Saturday, August 15, 2009

The 32nd Floor


Downtown is the hub, the heart, the epicenter of the modern American city. Filled with skyscrapers, the phallic symbol of American dominance, downtown is the place to be. It's where the cool people come to party at the coolest clubs, its where connoisseurs come to sample the finest cuisine, it's where millions of Americans make the daily pilgrimage to and from work.

But LA, that curious city lying just outside planet Earth, breaks these rules. No one wants to go downtown, no one wants to party downtown, and certainly no one wants to live downtown.

Downtown isn't the heart of LA because LA is a city that doesn't have a heart.

Most Angelino's don't even work downtown, they just sort of pass through it on their way to somewhere else. If LA's downtown isn't the heart, it is at least the center of four major arteries that converge and pump traffic through via the 101, the 10, the 110, and the 5.

So while LA's downtown may lack the culture, finance, and importance of other cities downtowns, it still is a landmark. It is the heart of LA's traffic.

At least, that's how it used to be. About 6 years ago developers began to pump money into LA's decrepit core, creating the Staples Center, lofts for the young and affluent, and trendy bars and eateries for people to come drink and eat. LA's downtown developed from a rotting husk into a classic 3rd world city - fancy bars with tuxedo security selling $20 drinks a block away from homeless shelters and addicts.

Tonight Varga's gotten us invites to a premier at the LA film festival held within the newly redeveloped AT&T center. The film is entitled Reach for Me, directed by LeVar Burton, better known as Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It stars Seymour Cassell, a character actor who has starred and worked in over 170 films. Cassell was Bert Fischer's father in Rushmore, Robert Redford's menacing henchman in Indecent Proposal, Richard Dreyfuss' partner in Tin Men.

In addition to the premier of the film, Cassell is being honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Hollywood Reporter.

As soon as Phil and I arrive, I can tell we are underdressed. The men wear sports coats and button down shirts with jeans, the women are in black cocktail dresses and tight skirts. There are photographers and red carpet, but Varga meets us outside and greases us through security.
Underdressed as we are, we act like we belong, and we're waved through.

I get us seats in a mid sized theatre and meet a documentarian who has just finished a film about a man who ran 26 miles for 75 consecutive days to raise cancer awareness. I tell her I'm a writer but don't have anything more to add.

Luke Wilson takes to the podium to start the award ceremony. He's followed by clips of Cassell's work and a tribute video. A bald man with a beard worthy of a native from West Virginia then takes the podium, who then hands it over to a pair of suits before Cassell himself takes to the stage. He's an old man, but his voice carries loud and clear. He thanks everyone and keeps the speech brief, stating how lucky he's been to work so long in the industry.

Then we're subjected to one more clip from Lee Iacocca about the importance of living a full rich life and the importance of ending life with dignity. (I'm guessing he was a major contributor to the funding.)

Then the film begins. Reach for Me takes place in a hospice, a character study about how the old cope with death. It has no action scenes, which is why it's an independent film. It also lacks any kind of adversary, ticking clock, or climax. I'm bored out of my mind.

The documentarian next to me is sobbing.
So is most of the audience.

"Would this old fart hurry up and die already." Phil mutters.

When the movie ends we rise up out of our seats and make a break for the door. There's a party in the penthouse of the AT&T building, and there's limited space. Security only lets ten people up at a time, counting us as we enter the elevator.

We take it to the 30th floor, whereupon we enter a second, smaller elevator that takes us up to the 32nd floor - the very top of the building.

As soon as we arrive, my jaw sags toward the ground. The 32nd floor is one giant room filled with windows that provide a 360 degree view of the city. To the East and South I can see the million Christmas tree lights that sparkle over the city turning it into a mystical wonderland. To the West is the Staples Center, a purple space aged bowl and the softer colors of the less condensed neighborhoods towards the ocean. To the North is downtown, buildings lit in the bright glow of unearthly iridescence.

There are several bars, catering tables with food, and girls wearing mardi gras masks serving trays of drinks. Some hawk martini shots, others pass out bottles of coca cola, while others still offer cans of ice cold mocha coffee.

Everywhere there are beautiful women as trendy music reverberates throughout the penthouse. It is sensory overload, it is what I imagined LA was like when I first moved here in 2000.

Nine years later, I'm finally experiencing it.

I'm really under dressed.

Phil hits it off with a gorgeous young woman in a black dress, she's an actor and both her parents are from Spain. I start to think that Spain looks like a good place to go visit. I decide to help Phil out and mention to her that he writes scripts, and he has one that might be perfect for her. Phil runs with it.

I spot Seymour Cassell walking by us and I shake his hand, telling him I've enjoyed his work over the years. Varga gets a picture with him, and then a blonde comes up and steals Cassell's attention, leading him over to a group of girls.

Varga introduces me to one of the girls wearing a mask. She's half Hawaiian, half Filipino. I flirt, but she's not really all that interested. I tell her to get back to work.

I meet an older woman twenty years too old to be wearing short hot pants. She has a live snake coiled on the top of her head, a Python named Rocko. The snake is wrapped around a pair of chopsticks she has through her hair, otherwise only the snake's head moves. She explains that Rocko thinks her head is the safest place to be, so has no desire to move. I ask her she does when the snake defecates, but she explains he only eats once a week.

It's LA.

I meet a woman whose boyfriend is one of the board members on the festival. He's left her alone to go schmooze, so she's just happy to have someone to talk to. I ask her where the LeVar Burton is, the film's director.

"Didn't you hear?" she gasps. "They said it was too crowded and they wouldn't let him come up."

"What?" I ask, dumbfounded. "But Burton is the director of the film. The party is for him."

"Evidently security didn't recognize him. So he left."

I should be shocked, but after nine years of living here I just nod. If you aren't A list, you aren't guaranteed to get in anywhere, even when it's your film that you directed and it's a party celebrating the premier of said film. Seems in LA it's not who you are that matters, but how many people know who you are.

That's LA.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


"Hurry up. Make a move."

Dan shakes his head, eyes narrowed in concentration. "I'm sorry, but this is an important decision. Do I pick the wealthy skeletons, the flying tritons, or the swamp land elves?"

'What about the pillaging orcs?" Lisa asks.

"There's always the wealthy sorcerers." John adds.

Five minutes later Dan finally settles on the fortified trolls. The four of us stand around a colorful game board covered in an array of iconic pieces that would make all but the most soulless gamer take notice and drool. The game is called Small World, the objective is to score points by taking it over with different races, and when they die out through attrition, to pick a new race.

I launch an invasion of commando amazons, then as they go into decline I decide to invade with a horde of mounted rat-men. The board shifts and changes as waves of invaders charge in from the edge of the board, overpowering the previous races from before. Lisa, Dan, and John battle it out, vying for supremacy as I quietly amass power by holding large swaths of territory.
I am convinced that I am ahead.

When it is time to score points, I'm in last place.
I'm starting to think Small World is a stupid game.

We play a second time. This time I go with pillaging dwarves, switch to mountain walking giants, and finish with sea walking sorcerers. I'm convinced I'm losing.
Turns out, I finish in first.

Now I know Small World is a stupid game.

I am currently in Centerville, VA at the Wintergreen ski resort. It may not be Veil or Aspen, but for Virginia it's about as good as you can find, and the golf courses and trees are beautiful. A dozen of us have rented a house with three floors, a corporate board room table (with white board) and six bed rooms to hold a "gamer's retreat" over a four day weekend.

The objective: play as many games as possible.
The goal: win.

Via the power of Facebook, I've reconnected with people I haven't seen in nearly 20 years, people I knew in college. We belonged to the Guild, a role playing group that mostly preferred playing dungeons and dragons to getting drunk.

Although some people like Robb and Tony liked putting those two things together.

Actually I think Robb and Tony did just like getting drunk.

Meeting people you haven't seen in 20 years is a strange experience, they are neither friend nor stranger - they stand within the crossroads of the heart. Mike, Dan, Tony, Robb and Lisa - most of them are married, and most of them have kids.

But no matter how much they've changed, I've known them from before. I've known them as gamers. When it comes time to play a game, that's when the true personality emerges.

Mike is still thoughtful and even tempered, until someone crosses him in a game and he explodes in a fit of foul anger, then settles and quietly plots his revenge.

Tony is still just like the cartoon character the Tick, smiling brightly as he makes bold moves.

Lisa is content to let others fight it out while she secretly amasses power, playing as much for fun as much for the win.

Dan always plays for the win, maximizing every move for it's utmost potential, analyzing every possibility, trade and combination until he achieves a moment of zen.

Robb still likes to run around and shoot things and pretend to hit people. I'm not surprised he runs a school that trains actors how to to fight with swords and mimic hitting people.

There are other people I meet for the first time: John the Lawyer, Robb the Professor, Garrett the Corporate Defender, and Art the Entrepreneur. I do not know them, but we share a common bond - we're gamers.

Games lie throughout the house. Diplomacy, Settlers of Catan, Knights of Catan, Lost Worlds, Space Merchants of Venice, Puerto Rico, Talisman, Wiz War, and decks of Magic The Gathering. Dungeons and Dragons rule books are scattered everywhere, but these gamers haven't made the switch to 4th edition - they continue to play 3.5

Whatever happened to Monopoly and Risk? We still play them, but we prefer games where no one can get knocked out early and the race to win is close to the end. Modern games are more about strategy, cooperation, and deal making then they are about dice rolling.

Plus new games have all these really cool pieces.

Whether the game is old or new, good games all have one important element. They allow you to cheat and betray your "friends". Winning a game is great, but depriving an adversary of the win: priceless.

In MLB everyone loves to hit a home run, but when professional outfielders are interviewed many admit that they prefer to snatch them away from someone else.

It's human nature to screw others. It feels good.

But the soul of this group are role playing games, games that invoke intuitiveness and imagination, where a dice roll is more then just numbers on piece of plastic but a sword cleaving through a dragon's hide courtesy of the imagination.

The characters a player creates and the decisions that character makes better reflect the personality then a battery of personality tests. D&D isn't just a game, it's where true natures are revealed.

The first game we're asked to make up 14th level characters for a one shot adventure. Fourteenth level is powerful in D&D, akin to Luke Skywalker starting out as a jedi without having to whine for two movies in-between.

With all the rules, feats, extra skills, and magic items added on over the years, asking an experienced player to make up a 14th level character from scratch with no guidelines is like asking Frankenstein not to make a monster.

Robb creates a force missile mage capable of firing bolts of energy that would blow apart walls.
Lisa makes a multi-class ranger cleric with large amounts of versatility.
Mike plays a noble guardian.

Dan makes up a barbarian, but when he is unsatisfied with the final build (damage resistance doesn't stack) goes back to the drawing board and creates a club shattering fighter in order to achieve zen.

I forgo power to play something fun. I play a drunken monk.

Garrett is the dungeon master. We have nine players, which is a huge group for D&D and I quickly realize that this game isn't about the role playing, it's about the beat down. What good is making the character capable of punching a fist through a wall unless their is a wall to punch through?

I'm not having fun.

But unlike board games, role playing games are not so much about the mechanics and the rules as they are about the story teller. The next game is run by Art. He tells us to make up 4th level characters, or red shirts. While they are not nearly as powerful, I have a blast.

This time I create a multi-class fighter pirate named Jack Hawthorne. Teaming up with Tony, who in true Tick fashion makes up a brute fighter named Carlos, the two of us trick, bluff, and fight our way through the better part of an adventure. We push prisoners off of cliffs, trick demons into pits, both lie and fight our way past guards until we are finally overpowered by an evil priestess.

Being a cowardly pirate, I surrender. I'm also pinned in a door and can't move, so my options are limited. Tony fights to the end and dies in true Tick fashion, but not before taking out several thieves.

It's the most fun I've had playing a game in ages. Art is puzzled. "But you lost. You got captured, and Tony is dead."

I shrug and tell him to forget about it.
It's not about the win. It's about the game.