September 23, 2003

California in Translation

THEN THE VOICE which I had heard from Heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll which is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it and eat: it will be bitter in your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.”

-- The Revelation to John, 10:8-9

SANTA MONICA -- I WAS WALKING ALONG the Third Street Promenade on Thursday night, feeling quite relaxed and with a lovely girl at my side, when I saw something that I now realize symbolizes just how different California cities are from the rest of the United States. It struck me odd at the time, but it wasn’t until I returned to a place where the real work of the nation is done that the import of what I had seen really hit.

For those of you who have never been to this city along the Pacific, one of a thousand districts that patched together make up the greater Los Angeles area, you should know that Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade is a three-block pedestrian shopping mall. It’s a pleasant place, full of relatively upscale and with-it eateries and retail stores and street performers; and prone to cultural displays infused with diversity and wonderment that seem to matter quite a bit to a few folks, but merit.little attention from most. Yet it was what I took as one of these things which happened to catch my eye.

Strung above the Promenade’s center walkway at one point was a large banner emblazoned with a pentagram.

Now, I do not wish to disaparage the fine people of Santa Monica, so let me say that I am sure it was a good pentagram, if there are such things. It had lots of runes and other strange mystical markings, things that I do not doubt symbolized peace and love and karmic goodness with Gaia, or whatever it is the neo-pagans believe in these days. Still, it was not something that one would find in Boise, Idaho, or Kansas City, Kan., or Erie, Pa. And I wondered how open the famously tolerant people of Santa Monica would have been to having a banner incorporating the Cross stretched across the Promenade.

Yeah, Santa Monica’s different. And so is L.A. and Frisco and Sacto and all the rest. And after seeing greater Los Angeles again, after an absence of over two years, I had quite a bitter feeling in my gut.

BUT PERHAPS DIFFERENT isn’t the right word for it. Perhaps things in southern California are simply more pronounced and dramatic than in the rest of America; perhaps things are merely more open there than they are in Boise and Kansas City and Erie. The luster of materialism is brighter; the erosion of traditional values is greater; the corruption is more open; the incivility is more notable and the apathy towards one’s civic duties, towards one’s civic obligations, is more palpable.

Consider one minor example on that last point.

You should know that for four days, I traversed greater Los Angeles from a point near Los Angeles International Airport all the way up to a point northeast of Ventura. I will admit that I did not spend time in the center city itself, nor in the San Gabriel or San Fernando Valleys. Still, I did spend considerable time in the northern suburbs and western Los Angeles, and was shocked to see just three lonely signs about California’s recall election being held two weeks hence.

Yes, that’s right. Three. And, if you’re wondering, they were for Sen. McClintock’s campaign and involved his pledge to “Stop the Car Tax.” (Could such a thing be possible in the Golden State?) It was my good friend Chris Weinkopf who noted a few months back that California’s politicians, in their desperation to raise $38 billion to solve the state’s budget woes, proposed tax increases on everything from diapers to bullets. (As Mr Weinkopf noted, those depressed over the state of taxation in the Golden State ought not shoot themselves).

This state of affairs, by the way, did not at all please the shuttle-bus driver taking me to my rent-a-car, who bemoaned the $261 she would now have to pay in tax on her used Japanese auto. While she appeared to have misheard my state of residence—she kept talking about New Jersey when I had mentioned I was from New Hampshire—she certainly seemed enthused about a state where there was no income or sales tax. In fact, she seemed amazed that such a place could exist at all.

Anyway, here are some other observations I had about California during our time out there:

* Holy mackerel, has the state’s economy crashed. I never thought I’d see empty spaces on the Third Street Promenade for lease, but there they were. A couple of vacancies were for restaurants, which I suppose shouldn’t have been a surprise—but it was quite a shame to see that “Teasers,” the bar in which I would watch the occasional Michigan game, had closed up shop.

* Seen on Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica: a coffee shop called “The Legal Grind” which proclaimed to offer both coffee and counsel. No, really. It did. It was $25 to speak with an attorney and you could file for bankruptcy or divorce for a few hundred bucks, according to the sign. Again—you know the state’s economy is bad when an attorney sets up shop and sells coffee on the side. Even in California, there’s usually more money in lawyering than coffee.

* Attention wealthy California residents! If you own a high-performance imported automobile, such as a Ferrari, you ought not live in southern California. Especially the person driving the one in front of the car I was in—you ought to be ashamed of yourself for acting all with-it and then idling the dang thing as you creeped around the mall parking lot. Not even you can get a parking space, buddy. Take the thing out on the 58 or something instead.

* I saw unleaded gasoline selling at a high of $2.38 at one store, and the $1.85 Arco station where I did fill up the car was mobbed. Repeat after me: That ain’t right.

* I saw “Lost in Translation” at the movies this past weekend. Sure, it’s no Gi … oh, wait, I said I wouldn’t mention that really awful waste of celluloid again.

Actually, I daresay “Lost in Translation” is the best movie I have seen this year—in fact, one of the best movies I have seen in a long, long time.

Since loyal readers of The Rant have continued to check-in despite my vacation to California, as a special bonus I am going to provide you with a mini-cinema review. Perhaps we could call it “Good Cinema With …”


In any event, if you have not yet seen “Lost in Translation,” you ought to do so at your earliest convenience. In fact, I will go even farther and say that it is your civic duty and obligation as a right-thinking American to go see this movie. That’s because we as cinema-goers must use our purchasing power to convince Hollywood to make more movies like “Lost in Translation.” For the film excels on a variety of levels. It has a fine script, and beautiful cinematography, and a story that will pull at your heart. As for the acting, it is phenomenal.

I dare not spoil the plot for you, but I will share a few things about “Lost in Translation.”

First, that the performances of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, as two Americans in Tokyo who find themselves trapped in difficult marriages, are simply amazing. One might not expect Mr Murray to act in such a role, given his mostly comedic repertoire; but I certainly hope that he acts in a lot of serious roles in future.

Second, it was nice to see that the folks behind “Lost in Translation” were given the green-light to actually make a serious film for adult moviegoing audiences. For it is a remarkably intelligent film to come out of Hollywood, and it is a remarkably mature film as well. It’s not merely that stupidity is mocked at every turn, either. You see, there are no gratuitous love scenes in which a cinemagoer feels as if he has caught two people in flagrante delicto. There is also no violence of which to speak. Instead, there is a story, and it is told very well.

Third, I am the type of person who very rarely cries at movies. Yet I was – this close – to openly sobbing at the end of it. God! There are few movies that have had that much of an emotional pull on me; but “Lost in Translation” is funny and sad and clever and engaging all at the same time. It is a movie, yes, but it seemed like true life on the screen. Like true life.

* I paid $3.75 -- $3.75 – for a medium Diet Pepsi at the movie theatre. True, I didn't mind at all, and the container of Diet Pepsi was more than sufficient for two people and required a forklift to move—OK, so I’m exaggerating a bit, but Gad. This is a general-principle type of thing. And that’s the type of price I would expect to pay if Hurricane Tad hit shore at Portsmouth and barreled inland, North Korean artillery began lobbing shells at Seoul, and there was a breakdown at Pepsi-Cola Syrup Storage Facility No. 16 simultaneously.

* Paying taxes on everything sucks. Paying California tax rates on everything really sucks.

* I wandered around the Santa Monica Pier on Friday morning. Watched a man in a shark costume jump off the pier as part of a radio-station/energy-drink stunt. If you think that’s pathetic, consider that about 100 other people also watched the man in the shark costume plummet thirty feet to the ocean below.

* I think I got ripped off down at the rental car agency, and it is probably my fault.

Now, you should know that somewhere along the line, I lost the particular Kepple ability to rent a decent car at an incredibly cheap price. Indeed, I can assure you that when the Kepple family went to Sint Maarten on vacation some summers back, your humble correspondent’s father did secure a rate much cheaper than those offered by the main-line car hire agencies located at the island’s Princess Juliana International Airport. Mr Kepple did this by cutting out the middlemen entirely and renting from a local operation, and haggled with the operation’s owner in some out-of-the-way, cluttered rental office whose sole source of cooling was from a half-operational ceiling fan. It worked too.

Well, I’m sure as hell not my father. For you should know that the good people at the car hire agency did present me with a full range of automobiles, and I had no idea which one to choose. I knew that this was a sneaky attempt to have me pick out the Bradley Fighting Vehicle or whatever the hot car model is these days, and then charge me $80 per day for it. Unfortunately, I overcorrected. I ended up picking out an even cheaper car than the one I had originally intended to rent. The end result was a rental car with no power locks, no power windows, and no power steering. It also had no parking brake of which to speak, and I was half-expecting the thing to roll down any hill I had parked upon.

I may just buy it as my next car.

* Oh, and don’t get me started on Los Angeles International Airport. Gad. I am convinced that the operations people there took their cues from the Kwantung Army when they set about designing the place. How exactly they expected that many people (approximately 100,000) to fit into a terminal designed to hold about one-hundredth of that number is beyond me. Oh, and it didn’t help that it was the Southwest terminal and there were lines stretching from the ticket counters to Glendale. After the first hour I was annoyed; as time stretched on, I can assure you that I—your normally cheerful and friendly correspondent—was a seething, angry, generally surly mass of humanity.

Ah, Los Angeles. The place is sweet like honey in one’s mouth, and bitter in one’s stomach.

BUT THAT IS NOT to say that my trip to Los Angeles was bad; it was a fabulous and wonderful and enjoyable time. In part, that was due to my great friends Chris and Mary Kate Weinkopf. But the main credit goes to the wonderful and lovely and amazing girl that I’m dating, and with whom I spent much of my time with there. She is truly a fabulous person, and means so very much to me.

And that, when all is said and done, is what mattered about this trip to the Golden State and the City of Angels.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at September 23, 2003 11:42 PM | TrackBack

I totally agree with you about Lost in Translation. To me, it captures perfectly the sensation of loneliness and ... the random connections, deep deep connections, that can happen between 2 lonely strangers.

I loved it.

I've always loved Bill Murray and I am so glad to see him getting all of these tremendous reviews. He was never just a funny man ... there was always something deeply human going on in there.

Posted by: red at September 24, 2003 12:41 PM

Ben, an enjoyable read as always! Great observations.

Posted by: Kevin White at September 25, 2003 01:28 PM

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts. "Lost" really is a hell of a movie and I do so wish it would come to Manchester. We shall see.

Although I must say, Fred, I do think you're reading a bit too much into the film. I think that folks could connect with both characters on a universal level -- such as the scene where Bill Murray's character wants to talk with his kids on the telephone and you can hear their refusal on the phone. I am single and have no kids myself, but I still felt like I got punched in the gut.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at September 26, 2003 04:35 PM