New Year, New Forum
January 21, 2021 § Leave a comment
Twelve years have passed since I began writing Under the Hollywood Sign. Conceived to promote my documentary of the same name and to further explore Hollywood history, UTHS soon grew to include my previous documentaries, magazine work and interviews. It also spawned two collections of essays. As time went on, my focus shifted to other people’s films, books and TV shows. I also wrote visual art, architecture and Japan, where I grew up, and its rich popular culture. All of this has been a labor of love, and hundreds of posts and pages later it’s time for me to try something new.
Beginning today, I’ll be writing on Substack. In addition to regular posts, subscribers will have access to my other writing–longer non-fiction and fiction–as well new projects, literary and cinematic. Subscriptions are $5 per month, and the link is below. I look forward to seeing you there.
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Give the Gift of Documentaries: Under The Hollywood Sign’s December Two-For-One Sale
December 6, 2020 § Leave a comment
Curious about the documentaries that inspired this blog? Here’s a good chance to see them at a bargain price, and to give them as holiday gifts. From now until January 1, 2021, each purchase of a full-length documentary on DVD will include a free companion documentary. Each order of “Under the Hollywood Sign” will come with “Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of an Actress”, while each order of “Jim Thompson, Silk King, 2015 Edition” will come with “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.”
This offer does not apply to digital downloads. To order, please go to: http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/
Looking Back With Insight: Oliver Stone’s Masterful Autobiography
December 3, 2020 § Leave a comment
The first time I encountered Oliver Stone–close to twenty years ago, at a restaurant in the Valley–he was so loud and obnoxious that he drowned out the conversation I was having with my lunch partner. ‘Ugh,’ I thought, ‘What an asshole.’ But age has calmed him considerably, and when I heard him speak at a screening of “The Doors” last year he was thoughtful and incisive.
Because I knew little about how Stone transformed himself from Yale dropout and Vietnam War vet to A-list screenwriter and director, I decided to listen to the new memoir Chasing The Light, which covers his first 40 years. It’s excellent, possibly surpassing the high bar set by John Huston for a director’s autobiography (An Open Book, 1980), and filled with insights about writing, directing and the changing nature of the movie business.
For me, the most impressive sections concern his mismatched, complicated and neglectful parents, who met in Paris at the end of World War II, quickly married and returned to New York, where Oliver, their only child, was born in 1946. His repressed, Depression-scarred Jewish father and much younger, flamboyant French Catholic mother had a marriage marked by infidelities and incompatibility that deeply hurt their son. So did their bitter divorce when he was fifteen, yet Stone tells their story with understanding and compassion.
The other highlight of Chasing The Light is Stone’s account of directing, back-to-back, his first two films: “Salvador” and “Platoon”, both of which had harrowing, financially precarious location shoots. Those who don’t make films will find the stories riveting; those who do will be triggered as well as fascinated. In short, it’s a great read, though I recommend Stone’s audio version for the full effect. Happily, a second installment seems to be in the works, and I’m especially looking forward to his account of making “The Doors”.
The Strange Intimacy of Zoom Q & A’s
September 22, 2020 § 2 Comments
For as long as I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I’ve been going to screenings with Q & A’s afterwards. Though the films varied in quality and genre, there was a stultifying sameness to their aftermath: an interviewer and the director, sometimes joined by the lead actors, talking onstage in canvas folding chairs. The questions were rote, the answers rarely memorable, and the audience questions frequently inane.
Since the pandemic closed theaters, post-screening Q & As have changed, for better and worse. No longer inhibited by live audiences and stage lighting, interviewees seem at more at ease, and thus more likely to provide interesting answers to their interviewers’ questions. For the audience, seeing directors in their home offices, shelves of books and memorabilia in the background, is a far more intimate experience than seeing them onstage.
Still, Zoom Q & A’s are a mixed bag, as two recent programs at the American Cinematheque illustrate. An interview with Charlie Kaufman on his new feature “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, might have been illuminating if not for the interviewer, writer/director Tony Gilroy, who made it mostly about himself. After several minutes of Gilroy saying how excited he was to be interviewing Kaufman and how amazing it was that they hadn’t met earlier, given their mutual friends and professional connections, and then interrupting Kaufman when he tried to talk, I gave up. While bad interviewers weren’t unheard of at the Egyptian, I usually stayed for the Q & A’s, not only because they were live but because there were enough distractions—my companions, the rest of the audience, the huge gilded scarab on the ceiling—to engage me.
I fared better with Werner Herzog’s Q & A about his new documentary, “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin”. Herzog, who has been preaching the gospel of low-budget indie filmmaking for decades (his Rogue Film School, which meets periodically in Los Angeles and other cities, has become an institution), has often talked about his beginnings as a filmmaker. But this time, surrounded by books and binders in his office, his story seemed more vivid than in previous iterations, and more moving. About the arduous job he took during high school, Herzog said:
I worked the night shift as a welder in a steel factory, and I financed my own films….At that time it was expensive because you had to buy 35 millimeter raw stock celluloid and…develop it in a laboratory and cameras were big and clumsy and expensive….Today even with your cell phone, you can shoot a feature film that you can show in theaters….Never complain. Roll up your sleeves and you can make a one-and-a-half-hour documentary for under $5,000. And you can make a narrative feature film with actors for under $30,000. Just go out and earn it and start shooting.
The George Floyd Protests in Los Angeles, And Memories of the 1992 Riots
June 22, 2020 § Leave a comment
After George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, large-scale protests began in Hollywood, the Fairfax district and downtown Los Angeles. These were met by a heavy police presence that failed to prevent looting and burning, and by May 30 Los Angeles was locked down by curfews that continued until June 4. The screenshots above, from the June 1 protest on Sunset Blvd. between Vine and Gower Streets in Hollywood, show large formations of police in riot gear advancing on protesters. Because all of this took place only a couple of miles from my house, watching it on TV was frightening and surreal. It was also gut-wrenchingly familiar.
Because I’ve lived in Los Angeles for over thirty years, memories of of the LA Riots came rushing back. But this time felt different, because it was different: in contrast to 1992, the outrage was national, and even international. And the fact that this year’s protests and property damage were spread across Los Angeles County made it impossible for people in places like Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles to ignore them and their cause: police brutality against people of color.
In 1992 I lived in a different neighborhood: Hancock Park, a wealthy HPOZ with a high crime rate and an atavistic Frederick Law Olmstead plan: sweeping front lawns with no front fences or gates allowed except on Rossmore Avenue, a major thoroughfare. Even in the best of times Hancock Park is surrounded by gang territory, and its location–flat, centrally located and well-served by public transportation–is a magnet. Hancock Park also lies on the borders of Koreatown, which in April of 1992 erupted over the unpunished murder of the teenaged Latasha Harlins by a Korean liquor store owner. Korean-American stores were looted, fires broke out, and for days my young son and I listened to gunfire and smelled acrid smoke. Aside from the fear and uncertainty, what I remember most vividly are the phone calls from Westside friends lamenting our “dangerous” neighborhood and inviting us to shelter in their “safe” ones. Because this us-against-them sentiment was widespread and the physical damage from the Riots was not, Los Angeles soon returned to business as usual.
This time, as the plywood comes off the buildings and the protests wane, Los Angeles has another chance to change. Mayor Garcetti’s decision to divert $150 million for the LAPD’s budget and redirect the money toward housing, health care and gang intervention is a step that should have been taken in 1992, when reforms consisted of weeding out the most egregiously violent cops and hoping the younger ones didn’t follow in their head-cracking footsteps. If, going forward, mental health and homeless problems are handled by social workers, police officers will be able to fight crime instead of tackling crises they weren’t trained for, with sometimes fatal outcomes. At any rate, that’s the idea. As a citizen whose encounters with LAPD have been met with indifference at best, and who has never had a crime against her pursued despite pleas and ample evidence (fingerprints, video footage, license plates, and positive identification), I welcome any signs of progress.
Revisiting Peg Entwistle’s Life and Death: Myth vs. Reality in Netflix’s “Hollywood”
May 21, 2020 § 2 Comments
Soon after Netflix released the new Ryan Murphy-Ian Brennan miniseries “Hollywood,” I heard from Chris Yogerst, a University of Wisconsin film professor who has corresponded with me off and on since 2010, that Peg Entwistle’s story was a major theme. Naturally, I got right on it.
Since releasing my short film “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk,” my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” in 2009 and my book of essays (Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign) in 2013, a number of Peg-related projects have been announced, such as this one ://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/10/05/the-newly-announced-peg-entwistle-biopic/ , but “Hollywood” is the first major one to be completed. It’s also the most imaginative, using Peg’s story not as a grim cautionary tale but the departure point for a wildly revisionist Hollywood history.
At the outset of “Hollywood,” a script about Peg is greenlit by the Paramount-like Ace Studios. The screenwriter, Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) is predictably male but also black, and his struggle to make it in Hollywood gives him empathy for Peg’s tragic story. Fortunately for Archie, his champions at Ace Studios are self-professed outsiders: the director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), though passing for white, is half-Filipino, and the acting head of production Avis Amberg (Patti Lupone) is a former silent film star whose acting career was cut short by her apparent Jewishness.
Though the Peg Entwistle project begins as a straightforward biopic featuring a blonde, white starlet, Avis agrees to cast Claire Wood (Samira Weaving), a Dorothy Dandridge-like actress whose screen test blows away the competition, in the lead. Thus Peg becomes Meg, and the film changes from a tragedy to a triumph of interracial romance and career redemption. If that weren’t enough, a major subplot involves Archie’s romance with the young Rock Hudson, and the couple soon smash racial and sexual barriers by walking the red carpet hand-in-hand at the Oscars. When Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) becomes the first Asian to win an Academy Award, every studio-era wrong is righted, and it’s only 1948.
In short,”Hollywood” is a fantasia of racial and sexual justice. Though it’s based in fact–Rock Hudson, his manager Henry Willson (Jim Parsons) and the gas station/prostitution ring all existed–the series becomes increasingly fantastical as it careens toward a universal happy ending. This revisionism actually works for Peg Entwistle’s story, which–stripped of her Depression Era suicide–becomes a tale of movie stardom and true love.
Unfortunately, Ryan and Brennan can’t let go of the biggest myth about Peg: that the Hollywood Sign symbolized Hollywood The Industry. In fact, it didn’t even symbolize Hollywood The Place. As I’ve said many times, the Hollywoodland Sign (which is how it appeared even when “Hollywood,” is set) was a billboard for the neighborhood where it stood. What it symbolized was real estate, nothing more. If Peg Entwistle hadn’t been living in Beachwood Canyon in 1932, she would have chosen another spot from which to jump–or might not have jumped at all.
As for Peg’s drinking beforehand, it didn’t happen, not only because there were no legal alcohol or bars during the Depression but because no inebriate could have climbed Mt. Lee, let alone the ladder to the top of the H. In “Meg” this fiction does, however, give Rock Hudson something to do: in the role of bartender, he not only serves Meg a drink but tells her how to get to the Sign. The directions, it should be noted, are accurate.
For Peg Entwistle’s actual story, as well as photos and artifacts, here are links to my film, documentaries and book:
COVID19 Two-For-One Sale on DVDs
April 21, 2020 § Leave a comment
Curious about the documentaries that inspired this blog? Here’s a good chance to see them at a bargain price. Beginning today, each purchase of a full-length documentary on DVD will include a free companion documentary. Each order of “Under the Hollywood Sign” will come with “Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of an Actress”, while each order of “Jim Thompson, Silk King, 2015 Edition” will come with “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.”
This offer does not apply to digital downloads and will end as soon as the lockdown ends in Los Angeles. To order, please go to: http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/
Remembering Kate Johnson, Visual Artist, Teacher and Editor of All My Films
April 13, 2020 § Leave a comment
I first met Kate Johnson in 1999, shortly after I returned from Thailand with the raw footage for my first two documentaries–a suitcase full of BetaSP tapes that logged in at more than seventy hours. Documentaries are made in the editing room, and the time spent editing far exceeds the time spent shooting, writing and researching. Thus over the next sixteen years we spent countless days working side by side, and the resulting films were a collaborative effort. Weaving together interviews, footage, archival film and stills, music, sound effects and graphics is like making a giant tapestry, and Kate always kept track of the thousands of strands.
Kate edited both “Jim Thompson, Silk King” and its companion piece, “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” Then came “Under the Hollywood Sign,” and its short feature, “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk,” which I later spun off into a separate film. Our last project was the reissue of of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” which by 2014 had to be remastered because the original software was obsolete. For the new version, I filled the gaps in the score with new music that Kate composed and performed; it complemented the Thai classical music seamlessly. I also made two new shorts as DVD extras: one on Jim Thompson’s pre-Thailand architectural career and the other on developments on his disappearance since the release of the original documentary in 2002.
Throughout our time together, Kate was an invaluable source of ideas and guidance, providing the critical eye I needed. The fact that she was the only editor I’ve worked with says a great deal about her immense talent and range. Since she did it all, I never needed a sound editor, graphic artist or visual effects person, and only once did I use an outside composer.
In addition to editing my work and that of others, Kate was a filmmaker in her own right, and in 2015 won an Emmy for “Mia: A Dancer’s Journey.” Somehow she also found time to be a professor of Digital Media at Otis College of Art and Design, passing on her skills to a new generation of visual artists.
Because most of what I do is solitary, I found in Kate Johnson the longest and most significant working relationship of my career. My struggle to accept her passing includes the stark realization that I will never have a comparable collaboration, either in importance or duration. Brilliant and unique, she was also, for me, irreplaceable.
A Recluse in the Time of Covid19
March 26, 2020 § Leave a comment
The last time I thought about writing a post, it was going to be about Harvey Weinstein, who had just been sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault. Seeing a rich, powerful man appropriately punished was novel and gratifying, but my story was personal: an account of my first, last and mercifully non-criminal encounter with Weinstein. But it can wait.
How quickly and dramatically the world has changed in the past couple of weeks, as the corona virus has gone from a terrifying overseas crisis to a terrifying domestic one. Although I may not have been among the earliest Californians to self-quarantine, I locked myself in a week before orders came from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and California Governor Newsom, after attending in short order a post-surgical physical therapy session in a packed facility, a lively restaurant dinner, and a crowded funeral reception. Unnerved by the amount of close physical contact I’d had between March 10th and 13th, I decided to stay home and see no one for two weeks.
Because I live alone and work at home, spending a hundred percent of my time alone didn’t strike me as dramatically different from my usual routine, but I soon realized it was. Though outside activities consumed perhaps twenty percent of my waking hours, running errands and seeing family and friends made a huge difference, and I missed it. By Day 4, I actually felt lonely—an emotion I’d previously felt only in the company of narcissists. When I complained on the phone to my son, who was days away from his own self-quarantine, he said, “You? But you’re a writer!” True, but I wasn’t a hermit until very recently.
Fortunately, by Day 6—the eve of the state-wide shelter-in-place order—I had turned a corner and no longer felt sad, or even particularly alone. Part of the reason was that housework, cooking, gardening, doing my own physical therapy and trying to write left me no time to think about loneliness, let alone wallow in it. The other reason, I suspect, is human adaptability: most people can get used to anything, however strange and unpleasant, and I am predisposed to adapt quickly.
This week, as I embraced my new life under Covid19, news surfaced that Harvey Weinstein, ensconced in a hospital on Riker’s Island, had tested positive for the corona virus. Although only three weeks had passed since his incarceration, Weinstein had become antique, a relic from the shiny world of restaurants, stores, concerts, movie theaters. Now that all the fun places were shuttered, he was irrelevant.
Next time: Movies that speak to our circumstances
A Chance Meeting With Antonio Banderas, 25 Years After The First One
January 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
Early January brings one of my favorite film events of the year: the Foreign Directors’ Symposium at the American Cinematheque, where the Golden Globes nominees talk, often illuminatingly, about their films and those of their fellow directors. Before the panel, there’s a reception where I like to to catch up with friends and meet a director or two. (Or, as last year, to complain about subtitles https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2019/01/17/kore-edas-shoplifters-what-was-lost-in-translation/ )
At this year’s reception I was waiting for a friend to arrive when Antonio Banderas sat down across from me with his lunch. This was a surprise not only because I had expected only Pedro Almodóvar to show up, but because it was our second encounter. The first was at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, where “Desperado” launched him and Salma Hayek into international stardom.
Film festivals are a blur of screenings, meetings, press conferences, lunches, dinners and very little sleep, and none more than Cannes. Compounded by jet lag and sleep deprivation, the days and nights soon merge into one giant day and night, with predictable results. One minute you’re watching a movie; the next you’re standing on the beach with a glass of rosé in your hand, having already forgotten the walk from the Palais. And it’s only 11:30am. After lunch, two more screenings, cocktails, a premiere and dinner, things get really trippy.
Though I’ve forgotten most of the movies I watched and the people I met that year at Cannes, I remember the “Desperado” party vividly. It was a seated dinner near the Palais, and my table included the director Robert Rodriguez and his wife and Salma Hayek. After dinner everyone mingled, and that’s when I found myself standing next to Antonio Banderas. I knew him from the five Almodóvar films he’d made at that point, and was about to introduce myself when I noticed Melanie Griffith giving me an icy stare from across the room. From some Spaniards at the Festival I’d heard they were newly together, so I hesitated, unwilling to risk her ire. Then the speeches began, and the moment was lost.
They say you never have a second chance to make a first impression, but here we were at close range again, a quarter century later. Though I never would have approached Antonio, I decided it was time to speak up. “I met you 25 years ago at a party in Cannes,” I said. He lit up. “Oh no, did I say something bad?” “No, of course not!” I said in horror, unable to imagine him saying anything untoward, and told him how I had almost introduced myself at the “Desperado” party. Instantly we were chatting like old friends: about how quickly time had passed; “Pain and Glory”; his fateful heart attack two years ago; his having just seen Salma; his new theater, Teatro Soho, in his hometown, Málaga; and his new Spanish language production of “A Chorus Line,” bound for New York this spring. While we were talking, he got word on his phone that he had won that National Film Critics Circle Award. “Is that good?” he asked me. “It’s great; now you’re going to win everything, I said enthusiastically.
I was wrong about the Golden Globes, as it turns out, but the Globes are an unreliable predictor of the award for which he was later nominated, the Best Actor Oscar. It’s a prize Antonio richly deserves to win: his performance in “Pain and Glory” is peerless, both a career triumph and a sign of great work to come. Some of that work will be on the stage, where he was discovered by Almodóvar at the age of 21. “Leaving the theater for movies was like leaving a beautiful woman,” he charmingly told me, adding that his favorite American acting experience was on Broadway in “Nine”. Now, with his Teatro Soho and his arts school, Teatro Jóvenes Artistas Antonio Banderas, the stage is again his home. So is Spain, but the world is his oyster.
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