Thursday, October 30, 2014

Question your assumptions: Rosemary's Baby

Back in June, I held The Graduate under a microscope to see if I really loved it as much as I thought I did, and consequently decided to start a recurring series called Question Your Assumptions. And as I do with many of my spontaneously created new series -- I Finally Saw, I Never Meant to See, etc. -- I then pretty much dropped it.

So when I went to watch something while carving our jack-o-lantern on Wednesday night, and chose Rosemary's Baby from a Halloween-themed batch I'd picked up at the library, I realized it made a logical next addition to the previously foundering series. (I had planned to watch the original version of Carrie, which I have never seen, but decided to save it for Halloween night in case my wife wants to watch it. She has told me she wants our Halloween viewing to be something she hasn't seen before, so I knew Rosemary's Baby was a safe choice for pumpkin-carving night.)

It makes an especially appropriate pairing with The Graduate, as both films are from 1968, and both films are currently ranked between #100 and #200 (out of more than 4,000) on my Flickchart (The Graduate is #116, Rosemary's Baby is #188).

But my real interest in writing about this is that I have always considered Rosemary's Baby to be in direct conflict with The Exorcist in terms of disturbing, confronting horror classics from the late 1960s/early 1970s. If, according to me, everyone is either a Rosemary's Baby person or an Exorcist person, I have always found myself in the latter camp -- as evidenced by The Exorcist's lofty Flickchart ranking of #58.

However, that stance has been challenged by a couple things I have been mulling over: 1) the fact that I've only seen Rosemary's Baby once, and it was back in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and 2) a critic or two I respect who have taken jabs at the quality of The Exorcist.

I suppose a third viewing of The Exorcist (which would also be my first in that same 15-year time period) would really be the best way to get at the topic, but since I've at least got the new Baby viewing, let's work with that.

The movie started in a particularly spooky way, with that iconic "la la la la la" lullaby over a completely black screen. It went on for so long that I thought Roman Polanski had decided to begin with an anachronistic overture, something that probably hadn't quite dropped from the cinematic landscape by 1968 (but would certainly only be consigned to costume epics at this point). When the dialogue started and there was still no picture, I realized there was something wrong with the screen. Clicking back to the start of the chapter sorted it out.

Still, the accidental beginning of my viewing experience has a real relationship to Polanski's approach to the material. I think one of the reasons I wasn't as wowed by Rosemary's, especially compared to The Exorcist, when I was younger and less discriminating was that I still measured the effectiveness of a horror movie by how grotesque it was. While The Exorcist is all about the viscera and horror that gets shown, Rosemary's Baby is all about what you can't actually see. While evil punches you directly in the face in The Exorcist, it seems to lurk just outside the frame in Polanski's film.

Of course, the best way to talk about the effectiveness of an approach is to talk about the times it is violated. After a sinister but rather banal opening 20 minutes ("banal" is a word I apply in the best way possible to certain passages of Rosemary's Baby), you are really jolted by the image of Rosemary's simpatico neighbor Terry splattered on the sidewalk. There's something so discomfiting about the gore of her smashed head. It exists to remind you that although you feel sort of safe in this movie, you most certainly are not.

And I am still probably most affected by the movie's other really graphic scene -- its Exorcist scene -- which is the dream rape of Rosemary by the devil. I should put "dream" in quotation marks, because Polanski constructs the scene as though it could only be a dream, with clearly fantastical elements intermingling with elements we only wish were fantastical. There's a moment of horror near the end when Rosemary recognizes definitively that it is not a dream -- and that her brainwashed husband actually lurks among the participants.

Let's talk about some performances, specifically, Ruth Gordon's. This wouldn't have been a reference available to audiences at the time, but from Harold & Maude I think of Gordon as this beloved old coot -- and not just playing the role of a beloved old coot, as she does here. There is almost nothing overtly disturbing about Minnie Castevet, but a second viewing of the movie -- after you already know what will happen -- really allows a viewer to appreciate this very mild sinister undercurrent to her performance. She urges one course of action a bit too enthusiastically, while disguising it behind a blase sheen, or she reacts a little too strongly to particular pieces of news. She is the very definition of the banality of evil.

Now, let's talk about what's not seen.

I love the choice not to reveal the face of Ralph Bellamy's malevolent Dr. Sapirstein during the one moment when anyone acknowledges they may actually have something to hide from Rosemary. It's after the one living person she thought she could turn to -- Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin!!) -- turns her in to Sapirstein. (Whether he was always part of a conspiracy, or scared into compelling with the witches, is not immediately clear, and I don't know if I want to know.) Sapirstein walks up to her as she's seated and threatens to institutionalize her if she continues this talk of witches. Horrifyingly, his face cannot be seen ... so we can imagine it to be anything we want it to be. His hulking figure standing over her is also a symbol of the world crushing her last hopes to evade an increasingly preordained outcome.

But the most chilling moment of not seeing what another movie might show us is the decision not to reveal what this spawn of Satan actually looks like. "What have you done to him? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HIS EYES?" (I'm getting chills now just typing it out.) We never know, because we are never shown. All we hear are the cries coming from that pitch-black bassinet, so much like a baby yet somehow ... not.

Although my high ranking of Rosemary's Baby was mostly reinforced by this viewing, the second viewing did serve to remind me that The Exorcist is still my choice in this duel. Although I'm sure that the "don't show-don't tell" approach of Polanski's film impresses me more than it once did -- as evidenced by my embrace of a recent minimalist horror film like Berberian Sound Studio -- there's something about the specific brand of visceral horror seen in a movie like The Exorcist (and in Poltergeist, my favorite horror movie) that affects me more deeply.

Hey, I'm just a sucker for levitating bodies, rotating heads, shocking vulgarity and green spewing vomit.

What's a man to do?

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