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Sunday, August 15, 2010

 

Rosemary's Baby

On a previous post - ages ago now, no thanks to you, Blogger mutter mutter - Mary commented the following:

A whole post, by a pregnant person no less, on the unique perspectives women can bring to horror... And no mention, either approving or disapproving, of Rosemary's Baby?

I'd really like to hear your perspective on that one...

Well, far be it me to ignore such an interesting question, and I do believe I promised a reply, so let's get to it. Finally.

To anyone who hasn't already seen Rosemary's Baby, be advised that I'm going to be talking about the plot in detail, including giving plenty of things away. There's a lot to say, and I'll be breaking it down into sections for ease of navigation...

--

What do I think of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby? I think, whatever you can say about Polanski himself - and you can say a lot (check out the links too), and even I have in the past - I think it's a very good film that's interestingly accurate at giving a female perspective, my favourite film by a director whose work, if not whose character, I have admired since adolescence. Since female perspective will be at issue here, I'll be talking about my own experiences of pregnancy as a major part of the post, and I'm going to be fairly detailed; anyone who doesn't want to read about that, you've been warned.

I haven't heard the feminist critiques of it, but I can take a guess. Rosemary's Baby stars a housewife whose main aim in life is motherhood, who is resolutely against abortion, and who, on discovering she's been duped into bearing the spawn of Satan, is so overcome by her maternal insticts that she ends up nurturing him, to the presumable doom of mankind. On the face of it, that sounds pretty bad, but I think I'll mount a brief defence before moving on to discuss why I like the movie.

First, the film doesn't present housewife-aiming-at-motherhood as the only virtuous state; in fact it's pretty clear that Rosemary is vulnerable precisely because her stay-at-home status makes it easy for bad people to isolate her from help. Because she has no money of her own, when she finds herself the patient of a doctor she doesn't trust she's unable to go to another doctor for a second opinion without telling her husband, who flatly refuses to pay for it ('It's out of the question. Uh-uh, uh-uh,' he says, waving a threatening finger). Because she's at home all the time, it's hard to avoid her intrusive neighbours - who can descend on her and distract her with hostess duties while the Satanists next door prime her husband to sacrifice her, who can insist that she takes the medications they prepare, who can break into her home without difficulty. Being a housewife-mother makes Rosemary easy prey, not a virtuous icon, and in fact the film has us cheering her on when she finally tries to stand up for herself. There's nothing inherently wrong with being a housewife-mother as long as you don't judge it the only appropriate state for a woman, and Rosemary's Baby is straightforward on the fact that it's only a safe condition if people respect it, which the people around Rosemary don't.

Rosemary's determination not to have an abortion despite the pain of her first trimester? Well, some women don't want abortions, and if they don't want them, that's what choice is about. Her mothering of the spawn of Hell? That's a more complicated question, and one I'll address in more detail later.

--

Here's one thing immediately striking, from the point of view of a woman late in the second trimester of her first pregnancy: of all the movies I've seen, Rosemary's Baby is the most blunt and the most detailed about the actual state of pregnancy. It's rare to see a film that takes any interest beyond the traditional cycle of throwing up, big stomach and groaning childbirth sequence.

The plot makes an interesting decision, spending a lot of time on the preliminaries to conception and the first trimester, skipping most of the second and moving straight on to near-term. From what I've experienced so far, that's refreshing, because one of the strongest experiences I've had is this: the first trimester is the invisible trimester. It puts you through massive and sometimes frightening upheavals, but it's not something that the representative world is terribly interested in. That's not what pregnancy looks like in the public consciousness. Pregnancy is a woman with a big stomach. But in fact, the big stomach only appears more than halfway through, and till then - well, there's a reason why I bought a badge that read 'I'm not fat, I'm pregnant' to wear on public transport. For most of your pregnancy you look like a normal woman, even when what's going on inside your body and inside your experience is - well, it's the most natural thing in the world, of course, but it ain't normal from a non-pregnant point of view.

Here's what happened in my first trimester. My husband and I decided to try for a baby and took out the IUS with advice from the doctor that it would probably take a few months for my fertility to return, and that it's normal to take six months to a year to conceive. Within a month of trying, in a supposedly infertile period: boom, pregnant. Instant conception. At that point - well, I sort of hoped I might be pregnant and was excited at the thought, but rationally speaking I was trying to talk myself down because knew it wasn't that likely. Then I found myself pregnant at the point where we were still debating whether it was worth peeing on the stick because they're pretty expensive and there's no point wasting one. My first reaction when the little window flashed up 'Pregnant' was a gasp, not a cheer, and my second, after a bit of wild jigging, was to say, 'Let's try the other one, it could be a mistake.' (And then go drink a lot of water, my first encounter with how extremely physical pregnancy is.) Lo and behold, yep, still pregnant ... and suddenly terror hit me.

The idea had been exciting when it was just a possibility; I'd privately been doing little dances at the thought I might be pregnant. But now it wasn't a question of 'might', it was a question of certainty - although it was still hard to believe. I went to the doctor and told her I'd done two ClearBlue tests, and she smiled and said, 'Well, those things don't lie,' and logged me as pregnant without doing any further tests, and until the sonogram, it seemed like I might be imagining things. (My first experience of something Rosemary's Baby features: however independent you are, pregnancy makes you want reassurance from your doctors.) Having confirmed I was pregnant, the next thought hit me: a lot of pregnancies miscarry, especially in the first trimester.

I'm no anti-abortionist; I support every woman's right to have a safe and legal termination. But I'd always known I didn't want one myself. To me, a pregnancy was a child, even if it was only a millimetre long. Now I had my millimetre baby - and there was a chance I might lose it. The letter from the hospital booking me in for my twelve-week scan (the first time the NHS actually treats you as pregnant, since you can easily miscarry before then, a thought that didn't help at all) sent me into a frenzy of anxiety: the warning that 3% of embryos are discovered to have died made me cry. And I'm not a crier. Or at least, I wasn't. After I got pregnant, that changed: make the least suggestion to me that something might possibly go wrong with the baby, and I'd go somewhere quiet and break down.

Part of this was emotional, and no doubt part of it was hormonal. But part of it was physical. When I took the pregnancy test I was expecting a negative for a simple reason: my breasts were tender and I had mild stomach cramps. I felt like I was getting my period. Nobody had told me, because people don't tend to talk about the first trimester, that this was how I was going to feel for the whole of the next three months. Your body floods with hormones and your breasts start their upward journey through the bra sizes; your uterus is liable to be sore because it's starting to expand. It's actually completely normal - but my body had never been pregnant before, and it had no way to process these signals except as 'You're going to get your period soon.' Which, knowing I was pregnant, my brain heard as 'Your baby is going to die soon.' When I first visited my midwives my blood pressure concerned them a bit, and has read much lower ever since, simply because of stress. Some women, I'm sure, deal with the first trimester more easily, but I, who'd always thought of myself as a coper, pretty much fell apart.

Something might happen to my baby. Maybe even worse, something might be wrong with my baby. The twelve-week scan looks for, among other things, Downs syndrome, and the panic I had over that thought was so intense I don't even have the heart to recount it; all I'll say is that once the scan revealed odds of about one in nine thousand, my relief was so great that it marked an actual physical transition from the sickness of the first trimester to the relative comfort of the second. What I'd have done if the news was bad I have no idea, but the very thought was enough to flood me with enough stress hormones I should probably apologise to my son for making him bathe in them too, and which will provide plenty of opportunities for maternal guilt on that score if he seems inclined to nervousness in later life. (I should stress I have no desire to disrespect those who have Downs syndrome, or their families. Downs in no way prevents you from being a fine and admirable person, and families who support someone with the syndrome are beyond praise. I'm simply describing a panic; wanting my child to be capable of achieving full independence from me one day, and achieve it with relative ease, is both altruistic and selfish, which is imperfect motherhood for you in a nutshell.)

But to sum all this up: having gone through a first trimester, I get where Rosemary is coming from. And for a film directed by a man, based on a book written by a man, it's interestingly accurate.

Rosemary's experience of early pregnancy is a moment of delight - followed by a lot of trauma. She suffers a constant pain which frightens her terribly, despite her doctor's assurances that it's normal. Her appetite deranges, eating raw liver one moment and then vomiting in disgust when she realises what she's doing. (And that was familiar. My main craving was for citrus fruit, the one thing to which I'm allergic, but there were moments when I succumbed and started eating the lemon slices in people's drinks. Unsweetened lemon. And I wanted them enough to risk an allergic reaction. That's passing over the day I had to fight the urge to suck the damp brick walls around our neighbours' gardens. Pregnancy, whatever the comedies say, doesn't stop you from being a rational person, but it does give you a body that inserts new and strange factors into your decision-making.) She ends up 'not going out any more', drained of energy. (Ask me how much time I spent asleep, and I may lie from sheer embarrassment.) She lets herself be talked into changing doctors by her scheming neighbours, obedient in the face of apparent expertise, yet can't resist reading worrying pamphlets about ectopic pregnancies despite his mandate that she should read nothing. (This is because he's malign, but actually I found my blood pressure improved dramatically when I stopped reading about all the things that could go wrong, so it's not as if it's advice only a fool would take. Reading about what could go wrong can be like prodding at a sore tooth.) Rosemary wants a baby, but her experience of early pregnancy is awful.

And when she finally breaks down, this is what she says: 'It hurts so much. I'm so afraid the baby's going to die.'

From the outside, this seems like exactly the kind of self-sacrifice feminists bitterly protest at women being expected to make. And they're right. We shouldn't have to think that way. All I can says is: sometimes we do. It doesn't even feel unselfish.

The problem comes when people take advantage of that.

--

Here's another part of female experience Rosemary's Baby speaks to: the fear of losing control.

What happens to Rosemary when she finds she's pregnant? The Castevets from next door descend, changing her doctor for her, preparing a daily vitamin drink, pestering her up hill and down dale. The reason for this, of course, is that it is, in some sense, their baby: they've arranged the Satanic conception, they've been waiting for this birth a long time. Rosemary is a vessel: they actually quite like her, it seems, but she's not really the point. They act, in short, like nightmare in-laws who fuss and fuss over their prospective grandchild (and it's Rosemary's husband Guy to whom the Castevets are the 'parent' figures), and for whom the daughter-in-law in a mere carrying case, worth keeping sweet enough to control her but fundamentally not the point.

I'm lucky enough to have in-laws who are both respectful and supportive, so this phenomenon isn't familiar from personal experience, but not every woman is so fortunate. And I can testify to this: once you become pregnant, there are certainly people who want to tell you what to do. People like to share their own experiences, and that's helpful, but there are also people (and websites) that seem to take a delicious pleasure in wagging their fingers at pregnant women - 'You can eat a bit more, but not too much!' and the like, as if addressing naughty children. People also seem to take an odd pleasure in telling stories where a woman's plans for birth had to be overturned, or in telling you that boys/girls are like X, and saying 'Oh, you'll see!' if you express any disagreement; in short, certain people take a peculiar satisfaction in contemplating the idea of a new mother being proved wrong. Rosemary finds herself shuttled into a new community, the Castevets and their friends; finds herself managed. Not for her own sake, but for the sake of who she's carrying. That's a fear every pregnant woman knows at some point.

In the process, because she's a trusting person, she finds herself thoroughly isolated. One of the most understated performances is the film is also one of the strongest: John Cassavetes as Rosemary's husband Guy. An ambitious actor who never quite seems to get a break until the Castevets promise him the world, Guy sells Rosemary's body and heart in exchange for success - a contemptible move that even he seems ashamed of, though not nearly as ashamed as he should be. 'They promised me you would be hurt - and you haven't been, not really,' he attempts at the end, an amazing flourish of moral blindness that Rosemary appropriately ends by spitting in his face. What's also notable, when watching closely, is how dislikeable Guy is from the beginning. Handsome and fluent - if a little edgy - Guy seems charming enough, but we need to listen to what he says. He never says anything nice, about anybody or anything. The closest he comes is making some kind of joking dig at someone, usually behind their back. Modest Rosemary doesn't seem to realise it, but 'their' friends are her friends: in their original, benign social circle, nobody seems to like Guy very much. Hutch, Rosemary's old mentor, makes his excuses and leaves the apartment when Guy comes home. When Rosemary asserts herself to throw a party for their non-Castevet friends, the apartment fills with dozens of people - attractive and fashionable, agreeable and affectionate, all enthusiastically fond of Rosemary and none with anything much to say to Guy, who winds up talking to the hired bartender, skulking at the edges and worrying what 'those bitches' will be saying to his wife. (And in fact what they're saying is kindly, common-sense advice: if you don't trust your doctor, get a second opinion.) Guy, in short, is profoundly negative: always uncomfortable, unable to enjoy his contemporaries, competitive for Rosemary's attention, hungry for applause but misanthropic and only responsive to those who flatter him and promise things. Rosemary is set up to be abused long before the drug-rape and control begin.

And in this, I think, we can see the feminist defence of the film. (No, it doesn't reflect my experience; my husband's nice, and his behaviour throughout the pregnancy deserves a medal. Just to be clear.) Polanski himself had plenty of problems with women, but he was also a talented director, too talented to make much misogyny of material so inherently feminist. Because the film was based on Ira Levin's book of the same name, and the comparison is interesting.

--

Ira Levin was the author of numerous thrillers, of which Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives are probably the most famous - so famous they've entered common parlance even to those who haven't read them. He's a good writer. He's a good plain writer: no stylistic flourishes, no over-elaborate dwelling upon character, just honed, tight, strong story driving to its shocking conclusions. Polanski's adaptation of Rosemary's Baby is rather an interesting study: the dialogue is all pretty much lifted verbatim, as is the structure; a few incidents are cut, but all in all it's one of the most faithful adaptations I've ever seen. Yet it's also a much greater work of art. Levin's straightforward dialogue, layered against Polanksi's carefully-chosen backgrounds (note, for instance, the visual differences between the Woodhouses, harmonising in their simple yellows and blues, and the Castevets, a riot of pastels and visual mess), canny camera shots (a cinematographer once described Polanski insisting on his framing a shot so that Minnie Castevet [Ruth Gordon] is shown making the fateful phone call to set up Rosemary with the Satanist Dr Sapirstein with her body half blocked by a doorway; at the time he had doubts but did what he was told - only to see, to his delight, a whole cinema of people lean sideways to try and see round the doorway once the film was screened), chilling music (that haunting mixture of wistful melodies and musical stings) and fine cast ... all add up to a film where the unspoken threatens us from every side and the most mundane details of everyday life can whisper of danger. It's in this that the stresses of first trimester can express themselves in Mia Farrow's performance as Rosemary. Polanski may have had his issues, but he was too good a director not to present the material well, and Mia Farrow was far too good an actress not to counterbalance the maleness of the origins with a convincingly female, intelligent, subtle performance.

And the material Levin gave him was good stuff. In his collection of essays Stranger Than Fiction, Chuck Palahniuk writes in praise of Levin, calling his work 'not so much horror stories as cautionary fables' - and pointing out that these fables often addressed feminist concerns: the Feminine Mystique nightmare of The Stepford Wives, the surveillance dread of Sliver, the battle for control of a woman's body that is Rosemary's Baby. I have an issue with any male writer who waxes enthusiastic about how a man is a better feminist than most women, and who calls a feminist's work 'strident' and berates it for lacking 'charm', which Palahniuk does with Susan Faludi's Backlash - a big issue, actually - but his point about Levin is correct: Levin was a prescient writer who managed to see, in the environments and mores that surround modern women, new versions of the Big Bad Wolf. Rosemary, far from foolish and eventually driven to fight for herself, finds disturbingly perky seniors cropping up like goblins, finally holding her down on a bed and drugging her into unconsciousness.

Of course, until it's too late, Rosemary doesn't realise the real threat. She believes that there are Satanists next door (correct) and that they want her baby for a blood sacrifice - incorrect, but the most reasonable conclusion under the circumstances. All along, she's driven to protect her baby ... and that drive eventually undoes her.

--

Which gets us into the thorny issue: what to make of the bleak ending where Rosemary succumbs to biology, rocking her demon-child in his cradle?

Levin gives us some kind of mediation about this: Rosemary takes some control, insisting on the right to choose her son's name and telling herself that maybe she might be a good influence on him ... but in the world of images that is film, all we have is Rosemary walking to the crib and beginning to rock.

Do we have to condemn this as anti-feminist? I don't know; ask me when I've had the baby. (Several months after for preference, as boy am I going to be tired.) But considering the number of women who care for disturbed children, developmentally challenged children, children who, through no fault of their own, really do make their lives Hell ... well, I come back to what I said about Rosemary's refusal of an abortion (which nobody even suggested). We shouldn't have to think this way, but a lot of the time, we do.

My little boy proved difficult to scan for heart defects, for example. To check the aorta, the sonographer needed a clear view of it, and this couldn't be done with a baby facing my spine. The sonographer prodded and poked, but my son wouldn't roll over. I sang him a little song - Tom Waits sometimes got him moving, for some reason - but he remained ensconced. They sent me out for a walk and told me to drink something sugary, presumably with the aim of provoking a frenzy of energy in the baby; he prodded and poked again, but no dice. They sent me out and told me to eat some chocolate. I came back, and the sonographer prodded and poked, clearly fed up and wanting to go home - it was nine in the evening by then - but my son refused; my husband, watching the monitor, swears he saw the little guy pulling an unhappy face. A week later we returned, the bruises on my stomach pretty much healed: the sonogram began ... only to find a baby still facing my spine and refusing to roll. Out I went for some sugar and walking; back I came, with my son still hunching away from the probe. Finally the sonographer had to dig in her fingers and roll him over, which worked after several tries. Of course, after all this fuss, his aorta was fine. But interestingly, word seemed to have spread about my little non-cooperator: another doctor walked into the room and said, 'So, this is the naughtiest baby in the hospital, right?'

And I wasn't pleased. I was pretty thoroughly tired of being prodded and poked, and I'd been doing my best with sugar and singing and everything I could think of to make him move - but the poor little guy just didn't want people poking him in the face, and I felt a flicker of annoyance that was probably an early stirring of the mother-tiger instinct. I made a joke of it, saying in a parody-mother voice, 'He's not naughty, he's gifted!' - but as I heard myself say it, I had to wonder whether some day I might say something equivalent, and say it with deadly seriousness. I got into a debate online in which a lot of people were talking with some passion about how they didn't want children and found children could be tiresome in public spaces, and while I actually agree parents should try to teach their children public manners, I again felt a flare of protectiveness towards children that was, perhaps, influenced by circumstances.

And as the time goes on, this is what I'm finding: my relationship with my child does not begin at birth. I've had a relationship with him for months. To begin with it was a notional relationship, a relationship to my own fears and the upheaval in my body ... but since he started to kick, I've been aware of him as another person. Some days it's hard to believe, even though we have the pictures to prove it, but unborn, he remains a vital presence. We even have a picture of him framed on the dining table, the anticipated guest. I stopped sleeping on my stomach after two nights of his squirming, and I had a strong sense of disapproval in that squirming, as if he were muttering about being squashed. He has days when he just stirs sleepily and days when he's a one-boy conga line; moments when he rests quietly and moments when he somehow manages to double his body weight while I'm out walking. If, God forbid, anything bad happened to him now, or had done in the past months, it wouldn't be losing a pregnancy. It would be losing my son. Guy's assumption that losing the baby at birth isn't 'really' hurting Rosemary is an assumption that could only ever be made by someone who hasn't carried a baby. You carry the child for the best part of a year, and by the time they're born they've been making their presence felt for a long, long time. A baby may become a legal citizen at the moment of birth, and there are sound medical reasons for that - but a wanted baby, an anticipated baby, is a member of your family long before that happens.

So I don't know. It's a good, dramatic ending, and could be read as a dire feminist warning: get out of this situation before it's too late. Whether it's accurate about how somebody can be caught by maternal love as in a trap - well, ask me later. And possibly imagine my answer, as I suspect blogging and a newborn baby do not comfortably mix. I might not even know, because my son is obviously not going to be the spawn of Hell, or indeed someone that it's irrational to love. I'm under the pretty strong impression that loving him will make perfect sense, and indeed may be the obvious, reasonable, objective thing to do. Trust me; I'm a mother.

--

Rosemary's Baby is an interesting movie because it's a story by, basically, two men, but all about female experience. What musn't be overlooked, of course, is the superb performance of Mia Farrow, without which the film simply wouldn't work; a lesser actress would produce a far weaker movie. If we're looking at it as a portrait of pregnancy I'd say that it's a little rosy about the third trimester - if I had to run all over the city to protect my baby as Rosemary does, I'd grit my teeth and do it, but the comfort of the second trimester (relative comfort, as it's still less comfortable than not-pregnant-at-all) does not last, and right now I'm pretty much off my feet entirely and can barely make it to the end of the road. Every pregnancy is different, of course, and perhaps we should suppose that unlike me, Rosemary does not have round ligament pain, but at least to my eyes she seems a little energetic for someone that close to delivery.

But that's a side-issue. The question that finally occurs to me is this: what about the whole child-of-Satan idea itself?

As an idea, it's relatively hokey, though the elegance of Polanski's presentation makes the hokum seem fresh and naturalistic. It's also, more disturbingly, associated with the blood libel: the books Rosemary consults describe cannibalism and abuse of children of the kind that kicked off the fantasies and miscarriages of justice of the Satanic Panic, a disaster that left adults imprisoned and children traumatised. In its defence, the books turn out to be wrong, and the film as a whole makes no claim to accuracy (unlike some); it's more or less a straightforward fantasy with a parable undertow, so it seems a little excessive to take it to task on that score: fiction that doesn't pretend to be anything other than fiction is seldom a problem.

There's also, though, a point raised in Generations by Neil Howe and William Strauss (a book I know largely through second-hand accounts and am a little sceptical of, but the idea seems relevant): Rosemary's Baby is a Boomer movie, made in an era where the idea that children were diabolical was rather in the air. The Omen and The Exorcist are other examples, but Rosemary's Baby is in a way the purest: Adrian, Rosemary's son, is an incarnation of evil before he ever has the chance to do anything. Rather than compel suicides in childhood or spit bile, the little fellow is identified as embodied evil while he's still burbling in his cradle: his very infancy is imbued with the curse of the AntiChrist.

Now, as a Generation X-er myself (though actually the child of parents born just before the Baby Boom, and born in England and Ireland rather than America), I'm fairly familiar with the generation above us calling us rotten to the core before we'd had much of a chance to do anything, and I'm not a fan. (Calling us politically apathetic before we'd reached the age they themselves determined entitled us to vote, for example, always pissed me off. I wanted to vote, they wouldn't let me; how was this my fault?) And while I'm sympathetic to the horrors-of-pregnancy idea, despite all my complaints I don't think it's fair to blame it on the baby: any teenager who points out that they didn't ask to be born is absolutely right. Human pregnancy by its nature pushes the body to its absolute limits, to the extent that it actually pits the mother and baby's interests against each other - it is, for instance, in the mother's interests to have the baby as soon as possible and get the strain off her system, while it's in the baby's interests to stay in there as long as possible to maximise development, and the resulting nine-month compromise is a hairline balance: the baby is born utterly helpless just before the mother's body packs in entirely, and a few weeks either side represents genuine physical danger to one or other of you. Actually having the baby balances tearing the mother's tissues against compressing the baby's head so hard that the bones slide over each other. Birth is a pretty brutal miracle, there's no two ways about it, but this doesn't reflect any ill on the baby - who, after all, is going to have to put up with that whole skull-getting-squished business, poor thing, so it's not as if they have it all their own way - and it's simply in the nature of pregnancy that it's physically taxing. Evolution wants you to pass on your genes; it doesn't particularly care if you're comfortable while you do it. So casting the baby as diabolical seems very unfair on that score.

Similarly I can sympathise with the horror of responsibility, which is another possible root for the children-as-demons motif. If we're honest, I don't think there can be many parents who haven't had a moment or two of oh-my-goodness-what-have-we-done panic at the thought of having a child, even one they planned and want. Neither do I think that's a bad thing; having a child is a big responsibility, and the occasional panic about whether you're up to it is a sign that you take it seriously; it's the parents too unrealistic to have the occasional gape of alarm at what they've committed themselves to that I'd worry about. Being scared doesn't make you a bad parent; really, nothing except being a bad parent makes you a bad parent. But once again, it doesn't mean the baby is scary, not in real life. Babies are really quite small.

So Rosemary's Baby, its internal qualities aside, has been cast by at least certain observers as part of a trend that led to my generation getting a pretty substantial amount of insults. Should that affect its interpretation?

Well, this is only a personal analysis written because somebody asked for a pregnant woman's opinion, so my own view is all I can really offer. (Possibly I might have a dazzling insight some other day, but the other thing about pregnancy is that it apparently reduces your IQ by a measurable margin - I've heard as much as 10% - because the baby is eating your vitamins and waking you up, so let that be an excuse for any posts that have failed to please in recent months...) As works of art, the three films are all different, and I'd call Rosemary's Baby the best by a wide margin. It lacks the spurious 'true storyness' of The Exorcist, with all the moral problems that brings; it achieves its chills with a deftness quite beyond the splashy shocks of The Omen; it takes an interest in evil working through the ordinary vices and schemes of real people rather than rotating heads and falling spikes; it creates character drama that's subtler than a racing narrative drive but no less engrossing. I just think it's, y'know, a better film.

And if it does demonise babyhood, it at least takes a look at the real issues of motherhood - physical trauma, increased vulnerability, social disempowerment - rather than calling down wild environments. In a way, you could say that all the problems Rosemary goes through aren't Adrian's fault at all; none of us choose our fathers, after all, and its the lies and manipulations of Rosemary's husband, the intrusions and power-plays of her neighbours, the deceit and exploitation of the adults around her, that make up the drama of the film. Like any uncomfortably-carried baby, we might say that Adrian is just innocently minding his own business. He causes Rosemary pain which eerily stops the minute she insists on consulting a trustworthy doctor, so some kind of diabolical intervention seems to be going on there, but whether it comes from father or son remains unclear, and we might give Adrian the benefit of the doubt. Certainly in terms of behaviour, he seems the least culpable character.

--

So, what's my pregnant perspective on Rosemary's Baby? A long and complicated one, and I suspect by now Mary may be sorry she asked. I started writing this post in my second trimester, and it turned out to be a surprisingly intense and difficult question to answer. I'm finishing it less than a week before my due date, still with no very clear conclusion. As I say, pregnancy hasn't done my intelligence a world of good, which might have something to do with it, but in the end I think it's more than that. Motherhood I have yet to experience, but pregnancy is a period of mixed feelings, of passionate ambivalence, that doesn't lend itself to easy answers. Which is probably as it should be; the people with easy answers are the ones most likely to end up trying to control women. And that, at least, we can all agree is a bad thing.

It probably says something, though, that when I think about Rosemary's Baby enough, my response to the spawn of Satan is to think, 'Poor little guy.'

Comments:
Kit -- I have a much longer response planned in my head but wanted to bat this question back at you.

Does it frustrate you as much as it does me that Frankenstein is so seldom discussed as a book about pregnancy? Or at least the fears of a young woman whose own mother had died from childbirth complications, whose father had rejected her when she got pregnant out of wedlock and who had to deal with her lover's joy at the birth of his legitimate child while she was suffering the social effects of bearing his illegitimate child.

Mary Shelley (or Mary Godwin as she was then) was a young woman dealing without maternal help with the problems of pregnancy knowing that her own birth had played a part in the death of her mother, knowing that her father viewed her as an unnatural child and yet having to bear the grief of the loss of her own children.

Certainly when I asked that question of several people studying English I was told that the Shelley's pregnancy was not relevant to her writing. How, I ask myself, can such a life altering experience not have an impact on one's very understanding of the meaning of life.
 
A very interesting question.

I can't honestly say it's frustrated me because I haven't been in as many conversations about it as you seem to have been, or at least not with such stubborn people, but certainly it would frustrate me if I raised the issue and people simply declared that it wasn't relevant. It's always frustrating when you get a lordly dismissal of a point the dismisser clearly just doesn't understand.

I suspect that the maleness of the protagonists makes it hard for some people to get their heads around the possibility - especially as the innumerable Hollywood versions have come between us and the original book, and they're all full of crackling electricity and pronging electrodes and general boys toys.

It's interesting how different the conception of the monster is from how we usually picture him; rather than a carnie giant, Shelley seems to describe a transluscent, hyperactive, Wertherish motormouth. It would be fascinating to see a screen version of that, but we never seem to get one.

It's been a while since I read the book so my memory is a bit hazy, but yes, I do think it's kind of gendercentric to exclude the female experiences of the author just because she wrote male characters. I mean, for goodness sake.


Interesting factoid: my first attempt at typing 'motormouth' came out 'mothermouth'. There is something up with my brain.
 
To go back to your analysis of Rosemary's Baby it has also been a while since I read the book but my memory is that we get far more of a sense of how willing to screw other people over Guy is than is scripted into the movie. Cassavetes manages to connote that quality in his acting choices.

When I first saw the movie I remember being struck more by the picture of how helpless a pregnant woman could be when the people around her, the adults, proved to be undependable. Long before we realize Guy's involvement with Satanists we see Guy as the kind of man who after objectifying his wife sexually objectifies her again as a "mother." Before she was pregnant her job was to provide him with physical pleasure whether it was sexually or through making sure he has the right shirts and a hot meal when he gets home. After she is pregnant her job is simply to do what she is told and pop out a healthy child. In neither case is he interested in her as a person -- a grown individual with her own thoughts and desires.

You could argue that for many woman the horror underlying the movie was the fear of marrying the wrong man. Of thinking you got one person and yet having him turn into a different person when his life goals require that you act in a particular way.

One of the interesting trajectories in the movie is that while Guy attempts to infantalize Rosemary throughout her pregnancy the only reason she even comes to realize what has actually happened is she starts to use her intellect -- think as an adult.
 
Anti-Christ stories have always interested me because the lore always has the child born as the exact OPPOSITE of Jesus -- yet is always still a male.

I never saw the movie of Rosemary's Baby because the book irritated me so much -- it appeared to me as a man aping a woman's point of view when the story was really about men using a woman to score points on other men -- fathers and father-figures against sons to produce a third son.

Of course, I read it as a very young woman with angry (and simplistic) feminist ideas and no intention on ever having children NEVER EVER.

I wonder how the book (and film) would read to me now.

(Oh, and the last line of this post made me laugh -- ever since my first pregnancy, any sort of symbolic use of Endangered Child in films and programs enrages me to the point I find much the rest of the story unwatchable)
 
This is just me spinning off somewhat tangentially, but I've always disliked stories or even the idea of the Antichrist because I tend to find it boring and suspicious when a character is destined to be one way or another from birth. In Rosemary's Baby the subtle feeling of horror and evil emanating from the cradle kind of precludes this idea, but I'd like to think that Adrian would be influenced enough by Rosemary that he'd be a little more complex as he grew up. I guess kind of like the character of Adam in Gaiman and Pratchett's Good Omens--the Antichrist accidentally brought up by an average English family--who is for the most part a completely normal boy (well, personality wise).
 
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