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[Back] Ambulance Screams onto the Web
by Steve Silberman

4:57am  24.Feb.98.PST
Jaime Levy's first big splash on the Web, Word, proved to be one of the most durable and consistently innovative venues for hypertext storytelling online. For her latest venture, the Silicon Alley designer is going back to her roots - the raw, lo-res aesthetic of old-school L.A. punk.

Launching Tuesday on Levy's Electronic Hollywood site, Ambulance updates a non-linear narrative from the era when hypertext happened not on the Web, but on floppy discs. Levy is serializing Ambulance for the Web in the hopes of finding a sponsor, with the first of 10 episodes posting this week.

Levy, who is no longer affiliated with Word, founded Electronic Hollywood - which bills itself as an interactive "content specialist" - last October, with a cash infusion from her investor. Electronic Hollywood has built a base of clients like SonicNet by focusing on building dynamic sites and developing cutting-edge interface applications for the Web, such as ad banners that employ streaming Java games.

Levy says she's excited about bringing Ambulance online because "the Web is turning into one big brochure." Ambulance reflects the Los Angeles scene it was born in, Levy says - a time when music was "raw, crude, and not necessarily political - just agitated."

The first digital incarnation of Ambulance was as an "electronic novel" on high-density discs, published by Levy in 1993. The story of a psychotic speed junkie in rehab who is "rescued" by his friends and then pursued by an ambulance-driving serial killer in the Hollywood Hills, Ambulance boasts migraine-inducing bass samples by Mike Watt - founder of the proto-grunge bands fIREHOSE and the Minutemen - and the noir-and-white illustrations of artist Jaime Hernandez, whose comic Love and Rockets was a blast of urban realism out of the Los Angeles barrio in the late '80s.

The plot - featuring hockey-puck-sized spiders and the unenviable hero's Scientologist car-dealer father - was conceived by Monica Moran, who, by Levy's account, was a "totally crazed" punker living in the white-knuckled milieu chronicled in the story. After assembling the creative team by strategic schmoozing (Watt did it because Hernandez was doing it, and vice-versa), it took nine months of "complete hell" to finish the project, Levy recalls.

The Web version has lost none of the edge of the original. As the first Shockwave frame loads, your monitor controls are tweaked to black and white, and Watt's bass throbs loudly from the speakers.

"I really enjoyed this," said Richard Gehr, who writes about comics for Spin and the Village Voice, after seeing a preview of the site. "It's somewhere between a comic and a really annoying film strip - loud, fast, and minimalist. You have to turn it down immediately. While 'Ambulance' represents one small step for Shockwave Director animation, it's a giant leap forward for Los Angeles punk rock."

As much as the Web has rewritten the rules of interactive media, Levy says, the culture of Los Angeles has changed too, since the days that she sold Ambulance on floppies for US$17 in indie book and record stores.

"You think of L.A. now, and you think of formula Hollywood crap like As Good As It Gets," Levy observes. "If that's as good as it gets, I'm going to make something really crass and annoying."

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