Archive for January, 2010


great crazy…


a week from his 79th birthday, Elmore ‘Rip’ Torn allegedly broke into a bank with a loaded gun, so there must be a reasonable explanation — perhaps to remind us of a great film rarely heard from…

Sally and Elmore…

on making a movie without moving the camera — COMING APART has no equal…

“COMING APART” 1969  directed by Milton Moses Ginsberg

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thrown to the lions…


because it’s cheaper to own an empty lot…

downtown Detroit 1.25.10 by j. weyland

downtown Detroit by J. Weyland  2010…


After years of lumping Detroit with other Rust Belt capitals that find themselves in a similar predicament, still reeling from the population drain and fiscal drought triggered by the exodus of local industry, we’re now obliged to confront the devastation head-on, as it’s documented in two forthcoming books of photography: “The Ruins of Detroit” by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre (Steidl), and “Detroit Disassembled” by Andrew Moore (Damiani/Akron Art Museum).

Marchand and Meffre’s account of these and other everyday landmarks is decidedly bleak. Streets and sidewalks are empty: no people, no traffic. Sunlight filters down through gaps in the roofs. Ferns spring up on a factory floor. Snow drifts in through shattered windows. The city, once a cacophony of clanging machinery, immigrant languages and music, has gone silent. Marchand and Meffre interpret what they see as a case of nature reclaiming land the city appropriated, slowly erasing these remaining vestiges of a failed metropolis. Both of these books find beauty in decay, lingering over the paradoxical grandeur of disintegrating monuments and the random juxtapositions made possible by neglect.

Ruins are a loaded subject, one that puts metaphor within easy reach. The images here constitute a requiem for an American empire in a state of precipitous decline. Both books feature the same clock on a classroom wall, its frozen hands and melted face right out of a Dalí painting — as if time in Detroit had ticked to a halt, distorted, when in fact, with our gridlocked government and blind faith in our own exceptionalism, time is passing us by.

(NY TIMES  3.30.10)

the entire article here




lost and found…

Patti Smith at the Hammer 1.28.10

“i lost the place, but i’ll find it…” said Patti Smith last night as she flipped through her new book “Just Kids” inadvertently nailing the tone of her tribute to artist Harry Smith, “Smith on Smith” — an evening of readings taking us back to hang in the long gone — NYC, the Chelsea Hotel, El Quioxte, the corner doughnut shop — stories made all the more vivid if you’ve ever been, but — woah — if Burroughs had sat down with you, or if Joplin was in the back, or if Ginsberg picked up the tab, then you’d have found it like Patti did, and how cool to hear it from her mouth…

from "Prelude and Fugue" by Harry Smith 1950

from “Prelude and Fugue” by Harry Smith 1950…

she also sang and had Bob Neuwirth come up to do a couple on the banjo — the event celebrating the new book “Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular”…

“PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE” 2008 directed by Steven Sebring

check out the Harry Smith Archives and the NY Times review of “Just Kids”




the much anticipated release of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER 3 is just around the corner — hits and kicks the shelves February 2nd…

JCVD on set with Violetta Markovska  2009…


The screener had been sitting around my apartment for about a month. I was excited that Dolph Lundgren was in it, but didn’t expect much. When I finally got around to putting it in it seemed like the wrong disc. The trailers were for classy foreign films, and the opening was a quiet scene in an art museum. But then ski masked commandos nab a young man and woman and take them on a kill crazy high speed chase through security, police, a road block and away in a helicopter.

On the surface you have your usual DTV qualities: masked gunmen from some vaguely defined radical faction, dreary European locations, car crashes, and no sign of the stars on the cover yet. But the weird thing is this is a — great — action sequence. Cameras attached to the cars, putting you right inside the mayhem, you feel like you’re getting knocked around and dragged away but (get this) you can tell exactly what’s going on. It’s fast, brutal and unfashionably comprehensible. It had my heart beating. You don’t expect that in the opening of a DTV action movie or, let’s be honest, any modern American action movie.

Unlike most DTV this gets straight to business. The fights are raw and brutal – people punched 8-10 times in the face, thrown through walls, covered in blood, expertly knifed or surgically machine gunned. Andrei “The Pitbull” Arlovski is a legitimately scary Terminator, the fights are perfectly staged and the movie cuts effectively between the breathing and grunting of the fights in quiet Chernobyl and the panicked war room where the military brass shout at each other while watching everything go to hell through the POV of the UniSol eyepieces.

Jean-Claude Van Damme is still Luc Devereaux. Van Damme is in “I actually get to act in this one” mode, a quiet, sad performance more like UNTIL DEATH and JCVD than UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, more quick and brutally effective than we’ve seen him in a while. Dolph looks like – and basically is – Frankenstein’s monster. I won’t give away his interaction with Van Damme, but what he says to him is haunting, somehow almost poetic. In a UNIVERSAL SOLDIER movie.

Part of the genius of the movie is that it doesn’t try to humanize them more as it goes along. It doesn’t try to explain their history or even mention which war it was they fought in. All that matters is that they’re leftover weapons, unable to be useful in peace time. In fact, the human villains who instigate this conflict die early, and their demands are already met. But the Universal Soldiers continue the war. They don’t know how to shut off. They’re like perpetual war in human shape.

The characters are just right – they’re not real developed, but they don’t have to be. They’re mostly people of action, not words. They’re pieces in a game moved around just right for you to worry about what happens to them. For example there’s a great scene where a badass special ops type guy (another MMA fighter, Mike Pyle) is sent in to do recon but accidentally engages The Pitbull. By this point it’s been established that this guy is merely super at being a soldier, not a super soldier. We have seen the work of both him and his opponent, and it’s clear to everyone what must go down. This guy will die, but first he’ll put up way more of a fight than any other regular non zombie soldier would put up. He’s not supernatural, he’s just highly trained, but you can’t turn him off either.

The look, feel and whole mentality of this one are completely different from any of the previous five UNIVERSAL SOLDIER pictures. To me it seems more influenced by ALIEN, THE TERMINATOR and CHILDREN OF MEN than its own series. The story is perfectly streamlined, just setting the characters in motion and crashing them into each other, the type of elegant simplicity so many of these convoluted DTVs need as a role model in their lives. The tone is deadly serious, quiet, tense. The score is a nice John Carpenter/Brad Fiedel type keyboard droner. The sound design is really good too, lots of weird buzzes and distorted voices over radios creating atmosphere.

What I’m telling you is that this is a real fucking good movie, made with care and skill. I can’t believe how much I liked it. It joins UNDISPUTED II as the rare DTV sequel better than its theatrical originator. It’s also probly the first ever part 5 that’s better than its part 1. Unless you count porn. This is that you-would-think-mythical-but-it-turns-out-it’s-a-real-thing movie I’ve been naively waiting for all these years watching crappy DTV sequels. Sure, it’s unlikely that somebody would pour everything they got into something like a UNIVERSAL SOLDIER sequel. They probly wouldn’t do that. But they could. And for once, they did!

This year and last are shaping up as some kind of renaissance for DTV action. THE TOURNAMENT is good, NINJA is good, BLOOD AND BONE is great, and now this. I really believe REGENERATION is not just good DTV, it’s miraculous. Maybe not everyone will appreciate it the way I do. I read one review that was positive but said it was weird that Van Damme doesn’t appear for a little bit and Lundgren isn’t in it that much. Those would be problems in conventional DTV where the stars are all it really has to offer, but in this movie to me it’s not even of any concern at all. It’s too artful to care about that. It doesn’t seem like they weren’t available, it seems like they were placed in the movie for exactly the amount of time the characters demanded.

Maybe it’s just me. I don’t know man but if I was one of those Hollywood producers always looking for untapped talent I would sign this dude up for something ASAP. If he can make the fourth sequel to fucking UNIVERSAL SOLDIER this good I can only imagine what he’d do with a little bigger budget and a better concept. This guy could go on to big things. Or he could keep raising the bar for DTV. Whatever he does I’ll be watching for now on.

I watched all of the sequels to prepare for this one, but don’t feel like you have to. In fact, if you’ve never seen any of them it might be smarter just to skip straight to this one.

(AIN’T IT COOL NEWS  1.25.10)

“UNIVERSAL SOLDIER 3: REGENERATION” 2009  directed by John Hyams

the entire article here


5,280 feet / 1,609 meters…


at the Colorado State Capitol building the fifteenth step is engraved “one mile above sea level”…

Denver  1.17.10…




so great…


Within the realm of earthly things there are no words of praise too lofty for Festivus Film Festival. On every front, Tim, Jonathan, and their fleet of festival volunteers delivered only the best of every good thing they had to offer. From the moment my wife and I were picked up at the airport by festival Volunteer Aaron Cole and Hospitality Director Trever Alters, I already knew that the trip from Los Angeles was a wise investment. From friendly conversation, to comped lunches at Denver’s hidden culinary hot-spots; from private tours of the city, to on-call information; the Festivus crew did not stop at simply fulfilling the litany of promises they made in their festival description (which are formidable, as you surely know by now), they went above and beyond in almost every area. Not to mention that every single screening was well attended (and some were even over-sold!) by enthusiastic filmmakers, their friends, and hoards of Denver locals. If there is one drawback to going to Festivus Film Festival, it’s that having been to one I am forever spoiled for all other film festivals. Not one can live up to my experience of Festivus 2010. It is a memory my wife and I will share for the rest of our lives.

and the envelope please…

  • Festivus Image Award – Matt Gillespie
  • Best Editing – The Ballad of Angel Face
  • Best Cinematography – Stoney
  • Best Music Video – The Atro-City Sleepers
  • Best Animation – Little Old Ladies
  • Best Experimental – The Magnitude of Continental Divides
  • Best Short Short – Black Ops Arabesque
  • Best Doc Short – Between the Upper Lip and Nasal Passageway: A Modern Account of the Moustache
  • Best Narrative Short – The Godmother
  • Best Documentary Feature – Rouge Ciel
  • Best Narrative Feature – Racewalkers

much more info here





wins at FESTIVUS — !!!

special thanks to Tim DeMasters, Johnathan McFarlane and everyone at Festivus — Ron Castellano and Santos’ Party HouseJohn Hyams, Steve Schleuter, Chris Hyams at B-Side Entertainment — and an extra special thanks to Timo Ellis and the mighty Netherlands band!!!





today through Sunday — bringing top notch indie flicks to planet earth…

have your eyeballs ready…

January 14-17, 2010 in Denver, CO…





screening Wednesday, 1.27.10 as a part of “Projections: A Festival of Rare and Hard To See Films” — lots of other great titles as well, check out the entire schedule here


Cinematographic song of praise to the self-imposed life of a hobo. Using a 16mm and a Super8 camera, Bill Daniel collected images of the hobo subculture over a period of about 15 years. His years of roaming in goods trains brought him into contact with countless legendary hobos. Daniel links their stories and visions of life to their “tags”, the signs they left on trains long before graffiti was any kind of a hype. The film focuses on the quest for the eminent Bozo Texino, whose tag decorated trains all over the country for 80 years. In beautiful black & white, to the rhythm of train wheels and country music, Daniel portrays passionate people who have turned away from the establishment and it’s rules.

(IFFR  2006)

“WHO IS BOZO TEXINO?”  2005  directed by Bill Daniel

go to Bill Daniel Film+Photo for more…




the best coffee shop on the planet…


Craig and the work in progress  2007…


Struggling actors used to wait tables to pay the bills. These days, they open coffee shops. First came Jack’s Stir-Brew, the homespun, four-table nook where Jack Mazzola fends off ever-encroaching Starbucks with Fair Trade beans, organic apples, and a conspicuously neighborhood-friendly vibe. And then, Craig Walker, an avowed Jack’s fan, followed suit with Local, an equally pint-size nook with a similarly enlightened approach to sourcing beans and fostering community. Walker and his wife and partner, Elizabeth, have lived around the corner from their shop for almost two decades, and folks who don’t recognize him from his part-time barista gig at the nearby branch of Porto Rico know his face from the Law & Order franchise, where, he tells us, “My body count this year is thirteen.” Walker takes the coffee shop’s name to heart, procuring his beans from a Massachusetts micro-roaster and his food mostly from shops within a two-block radius: The olive rolls come from Grandaisy (formerly Sullivan Street) Bakery, the mozzarella from Joe’s Dairy, the ham from Pino Prime Meats across the street. The menu includes Greenmarket apple-cider doughnuts and pressed sandwiches on Parisi semolina bread, with a tasty Feta and green pepper with oregano and olive oil, inspired by a trip to Salonika. As for the major players in the coffee industry who only buy a tiny percentage of Fair Trade beans for appearance’s sake, “It’s like punching a nun in the face and going to church on the weekends,” says Walker. Or is that just the plot of an upcoming SVU?


the full review here

LOCAL 144 Sullivan St. @ Houston, NYC  212.253.2601




so good, and now on DVD…


Along with San Francisco and Barcelona, New York is arguably the modern street skating city, both in reality and image. Because of the unique background, experience and perspective of the film’s creators and the decision to “cast” the city of New York as one of the main characters, Deathbowl to Downtown promises to be an unprecedented, seminal film.

Like Rick and Buddy’s other work, Deathbowl to Downtown goes deeper than ‘just’ skating to combine documentary with an incisive and artful exploration of skateboarding and its culture. On one level it’s about street skating, but also an anthropological overview of skating’s epochal shift from the parks and pools of the 70’s, to ramp skating in the 80’s, to the street ascendancy of the 1990’s as seen from a New York-centric perspective.

With interviews covering the oldest school originators to the newest school up steppers, comprehensive and much of it never-before-seen video footage, and present-day film shot by Nichols and Charnoski, ‘Deathbowl to Downtown’ addresses broader issues: How changes in urban planning and design affected skating (and vice versa), the unexpected late 20th century shift of cities from places normal citizens feared to tread, to tourist destinations, and the parallels between the modern history of American cities and skateboarding. That is, the way New York, and skateboarders, went from being ignored and reviled through 70’s and 80’s to being accepted and celebrated. An entertaining, eye opening, thought provoking take on why the action on New York’s dirty, grimy, and hectic streets represents skateboarding to millions of skaters and non-skaters worldwide.

(NYC 2009)

“DEATHBOWL TO DOWNTOWN” 2009  directed by Buddy Nichols and Rick Charnoski

check the Deathbowl website for much more




Bowie turns 63 today — but what’s up with those eyes..?

according to legend — when he was 15, Bowie got socked in the left eye by a guy wearing a ring and wound up with a permanently dilated pupil.. both eyes are blue, but the dilated pupil often makes them look different colors…


GENESIS according to CRUMB…


not to to be missed — a phenomenal amount of work went into the production of this book, taking over 5 years to complete (the pages up front are already yellowing to brown) — you’ll need to visit more than once…


The Hammer Museum presents seminal comic artist R. Crumb’s adaptation of the first book of the Old Testament, the Book of Genesis. The exhibition features 207 individual, black and white drawings incorporating every word from all fifty chapters, as well as a cover, title page, introduction and back cover. Each drawing contains six to eight comic panels illustrating the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Sodom and Gomorrah, and more. Using his signature bawdy style, Crumb’s version of the Book of Genesis puts an entirely new twist on the Bible.  10.24 – 2.7.10…


also, check out — The Creation of R. Crumb’s ‘Genesis’ by Reed Johnson…


10 day count down…


to the first ever public screening of THE ATRO-CITY SLEEPERS..!

among the 10 premieres at the FESTIVUS FILM FESTIVAL 2010…


World Premieres… 10!!!

We’re so excited to announce that we’ve broken another record this year. We have 10 world premieres! Such a notable number of world premieres is incredible for any festival, and it’s a great reward for us to know that so many filmmakers have decided we are worthy of earning their film’s “world premiere” status. Here is the list:

  • Rainbow Chasers [Thursday, Jan. 14 9:00p @ The Bug]
  • The Atro-City Sleepers [Saturday, Jan. 16 12:00 @ The Bug]
  • Rouge Ciel [Saturday, Jan. 16 12:00p @ The Bug]
  • There’s Still Hope for Dreams: A Phamaly Story [Saturday, Jan 16 2:00p @ The Oriental]
  • Black Ops Arabesque [Saturday, Jan 16 4:00p @ The Oriental]
  • Between the Upper Lip and Nasal Passageway [Saturday, Jan 16 4:00p @ The Oriental]
  • Wings of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story [Sunday, Jan. 17 1:00p @ The Bug]
  • Kapsis [Sunday, Jan. 17 3:00p @ The Bug]
  • Bird Brain [Sunday, Jan. 17 5:00p @ The Bug]
  • Watermelon Seeds [Sunday, Jan. 17 5:00p @ The Bug]



winter in L.A…



Santa Monica Bay  1.5.10…




slow ride…


Ankrom’s sign (top) and the Caltrans replacement…


For most of the decade, L.A. painter-sculptor and installation artist Richard Ankrom drove the freeways through downtown L.A. with a sense of pride and satisfaction. Poised above the chaos of the 110 freeway, precisely on Gantry 23100, just before the 3rd Street overpass on the northbound Pasadena Freeway, was a perfectly crafted replica of an Interstate 5 North freeway directional sign intended, just like other Caltrans signs, to ease traffic congestion.

Ankrom had designed and surreptitiously installed the green Caltrans-perfect sign because one day while en route to his home at the Brewery Arts Colony, he spotted a distinct absence of signage denoting the best route to reach the I-5 North. So Ankrom opted to exercise guerrilla art with a purpose — easing traffic congestion on the 110 freeway.

The artist created an exact replica of a regulation Caltrans sign. He tailored a detailed red, white and blue “5 shield” and green “North” sign out of 0.08 millimeter–thick metal, resplendent with special-ordered button reflectors.

He says the sign was part of an art project titled “Guerrilla Public Service.” Ankrom also did it for a laugh at Caltrans’ expense. Who wouldn’t like to fool the state now and then?

The sign was so authentic that Caltrans officials let it remain in place for eight years, four months and 15 days, until its removal last month under a standard scheduled replacement. Ankrom had signed and dated the sign, for future identification and possible retrieval. But to his dismay, the precaution did not pay off. Indeed, Ankrom never had a chance to reclaim his artwork.

“I first found out via an online blog called,” Ankrom recalls. The creator of the site “mentioned that the signs had been changed on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. I drove out to look at the freeway site, then spent about eight hours online trying to figure out who at Caltrans was responsible for taking it down.

“I found out that Caltrans awarded the sign removal and installation contract to a subcontractor called Peterson/Chase. Under contract, they were to recycle the old signs.

“I ended up tracking down one of the employees who was actually aware of the work and who thought he had stashed it, only it wasn’t the right sign. He wasn’t aware that the authentic sign had my signature on the back, and didn’t check it. I then found out that my sign had been given to a Garcia Recycling, who had crushed it into a block.”

Ankrom tried frantically to locate the recycling bale containing his sign, but company policy prevented him from rescuing it. “The aluminum bales are going to China, and they are not willing to sell them to me, though I will keep trying before they go in a shipping container.”

Ankrom recalls that the installation process eight years ago had taken hours of painstaking organization, including disguising himself as a Caltrans worker, complete with short haircut, hard hat and orange vest.

At sunrise on August 5, 2001, armed with a fake invoice in case he was caught, he hid a ladder in a tree near the freeway and transported his replica sign artwork from his nearby Brewery home in a van emblazoned with an ominous logo: “Aesthetic De-Construction.”

After parking just minutes from the existing sign on the 3rd Street bridge, he cordoned off a safety zone with two regulation Caltrans orange traffic cones. The installation took nearly an hour to complete.

Friends recorded the entire process on camera, then edited it down to a 10-minute video that has been shown at several art galleries. The video includes the artistic process in its entirety, from the creation of the sign through to the installation.

(LA WEEKLY  12.30.09)

the entire article here


the films of 2009…


ten favorites, drawn from those actually seen in a theatre…

Tilda Swinton in Julia 2009

Tilda Swinton in “Julia”…


  2. JULIA
  8. CHE (4 hour version)

also big on the map…

Sin Nombre, Tyson, The Merry Gentleman, Zombieland, The Informant, We Live In Public, Bruno, Men Who Stare At Goats, Bronson

films I wish I’d seen…

Moon, An Education, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Brothers, The Messenger, Police Adjective, The White Ribbon, Antichrist

my favorite revival experiences…

The Third Man, The Long Goodbye, Drive He Said, Elevator To The Gallows

best from 2008 I saw in 2009…





the following article was written in conjunction with the filming of “Objects Also Die: The Last Days of the Ambassador Hotel as part of a catalog to be published by ELK books…

the Cortez Hotel

the Cortez Hotel by J.W.  1988


“In the elder days of art builders wrought with the greatest care

each minute and unseen part; for the Gods see everywhere”

–Longfellow, The Builders

“The true paradises are the paradises we have lost.” Marcel Proust wrote that, in Remembrance of Things Past. Though he is probably quoted too often on the subject it’s hard not to mention Proust when referring to the tangible prick of remorse that comes from remembering what is irretrievably lost. Not just the whiff of a Madeline dipped in tea, but all and sundry that can’t be recovered and how it effects our relationship with the past. The fleeting nature of our own history and the full brute, staggering force of memory recalling what will never and can be never again. It’s a universal condition that connects us to others and also relates to a less self-referential type of regret that was less of an obsession for Proust.  That feeling isn’t so much about what we ourselves will never recover but empathy for others coupled with an attraction to the constructed sites from which their loss emanates.

As far back as I can remember these abandoned structures that weren’t being used or had been left to the elements held a fascination. Empty houses, sheds, barns, motels, gas stations and schools seductively beckoned and aroused a potent desire to go inside and poke around. Growing up it wasn’t something I questioned, it was just an irresistible compulsion that made me figure out a way inside, an urge I couldn’t and didn’t analyze. The draw was a communion with unknowable bygone times and that special stillness pervading a room where no one has been for a long time, as well as the thrill of going where I wasn’t supposed to. Drawn to those manmade enclosed spaces with all their reminders of former inhabitants and forgotten secrets, I climbed over fences, trespassed, found open doors or broken windows and snuck around with ears cocked for the approach of an authority figure who would chase me away. This predilection wasn’t that strange, it being a kind of mildly illicit exploring that has been common with the young, especially adolescent and teenage boys, from time immemorial. Looking back I know my solitary lurking was a way to get away from others, paradoxically where there were traces of human activity, and that for me those decaying and ignored structures were entities with their own character. They had presence, and that resonated somewhere deep down in my being.

A childhood spent luxuriating in the untended and the slowly, passively falling apart, rummaging through homes for sale, houses under construction, and establishments closed for the season. In a category all of its own was the Stanley Hotel, a Colonial Gregorian pile built in 1909 by F.O. Stanley, the inventor of the steam powered automobile. Majestically set on a hill, it dominated the town where I grew up in Colorado. The Stanley was only busy in the summer and during the other nine months of the year it operated at such a reduced capacity as to be practically abandoned. Since both my older sisters worked there so I had free reign to wander and generally float around like a ghost, padding along long empty corridors and up and down the stairways. If adults were encountered I would be almost always invisible to them in that way you can be as a child because you’re a nonentity not worth bothering about. How many times I’ve wished that invisibility could be taken with us along into adulthood. Unfortunately it can’t, but back then those wayward guests and maids ignored me and I in turn could pretend they didn’t exist. Other times I rambled around the grounds and in the rock formations behind the hotel to look into upper story windows of mysterious rooms with no sign of occupancy. What the Stanley had in common with my other favorite haunts was an undeniably spooky quality that could make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.  I wasn’t the only one with that reaction. A couple years earlier and unbeknownst to me until decades later Stephen King stayed at the Stanley for a weekend and found it so unsettling and disturbing he was inspired to write The Shining. The Stanley of the book is the isolated and snowbound Overlook, a closed for the winter hotel that wields a malevolent influence on the main character Jack Torrence and turns him into a homicidal madman. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.  The Stanley’s effects on me weren¹t that dramatic, but there¹s no doubt that in its down at the heels late-70s low point (or high point, in my opinion) it exuded a simultaneously menacing and seductive aura.

Five years after leaving that town I was an adult in the legal sense but hadn’t outgrown that obsession with the overlooked and the abandoned. By then I was in San Diego, where in the mid-1980s the downtown still had some grit with sleazy tattoo and massage parlors, rampaging drunken sailors, homeless encampments, mentally ill free radicals and a level of lawlessness that was a far cry from the situation today in that prettified bastion of banality.  Above it all on El Cortez hill stood a beautiful fourteen-story Spanish Colonial Revival high-rise wreck of a hotel that had been built in 1929 by Albert R. Walker and Percy Eisen, the same architects responsible for the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. With its dramatic recessed arched doorway and vaguely baroque air the El Cortez was by far the most regal building in San Diego and of real architectural interest, which naturally meant it had suffered years of neglect and was slated for demolition. One night during one of many nocturnal downtown missions by chance I pushed on an access door and found it unlocked for some reason. Returning in the daytime I began to spend entire afternoons climbing up and down the wide staircases, wandering through the dilapidated rooms and hanging out in the tattered Sky Room on the top floor to take in the view of downtown and Coronado Island in the bay. I took pictures of the hallways with their stained carpets and peeling paint, found numerous hidden nooks and crannies on every new visit, and once almost stepped into an elevator shaft behind some loose boards on the 9th floor. The El Cortez provided the complete emptiness the Stanley couldn’t and as I roamed around submerged in a complete silence of almost physical intensity magical hours drifted by and time lost all quantitative meaning. Ensconced in an inside dream of reality, separated by glass and distance, I would stand at the picture windows and watch the tiny cars and human figures down below going about their utterly pointless motions.

Memories of the Stanley and the El Cortez surely caused me to take more notice than the usual passerby would when I saw the Ambassador for the first time a couple years later.

The sight of it bordered on a mirage, so unexpected and massive there on that part of Wilshire Boulevard where many Angelenos never went.  Mammoth, gargantuan even, just barely glimpsed over the surrounding fence and overgrown foliage, the building was a vision from some faraway imperial colony of the 19th century. Not only was it a great old hotel falling to ruin, there was something so improbable about a shuttered, silent and apparently deserted complex that big right there on Wilshire.  I saw the hotel once and then moved away. In New York it remained mostly absent from my thoughts although I did become cognizant of the main event that will always unfortunately be associated with the Ambassador, that is, Sirhan Sirhan’s killing of Robert Kennedy there in 1968. Besides that I didn’t know what was happening at 3400 Wilshire. For all I knew it could have been torn down.  Some research could have cleared things up but honestly finding out any history would have ruined the memory and inherent mystery of that big deserted hulk past the palms and the barbed wire. It was that feeling I wanted, not the details, and I just wished that somehow I’d gotten in there and explored while there was still a chance.

Considering the sway ruins have had over the collective imagination through the ages being drawn to a place like the Ambassador isn’t that out of the ordinary or by any means special.  For thousands of years people have stood amongst what their predecessors left behind and pondered the transience of man’s accomplishments, thinking age-old thoughts of mortality and dust turning to dust. The Greeks had a sensitivity to Etruscan ruins and the Romans felt it at the Parthenon, and so on and so on, each successive civilization amidst the tumbled stones ruminating on the futility of human endeavor. The Romantic sensibility took this to the level of fetish in the 19th century with follies on English country estates and an artistic and literary mania for all constructed traces of the past. Fake or real, these extant reminders of our transitory nature cater to deep vein of sympathy for built remnants surviving in a state that gives them a heightened poetical resonance. They might have that but as Charles Caleb Colton wrote, “To look back to antiquity is one thing, to go back to it is another” and ruins in the classic sense are from so far back in time that summoning up life’s messiness in their midst requires a substantial leap of the imagination.  The Stanley, the El Cortez and the Ambassador are of a different stripe, not ruins per se, being of more recent 20th century vintage and from a time closer to my own. Not temples or Pompeii, but modern still-intact ruins in the making that can offer an even more piquant encounter with a past, one lived by people who aren’t even necessarily dead yet.

Philosophical musings of that sort might have been swirling around my head when I saw the Ambassador for the first time. Then again, they probably weren’t. This is intuitive, an inexplicable calling; though over time the desire to get lost in decay was suppressed and partially forgotten. Maybe I’d grown up. Then thirteen years later I spent a week at the Radisson Hotel on Wilshire and the fixation came back with full force. From my seventh floor room I could see a lush tangle of overgrown vegetation and palm trees and a bare hint of the building looking more dilapidated and forsaken than ever.  A few times I walked along Wilshire to peek through the gate to get a frustratingly partial view of the Cocoanut room’s elongated canopy. While at the Radisson I also frequented The Bounty up the street, where faded prints of ships, a shabbily genteel feel and courteous bartenders three times my age incubated alcohol-enhanced Romantic longings that flowered when I came out at 2am and saw the darkened Ambassador across the way. By that point I’d heard or read the Los Angeles School Board owned the land and wanted to demolish the whole complex and this news precipitated a bout of sappy sentimentality about this place I had no personal connection to whatsoever-. It wasn’t like my parents stayed there back in the 50s or I had found out about its history, and I still didn’t know the name of the architect or even have a clear idea of the hotel¹s appearance, but the realization it wasn’t going to be around forever added a new urgency to acting on all that built-up unfulfilled curiosity

The Ambassador will most probably meet its maker this year and as it happens just prior to the original demolition date I stayed in a nearby apartment for a while and did a lot of aimless nighttime motoring through the other side of Los Angeles. With a particular focus on the LA River, Downtown and West Adams I listened to late-night black metal shows on the radio, drank beers and cruised the empty streets before driving past the Ambassador numerous times with the rueful acknowledgement that what had seemed so permanent would soon be gone for good. Then one serendipitous night in February I attended a small literary gathering in a 1920s apartment building called the Talmadge.  Very genteel, and after the pizza, hors d’oeuvres and copious amounts of alcohol went down the hatch I made a tipsy exit and spilled out onto the sidewalk to breathe in the fresh late night air. Although I needed it about as much as a hole in the head, a nightcap at the Bounty momentarily beckoned until a siren-blaring ambulance screeched to a stop in front. That option gone, I ambled down Wilshire where I found myself by that long fence and came to the conclusion that this was the night to breech the walls of the Ambassador. It seemed possible.

Twelve-foot high walls topped with barbed wire, traffic and prying eyes even that late at night ruled out a frontal assault so by the Western edge of the property I went up the driveway to where the fence and a glowing occupied security booth stood in the way. So tantalizingly close, but from that angle there was too much light and too much risk. Continuing South I came to a gate chained together loosely enough that it could almost be squeezed through. Almost, but not quite. If I’d been eight it would have been a cinch. Stymied, I crept toward 8th Street and ended up outside the Sunset Room where all was quiet and still with only one wall’s thickness separating me from the prize. I knew I could get inside, that there must be some way, but all the doors were locked or rusted shut and then my scheming came to an abrupt heart-stopping halt at the sound of footsteps and the sweep of a flashlight beam coming down the drive. Flattened against the building, holding my breath, I didn’t dare look around the corner as the arc of flashlight came swinging back and forth, closer and closer.  Frozen, rigid, enduring maybe even ten slowly ticking minutes under the smudged night sky. Finally I peered out and nobody there, the guard had returned to his station. Slinking back to Wilshire I left chastened but also frustrated and disappointed.

Back at the apartment with previously forgone nightcap in hand I idly picked up The New Yorker and got a jolt when the first sentence of an article caught my eye.  “The Western entrance to the Ambassador Hotel, an H-shaped nineteen-twenties Spanish Revival that occupies a twenty-three acre parcel on Wilshire Boulevard, is a monumental portecochere.”  Coincidence, kismet, who knows. Dana Goodyear’s “Hotel California” mostly dealt with the black architect Paul Williams who re-designed the hotel’s coffee shop but there was plenty of other information about the Ambassador and the battle over its future. Finally some details, after studiously avoiding them for so long. The hotel’s architect had been Myron Hunt, it was finished in 1920, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald used to stay there and supposedly set one of the bungalows on fire, and its imminent razing would make way for a forty-two hundred student school. Then the strange timing of the article segued into another totally unrelated and even better and almost unbelievable coincidence. The next day, telling a friend the story of trying to sneak in, he nonchalantly answered with “So, do you want to go in there?” He wasn’t joking; he had a meeting scheduled at the film office and could bring me along.  A meandering path from lingering fifteen-year interest to intense fixation to trying to break in to a random magazine was coming to its end.

The appointed day arrived soggy, gray and grim. Rain fell in sheets. We signed in at the security booth and were ushered through a long shabby corridor past the coffee shop and up a set of stairs to the immense lobby. I stood transfixed and mesmerized in the inner sanctum. My friend disappeared into the office and I decided if there ever was a time to enjoy carte blanche it was right then and took a turn around the lobby’s white couches and lamps repeating almost endlessly into the gloom. At the front desk I soaked up the ambiance, sensing the muffled hubbub from times past as it reverberated in trace form on some kind of sub-audio frequency that is felt instead of actually being heard. A silence that speaks, a soundless echo.  I ventured into the disorientating murkiness of the Cocoanut Grove where hundreds of drops of water rhythmically plunked into unseen buckets and smidgen of light reflecting off the brass railings provided just enough illumination to make the huge multi-tiered room’s interior barely visible. Over in the Dolphin Court a cherub sculpture and two painted unicorns frolicking under palm trees, faded pistachio paint, and a half-inch of water on the floor gave it the aura of a Roman bath gone to seed. Back through the lobby I stood in the Venetian Ballroom amongst the mirrored square columns for a minute before running up the stairs to a long hallway that couldn’t help but conjure up The Shining. With their walls of peeling blocks of worn color, white and black checkerboard floor patterns and complete lack of furniture and fixtures the rooms were empty husks, the leftovers of so much activity and life.

Up in those rooms time stretched out with presentiment of future memories, an awareness of fleeting experience becoming grist for later reverie as I gathered more information and essence through sight, sound and smell than I normally would during a month. Minutes turned into virtual hours of a fertile in between, elongated moments that one wishes would last forever. But they don’t.  The tyranny of time reasserts itself, so I slipped back down to the lobby and played it cool as if I’d been there the whole time. When my friend came out of his meeting we ignored the hand written  “Do Not Sit” signs and surreptitiously took pictures of ourselves on one of the white sofas, a sofa that incidentally were not endemic to the Ambassador but was left over from a movie shoot.  Outside we looked at the forlorn half-filled pool and the palms that had become intertwined around the columns in the courtyard and then knowing we couldn’t loiter much longer all there was left to do was duck quickly into the Coffee Shop to admire the curves of William¹s bar and the bas-relief on the ceiling. From there a door opened to a an intimate lounge that didn’t seem to have a name, a boozy hideaway alternative to the big bands and entertainment upstairs in the Cocoanut Room resplendent with black and white echoes of jazz or Henny Youngman-era stand up comics. And then it was out into the pouring rain.

Not until the next day did we realize that without knowing it we’d been a few feet from the ice machine in the pantry Sirhan hid behind before shooting Robert Kennedy.  It wasn’t a disappointment though, because seeking out that fateful spot would have been too literally morbid, too obviously sensationalistic and too much a part of the known story. The same goes for the connotations elicited by all the archival photographs of Norma Shearer in the Fiesta Room posing with her Oscar for her performance in The Divorce, Mickey Rooney kissing Judy Garland in front of an American Flag at the Academy Awards, Gary Cooper twisting uncomfortably next to Louella Parsons, Ronald Reagan and Nancy arriving at the Screen Writers Guild dinner and Marilyn Monroe smiling radiantly in conversation with Cole Porter. That’s the official recorded history and is interesting and intriguing enough but ultimately lacks nuance. The hidden corridors, closets, stairwells and budget rooms where no celebrities stayed and nothing of particular significance took place are the unrecorded zones that supposedly don’t matter but they are no less important. They might not have a collective historical or sentimental value but surely for the individual bellhop, waiter, janitor or regular guest the events of their lives and the memories connected to where they originated are just as worthy of memorializing as the ones associated with the notorious and the famous.

Manifested in so-called unimportant details and inanimate objects the wound of transience and mortality holds our imagination hostage.  A coffee cup, a car, a typewriter, a lamp and on up to a whole building; we look and touch and are transported back through these things. The empty, the forgotten, the soon to be destroyed have a broad poignancy and give rise to the question of whether we should save these trinkets and edifices and wallow in nostalgia or just let them go. Maybe with the Ambassador that’s the attitude to take, though of course now it’s a moot point. Allowing the object to die gracefully is an antidote to our maudlin sentimentality and painful attachment to remembrance, and though we might live in the past we must know that reminiscence trumps the inanimate thing every time.  “Compared with memory, all possession, in itself, can only seem disappointing, banal, inadequate. .”  Michol says to her would-be lover Gino in Georgio Bassini’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.  Bassini then has Gino mentally articulate the plight of many, a plight I know well, and one Bassini’s book powerfully evokes.    “How she understood me! My eagerness for the present to become immediately past, so that I could love it and cherish it at easeŠ.it was our vice this: proceeding always with our heads turned back.”

Going haltingly forward with our heads turned back is a vice, a curse and the Ambassador plays to that affliction and encourages the delusional perversions of preservation. Those who want to stop the inevitable are thinking of the Ambassador in its heyday and want a return to some impossible to reconstruct splendor, a time and place and zeitgeist that can never exist again.  All those gestures, words, thoughts and actions can live on in memory but the shell must go. Much better than the preserved relic is the Stanley in the winter without any guests, the stripped and rundown El Cortez before it was turned into million dollar apartments, and the Ambassador in all it’s leaky, broken glory. If it were preserved it would be a bright, petrified, gussied and fixed up sham. Not ignored and neglected, the condition that made it great in the first, or more accurately, in the last place.

I had all those years of driving by and that great half an hour inside and now it’s over. Easy come, Easy go. There will be other forsaken structures where a combination of ignorance and wonder will lead to a stroll through the forgotten where what was lost can be appreciated on its own silent, unbending, and profoundly unknowable terms.  The importance of letting these things go can not be overstated, a philosophy Michol gives peerless expression to elsewhere in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Lamenting the family servant¹s devotion to an old Dilambda automobile, she adamantly declares that there is a vast gap between trying to keep that  “pathetic relic” alive and what she holds up as a much more noble course. Pointing to a used-up discarded canoe in the garage, she says to Gino: “I beg you, . . .  observe its honesty, dignity, and moral courage; it’s drawn all the necessary conclusions from its own total loss of function. Objects also die my friend. And if they also must die, then that’s it, better to let them go. It shows far more style, above all. Don’t you agree?”

Los Angeles 2005


the year we make contact…



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