Thursday, 24 January 2013

Chinatown (1974)

I saw this classic thriller at QFT last night. Made by Roman Polanski just five years after the murder of his wife by the Manson gang, it stars Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. Written by Robert Towne, the film is set in 1930's Los Angeles and appears to be paying homage to film-noir: Nicholson is a smart private detective and Dunaway a stylish, rich lady. Then the film goes through many twists and reversals that unravel layers of corruption, conspiracy and abuse towards a bleak, tragic ending.

The film opens with Nicholson being commissioned by a jealous wife to investigate a husband who she suspects is cheating on her. The husband is the chief engineer of the city's water authority and after being followed around the country to dried up rivers (Los Angeles is in the middle of a drought and heatwave) Nicholson photographs him kissing a young girl at an assignation. The pictures are published and the chief engineer is embroiled in scandal.

In the first of many plot reversals, Nicholson is then visited by Dunaway who sets out to sue him, as she is the true wife of the chief engineer. Realising that he was originally commissioned by someone impersonating her, Nicholson decides to embark on a quest to find out who set him up and why. The first thing he finds is the dead body of the chief engineer being pulled from a reservoir. This serves to intensify his quest.

The plot interweaves the corrupt pursuit of lucrative land and water rights for the expanding city by a rich businessman, played with patrician charm and menace by John Huston (the director of several film-noir classics), and struggles for identity and authority within an abusive family, Dunaway plays Huston's daughter.

Dunaway starts out as a classic femme fatale (the black widow), appearing duplicitous and with divided loyalties: being both helper (lover) and opponent. She seems to draw Nicholson into mystery, confusion and danger. But as the film proceeds we discover bit by bit that she is a genuine person who is struggling with a terrible secret.

Nicholson is very resourceful and despite many setbacks, some of them violent (the infamous scene where one nostril is slit open by a stiletto wielding hoodlum, played by Polanski), he pursues his quest with determination. This quest is highly moral, for he is seeking to identify who is doing good and save them from those that are doing bad in a world that appears to be filled with deception and corruption. We sift the clues and unravel the complex, elusive facts as he does - we join his quest as he produces explanation after explanation, and theory upon theory, each of which is shown to be flawed and misleading.

The film concludes with a series of startling and powerful denouements. In the first of these Nicholson challenges Dunaway believing that she killed her husband, drowning him in their garden pond during a row about his affair with the girl. In the turmoil that follows, Dunaway reveals that the girl seen with her husband was her daughter, the product of an abusive relationship with her father when she was a teenager, and that Huston now wants to take the girl from her.

Dunaway needs to escape with her daughter and wants to go Mexico. Nicholson finds a friend to drive them there and arranges for them to meet the getaway driver that evening in Chinatown. Then Nicholson goes to challenge Huston about his corrupt water and land deals and discovers that it was he who murdered his own son-in-law (drowning him after he had uncovered this corruption). Huston is unmasked as the charming face of evil, saying 'I don’t blame myself, you see most people don’t have to face the fact that at the right time, the right place, they're capable of anything!'

Having secured the water and land deals, Huston wants to take full charge of his younger daughter (Dunaway's incestuous child). At gunpoint he forces Nicholson to take him to the meeting point in Chinatown (after which he will kill him). All the characters converge here for the climactic scene.

First off Nicholson is handcuffed, arrested for withholding evidence. He protests to the police that Huston is the one they really want, but they ignore him. Dunaway then attempts to make the getaway with her daughter, Huston confronts them in the car, shouting that Dunaway is 'a disturbed woman, who cannot hope to provide.' He is shot in the arm by Dunaway who speeds off. The police shoot at the receding car, it slows to a stop, the horn sounds and someone begins to scream.

All the characters rush to the car. Dunaway is dead, slumped forward, shot through the head. Huston comforts the screaming girl, putting his hand over her eyes: he has got what he wanted. Nicholson is shocked and stunned: 'as little as possible' he mumbles. The police lieutenant releases Nicholson, shouting 'get him the hell out of here', and begins to take charge of the crime scene. The film ends with two friends leading Nicholson away down a street filled with clamour and sirens: one says 'forget it, Jake, its Chinatown'.

Originally there was a happy ending, but this was rewritten by Polanski and Nicholson shortly before the final scene was filmed. In this ending the rich, powerful and unscrupulous win out over those on a moral quest to right wrongs and do good. Nicholson's final comment refers back to (post-coital) dialogue in which he spoke to Dunaway about things that happened when he was working as a policeman in Chinatown years ago.

Chinatown here becomes a metaphor for a community with a complex mix of good and evil, where 'you cant tell what's going on'. In such a place of intense moral ambiguity, your best intentions can have the opposite effect: Nicholson says to Dunaway 'I was trying to keep someone from being hurt, I ended up making sure that she was hurt.' In the climax of the film this tragedy repeats itself, as Dunaway, the vulnerable female victim he was trying to save, is killed. In shock, Nicholson self-critically repeats the advice he had been given in Chinatown many years previously: when you don’t really know what you're doing, its best to do 'as little as possible'.

This bleak ending is entirely fitting and makes the film tonally complete. A happy ending would indeed feel inappropriate. Unsurprisingly the film has garnered many awards, most notably Best Film, Director, Screenplay and Leading Actor at the Golden Globes (at the Oscars it gained only Best Screenplay, the main awards being taken by The Godfather 2). Reissued almost 40 years after it was made, Chinatown certainly retains its power.

However, at a more fundamental level, I find the bleak vision of the film unsatisfying. Yes, the moral crusader who sets out on a quest to right wrongs in a complex and corrupt world is certainly problematic and most likely dangerous. One thinks of Travis Bickle and the violent excesses of any number of gunmen in American schools or in the Algerian desert. We are of course flawed and unable to apportion right and wrong fairly. But when you cant really know what you are doing in a complex and morally ambiguous world, does it mean that the only real course of action is to do as little as possible? I don't think so, for that means that the powerful and unscrupulous will always win out. This strikes me as equally problematic and dangerous.

I believe there is a challenging moral possibility that lies between these unpalatable alternatives. A way forward that is grounded in accepting what we can and cannot change. Try as we might, we aren't able to directly change the world's flaws and inadequacies - but but we can certainly alter our own. With plenty of hard work we can change ourselves and how we relate to whoever we encounter. Far from being a retreat, this has repercussions way beyond ourselves. As Mahatma Gandhi wisely observes, 'be the change that you want to see in the world'.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Gill Banks

Gill Banks

10 Dec 1959
17 Jan 1987

Love and Peace
Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Loss and Change

Most people hate change. Particularly when that change is radical and forced upon us against our will. We resist the change with all our resources - hostility, denial, withdrawal, avoidance and so on. I know them all very well, having spent a long time actively resisting the change wrought in my life by the big C.

I wanted to return to the life I had and who I was before my diagnosis. In other words, to restore my normality. This was my quest and I was terribly afraid of failing to achieve it. For if I let go of my normal life, the activities I valued (e.g. cycling, hillwalking) and the people I did them with, I would be losing myself. And then I would be lost and alone in an extremely painful place - just poor, defenceless me and the big C.

This desire to protect yourself is quite normal. Because change always entails  loss and pain. The more radical the change, the more traumatic that experience. Thus we seek to avoid the pain of loss, even when it is unavoidable. But as Thoreau observes, 'not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves'.

So how did the change happen for me? I'm still working it out, but I think it goes something like this.

Over the past year in particular, a number of different (and contradictory) processes have been going on at the same time. Firstly, all sorts of resistance and plenty of attempts to prove that I was still who I thought I was. Inevitably there was lots of disappointment and pain in this. Secondly, withdrawal into self-pity and mourning for who I used to be, alongside bouts of anger and renewed resistance. Thirdly, experiments with new ideas and activities - some more tentative and soon abandoned, others more intensive and prolonged (e.g. singing in a choir). Fourthly, some sort of acceptance and revaluing of who and where I was - that the past wasn’t as good as I had made out and the present wasn’t as bad as I feared.

It now strikes me that anthropologists would call this experience a 'rite of passage'. These take place in traditional cultures to shape important changes of identity, for example the transition from childhood to adulthood (Victor Turner is the authority on this).

What have been the parameters of my passage? It's hard to be specific. In recent years there have been a series of important changes in my life: the death of my mother (my remaining parent), early retirement from work, the death of my brother from cancer, my own cancer diagnosis and treatment, then my partner leaving me.

This is where I've come from. It's been quite an ordeal. But where have I arrived?

In my previous post I said I had become more fully myself. This feels very true. I called it a process of becoming. This process has also been a reconstruction.

Like Humpty Dumpty, I had a great fall and my pieces have been put back together again. But they don’t fit as before because some of the pieces are bigger, some are smaller and there are also some new pieces that didn’t really exist previously. So I'm a refocused and rebalanced person, somewhat more than I used to be, clearer and more confident of who and where I am.

As Oscar Wilde pithily observes, 'be yourself; everyone else is already taken'.