The lingering case of Roman Polanski brings to mind an incident that happened a few years ago at a science fiction convention. Harlan Ellison, thinking he was being cute and witty, grabbed Connie Willis’ breast on stage. What erupted thereafter was a blog-storm of outrage, accusation and excuse-making. But the most interesting aspect of it was the way two camps quickly emerged from the ruckus. In Camp One were those who thought Ellison behaved in a demeaning and sexist manner. In Camp Two were those who thought everyone in Camp One should lighten up. If I had to guess, I’d say the average age in Camp One was about thirty and the average age in Camp Two was about fifty.
I’d call that progress.
The New York Times covered a similar angle today in an article entitled, “In Polanski Case, ’70s Culture Collides With Today.” I think they get it partially right. They discuss Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan, where a forty-ish man’s affair with a seventeen-year-old girl is portrayed as the healthiest, sanest thing he’s done. They’re right that such a film would not be made today. And I think they’re right that Polanski would not have received so lenient a sentence today. But what troubles me about the Times piece is the way it never comes out and correctly identifies the crime for which Polanski is being pursued and to which he openly confessed.
Roman Polanski didn’t merely confess to “having sex” with a thirteen-year-old girl. He confessed to drugging and having sex with her against her will. Not statutory rape, but rape, plain and simple.
You can read clips of his own testimony here. But, for your own sake, do so on an empty stomach.
The “Petition For Roman Polanski” signed by over a hundred filmmakers, actors, and artists hoping to win Polanski’s freedom similarly glosses over the actual crime, referring to his troubles instead as “a case of morals.” What the petitioners mean by this couldn’t be clearer: Polanski is the victim of a witch hunt rather than the perpetrator of a crime. Having sex with a thirteen-year-old in a hot tub at Jack Nicholson’s house is just one of those things that happens in Hollywood. Lighten up, everybody. No harm, no foul.
They don’t mention the drugs he gave her, drugs with very specific muscle-relaxing properties, mind you. They don’t mention that she said no repeatedly. They don’t mention that, after fleeing his sentence, Polanski immediately took up with another minor, Nastassja Kinski. If there’s a clearer case of unrepentant pedophilia, I’m not aware of it.
Nor is Polanski’s pedophilia in anyway mitigated by the fact that he seems to think that everyone wants to have sex with young girls. Rather, it’s a sign of the decrepit company he must have kept. And, perhaps, of the decrepit leniency with which sexual assault used to be treated.
For this reason, it irks but does not surprise me that people like Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Terry Gilliam signed that petition. But why did Tilda Swinton, Darren Aronofsky, and Alexander Payne sign it? Are they aware of the actual crimes they’re so anxious to pardon? And if so, what exactly would Polanski have had to do to this eighth grader to disqualify himself from their forgiveness?
Perhaps it’s naive of me, but I thought better of my generation. I thought we’d improved upon our elders.