Chinatown: A Greek Tragedy
(You’ve had over forty years to watch Chinatown. If you still haven’t, this video essay will spoil the ending for you.)
Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic Chinatown is many things. It is a murder mystery. A family melodrama. It’s a film noir, a neo noir, a sunshine noir. But also: Chinatown is a Greek tragedy. In Greek tragedies, the protagonists are accomplices in their own downfall. They can’t escape their tragic fate, no matter what they try. The outcome is certain from the start.
The same goes for Chinatown. Its ending feels strangely familiar, almost like a déjà vu. That is no coincidence. All elements of the tragic ending were carefully set up. Screenwriter Robert Towne (1) and director Polanski filled their film to the brim with premonitions of its own ending. The many references to blinded eyes is just one of those motifs (2).
There are no happy endings in Greek tragedies. Or in life. Or in love. That is the conclusion one comes to when reading Sophocles, or when watching Chinatown. No happy endings – except for film students that is. Budding directors and screenwriters starting out can take a cue from the elegance with which the motifs were sprinkled throughout this movie.
There is no escaping one’s destiny, however hard you try. Jake Gittes had better listened to the final words of the chorus in Sophocles’ King Oedipus (3):
Make way for Oedipus. All people said,
That is a fortunate man;
And now what storms are beating on his head!
Call no man fortunate that is not dead.
The dead are free from pain.
(1) You can read Towne’s seminal screenplay here.
(2) In his text Chinatown – “Hard-boiled Nostalgia”, author Richard Skinner also identifies cameras, spectacles and binoculars as recurrent motifs in the movie. He rightfully relates their omnipresence to the theme of seeing /not seeing that is central in Polanski’s approach. Skinner also mentions water as a running symbol throughout the movie. In fact, there are even more motifs: horses too are a remarkably persistent presence.
Skinner, Richard. Chinatown – “Hard-boiled Nostalgia” in Vade Mecum. Winchester: Zero Books, 2015, 51-56.
(3) These lines were taken from W. B. Yeats’ version of Sophocles’ King Oedipus. That text was also the basis for the Canadian Stratford Festival production which was filmed in 1957. Excerpts from that film were used in this video essay.
This video essay includes clips from:
Chinatown [feature film] Dir. Roman Polanski. Long Road Productions et al., USA, 1974. 131 mins.
Oedipus Rex [feature film] Dir. Tyrone Guthrie. Oedipus Rex Productions, Canada, 1957. 87 mins.
Clive James meets Roman Polanski [television documentary] Dir. Arthur Solomon. London Weekend Television, UK, 1984. 57 mins.
The music tracks used are: