September 29, 2008

Polanski: Wanted Man, Desirable Film

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Famed director Roman Polanski’s life story (Chinatown, The Pianist) is one that has been told many times: born to Polish parents during the Holocaust, he was left parentless by his teen years and continued to face many hardships after. From the tragic murder of his wife to a turbulent and highly public legal battle — the documentary’s primary focus — Roman Polanski is a man of much intrigue.
In the first two minutes of the film — an intimate dinner interview between Polanski and a reporter — you see a glimpse of the man that is so both candid and intricate. Honest yet reserved, tortured yet passionate, Polanski is a man of inner conflict, a complexity teased out throughout the film. And although this film’s outcome is unfinished, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired is a holistic, fact-driven documentary that effectively fuses the moments of suffering, corruption and romance from the famed director’s case into 95 minutes of succinct and engrossing drama.
Even though the film addresses many aspects of Polanski’s troubled life, it primarily focuses on the circumstances that led up to Polanski’s conviction of unlawful sex with a minor, and the ensuing media mayhem. After years of promiscuity following the death of his wife and unborn child, Polanksi was arrested and tried for unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl, one of seven charges that included supplying her with alcohol and drugs. He subsequently fled the country to avoid a prison sentence and to this day remains in European exile. As the film’s title deftly points out: “…in Europe Polanski is desired; however, in America he is wanted.”
This series of events, which lingers in public memory, is expertly chronicled in Zenovich’s documentary. However, the film is much more than a chronology of Polanski’s life. Zenovich digs by incorporating a barrage of eyewitness testimonies and disclosing behind-the-scenes information about crimes committed by Laurence J. Rittenband, the corrupt judge of Polanski’s case. The documentary reveals a consensus from the three most vested in the case’s outcome — aside from Polanksi himself — Douglas Dalton, Polanski’s defense attorney, Roger Gunson, the assistant district attorney and Samantha Gailey Geimer, the girl Polanski slept with.
Their testimonies reveal Rittenband to be a shameless publicity addict whose obsession with furthering his own public image outweighed his desire to establish justice. Not only did he break his promises to both sides multiple times, Rittenband defied all of the proper decorum of a judge.
He staged a fake courtroom session in which both the defense and prosecuting attorneys were to go through the motions of making their arguments before he read an opinion he had already prepared. He juggled potential sentences in discussions with outsiders, once calling a Santa Monica reporter, David L. Jonta, into his chambers to ask him, “What the hell should I do with Polanski?” He openly discussed the case with the guy at the next urinal at his country club. He even held a press conference … while the case was still alive! With all of this in mind, it made complete sense when he was removed from the case on a motion by both the prosecution and defense.
Both Gunson and Dalton agreed that justice was not served, and willingly admitted that Polanski was done wrong.
Says Gunson, “I’m not surprised that he left the country under those circumstances.” Even Samantha Geimer, the victim of Polanski’s advances, came public in 1997 to forgive the director and believes that Rittenband was running the case as if it were a performance, “orchestrating some little show that I didn’t want to be in.”
Even though this case took place in 1978, Polanski’s troubles with the press began long before then. During the years up to and following the Manson Family murders of his wife and friends, Polanski was known to be a satanic drug abuser, an individual whose films of drugs, sex and murders quite possibly manifested from his life. This reputation led the press to presume Polanski had committed the crimes himself, a humiliating paradox for a man who had lost so much in his own life.
Nevertheless, these circumstances do not absolve Polanski of his experience with Samantha Geimer, and Zenovich conveys this effectively with real file-footage from the case, from TV news bites to newspaper clippings. Despite there being no current day interviews with Polanski himself, Zenovich utilizes present-day testimonies to round-out the film’s bottom-line: regardless of Polanski’s wrong-doings, he was heinously mistreated by the judge during the case. As Polanski said himself, “The judge played with me as a cat might play with a mouse.” No argument here.