Directed by Roman Polanski
June 14, 16, 19 at the Charles Theater
In his essay "Collapsing Dominant," George W.S. Trow notes that, "It was assumed that I would have a fedora hat of my own by the time I was twelve years old . . . I have, in fact, worn a fedora hat, but ironically. Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned—not out of any wish of mine, but out of necessity. A fedora hat worn by me without the protective irony would eat through my head and kill me." Trow, writing in 1997, perfectly describes the mood created by J.J. Gittes, Jack Nicholson's character in Roman Polanski's 1974 masterpiece of neo-noir, Chinatown.
Though the noir of the 1940s could be described, in the words of Los Angeles historian and cultural critic Mike Davis, as a "'nightmare' anti-myth" that was "unrelentingly pessimistic," it nevertheless presented a hero who was capable and strong, if a bit world-weary (think of Bogart's Philip Marlowe). Nicholson's Gittes starts out even more confident and cocksure than Bogie, with the same slicked-back hair and even spiffier duds. He comes across, in fact, as something of a dandy, but it soon becomes apparent that, though the movie is set in 1937, his style is all '70s protective irony. And though the irony keeps his fedora from eating through his head, it does not protect him—or his nose, which is cut, in a crucial scene, by a character played by Polanski. Forty years later, it is still astounding that, for much of the film, an actor as handsome as Nicholson has his nose covered by a giant, white, awkward bandage, which he wears with a kind of damaged pride. Throughout the film, actions that a '40s P.I. could accomplish with confidence are played by Polanski and Nicholson with an almost tragicomic fragility.
Here's the story, in case you've forgotten: Gittes is hired by a woman (Diane Ladd) who turns out to be posing as the wife of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the head of L.A.'s water company. The woman says that Mulwray is having an affair, which Gittes confirms. Gittes learns that the woman is not actually Mulwray's wife when the real Mrs. Mulwray (the fabulous Faye Dunaway) threatens to sue him. Then Mulwray turns up dead and Mrs. Mulwray hires Gittes and drops the suit. They become lovers. He discovers that her father—the horrifying Noah Cross, played with spectacular evil by John Huston—owned the city's water system along with Mulwray (she married her father's business partner). Cross and Mulwray both became rich when they sold the system to the city, but they quarrelled greatly. Gittes discovers that there is some kind of water fraud happening and that is why Mulwray was killed. And then comes the crazy shit, which I won't spoil in case you haven't seen it, but it gets downright Faulknerian and leads to an ending worthy of Greek mythology.
The film obsessively swirls around the theme of water, as it separates noir from its black-and-white German Expressionistic shadows and puts it out in the technicolor hangover sun of Southern California. It is hard not to think of Joan Didion's 1977 essay, "Holy Water," where she writes that, "The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way. I know as well as the next person that there is considerable transcendent value in a river running wild and undimmed, a river running free over granite, but I have also lived beneath such a river when it was running in flood, and gone without showers when it was running dry."
It is hard to imagine that Didion's essay could have existed without Polanski's film—and, indeed, she published it in The White Album, which also dealt with the Manson family murder of Polanski's wife (the fact that the film deals with child abuse gives another, unintended parallel with Polanski's life).
If water is one of the film's focal points, Chinatown, the neighborhood where Gittes used to be a cop, is the other. Chinatown functions as a realm of uncertainty, corruption, and unintended consequences as ruled over by Lt. Escobar (Perry Lopez). Asked why he left the force, Gittes says "I thought I was keeping someone from being hurt and I actually ended up making sure they were hurt." That line summarizes the plot of Chinatown itself and shows that Gittes doesn't learn from his mistakes—but it also provides a capsule formulation of the political mood in 1974. Chinatown is The Quiet American set at home, a film about unintended consequences, about how we never understand what is really happening, how it is too vast for us, whether it is L.A.'s Chinatown or Asia or the Middle East. When you try to help someone, you are just as likely to get her killed—and allow something far more horrible to happen.
It's hard to believe that the space between 1974 and today is greater than that separating Chinatown and the 1940s noir films that it reimagined. To watch Chinatown in 2014—after four decades filled with war, deception, decline, and unintended consequences—is both to see ourselves more clearly and to see how much further we've fallen. The layers of protective irony have grown thicker, and still the fedora hats have eaten through our skulls and all but killed us. ¿