March 31, 2011

Sherlock, not again!

Everything has already been said about the new Sherlock. Everyone watched it, everyone was talking about it (wall to wall comments on Twitter, Facebook, blogs. People discuss things in places other than…?)

We agree it was clever, funny and brilliantly performed. Benedict Cumberbatch has made Holmes his own.

One thing I have found interesting is the hormonal outpouring from female viewers including me: I've seen Cumberbatch before, he was never sexy. Suddenly he is wearing a long coat and his eyes look kind of oh yes, and he's got a very funny script and a decisive don't-give-a-toss demeanor and he's clever and YES I WOULD.

He’s an updated version of a popular old classic, a mysterious, socially removed, insouciant but charming super genius. He and his prosaic sidekick solve crimes involving monstrous villains. It is not surprising that we adore them.

Any downside? Sadly yes.
M(ona) Moriarty!
Holmes' evil nemesis (Arch Enemy?) is female as befits the 21st century adaptation. But oh no, Sherlock wont have it. (Frankly, I refuse to cry because Holmes thinks I've put on weight!) This is a boys' games in a boys' world, and the women are incidental. Which is not to say that the (other) Moriarty wasn't, well o.k.

Perhaps I'm being unfair, poking holes in Holms’ego, but he should know better. So when you get the recommission, I will play MY part. Are we clear? Good.

M(ona) Moriarty

March 26, 2011


Funny, memory is.
In 1964 I was looking over a wall in a suburb of Atlantic City, watching a man quietly getting soaked in his backyard. It was Eddie Fisher heartbroken over Elizabeth Taylor.

Interesting, life is.
They buried Elizabeth Taylor on Thursday a short distance from where I live today.

The movie I enjoyed and remember Ms. Taylor in, is Brian G. Hutton’s Nightwatch, hence the title of this post. I enjoy this film for multiple reasons. First, and foremost, it’s a thriller and I love a good thriller with an unexpected twist ending. The film also stars the late, great Laurence Harvey who had previously appeared with Taylor in the Oscar winning melodrama Butterfield 8 and I enjoy watching Taylor and Harvey together. Not only do they provide some incredible eye-candy, but they also have an interesting chemistry on screen. Taylor deliveres one of her most unusual and unexpected performances in Night Watch that clearly mocks some of her previous roles, while playing smartly with audience expectations. And lastly, Night Watch evokes many of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films.

Elizabeth Taylor came of age on screen in “A Place In the Sun,” based on Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” Notice how the Studio changed the title to something more upbeat than a “tragedy.” However, when that decision was made to change it, the value of Taylor’s name and public image in selling the film was as important as, if not more important than the title of the film (which often ran under the name of the star).

These matters explain the differences between a movie star today versus a Movie Star like Elizabeth Taylor. In the days of the Studio system, stars were products, or as we would say today: brands. This has been borne out with Taylor in the longstanding popularity of her fragrance White Diamonds, which has been a top seller for two decades. They were buying Elizabeth Taylor, the brand. Thank you Mr. Mayer.

The studios had their own brands, with their own looks. And MGM, where Elizabeth Taylor became star was the Tiffany of the Studios. In their heyday, when almost half the population of the country went to the movies every week, people went to see a Bogart picture, or Pickford or Gable and Lombard, or Errol Flynn on a Saturday matinee. They knew what an MGM picture looked like, versus a Warner Brothers, or 20th Century-Fox. They knew the stars attached to those studios. The stars' images and studios cross-referenced each other with these “star brands,” adding prestige and box-office. Elizabeth Taylor was quintessential in the process it is one reason why she ended up rich, admired, and adored.

It was a business model that went out of fashion like a lot of business models over the past century. In the days of the Studio movie, for example, a star or an aspiring star never left the house unless he or she looked like their screen image. It was only after the Studio system dispersed with contract players that the public began to see their stars looking like “real” people, unshaven, stressed out and indifferent to how he or she looks. A Star knew never to do that. They knew they were a “brand,” that they were “marketable.” They knew that looking good was money in the bank. Hollywood was a business, not a fantasy. In Hollywood, public life was always an audtion: you had to do your best. Or lose out. Women like Taylor knew the score when it came to business, right down to how to light themselves for the best results on film. They were pros, and working for a living.

It’s a strange life. Its reality is based on illusion and lighting. Movie stars get a kind of attention that three-year-olds get, except the Stars get it 24/7 for as long as they can stay in the public eye. It goes with the territory. The attention they attract and even create could drive most ordinary people crazy because it is often by its nature intrusive.

I once had a conversation about this with a woman who had grown up in the film industry. We were talking about an old friend of hers, a famous star who later in her life drew speculation that she was a lesbian because she always had a female companion wherever she traveled. And one of those longtime companions happened to be Sapphic by nature. She liked the dishiness of the speculation but didn’t believe it. “You have to understand darling,” she said to me, “she is a movie star. Movie stars need that attention. They’re used to it.”

This is especially true of the female stars who wear their egos often with more charm (like accessories) than do the men. It explains why they often marry men who take advantage of them: they need that male presence, as if to assure their position in the “community.”

Elizabeth Taylor was surely one of those women. She bore many of the traits and characteristics of this category of person.

Meanwhile, if we wish, we can and will always be able to enjoy her in roles the woman played, and played out herself for us to know.

drawing Al Hirschfeld

March 19, 2011

Lord Byron limped across the Grand Canal walking on the water…

The venue for Erica Jong’s poetry reading took place in the vestibule of the library of the Sala Sansoviniana of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Piazza San Marco.  The Library room’s ceiling is decorated by works of seven different artists, chosen by Titian and Sansovino and on its walls are portraits of philosophers, amongst which are some by Tinoretto and Veronese.

In Venice Again with You
In this great ghost of cities,
the dreams rise
from the murky lagoon
and you dream
you kill your father
and I dream again of my bad reviews.
A dagger hovers
In the air –
or can it be a pen?

The ghosts
are restless.

and the old assassins
from the past
dash through
the alleyways
transformed into cats.
-Erica Jong

March 16, 2011

Running on empty; where did the “Impact” go?

In terms of design, the most perfect ideas are often the simplest. Consider the sailplane. Combining great strenght with virtually no weight, the sailplane can travel vast distances without any sort of internal power. Its beauty stems from the fact that its form and function are inseprable. The designer-engineer Paul MacCready
said in 1990,“as we near the end of the century with enormous human and environmental problems, our concept of beauty is bound to change. Soon we’ll be less concerned with how something looks and more concerned with how efficiently it works.”

Best-known as the father of the Gossamer Condor (the world’s first human-powered aircraft to cross the English Channel, in 1979), and the Solar Challenger (a unique solar-powered plane, of 1981), MacCready brought his knowledge of low-power and high-efficiency machines to the ground in 1987. That year, he designed and built Sunraycer , a solar-powered car funded by General Motors, which won the 1987 World Solar Challenge, a grueling 1,860-mile race across the continent of Australia. Averaging nearly forty-two miles per hour, sunraycer not only won; it beat the second-place finisher by more than two days.

Accounting for his success, MacCready noted, that, as far as he knew, Sunraycer was the first vehicle in the history of General Motors in which no stylist was involved. “But what good is a solar-powered car?” someone wondered, to which the designer countered, “what good is a newborn baby?”

Very good indeed. Shortly thereafter, GM commisioned the MacCready, founder and president of the California-based environmental and vehicle firm AeroVirenment, to tap the resources of twenty-three GM divisions and affiliates in a secret program to develop what marked the first major advance in personal transportation in the last century: an all-electric vehicle with the same performance, comfort, and safety as a conventional gasoline-powered sports car.

Displayed at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show, the GM Impact stunned spectators and experts alike. From the beginning, GM only applied proven technologies so that a ‘real world’ car could be put into production without waiting for any breakthroughs, MacCready noted at the time.

Still today the average car wastes most of its energy, owning to poor aerodynamics, internal friction (caused by drive train, brakes, tires), and engine inefficiency. Engines convert gasoline into heat of which only a fraction is converted into motion to turn the wheels.

Knowing that conventional lead acid batteries deliver only one percent of the energy obtainable from the same weight of gasoline, MacCready estimated that by pushing every other technology to the limit, he could achieve gasoline performance with battery power. Once the besic design was set, MacCready examined the Impact like a detective, methodically locating and eliminating every source of energy loss and excess weight he could find. For example, instead of using a single electric motor, requiring the use of gears, he incorporated two smaller motors, attached directly to the front wheels. Powered by thirty-two tenvolt batteries developed by GM’s Delco Remy division, the dual-motor configiration could deliver an astonishing 11 horsepower instantly, whether the car was at a standstill or traveling at highway speed.

At the time John Zwerner, director of GM’s Advanced Product Engineering division, said “the public perceives electric vehicles as slow-moving, similar to golf carts. Yet the Impact shatters that perception.” To prove the point, GM tested the car head-tohead against the Maxda Miata and Nissan 300ZX. From a standing start, the Impact outdistanced the other two cars, achieving sixty mph in eight seconds.

In fact, punching the Impact’s accelerator at sixty mph literally threw the drivers back into the seat. Why? “At sixty miles per hour the motors use only 10 percent of the car’s total power, and, with no gears to shift, the remaining 90 percent is available with no delay, “noted MacCready.

Another factor was the sleek ultralight fiberglass body sculpted at GM’s Advanced Concepts Center, in Thousand Oaks, California. Since drive shaft and exhaust system need not be accomodated, the car’s underside is perfectly smooth, allowing it to slice through the air. Its shape, wide in the front and narrow in the rear, greatly reduced the turbulence normally left in a car’s wake. In effect, nearly a third of the foreign oil we buy is spent stirring up the air when you think of the dollars involved, it’s madness.

To extent the Impact’s range further, AeroVironment developed a regenerative braking system. Every time your foot lifted off the accelerator, the motors started to convert the car’s kinetic energy into electricity, which fed back into the batteries. As a result, the car ran about 100 miles between charges both on the highway and in the city even with conventional heating or air-conditioning. Recharging time ranged from two hours at a 220-volt industrial hookup to eight hours at home, with the electrical cost averaging 1.5 cents per mile.

In 1990 MacCready predicted, that California drivers would trade-in their conventional cars for high performance, zero pollution cars. “Nationwide it’s a political question. Until we start paying the true cost of gasoline at the pump, which experts estimate at over three dollars per gallon, we will never have the incentive to conserve.”

Famous last words…and then we @#$%&* up the end game.

March 10, 2011

Put them in a box somewhere put them in a drawer…

Elton John

Perhaps the creators of “The Red Shoes” did not propose for the film to have the profound meaning that it would have with women, especially with women artists, in years to come. Still beautiful to look at (despite the frightful melodrama of the acting), and a brilliant score by Brian Easdale, it strikes a chord.

Ms. Edna's favorite image from the movie

After a screening of the movie yesterday, followed a heated discussion with women artists who were pointing out the conflicts between dedication to their art and the relationships with the people they love. This was not an analysis of the film but an examination of the issues it raised for women and art.

Women and sacrifice abound in art... Anna Karenina, La Traviata, Jane Eyre, The House of Mirth, The Portrait of a Lady... These stories have enormous power. However, far fewer stories exist about one's dedication to and sacrifice for one's art.

In the film, Victoria 'Vicky' Page is an unknown dancer who aspires to dance with the prestigious Lermontov Ballet. She meets Boris Lermontov, the charismatic impresario of the Ballet Lermontov, who tauntingly questions her about her devotion to ballet before he sees her dance:

Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?
Vicky: Why do you want to live?
Lermontov: Well, I don't know exactly why, but...I must.
Vicky: That's my answer too.

Vicky is as compelled to dance as we are compelled to write, to paint, to sing, to act, to create, to live.
Intrigued by her saucy answer, Lermontov takes her on as a student. He sees her dance in a performance of Swan Lake in a small, modest venue and realizes her potential. Vicky is then invited to go with the company to Paris and Monte Carlo and when Lermontov loses his Russian prima ballerina (she wishes to marry - apparently it is impossible to think that she could possibly do both), he begins to see Vicky as a possible successor.

Lermontov pronounces, "A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never." When someone notes that you cannot change human nature, Lermontov snaps, "I think you can do even better than that - you can ignore it."

Lermontov creates a starring role for Vicky in the new ballet, The Red Shoes, written by a new young composer based on an old folk tale by Hans Christian Anderson. In the ballet, a young girl becomes enchanted with (and enchanted by) a magic pair of red shoes which permit her to dance and dance but the trick is that she is unable to stop dancing even when she wants to. In desperation, she even tries to cut the slippers off her feet but to no avail. The only way that she can stop dancing is by dying, with the slippers on.

These were/are our choices then, and now?

Rejecting one's art = death? Love = stop pursuing one's passion in life?

Despite the tragic ending, the film resonates. Are we in love with the fantasy of giving up everything (art, independence, freedom) for love? Yes, masochistically, sometimes we are.

March 01, 2011

A walk through history…♬

…L.A.’s and my own.

Monday morning, Chinatown, the client is going to be late for our meeting. I decided to take a walk.

Although Chinatown is no longer a hub of activity relative to other parts of Los Angeles, it contains significant portions of the cultural history of the city within its tiny one-square-mile boundaries. It has served as the gatekeeper to America for many generations of immigrant groups, not only from China but also from all over the world. It’s been a launching pad for all of the true believers that clung to the promise of a new life in the land of opportunity. Today, you can hear the echoes of these stories, and the underlying heritage of the lives that were left behind, reverberate throughout the community. Far more than just a novelty, Chinatown is a reflection of many of the things that, for better or worse, give L.A. its identity beyond the postcard images and the glitz and glamour that the rest of the world projects on to it.

Although Italians were prominent in the area well into the 1900s, the Little Italy that was once there is all but vanished. Little Joe’s Restaurant on Broadway and College, which closed in 1998, was the last connection to the Italian-owned businesses in Chinatown. The building is still here used sporadically as a film set it has recently been purchased and plans are under way to develop the site and restore the restaurant.

The legacy of the French in Chinatown is seen through the Pacific Alliance Medical Center on College, as noted by the Joan of Arc statue which stands guard in front. It was originally built in 1868 as a hospital to treat French immigrants, but has over time served as the primary medical facility for Chinatown residents.

The Capitol Milling Company was a flour mill that serviced bakeries all over LA, including Nancy Silverton’s beloved La Brea Bakery. It operated in the area for more than a hundred-fifty years until 1998, when the company relocated to a bigger facility in Colton.
Since 1883, it had been owned by multiple German immigrant families and their descendants, before being purchased by ConAgra in 1999.
The building is one of the oldest standing buildings remaining in Los Angeles, going all the way back to 1831. Redevelopment plans have been made to convert it into (what else?) lofts but, like the many other proposed projects in Chinatown, the groundbreaking has not yet begun.

At the corner of Grant and Alpine is St. Anthony’s Croatian Catholic Church documenting another wave of immigrants that migrated through the area. Most, if not all of its members, have dispersed to the suburbs.

The removal of discriminatory laws wasn’t a panacea for the challenges of assimilation. For example, Chinese still struggled to gain access to funds to help grow businesses and purchase property. Thus, they began forming their own banks to address this need. Cathay Bank was the first Chinese-American bank in California, opening in 1962 as a commercial bank, and is now the oldest Chinese-American bank in the country. This was my first design project in Chinatown.

On the hill to the north is Dodger Stadium. During World War II, sailors in the naval station below the present stadium poured down the hill and into the Alpine barrio, fighting with the young Latino men in what became known as the Zoot Suit Riot. I don’t know if there’s a plaque that memorializes that bit of history.

A little detour will take you into another world: an incense-filled Taoist Temple on Yale Street. This ornately decorated temple serves as a focal point of the immigrant community and is one of the most beautiful of its kind.

Central Plaza is full of quaint walkways and tiny shops. The sound of clicking mahjong tiles can be heard from upstairs windows. 

Saigon Plaza, Chinatown Plaza and Dynasty Center. Most of the shops and stalls in these bazaars are owned by Chinatown's newest ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Far East Plaza is home to Wing Hop Fung Ginseng and China Products Center the largest store of its kind in Los Angeles, fragrant with herbs and tea, and overflowing with chinaware, garments, arts and crafts. A pharmacy and acupuncturist are located within.

There are zero Starbucks in all of Chinatown. It’s the one place where the gospel of Howard Schultz hasn’t caught on (there's even Starbucks in the Forbidden City in Beijing). For the price of one venti mocha latte, you can get forty cups of Joe at Philippe.

Now if Starbucks specialized in tea instead of coffee, maybe it would be a different story. Tea is an integral part of not only the Chinese dining experience, but its cultural norms as well. In Chinatown, boxed teas can be found in most of the general stores, as well as specialty stores where you can also walk in and self-serve from large canisters for your own magic elixir.

So then where do the cool kids hang out?  While most of Chinatown shuts down early, there is a small nightlife scene concentrated in Central Plaza. Grand Star Jazz Club is the standard, a restaurant/jazz club owned by the Quon family for more than 60 years. It’s totally chill and sporadically offers karaoke in addition to the live acts – co-owner Frank (one of my friends tabbed him Frank Quon-atra) and his brother Wally will get up and sing some old standards as well, while “Mommy” tends the bar. On the first, third, and fifth Friday of the month, the second floor turns into a dance club, Firecracker. This was my second design project in Chinatown.

If you do not want to do the “Dim Sum action” at the (predictable) Empress Pavilion there is always Philippe. Decidedly not Chinese, it is the hands-down best place to eat. The original 99-year old restaurant on Alameda and Ord, which claims to be the creator of the French Dip sandwich. It doesn’t exactly blend into its surroundings, but it’s been a fixture in this location since 1951, as Chinatown grew up around it. According to the restaurant, the sandwich was created when deli owner Philippe Mathieu accidentally dropped a roll into meat drippings while making a sandwich. Now, the legendary sandwiches are hand-dipped in au jus (pork at it’s best), while the little quirks of the restaurant like the sawdust on the floors and the jars of pickled eggs at the counter make it a one-of-a-kind dining experience. Frankly, if you haven’t been to Philippe, you have no business calling yourself an Angeleno. Oh by the way, they still sell a cup of coffee for nine cents, the best deal in town.

Chinatown, made famous by Roman Polanski.  Remember that famous line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown"?

Chinatown a business district waking up for the day. I paused and looked south toward downtown Los Angeles, where I have spent many years searching for her past. All around me were places where I used to gather stories and documented sights.

I headed back to the meeting.  There I presented the client with my vision for restoring a house in the French Quarter of Shanghai, China.