March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
It was written by Fallon Fox, a transgender Mixed Martial Arts fighter who believes roles should go only to people who essentially are their characters, rather than to actors capable of becoming their characters. Skill counts for nothing to Fox, who believes any trans actor could have rendered Rayon better than Leto simply by virtue of being transgender. (By that measure, Matthew McConaughey shouldn’t have snagged the lead, since he is not a sexually promiscuous bullrider/electrician, yet Fox makes no mention of it.) At the heart of Fox’s thesis are two assumptions: that shared experience equals authenticity, and that for specific roles, the transgendered, disabled, etc.–should be “just given a chance” to “become stars.” But the latter would render the acting profession an equal-opportunity reality show, while the former is simply untrue.
Far from being an asset, an actor’s close similarity to his character reduces objectivity, a quality essential to the creation of a three-dimensional character. As a non-female, non-transgender actor, Leto had to dig deep within himself to play Rayon, and it shows. Far being a man in drag (see Lemmon and Curtis in “Some Like It Hot,” Hoffman in “Tootsie,” and Monty Python in any number of sketches), Rayon is fully realized. If she is an invention, she is an invention of herself, not the actor who plays her.
Rayon has no parallels in western theater or film, but I immediately recognized her counterparts in Kabuki, where all roles are played by men. Onnagata, the actors who play only female roles, are the most celebrated of Kabuki actors for obvious reasons. Like Rayon, they are not men imitating women. Rather, they are stylized, idealized females brought to life by men. Tamasaburo Bando, the greatest living onnagata, provides a mesmerizing example in “The Heron Maiden:”
Something comparable exists in Cubism–specifically, in Picasso’s paintings of women. Figures are deconstructed and rearranged until they are radically changed, yet their femininity emerges in full force. The geometry of Cubism shows the women in greater complexity than in realism, which presents a single viewpoint. There are also messages encoded in the Picasso’s shifting angles and planes. In “La Reve,” below, the fact that Marie-Therese Walter’s face forms a heart speaks volumes about Picasso’s love for her, while the triangle of her hands points to her pubis–a scandalous detail that was missed by no one when the painting was new.
Deconstruction requires distance, and that brings me back to Rayon. It is Leto’s remove from the character that allows him to explore her in archeological depth, something a transgender actor drawing on her own experience could not. The result is a deeply felt, complex character that Leto embodies to stunning result. Like Tamasaburo Bando and Picasso, Leto never stoops to imitation; instead, he unlocks Rayon’s essence and reveals it to the world.
March 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
Two back-to-back storms have brought more rain to Los Angeles in the past three days than has fallen in the past year–in some areas, twice as much. In Beachwood Canyon at least two trees have fallen, and one of them caused a power failure for some residents last night. There has been some flooding and a lot of mud, but today the Canyon looks green and fresh. From the Farmer’s Market this morning the Hollywood Sign was invisible, shrouded in mist and clouds.
Grey weather and intermittant showers have reduced the Canyon’s tourist traffic dramatically, since most people want their photos of the Hollywood Sign against a blue background. But while walking around the neighborhood a little while ago, I met a visitor from Antwerp who was undeterred by the less-than-ideal conditions. It was his only day to see the Sign, and I was glad to direct him to a good–and no doubt uncrowded–spot for picture-taking.
February 17, 2014 § 1 Comment
It was with great interest that I read this article on proposed plans for Silver Lake Reservoir, which will soon be decommissioned as LA’s water supply is moved underground. There are proposals for a swimming area, a beach and an esplanade, any of which would be a boon for park-starved Angelenos.
New recreational facilities would make Silver Lake Reservoir a welcome destination for tourists as well. Perhaps the redesigned Reservoir would grow popular enough to siphon some of the Beachwood’s tourist traffic to an area that is far more accessible than Beachwood Canyon. I can dream, can’t I?
February 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
Longtime readers of Under the Hollywood Sign might recall my 2010 post on cultural and linguistic misunderstandings in American reviews of Japanese films.
In it I talked about two films by Hirokazu Kore-eda, “Nobody Knows,” and “Still Walking,” both of which were significantly misinterpreted by American critics. Since then, Kore-eda has gotten better subtitling and some of the critics have gotten more savvy: in fact, Manohla Dargis got through her review of his latest film “Like Father, Like Son,” without making any gaffes.
“Like Father, Like Son,” which won the 2013 Jury Prize at Cannes, is the story of two boys switched at birth and given to two very different sets of parents. (There have been a number of baby-switching cases in Japan, including a particularly tragic one that was only just resolved, sixty years after the two newborns were given to the wrong parents.) The film’s protagonists are the Nonomiyas, a well-off Tokyo architect and his stay-at-home wife, whose adorable son Keita turns out to be biologically unrelated. (There’s a casting problem here, as Keita actually resembles Nonomiya more than his biological son does.) The Nonomiyas’ biological son Ryusei has been raised by the Sakais, an earthy working class couple who own an electrical supply shop in a provincial city and have two younger children. Informed of the DNA results when the boys are six, Nonomiya is not only determined to have Ryusei returned but to hold onto Keita. Despite his workaholic life and tepid interest in fatherhood, Nonomiya uses his means, education and sleek Tokyo apartment as justification for gaining a son and keeping the one he has raised. Before he broaches the subject with the Sakais, however, a period of visitations ensues, with Keita having boisterous fun with the Sakai family and Ryusei cooped up in the apartment with Mrs. Nonomiya, since his father is usually working.
What’s fascinating about the story is not so much the obvious lesson–that your child is the one you’ve raised, regardless of blood–but the class element, and this is what the critics mostly missed. Throughout much of the post-WWII era, Japan has prided itself on being a middle-class country, one in which the vast majority share a similar standard of living. No more: while Japan still lacks the yawning income and cultural divisions of the United States, its middle-class society is more ideal than reality at this juncture. In “Like Father, Like Son,” Kore-eda makes this point by not having any middle-class characters. The extremely upper-middle-class Nonomiya is horrified at the Sakais’ electrical shop, the back of which constitutes their home, a typical arrangement in Japan. For their part, the Sakais compare the Nonomiya’s highrise apartment to a hotel–and not in a good way. The two families even eat differently, a significant factor in a country whose cuisine is shared across class lines. The Nonomiyas welcome Ryusei with sukiyaki, an extravagantly expensive meal, while the Sakais feed Keita fried gyoza, a festive but cheap treat.
But the real cultural difference comes at bath time: Ryusei is explicitly instructed to bathe alone, while the Sakai père bathes with his two boys. Anthony Lane, who reviews for The New Yorker, has it backwards when he writes,”[Sakai] even takes baths with the children.” Japanese bathtubs are deep soaking tubs; all the washing and rinsing is done with buckets before entering. Small children can’t manage either part of the process on their own, hence the tradition of bathing en famille when the kids are young. (The only reason the entire Sakai family isn’t bathing at the same time is because their tub is too small.) Thus the unusual bathing custom in the film is the Nonomiyas’ solitary western-style one.
Lane goes on to refer to Nonomiya as a “middle-class professional,” but his fancy apartment building and black Lexus are well beyond the grasp of middle-class Japanese. Not only is he a high-earning architect at an impressive firm but, at forty, he has much of his lucrative career still ahead of him, whether or not he stays on the fast track.
Nevertheless, Lane wraps up the review by making an excellent point: that although Nonomiya is the main character, his wife and Mrs. Sakai are the ones who manage “the righting of elusive wrongs.” Lane then suggests a better title for the American remake, “Like Mother, Like Son.” Which would be great if the Japanese title were actually “Like Father, Like Son,” but “Soshite Chichi Ni Naru” translates “And I Become Your Dad,” a typically vague Japanese title. Dreamworks will probably call its version something else entirely, but whatever else is lost in translation I’m sure the class divisions will come through loud and clear.
February 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
The year before last, I wrote a couple of pieces about New York and Los Angeles and their shifting fortunes as artistic capitals:
Today I read an essay by Moby that beautifully describes the mutability and wildness of Los Angeles as well as its artistic ferment. About his reasons for moving here from New York, he writes:
There’s a sense that New Yorkers never fail, but if they do, they’re exorcised from memory, kind of like Trotsky in early pictures of the Soviet Communist Politburo. In New York you can be easily overwhelmed by how much success everyone else seems to be having, whereas in L.A., everybody publicly fails at some point—even the most successful people. A writer’s screenplay may be turned into a major movie, but there’s a good chance her next five screenplays won’t even get picked up. An actor may star in acclaimed films for two years, then go a decade without work. A musician who has sold well might put out a complete failure of a record—then bounce back with the next one. Experimentation and a grudging familiarity with occasional failure are part of L.A.’s ethos.
Maybe I’m romanticizing failure, but when it’s shared, it can be emancipating and even create solidarity.
The full essay can be seen here:
January 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
From mid-October to mid-December of last year, I did little else in the evenings but watch “Breaking Bad”–all sixty-two episodes in two electrifying months. During that time, I stopped reading books and rarely went out, the better to devote myself to the sprawling splendor of Vince Gilligan’s epic. To say that it was a compelling experience doesn’t do it justice: “Breaking Bad” dominated my thoughts, conversations and dreams. I loved it, although every so often I’d have to take a night or two off in order to get some sleep.
I wasn’t far into the first episode when I experienced the shock of recognition for an earlier work that I know very well. “Ikiru,” (“To Live”) is a 1952 Kurosawa classic about a colorless bureaucrat’s effort to redeem his life in the face of a brick wall diagnosis of stomach cancer. The film’s echoes are everywhere in “Breaking Bad,” not only in the two protagonists’ existential struggles, but in their relationships with disapproving, uncomprehending families and their formation of new and unlikely alliances with strangers. Kanji Watanabe and Walter White even signal their inner transformations in the same outward manner: by purchasing and wearing surprising new hats.
Despite the film and TV program’s very different cultures and time periods (post-Occupation Tokyo versus contemporary Albuquerque), the similarities between them are too close and numerous to be coincidental. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that Vince Gilligan, the creator of “Breaking Bad,” confirmed the “Ikiru” connection in an interview: http://www.npr.org/2011/09/19/140111200/breaking-bad-vince-gilligan-on-meth-and-morals?utm_medium=Email&utm_source=share&utm_campaign=
My exploration of “Ikiru,” “Breaking Bad,” and their protagonists can be found in Pages:
January 20, 2014 § 1 Comment
Several months ago, Jeep Grand Cherokee started running a commercial set to California’s State Song. I wrote about it and the song’s origins in this post http://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/i-love-you-california-the-song-the-era-and-the-ad/
Lately I’ve noticed that increasing numbers of visitors to Beachwood Canyon expect to be able to drive to the Hollywood Sign–not to its vicinity or to a lookout, but all the way up to it. Over the weekend it finally occurred to me that the Jeep ad, still in heavy rotation, might have something to do with this idea, so I watched it a few times.
Six seconds in, we see a Grand Cherokee ascending a hill that appears to be directly beneath the Sign; from the trajectory, it seems clear the Jeep is heading straight up to it. But it’s not, and it can’t. The hill in question is the so-called Millennium Plateau* which lies not directly under the Sign but east and far south of it. Although Jeep filmed at the Plateau, you can’t drive there: the road is closed except to police and fire vehicles, and to cars on official business. (Disclosure: I have been permitted to drive up the road to an area above the Sign for filming purposes on two occasions.) You could walk to the Plateau, but even if you’re up for a considerable hike, it’s nowhere near spitting distance to the Hollywood Sign. It’s not even the best view.
As long as we’re on the subject of tourist traffic in Hollywoodland, this weekend saw some of the worst traffic ever–and it’s only January. Saturday brought total gridlock on the streets leading to Lake Hollywood Park. On several blocks of Beachwood Drive north of the Gates, there was no street parking at all. The merchants in Beachwood Village have opposed parking restrictions near the stores on the grounds that restrictions would affect their businesses, but as far as I could see everyone who parked on my block was heading in the opposite direction, toward the Sign. Most of these sightseers were gone for hours, and the car with out-of-state plates blocking my garage sat there all day.
The influx of cars has become so severe that one elderly resident apparently died while waiting for paramedics who couldn’t get through a the traffic jam at the north end of Beachwood Drive. As a result of constant gridlock, many of our streets–including upper Beachwood Drive–will soon get permit parking. While I’m happy for those residents, my neighbors and I can forget about ever having friends or family over during daylight hours: all the spaces outside our houses will be taken up by tourists’ cars.
Those who say “You knew the Sign was there when you moved in,” should realize that this wasn’t the situation when we moved in; it dates to when GPS became ubiquitous on phones and has become a crisis only in the past two years. The tourist season is now year-round and affects us daily, and rarely in a good way. So here’s some advice for visitors: if you must come to Hollywoodland, please use public transportation to the Village and prepare to walk. Buy something more than bottled water from the Market and Cafe, especially if you expect to use the restrooms. And don’t smoke anywhere, including in your car. In a bone-dry canyon during the worst drought in memory, one spark equals catastrophe.
*The Plateau is where camera crews filmed the light show at the Hollywood Sign on New Year’s Eve of 1999. The lighted Sign drew such a stampede of cars into the Canyon that all access, including that of emergency vehicles, was completely blocked. It’s a nightmare that haunts residents to this day.