As a kid of the seventies, I find the return of the Roman Polanski case fascinating, because it's treated now, as if it was a big deal at the time... and it wasn't.
Polanski's arrest, legal troubles, and subsequent flight generally caused barely a blip in coverage. It was later, when Polanski returned to fairly prolific filmmaking that the question of his "exile" became more of a story... and prompted a return examination of the initial story.
And even then, probably two events really raised the temperature to where we are now: his Oscar for The Pianist and the subsequent documentary Wanted and Desired, which both laid out the events of the rape of a 13 year old girl, and made the point that there was, in fact, no serious effort to return Polanski to LA for any kind of resolution.
In the flurry of attention and energy that's been generated since Polanski's arrest, in Zurich, for extradition to the US, I think there's been a push to pick a side... and less acknowledgment that, in fact, there's an uncomfortable middle that's probably where we belong. Should Roman Polanski come back to LA? Probably, yes. Does that serve as the end of this story? Probably not.
And that's because the person who really needs to speak out and explain himself is... Roman Polanski.
One of the most interesting missing elements of the coverage just now is any kind of statement from Polanski on the case. That's because, generally, he doesn't speak about it (and apparnetly, in Swiss prison... he can't). To the extent that he's promoted his films, his discussions have usually been focused on them, and not his personal life (which, given that in addition to the rape case, there's the Holocaust and Sharon Tate to get into, is probably understandably left out). Polanski, by all accounts, is the kind of artist who does not want to his life to get in the way of his work.
None of this is meant to suggest - and I should be clear - that I like the "great artist" defense of Polanski in this case. I agree with many voices - especially the many women who've blogged about this passionately - who have pointed out that excuse-making for Polanski really ought to stop. He is not being persecuted. His being a talented artist doesn't give him a pass. His "life in exile" is not some sort of romanticized flight from the forces of evil. He was charged with a crime, attempted a plea bargain, and fled the country for fear of the plea bargain not being honored. It's not heroic. He's not in the right on this (...and, just to bring up a conservative talking point... these are the times when "Free Roman" challenges the liberal instinct to cry injustice when it's not always clear cut... as with "Free Mumia").
At the same time... that's not the whole story here. The case against Polanski has always been complicated by the events of the time, and by a victim who has, publicly and more than once, suggested that there is a time to let this go. Bringing Polanski back, airing the whole case yet again in public (it was explored in a widely read article in Vanity Fair a few years back, as well as in Wanted and Desired), is something she finds painful and difficult. Those are things to take into consideration. If her story has been overused as a defense by the excuse makers... it also ought not to be psychologized away as invalid by those who want to see Polanski brought back. She has clearly, on behalf of Polanski, asked that the matter be dropped. And yes, it complicates matters.
Also for consideration is the question of statuatory rape, and the conflicted approach Americans have to sex and sexuality, particularly in teens as they mature. By using age delineation to define statuatory rape, as is often noted, we set up curious conflicts in terms of the law. Who's to say a 14 year old is too young to have sex, while a 15 year old isn't... every time? How do we deal with the fact that young people, clearly, experiment sexually at a young age? And if we are so concerned about 13 year olds being sexual... what then to make, this week, of a Times Magazine artcile discussing gay kids coming out in middle school? Really... what do you think they want to be doing, being gay and all?
We have a culture that sexualizes kids - from Brooke Shields to Miley Cyrus, and every tween in between - and simultaneously encourages kids to seek the forbidden (sex is dirty! and dangerous! and exciting and fun!) while at the same time, tells kids not to "start too soon." The conflicted messaging was even greater, and the suggestiveness far more adult, back when I was a kid. And it's in that context, and time period, that we have the case of what Polanski did.
Again, none of this is to suggest that Polanski didn't commit a crime... just to be clear on what the crime is, and why it matters. He raped this young woman... not because she was 13, but because it was without her consent, against her will, and with coercion. And, it should be pointed out... that's what Roman Polanski said, at the time, when he was arrested. In court papers and legal dealings... he has never denied his guilt.
Which is why, really, what's so dismaying about the Poalsnki defenders isn't just the excuse making... but the fact that the person they're claiming to defend does not seem to feel similarly. He's never claimed, directly, to not be guilty, or to not deserve a punishment. What he's claimed, legally, is that there was a plea deal in place, and a clear indication that, because of his celebrity and the implications of unequal standard, that plea agreement would not be honored.
What Polanski seems to have tried to do since his flight is to try and work out a return - a surrender - that would allow him to clean up the mess, admit his guilt and work out a plea deal. That, it seems clear, is not what will happen now... but that, too, is no reason not to have him extradited. Polanski took his chances, and now he'll have to face the consequences. That's why he should come back.
And it's why he should speak. The person who could set this right - who could explain what happened at the time, take responsibility for his acts, express whatever remorse he has, and discuss his choice to flee - is Roman Polanski. Not surrogates, not the angry folks who believe justice can only be served by firm punishment. I said before... this isn't something I think one needs to take a stand on - the kind of justice Polanski receives should be determined as such things usually are - by lawyers, in court, in a fair and just way. Too much, I think, of the discussion of Polanski has been about drawing lines and taking sides on a complicated legal case that can be seen in a number of ways, that combines social and cultural questions with legal issues and personal concerns in a way that confuses, all around. Until Roman Polanski speaks, until we can get a better sense of his motivations and regrets... we really know very little, and what little we know doesn't answer the things that need to be answered. Bring him home... and let him speak.