Saturday, October 27, 2012

CARNAGE 2011

Can we talk here? The topic: What the hell is going on with movies?
I know I’m from another generation and all that, but it feels like the fallout from the literal deaths of cinema visionaries like Francois Truffaut, Robert Altman, and Stanley Kubrick; combined with the artistic deaths of one-time Hollywood golden boys Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and George Lucas has resulted in the rapid demise of movies that even attempt to encourage thought or appeal to adults. I’m all for escapism and mindless entertainment, but things are getting ridiculous. Looking at the kinds of films audiences line up for these days, one would assume that a preteen fanboy twitter of “Totally awesome!” is the single unequivocal creative force and inspiration driving everything that comes out of Hollywood.

Here’s a depressing statistic: 2011 was a record year for movie sequels (there were 28!!). 2011 was also the year that saw this stellar collection of gems representing the Top Ten boxoffice releases of the year:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Kung Fu Panda 2
Fast Five
The Hangover 2
The Smurfs
Cars 2

Just what the heck kind of list is that? Have movies appropriate to a 12 year-old's pizza party DVD wish-list come to represent the collective pop-cultural tastes of a nation?  At least in the 70s there were Drive-Ins to dump these things in. Today, these over-marketed behemoths dominate every theater and multiplex around, making it near-impossible for smaller, more thoughtful films to even see the light of day. Small wonder it takes an act of Congress to get me to go out to the movies nowadays, or why my TV remains frozen on the Turner Classic Movies channel.
OK, jeremiad ended.
2011 may have been a pretty dismal movie year, but somehow the gods of substance caught the gatekeepers of juvenilia dozing off just long enough to let slip by Roman Polanski’s Carnage; an adult-oriented, deliciously nasty-spirited film so perfectly attuned my taste, temperament, aesthetics, world view, and sense of humor—it’s as if I'd commissioned it.
Jodie Foster as Penelope Greenstreet
John C. Reilly as Michael Longstreet
Kate Winslet as Nancy Cowan
Christoph Waltz as Alan Cowan
A hissing cousin of Mike Nichols’ Closer and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in its corrosive dissection of the barely suppressed barbarism behind mannered civility (it also recalls the delightfully vitriolic “The Family” sketches from The Carol Burnett Show); Carnage is, in content and execution, absolute perfection. Adapted from the play, God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, the plot is simplicity itself: one day in Brooklyn Bridge Park (not Hillside!) 11 year-old Zachary Cowan hits schoolmate Ethan Longstreet with a stick and causes a bruised lip and the loss of two teeth. The well-heeled parents of the two children get together one afternoon to “discuss” what to do about it. If the yupster, retro-contemporary names of the children doesn't tip you off, one look at the tastefully decorated apartment of the Longstreets or the affluent, Barneys New York sleek of the Cowans clarify exactly what genus of modern parent we're dealing with here.
The Longstreets and the Cowans make a "superficially fair-minded" attempt to arrive at a civilized solution to their sons' playground savagery
Seriously, a setup like this has more thrill potential for me than a Dark Knight/Avengers marathon. The cast…Polanski… all were enough to send me into delirious orbit. When the theatrical trailer premiered online a full five months before its Christmas premiere, I could barely contain my anticipation. Happily, I was put out of my misery when a friend got me into a pre-release screening (which just happened to be the John C. Reilly, Christopher Waltz Q & A included as a special feature on the DVD). Had I harbored any fears of the finished film not living up to the promise of the trailer – I hadn't – they were dashed within the first moments of this expert and economic black comedy (the film is only 80 minutes long) when it became apparent that Polanski was going to fold me up into a neat little overexcited bundle and pack me up in his hip pocket. 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
While I detest popular entertainments that insidiously glorify bad behavior (which pretty much takes in the entirely of reality TV, most sitcoms, and a great many contemporary motion picture comedies), I apparently can’t get enough of films that really stick it to those deserving targets who seek to hide their intolerance and misanthropy behind masks of bourgeois decorum.
"Luckily, some of us still have a sense of community. Right?"
In the days of the Marx Brothers, these types were the high-society matrons and stuffed shirts we longed to see brought down a peg by a custard pie to the face. Today they’re the evolved, socially-concerned yoga mat carriers; the university-educated followers of kabbalah who clutter the weekend Farmer’s Markets; the protectors of property values in yuppie enclaves who tsk tsk in sympathy at the unrest in the urban jungles they read about on their Kindles while waiting for their iced venti sugar-free mochas at Starbucks.
What's so brilliant about Carnage is the way it recognizes that in today's world, outside agents of irreverent anarchy like the Marx Brothers are no longer necessary to expose these people's pretensions. No, they're their own worst enemies and perfectly capable of doing it to themselves.
"Morally, you're supposed to overcome your impulses, but there are times you don't wanna overcome them."
The comedy of Carnage is in how quickly the sophisticated civility of the parents turns to gloves-off savagery when things don't proceed as smoothly as anticipated. Buttons are pushed, boundaries are crossed and before you know it the playground children begin to look like paragons of self-control in comparison.

PERFORMANCES:
As much as I enjoyed Robert Altman’s ensemble pieces, the sheer sweep of his films (1978’s A Wedding featured 48 characters) inevitably led to some actors – often the most fascinating – being given short shrift. The joy of Carnage’s four-character /mixed doubles setup is that it keeps each of Polanski’s heavyhitters together onscreen for the lion’s share of the film with the result being a satisfyingly evenhanded display of some of the most nuanced and electrifying acting pyrotechnics I've seen in a long while. The in-deadly-earnest seriousness with which each actor tackles the material makes Carnage a wildly funny black comedy of consistent laughs born of character and situation. I've often complained that I can't find a contemporary comedy that actually makes me laugh. Carnage made me laugh so loud and long that it brought tears to my eyes.
Eruption
Things start to go wrong in a very big way
Everyone in the cast is truly marvelous and no individual performance outshines another, but as a child of the 70s I can’t help but harbor a personal fondness for Jodie Foster, an actress whose work as a youngster I greatly admired, but whose adult output has largely been restricted to restrained performances in substandard movies (I’m one of the few who absolutely loathed Silence of the Lambs). As the most ideologically invested member of Carnage’s quartet, Foster’s descending spiral from fair-minded conciliator to ragingly moral despot is truly something to behold. I love how she progresses from being one of those false, over-smiling "nice ladies" to an exposed nerve of indignant rage. There's not a moment when she's onscreen when she's not absolutely a delight to watch and I've never seen such a forceful performance from her (she's also a hoot. She has a comic's timing). For my money, it's the best performance of her career.
There Will be Blood: “Cruelty and splendor. Chaos. Balance.”

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
When I say that Carnage is the best contemporary film I've seen since Black Swan,I make the assertion secure in the knowledge that I'm coming from a place wholly subjective. I derive so much pleasure out of Carnage's malevolent satire because I actually know these people. I daresay that I even recognize some of myself in them, but for the most part I relate to Carnage because these people are familiar to me. I like the actors a great deal, making it easier for me to spend 80 minutes with people I would otherwise find reprehensible, but once again, that's me. As excellent as the film is, I seriously can't imagine a George and Martha bicker-fest is going to be everyone's cup of tea.
Although Carnage takes place in Brooklyn, it's a satire of individuals indigenous to any big city. I've lived in Los Angeles most of my adult life. I work in Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades, two outrageously affluent communities full of beauty and a surplus of sunshine. Yet on any given day, take a look at some of the people walking around and you're not likely to see a more sour, unhappy-looking lunch of people anywhere. People walk along some of the cleanest, most pleasant streets in the world and never speak, smile, or even acknowledge one another, lost as they are in their Smartphone worlds (a curiosity how the faces of the privileged classes so rarely reflect peace of mind). Yet these are the same folks who think of themselves as good people and pride themselves on their liberal sensibilities in spite of maids and nannies being the only people of color around and the populace's almost frontier sense of alarm at the presence of "outsiders." To be fair, there are many authentic, genuinely decent people populating this social strata, but I have to say that my partner and I have been the squirmy audience at more than a couple of dinner parties that have degenerated into Carnage-like civilized bloodbaths.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
One of my all-time favorite directors, Polanski at 79 can still do more cinematically with a single set than most filmmakers can accomplish with the entire globe at their disposal. As a film that confines itself completely to the living quarters of the parents of the injured child, you can add Carnage to Roman Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, and The Tenant). Although Carnage lacks Polanski's trademark"peephole" shot from those films (a distortion view of a character as viewed through an apartment door's peephole), he does treat us to this pleasing alternative by way of a cameo that's almost as much fun as when he taught Jack Nicholson a nasty lesson in Chinatown:
Roman Polanski makes a cameo appearance as the Longstreet's nosy neighbor. Minnie Castevet would be proud.
So, if in 2011, the movie industry saw fit to throw a single bone to that tiny sector of the populace craving something more intellectually engaging than the lights, bells, and whistles distraction of CGI, I'm happy that in Polanski's Carnage, it was at least a bone with a little meat on it.

BONUS FEATURE:
Click the link below to see the Roman Polanski's 4-minute short film for PRADA (honestly, even what is essentially a commercial by Roman Polanski is more entertaining than most of today's films).
Roman Polanski's 2012 Short Film for PRADA - starring Helena Bonhan Carter & Ben Kingsley

Copyright © Ken Anderson

14 comments:

  1. "...on any given day, take a look at some of the people walking around and you're not likely to see a more sour, unhappy-looking lunch of people anywhere. People walk along some of the cleanest, most pleasant streets in the world and never speak, smile, or even acknowledge one another, lost as they are in their Smartphone worlds."

    This reminds me of the quote from "Woodstock" that also appears in "The Omega Man", the one that Charlton Heston recites in the empty cinema. The one about people being afraid to look at one another, and asking what sort of world would that be...it's a great quote. It also sums up very much the world that we have today.

    "Crumb" has a scene where Robert Crumb makes the observation about people walking around all day with headphones blaring loud, aggressive music, and is it any wonder why people are always so moody and sour looking? If you walk around listening to loud, profanity-laden lyrics all day, that's the sort of vibe that you'll give off.

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    1. Hi Mark V
      I'm not sure what it's like in Melbourne, but we're such a car culture here in LA that few people interact anyway. Add to it the fact that when were out of our cars we keep our eyes trained on screens incessantly while blocking out external sounds makes for an almost sci-fi experience to watch.
      A movie like "Carnage" makes a great point about the disintegration of human dialog. Everybody protects their points of view and few of us listen. I hope you get a chance to see this on a big screen. The audiences I saw it with ate the film up.

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  2. I completely agree Ken. Alas Hollydud is bereft of creativity these days, focusing solely on remakes and sequels that lead me to despair.
    I utterly loved Carnage, it's a great film, and proof that if Hollywood need to look elsewhere for inspiration they should consider theatre more and more rather than rehashing past glories of their own almost incestuously.

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    1. Good to hear from you, Mark!
      It seems a silly thing to complain about the state of movies, but sometimes I don't know if it's a case of the tail wagging the dog or not. Are movies so crappy because we Americans demand crap, or is Hollywood pandering to the lowest common denominator and we lap up what's put in the trough?
      Still, it's good to hear you liked "Carnage" as well. Also, you make a good point...it would be terrific if Hollywood looked to the theater for properties rather than the comic book rack.

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  3. Melbourne is no different to Los Angeles in this respect. People who are stuck in their mobile telephone screens are always bumping into me no matter how hard I try to avoid them. It's like the woman who fell into the shopping centre fountain because she was too busy looking at her telephone. Then she had the audacity to complain that nobody helped her out of the fountain (when in reality) nobody was close enough to her and she was in and out of the fountain in about three seconds). If she'd watched where she was going in the first place...

    "Carnage" has been and went in cinemas down here. I wasn't too drawn to the idea of bourgeois folks arguing over their children in such a violent manner, so I didn't see it on its first run. But I am intrigued that the film only runs for 80 minutes.


    I was reading an article about short stageplays--why do people accept short films, short stories, but not short stageplays? There were some readers who gave their feedback that short stageplays and indeed short(er) anything was panderng to brief attentions spans, but I'm not so certain that's true. A film can run for two and a half hours (case in point: "The Dark Knight") and demand very little thinking from its audience. In fact, a lot of comic book movies runs around two hours or longer, but that doesn't mean that they don't cater to short attention spans. On the other hand, there are films that run several minutes but have more imagination and are more involving than most epic productions. I think there's something to be said for a film that has great economy and doesn't overstay its welcome. You don't want to take a great idea and turn it into a shaggy dog story.

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    1. What you say about the brevity required certain subjects is really true in the case of "Carnage." As a real-time drama, it lasts only as long as it needs to. I admire that Polanski didn't feel the need to pad it out.
      I can never understand the 3-hour comic book movie (a simple good vs bad scenario on steroids)...it usually has 3 villains, 4 subplots, and far too little substance.

      Oh, and as for the whole people walking into fountains, poles, ditches, and moving traffic while texting or some-such; LA was going to instigate some legislation but a journalist just suggested we should leave it all to natural selection...just let the texting population thin themselves out by walking headlong into disaster.

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  4. For the sake of comparison and to underscore you point about audience trends in cinema, Ken, here are the Top 10 highest-grossing films (domestic US) of 1971:

    1. "Fiddler on the Roof" 2. "The French Connection" 3. "Diamonds Are Forever" 4. "Dirty Harry" 5. "Summer of '42" 6. "The Last Picture Show" 7. "Carnal Knowledge" 8. "A Clockwork Orange 9: "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" 10: "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song".

    Only one sequel in the whole group. Cherish that list, especially the inclusion of "Sweetback" (a rather unique, iconoclastic film made for about two cents), because you'll never again seen a Top 10 highest-grossing list quite like it.

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    1. That's a brilliant (and terrifying) comparison you've helped underline. The 1971 represents a strong cross section of tastes with an emphasis on challenging and adult themes. The list from 2011 is a serious cultural embarrassment and decline. Thanks for this...it really hammers home the point!

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  5. Ken,
    I haven't seen "Carnage," nor did I know of it - I've missed more than one of Polanski's recent films (i.e., "The Ghost Writer"), though I have admired his work hugely since my first glimpse of "Rosemary's Baby" (saw it several times when it was in release). I can't imagine any film in better company than "Black Swan," certainly the 'Best Picture' of 2010 (and many other years). Very high praise.

    Seems it's time for me to sit down with "Carnage" and "The Ghost Writer" one weekend and catch up with Roman Polanski. Thanks for a insightful and enjoyable piece, Ken, and for the link to Polanski's genius spot for Prada.

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    1. Hello Eve!
      Thank you very much for the kind comment. So glad to hear from another Polanski fan (and someone who admires "Black Swan"!).
      I think you would get a kick out of what a tight thriller "The Ghost Writer" is, and "Carnage" is worth it for the performances alone. Should you see either film, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks again for stopping by!

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  6. I haven't seen this film, but I know the people you describe here (I'm often bemused when I go into a very upscale and do-the-right-thing-conscious fast-food joint like Pret a Manger, to see the differences between who's buying and who's serving and wonder if anyone else there sees it and acknowledges the irony of it). Polanski has a gift for capturing the nastiness behind the facades of beautiful real estate, as you can see in Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown. It reminds me of something Otto Preminger is reported to have said when he made the film Laura (also about some really well-bred, vicious people), that he understood this social class and understood how nasty they could be.

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    1. Hello GOM
      Thanks for the comment. I'd never heard of a Pret a Manger but I looked itup online and see what you mean. The point you make about irony is key to what's often missing in the makeup of these kinds of characters and why they are so ripe for lampooning. They take themselves so seriously they fail to see the walking contradictions of their lives.
      I like that you mentioned Polanski's ability to capture the nastiness behind beautiful facades. I think you capture it (the theme of "Carnage") and Polanski's unique gifts very succinctly.

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  7. The movie industry has been on a steady decline and the cause is a combination of pandering and “important” films.

    Pandering is more to the female crowd and guys that have little attention spans. Now a day you cannot have a great guy movie without a hot babe or dumb romance inserted (i.e. The Replacements, In Burges, Eastern Promises, etc.). My best guess is that movie makers think that women need romance to watch a movie, guys need a babe and neither are assumed to be entertained with great acting or a great storyline with intelligent dialog.

    Then there are movies like The Artist. I hated it, but it was considered “important” and therefore rewarded.

    You’ve listed two smart movies. Add those to the efforts released by Ben Affleck and I see hope. However, since movies cater to the lowest common denominator, purchasing the straight to video movies, which are often intelligent and overlooked, is the only way to send a serious message of support.

    I will now end my diatribe and thank you for letting me know that I’m not the only one who feels this way about the movies of late!

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    1. Hi Cathy!
      Your observations on the state of film are well made. Treating movies like brands of deodorant or toothpaste to market to the correct demographic (love stories for girls! Action for boys!)certainly keeps the status quo happy; but what you say about "The Artist" has a ring of truth as well. I enjoyed it, but found it a fine film, not a great one. A part of me just resented people responding to the fact that it challenged nothing (I have some MPAAS clients in their 70s and 80s, and they loved the film simply because it was sentimental, no swearing [o sound!], no ethnics, no non-traditional roles).
      Sometimes when i go to a movie screening and the director is there for a Q & A and you realize that the green-lit directors today are not thoughtful men like Polanski or Altman, but pond-scum like Brett Ratner. What can one expect?
      There is hope, as you point out, but it sure seems narrow sometimes. Your diatribe was very enjoyable, by the way, and your words echo the sentiments of many. Thanks so much for taking the time to contribute!

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