Saturday, October 3, 2009

In the case of Roman Polanski

Polanski at his court appearance in 1977.

I've been having my own little late-night Roman Polanski film festival the past few days, replaying Knife in the Water, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown, and pondering why, exactly, I'm sad that U.S. authorities finally nabbed the diminutive director for a disgusting crime he has admitted to committing.

Although actually the reason was staring me in the face the whole time: the films themselves. And the fact that no one, not even Polanski (with the possible exception of The Pianist) has been able to equal them since the last dark heyday of Hollywood in the 70s. It's true that his career was highly variable in quality. Rosemary's and of course Chinatown, a film I've found myself watching many more times than The Godfather, are the obvious peaks; the rarely-seen What? is the obvious low. And Bitter Moon is more than a little ridiculous, Pirates more than a little grotesque; I'd never watch either again. But The Fearless Vampire Killers is an unforgettable curiosity, Repulsion is, well, seminal, Knife in the Water haunting, and there are wonderful stretches in Macbeth, Frantic, Death and the Maiden, Oliver Twist and Tess, and yes, even The Ninth Gate.

The gnomic sensibility that connects all these quirky cinematic points is perhaps most memorable for its innate sophistication, which is so naturally worn that it never even declares itself, much as the 30's décor in Chinatown never begs for attention but is simply there. Polanski was a master at precisely sizing the effects he required; his films open up to epic scale and then shrink down to intimacy at will, while always maintaining their quietly fascinating surface. He was also expert at conjuring potent cinema from next to nothing; in Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, long, absorbing scenes concern themselves with such minutiae as piano scales in distant rooms and a crack inching up a plaster wall; when we learn in The Pianist that the hero must spend several weeks alone, we know Polanski will make his isolation interesting. And he does.

The director was also a genius at discreetly rendering the unspeakable - particularly the sexually unspeakable (rape by the Devil figured in one movie; incest, in two more). His technique was simple: he only showed as much as he had to, and suggested the rest; but how hard it seems to be for any other director to learn that deep lesson! Of course it's not lost on me that his later, actual life has amounted to an application of something like that same elliptical technique: there's a horror in the background that he always manages to not address directly. And indeed, a deeper irony moves behind that one. For if Polanski's greatest work took as its theme the vain struggle of individuals against hidden, but organized, evil, then his fractured later films were riven by the awareness that his earlier point of view was untenable, now that he had been revealed as evil, too.

So does it make sense to say that I have no sympathy for him, but rather for what he stood for, and that this may be what his defenders feel, too? I know that to some, those defenders look a bit like the crazies who stood vigil outside the Michael Jackson trial, and released doves once the pedophile had been set free. But then again, weren't those fans accorded more respect than Polanski's? Let's say it again: Michael Jackson was by all appearances a serial pedophile - and an ongoing risk to children (which Polanski demonstrably was not, and is not). And, of course, the deeply mourned James Brown allegedly raped a woman at gunpoint. Rapper R. Kelly was, by all accounts, videotaped committing statutory rape on a 14-year-old, and has been arrested multiple times for possession of child pornography. Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman seduced and maintained an ongoing sexual relationship with a 13-year-old. Bad boy Jack Nicholson once had to settle out of court with a prostitute he had savagely beaten. Even California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger repeatedly forced his attentions on vulnerable women during his Hollywood career.

It's interesting, then, that America should clasp these figures to its collective breast while openly and vociferously despising Polanski - despite the fact that the accusers of several of these men pursued them with passion, while Polanski's victim (who received a reported $500,000 settlement from him) is by now practically a witness for the defense. But perhaps this only underlines the fact that, as our academics tell us, "justice" is socially constructed, and Polanski no longer fits into any protected category of perp - indeed, he is in the formerly protected category that is now often a target of popular villification. He is white, and wealthy, and male - and Jewish, and elderly (while Jackson and other pop perps have played at being overgrown children); he even lives in France. And he is a filmmaker whose best films consciously bridge the gap between pop and fine art - an endeavor which is impossible and useless, according to most fans and critics today. Like Bergman, he is a man of the theatre (indeed he became a celebrated stage director in Europe); like Kubrick, he is an aficionado of serious music. He's even being protected by a more highly cultured foreign power! All this means Polanski taps into America's cultural insecurity as well as its sexual insecurity; in a word, he is everything he should not be to play on our current sympathies.

None of this should matter to the law, as many rightly say - although there are all those other cases, similar to or worse than Polanski's, that don't seem to be bothering any of these zealots very much. Somehow the phrase "he raped a child" is constantly heard of Polanski, when it was rarely heard of R. Kelly or Bill Wyman. Of course the phrase is certainly true, even if as rapes go, the Polanski version was slow and disjointed, and involved constant requests and conversation, interludes with pills and wine, an interruption, and a pathetically obvious effort on the part of the rapist to deceive himself into believing what was going on was some degraded form of seduction. In short, his crime played out as he might have directed it in one of his own films.

Even these details, however, have undergone a political metamorphosis over time. That the poor girl was dressed and made-up as an adult was once viewed as possible evidence of an intended seduction by her (although Polanski knew she was underage, if not how far underage). By way of contrast, today Samantha Geimer's appearance during her ordeal sometimes seems to be nearly a cause célèbre. In the 70's, society looked askance at women (or girls) who ventured into compromising, he said/she said situations; today such situations are considered by many a kind of right, with an unspoken faith granted to the woman's version of events. (It may be worth worth noting, given the widespread publication of Geimer's grand jury testimony, that few of those outraged by her statements seem to realize she has never been cross-examined.) And in a way such faith is required, as the sexualization of young women has become not only a stipulation of so much campus political theory, but also an important global business in its own right.

Yet against statutory rape charges, none of the grotesque circumstances of the case actually prevail (and at any rate, I believe Geimer's version of events is roughly true). Nor does the fact that America is happy to accept statutory rape from more popular entertainers constitute a legal brief for Polanski. The only brief he can cling to, really, is the judge's alleged misbehavior in his case - indeed, Polanski's sudden arrest was probably sparked by his recent attempts to have his case dismissed, given that judge's conduct. The director could make these technicalities stretch a long way, and I'll be surprised if he ever sees serious jail time. And to be honest, it may be that insult to American judicial power - along with the implication from abroad that many in America cannot understand or appreciate his achievement - that is partly driving the rage toward him.

But to be doubly honest, I admit I would be dismayed to see one of our greatest living artists, and probably our greatest living film director, end his days in jail. Not merely because of his past achievement, but because there still might be one more great movie or stage production in him, and punishing him would therefore mean punishing us, too (particularly as he has no real heirs on the cinematic scene). If he were a current threat, like Jackson or Kelly, or if his victim were indeed committed to the prosecution, I'd feel differently. I agree, of course, with the arguments of the accusers about the rule of law and making an example and all the rest of it; I'm just too old, and understand the rule of law too well, to have much sympathy with their selective sense of outrage. Even though I also understand that, ironically enough, Polanski's defenders are more like the unseen conspiracy in Chinatown than some gaggle of Michael Jackson fans - while the director has morphed into his own pint-sized version of his most famous villain, Noah Cross. And yet here I am, guiltily half-hoping that the San Fernando Valley gets irrigated one more time anyway.

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