Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: The Polanski Conflict

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Polanski Conflict

by TOny Dayoub

Joel Bocko, a regular reader here (as well as a talented writer in his own right under the guise of MovieMan0283 at The Dancing Image), has a great piece that revisits one of my honorable mentions for the Best of 2008 through the prism of current events. In his day job as the Boston Indie Movie Examiner, Bocko casts an eye on Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, the HBO documentary covering the circumstances of the famed director's trial for statutory rape and his subsequent flight to France.

Although Bocko is non-committal vis-à-vis his own opinion regarding the director's arrest, some reading between the lines indicates that he views the director's excuses with some skepticism, especially when he writes
...the film does conclude with the same interview which began it, in which a reporter sits across a restaurant table from Polanski and presses him on the subject of his life-changing encounter in the late 70s. "When the newspapers and the magazines and the books talk about you and little girls, is there anything in it?"

"Well," Polanski responds, dodging the gravity of the accusation, "I like young women, let's put it this way. But I think most men do actually." Then he stares at the questioner, as if challenging him to go further. The reporter does, and Polanski continues to dissemble before acknowleding [sic] the case his questioner is alluding to. Clearing his throat, theatrically, he reaches across the table, diving into a basket full of nuts and then cracking one open. "What," he inquires, "would you like me to say about it exactly?" The trace of a smirk breaks across his calm expression, and as the creepily childlike score of Rosemary's Baby emerges on the soundtrack, the effect is somewhat sinister.

Then, in the end, we're back in that restaurant, and a meal is brought to the table. Ever charming, Polanski grins boyishly and proclaims, "I think it was a wonderful idea to do this, this interview over, over this lunch but the night is getting into the dinner, and case of you have in mind finishing this interview, I want to ask you if you intend to end on this note, or do you think there's something more to my life than my relations with, uh, young women?"

Today, the answer to that question just got a little more complicated.
As a huge fan of the director myself, I've often tried to ignore this lurid episode. But as I responded to the piece over at the Examiner:
I'm conflicted over the situation. There was a time when I would look at Polanski as a persecuted artist with a tragic life that was being hounded 3 decades later for an indiscretion that appeared to be consensual if illegal. Now, as a father of two I find it harder to dismiss it as a mere indiscretion. Now, I know that even though a child may exhibit instances of deep maturity they simply don't have the years of life experience necessary to make informed decisions regarding the situation [the victim, Samantha] Gailey found herself in.
Yes, conflicted. I still sympathize with the man who lost his parents in the Holocaust, and lost his beautiful movie starlet wife and their unborn child in a massacre by the Manson acolytes. His movies still stir and awe me considerably more than other directors who I've admired more strongly yet more fleetingly.

But there is something I can't get past which has always made me a bit uncomfortable. There is a sense of entitlement inherent in Polanski's behavior towards the whole episode. From the outset, when the director behaved as if he were entitled to a sexual indiscretion, whether because of his star status or because of all the tragedies he's endured; to his decision to escape the judgements of this country's judicial system (justified as he may be that he was getting shafted by a mercurial and biased judge, Polanski still failed to show up to a recent court hearing that was willing to adjudicate his dispute with the original proceedings); the sense that he should be given an exception because of who he is has always seemed to hover in the periphery.

Today, my opinion on the matter just got a little more complicated.


Joel Bocko said...

Tony, thank you for highlighting my piece - I'll respond in further detail over there; but for now, while I did not intend to be non-committal it may have come off that way, so for the sake of clarity:

I think Polanski is one of the greatest directors of all time and that Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown are stone-cold classics for the ages. If anything, he may be underrated possibly because the Manson disaster and the sex scandal interrupted his career to a certain extent, and because he tended to apply himself to projects rather than author fresh "auteur" films like a Fellini or Bergman. Yet he has one of the most distinctive visions in the annals of the art, and one of the most impressive grasps of the medium and how to use it. And, yes, the personal darkness and perversity and charismatic sense of decadence (as well as a paranoid, persecuted sense of victimhood) are a key part of the art. I think he fully deserved the Oscar in 2002 for The Pianist.

He is also a criminal, at the very least a child molestor (in the sense that he took advantage of a young girl) and quite probably a rapist to boot. He deserves to be treated as such.

If I appear non-commital on the subject, it's partly because I was trying to focus on analysis but that's a bit of a cop-out: I also feel like a hypocrite celebrating him as an artist and decrying him as a man. I shouldn't - art and private life are always separate things, for better or worse, but when the artist is still living one's sense of him becomes more tangled. If, hypothetically, I were to meet Polanski how would I react? Spurn him (not that he'd care if some random person spurned him, of course) due to the gravity of his crime and his refusal to pay for it? Shake his hand and figure transgressions were in the past, bygones are bygones? Figure that because of the mishaps of the trial and the fact that he will almost certainly see no time in court (let alone time in jail) he's already paid his price to society? Or just forget about the man altogether, and shake his hand, saying how much I love his work? Purely hypothetical of course, but that's perhaps why I refrain from condemning him too loudly, even if I should.

I'll respond more specifically to your the rest of your comment over there, regarding the "entitlement" point which I think is spot-on.

Thanks again not only for highlighting my work, but for engaging with it. I'll be quite interested to see where this case goes from here.

Jason Bellamy said...

Tony: I really respect the honesty of this piece. I haven't found myself doing much wrestling over Polanski, because I don't have strong feelings about the guy. (I'm thankful he made Chinatown, but it pretty much ends there.)

I do find this to be an interesting situation because on the one hand it seems that resources could be better used somewhere else at this point. But the fact is that Polanski, up to this point, has "gotten away with it," in large part. We can cite the civil settlement or the banishment or whatever, but in the end he committed a crime and didn't officially do the time.

Wanted and Desired was an interesting experience for me because it explained the context of him fleeing the country. I saw it as a situation where he was willing to do the (modest) time, and then things changed. I had some amount of sympathy for him in that respect, but only a small amount.

The Polanski case makes me ask questions like:

* "What if she had been 12?" The fact that she was 13 -- thus a teenager -- makes her sound as if she was just a breath away from being 18, but actually she was closer to being 10. I think that says everything about the crime.

* "What if Polanski was, say, a politician?" Could we have forgiven him then? What is it about artists that makes us think they shouldn't quite have to play by the rules of society, as if Polanski's admirable traits led to this horrible crime?

I don't get any pleasure out of Polanski being punished now. I also can't think of a single solid reason he shouldn't be. Those are my thoughts.

Tony Dayoub said...

MovieMan and Jason,

You both seem to see the situation the same way I do. Complicating matters further is the cultural differences it brings up.

Following the reaction online, it seems like there are great divides between:

1. Americans and Europeans
2. conservatives and liberals
3. big city residents and small-town dwellers
4. parents and non-parents

I'm no prude, but the fact that I'm an American, liberal, big city parent has certainly contributed to why I've felt the matter is closer to gray than black and white.

Thomas Pluck said...

I know if I plied an adult woman with quaaludes and alcohol and had sexual relations with her after she said "no," and fled the country when my plea bargain wasn't 100% certain of being accepted, without celebrity, wealth and the power that comes with it I'd be excoriated and no mercy would be given me, no matter what suffering I'd endured or what great works of art I'd shared with the world.

It's rather amazing that Polanski gets the benefit of the doubt when he did this with a child. I admire the man's art. The man himself deserves to face justice.

Tony Dayoub said...

Great point there, Tommy.

Jean said...

Dear Tony,

you said, the main oppositions are:

1. Americans and Europeans
2. conservatives and liberals
3. big city residents and small-town dwellers
4. parents and non-parents

I've been researching this case for months by now, and my conclusion is that the only opposition is:

Information vs. Lack thereof

Those who condemn Polanski always believe that the young lady actually said "no", or he "plied" her with drugs, or he was given some "special treatment", or he didn't do any time for this. Nothing of the above is true. I have given a detailed analysis here:

and I dearly hope it might help you resolve the conflict, at least to some extent. Any feedback will be greatly appreciated.

Jean said...

In addition to what I just posted:

MovieMan0283 said,
"He is also a criminal, at the very least a child molestor (in the sense that he took advantage of a young girl) and quite probably a rapist to boot. He deserves to be treated as such." Later on MovieMan says Polanski didn't "pay for his crime". This is an example of what I said about being misinformed. He never molested any children (the young lady in question being what her medical report called an "adult female", quite mature and estimated at about 18 of age by everyone who saw her, and having had previous sexual experience), he never raped her (see the documents I cite in my blog), the analysis reveals that the sex was consensual, which is corroborated by the conclusion of Polanski's probation report and her own later statements, and he DID do his time for this, - while anyone else who was convicted of same ("unlawful sexual intercourse") were given straight probation (that's the "special treatment" he had). I understand that hardly anyone would be willing to dedicate months of their life to unearthing the truth, plowing through documents and testimonies, but I presented them all in my blog, and I beg you to at least have a look at it; then, after you've gotten acquainted with all information, not only the exerpts taken out of the context, you'll be able to judge for yourself; in the absence of vital information it hardly seems possible.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks for enlightening us, Jean. I've never argued the morality of the case, as I myself am conflicted about much of what you hold up as examples: the cosensual nature, the girl's "maturity," the fact that he did do some time and was likely being persecuted by a judge because of his clout, etc.

For me, of late, what it has always boiled down to is that, a) cosensual or not, the girl was not of LEGAL age to agree to sex with Polanski, b) whether he served time for it or not, whether he was being persecuted for it or not, at a certain point Polanski decided for himself to take flight rather than let the LEGAL SYSTEM resolve his concerns.

Separating the man from the artist (for I'm an avowed fan of his work), it is the arrogance of his taking flight which most perturbs me, a declaration that he is somehow above the system (flawed or not, there are many in similar circumstances who work out their differences in the courts). Not one iota of evidence, yet, has ever convinced me otherwise.

Jean said...

I see your point, and I respect it, although I disagree. I don't see it as an act of arrogance, but as that of utter despair. If it isn't too much to ask, can you please - whenever you have the time - have a look at this chapter

I tried to make some points there that I hope maybe will serve - I don't know - to cast a shadow of doubt on the opinion that he felt he was "above the law", or could resolve the situation in any other way? (By the way, Silver, Gunson and Dalton all stated there was no other choice).

Anonymous said...

Hi, Tony. I'd like to add my own two cents on the Polanski affair.

I have to disagree with you on your opinion that Polanski considers himself "above the law".

For instance, he cooperated fully with the LA judicial system for an entire year before he (rightly, in my opinion) started to bail. Even Samantha Geimer and her lawyer agree that Polanski was not being treated justly by the judge. In fact, Geimer herself complains that even she wasn't treated well by the system.

As for Polanski being "special" because of his wealth and talent, well, that's what caused the judge to dick around with him in the first place. If he had been an ordinary man, he would've gotten probation at best. It was against the law to have sex with a minor in those days as it is today, but they didn't have the sex-hysteria back in '77 like they do today in 2011. (I am not one of those people who believe Geimer was drugged or raped or sodomized by Polanski. That testimony is not legally valid, and it is not what he pleaded guilty to.)

Now the question that everyone gets emotional about: What if it were my 13 year-old child? Well, it wouldn't be my child, because I wouldn't let my child go to a photo-shoot by herself with a horny film director whose wife was brutally murdered a mere 8 years previously. Which is what everybody in Hollywood circles knew about Polanski in those days, including Samantha's mother. But if, despite my vigilance, my child managed to get fucked by that film director? Well then it wouldn't have come as any surprise to me because I know my child had had prior sexual experience with her 17 year-old boyfriend, and wanted desperately to be a movie star.

But you, see, none of this "putting things into proper context" matters today. People who weren't even born yet when this happened think that they are entitled to make up facts as they choose to, and then ignore the real facts. It's nothing but pure, agenda-driven hysteria.

And as to your assertion that Polanski can come back to LA to "settle the matter". The very second that Polanski gets off the airplane at LAX is the very second he will get arrested and subjected to a media circus that will make the OJ Simpson trial look like a quiet picnic in comparison. No. Fucking. Way.

Jean said...

Fully agree with the above comment. Whenever people consider the actual facts of the case, they never fail to come to the same conclusions.