Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Rulebook Casefile: Withholding the True Statement of Philosophy in Chinatown

In Step 9 of my Compelling Character series, I talked about the popular misconception that a hero should offer an overriding statement of philosophy on page 5 or so. I think it works better when the actions of a movie force a hero to arrive at a true statement of philosophy on page 90 or so. If you they offer an such a statement on page 5, it should be false, something like, “I stick my neck out for no one.”

An interesting example of this is in Chinatown. In the first scene, detective Jake Gittes has just shown a working class client named Curly pictures of his wife having an affair, then told Curly he should probably forget about it. In the finished movie, we cut away from the scene to the office outside, where the secretary waits, then Gittes and Curly emerge with Curly explaining that he can’t pay right away. Gittes says he understands, but he was just trying to make a point.

Huh? What point? Did we miss something? Yes we did. The missing chunk of dialogue from Robert Towne’s original screenplay reveals all:

Why was this cut? I think it was because the filmmakers belatedly realized that Gittes couldn’t say this yet because it’s a correct statement of philosophy. If Gittes already understands this, then he has no arc.

The whole point of the movie is for Gittes and the audience to learn this. The movie will show this to us, so they dont need to tell us as well. Like many screenwriters, Towne was giving the game away too soon by giving Gittes a correct statement of philosophy in the very first scene.

If they had caught this problem in the script phase, they could have re-written it so that Gittes offers an incorrect statement of philosophy instead, but they didn’t, so they just chopped out the middle of the scene in the editing room. As you’ll see in tomorrow’s First 15 Minutes round-up of the movie, Gittes doesn’t get a false statement of philosophy until much later in the movie.


Teddy Pasternak said...

Excellent observation. Thank you.

j.s. said...

Yeah, just when you think you've heard every screenwriting teacher say everything there is to say about a classic like CHINATOWN, Matt finds something new for us!

J.A. said...

Interesting that Syd Field points this sequence out as a strength of the CHINATOWN screenplay. I'm much more inclined to agree with you, as I am in general.

I've been reading through the basic canon of books on screenwriting, and I have to say I've gotten more out of your blog than any of them. I think I've read back through every single one of your previous posts. Just wanted to put my two cents in, since I've never commented. Thanks.