YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 2, 2009

Roman Polanski and his critics

Image (73)

Ad, LA Weekly, Nov.10-16, 1989

[Added, Bastille Day 2010: Switzerland has refused to grant the state of California extradition, hence Polanski is no longer under house arrest (though I understand that California is appealing the decision). This decision has reignited the controversy. One Facebook friend has made this argument to those who feel that the legal aspects of the case were clear cut and that a criminal had wrongly evaded a properly functioning legal system:

[Joe Gelman:] …Chino has Maximum, Medium and Minimum security facilities, It also has a facility for ‘Mental Health’ inmates. That is where Polanski was sent by Judge, Laurence J. Rittenband, despite having received a detailed and official probation report and psychiatric evaluation, both indicating that Polanski should not serve jail time. The politically ambitious Judge let it be known IN ADVANCE that he intended not to follow the probation report in this high profile case. At that point Polanski fled for his life. You and I probably would have done the same thing. Context matters.  

 [Gelman, cont.] In my view, this was a clear case of a judge looking to make a special example of a celebrity in a high profile case where he can reap the political rewards from a public that has little sympathy for “Hollywood types”. In an unusual move, the Judge decided to completely ignore the official probation report, and made public expressions to that effect in advance of his sentencing hearing, leaving no alternative for Polanski other than to flee for his life after he had already served 42 days at the ‘Mental Health’ facility in Chino, California. It is entirely possible to commit a crime, which Polanski clearly did (and admitted to), and be the victim of a completely dysfunctional justice system at the same time. The fact that this “justice system” continues to use tax resources to pursue this long-forgotten celebrity matter from multiple decades later, despite much higher and pressing priorities, only illustrates how incredibly dysfunctional this justice system is.  [end, Gelman entries from my FB page, 7-14-2010] 

[Added, 11-25-09: Polanski may be getting bail and house arrest in Switzerland. I have added at the bottom of this blog, a comment from a friend who wrote me a  thoughtful reply upon reading my statement in its second draft.]  

(I am assuming that the readers of this blog are familiar with the basic facts of the controversy. For the latest, see http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/movies/11polanski.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&hp). [ I am going to add thoughts I have had since posting this blog, which has seen more traffic than most: the fixation of media figures on this man and his conduct is so extreme and vehement that, though I was a child in American during the second world war,  I am again distressed by the indifference of the world to the Shoah, both while it was in process and afterwards. Polanski is a Holocaust survivor: how he survived after his father threw him out of the doomed Warsaw Ghetto (to save him from certain death), I do not know, but his mother was murdered at Auschwitz. He is also of Jewish descent (although he was not religious, his father was Jewish, his mother was half-Jewish, according to Nazi racial ordering). His pregnant wife Sharon Tate was horribly knifed in her belly by the Manson family in their rampage. RP is now an old man. His movies are about the indifference of the world in the face of the worst corruption and evil (think especially of The Pianist and Chinatown). How he has functioned at all in the world is something of a testament to the resilience of our species. Ask the children of Holocaust survivors how they and their parents have fared: they are not always mentally healthy human beings, as numerous reports by clinicians can attest.

    Perhaps none of this personal and professional history gets through to his most sanctimonious pursuers, but it does to me. We were not there to witness the activities of long ago that impelled one media personality to wish him dead: did the latter “libertarian” imagine Samantha Geimer as a young blonde, contaminated by a carnal Jew despoiling her forever? Was he protecting his fantasy that all children are innocent, until corrupted by sexuality sometime in adolescence? I am asking questions that any artist would understand: the world is not black and white but grey. I am thinking now of Elia Kazan’s publication of  Tennessee Williams’ letter to him, warning that neither Stanley Kowalski nor Blanche Dubois was a stick figure, to be painted either black or white, and most especially that Kowalski was not “a black-dyed villain.” (I am referring to A Streetcar Named Desire, before it was either a stage play or a movie. Kazan directed both, and the letter is in Kazan’s confessional autobiography.)

   While all the ink is spilled and hot air blown about, we are in one crisis after another in the world in this country regarding our safety and that of our children. What is the matter with those who are so quick to take a position before they have either empathy or the facts? The victim herself, married and a mother of four, has asked that RP not be prosecuted further and yet the howling mob must take its revenge. [Compare to this nugget from Kazan’s autobiography: The (Catholic) Legion of Decency made this demand for him to change the movie version of  Streetcar: “We must make the audience believe that Stella and Stanley will never again be happy together.” (p.434). Recall that at the climax of the movie, Stanley rapes Blanche, while his wife is giving birth in the hospital. As Kazan recounts, the Church did prevail, and his film was “mauled,” in his opinion giving heart to the right-wing assaults that would follow. At that time, Catholics were 20% of this country. They are now 40%. Think now of Dick Wolf and his Law and Order, SVU.] I for one am sick of this reflexively politically/religiously motivated behavior on the part of the talking heads and those who nod in agreement like ventriloquist dummies.  Having said that, with anger on my part, I must reassure the reader that I have not condoned Polanski’s behavior, but then neither has he, to my knowledge. Added: 10-13-09, 10-15-09]

    The world may be falling apart, the nation is certainly politically polarized, Washington politicians seem to have lost their collective minds, Israel and other Western targets may be nuked by Iran, and the President seems increasingly ineffectual, while for several days now, numerous intellectuals on the Right, and even some who are “moderates”  are waxing indignant over such matters as a petition signed by dozens of the threatening  corps of “Hollywood liberals” who stand accused of defending not only Polanski, but  pedophilia.

   I just watched a Pajamas TV video in which Roger Simon and Lionel Chetwynd express their horror that famous European intellectuals (including Bernard-Henri Levy, Bernardo Bertolucci, Bertrand Tavernier, and Claude Lanzmann, the director of  Shoah!) and American directors such as Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, David Lynch, and their most vulnerable colleague Woody Allen, have signed a petition. (The petition is not described for its content, which does no more than criticize the mechanics of the arrest in Switzerland, Sept. 26. The movie industry was asserting its rights to have chosen its honoree, Polanski, for lifetime achievement, without intervention by the Swiss authorities, who had not moved against Polanski before this, though he has a home in that country.) But on the video, these ostensible nihilists are depicted as excusing Polanski for his crimes, though there is not a word in the petition concerning his conduct with young Samantha Geimer.  No, in a breathtaking gesture of populist solidarity, the petition signers are damned by Simon and Chetwynd as “elitists” who “create their own moral universe,” one which is opposed to that of the presumably virtuous “People,”  who have shamed the morally rotten intellectuals in their comments as posted to the press reports of the arrest and its noisy aftermath.

   What is wrong with this picture?   

1.    The fact that Woody Allen has made movies such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point does not prove that Allen is rooting for the bad guys. He is, as usual, posing the problem of Job: how can God, should One exist, allow evil to go unpunished? What kind of an amoral world are we living in?

2.   Polanski has been quoted as saying that everyone wants to “f—- little girls.” You would think that some feminist or male sympathizer to feminism would stop a moment and reflect on either the veracity or the mendacity of such a broad claim. The rest of this blog considers the condition of women and the sexual expectations which are laid upon them by men.

VICTORIAN WOMANHOOD. Surely we have all seen pictures of those respectable ladies with their hair pinned up, no visible makeup, wearing black bombazine and looking rather grim. And yet they seem to have had relatively successful marriages, had many children, and, oh yes, created the first feminist movement in this country, while also leading such movements as abolitionism, uplifting urban prostitutes, and fighting alcoholism in men. We loathe them as Victorian battle-axes, right?

HOLLYWOOD AS BABYLON.  Budd Schulberg was eloquent on the sexual free-for-all that was Hollywood from the very outset. Although he blames this decadence on the Roaring Twenties, the world of the theater was probably always libertine, as Goethe demonstrates in his quasi-autobiographical  Wilhelm Meister novel, much of which is about his life in the burgeoning theater of eighteenth-century Germany. Nor does he complain about la vie boheme.  Goethe was quite the wild man (though not a revolutionary of any kind), and possibly bisexual. Yet no one is trashing him for his moral blindness today: rather as rooted cosmopolitan and internationalist he is the greatest European intellectual who ever lived, according to his millions of admirers.

   Any mother who has allowed her pubescent daughter to go near the mini-sultans of the movie industry (or its related business of modeling) should know what a risk she is taking. But those few commentators who point this out are shouted down as excusing Polanski.

THE HYPER-SEXUALIZATION OF WOMEN BY THE FASHION, COSMETICS, AND PLASTIC SURGERY INDUSTRIES.  Schulberg’s memoir is also quite explicit about the ties between the fashion industry and Hollywood. We all know about it, and millions of women world-wide are spending way too much time perfecting themselves as little dolls, while plastic surgeons batten on the “narcissism” that women develop to please men and their infantile fantasies of female beauty. Studies show that the ideal glamour-girl looks like a child: lithe little bodies, big eyes, long lashes, undeveloped nose, bee-stung lips, silken skin, Rapunzel hair, pearly white baby teeth…you know the drill. And their mothers are complicit in this fashioning of the perfect nymphet. Women know (my mother certainly did) that it is suicidal for a woman seeking marriage with a promising male to flaunt her intellectual or artistic accomplishments. My own mother advised me to become a good listener and not to show off my brains.

   Need I add that women are frequently viewed as perennially sexually available to their husbands, and that the multiple demands made upon them by motherhood or other activities are no excuse for saying no?   Indeed, women’s magazines, even WebMD, are full of advice regarding spicing up marriage, and the perversion of sadomasochism is now a joke on sitcoms, with no tut-tuts or curiosity about its history in the psyche of its practitioners. (See my prior blogs on this subject, almost too numerous to mention.)

    I am saying here simply that there is enormous social pressure to under-develop women and to exhaust them before their time. The pro-Life Right would wear them out with too many children, while the bohemian Left spurns fidelity altogether as a bourgeois imposition, activated by unleashed female curiosity that would pry into all their secret feelings and harness them to a deadening domesticity. Monogamy is notoriously square.

    The second wave of feminism started out with the reformist fervor of the nineteenth-century first wave, but then became co-opted by the “progressive” anti-imperialist Left (think of the Anne Hathaway character in The Devil Wears Prada who reverts to p.c. dowdiness at a magazine something like The Nation) and in their upward mobility into journalism, academe or business, these lucky few too often forgot about the great majority of women who were left behind. About this lamentable state of affairs, the punditry remains silent.

[Anonymous comment from a friend:] I read it with interest and agree in great part with you — I also feel this whole Polanski fracas is more complex than it appears, while at the same time being old news and dull news (compared to say, the real scandal of what happened in Guinea, or even, more locally, the gang rape of a young woman up in Richmond while onlookers took pictures and laughed).  I, too, think back to Polanski’s horrifying childhood and the Manson murders.  I think about what the man has endured.  

    I was also struck, after reading Samantha Geimer’s deposition, how Lolita-esque this whole episode was.  She had had intercourse before, several times.  Polanski, the pedophile, offered to perform (and did perform) oral sex on her, which she referred to as “cuddling”.  He did many things which he should never, ever have done.  But he kept asking her (again, according to her testimony) if she wanted champagne, if she wanted a quaalude, if she would like to take a dip in the hot tub, and she kept saying yes.  Now, of course, she is 13.  She is a child.  She doesn’t know what to do, even if she is somewhat sexually experienced.  And, alas, girls are implictly taught to be polite and acquiesce.  And is it so terrible to imagine that she could be both scared and curious simultaneously?  Then, she says she wants to call her mother and Polanski gives her the phone.  She calls her mother.  Her mother asks if she should come get her?  The girl says no.  So mother does not come.

 What the hell was Samantha Geimer’s mother thinking?  Or not thinking?  I hate to make this into an indictment of the mother — it was Polanski, after all, who is responsible — but still.  WTF?

L.A. in the 70’s was a very dark place.  It reads like something out of Didion, if Didion had written about it.  

 And still again… I don’t think Woody Allen’s support is doing Roman Polanski any good at all.  

 As the mother of two girls, at the end of the day, I think Polanski got away with something ugly and wrong, and even though Geimer moved on and doesn’t want more attention for this, it isn’t right. “Chinatown” may be about “the indifference of the world in the face of the worst corruption and evil” (well put), but it is also about a man who has raped his daughter and fathered a child by her.  A child he wishes to rape as well.  If Polanski could have just left his demons in his movies…

 The stupid right-wingers hate, because they fear, complexity.  But then again, they’re right about one thing:  being an artist doesn’t make it okay to have sex with a 13 year old. [end, comment from a friend]

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9 Comments »

  1. […] remind me who censored the movie version of Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly Last Summer? (See http://clarespark.com/2009/10/02/roman-polanski-and-his-critics/, and […]

    Pingback by Do paleoconservatives want a theocracy? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 11, 2013 @ 8:48 pm | Reply

  2. Hi Clare,
    Where do you stand on the strictly legal aspects of this case – – the fact the P. did plead guilty? I find your contextualization provocative (although I disagree with your assumption about such a caricature of Victorian womanhood) and I believe the legal system must allow for fine tuning consequences. Extradition aside, how, as a judge, would you have disposed of the case? Do you reject the concept of statutory rape if the female gives consent?

    Comment by artandhistory — October 17, 2009 @ 7:20 pm | Reply

    • I appreciate your comment. I am not a lawyer, and so have no position about the legal aspects of the case, other than to ask questions about the timing of the arrest. My blog was mostly about the self-righteousness of those who view RP as a story-book villain, and SG (and especially her mother) as an innocent victim. Those same persons (mostly on the Right) may or may not interrogate themselves as to their own moral conduct. As an artist myself, and as an intellectual historian, my work has always been about conflict and I admire those authors who challenge our expectations and “high-mindedness.”
      I think the most profound insight in the blog was the lesson I drew from the Catholic censorship of STREETCAR. They did succeed in minimizing the reconciliation between Kowalski and his wife (film version), on the grounds that the rape of Blanche could never have been overcome in the married couple’s building a life together. Similarly, the fact that SG doesn’t want a trial, or that the incident with RP may not have been a permanent trauma that prevented marriage and children is entirely ignored.
      I am not sure what you object to in my depiction of Victorian womanhood. I was making a contrast with the baby doll look now preferred, and which promotes the nymphet or even child as the object of male desire. Imagine the movie Meet Me In St. Louis with Judy Garland and Lucille Bremer without makeup, as probably their real life counterparts would have appeared before the flapper age.

      Comment by clarespark — October 17, 2009 @ 7:40 pm | Reply

  3. I almost forgot- Do you have any thoughts about how women can fight this hyper-sexualization on a large scale? Having a daughter I work hard at it in my home and as I raise her, and am well aware of the influence exerted by outside forces. It is a never ending battle.

    Comment by Jennie Spark — October 3, 2009 @ 6:47 am | Reply

    • Thanks, Jennie. You are probably doing everything a single person can accomplish. It is such a systemic problem that a mass movement that is not simply anti-sex, but understands the damage to the psyches of both women and men by hyper-sexualization, is necessary. But tell that to a working-class woman whose dreams are centered around attracting a successful man/good provider, and who will do anything to enhance her sexual powers. And the industries I mentioned will be dead set against such a threat to their profits. Can we say enough about good health and related habits? Or the inevitability of the battle of the sexes? Also, we now have life expectancies that greatly exceed prior centuries, but our mores have not kept up with the biological inheritance that makes young adolescents ready for reproduction, while the society generally postpones marriage.

      Comment by clarespark — October 5, 2009 @ 4:41 pm | Reply

  4. In stories like this I find it fascinating to observe the reactions and explanations provided by peers of the central character. There is no lack of justification, rationalization and underestimation of the act. I have been having heated arguments with people about Roman Polanski since last week, most notably with a *real live* film director who has presented every argument imaginable to minimize and sugarcoat the issue, placing guilt everywhere except on the person who is directly responsible. When I asked this director if he would be as understanding and forgiving if his 44 year old car mechanic would have convinced HIS 13 year old daughter to have sex with him, he avoided a direct answer. In my eyes, her parents were irresponsible for allowing her to be in that situation, definitely. This does not, however, relieve the 44 year old man of his guilt. He committed a crime, period. He may be great in his profession and the car mechanic may be the best in the country, this is irrelevant. The double standard sickens me. Thanks for the blogs, I love reading them and having my brain challenged with thoughts and opinions. Love Jennie

    Comment by Jennie Spark — October 3, 2009 @ 6:43 am | Reply

  5. The connection you make between what happened (and what continues to happen) and the deeper suggestion of ‘why’ is something that should be more widely considered. Thanks for this, Clare.

    Comment by Sheryl Scarborough — October 2, 2009 @ 10:39 pm | Reply

  6. […] Roman Polanski and his critics Posted in Hollywood Movies | Tags: a-risk-she, defending-not, eloquent-on-the, for-lifetime, […]

    Pingback by Roman Polanski and his critics | HOLLYWOOD — October 2, 2009 @ 8:51 pm | Reply


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