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Can You Separate A Film Maker From Their Body of Work?

I considered writing this little piece in a vacuum, leaving the issue the sparked it sitting like an elephant in the room – but there’s really no point avoiding it. I’ve been troubled watching Roman Polanski films ever since I read up and discovered why he had to direct The Ninth Gate from abroad. The knowledge that he had engaged in sexual acts with a thirteen year old girl has been very hard to disassociate from the man in viewing his filmography – oddly enough, it’s harder to disassociate than the grisly facts surrounding the brutal murder of Sharon Tate by the Manson family. I saw The Pianist and his rather lacklustre (Playboy financed) version of Macbeth before I found out about his flight to Europe and his seemingly eternal exile. I was unlucky enough to see Chinatown afterwards, and as great as the film was I couldn’t quite get over what Polanski had done. Am I being a little silly or is it really hard to view the work of film makers in a vacuum?

"Forget it, Jake, it's Polaski..."

"Forget it, Jake, it's Polaski..."

I’m not writing this piece to get a dig in at Polanski – that matter will be resolved by far wiser and more authoritative figures than myself. I just mean in general, can we ever divorce movies from the context that surrounds them. For example, would Heath Ledger’s Joker have acheived the same impact if it hadn’t been his last completed role? It’s undeniable that the knowledge of the actor’s passing infused a tragic sense of irony in lines such as “I have a feeling you and I are going to be doing this forever”, which resonated beyond the film’s frame. I have no doubt that we’ll see a similar (though probably smaller reaction) to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

In the above case it isn’t necessarily a feeling of unease – the actor gave a truly dazzling final performance which will (hopefully) stand the test of time. Though there may be sadness and grief at the passing of a young talent, at least we recorded one last flicker of the flame. Perhaps a more similar feeling of unease is that experienced while watching Speilberg’s understandably under-promoted The Twilight Zone movie, aware an accident on set cost the lives of the lead actor in one segment and of two children. It was an event which arguably changed Hollywood and cooled the friendship between Speilberg and John Landis. The movie itself has always been – despite featuring a huge ensemble cast – somewhat confusedly received by audiences and critics. It’s very hard to criticise a movie released without any substantial extras when you know that most involved simply want to forget it as quickly as possible.

Still, none of these manage to send quite the chill up my spine as watching Chinatown and admiring it as a masterpiece and Polanski as an autuer. He is an autuer, a talented film maker. He had a tragic upbringing and – indeed – a tragic life. That does not explain or justify what happened. He isn’t a man I’d be comfortable to share the same room with, yet I feel like I should applaud when the credits pass. Should I feel bad for paying to see a movie he’s directed, keeping him in business? What do I make of actors like Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor working with him? Does it imply that they forgive him? Or maybe that they think there’s nothing to forgive? Or are they just far more professional than I am? Probably the latter.

I don’t know – maybe I should look at a film in a vacuum. I am able to put aside any of Tom Cruise or Christian Bale‘s behind-the-scene antics, so is it a matter of degree? Does enjoying Iron Man or Tropic Thunder somehow condone the illegal excesses of Robert Downey Jnr.’s youth? I think you’ll agree that feeling uneasy watching the distinguished bodies of work by those fine actors is a crazy notion. And, yes, nothing they have done is comparable to what Polanski did – but it seems odd thatg it should be a matter of degree rather than principle? If rape makes me uneasy, what of murder? Should I feel uneasy watching OJ Simpson in Naked Gun (but he was found innocent, I state in italics as an ineffective defence from a libel case)? What of assault? The bad boys of the golden age of Hollywood weren’t afraid to rough house. So, if it’s okay to dwell on such things when watching a Polanski film, when is it okay to simply enjoy the movie?

I don’t know. That’s an honest answer and one of the rare times I’ll concede it, amidst all the bluster and suritude (it’s a word – trust me) you’ll read on here. I just don’t know.

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