Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Day 180: Chinatown

Anyone who has followed the blogging of the Hungry Screenwriter, or anyone who knows me for that matter, is more than likely aware that my favourite film is Chinatown.

Where to begin?

There is a series of slim volumes, published by British Film Institute Publishing, each of which dissects and analyses “classic” and “modern classic” films. I have a copy of the “classic” volume on Chinatown, by Michael Eaton, who at the start offers this:

“Every film, even (perhaps especially) those that never see the light of day or the dark of night, is the result of an accident. Sometimes that contingency leads to the serendipitous discovery of a fragrant isle hitherto only alluded to in unreliable travellers’ tales. More often it resembles a multi-vehicle pile-up on a rush-hour freeway. The fact that any film ever gets made at all seems more a demonstration of the operation of chaos theory than the result of rational, industrial planning. But for once the magic worked: so, Chinatown.”

My pocket-size justification of Chinatown as my favourite film is this: I believe that every facet of the film making craft is shown at the top of it’s game in this one film. Directing, acting, cinematography, casting, musical composition, costume, set, hair & make-up and, of course, screenwriting.

Anyone who knows the film might recall that long before we see anything, we first of all hear the mysterious opening stanza of the late Jerry Goldsmith’s suitably haunting them: a harp, over strings and then a solo trumpet (in the style of Jackie Gleason), supported by a piano, playing the “love theme”. Even before I’ve seen private investigator, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), in his natty suit, at work in his Los Angeles office of the 1930’s, with his quick and sardonic repartee, I’m sold.

I’m not a big Polanski fan, and Roman was not a big fan of the Robert Towne script, when producer Robert Evans (at the time, Vice-President in charge of Production at Paramount Studios) gave it to the Polish-Jew, then living and working in America, to read. Actually, that’s not true; Roman Polanski was struggling to understand the script, as was Jack Nicholson when it was given to him and as was Producer Robert Evans, himself, when he first read it. I also think that anyone who watches the film for the first time is pretty mystified too. But they all knew that there was “something” in this impenetrable screenplay and, they were right.

Chinatown is mix of genres, Detective Story, Film (neo) Noir, Love Story and Thriller. Robert Mckee (who devotes a whole seminar session to this film alone) defines the Crime sub-genre of Film Noir by dint of it’s protagonist being “a tough guy with a fatal flaw”. The “fatal flaw” in Jake Gittes is that - with the best of intentions - he tries, like Oedipus, to get to the bottom of what’s going on in this world (his world) endeavouring to make a wrong situation turn out right (the raison d’ĂȘtre of most detectives and law-keepers). Only trouble is, that Jake, just like the King of Thebes, won’t let go until everything eventually, in tragic irony, turns on him and those he’s trying to save.

What McKee defines as a “Thriller”, as oppose to a film that’s “thrilling”, is a story in which the protagonist comes up against an antagonistic force that is driven or consumed by “the spirit of evil”, meaning that the bad guy (wearing the black hat) can’t be bought off. No bag of money will stop him, no deal-making or bartering, no release of hostages or a plane to spirit him away will stop him from doing what he wants to do. Jake Gittes comes up against such an antagonistic force in the shape of Noah Cross (John Huston). If you meet me “out there”, outside of this “cyberworld”, ask me to explain what Noah Cross means when he justifies what he’s doing by saying “...the future, Mr Gittes, the future...” (sorry to be so cryptic but I can’t give all the gold away...you have to earn some yourself...it’s worth it!).

Sometimes there’s a part of me that wonders - craft and technique and all that aside - why it is that I love this film so much? Am I kidding myself, living in the delusion that I think it sounds knowledgeable and impressive to say that I like this one best of all, rather than something else more “mainstream”, less “lofty”, say like Mrs. Doubtfire or School of Rock (both tremendous films)?

Day #180 Tip: In defence of no defence
I love Chinatown because I love Chinatown.

Maybe it’s the “romance” of the film, in the broadest sense of the term? Wise guys in suits and hats, waving guns, chasing women, drinking liquor, smoking cigarettes, being smart, outwitting fools, living on the margins of society?

It could be because of the pessimistic ending and the film’s Controlling Idea of “the futility of good intentions”; maybe that’s the glass darkly through which I see life and it resonates with me?

In Edward De Bono’s book, the Six Thinking Hats, there are different colour hats to be “worn” for different types of thinking: White (facts & information), Black (negatives), Yellow (positives), Green (new ideas), Blue (the big picture) and lastly, Red (feelings & emotions). Red is about “gut feelings”, sixth-sense thinking, intuition and instinct. 

Sometimes in our work, in our writing, we just gotta trust what we feel and can’t marshall facts, figures, reason and logic to support our case and that’s okay. However, we can’t play this get-out-of-jail-free-card all the time (at least not in the $$$$$ world of the film industry), but every now and then, well, we know what we know. I have many other loves in my life and I’m not going to justify, defend or vindicate why I feel the way that I do about any one of those.....even the Caesar Salad at Trop. I do have plenty of reasons, actually, for that salad and for Chinatown and, for all the other loves of my life; they’re my “favourite” things, just like Maria Von Trapp had her “favourite things”.....

...and let me tell you, “snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes” isn’t one of mine (can you remember the other 14 “favourite things”?); maybe that’s a little of my “glass darkly” again?

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