Ida Sessions: Are you alone?
Jake Gittes: Isn’t everybody?

If I was stuck on a deserted island and allowed to bring along five movies, one of those would be Chinatown by Roman Polanski.  Despite how many times I have watched it, I still couldn’t tell you what the gist of the engineering scandal is.  This is because the colors, lights, acting, and intriguing subplot are of greater importance.

But every time I walk along or across the great river, I think of something vaguely along the lines of engineering.  I’m speaking about the Los Angeles River, which was previously known as the River of Our Lady Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula which is a pretty long name, even for a river that’s almost 48 miles.

The Tongvan people lived there before, and then came the Spaniards…  you know the rest.

The history of this city is so intertwined with its own imagination that sometimes it’s hard to discern those things, although cataract surgery may help with that.

The river has also appeared in many films, but two in particular come to mind:  Mulholland Drive and Chinatown.


In times past, the river was very nearly the only source of fresh water for local residents.  But then came a visionary engineer, who had escaped Ireland, named William Mulholland.  I had not read his biography until now, but I still cannot find any evidence of his education in engineering.  Nevertheless, Mulholland built the famous local aqueduct in the early 20th century, having already foreseen what would become a provincial City of Angels in the near future.

I am thinking about this Irishman because without the self-educated engineer, neither of the aforementioned films would exist.

Before the War, and long before the emergence of Benjamin Eye Institute, Jake Gittes worked as a private investigator in Los Angeles in Chinatown.  A mysterious and beautiful woman came into his office one day  and claimed that she suspected her husband of infidelity.  As you may know, her husband’s character had been inspired by William Mulholland.  Fairly quickly into the story, though, they found her husband dead.  I don’t remember exactly where, but now it seems that he had been floating along the Los Angeles River (perhaps inspired by the photos of Tatiana Minchencko, sitting on the shore and gazing at the water).

Consequently, Jake Gittes begins to investigate, and he stumbles upon a vast array of human vices, all of which pale in comparison to some huge engineering scandal.

The real William Mulholland, by the way, not only built the greatest aqueduct of its time (just look at it), but also the great St. Francis Dam (see it), which was completed in just a couple years’ time.


It did not result in a happy ending, though.  Mulholland, along with an assistant, had inspected the dam the day before it exploded one morning (but had not noticed anything), taking the lives of several hundred people.  This accident is what caused the fictional chief engineer’s self-destruction in Chinatown.

We must, however, cling to reality, in order to not get lost in the screenwriters’ consciousness.  This is recognized as the largest US engineering disaster of the 20th century.  In terms of damage, it comes in second after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

This ended Mulholland’s otherwise brilliant career and he lived another few years, and even started to write memoirs, but never finished.


The forking paths of his aqueduct often stir the thoughts of Angelinos, as they pass by their only local river.






Photos: Tatiana Minchenko and Dima Malanichev
Text: Sebastian Varo

Translation: Richard Crenwelge

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