Barring the cursory link in yesterday’s edition of Eye Browse, I had meant to avoid the Roman Polanski affair altogether. In any case, I thought Amit Varma had said all that needed to be said on the subject in his post of yesterday: Polanski made some great movies, which we watched and admired; Polanski raped an underage girl, and needs to pay a price for it. The two are not connected, a capacity to produce great art does not inoculate you from the consequences of your illegal actions.
Apropos, Hariharan Rahul in course of an email discussion among friends posted a link to this essay by George Orwell, in course of which he makes this point:
In an age like our own, when the artist is an altogether exceptional person, he must be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility, just as a pregnant woman is. Still, no one would say that a pregnant woman should be allowed to commit murder, nor would anyone make such a claim for the artist, however gifted. If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear.
Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill underlines the ridiculousness of the ongoing furor over Polanski’s arrest:
But the miles of newspaper commentary and feverish diplomatic activity that greeted his arrest in Switzerland have not really been concerned with the facts of the case, the question of legal precedents, or the issue of justice. Instead, Polanski has been turned into a symbol. For conservatives, still convinced that the Sixties are the root of all evil, he is symbolic of the perversions allegedly unleashed by the naked, hippyish, free-love liberations of the countercultural period, with his rape of a 13-year-old girl seen virtually as the logical end product of legalising drug use and encouraging people to be sexually experimental. For liberals he is a symbol of tortured European artistry, who is now being victimised by an ‘ugly’ and ‘prudish’ America which doesn’t appreciate great art (1). For American officials, Polanski is symbolic of European degeneracy and they fantasise that returning him to an American jail will be a victory for Reaganite decency over French moral turpitude. For French officials, meanwhile, Polanski is a symbol of Europe’s gallant recovery from its dark past (Polanski and his family, Polish Jews, were persecuted during the Holocaust), who is now being tortured anew by ‘the darker side of America, the side that scares us all’ (2). Just as Mia Farrow’s Rosemary was a vessel for the devil in Rosemary’s Baby, so Polanski has been turned into a vessel for all sorts of political jibber jabber today.
It is striking how quickly the discussion of what Polanski, one man, did to Samantha Gailey, one girl, in a bedroom in 1977 twists and turns into a discussion about competing moral values and even clashing national standards.
Salon’s Kate Harding put it with the brutal force it deserves at a time when the core issues are being hidden under a cloud of obfuscatory commentary:
Roman Polanski raped a child. Let’s just start right there, because that’s the detail that tends to get neglected when we start discussing whether it was fair for the bail-jumping director to be arrested at age 76, after 32 years in “exile” (which in this case means owning multiple homes in Europe, continuing to work as a director, marrying and fathering two children, even winning an Oscar, but never — poor baby — being able to return to the U.S.). Let’s keep in mind that Roman Polanski gave a 13-year-old girl a Quaalude and champagne, then raped her, before we start discussing whether the victim looked older than her 13 years, or that she now says she’d rather not see him prosecuted because she can’t stand the media attention. Before we discuss how awesome his movies are or what the now-deceased judge did wrong at his trial, let’s take a moment to recall that according to the victim’s grand jury testimony, Roman Polanski instructed her to get into a jacuzzi naked, refused to take her home when she begged to go, began kissing her even though she said no and asked him to stop; performed cunnilingus on her as she said no and asked him to stop; put his penis in her vagina as she said no and asked him to stop; asked if he could penetrate her anally, to which she replied, “No,” then went ahead and did it anyway, until he had an orgasm.
Can we do that? Can we take a moment to think about all that, and about the fact that Polanski pled guilty to unlawful sex with a minor, before we start talking about what a victim he is? Because that would be great, and not nearly enough people seem to be doing it.
A simple call to make, you would think if you read the victim’s testimony at the time of the original trial. ‘Liberal’ Hollywood apparently has other ideas. Exemplar in chief of the ‘alternate view’ is Whoopi Goldberg, who on The View says what Polanski did was not actually “rape rape” – a supreme WTF moment if ever there was one. Here, watch:
That is a scary, alternate moral universe Goldberg inhabits, where rape goes from being an absolute to being parsed into several shadings, with the question of criminal culpability dependent on questions such as whether the victim was ‘aware’ it was taking place.
What, rape is not rape if the victim is aware that she is getting fucked front and back despite her constant cries of ‘No’?
Goldberg, too, advances the bizarre argument that it is perfectly valid for a criminal to skip the country if he figures the penal consequences of his crime are more than he wants to accept — which is if anything even worse than her “rape rape” rant.
Goldberg is not the only Hollywood celeb lured into loony territory – the list includes Debra Winger, Monica Belluci, Wong Kar Wai and others [Jazz Shaw in The Moderate Voice underlines the ridiculousness of Goldberg and Winger on the one hand championing the cause of women, and on the other suggesting that maybe Polanski raping and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl was a minor peccadillo not worth fussing over]. And then there’s Harvey Weinstein, first person, in the Independent:
Roman Polanski is a man who cares deeply about his art and its place in this world. What happened to him on his incredible path is filled with tragedy, and most men would have collapsed. Instead, he became a great artist and continues to make great films.
Harvey Weinstein [who incidentally produced the is presumably a man who cares deeply about the art and craft of film-making, and has produced some great films. So? How does that translate into immunity for rape — or even, to use Goldberg’s new formulation, “rape rape”? Weinstein further says:
It is a shocking way to treat such a man. Polanski went through the Holocaust and the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson family. How do you go from the Holocaust to the Manson family with any sort of dignity? In those circumstances, most people could not contribute to art and make the kind of beautiful movies he continues to make.
Everyone from Nietzsche to Kanye West say tragedy produces great art — but to stretch that into ‘tragedy produces great art and therefore excuses great crimes’ is a reach that requires an extremely elastic moral code to make.
Weinstein, incidentally, produced the 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, that purports to investigate the 1978 case and inter alia, raises questions about consent laws and century-specific sexual mores [which IMHO is a whole other and possibly valid argument, but one that does not apply to the case in point — what part of ‘no means no’ is so hard to get? Polanski would have been equally guilty had the victim been 18, or 28, or 48]:
The apologists harp on how the legal system treated Polanski unfairly, and why therefore he was right to flee as he did — an argument that, carried to its logical extreme, could as easily be used by a Dawood Ibrahim to justify hiding out in Pakistan, or indeed by any bail jumper who skips out rather than pay the prescribed price for his actions.
Hey, if you think the case was mishandled, or the judge got it wrong, isn’t that what the appellate process is for?