[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
One of life’s great delights is surprise, and this surprising picture gives great delight indeed. For me, the chief element of surprise comes from TheLastDetail‘s constant manipulation of my expectations in terms of genre. Ordinarily, when I sit down to a film about which I know nothing beforehand—the case with this picture—the first shot or two tell me, among other things, what genre the film will belong to. Any given genre carries its own set of conventions governing characters, treatment, resolutions, tone, and any number of other ingredients, so part of my pleasure comes from watching the filmmakers elaborating, working, and fulfilling those conventions and my expectations. But TheLastDetail doesn’t do that at all; instead it quite resolutely refuses to submit to genre conventions while playing deftly on our expectations like a graceful bullfighter executing countless veronicas as we rush by him time after time trying to pin him down to earth. In other words, one never knows quite where this film is going until it has reached its end, and even its ending defies any genre convention that I’m acquainted with.
[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
First things first: The way they say it in the movie is yaw-ku-zah and, as a headnote explains, the Yakuza were roughly parallel to the western’s good badmen—gamblers, con men, drifters with short swords and no samurai code of bushido to sustain them, sometime Robin Hood figures who stood between the defenseless and the marauders who would prey upon them. Yakuza stories within a modern gangster framework are immensely popular in the Japanese cinema, and Paul Schrader, former editor of the American film magazine Cinema, wrote a comprehensive survey of the genre for a Film Comment of about a year ago. Remarking therein that anyone who’d seen a few examples of this relentlessly formalized genre could write one himself, Schrader spoke from experience: his own TheYakuza, touched up a smidge by Robert Towne and formally permissive enough to incorporate some double-dealing American gangsters along with its Japanese pro- and antagonists, looked a likely enough successor to the kung-fu cycle in popularity that Warner Brothers paid a hefty price for the screenplay ($300,000, according to Newsweek).
Chinatown is an American masterpiece, a great film released in a year full of great films. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, but in the face of “The Godfather Part II” (among others), it won only a single Oscar: Best Original Screenplay by Robert Towne. It is a magnificent original script, a great American novel written directly for the screen, and it confirmed Robert Towne as one of the finest screenwriters of his generation.
Chinatown makes its long-awaited Blu-ray debut this week from Paramount in an edition with commentary, interviews, and featurettes, and Robert Towne agreed to a few interviews to mark the occasion. So for a brief ten minutes, I had the pleasure and the honor of asking him about the film, the disc, the collaborative nature of the production, and of course what he’s been watching lately.
What are you watching?
I wouldn’t want to tell you the last movie I saw because I walked out on it. I so disliked it. The thing that I guess I’ve been watching lately is what a lot of people have been watching, which is Downton Abbey. Have you seen it?
I missed the first season and caught up with it in the second, which took them through World War I.
You really should start with the first, it’s really quite wonderful. But that’s what I’ve been looking at lately. There are some movies I want to see but I still haven’t been there. I still like going to the movies but there are so many movies that are depressing without being revealing of much of anything and I sometimes wonder how we can hold on to an audience with films like that. But there are certain films and filmmakers I still like. I like very much The Social Network, I like Fincher very much, as you can tell. I mean, we worked together on the commentary.
The commentary track on the “Chinatown” disc is superb, and I appreciate that someone with Fincher’s insight was brought in to engage you on the film.
I think it was particularly good to work with David on that. But the people that were on that disc were so thoughtful. Steven Soderbergh… There were a lot of good people associated with that.
Filmmaking really is unique in the storytelling arts in that it is such a collaborative art and watching the interviews on the disc reminded me of that all over again. You created J.J. Gittes in your screenplay, yet so much of Gittes’ character comes out of the way that Jack Nicholson played him.
It’s more than the way he plays it. I had watched Jack improvise for six or seven years in an acting class so, yes, so much of it comes out of the way Jack plays it, but so much of the way it was written comes out of my ability to have watched Jack work over the years so those elements in Jack’s character as Gittes were really inspired by years of watching Jack improvise and work. In that sense, he was sort of a hidden collaborator because I would imagine what he would say in any given number of situations. So it’s truly collaborative in that sense.