Saturday, April 10, 2010
52 Films in 52 Weeks: Chinatown
From the beginning I doubted I would complete the "52 Films in 52 Weeks" challenge, but I'm still shocked how soon and how far I fell behind. "Chinatown" is only my third film and we're already 14 weeks into the year. I'm 11 weeks behind! I guess that's not insurmountable, but it would require me to double up movies some weeks. What makes it tough is that there are movies I also want to watch outside of this series. Currently I have Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale" from Netflix. Netflix's streaming movies is proving to be an indispensable tool.
As I mentioned, my third film in this series is Roman Polanski's "Chinatown." I have long wanted to see this movie both for its classic status and--as I consider myself a Los Angeles booster--its depiction of the City of Angels. I'm happy to report that, like "Casablanca," it lives up to its reputation.
Jack Nicholson makes Jake Gittes a fascinating, well-rounded character. Gittes is jaded, cynical, manipulative, and tempermental, but he also proves to incredibly sympathetic and vulnerable. The look on Gittes's face at the film's conclusion as everything goes to heck is devastating. I guess this is the big surprise to me, how much depth there is to Gittes. I expected him to be a classic hard-boiled private investigator, but this was a nice surprise to find such a complex figure navigating us through the story.
The story itself is lurid but not in a sensational way. It seems to be a straightforward P.I. story at first--a woman hires Gittes to follow her husband who suspects of cheating on her--but then the layers are peeled and we are soon following a story that touches on political corruption, murder, and incest. Polanski grounds the film, though, so that as the story unfolds its dark, troubling secrets, the effect isn't something sensational or graphic. Instead the viewer feels the impact on these characters. It's lurid not for entertainment's sake but because life is full of dark, unseemly realities.
For its depiction of L.A., the filmmakers' experience in the city is clearly evident. From the neighborhoods and streets they mention specifically to the history of the city, Los Angeles is an essential component of the film. "Chinatown" does play to the L.A. stereotype of being an "artificial" city, a city that probably shouldn't exist let alone be the sprawling metropolis that it has become, but I think it also goes beyond that. "Chinatown" doesn't call into question Los Angeles's existence, but instead it brings to light the fact that underlying the city's growth and all the civic conveniences that have come about is a culture of corruption and greed. A price was paid for our comforts and as much as it can be smoothed over and hidden, it can't be undone. In this way it parallels the story of Faye Dunaway's character. Evelyn has lived a privileged life, but she paid for it in many ways. Like her, we are beholden to figures like her father, Noah Cross, for what they have provided us but we also are paying for their sins. There's nothing we can do about it now to correct it, so we are left to acknowledge the dirty truth and go on about with our lives.
"Chinatown" is a terrific film, and it ends with a perfect, albeit troubling line, a nihilistic shrug of sorts: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."