Happy Birthday, Los Angeles!

September 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Great Seal of the City of Los Angeles

The Great Seal of the City of Los Angeles

On this day in 1781, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de la Reina de los Angeles (The Town of Our Lady, Queen of Angels) was founded. You know it as Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the United States.

Despite having attained the age of 232, Los Angeles is still perceived as a “young” city, insufficiently historical and urban. Yet it is considerably older than Chicago (1883), America’s third-largest metropolis, a city that hasn’t been called young since Carl Sandburg’s time.

The subtext of “young” Los Angeles is that its Native American and Spanish (i.e., Mexican) periods somehow don’t count. To those who believe this, the City of Los Angeles began in 1847. But by that measure, the French origins of St. Louis (1764) would be discounted, as would the Dutch origins of New York (1625).

It’s time to realize that not all cities in the United States are modeled after European ones, or want to be. Los Angeles, the largest non-European city in the United States, reflects the New World in its architecture and Asia and Latin America in its vibrant, polyglot culture. Perhaps the 21st century will give it the respect it deserves.

The “Mad Men” Season Finale, Part II: It’s the Light

June 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

What's Wrong with this Picture?/Courtesy AMC

What’s Wrong with this Picture?/Courtesy AMC

While it’s true that the variety of architectural styles found in Los Angeles allows “Mad Men,” set in and around New York, to be filmed here, there’s one thing that always gives it away: the light. Simply put, the light in Los Angeles is so different from the light found anywhere else in the world (with one exception; more on that later) that, like a brilliant supporting actor, it steals every scene.

The last scene of the season finale provides an excellent example. As Don Draper and his children approach his decrepit childhood home in Pennsylvania they throw long, sharply defined shadows on the street. Though it’s possible to throw shadows in the eastern United States in late fall or around the winter solstice, the 40 degree latitude in Pennsylvania would produce shorter shadows, while the weaker light would make them less defined.

Light is perhaps the greatest asset of the Southland, something that is constantly marveled at, studied, painted and written about. When people in LA talk about the climate, they are really talking about the quality of light, which at its fullest produces not only dramatic shadows but, depending on the time of year, no shadows at all. The best exploration of the light here, in my opinion, is contained in the 1998 New Yorker article, “L.A. Glows,” by Lawrence Weschler. In talking to visual artists, poets and scientists about LA’s light, Weschler discovers why the city looks the way it does. The astronomer Hal Zirin says it best:

…what happens here is that ocean-cooled air drifts in over the coastal plain and gets trapped beneath the warm desert air floating in over the mountains to the east. That’s the famous thermal inversion, and the opposite of the usual arrangement, where the warm surface air progressively cools as it rises. And the atmosphere below the inversion layer is incredibly stable….go out to the Santa Monica palisade and gaze out over the cool water. It’s completely clear and distinct, clean out to the horizon. The heat rising from the ground in most places…is in turn what makes stars shimmer and twinkle in the night sky….if you’re an astronomer you want your star–or for that matter, your sun–to be distortion-free: solid as a rock. And that’s what you get here. The stars don’t twinkle in L.A.

I had a dramatic experience of this phenomenon a few days ago, while looking down Fairfax Avenue. It was an exceptionally clear day that allowed me to see all the way to the ocean, some thirty miles south. But even more amazing than seeing blue in the distance was the fact that the furthest hills and houses were as sharply defined as those in the near distance. As I stared, the total clarity of the light threw me into what one of Weschler’s interviewees called “egoless bliss.”

But the true significance of the light in Los Angeles isn’t the mood it generates, or the peculiar suspension of time that makes Rip Van Winkles of us all. (To quote Orson Welles, “you sit down, you’re twenty-five, and when you get up, you’re sixty-two.”) It’s the reason the movie industry relocated to Los Angeles from the East Coast during the Silent Era: movies could be shot year-round with little or no artificial lighting. Roofless sets allowed interior scenes to be shot by natural light as well. By 1911, Los Angeles was the center of the movie industry, and has been ever since.

So when Don and the kids threw sharp shadows that were taller than they were, I laughed in recognition: they could only be in LA. But those who think there’s no place else on earth with LA’s light haven’t seen Morocco, the world’s only other coastal desert. Morocco’s identical thermal inversion creates the same light: strong, clear and unforgettable.

Additional Source:

“L.A. Glows,” by Lawrence Weschler. The New Yorker, February 23, 1998.

Related article:


The “Mad Men” Finale, Part I: Don Draper’s Childhood Home

June 27, 2013 § 1 Comment

What's Wrong with this Picture?/Courtesy AMC

Don and the Kids Confront His Past/Courtesy AMC

Sunday night’s season finale of “Mad Men was compelling for many reasons, but most of all for its amazing last scene in which (spoiler alert!) Don Draper boldly takes his three children to see his childhood home, a crumbling Victorian brothel operated by his uncle. “This is a bad neighborhood!” Bobby pipes when they stop, and Sally gives Don a look that contains enough dialogue for an entire episode.

Though the house is supposed to be somewhere in Pennsylvania, the location isn’t, and neither are any of the other places pictured in the show, for “Mad Men” is entirely made in Los Angeles. The interiors are filmed at Los Angeles Center Studios, the former Union Oil Company headquarters at the western edge of downtown. The complex, still modern-looking after 53 years, is by Pereira and Luckman, the firm that designed LAX’s Theme Building and other mid-century classics. LACC’s exterior can be seen in “Fight Club” and countless other movies and TV shows. Other locations include local theaters, clubs, bars, restaurants and private homes built between the 1880s and 1960s. Here is a guide to some of them:


So much for the tired idea that Los Angeles is a “new” city. Even if creator Matthew Weiner had wanted to, he couldn’t have shot “Mad Men” in New York, as many of the real locations have been altered or demolished. As much as it surprises New Yorkers, downtown Los Angeles contains many more authentic early to mid-20th century exteriors than Manhattan, which is why so many movies set in New York are shot here. The array of styles in the houses alone–Don and Betty’s Scarsdale colonial, Betty and Henry’s brick Victorian pile, Anna Draper’s Craftsman, the jet setters’ Palm Springs modern–proves that Los Angeles is unmatched as an architectural treasure trove.

But back to the whorehouse. From its style, elevation and stone walls, I knew it had to be located in Angelino Heights, just north of downtown, but where? Having just toured Carroll Avenue, Angelino Heights’ most famous street of Queen Anne houses, the week before, I knew that most had been restored. Here’s a photo of one of the best:

Victorian House on Carroll Avenue in Angelino Heights/Hope Anderson Productions

Victorian House on Carroll Avenue in Angelino Heights/Hope Anderson Productions

As for the unrestored houses, even the worst didn’t look as bad as Don’s childhood home.

Yesterday the mystery was solved by a friend, who led me to this link:


The house is on Carroll Avenue, but was heavily manipulated in post-production. Not long ago, it wouldn’t have been hard to find a house in Angelino Heights that needed no special effects to look decrepit, but gentrification has transformed Angelino Heights to the point where”Mad Men” had use CGI.

Next time: It’s the Light.

The Importance of Julie Delpy

May 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

Julie Delpy

Julie Delpy

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine article on Julie Delpy reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with a friend who worked in the film industry (and still does). This was in the mid-nineties, when Delpy was studying film at NYU, a choice that impressed me. “Ugh, I can’t stand her,” he said. Because my friend was a man who loved women in general and actresses in particular, his opinion–and his inability to explain it–puzzled me. Who wouldn’t love Julie Delpy? I should have been clued in by his gushing enthusiasm for Renee Zellweger, whom he had recently met at a film festival and whose squinty charms were lost on me. If ever there was an anti-Zellweger, it’s Julie Delpy.

Flash forward to last January, when Delpy, now a director as well as an actress, appeared at a Q &A at the Aero in conjunction with a screening of two of her films (“Two Days in New York,” and “Two Days in Paris.”) Having never seen her live, I was struck by how different she was from most actresses I’ve encountered. Part of it was physical: unlike the size-0-with-breast-implants standard type, she was a normal sized woman, complete with hips and a few extra pounds. She also hadn’t made any special effort to dress or make up for the appearance, coming onstage in jeans and a sweater, like most of the audience. But more striking than her appearance was her attitude, which though engaging was utterly free of ingratiation. She was, in a word, herself: funny, opinionated, idiosyncratic and completely lacking in Hollywood pretense. I’ve met a variety of actors over the years, and (with the notable exception of Henry Winkler, surely the nicest and most unpretentious famous man in town), they radiate an odd self-consciousness, as if they’re perpetually watching themselves instead of simply being. That night, Delpy was not only comfortable simply being but–as she told stories about being fired by every agency in town and turned down by Vanity Fair’s Oscar Party for not being a big enough star–clearly unconcerned about others’ perceptions of her.

While there are a few actresses who seem indifferent to public adoration–Jennifer Jason Leigh and Debra Winger come to mind–Julie Delpy is another sort. She’s not aloof or implosive or defiant; she’s simply free of whatever impulse makes most other actresses mold themselves to industry specifications. In the Times Magazine article, she says:

In movies, you mostly see people who make an effort….Am I going to spend two hours at the gym? I can’t do it; it’s excruciatingly boring. I feel like I’m losing time.

In the time she hasn’t lost, Delpy has written and directed five films. Her new movie is one she co-wrote as well as acts in: “Before Midnight,” the third installment of the romantic series she’s made with Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater. Upcoming are two French movies she’ll direct, and two American projects. Yet despite being based in Los Angeles, she still can’t get financing here; instead, she cobbles the money from French companies and various investors, in true indie style. Perhaps if she were more of a player–or male–she’d get studio financing. But then she wouldn’t be herself, which makes the matter moot.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/julie-delpy-dreams-of-being-joe-pesci.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

The Millennium Hollywood Project: A Highrise Future For a Gridlocked Little Town

March 30, 2013 § 2 Comments

Artist's Rendering of the Millennium Hollywood Project/Courtesy LA Times

Artist’s Rendering of the Millennium Hollywood Project/Courtesy LA Times

As readers of this blog know, Hollywood was once an independent city, culturally and politically distinct from Los Angeles. In fact, it was the anti-Los Angeles: religious, semi-rural and dry. From 1903 to 1910, Hollywood passed its own laws and collected its own revenues. It not only outlawed alcohol but forced Los Angeles to send liquor westward in a circuitous route around it. Life would have probably continued in that vein for a few more years if not for the matter of water. In an arid region, Hollywood’s survival depended on water from the California Aqueduct, then under construction. But the only way for Hollywood to tap into the Aqueduct was to become part of Los Angeles, so like a lot of other little towns, it did.

Change came immediately. There was massive new development in the form of movie studios and houses for the new stars and moguls of that industry, and by 1920 Hollywood had surpassed downtown Los Angeles as an urban hub. Its glory days were shortened by the Great Depression, and over the decades Hollywood became a seedy and crime-ridden place. Despite various attempts at rejuvenation, things didn’t really turn around until a decade ago, with the completion of Hollywood and Highland in 2002.

Since then, Hollywood has became not only a tourist destination but a kind of Nightlife Ground Zero for suburbanites from miles around, drawn here by restaurants, clubs, theater and concerts. Anyone attempting to drive through Hollywood on a weekend night can see the difference: streets that not so long ago were the nighttime domain of panhandlers, hookers and homeless people are now thronged with young women in tight dresses and stiletto heels and the men who want to meet them. Hollywood Boulevard, once so blighted that the average tourist spent only 20 daytime minutes there, is now vibrant, glittering and packed with pedestrians–and lots and lots of cars.

Unfortunately, the major aspect of Hollywood that hasn’t changed is the streets–essentially the same ones laid out by Harvey and Daeida Wilcox in the 1890s. The exponential increase in traffic has overburdened them to the point where certain streets such as Franklin Avenue are now congested day and night. During rush hour, gridlock is common, and on Franklin drivers often jump the median line in an attempt to gain some advantage, terrifying the oncoming traffic.

Given the evidence, it’s safe to assume that few of Hollywood’s visitors arrive by public transport, yet this is what Mayor Villaraigosa thinks will happen if a massive new project call Millennium Hollywood is built. Occupying a large swath of land north of Hollywood and Vine, the development features two towers over 50 stories (dwarfing the current tallest building in Hollywood, at only 20 stories) as well as numerous other buildings. Where all the cars for the new residents and workers are supposed to go is anyone’s guess–certainly the developers and City Hall haven’t given it much thought. The objections of 40 neighborhood organizations have just been dismissed, and it seems obvious that some version of the scheme pictured above will be built.

Of course there’s so much more to the story–including a clear conflict of interest at City Hall that uncannily mirrors one of a century ago. The more things change in Los Angeles, the more things stay the same: needless to say, I’ll be writing more about Millennium Hollywood and its antecedents in the future. In the meantime, I’m taking a couple of weeks off to do other, non-Hollywood things, and will be blogging again in mid-April.

Crazy Salad: Some Things About Nora Ephron’s Career

August 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

Nora Ephron 1941-2012/Photo copyright Illona Lieberman

Nora Ephron’s death in late June came as a surprise not only to those who didn’t know her but apparently to many of her friends, as she had decided (in a very old-fashioned but canny way–more on that later) to keep her cancer a secret. As the news sank in, I felt very sad to think that Ephron, who seemed perennially youthful, would no longer enliven whatever subject was at hand with her wit, and found it hard to imagine anyone taking her place as an essayist and commentator. In the many tributes to Ephron that were published in the following weeks, there was appropriately high praise for her body of work as a journalist, essayist, screenwriter and director, but one quote in particular, from 2004, stood out. About her collected essays from the 70s (most of them written for Esquire, where she was the first woman columnist) the Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley wrote:

At the time Epron started movie work, I thought that Hollywood’s gain was journalism’s loss, and a rereading of all three of her collections leaves me even more firmly convinced of that. Journalism today has too many self-important, humorless, money-grubbing bigfeet, most of whom are far less interested in the story than in the storyteller. Ephron, as a columnist charged with expressing her own opinions, managed to strike the right balance between story and self.

I first discovered Ephron through her Esquire essays, which are collected in three volumes: Wallflower at the Orgy, Crazy Salad and Scribble Scribble. Though she wrote about a wide range of subjects–feminism, food, breasts, Pat Loud, her mother’s mink coat, and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and that’s just in Crazy Salad–she approached each in an incisive, original manner. Like an older, funnier, cleverer friend, she had a knack of zeroing in on her subjects and saying, in the pithiest possible way, the perfect thing:

I’m not sure you can make a generalization on this basis, which is the basis of twice, but here goes: whenever I get married, I start buying Gourmet magazine. I think of it as my own personal bride’s disease.

There is something very moving about Julie Nixon Eisenhower–but it is not Julie Nixon Eisenhower. It is the idea of Julie Nixon Eisenhower, essence of daughter, a better daughter than any of us will ever be; it is almost as if she is the only woman in American over the age of twenty who still thinks her father is exactly what she thought he was when she was six.

It is generally agreed…that the entire civic scandal of Richard Collin and the mysterious spaghetti sauce recipe could only have happened in New Orleans…and for fairly obvious reasons. For one thing, New Orleans is one of the two most ingrown, self-obsessed little cities in the United States. (The other is San Francisco.)

Ephron’s importance as an essayist is proven by her imitators, who are legion. In the New York Times alone, the long shadow of her influence stretches, with varying degrees of success, from the Op-Ed pages (Maureen Dowd, Frank Bruni) to the Style Section, where it touches everything, even the execrable Modern Love column.

If she had written nothing but essays, Nora Ephron would have left a powerful legacy, but she forged on, becoming a successful screenwriter in her forties with “Silkwood,” and “When Harry Met Sally.” With the latter she single-handedly revived the romantic comedy, for better or worse, spawning countless paler imitations. Screenwriting made her famous in a Hollywood way, which is to say hugely so, and paved the way for an even more improbable (given her sex and age) third act: her leap into directing. As a director, Ephron made eight films in seventeen years, including successes like “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and “Julie and Julia,” and failures like “Bewitched,” and “This is My Life.” Which brings me back to Yardley’s lament: Ephron’s career in film, though probably vastly more satisfying (and certainly more lucrative) than journalism, didn’t really showcase her strengths.

While her screenplays are technically adept, the comedies tend toward the derivative (“When Harry Met Sally” contains echoes of Heartburn, her only novel, which she also adapted for the screen, while “You’ve Got Mail” is an updated version of “The Shop Around the Corner”). As a director, Ephron turned out films that were competent and generally well-acted but not visually memorable, which is a problem in a visual medium. The fact that she approached fimmaking through words rather than images manifests itself not only through her workmanlike shot selection but also glaring errors such as the repeated shots of Meryl Streep’s high-heeled platform pumps in “Julie and Julia.” As most people know, Julia Child was extremely tall (6’2″) while Streep (5’6″ or 5’7″) is not. Showing Streep in the kind of shoes Child didn’t need and never wore, instead of framing the shots from her ankles up, was not an incidental matter: it was a directorial mistake that broke the spell of Streep’s superb performance.

Happily, Ephron took up essay writing again in the last years of her life, publishing two collections, the excellent I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006) and its seemingly hastily written follow-up I Remember Nothing (2010). The essays showed she had lost nothing of her old skill. Although the subjects were more personal than those of the Esquire era, the observations were no less keen:

Most everyone wears black–except for anchorwomen, United States senators, and residents of Texas, and I feel really bad for them. I mean, black makes your life so much simpler. Everything matches black, especially black.

Another good thing about divorce is that it makes clear something that marriage obscures, which is that you’re on your own.

Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever’s writing it says it’s great to be old. It’s great to be wise and sage and mellow; it’s great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life….What can they be thinking? Don’t they have necks?

It’s clear in re-reading these essays that Ephron, in her increasing preoccupation with old age, sickness and death, was saying goodbye. As for why she kept her cancer a secret, it probably had more to do with a desire to keep working in film than a need for privacy. At the time of her death, she was working on a TV series and several other projects; news of a serious illness would have stopped them from going forward. By then an old Hollywood pro, Ephron knew the score.

Beachwood Canyon in the 1940 Census, Part I: Cosmopolitan, Occupationally Diverse, and Stable

May 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

A Page from the 1940 Census/Courtesy http://www.the1940census.com

For the past week, I’ve been mesmerized by the 1940 Census records for Beachwood Canyon. A time capsule loaded with demographic information, the Census shows a neighborhood that was largely upper-middle class, yet diverse in national origins and occupations. (Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much racial diversity; apart from a few Lebanese and Egyptians in nearby Bronson Canyon, everyone in the area seems to have been of European extraction, including live-in servants.)

As I expected, movie industry employees were well represented in the Canyon, which crawled not only with actors but directors, producers, sound engineers, cameramen, and executives. But I didn’t think musicians would be as prevalent: conductors, singers, pianists, violinists, teachers and coaches, most not connected to the movies, abounded in the Canyon. It’s a reminder of the fact that Los Angeles, with its burgeoning population of urban sophisticates, was a center for live music long before the existence of the Music Center, let alone Disney Concert Hall.

Another notable element of Beachwood’s 1940 population was the number of residents born outside California. Unsurprisingly, the largest number came from the Eastern Seaboard, with significant numbers from the Midwest, notably Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin. Others came from Kansas, Nebraska and other Plains States. More surprising is the number of foreign-born residents, who were so common that every page I reviewed had at least one. The most common foreign birthplaces were England, Germany, Canada and Russia.

In 1940 the United States was still emerging from the Great Depression, an economic reality that was reflected in Beachwood’s households. Multigenerational families were common, not only where adult children lived with their parents, but in households containing three generations. For example, the house next door to mine, notable for having been designed by a famous architect, housed not only the architect’s sister, her husband and two sons but her widowed mother and middle-aged brother, as well as a maid from England. Although they undoubtably were the richest family on the block–the husband was a manufacturing executive with an income in excess of $5000 per year, the highest category on the Census, and his wife worked as an apartment manager–the house is far from palatial. A family of three lives there today, and the house doesn’t seem too big for it.

Another significant difference between Beachwood then and now is the number of households with live-in servants. Maids were common in 1940, as were trained and practical nurses, most in charge of babies and toddlers. Other households listed lodgers–which, ironically, are common again in today’s tough economy. The prevalence of rented rooms in circa 1940 Hollywoodland belies the idea that houses above the Gates were intended as single-family homes: lodgers, it seems, have always lived here.

The Census contains a last surprise, one that puts to rest the idea of Los Angeles as a way station for vagabonds. It asks respondents where they resided five years earlier, on April 1, 1935. Overwhelmingly, Beachwooders responded “same place.”

Next time: Discovering the original owner of my house.

Strength Through Adversity: How the Calamities of the Early 90s Transformed Los Angeles’ Self Image

April 2, 2012 § 1 Comment

The LA Riots of 1992/Courtesy http://www.paranormalknowledge.com

When I moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in 1989, I did so at some risk, quitting my job, selling my house and uprooting my preschooler in a life-changing leap of faith. My decision was met with disbelief by colleagues and acquaintances, who were incredulous that a) anyone would leave the Bay Area voluntarily and b) that anyone would move to Los Angeles without being forced. When they found out I didn’t even have a job waiting for me, their incredulity turned to derision. No one even bothered to put a positive spin on what they considered an incomprehensibly awful idea. The nadir of these comments, reported to me by my son’s babysitter, was spoken to my bewildered 5-year-old: “Have your mommy buy you a gas mask.”

Once we were here, I noticed no one in Los Angeles ever said anything bad about people who did the reverse. Leaving Los Angeles for San Francisco invariably brought congratulations and positive statements. I love the Bay Area! was the general theme. Clearly, these attitudes had to do with the historic rivalry between the two cities, but also with the fact that Los Angeles–having surpassed San Francisco economically–was on its way to usurping San Francisco’s position as the state’s cultural capital. Los Angeles-bashing only underscored San Francisco’s provincialism, but no one in either city seemed to mind.

More surprising–and disheartening–were the comments Angelenos made about their own city. Los Angeles circa 1990 was thought of almost entirely in negative terms by people who ostensibly had moved here without duress. The city was polluted, expensive, traffic-filled and stressful. There was too much going on, or not enough going on, depending on whether you were talking about culture or sports. Having grown up in Tokyo, which at the time was far more polluted, crowded, traffic-filled and stressful than LA, and yet was universally considered an enviable place to live, I found it odd. The only thing people in Los Angeles didn’t complain about was the weather–unless of course it was raining. (An English friend of mine used to say the winter rains here were the most depressing she had experienced in her life. “But you’re from London,” I said, at which point she embarked on a comparison between the lovely soft English rain and the cold, pelting Los Angeles rain. I’m not kidding.)

But in 1990, something good happened: the air quality improved noticeably. The apparent reason was the closing of the last auto plant in LA, which ended 50 years of ill-advised heavy manufacturing in the Los Angeles Basin, an area the Tongva Indians used to call The Valley of the Smokes, which perhaps was the original local put-down. In any case, smoggy summers soon gave way to blue skies, and in winter the views of the San Gabriels were stunning. Nevertheless, the civic mood hardly had time to improve before the Rodney King beating (March ’91) and subsequent riots (May ’92) made Los Angeles the most reviled major city in the country. At the time of the riots, I was living in Hancock Park, in a house that lay 6 blocks from multiple fires. My son and I cowered in our house all during that first day, not knowing whether the mayhem on Western and on Wilshire would spill over into door-to-door violence. It was a strange and frightening experience, surreal both at the time and in retrospect.

The following months brought an exodus of Los Angeles haters–people who, if not for the riots, probably would have stayed on unhappily, infecting the civic mood. Instead they lit out for their various hometowns, or New York, and things brightened considerably. But it took the Northridge Quake (January ’94) to really sweep the city clean of detractors who, terrified of The Big One, left in droves. Unfortunately, the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman that June set back the city’s self-image once again, but nothing could undo the post-Rodney King reform of the LAPD, which changed the head-cracking culture of local law enforcement and brought about a huge decline in crime.

Two decades later, it’s unreal to think about these events, all of which eventually changed Los Angeles for the better. As I luxuriate in relatively clean air and low crime rates not seen since the 1950s, it occurs to me that years have passed since I’ve had to listen to anyone disparage Los Angeles. Though it might be because word has gotten out that I’ll say, “Then you should leave,” I think it’s because Los Angeles has become a great place to live. Still, we should let the haters think otherwise, or else they’ll come back.

No More La La Land, Part II: How Los Angeles Became the Center of the Art World

February 29, 2012 § 2 Comments

Last October’s opening of Pacific Standard Time, the Getty Center-organized mega-show of Los Angeles art from 1945-1980, was greeted with much fanfare in the national and international press, though from different perspectives. While California publications viewed the linked exhibitions at 130 museums and galleries as a long-delayed retrospective of the area’s painting, sculpture, design and photography, those outside California seemed to regard PST as revelatory, as if Southern California and its enormously varied trove of artwork had just been discovered.

Nowhere was the reaction to PST more confused than in the New York Times. A review by Adam Nagourney–http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/arts/design/southern-california-claims-its-place-on-the-art-world-map.html
–lauded the exhibition while noting:

No one is suggesting that Los Angeles is about to supplant New York as an art capital; it is not lost on people here that the executive directors of three of the four biggest museums in Los Angeles are from New York.

Here Nagourney has it backwards: Michael Govan and Jeffrey Deitch are here because Los Angeles represents the art world’s present and future, not because they’ve taken up missionary work. Nor for that matter has Larry Gagosian, whose first gallery opened here in 1979 and whose Beverly Hills gallery opened in 1995. Ironically, Nagourney’s comment that New York still contains the greatest concentration of galleries, museums and buyers is exactly the same argument that Parisians made after World War II, when all signs pointed to New York.

The pertinent question is whether the art world centers on those who make art or those who consume it. If it’s the latter, New York still reigns. But if it’s the former–as it was in New York from approximately 1945-2000–the center of the art world moved west some time ago.

The reasons for this aren’t hard to fathom. New York has become increasingly inhospitable to young artists due to its exorbitant cost of living, which puts studio space out of reach for all but the wealthiest and most established artists. In the last thirty years, young artists have gone from Soho to Chelsea to Brooklyn to Queens in search of studio space, gentrifying each before being forced out by rising rents. The last stop seems to be the South Bronx, where studios reportedly are still within reach. When that area becomes gentrified, artists will be shut out of New York City entirely, leaving it to the one per centers. Unfortunately for them, a city can’t be an art capital without artists, however many hedge fund managers decide to take up collecting.

In fact, New York stopped being an essential destination for young artists years ago. Bypassing the city altogether, they found other, more welcoming places to live and work: Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland and–most of all–Los Angeles. Those who came to study at Art Center, UCLA and Cal Arts simply stayed; others made Los Angeles their destination of choice. While rents here are hardly cheap, it’s still possible for young artists to find studio space, as well as a community of like-minded artists, a lively gallery scene, and more museums than they can reasonably visit in a year.

Beyond the art world, Los Angeles has a creative atmosphere unmatched by that of New York or anywhere else. That the film and music industries are centered here provides still greater ferment, allowing writers, animators, painters, sculptors, musicians and other creative artists to inspire each other’s work.

I’ve long felt that Los Angeles is the most creative city in the United States, if not the planet, and PST has gone a long way toward promoting that idea. But it was a recent radio interview with Werner Herzog that made me realize others feel the same way. Much to my surprise, I discovered Herzog has been living in Los Angeles for the better part of two decades, making a film a year and running the semi-secret Rogue Film School. When he stated that Los Angeles was most culturally important place in the world, the interviewer asked what about New York? Herzog replied that New York was “more on the receiving end of culture,” whereas the actual creative work was happening here.

In light of this, Adam Nagourney’s assertions that “the sheer sprawl of the city” and “the difficulty of encouraging people to walk inside for anything but a movie in a city that has glorious weather so many months of the year” work against Los Angeles as an art capital seem nothing more than desperate cliches. And the latter comment, made despite ample evidence of crowds at LACMA, the Getty and MOCA, is a New Yorker’s fantasy of life in LA, not the art-filled reality.

Related article:


No More La-La Land, Part I: Changing References to Los Angeles in the New York Times

February 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

Courtesy pmpcertificationonline.org

When I moved to California from Boston 30 years ago, I felt I had immigrated to another country. It wasn’t just a matter of climate: people dressed differently, listened to different music, ate different foods–in essence, they were culturally distinct. The experience was both disorienting and exhilarating, and so compelling that although I stayed in-state for the next two years, I felt I had traveled widely.

At the same time, I remember vividly the anti-California sentiment of East Coast newspapers and magazines. In the days before the New York Times regarded itself as the nation’s newspaper, mocking references appeared constantly in its pages, as well as those of the Wall Street Journal. I lived eight years in Berkeley, a lovely university town portrayed by the East Coast press as an absurd hotbed of indolence, radical politics and gourmet food. A particular low point was a Wall Street Journal article whose author claimed to have seen a cake inscribed “Victory to the Sandanistas.” Although no one from Berkeley ever saw this cake, the article was widely reprinted. The derision was universal and lasted about two years.

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, I hoped my new home would garner more respect–after all, wasn’t it the capital of popular culture? But it didn’t, unless you consider a shift from “Bizerkeley” to “La-La Land” an improvement. The New York Times routinely referred to Los Angeles as “Tinsel Town,” and employed “laid-back” to describe what undeniably is one of the least relaxed cities on the planet. While there were occasional bright spots, notably Herbert Muschamp’s architectecture reviews, the tone of the Times’ reporting was generally dismissive, casting Los Angeles in the role of an adolescent city whose art, however ambitious, was irrelevant simply because it came from here. Clearly, the sentiment of this harrumphing 1978 movie review by Vincent Canby hadn’t faded from the editorial purview:

“Moment By Moment” is this year’s California “problem” picture, that is, a movie in which people suffer for reasons that never seem very urgent in settings that, though not particular to California, are emblematic of what we think of as the California culture–elaborate beach houses, imported automobiles (public transportation is nowhere in sight), on throughways that are the main arteries of late 20th-century rootlessness.

True, it’s an old review. For a more recent example of cultural condescension, here’s a 2005 Style piece by Monica Corcoran:

GRANTED, the Los Angeles tourism board will never lure visitors with ”Got culture?” After all, even a local hero, the writer Raymond Chandler, once called this place ”a hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup.” But on a recent Friday night at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art, even the most disdainful of Los Angeles critics would have eaten his hat.

Nevertheless, the past few years have brought improvements in the New York Times’ attitude. Not only does it take Los Angeles far more seriously, with an excellent bureau and in-depth reporting, but it covers stories that formerly would have been of no interest to New Yorkers, such as Hollywoodland’s problems with tourist traffic. Though I used to find it weird, I’ve grown accustomed to reading minutiae about Los Angeles in the Times. At this point, it seems no Los Angeles story is too local, including one about a dispute among members of the Woman’s (sic) Club of Hollywood. Nevertheless, when I found myself reading about a labor action at my neighborhood car wash a couple of years ago, I wondered whether things hadn’t gone too far.

Next: Two cities and their artists.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the New York category at Under the Hollywood Sign.