Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pretty Baby (1978)

Before Brooke Shields took an elongated tour down mediocre lane, she appeared in at least one good flick: Louis Malle's Pretty Baby (1978). The film, which was released under a mass amount of controversy, centers around Violet (Brooke Shields) and her life in a 1917 New Orleans brothel. As this was 1917, there is little puritanical virtue embedded into the lives of the prostitutes or young Violet. All of the women, including Violet's mother, Hattie (Susan Sarandon), enjoy their work and relish the company of the other prostitutes. Violet is entranced by her surroundings and leaps for joy when her virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder. But it's not all peaches and cream. There's an odd, disquieting sensation felt throughout the entirety of Pretty Baby that leaves an aching, lingering feeling in your gut after the film ends. Could it be happiness? Few films deal with sexual encounters as openly and maturely as Malle does with Pretty Baby and his treatment of Shields' and the world's oldest profession never feels gratuitous or cheap. It's certainly one of my favorite films. One can only hope that Criterion saves it from Paramount hell in the near future.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

This review was also published in Sadie Magazine .

When I was twelve years old, my father introduced me to the work of Roman Polanski by showing me his most heralded film, Chinatown (1974). Though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I was intensely attracted to the seedy, pessimistic vibe of it all—a vibe I would later come to know as the luminescent pulse that surges through the very flesh of almost every Polanski creation. Upon investigating more of his films and reading his wonderful autobiography, Roman by Polanski, I knew that Polanski, more than any other filmmaker I’d previously known or have known since, was my true cinematic soul mate. We share the same demons, desires, and, most importantly—at the risk of sounding corny—the same knack for survival and perseverance.

These four character traits are also the most common themes running throughout Polanski’s work. Out of the seventeen feature films he has made, nearly all of them present a character—from Oliver Twist (Oliver Twist) to Rosemary Woodhouse (Rosemary's Baby)—who is thrown into a life or death situation and forced to dig him/herself out at any cost. More often than not, this cost becomes the central question for the characters within these narratives. How much does Rosemary want to have a child? How badly does Wladyslaw Szpilman (The Pianist) want to survive, and why? How much is the truth worth to J.J. Gittes (Chinatown)? The questions, like the answers, go on and on.

It’s not terribly puzzling to surmise where these large questions come from. Until recently, Polanski’s life seems to have represented one questionable tragedy after another. As a young lad in Poland, he was left to fend for himself after both of his parents were shipped off to concentration camps. And, after the war was finally over, only his father returned. In 1969, Polanski’s wife, the strikingly beautiful and sweet Sharon Tate, was murdered by the hands of the Manson family.

And, in 1978, Roman Polanski fled to France from the United States to avoid a fifty-year jail sentence for having sexual intercourse with a minor, Samantha (Gailey) Geimer. He had been commissioned by a French fashion magazine to do a photo shoot of young women and hired Ms. Geimer to be one of his models. The sexual act occurred during their second photo session at the home of Jack Nicholson in March of 1977.

The circumstances of the situation still remain mysterious. We now know that champagne and Quaaludes were involved, and that Polanski was charged with six felony crimes. This includes child molestation and sodomy, both of which were eventually pleaded down to a single misdemeanor of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. Samantha Geimer has gone on the record multiple times since then telling the world that she has forgiven Polanski and that his work should not be impugned because of this one instance in his life. But, the truth is, despite creating a mélange of brilliant films since, like Tess (1979), Bitter Moon (1992), and the painfully unseen Oliver Twist (2005), Polanski’s artistic credibility has diminished in our country’s eyes because of it.

And, due to a thick haze of courtroom drama and mountains of obstructing paperwork, the details of the case were inaccessible to the public eye. This made it very easy for the bulk of the nation to look at this very complex situation with a black and white lens. You can’t sell anything as complex as the truth. It’s much easier to call “child molester” and watch the magazines fly off the rack.

In the recent documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, filmmaker Marina Zenovich explores the netherworlds of this event and reveals that much of the agitation surrounding Polanski’s unique case was caused by the media-hungry Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, then notorious high-profile celebrity trials for his own ends. Though the case never officially went to trial, Rittenband often intentionally fed the media dynamic half-truths in order to both increase his own publicity and cloud the facts surrounding the case. Like a twisted magician, Rittenband created drama where there was none.

For instance, in the midst of the Polanski/Geimer madness, he staged a fake court session with each of the lawyers for the press, even though all of the players already knew the outcome. He was also the first judge to actually hold a press conference in his chambers. Through all this perplexing controversy, Polanski and Geimer reached an amiable plea bargain shortly after the preliminary hearings. The simple truth was that they both wanted to move on. Unfortunately for Polanski, Rittenband didn’t.

Though, initially, Rittenband honored their mutual decision, it wasn’t long before he succumbed to the controversy-starved media and reneged on his word. As Geimer says in the documentary: “Who wouldn’t think about running when facing a fifty-year sentence from a judge who was clearly more interested in his own reputation than a fair judgment or even the well-being of the victim?”

Zenovich not only does an immaculate job of sifting out the dirt of the case, she also does the near impossible: she attempts objective documentary filmmaking. Utilizing interviews with nearly everyone involved, a treasure trove of rare archive footage, and even clips from Polanski’s films, Zenovich accurately and patiently tells both sides of the story while simultaneously maintaining the non-judgmental eye required for such delicate material. She neither victimizes nor demonizes Polanski and Geimer. Instead, she treats her cinematic subjects as people, as living, intelligent beings that deserve to finally have their voices heard and recognized.

By providing this outlet for all of the players (except Polanski himself, as he doesn’t want to drudge up the past) in this epic saga, Zenovich has successfully created a nail-biting account of one of the most public media frenzies of the twentieth century. This documentary is smart and subtle and never relents on telling the whole truth, even if some of the details might make you uncomfortable. Zenovich doesn’t judge, and because of that, she has created one of the best documentaries of the past decade.

**Note** - As of last month, Polanski made the initial motions to get the thirty year old case thrown out of court, citing this documentary as enough evidence to put him in the clear. I love cinema.

Monday, January 5, 2009


“That’s not my son.” - Christine Collins

In March of 1928, a single mother named Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) arrives home from her work to find that her young and only son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith) is nowhere to be found. Following a five-month investigation with nothing but dead ends, the fuzz (LAPD) tells Christine that they have finally found Walter. But it’s not him. In order to save face, they guilt-trip Christine into taking care of the imposter and give up looking for the real Walter Collins. Christine, along with a few other kind (male) patrons, including John Malkovich’s Rev. Briegleb, conducts her own investigation and uses the testicular fortitude surrounding her to uncover the truth and deliver justice.

The woes and foes of motherhood are not easily imitated on screen. A mother’s role, like that of the many waitresses, nurses, teachers, and secretaries who keep our society afloat, are poorly represented in cinema because of the so-called humdrum nature of their job. After all, who wants to watch a movie about someone’s mother unless they’re a serial killer and/or prostitute on the side? What’s truly dramatic about raising children if there’s no seedy underbelly? In other words, motherhood needs be stranger than fiction to make the cinematic cut.

Changeling, though it definitely has a seedy underbelly, is ultimately a movie about motherhood and its hardships. Like the best flicks about mothers, such as the tearjerker classic, Stella Dallas, and Almodovar’s fizzy Spanish delights, All About my Mother and Volver, Changeling almost sacrificially surrounds its narrative with women’s issues and plights. However, unlike its predecessors, Changeling misses the motherly beat because of the specimen-under-glass mentality it delivers in showcasing the dilemma of Christine Collins. Or, in other words, the film may comprehend what Christine is going through at a distance, but it’s too afraid to explore her character any further than its surface-level meanderings. What we eventually come to know about Christine is what the other male characters have told us because she won’t open her mouth to tell us herself.

As both an actor and a director, Clint Eastwood is notorious for creating and embodying some of the strongest male characters on screen since the late 1950’s. Almost all of them, from the Man with No Name to Dirty Harry, are independent, resourceful, and for the most part, immortal. The same cannot be said for his female characters, who are both single-minded and bodied creations, kind of like aliens in better clothes instead of equal members of society. Eastwood just can’t seem to separate himself or his maleness away from the camera lens. In both Million Dollar Baby and Changeling, Eastwood polarizes his potentially powerful female leads into nothing more than vessels for the male perspective. Eastwood may be able to comprehend the inherent struggle of his women’s films and their characters, but he’s about as appreciative and understanding of their souls as The Man with No Name is of Tuco’s lust for gold in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly - which isn’t much.

If Changeling had been harnessed by a more emotionally involved filmmaker, I’m sure Christine Collins and her amazing story would have been far more empowering. As it stands now, Eastwood’s Changeling is nothing more than a beautifully empty portrayal of motherhood and its ghost stories.