Although there has been a marked increase in political movies made in Hollywood, or better, Hollywood movies with plotlines dealing with the political, most seem to confirm Fredric Jameson’s diagnosis of a contemporary crisis of historicity, offering an aesthetic style, a ‘code’ instead of an encounter with historical actuality.Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. The pastiche in these movies – many of them either produced or directed by or starring Hollywood’s favorite liberal, George Clooney – is that of the late 1960s and 70s political thrillers, turning the period into a more recent incarnation of Jameson’s ‘missing past.’ The only instances where nostalgia does not seem to set the agenda seems to be in Hollywood’s efforts to come to terms with the Sept. 11 world, movies like Rendition, Redacted, The Hurt Locker or The Green Zone, most of which have offered at least a simulation of a stylistic translation of historicity, employing a run-and-gun camera style that brings the viewer into the moment, presenting an ‘eye-level’ or ‘boots-on-the-ground’ view of history. In a 2010 think piece for the New York Times, film critic Manohla Dargis compares these 9/11 movies to a number of recent films dramatizing Sixties left-wing militancy, foremost among them Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che (pictured above) and Olivier Assayas’s made-for-television miniseries Carlos. The subject of Dargis’ piece is less the difference in historical scope or situation of these movies, than the contrast between the didacticism of the studio films and the moral open-endedness of the art films, straddling the politically sensitive ‘intersection between idealism and violence.’ Dargis doesn’t mention that the refusal to take a stand on their subject made these movies more rather than less divisive, and led to Assayas and, especially, Soderbergh drawing fire both from the right and from the left for their perceived nihilism, cynicism or postmodern irony. On typical form, New York Press critic Armond White came up with the moniker ‘flatliner cinema,’ to describe the anomy and anemia of these movies he views as both apolitical and amoral. In the case of Che, Soderbergh was taken to task for failing to address Guevara’s role in the revolutionary tribunals that followed Cuban liberation during which hundreds were executed. The director proved ready to spar with rowdy audiences at premieres in New York and Miami, but did not demand right of reply, as Kathryn Bigelow did, taking out a page in the Los Angeles Times after Zero Dark Thirty had been condemned by critics on the left for its perceived condolence of torture, in which she calmly reiterated what Soderbergh had told his hecklers: that ‘depiction is not endorsement.’ Slavoj Zizek, writing in The Guardian, begged to differ, reasoning that ‘torture is so profoundly shattering… that to depict it neutrally is already a kind of endorsement.’ In interviews Soderbergh further explained that he chose to focus on Che’s campaigns in the Sierra Maestra and in Bolivia because they are ‘circumscribed events, while Cuba after the revolution is a story that is still unfolding.’ As a disclaimer this is both unconvincing and, I will show, at odds with the movie’s politics. I will argue that what makes these movies political is not their position on political figures and revolutionary action, but their form and conception.
‘One of the exciting traits of Carlos,’ Manohla Dargis writes, ‘is that it shows history as it is happening, active and dynamic.’Assayas decided he wanted to do the movie only if he could stick closely to the factual details so as to be able to highlight the complexity of the geopolitical struggles that characterized the historical moment when Venezuelan revolutionary Illich Rámirez Sánchez became the poster boy for armed political struggle. In Che, similarly, characters generally don’t reflect on the fact that they are making history but focus on the task at hand. So what I find interesting about these ‘historical’ movies grounded in fact is that they share a sense of urgency with the 9/11 movies in which, for obvious reasons, the ‘reality effect’ is more readily available and desirable. But the historiographical approach of these movies is completely different. The real-time narratology of a movie like United 93 reminds us that this sort of construction of fictional/historical time is almost generically tied to the assassination or conspiracy plot, as incarnated by movies like Nick of Time, Phone Booth or television’s 24 (you could even fit Zero Dark Thirty in this lineage), the ur-text of which is of course the Kennedy assassination, the event that marked the coming of age of media culture. After the rise of docudrama, infotainment, reality TV and historical meta-fiction as the prime aesthetic materials of our times, it is hardly surprising that the outrage that greeted JFK has changed character: where Stone came under attack for blending fiction and fact, for presenting hypothesis as historical truth, a movie like Zero Dark Thirty, although historiographically as hypothetical, was faulted more for its politics than for its representational tactics. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the insistent presence of the discourse of research in the media campaign of both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, both written by the journalist Mark Boal, who was embedded in Iraq in 2004. Film and media historian Philip Rosen has found that research is a constant presence in mainstream film production, an investment in background detail and historical accuracy he ties to the original status of the film image as visual document. Of all the genres, the historical film works hardest to retain something of the factual convincingness of the document, Rosen proposes, citing Barthes’ definition of the ‘reality effect’ as ‘the concrete detail elaborated over and above the necessities of any story functions.’Philip Rosen, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001, pp. 147-201. But if research materials gathered by experts and historians were usable background material for screenwriters and production designers during the classical studio era, Rosen’s main object of study, very little of these movies had a script or aesthetic you would necessarily describe as ‘journalistic.’ Both have now become common: the surprise of a recent historical biopic like Spielberg’s Lincoln is less that it was based on a massive work of factual historiography, than that the result, despite the event character of both movie and historical situation, proved almost anecdotal. Such ‘appetite for fact, for the anecdotal, the true story, the vécu, the fait divers, the true story in all its sociological freshness and unpredictability,’ Fredric Jameson already detected in the media culture of the Seventies,Fredric Jameson, “Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a Political Film” in Signatures of the Visible. New York & London: Routledge, 1992, p. 40. and you could argue that Spielberg is here channeling that period’s style as much as in Munich, corroborating the idea of a nostalgia for the late Sixties and Seventies that has nothing to do with their historical reality but only with their codes of political entertainment. But when both Soderbergh and Assayas insist that they will gladly suffer attacks on their politics so long as the factual accuracy of their movies is not put into doubt, something else is going on besides mere style or pastiche, something that I would relate both to the now prevalent aesthetic of investigative journalism, and to Jameson’s comment about the politically themed movies of the Seventies and their ‘logic of facts’ ‘betraying a deeper weakness within the fiction itself, and a structural incapacity…to construct a narrative that can map totality.’Fredric Jameson, “Totality as Conspiracy” in The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press and London: BFI Press, 1992, p. 41.
In the December 2010 edition of De Filmkrant, a heated debate between film critics Adrian Martin and Kent Jones focused on the former’s complaint that the ‘absolute fidelity to meandering fact’ praised by the latter in David Fincher’s Zodiac has started a trend among ‘ambitious directors’ for fact-based cinematic realism, a trend most visibly embodied in Che and Carlos, based respectively on bureaucratic campaign diaries and forensic reports. Martin bemoans this turn to a ‘low-key’ realism that wants to stick as close as possible to the ‘exact, wayward contours of the original events,’ given that a whole generation of film critics and theorists spent the last thirty years decrying the illusion of realism in cinema and pointing out its ideological traps. The real trap, Martin argues, is that these filmmakers (and their supportive critics) seem to associate everything that is conventional and generic in cinema with artifice, thereby creating the false impression that by abandoning these conventions they can approach something like reality or at least a trace of it. The debate has at least two contexts with a similar tendency: on the one hand, Martin reminds us of poststructuralist (film) criticism’s unmasking of realism as a discursive or rhetorical construct the aim of which is to ‘naturalize’ ideology. On the other hand, the fact that most of the films mentioned by Jones and targeted by Martin are historical dramas, engages with the New Historicist interpellation of traditional teleological conceptions of history, positing that, like realism, the historical past is always already constructed. Let’s explore the first context first.
Martin noting that these movies are full of repetitious talk-sessions and ‘nothing-much-happening,’ places them firmly in the tradition of the art movie and its dramaturgy of de-dramatization and temps morts. There have been several attempts lately to regain the vérité styling of modernist cinema for a critical aesthetics of contemporary (world) cinema. Lúcia Nagib finds an inherent ethical dimension in the ‘presentational realism’ of a ‘physical, expositional and exhibitionist cinema’ committed to the ‘truth of the unpredictable event,’ figured in new cinemas from the Sixties and Seventies and in contemporary world cinema.Lúcia Nagib, World Cinema and the Ethics of Realism. New York: Continuum, 2011, pp. 1-15. Like Nagib, Martin O’Shaughnessy, in his book The New Face of Political Cinema, proposes a reengagement with Bazin, especially his claim that Neorealism offered reality unprocessed by a social thesis, to qualify the return in French cinema after 1995 of political commitment.Martin O’Shaughnessy, The New Face of Political Cinema: Commitment in French Film Since 1995. Oxford & New York: Berghahn, 2007. The question O’Shaughnessy sets out to explore is whether this return is merely an aesthetic throwback to the unpolished aesthetics, episodic plots and non-professional actors of post-Neorealist political cinema, or genuinely of the present moment. He quotes Jean-Pierre Joncolas’ characterization of the contemporary political cinema as based on a ‘réel de proximité,’ a small section of the real that is explored instead of the larger political targets of the previous generation. O’Shaughnessy’s book came too soon to include Carlos, the geopolitical sweep of which would have provided a convincing counterpoint to Joncolas. On the other hand, you could indeed argue, as several critics have, that the handheld camera, jump cuts, elliptical narration and narrative downtime in both Carlos and Che only reinstall the aesthetic of Neorealism and Third World theories of ‘imperfect cinema,’ which, per Jameson, become merely another function of nostalgia when emptied of concrete historical-political meaning.Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible, pp. 218-219. Also, while Che’s ‘detached objectivity might well have been approved by Rossellini,’ as Jim Hoberman opines, the Neorealist cinema that Carlos is clearly indebted to is the politicized variant of Rosi and Pontecorvo. Of course, the Rossellini Hoberman has in mind here is not only the director-as-reporter of Paisà but also the educator of the later made-for-television philosophical-biographical films like Blaise Pascal or Cartesius, of which the critic is reminded in the constant speechifying of Guevara and in the way action is rendered dialectically as the manifestation of thought (the voice-over spinning political theory while we see the action unfolding in the field). I take Hoberman’s linking Soderbergh’s use of homogenous space, functional montage, and unobtrusive period mise en scène as establishing a relationship to the simplicity of style of late Rossellini, but am more hesitant to claim either Che or Carlos for the kind of Brechtian historiography with which these movies, and perhaps more typically those by Straub and Huillet, are generally associated.
O’Shaughnessy’s sees in the new French political cinema not only a return of the Neorealist focus on the diurnal but an application of its melodramatic structures. In their poetics of the everyday, melodramatic dramaturgy, or even psychologization of character, is precisely what Soderbergh and Assayaswish to avoid. Here’s Assayas on his motivation for making the movie: ‘I did not want to interpret Carlos. I did not want to try to figure out motives . . . I always thought the image of Carlos would come out of the accumulation of facts…he is within the fabric of the history of his times. So I thought, in the end, the facts speak much more precisely of who Carlos is than anything that would have to do with melodrama, with psychology, with some fake human texture.’ The reliance on narration rather than on character psychology seems to reclaim Carlos for the Brechtian project, but then Assayas links up his fact-based narrative with what he refers to as ‘human believability.’ And Soderbergh has similar concerns: ‘I wasn’t interested in repeating the iconic status of Che, wasn’t interested in him being made of marble. Most of our research was focused on situations and events we felt humanized him a little bit. They were eye-level.’ The humanity of these historical figures is best served, both filmmakers believe, by presenting them materialistically, as being inside history. Both the materialism and humanism of the filmmakers’ approach is, again, historically tied to the realist project. In his book, Realist Film Theory and Cinema, Ian Aitken proposes film theoreticians reengage with nineteenth-century conceptions of realism.Ian Aitken, Realist Film Theory and Cinema: The Nineteenth-century Lukácsian and Intuitionist Realist Traditions. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2006. Of central importance to his project is Georg Lukács’ conception of a critical realism that is at the core of his ideas on progressive art, including the cinema, to which he devoted a major essay included in his 1963 The Specificity of the Aesthetic. One of Lukács’ imperatives that Aitken explores is that works of critical realism should present an indeterminate account of historical reality, contesting established conceptions and letting outwardly insignificant events manifest the big political problems. Out of these events, captured in nuanced, sensuous detail, a more general conception arises that fits in with the Lukácsian conception of ‘totality’ which I will explore in the next section.
Connectedness and Totality
As Amy Taubin has argued, although Che was adapted from two of Guevara’s field diaries and is narrated in first-person voice-over, ‘this doesn’t skew the films toward Che’s subjectivity.’ Throughout, Soderbergh insists on framing the hero of the film ‘so that he’s never alone on the screen,’ thus visually illustrating not only Che’s ideological commitment to collective struggle but his being part of a community. The political film as egalitarian-collective intrigue was of course figured long ago in Russian revolutionary cinema, but two Italian films – hugely influential on Soderbergh and Assayas – offer a more recent example of a de-individualized narrative: although they play a central role in the intrigue, neither Gaspare Pisciotta in Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano nor Ali La Pointe in Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, both films grounded in factual, documentary ‘evidence’, can be said to be the protagonist of the story. Giuliano hardly figures in the movie that bears his name, just as Che remains, at best, a spectral presence throughout the film. Both Che and Carlos figure less as rounded, psychologized characters that evolve according to a narrative arc, or even as icons, as images mediated by culture, let alone as Romantic figures, than as avatars of historical inquiry or historical consciousness. In The Historical Novel (1947), one of several essays on realism and the novel, Georg Lukács writes about the vicissitudes of historical-biographical fiction: ‘Even the ‘deepest’ psychological analyses of the various loves and friendships of great men do not really help us to understand their works any better. On the contrary, as far as really important human relations are concerned, these are much better explained by the large objective connexions [sic] than by mere biographical psychology.’Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel (trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962, p. 369. What Lukács celebrates in the novels of Walter Scott is that this author succeeds in rhyming the human with the historical: his heroes are never mere representatives of a historical movement, but individual traits of character are always brought into relationship with the age in which they live. This is true as much for Scott and War and Peace as it is for the films under discussion. At the same time, what these movies figure is the formation and eventual dissolution, under the effects of capitalism and hegemonic ideology, of what Lukács (with Hegel) calls an ‘organic community,’ the union of the individual and the social within a community organized along rational and ethical principles. Again, the formation of these communities follows Lukács’ dictum that ‘possibilities for human upsurge and heroism are widespread among the popular masses:’ the serfs and free peasants, the outlaws, smugglers, robbers, professional soldiers, deserters etc. he sees as the real ‘heroes,’ the real agents of historic progress in the novels of Walter Scott, are reincarnated in the ragtag bands of everyday revolutionaries who enable said progress in the Soderbergh and Assayas films but are hardly the object of hero worship.
The connectedness that is at the heart of these films, in the constant interaction between the individual and the socio-historical world as much as in the centrality of the group, stands in marked contrast to Manohla Dargis’ complaint about political Hollywood movies adhering too strongly to the convention of the clean-cut, non-violent hero as exclusive moral center. Dargis unwittingly repeats Fredric Jameson’s point here about the Hollywood cinema of the Seventies and Eighties that it fails to represent or even imagine collective experience as ‘totality.’ In the case of the only superficially political guerilla or civil war film, the incapacity to figure the otherness of, say the Salvadorian class war, the social is grafted onto an individual protagonist-hero often presented as a journalist or witness character. Whether this protagonist is clean-cut or ‘messy’ (as the James Woods character in Salvador, or Jessica Chastain’s analyst in Zero Dark Thirty) matters little when agency and self-awareness has passed to the individual only. As an alternative, Jameson proposes a scenario – employing the detective paradigm to manifest what he sees as a problem both of representation and hermeneutics – in which ‘the detective and murderer both become transmogrified into what they were allegories of in the first place, the collective of group or class.’ ‘The originality of All the President’s Men,’ he writes, ‘is to have staged its chain of events virtually from the outset as the struggle between two conspiracies, two collectives, two supranational organizations: the plumbers versus the newspaper, the White House versus the Washington Post.’Fredric Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic, p. 46, 67. That All The President’s Men is political only on an allegorical level – as a conspiracy plot – has to do both with its class politics and the unrepresentability of the global system of late capitalism, a system that has produced the end of historicity. A perceptive blogger offers that a movie like Zero Dark Thirty, despite its ‘fetish for reporting detail,’ falls victim to the same end-of-history discourse: ‘Even in political movies like Zero Dark Thirty, “systemic injustice” is treated as a basically unknowable force, a fog that hangs in the air or, in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, creaks in social machinery that we can’t understand; it’s de-historicized, de-materialized, turned into magic.’ I want to argue that both Che and Carlos, as movies straddled between corporate filmmaking and a do-it-yourself approach, fully embracing otherness in their choice to shoot largely in Spanish or in the case of Carlos, in the language of the part of the world where it was shot, from Paris to Germany to Hungary to Sudan and most of the Middle East, supersedes surface ‘reality effect’ and allegory to engage with the real. The ‘real’ I have in mind here relates to the idea of ‘totality’ derived from Lukács. Lukács gets the idea from Hegel, who held that ‘truth’ – and therefore also, ‘freedom’ – can only be revealed in a whole that preserves within it each of the discrete moments that it has overcome or subsumed. Lukács then developed the notion in History and Class Consciousness (1923), reasoning that societies are wholes consisting of interrelated parts. In the chapter, “What is Orthodox Marxism?,” he argues this precisely in the context of a scientism of fact. In capitalism, facts are isolated, and it is the dialectician’s task to reveal the reality, the concrete unity of the whole, underlying them. This totality, according to Jameson’s reading of Lukács in The Political Unconscious, is no more than a conceptual structure, a method or means to counterpoise enclosing strategies of ideological apparatuses.Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. London: Methuen, 1981, pp. 52-54. In his late essay on the cinema, however, Lukács counters his previous idea that the visual medium is unable to achieve totality through conceptual means, by positing not plot but what he calls Stimmung as the central organizing feature of film. By this he means an ‘atmosphere’ through which totality ‘shines forth,’ that is essentially related to the medium’s closeness to perceptual reality and its sensuous particulars.Ian Aitken, Realist Film Theory and Cinema, pp. 71-74.
‘It Happened’: History and Historiography
Both Che and Carlos are historical films, in the sense that they offer representations of or document a historical past. As Marcia Landy points out in her introduction to a collection of essays on the subject, the tendency to describe historical films as ‘unhistorical, escapist, and unrealistic has been a trend of film and historical criticism until recent decades.’Marcia Landy (ed.), The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001, p. 7. What has changed is that the new cinemas of the postwar period have not only politicized the representation of both recent and past history, but have radically changed the nature of representation and documentation. These cinemas and their visual/narrative strategies are often presented in parallel to new historiographical discourses that have questioned the nature of historical knowledge. If the historical film derived its material from historical knowledge based, as Pierre Sorlin writes,Pierre Sorlin, “How to Look at an ‘Historical’ Film” in The Historical Film, pp. 25-50. on something real and unquestionable, something that happened, that is history, that factual and eventual basis has now been put in doubt, made subject to meta-historical reflection. The first book on what is described as the ‘radical contemporary challenge to historical representational film,’ The Persistence of History,another collection of essays edited by Vivian Sobchack, includes an essay by the leading voice of the New Historicist movement, Hayden White. In the much-cited ‘The Modernist Event,’ White sees two reasons why ‘the notion of the ‘historical event’ as an object of knowledge has undergone radical transformation’: 1) the occurrence during the last century of events of a scope, scale, and depth unimaginable by earlier historians, what he calls ‘holocaustal’ events and 2) the power of the modern media to represent events in such a way as to render them immune to every effort to explain them. Historiography, therefore, can only mimic this mediatization by turning to narrativization and fabulation, the same blending of fact and fiction he observes in postmodernist historical fiction, of which Oliver Stone’s JFK is a prime instance.Hayden White, “The Modernist Event” in Vivian Sobchack (ed.), The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event. New York & London: Routledge, 1996, pp. 17-38. Not only does White conflate the representation of history as cinema with the intellectual and professional practice of historiography (both historians and filmmakers deal in narrative, write fiction), but, in a later essay on what he terms ‘historiophoty,’ offers (referring to historian Robert Rosenstone but echoing both Lukács and Bazin) that cinema is actually better suited than written discourse to the actual representation of certain kinds of historical phenomena – ‘complex events’ like wars, battles, crowds, and emotions, but perhaps even more so, literal background elements like landscape, scene, atmosphere.Hayden White, “Historiography and Historiophoty” in Marnie Hughes-Warrington (ed.), The History on Film Reader. London & New York: Routledge, 2009, pp. 53-61. Cinema’s anecdotal qualities, its talent for the quotidian, in other words, is fitted with the New Historicist distrust of Grand Narratives and its fronting of the ordinary and the non-literary as historical ‘documents.’ The question that is then raised is if cinema, or historiophoty, is sufficiently historiographical, analytical enough to adequately convey the ‘complex, qualified, and critical dimensions of historical thinking about events.’ The answer is that only certain kinds of cinema are, i.e. the aforementioned ‘experimental,’ post-Brechtian tradition. Che and Carlos, as we have seen, fit into the category of cinematic modernism, but they do not employ the postmodernist tactics of mixing fact and fiction to question the very nature of history that thinkers like Hayden White and Vivian Sobchack find primarily in early Nineties movies like JFK and Forrest Gump. Although Che and Carlos reflect on the status of their protagonists as media or fashion icon, their historiography is distinctly other than the modernism or postmodernism White has in mind. Soderbergh’s film uses very little documentary material– even Che’s heavily mediatized appearance at the United Nations is presented as straight re-enactment rather than interlaced with actual footage of the event or with Del Toro inserted Gump- or Zelig-like into documentary footage. Everything is staged to correspond as closely as possible to documented historical reality.
In Carlos, a specific moment seems to correspond more closely to the ‘placing in abeyance of the distinction between the real and the imaginary’ that Hayden White sees happening in postmodernist docu-drama or historical metafiction. In his discussion of this moment, cultural critic Greil Marcus puts a slightly different spin to it. The moment occurs when, following the set-piece of the OPEC raid, the oil ministers are transferred to a bus that will take them to the airport: ‘The viewer knows this happened. The viewer probably knows what happened next—how, for the terrorists, the whole spectacular enterprise, capturing the attention of the world, came to nothing. That is not how it plays. It starts with 16 mm black-and-white documentary footage of a press conference given by the Austrian chancellor, Bruno Kreisky—but Assayas inserts the actor who plays Kreisky into the footage. He then cuts to his own footage of the bus coming to receive the hostages, but still in black and white, as if the documentary footage is continuing. As the bus arrives, the film gradually shifts from black and white to color, from apparent history into its artistic reconstruction—and the result is that the modified or corrupted documentary footage dissolves the sense of artifice in the fictionalized film we’re actually watching, and the presence of the actors dissolves the in-the-past nature of the documentary footage, so that, regardless of what we may know of the actual events being portrayed, we don’t know what is going to happen.’ The layering of documentary and fictional images seems to correspond to a postmodernist cult of presentness: for Marcus, the scene denotes the filmmaker’s intention to involve the viewer in the ‘what’s- happening-now…with past and future sucked into this immediacy.’ But in fact, both present and past and fiction and documentary are related more dialectically, with an eye towards establishing a continuity that serves to ‘dissolve the sense of artifice.’ When Marcus writes, ‘the viewer knows this happened,’ he reinstates the viewer’s consciousness of the historical event as actual occurrence. So his viewer is distinctly different from Sobchack’s ‘historically (self)conscious viewers’ of a postmodern movie like Forrest Gump, who recognize the distinct terms of the confusion between the fictional and the historical. Moreover, the viewer he describes, fully engaged in the historical fiction, is closer to White’s description of the reader of the nineteenth-century historical novel, whose contract with the fiction produced an ‘affect in which the familiar (the reader’s own reveries) was rendered exotic while the exotic (the historical past or the lives of the great) was rendered familiar,’Hayden White, Persistence of History, p. 18 especially if we equate the ‘familiar’ of the first clause with the documentary images of the OPEC raid.
In White’s characterization, the distinction between the real and the imaginary suspended by postmodernist docudrama or historical metafiction (and recognized by its audience) was vital to the understanding of the nineteenth-century historical novel,’ a genre born precisely of the interference between an imaginary tale and a set of real historical events, two poles the reader was expected to be able to distinguish.’Ibid. If Che and Carlos can be said to have dissolved the imaginary tale into the real historical event, their historical fiction approximates the classical form of the historical novel as characterized by Georg Lukács. The historical novel came about at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Lukács argues in his eponymous work, because at that post-Napoleonic juncture the involvement of broader layers of the population in the making of history strengthened ‘the feeling that there is such a thing a history…and that it has a direct effect upon the life of every individual.’Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, p. 20. Hence, the historical novel corresponded to the emergence of historicity, i.e. the study of historical actuality, while its realism, the detailed description of concrete period and place, directly derived from its historiography. As in Lukács’ characterization, the people in Che and Carlos witness history, are organically linked to history; the twist is that whereas the historical novel is focalized through middling characters of no great distinction who encounter famous historical figures, in Soderbergh and Assayas it is the historical figures themselves who are presented as more representative than exceptional (Carlos would like to believe that he is that type of man, but Assayas lampoons this perception as bourgeois self-delusion). In the historical novel both the past and the present are seen as moments of history, constantly changing, open to the potential of revolutionary transformation. This belief in historical progress, Lukács argues, was suspended by the ‘modernization’ of historical consciousness as a philosophy of historical solecism that, in Nietzsche, anticipated White’s linguistic turn. With the depletion of the energies of the historical novel through what Lukacs calls a ‘mystification’ or, in the case of the modernist novel, ‘mythicization’ of history, went the possibility to represent totality – ‘history as a total process disappears.’Ibid. p. 215.
To be clear, while, as Hoberman points out, the two-part ‘call-and-response’ structure of Che certainly fits the dialectic, I would hesitate to bring either Che or Carlos in too close alignment with Lukács’ Marxist aesthetics or Hegelian philosophy of history. Ian Aitken warns against using Lukács’ ideas ‘in a general and sometimes indiscriminate manner, often eliding the important distinctions which Lukács himself drew,’ and it might well be that this is precisely what I am guilty of.Ian Aitken, Realist Film Theory and Cinema, p. 119. More prosaically, it would take a steadier hand than mine to paint a convincing portrait of Assayas and Soderbergh as Marxist filmmakers, combining faithfulness to fact with participation in social struggle. Still, Assayas was a Marxist in the anti-factionalist mode of Debord and George Orwell during his student days, while Soderbergh, though certainly more of a liberal than a radical, is a fiercely independent filmmaker who especially in his later, social-critical films, like Assayas, has focused almost exclusively on the effects of corporatism and globalization. What I detect in Che and Carlos is a new belief in progress, based less in revolutionary struggle per se than in a revitalized sense of historicity, in the acknowledgement of the relationship of the present to the past in other than allegorical terms. Their ambition lies not with a ‘réel de proximité’ but with Lukacs’ totality. In his memoir A Post-May Adolescence, Assayas writes: ‘Beyond supercession there lies not necessarily another supercession but, rather, access to a virgin terrain…where everything remains to be built anew, sometimes even using the same tools as before.’Olivier Assayas, A Post-May Adolescence: Letter to Alice Debord (trans. & Intro. Adrian Martin). Vienna: Österreichisches Filmmuseum & SYNEMA, 2012, p. 59. One of their ambitions is precisely to map ‘totality’ not only as a function of their sprawling narratives, globe-hopping ‘internationalist’ aesthetic or epic playing times, but mainly of their self-presentation as history-in-the-making through their infusion with the political content of everyday life, and their elaboration of process, development, operation, planning, of ideas born in action. In this sense, we would benefit from replacing Lukács’ totality with Jameson’s ‘totalization’ as process, but this would require a whole new essay.
Soderbergh has stated that he wanted to make a film about Guevara because he was fascinated both by the will of the man and the technical challenges that go along with implementing any large-scale political idea, the day to day stuff—things that have meaning on a practical level and on an ideological level. Some critics have read this, again allegorically, as a reflection on the process of filming itself and on Soderbergh’s reputation as a technician first, a solver of problems. If this is so, then the allegory must be read in terms of Assayas’s characterization, in Post-May Adolescence, of the movie set as ‘non-alienated collective work place.’ ‘What if in cinema,’ he asks, ‘the veritable artistic gesture is not so much the finished result as the shooting itself? Aren’t most films less than what has been lived, truly lived, while they were being made, and isn’t the challenge, after all, to try to capture in images an approximation of the magic of life as conjured on the set?’Ibid., p. 67. This is the movie set with its multi-national crews as totality, or, in Debordian terms, as ‘situation,’ an existential space imagined and construed according to its own collective rules. The analogy is Assayas’ not mine. By why not? The movie set as ‘organic’ community is as good a place as any to launch a rediscovery of the world.