Everything that could be said about Chinatown has already been said, so I’m not going to waste anybody’s time by rehashing what’s been more eloquently said by smarter and better people. Forget it, Turner, it’s Chinatown. Instead, I’ll just urge you to take an evening off and watch the damn movie.
Chinatown is a film you watch if you want to be a writer. Film, television, comics, novels, whatever. It’s a masterclass example of story, pacing, and narrative—it’s THE case study in Robert McKee’s Story for a reason. If you want to learn to write, then watch American cinema’s finest.
Jack Nicholson is private detective J.J. Gittes, a disgraced former detective who works in the muck, but isn’t too fond of it—he’s a man trying to make a living without the burdens of the past. Gittes is hired to investigate Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Descending into the case throws Gittes into a sea of scandal and corruption surrounding water and drought in the Owens Valley, inspired by the real-life California Water Wars.
Chinatown was released in 1974—just five years after the death of director Roman Polanski’s wife and unborn child at the hands of Charles Manson’s cult. With this in mind, it’s hard to not view the film through a lens of its influence. At first glance, Chinatown appears like a straightforward noir love letter. In typical noir fashion, we see the story through the eyes of the protagonist; Gittes appears in every scene in the film, and when he’s unconscious the film fades to black. But Chinatown is much more than that and the neo-noir label attached to it.
Nicholson’s Gittes isn’t the type of dick you’d find in The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon. Nicholson transcends the Bogart role. He’s more charming than aggressive, but sleazy rather than seductive. He’s cynical and apathetic and gets his hands dirty when he has to, but doesn’t seem to revel in it. At one point a woman asks, “Are you alone?” at which he responds, “Isn’t everyone?” The beauty in his performance is that Nicholson isn’t trying to recreate the success of the private eyes of the past; he’s a contemporary man pulled back into the movies of the 1930s and ’40s.
Chinatown will be screening at 5th Avenue Cinema this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It just left Netflix on Jan. 1, so this is the best chance you have of watching Chinatown for free (legally, that is). Plus, it doesn’t hurt to see it on the big screen.
Again, Robert Towne’s script is a masterpiece. He won an Academy Award for his work, but there’s more value here than its Academy recognition. It’s a document to be poured over, dog-eared, highlighted and underlined. So if you’re looking to be inspired, study it. I mean, REALLY study it. Bring a notepad into the theater and document what you see. Then go home and write.
5th Avenue Cinema is free for Portland State students, $3 for other students and seniors, $4 general admission. Visit 5thavenuecinema.org/upcoming-films for showtimes and a full schedule of other films screening over winter term.