Posts Tagged ‘Chinatown’
“The curious task of economics,” Friedrich Hayek writes, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” You could say much the same thing about noir. The classic film noir, as well as its counterpart in fiction, is ultimately about the limits of control: its protagonists are generally tough, competent, and driven, but they’re brought up against an unfair universe that seems determined to unravel their perfect heist, getaway, or murder. It’s a sharp contrast to the kind of international thriller I’ve found myself writing, which ever since the time of Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth has been defined by a cult of competence. In a well-constructed suspense novel, it’s often the smartest and most capable character who wins, and the hero is frequently defined by his intelligence and skill—possibly because he tends to be so amoral in other ways. The men and women in film noir may be equally smart and tenacious, but that doesn’t always change their fate.
The tension between human control and what the universe really has in mind for us is baked into noir itself, which was often the product of smart writers and directors hedged in by the studio system. It’s often been noted that the classic film noir was created by a reaction against constraints: shadows and minimal lighting are used, as they were in Citizen Kane, to disguise cheap or incomplete sets, while shooting at night is a way of dealing with a compressed production schedule. You also see it in the kinds of plots to which it repeatedly returns. If an A-list picture is sold by a star, a B movie is sold by a poster, title, and tagline, usually involving a girl with a gun. If there’s a place where pulp fiction intersects with noir, it’s on the paperback cover, which tells us precisely what kind of story to expect. Or so we think. In reality, the truth is more complicated, and part of the reason noir indulges in such convoluted plots—the flashbacks, the impersonations, the returns from the dead—is to push against these conventions in the only way it can.
But if the elaboration of the plot is usually complicated, the ending tends to be brutally simple. There’s no better example than Chinatown. Robert Towne spins a deliciously complicated story, and although I’ve seen the movie countless times, I don’t think I could accurately describe it in its details. Yet it comes down to very simple themes—murder, greed, incest—and ends in a way that makes nonsense of Towne’s beautiful script. As Towne himself says:
In hindsight, I’ve come to feel that Roman was probably right about the ending…that an end with that ambiguity and ambivalence that I had in mind simply could not satisfactorily be done as the tag to a movie with that much complexity; the end had to have a level of stark simplicity that at the time I thought was excessively melodramatic. Roman rightly believed that the complexities had to conclude with a simple severing of the knot.
And it’s only appropriate that the cruelest of all endings should have been imposed on the story after the fact by a director whose own life became so saturated with guilt.
The ironic resolution isn’t confined to film, of course, and it reaches its height in novels like The Postman Always Rings Twice. Yet there’s also a sense in which the constraints of Hollywood itself encouraged a peculiarly tragic view of life. The Hays Code made it impossible for crime to go unpunished, and when a movie gives us a hero of great shrewdness and ability whose motives are less than pure, when he’s inevitably required to fail, it’s often the result of some cruel, meaningless trick. This has sometimes been taken as a sign of contempt by the filmmakers toward the limitations that the code imposed, but it also reflects a deeper understanding of how useless our most ingenious plans can be. My own favorite example is the end of The Killing, in which a meticulously plotted heist is foiled by a little dog on the airport tarmac. It’s arbitrary, unfair, and frustrating, but there’s also something strangely satisfying in Sterling Hayden’s final line: “Eh, what’s the difference?”
Readers in Chicago are invited to attend the panel “The Lure of Noir” at the annual Printers Row Lit Fest at 4:00 pm on Saturday, in which I’ll be discussing the subject with novelists Bryan Gruley, Brian D’Amato, Libby Fischer Hellmann, and moderator Robert Goldsborough. More details can be found here.
I don’t think that it’s altogether fair or correct to say simply that [Chinatown] didn’t turn out the way I’d imagined when writing…In hindsight, I’ve come to feel that Roman was probably right about the ending, that I don’t think that what I had in mind could have been done; that an end with that ambiguity and ambivalence that I had in mind simply could not satisfactorily be done as the tag to a movie with that much complexity; the end had to have a level of stark simplicity that at the time I thought was excessively melodramatic. Roman rightly believed that the complexities had to conclude with a simple severing of the knot.
Warning: This discussion, for obvious reasons, contains unavoidable spoilers.
What makes a great ending? There are as many different kinds of endings as there are works of art, of course, but as I look at my own favorites, I find that the best endings often don’t feel like endings at all. The most extreme version, the unresolved ending, has been used in books as dissimilar as Rabbit, Run and Smilla’s Sense of Snow, but the best example I know is from The Magus by John Fowles, a novel that I first read when I was fourteen (which, honestly, is about the right age). My feelings about the book itself have evolved over time, but the power of that final paragraph has never entirely departed:
She is silent, she will never speak, never forgive, never reach a hand, never leave this frozen present tense. All waits, suspended. Suspend the autumn trees, the autumn sky, anonymous people. A blackbird, poor fool, sings out of season from the willows by the lake. A flight of pigeons over the houses; fragments of freedom, hazard, an anagram made flesh. And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves.
Such a note of ambiguity can be tough to pull off, however, especially in mainstream fiction. Fowles, a master of the form even in his earliest novels, gets away with it; most novelists, including myself, probably can’t, at least not without annoying the reader. Yet the appeal of the unresolved ending raises an important point. Unless the writer is deliberately trying to emphasize the story’s artificiality, the best endings, like the best curtain lines, seem to promise something more: ideally, it should seem that the author has chosen the most appropriate moment to end the story, but that the story could also go on and on, like life itself.
It’s important, then, for the author to resist the temptation to tie a neat bow on the narrative. While writing a novel, most authors know that they aren’t supposed to editorialize or address the reader directly, that the meaning of the novel should be conveyed through action, and that the story’s themes, if any, should remain implicit in the narrative itself—and yet, very often, all these good habits go out the window on the final page, as if the pressure to explain exactly what the story means has become too great for the writer to resist. Deep down, every writer wants to end a novel like The Great Gatsby, as the themes of the story ascend to the universal:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
But Fitzgerald, like Fowles, was a master, and like many of the great masters, his example can be dangerous. For most writers, the rules for good writing are the same from first page to last: understatement, brevity, and objectivity are almost always preferable to their opposites. Indeed, the simpler ending is usually better, especially for a complex story. In film, there’s no better example than Chinatown, where Roman Polanski replaced Robert Towne’s original, more complex conclusion with, in Towne’s words, “a simple severing of the knot.”
For a thriller, in particular, the story needs to end as soon after the climax as possible. The denouement of The Day of the Jackal, the most perfectly constructed of all suspense novels, lasts for less than a page. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by contrast, the action falls for something like 170 pages—which is another reason why I’m not a huge fan of that book. Compare this to the conclusion of The Turn of the Screw, which resolves the action in the story’s final word, while also raising as many questions as it answers:
I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.
I can only end, as I often do, by quoting Mamet: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around again in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.” Or, if you’re a novelist, at least a nice place in Chinatown.