Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Ninth Gate


Critical and commercial reaction to Roman Polanski’s films has always been mixed at best. To say that they are an acquired taste is an understatement. The Ninth Gate (1999) is no exception. Despite what the film’s misleading trailer promoted at the time of its initial release, it is not a straight-forward supernatural thriller but rather showcases the auteur in a darkly humorous mood as he plays around with the conventions of this genre.

Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is an unscrupulous book dealer whose motivation is purely for financial gain. He swindles a naïve couple from a set of rare and priceless books in an amusing scene that sets up his character beautifully. A very rich book collector by the name of Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) hires Corso to validate his recently purchased copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, one of only three copies that exist in the world. The book contains nine engravings which, when correctly deciphered and the interpretations properly spoken, are supposed to conjure the Devil. Balkan believes that only one book is authentic so he hires Corso to track down each copy and verify their authenticity. It seems like a simple enough task but as Corso soon finds out, someone does not want him to complete the job. He crosses paths with an odd assortment of characters, from a mysterious woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who seems to help him in his quest, to another, more obviously evil, woman, Laina Telfer (Lena Olin) intent on impeding his progress and quite possibly trying to kill him.

Polanski received the screenplay by Enrique Urbizu and was so taken by it that he read the book it was based on, El Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte. He liked the novel because, "I saw so many elements that seemed good for a movie. It was suspenseful, funny, and there were a great number of secondary characters that are tremendously cinematic.” The novel featured several intertwined plots and so Polanski decided to write his own draft with long-time screenwriting partner, John Brownjohn (they had collaborated previously on Tess, Pirates and Bitter Moon). Perez-Reverte’s book contains numerous literary references and a subplot concerning Corso’s investigation into an unpublished chapter of The Three Musketeers. Polanski and Brownjohn jettisoned these elements and focused on one particular plot line: Corso’s pursuit of the authentic copy of The Nine Gates. For Polanski, the story had “all the ingredients that I like. It’s a great dose of a certain kind of irony and humor, and a bit of the supernatural or metaphysical or whatever you call it. Suspense and a central character, which I found very appealing.”

Johnny Depp became attached to the project as early as 1997 when he met Polanski at the Cannes Film Festival promoting his directorial debut The Brave (1997) that was in competition. Initially, the veteran filmmaker did not think that Depp was right for the role of Corso because the character was 40 years old. Polanski was thinking of casting an older actor but Depp was persistent and wanted to work with him. According to the director, Corso's disheveled look was modeled after Raymond Chandler's famous sleuth, Philip Marlowe and there is a hint of that rumpled cynical vibe that is the trademark of that character. Hints of friction between Depp and Polanski while working on the film surfaced in the press around the time of its North American release. The actor said, "It's the director's job to push, to provoke things out of an actor.” Polanski told one interviewer, "He [Depp] decided to play it rather flat which wasn't how I envisioned it. And I didn't tell him it wasn't how I saw it."

Polanski cast Frank Langella as Balkan after seeing him in Adrian Lyne’s version of Lolita (1997). The director liked how the actor could be “charming and disturbing at the same time. Polanski cast Lena Olin as Liana Telfer because he needed “an actress who could give the impression that she’s an intellectual and, at the same time, a very sensuous woman capable of great bursts of violence.” Barbara Jefford was a last minute casting decision because the German actress originally chosen was struck with pneumonia and another actress could not learn the lines. Jefford came in with only a few days notice, learned her lines, and affected a German accent. Casting Jefford was a nice nod to her role in the Hammer Horror film, Lust for a Vampire (1971), where she played a countess who conducts a satanic ceremony to resurrect the body of her daughter.

Polanski admired the work of director of cinematography, Darius Khondji. “I love his lighting, because he knows how to make it both sophisticated and realistic. It keeps you on the fringe of fantasy so when you tip over into the supernatural, it doesn’t feel artificial at all,” he remarked in an interview. Khondji was also keen to work with the director. “I’ve always wanted to make a movie with a witchcraft or supernatural subtext – I love those kinds of stories. Roman is obviously one of the best directors in the world to work with in that genre.” Filming took place in France, Portugal and Spain during the summer of 1998.

While the film’s slow, deliberate pacing turned off many, there is a method to Polanski’s madness. The gradual pacing draws one into this engaging world. Perhaps it is the European setting but The Ninth Gate has an otherworldly atmosphere that is well done. The attention to detail and Khondji’s richly textured cinematography is exquisite and contributes to the overall mood of this vivid world. For example, the New York City scenes have a very 1940s vibe to them, utilizing brown and blacks with a warm gold glow from the street lamps. This is, in turn, contrasted with the green and red in the phone booth when Corso is trying to contact Balkan.

However, The Ninth Gate does not just have atmosphere going for it. Johnny Depp adds yet another intriguing character to his roster of unconventional roles. Corso is an unethical cheat who would do anything to make a buck. A rival describes him as a “vulture” and “unscrupulous” to which he freely admits to as he swindles four volumes of a rare edition of Don Quixote. He really does not care about others and yet, despite all of his reprehensible qualities, Depp’s natural charisma and charm make him kind of an endearing character that you care more about as he delves deeper into dangerous waters.

Balkan is a pompous windbag filled with self-importance but Frank Langella stops just short of being a cliched, moustache-twirling villain. He’s melodramatic and his presence is a nod to horror fans who recall his most famous role in Dracula (1979). Lena Olin’s dangerous Telfer widow evokes her femme fatale character from Romeo is Bleeding (1993). She smokes and even flashes a suggestive shot of her black garter-clad thighs in an attempt to seduce Corso and draw him into her web. She uses sex to get what she wants and when that fails she resorts to violence, attacking him in an animalistic frenzy.

Emmanuelle Seigner plays a mysterious woman who constantly shadows Corso and sometimes helps him out when gets in dangerous situations. Her motives do not become fully apparent until the end and even then it is open to interpretation. She helps him get inside the Fargas house and flies with him to France. Who or what is she? At one point, she literally glides down a flight of stairs and saves Corso from getting a beating at the hands of Telfer’s henchman.
This movie is ample with clues, a puzzle waiting to be solved. For example, in Balkan’s lecture at the beginning of the movie, he suggests that all witches are evil and in league with Satan. The irony is that Corso sleeps through this important clue to Balkan’s real intentions. There is also the odd, disregard for The Book of Shadows, a book worth an estimated $1 million. It is placed in constant peril and is even flicked with ash when the Ceniza brothers analyze it.

As for the cliché aspects of the film, one should be less concerned at anticipating plot twists and predictable elements in favor of simply enjoying the ride. Polanski probably was aware of this and decided to have fun with them. There is Balkan’s “666” password, Corso’s perchance for getting the crap kicked out of him, and the one-armed woman book dealer that all contribute to a playful mood that punctuates the film whenever it runs dangerously close to being too pretentious or self-important. Polanski approached the subject matter with a certain amount of skepticism as he said in an interview, "I don't believe in the occult. I don't believe. Period." He wanted to have fun with the genre. "There is a great number of clichés of this type in The Ninth Gate which I tried to turn around a bit. You can make them appear serious on the surface, but you cannot help but laugh at them." For Polanski, the appeal of the film was that it featured "a mystery in which a book is the leading character" and its illustrations "are also essential clues." The film has a playful tone but Polanski knows when to reign things in. As the horror is heightened so is the film’s dark comedy during the climactic moments. The screenplay is in perfect synchronicity with the direction.

For a film supposedly steeped in literature, the text, and by that I mean the story, is irrelevant. There are many clues scattered throughout the film that suggest this to be the case. One has to understand that among the characters there is a hierarchy. At the bottom level is the Frenchman that Corso meets early on. He owns one of The Nine Gates but is not all that interested in it except for the craftsmanship of its binding. Then, there is the Baroness who has spent her life writing about The Devil but never considered the meaning behind the images in her copy of The Nine Gates. And, if you take her word, she had the best clue because she claimed to see the Devil when she was a child. At the next level is Laina who is aware that the book has some power but is still focused on the words and not the images. Above her is Balkan who knows that the text is irrelevant and that the pictures are crucial but incorrectly thinks that the key to summoning the Devil lies in them.

The Ceniza brothers have the ability to tinker with the power of the pictures. They are allusive figures that seem whimsical when Corso first meets them and then are gone when he visits their now defunct store at the film’s end but thanks to the movers who are disassembling the store he gets the final piece of the puzzle. Corso starts off at the bottom because the value of books are neither in the text nor in the pictures but in their binding and availability. By the film’s end he realizes that the power is not in the pictures but the quest itself. There is the mysterious woman who resembles one of the figures in the engravings and actually provides the final clue for Corso to reach the end of the quest. The final layer is the viewer. That makes nine players and eight levels of consciousness created by Polanski.

The film struggled at the North American box office but performed strong enough in Europe to pull in a profit. However, critics generally were not kind to Polanski’s film. In Roger Ebert's review for the Chicago Sun-Times, he felt that the film's ending was lackluster, "while at the end I didn't yearn for spectacular special effects, I did wish for spectacular information – something awesome, not just a fade to white." Elvis Mitchell in The New York Times criticized the film for being "about as scary as a sock-puppet re-enactment of The Blair Witch Project, and not nearly as funny." However, Philip Strick's review in Sight and Sound magazine was more sympathetic, recognizing that it was "not particularly liked at first outing – partly because Johnny Depp, in fake grey temples, personifies the odious Corso of the book a little too accurately – the film is intricately well-made, deserves a second chance despite its disintegrations, and in time will undoubtedly acquire its own coven of heretical fans."

The Ninth Gate was a refreshing change from the trend of mundane Hollywood supernatural schlock at the time (i.e. The Bone Collector, Stigmata, End of Days, et al.) that took itself way too seriously and tried too hard. Unlike those films, The Ninth Gate never falls into that trap. It contains some truly vintage Polanski black humor that, alas, North American audiences and critics alike did not appreciate. They wanted meat and potatoes filmmaking that he has always resisted in favor of subversive thrills and following his own muse come hell or high water.


SOURCES

Arnold, Gary. “Polanski’s Dark Side.” Washington Times. March 11, 2000.

Howell, Peter. “Polanski’s Demons.” Toronto Star. March 3, 2000.

Schaefer, Stephen. “The Devil and Roman Polanski.” Boston Herald. March 10, 2000.


Shprintz, Janet. “Artisan Sues Polanski, Alleges He Took Money.” Variety. July 18, 2000.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Quiet Moments in Raiders of the Lost Ark

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Indiana Jones Blog-a-thon being coordinated by Ali Arikan at Cerebral Mastication.

There’s no disputing that Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is one of the greatest action/adventure films ever made, featuring some of the most memorable action sequences ever put on celluloid. Who can forget part-time archaeologist, part-time adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) outrunning a giant boulder at the beginning of the film? Or the exciting gun battle in a Nepalese bar? Or Indy being dragged behind a truck full of Nazis? However, the older I get, the more I appreciate the quieter moments in Raiders – the downtime between action set pieces. These scenes convey exposition and develop the characters. The credit for them working so well should be given to the film’s screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who also wrote the screenplays for such noteworthy films as The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Body Heat (1981), The Big Chill (1983), and many others. He’s written some of the best scripts ever committed to film and knows how to write witty dialogue and create engaging characters.

Kasdan’s ability to engage us in the obligatory exposition scene is evident early when Indy and his friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) meet with two military intelligence officers about the location of an old colleague of Indy’s – Abner Ravenwood – who might have an artifact – the headpiece of the Staff of Ra – that will reveal the location of the Ark of the Covenant, which the Nazis are eager to get their hands on. Indy and Marcus give the two men a quick history lesson on the Ark and its power. Marcus concludes with the ominous line about how the city of Tanis, that reportedly housed the Ark, “was consumed by the desert in a sandstorm which lasted a whole year. Wiped clean by the wrath of God.” The way Denholm Elliott delivers this last bit is a tad spooky and is important because it lets us know of the Ark’s power, his reverence for it, and why the Nazis are so interested in it. This dialogue also gives us an indication of the kind of danger that Indy is up against.

This segues to a nice little scene right afterwards at Indy’s home between the archaeologist and Marcus. He tells Indy that the United States government wants him to find the headpiece and get the Ark. As Indy gets ready they talk about the Ark. The camera pans away from Indy packing to a worried Marcus sitting on a sofa and he reveals his apprehension about what his friend is going after: “For nearly 3,000 years man has been searching for the lost Ark. It’s not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.” Indy shrugs off Marcus’ warning but his words, accompanied by John Williams’ quietly unsettling score, suggest the potential danger Indy faces messing with forces greater and older than himself.

Kasdan also does a great job hinting at a rich backstory between Indy and his ex-love interest, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). When they are reunited at a bar she runs in Nepal, she is clearly not too thrilled to see him, giving Indy a good crack on the jaw. Marion alludes to a relationship between them that went bad. She was young and in love with him and he broke her heart. To add insult to injury, her father is dead. All Indy can do is apologize as he says, “I can only say sorry so many times,” and she has that wonderful retort, “Well say it again anyway.” Harrison Ford and Karen Allen do a great job with this dialogue, suggesting a troubled past between them. In a nice touch, Spielberg ends the scene with Indy walking out the door. He takes one last look back and his face is mostly obscured in shadow in a rather ominous way as he clearly looks uncomfortable having had to dredge up a painful part of his past.

Indy and Marion have another nice scene together after they’ve retrieved the Ark from the Nazis and are aboard the Bantu Wind, a tramp steamer that will take them to safety. Marion tends to Indy’s numerous wounds and says, “You’re not the man I knew ten years ago,” and he replies with that classic line, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” It starts out as a playful scene as everything Marion does to help hurts Indy’s world-weary body. In frustration she asks him to show her where it doesn’t hurt and he points to various parts of his body and in a few seconds the scene goes from playful in tone to romantic as they end up kissing. Of course, Indy falls asleep – much to Marion’s chagrin. Kasdan’s dialogue gives Spielberg’s chaste, boyhood fantasy serial adventure a slight air of sophistication in this scene as two people with a checkered past finally reconnect emotionally.

For me, Raiders is still the best film of the series. The pacing is fast but not as frenetic as today’s films. There are lulls where the audience can catch its breath and exposition is conveyed. In many respects, it is one of the best homages to the pulpy serials of the 1930s and a classic example of when all the right elements came together at just the right time. This film has aged considerably well over time and each time I see it, I still get that nostalgic twinge and still get sucked in to Indy’s adventures looking for the lost Ark.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon: Rock 'n' Roll High School

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon being coordinated by Marilyn Ferdinand at Ferdy on Films, etc.

Hey Ho! Let's Go! Listen up, kids. Rock 'n' Roll High School may have been released way back in 1979 but it still kicks the ass of any of those square MTV movies. Forget about Britney Spears and Mandy Moore's brand of bubblegum pop music and their equally bland movies – they don't hold a candle to the unbridled power of those punk rockers from New York City, the Ramones! Making a band the central focus of a film is nothing new. The Beatles did it with A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and The Monkees with Head (1968). Hell, the Spice Girls even did it with Spice World (1997). But to do it with an anti-social punk rock band like the Ramones?! And to have it produced by legendary B-movie mogul Roger Corman?! The results: a cult classic in the proud tradition of juvenile delinquent films of the 1950s.

Riff Randell (P.J. Soles) is the ultimate Ramones fan. She's introduced gleefully bypassing Vince Lombardi High School's PA system so that she can blast "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" to the entire school population. The energetic song wakes up the students, shatters glass, and shakes tables and pictures right off the wall. The school erupts into complete anarchy as the student body begins to spontaneous dance to the boisterous rock 'n' roll music. How kick ass of an opening sequence is that? It also does a great job of conveying the excitement and energy of the Ramones’ music.

Riff dreams of meeting the Ramones and giving them a song she wrote entitled, "Rock 'n' Roll High School." She tries it out on her gym class causing all the girls in their skimpy gym outfits (ah, Corman and his exploitation tendencies) to dance around in what can only be described as the greatest gym class ever.

Riff even camps out for days to get tickets for the Ramones’ upcoming concert while her best friend, Kate Rambeau (Dey Young) covers for her by telling the nasty, shrewish Principal Togar (Mary Woronov) that various members of Riff’s family have died. Not surprisingly, Togar doesn’t fall for it and takes Riff’s ticket away, forcing the two girls to find another way to meet their heroes. Meanwhile, good girl Kate has a major crush on the school’s quarterback, the bland Tom (Vincent Van Patten), but he has his sights on the dynamic Riff.

The film was originally called Girls Gym, then it was changed to Disco High by Corman, who wanted to capitalize on the disco craze, but was (fortunately) persuaded otherwise by director Allan Arkush. Originally, the filmmakers wanted Devo and then Van Halen before approaching the Ramones. They finally settled on Rock 'n' Roll High School after Arkush convinced Corman that the Ramones were the perfect band for the film. To their credit, the Ramones knew that it was the right move. Guitarist Johnny Ramone was a huge fan of Corman’s films and when he heard that the producer was behind the film, he agreed to do it. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School does a great job of playfully championing the Ramones as rock gods and yet shows them being accessible to their fans as well. The band first appears in a car driving down the street on the way to their venue as they play "I Just Wanna Have Something To Do." Once outside the club, they get out of the car and interact with the crowd of ticket buyers (who were, incidentally, actual Ramones fans). The editing, coupled with the insanely catchy song, gives the scene an infectious energy that is so much fun to watch. Incidentally, Dean Cundey was the film’s cinematographer and he would go on to shoot some of John Carpenter’s best films, including Halloween (1978) and Escape from New York (1981).

From B-movie veterans like Paul (Eating Raoul) Bartel and Mary (Death Race 2000) Woronov to newcomers (at the time), P.J. (Halloween) Soles and Dey (Strange Invaders) Young, the entire cast has a lot of fun spouting the film's wonderfully inspired cornball dialogue ("If you don't like it, you can put it where you the monkey puts the nuts," Riff says defiantly to Togar at one point) courtesy of National Lampoon magazine writers Richard Whitley and Russ Dvonch. I would be remiss without also mentioning the presence of Corman regular Dick Miller (as a cop) and Clint Howard who plays matchmaker for Tom. The Ramones are good sports and mumble their way through the film and truly come alive during the music sequences like the pros that they are. This film rightfully cements their reputation as legends.

Shot in only 15 days (which, when you think about it, is entirely appropriate for this kind of film), Rock 'n' Roll High School embodies the essence of the punk rock music that made the Ramones famous. The film is bursting with youthful energy, a dose of good ol' fashion anarchy, and is loads of fun to watch. These are also the ingredients that made Rock 'n' Roll High School a cult film. Corman cannily marketed it as a Midnight Movie in the hopes that the same people who flocked religiously to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) would come to see the Ramones. It was a modest commercial success upon its initial release and actually garnered critical praise – very unusual for a cult film. Jay Scott, in his review for The Globe & Mail, wrote, “Neil Young might force parents to dam their ears; The Who could be invited to brunch; but The Ramones – The Ramones can strike four-chord terror into the hearts of good people everywhere. That’s what gives Rock ‘n’ Roll High School its niche in the rock movie hall of fame.”

While Rock 'n' Roll High School will appeal predominantly to fans of the Ramones (duh!), it is also one of those fun, goofy movies to invite friends over and watch with copious amounts of junk food on hand. This film is all about loving music and a particular band unabashedly. Riff gives herself up to the music and this translates into an enthusiastic celebration of the Ramones and the rowdy, rebellious spirit of rock ‘n’ roll music. Repeated midnight screenings, coupled with steady appearances on TV, have helped the film endure over the years so that is has become a beloved cult classic.