The Botereid

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Paul Berman's review of Che: The Wonder Years

CORRECTION: Where I got that Yglesias posted this today, I have no idea. It's from two weeks ago (9/24). I'm a hell of a blogger, aren't I?

Matthew Yglesias went off on a rant today about Paul Berman's review review of Walter Salles's The Motorcycle Diaries. Others have commented, and others have commented on the comment-commentators. And none of it is surprising.

Berman's review was bound to cut deep because he continues Slate's fine tradition of standing up to the ghosts of the left. There is nothing glorious about the life of Che. He was brutal and nasty, and probably short. Intelligent commentators across the political world know it. Even Yglesias, who's "really" about the review, doesn't say a word in opposition to what Berman is saying. So what's the problem?

Again, the ghosts of the left: I doubt very much that Yglesias would defend a movie glorifying the heady salad days of the CIA agents responsible for the 1973 Chilean coup, for example. Criticizing Che, a man who was once motivated by the plight of common people, just strikes the wrong nerve. Perhaps a movie should be made about Guevara's later brutality to be shown next to The Motorcycle Diaries -- call it a cautionary tale about the twisting of good intentions.

So Yglesias looks to hit back at this review that's irked him, and because there's no factual grounds to attack it on he attacks it in form: "Look, it's a film review that doesn't talk about the film. That's bullshit." Since when are reviews of art strictly about art though? Berman wasn't going to cover everything in his article, so he chose one part he considered important: the content. And he wrote forcefully on it. I admired his article the first time I read it, and I admire it not one bit less right now.

There is indeed a cult of Che in the United States and it's unhealthy. This movie glorifies the man and fosters the cult, and this review does us a service. Pretend that I knew even less about Guevara than I do, and I was considering seeing the movie at the behest of some even more ignorant friends. Wouldn't Berman's review actually be doing me a moral good? Another example: Leni Riefenstahl's skills were remarkable, but do most commentaries focus upon that? "Che was no Hitler!" some will proclaim. Yes, and Salles is no Riefenstahl. But neither is he Shakespeare, and there were no gallows waiting to see whether he would be critical of Che.


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