Thursday, May 29, 2008

Eleven Hours At A Mall

It used to be that the notion of spending an entire day at a mall was totally preposterous to me. That was before I encountered the work of Rick Caruso, a visionary Los Angeles developer. A few years back he created The Grove in the Fairfax area, adjacent to the old Farmer's Market. No ordinary shopping center, The Grove incorporated quality shops, a good cinema, some really good eating options, and built them all around a beautifully designed outdoor space that is a pleasure just to be in. The shops are arranged along a pedestrian cobblestone street, with beautifully designed buildings along either side, with a side "street", a large sculpture in the center, and opening up to a grand fountain and landscaped area at one end. A trolley runs along the street, which combined with the fantasy-European feel of the buildings, gives the place a Disneyland-like charm (without the Disneyland admission price). Great care (and expense) was taken in the design, with quality materials like stone and tile in the buildings and street, and attractive landscaping including a number of mature trees. A couple of nice restaurants, one Italian and one French bistro/steakhouse, flank the entry with balcony dining and tables that spill into the outdoors at the ground level, adding to the European city feel. It's really a lovely place to shop and dine and spend a day, and it's no surprise that we often see stars here.

Now, just a few weeks ago, Caruso's newest development, The Americana at Brand, opened in nearby Glendale. This one has embraced the fashion of retail/residential development, with condos and apartments above the shops. The Americana is organized around a "village green" center, with a couple of lagoons, large grassy areas, a signature statue, and even a small playground. The lagoons include fountains that "dance" to music (like the famous ones at the Bellagio in Las Vegas), and which are quite beautiful. In the center of one lagoon is a large gilded statue reminiscent of Rockefeller Center. The gilded bronze of a muscular young man leaping upward in art deco splendor is a recreation of "The Spirit of American Youth", a statue at the Omaha Beach Memorial in France by Donald Harcourt DeLue, an early 20th century master of the heroic sculpture movement. Caruso actually tracked down an apprentice of DeLue's, to recreate the statue using some of the original casts. This is just an example of the quality and attention to detail that Caruso puts in to his developments. A brick street runs through the development, the architecture is classic American in style, and the overall feel is part Norman Rockwell, part Walt Disney. There are other great details, like a large classic-style clock on a pole, gas lamps, and large street lamps with craftsman-style stained glass and hanging flower balls.

On my first visit to the Americana, we met some friends for lunch at the Granville Café, a nice restaurant serving American fare with market fresh ingredients. We then spent several hours exploring all the shops, an interesting collection of boutiques and new brands. We discovered fun shops like Custo, a colorful designer from Barcelona; Ruehl, a version of Abercrombie & Fitch for people more our age (ahem); and Martin+Osa, an upscale version of American Eagle. (Since the Americana is adjacent to the existing Glendale Galleria, they intentionally avoided having the same shops. The Galleria was opposed to the new development, fearing competition, but I think they may find that it's a compliment that brings in more people to Glendale.) We took a break at one point, and went up to the deck of the three-story Barnes and Noble, where their café overlooks the village green. After a few hours of window shopping, we refreshed ourselves with gelato at the charming Caffe Primo, and then caught a movie at the new Pacific Theatres. After the film, we watched the dancing fountains which are particularly spectacular at dusk and later, when the water is uplit. We then did some shopping in earnest (the afternoon was to survey everything, the evening was for making some purchases) until the shops closed at 9pm. The wait at the Cheesecake Factory was still crazy, so for dinner we just grabbed some chicken-apple sausages from Jody Maroni's, and enjoyed the park-like feel of the village green and watched the fountains some more. The place was filled with people just enjoying the scene, and it felt festive, like the 4th of July or something. Finally after being in The Americana for nearly eleven hours, we headed home, having thoroughly enjoyed the day. And in less than two weeks, we've been back three more times, for more movies, shopping, and checking out all the restaurants (including Katsuya and Frida's). Well done, Mr. Caruso!

Monday, May 26, 2008

FILM: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

We enjoyed the much-anticipated Indiana Jones film quite a lot, although it may have helped that we'd heard lukewarm reviews, and thus arrived expecting the plot to be a hash, and with a heaping willing suspension of disbelief. Of course we also came with a heap of good will from the previous films, and looking forward to seeing a beloved character again. Sure, Harrison Ford is a lot older, but he's not too old to bring Indy back to life. An older Indy, of course, and with a bit of self-deprecation at his age, but still plenty capable of dashing through a great adventure. The suspension of disbelief was essential, not only for watching Indy dodge an incredible number of bullets and poison blowdarts (that was "old hat" for him), but for a ride down the Amazon in an amphibious vehicle that verged on jumping the shark. The 1950s period texture was nicely done, with Indy now post-WWII, and instead of Nazis to battle, he's now got the Russians (as well as the McCarthyites). Cate Blanchett did a nice turn as a charicature James Bond-inspired Russian villain, and Shia LeBoeuf gave a strong debut performance that gives hope for the future of the franchise. The whole movie felt just like a Disney ride, with imaginative scenery, familiar characters, some playful drops and sudden turns, secure in the knowledge that you were following a track that would end up safely, and all good fun along the way.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Rosemary Chevre Gelato

I have rhapsodized before about the wonderful market-fresh flavors at Pazzo Gelato in Silver Lake. This evening, Pazzo had rosemary chevre gelato. The rosemary chevre was divine. The lightly sour-salty goat cheese was marvelously blended with aromatic rosemary resins. The cheese flavor was up front, and the aromatic herb was on the finish like a good retsina. I paired it with a deliciously molassesy moscovado rum raisin, its dark sweetness a perfect balance to the savory herbed chevre.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Judicial Activism? Or Just Doing Their Job?

Some people cry "judicial activism" whenever they don't like the outcome of a Supreme Court decision, especially when the decision overturns longstanding laws. Some of these people have simply forgotten their high school civics classes. For them, let me offer a brief refresher on some key points.

The Bill of Rights exists to protect the rights of unpopular minorities from being trampled by majorities. Although we live in a democracy, the majority does NOT always rule. That would be a "mob-ocracy", something our founding fathers wisely feared, and which is why they created a system of government with many checks and balances, including a Bill of Rights. One of the crucial jobs of the courts, especially Supreme Courts, is to interpret the Constitution, and to overrule laws that would violate constitutional rights. Thus, when a challenged law violates constitutional rights, it does NOT matter that the law was duly enacted by the Legislature, or by an initiative statute by vote of the people. In such cases, it is the proper job of the court to find the law unconstitutional, and to strike it down. This is not "legislating from the bench", it is interpreting the constitution. It is not a violation of the separation of powers, it is the completely proper functioning of an independent judiciary within a properly functioning separation-of-powers system. This has been understood to be the case in our nation since Marbury v. Madison was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1803, and is a most cherished and fundamental precedent.

When a law violates constitutional rights, it does not matter that the law has broad popular support, or that the law has substantial weight of history and tradition behind it. There are numerous instances in our history where it fell to the courts to rectify the longstanding codification of infringed liberties and unequal protection. It is precisely when a disparaged minority is aggrieved by tradition and popular opinion that it falls to the courts to protect them. It would be nonsensical and self-defeating for the courts, in such cases, to give any weight to tradition or to popular opinion. The only thing on the court's mind is and ought to be the constitution and the laws they are to interpret. Tradition and popular opinion have no place in the process. If it were otherwise, we would still have segregated schools, all-male juries, and bans on mixed-race marriages.

Admittedly, tradition and popular opinion are powerful forces, and it can be difficult to keep them in historical perspective. It is easy to forget that older decisions now widely accepted were once highly controversial. Now in 2008, most Americans are rightly embarrassed about our history of segregated schools half a century ago, and most Americans would be rightly shocked and appalled at the notion that police might burst into someone's bedroom and arrest them for having a mixed-race marriage, or for using contraception. But in 1951, when Oliver Brown challenged the segregated school system in Kansas, his cause was by no means a popular one. In an early morning in 1958, when Richard and Mildred Loving were awakened to police flashlights shining in their faces, and demands of "Mr. Loving, who is this black woman in your bed?", longstanding tradition was not on their side. In 1961, when Estelle Griswold was arrested for opening a birth control clinic in Connecticut, tradition and popular opinion weighed heavily against her. And certainly back in 1948, when Andrea Perez (a Mexican-American) and Sylvester Davis (a black man) were denied a marriage license in Los Angeles, few people saw the injustice. Half a century later, the injustice of these situations is widely recognized, and we can be thankful that judges at the time had the wisdom and the courage to take the side of the constitution even against tradition and popular opinion. Even so, one can recognize the justice of long-past controversies, while failing to recognize similar calls to justice in present-day controversies. As Chief Justice George quoted the U.S. Supreme Court, "times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress."

It seems to me that those who cry "judicial activism" must either competely reject a long and proud tradition of judicial review, or explain why it was appropriate to disregard tradition and popular opinion in Perez v. Sharp, Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia, Griswold v. Connecticut, and other celebrated cases, while deferring to tradition and popular opinion in whatever unpopular constitutional case is at hand.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

In Re Marriage Cases - The Opinion

I was back east on business when I got word of the landmark opinion of the California Supreme Court on "In Re Marriage Cases", and I eagerly read through the whole 121-page opinion as quickly as I could. While I was overjoyed to hear of the just outcome, I was even more delighted to read the solid reasoning behind it. One thing that struck me throughout was the Court's refusal to indulge in hairsplitting, semantics and sophistry from either side. In each aspect of the decision, it squarely addressed the real issues. This common-sense court calls a spade a spade.

While all parties in these cases agreed that there was a fundamental right to marry, they differed as to whether that right substantively meant marrying the person of your choice, or marrying the opposite-gender person of your choice. The exclusionists argued that a gay man and a straight man both have an equal right to marry a woman, so what are we complaining about? Nonsense, said the Court. Our right to marry the person of our choice is a fundamental aspect of our individual identity and personal autonomy, and saying a gay man has the right to marry a woman is no right at all. The Court repeatedly harkened back to Perez v. Sharp, the landmark 1948 California Supreme Court decision that overturned laws against interracial marriage. They noted that similar arguments were applied then: a person had the right to marry the person of their choice, any white man could choose his own white wife, and any non-white man could choose his own non-white wife. The logic was wrong then, and it's wrong now. Formulating a substantive right so narrowly that it inherently excludes a class of citizens is just discrimination in a semantic disguise, and the Court rightly rejected it.

The Court also dismissed the notion that sexual orientation discrimination was a form of gender discrimination. This argument is often made by gay marriage proponents, because gender discrimination is an established "suspect class" (meaning that courts guard against that kind of discrimination more stringently) while sexual orientation is not. Thus, in order to claim the more protected status, arguments are framed in terms of gender discrimination. A gay man could marry a woman, but not a man, the only difference being the gender of the spouse, so there's gender discrimination going on, or so the argument goes. Not so fast, said the Court. We all understand what gender discrimination is, it's when laws disfavor women and favor men, and that's not what's going on here. What's going on here is discrimination based on sexual orientation, not gender. The Court called a spade a spade. Fortunately, the Court went on to establish sexual orientation as a "suspect class" in its own right (a new precedent), worthy of the same protections as gender, race, and religion. In other words, the Court said that while there isn't any gender discrimination going on here, there is sexual orientation discrimination going on, and that's just as unconstitutional.

While the appellate court had reached the same conclusions about gender versus sexual orientation discrimination, they balked at recognizing sexual orientation as a suspect class, because of the requirement that it be based on an "immutable" trait. The "immutability" of sexual orientation is a matter of some factual dispute, and the appellate judges felt the trial record lacked appropriate fact-finding to reach a legal decision on that. The Supreme Court, applying some common sense, reasoned that they did not need to find scientific certainty of biological immutability for their legal purposes. They noted that religion is among the recognized "suspect classes", and nobody would claim that you're born a particular religion and can't choose to change. Rather, because a person’s religion is so integral an aspect of one’s identity, it is not appropriate to require a person to repudiate or change his or her religion in order to avoid discriminatory treatment. Sexual orientation, the Court recognized, is "immutable" in the same way that religion is.

On a technical side argument, the Court eschewed the hairsplitting that gay marriage proponents had been spinning in regard to "Prop 22", the 2000 ballot initiative that said "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." This initiative statute was passed at a time when Californians were afraid they might be forced to recognize out-of-state gay marriages (Hawaii was the big threat at the time), and the language was placed in the legal code at a point that was describing recognition of marriages from outside jurisdictions. Gay marriage proponents, splitting hairs, claimed that the placement of the language meant that it only applied to California's recognition of gay marriages from outside states, and thus it did not preclude the California legislature from legalizing gay marriage within the state. Twice, the California legislature has passed such a bill, and twice Governor Schwarzenegger has vetoed it, saying that it violates the will of the people as expressed in Prop 22. (His position was that either the people had to overturn their own initiative, or the Court had to rule it unconstitutional, but either way, it was not up to the Legislature.) The Supreme Court opinion fully validated the Governor's position. Even though they ultimately rejected "Prop 22" as unconstitutional, they took the time to note that Prop 22 would have been interpreted to govern all marriages in California, and not just out-of-state ones. The clear implication being that had the Governor signed the Legislature's gay marriage bills, the Court would have shot them down as being in conflict with Prop 22 (which being a voter initiative, would take precedence over legislative action). No hairsplitting for this Court.

Finally, the Court gave a robust and common-sense rejoinder to the question of what's in a name. The Court noted the overall context of the question at hand, in that California has created a legal category called "domestic partnership", which is open to same-sex couples, and which gives domestic partners all of the same rights and responsibilities as spouses. So, the Attorney General asked, if the state provides all of the same rights and responsibilities to same-sex domestic partners as it provides to opposite-sex married couples, and the only difference is the name ("domestic partnership" vs "marriage"), isn't that equal protection of the law? No, said the Court, as we have learned from history, "separate but equal" is not equal. By reserving to one class of persons and denying to another the name with strong traditional and symbolic significance, the Court said that the state was denying equal "dignity, respect, and stature", which are themselves a substantive part of the right to marry. Not only is this a strong symbolic disability, the Court found, but because of the historic disparagement of gay people, the creation of a parallel but separate status is likely to convey a "second class" status, and signal a difference in dignity and respect. Moreover, because the newly minted "domestic partner" status will not have the same recognition and familiarity of marriage, domestic partners are likely to encounter difficulties and complications in the practical exercise of even those rights which are legally conveyed. Demonstrating a substantive understanding of the realities of the situation, the Court recognized that this "mere" difference of nomenclature has far more impact than "just a name".

Thus it was that a Chief Justice with a reputation as a "careful jurist" and a "moderate Republican" was joined by three other judges (two of them Republican) in writing this:
we conclude that, under this state’s Constitution, the constitutionally based right to marry properly must be understood to encompass the core set of basic substantive legal rights and attributes traditionally associated with marriage that are so integral to an individual’s liberty and personal autonomy that they may not be eliminated or abrogated by the Legislature or by the electorate through the statutory initiative process. These core substantive rights include, most fundamentally, the opportunity of an individual to establish — with the person with whom the individual has chosen to share his or her life — an officially recognized and protected family possessing mutual rights and responsibilities and entitled to the same respect and dignity accorded a union traditionally designated as marriage. As past cases establish, the substantive right of two adults who share a loving relationship to join together to establish an officially recognized family of their own — and, if the couple chooses, to raise children within that family — constitutes a vitally important attribute of the fundamental interest in liberty and personal autonomy that the California Constitution secures to all persons for the benefit of both the individual and society. [In Re Marriage Cases, Cal. Sup. Ct. S147999, pp. 6-7]

Saturday, May 17, 2008

FILM: Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Not having read the Narnia books, we can't say whether Prince Caspian is faithful to them, but we certainly felt it was a faithful follow-up to the first Narnia film. If you enjoyed the first one, you should enjoy the second one. And if you thought the first one didn't have enough swashbuckling and sword-fighting, then you'll like the second one even better. If you love Aslan, well, we don't see much of him until he turns up for the "deus ex leo" ending, but he's as impressive in his CGI glory as before. The four young actors have all grown a bit, which suits the story perfectly. Although older, the characters are still kids, and make youthful mistakes, as does the new character, Prince Caspian (played by Ben Barnes, who is easy enough on the eyes to make me forgive his belabored pseudo-slavic accent). All in all, the film is entertaining, and good wholesome fantasy fare.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

FILM: Iron Man

Though Marvel comics isn't our favorite genre (I enjoy it much more than George), we both thought Iron Man was superb. Robert Downey Jr. delivered the perfect Tony Stark, a sassy full-of-himself genius military technology industrialist with a true heart and pure patriotism, while Jeff Bridges was a spot-on ruthless big "good old boy", and Gwyneth Paltrow was wonderful as Stark's cool, efficient Moneypenny-like personal assistant. While we're definitely in a Marvel comic universe (Marvel's "heroes" often being a bit more nuanced and not just one-dimensional), director Jon Favreau does a great job coloring this well-paced action flick with balanced touches of self-conscious humor and real humanity in the characters. A scene when Paltrow's character jokes with Tony Stark about him being a secret superhero and her being the one he trusts with his secret does both at the same time -- playing with comicbook conventions while exposing the unresolved feelings between the two. The story is deftly set in a very contemporary anti-terrorism context, and the superhero action sequences are very cool. My personal favorite superhero moment comes relatively early in the movie, when "Iron Man" confronts a group of terrorists holding some innocent villagers hostage. The way he dispatches them is a spontaneous applause moment, and had me thinking "Wow, Northrop Grumman ought to be building some of that!"

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Marriage Quality Review Board, Anyone?

I recently got back in touch with David Benkof, an old colleague from the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Education. He used to write a gay history column that was syndicated in many publications, and I used to be on his editorial board, proof-reading and commenting on articles prior to publication. In recent years, he has committed himself to Orthodox Judaism, and while still identifying himself as bisexual, he is guided by Jewish law, and is writing columns advocating much more traditionalist positions. I've agreed to be on his informal editorial review cycle once again, which should be interesting. Even though I'll likely disagree with his positions more often, he's a bright guy with a unique perspective, and I hope we'll both learn from each other. I'll probably take the opportunity to respond to some of his pieces (post publication, of course) on my blog. Here's the first.

David likes to seek unexpected common ground between divergent viewpoints, and over at, he comes up with a challenge for same-sex marriage advocates. If we're serious about respecting and preserving the traditional values underlying marriage, David asks, can we all agree not to legitimize "Daddy-boy" relationships by including them in any future revision of the definition of marriage? He's referring not to any actual incestuous relationships, but to relationships between consenting adult males where there is a large age difference, where the partners may refer to each other as "Daddy" and "my boy", and where a little whiff of taboo might give them a kinky erotic charge. By playing up the resemblance to incest, David hopes that it will be a slam-dunk for all of us decent folks to agree to exclude those kinky Daddy-boy couples from the definition of marriage.

Alas, it is David who is unwittingly proposing a significant and dangerous alteration to the definition of marriage. Historically, the official (i.e., legal) definition of marriage has always been a matter of a few clearly adjudicable requirements: opposite gender, minimum age, no common grandparents, and not already married to someone else. Any consenting couple who met those qualifications could get a marriage license. Whether the groom was a known wife-beater, whether the bride was on her tenth marriage, whether the couple were separated by several decades and a vast income disparity, the state did not inquire. Traditionally, the state has humbly held that the marrying parties themselves were in a better position than the state to judge the appropriateness of the union. But now David proposes to change that, suggesting that perhaps the state does know better after all. In order to preserve the dignity of the hallowed institution, so that no inappropriate role models would gain the imprimatur of state-sanctioned marriage, it now seems necessary for the state to poke its nose under the connubial covers.

I don't know how exactly David imagines implementing his proposal. Would there be a state marriage quality board comprised of moral authorities who would interview marriage license applicants (along with their references, neighbors and co-workers) to pass judgment on each marriage? If so, would there be periodic reviews of existing marriages to make sure that the moral quality hadn't declined? Will this be narrowly tailored to only exclude those who actually get kicks out of pretending to violate a taboo, or would merely using the term "Daddy" be a prima facie violation? Should we impose a maximum age difference on all marriages just to be safe? Instead of a review board, perhaps there would simply be an affidavit as part of the marriage license application, asking the spouses to disavow any kinky business. If so, how would that be enforced? Could any citizen bring charges against a neighbor whose marriage was creating a moral hazard? Would they be criminal or civil?

Remind me again - how is this proposal conservative or traditional?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

FILM: Son of Rambow

Making a quiet opening this weekend in the shadow of Iron Man and Made of Honor, was the charming small British film Son of Rambow, an exploration of boyhood and imagination whose authenticity harkens Stand By Me from over twenty years ago. The film soars on the brilliant performances of the two middle-school-aged actors (Bill Milner and Will Poulter) who bring to life the two characters who dominate the film, Will Proudfoot, a small quiet boy with a vivid imagination and talent for drawing whose family belongs to an Amish-like sect called "the brethren", and Lee Carter, a tough troublemaker with a passion for film-making who is very loosely supervised by an older brother and constantly traveling parents. These unlikely collaborators meet in the school hallway because one is constantly being put out of the classroom for bad behavior and the other is constantly being put out of the classroom whenever the teacher shows a film or documentary TV show because he's not allowed to watch TV. Once they meet and find a common outlet for their combined talents in the making of an action-adventure film, their own lives become an adventure. The film mostly shows us these two boys making their film, in a way that's infused with subjectivity, with the boundaries between reality and imagination, as well as film versus film-within-film, being occasionally blurred. Sometimes we're in Will's mind, with animated action seeping into the real world, and other times we're in Lee's head, seeing his world through his camera lens. Even the "real world" is a boys' world, with abandoned industrial sites looking like a playground and every tree, field, and stream being a site for adventure. The dialog and the visual subjectivity are so completely natural and unself-conscious that one might forget that there was a writer and director at work here, so transparent is the hand of writer-director Garth Jennings. Before I realized it, this unique story had not only charmed me, but showed me something of boyhood character, friendship, and imagination.