2011, Movies

Carnage (2011, Roman Polanski)

This is the first time I’ve seen a Roman Polanski film I haven’t seen previously prior to what you might call my “maturity” regarding the crimes Polanski has fled the United States for. I have known about these crimes since I don’t know when – probably since I discovered who he was (so 20-something years ago). But, in the interim, I’ve become far more aware of the emotional cost of sexual assault but, more importantly, I’ve become aware of the statistics regarding both the lack of reporting of sexual assault and abuse – not to mention to harassment – and the poor conviction rate in the trials that have occurred. As a man, it was very easy for me to ignore all of these things when I first encountered and enjoyed Polanski’s early films – one of which, Chinatown, is one of my favourite of all time. But I can’t ignore it any more.

For much of my life, I have been of the opinion that art should be judged without reference to the artist. I rationalize I have felt this way for a few reasons:

  • For one thing, I don’t have time to learn everything there is to know about the painter of every painting I look at, the author of every book or article I read, the musicians who make the music I listen to, or the people who make the movies and TV shows I watch. I want to judge a piece of art on its own merits, if possible, and it’s just easier not to do research before you consume every single piece of art. Yes, I know lots about some artists, but that comes after, when I’ve liked enough of their work to care about their lives.
  • More importantly, in the case of movies and TV shows – and, to some extent, in the cases of bands’ and artists’ music – art isn’t produced by one individual and trying to attribute a movie or TV show to one or two people is ridiculous. (I.e. the auteur theory is ridiculous.) I can’t know who’s responsible for the good and bad decisions in a film; attributed these solely to the director is due to laziness and ease, more than anything else.

When I think about these issues, I think mostly of Elia Kazan, and the treatment he has received from the Hollywood establishment due to his behaviour during the McCarthy hysteria. He did not conduct himself well yes he undeniably has made some pretty incredible films. I have a vivid memory of half the crowd not standing for his Lifetime Achievement Oscar because people were still willing to ostracize him for his behaviour.

Provided Kazan didn’t do anything else I don’t know about, this attitude always struck me as kind of undue, given Kazan’s moral failing and the fact that he was hardly the only person to work on these movies. (Sure, get upset about the lifetime achievement Oscar, but don’t snub the films, is the attitude I had.) It feels particularly hypocritical in this age, with what we now know about Harvey Weinstein and what so many of us have suspected about Woody Allen. (Dealing with my thoughts about Woody Allen is a lot harder for me than Roman Polanski, so I’ll put that off for the moment.)

I may feel compelled to extend forgiveness to Kazan, in part because I wasn’t alive, and in part because I feel as though what he did was cowardly, rather than bad. But given information of criminal wrongdoing – or at least accusations of criminal wrongdoing – this attitude I have towards Kazan, and historically towards all artists, feels amoral or even immoral.

But this is more complicated than just “I shouldn’t watch Polanski’s any more.” For one thing, I own one of them and have watched it numerous times: Chinatown. I consider it one of the best American films of the 1970s. Can I continue to say so? What’s the rationalization? He made it before he was accused of rape, does that make my appreciation of it okay? He’s only the director, nothing else. Does that make it okay? Whatever do I do when I know that a (likely) rapist directed one of my favourite movies?

I don’t know the answers to those questions; but I do know that I’ll likely continue to watch it and conveniently forget about the accusations (at least until he appears on screen).

I guess that brings us to Carnage, a film he made long, long after he plead guilty. I watched it, knowing what I know about him. It didn’t stop me from watching it, though I must say when it came from the library I had completely forgotten he directed it. Once again, he did only direct it, but he still directed it and I knew what I knew before I put it in the DVD player. Does the fact that he will not profit from my borrowing it from the library make this morally better?

So, that’s what I’ve been thinking about while watching this movie, rather than the movie itself. So goodbye ‘judging the film on its own merits’ whether I wanted to or not. Am I complicit?

Like at least one other Polanski film I can think of, this is an adaption of a play, essentially a one-room play. Polanski has not done much to disguise the nature of its origin, but it’s the kind of play that would be really hard to turn into a film that doesn’t look like a play.

This is one of those innumerable American dramas where two couples go at it for 90 minutes, very much in the vein of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This time, the couples are yuppie parents of a bully and his victim.

The actors are all excellent and the script has a few pretty funny lines but, for the most part, I feel like I’ve seen it before. To me, this is one of those plays which, unless you really like the style, it won’t really move you past the hour and a half you spend with it.

Does my lack of enjoyment of the movie eradicate whatever moral problems I have from watching a movie made by an accused rapist? No, it doesn’t.


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