Aug 27, 2007

Death Has a Gift Shop

Long before Six Feet Under was even a glimmer in HBO’s eye, Forest Lawn was turning death into a theme park, where, if so desired, you don’t even need to view actual graves to have a splendid time. It’s a place where you can be surrounded by a sea of the departed and simultaneously maintain a healthy denial of mortality. No showy markers here, just small uniform stone plaques lying flush to the ground are all that is permitted. The real attractions are the “recreations” that were commissioned by FL over the years, everything from iconic pieces by Renaissance masters to duplicates of churches, as well as original works.

A recent Sunday afternoon spent with friends impulsively exploring the grounds of the Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale, the first in the chain established in 1906, turned into a quintessential Los Angeles experience, at least for one whom at times might be considered a condescending former New Yorker with an appetite for irony.

I had heard about the exact replica of Michelangelo’s David, carved from Carrara marble from the same quarry in Italy as the original. FL-Glendale is on its third copy, the previous two having been destroyed in earthquakes in 1971 and 1994. (The bronze copy at FL-Cypress has endured.) Having seen the original in Florence, I can indeed vouch for the Glendale David as an impressive accomplishment if you can get past the fact that it’s a copy and so has never been touched by the young master’s hands. (Michelangelo was 26 when he created it during the first few years of the 16th century. Take that, Hollywood celebrity youth of today with your towering oeuvre of reality shows, burger commercials and Youtube sex videos.)

I had also heard about The World’s Largest Painting, a.k.a. The Crucifixion, that measures 195 by 45 feet. What I didn’t know was that it can be viewed along with The World’s Second Largest Painting (The Resurrection) in a colossal building with a church fa├žade that was built for displaying them named The Hall of the Crucifixion-Resurrection. There are hourly presentations in an enormous darkened theater with burgundy velvet seats that involve lights, curtains, video monitors, (though large still dwarfed by the size of the paintings,) and mewling narration that isn’t exactly anodyne, let alone nondenominational. It’s a hoot.

At another building called The Memorial Court of Honor, there is a stained-glass recreation of Leonardo DaVinci’s The Last Supper, “in vibrant, glowing and indestructible colors,” on view every half hour from 9 AM to 4:30 PM because, like the aforementioned paintings, why not turn looking at a static object into an event?

The grounds also have a museum that is currently displaying an exhibit entitled Fantasy Art, with sketches, cels and other artwork from mostly Disney animated features. It seemed a bit whimsical for a cemetery, but then again I had just seen a sculpture next to the Glendale David called The Mystery of Life, “expressly created for Forest Lawn." It was comprised of eighteen human figures that, according to the large carved stone plaque next to it, “depict the meaning of life.”

As I smirked to myself, it started raining, odd for August, and I suddenly noticed a giant column of smoke from a forest fire in the direction of the San Gabriel Mountains. I looked at the stone figures, their wet faces frozen in a panorama of emotions. The wind snapped, knocking over a plastic pot of dried out chrysanthemums that someone had set on one of the grave markers as my friends dashed to the car. I stayed behind a minute and watched the water streaming down the stone faces, before turning to run after them, away from The Mystery of Life.

Aug 21, 2007

Still Mad at the Hippies

There is at least one person in DC who would benefit from reading a book it could be argued may have been written with him in mind, The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Vietnam War. That person, were he planning to draw comparisons to a bungled war to justify resistance to pulling out of another bungled war, would do well to read it.

When anti-war advocates compare the quagmire in Iraq to the quagmire in Vietnam, it is a reference to the inability of the Nixon administration to accept the impossibility of "winning," the incomprehension by the pro-war crowd of what was going on culturally and politically in Vietnam (and in this country, as it turns out,) the unethical if not outright illegal actions perpetrated by some overwhelmed and disillusioned US soldiers upon the citizens there they were supposed to be "saving" from communism, the lies told to the public by the Johnson and Nixon administrations to conceal the secret bombing of civilian sites and the atrocious conditions that wounded soldiers encountered at veterans hospitals upon their return to the US.

Is it just me or do the Bushies sound like they are trying to make the comparison in a good way? Transparency may not be the first word that comes to mind when describing the Bush-Cheney regime but there are areas where not even the most "re-languaged" pronouncements can obscure the thoughts behind them.

Vietnam was a strategic position that the US attempted to claim as part of the Cold War. Like the Vietnam War, the Iraq War is also about strategic advantage, which this time is a nice way to avoid saying it's a war for oil. Both wars are dressed up to look like the US government actually cares about innocent citizens of those countries (That's Christopher Hitchens's job.) or protecting US citizens from terrorists or communists or whatever, just not global warming, okay?

What's next? Blaming the leaking of the Pentagon Papers for confusing the American public? Proclaiming the Watergate break-in a patriotic act? Hiring a Fox News anchor to be the president's spokeman? Turning Sean Penn into the new Hanoi Jane? Allowing Henry Kissinger to weigh in? (Oops, the last three have already happened.)

In the build-up to Paetreus's report in September, the propaganda machine will be running full on to "re-language" history. And if you believe it, may I interest you in some infrastructure?

Mining the deep vein of resilient anger still evoked by the anti-war movement in the 1960s (along with the civil and women's rights movements and the sexual revolution,) has served the right wing's ends before. This time, the neocons have learned from the mistakes that were made during the Vietnam War: It's the PR, stupid. Now, with a vast right wing media in place and their star water carriers brandishing their buckets, this is their chance to settle an old score as well as a shot at buying time as they once again stumble toward the mirage of victory in a far off land.

Aug 20, 2007

Echo Park Film Center: A Microcinema Flourishes

If west side traffic, class size, cost and the conveyor belt approach to continuing education has put you off of UCLA Extension, there is an alternative, at least for the entertainment aspirant on the east side. The Echo Park Film Center offers workshops in digital filmmaking and editing, as well as 8mm and 16mm filmmaking and handprocessing for $60 to $250 per workshop (less if you're a member;) class size is limited to five students for digital classes and ten students for 8/16 mm classes. Free classes are also available to youths and seniors.

And if summer blockbuster-fatigue has set in, there are regular screenings of work by local, internationally known and student filmmakers. This Thursday Waiting for Fidel screens, a notable documentary about trying to interview El Jefe in Cuba in 1974, along with Castro's Library, a look at the Independent Library Movement in Cuba today, and Art Wicks of Badger's Quay, which takes in Newfoundland's floating homes. The program starts at 8 PM, admission is $5.

Founded in 2002 by Paolo Davanzo, Ken Fountain and Joe Hilsenrad in a store front on Alvarado just off Sunset, the focus is on documentary and experimental cinema and process over product, according to the mission statement on their website. Davanzo made the decision to establish the center in response to touring the world with his own films and finding in many places flourishing microcinemas and art spaces that were outlets for alternative filmmakers pursuing their own visions.

Taking note of rich irony, he realized there were no such spaces with consistent programming in Los Angeles. He envisioned a place where film could be celebrated "free of pretension," as well as be taught and archived for the community; where equipment was available for rental or to be borrowed; a place where ideas could be nurtured and exchanged a far cry from the Hollywood system obsessed with churning out product and enslaved to the bottom line.

In an age of exploding media and the corporate interests that control it, an institution like EPFC seems almost insurrectionary. Not worry about the bottom line?! Experimental?!

At a recent Sunday night screening of I Pity the Fool, an experimental film that was a meditation on the plight of Detroit, an audience of dedicated viewers was bucking the trend of the sprawling Sunset Junction Street Festival nearby. The setting and the nature of the work on view was reminiscent of the period in New York's East Village during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a hotbed of avant-guard activity that sowed the seeds of today's mainstream culture. (As an example, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who wrote the music and lyrics for Hairspray, were integral to that mileau, headquartered at Club 57, in the basement of a Polish church.)

While the future can't be known, it isn't unimaginable that tomorrow's cutting edge is being honed in a place like EPFC. And with the emphasis today on a little screen that you view alone amid a jumble of targeted ads competing for your attention, or a behemoth home entertainment system that isolates and deadens through personalizing the experience, sitting in a storefront cinema and viewing work with an audience of like-minded individuals is a reminder of an essential role of film: as communion.

Aug 19, 2007

Breaking and Entering on DVD

Breaking and Entering is the latest film from Anthony Minghella, starring Jude Law, Robin Wright Penn and Juiette Binoche. Law plays a London architect whose company has just moved into new offices in the gentrifying but still rough area of Kings Cross. Twice in one week his office is burglarized and the thieves make off with a load of Apple computers and other high tech gadgets, an odd bit of product placement that has a character saying cryptically at one point, "Macs are fantastic."

One of the adolescent thugs, played by Rafi Gavron in his promising film debut, is a Bosnian refugee living with his mother (Binoche) who works as a tailor out of the small council flat they share. Determined to catch the thieves, Law stakes out the office one night. Sure enough, because this is a movie, the young thug makes another attempt to break in, only to be stopped and pursued by Law. He trails Gavron back to the flat where he sees the small card on the flat door advertising Binoche's tailoring services. Struck by the thug's youth and fancying himself a man of social conscience, Law returns the next day under the guise of needing her to mend a torn jacket. An awkward romantic connection is established, building to a hurried consummation days later that Binoche, having become aware, unbeknownst to Law, of Gavron's crimes, has a friend surreptitiously photograph.

Out of the loop, and also, almost, her mind is Penn's character, Law's live-in girlfriend, and her autistic teenage daughter from a previous involvement, played by Poppy Rogers. Penn's scenes are steeped in sadness, informed by a past of betrayals and dead ends that has her and her daughter shutting out Law.

The symmetry of this complex love triangle builds and shifts, exploring privileged guilt, morality, forgiveness and the blurred lines of social class. The conflicts, shortcomings and aspirations of the three leads are brought forth symphonically, with themes echoed in dialogue and action in Minghella's assured directorial style (he's also the writer) with a pitch perfect soundtrack by Gabriel Yared and Underworld. What could have seemed heavy handed and touchy-feely in different hands is deftly executed here with balanced, believable performances. Binoche's performance in particular is breathtaking.

Vera Farmiga has a memorable turn as a hooker with a heart of gold and a taste for electro, Range Rovers, lattes and fox stoles.

It's a worthy rental when you're in the mood for a cinematic examination of class with a drop dead gorgeous cast and a richly visual backdrop of sophisticated urban design. 3.5/5

Aug 17, 2007

Patti Smith at Santa Monica Pier 8/16/07

I ambled down to the Santa Monica pier with a group of friends last night to catch a free concert by Patti Smith, on the final leg of her summer tour. It was jammed with a rapt audience hanging on every word she uttered, but the refreshing thing about her is that she is off-the-cuff and humble in the face of blatant idol worship.

Whether she was singing Smells Like Teen Spirit (the Nirvana anthem in a softly sad rendering, with Flea on trumpet) or obscurities like We Three (from "Easter,") the jammed-in crowd was riveted by this woman's power. I kept thinking back to the summer of 1978 when I first saw her perform in New York at Central Park's Wollman Rink. "Horses" had been released at the end of 1975 and "Radio Ethiopia" had followed about a year later. Both were still emanating cultural shockwaves. She had taken rock and roll and molded it into a new form, fulfilling the promise of Dylan, Lennon and Jagger and surpassing it too. The crowd at that show tried to hail her as the new queen of rock but she would have none of it; she spit on the idea, literally. Patti Smith was nobody's girl. She didn't have a dick but she sure had the balls.

Last night when she performed Within You Without You, White Rabbit and Soul Kitchen (from her latest, "Twelve") it transported the event back to the Summer of Love. The hippie chicks and dudes of Venice danced in that free flowing way of delirious abandon: hips rolling, eyes closed and their bracelet and tattoo adorned arms floating up to the sky like time-lapse images of unfurling ferns drawn by the sun.

She tore through Gimme Shelter at a ferocious bent, as good as the version John Doe is closing his shows with on his current tour. Doug Pettibone sat in towards the end of the set and helped build the wall of sound for Gloria, still a song of such potent dimensions that the pier was shaking with the beat. "Little sister, the sky is falling," indeed.