In a Dry Season: Revisiting Chinatown

MPW-18718California, where I live, is in the midst of a severe drought. (How is this distinguished from a mild drought? I suspect we may soon find that what we call severe today will be termed mild judged against what another year or two will bring.) In this dry season, the American Cinemateque hosted a screening of Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Chinatown in honor of the film’s fortieth anniversary at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood June 18. Back when Chinatown premiered four decades ago, Jerry Brown had just won a highly contested Democratic primary on his way to his first term as governor. This year he declared a state drought emergency before spring even arrived. At a city council hearing early in the film, former mayor Sam Bagby speaks to the problem for Los Angeles:

“Remember—we live next door to the ocean, but we also live on the edge of the desert. Los Angeles is a desert community. Beneath this building, beneath every street, there’s a desert. Without water the dust will rise up and cover us as though we’d never existed!”[1]

It could still happen, aqueducts and reservoirs and all.

In a public conversation prior to the Egyptian screening, Robert Towne mentioned that he wrote Chinatown as a way of understanding the place where he had been born and lived all his life. Los Angeles is a jerry-rigged outcropping of modernity that cannot be supported by the fragile ecosystem it inhabits. Towne mentioned Carey McWilliams’ 1940s masterpiece Southern California: An Island on the Land as a major inspiration, and McWilliams’ unsparing, cold-eyed view of the way power works is evident as Chinatown plays out. McWilliams readily played the bane of Los Angeles civic boosters and race-baiters in his day, documenting inhumane practices in commercial agriculture, criticizing Japanese-American removal during the war, and defending Latino youth in the Sleepy Lagoon legal travesty. In other words, McWilliams took the notion of equality seriously in a region where the big score ruled. The Los Angeles Times may have aided and abetted the acquisition of the San Fernando Valley, making fortunes for those in the know who had purchased land just before the water came through. And it may have boosted Los Angeles as the perfect white city (for those bringing their own money in order to make more, that is), but when it came to simple justice, the paper’s default was for law and order. McWilliams’s sense of moral outrage seeps through in Towne’s work, coloring even the jaded conscience of private detective Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson.

It was intriguing to hear Towne describe the six weeks he worked on the screenplay with director Polanski as “contentious and fruitful.” Their collaboration resulted in a film that is studied for its written and visual structure and pondered by cultural historians for its moral lessons. Towne, the local boy from San Pedro, found himself creating a work of art with a man from the other side of the world who had only spent a short period in the U.S. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) could have been set anywhere really. But in addition to a remarkably mature visual sense, Polanski brought at least two other advantages to Chinatown: an outsider’s critical eye and a survivor’s tragic sense of history. Polanski understood very well that, as John Huston’s Noah Cross observes late in the film, “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and right place, they’re capable of anything.” Polanski survived the Holocaust, though members of his family did not. And he should have been a dead man, along with his wife Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson clan in 1969. Dictators, madmen, mad dictators—Polanski understood Noah Cross. Others have assessed in detail what happened in 1977 and why Polanski has never returned to the U.S.

But back to 1974, the time just after the major oil crisis of the year before, to a city struggling to deal with smog, one of the results of highway and automobile boosterism of the 1930s and 40s. Chinatown is thought of as a key film from New Hollywood, that artistic revival that began with Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and ended, depending on how you feel about the early works of Steven Spielberg, with Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980). As summer repertory programming in Los Angeles indicates, Polanski’s was one of several films that were more than countercultural—they were downright paranoid. The Billy Wilder Theater at UCLA’s Hammer Museum is mounting a Robert Altman retrospective, and the 1970s saw his most daring and consistent work. The American Cinemateque’s Aero Theater in Santa Monica is screening perhaps the ultimate paranoid double feature: Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975). This is well-tilled soil. Surely the dots that need not be connected are those telling us why Americans in the early-to-mid-1970s would have responded to conspiracy tales. The Pentagon Papers and Watergate are enough for a fair start.

As I watched Chinatown, released two months before President Richard Nixon’s resignation, it occurred to me that one of the ways 1970s film culture responded to its own times was to use the 1930s as a setting. Chinatown represents perhaps the greatest screen performance of the actor Jack Nicholson, as distinguished from the acting self-caricature later known as “Jaaack.” Towne told the audience that he had known Nicholson for years and had written the role of Jake Gittes for him, right down to invoking the younger Nicholson’s sense of “righteous indignation.” Gittes gets in a few verbal swipes at a mortgage banker, that 1930s badman, but isn’t above a crude racial joke or an “Okie” slur delivered in an orange grove that is now probably long gone. Without explaining specifically why he chose to update Los Angeles’s water drama from the earlier decades when most of the major events occurred to the 1930s, Towne did acknowledge that he thought it was a more interesting time period in which to set the film.

That interest, I believe, came from a countercultural sense that the 1930s had kinship with the late 1960s and 1970s. The republication to acclaim of James Agee and Walker Evans’s outraged Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in the early 1960s, the folk music revival and transformation via the work of Bob Dylan, the new environmental reportage that recalled the tragedies of floods and the Dust Bowl, perhaps even the idealism of the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Society as they struggled to build upon the New Deal—all these events and more reinforced ties between the decades. A younger generation once again perceived the system as corrupt. Despite vast economic differences between the 1930s and the booming 1960s, a sense that the Common Man had once again been sold out became current.

So with outlawry at least partially justified, Bonnie and Clyde could ride again, soon to be joined by Boxcar Bertha (Scorsese, 1972) and Big Bad Mama (Steve Carver, 1974) on Roger Corman’s exploitation front; and by Dillinger (John Milius, 1973). The Depression’s down-and-out world of cons, disillusion, and desperation also appeared: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Pollack, 1969), Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973), The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973), The Day of the Locust (John Schlesinger, 1975), Hard Times (Walter Hill, 1975), and the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory (Hal Ashby, 1975). And it wasn’t just the cinema looking back at hard times. Remember The Waltons on television (1971-80) and William Kennedy’s Albany novels (Legs, 1975). Call it Depression chic. Studs Terkel’s Hard Times: An Oral History of The Great Depression appeared in 1970. T. Harry Williams’s biography Huey Long won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize the same year.

chinat3Because Chinatown refines historical events for artistic purposes and sets them in the midst of the Great Depression, it will always ignite debates about veracity. As Towne admits, the film skews history for the sake of a crackling and tragic story. Having watched Chinatown on the big screen for the first time, I’m more convinced than ever that finding and using water in a desert and the building of a city are not the film’s real subjects. On those fronts Chinatown indeed gets its facts wrong. But if we consider that the film is really about the uses and abuses of power, not only in the way precious resources can be manipulated to enrich the few but how lives lived and lost in the opaque universe called in moral shorthand “Chinatown” simply do not count in the end, we understand the film’s jaded truths. What Jake is asked to do, what he has been asked to do before and undoubtedly will be again, no matter what he has seen and felt, is to “forget about it.” Forty years on in our culture of connectedness and surveillance, we have every reason for enough paranoia to sate the most hungry 70s cinephile, and we haven’t had much rain lately either. The film remains relevant because of the tragic sense at its center. Whether on the first viewing—as it was for some audience members this week—or the tenth, Chinatown is one picture that won’t allow its viewers to forget.


[1] All quotations from Robert Towne, Chinatown and The Last Detail: Two Screenplays, Grove Press.

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