YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 2, 2009

Roman Polanski and his critics

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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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August 13, 2009

Was Nazism no more than a search for Order? The Reader as case study: some first thoughts

Anyone on the social networking sites or in the blogosphere must notice that more and more persons are objecting to characterizing either Republicans or Democrats as Nazis or their leaders as comparable to Hitler in the current debates concerning health care reform. Amen to that.

But then I was thinking, how is it possible, eight decades since conservative nationalists facilitated the Nazi seizure of power, that the public at large, along with its journalists, are not au courant with such crucial matters as Hitler’s multiple class bases, the exact nature and sources of his antisemitism, the nature of his bond with the German people (see Saul Friedländer’s complaints on the neglect of that subject: https://clarespark.com/2009/07/29/the-centrality-of-the-holocaust-to-nazi-war-aims/), let alone Carl Schmitt’s legal theories, or the structural or policy similarities of the fascist dictatorships with other bureaucratic collectivist societies coping with the monetary crisis of the 1930s? I would argue that this collective lapse is more than a little responsible for the lack of consensus on what is antisemitism, and how it could be combated.

A case in point: the movie version of former jurist Bernhard Schlink’s very popular and honored novel, Der Vorleser, made into a movie The Reader, with script by renowned British playwright David Hare. This rather bad, though (over) praised, movie, should be considered along with the flood of books (and films) chewing over the nature of collaboration with Hitler’s Germany, or Mussolini’s Italy, or Occupied France and Vichy.  For instance, famed conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, the leading conductor in Germany and often criticized by the emigres as an exemplary sellout has been presented in Ronald Harwood’s movie Taking Sides and numerous monographs, many of which defend his conduct (but not Michael Kater, who skewers him), while the most convincing arguments in Harwood’s script are made by a philistine American major (played by Harvey Keitel). Meanwhile, Furtwängler defended himself as upholding high German culture while the mob was in power, but the best biography I read (Kater’s) hardly pictured him as a resister or inner emigre, but rather one who cultivated powerful persons during the Nazi period, not to speak of his repertoire: lots of Wagner, with those Beethoven works that reinforced the Germans as a heroic people with a superior culture (for instance the Ninth Symphony). Think too of the appropriation of Goethe and Schiller, and neoclassicism in general during the Nazi period.

Enter the movie The Reader. The unlikely leading character, Hanna Schmitz (played by Kate Winslet), is gradually revealed to be illiterate. I have consulted my favorite scholar of working class culture and politics, and he says though her German (in the novel) suggests that she came from the countryside, it is inconceivable that she could not read and write. Indeed, since the Reformation especially, there were determined campaigns in Northern Europe to educate “the lower orders.” My friend believes that she could certainly have written a letter or filled out a form. But the thrust of the movie is her hunger for high culture as transmitted by her adolescent lover (a character associated with the erudition of Goethe). Her taking the job of a guard at Auschwitz is hinted at in the movie as perhaps an outgrowth of her cultural incapacity and naivete. She never demonstrates signs of antisemitism, but the movie does, particularly in the last scene, when her grown-up ex-lover Michael Berg (played in maturity by Ralph Fiennes) goes to New York to deliver the suicide Hanna’s money to the lone survivor of a church in which Hanna and other guards allowed three hundred Jewish women and children to burn to death. This wealthy Jewish character (who turns down the legacy as absolving Hanna of her crime)  turns out to live in vulgar splendor on Park Avenue, while Michael, now a lawyer, lives in modern but much more modest circumstances.  But the Jewish survivor does suggest that Michael give the money to an organization that promotes literacy in Germany (and elsewhere?)–probably one of the best educated countries in the world, and in the late nineteenth century possessing the most advanced working class in Europe. In my view, the movie and the novel were contrived to build sympathy for the hapless, miserable Hanna, who would have been a good German if only she had learned to read the classics of European culture, starting with Homer’s Odyssey.

Kate Winslet's wedding hat

Kate Winslet’s wedding hat

You would never know from this film that antisemitism was at the heart of Hitler’s war aims and of the Nazi project in general.  What is equally bad is the moral relativism suggested by the judge who teaches Michael’s seminar in judicial ethics. Is even the mention of Carl Schmitt (now being revived by some New Leftists) off limits for script writers? And what about the hand-to-hand combat waged by German intellectuals in 1986 and after as they debated whether the Third Reich was a deviation from the main contours of German history, or the logical result of German racism and imperialism? Or John Maynard Keynes famous book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920) predicting disaster for Europe because of the punitive Versailles Conference settlement, instigated by Britain and France, with the blessing of Woodrow Wilson? All these questions were evaded by the largely sympathetic focus on the character of the tragic Hanna.[Update: 5-14-14: The Keynes argument is advanced by would-be aristocrats, and is contradicted by Niall Ferguson’s views, one of which is that the Great War could have been averted had UK diplomats not overestimated the military strength of Germany. More to the point, he blames inept handling of economics that created the disastrous inflation of 1923. (The ruined middle class would be a strong component of Hitler’s base.)]

Even if we ignore the missing historical context, what about the depth of the attachment between young Michael and his much older lover? He never gets over her loss and is undone by the discovery that she was a part of the Nazi apparatus as he witnesses her trial several years after their summer affair was abruptly terminated by Hanna’s unannounced departure to parts unknown. Indeed, he is presented as an emotional basket case throughout. Why? Is he a typical over-emotional German romantic, styled after the young Goethe, author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, or the quasi-autobiographical novel Wilhelm Meister? Was the German crime primarily instigated by authoritarian fathers, stern and cold, as the father is here depicted. That was one theory propagated by Harvard social psychologists after the war: It was not anticapitalism/antisemitism/anti”Jewish Bolshevism” or the weakness of the Weimar republic, or the legacy of Bismarck, or the machinations of conservative nationalists that fueled the Nazi movement, but the authoritarian father that incited revolt in the sons, often with a Byronic twist. (see my blog below on the dissemination of  Hitler as failed artist, as a formulator of an eclectic and novel ideology, hence an outsider to normally sane Germans.)

I will update and correct these preliminary thoughts on the movie and the novel that inspired it after I read the novel. I need to know more about the judge in the film and Schlink’s legal philosophy. In the meantime, Hollywood found yet another way to miseducate the American and European publics about the popular support for Hitler and the conduct of ordinary people who carried out the day to day work of the Shoah. As for David Hare, he is no friend of the Jews or of Israel.

[Update 8-16-09:] I have read Schlink’s novel as translated by Carol Brown Janeway, and am more disgusted than ever by the movie. The novel is quite interesting, for it focuses in an intertwined fashion on both whether or not Germany was collectively responsible for Hitler and the Holocaust, along with the damage done to Michael Berg’s ability to love others, for his obviously Oedipal bond with the much older Hanna while he is only fifteen, ties him to her for life, and he is both obsessed with her, submissively dreaming of her as a dominatrix (see my blog on S-M elsewhere on the site), or struggling to maintain his distance, even when she needs him. After he discovers that she was in the SS and could  have, but did not, save 300 Jewish women trapped in a burning synagogue, he goes “numb” for he cannot reconcile the conflicting desires for both “understanding and condemnation.” That his conflicts were even deeper owing to the Oedipal nature of their affair, is beyond the powers of the author to describe, but readers will easily pick it up. Let it suffice for this brief discussion that he feels his betrayal of her, more than he feels her betrayal of either him or of Germany. And she was not from the countryside, as my scholar friend surmised, but from Hermannstadt, a city in Romania with a significant German population. Her religion is never specified, but could have been Evangelical Lutheran, Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox. [It seems unlikely that she was an atheist, for Michael plans for her attending Church organizations after her release from prison, though of course she kills herself when she senses that he will not resume the affair with her owing to her old age and unfamiliar repellent smell.] That she was in fact illiterate seems contrived, especially given her quick grasp of  world literature and later determination to read all about Holocaust survivor stories and scholarly works on the camps (she obviously had no idea what she was doing when she joined the SS). She seems to be a symbol for German Nazis from the working classes, languishing stupidly in mass culture, but who could have been saved from Hitler by an earlier immersion in the classics of the West. Of course numerous educated Germans had no problem supporting Hitler, but that is not brought out in the novel. Nor is there any discussion whatsoever of pre-existent antisemitism, either in Germany, in Michael’s family, or in Hanna’s upbringing.

David Hare, the script writer of the film, could have done much more with Schlink”s agonized book, but apparently chose not to. He (or the director) did make an outrageous change near the end of the film, when Michael takes the suicide Hanna’s legacy to the remaining survivor of the burning Church. In the film, the survivor lives in a luxurious apartment on Park Avenue (all in shades of [Jewish?] gold), whereas in the book, she lives near Central Park on the East Side in a row house on a block of old brownstones, where many of the small back yards are filled with trash. No Rothschild relative there.

The book is sufficiently interesting, even gripping, for use in college classes, for it does emphasize the emotional deformations of the children of the generation that either supported the Third Reich or lamely endured under it. There is also no doubt in the book that Michael cares about legal history, for he studies law as practiced under Hitler, though without comment as to the Carl Schmitt factor. What I said earlier about the cold father is present in the book: Michael feels that his father never cared for the family, only for his work on Kant and Hegel. All in all, Michael ends up as an existentialist/nihilist, emotionally dragged hither and thither and unable to have a healthy relationship with anyone, such is the permanent attachment with Hanna and the invisible Mother (or Father!) whom she must have masked. [I am inclined to think that Hanna is a mask for Father, for the Mother is invisible in the book and kind in the movie. Added, 8-16-09] And he concludes that there has been no progress in the law (as the Enlightenment and its aftermath must suggest), only an irredeemably evil human nature that can kill others as their job requires with complete indifference. So Hanna gets off the hook again: humanity is no damned good and never will be.

I have also read three reviews of the film, all treating it as erotic, evasive regarding antisemitism,and shallow, but none wondering about the underlying ideology (as I understand it). One would have to know that one widespread interpretation of the Nazi takeover was an Ortega-style  “revolt of the masses” theme, thus exonerating other classes from 1. Installing Hitler in the first place; and 2. Opposing the Weimar Republic and of course the Soviet Union. So the film, like the book, is giving an entirely cultural explanation. And these (negative) reviews (from The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The New York Times) failed to note the most important emotional or ideological content of the film: the implausibility of Hanna’s illiteracy (which could not have been typical), the denial of progress, the filthiness of human nature, and the permanent damage done to Michael Berg’s psyche by the Oedipal attachment to Hanna—he is obviously masochistic, and takes blame onto himself for everything that happens.

By the way, I didn’t find either the film or the novel to be pornographic. But then I am a female. These reviewers should look to their own unconscious longings if this film turns them on.   For an excellent and detailed treatment of the book, see Karin Doerr, “Re-Reading Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader as a Mirror of Germany’s Holocaust Memory,” The Genocidal Mind, eds. Dennis B. Klein et al. (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2005): 199-223.

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