The Forty-Year Rule

Feb 14, 2014

Let me just say I’m sick of people digging up obscure masterpieces designed to make me feel like a philistine, or, worse, arguing that an acknowledged masterpiece isn’t in fact a masterpiece at all but the beneficiary of some collective cultural hypnosis. I’m going in the opposite direction: I’m going to call attention to a classic that, in my opinion, is as good--or even better--than we all think it is: Chinatown.

If you really analyze a great film, it can teach you how to make a film, and Chinatown is one of the best blueprints of all: a compelling and/or entertaining subject explored through a well-constructed narrative (Robert Towne brilliantly fictionalizes the real story of Los Angeles’ battle for water1); a great cast doing career-defining work (Nicholson and Dunaway--in my opinion--both look and act better than they’ve ever looked or acted2); an appropriately distinctive visual scheme (the sets, costumes, and photography are painfully evocative, and Polanski never puts the camera in the wrong place3); and, most crucially, smart editing and scoring (the macro editing has just the right press and release, the micro editing is seamless except when it’s not supposed to be, and Goldsmith’s melancholy score--a last-minute addition--wraps the whole film in an intoxicating perfume of dread4). Of course, it also follows that bad films contain the reverse DNA, showing you what not to do, but in general I like to watch good films, because bad films make me sad. Actually, Chinatown makes me sad too, mostly because it reminds me I started watching and making films at a time when the movies were as great as they seemed to be. Oh well. At least I wasn’t imagining things.5

1. This is a good time to comment on the cottage industry that has sprung up around the HOW-TO screenplay book(s). I think of this because Towne’s script is often cited as a great template (which it is), but invariably with no understanding or acknowledgement of the the role film editing has in shaping a finished film. So, to me, transcribing the release version of Chinatown and holding it up as an example of pure screenwriting indicates of lack of experience in the actual making of films on the part of the teacher/author. 
2. I’m not kidding, Nicholson and Dunaway are fucking spectacular in this. His smile and her cheekbones? Come on. 3. Like I said, there’s everything you need to need know to direct a movie here. There’s a huge difference between being economical and being cheap, and Polanksi shows you the difference, over and over again. You might not notice he basically shoots the whole film with one lens, and check out the multiple destination camera moves, which are invariably hidden within the actors’ moves. Plus, there’s nobody better at knowing when to pull the camera off the dolly and go handheld, which he only does when he can’t get the shot he wants any other way. 4. I think editing is in a weird place right now. Technology has opened the door for a lot of over-editing on a micro level, and while you would think the ability to get to an assembly/early cut faster would allow for a longer period of judging the entire piece as a whole, editing on a macro level has never been worse. I leave it to you to decide why this is, but consider that Sam O’Steen, editor of Chinatown, wrote a terrific book about editing called Cut to the Chase, and one of the many smart things he says is: Movie first, scene second, moment third. So I see a lot of contemporary films in which this credo is not followed—or even understood—and no one has ever asked basic questions like: What is the ultimate purpose of this scene in the movie? What would happen if it was gone? Assuming it absoultely has to stay, is it in the right place? What would happen if we put it somehwere else? Or inverted the structure of the scene itself? Or had one of the speaking characters within it not speak? Or took this scene and some others around it and turned them into a sequence? And on and on and on, because when you’re in the editing room, anything is possible.  
5. Oh no. I’ve officially become a bitter, nostalgic fuck. How did this happen?