Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Tragedy of Roman Polanski

“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” So ended film director Roman Polanski’s 1974 saga of political corruption and despair, “Chinatown.” This quote, so seminally cited on the list of great movie endings, works not only as the epitome of the crushed soul of Jack Nicholson’s world-weary private eye, but as a summation of the film’s now-notorious Polish director.

When Roman Polanski made “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1968, it cemented his status as an international sensation with an original vision that fit perfectly into the rapidly changing landscape of world cinema.

From his Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film for his 1962 feature “Knife in the Water,” he was cited as a distinct voice in the Polish New Wave and welcomed by the rising faces of a new Hollywood establishment. His early films reveled in visual distortion and experimentation, united around an uncompromisingly bleak look inside our fatal flaws.

His 1965 film “Repulsion” is as dark an exploration of individual psychosis as any on film, perhaps owing much to his own dark scars. As a child, Polanski watched his mother dragged to the gas chambers during the Holocaust, escaped Auschwitz concentration camp and survived in the Krakow ghetto.

Polanski’s luck only worsened in 1969, when members of the Manson family brutally murdered his wife, actress Sharon Tate, in their California home. His films are understandably organized around violence, death and mental suffocation. These ghosts, it seems, have never stopped following him.

An artist who has spent most of his life either working out his demons or being absorbed by more, the story of Polanski is as tragic as one of his films.

For many, Polanski’s 1977 charge of statutory rape of a minor was the inevitable explosion of a ticking bomb. While the facts of the case now seem entangled in a web of contradictions, the director’s Sept. 27 arrest in Zurich after thirty years as a fugitive living in France only serves as a reminder of his complicated life, so professionally successful while so personally devastating.

This article is not an apology for Polanski’s crime. To sort out the complexities of that legal quagmire requires a far deeper understanding of the judicial system than this author possesses.

But it seems necessary now, perhaps more than ever, to try and understand the context of Polanski as a tragic figure. To think of him arrested for his decades-old crime at the age of 76 as he arrived in Switzerland to be honored at a retrospective of his work seems drenched in the kind of painful irony pervasive in his work.

Imagining him sitting in his cell in Zurich, awaiting possible extradition to the United States, possibly facing jail time for the remainder of his life, one has to wonder if Polanski realizes what he has become. For J.J. Gittes, the private investigator of “Chinatown,” the titular location is as much an abstract concept as a concrete reality, a place that holds his tortured soul captive. Roman Polanski’s life has now been consumed by his own Chinatown.

He is trapped in a vortex so similar to one of his films. He is a tortured soul undone by his own demons, trying to escape a past he can’t come to grips with, only to be defeated in the end. Maybe Polanski realizes that his life now imitates his art, even though his art was a way to sort out his demons in the first place.

“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” The irony is that it’s impossible to forget. It’s impossible to forget one’s past, one’s crimes, one’s demons. If Polanski’s films – and more importantly, his life - suggest anything, it’s that these things have the potential to consume us. That’s Entertainment.

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