Wednesday, June 20, 2012


It's hard to breathe with a corrupted nose.

Some movies have themes that bash you over the head. Some have themes so subtle they are missed entirely. However, the worst are themes that are dead-on obvious from the very start. Everybody always talking about how great love is. Characters constantly going on about responsibility. Every little duck lined up in a row to give a lesson on freedom and justice. These aren't so much stories as they are sermons, and no church on earth gives a sermon that lasts longer than twenty minutes. Why? Because the audience will get pretty tired of the message pretty darn soon.

Communicating theme is all in the execution. At its best, theme is invisible, a shadow that resides behind the story's events and characters. The best themes give their messages in the same manner as a good plot: through conflict.


Both theme and plot achieve their ends in the same manner. A plot advances through a conflict between two opposing sides, a conflict whose outcome remains unknown until the story's end. The plot is a physical battle.

Theme is also a battle, but in a more abstract sense. Behind every event of the physical plot is a second struggle at play between the story's intended theme and its opposite, known as the ANTI-THEME. Love vs. Hate. Order vs. Chaos. Responsibility vs. Irresponsibility. Intimacy vs. Isolation.

A battle cannot exist with only one side. Story elements should not all be aligned to support only one side of the argument. To create an equally-weighted thematic conflict, material should exists to support the storyteller's theme, as well as an equal amount that seems to support its opposite. For example, a story that gives a message on the importance of family can and should contain incidents where characters reject their family. A story about perseverance should contain moments where the protagonist feels tempted to give up hope.


Chinatown presents a thematic battle of CORRUPTION vs. INTEGRITY. Jake Gittes' world is filled with corruption. The deeper he looks, the more corruption he finds. Jake himself is not immune from corruption, either. He get gets most of his money from the sleazy business of investigating cheating spouses (corrupted marriages). When the woman claiming to be Mrs. Mulwray wishes to hire him for the same purpose, Jake does not want to take the case until he learns she has deep pockets to exploit.

Every event that occurs from that point onward has the subliminal battle of integrity against corruption under its surface. Jake is first led to a city planner's meeting where an ill-planned dam on corruptible land is opposed by Hollis Mulwray's personal sense of responsibility, despite public outcry. When Hollis is accused by a sheep farmer of being corrupt himself, this leads Hollis, a man of high integrity, to investigate the claims himself. When Jake's photographs ruin Hollis' reputation, Jake nearly comes to blows with a man in a barbershop when the integrity of the act is questioned.

Then, Jake learns he has been used for a pawn. Jake may not be the most ethical person, or the most likable, but what he does have is a strong personal belief in the integrity of his own work. He will not stand to have his reputation tainted. This is what drives him for the rest of the story. His integrity vs. those who seek to corrupt it. Throughout the narrative, Jake meets several opportunities to avoid any more trouble by walking away; when Mrs. Mulwray drops her lawsuit, when he is it roughed up by thugs, when Noah Cross offers to hire him for more money; but this would mean compromising his integrity, and Jake refuses each time.

This theme permeates the story even down to the smallest details: Jake's face is corrupted by Cross's goons. Mrs. Mulwray admits to repeatedly cheating on her husband. The moment that leads to Jake and Mrs. Mulwray's first kiss starts with Jake noticing the black spot that corrupts Mrs. Mulwray's green eyes. Noah Cross even corrupts the integrity of Jake's name, constantly called him “Mr. Gits.”

Like the main story conflict, the thematic battle is not resolved until the story's climax. The climax decides the winner. In Chinatown, Jake has done all he can to fight against corruption. As the third act moves to its close, it even seems likely that Jake's sense of integrity will win out. Only then, everything goes wrong. Jake is detained by Lt. Escobar. Mrs. Mulwray is shot trying to escape. Noah Cross gets away scott-free, taking his Mrs. Mulwray's daughter/sister with him. Jake can do nothing but force himself to walk away defeat. Corruption has won.

Here we see that the manner by which the story conflict is resolved at the climax is absolutely essential to the message the audience ultimately takes away from the film. Change the ending, and it may change the story's entire meaning, even though everything else remains the same. Chinatown originally had an alternate ending where Mrs. Mulwray kills Noah Cross and saves her daughter, vindicating Jake in the process.

(You can find a discussion on this alternate ending HERE.)

Though still dark, this differing climax would have drastically altered Chinatown's message. The mere fact that the evil, corrupt Cross got what he deserved in the end would reverse the story into a win for integrity. Instead of a film that communicates that corruption is so pervasive in society that is cannot be overcome by one man, this “up-ending” would tell audiences that personal integrity always leads to victory.


Theme expresses itself not only through the events of the plot, but also through that story's cast of characters. In a good story, all characters exist on one side of the thematic battle or the other, aligned against each other like pieces in a game of chess. There is often a white knight character - a character who embodies the positive qualities of the theme. There will also be a blackhat character, meaning a character who embodies the negative side. Noah Cross is the blackhat. He is corruption personified. His polar opposite is Hollis Mulwray, a white knight trying to fight corruption who gets murdered in the effort.

While some characters are a clear black or white, most of the remaining cast exist as various shades of gray. Every character resides on one side of the argument or the other, but in varying degrees of intensity. Chinatown's characters all exist somewhere between absolute integrity and absolute corruption. On the side of integrity are Lt. Escobar (a police detective who plays everything by the book), Kahn the butler, (completely dedicated to his duty to Mrs. Mulwray, though he is often blunt and unfair in that duty), and Mrs. Mulwray herself (she has a sense of integrity, but is willing to lie like crazy to protect it). The dark side of the spectrum runs from Ida Sessions, aka the fake Mrs. Mulwray (willing to ruin a man's reputation for money, but comes clean when it involves murder), to Deputy Chief of Water & Power Russ Yelburton, (a complicit member of the conspiracy in order to advance his career), to Mulvihill (a rival private eye who is little more than Cross's hired thug).

Chinatown's thematic character spectrum.
A wide cast of characters gives a storyteller the opportunity to explore both sides of the theme by not only showing the theme and anti-theme in all its shades of intensity, but by showing all the various ways the theme and anti-theme can manifest itself in various types of people. Themes can be socially complex issues. Having a diverse cast can explore theme with the depth and breadth it deserves. Noah Cross, Ida Sessions, Russ Yelburton, and Mulvihill are all corrupt, but we see very different types of corruption in each character. Even the snotty clerk in the hall of records represents his side of the theme as a man corrupted by the most miniscule amount of authority.

Only in the most melodramatic of stories is the protagonist the white knight. Instead, the protagonist usually begins the story torn somewhere in the middle. Jake Gittes starts as a neutral gray. He has as sense of professional integrity, but acts only in self-interest. He then, like most protagonists, goes through the story being constantly pulled from one side of the thematic argument to the other by members on each side. This continues until Jake chooses a side. Which side the protagonist ultimately aligns with will have a major impact upon the story and its final message. Jake chooses the side of integrity rather early, but it is not uncommon for protagonists to wait until the end of the 2nd Act or even later to decide which path to follow.


Considering these concepts, two major factors decide the message the audience will take away from a film. The first is which side of the thematic battle the protagonist decides to align. The second is whether or not aligning with that side eventually helps him or her overcome the story conflict and find success at the story's end. This creates a matrix of four possible story endings that work to solidify the story's theme. Here they are, given with Chinatown in mind:

  1. The protagonist embraces the positive value (integrity), and succeeds. (The alternate ending)
    Jake helps Mrs. Mulwray. Cross is killed in the end. Justice is served. This type of ending celebrates the importance of a positive social value by demonstrating how its acceptance will ultimately lead to happiness and success. It supports social norms with the idea that doing good will bring about good.
  2. The protagonist embraces a positive value, but still fails.  (The actual ending)
    Jake has done all he can for the sake of integrity, but Mrs. Mulwray still dies, and Cross gets away free. This type of ending is the stuff of tragedy. It communicates the importance of a positive value, while at the same time implying that society is fundamentally flawed in relation to that value. Social criticism is the result.
  3. The protagonist embraces the negative value (corruption), and fails. (Hypothetical alternative ending #2)
    Let's say Jake accepts Cross's offer to work for him for more money. Jake betrays Mrs. Mulwray and her daughter. Only abandoning his integrity ends up ruining Jake in the end. Mrs. Mulwray gets away from Cross, and Jake is arrested for his dirty dealings. This type of ending uses story as a morality play. It promotes a positive social value by showing the negative consequences of embracing its opposite.
  4. The protagonist embraces a negative value, and succeeds. (Hypothetical alternate ending #3)
    Here, Jake would decide to betray Mrs. Mulwray to Cross, succeeds, and is rewarded handsomely. Jake learns in the end that corruption pays. This type of ending provides the most bitter and cynical world view. It suggests that the social system has become broken and society's supposed values have grown illusionary. The result is a suggestion that those values be reevaluated, strengthened, or abandoned.

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