Steven Soderbergh‘s Che shows tonight at the AFI Fest inside the big Chinese theatre, and I will be in attendance. This will be my third time and the honest-to-God truth is that I can’t wait to slip into it again. For me the Che experience is not unlike how Tom Wolfe once described the experience of settling into the Sunday New York Times — “that great public bath, that vat, that spa, that regional physiotherapy tank, that White Sulphur Springs, that Marienbad, that Ganges, that River Jordan for a million souls.”

Che, in other words, isn’t a pamphlet or a short story or tight three-act “movie” to be savored with a tub of popcorn and a “do it to me” attitude. It’s about luxurious feasting as long as you understand the kind of feast that it is. A big and filling one, certainly, in terms of realism and theme and transportation, but served without conventional “story”, patented emotionalism, movie moments, dessert, coffee, appetizers, waiters, napkins, brandy or any of your standard four-star restaurant perks.

Obviously I’m not mentioning Che‘s subject matter, cinematography, real-life history, performances, etc. I just can’t do it again. Not now anyway. I’ve written about it so many times it’s coming out of my ears.

The people who nip-nip-nipped into this film in Cannes will, I believe, someday eat their words. If, that is, the prevailing opinion trend, which I’m told is starting to move for Che after six months of Cannes after-effect, actually manifests. Among the guilds and the branches, I mean. In which case the nip-nippers will begin to pretend that they liked it all along.

Perhaps there is, in fact, some kind of positive counter-surge brewing among those who are not critics. In the same way that 2001: A Space Odyssey, dumped on by big-city critics when it opened in April 1968, was saved by doobie-tokers. By this I mean people with the apparent capacity to enjoy a film that doesn’t do “drama” and just roll with what it is and what it does.

For me this boils down to the savoring of naturalistic experience, behavior, aroma — a kind of high-end movie versimilitude trip that isn’t trying to arouse and soothe in a campfire-tale sort of way but is strangely immersive all the same.

Che is a direct challenge to audiences,” declared L.A. Times guy Mark Olsen in a 10.31 article. “Depending on who you ask, Che is either Soderbergh’s greatest masterwork or his grandest folly.”

Che is so fully realized and so completely off on its own humid jungle trail that many don’t get what it’s doing. It is in no way a folly.

Seven weeks ago in Toronto Che producer Laura Bickford called it “this generation’s Lawrence of Arabia.” I made this analogy exactly two years ago, and have been flogging the Lawrence thing like a dead horse ever since. I said it in an April ’08 piece I wrote for the Huffington Post. I said it again in an interview in La Opinion.

IFC yesterday announced its release plans for the two-art epic. The entire four hour-plus version (with a half-hour intermission) will have a digital roadshow booking on 12.12 at Manhattan’s Zeigfeld and the Landmark in LA. The film will return to those two markets on 1.9.09 in two parts, expaninding into the top 25 markets on 1.16.09 and 1.22.09. On 1.21.09 both parts — titled The Argentine and Guerilla — will be available separately in both standard and HD via the company’s cable VOD platform. An exclusive Blockbuster home video release will follow.

Exclusive to Blockbuster? Those people are evil.

In the HuffPost piece, written last April, I wrote, “Hey, how about presenting the two films as a single, gargantuan Lawrence of Arabia-styled deal with an intermission, running between four or four and a half hours?” I was half-joking at the time.

I also wrote, “Given the indisputable fact that we are living in the most dumbed-down era of American moviegoing (certainly in terms of the mass audience) since the invention of the movie camera, how many popcorn-munchers are going to be willing, much less eager, to go four hours plus with Che Guevara? Especially given their reluctance to support even Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez‘s Grindhouse, a two-part, three-hour popcorn movie about hot women, zombies and car chases?”