Film History as Urban Mystery: The Case of Chinatown

Film History as Urban Mystery: The Case of Chinatown, By John Walton

Introduction

Historians and students of film are familiar with movies based upon historical events and particularly with cinematic representations of those events, which are said to distort, reinterpret, or otherwise alter history in popular memory. Seldom, however, do we find instances of the effect of film and popular culture on history. The reason, perhaps, is that the latter side of this dialectic is rare or inconsequential in the unfolding course of history. This chapter will argue, on the contrary, that sometimes life imitates art, that renditions of the past in popular culture can have a forceful impact on the making of history. This proposition is examined in the context of Los Angeles’s historical, and often controversial, efforts to acquire water for development the political movement to restrain the city’s appropriation of natural resources mounted by citizens of the Owens Valley in the 1920s, the selective reinterpretation of these events in Roman Polanski’s classic filmChinatown (1974), and the influence of the film on the subsequent and ongoing controversy over water rights and land development in the region since the mid-1970s.

These events began when the City of Los Angeles reached out 230 miles to the northeast along California’s eastern Sierra Nevada Mountain chain and appropriated water from the Owens Valley in an aqueduct constructed from 1905 to 1913. Subsequently, drought and growing groundwater exploitation by the city in the 1920s resulted in the valley’s steady desiccation.

Urged on by growing desperation and traditions of popular action, the valley rose in revolt in 1924, protesting politically and, when that failed, bombing the aqueduct. Although the community struggle of the 1920s ended in defeat, it left a growing residue of memory in accounts of the David-and-Goliath struggle produced in fiction, local history, and early films. Many of these distorted the facts of the conflict by attributing a conspiratorial design to the city’s original effort to build the aqueduct and heroic motives to local resistance. In California parlance, these events came to be known histrionically as “the rape of the Owens Valley.”Chinatown built on this myth and it too altered the facts of the case. The site of the conflict was moved 200 miles closer to the city, the events were advanced by thirty years to the depression-era LA of Raymond Chandler and the story was reconstructed as a murder mystery revolving around conspiratorial land speculation.

Meanwhile, the original controversy had evolved into a complicated legal struggle involving new environmental legislation, a strategic lawsuit mounted by Owens Valley officials, and a revitalized popular movement. By contrast to failed attempts in the 1920s, the local cause was now publicized widely, state political actors drawn into the process, and state courts persuaded that rural communities were entitled to some defense of their resources. In this new struggle of the 1980s and early 1990s, public opinion assumed that Chinatown represented the true history of the conflict—much to the advantage of a burgeoning environmental movement.[1]

In some respects, popular culture became political history and collective action proceeded from a new set of assumptions. Contemporary history unfolded with redressing results, some of which could be traced to the influence of film and popular culture.

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