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.
December 30, 2018 § 1 Comment
Recently I was invited to see “The Other Side of the Wind,” the long-awaited final film from Orson Welles. Though it’s streaming on Netflix, I was eager to see it as Welles had intended, and where better than at Netflix’s beautiful headquarters in Hollywood?
Netflix’s pride in “The Other Side of the Wind,” was clear from the moment I set foot in the lobby, which is dominated by a giant lighted screen of its poster (as well as a wall dedicated to the season’s other prestige project, “Roma”). If someone had told me a year ago that two of the most anticipated movies of 2018 would be black-and-white art films, I wouldn’t have believed it, but it’s true.
Those who bemoan Netflix’s growing clout in movie production should try to imagine any of the old-line Hollywood studios backing a largely unedited forty-year-old experimental film shot on different film stocks in both black-and-white and color. Oh, and with faulty and at times nonexistent sound. None of them would have touched the hundred hours of raw footage with a barge pole, let alone sunk millions of dollars into fashioning it into a film. That project–which took a comparatively fast two years–is detailed in a companion documentary, “A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making.” I found as fascinating as the movie itself, and recommend seeing it beforehand.
“The Other Side of the Wind” was described by Welles as a painting with a frame around it. The painting is the film directed by the central character, Jake Hannaford (John Huston), while the frame is Hannaford’s 70th birthday party, attended by his cast, crew and a group of journalists who attempt to interview Hannaford while filming the goings-on. The cast includes many filmmakers. Some, like Claud Chabrol and Paul Mazursky, play themselves; others, like John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich, have leading roles. The film-within-a-film is silent and plotless but beautifully shot in 35mm Technicolor by Gary Graver, Welles’s DP during the 1970’s, who didn’t live to see his best work on the screen. Jake’s story is shot in black-and-white, and the juxtaposition makes “The Other Side of the Wind” seem as if it’s set in different eras. While Jake’s project is an Antonioni-like art film, Jake’s party is vintage Welles: conversations about mortality and sexuality, crowded rooms, shots fired, and–at the end–a death.
Welles was fifty-five when he started filming “The Other Side of the Wind,” but it’s a young man’s movie: messy, brash and uneven. For every gorgeous moment there’s one that doesn’t work, but this inconsistency gives the film a certain charm. I was thrilled to see John Huston on the screen again; I’d forgotten what a great actor he was. But the film’s biggest revelation is Welles himself, a director so ahead of his time that he needed technology that didn’t exist to finish his film. If he were alive today, Orson Welles would find Netflix the perfect home for his imagination and ambitions.
March 27, 2018 § 2 Comments
Last week’s rains transformed the narrow channel that confines the LA River into something that actually looked like a river, albeit an ugly one hemmed in by high concrete walls. Staring at it from the windows of my gym, a fellow member said, “I keep expecting to see a body going by.” We’d already seen tree branches and plastic bottles in the fast-moving water, so anything seemed plausible.
I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, and throughout my years here I’ve been hearing about plans to restore the LA River into a more natural body of water. To date, one can only access the river in small sections: at the Sepulveda Basin and the Glendale Narrows near Dodger Stadium, and in Frogtown. Burbank is another area slated for restoration, but so far it hasn’t happened.
The main problem with the LA River is that it’s not really a river. It’s an arroyo, running dry in the summer and dramatically coming to life in the rainy season. (Los Angeles is unique among the world’s major cities in lacking a navigable river or deep water harbor; only Brasilia, with its artificial lake, compares, but it’s a master-planned city founded in 1960.) Before the LA River was channelled it regularly flooded, causing fatalities and property losses. After the devastating flood of 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers concreted it almost completely, putting an end to flooding but creating a massive eyesore.
Given our desert climate, Los Angeles will never have an unchanneled river. But even channeled rivers can be beautified and improved. I grew up in western Tokyo, on a hill above Meguro River, which in those days was less a river than a dank urban waterway filled with garbage. Whenever our car crossed its bridge, an ominous thunk made me imagine the horror of falling in. Then, around the time my family left Japan in the 70’s, the river was cleaned up by the city. Cherry trees were planted along the banks and walking paths were built on both sides. As the trees grew, new apartment houses sprang up on both sides of the river. The neighborhood became chic.
I had all but forgotten about the Meguro River’s existence, so I never saw its transformation. Then in March of 2013, I arrived in Tokyo and was told by a friend to hurry and see the cherry trees there. An unexpected hot spell had forced an early bloom that year, and the trees alongside the river were already past their prime. It was also raining that day, but no matter: the experience was magical. Festive lanterns lined the riverbanks, and the fencing was low enough to allow picture-taking. The pathways were carpeted in petals, and as I walked blossoms fell with the rain. Though the Meguro River was still channeled, the sweeping branches of the cherry trees detracted from the concrete, giving it a more natural appearance. Why can’t the LA River be like this?, I wondered. I still do.
March 7, 2018 § Leave a comment
For me, the highlight of this year’s Academy Award ceremony was the awarding of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature to “Icarus.” Timely, compelling and suspenseful, the film has something for everyone, and the fact that it’s on Netflix should ensure the wide audience it deserves.
Because its subject is Russian doping in the Olympics Games, I expected “Icarus” to be a straightforward exposé in the style of most “issue” documentaries: talking heads, incriminating footage and generous voiceover analysis. Though “Icarus” has all these elements, it manages to be far more: a personal film, a sports documentary, a mystery and, ultimately, a devastating portrait of our geopolitical past, present and future.
At first the director Bryan Fogel, an elite cyclist, sets out to prove that drug testing for athletes is “bullshit.” In deciding to make himself a test case for doping, he consults with Don Catlin, who founded the Olympic lab at UCLA and devised much of the drug testing that Lance Armstrong managed to beat. Says Catlin about athletes, “They’re all doping. Every single one of them.” He agrees to advise Fogel on his cheating regimen for the Haute Route, a 7-day bicycle race that follows the hardest section of the Tour de France. Having previously come in 14th, Fogel plans to inject himself with HGH and testosterone to boost his performance.
The phlegmatic Catlin soon bows out, fearing for his reputation. This turns out to be the best gift Fogel could have received as a filmmaker, for Catlin’s replacement advisor is Grigory Rodchenko, the Russian chemist who directed the Olympic lab at Sochi and Catlin’s polar opposite in personality. As charming and charismatic as Catlin is dull, Rodchenko becomes the instant star of “Icarus.” His first appearance–via Skype–goes like this:
Rodchenko: What is your ultimate purpose? You would like to beat doping test? You would like to start your hormonal program? Then give sample, prove negative.
Rodchenko: Hahaha. You need a very serious advisor because there are a lot of traps.
Like a spy novel, “Icarus” hurtles along from that point on. Rodchenko smuggles Fogel’s urine samples back to his lab and tests them; he passes. Fogel reaps the benefits of doping in the Haute Route until a bicycle malfunction ruins his performance; still, he evades all the drug tests. Meanwhile, Rodchenko’s situation in Russia grows more perilous: fearing for his life, he enlists Fogel’s help in getting out. He returns to Los Angeles and, once there, can’t return: the death of his friend and boss Nikita Kamaev, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency, of a sudden and suspicious heart attack, seals his fate as a political refugee. He reveals the methods used by Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service) in switching athletes’ urine samples during the Sochi Olympics to the New York Times, is subpoenaed by a Federal grand jury, and provides the information leading to Russia’s ban from this year’s Winter Olympics.
Like the view in a kaleidoscope, “Icarus” begins as a small and intricate pattern, then morphs and expands in countless fascinating ways. If you haven’t already seen it, you should.
December 7, 2017 § 2 Comments
Waking to the news that the Sepulveda Pass was burning yesterday, I immediately thought of the last major wildfire to hit the area. On November 5th, 1961, the Bel Air Fire raced through the Hollywood Hills, burning 16,000 acres and destroying 484 houses. Though there were no fatalities, it was the largest fire to strike the City of Los Angeles, unrivaled until the current one began late Tuesday night.
The Bel Air and Skirball Fires began in similar conditions: fires from ignited brush were spread by Santa Ana winds at the end of an unusually long dry season. Without measurable precipitation or humidity, both catastrophes progressed quickly, flames racing from canyon to canyon along the ridge line of the Santa Monica mountains.
In Beachwood Canyon, the 1961 fire claimed 17 houses, including that of the writer Aldous Huxley and his wife Laura. When I interviewed Laura Archera Huxley in 2007, she vividly remembered being mesmerized by the flames near their house on Deronda Drive. Unable to grasp the urgency of the situation, she and Aldous waited too long to evacuate and lost nearly all their possessions as well as their home.
The Skirball Fire is being blown west instead of east, so Beachwood Canyon isn’t in danger from it. But bone dry conditions combined with tourists who smoke with impunity near the Hollywood Sign puts those of us who live here in constant jeopardy. When I learned that firefighters from our area were being deployed to fight the Skirball Fire, I started packing my bags.
Twenty-four hours later, the situation seems to be improving. But until this winter’s rains begin, fire danger remains, as does our fear. Visitors who ignore Beachwood Canyon’s No Smoking signs should know that all it takes is a single flick of a cigarette to destroy homes and lives. For those who don’t care, there’s a hefty fine for smoking. Let’s hope the City enforces it.
November 13, 2017 § 6 Comments
From 1911–the year the Nestor Company set up shop at Sunset and Gower–until the early 1960’s, studios were vertically integrated businesses containing everything necessary for the creation of movies. Each studio owned its equipment– cameras, lighting, props and costumes. Crew members, actors, screenwriters, directors and producers were full-time studio employees. (This explains why credit sequences on old movies are so short: you don’t need a credit if you have job security.) If stars and directors wanted to make films elsewhere, they had to be “loaned out” by the studios that held their contracts. If they were not allowed, which was often the case, they had no recourse. The studio system favored those who preferred steady work to feast-or-famine opportunities. Though it often stifled creativity, it also fostered teamwork, consistency and an impressively large output.
Regardless of its merits and drawbacks, studio system has been dead for over fifty years, replaced by an army of freelancers, yet it’s alive and well in people’s minds. Until I convinced my mother that screenwriters now work at home, she thought they wrote in groups in cramped studio offices, probably on typewriters, but at least she’s old enough to remember when that was true. On social media, people with no memory of the studio system assume that “studios are mini-cities” where actors report for screen tests and meetings. In fact, casting is done by agencies, while meetings take place wherever people happen to be: at film festivals and press junkets, and on location. For a mobile population whose real office is often at home, doing business in hotels is unavoidable.
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that all meetings could take place in studio offices, as in days of yore. When Shirley Temple was summoned to Louis B. Mayer’s impressive office at MGM as a twelve-year-old, she probably thought she was safe. But Mayer, after telling Temple she would be the studio’s biggest star, promptly exposed himself to her.
October 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
One night, after a last-minute call to pick up scripts, I had to bring my five-year-old son with me. As we crossed the lobby toward the elevator, I saw Mike Ovitz, then CAA’s Chairman. Peering out from behind a column, he was staring at me stonily. I glanced back; more staring ensued. Years later, I read that CAA employees were instructed to avert their eyes in Ovitz’s presence, but I never got that memo. Ovitz continued to stare until the elevator doors closed.
At that point Mike Ovitz was the most powerful and feared man in Hollywood, threatening, cajoling, and making and breaking careers. He also had an uncanny knack of being everywhere, including many of the places I went. Soon I was receiving the Ovitz stare at the Forum during a Lakers Game, and during lunch at Locanda Veneta and Maple Drive. Both Ovitz’s ubiquity and his staring came to an end when he left CAA for Disney, at which point he also lost his power. But before that fateful move, he presided over some staring by a client, Kevin Costner.
Costner, then at the height of his career, was having lunch with Ovitz at the latter’s special booth at Maple Drive on a day I was there for a business lunch. The booth was lozenge-shaped, allowing Ovitz almost total privacy and his client a view of the room. The woman I was meeting was an hour late, and I was too naive to take this as a sign and leave. Between the wait and the lunch, I spent nearly four hours at Maple Drive that day, making three trips to the ladies’ room. To get there I had to pass Ovitz’s booth, and each time I walked by Costner would stop talking and watch me. This was no flirty glance or admiring gaze but a fixed, unblinking stare, reptilian in its intensity and impossible to ignore.
Years passed, and I assumed my days of being stared at like prey by Hollywood stars were over. Then, in 2000, it happened again. This time I was having lunch with my then teenage son in the courtyard of Pinot Hollywood. It was a hot August day and most of the patrons had finished, leaving us and the couple at a neighboring table. At some point I realized the man had been staring at me for some time, and showed no signs of stopping. “That guy is making me very uncomfortable,” I said to my son, who turned around to look at him. “Mom,” he said, “That’s Ben Affleck, and he’s with Gwyneth Paltrow.” Affleck was wearing a baseball cap; his hair, dyed for “Pearl Harbor,” had masked his appearance, and all I could see of Paltrow was her blonde hair. In time they got up and left, leaving me to wonder why a movie star who was having lunch with his movie star girlfriend would bother staring at me.
More than two years later, I was stopped at a long red light at the corner of Rossmore and Beverly. Though it was a cold day, the young man in the convertible to my right had the top down. He wore a grey watch cap, and he was staring at me so intently that if he had been a cartoon character his eyes would have been out on stalks. His car was uncommonly beautiful and expensive for a young person, and I was about to roll down my window and say, “Hey guy, nice car–is it your dad’s?” when I realized it was Ben Affleck. The convertible was the blue Bentley Azure given him by Jennifer Lopez, who was then his fiancée. I said nothing, and a moment later the light changed. He turned right and I went straight, already certain he was never going to marry Lopez.
Though I haven’t seen Affleck since, the creepiness of these encounters has stayed with me. To the horror of my boyfriend at the time, I once tried to hide under a table at Matsuhisa when I spotted someone who resembled the actor. Even worse, my subsequent boyfriend’s parents lived next directly next door to Affleck, who by then was married to Jennifer Garner. Though walls and trees blocked all views of their property, I half expected him to appear out of thin air and start staring at me again.
Last week Affleck made news by claiming not to know anything about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse of women. He was then accused of lying by Rose McGowan, who reported not only telling Affleck that Weinstein raped her but his response: “Goddamnit! I told him to stop doing that.” This, and the allegation that Affleck groped Annamarie Tendler after the Golden Globes in 2014, brought back memories his fixed stare, and not fond ones.