‘Chinatown’ Via Rodgers and Hammerstein

[27 September 2010]

By Nathan Pensky

How should one respond to people who talk about certain genre films being “too violent”? The faithful would insist that the bloody scenes depicted in horror films, war films, or martial arts films should not be held to the same standards as those in which violent images do not figure as important storytelling devices, that aesthetic considerations should be made as well as concerning a film’s mere “quantity” of violence. Yet prejudices about screen violence persist despite fanboys’ best efforts to explain that a well-placed kick to the face in a kung fu movie is less about the kick and more about who is doing the kicking, why, and what music is playing in the background.

Perhaps a better argument for the faint of heart would be to draw parallels between genres that use screen violence and another highly stylized film genre, Musicals. Are filmic depictions of characters spontaneously bursting into song really any less perverse than those of characters whose heads spontaneously explode?

Consider the use of music in Amadeus, a biopic about a composer, against Singin’ in the Rain, a musical where song and dance don’t just “happen” but function as filmic medium. Amadeus features lengthy musical performances, yet these are narratively framed within a “real” world, where Mozart is a character and the stage where his music is performed is but one set of many. What happens off stage in Amadeus is just as important as what happens on stage; the music can be said to function not exclusively as a storytelling device but as part of the story’s “subject.” However, in Singin’ in the Rain, and in all Musicals, really, the stage is the world of the film. In Musicals, song and dance function in much the same way as dialogue. So why cannot epic duels to the death in certain violent films be what an elaborate dance number is to Singin in the Rain?

The same parallel can be applied to critiques that characters in violent films seem to be too good at violence. James Bond or The Bride from the Kill Bill movies or Luc Besson’s character in The Professional are, well, professionals, which accounts for their particular mastery. But the teenagers in Battle Royale are supposed to be normal kids; is it wrong to depict them as natural born killers? One could just as easily ask whether characters in Musicals should be allowed to sing with perfect pitch, even though their characters are not supposed to be musical. True, Gene Kelly’s character in Singin in the Rain is. But Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof is a milkman; Eliza Doolittle is a flower girl. Tevye’s and Eliza Doolittle’s singing is their characters’ means of narratively negotiating an imagined world, not their occupation within that world.

While one never hears people say about Musicals, like Singin’ in the Rain, “there’s just too much music,” one always hears people complaining that some films have “too much violence,” as if actual quantity of violence was the only criteria to consider. In following the logic of this observation (though the distinction is most often felt rather than reasoned), one could argue that some films with relatively little “volume” of screen violence are actually much more violent than those in which every character dies a grisly death. Two such films that spring to mind are Three Days of the Condor and Chinatown.

Three Days of the Condor is a spy film directed by Sydney Pollack, with Robert Redford playing a mid-level government stooge who suddenly becomes the object of an elaborate manhunt. The beginning of the film follows Redford’s character through a typical workday; we see him go to the office, joke around with his fellow pencil-pushers, worry about how his boss thinks of him. Everything is very ho hum. Only subtle moments of foreshadowing in Redford’s storyline, involving office security precautions, clue us in to the coming onslaught. The audience is lulled into a false security by the main character’s seemingly mundane existence and is shaken to the core when this character’s office is infiltrated by gunmen. A classic “man who knew too much” spy story, Condor’s violence is relatively tame in actual content, but absolutely jarring for its realistic setting.

Chinatown’s famous nose-slicing scene, where Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes ends up on the wrong end of a thug’s switchblade, (one played by director Roman Polanski, incidentally), is similarly unsettling for its seeming so offhand. The violence here has no real narrative purpose; its true heft is felt tonally rather than in relation to any particular plot point. In a martial arts film, a knifing could signify a wide range of emotions. This scene, however, is characterized by its emotional obscurity.

The confusion of the moment, in addition to the director’s technique to slow down the narrative pace and linger over the thug’s deliberation, hints at whole sub-worlds of pulpy intrigue. The thug relishes his power over Gittes, and in a very different story, Polanski’s gangster could just as well be leaning in for a kiss rather than slowly edging his switchblade into a man’s nose. But even so, such would not be the central romance of the film. In terms of “volume,” the violence of the moment is small, yet is all the more effective for having no rhyme or reason.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/131424-chinatown-via-rodgers-and-hammerstein/