Saturday, October 27, 2012


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, for me, in both content and execution, absolute perfection. Adapted from the play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, the plot is not a plot so much as a setup: 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.
Jodie Foster as Penelope Greenstreet
John C. Reilly as Michael Longstreet
Kate Winslet as Nancy Cowan
Christoph Waltz as Alan Cowan
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

Although I know the box office is currently ruled by caped crusaders of all stripes, a premise like this poses 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 debuted 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 very John C. Reilly, Christopher Waltz Q & A included as a bonus feature on the film's  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. 

While I'm no fan of pop 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 how, 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.

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.
Things start to go wrong in a very big way
Each cast member manages to shine while still maintaining the evenhanded feel of an ensemble piece. As a child of the '70s I can’t help but harbor a personal fondness for Jodie Foster, an actress whose early work I greatly admired, but whose adult output has largely been restricted to restrained performances in substandard movies (I’m one of the few who really didn't care for Silence of the Lambs, although there was no denying Foster gave a compelling performance). 
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.”

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 from 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. I also like the actors a great deal, making it easier for me to spend 80 minutes with individuals I would otherwise find reprehensible. But once again, I allude to my oft-declared penchant for films of heated emotional conflict bordering on abuse (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Carnal Knowledge;  X, Y and Zee). As much as this film suits me, 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 bunch of people anywhere. These folks 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 (it's a curiosity how the faces of the privileged classes so rarely reflect peace of mind).
Yet these are the same individuals who think of themselves as good people and pride themselves on their liberal sensibilities. This is 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 stratum, but I have to say that my partner and I have been the squirmy audience to more than a couple of dinner parties amongst the civilized set that has degenerated into Carnage-like bloodbaths.

One of my all-time favorite directors, Roman Polanski, at 79, can still do more cinematically with a single set than most filmmakers can accomplish with a wealth of soundstages 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 unofficial "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 (a year bursting at the seams with youth-oriented film fodder) 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.

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   2009 - 2013


  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'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.

    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.

  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.

    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 would be terrific if Hollywood looked to the theater for properties rather than the comic book rack.

  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.

    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) 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.

  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.

    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 really hammers home the point!

  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.

    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!

  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.

    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.

  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!

    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!

  8. Thank you, Ken, once again you’ve convinced me to take a look at something I otherwise wouldn’t have. I’ve avoided Carnage because I hadn’t enjoyed God Of Carnage on Broadway — despite a stellar cast (James Gandolphini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis).

    Well, I can’t really say I didn’t enjoy it, because the cast was great and I did laugh often. But I find all of Reza’s work to be somehow superficial for all its seeming depth. (Like the quip, “Deep, deep down inside, you’re shallow.”). They’re all 90 minutes or less, they’re written in French about French society, and the west End production of Art just changed francs to pounds (or euros to pounds), and then it changed to dollars for Broadway.

    As you point out, these are about a class which is similar in attitudes to those of the same class elsewhere, so I guess that’s a minor quibble. Perhaps it was the audiences that I had a problem with. The critics praised both Art and God Of Carnage to the skies, so a let down of some sort was perhaps inevitable. But attending Art in NYC and London, and God Of Carnage in NYC, I could feel that creepy, self congratulatory kind of laughter that’s meant to assure those around you that you “get it.”

    Similarly, the buzz afterward had everyone claiming they’d just had a great intellectual experience, when all they’d had was 90 minutes of fun. I didn’t find anything deep or profound, I’d just had a good time.

    But given Polanski (and we’re in the same camp on Rosemary’s Baby — absolute perfection) and the film’s cast, I’m going to check it out — it was the acting I’d enjoyed most in all of Reza’s plays, and it sounds like this is worth a watch for that alone.

    (Ironically, I took every opportunity to audition for regional theater productions of both Art and God Of Carnage. They’re solid one set, one act, 3 or 4 actor money makers, and look like they’d be great fun to perform. And they’re 90 minutes, so you show up at 7:30, and at 9:30 you’re in the pub with your cast mates. Even with eight shows a week, that’s easy-peasy!)

    Thanks for a great essay, and for nudging me (as you so often do) to check out something I would otherwise have ignored!

    1. Hey, Neely -
      I had no idea you were an actor! And such a theater maven. I don’t make it to the theater nearly enough, it not helping matters much that I live in LA where they specialize in inoffensive “crowd pleasers” designed to take your visiting parents.

      You create a vivid picture of why this film adaptation was an easy pass for you. I can well imagine the type of audience you describe (the theatrical equivalent of what made me stop going to film festivals), and i agree with you that the subject matter is not deep so much as truthful (some might say obvious).
      There’s a lot of recognition that I find amusing in the movie, but I’m not sure there were any profound takeaways.

      I think you will enjoy what’s done with the film. I would like to know your thoughts….and by now, you must know that I am not at all invested in having people agree with me… just so long as you don’t hold me responsible for robbing you of 80 minutes of your life if you hate it.

      I’m pleased you enjoyed the essay and I thank you not only for investing the time in reading my lengthy posts, but in being the kind of comment section contributor that makes my blog so enjoyable for so many.
      Cheers, Neely!