or, Even the Darkest of Tales Contains Some Fine Romance
I never wanted to see the old classic movie Chinatown, no matter how many “great” lists it’s on, because I’d heard it was dark and depressing.
I finally caved and saw the movie, because
1) Alexandra Sokoloff, who was the featured speaker at our LERA conference in November, writes about this movie at length in her book, Stealing Hollywood: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors; not only is Chinatown included in her 10 Story Breakdowns, she has an entire chapter on the protagonist Jake Gittes;
2) the movie was playing at the historic KiMo theater as part of the AFI Top 100 countdown series.
It was now or never. I rounded up the troops and made a Saturday night of it, post viewing drinks and dinner at the Asian Noodle Bar included.
So, yeah, the movie is dark. As in, I sucked down half a glass of plum wine as soon as the stem met my fingers.
But now that I have seen it, I get why it’s on all the lists and referenced by all the plotting and storytelling guides. I spent the next morning re-reading all of Sokoloff’s text on it. There are a lot of techniques in this detective noir that would work for any genre.
Warning: spoilers for Chinatown ahead.
Even the doomed love story in Chinatown contains certain love story elements that make it haunting and memorable.
It begins when Jake awakens from his latest beating, and sees Evelyn’s face. She has come to his rescue. Then the two of them go to investigate nefarious dealings at the retirement home by pretending to be married. They get found out and it looks like Jake is in for his next beating until Evelyn, in a nice gender role reversal, rescues him again by driving over the would-be assailant with the car and picking up Jake so they can escape. Back at the house, she nurses his wounds from his first beating (Jake sure gets beat up a lot). This leads to the kiss and subsequent (off screen) sex, followed by pillow talk wherein we learn more about Jake’s past trauma. It’s kind of heartbreaking, this scene. It’s the only time in the movie where the two of them look happy. And we know how that turns out.
I admit I am not the biggest fan of the Let’s Pretend We’re Married plot device, but in Chinatown it is integrated into the overall plot so seamlessly that I didn’t even notice it was happening. I personally love, and frequently write, the Pillow Talk that reveals old ghosts and wounds technique. As for Rescue scenes, it’s cool that in Chinatown, a movie where one of the themes is women in peril, it was the “fragile” woman rescuing the “tough” man that served as the catalyst for the love story. In my current project, I have a couple of opportunities for the heroine to be Rescued by the Hero, and yet for some reason, I’m avoiding that scenario like the plague. After seeing Chinatown, I’m thinking a solution is to totally flip it so that the heroine rescues the hero.
Or, even better, they rescue each other.
P.S. Alexandra Sokoloff’s Stealing Hollywood: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, is a great resource for writers. Many members of my writing group, myself included, have started utilizing the eight-sequence structure outlined in her book, and have found it immensely helpful.