Che (Soderbergh, 2009): Burying an icon

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Title: Che
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Language: Spanish, English
Year: 2009 (Canada), 2008 (U.S.)
Critical Reception: J. Hoberman gave an admiring review.
Psych Index: Social Relations
In Brief: An ambitious, drawn-out film that succeeded in making one feel very discouraged by the guerrilla life.

Che (Soderbergh, 2009) premiered this weekend in Canada, playing just two screens a day in Vancouver. Considering the notoriety of the subject, it might seem surprising that it wasn't a wider release. When I got to the theatre, however, having read nothing about the film's release format, I was surprised to learn that it was a Special Roadshow Edition being shown. It meant that the film was broken into two parts, screened with a 15 minute intermission. I was game for it - when was the last time you saw a film with an intermission? For a film geek, that's a treat rather than a deterrent. Besides, Soderbergh's treatment of such a controversial figure, one that I knew very little about, was enticing enough for me. It was going to be a special film. Or at the very least, it was going to have to be an ambitiously grand film, and I figured it'd need all the audience it could entice for it to survive.

It was a grand film alright - in temporal sense of the word. Che was a grueling procedural film about the grueling time of a guerrilla icon. Altogether, one needs to invest about 5 hours of one's life committed to experiencing the film. And experiencing it, one must - Soderbergh made sure of that, declaring his intention of making the film "a procedural about guerrilla warfare." This procedural love of his has always threatened to be the most frustrating aspect of Soderbergh's filmaking; it sank his Ocean's Thirteen film (and the series). Here, one has to wonder if there's enough justification for a large chunk of the film. When art attempts to imitate life exactly as it is, the end may not justify the means, and the sum may not be greater than the details leading up to it. I once attended a play about Time. It was a greatly frustrating play, as a big chunk of it was spent on making the audience feel time passing by, with actors doing nothing but arranging rocks and playing with sand randomly and slowly on stage. I got the message and I never wanted to be subjected to the messenger again. Unfortunately, this was how I felt about Che.

There is a place for procedural films in cinema. The most successful one that comes to mind is Luc Bresson's Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A man escaped, 1956). A large part of success for A Man Escaped was in the tension and the atmosphere created by the framing of the film. It also helped that there was investment in the outcome of the film, one that was rewarded after an hour and a half of actual film time. Four-hour plus running time of Che was not very conducive to the success of a procedural film. If there was any ounce of excitement or glamour in a guerrilla life, Soderbergh killed it with the second half of Che. Perhaps that was the point - guerrilla warfare is no hike in the park, kids. However, it did not make for particularly rewarding cinema. There was little that was moving forward; most of the second half of the film was spent meandering about in small, repetitive steps. It was almost-dead cinema at times, complete with the choice of drained-out colour to go with the long and tiring day-in-the-life of a guerrilla.

There is also definitely a place in cinema for experiential films, those that attempt to give the audience the actual experience being depicted in the film. In recent years, the Austrian/German auteur, Michael Haneke, has been particularly successful in mirroring the characters' experience with the audience's, blurring the line between spectators and participants (see Caché, his best film to date). It's a worthwhile experiment, and experimenting is one way to ensure growth of an art form. It was a double edge sword for this film, however. On paper, it would seem ingenious to give the world a sense of what it was like living Che's life. It succeeded on this front, if one was to believe the joylessness of his raison d'être. For the most part, one had the feeling that his life was a cold, bloody intellectual pursuit of communal ideals at the cost of reasonable doubts. Certainly there were small moments of human affection, mostly from the first half of the film. Experiential films are most powerful and/or interesting when the experience depicted was itself powerful and/or interesting. When half of the film was spent going nowhere, one may start to look for interesting pockets in between. Look at the trees! Exotic animals! Someone pees a message! Striking images! Something cinematically interesting happens, please! No? Oh, someone felt insulted by being called a ventriloquist! That was probably the most happening scene in thirty minutes leading up to it.

The decision to combine the experiential with the procedural in this case gave us the head scratching experience that was Che. Matter-of-fact depiction of a highly charged figure may have been an interesting approach, but I can't help but feel that it was a counter productive one. Che was a symbol of the people at some point, and this was no film for the people. There was an interesting experimental film here, but it was buried by the need to draw every single line of Che's life (in this period) with no sense of economy. For all the details going into making the film feel authentic, there was little of Che to be abstracted from the film. Perhaps we were not meant to understand what drove him, other than what was stated by the man himself (belief 'in humanity' and the need to deliver justice to the poor people). His success and failure were very clearly contrasted by the two parts of the film. It was interesting watching how his ideals unfolded under different circumstances (which he thought were the same, obviously) with drastically different results. His failure indeed illustrated a lesson to be had, as he predicted, though perhaps not in the way he anticipated. Che did not account for the multitude of factors other than just poor conditions for people to really throw their hats in the ring; you can't simply will a revolution for the people without their consent.

I admire the ambition of the film and the sheer audacity of the film's release format - 4-hour plus historical war epic screened in one sitting with a 15-minute intermission is a lot to ask of the modern blockbuster-fawning, short attention-span audience. Soderbergh wanted to open Che up to the world, turning him into more than just a face on a T-shirt. He succeeded in nailing the coffin of Che's cause, while simultaneously generously praising the man. Perhaps Che was meant to be a labourous war film about a highly charged political figure that remained elusive as a full-fledged man. Without a proper understanding of the man, his motivations and needs, however, he remained a T-shirt symbol to me, whatever that symbol may be.


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