Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

I am not in Los Angeles. Not physically at least. It was the “Cinematheque royale de Belgique” to bring me back for a couple of hours. Tonight here in a torrid Brussels, they screened “Chinatown“, the marvellous 1974 film directed by Roman Polanski and magnicifently interpreted by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and a great, huge John Huston.

It is a dark crime story shot in a beautifully sunny L.A. and it is about the city’s eternal struggle for (more) water. The character of Hollis Mulwray – the man who gets killed at beginning of the movie – is inspired by the historical figure of William Mulholland, the designer and engineer for the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brought water from the Owens Valley (east of the Sierra Nevada) to Los Angeles. The project gave the possibility to start the development of the San Fernando Valley and its incorporation in the city of Los Angeles.

 

However, since I am still under the powerful enchantment of the City of Angles, it was the views of L.A. I was constantly looking for and cherishing. From the cliffs by the Ocean to the lunch at (my favourite) Musso and Franks in Hollywood Boulevard, from the mansions on the hills behind Hollywood to the powerful final scene in Chinatown, the film brings to the surface all the magic and mystery of a unique place.

The film got 11 Oscar nominations including Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway  for best actor and actress but it won only the Academy Award for best original screenplay. It was 1974, the year of Godfather, part II.

 

End of the fellowship at USC

Tomorrow morning we’ll be leaving Los Angeles heading east to Arizona. Today, I decided to say goodbye my way, with the best Martini and “Bone In” Pork Chop at Musso and Frank on Hollywood Boulevard.

My fellowship at the University of Southern California has come to an end. Time has really flown. I enjoyed so much this experience – and so did my family. I have done and learned many things and at the same time I would have loved to do and learn more. In particular, it was great to perceive how people here at USC have always been genuinely interested in my opinion. Actually, everybody is always pushed to use freely his/her brain without hierarchical or administrative boundaries.

I will miss friends, colleagues and students; I will miss the intellectually stimulating and creative environment of the University, its libraries, its beautiful trees and lawns, its fantastic sport facilities and, above all, the two outdoor Olympic swimming pools.

Of course, I will miss SOuthern CALifornian laid back lifestyle and its eternal late spring.

On my return, I will be pleased to discuss with Brussels colleagues the first draft of my paper on the American Film Industry where I attempt to analyze some aspects of the Hollywood business model, starting from an historical perspective and taking into special account the impact of digitization, Internet and new platforms and the emergence of new strategies. I have been trying to write it at a sort of unconventional way, including profiles of companies and players and relevant press clips.

For the moment, let me say that I am surprised and puzzled by the absence of Europe, and of the European Institutions in particular, in such an important part of the world – California is the 8th largest economy in the world if the states of the U.S. were compared with other countries and Los Angeles is the third richest metropolitan area after New York and Tokyo. And the importance of California goes well beyond the pure economic statistics: it is a region which excels in very advanced and influential sectors like new technologies, informatics, entertainment, cultural and creative industries. In addition to that many of the finest universities and educational institutions of the whole world have their home in the “Golden State”. Still, there is no office or antenna representing the Commission and the other Institutions here and,at least to my knowledge, nobody from the Washington Delegation has visited Los Angeles in the period of my stay. Personally, I think that a more consistent and steady presence of Europe in California is an issue, which should be addressed by the Commission.

 

 

The Long Goodbye

Not Chandler’s Long Goodbye but MINE to the city of Angels. I can’t believe it, I’ll be leaving L.A. soon. A short trip through the American Southwest – Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico – before crossing America and the Atlantic and be back to old Europe. “Leaving New York never easy” sing the REM….well, I bet it is much more difficult leaving L.A.

(Colin Ritch made this picture)

L.A. is a beautiful woman who offers herself unconditionally but at the same time since day one, you realize you’ll never be able to grasp her soul, her inner essence…if there is one. Nostalgia is there from the beginning, from the first moment you get to know her. How on earth can a place like this exist, where nature and humans are so open, rich and gentle and at the same time can become devastatingly violent, heart and groundbreaking?

I think Rio de Janeiro and Habana are the most beautiful cities on earth, in Europe I adore Berlin, Barcelona, Marseille and Porto. I am obsessed by the contradictory beauty of the place where I was born, Genova between steep hills and sea. I am so happy I can call home Brussels with its hidden charm. But no place has ever intoxicated me like L.A. did.

Los Angeles hooks you from the beginning when you realize that you are a stranger just as all the others, everybody comes from somewhere else just like you, they are as provisional as you are. The city has the uneasiness of those places you come and go. But there is nowhere else to go after you have been in L.A.. You just got to the end.

I have been wondering what kind of strong, warm, yet unclear and somehow threatening feelings this place has given me. I have no precise answer, I really can’t say. But I remember this was pretty much the same way I was feeling when – 14 year old – I was listening to the warm and mysterious voice of Stevie Nicks singing Gypsy…facing freedom with a little fear.

First Stanley Cup and…Sampdoria in serie A

Great sport victories and happiness for Angelenos…and also for the European in LA. in the last few days.

Today the Kingsthe L.A. ice hockey team – have beaten 6-1 the New Jersey Devils and have won for the first time in their history the ultra-prestigious NHL Stanley Cup.

Last Saturday Sampdoriathe soccer team of the city of Genova – got promoted to Serie A after a epic win in Varese.

People are currently celebrating both events here in L.A. …;)

 

 

Audience

Audience, my audience. Yes, this blog has an audience. Not huge, but steady and actually geographically extremely interesting. Thanks to “Google Analytics“, I can track where my readers are based. In certain cases I am almost able to recognize them, to give them a face and a name. Some other times, people get connected from very exotic, astonishing location – a friend traveling or somebody who – I have no idea how and why – found this island in the wide ocean of the Internet?

Since I began to write, less than 6 months ago, this blog has been visited 2132 times by 1218 different individuals who read 3586 pages. The average time per visit is 2 minutes. The day I had more readers was May 15 when I wrote about East L.A.  http://www.a-european-in-la.eu/2012/05/east-of-the-river-south-of-the-border/

I like rankings and top-tens. This is the geographical split per country:

1. USA, 2. Belgium, 3. Italy, 4. Spain, 5. UK, 6. France, 7. Australia, 8. Canada, 9. Israel, 10. Netherlands. 

People got connected from 47 more countries – including Japan, India, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Tanzania, South Africa, Ivory Coast, Vietnam and even Bahrain – covering all five continents.

As regards to cities, the top three are Brussels, Los Angeles (including Santa Monica and other nearby locations) and New York followed by Genova, Milano, Valencia, Sevilla, Sunbury (near Melbourne), Barcelona and Philadelphia to close the top-ten.

Well, I’d like to thank you all and more in particular those persons who from Lichfield (UK, north of Birmingham), Ramat Gan (east of Tel Aviv, Israel) and Wroclaw (Poland) stayed on my blog respectively for 28, 19 and 17 minutes. If you recognize yourself, drop me a line (matteo.zak@gmail.com).

 

The city of the second chance

Harry Bosch in the kitchen of  his house in Woodrow Wilson Drive…

“Slowly, his eyes came up and he looked through the kitchen window and out through the Cahuenga Pass. The lights of Hollywood glimmered in the cut, a mirror reflection of the stars of all the galaxies everywhere. He thought about all that was bad out there. A city with more things wrong than right. A place where the earth could open up beneath you and suck you into the blackness. A city of lost light. His city. It was all of that and, still, always still, a place to begin again. His city. The city of the second chance.”

Micheal Connelly ( A Darkness More Than Night)

A short guide to L.A. in five streets – 5) Vermont and Normandie

Yes, Vermont and Normandie Avenue. It’s not a trick to add up one more street. I just think they are kind of complementary. They run in parallel – three blocks between them – two straight lines, 25 miles long, from south to north, from Harbor City to Los Feliz Village just below Griffith Park. South of Gage Avenue, Vermont is a wide three-lane road with a wide median. My suggestion is to start this itinerary in the place where in some ways, today’s L.A. was forged. History is a tough thing to escape at the cross between Florence and Normandie. “Tom Liquor” was the shop where the big fire started in April 1992. And as I heard by many people – including Harry Bosch in “The Closers” – Rodney King was not the gasoline, Rodney King was just the spark. I wrote various posts on this blog about the riots or the uprising of 1992. Many things have changed and improved since then, especially racial relations and the approach and behavior of LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department). Others are pretty much the same, lack of decent jobs, marginality. Today, at first sight, Florence and Normandie is a quite insignificant corner of South L.A., pretty much like many others. Still, I felt something in my guts while watching “Tom Liquor” from the gas station on the opposite side of the road: three homeless people were hanging there, the three of them were African American.

Let’s move north on Vermont. The landscape is shabby, no trees, no green, the grass is yellow, brownish. It is warm and humid and polluted. Several (black) men and women push rusty carts filled with blankets, garments, tin cans. A lot of discount stores, everything at 98 cents, discount meat markets, discount tyres. Night clubs and churches are side by side, they often have a Spanish name in common: El Tiburon, Jesus caminante, El Tejano, los santos de los ultimos dias. A lot of churches, a real big problem on top of the others problems for these people.

As long as Vermont runs north, the air seems to get a bit fresher and cleaner. Stop and eat a “pupusa” (typical sandwich from el Salvador) at “Susana Cocina Salvadorena“. We get now to long the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Swimming Stadium built for the 1984 Olympics. We approach University Park, green and trees are back and on the right side of Vermont is the campus of the other big educational institution of this city: the University of Southern California which has been hosting me these months.

North of Pico Boulevard, Vermont crosses a Latino area – plenty of Panaderias Guatemaltecas – and as soon as you cross Olympic you move instanlty to Asia, better to Korea. We are in Koreatown, in Mid-Wilshire, known for its concentration of Korean American people, businesses and institutions. Home to a population of over 120,000 and covering just under 3-square-mile , it has one of the highest population densities of all neighborhoods in Los Angeles. I know I am not original, but it really feels like being in Seoul. It is a very urban area, dense, full of – guess what – Korean restaurants (too many and too similar, impossible to name one or two), markets, shops, acupuncture and dentistry cabinets. Korean is pretty much the only language here and you easily meet elderly people who have difficulties in speaking English. Koreatown was also one of the main battlefields in 1992.

Vermont goes up and when crossing Sunset we can spot the huge, light blue, alarming building of Scientology. After Hollywood Boulevard, Vermont Avenue completes its catharsis and gets to the green, beautiful, intellectual neighborhood of Los Feliz. Housing is expensive and Black or African American are 3% of the residents. Los Feliz is home to a bohemian nightlife with several bars and restaurants like the historical Dresden Restaurant (good food and jazz music) or the French styled Figaro Café. There are also many vintage clothes shops and a very interesting, independent bookstore, Skylight Books, with a section for Los Angeles regional culture and history and one for graphic literature.

We are in the shadow of Griffith Park and its iconic Observatory, and surrounded by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, R.M. Schindler, and Richard Neutra. It is time to take Normandie which up here runs across the border between Little Armenia and Thai City, maybe stop for lunch at Papa Cristo’s – a surprising Greek restaurant, market, and bakery, located on West Pico – and go back south to Tom Liquor and even more south.

“Florence and Normandie, Florence and Normandie! What about Florence and Normandie? When are y’all just gonna drop it and leave us the hell alone? South Central L.A. is a tough area indeed but has soul and history and you can’t pretend you know Los Angeles if you have not been breathing its warm, thick, humid, tense air.

Jazz times in Central Avenue

This was in the early ’40s and things were so different from the way they are now. Central Avenue was like Harlem was a long time ago. As soon as evening came out people would be out in the streets, and most of the people were black, but nobody was going around in black leather jackets with naturals hating people. It was a beautiful time. It was a festive time. The women dressed up in frills and feathers and long earrings and hats with things hanging off them, fancy dresses with slits in the skirts, and they wore black silk stockings that were rolled , and wedgie shoes.(…) 

The Club Alabam was the epitome of Central Avenue. It was right off Forty-second Street across from Ivy Anderson’s Chicken Shack. (…) The music started at two in the morning and went on all night. People would come in and sit in: Jimmy Blanton, probably the greatest bass player that ever lived – he was so far ahead of any jazz musician on any instrument it was just ridiculous; Art Tatum came in; Louis Armstrong, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges, Lester Young. You can imagine what a thrill it was to be in the same room with these people. I used to go sit in after my job at the Club Alabam and play with them (…) I was already drinking every night and taking pills.

Art Pepper (Straight Life, 1979)     

 

Hidden gems and overrated stars

Big cities often hide precious gems. The colorful “Mercado La Paloma” is for sure one of the finest I have been able to discover in Los Angeles.  It is located in the Figueroa Corridor of South Los Angeles – very close to the University of Southern California – a difficult area which for long suffered (and still suffers) from a lack of jobs and cultural opportunities, community services and offer of quality food. In 1999 in response to the suggestion of some residents, a former factory of garments has been converted into a vibrant community gathering space. The Mercado – it currently hosts 14 businesses, providing 200 jobs – is now consideres a best practice in community revitalization that provides opportunities for residents and showcases local creativity to the broader Los Angeles area. Mercado La Paloma hosts shops and restaurants and it’s also home to six non-profit humanitarian organizations.

The gastronomic side of the Mercado is possibly the most interesting and successful. Among the different restaurants and bars which offer a wide variety of food and drinks, I would mention in particular three of them which I consider really special.

“Oaxacalifornia” fuses Oaxacan taste with California style. It serves colorful homemade agua frescas, fresh squeezed juices, Oaxacan tortas (delicious pressed sandwiches), and clayudas (Oaxacan pizzas). “Chichen Itza” is a corner of  Yucatan. They prepare traditional dishes such as cochinita pibil, papadzul or fantastic banana leaf wrapped tamales. Chef and owner Gilberto Cetina, has been recognized as one of the top Latino chefs in the country. Finally, the real star of the market, Mo-Chica offering traditional and modern Peruvian dishes. Ceviches are obviously great but my favorite is the unusual “estofado de alpaca“. Mo-Chica has received excellent reviews from food critics and Food and Wine Magazine selected chef and owner Ricardo Zarate as one of top ten best new chefs of 2011. Well, after that Ricardo Zarate decided to move to a new trendier location in Downtown L.A. which is fair enough and understandable. Still I wish he will not trade his soul and will keep his cuisine as rigorous and neat as it’s been at La Paloma.

I hope he will not become one of those overrated and overpriced stars as for example the one I have come across last night. I refer to the highly acclaimed Spanish Chef José Andres of The Bazaar Restaurant in Beverly Hills, a trendy place to see and to be seen. He’s a guru of molecular cuisine, which I admit is not my favorite. Still, the experience in his spectacularly decorated restaurant was deceiving. In comparison to other avant-garde chefs he gave me the impression to lack creativity by simply presenting in a nicer way, classic Spanish tapas preparations. Everything is good but portions are minimal and in any case not worthy the high price he asks for. However, to be fully honest I have to admit that his re-interpretation of an American classic as the “Philly Steak and Cheese Sandwich” was awesome.

Ricardo Zarate, I hope you read these lines.

 

 

They said about L.A.

  • I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.” Andy Warhol
  • When it’s 100 degrees in New York, it’s 72 in Los Angeles.  When it’s 30 degrees in New York, in Los Angeles it’s still 72.  However, there are 6-million interesting people in New York, and 72 in Los Angeles.” –Neil Simon
  • “I mean, who would want to live in a place [Los Angeles] where the only cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light?”Woody Allen, Annie Hall
  • Sometimes I feel like my only friend is the city I live in, the city of angels. As lonely as I am together we cry. I drive on the streets ’cause she’s my companion. I walk through the hills ’cause she knows who I am. She sees my good deeds...” –Red Hot Chili Peppers, City of Angeles
  • Los Angeles is a microcosm of the United States. If LA falls, the country fallsIce T
  • People cut themselves off from their ties of the old life when they come to Los Angeles. They are looking for a place where they can be free, where they can do things they couldn’t do anywhere else.” –Tom Bradley
  • “I don’t like Los Angeles. The people are awful and terribly shallow, and everybody wants to be famous but nobody wants to play the game. I’m from New York. I will kill to get what I need.” Lady Gaga
  • Los Angeles is a large city-like area surrounding the Beverly Hills HotelFran Lebowitz