Chinatown

The American dream essentially signifies the notion that hard and consistent work can eventually provide anyone with what they desire for survival. America is one of the first places in the history of civilization in which the concept that everyone can make something of themselves has been prevalent -- that an individual can start with nothing, and end up with everything. This, however, is merely a theoretical notion; in reality, numerous limitations obstruct acquisition of the American dream from multiple angles. The dream has established a cultural mentality that justifies the status quo, and lends credence to the successes or failures of the individual: it makes the individual the only one responsible for their plight or their dominance. Inherent restraints on success exist in the very structure of our society -- in the organization of our cities. These structural restraints tend to also support the status quo, and additionally, amplify its consequences.

The 1974 film "Chinatown" is a critical representation of the history of Los Angeles and its implications for the myth of the American dream. Robert Towne presents a depiction of America in which justice, morality, and the individual are helpless to combat the forces of thievery, bigotry, and business interests. The position people occupy in this society is determined by several factors; race, gender, and class are foremost among these. In many ways the city of Los Angeles mirrors the diagram drawn by Davis, with these factors limiting the mobility of the citizens. The infrastructure of the city is dominated by the ruling class, race, and gender -- wealthy, white, males. It is this small handful of individuals that possesses the power to mold the future to their own designs, and to augment public perception of what the "truth" may be. Accordingly, to Towne, the American dream is a representation of reality specifically designed to hide the truth. In Chinatown, like in the rest of America, it is often impossible to know what is going on.

The famous diagram by Robert Park -- a representation of Chicago -- clearly divides the citizens of the city along two of the most important guidelines: race and class. The physical space the diagram occupies is supposed to correlate with some physical organization of the buildings and people occupying the city. The city is centered on the first loop, and the outer loops become less and less central to the functioning of the city. Los Angeles, on the other hand, is represented by Davis' diagram, and is decentralized around the inner "core." This core is as undesirable a location as the prisons that enclose the city. The challenge for the occupants of this city is to defend themselves from the inner core while pressing as far up against the limiting edge as possible. This diagram represents the city as not only a physical division of people along class and racial guidelines, but along emotional lines as well.

However, this organization of the city did not come into existence through natural progression or evolution of human thought. City planners and architects never drew-up their vision of what a functional city should be in this way. Forces competing with the abstract drives for utopic harmony generated a city that is perpetually looking to expand. These forces created the infrastructure of a city that exists in constant fear of itself. Towne recognizes this, and seeks to offer a vision of what motivated the major figures in Los Angeles' history to build an anti-utopia.

Profit, in short, is what has driven Los Angeles to become one of the largest cities -- geographically -- in the United States. Towne chooses to use water as the impetus for migration and expansion. Mr. Cross and his associates stand to make millions by extending the city of Los Angeles into the valley. By making the inner city the most undesirable place possible, the citizens are driven outward by their own distaste for what it has become. The interesting point that Towne is trying to make is that through sufficient confusion and misleading evidence, the citizens of Los Angeles are brought to believe that it is actually their own desires that will propel them out of the core of the city, and not the grand blueprint of a few businessmen.

Deception is one of the primary tools in Mr. Cross' arsenal. He says to Mr. Gittes upon their first visit together, "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't." Mr. Gittes laughs at this and remembers, "That's what the district attorney used to always tell me in Chinatown." ("Chinatown" 1974). This is a significant exchange because it illustrates the importance of misinformation and its association with a physical location. Mr. Gittes did not like Chinatown because, "You don't always know what is going on." ("Chinatown" 1974). This is a particularly postmodern approach to the notion of perception.

First, there are multiple ways in which the city -- or reality in general -- can be interpreted or understood by those within it. Simply because Mr. Gittes dislikes Chinatown does not necessarily mean that it is a terrible place. His take on the region leaves the opportunity open for other interpretations. In other words, interpretation of reality is highly dependent upon point-of-view.

Second, Mr. Gittes evaluation of Chinatown does not deal merely with its material existence, but with his unique reading of it. Other individuals might enjoy or dislike Chinatown based upon its physical realities; they might like the buildings, food or people, or they might not. However, Mr. Gittes construction of the area rests entirely upon the emotions he associates with it. So, Towne is telling us that a city is more than the simple concentric circles of Robert Park's Chicago, but is dependent upon the human lens it is seen through. Additionally, humans are rarely driven by simple observation alone -- like the social class or race of an individual -- but link their observations strongly with feelings.

Therefore, the exchange between Mr. Gittes and Mr. Cross reinforces the notion that the truth of the matter is likely to be far different than what the evidence indicates; and in fact, may never make itself abundantly apparent. Although Mr. Gittes may think he has a firm grasp upon reality, the fact remains that he is just one man, and his individual perspective cannot be regarded as the universal truth. To Mr. Cross, the false reality that he engineers for the public is just as real, if not more real, than the actual motivations behind urban sprawl.

Overall, it is corporate interest that creates public interest in "Chinatown." Peoples' desires to move out of the core of the city came about through the organizational structures that Mr. Cross and his associates deliberately and methodically built. It is reasonable to wonder what the implications of this are for the American dream. To begin with, Mr. Cross is portrayed as one who has already achieved the American dream. He is powerful and possesses more wealth than he could ever spend in his lifetime. When Mr. Gittes asks him, "Why did you do it? How much better can you eat, what can you buy that you can't already afford?" he is almost explicitly addressing the American dream ("Chinatown" 1974). To Mr. Gittes way of thinking Mr. Cross is a man who should simply sit back and enjoy what he has accomplished. If the American dream is truly what citizens of the United States are striving for, then Mr. Cross has nothing more to hope for. Of course, his response to the question is, "The future." but, this is an entirely abstract notion. The future Mr. Cross is manipulating is not one of a happy or healthy society, but one in which his own personal power is maximized. It appears that what businessmen like Mr. Cross truly want is the means to operate their schemes on increasingly large scales. A future where this is goal is reached is what Mr. Cross struggles for.

So, if the American dream is not real for people who have succeeded in attaining it, who is it real for? The fact that this dream does not motivate Mr. Cross is important because he sees it as a fallacy, but still capitalizes upon its existence. A central concept within the broader notion of the American dream is "upward mobility." This is the idea that the class structure in the United States is not static, and can change with appropriate individual production. By working hard and gaining a little wealth, people are supposedly able to move up in the world; they can move out of the ghetto, into a better neighborhood, and enjoy a better and more fulfilling life. It is specifically this mentality that extending the city of Los Angeles into the valley plays to. If financial security is linked to a better life, then moving out of the poverty stricken core of the city will be a goal for everyone. Naturally, it is debatable as…