Friday, 16 December 2011

"You Only Have Yourself To Blame" Polanski's Claustrophobia Films - a Two Part Feature By Greg Klymkiw - Part I: My Love Affair With "The Poison Dwarf"

Some call him "THE POISON DWARF"
Others call him "ROMAN POLANSKI"

"You Only Have Yourself To Blame"
The Claustrophobia Films of Roman Polanski
Part One: My Love Affair With The Poison Dwarf

By Greg Klymkiw

The vast majority of Roman Polanksi films referred to in this series of articles are all available on a variety of labels including THE CRITERION COLLECTION and can be ordered directly through this website via the and links at the bottom of this piece.

Anticipating the release of "Carnage", Roman Polanski's nasty, insanely hilarious four-hander, The Toronto International Film Festival's TIFF Bell Lightbox presents an astonishing mini-retrospective of the work of everyone's favourite genius child rapist that focuses upon his continued obsession with paranoia within the context of closed spaces. Films include: "Knife in the Water" (Saturday December 17 @ 09:00 PM), "Cul-de-sac" (Sunday December 18 09:00 PM), "Repulsion" (Wednesday December 21 09:00 PM), "The Tenant" (Thursday December 22 09:00 PM), "Rosemary's Baby" (Friday December 23 09:00 PM) and "The Ghost Writer" (Sunday December 25 04:00 PM). "Chinatown" will also be on display (Sunday December 18 03:00 PM & Tuesday December 2009:00 PM)

I have no idea what possessed me, but as a teenager in 1977 I took my mother to see Roman Polanski's The Tenant. My poor mother, BUT - lucky me! To be a kid who loved movies during the 1960s and 70s is an experience I fear can never be replicated. Those whose first real taste of cinema in, God Help Us, the 80s and onwards, will never know the joy of experiencing something like The Tenant on a big screen in its first run. It was a time of such daring and insanity - in both the mainstream and fringes - and to already be afflicted with an obsession for cinema in this good time is something I will always cherish. For most cinephiles of the generations following my own, their first taste of this, or earlier periods of film history, was most often in a home entertainment format. This is, and was of course, better than nothing, but one can never replace a big screen experience - especially within the context of a film's first run.

The aforementioned screening of The Tenant (with Mom, who was just a nice Ukrainian girl from North End Winnipeg and not aware of even the most mild depravity, let alone the full-on whack-jobbery on display) was hardly the beginning of my mad affair with Roman Polanski.

Is it possible for a gentleman in drag to menstruate?
Well, if that gentleman happens to be Roman Polanski...

My palate first acquired a taste of Polanski's gifts in the form of a heavily-censored prime-time network television premiere of Rosemary's Baby which, even in this expurgated delivery, scared the living shit out of me as a kid. My second helping of Polanski was when my Grade 8 English teacher Mrs. Rappaport (wife of famed Winnipeg Rabbi, the late Sidney Rappaport of the Rosh Pina Synagogue) showed a 16mm print of Macbeth projected onto a small classroom screen as it clackety-clacked through a Bell and Howell projector. This was, indeed, racy material to be showing in a North-end Winnipeg school what with its gloriously nude and nubile toil-and-trouble witches, Lady Macbeth sleepwalking in the nude (natch'), magnificent manly carnage, copious bloodletting and a decapitation that will live with me always as it was my first on-screen taste of such joyous activity.

Even more extraordinary was how the movie came so immediately in the wake of the brutal murder of Polanski's beloved pregnant wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Charles Manson "family". Being a precocious little bugger, I recall bringing this up in classroom discussions with Mrs. Rappaport. This pleased her to no end. Then again, i have a vague memory of the late Rabbi coming in to do a guest lecture on the Holocaust and screening Night and Fog. Things in the North End of the 'Peg were plenty, and perhaps to some, surprisingly progressive during the 70s. I ask you: What movie lovers of any subsequent generation could discuss Polanski's Macbeth within the context of horrific events so fresh? And in junior high school, no less.

Polanski's MACBETH: Buckets of Blood. As it should be. 

And then, over a period of several years, I became a fixture at a seemingly endless parade of mini retrospectives at the Manitoba Planetarium Auditorium. Programmed by the legendary critic and trade reporter Len Klady I received my most intense immersion in the work of the perverse genius Polanski who, as a child, survived all manner of brutalities during WWII (that were horrendously detailed and re-imagined in Jerzy Kosinski's great novel "The Painted Bird"). It was here, in brand spanking new 16mm prints, that I tasted Knife in the Water, Cul-de-sac and Repulsion. These early masterworks of paranoia within claustrophobic settings were more than enough to instil the kind of adulation and love for a filmmaker's work that would be with me for my whole life. As well, there was the added context of being this weird fat pudge-o-rama who showed up to every screening until eventually the inimitable Mr. Klady offered, "Kid, you're here all the time. Why don't you rip tickets for me and I'll let you see the movies for free?"


Even better were several years of engaging conversation and tutelage under one of the most rapturous film aficiandos on this Good Earth.

My next heapin' helpin' o' Polanski came both at home and on the big screen. Like Rosemary's Baby, I first saw The Fearless Vampire Killers on network television in prime time. My impressions as a kid, were not all that memorable. It was probably the first time I saw a Polanski picture that just didn't do it for me. Though by this point I was already a Hammer Horror fan (thanks to sneaking off alone to a variety of Main Street Winnipeg grindhouses where I drank in any number of Christopher Lee bloodsuckers within an auditoriums rife with the pungent aroma of urine, sticky cum-plastered floors and toothless hookers giving gum jobs to old men), I failed to see any humour or thrills in this spoof of the aforementioned lurid British horror fests. (Though 20 years or so after, I watched a gorgeous laserdisc transfer, and found the entire crazed pastiche very entertaining.)

And, O! glorious 70s! Will I ever forget seeing Chinatown - FIRST RUN and on a big screen in a packed-to-the-rafters Polo Park Cinema? I saw this with Mom, too, but unlike The Tenant, she fell hook, line and sinker for the neo-noir mystery thriller.

By the time I dragged my Mom to The Tenant, I was already hooked - rapturously in love with Roman Polanski. I've tried analyzing why his pictures meant so much to me 'twixt the tender ages of about 7 to 17. Looking back on my original notes (yes, I really was that big of a geek in the 60s and 70s - from age 7, I kept detailed index cards on every movie I saw) and, in addition to recalling my initial feelings, it boils down to a few salient details.

First of all, I had (and continue to possess) a healthy penchant for genre pictures and the territory Polanski was exploring in his own thrillers worked on visceral levels (they were creepy and scary), but in ways NOBODY else could do. His eye, always so meticulous about holding on images until we saw what his protagonist and/or what Polanski himself wanted us to see, his mastery of pace - especially of the slow, gnawing, creep-crawly kind and last, but certainly not least, his genuine perversity - not just for its own sake, but as a genuinec reflection of alternate realities that so often hit home and/or felt frighteningly familiar. More importantly, on a strictly personal note, I've always had a pretty morbid (some might even suggest sick) sense of humour and between, or even during the scares, Polanski has been the prime inspiration for me to slap my knee whilst horking out huge guffaws. And certainly, as my aforementioned anecdote regarding my Macbeth experience in junior high school displays, I always had lots of cool shit to talk about beyond the usual plot and/or cool-factor exclamations my peers were afflicted with. In fact, the movies allowed me to talk to adults similarly afflicted with cinema obsession and happily, on a whole different level.

Is that a severed head outside Polanski's window?

As well, Polanski seemed to make movies unlike anyone else. Even those that were unfurled against the backdrop of extremely claustrophobic settings sent me into multi-orgasmic explosions of utter drainage. I could never keep my eyes off the screen - every beat, every sound, every gesture, every detail seemed so inextricably linked to moving the stories forward, that I am convinced I was attracted to this mastery of cinematic story telling over all else.

Polanski was, in a word, perverse. So, it would seem, was I.

In retrospect, numerous subsequent viewings of his work and knowledge of his horrific experiences living on the streets during the Nazi occupation (his own Mother died in Auschwitz) explain a great deal. Polanski brought perhaps the single most important element to the proceedings - life experience. It's not an automatic pre-requisite, but when artists bring both their soul and life experience to the fore, one is almost guaranteed to take a cinematic ride unlike those machine-tooled by the proficient, but empty camera jockeys who generate skilled entertainments, but ultimately, have nothing to say.

Seeing Polanski's work during my formative years and when the films were so immediate you could almost touch them is, a personal factor in my obsession. That said, though, they were and still are wholly original - imbued with that special something that guarantees appreciation beyond the mere ephemeral - thus ensuring that they'll live well beyond their initial release.

The generation I pity the most, of course, are all those who fell in love with the movies when utter drivel unspooled upon their movie-needy psyches and shaped a woeful generation weaned on the worst cinema history had to offer. The tastes of this sad generation were chiseled by work that was best exemplified by the title of Pauline Kael's compilation of her New Yorker reviews from this period. It was titled, "State of the Art". All of Kael's previous book titles were rooted in sexual abandon - titles like "I Lost It At The Movies", "Reeling", "When the Lights Go Down", "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and my favourite, "Deeper Into Movies". With that title, one could almost imagine plucky Pauline, her eyes sparking devilishly, an ever-so slight smirk emblazoned upon her visage, almost matronly (yet alternately that of some come-hither, gutter-dwelling slattern), before affixing a mighty strap-on dildo to her torso and plunging it into whatever orifice we'd allow her to puncture - just so she could drill down to our collective G-spot.

The movies. Of course.

But after the 70s, we no longer "lost it" at the movies. No sex, no carnal desire, no rapturous orgasmic celebration of the greatest art form of all creation. For Kael, movies had all become an industrialized, cold, thing. No longer was blood pumping to the penis or vagina. Instead, a throbbing, jack hammering cacophony emanated from the screen and induced nausea and/or sheer boredom. And when it wasn't that, it was the mewing and/or caterwauling to pulverize our cinematic libidos into cornmeal. Cases in point: George Lucas's original Star Wars series, John Hughes's whine-fests or all the empty calories of early Bruckheimer and Simpson extravaganzas. This was no longer sex, it was, "The State of the Art".

The post-70s period was also the decade when true repertory cinema began to die and where mainstream network television and its affiliates decreased the number of classic films on its programming slates. Not only did subsequent generations of burgeoning movie lovers have to be inflicted with first run "state of the art" crap, but they had no reference points for cinema beyond Bruckheimer, Hughes and Luke Skywalker.

To coin a refrain from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf: "Sad, sad,sad."

I still remember the theatre I first saw Polanski's crazed cross-dressing plunge into madness and xenophobia, the long-departed Northstar Cinema. This "modern" twin hardtop on Portage Avenue in downtown Winnipeg was home to a weird variety of motion picture product. In those halcyon days, both of the auditoriums were huge. One screen would often feature something that was of the blockbuster variety, while the other would show more sophisticated fare.

It's where I first saw - FIRST RUN - Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers, Lina Wertmuler's Seven Beauties and, I kid you not, Don Shebib's classic of Canadian cinema Goin' Down The Road - and in a 600-seat house that almost always managed to draw huge crowds for films that now would be lucky to get a miserable postage stamp screen in a dank, poorly attended discount-cinema-cum-arthouse populated by backpack-adorned granola-munching vegans.

Mom enjoyed seeing movies there, too. It was a fresh, new and clean complex and because of its upscale qualities, it never seemed to attract that certain "element" (my Mother's favourite word) which spoiled any outing outside of the mall in our suburban paradise. The theatre was also conveniently located round the corner from the bank she worked in, so I'd often plan to meet her downtown after work and see a movie.

And what, did I choose? A Roman Polanski movie. And not just any Roman Polanski movie, but easily one of his most creepy and perverse pictures up to that point.

Jesus, I was a weird kid.

But that's not the entire story. It's always important to consider the venues and context of seeing a picture because ultimately, if it has the potential to break free of those considerations, it almost always is the sign of a true classic. Luckily, for those who never experienced Polanski properly on a big screen (and those who have and need to do so again), The TIFF Bell Lightbox Polanski retrospective will afford a most rare opportunity. "You Only Have Yourself To Blame" The Claustrophobia Films of Roman Polanski by Greg Klymkiw continues on Monday, December 19, 2011 with Part Two - The Art of Humiliation: Repulsion and The Tenant. To access that piece now, click HERE.