Volume 42 Number 01

October 3 – October 9, 2007

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MUD money


Originally published October 10, 2001 A San Francisco public power agency could buy out Pacific Gas and Electric Co., cut residential electricity rates by 20 percent, dramatically reduce the city’s reliance on fossil fuels – and still operate with a $18 million annual surplus, a Bay Guardian analysis shows. Our study’s figures directly contradict the argument that’s at the heart of PG&E’s campaign against public power: they show that a municipal electrical system can be bought and run at no cost to the taxpayers – with plenty of money left over. Our figures are all taken from public sources and are consistent with the financial reports of other major public power agencies in the state. In fact, if anything, our figures are conservative; the real benefits are almost certainly higher. The financial issues are essentially the same for a municipal utility district and for a city power agency, so our figures would apply to either the MUD, which would be created under Measure I, or the Water and Power Agency, which would be created under Proposition F. Calcuutf8g the financial feasibility of a municipal utility district or city power agency in detail is a complex process. Consultants typically charge upward of $1 million for detailed feasibility studies that use all sorts of models and assumptions to come up with the sorts of figures you can take to the bank (or to Wall Street to sell bonds). So our analysis isn’t anywhere near as detailed as what the MUD or the WPA will eventually have to produce. But we’ve covered all of the major revenues and costs; if we’re missing anything, it won’t radically change the bottom line. And it’s safe to say that we haven’t over<\h>estimated the financial viability of public power. The questions on the minds of most voters this fall are relatively simple: Can public power pay for itself? Will the MUD or the Water and Power Agency be a financial success? And our research shows that the answer is a resounding yes. We’ve run through two scenarios, a worst-case scenario and a best-case scenario. In each case, we’ve found, a San Francisco public power agency is more than financially viable. Our study is the rough equivalent of what a MUD’s or WPA’s annual energy report to the public would look like once the agency was up and running. In fact, we’ve pretty much followed the model of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), and we’ve relied on those two agencies’ figures to estimate some of what the city’s comparable costs would be. We’ve discussed our study with Ed Smeloff, the city’s top energy expert, and while he couldn’t verify our conclusions (since he hasn’t run the numbers himself), he said that there were no major costs that we had ignored. The results are summarized in the two accompanying charts. Where’s the money? Based on how other MUDs have been set up, the process in San Francisco would look something like this: The elected MUD (or WPA) directors would commission a detailed feasibility study outlining the financial future of the agency. Then they would begin negotiations with PG&E to buy the company’s local transmission and distribution system. If PG&E wouldn’t sell, the MUD or WPA would seize the system through the power of eminent domain. The agency would then issue revenue bonds to cover the cost of the acquisition and start-up, hire a staff, and go into the retail power business. Sales of electricity would bring in revenue that would cover operating costs and pay off the revenue bonds; any money left over at the end could be turned back to the city’s General Fund, used to reduce rates, or used for conservation and environmental projects. So the first step in analyzing the finances of a MUD is to figure out how much revenue would be available each year. That’s a relatively simple calculation. According to the California Energy Commission, PG&E currently sells about 5.4 billion kilowatt-<\h>hours of electricity to customers in San Francisco. (This figure doesn’t include energy used by the city government, since government agencies use power from the city’s Hetch Hetchy dam.) Residential, commercial, and industrial customers all pay different rates. If a MUD sold power at current PG&E rates (as provided to us by PG&E spokesperson Ron Low), it would bring in $562 million in revenue (enough to create a big annual surplus – roughly $36 million.) But a MUD or power agency almost certainly wouldn’t sell power at PG&E’s high rates – one major attraction of public power is that it offers cheaper electricity. So in both of our scenarios, we assumed that the rates would be at least 10 percent below PG&E’s rates. In fact, as our study shows, rates could drop as much as 20 percent without harming the MUD or WPA’s viability. What’s it cost? There are three basic categories of costs that the agency would have to cover. The first is payments on the bonds, the second is generating or buying power, and the third is basic operations and maintenance (paying the staff to keep the system up and running, to send out bills, to read meters, as well as operating the repair trucks, etc.). Electricity can’t just be delivered to the doorsteps of customers like canned ham in a UPS box. It has to be distributed through a network of transformers, substations, wires, and poles and measured with individual meters. And until the public power agency owns that distribution network, it can’t sell a single kilowatt. Unfortunately, the system that’s now in place in San Francisco is owned by PG&E – and almost everyone involved agrees that it would be cheaper, easier, and quicker for the city to take over that system than to build a new one from scratch. That’s what SMUD did and what most other public agencies that have gotten into the power business in the past half century have done. A MUD or a city power agency would have the right to seize PG&E’s property by eminent domain. But PG&E would be entitled under law to fair compensation for the taking of its property, and one of the most complex, bitter – and crucial – issues involved in establishing public power will be the price tag. “This is not an easy case at all,” Richard Epstein, a professor of law at the University of Chicago and a national expert on eminent domain, told us. “I can guarantee you that nobody, but nobody, has any idea right now what fair compensation would be.” The issue will almost certainly be settled in court. PG&E insists that its San Francisco property is worth a small fortune – as much as $1.4 billion. In a 1996 study the Economic and Technical Analysis Group suggested that the price could be anywhere from $315 million to $1.2 billion. The ETAG study, which was highly favorable to PG&E, suggested that the most likely figure was around $795 million. The reason those figures are so widely divergent is that there are numerous ways of evaluating what a utility’s property is worth. The simplest is to establish what PG&E originally paid for the property, then factor in depreciation. That’s how insurance companies decide what they have to pay you if your car is stolen. The process generally leads to a low figure favorable to the city. But courts have recently been somewhat more friendly to an analysis that recognizes that utility property is more valuable than, say, a private car, because the utility property produces income. One way to address that is by valuing the property at its replacement cost and factoring in the value of a “going concern” – which, of course, leads to a much higher price. Real market value But there’s another way to look at the issue, and that involves going to the state agency that appraises the actual market value of PG&E’s property for tax purposes: the Board of Equalization. Every year the board’s appraisers evaluate exactly what PG&E’s property is worth – and the agency’s record is pretty good. When California’s private utilities sold 22 power plants under deregulation, the board checked its appraisals against actual market prices, and while sale prices for some plants varied from estimates, the board was accurate to within 1 percent overall, chief appraiser Harold Hale told us. The Board of Equalization estimated that as of January 2001, all of PG&E’s property in San Francisco was worth $962,140,298. That includes property that isn’t at all relevant to running an electric utility. The value of the property actually used in the electricity business, the board says, is $753,978,471. But that figure includes PG&E’s huge 77 Beale St. headquarters office complex, which the city almost certainly wouldn’t want or need to buy in an eminent domain action. If you subtract 77 Beale St. (which one real estate expert we contacted said was worth about $225 million as of Jan. 1), then the value of the property the city might actually buy is about $528 million. It may be even less than that: the real estate market has fallen almost 15 percent since Jan. 1, according to our expert, a senior executive at one of the city’s biggest firms, who asked not to be identified by name. However, to be conservative, we’re sticking with the Jan. 1 figure. Epstein, who has worked as a consultant fighting municipalization efforts and thus isn’t inclined to be biased in favor of a public buyout, agreed that using the Board of Equalization figures is “certainly a good place to start.” There’s no guarantee that the courts will accept this approach (although, with PG&E in bankruptcy court right now, it’s also entirely possible, experts say, that PG&E might be forced to accept a much lower value for its property and sell it without a fight, in order to pay off some creditors with cash). So we also analyzed a worst-case scenario, essentially accepting the figures of ETAG’s much maligned report and assuming that, under a replacement cost-<\d>plus-<\d>”going concern” analysis, the city would have to spend $795 million to take over the system. (Even ETAG concluded that it’s unlikely the final price would be as high as PG&E’s estimate; nobody whose property is up for seizure starts off by quoting a realistic price.) No matter what the price, the bond sale will have to include some money for contingencies – the actual cost of the bond sale, start-up cash, etc. We’ve added $50 million for those costs. Paying the staff, buying power PG&E doesn’t publicly reveal its operating costs for San Francisco (or any other specific service area). And it’s difficult to use the company’s system-<\h>wide operating costs as a basis for estimating San Francisco costs, since the population of San Francisco is so much denser than in most of the company’s northern California territory. The denser the population, the cheaper it is to serve; the distance between customers is smaller, so you need less transmission line per customer. Reading meters is faster, since the employee doing that work doesn’t have to drive long distances between each house. Repairs and maintenance are cheaper for the same reason. And PG&E’s costs aren’t a fair comparison for a public power agency anyway: PG&E pays huge executive salaries (see “Public Power vs. PG&E,” page 24), which are included in the operations overhead. So we based our cost estimate on LADWP, which is about as close a comparison to San Francisco as we could find. Los Angeles is not quite as dense as San Francisco, so the L.A. figures are almost certainly higher than what San Francisco would pay, but they provide a reasonable, if conservative, estimate. LADWP’s cost per customer is $383; multiplied by the number of customers in San Francisco, that cost is $131 million a year. Then there’s the question of generating or buying the electricity. Here San Francisco has a huge advantage over other public power agencies: The city owns a large hydro<\h>electric dam that can generate enough to cover some of the local power needs – and it’s already paid for. Power from the Hetch Hetchy dam is cheap: the cost of operating the system is only about 2¢ a kilowatt-<\h>hour. Unfortunately, the city also has to pay PG&E to ship the power over its lines to the city borders, since the city has no complete transmission line to carry the power here; San Francisco pays PG&E $9.6 million a year in what’s known as “wheeling fees.” San Francisco currently sells most of the available Hetch Hetchy power to the Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts. Our analysis assumes that those contracts will be broken and that much of the power – 425 million kilowatt-<\h>hours’ worth – will be available to the MUD or WPA. The city also has a very expensive contract with Calpine to provide backup energy when water is low at the dam. The wheeling fees and Calpine deal boost the actual cost of Hetch Hetchy power to about 4¢ a kilowatt-hour. But the Calpine deal ends in five years, at which point Hetch Hetchy power will be far less expensive – and the MUD’s costs will go down. Green power Our analysis is based on the assumption that San Francisco will move as rapidly as possible to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels (see “Green City,” 9/26/01). Not all of the alternative-<\h>energy sources that should ultimately be part of the city’s mix are likely to be online when the MUD starts operating, so we’ve again been conservative, assuming in our worst-case scenario only a modest amount of solar power to supplement Hetch Hetchy power. In our best-case scenario we assume that the city will be able to develop 200 megawatts of solar and wind power – five times as much as projected in the solar bond measure, Proposition B, and enough to power 200,000 homes. The cost of solar and wind is easy to determine: it’s the cost of the interest on the bonds needed to buy and install the windmills and panels. Once they’re up and running, they cost very little to operate – and the fuel, of course, is free. Based on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission staff’s analysis of Prop. B), 40 megawatts of solar, wind, and efficiency programs – the equivalent of 98 million annual kilowatt-<\h>hours – will cost about $7.5 million a year. Our ambitious plan – for five times that much solar and wind power- would cost $38 million a year. (Again, the actual costs will probably be lower; once a big agency orders a large amount of solar- or wind-<\h>generating facilities, the price goes down substantially.) The rest of the power the city needs will have to be bought on the open market. Because the market is so volatile, it’s hard to say exactly what that cost would be. But futures contracts for power are listed on the New York Mercantile Exchange Web site, and they’re currently running at less than 4¢ a kilowatt-hour. That price is expected to decline in the future. Again, we’ve stuck to conservative numbers, assuming the MUD or WPA would have to pay 6.9¢ a kilowatt-<\h>hour for power generated locally, by Mirant Corp.’s Potrero Hill power plant (one energy expert told us that Mirant is unlikely to accept less than the 6.9¢ the state is now paying for power), and 5.5¢ a kilowatt-<\h>hour for power bought from out-of-town sources. We assumed that the Potrero plant would operate at its capacity. The power the city would import can’t exceed the amount that can be carried along the one transmission line leading into San Francisco, and our projection meets that criterion. PG&E pays a substantial amount of taxes to the city, and almost all of the San Francisco-<\d>Brisbane MUD Board candidates have pledged to make sure that, at the very least, the city’s General Fund doesn’t lose any money if the private utility is replaced with a public agency. So part of the MUD’s expense would be the payment of a fee to replace what PG&E paid in taxes. The utility pays three major taxes: property taxes, a franchise fee, and business taxes. Based on the Board of Equalization’s assessed value for PG&E ($962 million) and the city’s property tax rate, PG&E’s property taxes are about $1 million. The franchise fee – 1.5 percent of sales – adds another $8.4 million. It’s impossible to say how much PG&E pays San Francisco in business taxes, since that figure is not public, but even at several million dollars a year, it wouldn’t significantly change our bottom line. Unanswered questions There are plenty of questions our analysis doesn’t – and can’t – answer, factors that are impossible at this point to predict with any accuracy. PG&E customers, for example, have to pay a substantial surcharge on their electric bills for what’s known as the CTC, or competitive transition charge. In essence, that’s the money ratepayers have been forced to cough up to cover the cost of PG&E’s bad investments in nuclear power. It’s possible that a San Francisco power agency would have to include some of those charges in its bills – but according to Mindy Spatt, media director at TURN, it’s unlikely. The CTC is expected to end next year and probably wouldn’t be a factor by the time the MUD or WPA was up and running. It’s also unclear whether the MUD or WPA would have to pay a share of the costs of the expensive long-term power contracts that the state Department of Water Resources has signed to buy power for the bankrupt PG&E. There would almost certainly be some substantial legal fees, possibly in the millions of dollars, that would reduce the surplus during the first few years (but not once the eminent domain issues were settled). Most of the MUD candidates have voted to shut down PG&E’s Hunters Point plant, and it’s unclear how much it will cost to decommission that facility. The MUD or WPA could also buy the Potrero plant (it recently sold for $330 million) and pay less for the power generated there. And, of course, it’s uncertain how much electricity will cost on the open market in the next few years. That’s why the MUD or WPA would probably want to move aggressively to increase its own generating capacity. But if power prices go up, one thing is clear: PG&E’s prices will go up higher, and faster, than the prices of a public power agency. Voters won’t have to take our word alone on the subject. The public will have more information on San Francisco’s energy plans in the coming weeks. The county’s Local Agency Formation Commission is planning to bring in experts on public power and energy for hearings, and Smeloff is hiring Amory Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute to assess the city’s energy alternatives. Both reports are expected before the Nov. 6 election. Our analysis isn’t that radical or unusual; it just confirms the experience of every other major public power agency in the state. We’ve found what just about everyone who’s gotten out from under the private utilities already knows: public power is cheaper. It’s that simple. Public power in San Francisco: Best-case scenario (Low rates, extensive renewable energy) Revenue1 Residential sales 1.481 billion kwh @ 11.5¢ per kwh $170 million Commercial/industrial sales 3.942 billion kwh @ 9.5¢ per kwh $374 million TOTAL $544 million Expenses Payment on revenue bonds $578.9 million @ 8 percent2 $50.9 million Cost of power * <\i>Hetch Hetchy 425 million kwh @ 4¢ per kwh3 $17 million * <\i>Solar, wind, efficiencies 500 million kwh4 $38 million * <\i>Potrero Hill plant 1.6 billion kwh @ 6.9¢ per kwh $110 million * <\i>Contract purchases 2.90 billion kwh @ 5.5¢ per kwh5 $160 million Operations and maintenance6 $131 million Replace PG&E’s city taxes7 $9.4 million Public benefits8 $10 million TOTAL $526 million Surplus $18 million This chart shows how a San Francisco public power agency could take over Pacific Gas and Electric Co., reduce the city’s reliance on fossil fuels, provide all of the electricity the city needs, and still have money left over. The analysis would apply to either a municipal utility district or a city water and power agency. Proposals for both are on the November ballot. (The MUD proposal would include both San Francisco and Brisbane, but since Brisbane is a very small area – only about 4,000 residents – and since it’s difficult to get accurate data on Brisbane’s current usage, our numbers include only San Francisco. The cost of providing service to Brisbane and the revenue from that jurisdiction would not significantly change the analysis.) The scenario presented here is an optimistic one – although, based on our research, the figures are quite realistic. All of the figures we’ve used are conservative – if anything, our analysis underestimates the financial viability of the MUD or a city WPA. The bottom line: Even with residential rates 20 percent below what PG&E currently charges, and with a huge investment in solar and wind power (five times the size of what the city is currently planning), the MUD or WPA would run a large surplus. This study reflects what a MUD or WPA would be facing several years into its existence. In the first few years, the agency would probably have to buy more power on the open market and would generate less from solar and wind (which take time to set up). But on balance that probably lowers the cost of power (solar is comparatively expensive). There are certain to be factors that we missed – although our cost and revenue projections are very similar to what we found in the annual reports of other large public power agencies such as the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). But we’ve accounted for every foreseeable big-ticket item, and the projected surplus is large enough to cover unexpected costs. 1Revenue is based on sales of 5.4 billion kilowatt-hours: the amount PG&E currently sells in San Francisco, according to the state Energy Commission. A MUD or WPA could set rates at any level it wanted; for this analysis, we set residential rates at 20 percent below PG&E’s current rate of 14¢ a kilowatt-hour rate (which is projected to rise sharply). We assumed that commercial and industrial rates would be at the low end of PG&E’s scale. 2This assumes the MUD or WPA can buy PG&E’s assets at current market value, as assessed by the state Board of Equalization as of Jan. 1, 2001 (see story for details). Ken Bruce of the Board of Supervisors’ Budget Analysts Office told the Bay Guardian that 8 percent would be a reasonable projection for the interest on revenue bonds. 3Hetch Hetchy currently generates about 1.7 billion kilowatt-hours a year, and half of that goes for city government needs – Muni, the lights at City Hall, etc. We assumed that the city would pay the MUD what it pays now – the actual cost of generating the power – so the power sold to the city would be a financial wash. Thus it’s not in our analysis as either a cost or a revenue item. The cost we project for Hetch Hetchy power is high – it includes unfavorable contracts that will expire in five years (see story). The actual future cost would be closer to 2¢ a kilowatt-hour. 4The cost of solar and wind is based on financial estimates for Prop. B. 5It’s impossible to determine exactly what it would cost the MUD or WPA to purchase power in the future, but future contracts currently listed on the New York Mercantile Exchange are going for less than 4¢ a kilowatt-hour, and that price is expected to drop. Again, we took a conservative estimate; actual costs might be lower. 6Based on the cost per customer of operations and maintenance at LADWP (see story). 7The MUD would have no obligation to pay city taxes, but almost all of the candidates for MUD director have pledged to make sure the city doesn’t lose money – in other words, the MUD would almost certainly pay fees equivalent to what PG&E was paying in taxes (see story). 8The state mandates that power companies or agencies spend 2 percent of revenues on “public benefits” – conservation, environmental programs, and the like. Public power in San Francisco: Worst-case scenario (Moderate rates, less renewable energy) Revenue Residential sales 1.481 billion kwh @ 12.6¢ per kwh1 $186 million Commercial/industrial sales 3.942 billion kwh @ 9.5¢ per kwh2 $374 million TOTAL $560 million Expenses Payment on revenue bonds $850 million @ 8 percent3 $74.4 million Cost of power * <\i>Hetch Hetchy 425 million kwh @ 4¢ per kwh $17 million (includes wheeling and backup)4 * <\i>Solar, wind, efficiencies 98 million kwh5 $7.5 million Purchased power6 * <\i>Potrero Hill plant 1.752 billion kwh @ 6.9¢ per kwh $120 million * <\i>Contract purchases 3.098 billion kwh @ 5.5¢ $170 million Operations and maintenance7 $131 million Replace PG&E’s city taxes8 $9.4 million Public benefits9 $10 million TOTAL $539 million Surplus $21 million This chart shows how a public power system in San Francisco would operate if some of the worst-case assumptions are true: if, for example, the municipal utility district or power agency had to spend $800 million to buy out PG&E’s system (the highest likely figure, even according to pro-PG&E studies) and if the MUD was unable to fund and site affordable renewable-energy systems and was thus forced to rely on buying a large amount of its power from the Potrero Hill plant (owned by Mirant Corporation) and from other generators through long-term contracts. Even under those circumstances, the chart shows, the MUD could cut residential rates by 10 percent, keep commercial and industrial rates at the low end of PG&E’s rates, and still end the year with a surplus. As in all of our calculations, the numbers are very conservative; expenses would probably be considerably lower. 1The MUD could set rates at any level it wanted; for this scenario, we’ve set residential rates at 10 percent below PG&E’s current rates. 2The commercial/industrial rate is at the low end of PG&E’s equivalent rate. 3See story for details on the $850 million figure. The bond rate of 8 percent is based on an estimate from Ken Bruce of the Board of Supervisors’ Budget Analyst’s Office. 4See story and “Public Power in San Francisco: Best-Case Scenario” for details. 5This is the amount of solar and wind power projected in the city’s report on the solar bond measure, Proposition B. 6See story and “Best-Case Scenario” for details. 7Based on comparable costs per customer at LADWP. 8See story. 9See story.

Obama audio


Click below to listen to Obama’s full speech of about 30 minutes:

Part 2:

Obama’s new Iraq position


Barack Obama strongly and eloquently opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, but his careful positions on what to do about it now have been disappointing to some in the antiwar movement who have pushed for a speedy withdrawal and no permanent military bases in the country.

But over the course of this year, his stance for peace has gotten stronger. During his Nov. 14 speech in San Francisco, Obama said, "As president, I will end the war in Iraq. I will bring our troops home. They’ll be home in 16 months. I will close Guantánamo. I will restore habeas corpus. I will finish the unfinished fight against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. And I will lead the world against the common threats of the 21st century."

Did he mean a full withdrawal from Iraq, killing current plans for lingering military advisors and a massive, permanent military base? That’s something Obama hasn’t said yet, so we pressed his California communications director, Debbie Mesloh, on the question.

She told us, "Barack Obama will make it clear that the United States will not build or seek permanent military bases in Iraq."

Obama’s moment


› news@sfbg.com

Barack Obama came to San Francisco with some pretty heavy baggage Nov. 14. His speech at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium was swarmed by a diverse crowd of about 7,000, with most of those we interviewed hungry for an answer to the big question: is Obama the one who can take this troubled country in a new direction?

The Illinois senator had just gotten a bump from a cover story in the Atlantic, "Why Obama Matters," which posits that he is the only candidate capable of moving our country past the divisive culture-war paradigms and into a period when fundamental change is possible.

But time is running out for Obama to take the Democratic presidential nomination from front-runner Hillary Clinton, who has locked up moderates and most women. And some progressives, including labor unions, are behind John Edwards. To win the nomination, Obama must find a way to quickly rally the left — including urban voters and the antiwar, social justice, LGBT, and labor movements — into an energized voting block.

And that, some progressives say, means he’s got to stop playing it safe.
Guardian photo by Lane Hartwell

Days before the speech, former California state senator and 1960s radical Tom Hayden sent Obama a letter taking issue with the latter’s comment that Democrats are paralyzed by Vietnam-era fights — and in particular, his response, "That’s just not my framework."

Hayden argued that Obama was squandering his advantage as the sole credible antiwar candidate by running a safe campaign that equally repudiates both political extremes — even though progressives have been far closer to the truth on issues of war, civil rights, economic equity, and the full range of traditional Democratic planks.

Hayden wrote, "The greatest gift you have been given by history is that as the elected tribune of a revived democracy, you could change America’s dismal role in the world. Because of what you so eloquently represent, you could convince the world to give America a new hearing, even a new respect. There are no plazas large enough for the crowds that would listen to your every word, wondering if you are the one the whole world is waiting for. They would not wait for long, of course. But they would passionately want to give you the space to reset the American direction."

Many attendees of Obama’s SF speech shared similar sentiments. "I’m interested in what he’s been saying in his books, but he’s become a kind of politician, so I want to hear what he has to say tonight," Jeremy Umland, 33, a third grade teacher from Oakland, said as he was waiting in line. "I think he had a lot of brave ideas in the past, and I’d like to see him get back to that."

Umland, who is white and gay, stood with his partner, Terrence Marks, 34, who is black. The couple are in the process of adopting a child and wanted to hear Obama call for legalizing gay marriage or for a health care plan that doesn’t involve insurance companies.

"I’d like to see him address it in a way that doesn’t evade this issue," Marks said. "I want to hear him talk not like a politician, but a real person."

Inside, Obama gave voice to many of those same themes.
"Running the same old textbook, by the numbers, Washington campaign just won’t do it…. The triangulation and poll-tested positions because we’re afraid of what Mitt [Romney] or Rudy [Giuliani] will say about us just won’t do it," Obama said, adding, "If we’re going to seize the moment, then we can’t live in fear of losing."

He said we are in "a defining moment in our history," when Americans need to grapple with war, a planet in peril, economic insecurity, and a political system that seems corrupt and incompetent. "We’ve lost faith that our leaders can or will do anything about it," Obama said.

Over and over again, Obama said he is running to deal with the most difficult issues: living wages, universal health care, human rights and dignity, racial harmony, honest foreign diplomacy, and a return to the principles of the New Deal. "I’m running for president of the United States because that is the party that America needs us to be right now.

"I am in this race," he said, "because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now."

Good stuff, but is it too late? "I don’t see it happening, but it’s still possible that Hillary Clinton will slip in Iowa. She’s not invincible," Hayden told us.

In fact, a new ABC–Washington Post poll shows Obama taking the lead over Clinton in Iowa, 30 percent to 26, with Edwards at 22 percent.

"Seeing him through the eyes of my 34-year-old son and his wife, I could see there was a lot of new excitement among the younger generation and that it would be a shame if that just dissipates," Hayden told us. "The thing Obama needs most is what he steers around: he need a new social justice movement similar in strength to what we had in the ’60s."

Donald Fowler, a San Francisco resident and Democratic Party campaign consultant who ran John Kerry’s Michigan campaign in 2004 and Al Gore’s field operation in 2000, said Obama has suffered for trying to communicate detailed positions through an intense media filter.

"You get into the danger of running a government when you should be running a campaign," Fowler told us.

He and Hayden each said that particularly on the Iraq war issue, where Obama is strongest, he should have projected his stance more boldly, something he may now be starting to do.

"My guess is they have decided to be strong, state things clearly, and take back the discussion," Fowler said. Listening to Obama discuss this moment, that assessment seems likely.

"It’s because of these failures that people are listening intently," Obama said. "We have the chance to come together to form a new majority." *

To hear Barack Obama’s speech and read the Atlantic article and Tom Hayden’s letter, visit www.sfbg.com.

An Appeal to Barack Obama


“The Democrats have been stuck in the arguments of Vietnam, which means that either you’re a Scoop Jackson Democrat or you’re a Tom Hayden Democrat and you’re suspicious of any military action. And that’s just not my framework.” – Sen. Barack Obama.

Barack, I thought Hillary Clinton was known as the Great Triangulator, but you are learning well. The problem with setting up false polarities to position yourself in the “center”, however, is that it’s unproductive both politically and intellectually.

Politically, it is a mistake because there last time I looked there were a whole lot more “Tom Hayden Democrats” voting in the California primary and, I suspect, around the country, than “‘Scoop’ Jackson Democrats.” In fact, they are your greatest potential base, aside from African-American voters, in a multi-candidate primary.

More disturbing is what happens to the mind by setting up these polarities. To take a “centrist” position, one calculates the equal distance between two “extremes.” It doesn’t matter if one “extreme” is closer to the truth. All that matters is achieving the equidistance. This means the presumably “extreme” view is prevented from having a fair hearing, which would require abandoning the imaginary center. And it invites the “extreme” to become more “extreme” in order to pull the candidate’s thinking in a more progressive direction. The process of substantive thinking is corroded by the priority of political positioning.

I have been enthused by the crowds you draw, by the excitement you instill in my son and daughter-in-law, by the seeds of inspiration you plant in our seven-year old [biracial] kid. I love the alternative American narrative you weave on the stump, one in which once-radical social movements ultimately create a better America step by step. I very much respect your senior advisers like David Axelrod, who figured out a way to elect Harold Washington mayor of Chicago. You are a truly global figure in this age of globalization.

But as the months wear on, I see a problem of the potential being squandered. Hillary Clinton already occupies the political center. John Edwards holds the populist labor/left. And that leaves you with a transcendent vision in search of a constituency.

Your opposition to the Iraq War could have distinguished you, but it became more parsed than pronounced. All the nuance might please the New York Times’ Michael Gordon, who helped get us into this madness in the first place, but the slivers of difference appear too narrow for many voters to notice. Clinton’s plan, such as it is, amounts to six more years of thousands of American troops in Iraq [at least]. Your proposal is to remove combat troops by mid-2010, while leaving thousands of advisers trying to train a dysfunctional Iraqi army, and adding that you might re-invade to stave off ethnic genocide. Lately, you have said the mission of your residual American force would be more limited than the Clinton proposal. You would commit trainers, for example, only if the Iraqi government engages in reconciliation and abandons sectarian policing. You would not embed American trainers in the crossfire of combat. This nuancing avoids the tough and obvious question of what to do with the sectarian Frankenstein monster we have funded, armed and trained in the Baghdad Interior Ministry. The Jones Commission recently proposed “scrapping” the Iraqi police service. Do you agree? The Center for American Progress, directed by Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, is urging that all US troops, including trainers, be redeployed this year. Why do you disagree? Lately you have taken advantage of Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness on Iran to oppose bombing that country without Congressional authorization. But you carefully decline to say whether you would support bombing Iran when and if the time comes.

This caution has a history:

– you were against the war in 2002 because it was a “dumb war”,
but you had to point out that you were not against all wars, without
exactly saying what wars you favored;

– then you visited Iraq for 36 hours and “could only marvel at
the ability of our government to essentially erect entire cities
within hostile territory”;

– then as the quagmire deepened, you cloaked yourself in the
bipartisan mantle of the Baker-Hamilton Study Group, which advocated
leaving thousands of American troops in Iraq to fight terrorism, train
the Iraqis until they “stand up”, and sundry other tasks of

Perhaps your national security advisers are getting to you when it should be the other way around. Their expertise is not in the politics of primaries. If anything, they reject the of populist peace pressure influencing elite national security decisions. The result is a frustration towards all the Democratic candidates for what the Center for American Progress has recently called “strategic drift.” The political result is the danger of returning to John Kerry’s muffled message in 2004. The policy result may be a total security disaster for our country, draining our young soldiers’ blood and everyone’s taxes on the continuing degradation of our national honor in a war which cannot be won.

Just for the record, let me tell you my position on Iraq. I think the only alternative is to begin a global diplomatic peace offensive starting with a commitment to withdraw all our troops as rapidly as possible. That is the only way to engage the world, including the Iraqi factions, in doing something about containing the crises of refugees, reconciliation and reconstruction. It means negotiating with Iran rather than escautf8g to a broader war. If you want to “turn a new page”, it should not be about leaving the Sixties behind. It will be about leaving behind the superpower fantasies of both the neo-conservatives and your humanitarian hawks. And yes, it is to be “suspicious”, as Eisenhower and John Kennedy came to be suspicious, of the advice of any Wise Men or security experts who advocated the military occupation of Iraq. Is that position as extreme as your rhetoric assumes?

Your problem, if I may say so out loud, and with all respect, is that the deepest rationale for your running for president is the one that you dare not mention very much, which is that you are an African-American with the possibility of becoming president. The quiet implication of your centrism is that all races can live beyond the present divisions, in the higher reality above the dualities. You may be right. You see the problems Hillary Clinton encounters every time she implies that she wants to shatter all those glass ceilings and empower a woman, a product of the feminist movement, to be president? Same problem. So here’s my question: how can you say let’s “turn the page” and leave all those Sixties’ quarrels behind us if we dare not talk freely in public places about a black man or a woman being president? Doesn’t that reveal that on some very deep level that we are not yet ready to “turn the page”?

When you think about it, these should be wonderful choices, not forbidden topics. John Edwards can’t be left out either, for his dramatic and, once again, unstated role as yet another reformed white male southerner seeking America’s acceptance, like Carter, Clinton and Gore before him. Or Bill Richardson trying to surface the long-neglected national issues of Latinos. I think these all these underlying narratives, of blacks, women, white southerners and la raza – excuse me, Hispanic-Americans – are far more moving, engaging and electorally-important than the dry details of policy.

What I cannot understand is your apparent attempt to sever, or at least distance yourself, from the Sixties generation, though we remain your single greatest supporting constituency. I can understand, I suppose, your need to define yourself as a American rather than a black American, as if some people need to be reassured over and over. I don’t know if those people will vote for you.

You were ten years old when the Sixties ended, so it is the formative story of your childhood. The polarizations that you want to transcend today began with life-and-death issues that were imposed on us. No one chose to be “extreme” or “militant” as a lifestyle preference. It was an extreme situation that produced us. On one side were armed segregationists, on the other peaceful black youth. On one side were the destroyers of Vietnam, on the other were those who refused to
submit to orders. On the one side were those keeping women in inferior roles, on the other were those demanding an equal rights amendment. On one side were those injecting chemical poisons into our rivers, soils, air and blood streams, on the other were the defenders of the natural world. On one side were the perpetrators of big money politics, on the other were keepers of the plain democratic tradition. Does anyonebelieve those conflicts are behind us?

I can understand, in my old age, someone wanting to dissociate from the extremes to which some of us were driven by the times. That seems to be the ticket to legitimacy in the theater of the media and cultural gatekeepers. I went through a similar process in 1982 when I ran for the legislature, reassuring voters that I wasn’t “the angry young man that I used to be.” I won the election, and then the Republicans objected to my being seated anyway! Holding the idea that the opposites of the Sixties were equally extreme or morally equivalent is to risk denying where you came from and what made your opportunities possible. You surely understand that you are one of the finest descendants of the whole Sixties generation, not some hybrid formed by the clashing opposites of that time. We want to be proud of the role we may have played in all you have become, and not be considered baggage to be discarded on your ascent. You recognize this primal truth when you stand on the bridge in Selma, Alabama, basking in the glory of those who were there when you were three years old. But you can’t have it both ways, revering the Selma march while trying to “turn the page” on the past.

This brings me back to why you want to stand in the presumed center against the “Tom Hayden Democrats.” Are you are equally distant from the “George McGovern Democrats.”, and the “Jesse Jackson Democrats”? How about the “Martin Luther King Democrats”, the “Cesar Chavez Democrats”, the “Gloria Steinem Democrats”? Where does it end?

What about the “Bobby Kennedy Democrats”? I sat listening to you last year at an RFK human rights event in our capital. I was sitting behind Ethel Kennedy and several of her children, all of whom take more progressive stands than anyone currently leading the national Democratic Party. They were applauding you, supporting your candidacy, and trying to persuade me that you were not just another charismatic candidate but the one we have been waiting for.

Will you live up to the standard set by Bobby Kennedy in 1968? He who sat with Cesar Chavez at the breaking of the fast, he who enlisted civil rights and women activists in his crusade, who questioned the Gross National Product as immoral, who dialogued with people like myself about ending the war and poverty? Yes, Bobby appealed to cops and priests and Richard Daley too, but in 1968 he never distanced himself from the dispossessed, the farmworkers, the folksingers, the war resisters, nor the poets of the powerless. He walked among us.

The greatest gift you have been given by history is that as the elected tribune of a revived democracy, you could change America’s dismal role in the world. Because of what you so eloquently represent, you could convince the world to give America a new hearing, even a new respect. There are no plazas large enough for the crowds that would listen to your every word, wondering if you are the one the whole world is waiting for. They would not wait for long, of course. But they would passionately want to give you the space to reset the American direction.

What is the risk, after all? If “think globally, act locally” ever made any sense, this is the time, and you are the prophet. If you want to be mainstream, look to the forgotten mainstream. You don’t even have to leave the Democratic Party. It’s time to renew the best legacy of the Good Neighbor policy of Roosevelt before it dissolved into the Cold War, the Strangelove priesthood, the CIA coups in Iran and Guatemala, the sordid Bay of Pigs, the open graves of Vietnam. It’s time to renew the best legacy of the New Deal before it became Neo-Liberalism, and finally achieve the 1948 Democratic vision of national health care.

May you – and Hillary too – live up to the potential, the gift of the past, prepared for you in the dreams not only of our fathers, but of all those generations with hopes of not being forgotten.

Sputnik, 50 Years Later


[This is an excerpt from Norman Solomon’s new book “Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State.”]

A story could start almost anywhere. This one begins at a moment startled by a rocket.

In the autumn of 1957, America was not at war … or at peace. The threat of nuclear annihilation shadowed every day, flickering with visions of the apocalyptic. In classrooms, “duck and cover” drills were part of the curricula. Underneath any Norman Rockwell painting, the grim reaper had attained the power of an ultimate monster.

Dwight Eisenhower was most of the way through his fifth year in the White House. He liked to speak reassuring words of patriotic faith, with presidential statements like: “America is the greatest force that God has ever allowed to exist on His footstool.” Such pronouncements drew a sharp distinction between the United States and the Godless Communist foe.

But on October 4, 1957, the Kremlin announced the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. God was supposed to be on America’s side, yet the Soviet atheists had gotten to the heavens before us. Suddenly the eagle of liberty could not fly nearly so high.

Sputnik was instantly fascinating and alarming. The American press swooned at the scientific vistas and shuddered at the military implications. Under the headline “Red Moon Over the U.S.,” Time quickly explained that “a new era in history had begun, opening a bright new chapter in mankind’s conquest of the natural environment and a grim new chapter in the cold war.” The newsmagazine was glum about the space rivalry: “The U.S. had lost its lead because, in spreading its resources too thin, the nation had skimped too much on military research and development.”

The White House tried to project calm; Eisenhower said the satellite “does not raise my apprehension, not one iota.” But many on the political spectrum heard Sputnik’s radio pulse as an ominous taunt.

A heroine of the Republican right, Clare Boothe Luce, said the satellite’s beeping was an “outer-space raspberry to a decade of American pretensions that the American way of life was a gilt-edged guarantee of our material superiority.” Newspaper readers learned that Stuart Symington, a Democratic senator who’d been the first secretary of the air force, “said the Russians will be able to launch mass attacks against the United States with intercontinental ballistic missiles within two or three years.”

A New York Times article matter-of-factly referred to “the mild panic that has seized most of the nation since Russia’s sputnik was launched two weeks ago.” In another story, looking forward, Times science reporter William L. Laurence called for bigger pots of gold at the end of scientific rainbows: “In a free society such as ours it is not possible ‘to channel human efforts’ without the individual’s consent and wholehearted willingness. To attract able and promising young men and women into the fields of science and engineering it is necessary first to offer them better inducements than are presently offered.”

At last, in early February 1958, an American satellite — the thirty-pound Explorer — went into orbit. What had succeeded in powering it into space was a military rocket, developed by a U.S. Army research team. The head of that team, the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, was boosting the red-white-and-blue after the fall of his ex-employer, the Third Reich. In March 1958 he publicly warned that the U.S. space program was a few years behind the Russians.


Soon after dusk, while turning a skate key or playing with a hula hoop, children might look up to see if they could spot the bright light of a satellite arching across the sky. But they could not see the fallout from nuclear bomb tests, underway for a dozen years by 1958. The conventional wisdom, reinforced by the press, downplayed fears while trusting the authorities; basic judgments about the latest weapons programs were to be left to the political leaders and their designated experts.

On the weekly prime-time Walt Disney television show, an animated fairy with a magic wand urged youngsters to drink three glasses of milk each day. But airborne strontium-90 from nuclear tests was falling on pastures all over, migrating to cows and then to the milk supply and, finally, to people’s bones. Radioactive isotopes from fallout were becoming inseparable from the human diet.

Young people — dubbed “baby boomers,” a phrase that both dramatized and trivialized them — were especially vulnerable to strontium-90 as their fast-growing bones absorbed the radioactive isotope along with calcium. The children who did as they were told by drinking plenty of milk ended up heightening the risks — not unlike their parents, who were essentially told to accept the bomb fallout without complaint.

Under the snappy rubric of “the nuclear age,” the white-coated and loyal American scientist stood as an icon, revered as surely as the scientists of the enemy were assumed to be pernicious. And yet the mutual fallout, infiltrating dairy farms and mothers’ breast milk and the bones of children, was a type of subversion that never preoccupied J. Edgar Hoover.

The more that work by expert scientists endangered us, the more we were informed that we needed those scientists to save us. Who better to protect Americans from the hazards of the nuclear industry and the terrifying potential of nuclear weapons than the best scientific minds serving the industry and developing the weapons?

In June 1957 — the same month Nobel Prize–winning chemist Linus Pauling published an article estimating that ten thousand cases of leukemia had already occurred due to U.S. and Soviet nuclear testing — President Eisenhower proclaimed that the American detonations would result in nuclear warheads with much less radioactivity. Ike said that “we have reduced fallout from bombs by nine-tenths,” and he pledged that the Nevada explosions would continue in order to “see how clean we can make them.” The president spoke just after meeting with Edward Teller and other high-powered physicists. Eisenhower assured the country that the scientists and the U.S. nuclear test operations were working on the public’s behalf. “They say: ‘Give us four or five more years to test each step of our development and we will produce an absolutely clean bomb.’”

But sheer atomic fantasy, however convenient, was wearing thin. Many scientists actually opposed the aboveground nuclear blasts. Relying on dissenters with a range of technical expertise, Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson had made an issue of fallout in the 1956 presidential campaign. During 1957 — a year when the U.S. government set off thirty-two nuclear bombs over southern Nevada and the Pacific — Pauling spearheaded a global petition drive against nuclear testing; by January 1958 more than eleven thousand scientists in fifty countries had signed.

Clearly, the views and activities of scientists ran the gamut. But Washington was pumping billions of tax dollars into massive vehicles for scientific research. These huge federal outlays were imposing military priorities on American scientists without any need for a blatant government decree.


What was being suppressed might suddenly pop up like some kind of jack-in-the-box. Righteous pressure against disruptive or “un-American” threats was internal and also global, with a foreign policy based on containment. Control of space, inner and outer, was pivotal. What could not be controlled was liable to be condemned.

The ’50s and early ’60s are now commonly derided as unbearably rigid, but much in the era was new and stylish at the time. Suburbs boomed along with babies. Modern household gadgets and snazzier cars appeared with great commercial fanfare while millions of families, with a leg up from the GI Bill, climbed into some part of the vaguely defined middle class. The fresh and exciting technology called television did much to turn suburbia into the stuff of white-bread legends — with scant use for the less-sightly difficulties of the near-poor and destitute living in ghettos or rural areas where the TV lights didn’t shine.

On the surface, most kids lived in a placid time, while small screens showed entertaining images of sanitized life. One among many archetypes came from Betty Crocker cake-mix commercials, which were all over the tube; the close-ups of the icing could seem remarkable, even in black and white. Little girls who had toy ovens with little cake-mix boxes could make miniature layer cakes.

Every weekday from 1955 to 1965 the humdrum pathos of women known as housewives could be seen on Queen for a Day. The climax of each episode came as one of the competitors, often sobbing, stood with a magnificent bouquet of roses suddenly in her arms, overcome with joy. Splendid gifts of brand-new refrigerators and other consumer products, maybe even mink stoles, would elevate bleak lives into a stratosphere that America truly had to offer. The show pitted women’s sufferings against each other; victory would be the just reward for the best, which was to say the worst, predicament. The final verdict came in the form of applause from the studio audience, measured by an on-screen meter that jumped with the decibels of apparent empathy and commiseration, one winner per program. Solutions were individual. Queen for a Day was a nationally televised ritual of charity, providing selective testimony to the goodness of society. Virtuous grief, if heartrending enough, could summon prizes, and the ecstatic weeping of a crowned recipient was vicarious pleasure for viewers across the country, who could see clearly America’s bounty and generosity.

That televised spectacle was not entirely fathomable to the baby-boom generation, which found more instructive role-modeling from such media fare as The Adventures of Spin and Marty and Annette Funicello and other aspects of the Mickey Mouse Club show — far more profoundly prescriptive than descriptive. By example and inference, we learned how kids were supposed to be, and our being more that way made the media images seem more natural and realistic. It was a spiral of self-mystification, with the authoritative versions of childhood green-lighted by network executives, producers, and sponsors. Likewise with the sitcoms, which drew kids into a Potemkin refuge from whatever home life they experienced on the near side of the TV screen.

Dad was apt to be emotionally aloof in real life, but on television the daddies were endearingly quirky, occasionally stern, essentially lovable, and even mildly loving. Despite the canned laugh tracks, for kids this could be very serious — a substitute world with obvious advantages over the starker one around them. The chances of their parents measuring up to the moms and dads on Ozzie and Harriet or Father Knows Best were remote. As were, often, the real parents. Or at least they seemed real. Sometimes.

Father Knows Best aired on network television for almost ten years. The first episodes gained little momentum in 1954, but within a couple of years the show was one of the nation’s leading prime-time psychodramas. It gave off warmth that simulated intimacy; for children at a huge demographic bulge, maybe no TV program was more influential as a family prototype.

But seventeen years after the shooting stopped, the actor who had played Bud, the only son on Father Knows Best, expressed remorse. “I’m ashamed I had any part of it,” Billy Gray said. “People felt warmly about the show and that show did everybody a disservice.” Gray had come to see the program as deceptive. “I felt that the show purported to be real life, and it wasn’t. I regret that it was ever presented as a model to live by.” And he added: “I think we were all well motivated but what we did was run a hoax. We weren’t trying to, but that is what it was. Just a hoax.”


I went to the John Glenn parade in downtown Washington on February 26, 1962, a week after he’d become the first American to circle the globe in a space capsule. Glenn was a certified hero, and my school deemed the parade a valid excuse for an absence. To me, a fifth grader, that seemed like a good deal even when the weather turned out to be cold and rainy.

For the new and dazzling space age, America’s astronauts served as valiant explorers who added to the elan of the Camelot mythos around the presidential family. The Kennedys were sexy, exciting, modern aristocrats who relied on deft wordsmiths to produce throbbing eloquent speeches about freedom and democracy. The bearing was American regal, melding the appeal of refined nobility and touch football. The media image was damn-near storybook. Few Americans, and very few young people of the era, were aware of the actual roles of JFK’s vaunted new “special forces” dispatched to the Third World, where — below the media radar — they targeted labor-union organizers and other assorted foes of U.S.-backed oligarchies.

But a confrontation with the Soviet Union materialized that could not be ignored. Eight months after the Glenn parade, in tandem with Nikita Khrushchev, the president dragged the world to a nuclear precipice. In late October 1962, Kennedy went on national television and denounced “the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba,” asserting that “a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island.” Speaking from the White House, the president said: “We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth — but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.”

Early in the next autumn, President Kennedy signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which sent nuclear detonations underground. The treaty was an important public health measure against radioactive fallout. Meanwhile, the banishment of mushroom clouds made superpower preparations for blowing up the world less visible. The new limits did nothing to interfere with further development of nuclear arsenals.

Kennedy liked to talk about vigor, and he epitomized it. Younger than Eisenhower by a full generation, witty, with a suave wife and two adorable kids, he was leading the way to open vistas. Store windows near Pennsylvania Avenue displayed souvenir plates and other Washington knickknacks that depicted the First Family — standard tourist paraphernalia, yet with a lot more pizzazz than what Dwight and Mamie had generated.

A few years after the Glenn parade, when I passed the same storefront windows along blocks just east of the White House, the JFK glamour had gone dusty, as if suspended in time, facing backward. I thought of a scene from Great Expectations. The Kennedy era already seemed like the room where Miss Havisham’s wedding cake had turned to ghastly cobwebs; in Dickens’ words, “as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together.”

The clocks all seemed to stop together on the afternoon of November 22, 1963. But after the assassination, the gist of the reputed best-and-brightest remained in top Cabinet positions. The distance from Dallas to the Gulf of Tonkin was scarcely eight months as the calendar flew. And soon America’s awesome scientific capabilities were trained on a country where guerrilla fighters walked on the soles of sandals cut from old rubber tires.

Growing up in a mass-marketed culture of hoax, the baby-boom generation came of age in a warfare state. From Vietnam to Iraq, that state was to wield its technological power with crazed dedication to massive violence.


Norman Solomon’s book “Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State” was published this week. For more information, go to: www.MadeLoveGotWar.com

Election security that works


OPINION These are anxious times for election security and voting equipment. The system is truly broken, starting at the federal level with a lack of national standards, a chaotic testing regimen, untrustworthy vendors, a revolving door between the industry and government regulators, and a decentralized hodgepodge of election administration from coast to coast.

Into that abyss has stepped Debra Bowen, California’s secretary of state. Many of us have supported her call to make elections more secure, and Bowen came into office with the best of intentions. Yet her staff’s inexperience and misreading of the bigger picture have caused more chaos than necessary and now threaten to undermine San Francisco’s November election.

Bowen’s office is concerned that San Francisco’s precinct voting equipment can’t adequately read certain colors of ink. But precinct voters are given a special dark black pen to use to prevent any problems, so the tiny handful of voters potentially affected would be those who (1) drop the precinct pen and (2) use their own pen, which (3) doesn’t have black or dark blue ink.

Even for those voters, though, the voting equipment has an additional safeguard: its optical-scan technology includes an error notification that rejects a ballot with an undervote, such as that caused by invisible ink, and the voter is given a chance to re-mark the ballot. This defect has existed since the equipment was introduced in 1999, yet the secretary has presented no evidence that this has caused any problems.

Nevertheless, Bowen has imposed an excessively draconian condition — namely, that precinct ballots cannot be included as part of the official tally nor even included as preliminary results. The only results available on election night will be the handful of early absentee ballots processed prior to the election, and all ballots must be counted on another piece of equipment.

Ironically, this order undermines the very election security Bowen claims to be addressing. As Bev Harris of Blackbox Voting put it, "Anything that doesn’t get counted on election night is at high risk for fraud." That’s just one example; Bowen has imposed other conditions that will affect ranked-choice voting but reflect little understanding of how RCV works.

What’s really going on is that San Francisco is caught in a battle royal between the secretary of state and the city’s vendor, Election Systems and Software. Bowen is understandably upset with ES&S for recent transgressions, yet in response she has overreacted, ordering interventions that are not narrowly tailored to the specific problem.

Unfortunately, Bowen’s interventions to date, including her top-to-bottom review of all voting equipment in California, reflect a misunderstanding of the bigger picture. Bowen assumes that if she cracks down, the vendors will get better, and so will their equipment. There’s no evidence that will actually happen.

Besides appropriate interventions, what’s really needed is a new and bold approach. The state of California should become its own vendor, designing its own public-interest voting equipment using open-source software and the latest innovations. Los Angeles County has already created its own equipment, as have other countries.

If California became its own vendor, creating the best equipment available, it would put pressure on private vendors to step up to the new standard or lose contracts. This is the type of bold effort that Secretary Bowen should be leading, rather than venting her understandable frustration with private vendors at counties like San Francisco. San Franciscans should contact her at secretary.bowen@sos.ca.gov to express their deep concerns.

Steven Hill

Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation.



› johnny@sfbg.com

The Night of the Hunter is at the top of a list of favorite films compiled by Colleen, a.k.a. Parisian musician Cécile Schott, and Iker Spazio’s lovely cover art for the new Colleen album, Les Ondes Silencieuses (Leaf), more than hints at that film’s magic and menace. In Spazio’s paper cut–influenced dark and starry nighttime vision, Colleen is viewed from the back as she plays the viola da gamba at the edge of a forest by a body of water. A bird descends to the ground, a butterfly floats by a tree, and a cat is curled up in a flower bed. The orphans of Charles Laughton’s classic might as well be floating by, so strongly does the imagery evoke The Night of the Hunter‘s famous riverside ballad sequence.

The CD art’s dark allure, mixing a sense of innocence with sinister undercurrents, is also present in the recording’s title. While a relatively literal translation might be "the still waters," the phrase les ondes silencieuses is also meant to evoke the infrasonic sounds detected only by animals before an earthquake. It’s tempting to view the album’s spare, acoustic arrangements as ballads composed for the moment just before this world’s apocalypse, a perspective that strips away any of the whimsy or preciousness that one might attach to Colleen’s use of antiquated instruments — crystal glass, spinet, and the aforementioned viola da gamba — to create and play these latest compositions.

In the past, Colleen has been associated with unique electronic recordings such as last year’s lengthy EP, Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique, which is composed of and constructed from loops of music-box melodies. On that recording, "Rock a Bye Baby" and "Pop Goes the Weasel" are contorted into new shapes, with song titles to match, but most often the enchantment isn’t so easily recognizable, and the atmosphere is haunted rather than whimsical. The minimalist symphonic effect of "What Is a Componium? — Part 2," for instance, suggests Terry Riley in a bad mood. In interviews Colleen has noted that a search for music-box melodies in movies revealed that they were often paired with scenes of rape or murder, an observation that — along with Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique‘s final track, "I’ll Read You a Story," with its oceanic, nighttime waves of classical guitar — brings us right back to the Grimms’ Fairy Tales imagery on the cover of Les Ondes Silencieuses.

Bowed like a cello but with seven strings and guitarlike frets, the viola da gamba is at the center of the disc, which finds Colleen experimenting with acousticity and a live recording style that involves minimal overdubs. This approach yields meditative rewards on "Blue Sands," on which a sea- and seesawing rhythm cuts across delicate fingerpicking. The spidery spinet melodies on "Le Labyrinthe" and forlorn duet between clarinet and acoustic guitar on "Sun Against My Eyes" are as unsettlingly beautiful. There’s a persistent sense of lightlike sound intensifying and then fading into deep empty space, especially on "Echoes and Coral," on which Colleen plays crystal glass in a manner that suggests Aphex Twin at his most ambient as much as it suggests one of her instrumental influences, Harry Partch. As one listens, it’s hard not to think about the precataclysmic aspect of the album title. In fact, while The Night of the Hunter is on the top of Colleen’s list of favorite films, the final position is occupied by Apocalypse Now.

Much like his cousin in classical guitar composition Colleen, Jose Gonzalez employs acoustic reverberation as a musical metaphor for personal or universal being. That sounds heady, but the appeal of Gonzalez’s music stems from its unadorned, understated direct address. On In Our Nature (Mute/Imperial), Gonzalez maintains his trademark tender brevity, but there’s a stronger sense of lingering discord — brought across through the increased force of his open strumming and plucked bass notes — than on his 2003 debut, Veneer (Mute), or the 2005 EP Stay in the Shade (Hidden Agenda). The tension suits a collection of disenchanted songs that apply equally to world affairs and affairs of the heart.

Gonzalez has partly made his name through transformative cover versions of electronic pop songs such as the Knife’s "Heartbeats" and Kylie Minogue’s "Hand on Your Heart," and on In Our Nature he performs similar wonders with Massive Attack’s "Teardrop," using his vulnerable tenor to make the word feathers float and the word breath breathe. Just as contemporary Devendra Banhart can err on the side of poetic whimsy, Gonzalez can tend toward overly literal earnestness.

But both possess special talents. Gonzalez’s is pensive. "Abram" uses the figure from the Torah, Bible, and Koran to chide religion, and throughout "Time to Send Someone Away" his recriminations against obesity and war lust are sung in a voice so sweet and soft it’s a surprise to realize the words are meant to sting. In Our Nature rivals or even matches the bittersweet wisdom of Caetano Veloso’s sublime first album in exile — 1971’s Caetano Veloso (a Little More Blue) (Philips) — on "Down the Line," on which the word compromising gives way to the word colonizing above frantically swaying six-string melodies and rhythms. "Don’t let the darkness eat you up," Gonzalez repeats insistently at the song’s close. There’s paradox in the hopefulness of his ever-beautiful tone, as if a darkness that eats up evil just might be fine.


With Beirut

Mon/8–Tues/9, 8 p.m., $25

Herbst Theatre

War Memorial Veterans Bldg.

401 Van Ness, SF

(415) 551-2000



With Tiny Vipers

Mon/8–Tues/9, 8 p.m., $20–$22

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750




› gwschulz@sfbg.com

Being named journalist of the year is a significant distinction. It’s just too bad that Chauncey Bailey isn’t around to receive the award.

The Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists named Bailey the winner of its top award Sept. 21, citing his "his fierce commitment to investigative journalism in the face of personal danger."

"At a time when journalists around the world are under threat for simply doing their jobs," the group said in a statement, "Bailey was a forceful presence in print and on radio and television in the Bay Area for the past 15 years. A tireless advocate for the African American community, he was assassinated while pursuing a story, and evidence presented thus far shows that he was assassinated because he was pursuing that story."

The longtime reporter and editor was shot to death Aug. 2 at the shady intersection of 14th and Alice streets in Oakland. That intersection, the site of Bailey’s Oakland Post office, sits in the center of the city’s power structure, with county court and government office buildings situated nearby.

An employee of Your Black Muslim Bakery — a group that has a history of both political influence at Oakland City Hall and severe money woes, which Bailey was investigating — is accused of shooting Bailey twice in the chest and once in the head with a black Mossberg shotgun as Bailey walked to work at the Post.

Devaughndre Broussard, the 19-year-old alleged shooter, was arrested during a raid at four locations, including the bakery’s main address, following the killing. Also arrested in the raids were three other people associated with the bakery and political movement; they were charged with kidnapping and torture following an earlier incident.

At the center of this story is the family of the late black Muslim leader Yusuf Bey Sr., who maintained a violent fiefdom now linked by law enforcement officials to an alleged assassination, vigilantism, child rape, and the abuse of a disadvantaged-business loan to the Bey family and its associates, as earlier media accounts and criminal charges revealed.

Police say they caught Broussard tossing a black shotgun out the window of a 59th Street address during one of the raids and that he admitted the gun belonged to him. Police have told the media that shells found at the intersection where Bailey was killed were linked to the gun.

But Broussard’s attorney has waged a public campaign to prove that Broussard wasn’t the assailant. The Oakland Tribune, where Bailey once worked as a reporter, has reportedly obtained police notes from interrogations that contained details of an unrecorded conversation between Broussard and Yusuf Bey IV, heir to the bakery chain and the black liberation movement that surrounded it.

Broussard’s attorney has insisted that Bey IV, during that brief exchange, coaxed Broussard into confessing to the murder. Broussard later did exactly that and reportedly claimed he pulled the trigger because Bailey was investigating the bakery’s deteriorating finances, which grew worse after Bey IV took over as CEO.

In mid-September, Alameda County reached a $188,000 settlement with three women who filed suit alleging that Bey Sr. assaulted them after local child welfare officials placed them in his custody. The three women first claimed in 2003 that Bey Sr. defecated on them and forced them to have sex with him and drink his urine and semen. But Bey Sr. died of cancer that year before he could face related criminal charges in court.

Bailey joins the growing roster of international journalists attacked or killed for reporting the news. On Sept. 27, Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai, who was working for the French news service Agence France-Presse, was shot to death by Burmese troops as they assaulted demonstrators in an increasingly bloody suppression of dissent still taking place in that country.

Reporters Without Borders notes that 75 journalists were killed worldwide in 2007, triple the number in 2002. Fifteen were killed in the Americas, according to the Inter American Press Association, which is preparing a resolution on Bailey’s death.

In early August two dozen Association of Alternative Newsweeklies newspapers published a story written by longtime Guardian Mexico City correspondent John Ross (and edited by the Guardian) outlining the events that led up to the shooting death of videojournalist Brad Will in Oaxaca, Mexico, during social and political unrest in the fall of 2006.

Gonzalo Marroquín, chairman of the IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information and editor of the Guatemala City, Guatemala, newspaper Prensa Libre, stated in early August, "We urge the authorities to investigate the [Bailey] murder in depth and promptly, so that the case does not become just another on the list of unpunished crimes in the Americas."

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: Fresh air


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

"I could tell you about the river," Bill Callahan bellows on "From the Rivers to the Ocean," the opening salvo of his most recent record, Woke on a Whaleheart (Drag City). There’s a pregnant pause, he drops his voice between ascending piano chords — "Or …" — and then a sweet melody buoys the rest of the line, "… we could just get in." After filing 11 albums as Smog or (smog), Callahan begins the first recorded under his own name with a promise of directness, a promise that specifically harks back to Smog’s previous full-length, 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love (Drag City). That album’s patterned evocations of nature and memory signaled a deep, inchoate sense of regeneration. These currents seem more matter-of-fact on the gospel-flavored Woke on a Whaleheart. Take, for instance, the first single, "Diamond Dancer," a limber bar band groove that opens with the dreamy nursery rhyme "She was dancing so hard/ She danced herself into a diamond/ Dancing all by herself/ And not minding."

Of course, with Callahan things are never so simple. In that same opening verse of "From the Rivers to the Ocean," he exhorts, "Have faith in wordless knowledge." It’s a clear sentiment made less so by the voice delivering it: a voice for which language is all, a means to both intimate and deflect. This push-pull is essential to Callahan’s aesthetic and a big part of why his records are the kind of constant companions whose grooves you wear out. I ask him by e-mail about his connection to the album format, and he writes back, "There will be an exciting time when us album makers will be Mad Max types, battling over the only analog recording equipment and vinyl pressing plants left in the world. This has already started…. Steve Albini bought all the remaining stock of paper leader in the world…. He gave me enough maybe to last the rest of my life, as long as I don’t go crazy with it."

Meaning, I suppose, that there’s still plenty of Callahan to come, a fact that should not be taken for granted. After all, many of his contemporaries didn’t make it through the murk of ’90s indie irony — a notable exception being Callahan’s Drag City labelmate Will Oldham. Callahan was readily heralded in those years for Smog albums like 1997’s Red Apple Falls and 1999’s Knock-Knock (both Drag City), but it often seemed a kind of backhand praise, with critics reductively categorizing Callahan’s music as downcast or deadpan — the same simplistic tropes attributed to Jim Jarmusch’s independent films.

Even for those of us paying closer attention to the gradual refinements across Callahan’s discography, though, A River Ain’t Too Much to Love still had the feeling of a gauntlet being thrown: a powerfully cohesive suite of songs brought off by a newly confident voice, fuller in timbre and all the more steeped in Callahan’s sly sense for forthright obfuscation. If that recording was the watershed for a surprising second act, Woke on a Whaleheart shows the newly Smog-less Callahan in a loose, expansive mood. The album’s a grower, and while I’m not wholly taken with Neil Michael Hagerty’s glitzy production, it’s nice sensing that Callahan feels at home enough in his voice to open it up to some more varied collaborations.

I ask him, foolishly perhaps, if he feels like he has a fuller sense of himself after completing these records. "I don’t reckon so," he replies. "It’s more like a chess move. You watch to see what happens, and then you make your next move."


Sun/7, 2:15 p.m., free

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Porch Stage

Also with Sir Richard Bishop

Sun/7, 9 p.m., $15


628 Divisadero, SF



The free festival happens Oct. 5, beginning at 3 p.m., and Oct. 6 to 7, starting at 11 a.m., at Speedway, Lindley, and Marx meadows in Golden Gate Park, SF. For more information on all of the performers and events, go to www.strictlybluegrass.com.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: The Sadies


On the horn from his native Toronto, Sadies vocalist-guitarist-keyboardist Dallas Good sounds as courtly and old-world as any immaculately suited and Stetsoned gentleman picker doing time in Boys bands that go by the name of Blue Grass or Foggy Mountain. But make no mistake: Good’s combo is all about the here and now, as evidenced by its new full-length, New Seasons (Yep Roc), which nods to the fleet-fingered hillbilly hotshots of yesteryear ("What’s Left Behind") as well as ’60s-era native sons like the Dillards and the Byrds ("Yours to Discover") and roots de- and reconstructionists like guest Howe Gelb and producer Gary Louris ("Wolf Tones"). And then there’s the musician’s personal hall of fame. "So far it’s been our experience that we can appeal to audiences of drastically different musical styles," Good says, selecting his words as carefully as he might an instrument.

Everything from Black Flag to George Jones?

"Given that, bar none, those are two of my favorite artists," Good, 33, continues, perking up. "There’s no separation between my love for hardcore and country. The single greatest strength in West Coast music output is not what they did in the ’60s — that trophy would go to Texas, I’m afraid." He chuckles. "I would go with the ’80s and the SST roster. In any case, we don’t feel alienated from that audience, that’s for sure.

"We play as fast as anyone."

And they have as sensitive a touch as the Possum’s, which explains why Neko Case, John Doe, Ronnie Hawkins, and, as with their Oct. 5 show, the Mekons’ Jon Langford have asked the Sadies for backing. Such collaborators as Andre Williams, the Band’s Garth Hudson, and Jon Spencer’s Heavy Trash have also lined up to work with the group.

San Francisco will be the site of a kind of homecoming for Good and his brother, vocalist–guitarist–fiddle player Travis: their father, Bruce, is a member of the Canadian bluegrass ensemble the Good Brothers, who, coincidentally, were flown to the city by the Grateful Dead, friends from their mutual Festival Express outing, to record their 1972 debut for Columbia. "Long-haired bluegrass," Dallas describes it, adding that his father and his mother, Margaret, will join the Sadies onstage, as they did in the studio for New Seasons. "I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree." (Kimberly Chun)


With Jon Langford

Fri/5, 10 p.m., $10

Cafe du Nord

2170 Market, SF


Sun/7, 11:45 a.m., free

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Star Stage


The free festival happens Oct. 5, beginning at 3 p.m., and Oct. 6 to 7, starting at 11 a.m., at Speedway, Lindley, and Marx meadows in Golden Gate Park, SF. For more information on all of the performers and events, go to www.strictlybluegrass.com.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: John Prine


Although he has never made it commercially, John Prine has been considered one of the premier songwriters in Americana and folk since his first album, John Prine (Atlantic), came out in 1971. "Sam Stone," the story of a Vietnam vet turned junkie, "Hello in There," made a hit by Joan Baez, and the monumental "Angel from Montgomery" were instantly and forever pasted on the American psyche, even if Prine has never reached household-name status.

Prine released records steadily through the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, without a drop-off in quality. His talent lies in sketching the stories of everyday people and injecting the characters with the most human emotions in a way that adds a literary depth to the songs without stumbling into the heavy-handedness many folk writers fall prey to. Delivered in his characteristic scratchy tone, Prine’s songs can almost literally kill you if you listen to them at the wrong time. "Far from Me" is one of those. Be very careful here.

His latest album, Standard Songs for Average People (Oh Boy), is a laid-back collection of country covers performed with bluegrass vocalist Mac Wiseman. The pair perform some known numbers — "Saginaw, Michigan" and "Old Rugged Cross" — and cover tunes by Tom T. Hall and Prine pal Kris Kristofferson. An operation to remove cancer from his throat in 1999 has given Prine an even more distinctive voice, and now when he plays his older material, such as the numbers off 2000’s Souvenirs (Oh Boy), it finally sounds as if the words being sung aren’t coming from a precocious 21-year-old but from some world-weary everyman who lives behind the Greyhound station. Simply put, Prine is one of the most talented folksingers America has ever produced. He has two types of songs: great songs and really great songs.


Sat/6, 1:30 p.m., free

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Star Stage


The free festival happens Oct. 5, beginning at 3 p.m., and Oct. 6 to 7, starting at 11 a.m., at Speedway, Lindley, and Marx meadows in Golden Gate Park, SF. For more information on all of the performers and events, go to www.strictlybluegrass.com.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: The Mekons


I used to think this was such a self-deprecating title — The Curse of The Mekons — but over the years I’ve come to a much different conclusion about the declaration being made by these punk–post-punk–posteverything spark plugs on their landmark 1991 Blast First album. Now celebrating their third decade together as a band, the Mekons do indeed suffer from a curse: their ability to switch effortlessly from style to style, sometimes even within the same song, without a single slip. Oh, affliction of afflictions! What a curse it must be, having to decide whether to blow listeners’ minds with a punk, a reggae, or a country song or a tune in any of the myriad other forms they’ve mastered….

With their latest, Natural (Quarterstick), the infinitely charming Jon Langford and Sally Timms — purveyors of some of the finest concert banter you’ll ever hope to hear — lead the rest of the scrappy brigade through a dozen distinctively skewed takes on rootsy campfire folk. Timms gets flat-out spooky on "White Stone Door," a drifting specter of a song heightened by sobs of violin. Meanwhile, Langford’s Brian Jones–referencing folk-reggae rouser "Cockermouth" is sure to be an instant crowd favorite, an ode to roamers and wanderers that speaks volumes about the anything-goes spirit that makes the Mekons so extraordinary. (Todd Lavoie)


Fri/5, 7:30 p.m., $15

Swedish American Hall

2170 Market, SF


Also Sun/7, 2:05 p.m., free

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Star Stage


The free festival happens Oct. 5, beginning at 3 p.m., and Oct. 6 to 7, starting at 11 a.m., at Speedway, Lindley, and Marx meadows in Golden Gate Park, SF. For more information on all of the performers and events, go to www.strictlybluegrass.com.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: Charlie Louvin


A duet is a delicate thing, often recognized as romantic exhibitionism, rapport spilling forth. In classic Americana arrangements, in which verses are traded back and forth and choruses framed by intricate harmonies, the duet possesses a trippy if not schizophrenic grace: a singer begins the story, then it’s suddenly someone else’s. We hear of a brother’s death, and then that brother is heard harmonizing on the chorus.

While such magic is snide but joyful on albums such as Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens’s Just Between the Two of Us (Capitol, 1966), for Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Louvin, who lost his brother Ira, the other half of the legendary Louvin Brothers, to a car crash in 1965, the very idea of a duet is forever haunting. Yet he has continued to pursue it, with his rolling twang and sparkling eyes, well into his 80th year. Louvin has never lost his knack for the unique type of "shape-note singing" he and Ira developed, a blend of gospel harmonies and Appalachian musical forms inspired by other early bluegrass troubadours.

For his self-titled release on Tompkins Square earlier this year, Louvin cast spells with some younger collaborators. Clem Snide’s Eef Barzelay adds compelling, indecipherable emotion to "The Christian Life," originally on the Louvin Brothers’ remarkable Satan Is Real (Capitol, 1960). Alex McManus of Bright Eyes paints careful vocal touches on the Carter Family tune "The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea." Amid a lyrical landscape of graveyards, bloodied rivers, and ill-fated lovers, Louvin continues to light up the shadows, with a few yelps from friends old and new. (Ari Messer)


Sat/6, 2 p.m., free

Amoeba Music

1855 Haight, SF


Sun/7, 12:55 p.m., free

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Rooster Stage


The free festival happens Oct. 5, beginning at 3 p.m., and Oct. 6 to 7, starting at 11 a.m., at Speedway, Lindley, and Marx meadows in Golden Gate Park, SF. For more information on all of the performers and events, go to www.strictlybluegrass.com.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: Emmylou Harris


Emmylou Harris tends to overwhelm with her beauty in flesh and in voice, so it’s instructive to look to her new rarities collection, Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems (Rhino), for reminders of earthly frailty. From the get-go, the recording reveals that even she has feet of clay. Harris can be derivative — exhibit A: disc one’s "Clocks." This early song displays her in warbly thrush mode. She sounds like a Judy Collins also-ran, and this is a good thing. For the one negative that can be ascribed to Harris the icon is the way she has been saddled with the male-reified pose of tasteful, circumspect handmaiden to Saint Gram Parsons. Such a misstep, alongside the breadth of Harris’s myriad career highs, deflates the myth to human size. I love my Georgia homeboy Parsons and am well aware of the degree to which Harris’s torch bearing is self-appointed, but one still wonders how her progress might have looked were she not stifled by such a fantasy.

Apocrypha has acolyte Harris seeking advice from folkie god Pete Seeger on how to infuse her material with bite in the face of a relatively dulcet reality. While the voice was and remains undeniable in its beauty and harmonic gifts, this box reaffirms that Harris’s intersection with Parsons was the vital source of that infusion of grit and angst. This can be seen in their twangy gospel "The Old Country Baptizing," but her trail also leads in other fascinating directions, toward the hallucinatory spook of "Snake Song." Songbird‘s other boons are a swath of Harris’s fabled collaborations with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, as well as a rewind to a range of guests as diverse as the late Waylon Jennings, Beck, Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, and her great band Spyboy. This is certainly a good example of curating a legacy — something to contemplate when the historied Harris takes the stage at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.


Sun/7, 5:45 p.m., free

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Banjo Stage


The free festival happens Oct. 5, beginning at 3 p.m., and Oct. 6 to 7, starting at 11 a.m., at Speedway, Lindley, and Marx meadows in Golden Gate Park, SF. For more information on all of the performers and events, go to www.strictlybluegrass.com.

Smokin’ grass


San Francisco’s biggest – and likely best – free outdoor music festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, returns for year seven, boasting such performers as Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, T Bone Burnett and friends like John Mellencamp, Los Lobos, Gillian Welch, the Knitters, Nick Lowe, Boz Scaggs and the Blue Velvet Band, the Flatlanders, Teddy Thompson, Hazel Dickens, the Mother Hips, Heartless Bastards, Steve Earle – the list goes on. Check out some of our favorites:

Bill Callaghan

Emmylou Harris

Charlie Louvin

The Mekons

John Prine

The Sadies


The free festival happens Oct. 5, beginning at 3 p.m., and Oct. 6 to 7, starting at 11 a.m., at Speedway, Lindley, and Marx meadows in Golden Gate Park, SF. For more information on all of the performers and events, go to www.strictlybluegrass.com.

Beauty and the beasts


SCREAM QUEEN What kind of a woman tempts both Dracula and Frankenstein? Gorgeous Veronica Carlson, that’s who — star of Hammer classics Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Now an artist and devoted grandmother living in Florida, Carlson’s coming to town to share her memories of the golden age of British goth horror as part of this weekend’s "Shock It to Me!" film fest. I spoke with the classy Carlson over the phone to get some blood-curdling scoop.

SFBG Were you always a fan of horror films?

VERONICA CARLSON Absolutely! I skipped college classes to go and see them. I was a fan of the gothic horror of Hammer. It was absolutely magical. [Movies today, as well as the real world,] are too scary — you could be safely horrified back then.

SFBG What was it like working at the Hammer studios?

VC The set was always beautiful, and [after I got my hair and makeup done] I would wander around and just see everything, all the details. It was quite extraordinary. I loved every minute of it. When I wasn’t in a scene, I would sit and watch the other actors and be part of it.

SFBG Who’s scarier, Dracula or Frankenstein?

VC When [Christopher Lee] is in character, he is really spooky. But then when Peter [Cushing] is his own cold self, he’s really scary too — that cold, calcuutf8g, distant person that’s chopping people up. They’re so convincing in what they do. I can’t choose who’s worse!


Fri/5–Sun/7, $6–$10 (festival pass, $48)

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF


Take it sleazy


CULT FILM Erstwhile cofounder of San Francisco’s late, lamented Werepad — a "beatnik space lounge" (among other things) — Jacques Boyreau, also a filmmaker (Candy Von Dewd), lives in Portland, Ore., these days. But he’s dropping into town again with a characteristic surprise package in the form of the Supertrash Peepshow at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. We’re promised a slide show and lecture revealing the "secret schools of design" in vintage exploitation movie posters and other pop ephemera, as showcased in Boyreau’s new coffee-table tome, Supertrash, a sequel to 2002’s eye-popping volume Trash. Then, to dive more deeply into the cinematic sleaze of yore, he’ll present a true rarity: the fragrantly named Fleshpot on 42nd Street, the final sexploitation epic of notorious grade-Z Staten Island auteur Andy Milligan. It was one of his few real hits — if only on the 1973 downtown grindhouse circuit — but has since become one of the least-remembered titles in an already obscure oeuvre (The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!, The Ghastly Ones), since only a single print survives.

Fleshpot juggles Milligan’s usual hysteria, misanthropy, crude technique, and ripe dialogue with more restrained, realistic aspects in line with mainstream counterculture downers of the period like The Panic in Needle Park and Go Ask Alice. Heroine Dusty (Laura Cannon, a.k.a. Diane Lewis) is a morally lax looker who splits when her latest sugar daddy asks her to, like, pick up after herself. She thus goes from "playing house with some guy in Queens" to playing house with a real queen: blond-fright-wigged Cherry (Neil Flanagan), a tranny hooker pal who says, "Why don’t we join forces? We could both turn quite a few each night if we play our cards right!"

Swapping abusive, money-pinching tricks, these two indelicate souls are well matched: she’s a petty thief who hates sex but would rather trick than work a regular job, and he’s an even crasser soul who sobs, "I’m no prize package: a cocksucker — not even a good one. Too weird to be called a man, too old to try and look like one!" It’s a shock when Dusty meets a guy who’s nice, employed, and genuinely likes her — Bob, played by no less than Deep Throat porn legend Harry Reems. Of course, in the Milligan universe this rare glimpse of happiness (let alone good, consensual intercourse) is doomed to end tragically. Lurid, lively, and cheap as a back-alley BJ, Fleshpot embodies a particular brand of movie entertainment that you can’t get anymore in a public space. When it’s over, you’ll want to be hosed off.


Thurs/4, 7:30 p.m., $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787


Gay times


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

A series of slide projections cycling through a gamut of theater posters greets audiences taking their seats at Theatre Rhinoceros’s 30th season opener. Ranging in design from the openly trashy to the quietly tony, many of these posters offer eye-catching portions of skin and equally intriguing titles: Cocksucker: A Love Story, Deporting the Divas, Pogey Bait, Show Ho, Intimate Details, Barebacking, and Hillbillies on the Moon. It adds up to a hefty if scantily clad body of work that owes its existence to a good extent to the advent of Theatre Rhinoceros. Begun in 1977 by Alan Estes in a SoMa leather bar with a production of Doric Wilson’s The West Street Gang, the Rhino today is the longest-running LGBT theater in the country.

Thirty years like these call for a moment of reflection, and the Rhino’s lasts a brisk and enjoyable 70 minutes. Conceived and directed by John Fisher, who became artistic director in 2002, Theatre Rhinoceros: The First Thirty Years takes a jaunty look back at a raucous, at times traumatic, but overall remarkable theatrical career intimately tied to the social and political history of the queer community. While making no attempt to be exhaustive, or exhausting, Fisher’s swift, celebratory pastiche (with dramaturgy by actor and associate artistic director Matt Weimer) neatly suggests the range of artistic output and the sweep of events and personalities that have gone into defining the theater and its times.

The bulk of the show comprises a choice selection of scenes and songs from productions past (with some original compositions and arrangements by Don Seaver and snazzy choreography by Angeline Young), put on by a capable five-person ensemble, all but one veterans of previous Rhino shows. Sporadically introduced by Fisher — who as MC strikes the right note at once, with a deadpan motorized entrance onto a stage decked out (by designer John Lowe) in a shimmering red glitter curtain worthy of Cher or Merv Griffin — the selections progress more or less chronologically, though the cast leads off with a rendition of "Dirty Dreams of a Clean-Cut Kid," from the musical of the same name by lyricist Henry Mach and composer Paul Katz, which was a hit for the Rhino in 1990. It’s an apt piece to introduce part one of the show, "Coming Out/Living Out," the first of four sections charting the development of the theater and its audience.

Other highlights include a scene from Theresa Carilli’s Dolores Street, an early lesbian-themed play that marked the Rhino’s (at the time somewhat controversial) turn to more inclusive queer programming. It’s a still tart and funny comedy about the relationships in a young lesbian household in San Francisco, at least judging by the scene expertly reproduced by Laurie Bushman and Alice Pencavel.

The live sequences come interspersed with videotaped interviews of Rhino founders and associates, including Lanny Baugniet, P.A. Cooley, Donna Davis, and Tom Ammiano. The cast also reads excerpts from letters to the theater from subscribers and some well-known playwrights, most offering praise and thanks, others caviling at the quality of a specific production, expressing indignation over liberties taken with a script, or offering resistance to the changes in programming that opened the stage to lesbian themes and, eventually, many other queer voices. (It’s indicative of how far things have come that a letter like this last one, which pointed to once serious divisions in the larger gay community, elicited only comfortable laughter from the opening night’s audience.)

In part two, "AIDS," the ensemble re-creates highlights from the Rhino’s historic long-running revue, The AIDS Show: Artists Involved with Death and Survival. A collaborative venture between 20 Bay Area artists and an unprecedented, defiantly upbeat response to the terrifying onset of the AIDS crisis, the show took aim at the still largely repressed issue of safe sex through such numbers as Karl Brown and Matthew McQueen’s cheeky sizzler "Rimmin’ at the Baths" and their equally clever and forthright "Safe Livin’ in Dangerous Times" (both beautifully rendered by the full cast of Theatre Rhinoceros), as well as the terrible toll in drastically foreshortened lives (seen here from the perspective of a mother, affectingly played by Bushman, in Adele Prandini’s "Momma’s Boy"). The AIDS Show, which went on to tour the country and put the Rhino on the national map, premiered to packed houses in 1984, the year its creator and Rhino founder Estes died of the disease.

This show’s parts three and four deal with the growing diversity of voices and issues in the years of relative liberation and mainstream exposure for the LGBT population. A scene from Brad Erickson’s Sexual Irregularities (played by Weimer and Kim Larsen) broaches the conflict between homosexuality and religion, a theme increasingly explored in new work for the stage, while one from Guillermo Reyes’s Deporting the Divas (played by Larsen and Mike Vega) points to the increasing presence of minority voices, reporting on the gay experience from the perspectives of particular ethnic subcultures.

In the postmodern micropolitics of sexual identity characteristic of the new millennium (and spoofed hilariously by Weimer, Larsen, and Vega in a scene from Fisher’s Barebacking), queer theater is characterized by increasingly hybrid categories and a plethora of voices from all sectors of experience. The cast sums up the road thus far with a characteristically proud and wry glance at the possibilities ahead in the show’s final, original number, "The Rhino" (by Seaver, with lyrics by Weimer). But, to invoke an older song, anything goes.


Through Oct. 14

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 and 7 p.m.; $15–$35

Theatre Rhinoceros

2926 16th St., SF

(415) 861-5079


Now there’s a Cure


› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER Are you for reals? Seriously, dude, when the going continues on its war path, peace-promoting Buddhist monks land in Myanmar jails, and Pamela Anderson grasps at marriage straws once again — with Paris Hilton sex-vid jock Rick Salomon, yet — we can all safely say that reality looks to be drastically overvalued.

How else to explain the fact that the biggest music news in the past week was pranked out as now-it’s-true-now-it’s-not-now-it’s-true-again fiction: the would-be Meg White sex tape starring a black-haired lady who looks absolutely nothing like the besieged drummer — no wonder White’s acutely anxious; sometimes they really are out to get you — and a faux Radiohead new-album announcement that shuffled you toward a YouTube page flying a pretty hee-hee-larious music video for furiously hip-swiveling ’80s pop star Rick Astley’s "Never Gonna Give You Up." Then hot on Astley’s wiggly behind came the real — I think — announcement of Radiohead’s Nigel Godrich–produced seventh, In Rainbows; the band’s fan service is now taking your order at radiohead.com for the MP3 download (arriving Oct. 10) and blown-out double vinyl and CD "Discbox" including exclusive art and photos, a CD of additional songs, and bundled MP3s, all of which sounds like a way for Radiohead to test the self-release waters à la Prince.

So what’s the next reality hack, hoaxsters? An imminent Led Zeppelin reunion spotlighting the reanimated corpse of John Bonham, thanks to Jimmy Page’s rumored Aleister Crowley connections? A "Big Girls Don’t Cry"–flogging Fergie auditions for the Pussycat Dolls, fronted by Jersey Boys–revived, "Big Girls Don’t Cry" flailer Frankie Valli?

Going against the tide of such prankery is UK goth pop vet Robert Smith of the Cure, famous for his singles-chart cri de coeur "Boys Don’t Cry." I’ve never been a rabid Cure fan, but I must admit that the voluble, down-to-earth Smith won me over with his earnest intelligence in a call from his studio outside Brighton, where the band is embroiled in its forthcoming double album. Making further inroads against fakery, Smith told me he’s been writing more "socially aware lyrics" than he normally pens. "Obviously I live in the real world, contrary to what a lot of people think," he said. "I get angry about things, and I thought it was time for me to put those things into songs."

"It’s just kind of insane," he continued. "The world seems to be reverting almost to the Middle Ages, with the rise of the idiocy of religion. The whole policing of thought and action is anathema to any artist. Any artist has to react!" He described "Us or Them," off the band’s last self-titled LP (Geffen, 2004), as the closest he’s gotten to writing a song protesting "childish, black-and-white portrayals of the world — that isn’t a world I want to live in!"

It’s just been a matter of fitting the words to the right music; otherwise, Smith said, "it sounds like I’m singing, quite literally, from a different hymn book." The band recorded more than 25 songs two years ago, rerecorded them last year, and is back at work on them, although the Cure will take a brief break to play the Download Festival in the Bay Area despite pushing the rest of their North American tour to next year. "We can postpone 27 shows, but we can’t postpone Download Festival," he said. "So we’re just doin’ it! We’re coming over on the Friday, playing that Saturday, and then home on Sunday and going back to the studio. So it’s quite a bizarre weekend for us, but good fun."

The return of on-off guitarist Porl Thompson seems to have inspired the Cure’s latest surge in creativity, though the shock-headed vocalist’s involvement in the band’s recent live DVD, The Cure: Festival 2005, interrupted progress on the double album, which Smith said he will mix and Geffen will release at the same price as the single-album version, which someone else will mix. Smith is wagering most listeners will want to buy the double CD for the price of one. "The difficulty now is to get the digital domain to accede to our wishes and price two songs at the price of one," he said, though ultimately he’s not worried. "I’m at the stage now — well, I’ve always been at the stage — of making music primarily for myself, that I enjoy, and then for Cure fans. So whether or not it’s commercial is not a great concern."

The plan so far is to release three singles, he said. "One is a very heavy, dark single, one is an incredibly upbeat, stupid pop single, and one is out-and-out dance, so that shows you the variety of stuff on the record."

Stupid? How can anyone as obviously smart as Smith go for that? "I’m saying that most good pop singles are stupid — otherwise they’re not good pop singles," he demurred. "I’m from an age when disposable wasn’t necessarily a bad thing." *


Download Festival

Sat/6, 2 p.m., $29.50–$75

Shoreline Amphitheatre

1 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View




Ex-Guardian staffer and guitarist Gabriel Mindel returns to the scene of so much aural mayhem alongside electronic blitzkrieg Pete Swanson. With Mouthus and NVH. Wed/3, 9:30 p.m., $7. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com


Psych pop meets Larry David? What else from the former Beta Band–niks? With Augie March and Kate Johnson. Fri/5, 9 p.m., $15. Slim’s, 333 11th St., SF. www.slims-sf.com


Norwegian nü ravers pop it up with Foreign Born. Fri/5, 9 p.m., $13. Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell, SF. www.rickshawstop.com


Organizer Mael Flowers busts out the bands, belly dancing, spoken word, art, and free barbecue at this benefit for local groups helping those living with HIV/AIDS. Sat/6, Mama Buzz Café, 2318 Telegraph, and the Stork Club, 2330 Telegraph, Oakl. For more info, go to www.girlstock.com

Cecilia’s story


In an age of assembly-line careers and endless credentialing, it’s good to be reminded that life itself is a credential. Cecilia Chiang didn’t go to cooking school or restaurateur school; she didn’t even reach these shores until she was 40 years old and didn’t open her famous restaurant, The Mandarin, until she was 44, in 1964. These facts do not mean she was a slacker or late bloomer. They do hint at drama, and that drama unfolds in the pages of Chiang’s new book, The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco (Ten Speed, 256 pages, $35), a singular combination of personal and gastronomic history richly laced with recipes from a restaurant that forever changed the tenor of Chinese cooking in San Francisco.

Chiang was born in 1920, and the Japanese invaded China in 1931, which means that, from early girlhood well into adulthood, her life was lived in a world churning with conflict: soldiers of the occupying Japanese rifling roughly through the family house, long overland flights to tenuous safe havens, even a postwar sojourn in the enemy capital, Tokyo, where Chiang politely tried sushi for the first time and found she liked it.

Chiang’s story is a gripping one. War is not, after all, a television show or a sequence of reports in the gray pages of newspapers; it’s a reality quite beyond the imaginings of everyday folk living everyday lives, at least until it engulfs those lives, which never happens here, or at least it hasn’t yet. But did Chiang’s youthful experiences — of fear, loss, flight, renewal — make her a better restaurateur?

The book sheds only indirect light on this question, but we can make some guesses. Like many immigrants, she saw the possibilities this country offered, and she was old enough, and had access to enough resources, to seize her chance when she saw it. And she took little for granted; she worked such long hours, in fact, that for her 50th birthday, her children bought her a bicycle, a red Schwinn, because, as her daughter explained, "you’ve been working so hard lately and we thought you needed a little exercise, a little something fun to do outside the restaurant."

I wish Chiang had not given her recipe for shark fin soup, an unconscionable dish. In this land of plenty, the occasional sacrifice is in order.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

Atmosphere and an actress


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Olivier Assayas’s films are both strange and engrossing, so much so that they may evade broad comprehension on the first go-round. Whereas instigating French new wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut played fast and loose with tone and narrative structure to create jarring juxtapositions, Assayas does so to effect a subtler, more mysterious sense of illumination. We frequently lose our bearings in cinema Assayas — as in two poetic refractions of the same scene in Irma Vep (1996) and Demonlover (2002): the female lead donning an alter ego, scurrying through hallways, committing a crime in a space that seems to overlap reality, dream, and fantasy — but there is always an underlying trust in the director’s guiding hand, earned by his hyperkinetic narration and apparent devotion to his actors. Assayas’s résumé does indeed resemble the archetypal new wave trajectory (from Cahiers du Cinéma critic to what Manny Farber calls a termite filmmaker), but the connection runs deeper still: like his forebears, he makes films about what it means to live in the modern world.

It’s a world that invariably entails the restless confusion and complex social systems of the globalized marketplace. He arrives in this slipstream through any number of inputs. For starters, his films are multilingual, multilocation affairs (in this respect they resemble spy thrillers, though it’s only Assayas’s most recent film, Boarding Gate, that feels pointedly designed along genre lines). Second, his plots usually revolve around business people. Even in Les Destinées (2000), an intimate fin de siècle period piece, a lapsed minister struggles for "new methods and new machines" to capture the American market for porcelain. This concern for France’s mediated role in global trade — it supplies luxury items in Les Destinées, film production in Irma Vep, and Internet pornography in Demonlover — is a constant in Assayas’s work, as are characters who are swallowed whole by an abstract marketplace. In Irma Vep, the film that still seems like Assayas’s most intuitive work, it’s a film director (played by new wave favorite Jean-Pierre Léaud) who succumbs to the impossibilities of postmodern enterprise, in this case remaking a French classic (Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires) with an actress from Hong Kong (Maggie Cheung).

Film Comment critic Amy Taubin is right to point out that Boarding Gate is "closer to Feuillade than [Assayas’s] Irma Vep," though it seems to me that this is as much a matter of the film’s riveting embodiment of Feuillade’s metaphor of society as so many trapdoors and secret passageways as it is "because [Boarding Gate‘s Asia] Argento is a contemporary Musidora [the star of Les Vampires]." Feuillade confined his lucid vision to the backstreets of Paris, whereas Assayas snaps between the City of Light and Hong Kong. More disconcertingly, he evokes virtual realities as well. In Irma Vep and Demonlover, alter egos take on a confusing, extrareal presence befitting the Internet age. Compulsively drawn to modern, floating spaces, Assayas frequently sets his action in glassy airports and offices. In this respect, the director’s use of Brian Eno’s ambient music, in Boarding Gate, seemed a long time coming, though Sonic Youth’s harmonics had previously supplied the same glide to Irma Vep and Demonlover.

Of course, all of these touches are only so much window dressing for Assayas’s mesmerizing female leads. Godard’s dictum that cinema is a matter of "a girl and a gun" falls short with Assayas: for this director it takes atmosphere and an actress. Irma Vep, Demonlover, and Boarding Gate all abide by the "a woman in trouble" scheme espoused by David Lynch, but with cleaner lines and punchier scrambles. Is there any doubt that Irma Vep conveys the plight of an actress lost in the marketplace with greater grace and acuity than Lynch’s slogging Inland Empire (2006)?

Because really, cinema Assayas could hardly be called glum or even despairing in spite of its heavy themes. Indeed, some of the filmmaker’s champions were upset with Demonlover for crossing that line into David Cronenberg country (the film is being screened at the PFA with the Canadian director’s 1983 Videodrome), but in Irma Vep and Cold Water (1994) it’s striking just how light Assayas’s touch remains even when he broaches oceans of malaise. Some of this, of course, is simply a matter of finely honed cinematic storytelling: fluid editing, detailed soundscapes, and restless handheld-camera work all give his films a stylishness that seems miles away from Dogma austerity.

Despite lacking the dreamlike depths of Irma Vep and Demonlover and the closely observed social mores of Les Destinées and Cold Water, Boarding Gate might just be the smoothest machine Assayas has built yet. The film’s minimalist, on-the-run scenario allows the director to intensify his stylistic template — the cutting has never been more electric, the natural light never so beautifully pale. And to return to Taubin’s point, Argento may well be the perfect Assayas heroine for all of her different looks — in Boarding Gate she’s alternately terrifying and terrified, spasmodic and inert, in control and at a loss. Unlike so many damsels in distress, she’s essentially active — as is cinema Assayas.


Oct. 4–11, $5.50–$9.50

See Rep Clock for schedule

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way, Berk.

(510) 642-1124


You rescued my “Battleship”!


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Sergey Eisenstein’s legendary 1925 film Battleship Potemkin was declared a masterpiece from the moment it premiered, and it has placed near the top of greatest-film polls for as long as such polls have existed. According to legend, Douglas Fairbanks imported his own copy and showed it to the Hollywood elite in private screening rooms; no one was converted by its politics, but everyone was euphoric over its pure technical prowess. Apparently, the film’s potential rabble-rousing capacity frightened only authority figures, who banned Battleship Potemkin in countries all over the world.

It’s easy to see why Battleship Potemkin still feels so revolutionary. It shatters any kind of traditional character identification: it has no single protagonist, no constant common face to gaze on. It’s not exactly what you’d call a tone poem (Eisenstein’s countryman Alexander Dovzhenko staked out that category), and it’s not particularly experimental or nonlinear. Moreover, it’s a poor example of cinematic storytelling, especially when compared with works by contemporaries such as D.W. Griffith, Eric von Stroheim, and Louis Feuillade. Rather, Battleship Potemkin is a collective experience in which the film’s raging mob becomes its main character. (Paul Greengrass’s United 93 is certainly a modern successor.) The resulting emotions — beginning with the mutiny aboard the battleship — ripple like a wave from ship to shore, across hordes of people, and, finally, down the Odessa steps.

Any film student could explain that Eisenstein’s energetic montage injects the film with its dynamic, pumping rhythms. Another look at the film, however, reveals that cinematographer Eduard Tisse deserves half the credit. Each individual shot, regardless of what comes before or after it, makes a striking photograph in itself. In the early moments before the mutiny, the sailors hang listlessly in a bizarre maze of hammocks, arranged like cocoons. Slatted, slanted beams of light slash through the artfully cluttered shots. The film undeniably has erotic and homoerotic images as well, most obviously the giant, greased pokers that slide into waiting cannon barrels. When the moment of mutiny occurs, the action turns more streamlined, with sailors racing around the ship like blood cells shooting through veins.

Eisenstein stressed speed, coordination, and clarity over the shaky jumbles that pass for action today. The celebrated editing doesn’t function like normal cutting, merely changing viewpoints — it’s rhythmic, driving one shot forward by using the momentum of the previous one. Like a song reaching a bridge, the film gives us a break during the midsection, when the murdered inciting sailor is laid to rest in a tent on the Odessa waterfront. The people assemble to pay him homage, first glimpsed in large masses of moving bodies, then in close-ups of faces (some of which recur and some of which do not). In showing these faces, Eisenstein gives his mob a soul and a personality.

If Battleship Potemkin has any failing, it’s that Eisenstein’s soapbox message is stampeded by the sheer potent velocity of the film itself. When a group of officers prepares to gun down the mutineers, one sailor speaks up: "Brothers! Who are you shooting at?" It’s a great question, but not one posed by a revolutionary. It’s one asked by a visionary.


With live score composed by Dmitry Shostakovich, conducted by Alasdair Neale, and performed by the Marin Symphony

Sun/7 and Tues/9, 7:30 p.m. (also Tues/9, 6:30 p.m. conversation); $27–$65

Marin Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium

Marin Center, 10 Ave. of the Flags, San Rafael

(415) 383-5256


Last Tango in Shanghai


› kimberly@sfbg.com

There’s a moment in Lust, Caution (Se, Jie) in which you can clearly make out the writing, and this most awkward title’s embedded warning, on the wall. The scene: a humid, tryst-friendly boudoir in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Our spunky, beauteous resistance heroine, Wang Jiazhi (the flowerlike Tang Wei, whose long, cheongsam-clad stems resemble those of Maggie Cheung in 2000’s In the Mood for Love), and her supposed prey and the movie’s antihero — secret police head, invading-force collaborator, and mild-mannered torturer in bespoke tailoring Mr. Yee (an appropriately ossified Tony Leung) — are caught up in a series of Kama Sutra–esque sexual positions. Even as she masquerades as Mrs. Mak, a rich man’s cheating spouse, Wang is laid bare, in all her full-frontal, erect-nippled splendor, eyes closed and face contorted, as Yee thrusts at her from across the box spring, as intimate and as far away as a spy satellite.

Yee is far from transported. Looking like a slender, slightly leathery brown lizard on a rock, he levels an unblinking, penetrating stare at Wang-Mak, all while eliciting pleasure and pain from his porcelain-fleshed paramour. Both unflinchingly creepy and unintentionally funny, the scene is as liable to draw nervous chuckles as it is to unsettle the tidy arc of this World War II espionage love story. The glare brings to mind golden age porn films, such as The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), in which the onscreen sex and gaze exchanged between actors and spectators are as likely to disrupt as to arouse. It’s as if Chow, the suave, restrained writer in Wong Kar Wai films like the aforementioned Mood and 2046 (2004), also played by Leung, finally got to shed his skintight suits, only to reveal something truly startling: a glance more charged than — whoa — visible scrotum.

"Little Brown Fucking Machines Powered by Rice" is the title of a chapter in professor and filmmaker Celine Parreñas Shimizu’s The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene, referring to the myth — and popular Southeast Asian T-shirt slogan — centered on diminutive, impoverished, highly bangable Asian poonanny, available for a price and rhapsodized in confessional doc-cum-reality porns like 101 Asian Debutantes. In that film, Shimizu points out, the gaze that the LBFMPBRs level at the camera, midcoitus, is their only visible sign of agency or power against their camera-wielding johns. Likewise, Leung’s look threatens to tear through the multiple fictions and revolutionary frictions propelling Lust, Caution. And like all spy-versus-spy stories, Lust, Caution hinges on the threat of betrayal — something Eileen Chang reveled in so bitterly in her original incandescent short story, begun in the 1950s and published in 1979, after she finally perfected the rewrite of her own compromising affair with a WWII collaborator.

A fresh-faced country girl possessing unexpected acting skills, Wang is plucked by her revolution-hungry theater group to play a plum part: that of a married femme fatale in the company’s most daring production — the assassination of influential Japanese collaborator Yee, whom Wang will get to via his wife (Joan Chen). But amid the click of mah-jongg tiles, glittering gossip, and decadent shopping sprees by the Yees, Wang comes to wonder who’s zooming whom, as Yee drops confessional hints of his tough days at work torturing her resistance kindred.

Working in tropes of fatalistic love previously explored in Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), director Ang Lee does his best to overlay a sense of both depth and humanism on Chang’s prismatic pessimism — occasionally at the disservice of genuine, complicating complexity. As Wang-Mak and Yee hotbox in an airless, silk shantung–<\d>lined dream world, Lee faithfully fixes on Wang-Mak’s point of view, choosing — like her, perhaps — not to visualize exactly what Yee is up to on his "business" trips to brutalized Nanking. His violence, like his wartime atrocities, is largely invisible, except in the bedroom, making it easier for us to identify with his monster. Yet why not really show it all — to viewers more accustomed to seeing WWII dramas of occupation and resistance through the filter of the European theater — as Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987) and even this year’s other WWII resistance narrative revolving around a would-be Mata Hari trading sex for violence, Black Book, did? In even the most notable instance of explicit sex in the Asian art-house cinema, In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Nagisa Oshima sent his sybaritic hero against the tide of Japanese soldiers, doubtless marching toward Nanking as well. Yet Lust, Caution bends over backward, as if assuming a new, gymnastic sexual position, to find the misguided, miscommunicated affection — for country, for enemy — between lust and caution, only to tumble into the abyss.


Opens Fri/5

Embarcadero Center Cinema

One Embarcadero Center, promenade level, SF

(415) 267-4893