Every single person who visits this site fancies themselves a film fan. From the nameless readers who don’t interact to the regular Chewers on the Boards to every single person on the staff – we love film. We live for it. We watch as much of it as we can. But, sadly, we’ll never be able to see everything. We’ve missed a lot over the years and sometimes we’ll miss one of the big ones. One of the classics or cult favorites that has had everyone talking and proclaiming their love for years. That’s what this column is all about – catching up on those Big Ones. Maybe it’ll get you to rewatch an old favorite you haven’t seen in years, maybe it’ll get you to catch up on your own list of shamefully neglected films. If nothing else, it’ll at least give you an excuse to yell at us for waiting so damn long to see something. So dig it.
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
I’ve been hearing that my whole life – it’s almost as ubiquitous a staple of pop-culture as Bickle’s “You talkin’ to me?” – neither of which I had any context for while I was growing up. But while I caught up with Taxi Driver long ago, this little gem eluded me. Until now.
Chinatown (1974) – Buy it from CHUD
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t this. Having only seen a handful of his films (Rosemary’s Baby, The Ninth Gate and Knife in the Water), Polanski isn’t a director that I can say with any sense of certainty that I have “pegged,” for lack of a better word, but there’s a certain…tone, I suppose, that comes to mind when I’d hear his name. Perhaps it’s the fact that he always has been (and probably always will be) associated with Rosemary’s Baby to me – you never forget your first, after all.
But no, that particular tone isn’t what I got when I started watching Chinatown. What I got instead was a straight-up private eye movie. But even so, as “straight-up” as it was, it was obvious that it had something different. I’m no scholar on the genre, but I’ve seen a few things, and what we get in Jack Nicholson’s JJ Gittes from the start isn’t what one would see in your black-and-white era PI flicks. Whereas we’d normally be greeted by a tired, haggard man, hardened from experience and having seen too many things no one man should see, relying on the bottle to get him through another day, our Mr. Gittes is vibrant. He’s sharp and successful and full of life, and while he’s no stranger to the drink, he takes it as a luxury, a perk that he’s earned with his successes in his, as he puts it, “honest living.” He dresses well and has a sense of humor, his agency is fully staffed and his office well furnished and decorated. You’re never going to see him obscured by the shadows cast by his office blinds in the moonlight. J.J. Gittes isn’t a man who’s obscured by his city, he’s not a man whose life has been cast into shadow because of it. He’s a man who lives in the sun.
As such, a surprising amount of the movie happens in broad daylight. The city itself is as vibrant as Gittes and Polanski never tries to paint it as anything but. There’s no seedy underbelly, speckled with organized crime where the cops are as bad (if not worse) than the crooks – this isn’t James Ellroy’s Los Angeles. It‘s still Los Angeles, though, and it‘s far from perfect. And as even-handed as Polanski‘s portrayal of the city is, he knows it isn‘t perfect and he has a few layers of his own to pull back.
And you know, what’s great is that even though I can give you a laundry list of reasons why this movie is different from your run-of-the-mill PI romp, I can give you an equally lengthy list ways that it’s exactly the same. Gittes has a past – he HAS seen too much. His experiences have changed him and led him to where he’s at. There’s a woman (Evelyn Mulwray, played to perfection by Faye Dunaway) who seems to serve as not only the link to his past but the door to his future. Of course, she has secrets of her own and those secrets are instrumental in not only the investigation, but the very propulsion of the case itself. And you can be sure that by the time the case is solved it’s gonna be solved up high and have political ramifications. You’re not going to have a movie without some sort of corruption, after all. It’s paint by numbers, really. But that’s the brilliance – Polanski knows what makes these films work and he plays those elements perfectly. The story structure, the plot beats, the twists and turns. But what makes Polanski’s a masterpiece of the genre is that he’s able to almost effortlessly cover those beats with sometimes little more than off-hand statements (and sometimes turn them completely inside out and against themselves), and leave room for the characters to breathe (granted, not all of the credit can be given to Polanski – screenwriter Robert Towne turned in Casablanca-levels of work here). This is a story about Gittes, after all, and that’s what takes priority. The investigation is just a framework on which to hang that story.
The question is – is it a story of redemption? Does true love conquer all? Is Gittes able to face down his demons and walk away from his past, solve the case just in time, shoot (or arrest) the bad guy and save the day, while he walks away hand-in-hand with the widow Mulwray as would be the case were this 1940?
The answer, of course, is no. Not just no but holyfuckno. It’s the last twenty or so minutes, once all the secrets have come out and the case proper has been solved, where Chinatown stands tall in its ideas. Gittes has found himself face to face with his past, essentially reliving it, and his one chance for redemption and absolution is stolen by single bullet, fired in blindness into the dark.
“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
For having heard this line for as long as I can remember, I wasn’t prepared for what it truly represented. I’m still not entirely sure, only about 20 hours removed from having seen it, that I can coherently discern what it truly represents. Maybe it’s saying that you can’t escape your past and that all you can do is live with it and learn from it. Maybe it’s saying that every one of us has a destiny and there’s nothing we can do to change it. Whatever it’s saying, when you hear those words and you realize that what just happened is not only just happening but is happening again, you realize that, for whatever reason, J.J. Gittes has found himself stuck in a loop. He’s in his own fucked-up Groundhog Day. But Andie McDowell’s been shot in the head while her sister/daughter is stolen by her father/rapist and as Gittes walks away in the dark, it’s never explicitly stated, but you know that for as long as he lives, he’s never going to see February 3rd.
And there’s nothing he can do about it.