Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Roman Holiday

Can someone, anyone explain why some of Hollywood’s best and coolest directors are defending Roman Polanski? Is it because he’s their buddy? Because he’s really talented? Because giving a narcotic to a minor and raping her is not a big deal (or at least it wasn’t in the 1970s?) Is it because it could have been any of them on Jack Nicholson's couch on top of a young girl? Because Polanski feels really bad about what happened? Is it because the victim is over it?

I’m listening, but I haven’t heard anything remotely sounding like a good reason. Correct me if any of this is wrong: In 1977, the 44-year-old director of celebrated films such as Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby, conducting a modeling shoot with a 13-year-old girl, gave the girl narcotics and alcohol, and had nonconsensual sex with her. He was arrested and charged with six felony counts, was allowed to plead to a lesser charge, and then, prior to sentencing, he fled to France, where he would not face extradition, and where he continued to make films. Last month, he was arrested in Switzerland on a fugitive warrant and now faces possible extradition and prosecution in the U.S. Did I miss anything?

I’m trying real hard to put myself in the shoes of Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Wes Anderson and Woody Allen (OK, maybe not Woody Allen), all of whom signed the Petition protesting the “unfair” arrest of Polanski, who is now 76. I’m trying to imagine how I’d react if Polanski happened to be my friend or colleague (or if a friend or colleague of mine tested my loyalty by turning out to be a sex offender). Maybe they know that he is remorseful. Maybe they know some wonderful qualities that this man, who has undoubtedly lived a fascinating life, possesses that the public just doesn’t get. Maybe friendship and loyalty sometimes transcends heinous moral transgression. (Or maybe it's about what's politically correct in Cannes.) Well sorry, but if it were me, I’d like to think I’d say: “Roman. Look man, I’d like to help and sure, I wouldn't turn down a part in one of your films, but I can’t absolve you of your responsibilities. You’ve got to face the music.” But that’s surely being too generous.

The Hollywood folks who signed the “Free Polanski” petition should be ashamed. Studio chief Harvey Weinstein offered this gem, “Whatever you think about the so-called crime, Polanski has served his time.” So-called crime? That one boggles the mind. Served his time? How? By living in the South of France and Swiss Alps, pursuing his trade, making films?

The victim, now a 44-year-old woman with children of her own, says she is “over it” and has come out in support of Polanski. Some defenders ask, “Why should she have to go through all of this again?” Well, first of all, she doesn’t – at least not in the manner that many rape victims do. There is no trial to be conducted or testimony to be given here. Polanski has already pleaded guilty. And if the lurid details have resurfaced and are being played out again so many years later, well whose fault is that?

But it’s not about the victim. It’s about all of the potential victims and future victims, it’s about our daughters and our friends and it’s also about the rest of us. It’s about the sort of moral order in which we choose to live. It may seem counterintuitive to say that our criminal laws are not principally about finding a remedy for the individual victim, but they are not. That is why criminal cases are always The People v. the Defendant, not the victim v. the Defendant.

Of course, it’s also about Main Street values vs. Hollywood values or at least that’s the way the story is sometimes covered. I don’t have much patience for that angle. That’s just red meat for the Culture Warriors. (and if THAT were the battle – religious social conservatives who preach "family" values vs. freewheeling, liberal, artistic & commercial Hollywood – I’d probably side with Hollywood every time.) And it’s a phony issue. The real issues are about women, privilege and justice.

The feminist issue is addressed head-on by Melissa Silverstein, writer and blogger at Women & Hollywood. Rape, she reminds us, is a feminist issue and getting away with rape is an outrage that ought to be condemned not encouraged – particularly by a community that supposedly prides itself in progressivism and social justice. But the old boy’s club is alive and well and so is the fear of not getting work. She correctly observed that Hollywood’s reluctance to condemn and criticize Polanski and his fan club was “deafening.”

That is not to say that Hollywood speaks with one voice. Clearly, not everyone sympathizes with Polanski. Jamie Foxx is nobody’s idea of feminist, but he stated it plainly, “If it had been my daughter who was barely a teenager — my daughter is 15 — Roman Polanski would be missing ... period.” Realizing that encouraging violence might not be the most responsible approach, Foxx backed down from a strict vigilante platform. "But, that's me and I wouldn't want anyone else to follow that because you should let the justice system work it out."

And that’s actually the point. Our criminal justice system is intended quell our most violent instincts, by taking revenge out of our angry hearts and placing the matter in the hands of the law and in our justice system. But why would anybody trust a justice system if all you need to get away with rape is artistic talent and low friends in high places?


innisart said...

I thought the idea that money and lucrative (for investors) talent was carte-blanche for getting away with all manner of crimes. Isn't that the point to which our criminal and political systems have devolved?

You don't sound like a lawyer (that's a compliment).

I read an interesting take on the law the other day. The character, an IP lawyer, described his job as being a fiction writer. Both sides in the case make up a story, and the story which is most entertaining and convincing wins the case.


Money and power have always provided an edge for working the system. I don't think the present day U.S. is unique in that regard. And I'm not sure it's any worse than it used to be. But maybe it is.

As for the lawyer as fiction writer, well maybe the best, most entertaining and most convincing story SHOULD win the case.