by John Denvir, USF Law School (March 1998)
One of the weaknesses of a legal education is that it teaches us to view law from a microcosmic perspectivewhat rule applies to the facts presented in the hypothetical fact pattern. Many films take this same perspective, limiting "law" to what transpires in a courtroom . But law operates far beyond the courtroom as one important ingredient in the larger culture. For example, most of our daily activities presuppose that we inhabit a political space in which the "rule of law" reigns, a society certainly not perfect, but eminently perfectible. Some films adopt this larger perspective. For instance, the film noir genre subverts the "rule of law" assumption, forcing us to reexamine myths about law and America which our commercial culture usually conceals. Roman Polanskis Chinatown (aided by a superb screen play by Robert Towne) is such a film.
We can view Chinatown from two different perspectives. We can see it as a "small" story about the experiences of Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a 1930's private investigator who gets involved in a murder case and a romantic tangle with one of his clients. His attempts to solve the murder and protect the woman backfire and he actually contributes to a scenario in which not only does the murderer goes free, but the woman is also killed. The foregoing is all true, but only the surface of a more interesting film.
We can also see Chinatown as a parable about reform in America. The film takes place in the late 1930's as FDR pulled America out the depression. Interestingly, it takes place in a Los Angeles which has little to do with either the smog receptacle of the 70's or the lush tropical paradise of many other Hollywood films; Polanskis L.A. is a beautifully clean bright desert which extends right down to the ocean. In fact, the pristine light of this desert city plays a role in Chinatown similar to Monument Valley in a John Ford westerna mythic stage for set for the combat of the forces of good and evil.
"Good" here means the populist reformist ideology we associate with the best parts of the New Deala government of, for and by the people. It is most clearly symbolized in the film by Hollis Mulwray, the water commissioner who thinks the "water belongs to the people" and is murdered attempting to fight a dam project which will rob orange farmers of their land and Angelenos of their scarce water resources. "Evil" is symbolized by Mulwrays former business partner Noah Cross (John Huston) a rich, powerful incarnation of the ruthlessness of capitalism, crazy in his determination to control the future for no better reason than to show he can do it.
We might see Jake Gittes as the "last liberal." He is part of the new middle class arising in the 30's. Hes a snappy dresser in his white suits and Florsheim shoes and justly proud of the Venetian blinds which he has just had installed in his office. Most of Gittes work is in the marital area, a fact about which he is a little defensive. But he sees himself very much in the populist mold, "helping people in trouble" in contrast to bankers who foreclose on peoples homes. Yes, Gittes is very much the American liberalsomeone who wants to do good and do well at the same time.
Gittes is no fool. Hes a slick character who feels hes really in the "know." We see several illustrations of his cleverness. For instance, we are impressed when he steals the business cards from an officials office so as to be able to impersonate him later to gain access to "off limits" sites. Or we marvel at his ingenuity in using a feigned sneeze to drown out the sound of tearing out a page of official records from another office, or his trick of bashing in one taillight of a car he wants to follow at night. Gittes is one smart guy. In fact, he laughs derisively when someone accuses him of being a "innocent man."
But as the story transpires, we find out that he is just thatinnocent in the sense of naive. Noah Cross warns him that he doesnt have any idea of what hes really dealing with, but Gittes dismisses the comment. Yet, it is his inability to conceive of the depth and breadth of the Crosss depravity which makes Gittes and the woman hes trying to protect such easy prey.
Part of Gittes naivete is his tied to his All-American individualism. Hes the classic American male loner. This translates into an inability to trust anyone. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) begs Gittes to trust her just a little, but Gittes cant. He has to figure out the riddle for himself. When he finally does figure it out, its too late for both Evelyn Mulwray and himself.
The movies message is a bleak one. Noah Cross has no trouble handling liberals like Hollis Mulwray and Jake Gittes. They think the system can be made to work by sincerity and intelligence. Cross knows the real system in America is money. Police officers, judges, legislators all eventually name their price or leave the playing field. In the end the alliance between capital and political corruption rules as it has always ruled. Polanski and Towne want us to compare the clean light of Chinatown to the dull haze of the Los Angeles of 1973 (when the film was made) still recovering from the Watts riots.
Are they right? If so, our beloved "rule of law" is a cruel hoax. But hopefully the future is not a film noir. We can read morals in Chinatown. The reformer of the Twentieth First Century will have to realize that theres no room for naivete or individualism . The victories won (the air quality is better in LA in 1998 than it was in 1973!) are the consequences of hard-nosed political strategies implemented by groups of citizens who understand that the internal values of corporate capitalism are antithetical to both democracy and any meaningful conception of the public good. Only movies have plots. We make up the future as we go.