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Me mirabas”: Steven Soderbergh’s Latin America

Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz

Résumés

Les films de Steven Soderbergh aux thèmes latino-américains, Traffic et Che, présentent des différences dans leurs choix de lieux et de sujets. Ces différences se basent sur des pratiques cinématographiques qui soulignent les distinctions visuelles comme marqueurs de l’altérité. Dans ces films, Soderbergh explore les conflits politiques, sociaux, linguistiques et personnels grâce à l’utilisation de filtres, d’objectifs, de configurations de caméra, de formats et de langage cinématographiques distincts. Dans Traffic, l’aspect visuel semble suggérer le Mexique comme “autre” et les séquences américaines comme centrales. Cet article explore les façons dont le “look” de l’Amérique latine - le Mexique dans Traffic, Cuba et la Bolivie dans Che - se transforme de manière perceptible entre les deux films, rendant étrange et artificielle la représentation des États-Unis, et tout particulièrement des villes de Cincinnati, Washington DC, New York. Des éléments formels tels que la mise en scène, l’image et le dialogue semblent se modifier au cours des films, ce qui correspond à un changement d’orientation et à une approche plus empathique envers l’“autre” latino-américain.

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Introduction

  • 1 Steven Soderbergh, Interview with Geoff Andrew, The Guardian, February 13 2003.
  • 2 Mark Gallagher, Another Steven Soderbergh Experience: Authorship and Contemporary Hollywood (Austin (...)
  • 3 Andrew deWaard and R. Colin Tait, The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh: indie sex, corporate lies, and d (...)

1Hollywood film director Steven Soderbergh has carved for himself one of the most unusual niches in the contemporary film industry. An independent-minded risk taker, he is the creator of small, rare, often controversial films like sex, lies and videotape (1989), Kafka (1991), Schizopolis (1996), Full Frontal (2002), Bubble (2005), and The Girlfriend Experience (2009). He has also veered successfully into big, expensive, and star-studded films with potentially enormous commercial appeal, among them Out of Sight (1998), Ocean’s 11 (2001) and its sequels, Erin Brockovich (2000), The Good German (2006), The Informant! (2009), Contagion (2011) and the HBO biopic of showman Liberace, Behind the Candelabra (2013). After a period of relative art-house exile following the Sundance success of sex, lies and videotape, Soderbergh sought to find a place in more mainstream, commercial markets, but never quite shed his dedication to narrative and stylistic experimentation1. He has thus taken visible risks with unusual narrative forms (Full Frontal, Solaris, 2002), alternative forms of distribution (Bubble), and multiple image capture formats from 35mm to 16mm film, to pioneering the RED camera and experimenting with other digital systems2. Nevertheless, he has demonstrated great viability as a director of commercially successful and critically acclaimed films, gaining a level of independence and authorial control that is quite unique in the Hollywood film industry. To this date, he is only one of two directors -the other is Michael Curtiz- to be nominated in the same year twice in the best director Oscar category at the 2000 Academy Awards for Erin Brockovich and Traffic. He won the Oscar for Traffic3.

2Among the risks that Soderbergh has undertaken he has produced two major films, Traffic (2000), and the massive, two-part, 4 hours and 18 minutes epic Che (2008) both with Latin American themes and locations and spoken largely in Spanish. Soderbergh’s apparent interest in Latin America is intriguing, particularly since in both of these cases he reportedly had to fight studio executives in order to fulfill his authorial designs. He refused to compromise, for instance, on the matter of language in these films, even when, under studio pressure, executives raised concerns that Spanish would be alienating to mainstream movie audiences. These were also expensive films: Traffic had a budget reported between US $46 and US $50 million, while the budget for Che Parts I & II has been estimated between US $58 million and US $70 million. Their release and commercial trajectories, however, were quite different; Traffic became a critics’ favorite and a profitmaking success, while Che was considered largely a commercial failure and a critical disappointment that failed to be seen much in the US or Canada. It fared slightly better in Latin American and some European markets.

3Among the questions that I would like to raise in this essay are: what is the meaning of these risks Soderbergh was willing to take? What is the significance of the aesthetic, creative, and stylistic choices, among them the use of Spanish, vernacular actors, and location shooting for Soderbergh’s purposes? And, perhaps more importantly, since Soderbergh often acts as his own cinematographer and camera operator (he did in these movies, under his usual pseudonym “Peter Andrews”) what is the use value of his rendition of an over-exposed overtly grainy, squint-inducing filtered and manufactured image of Mexico in Traffic, in contrast to the mostly clear, crisp “natural” cinematographic style he gave to Mexico, Cuba, Bolivia and other locales in the two Che movies? With emphasis on style, I consider the ways in which these movies interact and intersect the director’s, the nations’, and the continent’s image. In short, what is the potential effect of these very visible, very evident, and sometimes shaking stylistic choices in the experience of Latin America as seen by Steven Soderbergh? To what extent does content determine style in these movies and what arguments can we make about these visions of Latin American when it comes to meaning? If style is content, then what does Steven Soderbergh have to say, through style, about these places, spaces and contexts?

Traffic “lights”: Place and cinematography in Traffic

  • 4 Manohla Dargis, Traffic DVD liner notes. The Criterion Collection. USA Films/Universal, 2002.
  • 5 Aaron Baker, Steven Soderbergh. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011) 20; Peter Biskind, Dow (...)
  • 6 Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=traffic.htm

4The year 2000 was a watershed year for director Steven Soderbergh: he completed two major feature films that were released within months of each other: the crowd-pleasing biopic Erin Brockovich (released March 17th) and the ensemble, non-linear, “social problem” film Traffic (limited released December 27th, wide on January 5th, 2001). Both films were major commercial hits, and both received numerous BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. While Erin Brockovich won only one Oscar for Julia Roberts, Traffic won Oscars for best screenplay (Stephen Gaghan), best film editing (Stephen Mirrione), best supporting actor (Benicio Del Toro), and best director for Soderbergh. The film’s commercial success was a surprise, given the fact that “every studio in town turned it down”; as critic Manohla Dargis wrote “it was a film that Hollywood didn’t want to make”4. Eventually, the producing studio USA Films (a newly created feature film company of TV’s USA Network) took on the project, but had grave misgivings about its viability. The studio head, Barry Diller, expressed concerns that “a $50 million art film about drugs, with sequences in Spanish, and with so many actors you need a score card” would simply not find an audience5. But audiences and critics responded positively, and Traffic became that rare combination of a critical and awards-circle success that also appealed to a mass audience. It ultimately earned over US $207 million in box office receipts, with nearly two-thirds of that total coming in from the US and Canada alone6.

  • 7 deWaard and Colin Tait, p. 160.
  • 8 Anthony Kaufman, Steven Soderbergh Interviews. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002) p.  (...)

5The fears of studio executives weren’t all unfounded. Based on the 1989 UK Chanel 4 TV mini-series Traffik, created by Simon Moore, Soderbergh’s film interweaves the parallel story lines of two DEA agents on the track of a drug lord operating in the Tijuana-San Diego corridor between northern Mexico and southern California, the newly appointed, somewhat liberal US drug “czar” and his family (commuting between Washington DC and Cincinnati), and a pair of struggling policemen in Mexico trying, against all odds, to do the right thing. The movie counts no less than nineteen significant characters and 163 speaking parts (with emphasis on the drug czar – Michael Douglas – and one of the Mexican policemen -Benicio Del Toro), multiple locations in the US and Mexico, long segments spoken in Spanish, “documentary” style hand-held camera, and a generally non-linear narrative structure, potentially alienating to mainstream audiences7. Interested in the political and social implications of the plot – the futility of the US “war on drugs” – Soderbergh chose as his formal models two films with similar stylistic and social anxieties, specifically The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), and Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969). Inspired by those films, Soderbergh wanted to recreate “that great feeling of things that are caught, instead of staged” accounting for much of the movie’s “documentary” and apparently accidental aesthetics8.

6For each of the three major storylines Soderbergh established a very clear, distinctive pattern in his cinematographic style, with each major segment showing its own color temperature, texture, and lighting distinctions. What is most telling for this analysis is the vivid imbalance of texture and temperature created by Soderbergh in the “across – the –border” sequences of the film that take place in the international metropolitan area of the Tijuana-San Diego corridor.

  • 9 Steven Soderbergh, DVD commentary. The Criterion Collection. USA Films/Universal, 2002.
  • 10 Steven Soderbergh, DVD commentary. The Criterion Collection. USA Films/Universal, 2002.

7In his commentary for the Universal Blu-ray edition of Traffic Soderbergh explained that his deliberate search for a distinctive look for the Mexico sequences was “crucial”. Most of the film was shot with standard Kodak 35mm stock with “no special processes or color timing” done to it9. However, for the Mexico sequences, Soderbergh added a tobacco filter to the camera lens, resulting in a hard yellow ochre hue, evocative of desert sunlight. The original footage was then de-saturated digitally in post-production in order to create the particularly color-less look that Soderbergh was seeking. A new camera negative was created from the already filtered, “yellowed” de-saturated new material, without color timing processing. That image was then duped into Ektachrome stock, to further enhance the grain. Finally, the Ektachrome dupe was made into an optical negative in Kodak 5272 stock, reversing the print’s emulsion on that negative, which was then incorporated into the original camera negative10. Thus, the “crucial” look of the Mexico sequences was only achieved through major photographic, technical, and digital manipulation, resulting in the washed out, grainy, and extremely de-saturated unnatural look seen in the final film. This “rarefying” effect resulted in an extreme contrast of temperature and texture with the other two major settings: the Cincinnati-Washington sequences featuring the drug czar, and the San Diego DEA-drug lord’s wife narrative line.

Benicio Del Toro in Traffic. USA Films/Universal.

The “look of Mexico” in Traffic. USA Films/Universal.

  • 11 Stephen Holden, “Teeming mural of a war fought and lost”, The New York Times, December 27, 2000; Da (...)

8Traffic is a movie in which cultural, political and economic differences between Mexico and the US, between black, Hispanic and white, and between rich and poor are extremely important. Characters, setting and places are violently differentiated, and these differences are immediately evident to the spectator in the harsh contrasts of lighting, texture and temperature that are central to the movie’s design. The “look of Mexico” with its apparent color temperature ranging around 2400-2550 kelvin, is in fact the most distinctive in the movie, the one most consistently commented on, praised and criticized (for the rarifying effect) upon the movie’s release. Stephen Holden of the New York Times, for instance, referred to it as “acid-washed” while David Edelstein of Slate called it the look of “a bad trip”11. The stand out “look of Mexico” makes it quite different from, we would presume, some “normal” or standard appearance. Of the three major settings in Traffic the least seemingly altered is that of the San Diego settings, centered on the narrative line of the two DEA officers and the drug lord’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The ostensibly unobtrusive, though slightly filtered San Diego/La Jolla palette favors golden, softer, liquid textures (as opposed to the hard grain of Mexico). It was achieved by “flashing” the negative and adding diffusion filters, yielding pastel colors and significantly less grain, as if natural light itself was more benign in this affluent southern California heaven.

Catherine Zeta-Jones in Traffic. USA Films/Universal.

San Diego/La Jolla as seen in Traffic. USA Films/Universal.

9The more benign color and temperature scheme of the San Diego/La Jolla sequences, in which two DEA agents attempt futilely to prosecute a major drug lord is quite deceptive; it contrasts ironically with the ugly business of the drug traffic, with people being killed, while the drug lord’s beautiful wife enjoys a sheltered, wealthy lifestyle of duck lunches at the golf court, expensive art on the walls, and Mercedes-Benz vehicles. Meanwhile, the two Mexican policemen, at $316 dollars per month, are shown in a harsh environment that seems to literally and symbolically scorch the ground under their feet, while trying desperately to not succumb to the rampant corruption that surrounds them. In other words, there is visible disconnect and, photographically speaking, a sense of visual irony in the contrasting Mexico-San Diego settings. Though only 32 kilometers separate the two city centers, and they are considered an international metropolitan conurbation, in Traffic San Diego and Tijuana are made to look as if they were, quite literally, worlds apart. The visual irony is made all the more evident when, during the drug czar’s visit to the border, Soderbergh begins the sequence with a conspicuous close up of a border marker, a simple steel ball with the words “U.S.-Mexico” on its opposite sides – that shows the arbitrary nature of this border.

10Paradoxically much less commented upon are the Washington and Cincinnati sequences of the movie, though these most often create a just as disruptive experience for the spectator. The sequences in which the new drug czar is introduced, and most of his indoor scenes in Washington and Cincinnati, were filmed using incandescent tungsten lights, but without the 85B filter which corrects the bluish, hot tint of natural daylight coming through windows. The result is a paradoxically cold, colorless image, monochrome in its effect, which would be in any other context considered a photographic error to be corrected in post-production. Though Soderbergh insisted in this film (as in Che) in creating the illusion of using only available (i.e. “natural”) lighting, the Cincinnati-Washington effect is quite striking and produces an appearance that is just as disorienting as the “look of Mexico”. In some ways, the Cincinnati-Washington palette suggests Mexico’s real opposite, or shall we say, its negative. In fact, in terms of their placement in the kelvin scale, these color temperatures are nearly at the full opposites of the chart.

Michael Douglas “blue” in Traffic. USA Films/Universal.

Indian Hills, Cincinnati, in Traffic. USA Films/Universal.

  • 12 deWaard and Colin Tait, p. 147-150.

11Arguably, the Mexico and Ohio/Washington looks in the movie are equally disruptive of realist representation of locale or lighting; in short, the normal human eye does not see the world that way. These striking contrasts (Mexico/San Diego/Cincinnati) enforce the major conflict of the movie’s opposite spaces and characters. Paradoxically, while inspired by the “things are caught, not staged” aesthetics of films with a purported “documentary” style – the aforementioned The Battle of Algiers and Z – Soderbergh in fact achieves the opposite effect: Traffic’s design looks meddled with, interfered and manipulated for dramatic and stylistic purposes. As cinematographer, camera operator, and co-editor Soderbergh also incorporates a number of “accidental” visual and other oddities (extremely mobile hand-held camera, editing mishaps such as jump cuts and breaks in continuity, improvised dialogue, and real politicians and government agents playing themselves), all visual platitudes of the borrowed “documentary” style in fiction films. Nonetheless, the most plausibly “realist” representation is that of San Diego, while Cincinnati and Mexico emerge as dissonantly mediated and artificial. Intriguingly, San Diego is treated as a “bridge”, a visual bridge in the movie – as it is in real life – between two seemingly “unnatural” worlds in the drug trade: the Mexican cartels and the US Government. These two, as argued above, range the opposite spectrum of color temperatures between the desolate, suffocating world of drug traffickers, and the cold and lifeless career politicians “at war” against the drug trade. It is a cold, lifeless, and futile war being fought in Washington’s corridors of power, while the trade in the border remains largely intact. The visual variations are important for Soderbergh’s message, and consistent with later experiments in his “Global Social Problem” films Contagion and The Informant12.

  • 13 Steven Soderbergh interview with Stephen Lemons, Salon.com, December 20, 2000.

12A similar argument can be made of Soderbergh’s insistence, despite studio pressure, of letting his Latino actors speak Spanish in all the Mexico sequences. He was concerned that the movie would have “no integrity” if they spoke English. In an interview with Salon contributor Stephen Lemons, Soderbergh declared that this strategy was essential to the film’s attention to the topic of “the impenetrability of another culture”. And while the language barrier was indispensable to creating that “impenetrability” and difference on an aural and linguistic level, the visual and cinematographic choices of the Mexico-Cincinnati divide, and the San Diego “bridge” were arguably even more effective in underscoring those differences – cultural and political as well – on a textural, tangible, corporeal level. Said Soderbergh to Lemons, “Those three places felt very different to me. My impressions from Mexico were different from (San Diego) California, and different from Ohio in the winter13”.

Chasing “Che”: Realism and mediation in Che Parts I and II

13If Steven Soderbergh was seeking to underscore visibly and linguistically the many cultural, social and political differences seen in Traffic, his second Latin-American themed movie, the 258-minute, two-part Che (2008) seems to take the opposite approach. The film is a massive dialectic diptych: one film, but split into two parts that attempt to integrate the Latin American look and landscape of its locales and locations. While taking part in Cuba, Mexico, Bolivia and New York, the movie was actually filmed on locations in Spain and Puerto Rico for the Cuban setting, along with Mexico, Bolivia, and New York playing themselves. But Latin America is deeply emphasized in the movie’s design, with each of the two parts beginning with a lengthy, contextual introduction to the spaces and places where its action, and its heart, resided. Part I, thus opens on a graphic image of the island (though, oddly, with no other geographical context), which is slowly divided to identify the cities of Havana, Santiago and Santa Clara, and each of the island-nation’s provinces. Part II opens with a similar practice, only this time actually showing Bolivia within the South American continent and identifying each of the continent’s countries in relation to Bolivia. In other words, it seemed from the start that it was important for Soderbergh – and Del Toro, who was one of the movie’s producers – to locate Che, Cuba and Bolivia as keenly Latin American. For the most part, the movie retains that focus, though always with the mediation of Che Guevara’s presence. Tellingly, Soderbergh, Del Toro, and screenwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen chose to skip over Che’s 1965 failed Congo campaign in favor of the Cuban and Bolivian wars. Instead they focused on Che’s 1964 New York visit as a narrative bridge, with its own implications, as I will argue below.

  • 14 Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=che.htm
  • 15 The Cannes Film Festival screening reviews appeared as noted, May 22nd, 2008.
  • 16 “Angry protests at Che Premiere”, Reuters, December 6, 2008. Cited in Wikipedia, Che page.
  • 17 Chris Sullivan, The Independent (London), December 12, 2008.

14Difficult and long, with more than 90% of its dialogue spoken in Spanish, Che Parts I and II epically represent and recreate, respectively, the Argentine physician Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s recruitment, rise to leadership, and triumphs in the Cuban Revolution from 1956 to 1959, and his failed campaign, capture and death in Bolivia in 1966 and 1967. Juxtaposed to these narrative frames in Part I is Che Guevara’s public relations trip to New York City, his famous speech at the United Nations General Assembly on December 11th, 1964, and his appearance on the CBS political interview show Face the Nation during the same tour. Unlike Traffic, which found some comparable difficulties in getting funding, and skepticism from producers about its Spanish language segments, yet generated favorable reviews and enormous box office receipts, Che reception was decidedly mixed. At an estimated budget of some US $58 million, the domestic US-Canada combined grosses were less than US $1.5 million, with international sales estimated around US $41 million14. After its Cannes premiere of May 21st, 2008, critics’ reactions were mostly mixed. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian called it “a flawed masterpiece: enthralling but structurally fractured”; Stephen Garret of Esquire found it “defiantly pious and boring”, while Richard Corliss of Time magazine named it “stiff and forbidding” and declared it “the woodsiest war movie ever”15. After its New York Film Festival show the reaction of the US press was similarly lukewarm, and the movie was met by “angry protests” from Cuban exiles when it showed in Miami, in an invitation-only event, in December of 200816. The film was, predictably, better received at the Latin American Film Festival in Havana, Cuba, where Benicio Del Toro was reportedly presented with a 10-minute standing ovation17. After uneven distribution abroad and very limited release domestically, Che only won a few international film festival awards and those were mostly given to Del Toro for his performance. In the end, Che failed to make a “revolution” with critics or the box office and Traffic remains, to date, Soderbergh’s most profitable and most critically acclaimed prestige film. Visually, though, its pattern reconnects and revises many of the motifs that Soderbergh had perfected in Traffic.

15For the Cuba and Bolivia narrative lines Soderbergh adopted different filming techniques. In Part I (Cuba) he employed steady footage filmed in long shots, using tripods, steady-cams and dollies for shot stability, natural colors, and a warm palette of slightly saturated greens, reds and yellows. This pattern he altered in Part II (Bolivia) with hand-held, nervous, wobbly compositions, shaky close-ups, and a much more muted color scheme of earth tones, de-saturated greens and, in the third act exteriors, of blue filters.

Che, Part I (Cuba) IFC Films.

Che, Part II (interiors). IFC Films.

  • 18 Wired Magazine, no. 16.09, August 18, 2008.

16According to Soderbergh’s press and publicity releases, the differences in design were to show the two different approaches, and the two different outcomes, of Che’s Latin American revolutionary campaigns. Though both parts were filmed using the RED One camera (which was then in its prototype phase18) there are visible differences in picture definition, color, tones, temperatures, camera mobility, shot size, chronology, and even aspect ratios (1.85:1 and 1.78:1 respectively). Each part does sustain a consistent visual style through most of its own narrative, with significant variations in two important segments: Che’s New York tour of late 1964, and the fatal “Yuro ravine” detour that eventually lead to Che’s capture, detainment, and execution in Bolivia. Surprisingly, these effects create both uniformity and variations of style and technique that arguably underscore the film(s) narrative meaning: the vastly different contexts and outcomes of these two revolutionary exploits.

17The most visible variation within the established respective stylistic patterns in Che, Parts I and II are in the 1964 segments. These are chronologically set in between the two revolutionary campaigns that compose the majority of the two movies: while Guevara was operating as a diplomat and publicist for the Cuban government and as a representative of the Cuban Revolution in New York and the UN. These in-between-two-wars segments were filmed on Super 16mm black & white stock, with higher degrees of grain and contrast than anything seen in the bulk of the films. Soderbergh also chose multiple hand-held close-ups of his actors, often adding a purposely shakier seemingly shoulder held camera, multiplying movement that otherwise would have been minimized with a steady-cam. While, historically, black & white, hand-held and shaky cameras are associated with “realism” and documentary aesthetics, the use of these techniques in Che make these sequences look far more “mediated” in the photographic sense of the word, far removed from the more classical “realism” of all the other segments in the two movies. In other words, this stylistic shift makes the cinematic apparatus much more evident to the conscious spectator, and by extension make these sequences visibly “fictionalized” in comparison to the more conventional realist style seen in the rest of the film(s). Moreover, further mediation of the apparatus is added in several shots where Che and also Fidel Castro respectively, are seen filmed from a black & white television screen. This further degree of separation – from classic, realist representation – is even more enhanced by the camera’s position at opposite acute angles from the television screen, creating an uncomfortable perspective of vision that underscores the mediation of the apparatus. In short, the intervention of the television screen, plus the acute angle, add a “rarefication” effect that paradoxically negates the faux “documentary” style of the black & white sequences.

Faux “documentary” style in the NY sequence, Che Part I. IFC Films.

Guevara on TV, Che, Part I. IFC Films.

Fidel Castro on TV, Che, Part II. IFC Films.

18Unlike the screeching and irritating effect of the Mexico sequences in Traffic, and its equally conspicuous opposite spectrum in the Cincinnati/Washington segments, in Che Parts I and II it is the landscape and spaces of the Latin American settings that are designed and photographed to look natural, central, and less mediated. They conform to the “caught, not staged” aesthetic sought by Soderbergh in a much more realist sense than the various settings in Traffic. Meanwhile, the New York City and United Nations segments in Che embrace cinematic artificiality, put the media apparatus in evidence, and offer formalist, self-reflexive distractions. Arguably, Soderbergh’s Latin America, specifically his imagining of Mexico, Cuba, and Bolivia has become much more central than marginal from Traffic to Che. In the process, the US-based segment of Che has become what looks and feels “foreign”. The only significant detour from the “normalization” of Latin American space and landscape in the 2008 movies comes with the turn of the 3rd act in Che, Part II. This second stylistic shift occurs when Guevara’s column became unwittingly separated and divided, with a second group killed in an ambush by Bolivian special forces while trying to reunite with Guevara’s main group. It seems important that Soderbergh deviated here from the otherwise fairly constant style of the movie, since it was this historic twist of chance that eventually lead to Guevara’s capture and to his assassination by Bolivian special forces while in custody, on October 9th, 1967.

19In fact, after this fatal “turn of the tide” Soderbergh adopts a cold, muted, de-saturated, even ashen color palette, more reminiscent of the Washington/Cincinnati look in Traffic than anything seen thus far in both halves of Che. The use of color filters, and/or the lack of the 85 filter is evident, rendering the most “artificial” images in the movie. There is barely any color definition in these sequences, and after Bolivian forces wound Che, the camera turns even more mobile, shaky and unstable, adopting an accidental look that seems to take on Che’s own physical and emotional distress.

Che Part II (exterior). IFC Films.

  • 19 Michèle Ray, “The Execution of Che by the CIA”, Ramparts Magazine, March 5, 1968, p. 23-37.

20The subjective turn in camera style is further emphasized, and goes even farther in the scene when Che is shot to death by Bolivian army sergeant Mario Terán, who fired nine rounds at Guevara in two bursts of gun fire with his M2 carbine19. In an unusual, in fact unique formal decision, Soderbergh filmed Che’s execution in a visible “point of view” shot; not the typical approximation to the “angle of vision” of the character, but rather from an actual “POV” perspective. The camera is in a low angle, as Che was sitting on the hut’s floor; it looks directly at the assassin as he fires, and then wobbles and topples to its side, landing on the floor in a lopsided Dutch angle. This literal photographic point of view is the most distinctive shot in the movie, precisely because it adopts a level of subjectivity unseen in the movie heretofore and, this once only, puts the spectator directly behind Che’s own eyes. Paradoxically, some of the criticism of the movie at the time of its release concerned how Che was made less a “live” character and more an icon, a symbol, or as Stephen Garret had judged in his Esquire review cited above, “uncomplex, pure of heart, defiantly pious and boring”. Thus, the dramatic and unusual choice of Che’s point of view at the moment of death is made all the more significant. If, up to this point, Soderbergh had sought to avoid open judgment of Che’s personality, instead portraying him directly as an unflinchingly committed revolutionary, the death sequence and the actual ending of the movie suggest differently. After the death scene, the movie flashes back momentarily to Mexico City, June 1955, to the first meeting of Che and Fidel Castro. The meeting of Che and Fidel comes near the opening of Part I, and its reintroduction at the end of Part II makes it then all the more conspicuous. In the flashback, Soderbergh shows a moment missing from Part I, in which Che agrees to accompany Castro and his men to fight in Cuba, but only if Castro consents to let Che go, “after we win”, to make the revolution elsewhere. The two shake hands in agreement. Yet a final flashback shows Che in the Granma, the yacht that took Fidel’s men from Mexico to Cuba in November of 1956. Che observes Fidel and Raúl Castro conversing, a pensive look in his face, before the shot fades to black. These two final flashbacks also constitute a unique practice in the entire structure of the two films, which, unlike Traffic, and with the sole exception of the New York sequences, typically maintain recognizably linear narratives. It is as if Soderbergh is purposely breaking his own established narrative pattern to remind the spectator how this all began: with a man making a personal decision to become involved in a cause that was not his to begin with, a truly selfless revolutionary. In other words, the combination of the subjective camera, the point of view death scene, and the flashbacks that return to us a live Che at the end of the film, arguably show Soderbergh’s intimacy with the character; he shows us that this Che is alive, and that he is “our” Che.

  • 20 Ben Kenignsberg, “Guerrillas in the Mist: Steven Soderbergh makes his boldest film yet”, Time Out C (...)

21In fact, there is more evidence of Soderbergh’s quiet attempt to show us a rather sympathetic Che. Nothing is said in the movie of the fact that Che left his first wife and daughter in Mexico when he joined Castro’s troops. In 1966, he reportedly spent six months in hiding in Dar es Salaam and Prague, while his wife and four children were still in Cuba. And while his second wife, Aleida March, and their children are briefly seen in Part II before Che’s departure for the fatal Bolivia campaign, nothing is further said about them after Che’s death. Like the purposeful sidestepping of Che’s failed Congo expedition, the refusal to confront how Che’s decisions affected his family can also be interpreted as Soderbergh and Del Toro’s insistence on a favorable portrait of the man. Critics noted that, after the Cannes premiere, Soderbergh made several changes to the final cut of the film that was eventually released internationally. In his review for Time Out Chicago critic Ben Kenigsberg observed that the movie “neither condemns nor elevates Che”, but also lamented the removal, after the Cannes premiere, of a sequence depicting Che presiding over the trial and demotion of revolutionary Lalo Sardiñas. Kenigsberg considered this late editing decision flawed, in part because the sequence provided “a key hint at the darker side of Che’s ideology”, and because it suggested Che’s subsequent “brutal human-rights abuses in Castro’s government20”. Another scene depicting Che presiding over the trial and execution of two deserters was left intact in the finished film, though. In that case however, the men in question had gone on to terrorize, pillage and rape in nearby peasant villages, and so the movie suggests that their fate was justified. Yet these conspicuous omissions – Congo, family, violence, human rights abuses – can be interpreted as evidence of Soderbergh’s “softening” and arguably of his design, despite claims to the contrary, to show a sympathetic portrait of the controversial man. Nonetheless, the 3rd act anchoring of the movie’s moral and human drama strictly from Che’s perspective is arguably the boldest decision, in that it makes Che no longer the object of the narrative, but rather its “speaking subject”. Che becomes the “I” of Soderbergh’s camera, something that the non-linear and multi-protagonist structure of Traffic could simply not do.

Conclusion: Normalizing “otherness”

22In classical and contemporary cinema, Latin America has almost always been represented in extremes: from tropical paradise in Flying Down to Rio (1933) and Walt Disney’s The Three Caballeros (1944), to perilous wilderness in The Naked Jungle (1954), and Luis Buñuel’s La Mort en ce jardin (1956); even as both extremes in Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies (1963). The region has served as stand-in for Vietnam in Rambo (1985) and Jacob’s Ladder (1990), and as non-descript tropical heaven or hell in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Not very often, however, has Latin America – or its themes and people – been allowed to represent itself in Western classical and contemporary film. In Traffic and Che, Steven Soderbergh seems to have attempted some form of both. In these films Soderbergh tries to give Mexico, Cuba, and Bolivia a distinctive look, an identity even, but Latin America remains elusive, rarified, mediated.

  • 21 Alex Von Tunzelman, The Motorcycle Diaries: Che’s clean getaway, The Guardian (London), April 14, 2 (...)

23The same is true of the figure of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. From the 1968 Spanish film El Che Guevara, where he was played by Francisco Rabal, to the 1969 disastrous biopic Che!, with Omar Sharif in the title role; from Antonio Banderas in Evita (1996), to Gael García Bernal, who played “Che” in two consecutive films: Fidel (2002), and Diarios de motocicleta (2004), Che Guevara has cast a long, dark shadow over the actors who have portrayed him. While Benicio Del Toro may have come the closest to a physical resemblance, Gael García Bernal’s sympathetic, romantic portrayal of the youthful Guevara – before he was, in fact, nicknamed “Che” by his Cuban friends – has probably had the most lasting impression with contemporary audiences21. As a producer-director team, Del Toro and Soderbergh purposely tried to reach for a new degree of realism in representing Che Guevara.

  • 22 Gavin Smith, “Hired Gun: Steven Soderbergh-Interview”, Film Comment, 37.1, January 2001, p. 26-31.

24Soderbergh has often declared his preference for a cinematic style that steers clear from overtly visible intercessions of the cinematic apparatus. In January 2001, on the occasion of the wide release of Traffic, he told Gavin Smith of Film Comment that he sought to speak directly to his audience. “[T]he more real it feels” – said Soderbergh – “and the less it feels like a Hollywood movie, the more audiences will connect with it22”. His professed search for “objective realism” is based on circumventions of the classical realist style and the adoption of certain tropes of documentary aesthetics that are, paradoxically, dictated by the presence of the technical apparatus. To wit, photographic manipulation, hand-held cameras, lifelike use of sound, and the use of “natural” lighting are devices often perceived to render realism, while at the same time they are deeply self-reflexive practices. And while Traffic could be classified under the tenuous category of the “docudrama” in style and themes, Che would most logically be labeled under the flag of the historical biopic. Nevertheless, these are both films that aspire, even if superficially, to achieve some semblance of “realism”.

  • 23 Native Spanish speakers, however, cannot ignore the errors in dialects and accents from actors play (...)
  • 24 Quoted by Dennis Lim, “Screenwriting Drafts of History”, The New York Times. January 1, 2009.

25Yet, in both movies the Latin American settings are inevitably cloaked in some sense of “otherness” of “difference” – the elusiveness that has marred representations of Latin America from Eisenstein to the tropical romances of the classical era, and into contemporary cinema. As argued above, in Traffic, Mexico and the Washington and Cincinnati settings are visual and linguistic opposites, yet both emerge as equally “unreal” in terms of representation. The semblance of realism comes from the appearance that these sequences are spontaneous; as if the photographer had neglected to put in correcting lenses. Yet Che “corrects” those imperfections with the adoption of a photographically more realist style. There is no “otherness” to the majority of the Latin American settings in Che, and no forced “otherness” to the linguistic barrier23. The whole thing was designed, said screenwriter Peter Buchman, as if “we were looking over their shoulders24”. By contrast, the only truly photographic “other” in Che is the US, the UN, and the non-linear 1964 segments. And ultimately, by adopting an overtly conspicuous “subjective” camera style for the third act of Che, Part II, and assuming Guevara’s “point-of-view” Soderbergh effectively reverses that strange gaze: it is Che – and by proxy, Latin America – who is doing the looking. But the “subjective” camera always puts in evidence the presence of the cinematic apparatus, so Che remains mediated. Steven Soderbergh’s shifts in style and perspective in his Latin American-themed movies arguably demonstrate the director’s daring risk-taking in order to merge style, content, and meaning, and to render a closer look that arguably aspires to the purging of “otherness” from representation. Yet, like the freeze frame close-up of Che’s dead face at the end of Solanas and Getino’s The Hour of the Furnaces, Pt. I (1968), Che remains inscrutable, and Latin America itself elusive for “Western” representation.

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Note de fin

1 Steven Soderbergh, Interview with Geoff Andrew, The Guardian, February 13 2003.

2 Mark Gallagher, Another Steven Soderbergh Experience: Authorship and Contemporary Hollywood (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013), p. 9-10.

3 Andrew deWaard and R. Colin Tait, The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh: indie sex, corporate lies, and digital videotape (New York: Wallflower/Columbia 2013), p. 3-5.

4 Manohla Dargis, Traffic DVD liner notes. The Criterion Collection. USA Films/Universal, 2002.

5 Aaron Baker, Steven Soderbergh. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011) 20; Peter Biskind, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004) p. 379.

6 Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=traffic.htm

7 deWaard and Colin Tait, p. 160.

8 Anthony Kaufman, Steven Soderbergh Interviews. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002) p. 158.

9 Steven Soderbergh, DVD commentary. The Criterion Collection. USA Films/Universal, 2002.

10 Steven Soderbergh, DVD commentary. The Criterion Collection. USA Films/Universal, 2002.

11 Stephen Holden, “Teeming mural of a war fought and lost”, The New York Times, December 27, 2000; David Edelstein, “The Mexican Connection”, Slate, January 5, 2001.

12 deWaard and Colin Tait, p. 147-150.

13 Steven Soderbergh interview with Stephen Lemons, Salon.com, December 20, 2000.

14 Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=che.htm

15 The Cannes Film Festival screening reviews appeared as noted, May 22nd, 2008.

16 “Angry protests at Che Premiere”, Reuters, December 6, 2008. Cited in Wikipedia, Che page.

17 Chris Sullivan, The Independent (London), December 12, 2008.

18 Wired Magazine, no. 16.09, August 18, 2008.

19 Michèle Ray, “The Execution of Che by the CIA”, Ramparts Magazine, March 5, 1968, p. 23-37.

20 Ben Kenignsberg, “Guerrillas in the Mist: Steven Soderbergh makes his boldest film yet”, Time Out Chicago, November 9, 2008.

21 Alex Von Tunzelman, The Motorcycle Diaries: Che’s clean getaway, The Guardian (London), April 14, 2011.

22 Gavin Smith, “Hired Gun: Steven Soderbergh-Interview”, Film Comment, 37.1, January 2001, p. 26-31.

23 Native Spanish speakers, however, cannot ignore the errors in dialects and accents from actors playing parts “foreign” to their actual cultural and linguistic contexts: Puerto Rican playing Argentine, Spaniards and Colombians playing Cubans, etc.

24 Quoted by Dennis Lim, “Screenwriting Drafts of History”, The New York Times. January 1, 2009.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Benicio Del Toro in Traffic. USA Films/Universal.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/map/docannexe/image/3043/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 108k
Légende Catherine Zeta-Jones in Traffic. USA Films/Universal.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/map/docannexe/image/3043/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 132k
Légende San Diego/La Jolla as seen in Traffic. USA Films/Universal.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/map/docannexe/image/3043/img-3.png
Fichier image/png, 803k
Légende Michael Douglas “blue” in Traffic. USA Films/Universal.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/map/docannexe/image/3043/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 108k
Légende Indian Hills, Cincinnati, in Traffic. USA Films/Universal.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/map/docannexe/image/3043/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 136k
Légende Che, Part I (Cuba) IFC Films.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/map/docannexe/image/3043/img-6.png
Fichier image/png, 943k
Légende Che, Part II (interiors). IFC Films.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/map/docannexe/image/3043/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 128k
Légende Faux “documentary” style in the NY sequence, Che Part I. IFC Films.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/map/docannexe/image/3043/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 80k
Légende Fidel Castro on TV, Che, Part II. IFC Films.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/map/docannexe/image/3043/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 88k
Légende Che Part II (exterior). IFC Films.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/map/docannexe/image/3043/img-10.png
Fichier image/png, 1,0M
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Référence électronique

Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz, « Me mirabas”: Steven Soderbergh’s Latin America », Mise au point [En ligne], 11 | 2018, mis en ligne le 22 octobre 2018, consulté le 13 décembre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/map/3043 ; DOI : 10.4000/map.3043

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Auteur

Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz

Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz is Professor and Chair of the Department of Cinema Studies & Moving Image Arts at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of the books West Side Story as Cinema: The Making and Impact of an American Masterpiece (University Press of Kansas, 2013), Pedro Almodóvar (British Film Institute 2007/2009), and Buñuel and Mexico: The Crisis of National Cinema (University of California Press, 2003). His works have appeared in many journals and edited collections such as Quarterly Review of Film & Video, Film & History, Lit, Letras peninsulares, Short Film Studies, After Hitchcock, Authorship in Film Adaptation, Contemporary Spanish Cinema and Genre, A Companion to Luis Buñuel, and Genre Gender Race and World Cinema.

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Les contenus de la revue Mise au point sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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