When Biography Becomes Legend, Print the Legend: Carlos and The Social Network

by Todd McCarthy
October 27, 2010 3:10 AM
8 Comments
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With little more than two months left in 2010, two films released thus far this year loom over all the others. The many merits of "Carlos" and "The Social Network" have been amply appreciated by critics and most people who have seen them. But what the two films strikingly share is a biographical and historical scrupulousness up to a certain point, accompanied by an implicit willingness to use the built-in seductive and myth-making aspects of the cinema to turn biography into legend. Biographical films have always been with us, but in the Hollywood of yore the subjects were only occasionally still alive and if they were, they would either appear onscreen as idealized and airbrushed ("Sergeant York," "The Spirit of St. Louis") or sufficiently fictionalized to avoid libel charges ("The Miracle Woman," "Citizen Kane"). "Carlos" and "The Social Network," which center, respectively, on the lives of a notorious international terrorist and of the founder of Facebook, not only name names but are unflatteringly clear about the crimes of the former and (to put it kindly) the unfriendly behavior of the latter toward the crucial "friends" who helped him get where he got so fast.


Ostensibly critical of their subjects simply by presenting what, to an extensively verifiable degree, actually happened, the two films still can't help but magnify and glamorize the reputations of their subjects, simply by virtue of how movies all but automatically aggrandize and mythologize that which they depict; Carlos (a name he accidentally acquired, as was his nickname "The Jackal," which is ignored by the film) is now suddenly back in the news and known to a whole new generation as he advances into old age in a French prison, while Mark Zuckerberg, the youngest billionaire on Earth and far from alluring personally, has largely soft-pedaled any objections to his onscreen depiction while becoming a far greater household name than he ever was before. The maxim that any publicity is good publicity seems to be holding in these two cases and it's inevitable that the public will essentially think of these two men from now on by the way they've been depicted in two very big and (fortunately for them) really good movies.

Both "Carlos" and "The Social Network" get away with as much as they do because the figures central to both films, along with the events surrounding them, have been so extensively documented. Research on "Carlos" was inestimably aided by the German mania for writing down everything; just as the Nazis' obsessive record-keeping eventually served as their own most comprehensive indictment, the encyclopedic East German Stasi files (along with the extensive testimonies of Carlos' radical German cohort Hans-Joachim Klein) were an enormous help in nailing down Carlos' activities. Most of the ground screenwriter Aaron Sorkin covered in "The Social Network" came from the voluminous transcripts of court proceedings involving Zuckerberg and his Harvard cohorts.

In both cases, however, there were inevitably unknowables, none of which were ever going to be supplied by the subjects themselves, who were hostile to the projects about them and would have stopped them if they could have. Zuckerberg can say now that it was not rejection by a girlfriend that spurred him to get drunk, go back to his dorm and create his Harvard hotness site. But hewing to whatever the truth was would have prevented Sorkin from writing such a great opening scene, one that instantly grabs you by the shirt and pulls you right into the movie.

When I aired some of these points on Saturday at a q&a with director Olivier Assayas after a "Carlos" screening at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, he immediately expressed his great enthusiasm for David Fincher and "The Social Network" but intriguingly suggested that his own film actually bears a closer resemblance in certain respects to Fincher's "Zodiac." Not only does "Zodiac," like "Carlos," deal with an elusive killer whose unpredictability and mysterious identity terrified the public over a period of many years, but Assayas was particularly interested in the presence in both films of unavoidable "gaps" created by the unknowable.

Assayas, like Fincher, obsessively tracked down virtually everything it was possible to learn about his subject. But then a writer or filmmaker must acknowledge when they've reached the end of that road and give themselves permission to invent, add and speculate about what seems justifiable and plausible within the context of everything else they've got. It's where biography and myth-making meet and it's why Assayas calls his film "a fiction" based on the life of the real man. One would imagine that it's a description Fincher would similarly embrace as regards his own film.With these two films so decisively more provocative, absorbing, energetic, entertaining and in all ways rewarding than any other dramatic features that have come out this year, what can be said about the rest of the pack? In going over my personal list of the year's best so far, it strikes me that, to an inordinate degree, the good films were what are often called "festival films;" all but one, in fact, made their debuts at festivals, not in commercial release. In no special order, these films include "A Prophet" (shown in Cannes 2009 but not opened in the U.S. until this year), "Animal Kingdom," "The Kids Are All Right," "Let Me In," "Winter's Bone," "Enter the Void," "The King's Speech," "North Face" and, a bit below those, "Blue Valentine," "Black Swan" and "Please Give."

The only non-festival title I would include in this company is "Toy Story 3," and while I would concede that "Inception" is a must-see, it remains too problematic to be ranked in any top ten of mine. Festivals really were where the action's been for me this year, including for documentaries: Sundance served up "Waiting for Superman" but, far better yet, Cannes premiered "Inside Job," which I would agree warrants the label mandatory viewing if I didn't fear making attendance sound more like a duty than a pleasure.

A whimsical discovery at Sundance, Diane Bell's"Obselidia," whose quirky obsessions and predilections congenially line up with my own, unaccountably seems to have vanished from the landscape since then, but other quite special 2010 festival attractions will, I hope, surface before long: Michelangelo Frammartino's "Le Quattro Volte," Abdellatif Kechiche's "Black Venus," Sergei Loznitsa's "My Joy," Cristi Puiu's "Aurora," Hong Sang-soo's "Oki's Movie," Benjamin Heisenberg's "The Robber," Lee Chang-dong's "Poetry" and Radu Muntean's "Tuesday, After Christmas." As to what's coming up in theaters before year's end, only David O. Russell's "The Fighter" and the Coen Brothers' "True Grit" look on paper like serious contenders to me, although I'm happy to be surprised. In the most obvious way, 2010 has been the most tumultuous roller-coaster year for me professionally due to my unceremonious departure from Variety back in March. But it's been exceptionally gratifying on every other level, as my sudden liberty inspired countless people to get, or get back, in touch, which itself sparked a great many unexpected encounters and events that would not have happened otherwise.

I originally came to Hollywood to meet the great old filmmakers and writers and actors before they all passed on, and the same impulse to connect with artists still drives me. Among the year's highlights: An incredible, entirely eccentric lunch at Musso & Frank on behalf of "Inglourious Basterds" at which 95-year-old Norman Lloyd beguiled ladies a third his age, Roger Corman and I debated the merits of the LA Opera Ring Cycle and Jackie Bisset enthused about how "An Education" exactly caught the England of her youth; rediscovering the movingly pure romanticism of Frank Borzage in the great Fox DVD set; observing Kathryn Bigelow be maximally recognized for the artistry and tenacity that were so evident when I got to know her 27 years ago; witnessing my kids discover the greatness of "Rear Window;" feeling the ghosts of the medium's origins when showing my family the Institut Lumiere and the very spot in Lyon where the Lumiere Brothers' first cinematographic images were made, and gazing down at the canal from "L'Atalante" from the window of my friend Pierre Rissient's apartment in Paris; hearing Bertrand Tavernier rave about the three little-known "great" films he discovered by B director Edward L. Cahn from 1932, "Law and Order," "Radio Patrol" and "Afraid to Talk;" a three-hour lunch on the Strip at which, as always, Quentin Tarantino and Pierre continually topped one another with astonishingly esoteric film information and enthusiasms; lunch with Peter Bogdanovich, again on the Strip, at which a chance encounter with Walter Hill and Larry Gross reminded Peter of how he was supposed to direct Walter's script of "The Getaway" with Steve McQueen but dropped out because he couldn't agree to the casting of Ali MacGraw, and at which I encouraged him to undertake his blog for indieWIRE, which I hope flourishes; a screening, arranged by Pierre, of the ultra-obscure 1943 pro-Soviet Columbia programmer "The Boy From Stalingrad," directed by Sidney Salkow and written by the mysterious Ferdinand Reyher, a literary collaborator of Brecht, later the husband of "Lust, Caution" novelist Eileen Chang and clearly a subject for further research; hearing my son Nick's astute comments as he plowed through the James Bond films in, at his insistence, chronological order (he's up to the start of the Pierce Brosnan era now); dinner at Orso in New York with the under-read but great American writer James Salter, his wife and Scott Foundas, hearing about Salter directing Charlotte Rampling and Sam Waterston in the one film he made, "3," in 1968, and swapping drinking-with-Irwin Shaw stories; talking opera and dramatic arcania with Peter Sellars in a coach from Montrose to Telluride while simultaneously hearing Stanton Kaye describe what it was like to be taught at UCLA in 1962 by both Jean Renoir and Josef von Sternberg ("Never were there two directors more diametrically opposed."); discussing history for a half-hour at a party with Colin Firth and his "The King's Speech" director Tom Hooper, learning that Firth's father was a professor of American history in England and that a sequence devoted to the midnight euthanasia of King George V in 1936, administered so that news of his death would break in the dignified Times rather than in the afternoon tabloids (all true!), was cut because it so distracted from the main thread of the story; witnessing the man sitting in front of me at "127 Hours" in Telluride slump over into unconsciousness during the arm-cutting scene, resulting in the man next to him desperately trying to rouse him and finally calling paramedics (he was OK); getting an hour-long tutorial in a car from the irrepressible Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu about the desperate political and criminal situation facing Mexico and difficulties of filming there now; relishing the intelligence, conviviality and warmth of the wonderful "Carlos" crew of Olivier Assayas, Edgar Ramirez and Nora von Waldstatten in New York; seeing a preview of "La Bete" on Broadway and confirming that I would watch Mark Rylance do anything onstage; lunching all afternoon with Jim Toback on his home turf of the Harvard Club and hanging on his tales of his "Love and Money" European casting trip to meet Catherine Deneuve, Laura Antonelli and Ornella Muti, as well as of his eventful trans-Atlantic flight sitting next to Tony Curtis, who had died the day of our repast; being electrified by the stunning musicianship of James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera orchestra at "Das Reingold;" running into Jerry Schatzberg together again with Faye Dunaway at a party and, a few minutes later, getting worked up to see Todd Haynes' forthcoming five-hour HBO adaptation of James M. Cain's "Mildred Pierce" starring Kate Winslet on the basis of cinematographer Ed Lachman's unbridled enthusiasm for what Haynes has done with it; my lifelong team the Giants winning the pennant; finding welcoming and wonderful berth at indieWIRE but now being hired to resume doing what I've long loved most, trade reviewing, at The Hollywood Reporter.

And so it is that I must bid farewell to my colleagues and readers at indieWIRE, where the company has been most congenial and the freedom to write as I pleased, and often in a different, more personal voice than is possible in traditional journalism, has been a great stimulant. I wish Rick, Anne, Leonard, Peter, Sydney, Sophia, Brian, Eric, Eugene, now at Lincoln Center, and everyone else nothing but the best, and I look forward to our paths continuing to often cross.

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8 Comments

  • Nurf? | October 31, 2010 1:32 AMReply

    Research on “Carlos” was inestimably aided by the German mania for writing down everything; just as the Nazis’ obsessive record-keeping eventually served as their own most comprehensive indictment , the encyclopedic East German Stasi files (along with the extensive testimonies of Carlos’ radical German cohort Hans-Joachim Klein) were an enormous help in nailing down Carlos’ activities.

    Oh, you mean like the 400,000 documents obtained and released by WikiLeaks will eventually lead to a war crimes tribunal against American soldiers and generals?

    Nah. You're too exceptional for that, right?

  • Dominik | October 30, 2010 10:41 AMReply

    Brilliantly written!
    Just want to add that "Another Year" by Mike Leigh could likely be a huge factor in this year´s Oscar-race!

  • SaMoFilmFan | October 27, 2010 12:35 PMReply

    Todd, your influence shines widely and brightly, and your writing is always simultaneously trenchant and entertaining. As a reader of over 1000 scripts, novels and plays for a major director in the 90s, your style was the one I emulated when summing up some hot, "has-to-be-covered-now" property messengered over (in the days just before email) from CAA.
    Variety's loss was our gain at IndieWire, and fortunately I'm in an office that still gets THR. There's no better example of what your brought your former employers at Variety than your review of Love and Other Drugs when contrasted with Variety's review today. Congrats on THR gig and for giving them what seems to me to be their first competitive advantage over Variety ever. You know what is sweet, isn't it?

  • Robert Smith | October 27, 2010 9:37 AMReply

    Re: "Print the Legend:" I am sure I am only one of a vast number who'd agree that you are a legend in print, Todd. Your reviews and your essays have long illuminated my understanding and love of film in ways that have enriched and burnished the sheer experience of enveloping a film in one's own intellectual and emotional "landscape." In other words, what you share with your readers is simply essential and singular. Best of luck in your new gig, Todd, and I look forward to keeping up with you wherever you may print/post.

  • Tim Craig | October 27, 2010 8:08 AMReply

    What a great year, Todd! THR's gain is, ultimately, Variety's loss. I will use your article to convince my skeptical friends that they should watch a 5.5 hour movie!

  • Jeremy Arnold | October 27, 2010 7:13 AMReply

    Great post, Todd -- you've had an amazing year. And congrats on the new gig at THR. So glad we all get to keep reading you. Now I have to figure out how to see "Afraid to Talk" and "Radio Patrol"!

  • Don Franken | October 27, 2010 7:07 AMReply

    Fascinating article here. What a great addition for Hollywood Reporter to have Todd McCarthy now doing reviews! Great writer, and always fascinating to read. I will miss his reviews at IndieWire.

  • Rick Allen | October 27, 2010 5:16 AMReply

    Todd, we were honored to call you our colleague, and are happy to continue to call you friend. Many thanks for your wonderful writing (of which this piece and your wonderful review of "Love and other Drugs" have to be among the most compelling), and best wishes for your new role at the Reporter.
    RA