In the early 20th century, William Mulholland, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power – and namesake of the famous Drive, by the way – started poking his nose into the fertile Owens Valley. Los Angeles was growing rapidly – 11, 000 in 1880; 200, 000 by 1904 – but that growth tugged at the leash of lack of resources. The Owens Valley was a small, agrarian community to the North and, through patient duplicity, Mulholland and his colleagues bought up all the water rights, starving the valley and hydrating Los Angeles. This history is the groundwater of Chinatown, with John Huston's Noah Cross (Noah, get it?) standing in for Mulholland. For a long time the city thrived on this bamboozlement, but now that L.A. is starting to return to desert, what better time to revisit this 1974 landmark neo-noir?
"There's no more beautiful city in the world," said director of Roman Polanski of L.A., "provided it's seen at night and from a distance." You might say that, with Chinatown, Polanski – working with a script from Robert Towne – looks at the city in the daylight, close up. In fact, how much closer could you get than addressing the water, the life force of – in Towne's words now – "an artificial city which has been pumped up under forced drought, inflated like a balloon, stuffed with rural humanity like a goose with corn." The history of how L.A. got its water adds a deviousness to its very existence. The city was growing on a land that wouldn't support it, and the fact that it's become what it's become scoffs at any idea of natural order, is both proof of man's dominance and his hubris.
Chinatown fundamentally has abuse on the mind – abuse on all levels. While it's been out for forty years, I'd hate to spoil it's plot revelations for those who've lived relatively comfortably under their rock. It's worth pointing out, however, that the ecological process Mulholland set in motion is often referred to as "The Rape of the Owens Valley." With this in mind, the human abuse in Chinatown can't help but be braided with the historical ecological and governmental repugnance.
Chinatown doesn't really feature as a literal place in Chinatown. It's only really referred to anecdotally, as the former beat of now private investigator, Jake Gittes. It points to a past never fully revealed. Likewise, the history of water in California lurks in the background of the film, never fully commingling with the action. As more a concept than a place, "Chinatown" comes to represent a broken system that just gets more busted the more you try to fix it, an illogic moving forward with such momentum that it will flatten anyone who gets in the way.
The famous, enigmatic line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown," is finally an admission of futility, as well as a statement of complacence and complicity. The disgrace of its own origin is L.A.'s Chinatown, if you will. Whatever the city matured into, its birth is fundamentally ignominious. The ecological trouble Los Angeles now finds itself in is the product of the, in the terms of history's critics, the "rape" perpetrated by Mulholland. As the city now scrambles to figure out how to correct its direction, it's tempting to say, Forget it, L.A. It's Chinatown.