Saturday, December 10, 2011

What can we ignore? Roman Polanski and Victor Salva.

What do you do with someone like Roman Polanski? I have heard all the arguments for separating the artist from the art, and none of them sit quite right with me.

It isn't that I expect the world, or art to be perfect. I recently read a very good essay on how to be a fan of problematic art while not being a bad person. That is something that everyone must struggle with at some point, and certainly it comes up a lot in my own horror movie fandom. It is almost impossible to be a serious fan of horror movies if you limit your appreciation to unproblematic films. There are some shining examples of films that aren't problematic of course, but often being a horror fan requires acknowledging the problematic elements and allowing yourself to appreciate the film anyway.

But where do you draw the line? A film that has problematic scenes is one thing, a film directed by a child rapist is another thing entirely.

Roman Polanski's crime is a topic that has been debated to death, I suppose, and while it is not for everyone, I have come to a conclusion that works for me. I will not watch his films. I understand that they are influential, and have been important to our film history in general, and even to horror film history in particular. It would be irresponsible of film schools to ignore them, but I do not have the same obligations as a film school or museum, and I can evaluate historical relevance lower than my moral requirements.

But it is still a murky subject for me, because I find myself being inconsistent. I will, for instance, watch the films of Victor Salva, another pedophile director. His Jeepers Creepers films are worth discussing, though they are of course far less influential or critically acclaimed than Polanski's. The crucial difference to me is that Salva was arrested and charged with his crimes, and he went to prison. He was punished (however adequately or inadequately he was punished is a different matter, and a complicated topic that I feel very conflicted about. But for our purposes here, he answered for his crimes in the only way our society knows how.) Roman Polanski, on the other hand, fled prosecution for his crime, and is completely unrepentant.

I don't know if I believe that someone can ever atone for a crime like raping a child, but it is a lot easier to be convinced by arguments about separating the art from the artist if the artist has had to answer for his crimes. If he hasn't answered for his crimes elsewhere, I can't watch his films without feeling that I myself am letting him get away with it.


  1. I understand what you mean in regards to Polanski and his films,and to be fair, although Salva was punished, in my opinion it wasn't severe enough. But my question is, when do we separate the art from the creator? Couldnt you like the films but not their maker?

  2. I have the same conflict about Polanski, and I have also realized that I can't watch his films. Or won't. I'm not really sure which it is. It's not really about feeling like I am letting him get away with it, it's more that I feel like celebrating someone like that in any way, even just in watching his movies, is to somehow be complicit in his wrongdoing. I don't think that my one person boycott is an important statement or anything. It's just a personal thing. The fact that he's tucked away in Switzerland still making movies is disgusting to me, and I can't make myself be a part of that in any tiny way. I have seen one of his movies: Chinatown, and that was before I knew who/what he was. So it'll be the last movie of his I see.

  3. I was pretty young when I first saw Clownhouse, and there's a fair amount of nostalgia-baggage that i'll likely always hold for it. Likewise for Jeepers Creepers in a way, of course I saw both movies without knowing about Salva the person.

    Watched Clownhouse again recently though... Yeah, scary in a bunch of new ways in hindsight of his crimes.

  4. You've probably already read this, but I still think it puts the case in a somewhat different light than I got from your choice of words here.
    Also, what happened to his wife makes me give him a bit more slack - not that I approve what he did.

    From Wikipedia:
    In a documentary for A&E Television Networks entitled Roman Polanski (2000), Samantha Gailey Geimer stated "…he had sex with me. He wasn’t hurting me and he wasn’t forceful or mean or anything like that, and really I just tried to let him get it over with." She also claimed that the event had been blown "all out of proportion".
    In a 2003 interview,[13] Samantha Geimer said, "Straight up, what he did to me was wrong. But I wish he would return to America so the whole ordeal can be put to rest for both of us." Furthermore, "I'm sure if he could go back, he wouldn't do it again. He made a terrible mistake but he's paid for it." In 2008, Geimer stated in an interview that she wishes Polanski would be forgiven, "I think he's sorry, I think he knows it was wrong. I don't think he's a danger to society. I don't think he needs to be locked up forever and no one has ever come out ever — besides me — and accused him of anything. It was 30 years ago now. It's an unpleasant memory ... (but) I can live with it."

  5. I want to post this before reading anyone else's comments...

    I recently watched Chinatown for the first time and knew that it was a Polanski film, but wanted to see what the fuss was...and sure enough the film made me so sick I am still trying to deal with how such things can be tolerated. In this case, the movie was made in 1974 and he was arrested in is so disturbing..I'll never watch another Polanski film again..

  6. Are you exaggerating to make a point? Nobody has ever indicated Polansky is a pedophiliac (attracted to pre-sexual children). There's no reason to diminish the disaster of pedophilia by using the label inappropriately

    His lack in taste and his age group confusion makes every adult male uneasy about our own behavior. Most men remember our youth, but would rationally prefer to spend time with similar-aged women. How certain are we of our own age-appropriateness, when we're confronted with his crazy behavior.

    He wasn't charged with rape or force or violence either, was he?

    Any mismatched relationship is a warning sign that one part may feel tricked afterwards. But that's true even in the simple case of one man and one woman.

    I've come to accept that many extreme achievers also behave in an extreme manner in their relationships. Don't ever let my daughter date a rock star or a CEO or a soldier or film maker. But as long as they do their thing without my family, I'm OK with it.

    Polansky's lack of taste many years ago is neither diminished or aggravated by his run-in with some crazy religious laws. The fine line between bad taste and irresponsible behavior and unlawfully luring a kid is set differently in every country, and frankly I think we should rather focus on real crimes with real victims. Most kids and most adults are perfectly able to define their own taste without legal regulation.

    Another example from the endless list is Woody Allen. His supposed lack of age-appropriate taste in adult relationships makes me flinch, but there is no way around acknowledging his genius.

    Best wishes

  7. Uffe: He was indeed charged with rape, and the girl was 13 years old. That is pedophilia. It was not a "lack of taste" or a simple case of mismatched age between consenting partners. even if a 13 year old COULD consent, which they cannot, it was a case of drugging and forcible rape.

  8. I'd say, don't put money in his pocket if the moral angle distresses you. But if you can see them for free, I think everyone who feels conflicted about Polanski (frankly, especially men) should watch Repulsion or Rosemary's Baby. Both those movies seem to display so much sympathy toward women, and particularly, sympathy for women's victimization by men. And yet the man who made those movies committed sexual abuse. It's really hard to reconcile, and I think it brings home how pervasive rape culture is. Even someone who chose in at least two major works of his art to create empathy for women victimized by men was capable of preying on a young woman.

  9. Words matter. Terminology matters.

    Rape involves violence or force or threat of such, implied or explicit. Any other use of the word is nonsensical.

    Pedophilia involves a person younger that the typical age for being sexually active, not a person that your superstitious beliefs claim should have been chaste, not a person that in some cases is too young to make mature decisions about relationships, not a person that should have been repulsed by your old age.

    I understand (and agree) with the people's anger, because this clearly is a case where any random man you met on the street would have taken better care of the girl's best interests than her adult friends did. But using the wrong terminology doesn't help.

    Blowing stupid, irresponsible, appalling actions out of proportion doesn't protect anybody.

    Hopefully addressing bad behavior and confronting and being honest can provide a better defense.

    "Every father's daughter is a virgin". Mine included. I do believe grownups must keep a healthy distance to kids, but I don't believe kids will suddenly stop having sex, just because we adults would find it more convenient. Joey Comeau feels thirteen is exceptionally young, but statistics will tell you differently, and the age has not changed the last several hundred years.

  10. Uffe:

    Maybe I am using pedophilia in a more broad sense than it is intended. The wiki article says 13, but for the sake of not getting side tracked, let's ignore the word pedophilia.

    But we can't ignore her age, and - more importantly - their age difference. This isn't moralizing. I had sex at that age, and I understand humans are sexually active long before it is societally acceptable for them to be. But I also know that being sexually mature and being capable of consent are two separate things.

    So, while two 13 year olds playing doctor, or whatever -that's natural. That's fine. But a 43 year old man has power over a 13 year old. Children are not the equals of adults. If you are arguing against this concept - that there should be an age of consent at all - then we've reached an impasse there. That's your opinion, and certainly not one I could hope to change with an argument on the internet. But I believe that the age of consent - though a fuzzy line at best - is important.

    All that said - Drugging a person, regardless of age, and having sex with them despite them saying no - that's rape. Rape is not just a horrible man in an alley with a knife.

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Also, your tone is sort of condescending and dismissive, with the "your superstitious belief" stuff - and you're assuming a lot of things about my attitudes toward sex and morality - none of which I actually expressed. At no point am i talking about any mythic notion of an innocent flower of youth who needs to be "protected" from sexuality. But i think a fairly clear case can be made that getting a person drunk and fucked up on pills and then still having sex with them when they say no is rape.

    I also think that there are clear power imbalance and consent problems inherent in any relationship between a 13 y/o and 43 y/o, but I will admit that my sense of morality does come into play on that aspect of the issue as well. I think it is wrong, but I also FEEL very strongly that it is wrong. So I am not sure what satisfaction either of us will get out of arguing on that point - so I think we should just leave it at the fact that he drugged and raped her.

  13. I have tried to think of it before as, imagine if Hitler had made amazing films, would i admire his art and genius? Definitely not. Someone that is capable of horrors I can just not admire. Roman Polanski did something terrible but then i think about what has happened to him, his pregnant wife murdered, etc, and I feel that it might have played a part in fucking him up, not that it's an excuse to go raping young girls, but it allows me to watch Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby and, i suppose, separate the artist from the art that little bit.

  14. I just found this film blog, so hi! I'm very interested in films, and I've recently been lent a Polanksi box set of his films from the early 1960s.

    I'm very interested in this topic of debate. The films he made when he was a young man are astoundingly insightful and thought provoking. There's no excuse for what he did to that girl, and as a person, I do not like him.
    Tho, the same could be said for Jackson Pollock who was a ghastly person. Antonioni and Fellini have been labelled as Fascists by some. I could go on and name many authors and musicians too.

    People often want the men or women who create wonderful works of art to be people they can look up to or emulate. I don't think it's that simple.

    Being an auteur or a creative genius does not necessarily mean you're a good person who will act well under all circumstances.

    I think it's always up to the individual of course, but there are some really brilliant films out there that have been made by Polanski, and are worth watching, despite his crimes. Repulsion is gripping and surreal. Knife in the Water is also very interesting in terms of gender roles, tension and social comment.