Blog Directory CineVerse: "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't."

"You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't."

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Boasting an airtight knockout script, A-list actors, and whip smart direction from a European filmmaker who had a great nose for American film noir, "Chinatown" stands as one of the seminal motion pictures of the 1970s – or of any era, for that matter. Like a tightly wound onion, the film has layers of meaning and substance that can be peeled away and savored by those willing to delve into the labyrinth. Here are some of the major talking points we discussed at last evening's CineVerse meeting:


  • The American dream usurped: there’s so much corruption in this setting that it undercuts the vision of the American dream that anyone can rise up from nothing and make their own barren land a fertile one of opportunity. Consider that Cross pilfers from these dreamers and steals their land and water. Noah Cross can be seen as a destructive variation on the story of America’s founding fathers.
  • The futility of good intentions and the common man against the forces of evil: the corruption and corrosion inherent in L.A., as exemplified by Cross and his cronies, prevents Jake and the police from affecting any change or protecting the innocent. Mulwray’s dam ends up killing people, the police end up killing Evelyn, Evelyn herself loses in the end and her daughter returns to her father/grandfather.
    • Gittes himself brings about the final catastrophe and his own fate.
  • Ignorance and illusion: Jake demonstrates how clueless he truly is, with his good intentions and lack of knowledge about the true corruption around him resulting in the inadvertent death of a girl he may love. 
    • Ponder how Jake misidentifies many clues and people, such as his not recognizing Detective Loach as the person who instructs him to visit Ida Sessions’ house, leading to Evelyn’s demise. 
    • He constructs explanations based on unreliable, limited information he has gathered, and consequently worsens situations when he trusts his distorted reality (i.e., 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.
  • Duality, 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.’ Saltwater is both a life essence for fish but deadly to vegetation; “bad for the glass”: Cross’ water is both bad for the grass and bad for the glass, namely Gittes’ ability to see the truth.
  • A perversion of Biblical stories: 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. 
  • The dangers of voyeurism and invasion of privacy:
    • 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. His telephoto lens and binoculars are used in other scenes, to spy on Evelyn or Hollis from afar.
    • 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.
    • His voyeurism 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).
    • To accentuate the voyeuristic perspective of both Gittes and the viewer (seeing through his eyes), ponder how 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 (i.e., the police or the flanking stature of Cross), reaffirming his insinuated helplessness.
  • Guilt and a tortured backstory: think about how many of the personalities in this story have skeletons in their closets or dark secrets that come back to haunt them.
    • Chinatown 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.
  • Recurrent Chinese motifs (ethnic joke, Chinese workers at the Mulwray house, occasional oriental music, the breaking of an Oriental vase, etc.)
  • Earlier in the film, after making love to Evelyn, Gittes notices a flaw in the iris of Evelyn’s 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.
  • Evelyn leaning on the steering wheel horn earlier; later, she lies died on the wheel, producing an unending horn.
  • The left lens of Jake’s sunglasses are broken after the orange grove skirmish; later, the left lens is missing from the glasses found in the pond by Jake.
  • Masks: 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: 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.
  • Eyes, glasses and reflections: Evelyn’s flawed eye, the glasses found in the water, the eye of the dead fish staring up to Jake from his plate, the reflected image from Jake’s camera and car mirrors, etc.
  • Its sequel, The Two Jakes
  • L.A. Confidential
  • The Big Sleep
  • The Conversation
  • Knife in the Water
  • Repulsion
  • Rosemary’s Baby
  • Death and the Maiden
  • The Pianist

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