Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Belly Of the Beast

I was going to write this last night but I was too exhausted so I put it off. Since then Obama has picked Biden as his running mate and I guess every sincere blogger should be talking about that but that fish will keep until tomorrow.
This last week I was taking a 'teaching artist' training course that was put together by The Actor's Fund, an entertainment industry social service group, and funded by Sony Pictures. The purpose is to train working artists to teach art courses in Title One schools. The course took place in the same building that houses SAG and AFTRA down on Wilshire Blvd. right next to the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum Row. The Writers Guild and the Director's Guild are right down the street. If the oft-reviled 'Hollywood Film Community' has a center of gravity its right there.
Getting there and back was a pleasant plus. Most people dread driving 25 miles each way across a large city at rush hour. But when is a city not a city? When its LA! A low chain of mountains, called the Santa Monica Mountains, runs through the city. I live in the northern foothills of those mountains; the side known contemptuously to those on the opposite slopes as 'The Valley'. Valleyites, suffering from a huge inferiority complex, refer to the city side of the mountains as 'over the hill'. Getting over the hill can be accomplished on the freeways, through the two passes between the Valley and the LA Basin or by taking one of the winding, narrow roads that climb up through the canyons on the sides of the mountains. I chose the mountain route. It didn't take less time and probably added some distance but the route took me up a canyon in Encino (past Michael Jackson's house. I used to work for him in the late eighties and once or twice dropped things off there on my way home) that runs through a neighborhood overgrown with trees which contains some modern mansions and then climbs steeply up to Mulholland Drive, named for the hydraulic engineer who designed the first aqueduct that brought water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, making the city possible in its present form (the eco-lawyers have since shut it down, of course). Mulholland winds along the top of the ridge line, sometimes on one side sometimes the other, offering panoramic views of the city as you negotiate the winding curves. The mansions on the tops of the hills are truly magnificent. In LA altitude is a function of success; the higher up the slope you are the more prominent. The plants are insane. Native oaks crowd a thousand species of imported trees like Lebanon Cedars and ash; eucalyptus trees on the south-facing slope but not on the Valley side. Rioting Bouganvillia and Plumbago. Stunning patches of roses, roses cresting high walls.Luxurious tended gardens and large patches of wild native plants. A couple of times I saw coyotes dart across the street through gaps in the traffic.
Mulholland is a notorious haunt for people who love to drive. Porsches, Beamers, Honda S2000's all come up there in the hopes of taking a hairpin turn at 50 or 60 mph on the way to the office. The stretch between Bel Air Presbyterian (Ronald Reagan's old church) and the light at Beverly Glen is like Road-Race 2000. Dropping below forty will get you tailgated by a cursing executive in a Mercedes 560sl. But who goes that slow? With the top off and all the windows down and Jimi Hendrix or James Brown loud on the sound system even my puny old Del Sol is up to the challenge! What joy! Then a leisurely drop down into Beverly Hills down the lovely Benedict Canyon. The rest is a drive through Beverly Hills or up the Sunset Strip, always interesting, always fun. One time I played Zappa as I drove down the Strip in memory of the Old Days; Plastic People. The weather, cool for August, was the kind of weather that makes people never want to ever leave LA. In the early morning a couple of days the marine layer of clouds hadn't burned off as I started and the light grew progressively stronger as I approached my goal as the sun burned the clouds off.
And what a goal! If you like to gaze at extremely beautiful women who dont wear very much clothing in the summer Wilshire Blvd, Sunset and Doheny (and tromping in and out of the SAG offices) are about as good as you can get.
So I'm in this class with all these high-powered film industry production types, performers and dancers (only a few don't have bios on IMDB). We've all had a terrible year but as the screenwriter among us (X-Files, Beverly Hills 90210, etc.) was wearing his WGA 'STRIKE!' T-shirt and on our breaks we were hob-knobbing with a bunch of the SAG bigshots no one mentioned why we all had such a shitty year. In fact that was the group ethic. No one talked about politics, generally a social no-no in any studio or film crew, but here it was because it was assumed you were suitably left-wing; could any rational person be otherwise? The teacher had a long history in the Arts and then in the Non-Profit Arts Community. The visiting experts were all from the Education Establishment. All amazingly intelligent, educated, sophisticated people; people who couldn't understand how anyone could be against raising taxes. There's so much good work to be done. The other thing that the educators had in common was a visceral hatred of No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind was written by the Washington Education bureaucrats and the NEA, shepherded through the Senate by Ted Kennedy and then, in the name of bi-partisan comity, the new era of Good Feeling after the Clinton food-fight the hapless George Bush signed this bill which effectively put the Federal Government in charge of education. It has been an unmitigated disaster. My wife runs an elementary school library so I know teachers and on-site administrators and I have never met anyone involved in education that has anything but anger and contempt for this disaster of a law. And as they curse this horrible nightmare that has destroyed education they get to practice saying George W Bush's name, BUSH, with the ultimate hatred and contempt. Just to utter the word BUSH is all you need to do as it involves the whole panoply of invective which we all know by heart. I feel sorry for them that this wonderful Newspeak word that encompasses every evil and makes any further discussion unnecessary will be stolen from the Left come January. Its a word which makes any criticism of the cancerous education bureaucracy and their penchant for top-down control (the true culprits in the destruction of American education) completely unthinkable. Its all BUSH'S fault. He lied, you know. This should certainly be a warning to accommodation-minded Republicans to stay away from the disasterous left-wing social recipes lest the inevitable catastrophic results be squarely pinned on them as in the case of No Child Left Behind.
Even though California has the highest taxes in the nation, only NY, NJ and RI are higher, there was a constant lament about the lack of funding for education. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) people who came in to speak with us, constantly refered to the twelve-story district offices a few miles away as 'The Death Star' but never questioned whether this giant structure, stuffed with overpaid parasites, where the idiotic memos and the sweetheart contracts originated might be why education in the city is in such dire straights.
So that you dont mistake me, these are sincere, dedicated people trying wholeheartly to do their best. They are bright and motivated. I liked and was impressed by them. But anyone who can look at the state of California's crumbling economy and doesn't realize that raising taxes will make it worse, much worse, is blind. Just like the WGA and SAG striking, or threatening to strike for more money, has undermined the economic basis of the film industry here. There is complete tunnel-vision on the Left, their little patch of trees is all they see. Who cares about the forest, that's all theoretical; we're dealing with reality baby!
So, I had a wonderful time. I love hanging out with bright, intelligent, interesting people. The film conversations, for someone obsessed with film and who always found that even in animation studios most people cant discuss film with any passion, this was a rare treat! To be able to talk about Orson Welles' lighting and cinematography techniques!
The course was difficult but I think I did well and I'm looking forward to an internship and to exploring East LA's barrios and going down to South Central, terra incognita to us Valleyites, and seeing if I have what it takes to entertain and enlighten a group of bored nine-year-olds with my drawing and preaching skills. I'll still work free-lance in animation, of course (I have a show starting in a couple of weeks where I'll be working at home), but I'm looking forward to developing a pleasant, fulfilling part-time career so that as I retire I can phase out the Rat Race and work at something less high-pressure.
I've got to go mow the lawn and climb up the hillside and cut back the shrubs that are blocking the sprinklers. Have a nice Saturday!

No comments: