Thursday, September 02, 2004

Chinatown Directed by Roman Polanski

Film noir. Neo-noir. Post noir. An homage to noir if you're really French. Whatever you want to call it is ok with me, but let us get down to some of its basic tenets:

The Femme Fatale

She's beautiful, motivated by an ulterior, and much smarter than our protagonist. Also: usually blonde.

The Protagonist

He often dies. If he does not die, well then, he ends up in prison. It should be noted that this is normally due to the Femme Fatale.

The Plot

Thick. Often convoluted. And you can bet large sums of money that it involves death. Generally speaking, the plot involves the Femme Fatale tricking the Protagonist into killing someone, usually the FF's hubby.

The Lighting

Low-Key. Often with piercing slanted beams of light to signify some form of entrapment. Equally important is the film stock - it really has to be black and white, with grittier = better.

The Dialogue

Terse and bold. The actors speak in cliches, but it sounds ok for some odd reason.

The term Film Noir came from the French. They noticed a darker mood and atmosphere to the films that started trickling in from American when they regained their feet after WWII. A clever journalist dubbed the new style Film Noir; literally black film. In actuality the genre can trace its lineage to the writers of the era; namely, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. From there, directors like Billy Wilder and John Huston ran with it, creating classics such as Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon.

But, even though I've now devoted almost 250 words to the subject, I'm not here to talk about film noir. I'm here to talk about Chinatown, Roman Polanski's 1974 picture. That's what I was getting at in the first sentence. Various people have called Chinatown various things: noir, neo-noir, post noir, et cetera. First of all, I believe that it is ultimately pointless to argue the nomenclature of the genre with anything more than a passing vigor. Secondly, I do believe that Chinatown could easily fit into any of the branches on the noir tree. Which is really remarkable when you stop and look at the film.

There is no Femme Fatale. Faye Dunaway is beautiful, and she is blonde, but she's hardly of the vicious type that is becoming of a fatale. Her motives are pure - she just wants to get away from her past. Plus, her hair is only slightly blonde.

The Protagonist does not die. Nor does his story terminate at a jail cell. Quite the opposite, actually.

Ok, so the plot is thick and convoluted. And it does involve death. But (but!), it does not involve any of the usual conniving between the FF and the Protagonist. And it definitely does not involve either one of those two murdering someone else.

The lighting has noir elements, but not nearly as heavy as usual. In fact, many of the key scenes are shot during the day; which is a big no-no for noir. Also, the film is in color. There's a red flag if I've ever seen one.

The dialogue is remarkably poetic. There are some of the noir one-liners, but the flick doesn't abound with them.

So why exactly is this a noir? Put simply: the mood. Put complicatedly: the first thing that the French picked up on in Film Noir, the reason they called it Film Noir, was the atmosphere. The atmosphere was heavy with people that were doomed as a whole. Even the respectable people in a noir have skeletons in their closets and are very aware that their lives are slowly, but surely, coming to an end. And Chinatown has that. All of these people focus on the only thing they have - a future that is becoming shorter with each passing minute.

Many critics speculate on what Chinatown is. That is, what the Chinatown of the film's title is referring to. I can hardly resist that temptation. Some have said that it is literal, referring to the actual Chinatown that our hero, Private Investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), once worked in as cop. Others have said, no, Chinatown is the mood of the piece - the macabre and sinister that works its way into every moment of the film. I say Chinatown is the past. Gittes never wants to face his past, his tour of duty in Chinatown. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) does not want to face her harrowing past involving her father (played masterfully by one of the fathers of noir, John Huston.) This is her personal Chinatown. And when Gittes tries to change and make sense of the ending of both Evelyn and the film, he is told by a colleague to, "forget it, [...] it's Chinatown." After all, you cannot do anything about the past. You can't make sense of it, you can't come to terms with it, and God knows you can't change it. That is Chinatown.

This is the most important tenet of Film Noir: whatever happens, happens. The players are pieces moved around by fate. They chase money, love, sex, and happiness but find none of that. They find death and tragedy and they live with it, and it's ok, because they're always one day closer to the end. And Chinatown practically breathes that concept.


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