“Revolution is, in many people’s minds, more about ideals, wild hopes, romance; too many facts, and the world looks impossible to change. Che Guevara was literally the embodiment of the romantic notion that unyielding dedication and unceasing struggle could achieve the liberation of all the world’s oppressed, and this is such an attractive idea that one may prefer not to dwell on his humorlessness, his rigidity, his icy ruthlessness.” When the Revolution Comes and Goes, Terrence Rafferty, New York Times

I responded to Rafferty’s review on these pages a few weeks back, reflecting upon some of his oversights in relation to Cuban cinema. This time, after seeing the film(s), I’d like to address some of his thoughts about Che itself, and the ongoing problems and project of representing revolution.

While the five or more long hours of viewing Soderbergh’s expensive exercise in showing struggle are certainly challenging, exhausting, and curiously numbing it is Soderbergh’s rigid, and almost dogmatic resistance to engaging in the typical forefronting of “ideals, wild hopes, [and] romance” in his depiction of revolution(s), as well as his and (Benicio Del Toro’s) stubborn refusal to see Che Guevara as “the embodiment of the romantic notion that unyielding dedication and unceasing struggle could achieve the liberation of all the world’s oppressed,” that is the films’ most revolutionary gesture. Here he takes the revolutionary road rarely travelled in (dominant) cinema. For, Soderbergh rigorously rids these revolutions and their icons of heroism, romance, melodrama, and even ideals. He painstakingly shows the successful and failed revolutions of Cuba and Bolivia, respectively, through a paralleled structure for both films that formulaically alternates between the boring, tiring nitty-gritty labor of mounting guerilla warfare (constructing lodging, hiking from camp to camp, preparing food, chatting with your interchangeable mates, bunking on hard ground) and the decidedly deflated spats of warfare, where death and pain often result from its fragmented chaos. Che‘s the Jeanne Dielman of revolution films: a laboring look into the mundane tedium and drudgery of armed resistance, its hard and thankless work, its uncinematic sweep .

Not sexy in the least, both Che (hacking away with asthma, indistinguishable from all the other ragged, hairy men in his band except for in his high regard for decency and good behaviour) and his revolutions(s) are depicted by Soderbergh as the inevitable consequences of world history writ small. We are not permitted to understand why Che leaves his cushy life to join the revolution, this being “justified” in the film by Castro’s speedy reading of a laundry list of statistics (facts) over a plate of spaghetti at a dinner party. In the second film, Che once repeats the boring rote list (as drab as his is daily revolutionary routine, as for Jeanne Dielman, it takes time to husk corn), but his more common and notably unrousing lectures to his troops (and recruits) usually focus on a more benign (if admirable and less romantic) vision of a world of universal reading, writing, and healthcare. Held against the tedium of the work needed to get there, Soderbergh focuses upon the many recruits who revolt against the revolution, and the as many who choose not to join at all. As the Bolivian film suggests, ideals that enable one revolution fall short merely a few years later. Why: people are just as hungry and illiterate in both situations? The two films serve as counter-weights, doppleganger reflections of and on revolutionary success and failure that actually hinge on stronger/bigger (less romantic/less sexy) forces that Soderbergh leaves beyond the frame (the political-economic “facts” of nations). What’s left is his use of cinema to deny cinema’s typical reliance upon (and power at) the rousing representations of the heroic passions of one man, or even his merry men. These often do a film but not an actual revolution make.

To the Editors, New York Times,

I am currently teaching a course, Media Praxis, on the histories and theories of revolutionary cinema. While I greatly appreciate Terrence Rafferty’s Sunday, December 7 review of one such film, Che (Stephen Soderbergh, 2008), I hope to add two items of correction to his otherwise adept effort at historically situating this particular film into one of cinema’s seminal genres. Most notably, Cuban cinema of the past 50 years is not understood in the field as producing a “dreary Stalinist aesthetic” (while such films are certainly produced there). Rather it is known for its frequently celebrated (in international festivals) body of aesthetically complex narrative and documenary cinema, film school, ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos), and festival (International Festival of the New Latin-American Cinema) which model possibilities for film style, production, education, and distribution outside the imperatives of capital. Even dominant Hollywood cinema has learned much from cinematic experimentation which can occus when profit is not the bottom line. Two of my favorite Cuban films, Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomas Alea, 1968) and the lesser known One Way or Another (Sara Gomez, 1977), engage revolutionary cinema tactics (including the evocative and elegant mixing of documentary and scripted materials) to accomplish precisely that hardest of projects, one that Rafferty claims falls outside this tradition: representing the mundane and contradictory work of living after the fighting, bloodshed, and romantic manifestoes have quieted. In fact, both directors mobliize “fiercely exciting cinema” style because it is precisely such sophisticated narrative, editing, and shooting techniques that help viewers comprehend the complicated differences between post-revolutionary rhetoric and lived reality, propaganda and human practices. Secondly, while battle scenes are certainly the stuff of good cinema, many of the great films of this tradition document and contribute to this century’s non-violent revolutions, including many of America’s civil rights movements (feminism, civil rights, gay rights). In this vein, I need point only to Gus Van Sant’s recently released Milk to demonstrate how politically committed directors strive to express the ambiguous daily realities of governing after the “wild hopes” of protest have waned, and how necessary mediamaking is to the ongoing project of educating, inspiring, and historicizing revolution (or activism) in its many stages.