“Chinatown” Response Paper

In this paper I am responding to the film Chinatown which was released in 1974 and stars Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.[1] Chinatown is set in 1930’s Los Angeles during the peak of a devastating drought. The story follows a private investigator, J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) who stumbles into the middle of a murderous scandal surrounding the L.A. water department. After being called into what he thought was a cut and dry case of infidelity, Gittes becomes entrenched in a battle sparked over a disagreement about the public’s right to water. The conflict, which occurs between two former owners of the L.A. water system, provides a fictional example of a real problem. Noah Cross (John Huston), one of the owners, believes that water is a private commodity which should profit those who own it. Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) believes that the water system should be in the hands of the people of Los Angeles. In the end viewers find out that Noah Cross murdered Mulwray over this dispute. I will conduct a narrative analysis on Noah Cross and Hollis Mulwray in order to explain their competing worldviews on the public’s right to affordable water.

Noah Cross believed that, when it comes to the private allocation of water, the ends justify the means. His narrative can be described by the title “Humankind as an ever marching machine.”  Cross hoped to irrigate a desert wasteland outside of Los Angeles. He believed that in doing so he could imprint his legacy on California by literally changing the geographical makeup of L.A. This comes to light in his conversation with J.J. Gittes as the movie approaches its climax. Gittes asks, “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?” With a wry smile on his face Cross replies, “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.”[2] Cross believed that progressing humanity as a whole superseded the needs of individuals. With this narrative in mind, Noah Cross was capable of the most heinous crimes in the name of progress.

Hollis Mulwray’s worldview provides a sharp contrast to Cross’s. Mulwray believed that water is a public commodity to which citizens have an intrinsic right. His narrative can be placed under the title “individual citizens have individual rights.” He thought that human progress should be achieved by human ingenuity within the bounds of justice. At his core, Mulwray considered citizen’s individual rights to be superior to a general trudge towards progress and legacy. As a result he advocated for L.A.’s private water company to become a public utility which the public could pay for and, for the most part, control. He became a martyr for this cause because of emphatic powers on the opposing side.

Much of human action is informed by the stories that we tell ourselves about the world.[3] The 1974 film Chinatown provides an excellent example of such narratives in the characters Noah Cross and Hollis Mulwray. Driven by their own narratives about the public’s relationship with water, these two individuals pushed for human progress by their own interpretation. In the end, the narratives that Cross and Mulwray cost one of them his life and the other his innocence.

[1] “Chinatown”, on Imdb.com, accessed 4/23/16, link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071315/

[2] Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski (1974, Hollywood, CA: Paramount Pictures), Web.

[3] Walter Cronon, Journal of American History, p. 1347

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