Politics & Policy

Beyond Transgression

You can't make a Hamlet without breaking a few chicks?

As the feminists used to say in simpler times, “What part of ‘No’ don’t you understand?”

Quite a lot, if the reaction to Roman Polanski’s arrest is anything to go by. I didn’t know, for one thing, that, if you decide to plough on regardless, the world’s artists will rise as one to nail their colors to your mast.

Whoopi Goldberg offered a practical defense — that what Polanski did was not “rape-rape,” a distinction she left imprecisely delineated. Which may leave you with the vague impression that this was one of those deals where you’re in a bar and the gal says to you she’s in tenth grade and you find out afterwards she’s only in seventh. Hey, we’ve all been there, right? But in this particular instance Roman Polanski knew she was 13 years old and, when she declined his entreaties, drugged her with champagne and a Quaalude and then sodomized her. Twice. Which, even on the Whoopi scale, sounds less like rape, or even rape-rape, and more like rape-rape-rape-rape.

But heigh-ho. After pleading guilty, the non-non-rape-rapist skipped to Paris and took up with Nastassja Kinski, who was then 15, which in Polanski years puts her up there with Barbara Bush. He was eventually arrested en route to Zurich to receive a lifetime-achievement award — no, no, not for the girls, for his movies. For three decades, he was, to be boringly legalistic about it, a fugitive from justice — and there’s no statute of limitations on that. But, of course, throughout that time, he was also a “great artist,” which his fellow artists (Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese) and even the French Foreign and Culture Ministers think ought to trump a little long-ago misunderstanding over anal rape. The Berlin Film Festival announced collectively that it was shocked by “the arbitrary treatment of one of the world’s most outstanding film directors,” and defending the outstanding director because he’s an outstanding director quickly became the standard line of defense. Debra Winger denounced the Swiss authorities for their “philistine collusion”: No truly cultured society should be colluding with the “philistines” of American law enforcement. Polanski, explained the producer Harvey Weinstein, “is a man who cares deeply about his art and its place in the world.” And if its place is occasionally in an involuntarily conscripted 13-year-old, well, you can’t make a Hamlet without breaking a few chicks. France’s Society of Film Directors warned that the arrest of such an important artist “could have disastrous consequences for freedom of expression across the world.”

Really? For the last two years, I’ve been in a long and weary battle up north to restore “freedom of expression” to Canada. On Monday afternoon, in fact, I’ll be testifying on this very subject at the House of Commons in Ottawa, if France’s Society of Film Directors or Debra Winger would like to swing by. Please, don’t all stampede at once. Ottawa Airport can only handle so many Gulfstreams. If only I’d known how vital child rape was to “freedom of expression,” my campaign could have taken off a lot earlier.

Let us stipulate that Roman Polanski has memories few of us would wish to bear. He is the only movie director to have had three generations of his immediate family murdered — his mother, by the Nazis; his wife and unborn child, by Charles Manson’s acolytes. The only reason he didn’t wind up with his parents in Auschwitz is that, when he was eight, his father cut a hole in the barbed wire of the Warsaw ghetto and pushed his son out.

In a movie, the father would either die or survive for a tearful reunion with his boy. But after the war Polanski’s dad remarried, and the new wife didn’t want young Roman around. By the age of 13, the pattern of his life was set: That hurried escape through the wire of the ghetto would be only the first of a series of hasty exits.

In Swingin’ London, he made his name with Repulsion (1965), in which Catherine Deneuve descends into schizophrenia and kills a man she believes has come to rape her. He hit Hollywood with Rosemary’s Baby (1967), in which Mia Farrow is impregnated by the Devil. You could make the case that these films reflect the psychological burdens of his childhood — if it weren’t that they’re almost freakily literal pre-echoes of the violence in his adult life. In 1969, Sharon Tate and four others were murdered at Polanski’s house by a group called “Satan’s Slaves.” “I remember,” wrote Joan Didion, “that no one was surprised.”

One sympathizes. Except that there are millions of children of the Holocaust struggling under the burdens of the past — and only one who deals with them as Roman Polanski does. Working on the film Chinatown, the writer Robert Towne found it hard to concentrate at the director’s pad, what with “the teenyboppers that Roman would run out and take Polaroid pictures of diving off the f***ing diving board without tops on. Which was distracting. With braces.”

Braces. Cute. Harvey Weinstein, the man behind the pro-Polanski petition, rejects the idea that Hollywood is “amoral”: “Hollywood has the best moral compass, because it has compassion,” he told an interviewer.

Let us agree that Hollywood bigshots have “compassion” for people in general, for people far away in a big crowd scene on the distant horizon, for people in a we-are-the-world-we-are-the-children sense. But Hollywood bigshots treat people in particular, little people, individuals, like garbage. To Polanski, he was the world, you are the children; now take your kit off and let’s have a “photo shoot.”

The political class is beginning to recalibrate. In Paris, President Sarkozy’s government withdrew its initial enthusiasm for Polanski after it emerged that even the boundlessly sophisticated French aren’t eager to champion creepy child rapists just because they’re celebrities. As Susan Estrich wrote, “Yes, he’s made some big films in those years. So what?”

Hold that thought: “Big films,” like what? Until The Pianist briefly revived his reputation, Polanski had spent the previous quarter-century making leaden comedies (Pirates), generic thrillers (Frantic) and lame arthouse nudie flicks (Bitter Moon, with the not yet famous Hugh Grant). If that level of “great art” is all the justification you need for drugging and sodomizing 13-year-old girls, there won’t be enough middle-schoolers to go round.

The cocky strutting little Euro-swinger is old now, Roman in the gloamin’, in the twilight of his career. The Polanski of Chinatown was a great director on his way up, his best years presumed to lie ahead. 

The junk of the past 30 years pretty much killed that. What he did wouldn’t be justified if Polanski were Johann Sebastian Bach. But is this résumé really “great art” to go to the wall for? Why, Harvey, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world, but for Bitter Moon?

And that in turn raises another question: Earlier bad boys — Lord Byron, say — were obliged to operate as “transgressive” artists within a broader moral order. Now we are told that a man such as Polanski cannot be subject to anything so footling as morality: He cannot “transgress” it because, by definition, he transcends it. Yet all truly great art is made in the tension between freedom and constraint. In demanding that an artist be placed above the laws of man, Harvey Weinstein & Co. are also putting him beyond the possibility of art. Which may explain the present state of the movie industry.

Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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