Saturday, January 21, 2012


             A Woolf at the Door of a Room of One's Own
                            Review by Ken Burke
Polanski’s latest is a Broadway adaptation about parents confronting each other over an attack involving their children, leading to worse childish behavior from the adults.

            The image to the right tells you all you really need to know about the action in Roman Polanski’s new film, Carnage, with a screenplay by Yasmina Reza—and Polanski—based on her award-winning theatrical work (2009 Tony for Best Play, among others), which opened in 2006 to successful runs in Paris (original title Le Dieu du carnage), London (original adapted title Lay Waste to England for Me then changed to God of Carnage), and Broadway (adapted a bit again for the switch to an American rather than European setting).  In the movie photo here you see Zachary Cowan (Elvis Polanski, Roman’s son) on the left about to hit Ethan Longstreet (Eliot Berger) with a sizeable stick, leading to a far more brutal but unresolved reaction by their parents (expanding upon Newton's third law of motion about equality between these forces), which takes us through 99% of the rest of our dealings with these characters.
            Minus the brief opening scene of the boys’ encounter presented right after the opening credits—but all within the same long shot of the park in their Brooklyn neighborhood (with Paris as a likely stand-in, given that it’s the only shooting location listed and that Polanski is still not about to set foot in the U.S.)—and the closing shot in the same park that leads to the end credits, everything takes place in real time and in one interior location, the high-rise apartment home of Ethan’s parents and their adjoining public hallway.  While this confined chronological structure is not so radical for a play (one example, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 claustrophobic No Exit, but there are many others that use these time and space tropes) it’s extremely unusual for a film (for one of the few comparisons, see Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope, adapted from an equally sparse setting for the theatre, written in 1929 by Patrick Hamilton and seemingly inspired by the 1924 murder of Bobby Franks by University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb)Polanski makes no attempt to “open up” the confinements of the story except for the brief visual bookends that give a little substance to the boys, something that their parents aren’t nearly as successful at doing throughout the remainder of the film.
            In that we see the attack on Ethan (which leaves him injured but not in a manner that some dental work and plastic surgery can’t fix) and there’s no denial that the assault took place by Zachery’s parents, sullen investment broker Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet) and constantly-distracted pharmaceutical lawyer Alan Cowan (Christopher Waltz), you’d think that this situation would produce a rather cut-and-dried outcome of accepted responsibility and its financial aftermath.  But when the Cowans get further into their required meeting with idealistic social crusader Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) and folksy decorative-kitchen-appliances wholesaler Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) recriminations fly at a furious pace, with inter-parental verbal warfare from one couple to the other accompanied by plenty of intra-parental conflicts as each couple takes turns lashing out at each other and shifting sides as the men periodically join forces against the women, followed by more vice-versa roundelays than you can easily keep up with.  By the time it’s all over they agree that this has been the “worst day” in any of their lives, but only because of their incessant pettiness not because the boys’ incident even begins to resemble the “worst day” events suffered by another child, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) in Stephen Daldry’s just-opening Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (see review elsewhere in this blog).  The Longstreets and the Cowans are all fraught with varying degrees of self-loathing, marriage disappointment, life frustrations, and repressed hostilities.  But still, compared to what happened to countless other New Yorkers in Extremely Loud these feuding parents should hope that their worst day is just about arguments and upchucks (an awful source of Nancy’s problems that “spills over” to the others in the film as well).
         The obvious comparison for this film, made by virtually everyone who’s aware of it including those who’ve reviewed it, is to Mike Nichols’ 1966 scathing couples-collision, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (itself an adaptation of Edward Albee’s 1962 drama of the same title, another Tony award-winning Best Play in 1963), but George (Richard Burton), Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), Nick (George Segal), and Honey (Sandy Dennis) were in their own version of Sartre’s interpersonal no-exit hell while the bickering Brooklynites in Carnage are just beginning to approach that level of perversity with their mere semantic quibbles, drained bottle of Scotch, and hair-dryer-aided cell phone resuscitation.  That doesn’t mean that the relatively lighter take on melted-down adults that we witness in Carnage is just a poor imitation because it isn’t—and it’s played much more for well-generated laughs than Virginia Woolf? ever wanted to be—but it provides nowhere near the emotional power that radiates from the Nichols film.  By the time we get through with Carnage it’s clear that all four of these parents would benefit from a similar dunk in cold water as what happened to Alan’s overused cell phone because they clearly have no business trying to understand and manage the business of their sons, boys who obviously have moved past their initial trauma as we see in the final shot where they’ve already forgotten their grievances and become friends again, a very unlikely result for their parents as they finally acknowledge their inner directives to each other.
          Penelope feels that everyone needs to be “collectively concerned” about all the world’s injustices, so Ethan’s injuries to her are just a local manifestation of ongoing global crises, such as the genocide in Darfur, Sudan making it difficult for her to ever just accept an agreement with the Cowans without bringing up another point of dispute.  Husband Michael finally admits that he’s comfortable with being “openly despicable” to the Cowans, whom he does not respect, but he doesn’t seem to have a great deal of respect for his son either, nor for his daughter’s pet hamster that he released into the streets to fend for itself before our story began (at times this is presented as the cruelest act of the entire confrontation, but we do see the hamster happy in the park at the end so he’s probably better off not having to cohabitate with the Longstreets).  Smug legal strategist Alan admits that he believes in “the law of carnage” as human nature, so it’s little surprise that he’s easily able to swing into action against the integrity of his wife, his son, or anyone else within cell phone service range.  Nancy finally sees all of their barbed conflicts with “a pleasant serenity,” but only after she’s vomited all over Penelope’s precious art books and anything else in a close radius, then filled up again with Scotch so that her serenity is from a good dose of spirits rather than any spiritual harmonizing.

            All in all, they’re a pretty despicable lot who continue to spiral into absurd dehumanization as their attempts at resolution continue to fail, leaving them stuck in the confines of the Longstreet apartment just as the dinner guests in Luis Buñuel’s 1962 barbarically surreal The Exterminating Angel find themselves incapable of leaving a dinner party with increasingly disastrous results (again, this is a film intended to be much more disturbing than the mildly satirical but well acted Carnage).  For that matter, this no-exit theme (previously noted with Sartre) is also familiar to anyone who’s sung along with the Eagles 1977 monster hit single “Hotel California,” where “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”  So, there’s a lot of familiarity in Carnage but it ultimately begins to breed a little contempt, just as the bickering parents get more fed up with each other the longer their defensive clashes drag on into the story.
          On its own merits Carnage is a harshly funny exploration of adults with adolescent sensibilities that demonstrates its theatrical heritage without feeling suffocating as a movie because of its limited spatial setting.  Unlike another powerful play put to film, Sidney Lumet’s 1957 12 Angry Men (based on Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay for CBS’ Studio One in the early days of live TV drama, then adapted by Rose for the stage, but it took until 2005 to get its own Tony, for Best Revival of a Play; ironically it found its way back to TV in 1997 with an adaptation for Showtime directed by William Friedkin), where the dialogue carries the day because the visualization consists mostly of static midshots and closeups of the argumentative jurors, Polanski’s visual presentation is one that constantly keeps the eye in motion with active cutting and choices of camera angles.  While you know you’re mostly in the Longstreets’ living room, with a little movement into adjoining spaces, you also get to see the four conflicting protagonists from a marvelous variety of camera placements so that your eye doesn’t feel nearly as trapped as these hostile parents do in their own version of a jury room (you also get to see the surrounding neighborhood through the apartment windows, with an occasional elevated commuter train moving by, adding a little further action to an essentially verbal, static situation).  The four principals move around in the limited space of the living room quite a bit, shifting positions just as the camera keeps shifting angles so that there’s a slow choreography of actual movement with added energy from the frequent but unobtrusive cutting pattern of the image flow.  Cinematically and dramatically it all holds up quite well in its brisk, frustrating expose of the parent as child.

            Where the credit lies with this film, though, is mostly with the superb rhythms and deliveries of the actors, which in a small way is a bit of a disappointment for those expecting something more from a Polanski film.  He’s certainly true to his source material and once again presents a subject that’s deliciously disturbing in its implications of human frailties, but it’s hard to give him too much praise for what transpires here except that he coaxed consistently engaging performances from four experienced and publically-embraced actors (with Reilly as the only one without an Oscar win, although he does have a nomination for Chicago [Rob Marshall, 2002])With such talent on screen and such a narrowly focused premise and plot structure the best thing that a director can do is mostly stay out of the way and let the material dictate its own result as long as the original idea can carry the weight of expectations.

            Certainly there’s nothing essentially wrong with how this strategy works for Carnage, but given the larger-concept work we’ve come to expect from Polanski in such triumphs as The Ghost Writer (2010), The Pianist (2002, which got him an Oscar to match those of his cast), Tess (1979), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Repulsion (1965), and many others including, for me at least, his ultimate turn as a director with 1974’s Chinatown (in which he appeared—shown in the photo to the right—as the nameless knife-wielding enforcer in the employ of Noah Cross’ corrupt Water Dept. thugs, and for which he could easily have won a Best Director Oscar in another year [and the film could have been Best Picture] but had the misfortune to be competing with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II), it’s hard to really appreciate Carnage as a “Polanski film” as such, despite its overall high quality, because of the limits imposed by the constant comparisons it gets to the above-cited work from Nichols and Buñuel.  Polanski certainly can’t be faulted for choosing to adapt a well-received play and give four prominent film actors an opportunity to display their well-nuanced craft, so ultimately my marginal reservations about Carnage come back to Reza’s original.  She’s crafted a situation that exposes contemporary urban upscalers whose assumed sophistication is proved to be all façade and abdication of reasoned responsibility, she’s written marvelously funny and humiliating dialogue for all of them, she’s provided a fine balance in the shifting momentary triumphs and defeats of each of the Longstreets and Cowans, but in the end—while there’s plenty to appreciate for its own worth here—it’s just too hard to not always feel the heavy shadow of George, Martha, and the Exterminating Angel’s deteriorating Mexican socialites whose presence haunts Carnage too vividly (probably more with the Virginia Woolf? analogy for the mainstream audience than with Buñuel) for it to stand firmly on its own.

          When something’s intended to be incorporated into something else, as with The Hours (1998 novel by Michael Cunningham [itself a Pulitzer Prize winner], 2002 film by Stephen Daldry [Oscar winner for Best Actress Nicole Kidman]) where Virginia Woolf herself, her writing of the 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, the nicknaming of Meryl Streep’s Clarissa character as a modern “Mrs. Dalloway,” Woolf’s actual suicide, the related suicide of fictional Richard Brown (Ed Harris) in the contemporary story, and the attempted suicide of his mother Laura Brown (Julianne Moore—married to John C. Reilly as Dan Brown in this film) are all intended to resonate with each other, then you have a true homage to the original and a reasonably considered extension of it.  With Carnage, despite the high quality contributions of all involved from its genesis as a French play, there’s just too much of a disturbing derivative-works lawsuit waiting in the wings to allow this story to fully succeed in its intended form (at least in the minds of aware viewers, if not lawyers of Alan Cowan’s temperament who, surprisingly, don’t’ seem to have filed any injunctions).  It’s still brutally funny, a sad editorial on the misguided priorities of too many contemporary “adults,” and a marvelous demonstration of professional story telling by all involved, but just as George and Martha never really had that child they so savagely fought about Polanski and Reza don’t quite have the narrative “child” they need here for maximum impact, at least with me. 

          Maybe I’m the one guilty of unjustly beating their “kid” with a stick, but I just can’t get past the allusions to other, more substantial, works when experiencing Carnage.  I like it a lot and it’s effective in delivering the message it sets out to explore, yet I’ve just seen it all too much before to be able to be completely satisfied with it.  I’m not saying that there’s only one effective way to explore a topic or that an earlier version of something must negate a new approach, but in this case the Ghosts of Crises Past are just too foregrounded, as evidenced by the constant references to the famous antecedent films in virtually every analysis of this offering.  There’s a lot about Carnage to be satisfied with but there’s also plenty that seems borrowed if not stolen.  With all the talk recently about Internet copyright policing I’m even beginning to feel uncomfortable just writing this review because I feel like I should be paying royalties to someone for all the un-footnoted referencing I’ve watched Polanski and company do.

          Ultimately, I recommend this film for those who aren’t too bothered by its missing bibliography; just don’t be too surprised if your popcorn comes flavored with melted déjà vu (but that’s still better than what Nancy had to offer before they found a bucket for her needs).

       If you’d like to explore Carnage in more detail here are some suggested links that you might find useful:

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