Wed, May

Cultural Triumphs and Crimes of 2012

STATE OF LA CULTURE - Back in the good old days, Los Angeles Times music critic Martin Bernheimer used to do an end of year wrap up that he called the Beckmesser Awards. The awards were named after Sixtus Beckmesser, music critic and victim of a humorous portrayal by none other than Richard Wagner. Sadly, Bernheimer doesn't work at the LA Times anymore, but we can look at what the good old days were like, at least in 1994.
I can't do justice to Beckmesser or Bernheimer in 2012, but we can take a quick look at the current state of culture in greater Los Angeles and consider a few ups and downs.
‘Downs’ include the sorry state of governmental support for cultural tourism. Let's face it -- Hollywood Boulevard is kind of a disappointment if you want to introduce people to the reality of film history. We have a lot of important history right here in LA, and the city's Cultural Affairs Department might as well be off on another planet. We don't protect cultural artifacts like the Fairbanks-Pickford Studio, and we don't defend more recent structures like the Capitol Records building. 
The Hollywood Heritage Society does its best, but without help from people like Councilman Tom LaBonge, the going is difficult. Worse yet, the important cultural institutions like The Academy (you know, that one -- the Oscars etc) have put offices and museums anywhere but the tourist center. The continuing loss of old movie theaters has gone from frustrating and disgraceful to just plain sad.
Compare our situation to Fullerton, where the old Fox Theater has been preserved. The locals have to raise another ten or fifteen million dollars to complete the job, but they are determined and energetic.
We do have one major victory (an ‘Up’) in the form of the American Cinematheque and its preservation of the Egyptian Theater. The Egyptian recently held a 90th anniversary celebration. I remarked to one of the volunteers that we ought to see the survival of the Egyptian as a small miracle. It is. The fact that the Cinematheque paid off the loan necessary to rebuild the theater should be heartening to the Fullerton group.
We don't talk about television much, at least in terms of broadcast television. I think I may be the last living American to avoid subscribing to cable TV, so I have had a chance to see what the conversion to digital broadcast television has brought. A lot of it is the same, except for the proliferation of football, which is dwarfed by what is going on over on cable. 
What is interesting about the digital conversion is that it hasn't had an overwhelming effect on the growth of television programming because the majority is already made for cable dissemination.
But there are a few nooks and crannies that are of interest. Locally, we can see a big difference at Channel 5 and Channel 28. Channel 5 is now 3 different channels and has built a business around showing old material. It's kind of the televised version of a golden oldies radio station. Those of a certain age can relive the Burns and Allen show or the Jack Benny show.
Channel 28 used to be the local PBS station until money got tight. They broke away from the PBS system and went to a multichannel format, showing everything from Italian cop shows (Inspector Montalbano being the best) to foreign news channels.
I'd like to mention one little jewel of a show that doesn't seem to get a lot of discussion. Perhaps that's because it's a children's show that appeals to adults, but somehow has been scheduled for the midnight slot.
It's called Signing Time, and it is a show devoted to teaching American Sign Language. The star is a mom who signs and sings, by the name of Rachel Coleman, and includes a cast of young kids who are best described as adorable.
Here's a link to the authors of this show.
On a different note, broadcast television continues to feature sadistic gore of the worst sort, the worst of the worst being a show called Criminal Minds. It's another of the genre which involves finding a bad guy, the magical doings of a computer whiz, various buff looking men and women, and suffering victims. Somebody should explain to network executives that there is a difference between doing a whodunnit and doing sado-porn.
Culture in 2012 Los Angeles couldn't be better in some ways, and couldn't be worse in others. The big ticket symphonies and opera companies have survived -- not without stress and budgetary strain, but that's the case all over the map. 
Los Angeles and Long beach continue to be served by a grand opera company downtown and a risk-taking venture in Long Beach. Long Beach opera served up what is probably the very first opera about neurology, in the form of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, based on the book of the same name by Oliver Sachs. It's an opera without spears or dragons, but it works, both musically and intellectually.
The Award for the best performance of a film goes, strangely enough, to the San Francisco Silent Film Society. The SFSFS had the courage and determination to present the movie, as one critic put it, against which all other movies should be compared. Most Americans are not aware of Napoleon Vu Par Abel Gance, the 1927 epic that does for the French founding myth what stories about the American Revolution do for us. 
English film historian and editor Kevin Brownlow has been salvaging lost footage and putting together a definitive restoration for several decades. A couple of decades ago, his group brought in composer and conductor Carl Davis to put together a score. You have to understand that the Brownlow version goes on for about 5 hours, so that's a lot of score. In addition, this being a silent film, it is meant to be screened with live accompaniment -- in this case a full size orchestra.
One other point. Gance invented an early version of Cinerama, to be used for the final, dramatic moments. He used three projectors and three full sized screens.
There have been legal issues about showing Napoleon for quite a few years, mainly involved with getting permission to show the film along with the Carl Davis score. San Francisco's silent society put it all together, hiring a hall big enough for 3000 people (they had to go to Oakland) and scheduling four performances.
The Napoleon performances altogether screened to about 10,000 spectators. On the evening I attended, I ran into people from all over California, other parts of the United States, and Europe. They were all thrilled.
The Borrowed Beckmesser Award for 2012 goes unreservedly to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The runner up is another screened spectacular. The Metropolitan Opera has had a series of Live from the Met broadcasts for many years on the radio. Not too long ago, the Met started screening high definition television signals that are shown in movie theaters. The year 2012 featured a remarkable performance of Siegfried, and an equally remarkable performance of Gotterdammerung, as described previously in this column. 
There is one concern that we might consider in thinking about live opera by the best performers brought to your home town. I think it was Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, who pointed out that prior to widespread recordings, it was possible to make a living as a mediocre opera singer in a small city opera company. 
With the very best suddenly available all over the globe (and at a price of $20), I wonder whether the ultimate effect will be to damage local companies or to build an audience who will enjoy the best in broadcasting and the reasonably good at home.
(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].) 
Vol 10 Issue 104
Pub: Dec 28, 2012

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