You may think you know what you're dealing with, but, believe me, you don't.

You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.

People say believe half of what you see, son,
and none of what you hear…

It’s so tempting to believe that we can understand a story from arm’s length. We are given so much more of it these days thanks to direct documentation on social media (and even indirect documentation by friends-of-friends). It’s so easy to make assumptions on what people are doing, what they are going through, and how that might affect us. What we still forget in this time where we all carry cameras in our pockets, is that the truth isn’t always the whole truth.

In this image, we have the entire catalyst for CHINATOWN. Hollis Mulwray is meeting in secret with a young girl in the middle of the day – at a time where he’s supposed to be elsewhere. Off at a distance, Jake Gittes has his camera ready to immortalize the moment, and catch Mulwray with his hand in the honey pot. Gittes has been sent to prove that Mulwray is being unfaithful to his wife, and without so much as uttering a word to Mulwray, Gittes appears to have all the proof he needs seen here in the reflection of his camera lens.

“Pictures don’t lie”…that used to be the saying. But while they may not lie, they also don’t tell the whole truth. The truth is already skewed before the meeting unfolds, since the woman who sent Gittes to prove it was only posing as his wife. It’s true that Mulwray isn’t where he’s supposed to be in the middle of a business day, and it’s true that he is sharing an intimate moment with a young woman that is not his wife – neither his actual wife, nor the woman posing as his wife. But that doesn’t mean he has been caught in a lie.

The thing is, to a professional like Gittes – and to a nosy public like the rest of us – the rest of the story doesn’t matter. What matters is the salacious moment…the instant of impropriety, scandal, and deceit. That is what we hold in our hands and form opinions around. Back then it was “those photos”. Now it’s still “those photos” but it’s also “those videos”, “those emails”, “those texts” and “those tweets”. We get a piece and believe we know the whole puzzle, even if we don’t. With these fragments of evidence and our own opinions, we can get people in trouble, cause rifts in relationships, and ruin reputations. In the case of Gittes, that’s not his concern – professionally speaking.

In the case of the rest of us, it’s also seldom our concern – personally speaking.

Of course, the ultimate lesson of CHINATOWN is that a photo can lie. It can lie by omission and it can lie by lack of context. To that end, so can so many other pieces of documentation. You’d think we’d stop believing in these things by now.

Three more from CHINATOWN for the road…

My Sister

Cross and Mulray


This series of posts is inspired by the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience. Do check out all of the awesome entires in their series so far