Tuesday, July 9, 2024

L.A. Weather and “Chinatown”

As a longtime volunteer with the Santa Monic Public Library system, I’m reading a new best-seller called L.A. Weather, by María Amparo Escandón. It concerns a family with Mexican and Old California roots, ambitiously folding in almost every touchstone 21st century concern you can think of: sexuality, gender demarcations, surrogate pregnancy, gentrification, religious practices, divorce, and complex family dynamics. (Somehow the question of politics only briefly rears its ugly head). But the key issue that gives the book its title has to do with the complexities of Southern California weather. The book’s central patriarch figure, Oscar, becomes increasingly estranged from his wife and three daughters as he obsesses over climate change and its potential impact on his secret almond grove.

 I appreciate the novel’s insider grasp of L.A. geography, and of the ethnic enclaves it chronicles. A movie based on the book would be an enjoyable tour of Malibu beach houses, east L.A. barrio bungalows, and orchards set deep in the San Fernando Valley. I’ve never done a scientific study, but it’s been pointed out to me that most upbeat screen love stories are set in New York (see, for instance, You’ve Got Mail), while L.A. in the preferred backdrop for dysfunctional futuristic landscapes (Bladerunner, I’m looking at you!)  It seems as though film execs, mostly from the east, come to SoCal to pursue their careers, then score with movies that either romanticize the coast they left behind or turn their new west-coast home into a horror show.

 Escandón’s family saga contains a genuine affection for her adopted hometown, but also seems prophetic in that it worries about a climate crisis that threatens to uproot the Alvarado family’s sense of well-being. What strikes me, to my surprise, is how the novel’s key plot strand is the same one that resonates in the late Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown. This 1974 thriller, brilliantly directed by ultimate outsider Roman Polanski, is set in the L.A. of the 1930s, the era of such famous page and screen detectives as Philip Marlowe. There have been ten or more screen adaptations of Marlowe-related stories, including Humphrey Bogart’s 1946 The Big Sleep and Elliott Gould’s 1973 The Long Goodbye. Marlowe films always focus on moral decay and a private-eye hero who tries desperately (and sometimes messily) to create order out of chaos. But in Chinatown the hero (Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes) is less heroic and the ending is far less tidy than in the Marlowe-related flicks. As a crony memorably tells Gittes after the unthinkable has happened, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” This climactic line threw me when I first saw the film, but of course I’ve come to accept it as a metaphor for all that’s chaotic and obscene about L.A. life. (Really, if you’ve seen this and Bonnie and Clyde, you know that Faye Dunaway should definitely stay out of moving cars when thugs and cops are around.)

 The moral story in Chinatown may be the one that stays with the viewer, but the plot hinges on a still-resonant L.A. topic: the drought. A key character in the film, L.A. water tsar Hollis Mulwray, is loosely based on a legendary L.A. figure, dam-builder William Mulholland. And we clearly see the tension between San Fernando Valley farmers who demand irrigation for their cash crops and City of L.A. residents worried about their source of drinking water. Those issues still remain, exacerbated by climate change, and we who prefer garden living to making our homes in a desert appreciate books and films that point out where we’re going wrong. 


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