Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: Roman Polanski - art vs. artist

I've been going back and forth about if the whole "Roman Polanski finally arrested for sodomizing a thirteen year-old girl after weakening her resistance with drugs and alcohol and ignoring her protests of 'no, no, no'" was worth commenting on in this blog. After all, it's a complicated issue, and as Whoopi told us last week, we don't have all the facts so maybe it's best not to take a side yet. After careful thought, I've decided that it wasn't worth devoting a whole blog post to hashing out how guilt is a complicated thing when discussing the anal rape of an inebriated tween. So if you're looking for someone to take a hard stand for or against Roman, you won't find it here.

By the way, a great blog I've been meaning to recommend is writer Peter David's. He's a novelist and a comic book writer who's probably best known for his work on The Incredible Hulk and several successful Star Trek novels. He's often quite insightful.

Annnnyway... the reason I bring up Polanski in a completely non-partisan way is that this whole situation has got me wondering if one's personal indiscretions should taint their work, and conversely, if one's extraordinary artistic achievements should excuse any wrongdoing. After all, despite the serious nature of the charges, several Hollywood luminaries have rushed to Roman's defense, arguing that this rapist has suffered enough by being forced to live in exile in his extravagant French mansion. But really, it feels like they're defending him because he's the filmmaker responsible for such great films like Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby.

So if you make a movie as good as Chinatown, does that mean you can have sex with an unwilling seventh grader? If so, how many Hannah Montana fans could Steven Spielberg violate before he'd face a hundred or so hours of community service?

But let's say that you feel Roman deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail, with each day bearing an ironic resemblance to that one night he spent at Jack Nicholson's villa. (I assume... everything I know about prison comes from Oz. And not the one with Scarecrow and Tin Man.) Does that mean you will now boycott Chinatown on purely moral grounds? Does it mean that you won't even acknowledge the many merits of that film?

Maybe I'm not being fair. Let's look at this another way. Suppose O.J. Simpson somehow gets early release and directs a movie. Would you even consider seeing it? Would it even matter to you what it's about? Suppose it's a ground-breaking summer movie that is hailed as "the next Star Wars." What if it's a film that changes the way an entire generation thinks about movie-making? Will you see it - or do you boycott it on principle because it was directed by a double murderer? Allegedly. (The murder part, I mean. In this hypothetical, there's nothing alleged about O.J's directing) Is a brilliant movie suddenly less brilliant simply because a killer was at the helm?

If you boycott O.J.'s movie because you object to him personally, is that any more hypocritical than arguing that Roman's film earns him a Get Out of Jail Free card? And in that situation, which is the right choice?

If we find out tomorrow that Paul McCartney doped up a 13 year-old and ran through the Kama Sutra with her, does "Penny Lane" instantly go from being a fun little ditty to a song that should never be played again? Is "Yesterday" now a song that I have to erase from my iPod and petition my local DJs to ban from the airwaves permanently?

And that's today's Tuesday Talkback question: Should we allow the personal actions of an artist to taint their art? And does artistic brilliance pardon personal bad behavior?

Where do you draw the line?


  1. Even the question is perverse, maybe we should hang you after we hang Polanski, no offense..

  2. It's a bit creepy that this occurred about the same time when he'd either be working on Chinatown or possibly at least have read the script. The crime occurred in 1973 and Chinatown was in 1974.

  3. Art stands separate from the artist themselves. Just because they are an abominable individual does not mean they're incapable of creating something beautiful, profound, and altogether worthwhile.

    I have no intention of ceasing to watch KNIFE IN THE WATER, REPULSION, ROSEMARY'S BABY, or CHINATOWN just because of Polanski's actions. It doesn't mean I respect Polanski as an individual--by no means, actually--but I respect his art.

  4. Acts and the actor are always separate. We judge the actions one by one. If a man saves a child from a fire one day, then murders his neighbor the next, it doesn't erase that good deed before, and the good deed doesn't outweigh the bad one. Each thing in its place.

    The person is not their actions nor the sum of them but more than all that. Doing lots of good and one bad or lots of bad and one good, you have to look at the implication and insinuation, about what everything says about their possibilities and your own.

    The girl has claimed to have forgiven Polanski. The public is pretty much not just questioning her forgiveness, but assuming her a liar.

    The girl has stated she wants it behind her and she wants nothing more to do with this. The public is entirely oblivious to her wishes and frothing at the mouth for Polanski's blood.

    The case was tainted all the way around and this will require her involvement in further proceedings. The public doesn't care about the pain they are going to put her through.

    I'm worried about what this says about the public. The public pays lip service to respecting and honoring victims, but in reality it is entirely about the public's sensibilities and their emotions. Not the victim's.

    In that light, I apply your questions to society and the civilization that it has built. Does their hypocrisy negate the good they've done elsewhere? Does their casual callousness in pursuit of what they want over what they say is right make what they've built less worthwhile?

  5. I have no problem enjoying a Roman Polanski film. In this case the sin doesn't taint my perception of his art. But the whole OJ thing, for some reason is different. All of his art seams tainted by the widely held belief by many that he killed his wife and Goldman. OJ's become a punchline, a public joke; Polanski hasn't fallen to that depth, and he never will.

    Still, Roman Polanski BELONGS in jail; he fled the U.S. when faced with doing the time for a crime he confessed to. Sure with time what happened is easier for all to forgive. BUT I think what's missing here is the realization that with Roman Polanski you're dealing with a FUGATIVE FROM THE LAW.

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  6. I still enjoyed Apocolypto after Gibson revealed himself a raging anti-semite.

    Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, the Pianist. They're still good movies. So many artists have had major issues. Doesn't change the art.

    Though I do think Polanski needs to pay for his crimes. And living in Paris for 30 years doesn't count.

  7. Rape in prison doesn't happen as often as people think it does. Most of the sex in prison is consensual. One would hope the prisoners would make an exception in his case.

    What gets me is how he still has absolutely no remorse for what he did to her, and how he's still screwing up her life by refusing to accept his punishment.

    But yes, I'll still enjoy Chinatown and I still use it in the classroom to teach Noir.

  8. For me the negative reaction to the artist can be projected onto work I view in the future, but not retroactively towards work I've already seen. I saw Chinatown long before I first heard of this rape scandal a few years ago. Having loved it long before I knew about Polanski's disturbing behavior, I can't go back and make myself not like it. The initial reaction to the art holds.

    However, with any of his movies I have yet to view, my enjoyment will be tainted by my emotional reaction to Polanski and what I now know about him. It's not even that I refuse to like any of it on principal, it's that I won't be able to separate my emotions towards him from my feelings about the work as I view it. Rational or not, that's what happens for me. But at least I can admit that's my hang-up, and I won't impose it on anyone else.

    On a totally ridiculous and embarrassing note, the same reasoning holds true regarding Chris Brown and the song "Forever." I have some very fond memories involving some very drunk dancing from when that song first came out, long before Chris Brown became the public face of domestic violence. I don't think I'll ever be able to like anything he will do in the future, but I cannot listen to that damn song without feeling happy due to the association with my best friend and the memory of our antics. It's just how it is.

  9. When Kobe Bryant was going through his rape trial and a number of nasty facts came out about the person he is, my mind was changed about him forever. I will watch a Lakers game if I have interest in the other team, but I always root against Kobe now. I root for him to be fouled hard, miss all his shots, and generally look like a fool (which never happens, dammit!) He is a scumbag in my mind and I cannot get over that even though he is an awesome player.
    Polanski has made some great movies, and it is much, much easier to sit through them because he is not actually on the screen. As important as his role is, he is out of site out of mind for the entirety of the viewing experience.
    I would love to say I would not watch one of his movies, or I would root against him at the box office, but the fact is I dont feel that way.

  10. Art and the artist are separate entities.

    Polanski knows how to make a film. But, his skill at filmmaking does not excuse his behavior, and as E.C. points out, he is a fugitive from justice.

    The stance that some in Hollywood have taken only shows them to be elitists who assume their interpretation of events is the correct one, no matter what was found in a court of law – in fact, especially since it was found in a court of law (law automatically equals conservatives, and they are to be hated).

    The woman now claims she forgives Polanski and she thinks he’s done his time. She also still wants to work in Hollywood and knows on which side the bread is buttered.

    But look at the responses here. The majority believe Polanski is a great artist who should be punished for a crime he admitted to and was found guilty of. The minority simply didn’t give an opinion on that aspect of the question.

    Not one of us would even begin to assume we would not be punished for committing the same crime. Why should he?

  11. I doubt people will be looking at this thread much (so hopefully, I won't ruin it for "attatt"), but couldn't help but note that Polanski does make it on screen a few times in his own films.

    In Chinatown, a short, but notable appearance (with lines), a minor one in Repulsion and of course, the lead in The Tenant. That last one, I'm quite fond of as well, even if it's not his best. This all, despite the awful act Polanski committed.

    When the story first resurfaced, I was inclined to defend him, perhaps also because he happens to be my countryman, and a renowned artist internationally. But the more I learned about what happened, the more I realized my sympathy will remain for his films only.