Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Chinatown

Jake Gittes, a private investigator in 1937 Los Angeles, after working for a guy named Curly, is hired to follow water commissioner Hollis Mulwray by a woman pretending to be Hollis’s wife. Hollis ends up dead, and Gittes teams up with Hollis’s real wife, Evelyn, to solve the murder. A man named Yelburton has taken over Hollis’s job and hired a thug named Mulvahill, who also works for Noah Cross, Evelyn’s father, who turns out to be murderer of Hollis. In the end, the police kill Evelyn and Cross claims Catherine, his daughter by his other daughter. (Yes, this is hard to follow.)

PART #1: CONCEPT 18/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A 1930s private detective discovers a massive conspiracy to control Los Angeles
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
The ultimate cynic finds out he’s actually na├»ve.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
A journey into the world’s darkness, but with the future of LA at stake.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Not really.  There’s a tremendous amount of plot.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
Does the story present a unique relationship?
A detective and the woman who he was fooled into thinking he was representing.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Noah Cross, the cops, etc.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
Well, his greatest suspicion, that the world is hopelessly corrupt
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
He’s particularly offended at having been duped.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
He has to care about a client, he has to go back to Chinatown, etc.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Yes, he thinks so, anyway, but he fails to solve it.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
Yes and yes.  He solves the crime, gets Evelyn killed, and feels personally destroyed.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
Lots of mystery, sex and death.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
The cut-up nose.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
The nose-cutting, the mother-sister scene.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
That’s not Mrs. Mulwray, the incest.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
Only somewhat. His exasperation with his cuckolded clients is somewhat amusing.  The movie makes up for its lack of hero-identification by making him extra-resourceful.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Yes.  The backstory is interesting, but it’s not what defines him.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
A top detective.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 A bitter ex-cop, totured by his failures.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
He has two metaphor families. He speaks like a refined gentleman-servant (“What seems to be the problem?”) most of the time, but the language of a thug occasionally peeks out. (“All of it quicker than the wind from a duck’s ass [catches himself] Excuse me!)
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Won’t listen, bulldozes over you, nails you with inconsistences and evidense he’s uncovered.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
Not really.  For most of the movie, he has no client, and he has little reason for uncovering this conspiracy. We’ll discuss this more.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
He says to the fake Mrs. Mulwray, “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie?’ You’re better off not knowing.”  He will change his mind about this then come back around in the final minutes. 
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
Nail Mulwray for cheating.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open: that he won’t get paid. Hidden: that’s he’s a sleaze/leach.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
Yes, get’s injured, feels hurt.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
Too cold.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
Coolly analytical and effectively deceptive. A great detective.
Is the hero curious?
Very much so.  He claims he’s not, and he tries not to be, but in fact he’s so curious that he spends most of the movie investigating without a client.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Very much so.  The trick with the watch is great.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Respect the client, don’t accept being lied to, be superior.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Even his assistants lack his resourcefulness and eye for detail.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Very much so.  He’s openky surly and defiant of everyone.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
He’s in a meeting with a client
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Yes, he’s the boss.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
Yes, he’s a master detective, and he was a cop before that.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 19/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
Social problem: seen as a dishonest creep.  Internal flaw: too cold and cruel.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
The man next to him in the barbershop attacks his work, then he meets the real Mrs. Mulwray, who humiliates him.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
He decides to follow up.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
Well, the movie is 18 minutes in by the time he finds out what’s really going on, so it’s too late for any hesitation.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
Lots of people: thugs, farmers, etc.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
He thinks he can find Hollis and clear this up.  After Hollis is dead, it’s unclear what his goal is, but he still seems confident in his abilities before he gets cut.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
He’s certainly overcondient, and he enjoys running circles around the cops such as when he uses Yelburton’s card
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
Yes and no.  There are two disasters  (He gets his nose cut, gets knocked out by the farmers a few scenes later) but neither of them feels like a momumentous disillusioning midpoint crash.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
He looks past the surface of things, demands the truth out of Evelyn and others.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Eventually figures out Evelyn isn’t bad.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Yes, the cops are closing in on both Jake and Evelyn, he’s falling in love with her, etc.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
The truth about Catherine is devastating.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Yes, finds out the truth about Evelyn and Catherine (and the glasses). 
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
When he asks Cross ”How much better can you eat?”, he’s also criticizing his own predatory work ethic earlier in the movie.
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
He realizes he has to get Evelyn and Catherine out of town, away from Cross and the police.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
He’s fairly proactive throughout, despite his claims to the contrary. 
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
Well, it’s his own fault, because he called the police himself, but he didn’t realize the trouble it would cause.  He also foolishly chooses to confront Cross in the middle of his attempts to spirit Evelyn out of the country (In the script, this made more sense. We’ll discuss it later.)
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Yes, most everybody: his operative, all of the police, Cross, Mulvahill, Evelyn, Catherine, and Curly.  Only Yelburton and the man with the knife are missing.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
The same moment.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
There’s just a brief moment after the finale, when he’s told “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” 
PART #4: SCENEWORK 20/20 The scene where Jake confront Noah Cross with the glasses
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
We’ve been falsely led to suspect that he might betray Evelyn and Catherine, so we’re worried about him.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
It starts at the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
They’re right by the murder site.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Yes and no: they’re both eager to have this conversation, but they’re both standing, indicating that they’d each like to get this over with and get somewhere else as quickly as possible.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Cross starts pontificating about tide pools.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
We know that Jake has to get across town soon to meet Curly.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
Both Gittes and Cross recoil from each other’s harshness.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
We quickly discover that we were wrong to doubt Gittes, so we’re on his side.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Gittes wants to pin the murder on Cross (and then what?), Cross wants his daughter.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: You killed Mulwray. Suppressed: You want to rape your other daughter.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Gittes implies it: “Where’s the girl?” “She’s with her mother.”
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
They’re both suprisingly cool customers given what they’re discussing.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
He asks Cross to read the obituary column in low light, forcing him to take out his (back-up pair of?) reading glasses, thus proving that they’re the same as the ones he has.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
The obituary is handed over.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
The obituary column represents the conspiracy, the glasses represent the murder. Each accusation becomes real and concrete when the object is presented.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
Gittes is forced to take Cross to Catherine.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Yes, Cross has trapped Gittes instead of the other way around.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
Answered: Who killed Mulwray? Many questions remain, but no new ones are posed by this scene.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
Implied: How will Gittes get out of this.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
We’re very afraid for our hero and the people he was supposed to be protecting.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Yes, even Cross, who gets to defend himself.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Very much so.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
Yes and no.  Gittes comes off as cynical and self-interested, but if you actually try to track his motivations in the movie, he’s actually acting in the public interest most of the time, against his own self-interest or the interests of his clients. More about this later.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Yes.  Gittes bristles when asked about the past.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
Yes.  Gittes is strictly professional.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
Yes, very much so.  Towne seems to have made himself an expert on detective work.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
Evelyn MF: Snooty wife (“Certainly not!”) DPT: Cool, DAS: Lie,
Noah Cross MF: Patriarchal, DPT: Affable but vicious, DAS: Blunt accusation, admit all
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Yes.  “Do you know what happens to nosy guys?  They lose their noses.”
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
They’re all three-dimensional (or no-dimensional, we never get to know his assistants at all, for instance)
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
When Evelyn tries to overcome his reluctance to talk about Chinatown.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
Yes.  Exposition is doled out very slowly and carefully, with no info-dumps.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
One of the most famous.
Part #6: Tone 7/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
Detective, period piece.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
The mystery is solved, but the bad guy gets away with it and the femme fatale is exonerated of any wrongdoing before she’s killed.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
No.  This movie has major dramatic question problems, as we’ll discuss.
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
No.  The narration was cut, which made it feel more immediate, but removed the glue that held the scenes together, giving the movie a hallucinatory lack of scene-to-scene logic.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
He mentions another woman who he tried to help only to get her hurt.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Tons of it.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
Jake cares “as little as possible” about the problems of Curly and the fake Mrs. Mulwray, then gets very involved by the end.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
The dramatic question has shifted many times before we reach the end.
PART 7: THEME 14/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Honor the past or build the future.
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
Jake sputters “I make an honest living.” Does he?  Can anyone?
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Take sleazy cases or not? Publicize the results or not? Take on two clients with competing interests or not?
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Very much so. It’s a great picture of how conspiracies work.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
Very much so.  The nature of Los Angeles is a constant topic, and it’s based on deep research (which was then totally fictionalized)
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so.  It’s as much about Watergate as it is about 1937.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Very much so.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
Very much so: Water references and imagery are everywhere, as are references to eyes.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
The reading glasses, the property ledger sheet, the watch, the obituary column.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
It is better to honor the past than shoddily and unjustly build the future.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
Yes, the heroes get the opposite of what they want.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
Very much so.  If you go back and think about it, little of it makes sense, but the audience doesn’t care.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
Very much so.  He chooses to “forget about it”

Final Score: 114 out of 122


Mark said...

"Gittes comes off as cynical and self-interested, but if you actually try to track his motivations in the movie, he’s actually acting in the public interest most of the time, against his own self-interest or the interests of his clients. More about this later. "

This is interesting, and I'll be happy to read what more you have to say about it, but on its face, I think it's more complicated. It has always seemed to me that Jake's "public interest" motivations are opaque to him--in fact that he has purposely hidden them from himself, so that if at any point before the finale you asked Jake himself, "are you prioritizing your own wants, rather than the wants of others?" he would (honestly) answer yes, citing his desire to clear his name and not be taken for a sucker.

I, of course, agree that he would be wrong, but I think his motivations as stated by him are strong enough for the viewer to go along with.

Matt Bird said...

A comment! Yay! But we should probably hold off until Sunday, when I'll make my case in depth that Jake is far more selfless than he lets on.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

I'm working this out as I type, so inconsistencies may follow...

Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?: Honor the past or build the future

I don't think that's quite it. I read Chinatown as asking whether it's better to dig up the horrors of the past in the slim hopes of a better future or keeping your head down and tending to your own narrow life, letting the horrors alone. The through-line of the movie is Gittes pursuing answers not just because he's curious but because he wants to do the right thing, even if he won't admit it to anyone, including himself.

The movie is a lament that heroism is both admirable and a bad idea. Their world is an irredeemable sack of crap, and perhaps it would have been better had Gittes never tried at all. At least then Evelyn would still be alive and might be able to protect Catherine from their father. Is it better to fight against an unfair, evil world, knowing that your efforts will probably only make it worse, or pretend you don't see and hope that your non-interference is the right choice?

What makes the movie so affecting is we see Gittes morally rise, and we love it -- he goes from sleaze to "offended at having been fooled" to "outraged over malfeasance" to "hero protecting women and children from predator" over the story, and we see hope for ourselves in it. We too could be stirred to great action in the face of horror. Then it all goes horribly wrong and we're left shattered. Was heroism ever a good idea? Can we do anything about the great wrongs? Deep down we suspect and fear that the answer is "no," and very few stories say that to us. It feels true in a way we don't like but have difficulty arguing against.

So maybe the question is "is heroism worth it?" We desperately want the answer to be yes but we're afraid that it's no. We should forget it, it's Chinatown.

Matt Bird said...

I think I like yours better. Mine felt a little false to me. Maybe it's evil vs. evil: Do nothing in a horrible world vs. act to make things better knowing that you'll probably make things worse (because it's a horrible world). In the end, the story tips toward doing nothing.