August 1, 2017 § Leave a comment
My first job after college was an odd mix of performing arts and social work. Each week, San Francisco’s theaters, dance and opera companies and orchestras would funnel their unsold tickets to my firm, which would distribute them to social service groups that could fill seats on short notice. Our clients were low-income seniors, recovering alcoholics, pregnant teenage girls and the mentally ill, all of them living or receiving care in facilities.
It was a job that put me in daily phone contact with theater managers, social workers and, in the case of the seniors and alcoholics, the clients themselves. First came the tickets, then the matching of shows to clients: nothing violent for the mental patients, for example, and nothing depressing for the pregnant girls. The alcoholics were the most manipulative, missing their call-in deadlines and refusing all opera, symphony and ballet. The mental patients were the most frequent no-shows and disrupters, while the pregnant girls never wanted to see anything. The seniors were by far the most reliable, and game for almost anything. Consequently, they were our most frequent clients.
Each group was escorted by one of our volunteers, local culture enthusiasts who lacked the income to see live events. They went to most of the performances, but occasionally my boss would assign me a show she thought I should see. One of these was a revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West” at the Magic Theater, which had launched first production of the play in 1980. I had never seen a Shepard play before and probably would have been impressed by any of them, but seeing “True West” in the small theater where it originated was an indelible experience. As the brothers Austin and Lee argued, drank, fought and switched personalities, I knew I was seeing a work of genius.
Sam Shepard’s side career as an actor certainly garnered him more fame and money than his career as a playwright, and like most people I’ve seen a lot of his movies. Most put him in supporting roles, where his handsome, lone cowboy looks and quiet charisma had maximum impact. Each time he appeared onscreen, whether in “Frances,” “Crimes of the Heart,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” or any number of others, I felt a wave of excitement followed by a sense of relief. Whenever Shepard showed up, the film always got better.
Hearing of his death yesterday made me wonder who would fill his shoes, both as a playwright and actor. In the former category, comparisons to Williams and O’Neill are easier than those to younger American playwrights, whose work seems paler and less universal. And in an era where young American actors stay boyish throughout their careers, the Sam Shepard roles increasingly go to Australian, Irish, Scottish or English actors. Shepard himself was often compared to Gary Cooper, a Montana native he resembled both physically and stylistically, but who will remind us of Sam Shepard?
June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
“Funeral Parade of Roses,” by the late Toshio Matsumoto, premiered in Japan in 1969 but was not seen in the United States until 1970, probably because of its depictions of gay sex, drug use and violence. Matsumoto, who for most of his career was an academic and an experimental filmmaker, sets his story in the demimonde of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. His characters are gangsters, filmmakers, student rioters and trans women. Most of the action takes place in a gay club whose gangster owner, Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), is pitting Leda, the “mama” (Osamu Ogasawara), against a younger rival, Eddie (Peter), who aspires to succeed her as the hostess. As the lover of both Leda and Eddie, Gonda sets in motion a tragedy of Greek proportions.
“Funeral Parade of Roses” is at once an art film, a black comedy, a feature film, soft core porn, a film-within-a-film, a horror flick, a political commentary and a retelling of “Odeipus Rex”–and I’ve probably missed a few genres. It references Man Ray’s photographs and French Cinema, and is beautiful, messy and brilliant. The film was a major influence on Stanley Kubrick, who borrowed from it in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Despite being nearly fifty years old, “Funeral Parade of Roses” received a wildly enthusiastic reception from a mostly young audience at Cinefamily the night I saw it. It will be released on DVD and deserves its praise.
“Oh, Lucy” directed and co-written by Atsuko Hirayanagi, was well received at Cannes this year. The story of a 55-year-old single woman in Tokyo who unexpectedly changes her life, the film deals in Japanese themes (suicide by train, office ladies, yakuza) as well as universal ones (workplace politics, alienation and family relationships).
Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a hoarder and office drone who witnesses a suicide off the tracks on her way home one evening–in fact, the man bids her goodbye before jumping. Soon afterwards, her niece Mika persuades Setsuko to buy a package of English lessons from her. Despite having no interest in learning English, Setsuko hands over the money and goes to the class which, oddly, is held in a yakuza establishment in Shinjuku.
“I’m a hugger,” says the American teacher, John (Josh Hartnett). He promptly wraps her in an embrace, christens her Lucy and makes her wear a blonde wig, all of which he claims will help her to learn English. Galvanized by his method, Lucy develops a crush on John as well as a tentative friendship with a fellow student, Tom (Koji Yakusho). When John abruptly disappears along with Mika, Lucy wastes no time in flying to Los Angeles to find him, accompanied by her estranged sister Ayako, Mika’s mother. Once they find John, they set out on a road trip to San Diego in search of Mika. There, liberated and unmoored, Lucy wreaks havoc on everyone around her. A black comedy that gets progressively darker before its hopeful ending, “Oh, Lucy” is as unpredictable and indelible as its heroine. It’s well worth seeing.
May 2, 2017 § Leave a comment
On Sunday my architect friend Steven Corley Randel was visiting me from Palm Springs. We had listened to KCRW’s “DNA” and been intrigued by the segment on the new house that Thom Mayne designed for himself and his wife, so we decided to drive over and take a look. (Though its location was given on the show, I won’t repeat it here.) After seeing what we could of the house from outside the fence, we stood on the sidewalk and talked about it. A man pulled up in a car and got out, at which point we realized it was the architect and homeowner himself. Steve and I introduced ourselves, complimented the design and were soon taking an exclusive tour. I still don’t know why Thom Mayne let us into his home, or why he spent half an hour showing us around, but he couldn’t have been more gracious.
Though I loved the house and said so, I couldn’t bring myself tell Mayne how much his architecture has meant to me. Before he won the Pritzker Prize and designed major projects for the Federal government, Caltrans and other big clients, he designed 72 Market Street, a restaurant in Venice I discovered as a visitor to Los Angeles in the late 80’s. Though the restaurant closed long ago and I have no memories of the food, I still remember the architecture: a soaring, modern space of great beauty and power. I also remember how I felt each time I was there: transformed into my best self.
Mayne also designed two other restaurants that I frequented after I moved to town: Kate Mantilini and Angeli, both of which have closed in recent years. Angeli was where my son grew up; we started eating there when he was five and went regularly for the next twenty years. Like Mayne’s other restaurants, Angeli remained fresh and modern looking throughout its lifetime, and was as attractive in daylight as it was at night. Nothing about the design detracted from the food; on the contrary, it enhanced it.
Great architecture elevates everyone and everything it touches, which is why Thom Mayne’s work is celebrated. I’ll never forget meeting him and seeing his house, and I’m grateful and still more than a little amazed that it happened.
April 9, 2017 § 1 Comment
Those who’ve seen my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” will remember my interview with the musician Alan Brackett, a longtime Hollywoodland resident who also contributed the song that accompanies the end credits. Brackett has just published an illuminating memoir, Almost Famous: Journey to the Summer of Love, about his early life in Santa Barbara, where he was a child performer, and his subsequent musical career in Los Angeles during the 1960’s.
“I believe I helped kill [folk music] with…over-exposure,” he writes refreshingly. Brackett isn’t kidding: before founding the seminal psychedelic band the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, he was a successful folk musician, most notably in the Hillside Singers, a quartet that toured the country during the height of the folk craze in the early 1960’s, when he was still a teenager.
The other reason for folk’s demise, of course, was the British Invasion, whose seismic influence Brackett grasped as he enlisted in the Marines in 1964, ahead of being drafted. After six months of service he returned to a changed world, musically and socially: the 60’s had begun in earnest. His new band (first called The Young Swingers, then The Ashes) played rock, and after a few more incarnations and personnel changes became the Peanut Butter Conspiracy in 1966. The band signed with Columbia, cut an album and quickly became famous. Brackett, who played bass, was its main songwriter.
PBC had a woman as its lead singer, Barbara “Sandi” Robison, which probably contributed to its rivalry with the Jefferson Airplane, which was led first by Signe Anderson and then Grace Slick. (Beyond that fact, the Airplane’s drummer, Spencer Dryden, had been a member of The Ashes.) In an affecting aside, Brackett talks about manager Bill Graham’s reaction to the PBC’s getting better reviews than the Jefferson Airplane did: he kept the band off any bill that included the Airplane, effectively cutting off the PBC’s chances to play festivals and large venues across the country.
While “Almost Famous” will appeal most to those who remember the Peanut Butter Conspiracy and its heyday, anyone can appreciate the whirlwind atmosphere of the late 1960s music scene. Within a few months of its founding, the PBC not only had a major label recording contract but was billed with every famous band and musician of the day. The Doors, the Association, Iron Butterfly and the Byrds are a few of the bands Brackett knows well, and Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley and Frank Zappa enliven his anecdotes. His memories are all the more affecting because many of these musicians are gone, along with the Los Angeles they inhabited so brightly.
“Almost Famous” has some drawbacks: it’s heavy on childhood reminiscences and light on Brackett’s later life, including a stint in music publishing and a longer career as a Hollywood prop master. It also could have benefitted from a cleanup of the spelling, punctuation and grammar. Nevertheless, the book is a valuable account of an important time in American culture, and well worth reading.
March 8, 2017 § Leave a comment
The director who won:
And those who didn’t:
On this International Women’s Day, it’s worth noting that the average American fire department offers more opportunities for women than the film and television industry. I’m not just talking about women directors, though the fact that only four women have been nominated for the Best Director Academy Award in the Oscars’ 89-year history looks really bad, as does the fact that only one has won. I’m talking about opportunities for women across the board. The statistics are not only deplorable but actually getting worse.
The 2016 annual report of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film states:
In 2016, women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 2 percentage points from last year and is even with the percentage achieved in 1998.
Women accounted for 7% of directors, down 2 percentage points from 9% in 2015 and 1998. Last year, 92% of films had no female directors. In other roles, women comprised 13% of writers, 17% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 17% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers.
This year’s study also found that only 3% of composers working on the top 250 films were women.
What is to be done? It’s not enough to increase the female and minority membership of the Academy, which remains overwhelmingly white, male and old. The executives who greenlight films and TV shows have to change too, both in their gender makeup and outlook. It’s one thing to have more women executives who embrace the status quo, and another to have female–and male–executives who champion women writers, directors, cinematographers and composers. Another factor plaguing film and television is the lack of urgency. As long as the powers that be think things are fine as they are, nothing will change.
February 3, 2017 § 1 Comment
One of the bright spots of the past couple of months has been my discovery of two new Japanese series on Netflix, both excellent. Both shows are based on books: “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories” (“Shinya Shukudou“) on a manga (graphic novel) series, and “Sparks” (“Hibana“) on a novel. Season One for both series is available on Netflix, and both will continue.
“Midnight Diner,” takes place in one of the countless small, owner-operated restaurants located on side streets throughout Tokyo. What distinguishes this one is its hours–midnight to 7am–and its owner, a handsome, stoic man known as Master (Kaoru Kobayashi). Master’s facial scar and bearing suggest a mysterious past as a sword fighter, though it is never discussed. In his current life, Master is a talented cook who runs a tight ship: only one item on the menu but endless possibilities, based on ingredients he is given or has at hand. And though diverse viewpoints are welcome in the diner, there’s no fighting allowed.
Each episode is named for a different dish, most of which evoke strong feelings of nostalgia for those who order them. In “Corn Dog,” an old, washed- up comedian continues to treat his former protégé, now a successful TV actor, as his lackey. In “Tan-Men” (a kind of ramen), an actress-turned-chauffeur meets a late night D.J., who later recognizes her as the superhero idol of his youth. “Ham Cutlet” follows a soon-to-be-retired lawyer and his long-lost stepbrother who is fighting eviction from a city-owned apartment building.
Though each episode features different people, a core group of regulars provide both color and continuity. They include bar hostesses, two men who dress as women and a group of ladies who are either insomniacs or office workers on the night shift. Though separated by gender, sexual orientation and income, all are loyal to Master, who observes the action and offers sage counsel.
There’s a beautiful melancholy to the series that is at once universal and very Japanese. Watching it, I felt as if Yasujiro Ozu, Edward Hopper and the writers of “Cheers” had gotten together to make “Midnight Diner;” it’s that good.
Less accessible but no less fascinating is “Sparks,” which follows a two sets of Manzai stand-up comedians as their careers rise and fall. Manzai, which originated during the Heian Period (8th-12th centuries) but is strongly identified with Osaka during the Meji Era, involves rapid-fire bantering between a straight man (tsukkomi) and a fool (boke).
When the series opens, the young boke protagonist, Tokunaga (Kento Hayashi), and his partner arrive in Atami, a seaside resort city, to perform at its summer festival. Though they bomb, Tokunaga strikes up a fateful friendship with Kamiya (Kazuki Namioka), the boke of an older, more skillful duo, and quickly becomes his protégé. As the series progresses, Tokunaga’s star rises while Kamiya’s falls, changing but not destroying their friendship, which (like those in “Midnight Diner”) is cemented over restaurant meals.
For Japanese speakers, “Sparks” offers a bonus: it’s a crash course in slang-laden, Kansai dialect, male Japanese. For everyone else, it’s a bromance that sheds light on an ancient but still vital Japanese comedy tradition. Although it took me a few episodes to get hooked on it, I’m looking forward to Season Two.
January 10, 2017 § Leave a comment
Carrie Fisher’s death on December 27th was an unexpected tragedy: she had suffered a massive heart attack on her flight from London on December 23rd, the nightmare scenario of every frequent flier. Why December 23rd? Why London? I soon learned she was flying back from filming the Amazon series “Catastrophe,” in which she plays Rob Delaney’s mother. As for the timing, it was obvious: she had made sure to get home in time for Christmas.
The death of her mother, Debbie Reynolds, of a stroke on December 28th was shocking in its timing, though not as unexpected: Reynolds was 84 and had been in poor health. Although a mordant joke circulated that Debbie had managed to upstage her daughter one last time, her death underscored their devoted relationship: the two were next-door neighbors on a compound in Beverly Hills and in daily contact.
Both women became famous for films they made at 19: Reynolds for “Singing in the Rain” and Fisher for “Star Wars,” yet their careers couldn’t have been more different. Reynolds was a studio creation, an MGM musical star whose cabaret act lasted more than fifty years. She wanted a similar career for her daughter, bringing her onstage to sing from the age of 13, but despite an excellent voice–strong, bluesy and jazzy–Fisher blazed her own trail. After a stellar film debut in “Shampoo,” in which the 17-year-old fed, interrogated and seduced Warren Beatty in two riveting scenes, she beat out every young actress in Hollywood for the role of Princess Leia. “Star Wars” would have been enough for most people, but Fisher went on to write books: five novels (including Postcards from the Edge, which became a feature film) and three memoirs, one of which, Wishful Drinking, became a one-woman show.
Beyond her published writing, Carrie Fisher was for decades a sought-after screenwriter, not only on original work but on other people’s screenplays. Punching up scripts was her bread and butter and she did it well, adding jokes and fleshing out characters in the “Star Wars” series and in comedies like “Hook,” “Sister Act,” and “Made in America.” She also wrote for the Academy Awards, among many other TV shows. Despite her excellent acting in films like “When Harry Met Sally,” to me she was a writer first and an actress second.
It was through writing that I had my only encounter with Carrie Fisher, at a literary event in the mid-2000’s. It was a small, private gathering so I expected to meet her, but when she arrived–late, badly groomed and out of sorts–I knew it was not to be. As the anxious hosts huddled around Fisher, I sensed she would have rather been anywhere else, yet she had dragged herself to their house after sprinkling glitter in her unwashed hair. I can’t pretend that her brief reading was good, but after joking about the glitter she pushed through it, and probably with more difficulty than any of us knew. Her mother, a tireless trouper, taught her well.
Afterwards her struggles with bi-polar disorder led to hospitalization and shock therapy, which in turn led to a career resurgence–more books, the “Wishful Drinking” show, two more “Star Wars” movies and “Catastrophe.” Fisher’s late work included a documentary, “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” which aired posthumously on HBO last weekend. Intended as a tribute to her mother, the film now seems a testament to the kind of family values that aren’t supposed to exist in Hollywood. Of course they do, but the Fisher-Reynolds bond was exceptionally strong, and in the end unbreakable.