Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Chinatown

(Movie Review)

Well, another film classic I can now check off my list as having seen.

For years now, Chinatown has been one of those movies that has been vaguely on my list of movies to see. Every time I would go to the video store, I would see it staring back at me from the racks. And I would think to myself, "This is supposed to be a great classic film. I really should see it."
And then I would usually think, "I don't know if I'm in the mood for a great classic film tonight. Why don't I numb my brain for a while by watching something stupid?" And then I would go and rent some junk movie or something.

A few years ago, when I was on my classic hard-boiled - detective - movies - kick, I would see "Chinatown" in the hard boiled section. And it would intrigue me. And confuse me. 1). Wasn't this movie from the 70s, not the 40s? And 2), isn't Chinatown a bit of an odd place for a hard-boiled detective story? And 3), wouldn't Jack Nicholson for the lead in the a hard boiled detective movie?

As it turns out, the answers to these questions are:
1) Although the movie was filmed in 1974, it is filmed in a bit of a retro style that seeks to evoke the old hard-boiled film classics of the 30s and 40s. (Or at least there are elements of this movie that are meant to evoke older movies, such as the opening and closing credits being obvious examples.)
Of course by now, the 1970s filming style is every bit as dated as the 1940s film style, so it is a bit strange to see one type of old movie trying to evoke images of another type of old movie. It's like retro-kitsch piled on retro-kitsch.

2). It turns out that the film actually has nothing to do with Chinatown -- aside from some throw away lines, and using Chinatown as a backdrop for the last scene.
The reason the name Chinatown was used as the title I actually never really understood until I watched the DVD featurettes, where the symbolism behind the name was explained much more clearly than it ever was in the film.
The title refers to a conversation the screenwriter had with a policeman who used to work in Chinatown. The policeman said that when he worked in Chinatown, they deliberately tried to do as little as possible, because they didn't understand the language or the culture, and they had no idea if they were helping a situation or making it worse by getting involved.
In this respect, "Chinatown" refers to a state of moral ambiguity where you don't know if your interference is helping or not. Which is why the film has almost nothing to do with Chinatown the place.

It's an interesting concept, but if the screenwriter hadn't spelled this all out very clearly in the DVD featurette, I'd still be scratching my head as to why in the world the movie had this name. This either means I'm a bit dense, or that the title was never fully explained in the film itself. (And, if as I suspect the latter, this raises the question of whether the film and it's meaning should be self-contained, or if it's fair to include bits that require further explanation.)

And 3): Jack Nicholson does an excellent job as a the laconical sarcastic detective. This comes of right from the opening scene, when a client of his realizes his wife has been cheating on him, and in despair clutches at the Venetian blinds. "You can't eat the blinds, I just had them installed," Nicholson says in his usual drawl.

It's also interesting to see Jack Nicholson in his prime. Not that this is my first early Jack Nicholson movie by any means. (I've seen at least 3 Nicholson films that predate this one: "Hell's Angels," "Easy Rider," and "Five Easy Pieces".) But these days you get so used to the older Jack Nicholson being on the screen you forget what he looked like when he was young.

And speaking of Hollywood superstars past their prime, "Chinatown" was directed by the Roman Polanski.
Now I never heard of Polanski until there was that big arrest controversy a few years ago. So it was interesting for me to finally match a film to this now infamous director. (Actually, wikipeding Roman Polanski, it turns out I've also seen another film of his: "The Pianist.")

(Uh-oh, I just realized I'm several paragraphs into this review, and I haven't even started yet. I've just been making stupid comments about who's in it, and what the title means. I better get started.)

The screenplay for this film is actually pretty intelligent. It works on two levels: on one level it's a murder mystery with a few surprises thrown in along the way. On the other hand it works as a history of some of the issues that surrounded the development of Los Angeles in the 1930s, specifically disputes over water issues.

I'm not sure everything resolved itself....

[Maybe I just missed something, but I still don't understand why the water company was dumping water in the middle of the night. The only explanation given, that they were helping the Orange tree farmers, I thought was disproved by Nicholson's character. If there was another explanation that came up I missed it.]

...but it was still a good story.

The only thing was: you know when you're in the video store, and you are deciding whether or not to rent a classic film, and you think to yourself, "You know, because this is an older film it's probably going to be really long and slow paced, and is going to be hard to sit through"?
Well guess what.

Yeah, this is an older film that moves at a bit slower pace, and is a bit harder to sit through. I guess our generation is just so spoiled by fast past action extravaganzas, with lost of explosions, and a really upbeat rocking sound track, that it's just hard to go back to these older films. (Sad how quickly things get outdated these days. Makes you wonder what people will be saying about the films of today in 35 years.)

But, if you're in the mood for an old classic that moves at a slower pace, and if you want to see some of Jack Nicholson in his prime, go ahead and check this movie out.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on the Internet

4 comments:

Whisky Prajer said...

This is a movie I have no difficulty watching once a year, just because it has so very many layers. I shared your confusion over the water dumping the first 2 viewings, but there very definitely is a reason for it, and it is tied to the "bad for the glass" observation.

More than that, however, there are so many scenes where the characters aren't sure what to make of each other, or even their own motivations, but where something has to be resolved for the story to move on. It is all "Chinatown," where nobody speaks the language, and chances are high that any action will only make the situation worse.

Whisky Prajer said...

BTW, you'd probably enjoy Polanski's most recent film, The Ghost (or the ineptly renamed, for North America, The Ghost Writer).

PB said...

I agree on Chinatown and the Ghost; both excellent movies.

Chinatown is a movie that I think every public official and urban planner should watch. Power corrupts, and you can see how easily it corrupts the folks in this movie.

Unless I don't remember the movie correctly, I think that the water is being dumped in the Pacific to both raise water prices and to drive the orange growers out of the business.

Joel said...

Thanks for the comments guys. I'll have to sit down one of these days and re-watch this movie with a sharper eye I suppose.