(I didn’t know this until after I had paid—I thought the green-themed “Open Bank” advertisements were for a bank—I walked to the top floor of the garage, and there was a green net above my head, and people were whacking golf balls.)
Walking back (I’m a flaneur):
Old lady in blue tracksuit and brown curls, her glasses almost to her lips, walks into “For Lease”
Crow in a dirt lot
“Citrus Avenue and Sycamore Square”
“1984: Private Defense Contractors”
[The journey across the country stripped layers from my soul, as trees disappeared into brush, into plains, into sand into rocks, and eternal mountains rose up reasserting our insignificance]
(Traffic control sign aspires to haiku)
(Female employee in Beverly Hills wedding gown store after close—someone is always getting married—dozens a day—expensively)
Spending too much time on Quora
[On my first full day in LA, already a celebrity sighting: Saw ____ _____ (name redacted). Looked like he could be angry—or a reluctant leader—or wry. So, pretty much his characters, but with five children (their absence from his oeuvre actually removing the cause of his personality) and a sullen, omnipresent dad (which is more on the nose).]
I have a relationship with the neighbors in their adjoining bathroom where I can hear one of them singing John Legend in the shower, or both of them talking while the water runs. (Eventually I hear them less—and I wonder if they are aware of my presence.)
(I can hear them watching The X-Files. On Netflix, I assume.)
Four UCLA student poets (I was late, missed the first (or the fifth)) read their work at the Hammer.
A professor, at the conclusion of the reading, embarrassedly admits he didn’t realize how dissimilar they were from each other until hearing them tonight, which makes everyone laugh, because my God, they were nothing alike. Thankfully.
I value hearing their poetry aloud, spoken by the personalities that birthed them, unreduced to the typewritten.
Their best works, collectively, were moments of solitary contemplation—usually in the cold—doing something—walking up the hill to a house, ice fishing, entering a coffee shop in the wee small hours, and something about electrons and a lighthouse, while writing a paper(?).
During the last poet’s session, Yoni (he has made it to even fewer of the poets: only two of the five) nods at her, who has shouted about Lilith and mourned her lost spiritual advisor, and whispers to me, “I can smell your arousal.” Actually what he can smell is me trying not to be aroused. I am unwittingly matching her energy while willingly clamping myself from levitating.
Afterwards, Yoni goes to talk to her. He has marked her as the second-most attractive girl in the room, and, like a game of chess, or a training exercise, he will talk to her before encountering the first-most (who, in the meantime, leaves—with her boyfriend?). He compliments her performance and initiates non sequiturs:
“Slam poetry can be bad—”
“Oh, yeah, just awful—”
“It can be good—”
“”Oh! For sure, yes, it can—”
She is needlessly, manically nervous. I lurk, comically, peering out from behind Yoni’s left shoulder. I do not introduce myself, nor do I speak. Bound by the rules of engagement, when she tells Yoni it was nice to meet him, she cannot, turning to me, say the same, for we have not met.
Departing the Armand Hammer Museum: “I use ‘Arm and Hammer’!” I exclaim. Yoni muses if Mr. Hammer was Jewish.
Shabbat dinner at Yoni’s family’s.
R drives, H in the passenger, B in the back right, me in the left.
I give H Sharpies for her birthday, which will later come in handy at the improv show (at which we are to write our fake alliterative name on Hello My Name Is stickers).
I run my mouth. I get to know them again. We fall into our natural rhythms.
Camera store: R buys a replacement Holga for H as a gift. B talks about Netflix and studying to be a social worker. (“It surprised me, but not everybody is in it to help people.”)
At the Bradbury, I offer some historical-aesthetical context about Blade Runner.
[The Last Bookstore: Separate post to come]
Hours there, and books—so many that (my fault) we can’t visit the library (which is probably where they should have taken me first).
Dinner at a vegan place staffed by a sole young woman. Nobody knows what to order. The waitress/cook makes a recommendation; it’s what the current customer is eating. Three of us order it. A fig sandwich.
Comics shop for the improv show—so this is where all the nerds are in Los Angeles.
And we finish it off with ice cream at a place called, to my amusement, “Milk.” A new head-shaker in attempted elegant simplicity. Goofy.
The next day, Sunday, eager to use my Bank of America credit card to gain free admission, I walk the four blocks to LACMA.
A room of rescued photos from the artifice of thirties film sets—
I quickly find (it finds me) the entrance to the cubists, Dadaists, surrealists, modern fuckers, Abstract Expressionists. Inspired, I take notes from the curators’ texts on my iPhone.
I am gleeful. Glee-ed. Soon, at each painting, I pose the way the painting makes me feel: If there’s a subject, I assume their position. If it’s figure-less, I summon what I believe to be the energy of the painting and express it through my posture.
I am laughing. I think of the ways you experience a museum as one person instead of part of a pair, or one of a group. A Rothko painting makes me almost cry. I see the struggle for the spiritual. I see the pressure on both sides, above and below, with a hot fusion core in the center. … And it only hits me as I’m writing this just now that the last UCLA poet was probably talking about this very painting in her mini-poem about Rothko. I didn’t understand the poem—something about one of the colors being “daddy issues” confused me: The painter’s, or the poet’s? But perhaps understanding is overrated in a relationship: You only have to make the choice to be together. Maybe there is more to discover, more years that will bloom, if understanding eludes you from the outset. But again—she was crazy.
I see three sculptured assemblages and the text on the wall mentions four—the fourth, of course, referred to as the artist’s most incendiary. I ask a guard, and he gladly volunteers that the piece is in storage. Actually, I seem to remember seeing it at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He wishes me good day, and we part, charmed.
I make my way with leisure through the decades of striving starving artists.
Approaching the passage out of a large room—as if drawn?—I can see the threshold to another: Like I was dreaming—I recognized the configuration of several people at once—like a dream—like a memory of the previous day—like an out-of-body experience—
Framed by the wall to their right and the light to their left:
R’s back to me, N looking down in profile. Then H came into focus and I knew that it was real.
H sees me first, or maybe I meant to address her first (probably a combination of both); B facing the other way, turning around.
And I know how J feels when uninvited. But of course it is on account of N. I say, “Thanks for inviting me.” A Rorschach test, equally interpretable as joke or accusation. R looks uncomfortable, caught. N asks, “Was this planned?” As if I had emerged from Door Number 2 on This is Your Life, which, of course, I had.
H might be happy to see me: another friendly face. I babble, my verbal fight-or-flight response—exhaust the enemy—I tell them I’ve been weirding out patrons by posing like paintings. N says, “Yeah, that’s weird.” And there’s really nothing to say, as I shuffle across the x-axis of the four of them, and within more mere moments of halting speech we have reconfigured, and I am looking at them poised to enter the room I have crossed, and they are looking back at me turned to them in mid-step towards the room they have already walked, and I am telling H I will catch up with them later. Let us simmer.
And we do meet up again, in an hour and a half, after much muttering to myself and recalcitrant looking at paintings, for lunch in the museum patio. A conversation passes, or something like it. I try to ask questions like I normally do. I try to talk about how the Rothko made me feel—I sound both inarticulate and pretentious. The man sitting at the table next to us leaves—disgusted, I imagine, with my half-stammered pedantry.
We look at art. We are told to take off our shoes (and replace them with white mesh) before entering a space by James Turrell, an arctic-psychedelic void. Its color throbs and its edges dissolve, easing you into disorientation. N and B leave after two minutes.
I walk slowly to the far wall. I look at the guard. I stare forward at the void. I have been smiling. I reach my arms behind me. I touch the wall. The guard says, “Don’t touch the wall!” I leave. Why does the void have rules—rules other than gravity? I have wanted to ask the guards, who have told me don’t touch, stand back, no pictures, “Can I touch you? Can I take a picture of you?” I guess it’s there in the name, guard, but you’d think the role of museum employee would be one of acceptance and permission, not prevention. “Enjoy the painting!” they should say, “I do!” If they don’t want anyone taking pictures, they should just blind us, amputate our hands, remove our memories. Why have patrons at all? Lock the art away. Someone might experience it; someone else might share the experience with yet others.
And of course a picture can’t compare. My surreptitious photo of a Calder mobile didn’t turn out—what’s more, the mobile wasn’t in motion, which is a contradiction. I remember with fondness my dad, walking through the Cleveland Museum of Art, blowing upwards, prompting Calder’s mobile into its natural state of grace.
N asks, “Why did you leave?” I don’t have a good answer, offering instead something about needing only a certain amount of time to suss out the qualities of the room. N and B wander off. I check my phone.
H and R leave after the full allotted twenty minutes. H, smiling, reports satisfaction with the void’s sensations of disconnection, and I think she might enjoy being high.
I guess we should see more art. Unfortunately, it’s all futbol and phalluses. They (N, B, R & H) ask me to take a picture of them—
Actually, before that, a woman asked me to take a picture of her and her boyfriend. She explained, as he protested, that she wanted it in the style of the picture behind them: two kids looking serious on a bench. I get on one knee and frame her iPhone like the photo, but unfortunately the man is blocking half the picture, which is too small anyway. The woman asks me to take it again. I zoom in this time, to better see the picture, but now their feet are cut off, but the woman accepts this, or maybe she can’t bring herself to ask me to take it a third time.
—so I take their (N, B, R & H’s) picture, and that’s all, we say goodbye, and I walk away.
Smiled at a hot nun after her habit had almost blown off
Later, I drive to the Walt Disney Concert Hall—lower level—the Redcat Theater. For a dance-on-film festival called “Dance Camera West.”
When deciding which event to attend, I chose the program that included the winners of a high school and college competition. In the same way that I went to the UCLA student poetry reading, I wanted to see what the youngins were up to, people around my age, enthusiasm, and level of progress in their artistic practice. Predictably, they weren’t very good, like most amateur videos. One was cool, with two guys flopping around a skate park. The images doubled and mirrored.
And then I was in for a whole feature-length movie—the event most of the audience wanted to see. Something Indian. (It seemed like at least 75% of the audience were Indian, many in saris and what-have-you, traditional dress.) A “documentary.” Oh well. Maybe I would learn something.
It started out a little awkwardly, a little lo-fi, the typical talking-head with clips thrown in. But, like a dance, spinning faster hypnotic circles, the story tightened as its scope widened:
Jason Samuels Smith, a black tap dancer in his early thirties, from the hood in New York, is asked to go to India. It’s not clear why. Gregory Hines has died, years before of course, but it’s one of the reasons JSS feels lost. He’s at a crossroads, thinking he might give up tap and go live in the woods. Somehow, he gets this gig in India, where he will meet Chitresh Das, a dancer of the Kathak discipline, who is in his sixties.
Das is small, excitable, something of a ham, but he yearns to bring the dying Kathak form to the masses—it can’t be what it once was, but he can keep it alive. Kathak is complicated—you wear bells on your ankles, and you can’t even don the bells until you have committed yourself to years of preparatory training. Das spins. He moves like lightning. JSS is impressed, almost immobilized. He gives the dances his own spin.
The film follows their tour of India and their friendship. They are connected by their mutual appreciation: They know a fellow master when they see one.
Their outward differences don’t matter. Switching off, they improvise to challenging Indian drum patterns, highly focused yet open at the same time, locked into each other, rhyming their moves, one-upping each other, until the energy that has been swirled up by their performance reaches a climax.
JSS is slow, hip-hop lackadaisical when waxing poetic—except when he’s dancing. And then it’s like his legs are—but I can’t even describe it. I don’t even want to. Same with Chitresh Das. I’m going to pull a reverse HP Lovecraft and say that their dances—after the movie they walked out in front of us and performed!—are too beautiful for me to describe. Suffice to say that I was moved.
And Das told us, Have fun. Acceptance, discipline, respect. The audience loved it.
On Monday I did not leave my apartment, but several Latinos entered it, one after another, to fix my window. It’s not my window—it’s not my apartment—it’s not my problem. But I didn’t say this, and the succession of Latinos fixed it regardless.
An email from Sears that my part had shipped—not mine, but someone with a similar email address: not Mell Isaac with a dot in the middle, but Melissa Acy with no dot. I forward her the message.
Tuesday, another dance event: Dancing and writing about dance. Cross-curricular, could be cool. At the Central Library. Paid too much for parking, didn’t realize one lot validated for the library.
Simone Forti would probably not be offended to be called an aging hippie, but she’s smart, and she understands that simplicity can be the hardest thing to do.
She improvised a piece for us: She walked, blew through a gas pipe, mused out loud, worked through her mental process in front of us. She used water as a metaphor, and built up her themes, and returned to them.
Then, two dancers, a woman and a man. Probably in their late twenties or early thirties (dancers are well-preserved, after all), she a white woman with short purple hair, he a tall black man. They pull off one of the implicit goals of dance: projection of the dancers’ personalities, even (especially) in the execution of precise, dictated moves. She seemed skeptical, defensive, yet confident. He seemed calm, confident, yet sensitive. They paired well, and were extremely good. They performed to a drummer. More on their performance later.
Afterwards, the choreographer talks—she mentions that her father died in the midst of her working on the dance. The moderator (herself a writer/dancer, but I’ve skipped her) asks, how did you know when the dancers should hold hands? The choreographer says it came out of improvisation and practice, and states that, even though they had to hold hands briefly, they could not look at each other: “It would have been too much.” Everyone agrees. It’s about how we are separate and apart, but somehow connected. Unfortunately, a lot of dance seems to be about the failure to communicate (at least the ones I’ve seen recently).
I compose an email to her the next day:
“Thank you for your choreography at yesterday’s LA Central Library event.
“Because of the themes in the previous dance, I couldn’t help but see water, the drummer funneling, phasing a stream with his cymbals, the dancers stroking, swimming with arcing arms and gasping lungs.
“Two people, two histories, two parallel universes, in the briefest of contact but ever isolated. Mirroring streams that touch but never converge.
“The dancers, complements in confidence and sensitivity, trawling a spectrum of skepticism and reception, abandon and collection.
“Swiftness and slowness, playfulness and mournfulness, given equal weight.
“Thank you again, and my condolences on the loss of your father.”
Well, it looked better in Microsoft Word than in Gmail. Too effusive/proto-poetic to find in your inbox. In any case, she thanked me for writing the note, appreciated hearing about how I saw the dance, and to have “met” an audience member, and wished me well.
Geek employee at a geek shop putting on a fake British accent—unless she was putting on a fake American accent with her co-worker.
On La Brea: Before me, a woman’s legs. Next to me, a chemical mixing plant—a different kind of factory.
Maybe it’ll be good when we all have Google Glass. That way we won’t all be standing around like jackasses holding up a rectangle when we take a picture.
And it’ll make our lack of privacy more obvious, a little less easy to ignore.
There is an opening night party for the Hollywood Fringe, a festival that gives frustrated writers, actors and directors an outlet for their plays.
I walk to the spot, a bar called The Dragonfly, where I hold the wall for an hour and a half. A froglike man tells me he is majoring in Chicano studies. He has glommed onto me after I answered a question (“Is this the right place for—?”). We are there early, before anyone else. I have a shot of tequila, my go-to drink to order at a bar, and I wonder in what combination the Chicano major, the tequila, and my own self-sabotage forces me to stand there motionless. The place fills up, a band plays, people take video and pictures. At one point, I get behind the wall, and seriously consider pushing myself up onto it and dancing; you know, doing something weird to attract attention. But there isn’t a good chance, and it’s clear that, in this case, given the choice between Option A, acting normal, and Option B, acting the fool, I will take Option C: I will just leave. And I do.
I growl in my head: I have nothing to say to people when I’m standing right next to them; how could I create art that speaks to their souls?
(I match people/modulate—unfortunately, I tend to resort to their anxieties and fears—or my own—)
(I feel like people expect me to do something amazing/dangerous at any given moment, and when I don’t, they’re doubly disappointed, I’m that much more uncool.)
(People can’t predict me. A) I’m alone in situations that seem strange. B) I’m running through all behavior in my head to find the best/most appropriate or funniest/most unusual connective.)
Can we call it karma? It must be because I didn’t respond to the woman who asked if I was making jam. I was walking home from Target carrying Mason jars. I could have just said, no, they’re for drinking out of, but I was almost out of earshot, and she could have been crazy. And I was walking home from Target carrying Mason jars.
But I was looking forward to a performance the next night, at 10:15pm, something called “The Creeps.” I had looked over the Hollywood Fringe website, writing down the names of plays that sounded intriguing, and it was really the only one I thought I had to see. Here is my review, which I wrote and posted, when prompted by automatic email, on the Fringe website:
“Distortion reveals—darkness liberates—hysteria serves as the foot soldier of truth. ‘The Creeps’ forces us to confront our broken counterparts.
“Talk, literally talk, to creatures that don’t exist, funneled through one woman metamorphosing into vastly different physical and psychological figures in the space of a blackout.
“Catherine Waller frees these creeps from the corner of your eyes and the edges of your limbic system. In this dark comedy, you laugh as your hair stands on end, trying to escape.
“Intentions turn ambiguous, reality shifts in a moment, and paradoxes dance—when the most hospitable is the most sinister, when the most pathetic is the most noble, when the most exploited is the most in need, when the most battered is the most cruel.
“Twisted by their own evil or their own need for salvation, each creep is both abuser and abused: Cast-offs, relegated/exiled to a basement of terrors where modern-day and fairy-tale detritus decay in the same heap.
“Anything can happen, because the creeps can see you. You can’t hide. You’re paralyzed in your chair.
“You think: I can’t become one of these creeps. I have to get out of here. I can’t be associated with them. And as they treat you as their own, you feel yourself distorting, disintegrating, becoming grotesque.
“Will you listen to the evil and fall for it? Will you embrace the good, even if it is damaged, infected, deadly? Can you save anyone? Will you dare? Can you save yourself?
“The creeps are isolated—they enjoy the company—but you might not be able to leave. They might keep you there forever. Indulge them, and let them mingle with your own enigmas, demons and malformations.
“You will leave relieved. At least you’re not doomed, controlled, locked in eternal pain and confusion like the creeps.
“Except we are. And that’s the comedy of ‘The Creeps.’”
Again, way too effusive for daytime hours, but hey, I felt compelled. What I didn’t include in the review, because I felt it’d be spoilers, was this description of Waller’s four characters:
“A Mephistophelian lizard MC; a mutilated laborer, complicit in his own loss; a stripper betrayed by her own biology, animated by the juice of her possessors (and imagined saviors); an amputated child tyrant, doubling her trouble.”
“A Mephistophelian lizard MC; a mutilated laborer, complicit in his own loss; a stripper betrayed by her own biology, animated by the juice of her possessors (and imagined saviors); an amputated child tyrant, doubling her trouble.”
To go into even more detail, because, again, at this point it doesn’t matter: The third character was a pregnant stripper, hooked on meds by her employer. She was my favorite. A pregnant stripper? Come on, that’s just a cool character.
And I learn a new word: “bouffon.” A clown, who reveals to his hoity-toity crowd their emptiness—this message smuggled within his humor. Wikipedia says that in Paris at some point all of the ugly, diseased people were forced outside its walls, and they were invited back only on holidays, during which time they were forced to perform, and the performances of these bouffons, of course, held malice at their very core.
And: “The ideal performance for a bouffon is one in which the audience laughs, has a great time, goes home, realizes their life is meaningless, and commits suicide. [Pause for laughter.] Obviously this is an idealized version. [Pause for more laughter]”
LA is that mix, that amalgamation, that crossroads, that death, that passage, that point of hope and failure
Red shopping cart, white motorcycle, purple apartment
Latino teens looking at a shofar, passing it around, laughing. Its presumable owner warns them not to smell it.
Yoni invites me to an “avant-garde jazz show” with an old friend. I ask him if I know the friend. He says he doesn’t think so—M? I say oh yeah, we went to a jazz thing before, the three of us, and I farted in the car.
Yoni texts back: Oh yeah!!! LOL! I remember lol
It was probably the second-smelliest fart of my life. It was impossible to ignore. M thought it was Yoni (or at least, the rules of decorum prevented her from accusing anyone other than the individual she had met before that night). He evaded the question—“My farts don’t usually stink!”—but neither did he finger me as the culprit. And I, like a bastard, let him be a true friend and take the fall.
In my head, I flash-forward to the evening before me:
Yoni: “M, Isaac has a confession he’d like to make. Don’t you, Isaac?”
Isaac: “Yes. M, I farted in the car. It was me—not Yoni. And if we are all very, very lucky, we might just be able to repeat that experience tonight.”
Perhaps dreading this exchange, I am a half-an-hour late to the concert—even later, because, assuming this is a proper concert, I drive past the venue, a squat art gallery—but the concert itself has not started.
A young guitarist pedals his way across Arizona desert, African plain, Arcturan celestiality.
Next musician plays woodwinds to cassettes of his “favorite improvisers” first picking up their instrument after a day’s abstinence. Beautiful, eliciting the latent in what was there. Improv-exploration meets composition after-the-fact. Woodwinds phase; pages flutter to floor.
Steampunk saxophone—like a dinosaur carcass, cyborged with blue-streaming thermostat. Sax, pedals and mic collude into a sound like a swarm of bagpipes, a million motorcycles exploding in mid-Evil Knievel-style-air, an astronaut at the speed of light, off his rocket—inevitably, exploding. He weaves like his sax will be sucked into a vertical slit of a singularity. He is “picturing fear,” and how you face your fear or deposit it in a backpack and carry it with you.
I love it. Does anybody else? The sound has bounced-slammed-busted around all walls, sending Yoni out for earplugs.
Lastly, older hippie man leaves his house with gongs for the first time. Mallets, winds. Earth and sky. Slow echo—gongs as the original feedback/resonator!, bringing the evening to a thematic close—hovered over by a flurry/tizzy of technics, blowing whispers of timelapsed spiderwebs through his reeds.
My erstwhile flatulence remains unclaimed (has the statute of limitations run out?), and I emit no noxious gases while in M’s presence. Yoni and I eat pizza on a bench. He invites me to his friend’s house tomorrow for a barbecue.
They are smart, funny people, some of whom I’ve met. I secure my place as one of them with a comment. On the subject of believing only half of what you read, J says he has come across the theory that we are sending 100 people a year to Mexico to be abducted by aliens so that the aliens will give us the Internet.
“We do need the Internet,” I say.
Other topics: A businessman sheikh heir who buys out a competing casino because the first one gave away his table. Someone’s neighbor is losing his motor functions—through typing, he tells his family that he understands the concepts, he just can’t get them out. And lots and lots of stories about people they know, or used to know, or are glad they no longer know.
Yoni talks about how he was a bully in elementary school. In fact, he turns to the bro next to him, an aspiring golfer, who has recently shown up, and whom he claims to have only met “a few times,” and he asks:
“Did I bully you?”
“I’m sorry, man—”
I stay at the barbecue for several hours, even after Yoni has left. I excuse myself sometime around 9pm.
The locksmith’s was locked.
The same shop over and over again—old clothes for hundreds of dollars, a few art books, a few more LPs, one employee. One had a barbershop; another had sand.
Cages and cash registers, Buddha heads and teak doors, mannequins—like the people starting their own bookstore by buying books from The Last Bookstore.
Antiques, ancient belief systems, eastern statues, eastern talismans, anything to root you
Hollywood prop rental shop:
Photograph: “Mormons serving their term in a Utah penitentiary for polygamous practices, 1890”
Under it, newspaper piece about Charlie Parker from his mother: She looked outside and thought it was snow—empty Benzedrine containers.
(Now, how is this something you would rent? Seems like something only to be abandoned or stolen. A curiosity.)
“Infant Nutrition Information” binder filled with Desert Storm trading cards
Bob Health Hope Center
Gallery Voila: “They’re bird skeletons for educational purposes from Belgium in the seventies, hand-dipped in silver” (I hadn’t asked).
Super Cuts haircut from a man named Salvador. At the end he removes a wet towel from a microwave to my left and scuttles it across my scalp.
Newspapers, editions of the LA Times, have been sitting on the steps to the apartment complex for days at a time. On Sunday night, I help myself to the current edition. I cut the cords, read the entertainment section, and return the paper to its original place. The next day, it is not there anymore. But in the following days, the newspapers still pile up, unbroached, unread.
I imagine an altercation with the subscriber:
“You can’t just take the paper!”
“No one was reading it.
“You didn’t pay for it!”
“Yeah, but you didn’t read it. Is it so odd that, if a paper is paid for, that someone should read it, even if it’s not the person who paid?”
“You’re a thief! You—” And so on.
Bus ride back to the Hammer for Bloomsday. Down Syndrome bodybuilder.
When I get to the Hammer, I see an extremely attractive, intelligent-looking woman, and I imagine she smiles as I friendlily barrage the museum volunteer with questions of, is this the line, what is this the line for, how much will it cost me when I get to the end of the line. As I am waiting in line, her boyfriend appears. “Goddammit,” I say to myself.
The theater is filled, so the rest of us are shunted to the adjoining room for a telecast. This produces occasional moments of humor as when a member of the (actual, in-the-flesh) audience hugs someone in front of the camera, or when the close-up camera operator focuses on entirely the wrong person and won’t budge, until his feed is cut and we get the wide angle again.
And then the reading of passages from Joyce’s Ulysses begins, his stream of consciousness spread out across two women and four men (and two opera singers and a pianist performing Irish songs “of the day”).
The performers orate in Irish accents, only two of which I surmise as genuine. They look like they’re having a lot of fun.
I hadn’t read it. I had no idea it was so much like Tarantino! References to and theories upon other art it likes. Breaking the rules. It’s also like Shakespeare. Incomprehensible in long passages, a penchant for puns, well-read. Digressions. Pronouncements. Comedy and tragedy. Inspiring you to write, but also dispiriting (you’ll never reach that level of wanton genius).
We are invited to stick around for more Irish singing and dancing. I see a redhead. I have the perfect pick-up line—“Yes?”—because the ending to Ulysses, performed just minutes before, wends itself around the repetition of that word, in a punctuation-less, sexy, world-encompassing affirmation. But I don’t strike when the iron is hot, and, preemptively, pre-emptily, I leave in lieu of the line.
I read that spontaneous people are attractive to us because, given the fact that they do or say whatever they think to do or say at the moment, they are not deceitful, and therefore are trustworthy, and we can have civilization. (Although if they are too spontaneous, we can’t trust them to show up or follow through. I think of my attempts at meeting with S, who tells me she can get me a job as a marketing writer. I ask her the name of the company—twice—but she doesn’t acknowledge having been asked. We make plans to meet, but she pushes them back, and pushes them again.
It’s a real cat-on-the-roof situation: “The cat’s on the roof—oh, the cat fell—oh, the cat’s in the hospital—oh, the cat died.” We don’t meet.)
Drove to Pasadena
Spent too much money in a bookstore
Extreme pizza shop employees—woman looked like she had been beaten, bruise across the face. One with tattoos. Another one, a lesbian with piercings.
“First time here?” I wish I could say, no, I’m here all the time, I’ve just always got this shocked look on my face. I wasn’t taken aback by the employees’ ink or wounds, but by their enthusiasm. I can’t deal with this kind of spunkiness if I’m expected to muster up the same. It’s one factor too many when I’m ordering a pizza. Sorry.
Instead of “The Signal,’ which I’m an extra in, and which might be visually interesting but conceptually vacant, I see “The Immigrant.” Deciding factor: cinematographer Darius Khondji, one of my favorites. And it’s about one of my favorite time periods, the twenties.
It turns out to be the kind of movie that makes me want to give up writing, let alone movie-making.
Joaquin Phoenix—the things he does with his face—with a gun to his head, with his enemy at the table in front of him, with a woman in his thrall or out of it—his fear, his love and hate, his injuries and injustices. He takes risks, he is vulnerable, he is monstrous, he is human. I mean, my God, I was crying.
Jeremy Renner—the perfect embodiment of the narrative requirement: surprising and inevitable. He is a magician, a dancer, a romantic. How might this turn out poorly for everyone?
Marion Cotillard—as an actress and as her character, she is smarter, more beautiful, more prepared and intuitive than anyone else. But she is trapped. People ask: Why does she stay with a man seemingly responsible for her undoing? Is it because: He understands her? Are they kindred twisted spirits? Is he, in fact, more dedicated, more intelligent, more empathetic, more capable, than anyone else?
The movie is a perfect ball of layers, of being disgusted and compelled by something or someone, and in this way bound. As mentioned, my words are a poor substitute for the movie itself, so I will limit myself to details of anything but the first shot and the last shot:
The opening shot is of the Statue of Liberty, zooming out to reveal the back of a man’s head, looking at it.
At first we think it’s just an image of America, rooting us in a specific time, a symbol of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But later Marion Cotillard, the immigrant, is made to dress up as the Statue of Liberty, and she is coveted. The first image is actually about wanting to possess: liberty, America, a woman, hope, freedom.
The final shot is of two characters leaving in a boat, seen through a shack’s window, while a third character leaves the shack in the opposite direction—but reflected in a mirror, so it looks like he is joining them. It’s amazing. It’s an elegant solution to a problem: How do we show all of the people in a single shot? How do we play with the fact that the third character is not joining them? Will he, in fact, always travel with them, a memory impossible to abandon?
And it’s also frames within a frame, and a contrast of light and dark—
Darkness is frightening, but, as it envelops, it embraces in amber shadows—
The light is mundane, dull, like you’re going blind, white-blue—
I sit in my chair, stunned, as the credits commence to roll. Then I hear a middle-aged woman complaining to her compatriots: “The extras were too clean! The ending was too happy! Cotillard was miscast!”
She has it completely wrong. I want to shout at her:
A) Don’t you understand that it’s a fairy tale? If you want to see actual immigrants, build a time machine! If you want a movie, try making one!—with extras and sets and costs!
B) Don’t you understand that the film ended on the beginning of the fourth act? It’s not a happy ending—so much is left for us to consider that could go wrong!
C) And how is Cotillard miscast? Her character is a performer, someone who becomes what others want her to be while holding true to the focus within her. It is Cotillard herself. In fact, I later learn that the movie was written explicitly for her!
I return to my car, where I eat the pizza leftovers which I feared would melt from the heat through their box and into my seats. I return to Vroman’s Bookstore to hear an author speak.
He speaks, slower and more Southern than I had assumed from his prose. But he is also my grandma’s age, who’s in a wheelchair, in a home. This guy had dyed hair and glasses, and asked to have questions repeated to him due to “many years of rock concerts,” but we had all assumed he was in his sixties or seventies, not eighties. It must be the Yoga.
He is bound by his publishers to sign only copies of his newest book, and, even then, to write nothing more than his name and the name of the recipient—no personalized messages. But he offers to sign anything sent to his address. He is nothing if not accommodating. I ask him what he normally writes when he is allowed to make personalizations. He says, “Whatever they tell me to. I can’t make anything up.” He is being both ironic and truthful. He is a bestselling author.
He talked about, pre-“career,” being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but how the right place at the right time might have been the wrong place and time, considering he went on to write with such success. I compare this, inescapably, to myself.
On my way back to my apartment after parking my car under the golfing range in Koreatown, I do the math: He has written nine novels, starting in the early seventies. He told us tonight that it takes him about three, three-and-a-half years to write a book (Wikipedia reveals this to be more like four or six). I work backwards. He’s eighty-two now. However you break it down, you’re talking about a forty-year career, nine novels.
Could he have started earlier? Or would that have been impossible, given the state of his development as a writer at that time? What does true success look like?
I wrack my brain, as I always do, to try to get it to tell me what I want and how to go about getting it.