Friday, March 19, 2010

More Top Films: Chinatown

The stories Roman Polanski tells always end up being about the nature of evil. So it comes as no surprise that one of his early films after coming to Hollywood, and by some accounts his greatest success, is also one of the greatest neo-noir films ever made. Evil is the general theme behind all noir films. What Chinatown accomplishes that others before it did not is to make it seem so mundane and immediate.

Noir is usually so stylized that it is easy to remember you are simply watching a fabrication. Chinatown’s wonderful, crisp color cinematography makes the viewer forget that this film takes place in the 30s. It feels contemporary. The subject of the film—water politics in Los Angeles—seems boringly normal as well. (Far from it actually, check out Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner for an interesting read.) All of that makes us forget that Gittes is chasing after an evil being perpetrated. It seems too innocuous. That is, as it turns out, the message of the movie.

Evil is everywhere and it is still hard to see. The villains in real life do not twirl their mustaches. Every human being has the capacity to be a villain. Everyone is evil from time to time. Is that too harsh? Then everyone makes bad decisions and hurts people in their lives.

Of course the final reveal of the movie—the one that won’t be spoiled here in case someone reading this has been living in a bomb shelter since the early seventies—reminds is that evil can also be shocking. Unfortunately, the shocking sort of evil is all too common as well.

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