I've been stewing over this horrific Roman Polanski mess for days, and this is what I want to say.
The thing that destroys me a little is that Polanski not only felt, back then as well as now, that he was above the law, but also had the money & resources to flee the country and live a celebrated life abroad. Not just for a little while. Not just until the authorities could gather enough grounds for extradition. But for decades.
The thing that destroys me is that people are treating Polanski as though fleeing the country instead of facing a longer sentence was the sensible, respectable thing for a man of his stature to do.
The thing that destroys me is that Sharon Tate's murder is what led to the creation of California's victim impact law, where victims and their families can give testament as to how the crime perpetrated upon them has affected their lives. Yes. The murder of Roman Polanski's wife and unborn child has a direct connection to the way California courts legally view victimization. (Irony upon irony: if he were re-tried today, the victim impact law would probably help Polanski receive a lighter sentence than the one he would have 30 years ago.)
The thing that destroys me is that Polanski is protesting the workings of a justice system that brought down an entire cult family in retribution for his wife's murder.
The thing that destroys me is that Sharon Tate has been presented to my generation garbed in a halo of light. Her murder makes her a classic guardian angel of the virtue of the beautiful, the young, the glamorously female. The butchery of her murder and the brainwashed idealism of her murderers, the Manson Family, are emblematic of the power struggle between those who have nothing and those who have everything, and the chaos that ensues when the legal system that corrals us all into some semblance of order breaks down.
I just keep thinking about the parallel between Roman Polanski and Charles Manson. Both saw themselves as above the law, outside of it in some way. Manson was charismatic and powerful and had the support of a "family" of followers who believed that his greater purpose -- jump-starting the apocalypse -- overrode social law. Polanski is charismatic and powerful and has the support of a family of film industry artists who believe that his greater purpose -- creating meaningful films -- overrides social law. What if Manson had been able to reject the idea of a long sentence after Sharon Tate's murder? What if, once he had fled to Europe, his charisma & spiritual visions were not only welcomed but seen to be of so much greater cultural value that they outweighed the detriment to society presented by his crime? What if the U.S. had been unable to persuade foreign governments to extradite him back to face sentencing?
The thing that destroys me is that, like Manson, Polanski viewed the law as something he could manipulate. He cooperated with lawyers & judges; he agreed to the plea bargain; he got everything he wanted: permission to travel. permission to finish his films. permission to leave psychiatric evaluation in 42 days instead of the mandated 90 he was supposed to spend before sentencing. Everything was going his way, but the instant things didn't go his way, he simply dropped the pretense that the law was worth upholding. He dropped the pretense that the criminal justice system had any hold on him whatsoever. He fled, and so neatly, so tidily, that he was able to pick right back up where he left off, making all those great films we know, love, and celebrate today.
And oh, how his supporters insist upon the value of those films. As though they are intrinsically tied to the separate circumstance of a man in his forties drugging & assaulting a teenager. As though the rape of a 13-year-old girl is not only connected, but also ameliorated by, the existence of Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, The Pianist.
Polanski supporters, hell, Polanski himself, seem to equate the greatness of Polanski's art with some sort of untouchable social platform upon which he can stand, without being distracted or annoyed by tedious things like social justice. (Nevermind that history is littered with great artists whose personal lives have been despicable while their art has been sublime. Wagner was a racist. Ezra Pound was a Nazi. Picasso abused women. Hitchcock was a sociopath. Woody married his daughter, Whoopi takes pains to distinguish between the nuances of rape and rape rape. The line wraps around the block.)
But social justice doesn't just apply on a microcosmic level. Yes, Polanski pleaded guilty in hopes of serving a lighter sentence. Yes, his victim believes that they both have suffered enough. But on a broader level, when a rich white man can rape a girl, skip the country, and not have to pay for it, simply because he is an ~artist~, then the entire idea of social justice breaks down in a way that is so public, so shocking, that the implications of it are inescapable.
The Roman Polanski case holds a jagged mirror up to our faces, and the reflection is so ugly that we can't help but stare at it, can't help but be forced to face what we don't what to face: the truth that there is a gaping, horrific divide, not only in the actual application of the law, but in the way we apply cultural justice between social classes, across racial and ethnic and income divides, and across cultural divides. We let pedophiles direct box office hits. We make heroes of athletes who evade their taxes, use steroids, run dogfighting rings, murder their wives. We re-elect presidents who lie to start wars. We are enraged over Polanski because he has the audacity to insist that he is above the law. I think we are also a little enraged at ourselves for producing a culture that has turned Polanski's belief into a reality. Celebrities, artists, wall street moguls & high-powered politicians, are above the law.
Social law is designed to prove greater than individuals, designed to draw upon our best selves and produce something that is greater than the sum of us. Great talent does not equal greatness. Polanski's body of work may be great, and it is; but the social law he is flaunting is about greatness--our greatness as a collective society. We are angry, we are upset, because if we can't impose a sentence upon someone who pleads guilty to a crime as awful as Polanski's, then our own greatness is suspect.
As a culture, we idolize celebrities, the rich, the powerful. We make even the most infamous into icons at the drop of a hat. We impose upon them a reality so bizarrely separated from the reality we know that they all live and die in the Neverland we built for them. Britney escapes to shave her head. The Lohans get a reality show. The unnamed cinema diva delays call time for her performances of Master Class for up to 60 minutes while she throws fits backstage. Ken Lay costs 20,000 people their livelihoods and their life savings, and over 1200 people attend a memorial service in his honor upon his death. Diana dies in a fiery crash, chased by paparazzi. Michael dies at the hands of a practitioner determined to help him sustain the bubble he lived in at all costs.
And Roman Polanski goes to Europe and spends his latter days accepting awards for lifetime achievement. A few of us, like, say, the Swiss police still stationed outside of Xanadu, arrest him so that he can pay his debt to society, and those who live within that bubble, that illusive bubble where fame really does equate to greatness, explode in fury.
But we, we on the outside--we flail in outrage, and we are troubled, because we know deep in our hearts that we helped construct Xanadu. We helped construct a society that administers justice from the bottom up while administering glory & stature from the top down. And when we press ideas of justice upon those at the top, how can it help but be a foreign, irrelevant thing to them, being as they are, as Polanski no doubt is, so unacquainted with what it looks like up close?
Great art does not equal greatness. A great artist directed Chinatown; a great man would never have raped a child.
A man learning how to be great? Such a man would accept responsibility for his actions and face his sentencing without pride, without defiance, without egotism or hubris. But that is an act of greatness beyond the moral parameters of a man who has spent so many years in the bubble we have built for him.
Until we as a society insist on social & cultural equality between the rich/powerful and the low/working classes; until white-collar criminals and common criminals are treated as equals in the legal system; until equal attention is paid to the minimum 7,500 wrongful arrests & convictions in the U.S. each year as is paid to the Lays & Vicks & Polanskis of the world; until all these things and so many more occur to tip the balance of the law towards the weak, that bubble, that Xanadu, that Neverland of isolated celebrity and uneven justice will continue to exist.
Deep in our hearts, I think we know that. We rage against Polanski. We weep for his victim and for all the victims of sexual molestation who are victimized all over again by the failure of justice in this case. But deep in our hearts, I think we rage and we weep for ourselves as well.
That's the thing that destroys most of all.