My graduate course in modernism, postmodernism, and the detective story discussed Chinatown yesterday, and despite my early qualms it turned out to be one of the best classes we've had yet.
I think I let Thom Andersen's extremely critical reading of Chinatown color my opinion of a film I hadn't seen in a few years. Andersen thoroughly demolishes the conventional wisdom that Chinatown accurately exposes some primal Los Angeles myth, but just because it makes a hash of history doesn't mean it doesn't offer other virtues. In fact, John Cawelti's masterpiece of seventies film criticism, "Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films," argues that Polanski's movie is interesting precisely to the degree that it uses nostalgia to comment on its generic forebears in the hard-boiled novel and film noir, not to recreate the past.
Chinatown proved an extremely supple text to play off against Andersen's historicist takedown, Cawelti's archetypal criticism, and the week's final theoretical reading, Fredric Jameson's definition of postmodern pastiche and nostalgia from "The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism." The movie doesn't fare well under the two historicist/Marxist critics, and for reasons that make complete sense given their priorities; Roman Polanksi and Robert Towne offer a sham version of the thirties and a deeply mythologized, thoroughly inaccurate account of the irrigation of Los Angeles and the San Fernando valley.
Yet Cawelti produces an equally compelling reading that neatly situates Chinatown among both its noir predecessors and its fellow saboteurs of the classical Hollywood genre film. In his hands not just a "nostalgia film" a la American Graffiti or the late sixties neo-noirs, but a critique of the political unconscious of the hard-boiled detective. I had already come to admire Chinatown again after a morning spent watching it, but Cawelti makes it look all the more impressive. The article is a joy to read in itself, a lucid, accessible essay (in that sense, I admit, quite the contrast to Jameson) that defines postmodernist cinema with barely any references to the term "postmodernism" and therefore makes an ideal introduction for students. I don't remember enjoying the piece this much when I first read it (must have been back in 1993 when I first bought the massive Braudy, Cohen, and Mast Film Criticism anthology, surely a rite of passage for many a film geek). I can only hope some of that enthusiastic reception transferred to the students.
As for the movie, it thrives under genre, psychoanalytic, and mythological or archetypal readings even if the history comes apart faster than Jake Gittes's car. My favorite performance - after John Huston's chilling turn - may be Polanski himself as the Man with the Knife. In a movie where everybody else is working so hard to play against hard-boiled type, Polanski gleefully serves us a short little psycho straight up in the best Wilmer (Elisha) Cook manner. He utterly steals his one scene even before he doles out his famous punishment.
A great class all in all. The only downer came when I announced that my grad students do in fact need to read The Waste Land at some point in their studies and that next week is the only good time to do it. The Waste Land and City of Glass in the same class - they'll thank me for it later, I'm sure.