Sunday, October 28, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.11: Roman Polanski's Pirates

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 17 (D)

Christ, so it comes to this. Roman Polanski’s Tess was a critical and relative commercial hit, but the director spent the next several years in exile just trying to get past his 1977 sex crime. When his stage production of Peter Schaeffer’s Amadeus was a critical hit, he tried to option the film only to be beaten out by Milos Forman. When Tunisian movie producer Tarak Ben Ammar approached Polanski and asked him if he had anything ready to go, Polanski dusted off the script for Pirates, which he had written back in 1974 as an intended follow-up to Chinatown. Polanski and company saw a potential blockbuster. The rest of the world? Not so much.

Captain Red (Walter Matthau in a role originally conceived for Jack Nicholson) and his French first mate Frog (Cris Campion in a role written for Polanski himself) are stranded at sea and on the verge of cannibalism until they’re picked up by a Spanish Galleon. The two are forced into slavery by the odious Don Alfonso (Damien Thomas), but they mutiny and take over command of the ship. The Frog falls for Maria-Dolores (Charlotte Lewis), the niece of a Spanish colony governor, while Captain Red leads the ship on a series of adventures.

If that seems like a rather thin plot, you nailed it. Polanski and Gerard Brach more or less thought up a bunch of situations they thought would be funny (Red and the Frog forced to eat a rat, an interrogation scene involving a threatened rape and Red chewing on the toes of a man with gout) and threw them together. This is a story that needs a solid through-line if the bawdy humor is going to work (for a strong example, see their infinitely superior work on The Fearless Vampire Killers), and Pirates doesn’t have it. The astronomical miscalculation doesn’t end there: most of the performances are bland and forgettable, but let’s ponder Walter Matthau’s casting. Matthau was a great character-actor who people go to see for his personality. Burying him under hair and make-up and forcing him to mask his recognizable voice with a horrendous pirate accent seems questionable, to say the very least.

The film isn’t even well put-together: Polanski and editor Herve de Luze (who, to be fair, have done great work together since) inexplicably chop up most of the action scenes (which themselves aren’t much fun anyway) and leave in a long scene of business in a bathtub that doesn’t go anywhere and drags out an already interminable experience. Pirates isn’t totally without interest: there are impressive moments of pure spectacle, and one must admire Polanski’s choice to build a full scale ship for the production (now a tourist attraction in Tunisia). Still, there’s a reason Pirates has never been made commercially available on DVD Stateside. When the best selling point for a movie is “Hey, at least it’s better than What?, it’s best to just skip it.

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