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Entries in Polanski (4)


The Ghost Writer

Near the midway point of this film the title character chides his bathroom mirror reflection with two emphatic words: "bad idea." His immediate reference is revealed shortly thereafter, but the caption is applicable to the whole, rather preposterous venture into the life and reputation – those two imposing statues occupying opposite ends of the same garden – of another man. And that man, and the subject of our Ghost's book, is former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). 

That our Ghost (Ewan McGregor) is never granted the dignity of a name is just as well; for all intents and purposes, he has never existed. As the film opens we meet him greedily tippling with his agent as the two rehash Lang's meteoric rise ("He wasn't a politician, he was a craze"), punctuated by the agent's revelation that the former resident of "Number 10" no longer has anyone to write up his amazing life. The reason? His long-time aide and ghost writer Michael McAra was found washed up on the beaches of Martha's Vineyard just last week, the victim, it would appear, of imbibing far too long into a dark night and leaning even longer over a ferry's rail. As the Ghost, who drinks as if his liver were already spectral, realizes what his agent is suggesting, he falls quiet and hesitant. I believe business seminars refer to such moments as the "golden ticket." So why is the Ghost not on the next plane to the United States, where Lang still seems to be treated like a head of government? Perhaps because to do so he must endure the scrutiny of the publisher who rejected his last work, Lang's lawyer, and the publishing house's American envoy, all of whom have their doubts about this young man who could easily pass for a booze-addled drifter. Our Ghost gets the job, of course, and as he sits alone at a Heathrow bar he sees a breaking news story on why Lang may have wanted to go to one of the handful of countries who do not abide by the International Criminal Court's demands for extradition.

A brief aside on the film's blunt political agenda: most reviewers of The Ghost Writer will chuckle knowingly at its roman-à-clef aspects, which are about as subtle as a zeppelin, but we have better things to do. Topicality is the surest means to sell a work – our Ghost starred in a mass-market paperback in Britain a few years ago – and to be utterly obliterated by history, precisely the opposite aims of great art. What we should really enjoy is the relationship between one of the most famous men in the world, a nameless, fameless compatriot, and that famous man's wife Ruth (Olivia Williams). We are supposed to concur that Ruth has everything a discerning man could want – intelligence, grace, pedigree, and, while no match for her spouse's hunkiness, a certain amount of sex appeal – and we do because a laconic plain Jane would make for ludicrous satire. The first time we hear Ruth she is screaming offstage; but the first time we see her, she is leaning out-of-focus against a distant door's threshold watching the newly arrived ghost writer shake his head at McAra's manuscript. "As bad as that?" she asks coyly, a plausible way for a wife to take an interest in another man's criticism of her husband, because if he can astutely criticize her spouse's life in print, it might be easier for her to allow him other irreverences. Brosnan has long since been an actor limited by his looks (we tend to think very attractive people are somehow secretly incompetent); as Lang, however, he becomes a husband limited by his political recognition. He simply cannot care too much for his domestic crisis because statesmen of his rank have more historic agendas to pursue. It is then of little surprise that when the Ghost sets about a total rewrite of McAra's three hundred pages and asks Lang how he entered politics, Lang reveals a quaint story about Ruth and Lang's first meeting as they pamphleted Labour tenets in the rain. The problem is that this story, as the Ghost will learn subsequently, is a wholesale fabrication. 

Why would Lang lie to his ghost writer who was seeking with all due sincerity to humanize his subject? An excellent question, and one not lost on our Ghost. As such, he begins sniffing around the Langs' current residence, a beachfront property belonging to yet another well-connected friend and discovers, well, that everything seems normal. If a bit too much so. It is only at his nearby hotel, when a strange older Brit interrupts the otherwise solitary alcoholic with some direct questions about the whereabouts of a certain ex-Prime Minister, that we observe the first true manifestation of our Ghost's doubts. The man disappears after muttering a rude epithet, and the Ghost is not sure he actually existed until the man barks at his car window a couple of days later as the ghostwriter and ghostwritten negotiate their way through an irate pack of protesters outside that same beachfront property. There is also a fourth side to this love trapezoid, Lang's fetching factotum Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall), who does all the things dutiful mistresses are supposed to do including valiantly sidestepping Ruth's public jabs. When the twenty-four-hour news cycle announces that the British government has promised to comply fully with the requests of the ICC, Lang and his team realize that he should make haste to Washington to remind the average news cycle viewer of just what a craze he once was. He takes with him of course not Ruth, whose political advice he has "always followed, until lately," but Amelia, who is apparently married to someone who also might as well be a phantom. This leaves the Ghost all alone in the house with some security personnel, the cook, the gardener, a three-hundred page manuscript about a renowned stranger, and a very neglected former Prime Minister's wife.     

While drinking is too often mistaken for a personality trait by modern writers, we may smile or frown at its metaphorical similarity to McAra's fate as well as to the crimes for which Lang is being held accountable. Indeed, more than occasionally do we get the sense that the current Ghost is literally stepping on the same slippery stones as his predecessor, once even going so far as to use the GPS in McAra's car to reconstruct the dead man's last route. Yet as opposed to McAra, who was Lang's long-time political confidant, our Ghost doesn't really have any cerebral investment in politics. He views it, as far too many do, as something out of his control, a back-slapping, gold-grubbing country club that manages things along in that uneventful, comfortable status quo so commonly incident to developed countries. Perhaps that is why he is at first impressed by the mysterious figure of Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson), a Harvard professor who seems to have known Lang at Cambridge. Emmett is supposed to be a Yankee yet Wilkinson's accent cannot possibly be construed as standard – one begins to think he is speaking in code.  His vowels may be more or less American, but his cadence is distinctly British. Emmett also utters in perfect seriousness a four-word sentence that is so grossly illiterate as to make us think twice about the degrees on his "wall of ego." If both these mishaps are intentional signals, they are absolutely brilliant; if this is someone's notion of Ivy League superiority, it is an unmitigated disaster. Are these oddities in any way related to Lang's addressing the Ghost only as "man," a blatant Americanism? And could any publisher possibly expect a three-hundred page rewrite within a month and not be concerned about an inferior product? Living up to his name, our Ghost seems rather indifferent to all these terrestrial matters, although at one point he calls the household whose story he has come to tell, "Shangri-La in reverse." But I think we all know better definitions of hell. 


Rosemary's Baby

To ask the passer-by of typical street interviews what he thinks of the Devil is to engender a discussion colored either by fear or indifference, but a discussion nonetheless.  What evil means to our world, how it sidles up and whispers explanations for our suffering that imply there is no escape, will never be grasped by those who believe in nothing except carnal survival because evil cannot exist without good.  There is no vacuum in which malevolence could thrive because it will always seek harmony and prosperity to thwart.  As we walk against the sun and soak in the beneficence of its rays it will lurk as our cold and neglected shadow; as we love one another and live in clover it will bide its time and await our disputes; and as we grow wizened and grey it will attempt to demonstrate that aging is the clearest indication that our world is damned.  All these thoughts shuffle across the radars of intelligent and open-minded people, if only because you can rarely understand someone or something without having considered its potential opposite.  A gentle introduction to the wickedness prevalent in this famous film. 

The story is a familiar one, as it has since been flattered by unending imitation.  Rosemary Woodhouse, a beautiful young housewife (Mia Farrow), and her actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes) seek a new home amidst the chic flats of 1960s New York City.  The Woodhouses' urge to move is never fully addressed; nor is, for that matter, how a budding actor of limited ability (snatches of Guy's leaden monologues provide some comical interludes) would be able to afford the palatial spread they ultimately select in the building known as the Bramford.  The conspiratorial airs that waft and swoop around Rosemary's Baby are evident from the opening angles chosen by the director: the strange look of the lift operator, for example, or Guy's insistence on at least a moment of eye contact with each member of the building staff, as if he were inflecting a code.  Our conclusion at this early stage points to a wholly manufactured scenario, although we never receive evidence of when an agreement among parties is struck.  The alternative is the argument put forth by the couple's good friend and current landlord, Hutch (Maurice Evans).  In the last hundred years the Bramford has become more affordable by virtue of having housed a gaggle of hideous tenants, such as a pair of Victorian ladies who happened to have a special fondness for young children, another resident's notorious parties, as well as an abomination whose legal name was Adrian Marcato.  Hutch's tone already betrays Marcato's primacy among these alleged criminals, and prudence forbids me from mentioning anything more.  Suffice it to say that the Woodhouses move in and soon encounter their neighbors, most prominently the rather officious couple of Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer). 

Why anyone would trust the Castevets will depend on how that person feels about eccentric, nosey old people who ingratiate themselves in the guise of self-effacing hospitality.  To her credit, Rosemary immediately sees through this charade; indeed, the film would have been horrifyingly dull had Rosemary been a twit or a bimbo.  As it were, she is consumed in her dreams by reflections of her Catholic upbringing, of the concomitant guilt and emotion  all of which is portrayed at times as the ingenuous beliefs of a child.  Having a family within wedlock is about as sensual as she would ever permit herself to become (the couple's undressing scene in their empty apartment seems like the preparation for some kind of surgical procedure).  But Rosemary is also lonely and underappreciated by Guy, who seems preoccupied by his middling career as a no-name actor in big-name television commercials.  It is no coincidence that Guy has such a plain moniker, or that the surname Woodhouse, while having some relevancy to the world of theology and legend, recalls a rustic cabin quite detached from the fast-paced urban world.  It is also not a coincidence that both Minnie and the former tenant in the Woodhouses' apartment have herb gardens, and that our heroine is also a herb.  So when baby-happy Rosemary does get pregnant, she is advised to see a Castevet-approved obstetrician who eschews popular vitamins for the odd concoctions from Minnie's kitchen.  Rosemary also develops a liking for raw meat and an unwell, chalky complexion, all the while suffering from extreme abdominal pain that her doctor assures her will pass "in a couple of days."  Yet it is another malodorous herb, the so-called "tannis root," that Rosemary wears in a metal sphere vaguely reminiscent of a mezuzah necklace which will identify someone who might be complicit in the swirling mysteries around her pregnancy – and we can safely end our plot summary right about here. 

Those of us curious about factual detail may be disappointed to learn that tannis root does not really exist, or if it does, it is classified under an entirely different name (the books that come into Rosemary's possession also appear to be a compost of the writings of occult scholars although this author's contributions are detectable).  What is omitted from this review is a scene of graphic importance that may or may not be an event in the human sense of the world.  It is dismissed by some characters as the labor of a guilt-flayed mind, but Rosemary herself feels that what happens to her one cloudy evening is as real as Guy's skyrocketing career.  This perception of reality leads her and, by extension, us to wonder about many details absent in less subtle scripts.  Why are Roman's ears pierced?  Why does Guy come home one day in full makeup as if he were summoned from work for some urgent business?  How does Guy know who plays the recorder in the strange chanting sessions hosted by the Castevets?  Why does Guy's main competitor for a role suddenly wake up blind?  Why were two of Hutch's grandchildren delivered by the same obfuscating doctor seeing to Rosemary?  The film's poorly-kept secret notwithstanding, one can relish the slow and methodical tension because it never devolves into hysteria or bloodletting.  We know what kind of game is afoot, so our only questions will involve what fate precisely will befall Rosemary and her unborn child ("Andy or Jenny," she says, speaking to it often).  A hint in that direction takes place when Rosemary palms her mouth gobsmacked at a shop window nativity scene and we hear a long and plaintive "no"  only to see, appropriately enough, its ventriloquizing source, Minnie, approaching her pregnant neighbor.  That would explain Roman's conspicuous New Year's Eve toast.  That would also explain what comes with the Fall.          


Death and the Maiden

We will die from so much past.

                                                                       Gerardo Escobar

I will let the past become the past.

                                                                       Paulina Escobar, quoting Gerardo Escobar

Politics and art have, wonderful to say, very little in common, which is why an artistic mind will typically shun the affairs of state and its denizens as the hapless pursuit of the mediocre, the greedy, and the petty.  This is hardly an exaggerated assessment.  Yet those of us fortunate enough to live in a nation where we can place and replace our leaders may take for granted suffrage, privacy, and the slew of other freedoms which has predicated many a revolution.  We may bemoan small inconveniences and frivolous mistakes; we may demand more of our government than we need to demand, just because our government has kept us peaceful and prosperous long enough to raise our expectations; and we may forget about some other places, less fair and less free, where the government is built not to serve the people but to breed and devour them like cattle.  Much like, we are told, the recently deposed government in this film.

That other place will be "a country in South America ... after the fall of the dictatorship," the film's sole caption, flashed a few minutes into our story – but we should say something about those first few moments.  We are in a luxurious concert hall that could be in Europe or the Americas, with our eyes on an attractive, cygnet-necked woman around the age of forty.  Her eyes, however, are directed in horror at the stage, where a quartet plays this famous piece.  A man in the next seat, probably her companion for the evening or much, much longer, stares achingly at a person who, he believes, may reveal herself at any moment.  We do not know what memories stir within her, what images are summoned by these frenzied notes, but they cannot be those of happiness or glory.  After that brief glimpse at our heroine, we are left to contemplate the quartet in tempestuous concentration until the aforementioned caption drastically changes our scenery.  We enter an isolated house and behold an isolated woman, the first of our cattle and the woman from the theater.  Her name is now legally Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver), but once upon a time, fifteen years ago, to be exact, she was Paulina Lorca.  Fifteen years ago – to wit, in the early months of 1977 – Paulina Lorca was a student activist who had the very bad luck of loving her current husband, at the time a pseudonymous newspaper editor, Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson), so much as to have literally gone through hell to protect him.  They have lasted twenty years; they have no children; and when Gerardo shows up in the pouring rain, the passenger in a car not his own, they seem to have almost nothing to do with one another.  Gerardo arrives, soaked, out-of-shape, and apologetic to find a chicken dinner already sampled by his wife during that long wait ("unceremonious" was a word coined for how she serves herself).  A wait during which she just so happens to hear that the President has just appointed Gerardo Escobar head of the new human rights commission to investigate the evils of the not-so-ancien régime.  And in the middle of this thunderstorm, her husband, the victim of both the elements and his wife's forgetfulness, pulls up in a car driven by an ostensible good Samaritan, a small, wiry, and unpleasantly energetic man called Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley).

His wife's forgetfulness?  Given the cyclone of subsequent events, critics have tended to overlook the fact that when Gerardo incurs a flat tire, he has a spare in his trunk.  The only problem is that the spare itself is flat, having never been replaced by Paulina after her own breakdown a while back.  This will prove to be an important detail, because if Death and the Maiden has one motif, it is willpower and choice.  Yes, the heavens flooded the earth and obliged Gerardo to "leap in front of" Miranda's car; yet it was Paulina's lack of foresight that enabled chance to take its course.  As he deposits his grateful passenger at his isolated home, Miranda's ears prick up at the name Escobar ("Escobar, the lawyer?"), and he scrutinizes the house with no small interest.  Is this a dramatic glitch?  Could he possibly know that Paulina is inside?  The matter is never quite clarified, and, in any case, we will get more than one version of the truth.  And the truth is a poorly guarded secret: in the same fateful year of 1977, Paulina Lorca had been distributing copies of an anti-government newspaper when she was abducted by the forces she had long sought to oust.  Two months later, after a sixteen-hour-a-day living hell in which she was subjected to evils that no human being should ever conceive of, much less physically endure, she was released because it was determined that she did not know the editor's true identity.  She came home to her Gerardo, the boyfriend and editor whose life she had just spared, and found him in bed with another woman.  "How many times did you sleep with her?" she will ask him late in our film.  He cannot count how many, but they had been lovers for about a month at that point.  A month, her whole body asks.  Yes, because it took about a month for him to believe, with all the plausibility of experience, that Paulina Lorca was no longer among the living.  This revelation to her is payback for what she reveals to him: that not only was she tortured for two months, but she was also raped repeatedly, and the perpetrator was none other than Dr. Roberto Miranda.    

These paragraphs rhyme in Miranda because Paulina's world has always rhymed in the same smell, the same voice, the same manner of speech, all aspects of a past that has become an unbreakable fortress of ice frozen around the present.  As she was blindfolded in captivity, she never saw her purported captor, whose name comes from mirar, to look or watch (in delightful irony, the name Escobar evokes escoba, a broom to sweep all the dirt under some rug).  Could she be mistaken?  Some may say it would be impossible to be wrong unless one were deluded; but people do modulate their behavior, habits, and voice, especially when they have something to hide.  But there is one more proof: every time her invisible assailant entered her, he played Schubert's stormy piece for ambience.  While sadists have been known to aspire to culture or what they perceive as culture, this sidelight, which informs the entire play and christens it, has another implication: that the educated, the sophisticated, and the cultured were as involved in the evils of this unnamed country as the quick-twitch thugs who existed solely to destroy the disobedient.  Miranda revisits the Escobars' residence that fateful night, allegedly to return a tire but also to wax more than a bit toady to the new head of the human rights commission.  "I've followed your career ever since you petitioned on behalf of the missing prisoners in –" but Miranda does not attempt to finish this compliment and Gerardo waves it off modestly.  Miranda is insecure, or so it seems, and a bit too bent on coming off as an intellectual: he is a little too sardonic, too interested in quoting famous thinkers, too smug about life's vicissitudes.  And as he is invited in for a drink to celebrate his kindness, his voice is recognized by a hidden Paulina in a very effective sequence of gestures and actions.  Within a couple of hours, Paulina will have hijacked and demolished Miranda's car (not before, however, she finds a damning object), effectively stranding him in that isolated house, and Miranda and Gerardo will have drowned themselves in booze and low-key misogyny.  Believing Paulina to have left him for good, Gerardo retires for the night only to wake up and find his bleeding, gagged guest bound to a chair under the gun-toting watch of his long-suffering wife.  And this wife has a long-devised plan for Dr. Roberto Miranda.

Since we have only three characters, more or less one set, and a whole lot of talking, we may safely assume that the work was originally a playPolanski elects to maintain the cadence and projection common to the stage; the dialogue seems overfraught with meaning; even asides come off as histrionic.  What lies behind this artistic choice?  Probably the implication of a façade: Paulina, Gerardo, and Miranda are all playing roles, roles they have taken up to protect themselves from memories, pain, or criminal prosecution.  More natural dialogue might have reduced the whole production to a cheap thriller; as it were, we are constantly reminded we are watching great tragedy unfold.  Weaver is a rather attractive woman, but possesses a tomboy quality, as well as a strong jaw, a man's height, and shorter hair that all lend her much-needed toughness.  While it is perhaps not fair to say that a more delicate-seeming female would not have survived the same ordeals, we also do not know how she was before April 1977.  That she seems scarred but determined makes her a very plausible victim (flagellation marks spider across her back), especially considering the events of the film's second half.  While this is indeed Weaver's show, and her acting is splendid (Kingsley, with a far less challenging part, is likewise excellent), it is, interestingly enough, Wilson who has the toughest role and he is bizarrely flawless.  The victim who can soliloquize on the evils committed upon her person (the camera gives her the entire frame for minutes on end as Weaver unfurls wickedness after wickedness) lends itself to melodrama, self-loathing, and bloodlust; the ostensibly malevolent doctor has been performed a thousand times, although Kingsley brings a particular emptiness to the role, a concentrated effort to have absolutely no personality and yet still be a 'normal' citizen.  It is the portrayal, however, of a pasty, cowardly, weak, and indecisive lawyer who not once – not the entire film – shows an ounce of courage that is nearly an impossible feat, and Wilson acquits himself grandly.  So when, very late in our film, he tells Paulina, "I love you.  I love you.  It has been the logic of my life.  But I have a feeling it's going to destroy me," he is utterly and wonderfully convincing.  Alas, the same cannot be said of Dr. Roberto Miranda.


The Ninth Gate

If you are familiar with this book, you may wonder why director Roman Polanski was so bent on transforming it into a film.  The book deals with, on the one hand, a club based on the works of a nineteenth–century Frenchman, and, on the other hand, a triptych of rather macabre illustrated tomes written by a seventeenth–century Italian who was burned at the stake.  We are all well aware how many innocents fell victim to inquisitions during that harried time, but this fellow, Aristide Torchia, seems to have had certain forces on his side that led to his downfall.  Yes, those forces.  And if this conceit is not painfully clear from the first few minutes of The Ninth Gate, this is probably not going to be your type of movie.

Regardless of the original novel’s name, the Dumas story line is both secondary and far less compelling (occupations of the idle rich usually are), so Polanski wisely elects to focus on Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) and his journey through a wicked game of cat and mouse.  The problem is that Corso is both the pursued and pursuer, slipping effortlessly from Spain to Portugal and then to Polanski’s beloved France on the trail of three extant copies (the rest were torched with Torchia) of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows.  Depp is particularly skilled at playing down a character’s inner needs in favor of reacting to his environment in a composed manner.  He is never really flustered, although he witnesses both death and evil deeds.  And when he understands a chance encounter in a train with a rather seductive blonde (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife) as just that, a chance encounter, we know his character is far too intelligent not to suspect that more devious gears are churning.  Yet for some reason he feels that these gears have been in motion for a while now and that his entanglement is inevitable, as evidenced by the very last action he takes.

Without giving too much away, I should add that Polanski does a little tinkering.  Corso’s book dealer chum Bernie (James Russo) and the “dishy” (to use the film’s terminology) widow Leona Telfer (Lena Olin) are given slightly different roles, with the latter becoming a foil to the green–eyed stranger who keeps running into Corso at opportune times just like, well, a guardian angel.  Then there is the matter of Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), who in the film combines the roles of two of the novel’s personages.  Balkan, a fabulously wealthy man and renowned translator and bibliophile, is seen very early on giving a lecture that Corso finds soporific, but that doesn’t discourage him from accosting Corso and showing him the money.  The favorite subject of Balkan’s priceless shelves just happens to be the alleged collaborator on Torchia’s work.  And if you’re wondering who might be famous enough to have thousands of volumes written about him and still find a reason to help an obscure Italian achieve eternal infamy in the year 1666, of all years, I would recommend rewinding to the beginning to survey the entire audience at Balkan’s lecture.

In the novel Corso has a back story and a soul.  He loved a young Jewish woman, but his love for books and money has come to justify their separation, at least when he doesn’t think about her too much.  Polanski’s Corso, while perfectly cast, remains a shell seeking some kind of form.  Guidance from the stars, belief in the supernatural, skepticism of coincidence and human intentions — all of these may or may not be factors for his actions and statements, which belie his actions.  Corso is not a liar, but he’s not honest with himself or anyone else, and in time he begins to understand that the happiest of men are those whose lives permit them to tell the truth as often as possible.  There is no one to whom he can open up or reveal the mildest traces of humanity and compassion, but we recognize in this condition so many lives bound by invisible, self–imposed rules and past pain that Corso becomes a real person with real problems.  And what he chooses in the end is peace with himself, or whatever is left of it.