The guys from Phoenix seem to have their hands full these days dealing with the Village Voice. Note to Mike Lacey: It’s a different world in New York. Everything you do is going to be watched. Your policy of ducking the media isn’t going to fly. Lacey did give an interview to the New York Observer , in which he argued that he wants real reporters, not just thumbsucking columnists. Hey, so do I (and so, I think, do the folks at the Voice) – but I want reporters who care, and who take stands, and newspapers that are a part of their communities. In other words, Lacey is pushing a false dichotomy, making it look as if he’s cleaning out the dead wood, getting rid of lazy people who only pontificate – when what he’s really doing is getting rid of the people who have strong political leanings. He’s going to turn the Voice into another city magazine, and destroy it as a progressive newspaper.
Volume 40 Number 29
Apr. 19 – Apr. 25, 2006
SUPER EGO Hi, sexy. I’m a bored robot. I’m doin’ the strobe-lit worm on linoleum irony. I’m freakin’ worn poses in the mirror of YouTube. Klink klank klunk. Drink drank drunk.
Yesterday morning I had a Technicolor waking dream. I was flipping through the Gospel of Judas, standing outside Trendy Hair Fixin’s on Seventh and Howard at 6 a.m. under a sky that looked like God shit his underpants. The ice-blue veins of the overpasses crisscrossed in the distance, the distance you feel when you realize your absent-eyed friends are all television addicts. (Not you, though. No, never you.) I was shivering wet in my "Bitch or Slut?" spray-painted halter top, Leslie and the Lys’ "Gem Sweater" rocking my knockoff iPod. It was cold, but if I layered on even one spare shred of poly blend, my Bang Bus implants would be partially obscured, and then what krunkhed mens would want me? I’d be childless forever.
Suddenly, my nueva amiga Frankenchick coughed up a pair of fake eyelashes and gasped, "When I was a little kid, I use to own a frog named Sweet Squares!"
It’s so boring reading other people’s dreams. But, of course, it wasn’t a dream. It seemed, just then, my life. And more important, my nightlife. When it feels like your whole being’s been dunked once too much in the reborn-again media stream, there are only two ways out: You can either blow up or get down. Drop the cooler-than-thou attitude completely, or go all in and get extreme.
DJ Jefrodisiac’s our homegrown version of NYC club whiz Larry Tee, and his wild nights are our closest energy-equivalent to the world’s reigning name-drop weekly, Misshapes, in Manhattan. Of course, Jefro’s been eating postirony for breakfast since way before Misshapes tossed up its hectic brand of antiposeur-poseur Corn Pops (cf. his long-running Frisco Disco, at Arrow Bar, every Saturday), but no one takes our club scene seriously. We’re too dang "out-there." Like most top jocks today, he’s less a turntablist than a mood meddler; his clubs may draw in more literal-minded people with one-off Bloc Party B-side remixes but just as quickly drive them out for a smoke with Eric Prydez’s "Call on Me" (an endless, cheery loop of Steve Winwood wailing "Valerie" … eek). The folks who say "fuck it" and stay on the dance floor, anyway, win.
Blow Up, at Rickshaw Stop, is his best joint yet, and every third Friday he and table partner Emily Betty whip their fan base into an antitaste frenzy with records from the outer bins up front and outré sex acts on the side. (What is it with all the het-porn lesbo action at clubs these days? I love it.) If some see the supertight, dressed-to-the-tens crowd as impossible snobs, they don’t get it — it’s rising above by screwing it all. User-friendly nihilism on a MySpace Mountain level. It’s Blow Up’s first anniversary this week, and the guests are apocalypto-emblematic: LA street-whore rapper Mickey Avalon, London’s shambolic DJ teeth-kickers Queens of Noize, the Star Eyes of Syrup Girls from NYC, and our very own Richie Panic. Too cool for school? Nah. This is school.
And then there’s something completely different. Blow Up’s the go-all-in, but also this weekend’s let-it-all-out. Believe it or not, square dancing just got fierce. Seriously. Pimping itself as a "thriving, boisterous DIY alternative to the queer bar and circuit scenes" (thank you!), the San Francisco Queer Contra Dance may just be the perfect antidote for today’s style-fatigued clubbers. At the very least, it’s a return to what we loved about going out in the first place: meeting up with like-minded strangers at someplace new (a church, even) to dance new dances to music you can’t hear anywhere else — attitude free. Contra dancing’s a venerable form of folk dancing, all whirling skirts and changing partners and whatnot, and while it may seem goofy — well, look what you’re wearing, hot stuff. Everything’s goofy right now, and in this case it’s also sweet. The monthly event has taken off (even organizer Robert Riley has been shocked by the unbridled turnout), and Saturday marks its second anniversary. Dances will be taught, punch will be imbibed, and new friends will be made. Kilts and Mohawks encouraged. All bored robots welcome.
Blow Up’s One-Year Anniversary
10 p.m.–2 a.m.
155 Fell, SF
SF Queer Contra Dance Second Anniversary
United Methodist Church
1268 Sanchez, SF
$10 sliding scale
All it took was one great glass elevator ride to know that the San Francisco International Film Festival had changed — a ride up to the top floor of a downtown hotel, where the press conference for the 49th SFIFF took place. In recent years, the nation’s oldest film festival put on conferences that had the stultifying air of the type of garden country club lecture presented as a grotesquerie in the original Manchurian Candidate. This year, new executive director Graham Leggat surveyed the room and a 360-degree view of the city while announcing the arrival of a new film-focused Web site, www.sf360.org. If the lofty heights of the setting and Leggat’s many ambitions could be said to induce vertigo, his pep talk showed he’s considerably more connected with the film community in San Francisco than those who’d recently come before him.
Landing just before Cannes on the calendar, SFIFF has long had to glean the best from the festivals of the previous 12-plus months. The 49th SFIFF has done a better than usual job of shopping for nonstodgy items at Toronto, Sundance, and other fests, landing films such as The Descent, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, James Longley’s unembedded doc Iraq in Fragments, and Half Nelson, which features a Ryan Gosling performance that will probably figure in the Oscars next spring. Recently snubbed by the Academy, the oft-brilliant Werner Herzog more than deserves the Film Society Directing Award, and it’s great to have Guy Maddin in town. Deerhoof and Heaven and Earth Magic seem like an inspired pairing. The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros and A Short Film about the Indio Nacional may be the tip of a fresh, unconventional wave of Filipino cinema, or they may be the wave itself. The Bridge and Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple are dialogue-sparking films about suicide that belong to the Bay Area, even if the rival Tribeca Film Festival seems to have swooped in and landed them as premieres just a few days earlier.
This year’s fest could be accused of being overly besotted with gadgetry. Only time will tell whether the festival’s Kinotek section, devoted to "new platforms, new work, new audiences" honors gimmicks over content. Yes, it’s great that Tilda Swinton is an actor with intelligence. But the idea of projecting a Big Tilda upon the city seems more than a bit silly. And I wonder about a selection of seven Japanese films that includes some painful conceits while leaving out the latest film by Akihiko Shiota, and Shunichi Nagasaki’s sequel to his own Heart, Beating in the Dark.
The SFIFF has gotten a bum rap lately — scrape away the public image of a fest like last year’s and you’d find an excellent, deep, if sometimes overly solemn, array of movies. San Francisco suffers from no shortage of film festivals, but it’s oldest still has a depth and breadth others can scarcely match, and Leggat’s arrival gives SFIFF a much-needed boost of energetic, idea-driven intelligence. Now, when it turns 50, perhaps it can go toe-to-toe with the near simultaneous Tribeca fest helmed by ex–SFIFF executive director Peter Scarlet. Programming wars ain’t pretty, but they’re sure to yield some drama. SFBG
Singin’ in the watermelon juice
Imagine being a moviegoer, say, 60 years ago. Then, as now, Hollywood prompted wiseguys and eggheads to complain that the average picture was made by idiots for idiots. In particular, what could be more brain-deadening than yet another 90 minutes spent enduring gaudy production numbers, rickety romance plots, stale patter, throwaway songs, and forced (as they used to put it) gaiety?
Now we are up to our necks in invasions from outer space, fantasy landscapes, mass destruction — everything the average 13-year-old imagination and computer-generated imagery can devise. The barriers for physical depiction have collapsed, yet movies seem dumber than ever, with fewer actual ideas. It’s enough to make you wish for a return to relative realism, like say 100 chorus girls dancing around a giant cake. Really: Quit with the dragons. Bring back the musical.
Strangely, this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival does turn back the clock, in that several of the higher-profile features this year are honest-to-god musicals, and original ones too — there isn’t a boring Broadway transfer among them.
The first musical to open the festival in 20 years (1986 had Absolute Beginners) is Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s lavish Hong Kong confection Perhaps Love, a Jacques Demy–<\d>meets–<\d>Moulin Rouge exercise in decorative, sentimental self-consciousness. Too many bathetic ballads eventually slow things down, but as an exercise in pure stylistic excess, the result looks and feels like you hope the after-party will.
As idiosyncratic and personal as Love is, it seems conventional compared with the two other musicals from lands of the (Far) East. Eighty-four-year-old veteran Japanese wild man Seijun Suzuki’s Princess Raccoon is an anarchic anomaly based on a popular whimsy almost as old as he is, updated to be just as agelessly lunatic. The against-odds love between titular princess (Ziyi Zhang) and prince (Joe Odagiri) occurs amidst a nonstop camp parade of non sequitur delights, visual as well as aural. There’s song (Hawaiian to rap to prog rock), dance (tap to moonwalk), evil Catholicism, Kabuki theatricality, rampant CGI, giant penis sculptures, and a mystical Frog of Paradise. It’s suitable for unhinging viewers of all ages.
That cannot be said for Tsai Ming-liang’s already notorious Thai-French coproduction The Wayward Cloud. In this gorgeous, absurdist cipher, dizzy production numbers alternate with graphic sex scenes in a Taipei where a chronic water shortage has prompted mass consumption of watermelon juice. If Cloud ever finds a US distributor, multiple viewings will be in order — the first may leave you too gobsmacked to know what just befell you.
I’d like to say the home team is holding up its end in the all-singing, all-dancing department. But the two big guns at 2006 — slotted as "centerpiece" and "closing night feature," respectively — left me cold, even if you’ve got to hand their makers a nickel for trying something different. Actor-turned-director-cum-horrible-scenarist John Turturro’s Romance and Cigarettes is a karaoke musical set to a mix tape of his formative faves (Dusty, James Brown, even Engelbert). James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon play a working-class Queens couple who bust up, then meander amidst various wacky characters (Winslet, Walken, Buscemi, etc.) before the inevitable reconciliation and a somber finish the movie doesn’t have the emotional depth to pull off. While nicely designed, the film’s scatological humor and broad performances are painful in that same tone-deaf, infantile way as recent John Waters (A Dirty Shame); the production numbers are as shapeless as the screenplay.
Robert Altman’s take on A Prairie Home Companion may well please fans of the radio show. His woozy fallback style, which kicks in whenever the material doesn’t wake him up (last alert moment: Gosford Park), is apt enough for Garrison Keillor’s cozy, faintly ironic cornball humor and penchant for a fake "authenticity" borne of nostalgia for never-was Americana. Keillor is not, to put it kindly, a natural camera presence. But then Companion doesn’t do the professionals any favors either, rendering even Meryl Streep negligible and giving Virginia Madsen the worst role of her career (yes, worse than being Bobcat’s love interest in Hot to Trot). Everybody onscreen appears to be having a very good time. If you want to enjoy tepid, quasi-folksome chuckles and movie actors singing bluegrass and gospel songs poorly, then you will too.
(Peter Ho-Sun Chan, Hong Kong, 2005)
Thurs/20, 7 p.m., Castro
(Party 9:30 p.m., Regency Center)
PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION
(Robert Altman, USA, 2006)
May 4, 7 p.m.
(Party 9:30 p.m., Mezzanine)
(Seijun Suzuki, Japan, 2005)
April 26, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki
April 28, 2:30 p.m., Castro
April 30, 8 p.m., PFA
ROMANCE and CIGARETTES
(John Turturro, USA, 2005)
April 28, 8 p.m., Kabuki
THE WAYWARD CLOUD
(Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France, 2005)
Sun/23, 9:30 p.m., Castro
Tues/25, 10:15 p.m., Kabuki
April 26, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki
April 28, 9:15 p.m., PFA
Headbanger’s a ball
Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey reaches far beyond the black T-shirt crowd, offering a fan’s-eye view of heavy metal music from a fan, Sam Dunn, who also happens to be an anthropologist. Dunn — who codirected, along with Scot McFadyen and Jessica Joy Wise — narrates this witty, educational ride through metal’s history. Rockin’ topics include the technical aspects of the music (“What makes metal sound … evil?”), fiercely devoted fans, and issues swirling around gender and religion. In one of Metal‘s most fascinating chapters, the filmmakers travel to Norway to investigate the genre’s extreme, church-burning contingent. The doc’s many famous faces include Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, and the singular Ronnie James Dio, who discusses at length his invention of the devil-horns hand gesture, as well as his friendly rivalry with Gene Simmons.
On the phone from Toronto, Dunn — who relayed a tale about the film inspiring a man to buy his first Black Sabbath album, and noted “That’s the kind of evangelical conversion we’re totally looking for!” — and McFadyen shared their Metal mania.
SFBG What was the most difficult part of making the film? Were there memorable moments that didn’t make it into the final cut?
SCOT MCFADYEN We drank a lot of Jägermeister [laughs]. A lot of ridiculous stuff that didn’t make it into the film will be on the DVD. And the section on Norway and black metal was a really difficult part to edit down, so on the DVD we’ll have another documentary all about Norwegian black metal.
SAM DUNN It’s a fascinating subject: Arguably the most extreme music ever produced comes out of one of the wealthiest, safest, most progressive countries in the world. From an anthropology perspective, especially, looking at the relationship between music and culture.
SFBG So are those guys really evil, or what? It seems like Dio has a sense of humor, but I’m not so sure about those Norwegians.
SM In the case of Mayhem [who come across as particularly hostile in the film], they were just really drunk. But they were generally friendly guys.
SFBG Were people in the music biz pretty open to being included in the film? Anyone you wish you could have talked to?
SM People were initially a bit apprehensive. Most things that have been made about heavy metal were like, mockumentaries, not taking it seriously. But once we got through to the artists, they were really excited. We wanted to talk to Gene Simmons, Rob Halford — Sharon Osbourne shut us down from day one. She didn’t want to be part of the film. We had to go around her to get to Tony Iommi.
SD We definitely had our battles. But we just recently got an e-mail from Rob [Halford], and he really loved the film — he called it the best thing that’s been done about heavy metal. SFBG
METAL: A HEADBANGER’S JOURNEY
(Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen, and Jessica Joy Wise, Canada, 2005)
Fri/21, 10:30 p.m., Kabuki
Mon/24, 1:30 p.m., Kabuki
Hit by the mystery train
Last fall, around the time I mentioned Look Both Ways in a Toronto International Film Festival report for this paper — noting the film’s witty drama and savvy animation — I seized the opportunity to interview the director, Sarah Watt. Earlier this year, Watt’s debut feature swept the Australian Film Institute’s awards. In addition to winning prizes for Best Film, Best Direction (by Watt), Best Original Screenplay (Watt again), and Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hayes), it also collected more nominations than any other film at the ceremony, which could be considered Australia’s version of the Academy Awards.
SFBG You had been working for years as an animator. You won an award at Venice for one of your shorts. Apart from Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam, though, few animators ever make the transition to live action. Why did you switch?
SARAH WATT Bridget Iken [who produced Crush, Tracker, and An Angel at My Table] commissioned me to do two short animations for a series, and she liked the work. But the strength of my animated films was always in the narrative, not the animating expertise. Bridget asked if I had any features I wanted to move on. I had lost my father to lung cancer, and she had gone through cancer treatment with some friends, so she liked my idea of dealing with that and had me do a first draft. So it was really Bridget’s idea.
SFBG Had you been planning to do a feature?
SW Not at all. I’d been writing because I enjoy that, but I’d never thought about directing. I’m not particularly rapacious in my ambitions. I didn’t have to do a feature! I really like hanging out at home, painting, and writing.
SFBG Your film encompasses a lot of characters who are going through profound changes in their lives and relationships — love and death and other life passages, all wonderfully understated and funny. I’m especially interested in the characters of Nick, the asshole photojournalist, and Merrill, the underemployed artist.
SW Maybe Nick is just on the cusp of realizing that he’s disconnected himself too much. As his medical diagnosis hits him full force, he realizes he’s been spending too much time in hotel rooms and is soon going to be middle-aged and less attractive. I like the idea that people don’t realize where they are in life until they’ve slipped into the next phase of it. As for Merrill, I came up through art school myself and spent 10 years trying to be an artist. I didn’t make it, but there’s probably no job that I didn’t attempt in those 10 years.
SFBG You cast your husband, William McInnes, as Nick. How was it to work together?
SW Well, we had planned to shoot at home in Melbourne. But the Adelaide Film Festival gave us production money, provided we shot there. We had to send our two kids to stay with their cousins, and they did a whole term at a little country school while we shot the film.
SFBG The sheer energy and exuberance of your film is wonderful — and unusual. Women filmmakers can be too well behaved. Where do you get your nerve?
SW Well, perhaps the lack of ambition can work in one’s favor sometimes because you don’t have a lot to lose. Also, I do know from bits of travel and from my friends who are very blunt and down-to-earth that we Australians are more likely to say what we think than a lot of other cultures. I remember telling my husband early on: "I don’t mind if I only make this one feature; I’m just going to make the film I’d make if I only ever get to make one." I put everything in it. And I thought, "I’ll just wrap this up, and then I can go back to doing something else." Perhaps because women have to struggle a little harder, they’re forced to be more polite, more constrained.
SFBG Will you do it again now?
SW Well, animation is more peaceful. And being diagnosed with cancer during postproduction has made me wonder if the stress contributed to that. But I do want to write another one, and I’ll work with Bridget on the script, and then we’ll see whether I should direct or not. SFBG
LOOK BOTH WAYS
(Sarah Watt, Australia, 2005)
April 27, 7 p.m., Kabuki
April 30, 1 p.m., Kabuki
Harry Smith is a folk hero. Smith’s masterwork, the definitive, meticulously edited Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), was the bible of the ’60s folk movement that spawned Dylan, Baez, Fahey, and others. To discover it is to stumble into a forgotten, marginalized world, a portal to — as Greil Marcus put it in his book about Dylan’s Basement Tapes — "a weird but clearly recognizable America."
Compiled from scratchy 78s of the late ’20s and early ’30s and split into three two-LP volumes — Ballads, Social Music, and Songs — the collection seamlessly mixes country with blues, Cajun dances with fiery sermons. Tales of murder, suicide, plagues, and bizarre hallucinations wander alongside familiar characters from American mythology: Casey Jones, Stackalee (a.k.a. Stagger Lee), and US presidents and their assassins. These figures regularly appear in American stories and songs — from the Anthology and elsewhere — becoming recognizable but, like all great folk heroes, constantly evolving and remaining a mystery.
And so it is with Smith. A grand self-mythologizer, Smith told contradictory stories about his life: Born in 1923, in Portland, Ore., to an occult-obsessed teacher and a salmon fishery worker, he claimed his mother was the Russian princess Anastasia and his father, Aleister Crowley, a British writer, painter, and famed Satanist. Smith dabbled in many different art forms. In addition to editing the Anthology, he recorded Native American tribal rituals, the first Fugs album, and many of Allen Ginsberg’s recordings. He was also a prolific filmmaker, painter, writer, and all-around eccentric.
Smith’s friends — Ginsberg, Jonas Mekas, and Robert Frank among them — tell stories about a mad trickster genius on amphetamines with an encyclopedic knowledge of old music and art, fascinated by alchemy and anthropology, constantly begging for money, always experimenting with some new project. As a filmmaker, he worked solely in the abstract. His early films from the ’40s and ’50s (released in 1957 as Early Abstractions) are protopsychedelic: Colorful, hand-painted geometric shapes bounce and morph into one another.
His great cinematic statement, however, is 1962’s Heaven and Earth Magic. An hour-long exercise in black-and-white animation, it appropriately comes with a disputed history. Mekas claims the initial print was in color and projected with a special apparatus that Smith designed and then destroyed, tossing it out the window onto the streets of Manhattan.
Whatever the reality, what survives is strange, unique, and frequently wonderful. White cutouts from old catalogs, advertisements, and religious texts float and pirouette through the all-black frame. A loose story emerges of a Victorian lady who loses a watermelon, visits the dentist, and travels to and from heaven. Its mystical and historical imagery is impossible to fully grasp without years of study — or, perhaps, Smith’s brain.
It’s clearly the work of a man who saw the world differently than most of us do — both because he could and because he wanted to. Smith died in 1991, shortly after accepting a Grammy for Anthology. This screening of Heaven and Earth Magic — complete with a live score by local avant-pop outfit Deerhoof — should demonstrate what Smith himself surely knew: He was an American original, an artist difficult to categorize and impossible to ignore SFBG
Heaven and Earth Magic
(Harry Smith, USA, 1962)
April 27, 9:45 p.m., Castro
After the Revolution
If you have any interest in seeing Philippe Garrel’s latest feature on the big screen, its three San Francisco International Film Festival screenings may be your only chance. While Regular Lovers is a major film by an important director associated with the French new wave, it’s hard to fathom a distributor gambling on a three-hour foray into French history with more emphasis on philosophy than on plot. In its reconsideration of the chaos that was 1968, the film is, in part, a response to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers; there was a time when European art cinema mattered enough for this kind of exchange to turn heads, but such is not the case in today’s film culture.
If that seems too gloomy an opening, it should be said that Garrel’s disillusioned movie is all about things coming to an end. Whereas Bertolucci’s last film builds to epochal May ’68, Regular Lovers opens with fighting in the streets. Our protagonist, a young poet-radical named François (played by Louis Garrel, who also starred in The Dreamers and just happens to be Garrel’s son), skirts through the Latin Quarter as unorganized bands of freedom fighters overturn cars and toss Molotov cocktails. Garrel has said that this ghostly hour-long sequence attempts to re-create the documentary footage he himself shot during 1968, and, indeed, the perspective is almost journalistic in its distance. In one long shot, a man and woman embrace in the corner of the frame while cars burn a few meters away. If he had filmed the same scene, Bertolucci would have stylistically emphasized the kissing because, for him, this was a time when sex and politics were inextricably linked. Garrel’s vision is colder but makes more sense with 40 years of hindsight. For him, the romance and sexual liberation come after the revolution, or, more precisely, these elements (along with other distractions like opium and music) shift the revolution’s focus away from the political and toward the personal
And so it is that François falls in love with Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), a pensive girl-with-bangs who is a sculptor and goes to all the right parties. Young François trades his idealistic politics and poetry for romance and an increasingly nihilistic take on bohemianism, moving from the action of the Latin Quarter to the inertia of opium dens and artists’ lofts. By the film’s end, the events of May ’68 seem like more of a head trip (at one point François wonders whether it’s possible to "make the revolution for the working class despite the working class") than a true revolution.
Throughout Regular Lovers, there’s an obvious tension in the way Garrel uses ’60s-era new wave conventions (handheld camera, location shooting, etc.) to undercut that same decade’s mythos. But careful, the Paris of this film isn’t that of Breathless. Gone are the exhilarated long shots of boulevards and canals; Garrel pictures the city as a series of shadowy, bare interiors and geometric exteriors — more along the lines of Fritz Lang’s nightmarish visions of Berlin than, say, Cléo from 5 to 7.
Now that we’re seeing the return of the repressed in French culture and cinema (France’s postcolonial legacy haunts Michael Haneke’s Caché as well as at least three films playing at this year’s SFIFF: The Betrayal, I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed, and October 17, 1961), the entropy of Garrel’s narrative arc seems that much more dark and, as Paris burns once again, tragic. Although overlong and sometimes didactic, Regular Lovers reveals a filmmaker impressively responsive to change. SFBG
(Philippe Garrel, France, 2005)
Fri/21, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki
Sun/23, 12:45 p.m., Kabuki
April 29, 8:15 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
Mapping The Descent
What’s worse than being trapped underground? How about being trapped underground with creepy cave dwellers — creepy, hungry cave dwellers? And maybe, just maybe, losing your mind at the same time? Believe the hype: British import The Descent is the scariest movie since The Blair Witch Project, thanks to a killer premise, flawless pacing and casting, and writer-director Neil Marshall’s unconcealed love for the horror genre. Here we present a flowchart of The Descent‘s predecessors and influences.
THE SHINING Any Kubrick fan worth their Grady girls impersonation will recognize The Descent‘s visual — and thematic — nods to the classic. Let’s just say that anytime a car is creeping along a mountain road and shot from above, whatever’s at the end of that road can’t be good.
DELIVERANCE The greatest of all outdoor-adventure-gone-awry films is duly honored here, right down to one character’s Burt Reynolds–<style wet suit. However, The Descent focuses on female friendships, not male bonding — and the unfriendly natives ain’t playing no banjos.
ALIEN Two miles underground, as in space, no one can hear you scream — except monsters and your fellow explorers, who may or may not have your back, no matter what you thought at the beginning of the journey.
DOG SOLDIERS Marshall’s 2002 chiller is also about a group of people caught off guard by unfriendly freaks of nature: army blokes who encounter a pack of werewolves deep in the Scottish woods.
THE CAVE This 2005 also-ran is included here only because it’s a vastly inferior, PG-13 version of the same basic story: spelunkers on a downward spiral. Despite its smaller budget and unknown British cast, The Descent is far more memorable, not to mention way gorier.
AND THE REST Unless you’re too terrified, claustrophobic, or grossed out to pay close attention while you’re watching, keep your peepers peeled for homages to Apocalypse Now, Carrie, The Thing, Night of the Living Dead, the Lord of the Rings films, and Nosferatu.<\!s><z5><h110>SFBG<h$><z$>
(Neil Marshall, England, 2005)
April 29, 11:30 p.m., Kabuki
May 1, 4 p.m., Kabuki
Tsai me up, Tsai me down
I could have sworn that the late Susan Sontag had labeled Tsai Ming-liang a fraud. I even looked up Sontag’s New York Times piece "The Decay of Cinema," as well as the longer essay "A Century of Cinema" that was published in the 2001 collection Where the Stress Falls, for proof. But no such dismissal was to be found. And here I had formed a whole argument: "How ironic," I thought, "that an essay by Sontag about the demise of cinema disapproved of Tsai, and that around the time of her own passing Tsai would unveil perhaps the greatest film about the decay of cinema to date, 2003’s Good Bye, Dragon Inn."
It turned out I misattributed the remark — in fact, it was a film historian who dismissed Tsai as "your archetypal pretentious festival fraud." Yet I wonder if Sontag cared as much for Tsai as she did, say, Hou Hsiao-hsien, since Tsai has participated in the very "internationalizing of financing" that she laments in A Century of Cinema, noting its destructive effect on her beloved Andrei Tarkovksy. Tsai’s Taiwan-France coproduction What Time Is It There? (2001) might be the weakest of his works, yet there’s still something to be loved about its presentation of Paris as a tourist’s hell, even if Sontag might not have cared for such a treatment of that city.
But enough of Craig Seligman–<\d>style routines: I’ve come to praise Tsai, not to answer Sontag’s erudition with casual conversation. Creating a follow-up to the majestic loneliness of Good Bye Dragon Inn could not have been an easy task, and yet Tsai has done just that with another Taiwan-France coproduction, The Wayward Cloud, a work that is as glaringly vulgar as Dragon was cavernous and shadowy, as sexually graphic as Dragon was furtive, as contemporary as Dragon was nostalgic, as disturbing as Dragon was melancholic, and as hilarious as Dragon was … hilarious.
One of the first thoughts I had while watching The Wayward Cloud was this: Matthew Barney can eat Tsai’s shorts.
A few weeks ago, a Guardian writer fantasized about a DVD box issue devoted to a pair of contemporary directors, and I thought, "It really has come to this: A devoted young movie lover can’t even realistically imagine a rep house program devoted to the career of one of his current favorite filmmakers." The Wayward Cloud is about to play the palatial Castro — not the TV at the local video store or the flat-screen in someone’s apartment — and I can’t wait to be there. In fact, I will fantasize about a film series devoted to all of Tsai’s movies to date, the kind that places like the Castro used to give to directors like Fassbinder. The type of event where a certain breed of celluloid-loving maniac could meet up every night and become friends over shared dark laughter, drugs, you name it.
I can’t think of another contemporary director whose work would flourish so well with that type of presentation. Take Tsai’s relationship to his muse, Lee Kang-sheng, who has starred in every one of his features to date as the character Hsiao-kang. In The Wayward Cloud, Hsiao-kang is dissolute, and there is something really disturbing and honest about his look, and the way Tsai in turn looks at it. There is something deep — not fraudulent — in the way Tsai has tracked this young man through passages of his life, in the way What Time Is It There? was built from Lee’s grief and loss, for instance. There is something awesome I can’t yet pinpoint about the way The Wayward Cloud, with its jaw-dropping (anti-) climax, manages to rhyme off of the crying-jag final shot of Tsai’s Vive l’Amour (1994), the harsh porn appraisal of his follow-up The River (1997), and the musical, apocalyptic rains of the Tsai movie after that, 1998’s The Hole.
Tsai’s seven features may be a cup-and-ball game stretched over 12-plus hours. But you could say life is a cup-and-ball game too, and the harsh truth is that The Wayward Cloud, a major work by one of the best filmmakers on the planet today, does not have a distributor. It might not play anywhere in the Bay Area after it screens at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Tsai’s movies sell tickets at festivals, but in commercial runs they result in the kind of empty house that he explored so tellingly in Dragon. Yes, Tsai Ming-liang is "the quintessential festival" genius, all right. See his movies while you can.<\!s><z5><h110>SFBG<h$><z$>
THE WAYWARD CLOUD
(Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France, 2005)
Sun/23, 9:30 p.m., Castro
Tues/25, 10:15 p.m., Kabuki
April 26, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki
April 28, 9:15 p.m., PFA
Perhaps Love (Peter Ho-Sun Chan, Hong Kong, 2005). The pan in pan-Asian here stands for panic: This meta–love story within a metamusical tries to please everyone and runs with damn near everything, except sparkly red shoes, and fails at almost all it attempts. Hong Kong director Peter Ho-Sun Chan (Comrades: Almost a Love Story) oversees players like Chinese actress Zhou Xun (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress), Takeshi Kaneshiro (House of Flying Daggers), Bollywood choreographer Farah Khan, and cocinematographer Christopher Doyle, but is he really to blame? Only Kaneshiro manages to project a glimmer of real emotion in this pointless East-kowtows-to-West, torture-by-style exercise, glaringly poisoned by contempo-musicals like Chicago and Moulin Rouge. 7 p.m., Castro (Kimberly Chun)
Sa-kwa (Kang Yi-kwan, South Korea, 2005). In Oasis and A Good Lawyer’s Wife, Moon So-ri took on emotionally and physically daring roles, playing characters who flouted convention. She confirms her rep in Sa-kwa as a woman torn between a boyfriend who drops her while they are at a great height (a gesture she repays) and a husband who treats her like an acquisition. Director Kang Yi-kwan keeps the handheld camera up in Moon’s face, and she more than delivers, though the symbiosis between director and performer doesn’t quite match that between Lee Yoon-ki and Kim Ji-su in 2004’s less conventional This Charming Girl. 4:45 p.m., Kabuki. Also May 1, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki; and May 4, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki (Johnny Ray Huston)
*Circles of Confusion (various). This vaguely defined and stylistically varied program of shorts contains at least one first-rate local work, Cathy Begien’s Relative Distance, which expertly mines the humor and pain within family ties through a direct-address approach. There is absolutely no doubt which of the 10 movies here is the virtuoso mindblower: a strobing, percussive blast from start to finish — even if it stutters, stops, and restarts like a machine possessed by a wild spirit — Peter Tscherkassky’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine takes The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and makes it better, badder, and so ugly it’s gorgeous. 3:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also Mon/24, 4:15 p.m. Kabuki (Huston)
*Factotum (Bent Hamer, Norway, 2005). Unfortunately titled but cleverly plotted, director Bent Hamer’s paean to Charles Bukowski revels in the boozy textures of the author’s work. The movie’s meandering vignettes draw from various novels, which makes sense since old Chuck’s work can fairly be said to comprise one sprawling, bawdy picaresque. Matt Dillon is fine as the author’s fictionalized self, but Lili Taylor makes it — she uses her throaty whisper to excellent effect as the antihero’s sometimes lover. Beyond the performances, Factotum gives pause to the way Bukowski’s episodic, prose-poetry narration style has influenced indie cinema conventions, especially of the sort practiced by screenwriter Jim Stark’s longtime collaborator, Jim Jarmusch. 9 p.m., Kabuki. Also April 30, 3 p.m., Kabuki (Max Goldberg)
The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai (Mitsuru Meike, Japan, 2004). A hooker who titillates clients by acting like a naughty teacher winds down her workday with a froofy coffee drink. Suddenly, a pair of baddies exchange gunfire right in the middle of the café. Though she’s pegged between the eyes, the lass somehow survives; in short order, she’s humped by a cop, demonstrates Will Hunting–<\d>style math prowess, and quotes Descartes. So what’s up with that weird little object she’s got rattling around in her enormous handbag? This pink film’s weirdly unflattering sex scenes raise a different question: So who cares? 11:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Tues/25, 1:15 p.m., Kabuki (Cheryl Eddy)
*Heart of the Game (Ward Serrill, USA, 2005). "Sink your teeth in their necks! Draw blood!" That’s no vampire, just Bill Relser, the tax professor turned girls’ basketball coach, rallying his team. Documentary filmmaker Ward Serrill clearly absorbed the lesson, grabbing us by the necks with his extraordinary saga of the Roosevelt High Roughriders. Over six seasons the team wins and loses, soaring to unimaginable victories and crashing into heartbreak. Serrill pays close attention, on court and off, and ultimately delivers a smartly paced chronicle that nails the socialization of girls, the costs of playing ball, and the perils of female adolescence. The spectacular basketball is an added bonus. Hoop Dreams, move over! Noon, Castro. Also Tues/25, 4 p.m., Kabuki (B. Ruby Rich)
In Bed (Mat??as Bize, Chile/Germany, 2005). Over the course of a single night, strangers Daniela (Blanca Lewin) and Bruno (Gonzalo Valenzuela) reveal themselves to one another in guarded conversation and periodic bouts of lovemaking. Director Mat??as Bize and writer Julio Rojas have trouble stirring up enough genuinely surprising (or moving) drama to break down the fourth wall of this dual portrait; unlike the similar but superior Before Sunrise, In Bed never transcends its own dramatic construct. 9:15 p.m., Castro. Also Mon/24, 3:15 p.m., Kabuki (Goldberg)
*Le Petit Lieutenant (Xavier Beauvois, France, 2005). Skinned of pop songs and even a score, decorated in grays and blues, and populated by more realistic gendarmes than one is likely to see outside le station, this clear-eyed, no-merde look at the career of an eager, recent police academy graduate (Jalil Lespert), his fellow cops, and his tough but vulnerable recovering alcoholic of a chief investigator (Nathalie Baye) is less a policier than an anthropologically minded character study. A student of Baye’s Detective commandant Jean-Luc Godard as well as Spielberg and Tarantino, director Xavier Beauvois mixes an almost clinical attention to detail with a genuine warmth for his characters and has a knack for tackling the knotty racial dynamics in today’s Paris. 3:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also Tues/25, 6:45 p.m., Kabuki; and April 26, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki (Chun)
*The Life I Want (Giuseppe Piccioni, Italy, 2005). Here is the engrossing meta–<\d>love story that fest opener Perhaps Love wants, or rather needs — though that film’s clumsy kitsch pageantry would have completely spoiled this refreshingly mature romance, which delicately references both Camille and Day for Night, Visconti and Laura Antonelli. At a screen test, all-too-established actor Stefano (Luigi Lo Cascio) is drawn in by the tremulous magnetism and churning emotions of the troubled, unknown actress Laura (Sandra Ceccarelli). Director Giuseppe Piccioni brings an elegant, hothouse intensity to the on-again, off-again, on-again tryst while speaking eloquently about the actor’s life, the hazards of the Method, and the pitfalls of professional jealousy — and giving both actors, particularly the impressive Ceccarelli, a layered mise-en-scène with which to work. 9:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Mon/24, 8:30 p.m., Kabuki; April 27, 6 p.m., Kabuki; and April 30, 7 p.m., Aquarius (Chun)
Perpetual Motion (Ning Ying, China, 2005). Ning Ying explores the changes Western-style capitalism has brought to Chinese society in a gathering of four privileged, affluent, fictional ladies — played by some of the real-life republic’s best-known media personalities and businesswomen. They’ve assembled for tea at the posh home of Niuniu (Hung Huang), who’s got a hidden agenda — she’s invited these "friends" over to figure out which one is secretly boinking her husband. There’s some interesting political-cultural commentary around the edges here. But it’s disappointing that a female director would do what Ning soon does, reducing her characters to campy, bitch-quipping, weeping-inside gorgons in a pocket-sized variation on hoary catfight classic The Women. 6:45 p.m., Kabuki. Also Mon/24, 9:25 p.m., PFA; April 26, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki; and May 1, 9:30 p.m., Aquarius (Harvey)
*Taking Father Home (Ying Liang, China, 2005). In Ying Liang’s engrossing debut, urban decay and an impending flood follow protagonist Xu Yun (Xu Yun) around every turn of his doomed search for his absent father. The film — shot on video without the funding, or the approval, of the Chinese government — takes a no-frills approach, its only indulgences being Ying’s dark, quirky humor and obvious love of the long shot. Much of his action unfolds from afar, allowing the countryside and industrial wasteland of the Sichuan province to create a surprisingly rich atmosphere for this simple, effective story. 1:30 p.m., PFA. Also April 30, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki; and May 3, 6:15 p.m., Kabuki (Jonathan L. Knapp)
*Turnabout (Hal Roach, USA, 1940). Each convinced they’re on the low end of a marital totem pole, Carole Landis and John Hubbard say some hasty words in front of a Hindu deity’s statue. Voila! Husband and wife find themselves swapping bodies. This Freaky Friday precursor was a risqué surprise in the censorious climate of 1940 Hollywood and for that reason was denounced by the Catholic Legion of Decency as "dangerous to morality, wholesome concepts of human relationships, and the dignity of man." Why? ’Cause the guy acts femme and the girl acts butch, that’s why. Directed by comedy veteran Hal Roach, this seldom revived curiosity is too hit-and-miss to rate as a neglected classic, but it’s vintage fun nonetheless. 3 p.m., Castro. Also Sun/23, 6:15 p.m., PFA (Harvey)
*Workingman’s Death (Michael Glawogger, Austria/Germany, 2005). This five(-and-a-half)-chapter documentary examines manual labor of the most backbreaking variety: Ukrainian coal miners scraping out a dangerous living; Indonesian sulfur miners pausing from their toxic-looking quarry to pose for tourist cameras; Pakistani workers philosophically approaching the task of tearing apart an oil tanker ("Of course, this is a shitty job, but even so we get along well"); and, in the film’s most graphic segment, Nigerian butchers slogging through an open-air slaughterhouse. A Chinese factory and a factory-turned-park in Germany are also on the tour. Without narration, the film places emphasis on its images, which are often surprisingly striking. 3:45 p.m., PFA. Also April 30, 9 p.m., Kabuki; and May 4, 5:30 p.m., Kabuki (Eddy)
All about Love (Daniel Yu, Hong Kong, 2005). If you’ve got the fever for the flavor of Andy Lau, you can’t miss this melodrama, with the HK hunk in two roles: the clean-shaven doctor grieving over his dead wife, and the goateed fashion designer who realizes his true feelings after abandoning his sick wife, a heart-transplant patient. That the story lines intersect, bringing forth slo-mo shots of breaking glass and dripping tears, should surprise no one; Lau, of course, emerges as swoon-worthy as ever. 4:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also April 26, 5:15 p.m., Kabuki (Eddy)
*The Eagle (Clarence Brown, USA, 1927). Originally released in 1925, The Eagle is a spry star-vehicle for heartthrob Rudolph Valentino (that name!). Despite being set in decidedly unsexy 18th-century Russia, Valentino prances through as Vladimir, a dashing Cossack guard who disguises himself as the Black Eagle (as well as a French tutor) to exact justice upon a plundering landlord. In the process he finds romance with that same landlord’s daughter (Vilma Banky) and trouble with Russia’s queen (played with Garbo cool by Louise Dresser). The Alloy Orchestra performs a new score for this classic adventure story. 7 p.m., Castro (Goldberg)
*Live ’n’ Learn (various). You’ll find two excellent Bay Area–<\d>made movies in this program of short works. Tracing a heart-wrenching path away from — and yet toward — the stabbing at the end of Gimme Shelter, Sam Green’s painfully perceptive tribute to Meredith Hunter, Lot 63, Grave C is one of the best films at this year’s festival, period. The brightness of the cinematography in Natalija Vekic’s Lost and Found is as unique as its object-obsessed dive into memories of one Schwinn banana-seat summer — any kinks in the dialogue or narrative are trumped by the atmospheric potency of the visuals. 1 p.m., Kabuki. Also May 2, 1:30 p.m., Kabuki (Huston)
*Waiting (Rashid Masharawi, Palestine/France, 2005). A burnt-out Palestinian film director, an ex–TV journalist returned from abroad, and an unworldly local cameraman set out to audition actors at refugee camps in Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon on behalf of the National Palestinian Theatre (which promises, with relentless optimism, to open soon). "How can we really make films in this situation?" the director asks — a serious question when military occupation, dispossession, closed borders, broken families, and deferred dreams confront the impulses of human hearts and an art form premised on action. Filmmaker Rashid Masharawi (himself born in Gaza’s Shati camp) doesn’t always avoid staginess, but his acute sense of irony and his generous lens — opening onto a landscape of ordinary Palestinian faces — manage a persuasive emotional and thematic complexity. 3:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also Tues/25, 4 p.m., Kabuki (Robert Avila)
House of Himiko (Isshin Inudo, Japan, 2005). Young Saori (Kou Shibasaki) can’t afford to pass up a part-time job at a private old-age home. But she doesn’t have to like it: The residents are all gay men, and they include the father (Min Tanaka) whose abandonment long ago left Saori a grudge-keeping homophobe. But her prejudices eventually melt amid these aging queens’ wacky and poignant antics. This is the kind of movie that does soften up mainstream audiences’ attitudes, if only because it panders to them so carefully — the ol’ ’mos here are all cuddly, harmless, and postsexual, despite their occasional trash talk. For more sophisticated viewers, the cutesy stereotypes and maudlin moments may outweigh director Isshin Inudo’s good intentions and passages of low-key charm. 6:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also April 27, 5:45 p.m., Castro (Harvey)
*Runners High (Justine Jacob and Alex da Silva, USA, 2006). Inspirational sports movies are hard to beat, and this doc about Students Run Oakland, a group that trains high schoolers for the Los Angeles marathon, is particularly potent. Rough neighborhoods, unstable home lives, and plain old out-of-shapeness provide obstacles for the dedicated kids profiled here, but the training benefits nearly all who stick with it. "If you can accomplish a marathon, you can accomplish anything" would be a clichéd thing for a coach to say in a narrative film; in the context of this doc, the words feel truly sincere. 7 p.m., Kabuki. Also April 27, 10 a.m., Kabuki; April 29, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki; and May 2, 8:30 p.m., El Rio (Eddy)
Looking for Madonna (John de Rantau, Indonesia, 2005). Part potboiler romance, part quirky street-level character study, and part gritty message-movie about the fears that continue to surround HIV/AIDS — Looking for Madonna plays it multiple ways. In this, the gangly, freewheeling, and well-meaning feature debut of Indonesian director John de Rantau, Madonna is a pop star singing, "Don’t Cry for Me, Indonesia," as well as a local prostitute prized for her fair skin. The Virgin Mother, however, is nowhere to be found — although AIDS-infected Papua teen Joseph tries his best to reach a state of grace, aided by his cheeky, bawdy chum Minus. 7:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also April 29, 12:45 p.m., Kabuki (Chun)
*News from Afar (Ricardo Benet, Mexico, 2005). Just as Carlos Reygadas’s Japon gave viewers ample time to contemplate its maker’s talent and ponder his pretense, so does Ricardo Benet’s first feature as it turns a man’s relationship to landscape into an existential equation. When that landscape is as broke as a nameless saltpeter town or as forbidding as Mexico City, can it be anything else? Whether Benet will follow this movie with something as sublime and ridiculous as Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven is unclear, but there is no doubt that he is talented, and that News from Afar can slap a drowsy viewer upside the head with the full weight of fate gone bad. 7 p.m., PFA. Also April 29, 6 p.m., Kabuki; and May 2, 3 p.m., Kabuki (Huston)
The L word: Lesley
I hear car horns behind the voice of Lesley Gore on the phone, which makes sense, since the woman who sang "It’s My Party" and "You Don’t Own Me" is in New York. The Big Apple is also where Gore first learned how to hit the charts, with no less a tutor than producer and arranger Quincy Jones. "It’s extraordinary that a man of his distinction could put himself in the shoes of a 16-year-old kid," Gore says. "That was his art, in a way. There may have been a 14-year difference between us, but he never talked down to me."
Anecdotes about Q figure in Gore’s current live performances, which also makes sense, since the girl who sang "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" and "Judy’s Turn to Cry" in the key of A — "If Quincy didn’t see the veins popping in my neck, he wouldn’t be happy" — is now a smoky-voiced woman working in jazzier, Jones-ier realms on the new CD Ever Since (Engine Company). "Quincy would often call me on a Friday and say, "Lil‘ Bits, meet me at Basin Street at 8"," Gore remembers. "We’d go see Peggy [Lee] or Ella [Fitzgerald] or Dinah Washington. He’d say, "Listen to this opening number — this is what an opening number should do." He took mentoring seriously. He wanted me to understand."
To understand Lesley Gore, you could check out Susan J. Douglas’s excellent Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, a rumination on pop culture that makes it easy to place ’‘60s girl– pop records by Gore and others on a continuum that led to the feminist revolution. Or you could just check out the music. Far from a crybaby, Gore paved the way for the rebellious likes of Joan Jett. "I rather liked Joan’s interpretation [of "‘You Don’t Own Me"]," ‘]," Gore says. "Dusty [Springfield] also covered that record almost minutes after it came out."
Ah, Dusty. Gore and Springfield had things besides talent in common, even if it’s taken decades for the news to come out in print. "I did actually come to know Dusty when I was living in LA during the ’‘70s," Gore recalls. "They are doing a musical [Dusty] of Dusty’s life. Dusty’s manager, Vicki Wickham, is a dear friend of mine, and they consulted her."
One musical has already drawn material from Gore’s life for material, though her thoughts about Allison Anders’s 1996 movie Grace of My Heart aren’t fond ones. "Actually, nothing rang absolutely true in that movie," she says. "The actual history is that I didn’t know I was gay until after college," she says.. "So whatever they put in [the movie] was more of a projected scenario than a reality. They asked me to write a song [for the movie], and it wasn’t a completely pleasant experience. I realized they asked so they could exploit my name. Then they had the lack of decency to pretty much not invite me to the [movie’s] opening." Needless to say, Gore’s memories of working with what she calls "the Fame family" — and co–penning Irene Cara’s "Out Here oOn My Own" — are happier.
As for today, the woman who has recently helped soundtrack The L Word and host In the Life is ready to hit the road for San Francisco with her band. "‘"Judy’s Turn to Cry" ‘ has completely erupted for me as new song, after taking out those horn and strings and bopp–y things," she says, discussing the "stripped-down" approach she takes to new tunes and classic hits. "You’re gonna get a show we’ve been doing steadily for 4 or 5 months for months— it’s grown in dimension, width, and height, and everyone is going to have a great time. Some people may have to turn their hearing aids up, but that’s what friends are for." (Johnny Ray Huston)
Sat/22––Sun/23, 8 p.m.
Brava Theater Center
2781 24th St., SF
$35–$–40 ($60 with includes Gala after–party)
For a Q&A with Lesley Gore, go to Noise, the sfbg.com music blog.
Come in from the cold
These days, folks make records faster than nervous singer-songwriters forget the words to their own tunes.
Jenny Lewis forged the delectable, bite-size Rabbit Fur Coat in the time between hairdos — I mean, between Rilo Kiley’s increasing obligations — finishing lyrics on the plane. Will Oldham churns out projects faster than I can spot them. And that’s all well and good. These people have their voices and they’re sticking with them. But, luckily, San Francisco’s Michael Talbott and the Wolfkings took their sweet time constructing Freeze–Die–Come to Life (Antenna Farm), a panoramic realization of earthy songs that have been floating around in the gentle, gifted Talbott’s head for years.
The resulting depth is fantastic. Underneath sonic icebergs freezing and melting and taking form again, there are oceans upon oceans, dark worlds within illuminate worlds. The many life-forms on this record swirl around us like the icy but essential winds in the opener, "Winter Streets."
"I’d been kicking these songs around for a while," Talbott says, speaking in a Mission District café on a break from his work in film restoration. The record would probably not have manifested but for the encouragement of Court and Spark’s M.C. Taylor and Scott Hirsch, good friends of Talbott’s. They’d heard his tunes over the years and believed in his vision. "They offered to be my backing band, and we started playing. Then they offered to make a record for me," he says with gratitude.
Taylor and Hirsch are the producers and a definitive part of the extensive backup band. "We didn’t have any financial constraints. I had as much time as they were willing to put in," Talbott acknowledges. They tweaked different parts over time, recording much of the album at Alabama Street Station, in San Francisco, throughout a one-year period. Oakland’s Antenna Farm Records is becoming a major indie folk club for the young and clear. It makes an excellent, publike home for this project.
There is certainly a lack of constraint here, recalling the egoless, mystic lake and hilltop murder ballads passed from singer to singer in the British folk tradition. None of the stories feel forced. Like many old tales, Freeze–Die–Come to Life flirts with darkness, caresses it, and then looks it considerately in the face. The record is modern in its focus on the fate of our hearts in often chilling, contemporary urban life, but ancient and, dare I say, traditional in its spaciousness. Keep it on for a day or two, and you’re bound to think you just saw wispy wolves scurrying around the edges of Dolores Park.
The wolfking was a mythical creature said to roam the hills of Southern California, transforming painful realities into glowing amber stones, which it then spit onto the hillside. Hard work, but easy and effective when these particular Wolfkings pace it so well. In the making of the album, one song, "The Passenger," naturally split into two, which, Talbott says, act as interludes. In "Passenger II," which comes first and is enlivened by unexpected chordal resolutions, Talbott sounds like a more grounded Leonard Cohen: "I will watch you start a revolution / But I will not take a side … I am the passenger / Leaving something behind." Tender harmonies abound throughout the disc, whether painting a picture of angelic abduction, on "Angel of Light," or brewing a potent cup of twilight tea, on "Goodnight." I shudder with delight every time "Angel of Light" reaches the trembling vocal climax: "Will you regret / Each pirouette / That you’ve turned?"
"The record is hushed and acoustic," Talbott confesses when I ask about the upcoming record-release show. "It’s good to listen to by yourself. But that doesn’t always translate when you play bars." Gathering from the talented local flock that plays on the album, Talbott formed an electric six-piece. The live shows are "louder and more aggressive," he declares, adding that no one in the audience will "get bored." And neither will the musicians, the tricksters, or the wolf-eyed shape-shifters, because each song has been specially reworked to thrive in the live environment.
In a nation where every viewpoint is clearly marked and where Mark Twain’s early take on the budding tourist industry, Innocents Abroad, is quickly losing its humor because we’re all like that these days, it’s refreshing to see Talbott and his brethren inhabiting the musical landscape so fully, not content to be tourists. It’s like, well, freezing, dying, and, while doing nothing but listening, coming to life. SFBG
Michael Talbott and the Wolfkings CD release party
With Last of the Blacksmiths, Citay, Broker/Dealer, Jeffrodisiac,
and artwork by Isota Records’ Nathaniel Russell
Thurs/27, 8 p.m.
119 Utah, SF
SONIC REDUCER I love the fact that whenever you leave this country, you immediately come to the discomfiting realization that … you’re such a damaged by-product of capitalist America. Case in point: Last week I gazed upon the beauteous, barren, and treeless expanses of Iceland, miles and miles of rock, scrubby grass, and mirrorlike pools of ice. Iceland in the spring is the chill, brown-white-and-blue equivalent of the Southwestern desert, austere yet fragile in the face of certain global warming, and barely containing an undercurrent of volcanic energy reminiscent of Hawaii’s Big Island. So why do I look at these moonscapes and wonder where all the people are and why there aren’t any houses, strip malls, or ski resorts out here? Why do I look at untrammeled land and see real estate?
Reykjavik: I’m here on a press trip with other media field operatives from BPM, OK!, Nylon, and Vapors, studying the club culture, seeing the sights, taking in gutfuls of fresh, fishy air by the wharf, gazing at snowcapped mountains, and perusing menus in shock. I just couldn’t help blurting a culturally insensitive, "Omigod, that’s My Little Pony!" when I saw the roast Icelandic foal with a tian of mushrooms, caramelized apples, and calvados sauce on the bill of traditional Icelandic restaurant Laekjarbrekka.
Likewise, the Icelanders probably can’t help turning those cute puffins and herb-fed lambs into meaty main courses to warm them through those long, dark winters. The real, long-haired, sweet-faced Icelandic horses turned out to be more engaging and curious than I’d ever imagined, strolling up to our group out in the wilds near Thingvellir to examine the hipsters (and hip-hoppsters) and be ooohed over. "They’re more like dogs than horses!" our Icelandair rep, Michael Raucheisen, exclaimed.
After a scrumptious Asian fusion meal at the elegant, cream-colored, deco Apotek (started with kangaroo tartare and finished off with a mistakenly ordered $125 bottle of Gallo cab; travel tip number one: Reykjavik is not the spot to sample California vino), our wild bunch was more into checking out a local strip club than settling in with a good book like Dustin Long’s charming Agatha Christie parody, Icelander (McSweeney’s), or the catalog for the National Museum of Iceland’s current photo exhibit of fishing village life in the southeast, "Raetur Runtsins" ("Roots of the Runtur"). We were more likely to price the local, ahem, pharmaceutical offerings ("$175 for a gram of coke is not cheap!" was one assessment) at the city’s nightclubs than shop for runic love charms or grandmotherly woolens.
One reason for the aforementioned vast, unpopulated expanses: There are only 300,000 people in the entire country — albeit well educated, well employed, relatively youthful, and wired. (Is it any wonder this isle has the highest concentration of broadband users in the world?) Most of the youth culture was happening in the capital, where about a third of the population lives it up, sucks down Brennivin and macerated strawberry mojitos, dances with compact little hand motions that resemble a funky elfin hand jive. I must confess that, watching Deep Dish’s Ali "Dubfire" Shirazinia skillfully work Iceland native Björk into his house mix at NASA, I’ve rarely seen more hot, seemingly straight men dancing, en masse, on the floor, on the mezzanine, in the booths, every damn where. Where did they get the energy — from a geothermal pipeline or those mischievous sprites called Julelads?
As we piled into the van to steep at the sulfur-scented but soul-soothing Blue Lagoon and study the brand-spankin’ Icelandic Idol Snorri Snorrason (I kid you not) serenading the soakers lagoonside with Jack Johnson–like tunes, I could only sit and plot my next visit — possible when Icelandair resumes its summer flights from SF in May? It’ll be too late to catch late April’s new Rite of Spring alt-jazz and folk music festival, but not for October’s Iceland Airwaves music fest (Oct. 18 through 22, www.icelandairwaves.com), where big tickets like the Flaming Lips have filled the city’s venues alongside Icelanders such as Sigur R??s. I’ll have to catch these new Icelandic rock artists:
Ampop, My Delusions (Dennis)
This trio was getting the royal hype in Reykjavik — posters were plastered everywhere. How nice to find that their jaunty yet dramatic English-language orchestral psych-rock traverses the dreamier side of Coldplay and Doves.
Mammut, Mammut (Smekkleysa)
Polished though quirky, this bass-driven, all-lady post-punk fivesome takes a bite of the Sugarcubes, Siouxsie Sioux, and the Raincoats, with plenty of all-Icelandic lyrical histrionics.
Storsveit Nix Noltes, Orkideur Havai (12 Tonar; to be released on Bubblecore)
Last glimpsed at South by Southwest’s Paw Tracks/Fat Cat showcase, these Animal Collective tourmates draw inspiration for their instrumentals from Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and the Balkans.
Mugison, Mugimama — Is This Monkey Music? (12 Tonar)
The Mark Linkous of Icelandic rock digs into the raw stuff on this acclaimed full-length. He also recently scored Baltasar Kormakur’s film A Little Trip to Heaven, reinterpreting the Tom Waits track of the same name.
For the real folkways, check out Raddir/Voices: Recordings of Folk Songs from the Archives of the Arni Magnusson Institute in Iceland (Smekkleysa/Arni Magnusson Institute), which includes a great booklet on the music, collected between 1903 and 1973 and revolving around Icelandic sagas and cautionary fables of monsters, ogres, and child-snatching ravens. SFBG
CH-CH-CHECK IT OUT
Anthony Hamilton, Heather Headley, and Van Hunt
Hamilton killed, from all reports, at SXSW, and we all know how good that Hunt album is. Wed/19 and Mon/24, 7:30 p.m., Paramount, 2025 Broadway, Oakl. $39–$67.75. www.ticketmaster.com
M’s and the Deathray Davies
Chicago cock-rockers meet quirk poppers. Wed/19, 8 p.m., Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell, SF. $8. (415) 861-2011
The chairs are pushed back when this band of Tuaregs, the indigenous people from Eastern Mali, break out the guitars. Wed/19, 8 and 10 p.m. Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakl. $14–$20. (510) 238-9200
The gritty girlfriend that might be the next Mary adds a late show. Fri/21, 11:30 p.m., The Grand, 1300 Van Ness, SF. $32.50. (415) 864-0815
The ensemble premieres a collaboration with Walter Kitundu, takes on a Sigur R??s number, and teams with Matmos on "For Terry Riley." Fri/21–Sat/22, 8 p.m., Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF. $18–$35. (415) 978-ARTS
Saddle Creek’s electro-folk-pop sweetheart steps out from Azure Ray. Sat/22, 9 p.m., Cafe du Nord, 2170 Market, SF. $10. (415) 861-5016 SFBG
Tossing the bone
CHEAP EATS Crawdad de la Cooter has a new squeeze. I called him up and said, "Hey, man, let’s go eat, huh? You hungry?"
And he said what anyone would have said in his position. He said, "Who is this?"
"It’s the Chicken Farmer," I said. "Crawdad’s ex?"
We hadn’t met yet, but we knew enough about each other, I reckoned, him being her new squeeze, and I maybe being her best friend. Why we hadn’t met yet didn’t have nothing to do, I don’t think, with him or with me. That’s why I was going over her head, because they’d been seeing each other for months, or at any rate long enough to have already had a falling out and a falling back in.
"It’s up to you," I said. "You can invite Crawdad, or not."
He did. We went to K.C. Barbecue in Berkeley. I had wanted to go to Penny’s Caribbean Café, especially since Crawdad was coming, because then it would have been like a double date. Believe me, no two humans can love each other as head-over-heelingly as I love Penny’s curry goat roti.
Of course I’m fond of barbecue. But I eat barbecue at least once a day at home. I eat barbecue so much that I piss smoke. I eat barbecue so much that I am barbecue. That’s cool, but it ain’t love. It’s like masturbation. When I eat barbecue, my eyes are still going to roll back in my head and my toes are going to curl and all my cells are still going to go, "Yes!" But while all that’s happening, chances are I’m fantasizing about curry goat roti. Penny’s Caribbean Café.
How did I get here?
This is a review of K.C. Barbecue, my new favorite barbecue joint. The straightforward, tomatoey sauce is nothing to write home to Arthur Bryant about, or even across the bay to Cliff about. But that only says that much more in favor of the meat. The ribs are perfectly smoked, Patsy Cline-ing to the touch of your teeth. You don’t even need teeth. Gums will do. I’m not even sure you need gums. The meat might fall to pieces on your tongue and melt into it like butter, or curry goat roti.
Amazingly, for pig meat this tenderly smoked, it doesn’t lose anything in succulence. In fact, K.C.’s ribs may well not even need any sauce — which is about as indicative an indicator of excellent barbecue as there can be. I can’t vouch for the brisket, because they were all out. The new squeeze did toss me a bone of his chicken, and even that had life to it. But you know, barbecue’s hard to get right consistently, nobody knows better than I do, so you gotta have the sauce, just in case.
Oh, that reminds me, before I get too far onto the topic, I did get barbecued eggs down. I’m not saying the invention can’t be improved upon; I’m saying: Pay attention. There’s a window — more like a pinhole — of opportunity, where the white part will have set and the yellow will not yet have turned into a superball. Juicy, smoky, with Spanish rice this time, over a homemade tortilla . . . Huevos dancheros, take two. Three, counting the whole egg I put in the smoker once and forgot about — but not counting the countless ones I’ve cracked open and directly onto (and through) the grill, for the highbrow entertainment of many a dinner guest.
Back to K.C.: The beans were good, the Wonder Bread was white, and they had orange pop.
"So, what did you think?" Crawdad says to me over the phone next morning.
"Well, the beans were good and the Wonder Bread was white," I said. "Sauce not great, but the ribs —”
"You know what I mean," she said.
I did. I didn’t say it like this, but I loved Crawdad’s new squeeze for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that I love everyone. I mean, we’re all in this together, you know what I mean? And I loved the guy’s favorite barbecue, and I loved his laugh, and you know his heart’s in the right place, or else he wouldn’t be crawdoodlin’ the great Crawdad de la Cooter. Best of all, though: He ain’t like me. If she’d of gone and buddied up with some other bowlegged starving artistical pirate-headed Ping-Pong-playing backyard philosophizing tranny-ass barbecued chicken farmer with a Chevy Sprint pickup truck, that might of maybe been tough. SFBG
Tue.–Thu., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–midnight
2613 San Pablo, Berk.
Credit cards not accepted
A Twinkie defense?
A question too seldom pondered in these parts might be put as follows: Do twinkies eat Twinkies? The latter, of course, is the iconic cream-filled cake from Hostess; the former, a term for decorative if not decorous young men who can often be found at parties thrown by rich old queens with wine cellars full of Napa cabernets. And the answer to the question is almost certainly no, at least not if the twinkie ("twink" is a butch truncation — see Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City) is interested in maintaining his value on the sociosexual market. This is because Twinkies, like so many of their near relations on the supermarket’s junk food shelves, are bad for you, and may I be forgiven for being the bearer of this truly stunning news.
As a child in the 1960s I liked Twinkies well enough, but I have not eaten one for decades nor even thought about them for years, not until a press release arrived the other day like a bolt from the blue, announcing that Ten Speed Press — of all presses! — is bringing out The Twinkies Cookbook. I have not yet seen the book, so perhaps it will turn out to be a fabulous joke, but the press release is not reassuring, with its references to recipes for Twinkies-pecan bananas Foster, pumpkin-Twinkie bread pudding, Twinkie burritos, and chicken-raspberry Twinkie salad — all of them, apparently, submitted by red-blooded, star-spangled, born-on-the-Fourth-of-July American Twinkie lovers.
Since the Twinkie is famous for its long shelf life and (unlike the twinkie) its sponginess, my thoughts turned immediately to trans fat, the hydrogenated vegetable oil that is one of the most artery-clogging substances you can eat but, until the health furor of the past few years, has been immensely helpful to the food industry in keeping packaged baked goods moist and salable. In the last year or two, many junk food makers have responded to public pressure by phasing out trans fats with alacrity; would I find that the Twinkie had been upgraded too?
No, alas. A quick trip to a neighborhood market and a quick scan of the (lengthy) list of ingredients in Twinkies revealed the words hydrogenated and shortening. End of inquiry: When you see either of those words, you move on, whether you are or were a twinkie, or even if you aren’t or weren’t. SFBG
The burger hopper
The hamburger has a certain Zelig quality in America: It turns up all over the place, in guises high and low, at fancy metropolitan restaurants and greasy truck stops on the outskirts of every Podunk and Palookaville from coast to coast. Some, like the famous Zuni burger, are made from carefully ground high-end beef; many others — many, many others — are made from meat whose provenance we probably don’t care to think about.
The hamburger, then, is democratic in the best American sense. It looks as good in coat and tails as it does in a pair of sweatpants. It uncomplainingly accepts the companionship of cheese, yes, all kinds of cheese, but also of bacon, avocado, mushrooms, and grilled onions — not to mention lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles. It can be made in a flash — cooked in a pan, under a broiler, on a griddle, over hot coals — and eaten with ease, being a variant of that incomparable finger food, the sandwich. It is suitable for practically any occasion; it is our national food. Presidents and paupers alike eat hamburgers.
Yet as democracy in America wanes, one cannot help wondering about the fate of the burger. Of course, San Francisco is not the ideal location for these kinds of ruminations, for this has never been much of a hamburger town. The city’s culinary roots are, instead, Franco-Italian, Chinese, Mexican, and maritime — none of them huge on ground-beef patties — and in later years we have witnessed a bloom of vegetarian regimes in which the trusty burger is anathema or worse. Add to all this a raft of concerns about mad cow disease and E. coli contamination, LDL and the ethical treatment of animals, and you have a recipe for … linguine with broccoli, or something.
Yet the burger is a hardy little fellow, and places that honor its tenacity persist and even, modestly, proliferate. One new such spot is Toad’s, which opened toward the end of January in the old Café Arguello space at Valencia and 26th Streets. You would not think, walking into Toad’s, that here is a restaurant dealing mainly in hamburgers and hot dogs, nor for that matter that you were entering a restaurant named Toad’s; the cream-and-dark-wood look is one of understated elegance and makes the tall, straight, boxy space look like a small Town Hall. The flat-panel television mounted above the bar toward the rear and tuned to ESPN does give a slight sports-bar air and does, perhaps, whet the appetite for such all-Americana as buffalo wings, potatoes, nachos, and curly fries, all of which the menu offers.
Not too many years ago, curly fries were a Jack in the Box exclusive, but now you can get them at one-off places like Toad’s, and they’re every bit as good — crisp and slightly spicy coils — as the fast-food version. You can get a full order of them, complete with buttermilk ranch dressing, for $3.95, but a better option might be to upgrade the fries included in the cost of your burger. This slight surcharge bumps the price of the well-seasoned and juicy avocado cheeseburger, say (with a half avocado’s worth of buttery, ripe slices and choice of cheese), from $8.95 to $9.95 and provides more than enough curly fries, unless you are really fixated.
In keeping with the restaurant’s handsome look, the Joe Six-Pack menu is full of sly upscaleness. The beef burgers are made from Black Angus, and there are several meatless choices available (including the amazingly lifelike Boca burger), along with homemade chili and soup of the day ($4.95 a bowl), which, even when it sounds drab — zucchini and mushrooms, maybe, classic bottom-of-the-bin, end-of-the-week stuff — is likely to be spiffed up with some cumin and chili pepper. You can get Stella Artois and Big Daddy IPA on tap. The one thing Toad’s doesn’t have is the alfresco option. For that you’ll have to traipse over to Barney’s Gourmet Burgers in Noe Valley.
Like Toad’s, Barney’s is a burger joint with a fair amount of discreet spit and polish. The space used to belong to a bistro, and the beer garden–worthy garden out front, set with umbrella-shaded tables and potted plants, was an important draw for diners who might otherwise be tempted to step into Little Italy (now Lupa) across the street. When Barney’s took over, there was quiet mourning in some quarters at fate’s lack of imagination, but the place has had a long run and — to judge from the crowds in the garden day and night — a successful one.
As it happens, Barney’s, too, offers curly fries, and they are as good as Toad’s (and Jack’s), right down to the ranch dressing. Although I made the mistake of ordering the curlies separately, I thought I was exercising moderation by getting only a half basket of them ($3.50) and was dismayed to find, when I weighed myself the morning after, that I’d gained five pounds. Moral of story: no morning-after weigh-ins, and curly fries should probably be eaten with tweezers, or handled with some of the same ceremony and officiousness that Seinfeld‘s übertoff Mr. Pitt brought to the enjoyment of his Snickers bars. (Knife! Fork! White linen napkin!)
The burgers, they are fine and conform nicely to the local standard. (Assuming you know what I mean, I shall say no more.) Lighter eaters and beefphobes will be relieved to learn that Barney’s offers turkey burgers outfitted in various ways — dusted with Cajun spices ($6.95), maybe, then blackened like Gulf red snapper. Such a burger might not play in Palookaville, but here in the big city, it’s the people’s choice, or one of them. SFBG
Dinner: nightly, 5:30–9:30 p.m.
Lunch: Sun., noon–3 p.m.
1499 Valencia, SF
Beer and wine
Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers
Mon.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
Sun., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.
4138 24th St., SF
Beer and wine
Pleasant noise level
March 21-April 19
Every once in a while, we enjoy peeping a bout of WrestleMania on the ol’ tube. While watching muscley long-hairs body-slam each other, we thought: That’s just like Aries. Totally getting their asses kicked by insecurity and other crappy feelings. Bounce back by shifting your relationship to whatever’s got you down.
April 20-May 20
Pluto and Venus are square-dancing in the sky, producing really intense interpersonal encounters throughout the zodiac. And you, spawn of Venus, are no exception to the drama. Devise some sort of creative way of checking in with yourself. It’ll really help you handle the frustrations we promise are headed your way.
May 21-June 21
Gemini, if anything or anyone comes around trying to sell you on an opportunity for growth or new beginnings in your emotional realm, you damn well better take them up on it. All of this affirmative activity can easily morph into scattered mental energy, so keep your head screwed on tight and say, “Hells yeah.”
June 22-July 22
We’re here to make sure you’re not focusing too hard on those fears of yours, Cancer. Obsessive attention may make the scary little bastards come to life — and then what? If you understand that you already have everything you need, you won’t feel so grabby toward others.
July 23-Aug. 22
We see you asserting boundaries that you would rather not assert, Leo, while mired in situations you would rather not be in. A rather shitty week, perhaps, but the success you will have in these challenging scenarios should bring you a great amount of pride and, yes, happiness.
Aug. 23-Sept. 22
Virgo, you’re going to have to buck up and extend yourself toward your relationships. Especially your sexual relationships. They need every bit of effort you can sink into them. Consciously invest in your passion and what is personally true for you; avoid investing in your compulsions.
Sept. 23-Oct. 22
It’s one of two heavy things, Libra: Either you’re processing a very deep loss, or you’re coming to terms with the need to make some seriously deep behavioral changes. Maybe a little of both? Either way, it looks like a hellish week. Balance your daring actions with reflection and care.
Oct. 23-Nov. 21
Lookit you, Scorpio, no control at all. That must suck — a control freak such as yourself, up shit’s creek with no paddle in sight. However, this glorious lack of control actually offers you the opportunity to stop vying for control! Think about it. Stop trying to impose your will, and cultivate emotional and physical presence instead.
Nov. 22-Dec. 21
Sag, a little aggression and a little initiative are like a day in the sun. You feel all healthy and virile and whatnot. But too much aggression and initiative is like you overstayed your welcome on the blazing shores of life: You feel drained and crazy and have a higher chance of catching cancer. Take it easy this week.
Dec. 22-Jan. 19
Capricorn, if we could blindfold you and make you fall backward into our waiting arms, we would. Because this week is all about trust exercises. And we know how much you hate trust exercises, so we want to make it fun for you. Because shit is currently stressful, and the best way to get through it is not to analyze but to trust.
Jan. 20-Feb. 18
Aquarius, the good news is that your heart is open. Good job! Some people have to spend tons of money on self-help books and trips to India to achieve the state you’re currently in. The bad news is that your brain is manic and trying to make decisions prematurely. Only make promises when you know you can keep them.
Feb. 19-March 20
Pisces, it’s okay to be trusting. You’re going to have to be in order to accomplish what we’ve assigned you this week. First, you’ve got to invest yourself in what matters most to you, things that reflect your actual needs. Next, you’ve got to communicate verbally in a way that’s productive. Then take yourself out for pie. SFBG
Sleep-deprived video game maniacs
TECHSPLOITATION A bunch of Belgian neuroscientists finally figured out a way to turn spring break into an article for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the current issue, they report on what happens to the human brain after playing a lot of Duke Nukem and experiencing total sleep deprivation. Although the study is actually about how the brain stores spatial memories (in which "spatial memories" refers to retained information about virtual towns from the game), it is in fact a very tidy way to make a science experiment out of everyday life.
If the scientists conducting the study aren’t themselves in the habit of staying up all night playing video games, they almost certainly have friends, colleagues, or children who are. Being neuroscience geeks, their first response when confronted with video game obsession isn’t "Dude, what level are you on?" but rather, "Dude, what’s it doing to your brain to stay up all night shooting invaders from another world?"
Now they have their answer. The researchers told 24 test subjects to play Duke Nukem, after which one group was given a regular night’s sleep, another no sleep at all. Both groups subsequently got two nights of sleep and were then tested for spatial recall. The sleep-deprived gamers remembered the layout of the game far less clearly than the sleepers. It turns out that sleeping allows the brain to reorganize our spatial memories, moving them from the short-term memory zone of the hippocampus to the long-term memory zone of the striatum (an area of the brain also associated with body movement). So, if you stay up all night killing aliens and go to work or school the next day, you won’t remember very well the layout of the game you played.
Sure, that’s interesting, and it confirms what you might guess: Playing video games instead of sleeping is messing up your brain a little bit. But what I like about this study is the way its elements are cobbled together out of ordinary experience. This isn’t the kind of test that can only be dreamed up in the labs of a synchrotron or a giant room full of superfast DNA sequencers. It’s right out of our living rooms and laptops.
In the world of social science, there’s a long tradition of people studying themselves or their own cultures. Anthropologists who dig live-action role-playing games turn themselves into "participant observers" and write books about friendship rituals in live-action role-playing games. Psychologists in nonmonogamous relationships conduct research on the emotional states of people in nonmonogamous relationships. And ethnographers visit the inner cities where they grew up to create intricate analyses of ghetto graffiti and neighborhood basketball teams.
Is there something wrong with studying ourselves? Some would say it’s not good science because self-analysis is never objective. In fact, classic mad scientists, from the fictional Dr. Frankenstein to real doctors throughout the 20th century who jammed electrodes into the brains of asylum inmates, are dubbed crazy for turning the people around them into lab rats. The madness of these scientists is linked to their propensity for converting their communities into elaborate research projects.
Those Belgian neurologists, although they could hardly be accused of harming anybody, were therefore close to "mad" on a scale of mad to scientist. They took some people engaged in ordinary activities — let’s face it: Sleep-deprived video game playing isn’t that unusual — and made them into a bunch of test subjects. There’s something deeply weird about that. It’s also exactly the sort of experimentation that scientific inquiry should inspire. Sometimes the results may be silly, and they were downright scary in an era before review boards regulated tests on human subjects. But today such experiments encourage us to question what we take for granted in our daily lives. After all, it’s the urge to understand the everyday that drives other MRI nerds to study how the brain processes vision, and geneticists to investigate which genes regulate aging.
I’m glad I live in a world where everything can be turned into an impromptu scientific paper. I’d rather be a research subject than an undiscovered condition. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who has, in fact, been studied by several scientists, but not for the reasons you think.
One percent solution
The column about the young woman who ceased having sex with her boyfriend after being terrified (not to say terrorized) by the antiabortion displays on their college campus got a lot of responses, not entirely unexpectedly. This letter bore the subject line: "Stop degrading women for protecting themselves," which, well, wow. Don’t spend much time on the Internet, do ya? If this woman thinks my mild dismissal counts as "degrading" women, then I do not think that word means what she thinks it means. Go Google "bukkake," honey, and then maybe we can talk.
As a nurse, I was disgusted to have you dismiss using both the contraceptive pill and a condom as "borderline nutso overkill" for contraception purposes. When used absolutely perfectly, with no other drug, digestive, or weight considerations, the pill is at best only 99 percent effective. A 1 percent chance of getting pregnant should not be dismissed as "off-plumb." Patients on the pill can get pregnant even though they have not missed any pills, because every single factor that could decrease the pill’s effectiveness has not been studied.
As for your comments about antiabortion displays as "assaultive theatrics": Why would these displays be offensive and disturbing to you if there was absolutely nothing wrong with terminating the life of a fetus?
In the future, you should refrain from describing women as "nutty" for trying to eliminate the 1 percent risk. I would describe them as empowered and intelligent for taking every measure to avoid conceiving a child they do not want.
Stop Degrading …
Did you miss the fact that she wasn’t "protecting herself" by using a condom plus the pill; she was refusing to have sex, period? To be fair, I didn’t treat her previous insistence on doubling up birth control methods with the softest and supplest of kid gloves, but I did have my reasons. Would you like to hear them?
See, I talk to these kids constantly at San Francisco Sex Information, where I think the staff spends more time on these questions than they do at any other educational pursuit. "Can I get pregnant if I’m on the pill and he wore a condom and he didn’t come in me?" "… if I’m on my period and we don’t have intercourse but he rubs himself on my knee a little bit but doesn’t come?" "… if we’re in the hot tub and I’m on the pill and he’s wearing a condom …?"
After a while, one loses patience. Not with the teenagers, mind. It takes a lot to get me feeling grouchy toward kids who are just looking for a little trustworthy information. No, I have lost patience with their teachers, who ought to be teaching them some critical thinking skills so they can learn to do reasonable risk-assessment, but who are so afraid of getting into trouble that even in nonabstinence-only districts all they will say is, "There’s no such thing as safe sex." The kids who call and write are terrified. They have no idea how the menstrual cycle works (and not for lack of "learning" it over and over in sex ed). They have no concept of what it actually takes to get pregnant ("Can I get pregnant from oral sex?"). They know nothing, nothing at all, except "sex = pregnant." And they are not dumb kids, or even underprivileged kids. They are suburban, middle-class kids, and they can’t think their way out of a wet cardboard condom box, because nobody has bothered to teach them how. I get grouchy! Sue me.
I also get grouchy when people who ought to know better demonstrate a similar lack of critical-thinking skills. Where, for instance, does your 1 percent failure rate come from, and why are you so comfortable bandying it about? Most sources I can get my hands on put the reported "perfect use" failure rate of oral contraceptives at between 0.1 and 0.3 percent (charts usually just say "less than 1 percent"). The "typical use" figures, granted, put the failure rate as high as 5 percent, but keep in mind that by far the most common "typical" cause of failure is not taking the pill, followed by taking it wrong. One paper I read actually blamed oral contraceptive failure on going off the pill entirely during the year in question and failing to report that. So yes, while assorted physiological weirdness can cause pill failure, it’s a lot more effective than you give it credit for, provided one actually, you know, swallows the thing.
I have no problem, really, with people at no particular risk for STDs deciding that the 0.3 percent is not quite safe enough for them and choosing to add a barrier method, particularly during the midcycle danger zone. That is a matter of personal, albeit slightly nutty, choice. I do have a problem with scaremongering and willful ignorance. That goes for the fetus-poster panderers as well as for the teachers who can’t be bothered to check their facts before telling vulnerable young people to "be afraid, be very afraid."