Thursday, July 19, 2012

Neo noir Thursday: Chinatown

This movie seemed such a miracle when it came out. To sit in the dark and see the old Paramount clip and then that magnificent retro font they used for the titles and gorgeous music was to have a real sense of what it must have felt like to rediscover the Latin and Greek classics during the Renaissance.

So it's hard to admit nearly 40 years later that it drags and that the ending is just awful.

But prophetic it was. Just look at the opening scene for example. You see a garter belt and stockings, vintage fans, a glass block wall and wooden venetian blinds. Now, if you wanted any of those items in 1974, the year this movie came out, you'd have to go to a specialty source for them. Nowdays, you can buy all the above at any department store. The high style of American modernism—brash and optimistic, unlike the original European variety—is with us again. When this movie came out, it seemed gone forver.

And they really sweated the details making this movie. In the opening scene for example, Jake Gittes is consoling a working class client whom he has just confronted with evidence that his wife is cheating. Gittes turns around, opens a cabinet and, after studying his options, reaches to the back of the cabinet and pulls out a bottle of the cheap stuff (Old Crow) to offer his client.

(That touch, by the way, makes the movie very close to neo noir. We have a hero with what look like real weaknesses here—a hero who is more driven than a driving force in the story—but that doesn't hold.)

There are pictures of FDR everywhere and we see Gittes reading a racing sheet that features Seabiscuit so we know it's the late 1930s, probably 1938. This is perfect for two reasons. First, and most obviously, it is the very beginning of the noir era. At the same time, it is the very beginning of a period of great optimism. The depression is still around but the clouds are beginning to lift and America is about to enter the greatest period in its history. Over the next twenty five years, it will be the decisive force in the Second World War, become the world super-power, become the dominant world culture, and go through what is possibly the greatest stretch of innovation and economic growth in human history. While all this is going on, the long hard battle against civil rights abuses against black Americans will be fought and won.

All that is important because all that change will, despite the many gains, be hard to take for people living through it to adapt to. And it haunts the baby boomers because nothing achieved after 1965 will come close to what was done between the late thirties and early sixties.

And there is one of the two big problems with this movie. It was made by people who desperately needed to feel morally superior to the era they were portraying but had absolutely no reason to justify such a feeling. For starters, consider this, the disgusting villain of the movie is a creepy older guy who exploits innocent girls sexually. Got that? Now consider this: the movie was directed by Roman Polanski. Shudder! It's enough to make you want to shower yousrelf with disinfectant.

The other big problem is actually the thing that most people praise most about the movie: the Robert Towne screenplay. Towne has assembled a whole bunch of tasty ingredients but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. And although it starts great it really drags towards the end when Towne tries to shoehorn a series of sexual motives that just don't fit into the story.

The cool stuff
But let's look at the neat stuff.  Twenty-five minutes into the movie, Gittes goes to see a Mr. Hollis Mulwray and, as he is waiting at the door, he looks off to his right and sees this.

Now that scene does nothing to advance the plot. We already know Mulwray is rich. It's there as a tribute to another scene. This one:
There were French doors at the back of the hall, beyond them a wide sweep of emerald grass to a white garage, in front of which a slim dark young chauffeur in shiny black leggings was dusting a maroon Packard convertible.
The car in the shot above is a 1938 Packard Super 8 convertible. It's not Maroon but that is because yellow was the most common colour for Packards and while the people who own such cars will consider renting them to moviemakers. they won't let them repaint it. (Nowadays, of course, the thing could be done digitally.) The second scene I quote here is from Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (published 1939).

That tribute amounts to more than it might seem. I suspect that Towne used it as a sort of grid for his screenplay. The Big Sleep is about a rich man with two wild girls who are a little out of control and ultimately turns on a dark sexual secret. And Chinatown is a variation on that plot. It's not the same thing exactly but, as I've written about before, you can take the same grid and build a series of plots on it.

Check out this interior:

Restoration Hardware can probably sell you a duplicate of everything in that room and you can find dresses just like that one on the rack today. In 1974, all that stuff was almost as hard to get as a 1938 Packard Convertible would be today.

The shot above shot was the cinematographer's way of saying, "Thank you Mr. Toland." I can't figure out if those comics are real or not.

A Woody! if you're a man and you don't want a Woody, then you aren't really a man.

Why it's noir but not neo noir
It's simply too much of a tribute to vintage noir. It's beautifully filmed but it's largely a recreation and not an adaption to our times.

And while it is more explicit sexually, it doesn't do anything interesting with the new freedoms it has. The makers have, for example, given the hero a sex life but that sex life explains nothing about him. He is too much like a Chandler hero who is impervious to the corrupting effects of sex around him. And the one bit of corrupting sex we get is the incest angle and that feels like it was pulled from some overwrought piece in a woman's magazine from the 1970s than anything that really might have happened.

It's also not manly enough to be neo-noir and is very close to being a chick flic.

But it opened the door. It was the first movie in a long time to be made by people who clearly revered the great noir films. It signaled the end of that much-praised but actually awful era when directors such as Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick spent more time "subverting" everything that made Hollywood great than doing anything worthwhile.

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