City Lights: Turning on new 'Lights'

This column has moved but will not require a new name.

"City Lights" — I originally thought of that title as a play on the city editor position. Now, as I move into the features editor spot, I'm reminded of from where else the inspiration came.

City Lights, for those who have been to San Francisco, is one of America's legendary bookstores, the epicenter of the Beat movement in the 1950s and, for any performance poet, the equivalent of playing Carnegie Hall. "City Lights" is also the title of Charlie Chaplin's greatest film, made defiantly in 1931 after talking pictures had arrived, and is home to one of the most moving final shots in history.

Years ago, I ran a blog for Times Community News and called it "Modern Times" — the title of another Chaplin classic. Those silent nuggets hold up, for sure.

Not many things created half a century ago hold up today. Cars? They've long since been junked, a few survivors at classic auto shows notwithstanding. Businesses? A handful still exist; most don't. Political speeches? We can find them online but rarely call them up. When we think of 1956, Elvis Presley and Dwight Eisenhower may both spring to mind. Which one's voice do we hear more often?

The other week, I talked with Dan Cameron, the chief curator at the Orange County Museum of Art, about that very issue. We had just taken a tour of the Newport Beach museum's new exhibit, "OC Collects," which features works, many of them decades old, from private collections around Orange County. Afterward, in the lobby, we put our amateur philosophers' heads together and talked about art itself. Why do people make it? What are their hopes for it? Is it just entertainment, or does it have a deeper value?

Cameron, who has curated shows in the United States and abroad for decades, had a simple theory: Art represents what a society values. That a work is a hit in its time makes it relevant to that time. That it survives its time makes it a gift to the world, and something of a miracle. Even while so many other things, art and otherwise, have faded from memory, we still have Chaplin's films on DVD and Allen Ginsberg's collected works on the shelf, ready in pristine condition whenever we need them.

Why? Because they tell us something about ourselves, something that goes beyond the Hollywood backlots or the dives of Cold War San Francisco. Think about it: Right now in Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa or Laguna Beach, someone may be creating a piece that will be studied and performed in hundreds of years.

Is it unlikely? Yes. More unlikely than anywhere else? Hardly.

The greatest success for any artist is to have his or her work endure. Think of Mozart, Shakespeare, Dickens, Michelangelo. The greatest difficulty for an artist, sometimes, can be to get a project off the ground in the first place. As Times Community News' features editor, I hope to touch on both of those sides of the process.

Years ago, when I took over the business beat for the Daily Pilot, my editor told me to treat the subject matter as "man and his work." Art, likewise, is very much about man and his work (or woman and her work, as the case may be). On that path to posterity, so many hurdles sit in the way: budgets, reviews, collaborators, the right connections. Film critic Gene Siskel once told of a Hollywood producer who applauded at the end of every movie he saw, simply because he knew how hard it was to get a film made.

In these pages, we hope to spotlight people at different stops along that creative journey. You'll encounter Sophocles and Beethoven and Twain, and also the woman who lives in the apartment next to yours and sews costumes for the campus theater. You'll meet authors who have won Pulitzer Prizes and others who are sweating to win first prize at the local open mic.

You'll find something else too, and here I'll quote Siskel again: He once referred to his job as covering "the national dream beat." The movies, he said, represented people's dreams — what they thought about, what they feared, what they aspired to be.

The same is true of any other medium. This section of our paper spotlights some of central Orange County's dreams. With a little time, with a little luck, they may be the rest of the world's dreams as well.

Features Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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