Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: Thematic Details Throughout “Chinatown”

The Chinatown script went through a million changes, but the version that’s most readily available online is pretty similar to the final version, with a few notable changes. The biggest difference is that the villain is still named Julian Cross, not Noah Cross.

I talked before about how it’s good to go back when you’re almost done and tie more details into the theme, and this is a prime example. Not only did the biblical Noah survive the flood (just as Cross doesn’t care if a dam will break) but he also curses his son for seeing him in his drunken nakedness (just as Cross will doom his daughter after molesting her.) (Maybe the second one is a stretch on my part, but it fits.)

Indeed, water is everywhere in this screenplay:
  • Jake’s first client Curly is a fisherman.
  • The whole city is obsessed with the drought and the proposal from the department of Water and Power for building a new dam.
  • When Jake is in a barbershop, a car overheats outside.
  • Hollis takes Catherine rowing through Echo Park, causing Jake to say, “Water again.”
  • Jake visits the orange growers and finds out that the Water and Power department has actually been poisoning their wells. When they shoot at him, it bursts his car’s radiator.
  • Noah Cross runs a fisherman’s club, and the club sponsors the old folks’ home where the unwitting land owners live.
  • Jake decides to get Evelyn and Catherine out of town on Curly’s boat.
That’s a lot of water, but I didn’t consciously notice most of these until I went looking for them.  The goal is for the theme to be omnipresent but not oppressive, and this screenplay accomplishes that admirably.

(I'm using “theme” more broadly here than I usually do, referring not just to the good vs. good dilemma, but to the “theme of water”, but if we stick to my original theme, “build the future vs. honor the past”, then water plays a strong part on both sides of that equation.)


Mark said...

Just realized after writing my comment on a previous post (in re: The Big Sleep) that your theme of "build the future vs. honor the past" is baked into the very essence of the film. It is a ultra-modern movie of the 70s (anamorphic widescreen, color film, Jack Nicholson, pessimism, explicit references to incest, etc. etc.) paying direct homage to detective films of the 40s (and set in the 1930s). So in some ways Towne and Polanski are grappling with the exact same question: how much of their film is honoring the past (both actual history and the films and literature of the past) and how much is building a new way forward for film--and how do those ideas conflict and/or harmonize?

Harvey Jerkwater said...

In this case, wouldn't water would be more of a motif than a theme?

Matt Bird said...

Mark: You could say that Towne was trying to honor the past and Polanski was trying to build the future.

Harvey: Maybe that's better, but then I'd have have to say "Motifal Details Throughout Chinatown", which just sound weird.

zxcvb said...

Mark: I mentioned this in a previous post but Chinatown is clearly a subversion of The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, and every detective film noir of the 1940s and 1950s.

As long as Jake Gittes' final words of the film are "As little as possible", Chinatown completely undercuts the premise of the hard-boiled detective.

Beer Baron said...

What most people don’t notice is Jake Gittes’ last line in the film, “as little as possible.” Nicholson says it in the calm manner of Noah Cross, and at that moment, Jake Gittes finally evolves into the hardened, emotionless, jaded shell of noir’s private detectives. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe come pre-packaged this way; Jake Gittes’ tale is an origin story for their type.