I spent a good deal of yesterday doing things and feeling like I was doing nothing, so I resolved to see a movie, even if I had to do so by myself. I had to do so by myself. I figured this would be a good time to see The Ghost Writer.
I wanted to see The Ghost Writer for three reasons: it got good reviews; some college friends had recently extolled Roman Polanski’s brilliance; and because it is set on Martha’s Vineyard — or, for the purposes of this discussion, “Martha’s Vineyard.” One will never know if the film’s details about the island wouldn’t have amusingly thrashed between spot-on or just poorly researched if Polanski wasn’t effectively banned from shooting there, but obviously catching what was and wasn’t “real” was part of the film’s charm for me. It’s probably better that I went alone.
To give a quick summary: A British writer (Ewan McGregor, “The Ghost”) is hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of a Tony Blair-like former P.M. (Pierce Brosnan, “Adam Lang”), who is holed up for the winter on an island in the United States of America that looks a lot like Martha’s Vineyard, and shares many place names with it. The Ghost shows up, begins work on the project and discovers unexpected levels of complexity. Things happen, and he becomes part of the things, and that’s all I’ll say. It’s worth seeing, and what I’m about to say has nothing to do with that.
I will note first off that the words “Martha’s Vineyard” are neither spoken nor shown at any point during the movie; the Ghost is simply told he will be going to “an island in the States.” The very opening shot is of a passenger/car ferry that looks externally like none of the boats currently floating between Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven but which opens to find an identical interior to those. The stage is set for the Royale-With-Cheese Vineyard; it’s the little things that are different. The Ghost gets to the island by 747/puddlejumper/ferry, adding an unnecessary step (puddlejumper/ferry is an either/or proposition) but one that already had me smirking for an unrelated reason: If there had been no other clue that this wasn’t really home, the color of the water alone, an unforgiving slate gray, would have been an immediate giveaway. Our water always smacks of deep blue.
The movie was actually filmed in Northern Germany, and I’ll say this: Much of the going-to and coming-from Lang’s house takes place on a road that is indistinguishable from Moshup Trail, and the adjacent beach also duplicated Aquinnah. Well played. The problem here is not simply that somehow the Ghost must re-enter a wooded wilderness (also, with its exceedingly tall, North Sea-stripped trees, not the Vineyard) before getting to Lang’s beachfront property, but that can be forgiven as another plot necessity. More urgently, the house, in its low-rise white-brick mod/70’s/Euro style, is something that doesn’t have an analog on real life-M.V. and probably never will, which isn’t to say it could never happen. If it did, the kids would be itching to party there, and would probably succeed.
The in-town shots were pretty spot-on, and a couple times I wondering if I wasn’t actually looking at B-roll footage of Edgartown. I wasn’t. The townsfolk were conspicuously without accents, and the names of places weren’t exactly spot on, nor were their locations. At one point, the Ghost asks for a map of the island, which the camera consults only fleetingly. I caught the word “Chilmark” but didn’t catch the landscape — again, it looked a little off. While the Ghost’s car laudably directs him to “Edgartown Vineyard” at one point, the ferry travels between an unnamed off-island port and the fictional town of “Old Haven.” It’s hard to know whether this is sloppiness or intentional blurring of reality due to Polanski’s inability to actually see or film the Vineyard; maybe it’s a sly way of saying his America isn’t our America, and that we’re seeing the America of his memory. The entire movie is dream-like, and this brought it to another level for me… but obviously, I was one of the few people paying attention to every last detail.
This could easily lead into a discussion of how places are represented on film, and what effect it has on the moviegoing experience. Take Spider-Man 2, for instance, which stages a critical fight scene on an imaginary elevated train in Manhattan — less New York reimagined than contempt for the audiences in the know — unlike, say, in When Harry Met Sally, when the couple departs a second-tier university on the South Side, heading to New York, and finds themselves on scenic North Lake Shore Drive, a detour of at least an hour’s worth of violent arguments. Anyone familiar with Chicago would have gotten it immediately: Dumb, but it looks really nice. Cinema is bursting with examples like these, and I think it comes down to respecting your audience. I’ve got no problem with The Ghost Writer. I liked the scavenger hunt element.
There were a couple other nice touches. One was that Jim Belushi has a bit part. He’s a well-known Vineyard guy whose brother is buried there, and to whom I sat next once at a restaurant where Belushi was known to be friends with the chef… who came and talked to my mom first. This is probably because Belushi and the chef had a long night ahead (sniff), but I didn’t know that at the time. I was damn proud of her.
The other part was when Olivia “I wrote a hit play” Williams was walking the beach under gray skies, nose scrunched, disapproving of the wind-whipped landscape of which she had become a part. “I just want to go home,” she said, with more than a hint of disgust. I had to stop myself from laughing out loud, because no one else would have gotten it. The difference was that her exile wasn’t self-imposed. I, too, want to go home, but at this point home is as much Polanski’s Vineyard as it is the real one. I’ve let the real one drift away from me. The only way to stop it from going any further, I suppose, is to trap it firmly underfoot like a piece of paper pulled by the breeze.