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May 2012 15

by Steven Whitney

“How much better can you eat?
What can you buy that you can’t already afford?”

In Chinatown, private detective Jake Gittes puts those two questions to Noah Cross, perhaps the richest man in 1930s California. Those same queries, and others like them, resonant more than ever in today’s America.

How many cars can you drive? How many McMansions can you live in? How many diamonds and jewels and designer clothes can you wear? How many black Escalades filled with bodyguards does it take to make you feel important? Why do you need more when you already have so much more than enough? And most tellingly: how much do you fucking want?

The movie doesn’t provide answers – after all, who can explain rampant and uncontrolled greed? But it does offer a symbolic confrontation between the 99%, in the persona of Jake Gittes, and the 1%, represented by super-rich Noah Cross.

Jake is Everyman working hard to earn a decent living, perhaps with a dodge or two here and there, but living by a code in keeping with Raymond Chandler’s “hero” – a man who walks the mean streets who is not himself mean, a common man, a man of honor.

During a short stint with the police, Jake came to know Chinatown – a dark and dangerous place controlled by a few and impervious to change.

“What did you do in Chinatown?”
“As little as possible.”

Why? Because he knew it was a game played with a stacked deck, one he couldn’t win…and he never knew if he was helping or hurting.

As the story begins, Jake is hired to expose a love nest that will ultimately determine control of the Los Angeles water supply. While the scandal is false, it leads to an apparent suicide. But Jake senses that he was unknowingly set-up and that the victim was murdered. So he unexpectedly wades deeper into the murky waters and runs straight-on into Noah Cross.

Cross has gotten rich as Croesus by not making any positive contributions to society. He doesn’t create anything – he just buys things, forces up their value (often by illegal means), and then sells them at an obscene profit. Sound familiar?

To make matters worse, he’s everyone’s Moriarty – an old man of gross and unchecked appetites. Indulging in land fraud, assorted swindles, mayhem, murder, and incest. He is both father and grandfather to the innocent girl he now lusts after. This, of course, makes him the worst kind of fucker – worse than a motherfucker and even worse than South Park’s notorious unclefucker (but probably still not as bad as Dick Cheney). By every measure, Noah Cross is an uber-villain.

Imbued with a sense of fairness, of right and wrong, and of common decency, Jake tries to rescue a woman and the daughter who is also her sister from this psycho-sociopath. Tough, smart, and relentless, if anyone can stop Cross, it’s Jake. And, against all odds, he seems at times almost on the verge of winning.

But he can’t win. He can never win because the game is rigged from the top, with scant trickle-down benefits. You can’t fight City Hall, especially if Noah Cross owns it. Jake gives it his best, but he’s a man alone, fighting phantoms he can feel but cannot see as Cross wages scorched-earth warfare. Too late, Jake realizes the only way he can win is to kill Cross. But Jake’s not a killer…so he winds up back in Chinatown, impotent, losing everything, and bone-tired of the whole damn mess.

Cross manipulates Jake (and everyone else) like Republicans maneuver their base – holding out the carrot of the American Dream only to snatch it away at the last second, keeping all the spoils of victory for themselves. Jake, like the rest of us, has been played for a sucker.

In 2012, it’s not morning in America. It’s fucking Chinatown.

Unlike Noah Cross and his ilk, we don’t want it all, we just want a level playing field…with more education, equal access to quality healthcare, and economic parity. We want the freedom to create and control our own lives.

But freedom comes at a high cost. It can neither be given nor bestowed, and it must be fought for and earned, now and forever. If we don’t get angry, if we don’t fight as hard and as relentlessly as the opposition, if we don’t learn to vote for our own interests, if we don’t deploy every weapon at our disposal, our lives will become mere ceremonies of loss in which our rights, our freedoms, and our opportunities are eroded, little by little, until the final whistle blows…and the American Dream is officially dead, stolen by Noah Cross and his brethren of the 1%.

And then we’ll all suffer Jake’s tragic fate – a purgatory of futility.

DARKNESS DESCENDS. MUSIC UP: A noir melody, light tinkling on a piano, backed by lush woodwinds, and then…a mournful trumpet solo, wailing a plaintive cry of helplessness.

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

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