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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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.
December 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
The photo above shows California holly (toyon) in bloom in the Hollywood Hills. Some believe this plant inspired the name Hollywood, although it was more likely a random choice by Daeida Wilcox, who met a woman on the cross-country train with a vacation house of that name. You can read more about California holly here: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/11/13/the-hills-are-alive-with-california-holly/
This is the seventh Christmas for Under the Hollywood Sign. As regular readers know, I began the blog to promote my documentary of the same name. That film, as well as my others, is now on sale at half price (that’s $12.50 for features; $6 for the short) on my website http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com The sale continues through the end of the month; please check it out.
November 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
It’s now for sale by download on Vimeo. Please go to https://vimeo.com/ondemand/silkking/128562922
October 23, 2015 § 1 Comment
Lately my workdays have consisted of moving from writing project to writing project in monastic solitude. Although this suits me fine, others might compare it to self-imposed house arrest, despite my occasional escapes to the gym and grocery store. Yesterday would have been more of the usual, except that I spent the morning in front of the camera for an interview with two Miami-based French journalists for the TF1 program “50 Minutes Inside.”
Regular readers might recall my previous French TV interview, which took place at the Hollywood Sign in 2012. Not only was I overcome with vertigo but the rough terrain did something to my ankle that has never resolved itself. Even during the interview I realized it was the last time I would rappel down Mt. Lee to the letter H, and I was only slightly sorry about it. https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/going-back-to-the-hollywood-sign-this-time-as-an-interviewee/
Fortunately, this time the director was amenable to interviewing me at home, so after making myself presentable (sympathies to everyone who has to have camera-ready hair, makeup and clothes daily), I spent some time pretending to work at my computer before answering a lot of questions about the Hollywood Sign, its origins and its meaning.
As some have noticed, I’ve avoided writing about Hollywood Sign-related tourism issues for the past couple of years, but not because of email from readers hellbent on lighting the Sign at night. What did it was the howls of neighbors who disagreed with what I wrote, accusing me of trying to “speak for” them. (Note to those neighbors: write your own blog.) Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed because I wanted to show that the Hollywood Sign’s present status is a very recent, GPS-fueled phenomenon, and that whatever symbolism it possesses today appeared not only decades after its origins in 1923 but well after its reconstruction in 1978. I also wanted to explain the Sign’s beginnings as a billboard for Hollywoodland real estate, as well as its kinship to other municipal signs that, for lack of a mountain or evocative name, decorate water towers and hillsides across America, attracting no one.
No doubt all of this proved disappointing to Adrien Rappoport, my interviewer. “What do you feel when you see those letters?” he kept asking, as if I still might be capable of an epiphany about the Sign. Unfortunately, any charm I felt toward it when I moved here in 2005 faded long ago. Now that the Hollywood Sign is inextricably tied to noise, trash, bumper-to-bumper traffic and a complete lack of street parking on weekends, what I usually feel is annoyance. That emotion has its limits, so I moved on to the feelings of people who happily come here each day to pose for pictures. “I’m a star,” their expressions say, which explains the Hollywood Sign’s appeal: instead of making people feel small, it makes them feel big. Ultimately, the letters on Mt. Lee are a blank screen on which countless individual dreams are projected. As for the Sign’s meaning, it’s whatever people want it to be.
My interview on “Cinquante Minutes Inside” will be broadcast in France in February. Information about online availability to come.
September 22, 2015 § Leave a comment
For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a new edition of my first film, “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” adding new music and narration. I’ve also created two new shorts to accompany it, one on Thompson’s U.S. architecture and the other on my experiences since completing the original in 2001. For those who are unfamiliar with Jim Thompson’s work and life story, here’s a brief introduction: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/jim-thompsons-life-after-death/
Although the DVD is for sale on my website http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361 those who prefer a download can now purchase the documentary at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/silkking?utm_source=email&utm_medium=vod-vod_publish_confirmation-201408&utm_campaign=10308&email_id=dm9kX3B1Ymxpc2hfY29uZmlybWF0aW9ufGYyYjY0OTMzYjc0MTVjM2Y4ODdiY2E5ZWJjNGJmM2I0NjUwfDI1Nzc3MzE3fDE0NDI5NDU5MDV8MTAzMDg%3D
I would like to thank my editor, Kate Johnson, for her work on all phases of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” including much of the music as well as editing and graphic design.
I hope that Jim Thompson’s fascinating life and work will reach a wider audience than it did upon its initial release, which was not only shortly after 9/11 but before blogs, DVDs and streaming video.
August 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
Although I have no formal training in architecture, I’ve been studying it my entire adult life. I also had the good fortune to grow up in an architecturally significant mid-century house in Tokyo. Designed by the French-Czech architect Antonin Raymond, the house was a hybrid, a mostly western-style house that contained such Japanese features as a genkan (step-up entryway) a tokonoma (display alcove) and tsuboniwa (courtyard gardens). It was the only house I knew and I loved every inch of it, but it didn’t belong to my family. After we left Japan, it was torn down and replaced by an apartment building, which was later torn down and replaced by a much larger apartment building that obliterated what remained of the garden. Today the only reminder of my childhood home is its driveway. Yet the house lives on in my mind, indelible though it was demolished forty years ago.
During our years in Tokyo, my family made biannual visits to the United States. Each time someone would ask me, “Do you live in a paper house?” No matter how strenuously I said no, that person would insist, “we learned it in school–Japanese houses are made of wood and paper.” Somehow shoji, the wood and paper room dividers of traditional Japanese houses, were interpreted as structural materials to generations of American children.
While it’s been a long time since anyone has asked me whether I lived in a paper house, today I’m constantly confronted by “zen.” Used in English to describe anything even vaguely Japanese or minimalist, the term is as wrong as it is ubiquitous. Zen is an esoteric sect of Buddhism, and its use beyond specific temples and gardens is as discordant as “Jewish” and “Christian” would be if they were used to describe architecture and interior design.
Of course I realize the odds against my stopping the misuse of Zen. But in writing about real Japanese architecture–as opposed to “japanese-y” architecture–I can at least try.
Links to my first two articles for HOUZZ:
Other writing on architecture:
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.”
March 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
As news of Albert Maysles’ death circulated yesterday, I remembered not only his and his brother David Maysles’ important body of work (including “Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens” and “Primary”) but two personal stories. The first was my only meeting with him, which took place at the International Documentary Association’s conference in 1998. At the time I was teaching myself to make documentaries by reading books, taking classes and, of course, watching lots and lots of films. The conference was part of my self-devised education, so when I came upon Albert standing with Werner Herzog in the hallway of the MPAA, I introduced myself and told him about my idea for “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” my future first film. As I wrote in 2009:
I asked him what he thought, and he said something like “I think that sounds like a good idea.” (Coincidentally, Werner Herzog was there, too; he merely said, “I haf heard of zis man.”) Delirious from Maysles’s encouragement, I nevertheless remembered to compliment “Grey Gardens.” Beaming, he said in his thick Boston accent, “Isn’t it beautiful?”
As endorsements go, Albert Maysles’ was hardly effusive, but it sufficed. I started preproduction soon afterwards and went to Thailand to film in June of 1999. I returned with enough footage for two films, the second of which was an art and architecture piece called “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” (“Jim Thompson, Silk King” will be re-released shortly with new narration and two new DVD extras; it will be available on my website and on Vimeo. “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection is available at http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com)
My second Albert Maysles story concerns “Salesman,” his and David’s 1969 film about white, working-class Bible salesmen and the desperate hard-sell tactics they employed on their mostly poor, often black clients. A classic of cinema verite, “Salesman” was filmed in the late 1960s but depicts an earlier era: no one looks or talks that way anymore, and when was the last time you saw anyone selling Bibles door-to-door? The most confounding feature of the documentary was the dialog which, I recall, was subtitled because the salesmen’s Boston accents were so heavy. But even subtitles couldn’t decipher the patois they spoke, which at times seemed a different language. Making things even worse was that I watched “Salesman” with a petulant Spanish guy who evidently thought I, a native speaker of English, would guide him through it. He kept asking, “What does that mean?” Darned if I knew, and I used to live in Boston.
The Maysles brothers called their technique direct cinema because of its naturalism: the camera kept rolling until the subjects forgot it was there, and what interviewing there was sparse and informal. The result was at times profound but not without its problems, chiefly length. “Grey Gardens,” for all its acclaim, has some incredibly tedious stretches–raccoons again?–that illustrate the pitfalls of editing your own work, as the Maysleses did (albeit with others). Still, there’s no doubt that they changed documentary filmmaking forever. Because David died in 1987, Albert got the laurels, but the best Maysles films were the ones they made together.
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