Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world, when seen at night from a great distance”.
— Quote attributed to Roman Polanski
Author’s preface: A few months back I wrote a piece on James Ellroy’s 2009 novel Blood’s a Rover. That wove biographical and autobiographical notes into its analysis of the novel’s plot and content. I could have done the same thing with Chinatown. It became my proverbial, “right movie at the right place at the right time” when I saw it on television in 1977. The film connected my growing interest in pre-WWII hardboiled crime fiction (as represented in the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler), an awareness of political corruption, and a sense of identity tied to growing up in an incorporated Los Angeles suburb. It shaped my literary and cinematic tastes during the late ‘70s and ‘80s. I began performing mental gymnastics with the picture in the early ‘90s when I began taking my interest in history to a professional level. The following essay reflects my complicated relationship to the picture
Ever since the release of 1974’s Chinatown, it has encapsulated the “thoughtful” Angeleno’s love/hate relationship to their local history and identity. By welding the hard-boiled private eye yarn to the epic undertaking of delivering Los Angeles’ water, the film presents a materialistic manifestation of evil (in the form of its archvillain Noah Cross) to a genre whose politics and aesthetics are traditionally shrouded in the ambiguous circumspection of film noir expressionism. In flattening the floridity of noir into a more realistic shape in both form and content, Chinatown drags the shadowy poetics of romantic disillusionment into the sunlight. It does so, however, in ways that flatters, and absolves, the audience’s complicity in the scandals it depicts.
On the surface, the movie is a crime thriller in the private-eye subgenre. Its hard-boiled protagonist, Jake Gittes, is hired under false pretenses to take incriminating photos of L.A.’s water commissioner, Horace Mulray, having an affair with a younger woman. After the Hearst papers run the incriminating shots, Gittes discovers that that the woman who hired him for the job, claiming to be Mulray’s wife, is an imposter. In attempting to clear his reputation, Gittes enlists the help of the initially hostile commissioner’s spouse to find out who set him up. Not long afterwards, Mulray is murdered, and a major political conspiracy to defraud the taxpayers of Los Angeles emerges.
The master plot, as many have many noted, echoes the massive land fraud committed by the city’s major business leaders during the construction the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1908, 30 years prior to the setting of the film. The way Chinatown portrays the parching of exurban orchards mirrors the water wars of the early 1920s in the Owens Valley, which became the source for L.A.’s hydration once the aqueduct was built. During a scene where Gittes surveilles Mulray, the target references the 1926 San Francisquito dam collapse, which further exposed the now completed project to criticism, and tarnished the legendary reputation of the Department of Water and Power’s head, William Mulholland. What many viewers miss, however, is that the film’s events relate to the expansion of the water system an additional 350 miles into the Antelope Valley, a project in which the economic aspirations of the city’s political elites (most noticeably championed by the Chandler family through their mouthpiece, The Los Angeles Times) comingled with New Deal funds from Washington as part of a massive reclamation project that forever altered the ecology of the American West.
Chinatown makes no connection to the federalization of Los Angeles’ infrastructure in its conspiracy. This is an ideologically telling omission. In containing the extent of Southern California’s growth to the wiles of a few powerful oligarchs, it constricts its moral condemnation to personal faults, or human nature, rather than structural forces. This is in keeping with the 1930s-40s pulp-magazine private-eye stories from which Chinatown’s narrative is derived. Said tales deploy an archetypal list of characters (or “noir apostles”, to use Eddie Muller’s term) to connect regional business and political interests to underworld “enforcers.” Urban growth, necessitating the circumvention of legal oversight, begets the sanctioning of sundry vices like gambling or smuggling as payments for services rendered. The interweaving of old money in novels like Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely with pimps, gamblers, and phony psychics erodes the overriding social morality that conservative notions of class structure are supposed to uphold, allowing the dark side of human nature to define the cultural environment. In Chinatown the collusion between the police and the Tongs that allows the latter to enforce order in their ghetto (leading to the offscreen death of Gittes’ love interest), and the Water Department’s hiring of ex-bootleggers to manage their reservoirs’ security, extends Chandler’s world building. This myth, as critics like Norman Klein have noted, marginalizes class conflict and the structural impact of Los Angeles’ manufacturing interest, along with its connection to the national economy, to the background. As an exemplar of the hard-boiled romance, Chinatown conjoins metaphors of rape (of the environment, taxpayers, and daughters) to illustrate patterns of inherent meanness in human psychology.
Superficially, the film’s appeal rests on its insistence that the glamour of Los Angeles’ surface conceals a darkness ingrained in its foundation. From the 1930s to the present, chroniclers ranging from Carey McWilliams to our own wallflower have noted that Los Angeles’ corporate apologists and journalistic admirers have always envisioned Southern California’s history, climate, and architecture as a harbinger for future utopian ideals. Boosters associated with the downtown business base exploited the romance of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Spanish-themed Ramona legend and the accompanying mission mystique to present a rustic alternative to the progressive tumult and urban disruption of late 19th/early 20th century industrial capitalism. In the outlying countryside, citrus distribut-rs, through the artwork on their packing boxes, presented a pastoral orderliness between the gardens of the lowlands and the distant wildness of the mountains, with the gentrified farming frontier keeping the latter at bay. Utopian architectural wonders, ranging from the terra cotta neo=Romanesque arcadian splendor of Sumner Hunt’s Bradbury Building to the Bauhaus-inspired minimalism of the 1940s’ Case Study Houses, projected a positive vision for the city in which the Southland’s exceptionalism forged a path towards a new urban order.
What most powerfully distinguishes Chinatown from its film noir precedents is its radiant surface veneer. It depicts Los Angeles through the unrelenting glare of the sun as filtered through the scrim of airborne pollutants, with John Alonso’s cinematography precisely capturing how the region’s hazy brightness desaturates the environs’ colors and flattens the depth of one’s field of vision. Brief glimpses of the garden-city gentility of Echo Park and the herringvolk simplicity of early pre-war bungalows in the outlying cities of Hollywood and San Pedro remind viewers of a gentler metropolis that once stood in contrast to the bustling chaos of New York and Chicago. The film’s production design, however, knowingly plasters its gilded surface over the avarice upon which this beauty was built. While it may resemble film noir in attitude, the film’s attendant realism produces a different effect on the viewer, setting an expectation that the glitter and tinsel of the booster’s myth will be turned over to expose a more sinister underbelly.
For, as the viewer knows (and as Mike Davis has clearly outlined in his seminal essay about Los Angeles’ organic intellectuals), the L.A. mystique constitutes a synthesis of sunshine and noir. For every Charles Lummis and Rexhall Bernham floating the notion of health and prosperity filtered through the Chamber of Commerce, there is an opposite “debunker” refuting them. Fascinated by a civic culture built on a petit bourgeois economy of land speculation, journalists such as the aforementioned Carey McWilliams and Louis Adamic chronicled the proliferation of spiritualist and Pentecostal cults, home state societies, and pension scheme mass movements (like the Townsend scrip plan and the quasi-fascist “Ham and Eggs” movement) that dazzled L.A.’s middle classes during the ‘20s and ‘30s. Novels like Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, in which bored retirees head to the airport to watch the planes crash when they are not spontaneously rioting at film premieres, and the tragic proletarian dance marathon depicted in Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? savagely depicted the irrationality and pent-up violence of lumpen bourgeois discontent. The hard-boiled detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald coded these themes and ideas in the template of the crime thriller.
Chinatown weaves that context into its story. Jake’s cuckolded client, a teamster played by Burt Young, exemplifies the simple-minded, potentially abusive working class stiff that one might find in a Bunker Hill boarding house in a John Fante short story. Likewise, the San Fernando Valley farmers who stage protests at city hall (when they’re not taking potshots at Gittes) spew complaints about their victimization at the hands of the “big shots” at the DWP. Although these grievances as hyperbolically, and even comically, expressed, the private eye plot, in which the detective represents a pro-social force restoring balance and order to an unruly society, requires viewers to identify with the little guy. The people, and we, are the victims, and Gittes is trying to save us. Historian Patricia Nelson Limerick has called the Western populist belief that the “common folk” are constantly betrayed by the rapacious greed of the elite a recurrent myth in popular historiography. Robert Towne’s screenplay does little to dissuade viewers of that impression, distorting the historical record to flatter the audience’s perceived virtue.
Take, for example, the real story behind the annexation of the San Fernando Valley’s outlying towns and unincorporated land into the L.A. city limits in 1908. The businessmen of L.A.’s Merchant and Manufacturing Coalition undertook the project of building an aqueduct to move water from the Owens Valley (nearly 300 miles away) to Los Angeles. They used the massive influx of water to entice many outlying cities (like Van Nuys) to incorporate with Los Angeles, thus increasing the municipality’s territory. Knowing the aqueduct’s route, many bought unincorporated land in the San Fernando Valley, where 80% of the flow was to be diverted. Their plan was to sell the property to growers at a higher price once it was irrigated. In Chinatown this forms the basis of the “great whatsit” behind the Mulray deception, where a cabal of businessmen use unwitting fronts to buy up land that they intend to develop once the aqueduct system is irrigated.
As anyone familiar with L.A. political history knows, a big scheme to conceal the identity of the buyers would hardly be necessary. Three weeks before the 1909 bond measure to fund the aqueduct went before the voters, the Hearst newspaper exposed the whole racket. Nevertheless, it passed with 90% approval. The voting public, with economic interests tied to the expansion of the city’s borders, felt no strong inclination to punish the schemers, and viewed the abuse of the city’s treasury (that they would ultimately have to replenish) as a necessary evil in the pursuit of progress. Oligarchic profiteering, in other words, has been viewed as an acceptable moral hazard in Los Angeles’ civic culture. It is not a compromise, however, that sat well within the codes of the detective genre, or within the mass political economy of 1974 when the film was released.
The popular literature of McCoy, West, and James M. Cain never depicted the city’s denizens as sympathetic victims. They come off as purveyors of a decadent culture where self-actualization trumps moral reflection. Although Chinatown initially addresses this by presenting Gittes as a Depression-era peacock dressed in a seersucker suit and driving a convertible (in contrast to, let’s say, the more rumpled Philip Marlowe in the previous year’s The Long Goodbye); the soiling of these status-enriching accoutrements with dirt, blood, and bullet holes symbolizes the extent to which society’s corruption sullies the hero’s sense of detachment. Yet he remains the “good guy,” coming off as the voice of reason when he asks Evelyn’s father how much power he needs to exercise control over his sprawling potentate. Noah’s answer, directing the future, and by implication, the rewriting of history, is a desire that the private eye archetype’s ethics can’t grasp. By letting the answer drop, Gittes underscores Noah Cross’s monstrousness. Political domination is merely a metaphysical abstraction, allowing the dichotomy of guilt and innocence to remain in check.
Chinatown was shot in 1973, during the final stages of the Vietnam War and the emergence of the Watergate Scandal. Through the release of the Pentagon Papers and the revelations of political malfeasance in the Nixon administration, the national press expressed shock and dismay that government officials withheld information (or out-and-out lied) regarding matters of important public concern. As the President’s agonies multiplied, the media seemed to perform a civic duty in revealing corruption so that the law could take its course. In reality, they promoted a myth that the abuse of power in the hands of generals or politicians was an aberration tied to individual personalities, not systemic. While it may be vulgar to say that Noah Cross symbolizes Nixon, the film centers him in the same light: as a bad man whose deeds are exposed by a hard-boiled purveyor of justice. Where Chinatown differs is in the nihilistic assertion in its conclusion, where a massive clusterfuck leaves everyone dead or shattered; where human nature is constant and ahistorical (and thus unalterable); and that power borne of that inherent sin may be stalled but not eliminated.
Chinatown substitutes the progressive envisioning of Los Angeles as the city of the future at the dawn of the 20th century with another interpretation that might be more problematic: the notion that human nature is corrupt and unalterable. It allows the audience to reaffirm their innocence in the notion that conspiracies guide history and that individuals are powerless to do anything about them. By sentimentalizing the negation of boosterism in romantic pessimism, it diminishes the potential for art to serve as a means of political reflection. By foregrounding the subtext of noir in historical specifics, allowing the city to emerge as a character as opposed to a backdrop, the film excuses social complicity in systemic exercises in power on a larger basis. One gains a particular air of self-satisfaction in discovering fictionalized secrets pertaining to a secret history of Los Angeles, and relief in believing that no action can be taken to expose them.
As a result, Chinatown’s problematic representations of race and gender seem more acute than when the movie was released, as its casual forms of discrimination and normative assumptions of patriarchal authority feel less like moments of historical context and more like expressions of the artist’s worldview. The film’s title, linking inscrutability to the Orient, is pretty obviously racist, and the dutiful and slightly comical interludes of miscommunication between the main characters and the Asian servants (“Saltwater bad for the glass”) is kind of cringeworthy. Evelyn’s rather tricky role as antagonist and partner is more complicated as to gaining our sympathies, but she is nevertheless a key to solving the crime at the center of the narrative, and is thus objectified and conceived of as someone who needs to be brought to confession through violence if necessary. Evelyn’s treatment at the hands of Gittes and her father deserve their own essay, and I invite the readers to extrapolate on that at their own leisure.
Another potential essay would, of course, examine the film’s contribution to crime film style. Its abandonment of expressionism, which dominated ‘40s-era crime cinema, in favor of lush period detail constitutes a fundamental shift in refashioning neo-noir aesthetics. Director Roman Polanski’s handling of point of view, fluidly integrating widescreen composition and camera movement to capture Gittes’ interpretation of space, is phenomenally subtle and poetic, and doesn’t get enough attention from critics. That point of view, of course underscores the problem the film has with race, gender, and history. It reinforces a complacent faith in old-fashioned notions of honor and professionalism, even as it underlines the real-world inefficacy of those beliefs. The film’s art reassures us as to the value of our cynicism, and our acceptance to tying a notion of our innocence to accepting a hardened vision of the world as immutable and absolute. Very few films convey one’s resignation to despair in such lush and cinematically lyrical terms.