The Carlos Miniseries – three feature-film length episodes detailing the rise and life of Carlos “The Jackal,” a notorious Venezuelan terrorist involved in the Palestinian cause – is reminiscent of a few other recent biopics. Soderbergh’s two-part Che immediately comes to mind, as do the Mesrine films, which had Vincent Cassel playing the part of the notorious gangster. But the closest recent relative to the Carlos films is actually Uli Edel’s underrated 2008 film The Baader Meinhof Complex.
Like Edel’s film, Olivier Assayas’ looks mostly at the tumultuous 1960s and 70s and into the 80s, and is as concerned with the inter-workings and relationships of the group as with the political climate. Of course the fact that Carlos conspired with German cells, including those involved with Baader Meinhof makes the comparison all the more apt.
Assayas’ films are largely handheld and monochrome. There are frequent time cuts and a huge cast of characters. From a narrative standpoint, perhaps the only major problem is that we are given little time alone with Carlos – played beautifully by Edgar Ramirez. We’re left with only a partial portrait of a conflicted man. It’s clear that Assayas’ intent is not a psychological character study, but instead a swelling, epic look at a reshaping world through one man’s arrogant, misogynistic, yet still personable and likable eyes.
Much of the energy from Carlos comes from the soundtrack. Bands like New Order, The Dead Boys and Wire dominate. I’m hardly an aficionado when it comes to post-punk and new wave rock, but I do know that all of these bands came up in the late 70s/early 80s. The transition in the soundtrack – from Dead Boys-style punk through to New Order synth-heavy new wave – might be akin to Oliver’s own evolution from wide-eyed, enthusiastic terrorist, to fat, overly content has-been (no, I don’t think that Assayas is making a 1-1 correlation, making New Order the fat, overly content has-beens. Rather that the evolution from a rawer style to something more polished is in order narratively and aurally).
If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know that I frequently obsess over minutiae (that’s the point, right?). Here’s one that I want to look at in Carlos. Broken 180 lines.
Here’s a scene from Episode 2, about 1/3 of the way through. It’s during Carlos and companies seizing of the 1975 OPEC conferences. A conversation takes place in a doorway:
The eyelines don’t match. It’s pretty obvious. Each man is looking frame left. In the middle frame Carlos is on the right and looking left, so when we cut to over his shoulder – the bottom frame – we’d expect him to still be frame right looking left. But he’s not. Instead of the camera hovering over his left shoulder in the bottom image, we’re over his right.
Seems like a pretty easy thing to correct. Why break it? There’s one really simple answer. If we’re over Carlos’ left shoulder we’re forced up against the door, making for a fairly ugly frame (we probably lose a lot of that awesome, hazy depth down the hallway). What if we reverse that decision and put the camera over the left shoulder of our other guy? Well, we probably lose much of the background room where the other oil delegates are being held hostage.
Okay. So what about just re-blocking these guys so that we don’t have to break the 180 line and can still get the ideal backgrounds in each shot? Unlike my next example, I don’t think that this is a moment where Assayas is trying to put something psychologically “off” via the technique. I honestly believe the 180 line here is broken for the sake of the ideal frame. The re-blocking/positioning idea likely lost something in the movement. Maybe he’s trying to make a comparison between Carlos and the oil delegate – predicting Carlos’ eventual “fall from grace,” but for the content of the scene, even that seems like a stretch.
Here’s a scene from Episode 3:
Here, Carlos argues with his wife Magdelena (Nora von Waldstatten). The above exchange keeps the 180 line intact. Look at that set design, though. There’s a gorgeous consistency of the brown/gold/tans. Everything from the lighting color temperature (that lamp in the third image, behind Magdelena and frame right0, to Carlos’ shirt, to the wallpaper…it’s really well-designed.
There’s also a nice depth of field, as opposed to the first set of images above, allowing us to see the full house. It’s a domestic issue transposed into a terrorism conversation and Assayas is smart to keep the house and all of its parts as a huge part of the visuals. Look at how little of the frame Carlos and Magdelena occupy here as opposed to the first set of images where the space is physically smaller and thematically less important.
The scene continues as Carlos grabs Magdelena and throws her:
And here’s our break. Magdelena comes up and looks frame right:
The cut to Carlos shows him also looking frame right:
Back to Magdelena (notice how she doesn’t get her own frame anymore, but Carlos does):
And now Carlos, backlit heavily, and commencing on a menacing speech:
Another broken 180 line. This makes me think of something I heard William Friedkin say on the special features of Bug. He commented that the 180 line is a thing of the past. I think he’s close to right. There is a psychological 180 break at play (more on that below), but a lot of it is simpler. You can’t break the 180 in 1945 because the studio system controls you and because your audience isn’t as versed in film language to be able to follow 2-dimensional geographical changes at rapid speed. In 2012 there’s no such dictum, and our sense of a filmic world has evolved and advanced so rapidly to the point that we’re able to follow a Michael Bay action sequence. A broken 180 line therefore, while it may give us half a second’s pause, does nothing to render our understand of “who is where, when” any more difficult.
But still, there’s some psychology here. There’s a significant change in Carlos and Magdelena’s conversation. They start with a husband-wife dispute and then after he throws her (there’s your beat), the language changes from conjugal to militant. After the 180 break Carlos no longer speaks as husband, but as terrorist leader. The change in visuals support this change in character and narrative.