Experts Exchange: Kent Jones and Dave Kehr on Carlos

Carlos

From the Dave Kehr blog:

Happy New Year, Dave. Scott, I have some trepidations about discussing CARLOS. But as long as you’ve raised the issue, I feel obliged to answer in some fashion. Just to be clear, we’re talking about the complete version as opposed to the 160-minute theatrical cut, no? As far as I’m concerned, those are two very different objects.

Since the film doesn’t even attempt to offer itself as a catalog of all 70s activism, Dave’s political characterization, like Richard Brody’s on his New Yorker blog, doesn’t make sense to me (ditto the belaboring of some rock star metaphor – I think the guy saw himself as a rock star, a different matter). This is not a movie about the Weather Underground, the RAF or the Symbionese Liberation Army. Nor is it about the Panthers or the Gay Liberation movement. It’s about Carlos, whose sponsorships are well documented. Olivier doesn’t even get into all the other instances in which his paths crossed with world leaders, which would have added an extra 9 hours to the running time. For instance, Ceausescu (the “star” of another great 2010 film) unsuccessfully attempted to hire Carlos to assassinate Ion Pacepa after he defected to the CIA in 1978.

A competent terrorist procedural? I guess it depends on what you want from a film. I suppose that there is no self-evident authorial mediation on “our globalized world” in the manner of DEMONLOVER or BOARDING GATE. Different story, different movie. In this case, the story of a guy who starts by thinking he’s the smartest player at the table and ends with the realization that he’s become just another chip.

It was GOOD FELLAS that first married carefully documented reality to a narrative rhythm seemingly set by the nervous systems of its characters and the brutal logic of their world. In GOOD FELLAS and in CARLOS, rhythm is everything. So, while I share your admiration for the OPEC attack, I can’t single it out (any more than I can single out the Copacabana scene in GOOD FELLAS), since it was the global movement of the entire film that impressed me the most. That includes the final Sudanese section.

In CARLOS, I found that reality itself, relentlessly shuffling from one setting to another, became hypnotic, almost abstract – to me, this has been a special characteristic of Olivier’s cinema right from the start, and it has become increasingly acute from film to film. The movie encompasses so much experience, vast swaths of it, only to see the immediate circumstances rolled under almost instantaneously by the course of history. I think this is felt most acutely in the scene where Weinrich finds Angie in his mountainside hide-out. To be pithy about it, I’d say that the film moves at the speed of unfolding history during an enormously complicated moment in geopolitics.

There is quite a bit of handheld camera in the movie – to me, not a frame of it is wasted; to Dave and Richard Brody, presumably to you as well, it is ordinary, run of the mill contemporary filmmaking on the order of HANCOCK or something like that. Not much to say about this, since I’ve already said too much, except that it’s difficult for me to envision the movie being made any other way at this moment in time, and that no two conceptions of handheld camera movement are alike. Just opposing ideas of moviemaking, I guess.

The Social Network

Kent, thanks for your thoughtful response to my reservations about “Carlos.” No, the film doesn’t “offer itself as a catalog of all 70s activism,” which would of course be impossible. But by choosing to focus on Carlos rather than, say, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Assayas is indicating his perspective on the period, one in which all idealism is banished in favor of crude careerism, sexual opportunism and a psychopathic pleasure in the abuse of power.

The resulting one-dimensional portrait of 70s radicalism seems to me perfectly in tune with the nostalgie-de-la-bourgeoisie expressed in “Les destinées” and “Summer Hours,” as well as the paranoid-puppetmaster view of the modern world expressed in “Demonlover” and “Boarding Gate.” Instead of the teenage boy operating an international pornography ring from his bedroom on a Beaver Cleaver street in an unnamed American suburb, we get sinister Arabs pulling the strings from their sunny government offices.

The film seems to go out of its way to collapse the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that Richard Brody has been careful to delineate in regard to the recent controversy regarding Godard and his “Oscar.” There seem to be no political ideals functioning anywhere in Carlos’s world; the European leftists we meet are either self-interested scoundrels like Carlos or dupes who are too naïve (at least initially) to realize they are being used. (The lurid Nada character seems to have jumped out of a James Bond movie – Xenia Onatopp as played by Asia Argento). It’s all very simplistic compared to the complex mixture of politics and pathology portrayed in Wakamatsu’s “United Red Army,” as Junko has pointed out.

Rhythm is indeed important in a sprawling project like this, which is one of the reasons I so admired David Fincher’s work in “The Social Network,” in which dialogue, music, montage and story are made to work together on a very high level to create a powerful sense of varying pulse and momentum. I found some of that in “Carlos,” but not much more than I would have expected in any competently directed, long-form television series; certainly far less than in “The Wire,” which I’m guessing was one of Assayas’s inspirations for this undertaking (the other being Oliver Stone’s “The Doors”). Mostly, Assayas just hurries over the necessary expository passages (to the point where I found myself going to Wikipedia just to find out what happened and when) and slows down the pace only for the more obviously exploitable set pieces: the OPEC raid and the extended sex scenes.

Glenn, I’ll grant you that the jittercam in “Carlos” seems less affected and aggressive than it did in “Late August, Early September.” But once again Assayas seems to be using it in a fairly conventional way, as an easy denotation of “reality” or “immediacy” – unlike von Trier, say, who uses the shoulder-mounted camera (which he generally operates himself) in order to create a kind of cinematic first person, drawing us into and out of his characters’ emotions and perceptions. Assayas remains loftily detached from most of the characters in “Carlos” (though he does seem to feel sorry for Carlos’s wife) and by the end we haven’t discovered any dimensions in the main character that weren’t apparent from the first scenes.

Sorry to go on so long about this, but a serious response deserves a serious response.

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