Blog Directory CineVerse: February 2011

A Shrinking man who grows on you

Saturday, February 26, 2011

It's the little things in life that count--like saying holding the door open for someone, adding the right amount of salt to the soup, and watching one of the classic sci-fi flicks from the Red Scare era of the 1950s: "The Incredible Shrinking Man." No magnifying glass required--just join CineVerse on March 2 for what promises to be big entertainment in a small package.

Note: As this film is (fittingly) short, we'll have time to play a movie trivia game at 7 p.m. prior to the screening, during which you can compete for DVD prizes. Arrive on time for your best chance to win!


A film to make your blood run cold...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Truman Capote's famous book got the Hollywood treatment back in the 1960s. Check it out for yourself when CineVerse explores "In Cold Blood" (1967; 134 minutes), directed by Richard Brooks, chosen by Len, on February 24.


March/April CineVerse schedule ready for viewing

Monday, February 21, 2011

Curious to learn what we'll be screening and discussing in March and April? The official CineVerse schedule for the next 2 months is now available for you to access. Check it out by clicking here.


Revisiting "Chinatown"

Friday, February 18, 2011

A nose for noir

by Erik J. Martin

(Note: This is part 2 of a 2-part article that first published last week.)

Last week, we began to dissect the inherent qualities that distinguish Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” as a quintessential film noir—one with classic retro esthetics but modern sensibilities that make it a timeless cinematic treasure. In part 2 of the article, we’ll explore the movie’s voyeuristic subtexts, Evelyn Mulwray’s role as a complex femme fatale and other themes.

First to the matter of private detective Jake Gittes’ voyeuristic tendencies. The film opens with a client looking at photographs of his wife in bed with another man taken by Gittes. He snaps photos of Hollis Mulwray with another woman together, which inadvertently get published and create a scandal (similar to what the Jim Gettys character--from which Towne drew his detective’s name--does in “Citizen Kane”). His telephoto lens and binoculars are used in other scenes, to spy on Evelyn or Hollis from afar, for example. Gittes’ spectatorship and curiosity leads him into deeper, more politically corruptive scandals, pulling him even further away from the urban setting (indicative of a usual noir backdrop) and further inward psychologically, toward the center of the real immorality and back to the ghosts in his mind.

To accentuate the voyeuristic perspective of both Gittes and the viewer (seeing through his eyes), Polanski often frames Nicholson in profile, off to one side of the screen. This serves more of a function than simply to present a subjective viewpoint --it also depicts Gittes’ impotence (his being ‘boxed in’ a corner in the face of evil or greater numbers), as well as the innate, malignant evil lurking in the corners, just beyond our frame of vision. In this sense, a deep psychological framing is achieved, and a sense of apprehension is evoked with a more menacing off-screen space. Finally, this type of framing, usually involving deep-focus three-shots, shifts power relationships away from the off-sides, ‘cornered’ Gittes to other characters (ie, the police or the flanking stature of Cross), reaffirming his insinuated helplessness.

His voyeurism (as expected) and his misinterpretation of reality gets Gittes into trouble. His ignoring of “No Trespassing” signs get him a scar on his nose (his eyes are still free, but with a bandage on his nose he can’t ‘sniff out’ things anymore), and later a brutal thrashing from a group of farmers. As a result of his spying, a man’s unfaithful wife ends up with a black eye, and Hollis Mulwray’s widow winds up with no eye (it is literally blasted out of its socket in the final scene). Earlier in the film, after making love to Evelyn, Gittes notices a flaw in the iris of that eye. Symbolically, the flaw conceals the ‘truth’--and therefore power and knowledge through discovery--from the detective, and serves to mirror his own ‘distorted perspective’ back to him.6 Likewise, there is a connection between Cross’ bifocals, fished out of the saltwater by Gittes, and the Chinese worker’s verbal pun that the saltwater is “bad for the glass”: Cross’ water is both bad for the grass and bad for the glass, namely Gittes’ ability to see the truth.

Evelyn, then, as the movie’s femme fatale, attracts Gittes into danger--although innocently--with her dependence on him and her provocative, almost masochistic behavior (Dunaway was impressive in her highly-stylized performance, her stone-like visage enhanced by layers of masking makeup). He distrusts women, going so far as to call them “all whores”, and telling vulgar, sexist jokes. Similarly, Gittes belittles Oriental in jokes, further implying his mistrust of them (as he is suspicious of Chinatown all along). Thus, women and Asians become ‘the other’ (a customary noir motif) to him, and only through mockery can he maintain superiority over them.

The interiors of most rooms in “Chinatown” are graced with venetian blinds on the windows (and the shadows they produce), an evident visual referent to classic noir misc en scene. The blinds become a metaphor for the repetitive motif of masked concealment: Evelyn wears a widow’s veil, a chain link fence surrounds the reservoir, glass bricks separate Gittes from his secretary, even the bandage on his nose becomes a mask.

Water is an obvious central concept to the film, and literally and figuratively runs throughout it. The attempt to control it parallels man’s historical effort to control and regulate a wild, primitive force so that it does not destroy life or prevent it from existing. The detective’s role then is to uncover the ‘secret of the waters’, but the flawed Gittes as gumshoe can neither bring about reform nor curb the violence concerning water: Mulwray is drowned in it and loses a shoe, and he himself is engulfed by it in a culvert and also happens to lose a shoe.

The drought in Los Angeles is transformed into a spiritual thirst or dryness, with the malevolent Noah Cross seen as a biblical perversion of his first name. Not only has he drowned his son-in-law, but he has ‘repopulated the earth’ in a sense with the impregnation of his daughter, Evelyn, and in an ironic way, though he is secretly diverting water away from thirsty L.A., he is helping to nourish the valley so that a ‘new city’--a new Eden--will grow in the future. As further proof of his ‘fishiness’, the man owns the Albacore Club and even eats whole fish for lunch! Huston’s rendition was more than creepy, and his presence in the film was a fitting one. He had played Noah in “The Bible”, and was also the director of the most respected film in the detective genre, “The Maltese Falcon.” Continuing in his tradition is Polanski--by virtue of his directing this detective crime drama--who himself plays a gangster employed by Cross, the very thug who slits Gittes’ nose.

Speaking of Polanski, it was his nihilistic vision that guided the film fluently along the pessimistic path of noir. His influential negativity, shaped by his tragic past (the killing of his wife, Sharon Tate, by Charles Manson; the murder of his Polish family members in Nazi Germany), gave the film its dark tone and even prompted him to change the original, upbeat ending of Towne’s script (in which Evelyn lives and Kathryn escapes to Mexico).1 Just as the Manson slayings brought a violent, perverted end to the sixties, “Chinatown” put to rest the notion of L.A. as the city of angels, and brought full-circle--in as perverse a twist--the detective genre.

The entire production was graced with a talented crew that perfectly complemented the ambitions of such an intelligent film. Cinematographer John Alonzo blended sun-drenched yellows and browns to rich shadings in his deep-space Panavision framing. With the stylized production design and impeccable costuming of the period by Richard Sylbert, and the haunting horn and piano score by Jerry Goldsmith, the look and feel of the thirties was flawlessly depicted.

Adding Towne’s Oscar-winning screenplay (based loosely on historical L.A. events) and the assemblage of a top-notch cast, “Chinatown” ranks among the elite American film classics, and, I would contend, stands out as perhaps the finest example of a neo noir.


What happens when DeNiro and Murray team up?

Monday, February 14, 2011

If you like mob movies with lots of laughs thrown in, check out "Mad Dog and Glory" (1993; 97 minutes), directed by John McNaughton, chosen by Richard F., which is on the CineVerse docket for February 16. We'll also have time to preview the March/April 2011 CineVerse schedule after the discussion.


Don't forget it Jake: It's "Chinatown"

Friday, February 11, 2011

Unraveling "Chinatown’s" magnificent mysteries—37 years later

by Erik J. Martin

(This is part 1 of a 2-part article on the neo noir classic “Chinatown.” Part 2 will post next week.)

“Forget it Jake—it’s Chinatown,” says Lieutenant Escobar to private eye Jake Gittes. But while Gittes may be able to put it behind him, “Chinatown” can’t be so easily forgotten by its audience—even 35 years later.

After watching Roman Polanski’s brooding psychological murder mystery--a universally recognized cinematic masterpiece from 1974--one cannot overlook the overt resemblance it bears in both style and structure to film noir cinema of the forties and fifties.

“Film noir”, a term invented by French critics to classify a type of movie within a period of post-war American cinema, typifies a pessimistic, highly stylized brand of films that incorporate themes such as inescapable fates and emasculating females, and employs shadowy compositions and urbanized settings to frame its bleak images. It personified the hard-boiled detective story, the murder mystery, the psychological crime drama, and the thriller. The era began, arguably, in 1944 with a sudden plethora of such features, like “Double Indemnity”, “To Have and Have Not”, and “Woman in the Window”, and supposedly reached its golden age denouement in 1959 with the seething “Touch of Evil.”

Over a decade passed before Hollywood seemed to return to the thematic and formalistic characteristics quintessential of the discarded noir tradition, at least evident in a few prominent films. “Neo noir” pictures like “Klute”, “Dirty Harry”, (both 1971) and “The Godfather” (1972) brought back the look and feel of noir with their negative world views and explosive themes of corruption, inherent urban violence and dangerous sexuality.

By the mid-seventies, the nation was gripped by gloom, spurred on by political disillusionment (Watergate, Nixon’s resignation) and problems abroad (OPEC manipulation, the bitterness of the Vietnam War). In the midst of this depression came “Chinatown”, a film which seemed to perfectly capture the mood and spirit of 1974 America. It was, as critics affirm, the product of an ingenious blend of social commentary in the writing by Robert Towne, a visual tour de force in technique and organization by director Polanski, and an array of intense, intriguing performances by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and their supporting cast.

Many film scholars argue that film noir rigidly encompasses the period between the mid-forties and mid-fifties, and that its kind has long since died out as a form of film-making, let alone a movement. Others insist that the noir tradition has resurfaced in a number of movies (like in the seventies films aforementioned), and is, even now, alive and well.

“Chinatown” is set in 1937 Los Angeles, and concerns the investigation into political corruption and murder involving the water supply of the city, as snooped out by detective J.J. Gittes (Nicholson). A specialist in exposing the sexual infidelities of spouses for clients, Gittes is hired by a woman who passes herself off as Mrs. Mulwray, asking him to spy on her husband’s affair with a young girl. He snaps photos of them together, and is shocked to see them published in a scandalous article only days after submitting them to his client. Soon afterward, Mr. Mulwray’s dead body is found washed up in a distant reservoir outside of L.A., and the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) pops up and threatens to sue Gittes for defamation. Gittes dissuades her, and probes into her husband’s past. He discovers that Mulwray had recently blocked the construction of a dam that would’ve increased L.A.’s water supply, a dam that would have nourished the vast agricultural properties of Mulwray’s rich ex-partner, Noah Cross (John Huston)--Evelyn’s father.

A love affair develops between Gittes and Evelyn, and she implores him to search for her husband’s killer. In his sleuthing he stumbles upon the dead body of the fake Mrs. Mulwray, and police suspect him to be involved. He peeks in on Evelyn arguing with her husband’s mistress, and later learns that land is being bought by someone using the names of poor retired elderly people. He is caught and beaten by a band of gangsters who slit his nostril, warning him to end his snooping around.

Gittes then pays a visit to Cross, and later learns that he is behind the murders and that the young Mulwray mistress is really the child of Noah and Evelyn--the product of an incestuous rape. He promises to help Evelyn and the girl, Kathryn, escape from their father (who is searching for the hidden Kathryn) to Mexico. They are caught, however, in Chinatown by Cross and the unsuspecting police, who arrest Gittes. As Evelyn tries to flee, police shoot and kill her, as Gittes watches helplessly.

“Chinatown”, as a story, is revered by many critics to be among the finest screenplays (if not the best) ever created. They regard it as Towne’s definitive statement, his brilliant apocalyptic vision of a counter-myth to modern capitalist society, with Noah Cross seen as a destructive variation on the story of America’s founding fathers.1 It is composed in the same formulaic private-eye style of Raymond Chandler, with Gittes constructed as a contemporary, more realistic Phillip Marlowe--a romanticized closet knight-in-shining-armor, who managed to occasionally beat the odds and make a difference. Towne, however, kept the pessimism of the detective genre intact, and enhanced it further with a layered, intricate social critique and a smooth pacing of plot that offered one revelation after another with clean, perfect precision.1 According to critic John Cawelti, “Chinatown deliberately evokes the basic characteristics of a traditional genre in order to bring its audience to see the genre as an embodiment of an inadequate and destructive myth," according to Polanski biographer Virginia Wexman.

The film, in fact, contradicts the detective genre with the clash of Gittes’ heroic self-determination (the traditional) and the self-conscious analysis of the formula (in the plot and images) that sees Gittes’ control over his world as an illusion.

He constructs explanations based on unreliable, limited information he has gathered, and consequently worsens situations when he trusts his distorted reality (ie, in trying to help Evelyn, he leads her father directly to her).3 With this victory of corruption (Cross) and the vulnerability of the flawed protagonist as climaxing themes, we see an ideological updating of the noir thesis of fate. By unraveling the mystery, Gittes has allowed evil to triumph: Evelyn is killed and Cross gets away with the murders as well as the custody of his daughter. There are only the comforting words of a friend as consolation--”Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Indeed, the place itself exemplifies his guilt, in that he had years ago been told by a police friend to do as “little as possible” there, after managing to get another mysterious woman “hurt” there (we aren’t told who or how). Chinatown becomes a world in which the individual becomes helpless against the intriguing mysteries surrounding him, and where moral degeneration and evil abounds to defy the imagination. Fate comes full-circle when Gittes finds himself back in Chinatown, despite his efforts, to repeat his earlier mistake. We see premonitions of this foreboding destiny in the recurrent Chinese motifs (Chinese workers at the Mulwray house, occasional oriental music, the breaking of an Oriental vase, etc.) and the sprouting relationship between he and Evelyn.3 The audience’s omniscience of this evil, especially in subsequent screenings, sees the issue here not as good vs. bad, but as the prominence of evil, thereby eliciting our pity of this Oedipal-like tragedy where Gittes himself brings about the final catastrophe and his own fate. How more ‘noir’-ishly bleak, one asks, can it get?

A steady, contradictory dualism runs through the text, what William Galperin calls a “bifocal vision” of intermittent opposites. Evelyn is both a sister and a daughter to Kathryn. Lt. Escobar has a ‘summer cold.’ Water is abundant, yet there is a drought, and Cross’s justification for his manipulation of the water is explained to be “for the future”, which he won’t live to enjoy anyway. Gittes is an investigator, yet he is blind to the ‘real picture’: “You may think you know what you’re dealing with,” Cross tells him. “But believe me you don’t.”

Which leads us to the role of Gittes himself, and the extent to which he personifies the voyeuristic qualities that are so much a standard of typical noir. We’ll explore these and other themes in part two of this article, continued next week.


You'll swoon for "Brigadoon"

Monday, February 7, 2011

A movie like "Brigadoon" comes along once in a hundred years. Don't miss your chance to join CineVerse for this MGM classic musical on February 9: "Brigadoon" (1954; 108 minutes), directed by Vincente Minnelli, chosen by Danealle.


CineVerse cancelled for Wednesday, Feb. 2

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

As you probably would have guessed by now, yes, CineVerse is cancelled for Wednesday, Feb. 2, as I've just been informed that Oak View Center will be closed.

We will reschedule "Rocky" for sometime in March or April. Hope to see you a week from tomorrow for "Brigadoon"! Meanwhile, stay off the roads, bundle up and don't overexert yourselves shoveling.


That's amore

Your CineVerse moderator has written a new "Not Coming Soon to a Megaplex Near You" film column that published today on

This time around, the spotlight is on two films that explore the Italian-American experience: Rocky and Moonstruck. Click here to read the column.


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