Martin Amis Toasts Roman Polanski's Macbeth

"You know you’re going to see something good when people call a movie tasteless."

There are few off moments, I think. The dagger is one — it looks cartoonish.

It hasn’t dated well, no. The effect looks quite old-fashioned.

And I thought it looked wrong even when I first saw it, the year it was released. But apart from that, it’s got a very good texture, and the killing of the children works very well.

Martin Amis
Maximilian Schönherr (Wikipedia image)
Martin Amis

Location Info


BAM Rose Cinemas

30 Lafayette Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11217

Category: Movie Theaters

Region: Fort Greene


Macbeth (1971)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw, Nicholas Selby, John Stride
Co-presented by The Shakespeare Society
140 minutes

Monday, November 4, 2013
7 p.m.
Peter Jay Sharp Building
BAM Rose Cinemas

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It was charged at the time with vulgarity. Many critics felt it was crass.

Well, yeah. But whenever you hear the word “vulgar” you should take it with a grain of salt. That’s just the taste of the time. That’s just the shallow consensus of what people think in that particular period. “Tasteless” is another good one. You know you’re going to see something good when people call a movie tasteless.

You said once that the novel, as a form, offers an incredibly intimate portrait of a writer. Do you think the same is true of films and filmmakers?

It’s not so intimate. Saul Bellow casually said, years ago, that films are about externals and novels are about internals. I mean, it’s rather mysterious, the way a novel does reveal everything about a writer. It may well be that only novelists see that, or novelists above all see that in other writers — because if you’re a writer yourself, you’re always identifying with the writer rather than with the characters. J.G. Ballard went to such lengths to make sure his children didn’t read his books because he didn’t want to sort of freak them out. Bea Ballard, his daughter, was once being driven from London to Yorkshire to take up a university place. The guy who gave her a lift up was the English tutor, and he said, “Are you any relation to J.G. Ballard?” and she said, “Yeah, he’s my dad.” The guy didn’t believe her, because he adored Ballard’s writing. So he said, “Come on, then, name me one Ballard novel.” And she couldn’t do it. They were in the car for hours and she couldn’t convince him that she was Ballard’s daughter. That’s how little she was aware of her own father’s writing. Ballard had set about that on purpose. “If they read me,” he said, “they’d know all about me, and I don’t want that.”

They’ve just started working on an adaptation of Ballard’s High-Rise, actually. Yes, which I know has been in talks for ages, but now apparently it's happening for real. What’s interesting to me about that book in particular — and I suppose this is true to some extent of all Ballard — but the prose is so much the central element that it’s hard to imagine it being translated cinematically.

I thought that was true of Crash — that the prose was everything there. And it took me years to realize that it was a book about shock. It’s a book written in a state of shock — that’s the idea, that’s the center of it. In this state of shock he is susceptible to the idea that the car crash can be sexual. You know, it’s a ridiculous notion, but it’s completely convincing, and unblinking. But I didn’t find the prose as accomplished anywhere else, except for perhaps that strange collection of short stories, Vermilion Sands. But High-Rise I thought was quite perfunctorily written. Concrete Island was close to the ridiculous, I thought. You know, we say we love a writer’s work, but we only love about half of it. I think that’s universally true. And that’s one of the books of his that I don’t think works. Hello America I don’t think works, either.

When we see an adaptation, whether good or bad, how much of the success or failure can be attributed to the work on which it’s based?

MA: Well, Shakespeare is different — he’s the exception to that rule about only half of his stuff being worth reading. He escapes all generalizations. But I would say, as a rule, the better the prose in the novel, the less likely that a successful film will be made of it. Or at least successful in the artistic sense. You really want something that’s written like The Godfather, where the prose is nothing much, but a great director can re-imagine it with the power of someone like Nabokov. So it’s like seeing trash transformed into beauty. Obviously, what you want for a film is a gripping storyline. I mean, look at Kubrick’s Lolita: It has some very good things in it, but all that messing around with Peter Sellars. . . . You’re always thinking, God, you know, what that novel contains, and look at [Kubrick] wasting his time on all this imported stuff, all these imitations of Sellars’s.

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