So, Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland yesterday. He was arriving in Zurich for a film festival showing a retrospective of his work and never made it. He was arrested by Swiss police and detained for possible extradition to the United States, where he is still wanted on a criminal charge relating to his having sex with a minor in the late 1970s.
A number of Swiss people (and as many French) are pretty incensed about this, and I guess it is understandable; if my country had a globe-spanning reputation for neutrality, I don't imagine I would want my officials bird-dogging for the U.S. But I heard a fellow on the news tonight who was "ashamed to be Swiss" because Polanski "is a great man, a genius, who has entertained millions of people and made one little mistake all those years ago..."
Whoa, back up a sec... I wonder what mistake he is referring to? Having an unsupervised minor over to Jack Nicholson's house for a topless photo shoot for the European edition of Vogue? Giving her champagne and part of a Quaalude? Ignoring her objections and having sex with and sodomizing her? Maybe I just have an old-fashioned, provincial mindset, but while all of those things sound like mistakes, not one of them seems all that 'little'.
Now, none of these 'mistakes' are disputed; most of them are part of Polanski's plea agreement. His story is that the sex occurred, but that it was consensual. But when he heard that the media-hungry judge might renege on the agreement, he fled the United States for France, and has not been back since.
Shortly after the judge in the case died, Polanski started popping up in the news again. Prior to this, his last topical appearance was in Steve Martin's monologue from the year he hosted the Oscars ("I see Roman Polanski has joined us here tonight...GET HIM!"), but an appearance in Rush Hour 3 (?) and a documentary ("Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired")about the case brought him a bit of public exposure which some people speculated might have been an overture towards his asking to have the case dismissed. The documentary alleges that the judge in question had a real axe to grind and that some misconduct on the part of the courts might have been a factor. In February however, a judge declared that Polanski would have to appear in court to request the dismissal, and that appeared to be the end of that.
There is also the question of Polanski himself: the Holocaust survivor who lost his mother to Auschwitz as a child, the man who lost his wife to the depredations of the Manson gang. It has been suggested that any amount of prison time could have been tantamount to a death sentence, and there is no questioning the fact that the man has suffered.
But this changes nothing.
There was a huge outcry when it was revealed that the director of the movie "Powder" (Victor Salva) had been convicted on child molestation charges prior to being hired by a Disney subsidiary to make a family movie with young stars. Not huge enough to stop him from coming back and making a horror movie years later about a busload of teenagers being menaced by creepy trenchcoat-wearing monsters (hmmm...), but still, people were upset that young actors may have been put at risk. Others said that since Salva had paid his debt to society, it was irrelevant, which seems disingenuous at best. But in this case at least a debt was paid; Polanski has yet to face the music. His offenses took place in the 1970s; I can't even imagine the furor today if a famous Hollywood director was even accused of the kinds of acts Polanski described in his plea agreement.
My understanding is that three decades later, he still downplays the fuss. I do not believe he has ever admitted having been in the wrong, and makes statements such as "I like young women...I think most men do." There are many others who would like to see the matter done away with, including the victim herself. I am sure she has to be tired of having this traumatic experience re-visited in the media periodically, and I sympathize with her, so if it is determined that the judge acted inappropriately and the case ends up dismissed, so be it. But I have no sympathy for Polanski, who fled justice on hearsay, and didn't ask for an inquiry or his day in court for a third of a century, and in fact, still hasn't, because he has fans and apologists to do that for him. Strange as it may seem, I am reserving a portion of my sympathy for Barack Obama, who will probably end up mired in a diplomatic dilemma once he is asked by the French Minister of Culture or Nicolas Sarkozy to intercede on Polanski's behalf.
Regardless of how long ago it occurred or how the victim may feel about it currently or what sorts of things Polanski has accomplished in the meantime, plying a thirteen year old girl with drugs and alcohol so you can have non-consensual sex with her is not only wrong, it is evil. But don't take my word for it: Smoking Gun has the original victim statement available online, and it paints a pretty clear picture. Polanski was initially charged with rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14, and furnishing a controlled substance (methaqualone) to a minor. He plead guilty to lesser charge of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, which might seem like a slap on the wrist, but was brokered in part by the attorney of the victim, who did not want to have to testify in court. The spectre of being held accountable for even that small portion of his acts was enough for Polanski to choose exile instead, and he has remained there until yesterday.
Since learning the details behind Polanski's 'controversy' several years ago, I have not watched a single one of his films. Some might criticise me as judging the artist and not the art, but that guy does not see a nickle of my money until he has faced justice. As imperfect as that justice might be, it's all we've got. I'll see "The Pianist" and "Chinatown" after he's pushing up daisies, if that is what it takes. On the plus side, it did give me an (additional) excuse to pass on "Rush Hour 3".
Perhaps I am mis-reading the shamed Swiss citizen, and Polanski's flight from sentencing is the 'little mistake' he is referring to. If so, he should be glad that there may now be a chance to hear the other side of the story. If not, and this person honestly believes that Polanski's skills as a filmmaker somehow excuse his exploitative and criminal behaviour, then I hope his comments get plenty of circulation.
Because at that point, I am sure a number of other people may be ashamed to be Swiss as well, but for a different reason.