Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski

by James Morrison


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A new take on an eclectic and controversial director

James Morrison's Roman Polanski offers one of the most comprehensive and critically engaged treatments ever written on Polanski's work. Tracing the filmmaker's remarkably diverse career from its beginnings to the present, the book provides commentary on all the major films in their historical, cultural, social, and artistic contexts. By locating Polanski's work within the genres of comedy and melodrama, Morrison argues that the director is not merely obsessed with the theme of repression, but that his true interest is in the concrete—what is out in the open—and in why it is so rarely seen.

A volume in the series Contemporary Film Directors, edited by James Naremore

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252074462
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 07/02/2007
Series: Contemporary Film Directors Series
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 586,962
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Roman Polanski

By James Morrison


Copyright © 2007 James Morrison
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07446-2

Chapter One

Captive Minds: Polanski and Modernity

Two of Roman Polanski's most recent films-The Ninth Gate (1999) and The Pianist (2002)-represent poles that seem at first glance difficult to reconcile within the scope of a single career. The first is a brash, brazen horror-pastiche with a somewhat slapdash air about it, despite the evident skill and mitigated elegance of its production, and with little apparent concern for typical categories of cinematic respectability. The second is a serious and relatively straightforward entry in a cycle of films representing the Holocaust that could be said to define the limits of cinematic respectability over the past thirty years; The Pianist is a stately, even "tasteful," authoritative example of that genre. How to reconcile such revelry at the outer limits of low culture with such an apparently easeful reversion to the precincts of high culture? Polanski's work has challenged such traditional divisions as consistently as that of any world-class filmmaker, and despite the anomalies that shape it, his career is among the most representative of the dispersions, crises, victories, undoings, rehabilitations, and fissures of international cinema in the last fiftyyears.

The first two phases of Polanski's career fall neatly in line with the consolidation of the European art film of the 1960s and the rise of the New Hollywood at the end of the 1960s and through the early 1970s. Polanski's reputation largely rests upon a sequence of films from this period-Knife in the Water (1963), Repulsion (1965), Rosemary's Baby (1968), and Chinatown (1974)-and his work continues to be viewed primarily in relation to these films. Yet his films of the 1980s and 1990s boast an elegant languor and a remote affect that pronounce a break with the attitudes of mainstream movies, a concerted departure that was preceded by perhaps his most sustained exercise in "prestige" filmmaking, Tess (1979), a version of Thomas Hardy's classic novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

The climate of Polanski's late films-especially The Tenant (1976), Frantic (1987), and The Ninth Gate-registers a definitive "post-Hollywood" sensibility, implying that certain homeostatic forces or stabilizing possibilities of the Hollywood model of filmmaking are lost to cinema, no longer available except as distant allusions or reconstructed fragments that can be understood only in their troubled, residual relations to an encroaching global order from which the Hollywood system had formerly sought, unsuccessfully, to insulate itself. In The Tenant, for example, such Hollywood elders as Shelley Winters and Melvyn Douglas hobnob with such sophisticates of the European neo-New Wave as Isabelle Adjani and Bernard Fresson. And despite the hammy bravado of Winters and Douglas and the more worldly mugging of Adjani and Fresson, all play second fiddle to the movie's overarching concern with Europe's splintered destinies, its terminal atmosphere of transience, for which the title character's literal condition of tenancy serves as a metaphor, embodied in his psychosexual confusion.

Polanski's films of the 1980s and 1990s pursue two main currents, psychosexual forays with political overtones (such as Bitter Moon [1992] and Death and the Maiden [1995]) or absurdist exercises in camp (Pirates [1986] and The Ninth Gate). Still, much of Polanski's work of this period falls into a distinctive genre of postwar cinema, the "international co-production": Luchino Visconti's Conversation Piece (1974), Bernardo Bertolucci's Luna (1979), and Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1982) suggest the trajectory of the cycle over roughly this period, while Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963) stands as perhaps the key precedent. The combination of slickness and coarseness that characterizes these films appears in their uneven production values, in the stark drone of flatly dubbed dialogue, and in the often illogical nationalities of the actors from a plot point of view. If the use of Hollywood stars in these films shows the effects of a rising internationalist commercialism, it also reflects the confusions of plot, theme, and style that seem to come with the territory.

The disorienting effects of these films-their sense of being curiously "foreign" to every place on earth-reveal a good deal about European cultures of this time, but Polanski's films are among the few examples (Godard's are among the few others) that really use these conventions to comment on the multiple identities and shifting forms of contemporary Europe, especially as its "imagined communities" are mediated through film. In The Tenant, the remnants of Polanski's most characteristic style-its free-floating anxiety and mordant comedy, its mercurial flashes of surrealist imagery and insinuating patterns of hyperrationalist logic-cohere lucidly with the more typical styles of the form, and the dubbing functions as a particularly creepy alienation effect. The more typical international co-productions thrive on nostalgia for old-world Europe, like the films of Claude Lelouch; or else they propose themselves, like those of Franco Zeffirelli, as paragons of international cooperation. But Polanski's are the kinds of movies one makes upon concluding that the condition of exile is irrevocable, that the idea of homeland is a sentimental fantasy, that there is no place to go back to.

The same set of conclusions informs the curiously impersonal textures of The Pianist. Based on the memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, the film follows the fate of Szpilman and his family from their "relocation" as Polish Jews to the Warsaw ghetto, and their subsequent transport to Treblinka. At that point, Wladyslaw is separated from his family, and the bulk of the film shows him hiding out from the Nazis, alone in attics, abandoned flats, and burnt-out buildings. One might expect that Polanski, during these scenes, would indulge the penchant for uncanny depictions of isolation familiar from Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, or The Tenant. But aside from a single scene in which Szpilman's perspective edges over into hallucination, the treatment is doggedly unmannered, literalist, direct, and immediate. Though Polanski himself is a Pole who escaped the concentration camps-while members of his family died at Auschwitz-The Pianist is among his least personal films. It thus bears affinities with two earlier works, Macbeth (1971) and Tess. Well-tuned versions of classics, those films express the severe fatalism that is fundamental to Polanski's sensibility, but they have little of the trenchant grotesquerie or macabre, demonic wit. Nor does The Pianist, which recalls the blunt, matter-of-fact violence of Macbeth and the smooth, agile, impersonal technique of Tess. This impersonality is, by design, a means to approach the "unrepresentable" with some measure of humility. In much the same vein, Polanski refrains from showing the camps, preferring to portray the pervasiveness of Nazi horror in everyday life-in the streets or in the home.

This emphasis on the presence of horror in the everyday ties the film closely to Polanski's deepest concerns, and any account of the various consistencies, ruptures, or contradictions of Polanski's career must consider the precedents in his work for even his most seemingly anomalous films: The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) as a precursor of Pirates, for instance, or What? (1973) of Bitter Moon. This study, however, is less concerned with recovering some underlying coherence or deep structure from Polanski's work than with considering the representative implications of the apparent anomalies. Through them, we can extrapolate an evocative account of the major trends, drifts, twists, and propensities in film over the last fifty years.

Aside from looking to Polanski's career as a guide to various crises in cultural value over this period, or to the consolidations of the art film, or the breakdown and putative recoveries of the Hollywood system, or the rising and ebbing internationalisms of film cultures, this study will also revise a received notion of the critical reception of Polanski's work. Typically, Polanski has been understood as a displaced surrealist obsessed with the theme of repression. One can see where this assumption derives from; Polanski typically deals with narratives of the occult in some literal sense, returning again and again to the domains of the secret, the hidden, the underground, of covert operations and submerged machinations. Yet far from complying with the traditional logics of the unconscious, or considering them in some sense as a key to human experience, Polanski's work is best understood in the context of contemporary theoretical thought-the work of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and others-that seeks to unravel the sociopolitical knot of "repression" as a generalized, entrenched metaphor with often destructive social effects. By locating Polanski's work within the two main genres that his films straddle-comedy and melodrama-and by examining his special interest in figurative imagery, I show that, far from being compulsively drawn to the notion of repression and its subtending structures of paranoia as explanatory factors, Polanski's principal interest is in the visible, the material, and the concrete-in what is out in the open, and in why it so often is not seen.

When Roman Polanski's most recent project was announced, some expressed surprise that the director would follow up his long-awaited film on the Holocaust with a screen adaptation of Oliver Twist. For such commentators, the quirks and vagaries of Polanski's modern temperament seem at odds with the sensibility of Charles Dickens's Victorian classic. It is not the first time Polanski's career has taken an unpredictable turn, of course, and this one has the clear precedents of two previous adaptations of classic literary texts in the director's oeuvre, including a prior film version of a Victorian novel in Tess. Rather than pointing in new directions, Polanski's Oliver Twist culminates dominant themes of his work that have been given insufficient attention to date.

Throughout his career, Polanski has mounted a consistent critique of modern instrumental rationality, especially as it manifests itself in the institutionalization of post-Enlightenment utilitarian social structures. In that light, the choice of Oliver Twist is not jarringly anomalous but strikingly consistent, especially considered in relation to Polanski's earlier adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The authors of both books wrote in explicit response to the widespread adoption of Jeremy Bentham's utilitarian social reforms. Though they shared Bentham's spirit of reform, Dickens and Hardy also saw utilitarianism as essentially degrading to humanity, subordinating real needs and desires to calculations of outcomes, inevitably victimizing the impoverished, the working-class, and the otherwise socially marginal. At the outset of a new wave of European Enlightenment, Bentham envisioned his programs as correctives to benighted fundamentalisms and arbitrary belief systems; his brand of utilitarianism promised a new meritocracy that would measure all individuals against the same standard, in assessment of the consequence of their actions, to which considerations of belief or intention would become largely irrelevant. To foster social recognition of individuals, Bentham promoted new practices and technologies of visibility, notoriously including the Panopticon, but also encompassing forms of testing, tabulation, census taking, and other bureaucratic accountings of citizenry, like the assignment of numbers to persons. In Bentham's model, utilitarianism imposed rationality on social order by objectifying people, abrogating belief, and evaluating actions according to their visible effect in maximizing the general well-being of the social sphere, a condition Bentham identified with individual happiness on the ground that, sooner or later, all occupants of that sphere could expect to benefit.

Dickens's best-known and most systematic attack on the utilitarian model of social structure appears in his novel Hard Times (1854), in which the fictional factory village of Coketown satirically anatomizes the dehumanizing potentialities of Benthamite reform. But nearly all of Dickens's work has something to say about the ascendancy of social utility, and Oliver Twist suggests that there is little choice between being subject to the disciplinary space of the workhouse and being exploited by vagrants who have temporarily escaped social surveillance, even if they are themselves products of the heightened social inequities of utilitarianism. The plot is set in motion by the title character's meek request for seconds at mealtime ("Please sir, I want some more?"), an event Dickens depicts to mock the utilitarian chastisement of desire and need as disruptive surplus. Even more bluntly, Dickens exposes the utilitarian bases of allegedly reformed Poor Laws, showing how the poor's wish to live above mere subsistence, the standard that utilitarianism imposed in practice, could only be understood as a form of greed. Written a century after Bentham's most influential texts, Hardy's novels, from The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) through Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) to Jude the Obscure (1895), concern characters who fail to achieve social recognition even as they suffer greatly from the claim of utilitarianism to account objectively for all individuals. In these books, that pretext means only further marginalization or dire punishments, especially when its inclinations to count and discount are internalized-as in Little Father Time's murders and suicide in Jude because "we are too menny." Polanski's version of Tess is fervently responsive to this aspect of Hardy's novel; in Polanski's adaptation, Tess is constantly looked at but never really seen, even by the viewer of the film.

Bentham limited his programs to public institutions-penitentiary houses, prisons, houses of industry, workhouses, poorhouses, manufactories, madhouses, lazarettos, hospitals, and schools, in Bentham's own extensive inventory. The private spheres could still be considered reserves of whatever liberty might remain in the advent of disciplinary society, which was more humane than what preceded it, Bentham argued, because it was chiefly designed to be preventative. In Bentham's pragmatic utopia, all individuals would behave well, whatever their inner urgings, because they would know they were being watched, and society would be spared the indignity and expense of punishing large numbers because smaller numbers would offend. The exhaustiveness of Bentham's tally of the institutions in question indicates a totalitarian inclination of his platform, but his pointed exemption of the institutions of private life deserves further consideration. Critics of social utility, notably Michel Foucault, argue that Bentham's programs, once instituted, quickly penetrated the deepest recesses of private life to produce new intentions and compulsions, while simultaneously minimizing the significance of individual inner experiences.

Polanski's adaptation of Oliver Twist follows the logic of the director's other film versions of literary sources. Taking into account the inevitable compression of Dickens's sprawling narrative, Polanski's film is strictly, even relentlessly, literal, stripping away the literary trappings of authorial commentary, interior monologue, and antecedent exposition. Transposing Dickens's garrulous and eclectic verbal text into a singlemindedly visual one, Polanski realizes a key Dickensian theme, the supersession of visual surface over inner essence-a concern that famously made Dickens, for Sergei Eisenstein, a precursor of the cinema. In Dickens's novel, this theme is sounded in the first description of the title character:

What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to assign him his proper station in society. But now that he was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once-a parish child-the orphan of a workhouse-the humble, half-starved drudge. (Dickens 3)


Excerpted from Roman Polanski by James Morrison Copyright © 2007 by James Morrison. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     xi
Captive Minds: Polanski and Modernity     1
Comedy, Melodrama, and Genrification in Polanski's Films     18
Cul-de-Sac and the 1960s Art Cinema     35
Polanski in the New Hollywood     55
Polanski and the Art Film's Second Wave     82
Rendering Classics: Macbeth and Tess     108
Discovering the Figural in Polanski's Films     130
Interviews with Roman Polanski     153
Filmography     169
Bibliography     179
Index     185

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