My reaction to Roman Polanski's arrest in Switzerland was, like a lot of people's, originally pretty blase—it's been thirty years, what's the big deal, who cares anymore?—until I read Kate Harding's piece in Salon yesterday. Returning again and again to a single, irrefutable refrain—"Roman Polanski raped a child"—Harding demolishes, with a fine, cleansing rage, all the arguments for leaving Polanski at liberty. The most pernicious excuses are easily dealt with—that the girl had a pushy stage mother, that Polanski's own childhood was horrific, etc.—and the rest of them—it's been a long time, he hasn't done anything like that since, his grown-up victim has forgiven him—probably wouldn't even have been brought up if Polanski weren't a celebrated film director and the friend and co-worker of a lot of famous people.
In fact, what Polanski's defense boils down to finally is what you might call the Ezra Pound Exception, i.e., that some people consider great artists to be exempt from moral judgement (to wit, "So what if Ezra Pound was Fascist, he was a great poet, etc."). If you take Polanski's talent out of the equation, then his defense falls apart, which is easy to see with a little thought experiment. Assuming that the facts are not in dispute—that Polanski pled guilty to unlawful sex with a minor and then fled the country to escape sentencing—consider this: if he were just an ordinary 76-year-old man, and not the guy who made Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby and Knife in the Water, then no one would take the other reasons for not extraditing him at all seriously. Her mother was pushy? So what. She was "advanced" for her age? So what. It happened a long time ago? So what. For anybody else but a celebrated and/or wealthy guy, none of this would matter.
And even if you do think that Polanski's personal history and the victim's forgiveness are mitigating factors, surely the proper venue for taking them into account would be a sentencing hearing in Los Angeles County. If they are mitigating factors—and I honestly don't know if they are or aren't, that's not my point—then let Polanski return to face the charges he admitted to, and let a judge take them into account. Given that he confessed to the truth of the charges, and then fled the country to avoid facing the consequences, letting him off the hook during the extradition process just feels wrong to me, or at least premature.
I say all this as an admirer of Polanski's work, or some of it. Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby are two of my favorite movies, and his version of Macbeth (the first film he made after his wife's murder by the Manson family, another potential mitigating factor) is my favorite Shakespeare film. (And no matter what happens, I will continue to watch them and enjoy them, just like I still think Ezra Pound actually was a great poet, if not such a nice guy, and just like I'll continue to listen to Phil Spector's great Christmas album, despite his being a convicted murderer.) In all three films, the film's script or original source material is not by Polanski, but he brings to them not just the cool elegance of his Polish film school training, but the full effect of his understanding (gained the hard way, by surviving the Holocaust) of the seductive persistence of evil. I watch Rosemary's Baby almost every Halloween; it's the scariest movie I know, and yet it's almost completely free of the visceral shocks you usually get in horror films. What's scariest about it is the slow accumulation of ordinary, quotidian moral compromises, culminating in that blackly comic and horrific final scene, at the end of which Rosemary (who is also a victim of a rape, by no less than Satan) comes to accept her demon child—evil triumphs through the back door, by means of a mother's love for her newborn son. And, of course, the ending of Chinatown is equally harrowing, as a rich and powerful old man who has committed a series of horrific crimes, ranging from rape and incest to the corruption of a city government, basically gets away with it. Polanski even changes the ending of Macbeth: while Macbeth himself gets what's coming to him—his severed head rolling in the dirt—Polanski adds a little scene at the end, with the new king of Scotland riding off to visit the witches and make his own pact with the devil.
Now, bear in mind, I'm not saying that Roman Polanski is Satan, or Macbeth, or even Noah Cross. He's continued to make good movies (if not as great as the ones he made before his arrest), and, as even Harding concedes (through gritted teeth), he may even be a decent guy, all things considered. And it's entirely possible that a judge may buy all or at least some of the mitigating factors everyone is invoking and let Polanski off lightly. All I'm saying is that if he weren't a famous (and wealthy) film director, none of these reasons would be enough to keep him from standing before a judge to accept his sentence, which is what he probably should have done thirty years ago. Much as I love his movies, and his bracingly ambiguous and subtle vision of the moral abyss we all walk over, all the time, I don't want this story to end the way his best movies do, where good people shrug off a crime and let it stand. This time, we shouldn't forget it. This isn't Chinatown.
In which I mostly write about books, movies, and TV. An all-purpose spoiler alert: Sometimes I will talk about these works on the assumption that the reader's already read or seen them, so if you haven't, be forewarned.
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