Sunday, November 21, 2010

Jackals Galore

I wrote last week about some of the very long movies I’ve seen this year, and then on the following Sunday, I spent just short of six hours at the Bell Lightbox watching Olivier Assayas’ Carlos. I love Assayas’ work, but it wasn’t the easiest thing to commit to; I’d pulled the plug at the eleventh hour on a couple of previous attempts to make it there. I always find on such escapades that the first hour or two is toughest – the summit is just too far away – but then you relax into an alternative reality, and the six hours ultimately don’t seem like any more than, say, five.


Anyway, the film’s moved on now, but I’d certainly recommend getting the DVD when it arrives; one needn’t even feel guilty about breaking it into installments since it was originally shown in three parts on French TV. Carlos (sometimes called the Jackal, although not in this film) was a terrorist (or revolutionary, or mercenary, or all of these and more), achieving notoriety in the seventies, later mostly ineffective and on the run before being captured in the 90’s. The film fluidly summarizes his career (acknowledging that there’s some fictionalization involved), entailing a dazzling variety of characters, incidents, locations and shifts of mood and pacing. Assayas is completely in control throughout, although perhaps inevitably has less room here for the mind-bending leaps of insight or structure that make his work so thrilling overall.

Globalization has been a big theme of his in recent years, and Carlos boldly extends this project. It reminds you how relatively unsophisticated things were even a few decades ago – Western society often seems to be sitting there for the taking, teetering behind confused direction and minimal security, just a big target range for a thriving network of young armed insurgents. As old ideologies fade and new calculations take over, Carlos’ swaggering militancy becomes embarrassing even to his former sponsors, and while that’s no doubt for the greater good as far as he’s concerned, it also points to the broader neutering and intellectual disarmament that’s marked the last few decades. At certain points, Carlos’ activities merely seem like the ultimate turn-on; there’s less discussion of causes and justifications in this movie than there was in Steven Soderbergh’s recent film about Che Guevara. But at a time when the gun-friendly Tea Party rhetoric often posits (even in these very words) a revolution to “take back” America, throwing up a whole new cast of young, new, uncompromising political princes, Carlos’ potential relevance (at least metaphorically) seems to increase; if, as we’re always told, so much of the established order is broken and likely to remain so, then you might ask why a self-styled visionary should feel obliged to conform to it. I don’t mean to say Assayas romanticizes Carlos exactly, but he makes it easy for us to.

Inside Job

The possible launching pad for the next Carlos might be indicated by Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job: the 2008 financial crisis – why it happened, how it played out, what it means from here. Some documentaries, like last year’s Oscar-winner The Cove, show us something we’d likely never know about (other than vaguely) if the films themselves didn’t exist; Inside Job, like most of Michael Moore’s work, builds on material sitting mostly in plain sight. Of course, such films can still transform our understanding – just because something’s in plain sight doesn’t mean people have actually grasped what it is. For those who’ve been paying attention though, Ferguson’s film is much more a memory-jogger than a source of new information.

Almost none of the major figures in the crisis agreed to be interviewed for the film; Ferguson ungenerously rewards those who did agree by over-emphasizing their (relatively minor) transgressions and cruelly playing up the kinds of interview slips that can strike anyone. Coupled with a general lack of imagination (like, “Taking Care of Business” popping up on the soundtrack), a few unproductive detours (given the issues at stake, who cares, really, if the Wall Street crowd had a penchant for expensive hookers?) and an overly breezy pace (often suggesting Ferguson isn’t truly bringing the same seriousness to this as he did to his much better documentary about the Iraq war, No End In Sight), it doesn’t really coalesce to generate the intended sense of outrage. And on the big question of where we go from here, the film can offer no better than a weak invitation to battle, with narrator Matt Damon stating colourlessly over a hackneyed shot of the Statue of Liberty that “some things are worth fighting for.”

Missed Opportunity

It’s a missed opportunity to say the least, because the data in Inside Job could have contributed to a much more galvanizing treatment of the subject. One of Ferguson’s errors I think (an omission that also recurs in Moore’s work) is in focusing too much on, indeed, the “inside job” – the specific mechanisms that generated a huge housing/debt bubble and set up the subsequent collapse – and not enough on the broader ideology and culture that didn’t merely allow it to happen, but cheered it on at every step. The film has a clip of George W Bush, from early in his Presidency, defending the entitlement even of low income earners to be decent property owners. With hindsight, it’s presented as a tacit invitation for predatory mortgage lenders to descend on the poor, but it seems to me Bush was only throwing out an “American dream” platitude of the kind that continue to pepper Obama’s speeches and those of every other politician. Leaders may acknowledge the need for restraint and tough action, but a toxic mixture of gutlessness, collective stupidity and a misguided, historically outdated belief in US exceptionalism precludes making even the most obvious reforms.

It would have seemed incredible that having to bail out mismanaged private institutions with billions of dollars in public money wouldn’t have meaningfully changed the collective conversation about the place of those institutions in society, but that’s where we are. Things are so degraded that, as I write, it doesn’t even seem a Democratic President can hold the line on allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for millionaires, despite the widespread awareness that inequality of wealth and opportunity has never been so profound. If the country can’t ask for that much of a sacrifice from its most privileged citizens, then what moral right does it retain to ask for anything from anyone?

Inside Job certainly prompts a lively discussion about such matters afterwards, but that’s not exactly hard to do. That line about some things being worth fighting for glosses over the fact that real fights involve real pain and sacrifice and loss. If the US had any wherewithal, it’d be drafting the terms of that fight now, while it still has something to bargain with.

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