Cause Célèbre: Green Carpets and Ancient Elves

FOLLOWING A LITTLE WANGLING AND A WEE BIT TOO MUCH INDUSTRY butt-smooching even for my taste, I found myself the holder of one solitary ticket to see the Rolling Stones at their big free show at Staples Center last Thursday night. Yes, I would've paid upward of $1,500 to attend, as did many of the marvelous celebrities in attendance, but I couldn't spare it. Had to be there, though, because this was, of course, the Stones' much-heralded concert to aid the National Resource Defense Council's work to focus the world's eyes on global warming. Sure to be quite a spectacle, in other words.

Now, it might be that the Stones hardly donated their services for this event; the Stones could likely care less about global warming. I can't state that as fact, just guessing. And one could imagine that few in this happy star-spangled crowd — reportedly including Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lisa Kudrow, Pierce Brosnan, Bill Maher, ex-Stray Cat Slim Jim Phantom and a kissypooing Ed Begley Jr. — worry about it all that much, either, though I could be way wrong about that. I suppose Begley Jr. cares — he's famously down with environmental issues. And Diaz told the L.A. Times that she came out not for the Stones but because "Mother Earth is the issue." Still, scanning the room, I also saw that young TV stud with short brown hair who kinda curls his lip like Elvis, can't remember his name, plus a lot of tanned women who wore tight trousers cut way down right above their pubic hair. I think the Stones were their issue.

The mainly hands-off feel of the security crew at Staples made for a semicasual mood. As I wasn't packing heat this particular night, I entered smooth as silk; earlier, your major luminaries had strolled in upon a green carpet, many adorned in environmentally incorrect leather shoes! Once inside, the vibe was real nice, not high-pressure, kinda open and friendly — something to do with the "cause" behind it all. Steve Bing, Hollywood producer and personal friend of Mick Jagger, also the guy who knocked up Elizabeth Hurley, then denied it, was the one who put up the dosh for this event — okay okay, we like you, weasel . . .

On with the show: I missed Gray Davis' little speech, but it was probably very, very dull. Following a warm-up set by Susan Tedeschi — pleasant but basically warmed-over Bonnie Raitt blues smoothness — out onstage strolled Boris Yeltsin/W.C. Fields/big ol' Bill Clinton, who gave a short speech about how old he and the Stones are and, seriously, though, let's all get together to do something about global warming. He was greeted with sundry boos but mostly warm applause that grew fervent and thunderous, a semiambivalent realization dawning something like, "Boy, do we miss you now . . . pervert." I was hoping maybe he'd come on later and jam with the Stones on sax, 'cause you know he does enjoy a little blow now and then; sure enough, I looked over stage right a while later and there he stood, puffing and honking and — nah, that was merely longtime Stones main man Bobby Keys.

This is where it gets interesting. One began to notice that the most unpretentious people in this room full of Big Stars, capital B capital S, were the Rolling Stones themselves. "Rarver nice to be here, innit, good cause and all that," spake Sir Mick from on high, or somesuch rockstar talk. He then swiveled his snakehips, and from the get-go his band roared, in seeming determination to give their very best.

They did. Owing probably in part to their well-honed prowess from having been on the road for four months, but maybe more from a sincere desire to play well, this Stones set found them at a new peak, musicianshipwise. It had something to do with their own satisfaction in their songs, in their lives — from the concentric circles in Keith Richards' grinning face, courtly and gracious, you could tell he's really enjoying it now; it was great entertainment seeing him go through his repertoire of archetypal moves, just touching the guitar most of the time to make it do what he wanted it to do; someone must have noticed that in song after song he boasted an inordinately great musicality, all subtly implied notes, inferred chords, caressing fingers on his beloved axes; he's as persuasive when damping his strings as he is when plucking them, and he is the rhythmic core of this band as well, up there with the best rhythm guitar players ever born. Keith's playing better than ever, as is Ron Wood; both displayed their gifts with inspired solo bits.

"Start Me Up," "All Down the Line," "Satisfaction," blah blah blah, they dragged the chestnuts out, typically rushing the tempos and making Charlie Watts pinch his nostrils with the strain; a much better feel came on the slower tunes, like "You Can't Always Get What You Want" or "Wild Horses," and especially on Keith's solo "Slipping Away," perhaps the band's best song of recent vintage.  

To high-fives down the walkway, our heroes came out to play their now-trad little bar-band set on a small stage center-room, and it was here, at 30 feet away and under a mono-like separate PA system, where I realized not just that the Rolling Stones are all rather tiny men but that they can really play — and not just passably, but I mean they've got the feel. Close up, I watched these ancient elves strut and flail, and it was as thrilling a thing as I've ever seen. I do hope they bop till they drop.

—John Payne

INVENTIONS: Dust Brother

JAMES DYSON, THE ENGLISH INVENtor and industrial innovator, swept through town last week to vacuum some dust. Downtown, at the A+D Museum in the Bradbury Building, Dyson, an architect by training and a tinkerer by predilection, stood over his DC07, a nifty reworking of the upright vacuum cleaner that recalls those antique, bristling chrome Kirby cleaners, with the catfish mouths and inflatable penguin bellies. The DC07 doesn't have a bag that puffs up, and it doesn't raise a helicopter racket when it starts to spin, but Dyson isn't ashamed of the association. "I hope when you look at it, you don't think it's been styled," Dyson says, as he tries to untangle the cord of his invention. "I like its looks as good engineering." In other words, his vacuum resembles the old uprights because he's a firm believer in form following function.

"Design is a difficult word. You think of something as made to look good, but when it doesn't work, you kick it. Designing is technology: How long will the product last, how much does it cost, and performance, performance, performance," Dyson repeats. "That's the whole thing."

Even so, the looks of the DC07 are pretty impressive. The primary cyclone resides inside a clear dust receptacle that resembles a NASA booster rocket, and it has a crown with eight secondary, smaller cyclones that evoke a jet engine. Emerging from the body of the machine are various injection-molded and extruded plastic gills, ducts, intake and exhaust ports, and a set of striated catches and handles. These components are set to a contrapuntal rhythm of bright yellow and rifle-gray, calling attention to each part as an essential piece of engineering, and highlighting the geometry of the machine as a whole. This is reinforced when the vacuum is sucking in dust, which swirls around inside the clear canister, putting on its own little show of how the airflow behaves. The whole package is engineered art. As Dyson says, "People like to see how things work."

Dyson, who heads a $10 billion enterprise and is also chairman of the London Design Museum, admits that design can be pure, unto itself, like art. "Everybody hates vacuuming. The vacuum itself became an object of hate. You could see the manufacturers hated them. It became, perversely for me, a challenge to take something that is hated and make it liked."

Certainly the woman in a black sweater with sequined seams, a pink silk scarf and a sleek black skirt, likes what she sees. When Dyson dives into a short lesson in cyclones, she avidly takes in his words. His vacuum, he tells her, uses a 1.5-horsepower, 40,000-rpm motor to draw air and, of course, dust into the cyclones. The cones speed the spinning air to create greater and greater centrifugal force, 100,000 G's at the top of the tightest cyclone. It's like one of those amusement-park rides where the faster your gondola spins, the greater the force that pushes you outward. "You are artificially increasing the weight of dust particles," Dyson explains. "A weightless particle becomes a heavy ball bearing." Drawn into the cyclone, the dusty bits are literally flung out of the airstream and deposited into the clear, polycarbonate collection canister.

"The polycarbonate is unbreakable," the inventor tells the woman and her husband, who stands impatiently with his arms folded, eyes wandering. Dyson unlatches the see-through canister from the body of the vacuum, takes a step forward, kicks out his leg like a champion cricketer and swings the bin against a concrete pillar. It bounces and reverberates with a dull croak. Dyson isn't sure he's convinced his audience, so he detaches the integral metal wand and flails away at the canister with glee. His smile is childlike and contagious, full of the excitement and satisfaction of discovery.  

The woman, excited, begins to question Dyson about how he hit upon the idea for his vacuum. He goes down the list of his earlier inventions — a high-speed "sea truck," a lightweight plastic garden water roller, a wheelbarrow that doesn't sink into the ground — that led to his dual cyclone technology. Then he mentions his newest invention, a washing machine with twin tubs. The woman, in her 60s, stops Dyson.

"I wish you'd brought that," she interrupts.

"Hand washing can take a mere fraction of the time to get clothes clean," he says as he explains the principles behind his patented washer.

"Hand washing?" she asks, incredulous.

"You've got to . . .," he gestures as if hand washing, and the woman chimes in, "knead."

"Do you vacuum and do your own laundry?" I ask the woman.

"No, but I have a lady who comes in."

"That's the big difference between the UK and America," Dyson says. "We don't have servants." Hmm.

By now it is time for a full-on demonstration, and while Dyson vacuums, a small crowd of mostly middle-aged men and women surrounds him. Everyone smiles, right along with the tall, thin inventor. He rolls over the concrete floor, and vacuums up a tidy nest of brown debris. Dyson pops the canister from the machine, hits another button, a trapdoor opens, and the dust tumbles out onto the floor. He promptly vacuums it up again. More laughter. He pulls the integral 17-foot expanding hose and begins cleaning a window ä frame 10 feet above his head. The troupe is rapt with attention, and delight.

It is blatantly obvious that no one here tonight actually does his or her own vacuuming. And it is for that very reason that the DC07 is such a spectacular hit. Its form may follow its function, but at this particular gathering of designers and architects, vacuuming itself has become performance art. Through no fault of his own, Dyson and his beloved machine are dancing a pas de deux that reinterprets the drudgery of housework as a delight. And who wouldn't be cheered by that change of affairs? —Greg Goldin

INSTANT KAMERA: 48-Hour Arty People

AT 8 P.M. LAST FRIDAY NIGHT, EIGHT writers drew script parameters out of a hat — an adjective and a noun befitting Valentine's Day, plus a breakdown of cast by number and gender. At 8 a.m. Saturday, the writers — primarily from the legit and improv worlds, with the occasional West Wing or E.R. vet — turned in finished 10-minute scripts and were randomly assigned cast and directors. By midnight Saturday, principal photography was completed (theoretically); by 8 p.m. Sunday, the finished films (edited, scored, titled, color-corrected) were screened at the L.A. Center Studios downtown to an overflow audience of cast, crew, and friends, which voted for the top awards of the evening. In the spirit of the competition, this chronicle was reported and written in 48 hours.

Saturday, 8 a.m.: The Announcement in the Trades. Instant Films, in conjunction with Chris Ursitti and Brian Brosnan's L.A. Center Studios, announces a production slate of eight films in the $0-to-$15 range for specialty exhibition sometime late Sunday.

"This is our sixth time doing this," says Instant Films co-prexy Peter Lebow, who imported the idea from New York, where 24-hour plays are all the rage below 14th Street. "We'd like to do them once a month, if we could manage the funding — it's not like we're talking a lot of money: On our films, if you spend five dollars, that means you're five dollars over budget."

Fellow co-prexy John Sylvain predicts additional legs in ancillary, as films will soon be up on their Web site, at Foreign rights are available.

Saturday, 8 p.m.: The Production. Christopher Atkins has his hand on another man's ass. We're waiting for the "martini," film-crew parlance for the last shot of the evening, in a nondescript home in Venice. He's a Man, directed by Donn Viola and written by Maureen Cassidy, follows four football buddies who have gathered for Sunday's big game only to learn that girlfriends have dumped two of them for not knowing how to . . . well . . . hug. And so, at the behest of Atkins (the prospective Neil LaBute character of the film), they are paired off in "passionate embrace," the phrase that inspired the script. It's only natural, being in character and all, that a man's hands should wander.

Atkins, the hunky '80s heartthrob who got his start opposite Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon and has over 50 film and TV credits, showed up for the call on a dare from Chris Ursitti, co-owner of L.A. Center Studios, where Atkins was shopping for a production-company office.  

"It's a great exercise to be able to get back to your grassroots," says Atkins, "to go guerrilla, within the time frame that you've got. Of course, you don't see Chris out here. But it's been a lot of fun."

Rounding out the all-male cast are Sam Lloyd, a regular on Scrubs and memorable as the TV Guide Man on Seinfeld; Matt Walsh, a member of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe; and David Holcomb, late of Port Charles and the band Throttle Back Sparky. By the craft services table, during a lull in shooting, Walsh goes out of his way to assure me there have been no on-set romances.

Across town, in Toluca Lake, director Charles Papert, a camera operator and second-unit D.P. on Scrubs, is coming off the early-evening high of a multiroom Steadicam shot, and trying to focus on the remaining pages of script he still has to shoot (Gerald McClanahan's ambitious Hollywood & Valentine, based on the phrase "sexy lover"). Papert is the third founder of Instant Films, as well as its local star, having won the Best Film prize in four out of the five contests — due in part to the battery of equipment he has in tow: smoke machines, multiple filters and, especially, tonight's state-of-the-art 24p camera.

"I don't think DV, I think Panavision," says Papert. "We're going to light it, block it and stage it like a feature film."

He finally wraps at 5:30 a.m.

Sunday, 10 p.m.: Premiere and Awards. Papert's amped-up production values bring him his fifth Best Picture win and McClanahan Best Writer; Papert shares Best Director with Marc Ostrick and Bernard Chang (whose Lovely Flowers features a barely recognizable Ahmet Best, the actor who galvanized a nation as the computer-animation model for Star Wars' Jar-Jar Binks). Be a Man takes Best Cast (as well as Best Sex Scene). And Viola's He's a Man? The director's controversial choice to go mostly hand-held may have proved too edgy for the hometown crowd. Other shut-out audience favorites were John Ennis' flashy Fox reality send-up The Eligible Gentleman and Jordan Brady's winsome Mother-Fucking Wedding Planner. Tragically, The Ring, from director Lily Mariye (feisty Nurse Lily on E.R.) ran into technical problems and was disqualified. (All eight films will screen Monday, February 17, at the Yard as part of the Santa Monica Film Festival.)

Monday morning, with weekend grosses still ringing in his ears, Lebow confides that Instant Films just signed an option agreement with Dick Clark Productions — for what, exactly, he won't say. Look for them to blow up, flame out, and be ready for a comeback by next month's competition.

—Paul Cullum

We Have Our Issues


"Being an actor is just as big a responsibility as being a preacher or public official. What you're doing is taking people into emotional places where they seldom go. Now that's messing with heads and that's why I'm interested in what the whole movie says, not just my character. What's it endorsing? Cheap thrills, or responsible danger? You put a character in a spot he's never been in before, say his life is on the line, then he's totally alert, totally aware. And that's what intelligence is — that total awareness . . . See that once in the movies, really see it, and you'll never forget it . . . That's when movies are great."

Harry Dean Stanton being interviewed by Ginger Varney,

May 9, 1980


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