Only in LA: I have seen the future, and it's incomprehensible

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S BEEN just one word on the minds of Los Angeles' six-to- 10-year-olds this week: Pokemon, Pokemon, Pokemon. The Japanese video- game turned card-swapping craze turned television series has made it to the big screen (in the ominously titled Pokemon: The First Movie; apparently a sequel is already on its way), and all the kids in southern California are flocking to see it.

The film took more than $10m at the box office on its opening day last Wednesday, when its target audience should have been at school, and estimates for the first five days hover around $50m - putting it right up there in the Star Wars range.

The few adults who understand the arcane world of the Pokemon and their human trainers insist that this cartoon universe is a faithful rendering of deep-seated values in Japanese society, but to judge by the evidence around LA the only value emerging from the madness is pure, unadulterated, spoilt brattishness.

For example, several dozen revolting little tykes had to be dragged kicking and screaming from various LA branches of Burger King because the fast- food chain had run out of Pokemon tie-in toys within hours of the movie being released, and hadn't been able to restock fast enough. Meanwhile, two 13-year-old boys were caught stealing almost 200 Pokemon cards from their schoolmates' backpacks and arrested at the Dodson Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes, a well-to-do seaside community.

The sheriff's deputies extracted confessions and held them in custody while their bedrooms were searched.

I asked my Pokemon-crazed six-year-old neighbour what he thought of this peculiarly harsh treatment. He responded with a string of utterly incomprehensible terms, of which I only retained the refrain: "Pikachu! Pokemon!" That's the voice of the new millennium talking, folks.

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SPEAKING OF police and the movies, the Los Angeles Police Department has once again proved itself utterly incapable of resisting the lure of Tinseltown. A few months ago, a crack team of LAPD detectives tracked down Kathleen Soliah, a former member of the Seventies guerrilla group the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), and pressed charges against her for her role in a 25-year-old series of failed bomb attacks on Los Angeles police squad cars.

The case, which comes to court in January, was never going to be easy to prosecute after all this time, but now those same detectives have been relieved of their jobs and switched to other duties. The reason? They allowed themselves to be seduced by a Hollywood producer who wanted to buy their story.

One of the detectives, Tom King, had a personal reason to sniff out Soliah, who had been living quietly under an assumed name in suburban Minnesota: King's father was involved in a big shoot-out with the SLA in 1974 in which most of the group's ringleaders perished.

You can see how the screenplay almost writes itself. Trouble is, King's superiors didn't think a trial judge would be too impressed with his exploits being turned into mass entertainment.

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TIMES ARE changing, too, for Tom Hayden, the one-time Sixties radical and ex-husband of Jane Fonda (pictured, far right), who has been practising a quieter form of revolution as a state congressman in California for the last 17 years. With his tenure as state senator about to run out, he had been expected to run for the California assembly next year and thereby maintain his role as the elected conscience of the liberal left.

But a few days ago he announced that he had had enough. He was sick of the cynicism of American politics, and preferred to stay at home in Los Angeles rather than commute to a motel room in Sacramento, the state capital. Particularly disappointing, he said, was California's new Democratic governor, Gray Davis, whose studied avoidance of any faintly controversial issues - not to mention his veto of two of Hayden's recent Bills - had dashed hopes of a more progressive era.

"My optimism," Hayden said, "faded into a jaded realism."

Whether Hayden will relinquish the public stage is not certain, however. One possibility is to run for office in Los Angeles - the mayor's seat, for a start, is up for grabs.

ONE LOCAL issue Hayden may want to grapple with is a battle over bank cash-dispensing machines in his home town, Santa Monica. Last week, the city council passed an ordinance banning banks from imposing surcharges - often up to $2 - on non-customers who use their ATMs. The two biggest banks, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, responded by saying that they would simply refuse to issue cash to non-customers rather than comply with the ban. This may seem a trivial issue, but it has raised tremendous passions both in Santa Monica and in San Francisco, where the surcharges were swept away in a popular vote the week before. In such bastions of liberal thinking, the debate is being cast in terms of popular justice versus global capitalism. Just the sort of thing, in fact, that Hayden has been talking about for 30 years.

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