[1974] Chinatown

I broke my own rule on this one because I’d seen this film a few times before. But they’re my “rules” and, truthfully, it doesn’t matter, because I was interested in taking this film on as a corollary to my education as an urban planner. A professor of mine had mentioned in passing that Chinatown was the best “planning” movie ever made. If I can extrapolate a little further, what Professor Landis meant was more along the lines of “Chinatown is the best movie ever made in an urban setting whose main plot piece revolves around zoning and water/land use,” two issues dear to every urbanist’s heart. To the passing urbanist – an effete young worker in a sea of tall buildings and traffic congestion – issues of environmental justice and invisible infrastructure mean very little, yet are continuously essential to the maintenance of a thriving city. Most movies assume the standardization of the proxy: by translating the image of what the reader knows to frame the story onto the screen, there exists no need to redefine the space. This is the very fact upon which “dystopian” story exploits. Chinatown is not set in a dystopia – in fact the very opposite.

What makes Chinatown so lauded and versatile is its complete indulgence in verisimilitude. Truthiness and embedded authenticity therein is often understandably relaxed (by both the film maker and by the reader of a work of art) to serve the higher purpose to entertain; and that’s fine. But Chinatown is doggedly determined to exploit truth in the face of the story to give it the semblance of real life, working in tandem with the urban(e) truths of city building benefiting the few at the expense of so many. The “justice” in environmental justice provides the motivation for several of the characters to act as they do. Planners are intimately (or should be) entwined in creating a space for the benefit of every aspect of city life and even informally trained planners (read: humans) understand this concept, whatever they may exude in conversation or in ideology. This movie displays in perfect cacophony the levels to which people will elevate to indulge delusion of this concept. That’s what makes the famous quote “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown” so anti-dramatic. 

Chinatown spends almost no time wasted on the mundane causes of character motivation because the “reasons” are so embedded in the action. It works like a book in this way, where the reader is left, at times, to implicitly extrapolate meaning from word without the obvious chorus or narrator there to fill us in. (As an aside, Chinatown  non-coincidentally won “Best Original Screenplay in 1974. I am not surprised). To achieve this, meaning has to be simple, but not uncomplicated and it has to be plausible, but not obvious. Chinatown might be the first and only movie whose story is based on nothing but the urban landscape to achieve this level of proximate truth. It might be the only film before or since that can’t be accused of convenience.

Because Chinatown, while based on the central idea of “planning,” is not about planning. We hear the phrase, “what we talk about when we talk about x‘” often enough and correctly interpret this phrase as the author intends it to enlighten us to hidden or embedded meaning. But we’re not talking about “urban planning” when we talk about Chinatown, because the urban nature of the film provides the audience with anchor points, but not ongoing resolutions and grand ideas in context. That the audience never finds out whether Cross’ plan to incorporate the valley into the city is irrelevant, indicative and inconsequential to the resolution of the film. What we talk about when we talk about Chinatown is Chinatown, not “Chinatown” with the excellent and confusingly inexpensive dim sum. That water is the central theme matters to planners, but is in passing not relevant to other viewers of the film. Truth comes from source and it just happens to be that the source was held up behind a dam in this instance.

Part of what makes Chinatown so immediate and immediately rewatchable, is the acting and machinations that feel real. Noir film is neither source nor benefactor of realism in film, but the connections between the two make for thought-provoking and vital characters. J.J. (Jake) Gittes, as portrayed by Jack Nicholson, is a man with clarity and scruples that confound his vision for enterprise. Evelyn Cross Mulwray, as played by Faye Dunaway, is a damaged and delirious woman with a secret, though she oddly dangles this information almost as an afterthought in the face of almost no consequence. Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross, who we see through the eyes of John Huston, is the alpha and omega, in a way no city-builder has been since before this movie was made. It is upon his misdirection and purposefully limited screen time that the other characters’ motivations play out. Noah Cross is Robert Moses, perhaps, incarnate.

Chinatown won only 1 Oscar after having been nominated for eleven, surely a function of one of those (un)fortunate years where one film dominated both critical and commercial acclaim (The Godfather, Part II) and other films produced such a diverse and dense landscape, it is almost to justify or lambaste any of the selections. I have my own personal qualms with The Godfather, Part II, but none of these delude my thinking that Chinatown is one of the greatest films ever made, “planning” notwithstanding.


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