This past week saw the UK release of Carnage, the new film by Roman Polanski based on the Tony Award-winning stage play by Jasmina Reza. The film has received a certain amount of critical acclaim, and will probably do alright at the box office. But the release of Polanskis latest work has brought the same old questions back to the forefront of discussion. Polanski remains wanted in the USA on a charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, relating to an incident involving 13-year-old Samantha Gailey (now Geimer) in 1977. Polanski pleaded guilty to this charge, but fled to France in early-1978 before sentencing could take place. While Polanski has continued to make films in Europe, controversy has rumbled on about every aspect of the case, from Polanskis account of events and level of co-operation, to the possible ulterior motives of the judge. These concerns reared their ugly head again when Polanski was arrested in Zurich in 2009, and was subsequently put under house arrest while finishing his previous film, The Ghost Writer. Of course, the above is only a very brief summary of the circumstances surrounding the Polanski case. More comprehensive summaries, checked by lawyers with a fine-toothed comb, are available in various books, films and online. But from a cineastes point of view, the nagging question remains: is it possible to appreciate the work of an artist, like Polanski, in spite of what they may have done outside of it?
A MOST IMPORTANT CAVEATLet us be absolutely clear from the outset. I am NOT repeat, NOT for one second saying that Polanskis brilliance as a filmmaker is in any way an excuse for him not to face justice for what he may have done. Without wishing to go into every last nuance of the case, it is ludicrous to argue that any individual or group within society should be accorded a special status which leads them to be in any way above the law. Western justice is built upon the notion that all are equal before the law, with neither hereditary privilege nor earned reputation being a barrier to justice being done. To accord any group special status, other than taking their mental state into account, is to compromise the very foundations of our justice system. Regardless of whether or not this group holds any form of power, which could directly undermine the system, it represents the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. When Polanski was arrested in Switzerland, more than 100 filmmakers signed a petition calling for his release. The petition, whose signatories included David Lynch, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, contended that Polanski had been tricked into attending the Zurich Film Festival: the arrest of Roman Polanski in a neutral country opens the way for actions of which no one can know the effects. They described Polanski as a renown and international artist and held that this extradition, if it takes place, will be heavy in consequences and will take away his freedom. I have no doubt that the signatories of this petition had the very best intentions. I am sure that each and every one of them thought long and hard before committing themselves to what would be an incendiary and perhaps career-threatening document. But their comments would hold no more weight in a court of law than the lines in Mel Brooks The Producers about Adolf Hitler being a talented painted and dancer. Being a great artist does not and must never make someone immune from criticism or prosecution, any more than one should be immune for holding a position in government, working for a specific company, or belonging to a certain organisation. Of course we should take account of the circumstances in which Polanskis original trial was conducted. Of course we should examine the exact nature of the relationship between Polanski and Geimer, including the latters subsequent criminal proceedings against him and a 2008 interview on Good Morning America in which she called for him to be forgiven. We could sit here until we are blue in the face arguing about the intentions behind such prosecutions, and making all kinds of offensive and potentially libellous comparisons to justify our points. But we are not lawyers: we are film fans. So, having got all of that out of the way, we can turn to the question I originally asked.
THE DARK SIDE OF HOLLYWOOD
Of course, Polanski is by no means the only filmmaker whose work is overshadowed by past mistakes. Filmmakers have a history of exploiting the cast and crew of their films, using questionable and often illegal methods of getting the perfect shot. When Michael Powell made Peeping Tom, a film which compares the act of filmmaking to brutal murder, he could not have imagined some of the events that would transpire on the back-lots of Hollywood studios. And thats not to mention the personalities of the directors themselves, whose big creative minds have been overshadowed by their even bigger mouths. Most people will remember Mel Gibsons anti-Semitic tirades around the time of The Passion of the Christ. Only recently, Lars von Trier was thrown out of the Cannes Film Festival, where he was promoting Melancholia, for remaking that he understood Hitler and sympathised with him a little bit. Perhaps most controversial is the 1980s case involving the film adaptation of The Twilight Zone, where John Landis was charged (and acquitted) for the helicopter crash which killed Vic Murrow and two child extras, whom it later transpired had been hired illegally. It may seem offensive to compare these directors so readily, as if their crimes (or alleged crimes) were in some way equally abhorrent. But it is necessary to make at least a fleeting comparison, if only to make certain that this is not a witch-hunt against Polanski, or that he is being personally used as a straw man to further a particular viewpoint on ethics or censorship. Certainly it is interesting how the media has singled out Polanski and Gibson so often, irrespective of guilt, while Landis is rarely spoken of in a negative light.
THE TALE AND THE TELLERThe question of whether one can appreciate filmmakers in spite of what they have said or done really boils down to two distinct but related issues about their work. The first is whether or not their work contains anything illegal; the second is whether we can bring ourselves to trust the tale and not the teller. On the first front, we are living in very privileged times. The BBFC in particular are very vigorous about what can be allowed to be seen in a film, taking extensive precautions to ensure that the content of films does not infringe upon laws relating to animal cruelty or child abuse. If you want proof of this, read Mark Kermodes autobiography Its Only A Movie, which includes a discussion of the blaxploitation movie Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song. Originally passed uncut at X in 1971, the film was subsequently cut in 2003 when it emerged that one of the performers in the opening sex scene was 14 years old. Because of this vigour which is present, certainly within the British censors, we are much less likely to find actual scenes of animal cruelty or child abuse turning up in our cinemas. Filmmakers can and will push the limits of what is aesthetically or artistically acceptable if one can use the word artistic about A Serbian Film or Human Centipede. But we can now enjoy such works (again, the wrong word) safe in the knowledge that no crimes have been committed to the people involved. Polanski may well have had sex with a minor, but you wont find real underage sex turning up in his films any time soon. On the second front, it is more complicated, because it comes down to individual choice or preference. It would be tempting to leave this article hanging, unsatisfyingly, on the famous maxim wrongly attributed to Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. But there is more to it than the ability to freely say or create something. It comes down to ones ability to draw a distinction between the tale and the teller. If you knew nothing about Roman Polanski, if you had never ever heard of him, you could watch his films and be blown away by how good some of them are. It is impossible to make a judgement entirely free from prejudice some people will only watch American films because that is all they know about. The point is that whatever a director does behind the scenes, or says what a film means or doesnt mean, it does not and cannot change the content of the film, the thing which ultimately forms our opinion. Knowing about Polanskis controversies doesnt make Repulsion any less terrifying, Chinatown any less chilling, The Pianist any less harrowing or The Ninth Gate any less rubbish. Everything that forms our emotional response to a film is in the film not how it was made, or how it was presented, but the work of art itself. We all take away something different because we are subjective creatures who respond differently to different things. If you dislike Polanskis films, thats okay but you are expressing dislike for a film, as art or as entertainment, rather than passing moral judgement on the man behind them. The day may come when Roman Polanski will stand trial for what he has done. It is not for me to say when and if that day may come, or to make a needlessly controversial comment about him having to answer to a higher court than ours. But until that day comes if it comes we have to accept that there are sufficient legal safeguards in place, to prevent such crimes from being committed on celluloid, and to enable us, if we choose, to appreciate Polanskis work apart from his personal life. Liking Polanski is not compulsory, and many may still find the proposition distasteful. That is their choice; what would be truly distasteful is a world in which we cannot make that choice.