Saturday, January 12, 2013

Weighing In On Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer

There are some movies I’ve never tired of watching. Each viewing yields new details, or a deeper appreciation of a story well told. Of writing John Gardner wrote, "Detail is the lifeblood of fiction." Certainly celluloid makes instantly vivid immense quantities of detail that words on paper would take pages to convey. But in film, many of the details are not simply for the creation of the fictional reality but serve to produce subliminal messages that reinforce the story's themes. In this regard, Roman Polanski is a master of the film arts.

For years Polanski’s harrowing Chinatown (Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway) has been one of those films I never tire of seeing. In his book Screenplay, screenwriting instructor Syd Field points to Chinatown as one of Hollywood’s most perfect films and worth studying in depth if one desires to learn the craft. I’ve not read the screenplay for The Ghost Writer, but as I watch once again this nail-biter suspense drama I’m swept away by those details.

For example, in one sequence Ewan McGregor is watching out the window as a man is attempting to sweep hay or brush into a wheelbarrow. There’s a strong wind, however, and the lightweight material keeps getting dispersed till the fellow gives up in futility. It’s only a few seconds in length, and totally unnecessary in terms of advancing the story, yet it telegraphs the entire film with no words whatsoever.

The main story line is about a writer (Ewan McGregor) who has been called in to complete the memoirs of former prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) whose previous ghost writer was found washed up on a beach on the island where they are staying here in the U.S. It’s interesting that we never learn the ghost writer’s name. A few times Adam Lang addresses him as “man” – as in “hey man” or “good work, man” -- but any special feeling of comradery in thus addressing him is pinched away by another's explanation, “he always calls a person that when he can’t remember their name.”

Like Chinatown this film is about a man brought in contact with a situation in which he finds a loose thread that slowly unravels a mystery that is far too big and dark and potentially deadly. You know he's in over his head but you root for him, though each turn of the screw leaves you more uncomfortably anxious for his safety. And like Chinatown, you only have the hero's perspective so that as new information arises the ground shifts beneath his feet. Like the ghost writer, you yourself are uncertain who the good guys are.

It would be easy to compare this film to many a Hitchcock thriller in which a simple character is unexpectedly thrust into a much more dangerous and complicated situation than he first imagined. I think of The 39 Steps or Cary Grant in North By Northwest, or Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much. With each new revelation tensions mount as our ghost writer begins to realize that he is now a man who knows too much. Yet, what does he know? He’s uncertain but somehow feels impelled to divine what it was that his predecessor knew.

Throughout I found this film pitch perfect. Next time you're looking around on Netflix or Blockbuster, check it out.

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