Friday, February 13, 2009

The Argentine and Guerrilla: Soderbergh's Che

Steven Soderbergh's lengthy rumination on the revolutionary fighter Che Guevara is currently making the rounds in two forms: a roadshow version showing both parts of the film - The Argentine and Guerrilla - as one presentation, divided by an intermission, and as two films shown separately. IFC Films has made some small effort to make the roadshow a special event; in my city I received a program to go along with the film, and while it contains little besides set photography and credits, it's a nice souvenir. In either context, it's hard to grasp the logic behind seeing one of these films and not the other: in total, Che is a difficult but rewarding work, and what Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro, who plays Che, do in one installment is refracted in the other. This is because the film, far from settling on one vision of who, exactly, Che was, works to juxtapose impressions of the man and his moment in a series of composite sketches that accumulate significance.

Admittedly, this approach also leave the viewer with a few unanswered questions, and the film's initial critical reception suggests that perhaps Soderbergh and Del Toro have left us with a few too many enigmas. J.R. Jones, in The Chicago Reader, commends Soderbergh for making "a serious effort to get past the mythology with a detailed and relentlessly prosaic study of Che’s political and military tactics," although ultimately faults Che for failing "to rescue Che Guevara from his empty fame is to pin him down as a man." Yet I would argue that it's Soderbergh's intention, in fact, to avoid pinning down Che. This is in part reflected in the subtitles of the two parts, which each pin a different moniker - "Argentine" and "guerrilla" - onto the figure, but only to destabilize our sense of those labels within the film itself. The first part is mostly concerned with Che's military maneuvers leading into the city of Santa Clara, in an ultimate effort to bring down Batista's government. Soderbergh fragments the narrative line by repeatedly inserting sequences depicting Che's respective visits to New York City and the United Nations. In the second part, which is ostensibly more linear, we settle in on Che's post-Batista guerrilla efforts in Bolivia in the late 1960s. This installment begins with Che shedding the signifiers of middle-class domesticity, which have served in part as the disguise through which he is able to smuggle himself into Bolivia. Shots of Che's home, and the wife and children he leaves behind, quickly imply that Che's revolutionary guise was hardly pure, but rather predicated on the negation of another identity.

Thus, what I see as the film's primary motif (or at least the one most responsible for patterning my experience of the film in one frankly overwhelming sitting) is the inference of a complex and multileveled persona in its main subject. Soderbergh, as Jones also notes, wanted to avoid crafting a film that was "too personal." I take this to mean his desire to avoid what would be in a conventional biopic the tendency to imbue Che with clear psychological motivations. Unlike Jones, however, I do not read this as a flaw. We can certainly infer at least the fragments of a psychology in Soderbergh's film, but it's always difficult to pin down because of the film's insistence on the shifting nature of Che's own identity. Across the two installments, we see Che as Marxist, military strategist, father, medical student, apprehensive soldier, weapons technician, Communist, diplomat (albeit a quite pugnacious one), and cultural celebrity. None of these is mutually exclusive, and each complicates the next; that none of these "settle" into a single finalized identity is surely Soderbergh's point, or at least one of them.

This question of theme also brushes up against Soderbergh's stylistic approach, which at least one critic has taken him to task for. In Slant Magazine, Fernando F. Croce suggests that the execution of Che at the end of Guerrilla is conveyed through "a bizarre stylistic choice that momentarily throws this resolutely anti-transcendental film askew." Yet what, exactly, is transcended by Soderbergh in this final scene? It is a powerful point-of-view shot, assumed by the viewer immediately after Che is executed; the piercing sound of amplified room tone suggests not the demise of a cultural or ideological symbol but nothing less than the life of a corporeally existing human being slipping away. As a result, I'd argue that the film's regard for Che as a complex individual is fully retained in the sequence depicting his execution, and is of a piece of the film's total portrait of him. Nothing is transcended, either by Soderbergh's stylistic technique nor Che's own ideology: what passes away is clearly an individual. The stylistic choices thus seem consistent, to me, with the thematic ones, and perhaps serve to generate one of the film's ironies: Che's ideological stance, negating as it does an overvaluation of individual identity, is only able to survive today, in a climate in which Che's image has been repeatedly commodified, precisely as an irreducibly individual perspective. In other words, Soderbergh insists on Che as a complex and multilayered individual precisely in order to resist the banal commodification, in contemporary commercial culture, of his revolutionary persona. The end of the first part suggests Che himself saw one sign of this future stealing of the meaning of the revolution, when he chastises several of his fighters for advancing to Santa Clara in a stolen American car. For as much as the director disavows any emotional relationship to Che in interviews, I suspect Soderbergh nonetheless identifies with Che's disgust at this moment at the end of the first film. We can't put Soderbergh's Che on a t-shirt because he is constantly slipping away from us. What finally slips away, for me, in the final scene of Guerrilla is that complex person in all of his potential (and despite his rich life, only some of it was realized). In other words, Soderbergh does not replace real loss with some kind of transcendental signifier (or a t-shirt).

Croce's other main beef is that the film is too "academic." Maybe this is a prejudice of my own academicism, but the film's glassy intelligence is what I most admired. Although clearly a variation of the Hollywood historical epic, Soderbergh's exacting approach to mise-en-scene, framing, and cutting recalls nothing less than Godard's late 1960s art cinema. A film such as Week-End put characters into landscapes not so much to dramatize individual journeys or idiosyncrasies, but to demonstrate theoretical problems in practice. Che does something similar, insisting on the placement of individuals within long shots, for example, that emphasize the presence of others, as a visual echo of Che's own communist ideology. Perhaps Soderbergh erred on the side of caution here, fearing that a deeply individualized portrait of Che would have resulted in the kind of Hollywood biopic that Che himself probably would have disavowed. This lack of an individual psychology, too, could be the reason why Soderbergh shies away from a more complex engagement with the morality of Che's military strategies, which at times involved executions of enemies without trial. Yet I think the approach is mostly a success: it provides an objective correlative to Che's political ideas, showing how they were implemented (for better and for worse) in practice.

In the absence of emotional investments, a psychological portrait or conventional causal scheme, then, Soderbergh's Che is more at ease with ideas. It is not a perfect film: although I understand the contrast between Che and Castro to at least some extent, I wish, for example, the relationship between them had been more fully explored, in particular since the divergence in their lives in the 1960s seems so central to the image with which Soderbergh concludes his film. (Perhaps I'm asking simply for some sense of the emotional bond between Che and Castro, although I suspect Soderbergh's answer might be that this bond was ultimately ideological). Yet there was no other work of American cinema in the last year that offered quite as much as Che, and if the film is somewhat limited in its achievement, I think this can only be understood relative to all that it seeks to accomplish: in other words, more than nearly any other American film made this decade.


Jason Roberts said...

Perhaps there's a confusion in the Croce piece between "transcendental" and "transcendent." I think he means to suggest the moment of Che's death becomes a transcendent moment, even though he says something else (which isn't a defense, by the way); however, in keeping with its evocation of Malick's cinema, most of "Guerilla" did strike me as "transcendental," which had nothing to do with Che's image and everything to do with man's relationship to nature. It should be noted, though, that I wouldn't place any bets on my own understanding of what transcendental means.

But it's interesting to me how easy it seems to forget that the film's final image is not of Che's death, but a return to the moment on the boat before his life as a revolutionary has truly begun. According to Soderbergh, this is a moment of reflection before Che dives headlong into a new life, but I thought it was a comment on the divergence between Castro and Che after a certain point in their political careers. In any event, Anthony Lane makes the same omission in his ambivalent "New Yorker" review, but I see that you've referenced the final image here.

Unrelated note: I'm assuming you've already seen the intelligent and positively gushing review of your book on Amazon, but if not, you should check it out.

SMR said...

For me, nature is definitely an enigma in this movie. I agree that the second installment evokes Malick, particularly in the emphasis on the beauty of nature (transcendental seems like a good word for it, rather than transcendent) that nevertheless becomes inimical to Che's revolution (if I'm correct, the rough terrain, or some kind of geographical miscalculation, plays some role in Che's capture, although I might be misremembering this or inventing it entirely). In the first part I think nature seems more distant - it feels more like a ground in which he is instilling his ideology, rather than really interacting with - and Soderbergh frequently frames it like a landscape painting rather than a lived-in space. In other words, the second installment felt "more Malickian" to me. But the more I say about it, the more I realize I need to see Che a second time.

The author who wrote the review on Amazon is working on an anthology of Mann interviews for the State University of Mississippi Press series; I definitely appreciated getting such a strong notice from someone who knows his work. I've thought about contacting him, but so far have been too shy to do so.