MovieBob - Intermission
Might as Well Get to the Polanski Thing

Bob Chipman | 16 Oct 2009 17:00
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Nothing in this world comes without assumed obligations. For a columnist, this usually involves newsworthy occurrences in one's focal field needing to be commented upon. For a film columnist, this means that whatever else one wants to write about must frequently be regarded secondarily to film-industry goings-on too newsworthy to ignore.

So, then, here are my two cents on the matter of Roman Polanski.

Now, this particular story, being over two weeks old (and the "case" attendant to it being over 30 years old), I'm given to believe that no one needs any lengthy re-statement of the who's and the what's at play here - and if you do, Google is but a few clicks away. Suffice it to say; Roman Polanski is a film director of substantial reputation who, in 1977, plead guilty to "unlawful sexual intercourse" with a 13 year-old girl. Allegedly, upon learning that the judge had decided to renege on a plea agreement and instead render a much harsher penalty, Polanski fled the U.S. for France (which has no legal obligation to extradite him back to America) to avoid sentencing. He remained there for 32 years, during which time he began a family and continued to direct films, winning a Best Director Oscar for "The Pianist" in 2002.

In 2008, his fugitive status once again re-entered headlines with the release of "Wanted & Desired," a documentary that alleged misconduct and corruption by the judge and prosecutors at his original trial. On September 26 of this year, he attempted to enter Switzerland to accept a Lifetime Achievement award at the Zurich film festival, where he was arrested by Swiss police and is now awaiting extradition back to the United States.

Thus, on its face, what presents itself is a fairly unremarkable study in the peculiarities of prosecuting law across international borders. Polanski himself, of course, doesn't wish to be imprisoned. The now-grown victim of the original incident says she has "forgiven" him and does not want that, either. Many of his friends, colleagues and fellow filmmakers have circulated petitions calling either for leniency or outright release. The Los Angeles prosecutors, unsurprisingly, disagree.

For those keeping track, that takes care of the only people whose opinions actually matter in this circumstance. Of course, that doesn't mean that everybody else doesn't get to chime in anyway. And that's the problem with incidents like this - or, rather, the way our culture reacts to them: It almost immediately stops being about the actual people or the actual case and instead becomes about using them to fight "culture war" skirmishes by-proxy - especially when the criminal is famous and the crime is sexual.

In particular, the event was mana from heaven for American social conservative opinion-makers, who instantly seized on how perfectly the situation fit into their favorite rabble-rousing narrative: The clash between the "real" America (read: the people who agree with them) and the imaginary cabal of eeeeevil homosexuals, non-Christians and "liberals" who supposedly control Hollywood and The Media.

It couldn't line up better for these folks: Showbiz Babylon defending a sex-crime fugitive. And since Polanski is wealthy and European, there's a built-in undercurrent of class warfare: The Decadent Rich versus The Pious Peasantry, Secular Europe versus Moral America. Best of all, aside from the long-ago blockbusters "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby," most of Polanski's films are of the "artsy" type folks inclined this way tend to dislike to begin with, meaning less need for anyone to deal with seeing something they liked cast in a different light. (By the same token, most people who say they avoid Woody Allen movies "because of Soon-Yi" never liked his movies to begin with.)

Of course, no one has argued that the man isn't guilty or that his crime was not heinous. At worst, his family and colleagues have offered that, to them, his friendship and contributions to art and culture mitigate the deeds of his past to varying degrees. But then, facts seldom get in the way of a good narrative.

As predictable as the right seizing on the story for cheap political points was the left diving in for the mirror-mirror version of the same - "the enemy of my enemy" and all that. The Huffington Post had at least two day-one Polanski articles up, not so much in defense of the man, but rather in pre-emptive offense against "the other side." Ironically, this led to a mini-revolt among the site's readers, many of whom agreed with "the enemy" in at least this one case. Hyperbole began to fight hyperbole: Raging against the anti-Hollywood moralists, producer Harvey Weinstein sounded like a live-action "South Park" routine when he retorted that "Hollywood has the best moral compass!", while declaring "I didn't sign the Polanski petitions!" became a badge of honor for celebrities and film industry folks angling for a heartland audience.

It's all so cynical and tiresome. If there must be a battleground for such things... Why this man? Why this case?

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