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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

February 22, 2012: Chinatown and Los Angeles

[This week’s posts, following the lead of Tuesday’s Mardi Gras-inspired celebration of New Orleans and friends, will take American Studies approaches to a few complex and interesting American cities. This is the first in the series.]

What one of the great American films can help us analyze about the history and identity of one of the most complex American cities.

I don’t think I need to use too much space here arguing for the greatness of Chinatown (1974). By any measure, from contemporary awards (ie, nominated for 11 Oscars and 10 BAFTAs and 7 Golden Globes) to historical appreciations (named to the National Film Registry by the Film Preservation Board in 1991) to ridiculously obvious criteria (a recent poll of British film critics named it “the best film of all time”!), Roman Polanski’s film noir (although it feels at least as right to write “Robert Towne’s film noir,” since the screenplay is to my mind the greatest one ever filmed) about a world-weary private detective and pretty much everything else in 1937 Los Angeles is one of the most acclaimed and honored American films. It stars Jack Nicholson at the absolute height of his career and powers; features a pitch-perfect supporting cast including legendary director John Huston as one of the great villains of all time; centers on a multi-generational Southern California familial and historical mystery that would make Ross MacDonald proud; is equal parts suspenseful, funny, sexy, dark, and emotionally affecting; and has the single greatest final line ever (not gonna spoil it or any main aspect of the plot here!). If you haven’t seen it yet, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you do so.
On top of all of that, I think Chinatown is one of the very few hugely successful and popular American films that is deeply invested in complex and significant American Studies kinds of questions (interestingly, it lost the Best Picture Oscar to another such film, The Godfather Part II). By the 1970s it was likely very difficult to remember—and is of course even more unfamiliar in our own Hollywood-dominated cultural moment—just how unlikely of a site Los Angeles had once been for one of the nation’s largest and most important cities; despite its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, LA is more or less built in a desert, and by the turn of the 20th century, when the city’s population had just moved past the 100,000 mark, it seemed impossible for the city to provide enough water to support that community. It took the efforts of one particularly visionary city planner, William Mulholland, to solve that problem; Mulholland and his team designed and constructed the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a mammoth project that, once completed in 1913, assured that the city could continue to support its ever-growing (especially with the rise of Hollywood in the 1920s) population.

But if that’s the basic historical narrative of LA’s turning point, an American Studies perspective would want to push a lot further on a number of different factors and components within that: where the water was coming from, and what happened in those more rural and agricultural communities as a result of the aqueduct’s creation; how much of the money involved was public, how much was private and from whom, and if the project benefited the whole of the city equally or if its effects were similarly linked to class and status; what role LA’s significant diversity—even in those early years it already included sizeable Mexican, African, and Asian American populations, for example—played in this process; whether the city’s built environment, its architecture and neighborhoods and streets and etc, shifted with the new availability of water, or whether there were other factors that more strongly influenced its planning; and so on. And perhaps the most impressive thing about Chinatown is that it manages at least to gesture at almost all of those questions and issues, without becoming for even a moment the kind of (forgive me) dry historical drama that they might suggest.
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a good bit of time in and around two of America’s oldest and most storied cities, Philadelphia and Boston; and have been close enough to Washington, DC, and New York to feel like I have a pretty good sense of those two equally foundational (at least for the last couple hundred years) locales. But one of the most amazing attributes of this ginormous nation of ours is the number of similarly unique urban settings, each with its own complex and multipart history and story. In an earlier post I recommended Cable’s The Grandissimes as a fictional introduction to New Orleans; Chinatown makes for a pretty great cinematic intro to LA. Next city post tomorrow,

PS. More links:

1) Some interesting interviews on the film that were included as DVD Extras:
2) David Wyatt’s Five Fires, a very engaging history of California and one of the best works of American Studies scholarship I know; its section on Chinatown begins on page 140:

3) Any Los Angeles texts or contexts you’d highlight?

2/22 Memory Day nominee: James Russell Lowell, who while not as talented a versifier as his New England peers, nor as innovative as Whitman, enjoyed a significantly more wide-ranging and multi-faceted career than any other 19th century America poet: from his unique and vital satires (such as “The Biglow Papers”) to his insightful literary criticism; his analyses of communal and political life to his philosophical and poetic embraces of American and human ideals; and his exemplary public scholarship, combining a Harvard professorship with his long tenure editing The Atlantic Monthly.

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