Monday, November 30, 2009

Chinatown (1974)

I came to movies late. In my teens I managed to see the occasional blockbuster, the PG ones at least, and once in a while watched something more serious on VHS, borrowed from the local public library. Then once I went away to college I lost interest in movies for about ten years. Saw them once in a while, on a date or with friends, but was too transient or too poor (no VCR) to see many on my own. One of my sisters had a thing for classic Hollywood, but I never thought it was for me.

It was after I graduated from college (after a long break between my sophomore and junior years) that I really got interested in movies. I took a job teaching English in Japan, and lived in company housing for three years, usually alone, but with a TV and VCR provided by the company. And I got hooked on movies. For about three years I watched obsessively, and for the last year or so, after breaking up with my girlfriend, I was averaging one a night, at least. It was a pretty pathetic existence - I knew this at the time - I'd come home from work, get dinner from one of three or four convenience stores within walking distance, and settle in for the night with a video or two. Like I say, pretty pathetic, and oh so bachelor. But I caught the film bug then. I can remember the moment when it hit. I don't remember what movie it was (probably something lame), but I remember the titles coming up and feeling a little thrill - a movie's starting. Something cool's going to happen. Like one of those self-serving AFI things.

I knew nothing. I was just watching whatever I could find in the local video stores (I'd maintain memberships in two or three at once), a pretty random selection of Hollywood stuff, classics and trash and everything in between. I should have spent this time getting into Japanese cinema - I tried, once in a while, but my Japanese wasn't yet good enough for me to feel really comfortable watching Japanese films without subtitles, and I was homesick enough that American films exerted a greater pull on me than Japanese. So it was in Japan that I explored Hollywood.

Explored it, as I say, almost randomly. I was becoming aware of film as art, but my tastes were pretty determinedly middlebrow. I worked my way through James Bond (for the first time), the Alien series, and the Star Trek movies as eagerly as I did most of Coppola, Scorsese, and de Palma. I tended to gravitate toward what you might call, not quite Guy Movies, but Guy Films - never had much taste for Schwarzenegger or Stallone, but was always a sucker for Serious Mafia Movies and Revisionist Westerns.

One of these Guy Films, one of the best, was Roman Polanski's Chinatown. I saw it several times in that period, but none of his others. Saw The Two Jakes, at least twice, and liked it, but never any other Polanski until many years later, when I was married, and we saw The Pianist, and that was at least as much for Adrian Brody as Polanski.

Why is Chinatown a Guy Film? It's got Jack Nicholson. It's got Faye Dunaway. (Bonnie and Clyde is a Guy Film, too.) It's a noir. It's a neo-noir (meaning it's much more watchable for the modern Guy than the classic noirs, which changing fashions in acting and direction have rendered a little distant). It's got Jack Nicholson (worth repeating).

Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki and I watch a lot of movies, and we try to take them seriously. Netflix is our friend. Recently we decided to explore Roman Polanski a little. The recent resurfacing of the scandal had something to do with it, I'll admit. We started with Chinatown, since neither of us had seen it in so long.

I have nothing insightful to say about it. "Forget it, Jake - it's Chinatown" is still one of the great lines in movies. Faye Dunaway is still the perfect neo-noir femme fatale. John Huston is brilliant, and Jack Nicholson is Jack, sliced-up nose and all. The color scheme, burnished yellows and browns, is the next best thing to real noir, a sunstruck updating of the idea. All of this is true, and perfectly obvious, and I'm only the five millionth person to say it.

So there's nothing to blog about here. Except that I loved it just as much as I did the first time, in my little apartment in Fujisawa. And it took me back there.

1 comment:

Cat said...

"a sunstruck updating" of "real noir" in "burnished yellows and browns" is just about the most beautiful (and apt) description of Chinatown's visual aesthetic I've ever heard. Thank you!