I love movies, I have my dad to thank for that. I still remember my uncle (his brother) saying that Chinatown was the finest movie ever made. The first time I saw it, I knew it was good, but had no idea why.
Every Halloween my mother would show my sister and me a horror film. The Sentinel, The Haunting of Julia, The Exorcist. I didn't know why at the time, but even in my adolescent brain I could recognize that Rosemary's Baby was the best of the bunch.
All of this movie watching eventually led me to film school, where I would get my answers. I would study the art of film, what makes a good film a good film. In my screenwriting class we would dissect Robert Towne's script for Chinatown. I would watch it again with a trained eye and realize the powerful acting, the timeless cinematography, the masterful direction, blah, blah, blah. All of those things you learn in Film Analysis and then have to unlearn in order to enjoy a movie again. Good is good, I knew this already. What I learned in school was to figure out how "great" was made. Roman Polanski was a great filmmaker. I saw it in films like Repulsion, The Tenant, and Knife in the Water (of which I bought the Criterion Collection edition, just to prove what a way-out-there film admirer I was). One thing I knew (and still know) was that, as far as directors working in the late '60's and throughout the 1970's go, Roman Polanski was one of the best.
That all being said: put the great director behind bars, and throw away the key.
During my years as a film student, I was aware of the tumultuous life of Roman Polanski. A survivor of the Holocaust, witness to his mother's murder at the hands of the Nazis, and widower to actress Sharon Tate who was murdered by the Manson gang (along with her and Roman's unborn child). Polanski had lived Shakespearean tragedy all before his 40th birthday. Perhaps it is fitting that the next film after his wife's slaughter was The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971). The cold, calculated bloodletting enacted by the character of Macbeth on his enemies would have been the perfect vessel for Polanski's pain.
And then came 1977.
By now, everyone knows the full story of what befell the 13-year-old girl at the hands of a pedophile in Jack Nicholson's house at the top of Mulholland Drive. And when you take the artist out of it, it is simply that: the rape of an underage girl by a 44-year-old man. Where some would say that all the years of personal turmoil motivated such a devastating ravaging of another human's life, I say that the devastation was visited in spite of what could have been a heroic life. Tragedy is meant to beget redemption and self-knowledge. And a life of suffering does not excuse one to enact suffering on another.
I can't help but think about Polanski's film Death and The Maiden (1994), starring Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver. In it, Paulina, a housewife, is unexpectedly confronted with her tormentor and rapist (a South American fascist) years later, in her own home. The film is based on a play of the same name, and much of the film's action takes place in the home of the woman and her husband. It is there that she attempts to force a confession out of her attacker so that she'll feel justified in killing him. I can't help but think that the director thought of his own situation when making the film. This scenario is hard to imagine, being that the character he most represents would, to even the less astute viewer, be the fascist rapist. It is more likely he was pointing the finger at the character of Paulina and at us, the audience. With heavy themes of vengeance as a means to justice, and action before consideration (or action founded in emotion), the film plays as a message from the director to those of us who would judge him. A director delusional of his innocence.
I illustrate the point (film imitating life, or art as autobiography) to conjoin both the life of a man to his work. Either Polanski consciously incorporates his experiences in his life into his films and chooses projects that will facilitate his worldview, or view of himself (twisted as it is). Or, he makes films that subconsciously absolve himself of any guilt he may have. Whichever the two, his opinion in the matter is revealing.
I keep going back to the films my parents showed me. My mother must have known of Polanski's arrest (she was my age now when it happened). Yet she showed me Rosemary's Baby without a mention of the man behind the camera. I remember, around this same time, not being allowed to see the film Powder because the director, Victor Salva, was convicted of videotaping sexual acts with himself and a 12-year-old boy. Clearly the immediacy of the latter case was the motive behind the censorship of one film and not the other. Knowing my mom, she innocently respected the film-making versus the filmmaker, as her son learned to do. Salva made the mistake of standing trial and serving his time, dooming himself to a life of making a string of Jeepers Creepers movies (a fate, some directors might say, far worse than death). Whereas, Polanski fled before his trial and became that mysterious Polish-Frenchman who did something awful that one time, then scurried off into the sunset.
Time confuses the details. And Roman Polanski has had the advantage of time on his side, making sure that only his films remain as the written history of Roman Polanski. Of course, with his recent arrest in Switzerland, time has caught up with him and Justice has been given yet another chance to balance the scales, and assure that no one forgets the 13-year-old girl in the story this time around.
In less than one week, Roman Polanski has become a household name. His morally bankrupt, hedonistic friends in Hollywood and Paris would have us believe, "for all the wrong reasons". They must recoil at the thought of Nom de Polanski being dragged around the States, in and out of every household, accompanied by names the likes of "child rapist", "pedophile", "sodomist". The irony being, in uncapping their pens and signing the petition to "Free Roman Polanski", they have drawn a crystal clear line in the sand between that which is Good, and that which is Evil.
Hollywood is overflowing with self-righteous, moral relativism and brimming with men and women who believe that, because they are "artists", they are right. It is this attitude that has men like Harvey Weinstein (Polanski's biggest supporter) calling on "every film-maker we can to help fix this terrible situation." And worse, claiming, "Hollywood has the best moral compass, because it has compassion."
These filmmakers, these artists, mistake artistic talent for humanity. They truly believe that the ability to make great art diminishes moral retardation, and the need to adhere to the laws of man and nature.
I, however, have learned to discern the two. I can separate the art from the artist and admire one and admonish the other. So what does it all mean? What do I make of the fact that I really enjoy the films of a rapist?
Using the simple deduction of logic, it can all be summed up in a statement: Powder is a terrible film made by a terrible man, and Chinatown is a masterpiece of a film made by a terrible man.