Ernesto Goes to the Movies: The Motorcycle Diaries, Brought to the Screen by Robert Redford, Shows Us the Young, Pre-Revolutionary Guevara. Call It Soft Socialist Realism

By Hoberman, J. | The American Prospect, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Ernesto Goes to the Movies: The Motorcycle Diaries, Brought to the Screen by Robert Redford, Shows Us the Young, Pre-Revolutionary Guevara. Call It Soft Socialist Realism


Hoberman, J., The American Prospect


HE WAS, PER JEAN-PAUL SARTRE, "the most complete human being of our age." Not to be outdone, Susan Sontag eulogized him as "the clearest, most unequivocal image of the humanity of the world-wide revolutionary struggle unfolding today." He, of course, is Ernesto "Che" Guevara, although the key word in Sontag's formulation is neither "humanity" nor "revolutionary" but "image."

You could find that image at the heart of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art's recent show Global Village: The 1960s, on the wall of a room provocatively called "Disorder." The image graced the posters used to advertise the show, and it was reproduced ad infinitum in the museum gift shop, amply (and ironically?) stocked with all manner of Che Guevara tchotchkes. Is it Che who gives the lost world and failed aspirations of the 1960s a human face?

Che Guevara's posthumous role as an icon and fashion statement has now lasted twice as long as his political career. Born to a left-wing, upper-middle-class family in Rosario, Argentina, in 1928 (the same year as international icon Mickey Mouse and ultimate iconographer Andy Warhol), he was an international political celebrity before he turned 32, slyly smiling on the cover of Time magazine in August 1960, flanked by subsidiary images of powerhouses Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Tse-tung. That same summer, Cuban photographer Alberto Korda snapped a more flattering portrait of El Che, long hair topped by a perfectly placed black beret and flowing in the winds of change, gaze resolutely focused on anti-imperialist struggle.

Officially known as Heroic Guerrilla, Korda's picture might be the most famous and most appropriated photographic portrait ever (the inevitable late Warhol multiple was utterly redundant). It's also an image no mere mortal could live up to. Indeed, Che the revolutionary martyr was born October 7, 1967, when another photo graph, this one amazingly Christ-like, flashed out of a Bolivian pueblo and around the world--"the corpse of the last armed prophet laid out on a sink in a shed, displayed by flashlight," wrote Robert Lowell.

Armed prophet of Third World upheaval, unlikely combination of Tom Joad and Mick Jagger, El Che imbued the revolution with a sense of archaic chivalry. It was while touring Europe in the aftermath of Che's death that movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck became aware of the dead guerrilla's "tremendous appeal" for young people and instructed his son Richard to quickly develop a Guevara biopic with Omar Sharif in the title role. Released in 1969, the film was a cautiously pandering bore, anathema to both radical New Leftists and right-wing Cubans.

Che Guevara was not only a dorm-room pin-up to rival Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison but the poster boy for repressive tolerance and co-optive commodification. Hans Magnus Enzensberger's 1970 essay "Constituents for a Theory of the Media" cites the Olivetti Corporation's appropriation of Che's image for an ad celebrating its creative sales force: "We would have hired him" was the boldly tautological assertion. Before the '70s ended, Che was relegated to the attic of cultural memory--at least outside of Cuba. But with the end of the Cold War, the closest thing to a superstar that international communism ever produced re-emerged as a capitalist tool, emblazoned on a top-selling Swatch watch and otherwise used to sell shoes, beer, cigars, and skis. In a totally unexpected way, Che became the embodiment of free market globalism.

In Cuba, where the day of his death is a national holiday, Che remains a revolutionary trademark and constant presence--the New Socialist Man, model for several generations of school-children. But his cult of personality has long since ceased to be a function of state power. The old Che may linger still in Vietnam and Mozambique, among the Senderos and the Zapatistas; but in the Bolivian village where he was shot, he is Santo Che de La Huigera--believed to work miracles, his portrait juxtaposed with that of Christ in the local mercado. …

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