Gender in Chinatown

May 14, 2010

Noir was a movement in film in the first half of the 20th century that responded in many ways to the collective psychological state of the industrialized world in light of the two world wars: films noirs featured a harsh visual style of unbalanced and disturbing frame compositions, strong light-and-dark contrasts, large areas of shadow within a frame, strange camera angles, etc, all of which reflected a common cultural experience of uneasiness and ideological contradiction in the postwar years. (Kaplan, 3) Film noir is noted for its treatment of women: it really seemed to place the blame largely on women for all that uneasiness and contradiction in the world, as is evidenced by its wide utilization of the femme fatale archetype, an independent and empowered woman who is for all that both a moral threat and a physical obstacle to men; femme fatale is a a duplicitous, sexually miscreant woman who leads men down paths of depravity, destruction, or both. It is noted that during times of social ill and unrest it is often the case that marginalized groups—or people of ‘border identities,’ perhaps—become victims of scapegoating in some form or other; film noir’s representation of women’s power as threatening can be seen as an example of this. Chinatown, a 1974 film written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski, makes a nod to noir both in its visual style and its representation of women. But Chinatown, which falls into the category not of noir proper but rather of “neo-noir,” paints the femme fatale differently from noir in some important ways.

For one thing, Chinatown is definitively less accusatory of women than is traditional noir. But does that mean Chinatown is ultimately less damaging to women generally? If this is not the case—if Chinatown’s neo-noir woman is indeed not any better than the woman of noir proper—then in what ways is this neo-noir woman disparaging? The purpose of this essay will be to explore these questions by looking closely at some key scenes in Chinatown that feature interaction between the sexes and, based on feminist theory about film and literature—in general and also with regard to film noir specifically—determining how or how not might the film keep women under strongholds of patriarchy. This paper will argue that indeed Chinatown’s depictions of women are still unacceptable, albeit in ways different from the femme fatale of noir proper.

Briefly, feminist theory, as it relates to a literary medium like film, is concerned with the construction of gender identities in literature broadly, the performance of gender roles within specific narratives, and how these may work to maintain or undermine (mostly maintain) the patriarchal worldview, which places women in oppressed positions. Feminist theorists are aware that film makes manifold and various use of the ‘male gaze’ to carry out such oppressive placement of women. As critic Laura Mulvey argues, for instance, film relies on three kinds of ‘gaze’—all of them male, of course—to affect its aims: “the camera, usually operated by a man, looking at women as objects; the look of male actors within the film which is structured to make their gaze powerful; and the gaze of the spectator, who is presumed to be male, voyeuristically identifying with the camera/actor gazing at women represented in fetishistic and stereotypical ways.” (Humm, 14)  Film noir has been looked at through lenses of feminist theory since the 80s, when writers like Christine Gledhill, Janey Place, and Sylvia Harvey noted its interesting way of taking women out of their traditionally fixed roles as “wives, mothers, daughters, lovers, mistresses, [and] whores, [in which women] simply provide the background for the ideological work of the film which is carried out through men” (Kaplan, 2). For these feminists, those traditional roles are integral to patriarchy as we know it; interestingly, since film noir takes women out of their traditional roles, it is a real question to what degree noir could represent an effective challenge to the patriarchal worldview. But this question is ultimately answered in the negative; that challenge to patriarchy was only apparent, really only a potential liberation for women. For what noir does to women with the femme fatale is make lying, seducing monsters out of them. Instead of defining them by traditional familial roles, noir defines women by their sexuality, “which is presented as desirable but dangerous to men, [so that] the woman functions as the obstacle to the male quest. The hero’s success or not depends on the degree to which he can extricate himself from the woman’s manipulations,” etc. (Kaplan, 3) The femme fatale is a duplicitous temptress, a trap for man to fall into and be doomed—like a witch, really. Or like eve in the garden all over again.

Chinatown certainly means to improve on this image; it actually can be said in a way to enter into a dialogue with noir in order to reflect on the archetype’s mistakenness, to disagree with it. The film’s strategy for doing this is to first take clear steps to paint some of the familiar noir assumptions about women, and then to diametrically alter the import of those stereotypes so that in the end they don’t portend evil in women. But again, the question is whether Chinatown’s final product is any better an example of a woman represented. In any case, we’ll look at a few telling scenes that show Chinatown’s nod to the noir femme fatale.

The story centers around the work of private investigator Jake Gittes, and opens with one of his clients, Curly, flipping through photos Gittes had taken of Curly’s wife. The first few pictures show the woman in compromising positions, out in the woods somewhere, with the man she seems to be having an affair with.  The sex scene is punctuated by one photo of the two lovers eating picnic sandwiches, presumably having taken a break—then there are pictures of more sex positions. Curly reacts to the pictures with some angry moans and a few tears; then he throws the pictures at the wall and grabs at a set of Venetian blinds as if they were someone he could choke. “You can’t eat the Venetian blinds; I just had them installed on Wednesday,” Gittes reminds the poor man, and pours Curly a drink. After throwing the drink down the hatch, Curly looks up at Gittes, not without some shame in his eyes, and sums up the situation: “Sh-she’s no good.”

This sets the stage for at least one aspect of the film’s representations of women that it borrows from noir: that of women as suspect of harmful duplicity. Evelyn Mulwray, the film’s protagonist, will fit this bill from our perspective for the duration of the film up until an earth-shattering discovery is made that suddenly throws her into a different light—but more on that discovery, and the significant way it was “made,” later. In the very next scene, a woman who says she is Evelyn Mulwray comes into Gittes’ office and hires him to investigate her husband Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer of Los Angeles Water and Power, whom she suspects of cheating. The characterization of women as duplicitous is reinforced when we soon find out this woman had been lying to Gittes and had hired him on false pretenses; she was not the real Evelyn Mulwray, and because Gittes had gotten to work immediately investigating the real Hollis Mulwray, taking pictures of the man’s liaisons with a young woman who was not Mrs. Mulwray—pictures that somehow got put in the following day’s paper—Gittes now finds himself being sued by the real Evelyn Mulwray. Thus, it seems already a pattern in this story for men to be put in a bad way by the tricks and conniving of false women. Tricks and conniving, the unfaithful ways of Curly’s wife—these are typical characteristics of women represented in noir films.

When we do meet the real Evelyn Mulwray, she has come to confront Gittes and inform him that she will be taking him to court. Here we see another general aspect of the noir femme fatale, the kind of thing whereby the woman is located out of her usual subordinate social placement—namely the woman as independent, self-sufficient. Janey Place shows how this kind of representation, though it seems on the surface to empower women, only really does so by making them into monsters, so to speak (Kaplan 36). And indeed, when Gittes is threatened by Evelyn Mulwray’s power, we do feel the menace, and we fear he could very well be destroyed unfaultedly. Now Gittes is caught between two women—the fake Evelyn Mulwray and the real Evelyn Mulwray—and two noir constructions of women as threats to the causes of men—the woman as deceiver and the woman as empowered, respectively. And of course Gittes only weapon against these dragonesses will be the truth he is able to uncover with regard to what in the hell is going on, etc.

Feminist criticism is aware that there are discursive codes which “mark the production of truth as a masculine activity” so that women are associated with duplicity by default, etc (Brownley, 48).  To further establish this equation of women with the falsity that stands in the way of the male hero’s quest for truth, there is are two scenes where Gittes interacts with the secretary at Hollis Mulwray’s office. On Gittes’ first visit to this woman, she is clearly reluctant to give him any information, and doesn’t even want him on the premises. But Gittes pushes past her and shows himself in, defying her cues that seek to deflect him. Again the film had us feeling that Gittes is being hindered by a woman, and the perturbed look on her face when Gittes defies her makes her look like some ornery old hag who deserved to be dissed by the enterprising man. When Gittes visits her again later, he wears a big bandage across his face because his nose has been cut by thugs; again the secretary gives him sour faces and does everything she can to block his way toward information—and this time there is a covert message that it at least partially her fault he was wounded: if she, and women like her, had only been more forthright with Gittes, and men like him, he would never have had such a run in, etc. In any case, this time she is even more resistant, gives him more verbal and nonverbal cues that he is not welcome; he is in turn even more forceful. She tells him the man he wants to see is liable to be tied up indefinitely that day, parenthetically indicating that Gittes might as well just leave. He responds by telling her he will wait all day if he has to, and passive-aggressively sits directly across from her and begins humming, whistling, and smoking. She tries to ignore him, but then he starts pestering her with questions, to which she reluctantly and annoyedly snaps back answers. Again, this relationship of man to woman whereby the man pesters the woman with questions and the woman withholds information—this is toward the construction of femininity as duplicitous and masculinity as truth-cultivating, and it is the normal relationship of Gittes to women generally in the film, specifically his antagonist Evelyn Mulwray.

Finally, this antagonism culminates in the most intense scene of the film, where Gittes has had quite enough of her lies and dissembling. Up until now, Evelyn Mulwray has seemed to be hiding much with regard to the identity of the young woman whom Gittes had photographed with Evelyn’s husband before he was murdered, and whom Gittes had recently seen with Evelyn Mulwray; Gittes had seen the young woman through a window, and she seemed to be in a distraught state, so that it appeared to Gittes that Evelyn was keeping the girl there against her will. All of this had made Evelyn seem, to Gittes and to the local police, like she may have murdered her husband and taken his mistress hostage. And because Gittes had been seen by the police to take Evelyn Mulwray under his wing and protection—Gittes had had to do this, to a degree, in order to be able to properly question her and thus get to the bottom of this infernal mystery—Gittes was now suspected of aiding and abetting a murderer. So at this point we find Gittes out of patience. He asks her “who is the girl.” Evelyn tells him, “She’s my sister.” Gittes, who knows there is no record of a sister of Evelyn Mulwray, slaps her hard on one cheek. Evelyn then gives him another answer: “She’s my daughter.” Gittes slaps her hard across the other cheek. Evelyn then reverts to the first explanation, and gets another slap. Then she repeats the second one—another slap, and so on. Until finally she shouts out, “She’s my sister and my daughter!” Then we find out that Evelyn was impregnated by her incestuous father, who also murdered her husband, which makes Evelyn emerge as an infinite victim. All her lies and dissembling were to cover up the horror and shame of something done by a man. Unlike in film noir, where women’s lies and manipulations further their greed and/or sexual power, Evelyn Mulwray’s lies only help her temporarily survive as a hopeless victim of male viciousness.

Gittes learns that he was wrong for thinking her a murder, that’s true. This is the comment that Chinatown’s neo-noir makes on the femme fatale: if women are fatal, it is not if anything because they are evil. But did Gittes learn also that he was wrong to poke and prod these women, to slap Evelyn repeatedly until she confessed? Maybe something of the sort sunk into his mind in the future—off screen, as it were. But I believe we didn’t learn these things enough in the film. Gittes was the model of a kind of maleness that is impatient, coercive, cajoling, and violent, and for me, though it seems Robert Towne and Roman Polanski intended to criticize this version of maleness, yet they presented these gender roles in ways sufficiently banal that ultimately they rang true more often and in more ways than they were ‘defamiliarized,’ in Shklovsky’s sense (Rivkin, 16). And either way, Chinatown by no means dismantles that mythology of the woman as some sort of sphinx, a mythology I don’t like because it has its own quality of covert scapegoating.

Works Cited

Brownley, M. Women and Autobiography.

      Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc, 1999.

Humm, Maggie. Feminism and Film.

      Bloomington: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.

Kaplan, E Anne. Women in Film Noir.

      London: British Film Institute, 1978.

Rivkin, Julie. Literary Theory: An Anthology.

      Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998.


Thoughts on Lacan lecture

March 29, 2010

Lacan was hard to read (a lot of this stuff is, obviously). But I was struck by the “mirror” concept. I take Lacan to mean when the child first sees himself in the mirror, he sees his reflection as the image of a unified, self-contained entity that is largely unsuceptable to what stands outside of it: the child, seeing himself in the mirror and saying “I”, has no way of knowing that his identity will be always contructed and tentative–ever so suceptable–and thus the mirror makes him tell himself a lie about identity. And since the child’s mind is in a formative stage, this lie difinitively orients the child’s mind in a way such that this person will always have a false idea about who he is; he will always operate under the illusion that of course he is a real, whole, free entity, and this brand of fundamental illusion about identity will inform everything the person does privately and socially, and everything that is done to him, etc. More broadly, it means that people’s assumption that others are “attainable” [through love, friendship, etc] is misinformed, if not outright mistaken.

Hamlet question from the Psychology lecture

March 29, 2010

We were asked to reflect on how Freudian ideas could be applied to Shakespeare. How might a Freudian analyze Hamlet? I thought: maybe Hamlet’s father’s death can be seen as an opportunity for an awakening of desires for his mother that had until then lain dormant. It would never have occured to Hamlet, in other words, to kill his own father in order to get mother all to himself, but when Hamlet’s uncle came along and did half the job for him, a floodgate was suddenly opened for all those desires, along with a strong sense of opportunity since now his mother was there for the taking. The ghost of his father could perhaps be seen as Hamlet’s mind’s sublimation of all that urgency and opportunity: Hamlet’s subconscious told him “kill your uncle and win your mother back, who is rightly yours after all”, and Hamlet’s mind, which could never understand something like this, reinterprets this urge as “kill your uncle and win back for me [your father] what is rightly mine”, etc.

Structuralism and Scarface

February 25, 2010

“The idea or phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it. Proof of this is that the value of a term may be modified without either its meaning or its sound being affected, solely because a neighboring term has been modified.” (Rivkin, 70)

This statement by de Saussure shows happening at a very basic and concrete level of language what structuralism notes as happening more abstractly and generally in communication: specific signs have different value depending on auxiliary signs, so that different meanings are possible in different contexts. Just as the word “big” sounds and means the same in the phrase “big problem” as it does in “big deal”, but carries a different value in each case–in the former case “big” is meant for the most part literally while in the latter case it is toward sarcasm–so do symbols like the American flag or the Christian crucifix mean potentially different things to different people depending on their cultural background, family history, political or religious affiliations, etc. The same is true, of course, with characters from literature, particularly if they become pop icons, as has been the case with Tony Montana, aka Scarface.

What does “Scarface” mean to the urban-styled 20-something male today who wears that famous movie-poster t-shirt with Al Pacino brandishing a pistol? Is it the same meaning intended by the author(s) of the literary character? If the answer is no, then we have to ask why; to investigate such a disparity of meaning would be to explore some ramifications of the theory of language that structuralist thinking stems from.

One focus of structuralism is on the way narratives operate based on common underlying structures of cultural values and norms. To dissect a lot of folktales from disparate areas and find a handful of archetypes acting out common respective roles but in ways peculiar to culture–Propp is structuralist to the degree that he does this. And in the case of pop culture, we see that there often appear in literature heroes that double as villains, and vice-versa; it is structuralist when we consider that the reasons those anti-heroes make sense to their audience are related to already-established values, on things like “heroism”, that the audience brings with it to the show. Thus, Tony Montana was a hit as an hero to the degree that a rags-to-riches, minority-to-power story appealed to the sensibilities and expectations of certain Americans. But exactly what kind of”hero” is Tony Montana capable of being, and why? The way I see it, there are two possible functions of a hero. He can either show us how to be by example of his actions, or else he can show us how NOT to be. While Oedipus shows us how to suffer eternally for the truth, Achilles shows us how NOT to be fugitive from civic duty, for instance. Tony Montana rose to power and wealth on a wave of drugs and violence, and at the expense of his family. He proved he had been dead inside all along by murdering his sister and his brother-in-law, for instance.

This interpretation of Scarface sees him as an example of how not to seek the American dream, and is summed up well by the admonishment he is given by his mother in the scene where he visits her–she expresses worry at the bad name people like Tony Montana give to honest, hard-working Cuban Americans like herself, for instance. But there are scores of Americans, and have been for years, who glean entirely different messages from Scarface, who see him as an ideal, a role model. Rather than horror and shame, they see glory in the excesses of his life and the brutality of his death. As is the case with de Saussure’s hypothetical language term, the value of which “may be modified without either its meaning or its sound being affected” just by modifying surrounding terms, we can see that it is possible for “Scarface” to symbolize something deplorable from the perspective of a discourse which condemns certain ways of being a minority seeking upward mobility in the United States, while on the other hand Scarface may be idolized by people who come from perspectives which have reasons for glamorizing drugs and violence, whatever they may be.

Classical Criticism Presentation

February 11, 2010

For myself, I admit that the presentation I did with my group, of Classical criticism, felt a lot more successful then I had originally imagined it would, when it first ‘sunk in’ for me that our group would present first and that we would be presenting the following week. I (actually) hadn’t read the syllabus; my reason for chosing the Classical Criticism Group was not that I wanted to present the following week, but rather that I a.) had done the readings for week #1 and, b.) was already sitting in the area of the classroom that had suddenly been designated for the group.

Luckily, the folks who came to join me had done the readings, too; we discussed a few immediate ideas before class was out, and all agreed to continue our conversation on those and any other ideas over email throughout the week, getting together for a rehearsal an hour before class on the day of the presentation. There didn’t end up being any logistical problems; by that weekend we had heard from everyone on the email list, and several ideas were being considered and we were discussing Plato, Aristotle, Longinus and—though indeed he was not assigned in the readings–Horace. I myself had previously neglected to see that Horace wasn’t assigned, but anyway the ideas stuck with me and seemed relevant to the things my group and I were discussing. My fellow group members seemed to agree.

One idea for a project was to find a way to discuss Plato’s “cave” concept in relation to some facet of contemporary discourse; maybe we could find a text or idea that is commonly regarded in a way that is “shadowed” so to speak,  and have the class assist us in “arguing out of the cave” somehow by sheding more light on the given thing. We all thought this was interesting, but agreed finally that for it to be well executed might require more planning and preperation than we had time for.

My idea was that we pick a current radio song or movie–one that we were sure lots of people would know about and probably like–and we would call upon members of the class to give arguments as to why it is a “good” song or movie or text (I had been thinking maybe a Lady Gaga song or the movie Avatar). But we, the presenters, would be prepared with reasons why it is “bad” based on Plato’s idea of the forms, or Aristotle’s criteria of what makes for good catharsis, or Longinus’ ideas of what is sublime, or whether or not it is consistent or appropriate enough for Horace.

The idea we ended up going with was to compare birth footage from film and from real life. What I was thinking, in connection to Horace, was that this comparison might yield discussion about what was a main idea of his in Art of Poetry: that a work of art–specifically a dramatic or poetic depiction–delivers it’s message best if it is true to life, yet polished well and removed of any and all inconsistencies or incongruities. In other words, all of the waiting time (maybe hours) when the mother-to-be is just lying there and nothing is really happening except that the doctors and nurses are milling around exchanging instruments and doing various things–none of that helps at all to invoke the sublime emotion of bringing a new life into the world, for instance, but is rather more apt to make people’s attention wander, which is why a filmmaker would generally not be expected to include it in a birth scene. And the gushing blood, possible defecation–they are not appropriate to the decorum of a scene that is supposed to convey a beautiful
emotion, etc.

I delivered these ideas to my group members, and reflected on the connections others in the group had made to the other Classical writers. By the time we met for rehearsal, we were all prepared to discuss these things, and I think I can speak for the rest of my group members in saying that, though our actual in-class presentation was rewarding, the discussion we had while preparing for the event before  class, enlightened as it had been by our email sharing, was the highlight of the project

Classical Criticism and Green Day

February 4, 2010

             This is an application of a few ideas from some of the Classical literary critics to an earlier song from Green Day, called “80”, which appeared on their first full-length album Kerplunk!, realeased by Lookout! Records in 1992. I love “80”. It has always been one of my favorites–it’s a great example of how the combination of forceful tempo, sweet melody and slapstick imagery can carry a tragic, passionate sentiment, which is what I love about melodic punk in general. In any case, there are a few ways to surmise how Classical critics like Plato, Aristotle, Horace and Horace might have judged this Green Day song. Below is a clip of the song I found on Youtube, in which the creator of the clip was good enought to include the lyrics.

             Before arriving at an outright decision that poets should be barred from his ideal city, Plato talks with Adeimantus about what kinds of poetry should by no means be admitted, seeming to allow, for the moment at least, that there will indeed be poetry spoken, and that it is a matter of censoring what the poets say: “Adeimantus, you and I are…founders of a city; and founders need to know the patterns on which poets are to compose their stories, and from which they must not be allowed to deviate…” Ironically, concidering the charges brought against his mentor, Plato is concerned with the corruption of the youth of the city; he has of course seen the power of poetry to distort the formation of their reasoning and morals by its way of presenting young men with fictional versions of reality which are not necessarily reasonable and moral, not necessarily condicive to good conduct. Therefore, “we must supervise the making of myths.” (Murray, 32)            

              To this end, we might presume that as Plato did not approve of renderings of the gods that had them acting criminally and irrationally, and renderings of heroes in which they weep and cower, he would not have condoned any such depictions of vulnerability to women, emotional instability and self-mutilational tendencies as “Everything she does questions my mental health / it makes me lose control—I wanna hurt myself.” Nor would Plato have thought suitable to the education of young men a line like “I must admit that I enjoy myself / 80 please keep taking me away”, a gesture of surrender to drunkenness and confusion.

             Aristotle, on the other hand, may actually have appreciated this kind of thing for its therapeutic value. Particularly if he had been able to see how many teenagers related to this kind of thing, how it seemed to give them an outlet for some of their loneliness and boredom, and even a reason to laugh at it, he might have called it catharsis (Murray, xxxiii), whereby the young Green Day fan is able to vent and even consumate many of the bothersome and conflicting emotions he is frought with, really by having the song live these emotions on his behalf in a sense, perhaps similar to how the ancient Athenians were able to let Aeschylus’ characters live the life of their fears and tortures by giving them voice and structure—there is a tragic elevation in the pleading chorus line “If anyone can hear me, slap some sense in me!” which is not far from the pain depicted by Euripides when he puts Medea beyond the consolation of courage: “…lost and utterly undone. My enemies bear down on me full sail. And I can reach no harbor from my ruin.” (Brooks, 9)

             Beyond what Plato and Aristotle might have had to say about “80”, I think Horace is also relevant, and this has to do with a qualm I have actually had with this song for a long time—longer than I’ve been aware of a critic like Horace. The lyrics about love in the song don’t ultimately jive with the overall theme of the song; love and women don’t seem to have enough to do with the personal torments of being “strung out and frustrated” on account of anxiety to warrant inclusion among such themes. Really, all the mentions of love and “she” in the song are like the pairing of “snakes with birds, or lambs with tigers” that Horace forbade.  Actually, the line “Is there any cure for this disease someone called love / not as long as there are girls like you”  is a song lyric of the highest caliber. But the real tragedy in the song–expressed in the chorus cited above and compared to scenes from Aeschylus and Euripedes–is one of personal anguish, not relationship trouble or infatuation with the opposite sex. So Horace wouldn’t have approved; he would have seen the catchy love lyrics as “one or two purple passages tacked on to catch the eye” Indeed, “what is the point when you are paid to paint a shipwrecked man swimming for dear life?” (Murray, 98)

Brooks, Jeremy. Medea and Other Plays. London : Methuen London, 1991

Murray, Penelope. Classical Literary Criticism. London : Penguin, 2000


Nietzsche, Plato, Eddy Murphy

January 28, 2010

I heard Eddy Murphy say one time, in one of his stand-up routines, “…I don’t respect singers; I’m not impressed.” When he said that, I knew what he meant, and it actually reminded me of something I read in Nietzsche to the effect of “what a person really is begins to show itself when his talents cease”–a line that has actually occured to me more than once when I’ve seen talent that I appreciated but was not ultimately impressed by. Take Andy Warhol, who seems to tell me: “Figure out what catches and dazzles the eye of the populace, and exadurate it with a subtlety that gives it all a mystery.” There’s a built-in irony in the use of media icons and advertisement imagery, of course, and Warhol exploits that–fine. But that’s just a talented eye. Beyond that, he is indifferent–and that I can’t accept in art. Cowardess, if it is honest–yes. But indifference defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? Anyway, his talents aren’t enough for me without something of far greater value that is lacking. It seems to me Eddy Murphy must feel the same way. And I think Plato did too–this kind of sentiment seems to be what Ion is all about, in a way.