'Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown'
By Jim Poling Sr.
Movies set in times past sometimes reflect times present.
I was thinking about that while re-watching the Hollywood classic Chinatown, starring Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson.
A brief refresher: Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a former cop in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles. He’s now a private gumshoe hired by folks who suspect their spouses are cheating on them.
Dunaway plays Evelyn Mulwray, wife of the city’s straight-arrow chief water engineer who is framed for adultery that never occurred, and later is murdered. Evelyn is a mysterious lady with deep secrets and a corrupt father whose his son-in-law is standing in the way of him making a lot of money.
During his investigation into whether Mr. Mulwray was cheating on his wife, Jake stumbles into a cesspool of greed and corruption involving a plan to divert water from Los Angeles, which is in the midst of a drought. The diverted water scheme is a land and water grab that will make certain people rich and they manipulate, lie, cheat and even murder to get it done.
The investigation leads Gittes back to Chinatown, where he recalls he did “as little as possible” as a Los Angeles cop. That’s a reference to the district’s reputation of having so much crime and corruption that cops often sighed and looked the other way because they believed that they could do little about it.
We Canadians have our share of crime and corruption. We talk about it a lot but often sigh and turn our heads to look the other way.
For instance, RCMP charged Quebec’s SNC-Lavalin company with defrauding the Libyan government of $129.8 million. The Canadian prime minister’s office tried to have our justice department look the other way because a Lavalin conviction would lead to job losses.
Then there is the money laundering in the real estate market. If you can get $2.9 million for a house that is worth $300,00 who cares if the buyer is laundering money for a drug cartel? It’s wrong, but it continues.
Toronto has become a major centre of gang violence. Gunshots are heard in that city pretty much every day and besides killing and wounding, those gunshots are the noise signalling an increasing amount of crime and corruption. It’s wrong, but it continues.
And, the opioid epidemic, once a big city problem now reaching into small communities, is not just about addiction. It’s a crisis fuelled by corruption and crime. All wrong, but it continues.
Then there’s climate change, probably our most daily talked about topic. Meanwhile, we see people drinking water from plastic bottles at environmental rallies. And, the prime minister flying in a carbon-emitting pig of an aircraft from Ottawa to B.C. to spend a day or two surfing.
All this stuff is wrong and pulling down our society, but many of us are weary or leery of tilting at windmills. Let someone else do it.
Lots of concern. Lots of talk. Little progress.
At the end of the movie, Jake Gittes stands in a Chinatown street where Evelyn Mulwray has been shot dead and the corrupt people behind the water diversion scheme, including Evelyn’s father, have won.
Once again the darkness of corruption has overwhelmed what is good and right.
One of Jake’s colleagues turns to him and speaks the famous words that end the movie:
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
As movie critics have noted, Jake is being told to give up and look the other way because nothing can be done to change things without becoming just another victim of the way things are.
The line “It’s Chinatown” is about not being able to change things no matter how much you tilt at windmills.
But Chinatown is not a district of LA, or any real place. It’s the entire world, and Jake Gittes is each and every one of us.
We shouldn’t do what so many of us have been doing – seeing the rot consuming our societies, then looking away and trying to forget it all. Our world does not have to be Chinatown. It’s a movie screenplay that we can rewrite, if we all put our minds to it.