Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Polanski's Macbeth

- Jon Finch as Macbeth

There's a very comprehensive post at Zone on movies .... really worth a read .... and I also saw an interesting post about Roman Polanski at American magazine's blog, so I thought I'd write something about a Polanski movie. I should say first that I don't like Polanski - I think he's a creepy, smarmy person, considering that for which he was convicted, and I doubt I'll going to more of his films, which is conversely, not to say that they may not be good .... how's that for a tortured sentiment? :)

Maybe this is a chance to visit the question of whether the character of the artist/writer/musician should have a bearing on the appreciation of their work. In school we were always told that the work should stand alone, without reference to the person who created it, but I don't know ..... can something good come from a compromised source? As usual, I'm confused on the issue. But anyway, on to the movie .....

The Polanski movie that probably stands out most for me (if you don't count Frantic's Harrison Ford dressed only in a teddy bear) is Macbeth. Made in 1971 and based on Shakespeare's play, it didn't star anyone I recognized - Jon Finch as Macbeth and Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth - and what struck me most about it was something I had never known before ..... that if a person's head is removed, they probably will remain alive (their head, anyway) for the amount of time it takes to die of lack of oxygen. Yep, this one's a keeper :) Oh, maybe I shouldn't be so tough on it - it was violent, yes, but there was a certain power to it as well, I guess. Roger Ebert really liked it, anyway, and perhaps he's a more objective reviewer than I. Here's his review ....


We have all heard it a hundred times, Macbeth's despairing complaint about life: " ... it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." But who has taken it more seriously than Roman Polanski, who tells his bloody masterpiece at precisely the level of the idiot's tale?

Macbeth always before seemed reasonable, dealing with a world in which wrongdoing was punished and logic demonstrated. Macbeth's character was not strong enough to stand up under the weight of the crime he committed, so he disintegrated into the fantasies of ignorant superstition, while his flimsy wife went mad.

It all seemed so clear. And at the proper moment, the forces of justice stepped forward, mocked the witches' prophecies which deluded poor Macbeth and set things right for the final curtain. There were, no doubt, those who thought the play was about how Malcolm became king of Scotland.

But in this film Polanski and his collaborator, Kenneth Tynan, place themselves at Macbeth's side and choose to share his point of view, and in their film there's no room at all for detachment. All those noble, tragic Macbeths -- Orson Welles and Maurice Evans and the others -- look like imposters now, and the king is revealed as a scared kid.

No effort has been made to make Macbeth a tragic figure, and his death moves us infinitely less than the murder of Macduff's young son. Polanski places us in a visual universe of rain and mist, of gray dawns and clammy dusks, and there is menace in the sound of hoofbeats but no cheer in the cry of trumpets. Even the heroic figure of Macduff has been tempered; now he is no longer the instrument of God's justice, but simply a man bent on workaday revenge. The movie ends with the simple fact that a job has been done: Macbeth got what was coming to him.

Polanski has imposed this vision on the film so effectively that even the banquet looks like a gang of highwaymen ready to wolf down stolen sheep. Everyone in the film seems to be pushed by circumstances; there is small feeling that the characters are motivated by ideas. They seem so ignorant at times that you wonder if they understand the wonderful dialogue Shakespeare has written for them. It's as if the play has been inhabited by Hell's Angels who are quick studies.

All of this, of course, makes Polanski's "Macbeth" more interesting than if he had done your ordinary, respectable, awe-stricken tiptoe around Shakespeare. This is an original film by an original film artist, and not an "interpretation." It should have been titled Polanski's Macbeth, just as we got "Fellini Satyricon."

I might as well be honest and say it is impossible to watch certain scenes without thinking of the Charles Manson case. It is impossible to watch a film directed by Roman Polanski and not react on more than one level to such images as a baby being "untimely ripped from his mother's womb." Indeed, Polanski adds his own grim conclusion after Shakespeare's, with a final scene in which Malcolm, now crowned king, goes to consult the same witches who deceived Macbeth. Polanski's characters resemble Charles Manson: They are anti-intellectual, witless, and driven by deep, shameful wells of lust and violence.

Why did Polanski choose to make "Macbeth," and why this "Macbeth"? I have no way of guessing. This is certainly one of the most pessimistic films ever made, and there seems little doubt that Polanski intended his film to be full of sound and fury - -which it is, to the brim -- and to signify nothing.

It's at that level that Polanski is at his most adamant: The events that occur in the film must not be allowed to have significance. Polanski and Tynan take only small liberties with Shakespeare, and yet so successfully does Polanski orchestrate "Macbeth's" visual content that we come out of the film with a horrified realization. We didn't identify with either Macbeth or Macduff in their final duel. We were just watching a sword-fight.


- Francesca Annis and Polanski on the set


Blogger cowboyangel said...

I've heard about his Macbeth but have never seen it. Have you seen Kurosawa's version: Throne of Blood? Not one of my favorite Kurosawa films. But I need to see it again. I love the story of Macbeth and saw a great theatrical version in Ashland at the Shakespeare festival, just a month or two after having written a big paper on the play in college. It was awesome to see on stage - and it was outside at night, with lightning in the background, and a huge black bird flying overhead. wild. Can't say I've seen a film version I like as much.

I've liked some Polanski films - Knife in the Water, Chinatown and The Pianist - and not really gotten into others. Haven't seen that many in total, though.

Your tortured sentiment about Polanski seems right to me. I don't know if there's a single answer to the question of whether the character of an artist should have a bearing on the appreciation of their work. I know for me, personally, there are gradations. Sometimes the character definitely affects my appreciation, sometimes not so much. But if you start digging very deep in any artist's life, you're sure to find something that will bother you. We're all human.

Bob Dylan may have had the biggest impact on me of anyone, especially in my 20s. But the more you learn about him, the more you realize he must have an enormous ego. He's done and said some disturbing things. I think he probably cheated on his wife an infinite number of times, sometimes in extremely unpleasant ways. Don't think he would be a nice person to hang out with. Basically, I think he's probably a pretty big asshole as a person. But I can't help but appreciate much of his work. Some of it I love deeply. And he certainly helped me understand life and the world more. So how can I hold his personal behavior against him very much?

I've been been comfortable with William Burroughs killing his wife. So many people I respect really like him, but I've never really been able to get past that.

So, who knows? I don't think character matters when you're analyzing the technical aspects of a work - the craft. But character does matter to me. Though, again, I'm inconsistent. I can't stand Sting, in part because I think he has a huge ego. But I like Dylan and many others who have huge egos.

8:54 PM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

And thanks for the mention! I enjoy reading all your film posts.

8:56 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

I just wrote a really insightful answer to your comments, went to feed Kermit, came back and clicked on publish, and it went poof because I'd been disconnected while I was away - argh!

No, I've never seen Throne of Blood. Never seen the play either. I've seen Rosemary's Baby, Frantic, and Chinatown - I think those are the only Polanski films I've seen.

I think I knoew what you mean - there are works of art that are beautiful because of technique and theor beauty stands alone and doesn't depend on the creator's goodness, only his ability.

But what about stuff that is beautiful because of what it's about? How can a not good person make something that's good? Probably people are much more messy and complex than I'd like to believe but I never really get this.

9:47 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...


You've never seen Repulsion (1965), starring Catherine Deneueve? That's a very good film.

I know that what Roman Polanski did can't be excused, but in a way I feel badly for him. When you look at some of the events of his life, like growing up in a ghetto under the Nazis, losing his mother in one concentration camp and almost losing his father in another... Sharon Tate and the Manson murders... you can sort of see why he'd be messed up.

I remember seeing The Fearless Vampire Killers in a drive-in when I was a kid. Chinatown and Tess were good, and Bitter Moon was kind of interesting.

6:19 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

I guess if you look into the background of anyone who does something icky you can find reasons why. Is this determinism - where a person can't help what they do because it caused by all that went before? What about free will?

11:13 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Determinism? God forbid! :)

I'm a big believer in free will... although... I'm not making excuses for anyone, but sometimes the exercise of that free will takes tremendous energy, and, well, willpower.

It doesn't excuse people from doing the kind of thing Polanski did, but it does make it more understandable than it might be coming from someone else.

In addition, I do think there was a time when too much of what we do could be attributed to our genetic makeup. That was common in the days when junk science like phrenology and pseudo-Darwinian eugenics was all the rage. Then there was a time when we ascribed too little to it, supposing that everyone was a "blank-slate", and that everything came down to environment. I think that in reality, the genetic impulse is powerful, and falls somewhere in between. There is a certain amount of dterminism built into our lives by the way our genetic codes interact with our environments.

As for cosmic or religiously-based fate? No, I don't buy it. I suppose I believe in what they might call call divine providence, and even in miracles, but not what they would call predetermined fate.

2:00 PM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

Ah, the Fearless Vampire Killers, that's right. I forgot that was Polanski. I saw it many moons ago - seems like I enjoyed it. Though I may have been under the influence at the time. I remember it was at the Varsity Cinema, down near the UT campus - a pretty free and easy place back in the late 1970s. I remember how hazy it was during the screening of The Last Waltz.

But I digress....

And such a nice discussion of free will versus determinism in a Polanski post.

Seems to me that Macbeth would seem to be a mixture of free will and fate. Those witches - how do they function in the play?

Oh, wait, you haven't seen it. You should read the play - it's very good.

And speaking of film versions of Shakespeare, I just read about Jean-Luc Godard's version of King Lear, with Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, Molly Ringwald, Godard himself, and Burgess Meredith as the Lear figure. I really want to see that.

8:04 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


You're kidding about King Lear, right? :)

I saw a movie of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which had a pretty interesting cast -

Derek Godfrey as Theseus, Barbara Jefford as Hippolyta, Diana Rigg as Helena, Helen Mirren as Hermia, Ian Holm as Puck, Ian Richardson as King Oberon, Judi Dench as Queen Titania, and Paul Rogers as Bottom, as well as other members of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

12:28 AM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

King Lear (1987)

7:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I should think that William S. Burroughs' having sex with little boys in Marrakesh would be more unforgivable than shooting his wife -- who was a willing participant in the William Tell vignette.

More generally, you must look at the art outside of the context of the artist. I'm sorry for you if you can't do that.

If you discovered that the scientist who perfected the kidney transplant were a child rapist, I doubt you'd refuse the procedure if you needed it.

How humane of you to judge others as you do.

1:55 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

you must look at the art outside of the context of the artist.

I think how one judges a work of art is up to them.

How humane of you to judge others as you do

Probably more human than humane. I think there's a differnce between trying to make good but often fallible jusdgements, and being judgmental. For me, dissecting the person who does a work from the work is not usually sucessful.

3:24 PM  
Anonymous Fatoş said...

Actually at the end of the movie it is Donalbain, the little brother of Malcolm, who goes to the witches not Malcolm. And thanks for your post.

3:49 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Thanks for the information and the comment.

4:13 PM  

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