On Wednesday, I started an evening course at Edinburgh University called “Talking Film”. The format of the course if fairly simple: you watch a film and then discuss it with one another at the 2-hour class. The lecturer leads the discussion, and shows the clip from the film itself, as well as other clips relevant to its genre/stars/director. Over the next ten weeks, I’ll try and review each of the ten films I’ll be watching.
This week’s film was Roman Polawski’s Chinatown. The plot of the film concerns Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a P.I. in the 50’s. He’s hired to investigate the affairs of a city employee, Hollis Mulwray. Things get complicated when Mulwray dies and Gittes feels compelled to find out who killed him and why.
Chinatown borrows heavily from the tropes of Film Noir: a male lead with few ties, a femme fatale, and a dark mystery to be solved. However, without spoiling anything, the resolution to the film’s plot manages to make it much more than a simple detective story.
When I watched the movie on Sunday, I was impressed without being blown away: it’s a very well-paced and plotted movie and the nature of the genre means there’s always something going on to keep you interested. Nevertheless, while an excellent example of film noir, I don’t feel like it does anything for the genre that hasn’t been done elsewhere.
I would compare my feelings about it to something like Shawshank Redemption: an excellently plotted, tight movie that’s easy to like but will never rock the foundations of cinema.
There are a number of reasons I feel this way. One is that the photography lacks a ‘cinematic quality’- the film could easily be adapted for the stage without losing much in the translation. In addition, the plot and characters could almost be considered ‘too tight’: every action and conversation can be brought back to a specific motivation or event. You’re not given the impression there’s anything else going on in these characters lives aside from the occurrences we see or hear about in the film.
However, perhaps the main reason I don’t hold in such high regard is that I’m just not big a fan of detective stories in general. I’ve seen enough episodes of Jonathan Creek, Midsomer Murders and Scooby Doo to know that one of the people you meet will be the killer, and most of the time you could spin a wheel to decide who it is. This ‘predictable unpredictability’ (X killed Y because of event Z we couldn’t possibly have known anything about) leaves me with a feeling of being cheated. Chinatown may not be quite so convoluted, but perhaps the feeling of inevitability this genre gives me meant I wasn’t as involved in the story as others can allow themselves to be.
I’ll conclude by saying I probably enjoyed Chinatown more than the criticism in this post implies. I’d certainly recommend it for fans of the genre, but even beyond that I find it difficult to see anyone not getting something from what is a very well-made, carefully executed film. However, if like me, you’re not a fan of the genre, don’t expect to be overwhelmed.
If you’re interested, the films that have been chosen for discussion at this class are:
3. Slow Motion
6. Eyes Wide Shut
7. Do the Right Thing
8. Battle in Heaven
9. McCabe and Mrs Miller
10. Chungking Express