Friday, March 06, 2009
CHINATOWN - Act One Breakdown
Chinatown is used so often for story analysis that some people groan at the idea of having to go through it again. You all can just skip this one, then. ;)
But there’s a good reason instructors love to talk about this movie – there’s just no film better to cover ALL the elements of filmic and dramatic structure with one single movie. I never watch it without seeing new things in it, and I always benefit from hearing what other people see in it.
Like HAMLET and OEDIPUS (a little in joke, there!), it’s a classic that you just need to have in your vocabulary.
CHINATOWN – ACT ONE BREAKDOWN
Screenplay by Robert Towne
Directed by Roman Polanski
Produced by Robert Evans
Two minute credits sequence – you don’t see that any more! But the score, oh my God, just heart-wrenching. And that’s FORESHADOWING, isn’t it? This one isn’t going to end happily, and the music lets you know that. So don’t say you weren’t duly warned.
Titles are very period, very noir.
OPENING IMAGE – is sex. The dirty laundry photos that Jake’s operatives have taken of client Curly’s wife, in flagrante. It’s not just sex – it’s doggy-style. This starts one of the film’s main image systems/themes: incest and perverse sex. The whole film oozes with it.
INTRODUCTION OF HERO IN ORDINARY WORLD.
We see Jake in his office, on a typical day. We see immediately Jake is doing well for himself – this is a nice office, nice artwork, nice clothes, two operatives and a secretary. Not a scraggly PI sleeping in his office, not a down-and-out drunk. This is important when you’re writing a story that ends with the hero/ine’s fall. If you start your character too low to begin with, there’s no place for him or her to fall. So even though we can see that Jake has some issues, he’s doing all right in the beginning. But not great. If he were doing great, we’d know he was in for a fall, because that’s the nature of drama, right? It’s a delicate balance.
Nice comic moment with Curly chewing the Venetian blinds. Jake is hiding his contempt for Curly’s emotion; he’s cynical, above it all– but that’s going to change.
Also about the blinds: you may think I’m being OCD about this, but a central image of this film is sight, and seeing: various ways of seeing, various devices to see. There are shots through binoculars, eyeglasses are vital clues, sunglasses and glasses get broken, we see shots in mirrors and film lenses. And then of course, the eye image – damage to eyes, flaws in eyes, the staring eye of the fish. Jake sees things wrong. In many ways, he is blind. I don’t think it’s an accident that one of the first words Jake says in the movie is “blinds”, and that one of the first shots and film business is about window blinds.
PLANT – Curly can’t pay the whole bill and Jake says he can owe him. Superb example of hiding a plant: this moment is played as a throwaway; in the moment Jake just looks like a good guy, and in fact he kind of is, but this set up will be hugely important later, and when it comes back, it’s a big twist and “Aha!” moment.
Another important plant here – Curly is a fisherman and mentions “albacore”, which will be a clue. [3:45]
INCITING EVENT – CALL TO ADVENTURE: Enter a new client – the phony Mrs. Mulwray. She thinks her husband’s having an affair, she wants to hire Jake to find out.
THEME, FORESHADOWING and SET UP – Jake tells her “Let sleeping dogs lie. Believe me, you don’t want to know.” Jake, however, does not follow his own advice, and that leads to horrific tragedy.
We see Jake and his operatives’ interest in money: Jake takes the case when he learns Mrs. Mulwray’s husband is the Chief Engineer of Water and Power, and that “money is no object” to her.
[5:46] Cut to: Courthouse: Jake attends a Water and Power hearing as he starts to tail Mulray. Big set up of a main THEME and the ARENA and BACKSTORY of the story: L.A. is in a bad drought, and farmers and city dwellers alike are getting desperate. Great speech about how L.A. is a desert and could easily return to being a desert. Officials argue that the dam will save the city.
An important note: CHINATOWN is based on historical fact. The character of Mulwray (and Cross) is based on William Mulholland, the real-life former head of the L.A. Department of Water and Power. All the story about the 500 people killed in the dam collapse that we hear from Mulwray in the courtroom, and the water diversion and the incorporation of the Valley that we will learn about – it’s all completely based on fact, and I encourage you to read a little about the history so that you can appreciate how beautifully this film dramatizes fact, in case you’re doing that or ever do.
This film also beautifully depicts the central fact about Los Angeles that every native is always aware of: L.A. really IS a desert, and never more than a few thousand gallons away from dying of thirst.
Now, all this exposition could be deadly dull – and the filmmakers let the audience know that they know this by having Jake yawn and read the racing reports. (also he sneaks a look at the elderly farmers, who are riveted – this is a set up for what is to come)
But Mulwray is an instantly arresting character – a nerdy but also somehow haunted-looking man who speaks with impressive passion against the dam. Jake is intrigued. And then a great scene moment – the sheep invading the courtroom. It’s a great climax to the scene because it’s so unexpected, and it dramatizes the point that the farmers and herders in the Valley are desperate for water and going under. [8:05]
Now, cut to the Valley (INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD) and we SEE what we have just been told: L.A. is a desert (we will see desert images over and over and over again. I look at this movie and it’s always like going home).
Jake is watching Mulwray investigating a dry-as-bone riverbed. He watches him through binoculars. (the SEEING imagery). This could easily have been be a dull scene, but the music is disquieting, ominous – it lets us know, and more importantly, FEEL, that what is going on is mysterious and important. There’s also the lovely moment with the Mexican boy on horseback – a somehow archetypal, mysterious image. We become hooked on whatever it is that Mulwray is doing, just as Jake does. And Mulwray certainly doesn’t seem to be sneaking off to see a mistress.
Next scene, as Jake continues to follow Mulwray – we’re now at the ocean, following the water pipes. Again, this is SHOWING us exactly what we’ve been told in the courtroom scene – that L.A. is wedged between an encroaching desert and an undrinkable ocean. We know from the deliberate repetition that this is really what the story is about.
There’s a lot going on with this desert-to-ocean imagery. It’s epic and elemental – it gives us the feeling of real scope to the story, huge, ancient issues. And one of the first rules of filmmaking is: “Film loves CONTRAST.” You learn immediately as a filmmaker to cut from day to night, from indoors to outdoors, from sun to ice, from color to black-and-white. This is a good rule to keep in mind for novels, too, although it’s not necessarily going to be the same kind of impact that the visual can have. But drama loves contrast, too. Go from solitary to crowded, from day to night, from quiet to frenetic. Think about it and look for examples, you’ll see what I mean.
I love this scene at the ocean because Mulwray is such an enigmatic and clearly tormented figure. He is positively haunted as he looks out on the ocean; there’s a mythic tragicness about the image of this man in a gray flannel suit and glasses looking out over the vast ocean – with a starfish in his hand. And because we experience him, SEE him, completely from Jake’s POV, I think we get the sense that Jake is very, very good at what he does: he is truly passionate about detecting – and this is part of his INNER NEED: to be a good detective. I also love the double layer that Jake is investigating Mulwray who is also investigating a mystery. They are alike, and equally doomed.
(Director Polanski said that he knew at once about this film that it needed to be told “radically subjectively”, from Jake’s POV. I don’t think there’s any better example than this scene.)
[11:16] Jake watches Mulwray all day, and at dusk, there’s the payoff of the water spewing from the drainpipe. Jake gets out of the way in time, but it’s foreshadowing for what comes later.
Jake finally gives up and leaves Mulwray, and there’s the nifty trick with the watch under the car tire. Jake’s cleverness. Love the music from the bar. More theme: The flyer that says “LA is dying of thirst.”
Cut to office, and we hear that Mulwray stayed all night. Operative Walsh has been following him, now, and all he’s done is visit more water sites. “He’s got water on the brain.” But Walsh does have photos of Mulwray getting into a terrific fight with an older man at the Pig and Whistle restaurant. INTRODUCTION TO ANTAGONIST – this is our first look at Cross, and again, see how soon he’s introduced? The antagonist really must be present from the beginning, one way or another.
Walsh didn’t hear the fight, only the word “apple core”. Which does turn out to be a significant clue, but sounds completely and ridiculously innocuous here.
I think this scene is interesting because Walsh (who will be shown to be by far the smarter of the two operatives) actually has honed in on the villain and this significant fight from the very beginning, but Jake dismisses this evidence. Instead, he gets distracted by the call from Duffy, the venal, airhead operative, who says he’s caught Mulwray with “a cute little twist” in Echo Park. So Jake runs off to see what’s going on there, leaving Walsh and the real evidence behind – although we THINK he’s finally on to the girlfriend.
[14:41] Cut to – more water: Echo Park Lake (which still looks exactly like that, boats and all - I live five minutes away from it.) Jake and Duffy rowing and secretly takeing pictures of Mulwray and a young blonde.
Jake follows Mulwray and the blonde to a secluded apartment building in Echo Park, and takes pictures from the roof. More interesting “seeing” imagery: we see the coupled reflected in the lens of the camera. [16:15]
Climax of SEQUENCE ONE – the case is apparently successfully concluded, Jake has found the girlfriend).
MATCH CUT from the camera lens image of Mulwray and the blonde, to the same photo in the tabloids: someone has gotten hold of the photos and used them to shame Mulwray.
Cut to: in the barbershop, neat time passage, job apparently successfully concluded. Jake gets into a fight with a banker who disparages the dirty laundry nature of his job. Jake’s overreaction to the insult tells us something interesting about Jake. He’s actually a moral person who is ashamed of the work he does, or he wouldn’t fight so hard to justify it (he has to convince himself he’s helping people. Actually he really does want to help people.) He is also genuinely outraged at what to him is the immorality of the banker, putting people out of their homes. We see a conflicted morality and a desire to do the right thing. It’s more of what I think is his INNER NEED: to use his cop skills to help people.
Also we learn Jake doesn’t know who leaked the story to the papers (MYSTERY).
Also, there’s the beginning of the joke that Jake takes back to the office. [17:32]
The joke conveys two themes/image systems of the film: Chinatown and illicit sex, and it’s a very deliberate thing that our introduction to the real Mrs. Mulwray is in tandem with this joke. Chinatown and anything Chinese conveys what will turn out to be Jake’s WOUND, or GHOST – as we will find out in bits and pieces – an event that happened in Chinatown that made him leave the police force and choose this cynical profession he’s in. Chinatown means, roughly, a puzzle that no one can really solve. And illicit sex (which “screwing like a Chinaman” would have been thought to be at the time) is the undercurrent of our introduction to Evelyn – a clue and foreshadowing.
The real Evelyn Mulwray flirts with Jake just a bit to get his admission that he’s never met her, and then nails him with the revelation that she is the real Mrs. Mulwray and is about to sue the hell out of him.
Huge TWIST: Jake was thinking thinks he’s successfully resolved this job – only to find that he’s been completely taken for a ride and is now in deep legal trouble.
Jake goes to Mulwray’s office to try to talk to Mulwray, who is out. Encounter with a character archetype: the THRESHOLD GUARDIAN. This secretary is a great guardian at the gate, but Jake barrels past her into the office. He goes through Mulwray’s desk – finds nothing of import – but note the magnifying glass: another seeing device. Then Jake finds the water map that he saw Mulwray with and a cryptic note: “Tuesday night: Seven channels used.”
The deputy chief of the department, Yelburton, enters and ushers Jake out into his own office. There is a fish on the wall, which is a recurring clue. The guys associated with fish are literally fishy – guilty. Yelburton says Mulwray is not the adulterous type. Jake steals some of his business cards (SET UP).
[23:28] Jake runs into Mulvahill in the lobby. He’s a corrupt sheriff from Jake’s past who is now apparently working for Yelburton as muscle; there have been bomb threats against the dams. More about the farmers’ desperation. Bad blood between Jake and Mulvahill. (SET UP. Or maybe FORESHADOWING). Jake is also very quick to make moral judgements.
[24:32] Jake drives up to the Mulwray mansion, on a hill. (Looks like Bel Air to me, a rarefied enclave next to Beverly Hills). This is further INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD – the rich world. This is an almost obligatory step in a detective story – entering the world of wealth. Detectives generally investigate through all layers of society.
Jake encounters another THRESHOLD GUARDIAN at the door: the Chinese butler, Khan, a very important character. All the servants are Chinese – the presence of Jake’s wound about Chinatown. He is stepping into Chinatown again, here.
While Jake is left to wait outside on the porch, the chauffer is washing a car. I love that freaky noise the washcloth makes. It sounds like someone’s having sex in the car.
[25:57] Jake is let into the house. [26:03]
[26:37] Outside, the house in the very lush grounds, Jake watches an Asian gardener trying to fish something out of the Koi pool with a fountain in the background, muttering "Bad for glass." [26:45] (Glass/grass is a racist joke, but also a huge clue that we remember because Jake repeats it. Jake also sees something else in the pool and starts to fish it out [27:48] but Mrs. Mulwray interrupts. [28:02]
This is a rather awkwardly staged scene with the gardener, but it does make us remember the scene. All of these are significant clues – “bad for glass” and the shiny thing in the water.
I’d like to point out that Evelyn is in a pretty kinky outfit – jodhpurs and boots, and she’s in a sweat from having ridden bareback all morning. Horses are archetypal symbols of perverse sexuality. And bareback! I mean, seriously.
I am stealing this summation of the next scene from Stephen D. Rogers because it is so perfect:
Stephen: Mrs. Mulwray and Jake sit as she offers him a drink. [28:30] Jake: "Whoever set your husband up set me up." [28:48] Mrs. Mulwray says she'll drop the lawsuit. [28:59] Jake: "I don't want to drop it." [29:10] Jake tells Mrs. Mulwray the girl disappeared and maybe Mr. Mulwray disappeared with her. [29:47] Jake: "It's nothing personal Mrs. Muray." Mrs. Mulwray: "It's very personal." [29:54] Jake recaps what he has happened so far. (Summarizing the first thirty minutes in case viewers are lost.)
This is a truly excellent point Stephen has made about about Jake summarizing the first 30 minutes for us. This is a device that you will almost certainly want to use if you’re writing a detective story – you need to find ways of summarizing the action for your reader or audience.
A few other things – with her plucked eyebrows and china doll makeup, Evelyn sometimes almost looks Chinese herself.
Jake says “I’m not supposed to be the one caught with his pants down”, which speaks to his outer motivation – he’s looking to avenge himself at the moment. But he also says, “I’d like to help” – which is his real motivation.
At the end of the scene, Evelyn tells Jake he might find Mulwray walking at the Oak Park Reservoir, and Jake heads there.
[30:16] Jake drives out toward the reservoir – contrast of water and desert again, and the CLUE that this all has to do with the reservoirs. There are police outside the gate [30:48] Jake uses Yelburton’s card to get past the cop guard. [31:07 ] Inside the gate, cops are talking to two boys in swimming trunks. This is an interesting shot of the two near-naked little boys talking to the men in suits – there’s an uncomfortable prurience about it that is very thematic, a clue.
[31:42] We meet Lt. Escobar, who is investigating whatever is going on at the reservoir. This scene and character is important for Jake’s BACKSTORY, GHOST, INNER and OUTER DESIRE. Escobar is Jake’s MIRROR – the man he could have been, in the position Jake could have been in now, had he stayed on the force. Escobar got out of Chinatown without quitting the force, and rose from there. There’s a sense of Jake’s regret, here. Escobar is a character who will serve as both an antagonist, sometimes, and an ally. It’s terrific storytelling that Jake’s backstory is dramatized, brought to life with characters from his past. And the character who serves as the hero/ine’s mirror is also a great storytelling trick to keep in mind – when it works well, as here, it really reveals a lot about your main character.
And finally we learn why the cops are here: Mulwray is dead, drowned in the reservoir. Fabulous ACT ONE CLIMAX – “the corpse hits the floor”, as they say about mystery novels. Note the one shoe missing from the corpse, and missing glasses.
And of course, I can’t go any farther without pointing out (and I’m hardly the first to do so, see here) the story parallels to Oedipus The King:
Oedipus is acknowledged as the very first detective story. The play is a tragedy - it's generally acknowledged as the consummate Greek tragedy, and it is so especially because the detective, Oedipus, finds in the end that he himself is at fault. There are about a million parallels to the play in CHINATOWN - below are only a few of the major ones, but it will start you looking.
- Oedipus starts with a plague in the kingdom; CHINATOWN starts with a drought in the kingdom of L.A.
- The play deals with royalty, and in CHINATOWN there is a deliberate attempt to create Los Angeles royalty: how many times do people say "Hollis Mulwray built this town."? Cross lives on his own island, the king of his world, and Evelyn Mulwray is a queen.
- Oedipus has a strong theme of incest running through it - Oedipus unknowingly sleeps with his own mother and they have children together. And when in the end Jocasta learns she has slept with her son, she kills herself, and in a scene that is one of the most famous in all of world drama - Oedipus puts out his own eyes with the jeweled brooches she wore.
- Of course, Evelyn Mulwray's eye is put out in that horrific climax of CHINATOWN - but there are numerous references to blindness before then: Cross's eyeglasses are broken in one lens, Jake's sunglasses are broken in one lens, the fish stares blindly out of the plate when Jake eats lunch with Cross, Jake knocks out one of Evelyn’s taillights so he can follow her car, Curly’s wife shows up at the door with one black eye, etc.
- And of course, as in Oedipus, Jake is crushed at the end by the knowledge that he himself is at fault for Evelyn's death, and for the horrific loss of her daughter to Cross. That girl is doomed. (Robert McKee says: "What could be more evil than incest with the product of your own incest?")
The filmmakers were out to make a modern tragedy (perhaps in response to the oft-repeated assertion that there is no such thing as a modern tragedy) - and they used Oedipus as their model.
Which shows (I'm going to regret saying this, I know it) how you can deliberately impose a Meta Structure on a story.
So because this is Chinatown, and the imagery is endlessly layered, I've missed all kinds of things - want to take a stab at it?
To celebrate NaNoWriMo (and get you all prepped in time!), I've made the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbook FREE for Kindle this week - 10/9/12 - 10/12/12. Now those of you who don't have it can download the book instead of hunting through these posts (I know some of you still do...)
It's free worldwide, and remember, you don't have to have a Kindle - you can download a free Kindle app to read it on your computer.
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The book contains full breakdowns of Chinatown, Romancing the Stone, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Mist and You've Got Mail.
Writing Love is on sale for $2.99 and contains full breakdowns of Groundhog Day, Sea of Love, Sense and Sensibility, Leap Year, While You Were Sleeping, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Proposal. New in Town, and Romancing the Stone
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