In a Time of Drought, Remembering Hollywood’s Brief Independence

September 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Clausen's Ranch, at the foot of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1895/ Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Clausen’s Ranch, at the foot of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1895/ Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

When I was making my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign,” I was surprised at how many of the people who signed my releases wrote “Hollywood” rather than “Los Angeles” as their address. A century after its incorporation into Los Angeles, Hollywood’s history as an independent city seemed to endure in the minds of residents, whether or not they were fully aware of it.

Hollywood went from mostly unsettled land to a metropolis in a matter of two decades. Most of what is now the district of Hollywood was purchased in 1877 by Harvey and Daeida Wilcox, a wealthy Kansas couple who came west to Los Angeles and, after the death of their only son, went looking for a rural retreat. After laying out streets and building a home, they deeded property to churches and enticed other like-minded Christians to move to their town. New residents opened businesses and grew citrus and exotic fruits like pineapples and avocados. But by the turn of the century, Hollywood was more than a farm village: it had become a resort for city dwellers who came by bicycle and streetcar from downtown Los Angeles. Two restaurants catered to daytrippers, and the rather grand Hollywood Hotel provided lodging for those who wanted to stay longer. Among the town’s charms was its microclimate: noticeably cooler than downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood was known for its ocean breezes. (In spite of Hollywood’s tall buildings, these can still be felt near Sunset and Vine, and sometimes carry a whiff of salt.)

In 1903, Hollywood was incorporated as a dry, Godly city: the un-Los Angeles. Its first laws were sumptuary: no alcohol for any purpose, either at home or in businesses; no gambling, no brothels. Its dryness was absolute: liquor going west from downtown had to be transported around Hollywood, a substantial detour that pleased neither merchants nor the Los Angeles City fathers. Though Harvey Wilcox, the stricter of Hollywood’s founders, died in 1891, his widow Daeida (despite her remarriage to Philo Beveridge, a bon vivant who enjoyed flouting the law by drinking wine) kept up her husband’s teetotaling tradition.

Things might have continued along these lines for a while longer if not for the problem of water. Hollywood had very little, and more often than not found itself in drought. The start of construction on the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1905 allowed City Hall to present the town with an ultimatum: either become part of Los Angeles or make do without its water. Knowing the town wouldn’t survive without access to the Aqueduct, Hollywood gave up its independence, becoming part of Los Angeles in 1910. Today, in the fourth year of a severe drought, it’s difficult to argue with the decision.

Lake Hollywood, Jewel of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

Lake Hollywood, Jewel of the Los Angeles Aqueduct


Yet Hollywood still feels distinct from Los Angeles, even in the midst of its current building boom. In 2000, a referendum was launched to return Hollywood to independence, but Los Angeles fought hard against it and it failed. Today Hollywood’s seven years as an incorporated city are remembered through its bylaws, which reside in bound volumes the Los Angeles City Archives. But Hollywood’s larger legacy is quotidian: its customary use by residents when giving their address.

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/hollywood-before-the-movies-part-i-ranches-orchards-and-laws/

http://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/hollywood-before-the-movies-part-ii-city-of-churches/

The Journey Is Greater Than The Destination

September 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

Copyright Hope Anderson Productions

Copyright Hope Anderson Productions

For years I’ve been working on a novel. It was inspired by a trip I took shortly after finishing my first documentary, “Jim Thompson, Silk King” in 2001, though at the time I had no sense of it as anything more than an adventurous vacation. Soon after I returned from it I flew to New York, where JTSK was in a festival; it showed on September 8th. As fate would have it, I got back to Los Angeles hours before the attacks of September 11th, and for a long time no one wanted to think about documentaries, or entertainment in general. After marketing JTSK as much as I could during that grim time, I made its previously planned companion, “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” By this time it was 2005, and my 2001 trip had receded long enough for me to start writing a novel based on it. As I was finishing the first draft, I moved to Beachwood Canyon, which involved selling one house and buying another that turned out to more of a fixer than expected. When I was finally settled, I began preproduction on my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign, another long-simmering idea. Although I initially thought I was making a little neighborhood documentary, Beachwood’s history turned out to be enormous, and UTHS grew into a major project: thirty interviews, many hours of footage and hundreds of images. The project kept me occupied for the next three years, at which point it was late 2009. In 2010, I finally dug out my novel and starting writing again. Every summer since then, I’ve done another draft; now, four years later, the result is tangible: a 355-page manuscript about a journey, and the embodiment of my own long trek.

Beyond the films and moving house, why did it take me so long? There isn’t any simple answer, but it’s clear that reading novels doesn’t teach one to write them. And writing novels doesn’t equal finishing them: a previous attempt ended in frustration. (Recently I learned that Joyce Carol Oates’s late husband left a novel–his only novel, chipped away at for decades–unfinished when he died. It was not reassuring.) From a practical standpoint, the work would have gone faster if I had revised printed drafts rather than doing it on my computer. Because the novel existed only virtually, a number of gaps and errors went unnoticed for too long. But the biggest setback came during the summer of 2013, when a Time-Warner technician cut the power and crashed my computer. (He had assured me that I could keep working while he ran new cable to the house.) When everything went black, I lost the draft I was working on, including a substantial part of the last section. Although I had saved a previous draft on Dropbox, I was never able to recover what had disappeared. Worse yet, I was afraid to look at the manuscript, much less work on it, for several months.

But eventually I did. This summer I knew I had to finish so I soldiered on, finally getting to the end on Labor Day. This month I’ll send the manuscript out to some friends who have kindly volunteered to be my first readers. After that, I’ll work on selling it. One way or another, it will be published. But let’s face it: we’re not living in the Age of the Novel and no one really cares. So why did I bother? Because, with the exception of my (easily fulfilled) goal of motherhood, all my ambitions have paled in comparison to my desire to write a novel: it’s a dream I’ve had since the age of twelve. Accomplishing it has taught me many things, one of which is to love the process, not just the result. And even if only my friends and family read it, my reward has come already: I’ll soon be starting two new projects, neither of which would have come my way if I hadn’t persevered on this one.

Waiting For Rain In a Bone-Dry Canyon

August 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

The "Wood," 8pm Friday, August 22, 2014/Hope Anderson Productions

The “Wood,” 8pm Friday, August 22, 2014/Hope Anderson Productions

August in Southern California is a very dry month, the prelude to an even hotter, drier September. Those of us who live in canyons live in dread of fires, which can start from a single match or cigarette–hence the NO SMOKING signs that tourists somehow ignore. In the fourth year of a great drought–the worst on record in California–we are waiting for the winter rains.

On Friday night, I looked north and to my surprise saw an unusual amount of cloud cover at the Hollywood Sign. It seemed to be a harbinger of better days to come, so I got my camera and took this photo.

Art and Posterity in New York: Part II

August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen in "Sex With Strangers"

Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen in “Sex With Strangers”


"Split-Rocker" by Jeff Koons/Hope Anderson Productions

“Split-Rocker” by Jeff Koons/Hope Anderson Productions

Last week, between seeing the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney and visiting Koons’ monumental “Split-Rocker” topiary sculpture at Rockefeller Center, I attended a performance of “Sex With Strangers” at the Second Stage Theater. Written by Laura Eason and starring Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen, the play explores art, media and success, both the old-fashioned and new, Internet-oriented kind. The title is taken from a fantastically successful blog (and subsequent best-selling books) whose author, a hyperactive young writer and roue named Ethan Strange (nee Kane), arrives at a rural writer’s retreat during a snowstorm. There he barges in on the only other resident, a talented but obscure writer named Olivia Lago, who is putting the finishing touches on her second novel.

Olivia’s first novel was badly marketed as chick lit and sold poorly, but it attracted its share of fans, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning author named Ahmet, a friend of both Olivia’s and Ethan’s. Olivia soon learns that Ethan’s reason for coming to the retreat is not his own looming deadline for a screenplay but meeting her, the author of the novel he loves. In short order, Ethan convinces Olivia to reissue it under a pseudonym and as an e-book, about which he creates an instant buzz via Twitter. He then sets about selling her new novel by providing an introduction to his literary agent. Ethan also quickly embarks on an affair with Olivia, who despite qualms about him and his past (both sexual and literary) is bowled over by his powers (both sexual and literary).

Who could blame her? Ethan is an immature jerk but a Jedi Master of the Internet. He knows how to get his work in the hands of readers, since his half-million Twitter followers hang on his every word. Applying his special brand of salesmanship to Olivia’s literary novel, Ethan launches a spectacular new career that is not only beyond her abilities but her imagination. Before Ethan, Olivia is like Emily Dickinson, destined (in the best-case scenario) for posthumous fame; after Ethan, she’s like Jonathan Franzen, widely read and financially successful but still literary.

Having gone to “Sex With Strangers” mainly to see Anna Gunn, I had deliberately avoided learning the plot beforehand and was more than a little disturbed by the parallels to my own life. I’m finishing a novel that I have little idea of how to sell, though so far no Ethan Strange has to come to my rescue. As the play makes clear, the old publishing model is dead: ebooks and marketing via social media are the new reality. Then there’s the Janus-faced Internet, which makes it possible for me to find historical materials for my documentaries, publicize them and (lately) sell and rent them to viewers. Yet it also cheapens my ebooks and documentaries, just as it has devalued music. Now that art is “content,” the perception is that it should be free. The sole difference between the real online world versus that of “Sex With Strangers” is that in reality, no one wants to pay for anything.

During intermission, I struck up a conversation about these topics with my seat mate, who told me he was a painter. When I asked what kind, he said, “Fine art. I work for Jeff Koons.” What a coincidence! I confessed that the Whitney retrospective had left me liking Koons’ art less rather than more, and asked what he thought of it. “I’m not a fan,” he said flatly. Though he praised Koons as an employer and a man and said that he enjoyed the camaraderie of working in the studio, he agreed that having assistants do all the sculpting and painting was unprecedented. When I compared Koons to Willie Wonka–“He has a chocolate factory but he’s not making the chocolate”–he offered, “Some people say he’s a charlatan.” He then showed me photos of his own paintings, which were technically and artistically superior to anything in the Koons oeuvre, and so different that I could hardly imagine the same artist creating both.

Seeing “Split-Rocker” in Rockefeller Plaza the next day, I felt some of my old delight in Jeff Koons’ work. But the parallels between him and Ethan Strange, and between me, my seat mate and Olivia, gnawed at me. Perhaps the real test of art comes after the artist’s death, when the Emily Dickinsons of the world rise up to reign supreme. But in the earthly realm, artists have to eat.

Related article:http://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/art-and-posterity-in-new-york-part-i/

Art and Posterity in New York: Part I

August 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

"Play-Doh" by Jeff Koons/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

“Play-Doh” by Jeff Koons/All photos Hope Anderson Productions


"Split-Rocker" by Jeff Koons

“Split-Rocker” by Jeff Koons

I’ve been spending a lot of time in New York lately, which has been a welcome change from my usual summers in Los Angeles. My last trip in June was very theater-centric: four plays in seven days. This time, my visit was devoted to visual art: two days at MOMA, one at the Whitney and one at Dia Beacon, in the Hudson River Valley.

My first stop was the Whitney’s huge Jeff Koons retrospective, a mid-career exhibition that took up four floors and the sculpture garden. I went in hopes of overcoming my love-hate reaction to Koons’ work, but emerged hours later feeling lukewarm to cold about all of it. Nevertheless, seeing the sculptures and paintings at close range increased my admiration for their meticulous craftmanship: it’s obvious that a great deal of skilled labor went into each one. My negative reaction was aimed at the conceptual level–significant because concept is all that Koons does at this point. Regardless of medium, all his works are created not by him but by a team of artists, who (along with support staff) currently number 140.

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For years I’ve delighted in the balloon dogs and suspended basketballs of Koons’ early career, as well as the giant topiaries (“Puppy,” “Split-Rocker”) of the past twelve years. But at the Whitney, in rooms of lighted vitrines full of vacuum cleaners, sculpted blow-up toys, giant Play-Doh sculpture and large format photo paintings, the charm of Koons’ work faded. “Play-Doh,” a monumental and life-sized colored rendering that took a decade to make because of technological difficulties, was a particularly vivid example. Standing before it, my only thought was why? Similarly, his porcelain sculptures–such as “Michael Jackson and Bubbles”–were both technical marvels and conceptual blanks. Looking at them, I could glean no greater meaning than what appeared on their shiny surfaces.

The permanent collection acted as a palate cleanser for the Koons exhibit. I found solace in a room full of Agnes Martins (“The Islands”) and a wall of Ed Ruschas. Even the Warhol Brillo boxes seemed masterful in comparison to the Koons Play-Doh and pool toys. And Jean Michel Basquiat’s painting “Hollywood Africans”–regarded as a daring example of street art when it was new–seemed rigorously formal thirty years later, or perhaps just in contrast to the Koons retrospective.

"The Islands" by Agnes Martin

“The Islands” by Agnes Martin


"Hollywood Africans" by Jean Michel Basquiat

“Hollywood Africans” by Jean Michel Basquiat

I had a better experience with “Split-Rocker,” (top) Koons’ topiary in Rockefeller Center. Even more than “Puppy,” “Split-Rocker” is a multi-faceted delight: not only because of its dual pony/dinosaur face but because it looks radically different at different distances. It’s a grey-green monolith from a great distance, a huge flowering toy from middle distance, and a fascinating collection of flowering plants close up. There’s even a ribbon of mirror that reflects viewers.

Detail of "Split-Rocker"

Detail of “Split-Rocker”


It’s a given that Koons is the most commercially successful fine artist of his generation. The question is whether his work will be well-regarded, or even remembered, beyond his lifetime. Will he be another Marcel Duchamp or another Paul De Longpre, whose paintings were all the rage during his lifetime and instantly forgotten after his death? Questions of art, commercial success and posterity were very much on my mind when I had an illuminating encounter a couple of days later. More about it in Part II.

Within “Boyhood,” An Equally Compelling Womanhood

July 18, 2014 § 1 Comment

Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood"/Courtesy IFC Films

Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltrane in “Boyhood”/Courtesy IFC Films

Although nearly a week has passed since I saw Richard Linklater’s moving twelve-years-in-the-making masterpiece, I’m still thinking about “Boyhood.” As myriad reviewers can attest, it is as close to perfect as any film, and so compelling that its two hours and twenty-four minutes fly by.

Yet unlike plot-driven movies, “Boyhood” has none of the conventional elements: no inciting incident, no climax, no three-act structure. (Take that, screenwriting teachers.) Rather, the film is a compilation of many small and large events that in aggregate become something huge: Life. And not just the life of the boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), but that of his father (Ethan Hawke), mother (Patricia Arquette), sister (Lorelei Linklater), and numerous friends and relatives. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know what’s in it, don’t read further.)

Arguably, the character who undergoes the greatest change in “Boyhood” is not Mason Evans, Jr. but his mother, Olivia. When the film begins, she is a young single mother of two small children. Her ex-husband has been absent for nearly a year, and she is struggling to make ends meet. Soon after he returns from Alaska, she moves the children to Houston so that she can finish her college degree and better her job prospects. By the time Olivia is in graduate school, she has married one of her professors, creating a blended family with his two children. But when the marriage ends because of his alcoholism and abusiveness, Olivia must move the children again–this time for safety’s sake. By then a professor, she falls in love with an older student, an Iraq War veteran studying on the GI bill. But that marriage founders too, as her once charming new husband becomes a sullen prison guard who drinks too much. At the end, when Mason leaves for college, Olivia is on her own–older, wiser and a little tearful as she faces an empty nest. But there’s never a doubt she’ll triumph over this new phase of life, just as she has all the others.

Three divorces in two decades is a lot to endure, but Linklater never paints Olivia as less than a responsible, loving parent. (The feckless one is Mason, Sr., with his absences and seatbelt-free GTO, though in time he too grows up.) And although Mason once refers to his mother’s husbands and boyfriends as “a parade of drunken fools,” he is unembittered and loving toward her throughout his eighteen years.

Among the many revelations of “Boyhood,” is Richard Linklater’s genius as a filmmaker. Regardless of whether we’ve shared the Evans family’s experiences, he somehow manages to make them familiar–so much so that we feel they might have been ours. In following this ordinary family’s progress through life, he shines a mirror on our lives too.

“Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of An Actress,” Now Available for Sale or Rent on Vimeo

July 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

My new release consists of two short films: a biographical documentary featuring interviews with Peg Entwistle’s surviving family, as well as previously unpublished photos and artifacts; and a silent black-and-white feature about her fateful walk to the Hollywood Sign in 1932. It’s available as a download for the first time; $4 to rent; $9 to buy.

Here’s the trailer:

For more about Peg Entwistle, my ebook Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign is available at Amazon and other ebook sellers:

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