In 1900, Los Angeles was just a small city, around the size of Burlington.
Unlike Burlington, LA is an incredibly comfortable place to live year around. It is sunny and temperate. One might say the city was blessed by angels.
There is a fundamental problem, though. The region is semi-arid.
The rich guys who ran Los Angeles found a temporary solution to the problem. They used public money to build a long aqueduct. The aqueduct allowed Los Angeles to steal water from the sparsely populated valleys at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Now LA could grow. And grow it did.
First came the Midwesterners who were displaced by the Dust Bowl. Then came the southern black people who found life-changing employment in the steel, tire, and auto factories. Then the borders opened up in the 1960s, allowing hundreds of thousands of East Asians and Mexicans to move to Southern California.
In a short time, Los Angeles grew to become the second largest city in the country.
It was all based on a pair of lies. One, that the aqueduct importation scheme was remotely sustainable. And two, that the rich guys who ran the city were using the water in a responsible way.
Director Roman Polanski was intrigued by the shady story of how his adopted hometown got its water supply. And he decided to tell the tale in the style of a Humphrey Bogart detective movie.
“Chinatown” is inspired and audacious. Some people think it’s one of the greatest films of the 1970s. I think it’s just pretty good.
Jack Nicholson stars as a suave, brave PI named Jake Gittes. Faye Dunaway is Evelyn Mulwray: a wealthy widow who has something to hide. And legendary filmmaker John Huston plays Dunaway’s powerful father.
Jake thinks he is tough and clever as he slowly learns who murdered Mrs. Mulwray’s Water Commissioner husband and why. But Jake discovers that the truth is much darker than he had ever imagined.
“Chinatown” is lauded for being the last hurrah of Hollywood Film Noir. And Nicholson and Dunaway make for a timelessly tragic screen couple.
But my problem with “Chinatown” is that it is too plot-driven. There are a lot of scenes of snooping and clue-following that don’t make for scintillating cinema. It’s actually a bit like a homework assignment just to keep up with the labyrinthian mystery.
Roman Polanski seems like he is wasting his talents by putting together an overly complicated jigsaw puzzle and copying the style of a Sam Spade detective flick.
That said: the story that Polanski tells is incredibly important and timely.
In the end, Jake Gittes learns that rich insiders are scooping up dusty orange groves on the cheap because they know that the aqueduct will soon make them lush and productive.
In other words, the LA aqueducts weren’t built to help the city; they were built to make a few men incredibly wealthy growing fruit in a desert.
In “Chinatown,” the 1% in Los Angeles use their power to live like lawless dictators. And they don’t care whether the masses have to live in tent cities or buy overpriced houses that will soon be worthless because the city will run out of water.
Some things never change.