Chinatown: Eyes on the Future
Chinatown is often evaluated as a revival of the Noir Sensibility, released at a time when Hollywood was keen to revisit old forms and imbue them with a more overt surface darkness – something that’s always been done and will continue to be done, (look no further than recent superhero releases). But Mr. Towne and Mr. Polanski do something very radical in Chinatown – they make a Noir in broad daylight. Very little of the action in Robert Towne’s Almost Perfect script takes place after sundown. But when the sun does sink, people sneak, people screw, and people die. Of course, that nighttime death was Polanski’s idea – he knew what kind of film he was dealing with. More than anything else, Chinatown is a masterful exercise in perception and trust. It uses our relationship with film and our tendency to believe everything that we see as a cruel weapon. Has a more subjective film ever been made? We latch onto Jake Gittes like a leech, experiencing every stupid decision he makes through his eyes. Indeed, Polanski and Towne have a thing for eyes and what they can do. Even more, they’re ready to expose what they can’t.
In keeping with Noir tradition, rooted in Sir Raymond Chandler, we aren’t allowed to experience anything our hero doesn’t. Of the 477 shots used in Chinatown, only 19 don’t involve Jake as a visible subject or come from his point of view. Still, he’s present for all 19. In addition, 153 of the shots are unarguably positioned to reference Jake’s subjective visual point of view. Except for those 19 shots, the only reason we don’t see Jake is because we are Jake. The runner up for the Character With Most POV Shots Award goes to Evelyn Mulwray, unsurprisingly, with a paltry 33, most coming in basic conversation with Jake.
But Polanski is too crafty to consider standard POV shots enough to render a subjective perspective. In at least 105 shots, he employs a simple visual tactic that gives the spectator access to both Jake’s subjective experience and a judgmental distance – he just follows Jake around. There aren’t many other movies where we spend almost a third of it watching the back of our hero’s head when they’re not in conversation. Polanski invites us to consume this new Los Angeles with Jake, but not always through his eyes. He does this to deliberately challenge us – to make us ask whether or not we want to follow this idiot. Jake Gittes was not born with the wit and charm of a Sam Spade or a Phillip Marlowe. He’s clumsy, vain, stupid, and “unlikable,” but Polanski gets us to stay with him by allowing us to simultaneously judge him and be caught up in his obsession. On many occasions, Polanski makes this explicit – beginning a shot in strict POV and later swinging out to reveal the subject.
This visual strategy asks the question Do You Trust What You See? Are we supposed to be allies with Jake or do we judge him? More than any other, this is the primary dilemma of Chinatown. What you see may not necessarily be true. The script even makes this immediately clear – Ida Sessions impersonates Evelyn Mulwray. We don’t know it was an impersonation until we see Evelyn for the first time. Polanski also challenges the way we see things by filtering them through another source, may it be binoculars, a mirror, or a lens.
Eyes, mistrusted as they are in Chinatown, are loaded with foreboding throughout the whole picture. Evelyn’s flawed iris. Noah’s busted glasses. Every car mirror is angled to reflect the driver’s eyes. And, of course, the final murder. The film begins with Curly looking at photographs that prove his wife is cheating on him. Today, this carries more resonance – is a photograph really proof anymore? – but we begin the film from someone else’s point of view and we end the film from someone else’s point of view.
During that iconic last scene, we are mostly detached from Jake’s point of view. We see the murder of Evelyn through his eyes – standing at an eerily long range, hearing the blare of that car horn – but that’s almost it. The shot where she is killed begins as a POV shot, but soon everyone walks into frame. Polanski wants us to wait behind and judge, to see what Jake and Noah and Evelyn have been reduced to. From that point, we assume the magnificent POV of Lou’s partner, who is handcuffed to Jake. It may seem strange, but there is no better character to inhabit for the last shot and those bitter last words. We finish the film literally chained to Jake in his repeated, seemingly infinite grief before something magical happens.
Chinatown’s camera work never crosses into expressionism. Establishing shots are at eye height. Motion is almost always executed with a handheld/barely-rigged setup. But in this final moment, the camera lifts into the sky, and we watch as police cars blow by Jake and his associates. Finally, Polanski resists forcing any perspective on us and we are free to judge. I will always find this to be one of the most spectacular visual decisions in the history of the medium specifically because, after a grueling exercise in morality, incest, Americana, and politics, Polanski seems to shrug and say, “Forget it, Folks. It’s a fucking movie.” In the end, he gives us God’s perspective.