Volume 41 Number 24
March 14 – March 20, 2006
Dan Cooke, an educator and historical interpreter who guided tours of Alcatraz Island for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, has been fired in the wake of a Guardian article that quoted him complaining about a sewage spill in the Bay.
On March 3, 2007 Cooke was informed by his supervisor, John Moran, that his position had been terminated because there weren’t enough hours available to keep him employed.
However, the day before Cooke was fired, and for several days after, the GGNPC website was advertising an immediate opening for the same position as Cooke’s. That posting has since been removed from the web site.
Cooke has filed an administrative complaint with the United States Department of Labor against GGNPC and NPS, claiming he should be protected under the whistleblower provisions of several federal environmental and health safety acts.
Cooke was a source for an article about possible sewage spills on the island (see “Smelly Situation,” Dec. 27, 2006) and told the Guardian that on Oct. 13 he witnessed Alcatraz Cruises boat crew hosing raw sewage into the bay from an overflowing holding tank on the island. The spill was also witnessed by the captain of a passing ferry boat, who reported what he saw to California’s Environmental Protection Agency.
National Park Service spokespeople dismissed those claims in interviews with us for the article and said it was their understanding the spill in question was just salt water.
Cooke was a part-time, “on-call” employee and his hours often fluctuated with the seasons. In December, he took two months off to visit his family in England, but since his return in late January he had not been scheduled for any shifts.
He contacted his supervisor, Moran, to find out why. According to the administrative complaint filed by Cooke’s lawyer, Eleanor Morton, “Moran told Cooke that Cooke’s statements in the San Francisco Bay Guardian article had ‘caused a big flap’ at GGNPC and NPS. Moran said that there had been multiple meetings about the article. Moran said that there was a high level of anger and resentment at GGNPC toward Cooke for his statements, that NPS was very concerned and that Moran himself had felt pressured to say that he also was angry at Cooke.”
Cooke says he noted the spill in the NPS logbook because that was protocol, and spoke to the Guardian because he was concerned about public health and safety. “My training is if you see things that concern you, write them down and inform your supervisor,” he said.
When contacted by the Guardian, NPS spokesperson Chris Powell said, “the National Park Service has no comment at this time. We just can’t talk about things like this.”
GGNPC also refused to comment on personnel issues.
Cooke remains concerned about conditions of the sewage system on the island and whether or not what he and others witnessed on October 13 has been properly investigated. “I’ve never been asked a question about this once by anyone at the National Park Service. Nobody’s ever asked me what happened,” he said. He said that the park’s superintendent, Brian O’Neill. “needs to say when these events occur we will do a proper investigation.”
Assemblymembers Mark Leno and Fiona Ma agree. After reading the Guardian article, as well as receiving additional evidence of possible E. coli-riddled bilge water from a boat in the Alcatraz fleet, Leno and Ma called on the NPS and San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board to investigate the island and ferry service sewage issues.
In a joint letter drafted Jan. 17, they wrote: “The Alcatraz Ferry Service is one of San Francisco’s major tourist destinations with international visibility and the volume of these trips is significant. For these reasons, we would like to know if the problems …have been thoroughly or should be thoroughly investigated by your agency with assistance from the appropriate federal or local officials.”
Superintendent O’Neill responded that “the investigations were closed as ‘unjustified complaints’” and questioned the origin and verity of the E.Coli test sample, which obtained by Marina Secchitano, regional director of the Inland Boatmen’s Union, who has been protesting Alcatraz Cruises ferry contract with the NPS (See “Casting off,” Sep. 26, 2006).
O’Neill questioned Secchitano’s ability to gain access to the bilge of the boat from where it’s claimed the sample hailed, and also said the results were from a lab where “this was not the kind of testing that they do.” But in fact, someone with access to the bilge gave the sample to Secchitano – and the lab in question, Brelje and Race, confirmed that this is, in fact, exactly the kind of testing they do.
“We received a copy of your letter discrediting our laboratory results,” wrote Ann Hill to the NPS. “Although we can’t vouch for where this sample was collected from, we do stand by our results….We did not tell Alcatraz Cruises that this was not the type of testing we do. I talked with them and told them we did not collect or pick up samples that far away.” Which wasn’t an issue in this case, since a spokesperson for the union told us Secchitano brought the sample to the lab.
As far as what Cooke and an anonymous captain witnessed, O’Neill continued to maintain it was just sea water. “This complaint is erroneous and unjustified; allow us to clarify what happened,” he wrote, submitting as evidence a written statement from the island’s facilities engineer, James L. Adams — except the incident Adams cites, of a parted salt water line, was four days after the overflowing shit tank that Cooke and the captain saw.
“The letter kind of skirted the question,” said Ma spokesperson, Nick Hardeman, summing up O’Neill’s response. “The Brian O’Neill letter to Fiona and Mark is all the more reason there needs to be an independent investigation. There are disputing facts here. We need to find out what’s going on.” Hardeman has met with Cooke and is in discussion with Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office to determine the proper jurisdiction for a full and independent investigation of the sewage system on Alcatraz and handling of it by Alcatraz Cruises.
Cooke says that’s the only reason he ever noted the spill in the first place. “I want an investigation. I want to go back to work. And I’d like the toilets to get fixed on the island. It’s a basic right for workers and visitors to the park,” he said. “If the net result is the termination of a person related to the leaking of the information, if that’s the only follow-up instead of an investigation, that’s a problem.” At this point, he is considering further legal action but is demanding only that the job he loves be reinstated and the appropriate back pay granted.
“The firing of Dan Cooke clearly raises a red flag,” Ma said in a statement to the Guardian. “My hope is that the National Park Service is committed to the protection of the fragile ecosystem of the Bay. If even some of Mr. Cooke’s allegations are true, it’s clear that NPS mistakenly thinks their reputation matters more than our environment.”
Casualties in Iraq
4 U.S. soldiers were killed today by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, according to the New York Times.
3,433: Killed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq 3/20/03
For the Department of Defense statistics go to: http://www.defenselink.mil/
For a more detailed list of U.S. Military killed in the War in Iraq go to:
98,000: Killed since 3/03
58,862 – 64,682: Killed since 1/03
For a week by week assessment of significant incidents and trends in Iraqi civilian casualties, go to A Week in Iraq by Lily Hamourtziadou. She is a member of the Iraq Body Count project, which maintains and updates the world’s only independent and comprehensive public database of media-reported civilian deaths in Iraq.
A Week in Iraq: Week ending 11 March 2007:
For first hand accounts of the grave situation in Iraq, visit some of these blogs:
Antiestablishmentarianism attitudes among Iraqi religious groups is fueling intolerance and violence towards homosexuals in Iraq, according to the UN.
Despite the Bush administrations promise to empower Iraqi women, opportunities remain limited, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
30,000: Killed since 2003
151: Killed since 3/03
The Bush administration plans to increase quota of Iraqi refugees allowed into the U.S. from 500 to 7,000 next year in response to the growing refugee crisis, according to the Guardian Unlimited.
Border policies are tightening because one million Iraqi refugees have already fled to Jordan and another one million to Syria. Iraqi refugees who manage to make it out of Iraq still can’t work, have difficulty attending school and are not eligible for health care. Many still need to return to Iraq to escape poverty, according to BBC news.
1.6 million: Iraqis displaced internally
1.8 million: Iraqis displaced to neighboring states
Many refugees were displaced prior to 2003, but an increasing number are fleeing now, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ estimates.
U.S. Military Wounded:
47,657: Wounded since 3/19/03 to 1/6/07
The Guardian cost of Iraq war report (3/15/07): Bush asks congress to approve $622 billion for 2008. So far, $408 billion for the U.S., $51 billion for California and $1 billion for San Francisco.
Compiled by Paula Connelly
Bush asked congress to approve $622 billion for defense spending, most for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in a $2.9 trillion budget request for 2008, according to Reuters.
Here is a running total of the cost of the Iraq War to the U.S. taxpayer, provided by the National Priorities Project located in Northampton, Massachusetts. The number is based on Congressional appropriations. Niko Matsakis of Boston, MA and Elias Vlanton of Takoma Park, MD originally created the count in 2003 on costofwar.com. After maintaining it on their own for the first year, they gave it to the National Priorities Project to contribute to their ongoing educational efforts.
To bring the cost of the war home, please note that California has already lost $46 billion and San Francisco has lost $1 billion to the Bush war and his mistakes. In San Francisco alone, the funds used for the war in Iraq could have hired 21,264 additional public school teachers for one year, we could have built 11,048 additional housing units or we could have provided 59,482 students four-year scholarships at public universities. For a further breakdown of the cost of the war to your community, see the NPP website aptly titled “turning data into action.”
A small peeve of mine is grappa served at or near room temperature, as if it’s cough syrup. Perhaps I am churlish to complain about tepid grappa when having the chance to order grappa at all is a rare treat; even many Italian restaurants don’t offer it. On the other hand, ice-cold grappa is simply sublime at least for those of us who find it so and keeping the bottle stashed in the freezer under the bar doesn’t seem like a terrible burden. Can it be that grappa is widely, if dimly, assumed to be just another brandy, like cognac, and, like cognac, is best appreciated in a lukewarmish state?
I keep my own bottle of grappa (at the moment a moscato distillation, from Italy’s Antica Distilleria Negroni) in the freezer, where it was recently joined by a bottle of Swan’s Neck grape vodka. Grape vodka has been, until recently, a minor curiosity whose center of production was France. Most vodkas are produced from grains and potatoes; grape vodka, by contrast, is distilled from wine. (Swan’s Neck uses French wines made from undisclosed varietals and distills them in traditional copper alembics.) The unaged spirit is something of a cross, then, between cognac (distilled from wine but aged in oak) and grappa (distilled from fermented grape-crush remnants instead of wine but not aged), though its mountain-stream clearness seems to put it nearer grappa on the spectrum of spirits. I find myself thinking of it as grappka.
And how do the two cousins compare? I thought I would find little or no difference between them, but a brief taste test revealed that grappa and grappka can be pretty easily distinguished. The latter, despite its vinous origins, is still a vodka and, even when chilled overnight in the freezer, retains vodka’s distinctive edge, smooth and precise as a just-sharpened chef’s knife. And grappa is still grappa and still has a slightly unkempt bouquet of fruitiness, like that of a neglected bramble patch heavy with berries.
I could not say I prefer one over the other, especially when both are ice-cold. The grappka has a grander pedigree and, while potent, is silken in the throat. Grappa is fierier and maybe a little cruder, as befits its roots as a leftover; it must be one of the world’s most lovable overachievers. For digestif honors, I call it a dead heat.
“Four Years Later: American Soldiers Share Their Stories on the Anniversary of the War”
Once a skilled firefighter, National Guard Sgt. Brett Miller was unable to dial a phone number after a roadside blast in Iraq left him with a brain injury. But Miller is one of the lucky ones. After four years of war in Iraq, more than 3,000 soldiers have died and countless others been permanently disabled. Miller and fellow veterans Army Sgt. Camille Evans and Infantry Officer Paul Reickhoff will mark this grave anniversary trading traumatic war tales at InForum’s “Four Years Later.” (Joshua Rotter)
6:30 p.m., $7-$20
Commonwealth Club of California
595 Market, second floor, SF
There are clips floating around YouTube of Two Sheds performing in a San Diego television studio. The cameras track across the soundstage and dissolve between Unplugged-style close-ups of fret boards and musicians, who look perfect under the parcan lighting. Though they clearly nail renditions of “Perfect” and “For Theresa,” the sterile TV-land setting seems an unbefitting package for Two Sheds, whose charm lies in the direct, personal effect of singer Caitlin Gutenberger’s lyrical inventions. (Nathan Baker)
9 p.m., $7
3225 22nd St., SF
Jim Campbell, “Home Movies”
When I think about SF artist Jim Campbell, I also think about the Icelandic musician Jóhann Jóhannson and his recent album IBM 1401, a User’s Manual (4AD). In particular I think of the final song, “The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black,” in which Jóhannson creates a final aria for the extinct computer for which his father once served as chief maintenance engineer. The uncanny mix of emotion and inhuman chill in that composition takes on more effective forms in some of Campbell’s pieces. In fact, a few of his early works perform similar variations on paternal and maternal ties manifested through technology. (Johnny Ray Huston)
Through April 28
4-6 p.m. reception, free
430 Clementina, SF
On the shoulder of every guitar player, there resides a small elf who whispers into the guitarist’s ear, “Shred! Shred as hard and as fast as you can every second of every day until the combination of your fingers and a fret board results in an explosion of rock so epic and grandiose that it would wake Jimi Hendrix from his heavenly slumber.” Most guitarists ignore the elf and end up writing songs about their feelings. Not the gentlemen of G3 (Joe Satriani, John Petrucci, and Paul Gilbert), a rotating tour of guys whose elves were so big that the rockers strapped sequined white leather saddles on them and rode off into the sunset. (Aaron Sankin)
Berkeley Community Theatre
1900 Allston Way, Berk.
Fukwerk Fridays with DJ Limacon
If you’re like most office workers, you’re already working for the weekend as soon as your alarm unleashes its first thumpings Monday morning. Then why not get the weekend started early at Fukwerk Fridays, the Bay Area Beatdrop-run happy hour dance party featuring local DJs who share an affinity for minimal Berlin techno? This week’s guest, DJ Limacon, a.k.a. Santa Cruz’s Christopher T. Lee, has released synth-heavy, tech funk discs Muster Funk (Intrinsic Design, 2006), which are great late-night grooves. (Joshua Rotter)
5 p.m., free
111 Minna Gallery
111 Minna Street, SF
Hotel Utah 30th Anniversary Weekend with the Culver City Dub Collective
It’s hard to believe but true: that venerable venue of low-key, low-cost live music, the Hotel Utah, hits the big 3-0 just in time for St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Don’t expect any jigs or reels, though, as the Culver City Dub Collective take the stage – their mellow beats are tinged with the tonal colors of old Jamaica rather than the cool green of the Emerald Isle. (Nicole Gluckstern)
With Pollo del Mar, White Thighs,
and Thao Nguyen
Also Sat/17 with the Mumlers
8:30 p.m., $10
500 Fourth St., SF
H 3-D: The True Tale of the Haddonfield Babysitter Murderer
Film critics always get asked to name their favorite movie. My twisted, popcorn-flavored heart belongs to Halloween, John Carpenter’s 1978 horror masterpiece. Gods of gore be blessed, the Primitive Screwheads are mounting H 3-D: The True Tale of the Haddonfield Babysitter Murderer. It’s being presented in something they’re calling Screw-U-Vision, with special specs provided. With the Screwheads in the house, audience members will be hosed with stage blood every time a certain trick-or-treater draws his butcher knife. Mixed holiday alert: on St. Patty’s, the blood’ll be green as a whistle. (Cheryl Eddy)
Through March 24
Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., $20-$25
1320 Potrero, SF
“We All Belong” (Park the Van) finds the Philly psych-swamp canines breaking out some toothsome
songcraft. (Kimberly Chun)
9 p.m., $10-$12
Cafe du Nord
2170 Market, SF
How hot is math right now? Hot enough for me to date a geek just so I can leave him and upgrade once he becomes a billionaire. Right now I’m breaking out my high school textbooks in preparation for Pi Day at the Exploratorium on March 14 (a.k.a. 3.14). And it’s also Albert Einstein’s birthday! The museum will celebrate with a gathering around the pi shrine at 1:59 p.m. to sing Pi Day songs and make a beaded pi string. (Elaine Santore)
1:59 p.m., $8-$13
Palace of Fine Arts
3601 Lyon, SF
After signing to Berkeley’s Absolutely Kosher Records, Seattle’s the Dead Science are running as pop weirdos, though the band’s sometimes silky, sometimes scuzzy jazz rock dynamism reminds me more of groups such as the Dirty Three and Tin Hat Trio. Whatever its correct classification might be, the trio cooks up the kind of dense, dreamy sound that could score a nightclub scene in a David Lynch movie. (Max Goldberg)
With Parenthetical Girls
8 p.m., $7
416 25th St., Oakl.
True to the post-postmodern hyperreal world of the inner-Web, I hit the Trucks’ MySpace page before I’d heard their 2006 self-titled CD (Clickpop). Browsing through their photo pages, I saw toy xylophones, lots of keyboards, underwear on the outside, leg warmers, pigtails, and more stripes than a Quiet Riot promo photo. A brief listen to their posted tracks left me feeling old and arrhythmic. I felt my receding hairline burn, like youth was talking behind my back.
Determined to find the dark lining in even the fluffiest of pink clouds, I kept the disc in heavy rotation while driving. At first it felt like a guilty pleasure infectious synth popdance punk, with a menagerie of female voices singing choruses and cracking wise in concordance with or contradiction to the main vocal line. The issues are put out there on the opening track, "Introduction": "I’ve been in therapy for five years / I’ll be in therapy for five years more," Kristin Allen-Zito sings. (I think it’s her three out of four Trucks are credited with vocals.) "I wake up depressed, I wake up manic / You never know what you’re gonna get."
Still, as the opening beats of the unequivocal dance jam of the decade, "Titties," come through the speakers, it’s hard to feel that there’s any kind of subliminal bum-out happening beneath the Peaches-esque query "What makes you think we can fuck just because you put your tongue in my mouth and you twisted my titties, baby?" "Titties" is one of a series of songs touching on the theme of failed relationships and inept lovermen. The poignant indie pop perfection of "Messages" has Allen-Zito serenading an absentee boyfriend whose voice mails are more attentive than he is: "Well, I save all my messages from you / Just in case you’re not there / When I want you to be."
A dozen tracks in, the concept of a boyfriend has been jettisoned for the much more accommodating vibrator in "Diddle Bot," which is closer to a lover than any mentioned heretofore: "You made me feel brand new / You love me through and through." The album ends with "Why the ?," an indictment of a beau who’s prepared to woo with everything but his tongue, and an a cappella request: "Dear Santa, please don’t bring me another boyfriend for Christmas / Oh no! / The last one sucked." Or didn’t, as the case may be.
Never do the Trucks jettison humor for histrionics in their tales of love gone awry in the great wet Northwest: the band members, who share songwriting duties, get their point across in a way that transcends merely grinding the storied ax of feminism. Sisters are doing for themselves, sure, but it’s not a girls-only joint: everyone’s invited to dance their woes away. Thematically, the disc gets heavier than the tales of missed connections and inept sexing. "Shattered" has implications of rape: "You could not keep your pretty hands off me … You shattered my image of love / While I was naked in the tub." "Man Voice" is call-and-response song play touching on predatory types, with a gothic-baroque feel that resembles Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies meeting Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Finally, "Comeback" tells the tale of love turned obsession turned homicide from a male point of view: "You don’t have to run away / I’m gonna kill you anyway."
"It’s pretty standard turning pain into comedy, trying to somehow make peace with things that have happened to us or to people that we’ve known," Allen-Zito says on the phone from Seattle.
Does the fact that their songs are still fun and danceable lead people to dismiss the Trucks as fluff? "That’s what I enjoy the most," she explains. "I think it’s really great when we play shows and there’s a mixture of people in the audience. There’ll be dudes who are, like, ‘Play the titties song! You guys are hot!’ They’re obviously not getting the lyrics at all. And then, on the other hand, there’s these two feminist friends of mine who are definitely a little overboard. Just seeing them next to these dudes that were just falling over themselves it was hilarious and perfect. This one woman came up to me outside and put her arm around my neck and was, like, ‘Kristin, they just don’t get it. They don’t get it!’ It’s kind of funny, because maybe she doesn’t get it."
And for me, that’s what I enjoy most. The fact that you can get it on one level and miss it entirely on another. Free your mind, and your ass will follow. Or, perhaps, free your ass, and your mind will follow. You can have just as much fun missing the point as getting it: the Trucks are simultaneously above your head and below your knees. *
March 24, 9 p.m., $8
1600 17th St., SF
"We ram dancehall and cork party / Papa Jammy in your area."
The 1980s was a turbulent decade in Jamaica. Government control had shifted from Michael Manley’s socialist-leaning People’s National Party to Edward Seaga’s free marketoriented Jamaican Labour Party. As Prime Minister Seaga tilted the country’s foreign policy to the right, American political and economic meddling in the region, combined with the nascent drug trade from Colombia to Miami via Jamaica, threw the island into flux.
Against this backdrop, in the Kingston ghetto enclave of Waterhouse, record producer and engineer Lloyd "King Jammy" James embraced the emerging digital reggae era and became its king. E-mailing from his office in London, reggae historian and author David Katz asserts that it was James who revolutionized Jamaican music overnight in 1985 with the release of Wayne Smith’s "Under Mi Sleng Teng," precipitating the shift from analog to digital. None of the precious few digital rhythms that came before "Sleng Teng" had its tremendous impact; Katz notes, "Jammy was the one who embraced the use of technology in its totality, in such a way as to be far in front of his rivals."
James honed his talents in the 1970s, working alongside another major production figure, Osbourne Ruddock, otherwise known as King Tubby. While assisting Tubby, James moonlighted and recorded albums for Black Uhuru and Johnny Osbourne. By the mid-’80s, James was ready to strike out on his own, and he recruited several impressive vocalists and toasters from his neighborhood.
Indeed, James is revered as much for his ability to discover raw talent as for his innate mixing skills. You’ll find visual evidence of the latter in several recently posted YouTube videos that show James executing dub versions of songs by Smith, Johnny Clarke, and others. Seeing James use all 10 fingers on the faders certainly authenticates his mastery. Now VP Records has released another document that reveals James’s genius.
The New York label has amassed a four-double-disc collection of King Jammy 12-inch single releases, circa 1985 to 1988. Selector’s Choice organizes each batch of recordings by "riddim," or common backing instrumental, which enables club and radio DJs to easily play several different artists with the same musical arrangement consecutively. For instance, disc one features the Tempo riddim with individual songs by Nitty Gritty, Pad Anthony, and Tonto Irie, and also the Stalag riddim with work by Smith, Osbourne, and Dean Frasier. The collection is a DJ’s nirvana.
Other chapters in Selector’s Choice show the evolution of Jammy’s roster from a primarily vocalist-focused endeavor composed of reggae legends Nitty Gritty, Little John, and Tenor Saw to a toaster-oriented team with key artists such as Ninjaman, Admiral Bailey, Major Worries, and Shabba Ranks. On the phone from his still-Kingston-based studio, James explains that back in the day, aspiring artists lined up down the block, drawn to his yard by the amount of good riddims the studio produced. "We never kept anybody out," he says. "We invited everybody to come in."
Katz notes that the toasters James attracted added value to his stable. "[Toasters such as] Josie Wales were very influential," Katz says of the Wild Westinspired micsmith. "Josie had style, verve, wit, and longevity, and he spoke of reality but was also humorous." Wales inspired fellow toaster Admiral Bailey, who became tremendously popular in dancehall with his rapid rhymes, producing hits for Jammy such as "Big Belly Man," "Jump Up," and "No Way Better Than Yard," all included on Selector’s Choice. Bailey in turn shaped James’s biggest find, Shabba Ranks, who later went on to greater popularity and a Grammy award on the Digital B label, with Jammy’s apprentice Bobby "Digital" Dixon at the helm.
But as Selector’s Choice deftly proves, James was the dominant hitmaker between 1985 and 1989, a reign born partially out of a love for his profession. James describes producing music during the mid-’80s as a joyful experience, one that saw him craft hits almost daily. "It was a very good [studio] environment," James says. "All the artists, producers, everybody used to live close, like a family. We used to cook and eat [together], go in the studio, and work hard."
A hard workday typically entailed building two or three new riddims with musicians Wycliffe "Steelie" Johnson and Cleveland "Clevie" Brownie or with Smith, and then voicing artists into the night. James kept his personal living quarters in the same building as his studio, so at the end of the session he could just walk a few meters to the bedroom and catch some z’s. Music journalist Rob Kenner relays personal details such as these and the backstory of each song in Selector’s Choice‘s liner notes. Kenner’s revelations about the dual meanings of tracks such as Nitty Gritty’s "Hog in a Minty" and Major Worries’ "Babylon Boops" add another layer to the greatness of James’s productions.
Many label compendiums try to account for every session, take, and rough draft a producer laid hands on. Selector’s Choice instead packs its eight 20-song discs with true dancehall smashes, records that bear the unmistakable stamp and production ethic James uses to this day. He summed up his creative philosophy this way: "I’d rather do original music than covers, because I learned that you own that stuff and it lasts longer." *
› email@example.com Life on tour isn’t just about partying. It’s partly about crafty use of time and space. In that sense, the German electronic duo Booka Shade are expert pragmatists. Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier don’t just attempt to write songs while they’re on planes or in hotel rooms they’ll record them as well. "In a traditional studio you always have the same atmosphere. Day and night changes, of course, yet it’s basically the same," Kammermeier explains over the phone from Berlin. "But if you travel and have a laptop with you, you can look out the window and see a new, completely different thing while recording." Such flexibility is at the core of Booka Shade’s second album, on their self-run label, Get Physical. Its very title, Movements, reflects a recording process propelled by the touring connected with flagship club hits such as "Body Language" and the irresistible dance floor stormer "Mandarine Girl," which boasts a melody that sounds like it was made with a gargantuan electronic woodwind. "We had a good time meeting people internationally, and all that energy went into Movements," Kammermeier says, discussing the record, which like most of the group’s releases sports Hannah Hochlike cut-with-a-kitchen-knife body parts on its sleeve art. "That’s probably why it’s a lot less dark than Memento [the duo’s 2004 debut] and has more drive." It would be hard for Movements to be darker than Memento, considering Booka Shade’s first album, complete with a name that might have been borrowed from Christopher Nolan, repeatedly digs into the realm of film ("16MM") and especially film noir ("Vertigo"). "It’s not like we have a library of 10,000 DVDs, but we like the combination of pictures and music," says Kammermeier, who also scores commercials with Merziger. "One thing we did for [Memento] was put a film on with the sound off and watch the pictures while we were working that atmosphere gave us a lot of inspiration." Booka Shade’s inspiration and reputation stem from their label as much as their music. In recent years Get Physical has garnered a critical rep that calls to mind canonical imprints such as Warp and the still thriving house-inflected Kompakt. This praise is due to Booka Shade’s constant collaborations with mix-oriented labelmates such as DJ T and M.A.N.D.Y. and to their production work on tracks such as a pair of classic early singles by Chelonis R. Jones, "One and One" and "I Don’t Know?" Those tracks are peerless in both a pop and a club sense, with "I Don’t Know?" suggesting what would happen if a male diva from the heyday of Chicago house who possessed encyclopedic brilliance hooked up with "Blue Monday"era New Order. "The chorus of ‘One and One’ wasn’t originally a chorus as Chelonis had sung it," Kammermeier says while discussing the collaborations. "We placed it there, like part of a puzzle." Working with a talent as singular as Jones is a far cry from the duo’s early days in the music business, when they created Europop for Spice Girlsesque major-label prefab acts such as No Angels, a girl group for whom they designed a cover of Alison Moyet’s "All Cried Out." The dead-end results of those efforts and of Merziger and Kammermeier’s first venture as a group, called Planet Claire, led them to start Get Physical. That, and a desire to broaden the formulaic boundaries of techno in particular and electronic music in general a desire further sparked on hearing well-arranged ’70s- and ’80s-tinged tracks by the likes of Metro Area. "Walter and I were both kids of the ’80s," says Kammermeier, who grew up with a jazz musician father and guitar- and piano-playing siblings, while Merziger was raised by a Richard Wagnerloving father. "Anything that came out of England Soft Cell, the Smiths, Depeche Mode was very influential to us." Last year the duo’s ’80s influences came full circle when Booka Shade remixed and shared concert bills with the last group. And it turns out Kammermeier is listening to Soft Cell again, having recently downloaded both their underrated aggro 1984 finale, This Last Night in Sodom, which includes early studio work by the influential producer Flood, and their 1983 sophomore effort, The Art of Falling Apart. "I just listened to [Art] again," Kammermeier admits. "There’s so much frustration and darkness in those songs." There’s so much frustration that it might seep into Booka Shade’s sound, if song titles are worthwhile clues. One single from The Art of Falling Apart was the club ho litany "Numbers," and it turns out the first single from Booka Shade’s next full-length recording will bear the same name. "We want to introduce a vocal side on the next album," Kammermeier says when describing "Numbers" and some of the group’s other songs, including a track created by Merziger in a Rio hotel room. "We’ll introduce it in a different way not verse-chorus vocal but little parts that we perform. We’re not great fans of these ‘featured artist’ albums, where people just get a handful of star vocalists to perform on different tracks. Also, we can’t bring a bunch of vocalists or a session vocalist on the road." That said, Booka Shade do aim to put their show on the road in the old-school sense an ambitious plan at a time when many of the best electronic music makers are still better off DJing than pulling rock star poses on a stage. "People always ask what instrument I play, and I say, ‘I’m one of those guys who hangs out with musicians I’m a drummer,’ " Kammermeier jokes. He’ll have to put that joke into practice as he and Merziger embark on their second US tour and maybe he’ll write and record some songs while in flight as well. * BOOKA SHADE With Future Force and Hours of Worship March 23, 9 p.m., $14 advance Mezzanine 444 Jessie, SF (415) 625-8880 www.getphysical.com For a top 10 list from Booka Shade’s Get Physical labelmate Chelonis R. Jones, go to www.sfbg.com/blogs/music.
By Johnny Ray Huston
GET A REP
THE ART OF COMING TOGETHER
Life on tour isn’t just about partying. It’s partly about crafty use of time and space. In that sense, the German electronic duo Booka Shade are expert pragmatists. Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier don’t just attempt to write songs while they’re on planes or in hotel rooms they’ll record them as well. "In a traditional studio you always have the same atmosphere. Day and night changes, of course, yet it’s basically the same," Kammermeier explains over the phone from Berlin. "But if you travel and have a laptop with you, you can look out the window and see a new, completely different thing while recording."
Such flexibility is at the core of Booka Shade’s second album, on their self-run label, Get Physical. Its very title, Movements, reflects a recording process propelled by the touring connected with flagship club hits such as "Body Language" and the irresistible dance floor stormer "Mandarine Girl," which boasts a melody that sounds like it was made with a gargantuan electronic woodwind. "We had a good time meeting people internationally, and all that energy went into Movements," Kammermeier says, discussing the record, which like most of the group’s releases sports Hannah Hochlike cut-with-a-kitchen-knife body parts on its sleeve art. "That’s probably why it’s a lot less dark than Memento [the duo’s 2004 debut] and has more drive."
It would be hard for Movements to be darker than Memento, considering Booka Shade’s first album, complete with a name that might have been borrowed from Christopher Nolan, repeatedly digs into the realm of film ("16MM") and especially film noir ("Vertigo"). "It’s not like we have a library of 10,000 DVDs, but we like the combination of pictures and music," says Kammermeier, who also scores commercials with Merziger. "One thing we did for [Memento] was put a film on with the sound off and watch the pictures while we were working that atmosphere gave us a lot of inspiration."
Booka Shade’s inspiration and reputation stem from their label as much as their music. In recent years Get Physical has garnered a critical rep that calls to mind canonical imprints such as Warp and the still thriving house-inflected Kompakt. This praise is due to Booka Shade’s constant collaborations with mix-oriented labelmates such as DJ T and M.A.N.D.Y. and to their production work on tracks such as a pair of classic early singles by Chelonis R. Jones, "One and One" and "I Don’t Know?" Those tracks are peerless in both a pop and a club sense, with "I Don’t Know?" suggesting what would happen if a male diva from the heyday of Chicago house who possessed encyclopedic brilliance hooked up with "Blue Monday"era New Order. "The chorus of ‘One and One’ wasn’t originally a chorus as Chelonis had sung it," Kammermeier says while discussing the collaborations. "We placed it there, like part of a puzzle."
Working with a talent as singular as Jones is a far cry from the duo’s early days in the music business, when they created Europop for Spice Girlsesque major-label prefab acts such as No Angels, a girl group for whom they designed a cover of Alison Moyet’s "All Cried Out." The dead-end results of those efforts and of Merziger and Kammermeier’s first venture as a group, called Planet Claire, led them to start Get Physical. That, and a desire to broaden the formulaic boundaries of techno in particular and electronic music in general a desire further sparked on hearing well-arranged ’70s- and ’80s-tinged tracks by the likes of Metro Area.
"Walter and I were both kids of the ’80s," says Kammermeier, who grew up with a jazz musician father and guitar- and piano-playing siblings, while Merziger was raised by a Richard Wagnerloving father. "Anything that came out of England Soft Cell, the Smiths, Depeche Mode was very influential to us." Last year the duo’s ’80s influences came full circle when Booka Shade remixed and shared concert bills with the last group. And it turns out Kammermeier is listening to Soft Cell again, having recently downloaded both their underrated aggro 1984 finale, This Last Night in Sodom, which includes early studio work by the influential producer Flood, and their 1983 sophomore effort, The Art of Falling Apart. "I just listened to [Art] again," Kammermeier admits. "There’s so much frustration and darkness in those songs."
There’s so much frustration that it might seep into Booka Shade’s sound, if song titles are worthwhile clues. One single from The Art of Falling Apart was the club ho litany "Numbers," and it turns out the first single from Booka Shade’s next full-length recording will bear the same name. "We want to introduce a vocal side on the next album," Kammermeier says when describing "Numbers" and some of the group’s other songs, including a track created by Merziger in a Rio hotel room. "We’ll introduce it in a different way not verse-chorus vocal but little parts that we perform. We’re not great fans of these ‘featured artist’ albums, where people just get a handful of star vocalists to perform on different tracks. Also, we can’t bring a bunch of vocalists or a session vocalist on the road."
That said, Booka Shade do aim to put their show on the road in the old-school sense an ambitious plan at a time when many of the best electronic music makers are still better off DJing than pulling rock star poses on a stage. "People always ask what instrument I play, and I say, ‘I’m one of those guys who hangs out with musicians I’m a drummer,’ " Kammermeier jokes. He’ll have to put that joke into practice as he and Merziger embark on their second US tour and maybe he’ll write and record some songs while in flight as well. *
With Future Force and Hours of Worship
March 23, 9 p.m., $14 advance
444 Jessie, SF
For a top 10 list from Booka Shade’s Get Physical labelmate Chelonis R. Jones, go to www.sfbg.com/blogs/music.
I first heard the Delinquents in 1999, when "That Man!" was in heavy rotation on KMEL. Its subject matter caring for the kids while the wifey’s out cheating was unique in gangsta rap. "We came from the left with that," G-Stack says, yet the freshness of the concept, combined with a funky Mike D beat and memorable Harm hook, made it an instant classic. By then their 1999 album, Bosses Will Be Bosses (Dank or Die) was six months old, and they already had a storied past.
Part of the Bay’s early ’90s independent scene, building a buzz from the ground up, G-Stack and V-White dropped their debut, the cassette-only Insane, circa 1993, on their label, Dank or Die. After a pair of 1995 EPs The Alleyway and Outta Control (both Dank or Die) the Delinquents signed to Priority at the same time the imprint inked its distribution deal with Master P’s then-Richmond-based No Limit Records. Yet during the promotional campaign for the 1997 full-length Big Moves, the duo learned the difference between being on Priority and being a priority.
"This was when ‘I’m ’bout It, ’bout It’ blew up for Master P," a relaxed Stack recalls at the East Oakland studio where he’s completing G-Stack Presents: Welcome 2 Purple City (4TheStreets), due March 27. "We promoting our album down south, West Coast, Midwest. Down south everything halted. We going into stores, they got huge Master P displays, and they didn’t even know we was coming out." The effect of this tepid label support, moreover, was compounded by backlash from their home audience, who equated independence with authenticity.
"At that time," Stack explains, "if you signed to a big label, people thought you weren’t real anymore. That affected our underground fan base. Then Priority didn’t support us. So we went back independent with Bosses, and our fans started messing with us again."
"Now we got a record buzzin’ on the streets. And radio wouldn’t support us, so a lot of local rappers started meeting, and everybody went up to KMEL. Nobody had a record at the time, and ours was doing good, so everybody pushed our record." He reviews the memory with satisfaction. "We kinda forced them to play it."
While the success of "That Man!" helped move 65,000 copies of Bosses, radio play was short-lived, because Clear Channelowned KMEL had stopped playing local music. Yet even during the Bay’s leanest hip-hop years from 2000 to ’03, the Delinquents maintained a loyal following, selling out shows, moving units, and putting new talent on, as well as throwing the free Lake Berryessa Bash think of a sideshow on Jet Skis for thousands of fans every couple years. "They were the crazy glue of the town," says Dotrix 4000, who, as half of Tha Mekanix, produced several hot tracks on Purple City. "They held the scene together when it could’ve fell apart."
While the Delinquents have never lost their iconic status in the Bay witness Stack’s representation of East Oakland on Mistah FAB’s geographical hit "N.E.W. Oakland" they have strikingly chosen to pursue solo careers right as the region’s commercial fortunes are on the rise. Both rappers insist the decision has nothing to do with aesthetics or personal differences, and this is apparent from the warm vibe when V-White arrives for the photo shoot. Promoting his just-released Perfect Timin’ (V-White Ent./SMC), V explains the move as a way to stay original in what they see as an increasingly contentless hyphy movement.
"Chuck E. Cheese music," V says. "When I came up, the Bay was about game-spitters, cats with swagger. Now it’s, like, make up a word do something stupid. That ain’t where I’m coming from. I’m with the reality rap, from them days when you rapped about what you was going through."
Stack is similarly defiant: "Our machine wasn’t built on what radio did for us. Now it’s hella different. If you independent, people think you’re weak. You need the radio to support you. I don’t like how it is now I don’t kiss ass."
"I don’t have to make music the radio gotta play," V concludes. "I’m making music from my heart." Judging from Timin’ a 27-track opus largely produced by protégé Big Zeke, spiked with hitworthy tracks by E-A-SKI and an intriguingly nonhyphy Traxamillion V has a big heart, punctuating his tales of street crime with more personal memories, such as his daughter catching her first fish.
Stack meanwhile is using Purple City to introduce his own young crew, the Heem Team, as well as his alter ego, Purple Mane, who’s something like a dope-slinging superhero. A warm-up for Purple Hood, Stack’s proper solo debut, slated for July, Purple City began as a mixtape but morphed into a formidable album, including all-original beats by the likes of Tone Capone, FAB associate Rob-E, and Stack’s in-house team Sir Rich and Q. (For the record, the Delinquents were on the purple aesthetic stemming from a variety of weed popular in Oakland by the time of their 2003 mixtape, The Purple Project, a year before Big Boi and Dipset adopted it.)
The solo careers of V and Stack raise the question of what will happen to the Delinquents as a group. Both confirm a new album is on the table most likely the final Delinquents project.
"We’ve been rapping since ’93," V says. "If I’m doing the same thing I was doing in ’93, that means I ain’t grew none. We’re just getting older."
"I feel very comfortable doing the last Delinquents album," Stack adds. "I can actually feel like I’ve completed it." *
What a difference an indie blockbuster makes. The last time I spoke to Better Luck Tomorrow writer and director Justin Lin, he was energetically doing the grassroots festival rounds, beating the shrubbery on the importance of Asian Americans making Asian Pacific Islander films with empowered, complex characters. Yet judging from the craft, ideas, humor, and humanity that went into Lin’s compelling final product, luck was only one part of it. Rather, it was a game of wit, tenacity, and persuasion that archetypal overachiever Lin excelled at (he’d already made one indie, 1997’s Shopping for Fangs). It probably seemed like gravy, with rice noodles on the side, when the MTV Filmsreleased Better Luck Tomorrow broke new ground during its 2003 opening weekend, earning almost $400,000 in 13 theaters, averaging $30,650 per screen and thus beating the averages of other MTV releases such as Jackass: The Movie.
Now, five years after I first talked to Lin, he has paid off the quarter-mil credit card debt he’d accrued in financing Better Luck Tomorrow and parlayed his success into studio work: 2006’s Annapolis and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, a sequel that attempted to correct the damage done by the first film’s rewrite of Asian car culture. Lin is still one of the only API faces behind the camera in Hollywood ("At directors guild meetings you definitely stick out," he confesses with a chuckle), but in the process of gaming the studio system, he’s been able to return to what he calls "passion projects." In fact, earlier in the day of our interview, he’d just completed Finishing the Game his imagined retelling of the making of Bruce Lee’s posthumous cash-in deathsploitation flick, Game of Death a comic take on Asian American masculinity, Hollywood, and the stories we tell ourselves to make it through the next scene.
SFBG How did Finishing the Game come to pass?
JUSTIN LIN The idea has been with me since I was a kid. It’s funny because as a filmmaker, there’s the journey you kind of dream up, and there’s the reality that hits you. You take out 10 credit cards and are in six-figure debt it does affect your choices. I was fortunate. Better Luck Tomorrow opened up avenues, and one of those was to make studio movies. In reality, not many people get those opportunities, and it’s a whole different set of challenges and rules. It’s insane. Walking on set on a big Hollywood action movie, I would think, "$250,000 was the budget of Better Luck Tomorrow here you spend that buying lunch."
SFBG Is it harder to get films with Asian American narratives and Asian American characters made?
JL Yeah, even for a $250,000 budget movie that’s still tons of money, as far as Asian American film goes, and it’s all about gross profits and getting the films out, distribution and exhibition.
It’s funny when I get into the studio world, I go to marketing meetings and meetings that most people don’t get into, and I’ve learned it’s all about numbers. Better Luck Tomorrow proved there was an audience, and it crossed over. But with Finishing the Game, the conversation always went back to Better Luck Tomorrow, because as far as Asian American films go, that’s the only thing they have to refer to, and it’s a challenge to prove it’s a valid business model for investors. I hope to conquer that with Finishing the Game you can’t be treating these films as if they’re big-event blockbusters. Hopefully we are building our community with shared experiences.
SFBG You made Finishing the Game independently?
JL I approached studios early on. But I could see them wanting to develop it into a kung fu movie. Right now, the Asians on film have to exist for Asian reasons. Usually when you see Asian faces they’re Asian for a reason, whether they’re tourists or kung fu masters.
I don’t think it’s racism. That’s just the mind-set that exists in these rooms the reality of it is, when you go in these casting offices and when they cast, it’s usually black and white. I think it’s going to take filmmakers to go in and say, "I want the casting to be color-blind." Even getting Asian American actors in to meet heads of casting is important you may not get the job, but they can see your work. These are little baby steps. No one talks about it or knows about it.
SFBG How do you feel about Bruce Lee?
JL As a kid, I had a push-pull relationship with Bruce Lee, who was empowered, sexy, and cool and everything wrapped into one. At the same time, you’re walking down the street, and they’re expecting you to know kung fu and doing his yell at you.
But his screen presence and fearlessness made him so great. At the time I was totally confused I saw Game of Death and didn’t know the backstory that 80 percent of it was made with a fake stand-in. As the idea evolved, all these other issues came up. There’s a made-up scenario of a casting process to replace him and, especially in the last five years, issues of identity and what it means to be in the film industry and society as a whole and the politics and agendas that go into it. In Asian American cinema too, I think it’s time for us to laugh at ourselves, even.
FINISHING THE GAME
Thurs/15, 7 p.m., $40 opening night gala screening, $60 screening and Asian Art Museum reception
429 Castro, SF
Aside from one upbeat depiction of Hawaii’s only all-male hula school (Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula), the nominees in the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival’s documentary competition are nearly as similar in execution as they are in theme. Immigration tales, filmed in high-definition video from a first-person perspective, abound. Though homelands (Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, and Korea) differ, there’s remarkable commonality among the subjects, who display the kind of internal scars only great suffering can inflict. The need for closure is undeniable; the journey is, of course, captured by a lens that has no qualms about getting way up close and personal. On more than one occasion, the filmmaker wielding the ever-present camera is an immediate family member.
The strongest pair happen to be the two that are the most alike: Doan Hoang’s Oh, Saigon and Socheata Poeuv’s New Year Baby. Hoang was only three years old on April 30, 1975, the day her family scrambled aboard the last civilian helicopter out of Vietnam at the end of the war. She remembers only her middle-class life in Kentucky, but her family including an older half sister who was left behind amid the chaos of their escape remains very much affected by the past. Two return trips to Saigon open old wounds even as they strengthen bonds weakened by decades of resentment and estrangement. "I had not understood what he lost when we left Vietnam," Hoang reflects when her father explains that his "true home" no longer exists. Oh, Saigon is greatly elevated by her insightful narration as well as the film’s graceful editing.
New Year Baby, about Texas-raised filmmaker Poeuv’s Cambodian family, exactly parallels some of Oh, Saigon‘s threads of painful secrets, including arranged marriages and siblings torn apart by politics. In addition, it features a group trip back to Cambodia complete with tearful reunions and probing questions raised by a constantly filming daughter. Animated interludes stand in where archival footage can’t, such as when Poeuv’s sisters remember what life was like under the Khmer Rouge. It’s a sensitive, emotional film that like Oh, Saigon makes one family’s journey symbolic of what war can do to the innocent, both those who remain amid the conflict and those who attempt to reestablish their lives elsewhere.
Without a daughter behind the camera shooting The Cats of Mirikitani (by Linda Hattendorf), And Thereafter II (by Hosup Lee), or Bolinao 52 (by Duc Nguyen), you’d think these docs would play out on a less intimate level. Instead they’re just as harrowing Lee’s film often uncomfortably so. With self-referential asides (including his fear that he’s exploiting his subject), Lee follows Ajuma, a Korean woman who describes herself as an "exAmerican whore" who met her husband (an American soldier, now deceased) "in the fuck business." She’s lonely and friendless and speaks very little English, even after decades in the States. Lee isn’t quite sure what to do with her except capture her hard-earned bitterness on tape.
By contrast, Hattendorf basically adopts the focus of her film 85-year-old Japanese American Jimmy Mirikitani after Sept. 11. Homeless, he moves into her New York City apartment and grudgingly accepts her help (getting a Social Security check, finding housing, contacting relatives, etc.), never ceasing to skillfully draw landscapes, flowers, and animals, as well as scenes from his memories. In return, he allows her to uncover his life story, which includes a childhood in Hiroshima and a young adulthood spent in a California internment camp. As the shards of Mirikitani’s complicated biography come together (resulting in yet another return voyage, this time to a camp reunion), Hattendorf wisely keeps herself on the periphery of the proceedings. Yes, she’s a key part of what happens to him within the film but Cats is first and foremost a portrait of the artist.
Sept. 11 also factors into A Dream in Doubt (about the hate-motivated murder of a Sikh man in Phoenix, Ariz.), and the motif of forced relocation surfaces again in Koryo Saram: The Unreliable People, about Joseph Stalin’s deportation to central Asia (now Kazakhstan) of ethnic Koreans formerly living near the Soviet Union’s North Korean border. But if you’re looking for the doc competition’s most horrific narrative, seek out Bolinao 52, a nevertheless gracious film that gets to the bottom of what happened to a group of Vietnamese "boat people" who attempted to leave their country in 1988. The trip turned tragic when the boat’s engine malfunctioned; though the refugees were starving and weak, a US Navy ship deliberately passed them by after forking over sundry supplies. Desperate, they resorted to cannibalism and possibly worse. As Nguyen observes, survivor Tung Trinh offers her account of the experience, travels to Bolinao (the village in the Philippines where the boat finally landed), and confronts one of the US sailors who was on the vessel that failed to stop. And if that kind of trauma can eventually lead to healing, there’s hope yet for the subjects of all the other films not to mention the world as a whole. *
"Even though it’s difficult to be human, let’s not turn into monsters." This is said as a reprimand to Gyung-soo (Kim Sang-kyung), a mildly successful stage actor, by one of his colleagues early in South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s Turning Gate (2002). Gyung-soo repeats the words twice more in the film first to make amends with his old friend Sung-woo after a liquor-soaked spat and then over the phone in a failed attempt to shame the woman, Myung-sook (Ye Ji-won), who eventually leaves him for Sung-woo.
Yes, it’s difficult to be human, especially in a Hong film, given that his characters’ attempts to satiate their own emotional needs often devolve into cruel and childish displays of selfishness. With each repetition Gyung-soo seems to be reassuring himself that he understands the significance of his friend’s words, but with each successive film, Hong seems to suggest that maybe no one really does understand.
Hong writes in his director’s statement for his most recent feature, Woman on the Beach (2006), "Repetition is a great framework and basis for filmmaking. On the other hand, if repetition is part of a person’s behavior, we can take that as an indication of obsession. I wanted to see through repetition, but also to reduce repetition." Like Sung-woo in Turning Gate or Woody Allen throughout his messily imbricated career, Hong’s films grapple with the question of seeing through repetition: can we ever do something over as an intervention rather than a symptom? It is the problem many of the characters in Hong’s films particularly the men struggle with, stumble over, deny, and often by movie’s end, are unexpectedly forced to confront.
Indeed, Hong’s entire oeuvre seems like evidence of a repetition compulsion to tell variations of the same story. It’s a tale that goes something like this: an unexpected reunion between two middle-aged buddies gradually sours when old insecurities and jealousies are played out in a pathetic rivalry over a woman, resulting in innumerably consumed bottles of soju (real), some of the most spectacularly uncomfortable sex scenes ever committed to film (fake), and damaged egos all around.
In The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) we revisit the popular vacation locale twice in two subtly interlocking narratives told from the perspectives of a college professor and his student who recently ended their affair. Later in the aforementioned Turning Gate, Gyung-soo falls in love with a stranger on a train, though he’s clearly trying to regain his crushed pride after Myung-sook uses and drops him. Woman Is the Future of Man (2004) focuses on two old friends reuniting to see the woman they both once loved. It’s a meeting that leaves all parties disappointed. In 2005’s Tale of Cinema (Hong at his most meta) a sad-sack filmmaker attempts to re-create the courtship portrayed in his rival director’s film which he claims was inspired by events from his own life with its lead actress to predictably lukewarm effect.
Watching Hong’s films back-to-back is a bit like experiencing one of the protracted drinking jags his characters frequently undertake. You emerge bleary-eyed with a hangover from the desperation and ugliness you’ve witnessed. Exactly what happened and who got fucked (over) remain a blur, but the mundane conversations and chance encounters that incrementally and elliptically contributed to the general unpleasantness are strangely crystal clear. Such a viewing binge sets into relief the careful orchestration behind the happenstance realism often attributed to Hong’s matter-of-fact style of filmmaking. The conversations no longer seem mundane, encounters are only chance for the characters involved but not for the viewer, and the deadpan humor of many of the films’ situations becomes more apparent, as does Hong’s subtle skewering of romantic comedy and buddy movie clichés (such maudlin scores!).
What then can we make of all the women who are both objects of and obstacles to the men’s internal returns? While it’s tempting to read Woman Is the Future of Man‘s title as a neon arrow pointing toward the way out, Woman on the Beach suggests a necessary detour through another popular excursion destination: Shinduri Beach. Gray and lifeless in the off-season, this small town on Korea’s west coast serves as the natural backdrop (much like the breathtaking scenery of Mount Odae in Power) for two overlapping love triangles, which in typical Hong fashion form as quickly as they dissolve and neatly bisect the narrative.
Film director and lech Joong-rae (Kim Seung-woo) is trying to hammer out a new script but seems more interested in putting the moves on the headstrong girlfriend, Moon-sook (Ko Hyeon-gang), of his friend Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo). Chang-wook, clearly aware that he has been dishonored, drives back to Seoul with Moon-sook. Two days later Joong-rae randomly interviews (and later sleeps with) a woman named Sun-hee (Song Seon-mi), whom he repeatedly compares to Moon-sook. Sun-hee eventually crosses paths with the woman she resembles, despite her and Joong-rae’s slapstick precautionary measures to avoid such an encounter. The women’s claws are soon retracted as the soju hits their bloodstreams, and Moon-sook calls it like it is: "Two women shouldn’t be fighting dirty over a man. It’s boring. This is why hell is boring."
Not all of Hong’s characters are such astute, self-critical observers. Their rapacious appetites for sex and booze (often in combination); for love (often hastily declared while drunkenly having sex); for recognition from their peers and families; in short, for a balm to ease the atrophying routine of middle age brings to mind another Korean monster currently stalking theaters, whose own indiscriminate satisfaction of its needs also invariably damages those closest to it.
At the same time, to call them monsters, however loutishly or cruelly they treat each other, would be to resolutely condemn them. Hong’s meticulous direction and his actors’ extremely nuanced (even when under the influence) performances refrain from going so far. Much in the same way that a competitive skater or gymnast repeatedly watches footage of their falls to pinpoint the exact moment and cause of mechanical error, Hong’s films let us see up close, again and again, the ways in which the veracity of our needs and desires causes us to fumble our relationships with lovers, with friends, with strangers regardless of our intentions. In the words of Aaliyah, "If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again." Hong is willing to grant his characters, however confused or outright pathetic, at least that much. *
RETROSPECTIVE: HONG SANG-SOO
For schedule, call or see Web site
Air Guitar Nation (Alexandra Lipsitz, US, 2006). Considering the so-called sport of air guitar consists of one-minute spates of cheesy posturing by proudly self-identified poseurs whose musical chops (and instruments) are a figment of the imagination, mockumentarian Alexandra Lipsitz manages to squeeze plenty of drama, one-liners, self-importance, and rock ‘n’ roll chutzpah out of her spot-on material. Brooklyn actor David Jung in the kimonoed, Hello Kittybreastplated air guitarist guise of C-Diddy is the reason Air Guitar Nation is Asian and American: Lipsitz follows Jung as he hams his way into the US air guitar crown, doing battle with stubborn arch nemesis Björn Türoque (Nous Non PlusLes Sans Culottes bassist-vocalist Dan Crane), and then travels to Finland to compete in the world championship against Euros who take their air guitar very seriously. Seriously. Regardless, Jung is the real reason this doc rocks, guitar or no guitar. For his good humor, over-the-top buffoonery, and ready wisecracks, I give him at least a 5.8. (Kimberly Chun)
Sun/18, 7:15 p.m., 1000 Van Ness; March 24, 7:15 p.m., Camera 12 Cinemas
Do Over (Cheng Yu-Chieh, Taiwan, 2006). Hopefully, you’ve got a little room left in your heart for one more movie of interlocking stories with connections to each other that aren’t immediately apparent (patent pending). Taiwanese director Cheng Yu-Chieh’s first feature film follows the events in the lives of five people on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day as they spiral downward into compelling, if improbably concurrent, personal crises. You may leave the theater having forgotten a plot point or two, but you will certainly remember the satisfyingly disorienting fight scene shot from a behind-the-shoulder perspective, or the image of four people with their ears to a table listening for lottery numbers being announced in the room below. (Jason Shamai)
Mon/19, 6:45 p.m., 1000 Van Ness; March 23, 8:45 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; March 25, 4 p.m., Camera 12 Cinemas
The Great Happiness Space: Tales of an Osaka Love Thief (Jake Clennell, US, 2006). On any given night in downtown Osaka’s neon jungle, one can see handsome young men uniformed in designer suits, their meticulous Rod Stewart shags in various shades of bottled blond incessantly chat up nearly every passing woman in sight. These would-be suitors are actually hosts, male drinking companions who are, as host club boss Issei explains, "in the business of selling dreams" to female clients with empty hearts and deep pockets. The sad irony that the majority of these women support themselves doing "night work," whether as hostesses themselves or prostitutes, is lost on neither director Jake Clennell nor his subjects, the employees and customers at popular host bar Rakkyo. The thoughtful candor with which the hosts and their regulars speak of their investment in "fake love" only underscores the financial and emotional costs demanded by such a fantasy. But beneath the bankrupt surfaces, Clennell finds a stronger desire for connection that’s tended to in, as one host poetically describes it, this "space to rest your heart." (Matt Sussman)
Sun/18, 9:30 p.m., Van Ness 1000; March 23, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; March 25, noon, Camera 12 Cinemas
In Between Days (So Yong Kim, South Korea/US/Canada, 2006) Fighting a world as cold as a city freeway overpass and as lonely as the reverb in a karaoke box for one, In Between Days is closer to a contemporary South Korean feature formed from an individual, female point of view than anything belched forth from Sundance’s labs. The film’s friction between South Korean and North American identities lives and breathes within Aimie (Jiseon Kim), who resentfully semi-inhabits a Toronto block apartment. So Yong Kim’s camerawork holds Aimie close even as she’s dismissive of a boy she likes and cruel to her divorced live-in mother, whom she keeps on the periphery. Impulsive actions with permanent results be they skipped classes or homemade tattoos are at the fore of this past-haunted tale of first sorta-love gone wrong. Waking up with Aimie each morning and more than once watching her looking at something painful just around the corner, Kim is as attuned to intimate frustration and revelation as Gina Kim (Invisible Light, Never Forever). Together, they’re two of the top young feature directors in the United States today. (Johnny Ray Huston)
Fri/16, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Sat/17, 2:30 p.m., Van Ness
It’s Only Talk (Ryuichi Hiroki, Japan, 2005). Like Sofia Coppola with a sense of humanity, Ryuichi Hiroki takes his bored and aimless female characters seriously. This film like his lovely 2004 road movie Vibrator features an unwell woman with more time on her hands than is probably good for her. Last time the trouble was bulimia; this time it’s manic depression. Yuko (the impossible to dislike Shinobu Terajima) has been living off the insurance money from her parents’ deaths for several years and has just moved to the outskirts of Tokyo, where she spends her more chemically balanced days snapping pictures and smiling beatifically. Horny as the next girl, she further occupies herself with a series of relationships that range from the involuntarily platonic to the incestuous. Hiroki makes truly therapeutic films, the kind that dispense with pat resolutions in favor of a general reassurance that life can be beautiful even when it sucks. (Shamai)
Sat/17, 6 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Tues/20, 9:15 p.m., Van Ness; March 22, 6:45 p.m., Van Ness
King and the Clown (Lee Jun-ik, South Korea, 2005). The world’s but a stage, and we are merely players either playing or being played in this loving, gender-twisting tribute to entertainers of the Chosun Dynasty in the 1500s. On the road to Seoul, a pair of actors enterprising scruffster Jang-seng (Karm Woo-sung) and beauteous cross-dresser Gong-gil (Lee Joon-gi) discovers the key to the kingdom and possible fortune in poking dangerous fun at their regent and his courtesan. But in the process of tweaking authority, the companions find themselves straying a little too close to ugly reality while clowning for their lives and triggering a bloody burst of truth telling, along with some unexpected guffaws from imperial quarters. (Chun)
Sun/18, 2:45 p.m., Castro; March 24, 2 p.m., Camera 12 Cinemas
Pavement Butterfly (Richard Eichberg, Germany/UK, 1929). Roland Barthes may have rhapsodized over Greta Garbo’s face, but Anna May Wong’s eyes in Pavement Butterfly belong no less to "that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy." At times they are narrow slits through which flicker sparks of vindictiveness. At others they open to seemingly inhuman proportions, tremulous moons that drip rivulets of tears. Like the similarly coiffed Louise Brooks, Wong did some of her greatest work with European directors. Here, Richard Eichberg casts Wong as a circus fan dancer on the lam after being framed for murder. Given her namesake, strains of Giacomo Puccini (as well as a blackmailer) trail behind this butterfly’s fateful climb from Paris’s bohemian demimonde to the scaffold of high society. While the narrative damns her to the gutter, Wong’s optical pyrotechnics alone confirm her rightful place in that empyrean of stars Hollywood so stubbornly refused her. (Sussman)
Sun/18, 12:30 p.m., Castro
New restaurants, like trees and kings, have a way of rising from the remains of fallen ones: the restaurant is dead, long live the restaurant. This only makes sense. In the typical hermit-crab situation, a kitchen of some kind is already in place, there might also be some serviceable tables and chairs, and the permit jabberwocky will be slightly less daunting. Easier all the way around.
But this is not the only means of passing fortune’s baton. Some neighborhoods SoMa springs immediately to mind are full of restaurants ensconced in spaces once given over to printing plants, warehouses, and other industrial concerns. I had never considered the possibility that someone might one day open a restaurant in an old hubcap emporium I did not know there were such emporiums and then, about a year ago, someone did. The restaurant is called Ziryab (named after a ninth-century Baghdadi who moved to Spain and won renown for his discernment in gastronomic matters), and it is to be found along Divisadero in the lower Haight, in a neighborhood still dotted with auto-body and radiator shops.
Given the building’s proletarian past, we might well expect more of a makeover than a fresh coat of paint and new tabletops. We might expect a little pizzazz, a little imagination. And our first glimpse of Ziryab is promising if not quite stunning: a smart golden facade, shining on the gray street front like a nugget in a turbid stream, with the restaurant’s name spelled out in striking, Arabic-styled letters. Just under and behind the facade lies a heated forecourt set with tables and forested with gas heaters. Divisadero is a little rough for the alfresco set, even in mild weather, so the semiwalledness of this garden is relieving.
We step inside and find … well, it’s not quite Vegas, but the interior designer clearly has visited that desert Shangri-la. The restaurant’s basic layout, narrow and deep, is like that of countless other places; there are a couple of tables set in the windows on either side of the door, while the swelling of the kitchen on the right creates a kind of narrows, as at Zinzino. But the Vegas effect has nothing to do with the floor plan and everything to do with the columns and arches of fake marble blocks, which give a faint sense of grotto and a much stronger sense of being in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. All that’s missing is the fake sky of perpetual evening overhead, filled with fake twinkling stars. Also the fancy shops. For some reason I find this kind of plastic fakery charming, perhaps because, like all kitsch, it’s knowing, and because it’s truly not bad-looking. You would never go so far as to suppose that you’d actually wandered into the sultan’s kitchens in the Topkapi Palace, but the thought might cross your mind.
Ziryab’s food comports with the faintly whimsical mood. The basic tenor of things is Middle Eastern (or Mediterranean if you prefer, or eastern Mediterranean), and this means such dishes as shawarma, kabob, dolma, hummus, and so forth: onetime exotica now well integrated into local practice. But there are also more involved and unusual dishes of a related provenance, as well as a few that have nothing to do with the Middle East at all.
In this last category I would put the house burger ($9), adding only that it was among the worst hamburgers I’ve ever eaten, notwithstanding the lovely fries (with their natural curl) and a thimble of Dijon aioli on the side. The patty of meat, though good-size, was cooked beyond well-done to a cinderblock condition, and even this merciless charring couldn’t conceal a certain gamy offness. I felt as if I’d wandered into the pages of Kitchen Confidential. "House"? I would lose that.
Apart from this blemish, we found everything else to be good or better. Lentil soup ($4) had a nice acid charge (from some red wine vinegar?), while paprika oil brought a bit of smoky counterpoint to a sensuously creamy Jerusalem artichoke soup ($5). Kefta kabob ($14) ground veal and lamb, spiced and grilled is a common entry on Middle Eastern menus around town, and it usually shows up in the form of meatballs or links. Ziryab’s presentation is quite a bit more stylish: the pieces of meat are given a cutlet shape, then nicely plated on a bed of couscous (or rice, your choice).
Another preparation almost universal in the eastern Mediterranean is the spinach phyllo pie the Greeks call spanikopita. Ziryab’s term is sambosik ($15), and while it includes spinach in a pastry crust, it adds mushrooms, almonds, and feta cheese for a subtle whirligig of flavors and textures.
Araies ($6), on the other hand, I’d never heard of. What turned up was a quartet of half moonshaped breads heavily topped with spicy ground lamb and flecks of scallion and green bell pepper. It was as if we were eating some superconcentrate of a pizza so meaty even Round Table hasn’t come up with it yet.
My vote for best dish would go to the homemade roast beef sausage with braised white beans ($9). The sausage was perhaps less novel than advertised, the links notable mainly for their garter snakelike slenderness. But the beans, in a thick, rich sauce of tomato confit (dotted with quarters of well-stewed tomato), were really a solid winter stew and would have remained so even if there’d been no sausage.
Dessert? Why, warbat ($5), of course, cheese wrapped in sweet phyllo. Picture a fragment being thrown clear of a collision between a cheesecake and a calzone, and you’ll have some idea. The warbat isn’t huge, but it is shareable (with a spouse or whomever) and makes a nice cap to dinner. *
Continuous service: Mon.Thurs. and Sun., noonmidnight; Fri.Sat., noon1 a.m.
528 Divisadero, SF
Beer and wine
CHEAP EATS The hawks are looking hungry. My chickens are scared. Me too. We spend a lot of time in the bushes, plucking and preening and trying to act casual. And while they’re scratching for bugs, I’m collecting dandelion greens for my salad. The price of lettuce has literally brought me to my knees.
You’re thinking: Lettuce? The price of lettuce?
Yeah, well, maybe you don’t know how much salad I eat. (A: a lot.) My favorite statistic says that when they have unlimited access to grass, chickens will eat it more than anything. Up to two-thirds of their diet will be green. That’s why true free-range eggs glow the way they do, the yolks. And true free-range chicken farmers glow too, in case you haven’t noticed.
Because probably two-thirds of what I eat are greens. And the other third, instead of bugs and spiders and stuff that chickens eat, is chickens; and chicken-fried steak; and big, bloody, rare burgers; and, of course, eggs.
All of which has nothing to do with what I’m doing in the bushes, let alone my new favorite restaurants. I’m on a secret surveillance mission. The mission: to find out how my escape-artist chicken, Houdini II, is finding her way out of the chicken yard and into the neighbor’s flower bed.
The method: to learn to think like a chicken, eat like a chicken, fear like a chicken, crave neighbors’ flower beds like a chicken, escape like a chicken, and, failing all that, to cut a chicken’s head off and make gumbo out of her.
My chicken-farmerly reputation hangs in the balance, like, like, like … like a foot-tied headless chicken draining into a bucket. Also at stake: the copaceticness of my relationship with certain flower bedhaving neighbors.
But all this talk of blood and gore and ruffled feathers is reminding me of my weekend last weekend, when I got to go to my ex-wife Crawdad’s baby shower and hug my ex-mother-in-law, Crawma, for the first time in my new format.
She didn’t recognize me, I don’t think.
"Crawdad," I said, "introduce me to your mom."
Then she recognized me but did seem a little weirded out, and who could blame her? It was a baby shower! What could be weirder? Everything was nice and pretty and cute, and afterward I needed to go to the roller derby.
I have a new favorite sport!
The Richmond Wrecking Belles beat the crap out of the SF Shevil Dead, and I ate a hot dog. But you’re probably more interested in Saul’s Delicatessen, huh?
Saul’s is Berkeley’s way of saying "hey" to New York. And just like Zachary’s does Chicago pizza better than Chicago (you ask me), I believe Saul’s would out-apple the Apple in belly-to-belly competition. But what do I know? I’m just a chicken farmer.
Well, sure, because of local-grown organic produce and Neiman Marcus designer meats, Saul’s might boast. But I like it better than New York for my usual reason: it’s closer. By a lot. And they have everything Jewish and wonderful, like potato latkes, blintzes, matzo ball soup, and so on. And bagels.
I got salami and eggs, and it was great. I mean, the eggs were just eggs, because we didn’t make them, me and my girls, but the salami was good and plentiful, and the latke, which you can get instead of hash browns for a buck-fifty extra … it’s worth it.
I love latkes. They’re those potato and onion pancakes, you know, served with applesauce and sour cream. I love that they were used, according to Jewish legend, to put some Assyrian meanie to sleep and then chop off his head.
And I love Saul’s. It’s a cheerful, comfortable place to hang out. I sat there with my new friend Thingpart, the famous five-minute cartoonist, and we blah blah blah blah blah’d like two old hens for way more than five minutes. We must have sat there for over two hours, I’m thinking, because what we ate was breakfast, and it was lunchtime by the time I left. And between this, the beautiful day that day, a great soccer match, a baby shower, and the Bay Area Derby Girls, I was one happy happy farmer.
Last weekend. But now it’s the work week, and, if you’ll excuse me, I have to whip up a potato latke, so to speak, for one of my girls. Here, Houdini! *
Mon.Thurs. and Sun., 8 a.m.9 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 8 a.m.9:30 p.m.
1475 Shattuck, Berk.
Beer, wine, and cocktails