Sexual harassment and Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’

When opportunity knocks for men

Are you shocked to learn that celebrated Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein, while auditioning an aspiring actress, allegedly unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, grabbed the woman’s hand, and forced it onto his member, explaining,  “This is how things work in Hollywood"?

John Huston as Noah Cross: above the law, and social mores too. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikipedia.)

Are you shocked that cutting-edge comedian Louis C.K., by his own admission, exposed his penis and masturbated in front of several women comedians? That cerebral CBS host Charlie Rose allegedly walked around naked in front of several coworkers and tried to put his hand down at least one woman’s pants? That NBC's Today Show cohost Matt Lauer allegedly invited a female employee to his secluded office, then showed her his penis?

For that matter, are you shocked that avuncular comedian Bill Cosby allegedly routinely drugged young women and then sexually assaulted them while they were unconscious? That a Penn State football coach sodomized boys in his care? That priests abuse children? That Nazis systematically liquidated millions of innocent people?

If you’re genuinely mystified by any of these atrocities — if you seek understanding rather than mere condemnation — you might find an explanation in a single work of art: Roman Polanski’s classic 1974 noir film, Chinatown.

Nixon vs. Dean

The Chinatown of that film’s title is not merely a Los Angeles neighborhood in 1937 but also a state of mind, an allegorical ghetto where the world’s born losers— and, not incidentally, the truth— are eternally trampled by the rich and powerful. The film’s villain, water baron Noah Cross (played by John Huston), is so wealthy and dominant that he operates above not only the law but above social mores and conventions as well. It seems farfetched when we learn that Cross raped and impregnated his own daughter (Faye Dunaway), but that is exactly the point. As Cross tells detective J.J. Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), “Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.”

Most people never face that fact because they never have the opportunity. It was once equally farfetched to suggest that the president of the United States could be involved in an illegal network of political espionage and disruption directed against his enemies, but it was precisely because no one would believe it that Richard Nixon was able to cover it up for so long. (“If I have to choose between [John] Dean and the president as to who is telling the truth,” Congressman Joseph Maraziti said during the House Judiciary Committee debate in August 1974, “I have no difficulty in that regard.”) When a man carries 49 states (as Nixon did in 1972) or corners a city’s water supply (as Noah Cross did), it fills his head with ideas that don’t occur to most of us.

Thanks to Nixon’s Watergate scandal, Americans no longer take a president’s word at face value. But the Cross analogy doesn’t really apply to Donald Trump, whose bizarre, narcissistic behavior actually preceded his acquisition of financial and political power. As Trump observed early in the 2016 campaign, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.”

Silent victims

Next question: are you shocked that the victims of the hundreds of recent allegations of sexual abuse waited years before going public with their accusations? Again, Chinatown suggests an answer.

At the film’s conclusion, Cross has conned an entire city out of its water supply and gets his incestuous paws on the pale, nervous teenage girl who, as his daughter/granddaughter, represents his only biological link with the future. Gittes, the private eye, sees clearly what has happened. But when he babbles desperately to the police about who killed whom and why, his narrative sounds so outlandish that they look at him as if he’s crazy. And even if the police believed Gittes, they would ignore him, because arresting a man like Cross is inconceivable. Like the alleged victims of Harvey Weinstein et al, Gittes needs a “Me too” chorus to lend credibility to his theory.


Having ingested the lessons of Chinatown, would you be shocked to learn that three years after that film’s release, its brilliant and perceptive director, Roman Polanski — himself a survivor of the Holocaust — pleaded guilty to drugging and sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl? (Polanski fled California to France in 1978, hours before he was to be formally sentenced.)

Noah Cross had it almost right when he declared, "At the right time and place, most people are capable of anything." I say “almost” because the above-mentioned outrages were all committed by men. So, to improve on Noah Cross: at the right time and place, most men are capable of anything. Would you be shocked to learn that America once had a president who boasted about grabbing women by their genitals?

Our readers respond

Barry Washington

of Phoenixville, PA on December 06, 2017

We must also conclude that our shock is disingenuous, to put it mildly. Time and time again we see this shock dissipate into several forms of " It wasn't so bad after all." We minimize or deny the offense and blame the victim. Our lip service to morality is just another form of normative social behavior, like a seasonal greeting. Our naked hypocrisy is behind our outrage. Instead, we should follow the New Testament example, which would lead us reflect, put our rocks down, and walk away— beginning with the older men.

Richard da Silva

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on December 08, 2017

Very interesting. One of the most memorable TV viewing moments I ever had is Brian Lamb's interview with the late Irving Kristol, the "neo-conservative" (in domestic affairs), most noted generally for defining a neo-conservative as "a liberal mugged by reality." I don't recall precisely Mr. Lamb's question to the grandfatherly Kristol, but the latter's answer is seared forever on my mind, namely, "Original Sin," followed by a slight pause, and then, ever so calmly and sagely, he added, "We all live with it." Catholic mass always includes the exhortation to "Let us acknowledge our sins." But, boy, how we don't want to.

I never saw Chinatown, so I'm a bit at a loss about the specificity Mr. Rottenberg is referring to. But he is sure right in suggesting that the historical record should in some sense reduce our shock over mankind's continuing misbehavior. Which is not to say we should condone what the Jewish tradition refers to as man's "flawedness," but seek God's help and forgiveness in moderating and overcoming what is unavoidably a perennial and daily problem. On a brighter note, Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and Kwanza, everybody!

Ann C. Davidson

of Philadelphia, PA on December 09, 2017

Whoever chose the photograph that accompanies this essay is a genius. The smirk on John Huston's face exactly mirrors the smirk often displayed by the current occupant of the White House. And thank you, Mr. Rottenberg, for not shrinking from the history of Chinatown's director.

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