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. Continue reading