After watching Chinatown recently for my film noir class, I have honestly thought of little else. Before seeing this film, many of my friends had warned me of the lasting effect it had on them. Someone told me they had never been so emotionally affected by a film before, ergo I spent that morning preparing myself mentally for an emotional rollercoaster. Sitting down in class as my professor dimmed the lights and spoke briefly about the powerful score of the film, I waited expectantly to “feel all the feels”—a phrase commonly used by my friend to describe intense movies. What ensued, however, was not entirely what I expected. Though I was enraptured throughout the entire film, I did not experience any sort of emotional turmoil for what I thought was the majority of Jake’s experience. I loved the music, the cinematography, the characters, and the plot, but I felt no real deep emotion for anything that had taken place on screen.
Then the last 10-15 minutes happened.
Watching Jake’s futile attempts to save Evelyn paired with John Huston’s terrifying character enveloping his incest conceived daughter as gunshots are fired and the camera slowly dollies away to a bird’s eye view, I felt so emotionally drained I couldn’t barely move. The last scenes of this film, starting with Evelyn’s revelation of her “daughter and her sister,” brought me close to tears not out of sorrow, but because of the incredible weight pressing deeper and deeper on my chest resulting from the relentless corruption of this film. Polanski offers no release for the audience, repressing any glimmer of hope for Jake’s future and sanity after he is told to just “forget it.” I almost couldn’t believe how repulsed and weighted down I felt after watching this movie, and what amazed me was how Polanski achieves this in only the last 15 minutes of the film. With the film’s opening credits paired with the weighted melancholy held in the prolonged notes of the trombone, I instantly felt a sense of longing in sorrow. Throughout the film, I tried to foresee exactly how the tone of the score correlated to the plot, and Polanski makes this extremely clear with the last scene. The longing and sorrow present in the music comes from Jake’s inability to escape the corruption of Chinatown, and his desire to pull himself away from all he has seen. Demonstrating no redemption for any of the characters, Jake must resort to attempting to forget. He cannot escape the past and all that Chinatown symbolizes for him, and this perfectly encapsulates the theme of so many classic film noir. I feel that Huston would have been proud to be in this film and portray such a disgusting villain, as the reality of film noir does not rely on the “the stuff dreams are made of.” Just as the Maltese Falcon emphasizes the futility of man’s attempt to achieve a better life and remove oneself from their current situation, Chinatown focuses on Jake’s stasis and does not allow him to achieve and experience an escape from his past.
There are only a few films I have seen that have left me truly speechless and unable to carry out normal social interactions afterwards. The first few that come to mind are Room, American History X, and now Chinatown, and I will never forget the powerful affect they have had on me. After I saw Room, I went to bed at 7pm because I was so emotionally drained. After American History X, I sat in the dark room where I watched it for over an hour just ruminating on what I had seen. After Chinatown, I had to leave the group dinner I attended directly after and go sit by myself alone on Davis Field. I told my friend that I couldn’t think of anything else and I couldn’t figure out why I was so affected by it, and she very simply replied, “Well, that’s why you like film so much, isn’t it?” That almost immobile feeling truly is why I love film so much, and my recent experience with Chinatown reminded me of the unrelenting power they are capable of.