Monday, January 26, 2009

Che

Che is one of those films that comes with expectations - at least, anticipation. I was certainly excited to see it turn up. The screenings themselves felt like Events - certainly the method of its release, the "roadshow," contributes - creates a sense of excitement, of the movie as an event, as The Place To Be, at least once... There are movies I feel obliged to see - I feel like I owe the director or the star or the subject my time - I've felt that way about some of Soderbergh's films in the past... This was more than that - I went in with the sense that there was a decent chance of seing a genuinely good film.

And was happily rewarded. It is Oscar season - people talk about this years' nominations, no one seems happy - me, I think the dullness of the nominations reflects the mediocrity of the films released. It was a boring year, especially in Hollywood. And it comes after a year when a host of fine films came out of Hollywood - ambitious, well made, intelligent films; mostly genre films, mostly guy genre films - but in the best tradition of the best of Hollywood. The one film in 2008 that matches those '07 films (all those grim, artsy films about men doing unwise things, from Zodiac to There Will Be Blood to No Country for Old Men to Darjeeling Limited to The Assassination of Jesse James...) is Che. It is such a relief to see a film that delivers on its possibilities.

It is long - though not that long. I would say, it should be seen as one film - but a lot of films released as two, should be seen as one. It reminded me a bit of Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima films: seeing Letters from Iwo Jima alone, I was not all that impressed; seeing if back to back with Flags of our Fathers, I thought both became far more effective. There are a number of films like this - matched war films - that rather often follow the rise/fall trajectory Che shares. Eastwood's films are an ambiguous match - Flags is almost as much a downer as Letters... Kon Ichikawa's magnificent pair of war films, Burmese Harp/Fires on the Plain, embody the structure at its purest. The first, about redemption, reconciliation, going home - the second about damnation, disintegration, death, far from home... That's Che all right. It's Rivette's Jeanne la Pucelle, too - which (like Che) is divided into two parts that follow the pattern, and names them - "Battles"/"Prisons" in the Rivette film. (Che has a lot of Joan of Arc in him: great hero/doomed martyr - more than a bit of a loony, absolutely committed to the voices in his (her) head...)

Onwards! The movies... Part 1 is about Cuba. Framed by scenes in NY, 1964 - an interview, Che at the UN, Che interacting with the high and low. All this filmed in grainy black and white, cinema verite style. From this beginning it flashes back to Mexico (shot in grainy DV) where the Cubans plan the revolution - then to Cuba (now, gorgeous lush, high definition video) for the revolution. Which we see, in a series of somewhat disconnected scenes - things happen, then other things happen. The events are shaped by the flashforwards, which remind us where it is leading (and sometimes undermine the material we see - or reshape it), how it will all turn out. The scenes themselves are not so coherent by themselves, but they have a shape. We see the war through fairly conventional looking scenes - guerrillas march through jungle - they meet and make camps and engage in minor power struggles; they fight, win, lose - Che cares for the sick - he gets an independent command - he wins some, loses some, faces challenges within, etc. All of this looks conventional enough, but the links are missing - or rather, imposed from outside. We see people moving around, doing things - we see people come and go, meet, talk, go - people appear, always introduce themselves - and then - stay, leave, reappear.... Except it is shaped - by the flashforwards, and their occasionally direct narration of scenes; by the sense of progress, hinted at in the dialogue - they go to one place; then they go somewhere else; they move on - everything we see, even the setbacks, take them a step closer to their goal. And as we watch it - following Che in his disconnected actions - he gains a command, he loses a command, he regains a command, he meets a girl, he unites disparate forces, he runs a campaign - it falls into a pattern. The beginning - Che staggering up a hill, wracked by asthma, men tramping aimlessly through the jungle - becomes more and more focused until the climax, the battle of Santa Clara. This is rendered in great detail and precision - specific actions, breaking through walls to get at a snipers' post, people moving through the streets, a train ambush, all carefully shown. (And subtly: one of the strangest things about it all is how Soderbergh works indirectly, even in this vast epic film. Details, precision, economy: the way, for example, he shows the ambush of a train in Santa Clara - breaking the overall process into pieces, separated by other parts of the battle - implying things that happen: like - we see a bulldozer driving toward railroad tracks, but don't see the bulldozer do anything - later some men are ordered to an address - we see other men attacking a train, which starts to move - we see men running through the streets (and have to recognize the man who took the earlier order to know who they are and where they are going) - then we see the train, the men - and finally, what the bulldozer did.... He makes us work, Soderbergh does, in a most satisfying way....) And finally? The war is won - everyone heads to Havana - though not before Che rebukes some of his men for stealing a car...

Part 2: Bolivia. Here, again, the film starts framed - but not as a flashback. We see a title scroll telling us that Che has disappeared from Cuba. We see Fidel Castro giving a speech - reading a letter from Che, resigning his positions. (We see this on TV, of course.) Then we see him back in Cuba, in disguise - before long, he is off to Bolivia. Through customs - a night in a hotel - then off to the hills.... At the beginning, we see a title - Day 1 - and the date. After that, though Soderbergh continues to put the days on screen from time to time (Day 67; Day 100, etc.) we don't see the date again. We see some place titles, not consistently. (This contrasts with the first part: where similar cards kept us constantly appraised of where Che was and what the date was. Time is marked in the first part - a steady progression - in part 2 - it's a string of days...) Once the film gets proper going, it may jump between parts of the story (from Che to other guerillas to the army fighting against him), but it never leaves the story - there is no narration, no frame of any kind, the time and place markers are abstract, there's no sense of progress. The outside world is erased, the context is erased...

The story in part two is similar to part one - Che joins the guerrillas from outside, talks the same game, wears the same clothes - but everything is different. Nothing gets going. Che and company sit around, then head out on a training exercise, then run for their lives, but they might as well be running in place. Everything that happened in part one has a counterpart here, but it's reversed, it fails. (And the failures shown in part 2 reveal the structure of part 1 - the inertia of the group in part 2 reveals the direction and progress made in part 1.) Where in Cuba the rebel factions overcome their reluctance and make deals with each other, in Bolivia, Che's faction quickly breaks from the communists and other groups. Where the rebels quickly bonded with the peasants in part one, they never win them over in part 2. (It's notable, I'm sure, that the only relationship these good communists can build with the peasants is to pay them for goods - pure commerce.) Meanwhile, the government is ready for them - they have CIA backing (Cubans!) - they soon have him on the run. And once the chase starts, it turns into a long slog - Che and company marching around in circles in the hills and jungles, never going anywhere, two groups of rebels seeming to chase each other through the jungle without finding each other, harried by the army every inch of the way. And finally, like the first part, the film ends with a battle - Yuro Ravine, also rendered very carefully, though there's never any doubt about the outcome. And then? Che is caught - slapped around - and shot and dies....

I'd say - this should be seen as one film. The two parts balance each other. There is a distinct split in style between the two films. The first has those multiple styles - the B&W NY footage, the lush Cuban footage, the video Mexican footage, using various lighting styles, though mostly beautiful, wet, green, in Cuba. The camera is fairly steady - maybe not motionless, but the compositions steady, the style lucid and clear. Part 2 sticks to one style - but it's a more disruptive one. Cool, bright DV, with both shakier camera work (lots of handheld) and quite a few long, neutral, distanced shots. Some of the opening moments, especially, look a lot like Herzog - it's certainly likely that Herzog is one of the references points for this film. The style is, then, both more objective than the first - cold and detached - and subjective, with more point of view (including Che's end.) The structure and style giving the first the feel of heroic march - the bad times will only make you stronger; they march from victory to victory - and we are constantly reminded of where it will go, to Che the celebrity, Che the international power - the end is never in doubt, the scenes are always woven into that end. The second part reverses that - the film looks more dismal, less hopeful; there is no contextualizing frame, and no sense of progress - we are kept close to Che's experiences, and his experiences get smaller and smaller - watching the guerrillas marching in circles in the woods. They keep coming back to the same places, keep doing the same things, keep having the same conversations, making the same plans, facing the same problems. Until they are pinned down on the side of a hill completely surrounded by soldiers. (Soderburgh quoting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at that point.) All this, as well as the fact that Soderburgh only shows the failures (even their victories are small and weak and serve no purpose), and of course what we know of the ending, turns it into a kind of pure disintegration. It all comes apart.

And so? It's a terribly satisfying movie. It is satisfying to see a big sprawling epic made with such control and care - it is immersive, it does not falter. It doesn't falter in part because of the grand patterns at work - but they are patterns that Soderbergh manages to enact from shot to shot as much as from film to film. He tells you more than you see - he twists expectations. (Bringing in a girl to hang around with Che at the end of part one - you expect Romance! - but there is no romance - they just go on with their business. But in fact - there was a romance! he married her! but Soderbergh leaves that part out, until part 2, when we see them part....) It's a grand art form, a pretty convincing historical epic, and a remarkably good war movie. It's quite an accomplishment.

2 comments:

Joseph B. said...

Ok, this pretty much settles it- I'll be seeing this one. With Moviezzz's post about the film being worth it, I wondered the same thing. Nice write-up, Sam. You converted at least one person to give it a shot- and at one of the crappiest arthouse theaters in Dallas no less!

RC said...

i appreciate your optimism about the films...

this was one of my most anticipated films earlier in the year and all the "disappointment" has made it a film I have not yet had a chance to see.

i know i will, but your excitement encourages me to do so...and make all efforts to see both in close proximity (i agree with your assessment of flags & letters from iwo jima).