Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Ending the Real-life “Chinatown” Water Feud

Frequent dust storms remain an environmental problem on California’s Owens Lake. (Photo from the Owens Lake Project.)
What can I tell you, kid? You’re right. When you’re right, you’re right, and you’re right.
Those lines from the opening scene of Chinatown (1974) are pretty much what the City of Los Angeles is now saying to the many folks who reside in eastern California’s Owens Valley, according to this article in The New York Times. Trouble is, it took more than a century for L.A. to finally make that admission.

Current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti stated not long ago that his city is culpable for the considerable air pollution that has resulted from the diversion of water, beginning in 1913, from Owens Lake to L.A., 200 miles to the south. “They took the water,” he remarked, acknowledging the actions of his predecessors--and looking forward to efforts by the city to help clean up the long-standing environmental mess. (As a report by National Public Radio explained, in 2013 Owens Lake--now “a salt flat the size of San Francisco”--was “the largest single source of dust pollution in the nation.”)

(Left) Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.

As part of my ongoing exploration of art imitating life imitating art, and how various fictional and cinematic characters would respond to current topics, I wondered how 1930s private investigator J.J. “Jake” Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), who uttered those opening lines, would feel about this final resolution to the controversy. Before the Big Reveal in its second act, Chinatown was all about water. It was Gittes who inadvertently discovered a conspiracy to steal water from the farmers and ranchers living in the Owens Valley and divert it to the fast-growing L.A. metropolis.

Of course, the fictional conspiracy so brilliantly rendered by screenwriter Robert Towne and director Roman Polanksi was based on the true-life theft of water from Owens Valley, perpetrated in the 20th century’s first two decades by William Mulholland, superintendent of what was then the Los Angeles City Water Company (later the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power). Mulholland and his cronies in city government didn’t resort to exploiting an old-age home, as depicted in the movie, but their subterfuge was every bit as damning. As a fictional chamber of commerce official states in Chinatown, the water is necessary to “keep the desert” off the streets of L.A., no matter the cost to farmers in human suffering.

In the film, Mulholland is transformed into the fictional Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), who is suspected of cheating by his supposed wife (Diane Ladd). Gittes is hired to investigate, and he tails Mulwray to the Los Angeles River basin and then out to the Pacific Ocean. The first half of the movie is replete with water references: a car overheating, Gittes nearly drowning in a drainage pipe, a client of Gittes who is a fisherman, and Mulwray’s gardener uttering the confounding statement “bad for glass,” while knee-deep in a pond. After the Big Reveal, the imagery shifts to the seedy side of Los Angeles, but it never completely forgoes the significance of water. One could argue that the absence of morality in Chinatown (the downtown L.A. neighborhood where Gittes once worked as a cop, and where this movie’s action concludes) is an offshoot of urban impurity far removed from the life-giving essence of water.

(Right) Mulholland with surveying equipment, circa 1920s.

So what would Jake make of the new agreement to curb pollution in the Owens Valley? First, he’d laugh ironically at how the city stole water from the area only to end up pouring a costly “twenty-five billion gallons of water annually” on Owens Lake, just to control the resulting dust. Then he would wonder why the city has finally come to accept its responsibility. What kind of backroom deal was struck? Who is making money off this arrangement? That is something the self-conscious and proud Jake Gittes would be compelled to investigate, since he was made to look like such a fool in the first go-round.

The Times article suggests that perhaps the water theft wasn’t a total loss to the Owens Valley, because it kept the local population down and preserved the natural beauty of the region. I would add that it also inspired one of the finest films ever made in the noir genre.


RJR said...

Faye Dunaway, not Diane Ladd. Great movie!

J. Kingston Pierce said...

I had to remind myself of this distinction already. It was Diane Ladd who initially hired Jake Gittes, posing as Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray. Faye Dunaway played the REAL Mrs. Mulwray, as we learn a bit later in the picture.


Dana King said...

For the Times to imply the stealing of water that turned the area into an enormous salt flat "preserved the natural beauty of the region" is a little like the old Vietnam line, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."

Anthony Rainone said...

Gittes was initially hired by the fake Mrs. Mulwray, which led to the real Mrs. Mulwray (the fabulous Faye Dunaway) to confront him. One could argue this is the inciting incident for the movie: it sets Gittes on his course to discover who set him up.

And it was the locals who suggested to the NY Times that there was an "unintended" benefit.

RJR said...

Good point, Jeff.