50 Years Later, We’re All Living In ‘Chinatown’

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Gage Klipper Commentary & Analysis Writer
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What’s the official Father’s Day meal? Moms get a festive brunch or a formal dinner, but I’d guess that most dads would prefer to stay home and work the grill. Not that I’d know; my dad’s been a vegetarian for 50 years, so my family has our own little Father’s Day tradition. Every year, we head down to Chinatown.

Chinatown always had a distinctive flair, even by New York’s eccentric standards. It borders Little Italy in Lower Manhattan, which despite being an immigrant neighborhood of its own, still feels very much like America. But walk one block over, and you enter a different world entirely.

Signs in English all but cease to exist. The foundation of Western architecture is obscured by Oriental overlays. Grocery markets spill onto the streets, selling open-air meat and produce Americans are not accustomed to seeing — and that surely violates our own health codes. Exotic Eastern tonics and techniques promise to cure your every ailment, while aggressive peddlers hock more than just the fake designer handbags they sell uptown as well. The claustrophobic walkways even feel smaller, as though built for an Asian stature. (RELATED: Blue Cities Falling Apart As Americans Vote With Their Feet)

Chinatown is a particular time and place preserved for generations within another. It is a different way of life — and plays by its own rules. To an outsider looking in, everything about it just seems wrong.

This is precisely what director Roman Polanski had in mind for his own “Chinatown,” with the now famous final line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Yet the Chinatown of Polanski’s imagination came with a far darker twist.

Chinatown “Nosy Fella” Clip

Fifty years ago this year, Polanski’s “Chinatown” was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture. Although we see very little of Chinatown on screen, its presence hovers over the entire film. This seedy neighborhood stands out from the rest of the 1930’s Los Angeles depicted in the film, enraptured in its own decadence but already suffering under the weight of bureaucratic slog. Glamorous it may be, but the life of socialite Evelyn Mulwray is every bit as predictable as her husband’s, the prominent Chief Engineer of the city’s Water Department, Hollis Mulwray.

Or so it seems.

From the outside, their marital life seems idyllic to Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who as a former beat-cop knows the ins and outs of Chinatown all too well. But this is the life he purposefully escaped. We first meet Gittes as a PI who deals largely with cases of infidelity. A husband either cheated or he didn’t; the binary is predictable, even if the outcome leads to some petty matrimonial fall out. He makes an “honest living,” and that’s good enough. So when a woman claiming to be Evelyn comes into his office suspecting her husband of infidelity, he tells her to forget it. Enjoy your life; it’s not worth the mess.

But the case eventually drags him back to Chinatown. The woman is not who she claims to be. The real Evelyn Mulwray reveals herself after Gittes discovers Hollis’ tryst and the photos mysteriously hit the newspaper, indicating the first strings of a deeper conspiracy.

Hollis is then found dead, apparently drowned in a public reservoir; but how can that be when the whole city suffers from a debilitating drought? No one of authority — not the coroner, not the police, not the DA — seems to care at all about the discrepancy. As the mystery brings Gittes and the real Evelyn closer together, he realizes that she may have a secret of her own.

Gittes uncovers evidence of a conspiracy to divert water from L.A. to the Valley in order to devalue land and then buy it for pennies. The man behind the plot is the same one causing Evelyn to act so suspiciously: her wealthy, corrupt father, Noah Cross.

Cross orchestrated the drought for his own profit. He framed Hollis, his former partner who opposed the plan. And he did the unthinkable to his own daughter. Evelyn’s secret — a daughter she bore of incestuous rape and kept hidden from her father — is the only thing she cares about in the end.

Gittes tries to save the day, to impose order on the chaos and bring justice to those who deserve it. In the final scene, all of the characters converge in Chinatown as he attempts to help Evelyn and her daughter flee the country. But the police look the other way on Cross. She’s killed in the ensuing fire. The bad guys win. Cross gets his (grand)daughter back and gets away with the plot, while Gittes just goes home.

What else could happen in Chinatown? It turns out Gittes never really left.

The whole time, the characters wrongly believe they are operating in a state of order; good can triumph over bad, fairness can prevail and people of authority care to see that it does. But “Chinatown” is nothing if not an exercise in futility. Each twist adds a new layer of corruption, Gittes’ every attempt to impose order ends only in chaos, his striving towards fairness and truth leading only to more suffering. At the end, corruption is as endemic as it is cyclical; a temporary victory for justice always resolves with the powerful on top. That is Polanski’s only fixed rule of the universe — and anyone who fails to see it finds out just how naive they are.

Hollis paid the price for being an honest man, while Evelyn died trying to save her daughter. She couldn’t escape her trauma just as Gittes could never escape Chinatown — and this realization leads him to total despair. He assumed the law would work as intended, but every authority figure was willing to overlook injustice and corruption because they saw themselves as just a cog in the machine. For most people, it’s not so much malice as it is apathy — and people like Cross will always take advantage of that. The best we can hope for is a favor from a friend on the inside, a police officer who tells you to “forget it” and just be happy you get to go home at the end.

We convince ourselves this is a distinct feature of Chinatown’s own little inscrutable world, something our civilized society had outgrown. But it’s all around us — and there’s no escape. We are as powerless as we are naive. 

Even when I was growing up in the 90s, New York’s Chinatown was a far cry from Polanski’s nihilistic vision. Sure, you always had your pavement schizos, piled up trash and petty crime, but it had that jovial flair of a poor, immigrant neighborhood that liberals love to romanticize. “Chinatown” reflected the temporary mood of the country in the mid-1970s, but today, it appears all of America has morphed into society’s seedy underbelly.

Turn on the news, and you see a former president convicted of a felony for crimes that don’t exist. You see illegals flouting our laws and being rewarded for it, as citizens pick up the tab. Those who mutilate children are praised for their compassion, while those who oppose them are targeted as domestic terrorists. Victims of crime get treated as criminals when they dare defend themselves. Disillusionment with the American Dream was starting to set in the 70s, but in today’s world, we can finally conduct a postmortem.

Making the right choices is no guarantee that you will get ahead in life; often, it’s an assurance that you won’t. Sniveling up to the powers-that-be is the only assurance of comfort. The masses have been bullied into submission — apathy is the path of least resistance — as they meekly accept that this is the world we live in now. Post your black square, add pronouns to your email signature and keep paying your kid’s rent forever — Gittes is all of us at the end of the film. We realize the bad guys have won, and we’re powerless to stop them.

This does seem to capture the mood of Biden’s America. Like Cross, the corporate-Democratic-media apparatus seems to have us in a stranglehold that’s impossible to break out of, as they use it only to their own nefarious advantage. But at the same time, nihilism is a dangerous drug. And it’s one we can and must avoid.

In truth, that we’re all in Chinatown is no cause for despair. Gittes falsely believes he must play the game by the established rules, and inevitably lose. But that does not have to be so.

I won’t bore you with platitudes like “decline is not inevitable” or make any pious appeals to the “strength of the human spirit.” These may well be true, but our new residence in Chinatown offers more than just high-minded abstractions. The red pill is realizing where we are, that we live under simulated order and virtue that’s all a disguise for ruthless power politics. The black pill is the step I just described, bleak nihilism and conformity upon this realization. But the white pill is optimistic — perhaps even liberating — and it’s the very opportunity that Chinatown offers.

We must no longer be subdued by false notions of playing by the rules as those in power flout them at every turn. Our phony principles and moral scruples mean nothing as our enemies use them against us. The rules of the game are arbitrary, so we are free to make our own.

Residing in Chinatown means we no longer have to honor the system that’s been weaponized , but can use our own institutional leverage to target those who do the same to us. It means abandoning the commitment to a free market dream that never really existed, and instead using the national economy to aid our allies and punish our enemies — both foreign and domestic. And it means recognizing where “compassion” and “tolerance” have brought us — on the border, on gay issues, on Marxist civil rights causes — and resolving to never again let them get in the way of what must be done.

We don’t have to just “Forget it.” We’re in Chinatown. It’s about damn time we act like it.