Blu-ray Review: CHINATOWN

Featured Critic; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
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Blu-ray Review: CHINATOWN
"Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown"

They knew they had the line down when they shot it. It's given to a secondary character, but the look on Jack/Jake's face is what sells it visually. It's a kind of mantra, when you rewatch the film it's the line that runs through your mind the entire time. Every time the characters talk of this place where nothing makes sense, where all the rules are turned upside down, where the most obscene behaviours are clouded behind a culture of obfuscation, you think of that line. Forget it, you won't understand it, you're best to just pretend that this stuff just doesn't go down, not on your watch.

It's the closing line of the film, and despite this fact it features prominently in the trailer, something sure to annoy those that feel that contemporary trailers are somehow more explicit in what they give away in terms of story. From script to screen, it was a summary of the film's metaphorical conceit, a warning, an ironic statement about something quite unforgettable.

You can't forget it. It's Chinatown.

This is the film that made Jack a star. Sure, in Easy Rider, he became celebrate, an "overnight success" after more than a decade of anonymous toil. But with Chinatown, we get the Nicholson that became simply Jack. Robert Towne was roomies with Jack, he wrote in to the very DNA of the script Jacks sardonic nature, his anger, is humour, his fears. This is one of the tightest scripts ever produced, one film students rip apart just to see how beautifully it all fits together. And this is a script that was written for Jack to be Jack.

Producer Robert Evans was at the height of his powers, able to both run his own studio and make a film a year of his choosing. Hiring Polanksi and convincing him to return to Hollywood was supposedly Jack's idea. Roman had left the US after the murder of his wife and unborn child at the hands of the Manson cult. He was to leave not long afterwards, caught up in a scandal involving photographs he took of a legally underage girl. Polanski's future was in Europe, his personal favourite film remains The Pianist based in part of the horrors he witnessed in Europe. Yet the film that most establishes his craft is Chinatown, the culmination of his previous productions, a film equaled but never surpassed.

Certainly, Roman never did a film that felt so perfectly American again, and given the reasons
for his continued exclusion from the US, it's unlikely that the still prolific filmmaker ever will (Carnage, his latest underappreciated film, comes close).

Robert Towne had written scripts before Chinatown, and he'd write afterwards. They'd never be anywhere as good, they'd never approach the breezy style and slick dialogue without it feeling force or affected.

My least enjoyable part of the film is Faye Dunaway's performance, but I think that might because it's extremely effective. Dunaway plays Evelyn with a kind of manic coldness, a discomforting feeling exudes throughout. Even moments of intimacy seem calculated and offputting. Character wise, she's exactly what was called for, a bubbling mix of hysteria and squint-eyed dismissiveness. The girl can rock a hat with the best of them. She had of course already been in one classic where she carved out an iconic, beret wearing profile while playing the grinning and diabolical Bonnie. In Chinatown, with a starker costume design, her feline features with those astonishing cheekbones make her at times seem downright alien. When she bangs her head on the steering wheel in frustration, or gets slapped into confession, it seems a bit contrived to a contemporary audience, yet this is exactly what the story needs, Evelyn providing a foil to to Jake's broken assuredness.

Frankly, without Faye's commitment and her broad swings in mood and temperament, the film would have fallen apart. It may be argued that this is the last great thing she'd ever do (Network is of course wonderful, and an argument may be made for that performance. There's no comparison however to the heights that Jack was about to achieve, and in some ways this was a precursor to her steady downfall into mediocre roles.

This is a film about flow and change, and it's also how the rape of the land can be a metaphor for the ravaging of a family. Goldsmith's score, composed in a paltry six weeks, is one of the best ever composed for film. The cinematography, a mix of gorgeously composed shots and visceral widescreen handheld moments, belay the Noir aspects of the story and craft a golden look at a lost Los Angeles. From the design of Jack's suit to the perfect selection of the location shoots, right through to that remarkable shot where the camera slices the frame and the crane gently lifts to bring the house back into focus, this is the stuff that will continue to feed filmmakers and students of cinema for generations.

The Disc

I've owned Chinatown in a number of formats, from Laserdisc to a few DVD releases, and it will come as no surprise that the disc surpasses any previous home iteration by a mile. First time viewers may take for granted just how incredible this presentation is for a film of this age. Comparing it even theatrical presentations, this is a transfer that beautifully represents that period of filmmaking, from the colour palates of the design to the textures of the costumes.

Fine details down to the weave of Jake's suit are presented, and the film doesn't suffer from being scrubbed of grain. Occasional blemishes and softness occur, almost certainly tied to the original production of the film. Rather than distract, these moments even more effectively capture the original presentation. Frankly, save for some first run prints at showcase cinemas, it's unlikely this film has ever looked better.

The sound too is top notch - there's a spruced up 5.1 Lossless track, and (a must for classic films like this!) a Lossless Mono track of the original soundtrack as well. Kudos to the team at Paramount for giving the viewer a choice between these options. The surround mix is pretty tame by contemporary standards, but opens up the film nicely, particularly with the "ooomph" of gunshots or the stereophonic sweep of the orchestral score.

Supplemental Materials

Audio Commentary
While Polanski's contemporary views would have made for a wonderful addition, this is a pretty stellar track as it is. Robert Towne is joined by uber Chinatown geek David Fincher. David's enthusiasm for the film is quite contagious, his near obsession with the film a nice foil to the laconic remembrances by Towne. Fincher speaks of searching out various LA locations, even staging scenes from Fight Club at the exact spot where Polanski chose to shoot a given scene.

The track really shines when Towne throws water on a given theoretical point that Fincher raises, or when David illustrates a thrown shadow by equipment that's trumped by the effectiveness of the performance. One of the better commentaries ever assembled, this is frankly worth the cost of the disc in and of itself.

Water & Power
This Standard Definition, three part feature length documentary is a strange, yet welcome addition to the set. We follow Towne as he heads up to the Owens valley, tracing the actual water route that feeds the taps of Los Angeles to this day.

The actual history of LA's water rights was greatly modified in the film, but the tale is almost as fascinating and cruel as the fictional one of Chinatown. It's slightly overlong, but its scope is impressive, from environmental activists to the city commisioners, through to Aboriginal representatives and long-standing residents of the Valley that stood up to the metropolis to the South. It's a more strident documentary than most fluff pieces included on disc, but it manages to provide in pretty strong detail the ongoing ramifications of LAs battles over water.

Chinatown: An Appreciation
Another SD holdover from the previous DVD set, we get a slew of filmmakers (Steven Soderbergh, Roger Deakins, Kimberly Pierce, James Newton Howard) talking about their love of the film. Fluffy stuff, especially compared to the commentary, but nice to hear from a diverse group of people about the work.

Chinatown: The Beginning and the End
Chinatown: Filming
Chinatown: The Legacy

Another three-part documentary, these are inteviews with the key personnel done for the original Laserdisc release. It's here that we get to hear from the central participants - Polanski, Nicholson, Towne, and Evans all tell tales of the production, from initial conception through to scoring the film after Roman had to depart to direct an Opera in Europe.

Jack is always a pleasure to hear from, and Evans is his usual gregarious, bigger-than-life self. Roman's involvement is obviously the most welcome given the paucity of his other involvement with the disc, and its generous and open with his assessment of the work and the quality of his contributors.

The disc also includes the Theatrical Trailer in HD, which as I've already stated includes that dastardly closing line.

In Closing

The greatest irony about Chinatown is that it's a metaphor for a place one never wants to return to, yet the film is so richly deserving of rewatching. On a disc of this caliber, you'll want to visit the steamy, seamy streets over and over again. Compelling from both a story and a production standpoint, Chinatown remains one of the greatest films ever made, a touchstone of early 70s cinema and a foundational part of the history of film, and embodies the type of release that's mandatory for any serious film library.
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Joshua ChaplinskyMay 22, 2012 10:07 PM

On my shelf. Can't wait to listen to that commentary.