Zoom Salon - Chinatown (1974) – 131 minutes | Mechanics' Institute

You are here

Zoom Salon - Chinatown (1974) – 131 minutes
June 2021 CinemaLit: Dream State: California in the Movies

June 2021 – Dream State: California in the Movies

June at CinemaLit highlights classic films set in California, with the Golden State figuring prominently in plot and ambiance. We start with the first A Star is Born (1937), steeped as it is in the most mythologized of all California industries – moviemaking. From there we venture back to a CinemaLit favorite: film noir. Too Late for Tears (1949) and D.O.A. (1950) are two pulpy, taut crime shockers, both taking great advantage of their settings in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We finish with the great Chinatown (1974), a neo noir so indelible it now flows through our collective movie-watching bloodstream.

Each of these films figure in the new book Dream State: California in the Movies by San Francisco Chronicle's film critic Mick LaSalle. Mr. LaSalle will be on hand for the discussion on June 4 of A Star is Born. Join us for what promises to be a lively dialogue on California, its meanings and symbols to a global audience of filmgoers.

June 25 – Chinatown (1974) – 131 minutes

Chinatown begins with a mournful trumpet solo over a murky black-and-white credit sequence evocative of classic film noir. Then it goes wide screen, and we see a succession of lurid-and-white photos of a couple having sex outdoors. Then a man's chubby fingers appear in the frame as the camera pulls back, and we see the film is in color.

In those first few minutes, we learn plenty about director Roman Polanski's artistic intent. While referencing and paying homage to film noir, Chinatown goes far beyond what was possible in the genre's heyday. Cinematically, it references the past while taking full advantage of 1970s freedoms. And as the first moments of the film suggest, nothing is quite what it seems in Chinatown.

The plot? Less said the better. Screenwriter Robert Towne was inspired by the fictions of Dashell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and actual corruption scandals in 1930s Los Angeles, but that is just the jumping off point for his labyrinthine tale. Cynical private detective J. J. Gittes specializes in exposing marital infidelities. The wife of LA Power and Water's chief engineer is certain her husband is seeing another woman, and she hires him to investigate. Turns out Gittes will uncover a lot more than a wayward husband. Mystery and suspense abound, with full revelation withheld until the shattering climax. "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't," says someone to Gittes along the way.

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the on-set rancor and flaring tempers between Polanski and stars Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. Plenty more has been written about Chinatown's central place in the Hollywood Renaissance, that era between Bonnie and Clyde and Raging Bull when visionary directors made startlingly original films. But Chinatown is foremost a film in which everything, from the art direction to the score, editing, cinematography, and performances, clicks with dazzling precision. And it demands multiple viewings. There's always something new to see in Chinatown.


Matthew Kennedy, CinemaLit’s curator, has written biographies of Marie Dressler, Joan Blondell, and Edmund Goulding. His book Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, was the basis of a film series on Turner Classic Movies. 


I don't have a favorite film,” Matthew says. "I find that my relationships to films, actors, genres, and directors change as I change over the years. Some don't hold up. Some look more profound, as though I've caught up with their artistry. I feel that way about Garbo, Cary Grant, director John Cassavetes, and others."

Classic films have historical context, something only time can provide,” Matt observes. “They become these great cultural artifacts, so revealing of tastes, attitudes, and assumptions.”



First watch the selected film on Kanopy. All you will need is either a Mechanics' Institute library card, or a San Francisco Public Library card, which will give you access to Kanopy and its treasure trove of movies. Make a reservation for our CinemaLit Salon as usual via Eventbrite and watch the film on Kanopy at your leisure. You will receive a link to the Friday night CinemaLit salon on Zoom one day in advance, and then an additional reminder roughly two hours in advance. On the night of the salon click the Zoom link and join us.

If you do not receive a Zoom Link by 4:00 PM on the day of the event, contact Pam Troy at [email protected]


Mechanics’ Institute members can now sign up for FREE access to Kanopy, a wonderful film streaming service. To sign up:

1. Click on  THIS LINK.

2. Click on the large orange login button that reads, “Log in to milibrary.”

3. Enter the 14-digit bar code from your MI Library card

4. Set up your account following Kanopy’s instructions, including your email and a password.

5. Kanopy will send verification to your email address.

You’ll be able to choose from a wonderful selection of films, including classics, pre-code, foreign films, and documentaries, including the films we’ve scheduled this month for CinemaLit.

If you are not a Mechanics’ Institute member, consider membership and click  HERE  to join online:

Or, you can check with your public library to see if they are Kanopy members. If so, you may use your public library card to set up a Kanopy account.


Register with Eventbrite below.

If the green TICKET button is not immediately visible, scroll down on the right in the Eventbrite window until it appears.


CinemaLit Films

Members Free
Public Sliding Scale Free to $10
Register now ›
Pam Troy - 415-393-0116
Register now by using the form below or calling .

Future CinemaLit Films

Aug 6 - 6:00pm

Zoom Salon - War and Peace (1956) – 208 minutes
Summer CinemaLit Finale