Sunday, January 01, 2006

A long December

A long December and there's reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last ...

-- " A Long December"
Adam Duritz, Counting Crows
(from Recovering the Satellites)


It was painted on the inside door of the elevator of the hotel in Arcadia, California. Next to the door was a sign that said, "All public areas are under constant recorded surveillance and random monitoring." Just so there'll be evidence in case someone is accused of not smiling, I guess.

Californians are fiercely cheerful, their glasses always a little more than half full. (When I speak of California here, I mean the coastal areas, from the Bay Area south to the border; of course there are other "Californias," some of which resemble Oklahoma or Montana more than Santa Monica.) They love to say things like, "I'm a very positive person," and they mean it.

They are dedicated optimists because, in many cases, they or their families are the ones who had the self-confidence and drive to head out to the Coast to realize their ambitions, dreams, and fantasies. They are the self-selected young, rich, and beautiful, always and forever, at least in their own minds.

Californians smile more readily than they shake hands, but for a similar reason. Just as shaking hands originally symbolized that you weren't holding a weapon, the smile is a reassurance that the world is benign, there is nothing to fear, that whatever the temporary setbacks, ultimate success is assured.

The lack of a tragic sense of life eventually takes its toll, I think. It leaves Californians even less prepared than the rest of us to come to terms with loss, grief, aging, death. And it institutionalizes a kind of shallowness, where youth and fitness signify virtue, and character sells at a discount. Local publications in Los Angeles are overwhelmingly filled with ads for plastic surgeons, health clubs, cosmetic dentistry.

Rainbow bar

Still, on this most recent visit, I marveled at the unforced friendliness and easygoing attitudes I encountered when talking with the locals. True, most of my conversations occurred in commercial situations, but the geniality seemed "unforced" in the sense that usually no boss was around and there would have been no penalty for keeping to the pure businesslike minimum that you run into so often on the East Coast.

Despite what is undoubtedly a high-stress environment, with insane housing prices, legendary traffic density, ethnic tensions (although I personally noticed none as a visitor), and the omnipresent threat of earthquake, flood, and fire, Californians can still be forgiven for feeling specially blessed. They enjoy abundant sunshine, mild winters, year-round flowers, amazing views of and from mountains even in urban areas, and much more. That smile is for more than holding back the darkness.

Rainbow bar

Not surprising, then, that the Quake Coast is home to extremes. Amoeba Records in Hollywood, housed in a space the size of an aircraft-manufacturing facility, offers an amazing selection of new and used CDs, DVDs, LPs, and other entertainment media. A sales clerk who wore a black T-shirt with bold white lettering proclaiming TOO DRUNK TO FUCK looked like trouble on wheels, but he too was amiable as he rang up my order. Dressing up is, needless to say, de rigueur in LA, and I saw women with every kind of look from Beverly Hills glitz to teenage tart, but contrary to the image most of us carry around, the median was surprisingly restrained, although highly colorful. I saw fewer fashion victims than in New York. Like Parisian women, those in LA tend to be chic, with that seemingly instinctive sense of how to understatedly dramatize themselves.

Across the street from Amoeba Records is the Arclight Cinema. If public movie theaters have a future in the age of home theater and computer downloading, it will have to be something like the Arclight. The complex consists of a dozen or so screening rooms plus, as its centerpiece, the restored Cinerama Dome. All of the rooms have been designed to make watching a movie both comfortable and overwhelming. Screens are huge and projection razor-sharp, the sound is magnificent, and the seating is luxurious. Yes, all this comes at a price, but $11 tickets in the daytime and $14 at night are reasonable enough for what you get.

My lady Christine and I saw, in one of the smaller (but not small) rooms, Syriana. The movie is exciting but virtually incomprehensible except for its fraudulent "message." To experience the Cinerama Dome, we watched King Kong there, and it's exactly the kind of show that needs a quality venue -- I think it would lose a lot in a standard multiplex shoebox theater. The film tries to be everything: a super spectacle, a horror flick, a comedy, and an offbeat love story. As eye-popping spectacle, it succeeds too well, with segments of special effects wizardry that go on till you're ready to disconnect your head and place it on the seat beside you. To give credit where it's due, King Kong does have honestly touching moments. Otherwise, it reminded me of why I don't go to horror flicks or comedies. But oh, that theater! Just as a technical tour de force, I won't forget it.

Rainbow bar

And it's one more day up in the canyons
And it's one more night in Hollywood ...

-- "A Long December"

Actually, and I'm sorry to say it, our only time in the canyons was driving through them from the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys to the city. And there was only one night in Hollywood, the last one of our visit.

The TenTwenty Café in the Bel Age Hotel, near the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, is a dandy place to hear live jazz. There's no cover charge, the food is tasty and not outrageously expensive, the decor is upmarket without being vulgar, the view of the city lights superlative. Also they have valet parking, which ordinarily I prefer to avoid, but in the Strip area it offers a distinct advantage: your car will still be there when you want it back.

We heard the 11 O'Clock News Band. You like jazz? You'll like them.

Rainbow bar

And it's been a long December and there's reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last
I can't remember all the times I tried to tell myself
To hold on to these moments as they pass

Last year was actually a fine one for me, not least because I finally conquered my worries about being able to deal with blogging technology, so was able to start Reflecting Light. And while I'm not a real positive person, I do believe this year will be (even) better than the last.

And I wish the same for you in 2006. Thanks for stopping by.

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