On Roman Polanski

I like Yukio Mishima. Confessions of a Mask is a great book about alienation and isolation in the face of societal expectations. I like Yukio Mishima despite the fact that he held deplorable, racist, nationalistic opinions. Moreover, he ended his life by first kidnapping the commandant of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, and then killing himself in a grisly ritual. Yukio Mishima was a hideous, awful person. A horrible man, and eventually a criminal. This does not mean one may not read and enjoy his books. What this does mean though, is that he has to be read with a certain amount of conscious criticism. “This interesting work of neatness,” one must recall, “was written by a horrible, whacked-out lunatic.”

This isn’t just limited to individual artists. Most of the very shiny wonders of the world are the result of rather nasty absolute dictators doing fairly awful shit. The terra-cotta warriors in Xi’an, China, for instance, were basically a vanity project for a monarch. Qin Shi Huang decided that he wanted a fancy tomb, and poured an unreasonable amount of China’s budget into making a work of art that only his corpse was going to be able to enjoy. He so infuriated people with his monument to himself that after he was dead the place was burned to the ground out of (deserved) spite.

Think about it: One of the most iconic pieces of archaeology in the world started as a an act of extreme hubris, arrogance, self-aggrandizement and waste. And now it’s a well-visited UNESCO site. Think about the pyramids. Slave labor. The Parthenon. I doubt that Pericles was a union-friendly OSHA-following kind of guy. These are great works of culture and art that were also awful wastes of life, and we need to acknowledge that.

Which brings me to Roman Polanski. Here we have more good art from a bad place. If I had to summarize my opinions about the guy, they would basically be “Fuck Roman Polanski.” Allow me, though, to expand…

Roman Polanski drugged a thirteen year old girl alcohol and quaaludes and then raped her. There were witnesses, and he pleaded guilty to precisely this. Later on, he evaded the authorities and attempted to dodge the punishment that society would mete out on any similar rapist. He also makes pretty good movies. So good, that lots of people are embarrassing themselves by sympathizing with him.

The question is- can one watch his movies without guilt? Does watching, and praising, Polanski’s movies make the viewer a party to rape of a thirteen-year-old girl? If you like his movies, does that put you on “his side?” I’d say “mostly no.” Lots of people, like Nicholas Sarkozy, seem to be thinking “Oh, I like his movies, so therefore I’m in favor of clemency for this guy.” This line of thought is unnecessary and unfortunate.

First- If you try to limit your consumption of art and media to only stuff that was made by morally enlightened people, you will have a hard time of finding anything to fill your brain with. Sean Connery thinks its okay to hit women. He’s been quoted as much. Are you going to stop watching James Bond movies? Are you going to never watch Last Crusade again? Didn’t think so. You do have to separate yourself from the art, and recognize that deplorable, awful bastards can be capable of making things that are neato.

Second- I would posit, though, that since Polanski committed an extremely serious criminal act and has subsequently evaded justice, it is okay to watch his movies, but not to pay for them. Moreover, the world would do well to not burnish his reputation by throwing awards at him. I’m kind of reminded of Pete Rose, even though I don’t like baseball very much. Pete Rose bet on his own team to win, which I always thought wasn’t that bad a thing to do, and was shut out of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Polanski raped a girl and got an Oscar. Even though I think that MLB erred on the side of harshness, they’ve got the moral edge over Hollywood in this comparison. If a guy doesn’t follow the rules, he doesn’t get the accolades.

In the meantime, I think that it’s perfectly acceptable to download Polanski’s movies and watch them without paying for them. If anything, I think that’s how the viewer can absolve themselves while watching them. Once he’s dead, though, feel free to pay for the things.

Third- Film is a collaborative art. I do admit that I want to see Chinatown, but it’s not just a Roman Polanski movie. It’s also a Jack Nicholson movie. The finished products contain the creative efforts of lots of people. Polanski was just the guiding force of all that creativity and work, and even though you are watching his stuff when you watch one of his movies, you are also watching the work of the writers, cinematographers, actors, editors, and guys who work the lights. One or two of them were probably alright dudes.

But, with all of that out of the way, the man should be in jail. Oscars are not reasons for clemency, and I believe that liberal, democratic, rule-of-law societies would do well to punish child rapists, be they famous or obscure. The victim has asked for the charges to be dropped, but mainly because she’s tired of the press attention. I can understand, really. If I’d spent the past thirty years best known as a victim, I’d want it all to go away, too.

But, when it comes to violent crimes like this it’s not up to private citizens to decide that everything’s okay. I like living in a society where rapists will most certainly go to jail. His awfulness does not change the status of his art. We can still admire, the terra-cotta warriors, the pyramids, the Parthenon, etc. However, we must acknowledge their bloody origins, and not fool ourselves as to how they came to be. Likewise, one may read a Mishima book or watch a Connery movie and know that the art came from someone who, really, was an awful sort, but who managed to occasionally spurt wonderful things into the world.

So, one may watch Polanski’s movies without being an apologist for the man. Hopefully, viewers will be watching them, though, while he only gazes at the walls of a cell.

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