Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sex and Our City

One of the benefits of being a famous silent-era comedienne is that you go on location from time to time, which therefore means staying in hotel rooms. And that, of course, means watching random things on TV, since you're far from the happy control freakism of your TiVo. While removing my makeup the other night, I caught one of the most egregious LA-cliche offenders in the history of LA-cliche offenders, the two-part Sex and the City episode where they travel to Los Angeles.

Now, Sex and the City isn't known for its grittily realistic portrayal of New York either, unless you live in a New York where nobody takes the subway and snow always stays sparkly clean. But at least, unlike Friends, it did have some sort of New York vibe, and in general, it was a smartly written show that demonstrated its creators had many keen insights into the dynamics between men and women.

However, these two episodes switch the tension from that between opposing sexes to that between opposing cities, and being that one of them is Los Angeles, all reason, reality and tactfulness go out the window. Here's what the ladies choose to do while visiting our wide, diverse city:

1. Stay at the Standard and sunbathe
2. Go to a "dildo release party"
3. Rent a convertable Mustang that Carrie doesn't know how to drive
4. Go to the Saddle Ranch Chop House
5. Try to crash a film premiere
6. Attend a party at the Playboy Mansion

The Facts of Life Go to Paris looks like a documentary in comparison. There's a recurring dichotomy (especially in the voiceover) of "In New York, we do this... in LA, they do some opposing thing that's silly and flighty." But the perplexing thing is that while the four ladies are held up as an example of East Coast realness, they're the ones who consistently act like the shallowest, most cliched Los Angeles stereotypes possible.

Especially Samantha. While a voiceover solemnly informs us that "In New York, we have parties to celebrate the release of a new book; in Los Angeles, they have parties to celebrate a new dildo" (oh, come on!!), a later scene has Samantha shutting down one of her sex conquests because he's also a poet. Keep in mind the contrasting treatment of aspiring literary figures based in New York: Remember Berger the writer? Carrie went back to that doofus repeatly until he finally broke up with her on a Post-It. Yet the sole reason Samantha bails on this guy is his literary aspirations, because of course trying to be intellectual in Los Angeles is something to be considered silly.

Samantha's other major plot point is that she meets her hero, Hugh Hefner (apparently the new role model for non-shallow New Yorkers), gets invited to the Playboy Mansion, and purchases a fake Fendi purse off the street which is humiliatingly revealed as a fraud at the party. The sale of fake designer bags is treated as a very specific Los Angeles activity, which is a mind-boggling mindset to give a fashion-minded character who lives in New York City. But don't you know? Everything in Los Angeles is fake! Except Samantha's the one cooing over a ridiculously gaudy counterfeit bag, and even the Bunnies at the Mansion have bags that meet the show's idealized standard of non-LA real.

And Carrie picks a car she can't drive solely because it matches her outfit, opining that "cars are the new handbags" or some other nonsense, which really makes it ironic when, at the end of her hour-long sojourn, she steps back into her apartment with voiceover sighing that at least everything contained within is, again, real. Well, everything except her choice in rental cars, apparently. Oh, and her counterfeit-loving friends, the film option she flaked out on for a ridiculous reason, and the ability to afford that cool apartment on a writer's salary. Got it. Carry on, Carrie!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Put a Fork in It

The Airborne Toxic Event are an LA-based band with one song that I really like, and a new album which Pitchfork thinks I won't like much at all, hence the 1.6 out of 10 review they recently gave it. I haven't heard the whole album, so I don't have an opinion on their other songs, but I sure have something to say about this review:

The Airborne Toxic Event is an album that's almost insulting in its unoriginality; while the sound most outsiders attribute to Los Angeles has been marginalized to Metal Skool and the average customer at the Sunset Boulevard Guitar Center, TATE embodies the Hollywood ideal of paying lip service to the innovations of mavericks while trying to figure out how to reduce it to formula.

Oh my. Reviewer Ian Cohen manages to achieve a truly amazing feat: He admits that what he terms the "outsider" perspective of LA is far from reality, yet in the very same sentence he delivers up a big fat cliche about "Hollywood ideals." Quite ironic for someone who's judging others for being formulaic, isn't it?

Fortunately, the Airborne Toxic Event were smart enough to see this too, and posted an open letter to Cohen calling him out on their website:

...It also seems to have very little to do with us. Much of your piece reads less like a record review and more like a diatribe against a set of ill-considered and borderline offensive preconceptions about Los Angeles. Los Angeles has an extremely vibrant blogging community, Silver Lake is a very close-knit rock scene. We are just one band among many. (And by the way, L.A. does have a flagship indie rock band: they’re called Silversun Pickups). We cut our teeth at Spaceland and the Echo and have nothing to do with whatever wayward ideas you have about the Sunset Strip.

That's what we're saying, Airborne Toxic Event. You are now the official soundtrack to Nobody Walks in LA, at least until we have to take someone to task for writing that you can really hear the sound of angel wings in Castledoor.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Ricky Gervais is promoting his new film in the pages of this week's Time by walking around the Getty Museum with a reporter and commenting on the activities there:

Now he and his girlfriend, whom he met in college, live in London and have bought a second home on Manhattan's Upper East Side because it's close to the museums. At 47, he still has the impishness of someone who unexpectedly made it.
When he spots a sign pointing upstairs to paintings, the L.A.-ness of it cracks him up. "Paintings! That's great. They have to be very specific. Like 'Things Made of Clay.'..."
Okay, I've obviously seen many generalizations of this city or I wouldn't be here. But this is certainly the first time someone's dissed us for a sign directing people to paintings within a museum. I know, he's saying all paintings can't be generalized into one broad category, blah, blah, but come on. Would he walk into Amoeba Records and complain that a sign points people toward the "vinyl"? A department store with a floor dedicated to "menswear"?

Of course not. But you see, this is Los Angeles, where a somewhat non-specific sign isn't simply helping museum visitors get where they need to go. In this case, it's a reflection on our supposed lack of culture: Look how shallow we are! We think all paintings are alike! We just want to look at whatever pretty colors are placed before us!

All right, Ricky, feel free to stereotype however you want, but the Getty is still the fourth top museum in the world (ranked higher than anything in London, incidentally), and Ghost Town still looks awful.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Public Service Announcement

One of the main inspirations for this blog, Thom Andersen's 2004 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, is currently having a rare run at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. This close-to-three-hour musing is a rambling, beautiful, and thoughtful presentation on how our city, its landscape and its people have been depicted throughout movie history, told via over 200 film clips:

This cinematic essay focuses on the discrepancy between the lived-in urban reality of Los Angeles and its various century-deep cinematic mythologies. The movie is about more than just what the movies get wrong. It’s about the way the imaginary space of cinema intrudes upon the actual space of our lives, so that the L.A. of the movies becomes a kind of separate urban reality unto itself.

Damn straight, Toronto Star! The film screens tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Thom Andersen will be appearing in person.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Self Portrait

A couple of weeks ago, the LA Times compiled a list of the top 25 movies from the past 25 years set in Los Angeles. They acknowledged in the original story that the list was likely to stir up debate and anger among film buffs and Angelenos, and they were, of course, correct in their prediction.

At first glance at the choices, I myself was enraged by the list as it seemed to focus on some really shallow crap (pardon my francais, s'il vous plait) but once I read the full article including the reviewers' explanations for their choices, I was only half enraged. Furthermore, I was mildly delighted by some of the selections that I had previously pooh-poohed. Of course, some of the arguments were still cringe-worthy, and I can't let those go unpunished.

Indulge me, won't you, and take a stroll through the list once more so that I may point out the high- and low-lights:
  • A quote by director Curtis Hanson about Kim Basinger's character justifies LA Confidential's inclusion on the list and expresses a more nuanced point of view than the typical "sunshine with a seamy underbelly" chestnut: "She's a natural beauty with a phony image, a disguise that's all about selling it to the suckers. But when you go beyond the image, as when you go beyond L.A. as the city of manufactured illusion, the character is not only beautiful but totally self-aware. Underneath, she knows the truth about who she is. Everybody else is struggling to figure it out."
  • I'm fine with Jackie Brown being on this list. I'm fine with any Quentin Tarantino film being on this list.
  • Beverly Hills Cop? No. Just no. You might as well choose Down & Out in Beverly Hills. If Los Angeles had an anti-LA defamation league, this film would have been picketed. I don't care if this was the first "real guy from elsewhere vs. shallow effete LA snobs" film (and it wasn't), it is a tiresome schtick. It was tiresome when Aesop did it with his city mouse and country mouse, and it's tiresome now.
  • Robert Altman has done Los Angeles much better than in The Player. I nominate Three Women, for instance. Okay, that wasn't made in the past 25 years. I still nominate Three Women.
  • LA Story covers similar ground as The Player with the terrible "industry" folk, and one might think I would hate it for Sarah Jessica Parker's aerobics airhead character pitted against a "real" intelligent woman from England, but it does have a little more depth in the story. As the LA Times notes, "L.A.-haters will have their worst suspicions confirmed by the film's view of restaurant culture and insane commutes. However, underneath the white, upper-middle class flakiness, there's a steady hum of magic, possibility and surprise that can be appreciated only by those who love the city as much as Martin does."
  • Clueless. I love this movie, though it hurts me. It presents a hilarious view of a very small slice of the population, but it's one of those movies that LA haters point to as an example of what LA is. Same goes for Valley Girl. Give me Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
  • I unfortunately can't discuss Collateral or Training Day because I couldn't watch them. I simply can't abide Tom Cruise or Ethan Hawke.
  • From the article: '"Mulholland Drive" could just as easily be called "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."' Ick. Ten point penalty to list contributor Mark Olsen for that observation.
  • To Live and Die in LA. Yes. Well done. I mean, the car chase.
  • Less Than Zero - the film adaptation of a shallow book that felt the idea that "(in Los Angeles) people are afraid to merge" was a brilliant insight. New York gets American Psycho and LA gets Less Than Zero. Thanks a lot, Bret.
  • Fletch - there are only 25 spaces on this list and you fill one with Fletch? I smell a rat.
  • Crash instead of Falling Down? And furthermore, list contributor Mark Olsen comes up with this tidbit about the inspiration for the film: "Haggis had his Porsche carjacked outside a video store on Wilshire Boulevard in 1991. How L.A. is that?" How LA is that? Screw you, Paul Haggis, and screw you, Mark Olsen. That's another ten point penalty to you. In fact, you get a red card. You're ejected from the game.
Finally, I'd like to suggest one more film: Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Yes, it's mainly set in Vegas, but it starts out in Los Angeles, and I find it wonderful that a director so well known for his fanciful dream worlds can so masterfully portray a Los Angeles that I can actually recognize. Well done, Munchausen. Now come back and give us a whole movie, will you?

Monday, September 8, 2008

La La Love You, Don't Mean Maybe

The Russell Brand-hosted VMAs have come and gone, and while I found him pretty funny, and he makes Lyndsey want to give up her chastity ring, others weren't that impressed. Most notably the Associated Press:

Russell Brand seemed a little out of place as the host at the MTV Video Music Awards. Not because he's British or relatively unknown in America, as most of the chatter was about before Sunday night's show from Los Angeles.

It was because Brand injected the VMAs with blunt politics, self deprecation, unabashed sexuality, and, yes, plenty of off-color remarks.

Didn't he know where he was? The VMAs? In La-La Land?

No, this was no place to voice anything like an opinion on world affairs or joke about young Christian pop stars. This is a place to look cool and thank the almighty for the honor of little moon man statuettes.

Okay, AP writer Jake Coyle, let's slow down for a sec and make note of the little LA dis you snuck into that third paragraph. Why, all we do is look cool and love our awards from the most superficial cable network around! We're in LA, where we only care about shallow pretty things! Didn't Russell Brand know where he was?

The only problem is that this is the first time in ten years that the VMAs have been held in Los Angeles, spending the intervening decade in Las Vegas, Miami, and New York City, and they've always been frivolous no matter where they're located. Unless you're prepared to defend Madonna kissing Britney and Christina as the height of intellectualism, please don't make this city-specific.

Secondly, you've committed the grievous offense of calling us "La-La Land." Uh uh. I know, "L" and "A" make "La," but there's also the convenient added benefit of making us seem like a bunch of tra-la-la airheads. Tell you what: Until the AP Style Guide says you can refer to New Orleans as "No-No Land," let's do without the cutesy names.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Angel of the Morning Edition

LA, the brand new and retooled LA Times monthly magazine launched today, featuring an effusive mash note to Los Angeles -- and all the LA-based readers who will hopefully purchase the products and services contained within -- as the Letter from the new Editor. (No link yet but I'll post it if it ends up on the Times' website.)

No amount of feel-good vibes, however, can win us back from that damn "angels live in our city" cliche which permeates the whole thing:

...I do remember that day I landed at LAX for the very first time. I walked out of the terminal and felt the hot wind (it must have come from angels' wings) sweeping across my face, making my hair fly, making me breathe so deeply and filling my heart. I drove in a convertible with the top down for the very first time, up to Mulholland and Beverly Glen. I looked across a city that seemed to reach to forever -- and knew I was home. I never wanted to let the angels go.

Three times this comes up! The letter's even titled Come Fly With Us, for that extra angelic feeling. Please, please, new editor Annie Gilbar, for the love of all that's good and right: Let the angels -- or at least that exhausted LA cliche -- go already.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Fair Assessment?

Last night was the start of the LA County Fair, which means those commercials are back that they've been running for the past few years, with the dumb Valley Girls and the uninformed LA schoolkids, and... oh, you don't need this blog to tell you how staggering the LA stereotypes are here.

What's so off-putting about this campaign is not just an ad agency's jokey assertion that we're a bunch of idiots who don't know what milk is or that a cow says "moo," but that as those being advertised to, we're supposed to identify with and somehow see ourselves in them. But marketing to Los Angelenos by mocking how stupid Los Angelenos are is an insulting strategy which not only presumes that we're as dumb as the commercials make us to be, but that we don't have any civic pride either. These commercials don't laugh with us, they laugh at us.

It might be easier to swallow a little gentle ribbing if the "grains of truth" made any sense. But come on:

Yeah, yeah, the women are dumb and shallow and talk like Valley Girls and... concerned with their health? Perish the thought. The assertions here are just odd and reactionary: That you can't make healthy food that looks or tastes appealing, that the women don't know that apple pie contains apples, that anything that sounds remotely vitamin-like should be mocked, and that eating food that's good for you is some crazy Los Angeles fad.

The agency folks can't even keep up a consistent stereotype, because here the presumed health nuts chow down on cotton candy:

Oh wait, they're eating it because they think it comes from cotton. Or perhaps from soy. Or... what in the world are you talking about?! Perhaps their next spots should be about confused advertising executives trying desperately to stereotype a major metropolitan city, and throwing anything against the wall to see if it sticks.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Fake Plastic Sleaze

The above photo appears in the 9/5/2008 edition of Entertainment Weekly, accompanying an article about British comedian Russell Brand arriving in Hollywood to host the VMAs and get people to know who the hell he is. See, you can tell he's in Hollywood because the woman he's looking at isn't just blonde and skimpily dressed, but so "plastic" as to literally be a mannequin. Because we're all fake here in LA, get it? Get it?? Like this leather-clad and metal-haired "comic bad boy" is a paragon of authenticity.