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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Roman Polanski | Chinatown


the language of evil
by Douglas Messerli

Robert Towne (screenplay), Roman Polanski (director) Chinatown / 1974

Admirers have long sung the praises of Roman Polanski’s excellent film of 1974, Chinatown. Jack Nicholson’s laconic, somewhat dim-witted, and yet witty Jake Gittes, Fay Dunaway’s fashionable but suffering beauty, Evelyn Mulwray, and John Huston’s conscience-less Noah Cross combined with the suave sets and costumes of 1937 Los Angeles, and the blaring jazz score by Jerry Goldsmith all worked together to make Polanski’s film a true pleasure—despite the fact that Robert Towne’s script is often unnecessarily muddy and meandering.
      Of course, part of movie’s purpose is to confound, as in Gittes’ Chinatown experience; the inability at times to comprehend what’s going on also gives the film a sense of depth—which, when you truly come down to it, Chinatown does not actually possess. What seemingly begins as a story about matrimonial deceit quickly becomes a tale of American excess: the theft of public resources by the powerful and wealthy, and the same group’s assumption that they have right to commit incest and rape; the murders in this film, that of the good public servant, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) and an unsuspecting pawn, Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd), merely seem to be a by-product of those other presumptions. 
     Despite his outward cynicism, inwardly Gittes is a good-guy dupe who almost by accident begins to put the truth together; yet, it’s also clear, he can’t really believe in the depth of evil, even though he suggests he has previously encountered it in his stint as a policeman in Chinatown. Although he asks a great many questions, he never seems to get the answers he desires—that somehow things will work out in the end. Even though he is punished for snooping, putting his nose where he doesn’t belong and having it slit by one of Cross’s henchmen, he never seems to have learned his lesson, and that is part of his charm.
       Yet that is precisely the tragedy of his life and the hundreds of others good citizens who simply cannot imagine that someone like Noah Cross (the clear representative of evil in this work) might truly be without any redeeming characteristics. The famous scene where Gittes slaps Evelyn as she attempts to explain her relationship to the girl she has hidden away in her butler’s home, gives evidence to the fact that the private detective of this tale cannot imagine that someone and the incidents surrounding her could represent more than one thing: in this case, a “sister” and a “daughter.” 
       Towne’s original script was determined, like Gittes’ mind-set, to set things straight, providing a happy ending. But Polanski, always attracted to the darker realities, knew that as a would-be redeemer, Gittes had to see the woman he had tried to save die, and the girl Evelyn was trying to save returned into the paws of the monster, Noah Cross.
      The long tale of water rights through which one has to slog in order to get to the far more simple truth, gives the film a patina of truth-telling; after all, the development of Los Angeles has long been involved with water rights. And more than a decade earlier William Mulholland (the Mulwray figure of Chinatown), superintendent and chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, had designed and engineered the Los Angeles Aqueduct, bringing water from Owens Valley into the city. Like Mulwray, who argues against building the dam that Cross and the city want built, Mulholland had built and personally inspected the St. Francis Dam, which on March 12, 1928 broke, killing around 600 people. 
     But the other aspects of this film are mostly fictional, and it is those elements of the film that are truly at the heart of this work. In fact, the plot would perhaps have functioned just the same had Gittes not been required to wander the city’s beaches and canyons in search of diverted water. 
      In short, the seemingly historical issues of Chinatown are more of a veneer spread over the story to help it seem far more mysterious that it truly is. The real issues here are as old as humankind: avarice and utter selfishness, which Polanski suggests will always overwhelm those who may try to prevent it. Like the Biblical Noah, Noah Cross will survive at the expense of nearly everyone else, surely without feeling any need to be redeemed since he name alone suggests he has already been “saved.” And by film’s end we know that Gittes’ problems in Chinatown were not from the complexity of events but his inability to comprehend the language of evil.

Los Angeles, April 10, 2016

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