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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