Friday, August 12, 2011

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008)

USA/UK, 99 minutes, documentary
Director: Marina Zenovich
Writers: Joe Bini, P.G. Morgan, Marina Zenovich
Photography: Tanja Koop
Editor: Joe Bini

This HBO documentary preceded by little more than a year the revival of interest in Roman Polanski's case following his arrest in Switzerland in 2009, when it appeared possible that he might be extradited to the U.S. I never even noticed it going by, but a friend included it on his list early in 2010 of the best films of the 2000s, so between that and all the furor I knew it was one I wanted to see. And it is indeed worth seeing—among other virtues, for me, it includes information I hadn't known about the legal and ethical improprieties of the presiding judge of the case in the '70s, Laurence Rittenband (who died in 1993). More generally, it seems to me eminently fair, not only about the crime itself, which it doesn't minimize, but also about all the events that swirled around it and the people involved. It doesn't excuse Polanski, but it provides a useful context.

This is one of those cases, of course, in which people tend to line up on opposite sides and take their pleasure throwing blunt objects at one another in the service of discourse (see also O.J. Simpson, Jonbenet Ramsey, Monica Lewinsky, second Iraq War, or, more recently, Casey Anthony). So I want to tread carefully. There's no question that Polanski committed a crime, no question that his defenders often say such silly things that they are, on balance, actively harmful to Polanski's cause, e.g., Whoopi Goldberg's assertion, "I know it wasn't rape-rape" (we all know she wasn't there). And certainly it's a useful thought experiment to ask what if it had been the filmmaker's daughter, or anyone's, who had been the victim in this case.

But, in fact—another revelation for me in this endlessly interesting documentary—we do happen to know how the victim and her family specifically reacted in this case. They agreed with the legal system on the whole, which plea-bargained the charges down to the most minor (unlawful sexual intercourse); most of the evaluating authorities then recommended probation. Samantha Gailey (now Geimer), Polanski's victim, appears here in an interview and says as much. In her early 40s at the time of this interview, married and with children, and having won a civil suit against Polanski in the '90s, she appears convincingly at peace about the whole thing—if anything, the evident lingering resentments are directed toward the media coverage of the time.

That's the most critical piece here to me. This documentary quietly makes a persuasive case that the media coverage amounts virtually to an unindicted co-conspirator. One of the reasons Judge Rittenband evidently came to behave so bizarrely, and illegally, in his oversight of the case and the trial was exactly because of the pressure that the media coverage was exerting by ginning up such easy outrage.

I'm not immune myself to such outrage. I was angry like everyone else about the O.J. Simpson verdict, and I still believe my feelings are not misplaced, that he probably committed the crime and certainly, as his subsequent life has demonstrated, that he deserved to be imprisoned. But this is very dangerous territory. I was nearly as outraged as everyone else about the behavior of Jonbenet Ramsey's parents in the aftermath of their daughter's strange and mysterious death. But that has turned out to be a case where "everyone," fueled by irresponsible non-stop cable-news coverage, had it exactly wrong. Cases such as Monica Lewinsky or Michael Jackson, plain black and white to so many, are to me instead endless cotton battings of gray. I have no particular sense that either one is guilty of anything beyond poor judgment.

Thus, simply as a matter of coping—and the O.J. Simpson case notwithstanding—I tend to favor now the judgments of juries and those closely involved with any given case. Because I remain fascinated by true-crime stories, it's practically the only way I can manage to stay out of outrage overload. I try particularly hard, though I do understand the inherent entertainment value on some level, to avoid the maelstroms of outrage whipped up by media coverage when I see them, which is one reason I have been indifferent to the Casey Anthony trial, beyond its interest as a puzzling case. It's not that hard to recognize the madness coming in—the face of Nancy Grace is very often involved and that alone is usually a pretty good clue that hysteria distortion has set in.

There's a very interesting show on the Investigation Discovery channel now called "I (Almost) Got Away With It." The premise is criminals escaping arrest and/or imprisonment and how they survive and evade capture. The most recent season has tended to devolve down to lowlifes who rarely manage to stay out longer than a few months, and it's often become nearly as unpleasant to watch as any of those weekend MSNBC prison things (which are simply too much). But the first season actually featured a number of cases with nuance and a good deal of gray areas, implicitly raising very difficult questions about punishment and rehabilitation, including the stories of people who stayed out for decades, essentially going straight and living productive and useful lives before they were finally captured. (Sara Jane Olson likely remains the best example of the moral ins and outs of these kinds of cases, and it's another one where the discourse tends to be bellicose and all black/white.)

So with Polanski, yes, I have to admit to my own biases. I love his work. I have compassion for him based on the events of his biography. I'm glad he was able to make the movies he's made since he fled the U.S.—I think some of them rank with his best and most important. The stain of his crime has been on him since virtually the day he committed it and it will be remembered as part of his legacy even after his death. He will never escape it. Those who believe he should have been thrown into a dark hole and the key thrown away may (or may not) find some comfort in this documentary, which makes his crimes as plain as it does the fact that only a minority of people at the time directly involved in the case believed he deserved such harsh punishment—and many of them were the people behaving most unconscionably.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent write-up. You are from now on my designated true crime correspondent. I just see Nancy Grace's face, not knowing a thing about whatever the fuck she is talking about, and my blood pressure starts to rise. And, yet, I do find myself now and then wondering what the hell is this 24-7 cable coverage case all about and wanting the scoop (grey included), the primer, so to speak, but where to turn? The image of the media as a co-conspiritor here seems so apt.