Tag Archives: chinatown

Horror and Roman Polanski’s Holocaust

Just before I left the Philadelphia area, Ashley and I sat down to a romantic evening watching a Holocaust drama – namely, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). Adrien Brody, who deservingly won an Oscar for his performance, is Władysław Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (duh) living in Warsaw during World War II. Brody is the film’s core, yet he’s never histrionic or larger than life; as a matter of fact, he’s smaller than life, as he grows more and more emaciated and is forced into tiny, claustrophobic spaces. It’s a very understated film that replaces the expected emotional outpours (see Schindler’s List) with muted reactions and muffled sobs.

Whereas Spielberg’s List almost becomes giddy with the process of duping the Nazis (sort of like a prestige version of Indiana Jones), Szpilman is always receding and taking anything he can get. There’s no room for huge gestures when a sip of water is a miracle. For long portions of the film, Brody barely says anything while his friends and family argue about possible courses of action. After he escapes the ghetto and is smuggled into a series of apartments, he becomes purely a survivalist, ultimately risking his life for a can of pickles. Szpilman’s story combines luck with animalistic perseverance because, as the film suggests, those two traits are necessary to survive.

If you’re like me, your ears pricked up when I said the word “apartment” back there, for it’s no coincidence that Polanski also directed the “Apartment Trilogy” of horror films (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant). The Pianist is, perhaps surprisingly, very much of a piece with this earlier work – only this time around, Polanski’s paranoid, fidgety style is applied to real-life horrors experienced by the director himself, albeit in Krakow.

It’s useful, I think, to look at The Pianist as an autobiographical/historical companion to Polanki’s fiction-based films. It shares its basic characteristics with much of his filmography: a frightened individual must escape from an overarching conspiracy that s/he is powerless to stop and incapable of fully understanding. Rosemary crumbles physically and emotionally in the satanists’ hands; Jake is rendered speechless by Noah Cross’s unfathomable, wide-reaching evil; Trelkovsky is warped by the posthumous pull of Simone Choule’s habits; and Szpilman is reduced to a shadow of a man by the unyielding grip of the SS.

All of these fights are intrinsically unfair because the characters’ opponents are conspiratorial and nebulous. Szpilman and the others are just human beings, ordinary and alone, being oppressed by indestructible systems. This comparison clarifies Polanski’s view of the Nazis: they’re agents of horror with the scales tilted violently in their favor, able to gaze down with ease on Szpilman even as he tries to escape their field of vision. Imbalances in vision, and therefore knowledge, are vital to the conflict in Polanski’s films. Just think of Jake Gittes’s investigation in the first act of Chinatown as he peeks through spyglasses and cameras, not realizing that he’s being set up.

Szpilman is similarly myopic, but unlike Jake, it’s not because he’s too headstrong to see; instead, it’s because he’s an individual and hence unable to perceive the historic arc of the war surrounding him. All he can do is listen for immediate developments; the Nazis have too tight a lid on their future plans. (In one horrifying scene, a woman asks a Nazi officer, “Where are you taking us?” and he promptly shoots her.) The visual equivalent to this myopia is the keyhole shot.

The keyhole shot, in which an object is viewed through a narrowed scope akin to a silent film iris, is one of Polanski’s stylistic trademarks. It was the entire substance of his early film Toothy Smile and was most famously used to look at Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby. In the shot pictured above – and, later on, through a crack in a hospital window – Szpilman struggles for a glimpse of the hostile outside world. Like Polanski’s other apartment-bound protagonists, he wants to keep up a protective barrier while still sizing up external threats. For Carole in Repulsion, that threat was a single young man; for Szpilman, it’s the carnage that engulfs Warsaw in the aftermath of the Ghetto Uprising.

It’s not just Szpilman’s relationship with his volatile wartime world that reminded me of the Apartment Trilogy. It’s also the way the denizens of that world are represented. The Nazis and their Polish allies take their position of authority over the Jews seriously to an absurd and irrational degree. One Nazi insists that Szpilman’s father walk in the gutter, a ridiculous request that suggests the ridiculousness of its historical context, and a landlady who demands Szpilman’s papers greatly resembles Shelley Winters’ bitchy concierge in The Tenant. The Jews in the ghetto, meanwhile, adapt to their grotesque situation in different ways – some by lashing out, some by grifting their neighbors, and some by turning inward like Szpilman.

Polanski’s presentation of the ghetto, in scenes like the one pictured above, is sometimes tinged with the very blackest of humor. These little ironies aren’t “ha ha” funny; they emphasize the utter, incomprehensible injustice of it all. Another example is when Szpilman is discovered by the Russians as they march into Poland, but is shot at because he’s wearing a Nazi officer’s coat. The Russians corner him, conclude that he’s Polish, and ask, “Then why the fucking coat?” Szpilman’s response almost sounds like a bleak punchline: “I’m cold.” His suffering is so obvious that pointing it out verges on comedy.

The Pianist is a film about the kafkaesque side of the Holocaust: about how it slowly descended on an unsuspecting family who didn’t realize its enormity until it was too late. Structurally, it’s very much like one of Polanski’s psychological horror movies or conspiracy thrillers, but greatly magnified, as the villains here have created an efficient killing machine that encompasses an entire continent. Szpilman could never stop the Nazi onslaught, but the film does hold out one saving grace. Despite the loss of his family and community, he does live to play the piano again. In Polanski’s world, which was partially shaped by firsthand experiences with the Holocaust, that’s the best you can hope for.

As a final treat, I noticed a few images that very clearly echoed Polanski’s other films. It can’t be coincidence that Szpilman is given a potato that has begun to sprout, identical to the symbolic tuber from Repulsion:

And it’s not surprising that the order-into-chaos image of papers scattering in the air would appeal to Polanski. Here’s a shot that appears to anticipate the ending of The Ghost Writer by nearly a decade:

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John Huston, Modernist and Anti-mythologist

What’s more fun than participating in a blogathon about a great director? Possibly a barrel of monkeys, but that’s beside the point. The point is that I’m participating in the John Huston Blogathon being hosted between today (Huston’s 104th birthday) and next Thursday by Adam at Icebox Movies. So definitely go there and read some other blogalicious, Huston-centric musings, and watch Adam’s John Huston impersonation video. Now, I’ve been uncertain about how best to approach Huston’s formidable career and larger-than-life personality. So first I want to give a brief overview of – dare I say – the man who would be John Huston.

  • At different times, Huston wasn a boxer, soldier, journalist, and painter.
  • More pertinently, he was an actor, writer, and director on countless films spanning from about 1930 to his death in 1987.
  • His films as a director ran from film noir to biopics to earnest literary adaptations to action-adventure and war movies to period dramas to a biblical epic to the musical Annie, and beyond. Whew.
  • He was the patriarch of a Hollywood dynasty that includes his father Walter, his daughter Anjelica, and his son Danny; he directed both father and daughter to Oscar-winning performances.

In short, he’s a pretty intimidating figure to write about. So I’m planning to spread out my analysis of his films across a few different posts. The basic question Adam’s asking with this blogathon is, Can we call Huston an auteur? Well, maybe I can answer that question indirectly by examining the cinematic commonalities and discrepancies across a small portion of his career. But first, I want to talk to about one of my favorite Huston appearances outside of his directorial oeuvre: as the consummate villain Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Starting in the 1960s, Huston acted in a lot of weird, bad movies (like Myra Breckinridge, eww!), but none of his performances even came close to the monster he created in Cross, who wore his aura of corrupted authority as if it were a halo. (Barring possibly the Lawgiver in the last Planet of the Apes movie; Huston was born to wear that ape makeup.)

In Chinatown, Huston gives an easygoing, paternal warmth to a grizzled industrialist who’s ravaged both the land around Los Angeles and his own daughter without suffering any legal consequences, let alone pangs of conscience. The sheer scope and certainty of Cross’s evil acts astound his nemesis, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a small-time private eye who’s clearly out of his league. Cross is a depraved, unabashed behemoth of amorality, yet he’s so outwardly affable and grandfatherly, even during the film’s miserable climax. It’s an infuriating, understated, terrifying performance. And even though Chinatown isn’t a “Huston movie” per se, it’s still worth discussing in relation to his filmography. His presence in Chinatown‘s rotten core is an example of the cleverly meta-cinematic casting that Polanski excels at,1 a casting decision whose tendrils extend back through the decades into the heart of studio-era Hollywood and with it, film noir.

As James Naremore says in More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, Huston’s role in the movie is, in part, Polanski and producer Robert Towne “acknowledging [their] indebtedness to The Maltese Falcon” (205). Since Chinatown is at once a throwback to and a recontextualization of film noir conventions, what better way to forge a concrete link with the past than by casting the man who’d codified many of them with Falcon, Key Largo, and The Asphalt Jungle? In Chinatown, then, I see a kinship with classical film noir in general, and Huston’s earlier films in specific. In the film’s vision of 1930s Los Angeles, wealth trumps morality or the law; it’s a city where each individual must find their own meaning, whether in the unrestrained exercise of power (Cross) or the simple desire for the truth (Gittes). In some ways, Cross’s unbound ubermensch is a grotesque exaggeration of the vaguely existentialist ethos promoted by Huston’s own films.

Like much of film noir, after all, Huston’s films largely took place in that gray space between law and anarchy. His characters wander a world in which traditional authorities, whether in terms of morality, religion, or epistemological certainty, have been dethroned, forcing them to discover the right path on their own, according to their own self-determined values. Basically, I’m locating Huston as fundamentally modernist in his outlook and style. I’m also generalizing like crazy, of course, so I’ll be open about which sample of his output I’m using: I’ve recently watched The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Misfits, and Fat City, so my forthcoming arguments will be primarily concerned with those films. (I’ll probably make detours into Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, The Man Who Would Be King, and Under the Volcano as necessary.)

So: John Huston’s films are, on a very basic level, concerned with the effects of modernity. Like existential seismometers, they detect a rupture in the circle of life; in The Misfits, for example, American family life has fallen prey to divorce, disease, war, and poverty. Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) and the cowboy Gay (Clark Gable) try to piece together a relationship, but they’ve been so battered by the world – or in Gay’s case, rendered obsolete – that now they can’t even connect to other human beings. Even nature, one of Huston’s abiding interests, can’t stave off the encroachment of modernity. As Gay observes, the wild mustangs used to be given to children as presents, but now kids just ride motor scooters, so the mustangs must instead be ground into dog food. It’s a brutal metaphor that applies broadly to all of these Huston protagonists, displaced men searching for a new home or trying to return to a lost one, as with Dix’s dying pilgrimage at the end of The Asphalt Jungle.

The nature of “home” is also the subject of scrutiny in Huston’s work. In The Misfits, Pilot (Eli Wallach) has an unfinished house, abandoned after his wife’s death, which Roslyn and Gay appropriate as the site of their own domestic fantasies. But these efforts are doomed from the beginning, and the contrast between their reality and the “American dream” ideal proves the film’s bitter truths. In Fat City, washed-up boxer Billy (Stacy Keach) and barfly Oma (Susan Tyrrell) initially live together in a shrill burlesque of marriage. But inevitably they go their separate ways, and it’s because the American dream of marital bliss was not designed for a pair of alcoholics in desolate small-town California. Huston was intent on demolishing these myths on which much of American life was based, revealing the sickness and falsehoods underneath. And so, to come temporarily full circle, isn’t that what Huston was accomplishing by starring in Chinatown? He was at once Noah Cross, titan of industry, but also Noah Cross, the dirtiest of old men.

In that role and in many of his own films, Huston also undercut capitalist myths that underlie the “American way of life.” But I’ll get into that in my next post as I delve into The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

1 See also Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby or Lionel Stander in Cul-de-Sac, who dragged their cinematic pasts into the roles with them.

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