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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

Criterion Collection: Che

Steven Soderbergh’s two-part 2008 sequel to The Motorcycle Diaries has been released by The Criterion Collection as a three-platter set, Che. Soderbergh gave the films a slightly different look, although on a video screen, the change is modest. ChePart One, about Ernesto Guevera’s participation in the Cuban Revolution, is in classic widescreen, letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.39:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. Che Part Two, about Guevera’s failed attempt to ignite a revolution in Bolivia, is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1:78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. While this may have had a certain effect in theatrical venues-the world is ‘closing in’ on the hero-it has the opposite effect when more picture information is displayed on a non-variable screen. But the difference is minor and the two films are, as is indicated by Criterion’s packaging, intended to be seen as a single feature. Part One, which is upbeat (and is intercut with black-and-white sequences depicting a speech Guevera gave before the United Nations in the mid-Sixties), runs 135 minute and Part Two, which is downbeat, runs 136 minutes. Benicio Del Toro plays the title character.

What the film brings to mind more than anything else, however, is Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. It is masterfully composed and finely acted, with many distinctive sequences, but on the whole, it is as dull as a Party meeting. The only factor, other than historical accuracy, that saves it from being a complete waste of time is the sound mix in the battle scenes, which are especially rousing on Criterion’s two-platter Blu-ray release. The battle scenes are sporadic and often incidental, as if actually giving them an emotional arc would be too ‘Hollywood,’ but whenever they kick in, you start ducking, because bullets go whizzing by every which way, and it is a unique, heart-quickening experience. As for the rest of both parts of the film, there is very little life to it. Characters remain superficial-almost teasingly so when it comes to Fidel Castro-and nondescript. If it were not for fresh or passing memories of The Motorcycle Diaries, which Soderbergh of course had nothing to do with, Del Toro’s character would seem like an opportunistic mercenary with some medical skills. Within Che, there is no justification for his passion or his later suicidal folly. Haphazardly told, Part One is still periodically intriguing as the rebels gain in strength, avoid rivalries with other rebel movements and succeed in isolating and defeating the unprepared Cuban army. But Part Two is just, simply, a movie nobody wants to watch. Over the course of a year, Del Toro’s character, with lots of money, puts together a ragtag group, makes friends for a while with some peasants, and is then, after the money runs out, systematically tracked down, captured and executed. You get the feeling that if the Bolivian Army could take him down, it wasn’t that hard.

Part One appears on one platter (with a trailer), Part Two on another, and the third platter holds extra features. The films are shot in a documentary style, with jiggling camera movements and lots of grain, but it is clear that Criterion’s transfer is meticulous. The film is mostly in Spanish, with optional English subtitles. The same special features are split onto the two BD platters. The image is slightly sharper, but it is the nature of the film’s style that the differences between the two presentations are mostly irrelevant. The DTS sound on the BD, however, is much crisper, stronger and more detailed than the DVD’s 5.1-channel Dolby Digital track.

Trust Criterion, however, to take a lemon and make sangria. By adding a commentary to the film from Guevera biographer Jon Lee Anderson that focuses on the ‘real’ history of the Cuban revolution, the Bolivian expedition and the biographies of the individuals involved, the presentation brings true depth to an otherwise ambitious but shallow accomplishment. Anderson has thoroughly researched Guevera’s life and spoken to almost all of his surviving associates over the past couple of decades. During Part One, he also talks about the film, consistently pointing out its artistic failures. “It’s like taking someone on a tour of the sewers of Paris without ever showing them what’s above ground.” But it is Anderson who does show you what is above ground-describing the psychological, philosophical and emotional development of Guevera and his contemporaries-and the film is extensive enough and sufficiently detailed in historic veracity to serve as a consistent reference point to Anderson’s lecture. In Part Two, Anderson barely mentions the film at all and focuses entirely on his own story of Guevera’s Bolivian escapade. Anderson’s 4½ hour talk could not exist without the film supplying a unifying reference, but it is an outstanding and highly valuable summarization that not only provides the viewer with a clear picture of Guevera’s life, but also supplies an overview of the political dynamics of Latin America in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, with especial detail, of course, paid to the Cold War era. It is an aspect of history that is consistently shortchanged in U.S. textbooks, and one that Americans would sustain an ignorance of at their peril, as was clearly demonstrated in Missile Crisis of 1962 and, though not quite on the same level of danger, many times and coups since then.

It is best to listen to the commentary before turning to the two historical supplements on the third platter. One is a 26-minute black-and-white 1967 BBC news documentary, about Guevera’s execution and the imprisonment of a French writer in Bolivia who was sympathetic to Guevera’s cause. The other is a 35-minute collection of 2009 interviews with several of the surviving figures from the Revolution and the Bolivian campaign. Additionally, there are 21 minutes of sensibly deleted scenes, mostly from Part One, that explain certain story points in more detail; an excellent 33-minute segment on the state of the art digital camera Soderbergh used to shoot the film (the camera was not ready until a few hours before shooting was scheduled to start); and a good 50-minute production documentary that includes a lot of behind-the-scenes materials, although it also allows Soderbergh to blame the critics for his own shortcomings. At one point he complains, “It was odd to see people who are allegedly pro-cinema kind of rooting against it conceptually, ” and visually, a review from Variety is shown that quite soberly and, in hindsight, accurately, assesses the film’s boxoffice potential. If you want to start a revolution, you should avoid shooting the messenger.

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon