I was asked to give a five minute introduction to Roman Polanski's classic neo-noir Chinatown at last week's Greenbelt Festival so I thought I would post up what I said. It's a film I've loved since I first watched it and preparing for this talk and watching it again a couple of times really deepened my appreciation of it. So without further ado I'll hand over to Saturday night's me.
Well thanks for coming to our late night screening of Chinatown. My name is Matthew Page and I've been exploring the intersection between faith and film for about 12 years now, primarily about Bible Films, but more recently film noir, the genre in which Chinatown is one of the most pivotal examples, and so I've been asked to give a short introduction to the film.
Chinatown is showing as part of Greenbelt's 40th anniversary, we're showing a trio of films from the year Greenbelt started in 1974. For many Chinatown is not just the best film of that year - although The Godfather part 2 took all the Oscars - but one of the best of all time. It's a fitting film to look back on after 40 years, because the story itself is set roughly 40 years prior to that in 1930s era, great depression hit, Los Angeles. And if you go back 40 years before that, to 1894, oil had been discovered two years earlier and cinema would be invented the following year. In 1894 the population of Los Angeles was just tens of thousands. The discoveries of oil in 1892 and cinema in 1895 sent the population rocketing. Today it's 12 million.
The rapid emergence in such a short space of time of such a large city, essentially in the middle of a desert made water an incredibly precious commodity and therefore the key political issue. So it's the issue of water, and the power associated with it, that drives the plot, as private investigator Jake Gittis is hired to snoop on the LA water board's chief engineer.
However, it's all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that what the plot is about is the same thing as what the film is about. Here things couldn't be further from the truth. The plot is essentially about what happens when Gittis snoops on the water engineer, but the film is about corruption, deception, oppressive structures and power. The plot has little to do with Chinatown the place, but Gittis' experiences there permeates the film in scene after scene.
Gittis, in a brilliant performance from Jack Nicolson, used to be a cop in Chinatown but seems to have left disillusioned. Gittis, with his sharp suits and almost celebrity status puts high expectations on himself, but the film offers little evidence of his ability to make the world a better place. His disappointment at his failure to resolve Chinatown's problems despite the police's intransigence, seep through in scene after scene. Significantly, Gittis is in every scene. The audience only see what he sees and experiences what he experiences. He is our way into the multitude of complex threads that make up the film's fabric. We see its events through his eyes.
But the question of who to link the director Roman Polanski with is more complex. He appears partway through the film as a hood with a knife, but as someone who escaped the holocaust and later saw his wife murdered perhaps Polanski is Gittis, seemingly impotent in the face of evil. Or is he Faye Dunaway's character? Or even, given his subsequent crimes, John Huston's character?
Huston himself provides the link between this film, arguably the first neo-noir and the earlier Film noir movement which emerged and peaked in the 40s and 50s. Huston directed many of the key movies in the film noir genre including the Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, The Asphalt Junction and Beat the Devil. Film Noir was a genre defined primarily by it's themes of paranoia, deception, male impotence and betrayal. Most of the films were set in the 30s, 40s and 50s, many involved private eyes and were very much notable for their expressionistic use of light and shade.
Chinatown embodies many of these distinctives, but brings a new twist. There are three notable differences, firstly the use of colour although far from all film noir is in black and white. Secondly whereas the earlier films very much focused on corrupt individuals, Chinatown is more of a commentary on a corrupt society. Lastly the golden era of Film Noir had very much been hemmed in by the American Production Code which inflicted certain standards on films, including that notion that bad characters had to get their comeuppance. Eventually this lead to a certain level of predictability as to how the film would end. But by the 70s the production code era was over and the tension as to how a film might resolve itself was reintroduced. I won't give away how this film ends but it's worth noting that director Polanski and writer Robert Towne disagreed strongly as to how the film should end.
But if it Chinatown could not have been produced very much earlier, it is also difficult to see it being made any later than 1974. '74 was the year that saw President Nixon resign over a scandal that came to be called Water-gate. The film's "fiction" about corruption and power had become uncomfortably close to real life. But more significantly 75 saw Jaws become a smash hit. The studios changed tack moving towards big adrenaline-fuelled action films and away from slower, more reflective films such as Chinatown which gradually unwind and relish tight dialogue, subtle acting skills and visual lushness. "Forget it Jack, it's Chinatown."