Two Cinematic Tours of Los Angeles: “Knight of Cups” and “City of Gold”

March 24, 2016 § 2 Comments

At the Stahl House in "Knight of Cups"

At the Stahl House in “Knight of Cups”

Downtown Los Angeles in "City of Gold"

Downtown Los Angeles in “City of Gold”


Since the early 20th century, Los Angeles has been the city that outsiders have loved to hate, usually based on fleeting touristic impressions. But no matter what the haters say, indignant reactions from the home crowd are few and far between. There are two reasons for this: 1) Angelenos don’t care what outsiders think of Los Angeles. 2) The last thing Angelenos want for people to move here, so all deterrents are welcome.

In L.A.-bashing, as in most matters, context is crucial. When Woody Allen wrote that L.A.’s “only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light,” he was a non-driving visitor to Beverly Hills and the Sunset Strip. How could he know about either local culture or driving? And when David Bowie said, “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth,” he was referring to his near-fatal cocaine abuse in Los Angeles. (Never mind that his addiction began years earlier, in London.) Ironically, Bowie spent a fair amount of time in Los Angeles over the course of his long career, making movies, collecting awards, appearing on talk shows and recording one of his best albums, “Station to Station,” in Hollywood. Yet he clung to the opinions he formed while high in the back of limos and darkened hotel rooms.

I was thinking about all of this as I watched the new Terrence Malick film, “Knight of Cups.” The plot, such as it is, concerns Rick (Christian Bale), an improbably attractive screenwriter who meanders around Los Angeles (with side trips to Death Valley and Las Vegas), his mind veering back and forth in time. Rick covers a lot of miles, yet he never writes a word. In fact, the closest he comes to working is meeting up with his agents, twice at CAA (Century City) and once at (I think) the Warner Bros. back lot (Burbank). But who has time for writing when there are so many women to recall? Apart from Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, most of Rick’s paramours are young models who wear filmy dresses (or less) and extremely high heels. (FYI, Terrence Malick: real L.A. women favor pants and shoes they can walk in.)

Fortunately, the places in the movie are decidedly real. Even the most over-the-top party (hosted by Antonio Banderas, though for me the highlight was the appearance of Joe Lo Truglio) takes place in well-known location: a massive Versailles-like mansion in Beverly Hills. Rick goes downtown (Broadway, the Bonaventure, etc), to the beach (constantly), to LACMA (Mid-Wilshire) and the Huntington Gardens (San Marino). He lives in a well-known industrial-looking apartment (the Gallery Lofts in Marina Del Rey), although I’m pretty sure that no one has seen a naked woman in six-inch heels talking on the phone on the balcony. Among the many visual highs are a twilight photo shoot at the Stahl House (Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22), gorgeous shots of Venice and PCH, and footage of the L.A. River and the tracks at Union Station. In short, it’s a film is by Emanuel Lubeski, with tiny amounts of dialogue and large amounts of voiceover written by Malick.

As the film washed over me, I was surprised at how many of the locations I had visited, not only architectural gems like the Broadway Theaters, the Stahl House and the Annenberg Beach House but a street in Hancock Park three blocks from where I used to live. For outsiders, “Knight of Cups” is a dream-like look at a great swath of Los Angeles–at least the rich, white, show biz side of it. But for those of us who live here, it’s much more: a trippy, deluxe home movie shot by three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer.

Coincidentally, I saw “Knight of Cups” on the same weekend as “City of Gold,” the new documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. Like the Malick film, “City of Gold” provides a beautiful, in-depth tour of Los Angeles, though a less rarefied one–e.g., no naked women in towering designer shoes and many ordinary people, all of whom have jobs. Gold is a native Angeleno whose knowledge of L.A. is profound and inclusive. Intrepid and expert in most of the world’s cuisines, he takes us to a wide variety of notable restaurants, two of which happen to be food trucks. The wonderful street scenes in “City of Gold” show the real Los Angeles: a multi-racial, multi-cultural vibrant megacity. The documentary also contains this truth: Los Angeles is beyond the grasp of those who, in Gold’s words, “come for a couple of weeks, stay in a hotel in Beverly Hills, take in what they can get to within ten minutes in their rented car and [then] explain to you what Los Angeles is.”

Revisiting “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” Robert Altman and Vilmos Zsigmond’s Western Masterpiece

March 15, 2016 § 2 Comments

William Devane, Kathryn Altman and Keith Carradine at Ahrya Fine Arts Movie Theater, Beverly Hills on 3/2/16/Hope Anderson Productions

William Devane, Kathryn Altman and Keith Carradine at Ahrya Fine Arts Movie Theater, Beverly Hills on 3/2/16/Hope Anderson Productions

Two weeks ago, Laemmle Theaters screened Robert Altman’s 1971 Western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” in tribute to its cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, who died on New Year’s Day. A prime example of the 1970s Western revival that includes such films as “Jeremiah Johnson,” “Pat McGarrett and Billy the Kid” and “Little Big Man,” “McCabe” was initially perceived as a showcase for its famous stars, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, a real-life couple at the time. Thirty-five years later, it is better known for Keith Carradine’s debut, Leonard Cohen’s beautiful songs and, perhaps most of all, for Zsigmond’s brilliant photography.

No one who has seen “McCabe” could forget its climactic shoot-out, or the opening scene, a long pan over the mountainous landscape that Beatty traverses on horseback, disguised by his huge bearskin coat:

The Q & A afterwards featured Robert Altman’s widow, Kathryn, and the actors Keith Carradine and William Devane. All spoke fondly of the shoot, which took place in Vancouver and featured real snow, real carpenters (some of whom lived on set) and communal living in a nearby subdivision. Carradine, only 21 at the time and fresh off the Broadway run of “Hair,” talked about his death scene (being yanked off his horse by a wire into freezing water) and the magic of the roughly six-minute, music-free shootout that ends the film. It couldn’t happen in movies today, he said, with their omnipresent scores. (I agree: the fact that the score of “McCabe” consists almost entirely of three Leonard Cohen songs seems in retrospect wildly, wonderfully new. Someone should try it again, dispensing with the sonic wall that too often serves as an emotional crutch in today’s films.)

Six days later, I was shocked to hear that Kathryn Altman had died suddenly of a heart attack. Though she was 91, she seemed far younger, and her death was unexpected. The screening of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” at which she paid tribute to the late Vilmos Zsigmond, was her last public appearance.

Remembering 3/11: Japan’s Triple Disaster, Five Years Later

March 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011/Reuters

The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011/Reuters

It’s hard to believe that five years have passed since the night I watched the horrifying footage of the Tohoku coastline being destroyed by tsunami. The earthquake that caused the waves measured 9.0 on the Richter scale: it was the most powerful earthquake to strike Japan and fourth most powerful recorded earthquake in the world. Nearly 20,000 people died in Tohoku that day, including some on trains that simply vanished when the tsunami struck.

Then came the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people in the vicinity. Residents of the twelve-mile-radius evacuation zone were resettled in other areas; as cleanup is estimated to take forty years, they are unlikely ever to return home.

In the aftermath of this unprecedented triple disaster, it was impossible to know how quickly Japan would recover, or even if it would. If the earthquake’s epicenter had been in Kanto, it would have been a different story, as Tokyo would have suffered the brunt of the damage. But Tohoku is considerably less populated–think New England versus the New York metropolitan area. Another reason for Japan’s recovery is its institutional strength: thanks to a strong central government and well-developed prefectural and local governments, debris was quickly cleared and roads, railway lines repaired in record time. All of the region’s many ports were operational within the year.

Though the Daiichi plant continues to leak radioactive water, today there are few reminders of the disaster outside Tohoku. When I went back to Japan on vacation in 2013, I found both Tokyo and Kyoto more opulent and overrun by tourists than ever before. Each year has brought record numbers of visitors to Japan, and in 2020 Tokyo will host the Summer Olympic Games for the second time.

As heartening as these developments are, I haven’t forgotten what happened on 3/11 and never will. Here are two posts I wrote immediately after that terrible day five years ago:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/physically-in-hollywood-mentally-in-japan/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/not-about-hollywood-or-filmmaking-tips-for-surviving-a-big-earthquake/

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