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The New Phillistinism

In the interests of full disclosure I should say that my father is working on a project with Walter Salles at the moment. Nevertheless, I've written on this general subject before and Paul Berman's review of The Motorcycle Diaries really pissed me off. Is the difference between an evaluation of the life of Che and an evaluation of a film about a brief period in Che's life really that hard to understand? We don't get a movie review at all -- instead we get a rant about how Che was a bad guy and people shouldn't admire him and put his image on all kinds of stuff. Well, fine, but what about the movie?

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.
So given that description, what's the relevance of Berman's "criticism" that:
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 ..."
This is all stuff that isn't portrayed in the movie. Besides which, since when did the correctness of a work's politics become the sole -- or even an important -- criterion in evaluating it. Do we need to burn our copies of The Battleship Potemkin? Eliminate all the Shostakovich compositions that Stalin didn't condemn? In case Berman hasn't heard, the whole Soviet Communism thing didn't work out very well. It was pretty totalitarian, in fact. Do we condemn Shakespeare as a crude propagandist for the royal dynasty of the day? This is just a bizarre way to behave.

The release of a film about Che is a perfectly appropriate moment for an article about how Che was not, in fact, an admirable person but that's not the same thing as a movie review....

September 24, 2004 | Permalink


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» Berman on the Che cult from Harry's Place
Paul Berman, who has been praised and linked to frequently here, has another must-read piece at Slate.com-- this one on the misbegotten cult of Che... [Read More]

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» Berman on the Che cult from Harry's Place
Paul Berman, who has been praised and linked to frequently here, has another must-read piece at Slate.com-- this one on the misbegotten cult of Che... [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 26, 2004 5:48:28 PM

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» Portraying Guevara from Crooked Timber
Matt Yglesias had some sensible comments the other day concerning Paul Berman’s philistine reaction to The Motorcycle Diaries. As a film, I thought it was OK, though I looked at my watch from time to time. There’s a real question,... [Read More]

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» Enemablog from Simon World
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Matthew, I think you're overreacting.

You write: Do we need to burn our copies of The Battleship Potemkin?

Is Berman arguing to ban the film, or to burn all existing copies so no one can see it?

Why is it so wrong to add context to the life of the subject of a film?

And why is it so wrong to have an article that acts as both a review of the film and a review of the film's role in the political/historical discussion?

Berman is saying "don't applaud" the movie - not "ban" it. How Soviet of him.

Posted by: SoCalJustice | Sep 24, 2004 11:36:46 AM

"This is all stuff that isn't portrayed in the movie."

I suspect that may be one of Berman's problems with the movie (which I have not seen).

Now, it's an entirely fair and debatable point to maintain that it's fine to make a movie about a character most famous for his politics which doesn't deal with his politics, but it's not unfair or undebatable to take the other side, either.

Also, I recall your complaining before about "reviews" which sailed off onto other topics related to those brought up in the work, and you seemed to be maintaining that that was somehow wrong, and only the work in question should specifically be discussed; it's entirely possibly I entirely misunderstood you there, in which case Never Mind, but I don't agree with such a stance at all; "reviews" and critiques are fair game to go wherever the writer wishes to take them, in my view, and descriptively speaking, even if they don't do what we want them to do.

So Berman talks about politics in a movie review; it's just something one has to live with, just as he has to live with movies about Che that neither condemn him nor even, perhaps, allude to his later horrifying totalitarian aspects. I don't see either situation as objectively "wrong," myself. I don't see where we have absolute rules for squeezing these sorts of things into categories that may not be escaped.

Posted by: Gary Farber | Sep 24, 2004 11:36:50 AM


On the one hand, I appreciate your criticism that this really is not a review of the movie. (I would say, though, that Berman's analysis of the problematic Catholic tone is very interesting and quite fitting with a film review.)

However, your analogies, in my opinion, do not hold up. Shakespeare and Shostakovich were authors, whereas Che is the subject of this film.

Your analogies would apply to a scathing review of the written "Motorcycle Diaries," but not so much to the film.

A film on the early years of the life of a really, really bad person should probably engage the problem that he turned into a really, really bad person. The failure to engage or acknowledge that truth can make the film come off as either making apologies for Che or outright denying his bad-personhood.

Posted by: Mikael | Sep 24, 2004 11:40:03 AM

Incidentally, I see that Berman's piece is published in "Culturebox," not as a "movie review." Which I think removes all possible objection of the sort you're making, unless you object inherently to discussing the political implications of culture, which I suspect you do not. I don't see where he's required to discuss the cinematography and make-up work, say, but not the politics of the work.

And I think Berman is entirely correct in his views, incidentally. The romanticization of totalitarian figures -- and Berman lived through the peak of that of Che -- you may underestimate just how powerful the image of Che was in contributing to, for instance, the Weathermen -- is truly a disgusting thing, whether it's Castro or Pinochet.

Posted by: Gary Farber | Sep 24, 2004 11:42:04 AM

I think Berman is pissed off that, despite everything that has happened since the sixties, Ché is still a loved figure (at least in Latin America). ¿Maybe instead of ranting about it in movie reviews he should travel here and try to figure out why?

Posted by: Carlos | Sep 24, 2004 11:58:51 AM

Well, of course, it is simply not permissible to mention a historical character without passing politicaly correctjudgment on him.

You know, Andrew Lloyd Weber doesn't show Che's evil side, either--we need to condemn him, too! Don't cry for Che, Argentina . . .

Posted by: rea | Sep 24, 2004 12:07:57 PM

How about a nice movie about Hitler's time as a painter? Or how about Stalin's time as a seminarian? Pol Pot may have had a wonderful time in Paris in the late '40s. That would make a good movie, wouldn't it?

Posted by: ostap | Sep 24, 2004 12:18:08 PM

It seems like the problem for Matthew is that he has somehow decided that Paul Berman's piece is, Officially and Technically (according to the Federal Registry of Article-Type-Categorizations), a "Movie Review". As such, it is not allowed to mention aspects of the actual life of the subject of the film not covered by said film.

It it weren't a "Movie Review", of course, Matthew might be able to let it slide. But it is. It is, Formally and Officially, a "Movie Review". Therefore he can't.

Another explanation of course is that Matthew just Didn't like the article to mention Bad Stuff 'Bout Che for some reason. Can't figure out why that would be, however. The journalistic principle here is, apparently, that sometimes it's good to withhold information from the reader. In this case, that's what Matthew would've preferred. (For some reason.)

Posted by: Blixa | Sep 24, 2004 12:42:07 PM

Um, it's NOT a movie review. David Edelstein does movie reviews at Slate. Culturebox talks about issues related to modern culture. Agree with it or not, it was a perfectly appropriate topic for a Culturebox article

Posted by: carpeicthus | Sep 24, 2004 12:45:25 PM

There was a 'nice movie about Hitler's time as a painter'. It was called 'Max', and it did a pretty good job of portraying Germany after World War One.

Otherwise, I don't think Slate authors are worth getting worked up about. Kaplan's good, but the rest of them produce consistently low-grade fare, week after week. There's a reason why Slate's free, no?

Posted by: sglover | Sep 24, 2004 1:07:51 PM

I hate Che as much, if not more, than Berman. It's unfortunate that the movie only deals with Che's youth. It'd much more helpful if a complete biopic was made so that all aspects of his life were under scrutiny. I'd bet Hitler's days painting portraits in the streets could be portrayed as idealistic and make a nice film (in fact I think there is one). Is that helpful? Does it contribute to the canon? ...or does it distort the legacy of a genocidal maniac (Hitler)? In this case specifically, will young people think, "hey this guy travelled around on a motorcycle helping indigenous peoples, so that's why everyone wears a t-shirt with his face"..

I've mixed emotions about whether to see this film or not. I despise Che and everything he stands for. But I like the actor they've chosen, I like the plot, despite it's author, of traveling by bike and opening one's eyes to the socio-economic differences that exist. And heck, everyone loves a road trip.

I wrote a stark-raving mad piece on Che for BlogCuba last year if anyone wants to hear another side of the story:

Someone should come along and tell the rest of the tale in a new film. --s

Posted by: j.scott barnard | Sep 24, 2004 1:13:36 PM

I think that berman may be overreacting a little himself. it covers one period in Che's life, but if he wants to see something that glorifies Che, he should watch the execrable Che! with Omar Sharif in the title role and Jack Palance as Fidel Castro.

It was featured in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.

Posted by: Randy Paul | Sep 24, 2004 1:18:29 PM

It's not like Paul Berman is Slate's regular movie reviewer. I think he just thought it important to tell people bad things about Che that they might not know.

A movie about Che is an odd thing. Practically, all biographical movies have the viewer identify with the central character. Why make such a movie about Che?

Philistinism is also an odd word to use. I thought it meant something like "indifference to artistic value", but the dictionary definition I found was "a desire for wealth and material possessions with little interest in ethical or spiritual matters". That doesn't fit Berman's article at all.

Posted by: Joe O | Sep 24, 2004 1:23:44 PM

"How about a nice movie about Hitler's time as a painter?"

Doggone it, you beat me to it.

But in the same vein. How about a stirring adventure about Goering as a heroic air ace in WWI? Or a hot romance dealing with the courtship of Himmler and his wife?

Posted by: TR Farmer | Sep 24, 2004 2:21:43 PM

If you're no fan of the review-as-excuse-for-tangentially-related-rant, you must really hate Christopher Hitchens' book reviews...

Posted by: susan | Sep 24, 2004 2:39:57 PM

"How about a nice movie about Hitler's time as a painter?"


Good movie, with John Cusack, Noah Wylie, and the delectable Molly Parker.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Sep 24, 2004 2:50:25 PM


On the Road With Young Che

In the spring of 1952, two young men set out by motorcycle on an ambitious, footloose journey that they hoped would carry them from Buenos Aires up the spine of Chile, across the Andes and into the Peruvian Amazon. (They made it, a little behind schedule, though the unfortunate motorcycle did not.) Their road trip, however inspired and audacious it might have been, could have faded into personal memory and family lore, even though both travelers produced written accounts of their adventures. The older, a 29-year-old biochemist named Alberto Granado, is still alive and appears at the very end of "The Motorcycle Diaries," Walter Salles's stirring and warm-hearted reconstruction of that long-ago voyage. Granado's companion was a 23-year-old medical student named Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, whose subsequent career as a political idol, revolutionary martyr and T-shirt icon — Che! — reflects a charismatic, mysterious glow onto his early life.

"Is it possible to be nostalgic for a world you never knew?" Ernesto wonders as he contemplates Inca ruins in the Peruvian highlands. Mr. Salles's film, as ardent and serious a quest as Ernesto's turned out to be, poses a similar question. In making their movie, the cast and crew retraced the route of Granado and Guevara three times, trying to connect not only with the varied, rugged landscape of South America but also with the hopes and confusions of an earlier time: an era before the Cuban revolution, before the military coups and dirty wars of the 1960's and 70's, before the democratic resurgence and economic catastrophes that followed.

The filmmakers are not so naïve as to suppose that the old days were simpler or more innocent than the present. The movie's feeling of freshness and possibility comes from the wide-eyed intelligence of its heroes. But one reason to explore the past is to try to rediscover an elusive sense of forgotten possibility, and in Mr. Salles's hands what might have been a schematic story of political awakening becomes a lyrical exploration of the sensations and perceptions from which a political understanding of the world emerges. What "The Motorcycle Diaries" captures, with startling clarity and delicacy, is the quickening of Ernesto's youthful idealism, and the gradual turning of his passionate, literary nature toward an as yet unspecified form of radical commitment.

In declining to follow the subsequent course of that passion — into the Sierra Maestre, the Congo and the mountains of Bolivia, where Guevara met his bloody end — Mr. Salles risks being accused of idealizing his subject. It's a fair charge, but one that misses the director's fidelity to his literary sources. Guevara's diaries, discovered in a knapsack long after his death, were published in 1993, and much of their appeal lies in the sense of immediacy they convey. Their author did not know who he would become, even as the notebooks themselves dramatize a crucial stage in his development.

At the beginning, at home with his bourgeois Buenos Aires family, Ernesto (Gael García Bernal) is not Che, but "Fuser" — sensitive, asthmatic and perhaps a bit of a dilettante. Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna), lecherous, plump and gregarious, full of good-natured, blustery trash talk, is Falstaff to Fuser's Prince Hal. While there is a worthy goal at the end of their journey — they intend to work in a leper colony in Peru — the main purpose is tourism, both high minded and low. They want to see as much of Latin America as they can — more than 8,000 kilometers (about 5,000 miles) in just a few months — and also bed as many Latin American beauties as will fall for their ridiculous pick-up lines.

Alberto may be the self-declared ladies' man, but Mr. Bernal, with his smoldering eyes and equine features, is the movie's heartthrob. Though the film does, by the end, view Ernesto as a quasi-holy figure, turning away from the corruptions of the world toward a higher purpose, he is also portrayed as a mischievous, eager boy. Early in the film, the travelers stop in the seaside town of Miramar to visit Ernesto's girlfriend, Chichina (Mía Maestro), whose wealthy parents clearly disapprove of him, to say nothing of the uncouth Alberto (who promptly seduces the family's maid). The scenes between Ernesto and Chichina have the delicious ache of late-adolescent longing, a feeling that suffuses the film even as it turns its attention to graver matters.

At times, "The Motorcycle Diaries," which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, bounces along like a conventional buddy picture, animated by Ernesto and Alberto's mechanical mishaps and good-natured squabbles. But the film, written by José Rivera, is really a love story in the form of a travelogue. The love it chronicles is no less profound — and no less stirring to the senses — for taking place not between two people but between a person and a continent. Mr. Bernal's soulful, magnetic performance notwithstanding, the real star of the film is South America itself, revealed in the cinematographer Eric Gautier's misty green images as a land of jarring and enigmatic beauty.

Posted by: lise | Sep 24, 2004 3:32:10 PM

Nearly 40 years after his death, Che Guevarra remains a hero to many, many people.

You can rant and rave about how foolish their admiration is, but there are good reasons for it, and you ignore them at your peril.

Posted by: synykyl | Sep 24, 2004 3:32:32 PM

I remember William Buckley's review of a volume of Lilian Hellman's autobiography. Most of it was devoted to remembering all the terrible (and they were terrible) things that Hellman (and Hammett) did. I suppose that's apt for an autobiography. Hellman was widely denounced -- the anti-Communist Left, particularly Mary McCarthy, despised her. Her sin was a blinkered, un-repentant Stalinism. Hammett shared it.

I bring up Hammett because his 5 novels are the finest body of detective fiction there is. And his politics are absolutely irrelevant to the enjoyment of them. (Yes, there are socialist analyses of the books. Small potatoes.)

One could -- in fact, recently a lot do -- talk about Kipling's bizarre politics. As someone who is devouring a complete works of Kipling I've recently inherited, I could care less about Kipling's whackball notions: like a lot of artists, apparently, he had two souls, and the two never spoke. His short stories, Kim, Stalky and Co. are the works of a real artist.

When I saw the previews for The Motorcycle Diaries, I wondered about it. It seemed entirely an effort to humanize someone who later turned into a monster/folk hero with the aim to rehabilitate him. I imagine its possible that diaries were used simply as a way to get a movie about the subject of the exploitation of S. American Indians made. I'd like it if the review would be alert enough to such a distinction.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis | Sep 24, 2004 4:03:19 PM

I agree with all the above comments about Berman not pretending to write a review, merely to highlight a disturbing remnant of Stalinist hero-worship in some parts of the politicial culture, both here and abroad. But its also not true to say that it ignores the film entirely. It makes what a serious critical point that:

"the entire movie, in its concept and tone, exudes a Christological cult of martyrdom, a cult of adoration for the spiritually superior person who is veering toward death—precisely the kind of adoration that Latin America's Catholic Church promoted for several centuries, with miserable consequences. The rebellion against reactionary Catholicism in this movie is itself an expression of reactionary Catholicism. The traditional churches of Latin America are full of statues of gruesome bleeding saints. And the masochistic allure of those statues is precisely what you see in the movie's many depictions of young Che coughing out his lungs from asthma and testing himself by swimming in cold water—all of which is rendered beautiful and alluring by a sensual backdrop of grays and browns and greens, and the lovely gaunt cheeks of one actor after another, and the violent Andean landscapes."

I don't know if this is true or not; I haven't seen the movie. But its at least a stab at legitimate criticism on both political and aesthetic grounds.

Posted by: rd | Sep 24, 2004 4:19:46 PM

Wait 'til Berman gets a load of this one:


Che (2005)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Benicio Del Toro as Guevara.

Posted by: Peter K. | Sep 24, 2004 4:25:36 PM

I'm not a fan of Che's, nor am I utterly repulsed by him, but these comparisons to Hitler and Pol Pot are ahistorical at best. Is it so difficult to assess a historical figure in his own time against his own backdrop? Cheap comparisons do nothing to enhance history, but they feel good pouring out, I guess.

And for Berman to lament the hard turn that the Cuban rev took is truly ridiculous, given that the US would've never tolerated a serene dem-socialist Cuba 90 miles away. I'm no fan of firing squads, but history has shown that the US only understands force and deterrents. Nicaragua tried the dem-socialist route (and Berman at the time called the Sandinistas "Stalinists," even though they allowed a mixed economy, an opposition press that called for their violent overthrow, and various opposition parties) and look what happened -- the country's been reduced to near-Haiti status thanks to the terrorist campaign launched against it. We'll see what'll happen to Chavez, esp if Bush is re-selected.

Oh yeah -- how non-violent was the aftermath of the American rev?

Posted by: santo | Sep 24, 2004 4:28:36 PM

"AIDS victims"? There were no AIDS cases
in Cuba in the 1960s.

Posted by: Hedley Lamarr | Sep 24, 2004 5:03:03 PM

Philistinism was a poor choice of words, and Matthew seems hell-bent on becoming the uber-elitist. Hence throwing around words like that one.

Also, you can hardly call Shakespeare a propagandist for the royal dynasty. He didn't exactly leave out or gloss over the bad parts. What's Harvard teaching these days?

Posted by: Chris K | Sep 25, 2004 1:15:15 AM

"You can rant and rave about how foolish their admiration is, but there are good reasons for it, and you ignore them at your peril."

There are reasons for all sorts of personality cults based on vicious people. And we shouldn't ignore them. Nor should we pretend that they are good reasons.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Sep 25, 2004 3:19:55 AM

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