A Superior Court judge in LA told Roman Polanski yesterday he could challenge his original sentencing judge’s behaviorâ€”if he surrendered first. Salon just published a piece of mine on the ruling here.
The LAT runs a typically unquestioning laudatory piece about the director of Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired; the star-struck documentarian, who ignored many facts in her largely smoke-blowing film, can speak with some authority.
I watched the movie again recently and was struck by how detached Zenovich stays from the victim, and how it undermines her in subtle ways.
The tone is set early on, when a friend of Polanski’s tells of being woken up and informed that the director had been arrested. It’s played for laughs, with interspersed shots of Mia Farrow on the phone from Rosemary’s Baby.
That film is about a scared and abused woman, but the scene isn’t about the girl Polanski assaulted; it’s about poor Roman. It’s an odd juxtaposition when you think about it.
Then, the friend is allowed to say something to the effect of, “Rape? Roman would never rape anyone!” Here, Zenovich is playing with the fungible definition of rape; I doubt Roman Polanski would “rape” anyone in the sense of the word the friend was using, meaning he didn’t follow a woman down the street and grab her in an alley.
If Zenovich wasn’t tipping the scales in Polanski’s favor, she could have asked the guy, “Well, what about statutory rape? Could you imagine him doing that?”
Previously in Hitsville:
The NYT story on Roman Polanski’s absurd ongoing legal attempt to get his child-sex conviction overturned continues many papers’ Polanski-centric view of the case.
The story is interesting for two reasons. One, while superficially making clear that Polanski is a fugitive and had been convicted, it’s told throughout as if something strange is afoot.
Although this is happening long after Mr. Polanski admitted guilt in the original incident, the effort has raised uncomfortable questions about how justice operates in a legal system that has never quite come to terms with Hollywood, despite this cityâ€™s long, and growing, list of famous malefactors.
Emphasis added. As we have seen myriad times, the chief “uncomfortable question” raised by such cases is how rich and famous people manage to get off most of the time. Here, Polanski didn’t, so he skipped town, and hasn’t exactly been living off the land since. The legal issues Polanski has been trying to raise are largely invented, and even if they weren’t Polanski had the money to pursue an appeal. But he didn’t appeal; he left town.
Yet Mr. Polanskiâ€™s case has only become more troubling over the years. That happened as tawdry details of his behavior â€” some of them described in grand jury testimony that was made public only in 2002 â€” were matched by accounts of official wrongdoing that occasionally seemed to mirror the tone, if not quite the magnitude, of dealings portrayed in Mr. Polanskiâ€™s Los Angeles noir classic, â€œChinatown.â€
Note how this “uncomfortable” case has become “troubling.” We’ll get back to the tawdry details in a minute, but let’s take a look at the Chinatown-like wrongdoing. Since Chinatown involved murder, massive fraud, suborning of governmental processes, and one rococo scene of nostril-splitting, even something not quite of that magnitude seems promising. “Among other things,” the Times tells us,
… Mr. Wells [a prosecutor], in an interview in the film, said he prodded Judge Rittenband with a photograph of Mr. Polanski in the company of two girls, taken in Germany before the sentencing. â€œâ€˜Judge,â€™ I said, â€˜Look here. Heâ€™s flipping you off,â€™Â â€ Mr. Wells recalled.
Mr. Wells has also recalled that the remark was routine and that he said it in open court, but the Times story doesn’t say that. Not very Chinatown-esque. The risibly one-sided HBO film, incidentally, spends a lot of time trying to explain away the photo of what seemed to be Polanksi having a very gay time in a German beer hall. The film fell off my tivo so I don’t have it available right now, but I’m not sure that the Times’ use of the word “girls” in that passage is correct, unless the paper is using it in a Polanskian, continental sort of way.
(Incidentally, while the HBO film tried to portray the judge as something of a buffoon, it didn’t tell viewers that he was smart enough to have entered Harvard Law at 15 years of age.)
The other matters in the case seem small as well, as Polanski’s lawyers have seized upon this or that word in email messages from the court in an effort to divert attention to the main issue in the case, which are that he’s a fugitive and that fugitives don’t get to dictate terms when they finally get hauled back before a judge.
Finally, those “tawdry details”: The story ends with these grafs, the first time I think that a major U.S. paper details exactly what Polanski was accused of, emphasis added.
If anything, the case may have become more difficult to resolve over time. The sexual abuse of minors has become a more potent concern, and the recently released details of Mr. Polanskiâ€™s relationship with Ms. Geimer cast a particularly sordid light on the incident. By her account before grand jurors at the time, Ms. Geimer was plied with alcohol and Quaaludes, and objected repeatedly as she was subjected to vaginal and anal sex.
The details were not “recently released,” incidentally, and the story doesn’t mention that the documentary didn’t detail these charges either.Â And note how the writer lets Polanski’s attorney get the last word:
For the elder Mr. Dalton, who urged Mr. Polanski to pursue redress after reviewing the documentary, however, the issue turned from the original crime to questions about the way authorities here handled it.
â€œThis case before the court is not about him,â€ Mr. Dalton said. â€œIt is about the criminal justice system in Los Angeles County.â€
Dalton was given a lot of time in the documentary to spin wildly for Polanski, so it’s not surprising that he managed to convince himself that he was correct after seeing it.
And again, the issue is framed in a way that’s kind to the director. A more detached account might go, “Polanski’s attorneys, in the HBO documentary and in the time since, have been trying to keep the focus off the crimes the director was accused of and on whatever challenges they were making at the time to the proceedings.”
Previously in Hitsville:
The fugitive director is continuing to use the HBO documentary that comically distorted the facts of his case as grounds that his child-sex conviction be set aside. A new motion was filed in LA yesterday.Â I don’t care about Polanski personally, but the media coverage of the case continues to gloss over what exactly the director did and the crazy stuff in the documentary.
The LAT says he was accused of “unlawful sex with a minor”; the NYT says it was “statutory rape.” That’s the impression you get if you watch Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, the HBO doc. In reality, Polanski doped the girl with liquor and a Quaalude, had sex with her, and then anally raped her.
The girl, as the papers describe in detail, has forgiven Polanski, and again I personally don’t care what happens to him. But the affair remains a case study in how the bad journalism of that documentary begets more bad journalism.
The LAT is particularly credulous with Polanksi’s attorneys’ claims:
The request to dismiss the charge, which took court officials and prosecutors by surprise, is based on revelations in a documentary broadcast in June on HBO. The film, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” portrayed the legal proceeding as hopelessly tainted by backroom dealings between a vindictive judge and a deputy district attorney meddling in his colleagues’ case.
Actually, the film tried to smear the judge with extralegal issues and raised one or two actual, if minor, legal points, one notably involving interactions between the original judge in the case and one of the prosecutors. The prosecutor, David Wells, has said the communications were routine. In any case, it’s hard to see how they “hopelessly tainted” a case that featured a 13-year-old girl telling police, “He stuck his penis in my butt.”
Further, the LAT story presents the issue of whether Polanski needed to appear in court (and thus be taken into custody) this way, emphasis added:
Whether Polanski must appear in court to ask for the dismissal appeared to be in dispute. As a fugitive, he would be arrested upon arriving on U.S. soil. A court spokesman said that in past attempts to settle the case — including the failed 1997 negotiation — Polanski’s presence in Los Angeles was required.
“It has been the court’s position consistently for several years that in order to pursue dismissal, or sentencing, Mr. Polanski must personally appear,” court spokesman Allan Parachini said in an e-mail.
The district attorney’s office agreed. “We believe that if he is a party to the action, he should be here,” Gibbons said.
But Polanski’s lawyers suggested in court papers that the judge could toss the charge on his own initiative without ever hearing from Polanski.
“In dispute” doesn’t seem to me to be the bon mot for a situation in which both a court and a prosecutor’s office have taken a position. The Polanski attorneys can wish that a judge will change that position, but that doesn’t make the matter “in dispute.”
Previously in Hitsville:
John Cooper writes:
Iâ€™m unconvinced. Bill, you wrote in your first post on this subject that it was irrelevant that the judge had two girlfriends – you even went so far as to say that if the judge were married, it would still be irrelevant. So how are the facts of the judgeâ€™s achievements early in life any more relevant?
Likewise, how is it fundamentally dishonest for the film to present what is essentially a defense case for Polanski? You make the point repeatedly that the film doesnâ€™t offer a raw description of what Polanski did with the girl, but your other criticisms seem to center on the tone of the movie, that Polanski is treated with a respect you think he doesnâ€™t deserve, and that figures that you respect, such as the judge, are ridiculed. But thereâ€™s nothing dishonest about taking a tone. As for the nature of the sexual act, itâ€™s only relevant if you believe, as you may, that illegal sex that involves the anus is worse than, and should be considered separately from, illegal sex that involves the vagina. Thatâ€™s something that many would agree with you on, Iâ€™m sure, but itâ€™s more of an emotional position than a reasoned one. Let me be clear: sex with a 13-year-old is, and should always be, criminal. But actions that are considered to be aggravating (in the legal sense) should be considered so because of they are cruel and additionally traumatizing, not because theyâ€™re outside of the sexual mainstream.
I havenâ€™t yet had the opportunity to see the film, so I canâ€™t defend it. Iâ€™ll just say that based on what youâ€™ve said about it, I canâ€™t tell that itâ€™s dishonest. In the legal system, the prosecution presents its case, and leaves out details that could lead the jury to sympathize with the defendant, such as a 60s bomberâ€™s fifteen years of charity work before apprehension. Likewise, the defense omits details that might sway the jury the other way. The case against Polanski has been covered in the media – anybody in the US whoâ€™s heard of Polanski knows that he fled the country after having sex with a minor child. Until now, I donâ€™t think the defense case has been presented. I suspect that your great revulsion toward Polanskiâ€™s crime, Bill, may cause you to condemn any defense case thatâ€™s made for him.
The trouble with having to write about such stuff is that one can sound moralizing, when I really just care about the journalism. My complaint isn’t with Polanksi; it’s with the film and by extension the coverage of it. So thanks for taking the time to write and I’m sorry if it sounded like I was het up about the crime itself.
There are some tonal issues; it’s fair comment to question them. In regards to the judge, the movie seems to be making the comical point that here was a rapscallion ladies’ man sitting in judgment of a randy European. But the issue is the abuse of an under-age girl; in that context, doesn’t the comparison verge on the offensive?
The judgeâ€™s qualifications are certainly more relevant than the rather benign details of his personal life; that they are also so interesting makes it even more suspicious that the filmmaker didnâ€™t include them in the film. He goes from high school to the NYU law school at 15, and then goes to Harvard because heâ€™s too young to take a bar exam and it doesnâ€™t make it into your film?
In other words, the director, Marina Zenovich elided the most positive thing about the judge’s life and the most prejudicial thing about Polanski’s.
She is welcome to be on Polanskiâ€™s side but thereâ€™s a point beyond which a documentary maker can be said to be being dishonest. I think she passed it.
The rest of what youâ€™re talking about, again, has more to do with my thinking that theÂ coverage of the movie didn’t give the full story. Itâ€™s not that one sex act is worse than another when the victim is a girl; but it is interesting how, in this supposedly vulgar age, we never seemed to hear what happened. The image of the debonair intellectual shifts radically; thatâ€™s why it needs to be mentioned. Itâ€™s hiding the facts from readers.
That was the subject of my first post, The Ick Factor. People like Polanksi and R. Kelly end up getting, perversely, a pass because folks just donâ€™t want to think or talk about the facts of their cases.