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Roman Polanski, through his own lens

October 05, 2009|Reed Johnson | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Director Roman Polanski (at right with actor Adrien Brody) on the set of "The Pianist."
Director Roman Polanski (at right with actor Adrien Brody) on the set of… (Guy Ferrandis / Focus Features )

The director's movies, such as his Oscar-winning 2002 film 'The Piano,' may reflect his world view on morality and the role of the artist in society. |Reed Johnson

Should great artists be treated differently from ordinary mortals? Does a musician, painter, writer or filmmaker who creates soul-stirring and sublime works deserve a free pass, special dispensation, a get-out-of-jail card, so to speak?

I raise these questions in regard to Roman Polanski, the French-Polish director who soon may be extradited back to Los Angeles to face the consequences of a crime he committed in 1977, then fled from -- but not in connection to his sordid legal situation.

Rather, these are questions that Polanski addresses himself in "The Pianist,"(2002_film) his 2002 film about the brilliant Jewish-Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman. Through a combination of his own intelligence and animal guile, and other people's (mainly) good intentions, Szpilman somehow was able to survive the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II(1939) while millions around him perished.

"The Pianist" is a haunting drama that won Polanski the Oscar for best director. It may be the most emphatic and comprehensive statement on the human condition from a director whose career has generated "Knife in the Water" (1962), "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), "Chinatown" (1974) and "The Tenant" (1976).

So what is "The Pianist" saying about moral behavior, and the role of the artist in society? And what, if anything, can be inferred from it about the moral vision of the complex, controversial man who directed it?

Polanski's vision of the ethical laws governing the universe is anything but reassuring. In his movies, justice and logic ultimately have little to do with an individual's fate. Crime and punishment are dished out more or less arbitrarily. Survival is fluky, freakish and often paid for with drastic moral compromises.

His sensibility unmistakably stamps Polanski as a postwar European auteur, heir to the existential musings of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, as he has acknowledged. His absurdist view of existence, combined with his meticulous sense of craft, renders his movies cold to the touch, not warm and fuzzy, in the preferred Hollywood manner.

The key elements of Polanski's personal narrative hardly need repeating. But in sum they remain shocking and disturbing: his youthful escape from the Krakow ghetto while his parents were sent to Nazi extermination camps (only his father survived); the sadistic murder of his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, by members of the Manson gang in 1969; and his conviction for having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, the case for which he is still a wanted man in Los Angeles.

That's a lifeline that, in the abstract, sounds as surreal as almost anything Polanski has cooked up in his films. If an agent pitched it to a roomful of studio executives, they might dismiss it as too improbable to play in Peoria.

Yet Polanski's life story has long been catnip to movie critics and armchair Freudians looking for clues to interpreting his films. It practically could be a parlor game: Can you spot the director's true self in his movies? At times, Polanski has appeared to encourage such speculation by appearing in many of his films. He played the title character in "The Tenant," an isolated Polish exile living in Paris who arouses the irrational suspicions, fears and eventually the pathological loathing of his neighbors. In "Chinatown" he cast himself as a vicious "midget" (Polanski is short) who slices open the nose of private eye Jake Gittes ( Jack Nicholson) right when he's stumbling on the truth behind a very dark secret.

"Granted that it's too easy and a cliche to connect your work with your life in such a direct manner," the Australian critic Clive James demurs to Polanski in the opening frames of "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," the probing documentary by director Marina Zenovich that first aired on HBO last year. But if, as James suggests, it would be flippant to draw glib clinical conclusions about Polanski (or any auteur) based on the content of his or her movies, it would be obtuse not to take note of some of the ghastly parallels between the facts of Polanski's life and the shadow worlds of his films.

Pauline Kael, longtime film critic of the New Yorker, perceived shades of the Manson Family's slayings in the gruesomely staged slaughter of Lady Macduff and her entourage in Polanski's "The Tragedy of Macbeth" (1971). In its online biography of the director, the New York Times asserts that "the tawdry details of Mr. Polanski's behavior" in the sex-crime case, some of which were revealed in grand jury testimony made public only a few years ago, "were matched by accounts of official wrongdoing that occasionally seemed to mirror the tone" of the civic dirty dealings of the 1930s portrayed in " Chinatown."

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