Once again, I’ve been away from the blog for a few days, this time because I was attending the fantastic Fantastic Fest at the Alamo Drafthouse, and my mind has been in movie mode for a solid, wondrous week. Which means that while ACA’ers were busily batcruising a week ago, I was a few blocks away at the Paramount theater squealing like a little girl while George A. Romero signed my ticket to the premiere screening of Survival of the Dead. Much as I love the gang, I’ll have to miss a batcruise for that one, folks. Too bad the movie was crap, though.
Anyway, another incident involving a film legend went down recently, and while it may seem to have nothing to do with atheism, it was an event that gave me lots of food for thought about matters I’ve often discussed here on the blog and the TV show. I speak, of course, of the arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland on a fugitive warrant for his drugging and rape of a 13-year-old girl more than 30 years ago.
Opinions have been divided over Polanski ever since he fled the country upon realizing that the judge handling his case at the time — who, it must be said, has been revealed as something of a publicity hound — was about to renege on a plea deal. On the one hand, there are those who have categorically condemned Polanski as a slimy pedo, and on the other, cineastes who point to Polanski’s great films and stature as one of the world’s master directors, and the crime as simply some sick aberration that shouldn’t tarnish the man’s entire life. And besides, the victim, now in her 40’s with a family of her own, has forgiven him.
Debates along those lines can and will go on for ages, and they are. Following Polanski’s arrest, battle lines were drawn along familiar borders. Many of Polanski’s industry pals have rushed to his defense, demanded his release, and offered all manner of apologia for his misdeed. Conversely, read feminist blogs, and it’s clear they’ll be satisfied with nothing less than Polanski’s mutilated corpse dragged down Hollywood Blvd. behind a truck.
For my own part, I would not want to live in a world in which an artist like Polanski wasn’t able to create. His best films are landmarks. Repulsion is the great film about psychosexual neurosis. Rosemary’s Baby is a horror masterpiece, dealing with religious horror themes in a way the campy and atrociously scripted The Exorcist could never touch. Chinatown is one of the best movies ever to come from a major studio. And even his underrated adaptation of Macbeth, shot while he was still grieving over Sharon Tate’s murder, is the darkest and most violent version of Shakespeare ever filmed. So yes, that Polanski is a great artist ought to be beyond dispute.
He also drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl.
This is a bad thing.
In deciding where I should draw my own conclusions here, I had to consider the way in which I like my atheism and overall fondness for rationalism to inform my thinking. The key factor is moral and intellectual integrity. By that. I certainly don’t mean adopting inflexible dogmatic views and attitudes, but I do mean being consistent and not a hypocrite.
Repeatedly, on this blog and the TV show, I have been ruthless in my condemnation of religious pedophiles. Tony Alamo, Warren Jeffs, adult Muslims in the Middle East who enter into arranged marriages with girls as young as eight or nine — I’ve seen no reason to cut them slack. And so I cannot cut Polanski any either. Certainly, I do and will always revere him as an artist. But the crime is a crime is a crime. Time doesn’t make it go away. Nor does the minor detail that the difference between Polanksi’s rape and those committed by the likes of Alamo and Jeffs is that Polanski never tried to justify it on religious grounds. Do I plan to denude my DVD collection of Polanski’s films? No. Why? They’re great films, that’s why. But just as O.J. Simpson’s double murders don’t diminish his accomplishments as a football star, neither can his football accomplishments be waved around as if they diminish the murders.
So if I cannot cut Warren Jeffs, Tony Alamo, and whoever-the-frak-else among religious wackaloons any slack when they victimize kids, nor can I cut Polanski slack. As an atheist, I think it’s an important factor in retaining my own integrity that I do not allow personal anti-religious bias to influence my opinion, and make me treat crimes by the religious more harshly than the same crime committed in a context where religion had no role. It’s hard for people to free themselves of biases, and those of us who pride ourselves on reason must be doubly diligent that we don’t make excuses and plunge into the same hypocrisy we see from the religious.
I think the arrest needed to happen, if only so that the whole affair can now play out as it must, and neither Polanski nor his victim have to go on living with it as some sort of Sword of Damocles hanging over their lives. Polanski will always be a great filmmaker. But he drugged and raped a kid. At 76, it’s past time for him to man up and face the consequences. If the court is harsh, so be it. If it’s lenient, so be it. But it must be faced. And Polanski’s defenders ought to know better than to embrace the casual insouciance of that last line in Polanski’s greatest movie: “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”