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The Day of Carlos: Olivier Assayas' Carlos (2010)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 24, 2010 11:04pm | Post a Comment
 carlos roadshow program book

Starting with Steven Spielberg's Munich, films about terrorists have caused me to change my general dismissal of biopics. Dramas about revolutionaries are entertaining: The Baader-Meinhoff Complex, Che, The Social Network and, now, Carlos. Thanks to the Egyptian Theater, I was able to see the whole 5 and 1/2 hour version of Olivier Assayas' film. I'm sure that it's going to be taken as a big, epic picture (of Farber's white elephant variety), but it works just as well as a diverting adventure, although the over-reliance on close-ups keeps it from achieving the aesthetic level of David Lean. Whether I'll feel like watching it as much as Lord of the Rings only time will tell. One major problem with the long version is that it was shown with digital projection, rather than a 35 mm print. The constantly moving camera was too blurry and a lot of the outside shots were too bright and digitally blocky. Unlike Steven Soderberg's ideological sympathizing with Che Guevara, Assayas is fairly critical of his subject, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez aka Carlos the Jackal. In fact, I don't see how most Western liberal democrats (that includes conservatives, too) could find much to object to in the derisory treatment of left-wing revolutionary politics in the film (with the notable exception that victims aren't dealt with in much, if any, detail).

Carlos begins the picture as a devoted leftist willing to put his life on the line for his ideas (in particular, anti-imperialism and the Palestinian cause), but has to continually modify those ideas in order to get money and protection from various states (Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran). As he does so, his celebrity status becomes more important than any of the causes he was ostensibly fighting for. Carlos says in an interview within the film that his only ideology is based on saving the oppressed from the oppressors, but as his story makes clear, it takes a good deal of money to do that, which inevitably corrupts the ideology by having to rely on an oppressive power elsewhere in a constant state of displacement. Who cares about Iranian tyranny, for example, if it helps you with your current anti-imperialist struggle? In this way, Carlos wasn't all that different from the realpolitik of his global superpowered opponents (recall Donald Rumsfield shaking hands with Saddam Hussein). And there are many scenes showing the way revolutionary rhetoric has been reduced to little more than advertising slogans, primarily to get into a female radical's pants (he even has one gal sucking on a grenade using communism as foreplay) or to get more funding (although a supposed Marxist, he identifies with the Iranian Islamic revolutionaries at one point). All of which is played somewhat satirically. And Assayas makes it clear that he's not arguing for some contrastive uncompromising form of revolutionary politics when he portrays Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann aka Nada as more comically hysterical than ideologically righteous for refusing to take money in lieu of assassinating a Saudi oil minister, Ahmed Zaki Yamani (which was a primary goal in the OPEC hostage situation of 1975). Instead, Carlos comes across as more rationally minded for taking the money and not sacrificing his life for his mission. Which I guess is a way of saying it's difficult for everyone, including terrorists, to completely denounce petit bourgeois concerns like just getting by one more day.

Intelligence, violence, sex and entertainment -- what more could I ask for?

Relevant Tags

Olivier Assayas (2), Carlos (2)