The extremes of compassion

Gael Gabriel Garcia in "The Motorcycle Diaries"

Gael Gabriel Garcia in "The Motorcycle Diaries"

[After reading an article in the The New York Times today about how restrictions on Cuba travel and business have been lifted, I thought I'd repost my musings on Che Guevara and "The Motorcycle Diaries" (originally posted on my Drama page). Che was not Cuban, but of course he figured heavily in the country's revolution.]

I was very touched by “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004). I thought it was lovely, and I was already fascinated by Che Guevara, as many people are. He has been greatly romanticized and even celebrated for his revolutionary spirit. The film shows the origins of the impetus for what would become his life’s crusade. And it’s remarkable (but should it be surprising?) that this man who started out as a great humanitarian – a doctor, a healer, touched by the plight of the oppressed, moved to severe action – should become what he fought to protect against. He became the tormentor, the torturer, the oppressor of those who opposed him. Although from what I understand, he and Fidel Castro had a falling out of sorts (I’m half-remembering from a PBS documentary that basically he lost favor in Castro’s eyes mainly due to Castro’s jealousy of his popularity, but I could be wrong about that.). So Castro sent him off to the place where he would meet his end.

But as I recognize and, in fact, relish my fascination bordering on infatuation with this legendary figure, I can’t help but wonder why he and Castro are viewed so differently. Why was Che so revered and Castro so reviled? There may be a logical reason that I’ve missed, but I suspect it has much to do with appearances. Che was a very attractive man with passion and vision. His compassion and tolerance of people with views different from his own seems to have faded the deeper he and Castro got into their cause. I guess that’s just a hazard of the revolutionary model. The difficulty is ensuring the freedom of all people, even in a democracy, because in no system can there ever really be equality. Everyone can have the same opportunities, and even that is hard to come by because the playing field is rarely level for all. But there will always be the haves and the have-nots – or the haves and the have-less.

But we must try to improve things, mustn’t we? We can’t resign ourselves to the status quo. We must help people. Perhaps that is why Che is so revered, romanticized or celebrated – because he started from a place of compassion and was so committed to it that he forced change. He was a doer, not a watcher. A true, dare I say, pure, revolutionary. And it didn’t hurt that he was so easy on the eyes. We are suckers for good-looking people in all walks of life. Still, there’s something to be said for good intentions. The PBS documentary depicted Castro’s early involvement in overthrowing the Cuban government as being prompted mostly by political ambition. I think he is perceived as a power-hungry dictator, whereas Che remained a “man of the people” who did not seem to care for the trappings of power, politics and high society. At any rate, I feel like I was able to glimpse Che’s journey, his epiphany, through “The Motorcycle Diaries.” I’m glad he kept a journal for the screenwriters to follow. 

Parallel triangles

Eric Stoltz, Meg Tilly and Craig Sheffer in a publicity shot for "Sleep with Me"

Eric Stoltz, Meg Tilly and Craig Sheffer in a publicity shot for "Sleep with Me"

Ah, the love triangle. A range of emotions can spring from this oft-used plot device, and it occurred to me recently that two rather similar and entertaining love triangle story lines appear in two of my favorite movies: “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Sleep with Me.” Released nearly 10 years apart – “St. Elmo’s Fire” in 1985 (the height of the Brat Pack era) and “Sleep with Me” in 1994 – they both feature a longtime group of friends navigating their relationships with each other. They also feature a prominent couple and another friend in the group silently longing to break up that couple's happy-ish home.   

The triangle

St. Elmo’s Fire
Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy and Andrew McCarthy play Alec, Leslie and Kevin

Sleep with Me
Meg Tilly, Eric Stoltz and Craig Sheffer play Sarah, Joseph and Frank

The setup

St. Elmo’s Fire
Alec and Leslie are the golden couple – recent Georgetown grads who dated throughout college and were deemed “the couple most likely to couple” by all their friends and acquaintances. They are now living together in a stylish apartment embarking on a life the politically ambitious Alec has envisioned for them. Kevin is Alec’s best friend and, consequently, he is pretty close to Leslie too. He has been there from the beginning of Alec and Leslie’s relationship. What no one knows is that he has been pining away for Leslie the whole time. He is holding out no hope, yet his longing for her can never fade because their group of friends spends so much time together.

Sleep with Me
Sarah and Joseph, who met in college and get married at the start of the film, are the focal couple. Frank is the third wheel – Joseph’s best friend who used to spend a lot of time with the couple but has been backing off since the couple married. Frank has been obsessed with Sarah from the moment he and Joseph spotted her spinning her bright yellow umbrella on their college campus, but Frank kept mum and Joseph won her heart.   

The friends

st. elmo's fire2.jpg

St. Elmo’s Fire
Everyone in the group is aware that Kevin hasn’t been dating anyone for a long time, but they don’t know it’s because he’s pining away for Leslie. One of them, Demi Moore’s character Jules, is highly suspicious and decides he must be gay. But the rest of the gang is so absorbed in their own obsessions and Kevin does such a great job of declaring his hatred of romantic love whenever possible, that they don’t give his supposedly self-imposed bachelorhood much thought. [At this point I’m going to revert to the actors’ names because it will be easier to follow, plus the Brat Pack rules require using their real names.] Emilio Estevez, who plays Kevin’s roommate, is busy running around after Andie MacDowell – a beauty he went on one date with in college who never took him seriously as a prospect, so of course he can’t get her out of his mind. Rob Lowe, the bad boy of the group, and Mare Winningham, the good girl of the group, have a never-consummated chemistry they try to ignore in order to protect their friendship … and because he’s married. And Demi Moore (the aforementioned Jules) is enamored with the fast life, developing a drug problem and coping with abandonment issues (Her mom is dead and her father is dying.).

Sleep with Me
The group of friends in this movie is much more eclectic than the preps from “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Very California bohemian. The guys in the group have a regular poker game where a series of hilarious exchanges take place, including blow-ups between Frank and Joseph, mostly due to the frustrations of their poker purist buddy hosting the game. As far as names you might recognize, Todd Field, who went on to appear in “Eyes Wide Shut” and direct “In the Bedroom” and “Little Children,” plays Duane – a deeply cynical writer with a thing for women with no body hair. Thomas Gibson of “Dharma and Greg” and “Criminal Minds” fame plays Nigel, a mischievous, brutally honest chap who loves to instigate and is one of the funniest characters in the movie. Parker Posey and Joey Lauren Adams (“Chasing Amy”) also put in brief, offbeat comedic performances as two friends determined to sing through one of the hallowed poker games and disrupt other lives when they can. Quentin Tarantino has a now-legendary cameo breaking down the gay overtones of “Top Gun” at a party, but he wasn’t among the central group of friends, and I only mention it because that’s the biggest claim to fame the movie has.

The turning point

St. Elmo’s Fire
Leslie is getting more and more fed up with what she refers to as Alec’s extracurricular activities, so when he announces their engagement at a party without her consent (she’s been consistently turning down his marriage proposals), she confronts him. Alec refuses to believe she could have discovered his infidelities on her own, so he publicly accuses Kevin of ratting him out, causing a scene and embarrassing himself when it becomes obvious Kevin did nothing of the kind. So in classic egoist fashion, Alec declares that he wants Leslie out of their house and storms away. Instead of staying with one of her numerous girlfriends, she opts to crash at Kevin’s place for the night. How convenient. And in a dialogue that seems both effortless and awkward, Kevin ends up revealing his undying love, and Leslie is so taken with his vulnerability (and determined to lash out at Alec) that she easily falls into a sexual romp with Kevin - wearing a double strand of pearls the whole time, no less.

Sleep with Me
Tension builds throughout the movie because Frank begins a passive-aggressive campaign to push Joseph away by doing everything he can to annoy his old friend when they hang out – especially at their regular poker game. Meanwhile, as Joseph and Sarah deal with the banalities of marriage, Joseph starts to act out a bit, making Sarah insecure. Things come to a head when Sarah and Joseph have a get-together and invite Frank and his current flame – a model all the men at the gathering go gaga for, especially Joseph. Frank sees Sarah’s growing disgust with the situation and somehow thinks it is the perfect opportunity to declare his love for her and kiss her in front of everyone. His actions do not go over well. He is subsequently ostracized from the group until their friend Nigel the troublemaker invites all of them to a party. Frank’s arrival sends Joseph and Sarah into a shouting match. Joseph gets so angry that he takes off with a woman he just met at the party (Parker Posey). Sarah assumes he is going to sleep with the woman he picked up, so she winds up in bed with Frank. Like Leslie in “St. Elmo’s Fire,” Sarah goes to bed with Frank more to get back at Joseph for his presumed infidelity than to consummate a connection with Frank.  

The resolve

I won’t reveal exactly how things turn out for the couples and the friends, but I will say that I was OK with both resolutions although my heart went out to the guys on the losing end of things. Love certainly can be a losing game, but who’s to say three people can’t maintain a happy and enduring love affair? Surely there are some movies that bear that out, but that’s a blog post for another time.