dir. Roman Polanski
Fri-Thurs April 15-21 at NWFF.
Here comes an untenable statement I nonetheless regard as unassailable fact: Chinatown--directed by the great Roman Polanski, written by the great Robert Towne, and starring the great Jack Nicholson--is the greatest film of all time. Not "one of," not "arguably among," not "probably"--but undoubtedly, empirically, categorically the greatest film that has ever been made, ever. The end.
How fortunate, then, that the Northwest Film Forum is showing a brand-new print of the film this week. NWFF's timing couldn't be better, given that the screening comes in the midst of the driest movie season in recent memory (you'd rather see Sin City?). There was a time, not too long ago, when Seattle had several active repertory movie houses, any one of which might have shown Chinatown. Over the past 10 years, however, those theaters have either folded or altered their missions to focus on new independent cinema and obscure archival material. It's hard to argue against our overabundance. It's also hard to overstate how exciting it is to see a stone classic on the NWFF calendar, since that organization, more than any other, led the charge that made straight-up repertory/revival cinema such a scarce local commodity.
The exhibition was no doubt inspired by Chinatown's prominence in Thom Andersen's irreverent, hypnotic Los Angeles Plays Itself, a documentary that spends a fair amount of time debunking the notion that Chinatown accurately depicts the history of Los Angeles. So, we can all agree that Robert Towne's script was a pastiche of myth, historiography, paranoid conspiracy, perverse speculation, and wild invention. Can we not also agree that, liberated from facts, and viewed through the lens of Roman Polanski's questing misanthropy, Towne's psychological architecture towers over sordid reality? If Andersen is concerned with the physical geography of Los Angeles, Chinatown is about the city's shadowy soul.
Though it sounds like an urban myth, there are still people who haven't seen Chinatown--it's always a shock to discover them, often working right alongside you; they look just like regular people. More common, though, are those who have seen it, but fail to grasp the film's utter, blinding greatness. In Letter to Jane, Jean-Luc Godard said "film is a detour that leads us back to ourselves." Chinatown takes the long way around, and its conclusions (people are either evil or powerless) are hardly reassuring.
Chinatown is so great, and so often lauded, that one tends to take it, and its greatness, for granted. But let us pause for a moment to consider that Chinatown is 31 years old. It's time to consider it a classic. After all, no one has any difficulty making the same claim for The Godfather, which is only two years older. Sarah Vowell called The Godfather "a three-hour peep into a world with clear and definable moral guidelines, where you know where you stand and you know who you love, where honor was everything, and the greatest sin wasn't murder but betrayal."
These qualities describe the exact opposite of Chinatown, a film in which you have no idea who anyone really is; where morality is as slippery as water (literally); honor is a myth; and betrayal, at every level, is as common as sunset. Its moral inquiry is vastly more complex, and therefore more troubling to revisit. But it's so, so worth it. The bits you remember going in (working in reverse: the unimpeachable last line, the unthinkable plot revelation, the knife in the nose, John Huston's effortless dominion, Faye Dunaway's unearthly face, et al.) never fail to satisfy. Neither do the familiar details--the slump of the swaybacked horse in the L.A. River, the glove box full of stopwatches, the weasel in the hall of records, the tubercular cough of the obese, smoking coroner. But it's the things you may have forgotten (Jake ditching his cigarette in the lake, the epic setup to Evelyn's entrance--complete with simultaneously dirty, racist, sexist, and anachronistic joke), or never noticed (the headline, "Water Bond Issue Passes Council," that basically explains the murder mystery 45 minutes in) all serve to remind us that, like Jake, we really haven't begun to grasp the magnitude of corruption at work here.