Of Polanski, rationalization and prophets

Film director Roman Polanski arrives for the 2007 screening of 'No Country for Old Men' at the 60th International film festival in Cannes, France. Photo: Francois Mori/Associated Press file photo

Not that I'm excusing it, but the revolting stance Hollywood has taken in defense of child-raping filmmaker Roman Polanski is understandable as evidence of human frailty. It's in our nature to take the side of our own kind, rationalizing and spinning despite compelling evidence that they behaved like monsters.

This is why you have plenty of Americans denying to this day that the United States tortured captured enemy combatants. We are not the sort of people who torture, the thinking goes; whatever was done to those prisoners, it wasn't torture. No matter what.

This is how you get a brilliant man like Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, a leading pro-Polanski campaigner, saying with a straight face that, "Hollywood has the best moral compass, because it has compassion." Weinstein is legendary in film circles for the foul-mouthed abuse he customarily heaped on his staff when he ran Miramax. You should talk to former Miramax employees, as I have, about their ex-employer's compassion.

Weinstein no doubt sees himself and his community in a rather more flattering light. Again, this is unsurprising. It was shocking as well to discover that Roman Catholic bishops failed to be horrified by child-raping priests, but we are often quick to excuse offenders with whom we identify.

Unlike bishops, film moguls are not tasked with the care of souls. But that's letting Hollywood off far too easily. When it comes to catechizing the public and shaping its morality, the church is not remotely as influential as the entertainment industry.

Hollywood amorality is a cliche, of course, but it takes something like the Polanski affair to remind you that there really is something wrong with these people. In 1998, I was covering the Toronto Film Festival as a New York critic and sat through the premiere of the Todd Solondz filmHappiness.It was one of the sickest things I'd ever seen. Among its charms, Happiness forces the viewer to sympathize with a pedophile who slips drugs into a boy's dinner and anally rapes him. It's a comedy. No kidding.

Happiness received a standing ovation from the overflow audience, which included the cream of the independent film community and most leading American and Canadian critics, who went on to praise the picture extravagantly. Recently, a leading U.S. critic recalled the premiere of that "exhilaratingly unnerving" film as one of the highlights of his Toronto festival history.

Does the filmmaking world celebrate child molestation? Of course not. What it celebrates is Art, which is to say, aesthetic pleasure elevated to the level of moral principle. It wasn't until I left reviewing films professionally that I realized fully what immersing one's mind in the imaginative world of contemporary filmmaking can do to one's moral sense. Without realizing it, one might come to see boredom as the root of all evil, and the artist who can deliver us from dullness as a kind of priest who brings us absolution through beauty and transcendence through self-forgetting.

That's greatly oversimplifying matters, admittedly, but this is only a crude version of a concept deeply embedded in modern thought: the cult of the artist. The creative class sees the artist's role as revealing deep truths to humanity, especially verities we may not wish to hear. It's all too easy to accept that men who serve as a bridge between the sacred and the profane are somehow exempt from the moral code the rest of us live by. Mr. Weinstein, meet Cardinal Law.

Authentic prophets, however, tell painful truths in the name of some higher good. What is Hollywood's religion? Hedonism and narcissism, mostly. Out of this milieu great art can and does emerge, unquestionably, and in any case evidence for the link between great art and the artist's moral uprightness is as scarce as that for fauns and fairies. Nevertheless, it takes a clarifying spectacle like Hollywood's rallying 'round a child rapist to remember what kind of people run our decadent culture's dream factories.

As we congratulate ourselves for not being moral nitwits like the Hollywood crowd, it's worth considering that this is not really a hard call for most of us, who wouldn't know the Polish filmmaker from a plumber. If Polanski were popular, and it were possible for many people to see him as Hollywood sees him, as One of Us — half the country would revere that rotten little perv as a martyr to the politics of personal destruction.

When it serves our perceived interests, we find reasons to collaborate with evil, to make our peace with the devil we know. That doesn't make us wicked. It makes us human. That's why we cannot do without prophets. Real ones.

Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. Readers may write to him at: rdreher@dallasnews.com.