The Pianist

Adrien Brody as Wladislaw Szpilman in The Piano

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

11 March

 

Roman Polanski charged with rape, 1977

On this day in 1977, the film director Roman Polanski was arrested on a charge of rape by use of drug. He was also charged with perversion, sodomy, a lewd and lascivious act on a child under 14 and with furnishing a controlled substance to a child under 14. Samantha Gailey was the victim, a 13-year-old he had been photographing as part of an assignment for French Vogue. The shoot took place at the actor Jack Nicholson’s house. Nicholson was away skiing. Polanski pleaded not guilty to all charges but later as part of a plea bargain deal changed his plea to guilty to the lesser crime of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse (ie statutory rape – sex with a minor who is sexually mature and “willing”). Polanski agreed to undergo psychiatric evaluation at a state prison for 90 days. But first he went to Europe to finish shooting on a film. He returned, spent 42 days at Chino State Prison, then expected to be put on probation, as the prosecuting attorney had been suggesting. When Polanski learned that the judge seemed to be inclined to jail him, he fled the US and has never returned.

 

 

 

The Pianist (2002, dir: Roman Polanski)

Roman Polanski’s films often deal with guilt. But in The Pianist he confronts the subject head on, in a film that’s personal in more than one sense. Polanksi was born in Paris but returned aged four with his parents to their native Poland in time to become embroiled in the invasion by the Germans. His city, Krakow, was ghettoised and his Jewish family were ultimately taken away to concentration camps, where they died. Roman survived.
The Pianist tells the story of a gifted artist, a pianist, who suffers a similar fate, his life, family, friends, city, everything is destroyed around him but he survives. The city is Warsaw, not Krakow, but the parallels with Polanski’s own life can’t be swept aside. Nor does the pianist (Adrien Brody) survive by wit, cunning or heroism. It’s just blind luck, for the most part, a touch of common sense, the determination to carry on – everyday human attributes, nothing special. It’s this that marks The Pianist out as different; it’s not a war film about the good people doing the heroic thing. It’s about flawed people, proud privileged people, getting by. It even introduces a decent German (played here by Thomas Kretschmann). For this reason the book on which the film was based – by pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman – was suppressed by the Soviets when they took over in Poland. Not simple and direct enough to serve as propaganda.
To make a drama work from so little in the way of heroics, we really to be invested in this character of the unheroic Szpilman. And we really are. Because Polanski has spent time detailing Szpilman’s solid bourgeois mitteleuropean life in Warsaw before things get nasty. He’s helped by the expressiveness of Brody’s face, a canvas of emotions, though it’s often more a bewildered “why me?” that’s painted on there than anything else. Polanski is also working at a philosophical level, his central figure being an artist – “the antenna of the race” as Ezra Pound put it – art at the time of the Second World War being one of the moral barriers between humans and animals. So much for that idea. And as Szpilman scrambles through the ruins towards the end of the film, after almost all of his city has been reduced to rubble, the look on his face is not the triumphal look of the survivor, but the troubled guilty look of the man who has lost everything, and yet is still here, a man whose ambition is still to play the piano on the radio even though playing the piano now means nothing beyond the prettiness of the notes.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Polanski’s most personal film
  • A unique war movie
  • The remarkable scenes in the ruins of Krakow
  • Adrien Brody’s Oscar winning performance

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Pianist – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Quartet

Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith in Quartet

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

25 February

 

 

Enrico Caruso born, 1873

On this day in 1873, the Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso was born in Naples. He came from a large family and his father was a manual worker. Enrico was apprenticed to a mechanical engineer aged 11 but also sang in the church choir, where his voice stood out. He took up work as a street singer, performed in cafes and had soon graduated to soirees where he would literally sing for his supper. All the while he was studying singing and eventually made his debut aged 22 at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples. By the following year, 1896, he was having publicity photographs made. Four years later he was singing at La Scala in Milan, the most prestigious opera house in Italy, possibly Europe. Two years later he was singing at Covent Garden, London. A year after that he was at the Met in New York. Caruso arrived on the scene at the same time as sound recording was becoming widespread and his powerful yet lyrical voice eminently suited the limited dynamics of early recordings. All of his recordings were made acoustically, with the tenor singing directly into a metal horn which relayed the sound directly to a cutting stylus.

 

 

 

Quartet (2012, dir: Dustin Hoffman)

Dustin Hoffman did some uncredited directing on the 1978 crime drama Straight Time but Quartet is his first stab at real directing. And my god does he play it safe. Taking a play from Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) as his source material and drafting in a quartet of actors who can simply do no wrong – Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins – he proceeds, in the most unshowy fashion possible, to tell the story of a home for opera singers who are in their later years, where the arrival of newly retired diva Jean Horton (Smith) sets the cat among the pigeons. It seems that years before Jean (Smith) and Reginald (Courtenay) had been married, very briefly. Why it was so briefly no one seems very sure, not even Jean and Reginald, who still nurses a broken heart. Quartet explores those reasons but it’s also a story of age, coming to terms with mortality, the indignity of infirmity, its joys too, played out by stage thespians (even Connolly, least encrusted with gongs, is a stage man by training, being a stand-up comedian) who can bellow to the gods on a wet Tuesday evening. They know how to hold a room. It is to Hoffman’s credit that he prevents them from doing this. Michael Gambon, capable of stealing any film, even from under the noses of these illustrious gannets, he keeps in the background, as a makeshift impresario organising an evening of singing towards which the entire film points. On the way Hoffman, the most Method of actors, leaves it to these Method antichrists to do it their way. What’s doubly interesting is that as an actor he’s closely associated with Americana, the city and urban angst (Midnight Cowboy, All the President’s Men, Kramer vs Kramer) but here as a director he’s throwing in shots of English churches and the sun slanting over manicured lawns, while the soundtrack is a blancmange of woodwind and muted emotion. A couple of things Hoffman gets wrong – Reginald explaining to a gang of kids that opera is in fact just like rap, that’s likely to get the toes curling like a roller blind. There are also storylines set up that don’t pay off, not least in the shape of Gambon who seems almost criminally underused. But you get to hear Maggie Smith in handbag mode say “fuck off”, which is always funny. And Pauline Collins, as a twittery airhead, again shows her brilliance at stitching together a film with a performance. This isn’t the film you’d have expected from Hoffman, maybe, and it isn’t even remotely cool to like it. But it is a rather lovely film, an exercise in British understatement from the guy who once dressed up as Tootsie.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The cast includes real retired musicians and singers, who all perform
  • Hoffman’s proper directorial debut
  • A charming portrait of the life artistic and how it wrecks a normal decent life
  • So many good performances – Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Trevor Peacock, David Ryall

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Quartet – at Amazon