Saturday, July 10, 2010

Comedy and Tragedy

It's been hotter than Hades in Boston for over a week. This is upsetting to a New Englander such as myself. I tolerate the harsh winters, even enjoy them, with the explicit understanding that at least I don't have to suffer through blazing summer heat and humidity. I feel as if this unsaid agreement with Mother Nature has been broken. I feel betrayed and bitter.

If you couldn't tell, the heat put me in a terrible mood. The only upside to this kind of weather is that I have no reason to be outside. I stay in my moderately-air-conditioned apartment, praying for rain and watching movies.

I watched Zemsta, aka The Revenge, which isn't directed by Roman Polanski, but he does star in it. If you enjoy Shakespearean farce, then you'll love Zemesta. It's a much-loved Polish play written by Aleksander Fredro in the early 1800's. It was adapted for screen in 2002 by the prominent filmmaker in Poland, Andrzej Wajda. It's kind of like Poland's Much Ado About Nothing. The characters are just as strong, the plot is just as clever, and the dialogue is just as delicious. It is all in Polish, so this is a subtitled film, but nothing is lost in translation.
All of Fredro's plays poke fun at nobility and their "first-world problems", so-to-speak.
The Cupbearer and The Notary are the two poles (pun intended) at the center of the story. Each resides in one half of the same estate, and each hates the other. Of course their children, Klara and Waclaw, have fallen in love and conspire a way to make peace. The Notary wishes for a wedding of his own, to the Widow of the late steward. So, The Cupbearer sends for lovable Papkin, Polanski, to act as his liaison to The Notary to attempt to broker peace, and to The Widow to win her hand.
Hilarity ensues as Papkin falls in love with Klara, The Widow falls in love with Waclaw and everything gets impossibly mixed up.
Polanksi shines in the role of Papkin. Papkin is supposed to be a grand warrior and womanizer, but he is really a coward and a ridiculous flatterer. Papkin is a legend in his own mind. Polanski is larger than life and funny as hell as the bumbling little would-be hero. The rest of the cast is also fantastic, they inhabit their characters fully, matching each other in talent and delivery.
The set and costumes are wonderful. 17th century Poland is brought to life, albeit in a sanitized way. There is dirt, but nothing is soiled. Perfect for a light-hearted plot suited more for a stage than a screen. At the end there is a genius curtain call. If only all really great movies ended that way.

Old school farce like this is an acquired taste. Very high brow, no fart jokes, and few punchlines. The best part about that is that it makes for good family fare. You can watch this with your lace-curtain grandmother or your 5-year old nephew (it's like reading out-loud, but a movie!) and no one is going to miss the subtext or be offended. It inspired all the classic sitcom setups that please crowds: If you're here... then that means.... Oh, no!

If you don't like Shakespeare and prefer bloody war films, please watch Polanski's 1971 adaptation of Macbeth. And, no, you didn't read that wrong, Hugh Hefner was the executive producer of this film. Yeah, that Hugh Hefner.
They're not that strange of bedfellows. Polanski's late wife Sharon Tate was a famous Playboy Bunny, and Hugh Hefner was very close with her and Polanski. I can only imagine that Hefner wanted to help Polanski get back to work after Tate's murder in 1969.

And what better subject matter than The Scottish Play? An ambitious Scottish nobleman and his equally ambitious and morally depraved wife decide to kill their way to the throne, and then try to keep the power by killing any who stand in line to inherit it.
And my, my, my, is it bloody! Black as tragedy can get, Polanski keeps this movie in shadow and paints it with blood. The medieval world presented is dark, dirty and sinister. And there is more unsettling imagery than even the most seasoned horror movie lover will say "Eeeewww!"
Macbeth enters a coven of witches (awesome witches, no pointy black hats here) and their cultish and disturbing behavior set the tone for what is to come. Tate was stabbed sixteen times, and Polanski engages in all kind of cathartic release in this film. MacBeth brutally stabs and hacks at his victims. The witches and the Macbeth are a thinly-veiled metaphor for the Manson Family, a cult of power-hungry and ruthless killers. And the fact that they are played by young actors, flying in the face of traditional performances of Macbeth, Polanski is mirroring the young Manson Family members. He said of his casting young actors:
"Directors always portray Lady Macbeth as a nagging bitch. But people who do ghastly things in life, they are not grim like a horror movie."
Indeed, Tate's killers were all under 25, three of them pretty girls.

Most of this movie is comprised of POV shots, so the audience is a participant in the violence and action. I would also guess this was a very gratifying way for Polanski to capture this cathartic piece. The viewer is living vicariously through the cameras, just as Polanski was.

This is as exhilarating as Shakespeare can get. You feel the action in your bones. If every movie adaptation of the Bard's work could be this awesome, no one would ever call it boring. This one is not to miss.

*SPOILER* there is an awesome head-chopping at the end when Macduff triumphantly avenges the murder of his wife and children (if Polanski couldn't so it in real life, why not on celluloid?) and the finale strays from the play to hint that the cycle of violence and ambition will never end. Polanski lets no optimism or hope survive. It is chilling. *SPOILER*

Next up: Chinatown!!!! BEST MOVIE EVER! The Film Noir To End All Film Noirs!

AND as if to reward me for blogging, the sky has just opened up! Huzzah!

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