Rehabilitating Bill

William Mulholland
William Mulholland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles
Margaret Leslie Davis
April 1994

I had spent my youth commuting to school across Mulholland Drive, and I had heard the stories about the man who made the San Fernando Valley bloom. More recently, I watched Roman Polanski‘s brilliant Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. My ignorance of the history of California suddenly felt like a missing tooth. When I discovered Rivers in the Desert, I decided it was time to rectify the situation.

I could not have picked a better book with which to begin my journey into California’s past. In this deeply research and passionately written story, the granddaughter of William Mulholland builds a case for the rehabilitation of the memory of “The Chief,” the engineer who made a desert bloom.

Whether Davis saves her grandfather from ignominy or not probably depends on how much you have read about the man, your opinions of what he did, and whether you live in Northern or Southern California. What she does accomplish, though, is perhaps more valuable. She brings to life the scale and difficulty of bringing water from the Sierra Nevadas to California, and in the process she makes a legend into a man again. Her accounts of engineering challenges are as engrossing as her exploration of the tortured soul of a man who, after accomplishing so much, must go the the grave with the souls of over 500 innocents on on his conscience.

Davis pulls no punches in her account of the fateful night when the St. Francis Dam failed and turned the Santa Clarita Valley from Saugus to the sea into an inundated charnel house. The account makes Mulholland’s subsequent decline more immediate and real. And yet somehow, I finished the book almost asking out loud “is that it? Is that how we shall ever remember the man who enabled so much?”

William Mulholland was no saint. But I challenge you to finish this book and not believe that he deserves a place in that pantheon of men and women who made California possible. Warts and all.

Our Favorite L.A. Films

Cover of "The Day of the Locust"
Cover of The Day of the Locust

My favorite L.A. films – in fact, my favorite films about anyplace – are those that accomplish one of three things. They either hold up a mirror to the place and the people who live there, hold up a microscope to give you a view of the place that you have never seen before, or capture something about the place that makes it a little magical. The place becomes a living, breathing presence that touches the plot and the characters in a definable way.

Put simply, the best films about a place are those where the setting is a character, not mere backdrop, and they couldn’t happen anywhere else. Wayne Wang’s A Great Wall could not have been made in Shanghai or Hong Kong. It was suffused with the essence of Beijing. New Orleans should have been given an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Big Easy, and location was unquestionably an uncredited character in films like Elizabethtown, Juno, Napoleon Dynamite, and The Shipping News.

When the location becomes backdrop, something disappears from the cast list. One of my favorite L.A. films, strangely, was Clint Eastwood‘s Every Which Way But Loose. But watching it today, L.A. simply becomes a generic backdrop. Philo could have lived in Phoenix or Dallas. They shot at the north end of the San Fernando Valley because it was Western, working-class, and close. Christopher Nolan‘s Batman films happened in a Gotham City that was New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore all rolled into a mash that said “generic Northeast U.S. City,” taking the character of the setting out entirely, a feat I think of as location neutering.

So all of our lists of top films of the Golden West may not necessarily be the best films made in or about their settings, but in each the place is a presence, a character, a device that moves the plot forward in a way nowhere else could.

For Los Angeles, they are, in descending order:

1. Chinatown – Roman Polanski
2. L.A. Story – Steve Martin
3. L.A. Confidential – Curtis Hanson
4. The Big Lebowski – The Coen Brothers – (Honorable Mention: Barton Fink)
5. Magnolia – Paul Thomas Anderson – (Honorable Mention: Boogie Nights)
6. Falling Down – Joel Schumacher
7. Boyz in the Hood – John Singleton
8. The Day of the Locust – John Schlesinger
9. Blast from the Past – Hugh Wilson
10. The Holiday – Nancy Meyers

There were some close calls here, and there are a few omissions that I feel the need to explain. First, I don’t count Blade Runner as a film about L.A. Once you rip out the Chandleresque narration that offended many fans of the movie, the setting feels more like New York, Hong Kong, or Tokyo than Los Angeles. Beverly Hills Cop nearly made it, but the filmmakers lost me when they took serious geographic license in portraying Beverly Hills as encompassing parts of West Hollywood, LAX, Pasadena, and other random chunks of metropolitan Los Angeles. It was a Los Angeles designed to feel real to only those who had never been there.

Let me know what you think I’m missing here.

Coming next: our favorite San Francisco Films.

Militant Angeleno: North Atwater Park: Up Close and Personal with the Los Angeles River


Mallard Anas platyrhynchos on the Los Angeles ...
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos on the Los Angeles River, California, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Militant Angeleno: North Atwater Park: Up Close and Personal with the Los Angeles River.

I tend to focus on human history in the GWR, but The Militant Angeleno reminds us that there are slathers of natural history that, once thought lost, are now coming back to California in a manner reminiscent of the preservation of some of our finer historic districts.

Specifically in North Atwater Park, The Militant Angeleno offers and example of how the Los Angeles River, long reduced to a soulless concrete ditch in the honorable name of flood control, is now being restored to something quite remarkable: a natural watershed, habitat, and ecosystem that does not lose its ability to serve as a channel for storm waters.

The photos are stunning, and call to mind similar “remediation” efforts that will take place in different parts of the state (the Matilija Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project in Ventura County comes to mind). It can be done right, and North Atwater Park will serve as a case study.

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