Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Polanski Affair

It is worthy of a movie, even one of his: after 31 years, wanted on an outstanding warrant on a guilty plea of having sex with a minor, to avoid very provable charges of sodomy and rape of a 13 year old, Roman Polanski has been arrested, and may be extradited back to the US. He has been a fugitive in plain sight for all of that time, and the justice that wanted him was fugitive as well. He fled because the judge engaged in significant misconduct and was about to abrogate the deal. Now he has hired a good friend of the US Attorney General.

Many of the people taking a position from his art: he is indeed one of the great film makers of a great generation, a seminal generation of film. We are also talking about a rapist. A confessed rapist of a 13 year old.

It may well be that terrible people are great artists so often, because they live in the darkness. His film, The Pianist, lives there, and his film Death and the Maiden, with it's portrayal of the banality of evil, almost a direct response to his condition. Anyone would have been like that given the permission, anyone would have been sorry to see it end. Anyone would still want forgiveness even in hiding. On the Waterfront was as clear a response to a private action, but few other films.

People who are angry, and with some reason, ask why this is being done now. I think that my guess would be that Switzerland is trying to protect it's financial haven status, by showing it will go after other kinds of fugitives. It wasn't as if Polanski was being hard to find, and it wasn't as if there were not other chances. Granted the timing is both suspicious, and for other motives. Granted that the judicial history of the case is trouble.

But equally granted is that that has to be worked out here, and by some modicum of the rules that apply, or ought to apply to all. This too is troubled. There are no bankers that are being extradited from Switzerland for raping the world, and not one Bush torture memo architect is going to face true prosecution. Clearly, at a certain point, we prosecute those who are convenient to prosecute, and do not prosecute those who are not. Clearly Polanski has become convenient to prosecute.

This is not, then, about deterrence, or justice, or the system, or the rape itself. It also can't be about his films, being an artist is not a license to rape. It is about the moral substance of the people involved. Polanski has shown his lack of substance long ago, the American judicial system is showing it now. There is no good end, in that whether he is jailed, let off, or avoids extradition, a wrong message will be sent. Either the message is that judges and prosecutors are above the law, or rich men are above the law. Either way the law was left behind long ago. Nor is the victim of the crime well served by any of this, she does not enter into the calculation.

But there is one piece of good that can be done. Roman Polanski must stare down the long end of the results of his actions, of his own culpability. The US criminal justice system must do as well. The tumult, the taking of many sides, the anger, the pressure, the confusion. These are the only good things that can come of this, because they show the moral substance of the people taking them. Defend Polanski, or condemn him, to do so openly and to put pressure on those who would ease this out of the light, manipulate it like a plot out of Chinatown, is to show a moral substance that the system, and the director, have shown a lack of. Polanski should be brought, sweating, in front of a judge, who is also perspiring under his robes, like the denouement in a film, where anything could happen, because there are wrong reasons for each of the right actions.

And if there were a script writer, the judge might well sentence him to time served, and a fine of virtually every centieme he has made since he fled. Let him have his stolen years, but let him no longer have the privilege that came from them.

Art is not an agency of law. We do not have artists to make nursery rhymes, but to transport us into that ecstatic plane where we deal with symbol and memory in the same way in the leaden world we can deal with physical objects. As such they are going to be moral or immoral in themselves, and with our reading of them. The Nazis made some great art, they also killed even more great artists. For that same reason though, the ability to make great art, is not a pass from being able to be in the world and live with other people. Which, almost by definition, drugging and raping a 13 year old is not. Almost by definition, promising one sentence, and then making a deal for another is not. Almost by definition, probation for a sentence is not.

And so on.

Roman Polanski must, though, sweat, the way the girl sweated. The judicial system must cringe at the corrupt way it has behaved. Because only out of that, will there be some hope of a resolution that would realize that the whole collision is une vie noire

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