Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

October 20, 2007

Hillary, Nicholson: Strange Chinatown Coincidence

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 7:55 am

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”.



  1. Oh, Ron, we’ve already got a Machiavellian president, and haven’t we had the dandiest time since the 2000 election ?

    I don’t know. I think the guy is not machiavellian enough. The Machiavellian prince doesn’t screw things up so royally.

    Comment by Richard Klein — October 20, 2007 @ 11:39 am | Reply

  2. Oh my God!

    PARIS — Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate for U.S. President, may be called as a material witness in the State of California, in what may be the largest election fraud in U.S. history. All news of this case has been effectively censored in the U.S. mainstream media. Read the full story in The Wall Street Journal, “For Clinton, 2000 Fund-Raising Controversy Lingers”.

    Hillary may have violated the law by not reporting large contributions to her successful 2000 campaign for U.S. Senator. Mr. Peter F. Paul claims that his contributions were omitted from the public reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, and Hillary denies all knowledge of these contributions. Read the latest ruling in Case B191066, Paul v. Clinton.

    Hillary even denies knowing Mr. Paul, a three time convicted felon, who made the contributions to her 2000 Senate campaign. A video, “Hillary Exposed”, produced by the Equal Justice Foundation of America has been viewed more than 725,000 times. A case such as this normally ends any aspirations that a politician may have for public office, and certainly raises questions about the illicit fund-raising practices in the Clinton camp.

    Thank you for the links which I will look at. But can you really call it “censorship” if the “full story” is published in the largest newspaper in the nation, the WSJ?

    Comment by mcthorogood — October 20, 2007 @ 12:05 pm | Reply

  3. Ron,

    I’m surprised that you’d be calling for a Machiavellian leader. I read a collection of Murray Kempton’s writings as a result of reading your glowing profile of him in “The Secret Parts of Fortune”. I understand that your appreciation for Kempton’s work as a whole doesn’t mean that you agree with him on Machiavelli, who in Kempton’s view (if I recall it correctly)was more naive and less truly influential than he is remembered as being. I’d be curious, however, to read your response to Kempton’s piece.

    Well people project differnt meanings on Machiavelli and machiavellianism. I’ve been persuaded by the scholars who argue that he was attempting to educate princes in the intelligent use of power to protect a state and its people from being subjugated. I’ll have to re read Kempton’s essay which I don’t recall and see what I think of it. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. He’s always worth re reading

    Comment by Dillon — October 22, 2007 @ 1:40 pm | Reply

  4. Yes I guess you can’t call it “censorship” if the story is published in the WSJ. This happened 8 years and and Mr. Peter F. Paul has been raked over the coals ever since. The man still has rights, and the electorate needs to be informed.

    Comment by mcthorogood — October 24, 2007 @ 1:56 am | Reply

  5. Chinatown, like another American masterpiece a half-decade or so later, Raging Bull, is at some level about the wounds of our condition and the utter inability of the protagonist to control events, whether because of history, fate or blood sugar. Gittes is haunted by a past loss and that wound gets personified, bloody and goofy, by Polanski’s knife (out of water). Evelyn is also scarred, by family secrets and her final wounding turns fatal — it may finally give Jake the chance to exit Chinatown and gain some self-knowledge.

    Interesting. I thought it was the one American movie (anyway the one successful American movie) that dared to deny any redemptiveness. I admire your finding it, but am not quite convinced. I still feel incredibly despondent about life in general at the end..

    Comment by Richard Schrader — October 24, 2007 @ 4:36 pm | Reply

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