"IT'S OBVIOUSLY an attempt to explain the T-shirt." That's one of the ways Steven Soderbergh describes Che, his two-part, four-and-a-half-hour-long portrait of Che Guevara—a man who's become more famous as a T-shirt logo than as a revolutionary. But the director's quick to point out Che is hardly definitive. "It's still just a movie, which is another form of T-shirt," he adds. "But hopefully, there's somebody, after seeing the film, [who] might feel differently about that T-shirt—putting on that T-shirt might have a different meaning than it did before."
The bladder-stretching (but excellent!) Che will be screening at Cinema 21 this week, in a single program that contains both two-hour films, Part 1: The Argentine and Part 2: Guerilla, shown with an intermission and, on Friday and Saturday, followed by Q&As with Soderbergh. You should go: Soderbergh's direction and cinematography is, as always, impressive; Benicio Del Toro's performance as Guevara is fantastic; and the film is intense and affecting, especially considering it's about a man Soderbergh describes as "remote."
"There's two things that make him atypical in terms of movie protagonists," Soderbergh says of Guevara. "One is that he doesn't have an arc—he's a straight line, [so the film's] tension becomes whether he will bend due to external forces. And the other is that the movie is not about feelings. It's just not. It's about ideas. Those two things result, for some people, in a very polarizing experience—because he's not a normal character, and the approach that the film has taken is not a normal approach."
That's a good thing, by the way. "In the late '60s and early '70s, if you made a movie that divided people, it wasn't viewed as a bad thing," Soderbergh says. "That was viewed as something worth seeing, because it was generating these wildly divergent responses. When you think about Straw Dogs or Taxi Driver, people would come out of there, [and] some of them would say, 'That's a masterpiece!' and others would say, 'They should burn the negative!' And that used to be cool. Now we live in a culture in which if you get any bad reviews from anyone, then the film is considered flawed, or some sort of misfire—and that's not the way I look at art."
At 26, Soderbergh became a major force in independent film thanks to 1989's groundbreaking sex, lies, and videotape. Ever since, he's alternated arty, ambitious, and esoteric projects like Bubble, Kafka, Schizopolis, The Limey, and Solaris with critical and commercial hits like Traffic, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, and Ocean's Eleven. The independently financed Che definitely falls into the former category, with the shoot marked by two things: "We just didn't have enough time, and we didn't have enough money," Soderbergh says. "Everyone who went through this got scarred."
The resulting film, though, is stronger for it. "Despite all the difficulties of getting it done, when you make a movie independently, at least you get to make these kinds of choices, and nobody's bugging you," Soderbergh says.
"The good news about me not knowing a lot about Che—not being a Latino, not really growing up in an environment that was directly affected by his actions—I could be pretty clinical about him," he says. "I didn't really have an investment in making him look one way or another." Still, understanding Che's beliefs was important. "I have to understand them. Whether or not I line up with them is irrelevant."
"If you understood the circumstances in which he was raised and his early experiences, it's not surprising that he ended up where he ended up," Soderbergh continues. "But what's unusual about him is his sustained commitment. A lot of people get outraged by things, but they don't stay outraged, every day, for 15 years. This is a guy from an upper-middle class background, who is well educated, who is on the path to become a doctor, [who] goes on a series of trips when he's young and becomes radicalized. And [he] sort of sustains this idea for the rest of his life—gets up every morning and says, 'I'm going to do this, and nothing else.' That's unusual. I mean, that's the way I feel about my work—but it's a little different when you're talking about picking up a gun and going into the jungle."
Steven Soderbergh will be appearing at Cinema 21 (616 NW 21st) for the 7 pm screening of Che on Friday, March 13 and for the 1:30 and 7 pm screenings on Saturday, March 14.