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Midnight in the Garden of Vincent Van Gogh 

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"Oh, it’s packed," the woman in the sleek black dress is saying into her cell phone. "We totally, like, slipped them money and got in. Are you going to be up for a bit? [Pause] All right, okay, we’re almost done. He won’t share the couch with me, huh?"

OffBeat lingers in Gallery 2, listening to the crackle of headsets and inhaling the scent of a dozen perfumes. "I want to go to Legoland," a voice states somewhere nearby. "Legoland rocks," a deeper voice confirms. "If you know a kid who wants to go, I’d be so into that," a third voice chimes in. "There’s like Magic Mountain, Disneyland, Waterworld . . ."

O Vincent, what a crowd you drew tonight! You dreamed of fame, and baby, you got it. So many black leather jackets and Kate Spade handbags! So many bejeweled fingers and pierced noses! So many club kids! So many people in wheelchairs! So many people in pajamas! So many beautiful women to adore you! I bet Gauguin would be jealous! Half of these people haven’t even heard of Gauguin! Gauguin is nobody, man, he’s nothing! Two in the morning and hundreds of people are still lined up outside LACMA waiting to see you, on this, your final weekend in L.A. (In deference to the crowds, the museum kept the show open all night for the last two days.)

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There will be more people at 4 in the morning, 5 in the morning, 6 in the morning . . . round the clock until the circus tent is dismantled and all the posters of your self-portrait are taken down from all the lampposts and you go back to your native Amsterdam. You’re the biggest show in town!

But hush. OffBeat is studying the melancholy late masterpiece Landscape at Twilight Obscured by 14 Heads and 12 Headsets as a member of Intercon Private Security starts speaking into his walkie-talkie. "This is Gallery 5 Exit Door. I have three people here who have LACMA IDs. Are they allowed to videotape?" "Gallery 5 Exit Door, Gallery 5 Exit Door, this is 1022 Control. Please be advised they can go ahead . . ."

OffBeat moves on, back to Gallery 4 and van Gogh’s bedroom. "It’s so amazing to see the, like, real thing of that picture," a young woman says, tenderly resting her head on her boyfriend’s shoulder. "Yeah, it’s so amazing," he replies. And then, in unison, they both say: "It’s so amazing!"

OffBeat disagrees. OffBeat does not feel amazed at all. OffBeat feels like someone who has been invited to attend an art exhibition inside a beehive. Some lines from Eliot come to mind:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas . . .

Some other lines come to mind also:

In the room the women come and go

Talking of, like, maybe Coolio.

And now it’s time for the gift shop, the inevitable ocean into which every river of art must drain. Here can be found the framed "self-portrait" posters stacked 20-deep against the wall, the van Gogh umbrellas and the van Gogh polyester shopping bags signed "Vincent." People are picking up van Gogh lunch boxes and paperweights and squinting at van Gogh refrigerator magnets and leafing through piles of van Gogh address books and van Gogh photo albums and looking for the van Gogh colored contact lenses that will turn their eyes as blue as a starry, starry night . . .

OffBeat does not purchase anything. Only the original entrance-ticket stub remains as a souvenir. On the back of the ticket is printed a long statement in small print, which reads in part:

WARNING

The holder of this ticket assumes all risks and danger of personal injury and all other hazards arising from or related in any way to the event for which this ticket is issued, whether occurring prior to, during, or after the event including specifically (but not exclusively) the danger of being injured by hockey pucks, sticks and balls, other spectators or players or by thrown objects . . .

There is also an advertisement in the form of a question: "Could there possibly be a better time to say YES to AirTouch prepaid service?" OffBeat mulls this over for a while, and finally decides that there could not be a better time. The time is now.

—Brendan Bernhard

CAN’T STOP THE RAIN

 

Fifteen years ago, if you had ventured forth in search of the most politically connected rainmakers in L.A., you’d have ended up in the Westside digs of Charles Manatt’s law firm — then, if memory serves, doing business as Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg &Tunney (as in former U.S. Senator John Tunney). There, while senior partner Mickey Kantor lobbied for Armand Hammer’s oil wells and gave counsel to Tom Bradley, junior partners sallied forth to every Democratic (and the occasional Republican) fund-raiser in town. The high point of the Manatt firm’s tenure as Politics-Central came in 1984, when Manatt chaired the Democratic National Committee, while Kantor chaired Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign in California and a young associate named John Emerson chaired the California presidential bid of insurgent Senator Gary Hart. In a single suite of offices, then, you would have found the party chair and the campaign chairs of the party’s two leading presidential candidates.

It’s taken a while, but Manatt Etc. now has a clear successor as L.A.’s Most-Wired Power Center. Like Manatt, the firm of Freeman Spogli & Co. is on the Westside; unlike Manatt, there’s no pretense that anyone is practicing law or doing anything not related to money. Freeman Spogli is an investment firm pure-and-simple — it’s a ’90s kind of thing. Up to now, its best-known partner has been Bill Wardlaw — consigliere for Mayor Riordan, City Hall’s éminence grise, California chair of Bill Clinton’s ’92 and ’96 presidential campaigns, chair of Kathleen Brown’s ’94 gubernatorial bid, husband of federal Judge Kim Wardlaw, Lincoln Bedroom sleepover guest and all-around grand pooh-bah of the California Democratic establishment, subspecies center-right. But it turns out that the latest Republican power brokers on the scene are none other than Wardlaw’s partners, the eponymous Freeman and Spogli. Ron Spogli’s roommate at the Harvard Business School was some third- (or is that fourth?) generation preppy named George W. Bush, and Spogli’s partner, Bradford Freeman, has been a Bush buddy since the ’70s. Freeman is also the key California fund-raiser for the Texas governor and GOP front-runner, whose campaign is already breaking all records for most-money-raised-absent-a-single-appearance-or-statement-from-the-candidate. Last year, Freeman hosted a $320,000 fund-raiser for George Dubyuh; this year, he is reportedly devoting the majority of his time to raising many times that.

So we’ve gone from one high-dollar Westside firm, with a tenuous connection to public policy, steering the course of the Democratic Party, to another Westside firm, with an up-front commitment to making vast fortunes, steering the course of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Geographers call L.A. a polycentric city — but then, geographers don’t try to map political clout.

—Harold Meyerson

CRUNCH TIME AT THE TIMES

 

Captain Crunch’s quixotic campaign to remake the doddering Los Angeles Times is in disarray, The New York Times reported last week. The problem is not, as once feared, the assault by former cereal magnate Mark Willes (a.k.a. Crunch) on the traditional wall that protects writers and editors from advertising pressures. Rather, it’s poor business performance on Times Mirror CEO Willes’ watch, the NYT’s Felicity Barringer wrote in her article.

Two-thirds of the senior executives have been forced out or are sprinting for the exit, Barringer reported. Willes’ controversial system of giving each newspaper section a general manager to meld business and editorial matters is in a shambles, she said. Worse, circulation growth, the Holy Grail of the Willes era, flatlined last year and actually declined in April. Profits in 1998, projected to grow by 3.6 percent, instead came in reduced by about 15 percent, to about $165 million, two insiders told the NYT.

Seven of 15 managers who quit recently spoke to Barringer and told her that the problem was "helter-skelter" management strategies pursued in a serial fashion.

"New people are coming in who have to learn what the old people knew already," said Leo Wolinsky, one of the LAT’s four managing editors. "It’s hard to get a head of steam up."

Willes acknowledged problems, but suggested that the paper was about to turn the corner. "All of the agony we’re going through," he said, "is because we’re determined to grow." Hey, you want to talk agony? Agony is reading the turgid niche-market copy in the Willes-era "soft" sections (lifestyle and entertainment) of the paper. Like the health section, with its "duh?" pop quizzes. (Example: Teeth. What would we do without them?) Barringer reported that a recent editorial space cut is coming largely out of the front and Metro news sections. We’ve got a suggestion: If you’re not going to make buckets of money anyway, Captain, how about going back to what newspapers do best: news?

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