Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: How Does Chinatown Get Away with 73 Loose Ends?

In the checklist, I recommend that it’s good to leave some questions unresolved, because the audience won’t mind and it actually makes your story seem deeper. Chinatown is surely the ultimate example of that. Below, I’ve listed a whopping 73 unanswered questions. For some of these questions, we can supply our own speculative answers, but some of them would seem to have no possible satisfactory answer. Let’s take a look at them:

  • What if Hollis, instead of spending the night on the beach, had gone home? Wouldn’t that have given away the whole plan? Why go to this elaborate deception? How did they think they would get away with it: Surely everyone involved (Jake, Evelyn, Hollis) would raise a stink after the truth was revealed? How could they have been sure that none of them would go to the press to refute the story?
  • Was Hollis really having an affair with Catherine, or was he just being fatherly? If it’s the latter, how could the conspirators have been sure that he would engage in fatherly affection that would just so happen to look like an affair to Jake and the papers?
  • If Cross has hired killers on his payroll, and he was willing to kill Hollis, why not just do that, which would have been much easier and far less likely to raise suspicion? What did Cross hope to accomplish with this plan? Get Hollis fired? Get him to commit suicide? Just discredit him long enough to win the vote? Would the public change their opinion of the dam based on this scandal?
  • What’s up with the three addresses? Hollis and Evelyn have their nice house, then there’s the other house where Catherine has been stashed. Whose house is that? Who usually lives there? Then there’s the address where Hollis is photographed with Catherine. Whose apartment is that? Who usually lives there?
  • How much time passes in the section of the movie between the confrontation with the real Evelyn and the discovery of Hollis’s death. Is it all one day, as it seems? If so, at what point is Hollis finally killed? Is he dead by the time the story hits the papers or due to an argument after it happens? Did Cross go there to kill him or was it crime of passion? Where was Evelyn when the killing happened?
  • Why does Jake try to find Hollis? To get him to drop the suit? To find out the truth? To apologize? If it’s the first, why does he keep looking for him after Evelyn has dropped the suit?
  • Given what we later learn, Hollis seems to have been killed the night before Jake visits his office, if not earlier, so why does his secretary imply that he just stepped out for lunch? Did someone tell her to say that? To what end? Why does Yelburton then tell snoopy Jake that Hollis wouldn’t cheat if he was the one who tried to convince Jake he was cheating?
  • Did Yelburton personally hire Ira Sessions to hire Gittes? Who is Sessions and how did they find her?
  • Was Hollis killed for saying the dam would burst or to cover up the land scheme? Is the dam actually in danger of bursting, or did Hollis just use that an excuse because he knew what they were really up to? If not, do the schemers care that the dam at the center of their massive irrigation scheme might burst?
  • After Jake discovers that Hollis is dead, what motive does he have to keep investigating? Why visit the morgue?
  • Why are Mulvihill and the man with the knife at the reservoir that night?
  • Jake says he wants to get the big boys making the pay-offs. How? What will he do to them? What standing does he have for a personal lawsuit? Is he collecting evidence to hand over to the cops? Does he just want to expose them to the papers as a public-spirited gesture? Does he intend to extort hush money?
  • Who asked for the restaurant meeting between Jake and Evelyn? He later seems unaware of Cross’s role in all this, so what inspires him to ask about the C in her name? Why should Evelyn hire him if he’s already doing the job for free?
  • Why does Jake go to meet with Cross? What was the pretense for the meeting? What is he hoping to find out (He asks almost no questions)? Jake confirms that the “mistress” is missing, but when did he find that out?
  • Why does he go to check on some orange groves at this point?
  • Why are Mulvihill and the man with the knife at the old folks home? Surely there hasn’t been time for them to have been called out there, given that it’s out of town.
  • Who calls Jake in the night to try to get him to come visit Ida Sessions? If it’s the cops (as is implied later) why would they do that? Surely not if they think he did it (because then he would know better)? Are they trying to frame him for the murder? Why? Who killed Ida Sessions? Why? Why did Ida know so much about the conspiracy that she understood that the man in the obituary column was one of the land buyers? It appears that she’s just an actress they hired for the part (and prostitute? It’s unclear what she means when she says that she’s a working girl) so why give her such a complete picture of the conspiracy?
  • What did Jake think would happen with when he confronted Cross? What was his goal? Get Cross to turn himself in? Jake is unarmed, has no operatives there, hasn’t called the police, and has every reason to assume that Cross might bring his armed help.
  • What is Jake’s plan when he takes Cross and Mullvahill to the girl?
  • How do the police find the address in Chinatown? Did they follow his operatives?
So how does the movie get away with all this confusion? I think that part of the answer lies in the power of total point-of-view identification. Jake is in every single scene in the movie, and a large percentage of the shots are over his shoulder. If the audience is totally bonded to a hero’s POV, we’ll accept his perspective and only his perspective on what’s going on. If he’s not worried about it, we’re not worried about it. It doesn’t matter if the movie makes sense to us, it only has to make sense to Jake, and apparently it does, although, in retrospect, it’s hard to figure out what he was really thinking half the time.

It’s also interesting that the script originally had voiceover, which might have explained much of this, but Polansky made Towne cut it out. You might think that voiceover would have strengthened our bond to Jake, but I think it would have actually weakened it, because it would have made all of these plot holes obvious. It would have implied that Jake had some perspective on what’s going on, which would have encouraged us to get our own perspective. Without the voiceover, we’re just watching him take it all in and try to process it in real time, so we do the same, without ever taking a step back and asking “Wait, what about…?”

So yes, incredibly, all of these loose ends do indeed strengthen and deepen the movie, at least upon first viewing, and don’t cause a big problem for the viewer. The movie feels satisfyingly complex: deep, dark and mysterious. Before analyzing the movie here, I had seen it several times, and each time, I ended up hopelessly confused, but blamed myself for that and assumed that, if I ever watched the movie twice in a row, it would all brilliantly come together. Well, this time I finally watched it twice in a row, and realized that no, actually, it makes very little sense. But that’s a high standard to hold any story to. It works for individual viewings, and that’s all we can ask.


Harvey Jerkwater said...

James Bond films are notorious for not making a lot of sense in retrospect but flowing well at the time. The individual scenes make sense; it's the connections between them that tend to be the problem. As long as the scenes work and the general flow of the story holds up, we're usually okay with the weak connections. A crucial element to this working is not drawing attention to it. As you said about Jake Gittes, if the protagonist isn't worried about it, neither are we.

A proof by counter-example is Skyfall. MI-6 identifies an assassin by the bullet fragments Bond pulled from his own body with a folding knife, a bit of self-mutilation he performs months into his recovery? What? Move fast enough and I wouldn't have thought about how ludicrous it was that they hadn't taken the fragments out of him ages ago, or that they were so shallow he could cut them out with a pocket knife. But no, they wanted to play up the badassery of it, which forces us to give it a moment's thought, and it comes across as dopey.

Later, Q is examining computer code on a big screen to figure out where The Bad Guy is -- the system represented by a weird geometric pattern with gibberish alongside, and in a room full of tech whizzes, Bond finds the key: the gibberish sometimes kinda spells out the name of a tube station, which, when entered into the system, decrypts it. [facepalm]

They wanted to make Bond super-badass, super-competent. But both scenes are so ludicrous that they can't bear any weight of examination. The pokey direction forced us to put weight onto them, and the story suffered. Granted, Skyfall made a squillion dollars so this wasn't a lot of suffering, but still.

Matt Bird said...

Totally agree. Nothing in that movie made any sense. Why it's well-regarded, I'll never know.

Mark said...

The even more pertinent comparison is to The Big Sleep (and other 1940s detective films), which Chinatown is so clearly an homage to. Famously, neither the writers of the film, nor Raymond Chandler himself knew who had killed the chauffeur, which is sort of what starts the whole plot going. Whether or not you believe that anecdote (and I can't recall off hand whether Hawks and his writers fixed that problem in the movie itself), it is a fiendishly difficult plot to follow (as is The Maltese Falcon). The hard-boiled novels (and the films based on them) were pretty clearly not going for the kind of clock-work precision of the Golden Age mystery writers (Christie, et al).

It also may be worth pointing out that except for Blue Velvet (which had its own big set of loose threads and broken rules) this is (I think) the first movie you've subjected to the checklist by a bone fide art-house director. Sure, Chinatown was produced by Robert Evans and was a big Hollywood production, but Polanski had just come off (in reverse order): What; Macbeth; Rosemary's Baby; The Fearless Vampire Killers; Cul-de-sac; and Repulsion. All of those were independently produced and various combinations of exploitative, atmospheric, confusing, quasi-plotless, bonkers insane, and more. (I've seen all but What and love them all). Then he followed Chinatown with The Tenant, which quickly loses the thread of all logic at about the 2 minute mark. The point being: I don't think Polanski was ever much interested in plot or logic (at least until his weird early 2000s renaissance as a Prestige filmmaker).

Matt Bird said...

As I've mentioned before, the thing about that quote is that Chandler know who killed the chauffeur in the *book*, it was the sister, but nobody knew who killed him in the movie, because under the Hays Code, murderers had to be punished and the sister wasn't punished. But yes, this movie's many unanswered questions are reminiscent of "The Big Sleep", so it's an homage in that sense as well. In both cases, material was cut out at the last minute that would have made it make more sense.

Not to quibble, but I would call Spike Lee an art-house director at the time of "Do the Right Thing"

Yes, I agree Polanski was not very interested in plot or logic, and I think the reputation of the movie proves that he was right not to worry. Again, it was only when I watched it twice in a row that all of these problem suddenly popped out at me.

Mark said...

Good call on Spike Lee - I missed that one when I was looking over your list.

zxcvb said...

I think I could go through the list and disabuse every point. I mean, concerning first point, I think Cross or his associates knew that Mulwray has been investigating the dumping of water. Gittes later investigated it and Cross' operatives were aware of him so he would have had to be at the beach at some point. I do think Cross planned to kill Hollis at their meeting when he was confronted and was trying to frame Evelyn for her murder, which he did. So he eliminated one of the people you mentioned took the credibility away from the other and that leaves Gittes. Gittes didn't have anything to supply to anyone. In addition to Cross implicating him in the cover-up and stripping away his credibility, the explanation about the runoff was all they really needed to do to explain themselves. After that bond issue passed, earlier in the film, they didn't need to dump anymore water in the ocean that could be discovered. Gittes technically could have provided details about the identity fraud at the Mar Vista Rest Home but his credibility was already damaged at that point given all the alleged crimes Escobar rattled off.

Another point mentioned The Big Sleep. Chinatown is not a homage to The Big Sleep. Chinatown is a subversion of The Big Sleep and all detective noir from the 1940s and 1950s.