8,731 films were submitted for Sundance 08. 210 were screened. Despite every intensifying competition for entries, the Festival experienced a slow start, with quality films selling later than usual...
Superior Court Judge Laurence Rittenband presided over the divorce of Elvis Presley, dealt with a paternity suit against Cary Grant and a child custody battle involving Marlon Brando. If he had not died almost fifteen years before Marina Zenovich’s documentary, it is doubtful whether it could have been made.
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired is a sympathetic account of the Polish director’s life focusing on his trial for unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13 year old girl, Samantha Gailey (now Geimer) and the director’s subsequent flight from the USA to evade a judicial system which he believed to be corrupt. The incident at Jack Nicholson’s otherwise deserted house on Mulholland Drive, took place when Polanski was filming the girl partly clothed. He is alleged to have given her drugs and alcohol.
There is a chronicle of Polanski’s rise to fame in London in the 60s where everyone wanted a piece of Roman because his work was so original. Subsequently he moved to Hollywood where anything seemed possible. His marriage to Sharon Tate provided the first really secure relationship following a disrupted childhood which involved fleeing from the Nazis and his mother dying in a concentration camp. Tate’s gruesome murder in 1969 by the Manson family knocked this key stabilising pillar from Polanski.
One of the arresting officers states, “I wasn’t sure if Mr Polanski was aware of what being arrested in America meant.” But if Polanski wasn’t sure of the seriousness of the allegations, the American press certainly were. A media feeding frenzy followed for Polanski was the perfect villain, short in stature with a thick accent, a famous and controversial film director who had the legacy of his wife’s controversial murder. How could a man, whose dark creative energies had brought forth Repulsion, Knife in the Water, The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, not fail to be twisted and evil?
This high profile case attracted the attention of Judge Rittenband, who asked for the case. This was a judge who loved champagne and dancing, who kept a scrap book of his own press cuttings and a mistress 35 years his junior, a judge who ran his courtroom like a tyrannical film director, soliciting reservations for seats. Roger Gunson, the clean cut Robert Redford look-a-like Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted in the case and Douglas Dalton, Polanski’s lawyer are both interviewed revealing the secret deals which the Judge tried to cut with them and then reneged on in the courtroom. His judgements, originally driven by desires of self-aggrandisement were eventually dominated by the need to save his reputation by satisfying a lynch mob of American media determined to disembowel Polanski.
Several of those interviewed question the motives of Samantha’s mother, allowing her daughter to work unchaperoned with a man of Polanski’s reputation with younger women. Geimar herself makes it clear she has forgiven Polanski, but her own motives for going public now are not explored.
The documentary illustrates a clash of cultures, that of continental Europe, particularly France where Polanski continues to be honoured and idolised today, and the USA and English speaking world where accusations of paedophilia are even more serious now than 30 years ago. All the interviews with Polanski are archival and a current perspective from him may have added value to the film. But Zenovich’s skilfully worked treatment is worth seeing by those new to the story and for the new insights which it offers.
Man on Wire, 2008
A 200 foot long high wire suspended 1,350 feet above the ground between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre: this is what high wire artist Philippe Petit conquered on 7th August 1974, even as the buildings were receiving their final touches.
Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh, is structured as a heist caper. We see eight months planning of Petit’s team, but most successful heists on the screen share the job only with the film audience. The climax of this escapade was shared with thousands of New Yorkers who stared into the Manhattan sky, many of them too distant to see the wire, so that the figure who knelt, lay and danced thereon must have seemed like a silhouette of Christ walking on air.
Petit began planning the wire walk as soon as he heard of the construction of the buildings. “The object of my dream does not yet exist. This is the challenge of doing something which is supposed to be impossible. If I die, what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion.”
The film studiously tries to avoid references to 9/11 but it is impossible to hear Petit’s words without thinking of those who jumped to their death in 2001. Other images also evoke 9/11. One still of him on the high wire has an airliner in the background. Shots of construction work of the Twin Towers include the installation of vertical steels so characteristic of the buildings which became the icon of the Ground Zero debris, when a section of the grid stuck out of the top of the pile of rubble.
Petit and his sidekick Jim Moore posed as journalist and cameraman to gain further insight into potential fixing points on the roofs of the buildings. The interaction with police and security during the night when a ton of equipment was used to rig the wire borders on farce at times. Michael Nyman’s musical scoring is particularly effective at this point.
The main narrative is a chronology of Petit’s life from a highly rebellious schoolboy, to street theatre artist, and mischievous expert in pickpocketing. This is intercut with sections of the actual day which include contextual material such as Nixon’s jowls spreading Watergate sleaze across the TV screen.
The tensions within the team are well developed as some key members dropped out through fear of discovery or concern that he would fall. The earlier postponements of the attempt are well explored with the frustrations that Petit felt at any delay. The release of adrenalin after the wire walk, resulted in unexpected personal consequences for him.
Philippe attended the Q and A and his infectious enthusiasm was as evident at 57 as it was when this exploit took place aged 24. The film won both jury and audience awards at Sundance and should be seen on the big screen.
Derek premiered in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance and will be accessible to British audiences from next week via a showing on More 4 and also as the centrepiece of a larger exploration of Jarman’s work at the Serpentine Gallery from 23rd February.
One of the challenges of any biopic is to remain comprehensible to viewers new to the subject as well as satisfying those who are already steeped in his life and oeuvre. Derek succeeds in this through a largely chronological presentation of a life which in many respects is the antithesis of a coherent narrative. Isaac Julien’s film attempts to capture the essence of Jarman’s many talents as artist, painter, filmmaker and gay activist which are reminiscent of earlier Renaissance figures rather than heroes of the narrow super-specialised modern world.
The film is based upon two principal pillars, narration by his long term friend Tilda Swinton and a daylong interview with Colin MacCabe made in 1991 when Derek was dying of Aids. Jarman’s chocolate brown wooden cottage at Dungeness illuminated by its yellow window frames forms the introduction to the film and the garden which has become his shrine.
The beatings he received aged 9 and 10 from his distant ex-bomber squadron leader father, contrast with the loving attention from a thin raven-haired mother with a languorous cigarette between her lips. Teenage years brought no respite, with Jarman packed off to the torture of a sporty boarding house at Cranford School in Dorset. After an incident at prep school when Jarman was found in bed with another boy, the narrative reveals that his teenage years consisted of no sexual contact, as he buried himself instead in painting and stamps.
The film then takes us through his sexual awakening through viewing of films such as La Dolce Vita and from a North American trip in 1964 which took in New York, Calgary, San Francisco and the Big Sur coast of California. The rest of the sixties become an increasing blur as Jarman begins to circulate with David Hockney and Patrick Proctor, a crowd at the Slade and the ICA and famously hosts a party in 1969 attended by Tennessee Williams and Ken Russell.
As Derek moves into the 25 year period for which he is best known, the documentary becomes seriously challenging both through the stroboscopic presentation of an increasingly chaotic life, and through the carefully selected clips of his films, which will please the cognoscenti but are too brief for stand-alone viewing. Nevertheless, we do gain a sound impression of the importance of Jarman the filmmaker during his prolific years from Sebastiane (1976) and Jubilee (1977) through to Caravaggio (1986). It was during the filming of Caravaggio that Derek was diagnosed with Aids, and the spectre which was to kill more than 20 of his friends, henceforth hung over his future. This coincided with the era of increasing Thatcherisation of Britain and the mobilisation of those who challenged the ‘Woman’s Own’ wisdom that “there is no such thing as society.” Jarman politicisation in the face of this onslaught is carefully documented.
In failing health, we see Jarman’s energies increasingly focused through the Cottage at Dungeness, but far from discouraging his film making, these years include some of his most notable work War Requiem (1989), Edward ll (1991), Wittgenstein (1993) and Blue (1993). One can but hope that this film does not lead to an unacceptable increase in the 250,000 annual visits to the garden of the privately inhabited Prospect Cottage. World rights outside the UK did sell at Sundance and one hopes that the film gains the exposure beyond these shores which it deserves.