The New Documentary, Part I: “Going Clear”

April 25, 2015 § 2 Comments

Going_Clear_Poster

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.”

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Deliver Us From Lollygagging: The Glacial Pace of Tourist Traffic on Beachwood Drive

August 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Beachwood Drive at Glen Alder, with Speed Limit Posted/8-19-12/Hope Anderson Productions

An exponential rise in visitors to the Hollywood Sign has brought not only picture-taking throngs in the middle of traffic but the daily phenomenon of cars traveling well below the posted speed limit on Beachwood Drive. On the mile-long stretch between Franklin Avenue and the Hollywoodland Gates, the posted speed limit is 30. Yet the average tourist–status verified by out-of-state plates, rental car stickers and a penchant for running stop signs and not using turn signals–takes it upon himself to drive at a leisurely 20 mph, the better to take in the view.

While this might not sound like a serious problem, it is huge for those of us who live in the Canyon and have schedules to keep. Once we get stuck behind crawling tourist traffic, we are trapped for a mile. Drivers are completely unable to pass north of Graciosa, where Beachwood Drive is a narrow, two-lane ribbon. South of Graciosa, where the road is considerably wider, passing is possible but fraught with hazard. Sudden stops and swerves are common tourist driving tactics, as is road rage: How dare you pass us! seems to be the general attitude, as if no one should have anything better to do than chug up and down Beachwood Drive at 2/3 the legal speed. (I’m neglecting the fact that some tourists go even slower than 20 mph. 15 mph is common.)

The mile-long stretch between Franklin Avenue and the Gates has no stop lights and only two stop signs. At the posted speed of 30 mph, it took me 1 1/2 minutes to drive it at 6:45pm today. Yet it often takes five times as long, an inexcusable length of time for such a short distance. Getting stuck behind tourist traffic on Beachwood Drive is getting more common–and more frustrating–every day.

If you’re reading this and contemplating a visit to the Hollywood Sign, please drive at the posted speed. If you need to take a photo, please pull over, signalling first, and let the driver behind you pass. I’m thanking you in advance, not just for myself but for everyone concerned.

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.

Hollywood Before the Movies, Part II: City of Churches

June 30, 2010 § 3 Comments

Hollywood Congregational Church/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

In December of 2007, a bus carrying audience members to a taping of “The Dr. Phil Show” at Paramount went out of control on Gower Street and crashed onto the lawn of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Reading about the accident online, I was annoyed to come across this comment: “Who knew there were churches in Hollywood?” 

As anyone who has visited can attest, Hollywood is full of Protestant and Catholic churches; it boasts three major synagogues and temples of various Buddhist and Hindu sects as well.  In addition, Hollywood has long been a hub for nontraditional religions, from the Theosophical Society in the early 20th century to the Church of Scientology today.  But all these houses of worship merely hint at the town’s religious history: from its beginnings in the 1880’s to its absorption into Los Angeles in 1910, churches were Hollywood’s raison d’etre.  

Hollywood Christian Church/Courtesy University of Southern California Archives

Hollywood’s powerful religiosity sprang directly from its founder,  Harvey Wilcox, a devout Protestant and vehement teetotaler. In order to draw like-minded residents to Hollywood, he granted free land for church-building. Although Wilcox didn’t live to see the ultimate result, large houses of worship dominated Hollywood Boulevard by the beginning of the 20th century. 

Hollywood’s original churches have all been rebuilt since, though many of the names–Hollywood Presbyterian, St. Stephen’s Episcopal, Church of the Blessed Sacrament and Hollywood Methodist Church–remain the same. Interestingly, St. Stephen’s traces its lineage directly to Daeida Wilcox,  mother of Hollywood. Tired of commuting to Colegrove (now West Hollywood) to worship at St. James’ Mission, she donated land at Prospect (now Hollywood Blvd.) and Ivar for a new church. At that point, most of the congregation and even its rector relocated to Hollywood, sharing quarters with the Catholics at Blessed Sacrament until St. Stephen’s was completed in 1903.

Additional Source: www.ststephenshollywood.org

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