Hot Movie Takes – “Chinatown”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Languid has never felt as sexy or as menacing as it does in “Chinatown,” the great 1974 film noir classic that hasn’t been topped since. Not even close. Robert Towne wrote a script that many feel is as perfect a screenplay as has ever been written. Roman Polanski’s interpretation of that script is so fully developed that he creates as evocative a work of expressionistic screen drama as I’ve seen. The photography by John Alonzo, the editing by Sam O’Steen and the music by Jerry Goldsmith are in perfect sync with the redolent rhythms and moods of this hard-boiled period piece set in Depression-era Los Angeles. The locations and sound stage sets all complement the out-of-his-element, bigger-than-he-can-handle mystery that private eye J.J. “Jake” Gittes gets lured into. He’s an urban man used to working the streets yet he finds himself unraveling a mystery over water rights that plays out in city hall offices, courtrooms, desert wastelands, fruit-growing groves and ocean-side docks. He’s out of his comfort zone and his depth but he’s smart and dogged enough to put most of the puzzle pieces together. Faye Dunaway puts her spin on the femme fatale role with a performance as Evelyn Cross Mulwray that is intoxicating and heartbreaking. John Huston as her depraved father is the epitome of corrupt power. Several other character turns are worth noting, including: Perry Lopez as Jake’s cynical old partner on the police force; Diane Ladd as the scared shill who gets Jake involved in the case; Burt Young as the abusive client who owes Jake a favor; Bruce Glover as an associate concernd for Jake’s well-being and Polanski as the hep-cat enforcer who slices Jake’s nose.
Even though they tell very different stories in very different settings, I’ve always thought of “Chinatown” as a companion film to “Casablanca.” Start with the fact that they’re both studio projects made within the conventions of genre filmmaking that rise far above the average production because of a wonderful alchemy of talent and vision that made art of potboiler material. The two films share a number of other things in common as well. They’re both period pieces. The chief anti-hero protagonist of each, Rick in “Casablanca” and Jake in “Chinatown,” is a cynical, embittered man haunted by the past and the woman he lost. That past comes back to plague Rick and Jake. They are are also part of ill-fated love triangles. Rick and Ilsa can never be together because of Victor. Jake and Evelyn can never be together because of Noah. When Ilsa shows up at Rick’s club in Casablanca, he’s catapulted right back into the pain of her abandoning him in Paris. When Jake attempts to make things right with Evelyn and her daughter, he’s brought right back to where things went astray for him years earlier in Chinatown. The multi-layered story-lines are interlaced with themes of loyalty, betrayal, honor and deception. Mystery and danger lurk behind seemingly benign facades. Dark currents of irony, sarcasm and fatalism run through these dramas populated by characters who are desperate or duplicitous or both.
And perhaps most significantly Rick and Jake get caught up in events beyond their control. In “Casablanca” it’s the evil Nazi threat forcing people to flee their homelands and to barter for their freedom. In “Chinatown” it’s greedy monied interests stopping at nothing to steal property from people in order to gain control over land and natural resources and thus line their own pockets. Rick must confront a formidable foe in Major Heinrich Strasser. He’s aided in that risky effort by Captain Louis Renault. Jake must contend with his own considerable nemesis in the person of Noah Cross. In the end, Jake’s one ally, Escobar, isn’t there for him. In each scenario, the anti-hero has an uneasy relationship with authority and challenges the unlawful wielding of power. In the more romantic “Casablanca” Rick succeeds against Strasser and in the less sentimental “Chinatown” Jake fails against Cross. Though the film’s have very different endings, both Rick and Jake are faced with impossible ethical and moral decisions and they each do the right thing. It’s just that in “Casablanca” right prevails and in “Chinatown” it doesn’t. That’s because the earlier picture is at its heart a romance while the later picture is a film noir. It also has to do with the fact Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz was not about to deny us a bittersweet but happy ending as a contract studio hand and dreammaker in 1942 Hollywood while “Chinatown” director Roman Polanski was all about ambiguous, even despairing endings as a New Hollywood auteur and survivor of Nazi atrocities. If Polanski had made “Casablanca” it would have been a bleaker, less linear work, just as if Curtiz had made “Chinatown” it would have been a sunnier, faster-paced film. Each project was best served though by the filmmakers who made them and as audiences we are the beneficiaries.
Finally, I need to comment on a few more things about “Chinatown” and its creators. I think Nicholson gives his best performance in the film. He’s only made a few crime films and he’s excellent in all of them. He’d earlier established himself in the line of great rebel screen personas with his turns in “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces”. With “Chinatown,” “The Last Detail” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” he put himself right there with Cagney, Bogart, Garfield, Clift, Brando, Dean, Newman and McQueen. And he followed an equally long tradition of actors who made their marks as hardbitten anti-hero private eyes, cops or low life lifes and he showed he belonged with Mitchum, Powell, O’Keefe and all the rest. He and Dunaway show great chemistry in “Chinatown” and it’s a shame they never worked together again. With “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” Polanski went from being a rising international director known for his Eastern Europe art films to being a superstar Hollywood director of artfully done but mass appeal movies,
Former actor Robert Evans was the head of production at Paramount in the late 1960s-early 1970s when that studio made some of the era’s most compelling works:
“Harold and Maude”
“Save the Tiger”
He was also the producer on “Chinatown,” “Marathon Man,” “Black Sunday” and “Urban Cowboy.”
Evans and Polanski both ran afoul of the law, with the former now remaking himself a Player n the game and the latter working in exile the last few decades. Neither Nicholson nor Dunaway worked again with Polanski.
Food, wonderful food. If I’m not eating, then I’m thinking about eating, which is to say I’m thinking about food. Writng about food is the next best thing to actually enjoying a good meal because I get to visualize it and challenge myself to describing it, although writing about food on an empty stomach is not recommended because it can lead to overindulging when I do satisfy my appetite. Here, in my latest piece for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/), I feature chef-owner Jared Clarke and his Timber Wood Fire Grill, which is the latest expression of his own journey in food. Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.
Pot Liquor Love:
Chef-Owner Jared Clarke Goes Wood-Fired
Chef-owner Jared Clarke found a niche with his Railcar Modern American Kitchen in northwest Omaha. With it now well-established, he hankered trying a new concept with Timber Wood Fire Bistro in Countryside Village. Since opening in 2016 at the former site of The Bookworm, this extreme open-kitchen, wood-fired menu restaurant has added a signature spot in the heart of Omaha.
Like many young chefs, the 30-something Clarke is an interesting mix of traditional and contemporary influences. He borrows a little from many cuisines for his take on American comfort food rooted in French technique, all accented by a touch of super-hot oak-fired flame to enhance not obscure ingredients’ optimal flavor.
“The hardest thing as a chef is to choose to follow trends or not. I’ve always done comfort food. I grew up on the farm eating from-scratch meals and enjoyed it. I like making things very comforting and warming to your soul. When I was a young chef I was all over the place because I wanted to learn as much as possible. Japanese, Thai, I’ve learned how to make all those cuisines.”
But he always found himself coming back to comfort food, which has become a ubiquitous descriptor of what countless eateries serve.
“I don’t know if this trend will go away or if it’s even really a trend. It’s always been there.”
Clarke is a rarity in these parts as both a certified chef and a trained food scientist. His knowledge about the chemistry of food pairs with his talent and experience in the kitchen to maximize flavor combinations and freshness.
“I do have a better understanding of things. It helps making better sauces or extracting more flavor out of bones. It’s knowing when to season and not to season. It’s knowing where to start and stop your food. There’s science to back these things up.”
Far from being stuck in a laboratory in his formative culinary years, he began cooking professionally in his late teens. He earned his chef certification at Southeast Community College near his hometown of Fairbury, Nebraska and his culinology degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Unlike other food science students, he had no interest in doing test kitchen work for ConAgra or Kraft.
“My goal was to get better at my job as a restaurant chef. A lot of my professors were like, ‘What are you thinking?’ ‘I’m thinking about making better food.’
In college he worked at Chili’s and Misty’s in Lincoln. After college he moved to Chicago to work at Lettuce Entertain You and Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant.
He made a splash upon returning to Nebraska as executive chef at Blue Sushi Sake Grill in Omaha. Already on the short list of top new local chefs, he announced himself a chef-owner to watch with Railcar.
His coast-to-coast travels across America for business and pleasure find him learning new techniques and trends as well as tried and true things he then melds into what he does at his two restaurants.
“I’m always trying to make myself better as a chef.”
Railcar’s success emboldened him to try Timber Wood.
“I’ve always wanted to do my own wood-fired cuisine – something fully wood-fired, not a wood-fired oven and then finish it off on the grill. I wanted something where I could incorporate a lot of different cuisines with the kiss of the wood flavor. Give that campfire flavor with more refined food. I try to do more French techniques with food off grill in the oven, rather than going straight Midwestern cuisine or doing cowboy style food.
“Some people ask, ‘Why don’t you do barbecue?’ Well, that’s not the idea. The idea is to do more refined food off the wood fire. I’m not looking to smoke the food. I’m not going to be using a hickory or an applewood because I’m not looking to really change the flavor of the food – I’m looking to enhance it. I use oak because, to me, it adds an extra layer of seasoning that kind of sets the food apart. But the roast chicken still tastes like roast chicken.”
He went against the grain of what most of us associate with wood-fire.
“I didn’t want to focus strictly on pizzas because everybody thinks wood fire and pizza. I wanted to do something different here than make pizza like everyone else is doing. We have a small selection of French-style pizzas – pissaladière – on our menu. French-style pizzas don’t have a lot of sauce. Some don’t have any sauce at all – they might just have some herb oil. We use a lot of high-end ingredients on it. It’s not your normal pizza. It’s a cross between Neapolitan style pizza and the focaccia. You have a cracker crust on the outside but it puffs out enough where you get these airy bubbles. It’s chewy on the inside and crispy on the outside.
“The traditional Provencal-style pizza we do has a lot of lavender and thyme, caramelized onions, anchovies, salt cured olives. We do a little frisee salad on top with shaved pecorino and a sherry vinaigrette.
That’s a pretty classical combination for the Provence region. As chefs we have to be food historians, too. If you don’t know where your food comes from or how it came to be that cuisine, it’s hard to understand the food you’re putting forward.”
He became sold on the open-kitchen concept after seeing it in action on food travels.
“The aroma, the food coming out of there, talking to the cooks, having a great time – I thought this might be a fun concept to try in Omaha.
We designed it to give people the ability to sit at the counter or walk by and really see the show. Other open kitchens in Omaha are still closed off to the public – you can’t walk right next to the line and peek in and talk to the guys and interact if you want to.
“Here, you can interact with us.”
The show diners are treated to is a fast-paced ballet of efficient movements by the head chef, sous chef and support crew, variously working at a 900-degree cast-iron grill and oven and on the six-burner stove.
“On a busy weekend we pump out a hundred meals in less than an hour. Customers are like, ‘Wow, you guys are fast. How do you do that?’ They’re intrigued with how we’re able to put food out because they don’t really get to see it anywhere else. To me, that’s the fun part of it – people get to see what we do. When we have 300 or 400 people on a Friday or Saturday night they can see us working hard, getting the orders out right. They see there’s a lot involved with their food.”
Clarke’s impressive chops are an amalgam of his many gigs and stops. He said the local chef community is much more generous today than when he came up.
“You were just doing whatever you thought was right and nobody ever really taught you. Back then a lot of the chefs here were not interested in teaching other people. They felt like if they taught you how to do their job they would lose their job. When I was in Chicago it was the other way around. If they taught you how to do your job, then their job just got easier. It all trickled down. If everyone has the same mentality and you’ve given them the tools to be great, then you don’t have to be there every day.”
Having two restaurants now, he said, is “a little trying.” He spends most of his time these days at the start-up, Timber Wood. He said, “Railcar is what got us here and we want to make sure that continues to be successful, so we make sure we have the right people over there. My ultimate goal is to spend time at both places so nobody feels neglected. Chefs that I have at both restaurants are going to guide things moving forward.
“It’s tough though because you have to figure out where you want to be, what you want to do, and I like being on-the-line. I will eventually be off-the-line a lot more. I want to be cooking more, but you’ve got to manage things, too.”
The satisfaction he finds in his work, which is also a lifestyle, is fundamental.
“It’s the artistic approach to it because I really enjoy being creative. I grew up in an artistic family (his mother was an art and music teacher and his father a farmer) and this is my outlet now in just being creative and free. When I’m on-the-line I’m in a happy place – I’m making food for people, and at the end of the day, that’s what I want.”
He fell in love with locating Timber Wood in the old Bookworm space, he said, because of the “great windows, openness, and natural light.” Following a much beloved business is not a bad thing. “The Bookworm was here for I don’t know how many years, so this space has really good memories and feelings for people. If there had been eight restaurants here I probably would never have come to this space.”
Ultimately, it’s the food, not the brick-and-mortar that matters, and like many of his colleagues he strives for fresh, local, sustainable.
“The biggest thing is making sure suppliers are providing you with the best product possible at the right time. As spring rolls around we’ll start really getting the produce. The goal is to try to bring forth as many fresh products as possible and get it from as close as you can. It supports the community a lot more.
“The amount of options you can buy from has increased. We’re starting to see more cheese, dairy and poultry farms. Ten years ago we didn’t have this even though producers had the ability to do it.”
Meanwhile, as if he doesn’t have enough going on with two restaurants, a wife and three kids, he’s visioning new eateries.
“I already know what they’re going to be. As a guy who used to play a lot of chess, I’m always thinking four or five moves ahead of the game to see what else is available when the time’s right.”
Clarke’s proud to be a player in this ever more dynamic food scene that’s gotten some of his friends and colleagues national attention.
“I don’t think Omaha is a flyover city anymore. People are excited to actually be here.”
Hours for Timber Wood, 8702 Pacific Street, are: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to close on Friday. And 9 a.m. to close on Saturday and Sunday.
Visit https://timberomaha.com or call 402-964-2227.