Three exemplary scenes of the sliding signifier in Chinatown

We shall now examine three scenes in more detail. Two revolve around instances of purely verbal double entendres and puns, and the third is a combination of verbal punning and a sight-gag, rendered sombre by a more mythological reverberation, itself redolent with psychoanalytic symbolism.

The first scene concerns the segment where Gittes drives up to the Mulwray mansion for the first time. Altogether three times Gittes tries to enter a space associated with Mulwray's life, and three times he is both barred from entry and finds a way of circumventing the obstacle. Each time he obtains vital information that launches him on the next phase of his investigation, but he also gives his opponents an important advantage. The first obstacle is the secretary at the Department of Water and Power, the second is Khan, the Mulwray's Chinese butler, and in the third scene it is Lou Escobar at the dam who stops him with the revelation that Mulwray has drowned. Each location will be visited again by Gittes, with both an amplification and a reversal of the initial visit's results. In the scene under discussion, Gittes (as well as the spectator) is distracted from surveying the lush green lawn by a squelching sound off-screen that is finally revealed not to be off-screen at all, because its source is a Chinese chauffeur with a chamois leather washing Mrs Mulwray's maroon Packard. It gives us not only the graphic-acoustic presence of a surface - the glass pane of the car's rear window - but it also draws attention to the 'layeredness' of a representation: what is perceived as 'sideways' out of sight may also be 'behind' and out of sight. After finally being let in by the butler, Gittes finds himself on the lawn behind the residence, idly watching a Chinese gardener clearing what seem like weeds from an ornamental pond. In order to make conversation, the gardener is heard saying 'bad for the glass' while pointing at a withered patch of grass. Gittes, at first amused at the malapropism, steps closer to the pond, when his attention is caught by something gleaming just beneath the water's surface - a pair of glasses, as it turns out later. Before he has time to retrieve the object, he is interrupted by the arrival of Mrs Mulwray, who ushers him to one of the garden chairs and orders an iced tea for him and herself. Here the slippage grass/glass, inverting the earlier move from glass to grass, also shifts perception from the verbal to the visual, as the earlier had done from the visual to the aural. In each case, that which is displaced remains present and significant, even as it helps to distract and refocus Gittes' attention. This principle can usefully compared to what Jacques Derrida has termed 'under erasure', drawing attention to all those instances where terms or statements that are inverted, negated, or otherwise cancelled remain nonetheless present and active, indeed intensify their semiotic energy. In the case of 'bad for the glass', it is Gittes who has to repeat the phrase the next time he encounters the gardener, before the vital information is released, namely what it is that is bad for the grass (the fact that the ornamental pond contains salt water), and Gittes can finally come into possession of the 'glass' - when the gardener retrieves what Gittes assumes are Hollis Mulwray's glasses.

Once one's attention has been drawn to the principle of'under erasure', its particular effects can be seen to inform much of the rest of the sequence - the discussion between Evelyn Mulwray and Gittes - as well as the peculiar logic of the plot, where the characters so often resort to 'covering up' in the form of doubling up. When Mrs Mulwray suddenly tells Gittes that she is prepared to drop the lawsuit for libel, she justifies it by saying: 'My husband seems to think you're an innocent man', to which Gittes replies: 'I've been accused of many things, but never of being innocent!' His cocky rejoinder puts under erasure the word 'innocent' in the sense of 'unaware', the more forcefully to draw attention to his present state of ignorance and future state of guilt. On another level, Evelyn Mulwray's gesture of 'dropping the lawsuit', then perjuring herself at the autopsy and subsequently paying him, in order to make her husband's surveillance seem her idea, and finally hiring him to find out who killed him, also conform to the peculiar logic of 'under erasure'. Each move is an act of cancellation and self-contradiction that merely aggravates the suspicion of her being implicated, accumulating the evidence Gittes thinks he has against her and preventing him from being of help. Chinatown literally features a scene of erasure, when Gittes - once more distracted by a sound -opens a door and sees two workmen scratching out Mulwray's name from his office at the Department of Water and Power, replacing it with that of his (corrupt) successor. But Derrida's notion of 'under erasure', apart from referring to a crossing out, where what is cancelled still remains visible, can also name a temporal doubling up. This, Derrida calls deferral: a delay and a difference, a notion which expands on Saussure's idea of difference, doubled in Derrida by repetition and temporal return. The principle is illustrated in another feature of the plot - we might call it the 'what goes around comes around' theme - which is the anxiety of several characters, and first expressed by Hollis Mulwray at the city council hearing, that they might be 'making the same mistake twice'. If 'under erasure' is implicit in Gittes' remark about his past in Chinatown, where he tried to protect someone from getting hurt and thereby made sure she got hurt, then his bungled action to protect Evelyn Mulrway results not only in getting her 'hurt', but in his truly 'making the same mistake twice'.

'Bad for the glass' revolves around a pair of glasses: not Hollis's pair, but those of Noah Cross - a man who wears bifocals. It is as if the film enjoins upon us a bifocal perspective, for if we want to understand what is going on, the sooner we learn to see through Noah Cross's eyes, the earlier we shall perceive the logic of the plot and focus on the salient features. In this respect, the scene seems to say, Chinatown as a whole is a 'grass'-film, as opposed to a 'glass'-film. It does not play on the classic articulation of the cinematic apparatus (with its emphasis on specular seduction) but on the rhizomatic, grass-like structure -of endlessly proliferating shallow roots and surface branches.

The second scene is grouped around 'apple-core', as it first emerges when Gittes pursues Hollis Mulwray, and foreshadows the scene just prior to Gittes and Mrs Mulwray visiting the old people's home. As one of the many malapropisms, mispronunciations, and other verbal slips (such as the sign misspelt no trepassing that opens the segment of Gittes' drive into the valley) that dot the film, it forms part of a pattern: 'apple-core' is the garbled sound Gittes' associate picks out from the violent conversation Noah Cross has with Hollis Mulwray prior to the latter's death. Only later do we learn that it refers to the Club/Ranch that serves Noah Cross as his operational base, the Albacore, the name of a type of tuna fish. But it is the (mistaken) association of 'apples' (in a scene that prominently features orange-groves: 'apples and oranges') which opens the semantically rich seam of associations.

It could be seen to draw attention to Mrs Mulwray's first name, Eve(lyn) who in a sense is 'tempting' an innocent Adam, as she enmeshes Gittes in events that lead him to eat from the tree of knowledge. But a more cross-hatched set of associations opens up when we note that one of the recently deceased in whose name the land is being bought is called 'Crabb', which is also the name of a type of apple (crab apples). And just in case we miss the reference, Gittes says - after perusing the list, and stopping at 'Crabb': 'how do you like them apples!' But 'crab' is, of course, also the name of a mollusc, and thus associated with sea and fish, which leads us to the literal meaning, the pennant in the flag, and the patchwork quilt the old ladies at the 'rest home' are making of 'Albacore'. Two distinct lines of associations therefore 'cross' and intersect around the proper name 'Crabb', in a film in which almost all proper names seem to have an additional layer of meaning.

The third scene concerns the furtive and hasty departure of Evelyn Mulwray after their brief lovemaking, interrupted by a telephone call. This Gittes has anticipated, and he slips out of the house while she dresses, in order to follow her. When Evelyn tends his nose-wound in the bathroom, Gittes notices a black speck in the green iris in one of Evelyn's eyes. She acknowledges it by calling it 'a slight flaw - a sort of birthmark'. In order to follow Evelyn, Gittes decides to kick in the red cover of one of her car's tail lights, so that it functions as the 'flaw' (not black this time, but white) that allows him to track her car in the dark, hoping to get to the heart of that other (tragic) 'flaw'. The chain of signifiers from flaw in the iris of her eye to the white tail light on the car also picks up the crushed watch-glass earlier on, which would now seem to anticipate not only the death of Mulwray but also the terrible gouging of Evelyn's eyes as the fatal bullet causes her to be impaled on the horn in the centre of her car's steering wheel.

This ending is already prepared for, in a minor register, by the 'black' (but actually red-blue) eye of Curly's wife, as punishment for her sexual transgression, whose pictures we see in the very opening of the film. In both cases, injury to the eye happens to a woman, when it should be the Oedipal male that is 'blinded', since it is the gouging of the eyes that he inflicts upon himself as punishment when he realizes that he has killed his father and slept with his mother. (For Oedipus themes, see Chapter 8.) As the bodily mark of incestuous guilt, it is visited in Chinatown on the daughter who is sacrificed to the patriarchal sexual transgression that goes unavenged, and in a very real sense is crossed out with Hollis's and Evelyn's deaths. The 'eye' of Sophoclean tragedy (Evelyn Mulwray) is in stark contrast to the 'nose' of Aristophanean comedy (Jake Gittes). While both are culturally conventional signs standing for sexual organs and whose damage symbolizes the threat of castration, their implications are typically asymmetrical. What begins as 'his' comic punishment ends in 'her' tragic death, while the obscene phallic power of the father is reinstated.

In selecting the three scenes above, we have deliberately not chosen the crucial and climactic one, which condenses the semiotic slippage with the genealogical-patriarchal slippage - that of the interrogation/slapping of Evelyn Mulwray by Jake at the denouement of the film. Note that Jake in his stupefied anger slaps Evelyn cross-wise, as if to mark her face with the 'Cross'

of her maiden name, or to cross out the truth she is trying to tell him: 'She is my sister and my daughter' (while Gittes is still assuming that Catherine was Hollis Mulwray's mistress, and that it was Evelyn who was accessory to his death). He slaps Evelyn when she speaks the truth, possibly because, as she says, 'the truth is too tough for [him]'. She, on the other hand, is split between her fear of her father and her desire to protect her daughter. But she is also 'in denial' regarding the question whether her father 'raped' her, showing the full ambiguity of a daughter's position within the Oedipal/patriarchal law. Here Chinatown deepens the traditional thriller motif, according to which the femmefatale combines and condenses the duality of woman in the Hollywood film. As 'virgin' and 'whore', she is in both fantasmatic roles the projection of the younger male and thus the emblem - especially for the film noir hero - of the patriarch's obscene jouissance, in that he 'possesses' the woman in ways the hero never will.

The slippage of signifiers that the film practises so obsessively seems to have its roots, one could argue, in the traumatic slippage that lies at the heart of Chinatown. The signifiers daughter/sister are usually considered to be mutually exclusive when prefaced by the personal pronoun and naming the same person, yet here they have a single referent, 'Catherine'. It is as if the father-daughter incest was so 'unnatural' as to threaten even the order of language. The relation of sign to referent breaks down, 'causing' this deluge of duplicitous signs: yet another aspect of the general corruption, the politicál and climatic drought, that the perverse power of Noah Cross inflicts on the land.


Yet even such a pursuit of the many rhizomatic networks and punning cross-references does not give one the feeling of 'catching' this slippery film. Nor is it easy to pin down its generic identity and temporal register. Chinatown performs the generic and symbolic codes of film noir, while also 'exposing' them: over-explicit, they return in a pastiche of the classical Oedipal narrative. The usually hidden incest motif is spelled out, inverted and displaced from son to father, and from mother to daughter. Similarly, the 'orientalist' themes or exotic motifs of a classic film noir like Orson Welles's Lady from Shanghai are here worked over as a 'multicultural' space, in the many enigmatic references to the chronotope 'Chinatown' (figured as a space and a place, as a time now and a time then). Race and gender (and, to a lesser extent, class) have surfaced from classical Hollywood's implicit or symptomatic meanings to become part of the film's explicit repertoire of thematizations. But 'Chinatown' is also the signifier for that more general crisis of referentiality -

the mise-en-abime of levels of reality, and the turning inside out of what one assumed to be the case, a phenomenon, appropriately known in this case as 'Chinese boxes'.

A similar inversion and reversibility applies to the temporal register of 'now: then'. The period setting of the 1930s and the making of the film in the 1970s produces a 'nostalgia for the present' in Fredric Jameson's phrase (1992), suggesting that, as viewers, we are in time and out of it, incapable of making emotional sense of the present other than by framing it as a version of the past. But one can probably be more specific. Chinatown is a post-Watergate film, even though it is set in the 1930s. It re-imports the interpretations of film noir as they were formulated by French critics in the 1950s, and applies it to the 1974 topicality of Watergate (1973-74) - a traumatic story of ever-deepening circles of corruption - only to transpose a post-Watergate cynicism and political apathy back into the period where hard-boiled film noir world-weariness is supposed to have begun. The film (and its spectator) is thus split between two temporalities: the 'now' of the fiction, Los Angeles 1930s, and the 'now' of the film's making, Los Angeles 1974. We watch the socio-political events unfold with hindsight and the temporal irony this implies, but across the knowledge that the highest officials in the land are indeed capable of organizing vast conspiracies and masterminding elaborate cover-ups, while flouting the law and permitting blatant perversions of justice. From that knowledge the film derives its emotional verisimilitude, but to the time-shifting of genre and reference it also owes its effects of uncanny recognition. Insofar as the present is projected back into the period past, and the past is interpreted through the emotions and sensibility of the present, each fiction confirms the other, mutually sustaining a 'true (historical) lie'.

The paranoia genre of the early 1970s (The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, All the President's Men) is here used to put the detective on the trail of a plausible, i.e. an uncorroborated but historically not impossible conspiracy, which in turn motivates the elaborate play on 'cross' (anger and wrath) and double-cross (deception and cover-up). But 'cross' also because the structure of Chinatown is both linear (the unravelling of a mystery) and doubling up upon itself, because at the end Jake Gittes is not much wiser than he was at the beginning, and a good deal more vulnerable and exposed professionally: for him, Chinatown lies at the crossroads of his own murky career, to which he might be condemned to return, if his licence is indeed revoked, as Lou Escobar threatens, or if the undefeated Noah Cross takes revenge. At another level, as we saw, the film's themes (discussed in the first half of this chapter) have come to the post-classical surface texture of'knowingness' (Robert Ray), 'allusionism' (Noel Carroll), and self-reference, making the very generic codes of the classical mode available for textual play. Chinatown 'knows' it is a film noir in the way no film noir of the 1940s and early 1950s could have known itself. Furthermore, it is a 'left-liberal' film in its emphasis on the Roosevelt portrait, undermined by the greed and self-interest of big business ('water and power'). With its fascination in the machinations of local politicians, and ecological issues, such as the water supply of a city like Los Angeles, it might also strike one as particularly 'European'.

In conclusion, the thematic readings with which we began and the deconstructive ones are not, strictly speaking, mutually exclusive. In one sense they complement each other, rather in the way that, in our chapter on the distinction between classical/post-classical Hollywood, Die Hard seemed to lend itself to an Aristotelian, Proppian, and Lévi-Straussian reading, while also 'responding' to a closer look at the surface elements and effects of its mise en scène of objects, its semantic texture and symbolic figurations. More generally, 'deconstructive' readings such as we have demonstrated them here may help us clarify why we feel we need to apply to contemporary Hollywood films such terms as 'postmodernity', 'intertextuality', 'intermediality', the 'uncanny', or 'mise en abîme'. They do not, however, resolve which of these terms responds most pertinently to the 'symptoms' or features thus highlighted in the text, or indeed which features are symptoms and which are causes.

Our reading nonetheless makes a strong claim for textual analysis and close reading: if you like, for interpretation and against theory, for the specific case against generalization. We have not hesitated to impose a 'limit' on the unlimited semiosis: we have selected strands of the verbal-visual-aural fabric that had echoes in the explicit thematics, and have closed off further avenues when they did not seem (to us) to establish significant patterns. No doubt other interpretations are able (and indeed, judging by the proliferating literature on Chinatown, have already managed) to come up with other readings, either supplementing or maybe even contradicting those offered here. In this more general sense, deconstructive readings do undo thematic readings, in that the interpretive momentum is directed outwards, away from the single centre that Culler mentions, towards bifocal or multifocal perspectives. Deconstructive readings are centrifugal, in contrast to the centripetal energies mobilized in a thematic hermeneutic, aimed at establishing coherence and closure, coherence as closure. Does this answer the question whether we are 'over-interpreting'? Yes and no: yes, because the dispersal, the scattering, the chain reaction, and the contamination set up with the 'sliding signifiers' do not come to an end. With this, we also mean to signal that they exceed the control of any single individual, be s/he an actual person or a critical construct. The deconstruction of the auteur and the sliding signifiers are thus the recto and the verso of the same thing, in that both challenge an order not of fact, but of

'belief' - that in the auteur and the single source of meaning. No, it does not answer the question of 'over-interpretation' because it will remain a matter of temperament whether our procedure is perceived as arbitrary and perverse or as a token of the love of the text and of texture.

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  • Robinia
    What is the significance of the flaw in Evelyn Mulwray's eye?
    8 years ago

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