Rosemary’s Baby (“outdoes Hitchcock” — Roger Ebert), Chinatown (“outstanding” — Variety), and The Pianist (“definitive” — the New York Times) are fine films. They have been rightly honored and praised. The question is whether their excellence justifies criminal acts.
The controversy over director Roman Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland on his way to a film festival exposes a stark front in the culture war. The divide is not necessarily between Right and Left, but between an artistic elite that believes it deserves its own moral rules, and the rest of us who will never win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival or be elected a member of the Academie des Beaux-Arts.
Beneath the farrago of euphemism about Polanski’s 1970s-era crime (Whoopi Goldberg says it wasn’t “rape-rape,” even though he forced himself on a 13-year-old) and unconvincing sympathy-mongering (after he went on the lam in Europe decades ago, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum complains, “He could not return to Los Angeles to receive his recent Oscar”), there’s one constant underlying plea: But he’s an artist.
A Harvey Weinstein op-ed in the British paper the Independent begins, “Roman Polanski is a man who cares deeply about his art and its place in the world.” As if that’s the most powerful point in his favor. Recounting the tragedies of Polanski’s life, he notes, “In those circumstances, most people could not contribute to art.” Then, he says of Polanski’s friends, “They know that, at heart, he is a humanist.”
#ad#It makes you wonder: Where does humanism go to get back its good name? None of this is relevant unless the art, and its presumed greatness, is itself considered a defense. Surely, even Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t extend such license to the director of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (no offense to Adam McKay). It’s that Roman Polanski is a true auteur, and therefore transcends normal moral categories.
This tendency has a centuries-old pedigree. It dates back to the Romantic era when, in the words of historian Paul Johnson, Beethoven “first established and popularized the notion of the artist as universal genius, as a moral figure in his own right.” But a peculiar kind of moral figure. When Lord Byron cut a swath of sexual infamy across the Continent that might make even Polanski blush, he elevated transgression into a supreme artistic value. We’ve had artists aspiring to be perverse moralists ever since.
These are the kinds of people who consider Woody Allen a character witness. He is one of 100 members of the film “community” who have signed a fatuous petition calling for Polanski’s release. “It seems inadmissible,” it pouts, “that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, is used by the police to apprehend him.” Film festivals are apparently islands of neutrality between wanted criminals and their police pursuers.
All of the great and good thought Polanski’s arrest would be a teachable moment in the difference between European sophistication and American Puritanism. The French foreign minister — pulling out the rhetorical bazooka — said the arrest was “not nice,” and the culture minister said it showed “a scary America.” But simple bourgeois morality has made an unexpectedly strong showing, based on the unadorned facts. Polanski had not “merely” committed, as his defenders tried to portray it, statutory rape. He pled guilty to drugging and violating a 13-year-old girl against her will and then fled the country to escape the consequences.
Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have defended the arrest. Even the French government has tempered its initial reaction, describing Polanski as “neither above nor below the law.” That’s news to the film community, for whom Polanski is permitted at least one long-ago rape of a child in exchange for the glories of his art. Rarely has a class of people mustered a more damning indictment of its own putrid decadence.