BY Alex Gibson
It’s not that I avoided watching Chinatown, as I have with other ‘Film Buff’ fodder like Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago. I just never got around to it, but last week, I finally bit the bullet. I didn’t really know what to expect — some people had told me it was awesome; others had said it was good, but disturbing. So, I pressed play apprehensively. As it turns out, that was the perfect attitude, as I remained impressed and nervous for the next 130 minutes.
I can’t say that I love the film, but I certainly appreciated its greatness. I thought that it started out slowly, but as the story delved further into the seedy and sordid world of the Mulwrays, the film moved steadily from interesting to intriguing.
As a film student, I found Polanski’s noir-ish vision of Los Angeles to be so realistic and stylized that it could only work for this film and this film alone. The subtle elements of Chinatown were part of what made this film so great. Not necessarily the main characters, but the smaller side characters – some seedy, some nice, and some I wasn’t really sure about yet. For example, JJ’s (Jack Nicholson) friend Curly (Burt Young), who seems like a huge teddy bear, greets JJ with such elation, yet, his wife is standing there with a sizable black eye. Then there’s the crabby archivist who seems to hate JJ for no particular reason. All these deliberately placed elements in this 1930s, dog-eat-dog, no-happy-endings world added to the film’s gritty texture.
Polanski’s LA pulls you into the story and envelopes you; Jack Nicholson’s JJ Gittes anchors you. He is a protagonist who is more an average Joe, in over his head, than a hero. He is the archetypal anti-hero whose eyes are opened to the grimy underbelly beneath shiny facades. One of those shiny facades was that of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). She is as unscrupulous as the other characters, but has an underlying vulnerability that makes you constantly root for her.
As a whole, Chinatown is a beautiful film. It is definitely an essential for any film buff, not only for its artfulness, but also for its relevance in film history. Chinatown looks back towards noir cinema, but also holds its place as one of the best movies ever made, making it a landmark that honors other landmarks. I am glad I got the chance to experience it. If you were as un-enlightened as I was, I highly suggest adding Chinatown to your Netflix queue.
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