Southern California

LA is often depicted as the home to movies, celebrities and beaches. I apologise in advance, but you won’t get a different viewpoint from this blog.

Movies/Cinema

It won’t surprise regular readers to learn that we have been to plenty of movies since we’ve arrived in California. We now only have the very long Man of Steel unseen, and it will have to be a very wet day before this happens.

Every region of the world “goes to the movies” in a slightly different way. In Hong Kong, the main attraction starts exactly on time; therefore, unlike the UK, you shouldn’t stroll in 30 minutes after the advertised time expecting to catch the beginning … unless it’s a Michael Bay film (when it won’t make the slightest difference to your understanding of the narrative). They sell very different food in HK too (puff balls, marinated meat on sticks). In North Africa, there is a kind of audience participation with the silver screen and food sellers patrol the aisles. Not the place to watch a sensitive exploration of Alzheimer’s, but would likely improve a Christopher Columbus film. In the UK, there are often many advertisements for nearby Indian restaurants. And somewhere else that I can no longer remember, they always had a break in the movie to allow people to buy food. This break happened at a predetermined time which could be in the middle of an action scene, emotional piece of dialogue or even joke.

The main difference in LA is that the movie audience stays for the credits at the end and they leap into applause or exultation when the name of someone they know appears on screen. With 125,000 people employed directly in the cinema and TV business at any one time and hundreds of thousands of others aspiring to work in the business, I guess it’s not surprising that you want to see exactly who was Best Boy Grip or Second Assistant Director.

We also took a Warner Brothers VIP studio tour. There wasn’t much VIP about the tour as they seemed to let you attend provided that you paid them the requisite amount of money. Almost all movies are now filmed on location, but it was great to see the backdrops for so many of my favourite films. The studio lot is now used predominantly for TV shows, and the sound stages were set up for all sorts of current TV programmes. We saw Ellen, Suburgatory and Big Bang Theory. Typically, there are 3 main sets and a number of side sets that they bring in for occasional use. So, for Big Bang Theory, the three main sets are Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment, the Elevator space and Penny’s apartment and these are set up in line with each other. As the show has become more established, they have brought in side sets for Walowitz’s house, Cheesecake Factory and University. Comedies are invariably filmed in front of a live audience to improve the performance of the actors, and jokes that don’t work are hastily rewritten until they do.

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Celebrities

We did a very half-hearted self-drive tour of Stars’ houses in LA. We had bought a map from a vending machine that showed who lives/lived where and we drove through some of Beverly Hills and Hollywood Hills. It’s quite a good way of seeing different neighbourhoods, but your chance of seeing a star is extremely low as all the houses with stars in them have very high walls and gates. Large numbers of buses tour the area and an even larger number of passengers eagerly take pictures of Stars’ gates. When they get home and are showing slides of their recent trip to friends and neighbours, I very much doubt whether they will be able to distinguish Michael Jackson’s gate from Aaron Spelling’s.

It is said that you are more likely to see a celebrity in a movie line or at a restaurant. This may be true, but my ability to recognise stars out of context is about on a par with, say, Lorna’s ability to spot an error in a single particle, non-relativistic Schrödinger equation.

Beaches

My favourite part of LA and environs are the beaches. As Tilly pointed out (and Mr Wilson and Mr Love before her), the girls here are different from elsewhere on the planet. Long sun-bleached hair on stick like brown as berry bodies. We couldn’t go to all of the beaches, but here is a summary of those beaches we did visit:

Paradise Cove, Malibu. Best reason to come here was the restaurant on the beach (excellent). Nancy and I jumped the waves for a couple of hours while Lorna and Tilly perfected their tans. For older readers, Paradise Cove is where Rockford Files was filmed. Also filmed here were Lethal Weapon 4, American Pie 2, Charlie’s Angels, Indecent Proposal, Baywatch, Happy Days and thousands of other productions.

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I strongly suggest that you watch the parking charges. It costs $40 for four hours’ parking unless you eat at the restaurant (which you need to book beforehand).

Manhattan Beach. Home to business men and athletes, lots here are almost twice the price of Bel Air (half an acre of land on the Strand will set you back about $35m). It’s a very long and deep beach with a factory at either end. It has a great pier and has outstanding surfing and beach volleyball. We all went boogie boarding in the fairly strong surf. Manhattan Beach has featured in 2012, Against All Odds, CSI, Hannah Montana, Jerry Maguire, The O.C, Point Break and 90210.

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Venice beach. This was Nancy’s favourite. A cooler crowd hang out here: skateboarders, tattooists, in-line skaters, cyclists, politically activists, body builders, yoga enthusiasts, and macro-biotic vegetarians. Beach is very deep and perfect. There’s also homelessness and strong signs of drug culture. But if you are homeless, why would you live in a crappy area of town? Films set here include Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Double Indemnity, Falling Down, Fletch, Grease, The Net, Sea Biscuit amongst hundreds of others.

Santa Monica. We walked along Venice beach to Santa Monica pier. While the kids did the roller coasters, Lorna and I went on the big wheel and surveyed the whole area from up high. Movies filmed here include: Heathers, The Truth About Cats & Dogs, 17 Again, Species, Get Shorty, Ocean’s Eleven, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, The Sting, Ruthless People, Beverly Hills Cop III, Forrest Gump, Iron Man and Speed.

In case you want culture, the Getty Centre and Getty Villa are relatively nearby. Both free, except for $15 parking fee.

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Napkins

Americans are obsessed with napkins. Whatever you order, they offer you piles of (paper) napkins. This doesn’t matter much if the food stuff is wet and transferable or dry. I suspect that if you bought, say, a carpet that they would give you some napkins.

My own view is that you should either learn to eat properly; restrict yourself to non transferable foodstuffs; or use your own trousers (my preferred choice).

Now I kid you not, but I watched a Hells Angels biker in an ice cream queue/line the other day ask for additional napkins. I was fully prepared for him to use my trousers to wipe off all of his debris. The US Justice Department consider the Hells Angels to be an organised crime syndicate, but I think that we may have to reclassify them as an anti grime syndicate.

The plentiful availability of napkins is one of the main reasons that my wife likes America so much. She has always been a big fan of napkins, but is a mere amateur amongst American women.

Now in the UK, napkins is a class issue. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but very many things are indications of class difference in the UK. The lower your class the more you are likely to use the word serviette (and the more likely these wipes are to be made of paper). If you are from a higher class, you will use the word napkin. We used to have cloth napkins with accompanying napkin rings.

Los Angeles

The only way to do Southern California is in a convertible with the Beach Boys singing their melodies. Unfortunately, they would only squabble in the back seat of our small rented Mustang and so we are making do with their music on the stereo.

Our girls weren’t too impressed with the open top experience. It plays havoc with their hair and they have to sit on any loose paper in more cramped conditions than usual. Most importantly, Lorna and I have selected image and coolness in exchange for practicalities, and that – unquestionably – is the teenager’s role in society.

After years of underinvestment in their infrastructure, California’s, or at least LA’s, roads are in very poor condition. Cracks and holes are everywhere, and one wonders if a 4×4 might have been more appropriate. I can hear former California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, driving in our rental car and amending his catchphrase to say “Oh my back”

On the first evening, we took the girls to the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Mann’s Chinese Theatre. I hadn’t been to LA since the early 90s, and so had missed Mann’s bankruptcy in 2000 and the later purchase of the naming rights this year by Chinese electronics corporation TCL. This area seemed pretty squalid to us in 1993, and the arrival of Madame Tussaud’s and Ripley’s “Believe it or not” has not conspicuously brought it up market. Nevertheless, we had a fairly decent Chinese meal.

Some people are highly dismissive of the City of Angels: pollution; the traffic; and the way that some of its residents think differently from the rest of the planet. But I love cinema (or movies as I now need to call them), so I can forgive it a lot.

There’s much to like too:-
– Palm trees everywhere against the backdrop of an always blue sky
– The evocative feeling that one gets when one is driving on LA roads: Sunset Boulevard, Mullholland Drive; Santa Monica Boulevard, Avenue of the Stars
– Low rise buildings, many of Spanish influence in hues of terracotta and off-white
– Beaches. Hundreds of them
– Great food and thousands of restaurants
– Some pretty cool things to see and do (Getty Museum, Santa Monica pier, Venice Beach, Disney, Film Studios, Beverly Hills….)

I was a little dubious when Lorna said that we would stay in a Best Western. I’ve stayed in a few in my travels and their “independently owned and operated franchise” model has meant that the quality can vary somewhat. But Lorna found a gem of hotel. Right on Sunset Boulevard, it’s actually really quiet and our room backs onto the swimming pool and courtyard.

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Redneck Rodeo

All US sporting events have a strong nationalist tone to them. This was no exception as the announcer – who had probably never travelled out of state, let alone out of country – extolled that America was the greatest country in the world. I briefly wondered what set of criteria had been used to come up with this conclusion and what data sources trawled, but I then had to stand for the American National Anthem. With cap in hand over my heart and trying to reach the very high notes of a very difficult song, I was already too multi-tasked to think as well.

More unusually, this event had a religious tone. The announcer told us that America was turning into a heathen country and that only faith in Jesus and a return to traditional values would save the USA. The crowd cheered in strong agreement. The rodeo knew its audience.

Lorna and I had been to rodeos before, but in the West rather than the South. This had all the bravery of the riders of the West, but with added religion, family values and Republican politics. In essence, the rodeo was more similar to a circus, and indeed one of the two main comperes was dressed in clown outfit. Unlike most circuses however, this was fantastically entertaining.

There was constant good-natured Democrat and Obama bashing, including this joke:

Barrack Obama, Joe Biden and Hilary Clinton were stranded on a desert island. Who was saved?

America.

Both the US flag and the Confederate flag were celebrated (not at all unusual in the South), but this wasn’t offensive to people of colour in the crowd as there weren’t any. The only non-white person there was paraded, alongside a cowboy, on horseback dressed as a Red Indian in full head of feathers as the show began. It later became obvious that she was just wearing make-up.

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We were in Young Harris in the North Georgia mountains, a town of 899 people (and 74 families!) named after the law college based there which was set up by the philanthropist Judge Young L. G. Harris. The whole town plus those from neighbouring districts had all turned up for the evening.

There was a pre-show act, an Elvis impersonator so bad that I wondered whether he was supposed to be Presley or Costello. I thought the music was going to be entirely country music, but there was a a wide mix selected to entertain the crowd, including UK’s own Slade.

The whole event was marvellous entertainment.

And, of course, there was the rodeo – in this case the South Eastern professional rodeo circuit.

These men and women are incredibly brave and fantastically skilled. Nothing would persuade me to jump onto an already bucking steer or deliberately distract the bull to prevent it from goring the fallen rider. The competitors rode unbroken horses and bulls; lassoed and bundled calves; and raced around barrels. I can’t imagine that there would be an animal charity in the world that would approve, but it was impossible not to marvel at the skill and bravery.

After the event, Tilly wrote on facebook that she was going to marry a cowboy when she was older. I genuinely think she could do worse. About 5 years ago, a man in a pick up truck changed lanes and crashed into the car I was driving near Atlanta. He immediately admitted responsibility and, while we waited for the police (a requirement in the US after an accident), told us his life story. He had been a professional rodeo rider for many years but had broken his back and been confined to bed for almost two years. When he recovered, he immediately went back into rodeo. Stupid? Maybe. Brave? Certainly. He was a great guy, and it was my privilege to meet him.

I will leave you with one joke from the evening. Why is it so hard for the police to solve a redneck murder? Because there are no dental records and all the DNA matches.
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Tilly trying the bucking bronco for herself

Going to the movies

Lorna and I have always been big movie buffs. When we lived in London, we saw 150-200 films a year for many years. We also started a film club which met every month. The principle behind this club was that one member of the club had to show two films with a theme to the rest of the club and also write a short essay before the screening on that theme. It was A for Anouk Aimee; B for Warren Beatty; C for Courtroom Dramas; D for Brian DePalma; E for Extra-Terrestrials; F for Fantasy; G for Cary Grant; H for the Hays Code etc. We did the alphabet twice and it was fun. We saw many films that we wouldn’t have chosen ourselves and expanded our film literacy.

We then moved out of London and had children. The cost of babysitting significantly reduced our desire to go to the flix, so we installed a cinema downstairs in the basement. As the children got older, we introduced the children to all sorts of movies and caught up with the films we had missed from the children’s infant years.

In Hong Kong, it was easy and cheap to see films and we would again go twice a week or more. It was great to watch more Asian films (Japanese, Korean, Chinese), none of them the type that were screened at the Guildford Odeon.

When we moved to Atlanta, we moved within 5 minutes of 22 movie screens of movies. It wasn’t a deliberate choice, just a happy coincidence.

So what’s different about going to the movies in America? A few things:

1. There are fewer local adverts. I miss the local adverts that UK or HK show for the local Tandoori and jewellers. It’s mostly corporate adverts here. Actually, as we don’t subscribe to American TV, it’s good for us to see a few American adverts.
2. The food is similar, but the popcorn is sold in bigger buckets – containers genuinely the size of small dustbins. Even Nancy cant eat her way through a bucket. Usually there is a choice only of salt or butter. I confess that we smuggle in food and drink from home, something that in the UK you probably wouldn’t get away with.
3. The price is quite a bit lower ($8 or £5 per ticket). One of the movie theatres near us is a $1 cinema. It shows movies that are a few weeks old. I’ve not been to this one yet, as I always have seen then first time around
4. Audience reaction is more vocal in the US. It’s not that unusual here for people to burst into applause here (if the film is good). We went to see the latest Lasse Hallstrom film a couple of weeks ago. Unlike some of his previous films, it wasn’t great. The audience of mainly High School children loved it however. They screamed at the scary bits and reacted to every turn of the plot.

They also have a drive in movie theatre in (Southern) Atlanta, something of a rarity sadly in America now. I love drive in movies. People arrive very early at the drive in movie here with deck chairs and huge picnics. I see that there will be some dive-in movies in the summer. What could be better than watching an after dark showing of Jaws in a pool?

Convenience

One of the things you can’t help admiring about America is how convenient everything is. Thousands of little innovations everywhere, all designed to make one’s life a little bit easier.

For example, in many supermarkets, there is a man at the end of the packing area who puts all of your goods into a bag and then helps you transport the purchases to your car. In the less pricey grocery stores, the cash registry areas have plastic bags ready-mounted on a triangular-shaped revolving production line (see picture below) so that the lady* at the cash desk can scan your shopping, deposit your item** into the already opened bag and then swing the carousel around for you to put the packed bag into your trolley. Someone invented this device and it makes the cashier’s life a lot easier and mine a little bit more convenient. This is all so much better than the UK, where they just chuck an insufficient number of plastic bags at you having gleaned that you have yet again forgotten your bag for life***.

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No dry cleaners would survive where I live without a drive in window. No fast food restaurant would flourish without free soda refills. Nail parlours flourish here. For $8, someone will trim and paint your toenails. I know this because Tilly and her friend had their nails done this weekend (and Tilly left a $5 tip!).

Unlike the UK, it’s very easy to get lots of services where we live in America. For example, if you want your yard to be free of leaves, there are tens of companies who will hoover up and remove all the foliage from outside your house. Five of them arrive in a pick up with five blowers and in team formation remove all leaves in about 5 minutes. You pay them $25 and they move onto the next house.

Some innovations only make a very small difference. I’m partial to an edamame bean. They’re very easy to cook: you steam them, put them in a bowl and finally sprinkle some sea salt on them. I hear you asking, Julian, how can you make that easier? Some American innovator found a way. They come pre-salted in supermarkets here.

I was reading the East Cobber magazine yesterday, undoubtedly one of the most boring magazines that was ever published. In it, Mr Scott Saffran MBA, CSA was answering that age old question “How do I clean up my garage and get things organised?” Apparently, “the best solution is to call a garage professional”, someone who can “help with all aspects of the garage makeover” and “will work with you closely to help sort through the chaos”.

Luckily, Scott – whose epithet is The Garage Dude – is a garage professional. I don’t know Mr Saffran****, but – no doubt thanks to his MBA – he has found a niche business helping people tidy up their garage. He is making someone’s life a little bit easier by offering help on all aspects of the garage makeover. I’m very pleased to hear the generalist nature of his services; I was going to hire a specialist in just the sweeping up part. But before I scoff too much, Mr Saffron – judging by his website – has a thriving business. Just look at the large numbers of before and after pictures on his website:

http://www.thegaragedude.com/before-and-after-pictures.html

*Incidentally 1 – it’s always a woman who scans and packs and always a man who only packs the bag. This must be the multitasking nature of the first job.

**This being America, it is often only one item

***Incidentally 2 – do you know why it’s called a bag for life? Because you only ever use it once.

****I’ve done a bit of research on Mr Saffron. According to his LinkedIn profile, he was a senior executive at AIG and AON. He has a stack of endorsements for change management and strategy, but sadly none (yet) for tidying up

The Maglev

The taxi driver had dyed-blond hair in a Mohican style and longer finger nails than Florence Griffiths-Joyner (one for the kids). He was in his 50s and – if he had been on X-Factor – you would have called him an embarrassment.

But he loved to drive fast in his obviously-souped up taxi. I watched the speedometer as the arrow went frequently beyond the 200km mark and then felt the significant deceleration as he weeved between cars or as he made semi-emergency stops to avoid other cars who had dared to change lanes. His hands gripped the middle of the wheel and his thumbs pressed the horn every half of a second or so.

He knew the location of all of the speed cameras. He slowed down to 70, turned around to me, held one finger up and grinned indicating that there had only been one flash (and hence no fine), while simultaneously flooring his accelerator pedal. I wished I knew the Chinese for “keep your eyes on the road”.

I reached in vain for the seatbelt. Like almost every taxi in China, there was a pristine belt on my right shoulder but unfortunately no attachment to lock it to. There is a greater chance of finding a female at a Telecoms Conference than a female part in a Chinese taxi.

I felt very sick indeed and feared I was going to die. In a thoroughly modern way, I left what I presumed would be my last words on Twitter and Facebook. I envied those from history who had left famous and funny last words because the best I could come up with were that this was probably my last tweet/status update.

Above all, I wished I had taken the Maglev.

The Maglev is a train that levitates slightly above the rail system using magnets. It has no wheels.

These trains really go quickly. The one in Shanghai reaches 431km/hour and is as smooth as Rastafarian DJ. It takes 7 minutes from Pudong airport to near the Shanghai New International Exhibition Centre (SNIEC).

Like Concord(e), the Maglev is a vanity pieces of transport. The technology was patented 100 years ago but hasn’t been widely adopted and hence the price from the German company that makes it haven’t fallen significantly. They say that the maintenance costs are very low (no friction or moving parts) and that it uses relatively low amounts of electricity, but few governments can afford the price tag of installing it. The Maglev in Shanghai was intended to extend to other destinations in the city. However, when even the Chinese can’t afford it, you know it is expensive.

Of course, this one was a slow coach compared to one of the two maglevs in Japan that once reached 581km/hr. The Shanghai Maglev reaches 431km/hr in the afternoon (and dawdles along at a mere 331km/hr in the morning). I think I may have been on all three, and understand that I will have to take trips to Seoul and Beijing when they complete their high speed Maglevs.

One of my favourite parts of the Maglev is the driver’s cabin. As you can see from the picture, it’s a bloke with a couple of computer screens. Let’s just hope that Windows doesn’t crash. There is no steering wheel and no pedals. Incidentally, if you look carefully on the floor, you will see that someone has put in an extension lead presumably to power the fan, toaster and kettle.

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