Celebrity, Law and Sensationalism: The Arrest of Roman Polanski

Few directors are more fascinating than Roman Polanski. His life and films have an inexplicable relationship between life and death that is wonderfully complex yet absolutely horrifying. This filmmaker, who teeters on the edge of genius and disturbing, has been one of the most polarizing figures of the last decades because of the horrific nature of his personal life and decisions. This fact has become glaringly apparent following Polanski’s Sept. 26 arrest in Switzerland. Yet what makes Polanski’s case intriguing is not whether or not he is guilty for having sex with a minor—that is a proven and accepted fact. It is how, since 1977, this case has blurred the lines between celebrity status, media sensationalism and just legal action.

Polanski was born in 1933 to Polish immigrants in Paris; his family returned to Krakow in 1936 and were forced into the Krakow ghetto in 1939. While Polanski escaped the ghetto in 1943 at the age of 10, his mother was killed in Auschwitz. Beginning in the 1960s, Polanski established himself as a great filmaker in Poland and France with such films as Knife in the Water (1962). His Hollywood breakthrough came in 1968 with Rosemary’s Baby It was the year after his initial Hollywood success when Polanski’s wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered when she was 8 1/2 months pregant by followers of Charles Manson in 1969. Before Tate’s murderers were discovered, the media—at its unbiased best—accused Polanski for the murder, thus establishing Polanski’s tense relationship with the media.

Of course no other incident has affected Polanski’s life and career than his 1977 arrest and guilty plea for unlawful sex with an underage minor. Judge Laurence Rittenband resided over the case and the trial quickly became more about the media frenzy than actual justice. In the 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Rittenband is described as a conflicted and sometimes corrupt judge obsessed with maintaining a certain media image. Rittenband would often hold press conferance in his chambers to discuss the trials proceedings and kept a scrapbook of his previous celebrity trials. This action only increased the media hype surrounding the Polanski trial, which because of the directors heritage also attracted attention in France and Poland. Soon the trial was not only affecting Polanski’s life but the victims, Samantha Geimer as well. Her name was leaked to the press and her family was scrutinized by the media. Geimer has since said: “The judge was enjoying the publicity. He didn’t care about me, he didn’t care about Polanski. He was orchestrating some little show that I didn’t want to be in.” When it was ­decided that Polanski would serve prison time in 1978—in spite of the family’s plea that he not be imprisioned and court documents proving that Polanski was not a threat to society—the director left the country and has never returned. Both Roger Gumson, the prosecuting attorney, and Doug Dalton, the defense attorney, admitted that Polanski was treated unfairly by the court and are not surprised he left the country.

Polanski and Geimer settled a civil suit in 1997 and she publically forgave him. That same year, an attempt to settle the case failed, reportedly because the court requested to televise the precedings; Polanski refused to participate although the charges would have been dropped. Since then Geimer has stated that Polanski has suffered enough and appealed to have the charges against him dropped. At the time of his arrest, Polanski had also appealed the case on the grounds of misconduct the prosecution.
Here lies the problem: Polanski evaded capture by US authorities for 31 years while maintaining a practically infalible image in Europe and in Hollywood. Rather than be made an example of, as Judge Rittenband often declared he wanted to do, Polanski has had continued success. The standing ovation Polanski received when he won the 2004 Academy Award for Best Director verifies that this is not a man who is loathed for his transgressions but is respected by his peers. This is further realized by the fact that more than 200 film industry professionals including Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar and Woody Allen, have signed their names to a petition demanding Polanski’s release.

The Polanski case began before the current time of media oversaturaton, before 24 hour news stations, before the OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson trials and before celebrities were endlessly exploited by the tabloids. This case has become apart of that craze in the worst possible way. It is not that US authorities are wrong to arrest Polanski; what is wrong is how the media continues to feed off a 30 year old story that none of the affected parties wish to be reminded of.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
October 8, 2009

Reprinted with permission

Mad Men: Televising the 60s back into fashion

Credit: Ioulia Bespalova
Credit: Ioulia Bespalova
Oprah Winfrey has been busy. The television icon has relaunched her book club, interviewed Whitney Houston and plans shut down downtown Chicago. But the most unexpected of these is a 60s themed episode that aired on Sept. 21. Don’t tell Oprah this, but she is just following a sudden trend to embrace everything 60s thanks to the success of Mad Men. Fashion trends, barware, music and even the surge in sales of Frank O’Hara poetry, can all be contributed to this show.

Mad Men, created and produced by Matthew Weiner, premiered in July 2007. It has received critical acclaim for its historical accuracy, visual style and exceptional cast performances. This past Sunday it was named the Best Television Drama at the 61st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards for the second consecutive year. Now in its third season, Mad Men continues to mesmerize audiences week after week.

Set in the early 1960s, Mad Men follows the employees of Sterling Cooper (a fictional New York City advertising company) and their families. The drama centers around Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Sterling Cooper’s creative director. Draper, a man who creates the falsities of reality, leads a double life where his past is constantly in conflict with his present. Not even his wife Betty (January Jones) knows about his true identity.

While the Drapers and their seemingly perfect but painfully horrible family life drives the series, it is the supporting characters who provide the show with exceptional substance. The best of these characters is of Salvatore Romano (Bryan Blatt), the closeted Art Director for Serling Cooper. This storyline about a taboo of the decade relates the period to current times.

Moreover, in an industry where compelling female characters are few and far between, Mad Men features the best on television; there is Joan (Christina Hendricks), the office manager and her desire for the ideal husband, and Peggy, the only female copywriter, and her aspirations to be a successful working woman. Peggy’s second season storyline about her heartbreaking affair with married accounts executive Pete Campbell is among the show’s most powerful moments. Then there is Betty Draper, deeply pained and destroyed by domesticity and her husband’s infedilities, she clings to the hope that the birth of her third child will create the domestic bliss that she longs for.

As a show dependent on historical accuracy, Mad Men not only revolves around showing the cultural fads, but also explores how the tumultuous time period affected the Americans that lived and shaped it. (It will be thrilling to watch how this show addresses the Civil Rights Movement, which has been rarely addressed so far). Season two ended with many characters not knowing their fate as the Cuban Missile Crisis loomed. It has already been suggested that season three will conclude right around President Kennedy’s assassination–an event that no doubt reflects both overt and subtle distress in the Mad Man of the 1960s.

Mad Men airs Sundays at 10 P.M. on AMC.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
September 24, 2009

Skins: This is definitely not The O.C.

The teen drama has been a staple on major television networks. These shows, such as Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson’s Creek, The O.C. and Gossip Girl, focus on often ridiculous lives of angst-ridden teens (Dylan McKay, anyone?) and have rampant, sometimes cult-like followings. These shows rarely break from a standard mold-teenagers, who are probably romantically involved, have life-altering crises that are solved in 45 minutes or less. But occasionally a television show comes along that gives new light to a genre and changes television for the better. Skins, which premiered in the U.K. in 2008, is that teen drama and it makes Gossip Girl look like kindergarten.

Skins, which just broadcast its third season, follows a group of Bristol teens as they deal with life’s many problems. In seasons one and two the characters range from the popular but manipulative Tony to openly gay Maxxie-a rare characterization in teen dramas. Nothing is off limits in the series portrayal of teenage life-drugs, nudity, sex, drinking, you name it, Skins has shown it. The series depicts so much devious behavior, that Skins is censored in the United States.

Once you get past how much you see, Skins has depth that is unseen in any other teen drama. Instead of focusing on a dull love story (The O.C.), obscenely rich kids (Gossip Girl), or a quick-fix crisis (90210), Skins is short, sweet and to the point. Ten episodes, at most, make up a single season and each episode is dedicated to just one character. This not only allows for the show to have sharply written, interconnected plotlines, but also for the viewer to intimately know each character, which is practically unseen in American teen dramas. In Skins, when a character appears, even if only for second, that second always matters.

But above all, Skins is realistic, a concept Josh Schwartz, the creator of The O.C. and Gossip Girl, has probably never heard of. Season one episode, “Cassie,” is perhaps the most realistic and touching depiction of a young girl suffering from mental instability and an eating disorder. The evolution and maturation of lifelong friendships, and even sometimes how they end, are portrayed honestly. At the conclusion of series two, the gang opens their A-levels and go their separate ways. Rather than show what happens to these beloved characters and send them to the same university (a la Beverly Hills), their stories end. Like the friends you make in high school, we rarely or never hear about them again. For seasons three and four, new characters have been introduced and this pattern will continue as long as Skins is being aired.

For the most part, Skins features relatively unknown actors or first-time performers. One was Dev Patel, who recently starred in the mega-hit Slumdog Millionaire. For Slumdog fans, seeing Patel in his first role as the sex-crazed Anwar might be enough reason to watch Skins. But if you need more than an up-and-coming star to draw you in, just know that Skins is the best teen drama currently airing on television. It is as hysterically funny as it is captivating. By the end of season one, the characters will feel like your best friends, an admirable feat for any television series.

There is no telling what direction Skins will take next, but you certainly can’t go wrong if you spend a few hours with this exceptional teen drama.

Published: The Mount Holyoke News
April 30, 2009
Reprinted with permission

Students Win Top Prize at Film Festival

On Friday, Feb. 27, Merli Guerra ’09 and Zehra Nabi ’11 shared the Best of Festival award, at the 15th Annual Five College Student Film Festival for their works Synchronic and Feminapella, respectively. This was the first time Mount Holyoke students received the Best of Festival prize and it was also the first instance in which the award was shared.

The Five College Film and Video Festival, founded in 1994, is an annual event which screens original films by Five College students. A 10-member student jury and Five College film faculty organize the festival. Carolyn Engel ’09 and Sarah Wentworth ’11 represented Mount Holyoke on the student jury. The student jurors advertised the festival, ran two prescreening in order to narrow the submissions from approximately 25 to 60 films and, along with faculty members, voted on the winners.

Of the 11 awards handed out on Feb. 27, Guerra’s and Nabi’s pieces received five total awards. Guerra’s film was awarded Best Dance on Camera and Best of Mount Holyoke, while Nabi received the Best Documentary prize.

Both Nabi and Guerra took their first production classes last semester. “I didn’t even know how to turn a camera on,” said Nabi, describing her first experiences in a beginning video production class at Amherst College. Guerra, a dance major, felt overwhelmed her first day surrounded by film studies majors. “I thought that maybe this was a mistake,” said Guerra. “But Jenny [Perlin] made the class so accessible and she made me feel that I could bring whatever I wanted to class.”

Despite their inexperience in filmmaking, Nabi and Guerra were excited to explore the medium and they both found film to be the best way to combine their various interests.

Nabi, who is self-designing a media studies major, has a background in studio art and writing. After taking a first-year seminar on media, she became interested in filmmaking and specifically, news media. For Nabi, documentary filmmaking is her major interest because it combines her interests in art, writing and media. She described Feminapella as “my quest to find a funny female a capella group.” The five-minute documentary is a lighthearted look at feminism and gender relations.

Guerra’s passion for choreography and dance influenced her film. “Film seemed like a new medium I wanted to try,” said Guerra. Synchronic is a five-minute piece that merges film and dance through a layering of images. The film is also one part of Guerra’s senior dance project, which explores dance and projection through three different mediums: installation art, live performance and film.

For Nabi and Guerra, the outcome of the film festival was beyond their expectations. “I hoped something would come out of it,” said Nabi. “Best of Documentary was really good, but Best of Festival was beyond my expectations.” Guerra called the experience surreal and overwhelming. “I was completely thrilled and content that my film was even shown. I was hoping for Best Dance on Camera, but I wasn’t expecting the rest.”

Published: Mount Holyoke News
March 5, 2009

Coming soon: Election 2008

It’s Nov. 5, 2008. Just enough time has passed for Oliver Stone to announce his next film project, tentatively titled, Election 2008 or The Longest Eighteen Months Ever. Who knew that Oliver Stone had a funny bone.Fearing the same pre-release hype bashing that W. received, Stone tried to keep the project’s details under wraps. But Stone, who is not known for keeping things quiet, told Ryan Seacrest about the production during an “E! Red Carpet Special.”

Josh Brolin, basking in his newfound fame, agreed to reprise his role as President Bush. Soon enough, everyone who’s anyone on Hollywood’s A-list begged on the project.

Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith eagerly jumped at the opportunity to play Senator Barack and Michelle Obama. Their daughter Willow, hoping to break into showbiz, will play both Malia and Sasha Obama. Hey, if Lindsay Lohan can do it, why not the daughter of film’s most acclaimed action stars?

Senator Joe Biden is portrayed by an actor with grandfatherly charms but who is kind of a loose cannon: Martin Sheen.

Annette Bening, who is still craving her own Academy Award, signed up for the film’s juiciest role: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Think of the monologues! And never one to miss out on a party, John Travolta agreed to play former President Bill Clinton. For real this time.

Richard Dreyfuss wanted to portray a different kind of politician and to not be typecasted based on his previous roles of Senator Bob Rumson (The American President) and Dick Cheney (W.), so he’s playing Senator John McCain. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman agreed to hold off on the botox for a few months to play his wife, Cindy.

Sandra Bullock, perhaps to get back to her pagentry roots or maybe just her acting roots, signed on as Governor Sarah Palin. And her daughter Bristol? She’ll be played by Jamie-Lynn Spears. Just kidding. Keisha Castle-Hughes, kicking off her big comeback, is playing the governor’s teenage daughter.

And then there are the cameos. Oprah Winfrey, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey are all appearing as themselves or maybe they’re the voices of reason. Elisabeth Hasselbeck couldn’t be reached for a comment.

But what this movie needs is a narrator. Because how else are we going to stay interested in a two hour movie about 2008 election? Jim Dale is the perfect choice; his voice adds the perfect amount fantasy to the never ending cycle that is American politics.

Now that the cast is set, all that’s missing is the ending. That’s right folks. The longest election ever isn’t quite over yet. And what’s a Hollywood movie without the happy ending?

Published: October 30, 2008
The Mount Holyoke News

Reprinted with permission