Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Sexy Terrorists are Go!!! - CARLOS (2010) and Post-Cinematic Airline After-Affect

If you were wondering about where the whole "we don't negotiate with terrorists" thing got started, meet the guy who ruined it for everyone: Carlos the Jackal, who grabs hostages and demands planes to safe havens the way the rest of us order tickets online, at least until policy changes. With his new zillion-hour epic CARLOS, Olivier Assayas continues his post-modern affect approach to film, proving he's the best on-airplane director in history, capturing the feeling of the aircraft roar and air circulation inside a sealed plane, the way pressurization pops the ears; he even captures the horror and drag of being stuck in your seat for what seems like days on end, when the government won't let you deplane because your hijacker's demands aren't being met. Assayas brings the 'you are there' distress where it belongs, back to the terrorists who started it all.

Divided into three two-hour slabs of cryptic meetings, hostage negotiations, and jarring moments of gratuitous sex, we don't learn much in CARLOS, but we 'feel' like we do. The middle slab is the best: Carlos and company take the 1975 OPEC meeting hostage and are supposed to fly to Iraq for sanctuary, but Saddam turns out to have been up to shady treacherous tricks even then. Back when 'we' did negotiate with terrorists, taking hostages was an easy way to fly to some safe haven country whereupon the terrorists would usually release the prisoners and plane -- why not? As long as they did, their demands were more likely to be met the next time. And anyway, so many of the terrorists were good looking and educated, you know, college kids. But that didn't last long, terrorists lost their sense of humor and sexiness, and Carlos got his comeuppance when his safety zone's regime changed hands while he was still on the tarmac, leaving him SOL. Such is life.

By the end it's a bit of a drag as Carlos (Edgar Ramirez) loses all his friends and allies and the new post-communist world takes effect and there's just no place for an airport-fightin' man now that the whole world has been divvied up--every country getting $$ from either side to keep the Jackal at bay. Even with the bummer slow descent (rather than a fiery SCARFACE finale), CARLOS is an invaluable peek at the other side of the curtain, which few of us in the States ever imagined or would film so objectively. It takes a Socialist country like France, who kept their 70s decor longer and never routed the commies out of their academic tenures, to make a grand film like CARLOS. And there are sexy girl terrorists whom Carlos sleeps with at the drop of a hat, the most noticeable of which is Nora von Waldstätten as Magdalene Kopp, Carlos' future wife. Their hook-up (top) is one of the first times I've been genuinely turned on by a seduction scene in years. Years! Maybe it's the red dark room lighting, or the amazing von Waldstätten's jet black hair and pale skin--a combo that sends me, Jackson. But again, not much reason for it in the long run, except to show Carlos is seductive. You can feel the drag of her attraction to him in her eyes and speech, like a gravitational drug.

What's bizarre is that Asia Argento is not involved. CARLOS is perfect Assayas material and Argento was the perfect Assayas heroine in BOARDING GATE, and like that film and DEMONLOVER, there's that impression in CARLOS of what Steven Shaviro called "Post-Cinematic Affect" (a highly recommended book) and I know there's some critics that seem to miss what 'post-cinematic affect' - is all about, the best I can sum it up is two things, 1) Asia Argento, and 2) international air travel:

Here's how you too can discern it if you haven't already: Next time you're flying out of the country take stock of all your surroundings, from the drive to the airport to the taxi to your final destination, see it all as a movie with you as the star engaging in the Deleuzian Time-Image. How are you 'manifesting' your character during this journey, via what you gaze at or listen to on your iPod? Do you ever feel like a rat in a TV camera-monitored trap? How many choices, actions, freedoms are available to you within the confines of the plane, the customs line, the monorail, etc.? Do you feel like you're just a pair of eyes and ears soaking up prerecorded pre-flight messages, gate departure lounge CNN screens, lines, obnoxious cab drivers, and baggage checks? Do you get a feeling of adrift ennui in a preconfigured landscape of retro futurist simulacra? Don't you wish you could escape it somehow? Go off the grid without the grid noticing? Carlos thinks he can, and that's the fantasy in his mind, which differs from ours because he still wants to hang out at airports, and make a big scene there, where most of us just want to zip through them like a ghost. We turn off our ego and just tune out and take it all in--from the science fiction weirdness of the traffic lights reflecting on the rain streaked windshields to the lines and customs and clouds and electric grids--we become it all, rather than ourselves --and in so doing avoid ruffling any feathers.

So next time you're going through the whole door-to-door experience of flying somewhere, ideally to a hotel, imagine you are high on glue fumes or a spiked whiskey, or better yet, be high, and then you might get a glimpse of the Assayas effect.

Asia Argento was a great match for Assayas in BOARDING GATE. She has what Shaviro calls 'direct carnality.' She is "immediately present in the flesh." She "collapses the seductive distance between star and audience, and instead offers us her own hyperbolic presence... Even her irony is immediate, and too close for comfort." (p. 55).  Dude! This is what I was circling around, slowly and tenderly and distractedly, in my 2003 praise for her directorial debut SCARLET DIVA (2000). As you experience that glue sniff lost in translation post-affect disconnect at that airport, let's say you're watching CNN in the waiting area by your gate. Suddenly Asia Argento is onscreen and she looks right at you. No one else notices, and before you know it, she's coming out of the women's room, walking towards you, smiling back. You scared? Damn right. But are you supposed to recognize her, ask for an autograph, smile, mouth the words "I loved you in XXX"? Or what if she's incognito, so if you say hello her crazy ex-husband hears her name and comes running out of nowhere with a knife and/or a court order. Or maybe she's in character, and you're so method you forgot you're not actually living this movie... remember your lines and let them sound like you just thought of them. That should be easy... you can't even remember who you really are. Now, now you got it.

Postmodern affect in the States--from what I discern via Shaviro's book-- is based around the complete saturation of the image, to the point reality --if it exists or ever did --is lost, or inseparable from said saturation. SOUTHLAND TALES and GAMER are examples of this in Shaviro's book - not dividing lines so much between nations and corporate economies as between screen and person; the image and the 'real' within the film's diegetic framework collapse into one another and the world grows cold and strange and much wider than the cinema has ever before been able to conjure. The post-cinematic affect breaks down difference just as when you're in an airport you're neither here nor there, in a post-cinematic affect you're neither safe nor in danger, neither an actor nor an extra, neither on TV or in front of it. Assayas landed on the map with this in his IRMA VEP which collapsed eight ways from Sunday a visit from Maggie Cheung to a French film studio, and the subsequent breakdown of authority and knowledge about a project.

One of the first sights of this post-cinematic might well be Fellini's 8 1/2 wherein the director onscreen creates the movie we watch as a defense mechanism against nosy producers. Godard makes films that operate on this post-cinematic level, flattening the dimensions of the mise-en-scene, and boiling whole narratives down to detourned Cocoa-Cola ads. And you know why there ain't more of it? Because the terrorists--the cool, sexy, crazy international Marxist-version, not the stubbly and sandy new a-Qaeda--- lost!! They blew it. The globalizing forces of evil capitalism won. What can a poor boy do? Except sing a karaoke "Streetfightin' Man"?  In this paralyzed post-cinematic town there's just no place for a Carlos... outside a first person shooter game on Playstation.

See also: Olivier Assayas, Super Genius! (BOARDING GATE)


  1. Thanks for a new way of looking at the best film of 2010, the greatest Scorsese film that Marty forgot to make. Goodfellas + "affect" = CARLOS.

  2. I've really been looking forward to diving into Carlos. I have to say I'm even more intrigued now.


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