Roman Polanski: A Retrospective
By James Greenberg
James Greenberg’s new book Roman Polanski: A Retrospective is a beautifully illustrated coffee table book chronicling the Polish enfant terrible’s long career. Coming into the book, I wasn’t sure what to expect from it. My typical experience with an auteur study is through academic texts: James Naremore’s work on Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles, Richard Brody’s book on Jean-Luc Godard, or my own work on Steven Soderbergh. From this academic frame of reference, Greenberg’s book lacked the insight and rigor that I’ve grown accustomed to. However, it isn’t fair to fault Greenberg for my expectations. He has the admirable aim of reaching for a wider audience and his prose – informed by the style he developed through his work for Daily Variety, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and Entertainment Weekly – shows that.
As such, the book is structured around a bunch of analyses that Greenberg embellishes with interviews with Polanski. Aside from the director’s background in Poland – from his childhood, through the Holocaust, into film school – the author avoids the Sharon Tate murder and Polanski’s legal troubles following the sexual assault of a minor. The author writes, “It is indeed a remarkable story, but these aspects of his life will not be detailed here. There are many other sources for that. This book is a retrospective of Roman Polanski’s abundantly creative, complex, and resourceful career as a director” (11). This maneuver could be interpreted as white-washing Polanski’s life in order to keep the author and the book on good terms with the director (who penned the introduction to the book), but Greenberg is correct: there are in-depth documentaries on this aspect of Polanski’s life and a new book on the horizon by his victim. Within this light, it comes off as Greenberg’s means of writing an accessible study that avoids sensationalism.
Greenberg’s analyses are on point: Knife in the Water (1962) is about class conflict and a battle for masculine power, Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) are about the disintegration of sanity. While these interpretations aren’t particularly “new” to those already familiar with Polanski’s filmography and other auteur studies of his work, Greenberg provides some juicy quotes and anecdotes from Polanski that breathe life into them. When discussing Knife, the director blasts the use of handheld camera in a wonderful diatribe worth quoting at length. “Who likes shaky? Shaky is for masturbators. When you watch life around you, is it shaky? I’m allergic to dogma that tries to impress me with technique” (43). As for Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski describes his embrace of ambiguity, stating that “I could not make a film that is seriously supernatural. I can treat it as a tale, but a woman raped by the devil in today’s New York? No, I can’t do that. So I did it with ambiguity” (97).
Needless to say, I found the material that Greenberg gleaned from the interviews more interesting than the analyses. That said, I wish the book would have taken on the structure of Faber and Faber’s directors series (Burton on Burton, Herzog on Herzog): a book length transcript of interviews. The author and subject clearly spent a lot of time together and Greenberg has done the research to perform a strong interview. I just wanted more of it.
Interview material aside, the other shining star here are the wonderful collection of behind the scenes photographs and frame grabs that Greenberg and his team has cleared the rights to reproducing. The book is a beautiful piece of visual art (I especially loved the photo of Polanski on the set of Pirates), akin to the much more expensive Taschen books on directors like Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman. Essentially, I imagine that it is difficult to find a better introduction to Polanski and his work than this text. Greenberg’s adept prose weaves together production history, small pieces of biographical information, film analysis, and quotations from his subject, which is complemented by hundreds of color and black and white photographs in a balanced layout. While it may not have met my initial expectations, the biggest complement I can give the book is that I had to go out and buy the Criterion editions of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby because I experienced an intense need to rewatch them thanks to Greenberg’s book.
James Greenberg will be signing copies of his book at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles on August 18th, before a double-bill screening of Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. More information can be found here.