Volume 41 Number 05
November 1 – November 7, 2006
CHRIS DALY- DNA Lounge, 375 11th Street, btw Folsom & Harrison
ROB BLACK- Momo’s, 760 2nd Street.
ALIX ROSENTHAL- 500 Club, Guerrero St & 17th Street
BEVAN DUFTY- Lime Restaurant, 2247 Market, btw Noe & Sanchez
JAYNRY MAK- Harry Ha’s Restaurant, 2335 Irving Street & 24th
DOUG CHAN- Dragon Lounge, 1355 Taraval & 24th Street
RON DUDUM- Tennessee Grill, 1128 Taraval, btw 21st & 22nd, contact Tuan (415) 370 7361
MARIE HARRISON- Home, 1751 Quesada Street and 3rd Street.
SOPHIE MAXWELL- Fanatics Sports Bar, 601 Cesar Chavez @ pier 80, and Michigan Street.
AIMEE ALLISON-Maxwell’s Restaurant 341 13th Street & Harrison Street, OAKLAND
YES ON A- Slims, 33 11th Street & Folsom.
YES ON F/NO ON 85/SF LABOR COUNCIL- Medjool Bar, 2516 Mission St @ 21st.
KRISSY KEEFER- Café La Boheme, 3318 24th Street, & Mission
If you’re young – or stupid – you might trace punk rock to some prefab English twats like the Sex Pistols. Me, I take it all the way back to 1967, with unholy St. Lou and all that “she’s still sucking on my ding-dong” talk on “Sister Ray.” Lou Reed is so punk rock, his whole life is a middle finger. So he’s aged into a poet laureate in leather pants, someone who’s inclined to wear ugly-ass Oakley sunglasses in promo photos. So what? His liner notes to Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975) still hold up: “My week beats your year.” (Duncan Scott Davidson)
2215 Broadway, Redwood City
Listen to the messenger
Hear OC Weekly writer Nick Schou read from his book, Kill the Messenger. The book covers the story of Gary Webb, a journalist who wrote the Dark Alliance series for the San Jose Mercury News in the mid-’80s investigating connections between the CIA and Southern California crack cocaine rings and later committed suicide. Schou’s book includes interviews with editors involved with Webb who have never before spoken about the scandal. (Deborah Giattina)
1730 Fourth St., Berk.
When I was in college, we were talking about the scene in School of Rock where Joan Cusack gets drunk and dances on a table like Stevie Nicks, and this hipper-than-thou chick in my class asked smugly, “Does anyone even like Fleetwood Mac anymore?” She was nearly killed by the rain of backpacks, cell phones, and unadulterated scorn. So the moral of the story is that everyone fucking loves Fleetwood Mac and everyone fucking loves Lindsey Buckingham. (Aaron Sankin)
Palace of Fine Arts
3301 Lyon, SF
Solidarity with Africa
Create greater support for black-led African groups like the Uhuru movement and African Socialist International on African People’s Solidarity Day at a teach-in and fundraiser featuring discussions and video presentation on the conditions and history of the African diaspora in Congo, Southern Africa, Haiti, Europe, and the United States. (Deborah Giattina)
10 a.m.-5 p.m.
3583 18th St., SF
(510) 625-1106, www.apscuhuru.org
Women prisoner news
Celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Fire Inside, a newsletter for female prisoners, with former inmate Theresa Cruz, her daughter Adriana, the Drum Sistah Warriors, Maisha Quint of Poetry for the People, performing arts group Loco Bloco, and special guest Alice Walker at a party sponsored by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. (Giattina)
African American Art and Culture Complex
762 Fulton, SF
$10-$100, sliding scale
(415) 255-7036, ext. 304, www.womenprisoners.org http://www.womenprisoners.org/
Oh, to be kids again, sitting around the fire and chomping toasted marshmallows while taking turns freaking each other out with tales of the spirit world! Well, here’s your chance: BATS Improv, with special guests Unexpected Productions, is offering an improvisational theater version of the campfire story. Before the show audience members are encouraged to share their experiences with ghosts; these accounts are then converted into improvised performances certain to quicken the pulse and thrill the most jaded of hearts. (Todd Lavoie)
Fort Mason Center, bldg. B
Marina at Buchanan, SF
Born from the ashes of the seminal Seattle band Green River, Mudhoney was one of the first groups to rise to moderate fame during the alternative rock explosion in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Though its profile and popularity were eventually far eclipsed by other acts labeled with the now-despised “grunge” tag, Mudhoney is one of the few original bands of that era still touring and putting out records. Tunes from this year’s Under a Billion Suns seethe and spit with the same attitude that made “Touch Me I’m Sick” and “Suck You Dry” anthems for a disaffected Generation X. (Sean McCourt)
2565 Mission, SF
Tara Jane O’Neil
Cat Power and Neko Case may nab more of the press, but Portland’s Tara Jane O’Neil has quietly developed into a strikingly consistent songwriter-chanteuse, spinning out one compelling solo record after another. Previously known for her work with Rodan and the Sonora Pine, O’Neil makes music that is equal parts spindly folk and ambient soundscape these days. It manages to be simultaneously explorative and understated: a neat trick in these rather unsubtle times. (Max Goldberg)
With Sir Richard Bishop and Sandycoates
500 Fourth St., SF
Drawing material from Alexander Stille’s book of the same title and Letizia Battaglia’s hard-boiled photography, director Marco Turco plunges into the Mafia’s long-standing stranglehold on Sicilian politics and capital in this heated documentary. Turco isn’t impressed by the Cosa Nostra’s mystique: he shows us a parasitic organization that has deeply embedded itself into the Italian economy through a combination of political influence and graft. As the murders and deceptions pile up, the filmmaker’s outrage hits its mark. (Goldberg)
7 and 8:50 p.m.
Roxie Film Center
3117 16th St., SF
While the San Francisco Opera’s busy playing it safe this season by reprising household-name works, our Symphony’s filling in the avant-garde gap with a roster right up any classical hipster’s alley. Nov. 2 through Nov. 4, the SFS presents a “hol-eee shit” lineup that’s got young audiophiles breaking their piggy banks for tickets. Hot, hot Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman gets sassy with 12-tone master Arnold Schoenberg’s electric-sexy cabaret songs, then launches into the stratosphere with Gustav Mahler’s tearfully ethereal Fourth Symphony. (Marke B.)
8 p.m. (through Sat/4)
Davies Symphony Hall
201 Van Ness, SF
Día de los Muertos
To paraphrase Octavio Paz: in Mexico death is an entity to be courted, cherished, and celebrated. It is this beneficent attitude toward la Muerte that has helped make Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, one of Mexico’s most treasured holidays and not surprisingly, one of the Mission District’s too. This year thousands will gather at the intersection of 24th Street and Bryant for a ritual procession to remember the dead – and to honor the living. In Garfield Park processionalists will have the opportunity to place ofrendas, or offerings of food, photographs, and other mementos, on five community altars and pay respect to smaller altars created by individuals. (Nicole Gluckstern)
24th St. and Bryant, SF
FILM FESTIVAL After a week of stealth watching at the Vancouver International Film Festival, you wonder about odd things. Such as: what’s with the trend of naming movies after post-punk touchstones? Jia Zhangke probably started it with 2002’s Unknown Pleasures. In its wake came All Tomorrow’s Parties by Jia’s cinematographer Yu Lik-wai and the Smiths-inflected twist of Lee Yoon-Ki’s terrific This Charming Girl. The 25th annual VIFF brought So Yong-Kim’s In Between Days (title swiped from Cure single) and one of this year’s best movies, Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth (English title courtesy of classic Young Marble Giants album). As Costa explained during a candid Q&A that included a pointed Hou Hsiao-hsien dismissal, his film’s extraordinary look and atmosphere derive from the fact that mirrors are its chief nonnatural light source.
A more perplexing minitrend might be the sudden return of ’80s MTV vixen Kim Wilde via art films — not as an actress but as set decoration or spectral presence. Wilde posters dominate the walls of the title character’s apartment in last year’s Cannes un Certain Regard winner The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and this year a 45 by the “Kids in America” songstress becomes one of manic-depressive Romain Duris’s last lifelines in Dans Paris, Christophe Honoré’s vastly improved and new wave–inflected follow-up to his debut, the Georges Bataille adaptation Ma Mere. Though Duris’s walk on the Wilde side might not be the most convincing evidence, Dans Paris makes wonderfully inventive use of music.
I love Paris in the springtime, I love it in the fall, and for the most part I love ’Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris, Raymond de Felitta’s video mash note to the late, underknown jazz singer — a work of fan devotion that ultimately uncovers uncomfortable facts about its subject. Most of all, I love Vancouver when ’tis autumn, because it’s home to the most impassioned and inventive strains of commercial cinema, partly due to VIFF programming associate Mark Peranson, who edits the excellent journal Cinema Scope.
This year’s VIFF showcased the Slavoj Zizek–guided The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which places the psych theorist in lecture settings such as Melanie Daniels’s Bodega Bay Birds motorboat. Rarer treats included the North American premiere of Jacques Rivette’s 743(!)-minute new wave touchstone from 1973, Out 1: Noli Me Tangere. I caught most of it but missed a six-hour excerpt of Stan Douglas’s endlessly variable new installation, Klatsassin — to my regret, since one of Douglas’s previous projects warps Dario Argento’s Suspiria and this latest connects North American Indian history to a score by the excellent Berlin electronic dubster duo Rhythm and Sound.
If such disparate ingredients can have a bond, then so can Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Tsai Ming-liang, to name just one of the better-known directors commissioned to make movies for the “New Crowned Hope” film series in honor of the composer’s 250th birthday. Tsai’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone is his first feature set in his birth country of Malaysia, but its near-silent strains of lovelorn pathos and comedy fit alongside past works. The movies made thus far for “New Crowned Hope” are uniformly and individually superb. A case could be made that Garin Nugroho’s Opera Jawa — in which powerful waves of sound might even be overshadowed by gorgeous costume and set design — is the best. That is, if one discounts Syndromes and a Century, the latest miracle by Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul — an improvement on Tropical Malady that condenses all the director’s unique gifts into a fine mist.
Apichatpong was on the jury for this year’s Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema, a prize that thanks to programmer Tony Rayns has helped make the name of directors such as Jia — primarily because Rayns’s trailblazing broader Dragons and Tigers selections have introduced Miike Takashi, Bong Joon-ho, and others to North American audiences. This was Rayns’s last year in his current capacity at VIFF, where he’s offered a peerless example of what a festival programmer can do for filmmakers and filmmaking. Through happenstance on my last night at the fest, I wound up at a spontaneous Rayns-thrown dinner that included documentarian Amir Muhammad (who has a way with a wickedly funny Keyser Söze punch line) and the respective directors of what would soon be the Dragons and Tigers winner, Todo Todo Teros, and honorable mention Faceless Things. That the meal took place immediately after the genuinely scatological latter film — a provocation that moves postteen Kim Kyong-Mook beyond the Sadie Benning–of–South Korea realm of his earlier short Me and Doll Playing — was just one of the reasons it was memorable.
I wound up seated next to Todo Todo Teros director John Torres and his friend — as well as one of the first faces glimpsed in his movie — Alexis Tioseco, who oversees the outstanding Web site criticine.com. Tioseco’s site currently features a poignant Paris diary by the talented young filmmaker Raya Martin, whose A Short Film about the Indio-Nacional (or the Prolonged Sorrow of Filipinos) hints at Apichatpong-level brilliance and is at the vanguard of a new Filipino cinema powered by friendship and inspiration rather than the country’s film industry or government funds. It was a pleasure and in some ways a revelation to talk movies with the Andrei Tarkovsky–loving Tioseco, who likes to kid Torres, though he’s perceptively respectful of his friend’s filmmaking efforts in a current Criticine interview. The reward of such a meeting wouldn’t be possible without Rayns — here’s hoping whoever takes the VIFF reins will follow his example. SFBG
For more extensive reports on this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, go to the Pixel Vision blog at www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision.
In Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play, the setting is a vast dirt hole — what the piece calls “an exact replica of the Great Hole of History.” You could say it’s still the operative landscape in her 2002 Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Topdog/Underdog, which also takes as a central motif The America Play’s image of a black man dressed as an arcade Abraham Lincoln (there for patrons to shoot in a continual reenactment of the assassination in Ford’s Theatre). Parks now grounds it in a more ostensibly realistic plotline Linc-ing two African American brothers to a deep and sordid past they only partially and fleetingly understand. The hole of history here consists of the squalid apartment shared by Lincoln (Ian Walker) and Booth (David Westley Skillman), named by their father as “some idea of a joke.”
In Parks’s telling, the joke is loaded. The layering of history, it suggests, turns Booth’s inner-city digs downright archaeological. It blends — in subtle and intricate ways — the brothers’ troubled childhood, a history of racism and endemic poverty, and a ruthless culture suffused with fantasies of death and easy money.
Second Wind’s production, ably helmed by director Virginia Reed, is the first one locally since the touring Broadway version came through town. It’s great not only to have the opportunity to see this rich and dramatically powerful work performed again but to see a small company do this demanding piece such justice. (If justice is a word one can draw anywhere near the world of Linc and Booth.) The actors establish an engaging rapport onstage. Skillman is sharp and just vaguely menacing as younger brother Booth, jumpy and less certain than his big brother despite his obsessive ambition to be the three-card monte hustler his now disillusioned brother once was. Walker’s Linc, meanwhile, is a finely tuned combination of resignation, restraint, and irrepressible pride. He first appears in whiteface, wearing the president’s getup, which gives him a steady paycheck and time to think; when his startled kid brother trains a real gun on him, we have a tableau that sets the whole history ball rolling.
True, opening night saw the performances, especially Walker’s, fluctuating slightly in intensity, focus, and rhythm, but that’s only to say an excellent cast will likely prove even stronger as the run continues.
THE WAR AT HOME
Bay Area playwright Brad Erickson’s new play, The War at Home, comes stitched together with song — religious hymns sung by a cast whose effortless harmonies belie the contested provenance of the play’s allegiances and convictions. It’s an ironic and rhythmically effective counterpoint to the disunion tackled by Erickson’s smart and well-crafted story, which begins with the lovely-sounding but nonetheless physically strained concord of a group portrait around the piano.
Jason (a nicely understated Peter Matthews) is a young gay playwright from the Big Apple who returns home to Charleston, SC, where his father, Bill (Alex Ross), is a popular Baptist minister, to put on a play lambasting the Baptist Church for its bigoted opposition to gay marriage and demonization of homosexuality. As the inevitable uproar gets under way — with his good-natured, well-meaning dad (played with wonderfully convincing sincerity by Ross) caught between his son and his strident, militant church assistant, Danny (Patrick MacKellan) — Jason’s renewed contact with his old lover Reese (Jason Jeremy) raises some hell of its own for him.
Pastor Bill has grown the congregation successfully over the years into a thriving community. Early in the play, he’s overlooking the floor plans for the church’s new Christian Life Center facility (which includes an elaborate gym confoundingly absent showers, he notices). But the growth of the church and Bill’s success as a pastor have come at a price — his own passive complicity in the purging over the years of progressive church leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention (as a Christian who had protested the Vietnam War and fought for civil rights, Bill finds his passivity amounts to a significant compromise). Now his son’s play and life become the catalyst for a confrontation with the right-wing leadership that threatens to end his career as well as break up his marriage to Jason’s serenely oblivious mother (a bottomless well of denial played with perfectly pitched charm by Adrienne Krug).
Having recently married his NYC partner in a legal ceremony in Boston, Jason becomes panicked over his infidelity with Reese, made troubling here by the thought that he may be living up to the hateful stereotypes of the Christian Right and stoking the facile certainties of their intolerant, authoritarian worldview (which to his father’s chagrin Jason labels — with youthful impetuosity perhaps but hardly without cause — “fascist”).
It’s part of the strength of Erickson’s play that it eschews easy answers or stereotypes. Nevertheless, Danny and, to a lesser extent, Reese remain less developed characters than Jason and his parents, whose interactions are some of the play’s most convincing and resonant. Director John Dixon, meanwhile, who shrewdly avoids stereotypes himself, as well as cheap laughs, garners strong performances from a very solid cast. SFBG
Through Nov. 18
Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
414 Mason, SF
THE WAR AT HOME
Through Nov. 11
Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
New Conservatory Theatre Center
25 Van Ness, SF
Marisa Monte is a true musician. Her albums routinely go putf8um around the world, and her shows sell out wherever she plays — whether in or out of her native Brazil — but her approach is not at all that of a pop star. Her musical background is rich and combines the samba traditions of her hometown, Rio de Janeiro, European classical opera training, and Brazilian and international popular music. Music for her is not a means to an end but a process, a way of life, as she explained by phone from her home in Rio.
“I don’t do a career. I do a life, and sometimes out of my life something happens that can serve the music in my career as well professionally, but you know I do music every day with my friends,” Monte said. “It’s really part of my house, of my environment. Most of my friends are musicians — we play almost every night at home, and so it’s a natural consequence of the style of life.”
Out of this atmosphere were born her new twin EMI albums, Universo ao Meu Redor and Infinito Particular. Her seventh and eighth full-lengths were the product of a hiatus of a few years — agonizingly long to her fans — during which she took time off to have a baby. This gave her a chance to comb through her tape archives, both of her own unreleased material and of sambas known only through oral tradition in Rio. Out of these archives came most of the material for the new releases.
Although these records were issued simultaneously, they take distinct approaches to Brazilian music. Universo ao Meu Redor reflects her commitment to and exploration of Rio’s rich samba heritage, whereas Infinito Particular focuses on original compositions written over the years by Monte in collaboration with various songwriting partners (Arnaldo Antunes, Carlinhos Brown, Seu Jorge, David Byrne, etc.).
Though Infinito is in the vein of some of the pop music Monte has recorded in the past, it has a conceptual depth and consistency surpassing that of her earlier work.
“Most of the songs were composed on the acoustic guitar, so all the harmonic texture is basically based on the acoustic nylon string guitar,” Monte explained. “But we also invited different arrangers to do different songs and had them all write for the same group of instruments, the same quartet, which is bassoon, cello, violin, and trumpet. So even if we have Philip Glass, João Donato, Eumir Deodato — each very different styles — the unity of the record happens through the same group of instruments, and it’s the same group of instruments that I have on stage now with me.”
For several years Monte has been archiving sambas passed around by veteran Rio sambistas, and her other new recording, Universo, collects her versions of these, combined with more recent sambas written by Monte and other contemporary Brazilian musicians. These are approached not as historical documents but as contemporary recordings of traditional music.
“Even if the repertoire sounds very classical, I didn’t want to do a traditional samba record,” Monte said. “I wanted to do a record that could dialogue with my other works — dialogue with the other references that I like and that are present in my work. So I wanted to do samba that I could call mine, and that’s Universo ao Meu Redor.
“The subjects of the songs are very pure, very naive as traditional samba,” she continued. “Most of the songs, they talk about love, about nature, about human common feelings like the values of the community … and yet it sounds very psychedelic. We deal with a lot of freedom with the sounds.”
Both records, as with most of her previous work, rely heavily on collaboration, not as a crutch but as a stimulus for collective creativity. For Monte, music is a social act both in process and in spirit.
“I really love to work together,” she said. “It’s something that stimulates me. It gives me discipline … and I like to think together. I’m very open in my work. I’m not very attached to what I do. I like to exchange and to collaborate, and something that’s very strange about music is that for me it can be also a lonely activity. You can be a solo artist, but for me it has always been a collective way, with bands, in the studio, with composers. I’ve been always finding ways of reutf8g with people and with life through the music.
“Sometimes I think if I was a plastic artist, like a visual artist or a writer, I would suffer a lot. If you are a painter or something, you have to work alone,” Monte added. “Though I would love to one day also be able to do a concert only myself. Maybe one day.”
DIALOGUE OF TRADITIONS
This spirit of collaboration has manifested itself as a dialogue between different styles and approaches within Monte’s music. In addition to the Brazilian and international pop she grew up listening to as a member of her generation, more traditional and classical elements found their way into her life. Her father was a teacher at a samba school in Rio, and she grew up hearing and singing popular and traditional sambas.
“The fact is, samba is the most important musical expression from Rio, and I grew up in Rio,” Monte said. “It’s very natural, loving music.”
Later, Monte became a serious student of opera, which also continues to inform her music, both as a discipline to aspire to and as an aesthetic to avoid.
“When I was 13 or 14, people started to ask me to sing because they noticed — friends in the school and in the family — they noticed that I liked to sing and that I had a nice voice, and they started to ask me, ‘Sing for us. You sing very well — sing for us.’ And then I started to study,” she recalled. “It was very important for me to know my vocal apparel, to learn how. Until now I warm up before every concert with vocalizes that I learned when I was in classical training, but I don’t use that technique for popular music because it’s a technique that was developed for a premic world: you had to sing over a whole orchestra, so it’s very intense — a lot of volume, and it’s a little bit artificial.”
As with many musicians whose voices happen to be their instruments, Monte is forever linked in the minds of her fans with her timbre and delivery. (On Infinito, she plays with this idea of her voice as an instrument, employing wordless melodies and textures and using audio effects to alter and disguise her voice.) In any musical context, it is her profound sense of phrasing that captivates, while focusing the listener’s attention not so much on her own voice as on the song itself.
“I really search for simplicity when I’m singing. I love to sing, and my intensity, I try to find something very similar to the conversation we are having here,” Monte said. “It helps to communicate with people, to be direct, to be without any oversinging. If I am singing a song that is intimate, you can sing really slowly, you can sing it low, you can sing it soft, you can sing it with intimacy. It’s something that I really search for — the exact intensity that the songs ask me to do.”
For Monte, music is a social activity, and communication and collaboration are key elements. In her music and in her process of making music, dialogue flows in all directions: between songwriters and musicians, between audience and performers, between different musical worlds, between musicians and the music itself. The emphasis is not on creating commodities to sell but on sharing the musical process with as many people as possible.
“When we do a song, we don’t do a song to be recorded. I don’t do it like that. I just do it because it’s fun to do. It’s like a game. It’s like playing — a nice thing to do with friends, instead of playing cards or video games,” she offered. “And sometimes something comes out of this universe, this atmosphere, and can be part of something that you can share with a lot of people.” SFBG
Sat/4, 8 p.m., and Sun/5, 7 p.m.
Palace of Fine Arts Theatre
3301 Lyon, SF
“Music is the celestial sound. And it is sound that controls the whole universe, not atomic vibrations. Sound energy, sound power, is much greater than any other power in this world.”
Swami Satchidananda addressing the audience at Woodstock, 1969
Each year, in addition to its roster of standard jazz players, the San Francisco Jazz Festival tucks a few cards up its sleeve. The past few years have seen performances by the likes of Caetano Veloso, Ravi Shankar, Orchestra Baobab, and João Gilberto, for example. This year promises to perhaps surpass even those when Alice Coltrane is joined by Charlie Haden, Roy Haynes, and her son, Ravi Coltrane, in a rare performance. It may just be one of the concerts of the year.
To some, Alice Coltrane may be overshadowed by her husband, the awe-inspiring John Coltrane, but don’t let that fool you. After all, who among jazz players isn’t in the shadow of the unrelenting, spiritually questing saxophonist, one of the 20th century’s towering musical figures? To many, however, the pieces Alice created as a bandleader between 1968 and 1975 have become landmarks of their own — perhaps especially in recent years with the renaissance of interest in cosmic music of all kinds. In fact, they are some of the most elevated, incandescent recordings of the 1960s and ’70s — and of any time, really.
After studying classical and gospel music as a child in Detroit, Alice McLeod was turned on to jazz by her brother, bassist Ernie Farrow. She played sessions with guitarist Kenny Burrell and shared the stage with Terry Gibbs. That’s when she and John Coltrane met. In 1966 they were married. It was the same year John would break up his classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones. With his new quintet, including Alice, Garrison, Rashied Ali, and Pharoah Sanders, John began his spiritual quest, which took him away from the modal jazz (improvisations based on scales, or modes, rather than chords) of his hits like “My Favorite Things” to the controversial outer regions of jazz on blistering free albums such as Meditations and Interstellar Space (both Impulse!, 1965 and 1967). Here, Alice’s adventurous and spiritual musical story took flight.
Though all of the trappings of jazz are in her music — and certainly, with her surname, she will always be defined by the genre — Alice Coltrane’s sound is something else.
“Well, we put labels on everything, don’t we?” Alice, 69, suggests, speaking from her home near Los Angeles, where she runs the John Coltrane Foundation with her daughter Michelle, as well as her ashram, where she teaches as a minister. “And that’s OK. I don’t see any harm in it. It lets the people go to a location where they can say, ‘OK, yeah, I understand what you’re speaking.’ But I know it’s something else. It’s much more than that. In music you hear experiences. You hear challenges.”
John died in 1967, arguably at the peak of his powers. He’d been incorporating motifs from the East, reaching for something otherworldly in scope. Alice continued playing with his last group, including Garrison, Sanders, and Ali. After a trip to India in 1970 to follow guru Swami Satchidananda, her music began to evolve, finding an altogether unique spot between the not unrelated worlds of ecstatic jazz and classical Indian forms, even Western classical music (see her interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird on Lord of Lords [Impulse!, 1973]). Pivotal albums like A Journey in Satchidananda, Universal Consciousness, and World Galaxy (all on Impulse!, 1970, 1971, and 1971) hold a rarefied place in the 20th-century canon. Playing harp, Wurlitzer organ, and piano, she created a style and sound that are impossible to forget — swirling harp arpeggios, long-held organ notes, and fluttering piano play among shimmering sleigh bells, tamboura, occasional tablas, and often large string sections. If it is jazz at all, it is astral jazz. Or perhaps it is what new age music, that most maligned of genres, should have been: challenging, all encompassing, ecstatic, ancient, timeless.
It’s no surprise to find devotion is of such importance to Alice, whose song titles reference nearly all cultural myths and spiritual traditions. Unsurprisingly, you won’t find dogma at the root of her devotion.
“We have our one sun in the universe,” she muses. “How many different names is it known by — through all the different languages? But it’s providing that heat and that power and energy to all of us here and throughout the rest of the universe.
“I feel that throughout our lives, if we know where to look, where to research, we will have discovery. We will find we are so much alike as humanity. We might try to focus on differences and cultural circumstances and boundaries and all these things, but as humanity, we are so close that really, we are basically one.” SFBG
ALICE COLTRANE QUARTET
Sat/4, 8 p.m.
Nob Hill Masonic Center
1111 California, SF
Vocalless but intensely lyrical electric-guitar duo Ecstatic Sunshine take risks on their first non-CD-R release, Freckle Wars (Carpark) — namely by eschewing a drummer or even a drum machine despite a tendency to craft manic post-rock buildups that seem to predict explosive toms and thundering cymbals. But these happy rockers are more interested in preparing sunshine than predicting rain. For two guys with guitars, they make remarkably unindulgent music.
“Most of the songs took us months to write,” Ecstatic Sunshiner Dustin Wong said on the phone from the group’s Baltimore practice space. It’s no accident that the second guitar — or one of them anyway; they’re well blended — seems to speak with a witty, melodic voice on tunes like the cascading “Power Ring,” which sounds like a deconstructed Kaki King tune, and “Beetle,” which resonates like an early Nintendo soundtrack made with an open guitar tuning on a beat-up Strat. When the Japan-raised Wong went back to Tokyo for a summer, co-Sunshiner Matthew Papich “sent e-mails with MP3s of new ideas,” Wong said. “He would record one part of the song at a time — an intro, for example — then I would record another track and send it back.” “Power Ring” is one such song. It’s as if they’ve boiled their musical ideas down to their essence.
Next on the phone, Papich told the same story, audibly excited about the musical friendship, which has only grown stronger since they signed to Carpark Records after founder Todd Hyman found out about them through Baltimore City Paper. Both musicians feel supported by the local scene. “For me, what distinguishes the scene in Baltimore — at least the one that we’re a part of — is its sense of humor and whimsy. It’s very positive, and everyone has a good time at shows,” Wong explained.
Papich and Wong met in art school when Wong, after completing two years at the California College of the Arts, transferred to the Maryland Institute College of Art. Papich had only played in grindcore bands — and not much since high school — before he started jamming with Wong for a friend’s art project.
They saw a similar spark in each other — perhaps the drive to make music with the wild vision and focused craft required by the visual arts world. “We were working with more abstract structures where we don’t repeat things,” Wong said.
There isn’t a boring moment on Freckle War’s 12 zippy, bittersweet tunes, though some sound raw — as in scratchy and frenetic — for the sake of getting someone’s attention. But so what? Wong left the CCA and San Francisco behind for no particular reason — if only we can listen with the same abandon.
Leaving San Francisco meant leaving old musical ideas behind. “Sometimes we get too comfortable with a certain structure, and then we break through that comfort zone,” he said. “To be comfortable is to be boring, and that’s not a place that I want to be in for writing music.” (Ari Messer)
Wed/1, 9 p.m.
Hotel Utah Saloon
500 Fourth St., SF
The Film Arts Foundation turns 30 this year, and to celebrate it’s throwing a party at the Castro Theatre. One-minute movies are a major element of the FAF’s birthday bash — 60-second efforts by some of the organization’s filmmaking members will be shown as part of an evening program MCed by Peter Coyote and Nancy Kelly. Considering FAF members include Les Blank, Debra Chasnoff, Nathaniel Dorsky, Rob Epstein, Sam Green, George Kuchar, Amanda Micheli, Jenni Olson, Jay Rosenblatt, Caveh Zahedi, and Terry Zwigoff, the result promises to be exciting.
Normally, in early November the Film Arts Festival rolls around, but this is an important transitional year for the organization, with recent changes such as the hiring of executive director Eric Hayashi. The Film Arts Fund for Independent Cinema continues to award money to filmmakers whose visions are individual and who aren’t — unlike the vast majority of directors today — following the dictates of TV markets. This year Green (currently working on a movie about utopian visions) and recent Guardian profile subjects James T. Hong and Michelle Silva (“Wild Eyes,” 5/18/05) are among the grant recipients. (Johnny Ray Huston)
FILM ARTS FOUNDATION’S 30TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
Wed/8, 6:30–8 p.m. reception; 8 p.m. screening; 10 p.m. after-party
429 Castro, SF
It only takes a few minutes of watching Iraq in Fragments to recognize that the film stands apart from the Iraqumentary pack: dazzling cinematography in place of the dull visuals of the evening news, slice-of-life narration instead of talking heads. Divided into three sections, director James Longley’s reportage shows us the everyday chaos in Baghdad and beyond with dramatic vividness — a vividness that, if nothing else, makes us realize how degraded most of the imagery we receive from Iraq is at the moment. Longley’s style owes as much to neorealism as it does to vérité documentary, with an emphasis on rhythm, ritual (school, shaving, washing feet), and — somewhat tiresomely — child perspectives. The director doesn’t explicate politics and often drops us into complex situations without explanation — he expects a lot from his audience but at the same time knows that the tangled human emotions cast before us will give the film meaning. It’s the kind of ambitious work one imagines a director like Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers) would have made if he’d had access to digital technology.
Though the film nabbed a couple of major awards at Sundance, it’s taken months for Iraq in Fragments to get a proper theatrical release here. Fortunately for Longley, the film’s material is evergreen, not tied to specific events, and still wholly relevant to the unfolding devastation. I spoke with the director during last spring’s San Francisco International Film Festival.
SFBG: How did you decide to make a documentary about Iraq?
JAMES LONGLEY: In 2002 I premiered Gaza Strip [his first feature-length documentary] up in Seattle, and someone asked me what I was going to do next. By then it was already clear that we were going to invade Iraq … and I just said I was going to make a film about Iraq. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, I didn’t know what to expect, but I just decided [to] dive in no matter what.
SFBG: After getting kicked out of the country in the immediate buildup to the US invasion, when and how did you return to Baghdad?
JL: I waited for [the war] to end in Cairo. The last two weeks in April, the war was running down, the statue fell, and I flew immediately from Cairo to Amman, Jordan, and then drove across the border, which was totally open. I just kind of settled in. I had my camera and found an apartment. I found people to work with as translators and started filming.
SFBG: It’s striking how comfortable the film’s subjects seem around your camera, especially since you’re an American. How do you go about getting embedded in this way?
JL: Mostly it’s just a matter of making friends with people and hanging out…. It was a conscious choice to have that feeling of being a fly on the wall. When you make that choice, you do whatever it takes … and really, what it takes is a lot of patience. I went through 12 different translators. The difficult thing for them was when I would go out to a farm or wherever I was filming and just stay there from morning until night, just hanging out. Most people demand some kind of action, but in this case the work was really in action, punctuated by really fast decision making. You’re going to be a fixture in this place. Everyone’s going to know who you are, and you’re going to have to say hi to everyone and drink tea with everyone day after day…. If you’re willing to do that, after a while people won’t think it’s such a big deal when you’re filming.
SFBG: Given the on-the-fly nature of the scenes, Iraq in Fragments is also a powerfully cinematic documentary. How does this level of film style factor into your direction?
JL: When I was shooting the film, I was definitely thinking of cinema, not of television. I grew up hating TV and never actually had one…. Conceptualizing the movie while shooting it, I was always thinking, “What’s this shot going to look like on the big screen?” Having that in your mind the whole time changes the way you imagine it, changes the way you shoot; it changes everything. I want to shoot the next film in high-def 3-D [laughs]. (Max Goldberg)
IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS
Opens Nov. 10 in Bay Area theaters
These days finesse in the art of montage is too often used to compensate for ineptitude (or just laziness) in the art of storytelling. Of course, rhythmic, Eisensteinian montage can be beautiful in itself and can even bear the weight of actual substance. Right now there is no more impressive practitioner of this particular skill than Alejandro González Iñárritu, who since his first feature, Amores Perros, has worked on the kinds of expansive, crisis-driven, crisscrossing stories that practically require cathartic crescendos of pure editorial bravado.
González Iñárritu doesn’t write his own screenplays (Guillermo Arriaga does), and the two features since Perros have credited others as editors. But Perros, 21 Grams, and the new Babel are so much of a piece — conceptually, thematically, stylistically — and the work his collaborators have done elsewhere is so dissimilar that there’s no doubting González Iñárritu’s all-controlling hand.
Anyone who works on so ambitious a scale risks missteps and unevenness. Babel is a teetering monument, and its plot is hole pocked as if made of Swiss cheese. Yet it’s also better shaped as a whole than Amores Perros and carries its burden of existential hand-wringing less pretentiously than 21 Grams. Mercifully, it abjures the latter’s jaundiced palette for Rodrigo Prieto’s full-bodied, naturalistic wide-screen compositions. There are individual passages that are as dazzling as anything onscreen this year. Perros told three consecutive Mexico City stories; Grams interwove three chronology-scrambled threads set mostly in New Mexico (though originally conceived for Mexico City). Babel sprawls across the globe, tenuously linking tales of culture shock in Mexico, Japan, and Morocco.
The last is where San Diegan professionals Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett have gone for reparative alone time. They’re about to reconcile, maybe, when a stray bullet from a young goatherd’s gun strikes their tour bus. The panic among fellow passengers and impact on innocent locals are ramped up by international media attention on this “terrorist act.”
The same couple’s two preschool children are back in San Diego with Mexican housekeeper-cum-nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza). She’s willing to go the extra mile when the globe-trotting parents get in trouble — but not, when those troubles drag on, to miss her own son’s wedding. Amelia finally decides to take her towheaded charges across the border, with reckless nephew Santiago (Gael García Bernal) as their most untrustworthy chauffeur.
Ultimately connected to these dramas by the thinnest of threads, a third strand centers on deaf-mute Tokyo teen Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi). Her mother is dead, her CEO father distant. Further alienated from the speaking world, Chieko plunges into raver postures of wannabe nymphomania that are by far Babel’s least convincing or pointed ploy. Still, they engender the movie’s most exhilarating montage — an ecstasy-propelled joyride that arcs from desire to bliss to aftermath, only slightly overdoing the audio on-off effects meant to capture the nonhearing experience.
What is González Iñárritu saying here? Why are the near-death experiences of American yuppies straying outside their home safety zone — in nations painted as menacingly chaotic, even the director’s native Mexico — more vivid than the travails of residents? Surely that’s not González Iñárritu’s intention, but the star power of Pitt and Blanchett and the pixie perils endured by their fictive kids tend to tip the scales in that direction. In interviews the director says what he thought would be a movie about cultural differences ended up being about subjects — family, parenting, compassion — that unite all people. Babel does gesture thataway, yet its primary emphasis is on crisis creation and ambulance chasing. Hot-button issues like terrorism, illegal immigration, and US imperialism are diversionary flags González Iñárritu waves without actually signaling anything.
Among filmmakers working in this fashionable crazy-quilt-of-humanity genre, many less talented ones are even more convinced they’re making an important statement about life. Babel is so accomplished and urgent as spectacle that maybe it’s folly to expect more than the rewards of an engrossing, sweeping surface. Babel might not be a great movie, but you can’t watch it without knowing González Iñárritu will someday make one. SFBG
Opens Fri/3 at Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com for theaters and showtimes
For Cheryl Eddy’s interview with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, go to www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.
SONIC REDUCER Starved for ideas? Dirt cheap, down to your last slice of cheese pizza and Harley beer, and still deeply smitten with fuzz-swathed guitars, ruttin’ rhythms, and a complete dearth of chops?
Desperate times call for rotten but still somewhat respectful measures, according to Chris Owen, former Guardian music ad maestro, ex–Killer’s Kiss kingpin, Hook or Crook label head cootie, and everlasting primordial rock fan. When the time came to name Budget Rock Showcase, the garage-punk onslaught of a music fest that Owen birthed five years ago with ex–Guardian columnist and onetime Parkside booker John O’Neill, they turned to the best: ye olde SF garage rock upenders the Mummies.
“We took the name from the back of a Mummies record, a picture of the Mummies that says ‘Budget Rock Showcase’ on their hearse or station wagon. We thought it was the perfect name for a festival of these bands,” recalled Owen from Gris Gris leader Greg Ashley’s digs, where they’re working on a 7-inch of Ashley’s pre-Mirrors high school combo, the Strate Coats. In response, the Mummies have been, um, fairly mum. “They’re pretty nonplussed that we decided to appropriate that. I get the feeling that doing some kind of organized, highfalutin thing is not necessarily what they’re into.”
Well, their tacit agreement was all Owen needed to pick up the fest he abandoned after the first year with a bit of booking help from friends such as O’Neill, ex–Parkside booker John Pool, and Stork Club bar manager-booker Lance Hill. Known for giving Comets on Fire one of their first Bay Area shows and drawing the underage Black Lips from across the country and later lauded for bringing in Beantown’s highly combustible Lyres, Budget Rock leaves Thee Parkside for the first time and celebrates its fifth year at the Stork. “It probably wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t do it this year,” Owen said while scarfing pizza with Ashley (“the food that fuels Budget Rock!”). “No one got off their ass to do it.”
So what is this crazy, impecunious thing called Budget Rock? “All the bands fall under a couple different rubrics,” Owen said. “Real traditional garage bands like Omens and Original Sins. I tend to like noisier In the Red stuff, but Budget Rock is supposed to be about Bay Area bands that are descended from great bands like Supercharger, the Mummies, Rip Offs, and Bobbyteens.” Of snarly note — besides the magnifico, malignant Original Sins (Brother JT’s original garage unit, which hasn’t played the Bay in more than a decade) — are fest first-timer Ray Loney, the Sneaky Pinks, the Mothballs, the Traditional Fools, Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and the Okmoniks (one of several acts to have played every fest).
With the mainstream pop scene’s own appropriation of garage rock now petering to a close and disappearing from car commercials and the demise of such fests as Garage Shock, Owen can safely say that Budget Rock is one of the few of its die-hard kind, along with Goner fest in Memphis and Horizontal Action’s Chicago Blackout. Original garage lovers can all breathe a sigh of relief now — and enjoy the grease in peace. “You can spot a band that’s trying to make it a mile away,” Owen said.
“It’s like when you hear the Strokes, and they promote themselves as the Velvet Underground,” Ashley interjected. “They kind of do sound like them but like the worst songs on the last album rather than the best songs off the first album.”
This will likely be the first and last time Budget Rock will pick pockets at the Stork because Hill is moving on after failing to buy the joint — word has it he has looked into the old Golden Bull space too. But then, that’s the way this breed of untamed raw-k shakes down.
JOAN OF OURS A passing that came and went relatively unheralded Oct. 21: Runaways drummer Sandy West died after a lengthy tussle with lung cancer.
Yet it’s not too late to lay down your respect to Joan Jett, who plays San Francisco on Nov. 4 and has said after West’s passing, “I started the Runaways with Sandy West. We shared the dream of girls playing rock ’n’ roll. Sandy was an exuberant and powerful drummer. So underrated, she was the caliber of John Bonham. I am overcome from the loss of my friend. I always told her we changed the world.”
Jett is still out to change the world, it seems, when I spoke to her recently from her tour bus shortly before West’s death. Her new album, Sinner, on her own Blackheart Records, had just come out, and she was psyched about its politically and spiritually oriented material. After chatting about the Warped Tour (“I had my BMX bike and rode around from stage to stage checking out as much music as I could”) and producing the first Germs LP for her friend Darby Crash (“We got serious for about four days and probably as un-fucked-up as we could be and went in there and made a great record”), Jett got in one last push for rocking women like herself and West.
“I think the environment for women is just as bad now [as when I started Blackheart Records],” she said. “In fact, I think it’s even more dangerous because there’s this illusion of equality, when in fact, that’s not the case at all. Girl bands can’t seem to get above that successful club level, then they run into that glass ceiling thing.” SFBG
JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS
Sat/4, 9 p.m.
805 Geary, SF
1131 Polk, SF
BUDGET ROCK SHOWCASE
2330 Telegraph, Oakl.
What am I grateful for?
Bacon. Fried chicken. Butter. Barbecued chicken. Butter. Bacon fat. Eggs … None of which you will find by the way at my new favorite restaurant, Café Gratitude. I went to the one in Berkeley with my old blackberry pickin’ pal and new favorite massage therapist NFC, and even though I couldn’t find no chicken-fried steak on the menu, I have to admit to having had one of the Times of my Life.
Has the chicken farmer lost her mind?
No! My old pal NFC has, because I would have taken her to Chez Panisse or even House of Chicken and Waffles … and she picked this.
“No, no, I’m serious, anywhere you want,” I said. “My treat.” I owed her big-time, see, for fixing me up backwise in an emergency the week before. “Chez Panisse,” I said. “Chicken and Waffles.”
“Café Gratitude,” she said again.
So, OK, I didn’t even know what it was, but namewise it seemed appropriate for the occasion. Conceptwise, you know: “live” organic foods, no meat, no pain and suffering, locally farmed, environmentally friendly, vegan, “prepared with love,” and all that hippie dippy dong dong dicky doo I’m so, so into these days, so long as I get to go home afterward and lop the head off of one of my chickens.
I like dead food too.
Everything on the menu is named an affirmative first-person statement, and the idea I think is to make you say it when you order. Like “I am wonderful,” “I am lovely,” “I am dazzling,” “I am magical,” and all kinds of other flat-out lies. Personally, I am honest, so I scoured the menu for something true to say to our waitressperson, such as “I am all of the above and none of the above and clumsy and stupid and pissed off and oh yeah, my feet stink.”
“I am explosive,” NFC said, but that wasn’t on the menu either. Although … never mind. Well, no, never mind.
Well, I think she was maybe making a prediction, based on all the ingredients in all the stuff we were looking at, like grains and greens and nuts and flax chips. Give you an example: the salad called “I am fulfilled” contains mixed greens, carrots, beets, cucumber, tomato, avocado, sprouts, microgreens (whatever that means), Brazil nut parmesan, and flax crackers ($10).
Actually, that sounds delicious, but I settled on being “elated,” which meant I was eating an enchilada with corn, cilantro, and something else inside and a spicy green salsa on top ($10). This came with a side salad and Bhutanese red rice. All good, right on.
NFC decided to be accepting, which meant she was eating red rice too, only all tossed together with raw free-range organic vegetables, pine nuts, some other kinds of nuts, and some shit-talking mushrooms. All good, right on.
To drink: free-range organic wind-dried water (with a wink to Posh Nosh fans — hi, Chrissy), and we also ordered a couple things from the smoothies and nut milks, but I don’t remember what. But it was all good, right on.
You think I’m kidding but I’m not. I love this stuff! Anyway, I could have been eating sand and sea shells, and so long as I get to eat it sitting cross-legged on a couch with my old friend NFC, talking about her girls and my chickens and, you know, life and shit, with our knees sometimes touching … I’m going to be happy.
I was satisfied. Technically, this was breakfast, since we started eating around 10, but I didn’t have any lunch and wasn’t hungry for dinner until later than usual. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t run right home anyway and knock over one of my chickens. It was a beautiful day that day.
It’s a beautiful day today. I am sad and scared and loving life because I can’t stop making poetry out of it. This one I call “Hopeful Chicken Farmer Poem”:
Suddenly bugs make sense to me and lavender smells like lavender — finally! Who knew that a dried-up leaf would sound that way under a feral cat’s paw? So I planted a blueberry bush next to the blackberry bushes. Next year, if the chickens don’t scratch it all out … SFBG
Daily, 10 a.m.–10 p.m.
1730 Shattuck, Berk.
In the Thousand Years’ War between beer and wine, beer has long enjoyed an advantage on the party battlefield, mostly because of the keg, the bunker buster of party drink delivery. Oh yes, kegs do run dry, they must, but has anyone actually seen it happen?
Wine, on the other hand, comes in bottles, and while some of these bottles are, in theory, party sized — the jeroboams and nebuchadnezzars that hold massive amounts of champagne spring to mind — they are unwieldy, lacking the keg’s convenient tap. Could wine’s secret weapon in the struggle for party preeminence be the box? “I drink boxed wine!” is not necessarily an announcement to be shouted from the rooftops in San Francisco, but lately I have had occasion to sample some boxed wines (from Black Box), a cab and a pinot grigio, and I am here to say they are not bad — are, in fact, quite quaffable, though not better than the better Two-Buck Chucks, while costing about twice as much. (A three-liter box of Black Box is the equivalent of four standard-size bottles of wine and retails for about $18, or about $4.50 per bottle.)
It is the box format, of all things, that aggravates. Making the boxes operational is slightly arduous, involving the punching out of stubbornly uncooperative paperboard tabs and the pulling forth of the fugitive spigot, but once all that is accomplished, you have a smart little keg — full of wine. The issue is that the spigot is almost at the bottom of the box, which is fine for flow but does make getting a glass under there a challenge. The solution with a keg is often to set it on some kind of a stool or low table, with plenty of open space under the tap, but the wine boxes aren’t as big and stable as kegs. Little fold-down legs might be helpful, as on Kramer’s coffee-table book about coffee tables.
Also, I did not like the spectacle of white wine gushing downward from the spigot. A little too reminiscent of wee-hours micturition for more delicate sensibilities. And I’m not sure about the recycling; wine bottles are easy, but the wine box would first need some postmortem surgery to get rid of the plastic bladder inside the paperboard shell, and who is going to do that when besotted with party wine and maybe even a blast or two from a competing keg?
One of the stronger arguments for vegetarianism is variety: there are far more kinds of vegetables and ways of preparing vegetables than there are meats and ways of preparing meat, even if you eat mutton. (And know where to get it.) Fish and seafood too are more various than meats — or at least they have been. There is growing evidence that most of the world’s major fisheries are drifting toward collapse; the British author Charles Clover gives a chillingly thorough review of the evidence in his new book, The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat (New Press, $26.95).
Eating fish, then, is no longer presumptively virtuous. It matters what fish we eat: farmed or wild, how and where taken if wild, health of the overall population, and so forth. Earlier this year, while reacquainting myself with Hayes Street Grill after some years’ absence, I noticed that the menu card now gives a good deal of information about the sources of the restaurant’s maritime dishes. The plain assumption is that diners want and need this information, that they are beginning to understand that choices about food involve a moral dimension and that considering the moral dimension of one’s choices need not ruin the meal nor the evening.
Given HSG’s position as an exemplar, I was curious as to whether its attention to sourcing might have begun to influence other seafood houses around town. One of the most obvious places to start looking would have to be Alamo Square Seafood Grill, which since the middle 1990s has sat atop a romantic stretch of Fillmore a block from the hilltop park that provides its name. From the beginning, Alamo Square borrowed a page from the HSG playbook by letting diners choose from among several varieties of fish, cooking method, and sauce. One difference: you did not get fries, as at HSG. On the other hand, there was — and remains — an early bird prix fixe option, three courses for $14.50 and a reminder that Alamo Square began as an offshoot of that long-running prix fixery, Baker Street Bistro, at the edge of the Presidio.
The restaurant looks none the worse for a decade of wear, except that the northern face of the street sign (wreathed in Christmassy little white lights) has lost its initial A: if, trekking uphill, you come across a place called lamo Square, you are there. Inside the storefront space, the mood is one of candlelit intimacy, and the crowd is varied, consisting largely of people in their 20s and early 30s (neighborhood folk?), along with the occasional interloper. A youngish couple who had Marina written all over them arrived in a silvery Aston Martin coupe, which they parked in the bus zone right outside the restaurant’s door. Oh Department of Parking and Traffic, where are you at those rare moments when you could actually be useful? Not that some DPT timeliness would have mattered in this case, since the canny pair took a window seat with a view of bus stop and car.
Our first order of business was establishing which of the proffered fish we might conscionably eat. Trout: no, a farmed carnivore, with aquafarming the cause of environmental pollution and carnivorous fish requiring on the order of four pounds of wild fish to return a pound of salable flesh. Mahimahi: attractively firm and abundant, though flown in from Hawaii. Red snapper: a local fish with decently managed populations, just a wee bit boring. And … an ahi tuna loin, prepared according to a set recipe. Tuna is dicey: bluefin is a no-no, other varieties somewhat less so.
Red snapper ($13.95), luckily, takes well to blackening even if it’s just the Pacific kind, not the true variety from the Gulf of Mexico. We found the mâitre d’hôtel sauce — basically a garlic and parsley butter — to be just assertive enough to make its voice heard without challenging the fish. The more party-hearty Provençale sauce — of tomatoes, black olives, capers, and garlic, a combination reminiscent of Neapolitan puttanesca — made a nice match with grilled mahimahi ($13.95), a fish that, like chicken, welcomes a little help and usually benefits from it. Platters of fish (not too little, not too much) were served with brown rice pilaf and a mélange of sautéed vegetables, among pattypan squash, zucchini, carrots, and button mushrooms; none of this quite matched good French fries for excitement, but it was all pretty tasty and much lower in fat.
The kitchen handles nonfish dishes with equal aplomb, from an amuse of wild-mushroom pottage spiked with a little balsamic vinegar and presented in demitasses to a fabulous salad of shredded romaine hearts ($6.75) tossed with crisp lardons, slivers of carrot and French radish, garlic croutons, blue cheese, and lemon oil. A soup ($6.25) of artichoke and fennel topped with pipings of curry oil was desperately underseasoned — all we could taste was the sweetness of the fennel — but a few good pinches from the tabletop salt dish coaxed the artichoke flavor forth.
There was even an occasional flash of wit, as in a tarte tatin ($5) made with pears instead of apples and presented in the au courant, deconstructed style: the pear slices were fanned over a floor of pastry. It looked a little like a pear pastry lasagna the chef hadn’t quite finished putting together. On the side, a pat of vanilla ice cream nodded to tradition.
As we left, we noted the Marina couple chattering away in their little surveillance box and the Aston Martin still sitting in the bus stop, ticketless. We gave the restaurant pretty good grades, in the A to A- range, for both overall experience and sustainability. Maybe the place can use one of those As to get the sign fixed. SFBG
ALAMO SQUARE SEAFOOD GRILL
Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.; Sun., 5–9:30 p.m.
803 Fillmore, SF
Beer and wine
TECHSPLOITATION The most interesting social experiments are often the least flashy. A researcher at UC Berkeley’s School of Information Management, Jeff Ubois, proved that last week with the release of his meticulous study on an odd topic: why researchers can’t research TV.
Ubois found that studying one simple event in recent TV history was impossible. Copyright rules and poor archive access meant that even after months of work, he was unable to gain copies of a single primary source related to former Vice President Dan Quayle’s 1992 speech blaming TV character Murphy Brown for the nation’s decline in family values.
In a 1992 speech at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, Quayle claimed the Rodney King riots were spurred on by TV characters like Murphy Brown, who made single motherhood into “just another lifestyle choice.”
At the time the speech was intensely controversial. Many suggested that the first Bush administration was blaming television, not the brutal police beating of a black man, for the LA riots. As Ubois points out, it seems reasonable that future TV scholars will want access to original speeches and media reports of the incident, as well as footage from Murphy Brown in which the character responds to Quayle.
But when Ubois tried to get access to Quayle’s speech in storage at the Hoover Institute, librarians told him that copyright and contractual obligations to the Commonwealth Club prevented them from making a digital copy of the speech for educational use. Warner Bros., which owns the rights to Murphy Brown, refused to give Ubois copies of the show. Absurdly, Warner did tell Ubois he would be permitted to show lawfully obtained episodes to students, even though they wouldn’t give him any. How generous!
Of the TV networks that aired news of the speech, only ABC would allow Ubois to digitize and show segments of its newscasts in the classroom. None would give him those digital copies, though. He would have to purchase them from third-party sources like the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. The cost for getting roughly two hours of news clips ranged from $800 to $5,000, depending on the source.
Ubois concludes that a typical historian, who has little access to money, would be unable to complete a simple study of primary sources in the Dan Quayle versus Murphy Brown incident. Some of this is a result of copyright madness. In 1982 a New York judge found that archiving news clips for educational purposes was unlawful because those clips are “readily available” from rights holders. What Ubois discovered is that they aren’t available in any form for educational use. The basis of this oft-cited decision is simply wrong.
Because copyright laws gum up the process of archiving TV footage, nobody is tracking and indexing TV the way librarians do books and movies. This means scholars can’t access materials simply because they aren’t findable. As Ubois points out, “No single comprehensive catalog of television broadcasts now exists in the United States.”
In an age when digitization technologies would allow us to store all of TV history in a server room and make it fully searchable and accessible to the public, this is simply ridiculous.
Ubois cites a recent European video-archiving study that found TV tape storage begins to degrade after 20 years. That means 70 percent of existing TV footage will be gone by 2025. Imagine if 70 percent of existing books were going to be burned by 2025.
This is quite simply an atrocious situation — not just for scholars but for all US citizens whose freedom of thought requires access to their own history.
For inspiration, networks and rights holders should look to the BBC’s media archives, which aim to make most of the broadcasting company’s footage available to the public in digital form online.
Misguided greed and poorly interpreted copyright law are the only things standing in the way of a people’s history of television. I look forward to a day when the people will write it.
Scratch that — I look forward to a day when the people can research it. SFBG
Read Jeff Ubois’s paper here: www.archival.tv/
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who misses Murphy Brown.