Lurking within the darkness of 1930s Los Angeles a lone figure shifts in and out of trouble, his purpose solid and true. A heavy responsibility—that of bringing balance to an unfortunate situation—weighs firmly on his shoulders. While hidden forces others work to prevent his success, this man’s relentless pursuit of a favorable outcome continues without hesitation.
Certainly we speak of Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), the headstrong investigator situated at the center of Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic Chinatown. As Protagonist, Jake fulfills the duty of being the character motivated to pursue a successful resolution of the story’s central problem. But is the hidden nature of the familial relationships within this film truly the source of trouble for everyone or is there something more at stake here? When does this story actually begin and what does that say about when it ends?
The answers to these questions may shed some light on who actually succeeds in overcoming adversity in this film. Perhaps it is not Jake who fits the description. Perhaps there is a better candidate.
Bringing character into focus
Search out alternative perspectives on Protagonist or Main Character and you’re likely to come up with a mish-mash of incomplete and juvenile descriptions: the character who the story is about, the one who undergoes the biggest change or worse, simply the hero. Gross approximations that lead to dismissals that eventually lead to continued ignorance. No true definition because no one takes into account perspective.
If one looks at a story from a truly objective viewpoint, one can identify a central problem that begs for a solution. One character pursues that resolution while another prevents it. The first rightly deserves the name Protagonist, the second Antagonist (as covered in Protagonist and Antagonist: Beyond Hero and Villain). Names and personal issues have no stake here as this is a removed, third person point-of-view onto a story. Complete objectivity.
Stepping within and taking a personal subjective viewpoint, it becomes clear there is one character who we the Audience are supposed to be. We empathize with this character as we become intimately familiar with their personal issues, sometimes to the point of blindness. The Sixth Sense and The Others play with this reality of story by placing us squarely in the center of ill-conceived perceptions. From here, subjectivity easily breeds misunderstanding—a reality that will become more important as this analysis of Chinatown continues.
This has all been covered before in Redefining Protagonist and Main Character and When the Main Character is Not the Protagonist, but those previous discussions have always focused on the obvious Protagonists. Andy, Atticus and Kyle Reese weave in and out of Shawshank, Mockingbird and Terminator pretty regularly and without fail. They also happen to be pretty decent guys.
Likability, however, is an affliction of the subjective.
Forget it, Jake
As the official Dramatica analysis of Chinatown states:
Chinatown is a wonderful example of storyweaving at its finest. What “seems” to be going on is almost entirely hidden until the very end of the film, and when the proper context is finally provided everything is different that it had appeared.
This is that subjectivity of the Main Character point-of-view at work. Jake appears to be the Protagonist of the film because we are never granted an objective view of things until the very end. This is not Star Wars or Braveheart where the big picture comes into view consistently and often. Occasionally moments exist where the figureheads of Noah Cross or Hollis Mulray come into play, but even then those are seen from Jake’s point-of-view and thus subject to that same error of perception. Almost 90% of the film reveals itself through the Main Character’s point-of-view. Ninety percent left open to subjective interpretation.
To Jake, and thus to us, figuring out what is going on becomes the central Goal of the story and thus, seems to be the Goal of the Protagonist. The initial manipulation and the consequent investigation—piecing together the glasses, the rifle-wielding farmers, the land-owning old folks—all of this comes together in support of Jake’s quest for an answer as to why.
Eventually he does find an answer, but does this really resolve the story’s problem?
Resolution and the Protagonist
Stepping back and taking an objective view of the story’s events, it becomes clear what resolution is needed. The story of Chinatown begins when a public official refuses to build a new dam forcing his business partner, a rich and powerful man, to craft a scandal. This initial decision by the public official, based on a concern for making amends for past mistakes, initializes the central inequity of the story. To resolve this problem balance must be restored to the state of affairs.
Only one man works for this successful outcome…and it is not Jake.
Noah Cross (John Huston)—the rich and powerful man behind the scenes—pursues a course of action that would bring his family back together and bring the San Fernando Valley to Los Angeles. He pursues a course of action that would resolve Mulray’s refusal to build.
Noah’s success arrives with Jake’s decision to let it go. Only then can the annexation continue unabated. Only then can balance be restored. Only then can grandfather cradle granddaughter in his loving arms.
Only then can the Protagonist claim victory.
Unintended consequences of stellar writing
Ask Robert Towne who he thought the Protagonist or Antagonist of Chinatown was and he would probably respond with the obvious: Jake’s the Protagonist, Noah Cross the Antagonist. The answer would come without hesitation. However, many writers will tell you that they began a story with a certain purpose in mind, yet somehow ended up in a completely different place. Intent does not discount the subconscious.
Ask Stephen King if he purposefully crafted The Shawshank Redemption to explore the problems inherent in the implicit support of authority both from an objective view with Andy’s journey and a subjective view with Red’s journey and you would be banned from the state of Maine. Likewise, had you asked Bill Shakespeare if he understood that the only solution to Hamlet’s incessant thinking was the Dane’s acceptance of his uncle’s truly “evil” nature you would have been tied to the stake and burned as a heretic. Regardless of what they had in mind when they first set out, these authors crafted great stories that effectively explored the human mind’s problem-solving process.
Robert Towne did the same.
Is this a case of making more out of Chinatown than what is really there? Could be. But it also could provide a concrete reason as to why this film has endured so long and why it always ends up at the top of everyone’s list. Chinatown works on a level even the Author himself probably never even considered. It works by clashing objective against subjective, providing an understanding unattainable in daily life.
Shifting perspectives grants meaning
The only way to truly understand something is to see it both from within and without. This is the power of stories and the unfortunate shortcoming of our own existence. We can never truly be objective about our own subjective experience. Given both perspectives—as in all great stories—one can truly appreciate a problem in its entirety.
Chinatown plays with this reality of context by only providing the subjective point-of-view. By hiding the true Goal of the story—the healing of shattered familial and territorial/economic relationships—we fall easily into the trap of failing to see the forest for the trees. We fall into the trap of rooting for Jake when in fact we’re rooting for someone else.
And that’s when the disgust sets in.
The shock of a new context
The private investigator’s decision to look the other way brings success to the rich man’s efforts. Free to do as he pleases, this powerful man can now merge the Valley with Los Angeles, sealing water and rampant corruption into the history of Southern California. A resolution to Mulray’s initial refusal.
But that’s not the part that repulses us.
The land grab was never about the money. Noah Cross tells us as much when he reveals to Jake that what it’s really about is the future. Annexing the valley has more to do with securing the road to come more than it does with increasing Noah’s already massive fortune. Making amends—restoring familial relationships, not simply revealing them—requires a reliable future. Thus, annexation becomes simply a stepping a stone, a requirement for the real goal of the story.
What exactly does restoring the family bond entail? Noah’s daughter, Evelyn Mulray was only 50% of himself. His granddaughter, by virtue of her birth was only 75%. A great granddaughter born of his granddaughter?…well, you do the math.
This family—this legacy of Noah Cross—was in fact, the state of affairs he was after. And this is precisely why that ending feels so sick and repulsive. We have been led to root for a resolution we morally would disapprove of. Protagonists solve problems. As much as we may hate him, Noah Cross healed the broken situation at the core of Chinatown.
As an Audience member experiencing this story we instinctively want to cheer in much the same way we did when the Death Star exploded or when Agent Smith burst from within. Morally, many of us may sit in disgust, but the argument of the story has been presented so well and so concretely that we have trouble formulating a counter-position. We buy in to the fact that this is the way things are, and we sit there dumbfounded, wishing we could somehow “Forget it” as well.
Context and conclusion
Stories provide us an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. From an objective context we can see the forces of Protagonist and Antagonist working against each other in regards to the resolution of this problem. In Chinatown this inequity begins with a decision to choose safety over corruption and ends with that very same corruption succeeding with a decision to simply look away.
As an Audience member we do not need to empathize with the Goal of a story. Empathy exists only in the subjective view. We care very much about what is going on, we want to understand it every bit as much as Jake does. But objectively, as dispassionate observers, we don’t care about what transpires. Objectively all that matters is the resolution of the story’s initial inequity.
Sleight-of-hand storytelling and playing with Audience perception naturally invites illogical plot contrivances and consequently broken stories. Chinatown suffers not from this because of its consistency in maintaining character functions on and off-screen. The objective view works logically even though so much time is spent from within a subjective first-person viewpoint. The objective part of the argument works even without us knowing it.
It’s only once we are granted the entire picture that we move beyond Jake and understand for ourselves how this was all possible. It is only then that we truly understand the argument being made: Spend too much time understanding why things are happening and you may just facilitate the ability for corruption to satiate its own despicable desire. You may personally feel lost and confused at the end of it all, but in the bigger picture the victors will maintain their spoils…and the ability to continue spoiling.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
Noah Cross the Protagonist? From an objective perspective the old man certainly functions as such, yet as an Audience member we rarely get to see enough of him to be sure. It is not like Karen (Tilda Swinton) in Michael Clayton where we witness several scenes of her hemming and hawing over what she should do about Arthur (see The True Definition of a Protagonist). Archetypal Protagonists need to weigh the pros and cons (Consider) as much as they need to pursue. Cross seeks resolution, yet does little consideration.
Some stories deliver characters that don’t fall easily into archetypal patterns. Chinatown works this way. Preferring complexity over easy identification, these stories mix and match the elements of character to both surprise and delight us.
If the Goal of the Story is to fix the state of affairs in Los Angeles then Cross certainly fulfills the motivation of Pursuit. His daughter Evelyn then fits in nicely as the one trying to Avoid/Prevent. Furthermore, she does a tremendous amount of Reconsidering which would position her as the Archetypal Antagonist of the story. Again, this runs counter to Audience empathies but the film does weigh more heavily towards the Main Character point-of-view. Jake would then fulfill the motivations of Help and Conscience (Guardian) with the hired thugs —“Kitty Kat”—working as Hinder and Temptation (Contagonists).
The above article runs counter to the official Dramatica analysis, yet in some ways explains the storyform more accurately. The Requirement of the Future (setting up water rights in Los Angeles), the OS Solution of Ability (granting one the ability to commit a reprehensible act), even the Goal of the Past (Mending a Broken Family) seems to fit better then simply uncovering what has happened.
Jake uncovers the familial relationships at the turn of the 3rd structural act (the traditional 2nd Act turn into 3), not at the end where a Goal typically finds resolution. Evelyn’s decision to tell him the truth propels the Overall Story Signpost of The Future into the final Signpost of the Present (Story Driver - Decision). No longer concerned with where they will live or what will become of Los Angeles, the objective characters are now concerned with how to survive NOW. The past is known, but there is still an entire Act left to play out. The story truly doesn’t come to a Successful Outcome until Cross comforts his granddaughter, showing that he is there for her now.
In addition, the story doesn’t begin with Mulray’s decision to refuse to hand Catherine over (or for that fact his murder). That decision happens at the turn of the First Act into the Second. According to the storyform, the first Overall Story Act centers around The Past. With this in mind, it makes more sense to secure Mulray’s decision to refuse building the dam as the initial Story Driver (or Inciting Incident). That decision forces the attempted scandal and begins the conversation over “what has happened” (the Van Der Lip Dam catastrophe). Identifying Noah’s decision to use Jake as the initial Story Driver doesn’t work as well as it doesn’t create an inequity that naturally flows into The Past. If anything it speaks more to his Main Character Signpost 1 of Doing.Concepts covered: Protagonist, Antagonist & Story Goal.