I suspect much of my not-blown-awayness when watching Chinatown has less to do with how good it is and more to do with how long it’s been (36 years) since the film came out. Much like my feelings toward Alien, I expect that the disparity between my “yeah, sure it was good” and critics of decades’ past “oh my God, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen” stems from the fact that by being as powerful and innovative as it was, Chinatown has since been picked apart and cannibalized by the visual entertainment industry. After Chinatown, everybody wanted to make the next Chinatown, and, as a result, to a person of my generation and experience, the ever-so-lauded story feels like it would have felt right at home on any episode of Law & Order or CSI.
So what does still stand out, nearly four decades later? Well, Jack Nicholson for one. Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes is a smarmy, just-charming-enough private detective whose devotion to his work simultaneously enforces and belies his jaded, damaged cynicism. At its best, Chinatown is the story of a man who has lost everything, and without realizing it, falling back into his natural behaviour of personal investment. As detached as Gittes thinks he is, the tragic magic of the final scene comes from his realization that he has lost more than he thought he had. When the bottom falls out on what he assumed was an empty well, there is nothing more for Gittes to say, and Nicholson’s silent, wretched dismay stands as a perfect final moment for a man whose manic tenacity had been building toward a well-deserved moment of peace.
So, if you want a story like Chinatown‘s, I’m hearing good things about Hawaii 5-0, which I’m sure carries on the procedural tradition. But, if you’re in the mood to watch the undoing of a man struggling to find something to hold onto and believe in, there’s only one place to go, and it’s Chinatown.