Thursday, January 07, 2010

Bernard-Henri Lévy, Roman Polanski, and why I read The New Yorker in preference to The Australian ...

(Above: Roman Polanski at the Munich Oktoberfest in September 1977, a photograph that angered the judge in his case, Judge Rittenband).

Before wandering off to the end of year break, I'd thought vaguely about mentioning Jeffrey Toobin's article Annals of Law, The Celebrity Defense, in The New Yorker of December 14th, 2009.

Unfortunately it's behind the NY paywall, and it requires either a subscription or hard copy to access the text in full. But it does provide a full and detailed survey of the Roman Polanski affair, and without any special pleading in relation to Polanski or the many other players involved in the case.

Of course so-called objective articles usually hide some kind of subjectivity, but it provides an interesting contrast to the rant provided by Bernard-Henri Lévy, and thoughtfully published by The Australian today in Polanski already in prison but show must go on.

As a way of conclusively proving you're better off subscribing to The New Yorker than subscribing to the editorial selections of Chairman Rupert's minions.

Lévy - whom I like to think of as a Paris-Match philosopher - doesn't worry about quaint notions of balance. He pulls out every stop in rooting for his aesthetic hero:

The 76-year-old director, wanted for sentencing in the US for an act of unlawful intercourse with a minor committed more than 30 years ago, remains under house arrest and is compelled to wear an electronic ankle bracelet, a deep humiliation that compounds an infamy.

The infamy is too much for the sobbing Lévy.

This man and his family are forced to live in the shadows because a squad of photographers spies on him constantly, peering through half-open shutters or curtains, watching for any sign of life. They're there, posted on a knoll or behind the bushes, where they'll have a better viewpoint and - why not - shooting angle?

Freed from jail, Polanski is now a prisoner of the Society of the Spectacle, harassed by the mob. This must stop. Polanski, and the world, must be allowed to wake up from this nightmare.

The world must be allowed to wake from this nightmare? Well I guess if you wanted to present a stereotypical image of an hysterical cheese-eating surrender monkey French public intellectual, you'd lead with this kind of exaggeration.

If you haven't come across Bernard-Henri Lévy, as usual the wiki provides a nice quick and rough overview here.

But back to the special pleading:

For this to occur, the people of Switzerland will need to listen, understand and get hold of themselves. A country where one condemned to a life sentence is often free after 15 years cannot hunt down a man, then incarcerate, persecute and humiliate him for an act of unlawful intercourse with a minor committed 30 years ago.

If you say it quickly enough and repeat it a couple of times - an act of unlawful intercourse with a minor committed 30 years ago - it sounds so much better than drug and alcohol fuelled case of anal rape of a minor, plea bargained down to a single charge of felony statutory rape.

Well I guess Polanski needs support, but does the fevered ramblings of Bernard-Henri Lévy help the cause?

Without going into detail, I sense a growing ambivalence in this country that set a trap for Polanski - which led to his arrest and imprisonment in September - and abused his trust.

Now Switzerland may be beginning to realise the absurdity of the situation.

Every day Polanski receives bundles of letters of support from ordinary citizens. His neighbours constantly offer concrete proof of their solidarity and compassion, along with expressions of regret and apology.

Oh my, keep those cards and letters rolling in folks. Along with the rhetoric.

In the Swiss media, Polanski is no longer treated entirely as a diseased being, a pariah, a criminal against humanity. There are many journalists, editorialists and columnists who now find it strange that a man who felt at home in their country, who spent his winters and many vacations here for decades, could suddenly be treated like a terrorist.

A terrorist? You mean home detention in Switzerland in a chalet, surrounded by his family, able to meet defenders and friends, and fully equipped to complete his current feature film is a rough equivalent to being locked up in Guantanamo Bay detention camp?

Well as someone relatively neutral in the matter of Polanski, it's interesting to see how this kind of rhetorical excess can get up the nose, and result in a wish that - no matter how the Polanski matter is resolved - Lévy should be prosecuted for wilful exaggeration, absurd language and egregious distortion:

Will the Swiss judges who must determine the validity of the extradition request listen to the murmurs of public opinion? Will the Federal Office of Justice, which instigated Polanski's arrest, realise what a mistake it has made? Will it become aware of the lasting stain of dishonour its actions carry, the implicit insult to Switzerland's traditions of acceptance and refuge? To do so would be to follow the path of wisdom and reason. Strangely enough, I have hope that they will.

Yep, he's still at it. The language thing. The lasting stain of dishonour? The implicit insult to Switzerland's traditions of acceptance and refuge? What, to money, deviant bankers, finishing schools for schoolgirls, chocolates and cuckoo clocks? And Nazi gold? (Oops, Godwin's Law swear jar off to a good start this new year).

As Toobin makes clear - and Polanski himself - special pleading can go only so far. Like Charles Chaplin, and a number of other Hollywood personalities, Polanski had form with young girls, and saw nothing wrong with it:

In an interview two years after the crime, with Martin Amis, Polanski spoke in even blunter terms: "When I was being driven to the police station from the hotel, the car radio was already talking about it ... I couldn't believe ... I thought, you know, I was going to wake up from it. I realize, if I have killed somebody, it wouldn't have so much appeal to the press, you see? But ... fucking, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls --- everyone wants to fuck young girls!"

And when in Gstaad, that's what Polanski did:

... in the late sixties, Polanski discovered that Gstaad was, he wrote in an autobiography, "the finishing school capital of the world (with) hundreds of fresh-faced, nubile young girls of all nationalities." At the time, "Kathy, Madeleine, Sylvia and others whose names I forget played a fleeting but therapeutic role in my life. They were all between sixteen and nineteen years old ... They took to visiting my chalet, not necessarily to make love - though some of them did - but to listen to rock music and sit around the fire and talk." He described sitting in his car outside the schools at night, waiting for his "date" to climb out over the balcony after role call. At this age, Polanski wrote, the girls "were more beautiful, in a natural coltish way, than they ever would be again."

But back to Lévy:

As for Polanski, I feel compelled to say just one thing, something I find to be incredibly amazing, impressive and moving. Throughout this ordeal, Polanski has continued to work. The director spends his days and nights finishing his latest film.

As unusual as it may seem, Polanski seems less concerned about the incubi, succubi and vampires swirling around him, trying to break him, than about the characters who will people a film to be called "The Ghost Writer." To him, the movie's characters are much more alive than the spectres and the living dead who harass him in real life.

Yep, take your pick. Now we're either in the Night of the Living Dead or Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Or perhaps even The Fearless Vampire Killers.

Can one actually finish a film this way? Check the colour at a distance? Cut a frame or a half-second of sound over the telephone? Without being there, and from the depths of what remains a prison, can one rework a sky, reframe a smile, rewrite an emotion? Can one transform a work into material reality through imagination and ideas?

By golly, if only Lévy had been around to plead the cause of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Oh okay, if you insist, another buck in the Godwin's Law swear jar.

If that person is Polanski, the answer is yes. This uncompromising, indomitable being has been through the circles of hell and endured every ordeal destiny can inflict, yet has managed to remain the person he has always been.

This film, if it is the great work I believe it will be, will serve as proof from the award-winning director. It will be Notes from the Underground anew, a lesson in courage and truth from Polanski.

Now we're with Dostoyevsky? House arrest in a nicely appointed Swiss chalet is a rough equivalent to the bitter ramblings of a retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg? Lordy, my understanding of Notes from Underground is clearly lacking. But anyway, let's hope it doesn't turn into a show like The Pirate, which proved that Polanski was capable of making duds along with the remarkable Chinatown.

Never mind. What's interesting here is the contrast between Lévy's special pleading from a European sensibility and the zero tolerance, 'he did the crime, he does the time' approach of certain Americans operating from a Puritan worldview.

Toobin, who finds time in his lengthy essay to look at the eccentric judge Ritterband, and the culture of the Hollywood scene, gets to the nub of it:

Bernard Henry-Lévy organized another petition, drawing support from Steven Soderbergh, Neil Jordan, Sam Mendes, Diane von Furstenberg, and Mike Nichols as well as Salman Rushdie and Milan Kundera. This one said, "We ask the Swiss courts to free him immediately and not to turn this ingenious filmmaker into a martyr of a politico-legal imbroglio that is unworthy of two democracies like Switzerland and the United States. Good sense, as well as honor, require it." Nicholas Sarkozy, the French President, called Polanski's arrest "not a good administration of justice." The producer Harvey Weinstein wrote about Polanski's "so-called crime."

With equal rapidity, an anti-Polanski backlash swept in. The petitions made no reference to the facts of the case, no acknowledgment of the seriousness of his crime, and no recognition that sex with a child - the rape of a child - was worthy of condemnation. Columnists across the political spectrum, from feminists on the left to conservatives on the right, found common cause in revulsion at both Polanski and his famous friends. Katha Pollitt wrote in The Nation, "It's enraging that literary superstars who go on and on about human rights, and even women's rights (at least when the women are Muslim) either don't see what Polanski did as rape, or don't care, because he is, after all, Polanski - an artist like themselves." The Wall Street Journal's drama critic wrote, "Anyone who lives in a tightly sealed echo chamber of self-congratulation, surrounded by yes-men who are dedicated to doing what he wants, is bound to lose touch with reality." Polanski's public supporters, from Sarkozy to Weinstein, decided to discuss the matter no further. In the court of public opinion, the backlash won. The legalities were left to the Swiss courts.

Well as a further late breaking arrival in the antipodes, Lévy's current article does little to help Polanski's cause - not when words like infamy, terrorist, incubi, succubi, vampires, spectres and the living dead are flung around like French confetti.

And it seems if you want an in-depth background to a story, head off to The New Yorker, and forsake The Australian. That way you might be able to start thinking, again.

(Below: Samantha Gailey, Polanski's victim).

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