FRANK GEHRY WAS IN A LOUSY MOOD. THE ARCHITECTURAL LION, outfitted a bit like a schlep in gray corduroy pants and a blue sweater vest, was seated stage left at last week's Pacific Design Center forum, "The Role of Creativity in the Future of L.A."
The question that provoked the designer of Disney Hall: "What is the future of Los Angeles?"
"Hopeless," the master of undulating titanium replied, practically before Nathan Shapira, professor emeritus of UCLA's Department of Design, could finish asking. Gehry wasn't being funny. Nor was he trying to provoke the nine other panelists crammed onto the narrow platform at the Silver Screen Theater. He was serious.
"It may be just my experience, but a lot of stuff holds back doing things in L.A. I was involved in the street repair between Disney Hall and Moneo's Cathedral. We wanted to link MOCA, Disney Hall, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the new cathedral. We brought in Isozaki, who did MOCA. We brought in Laurie Olin, the landscape architect. We brought in Stuart Ketchum, who is well-known around downtown. We listened to everybody. We worked diligently. That was over a year ago, and we never heard from anybody. We did hear they [the county] hired another landscape architect. I thought it was just provincial L.A. Then I went to New York to work at Lincoln Center. I was there to give form to things, but there was Beverly Sills yelling at everyone.
"Grand Avenue curves in toward the Dorothy Chandler," Gehry continued, in his unaffected, flat voice. "The idea was to flip it, to create a wide park, and bring it down to the street level -- you know, that's always been one of the problems with the Chandler, it's above the street -- and it ain't goin' to happen. And you wonder, who's telling who, and why. And that's why it's hopeless."
Contrast the Los Angeles experience to Bilbao, Gehry said. When the downtrodden Spanish port decided to give itself a face-lift and become a global showcase for flashy modern buildings, the Basque government invited Santiago Calatrava, Spain's greatest living architect, to design a new airport, Michael Wilford to build the railway station, Norman Foster to do a new metro, and Gehry to do the Guggenheim. Gehry's glistening Guggenheim literally put Bilbao on the map. "It's a miracle that one building can do that," he said, "but it took will of the city's business leaders to do that. It took will."
Blunt fact: Nothing of the sort exists in Los Angeles.
Not that Gehry was too upset. He gave the bitter impression that he had all but given up trying to help remake Los Angeles -- and that he wasn't losing sleep over the failed effort. A man in the audience complained that the city is overrun by banners and billboards, that "The whole town has gone commercial. Why can't we give some room for the beautiful?" he cried out.
"You ain't gonna win that one," Gehry replied, dismissively. "Wait 10 or 20 years. It'll start to look like Tokyo. It gets better," he added with a facetious, knowing smile.
Gehry's blithe familiarity with Tokyo and his easy detachment from L.A. came off as the luxury of a jaded jet setter. His stature seemed to be getting the better of him. He peered at his watch and turned to the moderator to signal that the event was over. But not before Ed Ruscha, the Nebraska native who, perhaps better than any of his contemporaries, has revealed iconic L.A., got in a deflationary last word.
"All my gripes about modern society," Ruscha said directly, "come down to a $20 bill. The old one had Andrew Jackson on it. It had tradition, beauty, a hand engraving, dignity. The new guy they call Andrew Jackson is talking on a cell phone while standing in line at a Starbucks. I wonder where all this talk of design is taking us?"
Zap! Ruscha had delivered a crafty uppercut to Gehry's lofty impatience with his city and its inhabitants. L.A. was brought back into proper perspective. As Ruscha said, "I am a slave to this place. I love it and hate it."
Hollywoodland: Seeing Stars
I'M BEGINNING TO THINK THAT Sydney Pollack isn't Sydney Pollack. There's still a chance that Sydney is Sydney, but the doubt factor is rising like musk from a dead skunk.
It all started about three years ago in Runyon Canyon, where celebrity sightings are common. Early on, during one of my regular walks in the canyon, I was sure I recognized producer/director/actor Sydney Pollack strolling with his dog. He had that I'm-famous essence all over: immaculately ironed celebrity-quality blue jeans, hip baseball cap, well-groomed blond Labrador, posture that hints at a personal masseuse. His easygoing demeanor gave out the message "I'm comfortable knowing that you know who I am, and I'm so down-to-earth, I'll even make eye contact with you." He had to be Sydney Pollack. He looked exactly like Sydney Pollack.
And so, Sydney Pollack and I quietly began a friendly nodding-hello relationship. He was obviously a dog lover and would often stoop to pet other dogs, including mine (Guinness was also stroked by Jack Lemmon once, but that's another story). I told lots of people about this, and, after several months, we went from the silent nod to outright hellos and familiar quick smiles. We never really spoke, but as far as I was concerned I "knew" Sydney Pollack. Since I lived in Los Angeles, it was inevitable that I'd get to be somewhat chummy with a genuine Hollywood star. I was confident that if I ever ran into Sydney Pollack at a party, we'd laugh at the coincidence and catch up on doggy doings. He'd introduce me around and witnesses would see me graduate to "Sydney Pollack's bona fide acquaintance." It didn't matter that he didn't know my name. I'd seen almost all his movies.
There was a break where Sydney Pollack and I didn't see each other for a little while. But after a few weeks, there we were, me pushing a brand-new Baby Jogger, and him, with just a quick double take that I'm pretty sure said, "Congratulations on reproducing."
Then one day I saw Sydney Pollack pull into the dirt parking lot driving a white Explorer. Not a new one. That's so like Sydney Pollack to drive such a common-man car, I thought. He probably owns it just so his dog will have plenty of room in the back. He's got BMWs and Jaguars at home, I figured, yet he chooses to drive a spacious, unpretentious car that could â really use a wash. Now I like Sydney Pollack even more.
Then one day I heard Sydney Pollack say something to someone else, but it wasn't in Sydney Pollack's voice. I didn't expect him to sound exactly as he did in Husbands and Wives or on the rerun of Will & Grace I saw the other night, but it surprised me how . . . menschy his voice was. I pretended I'd heard wrong. But over the following weeks, I noticed something very unSydney Pollacklike about his upper lip, though I tried not to stare. It wasn't the upper lip of somebody who'd directed Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. It was the upper lip of somebody who works at a job he hates or whose kids haven't called in months or is just incredibly ordinary. It was not an upper lip that would belong to Sydney Pollack.
The car. The voice. The lip. I had to come to terms with the fact I've been denying for months. That this is not Sydney Pollack. That I've been living a lie. That I now must figure out just what kind of relationship I've been having with a stranger who drives an Explorer, wears a baseball cap and has a forlorn upper lip. There are still days when I'm almost 70 percent certain it's him, but most times it's more like 20, maybe 25 percent. And even if he is Sydney Pollack, which there's maybe -- maybe -- a 30 to 40 percent chance, what was I doing? Coincidental stalking?
Meanwhile, I've gone on walking my usual route. In fact, the other day I spotted Eric Idle and his beagle. I'm almost certain of it.
Sporting Life: Showtime, Burbank Style
WITH 11 SECONDS LEFT IN THE GAME, down by only a bucket, the point guard of My Bad pushes the basketball up court with the celerity of a fox. The game is on the line, and he ain't about to feed the rock to a wide-open teammate on the perimeter. It's showtime. And he's absolutely positive that one of the eight people in the "crowd" is a pro scout. This kid dreams of the CBA, just like the rest of us on the court. Only he just might have the skill and "mad hops, yo" to make it. Sure enough, he loses his bald-pated defender with a spin move and takes the pill coast-to-coast for a chippy, getting fouled in the process. The beer-gutted culprit looks astonished. Not your high-fiving, finger-waving point guard, though. He's smiling; he's having a good time. Swish. The ball tickles the twine, and My Bad does away with the Wolverines. The scorekeeper pockets another $10, the referees $20 apiece, and the next two teams begin their warm-up. The gym smells like a giant nutsack. "Let's not break out the champagne just yet, fellas," I tell them after in a very white way. "You draw Rebel Alliance next week." I don't understand the laughter that ensues.
I play basketball in the Burbank city league, for the Rebel Alliance. None of us can touch the rim. The name means nothing, really, but we cherish thinking of the rest of the league as an evil empire. Besides, last season we were "Ed?" We have never finished better than third place, but on paper we look formidable. The gray division is ours, and that is second to bottom. Gold is tops. There are eight divisions, supposedly divided by skill level. We are mostly a Warner Bros. team, except for me. I signed on via free agency a couple of years ago after being coaxed by a longtime friend. "I just want to win. It isn't about money. I couldn't care less what the fans think. ESPN can say what they want . . ." That is what I would tell the press, if there were any press, and if there were any money involved. Instead, I brag about the double/double I am averaging per game to my Warner Bros. teammates at the Sizzler.
But one must be careful about divulging a game plan at such locations. Sizzler has a team. Oh yes. And so does IKEA. They are a gang of cheap-shot artists. In fact, you never know who fields a team. Bobrick furnishes bathroom dispensers and toilet-paper bars. They also furnished me with a season-ending eye injury recently, and I am still not convinced it was an "accident." Now I am left on the I.R., praying that dude washed his hands with one of his soap dispensers prior to the game. Blinded me momentarily, which is better than the permanent blindness that the referees must suffer having missed that call.
But I do love a good, random matchup. That is why March Madness brackets are eagerly filled out every year at my house. And the matchups in the Burbank city league are as chaotically random as you please. The KROQ Donkeys? A lot of fat gargoyles that show up with bong water spilled on their uniforms and weedy hair. They might play the Burbank Police Department, who match them in girth but not in temper. Biggest group of babies ever compiled. And they never lose, because the refs are deathly afraid of jaywalking tickets. Or you might get Tin Horn, a team of city workers, going head to head with Access Hollywood, or Extra. Even Disney has a team that is definitely more Reich than Pocahontas.
When the Fotokem Players took on Tony's and One (a team sponsored by Tony's Darts Away -- advertising knows no bounds), I remembered, as a spectator, such greats as Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Walton, T.R. Dunn and Mo Cheeks, Pistol Pete and the White Shadow. It was a clinic of fundamental basketball, teamwork, strategy and agility. When the rookie on Tony's, who couldn't have been more than 57 years old, kissed it off the glass with a fadeaway jumper at game's end, I think I saw tears in his eyes. A Burbank resident, with a wife and two kids, a new hip and a pretty lousy golf handicap, had for one night been an MVP. It was triumphant down the board. Even Fotokem must have known that it was a Kodak moment. That basket narrowed the margin of defeat to 12 points for Tony's. A moral victory and an instant classic.
And that is why we come out to play. For the glory. For the beatings. For the camaraderie of team and the competition of our fellow red, white and blue-collar Angelenos. We vent, we cuss, we spit, and we pat asses -- just like they do in the CBA, just like in the pros. Only we do it in Burbank.