Wednesday, October 15, 2008

GUERRILLA FILMMAKING ON A EPIC SCALE: Che comandante Steven Soderbergh talks strategy and tactics with Amy Taubin

(Film Comment is a magazine that I purchase and read regularly. I'm excited to see the entire cut of Soderbergh's two films and del Toro is perfect for this role--a plea to the powers that make these decisions, please bring the two films our way!)

GUERRILLA FILMMAKING ON A EPIC SCALE: Che comandante Steven Soderbergh talks strategy and tactics with Amy Taubin
Film Comment (Sept/Oct 2008)

Many movies take the form of a hall of mirrors, where narrative is reflected in the filmmaking process and vice versa. Few, however, accomplish this with the dedication, clarity, and brio of Steven Soderbergh’s fraternal twins, The Argentine and Guerrilla (bundled under the shorthand title, Che). In the press conference following Che’s Cannes premiere, Soderbergh remarked that what most fascinated him about the Latin American militant was his will. Although revolution, as Mao chided, “is not a dinner party, not an essay, nor a painting” and, despite the heady sentiments of ’68, not a film either, Soderbergh’s own will—to shape every aspect of this project from conception to release—is palpable in Che, the film that places him in the ranks of the masters.

At Cannes, where responses ranged from “a triumph” to “a disaster”—which coincidentally describes the respective trajectories of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Cuba as depicted in The Argentine and in Bolivia as depicted in Guerrilla—the only near consensus was that Che would never again be seen in the version that was shown at the festival, a version that many believed was a rough draft. “No doubt it will be back to the drawing board for Che,” brayed Variety, where prognostication about box-office performance colors every paragraph of critical evaluation. As far as this viewer was concerned, I was almost certain, however, that what was screened at Cannes was 98 percent finished. Bearing in mind that Kubrick famously went into projection booths and clipped bits out of his films even after they were in release, it was a given that Soderbergh would do some tinkering; digital postproduction makes the temptation irresistible. The more serious worry was that in the U.S., the full four-hour-plus version would prove as elusive as Vertigo after Hitchcock withdrew it from distribution.

Not so. The Argentine and Guerrilla will premiere in North America at the Toronto Film Festival and then play in the New York Film Festival, showing, as in Cannes, back to back with a short intermission. According to Soderbergh this “road-show” version will open for limited one-week engagements in some 20 cities at the end of the year—a year that marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and the 80th anniversary of Guevara’s birth. “I think, for hardcore people who have a day to throw away, it’s the fun way to see it because all the call and response is right there,” he says. The two films will then be split up. In the foreign territories where Che was pre-sold (the pre-sales covering $54 million of the $58 million budget) there are, to Soderbergh’s knowledge, no plans to show the two films together. Given that Che is already nearly paid for, the movie only needs to do enough business in the U.S. to cover the cost of prints and advertising. “The definition of what is financial success for us in this country may not be good enough for people who write about movies,” the director said with barely detectable irony, “but if this movie does $5 million and then sells a couple hundred thousand units on DVD, we’ll be very happy with those numbers.”

Writing about Soderbergh in Filmmaker in 2002, I argued that the structuring principle underlying his films is contradiction, not in the Marxist political sense but as an aesthetic according to which an object is defined by what it is not. Contradiction determines the shape not only of Soderbergh’s individual films but also the relationship of one to another. The sexy, extroverted Out of Sight (98) and the melancholy, introspective The Limey (99), for example, are more dazzling as a pop art couple than either is on its own. What Soderbergh terms “the call and response” relation between The Argentine and Guerrilla is intrinsic to their form and meaning. The Argentine depicts the 1956-58 campaign in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra and ends in glory with Che and Fidel en route to Havana. Guerrilla follows Che’s disastrous attempt to repeat the Cuban strategy in Bolivia in order to spearhead a revolution throughout Latin America. Largely based on two books written by Che, Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and Bolivian Diary, The Argentine and Guerrilla are action films, couched from the perspective of the man who was at the center of the action—who experienced the physical agony and the adrenaline rush of guerrilla warfare (heightened because he was asthmatic) and who, because he was a military strategist fighting for a political cause and ideology he articulated with great brilliance, also saw himself and his situation from the outside. The character of Che Guevara (embodied by Benicio Del Toro with intelligence and an unflagging conviction) gives rise to the push/pull experience of both films, the sense that one is both immersed and distanced.

“It was something i couldn’t say no to, which is different from saying yes,” Soderbergh remarks about Che. “I can’t sit here and say I wanted to do it. I only knew I had to do it.” Soderbergh, Del Toro, and producer Laura Bickford began talking about a Che movie when they were shooting Traffic in 1999. When Del Toro and Bickford discovered that Terrence Malick had been in Bolivia as a journalist in 1966 working on a story about Che, they asked him to write a script. Malick’s involvement with the material was intense, and Soderbergh thought he should direct it as well: “I said to him the list of people that I’d be willing to step aside for to see their version as opposed to mine is pretty short, but you’re at the top of it.”

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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