Sunday 17 May 2020

Not on any screens - Scott Murray ponders the fate of A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK (Woody Allen, USA, 2019) and AN OFFICER AND A SPY (Roman Polanski, France, 2019)

The Thought Police must have felt they were on a roll when they successfully started suppressing the release of the 2019 films of Woody Allen (A Rainy Day in New York) and Roman Polański (J’Accuse, aka An Officer and A Spy). 

Woody Allen
In September 2019, Woody Allen (born Allan Stewart Konigsberg) faced refreshed allegations of sexual abuse from a daughter of his former partner, Mia Farrow. Farrow had adopted the girl (at two weeks of age), who was first named Eliza, then Malone and finally Dylan. Allen has not been charged with any crime and has been exonerated (or found to have no case to answer) by all the authorities that have investigated Dylan’s repeated and sometimes variant claims. 

Dylan has also denounced actress Scarlett Johansson for appearing in three Allen films, and for declaring, “I believe him, and I would work for him any time.” In a Hollywood where cancelling one’s fellow workers has become a regular occurrence, Johansson’s supporting Allen is both brave and career-dangerousIn concert with Dylan’s renewed claims came several mea culpas from cast members of A Rainy Day in New York, Allen’s wittiest and most whimsical romantic comedy since Midnight in Paris, ravishingly photographed by Vittorio Storaro and beautifully played by a young and highly talented cast (plus, of course, a hilarious Liev Schreiber).

Timothée Chalamet, for one, blamed contractual reasons for not speaking out earlier about his decision to work with Allen, ending with “I want to be worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with the brave artists who are fighting for all the people to be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.” But not fighting “for all the people” if their name is Woody Allen, of course. Chalamet will be lucky to make another film as good as Rainy Day, where he is so much more natural and skilled than in, say, Call Me By Your Name.

Elle Fanning, Timothée Chalamet, A Rainy Day in New York
However, the revelation of Rainy Day is not Chalamet but Elle Fanning (doing as good a Diane Keaton as Keaton did herself) and also Selena Gomez (extraordinary). Unlike Chalamet, Fanning did not recant on working with Allen, despite highly leading questions from reporters. But she clearly felt uncomfortable in the #MeToo searchlight and admitted to unspecified “regrets” while expressing the hope she hadn’t hurt anyone. In contrast, Gomez stood firm, even when criticised on Instagram by her mother, Mandy Teefey, for showing independence of mind and working with Allen. Gomez is 27 years old and yet her mother believes she has the right to lecture her daughter – publicly! – on how to behave? 

Selena Gomez, Timothée Chalamet, A Rainy Day in New York
For the record, Teefey isn’t too keen on Gomez’s choice of boyfriends, either. So, a huge tick for the defiantly independent Gomez, a considered tick for Fanning and nothing for Chalamet, whose mea culpa reminded me of Soviet citizens being dragged before a Soviet show-trial, where they know they have to denounce themselves and promise ideological purity for eternity if they have any hope of escaping a bullet in the morning.  Chalamet gave his Rainy Day salary to various organisations including RAINN, while Gomez made a $1 million donation (far more than her Rainy Day pay-cheque) to Time’s Up. 

According to Allen’s 2020 autobiography, Apropos of Nothing (more later), Chalamet told Allen’s sister and Rainy Day producer Letty Aronson that he gave his salary away in the hope of winning an Oscar. Instead, he won the Yoga Award’s Worst Foreign Actor Award for Little Women and Beautiful Boy.

Roman Polański
After having lived through an attempt by the Polish government to seize and deport him to the United States for having illegally fled Los Angeles after serving 42 days in prison for having sex with an underage girl, Roman Polański (born Raymond Thierry Liebling) found the release of his 60 million euro J’Accuse/An Officer and a Spy interrupted by a new allegation of sexual harassment 44 years after the claimed incident. 

In a world where we are all told daily that every charge alleged by a victim must be believed, Polański and his film faced permanent cancellation.After all, Polański had previously pleaded guilty to having sex in March 1977 with the 13-year-old Samantha Gailey (now Geimer).  He was not found guilty of pædophilia (the victim was not pre-pubescent) or rape (no force was alleged) or statutory rape (a term not in use at the time in LA). But the world’s press continues to label Polański a “rapist” and “pædophile” to this day.  Polański also served the prison term set by the judge in the plea-bargain deal (which is how 97% of American criminal convictions are achieved). Gailey’s attorney actually played a key role in getting the plea-bargain done and having five charges against Polański dropped.

By far the best account of the crime, trial and aftermath is The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski, written in 2013 by Geimer. It is an extraordinary book and I remain haunted by it to this day. Geimer is heroic, intelligent and beyond fair, and I would put it on every school curriculum.

Allen & Amazon
Allen’s Rainy Day in New York was dropped before its release by Amazon Studios after pressure was brought to bear. Allen sued and the case was settled out of court. European distributors took a different view to Amazon, putting the film into cinemas and watching the film gross $30m in the limited number of markets it has so far ventured into. It is the world’s highest-grossing film during the Covid-19 crisis, while the UK has done an abrupt U-turn and announced the film will be released theatrically in June. Maybe Australia will one day follow suit (but don’t hold your breath). Meanwhile, excellent-quality DVDs are available in all manner of territories.  Allen has also completed a new film, Rifkin’s Festival, in Spain.

But the setbacks continue. His autobiography, Apropos of Nothing, was pulped in America just days before its planned release by the Hachette Book Group after a highly publicised protest by Ronan Farrow (whose publisher is also Hachette). Ronan claims that Allen is his father, despite his mother Mia Farrow having twice stated publicly that Ronan’s father is actually Frank Sinatra, a claim Mia has only recanted once (so far as I can find). If Woody Allen can one day film this story, it might well be his masterpiece, loaded with Ancient Greek references.

Despite Hachette’s volte farce, Apropos was quickly taken up by a new publisher and is now available in print in the UK and will be later released in the US.  My UK copy (Arcade Publishing) is in the mail and keeps apologising for the delay in sending me the Hachette copy I so long-ago ordered, a litany of apologies that could last as long as Amazon does, for Hachette will clearly never get around to printing my copy.

Allen remains undaunted, though clearly drained by the relentless campaign to cancel him and his life’s work. I doubt charges will ever be laid against him, but innocence in law means nothing in a world where every accusation from an alleged victim has to be believed or you risk becoming as non-person.

Robert Harris
Polański & Harris
One of the most fascinating writer-director relationships of modern times is that between novelist Robert Harris and director Roman Polański. It began with Polański’s adaptation of Harris’ The Ghost, which was retitled The Ghost Writer because in the US, in part, the term “ghost”, as readers of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and viewers of Robert Benton’s film version well know, can be used derogatively to describe African Americans. Despite being made in Germany and not the UK (Polański would have been arrested and extradited to America), The Ghost Writer is a stylish and well-crafted thriller – as well as a poisoned billet-doux from former speechwriter Harris to his one-time bosses, Tony and Cherie Blair.

Polański then planned to film Harris’ The Fear Index, but for a variety of reasons it didn’t get made. That is a pity as it is a gripping analysis of how fear grips the planet and the various ways some people profit from that fear.  So, next up was Harris’ novel, The Officer and A Spy, a dazzling re-telling of the real-life Dreyfus Affair, where a Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was cashiered out of the French army in 1896 for an act of espionage he never committed. The Army knew who the real culprit was but decided it was better to maintain the reputation of France by insisting on the fiction that Dreyfus was guilty.

Dreyfus cashiered, An Officer and a Spy

Polański’s film version (scripted by Harris) is a remarkable achievement, the work of a brilliant filmmaker at the peak of his craft. There are sequences (the opening, a scuffle in the street, the chilling way Dreyfus declines to thank his saviour) that I would argue no other director alive could equal.

An Officer and a Spy
Needless to say, socially progressive reporters tried to damn the film even before it was released with claims that it was an attempt by the Jewish Polański to allege he was treated as appallingly by the American justice system as the Jewish Dreyfus was by the French Army. This fiction continued with reviews after the film premiered in May 2019 at the Venice Film Festival (where it won the Grand Jury Prize). 

I can discern not a single moment that supports such a reading. After all, Dreyfus was innocent, while Polanski pleaded guilty. Polański had also served his time as set by the judge, Laurence J. Rittenband, and agreed to by his lawyers and the victim’s: namely, 90 days, including psychiatric evaluation and probation. 

However, it is claimed in several printed accounts that the judge was later warned by a friend that he would never get re-elected unless he extended Polański’s jail term and so he began considering abandoning the plea bargain and extending the prison sentence to 50 years. When Polański (who had been released on probation) was informed of the judge’s likely change of heart, he fled the US, so far not to return. 

Many (including me) felt Polański ought to have served more than 42 days in prison, but I hope few would approve of the way the judge was said to be behaving. Switching from an agreed sentence of 90 days to 50 years is some switch, indeed. 

Humans love to re-interpret and re-judge issues of the past by applying the moralities of the moment, as if we have reached an unparalleled pinnacle of clarity and insight. But nothing is more certain than how, in a few years’ time, the values of today will be denounced as totally wrongheaded as the values that have come before. It is the human way. It is also the human way to make light of serious matters. 

The director Billy Wilder liked to joke about Polański’s physical stature. When asked what he thought of Polański making Macbeth, Wilder replied, “I wouldn’t touch it with a five-foot pole.” At the time, I recall no one thinking Wilder’s gag was anything worse than acerbic. Today, he would be silenced. Ditto Wilder’s opinion on Polanski’s seduction of the 13-year-old Gailey, Wilder claiming Polanski was merely looking for someone of his own height.

There is no point in going on about how values were so different back then (the casual acceptance of adults having sex with teenagers, how so many Australian homes had a copy of David Hamilton’s Dreams of Young Girls on their coffee tables, bought in some cases by women – as they explained to me – who felt Hamilton was the first photographer to accurately capture how they felt about their own sexuality when teenagers). 

Polański has been a fugitive from the American justice system for almost half a century, but how many of his accusers would have stayed to face a judge who was threatening to overturn a plea-bargain deal and lock you up for 50 years? If Polanski had stayed, he could still be in jail today. Murderers get less.

However, that does not change what Polański did or the need to question whether his actions should be taken into account when assessing his career. Should he, for example, have been given Cannes’ Palme d’Or for The Pianist or an Oscar for directing it? Equally, to open out the debate, should the painter Caravaggio be acclaimed as a supreme master when he was an unrepentant criminal who fled Rome to escape punishment for killing a man? 

Should Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five still be considered a literary masterpiece given he falsely claimed the death total in the Allied bombing of Dresden to be 500,000 when it was (as almost all historians agree) between 22,700 and 24,000? London lost 32,000 in the German blitz, a figure rarely mentioned today, but Dresden and Vonnegut’s fake account are.

I can find no one on record criticising Vonnegut for libelling the Allies and Bomber Command other than for me in the Fairfax press, or find anyone who seriously rules out Caravaggio from consideration as a genius because of his myriad crimes. However, there remains an uncountable and resolute many who want to forever damn Allen (who has been charged with no crime) and Polański (who served his time and apologised to his victim – too slowly, perhaps, but Geimer accepted his apology).

Despite the late-2019 allegation against Polański, the French film industry gave J’Accuse its annual César Award for Best Director, despite the outrage everyone knew would follow It is odd that the West so often portrays the French as morally spineless (especially in war movies). Here, they have showed more spine than anybody else (though I exclude the Hachette Book Group from that endorsement).

Polański was born in Paris and has been a French citizen his entire life, and that may have some bearing on what happened at the Césars. France is a nation that stands up for its citizens in ways no other nation does. They will negotiate with anyone, and use any means at their disposal, to bring home a citizen from overseas trouble, and also do everything possible not to extradite its citizens to foreign shores (especially those with death sentences, like the US). 

I applaud the courage of those who voted for J’Accuse. I haven’t seen a 2019 film from France remotely as well made and no one has suggested one to me (though Adrian Martin might).

For those living in countries where no distributor will take up the mantle of releasing The Officer and A Spy, and who can’t speak French (thereby ruling out the French Blu-ray), why not try the Russian Blu-ray, in the original French with English subtitles (which sadly go berserk with every é and switch to Italian for one line)? There is also an English-subtitled Czech Blu-ray I have not yet sighted.

In 2019, Allen and Polański managed to produce major films and thwart those who seek to control those they want to make films and those allowed to see them. It is similar to when the satellite states of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics gave up the fight for free speech and directors robotically churned out state-sanctioned propaganda. 

The few directors who were brave and knew how to work the system were the ones Australian film festivals championed as world heroes. These are the same Australian festivals that now refuse to show films by Allen and Polański.

But every attempt throughout history to control how people think has ultimately failed and it will fail again – especially when directors like Allen and Polański refuse to kowtow to whatever self-appointed Thought Police are around trying to rule people’s minds and lives. 

Editor’s Note: J’Accuse/An Officer and a Spy has previously been written about by Rod Bishop on the Film Alert 101 blog. You can find that post if you click here

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