Monday, August 14, 2006

Subtext - Chinatown

Let us now feel the love for Nena Eskridge, a wonderful writer, beautiful human being, and author of the superb script, The Last Stop, which was a recent Top Ten Favorite on TriggerStreet. It's the story of Jennifer Davis, a girl who was tortured as a child and grows up into a runaway, and she’s caught up in her own horrible cycle of violence, which she is trying so hard to escape. It's one of the few specs I've come across where the writer made a conscious choice to connect the first scene with the last in order to make a very specific statement about the protagonist. It’s great. I love her story.

In any case, below is Nena’s submission. She chose some unknown unloved uninteresting and poorly-written little movie called… Chinatown.


Subtext, huh? That's a tough one. In my own writing I never set out to do it, only recognize it after I've stumbled into it.

There's always
Chinatown (by the great Robert Towne), which is packed with subtext. Below is one of many examples. For me, this scene was one of the most disturbing in any movie. Cross accuses Gittes of taking advantage of his daughter, the one HE molested and impregnated. Then, he asks Gittes if he's sleeping with her, when he clearly has been. Says she's a disturbed woman - who would know better since HE is responsible for her being disturbed. And last but not least, he pretty much sums up the theme of the entire movie by saying to Gittes, "You may think you know what you're dealing with -- but believe me, you don't."

Every line in Chinatown is memorable. Could watch that movie every day for the rest of my life. That one and The Collector. Don't get me going on that one.

It disturbs me, Mr. Gittes. It
makes me think you're taking my
daughter for a ride – financially
speaking, of course. How much are
you charging her?

My usual fee -- plus a bonus
if I come up with any results.

Are you sleeping with her? Come,
come, Mr. Gittes -- you don't have
to think about that to remember,
do you?

Gittes laughs.

If you want an answer to that
question I can always put one
of my men on the job. Good
afternoon, Mr. Cross.

Mr. Gittes! You're dealing with
a disturbed woman who's lost her
husband. I don't want her taken
advantage of. Sit down.

What for?

-- You may think you know what
you're dealing with – but
believe me, you don't.


Anonymous said...

Good choice! I love Chinatown. It's a great classic movie and has so much depth.

Nena, I look forward to reading your script on TS. If MM likes it, I know it's good.

wcdixon said...

good this one:

"Hey, whats the matter with ya. You're screwin' just like a Chinaman!"

Subtext or a punchline...or both?

Anonymous said...

Great choice! Chinatown is one of those films you can watch over and over again and still not see it all. Very layered. Very deep. Very...subtextual??

Mystery Man said...

Miriam, Nena's script is killer. No pun intended.

Dixon - Hmm. I'd say punchline. And I'm sure you would too, because... we're too innocent to think of any dirty subtextual connotations.

Mickey - Very!

crossword said...

Another excellent choice. I vividly remember being mesmerized by this film when it came out.

A real dichotomy, this one. A simple story, but complex undertones.

btw: I spoke to a screenwriter last year (a former neighbor of Towne's) and I recall hearing from him that it took Robert Towne something like 14 yrs of shopping this around before it got sold. If true, this really speaks to writers needing to be persistent and believe in themselves!

nena eskridge said...

My goodness...I leave town for a few days and look what happens. I miss my own blurb. Thank you, Mr. Man, for the many compliments. But I'm sure you say these things to all the girls (probably a few of the guys, too -- there's that pesky subtext again). Anyway, thank you again. I'd like to throw in one last observation, if anybody's still listening!

Rumor has it that John Houston (Cross in China Town) may have actually participated in the Black Dahlia murder. Apparently, he and Orson Wells threw elaborately lude parties and Beth Short may have stumbled into one. The rest is herstory (if you're not familiar with the Beth Short murder, check out TS member Will Keightley's SP called "the delicate skin" ... one of my all time faves... about the 1939 real life murder).

So is it real, or is it memorex? John Houston is not only totally gross in China Town but was in real life, too. And Mr. Polanski, the director -- an accused child molester. So, what we have here is one of the greatest movies of all time (about general depravity) directed by and staring some of our most highly regarded film artists -- each being the ultimate perv. What the heck does that say about this industry? What does it say about us, as writers and our desperate struggle to dig our way into it?

Okay, I had a point but what the hell was it? Have no idea. Except that maybe suddenly Mel Gibson doesn't seem so bad. And, Mr. Man, as always, looks like you win ... wink)

Anonymous said...

Oooh. I wonder what Angelica Houston would have to say about that? And let's not forget that Roman Polanski was accidentally involved (as a victim) in one of the greatest crimes in Hollywood: the Tate/LaBianca murders.

This adds even more layers, although I don't know if they're sub-textual.

Of course the best scene in China town is the slapping around scene. "My sister" SLAP "My daughter" SLAP "My sister and my daughter."

feverblue said...

Nena, 'the delicate skin' is no longer on TriggerStreet and I don't have the creds to re-upload. But it's still on my site at this place. Click on the 'full version' link and use:

Username: nick
Password: nora

Thanks for the plug!

crossword said...

re: the best scene in Chinatown is the slapping around scene. "My sister" SLAP "My daughter" SLAP "My sister and my daughter."

LOL :)

I remember "Mad Magazine" having some fun with that scene when that issue came out in 1974 :)

Mystery Man said...

Ya know, that scene originally had Evelyn giving this long-windded piece of exposition about how her mother had died when she was fifteen and how her father's grief was such that he had a breakdown and became a little boy and he was unable to feed or dress himself, etc, which led to the incest.

In a rewrite, Towne replaced all that exposition with Gittes asking, "He raped you?" and she replied, "No." Just brilliant, isn't it? I mean, her denial spoke of just how cruel and how much influence Cross still had over Evelyn and it also really tested Gittes' love for her.

I love that moment.

nena eskridge said...

Mr. M, do you know if Towne's original version is in print any where? I'd love to read that scene. Sounds pretty perfect... her father reverting to childhood. Pedophiles are usually born as a result of some early childhood trauma. And they typically "stick" at the age at which that event occurred, emotionally speaking. If that is true then Cross must've been wearing some pretty tight diapers in his early years. Hmmm...

Anonymous said...


I read that anecdote somewhere as well -- from "Story" maybe?

Anyway, it just goes to show the value of writing, re-writing, and re-rewriting until you've got the thing sharpened to a fine point.

Mystery Man said...

Yes, Anon, so many wonderful things can be learned from McKee...

Nena, the third draft can be found here:

This is how the scene reads:

Kyo comes running down the stairs.

in Chinese)
For God's sake, Kyo, keep her
upstairs, go back!

Kyo turns after staring at Gittes for a moment then
goes back upstairs.

-- my father and I, understand,
or is it too tough for you?

Gittes doesn't answer.

... he had a breakdown... the
dam broke... my mother died...
he became a little boy... I was
fifteen... he'd ask me what to
eat for breakfast, what clothes
to wear!... It happened... then
I ran away...

to Mexico...

She nods.

Hollis came and took... care
of me... after she was born...
he said... he took care of her...
I couldn't see her... I wanted to
but I couldn't... I just want to
see her once in a while... take care
of her... that's all... but I don't
want her to know... I don't want
her to know...

... so that's why you hate him...

Evelyn looks slowly up at Gittes.

-- no... for turning his back on
me after it happened! He couldn't
face it...
I hate him.

Gittes suddenly feels the need to loosen his tie.

-- yeah... where are you taking her

Back to Mexico.

Mystery Man said...

I have to add that a day after our own Chinatown subtext article, another great article surfaced by Jeremiah Kipp over at The House Next Door called:

Evil under the sun: John Huston in Chinatown

(found here:

In it, Jeremiah wrote: "Cross' lust for power is conjoined with his more carnal lusts for Evelyn, and the land crimes are paralleled by crimes of a more intimate nature behind closed doors; the old man's sunny, "respectable" public image and depraved private life tease the viewer's worst case visions of just how low Hollywood power players will sink to satisfy their fantasies, and how far they'll go to acquire still more wealth. Huston's choices as an actor mirror Polanki and Towne's theme: evil doesn't lurk in the shadows, it walks in daylight. Cross is so arrogant in his crimes, public and private, that he refuses to even acknowledge they are crimes. The land deal is merely his way of commandeering a road into the future, and as for Evelyn and the psychological burdens she has to bear for having Noah Cross as her father, and as more, he can only say, 'I don’t blame myself.'"

crossword said...

There is a surprising amount of rumour, supposition and gossip surrounding this story on the web. It even sounds like the original story was significantly altered by Roman Polanski. I haven't read Towne's original story... but now think I will!

nena eskridge said...

Thanks for the Jeremiah Kipp
blog blurb on Houston. I feel dirty tho, must go take a very hot shower. I'll never understand how and why folks continue to defend Polanski -- Woody Allen. Both great artists and I admit I watch their films on TV, but have sworn to never fork over a single dollar to either, ever again. I 'spose maybe it's a girl thing. All is fair in love and war, but damn, not when it comes to children -- I don't care what clothes they're wearing or how much make-up they have on. Do I look as tall as I feel when standing on this soap box? :)

Mystery Man said...

Nothing wrong at all, Nena, to feel that way.