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Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Reading Rosemary

It's been said, probably by someone facing a major PR disaster: "Judge the art, not the artist". I would like to amend that statement: "Judge the art before you judge the artist"

Consider one of the great horror films, by one of the great directors and not-so-great human beings, Roman Polanski. Personal disgust aside, I can attest that his 1968 film, Rosemary's Baby, based on the novel by Ira Levin, is one of the all time movies. So great, that after I saw it for the second time, I figured I ought to read the book.
Some context before I go further: Ira Levin is a renowned author whose most famous novel was The Stepford Wives--a feminist cautionary tale about women who are made into something unhuman so that they can be controlled by their husbands (sound familiar?). Roman Polanski is a director known to have (in the polite words of my favourite film blogger) a "complicated" relationship to women. Most notably, he fled the United States in the 1970s after he was charged with drugging and sodomizing a thirteen year old girl.

Even before that, his first English language film, "Repulsion," had the slightly uncomfortable subtext that women who don't desire men are murderous psychopaths.

Like I said, "complicated".

It seems altogether strange that this man would be drawn to a novel from the author of the Stepford Wives. But drawn he was. In the introduction to the paperback version, Otto Penzler writes " [Polanzki] met regularly with Levin, pages marked in the book, asking questions such as, What do you think is the colour of Rosemary's dress in this scene? and What is the date of the issue of the New Yorker in which Guy Woodhouse sees a shirt he wants?" (Introduction, VII, Otto Penzler, First Pegasus Books Edition, 2010)
 Reading the book  knowing the bleak ending of the film made the novel that much more terrifying from the first page, because when you know what's going to happen to Rosemary Woodhouse, in all its Technicolor glory it seems impossible to read on once she gushes to her husband, "You see how you can think of things?...You're a marvelous liar." (4)

Book Rosemary is a much more sympathetic character than she is in the film.My one criticism of Polanski's vision was that Rosemary was much too passive, too quick to forgive her husband for date-raping her, and throwing out the book about witchcraft because it was "upsetting" her. To me, a fully radicalized 21st century anti-patriarchist (because "feminism" isn't a strong enough word anymore) those were the most egregious faux-pas a husband could commit, and Rosemary seemed to shrug them off so quickly that she never seemed quite real to me. I chalked it up to the film being forty odd years old, and marvelled at how darn submissive sixties housewives were expected to be.

This is where the book and movie part ways in particularly jarring fashion, espcecially given Polanski's supposedly slavish dedication to the source material. In the book, Rosemary is proper pissed about the way her husband treats her. Unlike doe-eyed-and-deeply-disappointed Mia Farrow Rosemary, Book Rosemary "was unhappy--whether or not it was silly to be so. Guy had taken her without her knowledge, had made love to her as a mindless body ('kind of fun in a necrophile sort of way') rather than as the complete mind and body person she was...True, he had done it for the best motive in the world, to make a baby, and true too he had drunk as much as she had; but she wished that no motive and no number of drinks could have enabled him to take her that way, taking only her body without her soul or self or she-ness--whatever it was he presumably loved." (94)

Levin's novel is deeply sympathetic to Rosemary as a rape victim. Now of course, inner monologue like that can't be placed elegantly into a film, so I can understand it being taken out. The same can almost be said for the chapter where Rosemary leaves Guy (after the rape, before she knows she is pregnant) for a week:

"On the third day she thought of him. He was vain, self-centred, shallow and deceitful. He had married her just to have an audience, not a mate...She would give him a year to shape up and become a good husband; if he didn't make it she would pull out, and with no religious qualms whatever. And meanwhile she would go back to work and get again that sense of independence and self sufficiency she had been so eager to get rid of. She would be strong and proud and ready to go if he failed to meet her standards.

"On the fourth day she awoke missing him and cried...What had he done that was so terrible? He had gotten drunk and grabbed her without saying may I. Well, that was really an earth-shattering offense, now wasn't it? There he was, facing the biggest challenge of his career and she--instead of being there to help him, to cue and encourage him--was off in the middle of nowhere, eating herself sick" (99)

When we're in Rosemary's head, it becomes clear that this isn't just a book about Satan-qua-Satan. It's about a woman who become complicit in her own victimization by allowing her husband to rule her life. In the course of two paragraphs Rosemary goes from clear-headed independent woman to simpering housewife, making excuses for her man. And in the process she become a host for evil.

Also, major props to Levin for the allusion to God's creation of the world in Genesis ("On the ___ day") as Rosemary's realizes she's pregnant. He was a great fucking writer. 

The novel is a feminist cautionary tale as much as the Stepford Wives was, and it is fascinating to note that with all the little ways Polanski stayed faithful to the source material, he completely neglected the big theme, which happens to be female empowerment.

Now I hear you, imaginary reader, exclaim: "Hold on! The film is a masterpiece!" I don't dispute that. But it is a masterpiece made by a man who is not known to be overly sympathetic to the female sex, and that shows. "This doesn't prove anything!" You may exclaim, "Why should he ruin the greatest horror film of all time with pointless exposition and a scene where a woman sits alone in a cabin for a week?"

That, I have no answer for, except to say that someone as talented as Polanski could make anything work if he wanted to. Rosemary's inner monologue might not make for great cinema like it made for great literature. But  Polanski also changed the ending.

That's right. For anyone who hasn't read the book, but feels their interest piqued by now, I suggest you go out and read it before the next paragraph, because it is a kicker.

All the while I was reading Rosemary's Baby I had my stomach tied in knots, knowing as I did where Levin planned to leave her: Mother to Satan and completely powerless to change anything, passive in the face of the people who've corrupted her and the evil she has created.

Anticipating that ending to a book where Rosemary is actually a sympathetic character was a giant pain in the gut. It actually gave me a nightmare.

But then it didn't come. In the film, Rosemary discovers her baby, freaks out a little when she sees its only part human, then decides "what the fuck I'm its mother" and rocks it to sleep in a horrid black bassinet while the cultists chant "Hail Rosemary! Hail Satan!" around her.

The book lets us know what she's thinking:

"He couldn't be all bad, he just  couldn't. Even if she was half Satan, wasn't he half her as well, half decent, ordinary, sensible, human being? If she worked against them, exerted a good influence to counteract their bad one..." (242-243)

The book ends on a much more positive note, where she insists on naming her own son and bringing him back to her apartment and its yellow and white nursery:

"I understand why you'd like to call him that, but I'm sorry; you can't. His name is Andrew John. He's my child, not yours, and this is one point that I'm not even going to argue about. This and the clothes. He can't wear black all the time." (245)

Am I alone in thinking is a radical change? To put things in perspective, only about two scenes from the whole book were removed for the screenplay (one of which is Rosemary's soul searching trip to the cabin). This is the only scene from the book that was dramatically altered, and it is arguably the most important one. It's the ending that give the book its thematic punch--it strongly punctuates the theme that a woman who allows herself to be controlled by her husband and her elders is setting herself up for tragedy. Women are doomed if they remain in their passive guilt ridden roles. Only when they take charge is there a glimmer of hope for the uncertain future. Levin's book ends on a note of uncertainty, but at least his Rosemary doesn't lose her soul.

Polanski, the noted rapist, missed that point (or chose to remove it) completely. But he made sure the dates on the newspaper were right.

In this case the source material is almost a Rorschach test, where what the director's vision hints at a lot of his "complicated" mindset. Judge the art before the artist, sure, I'll be damned if they don't sometimes get their wires crossed.



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