Thursday, 31 January 2013

Superman II (Richard Lester, 1980)

"What sort of fragile life-form is this...?"


Considering Marlon Brando's voice is used a considerable amount in Superman Returns, you imagine his presence would be integral to the original four films. In reality, this original theatrical cut, he was purposefully ignored to save money. So again, we have a production plagued with problems. Sequences were filmed years apart; Gene Hackman refused to re-film scenes forcing director Richard Lester to use a stand-in - and watching the film back-to-back with Superman means that you notice, in one instance, the exact same establishing shot outside The Daily Planet. With all these serious faults, the film does manage to raise a few interesting points with a plot involving General Zod (Terence Stamp) landing on Earth to cause havoc...

Strange Set-Up

Within the space of an extended opening-credits sequence, we are shown Superman in small, bite-size clips. I can imagine this is merely a contextual issue as audiences had not seen the film since 1978 - something completely different to this "cinema-to-DVD within six-months" world we live in now. But harking back to the previous film and then ignoring the top-billed actor is never going to go unnoticed.

The film consequently moves to Paris to set-up a convoluted story whereby terrorists (amongst them a young Richard Griffiths) threaten to set-off a nuclear bomb from the Eiffel Tower - and Lois Lane simply "happens" to be covering the story. This nuclear bomb, when thrown into space, is the catalyst that sets free Ursa, Non and General Zod from the sheet of glass they were trapped inside at the beginning of Superman. Despite a four-star review from Roger Ebert, Superman II seems equally bogged down with the problem of Superman. A brilliant concept in forcing Superman to lose his powers - something his Mother tells him is "irreversible". Suffice to say, it is reversible and Superman manages to save the day simply enough.

Who would under-use Gene Hackman?

As noted earlier, all of Gene Hackmans scenes were products of Richard Donner's original footage from the aborted back-to-back creation of both films - but funnily enough, Gene Hackman remains top-billed despite his lack of participation under Lester's direction. The story is clearly about Superman defeating the three escapees Ursa, Non and Zod - Lex Luthor is merely a side-kick or, dare I say it, henchman to the three villains. Hardly the top-billed role.

Or maybe Terence Stamp manages to out-act Gene Hackman? The 'campy' attributes of Lex and his sidekicks often jarred and portrayed Luthor in a manner that undermined his intelligence. He seemed to tell us how clever he was, but in comparison to General Zod, he is only someone simply after a quick-buck. (Maybe that is the point. Superman representing the decent American against Lex Luthor representing the corporate money-obsessed American) In contrast, General Zod has the presence and power to demand others to "Kneel before Zod" and, shockingly, we witness the President of the US kneel down before him. Considering Bryan Singer would go onto direct Superman Returns, the break-in at the White House in Superman II must be a source of reference when writing and filming X2. Is General Zod the true threat to America? The power-obsessed dictator?

"Tighter? Leaner?"

This is a flawed sequel. Akin to Superman, Christopher Reeve remains the driving force towards anything credible. General Zod seems to be awkwardly shoe-horned into a plot whereby Superman fights his own demons and desires to be human - but this theme is not weaved into the various other strands in the story. 

We have come a long way since 1980 and it is clear that Superman II was only beginning to understand what audiences expect from a tent-pole comic-book film. Moments as Superman loses his powers are brutal and heart-breaking but these are undermined as he quickly regains the powers he lost. I adore the characters and thoroughly appreciate the intentions but it is too much of a mixed bag to truly enjoy. As a comic-book film, the genre is in its infancy - and the flawed production, again, destroys any chance of fluidity in the narrative. And then, afterwards, he plants the Super-Kiss whereby he can eras Lois' memory completely. 

So, after all that ... we're back to square one.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Friday, 25 January 2013

Superman (Richard Donner, 1978)

"I want the name of this flying whatchamacallit to go with the Daily Planet like bacon and eggs"


In the current climate, it is always interesting to think back to a time when comic-book films did not exist. To imagine a time whereby "young buck" Stallone was considered for the role of Superman seems a ridiculous notion - but, fresh off 'Best Picture' Oscar winner Rocky, it didn't seem a bad idea in 1978. The infamous production of Superman was also one of the first productions filmed 'back-to-back' with it's sequel - the vast majority of the sequel was in the can before the first film had even been released. But the job turned into a nightmare for director Richard Donner as producers took a gamble and ceased production on the sequel midway through, to focus on the origin-story of the Man of Steel.

This is a film whereby the lead characters Father and foe were billed above the title - and above the lead actor himself. "Marlon Brando. Gene Hackman. Superman." - oh, and of course a young-chump called Christopher Reeve. In this modern age whereby we are told about scriptwriters and directors years in advance - with paparazzi photos of actors on set - this would be a film that would've been destroyed before even the first trailer arrived. That world didn't exist yet and so the success jettisoned a sequel, using the majority of footage from Donner's shooting, but replacing him with a different director.

Where is Christopher Reeve?

The film begins by almost fifty-minutes of origin. On the planet Krypton, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and members of the planets government sentence three criminals, including General Zod, to exile, placing them on a sheet of glass and catapulting them into space. Following this, Jor-El reveals to the council - and us - the inevitable extinction of Krypton and he ensures that his son is sent to Earth to survive. Two Smallville residents, Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter) find the boy and raise him as their own. Almost fifty minutes in and, without any clear explanation, Clark Kent - following the death of his father and training inside a Mini-Krypton/Fortress of Solitude - is now in Metropolis (aka, New York City). He works at The Daily Plant, alongside Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and boss Perry Mason (Jackie Cooper). We see Superman, in full gear, saving the day in Metropolis leading to a time-travel manouvre to save the day for his love Lois Lane.

It is 156 minutes long and it is broken in a clear three-act structure. Krypton to Metropolis to California. As we watch the film, it seems epic in scale but something seems amiss. Despite what you may believe is a simple structure, there are many stories that are weaved into the epic length of the film - General Zod at the start is introduced and then disappears only to be seen again in Superman II (an original ending saw Zod destroying Earth - which apparently appears in the Richard Donner cut). The death of Jonathan Kent is a catalyst for Superman to train at the Fortress of Solitude, but seems to bear no clear purpose outside of that. Considering the plot can be summarised in one paragraph without anything noting the arch-enemy of Superman only serves to clarify how redundant he is - and he's not alone either as Luthor (Hackman) has a bumbling sidekick (Ned Beatty) and bimbo-squeeze (Valerie Perrine). What ensures the film is exciting, engaging and enjoyable is one actor alone: Christopher Reeve.

A God among Men

He is iconic in the role and is the sole reason the series managed to spawn a further three sequels. Christopher Reeve is a towering man and manages to balance the two contrasting characters of Clark Kent and Superman effortlessly. In fact, watching the film, you constantly ask whether Lois would see through his "disguise" - I honestly don't know. The entire persona is completely different - his posture changes; his speech-pattern is adjusted.

His performance alone is what holds this film high - and it is a testament to actors across the world. You could argue that the role is what made Christopher Reeve - I would disagree; it is Christopher Reeve that defined the role of Superman and fulfilled it so successfully. Many films have failed considerably due to weak lead actors - the original Captian America is the first which comes to mind. Superman on the other hand holds an actor that, even now, women swoon over and can only compare him to Jon Hamm. Even then, Jon Hamm is shorter so isn't "as perfect" as Christopher Reeve.

Harsh Criticism

Suffice to say, it seems critics in 1978 equally held Christopher Reeve in high regard. Pauline Kael opened her own review praising his talents before destroying the film as a whole - highlighting the lack of reality in the film. Why would Lois Lane be so against an attraction to Clark Kent in the seventies? In a world whereby Woody Allen and his awkward stumbles and grumbles seemed to become a perfect New Yorker - Clark Kent could surely be a lot worse. Kael, of course, is much more eloquent with her words by weaving in the use of-images in Pop Art, comic-strip style filmmaking by Jean Luc Godard and the inevitable saviour-parrallel.

But it remains clear that Superman was ahead of its time, managing to set-up what was clearly hoped to be a series akin to James Bond (definitive theme tune, easy-to-reproduce opening credits, repeatable finale as Superman winks to camera, etc) but instead, bogged down in production-problems, the series seems to have fallen at the first hurdle. I can only imagine the future of the series if the plan was stuck to - two films that worked as a duo; a cliffhanger-ending that would go down in the history books. If it worked, I'm sure we would be watching films in the same canon today - and I'll bet that was why Bryan Singer wanted to create a film that didn't ignore the series completely. But Christopher Reeve remains - immortalised on screen for us to watch again and again.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Projections: A Psychoanalysis of Polanski's Apartment Trilogy @BFI

In London we are privileged to have a broad range of activities that involve cinema. This particular treat at the British Film Institute is one example of something that would be difficult to access anywhere else in Britain outside of Universities.

Mary Wild, situated within the new BFI Reuben Library, led a talk and consequent discussion on Roman Polanski's 'Apartment' trilogy, comprised of Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant. My own recent viewing of Repulsion was fresh in my mind, whilst Rosemary's Baby has stayed in my mind ever since I watched the film a couple of years ago. The Tenant, on the other hand, I have yet to see and I am keen to watch it (and analyse it here on Flickering Myth) when I visit the BFI on January 30th.

Mary Wild begun her discussion explaining the Freudian psychoanalytical interpretation she was due to apply to each of Polanski's films - focusing on the key, lead characters in each; Carol in Repulsion, Rosemary in Rosemary's Baby and finally Trelkovsky in The Tenant. Each character analysed in this manner, reveals that they each hold underlying, subconscious urges and desires that are repressed and therefore manifest themselves in a different manner.

Wild managed to deconstruct all three films in the hour-and-a-half lecture and then drew parallels between all three films. It truly was a fascinating insight into each film - and will surely ensure that I perceive cinema, and crucially character-based films, in a different light in the future. In Rosemary's Baby, Wild highlighted how core the character of Guy truly is. Rather than merely a story of a difficult pregnancy, Wild managed to highlight how the pregnancy represented the growing awareness that Rosemary's married life is a sham - and that Guy was anything but a good husband. The dream-sequence in the film is a fascinating example of the Freud-connection, as it portrays Rosemary - often named 'Roe'/Row - on board an expensive yacht before she walks down, away from her life and into the bowels of her mind... revealing ritualistic and satanic acts.

This was only one element of one film that Mary Wild aptly explained - and it will change my own reading of the film in future. The night ended as she then analysed briefly the connection between Black Swan and the trilogy - specifically Repulsion. In my research for the Repulsion analysis I noted how Darren Aronovsky was inspired by Polanski - but I never knew how much. The recurring themes and almost shot-by-shot imitations show that these films were crucial in the making of Black Swan. In addition to this, Wild pointed out how important a scream mid-film combined with a finale that verges on performance is crucial in the Freudian reading as these moments portray the initial loss-of-mind and the eventual reveal, publicly, to others of the psychological trauma.

The beauty of cinema is within the multiple layers that reside within a film. To deconstruct characters and narrative so that you can reflect and consider how it applies to yourself and everyday life is what lifts cinema from mere entertainment. The BFI manage to present a way to "get inside the head" of Polanski and truly understand a series that you take away and consider, next, how this may reflect on society itself. The viscous cycle of child-abuse; the discrimination of homosexuality; the constraints of a false-marriage. These are real issues - and Polanski manages to delve deeper than merely highlighting the issue. He manages to show how destructive these attitudes truly are.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

"Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown..."


Since Cul-de-sac, many things had changed for Polanski. After one-year and half of marriage to Sharon Tate, in 1969, she was murdered - while pregnant - by the Charles Manson 'family'. Chinatown was released in 1974 - only five years after the tragic event. It was the final film Polanski would direct in America before the subsequent sexual-abuse in 1977. This is a film that portrays his state of mind at the time - capturing a fleeting moment in his career whereby he was surely a victim to the grotesque tragedies of the world.

Crucially, 'Chinatown' refers to an area where Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) worked when he was an LA cop. It is a place, in his past, which he wants to forget. He can't forget it - the world so "alien to the main patterns of the city that it seems part of another, ineffable geography". Dana Polan writes how "to enter Chinatown is to leave the space of bearable rationality and personal security". We can only imagine how Polanski's happiness with Tate was shattered by murderers who broke into his personal home to destroy his life. Though a script by Robert Towne, there is something deeply relevant about this film in Polanski's career at this specific moment in time...

Don't Forget The Past - It Makes You Who You Are

Those who have yet to see the film should be aware that Jake Gittes is a private investigator; often hired to take pictures of unfaithful spouses. Mrs Mulwray hires him to snoop on her husband, only for Gittes to find that Mrs Mulwray was not who she claimed to be - and the real Mrs Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) seems to harbour her own secrets about her husband. Gittes investigates and begins to uncover a deeper, corrupted political angle whereby the cities water supply is becoming redirected to an area that Noah Cross (John Huston) intends to turn into property. It is a film that you can enter knowing nothing, because we only find information out as Gittes does - and, as a screenplay, it is one of the best (featuring in Syd Fields Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting as an example of perfect script-writing).

Polan explains in his essay Chinatown: Politics as Perspective, Perspective as Politics how there are two 'strands' of detective stories. One whereby the plot will drive the story forward, and the events of the past are detected without damaging the events in the present. The other strand explains how the past directly affects the present - "the past reaches out and engulf the detective, to entangle him in its spell". The latter is what Chinatown adheres to. Capitalism and authority are already established at the beginning of the film - Gittes is simply unaware of how corrupt and against "the man" these two features in his society truly are. It appears that his old colleague Liet. Escobar (Perry Lopez) represents authority; Noah Cross (John Huston) represents capitalism. Both are against him - and the film ends on a completely pessimistic note.

The very nature of identity is also explored as, from the very start, the question of who Mrs Mulwray is confuses you as to who people are. To support this, Gittes investigation leads to his own face becoming physically changed, as Polanski himself plays the role of "Man with a Knife" sent to threaten Gittes. Events and actions change who you are - Polanski's past affects who he is as a filmmaker; victims of abuse are changed completely. Scars remain and, when you realise - as Gittes does - how sordid, corrupt and selfish humans can be, your entire outlook changes. Its not just Chinatown that is corrupt - it's society itself.

Ironically, Polanski manages to shoot the film in a manner that verges on perfection. In high-definition too, at the BFI, the picture is sharp and bright. The intense heat of California bearing down on the characters - you can actually see each bead of sweat on their brow. How interesting that, considering the deeply cynical story explored, it is framed in a picturesque world that is Hollywood through-and-through.


Despite how much larger in scale it is, and the clear urban setting, this film still is in keeping to the Polanski tradition in many ways. In the same manner as Cul-de-sac, Knife in the Water and even The Ghost Writer, it is a 3-way story. You have Jake and his agency who are at odds with those in authority and power (Noah Cross and Liet Escobar), whilst Evelyn Mulwray has her own different angle to the situation present a three-way triangle as characters are often at odds with each other.

Furthermore, water remains at the core of the story as it is the foundations of the corrupt property purchases by Noah Cross. It is through the control of a natural, god-given right, that Gittes manages to see how even something everyone should have access to, has been controlled. Repulsion uses water almost as a coffin for the lone "good guy" in the film; Cul-de-sac has the entire castle surround by water whilst Knife in the Water is set on a boat at sea. Again, Polanski uses this element to reflect the unpredictability of nature - almost to highlight how we, are ultimately animals seeking power and dominance over others. Further to this - he says there is no God. We are all left to stew in our own filth - which we see come to the fore in the final act.

The Definitive Anti-Happy Ending

In many professions, the maxim to always "bring a solution; not a problem" is often stressed. In theory, this should ensure we continue to grow, adjust and improve - and not wallow in a place of self-pity by dwelling on the past. But there is a problem with this, as then we can ignore the flaws and mistakes of the past for the sake of moving forward - doomed to make the same mistakes. Chinatown ends as Jake has failed to protect Evelyn and fails to protect her daughter. By the final act, we know who Katherine (Belinda Palmer) is - and the true horror underneath the surface is evident. But Gittes cannot control the outcome - Noah shielding and "protecting" his daughter/granddaughter from the deceased Evelyn. Gittes is told to "forget about it", as if that is the best solution ... but we know, that this is a deeply rooted problem in LA, spreading much further than Chinatown and out into the orange groves and coast of the area.

Writing about Repulsion, and an interpretation that explores the abuse and incest within the film, this is revisited here as this is the outcome of the relationship between Evelyn and Noah. And, akin to Repulsion, it is the father-daughter relationship that irreversibly affects Evelyn. Clearly Polanski shows his anger about the abuse of families - but I think there is a very telling moment in the film when Evelyn reveals the abuse. Evelyn explains what happened to her to Jake, and he asks "he raped you...?" to which she responds by shaking her head in dismissal. This implies that she, in some respect, feels responsible for the situation. We would be very unhappy about a film that in anyway implies that a victim of child-abuse is somehow responsible - because, simply through their age alone, they are not. Gittes does not attempt to clarify the situation - arguing that she should not feel responsible - instead accepting what had happened to be the case. But these past mistakes we need to learn from - not ignore. Many of these attitudes towards sexism, capitalism, abuse-of-authority and society as a whole remain relevant. Polanski was in a dark place at the time - cynically telling us to forget about it all. We need to not forget and ensure that we reflect on these aspects of society to stop it from repeating itself.

This may be the true tragedy of the film as it hints at the sexism of the time-period - and only three years later, Polanski himself was arrested for the sexual assault of a 13 year-old girl.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954)

"This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, with a whimper."


It is strange how some films introduce themselves to you. A Star is Born, I knew nothing about until I saw a brief clip on a documentary on Judy Garland. It showed one scene as Garland stood on stage accepting an award while James Mason drunkenly 'celebrates' her success in the middle of the ceremony - and simultaneously offers his own acting services to the film industry. A striking scene; it never left me - drawing me ever-closer to a viewing of the film. It was years later that I turned to it - now knowing James Mason and fully aware of the strange career-trajectory of Judy Garland herself. It is a classic tale of a young actress, taken under the wing of an established actor, and she slowly - but inevitably - supersedes him. It is a classic tale moreso as this particular version was a remake of 1937 film starring Frederic March and Janet Gaynor, directed by William A. Wellman. Consequently, it was remade again in 1976 with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson and then again, The Artist in 2011, seemed to play on the same story - though set within the silent era as the talkies took over Hollywood.

Hustle and Bustle

The film begins as drunk actor Norman Maine (James Mason) joins Esther (Judy Garland) on stage during a dance routine. This chance encounter between a Hollywood icon and a chorus member sets the film off as Maine vows to make her a star, believing in the strength of her voice. Over the course of the film we see her star rise as he loses his reputation and falls from grace (indeed, it seems Norman Maine was on his way down for a long time as his drunken-reputation on production was infamous despite charging studios a fortune for his appearance). Esther - changing her name to Vicki Lester - doesn't play it false; we don't believe she is with him for his money. It is a tragedy as she watches him self-destruct - her mentor and idol losing himself completely. And she is powerless to stop it.

The opening of the film alone throws you into the hustle and bustle of Hollywood - it is not all glitz and glamour. It is the multitudes of chorus members desperate to break free from the constraints of day-to-day acting alongside the arrogance of the stars and celebrities. The film satirises the industry - teasing us with the truth as Esther seems to undergo multiple changes to suit the studio. And it's no easy road either - she struggles initially as she spends time in advertising before Norman Maine manages to convince executives to cast her in a small role. Their relationship too is the centre of the press - and to see behind the scenes of their  relationship  whilst observing the reaction of the press proves a fascinating dynamic. We see personal moments played so effortlessly with lovely, black-comedic touches such as a delivery-boy failing to recognise Norman Maine and simply referring to him as Mr Lester.

Role Reversal

It begs the question about whether the film is hinting at a gender-reversal as Judy Garland becomes the bread-winner and James Mason the tortured soul. But it sympathises too, showing Maine move into a rehabilitation clinic as he attempts to pull himself off alcohol. Friends try to stand along side him, but he fails to recognise their support - his pride always getting in the way.

The incredible sequence I first saw on a documentary, it turns out, is well-know and remains an unforgettable moment in cinema. Watching the film in full, it seems that within the scene, set at the Academy Awards, Maine mistakenly hits Vicki across the face. This moment is pure horror and summarises the deeply upsetting challenge between our lead characters - and why the film is so engaging.She loves him and will stand by him - but he doesn't realise how strong her love is. The relatable and horrific experience of alcoholism set in the context of Hollywood. 

The final act remains outstanding - he is drinking and cannot lose his pride, lying to others about the films he has lined up - it is no "Hollywood" ending. The moment Vicki Page, takes the stage to announce who she is, remains a moment that we rarely see in Hollywood - and outside of a fictional film, we probably never will.

She has no ego - she simply has pure respect for her Husband: "This is Mrs. Norman Maine". 

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)

Roman Polanski remains a fascinating filmmaker to this day. Alongside Andrej Wajda and Jerzy Skolimowski, Polanski came to the fore in the late 1950’s in Poland. The BFI in London are screening all of Polanski’s films during January and February 2013 and through January, essays on separate films will be released on Flickering Myth in the hope that you too can join us in reflecting on Polanski’s diverse and ever-expanding career. Film essays will include Knife in the Water, Cul-de-sac, Repulsion, Chinatown and The Tenant.

As an interesting starting-point, it is worth noting that Night of the Living Dead filmmaker George A. Romero insists that Repulsion is the best Horror film of all-time. To support his claim, critic Bosley Crowther claimed it is an “absolute knockout” whilst other filmmakers, namely Darren Aronovsky, cites Repulsion as an influence (and it is clear in Black Swan how it has influenced Aronovsky).  The first of Polanski’s ‘Apartment’ trilogy (preceding Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant), it ensured Polanski would be taken more seriously across continents as Repulsion was his first English-language feature, and the fact that it made a “healthy box-office” secured financing for his next film, Cul-de-sac.

Repulsion tracks the slow, mounting madness in Carol (Catherine Deneuve), a single beautician who shares a flat with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). From the outset, she is clearly an outcast – often staring into space, losing track of her surroundings and becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the advances of Colin (John Fraser) and the confident sexuality of her sisters married-lover Michael (Ian Hendry). Sister Helen and Michael decide to go on holiday to Italy, leaving Carol on her own – whereby her madness begins to take over her life. She is haunted by the prescence of a man in the flat – nightmares whereby he rapes her in bed. Hands stretch out from walls and Carol acts out irrationally, murdering men who attempt to seduce her.
Fear of Women

True to a recent article in Sight and Sound by Philip Horne, within the flat, Carol creates an environment that becomes grotesque – a rabbit is left to rot; a razorblade lingers in the background of scenes until the inevitable, shocking use of it. Repulsion doesn’t have the same social-conscience of Knife in the Water (Indeed, there is very little evidence to support such an interpretation) but the role of Carol, our scared-of-sex lead role is open to consideration. From male filmmakers, are they claiming that women who would turn down their advances are crazy? Are women who refrain from sex (Carol is mocked in the pub amongst Colin’s friends as a virgin) clearly missing a few cogs? Having said that, other than Colin, virtually all the other male characters are crude, sexist and sex-obsessed. The women who work alongside Carol additionally attest to the horrid attitudes of men. With this in mind, do we assume that Colin represents the rare occurrence of a man who is good – or is his singularity in the film an example of how unlikely a character truly is.
Carol’s madness is not seen as a mental-defect throughout the film - though Helen’s lover Michael does recommend medical help for her. This is a passing comment – and not the core of the film. Her increasing madness results in her attack on both the “good guy” Colin and the lecherous landlord (Patrick Wymark). Andrew Martin, in notes handed to viewers of the film at the BFI, writes that “Polanski asserts that the film is not… study of a sexual pathology, but is about … signs that someone among us is in crisis”. It is difficult, up unto that point, to agree with such a safe-interpretation. Doesn’t the unfaithful Husband Michael “save” her, almost heroically, as he carries her out in his arms? The only “good guy” is killed; aren’t we to assume he is foolish in pursuing such a “frigid” woman?  Everything argues that a fear of sex becomes a problem unto itself … until the final shot.

The Final Shot
Polanski, it seems, views this film as an example of someone in crisis. It begs the question – why is Carol in crisis? What has happened to establish such a repulsion of men? The final shot shows us the family portrait. Carol, as a child, is in the centre – looking to the right, in a manner similar to her detached-gaze that she has held throughout the film (from the first shot). Follow her gaze and we land on her Father, slightly in shadow. Her mother is almost completely obscured by shadow, but it is clear she is there. The large portrait – a portrait we have seen throughout the film – includes many other family members, but in the final shot, these three members of the family are the only people who are not completely covered in shadow. Polanski seems to hint that Carol was a victim of abuse; her disgust and repulsion of men, firmly rooted in her upbringing. Her Mother, may have been aware, but she did not help or stop the situation. Her detached-gaze shows that, even at a young age something was wrong. The image from the outset of a happy family; her sister with her head gently resting on her Mother’s lap, full of smiles has no such resentment.

The use of the eye; of a razorblade; of flies buzzing around a corpse of an animal, all point towards surrealism. The cracking walls and over-grown potatoes show a mind disintegrating throughout the film – but the roots are before the film. Surrealist elements equally hint at something more than what is on screen. Interestingly, after watching Chinatown, the outcome of events is similar and, in another parallel, the ants that lay on the floor in Ida Sessions kitchen in Chinatown precede an outcome that explores Father-daughter child-abuse. Repulsion truly is a milestone in Polanski’s career – and as only the second film in his canon, you cannot help but be astonished at how confident he is in exploring such multi-layered events within such a small space and context. Polanski had truly arrived.
Large Association of Movie Blogs

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski, 1962)

Roman Polanski remains a fascinating filmmaker to this day. Alongside Andrej Wajda and Jerzy Skolimowski, Polanski came to the fore in the late 1950’s in Poland. The BFI in London are screening all of Polanski’s films during January and February 2013 and through January, essays on separate films will be released on Flickering Myth in the hope that you too can join in reflecting on Polanski’s diverse and ever-expanding career. Film essays will include Knife in the Water, Cul-de-sac, Repulsion, Chinatown and The Tenant.

Polanski, though famed for his flee of America following his own admission of guilt for sexual-assault on a minor, has been a victim himself of the cruelties of the world. A child of parents who were victims of the holocaust (his Mother killed in Auschwitz) he “saw six women shot dead and watched Poles defecate on German soldiers at the end of the war” (The Story of Film, Mark Cousins). Due to this, he was often displaced as a child and grew up intending to be an actor (appearing in Wajda’s Lotna and Pokolenie) before turning to filmmaking in 1962 for Knife in the Water.

Watching the film in 2012, you cannot help but find parallels within his work and Knife in the Water is no exception – set on a boat (Part of the “water trilogy” alongside Cul-de-sac and What?), it is claustrophobic and personal as we join a married couple on a boat trip. Suffice to say, this is disrupted as a lone student hitchhiker joins them.

Brains over Brawn

Bookending the story, Polanski shows us the couple – Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka – voiced by Anna Ciepielewska) in a car driving down a country road. The opening is telling as we can barely see through the windscreen due to the reflections on the surface – whereas at the end of the film, we are within the car; clearly seeing the couple without obstruction. This is a film whereby we will learn something about people and, crucially, society – a rare subject matter of Polanski, and generally attributed to co-writer Skolimowski. We observe the higher-earning husband dictating power over his wife – and then attempting to control the young student (Zygmunt Malanowicz – voiced by Polanski himself). It is not unexpected that Polanski toys with us – and creates conflict in the attempts by the characters to change this status. By the time we reach the end of the film, and see our married couple without obstruction, we still don’t see change in their lifestyle due to the events depicted. We are aware of social-injustices; but we do not act on them. The fact that the student is nameless clarifies how little he registers to those above him in status.

Despite this ambiguous ending, akin to Cul-de-sac, the set-up of a stranger changing the dynamic of the couple is a way to force everyone to consider who they truly are.  The two male-roles are characterised clearly – Andrzej is the ‘brains’, whilst the student is the ‘brawn’ – or so the judge, Krystyna believes. Even the title of the film itself serves as a metaphor as the student carries a knife – something that Andzrej claims is useless on a boat. When within the ‘world’ of Andzrej (the world of affluence; of boats and sailing, etc) – those who are skilled at trades of the hand (Construction; Factory workers; Plumbers, etc) are not valued (and believed to be unnecessary?). Andzrej is skipper – and he deems the student and Krystyna unworthy of power (to operate the boat). Indeed, he believes he is the one to lead us forward – even naming his boat after his wife clarifying his ownership of both the boat and his wife.

Life of P(olansk)i

The recent release of Life of Pi has some interesting technical parallels as both films are set within such a small space, they both portray shots and use framing to accentuate and vary the way we view scenes. Life of Pi, obviously explores the idea of deep-focus further to capitalise on the 3D – in comparison, Polanski explores the use of deep-focus magnificently, clearly owing a debt to Citizen Kane and the “triadic framing”, famously used in the snow-sequence (John Orr, The Cinema of Roman Polanski: Dark Spaces of the World).

When you deconstruct the auteur-influences (such as Orson Welles) Polanski has had, you realise how faithful he has kept to his own traditions throughout his career. The expressionistic context – blustery winds of Knife in the Water and The Ghost are decades apart, but manage to add to a sense of unease in the same manner. Indeed, the boat setting alone is tense (water remaining a feature in the vast majority of Polanski’s films) as we know the danger lurks all around them. Akin to the student, we are voyeurs ourselves too as we see Krystyna undress behind the men – and we notice the student catches a glance; he is aroused by another man’s wife. This adds further tension without drawing attention to the fact. The playful one-upmanship as the two male characters play with the knife – you know someone will get hurt. The New-Wave Jazz score and calmness of black-and-white cinematography seems to soften any danger, but visually we know danger lurks - it surrounds them all.

Directorial Debut

As a debut, Polanski manages to map out many of the tropes that will become trademarks to his style. On reflection, the very definition of auteur is established here in Polanski’s work. The sexual-tension as the lone female character wanders around in a bikini and dressing gown will spill into his films. The aforementioned use of water and subtle creaking sound-effects all appear in a different manner throughout his career. The small-scale and non-subjective perspective in Knife in the Water, connects this film with his most recent Carnage. Interestingly, though Polanski often has small-scale films, the vast majority of his films are subjective; focussed on single characters for the majority of the film. As his only Polish-language film, this is set apart from the rest – but knowing what was to come, it is a fascinating insight into a man who was simply an artist at this point in his career – and not the victim or offender of a heinous crime.

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