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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. Carlos


Carlos (Three and a Half Stars)
France: Olivier Assayas, 2010 (Criterion Collection)

In his excellent political thriller/biographical drama Carlos, Olivier Assayas makes an epic of 20th century revolution, an incendiary subject, but a film hot at heart yet cool on the surface, out of the ugly, exciting  story of the terrorist “Carlos,” a would-be political idealist who became a killer and a voluptuary, and lost himself in the fever of violence and the seductive gaze of media fame. It’s a huge film, three parts and nearly six hours long, and it covers an extraordinary story with unusual depth and sharp insight. Assyas has made period films and radical films and romantic ones, and here he touches on all three areas, while centering his film on a truly remarkable performance: Edgar Ramirez’ portrayal of Ilich Ramitez Sanchez, a.k.a. Carlos, aka “The Jackal.”       
Going into Carlos, I was a little worried that writer-director Assayas, a long-time leftist cineaste, and follower of both the great minimalist French director Robert Bresson and French radical Guy Debord — would use his very ambitious TV mini series about the ’70s most notorious radical terrorist to somehow half-heroize or excuse Carlos, as some extreme radicals are (stupidly) prone to do.
    But art can trump dogma. The man we see here, and whom actor Ramirez (no relation) embodies so brilliantly, is no hero. (Neither are his employers.) He’s an ego-tripping sociopath, an amoral thug, hedonist and anti-Semitic assassin, albeit with more brains than some, who buries his “principles” under an avalanche of cant and slaughter, battens and enriches himself off the Cold War (getting notably fatter as the movie goes on),  gets lost in his own headline mythos, botches some operations, and in general, tries to comport himself as an idealistic rebel, while acting like a gun-crazy, narcissistic killer. And a believable one. According to Edgar Ramirez, who plays the part, the filmmakers wanted to “demystify” the terrorist, and they certainly have. 
  Carlos ends up exactly where he belongs, in the slammer, from which the real-life Ilich Ramirez is said to be suing Assayas. Carlos/Ilich, who never called himself the Jackal — it was a moniker cribbed from Frederick Forsyth’s thriller “The Day of the Jackal” — first tried to block the film’s release, and now, according to his lawyer, will try to demand royalties for the use of his life. The would-be plaintiff also allegedly feels that the director mis-portrayed his operations, especially the 1975 OPEC Vienna kidnapping raid, as too disorganized and chaotic: “These were professionals!” Carlos now insists. Maybe he also thinks Assayas made him too hot-headed and porky.
     Assayas, better known for intimate drama (like Summer Hours) and occasional genre movies (like Irma Vep), proves surprisingly good at the old Costa-Gavras docu-thriller style of Z or The Confession — more contemplative and heavier on long takes and careful staging than the usual machine gun editing technique of our own docu-thrillers. (Expert too is the film’s cinematographer Denis Lenoir, a master of movement and realistic color with a real eye for chaos.) This movie has you on the hook for the whole five and a half hours, never letting up. It also has that incredible performance, one of the year’s best, by Ramirez as Carlos: swaggering, shooting, spouting dogma, looking like the guy who thinks he can screw anyone in the room, kill anyone he wants, and, all the while, speaking, multi-lingually, in English, French, Spanish and other tongues — but always, most chillingly, the universal language of murder.  (In English, French, Spanish, and German, with English subtitles.)
Extras:  New video interviews with Assyas, Martinez and Lenoir; Commentary for selective scenes by Lenoir; Documentary on Carlos, Terrorist Without Borders; Interview with one-time Carlos associate Hans-Joachim Klein; Documentary Maison de France, on one of Carlos’ bombings; “Making Of” featurette on the film’s OPEC raid scene; Trailer; Booklet with essays by Colin MacCabe and Greil Marcus, timeline and biographies of major figures, by Assayas’ historical advisor Stephen Smith. 
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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon