by Murray Sperber
Cut, no. 3, 1974, pp. 9-10
In psychoanalytic theory, films are supposed to touch our unconscious and connect to our deepest fears and hopes. That so few do is probably less because of the inadequacies of Freud’s theories than the incompetence of most filmmakers. Most of the time we just cannot believe what’s happening up there on the screen, so we can hardly be moved by it.
CHINATOWN disturbs us. It penetrates many psychic defenses, surrounds us, and in a sense, places our heads under its bell jar. From the opening sequence—a series of semi-pornographic pictures of a couple screwing in the woods—it arouses our curiosity and totally involves us. We are like children trying to figure out what these adults are doing sexually, what is happening in this primal scene, what are these huge figures up to? We are confused—the photos turn quickly, the couple are clothed but are screwing—and even a little frightened. We are also informed, on almost a subliminal level, of Polanski’s political point. The last picture is of the woman being penetrated from the rear—a sexist image Polanski uses to say: in this world, everyone takes it in the ass.
Polanski’s plot in CHINATOWN, on its surface, is about political corruption, a Water Department (Watergate?) scandal in Los Angeles in the 1930s. But his real story concerns human corruption, so deep and extensive as to be terminal. And his message, for all its apparent topicality, is finally so pessimistic, really nihilistic, that although Polanski exposes the corruption of capitalism (the sexual as well as the financial), he does not offer even the wisp of a political alternative. Everything turns to blood (or water or money) in this world. Polanski’s talent is such that for the length of the film he can almost convince us of his vision. He can tap some very deep fears and pessimism in our psyches. Thus he turns Chinatown—the place as well as the idea—into a symbol of human corruption, chaos, and immorality unimaginable to most straight Westerners. It is possibly even a symbol of early sexual mysteries, primal scenes, about which, he suggests, it is best not to inquire.
Polanski totally controls the film. He is a master craftsman, meticulous and inventive, so careful and so in control that you have to admire his work as you would the product of a great Baroque jewelry maker. We see his control in the following touches:
His pacing is slow, at times languid, almost boring. Polanski tries to convince us that so was life at this time, at all times. Even his violence is subdued—a mutilation of the hero (done by Polanski himself, in a white suit), a few punch-ups, and a bloody ending. Nothing to compare to the overt violence of ROSEMARY'S BABY or MACBETH. But it’s as if he were trying to take violence to a lower stratum of the psyche and permanently plant it there. Polanski does not attempt to thrill or even terrify us by CHINATOWN’s violence. Rather, he attempts to get us to accept its permanence. As an actor, Polanski appears a second time. He is coming up the driveway of the Mar-Vista rest home when Gittes escapes. He is the man that the thug, Mulvahill, refers to when he says, “Someone wants to see you.” He is in charge of violence for Noah Cross. He is both physically and psychically in control of the violence in CHINATOWN.
Polanski is less visible in his manipulation of the plot and of the viewer. When Gittes in the opening scene is tricked by the phony Mrs. Mulwray, so are we. Throughout the film, when we think Gittes is really on to something and we find out that he has been tricked, so have we. He sees the pictures of Mulwray and Cross arguing outside The Pig and Whistle. (Cross is a pig, Mulwray was about to blow the whistle? But it was also a real restaurant chain.) Gittes scorns the pictures, says they're useless and tells his assistant, “This business requires some finesse.”
And, of course, the photos are a key to the entire plot. We sort of know that and when we see the picture of Cross on the Water Department wall, we make the connection before Gittes does. But in the end, we're not very much ahead of him and we are as manipulated by Polanski as Gittes is by Noah Cross.
Polanski gets us to identify with J.J. Gittes. He makes the detective a recognizable type: the lone gun, wise guy, private detective. Polanski also gives Gittes a streak of romanticism (that girl Gittes hurt long ago in Chinatown). Gittes is shrewd, corrupt (except he draws the line at extortion), crazy and convincing. (Jack Nicholson plays him perfectly: Nicholson’s on the screen almost constantly and his very lack of emotional range—which makes him so tedious in other films—works well here.)
Polanski also wants us to identify with Gittes’ bravado and basic confusion. We quickly realize that Gittes has been fucked over so many times that he’s only looking for a little edge, just enough to keep going and stay a little ahead. Even his rage is somehow muted, tired. He fills his life with small-time tricks (the watches under the wheel; the Assistant Water Commissioner’s business cards; the page torn out of the deed file in the Hall of Records; etc.). We cheer as he triumphs over officious clerks and dumb cops. But he can never get far enough ahead to figure out what is going on, to get on top of it. Nor, once inside Polanski’s plot, can we. Gittes is the petty-bourgeois. He’s always telling his secretary to “draw up the papers.” But just as she is gum-chewing and bubble-headed (versus the Water Department’s efficient man-woman), Gittes is only competent within his small-time world, or as he says, “matrimonial work.” Finally he is no more able to understand the upper classes, the people like the Crosses who control things, than, Polanski implies, are we.
Polanski presents Gittes with Evelyn Mulwray. She is a Cross, and just as she confuses Gittes, she perplexes us. Faye Dunaway, in the part, is authentically looney. According to Polanski, in a recent interview in Rolling Stone (July 18, 1974) crazy off-screen as Faye Dunaway is, she also is mad as Gittes’ erotic dream and the murdered Water Commissioner’s wife. (The Commissioner, the one honest and apparently good man in this entire world, is thin, ugly, wears thick glasses and is soon killed: he’s too much a cartoon. Polanski takes the easy way out with this character, as he does with other political figures: the fat, cigar-chomping and corrupt Coroner, listening to his racing results and not asking questions; and Police Lieutenant Escobar, confused, worried, promoted by a system that knows he won't inquire too deeply.)
Polanski has Gittes tell Evelyn Mulwray that he’s pursuing the case because “I'm not supposed to be the one caught with his pants down.” This connects to the opening photos of the man whom Gittes caught with his pants down and the later affair with Evelyn and the bewilderment throughout. Also Gittes’ petty-bourgeois sense of himself has been challenged (just as it was in the barber shop by the banker’s jibe). Gittes is so intent on not losing his status as a private detective (later, he’s afraid of losing his license), that he can never really figure out what’s happening. He tells Evelyn that her husband’s girl friend “was pretty in a cheap sort of way.” He could not be more wrong. She wasn't the husband’s girl friend and she hardly appears cheap. She is always in expensive white clothes and she is young and virginal.
Evelyn pronounces his name as “giddies” and she makes him light-headed. She reveals a small confidence—that she has had lots of affairs—and he takes it as a major confession. She is playing for much higher stakes than he (or we) can imagine. Even when she finally tells him the truth, he’s uncomprehending, unable to fully understand such a thing. (“He raped you?” he asks. “No,” she shakes her head.)
Polanski presents their romance as tired, doomed, and not very romantic. But most of all, Polanski tries to confuse us. When they kiss for the first time, he circles the camera around as Hitchcock did in the most sexual of all 1940s kisses—Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in NOTORIOUS—but we are most aware of Gittes’ scabby nose. In bed, Evelyn is made to look very oriental, especially her eyes and yellow skin color (Chinatown?), and her feelings are only revealed later, and then flash by. After Gittes follows her to her daughter-sister’s house and confronts her outside, she asks, as he starts to get out of the car, “Aren't you coming back with me me?” “Don't worry, Mrs. Mulwray,” he says with full crassness, “I won't tell anyone.” She answers, and seems hurt, “That’s not what I meant.” But he does leave. In that moment her look says: Men are pigs after all. She has finally started to reveal herself, and Gittes can only fall back into his small-time trap.
Controlling all events in the movie is Noah Cross. When first encountered, Cross seems mainly a rich old crank. Over lunch with Gittes we have little sense of his venality and total power. He’s Evelyn Mulwray’s father, he’s the man who owns Los Angeles, he’s also John Huston. (This is truly a star movie: from its opening Hollywood studio titles to its use of Nicholson, Dunaway and especially Huston. Because John Huston is an authentically great man, it helps us believe that he is more than a character actor playing a man who supposedly owns L.A.. Cross/Huston really might own L.A..) Cross also looks a little like President Roosevelt, and Polanski fills the movie with portraits of FDR (who in public, was kindly and straight but, in fact, was aristocratic, manipulative, and rather careless about bourgeois sexual standards).
Cross is found at the Albacore Yacht Club (Gittes’ assistant thought that he had heard Cross and Mulwray arguing about “Applecore” ). Cross is a biblical patriarch, a kind of first man, and he makes it with Evelyn-Eve (git-it?). He pronounces Gittes’ name, “Gits,” and his contempt for and manipulation of the detective is total. Cross owned the Water Department, he put holes in Hollis Mulwray (we actually see them in the corpse), and he is hardly satisfied with ten million dollars, he wants to own the future. He also can stop a speeding bullet—Evelyn fires at him point blank and there is no blood, only a stiff arm. In the end, he gets exactly what he wants, and because he owns the police, he is invulnerable. He is the true Lord of the Earth, a man tempted to do what other men, like Gittes, can hardly imagine. Polanski both admires him and seems pleased to be his hatchet man.
Polanski is a true cynic. He enjoys manipulating people—thus Cross might be the real hero of CHINATOWN. In the climactic scene of the movie, where we identify with Gittes and his attempt to help Evelyn escape to Mexico, Polanski has Gittes confront Cross with the incriminating glasses. Gittes actually thinks—and we hope—that Cross will somehow crumble. But Gittes is disarmed like a child. Polanski’s point is that we should accept Cross’s mastery as total and inevitable . Thus we should accept the pessimism of the film’s conclusion as equally inevitable.
Gittes has been had, we've been had, and Polanski can retire behind his work of art, smiling at the folks out there, assuming that he has gotten us to accept his vision of corruption and nihilism.
Polanski is like a great Baroque artisan, coming at the end of an artistic tradition—the Hollywood movie. He is content to carve a final, over-wrought product out of it (and possibly, he establishes his film character’s obeisance to Noah Cross as a parallel to his directorial relationship to John Huston). This is a highly Baroque film. Those viewers who like to get inside Baroque puzzles will enjoy it most: Did you notice the counterpoint between the aristocratic Spanish architecture of the Mulwrays’ and Cross’ mansions and the imitation hacienda style of the petty-bourgeois homes? But California Spanish architecture is Baroque to begin with. Did you see the the overheated car through the window of the barber shop? Did you notice the 30s hats shading eyes, making people blind and sinister? Did you hear Gittes’ assistant phone up and say, “Duffy here,” like in the old radio show, “Duffy’s Tavern”? Did you notice ...? Enough, the game is endless, trivia overwhelms content and meaning.
Baroque art is also decadent art: the end of a tradition. CHINATOWN is a decadent movie, both in its artifice and its meaning. Those people who see the world as decay and shit will get inside CHINATOWN and enjoy it most (the Rolling Stone interviewer gives you a whiff of this). Those people who enjoy being led up mysterious alleys and fed false clues (what possible meaning can the Mexican boy on the horse have?) will get inside CHINATOWN and ignore or approve its basic cynicism and audience-manipulation. And those people who see the world as inevitably corrupt and controlled by alien and dark forces will chant the movie’s final line like a mantra, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” But Baroque art, because of its very intricacy, finally excludes all but the artist. Thus if you ever meet a CHINATOWN freak, you are probably confronting an aspiring elitist, and a Roman Polanski manqué (missed, failed, lacking).
Polanski and Robert Evans (not coincidentally, the producer of THE GODFATHER, possibly the key film of the declining United States), are among the masters of the Hollywood Baroque. Polanski, particularly, makes such competitors as Altman and Hill look very thin indeed (compare the density and control of CHINATOWN to the superficiality and wandering about of THE LONG GOODBYE). Polanski, a despicable egomaniac (read his interviews) can touch a psychic stratum, can break through rational optimism, can show that our deepest fears really exist and cannot be banished as easily as we might have thought.
“Do as little as possible,” Gittes says at the very end to Escobar, but also as a final truth to himself, part in anger and sarcasm. Apparently, that’s Polanski’s recipe for declining United States. Lean back and don't fight it, enjoy its decadent art (and be sure to bring $3.00 for a ticket to CHINATOWN). Forget about beating the system, however, because it’s controlled by the Noah Crosses of this world, with the Polanskis as their hatchet men.
There is a pessimism, a darkness in everyone that might be tempted—however briefly—by this formula. But can anyone really consider it a worldview, a life script? Bullshit. And anyway, how would we get the $3.00 to make Robert Evans and Polanski rich if we did “as little as possible.”