' Cinema Romantico: Embodiment of the Moving Image

Friday, September 19, 2008

Embodiment of the Moving Image

I once sternly said to the father of my friend Nicolle in the midst of a conversation regarding cinema, "Do you even know what 'Chinatown' is about?" "Yes," he replied, "it's about water." "Well, yes, it's about water!" I hollered as if it was the Monday morning I returned to work after a month long vacation to the south of France with Sienna Miller and the Starbucks barista had just advised me they were out of coffee. "But it's about the mystery of life! The most pertinent, most essential mysteries of life! It says more about life than any movie ever made! Ever made!" He then nodded, sort of, not quite, and slowly but surely backed away from me.

I hold the high the opinion that a movie can only explain the most pertinent, most essential mysteries of life without truly discussing them. You can't, for instance, have characters sitting around and saying out loud things like, “Now I want to tell you about the most pertinent, most essential mysteries of life.” Yes, movies like that exist (for God's sake, "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" are two of my absolute favorites and all they are is two people sitting around and discussing out loud...etc, etc) and they can be fantastic and magical and they have their rightful places in the pantheon but at their most basic, their most fundamental, movies are about dramatically telling a story.

No movie ever made ("Casablanca" comes the closest) has ever simply told a story better than "Chinatown". There are no hidden motives in "Chinatown". Yes, it's a murder mystery, but when I say hidden motives I'm talking about the intention of the writer (Robert Towne) and the director (Roman Polanski). It's not a political statement or a moral statement, or something of the sort, in the guise of a murder mystery. It's a murder mystery, nothing more, and because it's nothing more it becomes something more and therefore becomes something more than any film ever made because its something more never desired to be anything more. (Does that even make sense?)

Private Eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) unearths clues and determines motives and, in doing so, the deeper meaning, without ever having even a minimal spotlight thrust upon it, reveals itself through the results of the investigative process.

Evelyn Mulwray comes to Jake in the first scene because she suspects her husband is cheating on her. “Do you love your husband?” asks Jake. She confirms she does. “Have you heard the phrase let sleeping dogs lie?” he wonders. She has, but it doesn’t matter. She wants to hire him. So Jake sets forth on the case, snooping after his target and seeing Mr. Mulwray with a young girl. But is what Jake sees really what he thinks he sees? Not for nothing did the esteemed Roger Ebert term the film "an epistemological mystery about seeing, the moral responsibilities of (mis-)interpreting what you see, and the inevitable tragic consequences of flawed vision."

"Flawed vision". We see what we want to see. All the time. It's why we stay in bad relationships for years and years and sometimes well past the point of marriage and sometimes right down to the end. It's why Nebraska Football players are morally resolute individuals who help old ladies cross the street and donate all the illegal cash they have received from the athletic department to charity while Colorado Football players are unethical hooligans run amuck who steal lollipops from children and use their illegal cash to buy SUV’s solely for the purposes of running over innocent golden retrievers. It’s why even after Jake finally sees the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) he doesn’t really see her, not until it’s too late.

We’re all like Jake Gittes in so much as he fails to follow the very mantra he establishes in the first scene to “let sleeping dogs lie” we too fail to heed it. We fail to heed it because we have to know. We have to attend therapy and pour over the minutiae of every single thought we've ever had and every single action we've ever undertaken in order to determine why we are the way we are. We build a particle accelerator because we have to know the reasons for the Big Bang even, by God, if there's a slight chance we might all get sucked into a black hole.

We’re all like Jake Gittes because we too can have hours, days, weeks, months, even years where it hurts – as Jake says when that infamous bandage is plastered to his nose – “only when I breathe.”

We’re all like Jake Gittes because just like he once hurt someone in Chinatown whom he loved and vowed never to do it again, only to do it again, we too are doomed to repeating mistakes. Don’t think so? Are we not mired in a war from which we cannot extract ourselves? Has our latest Presidential election not devolved yet again into (gasp of gasps!) mud-slinging while issues are ignored? Did I not turn on CNN just this morning and be warned of an inevitable Great Depression lurking around the corner?

“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” Of course, Jake won’t forget. He’ll remember. But then remembering won’t really do him any good.

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