A Short Way Back

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In the two years I lived in San Francisco, I never drove. But even I knew driving there would be hell.

Sam Ettinger and I were up again before dawn. Hell, we were enjoying breakfast before dawn, at a place called Salducci’s in Lakeport. And nothing could have pleased me more that morning than eating toast while bundled up in winter clothing with a couple of my fellow morning people.

We left Lake County by driving west and then south on the 101, next to the stately tracks of the old Northwestern Pacific Railway. Three counties later, we were hurled off the Golden Gate Bridge and into the City.

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“Were we supposed to pay a toll?” I asked. We never figured it out. Anyway, I was busy giving Sam directions in a city he’d never been to. Eventually we got to a remote corner of town and I treated Sam to a tour of SF State. He agreed that the location was miserable. Then I took the wheel, navigating a maze of double-decker freeways toward Mythbusters HQ and, eventually, lunch at Tommy’s Joynt in Cathedral Hill. There are three things I miss about San Francisco, and all of them are restaurants.

 

Sam crashed at the hotel, in the same room I’d stayed in a year earlier, while I made preparations. My plan for the day was ambitious; to give Sam the full non-touristy San Francisco experience, check out an assortment of bars and restaurants, the whole thing. We were walking around a random stretch of 16th Street when I stopped and pointed out a cafe on the corner of a dead end street.

“What?” asked Sam.

“This is the flower shop,” I replied excitedly. The flower shop was possibly the only real location in Tommy Wiseau’s disasterpiece The Room.

“You know, James Franco is making a movie out of The Disaster Artist.”

“Good,” said Sam, “He’ll do a good Tommy.”

From there, we messed about on J Church. Dolores Park, the streetcar switchbacks, 22nd street. We retreated Downtown so we could attempt to ride a cable car, and more importantly see the spiral escalator at the Westfield center. From there, we began a long night in the Mission District.

Zeitgeist, a mostly outdoor tavern, was always crowded, but in the rain it was even worse. Resigned to sitting on a wet bench, I laid out the next phase of the day. “Here’s what I’m thinking. After this, we have dinner at El Farolito, and I know I always say ‘stay north of 24th,’ but we’re going to go down to a place called the Knockout.”

DSCN1415On Mission and 24th, El Farolito is generally regarded to have some of the best Mexican food in America, and it couldn’t have been better that night, but the trek to the Knockout filled me with apprehension. The first time I found that particular bar was in 2012. I’ve made a point of visiting San Francisco once a year; but the first time was just weirdly off. I was bored and lonely and had ridden the bus too far, so I got out and went into a random bar. Robocop played on a wall of old TV sets while a Fiery Furnaces song blasted over the speakers, so I liked it quite a lot. The second time I visited, I had hoped to have a drink with an SF State friend named Ambiguously Jewish Ashley, but it didn’t pan out. Add to this the fact that it was south of 24th street (where economics, crime, and even the accent changes for the worse), and that none of my San Francisco friends were available. This time, they were showing Robocop 2. The cycle was complete. Sam was thrilled.

Somewhere between 24th and the Knockout, Sam spied a pie shop where we finished the night. We were headed back to the hotel when I was struck by something. “Let’s go to the French Quarter.”

The French Quarter was a tiny neighbourhood Downtown, one that had been there since the Gold Rush. Allegedly, this place was wedged between huge skyscrapers, an oasis of bright neon and savoury meals in a desert of cold, dark, shuttered steel. I’d never seen it myself. We were too full to eat there, but wanted to go see if it was really there and not just some Wikipedia hoax. And then we found it, shining out in the rainy black of the financial district. Satisfied, we left it there.

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The last restaurant I hoped to take Sam to was Red’s Java House. Red’s was the last regular eating spot I found while living in SF, and it gets major points for atmosphere. The restaurant is on a huge, empty pier just south of the Bay Bridge. Most people sit outside, but the walls inside are filled with vintage pin-ups, pictures of old naval ships, and newspaper clippings documenting the City’s violent past. I’m not totally sure I didn’t make it up, and the following morning didn’t prove otherwise because it was closed.

Nevertheless, we had to go home. I knew a falafel place in San Jose, the best falafel place I’d ever eaten at outside Israel. Alas, that was also closed until 10:00 AM. Dejected, we ate donuts at an indpendent movie theater Downtown. I looked around, reminded that I liked San Jose. It does something for me. It’s a nice little city. And at that, we continued our way down the Royal Road, out of Northern Calfiornia, and out of the rain.

“Well,” I said to Sam, “that was the best trip we could have hoped for!”

The Undiscovered County

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I looked over at Sam Ettinger. “You’re a smooth smoothie, you know?”

Sam was shocked. “You think we’re doing Fargo? I thought we were doing Sideways!

It was no matter. We’d been planning this trip for months; I’d finally gotten my driver’s license, at the age of 24, just to do this trip. We were going to Lake County.

We wanted to go to Lake County was because we knew nothing about it. As far as could be told, nothing historical had ever happened there; no one of note had ever come from there or even lived there. On a map you can see it tucked into the mountains north of San Francisco Bay; coastal, yet landlocked. No railways run through it, no real highways, no rivers. The one thing you can see on the map is a lake, and a rather big one. It’s rare that a body of water that large goes unnoticed by the media or the traveling public.

Neither of us had ever seen so much as a news story about Lake County, and we decided to keep it that way: we wanted to preserve the mystery. Once while listening to This American Life, Ira Glass was doing a story on marijuana management in Mendocino County. Early in the story, he said, “While in neighbouring Lake County–” causing me to immediately shut off the radio.

If there was any time to do this trip, it was this February. In Southern California, the cold, wet winter had forsaken us, causing catastrophic drought and a general lack of merriment. I was in class 40 hours a week, and had just been turned down for a second date with a woman I seriously disliked, which was a relief but still discouraging, while Sam had just finished his master’s degree back east, and planned to visit Europe soon after. I wasn’t sure we’d find anything in Lake County, but at the very least it’d take our minds off everything else.

It happened to rain the night before we left, but it stopped around the time I got to Sam’s house. It was 6:00 AM, and under the cover of darkness, we made our way out of Pasadena. After a regrettable but much-needed breakfast in Valencia, we sped up the Golden State Freeway. I’d made a playlist specially to complement the landscape, but it was so dreary that the effect was altered. “I Can See for Miles” would have been perfect for when we emerged out of the Grapevine had the resulting view of the Central Valley not been obscured by fog.

A pit stop at Kettleman City, lunch at the In-N-Out Burger in Santa Nella. The fog turned into rain. Hard, unrelenting, glorious rain that would stay with us throughout the weekend, and pour over Northern California for days more. This was what winter was supposed to be like. We tore through the hills of the East Bay, then Vallejo, then Napa. The road got thinner and thinner, until it was, essentially, a lane-and-a-half, over a heavily forested, slightly snowy ridge, and into Lake County.

The first word that came to mind was “peaceful.” For miles and miles we saw nothing but old barns, fallow vineyards, and mighty encinos stretching over the slickened road. Soon after, we arrived in Lakeport, the county seat, with a nice selection of independent shops below an old courthouse square. Bill Bryson would be thrilled. I pulled up to the courthouse at 4:30, and as it was a Friday, we had less than an hour if we wanted to know anything about the place. To that end, we walked right into the County Administrator’s office and asked: “Who’s the most interesting person in Lake County?”

The receptionist looked at us for a moment before speaking to her boss, Jill Ruzicka, who proceeded to tell us everything.

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Lake County is a basin, surrounded by mountains on all sides, which is why it’s so isolated. It was settled by Europeans when California was still part of Mexico; consequently some families have been living there for six generations. The lake itself is the oldest in North America, having evaded the catastrophic shifts of multiple ice ages. The valley itself is volcanic; all of their electricity is produced by geothermal energy, which is also how their sewage is treated. As of 2014, it’s the greenest county in America.

“And of course,” said Ruzicka, “we’re finally developing a wine industry. The first time wine was developed in the county, Prohibition ended it all. We’re still recovering.”

I couldn’t help but seize on that opening. “Of course,” I said, “the main crop here is…”

She nodded knowingly. “Say it.”

“Marijuana.”

“It’s true.” She went on to say that marijuana is actually a severe pest in the county.

Ruzicka sent us off with a dinner recommendation when Sam discovered that he’d been accepted to get his Ph.D. at Cornell. To that end, we celebrated in style at Park Place, a popular little eatery overlooking the park on the lake. If I’d taken the time to write this in February, I might have been able to say what we ate. Oh, well. Sam claims to have had a pork chop with a red wine reduction and mashed potatoes.

“Lake County is amazing,” I said to Sam. “And nobody knows about it. I wonder whether we should tell anyone.”

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

3:10 to Yuma

Dir. James Mangold, 2007

3:10 to Yuma is yet another haute-western from the back half of 2007, albeit the most traditional of the bunch. The second adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s story of the same name, it begins with poor Arizona rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), whose horses are stolen by the ruthless Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) in an effort to rob a stagecoach belonging to the then-under construction Southern Pacific Railway. The railway forms a posse with Evans to capture Wade and get him on the titular prison train to Yuma. Meanwhile, Wade’s even more psychotic deputy Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) seeks to set him free– at any cost.

The relationship between Evans and Wade is an interesting one: Wade is a bad guy and he knows it, but he sees an honesty in Evans that makes him stand out from the amoral wasteland of the American west. Even if Wade gets on the train, he won’t be gone long, but he’s still willing to put on a show if only for Evans. But the real standout in the cast is Ben Foster. He’s been all over film and television, and he truly deserves to be better known; he’s our generation’s Joe Pesci.

All in all, while it pales in comparison to all the other movies coming out at this time, 3:10 to Yuma is a decent film with some great performances, and you should definitely see them if you like the people involved. B

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Inside Llewyn Davis

Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013

The Coen Brothers may be the perfect filmmakers. While they like to re-use images, tropes, and ideas, nobody can predict quite when or how those elements will come into play. That’s one of the reasons people dislike their films.

Inside Llewyn Davis is one film that is bound to divide audiences. It centers around the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a down-and-out folksinger struggling to make his way after the suicide of his partner. He’s not an unappreciated musical genius, just a journeyman, and the film takes us on an odyssey around New York and beyond.

When I saw the trailer for this film, it was nearly a year before it came out, and I was really disappointed. It looked like a very sombre and sad movie, so I was surprised how much fun it ended up being. The film is very episodic; elements and characters are introduced that are never really explored, so my only complaint is that I wish we had more. But that’s a good complaint for a movie to have, and I highly recommend it. A-

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer

Dir. Henry Hathaway, 1935

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is exactly the kind of conventional film that falls through the cracks of history. Does it deserve to be better known? Probably not.

Gary Cooper stars as Alan McGregor, an officer of the British army stationed in the Raj, near the border with Afghanistan. After being held responsible for the death of a fellow officer, he is put in charge of two replacement troops, one of which (Richard Cromwell) is the neglected son of the Lancers’ commander (Guy Standing). The tension between McGregor, his subordinates, and his commander draws them into a cross-border conflict with a dangerous Afghan chieftain.

It’s most notable for what it doesn’t do. This film was made in the very first days of the Hays Code, a system of censorship designed to appeal to a more virtuous sense of humanity. The Hays Code is indirectly responsible for almost all of the tropes we associate with Hollywood’s Golden Age, but in 1935 not all of those tropes had developed. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer features no romance subplot, which was unusual then but would have been unthinkable a couple of years later. And the film eschews the typical “happily ever after” conclusion, ending instead with a heroic sacrifice.

The biggest elephant in the room is the brownface. At a certain point, some soldiers disguise themselves as Afghans by darkening their faces, and it’s pretty bad, but considering the time period, it could have been worse. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer isn’t bad, but it’s not particularly good either. Even if you can get past the blatant imperialism, racial insensitivity, and Hollywood unreality, the action is pretty good for the time, but it’s not particularly memorable. There’s nothing really striking about the film itself, and the characters and situations have all been done better than they are here. C

The Master (2012)

The Master

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012

First of all, whatever you may have heard, this movie has nothing to do with Scientology, so get that out of your head before watching it.

Second, a confession: Before The Master, the only Paul Thomas Anderson films I’d seen were Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood, so I don’t know if his two other films have the same problems that I’m going to complain about here, but up to this point I really enjoyed his work. Even when it’s dark and gruesome, Anderson is great at establishing atmosphere and characters, but The Master doesn’t seem to understand what it’s getting at.

The Master stars Joaquin Phoenix at his most unintelligible as Freddie Quell, a reticent Second World War veteran whose talent for making toxic chemical cocktails gets him in enough trouble to cause him to stow away on a boat owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a similarly broken cult leader. Over an uncertain amount of time, Freddie and Dodd build each other up until they no longer need each other.

I really liked Philip Seymour Hoffman as Dodd. One scene that particularly stood out to me was when he makes his “second revelation” in Arizona, and tells his congregation that the visions he had previously called “past lives” were really in their heads. Dodd isn’t just a huckster, he’s an artist who’s become dissatisfied with his creation. It’s an familiar scene for creatives of all stripes.

But I didn’t like Freddie. I like Phoenix, but Anderson’s choices in the portrayal of Freddie are too perplexing to make any sense of. In one scene, Freddie imagines all the women in the congregation naked, but it’s without any context; the guy speaks so little, and upon speaking is so hard to understand, that he’s impossible to relate to or comprehend. Hell, I felt kinda gross after seeing it. This is a beautiful film, mind you, but most of the praise I’ve read for it is based on the substance of the story, not the look or style, so clearly there’s something I’m not getting. C

Paranoid Park (2008)

Paranoid Park

Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2008

One of Gus Van Sant’s smaller films, Paranoid Park is a textbook example of the Instant Period Piece, a work that so perfectly and meticulously captures the era in which it was made that its datedness becomes part of its enjoyability. The bad skater hair, the girls dressed as ring-tailed lemurs, the little brother reciting lines from Napoleon Dynamite– everything about the movie screams “2000s,” and the sooner you realize that, the more enjoyable the film becomes.

The plot is paper-thin, but still incredibly dark. Based on a novel by Blake Nelson, Paranoid Park tells the story of Alex (Gabe Nevins), a reticent teen skater who ventures alone to a dangerous underground skate park and is implicated in a gruesome murder.

There are parts of this film that echo the lower echelons of art cinema. A sex scene recalls a more restrained Larry Clark, while there are long, pointless silences and audio experiments that bring back traumatic memories of Gus Van Sant’s earlier film Gerry. But if you can get past those things, you’ll probably find something to enjoy about this movie. It’s not the best thing in the world, but I really liked what it ended up doing. B-