The poetics of unlimited semiosis

The second method, as indicated, tries to take literally the mise-en-scéne critics' focus on marginal details of a film's style and surface signs. By extending their passion for the oblique and the overlooked to its logical conclusion, we are adopting a deconstructive approach to a reading of this film, valorizing aspects that may initially escape the spectator but which will nonetheless appear to follow a certain logic. Both David Rodowick and Tom Conley have developed a deconstructive approach to films, one that does not passively reproduce the dominant values indeterminately perpetuated through films. Rodowick argues for textual criticism that 'must be understood not as repeating what a text means, but as presenting the opportunity to construct positions from which it can always be read and understood in new and unforseen ways' (1991: 135). For Rodowick, then, critical reading becomes an act of creative intervention in which the reading encounters the text in a relation of difference, not identity.

Similarly, Conley develops a deconstructive approach to film by offering readings of the presence of alphabetical writing within narrative films. Following Derrida's critique of the subservience of writing to speech, Conley places the image on the side of spoken language against written language, and in so doing posits an essential difference between writing and filmic image. Conley's main aim is to trace the movement of difference between writing (film titles, shop and road signs, etc.) and the film images they appear in. He notes that these two channels of discourse result in:

... an activity - a pleasure - of analysis allowing spectators to rewrite and rework discourses of film into configurations that need not be determined by what is immediately before the eyes. Reworking of this order can lead, it is hoped, to creatively political acts of viewing. In this way, the literal aspect of film writing can engage methods of viewing that need not depend entirely upon narrative analysis.

Conley wants to articulate and politicize the personal fantasies of each spectator when s/he subconsciously experiences the marginal (non-narrative) details within the filmic image.

Kaja Silverman has also pointed out that during the 1980s film theorists insistently analysed race, class, and gender in Hollywood cinema. The problem Silverman identifies with this approach is that films are reduced to their ideological master-codes, and the analysis is deemed to be complete when the film's class, race, and gender inequalities have been pointed out. While acknowledging the continuing importance of this work, Silverman finds that it ignores the individual's 'perversity and contradictions' (Hiiser 1997: 12) and also subordinates the aesthetic to the political: 'We talk obsessively about "representations of women," "representations of blacks," "representations of queers," but we have forgotten that the issue here is precisely representation. ... art can help us transcend our ethical limits, limits that inhere precisely in our unconsciousness, and that it is via its aesthetic properties that it can do so' (pp. 7-8).

Perhaps these 'aesthetic properties' do not always broaden the meaning of the plot, or deepen the characters' psychology, but an awareness of the play of surface effects nonetheless amplifies the resonance the scenes have for the viewer: they 'thicken' the film's semantic texture and ignite surprising flashes of meaning that appear on the 'worked-over' (some would say 'overwrought' or 'baroque') body of a 'New Hollywood' studio product such as Chinatown. Finally, the tracing of such effects will lead us to consider, albeit briefly and by way of an open-ended conclusion, the vexing question - so often asked by incredulous students - whether meanings thus highlighted (or rather, these signifiers extrapolated by the critic as cues for meaning-making) are intended or merely accidental, fortuitous or fabricated by 'over-interpretation'.

As regards to 'method' or cast of mind, a deconstructive attention to surface both inherits the tools of mise-en-scene criticism (see Chapter 3) and is indebted to Roland Barthes, especially his later writings. Without going too deeply into the reasons behind Barthes's dissatisfaction with classical structuralism's binary oppositions and his coinage of the term 'third meaning' in the late 1960s, it is certainly from his influential essay (see Barthes 1977) that one can date the intensified impulse underlying the search for the uncoded or unsystematic elements in a photograph or other visual representations. For Barthes, 'third' or 'obtuse' meanings function outside the standard 'informational' (first, or denotational) and 'symbolic' (second, or connotational) meanings of conventional communication. In the examples from Chinatown that follow, the features we shall comment on are not strictly 'obtuse' in Barthes's sense, for they are almost all chosen in view either of their repetition or of the fact that they seem to be aligned in series and therefore form patterns of their own. They even contribute to the 'themes' and thus could be said to further instantiate, for instance, the commentative heuristics of mise-en-scene criticism. What we shall emphasize, however, are not merely the moments where the texture becomes 'thick', but also where referentiality somehow seems to be suspended, where the 'bottom drops out' of the film's phenomenal realism and perceptual verisimilitude, leaving the slippery surface and the sliding signifiers of potentially unlimited semiosis. This type of investigative detective story has also been called 'paranoia thriller'. As we shall see, Chinatown does exemplify several other characteristics of this sub-genre, and the film's narrative proceeds by revealing more and more layers of falsehood, deception and unreliable or duplicitous information. Chinatown shows its hero to be at once over-confident in his inferences and reckless in his repartees, but deplorably incapable of reading 'correctly' the clues he is given (see also Cawelti 1979: 566).

Many - though not all - of the sliding signifiers are verbal and visual. For instance, there is the semantic cluster around 'nose'. For much of the film, Jack Nicholson has to wear a bandage on his nose, as the result of a bloody encounter with the flick-knife of one of the villain's henchmen, who did not like him 'nosing around' and wanted to teach him a lesson. Apart from the rough poetic justice this punishment represents for a 'snooper' who professionally 'sticks his nose' into other people's business, made explicit in pointedly sexual jokes cracked by his colleagues at Jake's expense, the scene is memorable because the sadistic thug slitting the hero's nose is played by the director himself. A Hitchcockian auteurist touch, one might think, except that Hitchcock's personal appearances were never that interventionist in the narrative and at most metaphorically motivated (see Bellour 2000: 217-37). In Chinatown, however, Polanski's on-screen performance joins all the other filmic and extra-filmic contenders for (literal, narrative, diegetic) authority. Using his slight stature to advantage, he turns the brief cameo into a terrifying - and yet self-ironizing - portrait of a. pocket-sized but potentially lethal psychopath. He also inverts a similar cameo, that of Jean-Luc Godard in his film Le Mépris, where Godard plays the 'assistant' to the (diegetic) director Fritz Lang, playing himself.

Another punning reference - this time visual - is built around 'glass'. It occurs in the sequence where Gittes follows Hollis Mulwray to the dam, where the sweet water is dumped into the sea. Tired of watching and waiting, Gittes lets a watch do the waiting, slipping one under the tyre of Mulwray's parked car, on the assumption that the watch glass will break when the car moves off, giving Gittes the length of time Mulwray spent at the water outlet. This information turns out to be a false trail, but the broken glass anticipates the broken eye-glasses that later in the film play an important part in leading Gittes to suspecting Noah Cross to have been actively involved in the murder of Mulwray, as it turns out a mistaken clue, but for the correct inference. The use of thé watch as a prop is thus not only syntactically meaningful, in that it furthers the plot; it is also semantically relevant: the stopped watch figuratively predicts the stopping of Mulwray's life (the cultural associations of watch/heart; the etymological link glass/glasses). The scene illustrates well (typically highlighted by mise-en-scène criticism) how memorably, as well as insistently, narrative information or thematic knowledge is foreshadowed in classical cinema, as it circulates between the characters and objects on screen and the audience.

A more purely verbal slippage is associated with Noah Cross: he consistently mispronounces Jake Gittes' name, indicative of the low opinion he has of the detective, insultingly calling him 'Gits', which makes even 'Jake (fake) Gittes (git)' seem a derogatory parody of the virile names of other famous hard-boiled detectives: Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer (Cawelti 1979: 565). On the more Freudian register of the (female) hysterical symptom, Evelyn Mulwray develops a stutter when she has to say a word beginning with 'f-', most notably when she mentions her 'father'. Her speech impediment is in turn echoed by a cultural speech impediment (the clichéd notion that the Chinese have difficulties pronouncing the V sound) which functions like a Freudian slip when, as we shall see, the speaker, the Chinese gardener, gives away more than he knows or intends. Much of the film's referential material, such as settings, incidents, character and place names are in this fashion exploited for their 'semiotic' potential. They are treated as if they were literalized metaphors, to be punned on, or to engender doublespeak and acoustic echo effects, all of which helps to weave the audiovisual surface into a network of enigmatic relationships, either contagiously spreading like a virus or tightly organized around the evil force at the centre. For the most potent sliding signifier focuses on 'the name of the father': Noah Cross.

While 'Noah' alludes to water via the biblical deluge, and to the Los Angeles' tycoon's ambiguous role in controlling its scarcity and abundance, the name 'Cross' reverberates through the film in a particularly insistent way, both literally and metaphorically. The 'Noah' cluster of associations holds the film together at a symbolic level around the water imagery and its connotations: salt water vs fresh water; the tide pool and the 'beginnings of life' (Hollis Mulwray) which Noah Cross has turned into a moral swamp, as opposed to tending it as an ornamental pond at the Mulwray residence. Water is a life-giving substance, but here it has been perverted and made paradoxical: not only is Mulwray's dead body found to have 'salt water in the lungs', as the pathologist dryly comments: 'in the middle of a drought, the water commissioner drowns - only in LA.' Earlier on, one of Gittes' associates can be heard off-screen saying that Mulwray 'must have water on his brain' while Gittes is fishing photographs out of a developing bath. He is then called to spy on Mulwray with his 'girlfriend', who are on a boat ride in Echo Park: 'more water,' as Gittes sarcastically (and superfluously) remarks. On a lighter note, the reference to moisture in the lungs becomes a running joke when applied to others: both police officer Lou Escobar and the pathologist at the city mortuary are suffering from coughs and colds they cannot shake.

It is the name 'Cross', however, that leads to the 'crucial' semantic knot: Noah Cross double-crosses his partner and son-in-law Hollis Mulwray, and then crosses him out, by having him killed when Mulwray begins to suspect foul play. If the cinephile might detect here a reference to the theme of crosses in Howard Hawks's gangster film Scarface from 1931, the contemporary viewer could associate the uncrossed gender lineage of Noah's inbreeding with the cross of the female chromosome, an idea prompted also by Noah Cross's genealogical references in his monologue to 'Mr Gits' about the tide-pools of primitive life and his desire to 'own the future'. Gittes himself introduces the verbal cue when, to a policeman taunting him, 'What happened to your nose? Somebody slam the bedroom window on it?' he aggressively replies: 'No, your wife got excited and crossed her legs a little too quick.'

In fact, Gittes might be said to borrow even more heavily from Noah Cross's arsenal ofchiasmic gestures, when in the (San Fernando) Valley hall of records he asks the librarian for a ruler to 'read across', but in actual fact uses it vertically, to rip out the page, as if the ruler were the pair of scissors metaphorically alluded to in the 'crossed legs'. Soon thereafter, he crosschecks the names on the torn-out page of the land register with the obituaries in the newspaper, realizing that like the clues in a crossword puzzle, the names when brought together spell the massive fraud Noah Cross is perpetrating on the farmers. Scissors feature prominently on the sound-track. They can be heard snipping when Gittes is in the barber shop, where he has a violent disagreement with the mortgage broker; and the sound of garden shears form the background to Gittes' first visit to the Mulwray residence. As we shall see below, this by no means exhausts the semantics of the 'cross' in Noah Cross and Chinatown, but the examples give some idea of how a word or 'seme' can both focus and disperse themes across the body of a film.

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