At a key point of the movie Chinatown the main villain, Noah Cross, a man who’s raped both the land and his own daughter, gives private investigator Jake Gittes a classic piece of advice: “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.” That’s a humbling bit of wisdom even when it’s coming from a monster, yet the Roman Polanski case is dredging up memories of both the O.J. trial and Monicagate for the tsunami of shrill certainty that it’s generated. Every four years the Winter Olympics come along and our co-workers become overnight experts on the Triple Lutz, and whenever one of these celebrity morals cases comes down the pike, we suddenly become authorities on events we didn’t witness involving people we never met.
If there’s anyone who I’m happier not to be than Polanski right now, it’s Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post columnist who’s spent much of the last two weeks taking it on the chin for her blog posts defending the director after his arrest in Switzerland. The first one, published under a headline that reads like a kick-me sign—“The Outrageous Arrest of Roman Polanski”—was greeted by a shit-storm of jeering mockery, and that was the polite response. Most of Applebaum’s readers contented themselves with draping giant Day-Glo arrows and smiley-faces around the weak points in her post (it was, as they say, a target-rich environment), but a number of them walked out to the point of wishing that Applebaum—or even her daughter—might receive some moral tutelage in the form of being raped. Applebaum fired back with a spectacularly counterproductive second post whose mealy-mouthed rationalizations of her first post only gave rise to another round of cat-calls and ill wishes. The blog Lawyers, Guns and Money, meanwhile, zeroed in on the factual shortcomings in her arguments, torching each of them in turn and burning them to the ground.
Elsewhere in the Polanski Thunderdome, Salon followed up their earlier takedown of the pro-Polanski documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired with a white-hot Kate Harding article under the unsubtle headline Reminder: Roman Polanski Raped a Child. Whoopi Goldberg unhelpfully offered the idea that Polanski hadn’t committed “rape rape,” Woody Allen unhelpfully signed the pro-Polanski petition, and the rightwing unhelpfully did what it always unhelpfully does: it tried to turn the whole issue into the Antietam of the Culture Wars, except that this time they had a point. Finally, Cokie Roberts, a woman who’s probably thought about Polanski for all of twenty seconds in the last thirty years, but who knows red meat when she sees it, reacted to the sound of his name by suggesting out loud that we “just take him out and shoot him.” Her graceless laughter after her quip didn’t make her look any less inhuman.
The folks who want to string Polanski up alternate between around-the-clock all-caps outrage and wallowing in the pornographic details of the photo shoot on Jack Nicholson’s deck, while his defenders act like frightened octopi, squirting ink in every direction as they dart backwards from the case’s central facts. One side wants to only discuss what happened on a single afternoon 32 years ago; the other side wants to talk about everything except that day. Yet both sides exhibit a breathtaking amount of moral certainty for a case that’s riddled with U-turns and unique circumstances, the most recent being a former D.A.’s astonishing announcement that he lied in the documentary about a critical discussion. The end result is that neither the straightforward nor the complicated elements of the case can give anybody pause because everyone’s having too good a time Being Right, like a dog rolling in its own crap. The Polanski haters think that yelling HE RAPED A LITTLE GIRL should trump everything, even when his victim just wants everyone to get over it already; meanwhile, his defenders never tire of reminding us that PEOPLE GET AWAY WITH MUCH, MUCH WORSE STUFF EVERY DAY. The idea that Dick Cheney—the closest thing to a living, breathing Noah Cross we’re ever likely to see—will never do the perp walk is a galling thing indeed, but that has fuck-all to do with Roman Polanski.
So much of the debate has focused on whether Polanski should have been arrested it’s obscured the fact that he has been arrested—and so where do we go from here? Do Applebaum, Goldberg & Co. really believe he should just be given a handshake and turned out on the street? I have to say, my own feelings on the subject have moved a great deal in the last week or so, largely for the same reason I think it was wrong of Bill Clinton to lie in his deposition no matter how rigged it was. It’s pretty clear that Polanski’s arrest resulted from a series of events—the documentary, the motion to dismiss—which the L.A. District Attorney’s Office looked on as nose-thumbing dares to bust him, but now that he’s in custody I don’t see a viable alternative to extraditing him. He had his reasons for fleeing, sure, but all felons have their reasons, and usually without the chance of getting off with a 90-day sentence. At this point it’s all come down to one of those baseline “What do we expect of our society?” questions, such as “Is it okay for a president to lie under oath?” It doesn’t matter how you get there; once you’re there, things have to go a certain way or you need to junk the system altogether. America’s criminal justice system is wonky precisely because its scales are so perpetually out of balance; letting a 30-year fugitive (and confessed rapist) off the hook isn’t the way to address the fact that the L.A. justice department has some shitheads in it. In fact, letting him go wouldn’t address it at all.
But that’s just me. Chinatown remains a great film—we still agree on that much, don’t we?—because it’s the truest, coldest picture there is about the world’s failure to live up to our ideals. No happy endings awaited Jake Gittes despite his best intentions, and the likeliest outcome facing Roman Polanski can’t help but leave a bitter taste in my mouth. My best guess is that he’s headed to prison, quite possibly for the rest of his life. You’re soft in the head if you think he didn’t bring it on himself, but if seeing a great artist come to such a tawdry end makes you want to whoop and crow, I don’t know what to tell you—it’s probably not anything good, though. Beyond that I’m not hazarding any guesses. That way lies Chinatown.