Man, though superior over other animals, has no control over the world. The fact that men has often thought of themselves as superior beings drive them to feel anxious whenever their world is out of their control. And so, the erosion of human spirit begins. This theme is expressed in two American films of the 1970’s, Chinatown and Nashville. Both the two films illustrate how the human spirit is worn by the anxieties caused by a network of events which the character seems to have no control of. Chinatown released in 1974 is a modern-day film noir thriller set in Los Angeles in 1937.
It is about a detective named Jake Gittes played by Jack Nicholson whose investigation of what he thought was a typical extra-marital affair led to the revelation of a shocking family secret and webs of corruption and conspiracy. The story developed through several twists concerning Gittes’ client and her family. The film links the mysteries of family and water. The film can be associated to the scandal in water-rights and articulates how the contemptible land-development schemes that forward the water’s flow abused nature.
It reminds viewers that the land once abundant with natural resources are now barren because greedy businessmen (Dirks 1). Chinatown as a film noir features an anti-hero in the character of Jack Gittes (Ebert 1). Jack Gittes is an arrogant, confident, cynical detective who easily jumps into conclusions. He is a former cop from Chinatown in Los Angeles who works as a detective for divorce cases and extra-marital relationships. He left Chinatown because of a certain incident concerning a woman whom he tried to protect by preventing something terrible to happen to her, only to hasten the tragedy.
The story started with a new client who presented herself as Mrs Mulwray, asking Gittes to investigate on her cheating husband. Gittes was able to take a picture of the husband’s ‘lover’. As it turns out, the client and the affair was just a set-up, who planned it was yet to be revealed. After a few days, Gittes learned that Mrs. Mulwray was not the real Mrs. Mulwray and Mr. Mulwray, who is the the well-known chief engineer of a water company in L. A. was drowned.
As Gittes investigates further, the secrets begin to unravel more clearly – Gittes uncover widespread corruption among businessmen greedy for lands, led by Cross, Mrs. Mulwray’s father and Mr. Mulwray’s business partner. Cross has engineered a plot to monopolize drought-stricken LA’s water supply by water diversion. Later, he found out the incestuous relationship between Mrs. Mulwray and her father Noah Cross. Also, Katherine, whom he first thought as Mr. Mulwray’s lover, was in fact the Mrs. Mulwray and Noah Cross’s daughter. Gittes once again, became too involved and tried to protect Mrs. Mulwray. The film ended in Chinatown wherein Mrs. Mulwray tried to get away from her domineering father. Unfortunately, Mrs Mulwray was shot in the head, leaving Gittes shocked and disappointed. Once again, the woman he tried to protect was pushed into a tragedy. There is uncertainty throughout the whole film, and even the final line “Come on Jake, it’s Chinatown,” which proposes that some situations are too complex to fully comprehend (Dirks 1-4). Nashville on the other hand, is a tale of twenty-four characters whose intertwined lives converge at a political rally in Nashville, Tennessee.
Nashville which is the capital of country music is depicted as a microcosmic representation of all society. The film expresses the hopes, dishonest intentions, dreams, and frustrated lives of the different characters in a random manner. Each character has his own agenda – some came for sex, some for recognition, some for progress in politics, and some for their ambitions in the music industry (Dirks 1). In a music festival organized by a certain politician, musicians from all over the country came for public exposure (Ebert 1). The gathering was set at the Parthenon in Nashville.
In this five-day film, there are adulterous affairs, nervous breakdowns, shootings, stripteases, bitter sons, and Kennedy assassination stories, among many other character-developing plots in this richly drawn character-driven film. In the conclusion of the film, Barbara Jean, the reigning lady or queen of country-western music, was shot by Kenny Fraiser, a troubled, angry young loner from Columbus, Ohio. After the random killing and the audience panic, Kenny, the killer is subdued by shocked spectator. He was sent to the police. Haven, another singer, gathered the crowed after the tragedy calm them by singing (Dirks 1-4).
So how was the erosion of human spirit depicted in the two films? At the start of Chinatown, Jack Gittes was portrayed as a self-assured, detached detective. The scandalous cases he’s investigating do not seem to worry him. Instead, he reveals each finding to the client coolly. What the viewers don’t know is that he’s still suffering from a very unfortunate incident during his years as policeman. And this is maybe one of the reasons why he keeps himself detached from his cases. He wasn’t aware that the same thing will happen when he was asked to investigate on Mr.Mulwray’s case as a powerless, hard-boiled detective, he again brings tragedy to a woman he wants to help.
Being a detective, he wanted to get to the truth after being deceived so many times; first by Ida Sessions who claimed that she was Mrs. Mulwray, then by Mrs. Mulwray herself. The deceptions of the different characters made Gittes not to trust anyone. He continued his investigations after the death of Mr Mulwray. In the process, he became sympathetic to Mrs. Mulwray pushing him to still help her. Once again, history repeats itself with the death of Mr. Mulwray in Chinatown. The decision of Gittes to become involved proved detrimental not only to his life but to others connected to him as well. Being arrogant and self-assured he thought he can do anything. But he cannot. One character of the story even tells him that “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t”, indicating how Gittes has no control over the circumstances. In the end, someone even said to Gittes “Come on Jake, it’s Chinatown. ” This indicates how Gittes couldn’t have done anything because the situation has become too complex.
The events led to the erosion of Gittes spirit. In the end his enthusiasm to live was dissolved in a place called Chinatown, a place where anything can happen. In Nashville, the typical lives of the characters seem too regular as to invite tragedy. Indeed, not all characters are innocent. Some may not be morally good but still seems not too extreme that they could harm others. But as the story progressed and issues are slowly raised through the characters, the true nature of each individual was revealed. And each character contributed to the development of the story.
Not all of them may know each other but still their lives are interconnected. Still these intertwined lives seem useless because they were not able to prevent the death of one character. Again the individual is expressed as someone who doesn’t have control over his life moreover other people’s lives. They may only help define it but ultimately someone’s fate is beyond anyone else’s power. No one knows in that rally what will happen to Barbara Jean, except maybe for Kenny, and they could have done something about it if they were not too absorbed in their own lives and ambitions.
But after all, self-absorption is just one mechanism of humans to survive. So no one could really blame them it they were not able to prevent the singer’s death. What matters is that after the tragedy, they were all still able to go on with their lives. The various issues of the society are the factors that slowly erode the human spirit. Every experience that comes to the character drives him to become stronger or weaker. It is up to the individual to decide whether he will take this experience as detrimental or beneficial to him.
Those who consider them beneficial will survive while those who treat it detrimental will become weak. The weak ones in the end are the ones whose spirits are easily eroded. The difference between Chinatown and Nashville is that Chinatown focuses more on the individual; while in Nashville, the erosion of the human spirit is more focused on the effect of the society on the individual. In conclusion, the erosion of the human spirit is not inevitable. An individual may not be able to control the world can always do something about his/her that may turn the events to his/her advantage.