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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Roman’s non-holiday

Everyone else has had their say about Roman Polanski, and you have probably heard and/or read more than enough about him by now. But I won’t let that stop me from throwing in my two cents worth.

First, let me say that it is outrageous that the Los Angeles police would have charged Polanksi with the crime of being a poor filmmaker. A mere glance at his body of work refutes that ridiculous indictment. We are talking about the man who showed his skill and talent 47 years ago with Knife in the Water, filmed in his homeland Poland. Okay, he made some really strange sort-of comedies in the early days, like the exquisitely titled The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck. But these were more than off-set by such European art house films as the UK-based psycho-thriller Repulsion (starring Catherine Deneuve) and the black comedy thriller Cul-de-sac (starring Donald Pleasance and Lionel Stander), as well as the very creepy The Tenant (in which he himself starred), filmed in Paris, the city of his birth.

Over the years, he has made many respectable movies in various genres that range from the rather sensuous 1971 adaptation of Macbeth, the 1979 adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles (with Nastassja Kinski), the 1994 adaptation of the Ariel Dorfman play Death and the Maiden (with Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley) and the 1999 adaptation of the Arturo Pérez-Reverte novel Club Dumas (called The Ninth Gate, with Johnny Depp)—not to mention the Hitchcock-esque Frantic (with Harrison Ford), the shipboard romantic drama Bitter Moon (with Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas) and the pre-Pirates of the Caribbean buccaneer adventure/comedy Pirates (with Walter Matthau).

And we haven’t even mentioned his three most lauded movies. Before The Exorcist, the last word on satanic doings on the movie screen was the creepy Rosemary’s Baby, which gave major boosts to the careers of Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon, who got a Supporting Actress Oscar. It also earned Polanski the first of his five Oscar nominations, for adapting the screenplay from Ira Levin’s novel. He got his first Best Director nomination six years later, for his classic film noir in which, in a cameo, he famously slit Jack Nicholson’s nose, Chinatown. His third nomination was for directing Tess. And he got nominations for Best Director and Best Picture for The Pianist, which recounted a true story that mirrored Polanski’s own early history. His direction of this outstanding movie earned him his only Academy Award—which of course he couldn’t collect in person because he would have immediately been arrested. Kind of like what happened in Switzerland.

So the evidence is clear. Roman Polanski should never have been charged with the crime of being a poor filmmaker. What’s that you say? That’s not what he was charged with? Okay, maybe the charge was being a mediocre filmmaker. But he is clearly innocent of that charge as well. What? His criminal charge had nothing to do with his filmmaking skills or output? Okay, now it’s coming back to me. Back in 1977 Polanski was charged with the crime of not having suffered sufficiently in his life up to that point. But surely that charge cannot stick. After all, his father survived one Nazi concentration camp and his mother died in another. As if that wasn’t enough, his wife and unborn child were savagely killed in one of the most notorious mass slayings of all time. Certainly, the charge of insufficient suffering cannot stick.

Okay, he wasn’t actually charged with any of those things. Those things aren’t crimes. But because Polanski is such an immense talent and because of the tragic aspects of his life, a lot of people with good intentions want to see it that way. Other people see mitigating circumstances that have more to do with the actual charge against Polanski, which was the drugging and rape of a 13-year-old child. They point out that Polanski made a large cash settlement with the family of the girl and that the girl, now in her forties, has publicly stated that she does not want to see him punished further. That is well and good, and I hope that means that the experience left the woman with little or no lasting trauma. But while the civil matter between her and the filmmaker may be settled, rape is a crime against society as well as against an individual, so Polanski is required to make good with society as well. At the time of Polanski’s arrest, I actually remember reading in a respectable magazine (it might have been Time, but I can’t be sure) that it wasn’t really fair to judge a European artist by American standards because the European culture has such a more worldly outlook on sex and differences in ages than Americans do. While that might be true in the minds of some continental ephebophiles, it is hardly a justification, either morally or legally. The logical extension of that kind of thinking is allow honor killings of female relatives on American soil for people who come from cultures that supposedly approve of them.

Some people, having seen the documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (which ironically may have spurred California officials to aggressively pursue him all these years later) feel that he is entitled to a free pass because the judge in his case seemed disinclined to honor a plea bargain that would have kept him out of prison. That may well be, but the right to a plea bargain is not enumerated in the Bill of Rights. When you put yourself in the position of having justice meted out to you, it is the justice system that determines how it plays out, not the defendant. The other ironic explanation for Polanski’s arrest is that the authorities suddenly got active about pursuing him because Polanski’s own lawyer had been arguing that the charges against him should be dropped because the authorities hadn’t been actively pursuing him.

Perhaps the one implied argument that resonates with me (tongue in cheek here!) is the notion expressed by some people that Polanski should have been left alone during this visit to Switzerland because he was there to attend (indeed receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at) a film festival. Speaking on behalf of film fest devotees everywhere, I think we could get behind the idea of a blanket criminal amnesty for anyone who is in the locality to attend a film festival. While I like to think I get wild and crazy at these events, the sad truth is that such a system would really only benefit me if wandering city streets with bleary eyes and a deficit of sleep were to become a criminal offense. But I digress.

Personally, I have no wish to see Roman Polanski incarcerated. I would be more than happy to see the system show mercy, or at least leniency, on him. Make him dig deep in his pockets if necessary. Or load him up with years of community service. Maybe make some instructional films about the importance of not violating minors. But if he gets a hanging judge who has it in for him, then justice, in whatever form it is deemed to take, still needs to take its course—including all the appeals that are available to him. It would not be particularly easy to see a man who survived the Kraków Ghetto, now in his 70s, be put behind bars. But, despite his history, it’s not morally Polanski’s to decide.

-S.L., 8 October 2009

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