Friday, September 24, 2010

Curiosity and the Ghost

It may be a bit ironic to muse interrogatively on the topic, but…


Why are we so often driven to know? Why don’t we, when we see a hint of evil or wrong doing, turn and run? As a race we tend to dig and search in an effort to expose the evil we encounter. Often that is a deadly pursuit.

Roman Polanski has a gift for exposing the sinister, the evil in the normal. Films where “ordinary” people are caught up in larger events like some Helen MacInnes novel (Chinatown, Frantic, The Ninth Gate and now The Ghost Writer) are entertaining because we all envy the prospect of stumbling upon a real mystery, playing a part in exposing a wrong.

The problem Polanski poses is that such an endeavor is not only dangerous; it may be futile. There is a character in The Ghost Writer that is seen over and over trying to sweep up a patio area on a beach. It is a job that will never be accomplished. That seems to be a commentary that Polanski is making… evil is everywhere and McGregor’s character—the ghost’s attempts to get to the bottom of this mystery is a lot like that man trying to sweep the beach. What is the point? What can one hope to accomplish?

The smarter alternative may be to recognize wrong, turn and run. The ghost even tells hid reflection at one point: “Bad idea!” but he continues to chase the clues and dig himself deeper into trouble. Polanski is, as always, a master at drawing us into the tension of the mystery. Instinctively, we know there is danger at every turn, but the situations are everyday ones: riding a bike, reading a manuscript, driving a car… it is the way Polanski presents these mundane activities that gets us. “Well all the words are there, they’re just in the wrong order,” declares the ghost at one point. He couldn’t be any more mistaken, and Polanski has pieced his film together perfectly as well.

Polanski’s worldview in the end seems to be that some people are drawn to do evil. The rest of us are drawn not to do wrong, but towards it—even when we tell ourselves we are just exposing it. The warning if we could only heed it would be that we are better off avoiding it altogether.

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