IFC FilmsI know a married couple who used to love going out to movies before they started having kids. Now, that's a lot harder; even seeing movies uninterrupted at home is a bit of a challenge. So the husband came up with an idea: Why not just watch the movies in installments? He'll rent a movie from Netflix, pop it in for 20 minutes, and then watch another 20-minute piece whenever he's next got some free time. This seemed like a terrible idea to me since it's impossible to really get into the flow of a movie that way, but with the Criterion release of last year's ambitious five-and-a-half-hour drama "Carlos," I'm starting to understand the advantages.
Directed by Olivier Assayas ("Summer Hours," "Boarding Gate"), "Carlos" was 2010's most critically acclaimed film that wasn't "The Social Network." Originally airing on French television as a miniseries, the movie chronicled 20 years in the notorious life of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal), a terrorist and cultural icon. Split into three sections, the movie (buoyed by a gigantic performance from Edgar Ramirez) screened as a traveling roadshow, and although a 140-minute theatrical version was also available, most people I know chose the full 330-minute version precisely because of the challenge of the thing. At a time when fewer and fewer movies feel legitimately special, "Carlos" was a genuine event.
That's not the same thing as being a masterpiece, though -- at least for me. While many colleagues rolled out the superlatives, I was a little more tempered in my response. A stunning achievement with great set pieces, "Carlos" simply couldn't maintain its brilliance over that extended running time. Too many subplots, too many periphery characters: The full "Carlos" was almost encyclopedic in its laying out of the terrorist's rise and fall, but it felt too gargantuan to really absorb. Some great movies leave you wholly sated; this one left me bloated and disoriented.
And then something funny happened. The Sundance Channel will occasionally play the full movie, and so I've found myself drifting over to catch a random 10-minute snippet from time to time. And just about every time I do, I'm incredibly impressed with what I see. The middle section's prolonged OPEC hostage sequence was always an instant classic, but seemingly less epic moments have asserted themselves as well, including the man's disastrous love affair with Nora von Waldstätten's Magdalena Kopp and his failed attempt at a terrorist attack at Orly Airport in Paris. This was a film shot in little more than 90 days, and look how tight and controlled so much of it is. Maybe some of my colleagues gave Assayas too much credit for how he was able to pull such a massive endeavor together, but, then again, maybe I hadn't given him enough.
In the Stanley Kubrick documentary "A Life in Pictures," one of Kubrick's creative partners says that the director believed that to make a good movie you just needed enough good set pieces; then the trick was simply tying those set pieces together. More than any recent film in memory, "Carlos" works under that same principle. I still have my reservations about its sheer length, but if you've been curious to give "Carlos" a try, pop it in for 20 minutes. Like a good book, you can put it down and then pick it back up again later.