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Double Chinatown

Ross Macleay

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... all that narrative presupposes: the openness of the future, the inalterability of the past, the possibility of effective action.
– Arthur Danto, Narration and Knowledge

I would not go so far as to prescribe death for all heroines.
– James Thurber, ‘Take Her Up Tenderly’




Two Chinatowns

Whichever way I look I can see two Chinatowns. There is one that evokes the irrevocability of the past and another the uncertainty of the future. There is a film understood from start to finish, and another understood from the end looking back. In a possible world there is the Chinatown that might have been, with Robert Towne’s scripted happy ending, and in this world, the sad Chinatown (1974) that Roman Polanski ended up making. There is a survivors’ Chinatown, and a victims’ Chinatown, a Chinatown of the committed and a Chinatown of fatalists. In the canon this is registered as an overpraised Chinatown and an underexamined Chinatown; or one Chinatown dismissed by its doubters and another unappreciated by its devotees. And in my own aesthetic judgement there have been two Chinatowns.

First there was the Chinatown I remember from the first time I saw it. I was polite enough about it to say it was OK. The plot was slick, shallow and too clever. The look was hazy Technicolor summer, the mood updated noir. The incest theme worthy and, I suspected, trendy. The ending, pretty typical 70s downbeat-chic. If I’d had to cite a memorable scene I could have done no better than the wince-inducing cameo of Polanski himself playing the nose-cutting ‘Midget’. If I’d had to blame a particular scene for why I was so half-hearted about the film, it would been when Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) says to Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) ‘my sister, my daughter, my sister ... my sister and my daughter.’ The overwrought incest revelation. I didn’t watch the thing again for ages. The praise from screenwriting gurus didn’t help. It became their film with the model script. Years later when I finally rented a copy, the video store owner quoted his film studies lecturer to me on just this point.

Now there is the Chinatown I count among films revisited and redeemed, the ones that teach me how much occasion and subjectivity enter into aesthetic judgement – whether in the form of prejudice, mood, venue, company, age or the times – and how important it can be to see a film again. Occasion and subjective circumstances are part of aesthetic experience, not things to be dismissed. Subjective observation, and in turn, observing one’s subjective experiences of a film are the material of judgement. Watching a film again not only reveals new things about the film, it reveals new experiences of the film. I can now watch Chinatown over and over.

Things I Found I Liked

The re-evaluation began with its own casual subjectivity. I started to find things I liked. I loved the way it was about water – dams and aquifers, albacore and tide pools, and Mulwray having ‘water on the brain’. And drought – the dry bed of the river and the boy on the sway-backed mule. And the music: that chromatic opening strum over (I think) piano strings, the horn solo, the staccato bass piano, the nocturnal phone, the repeated incantation of ‘Chinatown’, the whine in the voice of Walsh (Joe Mantell). There was that uneasy friendship between ex-cop Gittes and former colleague, now lieutenant, Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez) – a genre standard, as are Gittes’ office, his secretary, and his ‘operatives’, Walsh and Duffy (Bruce Glover). I liked Jake telling the press to get ‘Gittes’ right: ‘two t’s and an e.’ And Noah Cross (John Huston) repeatedly, deliberately, getting it wrong: ‘Mr Gits.’ I liked it that he was both ‘Gittes’ and ‘Jake’. I liked his banter with various functionaries like Yelburton (John Hillerman), Mulvihill (Roy Jenson), ‘the Midget’, Loach (Dick Bakalyan), and even Escobar. I loved watching the unexplained detail of Jake’s investigation – me watching and waiting for Jake watching and waiting for Hollis Mulwray watching and waiting for whatever it is we are all waiting for. There is quite a lot of waiting and wondering in Chinatown. There are particular scenes, mostly about waiting, that I loved for their pace: Gittes at the Water and Power offices; Gittes at the Hall of Records; Jake alone at night, the phone ringing beside the bed. Then there were the scenes with Evelyn: meeting her (and her lawyer); telling her, ‘I happen to like my nose’ – I especially loved that bandage on Jake’s nose. There is the scene working with her, and being rescued by her at the old folks’ home, and the one tender almost happy occasion, talking about ‘as little as possible,’ and later, Evelyn dabbing peroxide on his nose. Then there was the final frenetic sequence, where Jake, as a kind of tragic Figaro, attempts a juggling act with all the players, while being juggled himself, doing as much as possible finally to bring them all together at 1712 Alameda. ‘Jesus,’ says Walsh, ‘That’s in Chinatown ain’t it?’ And, for the record, in all its detail, the final scene.

That must all seem like the uncritical enthusiasm of a fan. However I have listed all these things for a reason. For me there is not only the trademark Chinatown of the tight, intricate plot, but also the moody Chinatown of the moments. Especially the Chinatown of the moments.


1. Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (London: Methuen, 1999), p. 98.








2. Ibid, p. 401.


3. Ibid, p. 407.


4. Ibid, p. 237.





5. Paul Willemen, Of Mice and Men: Reflections on Eisenstein and Digital Imagery’ , Rouge, no. 8 (2006).





Plot: Arch

Only recently did I pick up Story, Robert McKee’s self-help book on screenwriting. Chinatown tops the index entry with twenty-three references. Twelve of them are about the incest revelation. McKee labels it the climax of the second act. The script of the scene is printed with a running commentary about how a screenwriter is supposed to get inside the characters and write ‘from the inside out’. McKee’s other references are mostly about the plot: its canonical status – ‘each new generation finds itself mirrored in the story’; (1) its classical structure, its intricacy, pace and economy. Chinatown is one of McKee’s favourite examples of what he calls archplot: ‘a story built around an active protagonist who struggles to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality to a closed ending of absolute irreversible change.’ He notes (wrongly as far as I am concerned) at least one fault in it – how could Ida Sessions possibly know enough to tell Jake to look up the obituaries in the L.A. Record. But he only mentions it to praise the cleverness of its concealment, and display his in noticing it. (Personally I find the plot all a bit hazy on why Ida Sessions has to impersonate Evelyn Mulwray in the first place, and likewise on the details of the land and water politics, but, as in Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), there is an aesthetic point in a plot about concealment and uncertainty resisting the banality of thorough causal accountability.) McKee mentions the downbeat ending and asserts that the meaning and guiding idea of the film is that ‘injustice prevails because the antagonist is overwhelmingly ruthless and powerful.’ Finally, he describes what he calls the film’s ‘image system’, a poetic ‘strategy of motifs’ and images that ‘increases the depth and complexity of aesthetic emotion’. (2) He declares that there are four such image systems in Chinatown. Count them: ‘seeing and not seeing’, ‘systemic corruption’, ‘water and drought’, and ‘sexual love and cruelty’. This is a literary touchstone thing for McKee: ‘all great novelists and playwrights have embraced this principle’ (of image systems. (3) I guess that makes it a cinematic touchstone as well. Ultimately though for McKee plot is the big thing, and the incest is the big thing in the big plot: its revelation is the dramatic high; it is ‘the real motivation for the murder’ of Hollis Mulwray. (4) On this, and so much else, he seems to be getting it wrong.

No doubt the plot is an impressive structure. I have to admire its classic counterpoint of chronology and cinematic exposition. Although shown in chronological order, every scene is deep with layers of time. From the first it is effortlessly about the past: Curly in Jake’s office looking at photos, taken a few days before, of his wife having sex with another man. Much later, when we meet Curly’s wife, just her black eye tells us all we need to know about what has happened to her in the mean time. As Paul Willemen has had to remind the latest discoverers of non-linearity, ‘narrative never was linear’. (5) Chinatown is a model of how non-linear a linear narrative is. As Jake investigates and observes, each image of the present conceals or reveals events of the past. There are the recent machinations of water and power, the past lives of Mulwray, Evelyn, Noah Cross and ‘the girl’, and the past experience of Gittes and Escobar in the first Chinatown. Almost imperceptibly, a history seeps up to the surface of the film revealing the past in the present, and thereby the present to itself. Likewise events hasten towards their consequences, their meanings. Although so many of the intricacies of revelation are likely to escape a first viewing, the whole film in each of its moments is haunted by the nightmare of history: the unalterable burden of the past, the openness of the future, and until the future unfolds, the unknowable meaning of the present, and the question of the possibility of effective action. The affect of all the non-linear time travel depends on its contrast with the straight chronology of the film. I like to think time is measured by the size of the bandage on Gittes’ nose. It’s not quite ticking away on a wall like something in High Noon (1952). But it clocks the time it takes for Jake to get his nose in too far, to get it nearly cut off, and then to have it heal, almost. There are no flashbacks, no voice-overs, just a deep current rushing through the narrow channel of time.

6. Peter Wollen, Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film (London: Verso, 2002), p. 1.





7. Michael Eaton, Chinatown (London: BFI Publishing, 1997).

  The first entry in Peter Wollen’s ‘An Alphabet of Cinema’ is Aristotle, the ‘first theorist of film’. (6) For Aristotle, plot was the most important thing and revelation was one of the most important features of a plot. That’s why the incest revelation is seen as an obvious dramatic high. Reversal and calamity were the Aristotelian partners of revelation. That can explain why the ending is so much admired: the historical weight of corruption is revealed, Jake’s and Evelyn’s hopes of good fortune are reversed, and Evelyn’s death and Cross’ success signal downright calamity. With the incest theme, and the oracular incantation of ‘Chinatown’, with the present haunted by the past, the difficulty of seeing the truth and solving the riddles, it all makes fans want to cite classics like Aristotle’s favourite, Oedipus. For the sake of the resonances, critics like to call Cross’ crime ‘incest’, rather than rape or sexual abuse. Or like Michael Eaton, (7) they mix a cocktail of Freud, Vladimir Propp, Northrop Frye and Joseph Campbell. Personally, it makes me want to dismiss it as The Maltese Falcon (1941) meets Hamlet. Like Hamlet, Jake has more wisecracks than old King Oedipus. You can make your own parallels if you like: Jake/Hamlet, Evelyn/Ophelia, Cross/Claudius, Escobar/Laertes, Walsh/Horatio. It’s textbook stuff. Screen-writing textbook.  



There is often something fishy going on when film criticism discovers comparisons with works like Oedipus or Hamlet. Sometimes it is just to make old works look cool, or modern works venerable, or, as in this case, it is a bit of pre-digested narrative theory and pop psychology used to do the job of thought and judgment. The problem is that classical plot structure can now be a limited form of narrative. Along with things like Wisdom or Evil or Fate or Gods, it becomes untrue and anachronistic, or worse, a burden on the living. Perhaps after two and a half millennia Oedipus – itself a cry against the injustice of myth and the past – must now be declared archaic, its enlightenment corrupted, and much contemporary archplot declared the time-bound pre-occupation of primitivist schools of screen writing and narrative theory. Many crime narratives, like many science fictions, are especially partial to archplot. The crime narratives especially take revelation and make a fetish of it. They can look like they are using Aristotelian specifications to engineer plot intricacy. Archplot becomes arch.

Script and acting have a slightly awkward reputation in an art that always exceeds them, and seems to consign them to its prehistory. We sense this when, as a kind of consolation, a mediocre film is given plaudits for one or other of them, or, on the other hand, when would-be cinephiles are tempted to ignore them, sensing the cachet and modernity of more exclusively filmic things like editing, photography, sound and mise-en scene. Sure, script is important, and anyone familiar with Australian cinema’s recurrent sense of failure will be aware that its messiah takes the form of ‘the well-developed script’. However excessive faith in script forgets too many things about cinema: the collaborative character of production, the virtues of a director, and the poetics of visual narrative, especially the virtues of seeing a film through other components of its grammar: its shots and its editing, the mood and pace of it scenes, and the harmony and counterpoint of sound and vision woven together in these. The scripting of Chinatown seems to lure critics not simply into a plot-based analysis, but into the famous old summary mode of abstracting plot, just as critics of drama from Aristotle on have argued that works of the stage can be best judged from the page. The remainder of the work, all those moving pictures for example, is mere spectacle. In turn, approaching film through the art of scriptwriting has been especially prone to corruption by its peculiar and often proprietary relation to teaching some kind of ‘worlds best practice’. It abstracts plot from the film in its literary form, and it praises what can be described by a traditional model, what conforms to certain conventions, and what is marketable. As a result, in its theory, practice and criticism of movies, the scriptwriting approach can have its own kind of blindness, emphasising traditional literary and dramatic poetics over film poetics. After a while praising Chinatown’s fine plot as the model of archplot can sound like a way of damning it with misplaced admiration.

Similarly, to overpraise character insight in the incest revelation scene is to neglect all the careful exposition of the characters’ humour in juxtaposition to constant threat and sombre mood. It exaggerates the virtues of what is a momentary turn almost into melodrama. The film’s character insight is mostly elsewhere and its humour belongs to something more tragic than melodramatic. Even if this scene is not an aberration of style or a false step, I am still happy when it is over. What struck me as a clumsy kind of trendy ‘70s ‘relevance’ on first viewing this scene, still reminds me of the agenda of contemporary ‘issues’ politics, and there is something about the combination of melodrama and the ‘issues’ based agenda of struggling left politics that is quite foreign to the spirit of this film. Chinatown is not about ‘issues’, its environmental, corporate and incest themes notwithstanding.

For me the my-sister-and-my-daughter scene is just another nightmare of history disclosed to Jake, the observer of a tragedy. It reveals Evelyn and Cross and Katherine, and the corruption of the family. And sure, at last, the already explicit personal dimension of this political drama reveals another layer, one that makes the personal and the political resonate in this high drama of corruption. But when McKee says the incest is ‘the real motivation for the murder’ of Hollis Mulwray, I think he’s lost the plot. This is still a film about water and power, and Jake. The dry river bed, the gushes of unexpected flow that dowse and flush him, the engineering of deep aquifer storage, the orange orchards in the semi-desert, ocean shore and tide pools, ‘the place where life begins’. The water politics has not all been a supporting metaphorical motif of the real story of corruption, nor, for that matter, the political yawn that Jake initially takes it for. Like the family and the body, pure, life-giving water is, as water and power and money, at the centre of the corruption. Caught between irrigators, geography, land speculators, politicians, and criminals, water engineer Hollis Mulwray won’t build another dam. ‘It won’t work.’ And when he discovers Cross manipulating water flow, entitlements and land prices he is murdered for his troubles, drowned in saltwater and dumped in the freshwater reservoir. Overcome by admiration for the dramatics of family life – the classic matter of high drama – McKee ignores the motivations of water, power and money. Worse, Jake, as mere observer, becomes lost to this interpretation. Although he is mere observer, Jake remains the centre of the film because he is mere observer.


8. Ibid, pp. 64-65.








  McKee is not alone in what has become a standard series of responses to the film. Robert Towne has himself said that he gave the sexual abuse scandal priority by delaying its revelation until last. Michael Eaton suggests something similar, (8) moving from structural criticism to metaphysics. By interpreting the incest theme as the most important, a story about political corruption is ‘propelled into the ontological.’ This interpretation quickly moves to a series of conclusions: Cross becomes an embodiment of unavoidable evil, ‘the taint of corruption’ becomes ‘the very foundation of all human interaction, and ‘the soul of man ... impervious to perfectibility’. But this is not the Chinatown I’ve seen. Towne does not have the last say on this, either in the script or in the interpretation of the film. The incest revelation is actually not the ultimate revelation. (By no means. That comes after the car horn sounds in the final scene – a revelation that serves the mood of moment and scene rather than the governance and accountability of plot.) If it were, the orgy of revelation probably would manage to push the film beyond the atmosphere of Chandleresque noir and into the breathless realms of social-justice-issues melodrama packaged in a murky psycho thriller and over-explained with phoney Oedipal overtones. We would be stuck with a heroine too flaky to melt anyone’s heart (or mine at least) and, as so often happens with the crime mysteries, left depressed and hung over from the overindulged habit of concealment and revelation. Despite my first distrust, the film gets the relation of the two themes – the political and the personal – right. The way the film does this is through the character of Jake and his position, through which the whole drama is seen, as the observer of both kinds of corruption.  




9. Gilles Deleuze (trans. H. Tomlinson & B. Hammerjam), Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (London: Continuum, 1985), p. 75.


Style: Radical Subjectivity and a Kind of Objectivity

Polanski has insisted (in an interview on the DVD) that the Chandler-style private eye story demanded a ‘radically subjective’ point of view. Certainly this principle sets the foundation for the cinematic style of Chinatown, and although the audience may know little other than what the investigator knows – Jake is present throughout all of every scene of the film – by no means does the audience see only what he sees. Avoiding both the laboured camera eye technique of Robert Montgomery’s version of Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely (1946) and first person voice-over, Polanski develops a visual version of free indirect style that moves from showing what Jake is seeing to showing Jake watching what he is seeing. Although Gilles Deleuze (9) makes it sound esoteric, Pasolini was quite right to assert the importance of free indirect style in cinema. The images of watching through rear vision mirrors, camera lenses, photographs, glasses, binoculars (complete with that the funny old convention of the binocular vignette) rather than being just tokens in an Oedipal thematics of vision and blindness, are signs of the little shifts in point of view that are second nature to audiences of cinema, popular and otherwise. Just like its prose counterpart, this visual free indirect style shifts back and forth imperceptibly between the metarepresentation of Jake watching Mulwray watching, to metarepresentation of Mulwray watching, to representation of the still unscrutable actuality of the water-and-power landscape that Jake, Mulwray and we are watching.




All this metarepresentation makes for anything but the strictly radical subjectivity of Jake’s point of view, which forms not even its representational base, but one of its middle layers between that of Mulwray and his empty river and gushing channels, and that of an observer looking over Jake’s shoulder. Although this ‘meta’ terminology sounds preposterous it describes what is at once so easily and ordinarily cinematic, and yet philosophically rich.

Three digressions beckon here, none to be followed far now. Firstly, observation of observation, as a social means of validating a subject’s observation, is one model of empirical observation, a social method for subjectivity up by its bootstraps into objectivity. Chinatown’s style thus replays the cunning of subjective reason. An objective image in cinema (i.e. what indirect discourse approximates to) may be built up by metarepresentational steps from subjective images or, in general terms, from direct discourse. According to Deleuze, Pasolini goes too far when he insists on calling this direct discourse mimesis. However Pasolini is not just trying to emphasize its ‘sacred character’; he gets it right. Since Plato and Aristotle, the terms mimetic and diegetic have corresponded to what prose analysis ended up calling, among other things, direct and indirect discourse.

Second, Niklas Luhmann (who has written about observation of observation in works such as Social Systems, and Observations on Modernity) has generalised this concept of ‘second order observation’ and applied it to the steering of social systems. Luhmann describes the self-production of blind spots in such systems, spots that exceed observation and objectification. Such a notion applies to the barely conscious self-corrupting processes working in the society of Chinatown’s world. Jake certainly has his blind spots too, as does Escobar, who must uneasily play the functionary of the system. The genre itself must also have its blind spots to conceal its conventions from itself – among other things, the high stylisation of its male ethics and its pre-ordained plot devices. We too turn our own blind eye to this, playing along with the fiction and the genre, but always at a risk therefore, because, if a blind spot is where observation fails, it is where criticism fails.


10. Cf. Dan Sperber (ed.), Metarepresentations: A Multidisciplinary Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).


  And third, the notion of metarepresentation is an important theme in philosophy of language and consciousness, (10) and although its relation to prose style has been well explored, I confess to being unaware of much work on the relation of free indirect cinematic style and visual metarepresentation other than the little in Deleuze and Pasolini. In particular, I am unaware of much inclination within analytical philosophy to explore the significance of visual metarepresentation to philosophy of consciousness and language. After all, as cinema demonstrates, the human mind is as much that of a visually communicative as of a linguistic animal.  







11. Pauline Kael, Reeling (New York: Little Brown & Co., 1976), pp. 309-331.









12. Eaton, Chinatown, pp. 24-6.


Despite my philosophical jargon, what the style gives a viewer has almost nothing to do with the intellectual frisson of formalist admiration, and certainly it is nothing like the ostentatious pastiche of quotations we get in a film like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). Any admiration for (or irritation at) the filmmaker’s craft of layering images on meta-images disappears when the resulting construction just looks like easy and open empirical observation. Even if free indirect style is not quite, as Pasolini said, the ‘essential style’ of cinema, it is typical. The closest thing to indirect style in cinema is just the seemingly empirical observation of an unobtrusive camera. Like dialogue in a novel, direct style discloses its point of view; it is the point of view of a particular observer, the vision of a person, a video camera, a newsreel, a home movie, a security CCTV. Free indirect style is typical and a film builds it up from its many direct resources, moving unobtrusively back and forth between each to weave a kind of multi-perspective indirection. And although some like Pauline Kael (11) have complained of directorly affectation in Chinatown, it is all quite unobtrusive. Once we are shown a few of its building blocks at the beginning of Jake’s investigation it fades from recognition like a voice over that only lasts for the first scene. Yet we may still recognize in this is another sylistic level, another point of view – for the indirect discourse is that of another observer outside the world of the film. In Chinatown it’s the vision of the ‘70s Technicolor noir. Although in its most developed form this vision looks over Jake’s shoulders, it is not quite as one of Jakes operatives. It is more like an angel of history.

As well as the time layering within the plot of Chinatown, there are metatextual time layers. We find them in references to earlier crime pictures such as, say, to the Maltese Falcon via the casting of John Huston; and we find them in the stylistic time references. Working with Chandleresque material, Hawk’s The Big Sleep looks like a ‘40s image of the ‘40s. Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) is a ‘70s image of the ‘70s; only Philip Marlowe’s car is from the period of the source material. Chinatown is a ‘70s image of a ‘40s image of the ‘30s, apparently based, in turn, on Los Angeles water politics from an earlier period again (12) and complete with a kind of indeterminate post ‘50s soundtrack. It makes me wonder: Just when and where is Chinatown? Its angel of history is just another point of view, a ‘70s eye and ear with its own ‘70s look and sound and its ‘70s marketing nostalgia for the ‘30s, and therein with its own blind spot, its own unconscious.




The Polanski Touch

The legend (and more or less the truth) goes like this: Polanski reworked a happy ending scripted by Robert Towne into the famous, risky, downbeat ending – an inspired challenge to the Hollywood formula. This is always one of the first things devotees of the script have to say about the film. It is the masterstroke, the proof and emblem of their masterpiece. It’s straight out of a standard history of grand artistic gestures. The example of the quintessential work of screenplay is mysteriously perfected by a final gesture of directorial genius: the Polanski touch. At once it is the exception that proves the scriptwriters’ point, yet also the detail that authenticates Chinatown as the work of a true auteur: Polanski.

What, if anything though, is the Polanski touch? Here is a director whose work is so often said to be marked by a fascination with the irrational, and evil. A survivor of wartime Poland, Polanski came to western filmmaking from a blossoming Polish cinema. He had a modernist sensibility and a penchant for the surreal and the absurd. After reworking the Dracula story in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and the bright, satanic marriage-à-la-mode of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and despite being more Buñuel than Gothic, he had developed a Polish-cum-Transylvanian reputation, seemingly schooled and authenticated by eastern European experience in the darkness of the soul. It already seemed like his Shakespeare had to be Macbeth (1972), which turned out to be his first film after the bizarre and terrible murders of Sharon Tate and friends in 1969. Only with some reluctance, did Polanski return to Hollywood to work with friends Robert Evans (producer) and Jack Nicholson, for whom, in turn, Robert Towne had especially written a script.

Chinatown, even at the time, was a very conventional Hollywood film. It had the whole private eye and noir tradition to make it familiar. Polanski’s émigré status and his fascination with the satanic and the surreal, not to mention his capacity for humour and spoof – as evident in The Fearless Vampire Killers – are quintessential Hollywood qualifications. As for the ending, Polanski may have been the one to insist on Evelyn’s death, but apparently Jack Nicholson had a crucial part in scripting the final scene. Whoever thought of it, killing off central characters was already conventional ‘70s Hollywood. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) had set the style. On my first viewing, the memorable touch of Polanski was his cameo and that knife in Jake’s nose. Polanksi plays ‘The Midget’ with relish. ‘Hold it there kitty-cat,’ he calls out to Gittes. ‘You’re a very nosy fella’. Forget the motif of sight and blindness, this is nosiness. What’s important though is the relish. And Polanski’s favourite scene? Not the sister-daughter scene, not the final scene, but the one in the street where Jake and Evelyn face off, nose to nose in the foreground (DVD). ‘I goddamn near lost my nose,’ says Jake, ‘and I happen to like it.’ Relish is important in Polanski. It’s a tonic to the portentous.

Polanski’s post Hollywood career, after he fled the USA because he had to face a charge of sex with a teenager, has been marked by the ease with which he has worked across genres, subject matter and national boundaries, bringing a style that combines light touch and dark matter. Yet what seems to have stuck in the popular imagination as most Polanskiesque is his own biography and the weird way it seems to have repeated or been portended by his films. His has been a life marked by terrible sadness, tragedy, evil, bad luck, crime, misfortune, and, notably, survival. The Pianist (2002) won Polanski more praise than any film since Chinatown, but it is not his best film. The subject matter could attract the Hollywood taste for worthy issues. The so-called entertainment-based cinema of Hollywood is nothing if not given to periodic bouts of self-edification and excruciating tendentiousness. Polanski could be autobiographically and authentically Polanskiesque, and at the same his subject matter gave Hollywood the satisfaction of ‘the prodigal redeemed’. But even for a survivor and a filmmaker of Polanski’s unsentimental, anti-tendentious cast, the Holocaust is difficult subject matter. The Pianist seems to suffer from the problem that worried Primo Levi in Holocaust stories: It is the story of a survivor. Besides Buñuel (and also Hitchcock), Polanski reminds me of Samuel Fuller. Like Fuller he enjoys exploiting the potential secreted in and waiting to be liberated from the storehouse of genre. Like Fuller, his fascination with the irrational, the absurd, the grotesque, the criminal, the cruel and the evil, is not some kind of creepy obsession. It is a relish for the material. At the end of Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980) there is a wonderful, memorable – and, in a war film, slightly shocking – message. The film is dedicated not to the fallen but to the survivors. Like Fuller, Polanski is a survivor. And the Polanski touch in Chinatown? In the end isn’t it, too, dedicated to the survivors?

Character and Genre

First, though, the victims. Ignore the plot for a moment; response to the characters is crucial to judgement of this film. Evelyn Mulwray is by turns and in no particular order – except, more or less, the plot’s – imperious, wry, physical, natural, artificial, prim, cool, private, courageous, affectionate, kind, jittery, rash, sad, damaged, desperate, disturbed, victimised. As the heroine I experience her not as a morally ambiguous character in the typical film noir mode, but as an emotionally ambiguous one; the moral ambiguity is only contrived for the first viewing.

Some have suggested we are complicit in Evelyn’s calamity. It’s a hackneyed way of praising a film. In blurbs its called subversive. We’re not complicit though, even if Jake is. Even so, Evelyn is a victim used by the plot to show us the unhappiness of the survivors. Yet in order truly to elicit their sorrow, it has to elicit ours, so she can’t just be the victim the plot had to have, a kind of sacrificial lamb to a narrative economy of victims and survivors. And she especially can’t be used just as damaged goods for loading a tale of social corruption with high metaphorical intentions and dropping it into the murky water of melodramatic family psychodrama. When Cross says she’s ‘a disturbed woman’ he’s fucking with her head. If he can’t get the girl he will at least try to declare Evelyn’s madness into existence. It’s a family thing, this self-fulfilling description of character, and it is this old family plot that Evelyn has to struggle against. The thing is, it sort of works. Her own plot is in the few happy moments: when she tells Jake she doesn’t get tough with people, her lawyer does; when she rescues Jake from Mulvihill and The Midget; when she shares a couple of hours of affection with Jake. Otherwise the cascade of her emotions is determined by the arbitrary assault of another plot, the archplot, at the end of which she dies in a rash moment. As I watch I want her to be more than a fragile instrument for registering emotional reaction or a vehicle for emotional vagility. Rather than just being a character, I want her to have character. I don’t want her to become or to be a victim’s victim. I want a feminist heroine, even if a tragic one.

This formal artistic problem of getting the weight of the character of Evelyn right becomes indistinguishable from my concern – the concern – about the measure of the film. Chinatown gets it right but by not giving me exactly what I want. Despite being emotionally ambiguous, the expectations of the genre give us hope of her substantive character. Jake himself though can’t be sure of her, morally or emotionally, until its too late, and although the female lead, she, like so much else, comes to us mainly through Jake’s eyes. She is therefore not quite the tragic protagonist for us; she is the tragic protagonist for Jake. Again, metarepresentation. Chinatown is not quite tragedy, but a kind of second order tragedy, a sad film about Jake witnessing a tragedy. The range of Evelyn’s responses conceals her character in a cloud of ambiguity, and not eventually, cumulatively to reveal it. Evelyn is not revealed. Her character is the cascade of moments. It does not develop. Some of its faces are illuminated briefly in flashes. The incest revelation, although plotted according to the schedule of the crime mystery, is arbitrary with respect to her underlying character, except perhaps insofar as her class conscious decency and sense of privacy work as the major impediments to revelation. In fact the whole idea of character development, which, like certain forms of plot, forms such a touchstone of so much traditional literary criticism, is bogus in most genres, especially tragedy. And, in this noir metatragedy, if you wanted to nominate the old ‘tragic flaw’ you might say she can’t ‘keep her head’ but that is not the point. The cruelty of her destruction lies in her character being denied the chance of completion or consummation. She dies when she is disturbed, and falling short of ‘having character’. All that her tragedy reveals, and all I suspect most tragedy reveals, is destiny, which is not character, and it says, to hell with this old tyranny called destiny. Whether displaying that porcelain face with the painted swallowtail lips or melting into flesh, Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray is just right.

Gittes, the survivor, is even more so. More than anyone or anything else, the film is about Jake. Not just Jake the defeated, stunned survivor, though. As in the case of Evelyn, the end does not signify the essence of a character. Jake’s character barely develops either. It is mostly obvious from the first scene. The only revelation does no more than confirm our expectation that a commitment to truth and justice lurks beneath the cynical exterior of the small-time investigator who is doing nicely on his matrimonial work. Character, like the end, always contains the past that led up to it. In Jake’s case the end does not even signify destiny. It shrugs off the archaic nightmare of destiny. And the film is not just about Jake the flawed, blind, prejudiced, cynical, self important, private eye who underestimates women, colleagues, Chinese, servants, old people, and enemies and who, out of his league in water and power and politics, precipitates calamity. It’s about Jake the cocky, resourceful, hopeful, resilient, wise-cracking, hero who makes his ‘honest living’ in the unheroic metier of investigating matrimony and adultery and who answers the call for justice and suffers his loss for doing so. The Jake who grabs me and holds my hopes and affection and interest from his opening crack about not chewing up the Venetian blinds to his gently assisted withdrawal from the final scene. The Jake who does and is as much as possible. The Jake who survives. Like Escobar.

Gittes and Escobar are a kind of duet, held together by mutual history, rivalry, comradeship, respect, exasperation, and genre. Harmony and counterpoint. Right and our allegiance may be with Jake, but we can’t not like Escobar. We like him for his having to endure the corrupted role of official. That is his ‘metier.’ Each man seeks justice, one by unofficial the other by official means. Each has his place in the system of the genre and its system of justice. But there is no reconciliation, as the genre so often would have it: each plays his part in the calamity, each realises his responsibility, each has his remorse, alone.

Genre is a kind of lineage in the evolution of narrative culture. I haven’t checked the DNA but despite the Technicolor, Chinatown feels like a direct descendent of the classic Hammett-Chandler noir private eye films: Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep and John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. Lineages cross and hybridise, and forms get adapted for different meanings. The Long Goodbye, for instance, has a Marlowe of a very different, ‘70s sensibility. Jack Nicholson’s Gittes, on the other hand, though not invented by the pen of Chandler or Hammet, emulates and invites comparison with his film ancestors: Bogart’s Marlowe and Spade. More mercurial (in the Nicholson style) Gittes may not be a reincarnation but there is a family resemblance.



13. Kael, Reeling, pp. 272.

  Nicholson came to the role with a screen presence from his earlier films. Towne wrote the script for it. It furnishes Jake with character right from the start. We see something of the irreverent, uprooted lawyer who upstaged Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, or, in his telling of the ‘screwing like a Chinaman’ joke, something of the gleeful seaman in The Last Detail (1973). Nicholson even manages to carry hints of his romantic anti-careerist pianist in Five Easy Pieces (1970) into Jake’s well-dressed, self-made private eye; and in the final scene he becomes, what Pauline Kael called him in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), a ‘dead spot on the screen’. (13) Although Kael was expressing dissatisfaction, it was a backhanded compliment for an impressive performance in a neglected film. Although the whole body of an actor’s work can invest each character and each performance even retrospectively, Nicholson’s career after Chinatown scarcely does at all. He was never as good-looking again as his Chinatown leading man, and it took him a long time to achieve anything like the pathos. Apart from being appropriately pretty much dead again in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), Nicholson flipped into an overextended period of quasi self-parodic, histrionic glee.  



Turning crime or war films into psychodramas is a ruse for shrugging off the stigma of genre pieces. Non-psychodrama versions of such films – the Chandleresque noir genre for instance – are not thereby lacking in psychological insight though. They are not simply ‘in denial’. Rather they are about a certain psychology and a certain ethic. In a counselling obsessed age we would say that they and their characters, like Jake or Bogart’s Philip Marlowe and all those world-weary masochists whose only comfort is a late-night shot of hard liquor and a fully-clothed lie down next to the phone, are ‘not in touch with their feelings’. But in fact the opposite is just as true. In an understated, laconic way, and above all with a highly stylised courage they live lives of feeling and felt experience. Or at least that is what they show us within the genre that they inhabit. There they do it hard to live the good life, the ethical life as a specific aesthetic form. And, like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s À bout de souffle (1959), we can feel the urge to emulate their existential glamour. Maybe it even prepares us for life – or for a kind of life. It is the duty of the genre scrupulously to deny comfort to a character like Jake. The genre’s comforts of hard liquor and beatings and the 2am phone call are just normal fulfilment of this duty. For me though, the manly, the Stoic, and the hardboiled, and on the other hand the feminist, the psychodramatic, and the melodramatic all form a kind of knot of meanings in Chinatown, impossible to disentangle, yet contained within a film that never really denies or damages its surely defined generic bounds. It is the kind of impossible knot that art specializes in. Each thread of interpretation that we might want to tease out of the tangle is an ethical, political, ideological or emotional abstraction compared to the artistic whole and its aesthetic affect. Towne’s incest revelation does not push the film out of Chandleresque noir and into the melodramatic realms of psychodrama as I suspected when I first saw Chinatown. It goes a step further to test the genre and its ethic. It pushes Jake and the ethic beyond its comforts of cynicism, Stoicism or stylised ‘manly virtues.’ Then, with the death of Evelyn, Polanski goes further again, and denies the genre its chance of late comfort. But after all, he is only taking the logic of the genre at face value. He taunts it and flaunts it by upping the anti against its hardboiled cool.

The fleeting psycho-drama elements could be interpreted as material that the genre itself represses. Chinatown briefly and by means of the genre’s own ethos of understatement prises open the ‘cynicism’, the ‘Stoicism’ and ‘manly’ virtues to reveal their vulnerability. Despite its virtues, Stoicism is a limited form of consciousness. So is cynicism. The PI persona is never far from violence against itself and others. And so-called ‘manly’ virtues – courage, not burdening others with one’s troubles – are hardly exclusive to men. Certainly Evelyn has them. The notion of their exclusivity belongs to an historical style, like the old male embarrassment – call it courtesy or power play – when it comes to telling a sexual joke in women’s company. In almost all film noir there is the theme of men estranged from women. It is not a feminist genre but an historically specific male perspective. Sometimes it barely conceals its misogyny; quite often though it is used to register a dawning of male enlightenment about women. Unlike The Long Goodbye, Chinatown does not just stick to a contemporary ‘70s setting. By revisiting an old genre and a past setting, the film seems at first to come with a promise of the familiar noir comforts, but then, in a kind of anachronism, breaks it. At the same time, it treats the psychology of sexual and familial politics with the same historical license that I suspect it allows itself as far as the environmental and municipal politics of Los Angeles. Unlike Todd Haynes Far From Heaven (2002), it is not a self-conscious riff on the possibilities of the anachronistic sensibility implicit in genre. Chinatown does not raise this problematic as a theme. Instead it played to the nostalgia market that traded for a few years in the 70s after Bonnie and Clyde, and to this extent, despite its updating of noir with ‘70s issues, its level of indirect discourse produces its own unconscious.

The Ending

I can recall David Lynch, in an interview during the promotion of Mulholland Drive (2001), citing Chinatown’s open-endedness as exemplary. For McKee though, it’s closed. It’s archplot and archplot is closed. Inspired by cunning, energy, suspicion and a sense of justice, Gittes has managed and mismanaged to gather all the players at 1712 Alameda. Once there, Jake can for a moment think or hope the cops will believe his accusations about Cross. But Escobar has had enough of Jake’s double dealing. He arrests him and leaves Cross and Evelyn to have their family dispute among themselves. But as Cross tries to stop her leaving for Mexico, Evelyn pulls a gun and shoots him in the arm. Then it all happens: the big white Packard accelerating away; Escobar firing into the air; the other cop, Loach, shooting towards the car. Even now, because he is handcuffed to Loach, Jake’s attempt to stop Escobar shooting has the effect of deflecting Loach’s shot. Then there is the car coming to a stop. And the horn. The cops and Gittes handcuffed and the camera and us, we all hesitate before making our way to the car, to find Evelyn slumped on the horn. Like Jake we watch Noah Cross covering Katherine’s eyes and drawing her out of the car, into his arms and away. We barely hear Jake’s final words, the same line he’d used when he told Evelyn what he used to do in Chinatown: ‘As little as possible.’ And then there is Escobar angered – he half recognizes this old Chinatown line – demanding Jake repeat the words, then relenting and telling Jake’s operatives to ‘get him out of here.’ And last, the gentle pleading tone of Walsh’s compassion, ‘Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown,’ before the cops start clearing the area.


14. Ibid, pp. 311-312.

  What is it about the end of Chinatown? It makes critics want to get metaphysical about Evil, or romantic about fatalism, or world-historical about unhappy endings. Writing back in 1974, Pauline Kael read Chinatown as a signal of a new nihilism. She saw it as ‘nostalgia (for the thirties) openly turned to rot, and the celebration of rot’. It was telling ‘70s audiences ‘that nothing matters to us, that we’re all a bad joke’. (14) I would be happy to classify this as one of those gouty periods when critics confuse personal disgruntlement with social history and imagine their own cynicism or decline is a new world-historical mood. They play oracles on the demise of cinema. Susan Sontag, David Denby and David Thomson all had bouts of this in the ‘90s, announcing the death of cinema and the cinephile. Kael had a ‘70s version of it. For her the post war ‘film generation’ had ‘lost the impulse to go to the movies.’  



When it comes to detail, Kael firstly uses a touch of the old ‘it-would-have-been-better-if’ approach to criticism. It’s handy in cinema foyers and after audience previews or seeing the rushes, but it doesn’t go far in critical essays. Usually this kind of criticism has to supply its own counterfactual. Something like the one I would supply for High Noon: if had it been a tragedy that ended with the Gary Cooper character getting killed, then it would have been better. In Chinatown’s case Towne had already scripted Kael’s preferred ending. She praises it as ‘logical’; Polanski though has consigned it the status of a mere counterfactual condition for another and unmade film. I try to imagine something like the screenwriter’s equivalent of the director’s cut: Evelyn shoots Noah Cross, maybe kills him, and drives away to Mexico? The cops suddenly understand everything, arrest Cross and leave Jake to take Evelyn and Katherine home? I suppose Towne had a way to make it plausible, but I thank god for the irrevocability of this bit of cinematic history. Happily Polanski went for unhappy.

Secondly, and more importantly, Kael uses one of those sending-the-wrong-message arguments, in which film criticism is justified by or develops from ethical or political criticism. The film is supposed to be indulging a fatalistic political and moral complacency - the same, famous one that has corrupted the Left. No doubt aesthetic and ethical judgements defy neat separation, especially in an art that is about ethics and politics and human actions. Even fiction’s metarepresentational distance from historical fact, although it might alter the message, can’t completely quarantine works from message sending. After all a fiction might not show historical facts, but it nevertheless is an historical fact; and we might think it doesn’t show real images of life, but it shows real images of narrative life, which is a pretty important part of real life. Films can be experienced as misanthropic, militaristic, sexist, racist, and nihilistic, and it is easy to translate aesthetic indignation (or disquiet) into moral indignation (or disquiet) – or vice versa. In the abstract realms of feeling, they feel pretty much the same. In the concrete matter of judgement, aesthetics includes the political and ethical. I can’t really separate my ethical distaste for the coldness and cruelty depicted in say the horror torture film Wolf Creek (2006) from the aesthetic impatience that made it hard for me to sit through, and although I am not ready to parley it into moral condemnation of the film, I am quite ready to let it affect my aesthetic judgement. (On the other hand it’s too easy to convert aesthetic thrill into moral judgement: when they like a war film, too many critics immediately praise it by calling it anti-war.) But meanwhile, if (say) Fuller’s The Big Red One offends you for glorifying survival and rejecting victims, or if Chinatown offends you because it counsels cynical resignation, then you are missing the movies that I am seeing.








15. Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘LA Existential’ [review of Thomas Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)], Chicago Reader, 1 October 2004.

  Perhaps something about the subsequent evolution of the film’s reputation might explain why Chinatown and not any one of several other films was and has remained singled out. The downbeat ending was already ‘70s tradition in US cinema – usually violent, conventionally pessimistic, quite often arbitrary, frequently tendentious, sometimes a bad habit – from Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde to its ironic treatment in Taxi Driver (1976). It did seem to have become a zeitgeist thing. By illustrating H. Rap Brown’s line about violence being as American as apple pie, or registering a post-Watergate and post-Viet Nam shift in US sensibility, it could be invoked to give a film the credentials of relevance and seriousness, and to signal protest against an old upbeat Hollywood style. Films defined themselves by their relation to the tradition: The Long Goodbye turned it into a gesture of desolate justice; McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) somehow transformed the life draining from their protagonists into a kind of understated refusal of tragedy’s grandiose intentions; (15) Badlands (1974) deftly defied it. Chinatown, with its model plot, just seemed made to become the classic instance of it. So it had to be interpreted. Profoundly and therefore darkly. From the start, and throughout the course of its canonisation, the ending of Chinatown was seen to signal the supremacy of injustice and the vindication of glamorous, cynical, world-weary resignation. And therein lay its greatness. Or its foolishness.  




16. Eaton, Chinatown, pp. 64, 67, 71.

  By 1996, Michael Eaton could see the Chinatown of the final scene as ‘an atonement free zone, a site in which the possibility of any species of redemption would be ... totally out of the question’. Cross is a man ‘whose transcendent evil has made him untouchable’. Jake’s muttered line, ‘as little as possible,’ is the last word not just on ‘the futility of good intentions’ but ‘the futility of all action’. And Walsh’s gentle plea, ‘Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.’ is a ‘counsel of repression’ in a world of ‘fundamental, chaotic, unconquerable and unembraceable perversity’. (16) Chinatown’s devotees could use grand language to get sentimental about cynicism and fatalism. No wonder doubters like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Thom Andersen have responded, criticising it as a failing of both the devotees and the film.  



What is it about endings that gives them this peculiar influence? Sure, endings and drawing a moral can go together. It happens all the time in old tales. And there has always been a particular problem with tragedies. The likes of Samuel Johnson, Voltaire and Tolstoy all thought Cordelia’s death robbed King Lear of its moral. But tragedy happens precisely when a character with character does not prevail, does not survive. Reward for virtue is never cashed out in tragedy. That is the point. Distaste for tragedy can’t really argue that art should illustrate justice and that justice must be retributive. The premise simply compounds aesthetic and moral mistakes. I can appreciate the suspicion though that Chinatown takes the ancient barbarism of tragedy and indulges it in some way, glamorises it, or that the tragic turn of events is used to engineer instant depth. So prescribed, tragedy has become suspect. In Chinatown, any ambiguity here is at one with the ambiguity of Evelyn’s character and destiny. For me though this is part of that impossible knot that the film makes of its conflicted material; it is why the film works, not why it fails.

What is it about the film, and particularly the end, that sends a cynical defeatist message? I would have to say, nothing. Both devotees and doubters seem to have been watching another Chinatown. Cross’ transcendent evil? Cross is just a selfish remorseless, ruthless old man. The kind who is a pillar of many a community. Just because he tells Gittes he wants the future, just because he gets away with it, doesn’t mean we have to get hyperbolic about either him or injustice. As in the case of Iago, critics in literary mode end up believing their overstatements. Lampedusa dismissed the operatic misunderstanding of Othello by pointing out that critics mustn’t have spent time among ‘functionaries of the state’ or ‘career officials’. Cross’ corrupt political manipulation is everyday. So is his greed. His style of sexual usage is and has long been widespread. He is a common enough type, psychologically and politically, not to require the slightest metaphysical explanation for the motivation or magnitude of his corrupt behaviour. His corruption is not metaphysical, or, as he styles it, grand and heroic, it’s banal. The film just avoids the banality of saying that.

Cynicism? Chinatown doesn’t indulge it. It’s about it. One of Jake’s tragic failings – and a chronic failure of the genre and its Stoicism – is to take comfort in easy cynicism. He lets it gets the better of him. He won’t let himself trust Evelyn until its too late. Fatalism or nihilism? The trouble is Jake is incapable of letting himself be cynical enough to be fatalist. In this regard he only manages to misjudge himself. He can’t just do ‘as little as possible’. Quietist inclinations are not in his character. Just because all his efforts are implicated in the tragic outcome, that does not amount to a counsel of fatalism. Not even Escobar from the distance of officialdom can turn to it for comfort. Again fatalism is not the message but the problem. Chinatown is about it. The old tragedies themselves, especially Oedipus, were a cry against its archaic injustice. And besides, Jake is a survivor.

For me the ending of Altman’s The Long Goodbye is more desolate than Chinatown. Love, affection, friendship are comforts often denied the private eye, or at least withheld. Unlike Jake, who at least has Walsh and Duffy to lead him away, and even, in Escobar, a kind of friend to share the calamity, Gould’s Marlowe is utterly alone. He even loses his cat. There is no hint of love. He is betrayed by Terry Lennox, the closest thing he has to a friend, who turns out to have murdered his wife. Gould’s Marlowe has, as the ethic demands, a resolute sense of justice. He also has a beautiful cheerfulness. The whole opening scene with the fussy cat and the spaced out neighbours is about the pose of cool, generous, self-mocking cheerfulness that he maintains even in his isolation and therefore to the point of sincerity. Somehow though, such virtues combine and triumph at the expense of the ethical integrity of the man who has them. Gould’s Marlowe executes Lennox, not so much for revenge, and not only to salvage what little justice he can from his otherwise chronic ineffectualness, but to consummate in desperation his cheerful insouciance. Then, as he leaves the scene, he passes Lennox’s lover. She is going to meet Lennox, but she will discover his corpse. Marlowe ignores her, walks on and whistles and skips his way out of the picture along an avenue that leads nowhere, like the one at the end of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Sad or desolate at the level of content, for me the ending of each film is happy in its own way. Each is felicitous cinema.

Plot Revisited; or As Much as Possible

Narrative theorists have always been fascinated by plot. Me too. Plots almost inevitably look more fascinating in the ‘arch’ form. People think they can see the architecture. They draw graphs and convince themselves they have deciphered the structure. But sometimes I wonder if we know what we talk about when we talk about plot. It is one of those words that make people think they are talking about the same thing, without there always actually being a clear idea of what that thing might be. Is it a narrative argument? If so what is its premise and conclusion? Is it ‘the arrangement of the incidents?’ And if so which incidents? Mise en scène presents an impossible plethora of incidents. Is each of those pieces of litter floating across the emptying streetscape of the Chinatown’s final shot contributing its own incident? Polanski or someone must have put them there to be incidents. And plot is not just the incidents anyway; it’s a lattice of connections. But then which connections? Surely material, spatial, temporal and above all causal connections. But surely also social, accidental, coincidental, metaphysical and metaphorical ones. Take albacore. Utterances and images of albacore and apple core are quilted into a matrix of conversations, misunderstandings, pennants, clubs and quilts, stitched together coincidentally, accidentally, causally, socially, and, in the sheer excess, metaphysically. What about Escobar’s ‘summer cold’? Is that connected to anything? Just to ‘summer’? To the smoker’s cough of the mortuary attendant? To some cold that Perry Lopez happened to have during the filming? The film’s moments exceed the partial order of its connections.
















17. Although what I am suggesting is admittedly based on an abstract, mathematical argument about narrative information, and the theory of information hardly exists in any form that is adequate to cultural knowledge, I have to say there is something about certain so-called minimalist films that strikes me as complex beyond anything that the word minimalist might imply.


Given this excess, we have to do the picking and choosing of abstraction to map out a plot. And what we map is determined by its function. A storyboard, a script, a written summary, a cinema preview, or in its fullest, trivial sense the whole film – each seems like a candidate for an example of a plot, each has its own form and function. Once I would have said, with Aristotle, that plot is the most important thing. But if plot in its fullest sense means the whole film, it’s trivial, and I could offer my own (trivial) corollary: If a film is any good it has a good plot. Avoiding the trivial I should point out that I have already offered my version of Chinatown’s plot way back in the fourth paragraph. Sure, I left a lot of my favourite moments out, and important incidents and connections, including a lot in the final scene, but the function of my plot is to emphasise the moments, to derange the incidents and to blow apart the archplot into a series of felt cinematic moments. After all the architecture can take it. It’s not made of steel and glass and concrete. It’s a yielding, abstraction, a lattice of depiction, implication and maybe – if you bother to make the inferences – explanation. The archplot will always feed its resonances into my plot just as my plot feeds its resonances into the archplot. Archplot can blind us to the virtues of other plots – for instance minimalist plot – and not only other plots that characterise other films, but other plots happening in the same film. Rather than being simple, minimalism implies a plot that is so complex it defies simple or obvious abstraction. Archplot is suited to abstraction. It is an abstraction. It lacks complexity because everything can be reduced to one or two explanatory principles. McKee’s practically reduces Chinatown to the incest revelation. However complex in the details, archplot – under its other title of organic plot – implies reduction to the simple self-referring, autopoetic principle of an organism. Aristotle went for organic. Explanation loves abstraction because explanation is about the reduction of information. You don’t have to think about as much or feel about as much. Minimalism defies this, like randomness. It’s about noise and entropy. (17)

I want to appreciate the moments in order to spirit back into the plot of Chinatown the kind of emotional and intellectual complexity that abstraction spirits away. More than the delays and revelations of a causal archplot, the plot of Chinatown is about the excess of moments, the haze of connections, the chromatism of feelings. Trouble is, plotting a plot, explaining a film, justifying an interpretation, summing it all up, these things are all about reduction. They are about as little as possible. When I abstract my plot I want to leave in as much as possible.




Take the incident of the horn in the final scene. The car stopping and the horn sounding, and then the screaming, all in the distance. Towne once complained that Polanski wanted only to see the tunnel at the end of the light. Well this is the shot down that tunnel. Consider all the moments it takes for Escobar, Jake and Loach to falter onto the screen, one by one, into the foreground of that deep, dark shot, for Jake to even start to drag himself and Loach with him and Walsh and Duffy after them and Escobar barely at all, down into the depths and darkness of the street towards the tiny, dim outline of the once great white Packard. How many terrible, beautiful moments is that? Can’t count them. They all dam up in this one shot, delaying the final revelation. It’s hardly like the delay of the now minor incest revelation, which had all been so carefully, deliberately scripted. No. This one is the death revelation. It’s not just about a father fucking his daughter, it’s about the law killing her, and although we feel it take ages, it’s not quite revelation that takes ages. It is like the anticipated revelation of an unresolved chord, the pleasure of music even when we know what’s coming. It is the kind of thing I can watch again and again.

Explanation has to be true to its object, but its own devices imperil it: the airless stratosphere of abstraction and the preformations of theory. Films command out attention and ask to be recognised in expressions of judgement & explanation, but they would like this judgement and explanation to be delivered almost by means of description alone. And they assert: the best description is the film itself. In film writing though, it is hard for faithful description to make light work of verbatim shot by shot analysis. I have to say though that such analysis is preferable to singing about profundity in abstractions prefabricated for blurb language. These demands are why I want plots that explain the film by describing the right moments in their particularity, and I want to assert several different plots. These are the things that revisiting a film reveals.

Once Might As Well Be Never

The word ‘Chinatown’ is repeated several times throughout the film. It is an incantation, dredging events up gradually from reticent memory. My old Halliwell’s, grumbling about post ‘60s pretension, dismisses it as ‘merely allusive’. By the end, the events of that past Chinatown have occurred twice, and we have been told two stories, the second in detail, the first by implication. So we are allowed to ask, what is the law of this repeated incantation and this recurrence of events. It’s barely Groundhog Day (1993): the felicitous possibility of perfection. At most it is only the second day. It’s not quite ‘history repeats itself’; nor that, in ignorance, we are destined to repeat it; nor that it occurs twice, ‘the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.’ And it’s and not quite the historical necessity of corruption, personal and political, and not quite the doom-laden world of oracles, and not a counsel of fatalism, resignation or defeatism, a defeatist world-weary chic. It’s not that Freudian repetition, always revisiting and probing the same unhealing psychic sore. (Although perhaps this is true of the genre, to which films return and indulge an ethos that has become a block on the process of enlightenment.) It’s not Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, not an amor fati for which we would choose to live the sad events of Chinatown again, and by that act affirm our power. As Jake says of the first Chinatown, it was just bad luck. The second time is bad luck twice. It is like the Chinese fire cracker, the double-happy, only its double unhappy.

It is all of these. Old Halliwell was right. It’s allusive, except not just ‘merely’. Even the secular and empirical law of the recurrence – the power and tenacity of corruption – comes second to mood. The picture is a mood piece from beginning to end, from what sounds like a big chromatic strum across the open strings of a piano before the opening credits to the lonely sound of the car horn and the precise tone and timbre of Walsh’s gentle plea. It’s like the chorus of a sad song about luckless unhappiness, sung once more, and dare I say it, with feeling. Yet isn’t there still a folk version of mathematical induction waiting to be tested here, ‘three times proves it’; or a law of averages, ‘third time lucky’? Jake would have to find out.

Maybe things that aren’t repeated were not worth doing in the first place. Einmal ist keinmal, the saying goes. Once might as well be never. Repetition comes close to the casting of a kind of Darwinian judgement. And as with Jake’s actions, likewise with a film. What was worth watching was worth watching again. A film might not reveal itself on first encounter or to its first audience, but on the other hand, a good film might manage to withstand and reward repeated and thoughtful viewing. The otherwise virtually inhuman and possibly stupid process of canonical selection is recapitulated – but with thought and feeling – in the subjective experience of the viewer. In the film’s evolution – and McKee almost says this – its form may stay the same, even its content, but its meaning changes and is revealed in new ways in new contexts. In experience and history, different interpretations of Chinatown, like different films, want to displace one another, prevail over one another, survive.

Actually when I think about it again, it might just be a kind of modest eternal recurrence going on in Chinatown: recurrence in spite of fate. Nietzsche in Zarathustran mode leaves me cold; but maybe Chinatown shows just what, on a sympathetic reading, eternal recurrence might involve. Jake would just do it all over again. He couldn’t not. It’s what makes the keynote of this mood piece seem so much like one of sadness; Jake is running out of life too fast to keep on having things go so bad again and again. Yet this sadness only plays out against an underlying key: a confidence in the possibility of happiness. Chinatown’s eternal recurrence is not a case of embracing some stupid fate but of having to try to shake it off – the eternal recurrence of anti-fatalism. Escobar in a moment of exasperated affection laments, ‘You never learn, do you Jake.’ But Jake already knows. Experience won’t leave him wiser, just sadder. He could never learn the coldness and unhappiness of doing of ‘as little as possible.’ That is the unspoken ethos behind the stylised self-violence of the genre’s hero. For him it has to be the Chinatown of as much as possible, every time.


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