Analysis of Chinatown

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Chinatown,a good movie, never in a million years! For a multitude of reasons the film should have been doomed from the start. Director Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne could never agree on anything, the screen play was confusing, filled with numerous subplots and superfluous information, and the film tried to tackle the only deadly sin still considered taboo in Hollywood, greed. With all of this working against it, the actors, director, producer and cinematographer somehow managed to make one of the best American screen plays of all time. The historical aspects of the film can be divided in to two parts. The first referring to the development of Los Angeles and the perception of the Great Depression, the second relating to the impact of the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal on the production of the film. This paper will begin by evaluating the movie as it relates to the historical moment of the 1930s. Once situated, a discussion of Watergate and Vietnam will come later in the analysis.

In a city known as the international headquarters for the production of motion pictures, it is ironic that so few have focused on the fascinating history of Los Angeles. Both as an urban space and now forever captured in film, Chinatown lies between reality and fiction. Weaving a storyline of murder with no truthful grounding, the director simultaneously inserts names and historical allusions to trick the audience in to conceiving of it as a partial documentary.  William Mulholland, represented by Mulray in Chinatown, was the superintendent of a private water company purchased by the city in 1904. Both Mulholland and the mayor constantly battled issues inherent to an expanding metropolis, searching for a replenishing supply of water. In their quest they came across Owens Valley, a small town 250 miles away which held a large enough water supply to quench Los Angeles’ budding demand. The two men devised a plan to build an aqueduct to connect Owens Valley to the city, “if they couldn’t bring water to LA they would bring LA to the water.”  Several prominent businessmen, represented by the character Noah Cross, got wind of the project and began buying up land outside the city at deeply discounted prices knowing land value would soon increase because the city would need to pay a premium if they wished to run an aqueduct through private property into LA.  The historical grounding is only further strengthened with the films constant referral to dates. On numerous occasions the audience is confronted with specific moments and dates in history, including the newspaper referral to Seabiscuit, the flyer on J.J. Gitte’s windshield and the dates on the pictures in the Department of Water and Power office.

The film is set in the late 1930s at the time of the public workers’ program specifically connected to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. After the dip in the US economy in 1937 President Roosevelt refused to enact the spending cuts advised by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Instead with a political motive, he blamed large corporations for inciting another depression to persuade citizens to vote republican in the next election.  President Roosevelt focused his attacks specifically at affluent tycoons including Henry Ford, Tom Girdler and sixty families which he believed comprised the modern industry oligarchy which at the time dominated the US.  In an attempt to abolish these juggernauts he appointed a new stringent head of the antitrust committee and ordered FBI investigations on many of these companies. While in actuality all cases were eventually dropped and the stern antirust committee did not produce any results, as a revisionist Towne positioned the New Deal as a controlling mechanism for these large tycoons. In the Chinatown version the tycoons represented by Noah Cross benefited from the New Deal by rationalizing their own acts of domination as vehicles of progressive future expansion for the US.  Portrayed in the movie with Cross and Gittes’s conversation where Cross explains he doesn’t want to make money but wants to own the future, alluding to multiple speeches Roosevelt gave about the importance of the New Deal for the future expansion of the US.

When Towne began writing the screen play he knew far too well that a history lesson of LA’s real-estate crime would not prove enticing for his audience. With this in mind, he ultimately embellished the script with the classic motif of a guy and a girl, woven into the supportive framework of the water scandals of the 1930s.Cinematographically the movie relates back to the idea of blending old with new, as seen throughout the storyline.  In the same manner that history is intertwined into the narrative to blur the lines between fact and fiction, stylistically the movie attempts the same feat. The opening credits, with their simple font on textured background, give the false assumption that the movie will be filmed in a 1930s manner. When the film begins, however, the audience is thrown right into the action with a provocative erotica photo that is purposively out of place for a 1930s production. Polanski only furthers distorts the audience’s perception by shooting a 1930s style movie with a 1970s lens to achieve a dated art deco motif that created a more 70s perspective on the mise-en-scene. [1] By doing so he avoids the harsh tones associated with films of the 1930s and welcomed a softer and more artificial ambiance. This style keeps the viewer distraught because its clash of different periods makes it difficult to definitively locate the film in either era.

Within the first minute of the film the audience is introduced to the protagonist, J.J. Gittes. Played by Jack Nicolson, Gittes is a snappily dressed coolly mannered man who at first glance could even be mistaken for a criminal.  He is not your average private investigator driven by the higher moral purpose of bringing in crooked crops and cracking unsolved cases. In fact he is quite content with the job of spying on wives cheating on their husbands. In essence he is part of the mess Towne refers to as Chinatown. He is a hot headed, law breaking, smart mouthed criminal in pursuit of personal goals. Yet the audience is fixated and can’t help but root for his success. There is a secret admiration for his ability to always dominate conversation and maintain a lead against everyone else.

Rather than stepping back and reflecting on the bigger picture, Gittes is unwaveringly meticulous. Driven by a desire to uncover clue after clue, he falls victim to a central character flaw, and thus never truly grasps his larger purpose. For instance, though a solution to all his problems is presented to the detective at the start of the movie, even though it is right in front of his nose Gittes fails to see it. As a private detective he is paid for results not for the story so he naturally gravitates towards finding results rather than trying to understand what they all mean.  This attitude of “shoot first, ask questions later” drives him in a roundabout way of finding the truth.

Due to its misleading connotations, when Towne first wrote the script he never expected the title to hold especially. Yet after spending time analyzing the complex subtext of the piece, China Town, emerged as an appropriate, if unexpected, depiction, prompting  Polanski’s and Robert Evan’s (the producer) decision to keep the title. As Michael Eaton puts it,

“Chinatown is in fact a perfect title for a complex detective thriller with dimensions which are politically (about the nature of power), sexually (about the nature of gender), metaphysical (about nature of evil), physiological (about the nature of the self) and philosophical (about the nature of knowledge). [2]

On both a political and metaphysical level the metaphor of Chinatown refers to the entire city of Los Angeles. To a greater extent it even encapsulates the reigning ethos of the United States in the 1930s, where it was impossible to distinguish between crook and upstanding citizen.  Hence the saying in Chinatown, “it is better not to act and even better not to know.”  The physiological and philosophical level referring most notably to Noah Cross’s statement, “At the right time and the right place most people are capable of almost anything.” Finally the statement of sexuality ties into the theme of voyeurism and female enigma present throughout and in particular to the bed scene featuring Gittes and Evelyn.

One of the most famous disputes between Polanski and Towne is their disagreement about the ending. Towne’s original resolution had Gittes, Evelyn and her daughter ride off into the sunset towards Mexico. Polanski preferred Towne’s alternate darker ending where Evelyn gets shot in the back of the head in Chinatown. There was a constant feud between the two until the day before they began shooting concerning which ending should be use. Of course after watching the film it is obvious that Polanski emerged as the victor. The deep symbolism of the beautiful blond dying in Chinatown adds a final punch in the development of the idea of Chinatown as the birthplace of corruption and evil. Even after Gittes tries so hard to change the course of the future the film ends with Evelyn shot through the eye and Noah Cross winning. This ending provides an uncanny parallel to the story of Oedipus and the idea of the unalterable nature of destiny. At the Edinburgh Film Festival Towne discussed his thoughts on the ending. As he so aptly put it, good films deal with the biggest scandal last. To him the most effective method to drive home the rape of the water and land was to juxtapose it with the rape of the daughter. The political machination around water and power provided more of a social issue but by linking it to the Evelyn’s rape it provided a deeper personal outrage. As Towne controversially stated “A man violating his own child is not as serious as a man who is willing to violate everyone’s child.”[3]

Several of Towne’s previous movies, including Villa Rides and Last Detail, pushed the envelope in respect to vernacular language, masculinity and inter-racial relationships. While they were superb works the multitude of criticisms left him yearning to create a work that would be widely accepted. For Chinatown, Towne choose the more generic and classically popular form of a detective story.  Of course it was more than just Towne that made Chinatown a spectacular work.  Polanski offered his unique directing of slow progression and tension build up for which he is so famous for in Rosemary’s Baby and The Pianist. Similarly to Chinatown, the violence in Rosemary’s Baby and many of his other films takes the form of sexual abuse directed at children and women. Many critics speculate this is due to both him being an orphan child traumatized by the war experience and his recollection of the brutal murder of his wife by the Manson family. With regard to his personal experience in World War II, The Pianist and Chinatown share a similar mise-en-scene.While Warsaw and Los Angeles remain very different places one can’t help but notice the focus on their similarities in Polanski’s movies.  In many scenes in Chinatown, the audience is exposed to downtown LA’s Chinatown much in the same way as the Warsaw ghetto is visibly cramped, rundown and confined. [4] Although thankfully there has never been such extreme a divide between, Chinese, Mexicans and Caucasians in the US as compared to Nazi-occupied Poland, even until today there still exists ethnic segregation in LA. The deep rooted racism first appearing in the china man joke in Chinatown is comparable to the negative sentiment often expressed by non-Jews in Poland at the pinnacle of Nazi Germany’s ascent.

In conclusion as Towne describes, the Godfather, Taxi Driver, and Chinatown found audiences by dramatizing the disparity between a view of the country and what many Americans realize was the awful realities of Vietnam, Watergate, and perceptions of racial inequality. [5] Murder, violence, and Machiavellian manipulation were unnervingly reflected in American involvement in Vietnam and the political crimes of Watergate. Most of all Chinatown reflects Honoré deBalzac’s famous quote that behind every great fortune there rests a crime. [6]Chinatown is no different and for this it tells a story that is absolutely modern, while at the same time such a product of its time. This results in a work that is rightly considered a brilliantly constructed film that will always live on as one of the best American screen plays of all time.

Works Cited

  • Eaton, Michael. Chinatown. London: British Film Institute, 1997.
  • Mazierka, Ewa. Roman Polanski The Cinema of a Cultural Traveller. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co, 2007.
  • Poland, Dana. Chinatown: Politics as Perspective, Perspective as Politics. New York: Wallflower Press, 2006.
  • Quart, Leonard. American Film and Society Since 1945. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1991.
  • Rubin, Martin. Thrillers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Towne, Robert. Chinatown. New York: Grove Press, 1997.

[1] Wexman.93.

[2] Eaton.43.

[3] Eaton.64.

[4] Mazierska.80.

[5] Towne.Xii.

[6] Quart.110.


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