Other places, other times

by James Kavanagh

from Jump Cut, no. 3, 1974, pp. 1, 8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

I wander thro’ each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN is as powerful in its own way as William Blake’s scathing portrait of earlier bourgeois society in the short poem, “London.” In Polanski’s work, the city which serves as the image of an entire social milieu is Los Angeles, with its own pathetic and dessicated river, and its own collection of scarred and frightened faces.

To some extent, TOWN is part of the recent Hollywood fascination with the near past. THE GREAT GATSBY attempts a lush recreation of the Twenties, while THE STING and CHINATOWN bring their audiences back their audiences back to the depression-ridden 30s. There are some common impulses behind all this nostalgia which are not especially difficult to trace. The feel of this nostalgia, the way it decorates the screen, the fascination with the elegant cars, the impeccable clothes, the deferent servants, the general aura of luxury and opulence—all these serve to satisfy a latent social yearning for those simpler times in this country when the rich were really the rich, and the rest were—well, the rest. It is not surprising that such visions should reappear as the specter of economic crisis once again threatens to rear its ugly head.

CHINATOWN accepts the need for a kind of “period” realism. The opening credits are done in vintage 30s black-and-white (really gray-on-gray). The nice clothes, nice car, and nice mansion are even more prominent here than in a movie like THE STING. The headline about Seabiscuit, and the pictures of FDR on the wall add the finishing touches. Even the look and feel of the movie—the mellow as opposed to plastic color, the style of the characters, the intricacies of the plot—create a mood reminiscent of Bogart’s BIG SLEEP. But in CHINATOWN, all this detail is only a prerequisite to the film, not the exhaustion of its content.

One should be forewarned that CHINATOWN’s title is deceptive, since the film ignores any systematic depiction of the lower levels of society. Its hero is solidly middle-class. Its title becomes a controlling metaphor projected by the characters rather than a defined neighborhood projected on the screen. Yet, for all its inherent limitations, CHINATOWN represents the most progressive aspects of bourgeois realism. The film gives a deeper and more shattering vision of bourgeois society than much professedly radical political propaganda.

The plot of CHINATOWN is intricate and difficult to summarize. One is also reluctant to reveal too many of the key events of a “detective story.” This is especially so in this case since some of the surprises add not just to plot suspense but also to the characters’ emotional reality. Jack Nicholson plays J. J. Gittes, a private detective who is tricked into providing pictures of a supposed love nest for a smear campaign against the chief engineer of the Department of Water and Power, Hollis Mulwray. Mulwray has been resisting efforts to build an unsafe dam to provide more drinking water, even though L.A. is in the midst of a serious drought. After he is smeared in the papers, Mulwray is found dead in a reservoir, having apparently drowned after an accidental or suicidal fall. First Gittes, then the cops discover that Mulwray was murdered. Gittes has, in the meantime, discovered that it was not Mulwray’s real wife (Faye Dunaway) who hired him but an imposter. Gittes is annoyed at having been used to set up Mulwray, and he decides to find out who was behind it.

As Gittes begins to poke around, he realizes he is confronting a pervasive and powerful source of corruption. First, in a shocking and bloody scene, Gittes has his nose slit open. Then he discovers that the drought was contrived. Thousands of gallons of water have been drained off into the ocean each night, and Mulwray realized this just before he died. Gittes finds that much of the “drought stricken” land in the valley has recently been bought by three or four people, all of whom live in the same old folks’ home. Signs point to Noah Cross (John Huston), a rich and ruthless land baron who is Mulwray’s father-in-law and ex-partner. Gittes becomes heavily involved with Mulwray’s wife (Cross’s daughter). The detective discovers that Mulwray’s love nest was not what it seemed. In the penultimate scene, we learn who killed Mulwray. And in the last climactic scene, we are taken to Chinatown, where Gittes spent his haunting early days as a cop, to there confront the final, terrible power of the untouchable corruption which pervades the whole social atmosphere.

Nicholson as Gittes begins the film thinking of himself as a hardboiled, sophisticated investigator whose “metier” , as he puts it, is marriage trouble. He has a certain sense of his own integrity and decency. In an early scene in a barbershop, a mortgage banker chides him for digging up other people’s dirt. He defends himself furiously by insisting,

“I make an honest living. People come to me when they're in desperate situations. At least I don't throw people out of their homes like you do ... I make an honest living.”

Later, when Noah Cross asks Gittes if Lou Escobar, the police lieutenant in charge of the Mulwray murder, is honest, Gittes replies,

“He’s honest, as far as it goes. Of course, he has to swim in the same water we all do.”

In a film with so much thirst, drought, irrigation, and drowning, the water image is significant. Ironically, Gittes only vaguely begins to see that he too is a very little fish in some very muddy water. Nor does he have a very clear sense of the strength of the current he is swimming against, As Cross tells him further,

“You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't.”

Gradually, the film exposes successively deeper levels of corruption, until Gittes discovers, at the core of it all, a figure whose rotten hand turns love into incest, abundance into deprivation, and friendship into murder, thereby connecting the themes of personal, familial, and social decadence. Gittes himself, then, is finally to be seen as an integral part of this complex, rotten, social whole. For the same unseen hand, which produces the competition, avarice, and aggression that gives Escobar and the police murders to solve, also produces the manipulated economic underdevelopment which gives the banker mortgages to forclose. It produces, too, the distorted bourgeois family which gives Gittes “cheating” to uncover. These are the kinds of “honest living” for which bourgeois society provides.

It is through the women in the film that CHINATOWN projects its image of beauty. Faye Dunaway, as Mrs. Mulwray, has a certain jaded beauty. Dunaway’s character needs careful acting, since she provides the cutting edge of the movie’s tension; and, surprisingly, Dunaway is not found wanting. The young woman who was Mulwray’s partner in the “love nest” casts an aura of youth and innocence. The violation and corruption of this beauty, which is gradually revealed to the viewer, become prime symptoms of the grotesque social decadence. We find the same figure behind the torturous personal and sexual relationsin the film, as behind the torturous trail of political machination and social disruption. It is a rare film, indeed, which speaks of the father figure, the family, and incest in the same breath that it speaks of the capitalist, power, and contrived social anarchy.

The film’s social decadence is portrayed without any illusion of mitigating circumstances, of the ultimate triumph of justice, or even of personal escape. Gittes, who has a certain naive hope that he could expose the big boys behind the murder and the drought by enlisting the aid of the newspapers or the cops, learns painfully that his social universe is closed. He finds he is trapped in a world of mediocre concerns and can never reach out to threaten the controlling hands of the ruling class. When Gittes finds it hard to understand what the killer could hope to get beyond the millions that man already has, the answer which emerges is “the future.” The killer wants continued and extended control over the lives and fortunes of millions. And it is clearly capitalism which controls this social universe. We see a capitalism defined in the familiar terms of lust for power, private opposed to public control of resources, forced monopolization, land speculation, graft, private armies of henchmen, and financial control of politicians and cops. CHINATOWN is, in this sense, the perfect film for the Watergate era. It affirms the reality of corruption in capitalist society without promoting any illusory antidote in the form of effective individual or institutional outrage.

And what of Chinatown itself? Throughout the film we find Chinatown only in the glaze in Gittes’ eyes or the hesitation in his voice when he is reminded of the place where he and his fellow cops did “as little as possible.” Gittes seems barely able to cope with his Chinatown experience himself. He is totally unable to make it understandable to his middle class peers. The sense we get of the place from these indirect references is the sense of something utterly different. It is the sense of the past conveyed in E.P. Hartley’s line from THE GO-BETWEEN:

“The past is like another country; they do things differently there.”

As Gittes says of Chinatown: “You can't always tell what’s going on.”

And, indeed, Chinatown and the kind of ghetto it represents—the underbelly of bourgeois society—will always be precisely the other place, a place outside of the universe of bourgeois discourse. In this sense, the film is only giving eloquent, if silent, testimony to its own limits as bourgeois art in its non-representation of the Chinese ghetto. Such a strategy is infinitely preferable to the facile accretion of sociological detail which pretends to but doesn't capture the reality of poverty and oppression.

So when the film finally brings us to Chinatown, it is not to se what the place looks like or to learn the customs of the natives. It is rather to witness a scene of final destruction which affects the characters we have followed throughout. It leaves the Chinese faces in the background. There is blood in this last scene which is shocking and repulsive, but Polanski evidences great maturity by avoiding the temptation to linger over it. Instead of foregrounding the blood, he gives us an unmistakable glimpse which provides stark confirmation of the enormity and terrible finality of the social evil involved. It is this confirmation, rather than any obsession with blood, that powers the scene and exhausts the viewer.

Gittes’ partner mumbles, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” as he pulls Gittes away from the terrible human wreckage. Here Gittes learns that those places on the edge of his world which are so strange and frightening are ruled by the same forces which haunt his more comfortable world, infecting all its imagined beauty, and making nightmares out of all its most cherished dreams. The killer in Gittes’ world is its creator—the one who makes the rivers run where he wants, who is father of all the children, master of all the servants. His magic wand is money. With it he conjures up not only Chinatown, but L.A. present and future (the Valley). For Gittes, the place that was so other comes home with a fury. And for us, the place and time become metaphors for the here and now. It is only too clear that the same figure presides over our social universe.

The movie brings us, with Gittes, to the unsettling realization that we can't always tell what’s going on, even in our comfortable middle class womb. The film indicates we must resign ourselves to our petty insignificance and follow a strategy for survival which directs that we do “as little as possible” . Finally, then, CHINATOWN overwhelms us with a sense of hopelessness.

The closure of CHINATOWN’s social universe is at once the best that bourgeois art can offer. At the same time it’s a telling symptom of where the best bourgeois art falls short. The sense of futility and despair which the film promotes in its audience is relatively acceptable because the futility isn't grounded in cheap cynicism or cold detachment. Rather, it grows out of the character’s involvement in the social world, an involvement which becomes progressively more painful, until it is finally shattering. The viewer shares this involvement all the way through and is not cheated because the suspense’s resolution cancels out nothing that the viewer has felt. There is an uncompromised growth in the knowledge of social reality which the viewer shares with Gittes. It is this growth which leads to a sense of ultimate futility. Our emotional involvement in CHINATOWN does not require substituting any illusions for the destructive reality of social life.

It is in the implication of the capitalist father-figure’s omnipotence and total immunity that we find the source of despair and the source of CHINATOWN’s insufficiency as bourgeois art. Precisely because of its inability to comprehend (intellectually, emotionally, aesthetically) the experience of those who are the agents of historical change—the dispossessed working class—the film is unable to project change at all. Instead, it reproduces bourgeois society as a natural, rather than historical phenomenon. It seems to depict a phenomenon which always was and will be, rather than a product and continuing object of human activity. Thus, even the best bourgeois art sees the world from the waist up, projecting middle-class heroes (sometimes disguised as lumpen, but hardly ever working class) struggling against ruling class villains. At its worst, it spins a web of illusion in order to justify its heroes, while trying to convince its audience that it is representing something “real” . At its best, it discerns some of the more complex contradictions in bourgeois social life. It may help us realize that there are “other” kinds of oppression even more frightening than those suffered by the male middle class, see some connection among different kinds of oppression, and put all this in relation to capitalism in a way that avoids creating illusory heroes, illusory victims, or illusory escapes.

CHINATOWN is an example of the most progressive aspects of bourgeois realism. Its insistence on the pervasiveness of the corruption of bourgeois life clear through to that sacred social core—the bourgeois family—forges a final link in the chain of oppression and perversion. It does so in a way that is reminiscent of that other unusually truthful moment in bourgeois art when Blake ended his poem with the stanza:

“But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the newborn infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

Arnold Kettle has some remarks about Blake’s poem that apply as well to Polanski’s film:

“We talk of the battle of ideas, of the power of the ideology of a class to be a weapon—even a deadly weapon—in its hands: but it is the power of this poem that it can give a content and intensity to phrases that are often a little abstract and theoretic.”

CHINATOWN strikes in the pit of the stomach with the sickening truth about personal and social relations’ utter depravity in a society where money is king. That the film remains bourgeois, that it gives no very clear sense of working class reality, that it cannot offer a more hopeful, more revolutionary vision—these are all criticisms which are undeniably accurate. But the same criticism also will remain undeniably hollow as long as they come from a left movement in the United States which has hardly begun to solve any of these problems for itself.