Chinatown

Forget it, Jake.

An essay by: Witney Seibold

chinatown.jpg           

Roman Polanski’s 1974 film “Chinatown” is a detective story about L.A.’s water supply, the DWP, resource politics, and real estate. It involves depreciation of land value, faulty dams, and those orange groves that anyone who has driven out of California recognizes as the dullest landscape in the country. Not to sound inflammatory, but YAWN. Water politics? What? This was the kind of stuff I hated to study in high school. We were given assignments in social studies and current events that were more scintillating, and I hated current events assignments. Learning about ancient battles was interesting. Analyzing value. Memorizing formulae. Studying valence electrons. Ancient verbs. That was interesting stuff. Wading through the muck of local politics and water was so dull. And “Chinatown” is a whole detective story that revolves around such things.

 And yet…

           

Whenever I see the film, I am enthralled. It’s entrancing. It’s forward and deliberate, and the story doesn’t get lost. We follow J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) around the deserts of L.A. to orange groves, reservoirs, and filing offices, and we’re just as interested as he is in finding out the truth. Why is the film so bloody interesting?

           

I think the key lies in J.J. Gittes. A hero who is simultaneously gruff and sophisticated. He’s not a hard smoking, hard drinking, cynical bastard who has seen people at their worst so no longer trusts anyone (see John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon”). Nor is he a suave charmer who can heedlessly enter a lion’s den with a martini, and come out with his suit unruffled (see James Bond or any of his imitations). No, J.J. Gittes occupies a space that rests in between those two caricatures, yet feels firmly grounded in reality. He’s tells the occasional dirty joke and does indeed smoke, and he’s perfectly capable of barking at someone. He’s an expert at cutting through the crap. He constantly knows that there’s something being hidden from him, and he knows he’s constantly being jerked around. He’s not one to put up with any of that. He doesn’t necessarily want to do it, but if the situation calls for it, he’ll grab you by the lapels and slap you up a treat.

           

But he’s not above using words like “métier.” He wears a dapper grey suit, and operates by the rules.  He’s polite and smiles. There’s a point in the film where he needs to get into a DWP official’s office, and rather than belittling the secretary, or barging in, he simply sits for a few moments… he hums… he beings to pace… he smiles… he starts whistling… and finally the secretary barges from the room just to get him to shut up and sit still. He’s not gruff or aggressive. When he attends a proposal for a new dam given by Hollis Mulwray (Darrel Zwerling), he’s bored. When a bunch of goats burst in and create a ruckus, most of the people in the hall react with shock or outrage, but Jake instantly grins; he’s not without humor or irony.

           

It’s only with a protagonist like this that a film like “Chinatown” can work. All noir films are character studies more than they are crime flicks. Noir is, among other things, a study of a world without heroes. Most noir characters are amoral in some way, but they each have a knowledgeable stance on good and evil.  They sit in the darkness, knowing that they can only live in crime, but constantly stare up at the light, hoping or simply lamenting. Jake has lived in the dark. The constant references to Chinatown, Jake’s old patrol grounds when he was a cop, make it seem, increasingly as the film progresses, like a distant planet where the normal laws of morality don’t apply. We get, through slight winces and pained glances, the impression that Chinatown is a kind of Hell that Jake has gladly left in his past. Now, as a P.I., Jake is living in a steadier world where he uses his skills to scrape by a living spying on cheating spouses. It’s not very satisfying, but it gets the bills paid. We get to know him rather well.

           

Of course, then Evelyn Mulwray hires him to follow her husband Hollis. All well and good, but Hollis’ behavior is not that of a typical cheating husband, what with all the hanging around dry riverbeds, empty beaches, and later, dead in reservoirs.

           

The film’s femme fatale is anything but. Faye Dunaway is brilliant as Evelyn Mulwray, the jilted, the deceived, the wounded. When we first see Evelyn, well, it’s not Evelyn at all. It’s Diane Ladd. But when we finally meet the real Evelyn, she comes across as tough. She delivers a line that doesn’t so much reflect her character, as it does convey how her character wants to be: “I don’t get tough with anyone,” she says over her shoulder through red lips, “my lawyer does.” That seems a little too much like a line of dialogue for it to be natural. And indeed, when Jake runs into her again, she’s not so confident. In fact, Jake puts her on the spot a lot, and she never seems to be telling the truth. Her entire being is full of sputters and starts. She answers out a little too boldly, and then shrinks only the slightest bit, as if she was ashamed or afraid of what she just said. There’s a scene in a restaurant where they are having a casual drink together. Evelyn has decided to drop the case, and Jake is a little perplexed. Watch this scene carefully, and you’ll see it. Dunaway’s doe-like skittishness paired with Jake’s not-so-gruffness. The scene lets us know that something is up. It begins to open our minds into the depths that the mystery has plunged.

           

And then there’s Noah Cross, (played by John Huston, the director of such films as “The Maltese Falcon,” “The African Queen,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and other classics). It’s somewhat fitting that Polanski’s noir antihero is matching wits with one of the men who helped created the image in “The Maltese Falcon” with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. Noah Cross is the typical clueless rich jerk, who cares for no one but himself. I once had the opportunity to play Noah Cross for a friend’s film project, and while only a large cash sum will convince me to show the resulting videotape to anyone, I feel I got the character down pretty good. Nowhere near the casual arrogance displayed my Huston’s mountainous, jowl-shaking, patronizing arrogance, but well enough. Noah Cross is just as skilled as Jake at manipulating the truth out of people, but is far more cunning, and has far more wicked schemes. The reason for his behavior? Jake asks him. After it’s been discovered that Cross has been diverting water away from the desert in order to depreciate its value, Jake, fed up, asks the rich man: “What more can you buy?” Cross, without hesitation replies rather enigmatically: “The future, Mr. Gits. The future.”

           

Cross is a man who has never been stopped from getting what he wants, and he wants some pretty odd things. His daughter/granddaughter seems proof enough for me of his complete sociopathy. The perfect noir villain, if you will. A man who seems a might vulnerable (“Of course I’m respectable; I’m old. Old buildings, politicians and whores all get to be respectable if they last long enough.”), but is hiding grievous sins and unfathomable weakness.

           

And the final character of “Chinatown,” the title character.

           

Chinatown, as I mentioned, is treated like a far-off land of darkness. Each time it is mentioned, the myth grows in our minds. We are never told exactly what happened there, and yet we know exactly what happened there. Jake, when a cop, obviously went through some kind of horrid experiences. Most cops and investigators will tell you that they have trouble believing in people, as they have learned, the hard way, that anyone is capable of anything. Jake learned that all too well in Chinatown.

Chinatown is, in the classical sense, a greenworld. A fantasy world that exists somewhere outside of the rest of the drama. The place that can affect people’s behavior just by having them be in it.

Chinatown is a sort of earthly Hell. And, in the film’s finale, when we finally follow everyone to Chinatown, everything falls apart. It seems for a while, after Jake has given the cops the slip, and Evelyn is headed there to hide with her daughter/sister, that everything might work out in a small way. But it is here that all three principal characters meet for the first time. It’s not hunky-dory. People panic, shout. Chaos. An almost supernaturally accurate bullet kills just the wrong person at the wrong time, and Cross is never duly punished. Jake, outraged, begins to protest. But a colleague must remind him, with the film’s most penetrating and memorable line of dialogue: Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

           

The film’s title means, I think, a complete breakdown. A kind of moral entropy. The area in our minds where we grapple with evil. There is an undergrowth of sin under every slightly shady act in “Chinatown.” And we can follow the moulds of each character. We can outwardly reject the evil, as Evelyn did, embracing an already lost naïveté, and live in paranoia and fear. We can openly embrace the evil, as Cross did, allowing it to mutate us into pathological monsters with no moral center. Or we can do the smart thing and simply accept the evil, and try to operate in the world with our lost innocence, trying to benefit from the trauma.

           

This film was made in 1974, and is usually lumped in with other great noir classics. “Other great noir classics,” refers mostly to the American crime films made in the 1940s. The noir genre had its last blast, kind of, with “Sunset Boulevard” in 1950, and most films of the ‘50s and ‘60s are brighter and clearer. The 1970s, thanks in part to “Chinatown’s” producer, Robert Evans, saw the emergence of moral ambiguity as a genre. “The Godfather,” “Taxi Driver,” “Bonnie & Clyde,” where the heroes get violently slain at the end… nothing was bright anymore. The war in Vietnam made the public crazy. And in this beautiful artistic turmoil slips a forgotten genre, noir, to breathe a little. “Chinatown,” however, slipped passed being “just another ‘70s flick,” and is now listed alongside “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Public Enemy,” “The Killing,” “Double Indemnity,” and “Rififi” as one of the greatest noir films ever.

           

The author of the film, Robert Towne, has had a hand in creating some of the more memorable screenplays in American film, although not always credited. “Marathon Man,” “Bonnie & Clyde,” “The Last Detail,” and “Personal Best” are all his, along with a number of tawdry action flicks. Polanski and Towne were teamed up partially by Evans, the ambitious slime and pinnacle of moviedom producer mystique.

           

The cinematographer must also be mentioned. John A. Alonzo makes the sun-baked flats, the dry boring landscapes of L.A. seem like a vast desert wasteland, peppered with oases full of movie stars. Oh wait. That’s what L.A. is, isn’t it?

           

Roman Polanski, Polish-born, has not had an easy life. He lost his mother and sister to the Holocaust, and wandered through much of the war hiding out. He went to film school in the ‘50s, and, after a number of shorts, made his first film in 1962 “A Knife in the Water.” His “Cul-de-sac” (1966) caught the eye of Evans who brought him to the States him to make “Rosemary’s Baby” in ’68. He married Sharon Tate who was infamously murdered by Charles Manson’s gang. He retreated to Europe for a while, but returned to make “Chinatown” in 1974. He was rolling high for a while, but was then convicted for sleeping with a 13-year-old girl, and has been living, to this day, in exile in Europe. He has since been forgiven by all parties involved except the law, which prevented him from entering the country to accept an Oscar in 2002 for “The Pianist.”

           

Despite, or perhaps because of, his hard life, Polanski has remained a powerful auteur. His placement of the camera, his deliberate pacing, his ability to put details in the frame that our eyes only barely catch, but catch nonetheless… at its best matches Kubrick. He is serious and humorous at the same time. Like Jake laughing at the goats, Polanski shows us the absurdity of life, and we are simultaneously frightened and amused.

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Published in: on May 14, 2007 at 8:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

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