“I Was Filled With a Sense of Loss and Longing.”

Chinatown Remembered
By Fred Zackel

June 20, 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Chinatown in the USA. It is the finest private eye story that never came from a book first.

A clue to any town, any city, any culture, any nation, is the stories it tells about itself, what stories it appropriates from its writers and storytellers and pronounces to the world, yes, this is us! The mythos that anchors it, any mythos, is part ideology and part mysticism. We all need our stories. In a sense, in our stories we are demanding our own destinies.

Water is precious in the desert.

Welcome to Thebes.

The capital of ancient Egypt, home of the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Karnak, and now known as Luxor. Here in Upper Egypt, the city and its temples stood on the eastern bank of the Nile. The Necropolis with its tombs and temples of the pharaohs lay on the western shore.

Herodotus writes about the astonishment felt in Thebes the day when rain fell. It was the only rain that had ever fallen, Herodotus said, the only rain in the city’s history. No one alive at the time could remember when rain had fallen before, and no one since then had ever seen it rain again.

We expect little rainfall in the desert. That any city can exist in such a climate means it must have fresh water from somewhere. Thebes received it from the Nile, of course, and thus the great Egyptian empire thrived for millennia.

Welcome to LA.

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If Los Angeles is a paradise, then it is an irrigated paradise. Los Angeles has only .06 percent of the state’s natural flow of waters.

Water itself is precious in a desert. The San Joaquin Valley receives five and a half inches of rain yearly. Carey McWilliams writes in Southern California Country of tourists who wrote back east of “rivers so dry that coyotes had to carry canteens when they cross them.'” Mark Twain said he once fell into a California river and “came out all dusty.” The San Joaquin River in central California has been dry since the 1940s. The river flowed from the Sierra Nevadas to the Sacramento River. Its waters now flow south to Los Angeles.

But LA has lots of water. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is the world’s largest water agency and it supplies water for 225 communities and eighteen million people. It began by piggybacking off the Owens Valley Project, which was centered around the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

McWilliams writes about the aqueduct’s genesis:

Even with its watershed right firmly established, Los Angeles began to fear a future (his emphasis) water famine. Although the city had enough water in 1900 for a population of 102,249, it began to be disturbed by the discrepancy between the available supply and the rate of population increase. In large part, however, this fear was artificially stimulated (my emphasis) by a group of powerful “empire builders” of the period.

Any guesses who these empire builders might include?

McWilliams continues:

In 1905 and later in 1910, a syndicate financed by Harry Chandler, General Harrison Gray Otis, Joseph F. Sartori (the banker), Henry Huntington, E. H. Harriman, E. T. Earl, and M. H. Sherman acquired most of the former holdings of the Van Nuys and Lankershim families in the San Fernado Valley. Eventually this group of men acquired control over 108,000 acres of land in the valley. Once in control of this vast acreage, they came to the water board of the City of Los Angeles with a typically grandiose proposal: that the city should build a 238-mile aqueduct to tap the waters of Owens Valley (located between the Sierra Nevadas and the desert); and thereby hangs a tale.

McWilliams has much more to say about what is called the Owens Valley Tragedy.

No one has ever seriously questioned the right of the City of Los Angeles to be concerned about its water supply, or, for that matter, to obtain water from Owens Valley. The greatest good for the greatest number is, indeed, familiar American doctrine. But the Owens Valley project was conceived in iniquity. The citizens of Los Angeles knew nothing about the project, at the time it was first proposed, for the members of the San Fernando Valley land syndicate controlled the press of the community. Even the City Council was kept completely in the dark. Worse than the conspiratorial silence, however, was the fact that the project was carried out by reprehensible tactics.

McWilliams relates that the syndicate — these men of vision — had no intention of bringing water to Los Angeles. Their target was “the previously unirrigated land” in the San Fernando Valley which they had quietly bought up at prices of five, ten, and twenty dollars an acre.

McWilliams then quotes another historian, Frank M. Keefer, who writes that, once the aqueduct was constructed, “the logical and only practical place for the disposal of this surplus water” was the San Fernando Valley. McWilliams carefully notes that the italics are his, then adds:

“To the amazement of the residents of Los Angeles, who had just assumed a $25,000,000 indebtedness, the aqueduct line was brought to the north end of San Fernando Valley, not into the City of Los Angeles, and there the terminal point still remains.”

McWilliams does the math next. “With water available to irrigate the lands they had acquired in San Fernando Valley, the ‘men of vision’ who had engineered this extraordinary deal, proceeded to sell their holdings for $500 and $1,000 an acre, making an estimated profit of $100,000,000, at the expense of the residents of Owens Valley and of Los Angeles.”

I join McWilliams here when he says, “There is far more to the story than I have told here” After all, Water is Power. Plutarch writes about the jugs of water drawn by Persian kings from the Nile and from the Danube and displayed in their palaces to show to all the world their total dominance and their total mastery of these regions.

The LA aqueduct is now only part of the total system that brings water into Los Angeles. Once the City of Los Angeles built the LA aqueduct to import water from the Owens Valley, it had plenty of water. Enough to share — if the smaller communities agreed to be annexed. Pasadena refused and talked another eleven communities into joining it in the creation of Metro Water. Eventually, Los Angeles joined in.

The Sacramento Delta is the most important estuary on the West Coast. It has 40% of the state’s freshwater. It is also the hub of water for 18 million Southern California users. Metro Water is a monopoly that links the Sacramento and the Colorado Rivers and carries 900 billion gallons of water each year. That’s half of all the water in Southern California.

Metro Water was started in 1927; by the early 1930s, the District began a pipeline across the desert, to bring Colorado River water to the LA suburbs. This pipeline took 14 years and $220 million dollars to complete. Thirty-five thousand men using mules and human sweat crossed 250 miles of desert, bored 29 tunnels through 92 miles of mountains, and built four dams and five pumping plants.

Metro Water of Los Angeles is currently the largest hidden government in the state of California. It has the power to raise taxes and set water rates, and it doesn’t need voter approval to do either. As The Los Angeles Times has pointed out on more than one occasion, the Board of Directors has traditionally been dominated by real estate interests. White men over sixty. The Old Boys Club again.

* * * * *

The 1974 movie Chinatown is one of the greatest movies ever made. It was written by Robert Towne, starred Jack Nicholson, was directed by Roman Polanski, and produced by Robert Evans, as legendary a team as Hollywood has ever seen. The movie script won the Academy Award that year. No other script in Hollywood history is so universally recognized as a masterpiece.

Chinatown is a mystery; a brash young detective discovers he’s trapped in a Hall of Mirrors in which nothing is as it seems. What’s the Central Idea? As Noah Cross tells Jake Gittes, “Either you bring water to LA, or you bring LA to the water.”

Noah Cross should be the guardian, the steward of the land. His very name is Biblical, and connects him to the patriarch who saved the world from the Deluge and to the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. As the protector of the city, he will rape the land and his own daughter. His sacrilege is that he desecrates both progeny and property. In Chinatown, illusions are seen as truths, and truths are dismissed as hallucinations.

Towne writes:

Chinatown began when I discovered I had a stronger feeling for Los Angeles than I had ever realized. Its genesis took place over a long period of time. I first became aware of it when I was walking up in the Santa Monica mountains. Like everyone else in Los Angeles, I had never thought of doing any walking until an old friend of mine talked me into it, and I found that I loved it. One day we were walking up in the Palisades when I suddenly felt as if I were ten years old. It was an overwhelming feeling, and I couldn’t understand where it came from. Until I realized that up there on the Palisades it was still like the city I remembered from childhood. Back then, you could smell the city: the pepper trees, the eucalyptus, the orange blossoms. It was a delight.

Towne then says,

Rediscovering that feeling again drove me crazy, because it brought home to me that, before the war, Los Angeles had a kind of pastel beauty which was completely destroyed. I was filled with a sense of loss and longing, and I thought about it a lot. The city had changed because growth has always been considered good in western culture, and nowhere has it been considered more good than in Los Angeles.

Then he chanced upon an article in the magazine section of The LA Times about Raymond Chandler‘s Los Angeles. The mystery novelist’s prose was contrasted with some current photographs of those scenes he described. Towne wrote, “It jumped out at me at once that some of the places were still there unchanged, and a movie would be one chance of capturing the city for the last time, before they destroy it all completely.”

Time passed, and the notion that he wanted to write a detective movie fermented in Towne’s mind. Then, while on location in Oregon for the filming of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Towne found an out-of-print book in a local library. “It was called Southern California Country by Carrie McWilliams, and I couldn’t believe how good it was. In fact, I became obsessed with it. What particularly fascinated me was the description of how a local valley was raped to bring water to Los Angeles.”

The story began to take shape in Towne’s mind. “I began to write a story about a man who raped the land and his own daughter. One, at least, was in the name of progress.”

Some changes needed to be made. That 1906 scandal became the backdrop to a screenplay that takes place in 1937.

Screenwriter Towne wrote in an essay that accompanied a 1983 limited edition of his Academy Award-winning script for Chinatown:

But I suppose the central crime of Chinatown — the wanton destruction of the past — wasn’t a crime at all. Its perpetuators were far more likely to have Junior Highs or streets named after them than they were likely to go to jail. The truly murderous act in the movie was laying waste to land and to fragile communities as though they were an incidental part of Noah Cross’ grand vision — a vision about as grand and expansive as cancer. It was rape worse than Cross could visit on his own daughter — hurting the land he inevitably hurt all children, affected where they’d live and what they’d see and even what they breathe. When a crime can no longer contain or content itself with the past and insists on visiting the future it’s no longer a crime — it becomes a sin, and very difficult to punish.

Notice the “religious” language America’s best scriptwriter uses:

The murdered Mulwray, whom Cross had so outraged by making him a partner to his blasphemy, was posthumously honored for the very thing he loathed and for which he was murdered — like other sins of far greater scope humanity is sometimes at a loss; unable to punish, they are reduced to rewards.

Towne writes: “But of course religious matters were far from my mind while I tried to figure out what Gittes should figure out. How about Cross’ hanky-panky? Should it be seen first with the land or with human life?”

To sum up his endeavor, Towne wrote, “No other script ever drove me nuttier.”


If you ever get a chance to score a copy of Southern California Country by Carey McWilliams, jump for it. This 1946 book is the definitive SoCal history, and it is brilliant, not just for what it relates, but also for the writing style of McWilliams! I have a first edition that cost me 17 bucks twenty years ago. It has a treasured place in my bedside books, along with … well, other stuff.

By the way, Robert Towne misspelled Carey McWilliams, but I quoted him exactly, if anybody asks. (Don’t blame me!)

As a sidebar, at the end of May, my wife & I went to visit our daughter in Washington, DC. Oh, we saw some monuments and some memorials, but mostly we went there to eat.

Daikaya is a Japanese restaurant in Chinatown there. Downstairs is a ramen joint straight from Tokyo, but upstairs is a knock-out restaurant & bar. Upstairs†has a Japanese-style “hambago” with a fried egg on top & wasabi butter on the side and rice balls with pork and sweet miso fillings. The bar up there is a great full-service place for sake bombs.

But in the hallway by the restrooms they have old movie posters from Japan, bought in auction there by the owner. Including Japanese originals of Bullitt, Hairspray (go figure!) and an original in Japanese poster of Evil Dead with Bruce Campbell’s name in gargantuan letters in three separate places. And the original Japanese poster for … Chinatown. Wonderful!! And highly recommended.

* * * * *

CHINATOWN | Buy the DVDBuy the Blu-Ray | Watch it now!
(1974, Paramount Pictures)
131 minutes
Screenplay by Robert Towne
Directed by Roman Polanski
Cinematography by John A. Alonzo
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Produced by C.O. Erickson
Associate producer Robert Evans
Starring Jack Nicholson as J. J. (JAKE) GITTES
with Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray
John Huston as Noah Cross
Perry Lopez as Escobar
Dick Bakalyan as Loach
Also starring John Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd, Roy Jenson, Roman Polanski, Joe Mantell, Bruce Glover, Nandu Hinds, James O’Rear, James Hong, Beulah Quo, Jerry Fujikawa, Belinda Palmer, Roy Roberts, George Justin, Noble Willingham, Elliott Montgomery, Rance Howard, Doc Erickson, Fritzie Burr, Charles Knapp, Claudio Martinez, Federico Roberto, Allan Warnic, John Holland, Jesse Vint, Jim Burke, Denny Arnold, Burt Young, Ellizabeth Harding, John Rogers, Cecil Elliott, Bob Golden, Paul Jenkins, Lee de Broux

Respectfully submitted by Fred Zackel, June 2014. Encouraged to write detective fiction by Ross Macdonald himself, Zackel is probably best known for Cocaine and Blue Eyes (1978), a classic private eye novel from the seventies, which introduced San Francisco gumshoe Michael Brennen. Other novels include its sequel,  Cinderella After Midnight, as well as Murder in Wakiki, which sparked the author’s fascination with Hawaiian culture, and Tough Town Cold City (2010), which introduced private eye Frank Pasnow. His short story collections include The Bicycles Were Gravestones and Creepier Than a Whorehouse Kiss.

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