'Carnage': Mean Girls and Boys

The parents' class tensions and gendered resentments here are familiar, as is the film's submission that they have been visited on the children.

Cast: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz
Rated: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-12-16 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-03-03 (General release)

"They want to give the tooth a chance." Michael (John C. Reilly) means his 11-year-old son's tooth, recently broken with a stick wielded by another boy. Michael and his wife Penelope (Jodie Foster) stand near the door of their apartment, about to see off the parents of the stick wielder, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet). They've come to meet and lament the interaction, to write statements describing what little they know of what happened, and also, it turns out, to arrange a time for the boys to meet and reconcile. As the couples stand uneasily, not ready to go or stay, admit or forgive, they consider the tooth in the abstract, the possibility that its damaged nerve might heal. The victim is too young for an implant. So they'll be waiting to see what happens.

They don't wait long at all, however, to reveal themselves to be fractious individuals, and resentful parents and unhappy spouses to boot. A brisk sort of chamber piece, Carnage -- based on Yasmina Reza's award-winning play, God of Carnage -- exposes all kinds of raw and damaged nerves, the couples aligning and re-aligning, aggrieved and mournful, utterly blind and briefly, sometimes painfully, self-aware. Directed by Roman Polanski, the film reaffirms that people in close quarters in the movies -- especially once they start drinking -- can be very, very mean to one another.

The most obvious point is that the children's interaction -- acted out very briefly and at a long distance as the film opens, the figures so tiny, with the East River wide behind them, it's hard to make out exactly what they're doing. Framed by dark tree branches and attended by a perky piano soundtrack, the boys' bad behavior gives way to a shot of the parents' backs, much closer to the camera but equally remote: Penelope taps out the final letters in her statement, the camera dollies out to emphasize the tension. As the couples head into the living room, they debate language -- was the aggressor "armed" with the stick or just "carrying" it? -- revealing their investments in appearances, if not meaning, precsely. By the time they reassemble by the door and start talking about teeth, it's clear they're not going to be parting ways soon, as much as any of them might wish it.

As it tracks the unraveling of the adults' civility, Carnage draws attention again and again to its arbitrariness, and especially, how it's a function of power. The couples take sides against each other, the men take sides against the women, the would-be caring parents against the self-admitted kid-haters. At first, they're defined by jobs: Nancy's an investment banker, Alan a corporate lawyer. He establishes his complete disinterest in the negotiations over his son's apology and by taking a series of incoming calls about a current case in which he's defending a pharmaceuticals company. Listening to his side of these conversations, his wife and hosts look at first uncomfortable and then try their best to talk over him, as if he's not in the room, complaining and instructing and making quite clear that his tactics are reprehensible and ruthless.

Describing his own line of work, selling housewares (doorknobs and bathroom fixtures), Michael sounds at first apologetic and then defensive, revealing right away that he's capable of his own kind of ruthlessness, namely, putting his young daughter's hamster out into the street at night, when it has squeaked its wheel one too many times.

As soon as Michael tells this story, Nancy is visibly horrified. Still, it's only later in the afternoon, as the couples continue to trade queries and insults, that she reveals just how horrified: "You killed that hamster, you yourself are a murderer," she announces, "You left it out there trembling with fear in a hostile environment." Her word picture effectively paints the hamster's perspective at the same time that it helps make the sons' disagreement seem a logical product of their fathers' hardly submerged aggressions. Michael's emerge in increasingly ugly forms: his stories and then his invectives (mostly against his wife) indicate that he's a stereotypically angry American working guy after all, racist, misogynist, and wholly exasperated by Penelope's controlling nature and hyper-educated affect (what he calls her "high falutin' claptrap").

Early on, Penelope reveals the extent of her efforts: not only does she bake pear-apple cobblers (and then kvetch that the housekeeper puts it in the refrigerator despite instructions not to: "I don’t know what language I'm supposed to speak to that woman in!"), but she's also "working on a book about the Darfur tragedy." This makes her compassionate, she believes, at least more aggressively than her company and her husband (whom she's had to "dress up like a liberal" for the sake of the visitors). At the same time, Nancy fumes at Alan's discourtesy while also clinging to her identity as a wife with, she thinks, some independent identity.

That the parents can't find ways to make peace is both the film's starting point and endpoint. Their class tensions and gendered resentments are familiar, as is the film's submission that they have been visited on the children, that the boys' recent violence -- one's bullying and the other's response -- is a function of the parents' not-so-repressed hostilities. It's not a little amusing when one parent's frustration erupts literally, in projectile vomit all over the art books on the coffee table. Neither is it subtle.


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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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