Much like the writers and directors that we poor scorn upon for their predictability, critics are ultimately a lazy breed. Some critics, thanks to greater levels of insight and more erudition have a larger conceptual toolbox than others, but no matter how loaded down you become with diagnostic tools, you are still going to reach for some more frequently than you reach for others. If a film is a character study then you write about psychology. If a film is about the cinematography then you talk about the visual and emotional impact. If the film is about the plot, you write about pacing and narrative structure. Write about enough books and films and you start to get a pretty clear idea of how to tackle certain types of work. However, there are times when you encounter a film or a book that is unlike anything you have encountered before. A work which, no matter how cynical or lazy you might be, has you repeating Roy Scheider’s line from Jaws (1975) : “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”.
The exemplar of this type of work is Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007). There Will Be Blood pointedly fails to be a character study, a melodrama or a historical epic. By the end of the film we are no more certain of what makes Plainview tick than we were at the beginning. Similarly, despite being based upon Upton Sinclaire’s novel Oil! (1927), a book about the 19th Century oil boom and, one suspects, indirectly about the Teapot Dome Scandal of 1921, one never really learns anything about oil as a cultural or economic artefact. Given that the film seems to evade all existing genres and forms, it was perhaps unavoidable that critics would be unsure how to deal with it. The BBC Radio 5 Live critic Mark Kermode’s review of the film saw him scrabbling around for some kind of list of themes before adding the caveat “it’s there if you want to find it”. Of course it is. Anything can be read into anything if you try hard enough. This is why, according to Northrop Frye, criticism is a creative undertaking.
Lacking membership to any existing genres and refusing to steep either to character portraits, melodrama or socioeconomic analysis, the film simply exists. One watches it without knowing what it is about but one is also acutely aware that great dramatic forces are at work. Like slowly shifting tectonic plates, things slide into place creating pockets of pressure that must erupt somehow lest the entire project descend into madness. Carefully constructed through snippets of characterisation, the amazingly bleak cinematography and the simply astounding score, the emotional landscape of the film mirrors that of the film’s setting. Its passions, much like oil, lie below the surface under terrible pressure. When the final violent eruption comes it comes from seemingly nowhere but it fits the film perfectly and arguably accounts for why “I Drink your Milkshake” became such a popular line.
Unfortunately, while some works seem to transcend all known laws in order to achieve something new and fascinating, other works evade the rules only to achieve nothing at all. Steven Soderbergh’s Che parts One and Two (2008) is just such a film.
Drawn respectively from Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War (1963) and his Bolivian Diary, the two parts of Che are a master-class in beating around the bush. The plot, the relationships between the characters and the wider political context of the battles are revealed only through fragments of conversation rather than through expository dialogue. It is a film that has its audience continuously listening to the radio or sitting in on interviews in studios and speeches in jungles. This makes for a film that is focused more upon process than upon object. So, rather than making clear what the political context was in Bolivia or Cuba, the film focuses upon the way the revolutions were fought on both sides. Rather than showing us what the characters believe, we are invited to take what they say with a pinch of salt as something said in order to calm down restless troops, intimidate an enemy or legitimise the newly appointed revolutionary government of Cuba. Che is a film where much is said, but little is explained and nothing is demonstrated. Aside from holding the plot together, Che’s characters are empty cyphers distinguished only by their physical characteristics and dress. This approach to exposition (and what is characterisation if not a form of exposition?), though unique and interesting in its own right, means that Che cannot function either as a biopic or as a historical piece. It lacks the psychological depth for the one and the sense of context of the other. The film’s lack of emotional movement as well as its one-note direction and pacing also mean that Che cannot be considered either as a tragedy or an epic, despite its monstrous and bloated running time.
Che is a film that presents us with dry (though noticeably airbrushed) historical fact but does not do anything with these facts. It does not offer an opinion, it does not deconstruct, it does not advance a thesis. The facts of Che’s life (right down to the date he arrived in one of hundreds of identical villages) are allowed to rot in the sun, so stripped are they of the protections of conventional narrative cinema.
Given that Che’s active ingredients are clearly not its plot, its context, its characterisation or its dialogue, it seems right to see the film in more experimental terms; as a film that conveys its meaning not through the stuff of story, but rather through the way in which that story is framed. One of the best examples of this type of film-making is Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972). The plot of Aguirre is minimalistic in the extreme, its characters are cardboard cut-outs and its dialogue and historical context almost entirely non-existent. However, because of the way the film is shot, it carries a meaning. This meaning is best encapsulated by the film’s opening and closing shots; one of a procession of tiny humans picking their way down a vast mountainside, and the other of a man alone on a sinking raft in the middle of the Amazon muttering impossible dreams whilst monkeys gambol at his feet. Indeed, there are moments where Soderbergh appears to be reaching for Herzog’s imagery. In one shot, we see the mountainside opposite the guerilla camp and it is swarming with hundreds of tiny soldiers like fleas on the back of a dog. With Che’s fate known to all who go to see the film and the failures of the revolution in Bolivia evident from the very beginning, it is tempting to understand Che as the story of one man’s attempt to put the world to rights, an attempt that is met by utter indifference by a world that is vast and inhospitable to any human value, let alone the universal justice of Marxist/Leninism. Unfortunately, these nihilistic elements only start appearing towards the end of the film when it becomes increasingly clear that the revolution in Bolivia is doomed. Such complex cinematography is entirely lacking from the first volume of the film.
When considering Che, we are left with the vocabulary of a medieval theologian in that we can speak only in negative terms. We can assert that the film is not about Che the man. We can assert that it is not about the people involved in the Cuban and Bolivian revolutions. We can assert that the film is not about 1960s Revolutionary Marxism. Nor is it about the return of American colonialism to Latin America during the middle decades of the 20th Century. In fact, it is not in the least bit clear to me what Che actually is about.
This, ultimately, is why There Will Be Blood is a great film while Che is nothing more than interesting but horribly flawed. One set of experiments worked, the other did not.
It is in the nature of experimentation that sometimes the desired results do not manifest themselves. Soderbergh has shown genuine innovation in his approach to story-telling but ultimately that innovation failed to show results in the same way as Anderson’s experiments in emotional seismology. However, it is also in the nature of experimentation that ideas get tested again and again and I am sure that it will not be long before someone puts Soderbergh’s innovative approach to story telling to good use and produce a film that has the emotional and intellectual impact that Che so clearly lacks.