By Mick Farren
The kid waits for a bus outside Fairfax High School. A bearded face,
a red star on a black beret, stares from the boy's oversized T-shirt.
The proudly worn image is neither musician nor movie star. It's the
legendary photograph by Aberto Korda of Argentinean-born guerrilla
fighter and Marxist visionary Ernesto Guevara de la Serna – commonly
known as Che. The same image of Che has appeared across the entire
world on the shirts of antiwar activists, WTO and G8 protesters,
punks, rock & rollers, and striking agricultural workers.
How much the kid on his way home from school really knows about the
man on his shirt is anyone's guess. Maybe he's read the books,
watched the TV documentaries, downloaded The Motorcycle Diaries, and
is wholly up to speed on his icon, or maybe the screen print is just
a romantic symbol of non-specific revolt. ("What are you rebelling
against, kid?" "What have you got?")
In the case of Che Guevara, the level of perception hardly matters.
In the 40 years since his murder by the CIA and elite Bolivian
Rangers, Che has been fashioned into a unique bridge between radical
politics and popular culture. In a paradox that would baffle Leon
Trotsky, Che is simultaneously a universal symbol of resistance and
an object of commercial merchandise. As the trademark of revolution,
his face appears on belt buckles and lip balm. Tourists from
everywhere except the USA flock to Cuba for low-cost Havana
vacations, and few go home without a Che souvenir. Parodies/copies of
the classic black on red Che emblem have featured Osama bin Laden,
Jesus Christ, Alfred E. Neuman, Manuel from Fawlty Towers, and Peter
Griffin on Family Guy.
A newly released documentary, Che Guevara – Hasta La Victoria
Siempre, directed by Clark Green, although earnest in intent, clearly
bends in the direction of moving the merch with promotion that makes
it clear it contains "rare and previously unseen" photographs and
film footage. The pitch is very close to selling newly discovered
live footage of Jimi Hendrix or the Ramones, or a lost section of The
Godfather, and the effect on the viewer is not dissimilar.
Hasta La Victoria Siempre is little more than a mundane retelling of
the basic Guevara biography, from his bohemian upbringing in Buenos
Aires, his experiences during the CIA coup in Guatemala, his meeting
and subsequent devotion to Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution all
the way to his death while attempting to ignite insurrection in
Bolivia. And yet the visuals are mesmerizing, as one watches the
wealth of newsreel footage and amateur clips of this infinitely
charismatic young man going about the business of actually creating a
revolution – Che in combat, Che the orator, Che bringing in the sugar
harvest, stripped to the waist, and finally Che the corpse, displayed
like a trophy. Clearly much of the material is staged for the camera,
but a knowing twinkle and semi-cynical grin makes clear that Che
himself is well aware that he's being exploited. His product is
revolution and he's selling it.
Che, like (say) James Dean, had the advantage of dying while still
young and glorious. He never aged, he never compromised, and he never
disappointed. Four decades after his death, his screen presence is
still vibrant and vital, and that has surely to be why we still
embrace him as a graphic affront to the raw greed of a ruthless
status quo. Guevara is not an actor or a spot-lit rock star, but he
generates the same energy and fascination. He was the real thing; he
fought in the Sierra Maestra, he rode from Santa Clara to Havana in
ecstatic triumph, and he died for a cause that was both lost and
betrayed almost before it started.
In the West, we may never see the like of Che Guevara again. Perhaps
this is instinctively understood by the kid from Fairfax High, and
his Che T-shirt really celebrates that such a time, and such men, did
exist, not all that long ago. Maybe he also wonders, with a youthful
romance, if those times might come again.
Che Guevara – Hasta La Victoria Siempre is released on DVD by Kultur.
Mick Farren blogs at Doc40.blogspot.com.