Volume 49 Number 02
By Melinda Welsh
This one has all the ingredients of a dreamed-up Hollywood blockbuster: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist uncovers a big story involving drugs, the CIA, and a guerrilla army. Despite threats and intimidation, he writes an explosive exposé and catches national attention. But the fates shift. Our reporter’s story is torn apart by the country’s leading media; he is betrayed by his own newspaper. Though the big story turns out to be true, the writer commits suicide and becomes a cautionary tale.
Hold on, though. The above is not fiction.
Kill the Messenger, an actual film coming soon to a theater near you, is the true story of Sacramento-based investigative reporter Gary Webb, who earned both acclaim and notoriety for his 1996 San Jose Mercury News series that revealed the CIA had turned a blind eye to the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras trafficking crack cocaine in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere in urban America in the 1980s. One of the first-ever newspaper investigations to be published on the Internet, Webb’s story gained a massive readership and stirred up a firestorm of controversy and repudiation.
After being deemed a pariah by media giants like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, and being disowned by his own paper, Webb eventually came to work in August 2004 at Sacramento News & Review. Four months later, he committed suicide at age 49. He left behind a grieving family — and some trenchant questions:
Why did the media giants attack him so aggressively, thereby protecting the government secrets he revealed? Why did he decide to end his own life? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Gary Webb?
Like others working at our newsweekly in the brief time he was here, I knew Webb as a colleague and was terribly saddened by his death. Those of us who attended his unhappy memorial service at the Doubletree Hotel in Sacramento a week after he died thought that day surely marked a conclusion to the tragic tale of Gary Webb.
Because here comes Kill the Messenger, a Hollywood film starring Jeremy Renner as Webb; Rosemarie DeWitt as Webb’s then wife, Sue Bell (now Stokes); Oliver Platt as Webb’s top editor, Jerry Ceppos; and a litany of other distinguished actors, including Michael K. Williams, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, and Robert Patrick. Directed by Michael Cuesta (executive producer of the TV series Homeland), the film opens in a “soft launch” across the country and in Bay Area theaters on Oct. 10.
Members of Webb’s immediate family—including his son Eric, who lives near Sacramento State and plans a career in journalism—expect to feel a measure of solace upon the release of Kill the Messenger.
“The movie is going to vindicate my dad,” he said.
For Renner — who grew up in Modesto and is best known for his roles in The Bourne Legacy, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, The Avengers and The Hurt Locker — the film was a chance to explore a part unlike any he’d played before. During a break in filming Mission Impossible 5, he spoke to us about his choice to star in and co-produce Kill the Messenger.
“The story is important,” said Renner. “It resonated with me. It has a David and Goliath aspect.
“He was brave, he was flawed. … I fell in love with Gary Webb.”
EARLY VIRAL JOURNALISM
There’s a scene in Kill the Messenger that will make every investigative journalist in America break into an insider’s grin. It’s the one where — after a year of tough investigative slogging that had taken him from the halls of power in Washington, D.C., to a moldering jail in Central America to the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles — Renner as Webb begins to write the big story. In an absorbing film montage, Renner is at the keyboard as it all comes together — the facts, the settings, the sources. The truth. The Clash provides the soundtrack, with Joe Strummer howling: Know your rights / these are your rights … You have the right to free speech / as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.
It took the real Gary Webb a long time to get to this point in his career.
His father, a U.S. Marine, moved Webb around a lot in his youth, from California to Indiana to Kentucky to Ohio. He wound up marrying his high school sweetheart, Sue Bell, with whom he had three children. Inspired by the reporting that uncovered Watergate and in need of income, he left college three units shy of a degree and went to work at The Kentucky Post, then The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, where he rose quickly through the ranks of grunt reporters. Dogged in his pursuit of stories, Webb landed a job at the Mercury News in 1988 and became part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for reporting on the Loma Prieta earthquake.
It was the summer of 1996 when the lone-wolf journalist handed his editors a draft of what would become the three-part, 20,000-word exposé “Dark Alliance.” The series was exhaustive and complex. But its nugget put human faces on how CIA operatives had been aware that the Contras (who had been recruited and trained by the CIA to topple the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua) had smuggled cocaine into the United States and, through drug dealers, fueled an inner-city crack-cocaine epidemic.
When “Dark Alliance” was published on Aug. 18 of that year, it was as if a bomb had exploded at the Mercury News. That’s because it was one of the first stories to go globally viral online on the paper’s then state-of-the-art website. It was 1996; the series attracted an unprecedented 1.3 million hits per day. Webb and his editors were flooded with letters and emails. Requests for appearances piled in from national TV news shows.
“Gary’s story was the first Internet-age big journalism exposé,” said Nick Schou, who wrote the book Kill the Messenger, on which the movie is partially based, along with Webb’s own book version of the series, Dark Alliance. “If the series had happened a year earlier it, ‘Dark Alliance’ just would have come and gone,” said Schou.
As word of the story spread, black communities across America — especially in South Central Los Angeles — grew outraged and demanded answers. At the time, crack cocaine was swallowing up neighborhoods whole, fueling an epidemic of addiction and crime. Rocked by the revelations, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, congresswoman for Los Angeles’s urban core to this day, used her bully pulpit to call for official investigations.
But after a six-week honeymoon for Webb and his editors, the winds shifted. The attacks began.
On Oct. 4, The Washington Post stunned the Mercury News by publishing five articles assaulting the veracity of Webb’s story, leading the package from page one. A few weeks later, The New York Times joined with similar intent.
The ultimate injury came when the L.A. Times unleashed a veritable army of 17 journalists (known internally as the “Get Gary Webb Team”) on the case, writing a three-part series demolishing “Dark Alliance.” The L.A. paper — which appeared to onlookers to have missed a giant story in its own backyard — was exhaustive in its deconstruction, claiming the series “was vague” and overreached. “Oliver Stone, check your voice mail,” summed Post media columnist Howard Kurtz.
Now, even some of Webb’s supporters admitted that his series could have benefited from more judicious editing. But why were the “big three” so intent on tearing down Webb’s work rather than attempting to further the story, as competing papers had done back in the day when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal?
Some say it was the long arm of former President Ronald Reagan and his team’s ability to manipulate the gatekeepers of old media to its purposes. (Reagan had, after all, publicly compared the Contras to “our Founding Fathers” and supported the CIA-led attempt to topple the Sandinista government.)
Others say that editors at the “big three” were simply affronted to have a midsize paper like the Mercury News beat them on such a big story. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review claimed some L.A. Times reporters bragged in the office about denying Webb a Pulitzer.
One of their big criticisms was that the story didn’t include a comment from the CIA. When reporters at the big three asked the agency if Webb’s story was true, they were told no. The denial was printed in the mainstream media as if it were golden truth.
Other issues fueled controversy around Webb’s story. For example: It was falsely reported in some media outlets — and proclaimed by many activists in the black community — that Webb had proven the CIA was directly involved in drug trafficking that targeted blacks. He simply did not make this claim.
In some ways, Webb became the first reporter ever to benefit from, and then become the victim of, a story that went viral online.
After triumphing in the early success of the series, Webb’s editors at the Mercury News became unnerved and eventually backed down under the pressure. Jerry Ceppos, the paper’s executive editor, published an unprecedented column on May 11, 1997, that was widely considered an apology for the series, saying it “fell short” in editing and execution.
When contacted by us, Ceppos, now dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, said he was only barely aware of the film coming out and wasn’t familiar with the acting career of Oliver Platt, who plays him in the movie. “I’m the wrong person to ask about popular culture,” he said.
Asked if he would do anything differently today regarding Gary Webb’s series, Ceppos, whose apologia did partially defend the series, responded with an unambiguous “no.”
“It seems to me, 18 years later, that everything still holds up. … Everything is not black and white. If you portrayed it that way, then you need to set the record straight. I’m very proud that we were willing to do that.”
Some find irony in the fact that Ceppos, in the wake of the controversy, was given the 1997 Ethics in Journalism Award by the Society of Professional Journalists.
Webb, once heralded as a groundbreaking investigative reporter, was soon banished to the paper’s Cupertino bureau, a spot he considered “the newspaper’s version of Siberia.” In 1997, after additional run-ins with his editors, including their refusal to run his follow-up reporting on the “Dark Alliance” series, he quit the paper altogether.
But a year later, he was redeemed when CIA’s inspector general, Frederick Hitz, released his 1998 report admitting that the CIA had known all along that the Contras had been trafficking cocaine. Reporter Robert Parry, who covered the Iran-Contra scandal for The Associated Press, called the report “an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA.” But the revelation fell on deaf ears. It went basically unnoticed by the newspapers that had attacked Webb’s series. A later internal investigation by the Justice Department echoed the CIA report.
But no apology was forthcoming to Webb, despite the fact that the central finding of his series had been proven correct after all.
‘STAND UP AND RISK IT ALL’
It was eight days after Webb’s death when a few hundred of us gathered in Sacramento Doubletree Hotel’s downstairs conference room for an afternoon memorial service. Photo collages of Webb were posted on tables as mourners filed into the room. There he was featured in an Esquire magazine article recounting his saga. Family members and friends, longtime colleagues, and SN&R staffers packed into the room.
My own distress at Webb’s passing wasn’t fully realized until my eyes lit on his Pulitzer Prize propped on a table just inside the entryway. It was the first one I’d ever seen. I wondered how many more exceptional stories he could have produced if things had gone differently.
“He wanted to write for one of the big three,” said Webb’s brother Kurt. “Unfortunately, the big three turned [on him].”
Praise for the absent journalist — his smarts, guts, and tenacity — flowed from friends, colleagues and VIPs at the event. A statement from now U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then a senator, had been emailed to SN&R: “Because of [Webb]’s work, the CIA launched an Inspector General’s investigation that found dozens of troubling connections to drug-runners. That wouldn’t have happened if Gary Webb hadn’t been willing to stand up and risk it all.”
Renner was hesitant to say if those who watch Kill the Messenger will leave with any particular take-home lesson. “I want the audience to walk away and debate and argue about it all,” he said of his David and Goliath tale. And then, “I do believe [the film] might help create some awareness and accountability in government and newspapers.” And what would the real live protagonist of Kill the Messenger have thought of it all? It’s at least certain he’d have been unrepentant. In the goodbye letter his ex-wife received on the day of his suicide, Gary Webb told her: “Tell them I never regretted anything I wrote.”
Welcome to the November 2014 edition of a decades-long Bay Guardian tradition. As usual, we did many hours of endorsement interviews with candidates and ballot measure proponents and opponents, along with additional research to arrive at our picks, some involving difficult decisions. We’ll be posting the audio from most of those endorsement interviews at SFBG.com/Politics, so come listen in if you want more information. And don’t forget to vote by Nov. 4.
CALIFORNIA ASSEMBLY DISTRICT 17
We’ll keep this brief because we already endorsed David Campos in the June primary election, but our enthusiasm for his candidacy has only grown since then. San Francisco needs a strong, clear, passionate progressive advocate in Sacramento, particularly as we deal with growing pains and displacement challenges exacerbated by state housing, tax, and election laws and cutbacks in funding for transit and affordable housing.
His opponent, David Chiu, is a skilled lawmaker and he wouldn’t be a bad legislator. But Chiu’s neoliberal economic positions (from the Twitter tax break to a business tax reform that favored the tech industry) and willingness to cut deals with powerful interests rather than hold the progressive line in favor of vulnerable populations give us doubts about what he’d do in Sacramento. We have no such doubts about Campos, who has proven himself to be an effective and trustworthy advocate for renters, workers, consumers, and those who need support against powerful economic and political players. That’s why he won the support of outgoing Assemblymember Tom Ammiano and a wide array of progressive entities.
BART BOARD, DIST. 8
This was a surprisingly tough choice given how long we’ve been wanting someone to make a strong and well-funded challenge to entrenched incumbent James Fang, San Francisco’s only Republican elected office holder and the longest serving director at an agency that has been hostile to worker safety reforms and meaningful oversight of the BART Police Department. We got our wish this year when Nick Josefowitz, a solar energy entrepreneur, entered the race, did well in fundraising, and got lots of progressive political support. But SEIU Local 1021 strongly supported Fang, who walked the picket lines with striking BART workers last year. They and other Fang allies also highlighted Josefowitz’s opposition to CleanPowerSF and Prop. G, raising questions about his progressive credentials and political naïveté. Fang deserves credit for supporting BART workers last year and with advocating for a BART extension to Ocean Beach. But the BART board needs new blood, and we believe Josefowitz has the energy, ideas, and perspective to move the district in a more sustainable, accountable, and innovative direction.
1. REBECCA KAPLAN
2. DAN SIEGEL
Unlike in San Francisco, where it’s sometimes tough for our progressive-minded editorial team to get excited about most candidates running for local office, we’ve got legitimately high hopes for both of our picks for the Oakland mayor’s race. Both Rebecca Kaplan and Dan Siegel offer compelling visions for a diverse and dynamic Oakland at a time when the city is in need of strong leadership. Kaplan, a LGBT candidate who gets around the city by bicycle and has a keen interest in sustainability, has a decade of public service involvement, including holding the at-large seat on the Oakland City Council. She’s emphasizing tackling unemployment and expanding local hiring for the Police Department as a way to improve trust between police and residents. Dan Siegel, a civil rights attorney with a laudable track record in Bay Area social justice movements, is deeply focused on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, defending the city’s poor and working-class residents from displacement in the face of gentrification, advancing police reform, and tackling inequality in public education. Whether Oaklanders vote for Kaplan first and Siegel second, or Siegel first and Kaplan second, we think they will have cast a vote for strong progressive leadership in Oakland.
SAN FRANCISCO BOARD OF SUPERVISORS
1. MARK FARRELL
2. JUAN-ANTONIO CARBALLO
We at the Bay Guardian will always have ideological differences with whoever represents District 2 (Marina, Pacific Heights, Sea Cliff), which is one of the wealthiest and most conservative districts in the city. And we’ve differed with incumbent Mark Farrell on many issues, from condo conversions to business tax policy. But Farrell has proven to be a smart, humble, and accessible legislator who often works cooperatively with his more progressive colleagues to do the city’s business. His business background and fiscal expertise made him a solid chair of the Budget Committee, even if we’d like to see more resources directed to social services. And we applaud his recent efforts to address homelessness in the city and to work on legislation to discourage homeowners from keeping vacant rooms out of the housing market. Challenger Juan-Antonio Carballo is more progressive and has some good ideas for encouraging innovation in city government, but he’s new to politics and could use a bit more seasoning before he’s ready for the Board of Supervisors.
Since being appointed by the Mayor’s Office to fill the seat that was vacated when Carmen Chu was named Assessor-Recorder, Katy Tang has mostly continued the role she played previously of competently tending to various concerns of her Sunset District constituents. But over the last year, as political tensions in the city have increased (such as between renters and landlords and supporters and opponents of CleanPowerSF), Tang has played an increasing vocal political role on behalf of the Mayor’s Office and vested economic interests, leading the attacks on the anti-speculation tax and other progressive reforms. We’d rather see her focus on her district, including the promising Sunset District Blueprint she introduced and its major political challenge of getting westside residents to finally accept more housing density. The eastern neighborhoods are growing rapidly and we’re hoping Tang and her neighbors will accept their share of the burden, and she has our support in that process. The Ocean Beach Master Plan that she’s been working on, something made more pressing by rising sea levels, also needs more political leadership to come to fruition, and we support that effort as well.
1. JANE KIM
2. JAMIE WHITAKER
Jane Kim has sought to advance some laudable goals during her time in office, telling us her priorities have been to preserve affordable housing, improve pedestrian safety, and reform the homeless shelter system. Yet time and again, she’s demonstrated a willingness to support and compromise with Mayor Ed Lee, a tactic that has resulted in weaker outcomes than the city’s progressive ranks would hope for at a time when corporate influence in government has rendered City Hall out of touch with ordinary residents. For instance, Kim agreed to weaken a housing balance measure that would’ve created an enforcement mechanism to ensure a balance of affordable housing in San Francisco, and has questionable ties to lobbyist and former Mayor Willie Brown. Kim is a former Green Party member who comes from the progressive community and is a smart legislator, but she’s also an ambitious politician who’s been willing to divide and weaken the city’s progressive movement. It’s a careful balancing act that she doesn’t always pull off. She sponsored the Twitter tax break that fed the tech boom and hyper-gentrification, but now she is working to prevent that industry from gobbling up existing light industrial and office space. We grant her our endorsement in the hopes that she’ll use her influence to advance sound progressive policies. If you’d prefer to press the reset button and go with a candidate who’s less experienced and less well-known, but nevertheless critical of cutting deals for corporate interests and allowing rampant construction to continue apace in District 6, vote for Jamie Whitaker.
1. SCOTT WIENER
2. GEORGE DAVIS
It’s not easy to endorse Scott Wiener after all the battles that we and our progressive allies have had with him. We’ve fought him on condo conversions, CEQA reform, outlawing public nudity, and with generally siding with property owners and the business community. He often takes strong, uncompromising stands on issues that can infuriate his political opponents. But just as often, that strong political leadership has been in the service of things we believe in and support. Wiener has been the board’s biggest champion for creating a sustainable transportation system and getting more resources (along with more scrutiny) for Muni. He has been a leader on supporting nightlife in San Francisco, the best ally that bar owners and event promoters have had in many years. Wiener has a strong, independent political perspective and courage to cast tough votes, as when he gave the CleanPowerSF program a critical veto-proof majority. We’ve also found him to be honest and accessible even when we don’t agree with him. George Davis is a single-issue candidate focused on nudity, and we’re offering him our second slot mostly for symbolic reasons.
Guardian photo by Matthew Reamer.
1. TONY KELLY
2. MALIA COHEN
The Guardian enthusiastically endorses Tony Kelly for District 10. Incumbent Malia Cohen is someone we like and don’t have strong opposition to, but she has not provided the leadership this district needs, particularly as it rapidly grows and wrestles with high unemployment, gun violence, neglected units in public housing, and environmental hazards that pose a threat to public health. Kelly is a knowledgeable advocate who has presented a detailed and thoughtful plan for crafting solutions in this changing and challenging San Francisco district, while refusing money from developers and real estate interests to make the point that the city should prioritize stabilizing affordable rental stock and preventing displacement. We appreciate Cohen’s service over the past four years, including moving forward the Schlage Lock development site in Visitacion Valley and facilitating gun buyback programs to prevent street violence. But at the end of the day, Kelly’s ideas on how to tackle some of D10’s greatest challenges strike us as being more principled, well-researched, and closely aligned with progressive principles.
SAN FRANCISCO MEASURES
PROP. A: TRANSPORTATION BOND
San Francisco’s transportation system has some serious needs, and this $500 million general obligation bond is an important first step in addressing more than $7 billion in desperately needed capital projects, including Muni’s long list of deferred maintenance needs. Almost a third of the money will go to safety, circulation, and streetscape projects through the city, including finally addressing the cluttered, confusing mess on Market Street. The projects will benefit motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists. Although some critics of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency have begun to raise concerns about soft language in the list of projects, suggesting it will go to cost overruns on the Central Subway project, SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin categorically told us that isn’t true. Besides, there’s no denying SFMTA needs the money to upgrade a transportation system that is at the breaking point at many times and places. And given that this measure requires a two-thirds vote, it deserves everyone’s vote and it has our strong and unqualified support.
PROP. B: TYING MUNI FUNDING TO GROWTH
There’s an undeniable logic to Prop. B, which would increase the city General Fund contribution to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency as the city’s population and workforce increase. That makes sense: Muni’s operating costs go up along with its ridership. Prop. B is retroactive to the last funding increase 10 years ago. Since then the population has jumped about 10 percent, immediately giving Muni about $22 million more per year. Ideally, Muni’s dire funding needs would be met with a new revenue source, and we share the concerns of advocates for social services and affordable housing that this measure will put more pressure on them during budget season. City leaders had promised to put a local increase in the vehicle license fee on this ballot, which we supported. But when Mayor Ed Lee balked, Scott Wiener and five of his colleagues responded with Prop. B. This measure contains a provision allowing the mayor to repeal this set-aside if and when voters approve the local VLF increase. Mayor Lee has pledged to do the VLF measure in 2016, so Prop. B is an important stopgap measure and leverage to make sure our flip-flopping mayor keeps his word this time.
PROP. C: CHILDREN’S FUND REAUTHORIZATION
This is a set-aside of city funds for children’s programs, in three parts. It renews the Children’s Fund, which provides youth services through a property tax assessment; the Public Education Enrichment Fund, a General Fund set-aside that goes mostly to the school district; and the Rainy Day Fund, another city set-aside during hard times at the school district. It would guarantee that youth programs — including preschool programs, art and music curriculum in schools, and violence prevention programs — continue receiving these dedicated funds for at least another 25 years. Prop. C is the culmination of the efforts of a grassroots coalition of youth service providers who worked for about two years on crafting this measure. The Guardian strongly supports this measure, which helps thousands of young people in vulnerable situations in San Francisco.
PROP. D: RETIREE HEALTH BENEFITS
This measure was unanimously placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors to give most employees of the old San Francisco Redevelopment Agency — a locally based state agency that was disbanded by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature — and its Successor Agency the same retiree health benefits as other city employees. This covers less than 50 employees, so the Controller’s Office estimates it will cost about $75,000 spread over many years. These employees work mostly on facilitating affordable housing projects that the city desperately needs, and it’s a basic fairness issue that deserves voter support.
AP photo by Eric Risberg.
PROP. E: SODA TAX
San Francisco and Berkeley have the chance to spark a national turning point against diabetes and obesity this election by instituting a 2-cents-per-ounce sugary beverage tax. Much like cigarettes were in a previous generation, sugary drinks are as ubiquitous as they are unhealthy. But unlike sugar-filled foods, the human body does not feel satiated after downing a Big Gulp: We just want more. Our city’s low-income neighborhoods have suffered the brunt of higher obesity and diabetes rates, which studies have linked to these sugary beverages. The science is clear and these mounting health care costs hurt all of us. The soda industry is pumping record-breaking dollars into this race because it fears this will start a national movement against soda. Do not believe the sky-is-falling cries from the industry, or its attempt to cast this as an affordability issue that hurts low-income communities of color, the very communities that the soda industry targets and this measure seeks to help. This is about discouraging unhealthy behaviors and raising tax revenue for health and fitness programs, which is why it needs a two-thirds vote. Fight big soda’s big money, ignore the lies, and vote for health.
Listen to our endorsement interview, Yes on E.
PROP. F: PIER 70
Guess what? The Bay Guardian is endorsing a measure for a massive waterfront development project. No, this isn’t a love fest with the developers of tech offices and market-rate housing. There’s an important principle here: Forest City, the developer of Pier 70, has shown itself to be responsive to community stakeholders. It has committed to allocate 30 percent of the project’s units as affordable housing, which is sorely needed and more than most projects offer. The developers have spent years meeting with neighborhood groups, earning endorsements even from the Sierra Club. Prop. B, which passed in June, created a rule requiring voters to weigh in on new waterfront development proposals that would stand taller than existing height limits. That’s why the Pier 70 project is on the ballot — and that’s why the developers have maximized the project’s public benefits. Forest City’s measure can be read as a sign that Prop. B incentivized waterfront developers to present better projects.
PROP. G: ANTI-SPECULATION TAX
Technically, this measure is a tax, but it’s a tax that its proponents say they hope never gets levied. The idea is to discourage a bad behavior that has been fueling the eviction epidemic and driving up housing costs in San Francisco: real estate speculators flipping homes for profit, often evicting longtime tenants in the process in order to maximize that profit. It would levy a 24 percent tax if a property was flipped with a year of purchase or 14 percent within five years. It exempts single-family homes and large apartment complexes, focusing on the units targeted by speculators. This measure revives legislation Harvey Milk introduced shortly before his assassination, and it was the top policy proposal to come out of a series of tenant conventions earlier this year. Opponents, led by Realtor associations that have dumped nearly $1.5 million into the race, call it a “housing tax,” claiming it will drive up rents. But such fear tactics have little basis in reality. The real threat to housing stability in San Francisco is from the rapacious speculators, often from out of town, that this measure is designed to rein in.
PROP. H: BEACH CHALET SOCCER RENOVATION
This measure — opposing replacing an underused grass field with artificial turf soccer fields at the edge of Golden Gate Park — was a tough call. On the one hand, studies are mixed on the ultimate safety of playing fields made from recycled rubber tires (plus the potential long-term environmental consequences of using this material), and the potential flood of stadium light so close to Ocean Beach concerns us. Viscerally, this project bothers us. On the other hand, the switch to an artificial turf field here has been approved by every political body that has considered it and it has the support of progressive Sup. Eric Mar, who often champions families. Opponents’ concerns have been vetted over six years, and lack of park access is an equity issue. Our city fights tooth and nail to keep every family as we watch our child population continue to dwindle. The grass field is now underused, and the city’s children need a revamped place to play. With some reservations, we urge you to vote no and allow this project to finally move forward.
PROP. I: RENOVATION OF FIELDS
This proposition represents a disturbing growing trend in local politics. Prop. I is a response to Prop. H, the measure which means to block the creation of an artificial turf field at the edge of Golden Gate Park. If approved with a greater majority than Prop H, Prop I would void it. This is known as a “poison pill” measure, hard bargaining by politicians trying to torpedo propositions they do not agree with. This (rightly) breeds the public’s distrust of politics and politicians. Also, it’s just bad governance. If approved, the Recreation and Park Department could construct turf fields and bright flood lighting over any children’s playground or existing grass field if it can prove that doing so would double the park’s attendance, preventing the normal discretionary review and appeal processes. Proponents are also cloaking this campaign in a “help our kids” message, which rings hollow. This is bad politics, bad policy, and just plain bad.
PROP. J: MINIMUM WAGE INCREASE
San Francisco bears the unfortunate distinction of having the fastest-growing income inequality in the country — that’s why it’s so important to raise the pay of the lowest-paid workers. San Francisco could alleviate its growing wealth gap and maintain its progressive distinction as having the highest nationwide minimum wage if voters approve Prop. J. This bid to raise the minimum wage, placed on the ballot following a consensus between Mayor Ed Lee and the Board of Supervisors, would increase hourly earnings for the lowest-paid San Francisco employees to $15 an hour, up from $10.74, by 2018. To give you a sense of how much that’s needed, the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that a renter must earn $29.38 an hour in order to afford a one-bedroom, market-rate apartment in San Francisco. Prop. J poses an opportunity for San Franciscans to move toward greater economic equality. Vote yes and help turn the tide against the ugly wealth gap.
PROP. K: HOUSING POLICY STATEMENT
When Sup. Jane Kim introduced this measure as the Housing Balance proposition, it was good legislation that might have helped balance the development of affordable and luxury housing, slowing down market-rate housing with additional studies and hearings when affordable units drop below 30 percent of total housing production. Then it got attacked by developers, political power brokers, and the Mayor’s Office and got turned into a fairly meaningless policy statement encouraging a housing boom and studies of how to reach 33 percent affordability. That is, 33 percent affordable by those making 120 percent of area median income and below and half by those making up to 150 percent AMI. We don’t like that upward creeping definition of “affordable housing” and we don’t think this measure should be needed to ask the Mayor’s Office to study how to meet its own stated housing policy goals, including the 30,000 units by 2020 goal that Mayor Ed Lee announced in January. He should have had a plan before making his pledge. But if this is what our elected officials require to start taking affordable housing development seriously, then fine, vote yes.
Listen to our endorsement interview, Yes on K.
PROP. L: PRO-CAR POLICY STATEMENT
This measure is a shortsighted primal scream by motorists in a transit-first city that is rapidly growing and trying to address pedestrian and bike safety issues and chronic underfunding of Muni. It’s a difficult balancing act, and we understand that motorists feel frustrated by traffic jams and the fact that it’s not cheap or easy to park their cars (which is also the case in every major metropolis in the world). But this simplistic solution — which seeks to divert Muni funding to build more parking lots and give residents veto power over new parking controls in their neighborhoods — would only make things worse for everyone. With San Francisco rapidly adding jobs and homes within its finite road network, it’s more important than ever to encourage people to choose alternatives to the automobile, which also helps those who must drive. Good parking management policies also help drivers find parking spaces by encouraging turnover. But for motorists to act like some oppressed class is ridiculous, and voters should soundly reject this measure, which reeks of overentitlement and refusal to acknowledge the complex realities of urban living.
BERKELEY’S MEASURE D: SODA TAX
Less ambitious than San Francisco’s beverage tax, Berkeley’s measure levies a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks (versus two in SF). And this measure only needs a majority to pass, as the taxes will go into the city’s General Fund, as opposed to funding specific health measures. While this may on the surface seem problematic, the ultimate goal for the tax is not to generate revenue, but to raise the price of soda to dissuade people from buying it. As diabetes rates soar in low-income communities of color, Berkeley residents have a clear opportunity to promote public health and raise a little money in the process.
SAN FRANCISCO CITYWIDE OFFICES
This office is vitally important to San Francisco city government, assessing property for tax purposes and bringing in about one-third of the city’s General Fund revenue. So a willingness to hold firm with commercial property owners seeking reassessments is the key. Carmen Chu, who was appointed by the Mayor’s Office to the Board of Supervisors and then to this office, has always been a little cozy with downtown and landlords, so we would have liked to see someone challenge her and offer another option. But Chu is definitely smart and professional and she seems to be running this office well, so we’re happy to give her our endorsement.
AP photo by Jeff Chiu.
The Bay Guardian enthusiastically endorses Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who has held office since 2003. Adachi hasn’t been shy about holding the San Francisco Police Department accountable for unfairly targeting the poor, and he’s worked to implement programs that go beyond upholding the basic right to legal counsel, co-founding the Reentry Council to help coordinate the delivery of employment, education, and substance abuse treatment to individuals who were recently released from prison or jail and face barriers to getting onto solid footing. We support Adachi for his demonstrated commitment to stand by his principles.
CCSF BOARD OF TRUSTEES
FOUR-YEAR SEAT (3 OPEN)
City College of San Francisco’s board is now powerless, after being replaced last year by Special Trustee Bob Agrella as part of the district’s ongoing struggle to retain its accreditation. However, the clamor is rising for the democratically elected board to be revived, and the City Charter mandates a vote for this local board, responsible for setting policy for this embattled and vital institution. When that board convenes again, Wendy Aragon would make an excellent addition to it. She has support of progressive supervisors, the CCSF teacher’s union, and labor. As chair of the SFPUC Citizen Advisory Committee and president of the Richmond Democratic Club, Aragon championed progressive politics. Most importantly, she opposed the findings of the accrediting commission seeking to close City College long before such a view was popular. Vote for Wendolyn Aragon to help City College’s board find a new way forward.
Brigitte Davila is one of the few candidates running for the college board with experience as a teacher. A San Francisco State University professor for over 20 years, Davila has experience with the needs of many City College students, as they often transfer to SFSU. She’s also laid solid groundwork in city politics by rallying for the Latino community, earning her the endorsement of the Latino Democratic Club. During a time where administrators seek major changes to the college, including class cuts and possible closure of campuses, the school needs an advocate for its disadvantaged communities. For Davila’s grassroots political work, her progressive values, and her education experience, we heartily recommend her.
Thea Selby is a neighborhood and small business advocate. While she’s not as leftist as we’d like, she was a solid candidate when she ran for District 5 supervisor in 2012, and she’s a solid candidate now. She chairs the San Francisco Transit Riders union, which has taken many progressive stances on transportation, and backed them up by going toe to toe with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Board of Directors. With her business background comes endorsements from many moderates, including DCCC Chair Mary Jung, which worries us. But she has the experience necessary to navigate that difficult political landscape, earning our endorsement.
CCSF BOARD OF TRUSTEES
TWO-YEAR SEAT (1 OPEN)
When William Walker first ran for the CCSF board, he was a student at City College himself. Balancing school, a full-time job, and a board seat, we felt then that Walker had too much on his plate to earn our endorsement, though we liked him. Times have changed, and Walker has too: We think he’s ready for the Board of Trustees. He’s a longtime active participant at City College, first as an advocate and later as a student trustee (a position without voting privileges). Walker has deep institutional knowledge, but isn’t beholden to the constituent groups at the campus. He’s ready, and has our endorsement.
SFUSD BOARD OF EDUCATION
This is not Shamann Walton’s first time running for the Board of Education, and we’ve endorsed him before. The reasons are many: He’s a native San Franciscan who has long worked with the Bayview and other communities of color, and he has strong political bonafides. Walton has also worked directly with students through workforce and mentorship programs, giving him a uniquely intimate perspective on the needs of students. This insight already sparked his first plan as commissioner: to improve SFUSD facilities and leverage federal dollars to expand vocational opportunities for students. San Francisco’s public schools have made tremendous progress of late, instituting restorative justice programs and gaining more funding for communities of color, but those programs need a watchful eye from the community. Walton is a fine choice to ensure equity is maintained in the SFUSD.
It’s important for the school board to hear from the voices of families, and Stevon Cook is exactly that. A third-generation San Franciscan and resident of the Bayview, Cook has the perspective of a large segment of SFUSD students. This may be his first run for office, but Cook has shown his political acumen by racking up key endorsements, including Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, United Educators of San Francisco, and the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club. Importantly, Cook identifies teacher retention as a key part of his first term. The SFUSD often loses many qualified teachers in their first five years on the job, and the city’s housing crisis has only exacerbated this problem. Cook also aims to bolster support for restorative practices, a program that replaces suspensions with constructive dialogue. For his policy choices and his character, he has our strong support.
We’ve endorsed two relative newcomers for the three open Board of Education seats, but the third choice is an incumbent. We must recognize the progress the board has made since its days as a fractious mess, even though it isn’t supportive enough of increasing salaries of district employees and has pushed teachers to the verge of striking. Fellow incumbent Hydra Mendoza’s close ties to the mayor made it easy to leave her off our list, leaving Murase as our sole choice for an incumbent on the school board. Murase is the executive director of the San Francisco Department of the Status of Women, bringing a perspective on equity that’s needed in the SFUSD. Murase is an ally, often voting with progressive measures, but doesn’t have a strong track record on proposing her own initiatives at the board. Hopefully though, her experience will help guide the board back to better relations with district teachers, who need a significant raise to live in this gentrifying city.
Guardian photo by Rebecca Bowe.
PROP. 1 — WATER BOND
At a whopping $7.5 billion, this water bond is considered to be the diet version of what was originally proposed by Sacramento lawmakers. Making a decision on this one was challenging, as there are mixed signals from the environmental community. The Sierra Club, whose perspective we often trust, went with no endorsement, while other big green environmental groups have backed it because it provides substantial funding for ecological restoration in rivers. Nevertheless, we tend to agree with Prop. 1 opponents, particularly the Center for Biological Diversity and Food and Water Watch, that point out that the $2.7 billion allocation in this bond for water storage — read: major, expensive dam projects — could have serious environmental consequences. “It will push the Sacramento–San Joaquin Bay Delta closer to collapse,” CBD wrote in a position statement, “leaving little chance for the imperiled Chinook salmon, smelt and steelhead.” The bottom line is that California’s water issues, now exacerbated by a severe drought, stem from a deep dysfunction that Prop. 1 does not adequately address. Try again, Sacramento.
PROP. 2: STATE BUDGET STABILIZATION
Prop. 2 is a common sense fiscal reform for Sacramento, one the state’s public school system and other social services badly need. Prop. 2 would create a “rainy day fund,” tasking the state with setting aside money in boom periods to shield vital services in an economic bust. The boom and bust cycle holds millions of state K-12 and college students hostage every year, as well as social programs we all depend on. Assemblymember Tom Ammiano championed such a measure when he was supervisor of San Francisco, to great effect. The first 15 years, this new rainy day fund would be split in two, with half paying the state’s liabilities, like pensions and loans. The only potential downside of this measure is a provision which would require local school districts to cut their own reserves. It’s a real problem, but not enough to outweigh the potential gains of a statewide rainy day fund.
PROP. 45 — HEALTH CARE INSURANCE
Endorsed by the California Nurses Association, Consumer Watchdog, and civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, Prop. 45 seeks to place controls on rising health care insurance costs by making rate changes subject to approval by the California Insurance Commissioner. It also provides for public notice, disclosure, and hearings on rate changes, and requires insurers to submit sworn statements as to the accuracy of information submitted to justify rate changes. While health care reform has helped to improve access to health care across the board, it’s had little impact on rising costs. This is an important consumer protection measure.
PROP. 46 — DRUG TEST DOCTORS
We at the Guardian have always opposed random drug testing as an invasion of privacy, and we see no reason why all medical doctors should be drug tested, as this measure would do. This hasn’t been shown to be a big problem, and it strikes us as unfair demonization of an entire profession, just as critics of public schools have tried to do to teachers. This measure would also support a statewide prescription drug database and increase medical malpractice damage limits, which may be fine ideas if they weren’t contained in a measure designed mostly to just beat up on doctors.
PROP. 47: SENTENCING REFORM
Our state has a prison problem. We put too much of our funding toward jailing nonviolent offenders, leading to the decimation of low-income communities of color. Prop. 47, co-sponsored by District Attorney George Gascon, would reduce nonviolent and non-serious felonies to misdemeanors, and allow nearly 10,000 current prisoners to apply for resentencing. This is exactly the kind of thing California needs to address its overcrowded prison system. Shoplifting, theft, forgery, bad checks, and personal use of illegal drugs should not put someone in prison for untold years. The money the state saves from imprisonment will then be spent on recidivism programs and schools, to help newly released former convicts.
PROP. 48: INDIAN GAMING COMPACTS
This proposal affirms compacts negotiated by Gov. Jerry Brown and ratified by all stakeholders to allow the North Fork Tribe to establish a casino in Madera County, with revenues split between the North Fork and the Wiyot tribes. It will create thousands of jobs, promote tribal self-sufficiency, avoid an alternative development plan in environmentally sensitive areas, and generate business opportunities and economic growth. While we acknowledge that gambling addiction is a sad byproduct of the gaming industry and that not everyone wants to see this kind of development pop up in their communities, we see little merit in opponents’ arguments that approving Prop. 48 would somehow open the door to the terrible threat of more casino construction off tribal lands.
[Editor’s Note: With the exception of Secretary of State, we also endorsed the following state and federal candidates in the June primary election, so read our rationales here]
Governor Jerry Brown
Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom
SECRETARY OF STATE
Alex Padilla has been a strong liberal Democrat while serving the California Legislature, including being an important champion for renewable energy, and he has the knowledge and experience to make the Secretary of State’s Office run efficiently. He’s also pledged to restore the promise of the Voting Rights Act, which Republicans have sought to undermine in states around the country, and to work to expand the ranks of voters in California. He has our support.
Controller, Betty Yee
Treasurer, John Chiang
Attorney General Kamala Harris
Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson
Board of Equalization, District 2, Fiona Ma
SF Superior Court Judge, Daniel Flores
California Assembly, District 19, Phil Ting
US Congress, District 12, Nancy Pelosi
US Congress, District 13, Barbara Lee
US Congress, District 14, Jackie Speier
THE WEEKNIGHTER “It’s all fun and games and whippings until the end when everyone is really drunk. Then it’s just a bunch of wasted people rubbing their penises on things. That’s when I go inside and lock my door.” I was telling this to the bartender and a couple people sitting next to me. We were talking about the Folsom Street Fair.
“Yeah,” the woman on my left replied, “that’s when we got real busy actually, right when the fair started to close down.” She bartends at the Cat Club, which, along with Driftwood (1225 Folsom, SF. www.driftwoodbarsf.com), and my apartment, are all on Folsom Street. Just then “No Diggity” came on over the speakers and we each bobbed to the music in our own way. We were hanging out doing what bartenders do, drinking and talking about the other places we’ve worked and who we know in common. “I’m actually buying all the drinks for this guy tonight,” the lady said, pointing to the dude next to her.
He responded, “Yeah, I was mugged at gunpoint the other night, over in the Lower Haight. They got my wallet and my phone. Luckily they caught the bastards since I ran into someone right after and had them call the cops and tell them the license plate number.”
During the Folsom Street Fair a bunch of us put chairs on the sidewalk and hung out all afternoon watching the spectacle. At one point my friend Lauryn said, “It’s days like this that remind me why I love San Francisco. If this kind of fuckery can still happen, maybe the city isn’t dead after all.” For some reason, the guy telling me about his mugging reminded me of this. He was a bartender, not a startup bro, but still it made me think about how all these people who view San Francisco as a tech utopia seem to forget this is a real-ass city, where nasty things happen. Don’t get me wrong, nobody deserves to be mugged, and certainly not this nice guy I was having a drink with at the bar, but in weird way, hearing about these kinds of shitty things also reminded me that SF isn’t some bland bubble yet. If the “let the free market decide” people had complete reign over this city, eventually there wouldn’t be any muggings at all because the only people left here would be rich. But also, there may not be an entire day of people in leather beating and fellating each other in the streets.
We chatted a little more and had a shot before the two sitting by me went over to Death Guild. That just left me and the bartender. “I moved here three years ago with only $500 to my name,” he told me, “I couldn’t have picked a worse time to come to SF. It took me forever to find a place to live, so I slept on couches and worked a million hours and eventually moved into an SRO until I could afford to move into an apartment. But I did it all because I love this city and I knew I needed to be here.”
Eventually three guys came into the bar. They were all from other countries and were living in Sonoma doing some impressive vintners internship. They finally had a night off and were blowing off steam. After some drinks, the Aussie guy asked where they could meet some girls around there. I thought about it, “It’s a Monday night guys, and you’re in a neighborhood of mostly gay bars.” I told them.
“There’s the EndUp,” the barkeep said. And I laughed out loud. “No really,” he responded, “attractive straight girls actually go there now.” To which I thought, maybe the city is dead after all.
Stuart Schuffman aka Broke-Ass Stuart is a travel writer, poet, and TV host. You can find his online shenanigans at www.brokeassstuart.com
FILM On paper, it seems like an odd match: director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett of indie horror hit You’re Next (2011), and British actor Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey‘s erstwhile heir. On screen, however, the trio’s The Guest is the boogeyman movie of the year, weaving a synth-scored tale of a small-town family startled by the sudden appearance of a soldier (Stevens) who claims to have known the son and brother they lost in Afghanistan. David is polite, handsome, and eager to assist in any way — whether it’s carrying kegs into a party with just-out-of-high-school Anna (Maika Monroe), or breaking faces on behalf of bullied teen Luke (Brendan Meyer).
You know what happens when something’s too good to be true, and the filmmakers know you know, enabling them to have a great time teasing out this trick-or-treat of a thriller, which is set during the cell phone era but references films like 1987’s The Stepfather and John Carpenter’s 1980s heyday (which, again, they know you know — and love, just like they do). I spoke with all three during a recent phone interview.
San Francisco Bay Guardian The Guest reminded me of another thriller that came out this year, Cold in July — both tell contemporary stories using 1980s retro style. What inspired that approach?
Simon Barrett After You’re Next, Adam and I wanted to think about what got us making movies in the first place. All three of us came of cinematic awareness during the 1980s, so a lot of the movies that inspired us were genre films of the mid-to-late ’80s. We wanted to do something that had that same fun spirit and aesthetic, but we didn’t just want to do an homage or an imitation, because that’s really easy and lazy. It was about taking that same tone those movies had, and doing something original with it. That was our goal from the very beginning, when Adam started talking about The Terminator (1984) and Halloween (1978).
Adam Wingard I read an article recently about how the most homaged filmmaker of the year is John Carpenter. There’s this weird zeitgeist of filmmakers who are inspired by Carpenter and other ’80s filmmakers. All of us making these movies are around the same age, and we all grew up on movies like Big Trouble in Little China (1986). It seems like that’s what’s in the air.
SB They Live (1988) is one we’ve referenced quite a bit — the humor in that film is so extraordinarily innovative and insane. There’s never any overt jokes, but there’s a fight scene in an alley that keeps going and going, until it becomes hysterical. That’s the humor that we were influenced by and respond to: letting something become ridiculous, and calling attention to the ridiculousness, but still taking your story and characters seriously. Carpenter just nailed that and I don’t think he gets enough credit for it.
SFBG Dan, were you a fan of horror before making The Guest?
Dan Stevens Adam and Simon are far more steeped in that specific genre than I am, but I certainly grew up on a lot of cult 1980s and 1990s American horror films. The Halloween films were huge in the UK. The action thriller genre was also massive, and something we were kind of baptized with in Britain.
AW It’s interesting how these cult 1980s genre films are, pretty much worldwide, a good connecting point. When we first talked, Dan and I had a very easy conversation, because we had those through lines. Beyond that, we both connected on understanding the sense of humor in Simon’s script, and realized we should be working together.
SFBG The soundtrack — which includes Sisters of Mercy, Front 242, and Love and Rockets — plays a huge role in The Guest. What motivated your musical choices?
AW Growing up in Alabama, I knew these pot dealers who were super gothed out. I always thought that was interesting, that even in the smallest towns there are still these weird subcultures. Through people like that I became aware of bands like Death in June and Front 242. I always thought that would be an interesting thing to bring into a movie, because I hadn’t seen somebody take a realistic approach to goth sensibilities.
I had a couple of songs in mind that I thought would be good for the movie, but I didn’t want to just make a film that had a bunch of music that I thought was cool. If it’s gonna be in there, it’s got to be story-oriented and character-motivated. I knew, also, that this wasn’t a straightforward horror film, but that I wanted it to take place during Halloween. So the approach to horror in The Guest isn’t necessarily in terms of it trying to be scary. It was more taking that goth approach to it in general, which is like having fun with the macabre and that type of energy. It’s more like fun-scary imagery than it is actually horrifying. 2
THE GUEST opens Fri/10 in Bay Area theaters.
FILM/LIT It’s anyone’s guess how many films and videos George Kuchar made before his death in 2011 (Portland’s Yale Union is valiantly attempting a comprehensive retrospective, which they estimate will take seven years), but there’s material for at least a hundred more in The George Kuchar Reader (Primary Information, 336 pp., $27.50). Tracing a singular life in movies from the Bronx-bound 8mm melodramas Kuchar made with his twin brother, Mike, on through the boundlessly nutty video conflagrations emerging out of his classroom at the San Francisco Art Institute, the book collects handwritten screenplays, letters, underground comics, meteorological observations, and UFO diaries. Reader editor Andrew Lampert will be in attendance at two special screenings in the coming weeks to report on these deep-sea dives into Kuchar’s self-described cinematic cesspool.
That Kuchar’s literary artifacts should be hilarious and not a little wise is no surprise, but it’s worth pausing to note the extent to which the writing itself illuminates Kuchar’s creative methods. Take the letters of recommendations he wrote for his SFAI students — an obligatory form of writing if there ever was one, but for Kuchar an occasion for uninhibited characterization: “This winged spirit, reared in semitropical heat, can banish the chill that has descended upon your patrons; so turn up the heat and witness what only equatorial nearness can nurture”; “His unbridled lust for livid living endows the fruits of his labor with intoxicating incense. Sniff these works at your own risk as the aroma reeks of secret scents from a Garden of Eden gone mad with flower power”; “He’s a lone figure swimming upstream to a different drumbeat.” No cliché is safe. Kuchar’s persistence in slugging it out with these once familiar figures of speech surely says something about the way he approached a dramatic scene.
Implicitly skewering heroic strains of avant-garde poetics, Kuchar’s accounts of his own filmmaking almost always turn on the body. Take this metabolic account from a 1964 article for Film Culture:
“Many nights I lay awake in my sheets burning with the fever of a new movie script … Sleep only comes when extra sugar is pumped into my body due to the excessive emotional tension that grips me during these celestial periods. The sugar makes my body hot thereby opening its big pores. Then the sweat of my ordeal seeps out in a stink of creativity and new germ has been born. A germ that will grow into the virus of 8mm movies. In the morning I awaken, fresh, vibrant, but constipated with the urge to release a lump of cinematic material.”
So filmmaking is fever, open pores, sweat, stink, germs, and viruses; the film itself, a load of shit. One begins to sense that the many Joycean digressions on “exciting gastric distress” peppering these pages are less a matter of any particular tummy trouble than Kuchar’s underlying conviction that the creative muse is ineluctably bound to more basic drives.
Bodily fixations notwithstanding, Kuchar was plenty canny about film aesthetics, whether pinpointing the underlying motivations for “these gigantic, moving billboards” (“IT WAS LOVE AND OBSESSION”) or situating his own fortuitous ascendancy in the 1960s avant-garde: “You’d develop them [8mm films] cheap at the local camera store and in five or 10 years the emulsion would crack and chip in time for the 1960s, avant-garde film explosion. No need to bake your footage in an oven like so many artists were doing: your home movies had already deteriorated into art.” Not that Kuchar wasn’t grateful: An early letter to Donna Kerness evinces little enthusiasm for his work as a commercial artist but adapts a more familiar exuberance when describing his latest 8mm production about a brawling ménage-a-trois.
The final 50 pages of the Reader are dedicated to a poignant last testament stitched together from the “endless emails of unexpurgated excess” Kuchar sent Kerness in 2010-2011. Even in his teenage letters to Kerness, it’s clear that Kuchar felt unusually at ease writing to the star of his Corruption of the Damned (1965). Describing an earlier melodrama, he writes with unusual candor how “I was very inspired by Arlene and her kin. They are very mixed up and sometimes they are damaging their lives but I like them anyway probably because I’m just like them.” Fifty years later, sick with love and cancer, Kuchar treats Kerness more as a confessor than a confidante. “Anxious to reveal secrets I usually kept under wraps,” Kuchar doesn’t spare any detail in describing his yearning for a long-time “midnight caller” named Larry: “Instead of realizing that he’s just what you call a sex buddy, I turn the whole thing into a live or die, Victorian romance.”
Even in his hour of darkness, Kuchar couldn’t help but seeing his own trials as material for a grand melodrama. “Being the egotistical movie director that I am, I want the motion picture of my life to be an X rated, inspirational saga of the nerdy Bronx kid who walked the red carpets of Hollywood while flirting with the red light districts of Sin City.” In a more reflective mood he writes to Kerness, “Expressing all this in certain chosen words and constructed sentences made the mental and medical troubles take a back seat to creative engineering: an arrangement of letters and punctuations to coalesce the chaos that contaminated my cranium.”
Kuchar writes of depressive anxiety, rampant insecurity, sexual hang-ups, and plenty of confusion in the face of “getting old and dreaming young” — but not a word of boredom. “Since I’m an actor anyway, I see the personal issues I penned (or typed) as emotional motivations in an ongoing (for a time anyway) B-movie.” B-movies aren’t really a wellspring of inspiration; that was all George. A final photograph shows him standing in front of a Denny’s, eyes on the skies like always. 2
OFF THE SCREEN: MOVING PICTURES AND WRITTEN WORDS: CELEBRATING THE GEORGE KUCHAR READER
Oct. 15, 7pm, free
Pier 15, SF
A CRIMINAL ACCOUNT OF PLEASURE: THE GEORGE KUCHAR READER
Oct. 18, 7:30pm, $8-10
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
FILM There is probably no clinical study proving that a penchant toward being devious, ruthless, or even sociopathic makes a person particularly inclined toward writing crime fiction. But it can’t hurt. Patricia Highsmith has been dead two decades now, and one suspects there are still a few breathing souls who’d enjoy dancing on her grave. A bridge-burning bisexual (at least one ex-lover committed suicide) who openly admitted preferring cats — and, oddly, snails — to people, she was prone even when sober toward rants of variably racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-whatever-else-you-got nature. The Texas-born, Manhattan-raised European émigré frequently seemed to hate her own gender and country. Famous and successful after the publication of Strangers on a Train in 1950 (and the release of Hitchcock’s film version the next year), she didn’t need to be nice. So, that worked out for her.
Abhorrent as she might have been in person, her misanthropy turned golden in print, most famously via the five — yes, just five — novels she wrote about the ingeniously amoral Tom Ripley over a nearly 40-year span. A man who gets away with everything, frequently including murder, fellow expat Ripley invents himself as whatever and whomever he pleases, burying evidence (and any inconvenient bodies) whenever he risks being found out. We root for him even as we recoil at his actions, because he’s simply taking advantage of the wealth and privilege others are too stupidly complacent to protect from people like him.
One shudders to think what Highsmith would have made of the 1999 film Anthony Minghella made of 1955’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (already adapted in 1960 by Rene Clement as Purple Noon). It’s a wonderful movie, but its compassion toward Matt Damon’s Ripley as a closeted gay man only pushed to violence by desperate insecurity is about as far from the author’s icy wit and admiration for the scoundrel as one can get.
Ripley-free The Two Faces of January is presumably much closer to her intentions. The first feature directed by Hossein Amini, who previously wrote screenplays for a rather bewildering array of movies (from Thomas Hardy and Henry James adaptations to 2011 noir abstraction Drive and 2012 fairy tale mall flick Snow White and the Huntsman), it turns her 1964 novel into an elegant wide screen thriller very much of a type that might have been shot by Hitchcock, Clement, or someone else a half-century ago. You could even mistake Alberto Iglesias’ score for Bernard Herrmann at times. (Not the times when he’s lifting motifs whole from Arvo Pärt, though.) And if you still don’t think they make them like they used to, there’s Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac doing a damn good job of acting, and looking, like glamorous movie stars of yore.
Mortensen and Dunst’s Chester and Colette MacFarland meet the Isaac’s Rydal while they’re amid some sort of European grand tour in 1962 Athens — even staying at the Grand Hotel — and he’s a bilingual New Jerseyan of Greek descent eking out a living as a tour guide for Ivy League debutantes. Jaded, adventuresome types, the MacFarlands are intrigued enough to hire this openly gawking wannabe for a tour of the marketplace, then invite him and the Yankee heiress he’s momentarily snagged (Daisy Bevan as Lauren) for dinner.
It’s a pleasant evening they’d all soon file and forget. Or would have, if fate didn’t bring Rydal back alone to the couple’s hotel to return an item Colette carelessly left on the taxi seat. He finds Chester struggling with a man — whom he identifies as some drunk he’s simply wrestling back to his own room. But this fib thinly conceals a rapidly expanding sinkhole of criminality (already including major investment fraud and accidental murder) which Rydal now finds himself an accessory to. Rydal recognizes opportunity as well as risk in his new “friends'” urgent need to evade the authorities. But even as he helps them flee the hotel and city, he worries over the much younger, loyal yet nakedly vulnerable wife being dragged down by a “swindler” spouse. And as the awkwardly twined trio travels to less populous Crete, Chester (or whatever his name really is) worries his second wife — what happened to the first, anyway? — might well be swayed by someone as youthful, handsome, and blameless as Rydal.
At the one-hour point, The Two Faces of January looks, particularly in comparison to Mingella’s rather epic film (interestingly, that late director’s son Max is a producer here), like it might be something delicate yet rather simple — a portrait of a doomed marriage, its faults exposed by the third party the couple must take on amid crisis. But after this leisurely yet never boring buildup, Highsmith and Amini deliver so many harrowing complications you might end up shocked that this ultimately quite expansive seeming tale occupies just 96 trim minutes.
Mortensen, whose looks only grow more eerily, faultlessly chiseled with age, is so excellent-as-usual that one just has to shrug away puzzlement that he isn’t a bigger star — sufficiently occupied with his other creative outlets (painting, poetry, etc.), this actor clearly doesn’t care that he isn’t getting Brad Pitt’s roles, let alone his money. Having been raised in the system, Dunst would probably choose being Sandra or Reese if she could (and she certainly could, ability-wise), but fortunately the cards didn’t fall thataway. Now 34, she has the unfashionable heart-shaped facial prettiness of another generation’s wholesome starlets like Doris Day or Sandra Dee. If this particular role doesn’t begin to plumb the darker depths she’s more than capable of (as 2011 in Melancholia), it draws upon the same bottomless well of empathy she last tapped as another endangered spouse in 2010’s All Good Things. Which is, indeed, a very good thing.
As for Isaac, is this really the same guy from last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis? You can glimpse the same subtle, stage-honed technique in what’s superficially a much easier pretty-male-ingenue role. But yeesh: Looking like a fresh scoop from the same gelato tub that once surrendered young Andy Garcia, he sure cleans up nice. *
THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY opens Fri/10 in Bay Area theaters.