Volume 41 Number 06
November 8 – November 14, 2006
It’s hard to picture a band as wild, mild, and Apple O’–pie sweet as Deerhoof causing a ruckus — yet they really have. Just picture the humidly frantic, hopped-up, and happy sold-out scene last year at the release show for Runners Four (5RC) at the Great American Music Hall. Or the national CMJ college radio chart assault by that same brave, increasingly addictive album, notable for the way it brings the voices of Deerhoof’s crack instrumentalists — drummer Greg Saunier, guitarist John Dieterich, and bassist Chris Cohen — to the fore along with vocalist-guitarist Satomi Matsuzaki. Or the thousands at recent Flaming Lips and Radiohead shows bopping in place (or scratching their heads in bewilderment) at the opening group. Or the way the unassuming combo has of increasingly popping up on film (the forthcoming Dedication), on other artists’ albums (backing Danielson on 2006’s Ships), and even at elementary school (inspiring a ballet this year at North Haven Community School in Maine).
Now if only Deerhoof could cause a stir making political music or protest songs. “That’s the one thing I wish we could do that I think is very hard to do,” says Saunier on the phone from the Tenderloin apartment he shares with Matsuzaki before they leave to tour with the Fiery Furnaces. “I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to do it, but I think it’s a very interesting thing that bands or artists can grapple with — is it possible to do music that specifically makes some kind of political statement? That’s sort of an eternal question. It’s hard to find a way to sing an angry song about something bad that doesn’t start to kind of need that something bad to exist.”
Angry music is a challenge for a band that’s as optimistic to its fruity core as Deerhoof. (Or else call them Madhoof?) The group began life in April 1994 as Rob Fisk’s solo bass spin-off project from Nitre Pit, a goth metal quartet that the 7 Year Rabbit Cycle founder shared with Saunier. It has since evolved, eight albums along, from a rudimentary noise improv duo into a cuddly-cute but deeply idiosyncratic and utterly distinctive unit that seems intent on beating out a new rock ’n’ roll language: part singsong child jazz, part cockeyed quirk pop, part J-pop dance moves, and part exhilarating and life-affirming anthems to stinky food, universally appealing pandas, combustible fruit, and toothsome cartoon critters. Deerhoof are making rock ’n’ roll relevant again — and maybe even sexy in a noncliché, edible way — for punk nerds, jazz codgers, and baby-voiced girls who make their own clothes. Though Deerhoof’s is an expansive tent.
“Something that is particularly cool about them is how generous they are with their time and talent and increasing popularity,” Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart said of Deerhoof in 2003. “I have never heard them utter a snooty remark about other bands that are new and not well-known…. If they think that a band that is unknown but has a cool demo can possibly perk the ears of any record people they know, they send it on without asking for favors.”
Matsuzaki joined in 1995, guitarist Dieterich and keyboardist Kelly Goode in 1999, guitarist-bassist Cohen in 2002. Fisk, Goode, and Cohen have since departed, but Deerhoof’s compact herd has occasionally enlarged to include such players as Blevin Blechdom, Steve Gigante (Tiny Bird Mouths), Chris Cooper (Fat Worm Error), Arrington (Old Time Relijun), Joe Preston (the Melvins), and Satomi’s dog in Japan, Brut. The members have busied themselves during their increasingly rare spare time with side endeavors such as Retrievers, Gorge Trio, Natural Dreamers, and Nervous Cop.
Now down to the lean Reveille-era lineup of Saunier, Matsuzaki, and Dieterich, the band sounds as fiery and fulsome as ever, reworking the Runners Four compositions to fit the three like a soccer jersey. And a dozen years on, Saunier is excited about the new paths the group has yet to pound. “I still think that there’s a lot that’s never even been tried in this universe with just guitar, bass, and voice,” he says. “I still feel like almost a total beginner.” (Kimberly Chun)
The incredible thing about discovering a genuinely good band is that it has the ability to throw your entire world out of whack.
The Gris Gris are cooler than your older cousin’s garage rock band, the one that first introduced you to a world outside of MTV. They’re grittier than that home-recorded cassette you bought at your first punk rock show, and they’re more revolutionary than the moment you realized it was OK to like the music that your parents listen to. They’re alchemists turning the sonic side of air into brilliant, vaporous gold that bleeds into the ear and makes us forget to be cynical.
That’s a huge feat in a music-saturated society where a spot on The O.C. or Volkswagen-advert ambiance defines a career. We forget to say, “Hey, this is totally informed by the early Stones.” We forget to say, “Remember Red Krayola? Remember ’60s psych-garage rock? These guys totally sound like that.” We forget to judge, and we just listen.
When Greg Ashley, the Houston-born multi-instrumentalist formerly of garage-revivalist outfit the Mirrors, moved to the Bay Area in April 2002, it was for a girl. Soon he teamed up with bassist Oscar Michel and drummer Joe Haener (both former members of San Francisco’s Rock and Roll Adventure Kids) and started fleshing out songs he had written in Texas. “The band just accidentally happened,” Ashley explains. In fact, when the trio first started playing shows together, they didn’t even have a name. “We used to play as the Mirrors,” he says, “just because I had records I could sell at shows.” Before long they were signed to Birdman Records (the label suggested that the band name themselves — pronto) and the Gris Gris became legit.
Playing house parties, warehouses, and dive bars and touring constantly, the Gris Gris may not be our biggest musical export, but with only two albums under their belts — 2004’s self-titled debut and last year’s For the Season (which includes newest member Lars Kullberg on keys) — the Oakland band is reshaping the Bay Area’s legacy.
Some of their songs are grating, deconstructed blues masterpieces dripping with the eccentric sensibilities of Syd Barrett or that guy you tripped over in the street this morning. They go down like the cough syrup that gets you through the winter — the one you’ve always secretly loved the taste of.
The Gris Gris startle. They remind us that there is beauty in grit. Their well-constructed lullabies numb you with drooping saxophones, tenderly shaken tambourines, hazy guitars, and gentle lyrics. The dragging gem “Mary #38” is probably the 38 billionth song to be written about some girl named Mary — but it is the only one you will ever need to know.
Much like a dust storm sweeping the countryside, gathering little pieces of the landscape wherever it touches down, the Gris Gris possess a topographical romance in their range. From the sparse desert tickled with succulents to lushly fertile forests, the band writes the frontier. After one listen you are stuck asking yourself, “Where the hell is there to go from here?”
Here is a band that operates with an antiquated ethos, from a time before anyone could sing with a straight face about lovely lady lumps and before painstakingly choreographed treadmill routines and entourages of Harajuku girls became entertainment. Back when the point of making music didn’t involve sounding like the band on the cover of last month’s NME. Once upon a time music could excite, terrify, confuse, and exhilarate. The Gris Gris are raising the dead, conjuring a time when that one song tugged at some buried thing in heart or head and made you feel like you had been missing out on something big. Who doesn’t love an epiphany every now and again? (K. Tighe)
Possibly the heaviest band to ever receive a Goldie from the Guardian, Om consists of drummer Chris Hakius and bass player Al Cisneros, who met in high school in the ’80s and have been playing on-and-off together ever since. Along with guitarist Matt Pike, Hakius and Cisneros formed the landmark ’90s stoner doom–Sabbath worship metal band Sleep, which you better know all about by now.
A couple years ago, after a fairly long hiatus from playing music, Hakius and Cisneros began working together again. The pair eventually named their project Om, as an outlet for the things, good and bad, that drive them. Working within the parameters of a single bass and drum setup, with alternately creepy and prayerful space-chant vocals, Om makes music that’s as loud as all hell, repetitive to the point of inducing meditation, and tough to categorize. The first, most obvious genre it’d be nice to cram the band into would have to be doom metal, but without most of the aesthetic trappings of metal — guitar leads, screaming, lyrical negativity — Om doesn’t fall easily into it.
“The songs are sonic reports of where we’re at,” Cisneros told me over the phone. “The work is an exteriorization of our thoughts and perspectives. There is movement, and nothing is fixed in time. Being open to the inflow when it visits is principally the process of songwriting for us. Instruments are the bridges over which the expressions may be carried. All the instruments: drums, bass, voice, mind, heart, soul, spirit, and the physical organism of the human body.”
Huh? Heavy-duty ideas, but that’s the thing that has always set Om apart. When the band first appeared in 2004 with Variations on a Theme, listeners didn’t exactly know how to react. There are plenty of bands messing with the idea of creating a separate reality through heavy repetition and slo-mo tempos, but few attack their work with the single-mindedness of Om. The bass lines change gradually over the course of 20-minute pieces. There are no explosive guitar solos or major tempo shifts. Om’s two albums have only three lengthy songs each, and their lyrics are eternally inscrutable, vibing inner peace or at least the search for inner peace amid chaos.
Om’s new album, A Conference of Birds, is slightly more accessible than Variations in that the songs are a little more dynamic. Instead of two main changes in each, there are several, and they follow a more traditional structure, even if it remains veiled. “Birds introduces the idea of subtlety to Om,” explains John Whitson, who put both Om records out on his Holy Mountain label. “And while it is a departure from the first album, it’s better.” When asked about how the band fits into the musical landscape today, Whitson replied, “They’re like those cave paintings discovered at Chauvet in France, considered the very first ever made. They’ve always been here — the music has always been here.
“Om is just picking note patterns out of the universe and playing them really fucking loud.” (Mike McGuirk)
When I met Traxamillion, the young producer-rapper was in the lab with Balance, recording a faithful cover of EPMD’s “You’re a Customer” for a Mind Motion mixtape. Naturally, I would have preferred seeing Trax record an original, but watching him vibe to a classic was perhaps more revelatory. Where many producers insist on their isolation from outside influences, Trax is an unapologetic lover of music.
“Everybody’s a fan,” the musician, born in East Orange, NJ, and raised in San Jose, points out. “Somebody inspired somebody to make a beat, to rap. That’s how I go about my beats. I listen to shit. I get inspired. I appreciate it and harness and learn from it. I’ve always tried to mimic what’s going on, on the radio.”
Despite this unpretentious attitude toward his art, Traxamillion has developed a highly original sound of his own — bright, downright cheerful noises animate his eminently danceable grooves — and he’s already earned a place in Bay Area rap history. In June 2005 he topped the local rap charts as producer of Keak Da Sneak’s infectious independent single “Super Hyphy” (Rah), proving the Yay could hang in the mix with big-label megastars while opening up the airwaves to a long-suppressed flood of local talent.
“The beat was inspired by the youngstas,” Traxamillion says. “My little cousins came through drunk, wildin’ out on a birthday, and started dancin’. I was paying attention to their movements, thinking, ‘I gotta make some music for these cats,’ because the youngstas are really the hyphy movement. When I was making the beat, I was replaying their dancin’ in my head, and ‘Super Hyphy’ came out an hour and a half later.”
Knowing he had a hit on his hands, Trax shot the beat at Keak, who reportedly wrote the song in one session during a drive home from Tahoe. Within a few weeks “Super Hyphy” was all over the radio.
“It took two months to get to number one [on KMEL’s list of most requested tracks in June 2005],” Trax recalls. “But it was fresh, and Keak’s so abstract when he comes with something — people are fiendin’ for it. People loved it, and it still slaps to this day. It’s a big club anthem in the Bay.”
“It was weird because it was my first time on the radio, period, as a producer,” Trax says. “I was, like, ‘Man, this is crazy — all these people are going crazy to my song. This is my shit I made in my mother’s bedroom.’ I be at the club, watching everybody at the peak of the song when they would run it back like three or four times, going, ‘God-damn!’ Nobody knew it was me.”
If Traxamillion’s name wasn’t ringing bells, “Super Hyphy” was, and in short order he was working with the Team, whose “Just Go” earned the producer further spins. But when he returned to the local number one slot on KMEL’s most requested tracks in December 2005, producing “Getz Ya Grown Man On” for East Palo Alto’s then-unknown Dem Hoodstarz, Trax proved his success with Keak was no fluke. The remix — with guests Mistah FAB, San Quinn, Clyde Carson, and Turf Talk — has even picked up national airplay and features prominently on Dem Hoodstarz’s Band-Aide and Scoot (SMC) as well as Trax’s own The Slapp Addict (Slapp Addict). “The Slapp Addict is the soundtrack to the hyphy movement,” Trax says of the album. Its single-producer, multirapper format has earned it a reputation as a Bay Area Chronic. “It’s basically a Who’s Who of the Bay, produced by me. After ‘Grown Man,’ I was superhot. People were, like, ‘I want to work with you.’ In turn, everybody did songs for me, ’cause game recognize game. Damn near a year’s worth of creativity went into that album.”
In addition to spawning singles like “The Sideshow” (Too Short and FAB) and “Wakin’ ’Em Up” (Turf Talk and Hoodstarz), Slapp Addict has spun off another huge hit collaboration with Keak. “On Citas” demonstrates the producer’s special rapport with the Bay’s hottest rapper.
“When me and Keak get together, we make hits,” Trax says. “When I first met Keak, he told me, ‘Man, your beats and my voice — it’s a marriage.’ Ain’t nothin’ I’m doin’ or nothin’ he doin’ — it’s just his shit plus my shit equals hits.” (Garrett Caples)
Artist Chris Duncan came to Northern California for the Tahoe powder — and to get away from his routine in Delaware and his native New Jersey of catching hardcore shows every weekend and doing absolutely nothing else with his life. Duncan recalls he and a friend “snowboarded for a season, and it was rad and it was horrible at the same time. Every night it was the same party with the same 40 guys and three girls, so I started to stay in and draw.”
Since then, that need to draw a line between the fun but perhaps meaningless life of nightly parties and his own creative urges has led Duncan to San Francisco, where he moved in 1996 and spent the next years working, skateboarding, and attending California College of the Arts, where he began to find direction, to chart his own personal map to the color theory of Mark Rothko and Josef Albers, and to dip into sacred geometry, string theory, Eastern philosophies, and increasingly, simple nonfigurative forms. In his current work temporal strings converge, intersect, and radiate above needle-nose pyramids, shooting off across ceilings and traversing rooms. Flat works are stitched with ragged stars or painted with dark rays that explode above kaleidoscopic ziggurats.
“For me, it’s about dealing with being fully overwhelmed by humans, to be perfectly honest,” confesses Duncan, 32, kicking back in his tidy wood box of an Oakland studio, off the downtown-area railroad tracks. Dressed head to toe in black, tattoos crawling up his neck and down his arms to hands that jerk to punctuate a point, the artist is far from slick, but he exudes an amiable earnestness raving about his young daughter, Aya-mea Mourning. “I’m also completely amazed by people. People are fantastic and can do such great things. Look how far we’ve come — and the mirror image of that is look at what we’ve done.”
What has Duncan done? Perhaps he’s captured the zeitgeist, one that’s both physical and ethereal, give or take a planet. His SF gallerist Gregory Lind says, “Chris Duncan’s laboriously rendered works on paper and his intricate string sculptures seek to combine the spiritual with the scientific, which is compelling to me in this kind of dark period we find ourselves in today.”
Whether the artist’s pieces trace strings of energy or ecstatic explosions in some acid-laced map room, he’s found a way to tap some sort of fuel source for his numerous projects, including his striking grab bag of an art zine, Hot and Cold, in which he and Griffin McPartland showcase artists like Matt O’Brien, Chris Pew, and Jen Smith. They took a page from their own periodical to produce a catalog for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ 2005 exhibit “The Zine UnBound: Kults, Werewolves and Sarcastic Hippies.” Duncan has also curated exhibits as part of Keepsake Society, a site he maintains with ex-girlfriend Aki Raymer, and he is editing an anthology of “my first punk show” stories for AK Press.
“When I got older and found art making, I found a spot to do the things I saw happening as a teenager, with what all my friends were doing,” he says. “I began making zines and started curating, and in terms of how active and how DIY everything was in that [East Coast hardcore] scene, I found a place to put that to use when I got a little older. And this is the perfect city for that — there are so many examples of people doing it. It’s a nice blanket to be under.”
And speaking of blankets: Duncan will be stitching together a cosmic ray–embellished quilt of sorts in memory of his recently deceased 99-year-old great-grandmother for his forthcoming show at Jeff Bailey Gallery in New York City. Much like a handmade, toy- and goodie-bundled, affordable and accessible limited-edition art zine, the project embodies an aesthetic Duncan embraces. “We just totally outdo the last thing we did and totally overwhelm people. Things don’t exist like that anymore,” explains the artist. “Everything’s so not made by hand and so not giving in a way. I think with a little energy you can give a lot, and I think that’s really important.” (Kimberly Chun)
A good photograph captures an instant of life within a fraction of city space. The oft-awesome paintings of Yoon Lee — on display earlier this year in a solo show at the Luggage Store — condense seconds, days, and weeks of urban life into images of striking movement and color. Blurs from passing cars; a person glimpsed from the corner of one’s eye; the liquid shifts of Vampire Princess Miyu anime dreamscapes on a TV screen — these are a few of the everyday materials within Lee’s alchemy. Glimpsed as scaled-down versions on a computer screen, her pieces seem purely digital or neo-geo, but in person there is no doubt that her paintings are the result of a lengthy, meditative, and labor-intensive process.
“I know some artists who take a whole year to produce one piece, and I’m not up to that point,” Lee says over hot drinks at Farley’s on Potrero Hill. Her comic strip T-shirt and black leather motorcycle jacket reflect the mix of commercial color and rougher, real-life currents within her paintings. “My 8-feet-by-20-feet scale works usually take about six months. I start gathering images in my head and take photos. I make little sketches. I take things from comic books, newspapers, anything — I’m just an image scavenger.”
From there, Lee uses Illustrator or Photoshop to play with images and forms. “I use it as a mixing board to bring everything together and then edit, real fast,” she says, adding with a laugh, “in the old days you had to use canary paper and transparencies, then mess up and start all over again.” Actually, Lee’s “real fast” edits can last a month or two, but they are indeed quick in comparison to her painting process, a complex, kinetic, and at times astonishingly layered use of Golden acrylics. It’s there that she transmutes her gadget-fiend tendencies and love of shiny plastics into work that swirls with fierce ambivalence about those aspects of modern life and more.
For Lee, the frustration that comes from trying to translate computer compositions into flesh-and-blood paintings isn’t just worthwhile — it’s exactly what she’s seeking. “Sometimes I have to really invent a new process,” she says. “Every time I do a piece there’s something completely different I have to introduce or change so I can produce an effect that’s similar to the original sketch.” That kind of challenge has led Lee through many areas of study (philosophy and computer science, to name two) and fields of employment (she’s sold cars), though all the while she’s never lost focus on painting.
Someday a writer might explore and explain why op art has played such a major role in San Francisco art at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. Though Lee is part of an upcoming exhibition of San Francisco artists in Leipzig, Germany, curated by “Pierogi” Joe Amrhein, it’s debatable whether she is even influenced by the legacy of Sol LeWitt — or has a kinship with the LeWitt-loving Mission School artists who favor certain rainbow gradations. If her work shares some of their color schemes, its scale and sense of movement explode into a realm apart from the smaller cubic formations and prisms associated with recent Bay Area art. A casual viewer might note as much action as in a Jackson Pollock painting, a kid on the street might recognize an accidental kinship with graffiti. The artist herself names Julie Mehretu and Benjamin Edwards as partial guides.
Lee’s art is slick — but only in a literal sense. To put it another, more paradoxical way, her paintings are deceptively slick on the surface. Beneath the attractive gloss, that shininess that she enjoys and wants to share, are layers that you can get lost in — that is, when you aren’t arrested by the intensity of her observation. (Johnny Ray Huston)
In his most recent San Francisco exhibition, at the cozy Little Tree Gallery in the Mission, Tim Sullivan managed to reanimate the late blond bombshell Jayne Mansfield. Mind you, he did it with a low-tech visual effect — a full-color glossy of the actress attached to a flat-screen monitor, a shifting blue sky visible through little almond-shaped slits in the eyes of the photograph. But the mixture of sublime pop (the elaborate media construct of Mansfield) with an almost metaphysical art reference is a key movement in Sullivan’s appealing photography, video, and sculpture. His work is an enticing combination of funky but effective tricks, sophisticated references, and an appreciation of comedic white-trash aesthetics.
Sullivan’s work often contains gracious nods to other artists. He’s made a hilariously perverse video-sculpture homage to Bruce Nauman’s mid-1960s Self-Portrait as a Fountain and devoted an entire exhibition at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery to the influential Dutch-born conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who toyed with a sad-sack persona and disappeared mysteriously while attempting to cross the Atlantic alone in a 13-foot boat. Sullivan, a striking figure with pale blond hair and dark horn-rim glasses, often appears in his own work, using self-portraiture to tangentially channel his artistic forebears. While there may be something postmodern about this strategy, you don’t have to know about contemporary art history to be captivated by his visual magic. For instance, you need only know about the 1960s-style power of Herb Alpert to appreciate Sullivan’s remake of the classic Whipped Cream and Other Delights album cover. Sullivan plays the babe, slathered in foam.
He’s also made a life-size horizontal photograph of himself seemingly levitating just above the floor against a backdrop of fabulously chintzy flecked wallpaper. It’s in lush color — the artist wears a crimson T-shirt, a color he favors, perhaps for its theatricality. The image appears at a key spot in an opening gallery in the California Biennial, a timely survey of 31 West Coast artists organized by the Orange County Museum of Art (through Dec. 31), and it’s had the effect of giving Sullivan, a San Francisco Art Institute grad, wider recognition — he reports that he sold out an edition of the photograph, and he doesn’t even have gallery representation. He was singled out in the Los Angeles Times’ review of the show, which dubbed him a purveyor of high-spirited “do-it-yourself special effects art.”
The OC show also includes a hilarious video called Magic Carpet Ride, a piece made at a Fisherman’s Wharf souvenir stand. In it Sullivan and his former teacher, the filmmaker (and Goldie Lifetime Achievement winner) George Kuchar, cavort on a roller coaster gondola. The pair exude goofball charm as they whiz over the Golden Gate Bridge past friendly drag queens. Kuchar is an instructive reference, as Sullivan also seems to dream in Technicolor. They also collaborated on a theatricalized reenactment of Chris Burden’s Shoot, the politicized 1971 gallery performance in which the Southern California conceptualist artist was shot in the arm with a pistol. The Sullivan-Kuchar version is set against an amber-hued commercial photomural of a tropical sunset. As a child of the Midwest, Sullivan expresses a continuing appreciation for and bemusement with the California dream. In another recent piece, he’s made fluorescent matchbooks emblazoned with regionally significant incendiary song titles, “California Dreaming” and “Running with the Devil” among them. This guy’s on fire. (Glen Helfand)
It’s rare when a filmmaker is able to match provocative themes with evocative imagery — and do it consistently. Addressing race and class issues in his arrestingly photographed works, James T. Hong is one such artist. His filmography includes Behold the Asian: How One Becomes What One Is (which won a Golden Gate Award at the 2000 San Francisco International Film Festival despite its labeling of dot-com-era San Francisco as “the white asshole paradise”) and Taipei 101: A Travelogue of Symptoms (Sensitive Version), an excoriation of white guy–Asian girl couples. (It’s a comedy, and a brutally funny one at that.)
“To tell you the truth, I’ve never thought anything I’ve ever done was very controversial,” Hong explains before allowing that the audience at the 2004 Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival, where Taipei 101 screened, included at least one person who threatened to fight him after the lights came up.
Not that Hong minds. One of his guiding principles as a filmmaker is “to make people think differently about a particular topic, whatever it’s about — to see it either in a new light or hear a voice that they themselves can’t express,” he says. “It’s not interesting to show movies to people who already agree with you. It’s better to show to a hostile audience.”
It’s certainly possible that his two newest works, The Denazification of MH and 731, might stir up the wrong (or right) kind of crowd. Both are technically different from films he’s made before: Denazification retains his signature narration-over-black-and-white-footage style but is entirely in German; 731 was shot on high-definition color video. Both were created using footage Hong captured while traveling earlier this year; both deal with questions of perspective in individuals and countries greatly affected by World War II.
“I’m just a war nerd,” he admits, but his interests extend far beyond those of the casual History Channel viewer. While the 2005 SFIFF featured his Iraq War parable, The Form of the Good, both of his latest efforts tie into his WWII fascination. The experimental 14-minute Denazification, which pays a visit to Martin Heidegger’s Black Forest cabin, explores the philosopher’s late-in-life struggle to come to terms with his wartime allegiance to the Nazi party.
Hong — who was born in the United States but says he’d jump at the chance to move to China permanently — calls 731 “a regular documentary — at least what I think is a regular documentary.” The 30-minute film features footage of an abandoned facility in northern China once used for biowarfare testing. The filmmaker’s narration grimly describes the Chinese view of the horrors that transpired there (“3,000 were killed in live-body experiments”) — before switching gears and offering the Japanese response (“war and atrocities go hand in hand”).
The point-counterpoint structure of 731 prefigures Hong’s most ambitious project to date, an in-progress film with the working title New History Zero. “It’s a feature-length documentary about the war and revisionism — the way the Japanese see it, the way the Chinese see it, and the way that America has had a huge influence on the way that the Japanese have dealt with the war, which is incompletely.”
After Denazification, Hong hopes to make more films in other tongues, to “force people to understand that English is not the only language.” But his overriding goal is as personal as it is political.
“My aim now is to communicate more with Asians. I realized that most of the Asian Americans I’ve encountered don’t like my work. Either it’s too nonnarrative — they’re more into the Hollywood type of movies — or it disturbs the kind of quietist attitude that they have,” he says. “They want to just fit in like everybody else. They don’t want to look like assholes. My aim is always to show that no, we are assholes — everybody is.” (Cheryl Eddy)
Like the steadfast Salton Sea itself, Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer’s Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea has displayed remarkable staying power. The first version of the film played at the 2004 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, one of more than 100 festivals that have screened the doc since its initial release. Salton Sea reappeared — with new narration by John Waters — earlier this year at the Red Vic and other local rep houses, and the response was so positive that Metzler says the pair are now talking to major distributors with an eye toward a larger theatrical release in the spring.
“Salton Sea has taken on a life of its own,” says the San Francisco–based Metzler (Springer is currently living in Berlin but plans to move back to the Bay Area later this year). “When we first started out, we were having the regular problems that any filmmaker has about finding funding and later, distribution. We soon realized that since the film encapsulates both the quirky, indie movie sort of thing and also the environmental issues, nobody knew how to sell it. We always knew there was an audience out there, but it was gonna take two things: one was overcoming the hurdle of getting people familiar with the Salton Sea, because people didn’t know about it. And then also we recognized that a large audience for the film was people who don’t normally watch documentaries. So we took it out on the road, and wherever it screened it’s gotten an enthusiastic response and created this momentum on a grassroots level. The film, which we kind of expected to die two and a half, three years ago, just keeps on getting bigger.”
Anyone who’s seen Salton Sea knows why. Sure, Waters adds quirky star power, but the film’s briny subject is already as chockablock with character as it is with dead tilapia. Metzler and Springer trace the sea’s accidental birth (two words: engineering mistake) and first century, which saw the region spiral from thriving resort into scruffy, smelly, near-abandoned ruin. Most compellingly, the film draws out the people who choose to dwell on the sea’s desolate shores for whatever reason, be it the low cost of living or most poignantly, the fierce hope that the sea’s 1950s and ’60s salad days will somehow miraculously return.
Though Salton Sea continues to chug along, the filmmakers have begun to turn their attention to new projects. Metzler and fellow San Francisco filmmaker Lev Anderson are currently working on a documentary on the band Fishbone (Springer is helping with shooting and editing); Metzler and Springer plan to reteam for a pair of docs — one on taxidermy and one on evangelical Christian backpackers who follow the path of the apostle Paul through the Middle East. “We have a deep affection for outsiders, and we always want to explore different subcultures,” Metzler says. Then there’s that other idea they have, for a doc on German tiki bars. Metzler’s take on the phenomenon is in line with the duo’s filmmaking philosophy: “It just shows you people like to embrace the exotic, wherever it might be.” (Cheryl Eddy)
Offensive. Repugnant. Sick. Few theater directors enjoy hearing these words from patrons, especially as they’re bolting up the aisle ahead of the first-act curtain. Then again, for some there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing you’re still on track.
“The audiences are getting bigger,” notes Last Planet Theatre’s artistic director, John R. Wilkins. “Sometimes they hate it and walk out. They aren’t walking out, out of boredom. They’re walking out because it’s too much.”
That’s all right with him, provided what offends is delivered with artistic skill, vision, and honesty. “It’s not a lie that a 14-year-old rape victim, a retarded girl, should fall in love with a 45-year-old man who rapes her in diarrhea sex,” he muses. “I mean, it takes a lot to portray, but it doesn’t take a lot to imagine [the humanity of these characters]. You can say Seth [the 45-year-old in Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Farmyard] is corrupt. And he is — he’s wrong. But he’s going for it. Like the woman in [Howard Brenton’s] Sore Throats. To me, that’s just exactly perfect. Go and burn all the money, go out and destroy yourself — either live or destroy yourself. In the realm of art, that’s great.”
Not every production from Last Planet merits a walkout. But without fail every Last Planet production is an attempt to take the audience beyond the expected, the usual, the safe, and the prepackaged.
To that extent, Last Planet has been proudly offending audiences since 1998 — the year husband and wife John and Kimball Wilkins shelved their new Berkeley PhDs in English to pursue what they privately concede was a madcap dream of founding a theater company. The company has been in its own 80-seat theater since 2004 and comprises a small group of committed collaborators — including longtime associates Paul Rasmussen and Andrew Jones, the core of the company’s outstanding production team. Its productions of highly literary and brazenly theatrical work by the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Matthew Maguire, Michael McClure, Wallace Shawn, Howard Barker, and Ronald Ribman have less to do with a narrow sense of authenticity or realism than a commitment to exploring all you might be capable of feeling and thinking inside a theater. Along the way Last Planet presents an invariably bold and imaginative theatrical vision that’s in a refreshingly distinct orbit of its own.
“It has to be beautiful and confrontational,” John says, explaining the qualities that attract the company to a given work. “Those are some of the things we look for: sheer beauty and sheer brutality at the same time.”
Kimball pinpoints another crucial theme: “The logic or vision of the play has to believe more deeply in experience — the mystery of experience and the possibility of experience — than a particular idea, let alone an ideology. There’s something about the strength of experience in the plays that’s always an attraction.”
“We just see so many plays which are like copycats of television or copycats of movies,” John says. “They aren’t theatrical. They don’t have any theatrical models. Or if they do, they’re horribly content. You don’t get the type of nuts like Howard Barker or Howard Brenton and [Anthony] Neilson and Kroetz, who are just nutty to destroy the form that they love.”
“It’s a creative destruction,” Kimball says.
“Yeah, a creative destructive force,” John agrees. “So you’re sitting there thinking, can we match it? Pulling tricks on [the audience] — theatrical tricks are fine, but go right at them and try to grab them, shake them up and not let them loose and not let it be easy.”
“That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be enjoyable,” he adds with a laugh. “We don’t want to be avant-garde nuts. It should be an absolutely enjoyable experience. But given that, [it] should destroy people.” (Robert Avila)
Earlier this fall Funkanometry SF celebrated their fourth anniversary at the same place, 111 Minna Gallery, that is hosting this year’s Goldies ceremony and party. They packed the joint. Between then and now the company has been places. Six core members — including directors Emerson Aquino and Gina Rosales — answered an invitation to travel to Bogotá, Colombia. There, as part of the city’s Festival de Danza Urbana, they taught classes, were interviewed on the streets for radio and television, and gave performances.
Funkanometry SF is traveling these days — this month includes a trip to Chicago — but their heart remains in the Bay Area, where every Sunday night they take over the Westlake School for the Performing Arts in Daly City. In one large room company members and new students might run through eight counts while in another, smaller classroom veteran dancers hone an upcoming performance. Before, after, and in between the dancing, everyone hangs out in the courtyard, where kids and parents stop by to see what’s up.
“I really started choreographing when I was 14,” the soft-spoken Aquino explains one such Sunday, as he, Rosales, and cofounder Kyle Wai Lin good-naturedly attempt to break down the group’s history, kidding each other all the while. “To me, choreography is about making pictures. Once you realize the amount of people you have [to work with], you can maneuver them to make pictures.”
The pictures the group creates aren’t just captivating still images — they form waves of energy as friends in the audience shout encouragement to dancers on the floor. That type of flow is no small feat, considering Aquino and the 20-some-member group tap into many different genres of music. The ladies are as slyly, stylishly sexy-tough as Amerie and Aaliyah, and the gentlemen aren’t buried under baggy clothes — they’ve got debonair flair. In other words, Funkanometry SF aren’t solemn hip-hop snobs — they’re just as likely to draw from J-pop, house, or rock as they are Bay Area hyphy. “The art of choreography involves movement that is clear,” Aquino says while discussing the fact that Janet Jackson is a dancer’s pop singer if there ever was one (an axiom that extends to Timbaland as producer). “But a lot of people focus on movement at the expense of feeling. You can just move, but if you’re not feeling the music, you’re not dancing.”
Like Aquino, Funkanometry SF’s other codirectors started dancing in high school. Before joining Funkanometry SF the energetic Rosales captained a high school team and was part of another local crew, Xplicit. Lin and Aquino are friends dating back to childhood; these days Lin oversees the business and Web creative side of the group (www.funkanometrysf.com and www.funksters.org), letting Aquino guide the dancers. “Both of us wanted to create a foundation to serve the community, to challenge dancers, and create an outlet for youth,” Lin says. Judging from the huge response to the group’s Funksters youth program — overseen by Mary Jane Huang — they’re succeeding on all fronts.
Each fall the San Francisco Hip Hop Dance Fest rolls around, and along with another community-based local company — Oakland’s Izzy Award–winners New Style Motherlode — Funkanometry SF can be counted on to represent. This year Aquino and company are preparing a new show, Funk’s Boutique, for Micaya’s annual Palace of Fine Arts event. “It’s set in a trendy boutique, and it showcases the versatility and diversity of the company,” Aquino explains. Versatility and diversity — those are just two of the qualities that make Funkanometry SF unique. Each dancer brings another reason to check out their boutique. (Johnny Ray Huston)
Benjamin Levy entered college as a future pediatrician. He left as a dancer — not exactly what his Jewish Iranian parents had in mind. “They were not pooh-poohing it,” Levy recently recalled. “They just had no frame of reference. It was not even in their lexicon.”
After graduating from UC Berkeley, Levy danced with the Joe Goode Performance Group for two seasons. “He was such a beautiful mover. He could do anything and was a good inventor and great collaborator,” Goode says. “But it was very clear that he needed to do his own thing.” So in 2003 the newly formed LEVYdance company made its first splash as part of the second House Special, ODC Theater’s two-week residency program. The following year the company made its East Coast debut, and the dancers have been back every year since. In 2005 they were chosen for the prestigious California Regional Touring Project. Last March they performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as part of its “Minimalist Jukebox” festival. Last month they embarked on their first international tour — a two-week gig in Lithuania. The company has given workshops across the country and worked with college ensembles. Recently, it moved into its own large and handsome studio South of Market. And all of this with a repertory of barely a dozen pieces.
So what makes LEVYdance so hot? For one thing, the dances crawl under your skin. Levy’s pieces look a little bit like creepy film noir. Shadowy forces lurk inside the voluptuously strong dancers, but you can’t quite pin those forces down. And actually, you probably don’t really want to know why a hug turns into a chokehold or flailing limbs get so entangled that you wonder whether they’ll ever return to their owners. The intensity is fierce. The choreographer describes Violent Momentum, a 2005 commission from ODC and Meet the Composer, as “being with the rawest part of yourself. It may be an uncomfortable experience, it may be an embracing one, but ultimately, it’s an important, sobering journey.”
And yet Levy’s work is gorgeous to look at. He embeds finely detailed choreography into theatrical contexts with sophisticated lighting designs, stark but elegant costumes, and imaginative and oft-original scores. This is a man of the theater, maybe even an old-fashioned man of the theater.
Levy started to dance and choreograph in high school (“It fulfilled a PE requirement, and I didn’t want to run laps”), but his eyes were opened by his Martha Graham training. It’s as much Graham’s ethics as her movement that impressed him: “Life is too precious to mess around. If you can’t be here fully, don’t show up.” Used to seeing a lot of dance that he describes as “the ooey, gooey, never-ending releasy soup,” Levy appreciated that in Graham “a hard line could be a hard line, and it could stay there and be energized and buzz with life. That was so exciting.”
Up next is an untitled work to be premiered at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco in 2007. It will be the biggest piece Levy has done yet. “It’s about how identity is formed in first-generation Americans who are born of parents who fled oppressive governments,” he says. “The interesting thing is that it is a veiled past — a past that is vast and influential, yet your parents don’t speak about it very much.”
So are his parents reconciled to not having a pediatrician in the family? “My mom not too long ago said to me that doctors can heal bones, but artists can heal human souls,” Levy says with a smile. (Rita Felciano)
One look at Sean Dorsey — a debonair dancer with slightly mussed hair and innovative modern dance choreographer — and two words instantly come to mind: dip me!
But watching him dance, you see more of a rough-and-tumble Gene Kelly than a gliding Fred Astaire. Which isn’t to say he can’t throw down a steamy tango, as he does in Red Tie, Red Lipstick, a moving pas de deux about violence against a transgender couple. Dorsey featured the piece, with narration by trans poet Marcus Van, in his first full-length show, Outsider Chronicles, staged last year at ODC Theater and soon to be remounted Nov. 16 to 18 at the Dance Mission Theater.
Since moving to San Francisco in 2001 from Vancouver, Dorsey has blazed a fierce trail for transgender performers. He immediately became enamored with the city when he met site-specific choreographer Lizz Roman while visiting here with the Kokoro Dance company. “There was very little release technique or inversion work in Vancouver,” the native Canadian recalls. “I totally fell in love with her [Roman’s] movement and what she was doing.”
The feeling was mutual, and Roman gave the young dancer a spot in her company. Dance Brigade founder Krissy Keefer also went mad for Dorsey, granting him a solo slot in the now-defunct Lesbian and Gay Dance Festival. Even our pampered SF LGBT audience wasn’t used to seeing butch-looking dancers like Dorsey onstage, and its response was ecstatic.
By the spring of 2002 he was in ODC Theater’s Pilot Program, which nurtures emerging choreographers as they develop new work eventually showcased on the theater’s floor. Three months later he founded the groundbreaking Fresh Meat Productions, which brings trans and queer performers, filmmakers, musicians, and writers together annually to tell their stories through their chosen artistic discipline. Since the first two-day show at ODC Theater that summer, Fresh Meat has moved on to cosponsoring Tranny Fest, a festival of independent trans cinema now helmed by Dorsey’s partner, filmmaker Shawna Virago, and also helped to organize national tours of trans artists. Currently, Dorsey, the nonprofit’s artistic director, is organizing a show for a trans printmaker at the Femina Potens gallery and another solo show for a trans visual artist.
Amid all the organizing, marketing, and promoting, Dorsey brought his own point of view to queer performance with last year’s Outsider Chronicles, via an individual artist grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission. Written and choreographed by Dorsey, the program combines modern dance with music and narration in five stories that reflect the life of a transgender person — as well as any human being who has ever had a crush, a secret, or a high school guidance counselor with a textbook full of bad advice. Each vignette (most performed with dance partner Meir Culbreth) expresses a language of movement that is boldly real and acutely honest.
Through Fresh Meat and his own choreography, Dorsey has been able to combine art and activism in a way that creates alliances, fosters a community of like-minded artists, and changes our notion of what defines dance and, at its most basic level, our bodies. Next on the horizon, the onetime housing and poverty activist who realized his dance career almost accidentally while on a hiatus from grad school plans to use his Gerbode Emerging Choreographer Award to continue combining his two great passions. Tentatively titled Some Went Untold, the envisioned piece will be based on interviews Dorsey conducts with trans folk across the land.
“I’m still, like, ‘Hello, hello, hello, where are all the trans dancers?’” Dorsey says. “I’m hoping very soon that there will be more trans dancers to work with.” He also hopes to find the time to learn ballroom dance. Let the dipping begin! (Deborah Giattina)
After a highly disciplined childhood, spending up to six hours a day practicing on a cement floor for his very demanding but revered guru, Pandit Ram Narayan Misra, Kathak master Chitresh Das moved from his native Calcutta (by way of a one-year stint in Maryland) to the Bay Area.
The year was 1971. Das had been hired by the Ali Akbar College of Music to teach one of the most ancient arts of India to young countercultural Americans eager to learn Eastern practices.
It was, at the very least, something of a cultural shock — for both sides. “This was the beautiful age of the flower children, the hippie generation,” Das remembers. “They were looking toward the East for answers, but I did not fit their idealized image of an Indian guru. Having been schooled in the old-world traditions — to respect and obey my teachers and elders and to assume a secondary stance in their presence — my amused bewilderment at my students’ behavior never ceased.”
Thirty-five years later Das and his American-born dancers, many of Indian descent, have more than reached harmony. His Chhandam School of Kathak has five Bay Area branches, plus outposts in Boston, Toronto, and Calcutta. The most accomplished of his Chitresh Das Dance Company members is the Floridian Charlotte Moraga, who stumbled into Das’s class at San Francisco State University — where he taught for 17 years — because the jazz dance class she wanted was full.
Das’s most important contribution to the Bay Area may well be the way he has woven Kathak into the fabric of local dance. Once an exceedingly esoteric art form, born at the Islamic courts of the Mogul Empire in northern India, Kathak now has a home in the Bay Area’s more egalitarian environment. In the ’80s, Das’s dancers were among the first participants in the SF Ethnic Dance Festival. His company regularly presents him as a solo dancer and as a choreographer of both traditional and unconventional work.
Now in his early 60s, an age at which most Western dancers have long retired from the theater, Das remains a stunning performer and the best advocate for his art. When he is onstage, you cannot take your eyes off him, whether he’s moving through the pure dance passages that require dizzying turns and mind-boggling footwork or the more expressive sections in which the dancer calls up a favorite story from the Mahabharata, impersonating all its different characters and sometimes the landscape as well.
Das thinks nothing of transforming a performance into something akin to a lecture demo if his audience will walk away with a better understanding of Kathak’s rhythmic intricacies and the vast world of the Hindu mythology in which the art is rooted. A “kathaka,” he likes to remind theatergoers, is a storyteller.
In September, Das organized “Kathak at the Crossroads,” the largest festival of its kind ever held outside India. The San Francisco event’s subtitle, “Innovation within Tradition,” could describe Das himself. A fierce traditionalist, he is also explosively freethinking. He embraces the improvisatory interaction between dancer and musician — a connection that takes place within given parameters but is never rehearsed. The way he talks about it, the dancer strives toward a kind of oneness, maybe a divine type of play that is both meditative and intensely joyful. His guru used to tell him to “dance in such a way that the sound of your [ankle] bells and the room become one.”
As traditional as Das can be, he is also an innovator. A few years ago he created a new genre of dancing, Kathak yoga, inspired by the ascetic traditions of the Himalayas. It is primarily designed as a spiritual and physical practice. Without music the dancer mentally counts the rhythms, recites and chants the embellishments aloud, and dances the footwork.
As a storytelling choreographer, Das has been a force for change ever since he first performed the clever and amusing The Train as a student at an international East-West dance conference in India. Choreographed by his guru, the piece imitates a train — traveling, speeding up, changing tracks, breaking, passing a railroad station.
Das has created traditional dance dramas (such as Darbar ) but also less traditional ones, such as Impressions of the California Gold Rush (1990), in which a trio of 49ers perform in ankle bells and cowboy outfits.
Sadhana (2001) is a multimedia solo evening about different forms of practice — dance, life, meditation. For his 60th birthday he created the autobiographical Sampurnam (2004) for himself and his company.
But Das’s most innovative work has come with practitioners of other dance styles: The Guru (Bharata Natyam, 1991), Sole Music (tap and flamenco, 1986), Sugriya-Subali (Balinese, 2000), and East as Center (Kathakali and Balinese, 2003). His latest exploration in that direction is Jazz Suites, a collaboration with tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith that grew out of a friendly competition in the hallways of the American Dance Festival in 2004. The duo have been touring the piece around the country and will take it to India this winter.
While Das has been passionate about opening American eyes to the beauty of his art form, he is equally committed to doing the same for Indian audiences. He spends part of every year in Calcutta teaching, performing, and giving workshops. In 2002 he reopened his father’s old school, which had trained Kathak dancers in Calcutta even before Indian independence. Last year Das started a training program for the children of Calcutta’s sex workers; most recently he gave a lecture demonstration for professional Indian boxers about their connection with the Hindu goddess Kali and the monkey god Hanuman.
Clearly, one lifetime simply may not be enough to contain Chitresh Das, his artistry, his humanity, his passion. (Rita Felciano)
CHEAP EATS Hold on a second. Let me call and ask her …
OK, it’s OK to tell you now: Crawdad de la Cooter is pregnant! I had to keep it a secret for a long time because that’s what pregnant people do to you — they tell everyone, and they tell everyone not to tell anyone. So we all go around bursting at the seams and looking at each other, wondering who knows what. But now I can write restaurant reviews and songs about it and everything. Crawdad’s going to be a mama! Her new guy, Crawguy de la Peter, is going to be a daddy! And I get to be the well-paid live-in nanny!
Well, right now they kind of have it in their head to raise their own child, and I can’t say that I blame them exactly, but I’d really rather do it myself. So my strategy is to make all the people around here go very quietly crazy, so that they lose their concentration and mess up their computers, and then they’ll all be calling on Crawguy all the time to fix them and Crawdad to fix their heads, because that’s what he does and she does respectfully. Business will boom, lots of money, no time. Enter the chicken farmer.
It’s a fact that kids love chickens and farmers, and although it’s also a fact that I’m a witch now too (because I say so), and everyone knows that witches eat children, it is not a fact that I do. I have never, for example, eaten a child.
On the other hand, I do remember how to change diapers, because don’t forget that I come from a big family, and I was one of the older ones. Wait — maybe I made this up. Let me call my mom.
Ah, she claims I didn’t change a lot of little siblings’ diapers — just my own, apparently, when I was a baby. Still, I do love poop, as my readers well know. Several of my brothers and sisters are or have been nannies and/or baby-sitters — possibly, in many cases, parents — so you gotta figure it’s in my blood.
Anyway, I thought I would talk this all over with the happy Craw Couple over Vietnamese food, and they wisely invited Ms. Trotwood, their fixer-upper and my new best friend. We talked it all over and decided to get imperial rolls, hot and sour shrimp soup, and some kind of chicken in a coconut curry thingy, except it was all white meat, and then that led to a long, intense philosophical discussion over whether we liked the white meat or the dark meat better.
Me and Trotwood: dark. Crawdad and Crawguy: white. Which made me marvel (unfortunately out loud) at how challenging their life together is going to be, the poor crustaceans, because even if you’re perfectly matched in every other way, as Crawdad and Crawguy are, the foremost factor for determining long-term compatibility, in my book, is one of you’s gotta prefer the dark meat, and the other light. Doesn’t matter which is which, but you have to have that as a foundation.
Unless … hmm, if you both go for the breast, yet you have a kid together, and that kid turns out against all genetic odds to be a leg-and-a-thigh kind of kid, then there may still be hope for your whole chickens and therefore your marriage. Since DNA is going to work against you, however, it will have to be a matter of nurturance.
Enter chicken farmer.
You know me, I would still be going on about my indispensability to their family’s happiness, even after our food came and was excellent, if it weren’t for the Interventional Wisdom and Distractive Powers of dear Ms. Trotwood. Brilliantly, she dug from her purse a little gift card for Victoria’s Secret and gave it to me.
This was the perfect thing. Not only did it distract me from making an even bigger fool of myself, but it happens that I am just about to almost actually need a bra.
I forgot to say two of the things we got: spicy grilled beef salad, which was probably everyone’s favorite dish, cause it had mint and cilantro and jalapeños and “smoke flavored dressing.” The other one, grilled pork over smashed together vermicelli, was probably the least popular, but I liked it.
By the way, have I mentioned the name of my new favorite Vietnamese restaurant? SFBG
Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5–9 p.m.; Sat., noon–9 p.m.; Sun., 5–9 p.m.
354 17th St., Oakl.
Beer and wine
When I write about seafood these days, I cringe a little, wondering whether, by describing the eating of fish, I am in effect abetting the collapse of the world’s maritime ecosystem. That I would be doing so in a rather tiny way makes no moral difference; nor does the fact that I personally will not buy or eat any seafood other than what I know to have been taken from sustainably managed (and usually local) populations — and this is a very brief list.
Historians of the future may well regard the 21st century as the interval in which the fate of this planet was decided. If we as a species pursue our present course, our descendants a century hence could well find themselves living on a hellishly steamy globe stripped of much of its wildlife. Elephants have been recklessly endangered — and are angry about it, as a spectacular story in the Oct. 8 New York Times Magazine recently demonstrated — while the heavy majority of the world’s fisheries have been overworked to the verge of irretrievable harm. This is the depressing news brought by the British journalist Charles Clover in The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat (New Press, $26.95).
Clover finds his evidence all around us, in the form of drastically reduced catches from once-bountiful seas (a particularly vivid North American example: the Grand Banks) and in once-thriving coastal towns, such as Gloucester, Mass., and Hull, England, that have become ghostly now that there are no more fish to catch and process. The culprit is an all-too-familiar mechanism of industrial technique deployed to satisfy heedless demand in wealthy countries. The French, rather shockingly, have a taste for orange roughy, one of the many deep-sea species whose slow rate of reproduction leaves them especially vulnerable to human rapacity.
Clover’s description of the North Sea gives us a brief glimpse of a glum tomorrow. Today’s sea is muddy, he says, because its once-enormous beds of oysters and mussels — nature’s water filters — have been decimated by overfishing. The cloudiness inhibits plant growth on the bottom, a place he regards as “a devastated ecosystem” that can no longer heal itself. That leaves just a couple of questions for us, the devastators: Can we heal it if we try, and will we try? And when? It’s later than we think.
If, like me, you associate the letters K and L with wine — as in K and L Wines — you might have to do some expectation adjustment when you step through the doors of KL Restaurant, a Hong Kong–style seafood house in the westernmost Richmond. Despite the heavily maritime menu, the only alcoholic drink on offer is beer, and the only beer is Heineken. No Tsingtao? Not even Sapporo or Tiger? Unheard of. Not that there’s anything wrong with Heineken.
The restaurant’s winelessness did not come as a complete surprise. We’d been advised beforehand by an in-the-know member of our party that if we were going to want wine, we would have to pack it in ourselves. Who would not want wine with seafood? I thought while vaguely intending to take a well-chilled bottle of Navarro gewürztraminer, gewürz being one of those fragrant German grapes that stand up nicely to Chinese food. And: who would want beer with seafood? All of us, as it turned out. The gewürz did not get chilled or packed in, the beer turned out to be a good match with dish after dish (the wine would have too, it must be said), and the result was a tableful of slightly woozy satiation — the way one might feel at the end of, say, a wedding banquet.
KL’s banquetish aura isn’t of the lordly sort. The main dining room is huge, unfancy, and airy; its principal wall hangings are announcements of the day’s specials, hand lettered in Chinese on plain white paper. There is also a battery of aquariums in which various creatures of the deep await their rendezvous with the big mesh scooper. If it weren’t a restaurant, with a telltale sizzle coming from the kitchen, it could be a pet shop. But the tables give us our chief clue. A number of them are round and large, suitable for the seating of up to a dozen — and large parties do show up with some frequency to fill them. There is also an adjoining room that serves as a kind of overflow dining room but would also do (despite its coat-closet starkness) as the setting for a private party — a more intimate banquet, perhaps.
KL convincingly stands for the proposition that the best interior design element in any restaurant is the presence of human beings. If you attract scads of interesting people — families in generational layers, from grandparents to tykes; a crew of early-20s types and their rainbow of RAZRs clustered at a banquet table; the odd outworlder; groups meeting on the sidewalk outside or laughing at the host’s station — you do not need anything else to achieve the buzz, the low but steady roar of enjoyment, all restaurateurs are looking for.
Good food helps too, of course, and KL’s food, considered as a ratio of price to value and as an exercise in variety, is good. The kitchen is particularly skilled at sampan preparations, which involve a peppery batter-fry. I am not sure this is the best way to have Dungeness crab ($14), since most of what ends up covered in delicious, spicy-crisp batter is shell. Still, you do get some batter-on-flesh effect, mostly with the body chunks, and as for the legs — you can scrape the tasty crust off with your teeth before cracking them open. And if that is too much work, you can luxuriate in the surrounding fermented-black-bean sauce, which has the texture of a pilaf and a strong salty bite.
While deep-frying often brings an extra dash of delight to otherwise bland foods, such as the potato, I am obliged to report that the deep-frying of oysters ($8.95) has the opposite effect. The unmistakable flavor of brine disappears, as does the slippery-soft, slightly naughty texture; in its place we find an ordinary meatiness like that of chicken liver. A bright red, slightly sweet sauce served in a dipping plate on the side provided color more than anything else.
Salt-and-pepper squid ($6.95), on the other hand, turned out to be a success: tender with just a bit of chewiness and the pepper in the batter helping cut the grease. Even better was a platter of sea scallops ($8.95) stir-fried kung pao–style, with chunks of red and green bell pepper, chopped scallion, and a heavy showering of peanuts in a dark, thick, smoky-sweet sauce.
The sizzling-rice seafood soup ($5.95) didn’t amount to much beyond its rafts of sizzling rice: just some sliced shiitake caps, bits of chopped scallion, and a few lonely dried shrimp bobbing in an OK broth. And the steamed prawns ($21.90), a platter-filling spectacle of finger-size crustaceans split in half and sprinkled with a garlic-shallot sauce that looked like couscous cooked in bleach, were distinctly disappointing, rubbery in the mouth and tasting of feebleness.
One of the best dishes — oh irony! — has nothing to do with the sea. This would be the minced squab lettuce cup ($11.95), a mu shu pork–like construct (complete with a side of hoisin sauce) in which pristine iceberg lettuce leaves are substituted for the pancakes and the meat mixture is scooped into them. If you’ve ever struggled with squab in a restaurant that served the little fowl on the bone — for flavor or authenticity’s sake or due to the chef’s busy schedule — you will sniffle in appreciation at the ease and pleasure of munching through this dish.
For a restaurant whose clientele appears to be overwhelmingly Chinese, service is Anglophone-friendly and quite gregarious, though I felt the Heinekens were pushed a little too keenly. Service with brio, meanwhile, does not necessarily mean efficiency: we went out of our way to order an item and it never appeared, except on the bill. So: celebrate, but verify. SFBG
Daily, 10 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
4401 Balboa, SF
TECHSPLOITATION Are you hoping that breeding with somebody with “good genes” will help you have a child who is somehow better then you are? So are a lot of creatures. Unfortunately, it looks like some good genes can’t be passed on. In fact, the very genes that make your mate seem spicy might actually hinder your kids’ success in the mating game later on.
A couple of Canadian biologists at Queens University in Ontario published a study in PLoS Biology (a Public Library of Science journal) a couple of weeks ago that suggests women who pick mates “fitter” than themselves have very little chance of passing that fitness on to their daughters. Same goes for men who mate with women fitter than themselves: sons born from such a union are actually less fit than sons born to low-fitness ladies. In the genetic war between the sexes, genes that are good for one sex aren’t necessarily good for the opposite-sex children who inherit them.
Biologists Alison Pischedda and Adam K. Chippindale discovered this by forcing a bunch of fruit flies to have sex in various combinations of fit and unfit. Fitness wasn’t measured in sexiness or success in fly politics — the scientists measured it by how many offspring a fly could have. In other words, fitness equals how much influence a fly will have over the gene pool.
When flies choose mates, they’re engaging in a gene crapshoot called sexual selection, the Darwinian process by which the quest for perfect mates influences evolution. Conventional wisdom holds that sexual selection is usually good for a species: it creates babies that are stronger, prettier, fitter. The idea is that sexual creatures tend to be attracted to mates who are fit in one way or another. Maybe that mate is appealing because she’s particularly good at surviving in the desert with a bunch of drugged-out hippies, or maybe he’s shaped so nicely that he’s obviously healthy. If the possible mate is human, it’s possible she’ll come across as attractive because she’s a good problem-solver or skilled at telling jokes. All of these characteristics mean that the creature in question has a higher probability of surviving and spreading his or her genes far and wide by creating fit babies. So sexual selection is the process of picking a mate who will help you in the quest for genetic domination.
But Pischedda and Chippindale wondered if seeking out the perfect mate could ever be detrimental to offspring. The answer is yes.
It turns out that certain fitness genes shared by male and female flies on the X chromosome express themselves differently depending on sex. So a gene on a male’s X chromosome might make him an incredibly prolific father, but that same gene expressed in his daughter would prevent her from reproducing in large numbers. Because males only pass along their Y chromosome to male babies, they never pass along their beneficial X genes to sons either.
Why would genes behave like this if they are selfish, as pop geneticist Richard Dawkins puts it? The answer, Pischedda and Chippindale speculate, is that these genes are acting selflessly.
They’re keeping the population diverse. Imagine if fit parents bred only fit children. Translated into human terms, let’s assume that Britney Spears and K-Fed are fit parents because they keep shooting out babies. If their children inherited the fitness gene from Britney or K-Fed, they would also spawn lots of children. And so would those children. Pretty soon, you’d have a nation of aimless pop stars whose talents lie mostly in the area of gyration.
By cutting off fitness after one generation, we’re guaranteed a population whose genes come from a wide variety of sources. That’s why we have nerdy kids, sporty kids, and freaky kids, as well as eroticized teenyboppers who sing. If Pischedda and Chippindale are right, their experiment could undermine the idea that sexual selection is purely a selfish process. Sometimes genes work for the good of the species rather than the good of individuals.
Interestingly, the fittest fruit flies come from parents who are not very fit themselves. I like that. If humans are anything like flies, this research confirms my feeling that all those dudes with trophy wives and ladies with himbo arm candy are about to get totally screwed out of the gene pool. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is focusing her energies on the meme pool rather than the gene pool.
My boyfriend and I have a great sex life. There’s only one problem: he’s working a temporary job across the country. While I’m happy for him, the distance has caused a huge strain on our sex life.
On the advice of friends, I bought a vibrator. I’ve found my orgasms to be quicker and more intense, which is great, but my fear is that I’ll desensitize myself. I have very intense, screaming, crying orgasms with him, but I’m scared I may ruin it with the vibrator. Some days I can make myself orgasm three times or more, which seems a bit excessive. I’ve heard about the benefits of vibrators, but what if I can’t orgasm with my boyfriend when he comes home?
I had you in the “dysfunction: female” folder, but when I pulled you out to examine you more closely, I discovered that you’re actually perfectly functional, no “dys” about it, and are merely buying trouble, as they say. Quit that.
Three orgasms a day is not excessive, although it might technically exceed what you would be capable of without the technical intervention. As long as the errands get done and no horses are frightened, you are far from out of control. You are bored and a little lonely, and really, what else is masturbation for?
As for becoming habituated to the vibrator and thus less responsive to human touch, I can’t say it never happens, but I can say it’s neither likely nor all that devastating. You’re probably safe, since you were so screamily, cryishly responsive to begin with, and I figure that most women who do become overly reliant on the buzz were not so supersensitive to begin with. And if you do somehow manage to train yourself into responding to the vibe alone, you can dehabituate yourself pretty easily. Learning to have orgasms when you’ve never had one can be a long haul, but one is almost guaranteed eventual success. Learning to respond to a different stimulus when you’re already Miss Orgasm 2006? Cinchy.
In the meantime and while your boyfriend is still out of town, you could do as a nice young woman I used to work with sometimes did and dutifully practice “manual release” every 10th time or so, just in case of, I dunno, nuclear holocaust or something. Maybe she just wanted to know that she could live off the grid should she ever choose to and raise goats and still have orgasms. You can value self-sufficiency without having to live in a shack and farm with your own feces. It couldn’t hurt to try.
My girlfriend and I are college students, and initially our sex life was awesome — I mean, Tommy and Pamela would pale in comparison. After a couple rounds every day for about three months, it’s not that it’s boring, but it’s difficult for me to come now. She gives great head too, it’s just that I can’t come unless I imagine having sex with another girl. I can still masturbate, and I do manage to come eventually when I start imagining past lovers. I love her and really do see a future together. What can I do about this? I don’t think telling her is an option because she’d just get pissed. What would you (or your husband) do?
Let’s just leave my husband out of this, shall we? And Tommy and Pamela too, while we’re at it. I was, frankly, a little surprised to find that they’re still the hot-sex-having couple of record among the college crowd — didn’t that video make the rounds about 10 years ago, when there were still videos? Or is it quaint now, like the smoker reels that used to be pornography and are now considered kind of cute? Either way, ew. Surely we can do better.
It occurred to me to tell you that not all guys really love intercourse or that the exact sort of intercourse you’ve been having may be missing something — enough friction or a certain favored rhythm — but then I got to the part about giving great head, and there went that hypothesis. Changing positions, adding in role-play or props or mechanical devices, any or all may help for a while. In the long run, though, I’m afraid that you are one of those novelty seekers who just lose some level of turn-on after enough rounds with the same partner and must resort to fantasy to get up and over. The good news is that you’ve got company, masses of it. I wouldn’t even call it a problem as much as a fact of life, and I wouldn’t go assuming that your girlfriend never thinks about anybody but you or anything but what you’re doing at that moment, unless she tells you so, and even then she could be fudging a bit to spare your feelings. You could ask or you could just keep doing what you’re doing (it works, after all) and call it good.
Andrea Nemerson has spent the last 14 years as a sex educator and an instructor of sex educators. In her previous life she was a prop designer. And she just gave birth to twins, so she’s one bad mother of a sex adviser. Visit www.altsexcolumn.com to view her previous columns.
EDITORIAL Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has vetoed legislation requiring a few police officers to actually walk beats in high-crime neighborhoods, says he was proud of the San Francisco Police Department’s action in the Castro on Halloween night. Proud? Some 800 cops were on hand, and yet someone managed to bring in a gun, shoot nine people — and get away. As we report on page 11, a lot of cops weren’t really doing much for most of the night except standing around; foot patrols (that is, cops actually mingling with the revelers, keeping an eye on things) might have prevented the shootings.
The SFPD is a mess — and the department isn’t going to reform itself. The mayor ought to be in the forefront on this, but he’s ducking — so the supervisors need to step up.
The foot patrol legislation, sponsored by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, is hardly radical and isn’t a threat to the department’s independence. The bill simply directs the department to put a few cops on the beat, out of their cars, in a few high-crime areas. It passed 7–3, with only Sups. Aaron Peskin, Sean Elsbernd, and Michela Alioto-Pier dissenting, and Sup. Jake McGoldrick absent. If that vote holds and McGoldrick sticks with the majority, the supervisors can override the veto.
But there’s immense pressure coming down on individual supervisors to change their votes, and even one member slipping away would allow Newsom’s position to hold. That’s unacceptable: every supervisor who approved foot patrols needs to vote to override the veto — and just to be sure, Peskin, who is generally good on these issues, needs to come over to the progressive side. This one modest mandate could be not only a lifesaver in areas with high homicide rates but also the beginning of some real change at the SFPD.
The Police Commission is struggling with a disciplinary issue that’s also potentially a turning point: three commissioners — David Campos, Petra de Jesus, and Theresa Sparks — want to refuse to settle any disciplinary cases unless the cops agree to make the settlement public (see Opinion, page 7). Commissioner Joe Veronese initially agreed with that proposal but has shifted his position and is offering a really weak alternative instead. That’s a bad sign for the politically ambitious commissioner; he needs to show some spine, defy the Police Officers Association, and sign on with the Campos plan.
This just in: Bill Lee, who works for Mayor Newsom and (sort of) for the airport, is up for reappointment as a planning commissioner at the Rules Committee on Nov. 9. It’s a clear conflict of interest: a city employee working directly for the mayor shouldn’t be on the Planning Commission. Besides, he’s been a pretty bad vote. The supervisors should send him packing. SFBG
EDITORIAL Back in 1999 reporter Scott Rosenberg dug up a juicy little scoop for Salon: he found out that part of Microsoft’s annual report was written on an Apple computer. That caused the giant purveyor of Windows software (and Apple competitor) no small amount of embarrassment. And Rosenberg did this without any secret source or leaked records; he just looked at the metadata embedded in the files of public company documents.
Metadata is part of the new frontier of public-records law. It’s the stuff you can’t see that’s hidden in digital versions of, say, Microsoft Word documents. It shows what computer (and type of computer) created the document and often shows the revisions the document has gone through. It’s sort of an electronic history of what used to be something typed on paper — and as such, it’s extremely useful to researchers who want to follow what the government is doing.
It’s also, all too often, something that public officials want to hide. That’s the case in San Francisco, where Gloria Young, the clerk of the Board of Supervisors, has refused to release copies of the original Word versions of what are clearly public records. She wouldn’t, for example, give out a Word copy of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance.
That’s a mistake — and the Board of Supervisors needs to direct Young to change her policy.
Young isn’t refusing to release the records per se — she’s had them made into PDFs, the electronic equivalent of photocopies that don’t contain the embedded data. And she’s released those versions. The office of City Attorney Dennis Herrera concluded Sept. 19 that city officials have the right to withhold metadata and provide documents only in PDF format. The argument, contained in a six-page memo, goes more or less like this:
A Word version of a document can be edited and changed — and thus someone who requests a public record might alter it and then pass it off as a true version.
Besides, metadata might possibly contain privileged information (legal advice from an attorney). It might include early drafts of a document (which are exempt from disclosure but really shouldn’t be). And it might give somebody with evil intent the ability to hack into the city’s computer system and do a lot of damage.
In the end, deputy city attorney Paul Zarefsky argues, figuring out where there is and isn’t metadata and what it might include is a huge job that requires special skills and would be inordinately burdensome for city agencies.
The first argument is just silly. Sure, somebody could take a copy of a city record and alter it — but enterprising scammers have always been able to take real records and turn them into phonies. That’s why the city keeps the originals on file and releases only copies.
The rest of Zarefsky’s analysis is a bit more complex. But in the end the posture of the city is far too defensive. This is, after all, data that was produced by city employees on the taxpayers’ dime. And like just about everything else the city produces — with only narrow exceptions — it ought to be released to the public.
We don’t buy the argument that there are vast stores of deep secrets lurking in the metadata that might somehow damage the city’s interests. There may be a few specific cases in which documents have been reviewed by the City Attorney’s Office and might include confidential advice. But most of the material will simply show who created the document, how it was edited (and by whom), and how all of that relates to the final product. Like the Microsoft revelation, some of that might embarrass city hall — but that’s not an excuse to keep it secret.
Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, noted in a Sept. 22 letter to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force that the “CNPA is aware of no other state or local agency that has adopted this restrictive policy.”
Herrera’s office, interestingly, isn’t arguing that all metadata must be secret — the opinion only says that department employees have the ability to withhold it if they want to. That’s where the supervisors need to weigh in.
Young asked the Rules Committee on Nov. 2 for policy direction on the matter. The committee heard testimony and took the matter under advisement.
The chair, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, should bring up the issue again at the next possible meeting, and the committee should direct Young — and all other city officials — to stop using metadata as an excuse to withhold documents. San Francisco ought to be taking the lead here and setting a policy precedent for cities across the state. SFBG
PS This is just one example of what seems to be a renewed war on sunshine at City Hall. The task force just had its budget cut and no longer has a full-time staffer assigned to it (although the Sunshine Ordinance mandates full-time staff assistance). The supervisors should make it clear that San Francisco isn’t going to slide backward into the old, dark days.
I tell this story to politicians a lot, and I’m telling it again because there’s an awful lot of angst at City Hall over the demands of a few (admittedly madly aggressive) sunshine advocates who are coming close to paralyzing some departments.
The tale goes back, way back, to about 1986, when a reporter named Jim Balderston and I got onto a story about the horrible, potentially deadly problem of asbestos contamination in the public schools. We called Ray Cortines, who had just taken over as school superintendent, and asked to see a long, long list of district records — the sort of broad, sweeping request that makes city attorneys work hundreds of hours trying to decide how to comply.
But Cortines didn’t call the city attorney. He invited us over to district headquarters, took us into a room filled with file cabinets, and said: here you go. He told a staffer to help us make copies of what we needed. Then he left us alone.
No district lawyer sat in the room checking to be sure that there was nothing confidential in the files. Nobody prescreened the stuff for possible secrets.
We spent a week there and came out with some amazing stories that embarrassed a lot of district officials — and may have saved the lives of a lot of kids.
I’m sure there were reams of documents in those files that contained what are technically confidential bits of information. But here’s the amazing thing: nothing bad happened.
The district didn’t lose any lawsuits because of what ran in the paper. No labor contracts were jeopardized. No personnel records were wrongly exposed. Not a goddamn thing.
This is what drives me nuts about “metadata” and all the other stuff that gadflies like Kimo Crossman are asking for, tying the City Attorney’s Office in knots and costing the taxpayers all this money.
Please: just give it to them. The republic will survive. SFBG