Watching Polanski’s Oeuvre (All Things Considered)

As moviegoer, I admire and appreciate Roman Polanski’s work. It’s hard not to. His best work is that good.

But as a member of civilized humanity, I have little use for him. (Jeff Toobin’s New Yorker piece late last year was, I thought, a good and objective summation of the whole Polanski saga.) He admits, in so many words, to having sex with a thirteen year-old to whom he’d given booze and pills. That’s where I bail.

Of course, he claims it was consensual sex. A thirteen year-old, however, cannot consent to much of anything as a matter of law, certainly not sex. I think that’s a good law. That Polanski has been hesitant to express remorse, to admit that he at least took advantage of a weaker creature over whom he had power and influence, upsets me. It also upsets me that in his autobiography he writes that his thirteen year-old partner was “not unresponsive” upon his inserting his penis into her. She was into it, in other words.

So what I really found puzzling was last year’s letter of petition that became public upon Polanski’s arrest in Zurich. This perplexing document, signed by such film-gods as David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, demanded Polanski’s release with righteous anger. True, Polanski’s original trial was a farce, and I’m generally sympathetic to those who find themselves criminal defendants. But I can’t say I cried when I read of Polanski’s arrest. Since day one the authorities have botched the case against Polanski, so much that a fair trial would likely have to cut him loose on some technicality or another, some mishandled procedure, some piece of corruption.

What I don’t like, though, is how the defenders of Polanski from within the industry continue to downplay, or even refuse to make reference to his crime. I am a defender of Polanski in the sense that I think he deserves the fair trial that he was originally and farcically denied. But I will not defend what he did. I will not downplay it. I will not say it was “a long time ago.” I cannot understand how supposedly moral folks like Lynch (a big Transcendental Meditator) and Socrsese (an ostensible Catholic) would tacitly defend what their friend did.

I say all that to say this: I noticed the other night, as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) was being played on cable, that I’ve become one of those who is now incapable of watching a Polanski film without having visions of a thirteen year-old writhing and squirming drunkenly beneath a man in his forties.

Despite their public pronouncements, I wonder whether David Lynch, Marty Scorsese, Harvey Weinstein, and the other luminaries who signed the petition have this same problem. I might go so far as to argue that if they do have this same problem, then perhaps they should not have signed that rotten letter.

But maybe I’m moralizing. The smart money says those guys are just sticking up for a buddy, a fellow auteur. Still, I thought it was worth mentioning that, for me at least, Polanski has now officially joined the ranks of such infamous geniuses as Griffith and Leni Riefenstahl, filmmakers whose films, politics, personal allegiances I find repugnant and must therefore carefully separate from their artistic achievements. I watch the films of these directors in a different way. The “message” of The Birth of a Nation, along with D.W. Griffith’s racist views, must be kept separate from the groundbreaking artistic and technical achievements of Birth. One must be careful, then, how one praises Griffith’s achievements in Birth, or Riefenstahl’s in Triumph of the Will. Likewise, I feel a strange caution (it’s ends up being not so strange when I think about it) whenever discussing Polanski’s work, as though I must be careful not to praise too highly the work of a rapist (to call his offense anything else would be counter-factual).

As critics in the arts, we’re often trained to set aside the artist’s biography from our serious analysis of the art. There is virtue, and much wisdom in this. Often, indeed, it’s exactly what we need to do. In thinking about Polanski, and the random way his films seem to pop up on cable, it occurs to me how funny it is that as humans we’re not built to “separate out” the artist from the art. Emotionally, we can’t separate the lover from the love, the cake from the person who baked it. No, I can’t experience Polanski movies as just art. Not anymore, apparently. As a critic, I’m trained to feel a ping of guilt about this—but right now I’m about as remorseful as Polanski himself.

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