Roger Simon in The Politico writes today about the extradition drama surrounding the arrest of director Roman Polanski. Simon’s greater point is, of course, that those who are blessed with great talent are not always those who are blessed with the greatest moral fiber. When a person who has achieved great fame for high artistic achievement gets in trouble, he or she suddenly finds himself or herself with a multitude of apologists and sycophantic admirers. And yet, I would be remiss if I neglected to add that until fame is achieved, however, society and the creative class views any unknown artist as merely another odd bird either unable or unwilling to conform and certainly worthy of no one’s pity.
Beyond a simple argument regarding the nature of cult of celebrity or the brutality of childhood sexual abuse, Polanski’s case concerns our own yearnings for attention and desire and how quickly we sell into the lies and cheap attention of celebrity. Not only that, this contentious issue promises great appeal to those wishing to use it to pad their own resumes, insert another feather into the cap, or use the topic as a bargaining chip to strengthen a hand at the diplomatic table. We have been contemplating one side of the issue, but I’d like to know more than the superficial. These instances where art and law intersect are much more interesting.
To begin, a friend of mine, then enrolled in art school, expressed constant frustration to me and to anyone who would listen that the professors encouraged a high degree of eccentricity in each student, feeling that being weird for weird’s sake was a conditioned and necessary virtue. The famous Irish wit Oscar Wilde, himself of no small ego and put on trial for his part in a sex scandal, noted that “no great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did he would cease to be an artist.” Most of these students needed no encouragement in this area but I suppose the implication was that in a world where “starving artist” was a label frequently pinned to even the most talented at the craft, one needed to do something to stand out. Those who adhere to this philosophy never require much in the way of introduction. We know some of them by their first name alone.
Simon’s column makes light of several less than stellar human beings who were championed by Hollywood, writers, actors, and other well-connected individuals for their talents but were dismal failures regarding ethical and legal conduct. One could, I suppose, also add Charles Manson to the list, as several members of The Beach Boys believed him to have genuine musical skills and even were willing to pay for demo sessions to record his ramblings onto magnetic tape. If one surveys poets, playwrights, recording artists, composers, sculptures, painters, and the like one can easily find example after example of misanthropic, borderline criminal behavior. The Beat Poets, for example, were a rowdy bunch of social defectives and proud hell-raisers. I believe there to be at least two reasons for this: the prevalence of mental illness is high among the creative and those who perceive of the world around them so acutely and with such unyielding, high sensitivity have a tendency to be unable to know how to guard themselves properly against an unceasing stream of emotion. Some manage to find healthy ways to control and channel this simultaneous blessing and curse and some do not.
My point in all this is neither to defend nor to accuse Polanski for his actions. While I agree that his directorial work has frequently been genius, I don’t feel much of a compulsion to let that fact whitewash the serious crime which he himself has admitted to taking a starring role. The morality of the matter has already been talked to death by voices better connected and more eloquent than mine. I am, however, much more interested in the reasons WHY this matter has come to trial now, after the passage of thirty years. What are the motives this time behind bringing the French/Polish director back to the United States to serve out his sentence? Who truly seeks to gain from this? Whose reputation will be padded by having brought Polanski to justice? Who are the major players, what are their names, and what is their compulsion to prosecute now?
The coverage thus far has been predicated on a very small focus of what could be an enormous matter. That we have not yet been provided with the names of those driving extradition proceedings is telling and likely deliberate. Aside from the diplomatic wrangling between France and United States, the politics and the ulterior motives of this drama have been obscured and unrevealed. That the media seems content to let us talk to death one sole facet amongst ourselves and amongst itself is quite interesting. This either means they have nothing further to go on themselves or are being instructed to not give light to a detailed, complex analysis of the case. When matters of International Law are concerned, complications frequently arise and specific issues remain resolutely thorny. It could also be that precise details of this case will be rolled out one by one over the coming weeks, at which point the media will hash them out to exhaustion, only to be presented latest batch of compelling information.
I myself have grown tired of debating morality as regards Roman Polanski. Polanski’s offense has highlighted how eager we are to forgive significant offenses in our heroes, especially those who have found their way into that small, elite club we call celebrity. I honestly understand those in that tight circle who defends him, because their motives are a result of both self-preservation and sympathy. They’re aware of the obscene pressure of living in a fishbowl and having any shred of privacy destroyed by the effects of a society desperate to poke into their personal business. They understand how easy it is to break down, resort to drug addiction, or come completely unglued under the pressure of the omnipresent white hot spotlight. Moreover, they know how easily reputations can be destroyed by spurious rumors and allegations of misdeed. Even so, they also know that the “Get Out of Jail Free” card often extended to those who have the financial means loses its potency whenever any celebrity is sent to prison, no matter how open and shut the case may be. Viewpoints such as these require us to rethink the idea of fame and acknowledge its impact upon our society and we ourselves.