Saturday, July 23, 2005

Film: Chinatown

In my eyes, Roman Polanski, Polish director residing and working all over the western world due to various circumstances, is the man. Him films are consistently good, in various genres and moods, and he worked in at least four different film industries (Polish, British, Hollywood and French) adjusting very well and with success to each of them.

Polanski started as s wunderkind, making his first successes with short films in a renowned Lodz Film School. His first feature, “Knife on the water” (1962), nearly a masterpiece, shot in black/white is a cruel psychological drama of three people cruising on a boat during one night. Black/white photography shows its beauty (and sometimes, superiority over colour) in this film as Polanski uses close cuts to seamlessly move the camera in unexpected positions in a small space that the deck of the boat is. Free-jazz soundtrack with never more than two instruments employed, was just the right touch.

“Knife on the water” was success in Europe (particularly Venetian festival) which allowed Polanski to make his next three films in Great Britain. These films were horror/thriller stories with a touch of eastern-European film schools, and the last one was the film I love very much: “Fearless vampire killers” aka “Excuse me, but your teeth are in my neck”, aka “Dance of the Vampires” - last one being preferred by me as it mirrors the gracefulness of this films black humor, influenced by Czech comedy school.

Next step for Polanski was Hollywood, where he achieved his greatest commercial success in 68’ with his first American film, “Rosemary’s Baby”, made along the line of his previous films but in more self-serving production and without bizzare comedy elements that made his previous films so unique. Polanski’s USA career continued with “Macbeth”, milestone retro-noir “Chinatown” and the mystery “The tenant”.

Having to escape to Europe in 77’ in order to avoid legal persecution, Polanski continued working mostly in France, scoring success with period film “Tell”, thriller “Frantic”, in which Harrison Ford is involved in an 1 ½ hour race after his kidnapped wife, chamber political allegory “Death and the maiden” and finally, Oscar-awarded recount of his early childhood holocaust experiences, “The pianist”.

Polanski’s personal life was always a tabloids subject, sometimes unfairly drawing attention from his film career. His early childhood was scarred by a holocaust family tragedy. He experienced another personal tragedy when his first wife, Sharon Tate, became, together with several guests of the party in their house, a victim of serial killer Charles Manson. His exile from USA, on the other hand, was forced by a persecution for sexual relationship with a 13 year old girl. The bizarre and irrational element of his films often makes people perceive him as an insane person, through a dreaded art psychoanalysis that starts from the (completely untrue) theory that author’s work is always a direct autobiography (while, in reality, the most frantic films were made by the most deliberate authors).

Now, “Chinatown” is a piece of work: Nominally noir, made in 60ies but with a look behind at 30ies and 40ies classics of noir (who, on the other hand, look at early German expressionists, etc etc), “Chinatown” has all elements that a Chandler book would have: Cynical bum detective, not exactly a perfect character and not exactly a hero; Dame in distress who enters his office one day; A mystery that unravels slowly, but without impression that the viewer will have everything laid on the table at the end; Fight scenes that don’t often finish in main character’s favour, even less often thanks to him; A world full of shady characters, where noone is really good.

Even though “Chinatown” is affectionate, even though it can be considered a homage, it is picked mostly as a vehicle for Polanski’s ideas, for his story of corruption and abomination. Thus he makes leaps from the tradition of the genre right away: Jack Nicholson, playing J. J. Gittes is not exactly a Sam Spade; he, in fact, doesn’t have financial problems like the former, he earns respectful money photographing cheating wives and husbands, and even though he retains some of the cool of Bogart’s character, the way he allows a woman to sneak up on him while he is telling a dirty joke to his associates, is something too undignified to happen to Bogart. Then again, the mystery hasn’t got that detachment from the real life that original noir often has: Gittes deals with corruption on high level, and Polanski allows us to see consequences of that corruption, through images of farmers getting kicked out of their own land. And all in all, “Chinatown” is more bizarre and sick than any 40ies noire has ever been.

So basically, it’s a story of moral degradation on personal level of one man on important position, that leads to moral degradation of the society. The story of how he triumphs, regardless of victims, and how it’s given opportunity to continue spreading his corruption to new directions, in this film with the saddest possible ending. This man seems to disease everything he touches. Central character of the story appears to be the person who doesn’t even have very much screen time. This character, Noah Cross, is incidentally played by John Huston, one of directors who established noir genre with his classics “Maltese falcon”, “Key Largo”, “Treasure of Sierra Madre”. That Polanski acts in this film a thug in service of John Huston’s character is more than a mere coincidence.

There’s also a lot more than a coincidence in Polanski’s cameo that lasts less than five minutes: this sleazy thug slits Gittes’s nose, lending him a bandage that the detective will wear all through the film, one of the details after which the film is remembered the most. Polanski’s short role is impressive; he totally steals the scene with his high-pitched voice and weasel-like appearance. (Apart from this, Polanski has a history of screen appearances. He cast himself as the Professor’s assistant in “Vampire’s ball”, using his own boyish looks to play several years younger character; In “The Tennant”, he casts himself as already an elderly man).

Chinatown” is a showdown of Polanski’s subtlety, cleverness and the sence of detail; Opportunities are used all over: for instance, one of the most inventive car chases that I’ve seen is the one taking place in the middle of orange field; Polanski spots visual inventiveness of this scene and runs along with it. Note these examples: In earlier scene in the film Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) hits the wheel of a car with her head, triggering a siren. In last scene of the film, while she is running away in a car while policemen shoot at her, as we hear the siren moaning, we are reminded of the previous scene and we know that her head is leaned on the wheel without even having to see it. In earlier scene, again, Nicholson spots a birthmark on iris of her eye. In this last scene, as she falls out of the car, we are allowed to, for one brief moment; see that she is shot through that very eye. It’s as if her birthmark has exploded, and indeed it is her father who brought suffer and, finally, death to her. “Chinatown” is full of such moments, it’s worth watching over and over, as long as we can see new little metaphors that Polanski has left to us.

Nicholson’s role is a classic one, from his best years. It is what holds the film together, as he is on the screen almost 100% of the time. He verges on the border of sophisticated and vulgar; He plays a cool Bogartian figure, trampled by the knowledge that this “cool” is just a facade; He has a lot of excellent lines, and he knows just how to say them to keep them ringing in our ears; The subject of “Chinatown”, as the dark past that he’d rather not remember, is brought up rationally, until in the end past that hounds him comes back at him in a violent showdown; In short, Nicholson is perfect. Fay Dunaway is excellent in a very torturous role. A very few lines in the script refer to the suffering of Evelyn Mulwray, the rest, Dunaway does with her acting.

Script by Robert Towne, based on the real L.A. affair of 1930, is clear of plotholes or inconsistencies, and lends a lot of memorable lines to actors; One of the funniest might be, when Noah Cross asks J.J. Gittes whether he slept with Evelyn, Gittes answers: “If you want an answer to that question...”; pause as he stands up; “...I’ll put one of my boys on that case.”

Before “Chinatown”, Polanski already proved that he’s capable of making classics (at least two of his previous films were classics). With “Chinatown” he proved that he is able of freely browsing through genres while being faithful to his poetics; His poetics, again, including bizarre, irrational, cruel displays of human behavior, some that might be considered just a bit too much cruel to be taken lightly even nowadays.


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