Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Top 10 Roman Polanski films

1. Chinatown (1974)
2. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
3. Repulsion (1965)
4. Knife in the Water (1962)
5. The Tenant (1976)
6. Cul-de-Sac (1966)
7. Tess (1979)
8. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
9. Bitter Moon (1992)
10. Macbeth (1971)

Whilst discussing Rosemary's Baby with a girlfriend at film school some twenty years ago, we were both amazed to discover our favourite shot in the film was exactly the same one. It wasn't a scary or dramatic scene; it wasn't a particularly arresting or amazing shot (which makes the coincidence more incredible – in case you're wondering, in case you think one of us was making it up – say, to impress the other, we literally both said it at the same time); it occurs approximately 24 minutes into the film, when Rosemary and Guy are having a vodka blush at the Castevet's home – there's a shot of Roman holding the tray and spilling some liquid on the floor; Minnie bends down to wipe it up (a shot echoed at the end when Minnie picks the knife Rosemary has dropped off the floor and rubs the mark made by it). That's it. But there's something innately cinematic and graceful about it; perhaps the shine off the silver tray, the movement of Minnie; I – we – didn't know; there was something unexplained and mysterious, beautiful yet ordinary about it. (I also remember seeing most of the Fearless Vampire Killers for the first time with the same girlfriend on a black & white fuzzy TV in Wales; I was drunk and watched most of it upside down. And loved it.)

This is perhaps what I like about Polanski's films: they may be horrific or surreal, but it's all in the detail and there's always that elegance, no matter what the subject matter. It's fair to say, like Woody Allen, I love all Polanski's films, the good, the bad and the ugly. Also like Allen, I don't really have a huge problem with his sexual shenanigans. These guys are geniuses; let's give them a bit of latitude.

Roman Polanski's personal life is famously as eventful as his cinematic career: he born in 1933 in Paris but soon moved back to Poland with his parents. By the start of World War II his family had been moved into the Krakow Ghetto. His mother was killed at Auschwitz; he saw his father being taken to Mauthausen. Roman himself witnessed many horrors and endured starvation and beatings, surviving the war by remaining in hiding. He was reunited with his father after the war and eventually went to the famous Lotz film school. His first feature film, Knife in the Water (1962), his only film made in Poland and nominated for an Oscar, already shows themes that would feature in all his films: that is, a claustrophobic location; a pessimistic, dark view of life as well as sexual jealousy and psychological games. Three films made in Britain followed: Repulsion (1965), Cul-de-Sac (1966) and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Polanski moved to the States to make Rosemary's Baby a year later. It was in 1969 when his second wife, the actress Sharon Tate, was amongst the guests murdered by the Manson Family at Polanski's house in L.A. (while he was in Europe filming).

Controversy would continue to dog Polanski's life. In 1977 he was arrested for sexually assaulting a 13 year-old girl. Polanski fled the States, never to return. There's a theory that Polanski's cinema mirrors his personal life. Indeed, after the murder of Sharon Tate, Polanski directed a bloody version of Macbeth. After the sexual abuse scandal he directed Tess, starring the 15 year old Nastassja Kinski, with whom he had an affair at the time. Both The Pianist (2002) and Oliver Twist (2005) mirror Polanski's experiences in wartime Poland.

Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion and The Tenant make up the loose 'apartment trilogy', presumably because they are largely set in apartments. His most recent film, Carnage, recently released on DVD, is wholly set in an apartment. The premise is vaguely reminiscent of Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, in which a group of middle class dinner guests find themselves unable to leave the room for no apparent reason (according to Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, this idea was given to Bunuel by Owen Wilson in 1920s Paris), it's also similar to Christos Tsiolkas's novel and TV series The Slap – the catalyst for Carnage is a boy being hit with a stick. The parents of both boys meet up to discuss the incident. The result? Carnage.

Even Carnage – adapted from a play and set in an apartment – has the same innately cinematic feel as all Polanski's films. His films seem to work best when limited to a particular place: the boat in Knife in the water; a west London apartment in Repulsion; the island of Lindisfarne in Cul-de-Sac; the prime minister's isolated house in Ghost Writer.

Polanski's latest film goes one step further than Damon Albarn's album Dr Dee by calling it simply D. It's based on Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish artillery officer falsely accused of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. He eventually had his name cleared by the french writer Emile Zola. Comparisons to Polanski's own life are already inevitably being drawn.


Caspar said...

"I don't really have a huge problem with his sexual shenanigans. These guys are geniuses; let's give them a bit of latitude."

Barn, I realise you wrote this five years ago, but I've only just read it, and whaaaaaat?

Barnaby said...

Casp, I stand by my words. From Michelangelo and Caravaggio to Eric Gill and Richard Prince, they've all had dubious private lives. I don't care. It's the art that counts! Obviously I draw a line at Rolf Harris, but he's not exactly a great artist...

Interesting article about it here:

Is it any different from the fluid gender lot, telling us what to think, what we're allowed to look at?

Caspar said...

Yes, it's very different!
Woody Allen I don't mind - there's only Mia Farrow's word for it that he abused Soon Yi. Starting a relationship with her when she was an adult was pretty weird and creepy given their previous parent/child relationship, but ultimately not wrong. And Michelangelo was just gay, as far as I know - I don't know of any terrible things he's supposed to have done. Polanski, however, (statutorily) raped a 13-year-old girl - that's a monstrous thing to do, and way over the line.
Interesting article you linked to. The judge was an idiot to order Graham Ovenden's pictures be destroyed. If he abused children, the problem is with his behaviour, not his pictures.
Anyway, I don't buy this line that creative people - even geniuses - can get away with worse stuff than other, 'normal' people can by dint of their special talent. Surely everybody has to be a decent human being.

Barnaby said...

Yes you are right, of course.

I thought Michelangelo liked young boys but whatever. Caravaggio was a murderer; Eric Gill had a sexual relationship with his daughter and did unspeakable things with cows and sheep. All I’m saying is it doesn’t affect how I view their work and I don’t think it should.

But the censorship debate is an interesting one – Jimmy Saville’s name cannot be mentioned unless it’s referring to him as a paedophile; you can’t have a Rolf Harris book or painting in your home. HMV withdrew all of the CDS by the Welsh band The Lost Prophets. Yet Gill and Caravaggio go unscathed, probably due to the passage of time. And Jimmy Page can kidnap a 14-year-old girl and get away with it.

Anyway, I had a feeling I’d written about this before:

Caspar said...

I agree - I don't think it should affect your appreciation of their work if that work doesn't intrinsically have some paedophiliac element (as Ovenden's does). I still love Gary Glitter's 'Rock & Roll parts 1 & 2'. And by the same token, it's stupid of HMV to withdraw Lost Prophets CDs as though there were something dangerous about them. If the allegations about Jimmy Page turned out to be true and became widely known, would HMV similarly withdraw their Led Zeppelin CDs, which are still selling very nicely? Would they heck as like. (Not that anything sinister has been proven about Jimmy Page, to the best of my knowledge, I hasten to add - he could afford to hire some serious legal muscle should it come to it.)
Yes, Eric Gill - what a lad. I knew he got up to all kinds of weird shit, but I hadn't heard that he watched his wife having sex with animals till I read your piece. I did know he was very fond of the family dog. Of course it's the incest with his daughter that is the truly awful crime because of the coercion and misery it would have involved.