'Chinatown' revisited

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: Los Angeles just can't shake "Chinatown." No matter how many times we're told the movie is pure myth and has next to nothing to do with our actual history, "Chinatown" continues to have the pull of an irresistible current, especially when it comes to thinking about water in LA.

A great movie, to be sure, with a great script by Robert Towne, great directing by Roman Polanski, great acting by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston, and an enduring myth of the original sin that made modern Los Angeles possible, taking water from the Owens Valley--but can "Chinatown" help us think about water in Los Angeles in any constructive way today, in the midst of a historic drought?

chinatown1.jpgSurprisingly, perhaps, yes. Digging such practical lessons out of a fictional masterpiece of cinema was not foremost on my mind when I moderated a conversation on "Chinatown, Revisited" at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County recently with Patt Morrison from the LA Times, Jim McDaniel from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Lauren Bon from the Metabolic Studio, and artist Rob Reynolds.

I'm more interested in the way that the myth operates as myth to convey the simple truth that there is no escaping the past. For me, the nonfictional lesson in that for us today is that we must bear the responsibility of the history that enabled our present. If we define our watershed expansively, as where our water comes from in LA, Owens Valley is part of our watershed, so is the Colorado River, and the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers in Northern California. We have responsibility for their wellbeing as well as our own. We can't run from that.

chinatown5.jpgRob Reynolds ties this myth and reality together in his exhibition "Just Add Water" at the Natural History Museum. His large-scale watercolors include historical and contemporary scenes from along the 233 miles of the Los Angeles Aqueduct that brings water from Owens Valley to the city, as well as a scene from "Chinatown." But there is a part of the exhibition that Reynolds said was even more intense for him to produce: a banner with the names of thousands of people who worked on the aqueduct, who farmed and ranched in Owens Valley and lost their water, who participated in protests along the aqueduct. They are joined with the names of people who lost their lives in the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, built by aqueduct engineer William Mulholland, who uttered the famous line "There it is, take it," when the aqueduct first brought water to LA on November 5, 1913.

A year ago, Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio marked the centennial of the aqueduct by riding its entire length with a 100-mule packtrain. Bon said mules were an essential part of the workforce that built the aqueduct and thus Los Angeles, and they have continued to be an important workforce in Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevada. The journey was a way to explore and revitalize the historical connections between the city and its source of water in what Bon calls "the delta of Mount Whitney," while searching for new ways to understand and be responsible for our extended watershed in the next century.

I thought of the mules again when Bon later briefly alluded to a scene early in "Chinatown" when a shepherd brings a flock of sheep into city hall to protest a hearing on a flawed dam, which evokes the historic St. Francis Dam disaster. Bon said we can all make our voices heard, at the very least, by voting, but also by acting creatively to bring attention to the often invisible histories, connections, and responsibilities that make it possible for us to turn on a tap and have clean drinking water flow reliably into our cups.

chinatown3.jpgThe Department of Water and Power has been tremendously successful in making it possible for us to take that fact for granted. But that has to change, said Patt Morrison, who had the most dramatic suggestion for how to make Angelenos pay attention to water: turn it off, she said. Not for good, but just for a few hours a day from time to time, she said, much like rolling electricity brownouts. If people turn the tap and nothing comes out, they might get the message that freeway signs have so far failed to deliver: this is a precious, limited resource, folks!

Morrison's suggestion also harkened back to the manufactured water shortages that "Chinatown" suggests were used to drive the water grab at the heart of the movie. Historians debate whether there is any basis for this plot element in fact, like virtually everything else in the movie.

Jim McDaniel, who is in charge of all water operations at the LA Department of Water and Power, delivering water to 3.9 million Angelenos, chuckled at the idea, but quickly noted that it would go against everything that water engineers spend their lives trying to ensure. The LADWP will continue to rely on imported water, he said, even as it works to capture and reuse more water locally, and encourages people to conserve water. But making sure that water never stops flowing will remain its top priority.

And just so, we are left with the paradox that our modern water systems have made it not only possible, but virtually inevitable, that we should forget where our water comes from and the responsibilities it carries. Myth and art may be our best ways back into that understanding.

Reminder: Our "Just Add Water: The Discussions" series at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County continues this Thursday evening, July 31, with a conversation on "Water Wars" and the people and struggles that have made our water systems cleaner, healthier, safer for all, from Mono Lake to South and East LA, with panelists Mark Gold, acting director of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability; Elsa Lopez, public affairs manager for the Water Replenishment District of Southern California; Mary Pardo, professor of Chicana/o Studies at California State University, Northridge, and Ed Reyes, former Los Angeles City Council member. To RSVP, visit the museum website here. The "Just Add Water" series is presented in conjunction with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA and Boom: A Journal of California.

Check out Boom's special issue on the LA Aqueduct here, including an article on fact and fiction in "Chinatown."

Images from "Chinatown," Paramount Pictures, 1974. Photo by Evelyn Wendel.

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