Wednesday Wonders: Fairfax

Millennials put Gen-Z on blast in this incisive satire of the influencer generation..

Amazon Prime premiered yet another original series recently and, while I’ve bad luck with most of them I’ve tried to watch so far, I gave this one a try, and it resonated for some reason.

The ones I’ve attempted and failed after one or two episodes have been shows like The Man in the High Castle: I mean, when you’ve adapted the entire source novella in the first episode and changed one pretty major plot detail, where do you have left to go?; The Boys: I got it in the first fifteen minutes. Real super heroes are assholes.

Although Hunters was probably the worst. In theory, it should be easy to get behind a show about fugitive Nazi hunters in the 1970s despite them casting very Italian Al Pacino as a very Jewish character — what, they couldn’t find any Jewish actors in Hollywood? — but then pulling the typical Amazon Original pilot sin of going way the hell over the top in several moments.

Yes, there’s something comedically chilling about a called-out Nazi criminal suddenly gunning down his entire family and visiting friends during a suburban barbecue in order to protect himself, but did we really have to see a rather corpulent actress in a shower scene shot in intimate and graphic detail as she is eventually gassed to death in her own bathroom?

Tales from the Loop was the other major fail for me. Based on an amazing art book by Simon Stålenhag, the problem is that the series remained as static as those wonderful pictures, never giving us any kind of engaging story.

The cardinal sin of entertainment: Never be boring!

The one series that did hook me and get me through the entire season was Upload, a dystopian piece of science fiction set in the near future in which people can actually upload their consciousnesses to a digital afterlife, but as with everything else, the more you can pay, the better you get.

It was theoretically picked up for a second season, but I’ve seen nary a hint of that happening yet. As of October 27 of this year, there was still no release date. Yeah, way to whiff on one of your actually good originals, Amazon.

This brings me back to Fairfax, though. A half-hour animated series centering around a group of middle school friends who are desperately trying to be influencers, it really feels like a room full of Millennial creators decided to get together and take the piss out of Gen-Z, and boy, do they succeed at it.

In case you’re neither of those generations and/or not in L.A., let me explain the title to you. Fairfax Avenue is a street that runs north-south in the city, physically starting just above Hollywood Boulevard, but it doesn’t become significant or interesting until it crosses Melrose, which is the location of Fairfax High School.

From that point south past CBS Television City and the Grove until it hits 3rd street, it has become the new hip mecca of WeHo adjacent Los Angeles.

I think a large part of why this happened is that Melrose, through the 80s and 90s, managed to become hipster central and eventually gentrified itself out of reach, so traffic took the route of least resistance and headed south.

The really interesting thing about Fairfax, though, is that it’s really only developed on the west side of the street, since so much of the east side is taken up by large public or commercial spaces — the high school, CBS Studios, and the Grove, which is a gigantic open-air mall.

As for CBS Television City, the place is a landmark, and home to a lot of really famous shows. They shot the Carol Burnett Show there, as well as The Price Is Right, Let’s Make a Deal, and a ton of soap operas, as well as basically every three-camera sitcom CBS ever aired.

You could get free taping tickets right outside the studio. At one point, it was pretty much drive-up and self-serve, as they had them set up in a pigeon-hole rack near the artists’ entrance.

No guarantee that you’d get into the taping, of course, and if you wanted to attend a 6 p.m. sitcom taping, best be in line by 2 p.m., unless it was one of the more popular shows (i.e. Let’s Make a Deal or The Price Is Right) in which case, just show up long before dawn.

But then there was the other side of Fairfax.

For years, it was home to a lot of family-run businesses, principally restaurants, clothing shops, and salons, and a lot of them are still there. One of the mainstays of Fairfax is Canter’s Deli, which opened in Boyle Heights in 1931, later moving to its present location on Fairfax.

In the series Fairfax, it’s affectionately parodied as Schwimmer’s Deli, although I really wish that the creators had had the balls to call it Mohel’s Deli. They do mock the prices as being high, which is kind of ironic because, comparatively, they really aren’t.

But, come on — where else can you actually get challah French toast?

My personal Canter’s favorite, the corner beef Reuben, is still only $19, which is right in line with what such an overstuffed “give me a doggie bag” sandwich costs anywhere else in the city. Fries included.

But I do digress…

Another point where Fairfax managed to tap into the zeitgeist — whether they were able to write and produce it after the fact or just really lucked out — is in a scene where all of the wanna-be influences line up for the chance to buy a Latrine Branded T-shirt (don’t ask), and while they line up south to north, the visuals look exactly like a very recent influencer landing on Fairfax as well.

That would be when Danny Duncan — a late-20s entrepreneur famous because who knows why? — opened the west coast branch of his Danny’s Cream Pies ice cream store on Fairfax recently, and the line to get in ran for several blocks, right past a lot of the landmarks depicted in the show Fairfax to boot.

Speaking of Fairfax, the school the show centers on is called Fairfax Middle School, which doesn’t exist. The closest thing is Fairfax Junior High, but that’s located many miles away in Bakersfield.

The show itself is told as a fish-out-of-water comedy, with that fish being Dale, a kid who has just moved to L.A. with his family from Bend, Oregon, and who is horribly out of touch with, well, everything.

It’s kind of ironic, actually, that a kid from Oregon would be cast as the out-of-touch one, considering how many hipsters fled L.A. for Oregon in the early 00s. But it ultimately winds up working.

By the second episode, the lesson starts to come through — if you really want to be an influencer, then be yourself, and not whom you think your audience wants you to be, and that could be a really interesting through-line for the rest of the season.

Box score: For the second time only, in my experience, Amazon originals creates a series worth watching.

In Memoriam: Silent Movie, Los Angeles, silenced

It’s appropriate, really, to repost this article I originally wrote for Filmmonthly.com about Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax which, in retrospect, seemed to have trouble with years ending in seven.

It was in 1997 that its owner was murdered by his lover in a faked robbery and 2017 when it shut down for good. Meanwhile, in 1999, Charlie Lustman bought the place on a whim and kept it going until it was taken over by Cinefamily in 2007. Rape allegations from 2014 revealed in 2017 shuttered the business.

I had been to Silent Movie many a time before Larry Austin was killed and, in fact, once talked to Robert Downey, Jr. there at intermission when he was doing research for his role in the film Chaplin. (And damn, is that mofo short. Or maybe it’s just that I’m tall.)

Anyway, 23 years after the fact, here’s my take at the time on a bit of violence in a theater I knew and loved so much.

LOS ANGELES — January 17, 1997. As a sell-out crowd laughs at the flickering images of comedian Larry Semon onstage, one young man in the back row isn’t watching the movie. He gets up and sneaks to the lobby where theatre owner Larry Austin is counting the receipts with another staff member. The young man pulls a gun and shoots Austin fatally, grabs the money and runs back out through the theatre, firing at least one shot into the wall on the way. Austin dies in this apparent armed robbery, but things don’t add up for the LA detectives on the case. In less than two weeks, they have discovered that this incident was a murder for hire, instigated by Austin’s lover and business partner, James Van Sickle, in an attempt to get his hands on Austin’s money, the theatre and its collection of rare silent films. The murder turned up sordid details like earthworms in a Sam Spade full of dirt. Austin probably bilked the former theatre owner out of her property and her films, and everyone involved seemed to be a little bit of a con artist. The real victim through it all was the business itself. In January, 1997, Silent Movie closed its doors. At the time, it seemed like that closure would be forever.

I had the great pleasure of attending Silent Movie many times in the Larry Austin days. Definitely the only regularly operating silent film venue in Los Angeles, and probably the world, the place drew huge crowds, many of them regulars, along with a good number of celebrities. I once met Robert Downey, Jr. there, preparing for his role in Chaplin. Like other famous attendees, he was just part of the crowd, hanging out and enjoying the common bond of experiencing cinema history. Larry Austin did a lot to foster that bond. He would greet the audience at the door personally, introduce the shows with trivia about the evening’s films and frequently host special guests. Silent Movie was always an experience one hundred and eighty degrees away from multiplex madness. Going there felt like an evening out with a few hundred friends to watch a film in someone’s living room. Sure, some of the seats were on the verge of collapse, the carpet was ratty, the ceiling was water-stained and the long-promised rear patio and cappuccino bar never materialized, but that didn’t matter. We were there for the movies that we couldn’t see on a big screen anywhere else and, for the several hours we sat in the dark watching, the audience members were not strangers. They were almost family.

Then, a misguided plot and someone’s greed ended it all. It looked like the property was going to be sold off by Los Angeles County, probably torn down and turned into a mini-mall, the film collection auctioned off into private collections to never be seen again.

Cue music, enter hero on white horse. Charlie Lustman, a local musician and songwriter, while out to grab a falafel at his favorite place on Fairfax, saw the “For Sale” sign on the building. Less than a month later, Silent Movie was his and, in November 1999, the place re-opened, to the gratitude of its many, many fans.

Silent Movie is back, and with a vengeance.

For starters, the place has been refurbished. No longer a slightly tacky, musty room, the carpets, walls and seats have all been re-done. The long promised but never delivered outside patio and upstairs cappuccino bar are open, and the new marquee outside is large and brightly lit, beckoning to the crowds to come in. All these little details hint that Charlie cares about the place. Attending a performance proves it.

In the old days, Larry Austin’s presence and intros gave a homey feel to the experience. Charlie has carried on the tradition, but he’s much hipper than Larry ever was, and he’s also quite a showman. At a recent performance I attended, he took the stage, introduced himself, then held up a sign to triumphantly declare that the performance was sold out. (This is not uncommon at Silent Movie, and I do recommend arriving early.) He also did intermission schtick as a typical hunchbacked assistant, in keeping with the Silent Horror theme of the week. Before the first film, we were treated to a short routine by a magician decked out and made-up just like Conrad Veidt in the evening’s feature, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (reviewed elsewhere here).

Everyone at Silent Movie gets into the routine. The theatre staff help to ensure that everyone finds a seat and that couples attending get to stay that way. When they ask if people sitting between empty seats can move over to accommodate, everyone gladly does; it’s just that kind of friendly atmosphere. On the night I attended, the staff searched for a seat for a late-arriving woman. Finding none, an usher announced in dramatic tones, “Then we shall give her a pillow, and she shall sit where she pleases…” By the way, the show doesn’t start until everyone is inside and in their seats. If it takes fifteen minutes to manage this, so be it. The result is a very relaxed, unrushed experience.

Then, it’s time for the show to begin — but not the main event. The program at Silent Movie usually starts with a few surprises, rare silent shorts that you’re not going to see anywhere else. Like the main feature, they are accompanied by live music from piano or organ, a necessity for silent films and definitely an essential atmosphere builder.

The night I attended, the first item on the bill was Winsor McCay’s 1921 cartoon, The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (also known as The Pet). McCay, newspaper cartoonist turned film animator, is best known for his character Little Nemo. While the story in Rarebit Fiend is slight, the animation is gorgeous, using intricately detailed backgrounds that look engraved, and meticulous character animation. I thought at first that the human characters in the film were rotoscoped — that is, live action footage was hand-traced to create the animation. In fact, they were not. McCay just took that much time and care in his work to give his little humans such reality. The result is a charming and funny story, recounting the dream that our titular fiend has after consuming the also titular rarebit. In case you’ve never heard of rarebit, it’s a cholesterol-laden concoction made of eggs, cheese, butter, beer, ham and toast. No wonder it causes nightmares. In this particular episode, the nightmare involves a cute and perky little… um… puppy-like thing that wanders into the house one day. The wife is enthralled, the husband, our dreamer, isn’t. The puppy, or whatever it is, proceeds to eat. And grow. And eat. And grow. Eventually, it’s terrorizing the city Godzilla style, munching on streetcars and buildings until a fleet of biplanes literally drops the bomb — long before the famous King Kong finale. What makes the film is the strange new pet, which frolics around the place with such gleeful abandon that it’s infectious. If you’re interested in seeing all surviving Winsor McCay films, they’re available on video and DVD.

The other pre-show feature came from Germany. Called, I think, “Die Überthaler,” it’s a very moody, atmospheric, weird piece about a coin that seems to be cursed and the man who finds it in the street. Eventually, he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Pursued by a street thug intent on robbing him, our hero takes refuge in a prostitute’s parlor, only to soon learn that she and her pimp are also intent on assault and theft. The editing, pacing and choice of camera angles in this grim little tale struck me as very modern, with ample use of close-ups, quick cutting, point of view and the like.

But, I do digress…the two short flicks were the pre-intermission entertainment. During intermission, I checked out the patio and cappuccino bar, and both are great places for hanging out. The patio is large and open, but be aware that it’s the haven for the nicotine hounds in attendance, a rarity, since smoking is now banned almost everywhere in Los Angeles. The cappuccino bar is a cozy upstairs room and, the night I was there hosted to a mini-exhibit of figures from famous horror movies courtesy of the Creature Features bookstore in Burbank. Creature Features also provided the post-intermission raffle give-away goodies. Yes, goodies.

Like I said, an evening at Silent Movie is always full of surprises. Whether you live in LA or you plan to visit, a trip to the place is essential. When you’ve gone once, you just have to go again… and again… and again. Don’t be surprised if you start preferring trips to this place over the latest release down at the cineplex.

And don’t be surprised if Charlie Lustman keeps this landmark going for decades. With his enthusiasm and showmanship, the real nickelodeon survives, a living reminder of exactly what it was about movies that made them the medium of the twentieth century.

Image source, Charlesconstantine, unaltered, shared via Creative Commons (cc) Sharealike 3.0 licence.

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