Notes From the Margins…

The Trouble with Carlos

  • April 06, 2011
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I’ve just watched Olivier Assayas’ monumental study of Illich Sanchez Ramirez a.k.a Carlos ‘the Jackal’.   It’s an engrossing, compelling and original work, which meticulously portrays  Carlos and his world  over more than five hours through a patient accumulation of scenes rather than a thrilleresque cliffhanger narrative.

This is no mean feat, given the fact that its protagonists are so relentlessly dislikeable.   But I  don’t agree with critics who have described it  as a masterpiece. The full-length version in particular doesn’t seem justified to me; some scenes add nothing to its quality and might easily have been left on the cutting room floor.

Assayas has used a soundtrack consisting mostly of 80s post-punk bands like The Feelies which seems jarringly anachronistic to the period depicted in the film, and which often seems to serve no purpose except to vamp up the violence which routinely – and given that this is a film about Carlos – inevitably punctuates the film.

The film describes itself as a combination of historical and journalistic research and fiction, and blends archive news footage with fictionalised scenes connected to the same events.    This combination is both a strength and a weakness.  On the one hand it gives the film a gritty authenticity.  Like the Battle of Algiers, both the real and fictional components of the film are arranged and selected in ways that reflect the artistic and political vision of their creators.  Nothing wrong with that – this is what cinema is supposed to do.  But it is the narrowness of its assumptions that grates most about Carlos.

Assayas seems fascinated by the sexual allure of Carlos, and by the sexuality of violence as an explanation for leftwing post-68 terrorism.  In one somewhat ludicrous scene, one of the many women who succumb to Carlos’s irresistible charms all but has an orgasm when Carlos lets her feel his revolver and places the pin of a grenade in her mouth, while telling her that weapons are an “extension of my body.”

Carlos is the main character around whom everything else revolves, but despite Edgar Ramirez’s superb performance, nearly six hours is a long time to spend in the company of a man whose ‘real’ personality was always less interesting than the myths and fantasies that were woven around him.

With the exception of the 1975 OPEC operation Carlos’s emergence as the first ‘celebrity-terrorist’ of  the 70s was largely due to the way that Western intelligence services and governments transformed him into an icon  of ‘international terrorism’ and the various Soviet/Cuban/Arab ‘linkages’ that were supposedly behind it.

Carlos rose to media prominence against the background of detente and the Church Committee hearings on the CIA’s murky operations.  It was also a period of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence in the Third World and the Middle East, which was often perceived in the West as Soviet-inspired,  regardless of its local origins.   The more hawkish elements in the American and European security services promoted the idea that virtually every revolution and act of violence was part of a  covert international terrorist offensive being waged by the Soviet Union in order to destabilise the West at a time when the CIA was supposedly being ‘de-fanged’ at home by liberal investigations into its malpractices.

With his Latin American origins, Palestinian/Arab connections and his involvement with German and Japanese sixty-eighters turned terrorists, Carlos was the perfect symbol of these conspiratorial narratives.   The more  (in)famous he became, the more it suited these elements to depict him as  a ‘terrorist James Bond’  inflicting international mayhem on behalf of his Soviet masters.

Assayas recognizes the distinction between the myth of Carlos the super-agent and the frequently bungled and improvised operations that he participated in, but too often he accepts the assumptions behind ‘international terrorism’ without question.

There is much in the film that could have come straight from the pen of rightwing 70s spooks and terrorologists like Brian Crozier and Claire Sterling, such as the scene in which KGB Yuri Andropov asks a group of Palestinian and Arab representatives to assassinate Anwar Sadat – an operation for which Carlos is subsequently recruited.

There is no evidence that such a meeting ever took place.  Many other scenes blur the boundaries between research and fiction, so that what may have been invented appears to be as real as the newsreel footage.    For Assayas and his researcher Steven Smith, both  ‘international terrorism’ and the Palestinian cause are decontextualised products of Soviet manipulation or the cynicism and gangsterism of the Arab intelligence services for whom Carlos eventually became a gun-for-hire.

Cynicism and gangsterism were certainly not absent in Carlos or the circles that he moved in,  but not everything that took place in this period can be attributed to the amorality and cynicism of men like Carlos or Saddam Hussein – whose importance in this period is hugely exaggerated in the film.

Assayas even throws in Iran as one of Carlos’s foreign backers – something once again for which there is no evidence –  suggesting an essential  continuity between the conspiratorial narratives that surrounded the state ‘sponsors’ of 70s terrorism and their contemporary variants identified in the Bush administration’s ‘axis of evil’.

The lack of context is particularly glaring in the film’s treatment of the Palestinians. Assayas appears to attribute the terrorist operations carried out by Wadie Haddad and other groups entirely to the infighting and feuding of Arab governments or the fanatical inability to compromise of its protagonists – a fanaticism that he suggests was largely due to anti-Semitism.    Almost entirely absent is the Palestinian history of forced exile, occupation and oppression – sometimes at the hands of the same Arab governments that used the Palestinians for their own purposes.

Instead the film invites its audience to accept that the very notion of a Palestinian ’cause’ is as empty, amoral and delusional as its narcissistic central protagonist, who was essentially peripheral and – apart from his celebrity status – irrelevant to the movements that he associated himself with.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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