the magazine of the columbia daily spectator
May 1 2013
Mmm, baby: The very best in food porn
April 27 2013
Alternatives to Butler
April 19 2013
Red Bull and relaxation
April 17 2013
Back to the kitchen: A short journey through sexist pop culture
April 12 2013
Bikinis and big booties, y’all
April 8 2013
Azealia Banks Did What?
April 5 2013
More stories from Columbia’s military veterans
April 3 2013
Sing, O Muse, of some sappy story
April 1 2013
Missed the Cliterary Open Mic? Check out the highlights here
March 29 2013
Sex & Low Beach
“I believe,” oozes Christoph Waltz, in the same sinister drawl that earned him an Oscar for Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, “in the God of Carnage—the God whose rule has gone unchallenged since time immemorial.”
Dressed as a modern American lawyer in a Paris-shot-for-Brooklyn parlor, he’s lending his villainous appeal to Carnage, the latest cinematic foray of infamous auteur Roman Polanski, which opened this year’s 49th Annual New York Film Festival. The film, based on Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play The God of Carnage, chronicles a conversation between two bourgeois couples—the Longstreets (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) and the Cowans (Waltz and Kate Winslet)—as they confer about a violent dispute between their young sons. During the film’s eighty tense minutes, what began as a civil meeting of suburban parents quickly devolves to a drunken shouting match worthy of its gory title—a scenario that can’t help but recall Edward Albee’s play of living room warfare, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, adapted for the screen by Mike Nichols in 1966.
Still, something about these adaptations seems fundamentally curious: both Woolf and Carnage are particularly bereft of opportunities for cinematic spectacle, their single interior sets and single digit casts almost destined for life behind a proscenium arch. What is it, then, about such tightly-wound verbal drama that makes it worthy of the silver screen?
An initial clue, of course, lies in production companies’ endless quest to line their pockets: when Jack Warner bought the film rights to Virginia Woolf, it was the toast of Broadway, an especially lucrative seat-filler he hoped could pack countrywide cinemas as readily as it did New York playhouses. However, while Reza’s play was certainly critically acclaimed, it stirred up comparatively little public recognition: “I don’t know that there’s a crying desire among the mainstream film audience to see The God of Carnage,” David McKenna, a Columbia Film professor and longtime theater director, says. “Among other things, they changed the title, which would suggest that the play doesn’t have great cachet.”
What its source material lacks in prestige, though, the film finds in spades with its stars, all four of whose names sport an “Academy Award”-related prefix. Thus, the appeal of mass-exporting this show can be understood as a desire to immortalize and share these particular performances—and what performances they are, each actor gliding seamlessly from minute muscle twitches to spat derisive jibes, grading ever upward to an inevitable breaking point.
In fact, one wonders whether such delightful subtlety might have gotten lost on the breadth of a Broadway stage—or, especially, if Carnage’s scope had been widened in an attempt to make it more traditionally cinematic. “When it comes to optioning plays and turning them into film, the holy grail has always been, ‘how do you open it up,’” explains Evangeline Morphos, a Columbia professor and producer for film, theater, and television. “I often wonder if that’s a wrong thing to think about.” She goes on to cite Nichols’s attempt to cinematize Woolf, finding fault in the additional scenes shot outside that one infernal living room—because, “if you break the agreed-upon reality—that they’re stuck there—then the play doesn’t make sense.”
Meanwhile, the success of Carnage lies precisely in Polanski’s refusal to back off. Just as these characters jab and nitpick each other’s semantics, so does the camera move ruthlessly inward, holding on almost uncomfortable close-ups—the red of Foster’s straining face, Winslet’s fingertips playing anxiously against the sofa—a theater’s restrictive proscenium echoed not only in the walls of the set, but also the frame of the camera itself. Moreover, this visual imprisonment only serves to strengthen the themes lurking in Reza’s text: the strictures of politesse, the denial it takes to consider ourselves cultured—what Morphos terms “the claustrophobia of being a parent—that notion that, yes, you want to do the socially, politically correct thing, but your real impulse is to protect your kid.”
Of course, as McKenna points out, “Polanski has been making claustrophobic films for quite some time”—from Knife in the Water (1962), which plays out in the confines of a boat, to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and its demonically imbued architecture. What might fall limp in less capable hands crackles in his, ensuring Carnage’s producers another marketable asset: “I look at it and go, ‘What is Sony selling here?’” McKenna says. “Well, they’re selling a Roman Polanski film.”
Still, trading on the clout of an acclaimed filmmaker takes on potentially tricky significance in this case. Polanski, though certainly a celebrated figure, is also an especially controversial one: after pleading guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a thirteen year old girl in 1978, he was arrested again in 2009 at the Zurich film festival for evading an outstanding U.S. warrant. (The Swiss eventually released him, but he is still wanted on six charges from the case in this country).
Indeed, there may be some wisdom to glean from Carnage itself: at least for its four hypercritical protagonists, misinformed judgment and moral superiority lead only down the ugliest of roads—bulging veins and boozy rants, social animals gone feral. Though Polanski’s transgressions may well prove unforgivable, that’s up to each of us to decide for ourselves—to follow what McKenna calls “the free market of the film business” and decline to add our $13 to its box office tally, if that’s ultimately our wont. However, to do so is to risk missing this expertly crafted verbal bloodbath—a violent unearthing of the hypocrisy inherent in our tenuous grasp on civility.
We're looking for comments that are interesting and substantial. If your comments are excessively self-promotional, or obnoxious you will be banned from commenting. Consult the comment FAQ and legal terms.
© 2011, The Eye :: Spectator Publishing Company, Inc.