Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Like Visiting An Old Friend

First and foremost, I make no apologies for this being my first post of the week. Consider yourself lucky that you haven't had to listen to my rambling nonsense for a couple of days... I'm pretty much in full on vacation mode, so I've had no desire to write about much of anything... That all changed last night though my friends... Why, you ask? Well I'm going to tell you why, right the eff now!!

I watched Chinatown last night for the first time in a good long while, and I was left wondering why I always seem to go so long between watchings. Sure, it’s not exactly the most happy-go-lucky of stories, but it certainly isn’t the kind of movie you’re glad to have seen, but never, ever want to watch again a la Apocalypse Now… For the most part, in spite of it’s very Polanskiesque twists and turns, it’s pretty standard film noir faire. If you take the film seriously, you will likely be quite disturbed by the whole plotline, and it’s eventual outcome, but if you look at it like a well made adaptation of a dime store novel, it’s a whole hell of a lot of fun…

Heads up, moving forward I do plan to talk about the movie, and in talking about the movie, will reveal the twists and turns referred to above, so if you decided to wait 34 years to try this one on and are afraid of having the film ruined, I suggest not reading any further. I also suggest you see films in a much more timely manner... It's not like we're talking about the Raul Julia TV movie Ace's Up or William Elliot's turn as Ken, a cop with a soft side in Hangup. His job was busting junkies, his mistake was loving one... Anyhow if you have seen the film, hopefully you will be inspired to watch it again. It’s worth another viewing just for Jack’s one-liners…

Author’s note: I’ve been trying to write a compact point by point write up of the plot of Chinatown for the last 45 minutes, and I’m only about a quarter of the way through the film. As a result, I’m going to skip the formal plot outline, and instead focus on some killer scenes that make this movie worth seeing. I’ll try and throw in as much context as possible, but it could be tough unless I make this post about 100,000 words long, and NOBODY wants that. I recognize that the best blog post falls someplace between 'long enough to kill some time off the clock at the end of a work day' and 'Holy shit, it's 4:00! I started reading this thing at 10am!'… Keeping that in mind, here's what you need to know to get the general idea of the film:

· LA is in a drought
· Jack Nicholson is a private dick
· There’s a scandalous conspiracy surrounding the water department
· John Houston makes for a very convincing old bastard
· Roman Polanski plays a knife wielding baddie who serves no real purpose except to wreak havoc
· Faye Dunaway’s character Evelyn Cross-Mulwray has had a seriously messed up life, and subsequently has a very gnarly family tree…

With these things in mind, I now present 5 reasons to go watch Chinatown again, or for the first time for those of you residing under rocks...

1. Jack Nicholson’s JJ Gittes is a badass.

Gittes is a hard boiled private dick, like those made famous by Humphrey Bogart a generation earlier. The big difference between Bogey and Jack? Jack’s not afraid to work blue, and he manages to find the comedy in life’s great tragedies… Early in the film, Gittes is snooping around the LA aqueduct after hours and gets caught by a fellow gun for hire and his slight associate. Instead of running for his life, begging for an apology, or trying to weasel his way out of the situation, Gittes says ‘Hiya Mulvihill, who’s the midget?’ Gittes soon learns ‘the midget’ portrayed by our director, Roman Polanski, is not a man to be trifled with. Polanski’s character, billed simply as ‘Man with Knife’ promptly sticks his switchblade in Gitte’s left nostril, and slices outward. Does Gittes scream and cry, nope, he simply cups his nose in his hands, tells the thugs he won’t be back, and goes on his merry way. Later in the flick he gets a chance to beat the hell out of Mulvihill, and finds opportunity to use the nose as comic relief. When talking with Mrs. Mulwray Gittes opines ‘But, Mrs. Mulwray, I goddamn near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it. And I still think you're hiding something.’ Still later when having a tête-à-tête with an LAPD detective, Gittes is asked what happened to his nose, but you won’t get a sob story from old Jake Gittes, instead he responds with ‘Your wife got excited. She crossed her legs a little too quick. You understand what I mean, pal?’

In all seriousness, aside from the running gags and sub-plot surrounding Gittes’ sliced nose, the scene itself where Polanski does the cutting is possibly one of the most realistic uses of violence ever committed to film. Aside from a small spurt of blood into Gittes’ eye, and his bloody hands from attempting to hold the wound closed, there is no fountain of gore, no gratuitous shots of flesh hanging from Jake’s face, no overreaction on the part of the victim or victimizer, and as a result, the wound seems even more painful and gruesome because of it’s realism.

2. John Houston, the man could do more than just direct.

If John Houston’s legacy was centered around nothing more than this film, he may have ended up one of the most hated actors in the history of Hollywood. From the outset, Houston’s Noah Cross seems like a kindly old retiree, trying to do the best he can with his fortune to better the city in which he loves. After all, he’s just trying to bring water to the people of Los Angeles. As the film unfolds however, we find that Cross isn’t really all that concerned about the citizens of Los Angeles, he’s far more concerned about amassing even more wealth, even more power, and ruining even more lives in the process. In the third act, we discover hat Cross has been purchasing large parcels of land in the San Fernando Valley, which he plans to irrigate with the water the citizens of Los Angeles will pay to bring to the area through a new dam project. We also find out that he was the one who killed his former business partner and son-in-law Hollis Mulwray, and most disturbing of all, we find out that Mulwray’s supposed lover was actually the offspring of incest between Cross and his then 15 year old daughter Evelyn.

As disturbing as the character is revealed to be, what really makes him so dastardly is the turn Houston takes in portraying him. Gone is the kindly old grandfatherly figure who seems to want to do one more good thing for the people of Los Angeles before his life is at an end, and instead Houston seems to capture the true greed and degradation of the character more through facial mannerisms and inflection that through his lines themselves. We find that his true reasoning for wanting Gittes to find his son-in-law’s concubine was because he knew the girl was his daughter, the daughter his first child had hidden from him so he could not damage her the way she had been.

3. Great Film Noir Styling with 70’s Era Storytelling

The ultimate resolution of Chinatown, and the way the whole film unfolds could not have been told in the same way in any era of film before or since. Polanski’s film making, coupled with Towne’s writing captured lightening in a bottle that fit perfectly in the high violence, high kink era of 70’s film making. Combining that with classic film noir characterizations and set design gives the whole film the feel of a true Dashiell Hammett noir novel rather than the more watered down films of the Hays Code era. I certainly do not wish to take away anything from the earlier noir films in which Chinatown is based, but the openness of both Hollywood and film going audiences of the 70’s allowed Chinatown to be told in all it’s gritty and exploitative glory. Many of the earlier noirs implied similar story lines of incest, far reaching government corruption, and characterized the hard living private eye lifestyle, but none of them opened the book as widely as Chinatown did, more because of society’s views at the time than because of the film maker’s desires to stop short of telling the whole story.

Ultimately, the same could be said today. We are now in an age of film that many film makers are concerned with having their films branded too gratuitous, or hyper realistic. Film makers are finding ways to cut corners to not truly express the evils that men do, and instead imply the horror. In some ways this adds an additional element to the films in question as our minds always conjure up more depraved and salacious acts than a screen writer could ever envision, but there is something so simple, so direct, and so menacing about Polanski’s willingness do display the incest plotline in Chinatown, and Houston’s willingness to embrace it as an actor, that we just do not see in film today. I’m yet to decide if that is a bad thing or a good thing, but for whatever it’s worth, it’s a thing…

4. A Solution To The Theory Of Proper Plot Twists

As I mentioned at the very beginning of this post, it is almost impossible to commit to a full write up of Chinatown without revisiting virtually every scene in the film. As a matter of fact, I’m about 4/5th of the way through the write up I decided to do, and I’m roughly as far as I was with the review I scrapped because I was only about half an hour into the film when outlining the whole plot. Some may see this as overly complicated, creating plot twists just for the sake of plot twists. I could not disagree more. There are examples of films out there that tried to do too much with the story and left the viewers thinking ‘What?’ The most classic example that comes to mind is The Big Sleep. It has been said that not even the actors could explain what the film was really about. There are also films that have sub-plots that are designed to throw the audience in one direction while the actual story heads in another. A prime example of that device can be found in Pulp Fiction. So many people, especially those who study film, will debate ‘what’s in the briefcase?’ At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what’s in the briefcase. The briefcase is not the central plot device, it’s more of an homage to noir past, and an extra twist to keep the audience wondering what’s going to come next.

For the most part, the twists and turns in Chinatown do reach fruition. The overarching story of corruption in the water department ultimately takes a back seat to the struggles of the Cross/Mulwray family and their personal tragedies, but without it, there is no conflict to spark the murder of Mulwray, Gittes’ involvement in the story, or the eventual uncovering of Cross’ improprieties, so it does serve a very necessary purpose beyond shifting the focus of the audience. The only plot point that is not fully developed, leaving the audience wondering about the film long past the last reel, is what actually happened to Gittes in Chinatown, all those years past? This is where Polanski allows the audience to use their imagination conjuring a story far more twisted and evil than anything Towne could have penned.

5. Polanski’s Wrap Up

Those who have only seen Chinatown once or twice and never really looked any deeper into the film would be surprised to find out that the original script did not end in tragedy. Gittes is the hero, Evelyn and her daughter find peace beyond the clutches of Noah Cross, and good triumphs over evil. Unfortunately for Roman Polanski, the story of good triumphing over evil was not based in reality. Polanski was born to Polish parents who were both imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, his mother dying there. Young Roman was forced to flee from his family, taking refuge with various Catholic families through Poland to avoid his own imprisonment and possible death in spite of the fact he was not yet even a teenager. As most people know, the tragedies did not stop when Polanski reached adulthood. Chinatown was his return to directing after the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson family 5 years earlier. Considering the life of pain and loss he had lived up to this point, it is no surprise that Polanski chose to take the script in a darker direction.

In the culminating scene, all the major players in the film gather outside a Mulwray servant’s quarters in the titular Chinatown. Evelyn and her daughter Kathrine are fleeing the city, on their way to Ensenada, Mexico to escape the clutches of both the law, and Noah Cross. Gittes leads Cross to Chinatown in an effort to expose him to the police, whom he knows will be hot on Evelyn’s trail. Gittes’ plan seems to be coming together perfectly, except you never know how a situation is going to play out in Chinatown… Evelyn confronts her father, telling him he will never have a chance to do to Kathrine what he did to her, Gittes is arrested on site for aiding Evelyn in alluding the police, who are there to arrest her for the murder of her husband. Gittes explains to the police that it’s really Noah Cross who killed Hollis Mulwray, not Evelyn, but they will have none of it. Evelyn speeds off in a convertible, with her daughter at her side, the police open fire on the car, attempting to disable it. Instead, one of the bullets hits Evelyn in the head, killing her instantly.

Wishing to cover up the murder, the police let Gittes and his associates go free, and Kathrine ends up in the care of her father/grandfather, Noah Cross. Nothing works out in the good guys favor, and we are all reminded poignantly of this by the look on Kathrine’s face as Cross is dragging her from the car. From this glance we can see she is not just horrified by seeing her mother’s lifeless body slumped over the steering wheel, but also because she knows what horrors await her now the she is under the care of Noah Cross.

This is ultimately how the film HAS to end. Any other conclusion would not be true to what we all know of the life and times of Roman Polanski before and since it’s making. Chinatown works on so many levels. It is a historically based fiction piece on the founding of Los Angeles, a more modernized version of the highly entertaining genre of Noir Cinema, and with the benefit if hindsight, even works as a slightly disjointed documentary on the life of it’s director. There are no happy endings, lifelong loves die, children are destined to experience loss and suffering, and the rich and powerful will always win out over the forgotten masses. Let it be said, I do not condone Polanski’s actions later in life. There is no good excuse for grown man to be involved with a thirteen year old girl, and as a human being, his failures certainly out number his accomplishments. However; as a film maker, he achieved two grand successes with this film, and the earlier Rosemary’s Baby. Some people may have a hard time separating the man from his work, and that is wholly understandable. I, do not…

In a nutshell, go watch yourself some Chinatown, and look out for your nose…

For more detailed write up on the film, and how it connects to LA's history, go here...

5 comments:

Cruise Ship Director Julie said...

At least Evelyn got a shot off at Cross before she bit the big one. Unfortunately it didn't kill him. Huston was very creepy and at the end seemed to be licking his chops in anticipation of his future with Kathrine. It is typical noir and yet takes the audience much farther than Key Largo or Maltese Falcon (both Huston films) ever did.

Ryan said...

Nice write-up...

I haven't seen Chinatown in a long time, but I remember enjoying it. Now, as I'm older, I would probably enjoy it all the more.

Rather than semi-plagiarize your own write-up to mention one of my own favorite films, let me just do it here quickly: watch Hitchcock's Vertigo again. I would be surprised if Polanski didn't consider it to be one of his influences in making Chinatown. Hitchcock's film isn't quite as gritty as Polanski's- no incest to be had here- but there is a definite noir element.

If for nothing else, the film is worth seeing because of Kim Novak's haunting beauty, and James Stewart's absolute tour de force as an actor. He goes against type and plays a burned out crazy ex-cop who gets suckered into a case he doesn't want, and he loses his mind as a result.

Vertigo is definitely one of those movies for me like Chinatown evidently is for you... every time I finish that perfect film I ask myself why I don't watch it more often.

Eric said...

Chinatown rules. It picked it up at Best Buy a few months back when it was in the $5 bin.

OCKerouac said...

I believe I have your old copy of Vertigo, but haven't gotten around to watching it... Sounds like I should. This could be one of my vacation flicks to watch whilst soused on central-coast wine...

OCKerouac said...

$5 is a value for most films, but even more so for something decent like Chinatown... I find the $5 movie bin can get me in trouble... The temptation is too great... That's how I ended up with two copies of Blazing Saddles...