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Sunday, 31 July 2016

Up to the past

OK back to the great outdoors again today. The Angeles National forest is no more than an occasionally hair-raising forty five minutes up the freeway from Hollywood. We slalomed through the usual LA freeway mix of thundering trucks, Maseratis and dodgy looking minivans, spread nose to tail over five lanes. We turned north in Pasadena and got off the highway in Altadena; a pleasant suburb of low rise houses, churches of several denominations, a lost-in-time commercial district and the woody edge of the National Forest. 

Blimey. It really was hot. We struck out with full Camelbacks and extra water bottles up a steep switchback trail to the summit of Echo Mountain. 

Thaddeus Lowe.jpgIt's 3200 feet high and though not the tallest peak hereabouts, it has a fascinating history dominated by Professor SC Thaddeus Lowe.

A veteran of the Civil War, he seems to have been quite a character. He introduced reconnaissance hot air balloons to the Union Army after demonstrating their use to President Lincoln.

Prof. Lowe ascending to observe the Battle of Fair Oaks.
He seems to have taught Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin much of what he knew too... After the war he patented a hydrogen gas production method and made a lot of money out of it. After retiring to Pasadena he seems to have been determined to put a railway up a Californian mountain. Having been thwarted by Mount Wilson he settled on Mt Lowe (Echo Mountain as it became known).

He successfully built an incline railway up one side and then a seventy bedroom hotel on the summit in 1894.

Also part of the complex were a forty room alpine chalet, a casino, dance hall and an astronomical observatory. So vast and gleaming was this development that it was known as "White City" and was visible for miles around. 

It took us about an hour and a half to get the top in searing heat, glugging away at our water. At the summit we had our sandwiches in the shade of a tree and looked back down towards distant LA, in the ruins of what Lowe had created. 

Though initially popular the project almost bankrupted Lowe who was forced to sell his stake in the late 1890s. A series of fires destroyed much of the development in the early 1900s and a flash flood wiped away the last remnants in 1937. 

Lowe himself passed away in 1913 aged 80 and is buried in Altadena. He was one of those restless pioneers of the Victorian age and it was rather sad to see the faded remnants of the great "White City" on the mountaintop, which almost destroyed him.

Some old bits of railway, the concrete steps to a once grand but now long-gone hotel and the outline of the dance hall make for a poignant legacy. But at least his family (he had ten children) have the satisfaction of knowing that people still go to the summit and read about him. 

In the evening we had an unexpected treat thanks to social media. Our great friend from Washington DC, Kristin, had spotted an LA photo that Philippa had posted on Instagram (@PhilippaNews). Were we still here? Yes! Well so was she - in town on business but she Ubered over to us and we had barbecued tuna on the deck. 

She spent a lot of time with Tom in DC and it was great to see the two of them catch up. Tom showed her his completed commercial and she showed Tom some of the videos they'd made when he was 5, which she still has on her phone. Lovely evening - great to see you Kristen! 

Movie day (and night)

On Thursdays at film school we get supporting roles, as our little de Milles film their projects on the Universal backlot. 

One backlot neighbourhood is "Old Europe", around the corner is "Modern American City" and then "The Old West" where our kids were checking exposure settings and camera angles. 


It's exciting to go under the rope and walk around the sets where so many movies have been filmed while the kids all work on their own projects. 

Inevitably, P and I were chastised for getting in Tom's shot. 

But it turned out we weren't after all so we were allowed to stay for a bit. The streets were busy with potential Oscar winners and every so often the Universal Studios tour-trams drove by and everyone waved. 

Eventually, having made an extensive photographic record, we left them to it and headed back downtown through crawling traffic to the Peterson Museum. 

The Peterson is a car museum and really rather good. It has about a hundred vehicles over three floors all arranged to tell stories about particular aspects of America's car culture. I hadn't realised that when the car era took off in the USA in the early 1900s only about a third were petrol driven. The others were steam or electric. There were even hybrids rattling about.

 It was only because petrol got cheap that the internal combustion engine became the powerplant of choice. 

It's not all worthy though, they have everything from a Batmobile and the "Back To The Future" DeLorean to cars custom built for the Shah of Iran and Californian hot-rods. 

One room just has beautiful silver sports cars, perfectly lit to make every photo a bedroom-wall poster. 

It was so well done we spent three hours there before engaging LA car culture ourselves to pick up Mr Spielberg. 

From the NYFA we went to the big cinema at Universal and watched "Star Trek - Beyond" on a 3D IMAX screen that was like the outside wall of a nuclear power plant. Actually I'm not sure I really want that level of immersion in a film. I want to watch it, not be in it. While zooming through space in a 3D fashion is all very exciting, sometimes it's hard to work out what the heck is going on. But that is nit-picking. It was great fun and very big and noisy and many, many things happened in it which were also tremendously exciting and ultimately Kirk and the team saved the day. We all agreed it was good, but not as good as the first two movies in the series. 

Out then and into the Universal City Walk, a garish pedestrian strip of bright restaurants, souvenir shops and attractions, all in primary colours with music blaring and neon glaring. It's tacky but fun. We went to Bubba Gump's, a restaurant taking its theme from the bit of the Forrest Gump movie when Forrest becomes a shrimp fisherman. 

The sunset turned the sky pink, shrieking children played in jets of water in the square and happy tourists strolled by in Universal merchandise. We watched it all unfold in a haze of seafood and beer. And a mocktail. 

Griffith Park

Ok so we'd done shopping and culture. It was about time for a hike. After dropping Tom off at film school, P and I drove to Griffith Park in the eastern part of the Santa Monica mountains. It is, according to Wikipedia, one of the largest urban parks in the country covering more than 4,300 acres. So there. At 8.30 am it was beginning to get pretty warm, but we had plenty of water and began a five mile round trip to an overlook on dusty shadeless paths that smelt of sage. We met a few people along the way; grimly determined joggers with earphones, and bald-headed shirtless men shining with sweat. That's what makes it an urban park I think; people tend to use it more like a gym than a hiking area. At the overlook, we could see both ends of the San Fernando valley.

 Glittering rivers of cars snaked through a dense, low rise urban landscape. The Los Angeles river, setting for a thousand movie chase scenes, was flowing through it too though rather more sedately. LA has had a drought for the past five years and people are asked to conserve water, but when you see the sprinklers watering roadside verges every morning you do wonder a bit about whether the message is really getting through. LA definitely lives beyond its liquid means. 

The overlook was nice, but there was a trail called the Hogsback that we could see running up the ridge behind us to a much higher peak. Heck it was only ninety-odd degrees so we continued the climb. The first part took us along a road which has long been closed and seems to include the place where people used to stop their cars for a classic night time view over LA.

 It may not be That Place but it would certainly work. If you were allowed to drive up there that is. We got back into the path; big butterflies fluttering and gliding along with us and hawks circling overhead. We reckoned they were probably vultures and as the temperature climbed it began to look like they had an eye on us with a view to lunch. 

The higher we climbed though the more spectacular the view around us, though the haze made it more difficult to pick out the detail and boy, it was hot. 

We eventually got all the way up to Mount Hollywood with a view of the famous real estate sign and the sound of people talking loudly about how many steps they'd done today. Coming down was a whole lot easier and we stopped under a tree and sat on a broad rock for lunch in the shade. 

The last part of the descent required some creative path finding to get back into the main track and one of the bushes we brushed past left my legs somewhat rash-crazed but we got there in the end, sweaty, dusty and somewhat weak around the knees. We'd done eight miles and climbed and descended a total of 3,000 feet.

Somewhat incongruously, from the car park we could hear what turned out to be a Stinson 165 Military Band Organ, serenading an old fashioned carousel. "A Stinson!" I hear you exclaim. "Tremendous". And indeed it was. The perfect accompaniment for a proper merry-go-round built in 1926 and reputed to be the place where Walt Disney had an idea that maybe if you built something like a giant funfair, people might be persuaded to give it a go. 

We bought tickets at the concession stand along with icecreams and about a gallon of lemonade to quench our unquenchable thirst. Then we mounted up on the old wooden horses and travelled in circles for a while as the Stinson hammered out one of its 1500 rousing tunes. 



After a day of retail therapy, today was about culture (with only a little shopping). Anna had scored free tickets to a new gallery downtown called the Broad (pron. "Browd") It is home to the art collection of one Eli Broad who paid $140 million for the building. The art is probably worth a lot more so he's not short of a few bob. It is all modern art - Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein among them. 

We met Anna and Coll in the lobby and after being guided confusingly by the many, many staff to exactly the one place our tickets didn't cover we rode an escalator up and out of the grey lobby with its flowing grey plaster roof like the skin of a dolphin and into the cool white walls of the display space. 

The art is well, striking to stay the least. 

Some of it - the giant table and chairs for example - is strangely profound. 

You can feel moved in unexpected ways, but you can also feel, when looking at a collage with a prosthetic leg and some dribbled paint, that the artist was having a laugh. 

I always love the hyperbole that's been neatly printed alongside each piece with such phrases as "revealing an aggressive magnanimity". 

We decided for the most part that it was fun to look at but we wouldn't want any of it at home. I guess that's what Eli Broad must have decided too. 

Just as we left to find lunch, Anna's cell phone beeped to say we could go into the "Infinity Mirrored Room - the souls of millions of light years away, 2013" by Yayoi Kusama. Only one or two people can go in at a time and then for only a minute and there had been a two hour wait. Anna said she would come back later with her kids so P and I scuttled back in and eventually we were shut into a dark mirrored room filled with tiny coloured lights suspended on strings. 

It was quite magical looking off into the infinite twinkling void. It felt like being in a CGI scene from a Star Trek movie. Which is possibly not the intellectually profound experience Yayoi Kusama intended. Or maybe it was... Anyway, we liked it. 

We also liked Bob's Big Boy diner near Film School. Built in 1949 it's the oldest Bob's in America and has all the trimmings, from the big neon signs to the newspaper cuttings of movie stars stopping by. We all got modest plates of sensible, healthy food; high on fibre, low on fat. With extra fries. 

Film School

Tom was excited about getting started this morning. We had breakfast with sunlight punching through the curtains and the tower blocks downtown making a ghostly appearance through the morning haze. Jet lag has made getting up early relatively painless and we were in the car before eight; top down and threading through rush hour traffic in the cool morning air. It's a ten minute racetrack drive to the  New York Film Academy building on Riverside and it felt familiar. The route goes past the Warner complex with its iconic water tower and hangar-sized sound stages. There is a real buzz to driving past places where so much of the world's entertainment is being generated.

Sitting in a cool screening room at the NYFA we got the lowdown on the course, and then the students were lead off to start work. P and I lead ourselves off to start shopping. We drove to a mall so vast that after we had parked we found that the actual clothes shops were a trolley bus ride away. There was also a "walking trail" to get there. So we did that and discovered - as our feet melted into the tarmac and the trail sort of faded away into an ornamental verge - that in LA, people take the trolley bus. 

We wondered around the air-conditioned retail village dazzled by too much choice and not quite knowing where to start. But barring a curious and quite literally fruitless lunch stop in which the rictus-grinning waitress was always going to be right with us but never actually was, it was all very successful. Everything went onto credit cards so we never actually have to pay. That's how it works isn't it? 

We were back in time to pick up the boy who was chatting away with others in his group and looking quite the American Teen. His first project is to make a commercial and he spent much of the evening mapping it out. 

We had supper on the deck looking out over That View. As the air cooled we went inside to watch the wonderful documentary Man on Wire about Philippe Petit's unauthorised walk on a high wire between the World Trade Centre towers in 1974. It is such a joyful film and a sent us to bed smiling. 

Friday, 29 July 2016

To the beach!

We woke to clear blue skies this morning which Coll said was a marked contrast to yesterday morning when the sky was full of smoke and ash from a forest fire in nearby Santa Clarita. Some 20,000 acres of scrub have already been consumed and only a fraction of it is under control. It reminded me of covering forest fires for work years ago and meeting burned out residents who were about to start building again on the same plots of land. They seemed to take it in their stride. 

Santa Monica beach was ten degrees cooler and we lugged boogie boards and towels and the makings of a picnic. 

The surf was big and poundy and Tom was in the sea with a boogie board in an instant. 

Coll, who is a surfer, was the only one to really catch a good long ride but Tom and I tried until we could swallow no more seawater. Tom got a bit of a beating from one wave which drove the board against the rib he bruised in the airport yesterday. That incident was a classic comedy moment, if a painful one. He was walking along next to Philippa (who was in a moving walkway) and talking to her at the same time. He didn't see the chest high metal post and walked right into it. Despite the pain, he could see the funny side and was alternately laughing and groaning. 

We had sandwiches and fruit on the beach, feeling sun-kissed and wind-blown. It was probably a good thing that we had to go and get the keys to our holiday house as the sun was fierce. 

2187 Broadview Terrace is in the Hollywood Heights neighbourhood, just over the ridge from the Hollywood Bowl.

 It's in a wonderfully higgledy-piggledy maze of narrow pathways which climb the steep slope and ours is one of four distinctive houses built in 1937 which look rather like part of the curving white superstructure of a classic ocean liner. As well as the steep pathways there is a magnificent elevator tower built in 1920 in the style of Bolognese campinale, with a pointed tile roof. It houses a rattling cage-elevator which is apparently the last of its kind in the city and can be repaired by only one company. It's featured in at least three movies: Dead Again, The Long Goodbye and The High Window and it appears in a number of Hollywood novels too including a couple by Michael Connolly. The top of it is also bang smack opposite our roof terrace, with downtown LA sweeping out behind it. Immediately below us looks and feels like an Italian village; a jumble of small houses in warm pastel colours with thick roof tiles spilling down the hillside. Somewhere in here is Frank Lloyd Wright's first project too. We shall go and look for it. 

As the sun became more golden, a brace of large Hawks circled the elevator tower. There are hummingbirds darting into the foliage too. Anna and Coll and the girls stayed for a barbecued supper as the sunlight faded and lights started winking on across the city.