Saturday April 29, 2023
Bad for glass. We're forever behind the detective who's forever behind.
I've seen “Chinatown” about half a dozen times, maybe more. It's the movie I keep returning to these days, as I once kept returning to “The Insider” or “All the President's Men.” Maybe it just resonated more during the Trump era. Forget it, Erik, it's the GOP.
I thought I got it, too. The movie is an updated film noir, except the femme fatale is the victim and the cynical private detective has no idea how awful the world is. Brilliant. I got it.
Then I read this quote from production designer Richard Sylbert in “Hollywood: An Oral History” and realized I wasn't seeing half of “Chinatown”:
You say to yourself, “Okay, Chinatown is about a drought, so all the colors in this picture are going to be related to the idea of a drought. And the only time you're going to see green is when somebody has water for the grass.” ... All the buildings in this picture will be Spanish except one. And they'll all be white. The reason they're white is that the heat bounces off them. And not only will they all be white, they'll be above the eye level of the private eye. Above eye level means, for the private eye, that he has to walk uphill. It is always harder emotionally to walk uphill. You then decide what the colors are going to be and why they're going to be that way and what the range should be, let's say, from burnt grass, which is a terrific color, to white, which you know you're already going to deal with, to umber. Umber is interesting, because it's the color of a shadow. And in a movie like this, the more shadowy the better. You use the layers, the planes, use everything you can. All these things are available to you to structure a movie. Even opaque glass. You know what's interesting about opaque glass in a mystery? You can't quite see who's behind it, and it looks like frozen water. And in a picture where they're talking about water, it's an interesting object to get involved with. And you just keep doing that wherever you can.
How fucking brilliant is all that? Sylbert also worked on “Splendor in the Grass,” “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Graduate,” “Rosemary's Baby,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Shampoo,” “Reds,” “Frances,” “Breathless,” “Dick Tracy,” and “Carlito's Way.” Not a bad CV.