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Martin Amis, author of London Fields and Money, has long since ranked among the most highly regarded novelists of his generation, and stood, since the passing of John Updike, as our greatest novelist-critic. The use of "our" there, of course, is deliberate: Having recently moved from his native Great Britain to the proudly vulgar New York, he is now one of the city's most esteemed writers in residence. On November 4, Amis presents a screening of Roman Polanski's Macbeth at BAMcinématek. I spoke to Amis on the phone about Polanski, Shakespeare, and the nature of adaptations.
Twenty years ago, in the introduction to Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, you wrote that “Roman Polanski no longer makes interesting films.” Do you still think that’s true?
Roman Polanski? Hmm . . . let’s think. The Pianist was very good. What’s he done since?
I think Bitter Moon would have been next after you’d written that.
Oh, that was terrible.
Well, I was being a bit flippant. I think he’s a wonderful director, but, like most artists, he’s lost something over the years. That’s what happens. I mean, if it happened, in different ways, to writers like Updike and Nabokov, then it’s going to happen to most artists. Updike lost his ear in the last couple of books — some really elementary howlers, repetitions, and rhyme. And Nabokov lost his sense of . . . well, to put it bluntly, the dignity of 12-year-old girls. Three of his last five books had the pedophilia theme, but not handled with the humility and complexity that he used or brought to bear on Lolita and The Enchanter, much earlier books. So, you know, it’s not peculiar to Polanski that he should be left with less now that he had 30 years ago.
What it is about Macbeth specifically that still resonates, or is still relevant?
I think, for one thing, he sees that the witches are the key to the play, and he does the witches with great, Polanski-like gusto. I mean, having them naked is a very typical Polanski thing — just as in that seance at the end of Rosemary’s Baby, everyone’s standing there naked. It’s very shocking and it’s very effective. And the witches, of course, are the heart of the play. They’re very brilliantly done in the film. Also, toward the end, when Macbeth still has trust in the witches’ prophecy that he will not be killed by a man who was born of woman, there’s a marvelous sense that he does believe he’s invulnerable. Those last fights, when they storm his castle and he’s the only one there, it’s as if he thinks that, well, one is enough — he thinks he’s going to win. He sort of strides around and kills three or four soldiers as if invulnerable. I’ve never seen that brought out quite so well in a production of Macbeth.
There’s almost a sense of boredom in those fight scenes, as though this invasion were just some tiresome thing he’s resigned to deal with.
Yes, yes. And everyone’s sort of hypnotized — that soldier just stands there gaping, and then Macbeth smashes him in the face with his dagger. And then he takes his own weapon and drives it into his groin. I also like things like the death of the Thane of Cawdor, which is, again, very shocking and very authentic-feeling. The linking role of Ross is very clever, too, I think — that’s Kenneth Tynan’s contribution, though, isn’t it?
I really think the film is without weaknesses. Polanski got a great performance, too, out of that otherwise completely forgotten actor who plays Macbeth. What was his name?
Jon Finch, right. Now, he did one other film, I think, a science-fiction film or something, and then he disappeared. He’s not a very good actor, I don’t think, but Polanski got a tremendous performance out of him. Francesca Annis provides tremendously strong balance as Lady Macbeth. She’s tremendously important, of course, but there’s also this sort of suggested link between Lady Macbeth and the witches.
In the nudity of the sleepwalking sequence, you mean?
That, too, yes, that’s one of the ways he links them. But also her susceptibility to the equivocation of the fiend. I mean, she’s absolutely resolved by the time Macbeth gets back to his castle. She’s quite unflinching and ready to do it, and even taunts him into doing it, partly. The tragedy wouldn’t work unless one has a sense that Macbeth is basically not an evil man. The two forces playing on him are the witches — the equivocation of the fiend — and his own wife. And I think that’s beautifully done in Polanski’s film.
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