In Review: April 22, 1998

Who was Ernesto "Che" Guevara?
Jorge Castañeda '73's biography tries to demythologize the Communist revolutionary

Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara

Knopf, $30

Jorge Castañeda '73

It is ironic but not surprising that an industry has arisen out of the life and death of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Communist revolutionary known for his opposition to consumerism and free markets. His striking face, already ubiquitous in Cuban iconography, now decorates American and European Tshirts and Swatch watches. His dramatic trajectory is the subject of countless memoirs, books, magazine articles, and a CD-ROM, several of them released within the past year to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his death. Jorge Castañeda '73, a Mexican political scientist who has taught at Princeton, has contributed to the growing field with his recent Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara. Confronting years of mostly hagiographic biographies and memoirs, Castañeda aims to demythologize the man. But the result is uneven, a testament perhaps to the power of the myth itself.

The biography opens with a sentimentalized account of the asthmatic, willful, but fundamentally noble child's privileged early years in Rosario, Argentina. The tone changes with a taut, compelling narration of Guevara's participation, both as combatant and as idealistic workaholic Minister of Industries, in the Cuban Revolution. Detailed, backstage accounts of domestic politics just after the revolution shed light on Guevara's progressive alienation as he witnessed the debilitating failure of his economic policies. Castañeda deftly contextualizes the revolution with regard to world Communism and the complex relationship between the Soviets, the Chinese, and Latin American Communist parties. Yet he seems unable to resist romanticizing Guevara's death in the Bolivian jungle in 1967. In his version, the revolutionary's misguided but nonetheless heroic attempt to export revolution leads with tragic inevitability to his capture and assassination by the Bolivian military. Difficult questions, such as Castro's instrumental attitude toward the enterprise, or Guevara's evolving disregard for the safety of his troops, receive limited attention.

Castañeda's strongest interpretive gesture is the reduction of two related factors: Guevara's asthma and his consistent aversion to ambivalence. According to this interpretation, ambivalence exacerbates asthma, while a singularity of purpose and freedom from contradiction attenuate the condition. Thus the need to escape equivocal situations and pursue clarity. Given Guevara's dogmatic and peripatetic tendencies, the analysis can prove illuminating. But Castañeda's own evidence suggests that Guevara was somewhat more complex than the interpretation allows. He is at a loss, for instance, to explain the ambivalence expressed in Guevara's famed statement about his relationship to Fidel Castro: "neither marriage nor divorce."

When Castañeda deals with Guevara's legacy, he focuses mainly on the student movement of 1968, which adopted Guevara as a symbol of rebellion and self
sacrifice. Students protesting all over the world invoked his name and image, though they in fact knew little about the details of his life or politics. Yet there is a notable silence about the impact of Guevara's life, death, and myth on Cuba and Cubans. That issue is very much alive in a nation that has witnessed a complicated deployment of memory and history. The recent, carefully orchestrated wake and public burial of Guevara's recovered body created a spectacular moment in his posthumous career as official martyr. The attitude of Cubans raised on Guevara's social reformist ideas about the "New Man" undoubtedly ranges from cynical to adulatory. Even as Cuba's economy undergoes a transformation inimical to Guevara's ideals, his status as icon of the revolution endures. How do Cubans today digest the contradiction? The book neglects to ask how those he may have most affected remember the man or consume the legend.

-- Alejandra Bronfman

Alejandra Bronfman is a doctoral candidate in history at Princeton.

Domeliners: A new way of seeing

Karl Zimmerman '65 may not be in the same league with E.M. Frimbo (a.k.a. Rogers Whitaker '22), who logged nearly 3 million miles of train travel and whose exploits were reported in The New Yorker, but train enthusiasts are no doubt familiar with Zimmerman's many articles and books about rail travel and trains. His newest work, Domeliners, is dedicated to the railcar with a view of its own. Domeliners, as the passenger cars with elevated seating for maximized viewing of scenery are known, were conceived in the mid-1940s and manufactured for about 10 years. Zimmerman's book includes pictures galore and extensive data about the novelty cars. (Kalmach Publishing, $49.95, 800-533-6644)

Jonas Pate '93 directs his third film

This year Jonas Pate '93 and his twin brother, Josh, are cowriting, coproducing, and codirecting their third film in five years. Not bad for a duo who in 1993 kept their day jobs and wrote scripts in their spare time.

As an undergraduate, Jonas was active in the campus group Princeton Filmmakers. His sole film credit was a campus video short he directed. But during his senior year, he got the opportunity to intern with the New York-based filmmakers James Merchant and Ismael Ivory. "I was basically the office whipping boy," he explains.

After graduation, he moved to New York and worked for four months in the postproduction offices of Miramax, back when it was more an acquisition and distribution company and was just starting to make its own movies; that year Pulp Fiction was one of its first productions.

Jonas then returned home to North Carolina and started writing his first screenplay, The Grave. His brother Josh, fresh out of the University of North Carolina-Chapel-Hill, cowrote the story, but at the time wanted to be a novelist (neither brother majored in film -- Jonas studied philosophy, while Josh earned his B.A. in English).

The Grave is a "campy, black comedy," says Jonas. But it caught the attention of Peter Glatzer, a friend of his from New York who quit his position at a nonprofit filmmaker's group to produce the film. The project was sold to the Los Angeles-based Kushner-Locke Entertainment, which budgeted $1.5 million for production, then quickly recouped its investment with presale of the film in the overseas market. Even before the movie started shooting, the company had made back its money. "It's a good way for a young director to get a shot," Jonas points out, "because the production company's not at risk, even if the movie's really bad."

To make the film, with little experience and no film-school training, Jonas relied on books. "I read a gazillion books about film," he says, including David Mamet's On Directing and technical manuals such as Film Directing Shot By Shot.

Kushner-Locke sold The Grave on the strength of "star names," such as Craig Sheffer (A River Runs Through It) and Gabrielle Anwar (Scent of a Woman), two actors the company insisted upon. The company wasn't willing to go with the two other actors the Pates had auditioned -- Ashley Judd and Matthew McConaughey -- because no one had heard of them. They have since become hot Hollywood talents.

As Glatzer and the Pates were raising money for The Grave, Jonas and Josh began work on another script, then called Liar, about a Princeton graduate suspected of murdering a prostitute. Written as a "credit-card movie," Pate planned the film frugally: three main characters, heavy on the dialogue, set mostly in one room.

It was during production of The Grave, that Josh decided to at least temporarily abandon his dream of becoming a novelist and joined his brother officially in the filmmaking process.

"It was really physically exhausting," Jonas says of filming The Grave. "You shoot 14 hours a day, and you're up 22 hours, so you're only clocking two hours of sleep a night. It's like running the marathon."

The shoot also had its share of problems. "One of the production assistants got struck by lightning," says Jonas. "He was okay -- it knocked him down, though." But the film got finished on time and within budget, looking impressive enough to win not only a video release but also air time on HBO and a special midnight slot at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival.

The cable deal and festival clout won for the Pates representation at the United Talent Agency, which decided to give Liar, their "credit-card movie," a go at $3.5 million. Once finished, Liar made stops at the Cannes and Venice film festivals. The brothers sold distribution rights to MGM, which changed the film's name to Deceiver and released it to mixed reviews in January.

This spring they're busy with two projects. They're shooting a television pilot called "Underworld" about people who've made Faustian bargains. And Earl Watt, their science-fiction epic, budgeted at $40 million, is underway. "I'm pretty nervous, man," Jonas admits about directing a movie with such a huge budget. "But what are you gong to do? Say no? I have to hold my breath and just try it. But it's been that way for the whole thing so far."

-- Stephen Garrett '92

Stephen Garrett is a film editor and freelance journalist in Los Angeles.

Telling the truth

Jonathan Ames '87 stars in Hairy: My Life Story From My Late Puberty to My Early Fatherhood, his one-man, story-telling show, at the Fez Under Time Café in New York City on Wednesdays during May at 8 p.m. Ames, also a novelist, has been called a cross between Spalding Gray and Andy Kaufman. (For more information phone 212-533-2680.)

Books Received

Run East: Flight From the Holocaust, by Jack Pomerantz and Lyric Wallwork Winik '88 (Illinois, $26.95) -- This as-told-to account of one man's life spans from 1918 to the present, and takes place in Poland, Russia, Germany, Austria, and the United States.Winik is a contributor to Parade magazine.

Reminiscences of an Octogenarian, by Bruce Manning Metzger *42 (Hendrickson, 800-358-3111, $24.95) -- an autobiography of Metzger, who earned his Ph.D. in classics and who is a professor, emeritus, of New Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Composers at Work: The Craft of Musical Composition 1450-1600, by Jessie Ann Owens *79 (Oxford, $50) --

examines how musicians put music together (i.e. "composed") in a time when the use of scores was uncommon. Owens, who earned her Ph.D. in music, is a professor of music at Brandeis.

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, by Ross Murfin '71 and Supryia M. Ray (Bedford, 800-877-5351 ext. 340, $15.32) -- This book of literary terms is accessible enough for middle-schoolers and comprehensive enough for adults. The format includes definitions, examples, and cross references. Murfin is a professor at Southern Methodist University.