Cinema for a Grand New Game

by Joshua Clover

From Film Quarterly Summer 2009, Vol. 62, No. 4

Che: Part One, Che: Part Two (Steven Soderbergh)
Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster)

The two parts of Che are doomed to be shown separately after the initial “Special Roadshow” opening, but they rightly comprise one movie. This is not to suggest that Soderbergh is experimenting with temporal aesthetics; he lives on Hollywood time, and at four hours plus, Che isn’t visionary, it’s long.

Necessarily so: it includes both a comedy and a tragedy, not commingled but in sequence. Comedy and tragedy as historical categories, that is; the first part ends not in marriage but in the overthrow of the Cuban military dictatorship, the marriage of a people with its own desires. The two hours of grinding failure that follow work because they are unalloyed, and the remorseless meanness on display accumulates the grandeur of its very lack of grandeur. That’s all it was, the Bolivian “revolution”? It’s just a few increasingly bedraggled rebels, barely enough to fill out a baseball team, stuck in a worsening situation. It ends, as all tragedies do, with the hero’s death.

But it ends also with the death of an idea, that of a Bolivarian revolution uniting South America. The film’s length is a gesture toward the historical durée of this idea, this hope, with its own trajectory distinct from anecdote and from any one man’s life: a wide arc with some majesty even in its miserable cancellation.

The film throws its contemporaries into fine relief. It is among other things a terrific war movie; it leads one to realize how parlous is the spectacular, pious humanism of Saving Private Ryan, and similar fatigue-rippers. Soderbergh will never achieve Spielberg’s epic blocking, and it’s not clear he would want to; Che is anything but the hurtling of heroic bodies through space. It is made from the scraggly crack of substandard rifles, and extended coughing montages in the jungle. Such things are not used as props to establish courage under fire, or cues to character; the rifles and Che’s asthma are part of the objective conditions, like terrain and economy. It’s a movie that believes in objective conditions, or tries to.

In its insistence on comedy and tragedy as something other than domestic categories of the individual—its refusal of subjective psychologizing—it is beyond exceptional in contemporary American cinema. Certainly the characters have lives; they are people. But they do what they do, noble and heinous and ambiguous, because they have an analysis. Che labors to give a sense of idealism as a human quality sprung from material circumstance, but not a deformation or delusion.

The film has one unfortunate cinematic diversion from this commitment: a flashback of Guevara posed solitary on the boat to Cuba, staring down the wale at the Castro brothers engaged in animated plotting. Always the outsider, the extranjero even at the center of the epic story. This five-second excursion into sentiment sharpens the film’s point. We are not especially asked to like the characters (though Benicio del Toro can’t resist being a bit beguiling; Demián Bichir as Castro is more rigorous). We are asked instead to believe they have thought about the human situation of politics and power, and chosen a course. They pursue it because they think it’s right—not because some sibling died young or mommy didn’t love them or any of the other exhausting banalities of biographical mechanics à la cineplex. In short, the film is long, but not tiresome.

Such a conception of character (it is perhaps Sartrean: the hero is simply the one who had developed the power to act) is the last thing we’ve been schooled to believe within American film culture, with its global reach. Extraordinary fidelity to an idea has become a discredited category. For villains it always masks malevolence and madness; for heroes it’s an expression of personal brokenness, and will be made whole by love or forgiveness or really anything but serious politics.

And we like it this way. There’s a history to this peculiar desire. The urge to exclude real politics from an account of human drives is the inevitable outcome when social structure itself wishes to disappear; this is the obsession of the bourgeoisie, which Barthes famously defined as “the social class which does not want to be named.” But perhaps said class is getting less publicity-shy of late, if one is to judge by certain reactions to Che. The New York Times review asserts that it can’t really be much of a film, by definition: “the trappings of bourgeois subjectivity … of course, are part of what make characters in movies interesting.” And lack of same on the part of Soderbergh’s Guevara serves to “remove him from the realm of ordinary human sympathy.”


Revolutionaries in the revolution Che: Part One. Photo: Lauta Magruder. Courtesy IFC Films.

This is an extraordinary theory of cinema in many regards, not the least because it suggests that, before the rise of the bourgeoisie, there were neither interesting nor sympathetic characters. In any regard, one is cheered that even the professionally hostile responses to the film are able to lay the relevant cards on the table.

One would guess (rightly, it turns out) that the critic in question (A. O. Scott) preferred The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles’s 2004 film that now serves as a sort of Part Zero to Soderbergh’s opus. That earlier film shows young Ernesto approaching his future, episode by personal episode, as he and a friend travel the length of South America by motorcycle. It is Che before Che, before politics, and the film is more free to indulge in psychologizing.

But the question, quite evidently, is not which film is more bourgeois (indeed, we must be honest: both releases charged the full ticket price, and by that real measure, stand in identical relation to the marketplace). The most serious question, rather, is the most obvious one: thirty years after his death, why the hell did we suddenly need to make almost seven hours of Cinema Guevara, from his Argentine youth to his death in La Higuera, Bolivia?

This is the kind of mystery that requires James Bond.

The mystery begins with the peculiar narrative coincidences of Quantum of Solace and Che: each comes to a peak in central Bolivia, and features a scheme to overthrow said government. Following the Bond film’s plot is no easy business. It’s not that there’s precious little, as with many actioners. There’s loads, more than a reasonable film can bear, and it’s edited to incoherence. Tracking it is a bit like watching the CGI battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings or, more charitably, like examining a large-format, digitally tweaked Andreas Gursky photograph. You can stare directly at it and still have the sense that you aren’t really seeing what’s going on — it’s too complex, or perhaps your faculties of perception aren’t yet developed enough to take it in.

One strand of narrative has Bond tracking the Quantum cabal in the wake of his lover’s death at the end of the previous installment, Casino Royale. Thus Quantum of Solace begins with this pursuit in Italy, and ends with it in Russia; these bookends are all action but for the final mild revelation about Bond’s ex, his rapprochement with the home office, roll credits.

It’s in the middle of the film that things get screwy. On the trail of Quantum, Bond runs afoul of one Dominic Greene, played by Mathieu Amalric. The French arthouse star, who looks a bit like a younger Roman Polanski, has a nice sideline in Hollywood bad guys, like his sinister ferret of an underworld plotter in Munich. His physical size is suggestive, as is the straitened scope of his villainy herein, which includes no nuclear clocks, orbital platforms, or threatened genocides. A sign of the times; every economy gets the super-villain it deserves.

The diminutive Gallic technocrat runs Greene Planet, an ecologically minded outfit. Under its green fig leaf the international combine schemes—in collusion with local strongman General Medrano—to acquire monopoly rights to the Bolivian water supply. Greene Planet will help Medrano to the presidency, and in return reap superprofits from already impoverished Bolivians on the water concession. Cue mad cackle. Bond saves the day, you will not be surprised to hear, with the help of one good-hearted CIA agent and your standard-issue Russo-South American supermodel-freedom fighter.

The plot is utterly vertiginous. This is not because of its ludicrousness but its familiarity, it being wholly plagiarized from the archives of reality—a fact apparently lost on every major national critic. The New York Times summarizes the plot as “Greene’s diabolical scheme, itself never fully explained”; the Los Angeles Times settles for “a very standard-issue plot.” The reliably sophisticated New Yorker dismisses it as “a squabble that feels both crazed and touchingly provincial.”

None of them manage the word “Cochabamba.”

This, it must be said, is rather dreadful dereliction of duty. It is on the order of watching a Bond movie set against the occupation of Tiananmen Square in Beijing by masses of students, and missing it entirely. In 1999, Cochabamba, the third largest city in Bolivia, privatized its water supply— as a condition of receiving a loan continuation from the World Bank. The Aguas del Tunari consortium, as it was called, was an international combine including a couple of local corporations but led by International Water Ltd, a subsidiary of Bechtel Corporation. Their pricing meant that the Bolivians were paying in some cases a quarter of their income for water.

Public response, in the form of occupations, blockades, and a general strike, was massive; repression followed, including military action against civilians, and a government-declared state of siege. The protest spread throughout the nation; midway through 2000, the “Bolivian Water Wars” ended with the eviction of the consortium and, shortly, the fall of the government itself. One of the occupation leaders, congressman and coca grower Evo Morales of the Movement for Socialism, would become the first indigenous head of state since the Spanish conquest five centuries earlier.

This is one of the great political stories of our time. It cannot be entirely surprising that it would resurface in Hollywood, which never met some prefab content it didn’t like (though the reliably symptomatic Bond series has seldom tarried so closely with the topical). It would be easy to argue that the film preserves the story exactly so as to rewrite it, to rescue it for the ideological doxa of Hollywood; the screenplay is something like a primer in recuperation.

Rapacious capitalism gets its indictment only because it appears in inverted form: Bechtel returns as Greene Planet, ecopolitics merging with corporate cynicism. This is a moral missing from the actual history but, well, good ideals must always mask bad motives. So say the rules. In the film, the water plot is a shadowy conspiracy entwined with a military coup, pointedly impossible to credit—rather than the open corporate deal with the government that no one bothered to conceal. And inevitably, the communal insurrection of lived history is nowhere to be found. The fiendish plot must instead be foiled by our lone hero, who is also a representative of the global policing system, and who further is driven not by commitments but by personal demons. Though Cocha-bamba is just down the road from La Higuera, Quantum of Solace, one might say, is the anti-Che.

But Quantum of Solace still comes closer to telling the Bolivian story than the critics are able to address, or notice. If it stands that story on its head, we aren’t surprised: per Marx, “in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura.” Once the story is set on its feet, it instantly becomes the key which will unlock the mystery of all this Che revivalism. Salles and Solace and Soderbergh stand as a single notion: not one about the lost and romanticized Bolivarian revolution of the 1950s and 60s, but a present fact. They index, in their cynicism and idealism and mainly in their sheer insistence, an anxiety and a hope about contemporary geopolitics: a cinema for the new Grand Game of the Global South.

The Cochabamba story is itself a moment in a larger motion: in the last decade, the southern cone has turned left in a way without historical precedent. It is a variegated Left that includes neoliberal rejection, socialist movements and indigenous struggles, old and new populisms, tentative coalitions. But it includes Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Cuba; here in the public imagination of the imperial core, we give this vast and complicated wave the rather simple name of “Hugo Chavez,” and pretend it is confined to Venezuela, an isolated instance.


Geopolitics is destiny Quantum of Solace. © 2008 Danjaq LLC, United Artists Corporation, Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.

Perhaps this is right. It is not clear by any means that these varied political tides will flow together. But it’s not clear they won’t. Just as each global empire has been more expansive than the last, so too the major revolutions grow in scope. And they tend to happen at some distance, in moments of imperial transfer, when the great powers lose their ability to magnetize the globe to their own interests. Consider the nation-sized French revolution, in the moment that the United Provinces gave way to the British Empire. Or the Soviet revolution with its subcontinental scope, transpiring off to the side of the shift from British to U.S. hegemony.

By this logic, Che Guevara’s Bolivarian revolution was too early. This may be exactly what the grim hours that conclude Che mean to point up: the miserable debacle is not bad fortune or bad strategy but proof that objective conditions, in the largest sense, weren’t right. Yet it is plain enough that we are in such a moment of transfer now; it would be reasonable to inspect the horizon for a truly continental swell. And this, in some strange way, seems to be a task that the movie industry has set for itself—behind its own back as usual, “behind the back of consciousness itself” (as Hegel had it, thinking perhaps of those Quantum of Solace reviews). These displacements and distortions and blind spots are all par for the course; such is the camera obscura of Hollywood. Pointing out its operation is no achievement. But it is worth notice indeed what the spectacle business has gotten anxious about, and started spec-tacularizing full force.

All of which reminds us that what supposedly removes Che from human sympathy is exactly what makes Hollywood so compelling, so hard to look away from and so hard to see. “Character is destiny” is a very old saying, a folk wisdom beloved despite the increasingly evident contradiction: it seals the wellspring of what happens hermetically within the individual, even as it insists fatalistically that making our own history is out of our hands. But if one imagines Hollywood to be a single character, the fate of this image-making ma-chinery—what gets made, and when, and how it unreels—is evidently just as responsive to geopolitics, to the impress of objective conditions. Certainly they return deformed, misshapen, unsayable: this is not the charm of “bourgeois subjectivity,” but simply its form of self-defense.


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