Che: Part One and Two

'Che' draws together the contadictory tendencies of the revolution with those of an ambitious filmmaker who has visions of a better cinema while still firmly mired in a commercial system.


Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Julia Ormond, Demián Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria D. Sosa, Jose Caro, Pedro Adorno, and Ramon Fernandez
Distributor: Criterion
Release Date: 2010-01-19
“I knew that when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I will be with the people. And I know it because I see it imprinted on the night that I, the eclectic dissector of doctrines and psychoanalyst of dogmas, howling like a man possessed, will assail the barricades and trenches, will stain my weapon with blood and, consumed with rage, will slaughter any enemy I lay hands on. And then, as if an immense weariness were consuming my recent exhilaration, I see myself being sacrificed to the authentic revolution, the great leveler of individual will, pronouncing the exemplary mea culpa.”—Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries

Shortly after submerging himself within the Bolivian jungle and ingratiating himself with its peasants, Che Guevarra challenged local Communist Party leader Mario Monje’s belief that conditions were not right for revolution. Che responds calmly in a dispassionate voice, at least according to Steven Soderberg’s vision:

Anywhere in the world where men are being exploited by men conditions are right. When children work in mines and 50 percent of miners don’t reach the age of 30, when these same miners go on strike to improve their wages and they are massacred by the army, are those conditions right or not? If infant mortality rates are the highest in Latin America because of lack of hospitals and medical care, the situation is right for me.

Although Monje (Lou Diamond Phillips) is mostly dismissed within Che: Part Two as a Communist Party hack, history nonetheless has vindicated his assessment, though it might still fault his reasoning. In these early moments of the film, Soderbergh juxtaposes not only free-form guerrilla tactics versus the functionary strategy of ossified Party politics, revolutionary idealism versus rheumatic dogmatism, but a utopian vision versus the plaguing mundane concerns that ceaselessly deflate any vision for a better world in the mere attempt to endure.

Soderbergh clearly indentifies with Che, the idealist, even though Che: Part Two serves as a testimony to the limits of idealism as we watch Che’s (Benicio Del Toro) disastrous Bolivian expedition unravel. After all, Soderbergh himself is something of an idealist, too. In the documentary Making Che, which accompanies this DVD set, Soderbergh claims that the ten year project-in-making Che forced him to confront the question: do movies matter anymore? Soderbergh reflects, “I don’t think that they do. So that added to: what was the point of eight years of work when movies have become so disposable. There aren’t many opportunities for them to be taken seriously like they were in the late 1960s and 1970s here in the United States.”

This jeremiad conveniently overlooks the ambitious world of art cinema of Michael Haneke, Bela Tarr, the Dardenne brothers, Carlos Reygadas, Wong Kar Wai, Abbas Kiarostami, Zhang Ke Jia, Steve McQueen, and Lars von Trier that still thrives globally and even screens on the remaining independent theaters the dot across the States. But this is Soderbergh the aesthete speaking who must overlook nuance and the terrain of the actual surrounding mediascape for fear of finding his other half: Soderbergh, the commercial filmmaker of such dreck like Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), Ocean’s Eleven (2002), and Erin Brockovich (2002).

Soderbergh’s artistic schizophrenia is not unique, but something that plagues many filmmakers who must work within Hollywood. One thinks of John Cassavetes acting in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to fund films such as Faces (1968) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), John Sayles script-doctoring hack movies to support directing Matewan (1987) and Lone Star (1996), and, more recently, Guillermo del Toro pumping out Hell Boy (2004) and Hell Boy Two: The Golden Army (2008) to materialize his Spanish Civil War films The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

There is only one moment where art and mammon converged in Sodergergh’s entire career: the outstanding 1989 Sundance premiere of his first feature-length film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. This set a template for many misguided projects and frustration for the rest of Soderbergh’s career by not realizing the rarity of the moment that originally drew him into the Hollywood fold. The art cinema side of his career has stumbled between the grossly narcissistic, Schizopolis (1996), and the hopelessly misguided, a remake of Solaris starring George Clooney. Che, at least Part One, has broken this trend by fusing both Soderbergh’s artistic vision with a mastery of genre.

One must first of all admire Soderbergh’s refusal to psychologize Che, a common device of the standard biopic. We are always on the outside, blocked by his public persona before news cameras or his own troops. It is not coincidental that Soderbergh begins Part One with a radio interviewer checking sound levels before asking her first question and Part Two with an oblique shot of a television screen of Castro (Demián Bichir) reading Guevara’s farewell letter. These are subtle warnings that we will not be able to penetrate beneath the image, beneath the personality that was so invested with Latin American revolution that it has become hopelessly enmeshed by its rhetoric, it style, its hopes, its victories, as well as its limits and tragic failures.

For example, when an interviewer asks Che’s feelings when Fidel demoted him from being a guerrilla captain to a trainer of new recruits, he replies calmly, objectively, that Fidel had his reasons and one must always sacrifice one’s ego to the goals of the revolution. Soderbergh follows this with a flashback to one of Guevara’s men consoling him that he is the best man to train new recruits. Che nods. Yet the sequence doesn’t add any clarity. We can’t tell if Che is being consoled because of his own feelings of inadequacy or because Che’s comrade thinks Che needs emotional support. Soderbergh refuses to move beyond the surface dialogue, image, and actions, which over time establishes a rather subtle impressionistic narrative texture.

Furthermore, the modernist style of the first part adds to its richness and complexity. Not only does it shuttle between times and places such as 1957 in Mexico City, 1959 in the Sierra Maestra, and 1964 in New York offering a rather broad but nonetheless suggestive framework establishing the rationale behind the Cuban Revolution, but also offers distantiation techniques that pull us from the immediacy of events to reflect on their meaning. This is well encapsulated in the first battle scene. As the revolutionaries attack army barracks, the diegetic sound cuts out and a voice-over of Guevara intercedes commenting on Tolstoy’s reflections on war. As we watch the men fight, Che states calmly, objectively how Tolstoy believes that military science only ponders how the size of an army leads to its victory, but there is also the x-factor, which is defined as “the spirit of the troops.” Che comments, “Men with the desire to fight who also understand why they’re fighting... will be triumphant.”

This sequence perfectly embodies the guerrilla’s notion of praxis where thought initiates action and action completes thought. By uniting Che’s gleaning of military knowledge from literary classics like Tolstoy’s War and Peace with gritty guerrilla fighting, the film not only reveals reflection as a necessary part of action, but also exposes how high culture holds vital knowledge for even the illiterate and dispossessed. This is nothing less than dialectical thought at work where the weight of the cultural past can be used against itself to unlock the potentialities of more egalitarian futures.

Finally, Part One’s framing is reminiscent of the latter work by Ken Loach. It largely refuses close-ups of Che, instead preferring distant framing where he is seen among other revolutionaries and set against the landscape. He is only one among many, and the film refuses to idolize him. When we first see him in the Cuban jungle, he is suffering an asthma attack. Wheezing and doubling-over, Che seems more of a burden than a benefit to the revolution. Even when he is in the forefront of the frame, he is normally facing away from the audience. This not only visually minimizes the centrality of Che, but also reinforces the enigmatic personality that lies beneath his words and gestures.

Because of Soderbergh’s masterfully framing and editing, we don’t mind that the first part concludes as an action genre mainly composed of fighting during its remaining 30-minutes. Finally, we see battle scenes without any voice-over since by this time we thoroughly understand the thought that undergirds the revolutionaries’ fighting. This is not some spontaneous action but a well-developed plan.

Yet Part One ends on a provocative note. On his drive towards Havana in victory, Che comes across a group of comrades who have stolen a red Cadillac that belonged to one of the snipers they killed in Santa Clara. Che stops them and says, “Even if it was Batista’s, the car is not yours. Go back to Santa Clara immediately and return it. And then you will go to Havana by bus, by jeep or on foot. I’d rather walk than drive to Havana in a stolen car.” As he returns to his car, he mutters to himself, “Incredíble.” Condensed here is the remaining challenge of the revolution: the bourgeois habits that the revolutionaries carry within themselves. They have vanquished the external enemy, but the internal one remains much more persistent and intrusive.

Part Two is an entirely different film, as has been well-reported during its theatrical release. There are a series of reasons for this change in style: it was shot before Part One and originally was supposed to stand alone; it is based upon Che’s Bolivian diary, which fails to provide the critical distance that the source materials for Part One allowed for; less is generally known about Che’s exploits in Bolivia. These are all justifiable reasons for a stylistic change, yet they don’t change the fact that Part Two drags, mired in documentary-like style chronicling the innumerable details of jungle guerilla fighting but not adding a larger sense of Bolivian society and the revolution that Part One provides of Cuba.

The film fails to even offer a rationale for Che’s trip to Bolivia. Why there as opposed to some other Latin American nation? And what exactly are the ills he is supposed to be fighting? In Part One we see newsreel footage of Batista’s coup and learn about the ways in which American imperialism has impacted all of Latin America. In Part Two we see sequences of Bolivian president René Barrientos (Joaquim de Almedia) meeting with the CIA to decide to train men against the revolutionaries, but we don’t lean anything more about these oppressive regimes or the fight against them. The suggestiveness of Part One has given way to superficiality. By sticking too closely to Guevara’s diaries as a primary source, the film loses perspective as well as interest. The dialectical sophistication of the first part devolves into nothing more than one long chase sequence by Part Two.

Ultimately, one has to admire Sodergergh’s ambition in making a four hour and 20-minute Spanish-language film on Che Guevara. It is unfortunate that the skill of Part One makes Part Two difficult to watch. If anything, Che crystallizes Soderbergh’s warring sides: the ambition and ingenuity of the first part jars against the rather rote framing and plot of Part Two. Criterion helps account for these differences by providing a rather good, if not hagiographic, making-of documentary as well as an insightful, if not equally hagiographic, essay by Amy Taubin on the film. Additionally, the DVD set holds a 1967 documentary concering Che's death in Bolivia as well as a short documentary on the innovative use of digital filmmaking used by Soderbergh. Che is as much a success as it is a failure, as insightful as it is prosaic. If anything, the film draws together the contradictory tendencies of the revolution with those of an ambitious filmmaker who has visions of a better cinema while still firmly mired in a commercial system where true aesthetic innovation and thematic concern for social justice translates into nothing more than a box office loss.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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