Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Join The Party

Directed By Olivier Assayas

Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” is six hours of sound and fury signifying very little.

We follow bygone terror-celeb “Carols The Jackal” aka lich Ramírez Sánchez from his early days of soviet schooling to terror attacks at OPEC, to eventual irrelevance discussing “Lawrence Of Arabia” at a school for African insurgents.

What do we learn, gain, or feel? Not much.

Typical rise from rags to bitches story, and the eventual downfall of the young prince who gets greedy.

Though Carlos is resolutely insulted by any suggestion that he is motivated by financial gain, or any gain other than “the cause”, he is accused early on in the film, and accurately of valuing things his life, liberty, and reputation over “the cause” (which is pretty mutable).

Causes are interchangeable for Carlos, anything “anti-imperialist”(and there doesnt seem to be too much of a fixed definition here either) will do. Venezuelan born, Carlos comes to be involved with the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and something called “The Armed Wing of the Arab Struggle”. Human beings are little more than avatar’s of political ideologies (exemplified in the OPEC attack scenes where delegates are divided between friend, foe, and neutral states)

This may be true to the spirit of the 60’s and 70’s radical politics of those who rejected humanism and “non-violence” as a bourgeoisie value at best, and counter-revolutionary sabotage at worst.

Carlos’ opinions are inherited from his socialist father who sent him to be educated in the USSR, and as such don’t require too much explanation.

He lived a comfortable middle class life as Illiach, before his birth as “Carlos”, and despite his revolutionary ethos, he never steps outside of its confines.

Prostitutes, drinks, drugs, stylish hotels and expensive multi-story safe houses, and all the power lunches and intense power-meetings you would expect from an episode of “Entourage” (but not as entertaining).

I didnt think him to be Ghandi, but I didn't expect a lefty Dean Martin either.

Carlos’ brand of terror is different from the displays of mass-chaos and devastation we associate today with Al-Qaeda or the Mumbai attacks. The OPEC attack involves only one or two accidental deaths, and functions more like political theater than anything else.

The second episode in the series, which is divided into three pieces, is the most exciting and by the time we reach the airplane debacles the most absurd. Critics have rightly pointed out this middle passage could be (and probably should have been) a film unto itself.

The almost comical predicament of terrorists, whose high jacked a plane but for bureaucratic reasons can’t find an airport to land in safely, could be a short play by Samuel Beckett or Don Delilo, but Assayas stretches it out an entire additional episode to show the detailed and typical downfall.

Carlos is comfortable as “mastermind” but not so much as "martyr”, and doesn’t become the kind of terrorist we know today, more concerned with body count and sheer terror than anything else, at least until his wife is imprisoned.

Than in action movie fashion “this time it’s personal”, and an ineffective though highly publicized bombing campaign begins.

“You have to follow my instructions absolutely. I demand complete revolutionary discipline.”, he tells his soon-to-be German feminist wife on their first meeting. In response she promptly and without another word, gives him a blowjob. It’s good to be famous.

International terror for the most part seems a sexy proposition in “Carlos”; kill all the cops and officials you want, and have all the sex you can stand, have a smoke, and enjoy yourself. "I don’t normally drink beer, but when I do its Dos Equis." The revolution will provide.

In the end an overweight D-list Carlos is made redundant by the collapse of the USSR. He “converts” to Islam (in name only) to endear himself to the surviving Arab and African cells still engaged in armed struggles, but in the gap between the early 90’s and rise to media prominence of Al-Qaeda (whom the real life Carlos has expressed being fan of from behind bars) there was little in the interest in the poor man’s version (or rich man’s or hipster’s version) of Che (who had already become that version of himself after his early death).

It’s better to burn out than to fade away.

Carlos is a series about celebrity at the extreme political fringes. The recent film “Bronson” understood the theatrical aspects of its character and how they can obscure personality. “Carlos” seeks this same sense of sleek style with its numerous out of period post-punk songs in the soundtrack, several of which are by “Wire”. The songs add a music video appeal to the humdrum historical proceedings, and despite their lack of context, prove one of the films more enjoyable and memorable qualities.

Where “Bronson” and Warren Beatty’s “Reds” kept an even balance between self-mockery, fact, and mythologizing, Carlos remains bloody serious to a fault.

The series is ike a friend at the political fringes whose long since become dull and predictable to talk to. Monty Burns to Lisa Simpson: “My God are you always on?”

The series is superior to the “The Red Riding” trilogy, and curious parties who enjoy historical biopics will likely find interests in “Carlos”, but if the film’s anti-hero were fictional rather than “historical” (I’m not gonna touch the issue of “real”) than this series would be regarded as juvenile power fantasies and vague left-wing fetishism and sloganeering, and not just a reflection of these “socio-political forces” manifested in a dull subject.

Though there are some good moments, “Carlos” is a pretty good example of why the revolution should not be televised.

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