Thursday, September 08, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: Jake’s Extreme Resourcefulness in “Chinatown”

We previous looked at another character with extreme resourcefulness: Jason Bourne. Bourne is a nice guy, but because of his memory problems, he doesn’t have enough of a personality to be fully likeable, so the filmmakers made up for it by having him be extra resourceful. We admire the resourcefulness so much that we don’t mind the lack of personality.

Jake Gittes, on the other hand, has lots of personality, it’s just not very likeable. Not only is he surly and cynical, his fatalism borders on passivity (he believes in caring “as little as possible”), which is never an appealing quality in a character. Once again, the filmmakers overcome these barriers to empathy by having the character be delightfully resourceful:
  • Jake gets tired of waiting for Hollis Mulwray to leave the beach, so he reaches in his glove compartment where he has a bunch of cheap pocketwatches. He lays one behind one of Hollis’s tires and goes home. In the morning, he has one of his operatives fetch the smashed watch, which shows him which time Hollis left.
  • When Jake visits the new water commissioner Yelburton, he asks for his card. Later, Jakes wants to get past a police cordon into a reservoir, so he takes out the card and tells the officer that he’s Yelburton. The officer apologetically ushers him through.
  • Jake isn’t allowed to check out a book showing land sales, so he asks for a ruler instead, holds it against the page and coughs while he tears the page out of the book.
  • Jake wants to see the list of residents at the rest home, so he pretends that he wants to look it over to make sure no Jews are there. When that fails, he makes an excuse to wander around until he sees an activities board with the names on it.
  • Jake wants to follow Evelyn’s car easily at night, so he rushes out first and breaks one of her taillights.
  • He tells the police that he’s leading them to Evelyn at her maid’s house, but he instead leads them to Curly’s house, where he sneaks out the back.
  • He wants to confirm that the glasses are Cross’s, so he asks Cross to read something in bad light, forcing Cross to take out another pair of reading glasses, which match.
Audiences go crazy for this sort of this sort of clever tradecraft. As I said in that piece, many of these things feel like “news we can use”: cool things we can mimic ourselves to be cooler, more successful people. They don’t so much build identification with the hero, but they turn the hero into someone we aspire to be, which is almost as good.

1 comment:

Mark said...

You mentioned in the Bourne piece the importance of Damon's star-persona, and I think the same can be said about Nicholson. Though he isn't instantly loveable like Damon, he is certainly impossible to look away from (especially in 1974, after Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and the Last Detail, and just before One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest). Which certainly helps the audience "like" him.