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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Lights out for director Roman Polanski

Published: October 2, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

Last Saturday, director Roman Polanski (“Rosemary’s Baby”, “The Pianist”) was arrested in Zurich after 32 years of fleeing the American justice system. But how do we punish the artist, and what impact does that have on his art?

The facts of Polanski’s case are pretty much incontrovertible. Polanski was conducting a photo shoot with a 13-year-old girl, whom he drugged with Quaaludes and raped; she repeatedly said “no” during the encounter. Polanski was sent to prison for 40 days for a psychological evaluation after pleading guilty to a lesser crime, and then released with the understanding that he had yet to be sentenced. The judge gave Polanski permission to temporarily leave the country to finish directing a movie, and when he heard that he might be sentenced to serve additional time in prison, Polanski decided to remain abroad, and has yet to return to the United States.

Polanski is not the only artist to have committed acts that are, objectively, terrible. Artists frequently have views that are difficult to reconcile with their work, or lead troubled private lives, whether it be the anti-Semitic Ezra Pound or Michael Jackson. But that doesn’t explain the increasingly long petition signed by famous actors, directors, and producers calling for Polanski’s release.

Polanski never actually served out a sentence for raping a 13 year old. He hasn’t expressed remorse for the act, and has instead had lawyers file motions to dismiss the case. However, the California court ruled that Polanski would have to return to the US, face arrest, and then would have legal standing to appeal the case. If, as Polanski’s supporters claim, there is any evidence of judicial misconduct, he would no doubt prevail on appeal, with the aid of expensive counsel. The fact remains that the director has not suffered any justice, having led a perfectly normal life as a wealthy, critically acclaimed director in Europe for the past 30 years, and did not contest the victim’s account of the rape in court.

Why should having made “The Pianist” justify using means and connections to flee justice? Never mind that Polanski’s plea agreement was shockingly lenient anyway. Furthermore, how should I feel about “The Pianist” when I’ve read the victim’s grand jury testimony?

I listen to plenty of music with objectionable content, music riddled with sexist slurs or violent images. I vehemently disagree with the expressed viewpoints of these artists, and I of course have the option not to pay for this music, or not promote the artist, or not attend their concerts. I’ve probably done all three. But that’s the content of the art itself.

As far as I know, Polanski’s movies do not depict or endorse drugging and raping young girls (well, arguably, the horror of “Rosemary’s Baby” rests in a similar idea of using and abusing a woman’s body, but it’s not presented as acceptable or in any way mitigated). Is it possible to separate the art from the artist?

I don’t think there’s a problem in appreciating the content of the art as divorced from the identity of the creator. Art, once completed, is its own entity. Flannery O’Connor’s work can be analyzed and appreciated despite the fact that she was a racist. I can even sing along to “Ignition (Remix)” because it’s brilliant, even though I’m quite aware of R. Kelly’s legal troubles. Objectionable messages within art are considered when judging the work’s merit.

But what about purchasing the movie? If I buy a Polanski film, Polanski makes money off my purchase.

For all I know, that money goes to his legal defense, and I don’t really want to be supporting his efforts to avoid punishment. Even if Polanski’s victim is understandably tired of the media circus surrounding the case, he ought to be prosecuted for fleeing from justice. As one blogger put it, “Don’t give money to the rapist!”

When it comes down to it, the very same divorce that lets us appreciate art even though we know the artist was a Nazi sympathizer means that we must also disregard someone’s artistic output when deciding to punish them.

It’s disappointing that luminaries from Sam Mendes to Salman Rushdie have signed petitions to free Polanski, especially when petitions lead off with a mention of his directorial acumen and that he was arrested on his way to receive a lifetime achievement award at a film festival. But much of that work being honored was produced while Polanski was on the lam.

The very idea of justice reaching even the very most powerful means that we should strive to treat society’s wealthiest, most productive, or in this case, most talented members in the exact same fashion as its poorest members. We’re light-years away from that goal, obviously. It’s for the courts to decide an appropriate punishment, but in order for that to happen, Polanski needs to have his day in American courts, rather than trying to have the case dismissed while he stays abroad.

Now is the best opportunity. Though equality isn’t insured simply by his return to American custody, it’s a critical first step to demonstrating that rape is a serious crime, and neither wealth nor notoriety nor fleeing jurisdiction can erase that. Most importantly, once the legal case is actually settled, perhaps we can finally leave the victim to live in peace, following 30 years of relentless coverage of her assault.