Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Chinatown (Roman Polanski)

A nosy fellow.

A second viewing.

What make film noirs such a joy to watch are their own unique ways of weaving complex plot devices and interestingly enigmatic characters into one riveting narrative. And as a bonus, we also get to see compelling notions about morality and some hints of psychology. This is the generalized beauty of the said genre that we come to love. But then there's also a sole ingredient in it that is also the flavor base of the whole course: An exemplary anti-hero.

This is what Jack Nicholson's great performance as J.J. Gittes has particularly achieved here in "Chinatown" with his combination of passive body languages and a sense of motivational indifference. He is a seedy private investigator who helps (with cash on the side, of course) husbands and wives find out a truth or two about their marital problems by way of his sleuth abilities. He talks with clients briefly, calls for a standard contract, and done, he is in for the job. This is Gittes' job that even makes him a sort of a celebrity for some but an object of disgust for others. Director Roman Polanski (handling an original material written by Robert Towne, who has gone on to win an original screenplay Oscar for it), who directed the film with low-key mastery, has able to highlight Gittes' occupational detachment from those commonly accepted (banker, insurance agent, police) in society or at least, in its late 1930's L.A. setting.

Consider the scene in the barber shop where he engaged into a brief but loud argument with a banker about the validity and social soundness of his job. As far as we're concerned, we want Gittes to win the said argument and put the banker into a whole lot of verbal beating. But Polanski, who is acting like a personality censorship agent (a brief display of selective exposure), immediately cuts the scene and transitioned it into the next where we see Gittes calm and cool again. This can be Polanski's unnoticeable answer to a potential criticism of the film not having enough back story to fully expose Gittes' psychological connection with the eponymous place. In Gittes' world where everyone wants to find out skeletons in one's closet by way of a private investigator, he prefer his own to be in utter concealment.

And then there is "Chinatown's" handful of unforgettable characters, ranging from the most enigmatic (Evelyn Mulwray, one of the film's highlights, greatly played by Faye Dunaway) to the most villainous (Noah Cross, played by the great John Huston), and even to the most mundane of fellows that hates 'nosy fellas' (cameo by Polanski himself).

As the film progresses with its one-bit pace that may detract some viewers who prefer their mystery/thriller films shaken and quick to the fullest extent, we also come to immerse into the sepia-toned Los Angeles setting, back in the days where it is still labeled as a 'desert city'. The dried riverbeds that is repeatedly visited by a boy riding a horse, the orange groves that speaks of both serenity and danger, and the desolately oriental mood in the Mulwrays' home, which also houses a salt water garden pond that is ornamental as it is pivotal. These key places of mystery and intrigue has been established with an almost otherworldly musical score and an escalating sense of dread that makes the film a lot more arresting, despite of its degree of quietness, than any other 'louder' films of its kind.

Judging from Gittes' actions that transforms him from an amoral observant into an unconditional hero, it can be wholly concluded that J.J Gittes', no matter how far he may put his emotions away from the conflicting gist of what he is trying to investigate, unhealthy trait of increasingly treating every case he handles a tad too personal is his obvious downfall. But isn't that what essentially makes him human?

The allusion to Chinatown is, contextually speaking, quite misleading. Unlike the earlier "Midnight Cowboy" (in its case, New York City) or the later "Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag" (Manila), "Chinatown", aside from the happenstance connection of Gittes' past to the said place, never treats the culturally different area as a visual protagonist unlike how the other two aforementioned films have done so. The place was even introduced with nothing else but bits of establishing shots. But what the film has powerfully highlighted instead is the fact that it may not evoke the stirring qualities of a definitive visual texture that may accompany the said place, but it gave texture to J.J. Gittes' heart and soul even more so, especially when the silently doomed climax creeps into the screen in a sequence that is one of the most devastating amalgamations of honest emotions, violence, outright hatred and confusion ever on cinematic display, downplayed by the raw innocence of Chinatown's bewildered silence and cheap neon lights.

'Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown". It may be an immortal line that stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of 'Rosebud' and 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn', but judging from the overall cinematic wallop of "Chinatown" itself, to 'forget' it is the last thing you'll ever do. This is powerful stuff.


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