Tag Archives: los angeles

Cinematic Paradise

A couple of weeks ago, I went and saw the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious. It was a memorable trip, even overlooking the movie itself. See, for the first time, I opted for the D-BOX experience: motorized seats that vibrate and move in correspondence to onscreen action. Fast 8 turned out to be the perfect movie for the system, as every rev, every crash, every explosion reverberated through the chair to my very core. It was so much fun. I was giddy – and sold – from the opening sequence.

I’ve loved movies ever since I was a kid. I suppose a part of that was due to me growing up in Los Angeles. I couldn’t help but be immersed in the culture of Hollywood. I’d go to the mall and it would be where they filmed Terminator 2 (Glendale Galleria) or Back to the Future (Puente Hills Mall). I’d recognize “fake” newscasters in any number of films as the real newscasters on my local television stations. When I was in middle school, my sister even took me along to be an extra in a crowd scene for a forgettable Billy Crystal movie.

But my love for the movies outstripped that of fellow Angelenos, perhaps a product of circumstance. My folks were working six, seven days a week, and I found myself with a fair amount of time to kill going as far back as my elementary school years. My cousin and I would roam the streets in our suburban neighorhood regularly on Saturdays, and we’d invariably end up either playing arcade games at Subway or stopping by the local multiplex. The employees there were lax about movie-hopping; it became a habit.

By the time I reached high school, I was a full-blown addict.* I loved everything about the theatrical experience. I loved seeing the marquees out front when we drove past, back when the only other recourse to find out what was playing was to telephone in or buy a paper. I loved seeing the giant posters and fancy cardboard displays that accompanied new and upcoming releases. I relished seeing a movie with one friend Saturday and another with someone else Sunday, or just going alone for a double- or triple-header. Once, I even stayed for four movies.

*I’d even read book adaptations of things like Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Little Big League; it was absurd. I’ve outgrown that, but even now I’m still drawn to stories that become movies.

It didn’t hurt that I simply liked movies. Even as I watched my fair share of awful new releases, I never walked out on any, and just about never regretted seeing anything on the big screen (though spending $22 at the San Francisco Metreon for the abysmal Men in Black II comes to mind). Every experience offered something worthwhile – a good line, a silly laugh, a striking shot: moments of novelty and genuine inspiration I held onto. I never considered myself a movie expert and certainly not a movie connoisseur; no, I was always a fan.

It was in college that I began to gain a greater appreciation for cinematic history. I took just a single film course – “History of the American Motion Picture” – but fell in love in particular with The Gold Rush (1925) and It Happened One Night (1934). They opened my mind to the timelessness of the medium. Conveniently, this was during the heyday of Netflix’s home delivery service. I kept a steady stream of DVDs flowing in my apartment, taking full advantage of my three-at-a-time plan, all in addition to my regular trips to the theater.

There was so much out there for me to discover – films of all eras, and eventually all languages. After a friend recommended The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, I went on a long run of spaghetti westerns, then shifted over to regular westerns. I’d get to The Magnificent Seven which would lead to the original Seven Samurai which would then take me down Kurosawa lane. Or I’d crush on Audrey Hepburn and watch from her collection, then Marilyn Monroe and hers. I was learning without the structure of a classroom.

The fact that I was at UCLA also meant I was a short walk from the historic movie palaces in Westwood. It added another dimension to my fandom. On weekday afternoons when the crowd was scarce, it’d be me and a scattershot of senior citizens and the self- or perhaps un-employed in any number of beautiful, cavernous halls. The well-worn cliché of being transported to another world for a couple of hours had immeasurable value for my state of mind, being depressed in college. The theatrical experience had evolved into both hobby and therapy.

After college came graduate school, and ten minutes down the road from the university I attended in Irvine, California, there existed a real, honest-to-goodness, 70 mm IMAX theater. It changed my life. Movies had always been an event, but broadcast on a 90’ by 65’ screen – roughly the size of a seven story building, they became more. Everything felt immersive, exhilarating, simply overwhelming.* I watched summer blockbusters in awe, my brain reeling from the stimulus, my heart full. IMAX was a high of an experience that I have never been able to replicate.

*Watch any of the Transformers series on a real IMAX and try not to feel like a kid. They’re objectively terrible movies; I’ve enjoyed all of them nonetheless.

Graduate school was a fantastic time for my movie fandom overall. With a little bit of pocket change and a great deal of spare time, I averaged 80 trips to the theater a year, cranking it up to 100 as I shifted from coursework to dissertation writing. I developed a regular rotation of five or six local theaters, my individual trips determined by showtimes or discounts or membership perks. My mom swam in free tickets and concessions. I maintained a blog exclusively about movies for a year; I even created and taught a course on “International Politics and Film” one summer.

Moving from Southern California – and later, the United States – has done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for film. Of course, as was inevitable, I even wrote a garbage screenplay of my own. But it has been fascinating to witness movie cultures abroad as an expat and traveler. To stand for the Thai royal anthem before the previews begin, to climb awkwardly over Japanese audiences sitting through the entirety of the end credits as a sign of respect, to wrap my head around three rows of subtitles (English, French, German) onscreen in Switzerland. They’re indelible memories.

Movies comprise a significant part of the tapestry that is my life. I can draw upon so many memories – good and bad – of childhood and adolescence, friendships and relationships, profound moments of self-realization to utterly unremarkable days, that are inextricably linked to films and film experiences. Granted, I will never in my life again movie-hop two or three screens every other weekend. But whether I’m in an uncomfortable chair in a last-run theater or a state of the art “motion system” on opening night, I will forever remain captivated by the wonder, the spectacle – the magic of cinema.

(Photo by I, Sailko, GFDL, http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html, CC-BY-SA-3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons)

My Schwarzenegger Saga

The context

I was all of eight years old when my cousin, quite irresponsibly, took me to see Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It was one of the first theatrical experiences I can recall, and still one of the most indelible. The movie remains my favorite of all time. The action is breathtaking, the effects spellbinding. The story – simple in structure, complicated in implication – persistent and tense. And the cast of characters include the most memorable of the genre: the battle-hardened heroine; the relentless, terrifying villain; and the hero, an outdated machine bonded to a boy.

Over the course of my adolescence, I watched Terminator 2 dozens upon dozens of times. A local television channel in Los Angeles had a limited film library, and resorted to broadcasting the movie basically every other weekend. I undoubtedly have seen it more than any other movie, if in bits and pieces, and in edited form. Still, I couldn’t get enough. I purchased the metallic limited edition DVD when it came out in 2000. Even now, more than 25 years after its original theatrical release, I can give you a near scene by scene recitation.

The set-up

I don’t know if anyone in the world was more excited than I was when Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines came out in 2003. Judging by its eventual box office, I represented the exception. But I was psyched. I was old enough then – at 20 – to appreciate how rare an opportunity it was to be able to revisit my nostalgia. I basically had the chance to relive the experience of watching my favorite movie onscreen. I didn’t care that James Cameron wasn’t involved, that Linda Hamilton had moved on. This was essentially my Phantom Menace, except not shitty.*

*I saw Terminator 3: Rise of the Machine six times in theaters. In hindsight, I would say it’s a solid but forgettable movie, with a wonderful twist, and one jaw-dropping setpiece. Beyond that, it’s a poor man’s Terminator 2.

A few months before the movie’s release, I got wind of an event at the monthly Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention downtown. To my delight, it advertised a poster giveaway and centerpiece panel for Terminator 3: with director Jonathan Mostow, special effects wizard Stan Winston, stars Kristanna Loken, Nick Stahl, and yes – Arnold Schwarzenegger. The flyer even promised that the entire panel would stick around to sign autographs after the fact – even Arnie, “for a very limited time.” I could not have been more excited.

The story

Somehow, I had a friend who lived literally on the same street as the convention locale, a block over. He generously offered to let me spend the night at his place. I figured we would play some videogames and chill for a bit, leaving me a few hours of rest for my big day ahead (like the rest of the world, he didn’t care about Terminator 3). My plan was to then walk over to the convention early Saturday morning, jump to the head of the line, claim my free poster, sit through the panel, and reach the holy grail: meet Arnold and claim his signature. It was kismet.

After what felt like weeks of waiting, the big night before finally arrived. I had just a bag of essentials when my friend came to pick me up. I was psyched. As we turned onto his street, however, I noticed a few people already camped outside the convention – yes, a good 12 hours early. Immediately, I panicked. I didn’t gather my thoughts or think logistics, didn’t weigh my options at my friend’s apartment. Instead, with a self-created sense of urgency, I asked to be dropped off. Without a sleeping bag, without a blanket, without any kind of preparation or foresight.

As my friend’s car pulled off, I was left with five or six strangers who shared my mission. I felt relived, even proud, as I had assured myself a meet-and-greet. After all, even the most extreme interpretations of “very limited time” had to include the first ten people, I figured. Of the group, I was the youngest by at least a decade. These were convention veterans, many of whom knew each other. They acknowledged my existence, but not much more. Some had chairs, blankets, light sources, food and drinks. I had a single sweater. And 12 hours to kill.

It was one of the longest nights of my life. I had nothing to do, no light with which to read.* I tried to go to sleep, but without cover or anything to soften the sidewalks of South Central LA, it was impossible. I would be jolted awake by the cold every 10 minutes. Every couple of hours, I asked someone to watch my spot, then used the bathroom at the 24-hour fast food restaurant across the street: a Yoshinoya with barred windows. Over the course of that night, I came to re-evaluate my life choices many times over. Only the thought of meeting Arnold sustained me over the hours.**

*I might have had a cell phone, but it was 2003. The only entertainment it offered was ‘snake.’

**like Bart Simpson at Kamp Krusty.

Eventually, against all odds, morning came. The line behind me grew significantly, and a couple of people even jumped ahead, unbelievably, as apparently some of the night crew had the audacity to hold spots for friends. Still, I was too tired, too secure in my knowledge that I would make the cut, to pick a fight. As opening hour approached, the convention organizers came to pass out tickets confirming our line order. I was #9 or #13, in that range. They spread the word: yes, Arnold was coming. Yes, Arnold would stick around for a few minutes. My excitement returned.

The convention doors opened. We had some time to kill before the panel was scheduled to start, so I made my way around the sales floor, checked out the Terminator movie props that had been set up, pretended I cared about anything other than the chance to meet the star of my favorite movie of all time. Eventually, I made my way to the stage, to reap the benefits of a long, cold, uncomfortable, sleepless night on the street. I was in the front row. As the crowd filled in, my night crew brethren joined me up front – we exchanged knowing nods of shared experience.

We started a little late, naturally, but the panel participants were finally brought in one by one. Of course, Arnold drew thunderous applause. The panel took their seats, less than 50 feet from where I sat. I don’t remember much about the content of the discussion. It took every last inch of me to stay awake, and to be honest, I’m not sure that I did for the duration. I was too tired, too excited, too hungry, too everything. It was only as the panel came to its end that I became aware of my surroundings, that I became reacquainted with the situation once again.

Then I heard the moderator thank Arnold – and only Arnold – for his attendance.

I saw Arnold stand and acknowledge the crowd.

I saw Arnold move away from the table.

And I saw Arnold step toward the building exit.

All of this happened in slow motion.

There was a dreadfully slow churning of the cogs in my brain as the horrible realization finally seeped through. I glanced over at the other front row attendees, and they had the same quizzical look on their faces as I presume I had, as their brains put two and two together. One or two guys hopped up, but the rest of us sat in shock.* Arnold was leaving. I tried to process everything, but I couldn’t. No autograph, no handshake, no meet, no explanation. Nothing. The moderator’s voice droned on in the background, selling us on the idea of meeting everyone else.

*I learned later that they made a beeline to the exit door, and one was successful in acquiring an autograph as Arnold left. Like I said, veterans.

I ended up with a poster signed by everybody else who was there. I didn’t say much to any of them. A couple of the other night crew recovered, even thanked the panelists for sticking around. But I was in shock. I had spent a night on the street and ended up with a Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines poster signed by Jonathan Mostow, Stan Winston, Kristanna Loken, and Nick Stahl. There was no one to complain to: it was clear that the convention organizers had simply promised something they should not have. It was, as a naive 20 year old, a bubble burst.

The punchline

I ended up graduating college in June 2005. They sent my diploma over later that year. Having attended a University of California, there were four official signatures on it: the provost, the chancellor, the university president, and the president of the regents. The last was a position held by the state governor. In 2005, the Governor of California was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

So I eventually got a printed autograph after all. Never got to meet him though.

The epilogue

In 2009, I tried to attend the red carpet premiere of Terminator: Salvation at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with a pass for non-guaranteed seats for the public. I drove 50 miles from home, arriving four hours early for the event. There were maybe 20 people in line when I arrived. But it didn’t move. At all. For four hours. Finally, they allowed two small groups into the 1,152 capacity theater. I was now fourth from the front. Then security came: No one else was getting in – go home. So I retrieved my car, paid the $10 for parking, and drove the 50 miles back.

(Photo by Gage Skidmore, Peoria, AZ, via Wikimedia Commons)

Home and Away

It is home, but not anymore – not really. I’m an intruder, an interrupter. One friend flies down from San Francisco to see me for the weekend. Another sneaks in a dinner and chat at the beginning of her workweek. I take up a former professor’s lunch hour. And my mom – well, she asks for a couple of days off to accompany me 120 miles south to see my sister. I appreciate it all, of course, more than I could ever express. But at the end of the day, this is their life, their world, while mine – improbably – awaits me in Tokyo.

I needed this trip for my soul. It had been fourteen months and four days since I left the United States, and other than a week-long sojourn to visit relatives in Hong Kong, I had spent the entirety of the time in the land of the rising sun. My patience was wearing thin. I missed the West, desperately. I scoured Tokyo for burrito joints, I cooked lasagna at home, I bought American flag shorts, and I even declared to strangers how amazing the U.S. was, unprompted.* On the verge of – if not quite a breakdown, then something close, I took a flight home.

*“What’s the second best country, huh? What’s second?” I was the quintessential obnoxious American.

The trip doesn’t cost much – only miles – and it doesn’t take long – thanks to tailwinds. I struggle to reconcile the ease of travel with the severe isolation I have felt over the course of the past year plus. It is surreal. The night before I left the U.S., I had a drink on a rooftop bar downtown with three of my closest friends; one took me to the airport immediately following. It still feels like yesterday. But before I know it, I walk past the perpetually grumpy customs agents and into the Los Angeles night, into the clusterfuck that is LAX. My life feels unpaused. Or perhaps, paused.

Freeways aside, the city feels a lot less congested than it used to. Compared to Tokyo, how could it not? I go to an antiques market in Santa Monica and am amazed. There are dozens of people there, at most hundreds – rather than the thousands upon thousands that would surely attend a similar event in the Far East. I wander, meander, linger, all without fear that I might be engulfed by a sea of humanity, by crowds four-, five-, six-deep. Meanwhile, public trash cans are everywhere. No need to sort, recycle, combust. I toss with glee, with abandon.

Little things underline the differences between where I was and where I am, where I live and where I visit. I wait in line outside a downtown club at 2 am (ultimately unsuccessfully), and a police cruiser circles a few times, ever-vigilant. Right, I tell myself. Because crime exists here. The homeless are everywhere, and not only that, but they dare to approach, ask for money outright. I have to tip at places again, hesitating at restaurants and bars to try and figure out what constitutes a fair percentage. And I drive, because it’s Los Angeles, and of course you do.

But it is at Target that it hits me. I stare, mindlessly, at the directory.

  • “Can I help you?” A friendly employee.
  • “I’m just looking.”
  • “I can tell you where it is.” He offers with a smile.
  • “I’m not sure what I’m looking for.”
  • “Don’t know, huh?” He chuckles as he finishes my thought. “Give a shout if you need some help.”

That’s the exchange. No struggle, no awkwardness. As I walk away, I don’t cry, but I want to, and my heart swells with emotion. I don’t even know how to explain it. But in that moment, I am reminded that this exists. This, where I can feel like I belong, without any effort. A fucking Target in Pasadena, California.

I don’t do much with my trip. I eat at a bunch of places I wanted to eat. I watch a bunch of movies I wanted to watch. I see a bunch of people I wanted to see. It’s incredible in some ways. But it’s terrible in others. A close friend has set a wedding date. Another has been working at a new job for the past couple of months. My own sister got engaged. And I haven’t been there for any of it. Their lives have moved on. Life has moved on. And I’m stuck on the other side of the world.

By the end of the ten days, I’m ready. Like I said, I feel like an intruder, an interrupter. Truth is, I kind of am. My life awaits me in Tokyo. My job awaits me in Tokyo. I have bills to pay, sake festivals to attend, friends to play with, even a girl to see about (maybe). They’re there in Japan, waiting for me to unpause. I’m glad it’s not forever, of course. But for the next couple of years, for the moment at least, where I belong is not a Target in Pasadena, but Tokyo, Japan. Improbable as it may be.

A Fan Without a Team

I was 12 years old when Los Angeles lost both of its professional football teams. In the same 1995 off-season, the Rams moved to St. Louis, while the Raiders returned to Oakland. Neither had been particularly successful for a fair amount of time. The Rams, playing in the dump that was the pre-renovated Anaheim Stadium, managed five consecutive losing seasons prior to their departure, holding a pitiful 28.75% winning percentage (23-57) in that span. The Raiders fared a bit better, making three trips to the playoffs in those five years (going 47-34), but had won just a grand total of two postseason games over the course of the previous decade. It could be argued that both teams were as renowned for their eccentric owners as they were for anything else.

Football in Los Angeles had always presented an interesting conundrum, at least for me. Rooting for the Raiders was untenable, as they were deeply ingrained in the city’s street gang culture. My elementary school in fact banned the silver and black worn by the Raiders and the Kings, a common – if exaggerated – response in the ‘burbs. Raider fans thus came to acquire a kind of terrifying mystique in my eyes, one reaffirmed by the images I would sporadically see of the Black Hole and the news stories I would hear about innocent kids gunned down for wearing their paraphernalia. Meanwhile, I didn’t much care about the Rams, who resided in faraway Anaheim*, and were so bad that they were essentially a non-entity. Adding to the complication, the biggest personality on the sports radio station I frequented (Lee Hamilton, XTRA 690) was actually the play-by-play announcer for the nearby San Diego Chargers.

*ironic given my baseball team

Oddly enough then, I started out as a Buffalo Bills fan. I was introduced to football in the early 1990s largely through the spectacle of the Super Bowl, and it was after Buffalo’s second consecutive trip to the game that I found myself sympathizing with a team that couldn’t make it over the final hurdle. What began as rather tepid support, founded on the generic ‘root for the underdog’ mentality, developed into an active interest over the course of several years. Video games certainly helped the process; even as a child, I played exclusively with a single virtual team. And the Bills’ continued prominence in the Super Bowl spotlight definitely provided another factor. They’d be featured, albeit on the wrong end of the outcome, in the Sports Illustrated Year in Review videos I’d get in the mail and watch devoutly. Mine therefore became a real affinity.

It took a while before I considered myself a full-fledged football fan, watching regular season games on a weekly basis. By then, both L.A. teams had left, removing any geographic rationale for an allegiance to one franchise or the other (even if both, the Raiders especially, would be featured on local broadcasts for years to come). I had cast my lot with Buffalo, and became as good a fan as I possibly could – given the fact that I could watch only a minuscule number of their regular season games, and in the pre-internet age, had little access to information about them outside of trade magazines and newspapers. Regardless, I stayed loyal, keeping myself apprised of major developments. Most notably, I was appropriately devastated watching the Music City Forward Lateral on television during the ‘99 playoffs.*

*My out-of-state sister, demonstrating the impeccable sports timing that she inherited from my mom, phoned to chat in the commercial break immediately preceding the play. It made for a vivid memory, at least: sitting on the floor with phone in hand, completely dumb-struck as Wycheck to Dyson unfolded with the barest of volumes, and then pretending to listen (sorry, sis) as I held back tears and obscenities through replay after replay.

My infatuation with the Buffalo franchise eventually subsided, however. I have some excuses, most having to do with the nature of the sport. I didn’t know the faces of all the players, couldn’t familiarize myself with the considerable roster. The season was relatively fleeting, and again, the team was barely on television in Los Angeles – in terms of games, let alone weekly coverage. All of that aside, it was kind of simple: a long-distance, non-casual relationship with a franchise in the National Football League – a mediocre and increasingly nondescript one, no less – required an extreme level of dedication. Compared to the religious fervor with which I held my teams in the other major sports, compared to the level of exposure I had to those local teams, the Bills didn’t stand a chance. So when push came to shove, as I gradually morphed into a true fan of the sport, I came to realize that I didn’t really have a team after all.

I continued keeping up with the Bills, but it eventually came to resemble the way I kept up with every other team in the league. By this time, I watched nearly 10 hours of games a week, caught every playoff match-up, glanced at the studio shows regularly, and flipped through the analyses offered in a selection of magazines. And obviously, with the advent of the digital age, I came to keep up in an even more comprehensive manner. I’d imagine that my interests were akin to that of any other sports fan, at least when their particular teams are not involved. I rooted for the individuals on my fantasy team. For players, for moments, for stories.* For the underdog, naturally. The stance was especially easy to take with this sport. After all, in a manner unique to the NFL, by virtue of their infrequency, physicality, and parity, every game felt like a true event.

* I’ve watched Chuck Pagano’s speech at least a dozen times. #chuckstrong

There have been times, naturally, when I flirted with the idea of adopting a franchise, the way I did the Bills when I was younger and far more disconnected. But I never could come up with a viable selection process. If I picked a good team, I’d be an unabashed bandwagon fan – a violation of one of the most important unwritten rule of sport (I was quite familiar with the non-existent book, given my decades-long involvement with my other teams). Picking a terrible team didn’t seem to make any sense either, as demonstrated by the final years of the Buffalo experience. The true expansion teams – Jacksonville and Carolina – were too far away, again ensuring minimal exposure, while the franchises involved in recent relocations – Houston, Tennessee, Cleveland, and Baltimore – had too much history. And that was the general problem, really.

To justify the type of commitment I wanted to make, there had to be something substantial there, a connection of sorts. I suppose I could have gone with the Raiders or the Rams, but it would have been strange to suddenly hop aboard after years of willfully ignoring their existence. The Chargers might have appeared as the most logical choice geographically  – especially after I moved to Orange County for graduate school, shifting ever closer – but I hated the core group of players at the time. I rooted halfheartedly for the Redskins when a friend was employed by the team for a few years, but that never blossomed into anything more. At some point, I figured I would adopt the team of whatever city I would end up in, but I’ve spent the last two years in Boston, and for a list of reasons too numerous to detail*, the Patriots were not an option.

*1) It’s Boston.

On a weekly basis then, I still root for individuals. I root for moments and stories, but mostly, for good games. In the meantime, I continue to wait, hoping against hope that Los Angeles will get a team sooner rather than later, regardless of the particulars of my whereabouts. There have been some minor developments to that end, albeit at a glacial pace. For the first time, there is a concrete site for a stadium, an actual stadium deal, and the support of public – even league – officials. Admittedly though, I don’t want the remnants of a discarded franchise, be it the Chargers or the Jaguars or anyone else. I’m desperately holding out for expansion. I want a team that isn’t stripped from another fanbase, a team that isn’t burdened with a history and a narrative. I want a football team that belongs to Los Angeles, and one that belongs to me.