Friday, October 9, 2009

the realistic and the impossible

Back in June I saw a postcard in a bookstore that had Che Guevara's face on the front—one of those painted reprints of Alberto Korda's famous photo of the Cuban revolutionary, to be exact—and the slogan "Let's be realistic: try the impossible!" underneath. Close by was Spain Rodriguez's graphic novel Che: A Graphic Biography (2008); last fall Publishers Weekly deemed it "for the most part unalloyed hagiography, which can seem more like something produced by revolutionary committee than an artist."

Six years ago Lawrence Osborne wrote about Che worship in the New York Observer and attempted to set the record straight:

Of course, it was Che's role in the Cuban Revolution that turned him into the poster boy we all know. But it was a quixotic participation in many ways. Che was known inside the revolution as a strict disciplinarian, ready to sign death warrants and mete out sundry brutalities. And yet, for all that, he was spectacularly ineffective. From 1961 to 1965, Che was Cuba's Minister for Industries; before that, from 1959 to 1961, he was the head of the national bank. Both stints ended in farce. A Cuban expedition to Congo to prop up the anti-Mobutu forces fighting there ended similarly.

Che, in fact, failed at anything requiring real ability and perseverance. He was a charismatic dilettante, like most professional revolutionaries, but in between he lived the activist high life: the Bandung-generation Third World conference circuit, dramatic speeches at the United Nations, clandestine peregrinations from country to country, murky deals, love affairs and connections in high places. None of it amounted to anything, however. In the end, Che had to foment real revolutions or nothing.

While attempting to spur a revolution in Bolivia in 1967, Guevara was captured by that country's military on October 8 and executed the next day.

In January I saw Steven Soderbergh's two-part, four-hour biopic Che, starring Benicio Del Toro. As Soderbergh told the Chicago Sun-Times, he split the story into two films—part one is subtitled "The Argentine," part two is "Guerrilla"—because "one, you didn't understand why [Guevara] thought he would succeed in Bolivia if you didn't see what happened in Cuba. And two, you had to go back to Cuba to answer the question: How did he become the Che that is the guy on the T-shirts?"

Del Toro isn't the only movie star in the film, but he's the only one who has a lead role, and it's interesting to see how Soderbergh, one of the most intelligent and unpredictable filmmakers around, uses other famous faces.

I recognized Julia Ormond in the first part of Che as an American journalist interviewing Guevara, but I’m not sure if that will be the case for every viewer, mostly because it's been over a dozen years since she had a lead role in a high-profile American movie—1995's Sabrina. Besides, you hear Ormond's voice several times in Che before you see her face, but since she’s using an American accent I didn’t recognize her voice. (Ormond also had roles in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008.)

Guevara was a world-famous figure by the time he made his trip to Bolivia. A celebrity, even. When he arrived people wanted to shake his hand; they were awed by his presence as well as the myth that surrounded him. But he was afraid most peasants would be suspicious of a foreigner trying to rally them to revolution, even though he was an Argentinean who was able to rally Cubans to revolt against Batista’s government nine years earlier. (In Bolivia he was worried about being labeled a Cuban, which he was by that point, of course.) He was a stranger in both countries, if not exactly a stranger in a strange land. His fame turned him into an outsider once again.

When Lou Diamond Phillips and Matt Damon show up in part two of Che for brief cameos, it has a jarring effect—you lose focus of what’s happening in the story at those particular moments as you stop and say to yourself, "Is that who I think it is?" just as Guevara’s revolution lost focus in Bolivia due to his celebrity status. It’s a canny move by Soderbergh that parallels the on-screen action.

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