Sunday, October 26, 2008

Polanski: A Biography

Books on Roman Polanski, even critical studies, tend to regard the events of his life and the movies he's made as somehow interchangeable on some perhaps Jungian level, as if the two realms informed each other in readily identifiable, quantifiable ways. Within that system of logic, Rosemary's Baby ties directly into the murder of Sharon Tate, and Tess becomes a response to the incident at Jack Nicholson's house involving sodomy with an underage girl.

Following that line of thought inevitably involves viewing Polanski's films through a tightly constricted, inevitably distorted lens, allowing for heightened experiences of them in some respects, if a limited appreciation overall. Surely Hitchcock, another director whose culturally defined psychological profile is read outside his films, carried back into them, and seeps back out again, was processing some sort of issue with blond actresses, dressing Tippie and Grace as if they were his dolls, but Marnie and Rear Window can hardly be described as chapters out of his autobiography, or therapy sessions, especially once you consider that, however extensively he plotted his films in advance, the stories typically began as someone else's script.

Compared to its predecessors, the latest biography on Polanski shows remarkable restraint. Christopher Sandford does a more admirable job keeping everything straight; certainly he does better than Denis Meikle, whose Odd Man Out reads more like a USA Today article than a biography. Polanski's autobiography was more of an entertainment and an evasion than an illumination, serving as a reaction to the continual and intentional confusion between his life and his work. A book by a man as reviled in the press as Polanski has often been might be expected to come across defensively, but as a result, you learn more about the worldliness of young girls who look older than they are and horrible journalists who refuse to discuss anything but murder and rape than you do about the films themselves in any detail approaching critical acuity.

It isn't that the events in Polanski's life are avoided in the Sandford book, or even skimmed over. They're written about at length. But no effort is made to connect said events in any conclusive way to the movies preceding or following them. And the films themselves are discussed on a variety of levels, including circumstances of production, financing, critical reception, and artistic intention. Hearing about events surrounding the production of Tess, you learn that the director's personal affections at the time were for young women and lots of them, that he was particularly interested in Natassia Kinski, that he appeared with Kinski at Cannes to promote the film ahead of its release, declaring, "I've never hidden the fact that I like young girls. I will say again, once and for all, I like very young girls," after which he rolled his eyes in ecstasy and covered his crotch with his hand.

You also learn that the production of Tess was fraught with complications which beset cast and crew from the very first day of filming, when a scene meant to be sunny was scheduled on a day pouring with rain. Natassia was German and hadn't acted much if any, requiring voice lessons and the better part of Polanki's already compromised focus on set. Eleven weeks into production, the film's director of photography took ill and died the same day. The production extended through summer and autumn and into the worst winter France had experienced in the preceding sixty years. Blizzards were involved. Production was incessantly interrupted by the noise of French air force jets and nearby traffic. Stonehenge was rebuilt from scratch. There were myriad delays, stoppages, and distractions. At one point, "Natassia Kinski repeated one short speech twenty-seven times before the sound crew deemed it technically passable." The budget went from 8 million to 12. Add to this the fact that Polanski jumped into the film immediately after arriving in France, a welcome diversion from his recent troubles in America. He'd lost his homes in America and in England. The rape charges were unquestionably on his mind. Being human, and a film director, plenty else besides was, as well.

Reading all this, it's difficult to narrow down the focus of the film to a straightforward commentary relating directly to Polanski's fateful experience at Jack Nicholson's. But the book doesn't join the cult of apologists for its subject either, many of whom excuse some of his more spectacularly shitty behavior as an understandable side effect of genius. Unlike the documentary Wanted and Desired, which approaches Polanski's behavior in LA as more of an indiscretion than a crime, portraying the director as a victim of a publicity-hungry judge, Sandford makes it clear that Ritterband, the judge in question, never in fact promised Polanski would be placed on probation rather than be sentenced to a term if only he confessed guilt and served time at the Chino State Prison for an evaluation period. To the contrary, court documents show Roman saying he fully understood exactly that, whatever he says now. Besides which, one might expect particularly tenacious rancor in cases involving sex with minors and quaaludes. Seeing the director in the kind of detail provided by Sandford, without the excessive bias typically involved, opens the films up to wider interpretation, allowing the reader to review them more comprehensively with a broader spectrum of reference points. Ultimately, the filmmaker and his work are served better by this kind of scrutiny than by the fog-like layers of mysticism which often cling to all things Polanski, obscuring anything but the most reductive analogies.

That kind of diplomacy works in Polanski's favor in other ways. Tate has long been regarded by many as the victim not just of Manson's creepy-crawlies but of her husband's philandering as well. Even when biographers and critics have conceded that the couple had some sort of understanding about Polanski's extra-marital affairs, they seem to imply that Tate was weak and didn't feel she had much of a choice in the matter, that each affair damaged her irreparably, that she was fragile, pining, and needy, all stereotypes applied to women which further served to excoriate Polanski by devaluing Tate. Sandford gives ample enough reason to see Tate as more independent and self-contained. The fact that she made far more than Polanski did at the time of her death has remained relatively unknown. Of the two, she had far more pull in Hollywood. For a Hollywood couple, that means more power in the relationship, not just out of it. Sandford argues that Tate knew about Polanski's affairs and made certain resolutions about them, not all of which were conducted in private or under duress. If anything, she had far more choices than her husband, which isn't to say his affairs didn't sometimes or even often irritate or even deeply upset her; rather, she made whatever decisions she did from a more informed and empowered position than anyone wishes to give women they choose to dismiss as helpless blond bimbos credit for.

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