Forget it, Jake

September 28, 2009

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
–W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”

Noah Cross: ” ‘Course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” — Roman Polanski, “Chinatown”

The arrest of Roman Polanski has already brought all manner of supporters out of the woodwork to argue in his defense. It’s total bullshit, of course, intended to obscure the facts of the case: Polanski drugged and sodomized a 13-year-old girl. The fact that it happened three decades ago, or that he happens to be an Oscar-winning director, is beside the point.

Nonetheless, we can expect to hear quite a bit about how his genius, his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, or the murder of his wife have somehow rendered him not responsible for his actions. The egregious Anne Applebaum goes for the hat trick in a recent column, with a scoop of conflict of interest on top.

Which is interesting, because anyone who truly admires Polanski’s movies should realize that the man himself has already forestalled any such defense, and done so out of his own mouth — in his best-known movie, “Chinatown.” Spoilers following, in case you’ve never seen it.

It’s fairly obvious on a first viewing how Noah Cross’ molestation of Evelyn Mulwray is a metaphor for the wide-scale theft of water rights — based on historic events — inasmuch as both crimes represent the corruption of institutions (government, the family) to victimize those whom they were intended to protect. Moreover, the repercussions of both crimes will permanently alter the course of others’ lives — indeed, both crimes seem to have been undertaken primarily in order to exert that kind of power, rather than for any mundane reward. “The future, Mr. Gittes, the future …”

And that’s a valid reading, so far as it goes, but let’s reflect for a moment on the back-story of Noah Cross, as told by Evelyn to Jake Gittes. Cross is respected, influential … and traumatized by a violent event, which leads him to sexually victimize a young woman, then use his status to escape punishment. The details are different (home invasion and murder vs. collapse of a dam; incest vs. date rape) but the basic outline is the same as Polanski’s own crime.

Granted, this is a textbook example of biographical fallacy, especially since “Chinatown” came out several years before Polanski committed the rape … but while we can’t logically argue that the movie is actually “about” Polanski himself*, we can certainly use it as a reference point.

Noah Cross is seen as a villain, indeed as a monster, by audiences. Whatever trauma he may have suffered does not excuse his actions. Why, then, should others offer Polanski this type of excuse for a real-life crime when he, as the director, cannot bring himself to extend such benefit of the doubt, even in fiction?  

Leni Riefenstahl was a hell of a director too, and you don’t see people lining up to excuse her. Just let it go…

UPDATE: “The truth is, that if Roman Polanski had been a priest, there is very, very little chance that he ever would have been prosecuted in the first place. And that’s wrong—not for Polanski, who deserved prosecution, but for the thousands of victims of sexually predatory priests who had their complaints ignored for years.” (via Balloon Juice)

* In addition to the similarity of Cross’ abuse to Polanski’s own, note that Polanski himself appears onscreen in the movie (that’s him with the switchblade) and that the rape was committed at the home of Jack Nicholson, “Chinatown”‘s lead actor — like Fight Club and 9/11, it’s virtually impossible not to view the film in light of subsequent events.

UPDATE 2: Then again, on the other hand … “It’s interesting to contemplate why Polanski did Tess while on his champagne and caviar exile tour, since of course it’s based on Tess of the D’urbervilles, Thomas Hardy’s story of a woman whose entire life is ruined because she’s raped by….wait for it…..a rich, powerful, older man who is therefore shielded from justice while all the blame is shoved off on Tess. Is he mining his own life for inspiration while still refusing to submit to justice?” (H/T: Pandagon


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