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Chinatown Critical Essay

Polanski's Chinatown: A dream analysis

by Jim Emerson

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WARNING: Big-time spoilers in the above video.

From the introduction to my fully explicated video, "Chinatown: Frames and Lenses," at Press Play, Chapter 4 in a week-long series: LIFE'S WORK: THE FILMS OF ROMAN POLANSKI:

Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" is a Panavision color film noir--a ghost story, really--about flawed vision and the inescapable resurgence of the past, made in 1974 and set in 1937.  Private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) thinks he knows what's going on, but as Noah Cross (John Huston) tells him, "Believe me, you don't." We see what Jake sees, and it's invariably filtered or blocked--viewed from a distance through binoculars, or from outside through a door or window that obscures a more complete perspective. Photographs--snippets of time recorded on film, one of the tools of the detective trade--are potentially misleading because they don't--can't--capture what's going on outside of the frame, beyond the moment. 

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This video montage is a hymn of praise to a film that had a profound effect on me when I first saw it as a 16-year-old in 1974, and that I've lived with, haunted, ever since. It's also an unabashed love poem to the desperate, damaged and determined Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). 

Like "close-up," which I did in 2007, it's a free-associative critical essay/dream sequence, based on themes and images (and sound and music) from the movie. Although, like a lot of creative pursuits, the process of assembling it (from pieces of film that were already floating around in my head) was largely unconscious, I now (at least in retrospect) think I understand why each fragment is where it is.

So, I thought I'd turn around and look back at "Chinatown" through the lens (or frame or door or window, if you will) of my video essay, using it as a way of translating the film's images into critical prose. Because, in "Chinatown," every image is loaded with meanings, associations, resonances. If you're familiar with the film, you'll immediately see that this reflection on "Chinatown" isn't structured chronologically. Scenes, themes, moments and images keep circling back in fragments... not unlike they do in the film, but in a more condensed and less linear form...

Below: What it all looked like in iMovie HD when I finished it.

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Pin-striped suits, men's hair parted slightly off-center like Richard Arlen's, four-door convertible touring cars (not yet declared unsafe), official portraits of Franklin D. Roosevelt in public buildings, women with marceled hair, and elegant slouches.

These are just some of the 1930's artifacts that decorate Roman Polanski's Chinatown, a new private-eye melodrama that celebrates not only a time and a place (Los Angeles) but also a kind of criminality that to us jaded souls today appears to be nothing worse than an eccentric form of legitimate private enterprise.

There's nothing wanton, mindless, or (with one exception) especially vicious about the murders and assaults that J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a private detective who has heretofore specialized in matrimonial disputes, sets out to solve in Chinatown. No senseless massacres, no rapes, no firebombings of innocents.

In that far-off time—midway between the repeal of Prohibition and the inauguration of lend-lease—murderers, swindlers, and blackmailers acted according to carefully premeditated plans. These plans, in turn, were always there for the uncovering by a Sam Spade or a Philip Marlowe or, in this case, a J. J. Gittes, a man whose name is repeatedly mispronounced as Gibbs, which is one of the burdens he learns to live with, along with a vulnerable nose.

This fixed order of things, of a cause for every effect, explains the enduring appeal of fiction like Chinatown, but it also is something of a test for the writer who comes after Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and who doesn't hesitate to evoke their memories and thus to invite comparisons.

Robert Towne, who adapted The Last Detail and wrote the original screenplay for Chinatown, is good but I'm not sure he's good enough to compete with the big boys. When Robert Altman set out to make Chandler's The Long Good-bye, he had the good sense to turn it into a contemporary film that was as much a comment on the form as an evocation of it.

Mr. Polanski and Mr. Towne have attempted nothing so witty and entertaining, being content instead to make a competently stylish, more or less thirties-ish movie that continually made me wish I were back seeing The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. Others may not be as finicky.

Among the good things in Chinatown are the performances by Mr. Nicholson, who wears an air of comic, lazy, very vulnerable sophistication that is this film's major contribution to the genre, Faye Dunaway, as the widow of the film's first murder victim, a woman too beautiful to be either good or true, and John Huston, who plays a wealthy old tycoon whose down-home, sod-kicking manner can't quite disguise the sort of fanaticism displayed by Sidney Greenstreet in Mr. Huston's Maltese Falcon.

The plot is a labyrinth of successive revelations having to do with Los Angeles water reserves, land rights, fraud, and intra-family hanky-panky, climaxing in Los Angeles's Chinatown on a street that seems no more mysterious than Flatbush Avenue.

Mr. Polanski himself turns up in the film's most vicious scene, playing the half-pint hood who neatly slices one  of J. J. Gittes's nostrils, thus requiring the detective to go through the rest of the picture with stitches that look  like blood-encrusted cat's whiskers sticking out of his nose.