Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wheels Of Power

I recently rewatched Alan J Pakula’s All The President’s Men, which inevitably seems like more and more of a period piece as the contours of politics, the media, and the hopeless intertwining of the two continue to mutate and shrivel. Although the two journalists at its centre work for The Washington Post, and thus might be thought to occupy a place of privileged access, it’s striking how little power they actually have: they’re forced to grab at the vaguest of leads and connections, as likely to lead them in a circle as to any sort of revelation. You get the sense there are dozens, if not hundreds, of insiders who essentially know about the Watergate cover-up and how far up the chain of command it leads, but the wall between government and the rest of the world is presumed to be inviolable. There are many frightened people in the movie, but it’s never clear how much this is a function of specific threats or fear of reprisal (at one point, one of the two is told his life may be in danger, but it’s unknown to us whether that’s actually the case). Government, you feel here, doesn’t need to threaten: by its nature, it bends perception and morality, enforcing its will.

Roman Polanski

When All The President’s Men ends, Nixon’s resignation is still a year and a half away: if the movie was about climbing Everest, it would be the equivalent of running the end credits as they reach some intermediary base camp. But in the last scene, of the President’s second-term swearing-in playing on a TV in the foreground, while the two newsmen type feverishly away in the background, there’s the sense of murk and mystique having lifted, and direct battle lines being drawn. Soon afterwards, heavier wheels will begin to turn.

Coincidentally, the following day I watched Roman Polanski’s new film The Ghost Writer. Polanski’s best film by most appraisals, Chinatown, was made a couple of years before Pakula’s, and belongs in the same broad category of 70’s political paranoia classics. It draws more fully on genre expectations though: it has a hard-bitten private eye, a femme fatale, hoodlums with knives, and a true monster in the seat of power. Polanski handled it superbly, but it’s something of an anomaly in his career, owing much to the writer Robert Towne. Elsewhere in his career, Polanski has had to channel his preoccupations through gaudier creations. He’s returned on several occasions to the occult (Rosemary’s Baby, The Ninth Gate), to more conventional thrillers or limited suspense structures (Frantic, Death And The Maiden) or to the outright bizarre (What?, Pirates). It’s often said, and presumably with some validity, that the recurring sense of claustrophobia in his work in some way reflects his horrifying wartime experiences, and no matter how prosperous and successful he’s been, he’s never been allowed the unquestioned freedom or stature that normally comes with that. It’s possible he might end his life in jail, or maybe (in what would sum up a lot of this) an ultra-luxurious house arrest version of it.

The Ghost Writer

The comparison with All The President’s Men helps to underline the limitations of The Ghost Writer. There’s a link in the underlying premise: an over-matched outsider pushing after a truth that severely threatens the interests of the establishment. He’s played by Ewan McGregor, as a ghostwriter parachuted in to patch together the memoirs of Adam Lang, a (very) Blair-like former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan); his predecessor on the project mysteriously drowned. As he arrives, evidence blows open that Lang knowingly sent individuals into the wheels of torture, triggering the threat of imprisonment and a war crimes trial. Cocooning in wintry New England with the former PM and his entourage, the writer discovers evidence of something murky in Lang’s past, and realizes it might be more information than anyone can be allowed to get away with knowing.

The film contrasts grey, perpetually windswept island landscapes with clean, modern interiors, and it’s part of Polanski’s skill that it frequently feels as tightly confined as a chamber piece like The Tenant. From the very start, McGregor’s character seems severely overmatched; apolitical and with no particular resources or stature, he seems like a kid in a world of men (McGregor’s much better directed by Polanski than he was in his somewhat similar role in the recent Men Who Stare At Goats). The movie catches his transgressive thrill as he finds himself a spectator to some high-octane strategizing, but no matter how much he learns and stirs things up, he remains outmatched in some psychic sense, a spectator to a history that will always be bigger and more sure of itself than he can imagine.

All of that said, the film is constrained by conventionality. The puzzle unwinds through documents taped to the bottom of a drawer, bearing a crucial phone number; through coded messages hidden within a manuscript; through the threat of mysterious dark figures driving a mysterious dark car; through highly compressed plotting that has secrets opening up like the doors of busted safes. In other words it’s a genre piece, as so much of Polanski’s work has been. Looking back on his career, you recall many great moments and images, but with the sense of surveying an intriguing case study rather than that of being enhanced by a major artist’s insight.

Fish Tank

At the end of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, the mixed-up protagonist Mia weeps over an expired horse. “She was sixteen,” says the nineteen-year-old who may end up as her boyfriend, “it was her time.” Mia is fifteen, and through much of the film seems to be carrying much the same feeling about herself. Her mother is submerged in her own barely-vanished youth, casually mentioning at one time that Mia was almost aborted; her relationship with her younger sister consists almost entirely of expressions of mutual hate; and she’s on the way to a “special school” for problem students. Beneath all this of course, she’s just a kid, believing she can make it as a dancer, getting sentimental over that old horse, and surrendering to a crush on her mother’s latest lover, of which he’s all too willing to take advantage.

This leads to a horrifying, almost unwatchable, sequence in which, utterly out of control, she toys with the greatest possible disaster; she pulls back from it, and the movie concludes with some relative calm and hope, but this contributes far less to its cumulative impact than what precedes it. The milieu evokes various Ken Loach films, but Loach tends to immerse himself so much in earthy banter that the impact becomes somewhat stylized; things are more grimly grounded here, although it’s still expertly structured and paced as a narrative. It’s a compelling film anyway, with an attention-holding central performance by the new discovery Katie Jarvis.

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