Friday, August 21, 2009

Chinatown -- greed, depravity and psalm noir

Director: Roman Polanski, 1974.

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown," Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson in his only role as a detective) is told. What did the speaker mean? Why is the film called Chinatown since so little of the story takes place there? This slowly becomes clear as the film develops.

The film opens with Gittes, a small-time private eye, reviewing some black and white photos with Curly, a client in his Los Angeles office. It is the mid-1930s and the photos show Curly's wife in an embarrassing situation with another man. Incriminating photos highlight Gittes' typical case: marital infidelity. He's good at this. So when a rich woman walks into his office and asks him to investigate her husband, Mr. Mulwray, it fits Gittes to a tee. It helps that she is rich and counts expense as no issue.

When Gittes photographs Mulwray with a young woman, the case is over, or so it seems. Somehow the photos make it into the press. But when a different woman shows up in his office claiming to be the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), and lays a lawsuit on his desk, it is clear that he has been taken for a ride. His pride bruised and his pocketbook threatened, Gittes decides to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Chinatown is a terrific example of film noir, or perhaps neo noir. Its plot is complex with multiple layers, it has a classic femme fatale, and the various characters are cynical and jaded. Although it does not include any voice-over narration (pulled by Polanski from the original script) Gittes is in every scene as Polanski shoots the whole film from the viewpoint of the protagonist.

Testimony to the greatness of the film, it was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, best actor and actress. Yet, it only picked up one Oscar, for original screenplay (Robert Towne). This is probably due to the depth of competition that year. The Godfather Part II, itself a marvelous movie, picked up multiple Oscars denying Chinatown of deserving awards.

As Gittes pursues his investigations, Evelyn repeatedly lies to him, hiding something. Bodies show up with strange causes of death. Gittes comes face-to-face with a short thug (Polanski in a cameo) who quips, "You're a very nosy fellow" and slices his nose, giving him the bandaged face characteristic of this movie. And Noah Cross (the great John Huston) comes into the cross-hairs of Gittes' vision.

In a sumptuous lunch meeting at Cross' luxurious home, it becomes clear that Cross, too, is hiding something. Further, Cross is rich and powerful and greedy, and up to something. When he admits he is worth over $10M (a lot of money in the 30s), Gittes asks him, "Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can't already afford?" To this Cross responds, "The future, Mr. Gittes, the future." Here raw power and rapacious greed combine to corrupt completely.

Greed is an attitude of mind that wants more and more. Although it can affect anyone from the poorest to the richest (Jer. 6:13), it is often those with the most that are most impacted. In Cross the desire for money morphed into the desire for power, which is ultimately the desire for control. The Bible has plenty of warnings against greed (Matt. 23:25, Lk. 12:15, Rom. 1:29), and its antidote is contentment (Phil. 4:11, 1 Tim. 6:6). Control is an illusion, as God is sovereign (Dan. 5:21). Seeking possession of, and hence control of, the future is simply usurping God's rightful position. It won't happen. He will, and does, demand an accounting at a time of his choosing (Lk. 12:14-21).

When Cross tells Gittes, "You either bring the water to LA or you bring LA to the water," the keys to unlocking the mystery are in view. The web of deceit grows into a conspiracy involving corruption at various levels via an intricate scam. Interestingly enough, Hollis Mulwray is based on William Mullholland (1855-1935), who was the actual chief engineer for the LA Department of Water and Power in the 20s and 30s, and elements of the story are mirrored in real-life events of the pre-war era.

Within the emerging corruption, all the chief characters come across as tainted. Even Gittes is self-centered. Cross, outwardly suave and sophisticated, has a malevolence of character that his charm cannot mask completely. He tells Gittes, "Mr Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and right place, they're capable of . . . anything!" As with most film noir, the depravity of humanity is center stage. This rings true. Mankind is fallen, broken. We are not the creatures God intended. Sin has had its way. "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:10). This is why in love God sent Jesus to be our savior (Jn. 3:16).

The Polish-French director himself is an example of depravity and its impacts. His pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson in LA, and Polanski had avoided LA as a movie location until this one. But he himself committed a crime, having sex with a 13 year-old girl, and then fled the US to avoid imprisonment. Chinatown was Polanski's last movie made in America. He now lives in France. As a fugitive from justice in the States, when he won the Oscar for Best Director in 2002 (for The Pianist) he could not be present to receive it.

Film noir movies tend to end in tragdey or injustice. Chinatown is no exception. It reminds us of a psalm noir, Psalm 73 (v. 3, 5-8, 12):

For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. . . .

They are free from the burdens common to man;
they are not plagued by human ills.

Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.

From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
the evil conceits of their minds know no limits.

They scoff, and speak with malice;
in their arrogance they threaten oppression. . . .

This is what the wicked are like—
always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Asaph, the psalmist, sees the prosperity of the wicked, like Cross, and almost gives up in his despair: "When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me" (v.16). But the turning point in this psalm, that which makes it a psalm blanc, is verse 17: "till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny." Justice in this world may be illusory, but God's justice will prevail, even if it only occurs in the hereafter. Asaph concludes, telling God, "Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds." (v.27-28). Moral fariness may elude us, life may even deal us a shabby hand, but we can be confident that God will weigh the scales of justice; we can find our refuge in Him.

So, what is the meaning of the title? Cross says, "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but, believe me, you don't." Gittes replies, "That's what the District Attorney used to tell me in Chinatown." The advice for the police working Chinatown was to do "as little as possible." Because of the various gangs and array of dialects, any intervention by the police into events in Chinatown was ambiguous and confusing. They could not know if they were helpng the victims or the criminals. So, they decided to leave things alone and do as little as possible. This was the metaphor for Jake Gittes' case. Did he help or did he hinder? Did he really know what he was dealing with? Life can sometimes be like that, as confusing as Chinatown. Fortunately, we have a God who sees what is going on and works towards his sovereign ends and ultimate justice.

Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs

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