Thursday 23 November 2017

The Roman Polanski Rule

My expression on reading Polanski's Wikipedia page. 
(First, I need to say that my writing here has faced another setback, with the death of my hard drive. I'm in the process of getting a new one and I've backed up everything but typing without a computer is hard. In fact, I'm typing up this post with my thumbs, on an Xperia XA1 Ultra. Sorry about that.)

It's come to this. Do you have secret rules you don't talk about? Is this just me? See, I have a Roman Polanski Rule.

So. It's been genuinely fun to find myself writing about films for this last year or so, and I've seen loads of films I've found enjoyable and stimulating as a result. I love this stuff. Now, around the beginning of this year, I started getting traction. The readership of my posts rose from the dozens to the hundreds, and on occasion to the thousands, and with that came the comments (mostly on the social media, not here), and the comments I like to receive most are the ones that suggest movies.  "Have you seen The Babadook?" Or, "How about Tombs of the Blind Dead?" or "I'd really like to see what you think of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea." And sometimes I can say, sure, that's an amazing idea, and sometimes I'll explain why I won't be looking at that one (for example, I don't much care for zombie movies), and occasionally I can go, I've written about that one already and here's a link.

But more than once now, someone has mentioned one or more of Rosemary's Baby, The Ninth Gate and Repulsion, each of which fits neatly into one of the various categories of film I've been writing about.

And at least two of them are in their own way important films. I've seen two of them (and I'm not likely to see the third), and the ones I've seen I thought were good films. They deserve analysis on their own merits. But they break the Roman Polanski Rule.

The Roman Polanski Rule, which is a rule I impose on myself and no one else, is this: if the most significant mover of a film is generally considered to be a horrendous villain, enough that it's the first thing any responsible critic writes about him (and it's always a him), I won't write about it. 

And those three films break the rule in the most literal way possible, since they are films directed by Roman Polanski. 

Roman Polanski has, as you probably know, been unable to return to the USA since 1978, since he absconded after having admitted to the crime of having drugged and raped a child of 13. This is not the only example of his monstrousness as a man, but it is certainly the deal breaker in terms of working with him. Except it isn't, because he carried on making films in exile, and winning Oscars in absentia for them, and people like Adrien Brody and Harrison Ford continued to work with him, and you have to wonder how he manages to get not just the permission to have people spend millions of pounds funding his movies, but the respect of his peers. You have to wonder what sort of people run the film industry (that's sarcasm, obviously. You know what sort of people run the film industry). 

Polanski's awfulness is such that it extends back beyond that vanishing point of 1978 and to his older films, though (and allegations about his having sexually assaulted women go back to 1970). Rosemary's Baby in particular is about a woman who is raped with the collusion of her husband and made to carry the child of her rapist to term. Repulsion, too, has a rape in it and is more or less entirely about a woman's trauma caused by men. Both films deal with women violated. You can't ignore it. 

If I claimed I didn't ever write about films directed by, produced by, or starring awful people, I would be lying. It's entirely valid to write a critical approach to a piece of media made by someone awful. You can do that. You should do that. You need to grapple with it, in all its awfulness. I want to grapple with it.

It's hypocrisy anyway to make out like this is a moral stance; that's a self-serving move, as if I'm imagining patting myself on the back and going "look at me, and look at my strong ethical support for all the women I haven't sexually assaulted," as if I'm somehow deserving of a medal for fulfilling a baseline expectation of being a functioning human, and I can make sure everyone knows it because I'm making the incredible, heroic step of choosing not to write essays about a couple of films and telling everyone why. Well done me. 

No. Really, no. It's a recognition that films exist that I'm simply not equipped to write about, since it's just not possible to write about a film that's essentially about rape and a woman's response to rape (or, more accurately, a woman's response to rape as mediated through the eye of a man) in any depth, without addressing the self-admitted child rapist in the room. That fact swamps any meaningful or interesting subtext the film might have. It contaminates the text, it stinks it out. 

And it drags all discourse to the same place. In this case – and note the emphasis – I can't separate the art and the artist because the body of discourse surrounding the work of the man doesn't allow it. What he did is literally the only detailed biographical note in the first paragraph of his Wikipedia page. It is the single most significant biographical detail of the man (arguably, anyway: the other one is about where he wasn't on 9th August 1969). It's not actually possible for me to write about these films, as good on their own terms as they are, without succumbing to the gravity of their director's vile reputation. I can't write anything new or interesting about films like this because I either have to pass that over and pretend I didn't know, in which case I'm being dishonest and, by silence, condoning something terrible, or I address it and wind up writing the same. damn. thing. as every other critic and don't even write about the film because even trying to write about the film becomes, whether I want it to or not, an essay about what an awful man Roman Polanski is. 

So I have to throw my hands up and admit defeat. And that's the Roman Polanski Rule: an admission that I'm not strong enough a writer to solve the problem. It has me beat.