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The AFI Top 100 Films: Chinatown (#19)

Entertainment 150Chinatown (1974)
Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston
Written by Robert Towne
Directed by Roman Polanski

Chinatown is a hell of a noir film. Set in the Los Angeles of the 1930s, it uses the acquisition of water by land barons to explore deeper themes of moral bankruptcy and how one man’s remorseless lust for power can override a system set up for the public good. The villain’s relentless drive for control creates victims of the near and dear as well as complete strangers. Everyone’s powerless against one person willing to exploit the system as much as possible.

Like most detective stories, this one starts simple. Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is approached by a woman to investigate her husband, Hollis Mulwray. Jake tails him, finds him protesting the creation of a new reservoir in town and then cheating on his wife. He takes pictures, gives them to Mrs. Mulwray, and finds them plastered all over the front pages of every newspaper in town the next morning. When he gets back to his office, he meets a woman (Dunaway) who insists on asking if they’ve ever met before. When Jake denies ever seeing her, she tells him that she’s actually Mrs. Mulwray and he can expect a lawsuit.

It gets more and more twisted from there. Jake, realizing he’s been set up, resolves to see the case through to the end. Every new clue leads him to another turn in the case, and every turn takes him away from the personal and towards the political. It isn’t long before Jake finds himself uncovering a massive plot to control the land and water for a great part of Los Angeles. Worse than that, the person at the head of this plot has ruined the life of the femme fatale he’s become entangled with. I won’t say any more about the plot here; if you don’t know what happens, it’s best if you find out along with Jake.

The ending, though, is a sucker-punch that leaves an indelible mark and — frankly — makes the movie great. Jake is left shaken by the ordeal he’s just been through, and I can only imagine that he’d struggle with where to go from there. What’s the point in trying to do anything in a world that allows the events in Chinatown to happen the way they do? What good could you possibly do when you’re working within a system that allows evil men to flourish?

His dilemma becomes ours, and we’re forced to confront a really basic question through this twisting little narrative. There are so many different ways to be “evil”, to visit harm onto your fellow man, and everywhere you turn you seem to find people who are connoisseurs of the practice. The society you live in makes it so difficult to be “good,” and often you find yourself swimming upstream if you try to do the right thing. There’s little reward or recognition; in fact, if you make too big of a splash you’ll likely be trampled down by the system. What makes the fight worth it? How do you recover from a setback or loss?

Jake Gittes doesn’t have an answer for it, and neither do any of his associates. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” He might as well be talking about the world, our whole experience. It feels like the movie leads you to the door of an existential void and simply drops you there at the end of it. What do you see when you look in?

It’s incredible that a noir could lead us here, starting from the titillating possibility of marital infidelity all the way to the question about why we even bother with morality in a cold, unfair universe. The writing of the story encourages us to think more and more broadly through the way it opens, each clue exposing a wider expanse of mystery until we’re left with the grandest one of all.

I suppose that’s one of the things that makes the noir detective such a crisp and engaging figure. He’s been hardened by the world but otherwise unchanged by it, constantly trying to do the right thing the best way he knows how. He’s a modern-day Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill, only to watch it falling down again. The effort takes something out of him every time. But we imagine him returning to his office, taking other cases, going back down the hill and starting all over again. And depending on your outlook, that’s sad or inspiring. Or both.

Jack Nicholson is surprisingly great at playing Gittes, the private detective who’s competent but out of his depth here. He’s smart, wily and snarky, but there’s a severe power disbalance between the gumshoe and the ultimate target of his investigation. Nicholson seems to be the guy with all the power in the room whenever you see him most times, and there’s none of that here. It’s really intriguing to watch him struggle, be confused, try to get a handle on things.

Polanski does a great job as well, making sure every scene crackles with the energy it needs to, staying true to the noirish tropes of long shadows and stifling heat while making everything look distinctly southern Californian. For some reason, the sunny locale makes the darkness of the characters’ secrets that much more stark. He encourages Nicholson, Dunaway and Huston to be subsumed by their characters, and every bit of subtext he includes is understated, suggested by the performance. I imagine Chinatown would hold up well to repeat viewings for just that reason; there’s bound to be all sorts of stuff you missed the first time.

This movie is as good as film noir gets. It’s a great example of its genre, but it extends beyond it to play around with some really big ideas. Other movies might be a bit more entertaining, but none are as rich as Chinatown.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (#20)

Entertainment 150One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Starring Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher and Will Sampson
Written by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman (screenplay) and Ken Kesey (novel)
Directed by Milos Forman

Jon Ronson (he of The Men Who Stare at Goats¬†fame) submitted a report for NPR’s This American Life one week, about a man in England who pleaded insanity for a crime he committed. The defense worked; instead of going to jail, he went to a mental institution and thought he would get out in a matter of months. He discovered, with creeping dread, that proving that you’re sane once you’ve been branded insane is not easy at all. Decades later, he’s still there, fighting for his release.

This was a story that stuck with me, and I couldn’t help but remember it while watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because it was so similar. McMuprhy (Nicholson) finds himself admitted to a mental institution after a short and troubled stint in prison for statutory rape; he figures that once he’s in he’ll simply do his time and leave without any issues. What he finds instead when he gets to the ward are a bunch of patients who voluntarily submit to the tyrannical rule of Nurse Ratched (Fletcher), a steely-eyed, soft-voiced disciplinarian whose power is gained by maintaining the status quo.

McMurphy immediately chafes under Ratched’s rules, and the basic conflict of the film is set. To all casual observers, Ratched is fighting the good fight; she’s gentle, reasonable, and tries to lead her patients to make wise decisions. What’s fascinating though, is that if you listen to the way she frames her Socratic questions, there’s a minefield underneath her delicate, innocent framing. She loads her interactions with half-insults meant to break down her patient, triggering guilt and uncertainty, setting herself up so that her “helpful suggestions” solve problems that she creates and advances. It’s insidious and ingenious. She takes great pains to cover her power through bland neutrality and misdirection.

That’s why McMurphy bucking against her authority seems to prove his insanity at first. But over time, his “coyote wisdom” has an effect on the patients and they begin to think things through for themselves. Her control slipping, Rached resorts to less subtle methods of regaining the upper hand, and the film escalates from there. It becomes apparent that only one of them can lead these broken men through their troubles, and both of them very badly want to be the singular leader of the ward.

Nicholson is affably unhinged here, crude but personable, as capable of insulting and complimenting you with equal sincerity. The film is populated with people who give singular but affecting performances (Fletcher won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress here, and Will Sampson is really entrancing as the silent giant “Chief” Bromden) and recognizable, bona-fide stars in early roles (Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor). All of them carve distinctive and sympathetic characters with a minimum of screen time; I’m impressed not only with their ability to do the most with what they’ve been given, but the quality of the material they have to boot. By being incredibly flawed but relatable people, the chorus of the insane in the ward offer themselves up as real stakes for both Ratched and McMurphy; you want them to succeed, thus you want McMurphy to succeed.

The movie takes a rather dark turn towards its third act, and I won’t say much about it here in case you haven’t seen it yet. But the tonal shift proves to be the most problematic aspect of the movie — the escalating war between the nurse and the patient produces its first bit of collateral damage, and the immediate aftermath gives us something that can’t be condoned. I’ve been told that the scene in the book takes it much further than the movie, which introduces questions about misogyny on the part of the author and just what the intent is here. We’ve been with McMurphy up until this point of the film, so are we supposed to condone this too? If not, why take away our sympathy for the protagonist this late in the game? The story has so much momentum at this point, and it’s that much more jarring for the rug to be pulled out from under us in that way. What are we to make of what happens, and the consequences leading from that?

Still, you can’t help but wince at the ending, where the sudden and brutal conflict comes to its end. Both sides win, after a fashion, but the sacrifices they’ve had to make to get there are incredibly steep. I think your perception of it is determined by how optimistic you are; I think we’re meant to take away a bit of hope with the finish, though I could totally see if someone thought it tragic.

Very few people can manage to hang with Jack Nicholson at his prime, and it’s a testament to Louise Fletcher that she proved to be such a capable foil for him. The rivalry between Ratched and McMurphy prove to be the strong spine of the movie, capable of carrying the rest of the story on its back. Thankfully, it only has to do the heavy lifting in a couple of places; everyone else is on the game too.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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