Wednesday, January 27, 2010

#358: Pandora's Box

(G.W. Pabst, 1929)

Pandora's Box is most famous for making its lead, Louise Brooks, an international star in the final days of silent films. The plot, about a woman who is sexually promiscuous and forces an editor to marry him before accidentally shooting him in a struggle, could easily be made today, but is not particularly interesting. So I wasn't looking forward to the movie, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised. I wouldn't go so far as to call the film a classic, but it's a strong film with some really interesting filmmaking and a decidedly modern look at sexuality, complete with pimps, lesbians, and Jack the Ripper.

The best scene in the film is the scene of Lulu shooting her husband. In the lead up, there are two great shots: one of the husband appearing in a mirror behind her, and another of just the hand of her husband giving her the gun, with Lulu front and center in the shot. Both are reminiscent of the best German expressionism

One interesting thing in the essay for the film is how easily silent movies can be cut to mean other things:
In France, Pandora’s Box was reedited so that Alwa was Schön’s secretary and the countess became Lulu’s childhood friend. Lulu was found innocent and Jack the Ripper vanished altogether. Before the movie was shown in New York, its ending was improved to have Lulu join the Salvation Army. Small wonder that the New York Times deemed it “a disconnected melodrama.”
 Pretty weird.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

#308: Masculin Féminin

(Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

Masculin Féminin is the first Godard movie I've seen that didn't anger me or intrigue me or exhilarate me. It bored me. This realization came about 30 minutes into the film, which meant I spent a little over an hour thinking about why. The conclusion I came to was that, more than any other movie by the filmmaker, Masculin Féminin is about its own time, and little else.

This became even more clear upon reading the (admittedly strong) essay that accompanies the film. The essay spends a large portion of its length trying to explain why the film is universal. While it's well-argued, I'm ultimately not convinced. Part of Godard's inherent appeal - in films from Breathless and A Woman is a Woman to Our Music and In Praise of Love - is that his films are almost fatally contemporary. Sometimes (like in the cases I just mentioned) this is a plus. In this case, the movie feels archaic, a product of its time that speaks to the people of its time, rather than about them or about a more universal truth.

Maybe if I had seen this film in 1966 I would have loved it. I'd be interested to hear from people who are my age who feel differently, but I suspect there are not many of them.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

#237: Smiles of a Summer Night

(Ingmar Bergman, 1955)

I'm starting to wonder if early Bergman does it for me at all. Although he made my favorite movie of his, Wild Strawberries, two years later, nearly every other movie of Bergman's I've seen
pre-1960 has been underwhelming. This is no different, as it is a sex comedy that isn't particularly funny and fairly predictable.

I would imagine Woody Allen (who ripped off quite a few ideas from Bergman) got the idea for A Midsummer's Sex Comedy from this film. That movie is arguably his worst film pre-2000. This film is much better than that, but not by so much that I won't forget about this one pretty quickly.

#2: Seven Samurai

(Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Seven Samurai is another Kurosawa classic, and most likely his most famous movie. I had seen it years ago, but had only remembered two things about it: it was long, and the last shot was of samurai graves, with dust blowing in the wind (late spoiler alert!). In fact, I had remembered it being in letterbox, but it turns out to be in good old 1.33:1. It's just the movie that is expansive, not the ratio.

I prefer a few other Kurosawa movies, but it is hard to argue with just how effective this film is, and how epic the story is. The entire second half consists of the battle to save the village, and it's all spectacular. Mifune, too, is excellent in the film, giving one of his best - and most atypical - performances as the peasant-turned-samurai triangle on the flag.

I'd love to see this one on the big screen, I can't even imagine what it would have been like to see it upon first release.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

#445: The Earrings of Madame de...

(Max Ophuls, 1953)

I just wrote a big piece on this movie and then the site didn't work and now it's gone forever.

I'll just say this movie was awesome and move on before I lose my mind.

Best movie so far.

Friday, January 22, 2010

#4: Amarcord

(Federico Fellini, 1974)

Only after a viewing of this film do I finally realize that Fellini's movies are never really about anything. It's hard to describe what La Strada, La Dolce Vida, or even 8 1/2 is about without resorting to descriptions of the characters. So fine, Fellini makes movies about people, not events or conflicts. There are no conflicts in Amarcord at all, unless you count the desire to get laid, or find love, or live life well a conflict. Perhaps underneath this film there is that undercurrent of Fascism slowly creeping through Italian tradition, set to destroy the continent. But like Italy now, the movie mostly pushes that under the rug, treating it as something foisted upon the small town of the film that represents all of small town Italy, rather than something natural to it. (It's interesting, then, that the original essay for Criterion defined the film almost exclusively in terms of how it related to the fascism of the time.)

Perhaps Amarcord is a tad too sentimental, and I could see the case being made that the anecdotal structure is not strong enough to sustain the film, even allowing for its fundamental nostalgic - and therefore easily forgiven - tendencies. But I did enjoy the film, and I did find it charming and funny. Would I rather watch the three films mentioned above? Certainly. But it's interesting to view this back to back with Army of Shadows, as here are two immensely different films that are perhaps the most personal works of a master's career. They are two films that define what each director's films are truly about at their cores. The fact that I happen to prefer Melville to Fellini is perhaps one reason why I find Melville's film revelatory, while Amarcord seems merely slight and charming, like the town it depicts.

One more thing about this movie: I've lived in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, and Boston, so I don't really know what the experience of living in a small town is like. I live a mostly anonymous life, so the scene that struck me most in this film was the evening scene where everyone is out and about and you can tell that everyone knows who everyone else is. It's the kind of experience that is impossible to replicate in a big city. I would be interested to know from someone who has lived in a small city in the US how much this film reminds them of their own experience, or if the movie is stuck to its time and/or place.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

#385: Army of Shadows

(Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)

Jean-Pierre Melville (who did indeed take his name from the American author) has been often overlooked among French directors of the 50s and 60s. Because he was not associated with the New Wave - and was in fact criticized by their Cahiers du Cinema for this very film - his films have only recently been rediscovered and reconsidered. Le Samurai is his most well-known film, and it is an inarguable masterpiece that transcends its gangster genre without looking down on it.

This film was only released in America in 2006, 37 years after it was made, thanks to the negative reaction it received from French critics. That turns out to be quite the travesty, as this is clearly another great film.

The film depicts the French resistance in a way that is both surreal and hyper-realistic to the point of being a procedural. Yet its core is a sense of fatalism and crushing sadness. I spent the two and a half hours watching this movie tense in ways normally reserved for thrillers, in awe of the beautiful color palette and preciseness of the direction, but mostly and persistently nagged by the question of whether or not I could do it. If the Nazis came to take over your country, what would you do?

Army of Shadows makes clear that there is no easy answer, that the cowardly thing means accepting your own inability to thrive, but the honorable thing means living with your own guilt at taking the steps necessary to survive. In one scene, terrifyingly realistic in its banality, three of the Resistance members argue over how to murder a traitor that is standing right in front of them, watching as they debate the safest way to snub out his life. The murder is committed in a simple and efficient manner. It is survival in this world, yet there is always a sense that these extraordinary circumstances do not forgive ordinary sins.

Perhaps the most polarizing scene in the film is an escape from a tunnel midway through. The reaction to this scene will most likely depend on how believable you need the movie to be. Is this a metaphorical look at what these fighters went through, not just battling the Germans, but battling their own sense of self? Or did these things really happen like Melville says they did? The main character is told to run towards the end of a tunnel with a group of prisoners, and if he reaches the wall first before the Germans had shot him with a machine gun, he would live to do the same thing the next day. He tells a comrade later he might not have run, and would have just stood there. Because of the other men, she asks? No, he says. Because he couldn't help but think about how sure the guard was that he would run, like a frightened rabbit.

Therein lies the question of Army of Shadows, a rare tragedy about heroism.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

#205: Veronika Voss

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)

I put this one off for a while on my Netflix queue, but it turned out to be quite good. I've only seen a few Fassbinder films, The Marriage of Maria Braun, which I found well-made but a little pretentious (especially the over-the-top ending) and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which nods to Douglas Sirk in much the same way Todd Haynes did with All That Heaven Allows (though not quite as blatantly). I have a few more Fassbinder films left, including the mammoth task that will be Berlin Alexanderplatz, so I was glad to enjoy this one as much as I did.

The movie is a kind of noir, following a washed-up film star and a journalist trying to get to the bottom of her morphine addiction while dealing with his own complicated feelings about her. The movie is set in post-war Germany, and holy shit does this movie feel like it was made in post-war Germany. Everything from the style of the film to its editing - complete with probably every kind of wipe available - would lead you to believe this film was set in its contemporary time, not made thirty years later in 1982.

The plot reminded me of Sunset Boulevard a bit, while the ending had a kind of "Forget about it, Jake, it's Chinatown" vibe to it. But the filmmaking itself is the real star here, and man is this movie beautiful. The lights during the film-set scenes pierce through the screen, while the interplay of dark and light in the cinematography makes for grand melodrama. Fassbinder is clearly a talented filmmaker, so it's easy to watch the movie even when the plot sags a little in the middle of the film.

This movie is actually the third film in the BRD trilogy, which are loosely connected films Fassbinder made about West Germany after the war. The Marriage of Maria Braun is the first, so now I only have to see Lola, which is based on The Blue Angel.

Monday, January 18, 2010

#513: Summer Hours

(Olivier Assayas, 2008)

I had been meaning to watch this movie on Netflix because I heard it was good from a couple of critics, but it had been languishing in my queue during this project until - what do you know? - Criterion announced that they would be releasing it this April. So I no longer had any reason to put it off. Thank you, Criterion, for giving me a reason to watch this sad, beautiful movie about family and France.

The basic premise of the movie is that a woman dies and her children have to decide what to do with her summer house and all of the collectibles inside of it. See, her uncle was a moderately successful painter, so he had famous friends who had given him things and he had lots of stuff of his own as well, like notebooks and the like. The problem is that two of her three children don't even live in France any more: one son now works for a company that makes Puma sneakers in China and her daughter lives in New York where she designs dinnerware for Japan and is engaged to a man from Denver who doesn't speak French. Get the idea?

Yes, there have been movies about globalization before. And yes, there have been movies about the death of France before. But rarely have these points been so effortlessly woven into a deeply moving portrait of a family dealing with the passage of time, the interpersonal dynamics that make up close relationships, and the complex emotions that go along with generations passing their knowledge and belongings on to the next in line.

One funny thing is that Assayas has made a few other movies I've seen, and I never really liked any of them. I hated Irma Vep, for example, and his short from Paris Je T'aime is just okay. The last movie he made before this one, Boarding Gate, is a total mess of a movie, and he wrote and directed both of these movies. It really shows you how touchy that sort of thing can be.

#219: La Strada

(Federico Fellini, 1954)

La Strada is a movie in love with movies, and virtually everything about it seems to have been created with that in mind. It would be hard to envision this movie being made in quite the same way if Charlie Chaplin had never existed, as Giuletta Masina clearly references the tramp with her character here.

In general, actually, this movie constantly reminded me of silent films in both the characterizations and the simple story that is told. In fact, the story is so simple it is rarely explained in descriptions of the movie. The bare emotions, too, remind me of those films, and the ending of this movie is truly moving. While I would take 8 1/2 any day of the week, it's hard to deny the simple appeal of this film. Still, how was this movie as huge as it was? 1954 was obviously a different time, as a story like this would never find success today.

Friday, January 15, 2010

#493: Gomorrah

(Matteo Garrone, 2008)

This is a tough one, because it challenges the conventional notion of what is a successful narrative. In books, there are often multiple storylines that run parallel to each other, never intersecting but instead forming an overall picture of the story's themes and major players. This is much less frequent in film, where multiple stories inevitably have some sort of connection, be it some major event (the earthquake in Short Cuts, the frogs in Magnolia) or some tenuous relationship connection (everything in Love, Actually). Often those connections are saved for the "big reveal" at the end.

Gomorrah takes the book route, however, which makes sense considering that it is an adaptation of a book, an international sensation that mixed fiction and non-fiction to depict the Comorra crime syndicate (the author of the book is still hidden from sight due to obvious death threats). The big question is whether or not the work it takes to get into the story here is worth the anti-payoff ending, where all the narratives finish their arcs in convincing fashion, but none of them come together in any meaningful way.

And it does take a lot of work to get into Gomorrah. With a huge cast, multiple storylines, and narratives that jump in midway through (much like The Wire), it's going to be at least 30 minutes before you have a grasp on the stories. Once you do, however, the film is incredibly moving and exciting. Still, without that payoff, it feels somewhat empty, a Great movie that never happened. Gomorrah is absolutely worth watching, but only if you are willing to be frustrated a little bit by your expectations.

How about that cover too? Awesome.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

#321: The Virgin Spring

(Ingmar Bergman, 1960)

Jeez, Bergman, why do you have to be so obscure with your references to religion and the questioning of God? (Irony!)

I've been reading the Bible. I never read it before, and I kind of feel like it's a good idea to read it all the way through, seeing as how so much of society and art is based on it. I only started in the last few days, so I just finished Genesis, and The Virgin Spring would fit right in. The story is so simple the movie could have easily been ten minutes: a young girl is raped and murdered, and her killers show up at the house of her family, which proceeds to take their revenge.

Obviously this movie is better made than, say, Saw. But is the plot so different? Because it's about God instead of carpe diem I'm supposed to think it's art not trash? I generally think it's bullshit that there seems to be a double standard when it comes to sex and violence, and in fact, Wes Craven cites The Virgin Spring as a major influence on The Hills Have Eyes, his deeply disturbing look at the average person's capacity for violence. Does the fact that Bergman uses God as a theme and takes his story from an old folk tale make his movie more interesting or relevant than Craven's? I think not.

At the end of the day, The Virgin Spring is just too simple to make any kind of impact. The scene in which the woman is murdered is obviously disturbing, and Bergman is a great enough director to make the scene in which her father enacts his revenge equally intense and disturbing without much difficulty. But I don't think this film can hold a candle to the truly great Bergman films, and it comes off more as an exercise than a masterpiece.

#454: Europa

(Lars Von Trier, 1991)

I hate Lars Von Trier, but I occasionally love his films. Not so, Europa, which is the first film I haven't made it all the way through. Colossally dull and classically (for Trier) pretentious, the film begins with Max Von Sydow failing to hypnotize me and proceeds to come up with some satisfying visuals but little else.

Trier once said only God can judge his films, so I don't think he'll mind if I let him know he isn't as great as he thinks he is. Kind of disappointed to see him in Criterion when the Coens (whose brilliant Barton Fink beat out this film for the Palme D'Or at Cannes, which prompted Trier to flick off the judges and storm out) are still absent, but oh well.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

#330: Au Revoir Les Enfants

(Louis Malle, 1987)

This is most likely the best film I've watched so far during this project. Au Revoir Les Enfants is a deeply moving depiction of a friendship, moments of regret and helplessness, and the tipping point when the real world comes crashing down into a childhood and turns boys into men before they are ready.

This movie also made me eager to watch other Malle films (I love Elevator to the Gallows and - that's right - My Dinner with Andre), including his documentaries released under the Eclipse banner.

I would probably have more to say about this one at a different time, maybe I'll come back to it. But right now, I just want to let it wash over me. The fact that it was loosely based on Malle's own childhood obviously makes it more intense, but it also makes the details and the tone of the film very real, and very moving. This isn't a movie that has been totally digested at the end of its running time. All in all, one of the best movies of the 80s, and maybe the best movie I have ever seen that is (loosely) related to the Holocaust.

#22: Summertime

(David Lean, 1955)

While it isn't quite the soaring romance of Lean's Brief Encounter, the love affair Katherine Hepburn spends her Venice vacation experiencing in Summertime is a respectable and beautifully shot rendition of the age-old story of the stodgy American and the sexually comfortable European (French? No, this time Italian).

Apart from the obvious appeal of seeing Venice in the 1950s from the POV of a wide-eyed newcomer, Summertime also boasts a great performance from Hepburn, the above-mentioned cinematography, and a plot that genuine got to me by the final climactic scene of Hepburn pulling out of the station, her lover running after her.

It does seem strange that this was so early in the collection, considering that while the film is a solid well-made one, it's certainly not on par with many of the heights in Lean's career, even others on Criterion. But sometimes it all comes down to what they get the rights to earlier, which was probably the case with this one.

I also just read that this was David Lean's favorite of the films he made. Which is, needless to say, fucking insane.

Friday, January 8, 2010

#226: Onibaba

(Kaneto Shindo, 1964)

When I would make a beeline for the Criterion section at a DVD rental or retail store, Onibaba always had one of the more striking covers. What's going on there? It had echoes of Kabuki, but a more sinister feel. When I saw Kwaidan a few years ago - which I loved - Onibaba came up in a few threads about the film, but I never made the plunge until today. The visuals can't hold a candle to that film, but then again this is a very different kind of movie, a gritty tale of demons and murder and boobs. The ending is so abrupt and oddly terrifying that I was tempted to redeem the whole film, which had been good, but not great. Upon reflection, it didn't save a movie that had brief moments of brilliance, but seems merely adequate among giants.

#116: Hidden Fortress

(Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

Why won't anyone listen to Toshiro Mifune? Just like in the later film Sanjuro, Mifune has to deal with shitty guys that don't listen to him and fuck up his shit for two hours. If I met Toshiro Mifune and he was like, "Yo, I think we should go this way, and don't say anything," I would go that way and shut the fuck up.

The Hidden Fortress is Star Wars from the perspective of RJD2 and C3PO if instead of being robots they were dicks. It's also Star Wars if Star Wars was way more awesome and had less merchandising. While I still prefer three or four other Kurosawa movies, this is a fine action-adventure film that includes one of the most awesome Mifune scenes I've seen. The star rides after a couple of bad guy on horseback, sword drawn, and takes them down. Then he gets off the horse, surrounded by bad guys, and challenges another samurai to a duel. They have an awesome fight (with spears!) and Mifune wins (duh). This guy is fucking awesome. Listen to him.

#324: La Bête Humaine

(Jean Renoir, 1938)

Despite its very contemporary roots as a realist melodrama and the fact that it was based on a novel by Emile Zola nearly a century before, Le Bête Humaine is primarily interesting to me because it looks forward to the noir of the future. The lead actress is the classic femme fatale, leaving the viewer unsure of just where her allegiance lies, pushing the protagonist towards self-destruction or murder, whichever comes first, and often both.

This was quite the surprise for 30s Renoir. After having seen Bodu Saved From Drowning, The Grand Illusion, and my favorite, the masterpiece The Rules of the Game, I assumed the film would follow similar themes of class and human nature. There is a bit of that here, but more than that there is a sense of the struggle of life.

The things I enjoyed in the film had less to do with the overall plot - which hinged upon a ridiculous notion that the protagonist had uncontrollable homicidal tendencies due to the alcoholism of his ancestors - and more to do with brief moments that were noir all the way. The best is undoubtedly the moment when Lantier goes to kill his lover's husband with a crowbar, shielded by shadows and trains, and he is unable to do it. The style and technique here would be repeated time and time again for the next fifty years. While this is by no means a classic film, it is these moments which continue to enhance Renoir's career in my eyes, as it quickly becomes apparent just why he is so well regarded.

#423: Walker

(Alex Cox, 1987)

Ostensibly a biography of a man who ruled Nicaragua for a few years in the 19th Century, Walker is in reality an anachronistic highly political message film. I think I loved it.

Ed Harris plays the title character as a droll, fun-hating puritan, a man as confident in his beliefs as he is willing to abandon them when it suits him. Here, he is a stand-in for America. The film was shot in Nicaragua during the contra war with the blessing of the Sandinista government, and the obvious parallels between the two moments in time become literal when [click through for spoilers]

Thursday, January 7, 2010

#403: Cría Cuervos...

(Carlos Saura, 1976)

Cría Cuervos shares a lot with The Spirit of the Beehive. That both films star the same actress at the middle is the obvious connection. But both movies were also made during the final years of Franco's regime in Spain, and both films were subtle critiques of the dictator's era (though The Spirit of the Beehive's critique is more apparent). And of course, both films deal with childhood, particularly the darker side of growing up.

The other similarity is that I didn't particularly care for either film, though I thought they were both well-made. The Spriti of the Beehive is undoubtedly the better film, brilliantly photographed and artfully paced. But Cría Cuervos's message rang truer to me, even if it didn't have any kind of real impact. Both are strong movies, but neither one worked for me. Why that is maybe I'll explore on another day.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

#3: The Lady Vanishes

(Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)

After reappraisal, this is my favorite British Hitchcock film. While The 39 Steps has a great clip to it, the combination of laughs, excitement, and real political intrigue at play here is undeniable. I believe I had always had trouble with the opening sequence at the inn during previous viewings. It felt too long, drawing out the movie's moments before the lady vanishes, as they say. But this time, those character steps made so much more sense to me (and class once again defines a British movie).

A large number of people far more knowledgeable about film (including Truffaut and Hitchcock scholar Robin Wood, who said it is the reason he became a film critic) have said it's so perfect that it is difficult to write about or analyze. I'll have to defer to them and leave it at this: If Hitchcock had never come to Hollywood and stopped making movies after the beginning of World War II, he would not be as famous (and my favorite movie ever, Vertigo, would have never been made). But he might be held in even higher esteem within film circles on the strength of The Man Who Knew Too Much, 39 Steps, and most importantly, The Lady Vanishes.

#246: I Vitelloni

(Federico Fellini, 1953)

This is relatively early Fellini, before his famous classics La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, and Nights of Cabiria. The film is about a group of friends who hang around their small town doing nothing, barely scraping by on the support of their parents. The name literally means "large young calves," and that basically sums it up.

The movie in particular reminded me of the difficulties Italy still faces as a country which has seen its best days come and go. There may still be a moment for Italy to once again find a thriving economy, but its localized regions and difficult to navigate villages are the opposite of ideal in a globalized world. While the movie made me think of some people I know, and would certainly be notable throughout most of this country at the moment, I would imagine that I Vitelloni still has a significant impact on the Italian psyche to this day.

8/10 Update: The more I think about this movie, the more I like it, and it's one of the movies I've watched during this project that's been most difficult to get out of my head. I think it's because I never really had a similar experience to these men in the sense that I was never stuck in a small town trying to make a life for myself (similar, I guess, to a movie like Breaking Away), and yet despite that I am still moved by the more general feelings of moving into maturity that this film depicts. The movie is a beautiful and subtle look at these feelings, and I think it works far more than I initially gave it credit for. As Fellini's third film, it represents a different approach from the filmmaker, yet a very personal take on a specific point in a man's life. It's a great film.

Monday, January 4, 2010

#131: Closely Watched Trains

(Jiri Menzel, 1966)

Closely Watched Trains is one of the most well-known Czechoslovakian films (of which there will be no more), and it's easy to see why. While this is not necessarily a five-star classic, it's a highly entertaining, immediately engaging film about becoming a grown-up. The stories about the protagonist's ancestors in the opening are very funny and charming, while the end of the film takes a dramatic turn which I had not expected, but found strangely satisfying.

One thing that should be mentioned is how sparse and simple the direction is. The editing is loose to the point of being leisurely, and the shot selection reminded me of the silent film era, when cameras had serious physical limitations. Still, elementary as it might seem (particularly when compared to the highly modern and reflective films being made in France at the same time), the film is extremely effective, especially in the expertly constructed suicide attempt sequence.

A very enjoyable film.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

#178: My Life as a Dog

(Lasse Hallström, 1985)

I had put off watching this movie for a really long time for two reasons, both of which turn out to be unfounded. The first is that I really hate Lasse Hallström, because he makes sappy, sentimental bullshit like Cider House Rules and Chocolat that is less about pleasing audiences and more about winning Oscars for the Weinsteins. Naturally, I figured this movie would have similar ambitions (more on that in a minute). The second reason is that I had heard the movie was super depressing, and for some reason I associated the movie with child abuse. Neither one of these things turned out to be accurate, which I was happy about.

As for the possibility of sappiness, it's definitely here, and at any moment the film could have descended into that territory. But Hallström's broad, manipulative strokes are not yet developed here. Instead, My Life as a Dog is a subtle depiction of a child's attempt to deal with loss and change, closer to the brilliant Ratcatcher than the empty Cider House Rules. I wonder had Hallström not made such a well-balanced and confident film before coming to Hollywood if he would have been as confident in his ability to produce worthy films with the material he has worked on since. Instead of the thoughtful work produced here (with the last screenplay Hallström wrote himself), the past quarter century has been composed of pabulum for the upscale masses, making him the Paul WS Anderson of the Oscars (only, well, I kind of like Paul WS Anderson). It's sad to see such a small personal, touching film as the starting point for such a career.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

#496: Che

(Steven Soderbergh, 2008)

Tragically underexposed upon release, Che is a brilliant and impeccably produced portrait of the legend of a revolutionary. Criterion has done us all a great service by helping to bring an near-masterpiece by one of the most challenging and exciting American filmmakers.

I was a bit surprised by the scope of the film. The first two hours are entirely about Che's experiences in the Cuban revolution. The majority of the film takes place during the campaign to take Havana, which took three or four years, while this is framed by an interview with a journalist afterwards and Che's visit to the United Nations in 1964. The second two hours fast forward to Che's campaign in Bolivia, after he has left Cuba and gone briefly to the Congo. The revolution would fail, and Che was captured and executed about a year after arriving there.

The first part is exhilarating, a quietly confident and loyal telling of the taking of Cuba, and some of the best filmmaking of the decade. The second half is still excellent, though it loses some of its impact (and narrative complexity). The process by which the movement falls apart is interesting, though it's better told in books, like the excellent A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson (who is going to have a commentary on the film's DVD release, I watched this on Netflix). What carries you through the second half, though, and prevents it from being an exercise in reenacting history, is Benicio Del Toro's performance, which is infused with life and rejects any easy categorization of Che. Surely he deserved an Oscar for this performance, but even fifty years later the controversy that surrounds Che prevents legitimate civil discourse (and OK, most people don't want to sit through a four hour movie).

What makes the film especially great was the decision to focus entirely on Che's mythmaking time, his moments as the revolutionary as seen on the t-shirt. By sticking so well to the actual history of the battles, the film can quite easily be anything you want it to be - a rejection or confirmation of those myths.

I might mention that I've never been a huge Che fan myself (for mid-century Communists, I like Ho Chi Minh), and watching the film what kept coming up again and again for me was the image of the average Jihadist. Che, too, came from a wealthy background (he studied to be a doctor), and got caught up in his region's dominant radical ideology, one that stood in defiance to the US, which had spent decades illegally meddling in the affairs of sovereign nations. Besides an undeniable belief in social justice, what separates Che from the bomber that tried to blow up a plane on Christmas day is a refusal to murder innocents. But certainly they both seem less like true revolutionaries and more like adolescents playing dress up, going off to fight someone else's war in order to give their life a purpose.

On the other hand, Che believed in something, and that something wasn't killing innocent people or marginalizing women or converting infidels. It was helping people who were less fortunate than him, giving his life for Latin America and its people, whom he viewed as his people. He helped bring down a puppet dictator that was slowly destroying his people (though put in place a nearly equally flawed leader). He spent the rest of his short life going to places he saw injustice and trying to help people train and learn to become freedom fighters. In a grey world without right and wrong, Che might seem like just another radical preaching instability and suffering, but if you believe that there is a difference between helping people and hurting people, and that difference is worth killing and dying over, then it doesn't seem so ridiculous to view Che as the hero he still is in many parts of the world.

Personally, I think there's a middle ground here, and it's rooted in history. Che wasn't all good or all bad, but instead a product of his time, when Communism and armed uprising seemed the best alternative to the status quo, which was undoubtedly the dominance of the US and their interest in his homeland. With these alternatives, Che seems like a clear-viewed idealist who refused to compromise, a powerful figure in a region starved for successful leadership, and far too often is forced to settle for flawed, immortal martyrs.