ReelThoughts: October 01, 2009

"From 'Wanted and Desired' to 'Reviled and Captured'"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


Originally, I wasn't going to write anything about Roman Polanski's capture in Switzerland. It seemed to be a relatively minor news story. After all, his detainment and future extradition (or lack thereof) doesn't impact me directly. He's an old man and likely no danger to society. He probably feels remorse for his past actions. Yes, in a perfect world, he should return to Los Angeles to face the music and either serve a few days/months in jail (which is all it would amount to) or have the charges dismissed (which would be by far the most likely outcome, especially in light of the prosecutorial and judicial misconduct involved). So, really, it's not much of a story. Then came the infamous "petition" for his freedom, and I was suddenly pissed and disappointed in so many men and women.

The problem is that, no matter how many years have passed, no matter how many great things Polanski has done in the interim, and no matter how sorrowful he may be about what happened, the fact is that a crime was committed. And not just any crime. As part of a bargain, Polanski pled guilty to having sex with a minor (statutory rape). This is one of those typical Hollywood double-standard deals where stars get off lighter than "normal" people because they have high-priced lawyers and are famous. The actual charges were a lot grimmer: drugging a 13-year old girl then having non-consensual vaginal/oral/anal sex with her. That's "real" rape, not just the statutory kind. No one seems to dispute that this is what happened. It's in the police reports and the victim maintains her stance that she repeatedly said "no" and asked him to stop, but he didn't.

The petition, which "demands" Polanski's "immediate" release from custody, would be laughable if it wasn't serious. It makes the following assertion: "His arrest follows an American arrest warrant dating from 1978 against the filmmaker, in a case of morals." A case of morals? Do the drafters of this petition consider rape to be a case of morals? To me, this indicates those who wrote this are unaware of the facts of the case. How many of the signatories have 13-year old daughters, and how many of them would use the phrase "case of morals" if someone did to their child what Polanski is accused of having done? Now that Polanski has a daughter, how does he feel about his actions? Remember, this isn't a situation where a lonely, old man engaged in sex with a willing but underage girl. This is something more sordid and disturbing, involving drugs and force.

The act of defending Polanski in this instance is almost indefensible, which makes it confusing why there are so many familiar names on the roster of his supporters. Are they unaware of what really transpired? Did they not bother to check the record? Do they care? Do they believe that Polanski's talent gives him a license to transgress laws and avoid punishment if caught? Do they believe he is being persecuted, he is the victim, he is above the law? Maybe all these famous people have bought into their own press.

Shame on you Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Pedro Almodovar, Monica Bellucci, Guillermo del Toro, Terry Gilliam, Tilda Swinton, Tom Tykwer, Wim Wenders, and everyone else who has been so quick to jump to this man's defense. Shame on you for either your ignorance or your arrogance, whichever has led to the signing of such an insulting document. At first glance, it might seem that everyone in Hollywood and the European film industry put on blinders and went along with this charade, but there are (thankfully) some abstainers, and a few of the most prominent deserve mention. Steven Spielberg has avoided the pro-Polanski bandwagon, as has actor Jack Nicholson (at whose house the incident occurred). While French names make up a lion's share of the signatures, absent are Emmanuelle Beart, Gerard Depardieu, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, and Luc Besson (who has released a statement explaining why he didn't sign). Frequent liberal protestors Sean Penn and Tim Robbins have also begged off.

There's no denying that some of Polanski's efforts are great films, with Chinatown and The Pianist leading the way. The director doesn't have the Midas Touch, however - he's also responsible for The Ninth Gate, Bitter Moon, and Pirates. Still, few would argue that top artists, like superior athletes, are not always remarkable human beings. One can revere the art without revering the artist.

Some want to excuse Polanski because of his early life associations with the Holocaust and the murder of his wife at the hands of the Manson Family. In some ways, I find this to be the most repugnant of all defenses because it implies that tragedy excuses heinous behavior. It's the ultimate in shifting blame. There's such a thing as personal responsibility, and the time has come for Polanski to own up to what he did more than 30 years ago. Every action, especially those that are both illegal and immoral, has consequences, and the time may have come for Polanski to face his fate (unless the extradition is blocked by the director's high-priced team of lawyers - a very real possibility). The best thing for Polanski is to come to Los Angeles and resolve this issue once and for all. Close the books on the matter.

My opinion of Polanski hasn't changed in the last week. It's the same as it was many years ago when I learned the details of his life. He's an immensely talented filmmaker who has led a tragic existence but who has gone unpunished for the drugging and rape of a 13-year old girl. The new thing here is how many people I respect have gone out of their way to excuse this man's crime and, in some cases, to argue that there was no crime at all. It's the petition that saddens me because it says something about those who signed that I would prefer not to believe.


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