Commentary Magazine


Everyman in Chinatown

Some months ago, in a generally unenthusiastic survey of the highly acclaimed work of some young American directors, I mentioned Terrence Malick's Badlands, one of the great successes of the last New York Film Festival, and a film I hadn't then seen. I've since seen the film, which I think must be said to constitute an imposing directorial debut by any standard. Generically indebted to Bonnie and Clyde and specifically suggested by the 1958 Charles Starkweather-Caril Ann Fugate Midwestern murder spree, Badlands has a cool detachment quite unlike the numerous offspring of Bonnie and Clyde, and an intellectual rigor I was unprepared for by the rather genial nature of what I knew of Malick's previous work: his script for Pocket Money, a film made by another director, with Paul Newman and Lee Marvin as a pair of drifting contemporary cowboys. Stylistically, unlike Pocket Money, Badlands is (apart from one mistaken attempt to recreate some authentic-looking period newsreel footage) impressively of a piece, from the exactingly wrought language of its script (which Malick wrote) to the composition of its hard-edged images (though these are occasionally undercut by a rather too bright and mushily pretty color sense). Indeed, everything about the film seems the product of a director's controlling intelligence and artfulness to a degree almost alarming in the case of a first film by a director so young. Which is to say that Badlands is exceedingly well-made, and still not to say exactly what it is.

In a sense, it's easier to say, of a film so stripped in form and terse of expression, what it is not. For all that it's based on actual events, Badlands evinces almost no interest in what, specifically, the Starkweather murders emerged from, either psychologically or socially, nor is there any attempt to capture in Kit, the film's protagonist, any resemblance to Starkweather's shoe-polish-in-his-hair tough punk. Instead, the mass murderer this film gives us is at all times soft-spoken, courteous even to his victims, and given to recording for posterity such advice as, “Listen to your parents and teachers” and “Consider the minority opinion. But try to consider the majority opinion once it's been accepted.” He is, in fact, so much the clean-cut, Middle-American young man par excellence, distinguished only by this bottomless capacity for affectless violence, that one comes to see him (and Holly, his wide-eyed, freckle-faced, baton-twirling, and equally affectless fifteen-year-old paramour) as typical, the norm: what anyone else of all those he resembles might be, given a gun in his hand and the faintest hint of provocation. And though we see nothing of what he grows out of—no family, no friends, not even a passerby on his town's streets—the place he inhabits, the landscape he traverses, is recognizably our own: the “badlands” not only a particular region, but America itself.

Of course, the subject of the violence of American life is no longer anything novel in films; indeed, it's the subject of Bonnie and Clyde itself. Rather, the novelty of Badlands has to do with the utter dead affectlessness of its principals, whose gift for deadpan understatement grows at times so mannered as to risk plunging the film into inadvertent comedy. “I found a toaster,” Kit remarks dryly, after returning from the cellar where he's deposited the corpse of their first victim, Holly's father. “Hi!” Holly says in her flat, expressionless voice to first one, then another of their subsequent victims. And when Kit shoots an acquaintance at whose house they hide out (after shooting him in front of his house, Kit politely holds the door open so the dying man can step inside), his only comment to Holly is, “I got him in the stomach,” whereupon she asks, “Is he upset?” and Kit replies, “He didn't say anything to me about it.” (This flatness of conversational style contrasts nicely with the florid style, compounded of pulp novels and movie magazines, in which Holly narrates the film, and which is rife with such locutions as “Little did I know . . .” and “Through endless mesa . . . we made our headlong way” and “I dreamed of being lost forever in his arms.”) Perhaps no other single moment in the film so resonantly bespeaks this affectlessness as the one in which we see Kit firing a shot into a football, while Holly narrates: “Before we left, he shot a football he considered excess baggage.” Kit's logic is starkly simple: when you don't need something, you shoot it, and there's nothing that isn't amenable to the arbitration of a gun. (At another point, Holly notes a piece of his advice: “He said if the devil came at me, I could shoot him with a gun.”) As Charles Starkweather himself declared of his victims, “Those people got in the way, so I had to kill them all.”

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Yet, for all that, the real Charles Starkweather was a good deal less the “normally” affectless boy next door than is Kit, given instead to such pathological embellishments as jamming his gun up a victim's rectum. Of course, to have suggested such idiosyncrasy in Kit would have been to call into question his ability to carry the weight of being the exemplar of a Middle-American life with which the film's variation on the Bonnie and Clyde materials attempts to shoulder him. For if Bonnie and Clyde is the prototypical expression in contemporary films of the romanticized outlaw, Badlands is, as surely and self-consciously as those last-cowboy Westerns, an attempt to write a genre's epitaph: to do in the movies' last hero, and reveal the bankruptcy of the rebel's cause. (As if to emphasize the theme of the rebel hero's decline, there are continual remarks throughout the film on Kit's resemblance to James Dean, and at one point he is even allowed to strike a famous Dean pose from Giant, a pose, incidentally, suggestive of a crucifixion in a way relevant to that film and anomalous in this. In fact, the only resemblance between Dean and Martin Sheen, who plays Kit, that I could see was in their hair styles, nor is there any of Dean's electric excitement in the performance of Sheen, whom I recognize to be an actor of intelligence, but one I've nevertheless always found, with his bantamweight physical presence and incongruously deep, monotonous voice, to be somehow dull.)

But to have allowed any of the real Charles Starkweather, or the real anything else, to creep into the film would have been to put content, however morbid, where Malick is determined there be emptiness. For the conceit upon which Malick's protagonist is constructed is that he passes unaltered from the utter impoverishment of his private life to his no less impoverished public one, in which, after his capture, he takes his moment in the limelight to hand out souvenirs and tell his audience that his favorite singer is Eddie Fisher. And so anything which might do more than hint at the peculiarity of Kit's inner life, or which might root Kit's psychosis in a specific social or psychological context, is deliberately excluded, subordinated to the singlemindedness of the director's vision. Indeed, one might even say that exclusion is the ruling principle of Badlands, so much has had to be left out in order that the film's vision be unobstructed. And those fugitive moments which do convey a genuinely disturbing strangeness—the image of Kit at his job in a stockyard, putting his foot on the head of a dead cow, while Holly's narrating voice intones, “Each lived for the precious hours when he or she could be with the other, away from the cares of the world”; Holly telling us that Kit would sometimes wake at night and hear the roar of the ocean in his ear; the sequence (its strangeness enhanced by the score's ingenious blending of Orff and Satie) of Holly's house, which they've set aflame, burning—remain only fugitive moments. The singlemindedness of Badlands is impressive, but if the film is (as, say, Mean Streets is not) disciplined, it flirts with the danger of being disciplined to death. And ultimately its vision of the impoverishment of American life seems itself impoverished; too much has been left out to make it stick. Even if America, and American life, are no better than what this film envisions, they are, one feels, more complicated and complex. Above all, they are more interesting, which is something that Badlands, for all its intelligence and artfulness, is not.

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In the earnest naiveté of my youth, I once put to a composer friend the question of how one would evaluate a piece of music written wholly in, say, the baroque or classical idiom should one happen to be composed by someone living today; what if, that is, a new Bach or Haydn should suddenly appear, writing in the style and on the level of the old? The answer (or evasion of an answer) I was given was that the question itself was invalid, since it was impossible (barring a host of science-fiction qualifiers) for a first-rate piece of music in the exact style of an earlier period to be written in the present because truly living, first-rate art springs from a tradition, and has to be in some way affected by the influences that tradition brings to bear: that, in other words, a 20th-century symphony in the classical style was, of its nature, bound to be either as decidedly modern in temper as Prokofiev's Classical Symphony or as dessicated as Stravinsky's Symphony in C.

That long-buried question rose from its grave, alive as ever, when I saw Chinatown, the new film by Roman Polanski (a director whose previous work I have never liked much), which attempts not only to revive the 40's-private-eye movie but to do so in the style of the 40's-private-eye movies, and which seems to me to rank right up there with the best of them. Are there qualifiers? Could Chinatown have been made today (no less, made in this way: in the direct, open, classically “invisible” style of 30's and 40's Hollywood moviemaking) by an American? Hasn't Polanski heard the news that the traditional genres are exhausted? (One knows, of course, that he has, since he himself has spoofed horror films in The Fearless Vampire Killers, and burlesqued gangsters in Cul-de-Sac, which I thought, before Chinatown, his most original work.) Isn't he aware that none is quite so exhausted as the private-eye genre, forever done in by Altman's The Long Goodbye ? (As I write, a remake of The Maltese Falcon, given the Long-Goodbye treatment, is, I dread to say, in the offing.) The questions are, of course, rhetorical, and hung on the conceit that Polanski, that most cosmopolitan of “foreign” directors, could come to the genre in wide-eyed innocence. And yet his achievement in Chinatown does fly in the face of every trendy bad idea with which the contemporary American film is riddled. Even Chinatown's period setting—pre-World War II Los Angeles—seems, at this moment, a semi-miraculous accomplishment; has there been for years a film that used a 30's (or 20's, or 40's) setting which seemed so naturally right for its story, and with so little sense of pushing period at you? But what Chinatown does, above all, is to reaffirm, as did The Godfather, the intellectual and aesthetic pleasures of that “exhausted” and “done in” art of storytelling, here invested with such skillfulness in the orchestration of narrative tensions that a scene of the hero putting on his pajamas as he gets ready for bed can seem positively thrilling in its charge of suspenseful undertones. And yet such skills have in recent times grown so suspect, have come to seem so frivolous as we've increasingly been conditioned to recognize art less by its pleasures than its punishments, that I find myself at something of a loss even to name no less than to praise them.

So I'm tempted simply to call Chinatown one of the best private-eye movies ever made and leave it at that, and yet this seems to me to pay it too double-edged a compliment. On one hand, it is important not to let such models as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep exert too great a tyranny: important to be able to say that a film such as Chinatown is in the same league with them. Robert Towne's original script (something about tangled relations and land grabs among the high and mighty in burgeoning Los Angeles) oscillates satisfyingly between the lucidity of The Maltese Falcon and the opacity of The Big Sleep, which is to say I found myself keeping up with the mystery's unraveling, but just barely; though such details as the way a key word, “albacore,” is at first mistakenly heard as “apple core” inspire confidence that the plot is as well-knit in large matters as in small. And, as tyrannical models go, it seems to me important to be able to say also that Jack Nicholson (as private eye, J. J. “Jake” Gittes) is every bit as good as (though different from) Bogart. It's a quieter, less flamboyant performance Nicholson gives here than in The Last Detail, but one which nonetheless confirms one's impression from that earlier film of his combining a Brando-like sexual menace (between them, they might just bring thinning hair into vogue) with a Cagneyesque brash ebullience. Everything he does he makes seem fresh: to put it negatively, watch how he recovers in stages from realizing that he's told a dirty joke (which he tells, incidentally, as infectiously as he does the one in The Last Detail) with a proper female client within earshot, a moment whose temptation to mugging almost any other actor would have found irresistible. And it's moments such as this, as much as the plot's development and the bursts of action, which provide the film's pleasures: Nicholson's manner with the various characters he encounters; his professionally cynical demeanor as he deals with the woman who first retains him in the case; his beaming good spirits as he reclines in a row-boat during a moment when he (mistakenly) believes he's on top of the events which have begun inexorably unfolding around him.

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Yet what does one mean when one refers to the best private-eye movies made? For if something like That's Entertainment (which might be described alternately as M-G-M's going-out-of-business sale, or the first coffeetable movie) reminds us how very few really first-rate musicals there actually were, so, too, has the private-eye film taken on a legendary status out of all proportion to its real achievements. To be sure, there is The Maltese Falcon, which could be called a great movie, and The Big Sleep, which is enjoyable enough to make one not care at all if it couldn't be; but, apart from these two, one is struck not only by how few private-eye films there are which are good but by how few films there are at all (at least above the B-movie level) in the tough private-detective mold.1 Other than one Sam Spade (in The Maltese Falcon, whose current remake will be the fourth version) and six Philip Marlowes (spanning from the 1944 Murder My Sweet to The Long Goodbye), The Dark Corner's slick amalgam of the Chandler films and Laura are virtually all that come to mind. And of the 40's Marlowes besides The Big Sleep, though Dick Powell is first-rate in Murder My Sweet, the film itself, however entertaining, certainly isn't, and Lady in the Lake, Robert Montgomery's experiment in the sustained use of subjective camera (you, the spectator, see everything from the detective-hero's viewpoint) seems mainly a curious dead end, while my own opinion that The Brasher Doubloon is the sleeper of the series probably represents a minority of one. Of such stuff are movie legends made.

And yet it's here, I think, in its subtle acknowledgment and use of the legendary status of its genre, that one sees what it is that differentiates Chinatown from the private-eye films of the past, and is distinctly contemporary in its character. For my composer friend was right, you can't write a 20th-century Brandenburg Concerto, and you can't make a 40's-private-eye movie in 1974 either. But it's not (as some have suggested) in any Watergate parallels or increased pessimism that one sees the contemporaneity of Chinatown. After all, one has only to recall the many social-problem films (mainly from the Warner's studio) of the 30's to realize that images of civic corruption are nothing new on the screen, or only recall the famous last shot (“I steal”) of I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to remind oneself of how dark a view of American society could be taken. Indeed, The Maltese Falcon itself is in its way (though the character of Spade is somewhat softened from the novel) quite as thoroughgoing in its pessimism as is Chinatown.

What, rather, Chinatown has perceived is that one cannot make the private-eye genre work again (chiefly because of changed assumptions about the character and morality of the detective hero) by updating it, by making it “relevant,” but only by keeping it at a distance. Thus (or so one thinks through most of the movie) the period setting, which distances the film's characters and events from us just enough to keep those modern assumptions at bay, and to make the film itself seem, like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, larger than life and from another era. Or so one thinks, that is, until one finally comes to see that what the period setting has allowed Chinatown to do (which is to say, what Chinatown has had the intelligence and wit to do, having, after all, made its own opportunities) is to use the private-detective genre to make a myth about the very inception of that place with which, thanks mainly to Chandler, it's so inextricably associated. This isn't to say that Chinatown is in any sense a sour anti-Los Angeles film like The Long Goodbye, but rather one offering an almost elegiacal view of a Los Angeles that once was, a Los Angeles seen (in John A. Alonzo's beautiful photography) bathed in a pre-smog golden haze, whose creation (along with the seeds of its destruction) is imagined as a myth (not without some parallels in the city's actual history) of the clashing of a race of corrupt Prometheans, alternately possessing, bestowing, and then stealing back the earth's water and power. And who could make a better tour guide than a private eye on an odyssey through the sun-drenched regions of that nether world from which the Los Angeles we now know has sprung?

But it's not simply the originality of this conception that distinguishes Chinatown from past private-eye films, and roots it unmistakably in the present. The ending of The Maltese Falcon may be as dark as Chinatown, but it's also different, and, in some ways, more like that of The Long Goodbye than either of them is like Chinatown, in that Gould's Marlowe, for all his bumbling, finally solves his case, and proves, as much as Spade and all previous Marlowes, the instrument for punishing wrongdoing and meting out justice. Though the ending of Chinatown takes place in Los Angeles's Chinatown, for a time it seemed the film would never get (and never need to get) there, so much had “Chinatown” long before become a metaphor for the impenetrable nature of that morass into which its private-detective hero finds himself sinking. Chinatown, where the hero once found himself stationed while on the police force (before the events of the film have begun) and where he became involved in some obscure disaster, is, as he says, a place where you can't understand what's happening; and, in the world of this film, Chinatown is everywhere. Unlike Spade and Marlowe, Nicholson's J. J. Gittes, for all his cleverness and professional skill, loses his case, gets in over his head. And, in a curious way, the sense of his failure that one takes away from this film, which is apparently no more in either ambition or accomplishment than a brilliant entertainment, seems to speak to us with a peculiar immediacy. For much as it's been said that one sees in Los Angeles an adumbrative image of America itself, so, too, does one recognize in Nicholson's Jake Gittes, far more than in Badlands' abstracted mass murderer, an image of a distincttively American everyman, at large in his society. Abrasively cocky but immensely likable, craftily resourceful in his work but personally open and ingenuous, filled with conviction about his own moral justifications and about the possibility of wrongs being set right, he nevertheless finds himself in over his head, adrift in a place where things aren't what they seem, where one can't understand what's happening.


Footnotes

1 And, indeed, I'm unable to recall any other films but The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep in which Bogart, whom one tends to think of as the archetypal 40's private eye, actually plays a private detective.

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