November 11, 2019 § Leave a comment
Before I came across her books in the Hollywood public library, I had never heard of Eve Babitz, who famously chronicled Los Angeles during its late-1960’s to mid-1970’s heyday. This was 1989 or 1990; I was new in town and eager to read about my new hometown. I checked out “LA Woman” and Slow Days, Fast Company, and was instantly drawn to her stories about musicians, actors, old Hollywood, hotels and the city itself, which she captured in all its jasmine-scented, smoggy glory. I read Sex and Rage, a roman á clef whose protagonist Jacaranda Levin, like Babitz herself, was born into a bohemian family in Hollywood in the early 40’s. Like her inventor, Jacaranda reached adulthood at a propitious time, and entered the burgeoning L.A. music scene by designing album covers and photographing musicians.
Babitz was was funny, sexy and clever, with a knack for being everywhere at the right moment. She had a gift for friendship that gave her a large circle of allies, both male and female, and what she lacked as a novelist she more than compensated for in effervescence and nerve. In short, she was irresistible. How had I not heard of her before?
During the nineties, I began to notice Eve Babitz’s name in articles about Los Angeles. These pieces compared her, usually unfavorably, to Joan Didion, the other famous chronicler of Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 70’s, but although Babitz and Didion took on some of the same subjects and were friends, they had more differences than similarities. Didion was the consummate outsider, always observing her subjects at a safe, ironic distance. An anxious introvert from Sacramento, Didion never seemed at home anywhere and cannily used her outsider status to maximum advantage, peering through windows at the party within. Didion also differed from Babitz by writing about Los Angeles not for Angelenos or Californians generally, but for the New York literary world she aspired to enter. Didion’s Los Angeles was not home but a strange, exotic place, full of weirdos and existential danger. Long before the effects of climate change became apparent, she famously proclaimed, “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse.” This statement was not for Californians but for Easterners who couldn’t imagine living in the state, and who probably hadn’t visited. Those of us who make our homes in Los Angeles owe Didion our thanks for repelling them.
In contrast Eve Babitz was a born insider, an “It” girl who observed everything—from the musician-packed bar at the Troubadour to the lobby of the Chateau Marmont to the set of “The Godfather, Part 2”–from its white-hot center. Her very first foray into public life was an exercise in high art: playing chess in the nude with a clothed Marcel Duchamp in a series of famous photographs by Julian Wasser. Only eighteen, Babitz became a Rubenesque sensation. Soon she knew every artist and musician in Los Angeles: not only her parents’ musician friends like Igor Stravinsky, who was also her godfather, but major visual artists like Ed Kienholtz, Billy Al Bangston and Ed Ruscha. While hanging around the Troubadour bar, she befriended Linda Ronstadt, Glenn Frey and J.D. Souther. Her lovers during that period included Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, Harrison Ford, Paul Ruscha, Fred Roos and Walter Hopps. Though all these people became famous, Eve Babitz had the advantage of knowing them before they were.
Nothing illustrates the Babitz-Didion difference like their respective first encounters with Jim Morrison. Didion, dying of boredom in the recording studio where the Doors were painfully birthing “L.A. Woman,” writes:
It is a long while later. Morrison arrives. He has on his black vinyl pants, and he sits down on a leather couch in front of the four big blank speakers, and closes his eyes. The curious aspect of Morrison’s arrival is this: No one acknowledges it by so much as a flicker of an eye….He lights a match. He studies the flame awhile and then very slowly, very deliberately, lowers it to the fly of his black vinyl pants. Manzarek watches him. The girl who is rubbing Manzarek’s shoulders does not look at anyone. There is a sense that no one is going to leave this room, ever. It will be some weeks before The Doors finish recording this album. I do not see it through.
Whereas Babitz remembers Morrison this way:
I met Jim early in ’66, when he’d just lost the weight and wore a suit made of grey suede, lashed together at the seams with lanyards and no shirt. It was the best outfit he ever had, and he was so cute that no woman was safe. He was 22, a few months younger than I. He had the freshness and humility of someone who’d been fat all his life, and was now suddenly a morning glory. I met Jim and propositioned him in three minutes, even before he so much as opened his mouth to sing….”Take me home,” I demurely offered when we were introduced.
From the 1970’s until the early 90’s, Eve Babitz wrote feature articles for glossy magazines such as Esquire, Vogue and Condé Nast Traveler. The last thing I remember reading of hers was an account of the L.A. Riots, which she missed entirely because she was holed up with a lover at the Bel Air Hotel. At that point Babitz, who was in her late 40s, seemed the girl who stayed too long at the fair, too fun-loving and oblivious for her own good.
After 1992’s Black Swans she published no other books, though it wasn’t until 2014 that I learned why. A freak 1997 accident set fire to her skirt and left her with third-degree burns on the lower half of her body that nearly killed her, along with her career. Babitz’s account of the disaster and its aftermath makes up the title essay of her new book, I Used To Be Charming. The only new piece in the collection, which otherwise consists of magazine articles, some of which have aged better than others, it’s worth the price of the book:
Here I was…over 50 years old, still so stupid that I was risking my life for a smoke….had I managed to avoid all the damage I’d done in my life up until that point, breaking hearts, being unreliable, only to hit that brick wall because of a match?
The accident turned Babitz into a recluse, but it wasn’t her final act. Rediscovered by Vanity Fair editor Lili Anolik and new admirers like Lena Dunham, she has recently emerged, phoenix-like, to promote the new book. Outliving many of the friends and lovers she wrote about is accomplishment enough, but Babitz–unlike Dorothy Parker, the writer she most resembles–didn’t succumb to a bitter, alcoholic old age, nor did she flee Los Angeles. Now 76, battered but unbroken, Eve Babitz is finally getting the respect she deserves.
August 14, 2019 § Leave a comment
Note: This post contains plot spoilers
The ending of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” which arrives after a long series of historically accurate storylines, is both a bracing exercise in alternate reality and a stroke of genius. Both times I saw the film, audiences were giddy at the depiction of Manson Family murderers meeting their just ends at the hands of Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Cliff’s pitbull Brandy. The much-criticized violence with which the fictional heroes dispatch Tex Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel is anything but gratuitous: rather, it is fitting punishment for a horrific crime.
Like Tarantino, I was a child during the 1960’s, too young to participate in the era but old enough to remember the Vietnam War, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the Tate-LaBianca murders. Though not yet an Angeleno, I visited Los Angeles shortly before the murders and clearly recall their traumatic aftermath. Contrary to Joan Didion’s cynical claim that “no one was surprised,” the shock was palpable and the horror indelible. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Manson Family permanently altered Los Angeles: installers of alarm systems, security gates, walls and fences did a booming business after the Tate-LaBianca murders, and have thrived ever since.
In rewriting reality, Tarantino bestows on the audience that rarest of emotions: catharthis. For those of us whose childhoods were abruptly ended by the Manson Family, the conclusion of “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” is nothing short of thrilling. By showing us what might have been, Tarantino lifts us up, assuaging a fifty-year-old wound.
Next time: “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” and the Many-Worlds Theory
June 7, 2019 § 2 Comments
When I arrived at ArcLight Hollywood for a member preview of “Rocketman” last Wednesday, my expectations were high. In the trailers the uncanny physical resemblance between Taron Egerton and the young Elton John impressed me, as did the faithful renderings of John’s wardrobe, both street and stage. Most amazing of all, Egerton’s singing voice approximated the younger Elton John’s without lapsing into mimicry.
With me was my older sister, whose purchase of John’s eponymous album in 1970 was my gateway to his music. Significantly, we’d both seen Elton in concert early in his career: she in Tokyo in October, 1971, during his first Japanese tour; and both of us two years later, when he played U.D. Arena in Dayton, Ohio. It was my first big concert, a sold out show in a basketball stadium. In contrast to my sister’s Tokyo experience, which she remembers as “him and a piano in a concert hall,” this one featured Elton’s famous costumes, flashing eyeglasses and my first contact high. It was spectacular, though, like Bernie Taupin in the film, I would have preferred to see Elton alone with his piano.
All of this was going through my mind as my sister and I waited, in our Arclight-issued star-shaped sunglasses, for “Rocketman” to begin. I expected something along the lines of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but it soon became clear that “Rocketman” would be a very different experience: more musical than biopic, and a very ambitious musical at that. The first big number, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, features Matthew Illesley (one of two excellent actors who play Elton as a child) in a carnival setting with a large group of singing dancers. In a Broadway show, this would have been the climax; in “Rocketman” it’s merely the opening salvo. Along the way to other big musical pieces, the movie compellingly recounts John’s piano lessons, family strife, struggles to break into the music business, and his fateful pairing with the lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, superb). Fame and fortune follow, but long before they arrive “Rocketman” had me in its grip.
Various critics have pointed out the many liberties John takes with events and the timeline. “Saturday Night’s Alright” was years in the future for young Reggie, but suspending disbelief is easy during a big song-and-dance number. Far more jarring is Elton’s playing “Crocodile Rock,” a song he didn’t write until 1972, at the 1970 Troubadour concert that made him an overnight star. Why not “Take Me To The Pilot,” a barnburner he actually did play that night? Because, apparently, “Take Me To The Pilot” fit the sequence with John on his private jet. Another quibble: Taupin’s giving John the lyrics for “Border Song” as an initial offering, when it happened a couple of years later. But details like this can’t detract from the emotional truth of the story: a brilliant musician’s journey through the crucible of world-wide fame.
Much as there is to love about “Rocketman,” the thing that moved me (and my sister) most is the brotherly, highly creative relationship between Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Thrown together at random by their music publisher, the two men develop an instant, unbreakable bond that endures through life’s highs and lows; it has now spanned 50 years. Though there are other love stories in “Rocketman,” the one between John and Taupin is the most touching and enduring. A week later, as I contemplate seeing “Rocketman” again, I’m still thinking about it.
June 1, 2019 § 3 Comments
Though Laurel Canyon has been home to musicians for more than a century, its musical reputation peaked in the mid-to late-1960’s, when the Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Frank Zappa, Carol King, Buffalo Springfield, Canned Heat, John Mayal, Neil Young and The Doors all lived there. The Canyon gave these musicians the perfect atmosphere for collaboration and creative ferment: close proximity to one another, a casual drop-in policy and sanctuary from urban distractions. The resulting songs have become classics.
Andrew Slater’s new documentary “Echo in the Canyon” is a chronicle of that heady time that features, among others, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Brian Wilson and Michelle Phillips. But the heart of the project is Jakob Dylan, who skillfully conducts the interviews, plays versions of the songs with his excellent band and, according to the Q&A after the screening, secured the licensing of songs that otherwise would have been prohibitively expensive, if not unavailable. Born in 1969, Dylan is not only the bridge between older and younger musicians but rock-and-royal royalty and a true heir to the California sound. Perceptive and humble throughout, he also provides the biggest laugh of the film. When David Crosby recounts, “Dylan was there,” Jakob says, “You have to be more specific.” Crosby smiles. “Bob was there,” he says, instead of the obvious “Your dad.”
Even for those familiar with the musicians and their work, “Echo in the Canyon” offers some surprises. I learned that the Byrds were the center of everything, influencing, and being influenced by, Eric Clapton and the Beatles, among many others. According to Ringo Starr, the Byrds were the Beatles’ favorite band, and Roger McGuinn confirms that the Beatles were the Byrds’. Seeing Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton and Steven Stills laying down tracks for new versions of their songs was another highlight. And Michelle Phillips’ delight at the new version of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” was heartwarming, much as I would have preferred her to sing it.
But “Echo in the Canyon” has notable problems. The structure is haphazard, and interviews are juxtaposed with long shots of Jakob Dylan driving around Hollywood and the Sunset Strip, cut with mysterious footage of a young man walking the same streets in the late-1960’s. Though the source of the archival footage isn’t revealed until later in the documentary, it’s “Model Shop,”a 1969 film by Jacques Demy starring Gary Lockwood and Anouk Aimee. In The New Yorker, Richard Brody describes the film:
…George follows [Lola’s] car throughout the city—and Demy daringly films that pursuit, and a wide range of George’s other jaunts by auto through Los Angeles, in the cinematic interest of showing not George but L.A. The movie is a virtual documentary about the city, a visual love poem to Demy’s new world.
While nostalgic, “Model Shop” has nothing to do with the music of its era, and its inclusion is merely atmospheric padding. Another drawback is some of Dylan’s choices of singers. Fiona Apple, Regina Specktor and Cat Power lack the style–and in the case of Power, the range–to sing these songs well. Beck is ill at ease singing harmonies, though he rallies on the solos. Apart from Jakob Dylan, a superb cover artist, only Jade Castrinos, who delivers the soaring high notes of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” succeeds in capturing the California Sound.
Then there are the film’s omissions. Jim Morrison, the most notorious Laurel Canyon denizen, goes entirely unmentioned, along with the rest of The Doors. While it’s true that The Doors’ music didn’t influence that of their musical neighbors, their absence is striking. A far more egregious omission is Joni Mitchell, who not only lived in Laurel Canyon during its heyday but is the only one of its musicians whose stature is still growing. (Among the myriad artists who’ve cited her influence on their music are Elvis Costello and Prince.) Yet Mitchell isn’t mentioned even by her ex-partner Graham Nash, a less important musician who contributes one of “Echo”‘s least interesting interviews. The fact that Nash’s most famous song, “Our House,” memorializes his and Mitchell’s domestic life in Laurel Canyon only makes matters worse.
After the screening and the Q & A, Jakob Dylan and his band, including Jade Castrinos, put on an excellent performance of songs from the film. (The soundtrack of the same name was released concurrently.) But the real surprise was the appearance of Steven Stills and Roger McGuinn, who performed with gusto. As Stills launched into a smoking rendition of “Questions,” my jaw hit the floor; I never would have expected to see him live, let alone for free. Unfortunately, my fellow Angelenos were less impressed: a sizeable number left before and during the concert, apparently too jaded to appreciate such a rare gift.
May 2, 2019 § Leave a comment
In the 1990’s, as studios and networks moved productions from Los Angeles to cheaper locations in other states and abroad, I asked an actress friend how she liked shooting in Vancouver. “Everything takes so much longer,” she sighed. “In LA the crews have worked in movies for generations, but there everyone’s new to the job.” She went to explain that a grip or cameraman whose father and grandfather worked on movies, often in the same job, had an inbred knowledge of the craft that a first-generation worker didn’t. Less efficient sets and longer workdays were the latter’s result.
I was reminded of this conversation last Sunday night, while watching the latest installment of Bill Hader’s “Barry,” on HBO. A brilliant, almost entirely action-oriented episode, “ronny/lily” depicts Barry’s attempt to persuade the Tae Kwon Do expert he was blackmailed into killing to flee to Chicago instead. After pretending to agree to his would-be assassin’s scheme, Ronny attacks Barry in an extended fight that ends in Barry snapping his windpipe. Bloodied and reeling from the struggle, Barry is then confronted by Ronnny’s daughter Lily, a martial arts fighter so fierce that she stabs Barry and later takes a chunk out of the cheek of Fuchs (Stephen Root), his business manager. “What are you?” screams Fuchs, as Lily scampers up a tree. The girl then leaps onto a roof where she crouches like a gargoyle, snarling at her terrified victims.
The next day I read Hader’s account in the New York Times of discovering Jessie Giacomezzi, the young actress/stuntperson who plays Lily:
Wade Allen, our stunt coordinator, told me: “Hey, if you ever need a little girl to do stunts, I know this girl Jessie. Her parents are both stunt people, and she’s amazing. I just worked with her on a commercial, and she can do fights, and she’s a gymnast.”
It didn’t surprise me that both of Jessie’s parents did stunt work; in fact, I would have been surprised if they hadn’t. In an industry filled with multi-generational experts, stunt people are most likely to follow their family’s occupation. In doing so, they carry not only their forebearers’ talent and experience but also the history of filmmaking.
The first stuntmen were Silent Era equestrians and high fallers who went on to execute feats with cars, planes and explosives. In time they passed on their skills to their children and grandchildren.The most famous example is the Epper family. Its patriarch, a former Swiss cavalry officer, supplied horses for Silent Era movies and did riding stunts for Gary Cooper and other stars of the 1930s and 40s. His six children, including three girls, grew up to ride, drive, fight and jump in movies, and include the most famous stunt people of their generation. The current crop of Eppers is the fourth generation to work in movies; presumably there will be a fifth. Incredibly, given their numbers–approaching twenty–no Epper has died in the workplace. (Not as lucky were scores of other film workers whose injuries are detailed here: spreadsheets.latimes.com/film-set-accidents/ )
TV and movie production was lured away Los Angeles because Canada and other countries–as well as states like Georgia and North Carolina–offered significant cuts in taxes and labor costs. These savings came a price. Lighting and dressing sets, setting and operating cameras and executing stunts are painstaking, laborious jobs that require expertise and experience. By discounting the importance filmmaking tradition, Hollywood bean counters reaped short term profits at the expense of many, including the very families whose work built the movie industry–and, by extension, Los Angeles.
February 21, 2019 § Leave a comment
This week marks the tenth anniversary of this blog, which I started to promote my third documentary feature film, Under the Hollywood Sign. At that point, UTHS was in post-production, and my editor Kate Johnson and I were shaping scores of interviews, around eighty hours of footage and hundreds of archival images into a cultural history of Beachwood Canyon.
Wanting to explore the film’s many topics in greater depth, I wrote about the Theosophists, film stars and oddball characters who populated the Canyon in the early 20th century. I described Beachwood’s natural beauty and wildlife, and the California holly that blooms in the hills each December. I detailed the creation of Hollywoodland, California’s oldest hillside planned community, from its granite walls, gates and stairs to its most famous features: the Hollywood Sign and Lake Hollywood.
After exhausting Beachwood Canyon’s history, I moved on to present-day matters. By then neighborhood was becoming a mecca for GPS-guided tourism, and between 2010 and 2015 the number of visitors in search of the Hollywood Sign surged. Crowds overwhelmed the narrow streets, eroded the trails and drove the wildlife back into Griffith Park. Hollywoodland’s narrow streets, tricky to navigate in the best conditions, became chaotic and frequently gridlocked. Until permit parking was instituted a couple of years ago, residents were frequently trapped in or out of their houses by vehicular and pedestrian traffic that also blocked emergency vehicles. Writing about these issues brought me a slew of hostile comments, the gist of which was our right to use your neighborhood for recreation trumps your right to live here. Long after I stopped writing about local issues, angry and even threatening letters continued to roll in.
These days I write mostly about film–not mine but other people’s. I also write about Japan, where I grew up and whose history and culture I’ve studied for most of my life. As for documentary filmmaking, I’ve stopped. I’ll explain why in my next post.
January 17, 2019 § Leave a comment
Longtime readers of Under the Hollywood Sign will remember my articles on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous films and the linguistic and cultural confusion they engendered. Some of the problems stemmed from a lack of understanding of Japanese culture by American critics, while others were caused by Kore-eda’s English subtitles.
An example of the latter occurs in “Nobody Knows,” where the criminally neglectful mother refers to herself in English subtitles as “Mother.” Although in Japan it’s standard to refer to oneself by familial title–mother, father, brother, sister–it isn’t in western languages. This led to one American critic using “chillingly” in describing the mother’s perfectly normal Japanese. Clearly, “Mother” should have been translated as “I.”
In light of this, I was relieved that “Shoplifters” has much better subtitles–at least until a key scene near the end. In it, Osamu Shibata, the head of a fictive family of societal throwaways says–according to the English subtitles–to Shota, the boy he has lovingly fathered, “From now on, I’m not your dad.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what he says in Japanese. As spoken by the actor Lily Franky, that pivotal line is: “So, I’ll go back to being your uncle.”
What difference does it make? For starters, what seems to be Shibata’s rejection of the boy he bestowed with his own first name (both Osama and Shibata being pseudonyms) is anything but. He desperately wants to remain a part of Shota’s life, as Kore-eda makes clear when Shibata subsequently runs after the bus Shota is riding. In fact, it is Shota who rejects Shibata by not looking back, though when he is out of sight the boy whispers, “Dad.”
At a reception before the recent Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium, I broached the translation with a member of Kore-eda’s production team. She told me that they had discussed the line but decided not to translate it literally because they assumed the word uncle would confuse non-Japanese viewers. “He’s not really his uncle,” she said, and was surprised when I told her that avuncular relationships among people unrelated by blood are common in America and Europe, too.
“Shoplifters” is a masterpiece, and highly deserving of the Palme d’Or it won last year at Cannes. But Kore-eda, who speaks no English, needs a subtitler who understands cultural nuance as well as Japanese and English. There’s so much more to languages than words.