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.
May 14, 2018 § 5 Comments
Spoiler Alert: This review contains plot details
Paul Schrader’s new film, “First Reformed,” is about faith and the loss of it. Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of an austere Dutch Calvinist church in upstate New York, is a man in mourning for his dead son and failed marriage. Spurning the romantic attentions of his ex-girlfriend, Esther, and suffering from a serious illness he’s determined not to treat, Toller subsists mostly on alcohol while going through the motions of his job. Not that it matters, as only a handful of parishioners show up at services. In fact, First Reformed survives only because it is supported by a much larger church whose leader, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) regards it as historical monument: before the Civil War, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. As part of his preservation effort, the well-meaning Jeffers tries to minister to the alcoholic and faithless Toller, to no avail.
In his journal Toller writes: “I know that nothing can change and I know there is no hope.” Yet both arrive on his doorstep in the form of a young couple who seek his counsel. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant and desperately worried about her husband Michael, an environmental activist who pressures Mary to have an abortion rather than bring a child into a world beset by climate change. Rev. Toller sets out to persuade Michael to embrace life, but instead is quickly seduced by his nihilism. Michael’s suicide propels Toller to greater extremes, even as he embarks on a friendship with Mary that progresses into love.
Paul Schrader, who was raised in a Calvinist church so extreme that he didn’t see a movie until he was 17, knows Christianity’s downside well. So did Ingmar Bergman, whose father, a Lutheran minister, meted out punishments at odds with the teachings of Christ. Set in winter, “First Reformed” reminded me so much of Bergman’s films that I mentioned it to my seatmate, who brought up “Winter Light.” Never having seen this 1963 film, I watched it afterwards and was astounded at the similarities, from the plot to the glasses worn by the lovelorn female characters.
Like Toller, Tomas (Gunar Björnstrand) is the pastor of a small country church with a dwindling congregation. Middle-aged and widowed, he ministers with all the passion of an office worker clocking time until retirement. As does Toller, he mistreats his ex-girlfriend Märta (Ingrid Thulin), who remains desperately in love even as he repeatedly rejects her. Speaking directly at the camera, Märta responds:
I see I did it all wrong….Every time I’ve hated you I’ve made an effort to turn it into compassion….Nothing can save you–you’ll hate yourself to death.
Before he can, however, Tomas hastens the demise of a depressed congregant who, like Michael, comes to him at the behest of his wife. Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) is suicidal because the Chinese have threatened to use nuclear weapons. Instead of reassuring him, Tomas insists on confessing his own loss of faith:
If there is no God, would it really make a difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief. And thus death would be a snuffing out of life, the dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness and fear–all these things would be straightforward and transparent….There is no Creator.
With help like that, why go on? Jonas doesn’t but Tomas does, forging ahead with his ministry because the long-suffering Märta shows up at church when no one else does. A single devoted parishioner is enough, apparently.
Though “First Reformed” has a much more tragic ending, its similarities to “Winter Light” are beyond coincidental. At the screening I attended last week, Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke spoke at length about “First Reformed,” yet neither acknowledged “Winter Light,” much less credited it as source material. Having seen both, I think Bergman’s film is far better–moving, profound and indelible. Schrader falls back on magic realism and violence to drive home the message of “First Reformed.” Bergman, the unequaled master of realism, needed neither.
April 25, 2015 § 2 Comments
In the late 90s, I took a UCLA Extension course in directing whose instructor declared, “There is no more objective truth in documentaries than [in] feature films.” I couldn’t have disagreed more. Documentary films–as opposed to the opinion piece or docu-drama–are the converse of feature films, with a distinct set of rules:
1. Don’t make things happen. Rather than forming an opinion and then trying to prove it, documentary filmmakers shoot first and organize later.
2. The script comes last. Any narration is based on the footage, as is the structure of the film. Documentaries are made in the editing room.
3. Don’t mess with the timeline. With the exception of interviews, events are shown in the order of occurrence.
4. No pictures, no story. All narration must be illustrated by images, preferably moving images, followed by still photos and illustrations. Re-enactments, if any, are a last resort.
Because I’ve followed these rules in all my documentaries, I’ve had to make hard choices, particularly where images are concerned. When Jim Thompson’s heir failed to follow through on his promise to let me use family photographs, I had to cut short the section on Jim’s youth. Later, a total lack of photographs of Peter the Hermit, the original Hollywood costumed character, led me to drop his story from “Under the Hollywood Sign.” In the same film, I reluctantly made a re-enactment of Peg Entwistle’s final hour because I lacked photos and artifacts. In both Peter and Peg’s cases, I later received a flood of photographs and information, some of which can be found on this blog, but in Peter’s case it came too late to be included in the film.
While I don’t regret my strict approach, it doesn’t jibe with recent trends. The preferred model for new documentaries is the three-act screenplay, which requires a dramatic arc. Stories unfold like police procedurals, with satisfactory conclusions, while unrecorded events are generously re-enacted, often in lurid slow-motion. All of this makes for compelling entertainment, but is it real?
Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” is a good example of the new approach. Essentially a filmed version of Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, the film employs traditional elements–interviews, archival footage, B-roll of Scientology landmarks. But it is also loaded with re-enactments that tell L. Ron Hubbard’s story and those of his disaffected followers. So we see recreated auditing sessions using the E-Meter, typewriters, explanatory charts and lots and lots of stars (the planetary kind, though there are archivals of John Travolta and Tom Cruise as well).
Absolutely nothing is left to the viewer’s imagination. To illustrate his subjects’ retelling of Scientology’s creation myth, Gibney creates a colorful montage of 1950s Americana, spaceships, volcanoes and planets. And in case the term “Operating Thetan” proves too difficult to comprehend, he inserts a shot the words, neatly typed, on a piece of paper. The paper is still in the typewriter, one of many such shots, lest we forget that L. Ron Hubbard was a writer.
Gibney’s treatment of the interviews is curious. Though his interviewees–who include not only Wright but former Scientologists Paul Haggis, Jason Beghe and Spanky Taylor–are without exception eloquent, compelling and worthy of screen time, Gibney does everything possible not to show them talking. When not cutting to re-enactments, he cuts to graphics–anything to avoid screen time for a talking head. The result is an undermining of the interviewees, whose stories, after all, are the crux of “Going Clear.”
Next time: “The Jinx.”
December 24, 2014 § Leave a comment
Thanks for reading this blog, which I began nearly six years ago to promote my work; it has been a labor of love. Nevertheless, if a fraction of the hundreds of thousands who’ve read my posts and pages would watch my films or read my ebooks, I’d be much happier. The documentaries are available for sale (via DVD or Vimeo download) or rent (via Vimeo); the ebooks are available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other ebook sellers. All are linked through my website http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com
Under the Hollywood Sign
Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of an Actress
The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection (available on DVD; downloadable in 2015)
Jim Thompson, Silk King (New edition coming on DVD and download in 2015)
Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign
On Blade Runner: Four Essays
September 14, 2014 § 1 Comment
Hollywood went from mostly unsettled land to a metropolis in a matter of two decades. Most of what is now the district of Hollywood was purchased in 1877 by Harvey and Daeida Wilcox, a wealthy Kansas couple who came west to Los Angeles and, after the death of their only son, went looking for a rural retreat. After laying out streets and building a home, they deeded property to churches and enticed other like-minded Christians to move to their town. New residents opened businesses and grew citrus and exotic fruits like pineapples and avocados. But by the turn of the century, Hollywood was more than a farm village: it had become a resort for city dwellers who came by bicycle and streetcar from downtown Los Angeles. Two restaurants catered to daytrippers, and the rather grand Hollywood Hotel provided lodging for those who wanted to stay longer. Among the town’s charms was its microclimate: noticeably cooler than downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood was known for its ocean breezes. (In spite of Hollywood’s tall buildings, these can still be felt near Sunset and Vine, and sometimes carry a whiff of salt.)
In 1903, Hollywood was incorporated as a dry, Godly city: the un-Los Angeles. Its first laws were sumptuary: no alcohol for any purpose, either at home or in businesses; no gambling, no brothels. Its dryness was absolute: liquor going west from downtown had to be transported around Hollywood, a substantial detour that pleased neither merchants nor the Los Angeles City fathers. Though Harvey Wilcox, the stricter of Hollywood’s founders, died in 1891, his widow Daeida (despite her remarriage to Philo Beveridge, a bon vivant who enjoyed flouting the law by drinking wine) kept up her husband’s teetotaling tradition.
Things might have continued along these lines for a while longer if not for the problem of water. Hollywood had very little, and more often than not found itself in drought. The start of construction on the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1905 allowed City Hall to present the town with an ultimatum: either become part of Los Angeles or make do without its water. Knowing the town wouldn’t survive without access to the Aqueduct, Hollywood gave up its independence, becoming part of Los Angeles in 1910. Today, in the fourth year of a severe drought, it’s difficult to argue with the decision.
Yet Hollywood still feels distinct from Los Angeles, even in the midst of its current building boom. In 2000, a referendum was launched to return Hollywood to independence, but Los Angeles fought hard against it and it failed. Today Hollywood’s seven years as an incorporated city are remembered through its bylaws, which reside in bound volumes the Los Angeles City Archives. But Hollywood’s larger legacy is quotidian: its customary use by residents when giving their address.
April 24, 2014 § Leave a comment
The documentary that inspired this blog is now available as a download, either for purchase ($18) or rent ($5). Under the Hollywood Sign explores the history and present-day life of Beachwood Canyon in historical pictures, new footage and interviews. Here’s the link:
To purchase a DVD, please go to: http://www.underthehollywoodsign.com
September 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
For the Theosophical Society, Beachwood Canyon’s mild, frost-free climate was the deciding factor in its relocation here in 1911. The Theosophists wanted nothing less than to create a new Garden of Eden, and their colony, Krotona, was dotted with gardens. After the Theosophists moved to Ojai in 1926, their gardens became houses, forgotten except for a map and a few photographs.
Recently I decided that my living room needed a better view, so I planted four banana trees with red-green fronds outside. They instantly provided shade, color and movement, transforming the house as well as the hillside on which they were planted. Watching the fronds wave gracefully in the breeze has been a respite for me in an otherwise vacationless summer.
Because I was focused on appearance, I chose trees that produce a flower but no edible fruit. But my next purchase will be a fruiting banana–if possible the Lacatan, which produces small, creamy-textured bananas with red skins. (I don’t like the Cavendish, the yellow banana that has been the world’s commercial crop since the 1930s, but know it will grow in Southern California.) In time, I hope to have a small grove of banana trees–a living reminder of what the Canyon once was.