Sunday, December 5, 2010

Devil in the Details: Carlos

When Olivier Assayas’ three-part, made-for-TV film about the exploits of terrorist Ilich Rarmirez Sanchez, better known as “Carlos the Jackal,” opens with a disclaimer suggesting that it is “the result of historical and journalistic research” but “must be viewed as fiction,” it creates a truth that tells a lie. By the strictest definition, sure, no amount of exhaustive investigation and meticulous recreation could have allowed Carlos to be called nonfiction, but that doesn’t keep Assayas and fellow screenwriter Dan Franck from trying. For a whopping 319 minutes, Carlos plays like the multicolor depiction of black-and-white history, packed with journalistically documented detail after journalistically documented detail, some of them extraordinary and fascinating, others mundane and tedious. That capitulatory fabrications hold these literal-as-possible dramatizations together goes without saying, but although the movie’s cinematography sometimes recalls the steely palette of Steven Spielberg’s Munich, Carlos is hardly painted in shades of gray. Assayas’ film is less a subjective conjuring of Carlos’ inner Jackal – in fact, that nickname is never used – than it is an objective examination of Carlos’ now antiquated brand of terrorism. Those hoping to learn who Carlos was will be largely disappointed. Those hoping to learn what Carlos did will be enthralled.

Carlos isn’t a peek into a man’s heart or psyche. It’s a peek into the filing cabinet that houses the details of his life. As filing cabinet movies go, it’s tremendous. The acting is universally solid. The globe-hopping mise en sceneCarlos was shot in nine countries over three continents – is lush. The scope is epic. And, not to be overlooked, the story is interesting. To make a 319-minute movie that’s consistently engaging without a single lousy scene is an accomplishment in and of itself. Alas, Carlos feels like the work of a historian more than an artist, as if every scene should be footnoted – not to expand upon its meaning but to cite its validity. Perhaps because so much of Carlos’ life has been shrouded in uncertainty and myth, Assayas and Franck treat every corroborated detail with esteem. If they performed any dramatically-minded gatekeeping in honing their script, it’s hard to find evidence of it. Many scenes run too long, while others are included for no apparent purpose other than the show the extent of the researchers’ work. Assayas also released Carlos in a vastly streamlined 165-minute version, and while I haven’t seen that edition I’d feel confident wagering that it’s the superior cut. Simply put, the 319-minute Carlos doesn’t justify its length. And it’s in tribute to Assayas’ filmmaking, not in criticism of it, that I suspect the comparatively mini version is just as impactful, just as rich, just as thought-provoking … at almost half the time.

I suspect I might be mostly alone in that opinion, but I also suspect that few will have the opportunity to see Carlos as I did: on the big screen in one, full sitting. Maybe it’s wrong of me to expect a movie initially created for consumption over multiple nights to succeed in its whole-enchilada “road show” presentation. Nevertheless, in that format the film’s excesses become obvious. For example, there must be a dozen shots of passports being handed from one person to another. And there are numerous scenes in which Carlos proclaims that his destiny is to be assassinated, just like there are a handful of moments in which Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour, speaking with the same accent and vocal inflection employed by Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia) lectures Carlos for disobeying his explicit instructions, and so on. In the microscopic view, any of these scenes is as strong as almost any other. But I bet at least an hour of the film could be trimmed away without many second-time viewers being able to identify what’s missing (including me), and that’s telling. As a cinephile, it’s tempting to exalt the five-and-a-half-hour Carlos for the audacity of its scope and the consistency of its competence. What discerning movie fan wants to pooh-pooh assiduous filmmaking of this magnitude? But for all of Carlos’ thoroughness – 11 languages are spoken during the film! – it isn’t very affecting or emotionally complex.

The similarities between Carlos and Steven Soderbergh’s Che are unmistakable, first because Carlos deliberately patterned himself after Che Guevara, and second because both of these terrorist-icon epics are full of outstanding filmmaking without actually becoming outstanding films (although Carlos elevates Che just by being placed in its company). But the movie that best illustrates what Carlos might have been – and or might even be at 165 minutes – is David Fincher’s Zodiac. Both of these movies are, as much as anything, examinations of old-fashioned ways of life, and where the pre-DNA-testing era of Zodiac has constant phone calls, handwriting analyses and stacks of snail-mailed paperwork, the pre-9/11 era of Carlos has airplane hijackings in which planes land safely and terrorists negotiate like businessmen looking for the best market value. But save for a few scenes, Assayas’ Carlos doesn’t throb with urgency and obsession like Fincher’s Zodiac. And while it’s unfair to criticize Assayas for not making Fincher’s film, the comparison is of value at least to consider this: at two-and-a-half hours shorter than Carlos, Zodiac feels just as detailed and just as comprehensive. Maybe more so. Which means that Carlos is too much of a good thing to be a great thing.

Make no mistake, Carlos has moments of pure greatness. In “Part I,” there’s the fantastic Michael Corleone-esque moment in which Carlos shoots his way out of an apartment – making it personal, getting blood on his hands, becoming invested in a way he never was before. In “Part II,” there are back-to-back scenes in which Hans-Joachim “Angie” Klein (Christoph Back) passively flees into deeper seclusion and Gabriele “Nada” Krocher-Tiedemann (Julia Hummer) refuses to surrender without a fight. In “Part III,” there’s the moment in which Carlos’ wife (Nora von Waldstatten) learns the hard way about the downside of working in the trenches of terrorism. And throughout the film, Edgar Ramirez as Carlos is a captivating presence as a man whose narcissism prevents him from being the all-or-nothing revolutionary that he romanticizes himself to be. At least twice in the film, we see Carlos fully naked: the first time when he’s young, cut and determined, and the next time when he’s overweight and overconfident. Carlos, like its protagonist, loses its vitality with time.


Sam Juliano said...

I spoke with Assayas in the lobby of the IFC Film Center, and I asked him directly about the legitimacy of the shorter version, and he strongly felt the 319 minute version (which I had watched that same afternoon) was more than strongly preferred, and that the shorter version would indeed lessen the impact.

Regardless, you have made another masterful contribution to the CARLOS literature here, and while I like the film substantially more (it's one of my top films of the year) I can fully understand the rewservations your bring to the table here. I would like to see this again at some point in the near future.

Ed Howard said...

I've got my own review of this forthcoming; I liked it much more than you do. I think one of its strengths is how attentive it is to the details and the seemingly prosaic moments. And as you admit, even in its repetitions, it's never boring - it had me enthralled for over 5 hours straight, and that's no small feat. It's viscerally exciting, at least in its earlier parts, and then it slowly declines into stasis and frustration as Carlos and his ideas about the world get left behind in the new world order. Assayas has always been a director who's interested in the way the world works more than he's interested in characters, and here he's ostensibly delivering a character study but is really examining, meticulously, the way this character fits into the world, the webs that tie this terrorist to other terrorists, to politicians, to changes shaking the world throughout the 70s, 80s and early 90s. I think it needs to be epic to convey that sense of a man thinking he's at the center of world events, only to discover that he's tangential, a footnote that will be forgotten once the violent initial rush of his activities has passed.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sam: So you saw the movie with Assayas, and I saw the movie with Matthew Lesko. Clearly you're jealous.

But seriously. The only thing that has me curious about Assayas' comment is: truly, how many people have actually seen both the long and the "short" version? I mean, I suspect there are a number of critics who have, but beyond that I expect the number is quite low. I'm not trying to prove any point with this observation. I'm just guessing that it's probably a small and very specific sample size that can actually speak to both cuts.

Anyway, I'm glad you were able to understand my reservations. Truly, I enjoyed the film. But artistically speaking I didn't think more was actually more. I happened upon Owen Gleiberman's capsule review after posting this last night and as he says, "Carlos doesn't go deeper, it just gets longer." I agree with that.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: Looking forward to reading your take. Though I'm sure you're right that you liked the film more than I did, don't get me wrong: I liked it. I just don't think it justifies its length.

Now, that doesn't mean that the length isn't functional or effective. You write: "I think it needs to be epic to convey that sense of a man thinking he's at the center of world events, only to discover that he's tangential, a footnote that will be forgotten once the violent initial rush of his activities has passed." And indeed, the epic scope of the film helps achieve that.

But let's back up a minute. You're a fan of Assayas. Do you really think he "needs" an epic to convey those things? You don't think he could just as easily convey Carlos' self-delusions in a still-meaty 2.5 hours?

I don't want this to sound belittling, but, yes, with the 5.5-hour cut, Assays successfully 'passes the time,' if you will. As I said in my review, there isn't a single lousy scene in the film, and that's impressive. But I think there has to be a higher standard than that. And while I enjoyed the experience enough, I just don't think that the 5.5 hour cut is of such great depth or complexity that Assayas couldn't have done just as well in half the time.

Ed Howard said...

I think it's a film that's partly about the passage of time, and that, yes, it needs that time to stretch out, to convey the sense of a life stretching across decades, and the ways in which the world changed around this man. I think Assayas is also establishing patterns and rhythms in the purposeful repetitions of the plot, and the way the same events keep playing out, with slight variations, both in Carlos' personal dealings and in the political machinations and negotiations that go on in various contexts. By the end of the film, we've seen Carlos' initial radical idealism give way to pragmatism, disillusionment, rationalization, and eventually paranoid delusions, and for me, anyway, I feel like the film's length contributes to the sense of these transformations happening naturally and fluidly.

Could this be done in a shorter time frame? Sure, it's possible. But I think the use of duration in cinema can impart a sense of time's scope that you just don't get in the standard 2 hour movie. Just ask Rivette...

Sam Juliano said...

"Truly, I enjoyed the film. But artistically speaking I didn't think more was actually more."

Jason, I felt precisely that way after seeing Soderbergh's CHE, which I am not sure if you liked or not. Hence I do agree that more is not always more.

As far as that brief discussion I had with Assayas (I must say I pushed hard to get brief audience on the way out) I would also say that it was a poor example for me to use, as of course a director of a longer version will ALWAYS say the extended version is more legitimate and artistically complete. I know Assayas wouldn't exactly talk down the shorter version, but he'd strongly promote the one he invested the most time and energy into.

Joseph said...

Nice review; I'll be sure to keep an eye out.