When is a law, not a law? When you are a celebrity and have a body of work behind you which labels you a major world artist.
That is the divine word that came down the pike this week after a petition, signed by some of the world’s most accomplished directors, actors and producers demanded that the director Roman Polanski be released from Swiss custody. He is held after being apprehended in that country for the commission of a 32 -year -old crime of statutory rape in the United States.
The petition is long on names of men and women from whom we might have expected better. French intellectuals Claude Lanzmann and Bernard Henri Levy, two men who have made names for themselves in defending victims of outrageous crimes, signed this petition. So did Pedro Almodovar whose Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down caused an international uproar with its trivialization of rape. And so did Salman Rushdie, who actually committed no crime but was nonetheless on the run for years from an adversary vowed to his elimination.
Where, I wonder , were these same tribunes of morality after the decapitation of Dutch documentary film maker Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam five years ago by a knife wielding jihadist? Were they as overwhelmed with indignation when that filmmaker lost his life for no other reason than speaking his mind? Unfortunately the majority of the same cognoscenti,(Rushdie apart),so vocal in support of a rapist and pedophile, could not bring themselves to mumble much of a response to this unfathomably serious crime.
Polanski certainly has many friends – not just in the film industry but among the elites of Europe. He is the ultimate cosmopolitan and a renowned charmer. That perhaps accounts for a great deal of his support. It would be difficult indeed to ignore the plight of a member of your own circle – particularly a man whose work you admire and whose freedom to produce more masterpieces should, you believe, be protected – the same as you would receive should you find yourself in a similar predicament.
But this should not cloak reality. Polanski is an international fugitive whose crime was not simply to ply his 13-year-old victim with drugs and alcohol before sexually assaulting her. Nor was it just that he skipped bail and spent 32 years on the lam. His true crime is that he never took responsibility for any of it. He never apologized for the actions that might have ruined the life of the young girl in question; He has never acknowledged that he then consciously re-established his own life of glamour and artistic success as an effective bulwark against the reach of the U.S. justice system.
Instead he did quite the opposite. In 1979, in an interview with the British author Martin Amis, published in Tatler Magazine, he sought to exculpate his actions by declaring himself an everyman who merely did what everyone else wants to do: “If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But… f—ing, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to f— young girls. Juries want to f— young girls. Everyone wants to f— young girls!”
This implied Lolita Syndrome does not exactly have its feet firmly planted in hard empirical data and personally I can’t remember ever experiencing or harboring such a desire. If it holds true at all, it is only in that rarefied world of celebrity where ennui and tedium encourages the pursuit of any new thrill.
Which brings us to the question that must be asked – not about the correctness of the man’s extradition, but about the nature of the crime itself. What led a 44- year-old man, lionized as one of the great filmmakers of his era , who sported the reputation of being able to seduce almost any woman of his fancy, decide to prey on a minor who had no resources to protect herself and only a thin understanding of what Polanski was demanding of her?
The answer is that to a man like Polanski, who had personally witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust and experienced the murder of his wife and her friends in one of the most gruesome crimes in American history, rules and conventional modes of personal conduct represent meaningless restrictions on personal freedom. To seduce a minor might have seemed to him the ultimate thrill – not because the experience itself would be so elevating, but because Polanski, like many contemporary entertainment, sporting and political personalities, is driven by his sense of personal power. For men such as Polanski, the ultimate challenge is not to seduce a particular girl or boy, but to defy convention – to add one more shattered barrier to their scorecard, as if it is proof of personal invincibility.
In some ways Polanski’s case bares a striking resemblance to another long term fugitive who similarly evaded justice. Ronald Biggs was a part of the conspiracy that resulted in the largest train heist in British history known as The Great Train Robbery. While his co-conspirators were eventually apprehended, the wily Biggs fled the country, becoming a high profile (and much sought after) fugitive in Rio de Janeiro where he spent forty years foiling kidnapping attempts, raising a new family and proving that the law enforcement arm of the United Kingdom was no match for his guile.
But late in life Biggs recognized that the glamorous life of an international fugitive carried unexpected burdens of conscience. In 2001, nearly forty years after the commission of the crime, sick and beaten, he gave himself up to British authorities. Many reasons have been offered for Biggs’ decision , among them the availability of free British health care, ensuing poverty and pure homesickness. But Biggs’ case perhaps tends to prove that one might be able to run from the law indefinitely but one cannot run from his own sense of guilt.
One of the main reasons fugitives such as Roman Polanski and Ronald Biggs remain fascinating is precisely because of their ability to evade the law. Just as murderers, thieves and hatchet men such as Al Capone, Jesse James and the Australian bushranger Ned Kelly have had legends spun from their confrontations with the law, so too Polanski and Biggs only added to their notoriety by successfully dodging their pursuers. Living lives of celebrity, continuing to brazenly seduce women and attracting an ever flowing audience of international visitors, their plights became the stuff of legend, their stature elevated to that of the heroic. They became poster boys for the ineffectiveness of Western law and the ease with which it can be flouted.
For that reason, the extradition of Roman Polanski is an important test case for the West. Already four separate countries are involved in the tussle over Polanski’s fate. Both the French and the Polish governments (of which the filmmaker is a dual citizen) at first expressed outrage at the arrest but have since lowered the volume on their protests. Perhaps they realize it is not just the U.S justice system which is being mocked, but also their own.
As for the potentates of political correctness, those petitioners who see the need to circle the wagons around one of their own, no matter his culpability for a crime, they too may come to understand exactly what is at stake. A glimmer of this was seen when the Wall Street Journal this Friday quoted Kevin Smith , the writer-director of Chasing Amy and Clerks. “ Look, I dig Rosemary’s Baby but rape’s rape. Do the crime, do the time.” Actress Kirstie Alley wrote on Twitter “Just for the record….rape is rape…this is one Hollywood star who does not celebrate or defend Roman Polanski..His ART did not rape her.”
You can bet that there are thousands of other Hollywood mums and dads out there who are looking at their 13- year- old daughters and recognizing exactly how they would have reacted if Samantha Geimer had been their own child. No niceties about Polanski’s great service to mankind. No refrences to the long passage of time nor the forgiveness doled out by the victim. Polanski’s act was a crime against not one person but against American society and our commonly held Western values.
And for that his punishment is long overdue.