February 10, 2008

Creation Myths

Today, I watched Chinatown with a movie club. What a great movie that was. Every detail fits nicely into place. The movie club analyzes the movies from a psychological perspective, and more specifically from a Freudian perspective. But I have interest in history and mythology, so I kept on seeing the movie from a different direction at the same time that the Oedipal issues (both classical and psychological) were being raised.

Because in addition to being a story about what happens when one is unable to resolve id and superego (not an angle I had considered before), Chinatown is also a dark retelling of the creation myth of Los Angeles. The prevailing mythology is that Los Angeles was a small town on the edge of the desert and the ocean, which would have been condemned to obscurity had not a small group of men diverted water from other parts of California in order to let the city grow (and to enrich themselves in the process).

Chinatown takes the story a step further, and splits the grand architect of that water diversion into two characters -- one good, one bad. In real life, William Mulholland was both a supremely skilled engineer and a great visionary of what Los Angeles could become, and also a cynical corruptor of power and a man motivated by a seemingly unbounded cupdity for money and influence. By taking the good and bad elements of the real man and portraying the personification of his dark side as supremely powerful, Chinatown asks the viewer, particular the viewer who has personal connections to Los Angeles, to come to grips with the concept that the city was born and grew prosperous not because of the industry or creativity of its people, or because of the blessings of its geography and natural abundance. Rather, if you poke around the roots of Los Angeles you will find illicit sex, prostitution, theft, deception, and corruption.

But the whole story also reminded me of a legend from my study of classical history. One of the many parts of the Roman creation myth is the Rape of the Sabine Women. It's important to know that the word rapare in Latin means "to take" or "to steal." The story goes like this -- the Romans were encamped in their new city, a band of warriors under Romulus' leadership. Knowing that they would need to start families to become a city rather than an encampment, Romulus made overtures to the nearby tribe of the Sabines to form alliances by way of his men marrying the Sabines' daughters. The Sabine king rebuffed Romulus' suggestion, but agreed to have a joint religious celebration with the Romans. After much wine had been drunk, Romulus gave a signal, and his men attacked and repelled the Sabine men, and then they abducted the Sabine women back to their encampment on what is today the Palatine Hill. There, Romulus spoke to each of the women and promised them that they would have property rights and would be mothers to free men, and the women agreed to stay on with their new husbands. The Sabines then came and began to make war on the Romans, but upon seeing their daughters call out to their husbands in battle, they despaired and retired from the field.

This is a rather curious myth to serve as a foundation for a great city. Don't forget, the other major part of the Romans' creation myths about their own civilization was that their ancestors were the losers of the Battle of Troy, who had fled that great city as it was being sacked by the Romans. So the Romans saw themselves the children of the losers of one of history's great battles, and the product of an act of gross deception, violence, and kidnapping. What does this tell us about Romans?

And in that light, what does Chinatown tell us about Los Angeles?

Another message of Chinatown is that because of this, it is not good to dwell overmuch on the past, either historical or personal in nature, because only pain and death will come of it. In that sense, the movie offers an emotional justification for what seems at times to be Los Angeles' intermittent rejection of its own past. Where Socrates enjoined that an unexamined life was not worth living, Chinatown says that the examined life is an unhappy one. I have to think that is not right. If it's a choice between the red pill and the blue pill in The Matrix, that's no choice at all; reality is, by virtue of being real, infinitely preferable to a pleasant delusion. I get the idea, though, that Roman Polanski might have chosen to go back to sleep.

But the fact that Los Angeles was built by land developers does not, by itself, make it a bad place, nor does it make the developers bad men. They may have been bad for other reasons, but most of them, like their king William Mulholland, were both very good and very bad. At the end of the day, these figures from history, like the myths that surround them and the reality they were instrumental in creating, are ambiguous. Which is why their stories are so beguiling.


zzi said...

Believe me I love reading long descriptions of movies but I always thought the movie was best summed up by Huston line.
See, Mr. Gitts, most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they're capable of... anything!

Check out "Out of the Past"

Burt Likko said...

That line revealed Huston's character to be a sociopath. He didn't deny his astonishing misconduct or that if it were widely-known, people would disapprove; but at the same time, he just didn't think that what he had done was actually wrong. That's quite a remarkable way to depict a creator figure.