Certainly an argument can be made that Robert Towne’s Chinatown was the best American film of the best decade for American film, the 1970s. Of course, that argument can also be made for at least a dozen other movies, too. Wow, is it really possible that one decade could produce at least twelve movies that could realistically make a claim to being the best? It’s almost painful to watch Chinatown nowadays and realize that once upon a time the way a movie was going turn out couldn’t be figured out by the time the credits had ended. Equally painful is the realization while watching Chinatown that movies once upon a time could be just as complex and profound as a great novel.
The milieu in which Robert Towne wrote Chinatown was not terribly different from that facing screenwriters today. But whereas the average screenwriter today is hard at work on a script with an ending that can produce a sequel and a plot that can be transformed into a video game, and packed with popular songs so as to create a hit soundtrack, when Robert Towne looked around him and saw a crooked President and Americans dying in an unwinnable war in a faraway country, he came up with an idea for a movie that tapped into the overbearing sense of unchecked corruption run amok. And, of course, though you wouldn’t know it to watch the finished product, Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown never had a single scene actually take place in that section of Los Angeles. For Towne, Chinatown was strictly a metaphorical place where Americans dared not venture with too great a hope of affecting change because it was and will always remain an alien culture. Sound familiar?
Yes, watching Chinatown today brings to mind the current situation in Iraq. Despite the fact that Jake Gittes is a purveyor of the slimiest form of private investigation-tracking down cheating spouses-he still retains naïve enough to believe that there are limits to the level of evil lying within the human soul. No, Jake Gittes isn’t the typical white knight private dick to be found in the works of Robert Towne’s source of inspiration-the detective stories of Raymond Chandler. Nor is Jake the ancestor of Bogey’s Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon. Whereas Chandler’s private eyes always seem to hold onto the belief that amongst the filth of L.A. there is goodness and whereas Sam Spade trusts no one, Jake Gittes finds himself in the middle.
The striking thing about Jake, and one of the elements of Chinatown that turns the genre upside down, is that from the first time she appears till the last time he sees her, Jake distrusts the Faye Dunaway character. The audience is set up to view Evelyn Mulwray as the goddaughter of Barbara Stanwyck’s ultimate film noir femme fatale from Double Indemnity. She can’t be trust, of course, because it’s obvious she’s hiding a terrible secret. But even after her terrible, terrible secret is revealed and even after it is revealed that Evelyn Mulwray may be the single most honest character in the entire history of film noir, Jake Gittes still can’t bring himself to trust her. Love her, sure, but not trust her.
Chinatown, the place, is supposed to be viewed metaphorically and I believe that Roman Polanski made a mistake in placing the end of the movie there geographically. It’s a little too obvious. Of course, today, half the movie would take place there; a generation confused by the shifting perspectives of Syriana would be wandering out of the theater in a haze if a movie called Chinatown never took actually took place in Chinatown. The genesis of Chinatown was a book that screenwriter Robert Towne uncovered that detailed the sleazy corruption involved in the process of bringing water from the hills surrounding Los Angeles into the city itself. It was a process that illustrates the ugliness at the heart of capitalism, in which corrupt businessmen bribed corrupt politicians to rape the environment and get their names emblazoned on LA City Hall as heroes. It also made them stinking rich. Ironically, this sleazy enterprise also resulted in one of the greatest cinematic indictments of the heartless corruption that greases most business decision involving politicians. Had Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay been hanging around Los Angeles back then, you can bet they would have been involved in this scheme.
The raping of the land is a counterpoint to another, more atrocious, kind of physical rape that lies at the heart of the plot of Chinatown. I won’t give any more detail, just in case you haven’t see the movie. I suppose Roman Polanski wanted to give a concrete example of Chinatown to go along with the symbolic essence of it just as there is both a concrete and symbolic rape at the center of it. But I prefer to view Chinatown from Robert Towne’s perspective. According to Towne, he had talks with a cop whose beat involved undercover work in Chinatown in the 40s. According to this cop, nobody ever got arrested in Chinatown unless he was A) at the lowest level of the crime hierarchy and B) stupid. The cops couldn’t hope to touch the guys at the top. Also for two reasons: A) The culture was alien and impenetrable and B) the guys at the top were protected by the businessmen and politicians who were profiting from their criminal endeavors.
Jake Gittes cannot comprehend the kind of evil that lays at the heart of the case he is investigating. In a way, Jakes Gittes is the representative American. We all know the world is ugly and we all know it’s corrupt, but deep down inside is the belief that everybody has a line across which they will not step. We want so hard to believe that each person, somewhere inside them, has a relative sense of morality, regardless of how far from the mainstream it may diverge. But Jakes Gittes learns the hard way that there are people in this world-respected people, honored people, people who get their names emblazoned on some symbolic City Hall-who have no line. There is, literally, no evil too despicable for them to commit in pursuit of their goals. But even worse for Jake is the discovery that comes along with that unpleasant truth. There are other people who do have lines they will not personally cross, who do possess a conscience, but who will nevertheless protect that other kind of person from harm. There exists in this world otherwise basically good and decent people who for some reason will extend their line far enough to cover up the despicable crimes committed by others. Often these reasons have to do with loyalty, sometimes it has to do with things like patriotism or a sincere belief in what they like to term a “bigger picture.”
At the end of Chinatown, after Jake Gittes has come face to face with the very depths of humanity and the very height of evil, and after he has learned that rather than being punished these people are very often rewarded and their virtue extolled, Jake stands shell-shocked, vaguely conscious of his surroundings, forced to admit that the world-weary private dick he fancied himself when this case began was in reality as naïve as Pollyanna. His world turned upside down and his future as bleak as any of us could possibly fear, he is the recipient of perhaps the wisest closing advice in movie history: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
As I look out over a country in which the latest polls put Pres. Bush’s approval ratings at anywhere from 30 to 40 percent, meaning that potentially as many as 80 million Americans support the policies of a pathological liar who doesn’t have a single success he can point to after six years in office, I have decided it is finally time to take that advice. I am going to forget it. I am going to admit that I am living in Chinatown and there’s nothing I can do about it.