Monday, July 26, 2010

Christopher Nolan's Early Years

About a decade ago I was tipped off to an odd, inscrutable film by a budding English director living in LA. Christopher Nolan's Memento, which starred Guy Pearce in an ill-fitting pale suit and bleached hair, knocked me out, and I spent an afternoon talking about movies, memory and fragmented narrative with the 30-year old director at his apartment near the LACMA while he played Radiohead's Kid A on a boom box.

I just dug up my old New Times cover story, "Indie Angst," because of Nolan's new film Inception, and part of what's striking is how much a struggle the director went through to get that early film shown. For reasons I have never understood, the company that owns New Times does not keep an online archive for the LA paper, but thanks to the UC Berkeley film archives you can read the story here.

Memento, of course, is one of the most original movies of the last 20 years, with a bizarre structure -- a few minutes of exposition, then a violent jump back to a previous sequence -- that should not have worked but somehow did.

Nolan talked about how the novel had spent more than a half century messing with chronology -- he was especially interested in Graham Swift's Waterland -- and discussed Harold Pinter and his interest in noir writers like Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson and James Ellroy.

"The only useful definition of narrative I've ever heard," Nolan told me, "is 'the controlled release of information.' And these novelists and playwrights -- they're not feeling any responsibility to make that release on a chronological basis. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that we don't feel that responsibility in day-to-day life."

Of all the filmmakers I interviewed during my years at New Times -- Labute, Linklater, Solondz, Spike Jonze, Kevin Smith, the Blair Witch guys -- Nolan was among the smartest, the most sure of himself, and the last one I would have expected would be making blockbuster movies.

Nolan's lean, mean, Hitchcock-inspired debut, Following, was made with borrowed equipment from his British university and almost no money. "For me it's very satisfying filmmaking, because the only sacrifices are practical ones. The filmmaking process in my head, the imaginative process, was identical to making a film for millions of dollars. When I made a film with a bigger budget, I realized it's the same thing. You've just got more trucks."

One thing I don't recall discussing with Nolan, by the way, was comic books.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Villainous New Role for Ian McShane

IT was a real blast to meet Ian McShane recently to talk about his acting career, growing up in Manchester the son of a Man U player, and his new role as a scheming 12th century bishop on the miniseries "The Pillars of the Earth." Here is my interview for the LA Times.

Pillars does not compare to Deadwood, the program from which McShane is best known to Americans for his foul-mouthed saloon-keeper Al Swearengen, but it has its moments, and goes up on Starz Friday.

Monday, July 19, 2010

She & Him vs. The Swell Season at the Hollywood Bowl

Because seasonal change tends to be pretty subtle in Southern California, summer doesn't officially begin for me until the first show at the Hollywood Bowl. Last night's performance was dedicated to retro-minded guy-girl duos: The Bird and the Bee, She & Him, and the Swell Season. The evening, at the end of what was by far the hottest weekend of the year, was very fine without being especially surprising.

The opening band at Bowl shows has to perform while it's still quite light out, and somehow hard to sink into the performance. The Bird and the Bee played with spirit, but it didn't make much impression despite tuneful songs and some hot dancers. (I have not really forgiven them for dedicating an entire album to Hall and Oates and kicking off that hipster revival. Though their cover of "Sarah Smile" -- a song my wife Sara was tormented with as a kid -- was not bad.)

Similar but with more impact was She & Him. As much as I want to like the indie-minded, John Fahey-loving, integrity-rich M. Ward, his records are just, with a few exceptions, too introspective for me. But when he becomes Matt Ward and plays with actress Zooey Deschanel, it's light, frothy and winning -- retaining some of his vintage cool -- and last night was better than the pretty decent LPs led me to expect.

The played songs like NRBQ's "Ridin' in My Car," the bouncy "In the Sun," "Change is Hard," and a smokin' cover of Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me." Ward played acoustic guitar as well as what looked like a '50s Gretsch (with a whammy bar) but which turns out to be a Gibson Johnny A model -- he really made it sing and was far more fun than you'd expect from his dour photos. But the show was more about Zooey's voice and stage presence.

The rockabilly "Roll Over Beethoven" and a torchy "I Put a Spell on You," which concluded their set, may've been the best thing they played.

(She & Him came together when the two adapted Richard and Linda Thompson's "When I Get to the Border," which is here on youtube.)

I'd expected She & Him's lightly ironic, stylized trip into the past to the eve's highlight, but The Swell Season, the Irish-Czech duo from the movie "Once," won me over.

First, a question: Why is so much Celtic rock so bombastic, and why do the most ironic people in the world write and sing songs that are so deadly earnest? (I ask this as someone who is half Irish and spend a lot of time looking for contemporary Gaelic music that is not embarrassing.) There were moments of Celtic bombast in last night's set, but only a few. Glen Hansard, the former busker whose band, The Frames, interests me not at all, is either the most sincere successful musician in the world or the best actor-singer the world has ever known. He knocked me out.

Part of what I like about the group is its dedication to the folk repertoire; Hansard sang a Tim Buckley song with a Jeff Buckley bridge and made both work. Strumming a battered acoustic guitar with a hole in its top, he sang, with ex Marketa Irglova singing harmony and sometimes accompanying on piano. (The one song she sang more or less solo was beautiful.) You've seen the movie, you know what they do, and you know his bashful charm and ability to summon a mix of early Marvin Gaye and early Van Morrison.

Good music is often a mystery, but I am still amazed: How many times did I hear Van's "Into the Mystic" in college, out the windows of dorm rooms, in candle-lit co-ed's rooms, and played at parties by hippie bands -- and yet The Swell Season and its horn section made me feel I was hearing it for the first time.

Photo: She & Him

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Wide World of David Mitchell

If there's a more inventive, most linguistically alive mid-career writer than David Mitchell, I've not read him. Best known as the author of the century-jumping, continent-hopping cult novel Cloud Atlas, he'll be appearing at Skylight Books on July 23 to read from his new novel, set mostly in the late 18th c., The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

I was able to speak to the English-born, Japan-obsessed, Ireland-dwelling novelist for my first LA Weekly pieceStruggling artists take heart: During the early '90s recession, Mitchell was not able to land a fast food job.  "I got known as the guy who couldn't make the grade at McDonald's," Mitchell told me. "If you had that to deal with, maybe you'd go off to Japan, too."

Mitchell talked to me about Japan, the best and worst qualities of Philip K. Dick, the meaning of the word "literary," his love of the Talking Heads, and other subjects.

I reached the author as he was getting ready for a "tidy towns competition" in his rural stretch of the Cork coastline, which he described as being about "well-cut flower beds and cleanly cut grass." I got the sense of someone who was modest and deeply internal, who lives mostly in his head and puts the rest of his energy into his family. The stutter he had as a kid drove him inward.

Here he is on genre fiction: "Genre is a possibly underused but perfectly valid range of tints and shades and textures in the narrative paintbox. Use them as you wish. It's good because they bring along their own baggage, their own sense of expectation, their own cliches. You need to tweak them a bit. Inside every old chestnut of cliche you find a kernel of originality there."

On Philip K. Dick: "Fantastic ideas man, but his prose... you really have to wade through it. But what a mind -- there are only one or two of him a century. To come up with the idea for The Man in the High Castle," in which the Germans and Japanese win World War II and carve up the U.S., "is good enough. Then you've got a science-fiction writer writing a book in which the Allies win the war -- that's the Philip Dick touch. It makes me green with envy."

And on taste in music as a kid, some of which is chronicled in the bittersweet coming-of-age novel Black Swan Green: "Narrative pop music, really, which was really uncool. Rush. And I was into Yes. I'll argue that the cool-uncool thing is a circular spectrum that doubles back on itself." 

As for Rush: "They play with such aplomb, with such indifference to rockstar cliche... If you are referring to Coleridge in a pop song and singing in a high falsetto -- I don't think that's uncool."

More in this week's LA Weekly.

Monday, July 12, 2010

California Vs. The Great Plains

The writer and urbanist Joel Kotkin has a fascinating piece in a recent Newsweek called "The Great Great Plains," which looks at the way cities like Fargo and Bismarck -- as well as most of Texas -- are booming while much of the rest of the country languishes in a dead economy.

It got us here at the Misread City wondering: What are Omaha and Dallas doing right that Los Angeles and other West Coast cities are doing wrong? And why can't the great state of California keep up with... North Dakota?

I'm a longtime admirer of the work of Kotkin, whose latest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. I spoke to him for a New York Times piece about bohemia and the recession, and while I suspect his politics and mine are not always congruent, he's a formidable thinker and reporter. We're happy to have him in a Misread City Q+A.

So in brief, why do the cities of the plains seem to be doing so well?

Basically these cities benefit from being in the heart of the commodity economy that benefits from growing demand from China and India, which are currently the engines of the U.S. economy. They also have good schools, are affordable and reasonably pro business.

Meanwhile, West Coast cities, especially LA, remain in the toilet economically. Given all the dynamism here, Why?

California is committing suicide, at least economically. The extreme 'green' policies are just the latest blow after a series of tax and regulatory burdens that are forcing business to expand elsewhere. We still have some key headquarters - more in north than south - and amazing skills, but the flow is almost all the wrong way. In LA specifically there seems to have been little economic strategy except the notion of green jobs, which is largely hype and every other community is going after. So we end up with solar plants in Arizona manufactured outside the state so we can pay for ever more expensive energy...

The key is that the city council in particular, along with the Mayor, have no notion of how economies work, although they may be writing the book (unconsciously of course) on how to make one not work.

This is not just a tax and regulatory issue. Other places with similar burdens - Boston, NY, Seattle - are not booming but doing better. If it wasn't for Detroit we'd be the big city basket case in the country

How much do California’s woes have to do with the tax-revolt measure Prop. 13?

Prop 13 had several bad effects. First, it centralized decision-making in Sacramento, never a good idea, since it took away property tax revenues. Second, it shifted taxes too much to income, which hurt entrepreneurs, the middle class and investors. It also made the state more liable to wild swings in stock and housing markets. Third, it became an excuse for people, largely on the left, to ignore the larger problems of over-regulation and hostility to business.

Prop 13 went too far and should have been restricted only to residences, with a cap at some level. But as someone who covered it at the time, the establishment (that's including most business) did not have the will to reform a system that was driving people out of their homes.

In other words, lots of blame to go around.

How much longer do you expect West Coast cities will be ailing, and what will it do to our urbanism, our neighborhoods and sense of civic connection?
I am not sure you can put all the western cities in one context. Seattle and Portland have much smaller working class, minority populations and more access to clean energy (hydro mostly). They should transition a bit earlier given their own anti-business instincts.

The Bay Area has a leg up with Silicon Valley and has a more affluent population. San Diego and Orange also have problems but also not as many poor people or workers in distressed industries as LA or the Inland Empire. They will lag US but not as much as LA.

LA has the most diverse economy but needs to keep its traditional linchpins (manufacturing, trade and entertainment) going. Right now hard to see how this happens until there is a major political change.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Ozu's Films vs. Adrian Tomine

It's one of the best and most natural aesthetic marriages imaginable: The nuanced, meditative Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu and the nuanced, meditative comics Adrian Tomine, best known for the Optic Nerve series.

Tomine has designed some covers for Ozu's lesser known films, The Only Son and There Was a FatherHere is more info on the films, which the Criterion Collection will release next week. I love Ozu's films -- especially Tokyo Story and the season films like Late Spring, which date from the late '40s to early '60s -- but must admit I have not yet seen either of these two.

Ozu's films are known for their quiet tone, their emotional poignance, the low setting of the camera and the lack of conventional cutting. Some of them look at the tearing of family and traditional society.

I've written about Tomine -- who grew up in Sacramento and lived in Berkeley for years before a recent move to Brooklyn -- several times; this  is the first and most complete. This week The Misread City spoke to him about the Ozu project.

When did you first discover Ozu’s films, and how did they initially strike you?

When I was in college, my mom gave me a vhs copy of Ozu's film Good Morning, and I liked it quite a bit. I immediately connected with the quotidian subject matter and had a lot of the qualities that I admired in the work of my favorite cartoonists. I think it's a good "gateway" film into Ozu's work because it's got so much genuine cuteness and silliness. If you dive right in with something like Tokyo Story, it can be pretty devastating.

Your job illustrating this project is to capture and create a visual style… What makes these films visually distinctive?

I think a film scholar could answer this with much more sophistication, but from a personal point of view, I feel like Ozu's visual style could be compared to the cartooning style that books like "How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way" are adamant about avoiding. It's like the supposedly boring side view of Dr. Strange walking into a room, as opposed to the "worm's eye view" of him dynamically bursting through the door. In other words, it's clear, straightforward, honest, devoid of flash, and it's absolutely perfect. .

There's also been a lot written about the famous "Ozu shot," but I think that's the kind of thing that works on a completely subconscious'd never ask, "Why are we looking at this shot of laundry flapping in the wind? What does that symbolize?" I think the beauty of those shots is that they make you feel something that's otherwise inexpressible, in a way that's absolutely particular to that piece of film.

There’s a quiet, cerebral and detail-oriented quality that Ozu’s films share with your comics. Do you see that kind of connection?

I'm sure my critics would argue against that kind of connection, but I will say that I've admired Ozu's films for a long time, and I've learned a lot from them.

A few years ago you wrote your first Optic Nerve with an explicitly Japanese-American theme, and you’ve helped to recover the comics of the Japanese artist Tatsumi… Do you think you see and hear Ozu differently because of your Asian roots?

I think so. When I watch an Ozu movie with my wife, I think we're having fairly different experiences. Obviously a lot of the content is universal, but for me there's a strange, surprising feeling of recognition of certain character traits and behavioral tics that I can see in my grandparents, my own parents, and even myself to a degree. Something about just entering into that world is very comforting to me. But maybe this has more to do with Ozu's filmmaking abilities than the simple fact that he was Japanese. There's a huge amount of Japanese art and culture that leaves me as alienated as the next guy.

What’s next from the desk of Adrian Tomine? 

When I got married a few years ago, my bride-to-be forced me to make some kind of "wedding favor" to give away to the guests. This struck me as a particularly bizarre idea, especially since we were already giving them all the food and drink they could ever imagine. Anyway, I think she had in mind a little card or something and I ended up funneling all my pre-nuptial anxiety into the creation of a comic book about the process of getting married. Since then, I've slowly been adding pages when something would occur to me, or if I just needed a break from my more precise, premeditated work. Now I think I've got almost fifty pages of material, so Drawn & Quarterly is going to put it out as a little book. It's loose, joke-y stuff, and for that reason, I thought it would make a nice follow-up to Shortcomings.

I'm also making slow progress on another, more "real" book, which will most likely be serialized in several issues of Optic Nerve before being re-packaged as a "graphic novel." But like I said, progress is moving slowly, especially now that I've got an 8-month-old daughter and I'm constantly running out of my studio to either change a shitty diaper or watch her do something cute.

Art courtesy Adrian Tomine

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Slake Tells LA's Stories

PORN, celebrity, poetry and sharp graphic design: It’s got a little of everything, just like the city it chronicles.

I’D heard enough good things about the new LA-centric quarterly, Slake, to have high hopes for it. But so far, to my initial assessment, Slake – a publication of fiction, art, photography and journalism -- has exceeded he high expectations I had for it.

Part of the reason for my high hopes – and my lack of interest in being “objective” in my assessment -- comes from its founders: Joe Donnelly was very briefly an editor of mine at New Times LA, and Laurie Ochoa was the well-regarded editor of the LA Weekly, to which Joe moved just before New Times went under. (Both were canned by the new owners.)

I expected the journal to include work by Weekly writers – there’s a typically witty, incisive piece here by John Powers on celebrity and crime, “Out Stealing Purses.” And local legend (and current Weekly scribe) Jonathan Gold offers a brilliantly observed piece about sex and the still life in “Fallen Fruit.” I’m looking forward to reading the story “Separation” by novelist Michelle Huneven and the report by Judith Lewis.

But there are surprises here, including a provocative essay (or is it a manifesto, or a piece of fiction?) by House of Leaves author Mark Danielewski, a witty meditation by walking freak Geoff Nicholson, “The Hollywood Pedestrian,” and a striking photo essay by Shannon Donnelly. Slake includes a number of drawings and paintings by Sandow Birk. 

There are also a lot of names I barely know, and there is no clear house style or single vision, though the graphics work together well. (Like LA, you might say, it has no obvious center.) The focus on life in Southern California, on its art and literary scene, feels fresh.

“There’s too much intellectual talent, creative talent, and dynamism in this city not to have something really great to reflect that, to serve as an amplifier,” Joe Donnelly told when he met to discuss Slake with The Misread City. He also wanted to reflect the move of the city's culture to the Eastside.

“In LA, we’re dependant on New York as an intellectual and cultural filter. Having lived long stretches in both cities, I can say that LA is a more interesting place. New York is ossified – it was an awesome 20th century city." Manhattan, he says "is a shopping mall now.”

But LA has had a problem New York doesn’t: Its publications are pieces of out-of-town media chains. Or as Donnelly puts it: “They all suffer from the same problem – outside ownership,” by people who don't quite get the West Coast And they’re all obsessed with celebrity and consumerism: “The bling, the stuff, the how-to-live-this–lifestyle.”

Part of what is heartening about Slake is its commitment to print. It’s full of long pieces of prose – Ochoa has compared their mission to that of the Slow Food movement – and to the kind of graphic design that makes sense only on paper. The visuals, he says, “help take some of the earnestness out of it.”

But Donnelly didn’t want to be like the other literary journals: He thinks of Granta, with its visual austerity, as a little “like cod-liver oil  --  good for you, but hard to digest," and finds McSweeney’s entertaining, "but sometimes its reliance on irony and postmodernism leaves me a little cold. It can feel out of touch with the real world to me." 

Of course, the difficulty of launching a magazine in Los Angeles was well known even before the latest print-media meltdown. And unlike the institutional support enjoyed by Black Clock, which is put out by Cal Arts, an off-the-mainstream publication does not have it easy. So as much as I love Slake and want it to thrive, I wonder about its ability to survive in a ruined economy. (The LATimes estimable media critic James Rainey praises the publication and wonders as well, here.)

Donnelly can’t promise Slake will survive, but he and Ochoa are already working on another one, and hope to get more sponsors on board. (The first issue has a few, including the Hammer Museum and Pasadena’s Europane Bakery, where by coincidence I had an excellent lunch on the 4th.)

 It’ll be a scramble, he says. “But we want to publish books, we want to have an imprint, we want to grow our website but not have it replace this [magazine]. We want to do documentaries – these are the grand ambitions.”

Several Slake contributors -- Gold, Danielewski, Huneven and David Schneider -- will read at Skylight Books this Sunday at 5 pm.

Here’s a tip of the pen from The Misread City to Slake – long may your flag fly.

BREAKING: The retro-minded Los Angeles architect Stephen Kanner has died. Here's an appreciation by Frances Anderton of KCRW's "DnA: Design  and Architecture."