Tuesday, November 20, 2007

CHINATOWN (Special Collector's Edition)

Written by El Conquistadorko

may not the be the best movie ever made—director Roman Polanski doesn't count it as his personal favorite (that honor goes to The Pianist)—but it's certainly among the most compelling films in cinematic history. Released in 1974, the movie actually looks like it was made when it takes place, in Los Angeles circa the Great Depression. It started as an idea by screenwriter Robert Towne, who attended a city hall meeting on a disastrous dam project and got the idea of penning a noir script based on the essence of LA life: water.

Towne envisioned a mystery centering on ex-cop Jake Gittes, who left the force after getting into some kind of unspecified hot water in Chinatown, which Towne figured would make a great script title and mysterious metaphor for the dark forces that really run LA and get away with monstrous crimes in broad daylight—like building a city on stolen water from the Owens River Valley. That particular historical conspiracy serves as the backdrop for what begins as a simple divorce case, when Gittes is hired by someone claiming to be the Evelyn Cross Mulwray, wife of a prominent water engineer, Hollis Mulwray, who suspects her husband of infidelity.

When Gittes leaks photos of the engineer frolicking with a young girl, the real wife, played by Faye Dunaway, confronts him with his mistake. From there, the movie becomes murkier, as Gittes struggles to find out who really hired him, an investigation that quickly turns into a murder probe, as the water engineer is found dead in a dry riverbed. When police determine he actually drowned, the suspense grows and eventually pits Gittes against just about the entire LA power structure, which is ultimately personified by land baron Noah Cross, as chillingly portrayed by John Huston. Crucial to the mystery is the relationship between Cross, Evelyn Mulwray and her husband's “girlfriend,” a puzzle that Gittes solves in one of the most intense bitch-slapping sessions ever put on film.

How Gittes solves the mystery just in time to helplessly stand by as its tragic consequences unfold is a story best left to the film itself, which has never looked as good as it does on this special collector's edition. Amazingly, digital technology does nothing to erode the beautiful Panavision color scheme that (along with Towne's dutiful use of actual, well-preserved LA landmarks like Echo Park) makes the movie look like it was actually shot in the 1930s. Screenwriter Towne apparently realized it was possible to shoot a movie set forty years earlier on location in LA when he read a book published in 1970 called Raymond Chandler's LA, which featured contemporary photographs of architecture dating from that era.

When production of the movie began, Polanski and Towne still hadn't agreed on whether any of the action would take place in Chinatown. In his original script, Towne used Chinatown simply as a metaphor, but Polanski insisted at least one scene had to take place there, and eventually Polanski convinced Towne that the movie's climax should occur in Chinatown. Meanwhile, Towne and Polanski argued well into the filming of the movie, just what should take place in that final scene. Suffice it to say that Polanski's instincts were right on the mark, as Chinatown has one of the most disturbingly and perfectly noir endings of any movie.

Those particular details are just a few of the informational nuggets that come from a trio of bonus featurettes included on this one-disc release. The most interesting, “Chinatown, the Beginning and End” features interviews with Polanski, Nicholson, and Towne, although notably not Dunaway. It reveals that the film (in its inception if not its actual content) was really a buddy picture: Towne, who won the only Oscar for the film, was a roommate in the early 1970s with Nicholson, whose character, Gittes, was named after mutual friend Harry Gittes, an artist and eventual Hollywood producer who went on to produce About Schmidt, which Nicholson starred in.

Nicholson also happened to be friends with Polish director Roman Polanski, whom Nicholson asked to direct Chinatown. Polanski wasn't happy about returning to LA, because a few years earlier, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, had been murdered by acolytes of hippie cult-leader Charles Manson. Fortunately, Polanski was impressed enough by Towne's script to accept Nicholson's invitation, and after a half-year rewrite session with Towne, they began filming.

The rest, as they say is history, and even though it took 35 years for a collector's edition DVD of one of the best movies in the history of cinema to finally be released—and it doesn't even have a director's commentary—it's worth the wait.


Written by Fumo Verde

Feed sounds like a Michael Moore film about livestock but it isn’t. If it were a film where politicians were caught saying things like Sen. Allen’s “macaca” statement, or Sen. Craig’s “I have a wide stance…” explanation of why he solicited gay sex in an airport restroom, that could have been interesting, but that’s not what this is. Yes, the feeds were live back then during the presidential race of 1992, but it just wasn’t funny and even then most of these wonks running for office knew if a camera was on, the whole world would soon know. I respect this film for the political/media history it recorded, but to try and sell it as a funny documentary just doesn’t sit well with me.

Pat Buchanan was splitting the Republicans and Paul Tsongas was the Democrats front-runner while George H. W. Bush was the sitting incumbent and that’s all he did in this film was sit there. The old news footage of him in the grocery store amazed by how a scanner worked was funny a few years later, but at the time the American people couldn’t believe that this guy was making policy that changed our lives. The zany cast includes former presidential candidates (sounds like that pre-owned car shit…just call it used) Tom Harkin, Jerry Brown, Bob Kerry, and spoilsport Ross Perot. Someone needs to do a documentary on just what Perot says because 90% of it means nothing if you really listen.

The film had two funny moments. The first was when a young Governor Bill Clinton was being interviewed by some local news anchor who asked if he had ever had an extra-martial affair. Clinton responded by saying, “If I did, I wouldn’t tell you” rather than, “No.” The other had to do with a speech Tsongas was giving. Straight-laced reporter Sam Donaldson arrived a little late and there was banter between Tsongas and Donaldson. It really brought me back to the days when politics between each party and the news folk wasn’t as mean-spirited as it is today. There was laughter about the room and it put a smile on my face. Other than that, the rest of the clips didn’t have very many funny things happen in them.

If you want a glimpse of a young Hillary Rodham Clinton, the cameras were on her already as Bill ran. Even back then she was shrewd. Hillary always knew the camera was on so there were no slip-ups. Be it Jerry Brown worrying about the straightness of his tie, or Ross Perot trying to tell some stupid story or joke, there was not much humor in these feeds. Kind of sucks since the cover says things like “Laugh out loud funny - Rolling Stone,” and “Thoroughly Bizarre! - New York Times,” and "Hysterical! - Texas Monthly.”

For those of us who love CSPAN, Feed is a cool little doc that covered the ’92 election, but for anyone else, you have better things to do.