There is a song by the 1980s new wave band The Godfathers that I always remember when someone asks me how best to describe an Act. It is simply titled, Birth, School, Work, Death.
The Act is a major life stage in a story.
The Act could be a self-sustaining story in and of itself. There is no shortage of one Act plays. But in long form storytelling, Acts are the major events that change the story irrevocably. Again, what that means is that the protagonist’s life is changed permanently. Like the Beat, Scene and Sequence, the act must have a clear inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution. And if you were to home in on these particular moments in an act, you would be able to identify the specific sequence, scene and beat that comprises the Act’s component parts. Beats build scenes, scenes build sequences and sequences build Acts.
The Act brings explosive change.
As such, Acts are often very satisfying in that they bring a very strong story rush to the reader/audience. But in the long form story, they must leave the reader/audience wanting more. Even in the final Act’s resolution (which serves as the resolution for the global story too) a well-turned story leaves the reader/audience wanting to hear another story about the same characters. Hence the sequel, prequel phenomenon we inhabit today.
Long form episodic television series like Breaking Bad or Mad Men are divided essentially into Acts. Each episode is a critical moment/developmental stage in the life of the protagonist, Walter White or Donald Draper, or one of the major secondary characters. We keep coming back to the shows because we want to know how a fundamental change that occurred in one episode will play out in the next.
Acts completely change the global story, either positively or negatively. Again, the climactic action in an Act must be irreversible. That is there is no turning back. Someone dies. Someone gets pregnant. An alien lands on the earth… these are the climactic moments in Acts.
The characters and by extension the audience, must be surprised by the action or revelation from the Act climax. The values at stake in an Act also move the story’s global values. That is, if the story is a serial killer thriller, its Act climaxes must shift on life or death circumstances. The protagonist is either close to bringing the antagonist to justice or the antagonist has the hero on the ropes in a seemingly inescapable situation.
Act climaxes escalate—move closer and closer to the limits of human experience—the further along you move into the global story. They must progressively complicate, moving from “big” to “huge” to “shocking.”
For example, if the first Act climax of Chinatown was the revelation that Evelyn Mulray was raped by her father, the viewer would not really be prepared for that level of shock. The viewer has yet to fully attach to the character, so the information that she was raped would not resonate. The writer Robert Towne knew that a revelation of that size had to be saved for the ending of the story. And he puts it exactly where it needs to be…at the penultimate act climax.
Instead Towne ended the first Act with the scene when the real Mrs. Mulray arrives at Jake Gittes’ offices.
A mysterious imposter played by Diane Ladd had hired Gittes in an early scene to track the movements of Hollis Mulray. The real Mrs. Mulray played by Faye Dunaway arrives at Gittes’ offices to tell him that she never hired him to tail her husband, and that the work he’s been doing is going to cost him his entire business. She is going to sue him and destroy his livelihood.
This is a perfect end to the beginning hook of the story, a great reversal that turns on both Revelation (I’m not the woman who hired you) and action (my lawyer is going to destroy you.).
This Act One climax is irreversible.
Gittes can’t go back to the life he had before the real Mrs. Mulray came into his life. His business is now at risk. His future is in danger and he’s not the sort of person who stands idly by when he is threatened. Towne knew that the perfect way of getting his character Gittes to react was by threatening him. Gittes fights back.
How Gittes reacts to the threat defines him, as it does for all of us. His ire propels us into the next Act…wondering how the Hell is this going to sort itself out?
Plus, at the end of this first Act, Towne has made the story personal to Gittes, a major obligatory element in a crime thriller. Gittes is now the “victim” in his own eyes. And Jake Gittes is not anyone’s Patsy. He’s going to press forward no matter what.
This characteristic is exactly why the central evil/antagonist in Chinatown, Noah Cross, sets Gittes up in the first place. We discover later on that Noah Cross, Evelyn Mulray’s father, essentially owns the Los Angeles Police Department. And we’re told that Gittes used to be a cop before he became a private eye. While we never do learn why Gittes left the force, he does confess that his butting in to someone else’s business and the tragic end of that interference had something to do with his leaving the LAPD.
Here’s the scene just after Gittes gets his nose sliced open:
(working on him)
— So why does it bother you to talk
about it… Chinatown…
— Bothers everybody who works there —
but to me — It was —
— Hold still — why?
— You can’t always tell what’s going
on there —
… No — why was it —
I thought I was keeping someone from
being hurt and actually I ended up
making sure they were hurt.
Noah Cross will not be denied. So when his former partner Hollis Mulray (his daughter Evelyn’s husband) tries to safeguard a young girl from him, Cross undoubtedly asked his cronies in the LAPD which Private Detective he should hire to find the girl.
They recommend Gittes because he is a monomaniac. The cops explain to Cross that Gittes threw away his police career in Chinatown just to take a case to the end of the line. Cross, being a brilliant epitome of evil, understands that if he makes the mission to find the girl personal for Gittes, there is little chance he’ll fail in finding her. Cross makes it personal for Gittes by using his own daughter to bait him. [What is so incredible about the above information is that Towne never puts it on the page…it’s information that the audience fills in themselves long after they’ve seen the actual movie.]
The theme/controlling idea of Chinatown is simply “evil reigns.” No matter who we are and no matter how smart or tough we are, we cannot outsmart or out muscle evil. We are fated to either give in to evil figures like Noah Cross or we are fated to fight against tyranny pointlessly and ineffectively for the rest of our lives. Humanity is repugnant and dirty. Evil has won, always has won and always will win. Principled people with good intentions not only fail to bring justice to the world, by their very naiveté they empower tyrants.
Chinatown’s Director Roman Polanski barely survived the Holocaust. Battling demons of his own, he unleashed them all in this effort.
While Towne’s screenplay is a masterpiece, the controlling idea/theme of the movie is pure Polanski. What is so striking about Chinatown, a commercial story with one of the most disturbing down endings of all time, is that Polanski’s vision was so perfectly put onto the screen, in such a compelling way, that the dark message made sense. It satisfied the viewer. Polanski’s art was so perfectly expressed; it made the average Joe willingly submit himself to confronting the very dark underbelly of humanity. That is remarkable.
Chinatown, like The Silence of the Lambs, is that very rare commercial story with a deeply resonant and meaningful controlling idea/theme that is so perfectly crafted, it makes us confront the darkest realities of our being.
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