Thursday, February 18, 2010

Separating the Man from His Art

Film: Chinatown
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

It is nearly impossible to discuss the films of Roman Polanski without at some level discussing Polanski himself. As a filmmaker he’s often lauded with great and deserved praise. He’s a hell of a filmmaker, and at least four of his films—Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Pianist, and today’s current offering, Chinatown are on this list. It’s possible that there are more on the list and I’m merely forgetting them. There’s little question that Polanski is one of the great directors of the modern age.

It’s his personal life where things start to get a little fuzzy. In his personal life, Polanski’s best known for two things. First, he was married to Sharon Tate when she was brutally killed by the Manson family, and he reportedly committed statutory rape on a 13-year-old girl and fled the United States. It’s difficult to distinguish between the man and the man’s art, and for some, it can be nearly impossible. It’s unfortunate to consider that, for instance, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Ezra Pound, was also a fascist sympathizer. He was, and his poetry is still worth reading despite this. It’s critical to separate the craft from the man—while he may be repugnant or terrible, his movies are ballsy and terrific, Chinatown no less than any other. It’s important to note this particularly with Chinatown, since this was Polanski’s last American film.

Polanski’s films worth watching. Perhaps only Rosemary’s Baby is better known and admired than Chinatown, which also contains one of Jack Nicholson’s greatest and best-known roles. Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private investigator who is hired by a woman to follow her husband. She suspects him of having an affair, and wants the truth revealed. The man in question, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) also happens to be the chief engineer for the L.A. water and power division. Since the city is currently suffering from a drought and many local crops are dying on the vine, there is pressure for him to build a new dam—which he refuses to do because the land can’t support the weight.

Gittes tails the man and discovers some interesting things. Primarily, he discovers that at night, desperately needed fresh water is being dumped into the ocean, undoubtedly to make the crisis worse. Things get extremely interesting when the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) appears in his office and accuses him of investigating her husband (and accusing him of infidelity) when she never hired him to do anything. It gets even more confusing and perilous when Gittes, trying to make everything right, goes to find Hollis Mulwray and discovers instead that the police are investigating his murder.

This is merely the start of this film, which plumbs very convoluted depths of human depravity and evil, particularly in terms of greed and sex. As Gittes gets deeper and deeper into discovering exactly what is happening with the water of Los Angeles, the death of Mulwray, and how much money really is tied up in getting water to the farms, he finds himself pulled further and further into something he can’t step away from. This is classic detective noir. Once on the trail, Gittes can’t stop until he knows everything, regardless of the cost.

One of the most memorable scenes is Gittes heading to one of the reservoirs and being on the business end of an opened sluice. When he reclimbs the fence to leave, he is accosted by a pair of threatening men, one of whom Gittes knows. The other (played by Polanski himself) slits Gittes’s nose with a switchblade. Gittes spends the middle of the film with his face bandaged, which makes him appear far more vulnerable. What is more interesting here is that while Gittes appears more vulnerable with the bandages in place, he doesn’t truly become vulnerable until the bandages are removed.

What is disturbing about Chinatown is how much it is an indictment on American justice in addition to being a great, twisting and convoluted mystery. As the plot shifts and changes, it quickly becomes evident that what is happening is because of money, and the money is what allows it to continue to happen. Those who are wealthy in this world of the film are capable of anything. Their money truly is power, and that power only gives them more money—and nothing can be done about it.

Chinatown was originally planned as the first movie in a trilogy, and while The Two Jakes was a sort of sequel to this, the original plan was quite different. It would have been interesting to see the films that were planned here, because this is the sort of story that leaves no one involved in it untouched. Gittes could never have been the same man after this experience.

While this is absolutely Nicholson’s film, it is astonishing how much of the film is dominated by the character of Noah Cross (John Huston). In only a trio of scenes, Huston looms large over this film. With maybe 15 minutes of screen time, he nonetheless controls almost all of the action, and is a presence felt in nearly every frame after his first appearance.

Polanski, guilty of whatever crimes he was after the making of this film, still made one hell of a film. The great film doesn’t excuse the crime, and the crime doesn’t affect the quality of the movie. Hate me for this or not, Polanski's movies work for me.

Why to watch Chinatown: An easily followed but complex plot, and one of Polanski’s best.
Why not to watch: I honestly can’t think of a good reason.


  1. Unfortunately I knew the truth about Evelyn and the mysterious girl, but despite that I absolutely loved this. I knew it halfway through the film that this was immediately going to be a favourite of mine. Jack Nicholson and John Huston are, as you say, great; Faye Dunaway was also wonderful. She had a hard job of starting off cold femme fatale, who slowly melts to reveal a truly vulnerable, yet quietly strong, woman.

    Agree with all you said about Polanski: great filmmaker with a troubling personal history. I have liked (even loved) the films of his I have seen so far. Ryan McNeil at The Matinee wrote a great blog post where he says you can hate the artist and love the art. Though I don't 'hate' Polanski, I can appreciate him as a filmmaker separate from his personal life.

    1. I've at least liked all of the Polanski I've seen, although I admit there are a number I haven't seen yet.

      You make a good point about Faye Dunaway. She is in a lot of ways the heart of the film or at least its twisted emotional center.

  2. I did not know this was supposed to have been a trilogy. I would have loved to watch that.

    1. Same. Polanski is a terrible person, but Chinatown reminds me that terrible people sometimes make great art.