Apr. 08, 2009 - Issue #703: Spring Style 2009
Che What?If it’s crass to reduce a movie to money, then it’s almost sacrilegious to do so to a movie about a Marxist. But it’s hard to talk about Steven Soderbergh’s two-part biopic Che without talking about grosses: gross overreactions, claims of gross exaggerations, and the box-office gross itself.
After seven years of planning, developing and research by star Benicio del Toro and producer Laura Bickford, the duo still found it difficult to get the film financed, especially since it was to be shot in Spanish, not English. Foreign pre-sales covered $54-million of the $58-million budget, but director Steven Soderbergh has said he will only make another film, covering Che’s time in the Congo (1965), if the film makes $100-million at the box office. The film’s gross was, as of the end of January, just $20 million worldwide, with Che taking less than $1-million in North America: http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117999312.html?categoryid=13&cs=1.
Some of this plunging bottom-line can be chalked up to the film’s dearth of award nominations (no Oscar nods), its staggered release—it’s being shown in Edmonton two months after it was first released in New York and L.A. for awards contention, and a month after it came out in Toronto—and the film’s lengthy two-part structure (titled The Argentine and Guerrilla), each part winding on beyond the two-hour mark. This year’s Oscar-feted star of a shorter political biopic, Sean Penn, expressed bafflement at the film’s near-invisibility, conjecturing, “Maybe because it’s in Spanish, maybe the length, maybe the politics.”
The politics remain deeply divisive—some, such as French philosopher and economist Guy Sorman, see Che as nothing but a “killer” and “sadist”: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/sorman5. In Miami, the film’s premiere saw about 100 angry demonstrators (who hadn’t yet seen the film), Cuban-Americans who remain fiercely anti-Castro (Che, until then a doctor, turned armed revolutionary when he joined Castro’s uprising against Batista’s American-backed Cuban government in 1958). Others, such as Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, writing for the Time 100 in 1999, see Che as an “adventurer” and a “legend”: http://www.time.com/time/time100/heroes/profile/guevara01.html.
Che’s popularity in North America is as an icon, an image of leftie rebellion branded on t-shirts, both logo and no logo, a man turned into a photo (by Albert Korda) turned into a perpetually empty symbol, in the end perhaps signifying nothing. Stalin or Hitler (though Mao did for a while) couldn’t enjoy the same unironic status as pop-politics poster-boy, but then they didn’t die young (Che was 39, six years older than that non-violent, Middle-East messiah), outside any establishment, before their ideals could be fully perverted.
In South America, particularly, Che can divide right from left, the affluent and white from the poor and indigenous, and the activists-without-guns from those who believe change can only come through violence. Dorfman, for instance, barely escaped Pinochet’s post-coup terror in Chile, as a recent Canadian-made documentary made achingly clear: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWwHd9IQzOk. So Che’s a much brighter, bigger mirror for Latin Americans, who continue to elect lefty-populists and see their share of actual Che-callers and Castro-pretenders, from Lula to Hugo to Evo. Debates rage on right now about whether or not the first is doing enough for Brazil, the second is destroying Venezuela, and the third is too left for Bolivia.
Walter Salles’ 2000 film The Motorcycle Diaries, following a young Guevara before his first-name-only-fame, showed the class-riven continent’s deep need for a man of the people http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u0U3dbVMHk. Soderbergh’s Che, though, focuses on the man as he became myth, and when an icon is put on screen, it’s like beaming a projection of our own built-up fantasies and myths, a man turned martyr and then ideological action-figure, into a hall of mirrors. Echoes, distortions, and mirages shimmer away; Che is too much a legend in many viewers’ minds already to burn onto the screen.
Reviewer Anthony Lane targeted the Che diptych’s lack of passion: “yet I still have no idea what truly quickens [Soderbergh’s] heart, and at some level, for all the movie’s narrative momentum, ‘Che’ retains the air of a study exercise—of an interest brilliantly explored. How else to explain one’s total flatness of feeling at the climax of each movie? Nobody around me looked like cheering at the victorious end of ‘Part One,’ or suppressed a sob as ‘Part Two’ petered to a close. ‘He would rather face a soldier than a journalist,’ somebody says of Guevara. How would he have faced a film director? Hard to say, but I think he would have wanted a fight.”
But perhaps moviegoers’ disinterest in Che reflects less his unfilm-ability than a disinterest in the kind of rebellion he stood for—a trans-national mercenary for grievance, leading the charge in Cuba, touching down in Congo for some training, trying to bull through Bolivia. Young, dead rebels may make good myths, but they may not make good rebellions, or good rulers—Castro is a case in point for many.
And the man who may most seem to outwardly resemble Che—a pipe-smoking rebel living deep in a Latin American forest with his fellow fighters—remains known only by his nom de guerre, one masked head of a collective based in one region, working steadily away on the local level to fight his particular country’s application of neo-liberalism and globalization. Subcomandante Marcos, a principal member of the Zapatistas in the Chiapas region in Mexico, eludes easy definition, has slipped in and out of media attention, but struggles on, in his own small, bloodless, but eloquent ways. He’s issued essays, stories, books, and most recently more demands for indigenous rights as part of the “Other Campaign” decrying Mexico’s election-system, a campaign he conducted on a motorbike in honour of Guevara’s travels. Marcos is a post-modern rebel, a local, non-violent guerrilla who’s still found many ways, often through technology instead of guns, to short-circuit the dominant network of power.
So the tepid reception of Che may only reflect that he is no longer the rebel for our cause, the revolutionary for our times. And he, or she, may not already be out there but in here.
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