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Chinatown (the movie) Book Club
It doesn't always have to be a book
A couple weeks ago I met with five other friends to talk about a
book movie/movie script. I loved it. While I call this newsletterblog Your Reading Life I’m a lot a lot less interested in reading and much much more interested in conversing with others especially when everyone shares a common focal point. That focal point can be a book. I think books are often some of the richest cultural artifacts to unpack with someone else or a group. But from the beginning of this project I wanted to open up the focal points one can talk about in Extragrad from just books to any cultural artifact.
Books, movies, movie scripts, paintings, sculptures, hell, even balance sheets would work. The point of Extragrad and what makes my personal reading life so great is that upon finishing or viewing one of these cultural artifacts, I see it as an onion to peel the layers of and maybe, if I, with the help of other minds, stay with it long enough, in this case around 90 mins, we’ll get down to the heart of the work of art and suffer some great personal insight through a clear communication with the author or artist.
In undergrad, where I first experienced this type of drawn out discussive learning, it was an annual tradition to invite students from across the street at the US Naval Academy to join us for what we called “seminars.” These curious optional classes would consist of a “tutor” from our school and a professor from the Naval Academy and half students from St. John’s and half students from the Naval Academy. After one of these classes, one of our tutors shared a bit about his experience talking to an incredulous Naval Academy professor. My tutor shared that the professor told her, “Wow, this really does work!” What did the Naval Academy professor mean? He meant, reading the same thing, asking an opening question, letting students’ curiosity take hold, and flowing with a longer, open-ended, non-lecturing conversation actually does work as an approach to learning.
I won’t say I was incredulous like the professor, but I hadn’t discussed in a group, a non book in a long while, if ever. Now, it’s true we all “read” the screenplay, but we also all watched the movie too. Some even read a history of the making of the movie. So what were we really talking about? What cultural artifact did we have in common? The hyper controlling, over-organized part of me wished we’d read the screenplay and discussed it and then separately, watched the movie and discussed it. That way we could have separated, say, the writing and the story from the directorial and performance choices made. Regardless of trying to do it more neatly and cleanly, we had a great conversation. It really does work!
My biggest reflection on the conversation is I realized how passively I consume movies. It’s very in one ear (eye?) and out the other. I just watch it and then don’t think about it. Maybe I’ll talk about it with whomsoever I watched it with and the extent of that will be, I liked it or didn’t like it and why. It’s not a major surprise, but it was clearer to me than ever.
I learned from my more well-informed interlocutors that the screenwriter wanted to make a film noir type movie (specifically for Jack Nicholson, apparently) but wanted to turn the whole genre on its head. If we’d not talked, I’d never have picked up on that but that’s also because I haven’t watched an example of film noir in many many years.
What I liked most is, as a group, slowly uncovering what I saw to be the heart of the picture which included themes around truthseeking and knowability/the impossibility of knowing a person or a place. We talked about why it was called Chinatown in spite of having not much explicitly to do with the neighborhood in Los Angeles. What did Chinatown represent to Gittes, the main character gumshoe? The answer to this question was beautifully summed up when one of us referred to a poem by French poet Baudelaire in his poetry collection Les Fleur du Mal. While Baudelaire was writing about beauty, if you swap in truth you might get the point from the first few lines.
I am fair, O mortals! like a dream carved in stone,
And my breast where each one in turn has bruised himself
Is made to inspire in the poet a love
As eternal and silent as matter.
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