My head feels like it’s floating and it’s been this way since I got out of bed this morning. See, I stayed up until 1.00 a.m. to watch Chinatown.
When Chinatown was shown in the local movie houses, I was still in grade school. When it was nominated in the Oscar Awards, I saw the trailer in the televised awards night and it intrigued me no end. In the trailer, Jack Nicholson was asking Faye Dunaway who “Catherine” was and she said, “She’s my daughter.” Jack Nicholson slapped her and she said, “My sister.” Another slap and, “My daughter.” Slap. “My sister.” Slap. “My daughter.” Until, finally, falling from the blow of the last slap, Faye Dunaway said, “She’s my sister AND my daughter.” When you’re in the fourth grade, you don’t really know what incest means (I didn’t even know the word at the time) and a scene like that is both scary and mind-blowing.
When I finally saw Chinatown in college (on VHS), I was already a big fan of film noir and Roman Polanski, the latter because I had seen Rosemary’s Baby and Tess, a requirement for an English Literature class. And when I saw the schedule on Cinemax last night, I couldn’t resist despite the late hour.
In one sense, it is a good thing that I was not allowed to see the film until I was ready for it. While it would have been easy to understand the relationships between the characters, a child would have been lost in the bigger plot.
Ostensibly, the story is about a suspicious wife who wanted her husband followed by a private detective. The wife turned out to be an impostor and the detective was hired under false pretenses to ruin the reputation of the Chief Engineer of Los Angeles’ water department. The engineer, Hollis Mulwray, was suspected of seeing another woman and the detective was supposed to get the proof. The proof — photographs of Mulwray and a young girl — landed on the front page of newspapers (that’s the detective’s sideline — paparazzi work).
Ruining the engineer’s reputation was only a small part of a sinister plot. Mulwray was against the building of a dam amid a drought in Los Angeles, a plot that was based on the true-to-life water wars in California during the first quarter of the 20th century. Mulwray’s refusal to allow the building of the dam frustrated the business plans of some “investors” who had been forcing out farmers to sell their dried-up lands at dirt cheap prices. With the building of the dam, the area would be irrigated, the value of the land would skyrocket and the “investors” would make tremendous profits.
Mulwray was murdered and his widow — the real one — became a suspect. The private detective was caught in the middle with his professional reputation in the balance. The young girl photographed with Mulwray was a key witness as having been the last person to see him alive.
The story twists when the detective, Jake Gittes, found the girl and Mulwray’s widow in a house when they weren’t even supposed to know each other. This is the part when the memorable slapping-and-my-daughter-my-sister scene took place. The girl, in fact the widow’s daughter, was also the granddaughter of the powerful and wealthy ex-partner of Mulwray in the water business back in the days when water was a privately owned commodity.
The girl’s father, Noah Cross, was also the buyer of the poor farmers’ lands. He was buying the lands using the names of nearly senile residents of a nursing home who had no idea that they were being used.
You might not have seen the movie yet so I won’t say how it ended. Suffice to say that the title, Chinatown, was a symbol. Gittes, an ex-cop, used to work the Chinatown beat and it embodied the totality of his life’s regrets as well as its incomprehensibilities.
It is themes like those of Chinatown that convinces me that writing — opinion writing, specifically — ought not be limited to what is current. There are themes that are relevant today and will stay relevant next year and even ten years from now. Timeless themes like that of Chinatown.