“Slippery Oasis”

image by Damon Casarez linked via Los Angeles Magazine

NICE PIECE up at Los Angeles Magazine by Jesse Katz about Westlake’s “slippery oasis” known as MacArthur Park.

A snip:

The people who turn up in the lake these days may look different from those who perished a century ago. They may come from different parts of the world and inhabit different social echelons. We may have a more sophisticated vocabulary for their breakdowns, a more nuanced understanding of addiction and despair. But the guile of the lake—the melodrama of our city—is not a modern condition.

Every fall, I think about my old across-the-landing neighbor who worked graveyards undercover with LAPD, his beat to spin around those shadows in the Park. I know he could write a book or two. Jesse’s piece brought all that back…me standing, balancing with my laundry listening to native noir stories.

More of Jesse’s wonderful, moody piece here


“Los Angeles Plays Itself” Is Ready for Its Close-up

I CAN’T express how happy I am to finally hear that Los Angeles Plays itself, Thom Anderson’s inclusive all over the map — literally– look at L.A. on film will finally be available for purchase this Fall.

from Alissa Walker’s post on Gizmodo:

If you haven’t seen it before, Los Angeles Plays Itself is innately entertaining as a cinematic experiment, even to the Angeleno-agnostic. Narrated with Andersen’s own commentary, the documentary features over 200 clips from films about Los Angeles, examining everything from the stereotypes surrounding the city’s automobile culture to an oft-repeated thesis that villains live in modernist houses (below). In short, it’s probably the most important media study ever conducted on the city—maybe any city!—and no one has been able to see it.

When I was teaching my “Telling L.A.’s Story” course, I used the film as a sort of red carpet into a Los Angeles my students hadn’t seen. My hope too was that it would at the same time get them thinking a differently about the city they traversed and interacted with daily. City as set. City as City. Each semester though, I had to hunt around for links because they would often be removed — only to be replaced by others. It will be great to have this sprawling moving canvass at the ready.

I feel a series of “Plays Itself” viewing parties in our near future…

At The Edges of the Story: The Nature of Los Angeles

EARLIER THIS week, one of my reporter colleagues was on Facebook grousing, in that way people do on Facebook, about the gray skies over Los Angeles. He took his mini-vent one step further to say that there was something about a cloudy day in Los Angeles that was worse than a cloudy day somewhere else. There were a smattering of comments following up that mildly agreed or disagreed. I thought about adding my two cents, but it seemed beside the point.

I realized that this writer was suggesting something that my students and I have been talking about from different angles in our Los Angeles feature-writing class all semester: The ways in which the ante is upped here in Los Angeles, that even less-than stellar weather (!) can be a grounds for deep disappointment. This seemed unfair, of course, as it was still in the 70s and it was hardly an inconvenience. Simply, if you think about it, a day off for the sun.

Why such the high standard of subjective perfection? He’s a transplant from thousands of miles elsewhere, which got me thinking. I realized again, the perspective difference. For me, as a native, gray skies offer an alternative, a different way to see Los Angeles; it’s a break from being “on,” a different mood from that megawatt smile. I see the city in a different way on days like that. The sky might look like steel-wool, the mountains with the snow on the peaks, jut out against it, the green of the trees look that much more vibrant. It’s still stunning and textured, but you see a different side — something more layered, contemplative.

On the same theme, this week The New Yorker put up an engaging short interview with the photographer Bruce Davidson talking about photographing nature in Los Angeles. In a way, if he were in our class, his final piece would have been Arcadia/Utopia. He literally is looking for the places in L.A. where nature and man-made urban life intersect. “I had a vision of the superhighways intermingling with the trees,” says Davidson early in the interview. “Nature has this way of commingling, of living with the city itself. Nature clings, nature will adapt. Nature will find a way to live even under concrete. Nature is there surrounding the grid of the city itself. I was drawn to this challenge.”

Watching the images and Davidson speaking about his process a second time, I realized that what he’s observing about the Southland’s nature — flora and fauna — is true about us — humans. Angelenos, those who are drawn to Los Angeles, compelled to stay, find themselves figuring out ways to adapt to what it the city is — the broken dream or promise, the “dingbat” apartment instead of the sprawling ranch-style home — in other words, the reality check, or better, the compromise.

Los Angeles, in its postcard moments — the first hours after a storm has scrubbed the basin, or an aggressive but not violent Santa Ana gusts through — flaunts its otherworldly moutains-to-the-sea beauty. But as most of us know, rarely does it look like this everyday. The Los Angeles that we come to love, hate, feel ambivalence about is something that goes deeper than what’s at face.

For me, it’s always been those small stories at the edges of the postcard, the things that get cropped away from the official picture that I “cling” to. The stories that “commingle” as Davidson puts it, with the forward-rush of the city. As a reporter, I’ve always loved to talk to people about their dreams, their plans, their past, their goals, their disappointments, their joy, and how place has tied itself up in those stories. We fall in love with places we say, but really when we say that we mean that we’ve fallen in love with a confluence of things: a quality of a life — some of which is the backdrop and the rhythms of a place, but much of which we’ve constructed through our choices.

The “nature” of Los Angeles that Davidson speaks of and is documenting is a Los Angeles of persistence and resilience and adaptation. But instead of it being read as “survival of the fittest” it could be read as the persistence of the imaginative.

My hope for my students, as the semester closes, is that they stay open and curious and imaginative, that they are tuned into what’s going on at the edges of frame, that they will continue to tell deeper L.A. stories.


AT FIRST, I watched this commercial out of the corner of my eye, thinking — I already know what it’s supposed to be representing. I’ve seen ‘it’ too many times, so I don’t need to look again.

But only in the last week or so have I really paused to sit down and study it closely. It isn’t quite the same old story.

Cars are so much about status, particularly in a place like Los Angeles where we don’t often brush up against one another directly. People here then aren’t just judging a book by its cover, but by the shrink wrap covering the cover. In this sense telegraphing who you are is tricky.

Ultimately, what pulled me in was that the on-the-face of it imagery plays with our pre-conceived notions. Where is this young man “on his way to” with that intense, steely expression? You’ve got that deep-bass blooming around the edges, a foreboding soundtrack coupled with his difficult-to-read side-glance to the “little homies” on the sidewalk? What’s he up to?

Sure enough, where this young man is “going” is back home. To his mother’s arms. (Those “little homies”? He was one of those little boys, not so long ago.) And the car — Chrysler wants us to believe — telegraphs that he hasn’t forgotten what “home” means: dependable, familiar, practical — but with a little bit of down-to-earth American style. His face melts when he sees her — his Mom, and then moves toward her open arms — their smiles connecting them before their embrace.

It’s subtle and layered and surprising. A far-cry from the pop candy J-Lo commercial for the new Fiat 500 that often seems to be running in the same rotation, but sends exactly the opposite message: this flashy car says, “Yeah, I’m all that. Loud, bright and then some…” I’ve grown weary of it already. Make it stop.

Chrysler’s quiet message is built for times like this. Keeping it together is keeping it real.


THE MORNING of September 11, 2001, I had to report to the newsroom. We were, of course, thousands of miles away from the chaos and devastation unfolding on the East Coast, but there was an eerie feeling walking North on Spring Street as everyone else — employees or CalTrans, City Hall — were heading home at a quick pace. All “non-essential” employees were banned from the building, sent home. There we were, walking against the current. What might happen in Los Angeles still felt like an unfinished thought. It made be anxious, but this was an “all hands” moment, and there was something about the order that newsroom and the duty of collecting information My beat at the time was human behavior and I was struck by the image of The Falling Man.” In the first few hours we saw images — silhouettes mostly — of people stopped by the shutter in midair against the backdrop of rows of high-rise windows. I pitched the story to an editor who poo-pooed it, only to find that the Washington Post would do a piece on the psychological impact of watching these free-floating souls soon after. This image — and those like them that were printed in next-day editions of the paper, that were part of the CNN and network news rotations (until they were pulled) — are the ones that I often think of first — even before those images of the ripped and jagged remnants of the towers in the early hours. It’s something about the impact and aftermath that this shot conveys, that still triggers something raw and deep and hard to pin-point — ten years gone.

This image is from an Esquire piece that Tom Junod wrote a couple of years afterward in which he contemplates the deeper after-image of this symbol.

Ventriloquism: The Highest Form of Compliment?

LAST WEEK, I happened to catch an episode of Hell’s Kitchen, one of chef Gordon Ramsay’s many TV franchises. I hadn’t really been watching it too much this season figuring that one season, and that the very limit, two, was probably enough. You get the arc of this narrative pretty quickly.

It’s not a show where one thinks consciously about race — it’s simply its own little survival-of-the-fittest island — but last week more than a couple of the wanna-be exec. chef’s were liberally peppering their patter with their read on hip hop (read: black) argot.

The most uncomfortable voicing throughout has been Sabrina, a trash-talking, 20-something blond who frequently boasts about her “ghetto” this or that , or is wondering if “Diddy” is going to step out of the limo arriving for early seating at the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant.

It’s simply painful to both listen to and watch her. Horror show.

Check her out right about 2:25ish in this clip (and make sure to make it to 2:47):

Later, she sends out this riposte to Vinny, the last chef eliminated: “I took your black jacket, bee-yatch”


Then there’s Russell, who addresses everyone as “bro,” and recently referred to himself as a “grown-ass man” then turned and did a gangsta limp out of the room. Last week, he turned it up mid-episode to challenge the kitchen’s most nebbishy cook, Trev, to “come correct.”
Well, all right.
I began to fantasize that Jason Ellis or Nilka or better, Tennille (who had the temerity to get in Chef’s face — more than once and without hesitation) — were there to put her in her place. I wonder if she would have felt as free to speak this way if she had someone around to check her.

This all hit home yesterday as I was flipping through a couple of books that I’m putting together a preview piece for the paper. Obstensibly, they are about black oral tradition — the rhythms of passed on wisdom-culture. One of the books, The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois (with forward and afterward written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Common, respectively) speaks to this. Writes Gates in his intro: “Rap’s influence on the English language is palpable in the currents of contemporary, everyday speech. It’s a vivid vocabulary and often explicit.”
We’ve grown so used to it, I seldom blink.
I don’t think I would have reacted as much if Sabrina’s voicings hadn’t been so, well, cartoonish. She looks and sounds ridiculous. It’s barely ventriloquism — it’s a sideshow. If it had just been Russell, I wouldn’t have blinked. He seems like a tough-guy who grew up as a kitchen urchin — and Trev better indeed “come correct.” No doubt.

I’ve  known enough full-time cooks and stressed-out executive chefs and all about their all-hours, back-breaking work that stretches from dawn to dawn. I’ve come to know precisely how much a proving ground  kitchens can be and who they attract and why. You’ve got to be tough. There is a commraderie and a system of proving yourselves — a brotherhood if you will. But there was something so off and discordant about her posturing — the eye and neck-rolling — and all else that goes with it.

Come on Sabrina, come correct.

Coaching from the Great Beyond

THE NEW Tiger Woods Nike ad has set off another blaze. It has an eerie quality, even before you figure out that it is his decesed dad, Earl, speaking from beyond…

Updated: And the always wonderful Robert Lloyd weighs-in on the L.A. Times’ “Show Tracker” blog:

Although smartly conceived and perfectly executed — I have a certain chilly admiration for the ad-brains who created it over who knows how many meetings, e-mails and nights at the drawing board — it is an odd, disquieting piece. That it’s been shot in black and white, with a hand-held camera, is meant to connote seriousness, authenticity, facing facts in the cold light of day. But it’s all a conceit, carefully calibrated and thoroughly arranged: The day itself did not appear in black and white; the light flashes near the end, which stylistically recall the shoestring aesthetics of the “true to life” French New Wave, are no accident.