The “Mad Men” Season Finale, Part II: It’s the Light

June 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

What's Wrong with this Picture?/Courtesy AMC

What’s Wrong with this Picture?/Courtesy AMC

While it’s true that the variety of architectural styles found in Los Angeles allows “Mad Men,” set in and around New York, to be filmed here, there’s one thing that always gives it away: the light. Simply put, the light in Los Angeles is so different from the light found anywhere else in the world (with one exception; more on that later) that, like a brilliant supporting actor, it steals every scene.

The last scene of the season finale provides an excellent example. As Don Draper and his children approach his decrepit childhood home in Pennsylvania they throw long, sharply defined shadows on the street. Though it’s possible to throw shadows in the eastern United States in late fall or around the winter solstice, the 40 degree latitude in Pennsylvania would produce shorter shadows, while the weaker light would make them less defined.

Light is perhaps the greatest asset of the Southland, something that is constantly marveled at, studied, painted and written about. When people in LA talk about the climate, they are really talking about the quality of light, which at its fullest produces not only dramatic shadows but, depending on the time of year, no shadows at all. The best exploration of the light here, in my opinion, is contained in the 1998 New Yorker article, “L.A. Glows,” by Lawrence Weschler. In talking to visual artists, poets and scientists about LA’s light, Weschler discovers why the city looks the way it does. The astronomer Hal Zirin says it best:

…what happens here is that ocean-cooled air drifts in over the coastal plain and gets trapped beneath the warm desert air floating in over the mountains to the east. That’s the famous thermal inversion, and the opposite of the usual arrangement, where the warm surface air progressively cools as it rises. And the atmosphere below the inversion layer is incredibly stable….go out to the Santa Monica palisade and gaze out over the cool water. It’s completely clear and distinct, clean out to the horizon. The heat rising from the ground in most places…is in turn what makes stars shimmer and twinkle in the night sky….if you’re an astronomer you want your star–or for that matter, your sun–to be distortion-free: solid as a rock. And that’s what you get here. The stars don’t twinkle in L.A.

I had a dramatic experience of this phenomenon a few days ago, while looking down Fairfax Avenue. It was an exceptionally clear day that allowed me to see all the way to the ocean, some thirty miles south. But even more amazing than seeing blue in the distance was the fact that the furthest hills and houses were as sharply defined as those in the near distance. As I stared, the total clarity of the light threw me into what one of Weschler’s interviewees called “egoless bliss.”

But the true significance of the light in Los Angeles isn’t the mood it generates, or the peculiar suspension of time that makes Rip Van Winkles of us all. (To quote Orson Welles, “you sit down, you’re twenty-five, and when you get up, you’re sixty-two.”) It’s the reason the movie industry relocated to Los Angeles from the East Coast during the Silent Era: movies could be shot year-round with little or no artificial lighting. Roofless sets allowed interior scenes to be shot by natural light as well. By 1911, Los Angeles was the center of the movie industry, and has been ever since.

So when Don and the kids threw sharp shadows that were taller than they were, I laughed in recognition: they could only be in LA. But those who think there’s no place else on earth with LA’s light haven’t seen Morocco, the world’s only other coastal desert. Morocco’s identical thermal inversion creates the same light: strong, clear and unforgettable.

Additional Source:

“L.A. Glows,” by Lawrence Weschler. The New Yorker, February 23, 1998.

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The “Mad Men” Finale, Part I: Don Draper’s Childhood Home

June 27, 2013 § 1 Comment

What's Wrong with this Picture?/Courtesy AMC

Don and the Kids Confront His Past/Courtesy AMC

Sunday night’s season finale of “Mad Men was compelling for many reasons, but most of all for its amazing last scene in which (spoiler alert!) Don Draper boldly takes his three children to see his childhood home, a crumbling Victorian brothel operated by his uncle. “This is a bad neighborhood!” Bobby pipes when they stop, and Sally gives Don a look that contains enough dialogue for an entire episode.

Though the house is supposed to be somewhere in Pennsylvania, the location isn’t, and neither are any of the other places pictured in the show, for “Mad Men” is entirely made in Los Angeles. The interiors are filmed at Los Angeles Center Studios, the former Union Oil Company headquarters at the western edge of downtown. The complex, still modern-looking after 53 years, is by Pereira and Luckman, the firm that designed LAX’s Theme Building and other mid-century classics. LACC’s exterior can be seen in “Fight Club” and countless other movies and TV shows. Other locations include local theaters, clubs, bars, restaurants and private homes built between the 1880s and 1960s. Here is a guide to some of them:

So much for the tired idea that Los Angeles is a “new” city. Even if creator Matthew Weiner had wanted to, he couldn’t have shot “Mad Men” in New York, as many of the real locations have been altered or demolished. As much as it surprises New Yorkers, downtown Los Angeles contains many more authentic early to mid-20th century exteriors than Manhattan, which is why so many movies set in New York are shot here. The array of styles in the houses alone–Don and Betty’s Scarsdale colonial, Betty and Henry’s brick Victorian pile, Anna Draper’s Craftsman, the jet setters’ Palm Springs modern–proves that Los Angeles is unmatched as an architectural treasure trove.

But back to the whorehouse. From its style, elevation and stone walls, I knew it had to be located in Angelino Heights, just north of downtown, but where? Having just toured Carroll Avenue, Angelino Heights’ most famous street of Queen Anne houses, the week before, I knew that most had been restored. Here’s a photo of one of the best:

Victorian House on Carroll Avenue in Angelino Heights/Hope Anderson Productions

Victorian House on Carroll Avenue in Angelino Heights/Hope Anderson Productions

As for the unrestored houses, even the worst didn’t look as bad as Don’s childhood home.

Yesterday the mystery was solved by a friend, who led me to this link:

The house is on Carroll Avenue, but was heavily manipulated in post-production. Not long ago, it wouldn’t have been hard to find a house in Angelino Heights that needed no special effects to look decrepit, but gentrification has transformed Angelino Heights to the point where”Mad Men” had use CGI.

Next time: It’s the Light.

Beachwood’s Animal Kingdom

June 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

During the past week, I’ve discovered both coyote and racoon footprints on the sheet that covers my outdoor chaise longue, proof that both have been inside my fenced yard. Though I frequently see coyotes outside my house, I had never seen a racoon until Monday evening, when this one passed by my back door.

A Visiting Racoon 6/3/13/All Photos Hope Anderson Productions

It got in by scaling down the branches that cover the steep hillside behind my back fence. Here it is in retreat:

I ended the week with a much tamer animal encounter, though it was just as unexpected. This afternoon three horses were hitched up outside the Beachwood Cafe, calmly waiting for their owners to finish their lunch. They had come through Griffith Park and were in Beachwood for the first time, but they seemed very much at home here.

Millennium Hollywood Hearing Continued Until June 18th

June 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

The June 4th hearing of the Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee regarding the Millennium Hollywood Project was continued at the request of the developer. The new hearing date is Tuesday, June 18th at 2:30pm in City Hall. The meeting is open to all.

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