Chinatown Film Essays

Polanski's Chinatown: A dream analysis

by Jim Emerson

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WARNING: Big-time spoilers in the above video.

From the introduction to my fully explicated video, "Chinatown: Frames and Lenses," at Press Play, Chapter 4 in a week-long series: LIFE'S WORK: THE FILMS OF ROMAN POLANSKI:

Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" is a Panavision color film noir--a ghost story, really--about flawed vision and the inescapable resurgence of the past, made in 1974 and set in 1937.  Private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) thinks he knows what's going on, but as Noah Cross (John Huston) tells him, "Believe me, you don't." We see what Jake sees, and it's invariably filtered or blocked--viewed from a distance through binoculars, or from outside through a door or window that obscures a more complete perspective. Photographs--snippets of time recorded on film, one of the tools of the detective trade--are potentially misleading because they don't--can't--capture what's going on outside of the frame, beyond the moment. 


This video montage is a hymn of praise to a film that had a profound effect on me when I first saw it as a 16-year-old in 1974, and that I've lived with, haunted, ever since. It's also an unabashed love poem to the desperate, damaged and determined Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). 

Like "close-up," which I did in 2007, it's a free-associative critical essay/dream sequence, based on themes and images (and sound and music) from the movie. Although, like a lot of creative pursuits, the process of assembling it (from pieces of film that were already floating around in my head) was largely unconscious, I now (at least in retrospect) think I understand why each fragment is where it is.

So, I thought I'd turn around and look back at "Chinatown" through the lens (or frame or door or window, if you will) of my video essay, using it as a way of translating the film's images into critical prose. Because, in "Chinatown," every image is loaded with meanings, associations, resonances. If you're familiar with the film, you'll immediately see that this reflection on "Chinatown" isn't structured chronologically. Scenes, themes, moments and images keep circling back in fragments... not unlike they do in the film, but in a more condensed and less linear form...

Below: What it all looked like in iMovie HD when I finished it.

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    Chinatown—that must be important. It’s the title, after all. During the movie, “Chinatown" develops as a place where the police, i.e., the forces of justice and protection, do as little as possible. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) describes his working for the D.A. there: “I was trying to keep someone from being hurt. I ended up making sure she was hurt.” And that is what happens here.

    Chinatown is a place of secrecy or corruption: Mrs. Mulwray’s Chinese maid and butler turn out to be the keepers of her daughter—and her secret. Early on, Gittes tells one of his sleazy dirty jokes, establishing China-ness as cheating. A man who is bored with his wife decides to “screw like a Chinaman.” That is, he screws her for a while, then has a cigarette, screws her for a while, then takes a walk, screws for a while, then reads the paper—finally his wife says, “You’re screwing like a Chinaman."

    Chinatown— if you were an unduly serious English teacher, you could say that this movie, and even that dirty joke, because of their unhappy endings, sound the great Aeschylean theme: we humans learn through suffering. In this movie we learn especially about humanity’s “cheating,” the same note the opening scene sounds. After the ’30s, Art Deco credits, the movie begins with a series of black and white photos of a man and woman having sex in various places and positions. “All right, Curly,” comes Gittes’s snide voice. ("Curly” [Burt Young] is the balding husband for whom Gittes has gotten evidence that his wife is cheating on him.) “Enough’s enough. You can’t eat the Venetian blinds.” For Curly in his anger and anguish has been bending the blinds. But who is “blind”?

    The next client is the fake Mrs. Mulwray (Diane Ladd), and, although we have no way of knowing it at the time, she extends the theme: “blind” to what? “You’re better off not knowing,” Gittes tells her—but in fact she holds secrets that he doesn’t know. She is both “Mrs. Mulwray” and Ida Sessions, the first of many things and people in the film who are two things at once.

    Chief among them, of course, is water. It is both “Water and Power” (as the department run by Mulwray [Darrell Zwerling] is named), both salt and fresh, both irrigation for plants and something people need to drink, and it is the source of both life and death (Mulwray’s and the homeless man’s drowning). Late in the film Noah Cross (John Huston) looks at the ornamental tidal pool at the Mulwrays’ mansion and says, “That’s where life begins.” But Gittes has just accused him of ending Mulwray’s life in that very pool. At any rate, water grows, in the course of the film, from a dull concern of a corrupt city government and a bunch of irate farmers to the source of food and population for not only Los Angeles but anywhere.

    Part of what gives water this meaning for me is its involvement with the generational confusion in which Cross, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), and Katherine all have double roles. Mrs. Mulwray’s daughter is both her daughter and her sister, as she admits when Gittes slaps her face from side to side—doubly. Old Noah Cross is both her father and her mate. He is, to the girl, both father and grandfather.

    There are a host of other things in the film that “are two things at once”:

  • Noah Cross’s incriminating bifocals: with them you can see both near and far, just as he grabs at both present millions and the future of the city, his own progeny and his daughter’s. The name, Noah (noted for his flood, presumably) and Cross: two lines in one entity. There is “no crossing” him. He has two goons working for him.
  • The name Gittes, which Cross persists in pronouncing “gits” thereby making it two names at once. (The British meaning of git is “a contemptible person".) Also Gittes is both “Jake” and “J. J.,” itself, of course, double.
  • The club named “Albacore,” misheard as “applecore.” It is a fishing club that also creates a “sheriff’s posse” for political power.
  • Lieutenant “Escobar” (Perry Lopez) with his “little gold bar.”"
  • "Echo Park."
  • The Japanese gardener’s confusion of “grass” and “glass” which gives Gittes an essential clue.
  • Mrs. Mulwray is to Gittes both client and lover, as Cross is both father and mate, benefactor and tyrant.
  • The Deputy Commissioner’s double game, the police lieutenant’s, the nursing home manager’s—various “double” roles like:

    -the ex-policeman Mulvahill who works for the Water Department overtly by day and covertly (culvertly?) by night
    -the banker who criticizes Gittes’s ethics
    -the maid and butler's dual roles.
    -The old folks who, unknowingly, are great landowners.
    -The several pairings among the outraged farm family who beat up Gittes, and so on.
    -Chinese screwing (having both sex and a cigarette)
    -The questions Gittes asks the nursing home manager have two answers, both “right.”
    -Two watches under the wheel of Mulwray’s car, which “watch” to see when he leaves.
    -The black and white cars, one car with one red, one white tail light.
    -The black and white design which is both flag and quilt.
    -The meeting at the “Pig and Whistle” saloon, one among many scenes involving two characters—this film is made up to a considerable extent of two-person scenes. The still photographs all contain two persons.

    You could go on and on with items that “are two things at once,” because this is very characteristic of Polanski, I believe: the use of a relatively simple, almost geometric theme (like the triangles in his first feature movie), which he then elaborates into almost every detail as the film gets more and more tense and complicated.

    Among these details, I find Polanski’s use of black and white particularly interesting, because in this color film black and white information tells the truth: the various still photographs; the land records; the black and white Albacore flag which gives Gittes an important clue; the newspaper obituaries—even the more sensational parts of the newspaper are right, as far as they go. By contrast, Chinatown connotes color and in a larger sense the hidden twoness of things. It is both a place and a state of affairs, part of Los Angeles and Los Angeles itself. At the end, we learn that in Los Angeles Noah Cross “owns the police,” that the cover-up Gittes detested in Chinatown extends all over. To paraphrase Marlowe’s Mephistopheles: Why this is Chinatown, nor am I out of it.

    Gittes’s nose is another important detail: double-barreled (as noses are), two nostrils, one of which gets cut. You breathe through it and you stick it into things (and Gittes makes a joke about sticking it into a woman). The cutting of Gittes’s nose is important not only because it marks Gittes for the rest of the film, but because the nasty little hood who cuts Gittes is played by Polanski himself, brandishing a triangular knife like those that dominated his first feature whose title seems to fit this film as well, Knife in the Water.

    In other words, I think that with Gittes’s nose we come very close to some of the themes that centrally concern Polanski. I do not wish to play the simple minded “Freudian,” but this is a film full of phallic symbols (that nose, the camera, cars, guns, knives, hats, cigarettes—you name it). It is “a phallic film” in the largest sense (that was not intended as a joke!). That is, Polanski’s hero pokes into things. He is intrusive in his manners, his occupation, his body—every way you can think of.

    Although we do not learn it until near the end, this is also “an Oedipal film,” in both a particular sense—the tyrannical father is also his daughter’s mate—and a very general sense: this is a film about generations and generating life. It is about water as a source of life and woman as the source of life. To some extent they are equated because the father owns both. The film is “triangular.” In a way, Polanski seems to be asking (in this film as in his others and in his life), the same question Macbeth asks (and Polanski filmed Macbeth): Can a man have both sexual and social power? Can a man be both a father and a mate? How far can a man of power and achievements reach into a situation, a woman, the next generation, the future, and own them?








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