Polanski: Can We Separate the Artist From His Art?

I've always been a huge fan of Roman Polanski's movies. The first time I saw Chinatown, I was so impressed with the mastery of his storytelling that I watched it again the next day. The Pianist is, in my opinion, the best fictional account of the Holocaust ever put on film, and I couldn't imagine any other filmmaker teasing the same brutality and ambiguous redemption out of Oliver Twist without plunging the movie into unwatchable sadism. Polanski has explored anxiety, paranoia, isolation, and conspiracy with films that are grimly entertaining, and in terms of narrative and camerawork, his movies are consistently flawless.

His life isn't so tidy. More than 30 years ago, Polanski pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl, and then he ran away when he thought he would be punished for it. This week, Polanski was finally arrested in Switzerland, and I went to the Web site Smoking Gun and found the court testimony of Samantha Gailey, the girl he is accused of molesting. The document is unpleasant to say the least. According to her account, the director lured her into Jack Nicholson's home with a promise that pictures of her would appear in magazines, and he convinced her to take off her clothing, gave her alcohol, and ultimately forced himself on the child.

There has been public outcry in France and Poland over the arrest. They wonder what purpose this serves when the man has apparently reformed and when even the victim in the case has asked that he be pardoned. There have been questions over the fairness of his original trial raised by the documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. And there have been questions about what political motives led to the arrest, when Polanski has lived freely and traveled freely in Europe for decades. These are all valid questions, but none of them matter to me as much as whether I can separate the artist from his art.

Polanski is obviously not the first artist to act immorally. The painter Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio, was frequently involved in quarrels and murdered a man in a dispute over tennis, after which he fled Rome to avoid arrest. He was by all accounts short-tempered and fairly despicable, yet his paintings are infused with a grand and dramatic beauty that makes them perennially popular. Most people are unfamiliar with the specifics of Caravaggio's life when they see his work, and even those who know that he killed a man see this as some sort of eccentricity of a temperamental genius.

Perhaps if the details were a little more immediate, as they are in Polanski's case, Caravaggio's fans would feel differently. But what men like Caravaggio and Polanski show us is that a work of art can be a masterpiece regardless of who the creator is, that art doesn't necessarily accurately reflect the life of the artist. As for me, I will still love Polanski's movies. I will always think that he's a great filmmaker, but I will never be able to watch another one of his movies without thinking about the testimony of that girl.

Polanski: Can We Separate the Artist From His Art? | News