Chinatown meets the West

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Look at "Chinatown." Look at its credits crackling in art-deco and sepia; its camera is realistic and stagnant, it seems to document something of significance.

It documents sandy brown Buick Eights and convertibles with floppy cloth tops that fold down for the California sun. It documents the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the Napa Valley vineyards. It documents migrant workers. It documents the 1930s.

Look at "Chinatown." It's a movie. It's a dozen movies. It's one hundred movies.

The new full-length computer-animated movie, "Rango" takes the idea of representation a maniacal step further.

It is an unapologetic blend of Western metanarrative, Gonzo journalism and "Chinatown."

It not only borrows elements of these narratives, but it also borrows costumes and plot lines – it deliberately seeks to conjure Jake Gittes and Noah Cross and Faye Dunaway. It portrays Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name, "The Spirit of the West," if ever there was such an ambiguous title-holder.

Like Chinatown, "Rango" doesn't seek to present the 1930s or the West of the 19th century – it seeks to present "the movies," that ambiguous but definitively imaginative experience."

Rango, himself, is a well-worn character trope – a wanderer without a home or foundation.

He stumbles upon the town of Dirt after being directed there by a half-dead armadillo. In Dirt, he must assume a new identity and save the town from the patronizing and evil Mayor who plans to use the aqueducts to limit and control the water of Dirt, and in doing so control "the future."

Of course Rango sticks his nose where he shouldn't and in doing so becomes a "legend," referred to as such by everyone. They seem unaware that his character is already a collection of tropes that guarantees his importance in the cultural cosmology.

"Rango," like "Chinatown," is an example of pastiche's omnipresence in culture today.

On the one hand, it is a representation of the real, like Chinatown. However, the representation in "Rango" is further from the real than that of "Chinatown" was in 1974.

Its characters are anthropomorphic animals in an animated environment. The skill of the animation shows in the realistic depiction of the town of Dirt and its surrounding landscape.

It isn't just the landscape that attempts realism–the film's anthropomorphic characters bear an unusual resemblance to their real counterparts.

Decidedly cuter renderings of animated animals in film are forgotten in favor of gnawed and molting owls and sick, sticky-looking rodent children.

Upon viewing "Rango," I attributed this ugliness to its bold realism. But what exactly is real about talking animals in the first place? It's more of an extended and cleverly self-aware fable, is it not?

If I were to read about a mole in biology, I would imagine it something like the ones in "Rango."

Rango himself is so much a chameleon on film that I was immediately able to recognize him as one, not because of my exposure to real chameleons but because of my exposure to representations of chameleons on screen.

It is shocking to think about what lengths animators go to anthropomorphize animals for children. Could it be the imaginative possibilities of animation? Or the bankability of a fable? Or the economy of the computer-generated image, without live-action sets and gaffers and camera/lighting equipment?

In the last moments of "Chinatown," Walsh says, "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown."

He might easier ask Gittes to forget the 1930s, to forget film noir and, for that matter, to forget the cynicism of the 1970s. Because in duplicating all of these and preserving them in pastiche or tribute, "Chinatown" has further muddied all three in the waters of cultural consciousness. "Rango" has damn near drowned them in it.

— Thompson is a junior from Lexington Kentucky, majoring in film studies. He is a Media Fellow. features@thedepauw.edu