A Letter from Jerusalem If You Cannot Breathe, Raise Your Hand
IN THE PARKING GARAGE OF THE JERUSALEM MALL ON A RECENT Tuesday, the Israeli army was giving out gas masks. The mall itself was functioning as normal: boys on cell phones, girls buying jeans, everyone walking past stores displaying off-the-shoulder shirts so hideous only Heidi Klum could pull them off. One floor down, at the garage's green level, metal barricades were set up to keep lines orderly, and a giant, square TV was showing an instructional video on how to put on a gas mask. "If you cannot breathe, raise your hand," said a sign.
Behind the TV, at two long sets of tables covered in tablecloths, soldiers (i.e., 18- to 22-year-olds in army uniforms) sat as though they were judging pies. They were distributing "protective kits," each containing a gas mask and a syringe filled with atropine, to counteract nerve gas.
The instructional video appeared to have been made with the entertainment of future generations in mind. Onscreen, a pudgy guy in a button-down shirt fiddled with the straps of a gas mask. Narration in Hebrew was accompanied by music seemingly lifted from an airplane seat-belt instructional video. The English subtitles were each a little gift: "A feeling of suffocation proves sealing." "Screw on drinking straw; take drinking nipple into mouth." "This is a one-time procedure."
In the video's final vignette, a woman appeared onscreen, zipping her baby into a clear plastic suit that started at his waist and enveloped his entire upper body, including his head. The baby looked horrified, like a reluctant astronaut. Somehow, he was calm by the time she picked him up and swung him around in slow motion as the music swelled.
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Because this was Jerusalem, Muslims as well as Jews were there, although only a few of each, since it was during the working day. A woman in a head scarf watched with her kids next to a balding man in a yarmulke. No one seemed worried or frightened. The kids laughed every time someone on the screen put on a gas mask because the straps hung down from the sides of their head like dog ears. The balding guy watched for a while, then walked away, muttering in English, "Okay, I think I got it." A 22-year-old lieutenant with a ring in her eyebrow said, "Scared? Not really. In the first Gulf War we were in the sixth grade. Children remember it as a really good time because we had no school."
Israel, of course, wrote the book on being a nation of war/terrorism-ready citizens. In 1991, when Iraq fired 31 Scud missiles at Israel, everyone already had gas masks, and sealed rooms, and a sense of what to do if the sirens went off. For several days, the sirens did go off periodically, and people waited for hours at a stretch in bomb shelters and sealed rooms. After more than a month of intermittent bombing, 13 people were dead, 463 were injured, and $110 million worth of damage had been done.
Taking stock of the destruction, the country came to the painful realization that more people had been killed and hurt by safety precautions than by missiles. Two hundred fifty-five people injured themselves by needlessly injecting atropine, compared to 208 injured by debris from Scud damage. Of the dead, only two had been killed as a direct result of the missiles. Four had heart attacks, and seven suffocated, either because they didn't leave their sealed rooms in time or because they mishandled their gas masks.
Israel decided that gas masks and homemade sealed rooms weren't the best solution, and in any case weren't enough. After the first Gulf War, every new apartment was required by law to include a protected room with extra-thick cement walls and blast-resistant, fully sealable doors and windows. Some buildings were designed with bigger versions of these protected rooms, to accommodate everyone from a whole floor of a building at once. The Israel Defense Forces Web site offers suggestions on how to use these spaces in peacetime. "The shelter can be used as play room for the tenants, exercise room for youth club, office for the house committee, meeting room for the tenants, temporary synagogue, etc."
A gas mask has no peacetime use, of course. It's too unwieldy and specific to serve any non-war-related purpose. Or is it? A television ad for an art school here called Bezalel starts with a man's bare ass, black rubber straps running across his cheeks and around his waist. He turns around and is wearing a gas mask as a sort of bikini. The tag line: "If you dare, you'll get accepted. Bezalel." According to a spokeswoman, requests for applications to the school are way up.
USHERED IN WITHOUT NOTICE TO meet Norman Mailer moments before he was due to hold forth at the Skirball Cultural Center, I limply shook his hand and blurted something idiotic about being there to cover the event, not review his work. He looked a little crestfallen. Then he said eagerly, "Wanna have a press conference afterward?" as if proposing a rubber of bridge. "Four or five reporters? I prefer four or five." I asked why, and his blue eyes flashed. Well, twinkled. "I'm more generous that way." Aided by two canes, the Brawler in Chief a beaming little old guy with short legs and a thatch of white hair climbed to the podium with difficulty, announced that he was hard of hearing and treated his interviewer, Carol Muske-Dukes, with courtly respect. If anyone was spoiling for a fight, it seemed to be Muske-Dukes. Svelte and sexy and looking a good 15 years younger than her 57 years in black jeans, a glossy helmet of blond hair and a formfitting jacket open almost unto the Wonderbra, the noted L.A. poet and novelist bounded onstage like an upmarket Goldie Hawn, wished her guest a happy 80th birthday and let loose with a string of ambiguous accolades.
"You take on enormities with gusto," she said, and launched a few of her own, including a lengthy peroration on the Russian poets. Though clearly up to snuff when it came to debating literature with one of its contemporary greats, the ardently feminist Muske-Dukes seemed unsure whether to fight or flirt with the ardently macho Mailer, who came on downright avuncular. Undaunted by his amused tolerance, she was at pains to show the audience many of them graying, corduroyed NPR types clutching Mailer's new book, The Spooky Art, or dog-eared copies of his earlier books that awaited signing that she wasn't about to be intimidated.
Not that he was trying. "Reverence is not one of my favorite words," he observed mildly of her use of the word in relation to something he'd written. "I don't care," snapped Muske-Dukes, and rapped him over the knuckles (not without cause) for ignoring women writers or condescending to them, for his aggression toward women in general, and clearly for her the unkindest cut for referring to poetry as "a one-night stand."
Mailer fired dutifully back. Virginia Woolf "had talent, but she was much too satisfied with the smell of her own armpit." Early Madonna was the greatest media artist alive, but he hadn't much enjoyed her breast cones. Picasso was a major inspiration, because "every time he had a new wife or mistress, his style changed." And so on . . . but Mailer's heart clearly wasn't in it. Notwithstanding a couple of rote slugs at his enemies Tom Wolfe, George Bush he appears to have lost interest in the cockfight.
"So you've left me, Carol, without a question," he pointed out amiably after a particularly long soliloquy on her part. But when some clod in the audience yelled out, "Let's have more of Mr. Mailer, and less of you!," Mailer sprang to the understandably flustered Muske-Dukes' defense, pronounced her questions excellent and promptly seized the terrain for a wonderfully digressive riff on writers and writing, the subjects of his book.
More impish than waspish these days, Mailer still knows how to put on a show. He speaks in perfectly turned sentences laced with the elegance of a Harvard education and the wisecracking ebullience of pre-World War II Brooklyn. Every other line, delivered with the delight of a Jewish uncle producing a coin from a child's ear, set his audience guffawing. On writing he waxed quotable, eloquent and savvy effortlessly trotting from Borges ("a torturer because he knew that plot is a malicious fallacy") to Kierkegaard, who understood that self-satisfaction is a sure way to be working for the devil. At question time, a fledgling writer who aspired to honesty and "the audacity to try to get published," asked him to comment. "You don't need audacity for that," said Mailer gently. "You need an agent."
Astonishingly, the emergent theme was of all things humility. With the audience eating out of his hand, Mailer described his fantasy of dying and meeting the Karmic Monitor, who tells him he's been selected for reincarnation. "I rather thought I would be," Mailer says in the fantasy, and asks to return as a black athlete. The Karmic Monitor shuts his book and says he's sorry, but black athletes are oversubscribed. "We've got you selected for cockroach," says the Monitor. "But you'll be the fastest cockroach on the block." The audience roared. For dessert, Mailer read his favorite passage from his book, an imaginary exchange between Tolstoy and Chekhov. Then the fans surged forward.
STAND AT THE END OF A LONG PRIvate driveway off Pacific Palisades' Chautauqua Boulevard, in a meadow that extends outward to a plateau overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and you will see the home known to architecture buffs as Case Study House No. 8, or the Eames House. Its shape is deceptively simple: merely two rectangular boxes resting side by side, as if a third, imaginary box has been displaced from the middle of one large rectangle. The box on the left is the living space, the box on the right a studio. Inserted at various intervals are panels painted orange, blue, black, white, gray and gold, the overall arrangement resembling a Piet Mondrian composition. Even to an undiscerning eye it is easy to see that the steel- and glass-framed house, nestled between a hillside and a row of eucalyptus trees, accommodates the surrounding environment almost as much as the surrounding environment accommodates the house. Unfortunately, this symbiotic relationship specifically the pristine frontal view of the house, cropped like a photograph to include the Santa Monica Canyon hillside as a backdrop is now in jeopardy. The owner of the neighboring parcel of land is getting ready to break ground on an 11,000-square-foot faux Tuscan villa . . . But not if Eames Demetrios has his way.
Eames Demetrios, author, filmmaker and, as grandson of celebrated innovators Charles and Ray Eames, bearer of pop-culture lineage, uses part of the Eames House as an office from which he serves as director of the Eames Office, dedicated to preserving his grandparents' extensive architectural and design legacy. His mother lives in the other part of the house. Built in 1949 out of prefabricated parts, it is one of nine case-study houses commissioned by Arts and Architecture publisher John Entenza to create modern yet affordable housing prototypes after World War II. Both the house and the grounds are recognized by the city of Los Angeles as a historic-cultural monument. Which may explain why Demetrios' neighbor, Ron Flury, was gracious enough to engage the Eames Office in a discussion about what should and shouldn't be allowed as it pertains to the construction of his house. But that was two years ago.
After a lot of give-and-take, during which Flury reconfigured the blueprint of his original two-story house into plans for a one-story house in part to increase the distance between the two homes, but also to address geologic concerns no compromise has been reached. Eventually, Demetrios prompted the city to host a public zoning hearing on the matter. In particular, he was interested in addressing the approximately 36-foot-high wall, an inevitable eyesore in Demetrios' mind, which would be built on the shared property line. At the December hearing, it was determined that Flury's home is in a "dual-permit area" adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, meaning that he must obtain a development permit from the California Coastal Commission before moving forward with construction. To this end, Flury hired a landscape architect to develop a plan that would effectively conceal his property.
This plan is now in Demetrios' hands, although chances are it won't cut it, as he believes that the introduction of new vegetation on the hillside would disrupt the natural state of the grounds, which remain "remarkably consistent since the house was built."
Referring to the hilltop where Flury aims to settle, Demetrios says, "I don't want the visual environment interfering with the experience of being here." And "here" is sacred land for architecture cognoscenti besides the Eames House, two other original case-study homes, including one built by Richard Neutra, are nearby.
After showing me the interior of the house his grandparents built, Demetrios leads me to a pathway connecting the Eames House to the Neutra case-study house. With his disheveled, peppery brown hair, his glasses hiding his eyes, he speaks nostalgically about this enchanting parcel of land. Then he looks toward Flury's property and notes that the basement alone will be one of epic proportion. Suddenly 11,000 square feet is 22,000 square feet, making Flury's house potentially 10 times larger than the Eames House.
Whether or not he concedes to Flury's landscaping proposal, Demetrios knows that his good fight is nearly over. The Cultural Heritage Commission (the governing body for historic-cultural monuments) has provided no support in the plight of the Eames House. The proposed house on the hill will become reality. And if Flury thinks bigger is better, then so be it. After all, there's no law restricting a free man from putting up a compound on expensive land.
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LOOKING BACK AT 25 YEARS OF L.A.WEEKLY
So the most potent, resonant image of all the iconography of America - the outlaw cowboy, the gunfighter - is back with us again at full power. From the opening-credit shots of The Long Riders - an eagle (or what looks to me like an eagle) swooping not too far above the ground, and the riders riding under it - you know that here is filmmaking working not only in the medium of film but in the very medium of American myth.
Michael Ventura from "The Long Riders And The Return Of The Western," May 23, 1980
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