"Forget it, Jake – it's Chinatown."
The above line, delivered at the end of Roman Polanski’s neo-noir “Chinatown,” serves as a word of warning to private detective Jake Gittes, advising him to move on from the tragedies he’s witnessed. To resume a state of blissful ignorance from the true ugliness of the world. But the film “Chinatown” is itself one that we cannot forget, as it has inarguably proven to be a timeless piece of cinema.
Released in 1974, set in 1937, inspired by the California Water Wars of the early 1900’s, and with a text heavily rooted in the 5th Century BC Greek myth of Oedipus, the film's persistent relevance and appeal to contemporary audiences is made all the more evident with dual screenings this weekend in Los Angeles– first, as part of the Natural History Museum’s Summer Movie Series marking the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and second, at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood with their “Arclight Presents…” program.
The focus of the plot of the film is twofold. It’s a detective mystery mired in corruption and public policy, with an investigation of a murder and its connection to a water drought that has stricken Los Angeles. But on another level, “Chinatown” serves as a psychological analysis of the perverse and evil qualities of human nature, made literal through the revelation of an incestual affair. And it can be said that both of these narrative threads flow with the symbolism of Oedipus.
“And the bleeding eyeballs gushed and stained his beard—no sluggish oozing drops but a black rain and bloody hail poured down.”
– from “Oedipus the King” written by Sophocles
In "Oedipus the King," the Athenian play written by the ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles, we hear the tale of a King whose kingdom is in the midst of a plague. A form of a detective story ensues, where at the end of his investigation into how to save his city, Oedipus stabs out his eyes upon learning he has killed his father and married his mother. The influence of this myth on “Chinatown” is well-documented, not only with its inversion of the incest story, involving a father and daughter instead of a mother and son, but also, in line with Oedipus puncturing his eyes, “Chinatown” exhibits numerous nods to flawed sight and vision, fractured perception and the fragile eye when confronting the truth.
EVELYN: “What's wrong?”
GITTES: “Your eye.”
EVELYN: “What about it?”
GITTES: (staring intently) “There's something black in the green part of your eye.”
EVELYN: “Oh that… it’s a flaw in the iris.”
Images that play on seeing saturate the picture, with reflections through camera lenses, side-view mirrors, binoculars and on the surfaces of water. In fact water is a persistent element throughout the film. One of its most notable occurrences, also tied in with the metaphor of seeing, comes when Gittes discovers a damning piece of evidence in his murder case in the form of pair of shattered eyeglasses in a salt water pond. In the world of "Chinatown," water and eyes prove a foreboding combination.
“Gittes glances down at the fish whose isinglass eye is glazed over with the heat of cooking.”
– from the screenplay for “Chinatown” written by Robert Towne
But why has “Chinatown” proven to be so timeless? To be certain it is exquisite moviemaking, under the direction by Roman Polanski, with a multi-layered screenplay by Robert Towne and a "moodily evocative" score by Jerry Goldsmith, featuring excellent performances by Jack Nicholson as the charming Jake Gittes, Faye Dunaway as the alluring Evelyn Mulwray and John Huston as the nefarious Noah Cross. There's also the precisely executed period feel thanks to Cinematographer John A. Alonzo, Production Designer Richard Sylbert and Costume Designer Anthea Sylbert– all resulting in 11 Academy Award nominations in 1975. But “Chinatown” is something more than just the sum of its craftsmanship and entertainment value as mass art. It cuts into the core of a universal storytelling philosophy.
“…if philosophy is really the invention of syntheses within rupture, then cinema is very important because it alters the possibilities of synthesis.”
– Alain Badiou
In his manifesto of cinema from his seminar “Cinema As Philosophical Experimentation,” Alain Badiou cites a debate found in Plato’s Dialogues between the idea of the happy man as a tyrant who prevails over everyone else, versus the true man as the just man. While in Plato’s debate the just man overcomes, the reverse occurs in “Chinatown” as tragedy wins out when Noah Cross is ultimately victorious in evading justice, and Jake Gittes is left powerless, told to "Forget it, Jake – it's Chinatown." The film therefore falls more in line with a second story that Badiou relates, in which the Greek mathematician Archimedes is murdered by a Roman soldier, exhibiting the distance between the power of violence and the creative truth of a mind like Archimedes. The parallel between this story and “Chinatown” can be seen in the film’s climax, when the divide between Jake Gittes, as the truth seeker, and Noah Cross, as the symbol of power, reaches its conclusion– Gittes, having become romantically involved with Evelyn Mulwray, discovers the true and sordid relationship between Evelyn and her father Noah, leading to Evelyn’s death, from a bullet through the eye, no less.
All of these events play into Badiou’s view that philosophy is the theory of ruptures, concerned with relationships that aren’t relationships– those of Gittes and Evelyn with their doomed tryst, Evelyn and her daughter who is also her sister, Evelyn and her father Noah who was also her lover. Badiou comments how Plato explains philosophy as an awakening, a rupture with sleep, and that a synthesis is created where there is a rupture– for Gittes this synthesis is the knowledge of truth that he acquires, both in terms of Evelyn and her family, as well as the corruption behind the water drought in Los Angeles. And this theory of ruptures, along with the allusion to the Oedipal detective story on its course towards ruptured vision, form their greatest union in a scene when Gittes’ “nosy” investigation gets too close to finding answers and meets with violent consequence:
With a quick flick the Smaller man pulls back on the blade, laying Gittes' left nostril open about an inch further. Gittes screams. Blood gushes down onto his shirt and coat.
SMALLER MAN: “Next time you lose the whole thing, kitty cat. I'll cut it off and feed it to my goldfish, understand?”
This moment, the most graphic depiction of on-screen violence in the picture, could be seen as the crux of the matter as to why “Chinatown” has maintained its timeless quality for audiences nearly 40 years since its release. After the “Smaller Man” (credited as “Man with Knife” in the film and played by director Roman Polanski) slices Detective Gittes’ nose, Gittes must wear a bandage that covers nearly half his face for nearly half the film. It’s a baffling sight at first– Nicholson with his nose wrapped and taped in gauze. But with this literal and physical rupture that he experiences, and that we witness, a synthesis occurs between film and audience. When the blood splatters across Gittes' face, a rupture to sight and vision, in truth it only increases his and our desire to attain a clearer view. Not only does Gittes’ bandage result in his vision being obscured, but so too is our vision, as we find ourselves throughout the rest of the film struggling to see our detective from around his bandage. Thus "Chinatown" succeeds in making us implicit in the experience of pursuing the truth behind the film’s mysteries. We come to sympathize with Gittes, we feel his frustrations, which makes the film’s final revelations and tragic conclusion all the more affecting. And one that we continue to want to see over and over again.
Chinatown is rated R with a running time of 130 minutes. Details about the Natural History Museum screening can be found here. It’s a free event and includes a panel discussion moderated by David Ulin, book critic of the Los Angeles Times, with Professor William Deverell, Sandra Tsing Loh, and Christine Mulholland. Information on the Arclight screening can be found here.