Tonight I get to see the dress rehearsal for Seattle Opera's Lohengrin. Of all 13 of Wagner's operas, this is my favorite, probably because I was introduced to it in high school band. We played a concert setting of Elsa's Procession to the Cathedral, and I fell in love with the music. Later I received a recording of the complete opera and wore out the grooves of the records listening to it. There is no more thrilling marriage of character and music in the ouvre of 19th Century opera.
It's one thing to listen to a recording of the opera. But to see Lohengrin performed however, is to get the complete experience, which is actually quite different. Only in a stage performance does one receive the awareness of character with which Wagner imbued his drama. It is frank, human, and simple--unornamented and unsentimental. Wagner avoided sentimentality by concentrating on mythic relationships. Ironically, the Wedding March has become the most sentimental of tunes in the years since.
With The Pianist, Roman Polanski also provides the most unflinching, unsentimental look at the Holocaust ever filmed. He uses character to expose the horror, not cinematic artfulness ala Schindler's List, which, I think is a great film on its own, but the ending is so incredibly sentimental that it loses all impact. One is almost forced to emotionally retreat from the onslaught of the manipulation.
Wagner and Polanski--the men: both are great artists. Both are the remainders in an equation of great suffering. Both have hearts of darkness: Wagner the anti-semite, and Polanski, the sexual psychopath.
Wagner's suffering was mostly of his own choice and of his own manufacture. Polanski suffered the horrors of the holocaust at the hands of indecent men inspired in no small part by Wagner, then later, by a bloodletting so horrific it staggers the mind to contemplate. I can excuse Wagner for a variety of reasons but mostly because his bigotry does not seem to creep into his artwork. Likewise Polanski's personal moral catastrophe does not seem to inform most of his work, which remains the exposure of his suffering. But can one excuse Polanski? I confess I find it most difficult.
Here's what he did: Over a period of two days, while photographing a 13-year-old model, Polanski tried to build a rapport with her. She was torn because she knew that he was a very famous director who had her career in his hands, and she was afraid of him. On the second day of the shoot, Polanski maneuvered her nude into a Jacuzzi, using champagne as a prop, took pictures of her drinking, then gave her a half of a quaalude which she took. When Polanski also got into the Jacuzzi (this was at Jack Nicholson's empty home, by the way) nude, the girl got out and went to find a towel. She was nervous and scared and told Polanski that she had asthma and the temperature and smell of the water was irritating her condition. Polanski proceeded to put her on a bed and rape her orally [she said he called it "cuddliness"], then presumably when he became aroused, he raped her vaginally. When she told him that she didn't have birth control (in an attempt to get him to stop) he proceeded to rape her anally. All of this is from the grand jury testimony from 1977 which is published on the Smoking Gun website.
No matter how brilliant and heartwrenching his films and how personally horrific his history, how do we reconcile this act? Is it immoral to ignore it? Is it moral to remember it? Hollywood has clearly forgiven Polanski, but that cannot be trusted. Like a huge, extended, dysfunctional family, it wants to deny that such things happen and excuse them as being lapses of judgment in anotherwise brilliant artist and tortured individual, for, aren't they all? And dismiss the child as a gold-digging parasite intent on destroying said artist, for doesn't all of Hollywood have to deal with such?
To the extent that his suffering over this event in his life creeps into his work, to the extent that Polanski personally casts himself as a martyr to American prudery and moralistic vindictiveness, is an odious rankness in his films. Although The Pianist is largely about Polanski's childhood, the idea of Szpilman=Polanski and the Nazis=his treatment by America, creeps into the film like a dollop of rancid butter on an otherwise splendid baked potato.