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Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Movie Review Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1275

Movie Review

Chinatown(1974) is a noir film by Roman Polanski that mixes real facts with an imagined murder story which takes place in California in the 1930s. In Chinatown the problem of the California water supply during the city development years is a mix of reality and fiction. The struggle over water rights was a real issue in Los Angeles, at the beginning of the 20th century. The events in Chinatown distort the city’s water problem story by adding a shadow of conspiracy and corruption to the reality. The conspiracy theory proposed by the movie has its roots in real myths about water conspiracy that emerged from the beginning of the century. The paper analyzes Chinatown’s depiction of the Los Angeles water problem as a myth of creation of the city. Also, by looking at the city’s depiction of murder and incest, as primordial sins upon which the city was built, the paper argues that the movie reiterates the myth of Rome’s foundation.

The city of Los Angeles built a 233-miles long aqueduct from the Owens Valley which was completed in 1913 and would ensure “territorial and population growth (Erie 29). The city needed the water for development, while the farmers of the Owens Valley needed it for their flocks.  According to John Walton, the officials’ plan was that of depopulating the region by buying the land rights, and the farms in the Owens Valley in order to transform the area into the city’s “own reservoir”(46). The resulting conflict culminated with a revolt during which the aqueduct was bombed (Walton 46).  The issue of the water supply of the city of Los Angeles developed to become an emblem for the struggle of peasant communities against the ever expanding large cities.

Polanski’s Chinatown was, according to Steven Erie(4), the product of years in which people’s imagination transformed what was by all evidence, a legitimate attempt to develop the city, into an urban legend about corruption and conspiracy. The movie, starring Jack Nicholson, not only received general acclaim, but also, was believed by many viewers, to represent the real facts that stood behind the L.A. water story.  As such, its impact on the ongoing struggle of the Owens Valle advocates for their rights was impacted by this movie.

In the movie, the L.A of the 1930s is shown as a city in full development, with a serious drought problem, and a deer need for water to keep the desert away. In the beginning of the movie, the controversy is illustrated by the shouting shepherd who enters the Municipality Chambers with his flock of sheep and demands the officials to tell him where to take the sheep, while in the same time accusing them of stealing the water from the valley.  The entire scene is seen through the eye of private investigator Jake Gittes, whose case leads him into the heart of a water conspiracy which mixes murder with corruption and incest.

Gittes’s investigation allows the viewers to get a noir perspective of the 1930 L.A., particularly, of its still undeveloped sides. Viewers see him following Mr. Mulwray  to the periphery, at the dam  and we see him discovering that water is dumped into the ocean.  His trip to the Owens Valley where he is beaten up farmers who accuse him of complicity with those who steal the water is also revealing, both to the plot, and for the analysis of urban planning aspects included in the movie. The farmer asks him who he is working for, the Water Department or the Real Estate Office. Both institutions have interests in the area as the municipality is trying to extend the city to include the Owens Valley as well. In the same time, the farmers are reluctant to giving up their lands. The fact that the valley is a prosperous agricultural area is obvious in the movie. Also, the area is obviously suffering from drought. According to Erie, “drought can symbolize spiritual desiccation, but water is not necessarily a cure”(32). This means that water does not always represent life, as it is used in the movie to cause the death of Mulwray. The farmer accuses the Water Department of blowing the water tanks and putting poison into the wells.  The unstated, yet obvious reason is that of persuading the farmers to give up their lands.

The murder story that justifies the investigation and Grittes’s ‘digging’ into the business of ones of the most powerful men of the city is a metaphor of the sins that characterize the beginnings of Los Angeles. In the movie, Noah Cross, explains that “Hollis Mulwray made this city”. Also, later in the movie, Cross praises Mulwray for being a visionary. According to him, Mulwray always said that that life began in tight pools. Moreover, Cross confesses his water project to Gittes” Either you bring water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water”. He was planning to accomplish this by incorporating the valley into L.A. Cross was then one of the people who founded the city and helped it to develop.

However, in the movie, the city was built upon the death body of his on-in-law, and with stealing the people’s water money. Erie shows that “The future Cross offers is built on his past crimes, both personal and political, as a founding father of Los Angeles”(32). Cross’s plan to develop the city y stocking water into the desert, instead of the reservoir, is however, merely fiction. The story proposed by the moviemakers encompasses not only murder, but also incest in order to make the sin even bigger.

The movie I called “Chinatown” because of the often references to Chinatown,  one of Los Angele’s neighborhoods, where anything is possible, crimes often go unpunished, and the best solution for the police officers who live there is to act as little as possible.  Gittes used to work in Chinatown and often parallels the murder and the entire situation, with his experience in Chinatown. To Cross’s declaration, “you may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me you don’t”, Gittes answers that it is the same thing that the district attorney used to tell to him in China Town. After all the references to Chinatown, the movie finally shifts to images from Chinatown.

In the movie, Chinatown appears to be colorful, busy and chaotic. In Erie’s words, it is a “metaphoric Chinatown is a locale with elastic geographical correlates that magnetically attracts those destined for disaster. It is mysterious and menacing, like the stereotypical Orient – but primarily because the natural harmony of Los Angeles has been disrupted by rapacious Anglo power elite” (31).  Tis elite remains unpunished and continues to represent the force that drive the city forward, thus controlling the destinies of so many unknowing people both within the city and around it. The night scenes of Chinatown that end the movie are representative for the pessimist, dark tone of the movie.

As it was shown throughout the paper, Chinatown, a movie based on the distorted or mythical story of the Los Angeles water problem from the 1920s, presents the development of Los Angeles through the lenses of a murder investigation. The film suggests that the making of Los Angeles is rooted on a double sin of murder and incest, much like Rome’s founding is based on the kidnapping of the Sabine women.

Works Cited

Chinatown. Dir. Roman Polanski. Paramount Pictures, 1974, DVD.

Erie, Steven. Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water District, Growth and The Environment in Southern California. 2006. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Print.

Walton, John. Film Mystery as Urban History: The Case of Chinatown. Cinema and the City: Film, and Urban Societies in a Global Context. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tonny Fitzgerald. 2001. 46-69. Print.

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