Should we boycott Polanski supporters?

One group strikes back at the filmmaker's Hollywood defenders

Published October 6, 2009 5:07PM (EDT)

Tuesday morning brought good news for those of us who would like to see Roman Polanski serve time for raping a child: The Swiss Justice Ministry has denied the filmmaker's appeal to be released, pending extradition proceedings. Go figure: He's a flight risk.

Still, some groups want to see the Polanski case yield more than simply the due process of law. One organization, called Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment (PAVE), is calling for a boycott of all films made by the director's "Hollywood supporters" -- that is, those who signed the controversial petition calling for his release. Some of my favorite actors and filmmakers, from David Lynch and Tilda Swinton to Wong Kar Wai, Steven Soderbergh and Martin Scorsese, are among the signatories. That list is certainly dismaying, but I can't say it's surprising, either. In Hollywood, Polanski's arrest has been spun as an attack on the artistic freedom of international film events. More importantly, it's clear that many who signed the petition know Polanski personally -- and personal connections can't help but cloud even the most black-and-white situations.

As Anthony Paletta pointed out in last week's Wall Street Journal, some Hollywood types' support of Polanski even seems to directly contradict the themes of their own work. While Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education" explores a damaging relationship between a young boy and a pedophilic priest, Asia Argento has both directed and acted in films that depict the trauma of rape. Perhaps the most directly applicable example is of Harmony Korine, whom Paletta notes

is no stranger to the frequent pairing of strong drugs and assault; the harrowing end of his screenplay for "Kids" features a character raped while under the influence of an unnamed depressant. In "Kids," the assailant didn't give her the drug; there's no question about Mr. Polanski plying a 13-year-old with Quaaludes. Yet Mr. Korine's name is there on the petition.

But is an outright boycott of these filmmakers' work warranted? At NPR, Carrie Brownstein (yes, of Sleater-Kinney fame) offers a smart post titled "Loving the Art But Not the Artist." Comparing the Polanski case to a more minor incident that went down in the indie-rock community last week, involving one artist repeatedly referring to another as a "faggot," Brownstein writes,

Perhaps it's easier to separate the art from the artist within the forgiving lens of hindsight. (It's a lot easier to forgive and forget if the artists lived and died well before our time.) And maybe we make exception for the supposed great ones, or those time-tested artists -- exceptions that we wouldn't make for those we consider our peers.

There are also the ethical lines, based on our own histories and experiences, that each of us draws in the sand. These lines, when crossed by our most cherished or worshipped artists, may result in an outright rejection of them. Or, if their mishap doesn't affect us personally, we might be able to overlook it. For others, and thus far I am among this group, I do find it relatively easy to separate art from artist. However, that is not to say that I don't think the artist should be held accountable.

Generally, I find myself in Brownstein's camp: I don't see the point of depriving myself of "Rosemary's Baby" or "Chinatown" (or, to borrow PAVE's approach, Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant!") just because Roman Polanski is a rapist. The poetry of T.S. Eliot is still gorgeous and powerful and important, even though its writer had anti-Semitic and fascist sympathies. Of course, since Polanski and his supporters are still alive, we still must consider whether we want our money to line their pockets. And while that does give me pause, I've decided it's fair to give God what is God's and Caesar what is Caesar's, so to speak: I believe Polanski needs to serve jail time, but I don't feel guilty paying good money for good art.

So, as much as I empathize with PAVE's anger at the international film community's support of Polanski, I won't be showing my solidarity by boycotting great cinema or showing up for Saturday's day of action, when the group will be confronting moviegoers across the country and asking them to sign an anti-Polanski petition. (Since the online version has only garnered six signatures in four days, I can't be alone.) I wouldn't mind seeing the Polanski scandal yield some smart, effective action: It would make a great excuse for groups that work with rape victims to hold volunteer or donation drives. But please, let's leave the art itself out of this.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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