Monday, February 6, 2012

Roman Polanski's Carnage

Polanski in close quarters with his stars.

Now that the Huntington's production of God of Carnage has closed, I think it's safe to let you in on the secret that there has been a better version of Yasmina Reza's notorious four-hander playing in town all along: Roman Polanski's Carnage.  I know the script isn't actually a great play, but it's a better play than the yuppie critics who look down on it like to pretend it is, and so you may want to check it out (if it has actually already left the Hub's movie screens, it will soon be available on Netflix). I like Yasmina Reza, basically; I find her chilliness refreshing in a world of synthetic theatrical (and cinematic) emotional warmth - I'd even describe her as bracing. I think if she can carry her gimlet-eyed predilections through a larger structure, Reza might come up with something quite striking someday.  And Polanski - unlike the director at the Huntington - does seem to understand the structure of the piece, and how it should unfold; even if, intriguingly, he's not quite the "natural" for the material that you might imagine.

For the conventional wisdom regarding this director is that he was just right for this particular job because he's the god of small spaces - after all, Polanski has made a career of filming paranoia in a variety of modes, in a variety of confining environments, from Knife in Water to Repulsion to Rosemary's Baby to Cul-de-Sac (perhaps his most apt title, if not his best movie) to The Tenant and The Pianist (even in the epic Chinatown, all of L.A. felt slightly claustrophobic).  The trouble is - and almost every film critic has missed this, because they just don't think this way - the enclosing apartment of God of Carnage isn't a naturalist conceit at all; it's essentially an abstraction of social attitudes; indeed, the highly effective New York production rendered it as an island of furniture on a symbolically blood-red sea, before a wall of scorched earth (below).  The set's imagery only made the slightest nod to naturalist chic; no real apartment could or would look this way; it announced itself instead as a symbolic battlefield; and yet the actors before it could easily conduct a comedy of manners in a naturalist mode.

It's funny to realize that film doesn't have a readily-available model for that kind of double valence; thus it's hard to create a filmed environment that is evocative in the way that great theatre sets regularly are.  Indeed, it's tricky making film sets "heightened" or evocative at all without making them operate in theatrical quotes (like the highly-keyed fantasias of Michael Powell); objects on film just seem to immediately nail themselves down as what they are, and when actors carry themselves in a stylized fashion before a "realistic" set,  everything suddenly seems vaguely ridiculous.  Thus even film fantasy is literally rendered; a movie can take you to the center of the earth, or the moon, or even to heaven, but it's always literally the center of the earth, the moon, or heaven, never the idea of it. (If you think about it, sound is what makes the film medium feel so over-determined; silent films can be far more fluid than talkies, and directors who have successfully trafficked in symbols, like Bergman, Fellini, and Kubrick, tend to conjure them with a naturalist excuse, and in silences, or baths of background sound.)  This penchant for childish literalism infects even the smartest film critics; the Times's A.O. Scott, for instance, railed against the fact that the setting of Carnage was clearly not really Brooklyn, as the actors claimed; the idea that the setting could be Paris and Brooklyn at the same time simply didn't seem to occur to him, because his unconscious preference for verisimilitude blinded him to that possibility.

An easy mix of expressionism and naturalism: God of Carnage on Broadway.

So watching Carnage, you slowly realize that Polanski's accurate, naturalistic eyes and ears are going after some of the wrong things; the dogs barking in other apartments and the distant traffic sounds, the elevator doors almost, but not quite, allowing escape - all these subtly observed details never really build in their effect because that's not how this play works; we're not supposed to feel things closing in on us, instead we're supposed to sense the action undergoing an expanding re-iteration of its central theme (thematic expansion is another stage commonplace that film struggles to convey, btw).

Thus, funny as it sounds, God of Carnage, as simple as it seems on paper, may be unfilmable.  Still, Polanski's technique offers up some of its usual pleasures, and allows for at least one hilarious in-joke - the director  himself makes a brief cameo as a neighbor overhearing the angry harangues through a half-open door; it's both a quote from Repulsion, and, I think, a wittily self-aware reference to his own methods.

And to be fair, film does allow for a quick, pin-point-accurate directorial shorthand that the parameters of the stage often frustrate.  In Carnage, for instance, we immediately register (because close-ups pluck them out of the mise-en-scène) the meaning and psychological import of objects like Penelope's Kokoschka limited edition, and Nancy's compact and handbag.  And Polanski remains, as ever, a master of camera placement; over and over again, we sense the intensity and meaning of a character's response simply from where he positions his lens in relation to them.

In film, we can sense the psychological import of make-up in a handbag from the get-go.
The play, of course, concerns the meltdown into petty violence of four adults who have gathered to discuss their children's previous meltdown into petty violence.  (Polanski frames the main action with two vignettes from the playground - staged between two withered trees that look like protesting hands - which I didn't think would work, but actually comes off as fairly witty.) As the action is therefore fairly repetitive, the script depends on the ability of its stars, and Polanski has drawn at least two great performances from his quartet of actors: Kate Winslet is as good as she has ever been as the nervous, tormented Nancy, and John C. Reilly is better than he has ever been as the easy-going, but just-as-easily-belligerent, Michael.  These two alone are probably reason enough to see the movie.  Alas, as the slimy Alan, Christoph Waltz is certainly on the right track but a bit too snaky and recessed, and his Austrian accent, though carefully suppressed, still rings falser than anything in the set design or dialogue.  Or perhaps the basic problem with his performance is that while his performance makes sense as a strategic response to his attackers, he hasn't ratcheted his energy up to the bizarre heights Jodie Foster reaches as his antagonist Penelope, in a performance that's so alarmingly stricken and bug-eyed that I'd call it hilariously broad if it weren't so neurotically over-worked and calculated.  Did Polanski have it in for this particular character, and the type of liberal femininity she represents?  I don't know; but Foster's miscalculations repeatedly threaten to sink the movie - good thing the rest of the actors are there to save it.

Thus despite Foster, many of this quartet's nasty exchanges snap with a pleasantly acid rhythm, even if in the end, Polanski can't quite translate the play's sense of extrapolation onto film, and his action therefore peters out rather than reaching a curiously natural end.   The Huntington production, by way of contrast, did conclude with a surprisingly appropriate coup.  In the film version, Kate Winslet simply tosses apart the set's central bouquet of tulips (from the peaceable kingdom of Holland) in a kind of frustrated fidget; but at the Huntington, the actress playing her role (the amusing Christy Pusz) transformed this gesture into a grand fuck-you to even the idea of peaceful negotiation; in a fury of disgust she sent individual tulips soaring all over the stage.  It was hilarious, and made you realize something about her character that Winslet has missed, I think.  This woman retches and even vomits at key junctures in the play; but is she doing it because she's disgusted by the aggression she is witnessing - or by the repression of aggression that civilization insists upon?  Is childishness sickening - or is it maturity that's really disgusting?  Perhaps the kids are right just to get things over with and smack each other in the face?  This is the kind of question that Reza likes to bury in her scripts, and on which, I think, Polanski actually realizes God of Carnage pivots (given his playground framing).   But he hasn't managed to embed that question into his main action. And a really great production - or a really great film - of Reza's text I think would hint at an answer to that question.

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