[21 February 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
One stands as a pure artistic triumph. The other remains an artificial, unnecessary follow-up. One ignites the passion of most post-modern film fans and their praise of the iconic ‘70s. The other argues against mandatory sequel-ization and the failed fortunes of those who go back to the well one time too many.
During the opening moments of the masterful Chinatown, Jack Nicholson as J. J. Gittes suggests to a litigious client that the best personal strategy to avoid humiliation may be “to let sleeping dogs lie”. He should have taken his character’s advice when stepping both in front of and behind the camera to make the stogy, uninvolving 1990 follow up, The Two Jakes. Yet both films (recently rereleased on DVD by Paramount in new Special Collector’s Editions) represent parts of an incomplete puzzle, a proposed trilogy that may or may not ever see the light of day.
What’s clear enough from watching the bonus features offered for each film is that neither movie came about organically or easily. Roman Polanski, a superstar filmmaker at the time (thanks in part to Rosemary’s Baby), did not want to return to LA and film. The aura of tragedy—his wife, Sharon Tate, had been murdered by the Manson Family four years earlier—was just too great. Equally troubling was proposed star Jack Nicholson. Quite the outsider rebel, his turns in both Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces made the counterculture icon an odd choice for a mainstream detective noir. And then there was Robert Towne. An untried screenwriter and friend of Nicholson’s, it was his idea to create a California trilogy, whodunits dressed up in progressive themes involving pre-war suspicions and post-war optimism.
It took Robert Evens, maverick head of Paramount and iconic independent producer, to bring all these divergent elements together. He bet on Nicholson’s rising star, Towne’s way with words, Polanski’s existential approach to narrative, and the period piece parameters inherent in the tale. He also made sure that the rest of the cast—Faye Dunaway, John Hillerman, the emblematic John Huston—meshed perfectly with the rest of the company. They wound up creating one of the decade’s stark and stellar mediations, a film that fulfills the needs of the genre it’s referencing while rewriting the rules of the onscreen P.I. J.J. Gittes was no Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. Instead, he was as flawed as the philanderers he chased, as ethically unsure as the politicians and people in power that always seemed to end up in his clandestine camera’s viewfinder.
As much a look at America’s failing innocence as Los Angeles’ rise as the next great city, Chinatown has a plot that requires secrecy to keep its pleasures intact. Giving away any of the major twists and turns would only damage its already masterful reputation. Like learning what Citizen Kane‘s “Rosebud” means, or figuring out the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the meaning behind the title locale, and the events leading up to its illustrative ends, are part of the film’s many cinematic joys.
What can be told is that Gittes, a fairly successful dick specializing in infidelity and divorce, is hired by the wife of LA County Water Department Head Hollis Mulwray to confirm an affair. Turns out, Gittes was set up. The real Mrs. Mulwray shows up, threatening scandal. Instead, her presence provides key clues to land deals, familial discord, and the secrets that most late ‘30s clans took to the grave.
Faye Dunaway in Chinatown
With its shocking subject matter (remember, this was an early ‘70s audience being exposed to such tawdry material) and flawless performances, Chinatown proved that there was something substantive in what Towne and Nicholson were striving for. Thanks to Polanski’s desire to play with the story structure (he rejected the original upbeat ending, and rearranged scenes in order to alter the sense of time) and the ethereal nature of said strategy turned what could have been a standard murder mystery potboiler into an examination of corruption—both personal and professional. It gave Nicolson a chance to play conservative grown-up (a far cry from his anarchic anti-hero swagger) and provided Dunaway with a porcelain doll demeanor that carried over for the rest of her massive Me Decade success.
But most strikingly, Chinatown argued that the post-modern movement could easily incorporate old school Hollywood style and finesse into its revisionist dynamic. Similar to the approach he took with Baby, Polanski used his love of all things classic to create an unusually fraudulent backdrop. While it’s not unique to use glitz and glamour to expose the vileness and villainy under said veneer, Chinatown forwarded it one step further. It found sleaze everywhere—in the boardrooms of the government, in the backrooms of the country club—and suggested that everyone is capable of the most awful indiscretions no matter their place in the ethical hierarchy; victim or antagonist, hero or chump.
In fact, the murder mystery of the plot becomes secondary almost immediately, thanks in large part to Towne’s desire to keep adding layers. In many ways, Polanski is an archeologist, digging down beneath each substrata to find the foulness below. As part of the DVD extras, the filmmaker explains that this was the reason why he removed the voice over narrative from the screenplay. He didn’t want Gittes comments giving away too much of the game. Instead, audiences would experience the investigative process right along with the lead. They would see the clues the way he first saw them, and feel immersed in the investigation vs. the typical tactic of making the viewer an outsider looking in.
This could be one of the reasons why Chinatown resonated so with audiences, and why it remains a potent masterpiece today. Everything about the film—the acting, the story, the setting—suggests significance, but the director isn’t deciding what’s important and what isn’t. Instead, he provides the images, the people, and the places and lets the combination wash over us. It places the viewer in the strange position of constantly taking an internal tally, figuring out what’s vital, what’s unnecessary, and what’s waiting to crawl out of the family tree, and strategically shock us. In a present world divested of blame, where any act can be excused, we might fail to see the connotation. But Gittes gets it—and that’s why Chinatown remains a symbol of his inability to circumvent the stain of his profession.
Jack Nicholson in Two Jakes (1990)
Oddly enough, none of this forward thinking freshness is present in The Two Jakes. In fact, one could easily argue that everything the previous production avoided in order to become something ephemeral and timeless has been purposefully embraced here. Gittes is still a private eye, but he now has become successful and quite cynical. He battles with the police who used to be his psychological mirror, and the womanizing streak that is only suggested in Chinatown gets a full fledged sex scene (sort of) here. Still, most of the problems with Jakes can be chalked up to rushed production ideals, bad casting decisions, and a lack of Polanski’s unmatched artistry.
It’s hard to blame Nicholson, though. This wasn’t an experiment in ego. He had only helmed two other films (Drive He Said, and Goin’ South) and he was actually taking the reigns to keep the movie from being dropped all together. Towne had wanted to direct, feeling he’d paid enough dues in Tinsel Town to do so. Yet stories circulated that he couldn’t handle the era-specific needs of the narrative. At least with the star behind the lens (and the monumental success of his turn as The Joker in Batman the year before), there was a good chance of getting a ‘90s audience interested in a two decades old entity. Time, and talent, would not smile on the sequel, however.
Though the plot only forwards the characters 11 years, 16 had passed for the real life participants. Nicholson was in his beery, bloated phase as a celebrity, balancing his on screen work with his off screen shenanigans. With a pair of Oscars on his mantle and numerous nominations confirming his stature, he comes across as Gittes’ copycat Dad rather than the iconic P.I. from the previous film. He’s still very good here—it’s hard for him to really fail as a performer—but there is a beat or two missing from his LA detective, Mach 2. In fact, the same can be said for the movie in general. Scenes go on too long, characters we hope are brought back show up and then disappear without the necessary pomp. Even worse, the co-stars provide little or no support for the story. They are as vacant as the tracts of land at the center of the middling mystery.
The usually dependable Harvey Keitel plays the second Jake (a role producer Robert Evans had originally envisioned himself playing), a Jewish real estate developer named Berman who believes his wife is unfaithful. Turns out, she’s involved with his partner, and after a fatal confrontation, Gittes finds himself in possession of evidence which may or may not convict him. As a client, the established investigator cannot legally reveal the proof. But with the police breathing down his neck, the dead man’s widow causing chaos, lawyers constantly calling, and a name from the past now part of the present, Gittes is again lost in a maelstrom of murder, intrigue, and personal principles. And where water was once the source of political strife, oil and its availability (and location) is the new business battle line.
With two powerhouses like Nicholson and Keitel, The Two Jakes should crackle whenever they’re together. Instead, Harvey’s New York brood can’t coalesce with Jack’s West Coast cool. Their moments feel routine, lacking the inherent electricity and energy such stars should generate. Even worse are the actresses Nicholson hired as the spouses. On Berman’s side, Keitel is hamstrung with the dead-eyed Meg Tilly. She is so bereft of anything remotely resembling presence or personality that, when her identify is finally revealed, we actually feel violated. It almost undermines everything the original Chinatown presented. Even worse, Madeline Stowe chews so much scenery as goofball grieving widow Lillian Bodine that she appears part termite. None of her confrontations with Gittes make sense, and she’s quickly shuttled out of the story to make room for more of Tilly’s tameness.
Harvey Keitel in Two Jakes
Indeed, the biggest problem with The Two Jakes is this lack of sizzle. When Dunaway teamed up with Nicholson, you could practically feel the sexual tension between the two. Their post coital conversation, filled with hints and hidden innuendos, is one of the most perverse romantic moments in all of hard boiled cinema. But when our hero is seduced by a mad Ms. Bodine, her cutesy pie quips (“Oh, you’re going to make me do it?”) aren’t erotic, they’re silly. They come across as a screenwriter (or Heaven helps us, actress) trying to drum up interest in what is an otherwise awkward May/December dance. Without any chemistry between the lovers or the losers, the plot peters out before finally relying on ersatz chivalry to try and save face. It doesn’t work on any level.
With previous versions lacking any real significant contextual explanation, these new DVDs really help us understand the creative process behind both films. Polanski is particularly insightful, stressing his desire to intentionally undermine Towne’s take. Similarly, Nicholson is far more kind than he need be about his past indiscretions. He even makes it clear that he would love to revisit the character one more time, allowing the proposed trilogy to play out as planned (rumors have the last installment dealing with Gittes’ personal life, along with the rise in LA’s traffic/pollution problem). Jakes is definitely the beneficiary of some unwarranted compliments, and yet Nicholson does profess it’s less than winning results (“I don’t direct commercially or critically successful films” he muses).
Of course, that doesn’t distract from Chinatown‘s place in posterity. Setting the stage for such genre reimaginings as Robert Benton’s The Late Show (though both owe a debt to the true first artistic twist on the material, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye) as well as laying the foundation for the future success of everyone involved, the esoteric take on crime and psychological punishment is so solid in all its cinematic facets that it can even resist the reputation busting properties of its flaccid follow-up.
While The Two Jakes is no Sting II level catastrophe, it does make you wonder if Towne and talent really do have the makings of a potential franchise (before Nicholson came back on, Harrison Ford and Roy Scheider were considered to carry the Gittes torch). The maxim of leaving well enough alone may or may not apply here, but one thing’s for sure - Chinatown will always be an artform triumph. The Two Jakes remains a poorly conceived postscript.