Thursday, December 22, 2011

Closing of Laemmle's Sunset 5

IT was one of those places that seemed like it would be there forever. But the Laemmle Sunset 5 -- which always seemed to me the key indie cinema in Los Angeles -- closed last month, largely because of competition from other theaters.

The good news -- or some variation of that -- is that Sundance Cinemas will renovate and reopen the space, and the Laemmle family just opened a seven-screen arthouse on Lankershim in North Hollywood.

HERE is my LA Weekly story on the ups and downs of the local arthouse scene.

I spoke to a number of people, including filmmaker Gregg Araki, dilm critic Bob Koehler and company president Greg Laemmle. One source I didn't have room to include was Rose Kuo, now executive director of Film Society of Lincoln Center, who haunted the theater constantly when she moved to L.A. "I lived near Franklin Avenue  and Gardner so I went to movies there every weekend, sometimes seeing 2 or 3 movies in one day." 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

2011 in Music

IT'S always a bit daunting to have to sum up an entire year's musical output -- even the best of it -- so I'm not gonna try to do that. But I'd like to mention a few unexpected highlights.

First, I'm a surprised as anybody that Chapel Hill's '90s heroes, Archer of Loaf, reunited and managed to fill the Troubadour for not one but two nights. Those guys have not lost a bit of energy from the days of Icky Mettle (which has been reissued.) I'm still not sure how Eric Bachmann bulked up like that.

A record that's crept up on me over the years if Eleanor Friedberger's Last Summer. I don't love everything on it -- and I find myself alternately loving and hating its baroque production -- but it's beguiling at the very least. It'd also, despite EF's Brooklyn origins, an LA record -- "Inn at the Seventh Ray" namechecks not only the famed hippie cafe, but several of my favorite Highland Park hangouts. (I spotted her at my coffee shop there one day.) She also helped Wild Flag with "Beast of Burden" for its Troubadour encore.

The Troubadour show by Sleater-Kinney sequel Wild Flag kicked about as much ass as I expected. But my favorite "new" band -- at least to me -- is Veronica Falls, a British combo that combines noise with melody in a way that reminds me of shoegaze crossed with '60s girl groups.

The first song that grabbed me on their self-titled LP, on Slumberland, is Bad Feeling, but the whole thing is strong and tuneful. If you like the strain that runs from Jesus and Mary Chain through Ride and onward, you'll like these guys.

I saw a lot of good shows this year -- old favorites like Stephen Malkmus at the Music Box and Grant Lee Phillips at Largo, new favorites like LA indie band Army Navy at the Satellite -- but the show that startled and engaged me the most was the reunion of the Jayhawks. This was a show I was told by a music-journalist friend who'd seen them play before that this show would be a snooze.

The Minnesota alt-country gods had spent the last decade or so effectively broken up, so seeing Gary Louris and Mark Olson on the same stage was a thrill from the beginning. But I'm not so die-hard a fan that that was enough, and the new album, Mockingbird Time, had not yet kicked in for me. The show's mix of warmly acoustic instruments, vocal harmonies and electric guitar was absolutely devastating, though, and new songs like "Hide Your Colors" sounded of a piece with '90s Jayhawks classics like "Two Angels" and "Miss Williams' Guitar." Wow. That new record now sounds to me pretty close to Hollywood Town Hall and my favorite of theirs, Tomorrow the Green Grass.

The record that's called to me the most this year has probably been the new Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings LP, The Harrow and the Harvest. (I spent a couple hours with the two this summer -- here is the ensuing story. The duo are also on the cover of the new issue of Acoustic Guitar.)

Quiet, downbeat, delicate and introspective, the record grabbed me first with the songs "Dark Turn of Mind" and "The Way the Story Ends" and didn't let go. (I'm now playing "Down Along the Dixie Line" every morning on guitar.) The album, and the triumphant show at the Music Box, reinforced not only how wonderful their songwriting is, but how intricate and original Rawlings guitar playing is. My only criticism is I want more from these guys. But as the eight-year wait since Soul Journey showed,  you can't rush this stuff.

Our biggest lost opportunity, here on the West Coast, was the chance to see The Feelies, one of my all-time favorite bands, which reconvened this year and played a number of East Coast dates. But they didn't make it out here. That new record, Here Before, may be there best since The Good Earth, the warm, Peter Buck-produced record that dominated my last two high school years. In any case, I keep my fingers crossed for this wonderful band to come to California.

And the musical development I'm most looking forward to is the return of Spain, the classic indie-meets-country-folk band led by Josh Haden that should have a new LP, and more shows, in 2012.

And a happy holiday to all the music fans out there, in Los Angeles and beyond.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Death of the Clerk

TODAY I've got a new story from my Salon series on the demise of the creative class. It looks at the humble store clerk and asks, What does it means that these people -- and the places they work, like Rocket Video, Tower Records, Dutton's Brentwood Books, and so on -- are disappearing?

I spoke to a video store clerk, writers Jonathan Lethem and Dana Gioia, an MIT research scientist and others.

Here is that story.

UPDATE: Here are some late-breaking figures about the decline of creative jobs in Southern California.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Introducing the Best Burger Poll

THE LA Weekly has just announced a sure-to-be-controversial top-10 burgers list. Over here at the Misread City, we can occasionally lift our noses out of Faulkner (you'll see that one next week) and foreign film (next week also) to consume quantities of ground beef and carmelized onions. To inaugurate the poll, here is a short ode to the burger written by Wendy Fonarow, a UCLA-trained anthropologist, LA native, and longtime friend of the Misread City. 

Don't forget to vote.

Here she is:  

As an anthropology professor and researcher in indie music, I find it funny that over the years, students have asked me to write about burgers more than anything else.  

There are few subjects that will derail me from the topic at hand, but the beloved cheeseburger is one of them. From espousing the placebo effect of In-and-Out burgers (don’t be jealous you don’t have such an amazing placebo) or railing against those who bag on McDonalds for being disloyal, burgers are in my blood and perhaps make up 20 percent of my body mass.  Being a native Los Angeleno makes one extraordinarily well positioned to discuss burgers.  

We are the cutting edge of fast food, hybrid cuisine and the innovators of so much including the drive through squawk box. I’m often asked what is the best burger and my answer is “only a heathen would ask that.”  It’s like saying what is the best dessert. How can you compare a pie, to an ice cream cake or a donut? Only a person who doesn’t like sweets would do that.  

There are genres of burgers: the thousand-island, the mayonnaise, the restaurant, the mustard, the chiliburger, and the hickory. These are the major ones and I might include the outdoor grill, sans cheese, and bacon-added as well. It is perhaps these distinctions that capture the imagination of my students. Most people tend to have a favorite style and therefore use their favorite flavor profile to trump these enormously different categories of food. 

So if there is going to be a discussion, let’s be precise. Shall we begin with a vote for your favorite restaurant style burger? I’d tell you mine, but then I’d have to make you take me there.

Christopher Hitchens, R.I.P.

SOMETIMES even when you know something's coming, it knocks the wind out of you when it arrives. That's the way I felt this morning when I opened the paper and saw that Hitchens had succumbed to cancer that virtually every reader knew he had. (Here is the New York Times obit.)

I've spent the last few mornings reading an essay or two in his latest collection, Arguably. I don't always, or even often, agree with Hitchens, and on some political matters, such as the Iraq War, I tend to disagree rather strenuously. But I can't think of a livelier or wider ranging writer: The essays on turmoil in the Middle East, rebel John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, Orwell's Animal Farm, or conservative hero Edmund Burke could only have come from Hitch.

I'd long enjoyed Hitchens' writing, but thought of him as a kind of witty, debate-club contrarian until I met him in 2004, during an article I was writing about his friend Martin Amis. Hitchens and I had a drink -- it was about noon, so mine was lemonade, his a double (or was it a quadruple?) Johnny Walker. Hitch was funny and engaging as we spoke about shared interests -- the life and work of Salman Rushdie, George Orwell -- and entirely sincere on the matter of the Iraq War. (Which ended, sort of, the same week he died.) I was not convinced of this war launched by an incompetent boy king, but I was entirely persuaded that Hitchens had his reasons, and they were not merely for show.

(Here is a smart piece for Salon about the told-you-so by religious zealots after the death of the atheist writer.)

Since then, out mutual friend and literary agent Steve Wasserman, who was at his bedside last night, has kept me apprised on Hitch's condition; I felt like I knew him even though he would not likely have recognized my name. I'll wager that Hitchens, because he wrote so personally and so forcefully, had that effect on a lot of people. We won't see his like again.

UPDATE: Here is a fascinating Katha Pollitt obit that does not let him off the hook for his political switch, his bullying or his self-destructive drinking.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Author Chuck Palahniuk

ODDLY, it was a very pleasant evening the night I met with Chuck Palahniuk in Portland a few years back to discuss his then-new novel, Snuff, over dinner. (The book is not as appetizing.)

The Fight Club author has a new novel, Damned. And HERE is my conversation with him.

Here's part of my profile:

Palahniuk's method is to sniff out such subjects, then pounce. "Things that last in the culture tend to be those unresolved issues," he said. "Like Ira Levin's 'The Stepford Wives' was a wonderful, entertaining way to discuss what Susan Faludi would later call backlash. Levin did that again with women's health and abortion with 'Rosemary's Baby.' He was always so ahead of the curve."