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September 30, 2008

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Stephen Whitty

Thanks for this post, Glenn. Good points, all.

I thought there was much to admire in this film -- particularly the immersion in detail, and Soderbergh's careful "twinning" throughout, as incidents and characters from the first half are reprised (though with far different effect) in the second.

But while I agree there will be a political reaction to this film, I think Soderbergh has invited some of that by the structure he's so devoted to -- which, by focusing solely on one victorious campaign, and one disastrous one, skips the half-dozen or so years in between in which a new Cuba was being made (and from which many of the charges against Guevera stem).

To go into that time would have ruined the neatness of the structure, and perhaps pushed this more towards conventional bio -- two things Soderbergh obviously did not want to do. But doesn't not addressing that era at all merely give his critics their easiest point of attack?

bill

I know I shouldn't blame Soderbergh for his star's words, but can you really blame the "usual suspects" in the right-wing blogosphere for looking at this film askance when Benicio del Toro dedicated his award at Cannes to Guevara, who he said "fought for the people"? And what about Soderbergh referring to himself as an "agnostic" regarding Guevara? It's not as though those criticising the film on political grounds have no leg to stand on.

After which screening of "Che" did Soderbergh make his statement about not "having a place" in Guevara's government? Because if it was a recent screening, he sounds like he's backpedalling a bit.

Fox

Since when is decrying a film about a hater like Che "right-wing"?

Film critics on the right & left (whatever that is anymore) rightfully ripped The Motorcycle Diaries for portraying Ernesto as a saint upon which the thoughts of cold-blooded murder and hatred towards homosexuals never entered his mind.

I haven't seen Che, but from the few negative reviews of it, it seems that Soderbergh - IN OVER FOUR HOURS - refrained from getting into any of these details as well. Making a "detached" film about a controversial historical figure just sounds like more of the hands-off approach that our pop culture has taken to this twisted man.

I'm starting to get the impression that Soderbergh is realizing he was only educated on the myth of Che and not the truth of Che that so many of us have grown up on.

Glenn Kenny

@Stephen—Yeah, I agree that it does give his critics their easiest point of attack. But I don't think that concerns him terribly much. According to him, the film as originally conceived—prior to making "Traffic"—was just going to be about the Bolivia (mis)adventure. The idea of a two-parter, with the Cuban revolution at the front end, only coalesced very shortly before they began production. So I don't think that any of the thinking around it took into account how to protect themselves from critique. I doubt that most discussion of artistic endeavor does in any case.

@ Bill—The remarks I quote were from the press conference at the NYFF yesterday. It's entirely possible he's backpedaling a bit (I don't have any earlier pronouncements at hand), but in fairness to him, while he's a very bright and articulate guy, he hadn't really formulated a way to talk about "Che" during the run up to actually showing it, which was pretty exhausting. I know this because I had been trying to arrange a one-on-one interview about it at Cannes, and he very politely begged off for precisely that reason, only doing the press stuff that was absolutely required of him. Steven's a very intellectually curious guy, but the way that quality makes it into his films is sometimes oblique. I expected his version of "Solaris," for instance, to somehow address the "nascent atheism" he talks about cultivating in his book "Getting Away With It," but the film doesn't really do that. "Che" is not really about an ideology so much as about the process of what Soderbergh calls "the last analog revolution."

Dan

Soderbergh's kind of between a rock and a hard place here. To be honest, the fact that he ducks the more controversial aspects of Guevara's biography is more annoying than anything else (not to mention an outstanding reason not to throw any of my money his way). It doesn't even trouble me politically at this point; Che's become so homogenized the T-shirt itself is a reference (I've seen no less than four parodies of it in recent months).

bill

It certainly sounds like Del Toro views it ideologically. Still, maybe Soderbergh doesn't, I'll concede that. But I'd really like to hear a good, straightforward explanation for why the parts of Che's history Fox mentions were left out. After all, they would be part of "the last analog revolution" too, wouldn't they?

James Hansen

I saw "Che" at the NYFF Press Screening yesterday as well and, not knowing anyone else at the screening, I wandered around during the lunch hour listening (aka- eaves dropping) on some reactions. I have to say I was pretty surprised to find an active dislike amongst most everyone for the film's "lack of human connection" where people were waiting "for the film to make me care." At least I heard someone say, "I'm gonna stay around to see if I can find why the people who love this love it, but as of now I don't see it."

Well, I saw it from beginning to end and will put my place firmly in the "its a triumph" camp of thinking in regards to the film. Its one of the most sharply and smartest made film, reminiscent to the best work from Malick that most of the "Che" haters probably love. What makes the film more fascinating is its position towards Che himself as a hero and icon. I have heard the "liberal love letter" claim, but I think the film problematizes Che and his tactics by creating an unspoken dialectical relationship between parts one and two. And maybe its this sort of middle ground that you astutely bring up that turns lots of people against the film, and what turned me onto it. Maybe I'm just weird, but "Che", for my money, is one of the best of the fest and of Soderbergh's career.

Glenn Kenny

@Bill—Touche. I'm not certain you'll ever get an explanation that fully satisfies you. (There ARE allusions to Che's despotism in the film, incidentally—during the U.N. address sequence in the first part, and in the second part, after his capture.) What I have to deal with, finally, is not the film that Soderbergh didn't make, the parts he left out, and so on. I have to deal with what's actually there, on the screen. If you, or Fox, or Dan, believe that Soderbergh's decision to not chronicle Che's tenure as the co-ruler of Cuba constitutes such bad faith as to invalidate the project entirely, it's your prerogative to, as Dan put it, not throw any money the movie's way. I won't even insult you by asking you to give the picture a chance—because it's not going to give you what you want. But, having seen it myself, and found it a largely compelling cinematic experience, all I can offer are the particulars of that experience.

Tony Dayoub

From a post on my blog yesterday about this very subject:

I went with my knife sharpened, I must admit, to the screening. As a first generation Cuban American, I am constantly disappointed to see Ernesto Guevara idolized by the entire world despite some of the atrocities he committed in the name of the Cuban Revolution. I also think the Cuban Right is too quick to ascribe villainous qualities to what I think was simply a misguided idealist. After reading Kenny's review when he first saw the film at Cannes, where despite liking it he stated:

"[The film's] structure very conveniently elides the period wherein Che, as effective co-head of Castro's Cuban government, presided over mass executions, the persecution of homosexuals, the ruination of the island's economy, the ill-fated alliance with the Soviet Union, and so on."

I was fearful that Soderbergh would present the same heroic perspective on Guevara that previous stories have. The director was to appear at a press conference after the film, and I was prepared to hit him with some questions. The movie even looked to be living up to my expectations at the intermission, when only the first half of the film had been screened.

But after seeing the second half, I find that my fears regarding this were unfounded. Soderbergh portrays a complex Che in line with what I feel the individual to honestly be, and Benicio Del Toro is terrific in the part.

That's the end of the quote... But I want to second Mr. Whitty's take on it. It seems like Soderbergh skips over the dark parts of the Cuban Revolution because of a structural issue with the story. If as Glenn states, Soderbergh started with the idea of shooting the second half only, "Guerilla" as it's called, and then added the first part, "The Argentine", later, then it makes sense to me that he would skip over this.

As Soderbergh also stated in the press conference, he prefers the film in one long four-hour presentation because then the film takes on a "call and response" quality. Che's persistence in the lost cause of the Bolivian revolution is justified by his near-impossible success in the Cuban revolution. Filmically, to show the "darker" Che and his executions of dissidents, homosexuals, etc. would have been to tip one's hand storywise as to the downward stubborn, and isolated, spiral Che travels on in "Guerilla".

Besides, like in "Lawrence of Arabia", there are enough references to the darker side of this "hero" to present what I thought was a balanced picture. There are multiple references both to the executions that took place in Cuba after the victory, and to Che's homophobia. Having paid attention to the Spanish dialogue, more than the subtitles, I can only think that some of this may have been lost in translation, but I doubt it.

PS: I have to disagree with Soderbergh on one thing. I think the film plays better, as two films not one. The films are so stylistically distinct from each other, one classic, the other more formal, and have very few characters that carry over from each other for more than a few minutes. Maybe it's all "The Godfather" on my mind of late, but "The Argentine" reminds me of Coppola's first part building up Che the "hero", with "Guerilla" reminding me of Coppola's second part, tearing Che down to some extent, while also serving to deepen the experience and story of the previous part.

James Hansen

Tony- Don't you fear that if the films are seen separately the "call and response" would be lost? It's not that they don't work as two separate films...it's just that seeing them together will enlighten the experience rather than seeing them days, weeks, or months apart. I, for one, thrive on super-long film experiences, so maybe I am biased, but I think splitting the films up allows people to analyze them separately and I really think discussions of the films belong in one grouping. One "Che".

Tony Dayoub

James, I agree with you. But I don't have enough confidence in the "average" moviegoer to expect them to committ to a 4 hour presentation.

What I saw was a very commercial first half, and a very "arthouse" second half, like the two "Godfathers". Besides, as edited, I felt there was a structural problem with making it one film. The first half has a "call and response" of its own with the UN framing sequence. That is one editorial decision that was not, as Mr. whitty calls it, "twinned" in the second half. Are there any other long-form films out there with a similar conundrum that I'm forgetting?

I like the long-form too, and wish this film could be shown that way. But the reality is that I think it will reach a greater audience the other way. And I think the first half could have a real shot at success if marketed correctly.

Larry Gross

Thank you for your intelligent comments. I wonder if one could take your insistence upon S's insistence upon "process" a step further and suggest that ultimately, Che is a kind of veiled or depersonalized autobiography--Che's "education" and self-destruction in revolutionary process creates to my way of thinking an image of Sodobergh making this film. What marks Che? Ambition. Obsession. A spark of idealism. A willingness to be brutal. Extreme success, extreme failure, employing similar methods and values for both results. Doesn't this pretty well describe the life and career of none other than Stephen Sodebergh?

recktal brown

well, i haven't seen the film. all i've seen so far at the nyff is 24 city, and i'm eagerly anticipating a christmas tale, but i will say in what i've gathered from soderbergh's films is that he is not a particularly interesting filmmaker when he entertains what he believes are his "intellectual" aspirations. he clearly has a grasp of how to make a movie and has some interesting thoughts but i've never come away from any of his films thinking "here is a person who is amazingly intelligent and has something of great insight to say." rather i think his best films are when he works within genre and his more blatant hollywood films. out of sight and the oceans movies i would say are his best, when he can utilize his quite wonderful skills as a stylist and a commentator on genre. when he attempts profundity and the intellectual he often fails, miserably, time for him to accept that he is a very talented genre filmmaker and give up the ghost on his grand catwalks on formulating an idea of his own.

Glenn Kenny

@Larry—you may well be on to something there. Soderbergh has said that he was intrigued by Guevera's "will," and since re-inventing himself as both an indie champ and a highly successful Hollywood filmmaker via the combo of "The Limey," "Out of Sight," and "Erin Brockovich," Soderbergh has maintained a nearly awe-inspiring focus and work ethic. Just how far I'd carry the analogy, I don't know—probably not too far. But still...

bill

Glenn - I'd send this to you in an e-mail to avoid going off topic, but I can't right now, so sorry in advance...

http://edition.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/books/09/30/nobel.literature.ap/index.html

I think you'll be as outraged by this as I am.

Glenn Kenny

No sweat, Bill. That statement from the Nobel guy is so pig-ignorant that I can't even work up the requisite outrage. These are the yo-yos who gave Nobels to Claude Simon and Elfriede Jelenik, so I lost hope for 'em long ago.As Remnick said, considering their non-honoring of Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov (an American, as he would proclaim proudly to his dying day), they've almost always had a problem with being, you know, lame.

I'm reminded of the words of the poet Eminem: "Who gives a fuck about a Grammy?"

JJ

You can happily blame the usual suspects in the right wing blogosphere (and their synchophants who post here) anytime.

VIVA JOSE MARTI! CUBA LIBRE!

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