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Chinatown (BFI Film Classics) Paperback – January 22, 2008
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This little book, part of a remarkable series published by the British Film Institute, guides you through Chinatown's production history. Author Michael Eaton also summarizes its complex plot and offers intriguing interpretations. Eaton is particularly interested in the symbolism of the movie's title, which he sees as having multiple meanings: it is a state of mind, an image of the world, even a metaphor for filmmaking itself. Breaking with critical tradition, he credits Evans--not Polanski, Towne, or Nicholson--as the major creative force behind the movie. Breaking with interpretative tradition, Eaton displays sympathy for Jake Gittes, the film's hero, characterizing him as a man trapped in a detective plot turned on its head, a world where "it is better not to act, much better not to know" the truth. --Raphael Shargel
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Whether Chinatown is a throwback to film noir of the era when it is set (the 1930s) is an open question, and one that the author explores. It certainly has many aspects that suggests that it is: the mysterious woman, the private eye not only thrown down the wrong track but used as a mechanism to perpetuate the wrongdoing at issue, and, last but not least, the incredible moral vacuity at the center of it all. This book touches upon these all and explores them a little in depth.
The book also explores the actual story, as well. As the author points out, for such an important metropolis, and the heart of the film world at that, it is surprising how few films have addressed the history of Los Angeles outside of the discrete area of entertainment. Although shenanigans at the water company may not make for exciting reading on paper, put a little murder and incest into it, have a couple of big name stars appear, and the public will eat it up.
The writing is inflected with a touch of the snobbery and reflexive leftism too often seen in this series (he uses the word `capitalistic' pejoratively, a clear sign) but not enough to swallow the whole. In all, not a bad read.