December 16, 2019 § Leave a comment
Nearly eleven years ago, I began blogging at Under the Hollywood Sign to promote my documentaries and writing, and I appreciate your readership. Wouldn’t it be great if the hundreds of thousands of you who’ve read this blog would watch the films that inspired it, or read the eBooks that grew out of it? You could also give them as gifts.
All my 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
Jim Thompson, Silk King 2015 Edition–Remastered with DVD Extras
Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign
On Blade Runner: Four Essays
March 8, 2019 § Leave a comment
In honor of International Women’s Day, here are links to some posts I’ve written about women directors in America. Despite some improvement, Hollywood remains a place where a first-time male director immediately gets to direct a big-budget action movie while a seasoned female director goes years between small projects. When will it change? When studio heads–almost invariably male–decide to expand their horizons.
March 2, 2019 § Leave a comment
Recently the screenwriter and director Paul Schrader appeared on Seth Meyers to promote “First Reformed,” and spoke the truth about filmmaking today. “The good news is everyone can make a movie….the bad news is no one can make a living at it.”
I’m one of those people. When I started making documentaries twenty years ago, new technologies had opened the field to independent filmmakers by dramatically lowering costs. Instead of shooting on film, I shot on high quality digital video. Digital editing systems allowed me and my editor, Kate Johnson, to weave picture, sound, music and graphics as flatbed editing machines never could. Finally the Internet–even in those pre-streaming days–let me advertise the documentary, make filming arrangements, hunt for and license archival pictures and footage, and communicate with interviewees. As a result, “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” was finished in two years–fast by documentary standards, particularly as I continued to shoot interviews at home and abroad for many months after finishing principal photography in Thailand.
All these technologies were stunning, as was the speed at which they changed. My first film was shot on BetaSP tape and distributed on VHS. My second film, “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection,” was mainly composed of footage from “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” but VHS was obsolete by the time it came out, replaced by DVDs. At that point I had to throw out all my VHS tapes for JTSK and order DVDs. By the time I started my third documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” in 2006, I needed a new HD camera and mini HD tape, while Kate had a new Pro Tools editing system.
By 2015, distribution had gone online. I put my films–by then there were four–on Vimeo, but I still needed DVDs for customers who didn’t do downloads. That year I also issued a new, revised version of “Jim Thompson, Silk King.” Only thirteen years after the original was finished, it was technologically obsolete, and Kate had to re-digitize the original footage to create a new master. The re-editing process, which included new footage, music and DVD extras (one of which I shot partly on my iPhone), was so laborious that it took almost as long as the original film.
Technology had become a runaway train, and changes in cameras, tape, software and distribution format ate my profits. But it was the Internet that delivered the final blow: suddenly everything on it was free or nearly so, and no one wanted to pay for anything. At that point I realized that documentaries, much as I loved making them, were ruining me, so I stopped. You can find them for purchase or rent, on DVD or via download, at hopeandersonproductions.com
November 24, 2018 § Leave a comment
Nicolas Roeg, who died yesterday, was one of those rare directors whose style kept changing as his career progressed. Though none of his films looked like anyone else’s, they also didn’t look like his others. Perhaps for that reason Roeg seemed forever young, so much so that his age–90–came as shock to me.
Roeg was trained in the British studio system, and before becoming a director he was an esteemed cinematographer. (One of his credits is “Lawrence of Arabia,” on which he began as the second unit camera operator and ended as DP.) His first film as a director, “Walkabout” (1971), remains the gold standard for films set in the Australia, a feast of indelible images. But Roeg was more than a visual artist: in film after film, he explored themes of alienation, loss and expatriation. Often his characters are strangers in foreign lands: the children in “Walkabout,” the space alien in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” and the couples in “Don’t Look Now” and “Bad Timing” are all far from home and vulnerable, and some are physically lost. Instead of rescue, they often meet disaster.
Roeg took risks with his casting, raising eyebrows by casting singers in leading roles. Mick Jagger and David Bowie made their acting debuts because of him (in “Performance,” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” respectively), while Art Garfunkel gave his best performance in the underrated “Bad Timing.” I recommend all his films, but my favorite remains “Don’t Look Now,” a high point not only for its director but its stars, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. In 2011, after visiting Venice for the first time, I wrote about it here:
September 24, 2018 § Leave a comment
If biographical films all seem alike, it’s because they all suffer from the same problem: their famous subjects’ familiarity, which constrains the creativity of writers, directors and actors in equal measure. But because the country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley wasn’t famous during his brief life, “Blaze” escapes that burden. The result is glorious: a captivating exploration of life, love and art that explodes every tired biopic cliché.
Until I saw the movie a week ago I–like most people, I suspect–knew Blaze Foley’s name only because of his song, “If I Could Only Fly,” as covered by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and “Drunken Angel,” Lucinda Williams’s song about Foley. Perhaps because of this, Ben Dickey could choose to portray Foley’s spirit instead of merely impersonating him. It’s a beautifully nuanced and relaxed performance, and the fact that it’s Dickey’s first acting role makes it all the more astonishing. Equally impressive is the musician Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt, Foley’s best friend. Sexton imbues Van Zandt with the quiet gravity of a man prepared to sacrifice everything for art, and performs his song “Marie” uncannily. The film’s other major character, Sybil Rosen, Foley’s partner during the seventies and the co-writer of the screenplay, is played by the actress Alia Shawkat in a graceful and understated manner that belies a background in comedy.
The director Ethan Hawke deserves praise not only for the performances but the fascinating structure of the film, which hops nimbly back and forth in time and tells Foley’s story in different ways and from different perspectives. Instead of the usual you-are-there-watching approach, Hawke recreates the events leading up to the shooting in detail, and then portrays the crime in fragments, including Van Zandt’s recollections and Rosen’s visit to the scene afterwards. When Hawke shoots Foley’s meandering, drunken performances, he allows Dickey to play entire songs while the camera wanders leisurely through the room, following anonymous bar employees as they serve drinks, clean up broken glass and go outside to smoke. Everything is so unforced that the film seems almost plotless, except that it’s not. All the threads of the story lead inexorably to premature death, both depicted and foreshadowed. Foley’s came in 1989 and Van Zandt’s in 1997, of heart failure caused by alcoholism and heroin addiction.
Long before Foley’s life ends, Sybil Rosen leaves him to his alcoholic self-destruction, but “Blaze” is not as sad as you might think. Rosen saves herself and becomes the artist she’s meant to be, while Foley courts death, achieves it, and gains posthumous fame. As Van Zandt says, “If you wanna to write a song, everyone’s gonna tell you you gotta live that song. But that’s not it: you’re going to have to die–a little.”
Ethan Hawke understands this, and now we do too. “Blaze” is not only the best film I’ve seen about a musician; it might also be the best biopic, and an indelible achievement in filmmaking. Future directors of the genre will have Hawke’s formidable example to live up to, and I look forward to seeing what they take from it.
July 27, 2018 § Leave a comment
Today would have been Jonathan Gold’s 58th birthday, which I’m sure he would have celebrated with a fabulous meal at one of the countless restaurants he championed during his years as the food critic for the LA Weekly and the LA Times. His unexpected death from cancer two weeks ago was a shock that Angelenos are still absorbing; whether or not we knew him personally, Gold was a familiar presence in our lives. In luring us to hidden gastronomic gems all over Los Angeles County, he gave us a taste of adventure that was as thrilling as the food.
Having listened faithfully to his “Good Food on the Road” segment on KCRW for years, I wonder who will tell me where to eat—and more importantly, where not to eat—in the future. Whoever it is, I wish him/her good luck in succeeding the first and only food critic to win a Pulitzer. Also, ixnay on using the second person in reviews, which was Gold’s trademark.
Two years ago, he was the subject of a very good documentary, “City of Gold.” I wrote about it (along with “Knight of Cups”), and recommend it highly:
Two Cinematic Tours of Los Angeles: “Knight of Cups” and “City of Gold”
At the Stahl House in “Knight of Cups”
Downtown Los Angeles in “City of Gold”
Since the early 20th century, Los Angeles has been the city that outsiders have loved to hate, usually based on fleeting touristic impressions. But no matter what the haters say, indignant reactions from the home crowd are few and far between. There are two reasons for this: 1) Angelenos don’t care what outsiders think of Los Angeles. 2) The last thing Angelenos want for people to move here, so all deterrents are welcome.
In L.A.-bashing, as in most matters, context is crucial. When Woody Allen wrote that L.A.’s “only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light,” he was a non-driving visitor to Beverly Hills and the Sunset Strip. How could he know about either local culture or driving? And when David Bowie said, “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth,” he was referring to his near-fatal cocaine abuse in Los Angeles. (Never mind that his addiction began years earlier, in London.) Ironically, Bowie spent a fair amount of time in Los Angeles over the course of his long career, making movies, collecting awards, appearing on talk shows and recording one of his best albums, “Station to Station,” in Hollywood. Yet he clung to the opinions he formed while high in the back of limos and darkened hotel rooms.
I was thinking about all of this as I watched the new Terrence Malick film, “Knight of Cups.” The plot, such as it is, concerns Rick (Christian Bale), an improbably attractive screenwriter who meanders around Los Angeles (with side trips to Death Valley and Las Vegas), his mind veering back and forth in time. Rick covers a lot of miles, yet he never writes a word. In fact, the closest he comes to working is meeting up with his agents, twice at CAA (Century City) and once at (I think) the Warner Bros. back lot (Burbank). But who has time for writing when there are so many women to recall? Apart from Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, most of Rick’s paramours are young models who wear filmy dresses (or less) and extremely high heels. (FYI, Terrence Malick: real L.A. women favor pants and shoes they can walk in.)
Fortunately, the places in the movie are decidedly real. Even the most over-the-top party (hosted by Antonio Banderas, though for me the highlight was the appearance of Joe Lo Truglio) takes place in well-known location: a massive Versailles-like mansion in Beverly Hills. Rick goes downtown (Broadway, the Bonaventure, etc), to the beach (constantly), to LACMA (Mid-Wilshire) and the Huntington Gardens (San Marino). He lives in a well-known industrial-looking apartment (the Gallery Lofts in Marina Del Rey), although I’m pretty sure that no one has seen a naked woman in six-inch heels talking on the phone on the balcony. Among the many visual highs are a twilight photo shoot at the Stahl House (Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22), gorgeous shots of Venice and PCH, and footage of the L.A. River and the tracks at Union Station. In short, it’s a film is by Emanuel Lubeski, with tiny amounts of dialogue and large amounts of voiceover written by Malick.
As the film washed over me, I was surprised at how many of the locations I had visited, not only architectural gems like the Broadway Theaters, the Stahl House and the Annenberg Beach House but a street in Hancock Park three blocks from where I used to live. For outsiders, “Knight of Cups” is a dream-like look at a great swath of Los Angeles–at least the rich, white, show biz side of it. But for those of us who live here, it’s much more: a trippy, deluxe home movie shot by three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer.
Coincidentally, I saw “Knight of Cups” on the same weekend as “City of Gold,” the new documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. Like the Malick film, “City of Gold” provides a beautiful, in-depth tour of Los Angeles, though a less rarefied one–e.g., no naked women in towering designer shoes and many ordinary people, all of whom have jobs. Gold is a native Angeleno whose knowledge of L.A. is profound and inclusive. Intrepid and expert in most of the world’s cuisines, he takes us to a wide variety of notable restaurants, two of which happen to be food trucks. The wonderful street scenes in “City of Gold” show the real Los Angeles: a multi-racial, multi-cultural vibrant megacity. The documentary also contains this truth: Los Angeles is beyond the grasp of those who, in Gold’s words, “come for a couple of weeks, stay in a hotel in Beverly Hills, take in what they can get to within ten minutes in their rented car and [then] explain to you what Los Angeles is.”
December 25, 2017 § Leave a comment
Merry Christmas from Under the Hollywood Sign!
Poinsettias of Old Hollywood, Part I
December 26, 2013 § 2 Comments
I was surprised to find this vintage postcard in the collection of Tommy Dangcil because I had not previously heard of poinsettias being grown in Hollywood. Judging from the single building in the hills, the image dates back more than a century, to when Hollywood still had large agricultural tracts. Most were planted with lemons and oranges, crops that would soon give way to movie studios and other commercial properties.
What makes the postcard even more striking is the fact that the poinsettia was not well-known at the time, and less a commercial crop than a curiosity. Native to Mexico, the plant–despite its red color–was not even particularly identified with Christmas. Its popularization was largely the work of Paul Ecke, a San Diego County grower who not only tirelessly promoted the poinsettia as the Christmas “flower” (in fact, the red parts are leaf-like bracts, while the yellow centers are the flowers) but who, with his son Paul Jr., created the white, pink, yellow and variegated types that are available today. Because of Ecke, Encinitas has long been the undisputed capital of poinsettia cultivation, producing 80% of the world’s plants. In light of its long history in Encinitas, discovering the poinsettia’s early connection to Hollywood was an unexpected pleasure.
Poinsettias of Hollywood, Part II
After I posted my last piece, I discovered an article in the current issue of Discover Hollywood * that completes the poinsettia’s history in Hollywood. It seems that it was none other than Paul Ecke’s father, Albert, who started growing the plants in here in 1900. Like many Angelenos of the era, Ecke was headed somewhere else–in his case, Fiji–when he discovered Hollywood’s ideal year-round growing conditions and decided to stay. He settled his family on Hayworth Avenue and soon established an orchard and a dairy.
Noticing that poinsettias grew wild in Hollywood and bloomed at Christmastime, Albert Ecke cultivated them in the field on Sunset Boulevard shown in the postcard above. Father and son sold them in pots from roadside stands in Hollywood and later Beverly Hills, where winter visitors as well as locals bought them. The painter Paul DeLongpre painted them (one of his watercolors is featured in the article) adding to their popularity beyond Southern California.
As many have noted, the poinsettia is memorialized as a street name in Hollywood. Now we know why.
*The issue is available free of charge now, but isn’t up yet on the magazine’s website http://www.discoverhollywood.com
Presumably it will be soon.