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Polanski's ragged edges

Polanski A Biography Christopher Sandford Palgrave Macmillan: 388 pp., $29.95

October 16, 2008|Richard Schickel | Special to The Times

AT A certain point in his well-researched, decently written biography of Roman Polanski, Christopher Sandford characterizes his subject as "a permanent alien," which is about as good a summary of the director as you are likely to encounter. This is a life that is powerfully marked by tragedies that would have silenced or destroyed a less energetic, less egotistical man. Sandford does his best to achieve a balance between Polanski's achievements as a director and the scarring events of his life, but those shattering occurrences are what drives his book and our interest in it.

Even those who are only casually interested in the movies know what they are. As a child in World War II, Polanski lost his mother to the Holocaust and lived a wandering survivor's life in Poland that left him permanently suspicious of permanence. He was a cold, selfish and sexually avaricious nomad -- an absurdist largely incapable of intimate relationships -- long before he became a movie director of a peculiarly driven and demanding kind.

His marriage to Sharon Tate appears briefly to have settled him, though it did not entirely cure him of his priapic ways. It is impossible to say how that relationship might have worked out had she not been infamously murdered by the Manson gang in 1969.

Eight years later, he was arrested, accused of the sodomizing rape of a 13-year-old girl while (ostensibly) photographing her for a magazine layout about pubescent females. After a serio-comic confrontation with a judge, who saw Polanski's trial as a high road to celebrity, he fled the United States for Paris, and he remains in permanent exile there.

His body of work

One can, of course, "understand" Polanski's predilections. If one's life has been ruled by the workings of cruel chance, a child-woman, so much more malleable, controllable, than a mature woman, would be -- to some at least -- an irresistible temptation. But to understand is not to forgive, certainly not in the sterner reaches of the American heartland. As for Polanski, he remains unrepentant, maintaining that this was a consensual sexual encounter and implying that laws against statutory rape are hopelessly outdated in a world of vastly changed teenage sexuality.

Maybe so. Maybe not. In any case, some of Polanski's supporters argue that artists ought to be subject to different rules than the rest of us. I'm not so sure about that, either. Or about his place in movie history.

Several people in Sandford's book insist that he's our greatest living director, which perhaps says more about the state of movie authorship at the moment than it does about Polanski's actual achievements. I tend to resist superlatives, but I do think "Chinatown" is an authentically great movie, certainly one of the best ever made in the U.S. -- wonderfully written and played and marked by Polanski's sly yet spacious vision of California as an Eden crawling with reptiles. I think you can, as well, make a case for "The Pianist" as a very good movie, drawing with a sometimes curious tenderness on the director's memories of wartime Poland. But for the rest?

"Rosemary's Baby" is creepy fun, "Tess" is pretty but empty, "Macbeth" is a mess. And that's pretty much the top of Polanski's line -- except for "Knife in the Water" and "Repulsion," which established him as a comer but are not films on which you'd want to stake a reputation.

Almost everything else is genre work, ranging from the acceptable to the nearly unwatchable. It is, putting it mildly, not a masterly filmography. And it is rather a short one -- 17 movies over a 43-year career, ending, for now, in 2005.

Polanski always insisted that he wanted most to be a popular filmmaker and dripped a certain amount of contempt on Jean-Luc Godard and others of the New Wave for harboring grander artistic ambitions than his own. Clearly, he might have made more popular movies had he been free to hustle his way through Hollywood.

A look at his dark side

Absent those relationships, he was often obliged to navigate the tricky waters of international financing for movies that were frequently less than interesting knockoffs of the genuine American articles.

Curiously, I don't think he would have settled down in the U.S. even if he had been permitted to do so. History rendered him permanently restless, rootless and -- his best quality -- a lifelong questioner of our comfortable middle-class assumptions about the continuity and predictability of life.

One could, of course, argue that the passion Polanski invested in his work derives from his sense of existential provisionality. A movie is something that, at least theoretically, can be controlled by a director in ways that history (and one's own psycho-sexual needs) cannot.

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