What? (Diary of Forbidden Dreams)

Movie Information

In Brief: Roman Polanski's little-seen — and much-maligned — 1972 film, What?, is undeniably one of the director's strangest works. In essence, it's a variation on Alice in Wonderland — except played out in surrealistic terms as a sex comedy. It's no wonder that no one seemed to know what to do with it or how to market it, but for all that, the film has a screwy appeal — and it contains moments of incredibly fragile delicacy amid the madness. What? is easily Polanski’s lightest film, but with style to spare — it’s probably his best-looking film — and merits of its own. It’s a unique and essential Polanski film that ought to be better-known than it is. This excerpt was taken from a review by Ken Hanke published on March 7, 2007.
Genre: Surreal Comedy
Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Sydne Rome, Hugh Griffith, Roman Polanski
Rated: R

Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present What? on Friday, June 29, at the new Flood Gallery location in Black Mountain, 850 Blue Ridge Road, Unit A-13, Black Mountain.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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One thought on “What? (Diary of Forbidden Dreams)

  1. carlos Steward

    Some people feel that we should not screen films by Polanski and we offer the following comments for discussion:
    Is it still ok to watch films or go to art events by people like Roman Polanski, enjoy Michael Jackson music or be entertained by Rolf Harris? We, at the Flood Gallery Fine Art Center, do not believe in censoring artists or their art, in our events that include film series, open mic, and our mail art show. Instead we tell our friends and viewers to walk out if something offends you, or do not come to an event that you feel is against your beliefs. We do encourage discussion about this topic and offer this excerpt from the Sydney Morning Herald, providing a background for dialog about these issues:

    From the Sydney Morning Herald, June 2014
    Writer Norman Mailer stabbed and almost killed his wife, and director Roman Polanski fled the US in 1977 after pleading guilty to the sexual assault of a 13-year-old. Can we separate these artists from their art? What about Gary Glitter? Charlie Sheen? Rolf Harris?
    ‘‘One that springs to my mind is Ezra Pound, who was virulently anti-Semitic and a fascist,’’ says author, poet and critic Alison Croggon. ‘‘The most repugnant political beliefs, they’re in his poems.
    ‘‘The thing is that Pound is a poet I admire a great deal. There’s things in there that are fascinating and complex and beautiful and you’d be the poorer if you didn’t read them.’’
    A similar problem can be found in the music of Wagner. The composer’s notorious anti-Semitism competes with the fact that his work has proved enduring enough to warrant the $20 million spent on the Ring Festival in Melbourne last year. ‘‘At one stage in Israel, there wasn’t a law but there was a kind of agreed practice that Wagner’s music wouldn’t be played publicly,’’ says Cordner. ‘‘In this case there was a political dimension to it, I think, in that those in Israel thought that these views were an expression of a deep-rooted repudiation of a people. Not allowing it to be played in public was an expression of a political sentiment. It’s not in this case just an individual moral value of my own but that playing it in public would have somehow been a kind of acknowledgment of a person whose views were hostile to the very existence of this people.’’
    In a similar fashion, the Allen case highlights our participation in what philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes, of Deakin University, calls ‘‘the moral sphere’. Stokes points out that the most recent claims against Allen emerged in response to a Golden Globe lifetime achievement award he received.
    ‘‘He was honoured in public. There’s a sense in which you can do things to the moral sphere that kind of disqualify you from being involved in that moral sphere, at least for a time. With Woody Allen, he’s never really fully been through that process,’’ says Stokes.
    It’s worth remembering that Allen has not been convicted or even charged with any crime. But this only makes the moral implications of viewing his work murkier for us ordinary moviegoers, according to Stokes.
    And yet for much of the 20th century, at least, entire schools of thinking advanced the view that none of this is relevant: the art and the artist must never be confused. Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author essay is required reading for first-year arts students, and argues that meaning in any artwork is found not in the intentions or character of its makers but at the point of reception.
    Some creators attempt to disappear into their work – think of the expressionless face and flat voice of Andy Warhol. Today the deliberate anonymity of musicians such as Daft Punk or street artist Banksy let their works speak for itself. What if any of these turned out to be awful people?
    Would the art be diminished?
    Perhaps the question isn’t just whether we can distinguish the art from the artist, but whether we should. Whose purposes are served by severing that connection absolutely? After all, one of the architects of the American deconstructionist school was theorist Paul de Man, and a recent book suggests that his denial that there is any continuity to the self were wonderfully useful for an academic giant who, it turns out, had faked his own qualifications and erased his own criminal past in Europe.
    But we do afford some artists an unofficial pardon, and it’s here that morality can get pretty messy. There seems to be a kind of ethical statute of limitations that many of us unofficially apply in such cases. The racist tirades of Wagner and Pound aren’t subject to the same outrage as those of Mel Gibson or Seinfeld’s Michael Richards.
    ‘‘We have a very strong intuition that time does make a difference and that things don’t matter in the same way across time,’’ says Stokes.
    ‘‘That’s why we arguably give people lesser jail sentences if we catch them 40 years after they did something. A long time has passed and things have changed. But at the same time, it still seems like the moral quality of what was done isn’t affected by the passage of time.
    Nobody leapt to the defence of Robert ‘‘Hey Dad!’’ Hughes on the aesthetic merits of his television work. Why should the scales tip otherwise in the case of more lauded artists?
    ‘‘People do similar things with Polanski,’’ says Stokes. ‘‘There were comments saying that OK, he did that, but he’s such a great artist! Hang on. How many good movies do you have to make to outweigh the evil of rape? Once you start adding those things together something has gone wrong.’’
    ‘‘The philosopher Bernard Williams makes this point: if we think about the heritage of Classical Greece that we’ve got, great plays, works of philosophy and so on, that all comes from a slave-owning culture and we wouldn’t have it unless this had been a slave-owning culture. That sustained the whole way of life of Greek culture. Should we somehow wash our hands of all of that cultural benefit we’ve got from that?
    ‘‘His view is that you can be grateful for the art and the philosophy and at the same time not affirm the cultural circumstances out of which it came.’’
    In some cases, says Cordner, this line of thought could be applied to ‘‘individuals and their character’’. ‘‘‘Well, look, he was an unpleasant person but in this case I’m able to read or listen to the art without unduly obstructing my appreciation of it.’ In other cases, people can say the connection’s too close or too strong or too near us historically or personally and ‘I can’t do it.’ Sometimes people can say, ‘And I can’t imagine how other right-thinking people could.’’’
    ‘‘Someone might think, ‘I would never go and see a Woody Allen film again,’ but without thinking that others who went to see a Woody Allen film are somehow doing something wrong. In other cases a person might think, ‘Not only is this how I respond but I think any decent-thinking person should respond the same way.’ That’s going to depend on the situation, whether a person thinks their response is just their own or whether they think it’s something that any right-minded person should share.’’
    It’s a distinction film critic Tara Judah has made. This year she wrote an essay for Overland titled Why I’ll Still Watch Woody Allen Films, in which she defends the right of viewers to do the same while also noting, ‘‘I’m not suggesting for a moment that my decision to continue to watch films by Woody Allen or Roman Polanski is superior to the contrary decision. Certainly, there is a persuasive case to be made for not watching their films.’’
    Judah says: ‘‘There are valid cases to be made in both instances, for and against. I can only speak for myself and, though I’d never say ‘shouldn’t’ or ‘can’t’, I am able to separate art from maker.’’

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