What does it mean if we support someone like Roman Polanski, who had sexual intercourse with a drugged thirteen-year-old girl in the 1970s? (Moreover, Polanski admittedly had a sexual relationship with then-underage actress Nastassja Kinski during the filming of his movie Tess.) Can we legitimately detach the ethical implications from the money we pay to see his films? Is it right to compartmentalize—to praise the art, to acclaim the artist, but to fault the man? Does the fact that Polanski is still alive change how we might answer this question?
Louis-Ferdinand Celine is a dead anti-Semitic, pro-fascist French writer, but I don't feel any misgivings about reading any of his books because he doesn't benefit from my patronage. His case is cut and dried for me.
But why am I even discussing whether it is ethical to enjoy Polanski's art but to condemn his actions? Over 130 celebrities went much further; they signed a petition requesting that Polanski be released from a Swiss prison in 2009. Let's be clear here. This is not a statement on the merits of Polanski's films; it's rather an implicit sanction of his crime. How else can we possibly interpret a petition that suggests Polanski be given a free pass? And on what basis? On the basis of his celebrity and his creative achievements? Where's the petition for the other child abusers who don't happen to direct films? Their only additional crime is not having friends in high places, I suppose.
Here is a partial list of some of the signatories of the petition to (in effect) exonerate Roman Polanski. The petition itself doesn't even broach the subject of the crime he stood accused of—or the fact that he fled his sentencing—but merely clings to a lame technicality:
'By their extraterritorial nature, film festivals the world over have always permitted works to be shown and for filmmakers to present them freely and safely, even when certain States opposed this. The arrest of Roman Polanski in a neutral country [Switzerland], where he assumed he could travel without hindrance, undermines this tradition: it opens the way for actions of which no-one can know the effects.' [I guess no one has the curiosity to wonder about the effects of letting celebrities rape minors without repercussion?]
Signed: Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, Asia Argento, Darren Aronofsky, Olivier Assayas, Gael Garcia Bernal, Adrien Brody, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, Jonathan Demme, Alexandre Desplat, Terry Gilliam, Wong Kar Waï, Harmony Korinne, John Landis, David Lynch, Michael Mann, Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Brett Ratner, Barbet Schroeder, Martin Scorsese, André Techiné, Tom Tykwer, Wim Wenders, Terry Zwigoff, et al.I guess I'm most troubled by this petition because its total evasion of moral responsibility. I don't understand what these signatories are telling me. They thought Polanski should be free merely because he had been arrested in Switzerland? (Are the Swiss neutral on molestation as well as in war? Apparently Switzerland is a 'paradise' where there is no consequence for one's actions...?) This is something that they feeling passionately about? Freeing a child rapist on a technicality?
I know this is the tritest, most overused argument in the world, but it's effective and it cuts to the chase: I wonder how any of these people would have felt if the thirteen-year-old had been their daughters. Would they be feeling so merciful? Maybe some of them would be, but I seriously doubt more than a handful would have such a immense generosity of spirit (or foolishness—take your pick). Let's aim even closer to the mark here: I wonder how they would feel if someone who wasn't famous had raped their teenage daughters? I don't think we even need to answer that one, do we?
Much has been made of the fact that the victim of this crime has publicly stated that she also wishes that the charges be dropped. With all due respect to her and her feelings on the matter, crimes of this sort aren't just crimes against a particular victim. They are crimes against society. This may sound grandiose at first, but sound it out and you'll realize that it's quite practical. How would you feel if you found out that the man who raped your daughter had had similar criminal charges against him dropped because the victim didn't want him to be prosecuted?
In the end, I know how I feel about what Roman Polanski did—and I absolutely believe he should be extradited and face the charges he evaded so many years ago. (At the very least, he should not be pardoned or readmitted to the United States without submitting to due process.) But I still don't know quite how to feel about him otherwise or how to regard the films he makes now. And in general, I don't like disorder in my thoughts and opinions. This is sometimes a positive quality, in that it forces me to analyze or reckon with subjects thoroughly, but it more often proves a liability to the extent it results in black-and-white thinking and inflexibility.