Imagine A Great City: Gabriel Kahane’s Los Angeles

April 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

Gabriel Kahane

Gabriel Kahane

During the 1990’s, I was a board member of the Junior Arts Center (now Barnsdall Arts), an organization formed to provide art education to Los Angeles children after art classes were all but dropped from the LAUSD curriculum in the 70’s. At the JAC, all classes were taught by working artists and, because we raised money to pay them, fees were kept low. The children produced very good work that we tried to reward, holding an annual exhibition in Barnsdall Park and giving prizes. To raise awareness of children’s art, we partnered with one of the billboard companies on a project called “Imagine a Great City.” Children entered drawings on the theme of Los Angeles, and the winners were displayed on billboards during February, a slow month in the industry. The program ran for a few years in the early 90’s. Despite the ubiquity of the downtown skyline, LAPD helicopters and palm trees in many of the submissions, it was a success.

“Imagine a Great City” came back to me when I was given a copy of Gabriel Kahane’s new Los Angeles-themed album, “The Ambassador.” Kahane is a classically trained composer and virtuoso musician, but his music contains rock, soul, blues and Broadway references. His lyrics are equally beautiful and complex, as poetic as any by Joni Mitchell.

Each song on “The Ambassador” concerns a Los Angeles building, either commercial or residential or, in the case of the “Mildred Pierce”-themed “Veda,” imaginary, and through these addresses Kahane tells the story of modern Los Angeles. Kahane’s subject matter includes modernist architecture (“Villains”), “Blade Runner” (“Bradbury”), the novels of Raymond Chandler (“Musso and Frank”), and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination (“Ambassador Hotel). In the album’s most ambitious composition, “Empire Liquor Mart,” Kahane tells the life story of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, whose 1991 murder at the hands of Korean store owner Soon Da Ju was a catalyst for the 1992 riots. He begins with the shooting, from Harlins’ point of view:

The lady in the fishing vest
Has dropped the gun
Who wears a fishing vest
When they’re working at a liquor store?

I float up to the corner
Just above the ice cream  And the frozen food.
I perch beside the surveillance

He then traces the Harlins family’s move west from St. Louis, revealing the devastating loss of Latasha’s mother and uncle in separate shootings, before returning to Harlins’ murder.

Nobody reads from the Book of Job
At the church where me and my grandma go.
Nobody sees the trouble I know
But I know that trouble’s gonna find me.

So when I say that my un-
timely death was
Something certain,

What I mean is
That these tragedies
Are a kind of family tradition.

The album concludes with another masterpiece, “Union Station,” which considers manifest destiny, apocalypse and the tragedy of leaving LA:

When the pilasters slplit to admit the sea,
The hands of the clock will be covered in verdigris
I’ll swim to the train and I’ll find my seat
And hazard a smile at anyone who looks at me.

When the Alkali flats with their cracks pass by,
Think of the color wheel, think of the Western sky:
Distant city with a distant glow,
The hall of the lost has let me go.

This is songwriting of the highest order, incisive and deeply felt. The fact Kahane doesn’t even live here (although born in Los Angeles, he grew up in Northern California and lives in New York) says something too: that the tired La-la Land cliches have finally fallen away. Gabriel Kahane is appearing tonight at the Fonda, opening for the Punch Brothers, and I’m looking forward to his performance.

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Visiting Dolores and Bob Hope’s House in Toluca Lake

March 12, 2015 § 2 Comments

A Norman Rockwell Portrait of Bob Hope in his Toluca Lake Home/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

A Norman Rockwell Portrait of Bob Hope in his Toluca Lake Home/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

Several weeks ago I was invited to tour the Bob Hope house, which had recently hit the market. Located in Toluca Lake, the five-acre estate runs the length of a couple of city blocks and is hidden behind a tall hedge. Given its sprawl, I had always assumed that it was a country club. But when I made my way in via the huge gatehouse (which also housed Hope’s business office, a substantial enterprise), I found a surprisingly comfortable, albeit super-sized, family house.
A Downstairs Sitting Room

A Downstairs Sitting Room

The Hopes were extraordinarily long-lived: Bob died in 2003 at 100, and Dolores in 2011 at 102. They commissioned the house and lived there from 1937 until their deaths. Given the number of years they spent there, and the ages at which they died, I assumed the house would be in dire need of renovation, but except from some old carpeting in the hallways, it was remarkably well-maintained, and had been updated at regular intervals. Originally a vaguely Norman, traditional house, it was substantially added to in contemporary style, befitting the Hopes’ interest in modern architecture. (Their renowned Palm Springs house was designed by John Lautner.) The broad covered terrace in back and glass entryway were mid-century additions that radically changed the appearance of the house. The airy downstairs rooms, all made for entertaining on a large scale, were also modernist, with glass walls facing the substantial garden, which included a pool and poolside guest quarters and party room. Dolores Hope, originally a singer, was an accomplished hostess, and the substantial kitchen boasted two pantries big enough to hold china, crystal and silver for hundreds.
The Pool and Guesthouse, with California Pepper Tree in Foreground

The Pool and Guesthouse, with California Pepper Tree in Foreground

The Back Terrace

The Back Terrace

The upstairs was as private as the downstairs was public. Most of the people touring the house with me were realtors who regarded the unconventional master suite with disapproval. Instead of a single master bedroom, there were interconnected his-and-hers bedrooms, each with its own bathroom and sitting area. Apparently anything out of the ordinary is considered a hard sell, but I found it refreshing to see a house whose owners aimed to suit themselves, not some theoretical future buyer.
Dolores Hope's Bedroom

Dolores Hope’s Bedroom

Bob and Dolores led highly independent, very different lives. His involved work–including 50 Christmases spent on the road with the USO–and a not-very-secret extramarital social life that included several long-term affairs. Hers revolved around their four children and her religion. A devout Catholic, Dolores was only minutes away from her parish church, St. Charles Borromeo. (She poured millions into building St. Charles, a Spanish Baroque gem that replaced the original Spanish Mission-style church in 1957.) For all the realtors’ tut-tutting about their separate bedrooms, it’s worth noting that the Hopes were married for 69 years, until Bob Hope’s death, and that they now lie permanently side-by-side.
Bob Hope's Bathroom

Bob Hope’s Bathroom

It was interesting to see Bob Hope’s bathroom, not only because it had a urinal but because it was nicely rebuilt late in his life to be wheelchair accessible. But (aside from the pantries), my favorite feature of the house was the little door leading from Dolores’s bedside to the larger of the children’s rooms, which allowed her to check on her youngsters in the middle of the night without going through the hallway. It showed her practicality and maternal concern, and made me feel almost as if I had met her.
The Children's Room. The door is at left.

The Children’s Room. The door is at left.

Remembering Albert Maysles

March 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

David and Albert Maysles filming "Salesman" in 1968/Courtesy

David and Albert Maysles filming “Salesman” in 1968/Courtesy

As news of Albert Maysles’ death circulated yesterday, I remembered not only his and his brother David Maysles’ important body of work (including “Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens” and “Primary”) but two personal stories. The first was my only meeting with him, which took place at the International Documentary Association’s conference in 1998. At the time I was teaching myself to make documentaries by reading books, taking classes and, of course, watching lots and lots of films. The conference was part of my self-devised education, so when I came upon Albert standing with Werner Herzog in the hallway of the MPAA, I introduced myself and told him about my idea for “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” my future first film. As I wrote in 2009:

I asked him what he thought, and he said something like “I think that sounds like a good idea.” (Coincidentally, Werner Herzog was there, too; he merely said, “I haf heard of zis man.”) Delirious from Maysles’s encouragement, I nevertheless remembered to compliment “Grey Gardens.” Beaming, he said in his thick Boston accent, “Isn’t it beautiful?”

As endorsements go, Albert Maysles’ was hardly effusive, but it sufficed. I started preproduction soon afterwards and went to Thailand to film in June of 1999. I returned with enough footage for two films, the second of which was an art and architecture piece called “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” (“Jim Thompson, Silk King” will be re-released shortly with new narration and two new DVD extras; it will be available on my website and on Vimeo. “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection is available at

My second Albert Maysles story concerns “Salesman,” his and David’s 1969 film about white, working-class Bible salesmen and the desperate hard-sell tactics they employed on their mostly poor, often black clients. A classic of cinema verite, “Salesman” was filmed in the late 1960s but depicts an earlier era: no one looks or talks that way anymore, and when was the last time you saw anyone selling Bibles door-to-door? The most confounding feature of the documentary was the dialog which, I recall, was subtitled because the salesmen’s Boston accents were so heavy. But even subtitles couldn’t decipher the patois they spoke, which at times seemed a different language. Making things even worse was that I watched “Salesman” with a petulant Spanish guy who evidently thought I, a native speaker of English, would guide him through it. He kept asking, “What does that mean?” Darned if I knew, and I used to live in Boston.

The Maysles brothers called their technique direct cinema because of its naturalism: the camera kept rolling until the subjects forgot it was there, and what interviewing there was sparse and informal. The result was at times profound but not without its problems, chiefly length. “Grey Gardens,” for all its acclaim, has some incredibly tedious stretches–raccoons again?–that illustrate the pitfalls of editing your own work, as the Maysleses did (albeit with others). Still, there’s no doubt that they changed documentary filmmaking forever. Because David died in 1987, Albert got the laurels, but the best Maysles films were the ones they made together.

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Everything Old Is New Again: Touring the Palm Springs Eichler House

February 25, 2015 § 2 Comments

Steven Corley Randel at the new Palm Springs Eichler House/All Photos Hope Anderson Productions

Steven Corley Randel at the new Palm Springs Eichler House/All Photos Hope Anderson Productions

Last Tuesday I went to Palm Springs for Modernism Week, an annual festival of modernist architecture and design that now occupies ten days. (It goes without saying that “modernism” now refers to the mid-twentieth century, when houses and products looked to the future rather than to some never-was past.)

Wednesday was Eichler Day, in tribute to the developer Joseph Eichler (1900-1974), who built some 11,000 glassy post-and-beam homes in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly in California. Though Eichler houses were mass-produced for middle-class buyers, they were beautiful and forward-looking. At a time when most tract developers were building simple ranch-style houses, Eichler hired the modernist architects Robert Anshen, A. Quincy Jones and Raphael Sariano. The homes they designed had exposed rooflines and glass walls, interior garden courtyards, open kitchens and easy transitions between the indoors and outdoors.
It wasn’t just the homes that were different. Eichler tracts had shared open spaces and pools that fostered a sense of community among their owners. (To this day, Eichler communities have annual block parties; Eichlerites march in groups in local parades.) Unlike other developers of his time, Eichler refused to discriminate against non-white buyers, selling to anyone who could afford one of his houses. His color-blind policy struck a blow against the prevailing segregated housing practices and seems even more significant in retrospect.
The highlight of Modernism Week’s Eichler Day was a brand-new Eichler home, the first in Palm Springs, built on spec from plans licensed from his estate. I toured it with my friend Steven Corley Randel, a residential architect who lives in Palm Springs and works all over California and Hawaii.

There were various updates to the original design, both in materials (such as insulation and glass) and style. The exterior was jazzed up with an orange front door and trim; inside the roofline was painted white, a glaring change from Eichler’s unpainted wood, and one that highlighted every imperfection. Still, the house was Eichlerian in spirit: the open plan made it seem more spacious that its 2,500 square feet, as did the soaring glass walls. The only claustrophobic feature was also original–the extremely narrow hallways. As Steve pointed out, they didn’t meet today’s building codes; “I wonder how they got away with it?” he said.

Outside, things were considerably less Eichlerian. The yard was fenced and featured an inauthentic round pool–why not a kidney-shaped one? But the most discordant feature was the one-bedroom guesthouse, still under construction, an addition that never would have occurred to Eichler and his architects.

All in all, the new Eichler seemed to go over well among those who toured it. Despite my quibbles about the updates, the biggest problem was its listing price of $1,290,000, an astronomical sum for a house that cost $12,000 (about $90,000 in today’s dollars) in the mid-1960’s. While it’s true that Eichler houses have much more cachet today than they did when they were popping up by the thousands (a fact that has led the builders of the Palm Springs house to plan several more), the difference in cost is astounding. However fancied-up, in the end it’s still a tract home, meant to be mass-produced for very little money. For $1,290,000, you could have a custom-designed house by a living architect. The fact that someone preferred to spend that amount on a budget house by a long-dead developer says nothing about Eichler’s times and a lot about our own.

“Ida”: Poland’s Beautiful Best Foreign Film Nominee, Now Available on Netflix

February 11, 2015 § 2 Comments

Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska in "Ida"

Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska in “Ida”

My mother often asks how she and my father can see the Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Film, Best Documentary and Best Short Feature. My answer is always disappointing: it’s difficult, even for those living in New York and Los Angeles, to see them. For those who live elsewhere, it’s nearly impossible. But this year at least one nominee for Best Foreign Film is easy to watch: Pawel Pawilkowski’s “Ida,” on Netflix.

Set in 1962, “Ida” is the story of a convent-raised orphan who, on the eve of taking her final vows to become a nun, is instructed by her Mother Superior to meet her only living relative, the aunt who refused to claim her. The young novitiate, Anna, does, and immediately learns that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and that her Jewish parents were murdered by their Catholic neighbors during World War II.

Her aunt Wanda, a resistance fighter during the war, became a prosecutor afterwards, punishing war criminals. But when she meets her niece, she is no longer working and deeply embittered, a lonely, promiscuous woman with a drinking problem. After initially rejecting Ida–clad as always in her nun’s habit–Wanda takes her to the family village to learn the truth about her parents’ deaths.

Shot in black-and-white, “Ida” is visually stunning, full of painterly, beautifully composed shots. The fact that actress who plays Ida, Agata Trzebuchowska, looks like a Vermeer subject only adds to the effect. The journey undertaken by the two women is fascinating, as it concerns not only the past but the present and future. Will Ida take her vows after finding her Jewish roots and tasting secular life? Will Wanda (the excellent Agata Kulesza) still be part of her life?

I loved this film and said so on Twitter. Moments later I got this response from a stranger: “Hogwash and lies-nothing more” along with this link,33543,i.html#ixzz3PeNHaSQN to a virulent review of “Ida” in a Polish Catholic newspaper. “I didn’t think it was a documentary,” I responded. Neither should anyone, but as “Ida” proves, some wounds don’t heal.

Mr. Blackwell Was My Neighbor

January 31, 2015 § 2 Comments

Mr. Blackwell

Mr. Blackwell

Kim Basinger in 1990

Kim Basinger in 1990

Grace Kelly in 1955 and Kim Basinger in 1998

Grace Kelly in 1955 and Kim Basinger in 1998

Many people have an Oscar fantasy, whether or not they have any connection to filmmaking. Most of these involve making a great speech that simultaneously expresses gratitude toward the deserving and snarkiness to the naysayers. But my Oscar fantasy concerns fashion: on the obligatory march down the red carpet, I respond to questions about my outfit and jewelry with, “They’re my own.” (Wait a minute!, you say. Writers and directors don’t wear borrowed gowns and jewels! Oh yes they do, even documentarians.)

If you’ve ever seen old newsreel footage of the Academy Awards from the days when ceremonies were held at the Roosevelt or Pantages, you’ll notice that all the actresses look gorgeous in their gowns and jewels. That’s because a) dressing well was a requirement of their contracts, and b) they’re wearing their own dresses. Even if they were lucky enough to have Edith Head or Adrian design something special for the event, actresses’ clothes were created for them, not six-foot models in Vogue.

This went until the 1960s, when the demise of the studio system coincided with a seismic shift in fashion. Suddenly it was hard to know what formal dress was anymore: long? short? pantsuit? (I’m leaving actors out of this discussion because black tie is pretty straightforward, variations in color and lapel size notwithstanding.) It was fashion chaos, and what ensued was a two-decade period where actresses came to the Academy Awards wearing everything under the sun, with memorable results. Leaving aside Cher and Bjork–because musicians tend toward outré fashion, no matter what the year–I particularly recall Kim Basinger’s 1990 white crinolined ball gown, which was strapless on one side and long-sleeved on the other. She designed it herself, and it made her look like a demented Cinderella. But it also added fun to the three-hour Oscar telecast.

This period of home-designed disasters might have gone on longer if not for the increasing power of Mr. Blackwell, a former fashion designer who found fame and fortune with his Worst Dressed List. Annually he would make the TV news with his round-up of the chief offenders of fashion, mostly actresses, though singers like Cher, Madonna and Britney Spears appeared regularly. It was a big deal. On the second Tuesday of each January, reporters from all the networks would gather at his house for live broadcasts about The List, which was widely discussed.

For sixteen years, I was Mr. Blackwell’s neighbor, living around the corner from his Italianate house on Irving Avenue. (His house happened to be down the block from the old Harold Lloyd house, which I wrote about in this post My street had houses on one side, and with only a tall hedge dividing his back yard from my street I could hear the Worst Dressed media circus. Because I had a dog that I walked around the block least twice a day, I soon struck up a superficial acquaintance with Mr. Blackwell and his longtime companion. Whenever I saw them in their front courtyard, we would say hello.

Years passed. My dog died and I got another. My son grew up. By the early 2000s, I saw Mr. Blackwell less often, and then not at all. Then in 2005 I moved–only 4 1/2 miles away, but it might as well have been to a different city. I didn’t think about Mr. Blackwell until I saw his obituary in 2008, after which I forgot about him again. Then last week Jason Sheeler published an article about Mr. Blackwell inEntertainment Weekly, and the memories came rushing back.

It’s not online, but “Mr. Blackwell: The Original Red Carpet Bitch” (EW, Jan. 30-Feb-4 2015) does a good job of summing up the life and work of Richard Selzer, a.k.a., Mr. Blackwell. There was much for me to learn: his real name, for one thing, and the fact that he was from Brooklyn and first worked as a hustler on Central Park West. From there he came to Hollywood, where he was an unsuccessful actor and a somewhat more successful agent and fashion designer. The Worst Dressed List grew out of a column he started writing in 1960 for American Weekly magazine. Originally it included the Best Dressed, but no one cared about fashion successes: everyone just wanted the failures. By 1964, he was famous, and would be for the next forty years.

According to the article, toward the end of his life, Mr. Blackwell became obsessed with his legacy, and for good reason. By the time he died in 2008, the red carpet had been transformed from an amusing hit-or-miss collection of party clothes to a serious business. Kim Basinger exemplifies the change: eight years after her fashion fiasco, she won Best Supporting Actress in a celadon satin gown by Escada that received universal praise. (It had to, since it was copied from Edith Head’s stunning draped gown for Grace Kelly when she won Best Actress for “The Country Girl” in 1955.) Playing It Safe was the new rule of red carpet fashion, and still is. For the past twenty years, few, if any, actresses have worn their own clothes and jewelry to the Oscars, and a large industry has grown up around the stylists who dress them in borrowed finery.

Though there are few fashion disasters on today’s red carpets, there is also less fun and no surprise. No one wants to be laughed at, whether by Mr. Blackwell, Joan and Melissa Rivers, US Magazine or EW itself, and anything truly original would be an open invitation to ridicule. In the end Mr. Blackwell’s Worst Dressed List spawned cookie cutter gowns in safe colors, borrowed jewels from Cartier, Tiffany and Harry Winston, and an overall blandness. What a shame he isn’t around to see it.

Oscar Snubs and Best Picture Fiascos, Past and Present

January 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

This One Won Best Picture

This One Won Best Picture

This One Didn't

This One Didn’t

The recent hand wringing over the lack of nominations for “Selma” beyond Best Picture was surprising, given the fact that most of the people writing about it should know that nominations are not given out of fairness or merit. (Profitability is also beside the point, otherwise at least one “Fast and Furious” or “Spiderman” movie would have been nominated for Best Picture by now.) It’s as if they’ve forgotten that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not some sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval-giving organization but a by-invitation-only private club whose members (according to a recent LA Times poll) are:

94% white
77% male
86% fifty or older, median age 62

Not exactly a picture of diversity, yet over the years these members have nominated a raft of offbeat choices for Best Picture, films like “The Tree of Life,” “Pulp Fiction,” and this year’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Winning is another matter: although other nominations come from the corresponding branches, every eligible member votes for the Best Picture nominations, which explains why the directors of Best Picture nominees aren’t necessarily nominated for Best Director. Given the size and occupational variety of the AMPAS electorate, the Best Picture winner is often not so much a matter of what everyone loves most as what everyone hates least. Accordingly, the winners are usually bland and sometimes the worst of the bunch. Does anyone really think “Crash,” is a better film than “Brokeback Mountain”? That “Forrest Gump” is better than “Pulp Fiction”? That “Dances with Wolves” is better than “Goodfellas”? Yet all the former won Best Picture; the latter lost.

My all-time favorite undeserving Best Picture winner is 1980’s “Ordinary People,” a family melodrama that even at the time of its release looked less like a feature film than a middling TV Movie-of-the-Week. But it starred Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore and was directed by Robert Redford, all formidable stars near height of their powers, so it beat not one but three vastly superior films: “Raging Bull,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and “The Elephant Man.” (If that weren’t enough, the voters gave the Best Director award to Robert Redford, who beat not only Martin Scorsese but David Lynch and Roman Polanski for the award. Did anyone really think Redford was the best director of the group?) Never mind: history determines the real winner. Today “Raging Bull” is considered one of the greatest films of all time, while “Ordinary People” is remembered mainly as the movie that introduced Timothy Hutton, whose Best Supporting Actor win is the apex of his career so far.

Whichever nominee wins this year’s award for Best Picture, the real best picture winner won’t be determined for at least a decade. How will we know? It’ll be the movie we’re still watching and thinking about. If the past is any indication, it won’t be the one with the Oscar.


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