A Californian Perspective on History, Arts, Land, Literature, and Politics
Tag: Los Angeles
For the record, Woody Allen is an arrogant jackass who occasionally makes a watchable film pretending to be an insecure nebbish with pretensions of understated greatness. And that’s not just me pissed-off about the whole Annie Hall LA thing.
He’s all the way across the room, and he says it in a voice loud enough to quiet O’Tooles for a moment. This is a Chicago sports bar. It is Game One of the National League Championship Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers are in the middle of teaching the defending champion Chicago Cubs a lesson in humility. The bar – indeed, the whole city – is wound so tight the air thrums as you walk.
And I am a die-hard Dodger fan with just enough IPA in me to stop caring who knows it.
“The Dodgers SUCK,” he repeats. This time he’s louder, and he is supported by a broken chorus of interjections expressing everything from full-throated support to mild “chill out dude” disapproval.
This is one of those moments when I ask myself what the right thing would be to do. As a guy. As a dude. I think about the thin veneer of civilization. I tell myself that sports is an opiate, and that I have been manipulated into this by a cynical media establishment that thrives on stoking sports rivalries.
And I don’t care. This guy hasn’t just insulted a bunch of grown men throwing a ball at each other. He has transgressed against something both more personal and far larger.
I think about the games I watched growing up. The time we went with Dr. Bing, our baseball coach, sitting so close that my heroes came to life in front of me.
I think about the times my dad took me to watch the guys play, and what it meant for he and I to listen to the post-game show as we drove the old VW van home down Sunset late at night.
I think about the giddy joy of the 1981 World Series, when we showed the most powerful Yankees squad in five decades that grit and determination beats glitz and polish when it counts.
I think about fifty years of admiring a team that prided itself on being the anti-Yankees, the Boys from Brooklyn, Dem Bums.
I think about Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch in a critical World Series game because it landed on Yom Kippur, and in so doing showed the world what it meant to be a Jew.
I think about Jackie Robinson, who with the backing of Dodger management silently suffered innumerable hurts as he forged the path for African-Americans into the major leagues, and in so doing showed the world what it meant to be a man.
I think about Ray Campanella, upside down in his car on a Harlem Street after hitting black ice on a winter night, his back broken, his career over, then spending the rest of his life working in the Dodger front office and showing the world that there was no such thing as “handicapped.”
And I turn to look at the gone-to-seed neck-bearded fuck whose alcoholic partisanship has turned him into a drooling, knuckle-dragging neanderthal.
I think, “‘The Dodgers suck?’ You miserable, illegitimate, Epsilon-minus thick-skulled cretin!”
And I realize that I am about a pubic-hair’s width away from getting into my first bar fight, alone, deep in enemy territory. And I wonder if Blue Shield will cover my heartfelt yet doomed defense of our team, or whether the adjuster will boil the whole thing down to idiocy and refuse to pay on the grounds that the cause of my broken bones, lost teeth, and contusions were the direct result of an uninsured pre-existing condition.
This is the last place I want to be, but the testosterone and adrenaline are pouring into my system, and I start to get up.
The waitress is smarter than all of us. She comes over, looks me in the eye, smiles, and sets down another pint of IPA.
“I didn’t order that!”
“On the house,” she says. “And I’ve got some fresh tater tots on the way.”
I look over at Neckbeard. The bartender just put an order of hot wings in front of him and the boys. I’m betting these were free, too.
I look back at the waitress. She smiles.
“Enjoy the game,” she says. “And welcome to Chicago.”
Free beer and tots?
Manhood satisfied, I sit down again, the anger gone, replaced with a sympathetic good will toward old Neckbeard.
The Dodgers don’t suck, I tell myself. But for the moment, I am happy to let them prove it themselves.
The tots arrive, the Dodgers are winning, and I am left alone to contemplate the madness we – I – have yet to outgrow.
Her anger rent the air in our booth like a shockwave, pushing me back into my seat, strangling me. Then, in a moment, the fury abated and it was pain and not evil burning behind her irises.
“Don’t judge him too harshly,” I told her. “He’s just another insecure young guy sucked into a business where fucking over kin for a couple of points is a rite of passage. Hollywood is like the Borg, he’s been assimilated, willingly, throwing himself into it, and trying to extract him will either kill him or make him wish he was dead.”
I paused. That was about as close to profound as I get.
And I waited, trying to remember what I just said, watching her.
She seemed to quiet. She took a deep, sobbing breath, let it out slowly like Lemaze. And smiled at me.
“Still mad,” I asked?
“Every fucking cell of me,” she said, smile widening.
“Good,” I said. “Because we are going to fucking kill him, that shit-demon he works for, and that gutter slut they’re casting as lead.”
The essence of Los Angeles is not easily expressed, but that has not kept everyone from essayists to auteurs to muralists from trying to capture it. Perhaps this is part of the eternal allure of the city: the fact that it can neither be easily described, nor readily dismissed. The upside to all of this is that we are now the inheritors of some magnificent works that, while failing to capture the city in full, continue to add definition to the Angeleno Mosaic.
Music, as we have suggested here before, is a part of that mosaic, and a serious effort has begun to revive and rejuvenate some of the earliest efforts to capture Los Angeles in song. The Library Foundation of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Public Library, and USC professor Josh Kun have collaborated in a project to select some of those early tunes and provide a modern interpretation. More than just covers, these are thoroughly modern renditions of almost forgotten tunes that give them a modern feel.
The songs are available for free download in a link from this story. I will not critique the music – I leave that to better tuned ears. What appeals to me about each of these tunes, though, is that their ability to transcend time also suggests something timeless about Los Angeles. I recognize that this thought will stick in the craw of a lot of people: the suggestion that there are timeless elements to American cities less than three centuries old – much less one whose maturity is of a far more recent vintage – is probably a joke to a denizen of London, Paris, Rome, Jerusalem, or Beijing.
But this music is guaranteed to touch something deep inside any Greater Angeleno, local-born or immigrant. There are themes, feelings, ideas in all of these that resonate to us today in a way that they did to locals eighty or more years ago, and that certainly still enchant those among us who live far away yet are still, somehow, Angelenos.
I never paid much attention to the artfully manufactured bubble-gum pop Robbie Williams cranked out under the fist of Take That leadman Gary Barlow, so when Williams parted ways with the band in the mid-nineties I found it all-too easy to dismiss him as another moderately-successful musician who had fallen under the twin spell of his own ego and Columbian marching powder.
Flash forward to September 1998, and I was sitting in a nearly-empty Leicester Square movie house with my wife waiting for the matinee to start, when William’s anthem “Millenium” came over the speaker system. I was enthralled. The unforgettable string-figure from John Barry’s superb 1967 James Bond soundtrack for You Only Live Twice was woven throughout the song, and that grabbed me long enough to listen to the lyrics. At its heart the song was an anthem, a heartfelt cri de coeur wherein a jaded star realizes that while celebrity is great, it is going to kill him unless he slows down. Williams could have taken that theme down a darker but better-traveled road, but he chose instead to keep it forward looking and hopeful rather than mournful and hopeless.
Nearly every album he has delivered since (and, make no mistake, Williams is best enjoyed by the album, not by the song) has offered us some combination of Williams’ dark wit accompanied (mostly) by a thumping dance beat, the former aimed as often at himself as at others, and sometimes (“Handsome Man”) in both directions.
On Swing When You’re Winning, though, Williams took a hard detour into Big Band territory. Channeling his abiding admiration for The Chairman of the Board, Williams followed Harry Connick, Jr. into Sinatra territory, recording fourteen standards from the 40s and 50s with the appropriate (and sometimes misbehaving) assistance of Rupert Everett, Nicole Kidman, Jon Lovitz, Jane Horrocks, and Jonathan Wilkes. Each song is brilliant in its way. Music lovers, though, will dwell over his rendition of “One for My Baby,” sung to the accompaniment of pianist Bill Miller, who played for Sinatra when he recorded the standard fifty years prior at Capitol’s studios in Los Angeles.
All of this is prelude, though, to the anthem Williams placed at the beginning of Swing When You’re Winning. “Hollywood Will Listen,” penned by Williams and longtime collaborator Guy Chambers, is subtly iconic, a musical artifact that is in its execution pure Hollywood big-production, and in its words captures the hopes of every naif who ever walked through a studio gate.
Shamelessly dropping names, but of people he hopes will eventually revere him rather than those he “knows,” Williams plays the part of L.A. newcomer, facing a Tinseltown he knows to be hard and impersonal yet swearing it will eventually be at his feet. Anyone who has ever mustered the courage and confidence to take an audition knows the feeling, and, with the orchestra swelling to dramatic crescendos behind him, Williams almost makes you believe it.
But then he does something even more powerful: he just ends the song. There is no triumphant climax, no musical cue that suggests the dreamer has or will reach his dream. The final chorus ends as almost a fade-out, an anti-climax. You can almost see the orchestra fading out of existence, leaving the singer alone in an empty sound stage into which he has wandered, the dreams echoing away in the face of the cold reality of another casting call, another audition.
Once again, Williams is laughing at his own ambition, letting his aspirations soar but never forgetting that no matter what he brings with him, Hollywood is and ever will be a cruel crap-shoot.
Williams’ anthem, then, is neither a celebration of success nor a blues-laden wallow in failure, but a subtle reflection on the reality of life for dreamers inside the Thirty Mile Zone. This is Southern California in the cold bright light of a winter Monday morning, a tribute to Hollywood-as-dream-machine in the 21st Century.
The Sainte Claire, perhaps the least well-known among the grand hotels of the Golden State, still adds a touch of grace to downtown San Jose. Designed by the storied San Francisco architectural firm Weeks & Day, the hexagonal building reflects in its flavor and styling the more storied Mark Hopkins and St. Francis hotels at the top of the peninsula.
The Sainte Claire was once considered the most elegant accommodation between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of its owners, the building’s interiors and exteriors still reflect the original vision of the designers, but there is no slavish devotion to nostalgia here. The owners have managed to walk that fine line between history and modernity, preserving the original when possible, updating when necessary and proper.
The result is a delight, especially for travelers who find that the dependable sameness of chain hotels, like the quite excellent San Jose Marriott across the street, has become wearisome.
If you have ever wondered where we got the term “Sigalert,” the term used in Southern California to refer to a severe roadway problem, Harry Marnell takes us back to the days just after World War II when Los Angeles began earning its reputation as a global center of auto traffic.
It’s a fascinating story of private ingenuity and a small innovation that became a core part of commuting life in the land of car culture.
Despite the inevitable hoots of derision from architectural purists, California is a haven of outstanding architecture. Lost among the strip malls and tract houses are countless examples of everything from subtle brilliance to outlandish provocation, not to mention pure gems of American history.
Los Angeles is no exception, with grand masters like Richard Neutra, Ray Kappe, Victor Gruen, Frank Gehry, George Wyman, and their like dotting the landscape with masterpieces and curiosities. What is too often forgotten, though, is that Los Angeles was also the garden for an early crop of America’s finest non-Anglo architects.
I was fortunate to grow up in a house designed by Paul Williams, who aside from being admitted as the first African-American architect to the American Institute of Architects in 1923, was the co-designer of the LAX Theme building, the first AME Church, the L.A. County Courthouse, the County’s Hahn Hall of Administration, and over a dozen buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That the height of his career preceded the Civil Rights movement is, I believe, testament to both Williams as a man and to California as his base.
Gilmartin and Uyeda also highlight four outstanding Los Angeles-based Chinese-American architects who were Williams’ contemporaries and who left their mark on the city and on mid-century American architecture. Gin Wong co-designed the LAX Theme building with Paul Williams. Gilbert Leong and Eugene Choy built a profitable niche designing homes and workplaces for Los Angeles’ increasingly prosperous Chinese-American population. And Helen Liu Fong was at the core of architects in the Googie movement, a 1950s update of the Streamline Moderne of the 1930s that, though once passe, has become a core part of the Southern California design language. (If you are looking for the quintessential Googie look, think of the original Tomorrowland at Disneyland, or Ship’s Coffee Shop.)
If there is one lesson to be taken from all of these greats, it is this: architecture in Los Angeles has been – and remains – about testing limits, be they aesthetic, ethnic, or seismic. For those reasons, expect the parade of thought-provoking design to continue, and expect it to come from the most unexpected places.
Though born and raised in Los Angeles, my family has deep roots in San Francisco. Most of my father’s family, with the exception of his brother, lived in the Bay Area, so while family reunions with my mother’s kin happened annually at our house in Los Angeles, getting together with the Wolfs meant a trek to San Francisco.
In part because of that anchor, and perhaps in part because my best years in university were spent at UC Davis and Berkeley, I have never felt particularly partial to either Southern or Northern California. I was of both places. I was, and am, simply “Californian.”
That is probably the reason that I feel as strongly about films that use the bay area as a backdrop as I do about those for which Los Angeles is the setting. There are some movies set in San Francisco that could well be set anyplace else, and it is just nice to see the familiar streets and landmarks. The films that move me the most are those others: those movies for which San Francisco is more than just a background, it is a silent character in the story.
Perhaps it comes out in the eclectic nature the characters. Perhaps it is in the way that San Francisco’s unique melange of districts and neighborhoods all compressed together in the confines of the Peninsula has turned every one of its citizens into a character they may not be anyplace else. Above all, perhaps what sets the true San Francisco movie apart is that it captures the always surprising poetry of the city.
So without waxing too lyrical or breaking into song, here are my favorite eleven movies in which San Francisco serves as a supporting actress as well as a setting.
1. San Francisco (1936) – Too often forgotten by modern movie goers, this Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald love story set against the backdrop of the city before, during, and in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake is the quintessential San Francisco movie. Director W.S. Van Dyke and writer Robert Hopkins capture the feeling of San Francisco prior to the disaster, and through its characters bring to life the moment in time when the city’s past as an overgrown boomtown dissolved, and its future as the cultural capital of the West began.
2. Barbary Coast (1935) – Perhaps the first major Hollywood film where the personality of the work drew heavily on San Francisco. Director Howard Hawks and writing team Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur turned Herbert Asbury’s bestselling noir novel into a love story, but in the process they leave in a host of tidbits that make this a truly San Franciscan film. Hawks’ San Francisco is a frontier town by the Bay, too corrupt even for a jaded gold-digger like Mary Rutledge (played by Miriam Hopkins.) A more wholesome element is trying to fight the local kleptocrats, but in the end the citizenry has to turn to the vigilantism to take on the saloon owners. The story is as much about the city’s struggle to rise above its boomtown roots as it is about a girl’s effort to rise above the more venal aspects of her nature. Mary is San Francisco, and vice-versa.
3. 48 hrs.(1982) – Walter Hill’s classic buddy cop film was pure comedy noir. I have heard some people say that it could have been set in any of a number of American cities – New York, Chicago, Detroit – but what keeps it from becoming trite was the selection of San Francisco. I have always believed that 48 hrs. is really a western film in disguise – it begins with a shootout jailbreak, and its main characters are a lawman with a girl who works in a saloon, a group of bank robbers, an honorable thief, an renegade, and an Indian. Somehow you needed to be in a western city, a place where anything was possible and that had the feeling of a social frontier if not a real one, to make that formula work. Watch the movie, and you feel San Francisco in the background in every shot.
4. The Joy Luck Club(1993) – More poignantly than Flower Drum Song, Wayne Wang’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel took us behind the Stockton Street storefronts and into the lives, the dreams, and the tragedies of San Francisco’s Chinese community. Although neither Tan nor Wang delve into the deep history of Chinese in the “Old Gold Mountain” (as the city is called in Mandarin,) the film portrays the eternal “otherness” of the Chinese in the Bay Area. Unable to assimilate but nearly stifled by a community knit tightly by its shared tragedies and long rejection by its otherwise liberal milileu, the characters ultimately come to terms with their identities. Arguably each is somehow enabled or tormented by San Francisco’s assumed multiculturalism, making their stories as much about the city as about the women or their shared ancestral home.
5. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) – Will Smith’s Chris Gardener biopic introduces us to a side of the city that few who have never lived there really know exists, and many who do live there have spent their lives ignoring. Even as the film showed us San Francisco’s underbelly, it gave us a plausible setting for Gardener’s dream to become a reality. New York is not a place for such remarkable changes, but somehow we can believe that San Francisco is.
6-10. The Dirty Harry Films – Apologies to Clint Eastwood and the directors that brought these five films to life – they really are a single serial film rather than five separate movies. Harry Callahan is a moral compass with a hand cannon in a city that, perhaps more than any other, has broken free of its moorings and gone adrift on a sea of relativism. Eastwood never meant the films to be the cathartic Neocon paeans to summary justice that the late Roger Ebert thought they were. Resented by many progressives, the Dirty Harry films juxtaposed San Francisco’s ultimate evolution of political correctness to the common sense of the American frontier hero. The films were minimalist meditations on the line between liberty and order set in a town where the former was worshipped and the latter dismissed as dressed-up facism.
11. The Presidio (1988) – Too often dismissed as a second-rate mystery or buddy film, The Presidio works in San Francisco because of the great irony of the venerable Army post. Here was one of the largest and most important installations in the U.S. military, and it was enveloped by a city filled with people that resented its presence and the activities it contained. The uneasy relationship between the post and the city comes to life in the struggle between the protagonists, Sean Connery’s Colonel Caldwell, the post provost marshal, and Mark Harmon’s SFPD inspector Jay Austin.
Honorable Mention – The Towering Inferno (1974) – Whenever I am in San Francisco for business, I often find myself across the street from Fire Station 13 on Sansome Street in the Financial District. I cannot hear the sirens without thinking of The Towering Inferno. San Francisco has a singular relationship with fire and a mixed reaction to the ever-rising towers built on downtown landfill. Somehow the suspense of the film was more poignant because it was in San Francisco. The image from the film that was most memorable was not the action, but the lights of Marin County and Oakland as seen from the 138th floor Promenade Room. It was those reminders of normal life twinkling in the distance as hundreds huddled in fear while flames crept closer that best delivered the film’s meta-message, mocking the hubris that would build such an edifice. “This city is not about glass and steel,” those lights seemed to say, “it is about earth, sea, and sky.”
Articles, books, songs, and movies that chronicle the California love affair with the automobile are legion, to the point where you almost cannot make a movie about the Golden State without featuring an automobile in a supporting role, or as a character statement no less essential than wardrobe. In 48 hrs., Nick Nolte’s nostalgic Cadillac Coupe de Ville ragtop contrasted brilliantly with smooth-talking Eddie Murphy’s classic Porsche roadster. In L.A. Story, Steve Martin’s Oldsmobile Cutlass said as much about the character of weatherman Harris Telemacher as his cardigan sweaters. And speaking of the Porsche, two words: The Graduate.
What we never hear enough about, however, is the geography of the California car culture: the roads. Randy Newman got as close as anyone has ever come to giving tribute to how streets in Southern California become shorthand for distinct neighborhoods, unique experiences, and ways of life in his excellent 1984 song “I Love L.A.” But beyond a few paeans like this (Freddy Martin’s 1947 ditty “Pico and Sepulveda” also jumps to mind), nobody has every really captured the role of Los Angeles’ streets, especially not in a scholarly sense.
Enter Matthew Roth.
Roth, who managed the archives at the Automobile Club of Southern California while a Ph.D. candidate at USC, has written extensively on why and how the streets of Los Angeles exist, and has come as close to penetrating why the city lays out like it does, and thus feels like it does. This was no simple task: unlike New York, which grew according to the survey plan created by Simon De Witt in 1811, Los Angeles was the little town that never expected to get quite so large. As such, the city’s geographic provenance is much more chaotic – and much more interesting.
Roth understands like nobody else that something beyond logic or romance drove the creation of the Southland’s grid of streets. But the human geography of the city and its environs is more than a curiosity: it is a glimpse into the forces that shaped and continue to shape the evolution of California.
In his short but superb and highly readable paper “Mulholland Highway and the Engineering Culture of Los Angeles in the 1920s,” Roth shows us that at least one of L.A.’s most famous streets was created for no better reason than to prove it could be done. Sure, developers and politicans were able to justify the sinuous ridge route that runs from Cahuenga Pass to Calabasas (and sort of continuing on to Leo Carrillo State Beach in Malibu) by selling the taxpayers on its value for tourism and development. But at its heart, it was a publicly-funded civil engineering experiment. The public rationale came later.
So it was built. There was a massive rush of cars on its first day, and the traffic continues everywhere except for the spotty bits between Calabasas and the Pacific. Yet for much of its history it has been most useful as a fire road in fighting the seasonal conflagrations that make living in the Santa Monica mountains so interesting, and as a lateral shortcut between the canyon roads linking the Valley and the basin. (“Coldwater is jammed, so cut across to Laurel or Beverly Glen.”)
But Roth, perhaps unintentionally, challenges us to forget the practical and to see Mulholland Highway through the eyes of the Progressive-era city engineers who designed and built it. It was a “massive reordering of the natural environment” not unlike the Owens Valley Aqueduct, the Port of Los Angeles, and the Ridge Route, all of which changed both the character and the prospects of the city. Yet with the Mulholland Highway, there was something more emotional to the project.
The highway accorded with the engineers’ sense of beauty in the landscape, an aspect of engineering that historian David Nye has described as the “technological sublime.” Its construction engineer, Dewitt Reaburn, described one aspect of this aesthetic when he extolled the vantage points that the road would afford: “In driving over the completed portion of the highway, one is charmed and amazed at the wonderful view of the surrounding country, which is continually changing as the vision sweeps from one side of the summit to the other.
Some are charmed. Some are offended by the man-made scar sliced along the backbone of Los Angeles’ central cordillera, our defiantly natural answer to the manufactured parks of London, New York, Washington, and Beijing. All too many of us block it out of our minds as just another part of the daily commute.
Even a casual visitor, though, can see and appreciate that evolving vista, and the road’s designers and their successors have wisely bequeathed us with turn-outs and vista points, surely averting what might otherwise be a surfeit of deaths-by-rubbernecking. One of those stops, perched above a section of Encino, became the location of the unforgettable flying skateboarder sequence in the video of Tom Petty’s “Free Falling.” The broad expanse of the Valley splays out below, a woven tapestry of nature and architecture, marinated in sunshine, and hiding in plain sight a contained world of human dramas. We fly above it to escape it, yet find ourselves inevitably drawn back down.
And that is the true allure of the Mulholland Highway. This is not a road that offers you a transcendental experience, but a brief escape from the life below, a chance to withdraw for a moment from the fast, the crazy, the bullshit, the aches, the dreams; and then, when balance returns, to answer the beckoning call of the life below, choose your point of re-entry, and descend, renewed again, to the city.
Roth offers hard, almost academic record of a project, not the maudlin musings of a songster or the triumphalism of a booster. Yet through his short social history of a simple strip of blacktop carved into sandstone, we are introduced to a truism forgotten in an era where the vocabulary of commerce intrudes into every facet of public life:
Not every feature of our human geography, not every effort to lay the hand of man upon the land or sea, needs to be firmly rooted in rationality and return-on-investment. One need only look across the expanse of California to see that the manmade aspects of the Golden West that have made living here such a delight were those born of a touch of frivolity, of inspiration, and of artistic magic.