I just finished working out the simulacrum in the film, The Thirteenth Floor – about simulated realities that imperceptibly transform into authentic, independent realities.
And here comes simulacrum again – in Chevolution., a documentary directed by Luis Lopez and Trish Ziff, which chronicles the origin and evolution of an image that propagates one of the most recognizable faces in modern history: Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
The term simulacrum has more than one definition, and it gets quite complex depending on how deeply you delve into critical theory.
For Chevolution, I would leave it as this: the simulacrum is a reproduction of an original that becomes reproduced itself, sometimes multiple times, and at some point, the reproduction establishes itself as something different and perhaps independent from the original.
The reproduction and the simulacrum in Chevolution is the iconic – and I use that word sparingly, but here it fits – photograph of Ernesto “Che” Guevara taken by Alberto Korda during a 196o rally/memorial for Cubans killed by a planted explosion as a shipload of arms arrived in Havana.
I never knew the origin of the actual photo, though I have seen it thousands of times in dozens of formats: signs, t-shirts, caps, bumper stickers, banners, and mugs. I’ve never seen it on the teeny Brazilian bikinis, but the movie shows us it’s there, too.
The film’s directors, Luis Lopez and Trish Ziff, take a sympathetic view of Guevara, one that predictably outrages Cuban exiles, though there is a bit at the end where some of the talking heads reveal that they are not pleased with the outcome of the Cuban Revolution. One younger Cuban exile interviewee points out that the blind association with the photo, dubbed Guerillero Heroico, indicates an adherence to an unyielding Marxist dogma in practice, with no allowance for free speech or independence but promises imprisonment and death to those who attempt opposition. The guy sums up concisely what I’ve heard from Cuban exiles for decades. I don’t dispute his take, after having worked with Cuban refugees who fled the nation long after the revolution, and being pressed into reading books like Antes que anochezca (Before Night Falls), Reinaldo Arenas’s autobiography, in which he uses his dying breath and final written words to urge exiled compatriots not to give up hope on a free Cuba. I do think there is another side to the story, but I won’t go there because then I can’t get out.
Back to Che-fandom. Keys words: blind association. He knows full well, as do the Republican and Libertarian college students interviewed wearing satirist t-shirts with the iconic image, that most people who embrace Che, or that reproduction of Che, have no idea who the man was or what his socio-political legacy means to the people who he fought for and fought against.
This is where the simulacrum falls into place. The younger Cuban (he looks young enough to be second or third generation in the U.S.) points out that most people simply don’t know the message that their t-shirt or Brazilian bikini bottom is transmitting.
However, that message, through five decades of reproduction, has been expanded, diverted, and even perverted from the original – the Korda photo of Ernesto Guevara standing on a platform with a countenance of anger, sadness, defiance, and determination, just as Fidel Castro uses the phrase “Patria o Muerte” (“Country or Death”) for the first time publicly.
Of course, the photo itself is the first reproduction – El Che the man by Korda the photographer into Guerrillero Heroico the photo.
The image makes its way to placards brandished by Cubans against U.S. imperialism to the pages of Paris Match to posters and protest signs all over the globe – especially by 1968 – with uprisings in Paris, Prague (Soviet controlled!), and Berkeley. It seems to say “power to the people” in a Zeitgeist way – Che’s hair and glare – and even the beret – spell sixties revolution across cultures.
Then it starts to spell and spill in different ways. The image is cropped, leaving out the profile of another soldier-in-arms and a palm, removing it from its original setting and the original raison d’être. It becomes merely a symbol of rebellion – against The Man.
He’s like Marlon Brando in The Wild One. “What are you rebelling against?”
Brando: “Whaddya got?”
Now, it doesn’t seem to matter what you are rebelling against, the image of Che is with you. He’s a badass and takes no shit. Just look into his eyes and try to deny it.
Problematic is that Che was not an anarchist or a generalized rebel. He was a guerilla fighter driven to spread Marxist Socialism across the globe, from Latin America to Africa and back. What would Guevara opine of his mug on a mug? It’s all surface and open to anybody who’s feeling rebellious or a little on the wild side. Dad won’t lend you the Chevy tonight? Fuck that! Take a look at Che!
Well, Che wouldn’t have been concerned about the loss of a Chevy for a teenaged night of debauchery.
Think what you will of him, and I never met a Cuban in the U.S. with a favorable opinion, Ernesto Guevara didn’t fuck around. He was a man of unbending conviction and extreme drive. He helped bring down a government and evaded the most powerful nation on the earth for years. He set a precedent of anti-imperialistic trench fighting that inspires people even today. And I’m not talking about the kid with the Chevy; I’m talking about the Bolivian peasant and the impoverished indigenous Mexican. Hate him or love him, or just be indifferent, that effect is undeniable.
I believe communicating this legacy is the film’s central success. I would have liked more explanation as to who the talking heads were and why they were there. Even when I knew them, I had to guess how they ended up in the documentary. Okay, Gael García Bernal played Che in The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta) (2004 ); but I was completely stymied as to why Antonio Banderas, never really a welcome screen presence to me, was even included; later I found that he’d played Che in the film Evita (1996), which clearly I had never seen and am still confused about because I feel rather certain after reading biographies of both people that the two never met.
I don’t have any interest in seeing Che and Evita have a fictional tango, and the idea of the German musical, also titled Chevolution, causes me no end of distress, especially considering my repeated visits to Bochum, which were accompanied by threats to see the endlessly running Starlight Express. Bochum musical troupes, disband! Do something less malevolent with your lives. There is still time for self-redemption.
No Che musicals! I won’t even stand for him in Evita, and I won’t stand for Evita period!
More important to the evolution of the revolutionary image are interviews with less celebrated art historians and graphic artists who have tracked and used the photograph along its path from relative obscurity to international ubiquity up to more recent copyright claims. They are able to discuss how the image and its myriad of reproductions and transmutations, beginning with a simple cropping, have led it to become both the emblem of Che’s political worldview and the antithesis of it: commercialized, commodified creations contributing exclusively to capitalism.
That duality returns us to the simulacrum: Che the Marxist revolutionary fighter as capitalist commodity.
People who either love and despise Che deeply recognize the icon in its original form: Che elicits highly divergent reactions from the two groups based on their personal histories and political convictions, but they can at least agree on the historical Ernesto “Che” Guevara as a militant Marxist and major figure in the Cuban Revolution. From there, they can love him or hate him.
The second camp, to whom the simulacrum’s existence is owed, know Che almost entirely from the iconic image. He may represent freedom, rebellion, beauty, fashion, or general badassery™, but for them, the power of the image supersedes the power of the original figure, even the original photo, to the extent that the reproduction exists to many as a separate, independent entity with almost no connection to the flesh-and-blood man standing on that platform in Havana in 1960.
How does Raúl feel about the image? I never bring up anything to do with the Cuban Revolution around Cubans because it can set off such a firestorm. Che to me is mostly the simulacrum, though I’ve read a biography about him and recently watched Steven Soderbergh’s two-part film about him, simply titled Che. My first encounter with Che was probably on a college kid’s t-shirt, and when I hear the name, I think of the image before the man and his accomplishments/atrocities. See, I’m playing it safe. I don’t mention Chávez in front of Venezuelans now either. Raúl likes to keep the peace – and not get trapped into political diatribes when he really just wants to finish his sandwich. But I get it: Che carries a lot of weight.
What I suppose makes me understand it more is the Warhol reproduction of Chairman Mao, which also found its way onto t-shirts and posters. To me, Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China cause me to feel a shiver inside – mostly with disgust, but also fear and disappointment in humanity. I think Mao’s photo belongs in the same pile with Stalin and Hitler, and I don’t like to see it in some ironic form emblazoned on a t-shirt. But China has moved on and I think Mao is passé now. Not true for Che.
Say what you will, Che has staying power, be it the real guy or the simulacrum silkscreened on the baby onesie.
Coming soon: my thoughts on Steven Soderbergh’s Che opus.