In Search of the Quintessential San Diego Film

English: Normal Heights, neighborhood of the m...
Normal Heights, San Diego (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

San Diego has long since outgrown its characterization as a “sleepy Navy town on the Mexican border.” We’re planning on doing a deep-dive on the history, architecture, and art of the place later this year in order to help secure its place as a cultural center of consequence, but we wanted to start by looking at some of the best portrayals of San Diego in film.

It is unfortunately not surprising that San Diego has not had many Hollywood Moments worth remembering. Plenty of films have used San Diego locations, often as stand-ins for elsewhere, but few have probed the culture of the city itself, leaving us with the sense of the city as a distinct character.

Top Gun gives us life in San Diego as viewed from Mira Mesa. Maverick’s motorcycle antics near Naval Training Center San Diego (now Liberty Station), his visit to the homes of Kelly McGillis (in Oceanside, actually), Tom Skerrit‘s house on Point Loma, and the brief scene at San Diego airport were the only exposure we get to the town. San Diego is backdrop, not a character.

Almost Famous gets us closer. The San Diego Sports Arena parking lot is there, as is that distinctive view from USD High School and scenes in Balboa Park. Even when Crowe shoots in Santa Monica, it feels like a neighborhood in San Diego, and you can feel the city starting to peek out from behind the actors. But then, all too soon, William is off to Los Angeles, then points beyond, and we lose our chance to get to know the city.

The closest I think we have come to a true San Diego film since 1915’s Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition is probably Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Yes, it’s a goofball comedy, but San Diego is a deliberate character, not just a backdrop. This is California at its California-est, from the parties, to the leisure suit-clad news teams, to the lifestyle, to the two-pound burrito Ron throws out his window. Is much of this caricature? Of course. Yet through it all comes the personality of a city that sits on the far corner of the continent, cut off from the rest of the nation by desert, mountains, and Marines, that uses its isolation as license to find its own identity. And if that isn’t the real nature of San Diego, I’d be glad to know what is.

I keep hoping that Anchorman will drop into the minds of both filmmakers and the rest of America that the city on America’s lower left-hand corner hides stories, beauty, and real character behind the facade of the Navy town on the border. Then, maybe, we can look forward to films that show the city that all of us who have lived there fell in love with, and that we never seem to be able to leave.

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San Francisco, Before and After

After reading our note pointing to Shawn Clover’s haunting composite photographs melding image post-1906 earthquake and fire San Francisco with modern photos, Golden West Review subscriber and graphic artist Bonnie Blacklidge took it up a level by showing us some stunning videos.

The first is a video from a San Francisco streetcar driving down Market Street toward the Ferry Building in 1905, set to Airs’ superb first track off of their with Air’s superb first track off their album Moon Safari, “La Femme d’argent” by cleverb. Nicely done, and mesmerizing.

Once done with that, take a look at a video that juxtaposes what appears to be the same scenes along Market Street with footage taken just days after the 1906 quake, posted by producer John Jones. The music is suitably haunting, almost a dirge, that like the Clover photos makes the 1906 quake much more immediate and personal.

Check out the photos, then watch these two videos in sequence. As a group they make an event of a century ago more powerful, more personal, and much more profound.

Finally, I am pleased to let you know that Mr. Clover is working on a book of his photos with appropriate narrative called Fade to 1906: The Great Quake Meets Modern San Francisco. It doesn’t seem to be available yet, but you can leave an email address to be notified when it will be available for purchase.

And a big thanks to Bonnie for this feedback.

The Convicts Who Save California

Yosemite Forest Fire
Yosemite Forest Fire (Photo credit: LukeJNovak)

“Soul on Fire”
James Pogue

VICE
November 10, 2013

I grew up enamored with the idea of being a firefighter, inspired by the January 1972 premiere of NBC’s Emergency! I was pretty open about my ambitions for a few years, even attempting to organize my own grade-school version of a volunteer fire department. My parents fretted about my obsession, though, and the fact that it took away from my concentration at school. Worse, perhaps, was that my interest became decidely uncool before I was ten, and given my persistent geeky social awkwardness I needed as few factors as possible working against me. I remained an avid fire buff throughout my teens, but I kept it under wraps.

Then, at seventeen, my firefighter fantasies seemed poised to come true. Working for the summer of 1982 on the rural west end of Catalina Island, I was sitting down for lunch on July 3rd when the fire siren wailed. Looking up to see a growing pall of smoke from the dry hillsides next to Catalina Harbor a scant two miles away. I rushed back to work only to be hurriedly herded with a handful of other locals into the back of the sheriff deputy’s Bronco, then deposited alone, clueless and tool-less minutes later along a road between the fire and the tiny community at the Isthmus.

At that moment, alone on a hillside, a hundred yards from the next nearest person, without a shovel, protective gear,  leadership, or training, with a wind-blown fire a mile away and moving in my direction, I engaged in the kind of struggle experienced only by teenaged boys. Hero Complex urged me to “hold the line” against the fire, using my shirt to fight it if I had to. Hero Complex was quickly overruled, however, by the power-team of Common Sense and Fear: “what can I do by myself with no tools?” asked Common Sense. “Let’s get the f*** out of here before we burn and die,” urged Fear.

Down the hill I went, alone as I came up, hating myself every step of the way, even after I saw that the fire chief had decided to set up a perimeter around the structures in the direct path of the fire, leaving to burn the brush I was sent to defend. I spent the rest of the night as spectator and support, never quite forgiving myself for not making the stand, but knowing (hoping?) that somehow I had done the right thing.

***

Apart from earthquakes, there are probably few things that scare the hell out of your average Californian more than a wildfire. From afar, they are horrifying in an intellectual kind of way. Put yourself in the path of an advancing wall of uncontrolled flame, though, and suddenly something inside your lizard brain starts squeezing your adrenal glands until every cell in your body tries to flee of its own accord.

And well it should. Fighting fires of any kind is not for wannabees. The chemical nexus of heat, fuel, and oxygen is more than just a simple reaction. The best description I have ever heard was Robert DeNiro‘s line as fire marshal Donald ‘Shadow’ Rimgale in Ron Howard’s Backdraft.

“It’s a living thing, Brian. It breathes, it eats, and it hates. The only way to beat it is to think like it. To know that this flame will spread this way across the door and up across the ceiling, not because of the physics of flammable liquids, but because it wants to. Some guys on this job, the fire owns them, makes ’em fight it on it’s level, but the only way to truly kill it is to love it a little.”

Your average professional firefighter has the equivalent of a university education on the science of fire suppression. The National Fire Protection Association suggests a minimum of 110 hours, or three weeks, of intensive training before a physically-fit volunteer firefighter is allowed to join a department, and most departments lay heavy demands for continued on-the-job training for minimum competence.

Yet every year, the roll-call of firefighters killed in the line of duty grows. Fire, that fickle witch, claims for her own even the best trained and most experienced. And the most wicked, unpredictable, terrifying kind of fire is the wildland conflagration, when brush, bush, and entire forests play host to howling walls of burning terror.

***

Despite the danger, every fire season, over four thousand felons voluntarily place their bodies between those walls of flame and our homes in the state of California. Somehow these convicted felons overcome whatever character flaws they possess and step into some of the most grueling and dangerous work in America.

It is a great untold story of heroism in the Golden West, and James Pogue set out with camping gear, notebooks, and tape recorder in his pickup truck to learn more about California’s convict conservationists. What he describes is at once heartening and unsettling. Most of the convicts come from urban backgrounds, yet they live for weeks, even months, in the rough conditions of a tent camp, away from anything resembling modern conveniences. It’s a hard life: twelve- and even twenty-hour days spent hiking in rough back-country with heavy tools and wearing heavy kit, engaged in the backbreaking and fraught work of cutting fire breaks and setting backfires just ahead of the firestorm.

A sleeping bag and physically draining days clearly beat the scant attractions of life on a cell block in California’s overfull prisons. Having an extra day taken off one’s sentence for each day served on a crew doesn’t hurt, either. The price for release from the perdition of concrete, barbed wire, and brutal social Darwinism is a life facing the embers and flames of California wildfires. Better flaming Hell than seething perdition, it would seem. And on that bitter choice balances the safety of an entire state built on what firefighters call the “wildland interface.” Even a law-and-order conservative with an ounce or two of compassion is troubled by the fact that our lifestyles are ensured in part through the risks taken by men we have all but cast off.

***

Pogue’s story doesn’t ask us to sympathize with the devil, nor does he imply that these men have anyone but themselves to blame for their predicament. Indeed, given a full-to-bursting penal system that seems bent on cultivating recidivists, a life eating smoke and cutting fire breaks seems to be the closest thing California prisons offers to genuine rehabilitation.

But after reading the story, you will never look at a forest, a prison, a home on a hillside, or a California Department of Forestry truck the same way ever again.

And if you have ever met the orange-yellow monster of a wildfire face-to-face, with your life and your loved ones at your back, you might even be driven to whisper a quiet thanks to a weary band of convicts with shovels and hard-hats.

The Grande Dame of Silicon Valley

image

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.

I Dream of California

Among the Sierra Nevada  CA. 1868. Albert Bier...
Among the Sierra Nevada CA. 1868. Albert Bierstadt (Photo credit: catherinetodd2)

“Can’t close my eyes
I’m wide awake
Every hair on my body
Has got a thing for this place
Oh, empty my heart
I’ve got to make room for this feeling
It’s so much bigger than me

It couldn’t be anymore beautiful
I can’t take it in.”

Imogen Heap

L.A.’s Minority Architects

The theme restaurant and control tower at Los ...
The theme restaurant and control tower at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘Breaking Ground’ at Chinese American Museum Shows That Not All L.A. Architects Are Old, White Dudes.
Wendy Gilmartin
LA Weekly
February 13, 2012

Los Angeles Revisited: 20th Century L.A. Architects: Chinese American Architects – Paul R. Williams – Pedro E. Guerrero – 2013 Pacific Standard Time Presents.
Elizabeth Uyeda
LA Revisited
May 8, 2013

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.

To Find the Heart, You Need to Look

The Heart of Saturday Night
The Heart of Saturday Night (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The title track for Waits’s second album (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night confirms his ambition to be true to his vision of himself as a jazz-centric Beat poet. The idea comes straight from Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, in which the protagonist was “hurrying for the big traffic, ever more exciting, all of it pouring into town Saturday night.” Composing the song while literally cruising down Alvarado Street and Hollywood Boulevard, Waits was striving after an elusive epiphany, trying to locate stillness in motion or find a center of innocence in America’s most heartless city.

via Los Angeles Review of Books – In The Neighborhood: Tom Waits.

I love this story in LARB, but I have to object.

Los Angeles is not a heartless city. Finding the heart of L.A. (or any city, for that matter) is like finding the heart of a Vulcan: it’s there somewhere, but if you can’t find it, that’s only because you aren’t looking in the right place.

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.

Los Angeles and The Noir Fiction

“Nothing More American: On James M. Cain”
Steve Erickson

Los Angeles Review of Books
December 10, 2012

In an essay included in the new Folio Society edition of James M. Cain’s classic noir novel of Los Angeles, The Postman Always Rings Twice, film critic Steve Erickson examines the significance of Cain’s novel the context of its time and genre. It was a racy book on a racy shelf, one that common sensibility prevented from being fully translated to film for five decades.

There is good reason behind all of this. As Erickson pithily observes, “Noir was to cinema as punk was to rock and roll.” Noir was where you felt for the ragged edge of literary (and cinematic) tolerance, that point where art was an inch away from becoming pornographic. Postman was the literary Piss Christ of the 1930s.

Unfortunately, an otherwise brilliant review is undermined by an irritant: either knowingly or otherwise, Erickson buys into The Noir Fiction: it wasn’t just people that were bad in the stories of Cain, Chandler, and others. It was the place.

Still just a euphemism for Hollywood, Los Angeles was Cain’s natural habitat more than he knew, teetering between the transcendent and the tawdry, swarming with the forsaken, disenchanted, and besotted, among them fugitives from Hitler’s coming holocaust. Centerless and gravityless, Los Angeles was the Elba of Entropy for exiles like Cain who, writing scripts within a martini’s throw of Faulkner and Fitzgerald, honed self-loathing into an aesthetic.

That reads pretty well, doesn’t it? It should. It could have come out of a Cain story, or a Chandler novel, or an early treatment of the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. There is something wrong with L.A., something fundamental that is missing, and that either screws up the good people who come to the city or attracts all of the nasty elements.

This is the unspoken conceit that underlies noir fiction and film. You read it in Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy. You see it in Chinatown, in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in L.A. Confidential as the two good-but-damaged people leave L.A. for, of all places, the corrupt company mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. Better to live at the whim of the strike-busting Phelps Dodge Corporation, the filmmakers are telling us, than to live in a dysfunctional shit hole like Los Angeles.

Just in case we missed his point, Erickson delivers it at the end, this time in a tighter wad than before.

James M. Cain left Los Angeles in the late 1940s and his fiction was never the same. It wasn’t so much that he belonged in Los Angeles: the whole point of Los Angeles is not belonging there; it’s a city for people who don’t belong anywhere.

I have lived in L.A. long enough – and been away from it long enough – to know that there are people for whom this is profoundly true, and there are Angelenos who know that this is pure slander. For some of us, there are times in our lives where it rings true, and others that prove its falsehood. When I was young, I loved this town and it ripped the guts out of me and spit me out in a way no native son should experience. Now I’m older, and things are different, and the place seems to be returning what was once unrequited. Yet I also know now that it never was the City. It was always me.

The Noir Fiction that L.A. is broken, a silent malevolent force, is an artful projection, a conceit, a device. It is a way of assuring readers that there is nothing wrong with people, really, it is just time, place, and circumstance that screw us all up. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we recognize that this device so freely shared by the guys in the back room at Musso and Frank was less a true description than an artistic tool.

Erickson seems to adopt this hyperbole, this shot-glass of Chandler dripped on one’s shirt, as the truth without reflection or examination. It is fashionable to do so. How could so many of the great L.A. authors have written about the city in that way if it all weren’t true? Conveniently, it serves the purposes of the legion of literary wanna-bes locked up in rent-controlled fifth-floor closets in Manhattan who slip six times on the ice on the way to their miserable day-jobs. L.A. isn’t a place. Manhattan, on the other hand…

The literary trade is most susceptible to the Noir Fiction. After all, its what the elite have told themselves for decades, and to be from L.A. and gain access to the halls of literary respectability, you must repeat the Noir Fiction like the Boy Scout oath, a credo: L.A. is not a real place, and nothing good emerges from it without influence from elsewhere.

Erickson, whether he believes the Noir Fiction or not, is paying his fraternity dues. That doesn’t mean we have to. We can instead recognize Los Angeles for what it is: a neutral place that has brought out the best in some (Cain and Erickson among them) the worst in others, and in the shadow of the long, slow decline of Hollywood has become the heart of a new capital of literature, arts, and culture that rivals Manhattan and Paris.

And, more prosaically, it is a place where a lot of us belong, where we feel an attachment to the people, to the place, to the very earth even when it quivers beneath our feet. We know, to borrow a line from Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that L.A.’s not bad: it’s just written that way.

Making Our Yards Like California


Grass
Grass (Photo credit: DBduo Photography)

“Bloom Town: The Wild Life of American Cities”
Maggie Koerth-Baker

NYTimes.com
November 27, 2012

Confession: I love my lawn. But I feel guilty about it.

My homeowners’ association says I have to have grass, and it has to be green. That doesn’t break my heart. I confess that there are evenings when, even in our mild Southern California winters, I will walk shoeless out my front door, risking the ire of my spouse, simply to experience the sensual pleasure of walking barefoot on grass that is just catching the night’s coastal dewfall.

Yet I know that same patch of grass is responsible for the majority of the water consumed by our three-person household. I know that somehow it is wrong, even if it feeds the Audobon’s Cottontails that in turn feed the hawks in our neighborhood, and even if it helps employ my irrigation guy and my landscape maintainers. Lawns are water-sucks.

In an article in the The New York Times, BoingBoing.net science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker explains that in places like Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Miami, up to 80% of the urban space is natural surface, and that means that what we grow in our gardens collectively alters ecology.

Koerth-Baker is not calling for a wholesale change of lifestyle or human geography as much as she seems to want us to cultivate gardens made up of indigenous flora, like many people in Phoenix do with their desert-like front yards. This practice, called “xeriscaping,” seems to have great benefits. While much lighter on water requirements, the xeriscaped gardens appear to capture more carbon and absorb more heat than their natural counterparts up the road.

I’ll confess I’m not thrilled at the idea of giving up my lawn for the kind of natural ground cover I see growing on the dunes behind our house. But I can see the virtue, and I’ll bet our homeowners association will start to agree in ten years as the cost of the water to irrigate our common areas becomes our most expensive outlay.

The future of the California yard is, thus, California. We should welcome that, and, rather than fighting for our grass, start figuring out ways to make our California yards more appealing.