Friday, February 19, 2010

"Ghost Writer" Politics

By Dan Gerstein

This weekend's opening of "The Ghost Writer," Roman Polanski's new thriller about a British speechwriter, presents our tribe of scribes with a delicate dilemma.  Here you have a rare major film, touted on the front pages of the New York Times Arts and Leisure section, dedicated to our anonymous craft.  But it just so happens to be directed by a man who committed a heinous crime a generation ago —and who continues to deeply offend many men and women alike.  What's a good ghost to do?   See the film for what it is?  Or stay away because of whom it profits?

These questions hit particularly close to home for me and our firm over the last few days.  We had decided to organize an outing for the New York-based writers in our network —most of whom are as invisible to each other as they are to the outside world —to see the film.  We thought it would a good way for them to get to know each other and to share their reactions about how our profession was being portrayed on the big screen.  So we sent out a brief heads up to our email list that an outing was in the works.  Several writers thought it was a great idea.  But a few questioned our judgment, suggesting we were wrong to be promoting the work of a pedophile (in the words of one).

That forced me to confront how I really felt about this case and the complicated issues that arise from such a jarring collision between art, commerce and morality.

I was certainly sensitive to the concerns.  I found Polanski's original crime despicable.  The same is true for his lack of accountability for it.  And in the wake of his recent arrest, I was disgusted by the way so many big-named Hollywood apologists have dismissed or excused Polanski for drugging and raping a teenage girl. 

So I understand as well as anyone why some people would boycott this new movie (or any Polanski product) out of principle — and why they would want others to do the same.  His actions over time and his lack of repentance are so outrageous, they argue, that he should be shunned.

But much as I can appreciate that argument and the moral imperative behind it, I landed with a different point of view, both in general and as it relates to this case. 

Broadly speaking, I think there is a critical difference between consuming and discussing the work of an important and morally suspect artist or public figure, on the one hand, and purposely celebrating the work, profiting from it, or glorifying the creator, on the other.  

One telling example of that is Richard Nixon.  To me, his crimes were even more offensive and damaging than what Polanski did, because of the impact on the entire nation and the public trust.  But after his presidency, he remained a highly relevant and influential public thinker, and I read his books and bought magazines with his essays.  I did not believe I was "supporting" him in doing so; I was trying to stay informed and current.

In the case of Polanski, irrespective of his personal conduct, he is widely regarded as a significant director, and he has made a film that shines a very public light on our very hidden profession.  Our reason for organizing an outing was not to validate him or his art, but merely to see how our professional community is being injected into the zeitgeist, and then to have an opportunity to meditate on it together among our peers.

But clearly reasonable people can and will disagree about where to draw the line in cases like this and tradeoffs involved.  I am curious to hear where others in the ghostwriting community come down.  Is it possible to consume the art without sanctioning its creator?  Are Polanski's actions so offensive that there is no justification for buying a ticket to his film?

Let us know what you think.  Feel free to send us a post of your own if you have something meaty to say.  Or simply add a comment below.  It's an important debate, and we welcome your input.

1 comment:

RPL said...


I happen to agree with you. With a Jewish heritage I should never have read Hitler's Mein Kampf, or Stalins Falsifiers of History, or for that matter listened to the music of Ricard Wagner whose writings on race and antisemitism were repugnant; but in the former my readings had little to do with support but trying to understand their thinking, while in the case of Wagner - putting his writings and beliefs aside - he was (according to his biographer - Deems Taylor) one of the more influential composers of his generation. Ergo, putting aside Polanski's crime, his work resonates today as one of the great directors (recall Jack Nicholson in China Town, and The Academy Award winning "The Pianist"). By that same token think of Leni Riefenstahl whose two-part film, Olympische Spiele ("Olympia") won both acclaim for its technical and artistic merit, and criticism for its "Nazi aesthetic." She is also viewed as the "mother of the documentary." Should we not view her work?

Finally, In 1997, the female victim of this crime Samantha Geimer publicly forgave Polanski and filed a formal request with the Los Angeles Police Department to drop charges against him. In 2003 she wrote an Op Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times advocating for him to be allowed to return to the US to accept an Academy Award. My cynical side believes that perhaps her position had been compromised by the fact that in 1993 Polanski agreed to pay her at least $500,000 as part of a civil settlement. Geimer and her lawyers later confirmed the settlement was complete.

Living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia I will not be in a position to attend a showing of his film - but had I had the opportunity to do so - I would not look upon it as supporting an individual who engaged in a reprehensible act but rather as having the opportunity to view the work of a great artist.

Ron Ludin