Friday, October 17, 2008

Forget it, Jake

I spent a certain amount of my time about 15 years ago defending Robert Towne's and Roman Polanski's "Chinatown." It had become the new "Citizen Kane," newly familiar to an increasingly savvy and curious film-geek community who had read all the get-rich-quick-screenwriting books and would rent it on VHS or DVD, wondering what all the fuss was about.

It's hard to put your finger on. It's slow, and too confusing. Nicholson is in that post-Five Easy Pieces/pre-Witches of Eastwick period where he's still poised between being the new Marlon Brando and the pre-Jim Carrey he became in the '80s. It's a period piece, overly slavish to authentic detail, and who cares about LA's water? And who's idea was it to cast John Huston, who can't read a line properly?

What the last 3 generations don't understand, can never again understand, is that it's a movie theatre movie. It's the last breath of the old system, embracing all the beautiful and hard things that films used to do. It exploits, and even depends upon your confusion as it unravels. You listen and it doesn't talk much, in spite of its reputation as the most "writerly" of mid '70s screenplays. The dialogue, sets, cars, and clothes are high fashion, as if from the MGM studio era. Nothing is dirty or looks lived in. Even Faye Dunaway comes across as a starlet, groomed and modeled to be the site of our visual desire (indeed she was, having come off such films as "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Thomas Crown Affair" in that mode). Even Huston is an echo back to Bogart (by way of "The Big Sleep" and "Treasure of Sierra Madre", which we in 1974 would have still known).

The film doesn't explode. It seethes. Audiences nowadays laugh at the "She's my daughter and my sister" bit, and don't laugh at Burt Young, a tension-reliever and breather as I remember the first time I saw it (in a rep theatre). The dialogue is full of exposition that doesn't sound or feel like it - you're getting information by osmosis. The central metaphor of the film, that dark heart of Gittes' past that will eventually and painfully have to be revisited, is as powerful as "Apocalypse Now"'s, but not nearly as flamboyant.

How do you convince someone that something so underwhelming is overwhelming in the sum of its parts? The film seems to me to be pitch perfect, and full of nuance that is too subtle, strangely and refreshingly European in tone, which makes sense considering Polanski was at the height of his power and game at this point. The film has a million details, but barely a set-piece or action sequence. Water comes out of a stormdrain. He walks around with a bandage on his nose for the 2nd half.

What today's generation also won't understand is that this is a Watergate movie. No doubt developed before those events came to light, it still captures a mood building in the country and culture. It's about corruption, and feeling like you're in over your head, and that nothing you can do matters. It's the opposite of "Casablanca," which is about the same things, but at the end of that Rick does to the right thing, and even preserves his own broken heart (a personal possession he values and probably can't live without). In "Chinatown," which both celebrates and eulogizes what LA has become and what it gave up to be that way, Polanski, Towne, and Robert Evans illuminate the last traces of possible decency, while demonstrating the highest level of craft that Hollywood was capable of.

It's a last gasp, in a dustbowl of despair, and came out the same year as "The Godfather II" and "Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia." Something was going on then. And audiences today can't see it.


garv said...

Give today's audiences some time. The first time I saw CHINATOWN I was much too young to fully appreciate it. I had no idea whether I liked it or not. But... there was something there that nagged at me. I kept thinking about it, and the more I thought about it, the more I had to see it again. Today I think it's the finest detective film ever made. I had much the same experience with DR. STRANGELOVE.

At least today's audiences know who Nicholson is, so they're willing to give CHINATOWN a look. I worry about great pleasures such as THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK and THE BANK DICK being lost to the ages. Who's going to watch a black & white film starring no one they've ever heard of? Whole generations will be born that will never hear of Preston Sturges or W.C. Fields. What a bummer.

Roger L. said...

There will always be a certain amount of the "canon" that will live on (Casablanca and Citizen Kane aren't going anywhere) and other items, like Fields, who seemed to disappear in the 60s only to get a resurgence in the 70s, that will be rediscovered.

These films are very much of their times - you can't just show the film, you have to explain the context, which many aren't able to do. Fields is more interesting once you've seen a couple Abbott and Costello films of the period - and you see what the "speed of prevailing traffic" was.