Thursday, December 4, 2008

Kicking It All Off: Soderbergh's Che

Well, consider this thing up and running. Last night SFFF '08 kicked off with Steven Soderbergh's Che: The Argentine, the first half of his epic on Ernesto Che Guevara, that mythic giant in which filmmakers, authors, historians, and trend-setters continue to see endless intrigue, beauty, and profitability. I can't say I'm opposed; Che's life, vision, and transfixing gaze is the stuff film thrives upon: I mean, Right?
As such, any new work on Che begs certain questions about its contribution to or detraction from myth-making and, more broadly, its engagement with history. I have to see the second half (Che: Guerilla, which tells of Che's attempt to export the fundamentals of the Cuban Revolution to Bolivia and screens tonight in Santa Fe, same time same place) to think through these historical/cinematic questions. I will say, however, that Part 1 does nothing to challenge Che's star-status. In Benicio Del Toro, Che is shown to be a revolutionary, a soldier, a teacher, a doctor, a den-mother, an intellectual, a beauty, a gentleman, a disciplinarian, a symbol, a star, a snarky dude, and a man of unquestionable moral dignity. If reading that list was annoying, I only did it to conjure up what I was feeling in The Argentine's least subtle moments. Soderbergh does a convincing job showing the day-to-day of these revolutionaries out there in the jungle, mustering enough faith and will-power in their moment-by-moment existence to ultimately make something HUGE happen, but at times, this quiet climb to power is broken by moments that can only be described as cute. I know, I feel weird about that too. I need both hands and a few toes to count the number of times Che scolds one of his soldiers for smoking something goofy instead of doing some math homework, or taking the enemy's convertible in victory, or calling each other names. He rolls his eyes at his kids' silliness and we all feel in good, strong hands. But, Che is so terribly good, it hurts. Sure, we see him change into the iconic images pop culture's taken hold of. We see him donning beret and smoking cigars with his comrades and soaking up the victory, but even in the moments when you most expect the saintly Che persona to fall and crash--or at least crack! splinter! show any sign of weakness!--he more fiercely maintains it. "Can I get my stuff and go home, Che?" a soldier asks, "No, the war is over, but the revolution is just beginning," he says, with the tenor of his voice and the glint in his eye pointing us back to all of his previous noble encounters with the sick, the tired, and the dejected.
Papa-Bear, Den-Mother Che
There is quite literally, however, a piece missing to these observations, namely the second half of the movie. In her 2002 Filmmaker and her 2008 Film Comment article, Amy Taubin argues that the "structuring principle underlying [Soderbergh's] films is contradiction, not in the Marxist political sense but as an aesthetic according to which an object is defined by what it is not. Contradiction determines the shape not only of Soderbergh's individual films but also the relationship of one to another. The sexy, extroverted Out of Sight (1998) and the melancholy, introspective The Limey (1999), for example, are more dazzling as a pop art couple than either is on its own. What Soderbergh terms the call and response relation between The Argentine and Guerilla is intrinsic to their form and meaning." Without even seeing Part 2, I'm willing to bet I'd rather think of Che as one movie rather than two, for the 'call' of The Argentine is much too lean and weak without a response, one that hopefully Guerilla will provide. Standing alone, The Argentine is a story of climb and advance, climb and advance, etc, etc, etc, without any counterpoint. Of course we know the Revolution happens, of course we know our winners are going to win, but Soderbergh doesn't employ the strange sort of suspense commonly used in stories with obvious endings--Titanic or, perhaps better articulated, the recent Milk. And so, I don't really know what to do with the narrative of The Argentine. In a way, so much happens but nothing happens at all: Castro and Che decide to go for it, their success builds, and then they win. Since they do just win, this movie does not venture into the stunning, narrative-bending circles of something like Zodiac, but it is, quite strangely, an action-film with a serious affinity for monotony. And even when the obvious does come, it's clear that's not really what we've been working toward the whole time. The rather exciting routine of The Argentine calls, indeed screams out, for its other half.

All of that being said, I was pretty much entertained the whole time, an entertainment factor which, for me, was about 80% fascination and astonishment with the formal qualities of this film. Firstly, though the "plot" is excessively straightforward, it's told in a highly elliptical way and at times has the sensibility of an amped-up Terrance Malick film in its will to unpredictably cut from or linger on images. (Malick wrote the initial version of the script and his influence flits and flutters throughout the film). It jumps from era to era, giving sometimes incongruent moments to make up a whole. To make matters more beautiful, scenes depicting Che at the UN in New York are shot in a black and white 16mm that will knock your socks off. I reached out to touch its texture and taste its richness, thinking the energy that film produced could not possibly be kept on the screen. The jungle scenes, on the other hand, are shot with a new digital camera prototype called The Red One, a camera that Taubin describes as "capable of delivering scope-dimension images with the lush, satiny beauty of 35mm" and I have never seen a camera that moved so quickly but captured so much so clearly and colorfully. The contrast and collaboration between these two delicacies is divine and I'd see it again (on the big screen, gotta see this one on the big screen!) just for pleasure it wrought on my eye-balls.

So, onward and upward. I hope the Guerilla leaves me jaw-dropped and wimpering, I really do. But first, so many more movies. I'm outa time and hope to get back here on the blog soon. Until then, then.

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