Saturday, May 2, 2009

Toronto Diary: Day Four

The difference between Steven Soderbergh as an independent filmmaker (1989-96), and Steven Soderbergh as a studio filmmaker (1998-present), is the difference between a writer-director and a director-cinematographer. With the exception of the much maligned Kafka (1991) and his Spalding Gray performance film, Gray's Anatomy (1996), neither of which I've seen, Soderbergh wrote all of his early features himself, including what I regard as his two most interesting and fully realized films overall: sex, lies & videotape (1989) and King of the Hill (1993). Though more conventional in form, the former has a freshness of characterization that's missing from much of Soderbergh's subsequent work; and the latter, adapted from A.E. Kotchner's memoir about growing up during the Great Depression, is especially strong on period ambiance. (Before going mainstream with Out of Sight [1998], Soderbergh also directed one more adaptation, The Underneath [1995], and another original screenplay, Schizopolis [1996], but I haven't seen either.)

Although Soderbergh has photographed all of his films since Traffic (2000) himself, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, he takes writing credit on only two: Solaris (2002), an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's SF novel that was first filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and "Equilibrium," his segment for the portmanteau film Eros (2004). And like the others I've seen--Out of Sight, The Limey (1999), Erin Brokovich (2000), Traffic, Full Frontal (2002) and Bubble (2005)--it's impossible to remember a single thing about the films more than a half-hour after watching them. Why are these eight films so forgettable? There's the immediate thrill of seeing techniques associated with European art cinema being assimilated by Hollywood filmmaking, but once that wears off, we're left with nothing. The Limey, for instance, applies non-linear editing techniques derived from Richard Lester's Petulia (1968) and the first five films directed by Nicolas Roeg (themselves indebted to the early films of Alain Resnais) to yet another revenge yarn about Cockney gangsters and crass Hollywood insiders. I'm reminded of Jonathan Rosenbaum's description of Bernardo Bertolucci as a filmmaker who "ultimately chose stylishness over style and both over content."

Che (2008)--which was playing in Toronto in a "Special Roadshow Edition," with the credits printed on a booklet and an eighteen dollar admission price--is certainly the most ambitious of all of Soderbergh's films, as well as the most unusual. A four and a half hour war film about the Argentinian revolutionary, Ernesto Che Guevara (Benicio Del Toro), it largely eschews interiority, taking a relentlessly ground-level view of guerrilla combat. Yet, there's a part of me that suspects Soderbergh only agreed to direct the film as a pretext to try out the new digital camera, the Red.

The film is divided into two parts, each about 130 minutes long, with a fifteen minute intermission in between. The first part, based on Guevara's book, "Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War," depicts Guervara's involvement in the war against Batista. We see him tending to wounded soldiers, leading his troops through the jungle, picking up new recruits as he moves closer to the capital. The second part, based on Guevara's Bolivian diary, shows everything that went wrong there: the lack of popular support, the CIA-backed military counter-insurgency, Guevara forgetting his asthma medicine. In Halifax, the film is playing as two separate features, "The Argentine" and "Guerrilla," but you really need to see both parts; each half completes the other.

Del Toro won the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year, but I suspect there was a conflict of interest (the jury's president, Sean Penn, co-starred with Del Toro in 21 Grams [2003])--or at least, that's the only way I can account for it. Although the screenplay is based on Guevara's own writings, we don't come to know him very well as a character in the film. Near the end of the first part, Guevara casually mentions to a female soldier, Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno), that he has a wife and daughter in Mexico City, but this is the first and last time the viewer hears of them. The first part ends just after Batista's exile from Cuba, and when the second part picks up several years later, Guevara is married to March, with whom he has several children. Early into the film's second part, however, he leaves Cuba in secret to lead the revolutionary movement in Bolivia with March's knowledge and apparent consent. Why did Guevara desert both families? The film doesn't provide any psychological explanation deeper than Guevara's desire to spread the revolution to all of Latin America. Nor does it presume to know how Guevara felt as he was leaving or how March felt about being left. In other words, the film takes the life at its word, so to speak, without providing any kind of interpretation or commentary.

The movie's first part cuts between Guevara's trip to New York in 1964, where he spoke at the UN, and his involvement in the Cuban revolutionary movement, beginning with his first meeting with Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) in Mexico City in 1955. The scenes in New York were shot on grainy, high contrast black-and-white film stock, while the scenes in Cuba were shot in colour on the Red, which in optimal lighting conditions results in images of hyper-clarity without grain. Throughout, Soderbergh favors long group shots over close-ups, which is in keeping with the film's intellectual detachment. (When the film shows Guevara's death from his point of view, it's a way of not showing the viewer his expression.)

Like many of Soderbergh's films, Che lives in the shadow of another, greater film--namely, Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966). Although Che sympathizes completely with Guevara and his comrades (in contrast with Pontecorvo's more even-handed approach), I suspect that Soderbergh is less passionate about the revolution than he is about Pontecorvo's film on it. And at the end of the day, he goes back to Hollywood and directs Ocean's Fifteen for a huge pile of money. If Soderbergh were more engaged by his material, he might've tried to do something more original instead of relying on Pontecorvo as a role model.

Stephen Daldry's The Reader (2008) is a film of surprising complexity and nuance. The film, which opens in Germany in 1958, starts out in Red Shoe Diaries territory with a pale, effeminate teenager, Michael Berg (David Kross), having an affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmizt (Kate Winslet)--somehow without his strict parents or anyone else ever knowing about it. The film becomes interesting when it skips ahead eight years to when Michael is a university student. His class takes a train to the Hague, where Hanna is on trial for war crimes during World War II. The film is sharply critical of the trial, showing how a small number of low-ranking Nazi war criminals were given harsh sentences while the majority of the people responsible were either given lighter sentences or never brought to trial in the first place. Hanna is certainly guilty of doing the things she's accused of, and her answers to the judges reflect the moral myopia of some one who's incapable of seeing beyond the task they've been assigned to perform. Where Hanna differs from her co-defendants is that she still doesn't get it, which makes her easy to scapegoat.

The film is not perfect. There are big revelations that attentive viewers should see coming a mile away. Also, it takes some time to adjust to English actors playing German characters while speaking in English with heavy German accents, and it's always distracting when you have two actors playing the same character at different ages. (Michael is played as an adult by the very unfeminine Ralph Fiennes.) But despite all this, the film moved me because it's such a compelling subject, and the storytelling is fluid throughout. So far I've seen four of this year's Oscar nominees (the only one I haven't is Milk [2008]), and this is by far the best.

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