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Polanski and Kubrick: Two occult tales

In our age of rational science the occult has never been more in demand: Angels and demons are popular, the Da Vinci code and lost symbols fascinate audiences worldwide and Hollywood is eager to turn out more movies with a paranormal theme. So why is it that so many of these stories seem flat, and fail to reach the level of insight into hidden structures of the world true esoteric adventures are supposed to promise?

 Images N Ninth-Gate-800-75Perhaps the answer has to do with the failure of gifted directors to come to grips with the enormity of the unknown issues of human destiny, or to pose the fundamental questions their esoteric subject would demand. We go away charmed by artistic visions, dazzled by the pageantry of cardinals in red capes and titillated by women in black garters but the Illuminati only scare us because of the blood they spill, not the existential issues they should transcend. They behave like any other gang of thugs, even if they utter their rough curses in Latin rather than street slang, cockney or modern Italian.

The circumstances that made this point clear to me arose when I watched again two movies within a few days, namely Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate.
I was struck by the suspicious similarities and the enormous differences between them. In earlier viewings both had thrilled me with the superb photography, the great acting, and the expansive landscapes. A second experience made me wonder about the themes themselves: the contrast was striking. The story line of Eyes wide shut turns out to be not only unbelievable but downright silly. It could be summed up as “Handsome young millionaire doctor tries to get laid in New York for three days and fails!” In the process he has joined a fake black mass and deciphered a few facile occult clues but there is no point to any of it. I do understand that Kubrick, like Umberto Eco in Foucault’s Pendulum, was attempting to say something profound about magic and eroticism but he only produced clichés, vague references to tired grimoires and gratuitous gropings: those black garter belts again.

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The Polanski movie, in contrast, is dangerous and captivating from the very first frame. It combines a profound understanding of hermeticism with the breathless beauty of a quest for infinity. It completes it with the exquisite aesthetics of an adept who knows what should be exposed and what should remain hidden. Polanski has recognized the power and genuineness of his cause, his story, his landscapes, while Kubrick only exemplifies the well-trained academic intellectual who scrutinizes the magical from the outside and just doesn’t get it, flashing the conventional symbols before us like so many obligatory props. Occultism is not science-fiction. The splendid photography doesn’t fill the emotional gap.

It was striking to me that both movies took the protagonists to very similar situations and to the same places – the region of Pontoise in fact, so charged for me in magical memories. Should we suspect that the scripts circulated from desk to desk in Hollywood, as is so often the case, and that both stories emerged from a bit of plagiarism? Let’s not go that far: perhaps it was simply a case of lucky occult coincidence.