Friday, May 7, 2010

When a picture doesn't tell a story

Is it possible that Steven Soderbergh's decision to become his own cinematographer about 11 or 12 years ago has brought down his skill as a director and a story teller? I think Che (2008) offers evidence of that.

When you speak of the film "Che" you need to clarify which of three products you're speaking of. In Europe, the film was shown in two distinct parts, Che: The Argentinian and Che: Bolivia. In the US, where the release was very limited, it was shown in Soderbergh's preferred format, a single 4-1/2 hour exhibition with an intermission. This demonstrates why some directors should not meddle with exhibition or distribution. Specifically, the film was reviewed much more critically in the US than abroad, and I believe largely because of the butt-numbing experience Soderbergh put the press through. (The review in the Maltin guide more or less admits this.)

As biography, Che gets an important principle right: decide what your story is and focus on that to the exclusion of all else. But that is only true as far as the design of the film goes, not in its execution. Biopics, when they fail, usually fail from research poisoning. The people preparing the story and script get so excited by the wealth of incident one finds in most public lives and so desirous of putting as much as possible in, both to make the film truly representative of the subject's life and to reap the benefit of all that research.

But life is not drama, and an entire life is usually a complicated, meandering thing without a clear narrative line. Narrative is artifice, so in biography, just as in any story, you must decide the spine of your story, and then dip into your source material to construct the story from the raw materials of a person's life. It must by necessity simplify, and therefore distort. If you are afraid of distortion or misstatement, you have no business even embarking on a biographical film.

The story concept behind Che is very sound--to take two central, defining episodes of Che's life and set them side by side. Triumph in Cuba, fatal catastrophe in Bolivia--and that catastrophe brought about by both the nature of the revolutionary to continue seeking more revolutions, rather than administer a government, and by following a plan devised for another place and another circumstance. It is Butch Cassidy wanting to do it all over again (appropriately, also in Bolivia), it is any conqueror who seeks that one more conquest which undoes him.

And the first film sets off on this course very well. The documentary style works well, especially the juxtaposition of imitation newsreel photography of 1965, when Che is addressing the General Assembly and visiting New York with the "real" color images of the revolution. Other than the simulated interview, we do not get to know Che well-- he is almost never seen in close-up, or indeed without other people in the shot. The cinemascope frame rarely gets near anyone, and so does a good job of depicting an entire society undergoing change. Although Che's accomplishments seem heroic, he does not appear to be glorified--we only know him through his effect on others.

But the first film introduces the poison that will kill the second film. The filmmakers are so anxious to create an "objective" point of view, that they are not willing to explain anything. A sample scene might sound like this (I do not want to insult anyone with made-up Spanish names, so I will just use random made-up names). "Did you talk to Flebus?" "Flebus will not make a deal unless we have confirmed the support of the DQV." "Then we will have to go to Schenley." "But Schenley is bordered by the Rio Blatz on the West." "I see the problem. If you look at this map [a map which the filmmakers don't show us] you can see the problem here at the southwest coordinate." "Aha. General Snodgrass has us."

The film makes no effort to tell us who these people are, what the geographic disposition is, what the names of the groups refer to. Nothing. Luckily, it doesn't matter in Part One because we have a sense of ongoing motion and eventual victory.

Now imagine the same exchanges going on for 1-1/2 hours, while the characters do nothing but walk from place to place in a tropical forest, smoke and look dirty. Apparently for about an hour of Part Two, half the characters are looking for the other half of the characters. Without success. The last half-hour is somewhat interesting, once Che himself is captured, taunted a bit, executed and his body transported for public display in a very haunting MOS montage with music. It's as if Soderbergh suddenly woke up, found his apprentices had been fooling around with the video cams for an hour-and-a-half and decided to tack on some actual cinema at the end so we might forget what we had been put through before.

It is hard to imagine as skilled and experienced a filmmaker as Soderbergh plunging into Part Two (which was filmed first) without a solid narrative concept. A hint as to how this could have happened is found in the interviews on the Criterion edition in which Soderbergh talks about almost nothing but the RED digital camera used, and how amazing it is the film got done on the budget and schedule they had. He scarcely mentions Che. (Soderbergh was brought in as director by producer Laura Bickford and star Benecio Del Toro, for whom this was a passion project. Soderbergh may have had passion for the film, but he doesn't show much for Che.)

The film does look great, through and through, even the long boring parts of the Bolivian conflict. From an outsider's point of view, Soderbergh seemed much more interested in making the shots and making the day (filmmaking jargon for completing the shots scheduled for a given day of production) than in telling a compelling story.

It seems perverse to say about a man who has preserved his independence amid a great deal of mainstream success, but maybe Soderbergh needs to get back to Hollywood.

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