An Orientalist Masterpiece

On Sunday, I had the opportunity to watch about 4 hours of the approximately 5 1/2 hour French miniseries about the notorious Carlos the Jackal at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. You can also apparently rent a shorter version on cable if you have the Sundance Channel, and it will be released nationally in yet another edited version as well. I hope to watch the remainder of it sometime soon. As’ad Abukhalil, the Angry Arab, has said that Carlos is good entertainment, but bad politically, and that’s a pretty fair assessment. I probably wouldn’t gone to see it except for the fact that one of my favorite directors, Olivier Assayas, made it. I’ve seen a lot of his movies, going all the way back to Disorder from the mid-1980s, and think highly of him. I’ve always considered him to be one of the heirs to Fassbinder, with an acute sense of the internal rhythms of film narrative, a highly developed sense of the banalities of life and an empathy for what cultural studies types describe as transgressive behaviour. For my review of his movie, Summer Hours, released in the US last year, go here.

Assayas puts all of these qualities to good use in Carlos. His sympathy for transgression enables him to portray all of the characters, including Carlos, non-judgmentally, even sympathetically, and his emphasis upon the banal in the presentation of the most violent and emotional charged scenes strips away the melodramatic manipulation that is such a prominent feature of most American films (or, perhaps, it is more accurate to say that he engages in such manipulation more skillfully?). He treats Carlos’ celebrity as an off screen fact that distorts his relationships with others instead of allowing it to overwhelm the story. His sense of narrative pacing is remarkable. Much as Gus Van Zant presented the essence of the life of Harvey Milk through a skillful use of interiors, and the extraction of a feeling of intimacy from his public appearances, Assayas accomplishes something similar here. Whereas many directors would have succumbed to the temptation of rendering the assault upon the 1975 OPEC meeting in Vienna in the dynamic, propulsive action film visuals suitable for Blue-Ray, Assayas sticks with his dishwater, documentary style that brings characterization and personal interaction to the forefront. I’ve never watched 4 hours of a movie that went by so quickly. It is hyponotic.

Some have said that Carlos is the best film that Assayas has ever made, and it is quite fine if you are disinterested in the underlying political themes. Unfortunately, for all of its brilliance, Carlos is a work of cinematic orientalism. With the possible of exception of Carlos, Assayas generally portrays the South American and European characters as politically and emotionally responding to an unjust society, while the Arabs are the ones that betray the revolution. Through their contact with the Arabs, they are corrupted by money, seduced by violence and ultimately acquiesce to patriarchal authority. There is a clear binary opposition within the film in terms of the characteristics of European and Middle Eastern society. Given the actual history of the radical left in the US and Europe, where many participants fell prey to them in the absence of any contact with Arabs or Muslims, it borders on being racist. Rather oddly, the Arab characters reminded me of the yakuza ones in Japanese crime films by people like Kinji Fukasaku, which just shows the extent of the contrast. Amazingly, one ends up perceiving Carlos and his European allies as initially more supportive of the Palestinian cause than the Palestinians themselves (with the exception of lower level soldiers). Much of this comes out through the character of one of the German leftists involved in the Vienna attack, Joachim Klein, code name Angie, who explains his subsequent refusal to join Carlos’ new group by reference to all the purportedly corrupting features injected as a consequence of their relations with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (“PDLP”).

Clearly, Assayas intends us to view Klein sympathetically, but Klein, for all of his idealism, has merely transferred his failings and those of his political movement to a convenient scapegoat, the Arabs, much as the German bourgeoisie similarly did with the Jews a hundred years earlier. Perhaps, I am being unfair, and this was Assayas’ intention (there is always a complex ambivalence in his characterizations), but it doesn’t look that way when you see it. He may not have been that interested in the Arab and Palestinian aspects of the story anyway, despite their inescapable prominence. He may have just considered the violent struggle for the liberation of the Palestinians, and those associated with it, as a sort of Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a plot device necessary for setting the story in motion and not much more. After all, Carlos’ unwillingness to align himself with any particular group after being expelled from the PFLP is another variation of the lone wolf against the syndicate, another Franz as presented by Fassbinder in his first film, Love is Colder than Death, while the political and psychological dimensions of radical extremism echo another Fassbinder film, one of his neglected masterpieces, The Third Generation. So, it may well be true that, for Assayas, the primary subject of his concern is the European radical left and Carlos’ opportunism, with the Arabs and Palestinians serving as props.

One of the interesting subtexts of the film is the extent to which people can achieve clearly defined political ends through violence. Not surprisingly, Assayas is a pessimist, as shown in a simultaneously frightening and hilarious sequence when Carlos and an associate jump out of a car next to a terminal at Orly Airport in Paris, and, Keystone Cops style, try to blow up an El Al plane with a rocket launcher, only to miss twice and hit two other planes instead. Upon calling in to claim responsibility for the attack, Carlos discovers that a Croatian nationalist group had already done so, because one of the planes that they actually damaged was a Yugoslav one. Similarly, Carlos and the others involved in the assault upon the 1975 OPEC meeting quickly discover that the unpredictable responses to it from erstwhile covert allies make it difficult, if not impossible, to attain their objectives. Assayas also suggests that Carlos and his team were geopolitically manipulated by those who sponsored the assault. Curiously, he ignores the claim that Carlos took advantage of it to enrich himself to the detriment of the mission, a subject that Abukhalil may address in a planned future review of the movie.

To his credit, Assayas starts the movie with the Mossad’s assassination of PDLP leader Mohamed Boudia in Paris in 1973. Hence, Carlos’ embrace of violence is placed within the context of pre-existing Zionist violence, providing little comfort to the promoters of the current war on terror. Furthermore, throughout the film, prominent political figures, such as those kidnapped by Carlos’ team in Vienna, are not portrayed deferentially. One gets the sense that Assayas would have celebrated the audacity of the kidnapping as an appropriate transgressive act if perpetrated for the right reasons, one associated with a more generalized rejection of authority, instead of being carried out by one group seeking to seize the power possessed by another. He gently exposes the hypocrisy of Saudi Oil Minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani, one of the kidnapped OPEC ministers, a man who objects to his planned killing while representing a regime that hangs people for failing to conform to the strict standards of behavior imposed by his government. This big fish gets away, of course, perhaps serving as a parable for the persistence of the violent, elitist control of our lives that persists to this day.

RICHARD ESTES can be reached at: restes1960@yahoo.com


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