Monday, December 12, 2011

Chinatown, Roman Polanski, Noir, and a discussion of ART.

Guys, I have been a Noir fiend lately.

I keep going back to watch a slasher movie, but something else on my Instant Queue always catches my eye instead--Scarlet Street, The Third Man, The Stranger, Double Indemnity, the list goes on and on. Noir is like the slasher films of the forties and fifties. Low budget, not necessarily respected in its time, very, very genre-riffic (I just made up that word,)...all fantastic. Perhaps I will blog about the similarities and the importance of low budget movies sometime in the future.

Today, however, I'm going to write a bit about Chinatown, because I decided that I'd watched enough Noir that I'd understand it.

And I think, as much as one ever can understand Chinatown after watching it only once, I do.

Spoiler time.

A little summary for you--as far as I understand, Chinatown is a modern-noir, which is now almost forty years old, but that's fine. It's not shot in black and white, which is very important to the genre, as far as I can tell, but you've got the hard-boiled private eye with all his catchy lines, a Los Angeles that I fully believed was in the forties, the gorgeous, GORGEOUS femme fatale (Faye Dunaway ohmygoodness) and a murder for everyone to get tangled up in.

The standard plot was set up and followed very well, with various surprises around every turn. I suppose the trick to noir is that you have to know the surprises are coming, but you can't know what they are--right? Perhaps?

In any case, that's how this movie worked, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. There was also a big discussion about government corruption and capitalism which I was really invested in, but don't feel any need to get into here. The various societal commentary, the biblical allusions, the structure of Chinatown has been discussed plenty, and unless you're my film studies professor, we aren't going to get anywhere by me repeating all of it.

The thing about Chinatown that hasn't been discussed is the fact that it deals very directly with pedophilia and was directed by Roman Polanski.

This is something I've been trying to grapple with--when an artist has created something brilliant, but done something that our society considers evil, how much are we to separate the artist from his art? On one hand, we want to appreciate the art without it being colored by our perception of the artist, and examine its merits and its impact objectively. However, we also want to maybe see how the artist's moral ambiguities affected his work, and even just give an artist credit for something beautiful they've created regardless how much we disagree with their other actions or even the message they are sending in the work.

I addressed this issue in a play I wrote this year for a class in which D.W Griffiths was a character.  D.W Griffiths made the film Birth of a Nation, the first American feature-length film, which naturally had a huge impact on the ways films were made and distributed. Also, it was super racist and about the KKK.

And, unfortunately, except in very film-savvy circles, that's what he's remembered for, which is a shame, because he made plenty of other movies. Another, more common example in film is Walt Disney--made great movies, changed the way we see animation and television and mice, also was a Nazi.

Do we accept the fact that these brilliant men had flaws, and appreciate their work regardless? Or do we pretend that they didn't have those flaws at all? It's a difficult conundrum, especially when they directly address their asocietal (made up that word tooo) morals in their work, the way Griffiths did with Birth of a Nation or Disney did with Song of the South.

For those of you who don't know, Roman Polanski is largely considered to be a pedophile--in 1977, three years after Chinatown was made, he was arrested for unlawful sex with a thirteen year old girl, plead guilty, and fled to London. In Chinatown, it is revealed near the end of the film that Faye Dunaway's character was raped by her father at fifteen, which becomes a major plot point in the film.

It's fascinating to me that no one has discussed the similarities about this aspect of the film and how they connect to Roman Polanski's sex scandal in the seventies; the girl in the movie was in her early teens, raped by an older man after his wife died. Polanski's victim too was just a teenager, and his wife was killed in 1969.

However, the director is much more associated with the main character than with the character of the father--the background of Jack Nicholson's detective is that he failed to save a woman in his previous career in Chinatown and as a result, she was killed, and he became rather despondent and apathetic. This lines up fairly well with Polanski, who cites not being at home the night his wife was murdered as his biggest regret and says that it left him pessimistic and with "eternal dissatisfaction about life."

Perhaps it is out of respect for Polanski and the film that nobody has made this connection, which would be, in my opinion, the best way to deal with the situation. The crime he committed was a mistake, and the worst of his character, while this is one of the most brilliant things he created, if not the most brilliant. Hopefully, years from now, it will be looked upon as such, and hopefully someday we can look at other artists' work the same way.

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