Tuesday, May 27, 2014

On These Empty Streets

For a long time now, I have been disturbed by the rash of apocalyptic, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it films that have graced the local multiplex.  Of course, these epics of total annihilation are nothing new.  Some of them have been made and remade several times, a good example of which is Godzilla.  Why is it that our art, whether it be a science fiction novel or a disaster flick, seems obsessed with humanity’s destruction?  Is it wishful thinking on our part, a sort of suicidal prayer that absent swimming out into Santa Monica Bay until we sink, we can only fantasize about a giant fire-breathing lizard or alien invasion that will take us all out in one fell swoop?  Long ago, my parents warned us about viewing scary movies before going to bed at night.  They predicted nothing but nightmares and insomnia, all of us hiding our faces in our beds, fearful of what might be lurking behind the closet door left slightly ajar.  Horror never bothered me; monsters never threatened my sleep.  But end of civilization as we know it could keep me up all night.

Over Memorial Day weekend here in Los Angeles, humanity did not totally disappear, but the absence of traffic on city streets was a welcome relief from the everyday congestion that clogs the roadways even on non-holiday weekends.  I went out both Saturday and Sunday, and enjoyed not only empty streets, but vacant supermarkets and restaurants.  No waiting anywhere.  We just breezed right through.  People were polite, and valet parking attendants looked bored.

I used to think that our obsession with end-of-the-world fantasies was a product of our own pessimism.  With the rise of weapons of mass destruction, I just thought we were all simply throwing our nightmare scenarios up on the screen or down on the page as a way of whistling past the graveyard.  Now I’m wondering if it is not a perverse fantasy.  There are too many people jamming the highways and by-ways, too much coming at us from every direction, too many wide-eyed crazy folks trying to get somewhere and in reality, none of us can move or breathe, much less get to work on time.

So it was comforting to travel those empty streets this weekend.  If only it were that light every day.  I hear that in Paris, everyone leaves the city during August and the place becomes a ghost town.  How perfect!  In Los Angeles, the people who live here may leave town during the summer, but we receive twice their numbers in visitors.  On a balmy summer night on Third Street in Santa Monica, one is more likely to hear a foreign accent—from another state or another country—than a native Angeleno speaking the lingua franca of his home city, not that people in Los Angeles have a recognizable accent, certainly not like people from Boston or Queens or Arkansas.

I do not worry about an invasion of aliens from space, or a giant lizard smashing the Vincent Thomas Bridge.  We are a greater danger to ourselves than any Cineplex monster or body snatcher.  I do not fear the zombie apocalypse.  What scares me is that on Tuesday morning after a long holiday weekend, the commuters cram the freeways and surface streets once again, screaming and cursing and threatening as we all rush off to wherever it is we must go.  The streets become gridlocked, tempers flare, and Godzilla rampaging through downtown would actually be a welcomed distraction for those of us parked on the 110 freeway in the heat of another summer waiting for the end to come, or at least the next big holiday weekend.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

At the Shrine

All photos courtesy of the Shrine Auditorium website

I recently attended a college graduation at the Shrine Auditorium on the edge of the USC campus just south of downtown Los Angeles.  The building seems ripe for the ghosts of L.A.’s past given the distinguished hall’s history.

The place is home to the Shriners, or the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine founded by Walter Fleming and William J. Florence in 1870 in New York.  Today the organization is 340,000 members strong, each of whom wears the signature red fez at public events and parades.  In its long history, Shriners have included presidents, scientists, senators, stars of screen and stage, and professional athletes.

The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Historic-Cultural Monument 139, reopened in 1926 after a fire gutted the original building.  That 1920 disaster nearly killed six L.A. firefighters.  The auditorium holds 1200 people on its cavernous stage and 6300 patrons in the theater proper.  There is also an exhibition hall next door that resembles an airplane hangar.  Over the years, the theater has hosted all the major awards shows, including the Academy Awards.  In 1984, Michael Jackson was badly burned while filming a Pepsi commercial on the Shrine stage.  Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen, as well as a host of other performers, have performed at the Shrine.  The unique Moorish architecture has served as a backdrop for many red carpet processions of stars as they made their way into the auditorium for a glamorous night of partying.

I arrived early for the graduation and was able to wander around the place.  Although worn in places, the hall is magnificent.  It has the musty, dusty smell of L.A. history.  The seats are plush and comfortable, and even the back of the expansive balcony offers a great view of the stage.  There are places in Los Angeles that absorb the years, and the Shrine is one of them.  As I wandered around, I could hear voices and audiences across time, and down in front of the stage I wondered what movie stars might have graced those seats, waiting on pins and needles for their names to be called and the orchestra to begin playing.

I’m not sure anyone at the graduation knew, much less felt, the history.  This audience was focused on its sons and daughters who moved across the stage into the rest of their lives.  The crowd cheered the graduates with the requisite horns and noisemakers, the hand-printed signs, the balloons and flowers.  I arrived in the silence of history, and my feet barely made a sound in the thick carpet.  And after all the hoopla and celebration, I left as the crew began to break down the risers and podium and sound equipment.

It is a unique and moving experience to inhabit the intersection of the past and future in the space of three hours.  The ghosts of the Shrine Auditorium stood alongside parents and friends witnessing the moment of transition to the future for hundreds of students.  Sometimes, if one is quiet and alert, the past, present and future exist in the same dimension.  The effect is magical.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Date Night At The Getty

After weeks of writing to deadlines, reading student papers, plowing through stacks of books and journals doing research, my wife and I decided to let loose and have some fun.  Dancing by moonlight?  Out to hear live music?  Reserve a room at a favorite beach hideaway?

The truth is, we have always been the museum-over-night-clubbing kind of couple.  We went to the Getty to see A Royal Passion:  Queen Victoria and Photography (now through June 8th).  It was the perfect exhibit:  we both love British history and photography.

The Getty Center is open until 9 PM on Saturdays (Fridays, too, from May 30th to August 29th).  We arrived at 7:30 and drove right in.  The parking lot is now automated, and after 5 PM, the price of a parking space drops to ten dollars.  Admission to the museum is free.

The first shock was how many other people had the same idea.  The place was moderately crowded.  Warm weather has tourists already in town and locals looking for a cheap place to hang out.  The Getty Center is not cheap if you buy anything in the museum store or in the self-service café.  There are also coffee carts, and a very high end restaurant.  However, I guess most people love the atmosphere of the museum and gardens at night.  It was a beautiful evening.

There were families with the requisite bratty kids—are there any other kind these days.  Why is it that parents feel they must argue with their tiny tots in public, as if this somehow makes them good parents.  My parents never argued; you did what you were told or you got left in the car.  Kids also seem to enjoy running in front of you causing near catastrophic falls.  Most of these cute little midgets also hadn’t a clue what they were supposed to look at.  If I had to guess, I’d say the parents were looking for someplace contained where they could let them run and run and run until they dropped.  Then the real parental fun can begin once the kids are safely tucked into bed and out cold from exhaustion.

There were also a fair number of teenagers and early-twentysomethings.  As we were walking up from the tram, a foursome in front of us seemed to have one goal in mind:  the boys were pulling at the bikini top strings of the girls in an effort to untie and free the goods.  Who wears a bikini top to a museum?  I know I was never allowed to, but that, as they say, is a whole other essay.  The point is, every couple of young adults we saw were actively pulling on one another, like a walking wrestling match.  I remember wanting to get my arm around my date, or hold hands, but slap them on the back of the neck?  Give them a walking wedgie?  The art was irrelevant.  In fact, much of it was in jeopardy from the boy-girl tug-of-war being waged through the galleries.

Then there were the adults.  They acted as ridiculous as the kids.  Giggling, screaming, talking loudly to attract attention—why are people so starved to be noticed.  One couple, I do not lie, chased each other around the museum store with large magnifying glasses, a sale item.  They screeched and cackled, jostled and banged their way through the store.  The weirdness finally tired them out and they disappeared to annoy someone else.  Of course, there were also the “experts,” lecturing everyone within earshot to demonstrate the wisdom and learning they had acquired over the years.  Sitting through The King’s Speech and both Elizabeth movies does not make someone an expert in British history.

As for the Queen Victoria exhibit, we found the work ineffectually displayed, and that is my main complaint about the art at the Getty.  It always looks like it was thrown on the wall at the last minute.  Frames didn’t match the art; wall colors did nothing to enhance the work; lighting was poorly positioned or just inadequate.  At this Disneyland of art museums, it just feels like the art is not all that important.  As for this exhibit, a good book on early photography would’ve provided a much better history of the art form.  And there are certainly more informative history books.

We stayed until almost nine before making our way down the hill to our car.  It was okay, for a Saturday night.  The views were beautiful—Santa Monica Bay, Century City, even a distant LAX.  Would I go back?  Maybe in winter, on a cold, rainy Saturday night.  I am quite sure, on a night like that, we’d have the place all to ourselves.