“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” This final comment in the brilliant 1974 film Chinatown was more than a crude slur on Asian “inscrutability.” After a long, tense interval of murder, deception, ruthless power, and near resolution, Jake Gittes’s colleagues are urging him to withdraw and accept the defeat that comes with the recognition that further action is futile.
Jack Nicholson masterfully plays a supremely self-confident and successful private detective in late-1930s Los Angeles. Forced out of his work-a-day life as a cop, Nicholson’s character becomes a paragon of business success-- money, nice clothes, cars, and all the trappings of a smug, comfortable, and knowing petty-bourgeois. The ensuing tale depicts the shattering of his smugness, his intensifying discomfort, and the utter destruction of his grasp on his world.
Midway through his journey, Jake (Nicholson) encounters Noah Cross (John Huston), a man of boundless money and power. Jake believes that his own boundless cleverness and wit can match Cross. In his deliberate, no-nonsense manner, Cross imperiously tells Jake that he has no idea with whom and with what he is dealing in his investigation.
Chinatown proves that Cross is right.
Most critics praise this marvelous movie, citing its consummate neo-noir realization, its technical excellence and innovation. Many see a political undercurrent: the ruthless manipulation of events by power and for the acquisition of wealth in pre-war Los Angeles. The wonderful Robert Towne script skillfully melds events from Los Angeles’ history and his own fictional counter-history to construct a counterpoint of exploitation and corruption, easily interpreted as a critique of unfettered capitalism and unscrupulous capitalists.
But unnoticed by many critics, the complex sexual mystery surrounding Noah Cross’s daughter, Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), unfolds a more shocking critique of capitalism: When Jake extracts a confession from Evelyn Mulwray, she jarringly tells Jake that her daughter is also her sister, her sister is also her daughter, challenging him and the viewer to understand fully what she means. Noah Cross-- the arch-capitalist-- impregnated his own daughter. The film’s fatalistic ending underscores the harsh reality that Noah Cross’s depravity will go unpunished. The rules do not apply to the Noah Crosses of the world. “It’s Chinatown, Jake.”
Does today’s US news of the real Jeffrey Epstein reveal a facsimile of the fictional Noah Cross? Is Epstein an obscenely rich, ruling-class, trusted insider-- once a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission-- supplying depraved sex to his elite colleagues? Is he, are they, beyond the reach of the laws that apply to the rest of us?
Is this an extreme aberration from the norms of our “betters” or are the revelations merely a peek behind the curtains, the curtains that conceal the decadent rot of a dying socio-politico-economic system?
These questions intrigue, though they are far from answered by our media, long devoted to hiding the depths of elite depravity. The glimpse of Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood degeneracy similarly identifies a long-standing elite immunity, though it quickly led to a sacrificial witch hunt, a supposed “cleansing” of the witches. Lost in the media circus was the complicity of the entertainment establishment, including the self-righteous Hollywood liberals who surely had some knowledge of Weinstein’s debauchery just as Epstein’s financial colleagues must have known. In an industry fueled by gossip, it defies credibility that awareness of Weinstein’s proclivities was not widespread.
It is both unforced and enforced blindness that emerges from Stanley Kubrick’s last film, the aptly titled Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman play a young couple who believe that they have arrived, enjoying the security and confidence that come with petty-bourgeois success. By virtue of his status, Dr. William Harwood (Cruise) enjoys access to the social world of the rich, powerful, and famous. Or, at least, he and his wife believe they do.
As he stumbles into an unknown world of violence and sexual exploitation, he recognizes that forces are at play that he never imagined. Those forces operate arrogantly and with impunity. They are larger than and outside of what he has experienced. Like Jake in Chinatown, the esteemed Dr. Harwood’s ego is bruised, his smug worldview is shattered.
The young, wide-eyed arrivistes have not arrived at a good place. Instead, they have glimpsed a shadowy world of the ruling class, a world so dangerous that it forces them to close their eyes in dread.
Where some critics found an arresting erotic mystery in Eyes Wide Shut, they may have missed its powerful political dimensions.
Apart from demonstrating the insecurities of the petty-bourgeoisie, Chinatown and Eyes Wide Shut give us a fictional glimpse into the sordid world of the ruling class. Today’s growing disclosures paint an equally sordid, but reality-soaked account of Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual empire and his scandalous immunity from punishment.
Epstein’s story takes us from a college dropout who lies and charms his way into a teaching job at an elite high school, parlaying more lies and charm into a top executive job at a major investment bank, and ending as a member of the super-rich club. Along the way, he becomes a trusted confidant and advisor of those at the top of the wealth and power pyramid.
If Chinatown screenwriter, Robert Towne, were to write this script, he might suggest that Epstein both ingratiated himself with and collected dirt on the rich and powerful. He might depict a man who offered attractive ways for the super rich to preserve and grow their money while providing discreet, but illicit pleasures as a special perk. He might describe him as someone who befriends and services important public figures, people of the ilk of Donald Trump and Bill Clinton.
If Robert Towne were to put words into Jeffrey Epstein’s mouth, he might have borrowed Noah Cross’s words and had Epstein tell the Palm Beach prosecutor in 2006 that “he had no idea of who or what he was dealing with…” Towne’s script would have allowed Epstein to escape justice. He or important friends might have informed the US Attorney, Alexander Acosta, of the same thing in 2008; or, Acosta might have been advised that Epstein “belonged to intelligence.”
Of course, it is unlikely that we will ever know the whole truth about Epstein’s activities.
As with the “scandals” of Robert Kraft or Harvey Weinstein, the media will give us a sensationalized taste, but fail us before the weight of influence and power. Towne and Kubrick were right, there are places we cannot go.