Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Furniture Designer

I met Raymond Arias in the early 90's at a Hollywood Flea Market. He was selling religious shrines he'd built from wood and glass incorporating images of angels, saints, the Virgin Mary and other Catholic icons. His work was compelling and I immediately bought a few pieces for my home. Soon, I began seeing these small shrines everywhere. At parties, at restaurants, on tv shows, in hotel lounges. Ray's creations garnered an enthusiastic following and in 1995, Ray and his lovely wife Michelle opened the retail store Furthur in Silverlake. The store was named after Ken Kesey's psychedelic school bus and soon Furthur became a "Best of Los Angeles" pick in numerous local magazines. Ray's goal with Furthur was to present an antidote to cheesy Ikea-grade "assemble it yourself" goods and instead offer high-quality, affordably-priced furniture to local residents. Ray began creating gorgeous Spanish style mosaic tables, handcrafted wrought-iron chairs and cast-iron beds with mosaic tile headboards. His designs were wholly original and the furniture was crafted in a local Los Angeles warehouse. Soon, Ray and Michelle began importing cabinets from Indonesia, drapery from India and candle lanterns from Morocco. Furthur became a Willy Wonka Factory for adults with all manner of colorful and exotic goods in lieu of chocolate. For years friends have told Ray "you need to raise your prices, you should go after the Beverly Hills crowd." Ray kept his equanimity. He never forgot his aim to make sure people in mid-range economic brackets could have access to beautiful things just like rich people. He's hoping that one day he can again return to creating his delicate religious shrines. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Friday, May 25, 2012

David Lynch

It was 1986 and I was waiting in line to see Blue Velvet in Westwood, California. As we neared the theater, a young man in a yellow UCLA sweatshirt vomited into a nearby hedge. Perfect. Blue Velvet is David Lynch's masterpiece. The film is a modern-day film noir with a 50's sensibility invaded by twisted and unnerving violence. This is Lynch's exploration of the American Dream, his journey beneath the calm suburban lawns of small town life.

David Lynch is a surrealist American Filmmaker who somehow found popular appeal. His early bizarre film Eraserhead gained notoriety on the midnight movie circuit. Based on Eraserhead, Mel Brooks hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man. Later, George Lucas offered Lynch the chance to direct Return Of The Jedi. (Lynch passed and instead made the sci-fi epic Dune).

Lynch's films have a European sensibility and he relies on the subconscious to visually drive his stories forward. He is obsessed with dreams and dreamlike imagery and his soundscapes are fueled by pounding pistons and industrial machinery. Though not always loved by critics, Lynch has received 3 Academy Award Nominations for Best Director and his films have twice won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Lynch also broke ground with his amazing tv series Twin Peaks which featured quirky small town characters, supernatural forces, dreams of backward-talking dwarves and an obsession with hot coffee and fruit pie. (Writer David Chase credits Twin Peaks for helping inspire The Sopranos.)

In the 80's, Lynch co-wrote two amazing screenplays which were never made into films. Ronnie Rocket was about a 3-foot tall red-headed midget and his relationship with electricity while One Saliva Bubble featured a redneck hick who emits a saliva bubble which short-circuits a government weapons system causing townspeople to switch personalities. From 1983-1992, Lynch penned the comic strip The Angriest Dog In The World. These days, Lynch writes music, issues daily LA weather reports from his website, distributes his own gourmet coffee brand and helps spread the teaching and practice of Transcendental Meditation. He still hopes to make Ronnie Rocket into a film. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Bukowski

When I was a college student, I had the habit of checking my friends bookcases to see what they were reading.  I'd see books by Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Herman Hesse. Looking on a lower shelf, tucked away in a corner perhaps, I'd often see multiple well-worn titles by Charles Bukowski.  The message was clear: high-brow reading is necessary but Bukowski is pure fun.

Charles Bukowski was a poet of the profane, or, as Time called him "laureate of the lowlife."  A student of the gritty streets, he wrote about the shadow side of America. Prostitutes, dingy bars, human cruelty, lonely trysts.  He was a brutal drunk, a misogynist, a self-admitted louse.  But he was also a prolific writer and at times a sensitive poet with a twisted sense of humor.

Born in Germany in 1920, Bukowski grew up in Los Angeles son to an abusive, alcoholic father.  Bukowski began writing (and drinking) in his teens.  He struggled for decades, toiling as an on-again/off-again postal worker until 1969.  He was a private person who loved cats and valued his solitude.  "I don't hate people...I just feel better when they're not around."

Los Angeles was Bukowski's milieu and creative muse.  Many of his fabled haunts have long since been torn down but some locations remain intact and provide a unique view into the life of LA's literary son.

Post Office Terminal Annex, Downtown LA

Bukowski worked as a letter-filing clerk for 14 years.  During this period he penned a column called Notes of a Dirty Old Man for a local weekly The LA Free Press.  He felt the post office was killing him slowly and poisoning his desire to write.  Black Sparrow Press Publisher John Martin offered Bukowski $100 a month for life if he would quit his job and dedicate himself to writing.  Bukowski finally quit in 1969.  He documented his experiences in his first novel Post Office written at age 49.

Pink Elephant Liquor Store, East Hollywood

Located at Western & Franklin, the Pink Elephant was where Bukowski picked up his booze and bidis (Indian cigarettes).  His favorite drinks included Cutty Sark (for his boilermakers), Riesling white wine, red wine, Vodka & 7 and Miller Beer. He despised Coors calling it the worst beer in America.  After Bukowski tallied a number of DUIs, the Pink Elephant delivered liquor to his home.

Bukowski famously wrote about his drinking in the novel Women: "That's the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink.  If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen."

5124 De Longpre Avenue, Hollywood

This is the bungalow Bukowski rented from 1963-1972.  It was here he formally became a writer and where he fathered his only child.  Bukowski wrote the novels Post Office and Factotum at De Longpre and the location was the setting for his novel Women.

In 2007, developers attempted to demolish the site and build condominiums. Preservationists and celebrities like Johnny Depp intervened and the location became a historical landmark.  Bukowski himself probably wouldn't care.  After all, he said of his own writing, "When I die they can take my work and wipe a cat's ass with it.  It will be of no earthly use to me."

LA Central Library, Downtown

As a young man, Bukowski spent many days in the Philosophy Room reassured by the thousands of books around him.  It was here Bukowski discovered his literary idol John Fante (Ask The Dust).  "It was like finding gold in the city dump." Other literary influences included Celine, Sartre, Hemingway and Knut Hamsun. Bukowski devoured every book he could get his hands on and the library was where he developed an ambition to become an author.

Clifton's Cafeteria, Downton LA

Started in 1935, Clifton's remains the oldest surviving cafeteria-style eatery in Los Angeles.  Bukowski ate many meals here during the Great Depression.  In his novel Ham And Rye, Bukowski wrote "Clifton's Cafeteria was nice.  If you didn't have much money, they let you pay what you could.  And if you didn't have any money, you didn't have to pay."

Hollywood Park Racetrack, Inglewood

After he quit his post office job, Bukowski spent his days playing the horses to make ends meet.  He viewed this as "just another job" and he developed his own betting system in which he rarely lost and often ended up with a tidy profit. The track also provided a venue for Buk to observe humanity and meet shady personalities whom he often wrote about in his Free Press column.

Other Los Angeles Bukowski haunts include Phillipe's Restaurant where Buk ate French Dip sandwiches, Olympic Auditorium where he took in boxing matches and Musso And Frank Grill where he schmoozed with studio executives and celebrities in his later years.

Bukowski published more than 60 books.  Hollywood has made multiple movies about him (Barfly, Factotum, Tales of Ordinary Madness) and his writing remains as popular as ever.  Bukowski died of leukemia in 1994.  His funeral was conducted by Buddhist monks.  His headstone features a graphic of a boxer and the zen-inspired epitaph "Don't try." (5" x 6, black ink print)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Babies & Woodcuts

Woodcuts are by their very nature brusque, harsh & bold. What makes a woodcut portrait come to life are age lines, wrinkles and weathered faces. A well-carved mature actor like Lee Marvin will translate much better than a young Audrey Hepburn (circa "Breakfast at Tiffany's"). Recently, I was commissioned to carve a woodcut of a friend's 15-month old son. This was my first carving of a baby. The boy is beautiful, vibrant and alive like most infants. I ventured forth eager to capture the young boy's spirit. One month later the boy's father was disappointed with the result. "He looks too scary," my friend said. "I just want to capture the feeling of a baby waking from a nap. He's looks kinda sinister." Obviously, I was disappointed and confused. I dove into a second carving eliminating most of the wrinkles and crags in the baby's face. I called upon my wife to soften the baby's eyes. She patterned them after a young deer. This did the trick. The client was happy and the final print morphed into that of a sweet baby boy. (5" x 7", black ink print)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

New York Love Letter

Manhattan is Woody Allen's heartfelt ode to New York. Shot in gorgeous black & white, the film opens with a stunning montage of New York City set to the strains of Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue."  Unlike Scorsese's gritty Mean Streets & Sidney Lumet's Serpico, Manhattan offers an idealized view of New York.  This is Allen's attempt to make sense of his relationship with the city and the difficulty of living a decent life amid society's loose contemporary morals.

Manhattan is the perfect example of a "Woody Allen movie."  It's funny, romantic and serious with multiple actors and naturalistic dialogue.  The characters go through a steady stream of affairs, break-ups and divorces.  New York is a solipsistic climate with it's own rules of fidelity.  Allen's best friend Yale (played by Michael Murphy) voices his opposition to infidelity by saying, "I've only had two, maybe three, affairs ever."

The New Yorkers of Manhattan are selfish, passive aggressive and emotionally immature.  They immerse themselves in psychoanalysis as a means of fending off inevitable bouts with depression.  Allen plays a divorced television writer dating an underaged girl who falls in love with his best friend's mistress.  He has two current girlfriends and two ex-wives, one whom he tried to run down with a car.

The most moral character in the film is 17-year old Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway.  She is the only one who believes in the possibility of monogamy. All she wants is to be with Allen while he spends the entire movie trying to break up with her.  By the end, Allen realizes a 17-year old is far too mature for him and a deep melancholy pervades the story.

Allen initially disliked the film so much he asked United Artists not to release it, even offering to make another film for free instead.  Perhaps he was reacting to his own character's negative portrayal, a trifecta of divorce, infidelity & statutory rape (raw meat for Woody Allen haters.)  United Artists
distributed the film as the studio was falling to pieces due to the Heaven's Gate fiasco.

Allen credited his love of Gershwin's music as his inspiration for the film.  The star of the film was New York itself gleaming like an emerald in the night. Allen opted for black and white celluloid because "that's how I remembered New York."  Cinematographer Gordon Willis (who also shot The Godfather, Annie Hall and The Purple Rose of Cairo) said this was his favorite of all his movies. The scene with Allen and Diane Keaton sitting by the Queensboro Bridge has become an iconic moment in American cinema history.  The production had to bring their own bench for the scene since there were no park benches in the area.

At one point in the film, Allen's character Isaac makes a list of things that make life worth living.  They include Groucho Mark, Willie Mays, Louis Armstrong's Potato Head Blues, Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, the 2nd Movement of the Jupiter Symphony, the crabs at Sam Wo's and those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne,

Allen's one-liners are classic.  He tells Keaton, "You know a lot of geniuses. You should meet some stupid people, you could learn something."  He says he wrote a shorty story about his mother called "The Castrating Zionist." Reflecting on relationships he utters the film's most famous joke, "I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics."

Behind the humor there's a deep sense of sadness.  The city might be gorgeous but it's also a lonely place.  Perhaps this is why Allen compared the film to Interiors, his most bleak movie.  Manhattan garnered a Best Screenplay nomination and it ranks 46th on AFI's 100 Best Comedy list.  The film was Allen's second highest-grossing film behind Annie Hall.

After the release of the film, actress Stacy Nelkin claimed the movie was based on her relationship with Allen when she was a 17-year old student at Stuyvesant High School.  She'd had a bit part in Annie Hall but her role was led on the cutting room floor.  Allen did not publicly acknowledge the relationship with Nelkin until 2014.

Woody Allen is the embodiment of the adage "Never confuse an artist with his work."  Say what you will about him as a person but without his movies there is no Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm or It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia or Louie.  His influence is also felt in films like This Is Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally, Being John Malkovich, Garden State and Do The Right Thing.

Perhaps Allen's character is best described in a scene from Manhattan as taken from the book written about him by his ex-wife (played by Meryl Streep). "He was given to fits of rage, Jewish liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy and nihilistic moods of despair.  He had complaints about life, but never solutions.  In his most private moments he spoke of his fear of death which he elevated to tragic heights when, in fact, it was mere narcissism."  (5" x 7", black ink print)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Writer

Aram Saroyan is a renowned poet, novelist, playwright and biographer. His father was legendary author William Saroyan and his stepfather was actor Walter Matthau.

Aram came of age in the 60's and his early writings were heavily influenced by the Beat Generation. He met the beat triumvirate of Kerouac, Ginsberg & Burroughs and Aram's book Genesis Angels chronicles the life of beat poet Lew Welch. Saroyan's philosophy of writing owes much to Allen Ginsberg's exhortations of "First Thought Best Thought" and "Candor Ends Paranoia."

In 1967, Aram and his friend the poet Ted Berrigan traveled to Lowell, Massachusetts to interview Jack Kerouac at his home.  It was a few months before the summer of love and people were always showing up at the house to see the author of On The Road.  Kerouac's wife Stella was the gatekeeper and she tried to shoo Saroyan & Berrigan away.  After they insisted they'd come to interview Kerouac for The Paris Review, she finally let the men into the house.

By this time, Kerouac was a "bull-like ruin." Sitting in the darkened living room, Berrigan gave Kerouac a handful of Orbitrols (Kerouac called them "forked clarinets").  The two poets watched as Kerouac reminisced about his days with Neal Cassady riding around the country "free as a bee...We had more fun than five thousand Socony Gasoline Station Attendants."

Kerouac expressed his admiration for Aram's father, William Saroyan.  "I loved him as a teenager, he really got me out of the nineteenth-century rut I was trying to study, not only with his funny tone but with his Armenian poetic."

Kerouac played piano for the poets then composed a spontaneous haiku:

Sparrow

with big leaf on its back

windstorm.

Kerouac riffed on the origins of Buddhism and the impact of Zen on his writing.  "When a man spit at the Buddha, the Buddha replied, 'Since I can't have your abuse you may have it back.'"  Aram asked Jack the difference between Buddha and Jesus.  Kerouac said, "That's a very good question.  There is none."

As their meeting came to a close, Kerouac recited his poem Mexico City Blues.  He asked Aram to repeat the words after him, line by line:

Delicate conceptions of kneecaps.

Like kissing my kitten in the belly.

The quivering meat of the elephants of kindness.

When the poem was complete, Kerouac rewarded Aram by saying, "You'll do, Saroyan." To Aram, this was the equivalent of a literary knighting.

Currently, Aram teaches creative writing at USC. Aram's 2007 collection Complete Minimal Poems received the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. His latest book is Door to the River: Essays and Reviews from the 1960s into the Digital Age. (5" x 7", black ink print)