Cinema of Cynicism

In a 29-film series, Oak Street Cinema puts Hollywood's most complicated decade, the Seventies, onscreen

In contrast Robert Redford is refreshingly uncool in Three Days of the Condor, which frames one of his finest roles--a CIA researcher on the run from murderous members of his tainted agency. Like Richard Widmark, Redford is gifted at looking genuinely frightened. The movie reminds you how much our vision of espionage has changed: In films of the Thirties and Forties spying was often noble and romantic, even if one was on the wrong side. By the Seventies, the glamour had turned to rot.

Robert Altman's California Split and Roman Polanski's Chinatown were released in the summer of Nixon's resignation, and I've always associated the president's departure--quoting Wordsworth, waving bitterly--with those two stygian fables of 1974. California itself is a leading character in both movies, complete with all its craziness, its contradictions, its charms, and its brutalizing fantasies. Altman's Californians are revealed through what strangers say to one another: the man who reasonably admonishes, "Lady, you don't throw oranges on an escalator," the bus rider who worries that the passenger next to him may throw up, the doctor who's so hooked on cards that someone says, "He'd rather lose a patient than lose a hand," and two dulcet prostitutes--one of whom keeps searching for her TV Guide.

George Segal, as a taut depressive who can nonetheless relish moments of pleasure, and Elliott Gould, a cozy clown with a vein of malice, both excel in their roles as fanatical gamblers. While playing, Segal has a way of sucking his teeth behind closed lips, which distills immense anxiety. His drawn and chalky face can suddenly age ten years when things go wrong--and then shed that decade just as swiftly. Gould is the jester who can lighten Segal's angst. Chewing imaginary gum or a real toothpick, he appears as a bright person playing dumb.

Inside the death chamber: Christopher Walken (far right) plays Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter
Inside the death chamber: Christopher Walken (far right) plays Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter

Gould's casual loopiness both exasperates and beguiles Segal. And while we saw many movies about boyish bonding in the Seventies, this picture really is concerned with friendship in a way that's unusual on the screen. Much of the time Segal comes on as an adolescent, while Gould is a huge child. But Gould becomes a soothing parent figure when Segal tenses up before a big game. After Segal wins abundantly, dejection closes in: He's one of those people who has trouble with success, who suspects that good fortune means bad luck. One of Altman's specialties is fragmented lives, often flavored with foreboding.

Like Altman's M*A*S*H, California Split moves at such speed that you couldn't follow it if you were stoned--as some of the audience was the first time I saw it (they kept clamoring for explanations). In Altman's world things happen very fast: Milk overwhelms a bowl of Froot Loops just as rapidly as strangers attack one another in parking lots. As in most of Altman's films, voices overlap on the soundtrack: Words are deliberately sacrificed to the mood, and individuals' compulsions are featured instead of their utterances. Segal and Gould are comic versions of the wanderers--often failures--you frequently meet in California, the strugglers who swarm through motels and drive-ins and Pizzaburgers. Meanwhile the Boom State withholds its prizes from them, and references to the Gold Rush sound like a real estate flack's lies.

There are no friendships in Chinatown. Yet the movie does dwell on loyalties: detective Jack Nicholson's loyalty to the truth, to finding facts, to learning what really happened--and his belated loyalty to Faye Dunaway, the widow he finally comes to respect. Polanski's California is characterized through its landscape rather than its inhabitants. The focus is on the crimes that some will commit in order to control the land, to make it yield the promises of the early days, when the West seemed to guarantee riches.

Chinatown is about coverups: about corrupt politics, betrayals, crooked deals, the harassment of enemies. Nothing is what it seems--not even for moviegoers. At first we don't realize that either Nicholson or Dunaway is a likable person. He appears thick-skinned, sarcastic--just a hack doing a routine job--and she seems snotty and guilty. John Huston, the villain, is rather childlike, benign. Layers of lies mount up until Nicholson is reminded of his stint as a cop in Los Angeles's Chinatown, where it was "hard to tell what's going on." In two different scenes, dim sunlight falls in bars through venetian blinds, and that striped light and shadow create an image of obscurity, an atmosphere of uncertainty.

Risking his skin near reservoirs and in orange groves, beaten up for his tenacity as an investigator, the detective discovers that he doesn't even know what he was hired for. (This made many spectators think of the original Watergate burglars and how little they knew about the reason for their errand; and there were recurrent references to Watergate when Chinatown was talked about in the mid-Seventies). Nicholson is admirably subtle as a man who feels confident enough to make hideous mistakes, to be trapped into doing the opposite of what he wanted to.

Nothing's what it seems--except, perhaps, Polanski himself, as the exuberant little monster who slits Nicholson's nostril. He makes the blood flow, as he did in his Macbeth. That and Chinatown were called "Polanski's revenge" for the sadistic Manson murders of his pregnant wife and her friends. Many viewers said they were shocked by the movie's conclusion: that the detective was wrong to chase after truth or justice, that effort and commitment are pointless, that it's best to do nothing. Chinatown states that disasters can occur because facts are elusive, and that it can be fatal to function in the dark. But who can tell Polanski to steer away from tragedy--when he knows more about it than most of us?

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