Ron Rosenbaum

Hillary, Nicholson: Strange Chinatown Coincidence

So this is a little strange isn’t it? Early this morning, the day after the Hillary Clinton Chinatown fundraising-scam story broke with all its baroque strangeness, one of the cable channels broadcast Chinatown which I regard as the greatest American movie of the past half century.

What I’d forgotten is that the movie shares more than a name with the fund raising scam (look I’ve endorsed Hillary but I’m not naive enough to believe that, on the basis of the L.A.Times story alone, there’s something not quite legit about these busboys and ghosts making 2k contributions to Hillary of their own volition or even knowledge, all with the connivance of “neighborhood associations”).

The scam in Nicholson’s Chinatown is eerily similar: an association of rich big shots use the names of unwitting front people on whose behalf they finance their campaign to buy up property in their name, for a lucrative land speculation scheme. In the movie the unwitting front people are residents of a nursing home, but it’s a similar kind of deal.

In each case you almost have to admire the ingenuity of both scams. (I’m not defending Hillary’s Chinatown operation, but one of the reasons I endorsed her was that I believe, in this hideous perilous world America needs a machiavellian President not a naif.)

Anyway watching Chinatown again was awesome! Every time I watch it I find new things to admire. Here’s one this time: the way it’s really an epistemological meditation. On what you can and cannot know.

Chinatown a metaphor for the inability to know. Jake’s progression from “when you’re right, you’re right” as an expression of certainty, to an ironic expression of the inability to know when you’re right. (Over and over again he learns by finding out he was wrong, not right, but still doesn’t learn enough not to be undone by what he doesn’t know.) Or as someone (I think it was Jake says, later in the movie) “You never know.” Being a private eye is all about people who want to know more than what’s good for them. It’s about the way everyone is a “private I” a secret unto even themselves.

Anyway all of this gives me the chance to tell my one Jack Nicholson story.

When I was out in LA interviewing him in his Mulholland Drive home for the New York Times magazine we got into a little tiff.

The interview had been going well, he was talking about the craft of acting in a extremely specific way I hadn’t heard him talk about before and I’m always fascinated by that stuff (The interview is reprinted in %%AMAZON=0060934468 The Secret Parts of Fortune%%). So maybe I was greedy and I complained to him that the two afternoon sessions he’d agreed to might not be enough. (this was session two) and we sort of argued over it and he kind of snarl/drawled in that Nicholson way: “Well maybe we should cancel the whole thing, Ron.”

And suddenly I was presented with a dilemma. I could lose what was turning out to be one of the most interesting interviews with an artist I’d ever done. But if I backed down the interview wouldn’t have been as good as it could be, I thought stubbornly. it was kind of foolish, making the perfect the enemy of the good as they say.

But what I said was: “Well Jack. I’m a philosophic guy. If you think we should cancel the whole thing maybe that’s the right thing to do.”

He turned on his heels and walked away, left me sitting there looking at the Picassos. He went for a dip in his pool overlooking the hazy flatlands below. Came back, completely ignoring me sitting there, went upstairs and took a shower. Came down and said something like “Where’d we leave off” and continued the interview. I got the third session too.

A great little moment of staged drama! I felt I’d witnessed a Nicholson performance. I know he was a far more machiavellian manipulator than I could ever hope to be, but I also felt I’d successfully called his bluff.

When you’re right, you’re right. But then again, “you never know”.