The art of war

Ending just over a century ago, World War I, originally known as The Great War or the War to End All Wars, turned out to be none of the above, since it was eclipsed by its sequel, World War II — to date, the planet’s only nuclear war — which also outdid the first World War in terms of “greatness” if you take “great” to mean number of deaths. Also, obviously, the fact that there was a II to follow the I — and many other wars thereafter to the present day — means that World War I didn’t end any wars at all.

What’s often forgotten about the aftermath of that wr was the effect it had on the people who lived through it — sometimes barely — and especially the effect it had on the arts and culture, as well as the politics of the rest of the first half of the 20th century. It left a generation that was as stunned as the post-Vietnam generation. In fact, it gave us the original term for what we now call PTSD: shell-shock.

In the arts, it gave us things like Dada, which led to Surrealism, which were both efforts to deal with the absolute horror of what really was the first modern war. After all, WWI gave us the first aerial warfare with planes (after a brief prelude in Mexico), the first trench warfare and the first large-scale chemical warfare. It also led to the development of new techniques in plastic surgery. Hey, gotta figure out how to rebuild all those faces that got blown off, right?

But it was the art connection that really hit home, because I can think of three films that dealt with World War I that have really stuck with me — the first because of the way it manages to demonstrate the pure horror of that war and all wars, and the other two because they show, brilliantly, how that war went on to influence the arts and artists of that generation as they grew up after it.

The oldest film and oldest source is Johnny Got His Gun, based on a book written Dalton Trumbo in 1938 — or, in other words, right before the sequel to the Great War was released. Ironically, he was later blacklisted as a communist in the 1950s. The movie came out in 1971, at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement. Both it and the book tell a first-person story about a young veteran of World War I who comes home with all of his limbs and his face blown off. He basically has no way to communicate with the world, and keeps reliving the war while telling us what he can sense — which is mostly the sounds and touches from the nurses around him.

It’s a very dark and hopeless story. This man has basically been condemned to be trapped in his own practically useless body which is just being kept alive because, well, it’s what you do for the wounded, right? He is denied euthanasia and can’t even commit suicide. Even though he finally manages to try to communicate in Morse code by banging his head on his pillow, he’s ignored — just like so many veterans of that (and other) wars have been.

The second film, Savage Messiah, is one of Ken Russell’s earlier biopics. Released in 1972, it tells the story of artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Gaudier was his birth name, but he had a rather unconventional relationship with a much older woman and took her name as a hyphenate way before it was even a thing, even though they never married.

Eventually, he marches off voluntarily to fight in World War I, and one of the scenes near the end of the film is one that has stuck with me since I first saw it in an art-house revival years ago. One character is reading a letter from Henri on the front that is glorifying the war, talking about killing the enemy. Another character, pitched as somewhat of an antagonist, says, “Whoever wrote that should be shot,” and the man reading the letter replies, “He was. This morning.”

And that is how we find out that this artist and sculptor is dead. It’s one of those rug-yank moments that works so well.

The final film, Max, came out thirty years after Savage Messiah, but is perhaps the strongest synthesis of the “how this war affected the arts” with “how this war got a sequel.” In it, John Cusack plays the titular character, a would-be artist who lost his painting arm in the trenches and so who is now just an art dealer and agent. He meets a young Hitler, portrayed by the brilliant Noah Taylor, and tries to mentor him, but it does not go well because Hitler cannot understand the human side of art while Max cannot see Hitler’s nascent fascism in his works.

One of the highlights is a Dadaist performance piece by Max in which he is lowered, apparently nude and with lost arm in full view sans prosthetic, into a giant meat-grinder while he talks about the war, tons of ground beef pouring out the business end. While the character of Max Rothman in 1918 may have been fictional, the film is still a very effective take on the emotional scars that this war left on everyone who had to live through the battlefield. Only the dead were left with just physical scars, and not emotional ones, although that’s probably not better.

Of course, there are a bunch of top-rated World War I movies, some made before, a lot made after; some of which I’ve seen, a lot of which I’ve haven’t, along with the long list of all World War I movies. Also, I can’t forget Black Adder Goes Forth, which basically ended a beloved series with (SPOILER ALERT) all of the characters rushing out of the trench to their certain deaths. But, c’mon. It’s a Black Adder series. That shouldn’t be a surprise at all, considering how the first one ended.

Finally, to really bring it full circle, Rajiv Joseph wrote a play about the start of World War I called Archduke which was pretty amazing and that played in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 2017, exactly a century after the U.S. finally entered WWI.

Oh yeah. The other big effect of that war? It’s the one that solidified the U.S. as a world super-power after we fired the first shot in the Spanish-American War but before we stole the thunder from Britain and France by finally jumping in to end the First World War. That part is not necessarily good, though, either.

What films about war particularly move you? Tell us in the comments!

Icons passing

One sure sign of incredible talent is becoming a cultural icon. What defines a cultural icon? Somebody who is famous for generations after they’ve actually done their final work. One of the major examples in the Western World is, of course, William Shakespeare. You know his name. You know his plays. All of this even though he died 408 years ago, which is 287 years before anyone now living was born. Yes, you read both of those numbers correctly.

Closer to home, though, there are names of people I can mention who did their final work and/or died long ago that are still known to all current living generations, right down to Millennials, and probably even Gen-Z: Jimi Hendrix. Jim Morrison. Marilyn Monroe. James Dean. The Marx Brothers. Charlie Chaplin. Buster Keaton. I mean, just the fact that every one of those links goes to an official site for the named person should tell you a lot, considering that they all died before the internet was officially born.

It can go back even further — Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Aeschylus. And if you throw in political leaders like presidents and monarchs and emperors, the list gets really long. In your own lives, it includes your parents and grandparents and, if you’re lucky, maybe even at least a great-grand round, if not great-great.

So when we lose true icons during our own lifetimes, they become a matter of mass mourning across generations, and we lost two of them this week. I’m referring, of course, to Doris Day and Tim Conway. It’s a perfect example of how humans are naturally drawn to contrasts — it is far more tragic when comedic actors pass away.

It’s also very telling that their deaths blew up social media.

I saw posts from people of all generations about both of them, even though Day was 97 and Conway was 85. She made her last two films in 1968, then went on to focus on animal welfare, only coming back to do a brief TV talk show in the 1980s, most notable for her interview of previous co-star and good friend Rock Hudson, who was visibly emaciated due to AIDS. He would die because of it a year later — the first high-profile public figure to be outed in this manner. Ironically (because he’d always been closeted until then), this was a big impetus for the whole gay rights AIDS treatment/ACT UP movements. Doris stuck by him through it all and all the way to the end, which says a lot about her character. This also made her a gay icon, more on which below.

Her film career and music career almost completely overlap — 1948 to 1968 for the former, and 1945 to 1967 for the latter.

As for Conway, although he kept working into this century, after doing one episode of 30 Rock in 2008, he only made two more appearances in 2013 and 2015 on TNT and the Hallmark Channel. Arguably, though, he is probably most well-known for his role in The Carol Burnett Show from 1975 until it ended in 1978 — kind of surprising, really, since the show actually ran for eleven seasons, beginning in 1967, and yet he is mainly associated with it. The big reason that Conway became iconic for those three years is because the show was syndicated and, like I Love Lucy, has been rerun almost continuously since it went off the air.

There’s another icon for you. Lucille Ball. When Gillian Anderson popped up playing her in American Gods, you didn’t need any explanation no matter how young you are. See how that works?

For me, I first saw a lot of those classic Doris Day films in the 80s and 90s thanks to the miracle of video rental. And, by that point, since we all knew that Hudson was gay and he was dead, it made those rom-coms they made together in the 50s and 60s all the more… interesting. She always had this reputation as being virginal and he’d always had the reputation of being homosexual, so they were sort of the perfect couple. Toss in Tony Randall — who was the prissiest straight man on the planet — and it became really entertaining high camp.

There’s a reason that Doris became a gay icon, at least in WeHo in the 80s and 90s, and a lot of that had to do with a place called Video West — sadly, another victim of the internet and streaming. They had all of her movies, and I think they might have even had a Doris Day section, so the old queens who ran the place passed the torch to us twinks who were renting.

And so on.

But she also became an icon to everyone else for very similar reasons. She did the right thing when it was necessary, and she made some really entertaining films over the course of only twenty years. Imagine that for a second. Her film career was only about one fifth of her life.

As for Conway, as I mentioned above, he  actually benefited from the internet, because so many of his clips from The Carol Burnett Show wound up online thanks to that show being replayed constantly, and a YouTube search for “Tim Conway Carol Burnett” will turn up a treasure trove of clips. (Currently, of course, it will also result in a lot of news stories lamenting his passing, but that’s just how it works.)

One thing I loved about Tim was that he could make anyone else on stage with him crack in a heartbeat while keeping a straight face, and one of the most famous moments in which he did that is his “Elephant Story” from a “Mama’s Family” sketch on The Carol Burnett Show. Here it is:

If this one doesn’t make you fall on the floor laughing, you have no soul. He’s clearly making it up on the fly, so he’s an improviser after my own heart, but the more sincerely he does it, the harder he makes it for everyone else not to just lose it. This is comedic brilliance, it is why Mr. Tim Conway is an icon, now and forever, even if you were born two or three decades after he last appeared on Carol’s show. (And Vicki Lawrence is no slouch for having added the button to the scene that kills everyone.)

As for Doris, let me leave you with this — one of her most famous songs in a famous Hitchcock film, Que Será Será from his second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

By the way, she really nails the Spanish pronunciation, too. In context, she’s singing the song in order to send a signal to her kidnapped son that Mom and Dad are here, which makes the lyrics even more meaningful near the end. This is basically a woman with a metaphorical gun held to her head trying to put on a brave face, and Doris nailed it.

So there you go. There are reasons that people become icons, and Doris and Tim definitely earned that status. The Earth is a sadder place for them having left it, but we are fortunate that what they left behind is so damn wonderful. Search them up, watch their stuff, and enjoy. They’d like that.

Who are your favorite icons who died long before you were born? Share in the comments!

Great Caesar’s ghost! Or not…

As my regular readers know, I do improv comedy for the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League on Monday nights, as well as work box office for the company, which is located in the smaller space in the historic El Portal Theater, which has quite a history.

It was built in 1926 and housed both vaudeville shows and movies. It was badly damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, although fortunately restored to become a live theater, with three performance spaces. The smaller one, where ComedySportz is now resident, was originally occupied by Actors Alley and then later briefly by The Company Rep before they moved.

In an ironic full-circle, I joined that company as a playwright while they were at the El Portal, then continued on to act with them as they moved to the NoHo Arts Center and the former location of the Deaf West Theater, where I received a glowing review for my turn as a depressed, unicycle riding bear.

So that’s the background on the building. The other thing to keep in mind is that both Debbie Reynolds and Marilyn Monroe used to come to the place to watch movies when they were kids, and the main space and our theater are named after them respectively. The other is that it is an ancient tradition to believe that all theaters are haunted by ghosts.

Note: I don’t believe in ghosts at all, but I do believe that there are certain psychological and physical factors that can make people think they’ve seen them.

Now to the real start of the story. Recently, I had to pull double-duty running the box office and working as house manager on a night when we had shows at eight and ten in the evening. This meant that I had to come open up at six and stick around until the last show and the notes afterward were over, so I was there until midnight.

As part of the closing up procedure, I have to go up to our booth to shut down the light and sound boards and computer, and then have to make sure that there’s no one still working on the main stage. This means I get to go into the main theater lobby, which is deserted, and then into the main stage itself.

That night, I walked into the space, which was dark except for the so-called ghost-light, and called out asking if anyone was there, and for some reason, I got a sudden chill. You know the feeling, right? It’s like every hair on your body suddenly stands up and you feel that electricity travel from your feet to your head. It’s an ancient reaction common to mammals, and if you’ve ever seen a cat puff up or a dog raise its hackles, then you’ve seen it. It’s a defense mechanism designed to make us look bigger when we’re feeling unsure, although it doesn’t really work as well for humans, mainly because it doesn’t affect the hair on our heads and the hair on our bodies (for most of us) isn’t think enough to make us really puff much.

I wrote it off as the psychological weirdness of walking into a dark, cavernous space all alone late at night, then jokingly waved at the stage and said, “Hi, Debbie!” before heading back out to close up.

The next evening, I was talking to Pegge, the Managing Director, and Steve, the House Manager, of the theater and told them about this, and Pegge immediately told me with complete sincerity, “Oh, no. The ghost’s name is Robert. Don’t worry, he won’t hurt you.” She went on to explain that he was the theater’s original accountant back in the 1920s, and people always saw him dressed very formally, with a high white collar. According to her, there’s also a female ghost who would escort patrons to their seats and then vanish.

Steve explicitly stated that he doesn’t believe in ghosts either, but that he has had a number of people over the years independently mentioning seeing both of them and giving identical descriptions of each, generally wondering, “Who was that person I thought I saw before they just disappeared?”

It’s all rather intriguing and now I want to experience these phenomena just to try to figure out what could be creating these illusions in people’s minds. It is a very old building, and late at night also tends to be preternaturally quiet because the really high ceilings and carpeted and padded interiors like to eat sound.

Also, the single source ghost light on stage tends to create deep shadows and bright highlights, and high contrast lighting like that can create all kinds of visual tricks. Finally, the place does sit right above the L.A. Metro Red Line subway tunnel and has for 20 years. I can often hear the rumble of trains passing beneath the lobby, and the connection between low frequency infrasound and ghosts has been established. That’s exactly the kind of sound a rushing subway train might create toward the back of a large space.

Back to that ghost light, though. It’s a romantic name, but is also known as the Equity light, after the actors’ union. Its real reason for being there is to keep people passing through the space after hours from walking into things or falling into the orchestra pit. `

As for why there’s such a belief of ghosts in theaters? I’m not sure, but maybe we can blame Shakespeare, because he certainly loved the trope. Hamlet Sr.? Banquo? Richard III’s nightmare before Bosworth field? Both parts of Henry VI and the only part of Henry VIII? A whole family of ghosts who visited Cymbeline? (A rarely performed and underrated play, by the way, that manages to be both gross and funny at the same time.)

And, of course, there’s the titular ghost for this post, who also gave Perry White of Superman fame his famous catchphrase.

So I’ll be keeping an eye out for Robert and the nameless female usher in future days, and will report back on anything unusual I experience. This is definitely going to be interesting.

Have you seen or experienced anything you’d call “ghost-like?” If so, how do you explain it? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Painting, La morte di Giulio Cesare, by Vincenzo Camuccini, c. 1806. Public domain in the United States.

Four expressions that are older than you think

One of the things I do when I edit and fact-check other people’s books and scripts is to check for anachronisms, which are things that are out of their proper time. For example, let’s say that a major plot element in a thriller is a stolen thumb drive with the names of every undercover agent on it. That’s a great MacGuffin… unless you set your script before 2000, when USB thumb drives were not commercially available. (At a stretch, I’d give you 1999, since we’d be dealing with governmental agencies and all that.)

A very common one that I’ve seen so many times that it’s one of my first searches on period pieces is use of the term “Ms.” Well, not all period pieces, since any story set before 2009 is now considered a period piece, but definitely those that are set before about 1972, which is when the term started to become part of mainstream vernacular. Oddly enough, though, it was first proposed as a neutral alternative to Mrs. and Miss as early as 1901, although it was used as a written abbreviation of “mistress” only as far back as the 17th century. Keep in mind, though, that this usage had nothing to do with treating women as equals and everything to do with male scribes figuring out how to spare themselves writing six letters by hand every time they recorded a record about a single female.

But this brings up an interesting point. Technically, yes the term “Ms.” is a lot older than you’d think. On the other hand, its usage in its modern sense pretty much began as noted above, in the early 1970s. There are other expressions, though, that really are a lot older than you think, so in the spirit of my story about inventions that are older than you think, here we go.

Robot

We haven’t quite perfected the fully autonomous humanoid robot, although Honda’s ASIMO has come close. Keep in mind, though, that they’ve been working on it for over thirty years now. And, surprisingly, while there’s a certain resemblance to the name of a famous science fiction author, the name ASIMO really refers to “Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility.”

The author in question, Isaac Asimov, is famous for writing a lot of both science fiction and science fact, but one of his series, I, Robot, is famous for establishing the Laws of Robotics. However, while they’ve always been popular with science fiction fans, they really didn’t explode onto the scene until a kind of lame 2004 film adaptation, although if you’ve ever owned a Roomba, Scooba, Braava, or Mirra, then you’ve done business with the iRobot. But either of these would probably make you think that robots are a fairly recent invention.

Of course, if you owned any kind of modem between the 1970s and mid-1990s, it might have come from the company US Robotics. Guess where they got their name… That’s right. Also Asimov.

But if you’re only a film fan and not a tech or science fiction nerd, you might think that robots were created in the 1950s, with the appearance of Robby the Robot in the film Forbidden Planet. Never mind that, at least in literature, Asimov got to robots by 1940, because that’s still too early.

The actual origin of the word “robot” is in a 1920 play by Karel Čapek called R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. He adapted that word from an old Church Slavonic term rabota, which meant slave or serf. And if you’d like to, you can listen to a reading of the play itself.

To do someone

If someone were to say to you, “Hey, do me,” you’d probably take it in a sexual sense, right? And that also seems like a really modern usage of the phrase. Just thinking back through pop culture, I have it my head that Austin Powers said something like, “Oh, do me, baby” (he didn’t,”) but the slang must have begun with the Beatles in 1968 on the White Album, with the song “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.”

I really couldn’t find any clear sources for “do it” or “to do” in a sexual sense back from 1968, but I did find one from 1588, in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which reads as follows:

                                   DEMETRIUS
     Villain, what hast thou done?

                                     AARON
     That which thou canst not undo.

                                    CHIRON
     Thou hast undone our mother.

                                     AARON
     Villain, I have done thy mother.

If you doubt this reading, then just take a look at this scene from Julie Taymor’s brilliant adaptation, and you’ll see that it’s exactly how Willie Shakes intended it to read.

Motherfucker

You might think that this one was invented by Samuel L. Jackson, who uses it so eloquently, or maybe it was a product of the 1960s. While the movie M*A*S*H infamously was the first major motion picture to use the back half of the word, it was Myra Breckinridge that turned things on its head by using the word in full, but bleeping “mother” instead of “fucker.”

Prior to the 1960s, this term is alleged to have been used by slaves in America before the Civil War to describe owners who would rape the slaves’ mothers as a psychological breaking tactic, but this probably isn’t true. The earliest attestations come from a court case in 1889, so its origin probably dates back a bit earlier than that, although in the case documents it’s an adjective, motherfucking, instead of the noun, motherfucker. The noun form didn’t pop up until 1917, when a black soldier referred to the draft board as “low-down motherfuckers.”

Seeing pink elephants

This is an old expression to indicate either that someone was habitually drunk or they were an alcoholic experiencing DTs due to lack of booze. Nowadays, the expression has mostly fallen out of use with the understanding that alcoholism is a disease, and nothing to joke about, although it’s still a part of pop culture because of Disney’s original 1941 version of Dumbo, but that isn’t the origin of the expression or the idea. And while it is frequently attributed to Jack London in his 1913 novel John Barleycorn, it actually goes back a bit farther than that, to sometime between 1883 and 1903, ten years before that book came out. It had a lot to do with the disappointment of audiences who were expecting to see a rare white elephant — white because of its albinism — but the beasts actually turned out to be closer to pink. In case you haven’t seen it, the scene in Dumbo is an incredible bit of animated surrealism called “Pink Elephants on Parade” — and I swear that the animators hid one of those infamous Disney toon penises at about the 2:40 mark. Watch the elephant’s trunk.

What’s your favorite slang expression that’s a lot older than people think?

Limitations lead to imitations which lead to innovations

The theater where I work for ComedySportz L.A. and perform on their Rec League is inside of a building known as the El Portal Theater. It was originally built in 1926 as a vaudeville house and then became a movie theater. The Northridge Earthquake of 1994 wrecked the interior of the building and exposed the asbestos in it, so the entire interior was gutted and redone. It eventually reopened, again a live theater, but this time with two spaces inside — the Debbie Reynolds Mainstage, the Monroe Forum (home of ComedySportz), and the Studio Theater, home of Stuart Rogers Studios and the Acting Tribe.

In case you’re wondering… Debbie’s and Marilyn’s names are plastered all over the building because they used to see movies there as kids, and Debbie performed on the mainstage many times and donated some of the furniture in the lobby, which appeared in her 1964 film The Unsinkable Molly Brown, in which she played Kathy Bates. Er… the character Kathy Bates played in Titanic. (Bates arguably resembled the real-life Margaret “Molly” Brown much more closely, but Debbie was a better dancer and singer — unless you ask Gene Kelly, although, to be fair, he was kind of a dick, and not really a great actor.)

There’s your location. And notice that both the Monroe Forum and the Studio Theater have resident companies. Meanwhile, the big house, with its 360 seats, does not. Instead, it functions as a rather pricey rental house — starting at $3,000 an evening or $10,000 per week, plus labor, which adds $120 per hour for three techs and a house manager, although I’m sure that none of them actually get the published rates after the house takes its cut.

As a direct result of this, most of the shows that appear on the mainstage fall into one of two categories: Vanity projects by people with more money than talent — every single one a musical! — or tribute bands, impersonators, or cover shows. And the damn things tend to sell right the hell out. Meanwhile, in our theater, we do sell well, but obviously we’re only filling 94 seats a night, not 360.

Now what’s the big difference between the two? Simple. By its very nature, improv is different every single time. Okay, sure — each of our shows has the same general format: the ref and teams are introduced, the ref explains the rules and fouls, then warms the audience up. We then have the “coin toss,” which never involves a coin, and this is followed by a team vs. team game that generally is scored based on either elimination or rotations, a pair of individual team games rated by audience applause, sometimes followed by another pair, depending on which League is playing, and then another team vs. team game to end the half. The second half is team vs. team, two individual games, and then final team vs. team, which itself is usually always a pun-based “jump-out” game.

But… it’s improv, so while that skeleton is always the same, the flesh and muscle poured on top of it is as varied — or even more so — as every human being on Earth. And, c’mon — every one of us, short of amputations or medical conditions, basically has the same number of bones. Everything on top of them, though, is hugely variable.

But on the mainstage, barring the vanity projects, what do we get? One imitation after another. I can’t tell you how many Elvis shows I’ve seen pass through here. Recently, there was a John Lennon impersonator with band — although he was good — and an ABBA tribute band that looked and sounded like the real thing. A couple of months back, we had a David Bowie (not so good, but apparently he was under the weather), and, as I mentioned, way too many Elvi. There was also an old band I’d never heard of, the Four Freshmen, which has apparently completely replaced its members several dozen times since it was founded right after the end of World War II. That one sold the place out for a weekend.

Think about that, anyone who is a marketer, and especially a millennial. A theater in the Valley stuffed itself full, and the age ranges of the audiences are enormous. Most nights, they probably literally have everyone from nine to ninety. Some shows are skewed more toward the latter, but the point is that no matter how cheesy you might think these productions are, they sell.

Pop quiz. There’s going to be a tribute band show coming up. How interested are you in seeing them? Here are your choices: A) A tribute band for an unspecified group for a specified decade, from 1940s to 1990s, or B) A tribute band for a specific group or artist that you name.

You all voted for option B, didn’t you? Because of course you did, and the band you voted for is one of your favorites, and most likely is one that you either saw live when you were in your teens or twenties or one whose music you love but you never got a chance to see them live. Chances are also good that it’s a band or artist that either is no longer together or isn’t currently touring or performing. Or, sadly, alive.

We can see this need for the familiar in formats other than live concerts, though. For example, look at movies, where the dominant forms for several decades now have been franchises, some of them running for years — Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Marvel and DC Universes, and Lord of the Rings. There’s also the one notable series that made the jump from being a multi-program television franchise to becoming a long-running movie franchise, Star Trek. And we can’t forget the granddaddy of them all — James Bond, which has been cranking out movies now for nearly sixty years.

The other format of the familiar is, of course, the remake, along with its more recent cousin the “reboot,” which just seems to be a way of saying “we’re remaking this way too soon.” (I’m looking at you, Spider Man franchise.) But we’ve been seeing remakes since forever. The recent fourth version of A Star Is Born is just one example, but the remake craze hit Hollywood in the 1930s. As soon as sound became a thing, there was frenzy of remaking silent movies in this new format.

Yes, totally original works do catch on, but if you want to create a cash machine, recycle the familiar. Why does this work? Well, on the one hand, it’s because of the power of nostalgia. In short, it’s the often mistaken belief that everything was better during X era. Quite frequently, if you’re over 30, that era corresponds to when you were a kid or maybe a teen, but things only seemed better because you didn’t have any adult responsibilities at the time. If you’re under 30, then that nostalgia may settle on one or two decades before the one you were born in. That is, if you were born in the 90s, you might be nostalgic for the 80s or 70s. And this one happens because, face it, you’re young, you don’t have a lot of money, people don’t take you seriously — it can’t have been that bad for people my age ten or twenty years ago, right?

But there’s another force that has nothing to do with nostalgia, and it was summed up perfectly by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea in their magnum opus The Illuminatus! Trilogy. You really should seek out and read all of Wilson’s works. I was fortunate enough to attend a couple of his live weekend-long seminars long ago, and they were amazing. Plus one of them also landed me a date (and sex) with a smoking hot nerd from UCLA — although hot and nerd are redundant in my book. But I do digress…

I’ll just drop the relevant quote from the trilogy here, because it says it all:

“All humans are irrational, but there are two different kinds of irrationality — those who love old ideas and hate and fear new ones, and those who despise old ideas and joyfully embrace new ones: Homo neophobus and Homo neophilus. Neophobus is the original human stock, the stock that hardly changed for the first four million years of human history. Neophilus is the creative mutation that has been popping up at regular intervals during the past million years, giving the race little forward pushes… Neophilus makes a lot of mistakes, but he or she moves. They live life the way it should be lived, ninety-nine percent mistakes and one percent viable mutations.”

Neophobus are still the majority, sadly, which is why tribute bands and remakes are so popular. Personally, as a total neophilus, I just don’t get it. I mean, okay, sure I have my own favorite shows and movies, but there are very few of those I watch over and over. I think that 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brazil, 12 Monkeys, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail are among the few movies that I will watch again and again. On the TV side of things, the winners are Father Ted, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Prisoner, and Doctor Who. Oh, all right. And Are You Being Served? But then I look at that list and realize that every single one has something in common.

They are all from the British Isles, even if the director of 2001 was American, and nearly half of them are related to Monty Python. But this just goes right back to the nostalgia thing, actually, because every one of these but Father Ted and 12 Monkeys (from the 90s) came out when I was a kid, or even before I was a human.

Oh yeah… of course the musical Spamalot! pulled me right because it was based on… well, you know. So I’m not immune to the lure of the familiar either, I’d just like to think that I’m more immune to it than a lot of people. But I think the real lesson here is this. It’s okay to fall back on the familiar once in a while, but we all need to make a more concerted effort to seek out the new and novel. After all, every single one of those artists or bands who now has a cover or tribute show has that for one simple reason: They were so novel in their own time that they made a mark and often changed artistic history. They were the giant pebble dropped in the pond of what was, and the ripples they left turned into the waves that created what is.

Elvis. The Beatles. Bowie. Elton. Queen. Prince. And so on. They may be oft-imitated now because they are deeply embedded in so many of our psyches, but the important lesson for all artists is this: imitate, and then innovate. Stand on the shoulders of giants in order to eventually make yourself taller and drag your audience with you to a higher viewpoint. Manage that, and one day they’ll be doing tribute bands or remakes or reboots of what you have created.

Time of the signs

As I’ve mentioned here many times before, I spend a lot of time working and performing in North Hollywood, which has really sort of become the de facto downtown of the San Fernando Valley even though Van Nuys is where all of the L.A. City Government stuff is and Burbank is considered the hub of the entertainment industry, although only one of the Big 5 movie studios is actually there. That’s because most of the smaller production companies and post-production houses are in that city.

But North Hollywood, along with Universal City (guess which studio is there, even if one word in their official name is a lie), are the two Valley communities that are directly connected by the L.A. Metro Red Line to Hollywood and Downtown L.A. (DTLA) themselves. In fact, it was the opening of the North Hollywood Red Line Metro Station on June 24, 2000 that jump-started the process of North Hollywood rapidly changing (some would say gentrifying) from a place that you would not have wanted to be after sunset to a place that has a thriving night-life and a rich artistic culture. There are theaters both live and film, art galleries, several escape rooms, educational spaces, coffee shops, tons of restaurants, and tons of actors and artists who live here.. It’s also home to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, i.e. the Emmy People.

Despite the gentrification, it still has some of the cheaper apartments and housing available in the Valley, all conveniently within walking distance of those theaters and performance spaces and the subway. And while it was long known as North Hollywood, sometime during this whole process it was rebranded as NoHo. To be honest, that’s an expression I first used in an unproduced play of mine years before anyone else said it, and in my take it was a put down — emphasis on “No,” but I’m not bitter, and that’s not the point here.

But that’s just background to this piece, and the TL;DR is that at one point in time, up to about twenty years ago, NoHo was a shithole of a place. Once the arts started to flourish here, so did the neighborhood itself, and it’s still great. But it is starting to show some cracks. For one thing, there has been a sudden, recent influx of homeless people in the area. Here’s a paradox, though. Winding up with a lot of homeless people is actually a sign of success of an area, not failure. That’s because people without the security of a place to live are not going to risk trying to survive on the streets in a place in which it is not even safe to live inside. Homeless people don’t flock to Detroit, or the South Side of Chicago, or South Central L.A.

Fortunately, voters in the city of Los Angeles passed things like Proposition HHH and Measure H, designed to help the homeless, and we’re starting to see the benefits. (Ironically, the big hold up to making this happen isn’t government red tape. It’s the inevitable NIMBYs who want to help… unless they think it will affect them directly.)

So, back to the original point and reason for this article. One of the projects that popped up after NoHo started to recover was a place called NoHo Commons, a mixed-use development that combines living and commercial space, as in apartments and condos on top of commercial businesses and next to office space, all of it on top of or adjacent to public transportation hubs, like the Metro Red Line NoHo Station which connects to a ton of bus lines, as well as the Orange Line that crosses the Valley from east to west.

And, oddly enough, it’s been a big success. Or maybe not oddly at all. Hey — connect a transportation hub to housing, arts, places with jobs, several schools, thriving nightlife, and places with some sort of tourist interest, and you are going to have to make a concerted effort to fail. (Update: As I was working on this article, I found out that the Art Institute of California-Hollywood, across the street from the theater I work at, was abruptly shut down due to alleged fraud on the part of administrators. So I guess that some people did make a concerted effort to fail, which kind of proves my point.)

So the easy success in a community like this is what makes me so curious about the phenomenon documented in the photo up above. That LED sign is officially called “Drive By.” It’s 240 feet (73.2 meters) long and six feet (1.83 meters) tall, and at one point was activated by passing traffic. Apparently, it used to alternate between displaying famous movie quotes and showing abstract patterns based on cars driving below, replacing approaching yellow blocks with red splats when one lane passed another in the opposite direction. It was created by the City of L.A.’s public arts program in 2007. Ironically, it was shut down not long after by an ordinance from the city’s own Department of Building & Safety because it was (wait for it) classified as advertising. To be fair, though, it may have been more the result of ambiguous wording in that law rather than malice, and the sign was brought back in 2011.

But I’ve been hanging out in NoHo for a while now, and the one thing that has struck me all during that time is how obviously “Drive By” is in bad repair. A lot of the quotes are not readable because of missing or burnt-out LEDS, and there are times when the display itself stutters into jiggly blocks of nothing before tossing up another quote with many missing letters or words. And I have to wonder, what’s going on?

I contacted the city’s public arts program to ask who is responsible for the sign’s upkeep now — is it still the city, or is it now a private entity? And is its current state of repair due to a lack of funding? If so, is there any way that concerned citizens can help. Unfortunately, I haven’t received a reply yet but I’d like to get this story up, so I will update that part if I do get some answers.

I suspect that it’s most likely that the public arts program is spread thin at the moment, because there’s just so much public art in Los Angeles, so maybe they just haven’t noticed yet. It may not be a funding issue, because the programs derive their money in two ways: a one percent levy on the cost of construction, improvement, or renovation jobs done by the city, and an assessment on owners of private development with projected values over half a million dollars, based on either a per-square foot fee or one percent of the project’s Building and Safety valuation, whichever is less. Given all the development and construction going on in the city right now, these are probably not trivial amounts.

And it’s not like NoHo Commons is hurting. Their ground floor storefronts along Weddington, Lankershim, and Chandler are full of thriving businesses, most of them some sort of fast casual restaurant, and they have Wells Fargo Bank as a corner anchor, plus 24 Hour Fitness as the upper floor tenant. The two apartment buildings attached, The Gallery and The Lofts, seem to be well-occupied as well. There’s never been a time that I’ve been in the area that it hasn’t been crowded with people.

So the sad state of repair of “Drive By” is still somewhat of a mystery to me, but probably emblematic of the natural dichotomy that is a part of every major urban area: The good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the pristine and the decayed, all jam together in the same public space in an endless waltz between two partners who, while mismatched, brought each other to the dance, and so are destined to keep on spinning around together forever, neither one of them sure who’s leading.

Photo credit: Jon Bastian

Across the multiverse

It can be daunting, sometimes, to think about the precarious pathways that led to each of our lives, and then led to the lives we have led. In my case, answering a want ad in Variety two years out of college led to an office job that changed everything — not because of the job, but because of the people I met, and connections that led directly to me pursuing a career as a playwright with some success and also to working in television and eventually doing improv.

But I never would have wound up there if my parents hadn’t met and married, and that only happened because my mother had one bad first marriage that led to her moving across the country and winding up working as a waitress in a restaurant across from the office where my father, who was also ending his bad first marriage, worked. He wound up there because he had taken advantage of the G.I. Bill to study architecture and so was a structural engineer for one of the more prestigious firms in Los Angeles. In another case of amazing coincidence, I wound up working about a block from where his office and her restaurant had been when I went into the TV biz twenty-ish years after he worked there.

So my father wound up doing the G.I. Bill thing because he was a veteran and that happened because there had been a war. But he was only in America to fight on our side because his grandfather had come here in the first place, and my father’s own father and mother wound up in California. That happened because my grandfather worked for the railroads. I also think it was because my grandmother got knocked up with my dad’s older brother at about eighteen and before they married, but that’s beside the point. Or maybe not.

If my mother had stayed where she’d been born, she never would have met my father. If my great grandfather had never left Germany, than one of my ancestors may have died on the wrong side of WW II. And if that had happened and my mother came to Los Angeles anyway, there’s no telling whom she might have met and married. It could have been a big power player in Hollywood. It could have been a dishwasher in the restaurant. The unanswered question, really, is whether who I am came only from her egg or from dad’s sperm, or whether I would have never existed had the two never met. Impossible to say.

What’s really fascinating are the long-term effects of random choices. I do improv now because of one particular actor I met about six years ago. I met him because he was involved with a play of mine that was produced in 2014. That play happened because an actor who had done a reading of it when I first wrote it, twenty years previously, remembered it when he was at a point to play the lead and bring it to a company. That reading happened because it was set up by a woman who produced my second full-length play — and who is still one of my best friends — and that happened because of all the attention received by my first produced full-length play, which happened because of a woman I met at that first office job out of college I mentioned before. She was in a writing group, heard I was interested in being a writer and invited me to join. Ta-da… a link in a damn long chain of consequence happened.

And that third play, about William S. Burroughs, only happened because I somehow heard about his works when I was probably in middle school, and only because the title “Naked Lunch” made a bunch of twelve-year-olds giggle. But reading that book when I was about fourteen, and realizing it was about so much more, and then discovering the rest of his works along with Vonnegut and Joyce and Robert Anton Wilson and so many others set my sails for being a writer, and out of all of them, Burroughs had the most fascinating life story, as well as the personal struggle I most related to, since he was a gay man, after all.

And, I suppose, I can attribute my interest in the salacious and interesting to the fact that my mother had such an aversion to them. She could watch people on cable TV get their heads blown off for days, but show one tit or one ass — or god forbid a dick — and she would lose it. It was good-old Catholic body shame, and I never understood it, mainly since I’ve been a naturist since, like, forever. Of course, the extent of my exposure to that church was to be baptized as a preemie “just in case,” and then not a lot else beyond the scary crucifix that always hung in my bedroom and the scarier icons and statues I’d see when we visited my mom’s mom.

Ironically, I’ve actually come to relate to Catholicism, although not so much as a religion, but more as a cultural touchstone and anchor for my Irish roots. Yeah, we bog-cutters love the ceremony, but piss on the bullshit, so that’s probably why it works. Give me the theater, spare me the crap. Sing all you want, you middle-aged men in dresses, but touch the kids, and we will end you.

But I do digress… because if we’re going to go down the Irish rabbit hole, that is an entirely different path by which I could have not wound up here today. At any point, one of my direct ancestors on my mother’s side could have taken vows, and then boom. No more descendants to lead to me.

Or any of my grandparents or parents or I could have walked in front of a speeding bus before their descendants were born or before I had my first play produced, and game over. History changed. I could have signed up with a temp agency on a different day and never wound up having met my best friend.

Then again… I have no idea who I would be if any of these different paths had been taken at any point in history all the way back to the beginning. It’s really daunting to consider how many ancestors actually had to come together to lead to the genetic knot that is you or me. But you and I exist as who we are. Rather than worry about how easily that could not have happened, I suppose, the better approach is to just revel in the miracle that it did. Here we are. It happened because other things happened. And thinking too hard about why those other things happened might actually be a bad thing to do.