If you’ve taken a women’s studies course in the past decade or if you’re a patron or follower of the sex industry, you’ve heard of San Francisco’s Lusty Lady. Depicted as a bastion of feminist values and workers’ rights, the 24-hour peep show floats amid the sea of macho-style strip clubs that dominate North Beach’s central strip.
Sure, the Lusty features live nude girls wiggling and jiggling while male customers masturbate in small enclosed booths, but dancers are protected from unwanted splashes of semen and sexual advances thanks to the panel of glass that separates them from the customers. Equally important, at least in the eyes of feminist voyeurs and dancers, is the theater’s reputation for having a broader vision of female beauty than prevailing cultural norms and for being a venue where discrimination simply isn’t tolerated. These credentials date back to the ’90s, when the club’s dancers traded boas for picket signs in what became a successful bid to organize the only unionized strip joint in the nation.
Back then, the drive to unionize was triggered by poor working conditions, including one-way mirrors that allowed customers, newly empowered with the affordable digital technology that emerged in the mid-’90s, to clandestinely film performers. Worried their images would end up as Internet porn or in bootleg videos or used against them in custody battles, the dancers and the male support staff joined forces and won representation with SEIU Local 790.
Less publicized is the fact that three years ago the club’s former management sold the business to the Lusty’s workforce. Since then, the theater has been run as an employee-owned cooperative, with an elected board of directors that signs the union’s collective bargaining agreement every year. Given the harsh fiscal climate that followed the dot-com bomb and the workers’ general lack of business experience prior to their involvement in the Looking Glass Collective (as the Lusty’s co-op is called), it’s no big surprise that the theater is currently facing some fiscal and management challenges.
But the next chapter in the Lusty Lady saga is the strangely twisted tale of how a small faction of male workers is trying to decertify the union against a backdrop of inflammatory e-mails, emotional outbursts, suspensions, and firings, along with competing allegations from dancers of sexual harassment and unfair labor practices.
It all started when one of the men began to argue that the place was losing money because the dancers were too fat.
Now some male co-op members (who work the front desk and the door and have the unpleasant job of cleaning the little rooms) say the union contract isn’t valid anymore because the co-op makes no distinction between management and labor. They are also spinning events to make it appear as if the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) agrees.
DANCERS OF SIZE
The tale goes back to July, when a support staffer named Davide Cerri sent the co-op board an e-mail complaining that the peep show’s revenues were falling off. Since everybody’s pay at the Lusty is based on monthly revenues, any decline in cash flow would hit every worker’s wallet.
Cerri claimed that the Lusty’s madams were hiring “unwatchable girls” — women who were too big and not quite sexy enough — and that as a result, the club lost money.
“People comes [sic] asking for refunds, because they do not want to see girls that they would not want to have sex with even if they were completely drunk,” Cerri wrote. “This is reality, not question of options. We sell fantasies, not nightmares.”
Cerri’s missive so outraged dancer Emma Peep that she posted a copy on a message board where all the dancers could read it.
As Peep explained to the Guardian, “Davide’s e-mail was against everything we stand for, and it’s against the law to hire and fire based on size discrimination.”
But by making the missive public, Peep set off a firestorm.
“Everyone flipped out, people were crying in the dressing room, and the male staffer got ostracized,” one Lusty board member, who asked not to be identified by name, told us. “It’s great what we at the Lusty think the standards of beauty are, but the reality is that we’re in the adult entertainment business.”
Peep claims Cerri’s missive “led to others calling for the termination of women based on their size” — and in the end, to her own July 30 termination. In a supreme twist of irony, given that she filed a grievance with the union and wanted Cerri fired for his e-mail, Peep instead found herself fired “for creating a disruptive, hostile work environment” — via an unsigned letter shoved under her door.
Documents filed with the NLRB show that shortly after Peep filed her grievance, Cerri filed one of his own: he charged SEIU Local 790 with failing to represent his grievances and with treating and representing male and female employees differently.
Last week the NLRB’s regional office dismissed Cerri’s charges — on the grounds that the Lusty is a completely member-owned and member-operated cooperative and that as a shareholding member with the ability to affect the formulation and determination of the Lusty’s policy, Cerri is a managerial employee.
“Accordingly, the Union’s duty of fair representation does not extend to you,” ruled NLRB acting regional director Tim Peck in a letter.
In the meantime, the union has continued to press Peep’s grievances. On Aug. 4, SEIU Local 790 staff manager Dale Butler wrote Lusty Lady board members Miles Thompson, Monique Painton, and Chelsea Eis, informing them that Peep’s termination was “without just cause” and “inappropriate.”
Butler told the board members that the Lusty Lady’s union contract provides for mediation and that the theater could be subject to $2,000 in arbitration fees plus attorneys’ fees plus Peep’s back wages (a triple whammy that could bankrupt the already fiscally struggling club). When the union threatened legal action, the board finally agreed to mediation.
WHO’S THE BOSS?
Meanwhile, there’s a dispute about whether the union actually has a valid contract. Union representatives say they sent a final version of this year’s agreement to the board, which never returned it. Butler told the Guardian that on Sept. 25, male support staffer Tony Graf called the union to say that the board had no objections to the contract — except for an antiharassment clause that shop steward Sandy Wong had proposed.
Male support staffers Cerri and Brian Falls still maintain that the union has no business at the Lusty.
“The union has been fraudulently in the Lusty Lady’s business, because we’re a co-op and everyone is a manager,” Falls said.
As for e-mail writer Cerri, he told the Guardian that “the union is automatically out and their contract is not valid, which is great news. We were mobilizing to deunionize by collecting signatures but now won’t have to go forward with that.” Falls also acknowledged being involved in a decertification drive.
“Before the formation of the co-op there was a common enemy, the management, who treated the dancers and the support staff badly. But once we became a co-op, there was no reason for the union to be there,” he explained.
Falls also claims that Cerri’s e-mail wasn’t triggered by larger dancers per se, but because there were four to five large women on the stage at the same time.
“We were losing customers and saw decreased revenues,” Falls said. “The business isn’t doing that great. We’re on a revenue-based pay scale, so it hits everybody’s paycheck. We never said, ‘Don’t hire big women, fat women.’ There are people who enjoy large women. But a block of the same kind of women — that was losing revenues.”
Financial records obtained by the Guardian, however, show that the Lusty Lady made an average of $28,000 a week in January, $27,000 in February, $28,000 in April, $26,000 in June, and $27,000 in July. That hardly looks like a dramatic collapse of income.
The last word goes to a female dancer who refused to use her stage name for fear of retaliation.
“The union can be polarizing, but it’s scary to leave because it protects our rights,” she said. “The problem is that people will vote against their best interests. It’s like working people voting for Bush. I think I can understand that phenomenon since working at the Lusty Lady.” SFBG
Volume 40 Number 52
September 27 – October 3, 2006
It’s been a week since City Attorney Dennis Herrera invalidated the seemingly successful referendum drive challenging the Bayview Hunters Point Redevelopment Plan, and everyone involved is still wondering what’s next.
Can the biggest redevelopment plan in city history just move forward as if more than 33,000 city residents hadn’t signed petitions asking to vote on it? Legally, that’s where the situation now stands. But even Herrera told the Guardian that the legal question he answered is separate from the policy and political questions.
Should the Board of Supervisors hold a hearing to discuss the controversial issues raised by redevelopment and this referendum? Should it consider repealing the plan and allowing a ballot vote, as some supervisors want?
And if each referendum petition must include a thick stack of all related documents, as Herrera’s opinion indicates, won’t that make it prohibitively expensive for a community group to ever challenge such a complex piece of legislation? Have the citizens in effect lost the constitutional right to force a referendum on a redevelopment plan?
“I can’t speak to what the practical effect will be. I can just tell you what the state of the law is,” Herrera told us, noting that referendum case law clearly indicates that the petitioners should have carried the 62-page redevelopment plan and all supporting documents, not simply the ordinance that approved it.
A “TERRIBLE” DECISION
Four supervisors — Chris Daly, Tom Ammiano, Gerardo Sandoval, and Ross Mirkarimi — voted against the plan in May. All have expressed concern about Herrera’s decision, but none have yet called for a hearing.
“Whether you agree or disagree with this opinion on the validity of the redevelopment referendum, it raises some grave concerns that this process — a democratic, grassroots process — was overturned,” Mirkarimi told us. Daly called the decision “terrible.”
Yet given that they need the support of at least two more supervisors to reconsider the plan, Mirkarimi conceded that the next step will probably have to come from a lawsuit by the petitioners, a move referendum coalition leaders Willie Ratcliff and Brian O’Flynn say they intend to pursue if political pressure fails.
“It’s unclear what the next steps are to dislodge this from the legal shackles that knocked it down,” Mirkarimi said. “Something doesn’t smell right, and it’s difficult to trace the odor completely without the courts getting involved.”
But Ratcliff hasn’t given up on forcing a political solution, which he is pushing through his coalition and the San Francisco Bay View newspaper he publishes. The paper last week ran a story on the decision under the hyperbolic headline “City Hall declares war on Bayview Hunters Point.”
“We’re talking to lawyers, but to us the last resort is going to court. We feel we can pull it off politically,” Ratcliff told us. “What this did really was unite this community. If the city will pull this kind of thing, how are we going to have any faith in this plan? We’re going to flex our power…. People are ready to fight now.”
One gauge of Ratcliff’s support in the community will come on the afternoon of Sept. 27, when he will lead a march and rally on the issue. The event is tied to the 40th anniversary of the so-called Hunters Point Uprising, when a teenager was shot by police and the resulting community backlash was violently quelled using National Guard tanks and police sharpshooters.
“With the 40th anniversary of the Hunters Point Uprising of Sept. 27, 1966, only days away, this sounds like a declaration of war against the same people who protested then and are protesting still against police brutality and for jobs, economic equity and the right to develop our own community and control our own destiny,” Ratcliff wrote in a front page editorial.
Ratcliff told us, “We’re going to have a big march out there to show the city that we oppose this plan.”
THE PLAN IS IN EFFECT
Herrera’s opinion on the referendum was requested by Mayor Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, and Sup. Sophie Maxwell.
Redevelopment Agency director Marcia Rosen told the Guardian that fears of redevelopment stem from how badly it was handled in the Western Addition in the 1960s, but that the agency and the political climate of the city have changed. She said the agency is approaching Bayview–Hunters Point in an incremental, community-based fashion. She said the plan should go forward and will eventually prove the fears are unfounded.
“The plan was adopted by the board and signed into law by the mayor, and there is no further action needed, so the plan is in effect,” she told us.
Maxwell and Peskin each said they’re inclined to just let the redevelopment plan go into effect, although Peskin said, “I’m not going to stop any supervisor from having a hearing on any subject.”
“It’s important to understand that this plan is a living document, so there will be changes and people talking to each other,” Maxwell told us. “It’s certainly not the end of anything.”
She told the Guardian that the referendum campaign used paid signature gatherers, money from a developer from outside the area, and distorted claims about eminent domain and other aspects of the plan — misrepresentations that signers could have checked if the plan was readily available as legally required.
“The democratic process has to be taken seriously, and democracy is not easy,” Maxwell told us. “The decision was about preserving the democratic process, and people need to have facts at their disposal. There has to be a process and there has to be a standard.”
That’s certainly true — and O’Flynn is a contractor who lives in the Marina. But it’s hard to imagine how carrying around thick stacks of paper filled with complex land-use plans would have made a difference. Most signers would never have stopped to take several hours to read it all.
John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California School of Law, said that referendum case law has been built around a few courts validating actions by civic officials to strike down citizen movements.
“The sad fact is it looked like elected officials are trying to keep measures off the ballot and looking for ways to support that,” Matsusaka told the Guardian. “Preventing the people from voting is really not going to bring harmony to the community.” SFBG
The Defend Bayview Hunters Point Coalition’s Sept. 27 march begins at 3:30 p.m. at the Walgreens at 5800 Third St. and Williams and continues up Third Street to Palou Street, where there will be a press conference and rally at 4:30 p.m.
Hornblower Yachts assumed control of the ferry service to Alcatraz Island on Sept. 25. As the new crew cast off the dock lines, spurned union workers — some 30-year veterans with the former contractor, Blue and Gold — rallied with supporters at the entrance, asking passengers not to board the boats.
Two union-friendly visitors from Sydney, Australia, ripped up their tickets and demanded refunds. “We don’t agree with what they’re doing to the workers,” one said, while in the background Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Tom Ammiano took turns with the bullhorn, also offering their support to the workers.
“All of our colleagues on the board are not going to stand for it,” Peskin said to the couple hundred laborers gathered on the sidewalk. “We’re going to stand with you and march with you.”
Terry MacRae, CEO of Hornblower, expressed little concern about the boycotting tourists and the rally at his gate. “I suspect there’s plenty more people who want the tickets if they’re not going to use them,” he told the Guardian. Visits to Alcatraz peak this time of year, with a couple thousand people turned away every day when tickets sell out, according to National Park Service spokesperson Rich Wiedeman.
The NPS decision to grant the lucrative, 10-year contract to Hornblower over Blue and Gold has resulted in more than just what some are calling the largest union layoff in San Francisco waterfront history. The story also has an environmental angle as slick as an oil spill and a nasty landlord-tenant tussle.
“The port and I are extremely concerned with how Hornblower has conducted itself,” City Attorney Dennis Herrera told the Guardian, referring to the company’s artful dodge of city and state permitting processes. “They’ve focused more energy on sidestepping public oversight than complying with it.”
Despite infuriating two leading San Francisco institutions — unions and city planners — MacRae has managed thus far to avoid too much of a stir by keeping another critical local constituency off his back with a well-played “green” card.
THE GREEN MACHINE
When NPS put out a request for proposals in 2004, three companies submitted bids for Alcatraz: Red and White, a local charter and bay cruise company that ran the service when it first started in the ’70s; Blue and Gold, which took over Red and White’s boats and unionized crew in 1994; and Hornblower Cruises and Events, which runs charter and dinner boat cruises from five California ports and is a subsidiary of a larger, $30 million company.
When Brian O’Neill, superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, announced last year that Hornblower won the bid, union activists immediately challenged the choice. Mayor Gavin Newsom, Peskin, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and both of California’s US senators expressed concerns about the decision. Neighborhood group Citizens to Save the Waterfront filed suit. Environmentalists, however, were elated.
For the first time since being passed by Congress in 1998, the Concessions Management Act applied to the bid for Alcatraz. In addition to forbidding the Department of the Interior from favoring incumbent contractors, the act also outlined new criteria for awarding contracts that included a mandate to improve environmental quality in national parklands.
“Bluewater Network has been advocating for more than five years for a solar- and wind-powered ferry for San Francisco Bay,” said Teri Schore, a spokesperson for the local environmental group. She added that diesel vessels in the Bay Area account for more pollution than cars and buses combined. “We’ve been talking to every ferry operator on the bay, and we also knew that the Alcatraz contract was up. We thought it was the perfect application.”
Hornblower’s MacRae wrote a provision into his bid that within two years of taking over the Alcatraz service, the company would build and launch a ferry to run on a combination of solar, wind, and diesel power. After one year of testing the vessel, a second would be built within five years.
That — in combination with a plan to make two initial vessels 90 percent more fuel efficient, as well as implement a clean energy shuttle service on the Embarcadero, power the landing facilities with solar panels, purchase green products, and vend healthy snacks — put Hornblower’s bid over the top.
Wiedeman said all bidders are informed that financial feasibility of the company and potential revenue for the government, as well as environmental and sustainability initiatives, were considered. But some criteria were more weighted than others, and Hornblower ranked strongly on all points.
“We’re ecstatic,” Wiedeman said. “We’re looking at higher-quality visitor services from the get-go.”
But some doubt whether the proposed vessels are anywhere close to a reality. MacRae said a final design and marine contractor have not been selected yet, although Solar Sailor’s model BayTri has been touted. A giant solar-arrayed fin provides auxiliary wind and sun power to the trimaran’s diesel engines. No such vessel has ever been built, but the model is based on a smaller solar ferry that services Sydney Harbor in Australia — with a top speed of just seven knots.
The proposed boat is emissions free and could go 12 knots with the aid of the wind, although it would need a push from auxiliary diesel engines to keep up with Alcatraz’s schedule. Boats now run between 15 and 19 knots.
The other concern is that MacRae’s commitment of $5 million for constructing the 600-passenger vessel might not be enough. The San Francisco Water Transit Authority has been looking into a similar vessel carrying no more than 150 passengers that would cost between $6 and $8 million.
“Their requirements for design are different than what mine would be,” MacRae said. “I think it’s possible to do it for $5 million.”
Bluewater Network founder Russell Long worries that the low-budget cap could hurt the vessel’s environmental potential. “We believe that Hornblower may intend to maintain this budget ceiling even if it compromises other aspects of the design, such as best management practices in regard to environmental components,” he wrote in a letter to NPS, urging reconsideration of the contract.
NPS awarded the contract anyway and Bluewater is hoping for the best.
“We will be watchdogging the progress and keeping track of what’s going on. If it doesn’t happen, it will be a huge black eye for the National Park Service, Hornblower, and the city of San Francisco,” Schore said. “At this point we have faith that it’s going to get built, because it’s in the contract.”
However, Hornblower’s snub toward union contracts and dodgy relations with the city suggest that playing by the rules may not be a top priority for the company.
THE PERFECT TYPO
Since 1974, boats to Alcatraz have run from the Pier 39 area of Fisherman’s Wharf, where waiting ticket holders can indulge in the myriad distractions the tourist hub offers.
MacRae launched his new ferry service from Pier 31, half a mile farther south on the Embarcadero, where he currently leases space and operates a charter and dining cruise business.
Pier 31 is little more than a parking lot with a ramp and floating dock, which only sees about 100,000 people a year, far fewer than the 1.3 million annual passengers Alcatraz draws.
MacRae has attractive plans for a complete overhaul of the area, which would include landscaping and sheltered seating, a bookstore, and an informational center. Such alterations would require a thorough run through the city’s planning process, which MacRae told the NPS he won’t be doing until 12 to 18 months from now.
Instead, interim improvements to the lot were planned, which sparked concern from the city that the sudden increase in foot traffic wouldn’t be properly mitigated. That area of the Embarcadero also hosts 250,000 passengers a year from cruise ships docking at adjacent Pier 35. The Port spent close to $200,000 last year controlling that traffic with signage and police officers. The addition of thousands more visitors streaming down the sidewalks seeking passage to Alcatraz could cause gridlock every time a cruise ship docks.
Monique Moyer, executive director of the port, sent repeated letters over the last year to MacRae asking for clarifications about his plans and expressing concern that the change in use of Pier 31 required a review of existing permits.
She wasn’t alone. On July 31, Citizens to Save the Waterfront filed suit against Hornblower, claiming that the amount of activity at Pier 31 would increase twentyfold. “That represents a substantial change in the intensity of use,” Jon Golinger, a representative from the group, told us.
A change in the intensity of use of a waterfront property triggers the need for a complete environmental impact review (EIR) from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), a state agency with jurisdiction over anything within 100 feet of the shoreline. As many city developers know, EIRs can take many months to consider all potential changes to the existing landscape that the applicant would cause. Delays of that sort could have hindered MacRae’s ability to assume ferry service on the contracted date of Sept. 25.
MacRae said the litigation kept him from divulging to the city his proposed plans for upgrades to the pier.
Just days before the lawsuit was to be argued in San Francisco Superior Court on Sept. 6, BCDC executive director Will Travis sent a letter to Moyer stating that Hornblower’s new service and alterations to Pier 31 did not require any new permits.
He cited a typo from Hornblower’s current BCDC-issued permit as an allowance for the increase in passengers. The permit states that the pier may provide “access to the entire bay via vessel for 200,000 to 5000,000 [sic] people/year.”
He footnoted the quote: “There is clearly a typographical error in the 5000,000 number, which is intended to state the maximum anticipated usage of the dock … the correct number is probably either 500,000 or 5,000,000. While it seems reasonable to believe that the correct number is 500,000, the record contains nothing to substantiate this conclusion.”
Travis also relayed that Hornblower plans to use temporary measures that include trailers with port-a-potties, a portable ticket booth, and hollow traffic barriers for guiding traffic and pedestrians on and off the boat.
Herrera told us that this was the first Moyer had heard of what was planned for the lot and there was concern about how other services in the area and traffic on the Embarcadero would be affected, as well as if any structures, signage, and other enhancements would require additional permits. “It certainly would have been nice if they had shared all these plans so the port could conduct the proper environmental review that we all agree is in order,” he said.
In a strongly worded letter to Travis, Herrera wrote that to allow Hornblower to proceed without any environmental review could violate the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and urged the BCDC to “issue an immediate cease and desist order” to prevent the start of service. Herrera also made the salient point that “the later the environmental review process begins, the more bureaucratic and financial momentum there is behind a proposed project, thus providing a strong incentive to ignore environmental concerns that could be dealt with more easily at an early stage of the project.”
On Sept. 7, BCDC commissioners met in closed session at the end of a four-hour meeting and voted to stand by Travis’s argument.
David Owen, a former Peskin aide who’s also a BCDC commissioner, was one of two abstentions to the otherwise unanimous vote. “It was really frustrating, because it seemed like Hornblower did everything in their power to avoid a permit review,” Owen told us. “Now what? We have a CEQA lawsuit and then the Board of Supervisors shuts down the Alcatraz ferry service? They’ve managed to start up service without acquiring a single permit. Kudos to them for strategy.”
Citizens to Save the Waterfront then dropped its lawsuit, feeling it was weakened by the BCDC decision.
“Essentially, now there’s a turf war between Bush’s park service and the Port of San Francisco,” Golinger said. “BCDC tried to avoid getting involved, but the precedent it sets is horrible. A corporation can come in and skirt any planning process.”
UNION TOWN POLITICS
After scoring the Alcatraz bid, Hornblower sought an exemption to the Service Contract Act of 1965 that would have required MacRae to pay equal to or more than what current crew make. But the Department of Labor ruled Sept. 21 against Hornblower. So veteran Blue and Gold crew have added safety to their concerns.
“I’ve made tens of thousands of landings on Alcatraz Island, and now they have captains who have never been there,” Capt. Andy Miller said. For 17 years, Miller has navigated the busy shipping lanes and the constant summer fog against the tugging tide and the sudden slams of inclement weather to bring tourists, park service staff, and supplies to the island.
“No one’s ever gotten hurt. It’s a very tricky place to land a boat. It takes skill and experience that you can’t just hire off the street,” he said.
Miller said he applied for a job with Hornblower but was not interviewed. So far, no captains and only three ticket agents and a deckhand have been hired from Blue and Gold’s former fleet.
“We have a ready workforce,” Master, Mate, and Pilot union spokesperson Veronica Sanchez said. “They’re going to have to be paid the same wages as union workers at Blue and Gold. They don’t want to be a union shop. Why don’t you want to be a union shop on a union waterfront like San Francisco?”
One reason could be concern that it might bump up costs for Hornblower’s other tour operations. “They want us to agree that if we sign up our workers for Alcatraz, that we won’t organize the dining yachts,” Sanchez said. In 1998, the union attempted to organize Hornblower’s dinner cruise operations in San Francisco but didn’t prevail in a supervised election.
MacRae said he’s not opposed to the unions and he’s encouraged the Blue and Gold staff to apply for jobs. “The unionization is the choice of the workers,” he said. “We try to let the employees make the choices. Last time I checked, that’s who the unions represent.”
“We want to make sure we have the best crew,” he said. “Many of the products and guest services we provide aren’t what Blue and Gold do now.” He added that some current employees from the dining cruises have also been shifted to the Alcatraz route.
“I’ve been here 21 years, and we’ve been replaced by busboys and waiters,” said deckhand Robert Estrada, standing with fellow workers outside the gate of the new Alcatraz ferry service.
Estrada said Hornblower’s reliance on part-time, low-wage workers has earned the company the nickname “the Wal-Mart of the Water.” The company’s rapid expansion, from a two-boat Berkeley-based charter to a multinational fleet with government contracts is a similar characteristic.
Blue and Gold spokesperson Alicia Vargas assured us that the remaining ferry services to Alameda, Angel Island, Oakland, Sausalito, Tiburon, and Vallejo will be solvent, but some of the veteran crew who haven’t been laid off yet are worried this is the beginning of the end.
“The public needs to be warned. If funds don’t come from Alcatraz, Blue and Gold could fold,” said David Heran, an International Boatmen’s Union member and deckhand since 1974 who applied to Hornblower but wasn’t hired. “I’m not ready to retire yet, and this wasn’t the way I was expecting it to happen.” SFBG
Dick Cheney surveys the teeming white crowds at the 2004 Republican National Convention. With their Cheney Rocks! placards and stars-and-stripes Styrofoam hats, these people worship him, but he still looks like he wants to spray them with buckshot. “You’re all a bunch of fucking assholes!” he sneers. “You know why? You need people like me — so you can point your fucking fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’”
OK, maybe Cheney didn’t use those exact words in his convention speech, but we all know he was thinking them, so bless Bryan Boyce’s short video America’s Biggest Dick for making the vice president really speak his mind — in this case, via Al Pacino’s dialogue in Scarface. The title fits: Boyce’s two-minute movie exposes the gangster mentality of Cheney and the rest of the Bush administration, perhaps giving his subject more charisma than he deserves. Ultimately, Cheney gets around to admitting he’s the bad guy — after he’s compared the convention’s hostile New York setting to “a great big pussy waiting to be fucked” and speculated about how much money is required to buy the Supreme Court. “Fuck you! Who put this thing together? Me — that’s who!” he bellows when a graphic exhibition of his oral sex talents receives some boos.
One might think the man behind America’s Biggest Dick might be boisterous and loud, but Boyce — who lives in San Francisco — is in fact soft-spoken and modest, crediting the movie’s “stunt mouth,” Jonathan Crosby (whose teeth and lips Bryce pastes onto Cheney and other political figures), with the idea of using Brian de Palma’s 1983 film. “I knew I wanted extensive profanity, and Scarface more than delivered,” Boyce says during an interview at the Mission District’s Atlas Café. “But I was also amazed at how well the dialogue fit.”
The dialogue fits because Boyce masterfully tweaks found material, particularly footage from television. It’s a skill he’s honed and a skill that motivates the most recent waves of TV manipulation thriving on YouTube, on DVD (in the case of the Toronto-based TV Carnage), and at film festivals and other venues that have the nerve to program work that ignores the property rights of an oppressive dominant culture. “It is, admittedly, crude,” Boyce says of America’s Biggest Dick, which inspired raves and rage when it played the Sundance Film Festival last year. “It’s a crude technique for a crude movie matched to a very crude vice president.” As for the contortions of Crosby’s mouth, which exaggerate Cheney’s own expressions, Boyce has an apt reference at hand: “The twisted mouth to match his twisted soul — he’s got a Richard III thing going on.”
America’s Biggest Dick isn’t Boyce’s only film to mine horror and hilarity from the hellish realms of Fox News. In 30 Seconds of Hate, for example, he uses a “monosyllabic splicing technique” to puppeteer war criminal (and neocon TV expert) Henry Kissinger into saying, “If we kill all the people in the world, there’ll be no more terrorists…. It’s very probable that I will kill you.” All the while, mock Fox News updates scroll across the bottom of the screen. “That footage came from a time when Fox thought that Saddam [Hussein] had been killed,” Boyce explains. “That’s why Kissinger kept using the word kill. Of course, no one says kill like Henry Kissinger.”
In Boyce’s State of the Union, the smiling baby face within a Teletubbies sun is replaced by the grumpier, more addled visage of George W. Bush. Shortly after issuing a delighted giggle, this Bush sun god commences to bomb rabbits that graze amid the show’s hilly Astroturf landscapes — which mysteriously happen to be littered with oil towers. With uncanny prescience, Boyce made the movie in August 2001, inspiring fellow TV tweak peers such as Rich Bott of the duo Animal Charm to compare him to Nostradamus. “Even before Sept. 11, [Bush] was looking into nuclear weapons and bunker busters,” Boyce says. “His drilling in the [Arctic National Wildlife Reserve] led me to use the oil towers.”
Having grown up in the Bay Area and returned here after a college stint in Santa Cruz, Boyce — like other Bay Area artists with an interest in culture jamming — calls upon Negativland (“I thought their whole Escape from Noise album was great”) and Craig Baldwin (“He’s kind of the godfather of cinema here”) as two major inspirations. In fact, both he and Baldwin have shared a fascination with televangelist Robert Tilton, whose bizarre preaching makes him a perfect lab rat on whom to try out editing experiments. “He speaks in tongues so nicely,” Boyce says with a smile. “He’s just so over-the-top and sad and terrible that he lends himself to all the extremes of the [editing] system, such as playing something backwards.”
Boyce believes that the absurdity of “an abrupt jump cut between incongruous things” can “really be beautiful.” And the TV Carnage DVDs put together by Derrick Beckles might illustrate that observation even better than Boyce’s more minimalist tweaking. In just one of hundreds of uproarious moments within TV Carnage’s most recent DVD, the wonderfully titled Sore for Sighted Eyes, a sheet-clad John Ritter stares in abject disbelief at a TV on which Rosie O’Donnell pretends to have Down syndrome. At least two different movie writers at this paper (yours truly included) have shed tears from laughing at this sequence.
“I just picture a conveyer belt, and there are just so many points at which someone could press a big red stop button, but it doesn’t happen,” Beckles says, discussing the source (an Angelica Huston–helmed TV movie called Riding the Bus with My Sister) for the O’Donnell footage. “There’s this untouchable hubris. It blows my mind that people are paid for some of these ideas. Crispin Glover told me that the actors with Down syndrome in [his movie] What Is It? were offended by [the O’Donnell performance], or that they felt uneasy. It is uneasy to see Rosie O’Donnell do a Pee-wee Herman impersonation and think she’s embodying someone with Down syndrome.”
Beckles’s interest in manipuutf8g TV — or as he puts it, “exorcising my own demons” by exorcising television’s — dates back to childhood. But it took several years in the belly of MGM to really fire a desire that has resulted in five DVDs to date. “TV Carnage is my way of screaming,” he says at one point during a phone conversation that proves he’s as funny as his work. Like Boyce and audio contemporaries such as Gregg Gillis of Girl Talk (see “Gregg the Ripper,” page 69), he filters “mounds and mounds and shelves and shelves” of tapes and other material through his computer.
“It’s not so much that I’m always in front of the TV,” Beckles explains. “I’d just say that I have this divining rod for shit. I have these psychic premonitions when I turn on my TV. I have years and years of footage. I pull all of it into my computer and say, ‘Now what?’ Then I take a swig of whiskey and go, ‘You’ve got yourself into it again.'” On Sore for Sighted Eyes this approach results in eye-defying montages dedicated to subjects such as white rapping. (Believe me, you have not lived until you’ve died inside seeing Mike Ditka and the Grabowskis or the Sealy Roll.)
Overall, mind control is TV Carnage’s main theme. One segment within the release Casual Fridays looks at children who act like adults and adults who act like children — two plagues that run rampant on TV. “Kids are like al-Qaeda,” he says. “They’ll shift their plans every day to keep you wondering. [Meanwhile], you can just feel the adults who host teen shows thinking about their mortgage payments: ‘What are kids doing now? Slitting each other’s throats? Great! Let’s do a show about it!’” An infamous “swearing sandwich” sequence within TV Carnage’s When Television Attacks encapsulates Beckles’s worldview. “People who are into self-help — they might as well be taking advice from a sandwich.”
Breaking from the more free-form nature of TV Carnage — which isn’t afraid of running from Richard Simmons to Mao Zedong in a few seconds — Beckles is working within some self-imposed restrictions to make his next project. The presence of rules has some irony, since the project is titled Cop Movie. “I’m taking 101 cop movies and making a full-length feature from them,” he says. “The same script has been used for hundreds and hundreds of cop movies — they just change the characters’ names, using a name that sounds dangerous or slightly evocative of freedom.”
“The reason I’m using 101 movies stems from this ridiculous mathematical aspect I’ve figured out,” he continues. “If I take a certain number of seconds from each movie, it adds up to 66 minutes and 6 seconds, and the whole construct of 666 makes me laugh. I’ve already cut together a part where a guy gets hit by a car, and he goes from being a blond guy to a black guy to a guy with red hair to a guy with a mullet. It flows seamlessly. It’s a real acid trip — and kind of a psychological experiment. After I finish it, I’ll probably just pick out a casket and sleep for a hundred years.”
The encyclopedic aspect of Beckles’s TV Carnage sucks in more recognizable footage such as American Idol’s Scary Mary and a musical number from The Apple. In contrast, the duo who go by the name Animal Charm tend to work with footage that few, if any, people have seen, such as corporate training videos. “Our interest from the beginning has not been to turn to a video we love or have a nostalgic connection to,” says Jim Fetterley, who along with Rich Bott makes up Animal Charm. “We were looking for things that were empty that could be used to create new meanings.”
Those meanings are often hilarious — the new Animal Charm DVD, Golden Digest, includes shorts such as Stuffing (in which a real-life monkey watches animated dolphins juggle a woman back and forth) and Ashley (which turns an infomercial for a Texas woman’s Amway-like beauty business into a bizarre science fiction story). But if reappropriation brings out the political commentator in Boyce and the comedian in Beckles, for Fetterley it’s more of a philosophical matter. Pledging allegiance to contemporaries such as Los Angeles’s TV Sheriff and the Pittsburgh, Pa., collective Paper Rad, he talks about Animal Charm’s videos as “tinctures” he’s used to “deprogram” himself and friends. “Our videos can make an empty boardroom seem like the jungle or something very natural,” he says when asked about his use of National Geographic–type clips and dated-looking office scenes. “In the videos, the animals are like puppets. You could say it’s like animation but on a more concept-based level.”
While Boyce, TV Carnage, and Animal Charm most often work with found material, their cinematic practice — jump-cut editing, for example — is more imaginative and creative than that of many “original” multimillion dollar productions. “We’re not predetermining any space we want to get into,” Fetterley explains, “other than most often that level of disassociation and absurdity where you are almost feeling something like the rush of a drug.” For him, generating this type of “temporary autonomy” is liberating. “With massive paranoia and war going on, it’s so easy to control a lot of people with fear and paranoia. We like to think if we can sit down and show our videos to our friends and others and have a laugh and talk about it seriously, it might help take everyone out of that mind frame.”
Because of the popularity of YouTube and its ability to create a new type of TV celebrity (and also the recent notoriety of musical efforts such as Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album and Girl Talk’s Night Ripper), reappropriation is reaching the mainstream. But even as Animal Charm’s and Boyce’s clips proliferate on the Internet, a veteran such as Fetterley looks upon such developments with a pointedly critical perspective. “There’s a general tendency right now to get excited about things that are unknown or anonymous,” he says. “Accountability is almost more important than appropriation nowadays. All of a sudden, if something is anonymous, it makes people feel very uncomfortable.”
For artists with names, censorship is still very much an issue. Boyce recently found America’s Biggest Dick (along with Glover’s What Is It?) cited during a campaign to withdraw funding from a long-running film festival in Ann Arbor, Mich. But Fetterley sees a troubling larger picture. “Danger Mouse’s Grey Album is a very solid conceptual project — it’s gray,” he notes. “In comparison, if somebody is doing a New York Times article about something current politically or globally, there are red zones and flags that will be brought to others’ attention whether you or I know it or not. Those are things making this moment dangerous, in terms of not being able to be anonymous. With ideas about evidence dissolving and accountability hung up in legalities, it makes the culture around music or aesthetics or youth culture pale in comparison.” SFBG
LAMPOONS AND EYE-TUNES: BRYAN BOYCE’S CULT JAMS AND MUSIC VIDEOS
With launch party for Animal Charm’s Golden Digest DVD
Oct. 7, 8 p.m.
Artists’ Television Access
992 Valencia, SF
For complete interviews with Derrick Beckles of TV Carnage, Bryan Boyce, and Jim Fetterley of Animal Charm, go to Pixel Vision at www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.
You’re walking down the street in the dark. You can hear the steps of a beast with many feet behind you. Every second it’s getting closer and bigger. One minute it’s got the juicy spirit of a young Biggie Smalls and a waterfall piano melody that inspires visions of a tiny dancer. The next, its Ciara-stamped “O” pulses over the metric bump and grind of an Elastica connection. Just when you think you have its ID down, it changes again, shifting sounds and songs at a rate of a dozen a minute. It’s tapping you on the shoulder. It’s gotten inside your brain. It’s Night Ripper, the newest album by Girl Talk.
Gregg Gillis has made three albums under the Girl Talk moniker, but this year’s Night Ripper (Illegal Art) is the one that’s making that moniker famous — maybe because it’s a monster of an album that leaves most mashup ideas and practices in the dust. And to think that the title comes from a simple T-shirt. “There’s this shirt I’ve had for years that shows this skateboarder dude with all these fluorescent colors and skulls everywhere, and it just says ‘Night Ripper’ on it,” Gillis, who lives in Pittsburgh, Pa., explains via phone before a Friday night show. “I wanted an aggressive name [for the album] that also had a party feel.”
Night Ripper’s 16 tracks add up to a seamless 42-minute burst of manic energy. It’s no surprise to learn that Gillis composed the album as one big song. “I built it in three different chunks, so in case I got stuck in one area I could move to another,” he says. “Eventually, I had this whole piece.” The result possesses the type of megamix acceleration you’d find on the late-night Detroit radio stations that bred the likes of DJ Assault. But Gillis says that while he’s heard his share of CeCe Peniston–style techno pop and has nursed a childhood passion for New Jack Swing, neither count as a direct form of inspiration. “In high school I was into John Oswald and People Like Us and Evolution Control Committee and Plunderphonics-y experimentation. I fell into this mode of making megamix-style music through that.”
On his first album for Illegal Art, 2002’s Secret Diary, Gillis drenched Lil’ Romeo and others in static white noise. His flair for harshly comic juxtapositions was already there, present in a track (“What Iff”) that — thanks to Big Tymers — changed Joan Osborne’s infamous “What if god was one of us?” query into “What if god were a project bitch?” One track on 2004’s Unstoppable, his follow-up for the label, the jaw-dropping “Bodies Hit the Floor,” forecasted where Gillis was headed. Over frenzied beats, he ricocheted the “you say” verses of two radically different girl pop songs — Kelly Osbourne’s “Shut Up” and Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” — off each other and threaded Ludacris’s “Move Bitch,” Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” and a ghostly Bone Thugs ’n’ Harmony warrior ode through them.
“I think if you put Secret Diary and Night Ripper together, it’s kind of like Unstoppable,” Gillis says, his analogy suggesting an incessant urge to combine and fuse material. “I’ve made an experimental album, then more of an IDMish album, and now a pop record.” A berserk record that swallows pop music whole. It’s easy to imagine The Simpsons’ sometime market researcher and sexual predator Lindsay “be warm — but edgy-cute” Naegle having an aneurysm upon hearing it. Night Ripper is packed with funny split-second moments, such as a transition in which the hooting synth melody of Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” is answered in a birdcall manner by the keyboard hook of Mariah Carey’s “It’s Like That.”
Yet for all its Dirty South meets AOR meets soft rock meets alt-rock meets gangsta meets grunge meets ’80s bubblegum appeal, don’t assume Night Ripper is a Frankenstein built only from other people’s parts. One of its purest blasts of adrenaline stems from Gillis’s own instrumentation, when he adds an accelerating guitar track to the “Girl, shake that laffy taffy!” chorus of D4L’s “Laffy Taffy.” The factoid masters at Wikipedia have already compiled an extensive list of Night Ripper’s samples, nabbing 190 sources. But their efforts can’t convey the sheer goofy your-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate joy of Young Jeezy colliding with Nirvana or a magnified version of Biggie’s trademark beat-fucking “uh” sound (from “Hypnotize”) giving way to an equally exaggerated bump and grind burst from Billy Squier’s onanistic “Stroke.”
With Night Ripper, Gillis has built a popular culture landmark somewhere between a Stars on 45 hit and the copyright-flouting 1987 United Kingdom chart attack of the Justified Ancients of Mumu. He uses a Plunderphonics-like practice to create something that might have mass appeal. “I’m making this music that is challenging yet pop,” he agrees. “I could have gone over the edge and doubled the number of sources and made it insanely crazy to listen to as an experimental piece or I could have slowed it down and made this easy-to-dance-to sort of record. It was a fine line, and I wanted to make something that was fun but at the same time interesting to listen to as a composition.” (Johnny Ray Huston)
For a complete interview with Gregg Gillis, go to Noise at www.sfbg.com/blogs/music.