Will the Real Citizen Kane Please Stand Up?

Alex: A prologue to this post: I am doing a supremely efficient job of procrastinating this morning (I’m supposed to be working on my screenplay), and so I’m going to discourse at length about how much I love Carlos. But I’m writing this paragraph to say, well, just that: this is a post about how much I love Carlos.

By way of beginning my panegyric, can I just say one thing? I have no problem with The Social Network. I think it’s very good, at times brilliant, worthy of praise and study. But I’ll never really love it. Because something feels half-baked about its treatment of Zuckerberg as a modern-day Charles Foster Kane. (The final moment, when he friends his ex- and keeps hitting “refresh” is his version of the flashback to Rosebud the sled. Rashida Jones — the future Mrs. Aaron Rich — is like Jed Leland, providing conscience and perspective the tragic hero never quite sees.) But there’s nothing romantic in any of this. It’s cold, schematic. We understand why Zuckerberg is the way he is — Sorkin’s screenplay is very careful to put all the pieces in place — without ever feeling his loneliness. We are meant to see the awesome, world-changing impact of one man’s psychological hang-ups — again, Kane-like — but I don’t think the movie asks us — or gets us — to feel much of anything. (Unlike Fincher’s previous movie, Zodiac — my pick for the best film of the last decade — which somehow makes us complicit in Jake Gyllenhaal’s lonely obsession while still doing the journalistic work that The Social Network does.)

On the other hand, Olivier Assayas’s Carlos strikes the delicate balance. This is a great movie. (I refer, of course, to the full 5.5-hour version, and not the truncated three-hour cut, which I haven’t seen.)

Carlos, like Zuckerberg, is inscrutable: he shares almost nothing about own background, he’ll never be satisfied with his achievements (pardon that word, I mean it only in the most objective sense), and the agendas and needs of others serve only to get in his way — even as he tries to acquire those people’s love.

But where Zuckerberg remains a cipher even to the film that explores him, Carlos the Jackal is shown in all his dimensions. He is a major articulation of “anti-hero,” right up there with John Wayne’s darkest characters and Michael Corleone and, yes, Charlie Kane.

There’s a great scene late in the film when Carlos surprises his girlfriend with a new Mercedes. She’s ecstatic. From there they go to a birthday party — his birthday party. It was his birthday so he bought his girlfriend a car.

Around the same time he gives an interview, while sitting in his cabana, about Marxist dialectics and his lasting devotion to the Marxist revolution. Carlos elegantly, quietly, depicts the man’s transformation. He is tempted by money and material comforts. He does have a decadent side. At the same time, he never doubts the righteousness of his cause, which is intended to smash the bourgeois sensibility in which Carlos himself indulges. He’s a fascinating character.

And Assayas’s camera treats Carlos much the way Welles’s treats Kane: with observation of what’s around him. How he fits into a visual scheme. (As opposed to the Fincher camera’s treatment of Zuckerberg. Or, I should say, the other way around; Zuckerberg seems to demand the camera’s attention, he’s always the focus of any shot he’s in. Not so Carlos.) And, in what I read as a nod to Citizen Kane, Assayas has a few of those low-angle “larger than life” shots.

One last point and then I’ll get to work. One is tempted to say that Assayas has the luxury of 5.5 hours of screen time in which to observe Carlos and his transformation, as if this would make it “easier” to document/dramatize such a complicated character. Whereas Fincher’s got so much to do in less than half the time, and so he’s gotta get in and out fast.

But for all the rat-a-tat pacing of The Social Network, Carlos, at twice the running time, actually represents more efficient, more graceful storytelling. The scene I described with the Mercedes, for example: the way the movie withholds information and then releases it at a carefully chosen time. Carlos does that again and again. I was not restless or disengaged during any scene or sequence of the film. It’s hook after hook after hook after hook, like perfect chapters of a long novel.

I have only one complaint, and it’s a recurring one with Assayas’s films. And that is the occasional bit of hackneyed dialogue. (“I don’t have to justify myself to you.” “It’s a matter of life and death.” Aaron Sorkin wouldn’t let lines like that survive past a first draft.) Sometimes the movie, in the interest of its narrative efficiency, allows its characters to speak with implausible bluntness. (As when the Syrian defense minister offers his support to Carlos. The scene is brief, to the point, efficient — but hard to swallow.)

Okay. And now to my own dialogue. I hope to eschew all clichés, tropes, hackneyed phrases, magical thinking, and bullshit. It’s not easy for any of us.

Aaron: Alex, dear, we won’t talk about avoiding work here because I’ve been so lazy I haven’t responded to you in a week… I’m sorry to you – and to you, dear reader.

I don’t at all think what you say about Carlos is crazy, I just think you give too much praise to Fincher, Sorkin and The Social Network, which I think is about as banal as movies get and not at all worthy of comparison to Kane. Let me also say that I am a big fan of Carlos (the full version, which I saw in the theater, unlike pussies who waited to watch it at home), I think it’s very interesting, beautifully written and shot and wonderfully efficient.

I think the connection between Carlos and Zuckerberg (as presented in the film) is natural: they’re both incredibly successful sociopaths. I think both men are self-obsessed and somewhat unable to related to the rest of the world, but in different ways. Clearly Zuck is more of a loner than Carlos; Carlos is a narcissist and is generally concerned with his own sexual achievement as well as outwitting his rivals. This makes him constantly have to interact with others to beat them (or fuck them, when they’re women). Zuck is a more internal guy and knows that he’s smarter than everyone else… but also doesn’t really care about making friends or getting girls, because he wouldn’t know what to do with friends or girls if he got them.

(I know there’s that whole thing about getting into the supper club, but that’s not so much to fit in as it is to prove to people that he could fit in, could get in. Clearly the second half of the movie is not about getting laid, it’s about taking over the world. This is one of the many problems with the wildly over-hyped script, which is a fucking mess, by the way. Oh – and Sorkin is one of the worst writers of dialogue on the planet. I’m sick of the overly written Sorkinese. It’s overdone and unrealistic.)

Meanwhile, neither one of these characters is as rich or dynamic as C.F. Kane. Kane is a much more complete person than the other two. He changes and grows as time moves along. He goes from an idealistic scruffy upstart fighting to get attention to a more complicated middle-aged man whose tastes (for things and women) outmatch is interests, to a sad old man with nothing of substance to show for his battles. (OK, that’s a boring analysis, I admit.)

Zuckerberg never really grows or changes and he’s just as weird and awkward around people in the beginning as he is at the end (maybe the short timeframe of the story has something to do with this). Part of the problem with the film is that it’s not really about anything. There’s a kid who makes a thing and then screws his friends and then continues. Meanwhile he’s weird and doesn’t make friends easily. That’s not much of a narrative.

Carlos is much more interesting a man and a story, but not as deep as Kane. The best and most important shot in the film is right at the beginning when we see him getting out of the tub, sauntering over to the full-length mirror and looking at himself there. Clearly he’s in love with himself (and it’s hard for us not to be attracted to him too… Edgar Ramirez has a perfect body), and it’s shot, as you wisely point out, Alex, from a low angle, making him godlike – a Titan coming out of the sea. From this point on, the film is as much about his physical changes (he gets fat as his marxist dialectic turns to champagne and caviar tastes) as it is about his evolution as a revolutionary. In one of the scenes near the end, when he and his people are in Yemen (I think… or Damascus), they tell him that he’s a has-been and that there is no more revolution to be had. He gets sad and realizes that he’s fat and no longer a god. He’s merely a mortal. He decides to “retire” to Sudan where he can live well-ish, as long as the government there doesn’t figure out that he’s a has-been as well.

So what the fuck am I saying here. I really like Carlos a lot. I think Ramirez is great and Assayas and co-writers Dan Franck and Daniel Leconte do a wonderful job telling this epic story in a fast-moving way. My biggest problem is that I think it’s less interesting to find out the main character is a self-obsessed sociopath in act one than it would have been to find this out in the end… or at least later in the film.

I think The Social Network is Hollywood garbage that people think is smart (because they want to be smart when they like a smart movie that everyone says is really smart) but is pretty ordinary. I think neither film is as good as Citizen Kane, but if one was more like Kane, it would be Carlos.

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About Aaron & Alex

We're two highly opinionated, movie-going, liberal, cynical, (single) New York Jews who like to bitch about movies.
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