I would not have chosen to watch these 2 films so close together, even though they are thematically related enough to belong as a double feature, but I happened to watch the first one on HBO On Demand last night, and the second one is something I'd been meaning to see and learned would be gone after today.
"Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired." This is Marina Zenovich's nicely put together documentary about Roman Polanski's immense legal problem. Watching this was a very weird experience, because it's quite apparent that child rape was just not taken very seriously back in the 1970s. I was ready to cut Polanski a lot of slack because he survived the Holocaust and his wife and unborn son were slaughtered by the Manson family, but he has admitted to drugging a 13-year-old and having sexual intercourse with her. And he never really seemed to think he did much of anything wrong — as if he shouldn't have had to serve any prison time.
Much is made of the "media circus" surrounding the legal proceedings. We see footage of lots of guys with cameras crowding around trying to photograph him when he's trying to get in and out of the courtroom. (I thought: Big deal. Quit complaining.) And the main target of contempt is the judge, who's dead now and not able to respond to the charge that he sought the spotlight, played to the cameras, and abused his power. But there are interviews with the victim and the prosecutor (as well as the defense attorney), and neither of them is calling for Polanski's blood.
So it's a rather subtle inquiry into the legal process — and into the soul of a man who did something evil but is also a great artist and suffered beyond comprehension in his life. The vintage footage of him with the spectacularly beautiful Sharon Tate and crazed with pain after her death is heartrending. And the clips from "Chinatown," "Rosemary's Baby," and other films are very cleverly used to illustrate aspects of Polanski's legal struggles.
"Standard Operating Procedure." This is the Errol Morris documentary about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. I adore Errol Morris and have watched some of his documentaries multiple times, but this is not Morris at his best. The movie forces you to stare for many long minutes at giant talking heads, a technique used brilliantly in some of his very best movies: "Mr. Death," "Fog of War," and (one of my favorite movies of all time) "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control." The difference with "Standard Operating Procedure" is that the individuals are not at all fascinating people. They are dull and empty — with revoltingly flat affect.
But they have a story to tell. That is, they are witnesses. But they have been convicted of crimes, so they have the motive to lie, slant, and self-justify. It's like a close up on the direct examination of witnesses at trial — and no cross-examination! I wanted cross-examination. I had the impression that Morris wanted us to see that they were made to take the fall after the infamous photographs became public, but I found them repellent and unbelievable.
There is a lot of good material about how photographs tell an incomplete story. (And you see many, many uncensored Abu Ghraib photographs.) So perhaps Morris also meant to say: And the eyewitnesses also tell an incomplete story. Too damned bad if you are unsatisfied, because, like a photographer framing a shot, the government blocked our view of the whole story.
Morris teaches his lesson, and the viewer is subjected to a truly ugly ordeal. (There are occasional touches of beauty in the short, vivid recreations.) But if you were circumspect enough to attend this movie in the first place, you will probably feel that you have no right to complain about it, given the suffering depicted in the movie. That may be why the movie is leaving town — leaving Madison, Wisconsin — after a short run and why I was one of only 3 people in the audience.