National Novel Writing Month: Thanksgiving Writing Exercise

We’ve all had to suffer through this ritual:  sit around a holiday table and testify about the things we are thankful for, things we cherish in our lives.  Then, like Pavlov’s dogs, we are rewarded for our participation with the opportunity to grub down on a steroid-bird and a quivering lump of dye-infused cranberry jello.

Thanksgiving Contest - What Are You Thankful For?


I am grateful I have a job.

 I am grateful that my family is healthy and alive. 

I am grateful that Johnny came back from the war with all his precious limbs intact.

This is a touching exercise but it always seems so empty to me—a tin can you listlessly kick down the echoing tunnel of your mounting depression…because, you see, here is the paradox of Thanksgiving:  Turkey Day is the gateway to the entire season of dislike and ungratefulness, of dread and claustrophobia, of anxiety and powerlessness.  But we are all required to smile and play joyful in our scratchy snowflake sweaters as if we were lobotomized inmates in a very strict looney bin.


Thanksgiving is one of those times when Americans are MOST likely to self-medicate on booze.  Thanksgiving is THE moment when Americans feel like they’re losing ground to their neighbors and their over-ambitious nativity scene.  It is the red letter day when we are MOST likely to climb into the satin coffin of credit card debt.


Thanksgiving is also that box on the calendar when you gird up our loins to confront those people whom you reluctantly call “relatives.”

It is the time of year when you might see that uncle who molested you and flash back to the smell of Jim Beam on his breath during those late night visits to “tuck you in.”

Or that long-distant cousin–the religious fanatic–who used to kick your ass every day after school and then warn you to keep your filthy rat-trap mouth shut or else, God help you, you will really get it. 

Or the spinster aunt who snuck away with your boyfriend behind the wood shed and returned to the dinner table with leaves in her hair and hay on her back. 

Thanksgiving is the time when we spend weeks researching the jiu jitsu moves to bust out during the dread moment when polite family discussions suddenly veer into the octagon of politics—that time Uncle Rudy spouts off about the place of women or minorities or homosexuals.


Yes, the true reality of Thanksgiving is not the glaze that lies on the surface of the ham but the meat that once belonged to a pig raised in the squalor of confinement—a poor animal living with the fact of death, the stench of suffering, the odor of sitting in your own poop waiting to be taken to the slaughterhouse.  So with this in mind, here is the exercise:

Instead of thinking about what your character is grateful for—her accomplishments, her aspirations, her desires–think about what she loathes, what she absolutely detests.  What sends her off the cliff?  What makes her nervous system fill with the adrenaline of dread?  What makes her hand itchy enough to grab grandma’s wedding cutlery and stick it in the ever-loving eye of Uncle Rupert–that first class child molester and blowhard–whose fact of existence is a blight on humanity?


Start off with a list of grievances that are as sweet as frosting and as refreshing as peppermint candy canes.  Build it out into a ginger bread house of anxieties, of resentments, of traumas, of secret-hurts.  Then finish it off with the ideal revenge fantasy—the witch pushed into the oven screaming in agonizing pain as her skin burns to a charred crisp and her eyeballs pop out of the sockets of her head.


Let’s make this point absolutely clear:  This is not a sadomasochistic exercise.  This is not my condoning violence.  And no, you should not maim nor kill nor bludgeon those strangers you call “relatives.”

Rather, this is fundamentally an exercise in negative space—an exercise that defines a picture by what it is not.  In doing so, we are able to understand what is really inside the inside of the picture of your story:  the characters, the situation, the plot.  And as such, it allows us to see things in an entirely different light that challenges the ways we are compelled to see.

Why?  Because we WANT to see things as we WISH to see things.  And we WISH to see things as other people tell us we MUST see things.  We are all Pavlov’s dogs licking at the plate after the dinner bell has rung.

As a result, we often default into a list of empty desires, of echoing tin-can-cookie-cutter platitudes that we kick around.  But answer me honestly:  Who hasn’t wanted to confront an abuser, to flip over the dinner table, to storm out of the room and come back with a semiautomatic blazing cold hot lead into the hearts and souls of the so-called “friends and family” who have wronged them?

Not me.  I’m a veritable angel.  And I am grateful that I am alive and not in jail.  But YOU…I know I’m not as sick and twisted as YOU.  YOU are capable of anything.

Accidental Tourist: Friday the 13th in a Foreign Country

Yesterday was Friday the 13th in the United States but I missed that jinx of a day and—get this—didn’t miss it:  I took an international flight and lost a day.

(By the way:  if you have never taken Asiana Airlines, I highly recommend it:  amazing food and super service in an upscale setting.  I watched three classic films that I swore that I had seen—but didn’t–in that day that I jettisoned:  “From Here to Eternity,” “The Big Country,” “To Catch a Thief”—all the while double fisting as much free liquor as I could handle.  There was a festive mood on the plane as a piece of our life went down the drain:  you see—the plane was at 80% capacity and just about everybody around me got to stretch out like homeless people on a park bench.)


I’m in Seoul, Korea—the birthplace of my wonderful wife, the heartland of Korean culture, a mega-city that is the turbo-charged engine that has turned a war-torn nation into the 13th largest economy in the world.  I count myself lucky:  I am on a 3 week vacation and somehow beat jetlag.

I’m unlucky because I arrived just in time for a funeral:  my wife’s aunt—a woman struggling with cancer—took a turn for the worse, lapsed into a coma, and was dead the day after I arrived.  We got a phone call at the family house within an hour of arrival—just moments after dinner and within a few hours of midnight.

If all you knew of Korea was the TV show MASH, you would be shocked by its modernity!

If all you knew of Korea was the TV show MASH, you would be shocked by its modernity!

My wife counts herself lucky:  she was able to say goodbye at the hospital only a few hours after we arrived, and the next day was the funeral service—the start of a three day mourning ritual that Korean Catholics observe.  She would have dropped everything to attend the funeral—despite the expense and crimp to her work schedule—but that would still mean that she would not get their on time for all the events.  So, she not only saved money and gained convenience, she also got to participate in the family ritual of grieving.

The day that was lost was also the day of the terrorist attack in Paris—the attack that left well over a hundred dead and a city under Marshall law.  If I had stayed in the United States, that day would have been Freaky Friday—a portentous day filled with dread significance—but it was just a run-of-the-mill crazy day, overshadowed by the preparations for a funeral:  the background noise of mayhem on the flat television screen.

Paris Attack

I counted myself lucky:  I packed a black pinstripe suit and a very fancy black overcoat; my socks were black; my wingtips were black; and my belt, yes–black.  So I was ready for a funeral.  Somewhere—perhaps in that book The Accidental Tourist–I once read that you should always pack a dark suit, just in case you might need it.  And throughout that time on the plane (I was wearing my suit), I wondered if I really needed it—if I had overpacked.

My wife was not so lucky:  she had nothing appropriate for a funeral but she had family and she borrowed something dark and, fittingly, somber for the occasion.

A Korean Catholic funeral gave me the opportunity to pretend that I was an anthropologist—a special wrinkle in tourism.  Many moons ago, I actually wrote my dissertation on funerals and death rituals, so I could bring a certain practiced eye to the occasion.  And I could see that the Catholic funeral was a classic act of syncretism—the fusing of Western and Eastern traditions.  You could see the elements of Confucian ancestor worship in the white chrysanthemums; the emphasis on the portrait of the mother, carried by the eldest son at the head of the procession; the kowtow that many of the guests performed in front of the altar.

White Chrysanthemums are the dominant flower in any Asian funeral.

White Chrysanthemums are the dominant flower in any Asian funeral.

Koreans eat and drink during a funeral.  Everybody gets liquored up and the event lasts well into the night—a far cry from the somber quality of the Protestant funerals I grew up with.  I had two beers and was amazed by the ways the church staff turned the tables over with such efficiency.  I could get used to beers at funerals.

I became a bit obsessed with this picture—the picture of an embroidered bird on a banner, flanking Chinese characters:  “Sincere Mourning.”  It looked like it should have been a Phoenix at some point—that bird of rebirth—but the phoenix is a heathen creature of fire.  And my theory is that this image needed to survive in some form and was transformed into a run-of-the-mill peacock with a long tail that ends in those tell-tale eyes.  Can you see the phoenix?

Do you see a phoenix or a peacock?

Do you see a phoenix or a peacock?

We were escorted back from the funeral by my wife’s father, who had been up all night yesterday and would be up all night again; he was going to go home for a power nap; then, he would go back for another all-nighter, followed by another—the cremation, the next day.  He was so tired that we did a Chinese fire drill on the freeway and I ended up driving through the inky night—fording the many bridges and tunnels in this city filled with black rivers.

Korean Rotisserie Chicken

Rotisserie chickens in Korea are super-small, more like Cornish Game Hens that have been hitting the gym.

I decided to take a long walk in the evening—to let the chill of the Fall night air fall on my skin.  It was nice to be in the city–toute seule, as the French would say– and I bought myself an impromptu walking-dinner: rotisserie chicken, some rolls and a bottle of wine.  The nice old man at the convenience store gave me a freebie carton of ice coffee.

“Throw it away,” said my wife.  “Why would anybody give you anything for free?”

The next morning I realized why:  The date on the carton was 11/14.  There were only a few hours left before that carton was about to expire, so he was giving me those hours so they could be useful to me.  I guess he figured they were to be of no use to him at the stroke of midnight.

Carton Coffee

Grand Central Market: A Chase Scene

One of my ambitions in writing this mystery novel is to pay tribute to the city that I grew up in—a city that takes all comers and lets them reinvent themselves.  One day you can be some outcast nothing in a bible belt town and the next, you are ensconced in a rat-infested Hollywood apartment living your life as a bleach blond and working out your true passion in the world of underground bondage films.

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And this is because the city has always been a zone for cast-off humans that are refurbished and polished like vintage chrome.  The city is all about its own reinvention—a place where nothing is true unless their is a press release.  This is a city of New Age mystics with really great head shots and bleached teeth from a Beverly Hills dentist working on his third ex-wife.

One of the venues in which I wanted to memorialize my town is Grand Central market—a bustling indoor market that has been in Los Angeles for what feels like a thousand years.  I imagined a chase scene through the arcades and the neon signs—the bustling crowds of Mexican women shoppers with their mesh shopping bags—the cooks in their stained white smocks—the fruit stands with their too-ripe bananas—the spice vendors with their neat display cases of chilis and their wall of canned goods.


The suspect is always just ahead, entering from Broadway to exit by Hill:  his silhouette backlit like a specter journeying to the other side to meet his maker…or a get-away car driven by a woman in a wig and black sunglasses.

The reasons for this choice are not entirely benevolent:  there are so many opportunities to describe the smells of spices and grease; there are also fantastic opportunities to describe the din, the metal clang, the muffled music of a dozen sound systems slapping up against each other like sweating sumo wrestlers: banda, pop, reggaeton–all that white noise against the sound of the beating of your heart.  This is the stuff of realism, the kind of realism that makes the champagne cork of the detective novel pop.

images chop suey

There is a cinematic quality in Grand Central Market.  I’m not the first to notice it.  Some of the classic movies of Los Angeles have been filmed there–movies like Chinatown, Wolf, Lethal Weapon 4 and The Artist.  The Chop Suey joint with the neon sign and the long bank of bar stools that line its formica countertop—Jack Nickelson ate there.

And this is probably why so many tourists have been drawn like iron files to the magnet.  This wasn’t always the case:  Grand Central market was a run-down place in the middle of what appeared to be an abandoned LA—an LA that at night was like the still of a zombie apocalypse.  There were the artists who emerged from their jury-rigged lofts like postapocaylptic mole people to avail themselves of the cheap produce.  There were also Latinos of all stripes—Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans—who turned the venerable market into a place that looked like something from their homeland where such markets are common.

All that has changed, though.  The market is undergoing a process of rapid change—some might call it gentrification—and almost all of the old businesses, except those in the core of the market, have fallen to newer fancier businesses serving a much more well-heeled clientele.  Organic butchers, Pressed Juices, French confectioners—these are now the order of the day.


One of the biggest of these upstart newbies is Eggslut—one of those joints that serve up egg sandwiches for breakfast-all-day.  Eggslut started as that uber-trendy enterprise, a gourmet food truck—the brain child of classically trained chefs who source only local and organic.  They don’t serve bread; they serve brioche; the line, which is long and snaking, is filled with well-coiffed foodies fiddling on their iphones and they wait; wait they do, for well over an hour.

The sanitation of Grand Central market has leapt upwards like a frog reaching to catch a dragonfly.  Now, there are attendants in blue polos and khakis, armed with spray balls and rags and walkie-talkies.  The nonexistent security staff is now beefed up with beefy you men who man the security desk that was always there but always empty.

The typical Eggslut customer is a far cry from the typical pupuseria customer!

The typical Eggslut customer is a far cry from the typical pupuseria customer!

I’m not here to lament about gentrification.  I’m not going to go after that sitting duck, the hipster, who is easy pickings with enough buck shot.  I’m not here to get nostalgic either, because cities like Los Angeles are engaged in constant acts of reinvention—dying their hair some outlandish color and twerking their way down a red carpet in hooker heels:  even their nostalgia is something entirely fake—tinsel and cubic zirconia.

No, I’m thinking about these things because the changes in Grand Central Market present less a political problem and more a formal problem.  How do you chase after a chase scene when the venue has changed so much that it is no longer recognizable either to you or to anyone else?  How to write about something in a process of rapid transformation but, still, thinks of itself as the gritty grimy place of an authentic LA that never was and never has been?

The Missing Picture–Available Again on Netflix

One of the great advances in this age of the internet is the fact that we have so many more things at our fingertips—movies, books, television shows. I feel like an old fogey pointing this out…but back in my day, if you missed a movie, gosh darn it, you were ass-out.  You missed it.

That feeling of urgency—that feeling of your heart beating in your ear drum—as you run to the theater to make it in the nick of time is a thing of the past, not something that little kids can ever feel today. But sometimes I recapture the thrill of that old-timey feeling when I try to catch foreign flicks, especially obscure ones that play in art houses.

For instance, last year, the movie “The Missing Picture” by the Cambodian-French director Rithy Panh was showing across town at the NuArt Theatre for a limited engagement.  It was the only movie theater in the city showing it.   And to boot:  it was critically acclaimed.  I really wanted to see it in the way that young boys burn with the desire to see Star Wars. All my friends were talking about making an occasion of it. But I got a little lazy.  I didn’t want to drive across town.  I didn’t get the timing right and before I knew it, the movie had vanished into thin air.


Now, the movie is on Netflix and I have a second chance and, yes, I highly recommend it. For those who don’t know: “The Missing Picture” won the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge—the Communist party lead by its bloody dictator Pol Pot.

So let me quickly get you up to speed on history:  Under the Khmer Rouge, a radical campaign against anything Western was waged. To the revolutionaries that had recently rid the country of French occupation, the West was seen as a defilement, a form of pollution. Anybody with even the slightest traces of decadent Western influence could be put to death.  If you wore glasses, if you carried a pen in their pocket, if you owned a book, you could very likely be killed.

All manner of people were killed for big and small reasons that seem capricious and tyrannical by today’s standards. Writers were killed.  Teachers were killed.  Movie directors were killed–and an entire industry that employed actors, costumers, sound men, was wiped of the emerald landscape of this Southeast Asian country.

Skulls at Sang Prison

Skulls at Sang Prison

If you’ve seen the movie, “The Killing Fields”–a movie that follows the story of a journalist–than you might be familiar with the grisly turn of events, which resulted in mass genocide. “The Missing Picture” stands in counterpoint to such a movie, because it is less concerned about documentation and more obsessed with philosophical questions, like the fallibility of memory and the meaning of loss and the slipperiness of realistic representation.

The title—“The Missing Picture”—is about the absence in all representation. The actual French title points to this obsession more strongly: —“L’image Manquante” means “frustrated” and “lacking,” not just simply missing.

The look of the film is that of Claymation—but crudely done Claymation that makes the characters look like the grotesques of outsider art–artists like Grandma Moses and Henri Rousseau.  These Claymations appear up and against archival Cambodian movie footage (what remains of it) that forms the backdrop in a way that looks like a collage. Over all this, hovers the voice of an actor who stands in for the director—a director who remembers his childhood under the murderous regime.  Tellingly, the director chooses to represent his own speech with a broken accent.


In other words, this is the kind of art that is not about illusions of traditional cinema:  illusions that suck you into a world whose artifice appears real—a world about seamless transitions and a sense of dimension that comes from technically sophisticated clay modeling. No, this is an art that is deliberately flat. In the scenes, there are even props—a car, for instance–that are simply cardboard cut-outs that caricature automobile shapes.  There is something wonderfully mismatched and jarring about these juxtapositions.

The crudeness of the image—an image which is literally lost, missing, broken—is also an image produced with care. The thing we know about Claymation is that it takes forever to produce—much longer than a flickering image that is captured on celluloid. And the genius stroke of “The Missing Image” is that the care that is taken in bringing back that which is lost pays homage to the preciousness of what is gone.


So, I’m glad that I had a reprieve. You should check it out on Netflix, because Neflix often changes its rotation and soon “The Missing Piece” will go…well…missing.

Happy Dia de los Muertos!

Halloween is upon us.  So is Day of the Dead.. And I planned to take some time off from the blog and traipse around the city with a costume on…but then I saw something that stopped me dead in my tracks—a piece of civic art used to beautify my neighborhood, which is a rapidly gentrifying zone with rising property values.  Yes, Highland Park is getting a make-over and this is only one of several utility boxes that are getting painted.

Utility Box

My neighborhood is one of those areas that really gets into Halloween, not only because it’s a big holiday for kids, but also because it falls almost at the same time as Day of the Dead, that Mexican celebration where people tend graves and commune with their ancestors.  It’s the time when you make an altar, light candles, and decorate sugar skulls.  Can you see the Day of the Dead imagery on the Virgin of Guadalupe? Yeah, I think that was intentional.

Sugar Skulls

Dia de los Muertos takes place over a stretch of time but it’s highpoint is November 1, the day after Halloween–a totally festive moment.  You might recognize the Day of the Dead by the proliferation of advertisements that cater to a growing Latino population:  painted skeletons that owe a deep debt to the art of the iconic printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada.


The music starts pumping in my neighborhood at this time of year.  This makes sense because my neighborhood has a predominantly Mexican demographic.  And so Day of the Dead is a time when two occasions overlap–occasions that are almost-but-not-quite the same—occasions that allow you to position yourself up and against the mainstream without necessarily betraying your roots.

Moments like this are rare opportunities.  But it it also brings its own can of worms.

How do you integrate elements of the larger culture?  How do you maintain connections to the past?  How do you use these traditions without exploiting them—turning them into a Coca Cola ad?  And how do you return to a tradition without betraying it?  It’s trickier than you think.

People sell all sorts of stuff with Day of the Dead!

People sell all sorts of stuff with Day of the Dead!

The utility box that was being painted was a civic beautification project that is happening all over LA—a form of graffiti abatement.  And on this box, the two artists were painting scenes of Aztec coolness they had downloaded from the internet—images of a proud indigenous past.  There was a buff Aztec warrior with a head-dress.  There was one image, even, of the Virgin Mary as a skeleton, surrounded by imagery taken from Aztec codices.

FullSizeRender (2)

This is a detail. There’s always a pure virgin that must be sacrificed to the Gods.

A codex is a record of pe-Columbian civilizations.  They were produced by Spanish priests who recorded the traditions before they came to disappear.  So, they are incredibly valuable because these documents are sometimes the only authoritative record of a language, literature, aesthetic–a whole worldview–that was interrupted by conquest.


Many young Chicano artists return to the codices, not by visiting the archive of a museum, but by downloading them through a digital culture that has sampled, distorted, shifted them.  In fact, there is a utility box just a few blocks up York Boulevard–the “hipster strip”– that simply transcribes pages from a codex.

But if you downland images, everybody knows this:  the colors are not the same and neither is the context…because you see, this imagery is not the imagery of the conquered.  It is the imagery of the conqueror—the map of the things that the B-52 bomber that flies overhead will destroy in a blaze of glory.

Even if you were to travel to the museums that now house these codices, you could never entirely return to the image as it is.  Rather, you would return to an image as transcribed by the hand of a priest.  In that act of transcription is a hundred swirling things lost that surround the image like a halo.


The art on the utility boxes were just as much inspired by the Chicano Arts Power Movement murals–murals that have a long history in my area.  From the 1970’s onward, Highland Park became a stronghold of Chicano arts and politics.  And some of the great muralists–many of whom tried to recapture Aztec pride–reached into the well of indigenous Mexico.

So, the young artists who were working on the piece were doing work that was in conversation with this great tradition—this tradition of Chicano Pride that was also in conversation with the fountainhead of a grand indigenous tradition.  But the trickiness comes in the ways the imagery work–the aesthetic, the worldview, the agenda that they promote.  Put crudely:  Is your re-rendering of a lost tradition a weapon of the people?  Or is it a weapon to be used against the people?  Is it a B-52 bomber or a molotov cocktail?

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You could read their painting one way:  that it is about ethnic pride, of heritage. But you could also read it in another more cynical way:  their imagery was attractive to City Hall because it paid lip service to a grand tradition but, also, because it raised property values for the upper class home-buyers that are rapidly changing the barrio and displacing Mexican families from the neighborhood.

I thought about this as I got home to put on my Halloween Costume.  Will Day of the Dead become just another capitalist holiday–a tool of the man?  Will it become used to hock High Fructose Corn Syrup to young children?  Is dressing up as a Day of the Dead skull on Halloween a commercialization of the tradition or is it a meaningful act of remembrance that builds on tradition and renews it?  I don’t know.  It’s food for thought–something to put up on the altar of the mind.

In any case, I do know this:  Happy Day of the Dead!  May you remember your ancestors–your relatives, your loves, your losses!  May someone remember you as you want to be remembered!  May someone someday light a candle and say your name with joy!


The First International South East Asian Film Festival: November 20-22

To grow up in the United States—a child of a war, a refugee adrift—is to live with a series of question marks that bloom like black roses in a midnight garden:  question marks that, like Russian dolls, only open up to reveal more question marks, which themselves only open up to reveal more question marks, and so on and so forth—each an endless regression like an Escher painting of strangers walking up the down staircase, opening doors and going nowhere.

But wrap your mind around this paradox:  To grow up in the United States—a foreigner—is to not even know that these question marks hover above you, but to know that everybody sees something that makes you different and everybody (everybody but you) has a readymade answer to that question.


To put it in plainer language, it means that there is always a moment when a wild-eyed veteran buttonholes you and asks for absolution for the terrible things he did.  Or it means to suffer through the endless movies—some art, some trash—that turn the Southeast Asian into a cardboard cut-out, a mere shadow-puppet, for the blood-lust fantasies of a popcorn audience whose only desire is to stuff their faces with napalm nightmares.

Thank God I no longer have to live that way.  Thank God the next generation of Southeast Asian immigrants don’t have to either.  And Thank God that the general public doesn’t have to labor under the illusions that trap us within the crawl space of stereotype.  Why?

In the past decade, we have seen a renaissance of artistic production by Southeast Asians that addresses our condition outside of the confines of mass-market big-ticket rat-a-tat-tat film.  And for the first time, a film festival dedicated to Southeast Asians has made its appearance at a major city and a major venue.  San Francisco—that city by the Bay that links East with West–will play host to the first ever film festival of cinematic artists.  And there is no doubt in my mind that they will seek to dispel that question mark hovering over their collective heads on their own terms.

San Francisco, CA, USA

The South East Asian Film Festival–happening between November 20-22, 2015–commemorates the 40 year anniversary of US military involvement in Southeast Asia.  The choice of venue is auspicious; the curation, innovative.  You see, for the first time this event brings together artists from a region now more generally known as Southeast Asia—and positions them as part of a story-telling diaspora that has something to say about the after-images of a war long gone but, still, lived in the body, the spirit, the mind.

The kind of curation is incredibly special, because the way their art is framed makes all the difference.  Let me explain:  Before you might have had a bunch of white guys (and yes, they were all predominantly male and all predominantly white) getting together with vague notions of mayhem and testosterone, producing some kind of Kubrick shoot-em-up about savages in a jungle who all look alike.

Full Metal Jacket

Now, you have an intellectual infrastructure of cultural insiders who bring to the same landscape a different point of view:  artists, curators, professors, intellectuals—a coterie of great minds drawn from the very people who were once puppets of the flickering cinema.  These great minds now are finally thinking, and thinking wonderfully, about what it means to produce high level cinema as real flesh and blood citizens of the world, not figments of imagination.  And no, in their eyes, we all don’t look alike, even if we are still lumped all together under the rubric of war.

Anchoring the show are great artists in the prime of their careers–artists like Apichapong Weerasethakul who has won no less than TWO Cannes Film Festival prizes for TWO different films.  His current effort, Cemetery of Splendour, explores a mysterious sleeping sickness afflicting soldiers in a clinic.  The clinic is built upon a mythic ancient site—a place of hidden questions.


Lesser known artists from lesser known countries are represented, too.  The newcomer Mattie Do contributes Chanthaly—the first Laotian horror flick— that tells the story of a young girl, raised by an overprotective father, who is sequestered at home in the country’s capital.  The story is one of haunting:  a story of a mother sending a message from the afterlife and a girl suddenly forced to act upon the questions that arise from the reemergence of a specter.


There are many movies moving across genres—from horror to drama to documentary—and all of these cutting edge cinematic artists have something special to say.  Why?  Because they bring to the table distinctive voices that don’t fall into the cookie-cutter trap of a wannabe veteran living out celluloid dreams of Viagra manhood.  I think this is ultimately the genius of this watershed event—this heralding of a new era that looks back on an old one: a mythic ancient burial ground in the clinic of the mind.  After all, the festival commemorates the 40th anniversary of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia where so many lives were lost.  And perhaps it will exorcise some ghosts and put some lingering questions to rest.

So, if you are in San Francisco on November 20-22, 2015—or if you know someone in San Francisco during that period—I highly recommend this event.  To learn more, check out the website:

Film Festival

Gotham: The Best Reboot of Any Comic Book Franchise

I have a terrible late night compulsion:  binge-watching television shows.  This is made worse because, like the Federal Government, I regulate myself by cutting off cable like the flow of cocaine across the Mexican border.  And like a common criminal with a switchblade and a ski mask, I find ways to get around the policies that keep the streets of my mind clean.

Gotham is my latest obsession—a television series that reprises Batman, telling an origin story of the making of a young Bruce Wayne.  In this world, the young man is still a lump of clay, searching for a way to triage the hurt of his parent’s alleyway execution-robbery in the mean streets of Gotham City.


There have been other shows that have covered similar ground.  Superman has his Smallville and it is nothing more than an opportunity to show some pretty-boy actor-model with his shirt off as often as possible.  And this is the limitation of these kinds of shows, which feel like tribute concerts performed by a cover band—you’re into it because you’re into the band but, really, there is no originality and you are left feeling empty inside even if you are among the thousands in the audience lifting your lighter into the air.

What distinguishes Gotham is the fact that the focus is less on Bruce Wayne and more on the backstories of all the arch-villains—arch-villains that have yet to become arch-villains–that will some day form a part of the classic Batman pantheon.  There is Poison Ivy, a young girl whose father is framed for murder.  There is Cat Girl, a street urchin with a rebellious streak and acrobatic acumen.  There is the Riddler, a socially inept lab technician in the crime unit of Gotham P.D. driven to madness by his inability to get laid.


There are many more—too many to list.  Some of them appear casually without fanfare and you have to pause the screen and scroll backwards when you realize that this nobody will become somebody some day.  You see, these characters have yet to take up their fantastical names and their flashy costumes and this—this is the genius of the show:  Gotham catches these characters at an early stage in their development and turns them from mere caricatures to fully rounded antiheros with motivations that move beyond good and evil.

The best of these characters is Penguin, whom I never really cared for, mainly because I just didn’t understand what his special power and what his particular brand of viciousness was.  I first was introduced to Penguin in the television Batman series when he was already a dandy in a top hat with henchmen.  There he was a comedic character bent on mayhem—one of many characters who already had a strong following and so needed very little explanation as to why’s and wherefore’s.


But Penguin is now the star villain of the show with a mommy complex—an immigrant who Anglicizes his vaguely Eastern European name and attempts to compensate for his outsider status by dressing in the not-quite-right-hyper-formality of the late Victorian era:  silk ties that are better referred to as cravats and gentlemanly accoutrements that confer the dignity of a station to one who has slim to none.

Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, AKA Penguin, is the real reason I am continuing to watch now that the feverish bingewatching has given way to the rhythyms of weekly expectation.  He is played by Robin Taylor, a nice Midwesterner from Iowa, who has somehow found that sweet spot between villainous and human.  Cobblepot is a nobody who rose through the ranks of Gotham’s organized crime by being a kiss-up and toady.  The umbrella that is his trademark is one that he holds for his bosses—one that he makes into his very own.  Cobblepot is a turn-coat whose status as an underling has allowed him to intuitively understand the vanities and the weaknesses, the lusts and the pridefulness that motivate his enemy-friends…and then he turns these points of weakness against them like the finely honed pen knife that he keeps in his breast pocket.

I was so amazed by the development of the Penguin character and the execution of his persona by Robin Taylor, the gifted young actor who plays him, that I decided to watch Tim Burton’s second installation of the cinematic Batman series, which features the actor Danny DeVito in that role.  And let me just say that it was nothing.  I could hardly stay awake.  And this has everything to do with genre:  DeVito’s Penguin is a figure of allegory—a purely symbolic monster meant to signal all the wrongness in the world.  But allegory does not have the kind of humanity and depth that makes for deep identification.


The true star—the Good Guy—is not the young Bruce Wayne but, in fact, the yet-to-be Commissioner Gordon, an idealistic young detective.  He is brash and naïve and fit as a fiddle in his straight-laced body-hugging suits.  And Penguin and he are not the oil-and-vinegar of the common hero-villain pairing.  Rather, Penguin appears to have a latent homosexual attraction to the young Gordon and fawns over him, manipulates him.  He works to help the detective get what he needs and they have still yet to make a decisive break.


The feel of the television show channels the spirit of the detective novel—that feeling of the hardboiled, the noir.  And the world of the precinct is the brain center of the story—a world of crooked cops on the take and politicians with their hands in the cookie jar.  And this is one of the genius flourishes of this iteration of the Batman franchise, mainly because Batman returns to that world that we have forgotten first breathed life into him.  Above all else, Batman when it first appeared was deeply indebted to the pulp world of the Detective genre.

Batman first made his appearance in Detective Comics #27.  And ultimately what first moved the narrative was a crime story—an unsolved mystery.  Batman is a narrative of thwarted ratiocination that moves into the netherworld of revenge.


In this second season, the major thrust of the story arrives in the form of a villain who, for all appearances, is a good guy.  Galivan—whose name plays with the idea of a bird of prey (Gavilan) and a knight in shining armor (Galan)—is a billionaire real estate developer who is thrust into the spotlight when he returns to Gotham and decides to run for mayor.  He has ulterior motives:  he wants to gentrify the city, to raze the old buildings of Gotham and build shiny glass towers.  He also wants to settle an ancient family feud against Bruce Wayne whose family destroyed his own, mutilating his ancestor, erasing his name from the history books and banishing his progeny from the city.

So the rising action of the narrative is a twist of genius because Batman himself is put into a position of profound powerlessness that stands in counterpoint to his established role in the movies as a caped crusader ridding the streets of ski-mask criminals.  Bruce Wayne appears less like a hero and more like a damsel in distress—a figure that must be saved.  He is the one stereotypical figure in the entire narrative.  And this is the amazingness of the show—one that has kept me up late into the night.  You see:  in relegating the traditional hero to this position, Gotham allows all the anti-heroes to suddenly achieve the flicker of light and shadow that makes them jump into high relief when they ambush you in the alleyway of your dreams.

Getting Away With Murder: Bike Lanes and Gangland Slayings

Just the other morning, in rush hour traffic near USC, another bicyclist was hit and killed.  Witnesses say the man was making some kind of turn—an awkward one he should not by law perform—which put him smack dab in the way of an approaching vehicle.  But that’s not what killed him.  Rather, an argument broke out; it escalated; the motorist exited the vehicle and slammed the bicyclist to the ground.  Then, he ran him over, dragging him a few blocks…and sped away, anonymous.  The only details that identify him are witness accounts of his car—a white SUV with minor damage on the driver side mirror:  in other words, an everyman car of Los Angeles.


All this happened near Exposition Park at USC:  a park that boasts a beautiful garden and a series of museums and a sports arena.  Exposition Park is in the middle of a slum—an area that used to be called South Central but which recently was renamed “South LA” to soften its association with the Rodney King Riots of 1993—but to local residents any sort of renaming still cannot mask the power of rap lyrics that reinforce its stature as an area of gang activity.  The USC area is a zone of extreme acts of random violence, where it is increasingly the norm that international students, sitting in their car, are gunned down for no apparent reason except that they are sitting ducks.

Exposition Park

For me, though, this kind of violence is about the expansion of the city—of people rubbing up against each other like the steel wool fur of a black cat in dry weather, emitting sparks, shocks.  It is fitting that Exposition Park is the marker of this violence, because it is one of the areas of the city’s wildest, most ambitious expansions.  Exposition Park started off as 160 acres of agricultural fair ground and subsequently hosted two Olympics and two Superbowls.  It is the showground of what the city wants to be and, so in one phase, it was a showcase for the City Beautiful Movement—that grand idea that we can impose a harmonious neoclassical beauty to cities—one made of Greek temples and bas reliefs of hunky young Aryans exercising their modelesque bodies.

Most recently, Exposition Park was the final depository of the decommissioned Space Shuttle Endeavour.  And this was an amazing honor and even more amazing spectacle, especially if you were able to look up at the sky on September 12, 2012 to witness the spacecraft carried through the heavens on the back of a 747.  Of course, the telling fact is that, in order to move the Space Shuttle through the streets, the city had to cut down hundreds of old trees to make room for its wings.  And they planned to do so, not in any of the nicer parts of Los Angeles but South Central.  This, despite the protests of residents who had little say in the matter.


In this light, both the gun violence against international students and the bike violence share a silver strand of connection that brings the public and private together in the labyrinth of revitalization policy:  The gun violence against students—almost all Chinese international students—is a reaction to the aggressive expansion of a mega-rich, privately-funded university outside of its traditional boundaries and into the neighborhood; it is no accident that these execution style killings spiked during a time when the entire perimeter of the campus is surrounded by construction–construction designed to enclose the university population, consolidating living space and retail services so that the gang-ishness of South Central cannot penetrate the bubble of this university in “South LA.”

Already, authorities have erected barriers at the gates of USC–you need to show i.d. to enter the ivory tower–and the locals can no longer traipse around the campus and use it as a shortcut to get from place to place.  It is no accident that the perpetrators have chosen the Chinese:  the newest group of students who arrive with ostentatious signs of wealth—students who are the children of the elite of the elite, who drive late model exotic cars that are sleek as Italian leather purses and which they treat as casually as a white Honda SUV.


But let us press this silver thread of connection further still–a connection between the violence late at night in a car and the violence that broke out in broad daylight on the roads.  Bike lanes, we may recall, are a new phenomenon in the city:  an attempt to make a car centered city into one that consumes less energy, allowing alternative forms of transportation.  “A road diet” is what they call it now, because the bicycle lanes compete in a zero-sum game, taking from the cars that extra bit, and annexing it as their own.

This means that drivers in Los Angeles hate bicyclists and vice versa.  And you could witness this in the comment forums immediately after the death of the bicyclist:  comments that were filled with rage and victim-blaming, comments incapable of thinking of the bicyclist as a human being who didn’t deserve to get, quite literally, dragged through the streets.  Bike lanes are often the sign of invaders—of hipsters, of entitled-assholes-with-no-regard-who-change-the-rules.

Bike Lane

The expansion of the bike lanes goes hand-in-hand with the phenomenon of gentrification:  that process—often quite violent—of the city reinventing its boundaries, its neighborhoods, its constituencies.  The bike lanes are supposed to act in concert with the expanding metro system—the light rails and buses and subways that soon will connect the eastern portions with that holy grail, the beach that sits like a beacon in the West.  And this is probably why the bicyclist was where he was:  near Exposition park where the metro system’s blue line dumps out into a slum that is being carved up into a city.

The Eli Broad Museum–Have We Made It Yet?

The Broad Museum recently opened in downtown Los Angeles—a monumental project that completes the stretch known, appropriately, as Grand Avenue:  a boulevard at the upper-reaches of a downtown that is anchored by a number of super-expensive projects:  Disney Concert Hall, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Colburn School, and the Los Angeles Public Library.

Broad Museum

It’s one of those impressive wonders—one created by some famous cutting-edge architect—and it is the final lego that makes the area a truly walkable stretch where visitors can stroll and dine and get themselves a little bit of culture.

The Broad Museum is the brainchild of Eli Broad, the real estate developer who made a name for himself collecting postmodern art.  And it is a gift to the city that he has changed with his jackhammers and dynamite.

Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly, Jeff Koons, Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg—you can find them all represented in the opening collection.  These are the artists who came into national prominence in the champagne era of the price-inflated 80’s…when art was less about aesthetic value and more a matter of speculation.  This is not to say that this kind of art is not beautiful or interesting but that, for the masses and the one percent, art achieved a value because it cost a shit-ton of money and everybody knew it because money talks and bullshit walks.

Eli Broad

The location of the Broad Museum is fitting.  Grand Avenue sits on Bunker Hill—a corner of the city that saw in its early hey-day some of the grandest Victorian homes in the metropolis–homes when rich people wanted to stay close to the city center.  Bunker HIll was a bunker of the extremely well-to-do, the preserve of the rich–a purely residential area–that slowly became a slum, a place when developers like Eli Broad made this a city of sprawl.

In its decline, LA writers like John Fante could get his first digs in a sub-divided rooming house.  Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe made this dreary outpost of the city center a part of the noir landscape.  And movies exploited the location–a location that was sad by the time it hit its stride into the flop house mid-century–and transformed it into the site of the seedy, the debauched. Bunker Hill was a fleabag poodle with a satin ribbon.

In the middle of the mid-century, Bunker Hill was razed.  And the first of the grand civic projects that would give Grand Avenue its capitalized Grand Name burst like a prima ballerina onto the scene: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Los Angeles Opera House.  Now, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is the grand old dame on the avenue—like a faded beauty in rustling crinolines who sits with a glass of sherry in her parlor reading the obituaries with a magnifying glass.  The opera house was the brainchild of its namesake, the wife of the Los Angeles Times newspaper magnate.  And it was hatched because Los Angeles was still a backwater—a backwater that needed to show it was a world class city among truly worldclass cities.


This is a long way of saying that the city suffered from an inferiority complex.  And this inferiority complex was not unlike the rest of the country’s inferiority complex vis a vis Europe:  America the Beautiful may have come into its own as an industrial complex but it was not a cultural super-power and so it remained still a second class citizen—like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman in her early-hooker-phase (before she becomes a legitimate consort to Richard Gere) who is snubbed by the shop girls in Beverly Hills.  And so these large civic projects, built upon a slippery slope that was demolished, stood on shaky ground:  the first, as well as the most recent civic projects, represented a chest-puffing, chauvinist pride in the city that masked the insecurity of a child who has grown large and swollen and powerful but who still remembers being bullied.

Critics have for the most part panned The Broad Museum.  The curation is still in its infancy and the infant museum has not yet figured out its point of view.  So, it looks very much like the display of a child who shows his very best marbles to his friends on the school yard.  They haven’t begun to ask deeper questions—philosophical questions—like “what exactly is a marble?” or “what will marbles look like in the future?” or “why do some of my marbles look like my other marbles?” or “what value do marbles give us as collectors and lovers of marbles?”


By the time I sidled up in line, I had heard all the snarky reviews by trained professionals on NPR.  And it incensed me.  So, I went to the museum (which is free just like the Met in New York) to vindicate poor Eli Broad, who spent half a lifetime collecting, and a significant portion of his fortune, housing his tribute to a time period that not only saw the rise of great art but also great supermodels.

Unfortunately, I got a terrible case of the runs.  And I found myself scrambling off to the bathroom after a whirlwind tour of the galleries (which were truly magnificent but truly empty of concept) and I found myself in the loo in a stall trying to relieve myself.  And I must say:   this was the best part of the museum.

The bathrooms are excellent—civilized and self-enclosed—no outsiders can peek through cracks.  Each stall is your own for the moment you use it.  And this is the closest the Broad comes to the example of the most civilized nations of Europe.


Clifton’s Cafeteria: Gentrification and Nostalgia

Clifton’s recently reopened after a 4 year remodel—a restoration that was so monumental and meticulous in its attempt to return a shine to the venerable institution—that even at 10 o’clock on the first day of October, a snaking line stretched down the block.  The cafeteria was bought in 2010 by Andrew Meieran, a nightclub owner instrumental in the revitalization of downtown.  His signature style:  taking old buildings, repurposing them, and turning them into high-end bars that revel in old-timey nostalgia.  “Downtown Los Angeles is one of the most intact areas of historic resources and historic structures in the country,” according to the nightlife impresario who sells his cocktails at well over 20 bucks a pop.

Cliftons Vintage Postcard

The 4 year remodel, which was originally supposed to consume just a quarter of that time, arose out of a commitment to preservation.  This is a touchstone of all the publicity that has surrounded the remodel:  the club magnate made a solemn promise to the family that owned the cafeteria not to ravage the place but, rather, to lovingly restore it to its previous glory.  And in his quest for that sweet spot of physical preservation, he kept finding more amazing elements to restore.  The façade was removed only to find an older and better façade.  And on that older and better façade was a neon sign, hidden behind the masonry, that had been shining bright; it had been lit for the past 75 years, continuously; immediately it was promptly installed in the record books and the museum of Neon Art—the longest continually running neon light in history.

Meieran has remained true to his word, at least in terms of the physical plant:  There have been few material changes beyond the fact that the top two levels now have liquor licenses.  Full bars, done up in the 19th Century style, are open for business…and they are the most efficient part of this reboot.  There are subtle tweaks that are understandable:  now a famous chef has updated the traditional fare.  To answer the question of everybody’s mind:  Yes, the prices are what you might expect to pay at a sit-down restaurant, not a cafeteria.  But they still make a point of serving the signature jello.  For a limited time only, you can get the jello at its old-timey prices.

Cliftons jello

Clifton’s Cafeteria was once one of downtown’s mighty anchors and one of its most venerable eating houses—a culinary fixture that rose three stories into the skyline during a time when three stories was the upper limit—anchoring the Jewelry District on bustling Broadway.  This occurred during a moment when the city (a city that still could boast a true center just like every other American city–had not yet succumbed to what would make it a distinctive outlier: its suburban sprawl.

Clifton’s definitely stood out, as tall and imposing as the replica of the grand sequoia tree that grows from its dining room floor.  The motif was National Forest Kitsch; the space, done up like the kind of lodge you might find in Yosemite.  Pseudo-realistic trees were painted onto the walls.  Just to give it that added touch, taxidermy lions and deer and raccoons stood on display, along with a 20 foot waterfall that cascaded through the dining room.  Clifton’s was literally designed as a Cabinet of Curiosities—a wunderkammer—that vestige of the Victorian parlor where old women displayed the amazingness that their sons brought home from explorations.  It even announced this intention in its neon lights.

Clifton Cabinet

All this is to say that the grand old cafeteria was a spectacle in a Barnum and Bailey world—a world where all sorts of nice stuff was suddenly made available to the masses on the cheap.  The cafeteria belonged to a time when engineering marvels could be produced–cookie-cutter–on a massive scale, a world where industrialization meant that economies of scale could generate great profits, with minimal costs and maximal bottom lines.

This was because it had to be:  Clifton’s came into prominence during the height of the Great Depression when people barely had two nickels to rub together.  True enough:  Its owner publicized a humanitarian dimension in the publicity machine of his business model.  You paid what you could, and if you couldn’t pay, you didn’t.  This allowed the business to gain distinction as “The Cafeteria of the Golden Rule.”  But there was a logic to this:  Clifford Clinton, the scion of a restaurant, only sought to average a half penny profit on every head.  And this was an important innovation that would make the beehive of his business hum.  After all, this was a time of soup kitchens—a time that produced that Popeye character Wimpy, the perpetually hungry fatso in the bowler hat whose memorable line was, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a Hamburger today.”


Most people think of Popeye as the most popular character of that comic strip, mainly because they are seduced by the animated cartoons and the movies that followed suit.  But Wimpy claimed that honor when Popeye was distributed purely as a comic strip during the Depression.  His name and his era give away his circumstances:  J. Wellington Wimpy was a character of the upper-crust who had fallen on hard times and his food of choice, the hamburger, was the poor man’s steak.  Wimpy wasn’t a skinflint.  He was just down on his luck.

Press releases for the newly refurbished Clifton’s often trumpet its singularity—its uniqueness—as a testimony to the greatness of a by-gone era.  But the Great Depression saw the rise of many forms of cheap mass entertainment.  The grand old movie theater with its beautiful lights and its million dollar architecture arose during that dreary moment in history.  And it did so precisely because entertainment magnates knew they could turn a heavy profit through economies of scale.  They abandoned the small, dumpy movie houses because it made dollars and cents; they moved forward and developed the cinematic pleasure palaces where multitudes could sit for a pittance and pour their pennies into the cash register.  The earliest of these theaters is still a few blocks up the street from Broadway and all of its cousin theaters—grander and grander—have fallen upon hard times, like J. Wellington Wimpy, along the avenue.  They are now the sites of Evangelical meetings that service large Latino congregations.

Downtown Theater

We are coming out of a time not dissimilar to the Great Depression—a time wracked by our own Great Recession, where even the upper class has been laid low by free-wheeling circumstance and pitiless fortune.  This is probably why the vogue for the Great Depression is in full-swing everywhere but, especially, in Downtown Los Angeles.  Every bar now is a “speakeasy” and every bartender sports a waxed Snidely Whiplash mustache and a vest and a vintage pocket watch.

Homely fare like Pickled Eggs are all the rage, and they are the specialty of the house in places that feature those dimly-glowing Edison light bulbs in their décor.  In the middle of Skid Row, one of the most prominent restaurants of revitalization set up shop.  It is called the Nickel Diner—a place that channels that nostalgia for a simpler time when we were poor, a time when even a plug nickel could buy J. Wellington Wimpy a burger.


But every return to the past is a return with a difference.  We remake all our nostalgia into our own image.  And so those “speakeasy” bars with their Edison bulbs are now places, not of huddled masses, hiding from the law.  They are the stomping grounds where young lawyers and accountants and executives rub shoulders and pony up 25 bucks a cocktail.

And what of Clifton’s?  Will it be any different? Will it manage to preserve everything exactly as it is and should be?  This was the promise of Andrew Meieran, the man who made his money by championing the return to the manly world of mixology.  And I hope that this pans out.

I got a chance to visit Clifton’s the opening night.  And indeed it is an impressive spectacle.  Almost all the patrons were dressed up and, quite often, dressed up in the style of the Roaring Twenties.  Busboys wore suspenders and bowties.  There was a general festive air.

But even though an award-winning executive chef was hired, the food was a bit lackluster.  You were paying twenty bucks—not a nickel–a person.  The only consolation was the drinking area:  the two bars upstairs—the new additions—were doing a brisk business with bearded bartenders in snazzy vests. The drinks looked delicious, if a little bit outside of my price range.  “There will be a large Tiki bar that will debut on the uppermost level on Halloween” one of the bartenders told me–a guy with an amazing man-bun that made him look like an American samurai.  “It’s gonna be real authentic alright.”

I knew then and there that in the long game, there was only one sure path to follow:  Clifton’s Cafeteria would probably pay lip service to its cafeteria past but eventually it would become just another bar.