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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "What?" (Roman Polanski, 1972)

A few weeks back a friend and I were chatting about this whole Polanski business and the reaction to it and such. After reassuring each other with compulsory remarks such as, "Well, he is a fugitive from justice, after all" and "The timing might be weird, but the warrant still applies," we reverted to our decadent cinephilic selves.

"You know, the one thing I never got to see, that I'm curious about, is that thing What?. Although I hear it's pretty terrible."

"What I'm wondering is whether or not Pirates is as bad as I remember it."

It's for addressing such questions, among other things, that the Foreign Region DVD Report exists. Although after subjecting myself to What?, I think I'm gonna wait a few weeks before tackling Pirates.

What? is the second film Polanski made after the murder of his wife Sharon Tate in 1969; the first, a gore-slathered adaptation of Macbeth, was taken by many as an uncomfortably direct response to the Manson-initiated slaughter that took Tate's life and shattered Polanski. His return to Europe in its wake saw him drowning his sorrows in not-unpredictable ways. What? seems to have been conceived on a whim involving Polanski wanting to build a picture around a Mediterranean villa belonging to producer Carlo Ponti. The scenario concocted by Polanski and frequent collaborator Gerald Brach is a grievously ill-advised attempt to meld the absurdist/existentialist mode of Polanski's early shorts (most notable Two Men And A Wardrobe) with the Playboy Philosophy that Polanski picked up in Hollywood. (It was Hugh Hefner, as it happens, who was the major backer of Polanski's Macbeth.) While the film contains varied nods to Alice in Wonderland—frequently nude leading lady Sydne Rome's descent down the "rabbit hole" is achieved via a mini-tram to the villa, and too many scenes here involve dyspeptic eccentrics gathered around a table talking nonsense to each other and Rome—the dominant mode here is of a particularly unfunny "Little Annie Fanny" page. In an engaging interview on the new Severin DVD of the film, Rome reveals that Polanski in fact told her that he character, Nancy, was a cross between Annie and an old school teacher. And Rome's curls in the film seem directly patterned after Annie's.

Now I yield to almost no one in my admiration for the work of cartoonists Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, but find me someone who will tell you that the Little Annie Fanny cartoons (for which they claimed Candide as an inspiration!) represented their best work, and I'll work very hard to find someone who'll tell you that What? is Polanski's best work. (Actually, there's at least one IMDB user who seems to think so. It takes all kinds.)

Once Rome's character descends to the villa (running from a group of would-be rapists), a small menagerie of unusual characters (including a bruised-up Polanski, playing "Mosquito") present themselves to her, generally commenting on her state of undress. (Her skin-tight t-shirt was all but ripped from her during the abortive assault.) Marcello Mastroianni's Alex—a one-time, pimp, apparently—approaches her and says, "Perfect. Perfect. What I really go for…is volume. Although I shouldn’t forget about shape of course. I really couldn’t see them properly until now but they really are first class."

"What?" Rome's Nancy replies.

"Your tits."

Part of the joke, such as it is, is seeing the super-suave Mastroianni behave so crassly. There's a direct echo of Repulsion's "all men are pigs" ethos here, except it's wedded to a complete lack of empathy for the lead character, who's pretty much as blank as can be and largely an object of ridicule.

One suspects that Polanski and Brach wanted to recapture some of the antic feel of the much-misunderstood The Fearless Vampire Killers, but in the finished film it's nowhere to be found. The vulgarity here is hardly exuberant; it's thoroughly curdled. When a tacky, corpulent art smuggler shows up at the villa with Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa in tow, one gets a very slight but nonetheless palpable sense of the despair behind all of this film's failed "jokes." This treasure of Western Civ has no relevance in this film's world, except as a decoration for some rich perv's playpen, just as the Beethoven and Schubert piano pieces played by Nancy impress no one.

But none of this registers in a way that can lift the film out of its morass of maladroit cynical overstatement; What? is literally a chore to watch. Noting this, The Onion's Nathan Rabin pronounced just last week, "Only a hopeless square would look for meaning in Polanski’s leaden freak-fest." Well, sorry to disappoint you, daddy-o, but looking for "meaning," or whatever your preferred term is: that's what critics do. Sorry I'm not hip enough to roll with you, chief—or whatever you hipsters are calling each other these days. Rabin watched What? on a computer, from a bootleg DVD sent by a Facebook friend, because that's, I guess, how he "rolls." Myself, a square schmuck if ever there was one, I actually bought the new Severin DVD—a Region 2 PAL U.K. release. The transfer of the excellent source material ("a vault print reportedly stolen from the wine cellar of producer Carlo Ponti," the back cover cheekily states) is razor-sharp, and portions of the film are quite pretty. The extras are good too—aside from the interview with Rome, there are short interviews with co-cinematographer Marcello Gatti and composer Claudio Gizzi. An excellent presentation of a queasy-making film that is nonetheless an interesting curio of both one director's career and European sex cinema. Incidentally, the stalwart Glenn Erickson has a much more positive take on the picture here.

What a weird swipe at Rabin. His point is that the movie is too scattered to be meaningful—-that it seems to be a deliberate attempt to be senseless and silly, so one can’t extract authorial meaning from it. Your refusal to understand that (in the next sentence you seem to confuse meaning and aesthetics, or… something), coupled with a little “get off my lawn” is a dumb, snarky tic that brings down the quality of this whole review (though not to What? levels).
I agree with That Fuzzy Bastard. (How many times does one ever get to say something like that?) Whenever I hear/read someone using the word ‘hipster’ in all seriousness in the year 2009, I find it to be either lazy criticism at best, shallow meanness at worst. I always enjoy reading your work, Mr. Kenny, both here and at Some Came Running, but that last paragraph ends this otherwise fine review on an unnecessarily acerbic note.
Wow: the Snarkist United Front in action! As one squared-off rhomboid to another, great review. The LITTLE ANNIE FANNY stuff was especially right on. Funny: having spent a 1000 words or so looking for meaning in What?, Rabin’s last-ditch scoffing at “squares” seems a little…revealing.
Heh. I know the author of the IMDb review — a fellow of excellent taste, generally, but idiosyncratic. In a good way. (I’m not saying it’s me — it’s not me.) Polanski said that the film was a rondo, based on rhythm and repetition, not meaning. But of course, meaning, or the filmmaker’s personality, creeps in. I find it a sinister film, beautifully made but ugly at heart. The characters referring to Nancy as a pig, and her escape in a pig truck, resonate horribly with the word written on the wall of Polanski’s home by the Manson family.
Given Polanski’s constant fear of death in German occupied Poland, it would take a great deal to shake him up, but the murder of Sharon Tate, carrying his child, certainly did it. Ken Tynan, the British critic, told me he was spending time with Roman in France doing some work on the script and it was Polansksi’s preoccupation with the bizzarre circumstances of the murder that was driving his preoccupation with the film which he meant as metaphor. Paul Leaf
Gee, I had no idea Rabin’s claque was so tender-hearted. I don’t suppose it’ll help my case any to say that I was just picking up the ball he dropped with “hopeless square,” and that my ripostes of “Daddy-O” and “hipster” were merely responses in kind, and meant to be, you know, funny. I do think that for him to assess the film from a bootleg he watched on a computer is a real punk move, and I mean “punk” in the post-Shakespeare/pre-Ramones sense.
Tender-hearted isn’t it, it’s more irritation with your attempt to seize critical high ground with a malfunctioning jet pack. The Daddy-O and hipster thing were awkward writing (Rabin’s “square” was a little skip in the step, to which you responded with hobnail boot stomps), but not really so bothersome. What I’m more annoyed by is your obtuse misunderstanding of Rabin’s point in the service of a snarky personal swipe—-it’s as though you can’t evaluate a movie without going after someone, anyone on a personal level, even if you have to misread to do it. That’s what I meant by the Armond White crack back at your site. Should Rabin have shelled out for a more pristine version? It doesn’t sound like the visual difference would have altered his impressions at all—-the story didn’t add up, and that’s that. But your tic of ungraciousness drives you to find something to complain about when another dog’s been on your chosen tree, so you slip into a neurotic non sequitur about Meaning which turned your final paragraph into a farrago of disconnected phrases. Worse yet, you brought up the Critic’s Sacred Duty To Find Meaning just as you wrapped up a piece that showed no interest at all in thematic summing-up, and just petered out into “this movie was in focus, and the characters were often visible in frame.”
“Rabin’s ‘square’ was a little skip in the step, to which you responded with hobnail boots” really says it all. He’s the earnest innocent without a malicious bone in his body who made a tiny mistake, and I’m Frankenstein’s monster, stomping all over the good, the true, the noble. Whatever. I suppose it didn’t occur to you that my objection had more to do with the bootleg thing than the watching-on-a-computer thing. I actually do have a moral problem (believe it or not) with bootlegs, and put a lot of effort into avoiding them.
Glenn: I don’t feel strongly one way or the other about Nathan Rabin, but I would be interested to read your response to Fuzzy Bastard’s claim that “it’s as though you can’t evaluate a movie without going after someone, anyone on a personal level.” (leaving out the “even if you have to misread” bit, cus I don’t think that applies) It’s a feature of your writing (which I otherwise love) that’s been bugging me for some time now. Sometimes I agree with you, sometimes I don’t, but I don’t recall a piece of yours that was ever enhanced by including a swipe at some other critic’s stupidity. I mean, I think Ella Taylor’s reviews are pretty useless, too, but the great thing is that no one’s holding a knife to my throat and forcin’ me to read ’em. Again, I can take Rabin or leave him. But over on your blog, you advertising your swipe at him as a highlight of this piece was a bit off-putting. Is calling out other writers, like, your “thing”? Christ, when did I become such a softie?
To Michael: I remember rather vividly the first comment one “bill” left on my blog, back when it was at Premiere and went by a different name. I had made sport of a National Review Online writer, and he asked, “So the point of this blog is that you just make fun of other bloggers?” I said no, we argued, and he’s now a regular commenter and a great blogger himself. See here: I’m not sure what exactly the point of that anecdote is, except that, no, calling out other writers isn’t my “thing,” it’s one of my things. And, just like that PSA where the dad asks his son where he learned to roll joints, all I can say in my defense is that “I learned it from the internet!” It’s part of blog discourse, no matter how you slice it. Maybe I do it more vehemently than others, or whatever. Sometimes, depending on who I “call out,” people seem to like it. My attack on Taylor was, I admit, thoroughly overstated and wound up costing me a lot of personal grief. This tendency has cost me at least one friendship—one that, on reflection, was probably not worth much of anything to begin with—but still. My “advertisement” of the swipe at Rabin was intended light-heartedly, as, believe it or not, the swipe itself was. I still hold that the “hopeless square” bit was an obnoxious piece of posturing. So there you have it. I don’t know when you became such a softie. My suspicion is that Rabin somehow brings that out in people. Wish I knew his secret!
He secretly sacrifices kittens.
Glenn — Was that really my first comment I left at your old blog? Hmm… Okay, well, here’s the thing about all this. Despite not realizing that had been my first comment, I do remember saying it. And yet, over the years, as the topic of your putative(!) over-snarkiness(!!) has periodically come up, I’ve tended to steer clear, because I realized something, which is that I’m a hypocrite. You allude to this yourself, Glenn, but basically our reactions — I’m talking about all of us here — to Glenn’s, or anyone’s, well-turned snark depends on how we feel about the object of that snark. If we either like, or are even indifferent, to the person, our reaction is most likely going to be “Oh now hey. Was that necessary?” If, on the other hand, we share some of Glenn’s (or anyone’s) disdain for the person, we might well react with a “Aw yeah!” and a “High five!” We seem to be awfully picky about who we choose to swoop in and defend. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone, when complaining to Glenn about this sort of thing, by saying “Listen, I hate that son of a bitch too, but…”. Not to mention the fact there seems to me to be a very blatant disconnect between what we consider fair, or hilarious, negative comments made by a critic at the expense of a filmmaker, actor, etc., and what we consider fair criticism between two critics. Glenn’s Ella Taylor comments in his A SERIOUS MAN review have been mentioned. Though having now seen that film, and discovering that her review really burns my ass, too, I’m inclined to agree that Glenn’s words seemed a bit much. But let’s look at some of the words Taylor directs towards the Coen brothers: “As usual, though, the Coens have more venal satisfactions in mind.” “…just about every character the Coens create is meant to affirm their own superiority.” “… they crow in the notes for this loathsome movie…” Some might say that “loathsome” is directed towards the film, not at the Coens, but I believe that’s a complete rationalization, and implies that artists don’t have the slightest personal connection to their work. And what about that “superiority” crack? Elsewhere in her review, Taylor says that the comments she’s heard comparing A SERIOUS MAN to Philip Roth are misguided because Roth is “one of the world’s least self-hating Jews if you read him right…”, a comment which instantly sets her up as superior to anyone who disagrees with her interpretation of Roth. As for Rabin…well, how can NO ONE ELSE find his “complete square” comment as obnoxious as I do? Talk about setting yourself up as superior. Anyone who tries to find something in WHAT? beyond a “freak-out”, whether or not they like it, is a “complete square” (a put-down that would only be used, by the way, by a non-imaginary hipster). You guys know that’s an insult, right? Maybe not to you specifically, but it’s sure as hell meant to insult somebody. So why does Rabin get off the hook? Why does Taylor? Why are critics so protected all the time? Anyway. I know what everybody’s saying, and I’ve had similar thoughts, but lately I think all this hand-wringing about critics’ feelings being hurt displays a wildly inconsistent attitude towards internet snark. And all of the above will probably be disregarded because Glenn complimented, and linked to, me, but so be it.
I’ve always really, really wanted to see ‘What?’ It looks so ridiculous. It’s been one of those movies I’ve tried to figure out what it’d might be like in my head. I’ve never had a clue what it was exactly about.
“it’s as though you can’t evaluate a movie without going after someone, anyone on a personal level” I agree, it’s very off-putting and arrogant.
I’ve done over 60 Foreign Region DVD Reports since joining the Auteurs. Snookems, or Fuzzy for that matter, find me a single other one in which I’ve gone after a fellow critic, or, for that matter, “anyone,” on a personal level, besides this one. I may be arrogant and off putting, but I can at least be happy that I don’t propagate outright lies to make my case, or stir other people up.
Thanks for the reply, Glenn. I suppose this’ll be a combo reply to you and bill: I’m usually a lurker in comment threads, but the door opened wide after Bastard’s remark about “personal attacks”, and since I’d been thinking about it for a while, the moment seemed right to step in. I know it made me seem like just another dollar in the Nathan Rabin Defense Fund, but it was more about the regular appearance of (in my opinion) unnecessary attacks (or at least mockery) in Glenn’s writing than coming to the aid of any one particular critic. I was interested to hear your reply is all. Now I’m worried I’ve failed to adequately distance myself from those who’re calling for Glenn’s head. Please note that I find Glenn’s writing educational, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable. The shots at other writers have become, to me anyway, an unfortunate additional element. Remove the paragraph about Ella Taylor from the post on “A Serious Man” and it doesn’t suffer any. And this is coming from someone who learned long ago to skip over any capsule review in L.A. Weekly that bore her name. But, y’know, who gives a shit about my personal preference? It’s Glenn’s blog, and I’ll still read it. Let me just put it this way: I’d be much less aware of Armond White’s ridiculousness if Glenn wasn’t linking to it every week.
Thanks, Michael. And by the way/for the record, I don’t really know if the White-ism Of The Week is going to survive as the Topics column completes its in-progress tone/content transition.
I don’t know how many commenters read Rabin’s actual article, but I’d just like to point out that it comes from a series of articles on A.V. Club called “My Year of Flops” where Rabin watches a bunch of movies that were commercial failure and evaluates whether they were actually at all good. He writes pretty perceptively, but he’s also often humorous and sarcastic in tone, and the quote sounds much harsher out of context than it does within it: “This makes no more or less sense than anything else in the film; random shit just happens. Only a hopeless square would look for meaning in Polanski’s leaden freak-fest.” Basically all he meant was “this film makes no sense and you’d have to be obsessed with seeing deep philosophical meanings in everything to think there’s any deep philosophical meaning here.” It was a passing statement that I doubt he thought about for longer than it took him to write it, and it has nothing to do with “posturing.” And you can be irritated by the bootleg DVD which a reader sent to him unasked-for, but I have watched plenty of movies on my laptop and can personally say that I can evaluate movies just fine without seeing it on a big screen (though the latter is of course always preferable).
Polanski’s films always made you think. George Vreeland Hill

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