Opinion: What do we think of Roman Polanski's films now?
How we appreciate the work of controversial artists
An upcoming BFI retrospective dedicated to filmmaker the director raises the question of how to appreciate the work of controversial artists
With two of his most important films, 1965’s Repulsion and 1974’s Chinatown, heading for re-release, the question looms: how do we feel about the films of Roman Polanski now? The same as we would have had he not, a few years after making Chinatown, pled guilty to unlawful sex with a minor and fled the United States to avoid jail time? Or different?
With Polanski still in exile, many takes on the Polanski case have emerged. The ‘it was different in the 70s’ defence is popular, as is the ‘but he’s a genius’ defence, often used in concert with the ‘he had a really hard life’ argument. Even if you disdain such special pleading (much of which can be sharply undercut by the ‘and had it been your daughter?’ counter-strike), it takes only the most cursory research – or a viewing of the 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired – to recognise that the original court case was immeasurably flawed. But guilty as hell, a little bit guilty, or a victim of circumstance, Polanski is now one of those artists whose body of work is hard to separate from the drama of his life. If the reputation of someone whose work has profound resonance to you is altered, can you hang on to your fandom?
I just read a blog post by an American mother who won’t take her kids to see Wreck-It Ralph because one of the voice actors, John C Reilly, has worked with Polanski. Plenty of online zealots have similar proscriptions against Woody Allen, who caused a collective ‘EEW’ when he married his ex-partner’s adopted daughter, sister to his own biological and adopted kids. One blogger lumps the two together, as ‘artists whose work I can’t in good conscience enjoy.’
Specifics of those cases aside, is it a matter of conscience to reject good work by bad people? I love Phil Spector, and he shot a woman in the face: is ‘Be My Baby’ now bloodstained into perpetuity? It’s hard to say you like Wagner without people assuming you’re a Nazi. Or Robert Wagner, come to that, without someone muttering that he knows what happened to Natalie Wood.
Bad people often make it easy on us by being bad artists: few mourn Hitler’s painting career, nor hand-wring over the tainted artistic legacy of Jimmy Savile. I’m not aligning Polanski morally with either of those people, by the way. But we do like to believe that the people whose work we love would be personally lovable to us too: that good art somehow stems from goodness. And that’s an odd assumption. It doesn’t take many potted biographies to notice that the most creative, the most original minds have not tended to be the most stable. It doesn’t help Samantha Geimer that Chinatown is a masterpiece, but it didn’t stop being one when Polanski did what he did. Comfort isn’t what we look to art or artists for – but art is one way in to the mystery of someone else’s consciousness. So maybe it becomes even more enriching to look at and listen to the art, once the artist has spun off the rails.
Hannah McGill is a writer and film critic and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. A retrospective of the films of Roman Polanski comes to the Filmhouse, Edinburgh in Jan 2013.