Monday, November 4, 2013

Remember it, Jake. It's "Chinatown."

Roman Polanski is an awful human being.

One needs to say that ahead of any other reference to Roman Polanski, if only to establish a) knowledge of his insidious crime, and b) that we all agree his crime was unquestionably vile.  (I will add that the HBO documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired does reveal that his trial was a literally scripted at times by the headline-seeking judge.  This does not discount that Roman Polanski is an awful human being.)

At any rate, now that I've established that we all agree that Polanski's personal decisions were horrendous, I'll mention another name.

Jack Nicholson.

I'll just repeat at this point that Roman Polanski is an awful human being, because when one mentions Polanski and Nicholson together, it tends to be a reminder that Polanski's wretched crime was perpetrated at Nicholson's house, with the latter not being anywhere near there.

Now that we've really established the awfulness, let's focus on a cinematic masterpiece that resulted in a collaboration of Polanski directing and Nicholson acting.

J. J. Gittes after the knife scene
1974's Chinatown is a movie that I've loved since I first saw it, which was probably around 1999.  Inspired to learn more about the then-new-to-me genre of film noir by Dark City and its amazing commentary track by Roger Ebert (who called it one of the year's top ten films), I scoured the library and local rental establishments (all of the latter being gone now) for more examples of this most-wonderful slice of film.

Chinatown has all that makes film noir great: a murky world, half-known motivations, a damsel in distress... or is she a femme fatale?  As the film opens, Nicholson's Jake Gittes is wrapping up another private eye case of... snapping pictures of a cheating wife.  (The husband is played by Rocky's Paulie.) His next case is more of the same: Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray hires him to take dirty pictures of her naughty husband.  Gittes does, and Mr. Mulwray, who works for the LA Department of Water and Power, is caught and humiliated in the papers.

Then the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray confronts Gittes, and we see through his eyes the slow descent into the relatively real-life murky world of politics and power in 1937 Los Angeles.  To be a bit more specific, it's the world of water rights--a drought is on, but it seems the water department is part of a conspiracy.  I'm sure you're reading this saying, "Wow, water rights?  Yeeehaw!" The investigation into the water department, while largely reflecting the real LA of the first part of the 20th Century, is merely a backbone for Gittes to investigate those who are behind it.  As an example, a proposal for a sequel to the film would have had Gittes investigating the conspiracy to end public transportation in LA--a story precisely recycled in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  The analogy is that Roger Rabbit isn't "about" the Cloverleaf conspiracy, but rather the world that the conspiracy takes place in... just like Chinatown.

What makes this film so compelling is the film noir framework in which Polanski so masterfully operates.  Gittes, the quasi-stereotypical film noir gumshoe detective is unphased by the violence around him, as well as the increasing threat to him as he probes deeper and deeper into the powerful people of the city.  When Polanski isn't filming in perfect 1930s locations--every car, every prop, every costume as we imagine it should be--then he is taking us into nighttime shadows, unanswered questions, little clues which gnaw at us only when they need to.  Polanski wisely tells the story from the point of view of Gittes--we learn every clue just as he does, and when Gittes is knocked unconscious at the end of a rather remarkable chase scene in an orange grove (Nicholson appears to actually be driving with the camera in the back seat, speeding between lines of trees, throwing the car into reverse, and gunning it), the camera fades to black.

Polanski, ironically, doesn't play a nice guy.
Chinatown also has a moment that I usually fast-forward through: Gittes, confronted by thugs who are on to him, has a switchblade stuck up his nose.  Polanski plays the thug with a knife--and slices.  Gittes spends the next chunk of the film with slowly diminishing bandages on his face, until it's just stitches.  At any rate, it's horrifying.

For the uninitiated, the title refers to Gittes' time as a cop in LA's Chinatown where, it is said, one tried to do very little.  This is because language and cultural barriers oftentimes meant that the "normal rules" didn't apply.

I won't spoil the ending for you, other than to say that the happy ending was rejected soundly.  It ends like a punch to the gut: hard, harsh, complete.  Suffice it to say that the final appearance of the character of Noah Cross (you'll thank me that I haven't explained more about him) is cringe-worthy, and for all the wrong reasons.

We also learn that it isn't just among lowly Chinese immigrants in 1930s LA that the "normal rules" don't apply.  Sometimes it's for those at the other end of the spectrum--sometimes the ones at the very top win.  Sometimes they win easily, and with little fuss... despite some private eye nosing around.

"Forget it, Jake.  It's Chinatown."

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