Chinatown’s Historical Mystery | Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform

Chinatown’s Historical Mystery

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Reconstructing the Los Angeles Aqueduct through Moving Images

Introduction

Chinatown is evidently a film about Los Angeles. Its plot is firmly centered in the urban milieu of the city, numerous of its scenes were filmed in real-life locations, and it features an array of historical references. In this regard, Chinatown constitutes a classic entrée in the canon of self-reflexive Hollywood films. It is history made myth or, alternatively, myth made and sold as a particular form of history. Yet, at the same time, it registers as an unusual film within this context as well, particularly with regard to its approach to the history of Los Angeles. Unlike the prototypical Hollywood meta-movie (examples range from Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Star is Born (1954) to The Player (1992) and The Artist (2011)), Chinatown is “concerned with neither the mythology of the movie business, nor with historic criminals from LAPD files,” as Michael Eaton observes astutely.[1] In spite of its conceptual similarities to a common Hollywood formula, it thus ultimately constitutes a different entity.   

The screenplay of Chinatown, the film’s foundation, was written by Robert Towne, a Los Angeles native. Although the text adopts the tone of hard-boiled detective fiction pioneered by such classic authors as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, it is not a literary adaptation but an original work, informed by the writer’s life experience and literary style. In this regard, it is inherently channeled through Towne’s sensibilities and it posits a history that is more personal in nature than comprehensive. The personal and creative take on history in Chinatown essentially manifests itself aesthetically. Rather than referencing one particular event or time period, the film’s script synthesizes –and syncretizes– several early twentieth century historical segments into one mythical construct: an inner-city corruption scandal, the St. Francis Dam disaster, and the Los Angeles Aqueduct. As Vincent Brook aptly summarizes,

The film [Chinatown] clearly conjures, while not directly naming, the corruption scandal that forced the city’s mayor and police chief from office in 1937. It also maintains the basic time frame, while changing the name, of the St. Francis Dam disaster that killed more than 450 people in 1928. Where the scenario takes the most license is in substituting a fictional controversy and scandal over a new dam’s construction in the late 1930s with the city’s early twentieth-century imbroglio over the Owens Valley Aqueduct, constructed between 1905 and 1913. [2] 

Chinatown constructs its plot around these historical events yet does not strive to portray them in any greater detail or depth. Rather, it utilizes them to craft a dramatic momentum that resonates with the screenplay’s emotional core. What we see is history specifically made for the movies. Chinatown thus needs to be approached as a film that takes liberty with history, openly amalgamating facts to engender what may be termed a postmodern pastiche.

A Collection of Scrapbooks (Collection Number 155). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Nevertheless, the film’s mythical take on history has gained wide resonance, particularly in relation to the Los Angeles Aqueduct (though, ironically, the actual aqueduct is not shown in the film and, furthermore, the fictional Alto Vallejo aqueduct remains in the planning stage). Building on –and strongly cementing– the infamous Owens River Valley controversy, one of the founding narratives about Los Angeles, Chinatown made easily accessible and comprehensible, for the uninitiated, an overtly political argument about history. It popularized one particular discourse which was, by many, taken up as truth, including film fans, general audiences, and political activists. By consequence, it has, to a certain degree, acquired the status of historical fact, in both popular and political circles. 

In positing Chinatown as a key to history, then, it is essential to identify the historical facts it engages with, examine how it portrays them and to what end, and determine the ultimate validity of its argument in the context of historical research. I intend to pursue this approach by looking at the film’s screenplay, its plot, as well as its aesthetic configuration and linking my observations to the historical parameters of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. While my approach does not strive for a complete re-consideration of the L.A. Aqueduct in terms of Chinatown, it does aim to offer a first step towards understanding the movie in relation to the history it references.

The Historical Context

As we have seen above, Chinatown builds variations –creative interpretations– of three historical events into its narrative. The 1930s Los Angeles city hall scandal that resulted in the deposition of Mayor Frank Shaw and the disintegration of the police commission headed by Chief James Davis only forms a peripheral yet structurally essential plot element. The film makes clear that its milieu is a corrupted and precarious space, ruled by ruthless political power-brokers who “own” the police (as the character of Evelyn Mulwray emphatically proclaims about her father, magnate Noah Cross). The reference to an actual historical event does not only lend the plot device more credibility, it equally underscores the cyclicality of corruption that pervades the city of Los Angeles.

The St. Francis Dam disaster, meanwhile, is utilized to create narrative density and bridge the gap to the Los Angeles Aqueduct. In 1928, the dam’s walls ruptured and billions of gallons of water demolished farms, ranches, bridges, and small-towns in Ventura County. The final death toll came to 450 with property damage determined at over $20 million. The disaster effectively ended the career of William Mulholland, the father of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. In the film, the dam disaster is framed as a past experience that informs the moral rectitude and personal determination of one of the film’s key characters (Department of Water and Power chief engineer Hollis Mulwray, modeled on Mulholland). Mulwray’s refusal to build a new dam is the film’s implicit critique of the project of aqueduct construction in general.

 In case you’ve forgotten, gentlemen, over five hundred lives were lost when the Van der Lip Dam gave way – core samples have shown that beneath this bedrock is shale similar to permeable shale in the Van der Lip disaster. It couldn’t withstand that kind of pressure there. […]Now you propose yet another dirt banked terminus dam with slopes of two and one half to one, one hundred twelve feet high and a twelve thousand acre water surface. Well, it won’t hold. I won’t build it. It’s that simple – I am not making that kind of mistake twice. Thank you, gentlemen.[3]

Here, the dam lingers as a warning above the film’s universe. While the dam was constructed between 1924 and 1926, over a decade after the Los Angeles Aqueduct had been completed, its anachronistic implementation into the narrative serves as an augury for the proposed Alto Vallejo dam project in the film.  

Said Alto Vallejo dam is the fictional equivalent to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, built between 1905 and 1913. And Chinatown’s dialectic of myth and history is fundamentally informed by it. The film explicitly articulates the aqueduct’s status as Los Angeles’s lifeblood, a necessary investment into the city’s future [scene or image from movie], as evident in the speech of a character named Bagby, a city official:

Gentlemen, today you can walk out that door, turn right, hop on a streetcar and in twenty-five minutes end up smack in the Pacific Ocean. Now you can swim in it, you can fish in it, you can sail in it – but you can’t drink it, you can’t water your lawns with it, you can’t irrigate an orange grove with it. Remember – we live next door to the ocean but we also live on the edge of the desert. Without water the dust will rise up and cover us as though we’d never existed![…] The Alto Vallejo can save us from that, and I respectfully suggest that eight and a half million dollars is a fair price to pay to keep the desert from our streets – and not on top of them.“[4]

It thereby mirrors the actual socio-political discourse surrounding the aqueduct which emphasized the construction as the core to Los Angeles’s environmental survival.

"Owens River Project Will Insure the Growth and Prosperity of Los Angeles for Years to Come,"

John Randolph Haynes Papers (Collection 1241). Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

The history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, particularly the discourse(s) defining its perception, provide the contours of Chinatown‘s plot. Prior to the aqueduct, Los Angeles lacked any local water supply and, with the steady growth of its populace and urban space, thus faced inevitable extinction. Water was posited as essential to Los Angeles’s growth and flourishing. In 1860, agriculture professor William Henry Brewer stressed, "[a]ll that is wanted naturally to make [Los Angeles] a paradise is water, more water.“[5] And in 1900, William Smythe, then executive secretary of the National Irrigation Congress, predicted no future for Los Angeles.[6] Similarly, in Chinatown, political propaganda emphasizes the significance of the aqueduct for the continued existence of Los Angeles and its citizens:

SAVE OUR CITY! LOS ANGELES IS DYING OF THIRST! PROTECT YOUR  PROPERTY! LOS ANGELES IS YOUR INVESTMENT IN THE FUTURE!!! VOTE YES NOVEMBER 6. CITIZENS COMMITTEE TO SAVE OUR CITY, HON. SAM BAGBY, FORMER MAYOR – CHAIRMAN.[7]

William Mulholland and his partner, former mayor Fred Eaton, provided the city-approved solution to this problem, identifying the Owens Valley River, about 250 miles north of Los Angeles, as a steady and viable source of water supply.  

The construction of the aqueduct, ultimately, had implications that went beyond its use of drinking water and irrigation. As captured in Chinatown, it indeed became the scene of a crime and while the murder at the core of the mystery remains purely fictionalized, the parts about unfair business practices and ruthless self-enrichment are fairly true. Members of the city’s power elite, familiar with the plans for the aqueduct construction, furtively acquired undeveloped tracts of land in the San Fernando Valley. At the time, the Valley had not yet been annexed to the city. The aqueduct, designed to ensure the territorial expansion of Los Angeles, led to the full incorporation of the Valley. And the power brokers saw an opportunity to reap profit from increased property values and exploit the area’s residential and business development. The land grab was eventually exposed as the organized action of a syndicate composed of the city elite. Members included railroad magnate E.H. Harriman, Los Angeles Express publisher Edwin Earl, and L.A.Times proprietors Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler. While their ulterior motives may have seemed obvious, rumors of a drought, the city’s unstoppable growth, and public promotional campaigns alleviated any concerns.

J. B. Lippincott, Fred Eaton and William Mulholland, Los Angeles Times, August 6, 1906.

Fred Eaton, who first conceived of the idea of transporting water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, equally sought to enrich himself through the project. Unlike Mulholland who saw the aqueduct as an instrument to ensure the growth of mankind, Eaton saw it as a source of personal revenue, selling water rights to the city at inflated prices and acquiring rights of way from unsuspecting farmers in the Owens Valley. The syndicate’s scheme understandably enraged Owens Valley residents who mounted a strong protest against the aqueduct all the way to President Theodore Roosevelt, which was ultimately rejected. In the President’s words, “[it] is a hundredfold or a thousand-fold more important … if [this water is used] by the people of the City than if used by the people of the Owens Valley.” Though displeased with the final verdict, the Owens Valley community eventually came to accept the decision. But when a new drought prompted city agents to buy up more land in the Owens Valley and the Department of Water and Power diverted water from local farmers in the 1920s, the community responded violently, dynamiting certain sections of the aqueduct and even commandeering a spillway gate. Led by brothers Wilfred and Mark Watterson, local bank owners and mortgage holders, the resistance movement demanded the closure of the aqueduct and the payment of reparations. The attacks continued throughout the decade and even required the assistance of federal agents and Pinkertons on part of the city. The resistance, ultimately, came to an end when the Wattersons were charged with embezzlement and arrested, demoralizing the protesters. Their actions, grandiose in nature, generated much publicity as cause celebres but, in the end, did neither affect nor effect any political developments.       

In California parlance, the events surrounding the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct henceforth became known as the “Rape of the Owens Valley.” And the effects on the Valley were apparent. In 1919, Will Rogers lamented,

Ten years ago this was a wonderful valley with one quarter of a million acres of fruit and alfalfa. But Los Angeles had to have more water for its Chamber of Commerce to drink more toasts to its growth, more water to dilute its orange juice and more water for its geraniums to delight the tourists, while the giant cottonwoods here dried. So, now this is a valley of desolation.[8]         

Furthermore, an editorial piece in the Sacramento Union, published on April 5 1927, read, “[t]he City cannot be trusted with the privilege of diverting a single gallon of water from the Colorado River; there is the tragic lesson of Owens Valley” (my emphasis). And Morrow Mayo, in his 1932 book Los Angeles, articulates the anti-aqueduct sentiment most explicitly (and aggressively), introducing a sexual metaphoric imagery that Robert Towne literalizes in Chinatown’s incest plot. He writes,

Los Angeles gets its water by reason of one of the costliest, crookedest, most unscrupulous deals ever perpetrated, plus one of the greatest pieces of engineering folly ever heard of. Owens Valley is there for anybody to see. The City of the Angels moved through this valley like a devastating plaque. It was ruthless, stupid, cruel, and crooked. It deliberately ruined Owens Valley. It stole the waters of Owens River. It drove the people from Owens Valley from their home, a home which they had built from the desert. It turned a rich, reclaimed agricultural section of a thousand square miles back into primitive desert. For no sound reason, for no sane reason, it destroyed a helpless agricultural section and a dozen towns. It was an obscene enterprise from beginning to end.[9]

Mayo’s explicit language is indubitably polemical and it fails to capture the nuances involved in the relationship between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley, discounting the benefits the aqueduct created for both areas. As Steven P. Erie remarks, Los Angeles spent lavishly to purchase Owens Valley property and water rights through 1934 and farmers were doing a lot better from real estate value than farm income (plus, many received leases to continue living and working on their home).[10] However, the film is still in line with the argument Chinatown pursues. To a certain degree, the film’s position towards Los Angeles history seems to channel Mayo’s radical sentiments.

Chinatown Screenplay & Plot

In the preface to the screenplay for Chinatown, writer Robert Towne makes unmistakably clear the source of his inspiration for his material. He writes,

The great crimes in California have been committed against the land – and against the people who own it and future generations. It was only natural that the script should evolve into the story of a man who raped the land and his own daughter.[11]

Chinatown’s central crime, the forced incestuous relation between a father and his daughter, operates as an allegorical reference to the infamous “Rape of the Owens Valley.” The films other plot elements, in this light, assume quasi-historical reference value as well. Set in depression era 1937, the story of Chinatown is infused with a rumbling sense of unrest and instability that mirrors the tumultuous times during the aqueduct’s construction. In the film, a group of unscrupulous city developers colludes with corrupt Department of Water and Power officials to create an artificial drought and win public support for a bond issue on the construction of the Alto Vallejo aqueduct. They then manufacture a scheme to buy up the land of local farmers in the San Fernando Valley for a pittance and force them into ruin. The parallels to the Owens Valley-Los Angeles discourse outlined above are quite apparent.

“Farm Land for Sale – Sold” from Chinatown

While the Owens and San Fernando Valley are conjoined into the Alto Vallejo, the major players in the aqueduct history are represented via a Janus-like character duo, the team of Hollis Mulwray and Noah Cross, former friends and colleagues, now embittered opponents. Mulwray serves as a stand-in for Mulholland, channeling the latter’s philanthropist spirit of public water ownership and status as a major innovator (“Hollis made this city,“ as Noah Cross acknowledges in the film) while the opposite point-of-view is reflected in the character of Noah Cross whose upper-class status, corporate greed, and solipsistic arrogance is designed to embody the unethical qualities of the crime syndicate (it is ironic that this Noah is not saving humanity from a flood but creating one). The dichotomy of the bureaucrat and the businessman defines the core mystery/crime the film is premised upon.

Chinatown’s dialectic logic of myth and history is not just based on character configurations and a revised nomenclature, however. There are particular scenes that navigate the realms of fact and fiction. Early on, during a hearing in the council chambers, city chairman Bagby makes an argument for the building of the Alto Vallejo dam positing it as existential for Los Angeles. Similar arguments were made before 1905 as early newspaper coverage shows (and the film explicitly references this discourse by incorporating direct shots of newspaper headlines). Likewise, an enraged farmer storms into the hearing, yelling "[y]ou steal the water from the valley, ruin the grazing, starve my livestock – who’s paying you to do that, Mr. Mulwray, that’s what I want to know!“[11] The single voice in the film is representative of a larger community located in the Owens Valley who continues to protest the Los Angeles Aqueduct and its history of construction. Chinatown also articulates one side of the conflict in particularly florid terms as when Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) says, “Yeah – they’ve been blowing these farmers out of here and buying their land for peanuts – Have any idea what this land’ll be worth with a steady water supply? About thirty million more than they paid.“[12]

What Chinatown says about the history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct is clear. It taps into the discourse of activist resistance, sympathizing with the residents of Owens Valley and condemning the actions of the Department of Water and Power as sanctioned by the city of Los Angeles. But in a film, a pop-culture artifact that constructs its argument audio-visually, it is just as important to consider how the argument is made, and by what means. Chinatown’s powerful socio-cultural impact, the so-called Chinatown syndrome, to a large degree, resides in its imagery. The film is suffused with period detail and geographic authenticity. A large amount of scenes was filmed on location (in spite of a lack of permits) and the use of color photography lets the images, usually associated with black-and-white style considering the film’s time period, appear vivid and tangible. Likewise, the performances of the main cast contribute significantly to the film’s emotional resonance. Towne’s literal take on the Owens Valley Rape metaphor finds visual expression in the emotionally battered face of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and Jake Gittes’s shocked consternation. In one particular scene, pictures taken by a private-eye operative depict an argument between Mulwray and Cross, a visual iteration of the opposing viewpoints of Mulholland and the syndicate/Eaton. In another scene, photographs of Mulwray and Cross are captured in close-up, highlighting the dates 1905 and 1912. The shot thereby explicitly grounds the film’s underlying back story in the period of the nascent aqueduct construction and its completion. Chinatown thus dramatizes and stylizes a particular version of history, altering facts and circumstances to promote a polemic which is by no means devoid of truth, yet chooses to represent an incomplete viewpoint.    

Chinatown’s Legacy

Chinatown essentially carries on the spirit of the local activist movement determined to defend the small communities in Owens Valley against the growing urbanization and geographic expansion of Los Angeles in the early twentieth century. After a spirited yet ultimately futile sabotage campaign –which, as shown above, ended in the conviction of the movement’s shady leaders–, the group’s actions evaporated (the water department had nonetheless suffered severe publicity damage and responded with a marketing propaganda campaign in the 1920s involving “Aqueduct Days” and promotions, radio spots, and a special LADWP promotional film titled Into the Future starring William Mulholland). With the release of Chinatown in 1974, however, the resistance re-gained a certain kind of momentum. To the uninitiated, a large group of potential supporters, the film presented a popular generic trope, the underdog narrative, dramatizing a conflict between the powerless country and the greedy city, the classic David & Goliath narrative. It painted a clear, easily digestible picture that emphasized the corruptibility of the urban elite and the defenselessness of the small-country workers. In this discursive space, the Los Angeles Aqueduct became the lynchpin of a scandalous city campaign to exploit the common man. The aqueduct’s own legacy, its significance within the context of the growth of Los Angeles, its benefits to surrounding communities, its impact on people’s lifestyle and the economy faded into the background. The Chinatown syndrome, as it was known among affiliates of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, has garnered tremendous exposure since the film’s release and even though Chinatown’s status as a fictional Hollywood film, a myth-machine, informs its reception, its melancholic tone, rugged aesthetics, and unflinching storytelling cements its version of the aqueduct’s history. The film, by consequence, had severe ramifications for the water department’s publicity. Steven P. Erie observes, “the repeated – and now discredited – charges in Chinatown (…) that the Water Department engaged in dumping water to create an artificial water famine derive from Los Angeles’s conspiratorial folklore – not from known history.”[13] Nevertheless, the film effectively navigated this issue and sold myth as history, both to uninformed audiences as well as political activists who ultimately appropriated the film as a pop-culture quasi-agitprop piece. As John Walton aptly remarks, “renditions of the past in popular culture can have a forceful impact on the making of history.”[14]

Chinatown can certainly be read as a political film, and it may very well be one. But, it remains, at its core, a mystery, and not a propaganda piece. Awarded the Academy Award for best screenplay and ranked on many critics’ lists as one of the best films ever made, it is generally seen as a paragon of daring studio filmmaking from the 1970s and revered as a testament to a lost era. Yet, its reception in film circles differs significantly from other contexts. In many spheres, the film was –and still is– perceived as a historical document. “Chinatown became urban history in the effective realm of popular culture,”[15] as Eaton contends, and, in the context of new environmental legislation and the emerging sensibility towards the preservation of natural resources, particularly during the 80s and 90s, Chinatown was indeed upheld as the true history of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles conflict. Put concisely, in this particular sphere, “[f]iction had indeed triumphed over fact–and myth over history.”[16] Even today, Chinatown remains the focal point for inquiries into the Owens Valley-Los Angeles conflict.

Chinatown and the Aqueduct

What image of the aqueduct does Chinatown ultimately convey? Indubitably, it is not a historically accurate image. It is an inherently fictionalized portrayal of the history around the aqueduct. And it condenses –and thereby exaggerates– the Owens Valley-Los Angeles controversy, altering and ignoring facts vis-à-vis the beneficial impact of the aqueduct upon the metropolitan region of L.A. and its surrounding environments, such as the rise in property value and leasing rates. It captures the shady business practices that accompanied the construction of the aqueduct, embodies the malfeasant spirit of the city’s elite, and reflects the noble public servant mindset of William Mulholland through the character of Hollis Mulwray. It further gives insights into the political process around the aqueduct, presenting a public bond hearing and incorporating scenes of topical newspaper coverage. And, most importantly, it acknowledges the significance of the aqueduct for a growing Los Angeles, positing water as the city’s lifeblood.  

But, overall, the aqueduct remains a conceptual idea, a dramatic engine, a scheme. It is not rendered visible in the film; it is not yet a reality. Chinatown does not show the construction of the aqueduct. It does not grant insights into the labor involved in creating this modern marvel of engineering (for a different audiovisual take, see the following YouTube video here). It does not elaborate upon the physical specificities of the construct. It does not capture the mood of the general public. And it does not showcase the aqueduct (the film shows images of a reservoir, the Stone Canyon Reservoir in the Santa Monica Mountains in fact, which is not the L.A. aqueduct). Yet, the film nevertheless is intimately tied to the history of the aqueduct. It has inscribed itself into the historical discourse and its impact has significantly shaped it. It is important to remember, though, that Los Angeles Aqueduct, if constructed through the Hollywood logic of Chinatown, remains an incomplete although quite accessible artifact that lacks historical integrity. Chinatown then truly offers a mythical image of the aqueduct, one that is shrouded in historical layers, yet shrewdly circumvents the barriers of fact.

In one of the most memorable exchanges in the film, Noah Cross tells Jake Gittes about his devious scheme, “You see, Mr. Gittes. Either you bring the water to L.A. – or you bring L.A. to the water.“ The statement contains so much truth and historical fact yet it is embedded in a cloak of myth and dramatization that is difficult to penetrate. 

The process of constructing the aqueduct, the process of acquiring funding for the aqueduct, the legal battles that ensued between Owens Valley and Los Angeles, the magnitude of the engineering feast that runs between Inyo County and the city of Angels, all these are elements that Chinatown does not seek to capture. Instead, it builds on –indeed, mythologizes– the drama surrounding the aqueduct’s history. And, in the process, it created an additional historical discourse; one that is frequently mistaken as the truth.

     

A Collection of Scrapbooks (Collection Number 155). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

When we reconstruct the Los Angeles Aqueduct through Chinatown, it is difficult to see beyond the frame. But that is exactly what is necessary to gain the full picture.  

Conclusion

What we can conclude from this brief excursion into an aspect of Chinatown that is not commonly explored in the realm of film studies is that the film’s portrayal of history can in fact be perceived as a mystery. On the one hand, Chinatown captures an essence of truth vis-a-vis one particular discourse about the Los Angeles Aqueduct. One the other hand, it takes liberty with facts and selectively engages with history for dramatic effect. To navigate this mystery is the essential task we all face when we watch the film and the mythical version of history it communicates. Chinatown provides an entry point for historical inquiries. But its concept is ultimately limited and fragmentary with regard to the aqueduct. The film, obviously, does not strive for a comprehensive portrayal. But its popular and critical reception, the fact that its mythical reel narrative is frequently misconstrued as the real makes it necessary to consistently question and re-examine its quasi-historical layers.

 

Post-Script

Chinatown may only peripherally engage with the aqueduct’s history but its impact on it is undeniable. And the filmmakers, upon realizing the film’s far-reaching reception, responded with the release of a lavishly designed DVD special edition, released in 2009, that explicitly takes up the issue of Chinatown as a dialectic of myth and history. The two-disc Centennial Edition features an audio commentary with director David Fincher and the film‘s screenwriter Robert Towne, the documentary Water and Power, and several other documentaries with a focus on the film’s production process and reception.

The audio commentary on the set is available online as well. The commentary discusses Robert Towne’s inspiration for the screenplay, the writing process, and the film’s reception. It dives into the dichotomy of myth and history, with Towne providing reasons for taking creative license with certain facts and ultimately arguing that his script reflects the true essence of truth with regard to the L.A.-Owens Valley conflict.

The documentary Water and Power provides a comprehensive look at Chinatown and the history it mythologizes. It provides a balanced view on the issues, giving voice to Owens Valley committee members and local residents, people involved in the filmmaking process such as Polanski and Towne, as well as critical observers. In this respect, the documentary constitutes an interesting form of self-reflexivity as it subtly deconstructs Chinatown as a film at the intersection of myth and history, a work of art informed by various contextual frameworks and artsistic sensibilities. The documentary makes clear that the film does not offer an accurate, clear-cut version of history but instead is fundamentally informed by varying perspectives on what really happened in the Owens Valley. It thereby, at least to a certain degree, erodes Chinatown’s polemic tone yet, at the same time, re-affirms its status as a highly complex and versatile film that requires interpretation and historicization.

The DVD special edition brings to light what the film eschews, marginalizes, and merely implies. It places the Los Angeles Aqueduct front and center, makes it a real presence, and not a conceptual, ephemeral entity, hidden in the narrative fabric. It thus provides a type of counter-history to Chinatown’s Ur-myth, complementing the film and both elucidating and complicating its historical mystery. The supplemental features take us beyond Chinatown’s core narrative into an extra-textual network of contextual information. Opposing and colliding viewpoints are presented, shining an investigative light on the film and its referential historical framework. The documentary does not purport to offer the true history of the L.A.-Owens Valley conflict. But it does add substantial background information to Chinatown and thus operates as an essential companion piece.

 

By Matthias Stork, Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. He currently serves as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Mediascape, the department's peer-reviewed film and media studies journal. His research focuses on the converging industries of technology and entertainment. [mstork@ucla.edu]

 

 

[1] Towne, Chinatown: a screenplay, 10.

[2] Towne, Chinatown: a screenplay, 95.

[3] Erie, Beyond “Chinatown”, 35.

[4] John Walton, “Film Mystery as Urban History: The Case of Chinatown,” in Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 46.

[5] Eaton, Chinatown, 5.

[6] Erie, Beyond “Chinatown”, 44.

[7] Qtd. in Margaret Leslie Davis, Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 139.

[8] Morrow Mayo, Los Angeles (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1933), 245-246.

[9] See Steven P. Erie, Beyond “Chinatown”: The Metropolitan Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 39.

[10] Towne, Chinatown: a screenplay, Preface.

[11] William Henry Brewer, “Water Wanted” (1860) in Robinson, What they say about the Angels, 25-26, 25

[12] William L. Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles’ Water Supply in the Owens Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 26.

[13] Towne, Chinatown: a screenplay, 13.

[14] Robert Towne, Chinatown: a screenplay (Santa Barbara, California: Neville, 1983), 9.

[15] Towne, Chinatown: a screenplay, 8.

[16] Michael Eaton, Chinatown (London: British Film Institute, 1997), 23.

[17] Vincent Brooke, Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013), 128.