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.

Abbott Kinney: Snapshot of Gentrification

This past weekend, I went to the 31st Annual Venice Festival on Abbott Kinney Boulevard.  For those of you who don’t know, Abbott Kinney is one of the fastest changing parts of Los Angeles, gentrifying  at such warp speed that it only seems like yesterday when you could buy crack on its litter-strewn streets.


Abbott Kinney is named after a tobacco magnate who engineered a plan to build piers during the free-wheeling flapper era–piers that lured city-bound citizens to the honky tonk pleasures of the beaches during the shimmering summers.  These waterworlds were fantastic draws, structures of mass entertainment that later burned down and became forgotten.

The surrounding area, Venice, took on a funky flavor–the stomping ground for beatniks and bums who brought with them an artistic vibe that can only flourish in the freedom of a carnival that has evolved into a slum.  A number of famous artists emerged from the Abbott Kinney scene:  Basquiat and Ruscha, to name just two. Charles and Ray Eames–the visionary architects who transformed post-war building methods–planted a studio on the boulevard at the tail end of the forties.

Musicians flocked to the area:  There is a mural of Jim Morrison on the famous Venice boardwalk.  By the time I was riding my ten speed through the Westside to the beach, Abbott Kinney was the kind of place where you could pass yourself off as just about anybody and  nobody gave “two fucks”:  Perhaps this is why punk bands like Suicidal Tendencies made it a point to play there in the eighties when it became a gangland, a crack zone, a cesspool.

Jim Morrison

To give you some sense of how forgotten this corner of the city was, all you have to do is realize that one of the few sections of Los Angeles available for blacks to live beachside was in the vicinity.  Oakwood–the area set aside for blacks through a process called “redlining”–was a district that arose out of restricted covenants, a practice that meant there were few quality services available to the residents–not schools, not utilities, not libraries.

But chew on this twist in the pretzel that is irony:  it is precisely because of the black presence (their hush-hush neglect) that a coral reef of vibrant tropical fish of all stripes and colors came to flourish:  a certain kind of counterculture bongo-drumming bohemian began to be associated with Abbott Kinney, a cool cat who wore his shades at night and listened to bebop and channeled the swagger of black rage, found himself drawn by the magnetic pull of this side of town, hypnotized by the laid back laissez-faire vibe of its “negro streets.”  Is it any wonder that Alan Ginsberg, Neal Cassidy and Jack Kerouac logged time in the coffee shops of the area?

Now all that has changed:  Google has opened up a campus nearby and the really beautiful sun-kissed people have made this a place where five hundred dollar jeans are the norm.  The surrounding area has been renamed “Silicon Beach” and the corporation has set up a phallanx of security guards–guards who themselves are probably two steps away from the soup kitchen door–to shoo away the transient population who already have both feet planted firmly in the homeless shelter, the free clinic and the food pantry. GQ has conferred upon Abbott Kinney the crown of “coolest block in America” and the civic leaders wear it, like a shimmering diadem, in all the promotional literature.

GQ Anti Gentrification

The transformation is almost complete:  Glencrest Barbecue—one of the old black-owned businesses—has been replaced by an artisanal barbecue joint.  And in a sad, ironic twist of third-stage gentrification: the recent gentrifiers have become displaced (not without some protests and grumbles) to make way for even richer gentrifiers who can afford the stairway-to-heaven rents.  We could see this all around as we walked down the street.  The flagship stores sell the knick knacks of the upstart, start-up creative class:  retro-looking bicycles, succulent plants and cruelty-free footwear.


This is the backdrop of my mystery in downtown Los Angeles, too:  the back story of an area that is being revived to accommodate a large influx of Americans who want to ply their fortunes in the Big City.  And of course, along with this turn of events comes a story of crushed dreams, of brutal paradoxes–the world where even the corn-fed actor from Minneapolis can end up bipolar and homeless, raging on a corner at the injustice of a universe that has colluded against him.  It is a world where aspiring wannabe’s rent out their lofts, and their bodies, to make enough money to buy a 25 dollar martini at the rooftop of one of those schmancy hotels–the ones that boast a view of an ever-changing cubic zirconia skyline.  In short, it is a story fitting for the emergence of a serial killer—the modern day vampire, the bugaboo of progress.

I must be honest:  I was saddened to see the change in Abbott Kinney—a street I’ve biked through as a kid on my way to the beach.  There are almost no black residents at the street fair.  There are Swedish strollers everywhere, like triple decker buses on a diet of carbohydrates and anabolic steriods.  There are yuppie-hippies in their finest boho-chic duds, selling food-concoctions that are now touted as vegan and gluten-free and aryuvedic.

One of the vivid signs of this change came in a drum procession that paraded down the boulevard. “Why the fuck is there a drum circle in the middle of this fair?” muttered one of the passer-by’s. “They’re fucking up the flow of everything.”  Indeed they were, creating bottle-necks as they paused in the middle of the choked avenue, forcing pedestrians to filter through the holes at the edges of their procession.   But truth be told, it wasn’t exactly a drum circle:  It was a group of 30-odd people who were inspired by Northern Brasil, where a black slave population, manacled to the monoculture of the plantation, developed a practice of resistance in the rituals of every day life and manifested it in drumming and dancing.

I was lucky enough to spend a month in that region of Brasil once—a region famous for Capoeira, the martial art that features choreographed “foot fighting.” Capoeira appeared so much like dancing, it fooled the masters who clamped down on all forms of insurrection but could not see that the martial moves were simply a dress-rehearsal for a much-wished-for uprising where even the body–the sole possession of the downtrodden–could be transformed into a weapon.


Northern Brasil—Salvador de Bahia is the city that anchors the region–is also the zone that produced the synchronized drumming that testifies to an unbroken connection to the African percussive tradition—the same drumming that would be featured in a Michael Jackson video, whose lyrics channeled the rage of barely smoldering black anguish:

All I wanna say is they don’t really care about us

All I wanna say is they don’t really care about us

All I wanna say is they don’t really care about us

This is the chorus the pop star sings in front of black drummers in the streets of Pelourinho.  (Pelourinho, the cute diminutive name given to the historic quarter, means Little Pillory; it is where slaves were whipped as part of the spectacle of social order.)

Bahia is also the region that produced the religion of Candomblé—a religion of resistance that fused the Catholic tradition with the religion of Africa:  Candomblé focuses on the worship of African deities–Orixas.  For each African Orixa, there is a major Catholic saint that corresponds.  And in this way, the African religions were allowed to coexist (secretly preserved) without being wiped out.


The drummers wore tank tops that proclaimed  they were drumming in praise of almighty Obatalá—the African Orixa who stands above all others as the sky father:  the father of all the other Orixas, the figure that gave humans their very bodies.  And the drummers were accompanied by women dressed in all-white 19th Century clothing, complete with bustles and turbans, dancing in unison.  These would normally be the black women who served as priestesses in the cult of Candomblé, women who could channel the spirit of the Gods and perform miracles of rare device.


But it was telling to me that all the drummers, except one, were white and all the women—women who danced and swirled to the motions of ecstatic possession–were not black, but a lighter shade of pale.  I felt it said something about the way this area, this microcosm of my city, had turned.  But I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.