What Works & What Doesn't: 'Chinatown'
Welcome to What Works & What Doesn't, a new monthly feature here at LitReactor, dedicated to the craft of screenwriting.
So what's this all about? And how does Chinatown fit into the scheme?
I'll get to the latter in a moment, but first, a little about what this feature aims to achieve. In the world of screenwriting, what makes the cut and what languishes in un-producible limbo comes down to a single question: does it work, or does it not work? We ask this question of even the screenplay's basic building block, the beat.
While it may seem vague, the question is an easy system of critique once you know how to use it. Thus, this column aims to clarify this system by analyzing (modern) classic film writing and answering that essential question: does it work, or does it not work? As much as possible, filmic or visual elements will be avoided in favor of bare bones action and dialogue, the two main tools in the screenwriter's tool box.
Bear in mind, however, that sometimes a narrative can work overall, but can have several elements that don't work; conversely, a film that doesn't work overall can feature individual beats, scenes, sequences, or even acts that work brilliantly. What Works & What Doesn't aims to examine it all.
And what better place to start than with Chinatown, considered among critics, fans, screenwriters, and screenwriting scholars alike to be one of the greatest scripts ever written? Let's take a step back and deconstruct Robert Towne's Oscar-winner and sleuth out exactly what it is that makes it so great. Moreover, let's also ask the unthinkable: are there aspects of Chinatown that don't work?
It's time to put on those hardcore critical thinking caps, readers. We're going in.
(NOTE: the excerpts from Towne's screenplay come from the 3rd draft of the script, dated 10/9/1973. This version is widely available online, though the viewing and/or downloading of such should be used for educational purposes only.)
Chinatown as Archetype
In his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee identifies Chinatown as one of the best examples of a classically-designed "Archplot," which he defines as such:
CLASSICAL DESIGN means a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.
We see this mode of storytelling in the Greek tragedies, especially Oedipus the King, for which the above definition may as well stand as a vague plot synopsis of Sophocles's play—or, for Towne's screenplay, for that matter. McKee further breaks down the Classical Design or Archplot approach into a list of key signifiers, which I will list with the correlative elements from Chinatown.
Active/Single Protagonist—Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) "takes action against direct conflict with the people and the world around him," and thus he constantly moves the plot. The character appears in every scene, so there would be no story without him.
Consistent Reality & Linear Time—Or, a commitment to realism as opposed to surrealism or absurdity; Chinatown takes place in a historically-depicted 1930s Los Angeles. Nothing out of the parameters of recognizable reality happens there. Moreover, events occur sequentially and logically.
External Conflict—Gittes is hired by Evelyn Mulwray to determine her husband, a prominent figure in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, is having an affair (he later turns up dead, a possible victim of murder). Almost immediately, Gittes faces opposition from everyone he talks to, including other water department officials, a gangster figure who slashes Gittes's nose, Evelyn's tycoon father Noah Cross and even, to a degree, Evelyn herself.
Causality—Gittes's actions against his antagonists result in counter actions, generating more and more conflict. Cause and effect continue mounting "In a chain reaction of episodes" that lead to "the Story Climax, expressing the interconnectedness of reality."
Closed Ending—McKee defines this as such:
...all questions raised by the story are answered; all emotions evoked are satisfied. The audience leaves with a rounded, closed experience—nothing in doubt, nothing unsated.
Without revealing too much (yet), Chinatown indeed utilizes this type of climax and denouement. No part of the story's mystery is left hanging, and while discussion after viewing is inevitable, no one can reasonably have an argument about unaddressed story elements.
Fleshing the Skeleton
Screenwriter Robert Towne clearly "followed the rules," so to speak, by constructing a solid script built around the classical three act structure, or what McKee latterly called the Archplot. Thus, the question here is, "So what?" Rule-following does not wholly explain the film's overall greatness. Its adherence to this narrative approach merely provides a solid skeleton—which is extremely important, true, but not enough to create something as timeless as Chinatown. When a story is successful, we don't notice the bones, only the meat.
No, what makes this story so great can really be boiled down to three things: dialogue, character, and beats (which aid in generating intrigue). These elements are the flesh and muscle covering the story skeleton.
Let's look at dialogue first, chiefly because Towne utilizes naturalistic language to reveal the second component, character. The two go hand in hand here, and as Stephen King notes in his book On Writing (excerpted from The Guardian), dialogue and character are perfect bedfellows:
It's dialogue that gives your cast their voices, and is crucial in defining their characters—only what people do tells us more about what they're like, and talk is sneaky: what people say often conveys their character to others in ways of which they—the speakers—are completely unaware.
Well-crafted dialogue will indicate if a character is smart or dumb, honest or dishonest, amusing or an old sobersides.
Towne shows us the kind of person his protagonist, private investigator J.J. Gittes, is through action and dialogue in the very first scene. He sits at his desk while a client, Curly, views explicit photographs of his wife engaged in sexual congress with another man:
Curly slides on into the blinds and sinks to his knees. Heis weeping heavily now, and is in such pain that he actuallybites into the blinds.
Gittes doesn't move from his chair.GITTES
All right, enough is enough --you can't eat the Venetian blinds,Curly. I just had 'em installed onWednesday.
Take a moment to appreciate the narrative economy of this excerpt. First, we have binary images at play here: Curly, upset, destroyed and sobbing at the sight of his wife with another man, standing and flailing against the blinds; Gittes, by contrast, is stationary, physically unmoved, but also, given his verbal response to Curly's behavior, emotionally unmoved too. His dialogue is smug, tough as nails, and to the point.
Thus, right out of the gate, we see that Gittes is a no-nonsense son of a bitch. He doesn't give a shit about anything but his business, which is further evidenced in the next scene, in which he half-heartedly advises a new potential client, Evelyn Mulwray, not to investigate her husband's potential infidelity, before quickly having her sign a contract. So we see who he is, which also establishes the potential for Gittes's emotional arc—learning to care about life again, letting some of this hardened shell slough away. (It's never stated expressly in the script, but rather intimated that Gittes lost someone he loved back when he was a cop working in Chinatown).
Towne's nuanced dialogue, furthermore, helps endear the viewer to Gittes, who might otherwise be too cumbersome a character to follow for two hours, but who displays a quick wit in both his actions and speech. Take this scene a little later in the story, when Gittes cons his way into accessing one of the reservoirs Hollis Mulwray (Evelyn's husband) loved to frequent by pretending to be one of Hollis's associates. Escobar, a former colleague from his Chinatown days, confronts Gittes:
ESCOBARHow'd you get past the guards?GITTESWell, to tell you the truth, I lieda little.
Gittes isn't the only character who is literally built from non-expository dialogue and action, but given that he is the protagonist, he serves perhaps the best emblem of Towne's genius writing, so we won't dwell on Chinatown's other characters.
Instead, let's move on to beats, which are the essential building blocks of any script. Let's look to McKee's definition of the term:
A BEAT is an exchange of behavior in action/reaction. Beat by Beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene (emphasis mine).
No matter if you're writing a mystery (like Chinatown), a love story, a horror narrative, or a family drama, you have to employ solid beats to generate intrigue/interest in the narrative. Of course, Towne performs this task beautifully, creating a story that hooks you in and doesn't let go until it, not you, is finished.
Look again at the first scene from the film, that exchange of sorts between Curly and Gittes. The latter's reaction to the former's sorrow is a beat, because it is somewhat unexpected. Not only is Gittes responding coolly to this man in grief, he seems wholly unperturbed by Curly, who also punches Gittes's wall and flings the tawdry photographs across the office. Gittes is a block of ice throughout—not the way most of us might react to someone behaving in such an aggressive manner.
Other beats aren't so subtle but pack a bigger wallop, like for instance the reveal that the woman Gittes thought was Evelyn Mulwray turns out to have been an impersonator acting on behalf of someone out to get Hollis—but who hired her? And why? As Gittes investigates the mystery, we learn the answers to these questions and so much more—perhaps more than we'd like to know.
Bear in mind that everything detailed so far happens within the first act of the narrative. This is "iceberg" storytelling at its best: Towne has revealed the tip, but the real substance—the real narrative—is still submerged from view.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK
And now the difficult question: is there anything about Chinatown that doesn't work.
I say difficult in part because this film is so revered, but also so enjoyable. It is very easy to ignore flaws because we're willing to forgive these minor infractions based on the quality of the work as a whole. We just have to remember that identifying non-working qualities in a narrative does not mean we can no longer enjoy said narrative; quite the contrary.
And the truth of course is that nothing is perfect, even when we're dealing with something as solidly crafted as Chinatown.
For me, there are two moments in the film that don't work, and they both occur in the third act. Now, here's where we get into SPOILER territory. If you haven't seen Chinatown, it's streaming on Netflix right now, so get on it.
If you have seen it, then you know that Evelyn's father Noah Cross sent the impersonator into Gittes's office. He's also the one who murdered Hollis, because it turns out Hollis's supposed mistress was in fact Evelyn's daughter and sister, the result of incest between Evelyn and Cross. Having finally learned the horrible truth behind Hollis's death, Gittes decides to help Evelyn get away from Cross, who is intent on insinuating himself into his daughter/granddaughter's life by any means necessary. But in order to make this happen, he has to buy some time with Escobar, who is convinced Evelyn was behind the murder of her husband (and also that Gittes may have extorted her in exchange for his silence).
Gittes tells Escobar that Evelyn is waiting in a house in San Pedro, and gives them the address, hoping that Escobar and his partner will go there on their own. But Escobar isn't having it: he doesn't trust Gittes at all, and forces Gittes to accompany them to the house.
Here is my first point of contention, straight from the screenplay:
GITTESDo me a favor, will you, Lou?Escobar waits.GITTES(continuing)Let me bring her down myself...she's not armed or nothing... shewon't be any problem... I'd justlike a minute alone with her...It would mean something... to...her... and to me.Escobar shakes his head. For a moment it looks like it means no.ESCOBARYou never learn, do you, Gittes?GITTES(a little chagrined)I guess not.ESCOBAR-- Give you three minutes.GITTESGee, thanks, Lou.
Okay, obviously Gittes is lying to Escobar once again. In reality, Evelyn is nowhere near San Pedro; he led the lieutenant to Curly's house. The problem isn't with Gittes action, however, but with Escobar's reaction: he has zero reason to let Gittes go into the house alone. He suspects Gittes was complicit in a murder cover-up, and he KNOWS Gittes lies to him all the time (the latter even admits as much in that brilliant one liner printed above—"Well, to tell you the truth, I lied a little."). That Escobar just sort of shrugs and basically says, "Okay sure, why not?" doesn't sit right. He did force Gittes to drive to San Pedro with him, after all. Plus, he hates Gittes generally, so why would he be inclined to do him any favors, particularly since, up until this moment, Gittes had been one hundred percent uncooperative. Finally, Escobar has proven to be an egotistical man, but certainly not a stupid one, so why would he fall for such an obvious ruse? It feels like a plot convenience here, a quick means of getting Gittes out of the hot seat with Escobar, which was necessary to keep the plot moving, but one not aligning with the actions of Escobar up until that moment.
The second false moment in Chinatown comes not long after this scene. Gittes, having successfully evaded Escobar with help from Curly, goes back to Evelyn's house and calls Cross. He tells the old man to meet him at Evelyn's house, claiming to have "the girl." When Cross arrives, Gittes reveals he knows the truth about Evelyn and the murder of Hollis, and he gets a full confession in return. Though it doesn't matter because Cross brought a henchman with him, and this man puts a gun to Gittes's head. Cross then demands Gittes lead him to Evelyn and his (grand)daughter.
So what does Gittes do? He takes the old man right to Chinatown. He doesn't lie, he doesn't try to misdirect Cross as he did with Escobar. He leads Cross right to the object of his potentially sick desires.
Why? This move makes no sense, and it is not in line with the cunning, wily PI we've come to know for the last two hours. The decision also results in Evelyn being gunned down by the cops, and Cross making off with the girl.
And therein lies the why: according to various interviews with Towne (including this one for The Hollywood Interview), the screenwriter originally envisioned a happy ending, in which Evelyn survives. Director Roman Polanski chose to change this ending to the dark and cynical (but admittedly more honest) ending, where the victim remains a victim and the rich and powerful remain as such.
Thus, it would appear Gittes's call to and cooperation with Cross is yet another plot convenience, a way to bridge the story as originally written with the new ending conceived by Polanski. Which is strange, considering that in the 3rd draft of the screenplay—which features the altered ending—Gittes phones Cross before he learns about the incestuous relationship, when he was convinced Evelyn was indeed the murderer. Though never stated outright, it's clear he only waits for Cross to show because he (regrettably) already arranged to meet him, and hoped to bring him in for the murder of Hollis. Presumably the order of the scenes was altered for pacing reasons, but it's at the detriment of Gittes's character.
Do these flaws completely mar an otherwise fantastic narrative? Not really, but they do stand out especially after a second viewing of the film. Still, Chinatown remains a fantastic mystery, offering up throwbacks to classic film noir tropes, and subverting them at the same time. Go to this title for a great example of the classic three-act structure and a lesson on how to turn a narrative through solid beats.
Share your thoughts about Chinatown as it relates to the craft of screenwriting in the comments section below, and see you next month for the second installment of What Works & What Doesn't.
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