Every time I watch Chinatown, I think “This time I’m going to understand why people are crazy about this movie.” To be sure, I do see new things in it each time I view it. It’s beautifully crafted, and yet I do not understand why people view it as a transcendent achievement. I’m prepared to applaud style over substance, but the film is consistently praised less for its sleek surface than as a substantive critique of American life. Is this an example of people being seduced by the very surfaces that the film implicates as part of the story’s corrupt milieu? Is its reputation an example of the American unwillingness to see beneath appearances? If so, it is indeed an insidious bit of manipulation. I’m just not convinced it is that sophisticated.
Anyone with a passing interest in film history is probably familiar with the story. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) tries to identify the murderer of Hollis Mulwray, uncovering perfidious real estate manipulations, official corruption, vicious beatings, domestic violence, more murder, incest and other niceties along the way. The story certainly depicts an amoral, cutthroat world, but (and it’s a big “but”) whether that viewpoint translates into a general critique is a different matter. Do people come away thinking “This is a film about the venality of American life?” Or is the reaction rather “Wow, those are some pretty twisted characters?”
I suspect the latter is by far the more common reaction, for as each overturned stone reveals yet more worms, viewers can ignore them to bask in the Southern California sunshine, appreciate Faye Dunaway’s beauty, and enjoy the period props, costumes and accessories. Precisely because the story is so well crafted, the viewer is arguably too involved emotionally to make the leap from the specifics of the situation to an indictment of what the details imply. Put simply, the viewer wants the mystery solved too badly to attribute the decadence to anything greater than individual pathology.
If the seductive form is indeed meant as part of the message, Polanski’s approach would be similar to contemporaneous films like Visconti’s The Damned that attempted to recreate the superficial appeal of Nazism to demonstrate how that movement exploited style to horrendous ends. For such an argument to be valid, however, the social setting of Chinatown would have to be central, the mystery secondary to make it a plausible criticism of American life. (The Damned, after all, is explicitly about Nazism.) There are scattered attempts throughout Chinatown to convince the corruption is endemic, but because the murder mystery is our first concern, it is easy to assume all is well beyond a limited set of characters. In the end, Chinatown cannot express a broader, deeper critique because the trees of its compelling story obscure a vision of the surrounding, rotting forest. The film is, in other words, sensuous, eloquent testimony to the limitations of particularism and the seductions of unquestioned hedonism.