They Have It In For us

Let’s face it: New York City has it in for us. They have a strange vision of the city that includes only the crescent-shaped area linking downtown, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Westwood, and Santa Monica. That’s only a tiny slice of LA. The whole country has a population just over ten million people, most of whom do not surf, eat granola, work in the film industry, or belong to a cult.

Over the years, we’ve taken quite a beating. It was William Faulkner who said:

Everything in Los Angeles is too large, too loud and usually banal in concept… The plastic asshole of the world.

Of course, that didn’t stop him from writing screenplays over a period of two decades. In the Wikipedia article on him, it says:

As Stefan Solomon observes, Faulkner was highly critical of what he found in Hollywood, and he wrote letters that were “scathing in tone, painting a miserable portrait of a literary artist imprisoned in a cultural Babylon.” Many scholars have brought attention to the dilemma he experienced and that the predicament had caused him serious unhappiness. In Hollywood he worked with director Howard Hawks, with whom he quickly developed a friendship, as they both enjoyed drinking and hunting. Howard Hawks’ brother, William Hawkes, became Faulkner’s Hollywood agent. Faulkner would continue to find reliable work as a screenwriter from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Although Faulkner did not particularly like Hollywood, he participated in the production of some great films which bear his screen writing credit: Air Force (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946). Not coincidentally, they were all directed by Howard Hawks.

If you see Los Angeles as essentially Hollywood, you will be unhappy here. I was for many years until I saw beyond all the la-la-land rubbish. This is a particularly difficult city for New Yorkers to wrap their heads around. Perhaps it’s because they cannot find egg creams here, whatever those are.

Acedia

If the term is unfamiliar to you, you can substitute the word boredom for it. When I first came to Southern California st the age of twenty-one, I was frequently bored. For one thing, I didn’t drive until a couple decades later. I didn’t even have a television set. I certainly didn’t have a smart phone, as they were not invented yet—for which I am eternally grateful.

If the coronavirus quarantine were to happen in the late 1960s, I would have been in deep trouble. I would have been all alone and sunk deep into acedia, not to mention depression. As it turned out, in 2020 I had a three-part solution to the quarantine:

  1. Do a ton of reading, say something around 15-16 books a month.
  2. View a lot of classic films, mostly on Turner Classic Movies (TCM).
  3. Expand my cooking skills, including more complicated Hungarian dishes.

As a result, the last two years have not been a waste for me. My only regret was that, since the quarantine was global, I could not travel without some risk.

For me, travel is an opportunity for sustained research, including books about my destination and some exposure to the films and music. Not to worry, I am reading at least two travel books a month for when the world opens up to safe travel.

A Day in Quarantine

How to Maintain One’s Sanity During Hard Times

To begin with, I have no problem about getting from 9 to 9½ hours of sleep. In fact, during the last year I have slept better than at any other time in my life. I wake at 9 or 9:30 am, stumble out into the living room to say good morning to Martine, who always wakes up before me, and take my pills, give myself a shot of insulin, and perform a finger-prick test for my sugar level. Only then am I ready for breakfast.

Almost all mornings, I make a pot of hot tea, the current choice being Ahmad of London’s Darjeeling. It is usually accompanied by scrambled eggs with chiles, oatmeal, toast, a fried egg sandwich on a muffin, or grits and sausage. While I breakfast, I always read the Los Angeles Times, devoting particular attention to the KenKen and Sudoku puzzles and the comics page.

By the time I am finished, it is close to noon; so I futz around on the computer for a while, either playing chess with the computer at Chess.Com or one of the free games on Arkadium.Com.

Lunch is not usually a big meal for me, so I delay it into the early afternoon, after which I either see a movie on TCM’s website or Amazon Prime Videos, or I read a book. My current read is Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents, which is about the author’s long friendship with V. S. Naipaul (1932-2018). Both are among my favorite authors.

At supper, we usually have a hot home-cooked meal. Today, it was turkey burgers with steamed carrots. Tomorrow, I’ll have to shop for and prepare another meal, about which I must first consult with Martine. She’s the one with the trick digestive system. Last week, we have baked ziti with Italian sausage—one of my better efforts.

After we’ve eaten, Martine washes the dishes while I repair to my library with my current book, where I both read and talk to friends on the phone until about 9 pm. That’s the hour when I write my book reviews for Goodreads.Com and my blogs for WordPress.Com.

By the time I am done, I watch TV until shortly before midnight, concentrating on such shows as Carol Burnett (MeTV), Bill Maher and John Oliver (HBO), Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Social Distancing Show” on Comedy Central, and the opening monologue on Steven Colbert (CBS).

Martine has a much more difficult time of it than I do. She either takes long walks or sleeps while playing an AM talk radio station. She goes to bed for the night much later than I do and wakes up earlier, as she is bedevilled by a bad case of nerves. As I always tell her, nerves are a bad business; so I don’t have any.

How to Survive the ’Rona

Kind of Looks Like Mines Intended to Explode on Contact with Ships

Since March 15, I have maintained strict quarantine—with a sole exception. Late in October, I visited my brother in the Coachella Valley. Although I have maintained telephone contact with my friends, I have not seen any of them for many months.

So how does one survive the dreaded ’Rona?

Very simple: Take yourself out of circulation. To the maximum extent possible, restrict your contact with friends and family to the telephone, e-mail, and—if you are so inclined—letters.

Let’s face it: There will be many more deaths and illnesses before this thing mutates or dies off.

This is a great time to see all the great movies you’ve missed (on TV and your computer), and to read great books. It’s also a good time to learn how to cook for yourself. Food that is delivered to your home is usually tepid at best.

Wear a mask when there is any chance of talking to someone in person, whether a neighbor or a grocery cashier. If you feel that the requirement to wear a mask is an infringement on your liberty, be ready to kill off your friends, acquaintances, family, and possibly yourself. Because there is a very real possibility that you might wind up a mass murderer through sheer idiocy.

And, if you see Jacob Marley’s face on your door knocker, run like hell!

A Long Flight to … Where?

This may sound strange to you, but I am surviving the rigors of self-quarantine because I am good at lying to myself.

The Coronavirus Quarantine Is Sort of Like Jet Lag

I have on occasion taken some longish flights to Europe and South America. The ones to Europe are particularly problematical because I arrive early in the morning after a night that has lasted for only a few hours. I know that if I drop into bed upon check-in at my hotel, I will awake while it is still light; and I won’t be able to go to sleep until the next morning.

So what do I do?

  • First of all, I pretend to myself during the flight that I am somehow outside of time, and that during the flight, time has no meaning.
  • Most important, I set my watch to the time zone of my destination. Nobody else I know does this: They insist on holding on to the time zone of their city of origin.
  • When I arrive, I stay awake until it is a reasonable bedtime in my destination.

When I went to Iceland, for example, I arrived in June—when the sun doesn’t set until the wee hours of the morning. I ate extra meals, went on a walking tour of Reykjavík, and finally collapsed in bed while the sun was still up around midnight. I woke up refreshed at an acceptable time the next morning.

So what does all this have to do with the coronavirus? Fortunately, Martine and I are retired, so I could pretend that this whole period of the outbreak is like a long flight to nowhere.

A Nook of My Library Circa 2002

I have in my apartment several thousand books as well as hundreds of films on DVD. With my subscription to Spectrum Cable, I have access to hundreds of films for no additional cost using their On Demand service. Plus: As a member of Amazon Prime, I have access to thousands of other films.

So on my “flight” to nowhere during this seemingly endless quarantine, I am reading 12-18 books a month as well as seeing 25 or more feature films a month. (And in between reading and film viewing, I do all the cooking and go out for walks.)

I realize I would be in a radically different situation if I had to worry about a job, but fortunately I don’t. I have to worry that that madman in the White House may decide to cancel Social Security or destroy the value of the American dollar, but other than that I am not dependent on the workplace—though I am affected when restaurants are shuttered, museums and libraries closed, and so on.

There is an 1884 novel by a French writer named Joris-Karl Huysmans called Against Nature (in French À Rebours) about a dilettante names Jean des Esseintes who, instead of actually going on a vacation, does an armchair traveler “staycation” and is happy about it. The epigraph to the novel is a quote from the 14th century Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck:

“I must rejoice beyond the bounds of time…though the world may shudder at my joy, and in its coarseness know not what I mean.”

Trading Bubble Gum Cards

Canter’s Deli on Fairfax

When the restaurants in L.A. started to open, Martine and I decided to go for our first restaurant meal in three months to Canter’s Deli on Fairfax. So on Saturday we actually found space in the deli’s postage-stamp-sized parking lot and wandered in wearing our required face masks. I ordered half of a pastrami sandwich on rye on a cup of bean and barley soup with iced tea. Martine had knockwurst and beans. We shared a plate of kosher dill pickles.

Okay, so it wasn’t a romantic choice; but my patronage of the deli goes back more than half a century. When I went to see movies with my film freak friends, we usually stopped for a late night feed at Canter’s, which at the time professed to be open all night but usually wasn’t. Over a corned beef sandwich or a plate of kasha varnishkes, we argued about which movies were super great and which were shit. These conversations were sometimes heated, as film freaks can be counted on to be opinionated. I referred to these sessions as “trading bubble gum cards,” as they were pretty juvenile.

Two of the friends I went to Canter’s with—who curiously were the most dogmatic in their positions—are no longer with us. Norman Witty died in 2013, and Lee Sanders in 2015. In a way, I miss those days when our opinions meant so much to us. Now, even when discussing even the greatest films, I am more inclined to shrug differences off. (Maybe that’s why I’m still alive.)

Martine and I enjoyed our meal. I know we were putting ourselves at risk, but we were impatient to return to normality even for a short time. As the coronavirus threat dies down, we will return more frequently; but however good Canter’s is, it’s not worth sacrificing our life for their food.

 

The Social Distancing Film Festival

It’s Not the Big Screen, But It’s Still Good

First, my apologies for hijacking a photo from the University of California at Santa Barbara website. Secondly, I didn’t do several years of graduate study in film history and criticism without it having a lasting influence on me.

While Martine has been taking long walks to no particular destination (the destinations are all closed, anyway) and noting the takeover of the streets of L.A. by bums, I have been reading and watching a ton of movies. In twenty-six days this month, I have watched twenty-five movies:

04/03/20 Boorman, John Emerald Forest, The 1985
04/04/20 Menzies, William Cameron * Address Unknown 1944
04/05/20 Resnais, Alain Hiroshima Mon Amour 1959
04/06/20 Kurosawa, Akira * Rashomon 1950
04/07/20 Jackson, Peter Hobbit, The: An Unexpected Journey 2012
04/08/20 Jackson, Peter Hobbit, The: The Desolation of Smaug 2013
04/10/20 Jackson, Peter Hobbit, The: The battle of the Five Armies 2014
04/11/20 Forster, Marc * Quantum of Solace 2008
04/11/20 Lang, Fritz * Beyond a Reasonable Doubt 1954
04/12/20 Wise, Robert * Set-Up, The 1949
04/14/20 Hertz, Nathan Attack of the 50 Foot Woman 1958
04/15/20 Dean, Alexandra Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story 2017
04/16/20 Totten, Robert Sacketts, The: Episode 1 [Made for TV] 1979
04/17/20 Totten, Robert Sacketts, The: Episode 2 [Made for TV] 1979
04/19/20 Siodmak, Robert * Phantom Lady 1944
04/20/20 Park, Chan-wook I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK 2006
04/21/20 Robson, Mark/Val Lewton * Isle of the Dead 1945
04/21/20 Misumi, Kenji * Sword of Vengeance 1972
04/22/20 Misumi, Kenji Baby Cart at the River Styx 1972
04/23/20 Tarantino, Quentin * Jackie Brown 1997
04/24/20 Parajanov, Sergei * Color of Pomegranates, The [Sayat Nova] 1969
04/24/20 Parajanov, Sergei Hagop Hovnatanian 1967
04/25/20 Rouse, Russell * Wicked Woman 1954
04/26/20 Keaton, Buster * Sherlock Jr 1924
04/27/20 Rapper, Irving * Now Voyager 1942

More than half of them, I really liked. Those are noted with an asterisk just before the title of the film. Predictably, most were either American film noir productions or Japanese jidai-geki (samurai films). A few were outright dogs.

As long as the quarantine/social-distancing rules remain in place, I will probably continue to see at least one film per day. Some of them are on DVD from Netflix; some from Turner Classic Movies (TCM); others from Spectrum Cable’s On Demand service.

 

Plague Diary 5: Social Distancing

The Intersection of the 101 and 110 Freeways in Downtown L.A.

The above picture from the Los Angeles Times says it all: Even at 4 am, it is not otherwise so uncrowded. Of course, I haven’t been using the freeways lately, as there is quite literally nowhere to go. No restaurants, no parks, no museums—and no sun either. Ever since the “Stay in Place” order went out, Southern California has been assailed by an untypical chain of rainy weather for this time of year, what we call the Pineapple Express.

My main forays from my apartment have been unsatisfying trips to food markets to pick over the bare bones of what the hoarders have left in their wake. And just to make things worse, I popped another crown on Saturday and have to make an appointment with my dentist to see whether it could be glued back in. Now I have partly or wholly missing teeth on both sets of my uppers. The wholly missing one will, with luck, be replaced by an implant … sometime in July.

Right now, the rain is falling steadily; and Martine is coming down with a sore throat. For now, I am watching old movies (Robert Aldrich’s 4 for Texas and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, neither of which I particularly liked) and reading books by authors with home I am unfamiliar (currently R. A. Lafferty). Also I am doing all the cooking. I have managed to scrounge up the ingredients to make a potato and cauliflower curry that should last us for a while.

It was nice talking to my brother this morning. I should call up more of my old friends. The problem is that I get too busy with cooking, reading, and TV film viewing to take the time out.

 

The Alabama Hills Trifecta

Seemingly Endless Piles of Rounded Rocks

Just west of the town of Lone Pine are a strange set of foothills comprised of picturesque rounded rocks piled up for hundreds of feet or more, behind which are the tallest peaks of the Sierra Nevada, including Mount Whitney. Among these rounded rocks were shot hundreds of Westerns, not to mention horror films, sci-fi, and you-name-it. Following is a ridiculously partial list:

  • 3 Godfathers (1948), with John Wayne and directed by John Ford
  • Around the World in 80 Days (1956), with David Niven
  • Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), with Spencer Tracy
  • Chaplin (1992), with Robert Downey, Jr.
  • Django Unchained (2012), directed by Quentin Tarantino
  • Gladiator (2000), with Russell Crowe
  • Gunga Din (1939), with Cary Grant
  • High Sierra (1941), with Humphrey Bogart
  • Lost Horizon (1937), with Ronald Colman
  • The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), with Henry Fonda
  • Ride Lonesome (1959), with Randolph Scott
  • Riders of the Purple Sage (1925), with Tom Mix
  • Zabriskie Point (1970), directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

And the list goes on and on, including whole series of Westerns with the Lone Ranger, Jack Hoxie, Hopalog Cassidy, Randolph Scott, Tim Holt, Ken Maynard and others too numerous to mention. Not for nothing is there a Lone Pine Western Film History in town. In fact, the perfect visit to Lone Pine should include a visit to the museum (allow two to three hours) and a morning visit to the Alabama Hills, where so many films were shot.

The Alabama Hills Cafe on Post Street in Lone Pine

Actually, why not make a Trifecta out of your visit? Eat breakfast or lunch at the Alabama Hills Cafe and Bakery for absolutely delicious food lovingly prepared. On our trip last week, Martine and I ate there for three meals: one breakfast and two lunches. The restaurant is closed for dinner, and you may have to wait for a table. (If necessary, do so: It’ll be worth your while.)

 

It’s a Crime!

LA’s Men in Blue

LA’s Men in Blue

Let’s face it: Los Angeles is known around the world for two things. One is Hollywood, though we’re by no means a major film production center any more. And the other is crime. Not, mind you, because we are a particularly dangerous place; but the books and movies have painted Southern California as a place where bad things can happen.

I guess it all started with Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, and Dashiell Hammett, whose novels painted this sunbright place as a pit of darkness. That was quickly echoed in the films, especially with the film noir classics such as The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, The Blue Gardenia, and The Big Heat.

Even now, excellent crime novels are being written by the likes of James Ellroy, Joseph Wambaugh, and Michael Connelly. I am currently reading Connelly’s Trunk Music, a police procedural featuring his homicide detective hero Harry (short for Hieronymus) Bosch. A small-time Hollywood producer is found dead in the trunk of his Rolls Royce, and Bosch ranges from the Hollywood Hills to Park Center (“The Glass House,” LAPD headquarters) to the Las Vegas Strip to find the killer while fighting off his own enemies.