“En Plein Air” Along the Arroyo Seco

WE DRIVE over these bridges without thinking they are bridges — just connectors passing over the arroyo seco – the “dry river” that isn’t always — particularly this time of year.

Beneath the Suicide Bridge

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After the rains, I’ve noted of late, when passing beneath the bridges, that from late-afternoon to near dusk, a couple of en plein air painters — women out in floppy hats with their box easels and paints beneath what the locals refer to as the “suicide bridge.”

Under the span, particularly early morning and late afternoon, the hidden life along the Arroyo begins to appear — not just the runners and the painters and fauna (and the legendary “ghosts” who loop the paths) — but older men with rucksacks and watch caps who are rising or settling in to camp for the night.

And that light … so beautiful. I wait until the very last glimmer of it slides off, below the horizon.

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Beneath the Arroyo

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Sunshine Isn’t Enough

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“Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there? They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn’t any ocean where most of them came from, but after you’ve seen one wave, you’ve seen them all. The same is true of the airplanes at Glendale. If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a “holocaust of flame,” as the newspapers put it. But the planes never crash.”

— Nathaniel West
from Day of the Locust

The Fight for Los Angeles’ Soul

SO, THIS afternoon, I was finally finished with deadlines and ducked in to see Gangster Squad. It was at one of the theaters up here where you pick your seat before you go in and you’re not bombarded with advertisements while you wait for the show to start.

The gentleman who “introduced” the film for us this afternoon decided to go personal: He told the five or so of us gathered at the early show that he liked the film because he’d arrived in Los Angeles in 1960 “Before Bunker Hill was all torn down. When the city in places still looked like it does in this film.”

He talked a bit more about what he missed about the old Los Angeles — and about how much had been gutted in the name of progress. It was passionate and startling but welcome little-extra feature, hearing this impromptu oral history.

The film? I liked more than I expected. But if you know enough about this story you’re going to be a little more than a bit frustrated by how liberally facts are bent, time-frames changed. Sean Penn, (as Mickey Cohen) looked as if he enjoyed every mili-second inhabiting this role — thrashing about, throwing fists, eventually wielding a Tommy gun; and Josh Brolin’s performance, as John O’Mara, the head of the Gangster Squad, felt solid and authentic, like something plucked from luminous black and white celluloid — all dead stare, square jaw. But the star of this film is Los Angeles — a reconstructed L.A.: spacious, elegant, untamed — sunlight and neon. That’s the part of the film I didn’t want to walk away from. The usher was right, with so much of the smaller details that comprised the old L.A. bulldozed away — it wasn’t the obvious iconic landmarks — City Hall, the Hollywoodland sign — but the bungalows and dining room the built-ins, the tap rooms and restaurants — even Cohen’s “leisure wear” recalled those old photographs in the papers of “life on the Coast.”

Michael Peña and Anthony Mackie -- from Gangster Squad

Michael Peña and Anthony Mackie — from Gangster Squad

The script also grazed some social/racial issues, with both an African American and Latino member of the detail who are less characters than archetypes. Their presence (and the ensemble’s reaction to it) was a device to communicate racial attitudes of the era.

Even in this “wide-open L.A.” in this motley band of outsiders — these two men existed on its outer-edge.

images — top: Mickey Cohen via all posters.com
bottom: via movies.about.com

“His Intimate Knowledge of People”

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“The secret of his greatness does not lie in his voice or his presence or his manner, though it has something to do with all these; nor does it lie in his verbal range or felicity, which are not striking; nor does he have any capacity for those stunning, demagogic flights of the imagination which bring an audience cheering to its feet. The secret lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them. He does not offer any easy comfort and this keeps his hearers absolutely tense. He allows them their self-respect—indeed, he insists on it.”

— James Baldwin on Martin Luther King from Harpers, 1961

photo: MLK at Cow Palace, SF 1964