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  • Incest and Capital in Chinatown
  • Vernon Shetley

“The English drama did not outlive the double plot” (Empson 27). By this remark, William Empson meant not that all the great Elizabethan and Jacobean plays necessarily employed a double plot structure, but rather that the greatness of English drama did not outlive the era in which playwrights felt comfortable making the demands of attention and connection called for by the double plot. While double plots were rare even during Hollywood’s great age, one might judge that few films after Chinatown have achieved a similar distinction, and certainly that no subsequent film has shown the same faith in the audience’s ability to understand a complex narrative and in the medium’s power to make such a narrative clear; David Thomson refers to Chinatown as “maybe the last of the great complicated story lines that movies dared” (754). The double plot is one source of Chinatown’s distinction, and part of its pleasure surely is the demand on our attention that the double plot entails.

Chinatown’s double plot has resulted in a curiously bifurcated history of reception. For academic film studies, dominated as they are by psychoanalytic models, the daughter plot, with its rich Oedipal motifs, has generally been the focus of critical scrutiny. John Belton’s “Language, Oedipus, and Chinatown” sees a homology between the detective’s working of his case and the process of psychoanalysis, in that both arrive at an understanding of the irrational through rational means; incest, of course, is the irrational element at the source of both the psychoanalyst’s investigation and the film’s narrative. Deborah Linderman, in “Oedipus in Chinatown,” defines the film as “an oedipal text” (190), for her a pejorative term, that from [End Page 1092] her Foucaultian perspective points to the film’s failure to embrace “trangressive sexual intensification” (202). If her view of the film ultimately endorses Foucault’s anti-psychoanalytic celebrations of the body’s intensities, her work nevertheless draws heavily on psychoanalytic terms in its reading of the film and dedicates its interpretive energies largely to the daughter plot. Wayne McGinnis’s “Chinatown: Roman Polanski’s Contemporary Oedipus Story” concentrates on the film’s direct links to the Oedipus story; his humanist reading of the film sees “universal significance” in the film’s exploration of “the human potential for evil and perversity” (249, 250), an evil and a perversity realized for McGinnis in the incest plot.

But the film has also generated a long-lived, if less extensive, tradition of commentary within the world of public policy debate, where the water plot holds the center of attention. The film received extended reviews in Society and Social Policy magazines, for instance, and in the works of historians and analysts of Southern California water policy (and when one is discussing Southern California few policy issues are as important as water) Chinatown almost inevitably makes an appearance at some point, if only as the occasion for a lament about the difficulties of making water policy in the climate of aroused suspicion generated by the film. 1 For most critics who focus on the daughter plot, the water plot is a distraction, a kind of screen that obscures the real workings of the film, whose conformity to Freudian paradigms is taken for granted. The writers on water policy, conversely, treat the daughter plot, if they notice it at all, as a sensational distraction from the main interest of the film. 2

Even the most cursory viewing of the film makes clear that the Oedipus myth was very much on the minds of screenwriter and director; there can be no question that Freud’s account of the Oedipus story is an appropriate intertext. But this focus on the Oedipus myth has come to obscure an equally important intertext, the episode in Los Angeles history which the journalist Morrow Mayo, in 1933, termed “The Rape of the Owens Valley.” For if Chinatown tells a refracted version of the Oedipus story, it also presents a selective, distorted, but recognizable version of the events surrounding the appropriation by the city of Los Angeles of Owens Valley water in the early twentieth century. Indeed, Abraham Hoffman...

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