The Joy of Watching Movies Alone

August 24, 2016 § 2 Comments

222px-Interno_di_un_sala_da_cinema
Last month I went to a crowded sneak preview of “Star Trek Beyond.” As I took my seat, the young woman next to me asked, “Did you two get separated?” When I told her that I was alone, she was wildly impressed. “I’ve always wanted to do that but I’ve never had the guts,” she said. I was baffled: after all, this was a popcorn movie, not a week-long Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective. “I almost always go to movies alone,” I said. “You should try it; it’s great.”

There was a time when watching films was my job. I generally saw 130 per year, at least half of them in theaters. During this period, I lost all perspective about normal–i.e., recreational–moviegoing. Not only did I no longer regard films as entertainment but I also had no idea what constituted an average person’s intake. Was one movie a week considered a normal number? I didn’t know, because I averaged three a week in theaters and more on video.

Mostly I watched alone, but I never felt alone: my attentions were fully on the screen, rather than on those sitting next to me. Which brings me to back to the woman who was afraid to see movies alone: how much companionship is there in watching movies? Sure, you can hold hands, but you can’t talk. And the experience is far from shared, as anyone whose opinion of a movie has differed a friend’s can attest.

Last night I went to a screening of a terrible new movie that I can’t name because there’s a press embargo on it until next week. I happened to have a friend with me, who fortunately felt much the way I did about it. Still, I couldn’t help worrying about her reaction to what was on the screen, as well as to my flinching from the gunfire and smirking at the script. At some point I realized there were two movies playing at once: the real one and the one in my row. That’s fine for mindless entertainment, but good movies require a level of concentration that’s hard to achieve when you’re wondering if your companion wants to walk out. That’s why I usually watch alone.

Just Don’t Do It: Penalties Kick In For Hollywood Sign Trespassers

July 4, 2016 § 3 Comments

The Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

The Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

People who climb to the Hollywood Sign are fully aware they are trespassing: there are Do Not Enter Signs on the way up, as well as a gate. The Sign itself is equipped with sensors and loudspeakers, and police helicopters are deployed at the first sign of a breach. Even those who are at the Sign legally (as I have been on two occasions while filming) will be warned off before their time is up.

However much of a tourist attraction it is, the Hollywood Sign is also a high-security area, and has been for decades. After the September 11th attacks it was designated (along with City Hall, LAX and the Pacific Design Center) a high-risk target for terrorism. Yet in the years since, the consequences for trespassers have been all but nonexistent: climbers to the Sign usually haven’t been arrested, let alone fined, despite the fact that criminal penalties have long been in place.

Probably because former Councilmember Tom LaBonge, a notorious cheerleader for unruly Hollywood Sign tourism, is no longer around to influence law enforcement, things seem to be changing. After a particularly egregious trespasser climbed one of the letters of the Sign in May, he was arrested, jailed overnight and charged with trespass. At the end of June, he pled guilty and was sentenced to the maximum penalties under current law:

One year’s probation
Twenty days of Caltrans labor
$1,000.00 fine, with penalties of up to five times that amount
Restitution to the LAPD and Rec and Parks
A Stay-Away-from-the-Sign Order

The fact that the trespasser was a professional prankster with a large YouTube following might have influenced the judge’s decision in this case. However, Sarah Dusseault, Chief of Staff for Councilmember David Ryu, confirms that Ryu’s office is working with the City Attorney on stiffer penalties for future scofflaws.

All About Jim Thompson (In Print and on Video)

June 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

Jim Thompson in the Living Room of his Bangkok House, circa 1967/Courtesy Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company

Jim Thompson in the Living Room of his Bangkok House, circa 1967/Courtesy Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company

A while ago I was interviewed by Martine Azoulai for her excellent article in Vanity Fair France on Jim Thompson, the subject of my first two documentaries. You can read it here: http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/CO_JimThompson.pdf

If you’d like learn about this fascinating American in English, both “Jim Thompson, Silk King” and “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection” are available on DVD on my website http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/
“Jim Thompson, Silk King” is also available as a digital download http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/downloads/

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/jim-thompsons-life-after-death/
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2015/07/29/jim-thompson-silk-king-newly-remastered-with-dvd-extras-is-for-sale/

Remembering Beachwood Canyon’s Spectacular Production of “Julius Caesar,” One Hundred Years Later

May 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

Photos of the "Julius Caesar" Stage, Clippings and Beachwood Canyon, Pre-Development/Hope Anderson Productions

Photos of the “Julius Caesar” Stage, Clippings and Beachwood Canyon, Pre-Development/Hope Anderson Productions

May 19th, 2016 marked the centennial of what is surely the biggest production of “Julius Caesar” in history. It was performed just once by a cast of five thousand for an audience of up to forty thousand. (Because of ticket scalping, no one knows for sure how many people saw it.) The location was the natural amphitheater where Beachwood Village and Hollywoodland now stand.

The production was both a celebration of Shakespeare’s birth and a benefit for the Actors’ Fund, and starred such luminaries as Tyrone Power, Sr., Douglas Fairbanks, William Farnum and the young Mae Murray. A fuller account can be found in these posts:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/when-shakespeare-came-to-beachwood-canyon-julius-caesar-1916/
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/julius-caesar-at-the-hollywood-bowl-stills-from-the-1922-production/
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/05/16/death-at-the-1916-julius-caesar-a-news-account/

Last night’s commemoration in Beachwood Village featured the local historian Greg Williams and the actor Stephen Fry, who read the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech from Act III.

Greg Williams/Hope Anderson Productions

Greg Williams/Hope Anderson Productions

Because a fully built neighborhood now stands where the sets and stands were located, it’s a challenge to visualize the 1916 production, which featured chariot races, gladiator fights and dancing girls, as well as hundreds of extras recruited from Hollywood High School and Fairfax High School. But “Julius Caesar” was performed here to critical success, and the fact that it drew such a crowd should dispel the notion of early 20th century Los Angeles as a cultural backwater.

“Norwegian Wood”: Film Versus Novel

April 26, 2016 § Leave a comment

Kenichi Matsuyama and Rinko Kikuchi in "Norwegian Wood"

Kenichi Matsuyama and Rinko Kikuchi in “Norwegian Wood”

The standard rule about cinematic adaptations holds that good novels make bad movies and bad novels make good movies. This makes sense, since so much of what happens in good novels is confined to the characters’ minds, while most of what happens in bad ones happens outside them, and thus is entirely filmable. But this wisdom hasn’t really been true since two wonderful literary novels, The Remains of the Day and The English Patient, were made into excellent films. (As for the other part of the equation–bad novels making good movies–I don’t know, but then again I didn’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, or see the movie.)

Recently I read a great novel: Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. For those unfamiliar with his work, this is the book that made Murakami a literary superstar when it was published in Japan in 1987 and later, in translation, around the world. The fact that it’s a bildungsroman makes Norwegian Wood more accessible than Murakami’s other novels, which feature supernatural elements, historical delvings and post-modern puzzles. Though more layered than most mainstream fiction, the novel’s relatively straightforward storytelling and universal themes–love, loss and coming of age–explain its worldwide popularity.

The novel, which largely takes place between 1967 and 1969, follows Toru, a student at an elite university in Tokyo. At eighteen, Toru has left his hometown of Kobe for personal as well academic reasons: his best friend from high school, Kizuki, mysteriously committed suicide during their senior year, leaving a lingering sadness. In Tokyo, Toru is able to make a fresh start until he runs into Kizuki’s fragile girlfriend Naoko, who has moved there for similar reasons. Bound by their grief over Kizuki, Toru and Naoko begin spending Sundays together. In time they embark on a tentative romance, at which point Naoko abruptly withdraws from her college and disappears. Before he finds her, Toru meets Midori, a fellow student who is Naoko’s opposite: quirky, opinionated and sexually frank. They soon strike up a close friendship, but Toru, still in love with Naoko, resists Midori’s romantic overtures. In time he reunites temporarily with Naoko, who has exiled herself to a remote psychiatric facility after suffering a nervous breakdown. In the course of these events, Toru becomes the man he is meant to be: a caring friend and lover, an intellectual and a genuine adult.

Despite the deaths described in the novel–five, including three suicides–Norwegian Wood is less sad than you might expect. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty, Toru experiences his share of pleasures–literature, music (not just the Beatles song of the title but a wide range of classical, jazz and rock), food, drink and sex–quite a lot of sex, befitting a college student in a sexually liberated time. In some ways, the novel is a late 1960’s time capsule, containing all that was exciting about the era. (I was a child in Tokyo during those years and can attest to the novel’s veracity, not just the musical references but the radical student movement that roiled Toru’s university–they used to riot outside my house.)

Although there are some specifically Japanese elements–buying sake from vending machines, visiting love hotels, getting drunk legally in parks–most of “Norwegian Wood” could take place anywhere. Part of Murakami’s genius is creating characters who are very much like their American and European counterparts: they eat the same foods, listen to the same music and have the same frustrations and goals. This universality makes Norwegian Wood adaptable for the screen, which brings us to Tran Anh Hung’s 2012 film, “Norwegian Wood.”

Though a French-Vietnamese director who (presumably) isn’t fluent in Japanese would seem an unlikely choice to adapt a Japanese novel into a Japanese-language film, Tran (“The Scent of Green Papaya”) does a good job with “Norwegian Wood.” The cinematography is beautiful, the locations–among them Kobe, Toru and Murakami’s hometown, and Waseda, their alma mater–are perfect, and the acting is excellent. If Toru (Kenichi Matsuyama) is more handsome than Murakami describes, it’s an understandable exaggeration, and the script logically omits minor characters and back stories. Where Tran goes wrong is in ignoring the novel’s humor, not only Toru’s wry exposition but Midori’s hilariousness. Unlike the wispy, troubled Naoko, Midori* has her feet firmly planted on the ground. Her great obsessions are food and sex, and she enjoys wearing outrageously short skirts even at the hospital where her father is dying. Although it would have worked beautifully onscreen, Tran leaves out this exchange between Midori and her father’s surgeon:

Doctor: Wow, that’s some short skirt you’re wearing!
Midori: Nice, huh?
Doctor: What do you do on stairways?
Midori: Nothing special. I let it all hang out.
The nurse chuckled behind the doctor.
Doctor: Incredible. You ought to come and let us open your head one of these days to see what’s going on in there. Do me a favor and use the elevators while you’re in the hospital. I can’t afford to have any more patients.

Tran even makes Midori’s skirt is more modest than described–it’s short, but not indecently so. Choices like these make Midori’s outré moments–for example, her expressed desire to watch hard-core porn films with Toru–seem discordant, rather than a natural extension of her curiosity and free spiritedness. As a result, “Norwegian Wood” is much sadder than Murakami’s novel, and not to its advantage.

*A language note: Midori, which means green, is not only a modern name but a word that was not widely used before the late nineteenth century. Before then, blue (Aoi) was used for both blue and green, and green was considered a type of blue, not a separate color. Beyond representing life, Midori’s name provides a direct contrast with Naoko’s: Nao means upright or obedient, and the traditional feminine suffix ko means child. Through their names alone, Murakami makes clear that Naoko, “Obedient Child,” is Midori’s polar opposite.

“Miles Ahead:” Don Cheadle’s Wildly Original Miles Davis Biopic

April 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

Don Cheadle and Vince Wilburn (nephew of Miles Davis) 4/1/16/Hope Anderson Productions

Don Cheadle and Vince Wilburn (nephew of Miles Davis) 4/1/16/Hope Anderson Productions

Biopics about artists usually follow a stringent set of rules. Whether in chronological order or flashback, we see subject as a child, learning how to paint/sing/play an instrument. Next comes the traumatic illness/injury/death of a parent that turns the child into an artist. Then comes the early careeer marked by hardship and rejection. Then there’s success and fame, usually followed by illness/substance abuse/legal trouble/money woes. For examples, see “Ray,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Mr. Turner,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Basquiat”–the list is endless.

While there’s nothing wrong with telling an artist’s story in a straightforward way, it’s fascinating when a filmmaker chooses another path. That’s what Don Cheadle does in “Miles Ahead,” which begins during the musician’s drug-addled hiatus from recording and performing in the 1970’s and ends with his comeback in the 1980’s. Although there are flashbacks to Davis’s early career and first marriage to the dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), Cheadle doesn’t bother to show Davis as a child or even a trumpet-playing youth. I’d like to think this decision isn’t because Davis grew up in a middle class family–his father was a dentist–and studied at Julliard, but because Cheadle preferred a laser-like focus on what matters most: Davis’s music.

“Miles Ahead” is helped immeasurably by the fact that Davis is only depicted as an adult and only by Don Cheadle. The actor captures everything about Davis: his creative genius, his ferocity and his mercurial charm. In doing so, he transforms himself both inside and out. I can’t fathom how difficult it must have been to pull of such feat of acting and also direct the film, but it’s a rare accomplishment for anyone, let alone a first-time director.

At a Q&A last Friday night, Cheadle declined to say which parts of the film are factual and which are fictional, but there are a lot of both. The journalist played by Ewan MacGregor is fictional, yet there’s nothing fake about his character or his function: showing us Miles Davis’s dark period of drug abuse, gunslinging and reclusion. Davis’s abuse of Frances Taylor is factual–she has said, “I actually left running for my life,” and does in the movie. But other things that couldn’t have happened are true in their essence. Davis pushes against the wall of an elevator at Columbia Records, which becomes a door to his past as a musician. A punch thrown at one character lands on another. As the film lurches from place to place, traveling through time, watching it becomes less like observing and more like entering Davis’s complicated mind. In his abstract, improvisational approach, Cheadle weaves many strands into something pure. It’s a lot like jazz.

Two Cinematic Tours of Los Angeles: “Knight of Cups” and “City of Gold”

March 24, 2016 § 2 Comments

At the Stahl House in "Knight of Cups"

At the Stahl House in “Knight of Cups”

Downtown Los Angeles in "City of Gold"

Downtown Los Angeles in “City of Gold”


Since the early 20th century, Los Angeles has been the city that outsiders have loved to hate, usually based on fleeting touristic impressions. But no matter what the haters say, indignant reactions from the home crowd are few and far between. There are two reasons for this: 1) Angelenos don’t care what outsiders think of Los Angeles. 2) The last thing Angelenos want for people to move here, so all deterrents are welcome.

In L.A.-bashing, as in most matters, context is crucial. When Woody Allen wrote that L.A.’s “only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light,” he was a non-driving visitor to Beverly Hills and the Sunset Strip. How could he know about either local culture or driving? And when David Bowie said, “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth,” he was referring to his near-fatal cocaine abuse in Los Angeles. (Never mind that his addiction began years earlier, in London.) Ironically, Bowie spent a fair amount of time in Los Angeles over the course of his long career, making movies, collecting awards, appearing on talk shows and recording one of his best albums, “Station to Station,” in Hollywood. Yet he clung to the opinions he formed while high in the back of limos and darkened hotel rooms.

I was thinking about all of this as I watched the new Terrence Malick film, “Knight of Cups.” The plot, such as it is, concerns Rick (Christian Bale), an improbably attractive screenwriter who meanders around Los Angeles (with side trips to Death Valley and Las Vegas), his mind veering back and forth in time. Rick covers a lot of miles, yet he never writes a word. In fact, the closest he comes to working is meeting up with his agents, twice at CAA (Century City) and once at (I think) the Warner Bros. back lot (Burbank). But who has time for writing when there are so many women to recall? Apart from Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, most of Rick’s paramours are young models who wear filmy dresses (or less) and extremely high heels. (FYI, Terrence Malick: real L.A. women favor pants and shoes they can walk in.)

Fortunately, the places in the movie are decidedly real. Even the most over-the-top party (hosted by Antonio Banderas, though for me the highlight was the appearance of Joe Lo Truglio) takes place in well-known location: a massive Versailles-like mansion in Beverly Hills. Rick goes downtown (Broadway, the Bonaventure, etc), to the beach (constantly), to LACMA (Mid-Wilshire) and the Huntington Gardens (San Marino). He lives in a well-known industrial-looking apartment (the Gallery Lofts in Marina Del Rey), although I’m pretty sure that no one has seen a naked woman in six-inch heels talking on the phone on the balcony. Among the many visual highs are a twilight photo shoot at the Stahl House (Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22), gorgeous shots of Venice and PCH, and footage of the L.A. River and the tracks at Union Station. In short, it’s a film is by Emanuel Lubeski, with tiny amounts of dialogue and large amounts of voiceover written by Malick.

As the film washed over me, I was surprised at how many of the locations I had visited, not only architectural gems like the Broadway Theaters, the Stahl House and the Annenberg Beach House but a street in Hancock Park three blocks from where I used to live. For outsiders, “Knight of Cups” is a dream-like look at a great swath of Los Angeles–at least the rich, white, show biz side of it. But for those of us who live here, it’s much more: a trippy, deluxe home movie shot by three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer.

Coincidentally, I saw “Knight of Cups” on the same weekend as “City of Gold,” the new documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. Like the Malick film, “City of Gold” provides a beautiful, in-depth tour of Los Angeles, though a less rarefied one–e.g., no naked women in towering designer shoes and many ordinary people, all of whom have jobs. Gold is a native Angeleno whose knowledge of L.A. is profound and inclusive. Intrepid and expert in most of the world’s cuisines, he takes us to a wide variety of notable restaurants, two of which happen to be food trucks. The wonderful street scenes in “City of Gold” show the real Los Angeles: a multi-racial, multi-cultural vibrant megacity. The documentary also contains this truth: Los Angeles is beyond the grasp of those who, in Gold’s words, “come for a couple of weeks, stay in a hotel in Beverly Hills, take in what they can get to within ten minutes in their rented car and [then] explain to you what Los Angeles is.”

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