the few he commands to fatigue, capture and death. Yet he still retains that certain charisma even in his frailty and fear: when Bolivian forces capture him, he subtly intimidates and goads the brasher officers and nearly charms one young guard into releasing him. This moment, as well as an ill-advised POV shot of Che's execution that depicts Guevara falling to the ground before the frame fades to white, serves to rebuild Che's image enough to point toward his ensuing martyrdom among the intellectuals and the genuinely oppressed throughout the world. For my money, though, Soderbergh's final shot is a more appropriate ending: he returns to the brief moment at the start of The Argentine, as Che rides a boat to Cuba from Mexico with Fidel and the other revolutionaries. As he gazes over the ocean and his eyes dart nervously to Castro, we can see the doctor wondering just what he'd gotten himself into, and though he never openly communicates such doubt again, we see how his fears were justified; he just felt them for the wrong revolution.
With Che, Soderbergh eschews the great pitfall of the biopic genre -- the tendency to inadvertently shift attention from the subject to the events that happened around him or her -- by simply placing focus on three chief events in Che's life. This decision allows him to spend enough time in Cuba, Bolivia, even New York, to see how the character truly responds, adapts and acts to each situation. The procedural structure of the two films, the intent focus not on speechifying and Big Moments that go out of their way to define themselves as such but the mechanics of the warfare Che helped orchestrate, is highly original but should come as no surprise to Soderbergh fans. His films typically focus on how things work, from the giddily technical breakdown of the heists in the Oceans films (what makes them enjoyable in relation to their occasionally asphyxiating postmodern sense of cool) to the experimental deconstructions of narrative and film with The Limey and Schizopolis. The Eisensteinian montage that precedes the decisive Battle of Santa Clara in Cuba (a comment not only on the propagandic nature of Che's radio address but the townspeople who are at stake in the coming fight), the way that battle is structured to reveal Che's tactical brilliance, the aforementioned shot of the Rolex Che wears in Bolivia, these shots manage to communicate fundamental truths about Che through his actions.
Soderbergh's use of dialectics in the film reflects not only his wont as a restless filmmaker who loves contrast but of the Marxist idea of advancement through dialectics: we see Che the victor and Che the martyr, warm yellows and drab blue-greens, inspiring wide-screen and stifling full-frame. The dialectic between his objective, matter-of-fact visuals and the use of Che's personal diaries as a means of voiceover and of general mood allows for a revealing portrait of the figure outside of the equally hysterical views of him on both sides of the political spectrum. So, yes, while the omission of his role in executions is lamentable, we're allowed a much subtler presentation of Che as someone who just loves a good fight with the structure of Guerrilla.
The director captures all of this with the Red One camera, having received the latest prototypes mere hours before shooting began, and if Red wants to attract business it should host clips of the film and perhaps send out copies of Criterion's Blu-Ray to convince potential buyers. It handles the gorgeous textures of Cuba's countryside and the stark portrayal of Bolivia with equal clarity and beauty, at times nearly impossible to differentiate from ordinary film stock. Its 4K master and fantastic audio track place the film on the fast-track to becoming reference material for home theater systems.
Like so many of Soderbergh's films, Che is ambitious, technically marvelous and often frustrating. Like his subject, Soderbergh is both rebellious and mainstream, somehow able to $60 million for a two-film, foreign language biopic so off the beaten stylistic path that it barely found distribution despite Del Toro's deserved win of the Best Actor award at Cannes. Yet Soderbergh also remains a figure of Hollywood, crafting star vehicles and campaigning against movie piracy. He manages to juggle his entire career, his varying styles and auterial concerns, with Che; its tone is one of curiosity, not hagiography. The director doesn't seek to sanctify or vilify Guevara, instead only to study his process and glean something of the man through it. To bring back the tenuous connection I made to A.I. at the beginning of this review, Che is downright sloppy at times, but it's better for it: the second part opens with photos of miners without any context. Soderbergh wants us to go out and research for ourselves to delve into the story of the Siglo XX miners, and of the other aspects of Che's life and the events he influenced. When Soderbergh made Traffic, he offered no real answers to the drug problem because he felt that Hollywood could not adequately cover enough of the topic to provide a serious and viable solution; here, he does not attempt to offer a definitive conclusion of the man, which will likely remain impossible as opinion is still so sharply divided among conflicting ideologues. That's what irks me about one aspect of Criterion's otherwise spectacular packaging. It comes with a miniature poster of Del Toro adopting the famous pose of Alberto Korda's timeless photograph, and if Che can be said to have any sociopolitical aspirations, it wants only to grab every snot-nosed, lackadaisically rebellious teenager by the ear and shout "Take off that fucking T-shirt."