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From Under A Rock: Chinatown

June 11, 2016 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Chinatown  

Michael has finally succeeded in breaking me. I’ve been quoting The Room ad nauseam ever since last week. To show that I am not a vindictive jerk of a friend in the business of ruining people’s lives, we are watching a really good movie this week.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael definitely had breast cancer as he showed Aaron The Room. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock for Chinatown.

Released: June 20th, 1974
Directed by: Roman Polansky
Written by: Robert Thorne
Jack Nicholson as JJ “Jake” Gittes
Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray
John Huston as Noah Cross
Perry Lopez as Lt. Lou Escobar

Aaron Hubbard Chinatown is one of several classic movies that I actively sought out last year, as I try to gradually see as many great ones as a can. That’s also connected to this column and wanting to bring my own tastes in classic movies to it, and I knew that the second time I saw this I wanted to bring Michael along for the ride.

Michael Ornelas: And it was certainly an interesting ride. I wouldn’t say this was more compelling than a lot of films in the mystery/noir genre I’ve seen previously, but I really cared about Jake and his journey, so that kept me fixated for the duration. It may be the first mystery film I’ve seen where the mystery wasn’t what kept me interested.
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
Aaron: The shocking third act of Chinatown is one of the most legendary endings in film, with one of the all time great lines at the end. While it’s a brutal final blow to the audience, understanding where the film is going really helps the viewer make sense of the rest of the film, and the character of Jake. Jake Gittes is a Private Investigator, a job which requires you to be detached from your clients and present the facts in an unbiased manner. Despite this, Jake does get attached to his cases; right away we see him aggressively pushing a client whose wife is cheating on him, trying to distance himself from the situation. Once we get into the main plot, he gets emotionally invested in Evelyn’s plight and the mystery of Mr. Mulwray, putting himself in the way of physical harm and getting romantically involved with Evelyn. As it turns out though, none of Jake’s sentiment or efforts matter; the corrupt man still has all the power, and still wins, and the innocent suffer for it. Evelyn’s daughter (and sister) will suffer the same fate as her, and there’s nothing Jake (or the audience) can do about it. Bad things happen and the privileged get away with it, and the only logical conclusion (according to the film), is detachment. It’s bleak, uncompromising, and disturbingly sobering. I won’t cite specific examples, but let’s face it; if you read the news, you can probably think of a few instances where Chinatown still feels 100% like reality, and not just a product of the 1970’s.

Michael: The themes of this movie are way more powerful than its story beats I think. I was never fully engrossed in it (which, sadly, seems to be a theme for me lately), but in retrospect I liked it more than while watching it. And I think that’s because I like the idea of it more than the execution. The relevance to modern-day culture is always important though and it makes me feel like we’re an idiotic society when someone can see the signs of societal deterioration in 1974, yet here we are 42 years later and we still have some of the same problems with corruption and not holding the rich and powerful accountable for their horrible actions. The ending of this movie definitely grabbed my attention and it was the most gripping part of the movie. Also the gruesomeness of seeing Evelyn’s eye shot out was very visceral and will stick with me.

Aaron: It’s also geniusly foreshadowed when she falls asleep and her head falls on the wheel. I really appreciated how uncomfortable Faye Dunaway was whenever her father was brought up. The twist of who Katherine is in relation to Evelyn and Cross is horrifying in a way that still shocks modern audiences, so even though we know something is wrong, most of us have no idea what exactly happened until it’s stated bluntly. Cross is a truly despicable antagonist, who not only uses his power to rape L.A. of its water supply, but also his daughters. Yet even when he’s caught red-handed, he never snaps or breaks the facade of being a respectable gentlemen. There’s no moment of hammy overacting from him, and I appreciate that.
The Importance of a Good Protagonist
Michael: I honestly really only liked this movie for Jake’s arc. Jack Nicholson did a fantastic job portraying him and I just really cared about him. I don’t often connect with specific characters in older films for some reason, but I wanted Jake to get to the bottom of the water mystery and turn out okay. And I can tell you exactly why I got so invested in his success — giving him obstacles to overcome. It’s sad how few movies succeed in really making things difficult for their protagonists, but in this case Jake had everything to lose, including his life. He was put through so much physical harm that it really allowed for him to look resilient when he’d keep fighting for good. That exact reason is what endeared me to Breaking Bad: before Walter was a despicable guy doing horrible things, he was a man who was just trying to do right by his family and kept getting hurt in the process. Chinatown preceded that show by decades and I now wouldn’t be surprised if it influenced the Vince Gilligan masterpiece in such a way.

Aaron: Nicholson is outstanding in this, especially when you compare it to some of his more colorful roles. He’s understated and in-control, and even when he loses his cool it’s not a Nicholson freakout. Something that really stood out for me this time was the amount of action in the movie. It’s not an action film, but compared to the Film Noirs of the 1940’s, it has car chases, brawling, brutal gunplay, and a scene where Jack nearly drowns. He gets beat up and doesn’t recover, and that physical brutality just mirrors what’s going on inside.

Michael: You’re so damn insightful, Aaron. Stop making me feel inadequate on our column! But no you’re absolutely right — the inner turmoil is totally matched by the physical harm he gets into, and that gives his character the depth that makes him memorable. And Faye Dunaway doesn’t phone it in either — she carries her weight in this film as well. I’m only bringing up Nicholson because I thought his arc was superbly written.
The Evolution of Noir
Aaron: As memorable as the ending is, I love the start of this film almost as much. We know Jake’s job and expected personality before we even see him. We’ve got a crime solver, a mystery, and even Venetian Blinds in the room. Classic film noir… except that we have color. Blistering yellows and dirty whites, beautiful plant life in scenes with the rich. The visual language is outstanding. But another missing trope; voice over narration. We don’t get Jake’s inner monologue because we aren’t supposed to know his biases; he’s an objective force striving for detachment. I love when a movie can be so definitively set in a genre, yet still have major differences.

Michael: Again, knock it off with being so much better at analyzing film than I am. I’m not extremely well-versed in noir, so it’s hard to appreciate the tropes (and the distinctive choices to get away from them). But the absence of the voiceover was very much appreciated because I view that as an outdated film device. The only people who really use it are film students, and directors who are adapting source material written in first person. It requires better actors, better writing, and better directing to show what a character feels without flat-out telling the audience, and that’s part of why I’ve never been that into film noir. I am more than okay with it though on Scrubs because that’s one of my all-time favorite shows.

Aaron: I can agree with that; it’s hard to use effectively in film, and generally unnecessary. Of course, the most obvious and important deviation is Evelyn. For most of the film, she’s positioned as a clear cut femme fatale, the same manipulative, cold, and seductive”bad girl” audiences had seen a hundred times by 1974. Instead, it’s revealed that she truly is a victim, and the only selfless character in the movie. And she dies. It’s much more real, and much more heartbreaking as a result.

Aaron: I really enjoyed Chinatown the first time I watched it, but it’s a film that I think takes a couple of viewings to properly appreciate. Deliberately mysterious and convoluted so that it can actually shock the audience, there’s a sense of confusion to the plot that’s difficult to shake the first time. But I knew that I had seen something great, and I had to see it again, and I was able to greater appreciate the foreshadowing and follow the plot. This allowed me to focus on the really great things; the outstanding performances, the legendary screenplay, and the disturbing thematic ideas. It’s a classic.


Michael: Chinatown was a really solid noir movie but it never really rose above that to me. I really liked the chemistry between Jake and Evelyn and the detective work was believable and well-laid out. The nose cutting scene was a fantastic effect and I actually really liked the choice to be visually bright, but this was a case of a whole not being greater than the sum of its parts.


Aaron: Oh that’s going to go over well with your new employers. In all serious though, the film is much better the second time, when you’re in on the plot.

Michael: I liked it, and there’s definitely room to like it more. It’ll just need to marinate. For now though, I stand by my rating.
What are your favorite Jack Nicholson performances?

Next week:

Michael: Duuuuuuuh-dun. Duuuuuuuh dun.

Duuuuh dun dun dundundundundundundun.

Spielberg + shark + John Williams = next week’s pick!
Aaron: Long live the ’70’s! I can’t wait to finally get my feet wet and watch this game-changing classic.

Michael: Man goes into cage….cage goes in the water. Shark’s in the water….our shark.

What’s your favorite summer blockbuster?

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Check out our past reviews!
Mission: Impossible, They Live, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Silence of the Lambs, 12 Angry Men, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Iron Giant, Fargo, American Psycho, 28 Days Later, Frankenstein, Crank, The Godfather: Part II, American Beauty, Rocky, Alien, Spaceballs, Star Wars: Clone Wars, The Muppets Christmas Carol, Reservoir Dogs, Superman: The Movie, Lethal Weapon, Double Indemnity, Groundhog Day, The Departed, Breaking Bad, Shane, Glengarry Glen Ross, Blue Ruin, Office Space, The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest, Drive, Memoirs of a Geisha, Let the Right One In, Apocalypse Now, Aliens, The Incredible Hulk, A Clockwork Orange, Chicago, Seven, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, The Room, Chinatown

Michael’s Spin on Things is a comedic YouTube product review parody channel in which Michael Ornelas will review ANYTHING and EVERYTHING in accordance to the criteria provided by the spin of a wheel.

In this week’s episode, Michael reviews Guinness Beer, and in the process he finds himself in the midst of a science experiment: can he keep a plant alive by only watering it with beer? Click to find out!

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The final score: review Amazing
The 411
Take a whip-smart screenplay, add great actors and a fantastic director, and it's hard to make a bad movie. But Chinatown is more than just a great film; it's a midway point in cinema. Deeply inspired by crime thrillers and Films Noir from the decades that followed, it set a new standard for the mystery thriller. It's definitely a film to see before you die.