Saturday, May 5, 2012

Cave-dwellers of New York

Tentative steps toward chaos in Carnage
 The very fine professional job that Roman Polanski and his excellent cast do in transcribing Yasmin Reza's play as the film Carnage (2011) is a good measure of the limitations of such inter-media transfers.

Perhaps I lack imagination, but I cannot fault what the filmmakers and actors have done.  I didn't see the play, but from all available evidence, this is an accurate, if culturally translated, representation of Ms. Reza's play, originally written in French for a Swiss theater director.  The setting feels completely accurate, the gradual setting of the sun (reminiscent of Hitchcock's Rope) evocative, the actors fully embody their characters (Kate Winslet now sounds almost more credible as an American than in her native accent, which sounds put on to please the folks back home), the staging and framing the usual meticulous Polanski job.  It is beyond cliche to point out Polanski as the poet of confined space, given Repulsion, Cul de Sac, and his previous play adaptation, Death and the Maiden.  But this confined space works in an odd way. At first, care is taken to keep it realistic.  In fact, the Kate Winslet and Christolph Walz characters are at pains to leave the space.

But then, after some intestinal and emotional vomiting, the liquor breaks out.  This is the great 20th-century theatrical deus-ex-machina, designed to get characters to say and do things they would not logically say or do, and also stay in place within the confines of the stage.  Let's say it straight out-- in 2012, using alcohol in a play is a crutch.  It was OK for O'Neill and Inge and Maugham and even Albee, but its time has passed and its mechanics are threadbare.

What happens at that point in Carnage is that what had been a meticulously detailed and realistic New York apartment became converted to a purely metaphoric and metaphysical space, a Huis Clos for the modern era.  But the problem is that the film remained tethered to the conventions of representational realism.  The play Carnage could have been used as the first half of a film, which developed and extended the ideas of The Exterminating Angel, about a class frozen in time and space, locked in a repellant embrace, continuing to decay

But Reza and Polanski make their living as entertainers.  A bit acidic, a bit cynical, but never truly disturbing to their middlebrow audiences of people like me.  So its characters begin their descent into primordial archetypes, to the very beginnings of human society, savage and needy, then the film abruptly stops before anyone's feelings get hurt, before cynicism converts to nihilism.  A shame, because I couldn't help feeling that a better ending could have been borrowed from that of  Fight Club, demolishing whole cities at a time.

Just to have seen Jodie Foster's face as she blows up a whole East Side luxury tower...that would have been a movie.

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