Thursday, June 30, 2005

More thanks

It’s kinda predictable that I’d be getting some high-profile visitors at the time I’m least able to put up new material—it’s the busy season at the journal I edit. (That’ll change after the holiday weekend, after I throw everything into the copyeditor’s lap.)

In the meantime, a big shout-out to the good folks at Coudal for linking to my throwaway igloo piece, the esteemed Abu Aardvark for linking to the piece on Middle Eastern pop culture, and new friends who’ve contacted me over the past few weeks. There’s a rambling meditation on LA and the land (one of the pictures didn’t work, will fix) to chew on until next week, when I'll be back from Nashville and typing merrily.

Happy Independence Day to all!

Apples and oranges

James Jean LA sketchbook leaves

The automobile has always figured prominently in the cultural understanding of Los Angeles, and our ossified thinking has changed little, as if we are trapped by the La Brea tar pits: folks have long privileged the urban pedestrian, the flâneur, the Situationist city, the Big Apple, at the expense of smog, sprawl, and lost environmental virtue.

Although it will never be entirely devoid of spectacle, what hath capitalization wrought in Manhattan? Is wonder as active in our experience of NYC as it once was? (Don’t get me wrong: those moments are ever available in the city, or any city—scroll down to “PLACES,” on the sidebar, for my favorites…) Increasingly, a case can be made for New York as the ultimate cyber-city, in that it can be reduced to information alone: a matrix of tips, locations, and coordinates, easily traversed physically—by subway or foot or taxi—or electronically, wireless-ly. This information—the menus, the wine list, the inventory, the exhibition, the connection—is the city; consumption is the governing principle, be it commercial, intellectual, or gastronomical.


In the City of Angels, though, the information is more diffuse, and the flâneur becomes conducteur: when I am there, I want to get in the car, to look around.
(Photo by the author.)
There is still a great deal of American vernacular in the signs and buildings and infrastructure—it is not uncommon to see old googie coffee shops, rusting neon martini glasses, vintage automobiles, folk art yards, graffito tributes to fallen compañeras, on and on. Just south and parallel to Sunset Boulevard is Fountain Avenue, a narrow street that begins in the area designated by blue street signs as “Little Armenia” (and just across the Hollywood Freeway from “Thai Town”—more blue signs plus Thai Elvis!). I followed it one afternoon for a change-of-pace: the only visible sign of the Caucasus was an under-renovation Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Church [inset].
Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Church
(Photo via
But numerous Sunset drive-bys and waits at the L. Ron Hubbard Way stoplight hadn’t prepared me for the rear of the Scientology complex facing Fountain, where the old blue-washed Cedars Sinai hospital sits. “Big Blue” now houses the church’s American Saint Hill Organization (the religion’s indoctrination arm), but, lo, the building wouldn’t look out of place in Miami Beach.


LA’s urban fabric is far more heterogeneous than in a traditional city—a spin through South Central might surprise rust-belters for whom single-family homes with yards don’t look like dwellings to be found in the ghetto. On the way to Simon Rodia’s visionary Watts Towers, for instance, an old man sits on a crate alongside the railroad tracks; high-tension towers overlook a neighborhood that suggests Alabama and not the setting for the storied 1965 riots. Beyond this fabric, of course, it’s just damn big and weird—LA can be said to be dozens of cities rather than a single one. And yet, in defiance of the a clichéd “city of neighborhoods,” the Big Orange is of a piece due to its shared mythology and, importantly, the land (which feeds back into the mythology, of course). The stuff of LA can be found in the climate, the hills and the mountains, the bleached, squinty sunshine, the brush fires and earthquakes and mudslides, and, of course, the ocean itself. A big, visual “autopia” is different from NY, and, I’d argue, more compelling.


And so, a few weeks back, I was standing in back of the Stauffer Chapel at Pepperdine University in Malibu, atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a still spring day. I know my idyllic beach campuses, having attended graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara (another southern California school located within easy reach of a surfboard) but the physical environment at Pepperdine is in another class altogether: quiet and peaceful, one’s mind turns towards a tenured chair and a nice little flat in the tiled-roof village visible just to the north.

A few hours earlier Goff and I had climbed Mt. Hollywood from the construction fences outside the Griffith Observatory (satellite image here) in Griffith Park, a short drive from Hollywood Boulevard and what feels like dozens of miles away in a state park somewhere, taking in a hazy view of the city basin (and looking up at the Hollywood sign, too). The next day, after a fish taco lunch at a roadside stand in Silver Lake, we found ourselves just across the Los Angeles River from Glendale’s Forest Lawn cemetery (and its famous gates), just to the other side of Mt. Hollywood, on the back side of Griffith Park. While Glendale is literally just around the foot of the park and across the Golden State Parkway from Los Feliz, it seems leagues away (and decidedly rural): the quiet sunset, agricultural workers on foot or on bicycle, and the sparse weekend traffic suggested, say, Paso Robles rather than the nation’s second-largest metropolis.
Forest Lawn gates
Gates at Forst Lawn, Glendale
(Forest Lawn is a decidedly peculiar place, rooted in its builder’s campaign to deliver happiness unto death’s survivors, its piped-in music and art collections has the look and feel of a suburban park rather than a private cemetery: from the quiet heights above Glendale, though, one can see for miles around, including local landmarks such as the Southern Pacific railway depot.)


Even lacking the calming influence of the Pacific, one still feels the real power of the climate and the land: the first population boom in Los Angeles was fed by the region’s reputation as a mecca for the afflicted, a place where sufferers with lung disease would find a cure in the warm, dry Southland air. (Kevin Starr suggests in the first volume of his wonderful history of southern California that broken dreams and disappointment were present in the city’s genetic material from its Edenic beginning; when new immigrants discovered that their tuberculosis failed to improve, hope yielded to bitterness.) I remember living in east Santa Barbara in the early 1980s, being in a work rut and cycling home late at night down Haley Street past the Old Town Inn [an SRO hotel], the open-doored Mexican pool halls draped with Christmas lights, and folks playing mariachi music on their front porches, to collapse into bed, only to get up in the morning and start all over again. On my way to the bus depot I’d stop off and have coffee at a sidewalk café on lower State Street, drinking in the sun and the sight of the Santa Ynez mountains along with my caffeine. I could do it for at least another day, I’d decide, as long as I could sit under this sky.

Saturday, June 18, 2005


Swamped at work, just got internet service back at home (out since Wednesday), and off to NYC until tomorrow eve. But back soon! ::cws

Friday, June 10, 2005

Heat index

The picture at the right, below,
Roadside igloo
Igloo City, Cantwell, Alaska.
Courtesy of flickr;
originally uploaded by Mr. Lunatic Fringe.
an arty snap of an igloo-hotel-in progress near Cantwell, Alaska, made the rounds the other day (I first saw it on Coudal’s website).

Here, ff is providing a full-on collection of igloo links—not a lame one among them—to celebrate the onset of summer weather on the eastern seaboard.

The neon eskimo hovering over the two metal domes of the drive-in invited passengers from a distance. Irene’s uniform, which included a short red skirt, red panties, white short-heeled boots, and white jacket, probably attracted more customers.

Correction: I had originally cited BB as my initial sighting; changed it to Coudal, where I really saw it (sorry, Phil!). [cws::28 Jun]


Wednesday, June 08, 2005

On metal

Printed from Ameoba’s Music We Like: The Best of 2004!, courtesy of Stacy, “East Bay Mistress of Metal”:
Amoeba MWL
  1. Demigod, Behemoth: Unrelenting Polish Extreme Metal! Check out their Crush Fukk Create DVD. It’s the next best thing to witnessing the intensity of their amazing live show.
  2. Sardonic Wrath, Darkthrone: Old school Norwegian Black Metal back with a vengeance!
  3. Blackdoor Miracle, Ragnarok: Brutal Norwegian Black Metal!
  4. Glory and Petroleum, Sear Bliss: Agressive Hungarian Black Metal!
  5. Sworn Allegiance, Unleashed: Old school Swedish Death Metal kings are back!

From this, we can glean the stylebook for black/death metal copy:

  1. Always capitalize “Black Metal” and “Death Metal.”
  2. Always include the nationality of the band members when describing the black/death metal subgenre.
  3. Always use an exclamation point.

Art into life, continued

Projected Emma
(Photo courtesy of the BBC.)
From a 23 May BBC dispatch:

A 60ft high picture of a murdered prostitute has been projected onto a derelict block of flats in Glasgow.

Detectives hope it will help to turn up clues about the death of Emma Caldwell, whose body was found in woods in South Lanarkshire on 8 May.

The image was displayed for four hours on the multi-storey flats in Cumberland Street, Hutchesontown on Monday night.

See also: SlideShow at the BMA.

There's text in them thar hills

Hollywood sign rear view

There’s no real iconic building in Los Angeles. The city’s symbol, if one exists, is the “Hollywood” sign, built atop Mount Cahuenga in the 1920s to flog a real estate development. I first visited LA in the late 1970s, touring by city bus, always amazed when the sign would reveal itself to me. It still holds a sense of wonder, many years later: a graphical sign looming above the city.


During interleague play (over the weekend of the 20-22 May), Goff and I saw the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim take on the Dodgers in Dodger Stadium,
Think Blue
my first visit to the storied ballpark. The cheap seats were a lot more entertaining than attending an Orioles game at Camden Yards, especially for the surprisingly contentious rivalry: the largely Latino crowd (with entire families dressed in Dodger Blue or Angel Red—did the Angels’ brain trust know what they were doing when they tacked Bloods to the Dodgers’ Crips?) was vocal and good-natured, jeering the opposition throughout the tautly-played game.

When Eric Gagné—recently returned from the DL—entered the game in the ninth, the entire stadium blasted off. In the shadow of the left-field “THINK BLUE” sign, though, the Dodger offense would not prevail.


If you spend any time driving about the American west, one will come across monograms,
Western State College 'W'

spelled-out in white stone, on mountains and hillsides above town. These signs largely date from 1905-1915, and were constructed by students from high schools and colleges to trumpet school and/or class spirit (the original is apparently Cal’s “Big ‘C’” on the Berkeley hills, as documented in 1988 by James Parsons in Landscape, v. 30, no. 1, and reprinted here).

For those who yearn for the east coast to get into the act, check out the Murrysville tree sign, a Pennsylvania herald fashioned by planting fir trees spelling out the town name in a clearing, a sign that's still visible.

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Smart LA: boobs and books

On May 25th, the UCLA Hammer Museum hosted a conversation between artist Lisa Yuskavage and Lisa Cholodenko, director of High Art and Laurel Canyon, as part of the
Museum’s “Hammer Conversations” series. Yuskavage’s erotically-charged paintings pose a critical challenge to the public, since her frank, fantastic centerfolds leave the observer nowhere to hide: one cannot admire the technical artistry without confronting one’s relationship with the pornographic image. Cholodenko, whose films are filled with characterizations of strong, self-possessed female sexuality, would seem an ideal and illuminating foil (a light-saber?) to the provocative MFA from Yale.

Big Blonde with Beaded Jacket (1997)
Big Blonde with Beaded Jacket (1997),
courtesy of
The conversation was illuminating, but not entirely successful as a give-and-take. The headstrong Yuskavage was, more often than not, in control of the evening, and forceful in articulating the woman behind the art. Equally at ease in the blue-collar world of her youth—her father was a truck driver who delivered frozen pies—and the rarefied New York art scene, she confidently acknowledged that her work was not without irony, not without cognition, but also convincingly argued that her overriding aim was to create volume, to animate the space, often using a literate rhetoric of the great Renaissance painters. There was little doubt that she was a far more formidable and ambitious woman than expected.

I was surprised—but, perhaps, shouldn't have been—at the content of the audience Q&A following the talk. For all of Yuskavage’s dominance of the first part of the evening, the audience, hungry for film lore, turned to Cholodenko for advice and insight into how to break into the film and television business (she has directed episodes of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and Showtime’s “The ‘L’ Word”). Her deft handling of the audience, especially of a funny and tedious actor who lightly interpreted the inner life of Kate Beckinsale’s character from Laurel Canyon, was impressive and amusing to this outsider, a portrait of an anxious population, a group perpetually on the make.


On the Friday before, I took in the opening night of “Sin Uncensored: Hollywood Before the Code,”
Barbara Stanwyck
a new film series sponsored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, highlighting Depression-era movies made prior to the censorship crackdown of 1934. During the pre-code period, “Hollywood produced some of the most compelling and daring films of the studio era, when profit-hungry companies were all too eager to offer salacious stories of promiscuity, prostitution and perversity.” Alfred Green's Baby Face (1933), starring an eye-popping and provocative young Barbara Stanwyck, is a portrait of young Lily Powers, a waitress who works in her father’s speakeasy who, after a conversation with the Erie’s curmudgeonly cobbler (!), embraces his Nietzschean philosophy and embarks upon a campaign to sleep her way to the top. (When a watchman in the trainyard prepares to throw her off a boxcar bound for the Big City, she, er, “succumbs” with a sly smile. Barbara Stanwyck!)

The film was introduced to a wonky crowd that filled the James Bridges Theater in UCLA’s Melnitz Hall by a short talk from Associate Programmer Mimi Brody, who explained that the print—discovered late last year at the Library of Congress—restores five minutes that had been replaced in advance of the new regime by Warner Brothers. (After the screening, the Film and Television Archive kindly screened the moralistic five minutes for comparison; in it, the cobbler comically disavows Nietzsche with a worried voice.) Afterwards, it was a short hop down Westwood Boulevard to Café Dahab, an Egyptian shisha joint that serves up a mean and minty cabbage salad, piping in Danadana TV all the while.


Five outstanding bookstores in the greater Los Angeles area, and some selections from each:
  1. Hennessey and Ingalls, in Santa Monica—H&I carries a staggering assortment of art and architecture books that easily competes with similar venues in New York and San Francisco; it's only a stone's throw away from the Pacific Ocean to boot. Comfortable and a fine place to browse.


  2. The UCLA Hammer Museum bookstore, in Westwood—a surprisingly nice selection with a great wealth of crit books, over two floor-to-ceiling, six-foot shelves. Eerily, I opened up a catalog from a show on François Curlet, and I almost immediately happened on a piece that featured photos from our fair city.


  3. Wacko, in Los Feliz—adjacent to the street La Luz de Jesus gallery, home to Shag, Ocampo, Coop, and tattoo artists across the Southland, this eighties refugee from Melrose Avenue flogs tsotchkes of all stripes, but has a healthy-sized selection of fringe literature, visual sourcebooks, and postcards for one’s corkboard.


  4. Taschen America, in Beverly Hills—perhaps the only sexy tenant in an otherwise forgettable stretch of chain retailers on Beverly Drive, there are several free parking lots here, provided that you can do your business in less than two hours. Cool and sleek (what appear to be framed film stills in the rear, above the quilted bancs, are really slo-mo video monitors), the table in the rear offers previews of upcoming titles. (The Museum of Television and Radio is across the street, on the corner of Beverly and Santa Monica.)

    • Aesthetic Surgery, edited by Angelika Taschen (upcoming in 2005): a spectacular examination of the history and phenomenon of cosmetic surgery;
    • Fashion, a two-volume visual sourcebook of female fashion from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, taken from the encyclopedic collection of the Kyoto Fashion Institute, by Fukai (chief curator of the KFI), et alia, (2005); and
    • Walter Schurian’s Fantastic Art (upcoming in 2005).

  5. The bookstore at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, in Culver City—a tiny but remarkable selection, devoted almost entirely to the literature of wonder. (I had to stop myself from walking away with more.)


Friday, June 03, 2005

City of angels

I first set foot in LA some twenty-seven years ago, arriving at LAX with my bicycle; I unpacked and set out up Lincoln Boulevard to the PCH, en route to Santa Barbara, where I was set to begin graduate school. To this day, the sight of palm trees is a happy occasion, a homecoming.
LA street
(“A Beautiful Palm Drive, California,” an image of LA courtesy of the Northern California chapter of the Palm Society.)
Now, my favorite way to arrive is through Ladera Heights/Baldwin Hills, via La Tijera to La Cienega. (The Heights are barren and populated with nodding donkeys, a motorized pump for the small oil wells that mark the hills above central LA’s broad valley.) Late at night on May 18th, I crested over Ladera’s sodium-lit oil pumps to see the city of angels revealed to Neil Young’s “Vampire Blues” (from On the Beach), the windows of the rented white LeSabre rolled down, drinking in the damp, cool air,

I’m a vampire, babe, suckin’ blood from the earth.
I’m a vampire, baby, suckin’ blood from the earth.
Well, I’m a vampire, babe, sell you twenty barrels worth.

I’m a black bat, babe, bangin’ on your window pane.
I’m a black bat, baby, bangin’ on your window pane.
Well, I’m a black bat, babe, I need my high octane.

Good times are comin’, I hear it everywhere I go.
Good times are comin’, I hear it everywhere I go.
Good times are comin’, but they sure comin’ slow.

Welcome back, y’all: I turned up the volume and pressed “repeat.”

Postscript: I had forgotten to mention that the climactic scene in Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential—the shootout at the Victory Motel—is filmed on a set constructed in Baldwin Hills: the nodding donkeys are visible as the protagonists approach and leave the complex. [cws::07 June]

Thursday, June 02, 2005


OK. Where to begin?

I don’t stay wired during vacations, so I was reliant on the Los Angeles Times during the showdown over the filibuster. (In fact, the only time I read the physical newspaper anymore is when I’m on vacation.) Upon my return, I’m turning more to politics, and, after sorting through all of the analyses, I would’ve been fine reading a single site: Mark Schmidt’s Decembrist. Although there’s not much more to add at this point, I do want to highlight this post from last week on immediate speculation that the compromise deal would unravel.

In it, Schmidt, a former senior staffer for Senator Bill Bradley, observes that the camaraderie forged by the “Gang of Fourteen” won't be easily upset, for most senators are senators for a reason: they enjoy being, well, senators: the raison d’être for senators is deal-making. Majority leader Frist, who clearly does not share their predilection, has quashed the impulse in enforcing one-party rule, and the deal-makers want out.
As a radical centrist, I welcome Josh Marshall’s TPMCafé, which opened shop only this week and features some of my favorite commentators: Marshall and Schmidt, Steve Clemons of the Washington Note, Marshall Wittman of Bull Moose, and Ed Kilgore at NewDonkey. (TPMCafé has absorbed Matt Yglesias’s blog as well.) The, er, café’s flat structure makes it a little hard to maneuver, but the first guest-blogger is none other than every centrist’s favorite 2004 Dem, John Edwards. Go see how he’s fixing for his 2008 run (and burnishing his foreign policy credentials) by dropping in.