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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Exterminating Angels and Hamsters: Roman Polanski's "Carnage"

Roman Polanski’s Carnage is like a tidy and compact (79 minutes) chamber piece accompaniment to his previous film, the masterfully modulated political thriller The Ghost Writer, a work which threatened to be the very last offering from the cosmopolitan and controversial filmmaker after his 2009 arrest. The older film’s relevance to his fugitive existence is mostly coincidental. The Ghost Writer was in the late stages of editing when Polanski awaited his fate while confined to his luxurious Swiss cottage, just as The Ghost Writer’s former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is stuck in Martha’s Vineyard as his fate as a war criminal hangs in the balance. But Carnage emerged under a different set of circumstances. Though playwright Yasmina Reza was talking to Polanski about directing her stage comedy God of Carnage before the 2009 arrest, the subsequent film is an agitated and angry holler the filmmaker developed while trapped in his otherwise agreeably affluent surroundings. Two couples are trapped together during a “civil” and adult discussion that degenerates into drunken chaos. The neatly ornamental environment denoting success is a thin veil, an artifice, much like the studio set in which Carnage was filmed, green-screens making Paris a simulated Brooklyn, just as sound-stages worked for The Ghost Writer’s beach house, a hauntingly surreal fake world of formalities with an eerie digital backdrop. And though The Ghost Writer’s story of geopolitics, assassinations, and torture may seem distant from Carnage’s squabbling couples and broader and overt topics of intense argument (progress vs. chaos), the two are conveniently related in how the nightmare of history is softened or conveniently erased by how individuals use language. We can never know history, Polanski and Reza are saying, and in a world that is increasingly post-modern and relative, where bits of information cancel each other out, history ceases to exist altogether. The narrative that reads and sells the fastest wins. There is either robotic simplicity where good and evil are neatly drawn out, or “No Comment,” where a statement on a study has the word study is put in quotes.

Even before the infamous 1977 incident where Polanski made himself a pariah, his work was stunningly claustrophobic with guilty characters flung into absurdly bureaucratic worlds of official documentation. The burden of absurdity makes them long for death, and sometimes they get their wish (as Nastassia Kinski’s Tess says to her ancestral tomb, “Why am I on the wrong side of this door?”). More than Scorsese at his most Catholic, Polanski is the greatest explorer of the theme of guilt, and often in ways with which an audience cannot possibly identify. The casual defenders of Polanski insist on separating the Art from the Artist, but in his case I find this extraordinarily difficult to do. The films almost insist that they are Polanski. Whether we see Macduff weeping over his murdered wife and children in Macbeth (Polanski's first film after Sharon Tate's death) or Dr. Roberto Miranda at last confess his dark thoughts to the woman he tortured years before, or Wladislaw Spilman surviving the Nazis, I see Roman Polanski.

Instead of making his work distasteful, as would be the case for most viewers, this dynamic of life and art blurring together fascinates me. He's confronting his history and himself, apologizing profusely while obstinately making excuses, hurling himself into Hades while dragging his accusers down with him. Indeed, if Roman Polanski made decadent movies like those of his admirer, Brett Ratner (which Polanski has admitted to liking, even having a supporting role in Ratner’s trashy Rush Hour 3), I would probably dislike him and leave him to the devil. But it's hard to find any artist so forthright and naked, while also refusing to play the malignant dwarf as culture has cast him. Admiration for Polanski's work is not admiration for the man. But few filmmakers have been so consistently compelling in the personal confrontation with human experience and the absurd.

Instead of doing prestigious foreign films for money, in his exile Polanski seeks out and finds stories of victims and victimizers, guilt with punishment either deserved or undeserved, due process or absurd bureaucracy: Tess with its raped and wronged heroine, at first victimized by the vile and wealthy Alec (with whom Polanski admits to having affinities), and then by the dogmatic and automatic thinking of the Marxist progressive Angel, who loves Tess but his ideological obstinacy makes him think that her family’s ruin is a result of natural decadence; Frantic, where the American hero Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) searches for his kidnapped wife, and the latent insinuation throughout the whole standard thriller narrative is the fear of guilty infidelity; Bitter Moon, where a libertine writer (Peter Coyote) abuses and humiliates his beautiful mistress (Emmanuelle Seigner), who then has revenge on him after he is paralyzed in an accident; Death and the Maiden, about a politician’s wife (Sigourney Weaver) who thinks she’s found the doctor (Ben Kingsley) who raped and tortured her years before; and Oliver Twist, the best scene of which is the shattering conclusion when the thief Fagin (Ben Kingsley) breaks down at Oliver’s feet, the morning gallows waiting. "Have mercy on this wretched man!" Oliver cries, and is Polanski pleading his own case for mercy, or madly playing along like the delirious Fagin?

Adam Lang’s war-crimes of approving torture in The Ghost Writer are human rights-violations that were so disembodied and abstract when he signed off on them that he has trouble seeing how wrong he was in the “rather sweeping” accusations issued by the World Court. The Pianist has Polanski’s most tragic dimension of guilt, so pertinent to Macbeth, Chinatown, and The Tenant (three of the four films he made after pregnant wife Sharon Tate’s gruesome murder), the masochistic guilt of a survivor whose salvation is ridiculous when everyone else – including those who were more intelligent, virtuous, and healthier – so randomly and violently died. It would have been interesting to see what Polanski would have done with some of the bigger projects offered to him during the 1990s, like an adaptation of Les Miserables (eventually directed by Bille August and starring Liam Neeson), about a fugitive thief who has remade himself as an honorable man, or Frankenstein (eventually directed by Kenneth Branagh), where a brilliant scientist's monstrous creation catches up to him like a hidden guilty secret. Carnage is about people who, when trapped together, are exposed.

“I believe in the god of carnage,” says Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) in Carnage, “the god who’s ruled from time immemorial.” Though it would be incorrect to say that Alan completely represents Roman Polanski’s point of view, he is closest to matching the director’s pessimistic philosophy. History for Polanski – much like the history of Poland – has been little more than chaos and countless usurpations, where one form of tyranny is replaced by another. Being alive is a form of Kafkaesque nightmare where the individual is thrown into a rat maze of Nazis, Communists, anti-Semites, religious zealots, obtuse socialists, greedy capitalists, murderously insane hippies, one-dimensional trashy newsmen, and celebrity-seeking judges. Besides that, there are one’s own base impulses: depression, the drive for power, the descent into insanity. And maybe it's this festering minotaur of base impulse that is the fiercest opponent because, as Alan says, “There are times you don’t want to overcome them,” and then setting up Reza’s hypothetical, “Imagine saying a Hail Mary while making love” (though I prefer Christopher Hampton’s translation for the theatrical production I saw at the Guthrie last summer, “Imagine singing Ava Maria while fucking!”) The downside of such nihilism, in spite of its truthfulness, is a shallowness or complete disembodiment. Alan’s life is his cell-phone, through which the machinations of his lawyering work out, creating history and truth out of nothing and legitimizing the unethical practices of a gigantic pharmaceutical corporation. When the phone is destroyed, thrown into a vase of flowers by his wife Nancy (Kate Winslet), he cowers on the floor, at last impotent.

On the other side of the debate is Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), a progressive and liberal woman with “a desire to educate.” She has arranged a meeting with the Cowans because the Cowans’ son, Zachary (played by Polanski’s son, Elvis), hit the Longstreets’ boy Ethan in the face, resulting in some shattered teeth. Penelope has decorated the apartment with art and books, denoting a cultured sensibility. After all, she believes “culture can be such a powerful force for peace.” But though she is intelligent, well-read, and well-meaning, with a particular devotion to writing about genocide in Darfur, her view of the world is very black and white. After listening to what Penelope thinks Zachary should do in apology to Ethan, Alan says, “That’s a lot of ‘shoulds.’” “We have to believe in some possible correction!” Penelope insists. Punishment and the admission of guilt have to be concrete, without ambiguity.

“The victim and the criminal are not the same,” Penelope says. But she also thinks that they're mutually exclusive, as if the roles could never be reversed. This is what separates Schindler's List from The Pianist, where in Spielberg's world we are in a tidy historical document where lines between the virtuous and guilty are neatly drawn. While with The Pianist, there are good Jews and bad Jews, good Poles and bad Poles, good Germans and bad Germans. It's not a tidy document consigned to the past, but representative of a chaos that may happen at any time and to the most civilized of nations. Polanski would say that both sides are capable of evil (Polanski was horrified by what his fellow Poles did to dead German soldiers after the Nazis surrendered). Penelope’s commitment to humanism is itself a kind of religious zealotry with gospel truths. There’s a faith in systematic progress as we see her type out her “statement” on the event, United States and United Nations flags in the background. Is this actually a dialogue? Or is it word processing, as the word “armed” (as in “armed with a stick”) is replaced with “carrying” in a quick maneuver of cutting and pasting. The compromise might seem insignificant, but words have meaning and we interpret them often with automatic reflexivity without contextualizing them. The sentence completely changes when "armed" becomes "carrying."

The format of language and passive aggressive systematic authoring of history, out of which Carnage’s narrative grows with the word processing, is the kind of “correct” mindset that annoyed Polanski so much during his years in Communist Poland, where it was imperative that filmmakers adhere to a state-sanctioned ideology (unfortunate, because Soviet bloc film schools, such as Lodz in Poland, were among the best in the world because of their rigorous attention to every facet of the filmmaking process; when Polanski came to Hollywood with Rosemary’s Baby, his collaborators were awed by his technical prowess). Late in the film, a frustrated Penelope admits that no one is “free.” The idyllic “sense of community” she likes in overcoming an “adversarial mindset” means that everyone must adhere to her sense of community. We can disagree, and I'll change "armed" to "carrying," but let's just leave it at "your son is a maniac." To which to devilish and almost Ayn Randian Alan smiles, "Yes, he is a maniac." The counter insinuation being that might makes right and your son is weak.

The meaning of culture doesn’t seem to register for Penelope. She has art magazines and books on Francis Bacon, but the uncomfortable images are neatly compartmentalized under that safe heading of accepted “Art” without actually approaching the cesspool of carnage in the works’ content (as found in Bacon's paintings). When Nancy hilariously shoots projectile vomit onto the coffee table, soiling out-of-print art books and expensive magazines, we see that art means less to Penelope than the binding and names. Is “culture a powerful force for peace”? What about Wagner, and the cultured enthusiasm so many Germans had in the 1930s? When Penelope’s passive husband Michael (John C. Reilly) emits surprised enthusiasm that Ethan has a gang, he is similar to Alan in likening school gangs to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. It’s safe to call Ivanhoe “culture” because it’s old (something echoing Noah Cross in Chinatown: “Of course I’m respectable, I’m old”), but it’s of the same chauvinistic mettle as comic books like Super-Man. It’s like listening to prudish and ill-humored people holding onto their dignity with resolve, adoring Shakespeare and Chaucer while disdaining fart and sex jokes on South Park (when Shakespeare and Chaucer have their share of earthy humor).

All of these characters are using the masks of their hobbies and occupations to reformat filth, shit, vomit – the solidified and stinky carnage of the title. Michael Longstreet sells design kitchen appliances but also is in the toilet flushing business; Penelope uses her writing talent to document gruesome genocide; Alan uses his lawyerspeak, the command of language, to aid his corporate clients, whose medications have very negative physical side effects (“basically it makes you act like you’re drunk”); Nancy is a smartly-dressed investment broker, whose relationship with the carnal is less metaphorical when the puke spews out of her mouth, staining books, clothes, and an expensive table. Indeed, something that remains deliberately unspoken in the film – and which agitates contemporary viewers blind to Polanski’s silent irony – is how wealth has granted these characters access to the saving grace of “culture.” Notice how Penelope tidies up the bed and takes away the Pamprin when leading the vomit-soaked Cowans to the bathroom. Is Carnage a film about rich white people and their "rich white people" problems? You bet. It’s about rich people distant enough from armed combat that they have no quarrel with re-naming a grenade launcher – a device designed to mutilate human beings – a “thumper,” like the rabbit from Bambi.

Being both “authors” of sorts, Alan and Penelope are also guilty of trying to “create” their respective spouses. Michael at first seems a perfect husband in an “equal” marriage between a progressive pair who listen to NPR together on the weekends. But it’s clear that he’s just too lazy to fight back with Penelope. He says that she “dressed me up like a liberal,” and has “no time for this touchy feely bullshit,” an emotion that can only be expressed with the help of alcohol (or the spewing of vomit, the ultimate ice-breaker). Michael feels somewhat trapped in this marriage, and basically just doesn’t want to be annoyed, whether it’s his wife’s activism or a hamster in its cage.

Alan would never tolerate a wife like Penelope. Though Nancy is successful as a broker, she's essentially the good looking wife to a big earner. She’s more classically “female,” beautiful and passive as her husband does most of the talking. Alan’s gives an uncomfortable utterance towards the end, telling Penelope that men don’t really like women like her, the Jane Fondas, “the ones who are too perceptive.” Is this a sweeping generalization, or is there some terrible truth to it? The same could be said for a woman's attraction for the "John Wayne" idea of manliness. Are gender relations as progressive as the Penelopes or Mary Elizabeth Williamses of the world would like? I think we'd like to think so. But I'm not sure.

As to whether Carnage is entertaining or not may depend on the viewer’s relationship to Reza’s ideas. I find myself often in agreement with Polanski’s worldview, even if I wish I wasn’t (I think it would add 20 years to my life). He is one of the last century’s great illuminators, though he brings grey clouds with him; the truth, as in Chinatown, comes with Faye Dunaway’s eye being shot out. As Jake Gittes says at the beginning, if you love your husband "let sleeping dogs lie."

But whether it's Kubrick, Twain, Swift, South Park, or Roman Polanski, the ugly truth can be great fun through a humorously absurd prism. Consequently, I was heartily amused with Carnage’s interrogations, even as it comes to disagree with itself (and Reza) at the conclusion. I don’t think I ever stopped smiling while watching it. But I can imagine a good self-proclaimed progressive liberal feminist humanist absolutely hating it (even though I resemble all those categories), like a born-again Christian being forced to watch Bill Maher’s Religulous or read Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. There is also a good argument that the film is bound by its stage source material and too brief (if not too long for those that find the Longstreets and Cowans unbearable). But to me, the material is so busy with the cycling of ideas being verbally spewed with passive aggressive spiritedness, and Polanski’s command of his camera in very un-theatrical close-ups is so powerful, that Carnage manages to be fittingly cinematic while claustrophobic, and also satiating in its brevity.

The film ends unexpectedly, expanding from Reza’s sudden conclusion with an epilogue that contrasts with the hopelessness of “open despicability,” where the dead cell-phone buzzes again, moving itself across the table so that moneyed interests can go on destroying the world and making the wealthy wealthier. Earlier, we learned that Michael got rid of a pet, the unfortunate hamster Nibbles. He just dumped the hamster on the sidewalk and walked away. The hamster is a perfect metaphor for Polanski himself, the agitating enfant terrible and survivor whose characters are similarly hurled into absurd circumstances where a nasty ruin in near. But instead of becoming one of Polanski's victims to death or madness like in Repulsion, Cul de Sac, Macbeth, The Tenant, Tess, Bitter Moon, and The Ghost Writer, Nibbles emerges as an absurd survivor, alongside the director's trademark characters like Rosemary, Jake Gittes, Richard Walker, Dr. Roberto Miranda, Dean Corso, Wladyslaw Spilman, and Oliver Twist. Polanski cuts away from the families to what may be the near future. We see the hamster in close-up, having survived after all, independently and freely continuing to cause private havoc. The two boys, Zachary and Ethan, emerge as friends, one showing the other something on his phone, the technology of disembodiment bringing people together instead of isolating them.

But even then, Polanski has room for one more cackle when the end-credits run out. A dog pisses on a tree in the foreground, then is led away on a leash. Point taken. Our rational selves hold nature on its leash, but nature still has to piss out a little carnage now and then.


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