Even in the severely abridged version that was shown at the Atlantic Film Festival (cut down to a 140 minute feature from a five and a half hour miniseries), Olivier Assayas' Carlos (2010) is still rather a full meal: an engrossingly factual account of the career of international terrorist and media superstar Carlos the Jackal (Édgar Ramírez) spanning more than two decades. The film opens in 1973, when Carlos was ordered by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to shoot Joseph Sieff, a Zionist businessman, in London in retaliation for the assassination of Mohamed Boudia by Mossad, and it ends in 1994 with Carlos' capture in Sudan by French authorities. However, as ambitious and as gripping as the film is, one can't shake the sense that Assayas is playing it straight here in relation to his even wilder films like demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007); aside from the rock music on the soundtrack, I don't think this is noticeably different from what the Paul Greengrass version would look like. Eschewing interiority, the film takes a radically objective approach to its subject, only hinting at Carlos' relationships with the various comely women who swim in and out of focus over the course of the movie, including his marriage to Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstätten) of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. There are obvious affinities between this film and Steven Soderbergh's Che (2008), but Assayas' (at least in its abridged version) is much more confident as storytelling, moving with an ease and forward momentum that eluded Soderbergh, who tended to get bogged down in pointless minutia.
The obvious high point of the film is its detailed treatment of the OPEC Raid in 1975, in which members of the FPLP under Carlos' command stormed a meeting at OPEC headquarters in Vienna, taking over sixty hostages (among them eleven ministers from oil producing nations), and in the process, killing an Austrian policeman, an Iraqi OPEC employee, and a member of the Libyan delegation. (The movie opens with a title card explaining that there are still grey areas in Carlos' life, and that the film has to be taken as a work of fiction. And looking at the Wikipedia entry on him, the OPEC Raid appears to be one of them, with various conflicting accounts of what actually happened.) According to the film, the idea for the raid came from Saddam Hussein (some say it was Muammar al-Gaddafi), who wanted the FPLP to assassinate two of the hostages--the finance minister of Iran, Jamsid Amuzgar, and the oil minister of Saudi Arabia, Ahmed Zaki Yamani (Badih Abou Chakra)--in order to advance his own goals in the region (namely, war with Iran). In both the film and in life (at least, according to Yamani's Wikipedia page), Carlos informed Yamani during the hostage crisis of his intention to kill him and the Iranian minister, but in the end (spoiler alert!), he cut a deal with the Algerian government for the release of all the hostages, and was kicked out of the PFLP for not carrying out his orders.
If the film's energy diminishes in the second half (as is also the case with demonlover and Boarding Gate), perhaps that's by design. Or maybe Assayas just can't keep up this level of intensity, which is less a serious failing than an indication of how tight the early scenes are. After getting thrown out of the PFLP, Carlos started his own group, the Organization of Arab Armed Struggle, and formed contacts with the East German Stassi. However, when he and Kopp were expelled from Hungary in 1985, Carlos was only allowed into Syria on the condition that he not pull off any further terrorist attacks. By the end of the Cold War, Carlos had become completely irrelevant, and at one point in the film, he's told that the CIA now thinks of him as a "historical curiosity" (a line reminiscent of the description of Michael Madsen's character in Boarding Gate as a "perfect cliché of bygone times"). As Carlos becomes increasingly ineffectual and obese, the film begins to feel almost like a remake of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980); in both movies, the protagonist's sense of stature is intimately tied up with the physical condition of his body. Here, Carlos finds himself a lame duck terrorist, adrift in a world that's stopped paying attention to him. Che Guevara was killed and became a martyr, but fate was much crueler to Carlos, who's still alive, sitting a French prison, a forgotten man.
I rather dread having to write about Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Howl (2010) simply because I don't know the first thing about poetry. The film opens in 1955 with Allen Ginsberg (James Franco, looking like the offspring of Matt Dillon and Lee Evans' characters in There's Something About Mary ) giving the first public reading of his poem "Howl" to an appreciative boho audience in a San Francisco café. Over the course of the film, we hear most or all of the poem, which is illustrated at various points by animated sequences in which we see, for instance, swarms of ephemeral white banshees flying sperm-like above city skyscrapers to represent Ginsberg's "Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night." Or at least I think that's what they're supposed to represent. Ironically, one definition we're given of poetry in the film is that it can't be explained, or else it would be prose. How are you supposed to illustrate a line like, "Who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night / with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls," and why would you want to? I'm asking.
The film also makes use of two related texts, both from 1957: An audio recording of Ginsberg talking about his early life and creative process, and the transcript of the obscenity trial that resulted from the poem's publication, both of which are reenacted for the camera using Hollywood actors. Mercifully, the film largely refrains from preaching the importance of free speech to a free society blah blah blah. Instead, the trial seems to have focused primarily on the question of whether "Howl" has any artistic merit, which required the lawyers for the defense (John Hamm) and the prosecution (David Straitharn), and their expert witnesses, all of them English professors, including Jeff Daniels in a virtual reprise of his role from The Squid and the Whale (2005)--alas, without the beard--to try to grapple with the meaning of the text in the author's absence (technically, Ginsberg wasn't on trial for writing "Howl," but his publisher for printing it). In other words, the film tries to make some sense of the poem for philistines like me who wouldn't know what to do with Ginsberg's poetry if they did read it. And in my uneducated opinion at least, that's a lot more interesting and useful than the usual biopic claptrap.
William D. Magillvray's Man of a Thousand Songs (2010) was the winner of the audience award at the Atlantic Film Festival, but I have two reasons for being dubious of this. One, it's a local production (well, Newfoundland. Close enough), so most of the people who went to see the film either worked on it or know some one who did, so of course they're going to mark "outstanding" on their ballots. Secondly, it's a music documentary, so if you like the subject, you're probably going to like the movie (unless, that is, you're a curmudgeon like me). All week long I've been trying to understand why people liked Johann Sfar's dreadful Gainsbourg (vie héroïque) (2010), which I saw in Montreal in the spring and was one of the big hits of the festival, and the best I could from anyone was, "I like Serge Gainsbourg." There isn't even that much music in the film, but maybe if I were a bigger fan of Gainsbourg's work, I'd be more interested in all the broads he schtupped between the Occupation of Paris and the mid-1980s. (The film ends just before L'Affaire Whitney Houston, maybe because she wouldn't schtup him--but then, why bother recreating something you can watch on YouTube?)
But I digress... Now, I don't want to skull-fuck a dead cat or nothing, but Man of a Thousand Songs is a rather unambitious documentary about Newfoundland singer-songwriter Ron Hynes that alternates between talking head interviews with Hynes and his nephew, and the former performing various gigs around the province. What the film lacks is a sense of urgency. The whole point of making a documentary is that you're filming an event that's unrepeatable, whether it's the Beatles' first US tour or Dave Chappelle's block party. So why is Magillvray making this film now? More importantly, the film lacks a structure, so even though it's not a long movie (ninety minutes), it just seems to go on and on and on. And without any attempt to place Hynes' music in a broader historical context, what we're left with is a walking cliché: The hard-living singer-songwriter whose early commercial success came to little, wrestling with his personal demons (i.e., cocaine). Didn't Jeff Bridges like just win an Oscar for playing exactly the same character?
Monday, September 27, 2010
Posted by Michael Sooriyakumaran at 7:59 PM