John Ostrander: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?
Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
Jake Gittes: I just wanna know what you’re worth. More than 10 million?
Noah Cross: Oh my, yes!
Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?
Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future. Now, where’s the girl? I want the only daughter I’ve got left. As you found out, Evelyn was lost to me a long time ago.
Jake Gittes: Who do you blame for that? Her?
Noah Cross: I don’t blame myself. You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.
Chinatown. Robert Towne, script. Roman Polanski, director.
Chinatown is a masterpiece, winding up on so many “Best of” compilations that I can’t list them all; it’s on mine as well. It also has one of the best soundtracks (by the inestimable Jerry Goldsmith) I’ve heard.
The quoted section at the head of this column has been much in my mind lately. Gittes’ question (“Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”) is one I’d like to put to the Koch Brothers and lots of others in the über-rich percentile, except I think all I’d get would be variations on Noah Cross’s reply (“The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.”) Wealth at some point is no longer about riches; it’s about control.
I’m not anti-rich; I think its swell that some people have managed to make a lot of money. I wish I had, and who doesn’t?. My problem is how that money is sometimes used – primarily in the use of buying the government. Late in Chinatown, Faye Dunaway’s character, Evelyn Mulwray, is in a stand-off with her father, Noah Cross, and the police. Gittes, who has been trying to help her, yells for her to let the police handle it. She yells back, “He owns the police!” And there’s my problem right there.
In 2016, the right wing Koch brothers intend to spend $889 million on the elections. The Kochs are the second richest family in the country (the Waltons of Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club are the richest) and are worth billions. They’ll hardly miss the millions. Mitt Romney famously observed that “corporations are people, too”. I’ll buy that when Texas executes a corporation. The Supreme Court in the Citizens United misruling declared that money equaled free speech. Lots of money equals shouting and drowning everyone else out.
In 1980, David Koch ran as the vice-presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party on a platform that included abolishing Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, the Post Office (in favor of privatized delivery services), all personal and corporate taxes, minimum wage laws, compulsory education laws, the FDA, the FCC, OSHA and on and on. You can read it here, among other places. What was radically fringe thinking back in 1980 is becoming mainstream Republican policy.
Gittes, late in the movie, is trying to convince a detective that Noah Cross is doing terrible things. Gittes: “He’s rich! Do you understand? He thinks he can get away with anything.” So do the Koch Brothers and they’re right. They have and they will. Fine them and they consider it part of the cost of doing business. They have a vision for America that scares me; it’s not a country I would recognize or want to live in.
Minor spoiler alert. The movie doesn’t end well. Someone gets killed who shouldn’t have been, the bad guy wins everything he’s after, and the hero just stands there in shock. My feeling is that it’ll be much of the same for this country and I don’t know what can be done about it.
It’s all Chinatown.