Novel Thoughts: A conversation with author Davide Caputo

Trevor Hogg chats with author Davide Caputo about the importance of Roman Polanski as a filmmaker…

“I grew up in Winnipeg, Canada as an Italian-Canadian dual national,” states Davide Caputo, the writer responsible for Polanski and Perception: The Psychology of Seeing and the Cinema of Roman Polanski. “After high school I studied a year of sciences at university with an eye towards medical school, but in the second year I switched to Psychology which I found far more interesting than Chemistry. I was especially interested in Behaviourism back then, as it seemed to demystify Psychology with its rational approach to the study of human and other animal activity.” Movies became part of the academic studies for the undergraduate student. “I had always been a fan of cinema, and in my third year some friends and I became involved with the Winnipeg Film Group, which Guy Maddin was making quite respectable at the time with films like Tales from Gimli Hospital [1989] and Careful [1992]. I decided to switch to a ‘double major’ in Psychology and Film and got to know Professor George Toles, Maddin’s collaborator, who was lecturing at the University of Manitoba.” In an effort to payoff his student loan debt, the graduate taught English in Italy, and ended up working in the UK and Switzerland earning a steady paycheque in the aeronautics industry; the love for cinema would lead him back to the UK to study film at Exeter where he did his Master’s and PhD. Reflecting on what movies left an indelible mark upon him, Caputo remarks, “As a teenager, a friend of mine turned me on to Woody Allen [Midnight in Paris], whose films I quickly became obsessed with and which provide their own cinema education through the multitude of film references they contain. In my undergrad course, I was exposed to the [neo] high modernist cinema of the 1960s [Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni] which gave me a sense of the ‘worthiness’ of this field of study. I’m not sure this qualifies as a ‘movement’, but I’m sure like many others in their early twenties films like 8 ½ [1963] and Persona [1966] blew me away; I’ve spent the last two decades coming to grips with them. Kubrick [2001: A Space Odyssey] was another major name for me at the time, and continues to be, so in most respects I was a typical cinephile ‘fan boy’ [and still am].”

“When I was about 12 years old I was heavily into horror films,” states Davide Caputo who was not initially impressed by the works of Roman Polanski. “This was back in the days when no one cared about ratings on video rentals, so I saw pretty much all the 80s slasher films. I also loved anything with the devil in it, my favourite fictional character. I distinctly remember renting Rosemary’s Baby [1968] and hating it. So boring! [It was] full of naked geriatrics toasting Satan. I dismissed it as a B-movie and went back to Nightmare on Elm Street [1984]. Needless to say, my opinion on this would change. Years later, at university, I wrote a paper on The Tenant [1976], mostly a re-hashing of Linda Williams’s 1981 article The Uncanny Return of the Repressed. I think a bit of my old essay made it into the book. It was at this point that I watched the entire Polanski back catalogue, and re-appraised Rosemary’s Baby.” The re-examination resulted in developing an appreciation for the cinematic craftsmanship displayed by the internationally acclaimed filmmaker. “There are three scenes that I adore most, all for the same reason: Krolock’s ‘streams into rivers’ monologue in Dance of the Vampires [1967], Roman Castevet’s speech about the birth of the antichrist at the end of Rosemary’s Baby, and Boris Balken’s prayer to the devil just before his immolation. For me, all three of these strike the perfect balance between serious dramatic exposition and humour, and hence create moments of pure Camp pleasure for those so-inclined, the likes of which I have never seen duplicated. As I write somewhere in the book, the fact that such scenes also offer a wonderfully savage parody of religion is definitely part of this as well.”

“One of my key goals right from the start was to write a book about a set of Polanski’s films, but without it becoming a presumptuous psychoanalysis of Polanski himself,” explains Davide Caputo as to the origins of Polanski and Perception. “I tried to write a book that focused on sharing my own experience of watching and studying these films and the interesting places they took me. But in referring so often to ‘Polanski’, one can’t help connecting the content to the public persona, or going a step further and subtly suggesting that through one’s intense reading of a few films one can uncover the ‘truth’ about the real person’s psychological profile, and perhaps even reveal things to the subject of one’s study that he or she didn’t realize her or himself. This is nonsense, and on several occasions I have tried to distance myself from this approach, which is so often taken in books on Polanski, which tend to be heavily biographical. It is difficult not to lapse into this mode, and sometimes I contradict myself on this front. Still, I find this to be an interesting struggle, and I hope the fact that I directly address it makes up for my ‘lapses’ somewhat.” The original concept for the academic publication changed during the course of the research. “My intent was simply to write a Polanski book that focused on close readings of his films, not the man. The idea of dealing with two ‘trilogies’ [i.e. the ‘apartment trilogy’ and the ‘investigation trilogy’] was there from the start, but the decision to use R.L. Gregory’s theory of perception as a pathway through these films did not emerge until I stumbled upon the Polanski-Gregory connection in Polanski’s autobiography. At first, I included this as an aside, as many books on Polanski have done, but my friend Susan Hayward encouraged me to follow this up; with the impetus re-defined a new methodology emerged and the book took shape. At times, the book does digress from the perception theory stuff quite a bit, but like I said, this is the ‘pathway’ through the opus, and along the way many other interesting points of inquiry were revealed to me. It is this pathway that makes this book a ‘unique approach’ to Polanski, as the publishers have put it on the back of the book!”

When asked about how Roman Polanski, the man and the filmmaker, is perceived by his audience, colleagues, and the general public and whether it is justified, Davide Caputo replies, “This is a valid question, but I have to admit it is not one that I am specifically interested in, although I must concede that the complete absence of any reference to the various tragedies and controversies that are associated with Polanski must seem highly conspicuous, which is, of course, intentional. “It is impossible to speculate as to how Polanski is perceived, as this varies so wildly from person to person and from country to country. My own research has forced me to wade through a huge amount of information on the more notorious aspects of his life, far more I would venture, than most reporters, commentators and celebrities that freely give their opinion on Polanski’s moral worth. All I will say is that things are more complex than most realise, and I calibrate my personal opinion regarding his ongoing legal issues with the US on the assertions repeatedly made by [victim] Samantha Geimer and her lawyer, both of whom have been calling for Polanski to be exonerated for decades; the extent that any of this matters in terms of his cinema can be argued in different ways, but my book does not deal with these issues at all.

“There will always be ‘sure thing’ franchises propping up the film industry, and I do not begrudge this at all,” notes Davide Caputo. “I love the Harry Potter and Bond films and these employ many people in the UK film industry. I also love many cheap horror films, and, for me, it is from genre cinema that many great films and directors emerge. Repulsion [1965], for example, was just a ‘cheap’ horror film too.” As to whether he sees Roman Polanski adjusting to the present day moviemaking environment, Caputo remarks, “In terms of technology, given Polanski’s fascination with 3D back in the seventies, when he actually collaborated with Gregory on the testing of a new ‘split frame’ 3D method he planned to use for an erotic thriller, one might think he’d now be eager to follow Herzog, Wender and Scorsese’s lead and try his hand at it again. But it is important to recall that the reason Polanski’s 3D erotic thriller was never made was because he found the effect ultimately unconvincing, and thus worked against the type of ‘wraparound’ perceptual engagement he was going for. Whilst many people seem to love today’s take on 3D, it doesn’t work on everyone’s brain, and there are many of us who detest it, not because we are Luddites, but because we find films such as Avatar [2009], and even Hugo [2011], quite-literally unwatchable because of the 3D. Until a truly perceptually seamless form of 3D that works for everyone is developed, I can’t see Polanski taking the risk.”

“Whilst Polanski has always shot on film, it would not surprise me to see him switching to digital, as this format has improved much in recent years,” observes Davide Caputo. “I thought Carnage [2011] would have been a good occasion to try out digital, but he elected to shoot it on film. Who knows, maybe he’ll try something totally new in his eighties, as Bergman did. In terms of the type of cinema Polanski has produced in recent years, I agree with the many critics who have labelled films like The Ghost Writer [2010] and The Ninth Gate [1999] as ‘old fashioned’, but I take this as a great complement. There is no question Polanski is slightly out of step with current aesthetic tastes, especially elements such as pace and average shot length, which is a serious problem when you are making films intended to be commercial successes; but in the long run, this doesn’t matter, and most of his films will be esteemed in years to come, as we have seen with Kubrick, whose Eyes Wide Shut, panned by many in 1999, seems to be more appreciated now, following the pattern of pretty much all of his films. I see the same happening for films like The Ninth Gate and The Ghost Writer, which I hope to expose young people to for years to come.” In regards to what he hopes to achieve with the publication of Polanski and Perception, Caputo says, “Simply to share in some small way the pleasure I have experienced from these films and to celebrate the joy one can get from the act of close reading, which I think the book really celebrates.”

Many thanks to Davide Caputo for taking the time for this interview.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently lives in Canada.