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July 4, 2011

Three Doses of Polanski

Quite frankly, Roman Polanski is one of the most talked about directors of film this side of Alfred Hitchcock.  You couldn't pay someone to make up the Roman Polanski story.  You could go find some hack Hollywood screenwriter (like Paul Haggis) and tell him to write a story about a Polish kid who survived the holocaust, became a famous film director, went to Hollywood, married a beauty, got her pregnant, found her murdered by one of the world's most famous psychopaths and his minions, made more famous movies, sexually abused a 13 year old model, became a criminal, then fled the U.S. and lived on the lam for 30+ years while still making movies....and that hack screenwriter would look you in the face and say "You're crazy, that story could never happen".  And yet....IT DID.
While it would be fun to sit here and ruminate about the man and his life, my heart's always been stuck on one simple question: "Why are we still talking about this guy?"  From what others have told me, it's partially A) because he's kinda creepy and infamous, and partially B) because he's made some really unique movies.  And I've always been more interested in Type B individuals than Type A individuals.

Thus, I revisited three of Roman's most famous works this weekend...and now I'm gonna hit you with some random thoughts on each of them.  My hope is that I'll cover a few more of his films in the near future, but let's start with these three heavyweights.
Repulsion
My horror blogging role model, Andre of The Horror Digest, once did a far better job of discussing what goes on while watching Repulsion than I ever could.  (Also, I stole the above image from her, because it was one of my very favorite moments in the film.)  While I'm not sure I'm as wildly in love with the film as she seems to be, I have to admit that this movie got inside my head pretty easily this time around.

(I suppose this is the part of the post where I mention that my previous attempts at watching Polanski weren't always positive.  I've always believed very strongly in the idea that someone's ability to open their mind to unknown possibilities is a fluid part of their personality, and that things like age, experience, and education - among others - can change their perception of the things they see on screen.  That was a confusing sentence.  What I'm trying to say is that I think there are movies you "get" and movies you "don't get", and that sometimes you suddenly get a movie that you previously didn't get.)

I first saw Repulsion several years ago on a cheap DVD from Netflix.  It was one of those awful transfer with a watermark that reminded you which awful public domain company made the DVD - though I actually don't remember which company it was now, ironically.  I knew there was something unique about it, but since I was unable to make out all the details of the images and the sound was crap...I basically wrote the movie off for dead.  It's already difficult to understand anything about Repulsion's plot, having to make out the images and the words made the film simply too much of a chore.

But then a few positive reviews and a Criterion re-release happened and, voila, Repulsion and I sat down together one more time.  And this time I was intrigued.  There's so much odd stuff going on inside the film - which can be quickly summed up as "hot blonde in Europe is sexually frustrated and begins to go crazy in her apartment" - and (when the transfer allows it) it's one of those flicks that you can just kind of watch and hear and not try to make any sense out of.  Realistically it's a movie that will make you go 'Wait, WHAT?" repeatedly, but at the same time you still kind of feel for Catherine Deneuve's lead character as she slips in and out of control.  She does silent and crazy well, and Polanski surrounds her with events that support her frantic actions.

Also, I have to give the movie mad, mad props for Polanski's decision to set certain scenes to raucous and loud jazz music.  There's this musical term that's common in jazz, a word called "cacophony", that describes music that puts things that aren't harmonious together to create a discord, and that's exactly what Repulsion is about.  None of its parts really fit together, but there's this strange and chaotic poetry to it all that keeps me engaged in it anyway.  It's in my head now, and I'm glad it got there.
The Fearless Vampire Killers
Like Repulsion, this was a flick I had seen before and not really cared too much about.  Unlike Repulsion, another viewing didn't change my mind too much.

The Fearless Vampire Killers is really a fantastic idea, and Polanski does a fine job of evoking the feel of a Hammer Films Production.  He tells the story of a bumbling vamp hunter (Jack MacGowran, who would go on to play the memorable Burke Dennings in The Exorcist) and his bumbling assistant (played by Polanski himself), who end up in the middle of snowy Transylvania pursuing a beauty (Sharon Tate, who Polanski soon married and who became Charles Manson's favorite victim) who's been captured by a unique Count and his many followers.

The spoof movement in cinema hadn't really happened yet when Fearless Vampire Killers hit screens in 1967, which makes it no surprise that this film feels a little clunky in its execution.  It might be the most well shot comedic parody ever filmed - there are plenty of scenes that look like a shinier version of a Hammer Film - but the story's tone is just a bit off.  It's hard to mistake Polanski's bumbling about the screen as anything but a spoof, but other portions of the film are seriously dark.  Worse, a lot of those parts are just a bit dull.

The final act definitely improves upon the rest of the film, and the last few scenes are quite iconic on their own.  But it's still too little, too late for The Fearless Vampire Killers, which really isn't funny enough to make an impact aside from its visual treats.
Rosemary's Baby
And then there's Rosemary's Baby, which really needs no introduction.  To horror fans, this is one of the true heavyweights.  In fact, it's a heavyweight to plenty of film fans, living on as one of the rare horror films to be recognized at the Oscars (a screenplay nomination and a supporting actress win for Ruth Gordon).  But the one thing I seem to forget from time to time is that Rosemary's Baby isn't just a well-made film; it's also a ridiculously thought provoking film.

Though it's 136 minute runtime could provide a chore for most modern horror fans that are used to getting their thrills in 90 minutes or less, there's very little in Rosemary's Baby that doesn't get the mind rolling in one regard or another.  Even early film scenes, like the one pictured above in which Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy (John Cassavettes) eat dinner and then matter-of-factly "make love" are drawn in a manner that gets us wondering what the things we're seeing mean.  You will of course know that something is going to change for the worse at some point in the film, but these random everyday events get us onboard with the characters quickly and put us in their life.

Truthfully, it's not far into the film that even a first time viewer will go "Y'know, Rosemary's on to something here", but this viewing did a great job of reminding me how little we really learn about Rosemary's predicament before the shocking finale.  I don't want to go all spoilery here, but most of what we're told throughout the film is just a bit off of what we actually find out.  It's not the biggest twist in the world, but it's a very sly move by Polanski's script.

When we get to the final scene, it is impossible for me to understate how much this thing gets under my skin.  We know what the characters might be throughout the film, but we don't really see how odd they are until Rosemary walks us into that final room and we see it all through her eyes.  There are still plenty of unanswered questions in our brain as we see what she sees (Most notably: where did they get an Asian Satanist and why is he taking pictures like a tourist?), and Polanski and crew do right by not answering them all for us.  After what we've been through with Rosemary, it would be completely unfair for everything to be wrapped up so briefly and simply.  We need that little bit of leftover unease as we leave this film, it is what makes the film a true classic.

After all, there's often more to think about than what we see.  It's true about Polanski's life - more on that in a shorter future post - and it's certainly true about the man's films.  A weekend with these three offerings from the director has certainly gone a long way to reminding me of that.

6 comments:

Marvin the Macabre said...

Does this mean I should take Repulsion out of my Netflix queue and seek out a decent copy to watch?

I've seen the other two films, I like you, I didn't think too much of the Fearless Vampire Killers. I wanted to like it more than I did. At this point I can barely remember Rosemary's Baby, although I remember being disppointed that I already knew the twist, which sort of ruined it for me.

I've got to say that my personal favorite Polanski flick is MacBeth. While it's not a horror film, Polanski makes it dark and bloody. It was the first film he made after his wife's murder, which adds a very creepy vibe to it all. Plus, I'm kind of a Shakespeare dork.

Marvin the Macabre said...

Um... that should read: "And like you, I didn't think too much..."
Don't read too much into that little Fruedian slip, 'kay?
And did I mention that I like you?

The Mike said...

I'd imagine that Netflix has the Criterion DVD of Repulsion now, so you're probably safe.

Rosemary is a flick that loses some power once you know the ending, I was fortunate to not know the details when I first saw it.

Polanski's MacBeth is certainly on my to do list!

As far as the slip goes....perhaps we should talk about your mother? :)

TheGirlWhoLovesHorror said...

Haha, love the Polanski's life story sentence! Never thought of it that way but when you put all the events together like that, it sounds very out there. I kinda feel sorry for the guy.

Repulsion was fantastic. I saw it for the first time a few months ago and while it is definitely one to see more than once, nothing beats that whacked out feeling you get the first time around.

I still don't get that "hey let's make love" scene in Rosemary's Baby. I can't decide if it's kinda funny how Polanski just kept a static shot on them while they awkwardly took off their clothes, or if it was just to show what a real marriage might be like. There is definitely love in the relationship, but it doesn't have to be steamy, passionate love - just a comfortableness with the other person.

seo greece said...

love the Polanski's life story sentence! Never thought of it that way but when you put all the events together like that, it sounds very out there. I kinda feel sorry for the guy.

Will Errickson said...

I love each of these to various degrees. His latest movie, THE GHOST WRITER, is one helluva solid thriller. Polanski's a master.