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There's Something in the Water: 'Chinatown,' William Mulholland, and L.A.'s Originary Sin

'Chinatown' did for water much the same thing that 'The Jungle' did for meatpacking, or 'American Psycho' did for Wall Street.
November 10, 2013, 7:05pm

Midway through Los Angeles Plays Itself, the re-appropriated footage documentary that tracks the uses of and abuses of the city's landscape in movies, Chinatown takes center stage. Of course, Chinatown is justly famous otherwise: screenwriters following Syd Field use Roman Polanski's shadowy crime drama as a model of the perfect three-act structure, and Roger Ebert, in his Great Movies , complemented its ability to "settle easily beside the original noirs." But in Los Angeles Plays Itself, the film critic and director Thom Anderson focuses on the deeper historical subtext.


"Isn’t the notion of Chinatown as the forsaken hellhole of civic negligence a displaced vision of Watts?" he muses. (The Watts Riots took place in 1965; Chinatown was released almost a decade later, in 1974.) Anderson claims that although LA's self-depictions have always been steeped in nostalgia, there was a change in the 1970s. "What was new in the seventies was a nostalgia for what might have been, a sense that everything might have been different except for one defining event. We began to look for an originary sin. [Screenwriter] Robert Towne took an urban myth about the founding of Los Angeles on water stolen from the Owens River Valley and made it resonate."

Los Angeles Plays Itselfplays Chinatown

There's something about Chinatown that shakes you up, but I'm not sure it's the water—at least, not at first. Honestly, it's pretty tough to follow that part of the plot, first time around. After my initial viewing, what I had was approximately this: Jake Gittes, private eye, played by a craggy but sensitive Jack Nicholson, is hired by a rich lady, who calls herself Evelyn Mulwray, to follow her husband. Except Jake discovers that he's been set up: soon, the real Evelyn Mulwray arrives, asking him to stop tailing her husband. But before the accounts can be settled, Mr. Mulwray is killed. Why? Well, it's claimed as an accident (Mr. Mulwray was a water engineer; supposedly, he tripped and drowned), but Jack knows that "a man ain't gonna drown in a damp riverbed," and he presses the issue.

This part—the part that has to do with water—is where it all gets murky. Eventually, we find out that Mrs. Mulwary's dad was behind Mr. Mulwray's death, and that it all has something to do with orange groves, old people, and vast sums of money. On the way, Jake fucks Evelyn, but then he finds out she has a kid. Who is her sister! Or her daughter! Her sister! Her daughter! Her sister and her daughter! Jake can be kind of a jerk.

You want the truth, Jake, but cool it with the domestic abuse

But this all proves Noah Cross, Mrs. Mulwray's dad, to be an even badder jerk. Finally, they all end up in Chinatown, and Evelyn—who the police now suspect of her husband's murder, due to the "Evelyn Mulwray" thing—gets shot by the police while she tries to speed away with her sister/daughter in an attempt to save the girl from Cross, her father/lover. She's hit: Evelyn falls from her car's opened door, dead. "Forget it, Jake," Jake's assistant sighs. "It's Chinatown."

This final scene, butt of a thousand parodies, captures the bleak essence of film noir. No one is punished, but everyone gets hurt. Anyway, that's what I took away before I started to think about water.


The first time I watched Chinatown, I didn't live in the American West. I lived in Iowa, where there's regular rain and regular snow. I might've been forced to read a little about the Dust Bowl in school, but with chin-high corn growing un-irrigated on four sides of your house, it's hard to think of water rights as an especially important issue. Better to worry about the incest, theft, and murder.

But since I've moved to Phoenix, Arizona, with a yearly rainfall under eight inches, it's been impossible to remain so lackadaisical. In this sense (and in probably this sense only), I'm a little like Jake Gittes when he follows Mr. Mulwray to a speech about the dangers of building another dirt-banked terminus dam, given the failure of the Van der Lip.

At that meeting, Jake's most memorable response is a sustained, luxuriant yawn. Only in retrospect is he—am I—able to see that the real story has to do with the who "owns" the water, and what they will do with it.

The St. Francis Dam, historical analogue to the fictional Van der Lip Dam

If you re-watch Chinatown with water in mind, it's less complicated than it seems when you're scrambling along with Jake, trying to weave the loose strands into a coherent whole. Mr. Mulwray, not wanting to repeat the Van der Lip Dam Disaster ("I am not making that kind of mistake twice"), refuses to sign off on a new construction project—and is killed. By whom? We're never told directly, but Jake finds Mr. Mulwray's glasses in the salt water pond of the Mulwrays' backyard. Since the coroner discovers that the water in Mr. Mulwray's lungs is salt water, not the freshwater that would have drowned him in a river, we're led to believe that Noah Cross, Mulwray's evil father-in-law, killed the man in his own backyard.

Noah Cross is the very model of cackling villainy; he is, as Jake discovers, the leader of a shadowy water cabal. Cross may be smart enough to cover his ass (instead of putting his name on purchase documents, he has a roomful of senile oldsters on hand to fill out documents), but, nonetheless, with the complicity of the L.A. Department of Water and Power, Cross is actively dumping water to create an artificial drought. His goal is to arouse public concern to sufficient levels that a new dam might be built on the communal dime. The water from this dam won't be needed by the city—remember, the drought is artificial—and, in the meantime, he's buying up all the land in the San Fernando Valley. Landowners who won't sell are subject to intimidation tactics including but not limited to real estate fast-talking, exploded water tanks, and poisoned wells.


This is where the economic shoe will drop. The extra water can be used to irrigate the newly purchased land—which, irrigated, will have a huge gain in economic value, and hence can be resold for a huge profit. (Today, some eighty percent of California's water is dedicated to irrigation.) Which… well, it still doesn't make that much sense, since why would a rich old guy like Cross take on so much unnecessary risk? Jake asks him that at the end of the movie, "How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can't already afford?"

In response, Cross belches out, with a tone of perverse obviousness, "The future, Mr. Gittes!" He pauses and repeats the phrase. "The future! Now, where's the girl?"

Forget it, Jake—it's crazy town

This all causes one to wonder: did any of that stuff in Chinatown really happen? As Marc Reisner noted in the endnotes to Cadillac Desert, his account of water redistribution in the American West, "The movie Chinatown … is a great film that may be responsible for misinforming a lot of people who consider it completely factual." He parenthetically added, "Oddly, Mulwray, the character whose name is a play on 'Mulholland,' comes across as a hero in the movie—and is murdered for his honesty—so the film may actually have polished Mulholland's reputation, which it probably did not intend to do."

Chapter 2 of Cadillac Desert details William Mulholland's rise as the godfather of Los Angeles water. He died of old age, not because of some shady deal. But certain elements of his life come across refracted by the lens of art, and it's an intriguing case study of old history given new meaning, via a modest stretch.

William Mulholland's name sounds kinda like "Hollis Mulwray"

The name "Mulholland" is obviously still famous in L.A. (and to moviegoers—cf. Mulholland Falls, Mulholland Drive, etc.), and for good reason. When William Mulholland arrived in Los Angeles as a world-combing Irish immigrant in 1877, the city had only around 9,000 residents. By 1930, one year after Mulholland's retirement, that population had grown to 1.2 million: a 14,000% gain for which Mulholland was at least partly to credit or blame. As Chinatown itself suggests, Mulholland's status as a hero or a thief is still a matter of some contention. There's probably a good case for either, or, if you're in an ecumenical frame of mind, maybe for both.

Mulholland began his water career as a ditch tender for the Los Angeles City Water Company, a private organization led by a native Angelino, Fred Eaton. When Eaton decided he wanted to quit his engineering job to enter politics, he groomed Mulholland for the job of superintendent, which Mulholland took in 1886. Eaton, upon entering politics, pushed to have his old employer taken over by the city, which, after a decade plus some intense wrangling, he was able to effect.


What both Eaton and Mulholland realized early on was that despite a seeming overabundance of water in L.A.—for early settlers, artesian wells spewed the stuff into the air, with no need for pumps—the groundwater that had built up over millions of years could and would be used up. The city's extreme growth following the showing of San Bernadino Valencias at the 1884 World's Fair meant that it would eventually require an outside water source. So far as Eaton and Mulholland were concerned, the sooner they could get it, the better.

Their plan, however, was as underhanded as its reputation suggests. The whole story involves some dealings with the Bureau of Reclamation, but for brevity let's skip that part. What's stands out is that Eaton and Mulholland both knew that L.A.'s nearest source of freshwater was the Owens River, over 200 miles away, which wended through the Owens Valley into Owens Lake, a leftover pockmark from the glaciers that managed, despite the the river's relative purity, to have a salinity greater than the sea. (If you're curious, Owens—first name Richard—was one member from a pack of acquisitive cartographers who had tromped through California a half-century earlier.) The lake's saltiness made it unusable, so Eaton, before receiving any sort of approval, took it upon himself to use his own money to buy all the land with water rights for the river … for which he had big plans.

For the kids, PBS made Cadillac Desert into a movie

This wasn't illegal; the farmers who sold Eaton their river-adjacent land thought he was a fool (he paid more than each acre, strictly speaking, was worth), but this was only because they didn't know the totality of Eaton's scheme. But they would by the end, when the water was all diverted to the San Fernando Valley, and the Owens Lake dried up for good.

Just having the land wasn't enough, though. Building a 213-mile-long aqueduct through the merciless desert would take even more money than Eaton had on hand. That's where Mulholland came in. To quote Noah Cross, the fictional villain, "Either you bring the water to L.A., or you bring L.A. to the water."


Mulholland's insight was that one way that the city could justify the cost of the aqueduct was to extend the city limits out to include the barren San Fernando Valley—or, more accurately, to include the soon-to-be-fertile San Fernando Valley, which, with generous irrigation, would a) increase the value of the city, hence allowing L.A. legally to take on enough debt to build the aqueduct, and b) provide a tax base to eventually pay off that debt. And if the persons who might profit from the increased land values happened to be the same people who might be able to approve the project—well, then, all the better.

It's fascinating to see how many ways this can be spun. In L.A. Plays Itself, Thom Anderson sees such nepotism as a recurrent theme in Los Angeles civic life ("Chinatown Revisited" was used as a homily for the skyscraper boom of the 1970s and 80s), but he denies that this was much of a secret history. "The public history is the real history," he insists. "The insider land deals were exposed by the Hearst press in 1905, two weeks before the public voted on a bond issue to purchase water rights. The bond issue still passed fourteen to one, and no artificial drought was required to fool the voters."

Marc Reisner, on the other hand, saw it as paradigmatic of water projects in general. Chapter 10 of Cadillac Desert, which tells the story of the people made rich by their insider dealings with California's Central Valley Project, also in the 1970s and 80s, he simply titled: "Chinatown."


Still, Theodore Roosevelt himself was behind that original aqueduct. He had much of the dry, sparse Owens Valley categorized as a part of the Inyo National Forest so as to create the impression that the water wasn't being stolen from other potential irrigation sites. And if you look at pictures of the construction process—observe the enormous pipes, each some 12 feet in diameter, being dragged into place by scores of pack mules—the immense scale of the undertaking makes it hard to think of Mulholland in any other than sheerly Mosaic terms, leading a city to its destiny.

Mules, so much more reliable than than those flaky automobiles

As Catherine Mulholland, grandaughter of William, makes pains to protest in the documentary above, the people loved him. If Mulholland had retired after the six-year construction was complete (his entire dedication speech, following an unfurling of the American flag, was: "There it is, take it"), is there any way he could he have inspired Chinatown? Given his heroic stature at that moment, would it have even been possible for him to be remembered anywhere outside the Pantheon of Great Americans, embalmed there for the rest of history?

It's impossible to say, of course … but the story didn't end there. The public revision of William Mulholland's image would begin with the Water Wars and end with the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, which would finally force him to retire, his reputation torn to bits.


For the first few years after the Los Angeles Aqueduct's completion, there were regular rains, and both the San Fernando and the Owens Valleys were able to flourish. But as soon as it came time for a periodic drought (every two decades, they return like clockwork), Mulholland at last needed all that water he'd claimed so many years before, and he siphoned it off until the lake was dry. Angry farmers from the Owens Valley, unable now to irrigate, bombed the aqueduct, but what, really, could they do? L.A. had the people, it needed the water, and Mulholland's goons, as soon as they arrived, had more guns than the farmers could ever hope to procure. It wasn't much of a war: no one was killed, and from the start the winner was more or less foregone.

The images of displaced farmers might have been one thing (their parents, after all, had pushed the Paiute Indians off that land barely 50 years prior), but it was the dam collapse would irreversibly tarnish the Mulholland name. The St. Francis Dam was a project Mulholland had overseen as an engineer, and not 24 hours before its collapse, he had examined its leaks and declared they were nothing to worry about. Except that when the dam crumpled, the resultant 140-foot tide ushered in one of California's two biggest disasters of the 20th century. Whether it or the 1905 San Fransisco Earthquake had more total casualties has been debated, but as far as human fuckups go, this was hard to top: over 600 dead, multiple towns flooded, bodies carried as far as Mexico in the torrent's wake. After a year of public investigations into what went wrong, Mulholland was forced to retire in disgrace.


This notion of a shamed William Mulholland—silent, wracked with regret, waiting for death—is a far cry from the machinations of Noah Cross, that incestuous cackler of Chinatown. If you stop to ponder it from anything approaching a sympathetic POV, there's a huge unfairness about the extra scrim of sleaze that Chinatown places over the whole affair.

The fallen St. Francis equaled Mulholland's reputation in concrete, via MST

It's not that the thematic material doesn't make sense (the Cross family fucks itself, while L.A. fucks its resources), but the meaning of history is bound to be hazier than any dark funk you can get from a two-hour detective movie. Los Angeles might not have had any "right" to the Owens River water, but since when have recent settlers had time to worry about historical rights? After all, don’t water wars continue even today across the US—from Flordia to Colorado, back still to Los Angeles—and with an even greater intensity in the ? If you go down that path, why should we have any sympathy for the other Johnny-come-latelys who decided to stake the Owens Valley as their own? Come to think of it, aren't we moderns sort of equally caught in the that ancient cycle of victimization and perpetuation, of resource exploitation and its unintended consequences, old as civilization itself?

It's possible that this topic has unleashed my secret sympathies for the Randian hero, for that guy who's an asshole but who manages, partly because of his asshole tendencies, to provide society with what it needs. But even more than that, it makes me suspicious about what the art itself is doing. I remember that old Picasso quote, "Art is a lie that tells the truth," and I wonder if "truth," here, is the right word.

I wonder, instead of truth, if we might need an even dowdier concept—the idea of sin. Thom Anderson was on the right track with his nostalgic search for an "originary sin," but why should we pretend that this is just a passive inquiry? Isn't this search somehow nearer to an act of artistic invention? We might know everything there is to know intellectually about L.A. Water and Power, but until there's a part of it that feels dirty, taboo—like a line of all human decency has been crossed—we haven't yet entered sin's charged territory. Chinatown did for water much the same thing that The Jungle did for meatpacking, or American Psycho did for Wall Street: it imbued a hidden industry with the slanderous glare of evil.

Part of me wants to say that this is exactly what art should do, that art's whole point is to remake a subject in the image of its creator's vision, and that if Robert Towne was able to re-imagine the real history with a sordid sexual overlay, he and his artwork should be unambiguously celebrated for their distinctive version of things, now improved by the contributions of the muse. It would be selling this too short to label it as mere perversity—no offense, here, to perversity. But a movie like Chinatown, even as it distorts the facts, fires the imagination with a renewed indignation, the sort of indignation that dispels passivity and impels one to act….

Another part of me, however, the part that's going tsk, tsk, knows that this argument might be used to justify a piece of vile propaganda like almost as easily as I'm using it to bolster Chinatown. I haven't figured out if there's a way out of this problem, or if it's actually a problem at all. It might just be a corollary of the simple fact of art being a plastic thing that can be used to whatever end you choose.

Or maybe this isn't something I'll settle today. Maybe I'll still be dimly thinking about this later, when I'm stuck out here in the desert, dying from thirst, with nothing left to drink but piss.