Sunday, 16 November 2008

Documentary and Horror Films: ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED

The genres of documentary and horror seem to be complete opposites, yet there are many overlaps. Documentaries often call on the horrific: Blood of the Beasts (George Franju, 1950), Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955), The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (Stan Brakhage, 1971), the legend of "snuff" films, and the Faces of Death series all rely, in vastly different ways, on the ability of images to shock and disgust. Recent documentaries continue in this tradition, such as the great Paradise Lost films and many of the recent Iraq exposes, particularly Taxi to the Dark Side. I thought of this congruence when watching the recent Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Marina Zenovich, 2008) which uses many clips of Polanksi's films (many of them horror films) to tell the story of Polanski's trial for statutory rape.

Watching Zenovich's use of Polanski's work, I was reminded of a recent article in the new Film Quarterly in which Jonathan Rosenbaum analyzes the documentaries of Adam Curtis. One of the points Rosenbaum considers is Curtis's use of film clips and music. One of these is a music selection from John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), which Curtis features in The Trap. The question then becomes about the manipulation of using something like a horror film score to discuss social and political material. My own response is that the very overtness of such music in a documentary cannot help but be ironic to some degree and thus not conventionally manipulative. Rather, I think the effect can be both visceral and reflective.

One example that comes to mind is the credit sequence to Michael Moore's now rather reviled (even by those on the left) Fahrenheit 9/11. I remain a defender of the film and think it is Moore's best. The use of music in this opening, along with the visuals of the Bush cabinet being "made up" for cameras, can be used as an example of Moore's manipulation. But in this sequence I think Moore is much closer to his more critically respected contemporary, Errol Morris. The overtness of the music signals dread and provides emotion, but it is hardly the classical "unheard melody". I think a similar effect is at work in Phillip Glass's music for Morris and in Curtis's use of Carpenter's score. I don't think these examples stop or discourage the audience from thinking, but perhaps the associations here with the horror film make us more suspicious.

As for Wanted and Desired, the use of Polanski's films works in a very interesting way. The opening credits feature written titles describing Polanksi's crime, scored with the opening music to Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. Certainly this can be seen as manipulation (and titliation) of the highest degree. But as the film progresses, Zenovich critiques this idea of associating Polanski's horror films with his character, which was done extensively by the press after his wife was murdered by the Manson gang. By the end of the film, Zenovich moves from clips of Polanski's horror films to another aspect of his work, his absurdist irony, that captures the spirit of his trial. The result is both a compelling story and a well executed documentary film that reflects intelligently on both Polanksi's career and his life.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Negotiating the Pleasure Principle: The Recent Work of Adam Curtis," Film Quarterly 62, no. 1 (Fall 2008): 70-75.

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