Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An Unsettling Existence

There have been many words used to describe the world inhabited by the characters in a Roman Polanski film. Disturbing, disconcerting, alarming and distressing are among the descriptors that are among the most common. To me, the word unsettling is an appropriate adjective for the often bizarre circumstances that identify these scenarios. Of all his works, Death and the Maiden (1994) is about as unsettling and troubling a world as Polanski has presented on screen.

The story, set in an unnamed South American country of recent times, involves only three characters: Paulina Escobar, her husband Gerardo, a distinguished attorney and Roberto Miranda, a prominent doctor. Paulina is at her seaside home, dining by herself, as she waits for her husband to make his way through a particularly violent storm late at night. He has had a flat tire and has been rescued by Dr. Miranda, who drives him to the security of his home.

As Paulina and Gerardo talk, we learn that he will be heading a commission that will investigate ghastly crimes and human rights violations perpetrated by the previous regime. Paulina has a special interest in this, as she was one of the victims, brutally tortured and raped; she befell this fate, as she was a political activist who spoke out against the government. The commission however will only be looking into cases of victims who were killed. She argues with her husband to use his influence to change this so that every case is examined.

Dr. Miranda has left the Escobar house to make his way home, but soon returns with the flat tire belonging to Gerardo. Grateful, Escobar invites the doctor into his home on this gloomy evening for a drink. It is then that Paulina, upon hearing his voice and peculiar laugh, realizes that this is the man who raped her on several occasions.

Revenge is now the primary concern for her and soon after her husband falls asleep, she hatches her plans to exact that payback. She bounds and gags Miranda - even going so far as stuffing the panties she is wearing in his mouth and then taping it shut - and ties him securely to a chair. She pistol whips him, drawing blood and then proceeds to remind the doctor of what he did to her. To make the memory more vivid, she plays a tape of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" concerto; this is the same music that the doctor played for her during his beastly behavior. (The title of this music is, of course, disarmingly ironic, as is the sweeping beauty of Schubert's melodies being played to accompany such brutality.)

Gerardo awakens to this madness and tells his wife that he must untie the doctor, who is professing his innocence. She refuses and then tells Gerardo in private many of the details of her suffering. This is a critical detail, as she had not previously informed her husband of all the specifics. Though a bit unsure at first, Gerardo slowly begins to believe his wife and takes her side in her actions to force an admission of guilt from him.

During this film, based on a play by Ariel Dorfman, Polanski rarely lets up on the intensity of this macabre chain of events. Paulina (brilliantly portrayed by Sigourney Weaver) is liked a trapped animal who has been briefly let out of her cage and is ready to pounce. Her actions of course are somewhat comparable to that Miranda, though not as deviant. Yet, she crosses the line, acting as judge and jury and  does not care how much she abuses or embarrasses him (going so far as holding his penis while he urinates, as his hands are tied).

This is arguably Weaver's finest film performance, as she finds tremendous emotional range, while always maintaining total control. It is especially impressive to listen to the tone of her voice as she recalls the brutalities of the past. She has portrayed a number of strong women throughout her career, but none as dominating or as disturbed as this and it is her performance that is the centerpiece of this work.

Another brilliant performance comes from Ben Kingsley as Dr. Miranda. You can almost feel his heart beat accelerate through this ordeal, as he steadfastly denies his role in prior crimes. The glazed look in his eyes combined with the slightly off-key delivery of his lines is a memorable presentation of a man who is angry, confused and worried for his life.

Both characters have taken the law into their own hands: Miranda in the past and Paulina in the present. Power and "right" define their actions; Paulina, believing that the commission that will be headed by her husband will do little, thinks that she must decide the fate of Miranda. The doctor, a respected member of the local community (he wears a casual but elegant sports coat), acted as he did for numerous reasons, including the morbid fact that he liked raping Paulina.

I couldn't help but think of the character of Noah Cross in Chinatown (1974), who raped his daughter and then figuratively raped the farmers in the valley, by circumventing their water supply, so as to depreciate the value of their land. He lives on, going about his business in his own charming (in his view) way. Similarly, Dr. Miranda has been living the life of a first-rate individual, his crimes unpunished until this fateful evening.

At the film's end, there is a sense of victory (if you can call it that) for Paulina, but under questionable circumstances. The doctor has been proven guilty, but he is allowed to live. How many other women are out there who were similarly brutalized that will never know their attackers?

In this way, the evil lives on, as it does in Chinatown and several other Polanski films. The world is an unsettling place where uncovering the truth can often lead to the realization that no one is innocent.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Le Gros e le Maigre - The Absurdity of Life

A young man sits in a field banging away at a drum and playing random notes on a recorder. Some 30 or so feet away, we see a middle-aged man dozing in a rocking chair. These two characters are situated in front of a simple, elegant country house that while still handsome, has fallen into a state of disrepair.

So begins the charming short film Le Gros e le Maigre (The Fat and the Lean), made in 1961 by Roman Polanski. I only recently discovered this film, as I was doing research for my Polanski blogathon (the film is on YouTube) and am glad I found it, as it contains a number of themes Polanski would explore in his feature films throughout his career, namely the randomness of life along with the absurdity of everyday living.

Polanski himself plays the young man, who is clearly a servant to the older man. Initially the man wakes up and signals to his servant that his playing is too loud and that he should come over to him (there is no dialogue in this film); he does so and the elder man plays the drum and motions for his servant to dance. He does so barefoot, twirling every which way like a clumsy ballerina; Polanski's movements in this scene are quite hilarious.

The young servant must do everything the elder man wishes and these tasks range from fanning him (with a rake!) to create a cool breeze, putting his feet in a tub of water and even wiping the sweat off his brow and putting a lit cigar in the his mouth. The servant does this with great energy, as though he has no choice in the matter.

Then one day he glances out a window of the house as he is preparing a meal. He sees the skyline of Paris, but it is real or is it an illusion? No matter - he sees it and in so doing, realizes there is another world he can inhabit. The rest of this 15 minute film revolves around whether the servant can escape to his dreamland or if he must remain in servitude.

There is a lovely sparse musical score that plays up the offbeat moments of this story beautifully, but in eassence, this is a silent film. Polanski's character was at least in some ways inspired by Chaplin's tramp and indeed, his little dance has a lot of Chaplinesque movements to it.

But this story becomes much more bizarre than Chaplin's world. The elder man does everything he can to keep his servant once he realizes that he wishes to escape. At one point, he even chains him to his goat and it's quite comical to see the servant dance for his master while tied to the goat. The way it's filmed, you feel bad for both the servant and the goat, as the animal just wants to eat grass, but it pulled in several directions by the servant's gyrations while dancing for his dominating master.

Le Gros e le Maigre is filled with offbeat moments that bring a smile to your face all while you ponder the absurdity of the servant's existence. Throughout the director's career, the hopelessness of one's situation in life is a common theme, especially as portrayed in Tess (1979) or The Pianist (2002). Though constantly in view of his master, the servant is quite lonely; think of the isolation of characters such as Richard Walker in Frantic (1988), Rosemary in Rosemary's Baby (1968) or Carol in Repulsion (1965).

But while a common theme of Polanski's films is that the evil lives on, in this short film, the servant finds a beautiful measure of peace at the conclusion of the episode. I won't spoil it, but his moment of sheer joy and independence is a lovely one that must have emerged from a moment of inspiration by Polanski (perhaps this goes back to his youth when he survived the horrors of life in the Warsaw Ghetto in the early 1940s.) His escape in this short film may or may not be to Paris - or the illusion of Paris - but his physical and spiritual separation from his master at film's end represents in a small way the triumph of good over evil.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Chinatown - No escaping the past - or the future

Throughout many of Roman Polanski's films, one of the primary situations is that of the main character seeking the truth. Think of Richard Walker in Frantic (1988), who must fight red tape from French police as well as from US State Department officials as he tries to locate his wife, who has been kidnapped on a trip to Paris. Or the Ghost in The Ghost Writer (2010), who during his employment, decides to learn why the man he replaced was killed and then chooses to discover what wrong doings were appropriated by his current employer, an ex-prime minister of Britain.

While the main character in each of these films ends up with varying degrees of success, neither man can view his immediate world - or the world at large - in the same way again. Each is trapped in a whirlpool of events that spin out of control. The only way he can learn the truth (or come as close as possible) is to accept this fact and move on with his life.

This is certainly an overriding aspect of Chinatown (1974), where private eye J.J. Gittes has to learn why  a city official was killed soon after news broke out that he was having an affair. Gittes, despite his knowledge after years on the job, truly has no idea how convoluted this case will become. He starts out by following the public servant (Hollis Mulwray, the water and power commissioner), as he has been hired to learn of his extramarital activities. Yet in reality, the man is not having an affair; indeed the woman that hires Gittes is not even the commissioner's wife.

Gittes was once a policeman in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles, where he received advice telling him to do "as little as possible." In other words, accept the madness you will witness from day to day, as you live in a world without rules or at least a world where the rules make little sense.

We learn more about Gittes' experiences in Chinatown later in the film after he romances the real Evelyn Mulwray, who now aides the detective in his search for the reasons behind her husband's death. When she asks him about his past troubles in the district, she poses the question, "Was there a woman?" He replies that he was there to protect a woman and make sure she wasn't hurt, but "wound up making sure she was." It is a haunting foreshadowing of how this film will conclude.

Polanski's camera in this film is often on the move perched over the shoulder of Gittes, as we snoop on events and characters just as he does. Director of photography John Alonzo selected a 40mm lens for many of the shots, stating that the images from this lens more closely resembled what the human eye sees in real life. This combination of technology along with the brilliant compositions add a subtle edginess to the work and the wide screen format often features horizontal images - such as the virtually dry river bed where water is being diverted in a drought - that make us feel a bit uneasy and nervous as we watch. This is arguably Polanski's most accomplished visual work, perhaps only matched overall by The Ghost Writer or Tess (1979).

As is usual in a Polanski film the evil lives on. The director famously altered the final sequence of Robert Towne's script; the writer had Evelyn escape, but Polanski insisted that she must perish, if the story was to make any sense. (Towne in subsequent interviews has admitted that this change worked beautifully.) Gittes is back in Chinatown, as he is forced to lead the evildoer, Noah Cross, to see Evelyn one last time. This meeting between Evelyn and Noah is a meeting between order and chaos, between reason and madness. Cross has told Gittes in a previous scene that all of his evil deeds are done with the thought that he will be able to buy "the future." For Gittes, the present recalls the past, as he once again is supposed to make sure that he protects a woman, but ultimately winds up "making sure she is hurt."

"Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown," is the last line of the film, spoken to Gittes by one of his associates. Yet the reality of the situation is that he cannot now and never will forget what happened there; Chinatown becomes not just a place, but a sense of loss. Gittes, a prototypical doomed Polanski character, cannot escape his past nor will he be able to escape a future filled with the disorder that is the basis of his - and our - world.

Roman Polanski Blogathon - Now Up

Roman Polanski blogathon now up!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Polanski Blogathon begins Sunday!

Just a reminder that the Roman Polanski blogathon I am hosting will begin Sunday and run through Tuesday, the 29th. For those of you who are contributing a post, please send along the link to me at my email at

I will then reply and let you know what day your work will be up and where you can find it online.

Thank you to everyone in advance for your contributions!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Journey of the Soul through War and Peace

After Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), director Oliver Stone completed his Vietnam War trilogy with Heaven and Earth (1993), a film that showed Vietnam from the viewpoint of a young Vietnamese woman who suffered the ravages of war and had to go through several life changing ordeals in the United States as well as her own country in order to find the meaning of her life.

Stone's first two Vietnam pictures were major successes, both critically and at the box office; they also won him two Best Director statuettes at the Academy Awards, with Platoon also winning the Best Picture Oscar. These films were studies of the war through the eyes of American soldiers; the first being based on Stone's own experiences in Vietnam, while the second was the journal of Ron Kovic, an all-American boy who was gung ho about fighting the enemy, but who became disillusioned after leaving Vietnam due to crippling injuries.

So it took some courage for Stone to make another Vietnam opus that dealt with a native woman's experiences rather than that of American soldiers. This theme would certainly not be one that would guarantee box office success - how could the audience identify with her? - and indeed, this is a film that is largely forgotten among the director's body of work.

Yet it is one of his most human and tender films, due largely in part to the universal themes all of us can understand. We may not have the same broad emotional strains realized by the heroine of this story, Le Ly Hyslip (portrayed with a beautiful dignity by Hiep Thi Le), but we can all share in the loss of loved ones as well as the anxiety of a new life after early failures.

Visually, this is also one of Stone's finest works and evidence of that is on display in a beautiful opening sequence as we see young Le Ly work the rice fields of her village in central Vietnam with her mother as well as visiting a Buddhist monk with her father. It is the Buddhist teachings that despite what goes on around them, their lives are guided by Father Heaven and Mother Earth.

Cinematographer Robert Richardson who had worked on several of Stone's films prior to this (most notably Platoon, Wall Street and JFK), contributed some of his finest work here, especially in the lovely images of the simple village these characters call home. The greens of the tall grasses are particularly vivid, especially in wide ranging landscape shots. Many of the shots of the opening sequence were filmed during the "magic hour" just before the sun disappears, giving the faces of Le Ly and her family a subtle glow. These images take on an even more mystical feel as we listen to the lush, emotional score of Kitaro. This is a magnificent opus, with beautiful, slightly mysterious themes that serve the story well; this is a musical work that deserves to be better known.

The story opens in the mid-1950s, as the country is ruled by the French, who are in large cities, far away from the villagers. The narrative proceeds to the early 1960s, when the Viet Cong inhabit the village to try and convince the people that they will help them achieve a unified country. Later the government troops and then the American forces take over the village and everyone's life is turned upside down.

Le Ly must leave the village; she eventually meets a quiet Marine sergeant named Steve Butler, who wins over her affection and soon marries her and then moves Le Ly and her son to his home in Southern California. The obvious changes in lifestyle - for both Le Ly and Steve - provide the dramatic turns in the second part of the story.

The third act has Le Ly return with her family to her village; her reunion with her mother is a beautiful and touching moment in this film. She has suffered tragedy and has also celebrated many beautiful moments in her life (the birth of her sons) and now realizes the meaning of her teachings as a young girl. The final passage of Le Ly, read in a voice over, as we watch her walk through a vast rice field dressed in a lovely white dress, is quite moving:

It is my fate to be in between heaven and earth. When we resist our fate, we suffer. When we accept it, we are happy... Lasting victories are won in the heart, not on this land or that. 

It is a fitting and beautiful end to this film; we then learn that Le Ly who now lives in California, has built several health clinics in Vietnam through the East Meets West Foundation.

For those who know Oliver Stone only by his testosterone-themed films about sports, political power, financial dealings or the struggles of soldiers in combat, you owe it to yourself to see Heaven and Earth. At least for this one work, the director shows that he can make a spiritual film that resonates with its lovely message of understanding. I for one, hope that he can make another film with this purpose and meaning.

P.S. A final note, I had mentioned that Heaven and Earth deserves to be better known. Perhaps at that point in his career, movie goers associated Stone with a more urgent, almost frantic style of movie making, as in JFK and therefore were disappointed by a more classical approach to cinema. Whatever the reason, this film has been largely forgotten in his body of work. This is truly a shame.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Roman Polanski Blogathon - A Reminder

Just a reminder that I'll be hosting a Roman Polanski Blogathon from the 27th to the 29th of the month. I've received some nice emails about this so far, including two from bloggers who also designed banners for this event. Thanks to Tom at Motion Picture Gems for the banner above and the one at the bottom of the page and a big thank you to Ashley at Pussy Goes Purr ( for the banner below.

A reminder on how this will work. I will ask those who wish to contribute a post to do so in this fashion. You will write a post and upload it on your own blog, beginning on March 27. Merely email me a few days before at with your name and a link to your post. I'll reply, letting you know when I'll feature it - I will include a few lines from your post as well as a link for readers to find your work.

Thanks - I'm looking forward to reading some brilliant posts about one of our most stimulating, controversial and extraordinarily talented directors of the last 40 plus years.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Roman Polanski Blogathon

I will be hosting a Roman Polanski blogathon from March 27-29. I am certain there are many of you out there who have strong opinions, one way or the other, on Polanski and his films. He certainly proved last year that at the age of 77, he remains one of the most successful of all film directors, as his most recent movie The Ghost Writer, was critically acclaimed by reviewers in many countries across the globe.

I will ask those who wish to contribute a post to do so in this fashion. You will write a post and upload it on your own blog, beginning on March 27. Merely email me a few days before at with your name and a link to your post. I'll reply, letting you know when I'll feature it - I will include a few lines from your post as well as a link for readers to find your work.

I expect some strong opinions on Polanski's work, especially given the themes of evil present in most of his best films, including Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown and The Ghost Writer. Of course, there are other wonderful films that merit discussion, including Repulsion, Knife in the Water, Frantic and Tess, to name only a few.

The very mention of Polanski's name instills anger in some, given his legal troubles in the US in the 1970s. I expect that this will be included in certain posts - I have no problem with that. All I ask is that if you do bring up his past criminal behavior, please refer to it in a review of his cinema, be it one film or his entire body of work. I will not accept a rambling piece on how Polanski is some sort of madman or deviant. Be critical of his films, if you will, but let's keep this focused first and foremost on his cinematic works.

I am writing this now, as I will not be able to update my blog for about 12 days. I will have a reminder post on this around March 17. I look forward to a everyone's contribution - there should be a stimulating conversation!

Here is another photo you can use on your blog (along with the one on top) to promote this blogathon: