Spring 2016

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43 Q2 2016 / CINEMONTAGE vision, local history is obscured by layers of smoke and the low-key Oscar-nominated lighting of cinematographers Stanley Cortez, ASC, and John Alonzo, ASC. Just as the sound design in Chinatown uses a finely mixed refrain of dripping, bubbling and running water, Wilkman's research is thorough and meticulous. He carefully organizes and presents thousands of details. An off-screen comment about Mulwray in Chinatown ("The guy's got water on the brain") certainly applied to Mulholland — and can also be said of Wilkman, an experienced chronicler of Los Angeles history. He is the co-author of two pictorial books about the city and is the producer/director of several historical documentaries, including Moguls and Movie Stars, a TCM series about American movies. The often-disputed facts and colorful tales surrounding the dam failure have obviously been an obsession for Wilkman for years. Was it an earthquake, angry ranchers with bombs, faulty dam design, or low-grade, cheap cement that created the disaster? He considers these theories and, along the way, makes valuable contributions to California history in the form of interviews with some who remembered the flood, including Mulholland's granddaughter and biographer Catherine. Those interviewees are dead now. Wilkman allows them to speak and counterpoints their personal stories with research from newspaper archives, official reports and government documents, books, articles and scholarly theses. He also recruits expert observations from the sciences of engineering, water management, geology, seismology and dam building. All of this makes for fascinating reading that only occasionally — primarily in the book's last quarter — becomes more dry than entertaining. While Wilkman is excellent at painting portraits of the many men who both supported and decried Mulholland and his plans, their names and changing titles sometimes get confusing. A useful map of the flood area brackets the book on the insides of its cover, but a list of who's who among these characters and when they did what would have been a useful addition. It is sometimes necessary to refer back and forth to be precise about events. The final chapter, "After the Fall," in which Wilkman reveals the most current computer-modeled theories about why the dam collapsed (do not peek ahead and spoil the story), becomes a bit preachy, but this in no way detracts from the excellent research or the page- turning drama. There are also enough photographs to provide visual context. The author uses his vast array of primary resources to make several observations about the St. Francis Dam disaster that resonate today. One is that water and energy have always been and remain chief concerns in Southern California, and that our need for these has radical impact on the environment and on people's well-being. Another is that haste and pressures to save money may be in the interest only of certain individuals; in other words, we need always be on the lookout for possible corruption. A third point is that it is the poor and people of color who bear the greatest misfortune in a disaster — man-made or otherwise. In 1928, many of the flood victims were Mexican farm workers who lived in low-lying camps along the Santa Clarita River; many remain among the unknown dead. As private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson in an Oscar-nominated role written expressly for him) investigates Mulwray's murder, he is drawn under the dry LA River's Hollenbeck Bridge. Here lived a local drunk, who died from drowning, providing a clue about the mysterious presence of water during a drought. In today's Los Angeles, it would be the thousands living in homeless encampments that die in a torrent. And in perhaps the most timely point, the unchecked hubris of one individual and his political supporters (whomever they may be) can only lead to tragedy. Looking back to understand the present may not be a strong point of Southern California's culture, but Wilkman makes its history meaningful in a way that demands our attention today. He may regret the obfuscation of fact by the compelling mythmaking of Chinatown, but the film is brilliant in its historical complexity. Wilkman painstakingly dissects the debate between populists and private corporations over government-sponsored public works projects in the 1930s. Polanski and company capture the essence of that debate in a courtroom scene in which a giant portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt looms as Gittes listens while city leaders rousingly endorse the new dam, and Mulwray refuses to build it. Floodpath and Chinatown each offer insight, and the reader is well advised to experience both. f CUT/PRINT A scene from Chinatown. Paramount Pictures.

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