Coming soon to a theater near you: The Polanski Petition

I’m not sure if there is some unwritten law that we film critics are legitimately supposed to critique only the reel output of filmmakers, not their real world shenanigans. But if there is such a decree, I’m about to violate it. I admit it. Not sure what kind of punishment I face for breaking this “directive,” but the … um … temptation was just too strong. (Although I don’t have the excuse of being drunk or on some mind-altering substance.)

That temptation is in the form of a recent petition that was signed by more than 100 filmmakers regarding the recent arrest of Roman Polanski at the Zurich Film Festival in Switzerland. As this whole affair — the crime, the trial, the flight, the years of being a fugitive, the documentaries, the arrest, and now this petition — is so tinged with drama, it’s ripe for a critique all its own.

So, at the risk of violating some film criticism “law,” here is my critique of the
filmmakers’ petition. (The words of the petition are in regular type, the choice words are bold, and my critique is italicised within square brackets):

Petition for Roman Polanski,
September 29, 2009

We have learned the astonishing news [Critique: This is a tad surprising given that one of their own — a filmmaker — released a film last year, called “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” that essentially ridiculed the California judicial system. You think that might have prodded the California authorities to redouble their efforts to catch him and force him to face the music? After all, don’t moviemakers think their output can influence behavior? Uh, that is unless it is alleged to provoke violence.] of Roman Polanski’s arrest by the Swiss police on September 26th, upon arrival in Zurich (Switzerland) while on his way to a film festival [Critique: No wonder they are miffed; this is hallowed ground to the film folks.] where he was due to receive an award [Critique: How embarrassing for them to be bestowing an award on someone who is arrested. Is this about Polanski or their own reputations?] for his career in filmmaking.

His arrest follows an American arrest warrant [Critique: This sounds essentially like, “We are artists, thank you very much, and we look down our noses on some pesky lowbrow ‘American’ warrant, just as we look down on much of your Hollywood output.”] dating from 1978 [Critique: So I guess they’re saying “ancient history?”] against the filmmaker [Critique: “Filmmaker” sounds much more venerated than “fugitive.”] in a case of morals. [Critique: Oh, I see. We are not talking about a case of breaking the law, but instead about America’s quaint and puritanical sexual mores. Well, when you put it that way…]

Filmmakers in France, in Europe, in the United States and around the world [Critique: I guess the 100 signatories to this letter are free to make assertions for all filmmakers everywhere.] are dismayed [Critique: A bit of “miscasting” in word choice? Are they alarmed, disillusioned, perturbed, disheartened? About his arrest? By the Swiss authorities? Methinks they are hedging a bit, sort of like the fuzziness of some of their artsy movies.] by this decision [Critique: Do they mean “action?” Given that these are filmmakers, that might be more apropos terminology. Also, it looks again like they are miffed that this happened at a film festival. Would they be equally miffed if it had occurred at a Starbucks?].

It seems inadmissible [Critique: Odd that they would use an overtly legal term. Are they trying to suggest that the point they are making in this sentence should be used as evidence in any legal proceeding regarding Polanski’s extradition or punishment? The use of this term might make sense in light of all the liberties that filmmakers take regarding depictions of legal and courtroom proceedings.] that an international cultural event [Critique: Well, la dee da! A highfalutin’ bigwig shindig indeed! Well, I guess that’s better than arresting him in some gas station. Makes it seem like he was snatched while receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.], paying homage [Critique: Please do not interrupt our sacred event!] to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers [Critique: According to you!], is used by the police to apprehend him [Critique: Ah! Here we get to the subtext of this particular narrative. They are saying, “How dare you arrest him while he is at our festival! We feel used, like some kind of bait. And against our will. It’s so unfair for you to make us a part of your plans. But you are free to interpret our artwork however you want — until we object to that as well.”].

By their extraterritorial [Critique: What do “E.T.” and “District 9” have to do with this? They weren’t made by Polanski. (And one of them wasn’t very good.)] nature, film festivals the world over have always permitted works to be shown [Critique: Oh, really?! Tell that to the thousands of filmmakers whose films aren’t selected.] and for filmmakers to present them freely and safely [Critique: Do they feel free and safe when critics boo, hiss, guffaw and walk out on their work?!], even when certain States opposed this. [Critique: This is a red herring, sort of like the very thing you use in many of your films. In these cases — such as with Chinese films — it’s the content of the film, not the actions of the filmmaker, that is at issue.]

The arrest of Roman Polanski in a neutral country [Critique: This is what’s called a “mcguffin” — a thing that seems important to a film’s story but is really just a plot device. “Neutral” in the sense of in a time of war? Or regarding the country’s position on Polanski’s films? On his arrest?], where he assumed he could travel without hindrance [Critique: The filmmakers here have not done enough to help us understand what’s in the mind of their protagonist. Just what did he assume? How can he assume that if he is a fugitive and has had an arrest warrant out for his arrest for 30 years, and a filmmaker just completed a documentary last year on this case and his fugitive status?], undermines this tradition: it opens the way for actions of which no one can know the effects. [Critique: This sounds like the plot of an apocalypse film — not like there haven’t been any of those released recently, with more on the way. So. This is the end of the world as we know it?!]

Roman Polanski is a French citizen [Critique: I guess any film made by the French is automatically superior and above the law.], a renowned and international artist [Critique: Oh! Wait! It’s artists that are above the law!] now facing extradition. This extradition, if it takes place [Critique: That’s power for you. They’re saying, “We believe we have the power and influence to put this into question.], will be heavy in consequences. [Critique: There’s that allusion to the apocalypse again.] and will take away his freedom [Critique: Yeah. Jail kinda produces that effect. I guess artistic freedom is more important than owning up to crimes.]

Filmmakers, actors, producers and technicians — everyone involved in international filmmaking — want him to know that he has their support and friendship. [Critique: In other words, “We speak for all our brethren. We love your films, Roman, and we want to star in them and help make them, which we won’t be able to do if you are in jail (or fined). And if you are jailed, we will make movies about this injustice (directly and metaphorically) until they release or absolve you.]

On September 16th, 2009, Mr. Charles Rivkin, the U.S. Ambassador to France, received French artists and intellectuals at the embassy. [Critique: In their minds, they stormed the embassy like they were storming Frankenstein’s castle.] He presented to them the new Minister Counselor for Public Affairs at the embassy, Ms. Judith Baroody. In perfect French [Critique: Is this a “dig” at us unilingual Americans who also happen to hate subtitles on foreign films?] she lauded the Franco-American friendship and recommended the development of cultural relations between our two countries. [Critique: Let’s hope she wasn’t referring to EuroDisney or “Transformers II” or David Letterman.]

If only in the name of this friendship between our two countries, we demand the immediate release of Roman Polanski. [Critique: Talk about introducing surprise characters and plot lines at the end! What is this, a thriller?! So now it’s all about friendship, and if you don’t release Mr. Polanski right now, we are going to get mad and make anti-American movies. We mean it!].

List of signatories (more than100), including: Fatih Akin [Critique: A German filmmaker], Stephane Allagnon [Critique: A French filmmaker], Woody Allen [Critique: ’Nuff said].

Doug Young is The Statesman’s award-winning film critic. He also works for Sen. Mark Udall as an environmental policy adviser.