Monday, January 12, 2009

Ch-ch-ch-ch-CHE Parts 1 and 2

When faced with the prospect of commenting upon CHE PARTS 1 and 2 (dir. Steven Soderbergh, Spain/France/USA, 2009, 257 mins. + 20 minute intermission) I am forced to choose between being "epic" or "glib". CHE will be playing in San Francisco in the "roadshow" version, which is both parts, one ticket, one 20 minute intermission. Just the time investment of a total 277 minutes (4 hours and 37 minutes) would deem a prerequisite of an epic, David Lean style, experience! Well, CHE PARTS 1 & 2 is not as much a grand epic, as literally, two slightly overlong films (Part 1 is 126 minutes and Part 2 is 131 minutes), slammed together for a REALLY LONG afternoon/evening. (I sort of lucked out in seeing a 10AM press screening, so I was out in time for dinner.) Steven Soderbergh has directed each part in distinctly different styles. Now, perhaps this is something to be critically examined as far as how those styles serve the purpose of the biography. However, it certainly lacks as a cohesive cinematic experience. The only connection between the two parts is Benecio Del Toro's exhaustive performance as Che Guevara, which is faithfully acted throughout in Spanish (with English subtitles). Del Toro leads an army of a cast, including everyone from Julia Ormand to Lou Diamond Phillips to Franka Potente! Oddly enough, as mammoth as the requirements for the role are, his performance is overshadowed by Steven Soderbergh's peculiar vision for this epic.

CHE PART 1 plays out in two concurrent storylines: Che's involvement with the two years of Cuban revolution, and his appearance in New York to address the United Nations on behalf of Cuba in 1964. It offers the challenge of following a non-linear narrative. As an artistic vision of the "legend" of Che Guevara, PART 1 is poetic and has an element of fantasia to it. There is almost an exhilaration even in Soderbergh's use of color and black-and-white cinematography. The speed of the cutting between some sections is nearly confusing to keep up with. However, it does express the meteorologic rise to power and legend that Guevara was able to achieve.

CHE PART 2, which is played out in straight narrative, picks up in 1966, as Guevara travels incognito into Bolivia in order to assist in overthrowing that government. It is ruthlessly, if not filthfully, realistic. (I don't think the cast was allowed a shower during the entire shoot!) PART 2 deliberately marches to its inevitable conclusion. The takes are longer, the pacing is slower and the cinematography is singularly consistent in style throughout, until the final shot which attempts to shockingly change perspective. PART 2 would suggest that there was a grim reality to Guevara that is not as celebrated as the myth; that his ideology of guerrilla revolution is not a universally accepted method of change. Soderbergh seems to reinforce the concept of "live by the sword, die by the sword" as events collapse around Guevara. It is not a pleasant experience, as it probably should not be.

The differences between the two parts are what will make-or-break the experience. As a whole, there is no cohesiveness, which was obviously purposeful. However, the severe length of the experience does not easily lend itself to such an extreme change in style and tone. Also, though I would be hard pressed to point to any excessive sequences that could be left on the cutting room floor, there seems to be a certain void by the end of the film. I can not point to a wasted sequence, but I can only think of a couple of scenes that stayed with me, which is not saying much for a four and a half hour epic. In other words, with the exception of a spectacularly staged train wreck, the project lacks that David Lean touch of a man surpassing his humanity. Where epic structure places man against man AND nature or god, Soderbergh's use of the society and jungle is no more than a setting, and his downfall appears even more futile as the forces against him are not so clearly characterized. It would seem that Guevara's greatest challenge was time itself, which is ironically, the audience's challenge with the film.

CHE: THE ROADSHOW opens at the Embarcadero on January 16th with special guest Steven Soderbergh. One ticket gets you a commemorative program book and admission to both parts. Director Steven Soderbergh will be on hand for opening night Q&As.

Maxxxxx says
re CHE PARTS 1 and 2: "Is it bedtime?"

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