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Who Wants to Die for Art!?!: Reflections on a Meta-Film Sub-Genre: Part V
𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘋𝘢𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘑𝘢𝘤𝘬𝘢𝘭: The Ultimate Underground Artist
In our late-capitalist society, the artist who chooses to remain anonymous inspires both reverence and incomprehension — we admire their creative and moral integrity even if we remain incredulous at their refusal to enter a cultural marketplace that can bestow fame, money, and power upon its participants. As I pointed out in the previous installment of “Who Wants to Die!?!,” in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) Jim Jarmusch uses an apt metaphor to explore the ambivalent status of late-capitalism’s rare (and rarely acknowledged) anonymous artist by portraying him as a reclusive vampire. Only Lovers’s Adam is the Sensitive Artist whose romantic gloom provides seclusion from the corrupt, unappreciative world, but he is also horror legend and mythology’s Damned Monster, a tormented freak whose connection with his audience is predicated on a violence he doesn’t so much abhor on ethical terms as shy away from for the contact it necessitates with a disdainful and despicable humanity.
But there is more than one kind of anonymous artist, and some choose anonymity for reasons even more sinister than those possessed by the Sensitive Artist/Damned Monster. Adam’s anonymity is predicated on a proud individualism that pursues the Real through insulated yet uncompromised creative freedom. In contrast, the title character of Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal (1973) maintains his anonymity not for the sake of aesthetic sublimity or artistic liberty but instead as a way of achieving a direct, profound effect on the Real in the public theater — in the social, cultural, and political life of the world at large.
Based on Frederick Forsyth’s best-selling literary thriller, The Day of the Jackal arrived on American movie screens at a moment when the winds of revolution that stirred in the 1960s were giving way to the after-shivers of 1970s paranoia. According to that grand narrative so firmly entrenched in our collective cultural consciousness, the surge of optimism that accompanied the civil rights and anti-war movements in the ’60s dissipated into a fog of disillusionment after a series of political assassinations and governmental scandals left America and much of the world wondering if the shape of history might be more strongly influenced by the murky motivations of shadowy personages as opposed to the propulsive righteousness of the People. Some of those personages (J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon) were confusing in their psychology if grand in stature, but other personages (Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan) seemed virtually inexplicable in terms of both their social origins and raisons d’être. At the core of their deadly deeds lay a madness rooted in ideological contradiction or, even worse, moral nihilism, with both possibilities setting up the distinct possibility that the agents of history may not be driven by the transformation of reality but rather by its ultimate nullification.
The movies responded to these events and figures by mystifying the answer to the question of Why? behind each act of violent assassination. Out went the duplicitous conspirators of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), whose complex and almost supernatural intrigues at least had an understandable goal, and in came the unknowable saboteurs of Blow-Up (1966) and The Parallax View (1974), whose motivations and identities remained almost entirely inscrutable. But as unsettling as those latter films are in positing forever-hidden puppet-masters, a film like The Day of the Jackal suggests far more disturbing implications concerning the anonymous catalysts of political sabotage. For if Blow-Up and The Parallax View refuse to answer Why? so as to evoke a mood of epistemological dread, Jackal puts forward an explanation that troubles the foundations of epistemology itself.
In doing so, the film strikes at the heart of the societal structures that buttress our tenuous philosophical systems. For The Day of the Jackal demonstrates with chilling lucidity how the modern assassin can be considered an underground artist in extremis, with all the world his canvas. The movie accomplishes this through three narrative abstractions. In the first place, in adapting Forsyth’s novel, screenwriter Kenneth Ross and director Fred Zinnemann downplay the story’s political and moral backdrop. Even though it features real political figures (French president Charles de Gaulle), real political organizations (the Organisation Armée Secrète [OAS]), and real political situations (the OAS’s attempt to kill de Gaulle for his withdrawal of the French military and governmental power apparatus from Algeria), the movie never argues the moral superiority of any of the parties therein. Only from his or her own political convictions must the viewer assume that the OAS and its mercenary assassin, the Jackal (Edward Fox), are in the wrong for planning to kill de Gaulle — if the viewer believes France’s withdrawal from Algeria was politically correct then he/she won't believe the OAS and the Jackal morally justified in seeking de Gaulle’s destruction. But, again, the film never explicitly makes this argument, and so the viewer has to fill in the blanks — given another set of real political figures (Adolf Hitler), real political organizations (anti-Hitler factions within the Nazi party and German military), and real political situations (the failed plot to assassinate Hitler), the average viewer would root for the assassin and the organization for which he works rather than root against them. In other words, The Day of the Jackal is far more concerned with the logistics and processes of assassination than its political causes or justifications.
This abstraction works in tandem with another: the motives of the Jackal. A gun for hire, the Jackal does not plan to kill De Gaulle for political reasons, and the film implies that such mercenarism affords the Jackal a professional objectivity that a politically-motivated assassin could never possess. The Jackal has become a consummate master — perhaps the consummate master — of his macabre profession precisely because he does not approach it as a means to a higher political end but rather as an end in itself. In order to carry out the OAS’s assignment the Jackal must plan the assassination through the execution of various crafts: theft, forgery, disguise, sexual seduction, and, of course, marksmanship. The Jackal executes these crafts with care and finesse because without them the assassination could not be successfully carried out — and since the Jackal lacks an ideology to support his mission, to him the assassination as a whole never assumes a greater status than the sum of its parts. The movie thus depicts the Jackal as a sort of renaissance artist who must devote considerable time and energy to several fields of artisanal if not artistic endeavor in order to manifest a larger, yet in no sense overriding, work of creation. And because it’s far more concerned with logistics and processes than it is with the political or moral motivations behind those logistics and processes, The Day of the Jackal acts as a sort of portrait of an artist not in thrall to inspiration but in devotion to his work — and only in his element when at work.
This leads to the movie’s third level of abstraction: the identity of the Jackal. Whereas other assassination movies explore the psychology of the assassin by delving into his personal and political background (e.g., In the Line of Fire ), The Day of the Jackal leaves the Jackal’s background a total mystery. By refusing to elucidate the Jackal’s psychological profile, the movie not only refuses to position the Jackal as an “Other” who is, unlike the viewer, beyond the bounds of morality, but it also heavily hints at the true raison d'être behind the Jackal’s creative endeavors: anonymity. Since at least the Renaissance the West has glorified and championed the individual creator and his or her psychological “genius” over the anonymous or communal creator. However, the more the artist works in the realm of the Real — that is, the more the artist creates something beyond the socially- and culturally-sanctioned limits of representation — the more the artist must maintain her anonymity (often by way of a nom de plume) to continue her artistic production. This usually occurs when authorities charge the artist with trespassing into the territory of the Real by breaking taboos — in challenging and/or defying censorship the artist becomes an outlaw. But even here the artist only commits her transgressions because the authorities have mistakenly confused representation for the Real — once certain representations are recognized as such (i.e., as mere representations) the artist no longer challenges or defies censorship in the act of creating her representational art, and thus she no longer needs to sustain anonymity.
The Jackal, on the other hand, works exclusively in the realm of the Real — he not only strives to destroy a political, social, and cultural symbol, but he also works to destroy the head of a very Real system of governmental control. The Jackal’s work, therefore, must be performed anonymously and in secret, and with his artisanal talents and skills employed toward sustaining that anonymity and secrecy: he must assume false identities and appearances, appropriate the identities and appearances of others, and constantly evade the State’s complex, ubiquitous surveillance networks to achieve his goal. Thus the Jackal’s absence of identity perfectly complements his lack of political motivation — he works as an artist for the sake of affecting change in the Real and not toward any expression of a personal point of view. Indeed, the viewer might come to admire the Jackal for his professional anonymity as well as his professional ingenuity, to admire him for the assassin’s ability to subsume any desire for creative vainglory or celebrity beneath the paramount importance of his artistic endeavor in transforming the Real.
At this point I should spotlight the fact that, among all the films I’ve thus far written about for this series, The Day of the Jackal does not feature any actual artists among its cast of characters. It is therefore only loosely related to the theme of the series, the theme of meta-films that explore the artist’s gravitation toward crime in order to transcend the unsatisfying limits of creative representation and work within the Real. A relationship nonetheless exists, however. Because in a sense The Day of the Jackal picks up where all of the other films in this series — Rope (1948), Young Man with a Horn (1950), Pierrot le Fou (1965), and Only Lovers Left Alive — leave off. In those films the artist or would-be artist confronts his failure to achieve the Real through creative activity, only to subsequently confront his capacity for destruction and/or self-destruction by seeking the Real through crime (typically murder). In The Day of the Jackal, the titular villain eschews the socially sanctioned channel of creative endeavor from the get-go, and he works destructively within the realm of the Real with no compunction or guilt whatsoever. In doing so he seems to have fully renounced his humanity — not to become a raging monster, but instead to become a preternaturally aloof aesthete.
The Day of the Jackal thus riffs on and inverts the meta-cinematic project of Rope, the first film this series fully explored. Both films are fueled by suspense, a mode that allows them to play on the spectatorial desire to vicariously live through their villains’ transgressions of morality in pursuit of aesthetic transcendence, and right to the edge of “getting away with it.” The fact that the villains fail to “get away with it” allows both films to remain safely within the parameters of the consumable work of entertainment that reinforces conventional morality and a strict division between life and art. But both films contain unsettling subversions that linger long after their fragile “happy endings,” and it could be argued that The Day of the Jackal is even more subversive than Rope. As I discussed earlier in this series, Rope’s formal experimentation — especially its approximation of a “single long take” — makes the film itself as aesthetically rarified as the killers wish their act of murder to be (and to be admired as), thus confronting viewers with the fact that their interest in experiencing artistic transcendence mirrors the killers’ pursuit of the Real in the form of a criminal creativity that forsakes all ethical reason.
Jackal forgoes such experimentation but instead possesses a tonal coldness that aligns viewers with the assassin’s reptilian machinations. Surprisingly, Fox’s icy performance invokes a complicity between himself and the film’s viewers, and his character’s superior attitude toward the entire world seems to make good on the übermenschian pretensions Rope’s killers long for but never quite achieve due to their all-too-human emotionality. Viewers might thus find themselves liking the Jackal more than the killers of Rope, for the Jackal lives and acts a philosophy that Rope’s killers spend more time attempting to validate through argument than actually demonstrating in deed. This is not to Rope’s detriment — such emotionality works within the thematic context of the film, since in their arrogance, childishness, and vulnerability the killers express the artist’s overbrimming wish to be revered as a genius, to glory and be glorified in having triumphed over the limitations of art and life by arriving at an exalted amalgam that eclipses them both. One of Rope’s major ironies is that in courting an audience for their art-as-crime the killers end up indicted by a spectator who (somewhat hypocritically) refuses to validate their crime as art.
The Day of the Jackal and its titular assassin, in contrast, keep themselves at arm’s length from the audience and thus from moral denunciation. The film is far more artless than Rope, and accordingly its villain never announces himself as an artiste extraordinaire in need of ethical instruction. Significantly, the film also predicates itself upon an inherent distanciation effect — it is one of those curious historical thrillers that contains an ending already known to viewers — in this case, that de Gaulle was never successfully assassinated. But unlike most other such historical films (for example, Lawrence of Arabia ), Jackal does not compensate for its viewers’ foreknowledge with excessive stylization nor the plumbing of the psychological and historical forces behind a famous event. Instead the film provides a near-objective appreciation of the aesthetic brilliance behind an ingeniously-planned crime, a crime that can only be achieved in anonymity but that is offered to us as sterling entertainment.
As in Rope, for there to be any entertainment in the first place there must be a crime, and so the viewers of Jackal root for its protagonist to the very point at which history exerts its factuality and morality impresses its prohibitions. As far as possible for a mainstream blockbuster to accomplish, Jackal encourages its spectators to effectively complete the diabolical raison d'être for the film: to respect without judgment an aesthetic overthrow of the social Real through violence. Even the argument that viewers can identify with — and in the process admire the ingenuity of — Jackal nemesis Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale) as much as if not more than the Jackal himself fails when one admits the policeman’s dependence on the assassin for his existence. Indeed, until the climax of the film, Lebel is always one step behind the Jackal, and even when he vanquishes his opponent the viewer is made aware that this was only because the slightest accident — de Gaulle’s bow at the precise moment the Jackal pulls the trigger — led to Lebel’s victory.
So even though he both fails to assassinate de Gaulle and is soon thereafter killed, the Jackal and his artistic process nonetheless emerge triumphant — not in the realm of ideology, but in the refusal to submit to the mechanisms and technologies of identification that catalog and quantify the individual, transforming him from subject to object. Viewers might very well arrive at admiring the Jackal as the ultimate underground artist, as one of the few members of society who seeks to directly affect the Real and to elude official processing by what Louis Althusser deemed the Ideological State Apparatus. By living within yet slipping through various systems of control, the assassin-aesthete resists the modern surveillance state as well as society’s insistence that one identify oneself as an individual — and that the artist create art — solely on society’s terms. In the end, The Day of the Jackal troubles our certainty, not only of the belief that the artist is as important as or is more important than her art, but also of that the belief that maintaining one’s identificatory status holds more value than an anonymous and impersonal creativity in the service of violent insurrection.
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