Archive for The Ninth Gate

The Plot Coagulates

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2017 by dcairns

So, this time watching THE BIG SLEEP, I decided to keep notes and try to track the plot. And think about to what extent it makes sense and why the audience seems to not care.

Hawks liked to brag about how the story didn’t make sense and even Raymond Chandler didn’t know who did it, and said that afterwards he never worried about plot. What does that mean, and is it true? Like a lot of Hollywood filmmakers, Hawks was a big fat liar, happy as long as he was telling a good tale. It’s highly likely the fabled phone call to Chandler never happened, isn’t it? Unless someone can point to Chandler acknowledging it…

It’s perfectly true that what THE BIG SLEEP is nominally about — a bunch of offscreen events and characters — isn’t of much importance to the audience. We do need to understand what Bogart is supposed to be doing, so we can be invested in his success. So that, at the end of the film, if some bad guys are punished and Bogart survives and gets the girl, we’ll be happy even if we’re still scratching some small residual part of our collective head.

Truffaut observed to Hitchcock that a lot of movies have scenes where two characters discuss an absent third, and the audience can’t recall what they’re on about, because we don’t remember names as easily as faces, especially at the movies. David Mamet put it more bluntly, and in all-caps: “ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.” I quoted him on Twitter recently to express some frustration with episode 12 of Twin Peaks. (I know think something interesting and conscious was going on with that episode’s cluster of unseen characters, though I still don’t know what.)

Well, THE BIG SLEEP seems to be entirely composed of crocks of shit, by Mamet’s measure. Yet, rather than being undramatic and expositional, it fulfills Hawks’ credo — it gets some fun out of every scene. We enjoy it so much we don’t mind that we have no idea what’s going on. And since every scene is enjoyable, the wrap-up doesn’t have to give us a super-detailed summary of exactly what happened, since that would be a little dry and boring.

It’s worth distinguishing the scene from the backstory — nearly every scene is about trying to figure out what various offscreen characters did in the past. But the movement of the scene itself involves present tense, onscreen characters, and what they get up to provides the entertainment.

Everything’s clear enough at first: we pay attention when Marlowe is given his briefing by the General, because audiences like to know what the story is about. We’re just as happy to have M brief Bond, or have the RAF officer point at a map with a pointer. Only a small amount of decoration is needed to make such stuff mildly amusing — the General’s extremely characterful dialogue provides that. And we’ve already had amusing encounters with his twisted daughter and his butler. The exposition functions the same way as “Once Upon a Time” in a fairy tale: we don’t care about Snow White’s mother, we barely meet her, but we happily submit to being told about her because it’s the way into the story. Once we’re in, we hope to be intrigued and emotionally involved, but we’ll listen for a while to some raw narrative information as long as the indicators are promising.

The sparring with Bacall takes things up to the next level (my favourite favourite thing, the way Bogart SNORTS in reply to Betty’s “My, you’re a mess, aren’t you?”), and then the bookshop stuff is fantastic — a prime example of Hawks getting some fun out of it, assisted by Bogart’s camping it up. I wish Humph did an entire film as that character. This all adds up to just about the best first half hour of any forties movie, and then a helpful corpse turns up just when one is needed.

This Buddha head camera must be what Robert Montgomery used to photograph THE LADY IN THE LAKE.

I think we start to lose hope of following the story around the time one body disappears and another turns up. If it had been the same body, we’d feel we were getting somewhere. That and the multitude of blackmailers and chauffeurs, each of whom is mentioned before he appears, causing us to wonder if we’re supposed to know the name. One blackmailer and both chauffeurs never really appear at all, except as corpses. We come to feel that keeping track of who did what to whom before the movie began is about as worthwhile as counting the revolvers Bogie collects during the course of the action.

Good use of Regis Toomey, paralleling the good use of Richard Barthelmess in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS: both former leading men whose stardom had faded since the early thirties.

I started scribbling questions as the film went on, and soon had enough to convince me that an audience couldn’t be expected to remember them all and still take in new information, which would be the point at which they’d give up and just trust the movie to sort itself out. Sit back and enjoy it. But I kept with my notes, and was able to tick the questions off as they were eventually answered. Though none of that gave me any particular satisfaction. What’s satisfying is when Bogart gets Canino and Eddie Mars killed, the two men responsible for the only onscreen murder of a character we’ve actually met and can therefore care about — inevitable victim Elisha Cook, Jr.

Oh, I guess we met Brody the blackmailer and saw him get killed, too. But we don’t like him. Funny how the guy who kills him kind of looks like Truffaut, without really looking like Truffaut at all.

A really good pair of heavies, Pete and Sidney. “Is he any good?” asks Bogie, re Sidney. “Sidney? Sidney’s company for Pete,” comes the reply. So Pete’s good, but only when he has Sidney for company. Marvelous.

Marlowe seems to quite enjoy Eddie Mars when he first meets him: I guess the two have a Hawksian respect for one another’s professionalism, but Marlowe becomes sterner once he places the guilt for little Elisha’s killing where it belongs. Still, Mars would probably have won if he didn’t have to rely on idiots to do his bidding, and if there weren’t a bunch of other, random idiots gumming up the works.

John Ridgely is Mars and Bob Steele is Canino — not really star players, but very good here. Impressive how Hawks can raise them to the level required. Ridgely’s timing with Bogart is particularly fine. Manny Farber argued that only the first half of the film is really good, and he has a point, sort of — the immortal stuff is all in that first half hour. But there are really good scenes all through it.

It’s a first-person detective story the way THE MALTESE FALCON mainly is (presenting Archer’s murder from outside Spade’s viewpoint just for dramatic impact), but it’s interesting what use this is to Hawks. He uses it to restrict our knowledge to just what Marlowe knows, making this in theory a “fair-play” detective story. we ought to have the same chance of solving the mystery as Marlowe. But since Hawks doesn’t care if we’re keeping up, does that matter? There’s no Agatha Christie surprise to the outcome, in which bad guy Mars turns out to be the bad guy. Or there is, I guess — Carmen Sternwood started the whole thing by bumping off a chauffeur. Or is that two chauffeurs? I’m looking at my notes but I can’t seem to understand them…

One problem of the “closed narrative” can be the plodding effect of following one character around — it’s certainly part of why I find EYES WIDE SHUT kind of pedestrian, even as I also find it fascinatingly peculiar. Ditto THE NINTH GATE. And yet, every time a scene begins with Bogart coming in a door, my heart soars. Those tend to be the really good scenes in this film.

Hawks observed that you need a really good, interesting star to pull off this kind of tale — which is where Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp in boring mode are a problem, I guess. Polanski pulls off the closed narrative approach brilliantly in ROSEMARY’S BABY, where the claustrophobic concentration on Rosemary’s viewpoint also allows a build-up of doubt about her sanity and her the accuracy of her perceptions. None of that here: despite being sleep-deprived throughout, as detectives always seem to be, Bogart always seems to be fresh as a daisy and at the top of his game, even if that face would seem tailor-made for insomnia.

(In THE MALTESE FALCON its Spade’s secretary, Effie, who gets the sleepless night. A brilliant character, Effie, who deserves her own book.)

Of course there’s the earlier edit of this movie, with more exposition and less glamour. Hawks told Bogdanovich he made the film very cheaply because he had a contract that would get him a big share of the profits. Since every Hawks anecdote is about his mastery and victory, he neglects to mention that he was forced to shoot new Betty Bacall scenes, which presumably pushed the costs up substantially…

I’m fascinated by Eddie Mars’ casino, which is full of men in evening dress and men and women dressed as cowboys. Almost Lynchian. Or, better, with its cowboys and drapes, like a Glen Baxter cartoon. Is this an accurate portrayal of a forties casino?

And then the ending, which is perfectly satisfying (as opposed to TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT’s which is a sublime grace note — I find it impossible to say why it’s so beautiful — or as opposed to Huston’s KEY LARGO, where the action climax is a disappointing shrug after the intensity of the build-up). But personally, I don’t think the doctors are going to be able to help Carmen Sternwood, who strikes me as probably a psychopath. And I can’t see how the Bogie-Bacall thing really has a future: she’s been lying to him all through the picture. Also, she was doing it to protect her sister, but now that that’s failed, she’s suddenly remarkably happy.

It’s a movie ending, in other words, fine for a movie that embraces its movieness as much as this one. If I had to guess, I’d credit it to Jules Furthman, the most movie-ish of the three credited screenwriters. It has nothing to do with Chandler, nothing much to do with the rest of the movie, but respects the audience’s wish that the two delightfully sparring stars should share a final clinch that promises Happy Ever After. We don’t HAVE to believe it any more than we’re required to believe anything here. We’re all sleeping the big sleep, dreaming the big dream of cinema.

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Pardon Me But your Heels Are In My Back

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2014 by dcairns

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“Eroticism is when you use a feather; perversion is when you use the whole chicken.” Joke told by Roman Polanski to Peter Coyote when offering him BITTER MOON.

I think everyone kind of groans a bit whenever Polanski makes something “sexy.” I was kind of glad to more was heard of his plan to make an animated movie of Milo Manara’s porno comics. Is a sexy film from a convicted sex felon (whatever his level of actual guilt) really an attractive proposition? But I can’t deny the prurient interest, at the same time.

There was an interesting BBC documentary about Polish author Jerzy Kosinski. The author’s sadomasochistic lifestyle was mentioned, and one of the interviewees was Kosinksi’s friend, fellow jetsetting Holocaust survivor Roman Polanski, who casually remarked to his (female) interviewer, “That’s not what I’m into, so I can’t really comment on that. I can very easily tell you what I *am* into, if you like!” There was one of those pauses where time seems to  grind its brakes, and then she quickly moved on to another question. Can’t blame her — Polanski’s kinks would be too off-topic, and besides, he was obviously toying with her, as my cat toys with my hand before killing it. But one couldn’t help but swear a little, because it would be quite interesting to know what RP is into. You can’t take the legal evidence as any guide, other than that he likes ’em rather too young, because the testimony on that matter is fraught with implausibilities.

Polanski affects to dislike comparisons of his films to his private life, which I can understand (Mark Cousins had quite an argumentative interview with the Great Man where he kept harping on this troublesome point, with Polanski at one point resorting to a loud snoring noise as rebuttal), yet his films seem to tease us with deliberate self-portraits. The new one, LE VENUS A LA FOURRURE, has as hero a French theatre director with an Eastern European name, playing opposite Polanski’s own wife, Emmanuelle Seigneur, and it’s a disquisition on themes of sexual dominance.

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Firstly: it’s beautifully shot (by Pawel Edelman, RP’s DoP since THE PIANIST), with the theatre setting affording a more free and spacious feeling than previous chamber piece CARNAGE — it never feels remotely stifling. The dance of camera and actors is unobtrusively elegant. Nice bit where the actors mime the serving of coffee and the soundtrack obliges with faint clinks of spoon on cup, which put me in mind of Adrian Brody’s phantom piano, but also of Polanski’s previous mime experience, playing in Steven Berkoff’s play of Metamorphosis, which requires the star to impersonate a cockroach without the aid of makeup (no great stretch, RP’s haters would argue). And I really liked Alexandre Desplat’s score — filmed plays, like regular plays, seem to require special care in the use of music (I don’t think any of Altman’s theatrical adaptations got this right, though I love some of them).

The piece opens with a glide down a Parisian avenue, veering off to enter a theatre — all those CGI-assisted doors creaking open for our invisible presence recall THE NINTH GATE, Mr & Mrs Polanski’s last collaboration, but this may also be the POV of a goddess coming down to earth like Ava Gardner.

Mathieu Amalric and ES are great together, giving their dialogue a screwball ratatatat — the plot even borrows a popular comedy trope, providing Amalric with an offscreen fiancée who may be usurped by this mysterious newcomer. Seigneur as a fetish-friendly version of Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY, here to shake things up? Polanski has, it may be admitted, allowed himself theatrical license in his casting: plays often cast actors obviously too old (or too fat, if it’s opera) for their roles, but movies are supposed to be “realistic.” Various lines make it clear that Amalric’s character is meant to be older than Seigneur’s, but the actors are close contemporaries. Ideal casting might have been the Polanskis as a couple twenty years ago, but I don’t see why it should matter too much. Hoist that disbelief on your shoulders and trudge on: Seigneur is certainly quite capable of embodying the icy bitch-goddess of legend, and if the bratty actress aspect of the role stretches plausibility, she’s still fun to watch.

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The most intriguing echo of Polanski’s past work comes when the character trade roles, with Seigneur applying lipstick to Amalric just as Francoise Dorleac does to Donald Pleasence in CUL-DE-SAC, echoing also Polanski’s distressing cross-dressing in THE TENANT. This recurring image could suggest new avenues of intrusive film criticism, which would at least make a change from interpreting each Polanski film as a response to his second wife’s death or as evidence for his interest in little girls. Polanski tends to hide behind his source material, claiming for instance that he chose MACBETH because he thought the violence would be attributed to the famously bloody play, not to him (he couldn’t have anticipated the crazy, awful review that compared him to Charles Manson for having made a movie). The battle of the sexes informs a lot of Polanski movies, notably BITTER MOON, and abused and often raped underdog women have featured a lot (REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY, CHINATOWN, TESS), nearly always as sympathetic characters whose POV the director takes. If one knew nothing of Polanski himself one might easily take these as feminist texts, yet he seems to be an unreconstructed male supremacist.

Mr. Polanski, what  are you into?

La Ronde

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2010 by dcairns

Shadowplayer Alex Livingstone’s remark about the repetition of a moment in CHINATOWN — Faye Dunaway’s forehead hitting her car horn, played first as farce, then as tragedy — got me thinking about repetitions and circularity in Polanski’s work, something I’ve long been super-conscious of.

THE GHOST WRITER begins and ends with the off-screen assassination of a bothersome biographer, but this addiction to the ouroboros narrative that swallows itself is far from a new thing. Let’s attempt a list, and see if that’s boring.

The shorts — some of these are maybe two short for a circular structure to apply (2007’s CINEMA EROTIQUE unfolds entirely in a single cinema auditorium), but three of the major ones establish the pattern — TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE begins with the titular removal men emerging from the sea, and ends with them removing themselves back to it, sad aquatic angels who have visited our Earth and found it uncongenial. MAMMALS and THE FAT AND THE LEAN play like political parables, with the oppressed and the oppressor changing places through revolution, and the whole thing starting again. Since Polanski escaped Nazism only to find himself swallowed by communism, such a philosophy seems understandable, and it lurks behind many of the subsequent story-loops.

KNIFE IN THE WATER — been too long since I’ve seen this one, but doesn’t it begin and end on a road to/from the sea? What I mainly recall is the masterful filming in close quarters (a yacht so cramped, any kind of filming would seem impossible), the parallax effect illustrated by jump cuts, and the incongruity of Polanski’s voice issuing from another actor’s mouth. (He really wanted to play that role, even stripping naked in the production office when Jerzy Skolimowski told him he wasn’t handsome enough.)

REPULSION — easy. Begins and ends with closeup of Catherine Deneuve’s eye.

CUL DE SAC — almost a one-location film, but certain elements offering a looping effect, such as the “regular plane” that flies overhead at intervals. It does so during the mammoth long take on the beach, and Lionel Stander mistakes it for a rescue mission. It returns in the closing shot, mocking the possibility of rescue for anybody.

(Strong memories of a childhood holiday at Lindisfarne, Polanski’s location — driving back as the tides came over the causeway, a feeling of elation not shared by my parents who were convinced we were all going to die…)

THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS — begins and ends with the vampire killers on a snowy path, in a sleigh. Stentorious voiceover man, painted sky, moonlight.

ROSEMARY’S BABY — super-faithful version of the book, doesn’t do a loop back on itself, except for the lullaby music theme by Komeda, which has acquired new meaning by the film’s conclusion.

MACBETH — loops back, not to the opening scene, but to earlier in the plot, amounting to the same thing. In a scene not present in Shakespear, and indeed I’m sure quite far from Shakespeare’s mind, we see one of the lesser combatants of the film’s climax on the road to the witches’ lair — another Scotsman due to be corrupted. Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to end with the order of the universe restored, after a period when everything’s out of balance. Polanski’s universe exists in perpetual turmoil and darkness, and so his conclusion is to show more of the same massing on the horizon…

WHAT? — the least-seen of the early films, and most despised, this slightly macabre sex comedy begins and ends on the road, with Sydne Rome’s arrival at and departure from the villa of peculiar persons, but there’s much more to it than that. Polanski himself has described the film as a rondo, and repetition plays an important part, as when the same petal falls from the same flower on the same note of the same piano piece, two mornings in a row… deja vu, or some kind of time-loop? Has Polanski been reading The Invention of Morel? Or is this just the structure of the rondo in action?

CHINATOWN has much of foreshadowing and clues and premonitions, as Alex and I discussed. It isn’t circular, but it does end up in the titular region, a place which has been discussed off and on throughout the movie. Screenwriter Robert Towne (“As much as he certainly is an annoying little prick, Polanski is also undoubtedly the best collaborator I’ve ever had.”) intended “Chinatown” just as a kind of state of being, the place where you try to keep someone from being hurt, and you end up making sure they are hurt. The world, in other words. Polanski felt, in fairness to the audience’s perhaps simpler expectations, you couldn’t have a film called CHINATOWN without a scene set IN Chinatown. So the ending literalises the metaphor.

THE TENANT — another easy one. Time and identity perform a neat swivel, causing Polansky’s character (“He’s just oversensitive,” says the director) to wind up back in time, in a woman’s body, witnessing himself making the fatal decision that will (somehow) land him in this hospital deathbed, a multiply fractured Soldier in White.

Dialogue from DEREK AND CLIVE GET THE HORN ~

Dudley Moore: “When we go up to heaven, they’re going to play this film to us. On a loop. As we burn.”

Peter Cook: “You don’t burn in heaven.”

Dud: “We will.”

TESS — can’t recall… the character is set towards her fate in the very first scene, I remember that much. A conspiracy of fate brings about the downfall of a character who has “intelligence, beauty, and a spirited approach to life,” — the film is dedicated to Sharon Tate not just because it was her favourite book (how many starlets read Hardy?) and she gave it to her husband to read, but because it shows the same malign universal forces working that led to that night when the wrong people died, when nobody should have died at all.

PIRATES — behaves like one of the shorts, the two main characters winding up exactly where they started, adrift on a raft in shark-infested waters. That slightly over-determined ending, with its hint that a sequel might be forthcoming (not a chance, after the movie sank at the box office), is perhaps what scuppers the movie’s ending, which seems to deliberately avoid settling any of the plot points. The hero is pulled away from battle, the virgin winds up in the arms of the most evil man alive, the villain triumphs — if we have to wait for the sequel to sort it out, it’s a lousy ending. Considered as a remake of CHINATOWN, it kind of works, especially as a shocking, offensive way to treat an audience who’ve come to see a comic swashbuckler.

FRANTIC — think it begins and ends with Harrison Ford in a taxi, from airport to Paris and back again. It’s the story of a rather unconventional second honeymoon, or as Polanski said, an attempt to demonstrate that “Anxiety has no upper limit.”

BITTER MOON — whole movie framed on a boat, so it naturally returns to its starting point… another botched and bitter second honeymoon.

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN — doesn’t this begin and end with a string quartet playing the title piece (also heard in WHAT?)? This seemed like one of RP’s weaker films (I blame the play), but I might revisit it to see what happens.

THE NINTH GATE — begins as another of those New York Satanism films, winds up with Johnny Depp becoming an illustration in the book he’s been chasing, so there’s a kind of circularity there, albeit a strange one.

THE PIANIST — need to see this one again, for sure. What I mainly recall is another weird time thing — in all his films, when there’s a tenement building or stairwell, Polanski uses a distant piano playing or practicing. In this movie, the piano overheard from next door becomes a major plot point.

OLIVER TWIST — when Polanski does Victorian literature, he’s less able to make the plot turn into a loop. That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

What does all this prove? Well, although Polanski denies being a pessimist, he is one — not because of the dark and dreadful things in his films, but because his films don’t, usually, hold out the possibility of change. Or not positive change, anyhow. Polanski once said that if he had the chance to live his life again, he wouldn’t. Which is, on the surface, quite a pessimistic remark, but even more so when one considers that, for most of us, the offer to live our life again would include the option of making changes, of doing things differently. Polanski doesn’t see that as part of the deal. Around and around we go…

UK links —

Roman Polanski Collection [DVD] [1968]

The Ghost [DVD] [2010]

Chinatown (Special Collector’s Edition) [1974] [DVD]

US links —

The Ghost Writer

Repulsion- (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Oliver Twist (2005)