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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Carnage (Three and a Half Stars)

Carnage (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.-France: Roman Polanski, 2011
1. Last Exit to Brooklyn
In Carnage, which was adopted by the French writer Yasmina Reza from her hit play “God of Carnage“ , director Roman Polanski once again demonstrates his mastery of the claustrophobia of anxiety (and vice versa) — even though this time, his material is lighter, funnier, less obviously nightmarish than the sheer stark terror of a Repulsion, a Rosemary‘s Baby or The Pianist. Telling a story of two seemingly normal bourgeois New York City couples who, meeting for the first time, descend into a moral swamp of conflict and recrimination, Polanski traps us, once again, in close quarters and an oppressive apartment, and shows us a tense battle and parlor-game of social intercourse gone wrong that will eventually degenerate into menace, madness, cruelty and absurdity. But more humorously this time. Still, though his material is lighter, more “normal,“ even a bit gentler than his usual fare, it’s a nightmare of sorts , all the same.

We are in the well-appointed, but not too showy, Brooklyn apartment of the Longstreets: genial, rough-looking Michael (John C. Reilly) who sells decorative houseware, and high-strung Penelope (Jodie Foster) who writes somewhat ambitious books. (Her current effort is about Darfur.) Michael and Penelope have invited over a couple they didn’t previously know — Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), a corporate lawyer and his wife, an investment broker — because they want to amicably resolve the uncomfortable aftermath of a vicious little playground fracas between their respective sons, Ethan and Zachary (played by Eliot Berger and Polanski’s own son Elvis), after the Cowan boy attacked the Longstreet kid and broke some teeth.

There’s tension right from the start, despite the atmosphere of good-natured civility and manners — and writer Reza and Polanski nurse it along expertly. Michael, whose eyes glower while his mouth grins, is a bit too friendly, and too loudly obliging. (We sense that, though he’s playing the part and talking the talk, he’s no liberal.) Penelope, the true bleeding heart of the two, is wired tight, more and more uneasy and nervous as she tries to converse with, and win over, the less emotional and even a bit intimidating Cowans.

Alan Cowan (as ingeniously played by Waltz), proves to be a slick, conniving bastard full of lightly veiled disdain for his social inferiors (almost everybody it seems, but especially the Longstreets). He keeps rudely interrupting the superficially friendly confab to bark orders and abuse over his cell-phone to a client, Walter, a drug manufacturer with a bad drug and potential legal problems. As for Nancy, she keeps her feelings tightly reined in until the memorable moment — the play’s most famous coup de theatre –when she suddenly projectile-vomits all over the Longstreet’s shiny-neat coffee table and Penelope’s treasured art book of Kokoschka reproductions. From there it gets worse, and uglier, and funnier.

I’ve never seen the play, but I‘m not surprised it’s an international critical and audience hit. This is the kind of show, with sharp dialogue and juicy roles, that actors really want to do and that higher-toned theater audiences (the kind who would know who Kokoschka is) really like want to watch. The model, of course, is Edward Albee’s venomously funny chamber drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and the many plays that later followed its template, and also the play that probably influenced Albee in turn: Eugene O’Neill’s great tragic family drama “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

As in those two 20th century theater classics, “God of Carnage” (I prefer that title) gives us a small group of people, all hiding something, all gradually losing their inhibitions and their secrets, as they consume more and more booze — something that doesn’t start in Carnage until about the midway point. These are well-read people who all obviously leaf through The New York Times, or at least some sections of it: Penelope probably Arts and Leisure and the world news, Michael Sports, Nancy Business, and Alan national news and Editorial.

All four think of themselves as reasonable, cultured people, as Michael keeps telling everybody. But all four of them are wrong. Things will eventually explode — like the playground tiff between their children, but verbally more dexterous and mean. One could use Carnage as a springboard for a little essay on the discreet charmlessness of the Brooklyn bourgeoisie, or the beast that lies beneath all our skins, or on class warfare (a class warfare, with slighter gradations), or even on cell-phone etiquette. (What’s Alan like when he’s driving?) Or one could delve into the symbolism of the Longstreets’ lost hamster, a hapless creature who may be the equivalent for George and Martha’s “lost” child in Virginia Woolf. One could even, like Penelope, get into Darfur. But, after fifteen minutes of watching this filmed play, I knew why it had gotten all its awards, and why Polanski wanted to do it — and why in many ways, he was an ideal director for this particular piece.

Speaking of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” it’s always seemed that the Burton-Taylor-Mike Nichols film of “Woolf” is somewhat miscast, and that the right ensemble for the movie, in 1966, would have been James Mason or Albee‘s first pick Henry Fonda as George, Anne Bancroft as Martha, Robert Redford as Nick, and Sandy Dennis from the movie that was, as Honey — and that the director, of course, should have been Sidney Lumet. Carnage reminds us that Polanski would have been an excellent directorial choice for Woolf too.

2. The Boy from Cracow

The boy Polanski, now 78, was born in Schindler’s Cracow, and all throughout World War II, he was a child or man-child on the run from the Nazis. (He lived the life that became the nightmare of fellow countryman Jerzy Kosinski’s WW2 novel “The Painted Bird.”) The young man Polanski, who grew up under Communism in Poland, escaped to the West and to a life of money, fame and pleasure and later of horror and fear (his wife Sharon murdered by the Manson family, he himself fleeing in the ‘70s from a Los Angeles court and a statutory rape charge). Is it any wonder, considering the terrors and reversals of his own life, that Polanski, would become and still be the greatest of all modern neo-noir cineastes, even in a dark-and-light comic piece like Carnage?

Through it all, he pursued a life long artistic agenda of making movies (from Knife in the Water to Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac and The Pianist) about people afraid, people trapped — hemmed in by society, by corruption, by evil, by their family, by their psyches, in their rooms, in a world often gone mad. The protagonists here, like the upper-class partiers in Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, are, somehow it seems, bizarrely imprisoned in the Longstreet’s apartment, unable to leave no matter how many times they try to break the meeting up. (It becomes Carnage‘s running joke.) This time what traps them is partly character, partly stagecraft, partly Reza, partly Polanski. You can peek past the Brooklyn Bridge and maybe see Cracow, or the Warsaw Ghetto. But let’s not go too far… The Longstreets and the Cowans will do that for us.

 What is the play about? Why don’t, or can’t, the Cowans leave? Well, this is a story maybe about a conflict and competition masked as a coming-together, a kind of class warfare disguised as a rapprochement between two couples who are relatively evenly matched in intelligence, but who, under the guise of settling the hostility of their sons, engage in subtler but still wounding (and stupid) hostilities of their own. As they smile and act deferential, the try to one-up each other, show which of them has the most commendable moral sensibility and civilization. The Longstreets seem more sincere ( until Michael blows his cover), the Cowans more confident.

Yet the Cowans can’t leave because they never quite settle the issue, and deep down, the Longstreets don’t want them to, though the discomfort of all four is almost palpable. For all of them, the mask of reason hides (or doesn‘t hide) a heart of darkness and the soul of discord. The Longstreets, despite their try at social amity and bridge building maybe expect to be dumped on by the snootier, smoother Cowans (as their boy was bullied and beaten by the young Cowan). In a way, the Longstreets are almost goading them to be nasty. (As we see, Alan doesn’t really need to be goaded.) Politeness of a rote sort reigns in the beginning. Then Nancy upchucks, the fights start, the booze starts flowing and things degenerate. It isn’t so much that civilization is a thin veneer. It’s a game we play, a game for grown children, a game lost before it begins.

3. Two on the Aisle

As a moviemaker, Polanski is a past master of nervous décor and subjective camerawork and he likes to focus on the people in traps. Here, the cast of Carnage is terrific: four actors of consummate skill and real power, attacking Reza’s dialogue (translated from the French by Reza and Polanski) with the virtuosity and confidence of four perfectly matched players in a Beethoven string quartet. (Note: I am not comparing Reza to Beethoven. Or Polanski to Bartok.)

Waltz is the best of them: a well-dressed and educated, snide wolf of a man, whose contempt for everybody else simmers like a crepe about to curl. But they’re all first-rate and it‘s a pleasure to watch them act and react and interact, and then find another reason not to break up — Foster showing us how a woman of conscience and sensibility can fall apart, Reilly smilingly devolving from mediator to brute, Winslet delicately falling apart and memorably whooshing it out.

The actors all take one of their signature acting-persona traits — Reilly’s earthy geniality, Foster’s brainy sensitivity, Winslet’s watchful opaque depths, and Waltz’s egotistical arrogance — and twist it around so the familiar persona may mean something else. Behind the conflict of the fictional characters, we can sense something else, something more heartening: the respect and admiration of these splendid actors for each other, the way they’re always there to pick each other up, to sustain an emotion, keep a beat going, see that nobody makes it all the way out the door. Fine ensemble acting is one of the great rewards of the theater, and it’s a treasure of Carnage. The fact that Polanski can so richly evoke all kids of dread around them heightens it. (It still is, we should mention, his sunniest film.)

Reza’s play is a crackerjack theater piece — here played to a fare-thee-well. Polanski brilliantly keeps up that anxious, frayed-nerve edge between civility and savagery, madness and normality throughout. It matters not a whit, I think, that the script may fudge details of Brooklyn bourgeois life, as some New York critics have complained of it. For God’s sake, God of Carnage was originally written in French, and originally staged in Zurich, and it’s been staged all over the world — and maybe it switches its locale, depending on where the theater is.

Polanski and Reza made an earlier collaboration years ago in Paris on an adaptation of Franz Kafka‘s Metamorphosis — that great dark little fable of which no less a producer and reverse barometer than Mel Brooks’ Max Bialystock said “It’s too good.” Well, no matter what Max said, I’d like to see Polanski and Reza some day make a movie of their Metamorphosis (long or short). And I hope that some New York critic won‘t complain that they got the cockroaches wrong.

In a way, that’s what Carnage or “Gods of Carnage” is all about really: Theater. Life as theater. Theater as life. Actors. Reacting. Interaction. Civilization. And stage fright.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

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