The 1974 Neo-Noir Classic Chinatown

Topics: Chinatown

Maybe you can’t separate the art from the artist. But don’t throw the art away. 

By Morey Ronan

This semester, my scriptwriting class watched the 1974 neo-noir classic “Chinatown.” I was mesmerized by Jack Nicholson’s powerful performance as the vulnerable, sharp-witted Detective Gittes, the vast and sunny plain of Los Angeles, and the dramatic tale of California’s water wars. But behind the screen lingered a dark truth: the film’s director, Roman Polanski, was convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977.

Now more than ever, artists are facing great consequences for their actions – and their work is, too.  A flood of men has been accused of sexual harassment in the arts and entertainment industries in today’s #MeToo era. We have the Harvey Weinstein saga, ​where more than 85 women have accused the Hollywood mogul of sexual assault and harassment​, putting his company down the drain; the ​Kevin Spacey allegations​ (which Spacey offensively used as an opportunity to ​come out of the closet​); Louis C.

K., who ​admitted​ to ​sexual misconduct with five individuals​; and Bill Cosby, who went from being a lovable father figure to a man with a ​3 to 110-yearprison​ sentence for drugging and raping a woman 15 years ago (he faced an additional ​60 allegations of sexual assault​).

Unfortunately, it has always been the case that brilliance and artistry are sometimes accompanied by troubling mental health. ​The influential German composer Richard Wagner was a vehement anti-Semite.​ French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline was an anti-Se​mitic xenophobe whose writing – though brilliant – spread Nazi ideology before and during the war.

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Much of Picasso’s mythological art explored male domination and rape, and other pieces by him have been recognized by some as pedophilia

There are also those cases that exist in murkier waters, whether for lack of credibility, or for significant public agreement that the behavior in question did not constitute sexual assault – like in the case of Aziz Ansari, who has been given enough sympathy to move forward in his career relatively untouched.

All these cases beg the same question: What do we do when the art we love was created by a monster? When a moral dilemma interrupts our aesthetic enjoyment? When artwork like Shakespeare In Love, Gangs of New York, House of Cards, Louie, The Cosby Show, or Master of None make us cringe, but we still think they’re awesome?

“We must separate the art from the artist” has been a popular answer to the question for decades, though headlines overwhelmingly concur that it has simply become an unjustifiable argument today (some read: ​“On the Impossibility of Separating the Art from The Artist”​; ​“Why We Have To Separate The Art From The Artist, And Why We Can’t”​; ​“‘Surviving R. Kelly’ and Why We Can’t Separate The Art From the Artist”​).

But before we declare whether or not it is possible to separate the art from the artist, a better look at the history behind the declarative phrase is warranted.


The idea of separating the art from the artist started as a popular tool for literary analysis, particularly in poetry, at the start of the 20th century. The New Critics wanted to give proper tools to English literature to make it a science worthy of technical study. They put forth the idea that a work of art must stand on its own; transcendent outside of any historical context, author’s intentions – or biography.

Poet T.S. Eliot inspired New Critics: “I have assumed as axiomatic that a creation, a work of art, is autonomous,” he wrote in 1923. In my scriptwriting class, like in most American classrooms, lessons work with the New Criticism model in mind.

When we read books and watch films in school, we use critical analysis – we do close reading and unpack words, without thinking about the time or place of the author behind the writing. The work is “self-referential” and “separate from the world,” as described by a quick Google search of the term “New Criticism.” “The intrinsic value of artwork is separate from any moral or ethical function.”

Without the New Criticism philosophy, I could not watch Chinatown and consider Chinatown as a single, self-contained piece of art. Using the notions the New Critics pushed for American literature, I can focus on Detective Gittes’s well-written narrative arc, the plot points of the script, and the camera shot choices. I don’t have to think about Polanski and be troubled by their own tales. And I don’t have to think about California’s water wars, either. I get to watch Chinatown without dissecting any elements that are extrinsic to the film.

New Criticism is not without its flaws. The framework says there’s a specific interpretation of the film, a specific answer, that is discoverable and true – that I don’t get to pick the meaning for myself.

But by mid-century, a more dynamic theory was introduced. Postmodernism came in and challenged the New Critics’ theory that a text has a specific, determinable meaning. They provided a variety of explanations stressing that texts do not have knowable meanings, but that the reader makes their interpretation when they read, and that’s what recreates the art piece each time it is consumed. This revolutionary concept tells us that we can experience art and take pleasure in it however we do and that those feelings are what matter. Influential French literary theorist Roland Barthes was at the center of this movement, famous for his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author.”

Barthes argued that our assessment should not involve any moral dimensions that regard the author, because he’s not in our eyesight.  Under Barthes’s thinking, I have all the power of interpretation. The script and I decide the grand meaning of Chinatown each time I sit down to watch it, and there’s no right or wrong answer. And still, Polinski isn’t our concern.

An English student at Harvard University, Anna Gibbs considers a postmodern approach in her poetry studies.

“As a poetry person, I’ve been taught to not think too much about the writer and to not concern yourself with intent,” Gibbs said. “So much of a poem is what the reader brings to it, regardless of a poet’s original intent.”

Something in between to transition. Pound-Polinski connect line?

“Ezra Pound is still respected and read as a poetry critic, and I think a lot of people know about him without knowing the bad part,” Gibbs said of the influential poet and critic who is most famous for beginning the imagism movement in poetry. “Apparently in Ital,y he has a huge ornate tomb, like really big and impressive. But nobody tends it. It’s all overgrown. It’s an interesting image, [Pound] being simultaneously honored and disgraced.”

In the 1990s, the New Historicists took over. Their theory – which prevails in modern literary criticism along with the reader-response notions of postmodernism – said that works of art are embedded in the time and place they were created, and that to thoroughly understand them, we must understand their social contexts.

Under New Historicism, the content of a text alone does not dictate how it will be interpreted, as the New Critics had taught. And it isn’t purely determined by the reader’s experience, either.

Historical context matters.

Under New Historicism, we have to consider Polanski’s conviction because it’s a part of the social culture of the film’s social context. But just how much cultural context are we to consider? Some background on private investigator culture, California’s water wars, and L.A. politics? Jack Nicholson’s biography? Roman Polanski’s? Or should Polanski’s offense matter less since it happened years after Chinatown? How much knowledge is enough to do our literary critic duty?

How little knowledge is unthorough?

As we individually choose how much an artist’s biography should matter, we should reflect on the current nature in which we respond to allegations of wrongdoing, a nature that illustrates how closely we tie the artist to their art. ​In a 2017 New York Times op-ed, Sarah Lyall and Dave Itzkoff summarize the common cycle:

[The responses to men accused of sexual assault] have been breathtaking in their speed and decisiveness. Another powerful man in media or entertainment is accused of being a sexual predator. He admits it, or not. He comes under investigation, isquits, or is fired. And all at once, his work — no matter how much people liked it before — turns radioactive.

Most of the #MeToo accusations have been serious, credible, and important to bring to attention in the news. But think about how quickly the work of the artist is condemned. Considering how varied the substance of the allegations are today, shouldn’t there surely be varied censures on the artist’s work? ​Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy 2017 wrote:

Once we register the revulsion and horror of many of these allegations, there’s also the issue of due process, which has barely come up over the past few weeks. And, awkward as it may be to acknowledge, the matter of whether and how we must distinguish gradations of bad behavior; is what Dustin Hoffman is accused of remotely comparable to that of Harvey Weinstein and therefore deserving of similar censure?

Perhaps when I look at Chinatown, the answer is to condemn Polanksi but to applaud and recognize the hard work and energy others put into the film. In a February 2018 feature in The New Republic, literary critic Josephine Livingstone contributed a fresh viewpoint to the conversation: She says it’s not about the reprehensible behavior of the artist at hand – it’s about the power we give to them, in telling us how we should interpret their films, and in the film industry generally. Livingstone writes:

[The New Critics] wanted to undo the artist’s monopoly over the way we talk about their art. Not hand them a carte blanche to be monsters! It’s about power, not behavior … Critics who are letting the artist’s life dictate the meaning of their works … are, in every public “reassessment,” bolstering that contested artist’s monopoly over interpretation. Again, it’s about power … Their power to abuse, their power to dictate the terms of conversation, their power to define what a field like moviemaking even is.

If I follow Livingstone, I don’t give Polanski the keys to the conversation. I watch his film and appreciate it in a depth beyond applauding the director. Perhaps I focus on the long list of people who played a role in producing and distributing “Chinatown.” Livingstone gives me hope that I don’t have to give up the movies I cherish.

A look at some historical literary criticism theories should spark in us a broader knowledge of what we might do, and how we might view, the “cringe art” we struggle with. It gives us some brain food.

Should we shelve the Woody Allen movies that we cannot help but cringe at? If we don’t shelve them, are we complicit? And last, I’m forced to ask myself the question: what if we ​don’t ​cringe?

It’s hard to avoid great art that hasn’t had a problematic person’s hand on it. Walt Disney created entire worlds and shaped the American childhood and our conception of magic. But he was also an anti-Semite. It would be hard to boycott his work because it’s everywhere; it’s pervasive.

Some art, alternatively, is neither pervasive nor created by an ambiguous person. Adolf Hitler’s paintings are a shock to see and then hear who they’re attributed to. We may experience a sort of guilt if we even enjoy looking at them because it’s troubling to consider that a person who was so evil could still see and make beauty. We want Hitler to be inhuman and a monster,and his ability to perceive beauty makes him a little more human; a little more like us. It’s challenging to ever extricate a piece of art from its creator, and in a case like Hitler’s  , I think it’s important to leave the name tag on it so we can think about those important ideas.

People are complex and nuanced, and even in the cases of most damning cases of wrongdoing against an artist…, we can appreciate the art independently from its source.

For me, the line between art and artist is more finite than for most. I believe that someone’s identity as an abuser should not overpower their contributions to art. For me, the contributions to art have transcended their creators’ biographies so far, though I can understand why for others, they just do not. ​We also should remember that people like Woody Allen have been given a permanent, ugly stain to their names. No one can remove it.

I hope the growing list of abusive artists’ idea of separating the art and the artist does not become viewed as radical, though I fear that is already taking place. ​People unrelated to allegations, like Scarlett Johansson, have been given an incredibly unfair responsibility to condemn artworks. And our hyperfocus on cleanliness and comfort has caused us to even condemn films for ​portraying​ bad people, too – look at ​the ​outrage​ the ​Ted Bundy movie caused this year. ​If we want to, we can fully experience, appreciate and study great works of art made by monsters.

But these are only my ideas.

Perhaps you will take from the bold New Critics and enjoy and study the art you love as a single object, saying the intrinsic value of artwork is separate from any moral or ethical function. Perhaps you will bask in Barthes’s wonderful postmodernist theory that the film gets to be what you want it to be. Or perhaps you will think as a New Historian, dissecting time and place alongside an artwork’s elements.

Or maybe, you take bits and pieces from all three on a case-by-case basis and conflict yourself over and over again. Some literary criticism history will always give us new food for thought.

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The 1974 Neo-Noir Classic Chinatown. (2022, Aug 15). Retrieved from

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