Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

New Beverly’s Grindhouse series

March 12, 2007

The New Beverly Cinema (Beverly and La Brea) is giving Quentin Tarantino a chance to show off his influences for the next two months. He’s showcasing dozens of old grindhouse flicks from his personal collection: silly kung-fu, titty-flapping sex comedies, badasssss blaxploitation, and 70s revengers (sorry, no Joe Don Baker).

Went to my first tonight, a double bill of Rolling Thunder and The Town that Dreaded Sundown. The first is a fairly simple, slow-building revenge flick in which a POW (William Devane) returns home after 7 years in a Vietnamese prison and can’t quite get back into the swing of things, that is, until someone close to him is killed. Not the type of thing that usually excites me, but it was more interesting than Death Wish, and Tommy Lee Jones brought down the house.

The second film is a semi-competent crime thriller in which a tall guy with a sack over his head kills a bunch of teenagers while cops fail to catch him. It has similarities with Zodiac and Halloween, but isn’t nearly as good as either. A few moments of unintentional laughter, along with the party atmosphere in the theater, made it an enjoyable experience nonetheless.

Included with the show were dozens of old trailers, from Chinese Hercules to Straw Dogs. The cheesy, old style voiceovers and bizarre clip choices made them worth the price of admission alone.

It is a little awkward to have some of the filmmakers there at the screenings. Do they know that for each person who came with sincere enthusiasm, another came for the camp value? Do those in attendance even make a distinction? Where does homage end and mockery begin? I’m going to attend a few more of these things and see if I can figure it out.

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Theater etiquette

March 6, 2007

A tip for those of you still considerate enough at theaters to remember there are other people in the room: never wear a button-up, short-sleeve shirt to a packed house.  The starchy sleeves will flare out and tickle the arms of the people sitting next to you.  It will almost certainly lead to discomfort and awkward glances, and it probably isn’t as good of a way to meet a potential sexual partner as it might sound.

House Guests Vol. 2: Flatulence

March 5, 2007

New theory: the reason friends and acquaintances end up at each other’s necks when shrumped into small quarters for long periods of time (like when I host house guests for 8 days) is because they’re uncomfortable farting in front of one another. The methane builds up, and with no where else to go, heads upward. Once it reaches the brain (after about, say, 3 or 4 days depending on bean consumption rates), it begins to poison the mind, and formerly rational people begin to act irrationally. So fart freely, readers. The offensive smell isn’t nearly as damning to friendship as a gassy head.

scattered

February 6, 2007

If I’m ever rich enough to build my own house, I’m going to install no more than two electrical outlets so I’m forced to prioritize my usage. I can make coffee and charge my phone at the same time, but that means no TV, and no computer. If I watch a DVD, well, that’s two plugs then, isn’t it, so no more electricity otherwise. I haven’t decided how light fixtures fit into this arrangement, but I think I might be able to live a more focused and linear life in my futurehouse.

Midwesterners are getting ripped off

January 31, 2007

Pricing for fast food chains is pretty constant across the country.  5 chicken nuggets at Wendy’s cost $1, whether you’re in Maine or Nebraska or California.  But the rent, or property taxes, on a fast food restaurant in Beverly Hills must be several times higher than the rent on the same size restaurant at an interstate exit in Abilene, Kansas.  And employees are certainly more expensive.  Both will soon be hiked, but the national minimum wage is still $5.15, while CA’s is $7.50.  And since most of the raising and slaughtering and prepackaging of food in this country is done somewhere in the middle, I expect food prices are at least slightly lower in KS, where the beef and things don’t have to be shipped quite so far.So why can I buy a Jr. cheeseburger at Wendy’s in Los Angeles for only a $1?  Surely they aren’t losing money on it… Are Midwesterners being gouged?

And why on Earth does a single cheeseburger at McDonald’s cost 20% more than a double cheeseburger?

The Homeless vs. The Nebbish

January 19, 2007

It’s not often that one gets a chance to move from one side of the country to the other, so I vowed to make the most of it. No one knows me in LA, no one knows my personality, no one has any expectations, so why not better myself while I’m here? No more awkward introversion, no more obsessing over whether I’m being interesting when I meet someone, and if I could stop doing that thing where I spend 15 minutes a day thinking about my fingernails, that would be great too. This is a chance for a whole new me!

Only there’s this: it turns out I am the way I am because I’m uncomfortable being any other way, and my discomfort rather overwhelms and smothers any desire to be a bubbly and well-adjusted person. But I did manage one mark of notable progress: now when my eyes meet that of someone on the street, I smile or nod.

I feel compelled, and slightly despondent, to note that this may not be a change at all but a matter of circumstances. In New Jersey or New York, if you nod at every person you pass, you’ll quickly end up with a sore neck and a collection of suspicious looks (at best). In Los Angeles County, while every “nice day” is subsequently followed by another “nice day,” no one walks anywhere unless they have a dog, or several dogs, or couldn’t find a parking spot within a quarter mile of where they’re going. Passing a person on a sidewalk out here is like passing someone in the desert: it’s so rare an occurrence you practically want to grab them, hug them, see that they’re real, impart to them your life story, and, if it’s a particularly sunny and delusional sort of day, try to drink them.


I was walking back from my local 24-hour drug store at night; in my plastic bag a can of meat that I’d soon regret buying, and a bottle of wine that helped with the meat. Halfway back to my apartment, I spied a real live actual person: a homeless man. One of the nicer things about LA, perhaps the only nice thing, is that the homeless people don’t freeze to death. This one was nonetheless wearing endless layers of frayed, filthy clothing, sitting guard by his shopping cart of priceless trinkets and invaluable nonsense, listening to music through a portable CD player with headphones. I too was wearing headphones, and I thought perhaps this bound us to some mad, music-loving insomniac camaraderie. These streets are ours, my friend! But before any of that occurred to me, I nodded, quite instinctively. If I’d thought about it more I’m sure I would have nodded anyway. This was a man before me, the only one I’d encountered or would encounter on my brief excursion, a living, breathing human with all varieties of feelings and smells. Why not acknowledge him? Why not treat him as I would anyone else?

The answer came in his response: “What the hell do you want!” It wasn’t the loveable consternation of an overworked, cigar-smoking New York newspaper editor with an ulcer and too many kids at home. No, this was the dirt-rub crazy kind of irritation. The curdled kind. Unhinged, manic, violent. The “if I had a knife right now…” kind.

I managed to repress my fear enough to maintain my speed, fixing my posture to give the illusion of self-confidence and turning off my CD player so that I might better hear footsteps behind me. I was pretty sure I could outrun him. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. He muttered something else that I couldn’t make out but refused to leave his post by the shopping cart.

The streets weren’t ours. They were his, and I had intruded. As long as no one makes eye contact, no one nods or says hi, no one acknowledges his being, Mr. Homeless is able to dehumanize himself, forget his situation, exist not just in a bubble, but in a separate reality, avoiding comparisons with the real world and thus evading acceptance of his failure. For a moment, I broke through, and the stark beauty and affluence of our reality hit him square in the soul, and who can blame him for reacting poorly? Maybe I should have showed him my meat can.

A few nights later, I went to a Laundromat. As I got out of my car, a man approached me.

“You here for the Laundromat?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“You leave a skirt in the yellow washer?”

“No.”

“Okay.”

He then proceeded to the bushes at the edge of the parking lot where he relieved himself.

I headed in and started loading the washer, all the while thinking I needed to find a new Laundromat, one with more hygienic employees, when the same man, now empty of urine, started shouting, “Anybody work here!” quite frantically, which was sort of a relief because he wasn’t an employee, and sort of not, because anyone that frantic had to have discovered a bomb in one of the dryers, and I started regretting never having designed a will, and – in a great display of irrationality – wondering if I’d left the iron plugged in.

There was no bomb. One of the washers was overflowing and spilling water all over where this guy was standing. It was then that I got a good look at him. He wore a wool skirt, a solid-colored button-down, a modest gold crucifix necklace, and plastic bags instead of socks. With all the skewed movements of a junkie, he was clearly homeless, though he seemed a bit more interested in our reality than Mr. Homeless the First a few nights earlier.

After shouting a bit more, he asked everyone individually if they worked there, except me, presumably because he saw me outside earlier. When he couldn’t find an employee, he grabbed all the newspapers sitting on the uncomfortable bench – first asking me if there were any sections I wanted to read – and put them down on the wet spots.

Later, he tried helping a woman who was struggling with a recalcitrant change machine, suggesting that she cover the slot with her hand after inserting the bill so as to block out the light, which apparently has something to do with something. She thought maybe this wasn’t such a good idea – it was a ten – and when he tried to do it for her, she snatched the bill back and stomped off.

Half an hour later he intoned some friendly words to me that I couldn’t make out. I smiled and nodded and didn’t ask him to repeat himself and regretted this for days. Here was this unfortunate man trying so desperately to interact with our reality, with any reality, and no one in the damn place would let him, me included.

Today I’m an extra on the set of a TV pilot called Miss Guided. The work is easy and ever so slightly glamorous, so it attracts lazy people and stupid people and jackasses. Also some of the most delightful and talented folk you’ll ever meet, but also jackasses. And the girl next to me, clad in typical goth clothing, is rambling on about how homeless people make $80,000 a year (on average! I don’t ask if that’s mean or median) and many of them are in fact not homeless, but are genius rich lazy panhandlers who have the system beat and have us fooled. She’s talking to someone else. The guy on the other side of her. He tries to introduce her to the concept of logic, and she keeps repeating “I’m surprised you haven’t heard this. Everyone I know has heard this,” as if she’s explaining that when you drop an apple it will hit the earth. She goes on, and gets into how her “daddy” pays for everything and she doesn’t need to work but being an extra is fun and she’s 24 and has never had a real job and never went to college even though it would be free, and I resist the temptation to clarify for her every aspect of her ignorance and stupidity, and I don’t know why I resist. Why do I resist?

I see her again later: she’s still yapping to the same poor fellow, still finding a way to be smug about her ignorance, this time saying that 9/11 might have been an inside job but no one can know for sure because there’s no evidence whatsoever (apparently the absence of acquired knowledge means the absence of facts in general) and again I don’t say anything, and instead think about my fingernails which are a little uneven and seem to be growing faster than they used to.

Screenwriters are weird, part 2

December 4, 2006

            In an earlier post I asked what the appeal of packing up and moving to LA was for a screenwriter.  Here’s something: it’s not the promise of celebrity, but of community…

            My brother is one of the foremost critics of Channels 101 and 102, websites that show serialized short videos (which is perhaps not as much of a non-honor as it sounds; we’ll get to that).  With nothing else to think about in the shower the other day, I was trying to suss out the appeal of these sites.  The shows, on their own merit, are pretty unsatisfying.  Forget the problem of production values; the writing and acting and overall level of entertainment (with a few notable exceptions) fail to hurdle the admittedly low bar set by commercial TV.  Frequently the biggest difference is that the humor, unrestricted by censors, can be “edgier.”  Hardly an end to itself.  The amateurish theatrics have a certain appeal, but what does that mean exactly?  It can’t simply be a case of rooting for the little guy, right?

            I think more likely is the conclusion that the sites have managed to cultivate a community.  Filmmakers compliment and criticize one another, appear in each other’s videos, even read commentary by obscure bloggers like Yodelling Llama.  We continue to watch because we too have made videos, or at least thought about it, because we’ve read message board posts by Channel 101 celebrity Dan Harmon and he seems like more of a person than George Clooney, because the whole enterprise is immediate and personal and not a product.  It’s cozy; it’s manageable.  It’s the same reason we watch idiotic YouTube videos that we’d never tolerate in a movie theater and read blogs by people who could never be published.

John Doe has his day job, maybe he likes it, maybe he doesn’t.  Maybe it’s important and meaningful, maybe it isn’t.  On his way home from work he stops at a fast food restaurant and buys a dinner that was made by a person he’s never met.  Home at his fresh and indistinguishable condo, he sits in his mass-produced Ikea chair made in a country across the sea, turns on his Japanese TV and watches shows made by a small group of people on the other side of the country who might as well be from Neptune.  It’s not the commonality or nonspecificity of the experience that bothers me, it’s the distance.  If he doesn’t define himself by his job, not unlikely, and if he is defining himself less and less by the company he keeps, well, at least he has his favorite TV shows and his comfy space mattress and his other products of satisfying consumption.  Consumption may be the closest thing he has to life.  But never does Mr. Doe actually interact with the folk who make the things that shape his life.  There is, in the words of grammatically playful college professors / assholes, a disconnect.

            And so we zebes who move across the country to that unholiest of stank holes aren’t seekers of fame at all.  We’re just trying to interact with something that seems to have an effect on our lives and the lives of others.  We’re a more arrogant strain of that strange species who participate in community theater.  Or who set up mechanic shops in  small towns in upstate New York or Tennessee.  Or who make videos for Channel 102.  But instead of retreating from the big, scary, impersonal world, shrinking it to a manageable size, we’re moronically diving headfirst into it, attacking it on its own terms.  Leaning into the fist, if you will.

The Beverly Center

September 14, 2006

One could be forgiven walking down my rather suburban street for not realizing they’re in a major city, or anyway, a major county that for all intents and purposes is one big city. I forget it myself sometimes. The nearest reminder of LA’s gargantuan size is the Beverly Center. It’s an 8-story shopping mall that takes up four full city blocks, or would, anyway, if the streets were straight. Its gravitational force is such that other, smaller malls have been sucked into its orbit, so we wind up with the Beverly Connection, measuring a mere 2 stories, across La Cienga Blvd., and some kind of mall-strip/mall hybrid across 3rd Street.

Nothing so big and idiotic could exist outside a major urban center. It’s the nearest indication to my house that I do indeed live in a happening place.

And it’s a mall. It’s a god damn shopping mall. A great big 8-story symbol of suburban living.

That’s LA for you.

This was all well and good until I went inside. I was in the neighborhood, and I needed to buy the new Bob Dylan and Yo La Tengo CDs. The Beverly Center has over 120 stores. Number of them that sell music? None.

That’s okay, I say, I’ll just check out the bookstores. Oops. Among the 120, there isn’t a single bookstore.

Well, at least I can check out one of those goofy gift shops like Spencer’s, right? The ones that have an endless suply of “Over 40” and/or fart-related jokes to print on coffee mugs? Nope, none of those either.

There’s nothing there except overpriced clothing stores and overpriced restaurants and one movie theater that the locals claim is terrible. There is one store worth visiting, which is Brookstone, a must for every weary traveler in need of a mildly uncomfortable mechanical back massage. But I couldn’t find it.