March 24, 2016 § 3 Comments
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.”
December 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
The photo above shows California holly (toyon) in bloom in the Hollywood Hills. Some believe this plant inspired the name Hollywood, although it was more likely a random choice by Daeida Wilcox, who met a woman on the cross-country train with a vacation house of that name. You can read more about California holly here: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/11/13/the-hills-are-alive-with-california-holly/
This is the seventh Christmas for Under the Hollywood Sign. As regular readers know, I began the blog to promote my documentary of the same name. That film, as well as my others, is now on sale at half price (that’s $12.50 for features; $6 for the short) on my website http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com The sale continues through the end of the month; please check it out.
December 11, 2015 § Leave a comment
Today I’m launching a new website to showcase my films, books and future projects. In celebration, I’m selling all my DVDs at half price for the rest of the year. If you’ve enjoyed this blog, please support the work that inspired it at http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com
Many thanks to Heath Woodward http://www.wdcreation.co.uk/ for building my website.
November 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
It’s now for sale by download on Vimeo. Please go to https://vimeo.com/ondemand/silkking/128562922
October 23, 2015 § 1 Comment
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. https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/going-back-to-the-hollywood-sign-this-time-as-an-interviewee/
Fortunately, this time the director 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.
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: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/jim-thompsons-life-after-death/
Although the DVD is for sale on my website http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361 those who prefer a download can now purchase the documentary at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/silkking?utm_source=email&utm_medium=vod-vod_publish_confirmation-201408&utm_campaign=10308&email_id=dm9kX3B1Ymxpc2hfY29uZmlybWF0aW9ufGYyYjY0OTMzYjc0MTVjM2Y4ODdiY2E5ZWJjNGJmM2I0NjUwfDI1Nzc3MzE3fDE0NDI5NDU5MDV8MTAzMDg%3D
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.
July 29, 2015 § 4 Comments
The 2015 edition of “Jim Thompson, Silk King” has new music and narration as well as two new DVD extras, one about Jim Thompson’s pre-war architecture in America and the other about my experiences since finishing the original version in 2001. Also included is my 2004 interview with his friend Catherine Bodenstein, a conversation that sheds considerable light on his disappearance.
To order the DVD, please go to http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
May 5, 2015 § Leave a comment
Perhaps my assertion that Cinema Verite is dead is premature, but its major American practitioners, though notably hardy and prolific, range in age from 62 (Chris Hegedus) to 90 (D.A. Pennbaker). Frederick Wiseman (85) has an output that would be impressive for a filmmaker of any age: forty-one documentaries, including four in the past five years. His latest film “National Gallery” explores the art and inner workings of one of Great Britain’s–and the world’s–greatest art museums. Wiseman, who was allowed full access to the museum’s staff and behind-the-scenes events, spent three months filming at the National Gallery, amassing 170 hours of footage. Like Maysles, Wiseman avoids projecting his own point of view on his films, and uses no visual tricks or musical score. What emerges is as objective as any film can be. (I haven’t seen “National Gallery” but plan to–as soon as I can carve out the necessary three hours. Needless to say, leisurely pacing is one of the features–and for many, drawbacks–of the genre.)
Differences between the new documentaries and the old were very much on my mind when I saw the new Noah Baumbach movie, “While We’re Young” a few weeks ago. It concerns Josh, a struggling documentary filmmaker (Ben Stiller, playing a slightly less dysfunctional version of the character he played in “Greenberg”) who, with his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) strikes up a friendship with young, free-spirited couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). But there’s also an old-school documentarian in the film: a Maysles-like character named Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), who happens to be Josh’s father-in-law. Though he was once Breitbart’s protege, Josh has been mired for ten years in a documentary so sprawling and incoherent that not even he can explain what it’s about. When Breitbart finally watches the six-hour rough cut, his perfectly reasonable suggestions about shaping the film only enrage the already hostile Josh. Meanwhile, Josh gets a much-needed shot in the arm by helping the ambitious young Jamie to make a small, compelling documentary about a young war veteran. Jamie, raised on the films of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore, has none of Josh’s problems with theme or length–or with manipulating the truth. It all comes to a head when Josh discovers that Jamie has faked the premise of his documentary, having appropriated his wife’s connection to the war veteran as his own. In a further Greenberg-like move, Josh publicly confronts Jamie at a Lincoln Center tribute to Breitbart, making a huge, embarrassing scene. Ironically Breitbart, the pure Direct Cinema practitioner, sides with Jamie, whose film is at least entertaining. It also gets into Sundance.
Last week I saw “Iris,” Albert Maysles’ last documentary, whose release he didn’t live to see. It’s a wonderful coda to a long an illustrious career that–despite its octogenarian director and its nonagenarian subject–feels like the work of a young director. It certainly helps that Iris Apfel, a fashion icon who began her career in the 1940s, has a youthful spirit, not only in her amazing wardrobe but her instant rapport with everyone she meets, regardless of age or background. Still, I doubt the film would have been as lighthearted and fun in another filmmaker’s hands. Albert Maysles, who can be glimpsed, camera in hand, and heard asking questions, shot off and on for four years, but at no point does the effort show. An inveterate charmer, he not only captures Iris’s bon mots (“This was when dinosaurs roamed the earth,” Iris says, showing him her wedding album) but her delightful effect on others, from Lohmann’s shoppers to her husband Carl, who celebrates his 100th birthday in the film. For me, the greatest moment in “Iris” comes at the very end, as Iris talks while moving about her objet-filled apartment. Instead of moving in on her face (as Jarecki would), or cutting to an archival photo (as Gibney would), Maysles’s camera alights on Carl Apfel’s smiling face as he gazes at his wife. Although they’ve been married 67 years, Carl still regards her adoringly, as if he can’t believe his good luck. It’s a small moment that says everything about the Apfels–and a lot about the director, too. A flashier and less observant filmmaker than Albert Maysles would have dismissed it, or missed it altogether.
April 25, 2015 § 1 Comment
Andrew Jarecki’s six-part series on the real estate heir and possible serial killer Robert Durst was a huge hit on HBO last month, and with good reason. It’s a meticulously researched, gripping, stranger-than-fiction story that builds suspense as it progresses. Structured like a thriller, “The Jinx” manages to be both long and exciting–no small feat for a documentary. Informationally dense documentaries usually seem longer than feature films of the same length, making audiences lose interest over time. But not “The Jinx,” whose best ratings were for its final episode.
Despite its success, however, “The Jinx” has certain problems in its style and structure. The latter will be discussed at length later. As for the former, the many re-enactments, though artfully filmed, borrow heavily from “CSI,” blurring the line between feature and documentary filmmaking. Take the opening credit sequence: a noir-ish montage of water, women, cars, falling bodies, palm trees and skylines, it evokes the Bond films visually and, like them, boasts a theme song. Because Jarecki and his producer/DP Marc Smerling previously made a feature about Durst and the unsolved disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen McCormack, viewers can be forgiven for wondering whether “The Jinx” is a documentary at all.
It is, but one with unusual beginnings. It was initiated not the filmmakers but by its subject Robert Durst, who sought them out in response to their feature about him, “All Good Things.” Durst’s aim was to tell his side of the story, which he thought the feature film did not. Through interviews, “Jinx” painstakingly recounts Durst’s life story, which includes at least two murders and two disappearances in which he was the prime suspect. But it also properly presents other points of view, not only through interviews, archival footage and stills but the aforementioned re-enactments.
The documentary’s structure is complicated, jumping back and forth over the decades. Episode 1 describes the October, 2001 murder of Morris Black, Durst’s neighbor when he was hiding out in Galveston, Texas. It also introduces Durst and Jarecki and the launch of the documentary project. Episode 2 involves Durst’s initial interview, his early life–including the suicide of his mother when he was seven–his marriage to Kathie, and her disappearance in 1982. Episode 3 tells the story of Susan Berman, a Los Angeles-based writer and close friend of Robert Durst’s who was his spokeswoman after Kathie’s disappearance. The daughter of a Las Vegas gangster, Berman had fallen on hard times when she was murdered in her Benedict Canyon home on Christmas Eve, 2000. Though Durst was seen in Northern California that week, he denied being in LA and was not charged. Episode 4 recounts Morris Black’s murder, for which Durst was tried and acquitted (by reason of self-defense), despite the fact that he admitted to cutting up Black’s body and dumping it in Galveston Bay. Episode 5, “Family Values,” contains Robert Durst’s fateful walk by the Durst offices in Times Square and a revealing interview with his nephew, Evan Kreeger, who deplores his family’s dissembling and expresses sympathy for the McCormack family. It culminates with Jarecki’s encounter with Douglas Durst, Robert’s younger brother and scion of the family, who stonewalled not only the filmmakers but prosecutors and police who investigated Kathie Durst’s disappearance. Episode 6 shows the long-delayed second interview with Robert Durst and the series’ stunning coda: his muttered apparent confession, “I killed them all, of course,” in the bathroom after the end of the interview. In a further truth-is-stranger-than-fiction event, Durst was arrested for the murder of Susan Berman on March 14th, the day before the episode aired, having fled to New Orleans with cash, guns and disguises.
Episode 6 is both great television and a documentary rule-breaker. The hot mike that produced Durst’s mutterings, which Jarecki said was left on accidentally when he went to the bathroom, is contentious; having conducted many interviews, I recall exactly none where a mike was inadvertently left on after the subject was finished. It’s clear that Jarecki was well aware of his subject’s tendency to think aloud: in Episode 4, during a break from the first interview, Durst repeats, “I did not knowingly, purposely lie.” That time, Durst’s lawyer cautioned him that the mike was on, but no one from Durst’s camp was present during the second interview.
Beyond Jarecki’s defense that the mike was left on accidentally, he claimed in the New York Times after the series aired that the confession wasn’t even discovered for a couple of years after the interview:
I don’t know if you’ve ever edited anything — things get loaded into the editing machine but not everything gets loaded. The sound recorder isn’t listening after a guy gets up and says he wants a sandwich. It often doesn’t get marked and get loaded. That didn’t get loaded for quite a while. We hired some new assistants and they were going through some old material. That was quite a bit later. Let me look at my list. It was June 12, 2014 [more than two years later].
As a documentary filmmaker who has edited (with my editor, Kate Johnson) many things, let me say that there has never been an instance where something didn’t get logged within a few days. The idea that the sequence was somehow overlooked for two years is simply incredible, particularly in light of the fact that there were only two interviews with Robert Durst, and that they formed the linchpin of the project.
During Episode 6, Jarecki and Smerling dispense with their observational role, becoming full-fledged actors in the Durst drama. The process actually begins in the previous chapter, when Jarecki buys a ticket to a charity dinner expressly to confront the evasive Douglas Durst, but the final episode finds him in full detective mode. He conceals in a safe deposit box the most damning piece of evidence against Durst to date–a letter addressed to Susan Berman in Durst’s hand that exactly matches the so-called cadaver note, which was sent anonymously to the Beverly Hills police by Berman’s murderer. At that point, Jarecki and Smerling decide not to inform the police about Durst’s note and apparently do not, according to a NYT interview, until “early 2013.”
Throughout Episode 6, Jarecki and Smerling manipulate the timeline, showing events out of sequence. Although no dates are given, Durst’s second interview appears to happen soon after, and in direct response to, his August 2013 arrest for violating a restraining order filed by Douglas Durst. In fact, the second interview took place in April, 2012, sixteen months earlier. Why does this matter? Because it’s much more dramatic for Jarecki to say that Durst is finally coming in for interview #2 because of the arrest rather than simply because he agreed to sit for two interviews. No dates are given for any of the times when Robert Durst appears on Jarecki’s camera, but the sequence of events appears to be:
1. First interview
2. Durst’s walk through Times Square (much later)
3. Durst’s arrest for violating the restraining order
4. Second interview (soon after)
In fact, the true sequence of events is:
1. First interview 12/2010
2. Durst’s walk through Times Square (soon afterward)
3. Second interview 4/2012
4. Durst’s arrest for violating the restraining order 8/2013
Durst’s arrest in New Orleans on March 14 for Susan Berman’s murder came only a day before the airing of Episode 6, at which point the line between filmmaking and real-time news events disappeared completely. “The Jinx” became a rare instance of must-see TV in a highly fragmented market, yet questions about the timeline surfaced immediately. The fact the change of sequence troubled viewers and critics alike proves that many people still expect documentaries to reflect reality, even if reality comes at the expense of drama.
Next time: The Death of Cinema Verite.
April 25, 2015 § 2 Comments
In the late 90s, I took a UCLA Extension course in directing whose instructor declared, “There is no more objective truth in documentaries than [in] feature films.” I couldn’t have disagreed more. Documentary films–as opposed to the opinion piece or docu-drama–are the converse of feature films, with a distinct set of rules:
1. Don’t make things happen. Rather than forming an opinion and then trying to prove it, documentary filmmakers shoot first and organize later.
2. The script comes last. Any narration is based on the footage, as is the structure of the film. Documentaries are made in the editing room.
3. Don’t mess with the timeline. With the exception of interviews, events are shown in the order of occurrence.
4. No pictures, no story. All narration must be illustrated by images, preferably moving images, followed by still photos and illustrations. Re-enactments, if any, are a last resort.
Because I’ve followed these rules in all my documentaries, I’ve had to make hard choices, particularly where images are concerned. When Jim Thompson’s heir failed to follow through on his promise to let me use family photographs, I had to cut short the section on Jim’s youth. Later, a total lack of photographs of Peter the Hermit, the original Hollywood costumed character, led me to drop his story from “Under the Hollywood Sign.” In the same film, I reluctantly made a re-enactment of Peg Entwistle’s final hour because I lacked photos and artifacts. In both Peter and Peg’s cases, I later received a flood of photographs and information, some of which can be found on this blog, but in Peter’s case it came too late to be included in the film.
While I don’t regret my strict approach, it doesn’t jibe with recent trends. The preferred model for new documentaries is the three-act screenplay, which requires a dramatic arc. Stories unfold like police procedurals, with satisfactory conclusions, while unrecorded events are generously re-enacted, often in lurid slow-motion. All of this makes for compelling entertainment, but is it real?
Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” is a good example of the new approach. Essentially a filmed version of Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, the film employs traditional elements–interviews, archival footage, B-roll of Scientology landmarks. But it is also loaded with re-enactments that tell L. Ron Hubbard’s story and those of his disaffected followers. So we see recreated auditing sessions using the E-Meter, typewriters, explanatory charts and lots and lots of stars (the planetary kind, though there are archivals of John Travolta and Tom Cruise as well).
Absolutely nothing is left to the viewer’s imagination. To illustrate his subjects’ retelling of Scientology’s creation myth, Gibney creates a colorful montage of 1950s Americana, spaceships, volcanoes and planets. And in case the term “Operating Thetan” proves too difficult to comprehend, he inserts a shot the words, neatly typed, on a piece of paper. The paper is still in the typewriter, one of many such shots, lest we forget that L. Ron Hubbard was a writer.
Gibney’s treatment of the interviews is curious. Though his interviewees–who include not only Wright but former Scientologists Paul Haggis, Jason Beghe and Spanky Taylor–are without exception eloquent, compelling and worthy of screen time, Gibney does everything possible not to show them talking. When not cutting to re-enactments, he cuts to graphics–anything to avoid screen time for a talking head. The result is an undermining of the interviewees, whose stories, after all, are the crux of “Going Clear.”
Next time: “The Jinx.”