On Wednesday, May 6, the Carsey-Wolf Center kicked off its new series, Inside Perspectives: Neo-Noir and the Contemporary City, with a 1974 favorite, “Chinatown.” Directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston “Chinatown” follows private detective J. J. “Jake” Gittes (Nicholson) as he begins an investigation of Hollis I. Mulwray’s (Darrell Zwerling) affair, only to find himself tangled in a murder and a scandal exploiting the land and water resources of Los Angeles.
“Chinatown” features a multi-layered story with many twists and turns, but the reason why the surprise and suspense can catch viewers off guard is partly in thanks to the cinematography. The film frames several shots to fit Gittes’s perspective, like the scene where he tails Mulwray to a dry riverbed. As he holds a pair of binoculars to his eyes, the screen displays a double-circular frame with an out-of-focus black mask surrounding the edges to mimic that binocular experience.
Other times, shots are taken from behind someone’s shoulder or with the object of interest seen afar to match Gittes’s point of view until the audience is granted a close-up. This offers so much intimacy to Gittes’s character that we are just as surprised as Gittes to hear the gunshots and just as shocked to see copious amounts of water released from the reservoir, despite the dry land. Even our own conclusions of the murder and scandal are constantly questioned until Gittes (as well as the audience) uncovers all the evidence to reveal the truth.
After the screening, Pollock Theater Director Matt Ryan sat down with Film & Media Studies Lecturer Anna Brusutti to discuss the story and inspiration behind “Chinatown,” as well as its relevance to the present. (Warning: discussion contains slight spoilers).
The film is based on events that led to the California Water Wars, a series of disputes over water rights in Southern California in the 20th century. In order to resolve its water shortage in the late 1800s, Los Angeles constructed an aqueduct that flowed from the Owens Valley. But by the 1920s, the valley saw much devastation to its ecosystem and agriculture as the aqueduct redirected water from the Owens River to the city. Though farmers tried to destroy the aqueduct, L.A. prevailed and, by 1962, the Owens Lake at the bottom of the valley completely dried.
“[The Owens Valley] was considered the Switzerland of California,” Brusutti said. “And now, of course, it’s still resenting dramatically after 100 years, still a barren landscape without water.”
William Mulholland, head of a predecessor department to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, oversaw the aqueduct construction and also inspired the character of Mulwray who, in the film, is a chief engineer for the same division. Though Mulwray provides the catalyst for Gittes’s investigation, he also instigates the water motif throughout the film. Water surrounds him: Water drips from his surveillance photos, water directs his job, water causes his death and even the lack of it prompts his concern.
“[Water] is the source of life and, of course, the place in which people die,” Brusutti said. “Because basically taking away water from the Owens Valley actually did cause the death of an entire ecosystem … Water kills and water gives life. And somebody’s going to exploit it, and that exploitation is going to mortgage the future.”
And mortgage the future it did. Going back in time, Ryan explained, 15 percent of the country was privately owned with 33 percent higher rates for water.
“Wait, no, I’m sorry. Those stats are wrong; those are today’s,” Ryan said. “So clearly it’s not changed for the better. It’s actually skyrocketing with more privation of water.”
Which begs the question posed in an L.A. Times editorial about a month ago: “What is water?”
“Is it a resource,” Brusutti asked, “a commodity, a government service or a human right?”
It’s a question addressed in the 1974 neo-noir film, and 40 years later, we’re still asking.