Sunday, January 31, 2010

No Direction Home (Che and Sin Nombre)

A few days ago Greg at Cinema Styles posted an illuminating piece about the differences between the "Hollywood War Film" and the "Documentary War Film." "Basically," he wrote, "the Doc-Style film...has a gritty verisimilitude, an uncomfortable relationship with reality that keeps the viewer off-balance while the Hollywood war film...goes for fantasy and mythos and uses the language of film to achieve something that in the real world does not exist." Greg was specifically comparing The Hurt Locker to Inglourious Basterds, but his analogy also helped me crack the 270-minute, two-part nut that is Steven Soderbergh's Che. Part One -- "The Argentine" -- is lushly romantic; Part Two -- "Guerrilla" -- is a cinema-verite slog.

These two distinct styles are no doubt intentional on Soderbergh's part, though that's not to say that there isn't overlap. This is certainly true of the films Greg mentions in his piece, and those that continue to be discussed in the comments. Some war movies are tricker to define than others. (I disagree with Marilyn Ferdinand, for example, that Platoon is a documentary-style, "you-are-there" combat film; I think it's a Hollywood war film in disguise.) I was so absorbed and baffled by Che that it's useful to initially paint the experience in broad strokes before delving into details.

"The Argentine" cuts deftly back and forth between Che Guevera's 1956-59 experiences in the Cuban Revolution and the days leading up to his 1964 speech at the United Nations in New York City. Soderbergh shoots the latter sequences in black-and-white and uses Che's interview with a flinty British journalist (Julia Ormond) as a springboard to the Cuba sections, which are green and gorgeous and exciting to watch. It's a relief to see Soderbergh abandon his chilly blue-filtered interiors for an outdoorsy look as warm and vernal as Malick's Thin Red Line. In so doing (Soderbergh, as "Peter Andrews," is once again his own DP), he also avoids the puke-browns of the Mexico City sequences in Traffic, though he wisely brings back its star.

Benicio Del Toro had quietly developed one of the most interesting acting careers of the last fifteen years. It was his own brilliant idea in The Usual Suspects to transform his character Fenster into a hilariously incomprehensible mumbler. (Del Toro has said he realized when reading the script that nothing his character said actually mattered.) And he was terrific in the otherwise mediocre Traffic, imbuing his pivotal character -- a Mexican cop at war with the drug trade -- with an understated integrity. (I'm cracking up now, having just glanced at Del Toro's IMDb filmography, to see that his next role is reportedly Moe Howard in the Farrelly brothers' The Three Stooges.) Del Toro has some of Robert Mitchum's sleepy-eyed magnetism, yet unlike Mitchum I've yet to see him coast on charm alone. All this is to say he's a perfect Che Guevera, both heroic icon and frail human being.

Che in "The Argentine" has an obvious yet thrilling trajectory: young Marxist idealist; wheezing asthmatic in the jungle (his fellow rebels cringe every time he coughs); charismatic leader who, as a child points out, is not above lying to achieve his aims. Che is also an outsider, initially embraced by Castro ("You're as Cuban as the rest of us," El Comandante assures him) before their relationship deteriorates Trotsky/Stalin-style, as the bookish intellectual flees the country to stir revolution in other parts of the world.

"Guerrilla" charts Che's downfall in Bolivia from 1966-67, with many scenes designed to correspond to moments from "The Argentine." A pair of young boys willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the revolution in "The Argentine" are given self-serving counterparts in "Guerrilla." (One distraction: These characters, who are supposed to be adolescents, look as grizzled as the "teenagers" in Porky's 3.) The devoted female Cuban fighter Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno) from Part One is replaced by the wealthy socialist Tamara Bunke (Franka Potente), who meets a tragic end in Part Two. Filmed as a hand-held docudrama, the Bolivian jungle is less alluring than the topography in Cuba. The days are generally grim and overcast as Che and his revolution march toward their doom.

Although Greg's aforementioned piece doesn't address Che, reading it makes it easier to understand what Soderbergh is doing in both portions of the movie. In an appropriately Marxist manner, he's striving to create a cinematic dialectic where the romantic "Hollywood war film" and the "documentary war film" synthesize the two key parts of Che Guevera's life. (We receive only cursory information about his unsuccessful journeys to the Congo and Venezuela.) That I find "The Argentine" superb and "Guerrilla" a grind may say more about my own taste than the quality of either film; maybe, when it comes to war movies, I tend to prefer the Hollywood-style to the documentary version. 

Yet for everything I admire about Che as a whole (especially compared to Soderbergh's mostly terrible work over the past decade), there's something bothersome about a filmmaker's lack of emotional engagement with his subject. This is nothing new for an egghead auteur whose last genuine connection with humanity was 1993's King of the Hill. (Naturally, the only film Soderbergh wishes he could remake.) Nowadays he veers between the celebrity gawking of the Ocean's series to the non-actor condescension of Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh hasn't shown more than a marginal interest in character since the one-two punch of Out of Sight and The Limey. It's troubling that the colorful personalities in a true-to-life epic are less vivid than cinematic moments, as when Batista's stolen automobile at the end of "The Argentine" becomes a symbol of corruption as evocative as the gold telephone casually passed around the table in The Godfather: Part II. Che is an academic exercise that is ambitious, impressive and well worth seeing. Yet to paraphrase the funniest line from The Limey, it's been made by a filmmaker who is less of a person than a vibe.

From revolution-era Cuba and Bolivia in Che we journey to contemporary Honduras and then northward through Mexico in Sin Nombre, a more modestly scaled movie that is no less superficially relevant. Willy (Edgar Flores), a teenage member of the murderous Mara Salvatrucha gang who begins to harbor misgivings for the path he has chosen, is forced to make a desperate run for the border with his tattooed blood-brothers in hot pursuit. On a train he meets Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran emigrant roughly the same age, seeking a new life in the States along with her father and uncle. Writer-director Cary Fukanaga's feature-length debut has been widely-praised, but for me the predictable schematics of the plot were a little too much El Norte-meets-Apocalypto. Still, Flores and Gaitan give sensitive performances, and Fukanaga shows a refreshing comprehension of the basics evidently untaught in American film schools these days (staging, framing, pacing). Sin Nombre is a decent enough effort that makes me look forward to his next one.


Unknown said...

I've seen Che twice now. The first time in the theater as the Roadshow version and then the other time a couple of months back on Sundance Channel. After the first time, I had the same exact reaction that the first film was stronger than the second one. It was watching it the second time that I appreciated that the second film was meant to be a bit of a repetitive slog, which I'm sure is not going to appeal to everyone, but I understood why it was necessary to tell Che Guevera's story.

I do hope many give this film a chance now that it's on Criterion because I do believe it is one of Soderbergh's best films and has a more sure vision behind its construction than most give it credit for. I do think it is his best film in a long while.

Craig said...

Was curious what you thought of this one, Steven, and I'm glad to hear the second part improves on repeated viewings. I agree that both halves complement each other well and are essential to see in tandem. I did like the way Soderbergh staged Che's death scene (that's not a spoiler, right?), a unique stylistic choice. While I have other issues with his filmmaking style, I agree that this is easily his best work in years.

Jason Bellamy said...

I haven't seen this since the Roadshow version. I wanted to write about the film then but I didn't have the time. I'd love to see it again.

In short, I thought both parts were fantastic exhibitions of filmmaking perfection. In The Girlfriend Experience (which I like, by the way), Soderbergh experiments with camera angles that make you go, "huh?" In Che the camera is always in the right place. The action scenes have a marvelous sense of geography, which lends a "you are here" power to it all. If there was a moment I questioned a single shot, I can't remember it.

And yet I couldn't shake this: "there's something bothersome about a filmmaker's lack of emotional engagement with his subject." Yes. Exactly. And, to be clear, by subject I mean everything that the camera sees in this picture, not just Che. It was all just so emotionless. I'll need a second viewing to see what I think about that.

As for the styles of the two films, your analysis works well, but more important, I think, are the moods of the two pictures. The first picture is the hero movie, which is exactly why it's "lushly romantic." The second picture is the film about the fall. I think Soderbergh shoots in two different styles as if to underline that to only look at certain parts of Che's life is to be filled with entirely different moods about the man. If he'd kept with the "romantic" vibe for the second picture, Che's downfall would have seemed more heroic. Instead it treats him as something more of a simple outlaw.

Anyway, those are my thoughts about a year later.

Great review.

Craig said...

Great thoughts, Jason. I especially like what you say about Che's geography (emphasized with the maps that kick off each film). It's an unusually expansive picture for Soderbergh, who seems to prefer interiors despite being quite gifted at conjuring atmosphere (Out of Sight) and a sense of time and place (Depression-era St. Louis in King of the Hill).

In many ways, you and Steven are right, Soderbergh is at the top of his game here. Yet as much as I admire the accomplishment, I can't help but feel there's something wrong with a filmmaker when after a nearly five-hour movie you're not left with a sense of why he wanted to make it. (You certainly come away with more than an inkling in Wolfgang Petersen's five-hour Das Boot director's cut, to cite one example.)

Like everything else, I think Soderbergh is more interesting in the process of moviemaking itself, that he wanted to try his hand at a large-scale epic (as well as simultaneously deconstructing the genre) and here was his big chance. That's not a bad thing. Yet I'm reminded once again of David Edelstein's description of Soderbergh, which couldn't be more apt: "He’s a paradox: a control freak who overcompensates by being loose—then can’t let anything interfere with that looseness. He’s rigidly freewheeling."

Jason Bellamy said...

"Rigidly freewheeling." Wow. I hadn't read that before. Put that shit on a T-shirt. Good stuff.

And, I agree with you on this ...

I think Soderbergh is more interesting in the process of moviemaking itself, that he wanted to try his hand at a large-scale epic (as well as simultaneously deconstructing the genre) and here was his big chance.

Or, at least, it's hard for me to point to anything in Che that would disprove that analysis. And that's probably damning enough.

For what it's worth, I remember texting Hokahey after I saw the Roadshow, because he was envious I had the chance to see it. My text was something like: "Great filmmaking. Good film." I hate to boil criticism down to something that's terse even by Twitter standards, but that still feels about right.

Stephen said...

I don't want to barge in Craig but I've posted your review of Sita Sings the Blues as part of a selection from the blogosphere.

Please pop by if you're interested.

Greg said...

Craig, sorry to show up so late. I posted some Toerifc banners on Sunday but otherwise have been offline for the most part until my Oscar post today and just saw this.

I have actively avoided Soderbergh for years now. His movies so consistently let me down that I feel there are other directors to whom I should devote my time. But I actually did have some interest in this until hearing from so many that it was yet another Soderbergh letdown. And this -

That I find "The Argentine" superb and "Guerrilla" a grind may say more about my own taste than the quality of either film; maybe, when it comes to war movies, I tend to prefer the Hollywood-style to the documentary version.

I of course agree with since I said in my own piece that I prefer the Hollywood style to the gritty war piece. Frankly, that this movie is made in two different styles makes my desire to see it even less now. Had it been all of the first one it might have been different.

Craig said...

Thank you, Stephen. I'm honored and looking forward to reading the other links.

Craig said...


The disparate styles for "The Argentine" and "Guerrilla" work well. There's at least a point to them, though if Soderbergh had wanted to be truly radical then I think he should have flipped them around. Che has flaws, but I can't say it's a disappointment. Or, if it is a disappointment, it's still one I highly recommend.