Friday, October 26, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 26: This Is Really Happening

In one of my favorite thriller novels, Marathon Man by William Goldman, what the reader had up to a certain point believed, or was meant to believe, were two separate characters is revealed to be the same person at the moment of his death. One of them is Scylla, government assassin, and the other is Doc, regular-person brother to our hero, Babe (nicknames both, of a very Goldman-y sort). In the novel, in one strand of the plot, we are witness to Scylla being mortally wounded. In another strand of the plot, Babe is coming home from somewhere or another, and when he enters his apartment he sees his brother dying on his floor from the exact same kind of wound we know Scylla has recently suffered. Ergo, one and one makes two. It's a brilliant piece of narrative legerdemain, exquisite in its simplicity (the film version doesn't even bother trying to mask Doc/Scylla's identity because it can't). That novel was written in 1974, and in 1986 Goldman set about ruining what I consider the best moment from the earlier novel (not counting that great ending) by writing a sequel to Marathon Man called Brothers, in which, as you might suspect from that title, he brought Scylla/Doc back to life. He survived because, phew, that was close, but I'm okay now. Basically. A maddening, frustrating choice. But what Goldman's decision failed to do, though it took me a little while to realize it, was it failed to ruin Marathon Man for me. Part of this is probably because Brothers is not an entirely bad novel; it's completely fucking bonkers, and its own ending is an intriguing downer, but it's not bad. But more than that, I seem to have been blessed with the capacity to acknowledge an original novel or film as completely separate from its sequel, should one exist, if I choose to do so. If the sequel works, then it's part of a larger whole. If it doesn't work, then fuck it. It's often said, and it sounds right to me, that if you become upset to the point of fuming and brooding for days on end because of something somebody else has done, then you are allowing yourself to be made upset, and that each person has the power to essentially get over that and move on and be happy. The realm of failed sequels is the only area of my life in which I've been able to make this work.

Before getting to the main parallel I'm about to lay out here, it's interesting to note that Ira Levin, the writer under discussion today, once achieved a very similar feat of ingenious simplicity in his 1953 novel A Kiss Before Dying, where a major twist in the plot is obscured just a smidge by the judicious withholding of information. This of course is done all the time by all writers everywhere, but there is a way that Levin and Goldman go about it, the sly style of it, the methods of their distraction, that really powers these moments. Another parallel between the two writers is that, like Goldman, Levin wrote a genre masterpiece, 1967's Rosemary's Baby, and thirty years later wrote a sequel, Son of Rosemary (incidentally, another parallel is that these novels would turn out to be their authors' last, with Levin dying ten years later without a follow up, and Goldman, at 81 and no novel since 1986, seems to have long since packed it in), that is terrible and ruins the earlier book by association. No, it doesn't ruin the earlier book. I've already gone over that. But it is...well, wait, is it terrible? I'm not convinced it is. I'm perfectly comfortable stating that Son of Rosemary is fairly bad, but terrible I don't know about.

Ira Levin had a rather interesting career, it seems to me. A Kiss Before Dying was his first novel, Rosemary's Baby his second (a fourteen-year gap between the two, you'll note), and after that he wrote five more: This Perfect Day (probably his most obscure novel, apparently science fiction, though I haven't read it), The Stepford Wives, The Boys From Brazil, Sliver (which got the film it deserved, let's put it like that), that was 1991, and then in 1997, Son of Rosemary. Seven novels in forty-four years seems a bit lean, but in between all that he also wrote nine plays, the most famous of which would clearly have to be No Time For Sergeants from 1956, turned into a TV play and later a film starring Andy Griffith, and Deathtrap from 1978, the record-breaking and intensely clever piece that was adapted four years later into the very underrated Sidney Lumet film with Michael Caine and a frankly terrifying Christopher Reeve. He also wrote a musical -- book and lyrics, anyway -- called Drat! The Cat!. A full career, I'd say, and an interestingly crafty one. So with that in mind, wouldn't you sort of have to think that if Ira Levin was going to write a sequel to his most famous novel, that he wouldn't just toss it off out of spite for, I don't know, his fans? That some level of that craftiness must be at play somewhere, and that if it wasn't this would be the first time in his career that he chose to leave that bit out?

Apparently you wouldn't have to think that, because the consensus on Son of Rosemary has always been that it's an unforgivable cop-out that not only doesn't work on its own terms, but even completely washes away his classic 1967 original (and by extension, Roman Polanski's masterful 1968 film adaptation, about which more in a little while). In 1999, I worked with a guy who I judged to be a discerning horror fan, and I asked him if he'd read Son of Rosemary, a book that at that point I was pretty sure I'd never bother with. He said he had, and it was terrible. I asked him what was so terrible about it, and he told me -- and listen, I'm going to be spoiling Son of Rosemary in this post, so if that matters to stop reading....NOW! -- that (SPOILER I WARNED YOU GUYS!) at the end of the novel, Ira Levin reveals that it was all a dream. Not just Son of Rosemary, mind you; Rosemary's Baby turns out to have a been a dream, too. A dream had by Rosemary Woodhouse, so at least there's that, but everything else? Down the shitter. Needless to say, I was appalled, and disappointed that the ever-crafty Levin would pull something as bone-stupid as that. Well, skip ahead a little while (no idea how long, possibly as soon as later that same night), and I decided I wanted further details, so I read some on-line reviews of Son of Rosemary. Most of them echoed my friend, but I saw at least one that said "Wait, hold on you guys, read the book a little closer. It's not what you think." I'm paraphrasing, but the gist is on the money, and left me somewhat intrigued by the notion that maybe this anonymous internet douche was right, and my friend was wrong. Maybe Son of Rosemary was actually being misunderstood and unfairly maligned by, essentially, everyone except this one person. Skip ahead again to this year, to now, and I've finally gotten around to reading Son of Rosemary, and you know what? It was being misunderstood. This lid-blowing revelation is somewhat tempered by the fact that it still isn't a very good novel, and it will be my choice and preference hereafter to regard Rosemary's Baby as the "real" book and Son of Rosemary as the failed but, if not exactly noble, then at least not ignoble, experiment.

And so what, at last, is the story of Son of Rosemary? The story is, it's 1999. The millenium is about to turn (which, I realize that, but just let it go, will you?) and on November 9, Dr. Stanley Shand, who you might remember as one of the Satanists working in league with Roman and Minnie Castavet to impregnate Rosemary (who was offered up without resistance by her ambitious actor husband, Guy) with Satan's child in the original story -- Phil Leeds played Shand in the film -- is hit by a car and killed. At just about that very instant, Rosemary Woodhouse, who has been in a coma since 1972, wakes up. This coma, we will learn, was brought on by the Satanists via a curse of some sort to get her out of the way so that Adrian, the Son of Satan (aka Andy, to Rosemary) could be raised by them without his mother's interference. And what Rosemary has awoken to, in 1999, is a world where Adrian is 33 years old, goes by Andy, is incredibly rich, and is beloved by the entire planet for his peacekeeping, peacemaking, charitable and humanistic deeds. He's like a secular preacher, or, to be more to the point, a secular Jesus. He even looks like Jesus. The important thing here being when Rosemary wakes up, all the hospital staff are wearing "I Heart Andy" pins, and are thunderstruck to learn that this old woman who has been asleep for the last twenty-seven years, is the mother of Andy -- that Andy, the one everybody hearts.

Rosemary and Andy finally meet, and it's quite a loving reunion. (And incidentally, Levin, who writes well about Rosemary's initial, unthinkable shock over the years lost to her coma, pretty swiftly moves her past that, which I can see being necessary on one level, but otherwise feels like he sort of didn't give a shit.) Andy informs Rosemary that she is the only one who knows the secret of his birth, and that one of the reasons he'd very much prefer to keep it that way, apart from all the obvious ones, is because he's shed all that Satanist baggage, the Castavets are dead, all of them are dead (Shand's death revived Rosemary because he was the last one). Not only that, but Andy has met his true father, and assures Rosemary that he found him even worse than advertised. As for Guy, Rosemary thinks:

Guy must have died early in the twenty-seven years.

Or Satan was a welsher -- and why not? To mangle Oscar Wilde or whoever, once you commit rape, the next thing you know, you're not paying your debts.

For whichever reason, Guy hadn't gotten his agreed-upon price for nine months' use of her. He hadn't become the next Olivier or Brando.

Poor Guy.

Sorry, no more tears.


Which is better than that piece of shit deserves, but I quote this only because I find it indicative of the kind of playful touch Levin brings to his cynicism, and the entirely winning way in which Rosemary is portrayed for much of the novel.
Anyway, Andy's the head of what you might call a massive corporate non-profit charity, and at the time of Rosemary's literal awakening, plans are moving full-steam ahead for a global candle-lighting once the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2000. Candles -- all the candles, for the world -- provided by Andy's company, called God's Children. And yes I know I called it secular, which that name would seem to belie, but outside of that, and Andy's Jesus resemblance/complex, the whole megillah does seem removed from any particular faith, Christian or otherwise. Okay, so the candles thing, which Rosemary thinks sounds beautiful, and soon she's part of the company, and she's famous and there are "I Heart Rosemary" pins, and she's starting to get flirty with Joe, Andy's driver, and what's losing twenty-seven years here and there?

Having no desire to turn this post into the Cliff’s Notes for Son of Rosemary, I shall now cut to the chase. Eventually, as you might expect, things begin to feel off. Rosemary meets a woman, an employee and former lover of Andy’s, who says things like “You have no idea what goes on” on a certain floor of Andy’s apartment/office complex. This woman wants out of the business. She is subsequently murdered, and it turns out she was actually a double agent, working for one of Andy’s few enemies (a group of Randian objectivists) who, it further appears, murdered her themselves and unsuccessfully tried to pin it on Andy. But Rosemary, knowing what she does about her son’s paternity, can’t shake her discomfort about the whole thing. This discomfort begins when she first sees Andy’s eyes transform from normal human eyes to the slit, tiger-eyes we know from the original story, and he has little horns, too, both features he explains he can mask from the outside world, to disguise himself. But he doesn’t always choose to disguise himself from Rosemary. There’s also the fact – and I think we can agree that this is no small thing – that Andy starts putting the moves, sexually I mean, on Rosemary. Who, you’ll remember, is his mother. His excuse, in the face of Rosemary’s shocked rejection, is some nonsense about her being beautiful and the only one who knows the truth about him and so on, and there’s no one in the world he loves as much as her. But frankly he takes the whole episode (or episodes) rather too lightly. So does Rosemary, when you get right down to it, but she’s had a lot thrown at her, I guess. Anyway, her fears become so great that she wonders about these candles that Andy is dispensing to all the peoples of the world. She asks Joe, who has connections, to have them tested by a lab for some kind of poison bioweapon junk or whatever, which he does. The results are negative. The candles are clean. Two more things: the woman, the double agent who was murdered, was into word games and puzzles and such, which you might recall is a pastime shared by Rosemary (remember Scrabble?), and in the early days of their short-lived friendship, she gives Rosemary a doozy of an anagram. “Roast mules.” That’s an anagram, Rosemary is told, for a single ten-letter word that would be known to any five-year-old child. Off and on, Levin describes Rosemary’s attempts to solve this anagram, usually as a way to focus her brain on more urgent matters. The other thing is, at one point we learn that of the many Broadway plays knocking the New York theater crowds for a loop in 1999 is a hugely successful revival of Drat! The Cat!. See above.

I’d like to cut even more to the chase now, since the ending is the main thing worth talking about here. One of my main problems with the bulk of Son of Rosemary is how much it resembles Sliver in its dull-corporate-skyscraper “intrigue” and focus, for too much of the time, on new technology and business practices – when this stuff kicks in, Levin’s prose becomes much less interesting and funny, and turns instead airless and technical. There’s obviously much crazier stuff behind the plot of Son of Rosemary (and in fairness, even Sliver includes a guy getting his eyes clawed out by a cat), but if I didn’t know that I might have been tempted to drop the whole thing. And Son of Rosemary, to whatever degree it succeeds, and even fails, really depends on a familiarity with Rosemary’s Baby. I can’t imagine someone picking this book off the shelf, saying “Hm, I wonder what this is all about” and getting anything out of it whatsoever. But I’m doing a lousy job of cutting to the chase, so: it’s New Year’s Eve. Rosemary has figured out that Andy was behind the murder, and he shamefully confesses to it (I’m very unhappy to report that Rosemary says that if he can honestly deny his culpability, she’ll go to bed with him; not that I think she had any intention of following through, but still, I mean, Jesus…). He pins it mainly on his overzealous followers, but Rosemary’s point has been made. Later, she goes to meet him at his apartment (she really gets over shit fast, this lady) to prepare for the candle-lighting, and finds him crucified to his wall. He’d been pinned there by his dad, Satan. Who has been hiding out as Joe, the flirty driver, this whole time. After Rosemary un-stabs Andy from the wall, Satan arrives, offers Rosemary a place in Hell, which Andy urges her to take, because just now, outside, candles are being lit, and the poison that Joe/Satan lied about not being in there begins to rise into the air, and the world begins, very quickly, to die. Rosemary, meanwhile, is all set to say “No thank you, Satan,” but Andy and Satan both insist that being the Devil’s best lady really makes Hell go down a lot smoother, and she finally, reluctantly, agrees. She gets on an elevator to the Underworld, and it’s like a furnace, and Rosemary thinks this is all rather a bit more unpleasant than she’d been promised. At which point Joe transforms into more of what you’d expect Satan to look like, roars “I LIE!” to her, and then eats her, or something. Or is about to eat her or something, but then Rosemary wakes up. In 1967, with Guy. They’re still looking for an apartment. In Rosemary’s Baby, the apartment building they moved into, the one housing the Castavets and other Satanists, was called the Bram. But in this New York, in 1966 (the original novel was published in 1967, but the story is set in 1966) there is no Bram, as, indeed, there isn’t in our, Levin’s readers, world. Guy is preparing to audition for a new musical called Drat! The Cat!. Then Hutch calls. Hutch is Rosemary’s friend, who shared her suspicions about the Castavets in Rosemary’s Baby, and was rewarded by being put into a coma, from which he never awoke. But here’s Hutch, alive and well, and he’s got great news about an apartment. The apartment is in the Dakota. The Dakota is real. The Dakota also played the Bram in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Mention is made of one of the Beatles moving into the Dakota, and we all know what happened to him outside of that very building fourteen years later. Hutch also says that he figured out the “roast mules” anagram in no time flat. Which…hm.

The solution to “roast mules” is never given in the novel. I know the answer, only because I stumbled across it in the course of what I will charitably refer to as my “research.” But the answer, which is one thing I don’t think I’ll spoil, is not irrelevant to where Rosemary finds herself at the end of Son of Rosemary. Also not irrelevant, I’d say, is the fact that “roast mules” is an anagram for “soulmaster,” one of the solutions Rosemary discards, as it doesn’t fit all the requirements laid out by the murdered woman. The point is, there are all sorts of reasons to think that this “dream” twist that ruined everything for everybody forever, is not, in fact, a dream. And at the very end, it seems pretty clearly insinuated that Rosemary doesn’t think it was a dream, either. Things are just not right. She’s back where she was, somehow, but slightly different. What happens next? The same thing? Is this damnation? Is this the horror that Satan really prepared for her, to repeat the nightmare of her life? If so, then why the Dakota, and not the Bram? So that she won’t be prepared for a repeat? Or, perhaps, it WAS all a dream, but a dream of what’s actually to come, in real New York, in a real place like the Dakota. Plus there’s more practical reasons to believe the “it’s all a dream” business is a misdirection, such as why her dream of 1999 life would so closely resemble what we know 1999 life to actually have been like. You can either give Ira Levin credit for not cheating that horribly, or you can’t. I can, and do, because there’s too much that’s too weird about Rosemary’s post-“dream” life.

And it’s all in the aid of what, exactly? To render a sequel that is frankly misbegotten no matter how you slice it somewhat more interesting and at least defensible? Obviously, no, I don’t believe this was Levin’s circuitous motivation for writing the book, though that was the result. In the acknowledgments, Levin says he was given the “roast mules” puzzle at a party by Bebe Neuwirth’s dad some years before he wrote Son of Rosemary. I have to think this was the seed. Or rather, the eventual solution was the seed. Or a seed. But also, curiously, it wasn't until well after Levin published Rosemary's Baby that he realized a couple of things. One was that, as he'd mapped it out, Adrian was born in June of 1966. Or 6/66. Somehow he hadn't realize that. Also that in 1999, Adrian would be 33, the same age as Jesus when he was crucified. So plugging Adrian into that year, as a Messiah figure at war with his father (and he is at war -- Adrian is not a complete liar, or completely bad) as the millennium ended...well, I mean, the man's not made of stone. Would he take all that blessed serendipity and just obliterate it like so many claim he did with Son of Rosemary? But Levin was not a religious man, which probably accounts for why he was so wry about the whole thing, and he was also not entirely thrilled that his original novel spurred people to take the idea of Satan more seriously, rather than less, as he'd sort of hoped they would. It must be said this lends some fuel to the idea that the dream is a dream, as does the sheer cartoon version of Hell that he presents as Rosemary and Satan are taking the elevator down to...well, just typing those words out. How can you take something seriously when it all turns out to be a dream? And I haven't even talked about Drat! The Cat!, the presence of which means, I guess, that in the world of these two novels, there is an Ira Levin who wrote that musical, but presumably did not write Rosemary's Baby or Son of Rosemary. Although, maybe instead of bolstering arguments that this is a dream, perhaps it's Levin's way of distracting angry readers of Son of Rosemary. "Whatever has upset you about that book, I didn't do it. I was somewhere else."
That's only a philosophical argument, though. The evidence on the page indicates something else, that the dream cliché is being messed with, and the reader is being messed with, and that Son of Rosemary is a puzzle to be solved, and to close the book angry at the thought that Levin has obliterated the book you originally loved is to quit the game early. Of course, all this realization achieves, as far as I'm concerned, is to turn the book from very bad to just pretty bad. But it's not dismissable. After today, I may never speak of Son of Rosemary in the same breath as Rosemary's Baby, and when I watch Polanski's film or reread Levin's novel, that story will be contained within itself, and I won't think "Interesting, because I know that in thirty years, these characters will..." Because no they won't, Rosemary's Baby ends when it ends. However, I will, should the opportunity ever arise, defend the sequel, provided it's being denigrated for the wrong reasons, which it almost certainly will be.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Some of the above information about Ira Levin and his inspirations comes from the new Criterion Blu-ray disc of Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, which is due in stores on Oct. 30. One of the special features on that disc is a short interview with Levin conducted by Leonard Lopate, from 1997 when Levin was promoting Son of Rosemary. It's very interesting, and nice to hear Levin talk about his career, but I'd say that the real pull of Criterion's edition is, well, the film (which looks gorgeous here, by the way), which wins a tight race against Chinatown for my favorite Polanski films, and is simply one of the greatest films of all time. I'm endlessly impressed and chilled by it, and while it's well known as one of the most slavishly faithful novel-to-film adaptations ever made (there are a few anecdotes about this aspect of the film, but in the interview with Lopate, Levin talks about writing about clothes worn by characters being a certain color in his novel, which Polanski diligently reproduced on film, even though for Levin the color was chosen more for the word -- red, yellow, whatever -- and how it played into the rest of the sentence, rather than anything visual he was trying to get across), there is a great deal that is unique to the film that just knocks me out.

For instance, John Cassavetes. Casting Cassavetes as Guy Woodhouse was a stroke of genius on a number of levels. Not least of course is who Cassavetes was, as a filmmaker and as an actor, and how he would peddle his skills in front of the screen -- which were considerable -- in order to fund the films he wanted to write and direct and only occasionally star in. Given the passion of the man, it's not hard to find a connection between what Guy does to Rosemary and what Cassavetes may well have thought he was doing to himself, and how he weighed that in his mind, against what would, for him, have been the benefits. Not that I'm interested in psychoanalyzing the man, and I'm certainly not judging him, even a little bit. It's just, you know, interesting.

Still, of more immediate and lasting importance is the performance Cassavetes gives in Rosemary's Baby. In a film packed with terrific acting and casting so perfect as to feel almost foreordained (Ruth Gordon gets all the praise, and she's wonderful, but Sidney Blackmer as her Satanist husband is even better, for my money; I realize there's a great deal of satire and black comedy at the end of the film, but the way Blackmer responds to Mia Farrow-as-Rosemary's horrified "Oh God...!" by shouting "God is dead! Satan lives! The Year is One!" is genuinely frightening), Cassavetes still manages to stand out. He happened to have just the right face and voice and general bearing (I can't define this, don't ask me to) for Guy, and watching him skulk around in the background at the end when Rosemary confronts the Satanists during their celebration, Cassavetes embodies the vermin in a suit Guy has become. Guy can't face Rosemary, and seeing him slipping into shadows and hiding behind walls is one of the many dead-on-the-money bits this film is bursting with (I'm quite the fan of this one, just for the record). But the single best moment in the film, in the whole thing, is this:
Here, the audience, if they're new to Rosemary's Baby, won't know what Guy and Roman have just been discussing. Their conversation had previously been represented by Polanski through a shot of the room the two men would be facing as they spoke, the smoke from their cigars blowing infernally into view while the men themselves are blocked by a doorway. Now we see them after the conversation is over. And when we go back and watch it again, because why wouldn't we, we can look at John Cassavetes-as-Guy's face and know that Roman has just told him that he and Minnie are Satanists working to bring the Antichrist to Earth, and that to do so they need a woman to be impregnated by Satan. He has further told Guy that they want to use Rosemary, and that if Guy agrees to this, and aids them in this goal, of allowing his wife to be raped by the devil and thereby bring Hell to Earth, then Guy's acting career will proceed without obstacle to the greatest heights of success and fame. And in Cassavetes' face, you can see the lingering shock. And you can also see that the motherfucker is considering it. This is the genius of Rosemary's Baby.

5 comments:

Noumenon said...

End of the month, hear the big guns.

bill r. said...

Well, they won't all be, I'm afraid.

Will Errickson said...

Yes, Bill, and I've never heard anyone mention this scene. Once I figured it out what had happened in it, well, the movie took on even more power and resonance. A favorite moment in horror.

bill r. said...

Arbogast covered this once, and in fact that's where I got the screengrab. This has always been my favorite moment in the film, so I was a little peeved that Arbo covered it before me, and did it so much better than I ever could.

bill r. said...

Oops, forgot the link: http://arbogastonfilm.blogspot.com/2009/11/unalloyed-dastardy-of-guy-woodhouse.html

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