May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 19, 2010
Notes on Carlos and terrorism:
1. I find Assayas’ films tricky because I seldom have any expectations when sitting down to watch his latest film, whatever it might be. This makes thinking of Assayas as an auteur a difficult proposition, as by definition, an auteur is someone for which we generate a specific set of expectations every time we sit down to watch their latest film. But given his admitted Bressonian proclivities, it is hard to think of Assayas in any other way. While watching Carlos, I had plenty of time to muse on the possibility that there is a specific voice that extends across his films – and perhaps his consistency involves a sensitivity to memory, the process of cultural production, and a rich form of cinema space that allows both of these things to percolate.
This consistency plays out in Carlos in such a way that I can easily imagine a character from Irma Vep or Summer Hours sauntering into line behind Carlos at Orly regardless of the obvious chronological issue. Assayas’ films are vibrant historical documents even if they are not period films.
2. It was inevitable that this film would draw comparisons to Soderbergh’s Che, in that some critics think these cinema monuments end up valorizing their subjects. But I don’t think this is the case at all.
It is true that Assayas captures the thrill and momentum of the era in his kinetic passage through Carlos’ early years. But the raw material of Assayas’ film is the same as Soderbergh’s: the structure of revolution itself. Assayas’ camera is merely present for the historical development of these terrorist cells. And as this history is bound up in a battle posed as imperialist capitalism vs. the poor and oppressed, we catch a glimpse of why this political era contains such an electric nostalgia.
What I think is implicitly valorized in Carlos is the possibility of a revolutionary sentiment that does have political and ethical value, even if it is expressed in unacceptable terms. We can sense this as a form of valorization in our current geopolitical climate because our present revolutionary paradigm is the West vs. fundamentalist Islam as objectified in Al-Qaeda. Embedded in Carlos is at least an era in which the revolutionary lines were drawn (from our perspective) according to a more palatable and/or understandable rationale.
Over the course of the film, we begin to see exactly how the juggernauts of democracy and capitalism rendered Carlos a relic. But it is impossible to watch the film without a constant process of comparison between terrorism then and terrorism now. (Though I am not sure how comfortable with drawing this distinction so broadly, as there are specific cases in which terrorism then is terrorism now. These are only “notes” after all.)
3. This may be one of the best soundtracks I can think of in recent memory. Assayas plays an intriguing game of tag between Carlos’ exploits and various punk and new wave hits that were part of a parallel revolution in pop culture. And I think this makes Carlos a document of its time in such a way that I could easily imagine watching 24 Hour Party People as a cultural and political response to Carlos himself.
4. Carlos is a helpful antidote to the superficiality of shows like 24, which think of acts of terrorism as a series of plot devices rather than the political manifestations of grievances real or imagined. Shows like 24 enable their watchers to handle the proliferation of terrorism by trapping it in endless bureaucratic mousetraps that render its terrible psychological power moot. So we watch Jack Bauer battle these unseen forces in miniscule increments over the course of a season, each hour turning into its own little universe. And, if 24 is to be believed, these bite-sized bureaucratic narratives constitute a buffer between us and the vagaries of geopolitics.
Not so, says Carlos. It is a fantasy to think that we could reduce terrorism to a narrative construct, as terrorism is an expression of ideological conflict that, whether we like it or not, connects us to actual living, breathing people. So in Carlos we catch a glimpse not just of the conditions that make terrorism possible, but its biographical rationale. Terrorism can only be understood within the context of much larger pictures, and any shorter film would not have relayed this message to us.
Over the course of the film we begin to see Carlos’ self-aggrandizing revolutionary ethic disintegrate in the flux of the cold war. But I think the film can help inoculate us against relying on Jack Bauer-like proxies to cope with the fact of terrorism itself.
5. In Carlos we catch a glimpse of the idea that terrorism is often simply about image management and the news agencies that make these personae possible.