Saturday, September 27, 2014

Settling In: LA Part 2 of 3

Settling in: LA Part 2 of 3.

A shift of tide is at first imperceptible. Retrospect observes the collected shades that all at once allow you notice the passing of months and years. My shift was the loss of that new car smell. LA all at once left the realm of the fresh and entered the realm of the familiar. The Chuck Jones retrospective marked the end of those first crucial days in LA. It marked the separation between the first endless week and the year that has passed as quickly since. Now I stretched my legs and began to explore the city.

I finally finished that childhood quarter map.

Our first Thanksgiving spread, complete with cactus.

 The arrival of "the familiar" brought with it the comforts of ritual. One thousand plus movies had collected in an online list. Recommendations from friends, family, best-of compilations, awards nominations, and pop culture references helped grow the list to the mountainous que that it is today. An online number generator selected between one and one thousand, I found that number on the movie list, and Netflix delivered the DVD. Each Wednesday night the roommates and I gathered around a communally prepared meal, and basked in the unpredictable excitement of a randomly chosen film. Movie theater rules applied- no talking, no laptops, no phones, no lights, no pause breaks. We watched with the absorbed respect of a theater audience, from the comfort our living room's tiny auditorium. Thursday nights were spent at drawing club. Comic artists, toy makers, storyboarders, amateurs, concept painters, and practical effects gurus made up the odd collection of industry adjacent artists.Our meeting spot was the Republic of Pie, which holds every bit of majesty such a title implies. It was one of those unexplainable structures larger inside than out. The Republic of Pie opened into a tall, couch filled lounge connecting to deeper caverns by narrow hallways. Walls of windows into the the kitchen interrupted the lounge, and ran alongside long glass cases of pies, which then became the order counter, which flowed to the barista station, and emptied like a river delta into the main lounge. An amphitheater of couches, bars, and tables surround the one step main stage- complete with the additional nooks and alcoves necessary for a good coffee house. A rotation of live music played to the college students, writers, and loafers that kept the place abuzz at all open hours. Past the main room lies a final, low slung, cave. The back room was insulated by the heavy density of antique furniture and the dim, warm glow of low lighting. At a long table, in this furthest crevice did I spend my Thursday nights. I'd soon come to call this eclectic group of artists my new friends. They'd take me to their favorite city spots on weekends. Little Tokyo consisted of an outdoor square surrounded by floors of spiraling balconies. Costumed high schoolers loitered in front of Japanese comic shops dressed like cartoon characters. Inks and sketching pens could be bought cheap next door to intricate geometric pastries resembling neatly wrapped presents. The menu at the top floor ramen house was ordered by level of spice. Our roommate Uriah is one of those skinny guys that could put away a Cadillac. He also has a Texas bred resistance to spice. Groups of onlookers argued in foreign tongues about Uriah's chances in the curry challenge. Both a spice and quantity challenge, the ramen was a hearty cauldron's worth of scorching pepper broth. Boiling, evil snarls of noodle water bubbled from the enormous bowl. Meanwhile, burly, pink faced, viking-shaped men dropped like flies around us, forfeiting the challenge. Uriah's skin took on the color spectrum as he pushed on. Three quarters through the bowl Uriah excused himself to return a solid gallon of liquid to the restaurant's porcelain. There were no rules up front about such a stipulation, and we pressed him to further damage his stomach. With doubly burning throat, he choked down the remainder of the hellwater. Uriah then took his rightful seat on the throne of fame.

Uriah's hall of fame polaroid.

I took some liberties with a subway sketch.

Sometime's we'd visit mom and pop bakeries and gourmet coffee shops. Suspended glass bowls, interconnected by means of weaving tubes, pumped carefully measured bursts of ground espresso blends. Equipment hissed and shrouded one side of the counter in steam. The rich, dark liquid spiraled from three sets of glass tubes into the final basin of Dr. Frankenstein's chemistry set. Finely crafted froth was sculpted with care by these coffee artisans. Our drinks looked like magazine spreads and tasted like wildflowers, but I'll take a cup of diner black any day. There's a strip of old Burbank with year round Halloween stores to cater to the costumed obsessed culture of LA. Room after room of gothic books and dense costumes  awaited past the blackout window drapes. Down the road, charming wooden houses were converted to blocks of vintage clothing and boutiques. Italian bistros offered seating sections within enormous, side laying wine barrels. The novelty soda shop supplied my fix for cane sugar favorites in glass bottles. And there were always new delicious and bizarre attempts to flavor pops things like cotton candy and apple pie. There's a strip of old Pasadena with brick walkways through the unadorned, crisp three story simplicity of a mid sized 1920's town square.  Slaters 50/50 offers intricately crafted burgers and pop rock milkshakes. Work in Hollywood meant lunch outings under modernist paintings, featuring tiny sculptural dishes as expensive as they are delicious. Most of this junk food was portioned out for special occasions. Produce in LA was fresh, abundant, and cheap compared to NYC. The grocery store across from the apartment reflected this. Neon Spanish signs labeled the departments, which themed like a village marketplace under individual tiled awnings. Palm trees sprouted from various sections to complete the ambiance.

Animation inspired by my grocery store's lush bakery.

I continue to get mileage out of this suit, here I am at work on Cosmos.

 I put great effort into keep myself focused on the eccentric, fun aspects of the city, lest I slip into my native cynicism. Even with all the activity, it became impossible to overlook the sprawl and desperation of the place.

Sketches from the plane.
Subway sketches

The plane ride into California showed me the truth of what the path by roads hoped to hide. Descent towards LAX showed passing patches of red mountains and arid brown vegetation that clung to life. I waited for green, for the type of climate to support the rows of trees and golf courses proudly displayed on television. From the ground, the strategically planned lawns and palm trees disguised the fact that the green never really showed up. LA is the only landscape I've ever seen which the city planning wears a mask. It continually reminded me of the simultaneous and contradictory notion always in effect: It was both the prettiest and ugliest place I'd ever been. The street, elevation, and time of day dictated the coin toss. But, it was more than the duality of the terrain itself that built in me a sense of dread.  Every town has a handful of construction workers, janitors and baristas that hate their jobs. This city is the only place I know of where the construction workers, janitors, and baristas felt promised something more. A glaze of naive optimism coats the newcomer. Then, the pained smile of pretended optimism takes its place. Eventually, in the final stage of indoctrination, they form camps. The first camp is camp crazy. Almost everyone here is a little cracked. Some are out and out disabled. Even the most highly functioning, intelligent people eventually reveal the chinks in their own armor. There was a study done on a group of mice that were electroshocked. One group was shocked at regular intervals, after a sound cue. Another was shocked at random, sometimes in conjunction with the sound cue, sometimes without warning. Lets call them group B. The stress and unpredictability of the shock rendered the B mice anxious and unstable, shortening their lives. Even shocking B less often than the control group did little to correct their health. This is life in LA. We are all group B. An endless series of disappointments, even among the occasionally successful, take their tole on the human psyche. Never have a been in a place where so many dazed lunatics wander the streets and eat toothpaste on the floor of public libraries. Nor have I been in a place were so many well spoken professionals break into delusion and hysteria over some unpredictable, obscure topic. Otherworldly vibes support conversations that don't track, and I've come to give the phenomena nicknames like sunshine poisoning and California sickness.

Sketches of Californians.

 We are all of us, running from the drifting shade of that storm cloud insanity. Many take refuge in camp two- the jaded. When energy and expectation is gone, you may drop the front of optimism for one of bitterness. This is my leaning, which, however unpopular, allows the wearer to keep their full sanity. Balancing optimism and disappointment is a trying exercise, relenting notions of meritocracy, it is much easier to keep your wits about you. Finally, there are the people who refuse to be bitter or delusional, cracked or cynical. The third camp is a large one- those who leave, who give up. Never have I existed in a place so surrounded by broken dreams. For those who can afford it, the landscape itself, which hopes to be more than a dessert, achieves its goal in lucky patches. Tired cliches about the city full of "fakes" has more to do with the way people falsely cling to hope than the bleached blonde insincerity with which the city is labeled. I've heard far less from pompous big shots than from overcompensating hopefuls. Distribution of success is simply too one sided to represent the city's temperament. The sprawl of highways and dessert plants, neon all night dinners, seven elevens, rotating, star shaped bowling alley signs, and tropically decorated apartment complexes push everyone into their own spotlit islands. We all live impossibly far away from each other and everything. There is too much road to light all of the street by night. All destinations sit alone behind some huge, empty parking lot and its single, flickering, streetlamp. It is both a vibrant and lonely place, the stark black of night made more apparent by that incredible brightness of day. My best efforts to capture the alien tone of this planet are summarized in this painting of my neighborhood liquor store:

This isolated, glowing, liquor store clown, although huge in scale, is tiny and endlessly buzzing against the infinite expanse of desert night. At once he is tragic, funny, strange, and deeply fascinating.

Some animation I did on Cosmos.

It was time for a break from LA.

Film festivals often pay some combination of room and board, offering what amounts to an extremely cheap vacation. This usually requires you win a prize in the festival, and luckily, that hard fought senior film of mine had done just that. There were even options. The dust had not altogether settled from the jump to LA, and a trip to Romania seemed exhausting on my tight work schedule. So off I went to South Dakota. Rural and cold felt inviting after all that brightness. It was impossible to overlook the change in light from the moment I left the Sioux Falls airport. Even in sunshine the world outside of LA sat under a heavy lidded dimmer. Values of day and night existed in the soft grey scale I grew up in, instead the harsh, film noir contrast of California . Light felt smoother, rounded, and less urgent. Student festival volunteers hailed with a "Walzel" sign, then drove me through rainy, brown Winter hills. It was good to feel cold again. Films played to a handful of festival goers nestled in the small auditorium of the town college. The theater and surrounding community gave the cozy impression of wrapped layers, huddled in shelter against the cold hardened rain.  Filmmakers answered questions and were awarded handmade prizes from the comfort of the assembled living room at the front of the stage. Dinner was at the Festival Curator's home. The cottage like two story lived on a wet, curbless, tree lined street. There the transition from asphalt to yard was blurred by leaves and soft, sloping transition of the old road. Groups of filmmakers talked, scattered on the carpeted living room floor of the old house. Stew and other such warm foods complimented the selection of Autumn beers. The days we spent at nearby attractions. Cross boarder drives featured native american soap stone carvers, and blue plate specials at Midwestern dinners. Art museums were stocked with community art, and the Interactive Science Center featured a full scale, robotic T-Rex. The festival and my trip came soon to an end. I returned glad to have been out of the sun for a while.

Drawing at the rock quarry in South Dakota. 

Sketches from a Minnesota diner.

Minnesota diner pie.

Sketches from the plane ride home.

I still escaped whenever possible. Holidays marked my return to Texas, for one of the most happily uneventful visits in recent memory. I hid what were ongoing and then worsening daily headaches. A long Winter vacation allowed a road trip north to the pointed desert spikes of the Devil's Punchbowl. What I thought was going to be a dainty nature hike quickly turned into a dangerous rock climb. This was the first in a long line of underestimations in the boundless energy of my friend Alex. Highlighting the climb was a swing across a collapsing dirt path on the weak, overhanging root formation. We narrowly cleared the sliding, 30 foot drop over the up-angled knife rocks below. Past the remainder of the valley's crater, I collapsed in the back seat of the car. Bumping, disturbed sleep jostled me through sleepy thoughts of "home." Brooklyn had now worn off, and a life in Texas felt a lifetime ago. Complaints and all, LA is where I now placed those thoughts of "home."

Alex, a tiny speck, at the Devil's Punchbowl.

A painting for an X-files show.

Part 3 of 3 next week.

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

First Impressions of an Alien Planet- LA part 1 of 3

Introduction: Documenting the feeling of life as experienced has long been more important than any precise biographical map. A narrative diary therefore needs a dramatically satisfying resolution. The time line involved seems to imply a coming of age story, and the arguably successful break into adulthood an appropriate chapter's end.  This is the first of a three part post about Los Angeles. I thank you for whatever part of the last five years you spent with my writing. With appreciation for your continued interest, please enjoy this blog as it comes to a close.

It was bright, the brightest place I'd ever been. There've been hotter- Summertime Texas, and even the relentless, air-condition deprived New York Augusts. But the white flash-bang of sky and concrete was its own- a new spectrum of light. This first stage of disorientation to established this entirely foreign world. The bus picked up myself and the roommates, friends from Pratt, in a vacant ocean of parking lot. We barred past neat rows of colorful houses dipping in and out of artificially green neighborhood hills. I'd forgotten about the one story stretch of infinite restaurant chains and automotive stores from my home state. We passed diamond shaped rotating burger shop signs and pathetic, out of place palm trees. Dust billowed along our footpaths as we marched, brave ambassadors to this scorched foreign planet. The first few days felt like wilderness survival. Bank accounts relayed our stock of supplies and we accessed how long we could survive without jobs, shelter, or transportation. These items, and anything else requiring trans-state communication, where next to forbidden for those not within the boarders of city limits. Months were spent in vague and unpromising email conversation with landlords and potential employers. They would rather us in the city destitute than outside it prepared. I assumed they wanted to ensure we could withstand the radioactive, eye splitting glow before agreeing to business. Brendan, an NYC ex pat from Pratt, picked us up and let us sleep on his floor. Brendan gave us three days before his next round of visitors transplanted us from floor guests to become the homeless lurkers in the migrating shade of every in and out burger. Desperate, disorientating, and exhilarating, the first week felt longer than any time since. Brendan's living room sheltered us in air conditioning and wifi while we sent out the next wave of job emails using his LA address. A round of similar emails were re-sent to the apartment managers. Within minutes the months of fortification melted, and gave way to available meeting times that same day. The morning in New York, made apparent in the afternoon Californian's tendency to drag their feet, especially for non locals. Popcorn bought at 7:35 for a 7:30 movie was dropped in a kernel at a time. A group of fresh college grads, post credit check, awaiting only a yes or no decision an apartment, took a leisurely, ambling three months to "consider." I wondered if the sunshine poisoning or the accessibility of grass was to blame for the toxically lethargic pace. An incredible stroke of luck presented a job interview in walking distance, a rarity in the obscenely expansive city. The roommates headed towards an apartment, and I towards a job. We hoped to reconvene with reason to celebrate.

Our first day in LA, minus Uriah, outside Brendan's apartment.

Blinded, I stumbled the streets of Hollywood with my hand drawn map. Even the relatively humble animation studios apparently sat behind intimidating, ivy covered iron gates. The Hollywood sign looked down on me from the end of the the street as I stood like an idiot at the car entrance gate of the studio. I felt sheepish and cursed that glorified real estate advertisement turned worldwide icon, a fitting symbol, in 45 foot letters, for Hollywood's promise of accidental success. A buzz, and I entered with what felt like Hail Mary odds. The alchemy of timing, a hard fought senior film, and experience that looked deceptively impressive in resume form bought me the job. It was a promotion from my New York position, and at nearly thrice the pay. A side story is needed to describe the true mathematical alignment of this event. Some of you may remember my high school job. The Angelika in Plano Texas is an independent, art house movie theater. Projectionists screened the new movies the night before they premiered to test for imperfections in the film print. Invitations began to circulate among the staff to join, which began after the theater closed, when the screens were vacant. A stroke of inspiration in the discovery of the DVD converter transformed this occasional and pragmatic task, into private movie parties. Around midnight, our shift was over. Leftover popcorn was dumped into large plastic bags, thermoses and spare cups were filled with fountain soda, and the huge auditorium in theater one was prepped for viewing. Our personal collections brought the classics of cinema alive across 60 foot screens. Only one TV show entered the lineup, and became an unexpected favorite. Carl Sagan's 1980's scientific documentary series, Cosmos. My childhood fascination with space and astronomy was given a new life. The 13 part documentary was elevated to magic in the unforgettable scale and vacancy of this lush auditorium. Three AM drives home led to 9 AM crawl through high school Spanish the following days. But there was always too the lasting tingle of a secret experience. I felt the privileged access to a world unknown to my classmates.  Cosmos has a special place in my heart for the introduction to an existence that would become my life- late nights, a love of television, and the sanctity of the big screen. Moments into my LA interview I realized I was being offered- a job on the new Cosmos. It was slated to air on FOX, starring one of the world's most famous scientist, and produced by a well known TV/animation producer. I wondered on my walk home how well my roommates fared, and if I'd be the first homeless person with a full time position on a major network show.

Our living room in its early stage.

We got the apartment. We moved in that night. The next several days I slept on the blank floor of my apartment by night. By day I was ushered, with the guided enthusiasm of co-workers, through a swirling, surreal rush of social gatherings. Our timing into LA was fortuitous, and most nights after work were spent in the back of someone's car, zipping past city lights. West Hollywood nights were a mix of tacky and charming neon. Block after block of dinners, clubs, and theater houses beckoned patrons with glowing bursts that jumped from the dense blackness of the LA night. Arrows danced in cycles across thousand bulb boards. Canter's deli held a birthday dinner for a new work pal. The place was almost a set from the kitsch, old-modern diner in a Tarantino film. High ceilings broke with the irregular roofs of the abstract architecture, split into tiles freckling off colored squares down the walls and across the floor. Past glass cases of pies and cakes, tight passes pinched the rooms into deep set, cave like sections. We took to the streets afterwards towards the one screen independent cinema house- The Silent Movie Theater. An animated group showing here, dubbed the Late Night Work Club, housed a collection of my artistic heroes, in town for one night only. They didn't disappoint in their art or their conversation. Tomorrow came and work again buzzed with early weekend exit traffic while the clock raced for 5. The social tide swept me out the doors and into the basement of LA's biggest comic shop for the screening of a micro-animation competition known as LoopDeLoop. Free beer and over stimulation gave the one-two punch for a spinning head.

Saturday morning I made up the time lost through my many social departures and the inexperience that kept me slow. Momentum formed, and a few solitary hours without distraction almost caught me up to speed. The sunblock smell arrived before the cases of alcohol and the work-friends carrying them. My tenure felt too green to turn down social invitations- and so I caught a ride to the BBQ. LA's more scenic neighborhoods began at fertile, ivy covered hills. Houses dotted the ebb and flow of rising elevation atop lush, steep, diagonal lawns. These stretched from rolling sidewalks to front doors sitting 20 feet above. High, narrow stairs parted seas of forested yard to reveal the opening to shady, concealed porches. Our destination was high, a vantage point that watched the the cafes and bookstores dip smoothly in and out of the gently rolling hills below. Vines and trees spilled into residential back roads from the lush, overgrown vibrancy of backyard forests. Through parting leans of trees you could spot orange beams of sunset streaking across the entirety of LA below. It is decidedly both the most beautiful and hideous place I've ever been. This moment presented more strongly the case for beauty.

That same weekend I began for the first time to notice a daily and unexplained morning headache. I'd recover by noon, and make it to the premiere of my studio's first feature film. The momentum of constant social occasion began to fume and churn up a haze, this first ever red carpet event only contributing kindling to the bonfire. Finally the breakneck pace slowed to a breathable density over the coming days. Recovery from the onslaught meant the roots of tradition. Quiet, important ritual began forming with the roommates. My path to the studio was worked out. Grocery lists began to have a rotation. Near the end of my first week, there was leisure, and even boredom to be dealt with. Kayla and I took the subway towards a Chuck Jones retrospective at The Egyptian Theater. That seemed to be the way it was- parties, screenings, get-togethers, diners, meetings, and events were an arm's reach away at all times of the day and night. The Looney Tunes never disappoint, especially when so finely curated. Well versed historians gave palette cleansing lecture between gourmet entrees of Bugs and Daffy. I basked in the nostalgia of a time before my birth, with Chuck Jones as my guide to a charming chapter in animation's history. My passion for my chosen medium was renewed in the flickering darkness, a few seats down from the historian that wrote my animation textbooks. This marked the last night that time was operating within the surreal constraints of new experience. This marked the last moment when looking back a matter of days would land me in another state, another landscape, another realm of possibility. Differences between the week past and the week present blossomed most heavily at the end of this long chain of events. Changes in geography and perspective called together all at once thoughts of memories unseen and people unmet just one hundred and forty eight hours before. All the force and momentum of change slammed the forefront of my mind, denoting both appreciation, and the end of an era. My introduction to LA was at an end as suddenly as it had started.

Part 2 of 3 Next week.

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