One of South America’s most brilliantly talented filmmakers has made a political road movie: the story of a young man who sets out on a journey of discovery and self-discovery through his vast continent. An essay in the higher vagabondage, you might call it, since this vulnerable hero, like most of the people he encounters en route, travels with few provisions other than his wits. The way is hard for him; and hanging over it, like a perpetual low cloud cover, is the weight of past struggles and present injustice. The young fellow, you see, has a tendency to brood. Fortunately, though, he also knows how to look, and so finds vividness and beauty welling up everywhere to sustain him (and the audience, too).
I won’t claim the film is completely successful; but as a travelogue it’s so intensely personal, as a political fable it’s so alive with sharp observation, that I wish you could run out now and see it.
Too bad. El Viaje, by the extraordinary Argentine director Fernando Solanas, has gone undistributed in the United States since its completion in 1992. All we get is The Motorcycle Diaries.
It is a based-on-a-true-story movie–the same story, for all I know, that might have inspired El Viaje. In 1952, the 23-year-old Ernesto Guevara (not yet known as Che) set out with his 29-year-old buddy Alberto Granado on a trip that would take them from Buenos Aires to Patagonia, then across to Chile, up the spine of the Andes and into Venezuela. The friends, born of the middle class and poised for professional careers, had between them a sole vehicle for this adventure: a sputtering and unsteady motorcycle, vintage 1939.
Imagine, if you will, a few episodes where the motorcycle skids out of control and crashes on this or that country road. Imagine the inevitable final cough of the engine, far from the proposed destination, and the friends’ decision to forge ahead anyway, on foot and by thumb. There will be quarrels and reconciliations, youthful pranks and attempts to get laid. And, of course, there will be an awakening of conscience–because, my God, there are poor people on this continent! Lots and lots of poor people! Think of their faces, staring in soulful forthrightness into the camera, while the film stock is changed to black and white for that forever-in-memory effect.
If you can picture all this–or, rather, predict it–then you’ve as good as seen The Motorcycle Diaries. No need to rely on director Walter Salles, whose dramatic sense and image-making skills don’t merely lean on convention but embrace it, celebrate it, in direct contradiction to his protagonist’s spirit.
Habits of mind are “a most terrible force,” wrote the author V.I. Lenin, with whose works Che Guevara seems to have been familiar. Generations of romantics and revolutionaries accordingly strove to break with routine patterns of seeing and speaking. That they often failed in this struggle–or, worse, came to enforce their own deadly regime of clichés–neither invalidates the project nor blots it from history. But what socialist realism could not wipe out, liberal self-congratulation may yet turn to mush. You will know what I mean if you’ve seen Salles’s Central Station, the film that made Cinema Novo into something Disney might have produced; and you will anticipate from The Motorcycle Diaries a similarly Mickey Mouse Che.
He’s played by Gael García Bernal, the slim and foxfaced young actor from Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También–not an ideal match for the historic figure, but a canny substitute at the present moment, when Che has returned as a trendy T-shirt. García Bernal makes a sweet loverboy Guevara, whose principal traits in the movie are weak bronchial tubes and a charming awkwardness on the dance floor. Think, in other words, of a Che from the strung-out waif era of fashion photography. Serving as his foil, and little else, is Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna): a more robust type, outfitted with an old-style movie-star mustache, who is characterized in José Rivera’s screenplay mostly by a venal horniness, until he awakens to his friend’s spiritual superiority.
So pat is the sidekick-and-star interplay that by the end of the film, Granado is reduced to standing at a distance from Guevara, applauding in moist-eyed muteness as the hero speechifies. But even that isn’t enough for Salles and Rivera. Immediately after this scene, the filmmakers plunge Guevara into the Amazon, so he can swim across the river to the cheers of Granado and a chorus of adoring lepers. Salles somehow forgot to give Guevara a dog to rescue on the way over, but that’s the only shtick he neglected. Over the course of the film he delivers the cute Indian boy, the good-natured hooker, the snobbish Euro-Latins and not one but two women bravely suffering disease.
“But the film is so beautiful,” say Salles’s fans. No–it’s pretty. Eric Gautier photographed it, with frequent and unnecessary use of the wan light and monochromatic effects that are now high-fashion clichés of their own. With this much sense of visual discovery, The Motorcycle Diaries could spawn a glossy magazine: Condé-Nast Revolution.
I’ll let you in on a secret: Just as Dr. King was more than a fat man with a dream, Che was more than a longhair motivated by feelings of great love. He devoted much of his adult life to activities of the kill-or-be-killed variety. That, of course, is something that a culture of liberal self-congratulation would prefer not to contemplate. We’d rather get the T-shirt Che, only prettier. We don’t know exactly what he’ll do after The Motorcycle Diaries, but he sure is going to be famous.
Farther down the road to Jaglomdom tritzes James Toback. In his new picture, the would-be sex-and-revenge thriller When Will I Be Loved, the writer-director shows up in person to act out his fascination with his star, Neve Campbell. It’s an exercise in confession and self-absolution, in which Toback (thinly disguised as a Columbia University professor) interviews the actress, has her own up to her sexual allure and then says he thought of hiring her because he fantasized, just a little, about getting her into bed. If you think this is more information than you needed, you may also feel that Toback should have dispensed with a few random cameos, which interrupt the proceedings only to prove that he knows Mike Tyson, Damon Dash and Lori Singer. Other Jaglomish self-indulgences that must be endured before the main event include scattered observations about architects (including Mies, mispronounced), musicians (principally Glenn Gould) and the subject matter of previous James Toback movies.
And so to the story:
It is a variation, as one character baldly admits, on the premise of Indecent Proposal. Rich-girl Vera (Campbell) has been keeping company with a pinch-faced young hustler (Frederick Weller), and he in turn has been buzzing around the fabulously wealthy Italian media mogul Count Tommaso Lupo (Dominic Chianese). When the hustler suggests that old Tommaso would pay well for a night of love–the topic arises, not quite smoothly, after a doggie-style interlude on Vera’s crimson sofa–young Ms. Sex Magnet says only, “Set it up.” The rest is negotiation: financial, emotional and (at last) police procedural.
According to a canned interview with Toback, part of his reason for wanting to realize this story was his “very intense curiosity” about Neve Campbell. “I always felt that there was a great deal of range and ability she had that had not been shown in any of the movies I’d seen her in.” Apparently, then, he missed Wild Things, in which she played a scheming piece of sex-bait much like Vera, only poor. Those of us who caught that movie (a delightfully sleazy picture, unencumbered by architects or Glenn Gould) may welcome Campbell’s performance here–the sudden unaffected smile, so knowingly put on; the slyly underplayed verbal thrusts; the catlike gaze–but won’t mistake it for anything new.
Is it any longer possible, though, for a femme fatale to seem new? Can she even be fatale? Take a quick side trip through Mira Nair’s version of Vanity Fair, and you may wonder if women’s wiles are now as unimaginable to the liberal mind as a smoking gun in Che’s hand. That this Vanity Fair is meant to be liberal, or even leftish, is beyond doubt, since its main achievement is to bring colonialism from the background of Thackeray’s novel to the foreground of the movie. As others have observed by now, the India trade is now visible everywhere, in small details and large. Many critics have credited this change to the influence of Edward Said–so I hope he won’t also be blamed for certain other features of Vanity Fair: the expository longueurs, the fitful pace (aggravated by Nair’s unwillingness to cut on action) and, worst of all, a Becky Sharp who is just too darn nice. My experience of Said suggests he might have admired Reese Witherspoon’s person in the leading role but not her character’s inability to toy with men, except in a doomed, what-can-I-lose manner. Back in the old days, when Miriam Hopkins was playing her, Becky made plans to win.
So did Neve Campbell, for that matter, back in the old days of Wild Things–1998!–when she and the audience got some nasty fun out of her plotting. Her sexual power in that movie was something for her to experience and use. Now, in When Will I Be Loved, it’s good only as a subject for Toback to contemplate and discuss. Like the Che Guevara of The Motorcycle Diaries, Vera has a personal force that is posited, not felt, as a feature of her stardom and a memory of other, better movies.
But at least Walter Salles has the virtue of respecting his elders. Toback congratulates his own filmmaking at every moment, even giving Vera’s hustler boyfriend the name of Ford Welles.
Poor Ford. Poor Welles.
The Pleasures of Home: Several readers have asked me to post guidance toward video sources, since many of the films I mention in this column get only a limited theatrical release. So: My favorite supplier, for rental or purchase, is Facets Multimedia in Chicago (www.facets.org). In general, if a film is available at all on video, you can get it from Facets–which means that El Viaje is out of reach, but Solanas’s La Nube can be had.