Sunday, June 5, 2011

Lost Causes (Carlos and Duck, You Sucker)

Carlos (2010) may be the least glamorizing biopic -- and/or portrait of a revolutionary -- I've ever seen. Oftentimes this sort of film employs a subjective point-of-view: the director will depict the destructiveness of the character, yet filter it through a sheen meant to suggest how the character sees himself. Because the subject of a biopic is usually self-destructive as well, this also tends to dilute the harm done to others. Not so with Olivier Assayas's approach. He's crafted what looks like a straightforward gritty docudrama with the tale of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelan Marxist who became known as Carlos the Jackal, arguably the most notorious world terrorist prior to Osama Bin Laden. Whereas Bin Laden's ideological primitivism was vividly clear, Carlos (inhabited flawlessly by Edgar Ramirez), as depicted in the movie, adopts Palestine, socialism, anti-imperialism, and any other cause du jour on the table at any given moment. He leads a ragtag, surprisingly polyglot network of Arabs, Germans, and Japanese, and the sharpest critique of the movie is how implicitly it shows terrorists using legitimate social injustices as a means to channel their own violent frustrations and self-aggrandizement: Carlos and his team don't always seem to fully comprehend the issues they're fighting for, but they feel very strongly about them.

Like Das Boot, Carlos was released initially overseas as a TV miniseries (in Assayas's France) before a considerably cut-down version appeared in American theaters last year. I haven't seen Carlos Lite (reportedly 160 minutes), but the full three-part, five-plus-hour version (presently streaming on Xfinity) covers the 1973-1994 period of the Jackal's life, from his first, botched assassination attempt of a Zionist official to his ultimate capture by French authorities, and it never feels bloated. Assayas and his editors Luc Banier and Marion Monnier dash through several years at the beginning and end of the narrative, yet ingeniously slow things down in the middle to depict the central event of Carlos's career: his taking of hostages at the 1975 OPEC summit in Vienna. This fateful day, covered in over an hour of screen time, demonstrates both the audacity and foolishness of Carlos's methods. He threatens the Iranian and Saudi ministers with death, signs autographs, saves the life of a wounded German cohort (a sensitive performance by Alexander Scheer), and impulsively shoots an emissary in a physical struggle to show that he means business. The emissary, alas, turns out to be from Libya, transforming Qaddafi's previous sympathies instantly sour as his government refuses to grant permission to the Jackal's team to land their negotiated DC-9 on Libyan soil. The escapade veers into farce as the plane jaunts back and forth between Algiers and Tripoli, all the while wanting to go to Baghdad (where Saddam Hussein's friendly regime awaits) but not having enough fuel to get there. Carlos ends up revising his assassination plans, cutting the Saudi and Iranian ministers loose in exchange for $20 million -- a not inconsiderable sum, but a compromise that alienates him from his idealistic underlings and earns him a pink slip from a cold pragmatist boss (Ahmad Kaabour) fed up with Carlos's cultivated celebrity image.

Carlos is another example of Assayas's versatility, an eclectic resume that includes the meta-movie-about-moviemaking Irma Vep (with his then-wife Maggie Cheung), the skeezy Euro-thriller Boarding Gate (with Asia Argento), and the family-estate drama Summer Hours (with Juliette Binoche). Truth be told, I've always been an Assayas agnostic. His Summer Hours, heralded as a masterpiece by many, struck me as a nice nap; all of his films, in fact, have an overly thought-out quality that belies the director's efforts to appear freewheeling. (Summer Hours ends with a lengthy tracking shot past a "spontaneous" dance by a group of teenagers that could have been choreographed by Paula Abdul.) Some of these schematics come up in Carlos: When a detective tells his partner that he wants to follow up on a lead before a weekend with his family -- and, please, don't bring your gun -- you know he's a goner. (Ditto later with a woman whose pregnant belly is lingered on right before she answers the doorbell.) The refusal to romanticize Carlos, while on the whole admirable, also has a dramatic downside: the movie (scripted by Assayas, Dan Franck and Daniel Leconte) often has a skimming-on-the-surface feel. Carlos is a bit wanting on a psychological level; we never really get inside anyone's head.

The trade-off, however, is a compellingly broad depiction of how heads-of-state use a wildcard like Carlos, then dispose of him once he wears out his welcome. It's a tribute to Ramirez (a familiar face who has had supporting roles in Che and The Bourne Ultimatum) that he holds our attention without our sympathies for the complete running time. Carlos may be a bonehead but he's also a dangerous one; we comprehend the magnetic pull he has over his subordinates, particularly his wife and mistresses. His narcissism must have rubbed off a bit on me: Here I thought I had clever parallels all mapped out between this movie and Che and Munich, only to see Fernando Croce going typically deeper in calling the film an extension of Jean-Luc Godard's themes in his late-1960s La Chinoise and Sympathy for the Devil. Carlos captures the tragically misplaced ideology that those movies anticipated then, and the fatigue that we feel looking back now.

Known more for his artistically groundbreaking films than any semblance of political radicalism, Sergio Leone directed, around the same time as Carlos the Jackal's emergence, a movie that confounded critics and audiences in the immediate post-Bonnie and Clyde/Easy Rider era with both its retrograde classical style and mixed messages about "the revolutionary spirit." First, though, let's start with the title: When it comes to creating false impressions and turning off moviegoers, Suck, You Ducker Duck, You Sucker (1971) is about as bad as it gets. Leone had also suggested an alternative title, the only marginally better A Fistful of Dynamite, but preferred Once Upon a Time...the Revolution, which captures the true essence of the movie as the crucial go-between of a second trilogy that began with his masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and culminated over a decade later with his final film, the gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Whereas Leone's "Man with No Name" triptych (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) added a progressively darker, spiritual dimension to the American Western genre -- loved by audiences; hated, initially, by critics -- his "Once Upon a Time" trilogy forges the link between the decline of the frontier and the dawn of urbanity.

Once Upon a Time in the Revolution (yes, let's replace the ellipses with an "in") was a game-changer for Leone in more ways than one. The narratives of his previous films gradually evolved from focusing on a solo character (Eastwood) to a duo (Eastwood and Van Cleef) to a trio (Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach) to a foursome (Bronson, Fonda, Robards and Cardinale). Revolution wipes the slate clean. We're back to two protagonists this time: Mexican mercenary Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), and IRA terrorist John Mallory (James Coburn). Juan and John team up after the former's successful heist of a stagecoach in rural Mexico, and the latter happens by on a motorcycle. (One of Leone's many signals that modernity is fast approaching.) After Juan shoots out John's tire, the latter responds by casually unveiling a jacket filled with explosives (another cue). Following some patented Leone macho posturing -- Coburn shouts "Duck, you sucker" right before every dynamite blast; the director insisted that this non-catchphrase was common American slang -- Juan concocts a scheme to use John to rob a bank in the town of Mesa Verde. John agrees to the plan, only to reveal, once they get there, that he's enlisted an unwitting Juan as part of the Mexican Revolution.

I wasn't going to mention that Once Upon a Time in the Revolution reminds me of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom -- because, yes, it's a stupid analogy, but let me explain what I mean. Revolution is shot in a mannered classical style similar to that of West (a letdown to audiences after the break-the-rules "Dollars" films), yet it's also the most playfully free-associative of Leone's movies. Like Spielberg's maligned middle-film of the Indiana Jones series (we'll pretend Crystal Skull didn't happen), parts of Revolution seem to pop out of the director's unconscious. At times it even seems disinterested in its own story, preferring to indulge visual flourishes -- such as a priceless sight-gag of Steiger cutting a slit through an image of a political leader to reveal his own eyes -- that remind you that you're watching a movie. (Leone was actually going to hand the directorial reins of the film to someone else before a furious Steiger made him stick around.)

Once Upon a Time in the Revolution is so mischievous it's not difficult to see why some thought it wasn't taking its own ideas seriously. (More troubling, in actuality, is an early scene treating Leone's recurring preoccupation with rape in a bizarrely cavalier manner. Whereas Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West created the first and last three-dimensional female character in Leone's body of work, we're back in Cro-Magnon territory here.) Yet a streak of melancholy runs through the film, a grim awareness of the tragic sacrifices individuals make for their causes. The British film scholar Christopher Frayling, who provides terrific DVD commentaries for all but one of Leone's spaghetti westerns (replaced, for some reason, by Eastwood hagiographer Richard Schickel on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), explains on the Revolution track that the end of this movie anticipates the even darker atmosphere of Once Upon a Time in America -- a pair of films separated by thirteen years that thematically don't skip a beat. Once Upon a Time in the Revolution isn't flawless -- gauzy flashbacks to John's menage a trois relationship back in Ireland are guaranteed to provoke snickers -- yet it manages to enhance the overall trilogy while not being all of a piece itself. It's a grand epic, a forgotten yet essential film.


Unknown said...

For me, "Carlos" was the most alive film of last year. Perhaps, what most fascinated me was how you see a man's already confused ideology made completely irrelevant by his inability to stick to his principles. Carlos chose to be a rock star rather than die for his cause. And eventually becomes a has-been in the terrorist world.

Perhaps, the most telling pair of scenes in the whole movie occur in the first and last parts. In the first, he bombs a place and then goes home to stroke his dick in front of the mirror. Near the end of the movie, he's being checked for testicular cancer.

I saw "Duck, You Sucker" for the first time late last year as it was the last major Leone movie I hadn't seen. Thematically, I find it interesting in how it fits between "West" and "America". Once it engages the political ideas (and then shows the disillusionment of Coburn and the disengagement of Steiger), it flirts with being a great movie.

But like "America" (which has its moments as well), the film is a bit too much of a mess to reach its ambitions. I sometimes feel his directing style and his need to draw out moments felt ill-suited for both movies. That said, both films are still watchable, but I'm often baffled by what they choose to focus on (especially the Cro-Magnon material you mention).

Craig said...

"Cro-Magnon" was actually Chris Frayling's choice of words on the commentary track: "Cro-Magnon sexual politics." He also expressed having difficulties with "America" as well, namely the sadistically protracted rape scene. There's much to admire about that movie: the intricate narrative structure; the culmination of De Niro's run of brilliant performances that began way back with "Mean Streets." But Leone also pushes some of the background stuff from his westerns to the foreground in "America," and it becomes impossible to ignore.

"Revolution" (aka "Duck") is a mess, I agree. But I've become rather fond of messes, as long as they have passion, wit or ambition. "Revolution" has all three.

As you perceptively noted (and my piece didn't really address), sexual politics is also important in "Carlos," in the scene you cited and in another by Jake Cole where Carlos rubs a live grenade along a woman's body. Thankfully, Assayas only documents the pathology rather than endorses it. "Carlos" isn't quite a great movie for me, but it's very good and easily my favorite of Assayas's movies to date.

JM said...

In terms of Palestinian politics, the Carlos movie might be inaccurate:
the author doesn't dispute Carlos' opportunism though.