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Open Thread: Can You Separate the Film from the Filmmaker?

Taking a gander at this week’s new releases, I see that the time has come for Carnage to open — a good thing, because it’s a crisp, disruptive dark comedy of manners with stellar performances from an ace ensemble (Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly), and a bad thing, because it’s directed by Roman Polanksi, so now we’re going to have to talk about Roman Polanski again, which is, well, a dicey proposition. It forces us to ask the question that we had to ask when The Ghost Writer came out, and The Pianist, and Death and the Maiden, and pretty much everything he’s done since he was arrested for (and later pleaded guilty to) unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old back in 1977. It’s the same question we’ve had to ask with every Woody Allen film that’s come out since his affair with companion (and mother to his biological child) Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn — 30 years his junior — was revealed. It’s the same question we had to ask when Melancholia came out earlier this fall, after Lars von Trier’s notorious “OK, I’m a Nazi” press conference at Cannes.

That question: Can you separate the film from the filmmaker?

It’s a question Allen himself asked in the first script he wrote after the Mia/Soon-Yi scandal. In Bullets Over Broadway, bohemian playwright Sheldon Flender (Rob Reiner) asks struggling young writer David Shanyne (John Cusack) the ultimate artsy hypothetical question: “Let’s say there was a burning building and you could rush in and you could save only one thing: either the last known copy of Shakespeare’s plays or some anonymous human being. What would you do?” In other words, what has greater value — life, or art? The film itself leaves the answer open for interpretation, but the statement that prompts that hypothetical is even more interesting: “I think the mistake we women make is… we fall in love with the artist, and not the man.”

The plot thickens. This question is posed by a minor character named Lili; in Allen’s original screenplay it was asked by a character, later cut, who was to be played by actress Stacey Nelkin. Nelkin reportedly dated Allen when she was 17, and is said to be the inspiration for his character’s relationship with 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) in Manhattan — a great movie that it’s now weirdly uncomfortable to watch, knowing what we know about the filmmaker’s, erm, preferences.

So how do we approach that film now? How to we come to terms with the fact that Allen, and Polanski, and von Trier are all tremendous, important, valuable filmmakers — and have all committed acts that are (to wildly varying degrees, in all fairness) awful? And does feeling that they are important filmmakers mean that you must become some sort of apologist for their actions off the set?

New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, back in September: “It’s no wonder I sometimes yearn for the good old days when directors were anonymous hires instead of beloved auteurs who sometimes say and do the darnedest, most awful things. And who make it hard to watch their movies without wincing, who force you to reconcile your love of their work with their flawed humanity…”

My wife, as we were watching Bob Weide’s excellent Woody Allen: A Documentary last month: “Yeah, they kinda let him off easy on that whole marrying-his-stepdaughter thing.” And I, of course, being a Woody Allen super-fan, have to go into my defensive crouch — well, now, she wasn’t actually his stepdaughter, I mean, she was Mia’s adopted daughter, but Woody and Mia were never married, and although they had a child and he adopted a couple of her adopted kids, Soon-Yi wasn’t one of them, and blah blah blah. I know the truth: what he did with Soon-Yi is creepy, and it makes it weird every time I watch Manhattan now, or any of the other films where he romances a younger woman, or has a character (like Tony Roberts’ in Annie Hall) reference the pleasures of young flesh. Why do I still put myself in a position to defend him? Why is it an either/or? (And why, in writing this very paragraph, did I start to put in a parenthetical after the “what he did with Soon-Yi is creepy” clause with some “even though they’re still together and it’s apparently a healthy relationship” nonsense — I mean, seriously, what the hell is wrong with me?)

The questions are even trickier with Polanski, since a virtual cottage industry has sprouted around his actions and subsequent legal battles. I’ve read biographies, I’ve read articles, I watched Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired with a completely open mind. And y’know what? He shouldn’t have fled the country. (Well, and, y’know, he shouldn’t have raped the 13-year-old, but I’m hoping that goes without saying.) He did a horrifying, repugnant thing, and whether or not the presiding judge in his case was a shameless and possibly corrupt media whore (and there’s plenty of indication that he was), the worst sentence that Judge Rittenband would have given Polanski would still have been an appropriate punishment for what he did. Instead of accepting responsibility, Polanski ran away.

“Finding forgiveness for him is not impossible,” David Poland wrote in September, jumping off of Dargis’ piece. “It’s not even a huge reach. It’s simply a matter of him being contrite about his actions. Just a bit. Something other than blaming everyone else, from the judge to the media and turning his bad act into a whining lie about his victimization.”

Agreed. But my disgust at Polanski’s crime and his handling of it doesn’t negate the fact that Chinatown is one of the greatest films ever made; it doesn’t mean that Rosemary’s Baby or Repulsion aren’t terrific. Too often, any discussion of Polanski, Allen, or von Trier (or, as Dargis notes, Chaplin, Disney, or Kazan) becomes either an attack or a defense, with no degrees of distinction. In Bullets Over Broadway, the protagonist’s girlfriend eventually proclaims, “I could love a man if he’s not a real artist, but I couldn’t love an artist if he’s not a real man.” But she’s talking about a personal relationship, the man she shares a home and a life with. Do we have to regard the filmmakers we don’t know with that same intimacy?

What do you think? Is it possible to love the film without loving the filmmaker?

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