Thursday, September 16, 2010

Where do ghosts go when they die?

Roman Polanski has never made a movie that is less than eminently watchable. I have taught Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in my film courses, and lessons learned in those films are applied at times in The Ghost Writer (2010), Polanski's entry into the paranoid political thriller genre. (Although given Polanksi's origins and his life since, I suppose all his films are paranoid thrillers. Just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean people aren't after you.)

The film's title outside the States is "the Ghost" and that's how Ewan MacGregor's character keeps introducing himself, most ominously in the scene pictured above, when he simply says, "I'm your ghost," announcing that Pierce Brosnan's Tony-Blair-like character is already dead, which politically speaking he is.

Polanski is the master of what is not shown. The most famous example is in Rosemary's Baby as Ruth Gordon, having a secretive telephone conversation leans just out of shot, which caused much of the audience during the first run to physically lean over, evidently hoping they could see around the corner on the movie screen. There is a bravura example in The Ghost Writer as a folded note is passed hand to hand within a crowd. Polanski chooses to show only the hands and the shoulders being tapped. The fact of a note being passed seems to excite surprise or consternation, but we have no faces to show us this, just body language. But over the course of this very long shot, our desire to know the content of the note ramps up until the pressure is almost unendurable. Too bad the actual note itself is sort of flat compared to the build-up.

Similarly the climax of the film and the final revelation takes place just off-screen, although what has happened is clear and does not need to be shown directly to be understood. If you haven't seen the film and you want to--and you might want to becuase there are rewards to be found--be advised that Polanski's ending (which is meant to be a shock) has returned to the ethos of "forget it Jake, it's Chinatown." In effect, Polanski says, all effort to discover the truth, to effect justice are feckless and almost ludicrous. The result is a highly unsatisfying, disappointing and perhaps even predictable downbeat 70s ending--albeit in a well-designed shot of which Hitchcock would be proud.*

Which solves the final mystery: why a film which for 127 minutes of its 128 minute length seems like a rattlingly good post-Hitchcock thriller with a major star and a raft of well-known supporting players should have disappeared at the box office this spring. You just can't tell an audience it's all hopeless and expect them to like it. At least not since the mid-70s, anyway.
* We can't discount the possibility that Polanski may have come his conclusions about truth and justice because of his own personal history as a long-time fugitive, although I think there is no hidden mystery about the acts which are the substance of the charges against him. The only argument is as to the just punishment therefor.

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