Chinatown | Apocalypse

Credit: Paramount

Anna Devereux

The revelation of allegations against Adam Donaghey were a repulsive and shocking reminder of how rife abuse remains in American cinema, especially after #metoo. But we should not be surprised. Stories of abuse have always been central to Hollywood, from mythmaking legends like Fatty Arbuckle to Peggy Entwhistle throwing herself off the Hollywood sign.

Two texts from the male cannon that prove useful in considering why so little has changed within this culture are Chinatown (Polanski, 1974) and Twin Peaks: The Return (Lynch, 2017), thanks to their interrogation of the radical vs the nostalgic. Chinatown is a film from the 1970s set in the 1930s; the original series of Twin Peaks (Lynch, 1989) was made and set in 1989, but is haunted by the 40s and 50s. Beneath the rich and comforting aesthetics of these vintage filmscapes, and not very far beneath, lies a rot: incest, rape, cyclical abuse of women spanning generations and communities.

Emerging at the point of exchange between ideas and sensation as the dominant driver in American blockbuster cinema, between Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967) and Jaws (Spielberg, 1975), Chinatown is the pinnacle and end of classic Hollywood cinema. The film possesses those key facets of classic blockbuster cinema: it is set in Hollywood, hosts a grand Film Noir plot worthy of the Golden Age, and is populated with Hollywood royalty all the way down to the director, Roman Polanski.

Polanski is an ideal representative of the auteur: he is inseparable from his works, to the point where the movies he made are considered by critics as biographical readings of Polanski’s own life; at the height of his career his films were box office hits that attracted the hottest names of the time, and yet did not compromise on ideas or art; he is male (perhaps the most important factor in the difference between director and auteur); and, he is an accused sexual abuser who has to a large extent avoided repercussions. This final element puts him on a level with the many of his fellow auteurs, such as Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock.

Onscreen and off, Chinatown provokes discussions on subversive action, responsibility, and gendered systems of power, discussions that continue to echo through our culture today. Chinatown communicates the trap in looking back, how depending on traditional structures paralyses progression. Consider the last fatal moments of Chinatown (1974, Polanski). Jake has forced an admission from Evelyn that Noah Cross (John Huston), her father, also fathered her sister/daughter by force; he has pursued Evelyn, with the police and Cross, to Chinatown; a member of the police has shot Evelyn through the eye in her final attempt to escape; and, her daughter has been immediately abducted by Cross. Here Jake’s journey has come full circle: his ignorance, lack of power, and the shallow nature of his social rebellion are exposed in one single moment.

Through his investigation of Evelyn, Jake has destroyed an opportunity to break the cycle of abuse in the Cross family. The key factor in Cross’ victory is what Julie Grossman calls Jake’s ‘failures of vision’ and the ‘contrived social anarchy’ that James Kavanagh noted as a central theme when he reviewed the film in Jump Cut upon its release. When Jake’s quest to expose the truth is appeased by the disturbing death of Evelyn and the iconic “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown”, his actions are revealed as not motivated by a search for the truth, but motivated by a search for what he wanted to see. Jake wants the case to be one of the upper classes controlling a city, of a beautiful society widow hiding a secret; he wants a case he can “bust wide open” for glory. But Chinatown shows us that the real badness in the world is not cleanly unravelled in front of a paying audience.

In that same moment Evelyn’s true radicalism is revealed. Given a choice between Cross custody and certain death, she puts her foot on the pedal and keeps driving away from authority. For the true radical actor there is no safety in turning back, there is no comfort in traditional structures of power and justice — Evelyn’s death is the only progressive option available to her. She acts with hope in hopeless circumstances. Evelyn, like Thelma and Louise (Scott, 1991) after her, has to speed away from the police in order to access freedom and safety.  So totally invasive is the ecosystem of patriarchal oppression in life, that act of driving forward gives freedom only in death.

Yet today’s TV and cinema audiences demand to have their nostalgia fed: reboots are more popular than ever and the dominant superhero genre thrives on adults choosing to believe in US backed heroes. It is this nostalgia culture that Lynch addressed in Twin Peaks: The Return, a series which, in its very placement within reboot culture, tries to shake audiences awake from nostalgic paralysis. Lynch breaks down the reboot with purpose, frustrating viewers with a slow burn return to Twin Peaks familiarity: withholding favourite characters from the original series, or showing them with stunted speech patterns in unsatisfying storylines; favouring crisp digital photography over the soothing daytime soap camera work of the original; and crucially, not bringing Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) back fully until the penultimate episode.

This should not have been a surprise. The final scene of the original series had already refused its audience satisfaction, ending on a cliffhanger where Cooper is replaced by an evil replica. Like in Chinatown, The Return comes back to that lesson: an evil that lives within community relationships (between father and daughter, police and citizen) is not to be neatly resolved. Ultimately, Bob (the evil that this town has been fighting since 1989) is defeated in a scene that features many Twin Peaks’ favourites, set in the comforting locality of the Sheriff’s station. This victory, which the entire series has been building to, is upset by Cooper himself. Instead of moving forward and working to fix the many traumas of Twin Peaks, he turns back, and goes back in time to “save” Laura Palmer. As he makes this choice, he is dissociated from reality, his head superimposed over the image of his friends. Perhaps this is the good, progressive, helpful Cooper leaving the ego-driven Cooper in his hunt for the impossible glory of rewriting the past. If this wasn’t a red flag already, the following scene reveals that the presence which made Laura scream in the forest on the night that she died was the sight of Cooper, waiting to “save” her.

Lynch shows us in these dissociating images, which insert new footage into scenes from Fire Walk With Me, that something has gone very wrong. Instead of meeting her fate in the forest with “Bob”, a fate of which Laura was so supernaturally aware that she wrote about it in her diary, Laura is snapped up into the unknown — the small agency Laura possessed has been ripped from her. When she died first, Laura took the same radical step as Evelyn; she writes in her last diary entry: “Tonight is the night that I die. I know I have to, because it’s the only way to keep Bob away from me, the only way to tear him out from inside.” By refusing survival, Laura rejects the systems of evil around her, and she can move on to a spiritual world where she is finally out of evil’s reach. But because Cooper could not accept the truth, she has been ripped from that haven. He says “I’m taking you home”, but just as for Evelyn, home is a place of abuse for Laura. In “fixing” the past, Cooper has lost his key instinct which made him comforting to the viewer and to Laura, when she dreamt of him.

Jake and Cooper’s “failure of vision” is the failure to see the action that needs to be taken now to begin to break a cycle, to continue Evelyn’s hard work for the safety of her sister/daughter, to repair the lives of those still suffering in Twin Peaks. Cooper ends astounded and disorientated in a parallel universe, forcing a parallel Laura to relive the original’s trauma; Jake is exhausted by the rotten reality unearthed by his own actions. These men of the law fail to see wider systemic problems and falter at their own short sightedness. By their own refusal to address the present moment, any radical or good work they had succeeded in doing is undone. Good acts build a radical future, bad acts try to rewrite the past.

So why do these texts come to the same conclusion, that the only progressive action is death? Evidentially, our society has not succeeded in building a radical future beyond that step. Critical dialogue is stuck in bourgeois conversations about the morality of engaging in work created by abusers. The woman (at the time a child) that Polanski raped in the ‘70s has stated that the press has done more damage to her family than the director ever did. Rather than excuse his actions, her statement emphasises how victims are retraumatised as their cases are subject to the same debates year on year which keep genuine radical change in paralysis. When the reaction to abuse is to debate whether the abuser’s work should be defined by their actions rather than to build a radical future that leaves that abuse in the dust, men like Polanski, Allen, and Donaghey can continue to dominate film culture.

Since 1974, at the latest, the future has failed to materialise — the apocalyptic moment spreads across decades, and manifests in a culture which by repetition of the past misremembers the truth, and results in toxic culture.

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