Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Creepy Stuff I Did

the creepy stuff i did
by Douglas Messerli

David Letterman Late Show with David Letterman, October 1, 2009, CBS
Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman (writers), Woody Allen (director) Manhattan / 1979
Joe Bini, P. G. Morgan, and Marina Zenovich (writers), Marina Zenovich (director) Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired / 2008, the showing I witnessed was at the Melnitz Theatre, UCLA, on October 1, 2009

 While recently listening to David Letterman's "confession" of his sexual encounters on late night television, I was bemused and more than a little frightened, once again, by my fellow citizens' sexual prudery and by the underlying attitudes we Americans seem to have about sex in general.

     Letterman, as most Americans now know, was being blackmailed by CBS producer Robert "Joe" Halderman for having had—are you sitting down?—"sex with a woman who worked with me on this show." Allegedly these sexual relationships all occurred before his marriage to Regina Lasko and the birth of their son, although there are now suggestions that he took one of the women, Stephanie Birkett, on a Caribbean vacation with his wife and son.

    However, unless Letterman threatened these women with dismissals from their jobs if they did not have sex with him, it amazes me that anyone might have thought that he could get away with blackmail or that viewers might even imagine this to be of interest except to Letterman, his wife, and the women with whom he had sex. Certainly, it can (and evidently has) lead to matrimonial difficulties and may someday end up as an issue in divorce court, but in my estimation those issues have no place at all in the minds of prurient American television viewers, who every day, it seems, are shocked and absolutely amazed that our celebrities and leaders lead lives as sexual beings!

     The media, of course, mightily fuels this ridiculous outrage. In France or even Italy, the public and press might hail Letterman as an ordinary man. But here he is forced to describe his noncriminal behavior as "creepy," as if he were some strange deviant, hiding his actions from an innocent American mass. Although the American divorce rate, as some sources show, has decreased in the last few years by 30%, it is still, according to The Marriage Index, 2-6 times higher than in Canada and European countries. Obviously, divorce may occur for numerous reasons, yet infidelity is obviously high among its causes. Accordingly, Letterman may be a very ordinary man. Why are we so fascinated by the topic?

    On the other hand, if one of these women had been an underage intern, it would be a different matter. And that is what we must consider in the recent arrest of Roman Polanski, to whose side numerous Hollywood figures have recently come in support of his being freed from the Swiss prison and possible U.S. extradition.

     At some point I would like to discuss American and current international attitudes (largely in response to American pressure) about sexuality and children. As a society, the rising hysteria about child abuse—and I will assert that it has reached that level of behavior since it has become something that cannot be rationally discussed—is dismaying to the say the least. Our viewpoint is based on a Victorian notion of childhood isolation, a blessèd time of innocence in which children are to be protected from the world at large, and there is a certain wisdom, I am sure, in this vision, even if the reality seems to be pointing to the opposite, that today's children are increasingly behaving, earlier and earlier in their childhood, as adults (with results both good and bad). Those facts, also fueled by the media, in turn, fan the flames of further fears which Americans play out.     

     Nearly everyone save sexual predators themselves, recognizing the power adults have over children's minds and bodies, want to protect juveniles from the sexual advances of men and women who may psychologically hurt them, physically abuse them, or even kill them; most civilized societies understand those dangers and seek to protect their young. But at what age to draw the line? We have somewhat arbitrarily named the age of 18, even though one can enlist, without parental consent, to go to war at age 17. Evidently, children have permission to die, as long as do it as virgins.

     No matter what age is chosen to be appropriate, on the other hand, there will always appear to be exceptions, children more advanced, physically and sexually, than their peers. And one cannot expect the judge or jury to make such determinations, to pick and choose among the victims. On the other hand, in severe cases of murder and mayhem there seems to be an increasing decision among prosecutors to try some juveniles as adults. Not being a lawyer, I don't know what kind of criteria goes into these determinations, but it does seem somewhat hypocritical when we can pick and choose how we can apply life imprisonment or even the death sentence to underage children, while making no allowance for their sexuality.

      In his 1979 film Manhattan, Woody Allen flirts with this very issue. Recently revisiting this film, I was a little abashed to remember that the girl Allen has taken up with after his second wife (Meryl Streep) has run away with another woman, is a 17 year-old high school girl (Mariel Hemingway). Although the Allen character is clearly someone uncomfortable with the idea throughout the film—joking at one point, "I'm older than her father, can you believe that? I'm dating a girl, wherein, I can beat up her father."—noone else seems appalled by the fact. Indeed all of Allen's friends in the movie seem to be involved, like Letterman, in extramarital affairs (particularly the character Yale, played by Michael Murphy) or, in the case of Diane Keaton's character, easily shifting from bed to bed. Only Tracy, Allen's 17 year-old lover, seems to know what she wants—an older lover to "fool around" with. Not until Allen has sent her packing does he realize how much he misses her; but she's now 18 and on her way to a new experience in life, a six-month stay in England, which, incidentally, he had previously recommended to her.

     That film received nearly unanimous praise, and no reviewer I've read seemed at all appalled that it was, in some senses, a film about child abuse. Maybe because it was fiction it was saved from public outcry, although one must remember that just two decades earlier Lolita, another fiction about this subject, was banned in the USA.

      Allen, one should recall, has had his own sexual scandale, involving himself in an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Allen's lover of the time, Mia Farrow, a romance she discovered by finding nude pictures of her daughter taken by Allen. Frankly, I might describe Allen's actions as far more "creepy" than anything Letterman has done. Ultimately, Allen married Soon-Yi, and they remain married today. It comes as no surprise, accordingly, that Allen is one of the signatories of the petition demanding Polanski's release from jail.

      If in the film-fiction Manhattan Tracy is apparently more mature than all the adults of that film, the girl with whom Polanski had sex in 1977, Samantha Geimer, although a mature looking girl, was not even close to legal age; she was only 13 at the time. Geimer, moreover, clearly did not want a sexual relationship with her photographer and reported his sexual advances as rape to the police. Whether Polanski had set out to rape her or whether his sex with her seemingly arose from a too-intimate setting, a sauna at Jack Nicholson's house, is not really the issue. Polanski fed her both Champagne and part of a Qualude before engaging in sex. And even imagining that, as a sexual swinger of the international set, he was unaware of how serious Americans took such infractions, he surely couldn't have been so stupid to think his actions would have no consequence.

     Although one might find it psychologically fascinating that he committed these infractions just a few years after the brutal slaying by Charles Manson and his dreadful followers of Polanski's beloved wife, Sharon Tate, events all further interwoven, surely, with his childhood memories of the murder of his parents in the death chambers of World War II concentration camps, it can have no direct bearing on his criminal behavior, particularly since he was twice found to be free of serious psychological problems. It may be fascinating to consider those issues when discussing his films, but cannot be seen, as some have attempted, to be an excuse for his actions.

     Finally, it seems ridiculous to argue, as some in Hollywood have, that he should be excused from this sexual "slip up" because of his immense talent. When will we learn that great artists, writers, and other geniuses often support evil actions and those behind them? I love the writing of Knut Hamsun, but to do so one must also accept the fact that he was a supporter of the Nazi cause and actually met with Hitler. My own thinking about poetry has been very influenced by Ezra Pound, but I cannot condone his support of the Fascists and his anti-Semitic writings. Great artists can also be bad human beings.

      Yet Polanski's acts are even more muddied by the actions of the press, lawyers, and judge overseeing his criminal case. As Marina Zenovich's 2008 film, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired  (screened at UCLA soon after Polanski's Swiss arrest) reveals, from the moment of Polanski's act he was hounded by the news media, who cast him as the perfect target for Americans who hated the intelligentsia, were xenophobic, and who feared the sexuality he exuded.  

     The appointed judge for the case, Lawrence J. Rittenband, was noted for his relationships with celebrities, and sought out the case, purposely generating news coverage of the hearings. The opposing lawyers, Douglas Dalton (Polanski's lawyer) and Roger Gunson (for the accuser) were intelligent and dedicated lawyers forced to play charades by the judge's shifting impositions of law. Even when the parties agreed to drop all charges except rape and that Polanski would undergo psychological observation, Rittenband further played to the grandstand, demanding a series of new tests in Chino State Prison. Once again all parties agreed to his demands, yet Rittenband audaciously made them perform his decision out in court, each lawyer playing out the case that had been already previously decided.

      Even after serving his time in the Chino prison, Polanski and his lawyer were further threatened by the judge, and after flying to Europe, where the filmmaker was captured in pictures at the Munich Ocktoberfest surrounded by young women (an event Polanski had not even wanted to attend, but was encouraged to by a German friend), Rittenband threatened to sentence Polanski to more time in Chino and demanded, illegally, that Polanski give up his rights for deportation. Dalton and Polanski refused. Even the blue-eyed upstanding Mormon prosecutor Gunson admits, had he been asked to do what Rittenband had demanded, he too might have left the country. In 1978, after almost a year of such public torture, Polanski illegally fled the US.

     That the California enforcers are still vigilantly attempting to return Polanski to the US for sentencing—a sentencing which clearly threatens, as the New York Times recently pointed out (Sunday, October 11, 2009), to be a less forgiving prison time for his acts—seems unfair at best.

     Although there is little question that Polanski "got off" the first time around, with a very short time in jail, in the end one must ask what is justice, what is imprisonment about? Certainly, justice did not win out in 1978, either for the accuser or accused. Why do we imprison people? Obviously, in part, we incarcerate the guilty as punishment for their crimes. But we seem to have forgotten that we also jail individuals with the hope of reformation, with the desire of somehow redeeming their lives. Today, it appears, particularly when it comes to sex crimes, that we no longer believe in that possibility. And we all know that some sexual abusers, particularly when it comes to children, have committed crimes over and over again. I do think, however, that we should not presume by such recidivism that all such criminals are unable to be reformed. Clearly, Polanski has led, in the 31 years since his escape from America, a productive and seemingly governed life. What can be the use of trotting a 76 year old man off to prison for a crime he committed at age 44? It seems to me that Polanski has been more than punished for his acts, unless, as I suspect, we are a terrifyingly vengeful society when it comes to sex.

Los Angeles, October 12-13, 2009

Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (October 2009).

When I shared some of the above comments with my M.F.A. students at Otis College of Art + Design in conjunction with our reading a book that involved issues of sexuality, I found their reactions very similar to what I feared were those of the general American public.

     Several of my students insisted that Polanski had to be returned if only to be made a symbol of the fact you cannot simply escape our justice system and "get away with it."

     I suggested that I had never been much interested in converting human beings into symbols. But even more importantly, one has to ask what is a symbol?

    No one in my class could say, although one ventured, "something or someone that means something else."

    "Perhaps, but such a trope could also be an allegory, where every time you see a figure or an image it also stands for another thing throughout the entire text. A symbol, on the other hand, is not one other person or thing but represents a whole group of possibilities.

     "In Eudora Welty's Golden Apples, for example, particularly in the first story titled 'Shower of Gold,' we are presented with a character, Miss Snowdie MacLain, a woman who is nearly an albino, who from time to time is visited by her itinerant husband, King MacLain, who upon these occasions impregnates her, only to leave again for more than a year at a spell. The MacLain's are characters, a couple in Welty's fiction, who have a very strange relationship, but remain credible characters nonetheless.

    "Surrounding this couple, however, are a series of associations, the 'shower of gold' hinted at in the title, and the fact that she is an albino, unable, at some points, to explain her pregnancies, information we get from the narrator of this story, Mrs. Rainey. When Snowdie announces she is going to have a baby, for example, the narrator notes:

                      She [Snowdie MacLain] looked more than only the news had come over
                      over her. It was like a shower of something had stuck her, like she'd been
                      caught out in something bright. It was more than the day. There with her
                      all crinkled up with always fighting the light, yet she looking out bold as
                     a lion that day under her brim, and gazing into my bucket and into my
                     stall like a visiting somebody.

     "Now that's good descriptive writing, we feel almost as if we can see Snowdie MacLain, a woman who is a bit confused about the facts but nonetheless proud of knowing that she is soon to give birth. The story remains just that, a story. But for the knowledgeable reader, the way this story is told suggests other things, stories, images, etc. Do any of you recognize what that 'something else' is?"

      None of them spoke.

      "In Greek legend we have many stories about Zeus, his rape of Leda as he transformed himself into a swan, his abduction of Europa while disguised as a bull, his love of the Trojan prince Ganymede who was stolen by an eagle sent by Zeus. In short, Zeus, King of the gods, was a serial rapist.

     "Another such tale concerns Danaë, the daughter of King Acrisius and Eurydice. When the oracle reported to her father that he would be killed by his daughter's son, Acrisius locked Danaë up in a cave to keep her childless. But Zeus appeared this time as a golden rain, a 'golden shower' that impregnated her with a child, Perseus, who would later kill Medusa, the female monster whose gaze turned people to stone. Perseus later participated in the athletic games in Larissa, throwing a discus which, by accident, hit an attending guest, Acrisius, in the head, killing him and fulfilling, of course, the oracle's prediction.

    "Welty's character Snowdie shares a great deal with Danaë, and reading about her reminds one of that myth and other such myths Welty weaves throughout the stories of The Golden Apple. Snowdie is not Danaë, but shares things in common with her and the events surrounding that Greek myth, and Welty's story is enriched by this combination of associations.

     "That is a symbolic relationship. But it works only if the reader knows the Greek myth. None of you knew it, which is why, I would suggest most writers don't use symbolism these days. In our society in which fewer books are read and we have forgotten much of our literary history, we have lost sight of many of the associations that allow for symbols to properly function."

    As I told this story, I privately wondered how Welty's brilliant collection—filled with tales of abduction and rape—might be received today. Would today's readers find the genteel Miss Welty an immoral writer advocating child sexuality since, at one point, two young twin boys rape a girl their age?

     "Perhaps you mean that Polanski should be made an 'example,'" I suggested. "But, I might ask, in my role as Devil's Advocate, what would his being sent back to jail be an example of, to whom would that example be conveyed?"

     "An example of our justice system," one student nearly shouted. "An example to others that you can't just expect to run away from your criminal actions and live happily ever after just because you're rich and famous."

    "I have my doubts," I answered, "about punishment actually preventing crimes. I think most people who commit such acts as Polanski are either convinced that they are somehow above the law, that it doesn't apply to them, or that they probably won't get caught. I suppose there are some potential child molesters out there who might think twice about actually acting on their thoughts; perhaps there are more than I can imagine, and the other punishments meted out by the system prevent these men and women from acting. I hope that's true.

    "Yet it seems to me that criminals will continue to proliferate, with or without examples of how our system operates. Just look at the overcrowded prisons we find throughout our country. Never before have our prisons been so full of men and women who have broken our laws; in 2008 almost 4 million people were incarcerated at year's end" (While I was editing this CNN reported that this year to date there have been 90,000 rapes! Could that be true, I wondered to myself? Upon checking the statistics elsewhere I discovered that over the past two years 787,000 US women were the victims of sexual assault! What can that say about our society, when even rape becomes, in some perverse way, ordinary? Imagine every man and woman and child in the state of South Dakota, population 804,000, involved in such acts! I can only ask myself, "What is wrong with this picture? Could it be that there is a correlation between our fears about and lurid fascination with all things sexual and the brutal behavior behind these acts?")  

      "When I hear, we have to make an 'example' of someone, I think of something like a frontier posse angrily gathering to track down their man, an event that usually ends in a hanging or a shootout. Even if this posse were to catch their man and bring him safely back to justice I suspect any example it might convey would to the law-abiding society itself, which implies that the example works something like a pat on the back: 'Good for us! Hooray! We've got a great system of laws.'

      "I don't think I like the idea of turning human beings into examples either."

      "Justice has to be served!" proclaimed another student.

      "That may be true," I argued, "but in this case it wasn't served. Judge Ritterband, as I told you, twisted the system for his own purposes. Were Polanski to have stayed for his sentencing, I should imagine his case might easily have been overturned given all the illegal maneuvers the lawyers from both sides describe. What that would have meant for Polanski is probably numerous other courtroom battles. Whose justice is it, finally, to try a man over and over from the same crime? In a sense, by fleeing the country, Polanski gave Ritterband just what he had illegally demanded. Polanski deported himself, and for all these years has never been able to return to the US."

      Two of my women students stridently spoke up: "I think he should be locked up and they should throw away the key."

     "Precisely my point," I responded, "with regard to sex we are a vengeful folk."

     At that instant I don't think my students much liked me.

Evidently, the seemingly non-judgmental Swiss also felt that the American attitudes towards sex were slightly perverse, and let Polanski out of prison so that he might return to his home in France.

Los Angeles, October 13-14, 2009

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