Love The Unknown
According to Indian Railways I shouldn’t be writing this. It’s not like I’ve ever misbehaved on an Indian train, unless you count the time my mother and I were taking an overnight local from Jaipur to Bikaner—which would be a three-hour drive on American roads—and I was hoisting her up to the top bunk of the sleeper, and she kept falling off, and we were laughing so hard she said, “Oh, no, I think I’ve wet myself,” which meant she had to get down and the whole process was repeated again.
No. The reason Indian Railways doesn’t think I should be writing this is because, according to them, I have been dead for twenty years.
This is, of course, entirely the Raja of Kotwara’s fault. Creepy bastard. I’m not talking about the New Raja, but the old one, the New Raja’s father. I never knew his name because I just called him Raja-sahib like everyone else. But he certainly knew mine.
The new Raja is Muzaffar Ali, the first director I ever wrote for, who brought me to India and thrust me into that peculiar, intoxicating (literally, if you count the volume of drugs I consumed) world I lived in deep enough and long enough to have hosted the Miss India Pageant in 1993, and to have lived to tell the tale.
In order to accommodate the schedules of the Bollywood stars we were working with—they perform in several movies at once, and seldom even remember the names of their characters—I wrote the script for the film to take place over four seasons. Because we were shooting in Kashmir, the only region of India that actually has four seasons like we do (as opposed to three, like the rest of the subcontinent: the oh-fuck-it’s-scorching-hot season; the ick-it’s-so-fucking-wet-I’m-turning-green-and-it’s-hot season; and hmm-this-is-lovely-and-not-so-fucking-hot season), the production moved to Srinagar, the capital of the hotly contested country. And it was during the summer of that fateful year, at the end of which civil war would erupt and we would be forced to flee the Valley, that the Old Raja came to visit.
It was quite common for the former princes of the Old Raja’s generation to talk mostly about being former princes. But the Old Raja went beyond just musing about what life was like before the Raj collapsed and the princely states were abolished, and I was forced to listen. The fact that he looked like an animated version of a mummy from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo was visually fascinating: leathery brown skin like that old Holland & Holland weekend bag I had; sunken, cadaverous eyes; a Horus-like beak of a nose. That combined with the fact I have always been drawn to flagrantly delusional people made his company bearable on those empty, curfewed nights in a valley in the Himalayas they called Paradise.
He talked endlessly about Kotwara, because Kotwara was him and his passion, and he was suing the Indian government for approximately a billion dollars for some reason I couldn’t quite fathom, but which probably had to do with what he considered to be illegally appropriated land. The Kotwaras can trace their lineage back to 250 B.C.E., when they apparently ruled India from Cambay on the west coast to China, which is a sizable chunk of the planet. I was never able to clarify if this was the land the Old Raja was suing the Indian government for; can’t have been: the entire north of India, plus Bangladesh and Myanmar must have been worth more than a billion, even in the late 80s.
I’ve never been stalked or obsessed over by anyone I really wanted to be stalked or obsessed over by, and the Old Raja was no exception. He was bat-shit crazy, and sinking deeper into Looneyland as death rushed towards him. Which means that in his final years, he decided to travel as me.
So that’s what happened. The Old Raja habitually booked his reservations on trains under my name. He died on the Rajdhani Express from Delhi to Mumbai in a first-class compartment, outside which they always put a handwritten sign with the passenger’s name on it. Apparently there was some confusion at Victoria Station in Mumbai when the passenger named James Killough, who had died in the middle of the night, wasn’t a twenty-something New Yorker of Scottish descent, but a pre-mummified nonagenarian Indian prince with Alzheimers.
At least I died in first class.
But, James, I hear you ask. What on earth does this have to do with collages? Or was that a bait-and-switch lead image?
No, indeed, there is a segue. The New Raja, Muzaffar, who has been new for long enough now to have become old himself, made collages as well as directing films (he’s also a fashion designer and a coordinator of Sufi musical events). They were very pretty, as collages go. Faded and aged. He applied a sort of patina to them so that they looked like Rudyard Kipling’s imitation of a Peter Beard scrapbook.
One night we were all gathered, sans Old Raja, in Muzaffar’s house in Mumbai and we decided to have a collage-making party. I believe it was monsoon, so it was either build an arc and paddle back to New York, or stay in, turn green with encroaching mold and make collages.
My friends and I used to have collage-making parties in New York, too. We’d get really high, make pasta, pull out the mounds of magazines we had because that’s what we were—junkie magazine editors—cut them up and then ooh and ahh at each other’s genius, and then pass out. This was a similar scene in Mumbai, except it was a Muslim prince’s household, so I was the only one chronically high.
To make it fun for the whole family, even the indentured servants joined in. We made the “art” in Muzaffar’s style: antique pictures and shapes pasted on old wood, painted over with some sort of patina varnish. At the end of the evening, it was clear that the illiterate junior servant Asif’s creation was by far the best, which said a lot about Muzaffar’s work and everything about collages themselves.
I went to the MOCA space at the Pacific Design Center yesterday for a couple of reasons, the more minor of which was that I wanted to see the exhibition of collages and found-object sculptures by “legendary assemblage artist” George Herms and friends, entitled Xenophilia: Love of The Unknown. While not quite legendary, Herms is considered to be an important West Coast artist, and seeing his work yesterday, and that of his colleagues from Florence, reminded me that good fine art in America is made in New York. LA is great for many things, but this is frou-frou bullshit, frankly, and not even terribly intellectual, which is something you should be able to count on with decent contemporary art. There are a few witty conceptual piece by Kathryn Andrews, but otherwise it’s literally junk: the sculptures are made of junk, the collages are cut-up junk images. Asif the Indentured Servant’s pieces were as good if not better.
The major reason I went to the Pacific Design Center yesterday is I hadn’t been over to that area of West Hollywood in about eight months. My architect friend Ricardo was raving a few days ago about the new red building that is finally being completed as part of the PDC complex. I was doubtful, but Ricardo raves about very little, so I had to assuage my doubt by going over to see how it was coming along.
The PDC was always intended to be three buildings, but until recently only two had been completed since construction began in 1975, the green one and the blue one, and they made no sense to me. They were like someone had taken two different versions of Ayers Rock in Australia and spray painted them glossy blue and green respectively, and then packed them with showrooms, interior design queens and the well-heeled women who work with them. They were ugly heffalumps. Forget a design center, it should have been at best a parking structure for the gay bars that surround the complex.
In terms of architecture, I used to think of the PDC as if they had taken the Centre Pompidou in Paris as a Rubix Cube, solved two sides of the puzzle—the blue and the green in the exact same shades of the puzzle—and thumped them down in the middle of Weho. I’m surprised the hissing of disapproving fagelahs in the neighborhood didn’t bring the buildings crashing down like trumpets beneath the walls of Jericho.
But Ricardo is right: the red building does tie it all together and suddenly it makes pleasant sense. What was a lumpen eyesore is now a worthy contribution to the growing collection of LA contemporary architectural treasures. And it is, like Frank Gehry’s work, distinctively West Coast, one of the great parts about it.
My focus on architecture comes about because of Monday’s article in the NY Times about the completion of Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building in Beijing. I’ll admit, I was deeply skeptical about this structure, too, and I’ve been following it for years; had I not become a filmmaker, I would have been an architect. But the NYT is right: it is probably the most important architectural achievement so far this century.
The building is both dizzying and dazzling, confounding and brilliant, and I have only seen pictures and plans and read descriptions. What I love most is that it is clearly inspired by a woman on all fours about to be mounted from behind, as it is accused of being. That is so incredibly cool, Koolhaas. He had to issue a denial that that was the inspiration, but we all know it is typical of his train of thought. And having to issue a denial is itself a confirmation of the truth, or it would be in Los Angeles. We call it the Tom Cruise Rule: if you have to deny you like getting it doggy style, means you take it up the ass, bitch!