Chinatown (dir. Roman Polanski, 1974)
Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.
Chandler had mixed feelings about L.A. and southern California, even if nowadays he is used as a spokesman for nostalgia’s golden age. After all, it was reading Chandler as much as anything that reminded a real Angeleno, Robert Towne, of the places, the airs and fragrances of his childhood, so that in Chinatown and that film’s mind-to-late 1930s Jake Gittes has a nose and an eye for landscape and the faint, metallic tang of what might be water (or iniquity). Gittes is a good deal of a cynic: he feels more modern than Marlowe, even though he predates him. Gittes is far readier than Marlowe to compromise, to be pushed around by fate. But he has sounder roots than Marlowe: he has a palpable history and failures already; he falls in love and he is stirred by the sheer wicked wonder of how Los Angeles has been contrived out of the desert. He might wince a little at Robert Towne’s romanticism, but he has been coloured by it:And if at five in the afternoon you happened to find yourself down by Union Station during a Santa Ana, you could feel the warm dry itch across your skin, look down the tracks to the mountains and sky and the pastels of lavender, salmon, and blue the color of painting from old tile-topped motels long since blown to rubble - you could still see the city McWilliams and Chandler wrote about and I remembered in those last moments before sunset.
That’s Towne in an essay on how he came to write Chinatown, and it’s testament to a legacy from Chandler that has affected screenwriters, writers in the age of movies, and man Los Angelenos. This is the notion that the place, its weather, its light and its nearness to earthquake, fire and landslide are all begging metaphors for a city that has always enjoyed hovering between real and realito. The city has changed, and not much for the better: so much of the old Spanish flavour has now gone, the air has become more toxic, and that pleasant hovering is now more evidently unstable, or crazy. But Angeleno detectives relate to the place, and what it means. Gittes gazes into pools of water. The Marlowe of Altman’s The Long Goodbye appreciates the beach at Malibu. And even in 1996’s far more modest Mulholland Falls, the four fedora’d L.A.P.D. men - the partners - marvel at the huge, abrupt, shockingly beautiful crater in Nevada where the government is experimenting with vaporising cities. In L.A., you see, there has always been a brief, hallucinatory interval between the air and the light and the solid things.
Have you ever heard the expression “Let sleeping dogs lie?”
Chinatown | 1974 ❧ Directed by Roman Polanski
Films in 2012—#118 Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)