Sunday, April 6, 2014


MNM #202
Rehearsals for Aida on Ice did not go well this weekend. Esther Williams showed up to begin learning her numbers as Amneris. Unfortunately, she decided to begin by executing one of her famous swan dives into the pool. She was under the impression that we were working with water rather than ice and she hit the rink at the Ice-A-Rama with a heavy thud and had to be carted off to Cedars Sinai with a concussion and a LeFort III facial fracture. I'm told she's going to be fine but it's put her out of the show and we're back to the drawing board trying to find an appropriate female costar. Joseph, my manager, says not to worry but we're supposed to preview in three weeks.

Andrea Boccelli, my Rhadames, is also not shaping up as I would like. He sings beautifully and our vocalizing together will bring down the house but our pairs skating routines just don't work. He's always facing the wrong way or grabbing at the wrong part of my body for the lift and we go down in a heap. I keep simplifying and simplifying but it's as if he doesn't see me. He's supposed to start learning the trapeze catches for the tomb scene next week and the prospect is making me just a bit nervous. Of course, I can't tell him this as my Italian is limited to 'linguine', 'pepperoni', and 'ciao bella'.

I was in a sour mood when I returned home to Chateau Maine, after driving through the streets of Los Angeles so decided to find a film that would encompass these feelings. In going through my DVD collection, I happened upon Roman Polanski's 1974 film, Chinatown, perhaps the ultimate cynical look at corruption LA style, perfect for my emotional space so I slipped it into the player.

Chinatown takes place in the Los Angeles of 1937; the city is still an upstart, not yet the booming megalopolis it would become and limited in its growth by a lack of water. Various moneyed interests want to see additional dams and reservoirs and are opposed by the water commissioner, Hollis Mulwray (Darrel Zwerling). One day, a woman claiming to be Mrs. Mulwray (Diane Ladd) visits the office of private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), stating she believes her husband is committing adultery. Jake follows him, obtains compromising photographs and Mulwray is, at first, embarrassed and later turns up dead. The real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) then appears, having had no interest in exposing her husband's supposed affair and together, she and Jake start to piece together what happened and why. Evelyn has many secrets involving her and her millionaire father (John Huston) which bear upon the mystery and all does not end happily ever after.

The film's title refers to Los Angeles' Chinatown, the neighborhood in which Mrs. Mulwray's Asian servants live and where all the threads of plot finally come together in a shattering finale. More than that, however, it is a metaphor for greed, institutionalized corruption and the complacency that allows them to continue unchecked. Much of modern LA was created through criminal acts (a theme also explored in the brilliant L.A. Confidential of a few years ago) and this film glories at slowly exploring the sordid underbelly of a high minded civic world. As one character reveals, when you're in Chinatown, home to an alien culture, it's best not to act at all as it's unclear whether your actions, no matter how well intentioned will help or hinder your side.

The film succeeds brilliantly based on three pillars. The first of these is Robert Towne's marvelous screenplay. Unlike many modern thrillers and mysteries, Towne never over explains. He prefers to leave much unsaid and much of the answers to the films riddles are supplied by the inquisitive mind of the audience, not supplied by the characters on the screen. This gives the film a palpable sense of dread; we know there's monstrous evil out there but we can't quite define it or place it until quite late in the game. The second is Roman Polanski's brilliant direction. This was his first American film since the murder of his family by the Manson killers and his first return to Los Angeles since that horrible time. His European eye and subliminal bad feelings toward the city suffuse every frame. The film is all in hazy, washed out earth tones or the blackness of night and make Los Angeles seem more of a desert than almost any other film made - perfect for the theme of water which pervades the film both in plot and imagery.

The last pillar are the superb performances. Jack Nicholson has rarely been better than as Jake Gittes. He's a slick shyster on the surface, but there are many layers beneath which start to bubble to the surface as he falls for the beautiful Evelyn, unaware if she's helping or hindering his investigations. He also manages to make himself attractive and sexual, no mean feat given that he spends most of the film with a large bandage on his nose. Faye Dunaway was at the peak of her physical charms and revels in her part as the noir femme fatale. They sizzle on screen together and even the endlessly parodied 'sister/daughter' scene still packs a major emotional wallop in context. Supporting them are a sterling supporting cast, especially John Huston as Evelyn's villainous father. He drips evil and hidden desires from every pore. There's also an unforgettable cameo from the director as a bad guy with a very large knife.

The DVD release has a superb print of the film in widescreen with a stereo soundtrack. The color transfer is excellent. There is no commentary track but there are some contemporary interviews with Polanski, Towne and producer Robert Evans looking back on the production of the film.

Disappearing river. Unexplained runoff. Seawater in lungs. Lost glasses. Lost shoe. Smashed watches. Quilting party. Gratuitous Avalon casino. Packard convertible. Okie battle. 

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