Los Angeles Times
October 4, 2004

Heroes: lionized, supersized

By Reed Johnson
Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY A few days ago, Aleida Guevara March made a startling disclosure regarding her father, the late Argentine revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Her papi, Guevara told an interviewer, was even more handsome than Gael García Bernal, the young Mexican heartthrob who plays Che in Walter Salles' new film "The Motorcycle Diaries." However, Guevara March did concede that García Bernal has "very beautiful eyes."

Che's daughter is by no means a frivolous custodian of her famous father's legacy. On a recent trip here, she made a speech against the U.S. blockade of Castro's Cuba at Mexico's National Autonomous University, where she reportedly was greeted by student chants of "Cuba sí, Yanquis no!"

But in playing up Che's matinee-idol magnetism, Guevara March underscored the strange mix of folklore, fact and Hollywood-style fantasy that have converged in the face of the bearded man in the black beret. As her remark inadvertently suggests, the way we picture Che today says less about what he lived and died for than it does about mass culture's tendency to sexualize and glamorize public figures while leaving their actual achievements (or lack thereof) in soft focus. That's a pity in the case of a complex figure like Che, whose legacy is still hotly disputed and whose enduring popularity across boundaries of class, race, region, politics and religion have made him as much of a global commodity as Nike or Microsoft.

Of course, in a post-Warhol world, practically any public figure is fair game for pop-culture sainthood. If, as the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle put it in the 1800s, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men," then the history of the world in the 21st century is but the A&E "Biography" series of great men (and women) if not the E! channel's True Hollywood Stories.

Still, why does pop culture mythologize and mass-replicate some historical heavyweights but not others? Why did Warhol himself silk-screen Chairman Mao but not, to my knowledge, Mahatma Gandhi or Leon Trotsky? Surely it wasn't the former's fabulous sense of fashion-forwardness. And why is it Che's smoldering visage, looking like a Caravaggio Christ in combat fatigues and heavy-metal-rock-god hair, that gets splashed on T-shirts and carried into protest marches around the world, and not the face of, say, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel or some other less flamboyant revolutionary who arguably achieved far more than Che for his people with considerably less spilled blood?

Part of the answer obviously lies in Che's striking physical presence and his relative youth. He was only 39 when he was captured and executed by Bolivian soldiers while trying to ignite a pan-Latin uprising that would turn South America into another Vietnam. Che passed into legend before the burdens of a middle-aged revolution could sag his intellectual sex appeal or finish turning his already brittle convictions into full-blown ideological osteoporosis.

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Road movie

Che's iconic stature surely will increase as a result of "The Motorcycle Diaries" the film opened last month in the U.S. and last weekend in Mexico which like its literary source material chronicles a life-altering, 8,000-mile trip that the young Che took with a companion, Alberto Granado, across South America on an old Norton 500 motorbike in 1952. This coming-of-age episode from Guevara's youth neatly overlaps with several mythic narratives that gained pop-culture traction between the 1950s and early '70s: the motorized cross-country (or cross-continental) odyssey as a rite of passage for the hero-in-training; the neo-Romantic ideal of "dropping out" from the middle-class status quo; and, perhaps especially, the notion of spiritual inner growth as a prerequisite for public greatness.

The transformational "road trip," of course, has been a pop-culture fixture for much of the past half-century, reaching its apotheosis in books like Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and Robert Pirsig's meditative "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," and in such movies as "Easy Rider." Another cinematic antecedent of "The Motorcycle Diaries" is Gus Van Sant's 1991 feature film "My Own Private Idaho," a tragicomic, homoerotic riff on Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part I" in which two young men played by Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix tool around the Portland, Ore., demimonde on a motorcycle. Reeves' character, the son of Portland's mayor, takes the role of Shakespeare's Prince Hal (the future King Henry), while Phoenix's street hustler substitutes for Hal's licentious sidekick Falstaff. As with Shakespeare's Hal, Reeves' character must renounce his flaming youth before he can ascend to the adult world of moral responsibility.

As a few commentators have noted, the same Shakespearean subtext crops up in "The Motorcycle Diaries," as García Bernal's Che and his boisterous friend Granado (played by the Argentine actor Rodrigo de la Serna) initially set off from Buenos Aires in pursuit of wine, women and song. Instead they encounter impoverished peasants and leper colonies, causing Che to re-evaluate his life's mission. It's no coincidence that the Latin America media lately have taken to calling García Bernal the Latin Marlon Brando, who also minted himself as a cinematic icon by playing a rebellious, soulful-eyed biker in "The Wild One."

Some audience members also will inevitably see and hear echoes of the revelatory road trip taken by García Bernal and Diego Luna in "Y Tu Mamá También." This journey of psychosexual awakening, set against the backdrop of a troubled and changing Mexico, was García Bernal's breakout film and a landmark of modern Latin cinema. "Y Tu Mamá" reflects the very modern belief that "the personal is the political," a credo that probably would've have baffled such Che revolutionary forebears as Emiliano Zapata and Ho Chi Minh (though it might've struck a chord with Thomas Jefferson and Emma Goldman). Around the time that Che was leading Third World guerrilla insurgencies, Lennon John, that is, not Vladimir Ilyich was putting this credo into hummable meter in the Beatles' ironically titled "Revolution." Instead of blaming "the institution," Lennon sang, "you better free your mind instead." Liberate your head (and libido), in other words, and your politics would follow.

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More Westernized image

Today, in the developed Western world, on both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum, it's practically an article of faith that one's sexuality, consumer choices and spiritual inner life are directly related to one's politics. What the real Che would've made of this formulation is impossible to know. But clearly in our cinematic collective unconscious, the vehemently anti-Western, death-to-capitalism Che Guevara is acquiring a more Westernized, art-house-friendly image.

Elsewhere in the world, it's still the radically anti-U.S., uncompromising Che who persists in the popular imagination. For many people living north of the Rio Grande, it may be hard to understand why this version of Che still holds such currency for so many Mexicans and Central and South Americans. The real-life Che was an unrepentantly hard-line thinker who saw the world in black and white and endorsed Lenin's adage that the ends justify the means, no matter how many people yourself and your comrades included wind up dead. But in his political afterlife, Che has become for many Latin Americans not merely the human face of Cold War Marxism, but a vibrant symbol of resistance to Uncle Sam's often bullying attitude toward its southern neighbors, to NAFTA, to globalization and, by transference, to the current U.S.-led war in Iraq, which most Latin Americans strenuously oppose.

In the end, of course, the communist revolution that Che hoped would sweep across Latin America never came to pass. Instead followed decades of ruthless right-wing strong men, violent coups and civil wars, then wobbly democracies and slow economic growth. Recent polls show that many Latin Americans would prefer returning to "orderly" dictatorship rather than endure chaotic democracy. They have learned to be skeptical of abstract-thinking young men with fire in their souls.

If another Che were to appear in the streets of Buenos Aires or Santiago or Mexico City (never mind Havana) preaching a better future through violent struggle, would the people now sporting his image on their blue jeans and car bumpers take up arms and follow him? I doubt it.

But that doesn't mean that Che has become an empty trademark. Human beings tend to yearn for saints, martyrs and other mystic role models more than they do for political leaders who demand sacrifice and hardship and who offer compromises rather than utopias. The lives of such mythic heroes are often reduced to one great act, one monumental quest or mission (such as a motorcycle trip?) that defines them and can be refashioned to fit one's own psycho/spiritual/political needs. Over time, the youthful errors, messy digressions and calamitous mistakes of such figures get filtered out of the story line.

That is partly what has happened to Che Guevara, and the phenomenon should give us pause. Because if the last few years have taught us anything, they've shown that one man's revolutionary fanatic can be another's beloved martyr. For thousands, if not millions, of radical Muslims and not only them Osama Bin Laden is fast becoming the new Che: a mythic leader whose lionized image as a die-hard opponent of U.S. global power has obscured his own ideological rigidity and chilling disregard for human life. And he's already got his picture on a T-shirt.

Those who would dismiss this phenomenon as backwardness or blindness may be right. But they do so at their own peril. The pop-culture transubstantiation of Che shows that no one can own the intellectual property rights to a legend. No one can dictate the meaning of an icon. Che's posthumous potency proves that, for many people, even a flawed prophet is better than no prophet at all. Especially if he looks like a Hollywood star.