As the father of an 11-year-old daughter, I end up going to a lot of movies that would never make my must-see list. This weekend, I was one of the many parents that took in “Rango.” I actually enjoyed the film, and I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities between my life and this latest animated feature from Nickelodeon. As life goes on, the parallels between art and life are easier to find, but “Rango” hit pretty close to the mark.
Over 25 years ago, as a master’s student at UCLA, my field work focused on the behavioral ecology of lizards. I know… kind of a shock for a water guy. The field site for my research on lizard escape behavior (a major theme of the film) was in beautiful Desert Center — a remote outpost off Interstate 10, halfway between Indio and Blythe. The connections between Desert Center and the fictional town of Dirt in the movie are eerie.
People lived in Desert Center when Kaiser Steel had a mining operation in nearby Eagle Mountain. By the time I was working with desert iguanas and whiptails, the mine had long closed. There wasn’t much left other than a café, a bar, and a nine-hole golf course that had been designed to be the cornerstone of a planned retirement or resort community. Bill Ragsdale, who seemed older than dirt and certainly as sunbaked, led the town, and certainly was as much of a character as the desert tortoise Mayor in the film. Both Bill and his fictional counterpart put a lot of faith in golf and dreamed of developing the desert without water.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet (spoiler alert), water is the key. The film is definitely in homage to the classic Polanski film “Chinatown,” with the Ned Beatty-voiced Mayor character nearly identical to John Huston’s portrayal of businessman Noah Cross.
“Chinatown” is based loosely on the story of DWP engineer William Mulholland and the Chandlers’ water and power grab in the early 1900s to make a fortune in L.A. real estate. In real life, Mulholland said, “There it is, take it,” when he turned on the spigot to provide Owens Valley water for L.A.
Noah Cross said: “Either you bring the water to L.A., or you bring L.A. to the water.” And in “Rango,” the tortoise notes: “Control the water, and you control everything.” Sounds like cinema has California water politics pegged.
In “Rango,” there weren’t any “She’s my sister, she’s my daughter” moments with the female lead-desert iguana. (It is a PG movie after all.) But the parallels to the cutthroat nature of water management in the Southwest are prevalent.
In “Chinatown,” a water commissioner was drowned at the beach, by fresh water. In “Rango,” the water banker suffered the same fate in the middle of the desert. The dumping of fresh water in order to motivate land sellers is a common theme.
In today’s water politics, we refuse to move forward with a concerted effort to capture and use rainwater or more aggressively conserve water. That way we can overplay the water crisis and drought declarations to motivate voters and water boards to vote for peripheral canals and desalination plants. Again, art imitating life.
My obsession with water doesn’t stop at the movie theater turnstile. Even escaping reality for a couple of hours can lead to an analysis of dysfunctional water policy. After the movie, I talked to my wife Lisette about Rango’s water management message. I talked about how the Vegas development could have been L.A., Orange County, San Diego, or the Coachella Valley.
“Do you ever turn it off?” she asked rhetorically.
I guess the answer is “No.” But on a positive note, at least the film’s hero is green, I reminded her.