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Three Interviews

Dion Neutra (photo by Scott Holleran)

Nestled in the hills of Los Angeles is a uniquely compact and inviting home where I first met Dion Neutra. I had spoken with and interviewed the noted architect, who studied and worked with his father, the late Richard Neutra, a few times for articles about modern architecture. The prospect of an extensive interview had previously been discussed though it hadn’t been conducted. This time, when Dion Neutra suggested that we meet for an interview, it was promptly scheduled. I drove to LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood, parked and climbed the steep stairs. I soon met the man who made with his father some of America’s most distinctive and iconic homes and buildings. We sat in a dining room and talked for over an hour. Days later, we would toast to his 90th birthday and, later, talk again about a campaign to restore one of his father’s signature buildings, the Eagle Rock Clubhouse. During our exchange, we managed to cover a lifetime of memories, thoughts and details of his father, meeting Ayn Rand, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Kun house, World Trade Center, Neutra’s Gettysburg Cyclorama and his childhood trauma in Silver Lake. I knew from previous talks that Neutra’s son and heir could be both eccentric and exhausting. This conversation is no exception. Read my exclusive interview with Dion Neutra.

Jim Brown, Ayn Rand Institute CEO

Another inheritance-themed opportunity for an exclusive talk recently presented itself when the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) named a new CEO. His name is Jim Brown and his background is in business, financial analysis and military leadership. Qualifications alone merited my interest and I immediately welcomed him to ARI and asked for an interview, which he kindly granted at his Irvine office. Though days into the job, he discussed plans, management philosophy and his favorite Leonard Peikoff works. As an Objectivist who first visited ARI as a teen when I took the bus to its office on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles, who has worked and studied with ARI, I think Jim Brown is the right man for the job. So, I want my readers to read the interview and consider supporting ARI under Jim’s new and purposeful management. An edited transcript of my conversation with the center for Objectivism’s chief executive officer—Jim Brown’s first interview as ARI’s chief executive officer—appears on Capitalism Magazine (postscript: read a shorter version in the Los Angeles Times here).

And I am delighted that my favorite filmmaker—director Lasse Hallström—granted to me his only interview about his successful motion picture, A Dog’s Purpose, before returning to making Disney’s adaptation of the beloved Christmas ballet The Nutcracker. I am often enchanted by Mr. Hallström’s work. I always anticipate whatever he chooses to make. And I am privileged to have interviewed Lasse Hallström before. This time was particularly rewarding.

Lasse Hallström

Lightness in his pictures is perhaps the most indelible quality. Think of the French village in Chocolat or Venetian escapades in Casanova. The way he guides an ensemble cast to perfect union for an exalted or higher cinematic goal—around foodmaking in The Hundred-Foot Journey, liberation in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, serenity in An Unfinished Life, healing in The Shipping News, and the power of a dog to align man to what’s here and now in A Dog’s Purpose—should also be known. All of his movies, which began with his film about ABBA, are wonderfully musical including A Dog’s Purpose. But what, besides unity, love and lightness, is more pressing and relevant now than the seriousness with which he films his stories? This unique blend by a Swede who lives in America is often mistaken strictly as sweetness, which one should expect in a circus culture of cynics, celebrities and smears. The interview with Lasse Hallström, the artist who to me best expresses in today’s movies the American sense of life, is one I know I’ve earned and deserve.

I did not plan the pieces as a thematic trifecta, though it occurs to me that these three interviews explore man’s mastery of living in accordance with nature, man’s mastery of advancing the ideal and man’s mastery of recreating both in movies. Read, think and enjoy.

Richard Hatch

Richard Hatch has died of pancreatic cancer. The actor, who played Captain Apollo on ABC’s Battlestar Galactica, was 71 years old. We met twice; once in St. Charles, Illinois, where, as a boy, he taught me a lesson in benevolence. The second time was over 35 years later at a cafe in Studio City, California, where we talked about the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica, which was being discussed for a possible revival at Universal Studios (the interview is unpublished).

Richard Hatch

As a kid, I had been a fan of his work as a policeman on the ABC crime drama The Streets of San Francisco. Later, in the spring of 1977, when I found out Hatch was staying at the same resort where I was visiting with my family on spring break, I found him and asked for an autograph. Meeting an actor playing a dynamic young cop appealed to this suburban kid in the 1970s. I remember 1977 as strangely subdued yet also conflicted and turbulent. Nightly news was dominated by war, terrorism, domestic and foreign, hijackings, riots and constant dissent and debate over politics. So, I was drawn to cop shows. The Streets of San Francisco like KojakHawaii Five-O and Dragnet depicted the pursuit of justice as noble and important. They depicted a world in which peace was possible. Detectives proceeded to solve crime through investigation based on facts and going by reason. They were men of action. When Richard Hatch looked at me, listened and said Yes before signing his name, it affirmed more than my hero worship; his relaxed, amicable and accommodating manner showed me a certain kindness. I always remembered that he responded to my request with a quality more enduring than mere charm. He treated me as though asking for an autograph is the most natural thing in the world. I’ve had a number of formative encounters with VIPs—movie stars, sports champs, future presidents—that contributed to my ability to communicate with influencers. My childhood brush with Richard Hatch is one of the first.

I still have the autograph. When I interviewed him by phone in 2012, an extensive interview which covers the whole range of his career and is being quoted and cited in his obituaries, including the Hollywood Reporter‘s, I recounted the 1977 meeting and thanked him once again. He was still kind, if more seasoned and cautious, which I think is evident in the exchange. He was candid, too, and one of the things we discussed were his “abusive stepfathers” which added to my appreciation. When we met again—this time, as writer and actor, neither as a household name—he was indefatigable. And now I know that this is how I will remember him. To have been an actor, earned a livelihood and kept himself both whole and real, neither becoming beaten down nor neurotic and inflated, is an accomplishment. Richard Hatch, who remains known and beloved for single first, last and lone seasons of top programs as well as for touching countless lives including mine with his bright, positive attitude, was beautiful inside and out.


Read my interview with Richard Hatch (2012)

Strictly Occidental

While doing research for assignments related to a college in Los Angeles, I wanted to know the origin of the term ‘occidental’. I knew from my Oxford English Dictionary that the word means that which relates to the countries of the West.

So I asked Paul Anthony Jones, author of etymological guides and The Accidental Dictionary in the United Kingdom and creator of the language website Haggard Hawks. Kindly, he answered by e-mail, starting with a comparison of the words oriental and occidental, which he wrote has to do with the sun: “[E]tymologically orient comes from the Latin for ‘rise’ or ‘begin’, occident from the Latin for ‘set’ (or ‘fall down’). It’s the association between the location of rising and setting sun that permanently attached the words to the east and west…That gives the words some interesting and quite unexpected cousins. Orient is related to abort and origin, and probably even orchestra somewhere along the line. Occident, in the sense of a falling or setting, is related to incidents and coincidences, accidents, and deciduous trees, as well as all the words that end –cide, like patricide, fungicide and homicide.”

This word, occidental, is also the name of a small, private college in northeastern Los Angeles.

Alan Bliss memorializes mass murder victims of 9/11. Photo courtesy of JSBProductions

Alan Bliss memorializes mass murder victims of 9/11. Photo courtesy of JSBProductions

Occidental College is where an attack on a U.S. flag memorial was waged in three waves on this year’s 15th anniversary of the 9/11 Islamic terrorist attack on the United States. Alan Bliss, the sophomore pictured here who coordinated the besieged free speech exercise, tells me that he’s granting Occidental College the benefit of the doubt in protecting campus free speech despite the evidence to the contrary. The young Texan spoke with me in an exclusive interview on campus last fall. Read the story of his simple free speech exercise, its assault and destruction and the college’s appeasing response in my article here.

Occidental College is located in LA’s Eagle Rock neighborhood, where a wine lounge recently hosted a pair of Occidental professors for an enjoyable lesson on the Greek god Dionysus (read the article here), in which they discussed Plato, Aristotle, sparagmos, Alexander the Great, and why Dionysus is best regarded as more complex than the god of wine. The club’s lounge is owned by an Occidental graduate who chooses to host art exhibits, readings and lectures and other exercises of free speech at his Colorado Wine Company, located on Colorado Boulevard, a few miles from the hillside college.

As I ponder the word occidental as emanating from the setting sun and meaning that which pertains to the West, I must note that the college which sustained, and arguably minimizes, a siege against the freedom of speech, is where Barack Obama, the nation’s 44th president, Jack Kemp, the 1996 Republican vice-presidential nominee, Ben Affleck and director Terry Gilliam (Brazil) once studied. That this credible institution of higher education now claims (as a college spokesman told me for this article) that the school “doesn’t have the resources” to protect a student’s exercise of free speech—and, instead, seeks to coddle and appease its attackers—underscores the precarious state of the First Amendment.

Today, the 45th president vowed to strip citizenship of or imprison anyone exercising the right to free expression by burning a flag. More than before, the absolute right to express oneself, whether by burning or planting a flag, is crucial to the future of the West.


Related Links

Occidental Professors Lecture on Ancient Greece by Scott Holleran

Occidental College Responds to 9/11 Assault on Freedom of Speech by Scott Holleran

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.

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Eagle Rock Clubhouse, photo by Scott Holleran

The primary feature, however, are the athletic court’s walls, which retract 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.

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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.

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.

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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.