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Warholian Glamour Fighters

by Sihle Mthembu / 23.02.2011

Good guys may finish last, but bad guys don’t do too much better. Remember “Carlos the Jackal”? A playboy Euro terrorist back in the seventies before terrorism got a war declared against it. With his perm, clipped moustache and beret he never stopped looking (if not acting) like a Che Guevara wanna be. But Carlos was deadly. Civilians were routinely targeted for media impact. He made the papers and got people talking. A sort of Warholian glamour-fighter, an armed male model against banks, governments and ‘capitalist pigs’. Long jailed, The Jackal is still ‘revered in many countries as a freedom fighter’ though that may be largely in his own head. He’s now the subject of a momentous biopic by happening cult filmmaker Olivier Assayas.

Initially conceived as a film for television, it turned out to be an extensive and thorough “mini series”, clocking in at over five compelling hours. Carlos tracks his international career from the back roads of Venezuela to the height of his notoriety as one of the most wanted men in the world. Apparently Assayas took the project on because it chimed with his interest in the media mechanics of contemporary myth-making. Carlos is a figure of folklore by now and responses to him outline an onlooker’s political position. “I wasn’t attracted to this except for the idea of using Carlos as a character in a film.” Says Assayas. The punishing running time of the film meant funding didn’t come easy but ironically – given Carlos’ lifelong competitiveness with Che – it was the success of other biopics like Soderbergh’s Che Guevara and Mesrine (a thrilling look at one of France’s most audacious gangsters) that helped make it happen.

Carlos the Jackal

Edgar Ramirez, known largely for his role as Javier in Vantage Point, and about to play drug emperor Pablo Escobar, plays the Jackal with a perfect blend of lazy vanity and self-righteous ideological inflexibility. It’s an exhaustively demanding performance as he’s barely offscreen for 5 hours. That you don’t notice the running time is testimony to both Ramirez and Oliver Assayas’ sleek, elegant handling. It’s an engrossing picture. Very sexy and illuminating about political conviction softening into self-interest. There are some of the best action sequences ever. What the film gets especially right is the tawdry nature of terrorism: scrabbling for funding for ‘operations’. It’s a process much like film-making itself!

There’s been obligatory controversy over the ‘accuracy’ of the film. Something about Libyan backing for the “Opec operation” rather than the Iraqi thesis depicted, something Carlos himself once endorsed. Asked to comment on the film from jail, Carlos complained about showing him in a gold chain. A taste lapse he’d never commit. It’s wry confirmation of the film’s take on Carlos as an image-obsessed media creature – never compromising his 5-star lifestyle for genuine engagement with socialism.

Ultimately, this is a movie about the viral nature of globalism. Detailing geopolitical links and the incestuousness of terror and power. Strong states use terrorism and terrorists to their own ends, and vice versa. Everyone is implicated. Justice and security are floating signs in a game of competing interests. The Jackal represents an earlier version of the politicised bad ass. Part criminal, part terrorist and willful revolutionary. The guy wore a fucking beret okay. This film is essential viewing for the wonderful moment alone when he walks into a room full of hostages and says: “My name is Carlos. You might have heard of me?”

Carlos Poster

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