Criterion Reflections – Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – #630

rosemary's baby 1968 original

David’s Quick Take for the tl;dr Media Consumer:

Roman Polanski made a massively successful transition to Hollywood filmmaking in this iconic horror-thriller classic of the psychologically disorienting variety. All the elements at play come together with the kind of perfect synchronization that signals the beginning of a new era in cinema: Mia Farrow’s star-making performance as a naive young wife living through a worst nightmare scenario, a flawless gradual atmospheric transition from seeming everyday normalcy into deeply disturbing paranoia, unsettling pivots between charming oddball humor and creeping, continually intensifying dread, and a perfectly timed interjection of quotidian satanism as practiced by one’s next door neighbors, when the taboos were still intact and capable of delivering maximum shock value. Rosemary’s Baby opened up new territory for mass audiences to experience intense levels of anxiety that didn’t depend on directors resorting to jump scenes, gratuitous violence, campy monsters or simulations of the supernatural. Everything that we saw on screen could happen in real life, and the connections between what we see poor Rosemary endure and the relationships that many of us maintain in our intimate and communal lives are what create our empathy with her plight. This is a brilliant and transformative film that has made a deep and lasting impact on our culture, even on those who haven’t seen the movie but live among the echoes of all the art that it inspired.

How the Film Speaks to 1968:

Here’s a few bullet points that I could expand into regular paragraphs, but for expediency’s sake, I’ll present them as I drafted them:

  • The movie generated massive box office returns, right from the premiere. It capitalized on a best-selling novel, obviously tapping into simmering fascination with the subject matter and how it was presented – condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which had no discernible effect on suppressing attendance, and probably just added to the film’s legend.
  • Mia Farrow – popular TV actress (Peyton Place), Mrs. Frank Sinatra, a different ideal of feminine beauty – pixie-ish and petite like Audrey Hepburn, but not as mannered. Her “Vidal Sassoon” hairstyle was a distinctive trademark, her vulnerability made her attractive, accessible, easy to identify with. Plus she just gave a great performance, modulating an impressive range of emotions without ever creating the impression of overacting.
  • Pop satanism – Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan (its founding year of 1966 was referred to as “the Year One” by LaVey (c.f. Roman Casavet’s quote in the final scene) who reportedly in turn capitalized on success of RB by compiling various essays into The Satanic Bible to satisfy curiosity that the film had provoked. Also: Rolling Stones ” Their Satanic Majesties’ Request,” Aleister Crowley appearing on the cover of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” are just two examples of the inevitable backlash against hippie-dippie Flower Power, the Summer of Love, Incense & Peppermints, etc. Even Donovan, the ultimate love beaded flower child, dabbled in the dark side with 1967’s “Season of the Witch” (accompanied on guitar in a studio session by future grand magus Jimmy Page.) Underlying theme: Your neighbors might be devil worshipers!
  • Time Magazine’s “Is God Dead?” cover story,  accompanied by a very specific setting in historically accurate 1965-66 – including Pope’s visit to NYC in October 1965, occasion of the baby’s conception (as Levin discovered in reviewing his collection of magazines and newspapers referred to throughout writing the novel.) Film is rigorously faithful to the text – almost all the dialog is lifted straight from book.
  • Drugs – Marijuana (subtly but explicitly mentioned right at the beginning), weird herbal concoctions (featured quite prominently) and psychedelics in general (implicitly) – are an important part of the context. Polanski’s frequent use of closeups have a distorting, hallucinatory effect – idea of the “bad trip” fleshed out in Rosemary’s crazy dreams and paranoia, alienation, displacement in the big city.
  • Sexual frankness (Rosemary calmly suggesting “let’s make love” with casual affect – this moment was pushed to the forefront in the “Coming Soon” trailer – profound zeitgeist)
  • Husband’s callous self-serving manipulation of wife for sake of his career – gender relationships, what women have to deal with from their husbands (rationalization of rape, child abuse, being lied to, etc.)
  • Generation gap – oddball older neighbors who meddle and get in the way but also provide support and guidance when it seems helpful – but can they be trusted? What are their actual motives and why are they so interested in getting into the concerns of a much younger couple?
  • Taglines: “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby” (effective in its mystery and simplicity) – “This is no dream, it’s really happening!” (perfectly expresses that state of transfixing alarm when horror becomes reality)

How the Film Speaks to Me Today:

Unlike many Criterion fans who were understandably very excited to see a spine number assigned to Rosemary’s Baby (though not the infamous #666 that seemed so apropos), I didn’t have a strong sense of connection to the film when it was first released. My earliest exposure was via Mad Magazine’s parody “Rosemia’s Boo-boo.” I had only seen it one time, and that was on TV many years ago, as some kind of “feature movie of the week” presentation back when the networks used to do that sort of thing. I must have been a teenager at the time, I can’t remember exactly when it was. And of course, the film was edited in a few crucial scenes, and interrupted by commercials, so I watched it at a disadvantage. Still, my recollection was enough to inform me of the story’s essential elements: a young couple moves into an apartment and the wife is lured in by their sinister neighbors to give birth to the Son of the Devil, and it gets all twisty and weird toward the end as she comes to grips with the horrible fate that’s befallen her. The strongest impression was made by the final scene, when Rosemary entered her neighbors apartment and was confronted by this cluster of elderly ghouls all staring at her with smug lascivious grins on their faces, the self-congratulatory look that accompanies the conclusion of an advantageous deal that’s just been secured. It fed into my generalized distrust of old people as vultures intent on exploiting the energy and potency of youth for the sake of pursuing their own decrepit desires.

So now I find myself, at age 54, in what amounts to a first serious encounter with what feels like one of the most important and pivotal motion pictures of the past half-century. After watching Rosemary’s Baby twice over the past few days, working my way through about half of the audiobook (narrated by Mia Farrow; I’ll finish it up later today, after I post this essay), and giving the eerily unsettling soundtrack more than a few listens on Spotify, I have to acknowledge that this is quite a powerful and significant cultural landmark. It lives up to all the hype, and rewards prolonged contemplation – even though I have to confess that I’m still quite a novice in regard to this film, compared to the presumably vast majority of readers here! By way of compensation for my relative lack of insight, I’ve assembled what I consider to be an outstanding collection of links for anyone who would like to dig more deeply into this film than I am currently prepared to go. These writers have invested a considerable amount of time into developing their thoughts on the subject

But as for my own personal take on the film, now that I’m well past the point of being a newlywed or of child-bearing age, I’ll go beyond expressing my simple respect and admiration for the achievement at Polanski’s ability to capture and deliver such a perverse assemblage of sentiments to a large mainstream audience. He somehow manages to synthesize the gullibility of the masses that allows them to be disturbed by the maudlin, absurd premise of the film while also bringing into relentless focus the human ego’s ability to be mercilessly cruel, deceptive and selfish when it comes to establishing our personal priorities, even at the expense of those we hold most dear. In that respect, Rosemary’s Baby is supremely instructive and illuminating. And as a parting word of wisdom from a well-seasoned adult, let me just say this, for the sake of younger couples just beginning to make their way in this world: If you ever hear the sounds of rhythmic atonal chanting seeping through the walls of your apartment, give the occupants plenty of space, and for your own good, get some distance as soon as possible. Move on with your life, independent of whatever advice or support they may want to offer you. Just stay the hell away.

Recommended Reviews and Resources:

Previously: Capricious Summer

Next: Kill!

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