Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Helter Skelter

Gifted director Roman Polanski humanized in new doc

Posted By on Wed, Sep 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

If only our monsters wouldn't be so human it'd be a whole lot easier to hate them. Mention Roman Polanski in mixed company and you're just as likely to hear "child rapist" as you are "Oscar-winning director of Chinatown." Or Rosemary's Baby. Or The Pianist.

What you encounter is the fact the Nazis killed his parents during the Holocaust. Or that he overcame the poverty of postwar Poland to become a successful and iconoclastic filmmaker only to see his wife, Sharon Tate, and his unborn son brutally murdered by Charles Manson followers. After all, these are the tragedies that might humanize him, complicate the popular portrait of an insidious fugitive, who raped a 13-year-old girl in Jack Nicholson's hot tub then fled American justice to live among apologist Europeans.

As with all things, the facts of the case are a bit more complicated than most realize. And it's to Marina Zenovich's considerable credit that her documentary approaches Polanski's story as something other than a sordid morality tale of fallen genius or a sympathetic whitewash of a misunderstood artist. Instead, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, makes no bones about the filmmaker's crime, but rather puts it within the context of a life blindsided by both outlandish fortune and unspeakable tragedy. The result is a convincing and nuanced re-evaluation of a complex and controversial man.

More importantly, however, Zenovich's terrifically constructed film acts as a subversive and, at times, shocking exposé of judicial misconduct and media abuse. Through archival footage, cannily inserted film clips, and unbelievable access to still-living witnesses (including the victim herself), the doc presents a convincing rationale for Polanski's flight from the United States. Hounded by an unscrupulous press — their treatment of Tate's murder is truly appalling — and boxed into a corner by a vainglorious judge, Zenovich actually gets straight-arrow prosecutor Roger Gunson to admit that Polanski's decision to flee the country made sense.

With very little editorializing, Wanted and Desired builds a compelling (and convoluted) courtroom drama that involves two upstanding lawyers — D.A. Gunson and Polanski's soft-spoken defense attorney Douglas Dalton — who got sucked into shady backroom deals and dishonest plea agreements. At the center of this three-ring circus is Santa Monica Judge Laurence J. Rittenband. An unethical glutton for media attention and self-promotion, Rittenband attempted to design and "direct" a sentence for Polanski that played to the sentiments of a bloodthirsty television and newspaper audience while protecting his own reputation.

The result was a scandal that in, many ways, overshadowed Polanski's actual crime. Zenovich's indictment of the way the legal system and mass media interacted in the '70s is as relevant today as it was then, posing important questions about morality, justice and ethics.

While the documentary goes a little overboard courting sympathy for a man who got a 13-year-old girl drunk then had sexual intercourse with her, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired neither sensationalizes nor moralizes its sleazy story. The celebrated director is bluntly held to account for his unforgivably criminal behavior while Zenovich presents a complex tapestry of fame, abuse of power, cultural disconnection and uncertain justice. And she asks that oh-so important question: Can a victimizer ever truly be seen as a victim? Whether we're talking about the America of 30 years ago or the America of today, I suspect, sadly, the answer is "no."

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 25, and at 9:30 p.m. on Friday-Saturday, Sept. 26-27.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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