Does ‘Carnage’ confuse instinct with immaturity?

Posted by · 9:03 am · January 23rd, 2012

The notion of man releasing his thinly held guise of civility to reveal the beast within has long been a theme in literature, the stage and screen. The limitations of our societal norms have been explored in stories ranging from “Tarzan” to “The Lord of the Flies” to “Heart of Darkness.” Or, as an example of a tale that illustrates the consequences of clinging too dearly to arbitrarily established rules: “The Age of Innocence.”

To varying degrees all tales ask their protagonists to stretch beyond the boundaries of their self-imposed mental constructs, or the restrictions that have been created for them by the outside world. If they do so with noble intent, or for the sake of a purely held passion (one that is, at least metaphorically, divinely ordained) they become a hero: a Luke Skywalker, William Wallace or yes, even a Rudy. If they succumb to avarice and greed, however, they are tainted and perhaps irredeemably lost.

Fables that explore the repercussions of the loss of our cultured exterior are particularly revelatory in terms of the human sense of itself, in that they primarily presuppose that, stripped down to our essence, we are guided only by the tenants of “might makes right,” and “if it feels good do it.” Some interpret “honest” as “rude.” (Ricky Gervais”s “The Invention of Lying” is one of the clearest examples that tendency.)

Of course, in truth we all likely have thoughts throughout the day that we are more than a little bit pleased are not being broadcast via loudspeaker. But “telling the truth” does not necessarily translate to unleashing each venomous, irrelevant, inappropriate and/or mean-spirited thought that passes through our minds (despite some of the evidence available on the internet). And getting in touch with our primal selves ought not to be relegated to infusing ego-driven desires with bloodshed and petty differences with brutality.

Having said that, if survival were in play, I’m sure I would probably be willing to deep fry each and every one of you reading this (assuming you did not snack on me first…which you in all likelihood would). There is some truth to these explorations of the darker sides of our nature and often they simply heighten circumstances in order to illustrate the ugly dynamics and undercurrents of many social interactions.

In Roman Polanski’s “Carnage,” the characters neither fully embrace their inner animal, nor find a transformative sense of what is “real” for them. They simply get drunk. And yet the film purports to be about the real face we each hide beneath our socially acceptable veil.

The inception and development of the story is a particularly fascinating example of art imitating life, which in turn imitates art. In a recent interview with The Guardian, playwright Yasmina Reza spoke about the genesis of the stage production “God of Carnage” from which the film was adapted. Reza was speaking to the mother of a child who had been involved in an altercation in which he lost a tooth, the mother complained that the parents of the boy responsible had never called her, and inspiration struck the scribe.

One imagines that the writer began to wonder what would happen if those parents had made contact. It would seem that Reza envisioned a series of false platitudes with nothing but disdain beneath the surface sheen of remorse and forgiveness. Aside from the fact that each character is more intolerably obnoxious than the next, “Carnage” presents a childishly cynical version of “reality,” one in which grown men and women are incapable of genuinely stepping beyond the confines of their own self-indulgent lives and into a broader perspective as each is one more self-centered and careless than the next.

“What motivates me most is writing about people who are well brought up and yet, underneath that veneer, they break down,” Reza said in the interview. “Their nerves break down. It’s when you hold yourself well until you just can’t anymore, until your instinct takes over. It’s physiological.” And yet, the psychological and certainly the sociological investigation feels fairly shallow. Tantrums become the barometer for authenticity and there is no sense of how these lives effect or reflect the whole.

Given the narcissistic and emotionally infantile nature of the characters in “Carnage,” I find Reza”s response to a query about any possible reservations she had in terms of working with Roman Polanski fascinating. She was reportedly “mystified” by the question, responding: “No, I had no scruples. It went very well writing with him… we are identical. We don’t discuss ‘the meaning’; we discuss the instinct.” There was no discussion of the “meaning” of the play with Polanski and no discussion of the “meaning” of having Polanski direct the film in the interview. That is somewhat amazing given that the work is one that, ostensibly, seeks to reveal the deeper realms of human nature. How can one do that when they are unwilling to address a fairly obvious question?

There is something inherently immature in Reza creating a white elephant by embracing the idea that Polanski”s history plays no role in his present, and the idea that the art is somehow divorced from the artist entirely. He is internationally famous in a culture that links the player directly to the play more often than not. Filmmakers and actors of note carry the weight of their history, as well as their body of work, into each new project they embark upon. Polanski (like it or not) carries his notoriety with him. By acting as if he doesn”t, Reza exemplifies the very destructive aspects of “civilized society” that she seems so interested in exposing: hypocrisy and puerile denial.

I have no interest in discussing whether Polanski should or should not be making films at this time. What is of interest to me is the playwright”s refusal to acknowledge a most glaring reality even as she discusses her work as an illuminator of the truth. Perhaps she finds the charges against Polanski irrelevant; perhaps she feels that it is his skill as a director which is the central issue, rather than his status as a fugitive. But to pretend that a question that pertains to her feelings about working with him (and in so doing, by default, supporting him as an artist) has no merit is odd at best, and reminiscent of the disingenuous behavior of her characters at worst.

The “truth” is the adult acknowledgment of what is real, even if your response is “I don”t choose to discuss his private life.” The “truth” is not pretending something isn”t so, nor is it (as is the case with her characters) throwing a fit.

The word “instinct,” as used by Reza in the interview, seems mean “action without thought” (the way a 2-year-old bites when they don”t get their way), rather than a primal knowing, which feels like a more apt interpretation of the term. Perhaps that is one reason that “Carnage” inspired a hollow sense of distaste, rather than a visceral sense of disquiet (which one would expect, or hope for, from an intimate look at what lurks beneath the costume of civility).

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