[11 July 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“He probably thought, ‘If I talk and talk, I can probably talk my way out of this thing.’” This assessment by David Wells, Los Assistant District Attorney in 1977, typifies efforts to summarize or explain Roman Polanski throughout Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. None of the interviewees in Marina Zenovich’s fascinating documentary manages to make sense of the famous filmmaker’s behavior or apparent thinking. But they all have impressions, born of their interactions with him, so long ago. The film uses Polanski’s elusiveness—he has lived in France since February, 1978, when he fled the U.S., rather than be sentenced in California—as both narrative premise and central metaphor. He is both “wanted and desired,” the movie argues, but never possessed.
Certainly, Polanski’s life story is wracked by trauma and misfortune. “He didn’t have the blueprint for life that so many people had,” says Mia Farrow. Indeed, as Santa Monica Evening Outlook reporter Richard Brenneman reminds you, Polanski survived the Nazis in Poland: “He was a tragic, brilliant, historic figure, this man who had survived the Holocaust, who had survived the gassing of his mother.” In the face of such adversity, it seemed a miracle that he went on to artistic and professional success, praised by critics and turning profits with Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which Farrow remembers as “a happy time for all of us.” To illustrate, Wanted and Desired includes both on-set footage of Farrow dancing and giving giddy good fun, as well as harrowing clips from the film, such as Rosemary’s rape by the devil (“This is no dream!”). “And then,” Farrow says, “everything just collapsed.”
The collapse, of course, was initiated by the 1969 murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four friends by Charles Manson’s followers. Airing 9 June on HBO before it opens in U.S. theaters, Wanted and Desired underlines the abuse Polanski suffered in the U.S. press following the killings, via insinuations that his artistic interests, including the violence in Knife in the Water and Dance of the Vampires, as well as the satanic rituals in Rosemary’s Baby, revealed his capacity for violence in real life. Repeatedly, the documentary challenges lazy reliance on the idea that art somehow reveals the maker’s psyche, however unconsciously or inadvertently. Brenneman articulates what he sees as Polanski’s impossible position, that even after he “had come here and developed his own voice, had maintained his integrity against the power of the Hollywood machine, and [yet] the American press tended to look at him as this malignant twisted dwarf with this dark vision.”
The murders certainly exacerbated this impression, and the rape seemed to confirm his lack of moral compass. Even as Polanski insisted the victim consented, the sensational circumstances argued against his professed innocence. Not only did his European sensibility mark him as “alien” (he didn’t see sex with “young girls” as criminal, and had had a previous relationship with 15-year-old Nastassja Kinski), but his intentions seemed “obvious” (he brought the victim to Jack Nicholson’s house to take photos for Vogue Hommes magazine, where they indulged in champagne, Quaaludes, and a jacuzzi).
But Wanted and Desired is less interested in the crime (no matter what Polanski believed, in the U.S. a 13-year-old cannot “consent” to sex) than in the treatment of Polanski by the U.S. press and legal system. The former is represented in a repeated image, Polanski entering or leaving the Los Angeles courthouse, thronged by reporters, looking small and buffeted, his double-breasted suit dapper and his haircut fashionably shaggy. The ugliness of these images is underscored by Polanski’s answer to a journalist’s query, “In general, I despise the press tremendously for its inaccuracy, for its irresponsibility, for its often even deliberate cruelty, and all of this is for lucrative purposes.”
The legal system is embodied by Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, who had presided over Priscilla’s divorce from Elvis and a Marlon Brando paternity suit. According to Brenneman (the film’s representative of sensitive, self-aware reporting), Rittenband was “interested in handling celebrity cases.” Even more to the point, the reporter observes, this precursor to Lance Ito “wanted to shape the way the press covered him.” His legacy is reshaped here, through interviews with defense attorney Douglas Dalton and prosecutor Roger Gunson (at the time a “37-year-old very straight-thinking Mormon”), both looking back on the case with dismay, agreed that the judge was untrustworthy and determined, at last, to sentence Polanski illegally.
The documentary shapes its story elegantly, with these present day interviews as well as archival photos and footage (shots of the judge on the bench, a clip of Polanski in near tears as he confronts a crowd of reporters follow his wife’s death (“The last few years I spent with her were the only time of true happiness in my life”). An interview with the victim, Samantha Gailey Geimer, now 44 and a mother of three living in Hawaii, reveals that she also felt abused by the system. “All that stuff was so traumatic,” she says, “I never really had a chance to worry about what happened that night with him.” The sensational case was increasingly oppressive and chaotic, as classmates taunted or exploited her by taking photos at school (“The worst part was, no one believed me”) and police interviewers pressed her for information. As she remembers, “You can’t stop it once it starts, you know. I just went in my room pretty much and just turned it off.”
Wanted and Desired doesn’t suggest at any point that Polanski is not responsible for what he’s done, or that he was reckless regarding consequences—for Samantha even more than for himself. But his liability is framed by that of the police, the judge, and the press especially, the hysteria that twisted the case at every turn. “It’s too easy and clichéd to connect your work and your life in such a direct manner,” Polanski tells an interviewer in the first few moments of the documentary. And yet, friends and observers persist, throughout Wanted and Desired, as if wanting to comprehend him through the images that are available.
Such desire is endemic to contemporary celebrity culture, nut this deft documentary reveals the expansion of this complicated relationship among public, press, and stardom. It explores legal corruptions and the media’s sense of entitlement and presumption of access, as well as the inclination to make up stories when such access remains elusive. Polanski’s story, the film argues, is about sensationalism, self-interest, and competing interests, multiple players talking and talking, fundamentally incapable of achieving precise or stable truths.