Friday, June 25, 2010

The 25: Part 13: Chinatown

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)

If JFK was the first film I could remember realizing was adult, Chinatown is the first film I can remember realizing was art. Chinatown is a film of such sensuous surface pleasures that it would be easy to overlook the level the film is playing at. Yet even at fourteen I never could. There are dark currents in Chinatown that will carry you away. For all the pleasures of Neo Noir Chinatown is the real deal, swimming amongst the jokey likes of The Long Goodbye and The Late Show like a shark in a pool of guppies. That’s its secret weapon, just how damn well it works as a narrative, piecing together a narrative that is damn near labyrinth while never getting you lost.

Before I gave up on the idea of having one, I used to tell people that Chinatown was my favorite movie. Its easy to see why. It’s a fine film, with golden cinematography (The imagery is lovely all that dusty golden light, the boy on his donkey in the dry river bed, the flaw in Dunaway's eye), a script by Robert Towne that’s legendary, and a cast filled with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston giving their career best performances. Nicholson connects with Towne’s screenplay in a genuine way I don’t think he did with anything else. Its probably the only Nicholson performance made of small moments. Even early Nicholson was defined by his grandeur, think of him playing the piano in the middle of the road in Five Easy Pieces, or telling the boys about the aliens in Easy Rider, and lets not even go into his “But these go up to eleven.” Performances he’s been content to give since then. But it’s the little things here, the way he drops the word “métier” in conversation, casually but making damn sure its noticed. The way he flinches, only for a second, when confronted with the swollen face of Burt Young’s beaten wife. Another example of his failure to live up to his responsibility. It makes Jake Gittes perhaps the only truly vulnerable character Nicholson ever played. And then ending is shocking not merely for what happens, but how badly it breaks him. He’s matched of course by Faye Dunaway, as the noble doomed Evelyn Mulray. Dunaway has never been better. Very few have.

But at the end of the day, that’s not what draws me to Chinatown. It has a pull to it, like an undertow. In the midst of an industry that at times seems dedicated to telling us that everything is alright, Chinatown tells us the exact opposite (Which is part of the reason the film’s clumsy, silly sequel The Two Jakes, which contains what as far as I'm concerned is the single stupidest most nonsensical bit of character motivation I've ever had the misfortune to see, failed so very badly). Despite its classic status, Chinatown is perhaps the bleakest American film ever made. A film in which the evil devour the innocent, and experience not a burp of indigestion. The film documents the birth of Los Angeles as we know it, with the air of someone recording a Satantic Baptism. Caught in the middle is Jake Gittes, a private eye who is duped into ruining the reputation of a seemingly inconsequential civil servant. His simple quest to find out who used him is complicated when he runs across Noah Cross, a very evil man who sits at the dark heart of the film’s mystery.

Cross, played by Huston, is my favorite villain and the most realistic potrayl of evil, I’ve ever seen in a film. All unthinking hunger and want. Cross is a man ruled by his appetites, and his appetites, be they for fish with their heads on, the San Fernado Valley, or his own daughter, are horrific. Huston, all likably avuncular and full of disarming folksy charm, until he bears his teeth, gives him a rancid grandeur, and the scene in which Nicholson asks him exactly what he’s after has the chilling ring of truth to it.

There is of course Polanski to fit in. It has always been difficult to separate Polanski from his art, now its damn near impossible. The recent turns in his case add another sickly layer to the film, as we wonder how Polanski must have contemplated Cross’s famous line “That most men never have to face the fact that under the right circumstances they’re capable of anything.”

Its that darkest of truths that makes Chinatown what it is. That makes the “My Daughter my sister.” Line carry all its horrific power after a trillion parodies. That makes those final doomed moments just as sickening each time you want them, the frantic last struggle for survival breaking the mise en scene itself, taking it from the classical homage it had been employing, to brutal hand held for those last couple of scenes.

Though it may no longer hold the top spot, Chinatown is still a favorite of mine. Easily within my top five. But I watch it rarely, only once every few years. Its too bitter. Too true.


The Film Doctor said...

In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Biskind includes this point about Chinatown:

"In Towne's original script, Evelyn Mulwray kills her venal father, Noah Cross. In other words, a happy ending in which innocence defiled is avenged and evil is punished. For Polanski, the world was a darker place. He felt Cross should live, get control of the child he incestuously fathered, while Evelyn should die. The Detective, Jack Gittes, can do no more than look on, helplessly. "I thought it was a serious movie, not an adventure story for the kids," says Polanski. Concludes Towne, "Roman's argument was, That's life. Beautiful blondes die in Los Angeles. Sharon had."

Bryce Wilson said...

Fascinating excerpt FilmDr, thank you for sharing.

Simon said...

Love this film, interesting point Dr.

AK said...

Chinatown is a miracle of a movie, as perfect as The Big Sleep (also pretty perverse, albeit not as openly). I was lucky enough to catch Chinatown as a teenager late one night without any knowledge of the plot or the film's reputation, and it truly shocked me (in a good way!) but that ending, that endless screaming...OMG.
And I'm glad to read your opinion on The Two Jakes:I was under the impression that it was well-received critically, but I found it a total SLOG to get through, despite some good elements.
RE the legendary "She's my sister, she's my daughter" scene, yes it's been parodied to death, but never better than in a dopey little comedy called Fatal Instinct--I can't really recommend it (it's pretty juvenile) but every few years I dust it off and watch it again, just for Sean Young's devastating comic take on old-school Noir Femme Fatales. Gawd, she's hot when she's not acting crazy!

Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks Rob, Fatal Instinct is definitely on the list now.

Unknown said...

I love CHINATOWN as well and the recent special edition is pretty amazing - a must-have for any fan of this film, esp. for the audio commentary with Towne and David Fincher (?!).

What can you say about this film that hasn't already? For me, the mood and atmosphere gets me every time. Plus, I love getting lost in the conspiracy/mystery elements that keep me coming back every time as I notice some other detail or nuance I missed the last time 'round.

I will say that I even have a soft spot for THE TWO JAKES which certainly has its flaws but is interesting in its own way - plus, to see two acting heavyweights like Nicholson and Harvey Keitel face-off against each other works for me!

Bryce Wilson said...

@ JD: Man I had no idea about that special edition. I'll have to track it down.

And I'm sorry I can never get past the stupidity of the central twist at the center of Two Jakes (though Keitel sells it as best he can)


"I Don't want my wife to know I'm dying of cancer. That would cause her too much pain. I'd much rather she think that I died, burning alive, screaming as I cooked in my own fat."


Unknown said...

Yeah, but it's the way Keitel says it that makes it work. Uh, sort of. ; )

CMrok93 said...

Nicholson in top form, with some great mystery.