[EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play is devoting much of its content this week to a study of the films of Roman Polanski, whose new movie Carnage opens the New York Film Festival this Friday, September 30. We will count down to the event by running a new video essay every day this week under the title Life's Work: The Films of Roman Polanski. We're kicking off the series with "Polanski's God," about the pessimistic, bleakly funny world view expressed in the majority of Polanski's films. This video essay is a collaboration by two Press Play contributors. Simon Abrams contributed the narration; Serena Bramble edited.]
By Serena Bramble and Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributors
TRANSCRIPT: "Polanski's God," narrated by Simon Abrams; edited by Serena Bramble
I think people who go to see [Roman Polanski's films] for escapism are not going to be necessarily disappointed, but they're going to have to tweak their understanding of what entertainment is. When you watch a Polanski film, you're watching this sense of abundance in them. They have very cheerful settings — deceptively cheerful. You get the sense that you're watching the seasons change from this brightness to this inner gray that takes over.
Violence in Polanski's film is psychological. It's largely implied and it's rarely explicit, and when it is explicit, it's for comedy's sake. When Jake gets his nostril slit in Chinatown, he looks ridiculous for the rest of the film, with the bandage on his nose.
[Clip from Chinatown]
Jake: But. Mrs. Mulwray, I goddamned near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it. And I still think that you are hiding something.
The aftermath of [the attack on Jake] is constantly rubbed in your face as very this silly thing to look at — whereas the lingering type of violence in [Polanski's] films is always something that's creeping and slow and under the skin that his characters have to deal with, with greater understanding of things. It's like the way that certain (H.P.) Lovecraft stories work. You get the biggest scares out of knowing things you didn't before. Well, that necessarily means that you have to build in stages to an ultimate sense of understanding, an ultimate sense of knowledge that will really destroy you, that will really violently upend you.
[Clip from Chinatown]
Evelyn Mulwray: She's my sister. She's my daughter. My sister. My daughter.
Jake: I said I want the truth.
Evelyn Mulwray: She's my sister and my daughter.
And that's why it's necessarily a creeping kind of violence. It's a kind of series of reversals, and really, implied actions.
Jake: He raped you?
With films like The Ghost Writer and The Tenant, you get the sense that these characters are dealing with their trauma as they're figuring out that it's happening to them. And that's fascinating.
There are no traditional good guys and bad guys in Polanski's films. They're typically much more ambiguous. But obviously there are exceptions that prove the rule. They're just people you don't want to spent time with. But, after a point, you just recognize that you're watching their lives disintegrate, and that's as close as you get to identifying with them, because you're watching them. You're sutured into the degradations of disintegration, and you can help but feel for them. But you don't like them after a point.
I don't think evil, in a traditional theological sense, exists in Polanski's films. I think you've got characters like John Huston's character in Chinatown. They are deeply self-interested. They are deeply self-involved. They are not necessarily out for anyone else's interest but [their own]. But, after a point, that [describes] everyone. The problem is that certain characters have more of an advantage than others, and those are usually the bad guys. Those usually the ones that are able to be more manipulative and exploitative than the little guys that Polanski's film follow with the understand that you want these characters to succeed very badly, even though they almost never can.
[Clip from Chinatown]
Jake: How much you worth?
Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
Jake: I just want to know what you're worth? Over ten million?
Noah Cross: Oh my, yes.
Jake: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat. What can you buy that you can't already afford?
Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!
[Clip from The Ghost Writer]
Former Prime Minister Adam Lang: I've never taken orders from anyone. Whatever I did. I did because I believed it was right.
The Ghost: Even supporting illegal kidnapping for torture?
Adam Lang: Oh for God's sakes! Spare me the bleeding heart bullshit!
[The Ghost Writer] is a Polanski thriller through and through. It may be very similar in content to [Robert] Harris' novel — like the plot beats and everything. But the tone, and the way it moves, and the way the characters are essentially motivated and governed by the powers that be in that film, that's Polanski. Totally.
I think Polanski is not quite an atheist. But, I think that agnosticism is a lot closer to his belief system in many of his movies. You get this idea that [there] is something going on, there is some higher power or powers out there, and they're manipulating the characters in his films. But they're not always following a set plan, beyond the fact that they're gonna screw with these main protagonists. In that sense, for the longest time you can get the sense that there is no one up there, like in the beginning. And then, and then you get the idea that there is [someone up there] — and he hates you.
[The end of ] The Ghostwriter is the perfect example. The Ewan McGregor character gets hit by a car. We don't see it. There is not explicit violence. All the work that he did in the film doesn't matter. All the research, all the knowledge that he's accrued doesn't matter. It's all gone to pot, and he's dead.
Chinatown is another great example because it has that ending where the Jake character's totally resigned. He hasn't quite lost, but he knows he can't win. He has this absolute sense of certainly now that there is no viable way to continue with his investigation. He's not quite ready to throw in the towel, but it's so out of his hands that — that's it. That's the epitaph of his investigation. And beyond that, he just has to accept it. He just has to take it.
[Clip from Chinatown]
Walsh: Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.
The interesting thing about The Pianist is that [it's about] a character that just wants to play his piano and be well off, to continue doing it on a steady basis. And he's not allowed that because of the historical context of the times. As Polanski had the impact of losing his wife to the Manson clan, that obviously informs this bleak, agnostic opinion, and that's why when you see The Pianist, survival is enough. Survival is its own victory, and I think [The Pianist has] one of most optimistic endings of any of his films, because you get the sense that [the hero] has won because he made it, as opposed to all the other films of his — especially Knife in the Water, where surviving is that much more hellish because all of these characters have been through a gauntlet and [gained] a greater sense of understanding is that there is no one up there, no entity that they can identify with.
There is something up there. But it's not understandable. You can't discern the motives of God, or of a deity like that. You just have to go with the fact that something's happening, wheels are in motion, and it's just like a giant Rube Goldberg machine, and you get out of it at the end. That's great. It never gets better. It just keeps going. That's life for Polanski.
Serena Bramble is a rookie film editor whose montage skills are the result of accumulated years of movie-watching and loving. Serena is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in Teledramatic Arts and Technology from Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.