The Motorcycle Diaries
Produced by South Fork Pictures
Directed by Walter Salles
Screenplay based on The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara and Traveling with Che Guevara by Alberto Granado
Distributed by Focus Features
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Produced by Brooklyn Films
Written and directed by Kerry Conran
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
It was Marshall McLuhan’s opinion that we are all hopelessly nostalgic. We drive into the future, he claimed, with our eyes glued to life’s rearview mirror. Who would disagree? Two recent films show us just where such backward gazing can lead. The first takes us disinguenuously astray; the second sends us magically over the rainbow.
Brazilian director Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries demonstrates that those who indulge a nostalgia for charismatic leaders of the past are often taken in by cheap icons, especially if their sense of history is thin. Salles counts on such thinness to foist on the unsuspecting an idealized story of the seemingly innocent young man who would become the vicious revolutionary Che Guevara.
Since his 1967 assassination in Bolivia, Guevara has been packaged by the Marxist faithful as a communist saint. But, as recovering Marxist Christopher Hitchens (if you can call becoming a neoconservative recovering from Marxism) put it recently, there’s more Byron than Marx under the wrapping. That is why capitalistic opportunists have been so successful at marketing Che as a provocatively romantic commodity. The iconic photo of Guevara taken by fashion photographer Alberto Korda in 1960 still adorns walls, T-shirts, and beer cans. It was once on boxed soap powder with the slogan “Che washes whiter.” With his unshorn locks escaping dramatically from under his red beret, his wispy beard declaring his eternal youthfulness, and his large, liquid eyes looking soulfully into the middle distance, Che has proved an irresistibly beautiful icon. His death at 37 clinched his celebrity among the cadre of useful idiots who are always with us.
Now Salles is doing his part in the hagiographical cause. His film traces the 5,000-mile trip the 23-year-old Guevara took with his pal, Alberto Granado, in 1952, riding a dubious 13-year-old Norton 500 motorcycle through Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Venezuela. On the way, Guevara was first scandalized and then radicalized by the crushing poverty he witnessed among the lower classes. Why, one wonders, hadn’t he noticed this before his 20’s? Latin America’s ruling classes have never made a secret of how they treat the poor. To be fair, as an asthmatic son of wealthy parents, he was no doubt insulated from the unpleasant world about him. His eyes finally opened, he came to hate his own class. When he teamed up with Fidel Castro in 1956 and sailed to Cuba to foment revolution, he was determined to spread the movement throughout South America. Like most communist ideologues, Che became persuaded that it was perfectly permissible to break as many eggs as needed to make the classless omelet. He seems to have had no compunction about killing innocents for his cause. With Castro, he sought the support of peasants in the Cuban hills, receiving it more often than not from people too frightened to refuse. As in Russia, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and all the other Marxist paradises, those who would not go along were put to the wall and shot, not infrequently by Che himself.
Reportedly sensitive in youth, Guevara grew up to be a cold-blooded, ruthless revolutionary whose hatred of the middle class from which he sprang and of the United States, the bastion of bourgeois democratic success, led him to call for a thousand Vietnams. His bloodlust was such that it was he, not Castro, who wanted to launch the Soviet nukes at us during the missile crisis of 1962. He was an idealistic brat whose desire to reform society curdled into self-righteous cruelty when his benevolent intentions met resistance. Hell hath no fury like a revolutionary punk rebuked.
You would never know this from Salle’s film. He only lets us see the idealism, the romantic soulfulness of the young, delicate Guevara played prettily by Mexican heartthrob Gael García Bernal. There’s no reference to Guevara’s later years and deeds. The soul of this dishonest film is as ugly as its scenes of the Andes and the Peruvian Amazon are gorgeous.
That Motorcycle Diaries has been received with such uncritical enthusiasm by conventionally liberal critics testifies once again to the fatuous complacency of so many in our supposedly well-educated middle class. These are well-meaning souls who think they can demonstrate their social conscience by singing the praises of such men as Guevara, men who would unhesitatingly put them to the wall if doing so would advance their revolutionary cause a few feet farther along the road to utopia. Tellingly, formerly leftist commentators such as Hitchens have been sharply critical of the film and Guevara himself. Like recovering addicts, they have no illusions about the nature of the drug they’re dealing with. This nostalgic fix delivers a lethal impact.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow exhibits another kind of nostalgia altogether. Before going on, let me first state my prejudices. Any film that features a dirigible docking at the mast of the Empire State Building automatically earns my endorsement.
After some swooping shots of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline beautifully rendered in velvety black-and-white, first-time director Kerry Conran cuts to an updated version of the famous 1936 promotional photo that was doctored to simulate just such a mooring. This picture was run in newspapers around the world as though it were the real thing. In those more innocent times, editors saw no ethical reason not to give their readers an advance glimpse of what they had been assured was about to happen anyway. And that is why many to this day think it did. Such credulity was encouraged at the time by no less a personage than former New York governor Al Smith, one of the building’s principal promoters, who had convinced the city fathers that they needed not only the world’s tallest building but an airport for the rich and powerful over mid-town Manhattan. So the tower we know today was built to house huge winches that were to reel in the mooring cables dropped from airships arriving several times a day. Then, belatedly, inconvenient physics quashed the futuristic plan. The wind shear a quarter of a mile above the pavement would make it impossible to hold a dirigible by its nose and keep it still enough for passengers to disembark into the cylindrical mast that would itself be swaying in the breeze.
Such scientific niceties have not deterred Conran and his mighty Mac graphics programs, however. He has reached back to this historical goof as one of his many nostalgic inspirations to construct a computer-generated film about a fictional 1939, perhaps the last time people could be reflexively comfortable with the prospect of technological innovation. Through the magic of Conran’s Mac, we’re able to watch passengers descend from the Hindenberg III on a narrow gangway as though they were doing nothing more adventurous than taking the down escalator at Macy’s.
The ride, however, is not as smooth as it seems. Reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow in slouch hat, belted raincoat, and a flowing mane of Veronica Lake hair) is contacted by Walter Jennings (Trevor Baxter), a very troubled passenger. They meet at Radio City Music Hall, and, while The Wizard of Oz plays on the screen, Jennings confides to her that he was one of a team of German scientists who had been asked to do unspeakable things during World War I. Now these men are disappearing one by one, and Jennings is sure he is next. He is being pursued by a certain Dr. Totenkopf—a name that would frighten anyone, since it’s German for Death’s Head, the skull-and-bones insignia adopted by the Nazi SS. Suddenly, outside the theater, dozens of 50-foot humanoid robots appear in the streets, marching in clanking ranks, scattering cars and pedestrians before them. The authorities immediately call in Joe Sullivan, a.k.a Sky Captain (Jude Law), an heroic flying ace. He quickly dispatches the robots from his fighter plane and, incidentally, saves Polly from being minced under their metallic heels. Once on the ground, however, he has an unpleasant encounter with the gal reporter. It seems the two have a “history.” He accuses her of having sabotaged his plane in Nanjing before dumping him. “It’s been three years; you’re not still mad, are you?” she asks coyly. He is. Furthermore, he rejects her wish to come along as an embedded journalist on his expedition to find the evil Totenkopf. Needless to say, Polly will be at his elbow every step of the way, and, while the two seek the deadly doctor’s headquarters in Nepal, they will bicker ceaselessly about who betrayed whom in Nanjing.
Sound familiar? It’s supposed to. Conran has lovingly revived his favorite conventions from the movies of the 30’s and 40’s, especially Saturday-afternoon serials and B features, and put them on his computer-generated stage. His actors played their scenes against a neutral blue background which he later filled in with all the elements of period film fantasies, from dirigibles to Shangri-la. He has even brought Laurence Olivier back to life as a sort of oracular Wizard of Oz. Visually, the film is enchanting. It has the look of the tinted photos of the 1940’s—as well it might, since it was shot in black and white before the color was added. Faces have the complexion of old ivory, except for their cheeks, which are daubed in hectic pink. Women’s lips aren’t painted red; they are incarnadined until nearly black. Multihued backgrounds fade into a sepia wash. The result is a caressingly nostalgic dream.
Dramatically, Conran has not been quite so successful. His script is too slavishly faithful to the cornball originals he likes so much. His affection for this material comes perilously close to reverence at times. He has instructed his actors to play their comic-book roles straight, and they do so in a manner that lets much of the fizz out of the pop. Furthermore, although Conran has invested the script with a good deal of wit, it is not as sharp as it should be. In interviews, Conran has said he wanted his dialog to remind us of what we have heard in the films of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges. His aim is high, but I am afraid that he has missed his target almost as widely as Dorothy’s tornado-blown house missed Kansas on its way down. Reaching the Himalayan foothills, Sullivan throws Polly a thermal suit and snarls, “Your clothes stay behind; you won’t be needing high heels where we’re going.” Later, when she is accused of lying, Polly haughtily simpers, “OK, I’m a liar, but I don’t exaggerate.” This is mildly amusing, but it is a far cry from Sturges’ repartee in Sullivan’s Travels.
Sky Captain has received a huge amount of attention not only for itself but for what it points to. Although it has not been a strong success at the box office, it moves the industry one step closer to the condition of pure film. Any visual one can imagine is now nearly possible with computer graphics. Soon there will be no need for remote locations, no need for stuntmen, no costly weather delays. The studios must be salivating. The savings will be astronomical. By some estimates, Sky Captain would have cost twice its $70 million budget had it been made conventionally. And then there is the next step: If Olivier can be made to live once more, speaking in his own voice lines he never uttered in life, how far are we from computer-generated performers? No more $20-million fees for the likes of Jack Nicholson. Of course, this means today’s celebrities may have to get real jobs and stop bothering us with their leisure-time shenanigans. Certainly, there are worse prospects in our rearview mirror.