Architecture: Richard Neutra’s Eagle Rock Clubhouse

A recreational city park in northeastern Los Angeles has the distinction of featuring one of the signature buildings by architect Richard J. Neutra (1892-1970). The sleek design for the Eagle Rock Clubhouse, as it was originally known, includes a kitchen, director’s office, athletics court, recreational room and a stage connected to an outdoor amphitheater on a sloping hillside.


Eagle Rock Clubhouse, photo by Scott Holleran

The primary feature, however, is the athletic court’s wall, which retracts to the open air of the surrounding park. Hills, pine trees, shaded walkways, baseball diamonds, picnic areas, a workout and gymnastics area, children’s center, outdoor playground and tennis courts fill out the area, which is just off a freeway between the Los Angeles basin and the San Gabriel Valley in a section of LA known as Eagle Rock. Unfortunately, a reflecting pool was paved over and columns were added by city officials.

Though the clubhouse is badly in need of repair and renovation, and the park, too, needs an upgrade, the wonders of the property come through. Walking on curved, tree-lined paths amid vistas and sounds of a baseball game gives Eagle Rock Recreation Center an old-fashioned air. Toddlers waddled around their parents’ picnics, bachelors played fetch with their dogs and couples played tennis while musclemen worked out on the gymnastics bars, runners jogged and a team of girls played volleyball inside the building. Neither freeway noise nor poor building maintenance completely diminishes the presence of this impressive building, which retains an inviting functionality. Despite the need for landscaping, rebuilding and restoration, one can imagine the calls and cheers of past weddings, proms, games, scout troop meetings, play dates and playhouse productions. Conjuring an outdoor audience attending a play, dance recital or piano concert is easy.


Eagle Rock Clubhouse, photo by Julius Shulman

When Eagle Rock officially opened the park 62 years ago this fall during the peak of Hollywood’s Golden Age, William Holden (Stalag 17, Picnic, Golden Boy, Sunset Boulevard, Executive Suite, Network) was reportedly on the guest list. Among those in attendance was the young architect Dion Neutra, Richard Neutra’s son, who worked on the project with his father, an icon of modern architecture and 20th century culture. He remembered that day during a recent interview with me for an article about the city’s proposed changes to the recreation center, which he told me he found lacking (read my interview and view recent pictures of Neutra’s clubhouse on the Los Angeles Times‘ website here).

Interviewing Dion Neutra, who turns 90 years old this week, led to a meeting at his home in Silver Lake, where we conducted a more extensive interview about his late father, architecture and career. We talked about the house his father created for director Josef von Sternberg (Shanghai Express) in 1936, which Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead) later lived in during her Southern California years, and his thoughts on Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Look for the interview soon. In the meantime, I’m told that there may be an effort underway to restore Richard and Dion Neutra’s Eagle Rock clubhouse to its original condition. For Dion Neutra, who told me that he named his father’s clubhouse in his will as a possible memorial site for after he dies, the prospect of total, pure restoration makes the perfect birthday gift in a city of America’s greatest modern arts enriched by Neutra architecture.

Music Review: Rosanne Cash

Last night, I had the pleasure to meet Rosanne Cash backstage after her Santa Clarita, California, concert. She’s as earnest in person and in performance as she is on her recordings. The show was as unique an experience as I’ve had at a live concert.

I do favor singer/songwriters, such as Melissa Etheridge, Bob Seger and Melissa Manchester, so I was looking forward to attending the Rosanne Cash concert, which started on time. Having fallen for her excellent 2014 The River and the Thread (especially the deluxe edition with “Biloxi”, which she did not perform), I expected a relaxed show and it was suitably subdued. Even better, Cash, whose memoirs I reviewed six years ago (read my book review here), is confident and authoritative on stage. Not once did she invite the audience to sing along, though a lady behind me insisted on singing along. Never did Cash encourage hand-clapping, not that it stopped fans from doing so to her rockabilly tunes.

Rosanne Cash, daughter of the late Johnny Cash, was active and happy to dance to the music, and she was in her own world as she sang songs she wrote and strummed a guitar beside her husband, producer and guitarist John Leventhal. The Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center concert played as if Cash sang for herself.


Buy the Album

The result was a muted sense of detachment from the audience that enhanced the songs’ intimacy and impact. Remembering her life as a girl growing up in Ventura County, visiting the American South or the impetus or motive for each song, she performed a whole original album, her Grammy-winning The River and the Thread, in sequence. The voice is in fine shape and she phrases and times each vocal succinctly, letting the bluegrass/roots songs settle into a musical rhythm that frames more than overpowers the lyric.

“Ev’rybody ’round here moves too fast,” she observes on the wise “Modern Blue”, a song I requested in advance on Twitter (she replied: “you got it”). And everything she did with an accomplished, skilled band slowed the night down to near perfection. Cash took a break and returned with songs from her 2009 album, The List, and Black Cadillac and her many popular country and blues, folk and rock songs and chart hits, including “Seven Year Ache”, which set Cash on her way in 1981 to earning respect in popular American music. Cash’s husband/co-writer/producer and arranger John Leventhal did an impeccable guitar solo during “Tennessee Flat Top Box”.

After crooning “500 Miles” and other tunes, the Carnegie Hall creative partner and Nashville Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum artist-in-residence left the stage. Cash returned to acknowledge her suburban Los Angeles audience during a warm ovation as being “small but mighty”.

Rosanne Cash proved herself last night as a musical-philosophical storyteller in good form. The Tennessee native grumbled about an encore her husband nudged her to do, which worked out great. She talked about kids, her dad and tales of the Delta. But my favorite moment of candor was when she granted herself a triumph as she acknowledged, shared and celebrated that she’d recently recovered the copyright to a song she wrote as a young woman, “Blue Moon with Heartache”, which she then performed. Affirming her property rights was an unguarded and welcome admission which put the whole show in perspective; Rosanne Cash works hard to make it on her merits. The one-night return to her homeland Southern California gave fans a sense of Cash’s composed and honest pride.

Sample and buy The River and the Thread Deluxe edition.

Movie Review: The Birth of a Nation (2016)

“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” This Thomas Jefferson quotation from his Notes on the State of Virginia, which also appears on my favorite memorial in Washington, D.C., the Jefferson Memorial, prefaces and predisposes Nate Parker’s provocative movie about the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.

That the young filmmaker, whose picture was bought at a film festival by Fox Searchlight with great expectations only to be downgraded by recent disclosures about Parker’s past, casts the historic rebellion as God’s vengeance—religionists and atheists alike should note that Nat Turner’s God is vengeful—undercuts the true nature and power of Nat Turner’s story. The Birth of a Nation makes everything seem too pat.

TBOANPoster The two-hour film lacks the impact its topic, a preacher slave’s rebellion, deserves, leaving it well short of achieving the promise implied by its title. That said, Parker’s movie raises questions, provokes thoughts and contains powerful performances and images and hair-raising scenes.

Framed by an African mythology of wisdom, vision and leadership set by a tribal chief, screenwriter and director Parker’s story of the antebellum South begins in earnest with frolicking children named Turner—one slave child, one slavemaster’s child—in what becomes, or could have more fully become, a fascinating plot spiral about how slavery rots the life of both slave and slavemaster. The boys grow into Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) and Nat Turner (Nate Parker). The white male goes from Nat’s childhood friend to defender while slowly turning to alcohol for comfort as the reality of owning his friend sets in. The black male goes from Samuel’s childhood friend and favored servant to rebel leader while slowly turning to religion for justifying his righteous wrath.

Both boys begin as innocents. Both become wrecked by slavery. The Birth of a Nation doesn’t dramatize every facet of their doomed relationship let alone do so in universal terms of its essential meaning, but it is there even if muted in power. It is one of many missed opportunities in this otherwise occasionally searing film, which is safe and uneven.

For example, the romance Nat Turner develops with his future wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King, ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder) follows predictable turns, lines and scenes. Yet when she’s attacked later in the film, an unseen depth of commitment is presumed to serve as a catalyst for full-scale revolt. Their relationship is more abbreviated than demonstrated, going from a kind of rescue to rehabilitation thanks to Nat Turner’s knowing, loving mother (Aunjanue Ellis, For Colored Girls) to a kind of gentleness that feels contrived as Parker’s performance veers from saccharine to seething. Cherry and Nat as a couple never go deep and take root.

This is an ongoing problem in The Birth of a Nation, which is sufficiently tense, gruesome and gripping given its subject matter. Important scenes have either been cut or not filmed and in either case there are gaps of what the audience should be seeing on screen. Some of what’s left off screen includes the murder of babies, which is part of Nat Turner’s legacy, and other heinous acts such as sexual assault. Smaller details, too, however, are left out of the movie. Among these are how Nat Turner, who was literate, used his knowledge to formulate his plan for an uprising as a means of leading his fellow slaves to freedom.

Surprisingly, and disappointingly, there is not a single scene of serious, point by point plotting of the rebellion. Instead, there are constant and overwrought scenic references to the landscape and its orientation to sunlight, which dovetails to what I take as Parker’s theme, with co-screenwriter Jean McGianni Celestin, for The Birth of a Nation: mass murdering slave as God’s prophet. Given Parker’s selective recreation of the historic insurrection, with its omission of deeper analysis of Turner’s motives other than his faith in God, the Bible and religion, and certainly he appears to have been a religious zealot, this is the meaning of the motion picture, which treats his rising from a whipping as God’s will.

Why Nat Turner chose to believe in God after he acquired the ability to read is as left undone as how he learned to ride a horse or master the details of planning a regional rebellion. The Birth of a Nation deals with the injustice of slavery in fragments of fast-cutting scenes, often half-shown while in progress, with Jackie Earle Haley as his most spine-chilling villain since his role as a sexual deviant in Little Children and Roger Guenveur Smith (Chi-Raq, Malcolm X) as a house slave who opposes the rebellion.

The style has the effect of leaving the most pressing questions, facts and details of the rebellion out of the picture. Slavery and Civil War-themed pictures such as Amistad, Lincoln, Glory and 12 Years a Slave, which are outstanding movies, laboriously yet deftly and often brilliantly dramatize key parts of history in terms of essentials. Escape from Sobibor put planning a slave rebellion at the center of the film, so it’s possible to capture the howling hurt and anger of oppression and the cold, hard facts of rebellion in cohesion. Here, adding drone-type shots of lingering sunsets and Nina Simone songs to the soundtrack comes at the expense of character development. Gabrielle Union’s character, for instance, is a pretty but wordless character who smiles and dances before her downfall.

This movie about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion fills its frames with harrowing images of acts of evil and acts of retribution. Set in Southampton, Virginia, and filmed in Savannah, Georgia, the South comes off as a miserable, rotten and unhappy place of muggy swamps, cotton fields and buzzing insects with drunken, lazy and sadistic white men lording over enslaved Africans and I think this much is true. Intentionally or not, Nate Parker depicts the South’s misery as a byproduct of slavery’s total failure in every sense including as an engine for sustained economic production and it’s clear that it’s not at all an example of capitalism, as has been claimed. An outstanding performance by Esther Scott as Nana, Nat Turner’s grandmother, adds to the story.

But in leaving out certain facts, centrally details of the rebellion, The Birth of a Nation suggests that this young slave, who freed himself and whose life ought to be studied with other freed slaves such as Solomon Northrup and Frederick Douglass, was fundamentally a man of faith with only an impulse to take vengeance as a vessel of a supernatural being. And, Nate Parker’s movie implies, to enter an afterlife and become a martyr. This might be true, though I doubt it. I suspect that the truth is mixed and that Nat Turner may have been motivated by secular thoughts, too.

The Birth of a Nation presents horrifying fragments in pictures that float but do not tether disturbing questions about good and evil and the confusing, death-inducing mixture of both. It simply depicts that Nat Turner acted on faith—obeying a religious text commanding that the enslaved who believes he is a messenger of God act without mercy—to go forth and slaughter a few of his oppressors and mostly the innocent in proximity. Then The Birth of a Nation leaves it at that, trivializing an influential and horrifying act of rebellion and reducing it, in today’s parlance, to “so, this happened”, brushing aside exactly what, how and why.

Free Speech, Advocacy and Alain Mabanckou

The freedom of speech urgently needs defending, as a college campus club recently learned in LA’s Eagle Rock neighborhood, and intellectuals across America are rising to defend the First Amendment. From outspoken writers, journalists and bloggers across the political spectrum to filmmakers, academics and wealthy businessmen, such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, the nation’s most influential thinkers and creators are exercising the right to free speech by denouncing government control, coercion and censorship—and, in the case of an African novelist I met earlier this year, by praising persecuted voices.


Read the interview with Alain Mabanckou

His name is Alain Mabanckou. I had read about his choice to present an award for courage and freedom of expression by a writers’ group to the French satire publication Charlie Hebdo after its office was assaulted by radical Moslems in Paris after printing a caricature of Islam’s prophet Mohammed. Mr. Mabanckou is a member of the group, PEN American Center, which is dedicated to protecting the freedom of speech.

Under pressure to withdraw the award, PEN and Mabanckou refused to compromise.

That he did so after an Islamic terrorist attack on a similar type of event—a cartoon contest in Texas—hours before his New York City event, caused me to ask for an interview, which Alain Mabanckou granted. We met at a lounge and talked about Charlie Hebdo, his thoughts on free speech and his writing. In posting this interview, I wanted to demonstrate that not everyone who stands up to irrationalism, including radical Islam, is a conservative, a libertarian or an Objectivist.

As with the Brandeis University professor I interviewed about his lonely defense of a writer targeted by radical Islamic types and their apologists for expressing her ideas, I wanted to show the reader that it is possible to “think different” and be different from usual voices defending absolute free speech and act on principle. I think that, more than ever, it is important for rational Americans seeking to defeat barbarians and tyrants to know that the one who acts for good might be an intellectual who isn’t hiding in an ivory tower, removed from ordinary life here on earth. He might be an immigrant or refugee. He might express himself as kind, colorful and eager to know—as against harsh, bitter and filled with rage—yet be strong and capable of advocating free speech on principle.

Though it’s clear that in a matter of weeks this historic presidential election is likely to result in an American president wholly opposed to absolute freedom of speech, and despite more Islamic terrorist attacks happening here, I remain optimistic about the future for freedom. There are left-wing and right-wing intellectuals—moviemakers are intellectuals—making thought-provoking motion pictures about lone heroes defying the status quo, as I wrote about in a Medium post here. There are great American heroes realizing the spirit of “Let’s Roll” everywhere, as I wrote about here. And there are brave and benevolent gentlemen taking stands based on reason and these facts demonstrate that, while these are desperate times for civilized man, victory is possible.

On the eve of this year’s PEN American Center gala in Beverly Hills, I’m proud to post my interview with one such individual, the writer who names, recognizes and rewards Charlie Hebdo‘s courage in exhibiting the freedom of expression. Read my exclusive interview with Alain Mabanckou here.

Movie Review: Queen of Katwe

queen-of-katwe-poster-2Directed by Mira Nair, Disney’s reality-based Queen of Katwe—based on an article by Tim Crothers for a Disney-owned ESPN publication and written by William Wheeler (The Hoax)—moves through layers to unfold an incredible if familiar story of a poor child who becomes a champion.

The competition centers on the board game chess. Compressed into a five-year time frame, with David Oyelowo (Selma) as the coach, the occasionally generic movie about winning with good character is elevated by two actresses; one playing the child and the other as her mother.

The kid is portrayed by Madina Nalwanga, whose strong cheekbones and determined manner give her the stone face of a champ in training. But Nair directs her to act with her face and the result is a wider arc for her glory. The mother, a Christian widow who sells vegetables in a poor village in Uganda, Africa, to support her four children, is powerfully portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 12 Years a Slave). Oyelowo and cast are fine as well.

The screenplay is fine, too, with good lines, especially for the coach, who decides to teach chess to poor kids in Katwe while considering better paying work to support his family. Queen of Katwe holds that money is a means to an end and that living in poverty is not a virtue. For example, toward the end, when an endeavor for which one of the main characters ought to earn a reward becomes known, someone asks: “Was she paid?”

So, don’t confuse Queen of Katwe with Fox Searchlight’s Beasts of the Southern Wild or Slumdog Millionaire, which this sometimes resembles, for putting forth suffering as a virtue. This is a subtly but conclusively pro-capitalist movie.

To that point, Nair struggles to inject religion into the plot, but it doesn’t really fit and it drags the movie, which takes too long to gain momentum. Queen of Katwe thrives when engaging its conviction that a child must be loved, nourished, taught and given the tools to hold herself as the highest value. In this way, Akeelah and the Bee, the South Central Los Angeles teacher-student drama financed by Starbucks, came to mind.

Nair provides an immersion in African life, with soccer, dancing, bargaining and various multicultural, including Islamic, influences through a predictably colorful crew that the coach assembles. Katwe’s chess team competes among children of Africa’s status quo, granting jabs at cronyism and the Islamic dictatorship Sudan.

Queen of Katwe gets distracted and tries too hard to demonstrate multiculturalism. But chess-playing Phiona’s 2007-2011 journey from illiterate villager to chess champ reading Garry Kasparov’s Test of Time is earned, if pre-ordained, through hardship, loss of innocence and, finally and fully, happiness. Nalwanga is best in scenes of concentration, in which the girl plays chess (chess players may want more focus on the game). Nalwanga’s Phiona shows the strenuous effort to purge self-doubt and emerge with the choice to induce thoughts, strength and pride. Lupita Nyong’o cultivates this theme with her parenting portrayal, which shifts the plot from gamesmanship to family as a wellspring to success, though it’s Oyelowo’s coach who delivers the explicit theme that students should use their minds. As in Akeelah and the Bee, the rational child is portrayed as virtuous for her rationality.

This, more than the game and its pieces and moves, makes Queen of Katwe a good family film.