La La Land won seven Golden Globes, the most ever by a single film in history. It also garnered fourteen Oscar nominations, tying the record for that, and won six. It was my favorite film of 2016.
Because of all those factors, and others I’ll explain later, I had to take a second, more critical look at La La Land. Many of my favorites have been nominated for Best Picture, but the only one I saw in the theater that ever won was The Hurt Locker. That made me think…had I just been charmed by La La Land or was it really that good?
After my second viewing tonight, I actually loved it even more. La La Land is really that good. The montage that ends the film is pure magic, and overall I can truly say it represents everything that is great about the movies.
After watching it on Blu-ray tonight, it also got me thinking why the film, which was originally praised by critics and audiences, received an inordinate amount of nasty backlash just before the Oscars. One of the biggest disses was an article that appeared in USA Today called “The Case Against La La Land”. I will always have complete respect for everyone’s opinion (and know that dissent is not only healthy but important), but I think the person who wrote the piece just didn’t get the film.
Unfortunately that article was just the beginning…there were others that mushroomed up just before the Oscars, which led to the surprising defeat of La La Land for Best Picture.
I’m all for varying opinions, especially when everyone is fawning over a film, and it’s always a good idea to take a second, more critical look. If it’s deserving, someone should take a few whacks at it. We should routinely question why the public have anointed anything “great”.
One of the arguments against La La Land, which I’d seen in a few articles, was that the main characters are thinly drawn. At their core, Sebastian and Mia have real, tangible goals that they are passionate about achieving. In drama, if you can make an audience believe that and also get them to root for their success, you have real, three dimensional characters.
You also don’t have to shove exposition and backstory about down the audience’s throat to make characters real. I’m on the Hemingway side that its actually the opposite . . . if you tell the story right and true, you can leave many things out and it will make it stronger (the “Iceberg Theory”). The goal should always be (no matter how you go about it) to get a viewer to connect emotionally with a character. If that’s accomplished then the writer, director, and actors (and everyone else who worked on the film) have done something special. And Mr. Chazelle, Mrs. Stone, and Mr. Gosling did something special.
I also completely disagree with the argument that many of the songs are “lackluster and dull” (quoting that USA Today article). I bought the soundtrack on iTunes the night I saw La La Land and the lyrics and music are excellent (“City of Stars” is something Cole Porter might have wrote back in the day). I still listen to it.
Maybe the majority of today’s audiences just can’t grasp musicals. Granted, it’s quite odd to see people just randomly break into song and dance. Or even if you can accept musicals for what they are in theory, a lot of people don’t know how to properly critique them because they don’t have the necessary knowledge/history of the genre to do so.
For whatever reason I have always loved musicals (Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, and Guys & Dolls are three of my favorite movies). That being said, the first time I saw La La Land, as I was watching the first two numbers (“Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd”) I was thinking “This is a bit weird” . . . here’s a musical and I don’t know the songs. That gut reaction is because we’re so used to singing along with musicals that have been around for a long time.
La La Land is completely new, and has original songs. Most people who come to thefilm have never heard any of the music. Would critics have preferred the scenes to have been scored with songs from “Grease” or “Hairspray” or “My Fair Lady”? I certainly wouldn’t.
I haven’t seen Moonlight yet (I really want to), and it very well may be the better film. But . . . and this is a big question to ask . . . why does Moonlight’s story rate higher on the importance scale than La La Land? Yes, it certainly seems more dramatic and intense, but should that matter? To me film transcends race, color, creed, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, and all other categories you can name.
I think Richard Linklater (through the character Jessie) said it best in Before Sunset:
“So when I look at my own life, you know, I have to admit, right, that I’ve-I’ve never been around a bunch of guns or violence, you know, not really. No political intrigue or a helicopter crashes. But my life, from my own point of view, has been full of drama. And I thought, if I could write a book that, that could capture what it’s like to, to really meet somebody, I mean, one of the most exciting things that’s ever happened to me is to meet somebody, to make that connection. And if I could make that valuable, you know, to capture that, that would be the attempt.”
With movies (in my opinion), the goal isn’t to judge which character had it “harder” in life . . . in the La La Land vs Moonlight comparison of course it would be the latter. We should be examining drama, plot, characters, emotional connection, how it makes us feel . . . the heart of filmmaking. Yes, the stakes need to be high in order for a movie to be considered “Important”, but love and pursuing your dreams and passion and giving your all to whatever makes you feel alive, will always be some of the most important stories we can tell.
Either I was smiling at the magical dancing/singing/music/cinematography of La La Land, or I was astounded at how good the performances were, or I was hit with a dizzying nostalgia at my own days of trying to succeed in Hollywood. The film is extremely entertaining, but more importantly the subtext is rich and it has a lot to say about dreams, ambition, and the choices we make in life. It also isn’t spoon-feeding you a “message” . . . the film wants you to make your own opinions and thoughts about the price you pay for following your dreams.
If you haven’t seen La La Land, I highly recommend you check it out.
After taking in the views from the back of the Hollywood sign, I descend Mount Lee with an extra bounce in my step. There are no more thoughts of the red-eye flight, of the crazy cab ride from LAX, of exhaustion, and most importantly, of sleep. I’m ready to keep this day rolling.
Before reaching the bottom of the trail I try to arrange an Uber or a Lyft, but the service is spotty. When I get to the parking lot I stand next to the Camp Hollywood Land sign, and I finally get a signal. The driver is nine minutes away.
My pre-trip research pays off, and I know I want to have lunch at Mess Hall Kitchen in Los Feliz. This is the site of the defunct Derby, a club made famous in the movie Swingers and one I frequented often back in 1990s. The history of the space telescopes much further back in time. It was originally built in the 1920s as Willard’s Chicken Inn and then a few decades later became one of the iconic Brown Derby restaurants.
On the way to Mess Hall Kitchen I chat with the driver, letting him know that I used to live in LA back in the late 90s, early 2000s. I remark, casually, that just in my short time here (about five hours) I’ve noticed the city has changed. I don’t say good or bad, but just that it seems to be built-up a little more and less gritty.
The scruffy bearded gentleman in his mid-30s doesn’t waste time letting me know his opinion.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” he says loudly over a Martin Denny Tiki song. “This city is becoming San Francisco south. I want to move.”
I keep quiet. This was not what I had been expecting.
“Where do I go? The rents are fucking crazy here, and I’ve had to keep moving east from Hollywood to find someplace decent. This is my home, this is where the money is. Shit, in ten years I’ll be lucky to afford a place in Riverside.”
I don’t have any answers for him, and I enter Mess Hall Kitchen with some excitement and a little trepidation. It’s great that the place has been transformed into a top notch gastro pub, but I can’t help but mourn the loss of the Derby. Swingers came out a couple of years before I moved to LA, and it’s a film that still resonates with me. I spent many a night at the Derby back in the day . . . on dates, with friends, and even by myself on occasion. I loved that place.
All of this swirls through my head as I walk inside Mess Hall Kitchen. It’s yet to strike noon on Tuesday, but there’s a decent amount of people. There are heat lamps in the patio area, and I take a seat outside and order my first beer of the day. It’s quite refreshing after my hike. My lunch is the Mess Burger (onions, cheddar cheese, bbq sauce) cooked medium rare to perfection, and it is served on a delicious brioche bun.
It was hard to connect the place with the same one that used to feature Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and where very talented swing dancers strutted their stuff. But nonetheless I leave happy. I walk down Hillhurst with no destination in mind, other than a vague feeling that I will need to go to Skylight Books. The fog burns away to the sun, and I figure why not have beer number two.
I realize I’m gravitating towards Ye Rustic Inn, one of the all-time best dive bars in Los Angeles. It’s probably been a decade since I’ve been there, and when I walk inside I’m so glad that not much has changed. Dark, red leather booths, wood paneled walls, and just an overall wonderful local vibe. I remember way back when they were one of the first bars in LA to serve Stella (hard to think that was a big deal since you can get it just about anywhere now), so for nostalgic purposes I order one.
I can’t help but eavesdrop on the two guys in their 50s talking loudly next to me, and it’s a challenge to keep from laughing out loud at their stories. One of them says he was 4’9 in high school (he’s easily over six feet now), and that he needed a special cushion in order to drive. One time at a party this cute girl he liked invited him back to her place since her parents were out of town. But she insisted he drive her car, and when he had to get his special cushion, it cock-blocked the moment. “No pussy at all in high school,” he said sadly. “But at least I was tit high.”
While I could have spent more time at the Ye Rustic, I knew I had to keep on keeping on. So I headed down Russell Ave with the majestic purple jacaranda trees blooming on either side. Skylight Books was my next stop after reaching Vermont, and I spent a good 20 minutes or so ambling around and perusing the shelves. I ended up buying a new notebook (Shinola Detroit), which has served me well these last few weeks.
Afterwards I walked a block up to Fred 62, a place I used to frequent when I lived not too far away in Sliverlake. It was here nearly 15 years ago that I started reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which is a great book for anyone who has either abandoned their creativity or never knew they had any. I can recall sitting at that same wooden counter in November of 2001, turning those pages while eating an Apple Crumble ala mode and drinking a cup of coffee.
In 2016 I have the same dessert, but opt for a mimosa instead. There’s a woman somewhere around my age sitting next to me, eating her lunch and reading a book. She smiles at my order, and says if she didn’t have to get back to work she would be doing the same. It’s around 2 pm, and it’s time to head back to the hotel so I can finally check-in.
On the way to the subway (yes, LA has a well-functioning Metro that I used to take on occasion when I was a resident), I get sidetracked when I see the sign across the street for 1739 Public House. I had read good things about it, especially about their wide array of beer choices. So I pop inside the open air pub with the stained wooden walls and high ceiling with exposed rafters.
There’s only a few people at the bar, and I take a seat closest to the street. The bartender is young and cute, and there’s a guy in his 50s a few stools down chatting her up. I figure I’ll have just one and be on my way to the Sunset & Vermont Metro Stop.
The beer is a Petrus Aged Red, and my God it’s delicious. It’s brewed in Belgium, and is imported by a company out of Middleton, Mass (not too far from where I grew up). Technically a sour beer, there’s sweetness that brings balance and the flavor is just perfect. It was a recommendation from the bartender, and I thank her.
During my second Petrus the middle aged guy tells the bartender he has a daughter around her age, and that she always complains there is nobody to date but hipsters. The bartender considers this conundrum, and nods a few times. Then she says, “I don’t mind dating a hipster, but if the most interesting thing about you is the way you dress and look, you’re going to bore the shit out of me.”
After a third Petrus I finally make my way down Vermont to the Metro station. This is the same stop I used to take the year I joined a bowling league in 2000. Our team was the youngest by at least a decade, and every Tuesday night I had a blast rolling and drinking and chatting with a lot of great people.
It was three quick stops to Hollywood and Highland, and when I exit the station I pass the Chinese Theatre. They’re setting up the movie premiere for The Nice Guys and there are people everywhere. Amongst the tourists are the many hustlers dressed like superheroes and Jack Sparrow and Star Wars characters. When I lived in the neighborhood I distinctly remember seeing Charlie Chaplin, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe, but there were not a lot of them. Now it almost seemed to be a one-to-one street performer to tourist ratio. Though with my lack of sleep and several beers, it’s possible my mind is being hyperbolic.
I walk up Orange and I’m so happy to reach the Magic Castle Hotel. My room is ready, a junior suite with a pool view, and my bags have already been brought up there. Alex and Derick couldn’t be any nicer or more efficient at check-in, and I’m offered a wide menu of complimentary candy and snacks (which is available to all guests 24-7). All I want is water, and there is an infused dispenser right behind me. I down a few cups while Alex completes the process.
When I get to the room I’m presented with another opportunity to sleep, but even though I won’t be meeting my friends for dinner for another 4 hours I opt against it. Instead I take a swim in the heated pool, make some coffee in the room, and then shower and change for the evening.
At 6:30 pm I’m back out in Hollywood, heading down Highland Avenue in the direction of the Cinerama Dome (where I’ll be meeting friends for dinner). I’m early, and an old neon sign beckons me to a bar. In the late 90s the Power House was a complete shit hole of the best possible kind. Dark, dirty, surly, and the perfect place to knock back a Jameson on the rocks after your last screenplay had been rejected for the twentieth time.
I wasn’t surprised to see the Power House had been reinvented as an upscale lounge. While I could certainly be mad that one of the all-time great dive bars of the neighborhood has classed itself up, as a visitor (and not a resident) I can just enjoy the vibe and my Bulleit on the rocks. The new owners of the Power House have gotten back to its original old Hollywood 1947 roots, with exposed brick, white tile, and hanging plants. I sip my cocktail, and when songs by Green Day, Sugar Ray, and Semisonic come over the speakers in succession, it’s like I’m back to 1999. Until my bill arrives.
My buddy Dave gets to Stella Barra sooner than expected, and I hustle down Highland and go left at Hollywood Boulevard. My memory fails me on how long it takes to get to the Cinerama Dome from the Power House, and it turns out to be a 25-minute walk in the dusk (I was thinking 15 max). I had cut down some side streets to get to Sunset, and went past the Crossroads of the World complex. When I lived in the neighborhood I always enjoyed walking by the cool 1930s buildings, and back then (as well as now) I couldn’t help but think of the scenes shot there in LA Confidential.
It’s been three years since I’ve seen Dave (when he and his fiancé Marley visited Hawaii), two years since I’ve hung-out with Kristi (on my last trip to LA), and it’s been over six since I’ve shared a cocktail with Matt (when we all had got together for a memorial for our friend Bradleigh). It’s so great to see all of them. The night is full of great conversation and the pizza and beer are quite tasty. I feel truly lucky to have the opportunity to spend time with these three wonderful people.
After dinner Matt and Dave get cookies from the bakery for their wife and fiancé respectively, and Kristi is off to her apartment because she has to get up early for work. We leave the restaurant, and I can’t help but be amazed at how the area has been transformed. When I lived in Hollywood, the Cinerama Dome was a cool but severely aged theater, and the best you could do for food was something prepackaged from one of the corner liquor stores. Now it was a full-on mall complex, with shopping and dining and a massive parking lot.
Matt and Dave had parked in the lot, and the three of us walk up to Matt’s car so he can share his band’s CDs with us (Matt Mann and the Shine Runners, who are truly awesome). Dave had worked all day in San Diego (and had driven back to LA directly for dinner), but he was up for a night cap so we could continue catching up.
Dave and I met in 1999 when we both worked for California Pizza Kitchen in downtown LA, and since then have remained great friends. A few years after I moved to San Francisco he enrolled at UC Berkeley, and while he was in school we would hang out whenever we got the chance. Tonight we ended up at Birds on Franklin, a cool place that I used to frequent back in the late 90s and which really hadn’t changed much.
Dave grew up in LA, and he was happy to be home. We talked a lot about the city, about our days here way back when and how we viewed the place now. Dave was very complimentary about his hometown, and I was as well. I then uttered words I thought I would never, ever say:
“I think I could live here again.”
When I left LA in 2004 I had no regrets. Two nights before I moved I saw Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at the Hollywood Bowl, and I had an epiphany when they played “Go Daddy-O”. Amongst the thousands of people and the bright lights and the great music, it hit me. I felt so lucky and greatful that I had actually moved to LA and followed my dream. But with this thought I was equally happy to be leaving, and I was sure I would never again be a resident.
In the twelve years since I left, I’ve been back to Los Angeles many times. This was the first visit where I actually said that I could move back. At Birds with Dave, after being up all day and ingesting an uncountable number of beers and cocktails, I became convinced I should dust off my old scripts and give screenwriting another go. It was sweet drunk talk, and after Dave drove me back to the Magic Castle I fall asleep in about five minutes.
I’ve been in LA for a whole day and I still have 24 more hours left . . . .
I lived in Los Angeles for six years, and whenever I return I’m struck by nostalgia in almost every direction. My feelings on the place are aggressively mixed. While I can never forget how much I struggled during those days, I have so many wonderful memories. The way I figure it, I could have easily never left.
Many years ago I wrote a novel set in L.A. (A Model Community), and I can still remember why the younger version of myself wrote these words:
Unlike many of my East Coast brethren, I did not consider Los Angeles as the devil incarnate. To me, it’s just so unimaginably easy to hate it. Sure, the menu of complaints was extensive: helicopters haphazardly buzzing around at night, smog settling like dust on your skin and lungs, parking lots posing as freeways, accidental architecture. There were gangs and crime and money was flaunted in the most shameless of manners. But none of the demeaning qualities of the city really overpowered me.
It was always tough to admit it while I was a resident from 1998 to 2004, but in many ways I did (in a vaguely Randy Newman-type manner) love L.A.
Los Angeles can easily overwhelm a visitor, but even a short trip can yield a terrific combo platter of what the city has to offer. But you need a plan. I only had 48 hours to spend in LA, and despite once being a resident, I did a lot of pre-trip research. While I figured I had to embrace the nostalgia, my goal was to get to know the city of 2016.
I took the red-eye from Honolulu and landed at LAX at 6:30 the next morning (3:30 am Hawaii Time). Knowing it would be an incredible longshot my room would be available that early, I still needed a destination to give to my cab driver. After I said “Magic Castle Hotel in Hollywood”, I wasn’t entirely sure the gray haired gentlemen heard me over the classic rock track cranking over the speakers. However, being on less than two hours’ sleep and with the cabbie joyfully exclaiming in his heavy Russian accent about how Deep Purple is his favorite band . . . I didn’t have the heart to ask if he understood.
While “Smoke on the Water” vibrated throughout my body, the driver got me to the Magic Castle Hotel without further instruction. As I figured, I couldn’t check-in because it was just after seven in the morning and they were completely sold out last night. But with friendly service they stored my bags and pointed me to their continental breakfast spread.
I had a choice . . . a lounge chair by the pool for a few hours of sleep before check-in time, or carpe diem the shit out of the day. I chose the latter and downed three cups of coffee and had some yogurt. Soon I was walking east down Franklin Avenue towards Griffith Park.
Having done my research, I knew the trailhead to the Hollywood Sign Hike was just over 2.5 miles from my hotel. With the trek itself being about five miles’ roundtrip, Uber or Lyft seemed the smart choice. So why, after almost no sleep after a long flight across the Pacific Ocean, did I decide to walk? Strangely, I felt pretty good physically and the coffee had given me a jolt. But maybe after the $70 cab ride, I didn’t want to pay any more money for transportation.
When I lived in L.A. I had done many hikes in Griffith Park, but for some reason never put the Hollywood Sign on my to-do list. It certainly wasn’t because I thought it was touristy (I had done the highly popular Griffith Observatory one on many occasions), or that I was unaware of its existence (I knew you could get there). While I’ll never know the reasons why I shunned the Hollywood Sign, it’s certainly an activity I should have done.
After almost two miles walking down the heavily trafficked Franklin Avenue, I took a left just after Gelson’s Market on Canyon Drive. Soon I was transported into a tranquil world. Residential of the highly upscale variety, I could hear the wind in the trees and birds chirping as I walked up the slight incline towards Griffith Park. After a short walk I reach the trailhead. If I had been driving, parking was available in a couple of lots on either side at the end of the road.
The Bronson Caves, which have been used in several movies throughout the years and most famously in the 60s Batman show, were just a short detour before beginning the trek to the Hollywood Sign. As it was nearing 9 am and I had a 2-and-a-half-hour hike ahead of me, I decided to get right to the main trail and forgo the Bat Caves until afterwards. However, I actually never get to see them because I was too hungry when I returned and needed to get to a bathroom.
But after the experience of walking all the way up and behind the Hollywood sign, I’m sure those little caves would have been a disappointment.
There was a fit couple in their 20s who started the hike approximately the same time as me, and with their speed and my just-happy-to-be-there gait, they quickly put distance between us. A few minutes later four people in their 50s speaking German passed me on their way down, and it was probably another 30 minutes before I saw anyone else on the trail. With the fog and the elevation and my lack of sleep, the whole experience was quite dreamlike.
I started getting weird thoughts. What if the exertion was too much on too little sleep and I pass out? There had to be mountain lions and rattlesnakes and David Lynch type monsters lurking just around the bend. But I quickly ousted those ridiculous macabre fantasies from my mind, and it’s easy to enjoy the moment.
The first thirty or so minutes of the hike is a steady incline with some switchbacks, and then it gets easy for a while until you reach the turnoff that will take you up behind the sign on Mount Lee. You need to step around quite a bit of horse poop, but otherwise the path is easy walking. On a clear day I’m sure the views of downtown and the entire surrounding area are outstanding, but the diaphanous fog was doing its best to shield the sights.
Before going up behind the Hollywood Sign, I keep going along the ridge with its old wooden fence running along the left. Through the fog I could just make out the Griffith Observatory and the outline of the skyscrapers in the distance. Down below a group of horses ambled around a pen. I reach the end of the path and can see the letters spelling out H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D above me, the closest I’ve ever been to them. After snapping a few photos, I turned back around towards the trail to get to the top of Mount Lee.
The sign still seemed far away, and with a big yawn I began to feel the lack of sleep. I wanted to take a nap in the grass, but I kept onward. It was up, up, up for maybe another 20 minutes before reaching my first extreme close-up view of the Hollywood Sign. Behind a high chain link fence and warnings forbidding closer access, I looked down at the giant letters in awe.
Built in 1923 to advertise a real estate development called Hollywoodland (the L-A-N-D letters were taken down in 1949), the sign originally lit up with bulbs and was only intended to exist for eighteen months. It then became a symbol of the glamour and glitz of the American film industry, and eventually morphed into a historical landmark of worldwide acclaim. Something I didn’t know (until Wikipedia recently told me), was the original 1923 letters had become so deteriorated they had to all be replaced (by bigger ones) in 1978.
Like countless people before and after, I moved to Hollywood in my twenties to make it in the film industry. For me the dream was to become a professional screenwriter. While I wrote several scripts, made many connections, and got read at some of the top agencies, I never got the proverbial big break.
When I made it to the top of Mount Lee that morning, a little winded and my calves feeling strained, I gazed down at the Hollywood Sign with respect. I couldn’t help but think of all the hours, days, weeks, months, and years I spent holed up in dingy apartments writing and hustling to sell my work. All the time hunched over a keyboard, doing my best to remain disciplined while my friends were out having fun. All of the near misses and rejections I received from agents and producers.
And I couldn’t help but smile.
I had always enjoyed the process, the honest and pure attempt at trying to reach my life goals. Since leaving Los Angeles I’ve never been so passionate, so dedicated to a singular vision. That’s probably the biggest reason why I loved living in L.A. back then (not the weather, or the history, or even all the great friends I made). And it’s why, despite failing to achieving those goals, I will always look upon my time there reverentially.