Setsuko Hara, One of the World’s Great Actresses, Is Dead at 95

November 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

Setsuko Hara

Setsuko Hara

Although Setsuko Hara passed away on September 5th, her death was not announced until today. Retired from acting and public life since 1962, Hara maintained a Garbo-like silence for over five decades. She lived in Kamakura, Japan, where many of her most famous films–those directed by Yasujiro Ozu–were set.

In 2008, I wrote this about Hara and her work.

On Gender Discrimination, Women Directors and “Carol”

November 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in "Carol"

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in “Carol”

There’s a big article in the New York Times Magazine today about women filmmakers and the barriers they face in an industry that favors any young, unproven male director over a far more seasoned female director–because, you know, that’s what makes guys comfortable. This is true in all areas filmmaking–writers, editors, producers and cinematographers are overwhelmingly male. But for women directors, the gender bias is so overt that any other traditionally male workplace–the Army, police and fire departments, Congress–is a comparative bastion of equality.

Now that it’s been shown that only 1.9 percent of the directors of the 100 top-grossing films in 2013 and 2014 were women, the ACLU is investigating. Still, nothing has really changed, or is about to. Maureen Dowd, who wrote the article, says that male executives she interviewed called the issue of gender bias “bogus” and “a tempest in a teapot”–in other words, not even a problem. I’d say “read and weep,” except that the article says there’s no weeping allowed if you’re a woman director:

Last night I saw the beautiful “Carol,” one of the year’s best films. Set in the 1950s and based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, “Carol” is an honest-to-God woman’s picture, the kind we haven’t seen much of since the days when Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford’s names were on the marquee. “Carol” stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and was written by Phyllis Nagy. All the male roles are supporting ones. With that in mind, you’d think that “Carol” represents an advance for women in Hollywood, but no: it took thirteen years to reach the screen. Whose attachment gave it the green light? Not Blanchett’s, despite her star power and two Oscars. Not Nagy’s, though she is a well-regarded screenwriter and director (“Mrs. Harris”). In the end it was Todd Haynes who got “Carol” greenlit–a male director as usual, albeit one who specializes in films about women.

Justice For the Bronson Canyon Murder Victim, Nearly Four Years Later

November 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

Gabriel Campos-Martinez during his trial

Gabriel Campos-Martinez during his trial

Longtime readers of this blog will remember the shocking discovery of a man’s severed head, hands and feet in Bronson Canyon on January 17, 2012.
The victim was Hervey Coronado Medellin, 66, a retired airline worker who lived in Hollywood. Although the prime suspect was Medellin’s boyfriend, Gabriel Campos-Martinez, he wasn’t arrested until March of 2014, the same month human remains were found buried at the mouth of the Bronson Canyon Caves. Federal DNA tests, which were not returned until September of this year, showed the remains were Medellin’s.
The Bronson Caves

The Bronson Caves

On October 1st, Campos-Martinez was found guilty of first-degree murder. He faces a 25-year-life prison sentence and will be sentenced on November 16th.

Postscript: Gabriel Campos-Martinez received a sentence of 25 years to life.

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On Being Interviewed (Again) About the Hollywood Sign

October 23, 2015 § 1 Comment

Adrien Rappoport and Manon Heurtel of TF1's "50 Minutes Inside"/Hope Anderson Productions

Adrien Rappoport and Manon Heurtel of TF1’s “50 Minutes Inside”/Hope Anderson Productions

Lately my workdays have consisted of moving from writing project to writing project in monastic solitude. Although this suits me fine, others might compare it to self-imposed house arrest, despite my occasional escapes to the gym and grocery store. Yesterday would have been more of the usual, except that I spent the morning in front of the camera for an interview with two Miami-based French journalists for the TF1 program “50 Minutes Inside.”

Regular readers might recall my previous French TV interview, which took place at the Hollywood Sign in 2012. Not only was I overcome with vertigo but the rough terrain did something to my ankle that has never resolved itself. Even during the interview I realized it was the last time I would rappel down Mt. Lee to the letter H, and I was only slightly sorry about it.

Fortunately, this time the director, Manon Heurtel, was amenable to interviewing me at home, so after making myself presentable (sympathies to everyone who has to have camera-ready hair, makeup and clothes daily), I spent some time pretending to work at my computer before answering a lot of questions about the Hollywood Sign, its origins and its meaning.

As some have noticed, I’ve avoided writing about Hollywood Sign-related tourism issues for the past couple of years, but not because of email from readers hellbent on lighting the Sign at night. What did it was the howls of neighbors who disagreed with what I wrote, accusing me of trying to “speak for” them. (Note to those neighbors: write your own blog.) Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed because I wanted to show that the Hollywood Sign’s present status is a very recent, GPS-fueled phenomenon, and that whatever symbolism it possesses today appeared not only decades after its origins in 1923 but well after its reconstruction in 1978. I also wanted to explain the Sign’s beginnings as a billboard for Hollywoodland real estate, as well as its kinship to other municipal signs that, for lack of a mountain or evocative name, decorate water towers and hillsides across America, attracting no one.

No doubt all of this proved disappointing to Adrien Rappoport, my interviewer. “What do you feel when you see those letters?” he kept asking, as if I still might be capable of an epiphany about the Sign. Unfortunately, any charm I felt toward it when I moved here in 2005 faded long ago. Now that the Hollywood Sign is inextricably tied to noise, trash, bumper-to-bumper traffic and a complete lack of street parking on weekends, what I usually feel is annoyance. That emotion has its limits, so I moved on to the feelings of people who happily come here each day to pose for pictures. “I’m a star,” their expressions say, which explains the Hollywood Sign’s appeal: instead of making people feel small, it makes them feel big. Ultimately, the letters on Mt. Lee are a blank screen on which countless individual dreams are projected. As for the Sign’s meaning, it’s whatever people want it to be.

My interview on “Cinquante Minutes Inside” will be broadcast in France in February. Information about online availability to come.

The New Edition of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” Is Now For Sale On Vimeo

September 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a new edition of my first film, “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” adding new music and narration. I’ve also created two new shorts to accompany it, one on Thompson’s U.S. architecture and the other on my experiences since completing the original in 2001. For those who are unfamiliar with Jim Thompson’s work and life story, here’s a brief introduction:

Although the DVD is for sale on my website those who prefer a download can now purchase the documentary at

I would like to thank my editor, Kate Johnson, for her work on all phases of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” including much of the music as well as editing and graphic design.

I hope that Jim Thompson’s fascinating life and work will reach a wider audience than it did upon its initial release, which was not only shortly after 9/11 but before blogs, DVDs and streaming video.

Related article:

Paper Houses: On Writing About Japanese Architecture

August 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

The Teahouse and Garden of the Nezu Museum/Hope Anderson Productions

The Teahouse and Garden of the Nezu Museum/Hope Anderson Productions

Inside Kengo Kuma's Nezu Museum in Tokyo/Hope Anderson Productions

Inside Kengo Kuma’s Nezu Museum in Tokyo/Hope Anderson Productions

Although I started Under the Hollywood Sign to write about film, both the ones I’ve made and those I admire, from time to time I’ve written about architecture, particularly that of Los Angeles as seen in “Blade Runner,” “500 Days of Summer” and “Mad Men.” Recently I finished a novel whose protagonists are both architects. And this month I’ve been writing about Japanese architecture for the online design magazine HOUZZ (

Although I have no formal training in architecture, I’ve been studying it my entire adult life. I also had the good fortune to grow up in an architecturally significant mid-century house in Tokyo. Designed by the French-Czech architect Antonin Raymond, the house was a hybrid, a mostly western-style house that contained such Japanese features as a genkan (step-up entryway) a tokonoma (display alcove) and tsuboniwa (courtyard gardens). It was the only house I knew and I loved every inch of it, but it didn’t belong to my family. After we left Japan, it was torn down and replaced by an apartment building, which was later torn down and replaced by a much larger apartment building that obliterated what remained of the garden. Today the only reminder of my childhood home is its driveway. Yet the house lives on in my mind, indelible though it was demolished forty years ago.

During our years in Tokyo, my family made biannual visits to the United States. Each time someone would ask me, “Do you live in a paper house?” No matter how strenuously I said no, that person would insist, “we learned it in school–Japanese houses are made of wood and paper.” Somehow shoji, the wood and paper room dividers of traditional Japanese houses, were interpreted as structural materials to generations of American children.

While it’s been a long time since anyone has asked me whether I lived in a paper house, today I’m constantly confronted by “zen.” Used in English to describe anything even vaguely Japanese or minimalist, the term is as wrong as it is ubiquitous. Zen is an esoteric sect of Buddhism, and its use beyond specific temples and gardens is as discordant as “Jewish” and “Christian” would be if they were used to describe architecture and interior design.

Of course I realize the odds against my stopping the misuse of Zen. But in writing about real Japanese architecture–as opposed to “japanese-y” architecture–I can at least try.

Links to my first two articles for HOUZZ:

Other writing on architecture:–FOUR-ESSAYS?keyword=BLADE+RUNNER%3A+FOUR+ESSAYS&store=ebook

“The End of the Tour”: The Best Cinematic Portrayal Of A Writer To Date

August 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in "The End of the Tour"

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in “The End of the Tour”

There’s nothing more boring than watching someone write, yet that’s what movies about writers invariably do. Whether the work is done in longhand, on a typewriter or (most boring of all) a computer, showing a writer at work is an instant cliché, a visual dud that directors employ at their peril.

The scene that always springs to mind when I think about portrayals of writers is Jane Fonda as the blocked Lillian Hellman in “Julia,” ripping pages out of her typewriter before hurling it out a second-story window. This ridiculously improbable act at least looked good. And because (as it later came out), Hellman not only appropriated the story but the character of Julia, it’s no less false than anything else in the movie.

The Nineties brought two somewhat better portrayals of writers: David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” and Philip Kaufman’s “Henry and June.” In “Naked Lunch,” William Burroughs’ surrogate Bill Lee sells his pistol for a typewriter, an act whose significance can hardly be overstated. Once home, the typewriter becomes a large scarab with a talking anus that encourages Lee to confront his paranoia and repressed homosexuality. Thus the physical act of writing becomes a vivid journey of exploration, abetted by talking insects.

The more straightforward “Henry and June” concerns two very different writers: the working-class American expatriate Henry Miller, and the haute bourgeois matron and erotic diarist Anais Nin. Although I haven’t seen the movie in a while, I recall a mercifully small amount of physical writing. Instead, there is a lot of talking, sex, partying and bicycling, which in combination make a more convincing portrayal of writers than any amount of typing.

James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour,” concerns the five-day encounter of two writers named David: the novelist/journalist David Lipsky and the novelist/ essayist David Foster Wallace, in 1996. At the time, Wallace was at the crest of literary fame after the publication of his thousand-page masterpiece Infinite Jest, while Lipsky, whose first novel had just been published to little acclaim, was on a try-out with Rolling Stone. Lipsky joined Wallace on the last leg of his book tour to profile him for the magazine, whose editors clearly would have preferred a musician of any stripe. The article never ran, but after Wallace’s suicide in 2008 Lipsky turned the experience into a book called Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. This in turn became the source of “The End of the Tour.”

Both Jason Segel, as Wallace, and Jesse Eisenberg, as Lipsky, give masterful, nuanced performances, but the real success of the film is that Wallace is never shown in the dreadful act of writing, even in flashback. (Lipsky is occasionally shown at his laptop, but that’s journalism, and thus forgivable.) Everything about Wallace the writer is revealed in their conversations: his free-form philosophizing; his flashes of prescience; his crippling self-consciousness; his ambivalence over fame; and, most of all, his desperate desire to come off like an ordinary guy, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Because Donald Margulies’ script manages to convey all of this, viewers who’ve never read Infinite Jest will find the movie just as illuminating as those who have, a nearly miraculous feat.


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