Deconstruction analysis The poetics of production

A first move in 'deconstructing' Polanksi as the auteur of Chinatown would be to assess the competing claims of the producer Robert Evans, the screenwriter Robert Towne, and the actors Jack Nicholson and John Huston, alongside Roman Polanski, to be considered the initiator, controlling force, decisive authority, or creative centre in the making (and subsequent success) of Chinatown. For instance, in a number of screenwriter's manuals as well as for screen-writing gurus such as Robert McKee (1999), Robert Towne's script for Chinatown has been held up as exemplary for the canonical story structure of classical Hollywood. Rarely if ever is the name Polanski mentioned when the solidity of the three-act structure, the subtleties of the introduction of the back-stories, and the sophistication of the double entendres in the dialogue are being praised. According to one commentator, seven out of ten screenwriting manuals of the last 20 years discuss Chinatown. A typical assessment, which ranks the director as merely the person who 'brings out the essence of the story', can be found in David Howard and Edward Mabley's The Tools of Screenwriting (1995: 177).

A not inconsiderable factor in the dense texture of the film is the performance but also the persona of director turned actor John Huston (playing the patriarch Noah Cross). At an earlier point in his career Huston had directed his own father, Walter Huston (in Treasure of the Sierra Madre), and his Freud: The Secret Passion can be read as a kind of anticipation of the different forms of authorial mise-en-abime on display in Chinatown (see Wollen, in Bergstrom 1999). He also directed and played (the voice of) God and the part of Noah in The Bible (1966). Equally relevant is the allusion to John Huston as the director of the first of the modern 'film noir detective thrillers, The Maltese Falcon (to which the opening of Chinatown pays direct tribute), based on a book by one of the acknowledged masters of the hardboiled novel, Dashiell Hammett. In a film ostensibly about founding and maintaining a dynasty, John Huston is playing the patriarch, echoing the degree to which he himself is part of and has perpetuated a dynasty (directing films which star his daughter, Anjelica Huston). It makes Chinatown stand in more than one sense in an incestuous relationship with films like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep (another film revolving around troubled father-daughter relationships, and frequently cited in Chinatown). The choice of actor for Noah Cross thus underlines an awareness not only of film history but of the peculiar in-joke self-reference (or deconstructive logic) of the 'New Hollywood' of which Chinatown became such a remarkable exemplar.

Chinatown was also a turning point in the career of its male star, Jack Nicholson, while his presence conversely proved decisive in giving the film 'crossover' appeal, i.e. winning a younger - as well as an art house - audience for what was in fact a mainstream commercial production. Nicholson came to (modest) prominence in Easy Rider and other small-scale 'New Hollywood' films, but after Chinatown he had enough box office clout to secure the backing for a sequel, The Two Jakes (1990), scripted by Robert Towne, produced by Evans, and directed not by Polanski but by Nicholson himself. While generally regarded as a worthy effort, the sequel does not enjoy either the critical reputation or cult status of Chinatown, thus retrospectively vindicating Polanski as the key ingredient in the 'success' of the 1974 collaboration. From another perspective, this collaboration was not successful for the participants, if we believe Andrew Sarris and others who have alluded to Polanski's rows with Faye Dunaway, the film's female star, his disagreements with Robert Towne over the ending, and also the strained relation with Robert Evans, who against Polanski's wishes decided to replace the original, harshly dissonant percussive music with a lusher, more 'romantic' jazz score (Wexman 1979: 91, quoting Sarris).

The thematics of the film could thus also be seen as the reflection of its own problematic coming-into-being. If one fastens on this network of uneven and competing power relations that went into the making of Chinatown, it is possible to read the film as not only 'about' a partly historical and partly fictional Los Angeles, in its 'heroic' phase of expansion (as also described in such well-documented histories of Los Angeles as Mike Davis's City of Quartz, and with Hollis Mulwray recalling the city planner Mulholland). In its story of corruption, of erotic and political power struggles, of deals and double-crossings, of incestuous genealogies and faked authenticities, Chinatown could be said to symbolically represent ('allegorize') aspects of 'New Hollywood' itself, as another generation takes over. The signifier 'Chinatown' would then stand for 'Tinseltown', as a place with a once glamorous but now murky past, poised to return and haunt the present. The pastiching of the formulas taken from the Hammett-Chandler detective fiction and the rewriting of classic film noir scenarios which Chinatown inaugurated (followed by other films of the early 1980s, such as Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (Bob Rafelson, 1981, also with Nicholson)) would then be ironically commented upon as 'incestuous' by the cynical Romantic and somewhat detached 'outsider' Polanski - thereby reaffirming his auteur status by being both 'inside' the film and commenting on it 'from outside'. In the manner of auteur criticism, we would attribute this particular form of self-deprecating reflexivity to him, rather than, say, to Robert Towne, whose screenplay for Chinatown, as we saw, has been canonized as 'classical', or to Robert Evans, who (apart from having himself been an actor in the 1950s, when among other roles he played the producer Irving Thalberg in Man of a Thousand Faces, 1957) went on to produce at Paramount a vast number of mainstream films of both auteurs and commercial directors, including Marathon Man (John Schlesinger), Urban Cowboy (James Bridges), The Cotton Club (Francis Ford Coppola), Popeye (Robert Altman), Sliver (Philip Noyce), and Jade (William Friedkin).

Depending on one's point of view, not least regarding these contests for authorship, Chinatown is either a cynical recycling of old movie clich├ęs or a remarkable reinvention of the 'old Hollywood' as the 'New Hollywood', typified for some by giving previously underrated or dismissed B-movie genres or 1950s television series the blockbuster treatment of lush colour, top stars and special effects. The classic detective thriller was in black-an^-white; what Polanski's art director Richard Sylbert has done is to use a very restricted palette of yellows to browns (from parched riverbed to dark panelled office). At the same time Polanski inverts (Hitchcock-fashion) the connotations of evil: murder and mayhem can now happen as much in bright daylight as at night-time. By furthermore reviving the charisma of a Hollywood veteran, featuring a female actress (Faye Dunaway) firmly associated with an early version of the empowered female (Bonnie and Clyde) and blending her with the eternally passive-aggressive femme fatale of the 1940s, while also launching a new male superstar, Chinatown bridges the generations in respect of the star system as well. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Hollywood once more came to international prominence and box office success, retooling itself and emerging from a 20-year slump (mid-1950s to mid-1970s) partly caused by television, but also accompanied by a realignment of film culture and film school training. Chinatown, while not quite such a self-consciously marketed blockbuster as Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975), can nevertheless be seen as the 'prototype' of the planned remake which was to become so typical of Hollywood in the 1980s.

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