Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Polanski and Peanuts

Nice people do bad things.

Anyone can screw up -- and maybe even on purpose.

Something was bothering me about the recent activity concerning Roman Polanski's legal case, and I am glad someone from Salon.com wrote about it. Something doesn't sit right about a fugitive from the law, who was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted, trying to negotiate a consequence-free dismissal of his case. Granted, his victim has herself called for the case's dismissal -- but this isn't how it works. It is not the tragic tale of an innocent man.

"This is somebody who could not be a rapist!" protested one of the film-maker's friends, and yet Polanski fled the country to avoid jail time after being convicted of raping a 13-year girl in 1978. There may have been some judicial misconduct in the case, a deal to keep him out of jail suddenly getting scrapped, but the trial itself, his confession, the conviction, and what Polanski did with the child are not in dispute. He drugged and raped a child, yet he "could not be a rapist."

It is a difficult, difficult thing to see someone you love and admire, a good friend or perhaps someone even closer to you, revealed in a darker aspect. There are funny, attractive people who make fantastic neighbors -- and are entirely capable of the worst crimes.

For instance, this week I have been reading news stories about Stewart Parnell, the owner of Peanut Corp. of America. This man's company is behind the salmonella outbreak in thousands of food products containing his peanuts. He had earlier problems with toxic mold, pesticides, and salomnella. Sometimes this led to previous recalls. There is hard evidence in this case that Parnell knew his factory was infested with roaches, rats, and had a roof leaking rainwater and bird dung onto his product. When his peanuts tested positive for salmonella, he went lab-shopping to get a negative test result, and complained about the time and money this process required. He knowingly shipped peanuts that had tested positive for salmonella, according to evidence that continues to come to light. Hundreds of people became ill and nine people have died.

And yet, with little to write about (Parnell didn't answer any questions at his Congressional hearing and has not been hauled before a court of law, so he has holed up in his luxurious home to hide from reporters), the press gives us vapid interviews with friends and neighbors. Yet we hear "He's one of the nicest guys in the world." Right, and Polanski couldn't be a rapist.

It is only natural that our friends and neighbors have a good impression of us. I am willing to believe Mr. Parnell is a loving father to his children, even though he has caused the death of other people's children. (I wonder if he would have allowed his own kids to dip into the peanuts in that plant and eat them?)

But unless the evidence misleads, he did a terrible thing, and that counts just as much as him being a nice guy who compliments you on your landscaping or tells you your children are beautiful. Polanski made some great movies, but his greatest movie doesn't reduce the vileness of what he did to a child thirty years ago.

When actors consider character work, we sometimes engage in an ancient debate about the essence of a person's character. Are we what we dream we are, or what we try to be, or are we what we do? Aristotle made an enduring argument that we are what we do. That may be an excessive reduction. Still, what we do matters heavily -- and it is often the first thing we are tempted to overlook in ourselves, or our friends.

1 comment:

Pam said...

Yes, Alg, what we do counts, and often is the lasting impression others have of us.

What's the old saying? "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions".

We seem to have gotten too glib these days with the "mea culpas". Then it's move on as if whatever stain has been washed away.

Sure, we all make mistakes. However, some mistakes are more damaging and harder to gloss over than others.

I'm all for forgiveness and seeing the best in each person.

Still.... Polanski has never paid for what he did. He ran away and seems to think he can come back and not face the music. Time and absence doesn't exonerate him.

As for Parnell... again, his actions are inexcusable. This will be his legacy. Few will rememeber what a 'nice guy' he was.

It's why we try to teach our kids that actions count, actions last. Actions really do speak louder (about one's character) than words.