Thursday, October 1, 2009

Out, Out Bright Spot

It was Sharon Tate who first predicted that her husband would end up making an adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Nastassja Kinski starred in the 1979 film, and now, like one of the characters in Hardy’s novel, the director sits in a Swiss prison cell, society exacting its vengeance 31 years after Polanski fled sentencing for statutory rape.

In a recent Times Op Ed piece, screenwriter and novelist Robert Harris faults Marina Zenovich’s 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. The screening of the well-received documentary at Sundance, Harris argues, excited Polanski’s desire to prove his innocence, thereby daring the Los Angeles district attorney Steve Cooley to prove that no amount of talent, celebrity, or notoriety puts a man above the law. If Polanski had continued to walk softy through his cherished international stomping grounds, if he had not had the hubris to believe that he could test laws he had spent years flaunting, then he might have returned from the Zurich Film Festival to the comfort of his Paris home without incident. Instead, he sits in a Swiss jail, guilty in fact, but begging for exoneration due to extraordinary circumstances.

Unfortunately, the legal system cannot do justice to the complexity of human existence the way a great novel can. Tess is guilty of murder, but innocent by circumstance, just as Polanski is guilty of rape, and now entrapped by a fateful miscalculation, which led him to seek a pardon that the law would not grant. Once his appeal failed, he protested his innocence by behaving like a man who has nothing to fear. This might seem understandable for a Holocaust survivor whose wife was brutally murdered and who then succumbed to a temptation of the flesh. But it’s hard to let go of the image of an impish, irreverent genius who ruined a young girl's life. Is he callous, indifferent, unrepentant, or merely reacting to the consequences of an original trial which many deemed to be unfair (particularly as regards the behavior of the trail judge)? The fact that the girl now protests that she has long since forgiven Polanski is almost irrelevant to the moral and judicial issues the case poses.

From the point of view of law, it’s an open and shut case; in fiction, it’s an essay on the fallibility of the moral universe; and in life it fills the observer with what Aristotle defined as the two ingredients for tragedy—fear and pity. Classical theories of tragedy also introduced the notion of the fall of a great man. Well Polanski might not be great, but his early film Knife in the Water is a masterpiece. Rent it.

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