An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Friday, February 26, 2010

On feeling dumb, vis a vis "The Ghost Writer"

I'm always bad at political thrillers. Even though I'm fascinated by the genre's conspiratorial whispering and paranoiac behavior, the twists and plot developments in these movies are such that I'm left in the dark almost every time. This is particularly true of the vaunted conspiracy-thrillers of the '70s, when directors like Alan J. Pakula were less interested in narrative coherence than in conjuring a zeitgeist-y mood of sociopolitical dread and mistrust.

Roman Polanski's impressive new political thriller, The Ghost Writer (no relation to either the Philip Roth novel or the '90s Nickelodeon TV series), is enjoying critical comparisons to Hitchcock, which makes a certain amount of sense, but I think Pakula's may be the more pertinent name to drop. Watching The Ghost Writer, I was reminded of my frustrated attempts to parse confounding Pakula efforts like The Parallax View and Klute. These movies, and others of their '70s-paranoia ilk, enjoy an unusually healthy reputation among cinephiles, and not without reason—they're uncompromising works that speak volumes about their times, both socially and cinematically. But they also don't make much of an effort to satisfy the viewer's narrative appetites, or to resolve themselves in ways that, you know, make sense.

Really, The Ghost Writer isn't nearly as challenging as something like The Parallax View or even the tongue-in-cheeky Winter Kills. (Here it's worth noting that one of the key entries in the '70s paranoia movement, and one of its most accessible and enduring films, is of course Polanski's own Chinatown.) In fact, it's comparatively straightforward, although Polanski's approach to the story is quite leisurely—not at all "tight" or "taut," not even really a "thriller" in any practical sense. But here's what I wanted to talk about: during portions of the movie, and especially in the last act after a game-changing plot event that I won't spoil, I was so confused about what was going on in the story as to feel stupid. When the final twists came, I got what they were, but I couldn't grasp their implications, or the chain of events that led to them. I think I've maybe reasoned out some plausible explanation to myself now, but I dunno.

What's the proper reaction when you fail at basic plot comprehension of a convoluted movie? Is it your fault for being thick, or the movie's fault for not revealing itself more carefully? Is it possible to engage with the film on any higher critical-thinking level if you're not entirely certain what the devil happened in it? Of course the answer to the latter question is yes, but it's hard to surmount those feelings of, "Ugh, why am I being so dumb here." I've never been one of those people with a strong inner compass for the contours of stories—I'm never the guy who guesses the twist in advance, for instance. And at any given plot-driven movie, there are typically a few particulars that I don't worry about when they go over my head; I focus on the big picture—and, of course, on elements more important than mere plot. Even people like my parents are way better than me at the whos, whats, wheres, and whys of story consumption. I don't really have a problem with this, but it can be seriously frustrating when I don't get closure on an involving movie like The Ghost Writer.

Good movie, though. It's definitely improving with thought. You should see it. There's an incredible monologue involving a metaphor about airport lines that reminded me of Noah Cross bellowing, "The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!" The final shot is amazing. And, without giving it away, there's one respect in which the film calls to mind the greatest political thriller ever made, John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate. Not that it's in the same league, of course. And by the design of the story, Polanski never really allows a certain character to reenact a certain Manchurian Candidate scene that I would have loved to see. But perhaps I've said too much.

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