Soderbergh and Tarantino: Warrior Auteurs

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Benicio Del Toro in Che.

They emerged as hot phenoms, at Cannes and in Hollywood, within a couple years of each other. Steven Soderbergh brought his first feature here in 1989. That's when sex, lies, and videotape proved itself a come-from-nowhere winner of the Cannes Palme d'Or in 1989, then a sizable commercial success, Quentin Tarantino showed Reservoir Dogs at Cannes in 1992, but that was the merest fanfare to his Pulp Fiction, a Palme d'Or triumph in 1994 and probably the defining movie — certainly the most vivid, film-wise comic epic — of its decade.

Since then, Soderbergh has won an Oscar (for directing Traffic), guided Julia Roberts to a statuette of her own (for Erin Brockovich) and launched an action-movie franchise (Ocean's), while Tarantino, a slower worker, created the vertiginous, voluminous Kill Bill. Today both gents were back on the Riviera, Soderbergh for the world premiere of his Che Guevara bio-pic, Tarantino to give a film "master class" — essentially a 2hr. interview, plus clip show, with the eminent French critic-historian Michel Ciment.

Not to keep you in suspense, Q.T.'s session was loads more illuminating, cinematic and fun than S.S.'s.


In preview stories on Cannes, some movie each year is referred to as the most eagerly anticipated of the festival. There should be another category — most acutely dreaded — and this time that was Che. At an announced running time of 4hr.28min. (it wound up at about 4hr.20min.), and with the madly idiosyncratic Benicio Del Toro as his star, the film wasn't promising so much as it was threatening.

Say this for Soderbergh: among all contemporary American directors, he has the most restless ambitions. His interests range far and wide, across different genres but, more important, different kinds of movies: the indie romantic comedy (sex, lies, and videotape), the all-star action spectacle (Ocean's) and the defiantly obscurantist conundrum (Schizopolis). His films can toady to an audience's prejudices (Erin Brockovich) or virtually say, "Don't watch me" (Bubble). He has the clout to get his projects off the ground and the work ethic to make them quickly: Che is his ninth feature this decade, not including shorter films and the TV series K Street. And he doesn't just direct his own films, he photographs them (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews). Yet Soderbergh seems defined more by these giant, wayward ambitions than by a discernible authorial personality. If his name were taken off his films, sophisticated viewers would be hard pressed to locate a visual or thematic through-line.

Che is a halfway movie: too expensive (reportedly $61 million) to be relegated to art houses, too stiff and forbidding to appeal to any part of a mass audience. In its Cannes gestation it was presented in two parts (though neither part bore an official title here), each slightly more than two hrs.: The Argentine, which covers Guevara's role in Fidel Castro's 1958 campaign across the Cuban jungle, ending in the flight of President Batista and the ascendency of Castro (Demian Bichir); and Guerilla, detailing Che's failed, ultimately fatal attempt to bring revolution in Bolivia.

In the program notes, producer Laura Bickford says that the first part is "more of an action film with big battle scenes," and the second part "more of a thriller." Actually, neither tag truly applies. Though Part One begins by hopscotching from 1955, when Castro and Guevara meet, to later scenes in Havana and New York, at least 80% of the whole effort takes place in the Cuban or Bolivian jungle. It's the woodsiest war movie ever, and less along march than an endless slog.

Directors often say that their favorite version of one of their films was the 4hr. rough cut; after that, trimming the material down to standard length was like flaying or filleting your baby. Given the expanse of Peter Buchman's script, Soderbergh must have figured he had a story that would take 4 hours to tell and, dammit, that's the movie he'd show here. So the running time is not the problem of this honorable, doomed effort; it's that so many scenes are repetitions of earlier ones. Che has to instill military discipline in his ragtag rebels in Cuba, then in Bolivia; in both places he has to decide whether to accept underage volunteers; in both, he gives his men a chance to quit before the decisive battles, where they are fired on by unseen regular soldiers and suffer the deaths of friends who've made their big speech or poignant impression moments before. And forgive me for asking, but with all these young men spending up to a year in the jungle, why (with one rapacious exception) so they never express any interest in women. Are they bearded Boy Scouts, or celibate monks with guns?

Occasionally, the film is enlivened by the guest appearances of familiar actors, sometimes cast appropriately (Lou Diamond Phillips as Mario Monje, Catalina Sandina Moreno as Che's second wife), sometimes not (Matt Damon as a negotiator in Bolivia!?). But the major burden falls on its star, who as one of the producers has nurtured the project for almost a decade. And Del Toro — whose acting style often starts over the top and soars from there, like a hang-glider leaping from a skyscraper roof — is muted, yielding few emotional revelations, seemingly sedated here. Except for one thrilling confrontation at the UN between Guevara and ambassadors from other Latin American countries, Che is defined less by his rigorous fighting skills and seductive intellect than by his asthma.

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