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There are many similarities and differences between the fictional plot and the historical context that inspired the film Chinatown. In the film, A private detective Jake Gittes was hired to expose a womanizer and found himself running in circles of lies, corruption, and murder. Even though this film is fiction, there are many similarities between the plot and historical context. The helplessness of common people, the corruption of the American dream, and the dishonesty of authority figures are all themes that are similar in this film and global history. In contrast, the water project the film displays isn’t the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and Hollis Mulwray isn’t the chief architect of the project. Sometimes in order to make a dynamic movie you have to stretch the facts.
The helplessness of common people is a universal theme it is used in many different cultures, films, and novels. In this film Jake is supposed to be the hero, but his nose gets cut at the reservoir; while a typical hero quickly shakes off an attack, Jake has a bandage on throughout the film. Jake dodges questions about the injury with sarcasm in order to hide his weakness. This is a perfect example of Jake’s limited heroism, weakness, and is Polanski’s way of telling the audience that Jake is a part of the common people. Jake makes several misidentifications throughout the film but most important; Jake can only see Evelyn as the murderer of her husband, while she is truly the victim. This is a waste of his time and leads him to another unsuccessful case. Even in our own history we see helplessness from the common people. “A People’s Republic is typically a Marxist or socialist one-party state that claims to govern on behalf of the common people even if it in practice often turns out to be a dictatorship.” In countries like China and the former Soviet Union, this ideology was implemented. History shows us that the common people of these countries suffered. Even though the idea is to be governed on behalf of the people, the common people were stripped of rights, freedoms, and pursuit of happiness. In the film all the characters see Chinatown as the place where all the corruption is, but we know that corruption is everywhere. Jake lost a woman to Chinatown before, and loses Evelyn in the same way. Evelyn escaped her father from a young age and had lots of money but was unable to escape death. Hollis tried to free himself by cutting ties to Cross but loses his life to his former business partner. No matter how good a character is or how noble their intentions are, Polanski makes sure we see how impossible it is for the common people to overcome the corruption in the film and in our own world.
The Great Gatsby and Goodfellas also have a similar theme about corruption of the American dream. These movies show how innocent people get pulled into corruption and become greedy. People like Jake, Hollis, Evelyn, and Cross can live in this country and make something out of themselves; but it is only a matter of time till power corrupts. The saltwater pond is a symbol of the good and evil in humans. On one side, the pool is a source of life; on the other side, the pool brings death, killing the surrounding grass and anything else in its path. The pool was used to drown Hollis much faster than fresh water would, filling his lungs with the poisoning salt water. The saltwater is a thriving home for those that live in it and as a toxic waste to those that are foreign to it. Like the grass and Hollis, anything and anyone that doesn’t confine to corruption is eventually rid of. Most of the characters in the film have a haunting past, a past that is full of corruption in the world they live in. An example would be Evelyn Mulwray’s past resulting in a child/ sister shows how innocence can be dragged into corruption. Jake’s inability to protect a woman in Chinatown repeats to show how impossible it is to escape the corruption. We see lots of corruption in America today, whether its politics, wall street, or war. Corruption of the American dream really started in the 1920s, an age of dramatic social and political change. “For the first time, the nation’s total wealth more than doubled between 1920 and 1929, and this economic growth swept many Americans into an affluent but unfamiliar “consumer society.”
This example shows how even someone as noble as a police officer can be persuaded into corruption. The basics of the American dream is the idea that common people can move into the unknown and transform it into prosperity. Even something as simple as water was a source of corruption. Cross praised Hollis for using water to turn Los Angeles from a desert into an ever-growing city. Cross then takes advantage and kills Hollis when he interferes with Cross’s plans for the new reservoir.
The Dishonesty of Authority Figures is very apparent in this film. Everybody from the police to politicians are dishonest. Chinatown is a place where secret organizations rule, and the law is meaningless. Chinatown is an example of all cities; corruption not only exists but has become a part of the way societies work. Even good men like Lieutenant Escobar don’t fight it. Leaders like Yelburton will do anything to make more money, and men like Cross are like puppet masters. Many people in Chinatown act ignorant to the dishonesty that surrounds them. Throughout the movie, Jake is ignorant trying to put the pieces of the case together. Evelyn pretends to know nothing about the woman her husband is seeing. At the end of the movie, Jake tells Evelyn to let the police take care of the situation. This leads to the police killing Evelyn. Polanski wants to viewer to see that being ignorant of the crimes around you leave you exposed to them. Global history shows plenty of examples of authority figures lying. In American history I think Wall Street is a great example. “In today’s regulatory environment, it’s virtually impossible to violate rules.” Nilsson, Jeff, et al. “8 Of History’s Most Destructive Lies: The Saturday Evening Post.” The Saturday Evening Post 8 of History’s Most Destructive Lies Comments, 14 May 2018, . This is a quote from Bernie Madoff from 2007. He was speaking with the press about illegal practices in Wall Street. He was able to pull off the largest Ponzi scheme in history. It was said that he had screwed 4,800 clients of $18 billion. This example connects back to Chinatown because just like Madoff, Cross was using an existing legal system and manipulated it for his own personal gain. Based on what we learned from Chinatown an honest, trustworthy leader does not exist. People in positions of power are manipulative, they are almost always harming those beneath them. Russ Yelburton manipulates people for personal gain and is involved in the murder of his boss. Even Lieutenant Escobar, a man whom Jake respects, is willing to let crime occur without punishment. In a world like Chinatown and Wall Street, anyone with any power becomes a member of a system that maintains corruption.
Chinatown is a fiction film, therefor there are some aspects of the movie that aren’t actually true. The first reason why the film is fiction is because the project in the film isn’t the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, engineered by William Mulholland; Chinatown is set in 1937 not 1913, when the Los Angeles Aqueduct was complete. In the film we have Hollis Mulwray who was said to be the chief architect for the project. This isn’t the case, he is actually its strongest opponent, who was later murdered. Mulwray is against the dam because it’s unsafe, not because it’s stealing water. The dam disaster that Mulwray talks about, is a reference to the collapse of the Saint Francis Dam in 1928. Mullholland built this dam after completing the aqueduct in 1913. So as history states it, the film messes around with when certain project were built and who certain people are in order to create a more compelling and resonant story.
There are many similarities and differences between the film Chinatown and its historical context. Through the symbols, motifs, context, and themes in the film and in history, we see how Chinatown is a symbol of helplessness, corruption, and dishonesty for the people that are surrounded by it. Our society is run on the concept of corruption and lies for capitalist gain. We also see how history was twisted in order for the film to be more dramatic. By changing the timeline of when certain water projects were built and where certain people stood on the subject. Polanski was able to create a dynamic mystery for the viewer to solve.
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