Motorcycle Diaries micro-review; Che Guevara on the web

We saw Motorcycle Diaries last night. It's a lyrical film about self-discovery, but its also a bit strange, in that its "Che as tourist" angle is also an excuse for the film itself to engage in some cultural-historical tourism.

One probably shouldn't watch it entirely seriously. For one thing, the actor playing Che Guevara is way too good-looking. At certain serious moments in the film, when he puts on his ponderous, 'something's not right', thousand-yard stare, he reminds me of nothing other than a male model -- Abercrombie and Fitch, not Guevara and Castro. Granted, I know that Che in real life was incredibly dashing, but it's probably not quite what Walter Salles was aiming for.

On a more serious note, I have to say my earlier liberal, warm-and-fuzzy appreciation for charismatic revolutionaries has given way to that dreaded sign of adulthood, anti-charismatic pragmatism.

Also testing my faith in Che is Paul Berman (author of Terror and Liberalism, and one of the more influential and interesting liberal hawks) whose trashing of Che in Slate pulls no punches:

The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's "labor camp" system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che's imagination. In the famous essay in which he issued his ringing call for "two, three, many Vietnams," he also spoke about martyrdom and managed to compose a number of chilling phrases: "Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become …"— and so on. He was killed in Bolivia in 1967, leading a guerrilla movement that had failed to enlist a single Bolivian peasant. And yet he succeeded in inspiring tens of thousands of middle class Latin-Americans to exit the universities and organize guerrilla insurgencies of their own. And these insurgencies likewise accomplished nothing, except to bring about the death of hundreds of thousands, and to set back the cause of Latin-American democracy—a tragedy on the hugest scale.

Yikes. I didn't know about these later statements of Che, or the firing squads, or... really very much of substance at all. The Che Guevara I've been exposed to is mainly the punk rock t-shirt, "stick it to the man" variety.

On the internet, I did find a quote or two verifying Berman's point about Guevara's turn to the party line. He started saying things like this, for instance:

Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism, and a battle hymn for the people's unity against the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America. Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this, our battle cry, may have reached some receptive ear, that another hand may be extended to wield our weapons, and that other men be ready to intone our funeral dirge with the staccato singing of the machine guns and new battle cries of war and victory.

Maybe that sounds stirring, but the lyricism is grotesquely misplaced. Whenever poets start to praise the "singing of machine guns," I start heading for the door.

I have to admit I've never read the Diaries (you can get them pretty easily on Amazon and in bookstores). Berman has a definite advantage here, when he says:

The movie in its story line sticks fairly close to Che's diaries, with a few additions from other sources. The diaries tend to be haphazard and nonideological except for a very few passages. Che had not yet become an ideologue when he went on this trip. He reflected on the layered history of Latin America, and he expressed attitudes that managed to be pro-Indian and, at the same time, pro-conquistador. But the film is considerably more ideological, keen on expressing an "indigenist" attitude (to use the Latin-American Marxist term) of sympathy for the Indians and hostility to the conquistadors. Some Peruvian Marxist texts duly appear on the screen. I can imagine that Salles and his screenwriter, José Rivera, have been influenced more by Subcomandante Marcos and his "indigenist" rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico, than by Che.

Pro-conquistador? The film glossed over this pretty egregiously.

As much as his critiques ring true, perhaps Paul Berman overreaches just a bit at some points in his essay. This is a film about human fellowship and the discovery of the largeness of the world (and of injustice in the world). It's not explicitly a film about ideology. You don't need to be a Marxist to enjoy Motorcycle Diaries, but you do need to have some idealism left in you.

Despite my real reservations about the politics of the film, I still recommend it. It certainly made me want to close the lid of the copier (the copier is an excellent metaphor for the tedium of academic life), put the books back on the shelf, and go out and do something proactively and concretely helpful in the world. Helpful in the interest of making a small but actual difference -- certainly NOT in pursuit of a rigid ideological line or economic abstraction.

Some links

Wikipedia site on Che. Quite thorough.

A detailed chronology.

An archive of mainly speeches by Che.

Recently Declassified information on the death of Che. (Not sure if this is 100% believable).

Che Guevara quotes