Is Marina Zenovich’s documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired in fact the “DVD of the Week” this week? I mean, is it the standout film this week, or an overlooked masterpiece, or a superior use of the DVD medium? Or am I just reaching to fill the slot of a weekly feature?
Some of the latter, possibly. Woody Allen’s Vicki Cristina Barcelona debuts on DVD and Blu-ray this week and it is probably the best new film of the week, while Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City and John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd make their respective DVD debuts as well. All of them in simple movie-only editions (as if the Woodman would ever offer a commentary track). And my favorite release of the week is Shout! Factory’s three-disc set of The Secret Policeman’s Balls, which collects the performance films of five Amnesty International Benefit shows, from Pleasure at Her Majesty’s in 1976 (featuring members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Beyond the Fringe and The Goodies) to The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball in 1989, featuring a rare reunion of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore among the comedy treats. The art is all onstage, however, as the films are basically no more than straight record of an event.
But Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired is a fascinating film and a terrific DVD. The film delves into the story of Roman Polanski’s notorious statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, his indictment on six felony charges and his subsequent flight from the U.S. in 1977. Polanski’s story reaches much farther back, of course, and is framed by his history: he survived the Holocaust that killed most of his family and endured the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and the insatiable, irresponsible media circus that hounded Polanski and recklessly smeared his reputation before the investigation discovered and arrested Charles Manson and his followers (giving the press an even more sensationalistic story). That might screw up anyone, but it hardly explains or justifies Polanski’s “relationship” (his word) with 13-year-old Samantha Gailey, plying her with drugs and alcohol before having sex with her. The film doesn’t flinch from Polanski abhorrent crimes (to which he confessed and plead guilty) and the excerpts of police interview transcripts with Polanski and Gailey are discomforting and disturbing.
But that’s only half the story. Polanski’s treatment by the American legal system, and in particular a media-obsessed judge more interested in public relations than justice, is an appalling portrait of judicial malfeasance, a legal nightmare worthy of Kafka and the kind of abuse of power that Polanski ostensibly left behind in Communist Poland. The repeated legal abuses perpetrated by presiding judge Laurence J. Rittenband, who paid more attention to the court of public opinion than the laws he swore to uphold and staged a press conference to announce his rulings in the case, appalled both the defense lawyer and the prosecuting attorney so much that they joined together to have him removed from the case. Polanski’s flight from the erratic behavior and possible punitive actions of a judge who reneged on rulings and seemed to be making up new twists on the case as he went along may not look heroic, but to Polanski it was a simple matter of survival. “Who wouldn’t think about running when facing a 50-year sentence from a judge who was clearly more interested in his own reputation than a fair judgment or even the well-being of the victim?” Gailey wrote in 2003 in the New York Times. She’s put it past her and wishes the rest of the media would do the same.
Polanski comes off with a sleazy glamor, a kid from communist Poland who embraced the culture of celebrity and American excess like a little boy on a shopping spree. We don’t see the least bit of contrition or repentance from the archival news clips of Polanski (who was not interviewed for the documentary), and in one interview with a British journalist he’s determined to justify himself. But as the film reveals the details of Polanski’s ordeal after making his plea bargain (which the judge appeared on the verge of reneging on), it’s clear that he had become a victim in his own right. And given the judicial misconduct he endured, who wouldn’t sour on the American dream? He hasn’t set foot in the U.S. since and, despite movement on bringing closure to the case, is suspicious of any offers made by the California courts.
Director Marina Zenovich and editor Joe Bini contribute a commentary track to the DVD, discussing how and why they told the story in the manner they did, from the introductory clip to the intercutting of transcripts from the police interviews with Polanski and Gailey. The five deleted scenes (some as short as a 15 or 20 seconds) are inconsequential. The treasure trove is two hours or so of bonus interviews conducted for but not used in the documentary. The gallery of “Extra Interviews” includes a dozen folks related to the legal case discussing other aspects of it, “Writers on Polanski” focus on his legacy, “Will He Come Back” is… well, that one is obvious. But for a portrait of Polanksi himself, delve into “Friends and Colleagues Talk about Polanksi.” There are twenty one actors, writers, producers, friends and others gathered here, sharing insights on and stories about Polanski. The display of respect and affection isn’t surprising but it does show that the filmmakers made a conscious choice to avoid turning the film into a portrait of Polanski the tortured artist and keep the focus on the appalling miscarriage of justice.
For more views and reviews:
Roger Ebert’s review on RogerEbert.com
Manohla Dargis at the New York Times
For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog and my DVD column at MSN.