By Ian Ezinga
Trigger Warning: The following article addresses topics related to sexual assault. Please read at your own discretion.
For an English class this semester, I watched Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974). This was my first time watching the film, but not the first time I had heard of Polanski. I’m usually in favor of separating an artist’s character with the art they create, but in cases where the artist’s content is directly related to their malignant traits or actions, it is ruefully important to understand their art in that light. While a choice remains in choosing to keep them separated, doing so would be voluntarily choosing to remain ignorant in the face of the horror that may lay behind the screen.
The choice begins with having an idea of Polanski’s crimes and the way they appear, thematically, in movies like “Chinatown.” Less than three years later, Polanski was arrested in Los Angeles on six separate charges after having drugged and raped thirteen-year-old Samantha Geimer at actor Jack Nicholson’s house. After some back and forth between the prosecutor and his lawyers, Polanski was going to take a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to the charge of rape and would be sentenced to a ninety-day psychiatric evaluation. Nearing the eve of his court date, however, Polanski found out that the judge was going to reject the deal in favor of fifty years in prison. Polanski fled the country and has been living in France for the past forty years where he cannot be extradited and has still been directing movies.
The film in question, “Chinatown,” follows a private detective named Jake Gettis played by Jack Nicholson. The job that Gettis finds himself in at the beginning of the film starts out rather simply: a classic case of an important official having an affair and ends up dead. From there, the story takes a nosedive as we uncover the supposed mistress, Katheryn, was actually the sister and the daughter of the murdered man’s wife, Evelyn. It was not an affair and Katheryn was born out of incestual rape wrought upon Evelyn by her own father, Noah Cross. Additionally, we discover that Cross had killed the man earlier in the film because he was about to expose his schemes to re-route LA’s water so that he could cash in on a real estate investment. Gettis attempts to help Evelyn and Katheryn flee their shared father. Cross intervenes at the last minute but is shot by Evelyn who then drives off. The police, assuming her to be guilty, shoot at the car. The camera arrives at the car to find Evelyn shot through the head and the screaming child is then taken away by Cross, who was not fatally wounded and plays the part of a concerned grandparent. The story ends in a disgusting, devastating, and whirling sequence that shows sincere horror prevail as the villain wins, and Jake Gettis’ cries for the truth to be heard are lost in the crowded streets of LA’s Chinatown.
The film carries a sort of moral realism that is entirely frank when it shows our society is corrupt, bad people get away with things, and our institutions are simultaneously ineffectual and culpable. All you can do is uncover the truth and move along. I would argue that it’s impossible to separate this message from the crimes that Polanski went on to commit. Truth be told, I would greatly appreciate the film’s message if it was being pitched to us by someone who did not embody the horror that it exposed. But being that is not the case, I have to reconcile the final product as tarnished and troubling.
And troubling is just about all you will find the more you uncover about Polanski and his relationship to Hollywood. In 2009, over one hundred noteworthy people signed a petition to pardon Polanski. Among those who committed to paper their belief that justice need not be served were Wes Anderson, Woody Allen, Guillermo Del Toro, Martin Scorcese, Harrison Ford, Natalie Portman, and personally devastating to me, David Lynch. All of these people have tremendous power and all work to create art that depicts the world as they understand it. Our responsibility, then, is to not swear off all movies (although I think that would be fine), but be hypercritical of these peoples’ work and the ways in which it might perpetuate, however subtly, a culture that doesn’t condemn sexual violence toward women and minors.
Be it known, that this shortlist of people, and this one specific crime, is only the surface of a deeply complex and interwoven web of indifference, horror, and callousness. It is still our choice to uncover it, and intake popular culture through this unholy lens. I don’t want to make this choice out to be an easy one, for I think the right answer is both obvious and terribly hard at the same time. By choosing it, you cannot go back. This can be quite daunting and may prompt a desire that you hadn’t uncovered this terrible information in the first place. But to quote the author who is behind the title of this opinion, “I was not proud of what I had learned but I never doubted that it was worth knowing.”