Tuesday, January 11, 2011
With that out of the way, today's movie is Polanski's 1974 film Chinatown. It's an incredible movie, and I always love watching it. It feels so timeless, it never seems to age or feel outdated to me. The acting is incredible, the writing is outstanding, and it's an all around great movie.
It seems like whenever I see this movie, aside from the first time I watched it many years ago, I watch it after having seen a bunch of classic noirs. I was struck, this time, more so than others, at how sympathetic that I found Gittes to be. I took a class last year where I read a lot of strange pulp fiction, stuff by Jim Thompson, where the main characters are so disgusting and impossible to like. It's pretty easy to like Gittes. He's not quite as hard as most noir heroes can be, and he seems to be trying to do more right than wrong in the world. The whole movie is clearly told from Gitte's perspective (I think that he is actually in every scene in the film), and it's great that way. There are some movies and books where you hate the perspective you have to see it through because you cannot relate to it, but with Gittes, you like him, and you like finding out the clues with him.
Ebert notices that Gitte's is a much softer noir hero as well, writing, "And why does he answer the telephone so politely, instead of barking "Gittes!" into it? He can be raw, he can tell dirty jokes, he can accuse people of base motives, but all the time there's a certain detached underlevel that makes his character sympathetic: Like all private eyes, he mud wrestles with pigs, but unlike most of them, he doesn't like it" (The Great Movies, 104-106). Maybe this is why this movie is so much more universally liked than other noirs. It's different and refreshing to see a character like Gittes, and it's easier for viewers to relate to.
It's sort of similar with Evelyn Mulwray. I always sort of suspect the worst of women in neo-noirs after reading a lot of pulp fiction and watching classic noirs. For most of the movie she seems like a classic femme fatale, someone who is manipulative, using her sexuality for all the wrong reasons. They always lead the main man astray, seduce them into committing murder, or some such thing. In Chinatown, Evelyn seems like she is hiding something, so like Gittes, we assume the worst. She's another murderer. Surprisingly, she's one of the only truly good characters in the movie. Her dark secret is of pain and suffering she dealt with at the hands of her father, but surely not anything we can judge her for. I love that this movie turns a lot of older noir conventions on their heads but still remains faithful to the genre.
Every time I watch this movie, I am reminded of the first time I had to analyze it, in the first screenwriting class that I ever took. I always feel compelled to mention this to whoever I am watching this with, so I must bring it up here. We were studying how to write openings to our movies, and what different things we could do to catch the attention of our audience. We watched the first ten minutes, with Curly and the pictures he gets from Gittes. My professor stood at the front of the class and demanded that we tell him what it all meant. It was an early class so we all just gaped at him uselessly. He backed up the movie and paused it on one of the pictures that shows Curly's wife with another man, who is wearing a suit and hat. "This tells you the whole plot of the movie, right here," he said, pausing to jump up to sit on the table in the front of the class. None of us could think of what the response was, so he went on. "You see!" he declared, "because the whole movie is about normal people getting f---ed over by big business!" Such a charming explanation, but I always think of that whenever I see the movie, and almost every time I sit down to start a screenplay. Since I'm not Robert Towne, I've never written an opening quite so memorable, but I try!
If you have somehow avoided seeing this movie, you must see it. It's one of the greatest movies, and I feel safe saying that it's hard to not love it. It's also worth watching again, because great movies are always worth revisiting. :)
Have any thoughts about Chinatown? Share them with me in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Chinatown