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“Best of the 2000’s” – Discussion the Sixth

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.


 

 

MATCH CUTS: Spike Lee is very hit or miss with me, but his best films really strike me as unabashed manifesto’s about human weaknesses, prejudices, and assumptions. For me, 25th Hour is his best films because it combines the perfect mixture of Lee’s stylistics with his dynamic view of the world. It’s cinematography, music, and dialogue belong to this very tense vision of the world, obviously influenced by 9/11, but still incredibly personal and tragic.
THE FILMIST: It was interesting watching this film, having just finished his “Malcolm X” again just a day earlier. On the one hand, you have this three hour long, autobiographical epic about a revolutionary public figure, and his exploits from one end of his life to the other. And, on the other, you’ve got “25th Hour,” a small, intimate – for the most part – film following one man’s last days on the outside world, underneath the attitudes and ires bred by September 11th. These two films are, I think, some of Lee’s best. Because, as you wrote in your article for the film, too often he seems to lapse into “howling at the moon,” with films like Bamboozled – which I still enjoy if only because of Savion Glover.
M: I love Bamboozled, but that’s a whole other conversation. But yes, 25th Hour is so contained to the decisions of it’s characters, to the consequences of those decisions, and all the possibilities they will never realize. Each scene is seeped in this extreme melancholy, best represented by Terrence Blanchard’s haunting musical score. It follows Monty, resting heavy on his shoulders in way I’ve never seen in any other film.
F: Yes – the opening scene may be one of my favorites out of Lee’s films. We’re exposed to this Monty character played by Norton, and we’re not quite sure if he’s up to or involved in anything, just yet. But, he finds this dog – and, despite the guys they’ve got waiting on them, the “guys with money,” he decides to put it in his trunk and take it to the vet. And, it’s one of the first times that Lee’s patented “repeat-cut” (I call it) pops up, three times.
M: Which repeats throughout the film, a repetition that is incredibly artificial in way the rest of the film is not, and I’m glad you mentioned the opening scene, because it shows his misguided humanity front and center, it shows his cockiness and compassion in one sequence, the reason he got into this mess in the first place, and the reason his plight is so complex.
F: Yes, it actually gives a small hint as to what’s revealed later about Monty, that the reason he turned to the business that he’d turned to was to help out his family. It’s funny, even in the lighter scenes, there’s an underlying melancholy that’s brought out into the open – as in the club scenes, for example.
M: And this sense of doubt filtering through each character, Monty doubts Natuerelle, Frank judges Monty, then feels guilty for it, Jacob doubts his validity as a person, all while mired in this strange celebration, and for what? Everything is ill-fated, except for the genuine pain that each character feels, the loss is something that can’t be played down. It’s a stunning achievement when you think about the atmosphere of character the film creates.
F: One of the characters I found interesting, even though she’s relatively minor in terms of her presence in the story, is Mary, Jacob’s student. And, before I start talking about the character, I also want to mention how weird it is to see Anna Paquin in 2002 and Anna Paquin in 2009, with “True Blood.” I can’t quite place it, but something’s changed about her.
M: She’s always on the cusp of the frame it seems, and to me she really represents the allure of that dangerous life Monty has brought into his lifestyle. We really see how separate these old friends are, Monty and Jacob, in the sense that Monty dismisses Mary and Jacob sees her as his entire obsession. They have become apart of two separate worlds and never realized it.
F: Yes, and it’s funny the effect she has on Jacob in the club, right after Monty’s told him that he’s “the only honest man in the room, right here.” And, he ends up trying to kiss her, directly afterwards. She seems to be caught on the same kind of downward spiral that Monty fell into. Where at first we see her at the prep school causing king-hell about her grades, which she obviously cares a lot about, the next time we see her, she’s hopped up on E and champagne – it seems to be something a little stronger than a rebellious attitude, which is hinted at with her button tattoo. Also, it’s telling how she says (she says) her mother dismissed such a thing with only, “where did you get the money for that?”
M: I think this falls into the idea that money, which ties into class, consumes each and every character, Frank, who works on Wall Street yells at Natuerelle for not speaking up since she was living a lavish lifestyle, Jacob is independently wealthy, and Monty makes his bad decision based on the need for money. It drives everything in this very personal film. The way money really changes old friendships, perspectives, yet there is still that connection, that memory of loyalty that still rings tru.
F: Indeed. Speaking of, I also found it interesting to see Lee use the same “background moves in the distance as the character stays rooted in the foreground” shot that he used at the end of Malcolm X, after Jacob leaves the bathroom.
M: When the actor is positioned on a dolly with the camera? Yes, that’s a Lee staple, and it creates this surreal atmosphere in the club, but it is just prolonging the inevitable.
F: He seems unhooked from time, almost.
M: Which is fleeting, because time is about to come crashing down.
F: In more ways than one, with Monty’s rebuke of Kostya.
M: Yep. What did you make of the ending? Do you see it as a vision of a future that will never happen, as I do, or do you have a different reading of it.?
F: Well, if I’m being optimistic, then I’d say that it was a possible future that’s left ambiguous by the last shot. But then again, on a rainy day, I think that Monty kind of disregards such notions and decides to face his time – hence the Washington Bridge in the background, and them being on the road toward upstate New York.
M: The mere juxtaposition of a failed future and a failed present makes this film a major achievement. As he looks out the window, he finally realizes that he’s devastated everyone’s life, not just his own.
F: Despite what may have been his best intentions, everyone except the dog comes out worse at the end of this night.
M: Very ironic, although life with Jacob seems very depressing and repressed.
F: Yes. He reminds me of this guy I used to know, actually. Very strange guy – I won’t reveal his story here, but he seemed to have the same kind of mental attitude going on, that same kind of fear.
M: I think the main thing with 25th Hour for me, is that portrays characters in crisis without blowing their guilt or innocent out of proportion, it’s about the complexities in between the stereotypes (as addressed in Monty’s crippling verbal tirade to the mirror), the intricacies of relationships that reveal themselves through traumatic experiences.
F: True. For all his faults, Jacob is still a truly redeemable character. And, I love the immediate silence after his broker friend beats him to a pulp – only the sounds of the birds fluttering in the background, and the dog barking.
M: Absolutely, Lee leaves you with the reality of the situation, the ambient noise lingering, drown out a bit….So if 25th Hour is all about character, then Che: Part 1 is concerned with ideology, a collective birth, a romantic vision of change. But for me, I can’t separate the first film from the second, since it charts the harsh breakdown of that vision. Why choose just the first part of Che for this project?
F: While they’re connected by the sort of causal relationship you mentioned, apart from that, they’re two very different films, stylistically and in their aims – where the first part seems a lot more cohesive and all of that, the second part is by its very nature fractured, and almost deliberately obtuse. And, maybe it’s because I’m an optimist, but it’s the first film, with it’s bombastic and revolutionary nature, is something that appeals to the good old fashioned Communist in me. The second part of Che seems to fall in the same direction as Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” in that it’s a constantly hard-luck film for this character for two hours, physically as well as ideologically, pointing out the illogical nature of going in and trying to resurrect the spirit of a people who don’t really want to be “saved.” Which is another reason I kind of prefer using their separate titles, “The Argentine” and “Guerrilla,” hinting at their separate aims and goals.
M: I guess I see them as flip sides to the same coin, and The Argentine is definitely more linear in that it progresses a sequence of events that allude to genre conventions of the War film, it’s also shot in widescreen which gives the film a sweeping visual look that plays into this inherent romanticism. But even then Soderbergh strips these tropes down to the barest essentials, the interactions between Che and Fidel, even the action scenes are disjointed.
F: The action sequences were one of the things I loved about the film, actually – being as I am one of those guys who interested in the whole “kinetic nature of cinema;” not just in action sequences, but they do often serve as some of the best representatives – the way they’re shot with such from-ground immediacy and yet still with such a great emphasis on formal dynamism, as in the first attack on the Sierra Maestra barracks.
M: The building exploding from the bazooka round is really something, it’s almost shocking because the film hasn’t given us anything like that before. There are these moments of grand chaos, like the train flipping off the tracks as well.
F: Yes, the whole portion of the film dedicated to the Battle of Santa Clara, and the fight for control of the tower, is relentlessly breakneck. It was interesting that, here, in the middle of all this, Soderbergh points out prominently Che’s injured arm and his asthma.
M: The scene that really struck me was the moment where he orders the executions of his men that have committed atrocities. It really speaks to the dynamic attention to details that you just mentioned.
F: Oh, certainly. And also, its that scene and a few others that really brings to light one of the weirder aspects of the revolution at the time – the strong, harsh emphasis on capital punishment that Che and Castro used. Small scenes, mentions here and there -and the protesters in New York – signs of what came during the interval years between the first and second films, with Che during his stay at La Cabana’.
M: In both films, especially The Argentine, is this very meticulous, almost bare bones vision of historiography, a re-writing of history in a non-linear fashion. We see the gaps that other films have left out, we see the moments that the history books have ignored. That’s why when critics have called this film too dry of emotion, or distant from the material, I just don’t see it, because Soderbergh has inserted some seriously dynamic material and characters into this important segment of modern history.
F: Yes, I’ll never understand that complaint – it confuses me, especially in contrast to Soderbergh’s film he finished just afterward, The Girlfriend Experience. Now, that was a dry, stagnant film.
M: I haven’t seen it yet, but The Argentine is full of more life than any of his other films, and it’s a criticism that I will never get.
F: Mainstream critics, more and more, are becoming insane. Insane, I tell you. Maybe it’s something in the water.
M: It’s really tough for a weekly critic to get a film like this on one viewing, which is the inherent problem with writing “reviews” as opposed to criticism.
F: Yes, indeed – the only really redeemable critics I’ve found at the moment are Ebert and the three or four cats who occasionally end up in the Dallas Observer, like J. Hoberman.
M: There are plenty of good ones, but Hoberman is the only one to champion this film in the way I thought it deserved. He seems to have an incredible grasp of the way history plays into these sorts of films, and why they are essential. Kent Jones from Film Comment seems to be the other critic that just gets it on a collective level. Soderbergh has made a difficult film that cannot be fully processed on one viewing. There’s just too much going on, which makes it a fascinating piece.
F: Surely. It’s not a film that goes in for easy hero worship, but at the same time, it’s also not one to denigrate or denounce its central title character, as another bunch of people would’ve wanted. He seems to have achieved something entirely other, and that’s left a lot of people disoriented.
M: I agree with that, especially considering how different the two halves are in style, and how unsettling they are when placed together.
F: They do create an interesting contrast. And, it’s in the second film that I think Soderbergh’s approach becomes clear – at the moment of Che’s death. He avoids having him say the rousing, “Shoot, coward! You are only coming to kill a man!” that’s quoted by the one side, or the pleading issued by the other. Instead, he has Che share a look with the guy, and say, “I don’t talk to traitors,” after agreeing that he killed his uncle.
M: Del Toro’s performance is almost entirely conveyed through his eyes, the passion, the longing, the isolation, everything streams through his eyes. Which plays into what you just mentioned.
F: And, I have to say, I love the great contrast the film creates, in between young, clean-shaven Ernesto and bearded, beret wearing Che. Which is one of the reasons that I’m glad the film didn’t stay too long before the boat ride to Cuba. Among other things, we do have “The Motorcycle Diaries,” for that. His is a virtuoso performance – which is one of the reasons he’s quickly becoming one of my most favorite actors. Not that he wasn’t, you know, up there before, but –
M: Well, this an his performance in a little seen near masterpiece, Things We Lost in the Fire, are superb, just great method turns.
F: I haven’t seen TWLitF just yet. Been meaning to get around to it, but something about it just keeps pushing me away. It’s Halle Berry, that’s who it is.
M: She’s great, and I really despise her acting, usually at least. The main thing with The Argentine and the entire project as a whole is that Soderbergh is attempting something grandiose, something altogether rare in Western filmmaking today. A gigantic epic with pertinent ideas on its mind, issues of nationalism, pragmatism, and failed ideologies.
F: Oh, I agree. We haven’t seen one of these in a long while. It’s intriguing the contrast this film creates with his others – your opinion of Spike Lee matches pretty closely my opinion of Soderbergh.
M: It’s interesting how some filmmakers you usually admire but can’t buy into, except for that one instant when their obvious artistry breaks through and hits you on some intrinsic level.
F: Exactly.
M: Of course you have to suffer through a few stinkers to get there.
F: The Girlfriend Experience” remains an indelible burn on my brain. You don’t know you’re alive until you’ve seen Sasha Grey masturbate some Jewish guy on screen while he talks about why she should vote Republican. When the movie’s finished, you’ve got a whole new outlook on life, really – you made it through.
M: I can’t wait. Sounds invigorating.
F: You’re gonna love it. LOVE IT, I tell you.

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“Best of the 2000’s” – #5: Steven Soderbergh’s “Che: Part One/The Argentine.”

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

He moves among the crowd now, clasping the hands of the thronging people on all sides, with a smile breaking his lips. And, he says to them, just before beginning the long trip to Havana: “…we won the war. The revolution starts now.”

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A hipster icon, a symbol of revolution, almost a saint to most, and a butcher to many – Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Who is he? What is he? In the words of the woman who interviews him at some point early on in the film, “he is a Marxist, a soldier, a physician and the power behind Fidel Castro.”  One of the most controversial and venerated figures of the twentieth century, called by Frantz Fanon “the world symbol of the possibilities of one man.” His legacy has been fraught by several previous filmic renditions – notable among them 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries, adapted from his own book of the same name, and the failure that was 1969’s Che! by Richard Fleischer. And now, after passing from the hands of Glenn’s favorite Terrance Malick, the buck has passed to Steven Soderbergh, a director whose work can – more than any other, I think – be clearly divided with a thick black sharpie into three separate categories: his more boyant, fun “populist” (not my word) films like the Ocean‘s movies, his outré’ semi-avant garde experimental films like this year’s recent The Girlfriend Experience, and – then the other ones. The films that combine the real passion found in his otherwise uninteresting experiments with real formal dynamism – there’s about three of those in his filmography, counting the second of the Che films. But, what films they are – and what a contrast they create with his other films. And here, when asked about what attracted him to this particular project, it seems it wasn’t the ideology – he regards Marxism and Communism as hopelessly idealistic and easily corruptible – but the man. The one who came up from the forest and took back the country.

We begin out of context – black and white footage looking out of a limo moving along a crowded city street. People, with signs. Yells. Shouts. As Che emerges from the car, the voices become clearer: “Murderer! Murderer!” He gives them a quick glance, and enters the building. It’s nineteen-sixty four, six years after the bulk of the film’s events take place. Che is giving his first speech to the U.N., what will turn out to be a firey reprisal of U.S. imperialism – and, among the rest of the city’s elite, he’s become something of a cocktail favorite. The image of Che is familiar to us – beard and beret, a long coat. Hard eyes. But then – we’re in Mexico City, before all this mess, and there’s a young, clean-shaven guy in a linen-white shirt, talking on the terrace in the night air with Fidel Castro, about something called the 26th of July Movement. And, so does the film proceed – for the most part, in the mode of classical Hollywood cinema, but every so often, moving backward and forward through time to add illumination on the events of 1955-1958. After ordering the execution of two soldiers for their crimes against an uninvolved family later on in the movie, it is then that the film returns to the U.N., as Che moves to the podium to speak and give his famous 1964 speech, which ends with the declaration of “Homeland or Death!”  The film returns to the U.N. again later on, and once in particular to create another intriguing parallel – as various U.N. officials argue over the validity of Cuba in its current post-Revolution state, the guerrilla camp comes under air raid six years earlier – but for the moment – Che moves into the mountains of the Sierra Maestra.

And it is here, in a way, that it becomes obvious that this is an action film of sorts, as visceral as any that have been released in the last ten years – during the heat of the battle, Soderbergh places us on the ground, as bullets whip past us unseen, but quick enough that they break the air all around us. Every angle is precise and deliberate, and unexpected. Always, the cinematography strikes a balance between objectivity and a subtle subjectivity. During one of the sieges on the army barracks in the Sierra Maestra – which is also used to demonstrate the real brilliance of the military strategy that brought Castro and Guevera, and the rest of the rebels and company, their eventual victory – everything is chaos, and we’re in the middle of the mess. Luckily enough, however, the camera itself remains unaffected, cool even. Observant and quick. Shouts and yells from all sides – men are knocked down into the grass, and crimson spreads over their shirts. Such a thing is maintained even into the later portions of the film, during the air raid on the rebel’s camp in the jungle, and on the extended attack during The Battle of Santa Clara, which dominates the latter half of the film – and, which also demonstrates Soderbergh’s real grasp of the period, with its smokey, blood and thunder mise en scene and constant focus on “men making history – or not.”* Indeed, with its focus on formal dynamism, it seems at times like – if Soderbergh hadn’t decided to enter into his current mode of filmmaking, while making films like this only once in a blue moon – he could’ve been this generation’s Sergio Leone. Glimpses, here and there. It’s also kind of interesting the potent metaphor that the film strikes upon almost inadvertently for the revolution as a whole, as – in order to get through to the church at the center of it all, and that contains a clear firing line across the city, without having to make a dangerous direct assault – the rebels decide to drill through the walls of five adjacent houses.

As critic A.O. Scott noted in his review, the real motifs of this film seem to be “…facial hair, tobacco smoke and earnest militant bombast.” There is a real, tangible feeling to the proceedings we’re seeing unfold, from the sweatiness of the rebel soldier’s beards to Che’s laboured breathing in the more frantic scenes of the film. We can practically smell it, and feel the vibrant leaves of the jungle. And, a lot of this is helped by Soderbergh’s use of the new (at the time prototype) Red One cameras, which – on a personal level – make my mouth just water in wanting to use them. Here, they’re given real work in enveloping us the viewer in the world of late fifties Cuba, in the jungles and the towns that the revolution took place in. There’s a constant smokiness in the air, and the stench of gunpowder everywhere. Real, ear pounding, blood and thunder.

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Central to the film beyond all else is Benicio Del Toro’s potrayal of Che. Not the gallant swashbuckler given life by Omar Sherif, or the wide-eyed motorcycle rider of Gael Garcia Bernal, this is something else entirely. Distant and yet commanding – at times, when the rest of the rebels have taken it upon themselves to go and carouse in celebration of some victory or another over yonder way, he can be spotted off composing something down in his book, observing them from afar. And yet, at still other times, he cannot separate himself from the rest of the camp, and it is only later on in the film that he actually abandons his role as the physician, deciding to take up a gun for the first time and starting off on the road to becoming the figurehead of the insurrection. And, the choice of Del Toro in the role is interesting, for another small and frivolous reason that nobody else has pointed out: his character in Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing adaptation, in the fleeting moments that we saw him in tie and business suit in his office as the charismatic Oscar Zeta Acosta, there’s a Che poster or two displayed in the background. Inconsequential, really – but, it caught my eye.

The film manages to avoid one-note hero worship, but there is no doubt that we’re watching a man slowly become the kind of mythic figure that is often spoken of when Che’s name is mentioned – the two seem to define each other, really. More and more, as Ernesto seems to “become” the archetypal, his asthma seems to become more and more emphasised. And, yet – at the same time, Soderbergh always keeps us at a steady distance from the man. We never do learn about his life before the revolution, and it is only glancingly revealed near the end that he has a wife and children, through a line of dialogue. Perhaps this isn’t the point, though – the film, and Soderbergh by extension, seems to see Che as more than one philosopher of the sixties saw him, as the physical embodiment of the revolution, and his ideals. This is, I think, best conveyed in the last scene of the film – on the road to Havana, a couple of soldiers in joyous celebration pull up in a gleaming red Chrysler convertible that they’d taken off a government official back in Santa Clara. Che pulls them over to the side of the road, and orders them to drive all the way back to Santa Clara and return the car to it’s owner – it doesn’t matter who he was, such thievery was an element of the old regime, and the revolution must operate by new principles, entirely.

This is the man in the context of the events that the film deems it worthy to cover. Soderbergh omits his time as a government minister, and any of the events that happened directly afterward that many consider just as important in Cuba’s new history – the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, those events. Or, most ominously, and the elephant in the room whenever the film is mentioned, Che’s time at La Cabana’. Luckily, the film doesn’t ignore the latter entirely, much to the chagrin of a few – there are ominous foreshadowings, here and there. The execution of two soldiers after they’ve been found to have raided several civilian houses, remarks that seem to brush past casually. Finally, building to Che’s speech at the U.N., where he declares:  “Yes, we have executed; we are executing and we will continue to execute as long as is necessary. Our struggle is a struggle to the death.”

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Of course, behind the man was his own leader, Fidel Castro – at the time, only two years older than Ernesto. Here, he’s portrayed in a weirdly effective bout of mimicry by Demian Bicher, who seems to have turned the Horse’s rolling diction and occasional theatricality into a part of his own personality – and, though he’s not painted in as full a color as Del Toro’s Che, it quickly becomes obvious as to what the attraction is and was to his movement. The impression is of real charisma behind bifocals – which, whatever your opinion of the man as he stands today, is not something easy to deny. It’s his military strategy that’s emphasized throughout the first half of the film, and his understanding of the importance of the barracks in the Sierre Maestra. But, he doesn’t command the presence that Del Toro’s Che does, even though for a fair portion of the film, it’s he that Che reports under.

I realize that it’s somewhat uncouth and unfair to separate this film from its second half, Guerrilla – but, while they do mirror and reflect each other constantly, are so distinct from one another stylistically that it shouldn’t cause too much of a fuss. I find the second half a bit messier than most – perhaps that’s intentional on Soderbergh’s part, given what he’d said a while back about his approach to the two halves and their basis in the respective diary entries of Che. But, I don’t think it works quite as well as this first half does, which is a whole film in itself, tracing Che from one end to the other of the reclamation of Cuba, while the second half really only works in tandem with The Argentine. Also, it seems to fall victim to the same problem I had with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, and that is that it’s two hours of the constant suffering of its main character without much point. Still, I’d probably argue that it’s certainly a better film than The Passion, which is a film bizarrely without its namesake, but –

But, who is Che? What is Che? During an interview with a Latin newscaster just prior to his U.N. speech – and, coincidently, the one where  the woman perks up and decides to ask the real meaty question of her guest, the one that will really hit the spot: “So, how does it feel to be a symbol?” she asks. And, Che is silent for a moment before speaking, which is then interpreted through his translator. His response is:

“…a symbol of what?”

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One of the best essays on the film that I’ve yet read, and that moves past all the weird and constant polarities that seem to pop up whenever Guevara’s name is mentioned, is J. Hoberman’s “Behold the Man: Steven Soderbergh’s Epic Film Biography of Che,” which can be found here.

Conversely, Glenn Heath’s #5 entry, Spike Lee’s  25 Hour, can be found here.

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