by Peter Byrne
(Swans - April 6, 2009) I fought the good fight and accept the ultimate pain of defeat. With a locked right knee and an aching tail bone, I stumble, half-falling, from the dark heights. I feel my way along an upholstery-soft row. I hear music and, still in shock, reflect that this is no time for music. Only a dirge of silence is welcome to ears that have been battered by mortar fire. Other stragglers pass me desperate for escape. How can they summon the strength in the wake of the ordeal? An endless trek through a spiteful, hungry land.
Five hours of onslaught with only a brief intermission when we fighters had to rush to attend to our bodily needs. We needed military discipline to line up one behind the other and not splash. Food was scarce. A soldier's life, but not cushioned by the consolation of efficient government organization. A freedom fighter learns to do without. At the bitter but glorious end, I huddled on the dirt floor and faced my executioner. Did I give off a glow? In any case I could see that his conscience tormented him. Simple people are good, but sometimes misled. I was going to ask him if he needed any help to pull the trigger.
Still I don't regret a thing, except not bringing along a sandwich. A half day on stale popcorn makes for one hairy campaign. Revolution, like war, is hell, but empathy is no picnic either. You just try watching both parts of Steven Soderbergh's Che in one sitting in a theater windy as an opera house and cliff-hung like the Sierra Maestra. (1) Taken either as dramatized biopics or as documentaries, the films are highly selective about what they show of the subject's life. But that's no surprise, and we shall see that the Ernesto Che Guevara of the new millennium is anybody's pipe dream. You pay your money -- for T-shirt, comic book, movie, military beret, or pubescent political line -- and you shape Che to your desire.
Part I is shot in 'Scope (ratio 2.35:1) with much color. Soderbergh sketches Che's meeting with Castro in Mexico and follows him more closely (1956-58) from the landing of the fighters in the leaky Grandma to the crucial taking of the city of Santa Clara. Interruptions in flashes forward show Che (1964) causing a sensation as he speaks to the United Nations and on US network TV. All this offers plenty of meat for a good story -- a war story -- that calls attention to the impact abroad of the Cuban Revolution. But it ignores Che before Cuba and stops short at the victorious entry to Havana. In Part 2 we jump over his years as a bureaucrat and his policy differences with Castro to find him launched on the Bolivian fiasco.
The second film is grayer, and has a lot of handheld camera work (scope ratio 1.85:1). We again have a war story, but this time it proceeds in a straight line. Che is portrayed as a strict but humane leader, a soldier born who despite his asthma thrives on the harshness of a campaign. In contrast to his foolhardy plan to come to Bolivia in the first place, he's full of caution in the careful planning of detail. Soderbergh, though he doesn't seem to buy it entirely, pictures a romantic hero. Che bows out saying that his total failure on their behalf may at last wake up the Bolivian peasants who have cold-shouldered him. This is the revolutionary's equivalent of the age-old lie, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori; or, if you prefer, These dead have not died in vain. The two films absorb us throughout by the extent that they deviate from current filmmaking (Variety: "a commercial impossibility"), by their professional competence, and by our curiosity to discover what Soderbergh's own desire has made of Che. (2)
Benicio Del Toro turns in a masterful performance as the hero. Some would object that the real Guevara exuded more refinement than the Puerto Rican born actor. His gruff, rough diamond has absolutely no family resemblance to the genteel Gael Garcia Bernal who played Che in Walter Salles's charmer The Motorcycle Diaries. (3) But who is to say that Bernal and Salles were in the historical-know more than Del Toro and Soderbergh? Since no one else is holding Che to history why should Del Toro? He puts in claims for his own desires just as others do.
Like many an actor -- and he's a good one -- Del Toro has trouble with words that weren't handed him in a script. But his interview with Time Out London (4) reveals his own fantasy of Che. When asked why Che still inspires youth, Del Toro said, "Because he's Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Aquaman -- no, Waterman." Then he summed up, "That's all the men!" Which surely wasn't what Jean-Paul Sartre had in mind when he called Che "the most complete human being of his age." (5) Del Toro thought Soderbergh left out Che's family life, ministerial work, and economic ideas because such stuff was "boring" and not at all what the actor called, "Boom, boom" and even "Boom, boom, boom."
But the tongue-tied Del Toro got something right. Today's Che is not everyman but any man you please. This scares the guardians of right thinking. Two newsreaders on BBC World TV pointed out that Soderbergh ignored the record in not showing Che as a "terrorist." (6) They were introducing Richard Gott, the historian of Cuba, who was to weigh up the two films. (7) Gott repeated their assertion and added, as if it were hot news, that the times had changed. Then the once London Guardian radical with a fiery pen compared Che with Osama bin Laden. He declared with post-9/11 gravity that they both encouraged attacking the enemy even in his places of amusement, like discos. Clearly this bin Laden look-alike had nothing to do with Del Toro's good-guy Batman.
Meanwhile ads in the press urge us to look out for the new cult T-shirt line of the company called (I swear) Philosophy Football. (8) It's apparently a shirt for deep thinkers as well as for dumb jocks with bulging calves. This is clearly still another Che. Of course the nifty shirts bear the image that is at the heart of the great simplification and then annihilation of whatever meaning Guevara possessed. The worked-over photo is really the only thing that can contain all the versions of the figure that we have invented. Radical deconstruction has made it all encompassing: A quick spill of black ink brushed into a beret and beard that are all of a piece with a few trails of the same black that evoke facial hair and eyes. The image had to be generalized to the verge of nonexistence so as not to exclude any of our far-fetched imaginings. Its commercial and ideological itinerary is nothing less than the saga of our post-1960s world. The photo began in radical chic and has ended as a kind of wallpaper that can be worn or gaped at by the egalitarian consumers we have become.
Alberto Diaz Gutierrez, Fidel Castro's photographer, snapped the original in 1960. It lay in his studio till it caught the eye of the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli on a visit to Havana. Feltrinelli was a very wealthy patrician and Communist who had increased his fortune by obtaining world rights to Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago and afterwards discovering The Leopard, an historical novel about a Sicilian prince. (9) Gutierrez had been a fashion photographer and Feltrinelli was a fashionable intellectual of the upper crust, born marquess of Gargnano. Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote The Leopard, considered one of the great novels of the century. It would be filmed with a high-born touch by Luchino Visconti, Count of Lonate Pozzolo and a Communist. (10) You could say that the photo of Che had a pretty noble send-off. Feltrinelli printed it on posters that he distributed all over Europe just before Che's death in 1967. (In 1972, Feltrinelli himself died noisily like a marquess in an opera when he blew himself up while on a terrorist mission for the group he had founded.)
Spain Rodriguez slightly tweaks the omnipresent image on the cover of his new graphic biography (comic book) Che. (11) Ernesto Guevara, Argentine offspring of Irish immigrants on both sides of his family, is given a hint of mestizo. Rodriguez's Che is thus more at one with the Caribbean and South American ambience -- the hell with facts. But the artist isn't at his best in portraiture. His Hugo Chávez could pass unrecognized through Miami customs. Rodriquez's Mao looks like Orphan Annie's Daddy Warbucks in his youth. The artist draws with sufficient brio but the overall weakness of his Che is the one that pervades the whole graphic-book genre: It's mere illustration that doesn't trust in a picture to tell a story, redundantly underlining it in words. We could be watching a movie with a voiceover added for the blind.
All the same it's piquant to note that Rodriguez, redundant or not, and in a comic book, gives us some hard history to fill that black hole between Part 1 and 2 of Soderbergh's Che. These six years were full of drama that the filmmaker passed over to give us more and more guerilla skirmishes. At one point Che controlled much of the Cuban military and economy. He trained the security service and militias that confronted the Bay of Pigs invasion. On his watch at the national bank a drastic drop in financial reserves occurred and he had to apologize on TV when his plan for rapid industrialization failed. He visited Nasser, Mao, and other Third World leaders on behalf of the Cuban agrarian ministry. He welcomed Soviet missiles to Cuba and decried the American blockade. He countered Khrushchev's refusal to make war on the United States with a statement of revolutionary romanticism that still makes our blood run cold:
You have the harrowing example of a people ready to sacrifice itself to nuclear arms, that its ashes might serve as a basis for new societies. And when an agreement is reached without even consulting it, and atomic missiles are withdrawn, it does not breathe a sigh of relief. It enters the fray to make known its own unique voice. (12)
While Che's line hardened, Castro made his peace with Khrushchev. Right here, in his differences with Castro, was the great drama of Che's life. (Soderbergh hardly even hinted that the two men were ever at odds.) Contemporary witnesses felt that Castro was pleased when Che, relieved of government responsibilities, was out of the way abroad, fomenting insurrections.
It's noteworthy that the clichés that come to mind when Che's name occurs all issue from his own pen. Salles's film showing a conscientious young man suddenly aware of the hardship of the poor proceeds pre-cooked from Che's The Motorcycle Diaries, which is a good boy's On the Road. (13) Soderbergh's Part 1 replays Che's Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, just as Part 2 follows his The Bolivian Diary. (14) A cynic might ask if it's not time in major filmmaking that something besides a mirror looked at Che.
But there is no end to the burying of Che and the truth about him. When slapstick comes into the act, however, we know it's time to get out of the cemetery and go for a drink. That moment arrived with Viva Cha!, by Rohan Candappa in 2006. (15) The subtitle is enough to suggest the flavor and leave a bad taste in your mouth: The Life and Revolutionary Times of El Comandante Cha Windsera. For those not accustomed to having laugh-now cards thrust in their face, I should explain that Cha is Prince Charles Windsor. The royal face on the cover under that military beret, ears protruding through bushy hair, provides the only horse laugh in the book. Chapters on Cha and Che alternate for some unexplained reason that's possibly humorous and in a final note Candappa tells us, "This book is, to a very large extent, absurd... Other stuff in the book I just made up. It seemed the most appropriate way to write about Prince Charles." Right, and these days it seems like the only way that Che is portrayed.
Post-mortem assassination by image isn't new. The reality of Napoleon Bonaparte was long obscured by contradictory myths. Effigies of Giuseppe Garibaldi flooded 19th century Italy, some of them picturing him in the robes of Jesus Christ, others as Beelzebub or in a socialist scarf. His ghost was later enrolled as a Fascist putschist. In Turkey there are more statues of Ataturk than glasses of tea. Some devote Muslims revere the man who in fact would have liked to close down all their mosques. Ernesto Che Guevara's fate only appears worse because we now boast more commercial zeal and technological sleight of hand. Such means have allowed us to settle his hash for good. Now anybody can be Che. Che Guevara is nobody anymore.
9. Dr. Zhivago's first appearance was in Italian in 1957 in a Feltrinelli edition. Countless other translations into various languages followed. The University of Michigan published the original Russian in 1959, but the book did not appear in the Soviet Union until 1987. Numberless editions of Il Gattopardo have come out since Feltrinelli's first edition of 1959. (back)
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