Welcome to the first installment of Movie Mondays. This week’s movie: Chinatown.
I sat down to watch Chinatown kind of on accident. I had just burst my way through the Star Wars franchise, and to do that, I signed up for Amazon Prime’s Starz free trial, which just happened to be the only place I could get Episode 7 without buying it. Chinatown also happened to be there. I had just come from the rush of franchised glitz and adventure, heroes with luck and skill and mentors on their side–a world where the good guys always won.
That world has nothing to do with Chinatown.
Chinatown, Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s 1974 critical masterpiece, is a movie where virtually no light escapes the darkness. It centers around private eye Jake Gittes. When the mysterious Evelyn Mulwray calls him to investigate her husband’s affair, he publishes the pictures of him with a young girl and the job seems to be done… but when the real Evelyn Mulwray, equally as mysterious as the fake, shows up threatening to sue him for publishing the photos, he becomes quickly tangled in a murder mystery involving a scandal the size of the Los Angeles river. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
The film is astonishingly paced and beautiful to watch. Gittes is just the right amount of snarky, but also the right amount of whitebread to make us be able to fit really easily into his shoes and use him as a proxy for this goose chase. The investigation of the irrigation scandal is only one half of the problem; it’s all tied together with Evelyn’s illicit relationship with her father, who raped her when she was young and impregnated her with her sister/daughter. When the two try to escape from Evelyn’s menacing father, a real-estate titan in the then-tiny Tinseltown, a fight breaks out, which involves the police. Evelyn ends up with a bullet through her head, her sister/daughter ends up in the arms of their lecherous father/grandfather, and the water gets stolen from the valley as if Jake never discovered the scandal at all. He’s ushered away, with an old partner whispering, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Jake’s desolate face says what we feel as the film fades to black: How did all of this ends up meaning nothing at all?
There’s plenty written about how this is the best script ever made, which is probably true. There’s also plenty written about how it’s a stunning visual experience. Also true. But here are a few new ideas to layer over the film that might add some more depth from a gender-based perspective:
1. The Ecofeminist Layer
Ecofeminism is a theory of feminism that basically postulates that male dominance contributed to both patriarchal control of women and a similar control and harmful treatment of nature. A short version of it is that men treat women the same way they treat the earth and vice versa. Many ecofeminists will use the same language they use to describe rape committed against women as a group when they discuss crimes committed against the earth and the environment.
Chinatown contains themes of both the exploitation of women and the exploitation of the earth. The fact that both cardinal sins are committed by the same person–Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross–is no accident on the part of the writer. Furthermore, ecofeminism acknowledges both patriarchal control and capitalist control, and how those two work together. Cross, rich, powerful, and stripping farmers’ land of their water illegally so he can buy it out on the cheap, fits both of these villainous requirements for an ecofeminist reading of Chinatown to make sense.
2. The Jake-Is-A-Symptom Layer
This one is harder for me to wrap my head around, but I’m really just trying to reconcile with the fact that Jake hit Evelyn so many goddamn times, and doesn’t really seem to respect her opinion very often. It’s an old movie–I get it. Men were different back then. Although, were they? Weren’t they just the same men that we have today? Weren’t there just fewer opportunities for women to speak up? Can’t we just accept that we were OK with excusing men who beat women, and we were (and to some extent still are) willing to glorify them in spite of their misogynistic crimes? Anyways…
Whatever you feel about men hitting women in old movies (and, my god, it happens a lot), you can look at this moment, and Jake’s arc, as if he’s a symptom of a larger patriarchal problem. He’s trying to uncover the truth about the water scandal, which he does, but in doing so he wounds Evelyn and ends up leading her straight to her death. Part of the conceit of the movie relies in Chinatown’s symbolism: Jake recounts how he tried to do “as little as possible” when he worked there in the DA’s office. Chinatown is a wild place where wild things happen; Jake learned that trying to control things like that often makes them worse.
In some ways this is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t role for him, which I don’t think stretches the text of the film too much. Jake hurt Evelyn emotionally and physically in that pivotal scene. You could argue, well, the information he gathered about Katherine was crucial to understanding the complicated family drama that was keeping him from really understanding the full scope of the situation. That’s a true statement, but the ends don’t always justify the means where abuse is concerned, especially because he desired that information because it made a clearer picture for him, not necessarily a safer environment for her. Then, when he tried to patch it up by securing an escape for them, Evelyn ended up dying and her sister/daughter, Katherine (the only real innocent here), was swooped away by Cross. Women begin victims, get victimized in the middle, and remain victims at the end.
Is the lesson here that men just shouldn’t get involved in women’s issues? I don’t think so–for one, “women’s issues” isn’t really a theme of the movie. I think a potential reading of the film along these lines could include an analysis of Jake’s over-involvement being the cause of the cascade of grief at the end. A reading like that would need a few of these scenes where he uses violence against women as a tactic of that over-involvement to be complete. In being a symptom of the overall Chinatown effect (which basically boils down to “getting involved makes things worse”), Jake’s also a symptom of patriarchal control–maybe he tried to help, but it was almost never in a way productive for the actual victims, Evelyn and Katherine. Jake relied on tactics of abuse, which Cross also used to control Evelyn earlier in her life. Patriarchal control is more pervasive and complicated than just Good vs Evil; because of this, Jake perhaps found himself acting a little evilly in his attempt to solve a problem.
This reading of the film almost necessitates an ecofeminist (or at least feminist) lens, which, again, I don’t necessarily think the film lends its text to explicitly. But still, movies that don’t intend to be about patriarchy can often be about them nonetheless, just like men–Jake–accidentally end up furthering the problem when they try to solve it.
3. The “Everyone Else Get’s It Wrong About Evelyn” Layer
OK, this is where I rant a little bit. Warning: graphic and frank discussion of sexuality and rape ahead.
I struggled with this movie because there are blatant implications behind a grown man having sexual relations with his daughter that don’t seem to be reflected in the critical discussion about the movie. Evelyn seemed frightened of her father the whole way through, embarrassed and ashamed of the relationship she had with him, and determined to hide her sister/daughter out of that shame. Not only is incest considered a serious crime, but incest with a person that drastically younger than you is textbook rape. By any examination of the law, Noah Cross raped his daughter. This is the subtext any reasonable person would be able to see when they encounter this plot point.
After he finishes slapping her (which, ugh), Jake asks her, “He raped you?” Evelyn, curled on the ground sobbing, makes a noise that sort of sounds like, “No,” but also sort of sounds like the kind of grunt one makes after just having been slapped a dozen times while reliving a trauma. The first time I watched the film, I heard the noncommittal grunt of a trauma survivor who doesn’t want to think about her past any more than she has to. Knowing the illegality of the sexual encounter, and knowing who was clearly the adult with the responsibility in the situation, I assumed it had been rape.
It was only in reading literary analysis of the film online that I came across the common understanding in the film community–that Evelyn had said, “No,” as in, “No, he didn’t rape me,” or “I was consenting.”
Sexual assault activists and film critics would agree that Noah Cross is Chinatown‘s villain; the script makes that clear enough, and John Houston plays him with such a sinister air he becomes an almost irredeemable figure of evil well before he gets his hands on Katherine. Part of the tragedy of Chinatown is that the bad guy wins, but even when critics acknowledge the villainous nature of Cross, his actions against his daughter are rarely referred to as “rape.” The situation is rather referred to as “Evelyn’s illicit relationship with her father,” which, from a syntactic point of view, sets the blame at Evelyn’s feet, as if to complicate her character into being something other than a total victim of circumstance. Even Roger Ebert doesn’t refer to the rape in his reviews. Even in this article here, I am guilty of referring to it as exactly that. This questionable “No” stands in the way of being a cut-and-dry situation, and forces us to question the role of fifteen-year-old daughters, and the horror in the act of one seducing her father.
This sends shivers down my spine for a couple of reasons, firstly because Evelyn utters this as she’s in the midst of fleeing her father’s reach. At this point, she has noted to Jake that Cross is a dangerous man capable of terrible things, and she is literally sobbing uncontrollably on the floor. Any of these clues could have led you to believe that she’s an adult woman who despises being taken advantage of as a child. Many real women who have relationships with adults when they’re teenagers live to have this experience–not every single one, sure, but it’s hard to look back without an understanding that you were being groomed and manipulated rather than loved when older men flatter you with attention. And that’s outside of the context of incest. Within that context, it’s even harder to understand, given that a lot of scientific evidence points to the fact that it’s nearly impossible to feel sexual attraction to someone you knew and interacted with before the age of eight years old–this is why Game of Thrones twincest is so impossible, but why cousins getting married in feudal times works out 9/10 times. Cousins aren’t usually raised together. That said, children raised by parents are extremely unlikely to have sexual feelings for their parents, because of that psycho-sexual asterisk, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Ergo, Noah Cross could have felt sexual feelings for his daughter, but his daughter, in all likelihood, would not have felt that sexual impulse towards him.
This is all to say that there’s strong sociological and psychological evidence for the fact that Evelyn was not consenting, legally or otherwise, to having sex with her father. Cross raped her. In an ecofeminist reading of the movie, this makes the most sense, too: The earth certainly isn’t consenting to anything mankind does to it, let alone the stripping and selling of its most valuable and crucial resources. When Gittes asks Cross what more he could want as such a rich man, Cross answers, “The future, Mr. Gitts, the future,” mispronouncing Gittes’ name but touching on an important motive of those who seek control and power–securing that power in the future matters. Land, like women, produce, and are thus valuable for the future from a capitalist patriarchy standpoint. When Evelyn refuses to hand Katherine over to Cross, Cross says he needs to see her because he’s “running out of time.” Could he be talking about his own imminent death, and a genuine desire to spend time with his daughter/granddaughter? Or could he be trying to ensure he has another child with another woman in his family before that death? Legacy is one way to control the future, and he hasn’t had any sons so far.
Personally, I choose to believe Evelyn was raped and her father is the villainous patriarch behind all of Los Angeles’ problems–but this is a lens I must view it through, because Evelyn consenting to this interaction seems wholly unlikely. Do you disagree? Are all the other analytical sources correct in assuming Evelyn complicity? Am I way off base about the ecofeminist theory? Comment below and let me know. What I love about Chinatown is that it encourages this multi-faceted interpretation game.