Los Angeles and American Dream in Robert Towne's Chinatown Term Paper

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Robert Towne's Chinatown is a vision of what the "American Dream" actually is, as opposed to what it should be. In the minds of most Americans, the American Dream is most commonly perceived as the attainment of financial security through success in their career. This success, supposedly, is linked to honesty and hard work. The notions of mobility and migration are also associated with the Dream. Namely, once sufficient success is reached the pursuer of the American Dream can move away from the "bad" areas of town, thus migrating to the more opulent and desirable regions. There have been numerous theories modeling the structure of American society, and many of these specifically rely upon divisions drawn along the lines of race and class. Robert Park's representation of Chicago is one example of how a city might be loosely organized along these two guidelines. A consequence of models like Park's is that attainment of the American Dream implicitly demands relocation. Essentially, the Dream cannot be reached by remaining motionless: moving up in social class implies moving out of the city. Chinatown presents a slightly more complicated look into the social infrastructure of the Untied States -- Los Angeles in particular -- one that places more boundaries upon the American Dream than many people would care to acknowledge.

To begin with, the connection between the Dream and escape cannot be overlooked. People leaving the core of the city are doing so for two reasons: first, they wish to enjoy the luxuries of a better area; and second, they wish to flee the ravages of the frightening inner-city. However, Robert Towne attempts to reveal that there are limitations as to how far the inhabitants are able to flee. These borders can, for example, be dependent upon gender. Evelyn Mulwray and her daughter are unable to escape Chinatown specifically because they are females; they are wanted by a powerful man, and are helpless to stop his wishes from being carried out. The dream of escape is held by them, but a distinct limitation is placed upon them because they are subject to the will of a man. It is significant that they are females because Towne is trying to illustrate that the American Dream is more difficultly arrived at for a woman than for a man.

Comparably, boundaries are placed upon the acquisition of the American Dream based upon racial makeup. This fact is exemplified in Robert Park's diagram, in which a particular segment of the city is quartered off for the Chinese inhabitants. This suggests that being of Chinese origins automatically relegates citizens of the city to this geographic location, regardless of their gender or social class. Consequently, reaching the American Dream is impossible because their mobility in society has been formally enclosed. Migrating to a better area is unofficially forbidden by the architects of the city's structure. Just as females are subject to the desires of the white men in control, racial minorities are also subject to analogous aims.

However, the most important boundary, which is apparent in both Robert Park's and Mike Davis' illustrations, is based upon individual wealth. Davis draws a specific section of town to be "gated affluent suburbs." (Davis 364). The gates keep the wealthy physically separate from the rest of the city. Similarly, Park also designates an area the "restricted residential district." (Park 1). This division is also illustrated in Chinatown in a number of ways. It is most apparent in the accessibility of certain individuals to water. The poor, working farmers, for example, not only experience a shortage of water due to the drought, but are also forced to deal with people from the water commission draining and poisoning their wells (Chinatown 1974). Additionally, the poor members of the inner city are deliberately deprived of water. By contrast, the wealthy Mr. Cross is the individual in control of the water, and the one engineering its apparent shortage. So largely, the theoretical divisions of the city are dependent upon conceptions of class; and the higher up the social ranks you go, the more difficult it is, physically, to gain access to the associated regions. This is why Mr. Gittes is forced to break into the Los Angeles reservoir -- he does not possess the material clout to enter by any standard method.

It is important in Chinatown that the very thing gated-off from the community is the one thing absolutely essential for survival. In this way, Towne is revealing the very fundamental nature in which the wealthy possess power over the masses. Mr. Cross holds the power to distribute life when and where he wants; under no one else's terms but his own. In many ways, he acts as one of the primary limitations upon others' search for the American Dream. After all, it would be impossible to imagine a future of financial security without easy access to water. Mr. Cross limits the way in which the city is structured as well as escape from it entirely. His ultimate goal is to play on Los Angeles citizens' drive for the American Dream to provide them with a phony outlet for escape from the city. He states, "You either bring the water to L.A. Or you bring L.A. To the water." (Chinatown 1974). So, the version of the American Dream the Robert Towne is portraying is one in which the rules by which it is attained are governed by those who have already achieved it.

From a very fundamental level, the human desire to enjoy a more pleasurable existence is almost innate. However, the aspect that makes this desire uniquely American is that the economic structure of the United States -- at least from a theoretical standpoint -- permits the acquisition of financial security through simple productive contribution to society. Stated differently, what makes the United States perceived as "the land of opportunity" is that anyone can reach the level of power exercised by the wealthy. Yet this is merely an abstract concept, and not entirely rooted in reality. Living the American Dream is certainly possible, but it involves methods other than purely living a constructive and virtuous life. The implicit question that Park's depiction of The City begs is: who made it this way? There is no universal law stating that such an organization of society is warranted or even desirable. Davis' illustration makes this fact more blatantly; by enclosing his city of Los Angeles inside prison walls he is suggesting that they were placed there with some purposeful intention. Obviously, no one would mindfully place themselves in a ghetto-like community consistently in fear of other inhabitants. Park's diagram hints that deliberate acts, and not the natural course of events, generated a city like Los Angeles. Basically, the structure of America and the American Dream has been built by individuals with a calculated objective.

Robert Towne attempts to suggest one possible purpose for the structure of America with Chinatown. Mr. Cross' explanation of his motives for committing murder and deceiving a city is simple: "The Future," is what he is striving for (Chinatown 1974). This demonstrates another aspect of the American Dream: to leave some sort of lasting legacy. Commonly, this legacy is intended for one's children but it can take many forms. This is another a basic human drive; it is almost a drive for greatness, to be recognized as a molder of peoples and a founder of civilizations. However, Mr. Cross' efforts to realize this goal involve trampling the rights and needs of others. They include murder, fraud, theft, and deceit. The contrast between the honest diligence idealized as the method to financial security and the more realistic methods employed by Mr. Cross is exceedingly sharp. Towne aims to reveal that getting ahead in the world rarely involves the traditional understanding of the American Dream.…[continue]

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