“Chinatown” at 50, or Seeing Oil Through Cinema

Michael Rubenstein writes on the 50th anniversary of “Chinatown” and the beginning of the end of petromodernity.

“Chinatown” at 50, or Seeing Oil Through Cinema

RELEASED ON JUNE 20, 1974, Chinatown has been part of the cultural record for 50 years. In 1991, it was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. In 2010, when Chinatown was 36 years old—the same age as Jack Nicholson when he starred in the movie, when he was, by broad critical consensus, at the peak of his star power—a poll of The Guardian’s top critics proclaimed it “the best film of all time.” So, we might take the occasion of its 50th birthday in 2024 to celebrate a consecrated classic. Or we might notice instead that today, 14 years on from its coronation as best of all time—a ridiculous piece of clickbait anyway—Chinatown seems to have dropped off of a lot of best-of lists altogether. Well into middle age, the film seems now to have passed its prime. Much like a 50-year-old man. Much like me.


If it’s all downhill from here, one can always look back. Even when it was new, Chinatown was a nostalgia machine, generating cinematic pleasure from Hollywood’s 1974 recreation of 1937 Los Angeles. Over the last few years, a couple of fiftysomething Hollywood gentlemen have been conspiring to do the time warp again. David Fincher is rumored to be behind a Netflix series based on Jake Gittes’s backstory as a rookie beat cop in the eponymous district of Chinatown. And Ben Affleck has optioned Sam Wasson’s best-selling 2020 book about the making of Chinatown, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood; if the film gets made, I imagine we’ll see the next generation of Hollywood royalty claim its inheritance by pretending to be the last one. And if I sound like I’m sneering, rest assured that I will be watching all of it, mouth agape in enraptured abandon.


Because I also love Chinatown. I’m fascinated by both the world it depicts and the world that made it. There is no shortage of writing on these subjects; Chinatown needs no recovering from obscurity. So, what else needs to be said? One thing that does need saying before proceeding is this: the reason for Chinatown’s declining critical reputation is probably not its age. At least part of the reason is certainly because the #MeToo movement has since rumbled the film’s reputation by reminding us that its director is a confessed statutory rapist and a fugitive from the law. That might even be the whole reason, and it might even be a just reason.


But there are also good reasons to keep thinking about Chinatown, reasons that are neither auteurist nor even intentionalist. At the very least, it seems clear, given its continuing marketability, that we are not done with Chinatown. And that may be because Chinatown is not done with us. By “us,” I mean to imply something bigger than a fan base. In the first days of filming Chinatown in the fall of 1973, producer Robert Evans became so excited watching the dailies (and probably, to be fair, due to the cocaine) that he immediately wrote to his boss at Paramount’s parent company Gulf+Western, Charles Bluhdorn, raving that they had a “hot one,” that the film was “original” because it “took the clichés of detective movies and applied them to something real.”


That “something real” is usually taken to mean, quite rightly, that Chinatown dramatizes the water wars that, in the early 20th century, transformed Los Angeles from a small town into a megalopolis by sucking the Owens Valley dry. The film’s version of those events proved so powerful that, for years after Chinatown’s release, there seemed to be no article or history book or television show about California’s water wars that did not at least mention Chinatown, whether to set the proper generic tone, to corroborate a fact, or to testily refute aspects of the film’s fictionalized account. A widely circulated but apocryphal anecdote tells of an L.A. Department of Water and Power official who, as they were leaving the premiere screening of Chinatown, protested that everything in the film had been “fabricated with the exception of the incest.”


But such objections did nothing to prevent Chinatown from becoming, as Thom Andersen says in his 2004 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, “a ruling metaphor of the nonfictional critiques of Los Angeles development.” In his seminal 1990 history, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, Mike Davis called Chinatown a “history more syncretic than fictional,” a mode of “surrogate public history.” Chinatown maintains a near-monopolistic imaginative hold on both the fictions and the facts of California’s historic water wars. It is Hollywood’s founding myth of the city that birthed it, a stylish nightmare about the American dream factory in the desert.


All that has been understood for some time. But we are now 13 years further away from Chinatown’s release in 1974 than Chinatown was from its historical setting in 1937. In that time, a new interpretation of Chinatown has become available to us—an interpretation that only now, in the midst of our catastrophic climate crises, has become fully and urgently apparent.


Chinatown shows us something we still need to learn to see about the American century. What has become legible in Chinatown is the figure of the pipeline. This is obvious in the case of the water pipeline or aqueduct at the center of Chinatown’s historical plot, to which so much critical attention has already been paid, but it is also true, if less obviously so, for the case of the oil pipelines at the periphery of Chinatown’s production. If, to Robert Evans in 1973, “something real” meant California’s water wars, in 2024 we might now also understand global oil wars.


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What does it mean to say that Chinatown makes legible the figure of the pipeline? On the cover page of the second draft of his screenplay for Chinatown, Robert Towne included an epigraph, a quotation from William Mulholland’s infamously terse words when he stood before a crowd of 30,000 at Newhall Pass in the San Fernando Valley on November 5, 1913, and summoned the first waters through the gates of the Los Angeles Aqueduct: “There it is. Take it.” In 1940, Mulholland’s words were pressed into a steel disc and set in concrete before the William Mulholland Memorial Fountain near Griffith Park. But they disappeared from the third draft of Towne’s script, and there is no mention, in the dialogue of Chinatown, of the aqueduct at all. Clearly, though, Towne used Mulholland’s words, as well as the history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, to guide his writing.


Though it is never mentioned in Chinatown, the figure of the aqueduct—the water pipeline—thoroughly permeates the visual structure of the finished film. We see intimations of the aqueduct as we pass through various settings: its beneficiaries, as in the lush gardens at the Mulwray mansion; its casualties, like the desiccated orange farms in the San Fernando Valley; and its support systems, like the (fictional) Oak Pass Reservoir. If the aqueduct is nowhere to be seen in Chinatown, however, that is because it is everywhere in Chinatown; it is just too big, too all-encompassing, to be visible.


We cannot look at the aqueduct because we are also inside of it, looking through it. Its cross-sectional aperture is the lens through which we can see anything, and everything, in Chinatown. What do appear, again and again, are stylized analogies to the pipeline’s maw: eyes, drains, pocket watches, lenses, glasses, mirrors, taillights, and, as in the case of Evelyn Mulwray’s left eye, flaws. All these refer back to Mulholland’s aqueduct even as the script turns away from it, like so many flashes and floaters, the visual aftereffects of a primal, painful exposure.


When Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is first hired by the fake Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) to surveil Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), he follows the chief engineer around Los Angeles for a full day and ends up near the ocean. Attempting to go undetected, he watches Mulwray through the rearview mirror of his automobile. The mirror is, in the style of 1930s cars, circular. Mulwray’s whole figure, turned in the opposite direction, appears in it, surrounded by sand, scrub, and sky. Outside of the circle of the mirror, the left and right edges of the frame reveal sidewalks, green lawns, and lush trees. The horizon line is closely matched inside and outside the mirror.


The effect is a cinematographic composition that visually tells the story of irrigating Los Angeles. The man who brought the water to L.A. stands in his pipeline, in what was once a desert, while around him, outside of the circle/pipeline, the desert blooms grass-green and concrete-gray: the banner colors of suburbia, the result of the civil engineer’s work.


Rearview mirror. Still from


The color schemes here were a deliberate aspect of Richard Sylbert’s production design for Chinatown, what he called at the time a “visual structure,” a way to “rewrite the script in visual terms.” As Sylbert explained the structure to Sam Wasson, “You say to yourself, Okay, Chinatown is about a drought, so all the colors in this picture are gonna be related to the idea of drought. […] And the only time you’re gonna see green is when somebody has water from the grass.” All these elements of Sylbert’s structure are visible in this shot of Gittes’s rearview mirror. Significantly, Sylbert “kept the secrets of his visual structure” from the director, who would be, in Wasson’s words, “consumed with the manifest content of story.”


While Sylbert was interested in thematizing drought conditions through color, and writer Towne was interested in telling the story of the aqueduct without mentioning the aqueduct, director Roman Polanski was interested in creating self-referential images of cameras and camera lenses; thus, the above shot is manifestly about visual surveillance. Everything comes together in a shot of a mirror that is also an image of a pipeline that is also an intimation of an irrigated desert landscape. This combination of visions delivers the hallucinatory, dreamlike experience of cinema. The images linger and haunt because they are condensed, conflicted, and complementary. They signify deeply and broadly without immediately revealing themselves, accruing meaning through time and repetition. They all reference the pipeline as the organizing principle both of Sylbert’s visual structure and of Towne’s plot.


A similar perspectival principle is at work in the official monuments to Mulholland and his aqueduct. At the Mulholland Memorial Fountain in Los Feliz, a section of steel pipeline was mounted in front of the fountain in 2013 at the ceremony celebrating the aqueduct’s 100th anniversary. Looking in at the fountain from the corner of Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive, the perspective is a graphic match for Gittes’s view from the rearview mirror of his car, only instead of seeing the engineer himself, we see the fountain remembering him. In both cases, the images suggest looking through a pipeline as an epistemology and an ontology. They suggest that to think and be in modern Los Angeles is to think through and be in the water pipeline, an immersion so necessary, and so total, that it is, paradoxically, easy to forget about most of the time, like the air we breathe.


William Mulholland Memorial Fountain, Los Angeles. Photo by Michael Rubenstein.


Once it becomes clear that the structuring visual principle of Chinatown is not water as such but the infrastructure of its conveyance—the pipeline—we discover resonant meanings across the film’s historical coordinates. An isomorphic but different kind of pipeline traumatically marks the time of Chinatown’s production and release: the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, or TAPS, whose construction was approved on November 16, 1973, when President Richard Nixon signed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act. Chinatown was then entering its fourth month of production. The Authorization Act effectively halted all legal challenges to the pipeline mounted by environmental and Indigenous activists, authorizing construction without further delay in light of “growing domestic shortages and increasing dependence upon insecure foreign sources.


The act was a declaration of a state of exception: this is an emergency, so there can be no more debate and no more delay. “There it is. Take it.” The OPEC oil embargo, announced on October 16, 1973, brutally demonstrating American dependence on Middle Eastern reserves, had already driven up the price of oil fourfold. Eager developers and hawkish politicians took the opportunity to ram through a project that was otherwise highly contested. By authorizing TAPS, the United States effectively recommitted itself to a degree of oil dependency—paradoxically arrived at through fearmongering about “foreign” oil dependency, and insistently referred to in Nixon’s speeches at the time as “energy independence”—that continues to this day.


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To the extent that the energy crisis of 1973–74 surrounds the making of Chinatown, we can say, in a literal sense, that Chinatown is about the energy crisis. The film’s first audiences would have had their experiences of a nationwide oil shortage in the present to relate to Chinatown’s depiction of regional water scarcity in the past. To both problems, a pipeline would present itself, in consumerist and capitalistic terms, as the obvious solution. Just as California invented itself with water in the early 20th century—as California historian William Kahrl so powerfully put it in his 1982 book ­Water and Power—so the United States reinvented itself with “energy” in the 1970s. The pipeline is the sign under which Chinatown links water and power and remediates them through the camera lens. The petropolitics of 1974 are thus displaced in Chinatown to the hydropolitics of 1913.


This imaginary displacement of a real social and political problem could be a reason for Chinatown’s success upon its release. If Chinatown’s regional story about pipeline resource extraction asks to be read as a national allegory about the subject, then it ought to be understood as even more central to the canon of American culture than it previously has been. We might suppose that what Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) is to imperial Europe, Chinatown is to the American Century. This would make sense right down to the problematic Polish authors of both works. For which American director could have envisioned what Jim Shepard at The New York Times called “one of the more unregenerate moments in American film” with quite the efficient and brutal cynicism that Polanski did? After fighting for a different, happier ending for weeks, Towne once jokingly referred to the ending Polanski wrote for Chinatown as “the tunnel at the end of the light.”


But if we think of the tunnel in that phrase as an oil pipeline, what we are left with is much more than a joke. The tunnel at the end of the light is literalized in Chinatown’s gruesome finale by the flitting image of the bullet hole bored through the real Evelyn Mulwray’s (Faye Dunaway) head where her eye used to be. It is possible to get an extended look at the wound, to take in its isomorphism with the pipeline, in a production still of Dunaway applying lip gloss while in full VFX makeup for the scene. Dunaway’s face is perfect but for the darkened crater where her left eye once was, now a striking graphic match for Towne’s “tunnel at the end of the light.” The photograph affords us the luxury of seeing how the illusion was created. The juxtaposition of the mortal wound (the defacement of the face) with the living work of self-presentation (the putting-on of one’s face) is as disturbing as it is transfixing. It is a resonant figure for the cruel optimism of petromodernity and petropolitics, for the pipeline that often invisibly underwrites American optimism with the fantasy of unlimited energy.


Oil was never far from the minds of Chinatown’s creators. Towne and Nicholson had discussed a trilogy based on private detective Jake Gittes. The sequel to Chinatown Nicholson directed in 1990, The Two Jakes, was a critical failure. It isn’t terrible, but it is missing the alchemy that made Chinatown great. The Two Jakes, however, is explicitly about an oil theft scheme, and features a climactic scene in which an earthquake rips through a janky housing development in the San Fernando Valley, causing oil to erupt from every water-piped orifice of a show home bathroom.


The connection between water and oil is literalized and, perhaps, loses something by being made so explicit. Or maybe it was a brilliant idea that was only tepidly realized. There are more successful versions of this story, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), with its climactic zinger delivered unforgettably by a deranged Daniel Day-Lewis, “I drink your milkshake!”—a line that perfectly explains the extractive affordances of a pipeline in a tone of narcissistic rage that quickly, and appropriately, turns murderous.


The true spiritual sequel to Chinatown’s pipeline imaginary is not The Two Jakes, nor even There Will Be Blood, but Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Both films are about driving around looking for water in a desert landscape while struggling against an incestuous patriarch responsible for an ongoing environmental catastrophe. The difference between them is that the time in cars in preapocalyptic Chinatown is spent cruising comfortably in luxurious clothes and reveling in snappy Chandleresque dialogue, while in postapocalyptic Mad Max, it is spent coal-rolling and careening around at top speed with a metal mask chained to your face as you shout expletives like “Fang it!” and “Schlanger!”


I am not saying the latter is worse dialogue—it is in fact fantastically inventive and serves the exhilarating action sequences perfectly—but it does reflect a historical progression whereby petromodernity first invents a new kind of civilization and then proceeds to destroy it. The plots of Chinatown and Mad Max are just different points on the same story arc, pre- and postapocalypse. Between Noah Cross (John Huston) and Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is only the narcissism of small differences. “Oh, what a day, what a lovely day!” shouts Mad Max’s Nux (Nicholas Hoult) in an unaccountably posh British accent as he opens up the nitro-boosters on his car to accelerate even faster through a global-warming-induced electrical sandstorm, hoping to win the approval of his moribund warlord daddy.


That is a powerful image of the end of petromodernity. Chinatown’s pipelines are images of the beginning of the end.

LARB Contributor

Michael Rubenstein is an associate professor of English at Stony Brook University. He is the author of Public Works: Infrastructure, Irish Modernism, and the Postcolonial (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010) and co-author, with Justin Neuman, of Modernism and Its Environments (Bloomsbury, 2020). His forthcoming book, Chinatown at 50 or, Seeing Oil Through Cinema, will be published with the University of Minnesota Press in early 2025.

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