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Once More Into The Che

Brad Delong has a nice summation of some recent exchanges in the blogosphere inspired by The Motorcycle Diaries. Tim Burke, makes a further entry into the discourse saying, among other things, that "Yglesias and [Chris] Bertram need to be clear what they’re implying." So in the interests of clarity, I'd like to re-iterate that my original post meant exactly what it said rather than what Chris said. In other words, without trying to defend Che Gueverra (about whom I know little in specific other than that he was a Communist and Communists are, in general, not to be approved of) I'm simply trying to defend the idea that the aesthetic merits of a work are not reducible to, or even necessarily related to, their political merits.

This is a point that I think people are clear on when it comes to things that are far removed from the issues of the day. Neither The Merchant of Venice nor any of Shakespeare's plays about the history of England say much that is admirable from a political point of view. One serious problem with Tom Clancy's more recent novels is that instead of being fun, though insubstantial, adventure stories about spies, they've become rather heavy-handed rightwing political propaganda. The problem here, though, is that they're heavy-handed rightwing political propaganda, which distracts from the fun and demonstrates a lack of artistry, not that they're rightwing political propaganda. Ezra Pound's Cantos or T.S. Eliot's "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" are good poems, their anti-semitism notwithstanding, just as Birth of a Nation really is a grounbreaking work of technical cinema, its racism notwithstanding.

It demonstrates a certain impoverished outlook -- as I wrote, a philistinism -- to not be able to see this. It's a reflection, I think, of our highly charged political atmosphere that you see more and more of this new philistinism. No one can write about Checkpoint as a novel, instead everyone feels moved to denounce the idea of leftwingers plotting George W. Bush's assassination. To be clear, I don't think anyone should plot George W. Bush's assassination. At the same time, it's easy to see how a person plotting Bush's assassination and a friend trying to talk him out of it without defending the Bush record could be the premise for a good novel. Or, if poorly written, it could be the premise of a bad novel. A worshipful portral of Che could be a good movie or it could be a bad one, whether or not you approve of what Che did in real life years later has very little to do with it.

The ability to escape politics -- to recognize the existence of non-political virtues -- is one of the hallmarks of living in a liberal society. It's a valuable thing, and not something whose erosion we should acquiesce in lightly.

October 11, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

I want to agree, but one thing is troubling me.

Warning: I am about to use Hitler as an example. Sorry, but I think it's apt.

Let's say someone made a light-hearted road movie about Hitler. That would be objectionable, right? Now, I presume the reason a similar movie about Che is not objectionable is that he is not as bad a guy, right? Well, the question that leads me to ask is, how bad does a guy have to be so that making a light-hearted road movie about him is objectionable? Shouldn't anyone be able to make this objection because such a measurement is hopelessly subjective?

This leads me to another question. It's OK to praise Birth of a Nation now as a great movie, but wouldn't you be suspicious of someone who praised it when it was released?

Posted by: Curtis Erhart | Oct 11, 2004 5:47:34 PM

I don't suppose I want to argue that a film about the early life of a mass murderer, that makes no reference to his later deeds, can't be well made and artisticly pleasing. No, the question is, obviously, WHY would someone want to make a film about the early life of a mass murderer, and not make reference to their later deeds?

I mean, it's not like you couldn't find plenty of people who took interesting motorcycle trips, and didn't subsequently kill a lot of people in an all too effective effort to advance a murderous totalitarian political philosophy.

The obvious inference is that somebody who'd make such a movie approves of the mass murderer. And does so knowing that's what they turned out to be.

I mean, McVeigh was a veteran. Suppose I made a nicely artistic war movie about his exploits, and didn't metion that he committed a major terrorist act later on? You'd surely draw inferences from that...

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Oct 11, 2004 5:58:12 PM

Matthew,

You mean you REALLY still don't get that the problem with what you wrote in your original post is that the article you were responding to, and criticizing for not reviewing the movie on its merits, *was not actually a movie review* as such?

Weird.

Posted by: Blixa | Oct 11, 2004 6:04:00 PM

"without trying to defend Che Gueverra (about whom I know little in specific other than that he was a Communist and Communists are, in general, not to be approved of)"

I'd rather be born to random parents in current day Cuba than current day Haiti...

Posted by: Petey | Oct 11, 2004 6:04:40 PM

Brett reminds me to point out something I should have my first comment. The direct made a choice to make the movie about Che. There must be a reason he did this. The McVeigh example is great, please use it instead of my stupid Hitler example.

Posted by: Curtis Erhart | Oct 11, 2004 6:05:03 PM

"Let's say someone made a light-hearted road movie about Hitler. That would be objectionable, right?"

There's a recent movie "Max", which is a portrait of the young Hitler as an artist.

While not entirely light-hearted, it's not very heavy. And the concept certainly isn't objectionable.

I think you obviously miss Matt's basic point here...

Posted by: Petey | Oct 11, 2004 6:08:34 PM

A film that celebrates a politically objectionable figure puts the viewer in the awkwared position of hoping to experience an artistic failure.

Posted by: pickabone | Oct 11, 2004 6:11:09 PM

the aesthetic merits of a work are not reducible to, or even necessarily related to, their political merits.


I know!

"The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" is beautiful aesthetically, isn't it Matthew?

And that David Duke, he sure can give an aesthetically pleasing speech, huh? And that Joseph Goebbels too! The aesthetics of his propaganda are truly fabulous!

Posted by: Al | Oct 11, 2004 6:17:58 PM

I have an example, some may come up with others. Please help. Another Country starring Rupert Everett, which tried to show, with probably just the right amount of sympathy/criticism, why Guy Burgess became a Communist spy. Max mentioned above is another. Bildungsroman of bad guys. I have not seen the Che movie.

However My does make a good point, but in a subcategory of movies with political themes, or with political subject matter, or about political agents I do think it is fair to judge them both on artistic merit and ideological or political merit. Taste will vary on both. But they should be judged on both, which I think was MY's original complaint.

Triumph of the Will is a very great and very evil movie. Both should be said in any discussion of it.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 11, 2004 6:19:52 PM

Petey,

I don't think I have missed the point. I haven't seen the movie Max, so I can't say anything about it. Does it portray him sympathetically?

Did you read Brett's comment? I think his McVeigh example is much better than mine (which is why I commented that you should use it instead of mine), and gets to what I wanted to say much better.

Posted by: Curtis Erhart | Oct 11, 2004 6:19:55 PM

Warning: I am about to use Hitler as an example.


That's OK, Matthew doesn't think that Godwin's law applies to him, so I don't imagine he can safely assert it against anyone else either.

Posted by: Al | Oct 11, 2004 6:21:27 PM

To follow up on the Hitler example, what about Mel Brooks's "The Producers"?

Posted by: Civil-Rights Lawyer | Oct 11, 2004 6:21:52 PM

Matt is not arguing that there's nothing politically objectionable about the movie. He is arguing that non-political virtues exist, and that that's a good thing, and that the inability to recognize them is a bad thing.

Please stop pointing out how politically objectionable the movie is. It's not germane to the subject. That point is conceded.

Incidentally, I think both the hypothetical Hitler movie and the hypothetical McVeigh movie could be really good, politically. The former could be a meditation on the banality of evil. The latter... could be very timely in light of the deification of "the Troops" and the demonization of "the Terrorists." (The Hitler movie could also be an excellent Monty Python-esque farce, but that wouldn't be being good politically.)

Posted by: some guy | Oct 11, 2004 6:22:52 PM

Or, the Producers: with the great song, Springtime for Hitler.

I have not seen the movie, only the trailers and the discussions, including the family that prepared the book from his diaries. Even so, I think it is fair to point out that the movie tells us something important about Che, namely that he was reacting to the misery he saw, and the human beings and their desires for a good future. He chose a bad tool, communism, but given his circumstances, maybe we can see why he might have picked that tool. It offered a fierce criticism of the form of capitalism that was grinding people down instead of lifting them up. What other tool was at hand? The ballot box? We could wish he had picked Ghandi as a model instead of Lenin or Stalin, but we can hardly disagree with a man who saw misery and wanted to do something, anything, to stop it.

Posted by: masaccio | Oct 11, 2004 6:23:58 PM

I think Yglesias et. al. have missed an important point here.

Yes, maybe "The Motorcycle Diaries" is a good movie even though its subject isn't very commendable. The point of the Slate.com piece is that the movie wouldn't be getting nearly as much publicity, so many raves, if Che weren't a trendy figure in some circles.

And, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, the movie sidesteps any discussion of Che's good points and bad points by focusing on his earlier life. A Che admirer can walk away without his beliefs challenged, while a Che critic can walk away without much to complain about. It's fair to point that out.

Posted by: Alex Parker | Oct 11, 2004 6:25:15 PM

"He is arguing that non-political virtues exist, and that that's a good thing, and that the inability to recognize them is a bad thing."

Was Matt's objection that the writer didn't acknowledge the aesthetic value of the film? Why is that an obligation? Especially in an article that isn't even really a movie review?

Posted by: Curtis Erhart | Oct 11, 2004 6:27:30 PM

"Does it portray him sympathetically?"

Yes.

You miss Matt's point in that he is arguing for being open to viewing artistic works separately of their possible propagandistic value.

Max makes you sympathize with Hitler, but it's not a work that is somehow pro-Nazi. Hitler was a human being. So were Che and McVeigh. There are many ways to tell various aspects of their stories, and there are important components to life and art beyond ideology.

Not all art that somehow involves politics or political figures is the equivelent of a Michael Moore or Lionel Chetwynd movie.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 11, 2004 6:29:18 PM

The appearance of a movie about Che is a good occasion to go over the bad things he has done. There may be non-political virtues in the movie but they need not be discussed in an essay that focuses on Che's life. A lot of people just know about Che from the t-shirt.

Artistic virtues are generally amorphous and hard to judge. In the twentieth century, artistic recognition has often been crystallized as a result of a threat of censorship (i.e. Ulysses and Howl). Now whenever a creative work is under attack for non-artistic reasons, you often hear somewhat excessive artistic defenses of the work.

Posted by: Joe O | Oct 11, 2004 6:31:32 PM

I got that point. I'm not an idiot, for christ's sake. All I was saying was that it's OK to make a political criticism without simultaneously acknowledging whatever artistic merit the film has. If I say a film's soundtrack is awful, it doesn't mean I think the film's cinematography is awful. If I admired the cinematography, am I obligated to say so if I want to criticize the soundtrack?

Posted by: Curtis Erhart | Oct 11, 2004 6:34:48 PM

"The appearance of a movie about Che is a good occasion to go over the bad things he has done."

I'd still rather be born to random parents in current day Cuba than current day Haiti...

Posted by: Petey | Oct 11, 2004 6:43:54 PM

Presumably, if someone were to make a light-hearted road movie about Hitler, they would be doing so for a reason (good or bad) and to a certain effect (good or bad). Certainly, a bunch of neo-Nazis might decide that a light-hearted Hitler road movie would be just the ticket to revive Hitler's bad rep in the eyes of the world. But just as likely, the filmmaker of such a movie would have something else in mind. Perhaps something along the lines of Monty Python's sit-com parody, "The Attila the Hun Show."

I have to say, the idea of a light-hearted road movie about Hitler sounds kind of good. But I also liked the light-hearted road movie about a pedophile that Kubrick once made. I enjoyed "Life is Beautiful" as did many people, but there were also people who denounced the movie because it was supposedly tonally inappropriate, being a not-entirely morose movie about the extermination of the Jews. I'm sure we could all come up with a very long list of great movies that should never been made due to the so-called inappropriateness of their topics or characters.

It's possible that just the decree that it's inappropriate to make a movie with tone y about subject x is reason enough for someone to try.

Posted by: quisp | Oct 11, 2004 7:03:23 PM

If Berman is really determined to drag Che's career as a guerilla into the context of a film about his early life, more power to him. There are a couple of major problems with this, however:

1. He risks sounding like the kind of people who demand we rattle on about the Indian Wars every time someone unfurls an American flag, or about slavery every time someone makes an insufficiently negative film about Thomas Jefferson. There's a certain level of cultural prescriptivism that becomes not only tiresome, but actively blind to the fact that historical questions can have more than one facet and that every text about a subject needn't concern itself with the entire picture to avoid being accused of "moral callousness." Berman is on the point of demanding that any film about a political figure should be made as a morality play, and I just can't be impressed by that.

2. Berman's understanding of "cult" of Che, and the evolution of symbolism surrounding historical figures generally, strikes me as quite crude. As history moves forward, historical figures do have a way of getting yanked out of their original context and used for other purposes and creeds. This process would only be sinister if it was attached to some sort of genuinely dangerous and widespread political phenomenon. A fear of the "cult of Che" would be at least understandable if radical totalitarian leftists were a huge domestic political threat right now, but they simply aren't. Indeed, much of Che's posthumous "cult" trivializes and ignores his life and later revolutionary beliefs in a way the revolutionary Guevara would have despised, and which his posthumous enemies should, frankly, relish.

3. Most importantly, the kind of prescribed hostility Berman is effectively demanding (or seems to be demanding, in any case) may well be false to history. It does not necessarily follow from "Che did many bad things" that "Che must be portrayed as unsympathetic;" indeed, key to understanding the appeal of doctrines one sees as dangerous is understanding the specific appeal of the people who held them. Ignoring this can only lead to superficial, cartoonish propaganda -- and the virtue and durability of a liberal society consists in the extent to which it's able to rise above that kind of thing.

Posted by: Doctor Slack | Oct 11, 2004 7:10:21 PM

This isn't totally germane, but I saw Triumph of the Will in my German literature class, and it put me to sleep. It's a really boring movie, actually, and I understand spoken German well.

It's always surprised me that people point it out as this masterpiece - for me it literally put me to sleep.

Posted by: Hektor Bim | Oct 11, 2004 7:17:07 PM

I just re-read the article, and it seems to me that he arguing two things. 1. The movie deifies Che and 2. that's a bad thing. If you're going to respond, you should show that either 1. the film doesn't deify Che, or that 2. it's not a bad thing. Matt did neither. I think he's talking past the guy here.

Posted by: Curtis Erhart | Oct 11, 2004 8:36:56 PM

Curtis,

Right. This is because Matt's ENTIRE earlier post was predicated on the assumption, or belief, or something, that Paul Berman's article was a "Movie Review" - which it was not.

That fact is just not sinking in with many here for some reason.

Berman, quite evidently, wrote the article specifically for the purpose of stating that the "cult of Che", as he styles it, is not something worth glorifying, which, he claims, this film does. One can agree or disagree with all that, but to point (and get "pissed off") and say "You didn't even discuss the merits of the film!" is a non sequitur. No he did not. So the hell what? He didn't want to. That's not what the article was about.

It was not a movie review Matthew! Get it? You want a movie review, go to Ebert, I'm sure there's one there. That article was NOT one. There is no valid reason for you to begrudge Paul Berman's right to write an article that mentions Che, and a movie about Che, which is not a movie review. It's just such a silly complaint.

Posted by: Blixa | Oct 11, 2004 8:42:34 PM

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