When in Rome?

The revisited furore over Roman Polanski raises fascinating questions over the relationship between an artist and their audience, and between the moral and the artistic. It can be reduced to one conundrum; namely does the private life of an artist/writer/performer affect the way that we interact with what they create? Does the fact that Polanski is, by his own admission, guilty of ‘unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor’ affect how we view his films? Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and Tess are three groundbreaking movies and show what a great film maker Polanski can be. But does the private life of the director prove problematic when it comes to enjoyment of these movies? I think, on some level, it must.
My worst dilemma arose with Woody Allen. He was (is?) such a hero of mine that I went through a period in my life where I would watch at least two films of his every week, and could recite ever word from Sleeper, Play it Again Sam, Annie Hall, Manhattan and Love and Death. I loved the man and his work unashamedly and without equal. Then came the scandal and sensation over his relationship with Soon Yi Previn. Now this is not an easy situation to understand, particularly if you don’t wish it to be. Allen was never married to Soon Yi’s mother, Mia Farrow, although they were a high profile couple for around 12 years, and they actually lived separately in different apartments in New York. Soon Yi was adopted by Farrow and her then husband Andre Previn. There was never a legal relationship between Allen and Soon Yi, and they are still together 18 years later with children of their own. So arguments can, were, and are, made to the effect that while this is a messy and unusual situation, there is nothing Woody has to answer for. Then you take into account the assessment of Ronan, ne Satchel, Farrow who is Mia and Woody’s son. He says: “He’s my father married to my sister. That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression. I cannot see him. I cannot have a relationship with my father and be morally consistent…. I lived with all these adopted children, so they are my family. To say Soon-Yi was not my sister is an insult to all adopted children.” It is a powerful argument that should provoke second thoughts in even the staunchest Woody Allen supporter. Of course questions of morality, like artistic value, are actually individual even when they appear to be otherwise, and in the end how we come to view Woody’s, or Roman’s, films will change from person to person. All I know is that although I still watch Woody Allen movies, some of the magic has disappeared.

I also wonder if the perceived worth of the art, and therfore the artist, has a bearing on how we view the ‘crimes’ of the artist? Apparent objective moral probity often seems fairly random. Jerry Lee Lewis is still the butt of jokes concerning his relationship with his 13 (or 15 depending on who you believe) year old cousin Myra Gale Brown, while Elvis Aaron Presley, who at the very least was dating the 14 year old Priscilla, escapes most people’s opprobrium. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is to ask ‘How would the world have treated Gary Glitter if he had been in The Beatles rather than fronting The Glitter Band?’ I would hope such things don’t matter, but the example of Roman Polanski, and those who have vocally supported him, suggests they do.

The artist is trying to convince the world that their ideas, ideals and beliefs are the ones that others should share. I’m sure that many would protest that the work itself is the argument, but how convincing can that argument be if the life is not consistent or convincing? The important thing is to make up our own minds, and not have them made for us.

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