Rated R for sexuality, violence, language, a really uncomfortable cut to the nose, and a reveal that's pretty darned gross. I try not to put spoiler stuff in the MPAA section. I save that for the actual content. Regardless, the movie does play up some uncomfortable stuff. Also, there's a really racist joke that's told in the film. It's meant to be seen as racist, but that doesn't really downplay the fact that the joke is inherently racist. Regardless, the movie is a well-deserved R.
DIRECTOR: Roman Polanski
It's another entry in the film noir class litany of films. I've seen Chinatown too many times. Heck, I dressed as Jake Gittis for Halloween one year. I used the image above as my frame of reference. It wasn't as high res, but it was a very similar still. Chinatown is a movie that I've always loved for its tone and aesthetic, but I always have to admit that I never really understood the movie as a whole. If I'm being conservative, this has to be my fourth or fifth time watching the movie. And now, I think I finally get it.
Before there weren't stakes. But I have to constantly maintain my persona of the class smartypants. (Trust me, I'm insufferable. I hate me and how much I throw my weight around.) The wife had fallen asleep about forty minutes in and I threw my phone away so I had to pay attention. As much as I've always loved the movie, by the time that Jake gets to the dry LA River, I start to tune out regarding the water / real estate plot. There's something very emotionally distant about the land grab element of the story. If you are signing up for Chinatown, you're probably in it for the meat of the character stuff. That character stuff is fantastic. You remember Gittis being a punk. You remember him getting his nose cut. There's the dead bodies. And there's the incest. Those are the takeaway moments. After watching the movie a few times, the water thing is not only necessary, but it's also kind of the point. Again, the incest is what we keep coming back to. But there's something inherent in the fact that this is a film noir set in the '30s but made in the '70s. Shy of the fact that it can get a hard R rating, which other films noir can't (I choose to make up my own pluralization of "film noir"), there is something really woke about the movie as a whole. I'm clearly coming to this conclusion after everyone else because the most famous line of the movie is "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
Cross is a bad dude all around. He's a guy who is manipulating something so fundamental to society all for the sake of a greater profit. There's a line somewhere in there where Jake comments on the idea that he has more money than he can spare in his lifetime. He has a retort about immortality or something like that. His answer doesn't ultimately matter. It's a justification for evil and that's what we need to take away from that. The water / real estate scandal (which is a variation on something that really happened) is a commentary on social sin. Yeah, we all hate him, but that's what corporations do. They take money away from people who really need that money. It's nothing new. But water is something so fundamental to survival. The movie starts off with good people yelling at farmers because they need water as well. But since Cross controls the water, he's something essential to civilization. He's one of them necessary evils. He is the criminal in charge of something that is almost a force of nature. Jake isn't a moral crusader. He's involved, very much like Mike Hammer, by circumstance. He wants to know how and why he was manipulated. Yeah, he wants to take Cross down, but mainly because Cross is a pain in the butt. But the big takeaway is that Jake isn't a zealot. He got stuck in something bigger than he is and he doesn't exactly want to take down the system from his position. It's only when we realize that Cross isn't just slimy and destroying the lives of millions in exchange for a profit, but he's an incestual rapist are we really taken aback.
Jake's vitriol at the end of the film is the result of Evelyn's rape. That's good. It's healthy. Jake's facade is completely removed when he discovers this. But if the '70s were commenting on the Nixon administration and all of the shady dealings happening then, Jake is the wake up call for a lot of people. Jake can't afford to look corporate America in the face without doing something. He has this rage, trying to get justice for the recently murdered Evelyn. So that line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" is kind of a depressing commentary on what we consider vital. Because Cross has our comfort in his hands, he's allowed to do whatever he wants with impunity. I was thinking what the movie would be like if the entire film was focused simply on Evelyn's small, yet vital story. What would happen if all of the water land grab stuff disappeared and it became a character drama for the entire film? I mean, it would still be haunting. But ultimately, because incestual rape probably doesn't affect the masses like corporate greed does, we could distance ourselves from this moment. It would be a lot more tight of a film, and it probably would actually be closer to films noir of yesteryear. But Polanski has this insane budget and an R-rating behind him. He can tell this truly disturbing tale and have it mean something when the movie ends. (I would say "credits roll", but the movie actually starts with credits.
I don't know if I've written about distancing the artist from the art on this blog before. I've now written so many of these that they all kind of blur together. Some are better than others, but I feel like I have to talk about Polanski. I don't think I have a conclusive attitude about divorcing the artist from the art. Annie Hall is still one of my favorite movies. But since I've become more informed about Allen, I don't think I've watched it. The last time I've seen it was on a date night with my wife who was then my girlfriend. For those who don't know that Polanski is super gross, I do want to analyze the prophetic elements of Chinatown and how they relate to this whole discussion. Chinatown came out in 1974. A few years later, after the murder of his wife by the Manson family, Roman Polanski would rape a thirteen-year-old. That's horrific, but it's also something that can't be written off in any framework. Some people would drop cultural background, but Chinatown kind of damns Polanski pretty hard. When Evelyn is emotionally breaking down describing Cross's rape of her, she shouts out "I was only fifteen!" (similar to a criminally looked past line in Raiders of the Lost Ark). By throwing this line in and stressing it, Polanski is aware of the evil that is being committed past the concept of incest, but also into the realm of statutory rape. Polanski has no legs to stand on. I love / loved Polanski when I was first discovering him. Yeah, Rosemary's Baby is a real slow burn. But then there are also films like The Tenant and Knife in the Water that are just absolute genius. How does one separate from the artist? I know that I can't listen to Michael Jackson stuff anymore and my Woody Allen collection sits on the shelf, collecting dust. Part of me hopes that if I ever saw Annie Hall again, I would hate it. I know I didn't hate Chinatown on this watch, but it was very uncomfortable in moments, particularly when he appears on screen.
Chinatown is a work of genius. Like Rosemary's Baby, it is a slow burn that is really worth it by the end. I don't know if I could ever freely support Polanski again, but the old stuff I guess can't be ignored for what it does.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.