Digitally Preserving the California Missions

San Francisco - Mission District: El Camino Re...
San Francisco – Mission District: El Camino Real Mission Bell and Mission Dolores Basilica (Photo credit: wallyg)

“Lasers used to scan California missions to preserve them forever”
Chris Palmer

San Jose Mercury News
February 8, 2013

One of the enticing possibilities offered by the ready availability of massive computing power is the potential to preserve detailed, accurate renderings of people, places and things online. Two of my favorite movies from my youth, Tron and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, began exploring that theme, offering parallel visions of how the “real” could be digitized, and vice-versa. Today I prefer the detailed simalcrum of the OASIS in Ernest Cline‘s dystopian cyberpunk future of Ready Player One, where places are captured in loving detail without being destroyed in the process. We get to have our place and live there, too.

Among others, California is blessed with nearly two dozen historical treasures over which the threat of destruction hovers daily: the Missions of El Camino Reál that were built by Franciscan monks between 1769 and 1823. Whatever your feelings about the Spanish colonization of Alta California and the efforts of the Catholic Church to convert the natives of the region, you must acknowledge that these settlements are the foundation that brought forth the modern state of California. There are of inestimable historic value, yet, made mostly of masonry and each built worryingly near active faults, these iconic sites exist on borrowed time.

Enter Oakland non-profit CyArk, which has set about preserving highly detailed renderings based on laser scans and photographs that become, essentially, blueprints for reconstruction, when and if such reconstruction becomes necessary. Four missions are done, 17 remain, and my understanding is that the process gets better with each site they scan.

At some point, though, it would be fascinating to have these renderings provided to the public, to become the centerpiece of virtual tours. Having tromped through six of them myself, I am always struck by how little time I have to focus on the detail, and how, at age 48, I still have 15 I’ve not seen. Earthquakes aside, our state should recognize that we have places that deserved to be savored online with greater depth than what is available on Google Earth and Wikipedia. And of all of the states in the union, ours should take the lead in bringing our historic and iconic buildings online.

In the meantime, though, kudos to the fine people at CyArk who have already figured out that our technology offers us a priceless opportunity to capture, preserve, and share our past, as well as our present and future.

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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.

California has the Most ArtPlaces

 

Opening remarks from #ArtPlace Operating Commi...
Opening remarks from #ArtPlace Operating Committee Chair Dennis Scholl (@dennisscholl) (Photo credit: petermello)

America’s Top Twelve ArtPlaces 2013 | ArtPlace.

ArtPlace, an organization offering grants and other support to communities that combine art, artists, and venues to encourage creativity and expression, has named the most vibrant art neighborhoods in America. Of the twelve, three are in California, the most of any state.

The top ArtPlaces of the Golden West are Central Hollywood, The Mission District in San Francisco, and, surprising us a bit, downtown Oakland, encompassing Chinatown, Old Oakland, and Jack London Square. The neighborhoods were singled out for criteria including their walkability, for nurturing independent businesses, and for making art and artists a core part of the community.

Downtown Oakland was singled out by the organization as the “true underdog” in the competition, but noted that the transformation that has taken place in the city over the last decade would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. What brought it about was a grassroots effort – Oakland Art Murmur – very unlike the high-minded but doomed postwar urban renewal plans.

The recognition of Central Hollywood echoes one of our own regular themes: a new kind of arts and entertainment industry is growing on the weed patch of Old Hollywood. Moviegoing is an event again, thanks to Mann’s Chinese, the Arclight, and Disney’s stunning El Capitan. Music is coming back, as we noted last year:

But the beat goes on, and a walk down Sunset Boulevard on any given night offers ample evidence – from Amoeba to the Roxy – that American music is as healthy as it has ever been. The problem remains a hidebound industry more interested in defending its business model than in the product itself. The slow, disreputable whittling down of the artists and repertoire (A&R) function within the major labels is testament to as much. The industry is in decline as a result, but we can already see, here in California, the foundations of a new music industry that is rising in its place.

And all of this is taking place in a way that attracts tourists and neighborhood people alike.

When I read about what’s happening in the Mission District, I kick myself for not going there when I was in San Francisco in December. Absorbed in the myriad culinary delights in Chinatown, the Financial District, and North Beach, I never thought to wander south of Market. I won’t make that mistake again. San Francisco is suffused with art, but ArtPlaces notes that the edgier, more affordable art can be found in The Mission, along with antiques, music, and some incredible eats. I won’t be missing it next trip.

Take a look at the full report on the ArtPlaces site at artplaceamerica.org.

Homage to the Gadflies

Late last week I was perusing the pages of a New York opera site, and I discovered an article that was a review of a book about the art and critics of the New York opera scene. What surprised me (but probably shouldn’t have, was the sheer volume and heat of the anger at critics. All the old saws were there: only failures are critics; critics never added any value to anything, and one particularly harsh missive that argued that any critic who was unable to perform at the level of the artist he critiqued had no credibility.

Which, of course, is so much rot.

Now, I can’t paint, draw, sculpt, make a movie, write a song, or design a building. But I do write, and I have taken no shortage of verbal double-ought buckshot for my writing from people who cannot themselves assemble a coherent sentence. What is in question, though, is not their ability to write, but their ability to read, and if someone can read, he can critique a writer. If they could not (or did not) read, they’re disqualified, but only then.

The same, I would argue, applies to any art.

So while some critics can be insufferable (and some artists can be divas,) to suggest that one must be an artist or have an artist’s talent in order to critique art is so much elitist hogwash. It delegitimizes the opinion of everyone but a closed coterie of talented specialists who (I would argue) are more likely to engage in critical back-scratching (“if I go easy on him, he’ll go easy on me”) than someone without that kind of skin in the game.

What is more, that sort of intellectual snobbery seems somewhat antithetical to a democratic nation, one whose society is built on the presumption that everyone’s choice – and by extension, opinion – is of equal value, if not of equal merit. And don’t get me started on the importance of some undefined level of expertise: it was a child that pointed out that the emperor was naked, not a fashion designer.

Finally, I think we need to admit that critics have a great value if we both recognize their strengths and their limits. Critics have been instrumental (pardon the pun) to my musical growth and appreciation – I would be much more of a tyro than I am today without them. If there is one message we must comport to noobs and aficionados alike, it is this: a critic is entitled to his or her opinion, but he is not entitled to yours. Read, learn, then go listen/look/watch with an open mind.