' Cinema Romantico: Chinatown And Its Director

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chinatown And Its Director

Andrew O'Hehir has offered up a fascinating, kinda disturbing article on Salon in relation to the real life Roman Polanski and his noir masterpiece "Chinatown", which, as you most likely know, this blogger considers the greatest movie ever made.

Polanski, of course, was recently arrested in Zurich for the rape of an underage girl that happened 32 years ago. Since it occurred in the United States he fled and has never returned for fear of meeting the very fate he may very well now meet.

"Chinatown" was released in 1973, four years before Polanski's crime, and as O'Hehir notes in his article may contain a lot of insight, if you want to look for it, into the psyche of Polanski, the one that now sits in a Swiss cell.

On the newly released DVD Polanski says in relation to the film's dark, disturbing but (as I've noted many times myself) entirely proper end the following words: "That's how it is in life very often, that the culprit survives."

Oh, man. You have to wonder if he's going over those very words in his head right now? And the film possesses many other indicators, many that have been frightening to ponder for some time. The film, if you didn't know (and, yes, this is a spoiler alert but, seriously, if you haven't watched "Chinatown" yet then what the hell have you been doing?) has for its a villain a wily, smarmy old guy, Noah Cross (John Huston), who has, ahem, sex with his, ahem, underage daughter. That's just the tip of the iceberg but, suffice it to say, he gets away with everything in the end. Man, oh, man.

Should people have seen this film in 1973 and realized Polanski needed armed guards following him 24 hours a day? Probably not. One thing O'Hehir does not mention in his article is that in 1969 Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate, pregnant at the time, was murdered by the Manson Family. Is it fair to assume the unrelentingly bleak climax of "Chinatown", a climax that did not exist in screenwriter Robert Towne's original version and that Polanski wanted and got, may have been a result of this horrific situation?

I think so. Not to excuse Polanski from his potential fate, of course. While I find it interesting that his so-called victim has repeatedly asked for this whole matter to simply be put to rest it's also documented that Polanski himself pled guilty to statutory rape. I mean, it happened. It did and that's all there is to it. It's not guilty until proven innocent here, he already admitted he's guilty.

But I'm not here to give my thoughts on Polanski's crime itself. I'm here to discuss the fact the finest film ever made was made by a guy who committed such a crime. O'Hehir writes: "It's natural enough that 'Chinatown' will be contaminated, perhaps forever, by the infamy of its director." I don't think that's accurate. The first time I watched it I knew who he was and what he had done. Kinda like the first time I watched "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" I knew who Woody Allen was and that he had...well, you know. Why just the other day I watched Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer house his Japanese tourist friends in his dresser drawers and I still laughed, even though....well, you know.

These sorts of contradictions are all over the arts. Arguably the most influential movie ever made has the Ku Klux Klan for its heroes.

The old saying is, Trust the art, not the artist. (Though I'm accountable for not always adhering to that mantra. It's why the mere possibility, whether unfounded or not, that Bruce Springsteen cheated on Patti Scialfa makes me feel like sobbing my eyes out. I know he cheated on Julianne but that was only because Patti is his true love. Right? Isn't she? Lord, help me, let's move on.) Reading O'Hehir's article really got me to thinking - about how "Chinatown" is more accurate about the human condition than even I thought. The movie didn't - it couldn't - predict Polanski's behavior but certainly it proves that these sorts of people - unbalanced, disturbed, problematic, whatever you want to call them - always have and always will exist. And that our greatest flaws, our worst decisions as humans, whether a court of law or a court of public opinion finds us guilty or not, stay with us forever.

It's easy to compare the movie's director to the movie's incestuous villain but perhaps we should also compare him to the movie's hero, the detective, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), the guy who has to live the rest of his life with what he did to the two women he loved, to what he did to them in Chinatown.

You can leave Chinatown. Except you really don't. You stay there forever. Roman Polanski probably knows this as well as anyone.

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