Carnage, and what it means for The Polanski Problem

Tuesday November 22nd 2011

Can an artist’s work ever truly be separated from their private life, and more specifically, their crimes? In practice, it usually depends upon the quality of the work. Michael Jackson’s music has already — just two years after his death — largely eclipsed his colourful legal history, whereas ‘Another Rock N’ Roll Christmas’ has so far failed to alter the downward trajectory of Gary Glitter’s public persona. But let’s be honest: they both fucked kids.

As did Roman Polanski. Convicted in 1977 of drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl, Polanski fled to France and has lived there ever since, steadfastly avoiding visits to countries likely to extradite him to the United States. You can read the widely-available grand jury testimony from his trial if you’re in any doubt as to the severity of his crimes.

In the 34 years since, Polanski has received an Oscar, a Bafta, a Palme d’Or and a cameo in Rush Hour 3. And while he’s never quite escaped the stigma that tends to accompany a rape conviction, it’s evolved into something of an industry joke — an amusing counterpoint to his reputation as one of the Great Directors. It’s become almost uncool to be properly anti-Polanski, and an air of ‘oh, get over it’ tends to hang over the comments section of any feminist blog or similar that dares to question Hollywood’s astonishing complacency towards the issue.

Reactions from Polanski’s peers are just as noncommittal now as they were in the 1970s. They range from the evasive — Ewan McGregor called him a ‘legendary director’ but declined to comment on the charges ‘because it has nothing to do with me’ — to the offensively deluded — Whoopi Goldberg maintains that ‘it wasn’t rape-rape’ — to the downright apologist — 110 filmmaking luminaries including Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and Woody Allen (*cough*) signed a petition calling for Polanski’s pardon in this ‘case of morals’. Few satirists would have the audacity to dream up a Hollywood in which almost nobody of any significant stature is willing to condemn the rape of a 13-year-old girl, but that’s been exactly the situation for more than three decades now.

An interesting point of comparison is comedian Chris Langham who, despite serving time for his crimes, remains something of a pariah in the British film industry, having only recently returned to acting after a six-year hiatus. In his own words, “I did something wrong and I got sent to prison. It was appropriate.” Polanski, meanwhile, remains unrepentant about his crime and lack of punishment. In an interview with Martin Amis conducted two years after the conviction, he offered only the explanation that ‘everybody wants to fuck little girls’.

In the time that I’ve been writing Ultra Culture, Polanski has released only one movie: last year’s abysmal neo-noir thriller The Ghost. My utter lack of interest in the film made it easy to sidestep the whole ‘can we separate the art from the artist?’ debate, which was left to a few hardcore devotees. In that respect it was the Gary Glitter of Polanski’s recent career — but now he’s made the Michael Jackson. Carnage is a taut, laugh-out-loud comedy with four solid performances from Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster and Christoph Waltz. And it’s good. Very good. So what are we, as a society of movie-loving but hopefully rape-averse individuals, to do?

Here’s my proposition: from this point onwards (until Polanski agrees to face sentencing) all reviews, posters and other marketing materials for his films must be accompanied by a Surgeon General-style warning, featuring quotes from the infamous rape trial. So you’ll be able to see Carnage wherever and whenever you like — and indeed you should: it’s great — but bear in mind that you will have to walk past this poster in the foyer:

Ball’s in your court, Roman.