Friday, October 30, 2009

Roman Polanski and Manhattan

The Swiss government’s recent arrest and potential extradition of Roman Polanski has rekindled public interest in the events that caused the director to flee the United States in 1977, and rightfully so. For those unfamiliar with the case, it’s really a simple one that can be summed up quickly: while in Los Angeles in March of 1977, Polanski gave a thirteen-year-old girl a combination of champagne and quaaludes and raped her. It’s pretty cut-and-dry. Polanski should have been sent to prison for the maximum amount of time afforded to rapists, but his lawyers and celebrity status combined to get his sentence reduced to a paltry forty-two days. This was too much for Polanski and he fled to France. He has not returned to the United States since.

Polanski’s case often brings out the hypocritical sides of fans and/or appreciators of art. It’s pretty tough for any person to claim that Polanski is not a dirtball. He’s a dirtball of the highest order. But unlike most rapists, Polanski’s public image is complicated by the undisputable fact that the man is one of the most talented living film directors. One really shouldn’t have anything to do with the other. But, as we all know, when it comes to artists (or, really, celebrities in general) people tend to make excuses in a way that goes against their usual best judgment. Yeah, he may have assaulted that girl, but that was a long time ago. And The Pianist is such a great movie. In a way, this type of conflicted thinking is a testament to the power of art. But that’s just an excuse.

Recently in The New York Times, Michael Cieply discussed how “[m]anners, mores and law enforcement have become far less forgiving of sex crimes involving minors in the 31 years since Mr. Polanski was charged with both rape and sodomy involving drugs.” While, in a general sense, this is a true statement (Cieply cites multiple news articles from 1977 that treat Polanski sympathetically), Cieply takes the obvious and easy (and unnecessary) step of analogizing Roman Polanski circa 1977 to Isaac Davis, Woody Allen’s character from Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan: “Mr. Polanski was treated by the authorities, including Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, not so much as a sexual assailant but…as a normally responsible person who had shown terrible judgment by having sex with a very young, but sophisticated, girl.”

On the surface, making the Woody Allen connection seems like a prudent choice giving Allen’s recent support for Roman Polanski and Allen’s own history with young women. Allen, in the eyes of many, is just as much a dirtball as Polanski. Allen married his then-partners’s adopted daughter, after all. And, yes, in Manhattan—a movie that Allen co-wrote, directed and starred in—a fortysomething Isaac Davis dates seventeen-year-old high school senior Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Clearly, Allen and Polanski are cut from the same cloth, right?

The answer to this is an indisputable no. Without delving deeply into the history of Woody Allen’s personal affairs, let it suffice that Allen in no way conducted himself around Soon-Yi Previn (his former adopted stepdaughter and now wife) the way Polanski did around his victim in 1977. Allen began his affair with Soon-Yi when she was twenty-one years old and the relationship, from all prevailing evidence, was always consensual. I’m not an Allen apologist, but in reality he is guilty of bad taste and tactlessness, both of which are a far cry from the drugging and raping of a thirteen-year-old.

Cieply wisely avoided discussions of Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi for these reasons. But he did make the Manhattan connection. This troubled me enough to write this post because I, like many fans of Allen’s films and American cinema in general, love the film Manhattan. And in all the times I’ve viewed this film I have never once seen Isaac Davis as “a normally responsible person who had shown terrible judgment by having sex with a very young, but sophisticated, girl.” In fact, to me, Isaac’s relationship with Tracy is the emotional core of the film.

Has the joke been on me this entire time? By enjoying Manhattan, and having never seen pedophilic flaws in Isaac Davis’s character, have I really been an inattentive and insensitive viewer. And, worse, have I subconsciously known all along that Isaac is a dirtball but let my own masculine side create artificial justifications for liking this guy?

In short, is it okay for guys to like Manhattan without feeling a requisite amount of guilt and/or shame?

There are two ways to go about answering these questions. The first and most direct route is to look at New York state statutory rape law. It’s a cold, clinical way to do film analysis, but in this case it’s probably normal for viewers to wonder if Isaac was actually breaking the law. After all, in the film’s first scene he is out in the open on an actual date with Tracy and another couple—at Elaine’s no less, a very non-secluded place. Likewise, in the film’s closing scene, Tracy tells Isaac (in a quote that Cieply also cites), “Guess what, I turned eighteen the other day. I’m legal, but I’m still a kid.” As it turns out, the age of consent in New York is seventeen. So Tracy was “legal” the entire time. But with eighteen being the US’s canonized age in which a teen becomes an adult, Tracy’s statement makes for a great movie line.

But that seems too easy, which is why the second and more difficult route is unavoidable. How did Allen frame and develop Isaac and Tracy’s relationship? This is where a catch-22 snags modern, forward-thinking men. Isaac and Tracy are Manhattan’s most nuanced couple. Their connection seems the most real. Even while Isaac spends most of his scenes with Tracy trying to convince her that she’s better off with someone her own age, it’s tough for a viewer not to want their relationship to work out. Tracy offers Isaac a relief from the self-absorbed women that populate his social circles; while Isaac offers Tracy unique (I won’t say more mature) forms of support and desire that she clearly lacks from her male peers. And Allen’s and Hemingway’s performances are fantastic. It’s really one of the more wonderful and enigmatic film relationships.

But one cannot forget that the relationship is Woody Allen’s construction. When one thinks about it this way, of course Isaac and Tracy are great together. Isn’t this a male fantasy, to be a fortysomething guy who develops the best relationship of his life with a beautiful, intelligent, mature seventeen-year-old? Looking across Allen’s body of work, his characters (as in, the characters Allen plays in his own movies) always tend to end up in the bed of women that are seemingly way too beautiful or young or just plain out-of-his-league. That, after all, is part of the charm of Allen’s films. In Manhattan specifically, though, age cannot help but rear its head. Are we watching Woody Allen’s most accomplished film relationship? Or are we watching a narcissist’s most accomplished male fantasy?

These are interesting questions in large part because, when looking at Manhattan from a storytelling perspective, Tracy’s age is not necessarily an integral piece of her character. This makes the male fantasy argument somewhat valid. But then again, what is the male fantasy—hooking up with a girl who’s not quite “legal,” or is it having a fulfilling relationship with a woman half your age after two failed marriages? There’s a legitimate difference between these two situations. The former is despicable; the latter is, well, a different story. And the former, I feel, aligns more closely with Manhattan. In the film, I feel Woody Allen uses Tracy’s age both for ironic and character purposes. The teenager, in being her non-cynical self, becomes the most honest and engaging woman in the film.

Turning one’s take on a film into Hegelian thought progressions or Socratic dialogues kind of saps the fun out of things, I know. After all, a large part of enjoying movies is taking in the visceral, in-the-moment experience that comes with watching a film for the first time. But great films must be given this type of extra thought as they become ingrained in our culture. I still like Manhattan. I still see Isaac and Tracy’s relationship as accomplished in its non-cynical view of modern romance. But I recognize that my conclusion is not the definitive conclusion. So while I call bullshit on Cieply’s analogizing Roman Polanski and Isaac Davis, I cannot fault Cieply for making the connection.


Fuchsia said...

“Guess what, I turned eighteen the other day. I’m legal, but I’m still a kid.”

Hm, without wanting to seem antagonistic, I have to say I have always found this sentence extremely creepy and yes, the clear product of male fantasy. First of all the language is objectifying: we might talk about soft drugs or alcohol being “legal” or “illegal”, but the word is not applicable to a human being. A person’s actions might be legal or not, but to apply the adjective to their existence is nonsensical. To say pot is illegal is a synonym to saying that smoking pot, growing pot, using pot is illegal – but what else are you supposed to do with pot other than use it, it has no life of its own. To say that a woman is legal or illegal, while actually meaning the act of sleeping with her, is to insinuate her existence has no point other than sex with a man. What Tracy is trying to say here is “it’s legal to sleep with me”, but the (male) screenwriter’s POV has taken over and chosen a sexist phrasing that reduces the female to the legality of sleeping with her.

In addition the phrase “I’m still a kid” is also deeply troubling and plays into the whole social meme we have going according to which men like to sleep with young girls, the law is an artificial, inconvenient barrier to this desire and older women are unattractive by definition. On an intellectual level I do understand that the sentence is intended to be sexy and will be perceived as such by male and female audiences alike that have been raised to equate “sexy” with “(very) young woman”. But on a gut level I simply find it highly disturbing.

“When one thinks about it this way, of course Isaac and Tracy are great together. Isn’t this a male fantasy, to be a fortysomething guy who develops the best relationship of his life with a beautiful, intelligent, mature seventeen-year-old?”

In a nutshell, yes. And again this is my main problem with most of Woody Allen’s films. You write:

“But then again, what is the male fantasy—hooking up with a girl who’s not quite “legal,” or is it having a fulfilling relationship with a woman half your age after two failed marriages? There’s a legitimate difference between these two situations. The former is despicable; the latter is, well, a different story.”

Sure, there is nothing illegal with getting it off with a much younger woman (or man), whatever your sex might be. The problem arises when the older man/younger woman hook-up scenario becomes a pervasive narrative in society and a way to ignore women’s needs and voices and cultivate the widespread belief that male physical attractiveness is something the normal heterosexual woman is naturally indifferent to, while a young, beautiful female physique is all-important to the man. Sady Doyle takes on this fantasy in her amazing “Because, Um…” post. The thing is that here we have a classic example of a film that puts male desire (way) before female desire. I have no doubt that Woody Allen finds Mariel Hemingway attractive. The question that never gets, not answered, but even posed at all is why does Mariel Hemingway find Woody Allen attractive? Because, ummm…..? Even looking beyond physical attributes does not help find an explanation of why the perpetually lost, confused, cowardly and rather dumb Allen always gets the talented, beautiful, intelligent girl, other than the fact that well, he’s the one writing the plot.

Benny Paul said...

I'm going to stir this one up.
Perhaps underage women are not all as innocent and naive as our dad-dominated society wants them to be.
Here's a question that doesn't get asked: Was Polanski attracted to the girl because she was a woman or because, in his eyes, she was a little kid? I don't know, but I think that the question should be asked. The law says that she was underage and that Tracy in Manhattan is not underage. But the law does not dictate human development.
Let's imagine two situations. One: a curious 13-year-old woman flirts with a 30-year-old man. He invites her to his house and gets her drunk. She's hesitant but curious and excited. She has sex with him. She regrets it. She accuses him of rape. She wins. Two: a curious 20-year-old woman flirts with a 21-year-old man. She's just met him but she likes him. They get drunk together. He buys her more and more drinks. She's hesitant to keep drinking but it's fun enough that she doesn't stop. They go to the man's house. She expects to make out with him and then pass out. She starts making out with him and doesn't enjoy it as much as she thought she would. He undresses her. She doesn't like it and puts up some resistance but would rather not get into a fight. She decides that maybe she wouldn't mind having sex with him, maybe it would be painless. They have sex. She feels horrible the next day. She feels dirty and cries. The boy took advantage of her. She has no legal recourse against him. Her friends and family and doctor blame her for not putting up enough resistance. It's scenarios like those that remind us that the law merely scrapes the surface of what's right and wrong in these situations.
Let's consider this possibility: Polanski was lonely and in a depressed mood and was really attracted to this young girl. He figured that having sex with her would be fun for him and ultimately painless and forgettable for her. Perhaps Woody Allen has committed more offenses than we know of. Perhaps he did molest his other children as Mia Farrow alleges. Perhaps he was attracted to Soon-Yi not because she was sexually attractive as much as because she was a young girl. Perhaps he continually manipulates and abuses Soon-Yi day by day and, when he dies, she'll publish a horrifying memoir like Mackenzie Phillips did about her famous father/lover. Perhaps her trauma is far deeper than Polanski's victim, but, since she and Allen have a socially and legally acceptable relationship, we tend to assume that Allen is the more civilized of the two.
It is because of the mystery of private lives that I hesitate to judge both Allen and Polanski. And when I do judge, I trust psychology more than the law.
Both Polanski and Allen (but particularly Polanski) serve as reminders of how complicated private sex lives are and of how much the law tends to skew and simplify them. We know their movies and we'd like to think that we know them, but we don't.
I would not sign that petition asking for Polanski's freedom, but, if I were his friend or business partner, who knows, maybe I would. I think that much worse crimes than his go unpunished in this world. Based on the little I know about his Holocaust childhood and the death of his pregnant first wife, I'm more willing to forgive him than I would be willing to forgive most people. I think that putting him in jail protects nobody at this point.
While Polanski, based on his behavior, is in theory a greater menace to society, Woody Allen, based on his art, appears to be much more of a dangerous pervert than Polanski. Polanski's films have made statements against war and abuse of power. Woody Allen's have made statements in support of his own inconsistent neurotic value system, and, according to Manhattan, that value system includes the idea that a relationship between a stubborn, immature and manipulative old man and a naive, lonely and impressionable young woman can be a healthy one.

Marie said...

I see what you're saying about age not always being a good indicator of maturity, but unfortunately Polanski makes this case too easily judged as criminal. Let's say the girl was 18 or older, then the fact that he drugged her makes her incapable of consent. Say she's 18 or older and she willingly took the alcohol offered; if she's drunk, she still can't give consent. It varies from state to state and I'm not up on my 1970's rape law, but this page is helpful in deciphering the issue of consent surrounding intoxication: