Sunday, August 17, 2008
Living In The Past
Here’s one of those facts that means nothing to anyone but me, but THE TWO JAKES was the first movie I ever saw in Los Angeles. I hadn’t moved out here yet. I was just visiting. But I was here, it was the big release I was excited about, it was what I chose. As I think about it now, it looks like a very appropriate choice for the occasion. The film is extremely flawed, but certain elements of it have stayed with me enough that I have returned to it on occasion through the years. And there’s the sentimental fondness for it which I can’t ignore.
For those who have seen CHINATOWN: Los Angles, 1948. Private detective J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson, of course), flush from post-war posterity, is going through the motions on a standard divorce case when it results in the jealous husband Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel) shooting the man who he finds with his wife Kitty (Meg Tilly). To complicate matters, the man turns out to be Mark Bodine, Berman’s own business partner. Jake, under suspicion as an accessory, must clear his name but as he listens to the wire recording of the shooting hears the about-to-be murdered man utter the name Kathryn Mulwray, daughter of Evelyen Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) who was killed at the end of the first movie. As the name continues to ring in his ears, he tries to find out what it means and what has happened to Kathryn after all these years. For those who haven’t seen CHINATOWN or aren’t familiar with every single line of dialogue: I don’t know what to tell you. Sit back and eat your popcorn, it’s gonna be a long movie.
THE TWO JAKES, directed by Nicholson himself and written by Robert Towne, was meant to be the middle part of a trilogy focusing on private detective J.J. Gittes and the building of Los Angeles. JAKES attempts to continue the story of CHINATOWN begun by Towne while moving its thematic preoccupation from water to oil (by all accounts the third would have concerned air). Coming sixteen years after the first film, it never really deepens the meaning of that film so much as it acts as an epilogue. In addition to this the plot, at least for first-time viewers, is difficult to penetrate (impossible to understand without having seen CHINATOWN) and I could imagine winners of CHINATOWN trivia contests having trouble following everything. At one point a character played by Tracey Walter makes his entrance excitedly saying, “I know Mr. Gittes from the DWP when I worked for Hollis Mulwray,” only the actor wasn’t in that movie so we don’t pay attention to his exposition-heavy speech while we try to remember if we've seen him before. Characters both major and minor from the first film appear as well (not everyone, which seems realistic) but, along with those who are just being introduced, it’s often unclear who is important and who isn’t. When a character asks Jake, “Who’s that?” and the reply is, “Maddie Rawley. She’s from Pasadena,” it’s tough to figure out how she figures into the plot and when it will be explained how important she is (kinda, but not really). As we all know, nobody has ever been able to follow THE BIG SLEEP either but it gets by on the Hawksian cool of Bogart, Bacall and everyone. THE TWO JAKES, in comparison, attempts to be a mature mediation on human nature and coming to terms with the past, but if we can’t penetrate the plot it’s tough to have any sort of emotional connection for what’s going on. Too much never really registers—to say that the subplot of Jake and his fiancé seems like an afterthought is putting it mildly. What emotion does emerge mostly has to do with the connection to CHINATOWN and not the movie we're watching. I’ve seen the film enough times by now that I can follow the plot pretty well (at least, I think I do) but the mysteries meant to parallel the ones in the first film, while not necessarily predictable, do not necessarily qualify as bombshells either. Yes, there was no way it could ever compare to CHINATOWN both in quality and in coming up with an equivalent for the shocking plot developments. If there was ever something that could have tied all the elements together it feels like the movie never found what that was and even moments of suspense feel muddled—when, during a game of golf, Keitel tells Nicholson to “give me the wire recording by the end of this round or I’ll have you killed,” there’s so little tension you wonder if the movie is even paying attention to itself.
But part of what I’ve always been willing to defend about THE TWO JAKES, apart from any sentimental attachment, is a genuinely humanistic feel which runs through it. It’s hard for me to avoid the feeling that more than anything the film is really about Jack Nicholson’s thoughts about drifting through Los Angeles all the years he has and what that means to him. Little touches that have nothing to do with the story such as the audio drifting out of radios and early televisions feel like they came from his own memories, even if the actor didn’t grow up in the city. The character of J.J. Gittes, like Nicholson, has gotten considerably fatter and more prosperous in the time since CHINATOWN (“My business may not be reputable, but I am. In this town, I’m the leper with the most fingers”—Is Gittes saying this, or Nicholson?) and he seems more confident in his dealings with the world yet can’t help but get sucked back into previous events (“ I don’t want to live in the past. I just don’t want to lose it.” How do we do one without doing the other?). The eye of the director in this case happens to be the eye of the actor playing the lead character and it feels like one soaks into the other, for good and bad. “You stay in this business long enough, every street leads to a place you’d like to forget,” he states in voiceover, something I can imagine anyone living in Los Angeles relating to and the film seems to expose the musings of someone trying very hard not to get lost in memories. He concludes that thought by adding, “…every skirt reminds you of another woman. Or, if you’ve got it bad enough, the same woman.” Not that I have any experience in that sort of thing. There is emotion in THE TWO JAKES. It’s just difficult to stop getting confused by the plot in order to begin to find it.
THE TWO JAKES was meant to be released in Christmas 1989, presumably to be pushed for Oscars, got pushed back to March 1990 and then was finally release in August of that year, soon before the release of Bogdanovich's TEXASVILLE and, also from Paramount, Coppola’s THE GODFATHER PART III—it’s like something was in the air with these belated sequels. The film was reportedly a troubled production (I’m not even going to get into the aborted version of this that was to be shot in ’85, directed by Robert Towne and featuring Robert Evans as the other Jake) and ultimately it feels like the film was never able to overcome this. The extensive narration Jack reads, I assume a post-production attempt to clear up confusion, isn’t bad but seems to overreach for metaphorical significance a few times too many.
The film features a number of actors I like, but few of them are really seen at their best here. Nicholson probably knows the chracter better than anyone, not counting Robert Towne, but it still seems like there's a spark missing from his performance. The comic moments sprinkled throughout are some of his best. Harvey Keitel and Meg Tilly seem either misdirected or under-directed at times, neither one seeming to achieve what is required. When Keitel breaks down in tears near the end, there’s no emotional impact at all (that said, his last moment is his best). In comparison Madeline Stowe, in the role of Mark Bodine’s widow Lillian, hits all the right notes turning in a performance both sexy and funny, providing a dangerous energy the film otherwise lacks. It makes me wish that somebody at the time had taken advantage of this and teamed up the two actors in something where they would both be the leads (Madeline Stowe is missed in movies today). The likes of Ruben Blades, Eli Wallach, Frederic Forrest and Richard Farnsworth all turn up but they never wind up making much impact. Familiar face Tracey Walter, who I always like, had just appeared opposite Nicholson as the Joker’s second-in command in BATMAN. Rebecca Broussard, then Nicholson’s girlfriend, plays Gittes’ secretary. At least she looks the period. Faye Dunaway makes a voiceover appearance as a letter is read in one scene. David Keith plays the police detective son of Loach, the character who fired the fatal shot in the first film, which seems like one of those contrivances that only happen in sequels. Joe Mantell, Perry Lopez, Allan Warnick and James Hong all reprise their roles from the first film and Hong’s scene with Nicholson is particularly good even though it’s a bit much for me to swallow the two characters sitting down for tea. Again, it just seems like one of those sequel contrivances, like the file photos Nicholson looks at which probably came straight from the Paramount archives.
Nicholson also did not use certain key personnel from the first film, in spite of the fact that they were still alive and active at the time. Vilmos Zsigmond served as Director of Photography replacing John Alonzo and though it’s a beautiful looking movie—I always look forward to the shadows all the women’s hats make in the La Brea Tar Pits scene—the framing feels too erratic much of the time, something I wonder if in this case is more the fault of the director than DP. Van Dyke Parks, who had worked with Nicholson on 1978’s GOIN’ SOUTH, composed the score and while it can’t be compared with Jerry Goldsmith’s work on the original, I find it consistently interesting and intelligently designed, a favorite being the recurring “Jake driving around” music. The locations used throughout work very well, expertly evoking the feel of another time in a more emotional way than the film is at times otherwise unable to. This is another personal connection I have to the film—when Jake arrives to meet Tracey Walter’s Tyrone Otley at the Blue Parrot Bar and Grill (played by the Dresden, address incorrectly given as “On Cahuenga, just south of Franklin”) Nicholson pulls up in front of a building that I am very familiar with. That’s pretty much exactly how it looks from this particular vantage point even today.
It’s that sort of touch which makes me think of the movie fondly in spite of itself, giving me a connection from now to a night long ago when I first saw it in Westwood Village. A film about L.A.’s past which came out at a time when I was considering L.A. as my future but here I am now in the present thinking about that time as the past, one which I suppose I’m trying to avoid losing more than trying to live in it. And that future is still in front of me. It’s kind of a structural mess, it’s overlong and the emotional effect it clearly aims for never happens. I’m not even sure that it contains what could be described as an actual character arc—“It doesn’t go away,” is what Gittes expresses about the past in the end, but it doesn’t seem like an idea which just occurred to him. Of course it isn’t CHINATOWN, but at the very least THE TWO JAKES is earnest in its attempt to express one person’s battle with their past filtered through the history of Los Angeles. It might be Jack Nicholson’s, it might be my own.