Volume 41 Number 50

September 12 – September 18, 2007

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Quixotically yours


› johnny@sfbg.com

In a multiplex in San Francisco (whose name I do not care to recall) there is at least one movie intent on bludgeoning viewers with a bombastic soundtrack, a mechanical approach to emotion, and a conclusion that is obvious before the story has begun.

In contrast, in a smaller theater, Albert Serra’s Honor of the Knights offers one of the best windows onto a current phenomenon that might be tagged somnambulant cinema.

Amid contemporary sensory overload, it’s unsurprising that somnambulant cinema – meditative and ambient, often set outdoors and yet never fully outside society – has begun to flower. Does the darkness of a movie theater have to be a site of sonic and visual assault? A recent spate of films, perhaps led by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours (2002) and Tropical Malady (2004), has answered that question with a low-key rebuff, choosing quietude and nature instead, evoking contemplative wonder in the process. By revivifying a literary classic – Don Quixote de la Mancha – that through sheer proliferation has become a myth of modernity, Serra’s first feature announces itself as a worthy Spanish answer to Apichatpong’s Thai fables.

To be sure, what I’m calling somnambulant cinema might easily be tagged “boring art films” by detractors. Any style or subgenre contains failures and successes. But Serra’s movie succeeds – partly because of its lightness, a quality not found in the hordes of festival films that confuse slowness or idyll with turgidity. In following the progress – or lack thereof – of Don Quixote (Lluís Carbó) and Sancho Panza (Lluís Serrat), Honor of the Knights immerses viewers in hypnotic rhythms. Using only natural light and shooting primarily during the magic hours of dusk and dawn, Serra gives the moon one of its most gorgeous scenes since the time of Georges Méliès and constructs a symphony from the way an orchestra of insects varies in pitch depending on the time of day or night.

As embodied by Carbó, the Don Quixote of Honor of the Knights is disheveled, with the matted hair of a bear and rusty armor, and he careens convincingly from senility to spryness. One minute he’s muttering to his lumpen sidekick as if Sancho (who still has traces of disobedient boyhood on his face) were nothing more than an extension of himself; the next he’s taking a dip in a stream with renewed vigor – even swimming while wearing heavy boots. Transutf8g an almost 1,000-page work into a 90-minute film with only a few hundred words of dialogue, Serra has inspired more than one critic to claim he’s bringing Samuel Beckett to bear on Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra. But while this Don Quixote doesn’t seem to know where’s he’s going or even what time it is, after parrying phantoms with a sword and retreating from the wind, he leads Honor of the Knights to moments of offhand beauty and old joy.

Those last two words are no accident: juxtaposing various degrees of a fraternal bond against a varying but uncaring landscape, Honor of the Knights is closer to Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006) than it is to Gus Van Sant’s more overtly Beckett-like and aloof Gerry (2002). Comedy moves to the fore when the archaic Don Quixote urges Sancho to look up at the sky and cry, “God, you are the best,” but the character’s final musings on mortality hint that – within himself at least – he isn’t as lost as he might appear. “Chivalry is civilization,” he asserts, and with fealty the movie records his avoidance of all humanity besides Sancho. Serra’s movie ends on literal notes of melancholy, plucked and strummed on Ferrant Font’s solitary acoustic guitar.

When Don Quixote addresses the sky, Honor of the Knights takes on a simple grandeur not far from that found in Marcos Prado’s extraordinary, underseen 2004 documentary Estamira, a portrait of a sage madwoman who lives in an apocalyptic Rio de Janeiro landfill. In appearance, Carbó also somewhat resembles fellow journeyman traveler Vargas, the threatening protagonist of another recent somnambulant cinema work, Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos (2004). Much like Serra’s Apichatpong-influenced debut, the Argentine Alonso’s recent films reflect a conversation between filmmakers from different countries that is beginning to emerge from the somnambulant style. Just as Los Muertos shares traits with Apichatpong’s Blissfully Yours, Alonso’s more recent Fantasma (2006) resembles Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 Goodbye, Dragon Inn more than it does any recent work of new Argentine cinema.

By moving Tsai’s and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s updates of Michelangelo Antonioni’s slackness from urban settings to mountains and jungles, Apichatpong helped establish the tone, atmosphere, and characteristics of somnambulant cinema, which treats the screen of a movie theater as a wide-open rather than narratively enclosed site for conscious and unconscious dreaming. The most literal example of the form has to be Paz Encina’s 2006 Hamaca Paraguaya, which confronts the audience with an extended shot of a rural hammock, using this sight and the voice-over banter to represent Paraguay’s place in the world.

Certainly, the very idea of somnambulant cinema brings the prospect of loud snoring two seats away or two rows down, but amid the cavalcade of cell phone rudeness in movie theaters today, that possibility is more humorous than annoying. There is a difference between a slow film and a boring film, and Honor of the Knights is lively – it doesn’t require a prescreening blast of black coffee and sugar-free Red Bull (one veteran online critic’s diet before watching Pedro Costa’s literally awesome 2005 Colossal Youth).

What is the dark good for, if not dreaming?<\!s>2

Thurs/13 and Sat/15, 7:30 p.m.; Sun/16, 2 p.m.; $6-<\d>$8
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
(415) 978-ARTS

Anemic debut for public mayoral financing


This year offers the first mayor’s race in which candidates can qualify for public financing to supplement their campaign spending. But of the 14 candidates who originally entered the race, only two — Tony Hall and Chicken John Rinaldi — managed to file the financing paperwork by the Aug. 28 deadline.

Two days later, Hall dropped out of the race, leaving Rinaldi as possibly the sole recipient of money from city coffers. Mayor Gavin Newsom doesn’t qualify because he has already exceeded the city’s voluntary $1.37 million spending limit.

"I’m withdrawing because not enough people are willing to stand up and hold this clown Newsom accountable for the mess he has made of this city," Hall told the Guardian the day after he quit. "I am no longer willing to risk the happiness of my family and the welfare of my supporters, who have been intimidated and harassed."

Hall’s withdrawal invalidates his 2007 financing application, in which he claimed to have raised about $27,000 from city residents. To qualify for public financing, candidates must prove that by the Aug. 28 deadline, they received at least $25,000 from 250 local residents, which then qualifies them for $50,000 from the city.

After that step, eligible candidates who can raise $100,000 and meet various conditions can receive up to $400,000 from the city. The next $400,000 that such candidates raise themselves will be matched dollar for dollar by the city, meaning that successful candidates can receive $850,000 in public funds and even more if the $7 million fund isn’t depleted and an opponent raises many millions of dollars.

With all eyes now on Rinaldi, Ethics Commission director John St. Croix told us that his staff is reviewing Rinaldi’s application and should make a decision this week. "But keep in mind that even if Rinaldi doesn’t qualify initially, we’ll show him where the holes in his application are, and he’ll have a chance to fix them," St. Croix added.

If Rinaldi’s roughly $26,000 in local contributions check out, he’ll receive notice that the city is giving him $50,000. If they don’t, he’ll have the option to resubmit new documentation within five days to prove that all of his qualifying contributions were received before the deadline.

Contributions must be accompanied by a copy of the check, a signed contributor card, and a copy of a utility bill or driver’s license to prove the contributor has local residency. After the election, candidates who receive public funds are subject to a mandatory audit of their campaign expenditures and campaign bank account statements.

With so few candidates even potentially qualifying for public financing, is it possible that the $25,000 qualifying threshold for public financing is set too high? Former Ethics Commission member and staffer Joe Lynn said that finding 250 residents with a C-note each to spare isn’t easy for most candidates, especially this early in the race.

"No one has that many friends, and most money comes in the last week of a campaign, when people are placing their bets," said Lynn, who believes that the $25,000 threshold would have been more easily attainable if better-known progressives had gotten into the race.

"And Tony Hall would have had an easier time raising money if there had been a candidate on the left, instead of just one chicken in the pot," Lynn added, recalling how, at the start of an election cycle, all candidates have big eyes and believe they’re going to raise lots of money.

"But this isn’t a free giveaway," Lynn said. He warned that the city also investigates each contribution to verify its authenticity and that candidates who violate the rules face hefty fines. "Once you get into the ring, you’re a serious player — and they’re going to treat you seriously," Lynn said, noting how complicated it is to meet all of the standards for public financing.

Even if no mayoral candidates make it over the public financing hurdles this time around, Lynn believes such funds are essential if San Francisco wants to nurture its grassroots activism — and with it, the people who may have original solutions to the same old problems.

"The function of the grass roots isn’t to win elections but to present the agendas of folks who differ from the Chronicle," Lynn said, noting that of the $7 million in public funds available this year, any money not used will be available in 2011, when more people are expected to run and qualify for funds.

"It was understood that this year there wouldn’t be as many people running," St. Croix said, "because the incumbent is running, but that there will probably be more in 2011, by which time we will have more experience of public financing and the mayor’s race."

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who authored San Francisco’s public financing legislation, said the goal of the law is to "equalize the opportunity" of running a campaign.

"It does help if you have name recognition and advanced preparation, but this isn’t about cutting corners," Mirkarimi told us. "It was designed to reward people for organizing efforts that are commensurate with an organized campaign."

Chicken and the pot


› steve@sfbg.com

Chicken John Rinaldi — the fake-mustachioed showman and arts facilitator who is running for mayor — was late for our Sept. 7 interview, but his roommate let me into the candidate’s César Chávez Street home–office–performance space to wait for him.

Rinaldi was busy at the Ethics Commission office, trying to become the first and only mayoral candidate to qualify for public matching funds, a goal that requires raising at least $25,000 from among 250 city residents — and having the paperwork to prove it, which is proving the hard part for someone traditionally more focused on big ideas than small details. (See sidebar.)

He says he’s raised about $32,000 since getting into the race last month, including $26,700 from city residents, $12,000 of which came in on the deadline date, Aug. 28. It’s an impressive feat that could transform this marginalized, improbable candidate into one of the leading challengers, despite his enigmatic persona, maddeningly elusive platform, and admission that he can’t possibly win.

But Rinaldi, 39, who makes his living from his many performances and projects, isn’t your typical politician, as his history and home demonstrate. The high ceilings hold rigging and pulleys for the regular performances he hosts, although his bar and a pair of church pews were pushed back against one wall this day to make more space for campaign activities. Dammit the Wonder Dog, one of many characters Rinaldi has promoted over the years, slept on a deflated air mattress still dusty from Burning Man.

The red brick walls of his main room looked like an art gallery, with paintings by Ani Lucia Thompkins listing prices of at least $2,000 each and pieces by James McPhee going for less. On another wall hung the massive sign for the Odeon Bar — which Rinaldi owned from 2000 to 2005 — with Odeon spelled diagonally from right to left.

In the kitchen area, just inside the front door, the walls held framed posters from many of his projects — the Life-Sized Game of Mousetrap, Circus Ridickuless (the poster for which, at its center, has Rinaldi’s face and the label "Chicken John, Ringmonster"), the Church of the Subgenius (in which Rinaldi’s eponymous partner on The Ask Dr. Hal Show is some kind of high priest), and "The Cacophony Society Presents Klown Krucifixation" — as well as a framed poster of Pippi Longstocking.

Suddenly, Rinaldi blew in the front door, apologized for his tardiness, and declared, "The fucking Ethics Commission. I’m in so much trouble. I’ve probably already racked up $5,000 in fines."

Nonetheless, he may still qualify for at least $50,000 from the taxpayer-funded mayoral public financing program that debuted this election season, giving his campaign ample resources to promote his message of nurturing San Francisco as a "city of art and innovation."

My first significant interaction with Rinaldi happened about three years ago, when he and fellow Burning Man artist Jim Mason launched a lively rebellion against Black Rock City LLC’s control over the countercultural event (see "State of the Art," 12/1/04) and created a shadow organization, dubbed Borg2, to promote art.

Rinaldi’s focus and rhetoric then — arguing for a "radical democratization" of the art-grant selection process and the creation of a more inclusive discussion of the direction and future of both Black Rock City and San Francisco — are echoed in his current mayoral campaign.

"What I’m talking about now is the same thing I was talking about with Borg2. It’s the same thing," Rinaldi told the Guardian.

It’s about inspiration and participation, he said, about coming up with some kind of vehicle through which to facilitate a public discussion about what San Francisco is, what it ought to be, and the role that can be played by all the Chickens out there, all the people who help make this an interesting city but aren’t usually drawn into political campaigns or other conventional institutions.

"The number one qualification for mayor is you have to be passionate about the city you’re running," Rinaldi said. "The left of San Francisco can’t agree on anything except the idea of San Francisco."

And it is Rinaldi’s San Francisco that helped him transform his pickup truck into a "café racer" that runs on coffee grounds and walnut shells, an alt-fuel project inspired partly by the Green Man theme of this year’s Burning Man. It is the San Francisco that supports his myriad projects — from wacky trips aboard the bus he owns to offbeat performances at his place — and asks for his support with others’.

"This is part of the innovation thing," Rinaldi said of his candidacy. "Take a mayoral campaign and turn it into an artwork project that raises interesting questions and ideas."

But should that be funded by taxpayers? Mayor Gavin Newsom’s campaign manager Eric Jaye said he has concerns about Rinaldi getting money from that source. "It would be interesting to see public money go to someone’s art project," Jaye said. "This is not the intent. The intent was for this to go to a legitimate candidate."

Yet how did Rinaldi raise $12,000 in one day? "I sent out one e-mail," he said. "At one time there were 12 people outside my door, sliding checks through the slot."

Again: How? Why? Rinaldi responded by quoting Albert Einstein, "’There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.’" But when you try to pin down Rinaldi on what that idea is, why his candidacy seems to have resonated with the underground artists and anarchists and geeks of San Francisco, the answer isn’t entirely clear. And he disputes the idea that this is about him or his connections.

"These aren’t fans," Rinaldi said of his contributors. "They are equals in a city of art and innovation. It’s just my time…. I asked for something, and they gave it to me…. People don’t necessarily support me, my ideas, or my platform."

Among those drawn to Rinaldi’s campaign is Lev Osherovich, a 32-year-old postdoctoral researcher at UC San Francisco who helped with fundraising and administration and eventually became the de facto campaign manager.

"It must be quite a surprise for someone who appears to be a joke candidate to raise so much money and so much awareness," Osherovich told us. "But Chicken has a tremendous energy and a real gift for communication…. Outsider political movements are a great tradition in San Francisco — people using the political process as a vehicle for getting ideas out."

Yet even within his community, Rinaldi has his detractors, such as the anonymous individuals who formed the fake campaign Web sites www.chickenmayor.org and www.voteforchicken.org (Rinaldi’s actual campaign Web site is www.voteforchicken.com, and his personal one is www.chickenjohn.com).

The latter fake campaign site lists Rinaldi’s primary goal as "Chicken John needs attention."

Ask Rinaldi what he does need for this campaign, what his real goals are, and he sounds unlike any politicians I’ve ever heard.

"I don’t need a winning strategy. I don’t need any votes. We just want to raise the level of the conversation," said Rinaldi, who refuses to criticize Newsom on the record, insisting that the incumbent "should be treated with respect and admiration."

That conciliatory treatment has caused some to speculate that Rinaldi is aiming for a job within the Newsom administration, perhaps a staff position on the Arts Commission. But Rinaldi insists that slamming the mayor is an ineffective way to start a productive conversation and that his real goals are less tangible than that.

"The intention of my campaign is inspiration, to leave San Francisco politics better than I found it," Rinaldi said. "When I come out of this experience on the other side, I’ll be smarter…. It’s my intention to get an education and to have the people of San Francisco help give me that education."

As maddening and incomprehensible as that lack of political motivation and policy goals is to seasoned political professionals and journalists, many of his supporters find it refreshing.

"Politicians aren’t the only people who can navigate the world of politics," Rinaldi said, specuutf8g that some of his support comes from people who are disenchanted with conventional politics and drawn to his fresh, outsider approach to the race.

"It’s somewhat different than the usual political campaign," Osherovich said with obvious understatement, noting that the campaign has received so much support from people "because they know Chicken can do great things and great things are going to come out of this."

At the very least, interesting things are bound to come out of this campaign. Rinaldi is deliberately vague about exactly how his campaign will unfold or what his endgame might be, except to remind us that good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And he’s now at the beginning.

"More than half of what I do is a dismal failure," Rinaldi admitted. "But failure is now we learn."

Yet his successful fundraising over the past month is leading some to believe that this campaign won’t be a failure. Rinaldi said he’s been in daily contact with the Ethics Commission and is fairly confident he can satisfy its concerns and win public financing.

"I received a certain amount of funds, and I’m supposed to document where the funds came from by the 5 p.m. deadline. They said it wasn’t good enough, but I now have what’s good enough," Rinaldi said. "They are doing a lot of hand-holding. It’s like the DMV. It’s great."

So now he’s off and running.

"I just hired a staff. This is not a joke anymore. I’m serious," Rinaldi said, later adding an important caveat: "I could definitely go to jail if I do this wrong. I understand that."

PS Rinaldi said he has already booked 12 Galaxies — which has hosted his The Ask Dr. Hal Show and other projects — for his election night party, which he’s dubbed "The Loser’s Ball."

Editor’s Notes


› tredmond@sfbg.com

I was talking the other day to the mayor’s chief political advisor, Eric Jaye, who thinks we should endorse his client for reelection. "Gavin Newsom," he told me, "is the most progressive mayor in San Francisco history."

Well, I haven’t been here for all of them, but in my 25 years or so, the competition hasn’t been terribly stiff. Newsom vs. Dianne Feinstein? That’s a no-brainer. Newsom vs. Frank Jordan? Uh, what was the question again? Newsom vs. Willie Brown? Things are pretty bad now, but I never want to go through another era like the Brown years again.

Newsom vs. Art Agnos? Well, Agnos had a lot of potential and did some good stuff, but he also sold the city out to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and became such an arrogant jerk that he alienated a lot of his allies and nobody could work with him anymore.

So on one level, Jaye has a point: we’ve had some pretty rotten characters in room 200 at City Hall, and his guy isn’t by any means the worst.

But I keep coming back to my basic complaint: what has Newsom actually done about the crucial issues facing the city? Where is the leadership?

A few days earlier, I’d had lunch with Jack Davis, the gleefully notorious political consultant, and we got to talking about housing and rent control, which I’ve always strongly promoted and Davis’s landlord clients have always bitterly opposed. And we realized, two old opponents, that on one level that battle is over: it was lost years ago, when San Francisco failed (and then the state preempted our ability) to regulate rents on vacant apartments. The wave of Ellis Act evictions has damaged the situation even more. The limited rent control in San Francisco today can’t possibly keep housing even remotely affordable. The only way to fix the problem would be to roll back all rents to their levels of about 15 years ago; anyone (besides me) want to take on that campaign?

So what, Davis asked, would I do about it?

Since Newsom is going to be reelected this fall anyway, let me suggest how he could live up to Jaye’s billing.

Imagine if the mayor of San Francisco called a meeting of all the key players in the local housing market — the residential builders, the big developers, the nonprofits, the tenant activists, the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition folks, the Board of Supervisors president, the neighborhood groups — and said something like this:

"San Francisco needs about 15,000 new affordable-housing units in the next five years. That’s housing for low-income people, housing for people who work in San Francisco … family housing, rental housing, land-trust housing, supportive housing, a mix of units at a mix of prices, but none of it out of the reach of blue-collar and service-industry workers.

"So here’s the deal: you people sit here and figure out a way to make it happen, including how to pay for it — and until you do, not one new market-rate project will get approved by my Planning Commission."

You suppose we might get a little action here? You think the developers who see a gold rush in the San Francisco housing market might be willing to play ball? You think that the mayor might show leadership on the most pressing problem facing residents and businesses in this town, the most serious drain on the local economy? It sure wouldn’t hurt to try.

The rate hike hurts the economy


EDITORIAL Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s latest rate increase simply ratifies what’s been going on for many years: the private electric utility screws residential users and small businesses. If the California Public Utilities Commission goes along with the new rate plan, renters and homeowners will see their power bills go up more than 4 percent; small merchants will face a hike of nearly 7 percent. Meanwhile, rates for some of the biggest users will actually fall, by as much as 3.7 percent.

That’s pretty shoddy environmental policy. For years activists have argued that the biggest users should pay higher rates, since that would give them the strongest incentive to conserve. Cutting rates for, say, big companies that leave their lights on all night or manufacturers that refuse to invest in the latest conservation technology will only lead to more waste — and thus to more energy use and more global warming.

But it’s also bad economic policy. High utility rates hit hardest among those least able to afford them — and just as tax increases on the poor and small businesses disproportionately harm the economy, this rate hike will have lasting damage that goes beyond individual users.

Since San Francisco has a mild climate and a lot of residents and small businesses already work hard to conserve power, the rate hike may not seem catastrophic: if your monthly electric bill is $50, the additional charge will be just $2. But when that’s multiplied by more than 300,000 San Francisco households (and close to one million in Northern California), we’re talking significant money.

As we’ve demonstrated (see "The $620 Million Shakedown," 9/4/02), high PG&E rates suck hundreds of millions of dollars a year out of San Francisco and many times that out of Northern California. This rate hike will bounce that number even higher. And remember: San Francisco is the only city in the United States with a legal mandate, through the Raker Act, to establish a public power system.

And that ought to spark a new organized effort to bring public power to the city.

The city is already moving forward on Community Choice Aggregation, which will translate into lower rates — but will leave PG&E controlling the local grid. It’s a good first step, but the second step — a full takeover of the grid and a city-run power agency — needs to be on the agenda as an action item. It’s not clear how best to proceed, but there are great ideas out there. Sups. Tom Ammiano and Chris Daly, for example, have talked about requiring contractors to allow the city to lay electric cables whenever the streets are torn up, which would allow public power to proceed one neighborhood at a time.

But the economic impact of this rate hike ought to be enough evidence of the need to get rid of PG&E that organizers can start putting together concrete plans for the future.

PS If city hall proposed a 7 percent tax hike for small businesses, most would be screaming bloody murder and complaining about the larger economic impact. But the small-business community has never been actively involved in public power efforts. The rate hike is in effect a tax on those least able to pay, and small-business leaders ought to join the public power fight.

PPS The city, especially the Small Business Commission, needs to be fighting this late hike. And the commission should designate an ombudsperson to compile complaints about PG&E.

Petraeus’s War


EDITORIAL Nine Americans soldiers died in Iraq on Sept. 10, a few more than average, but overall it was just another typical day in a war that has cost a fortune, claimed the lives of 3,774 US troops and perhaps 600,000 Iraqis — and accomplished nothing.

While those (mostly) young people died in the desert, Gen. David Petraeus was in Washington, D.C., wearing a starched uniform shirt with four stars and seven rows of medals, telling members of Congress that the mission in Iraq is coming along just fine.

The surge, he insisted, is working, and there are signs of progress. He held up chart after chart showing that casualties and sectarian killings are down, that parts of Baghdad are becoming more secure — and that he expects to be able to end the surge and bring back the additional 30,000 troops by next summer.

What that means, in essence, is that the top general in Iraq thinks the United States will still need 130,000 troops in that country a year from now. That’s unacceptable — and it’s up to the Democratic leadership, which has been all too deferential to the military brass, to stand up and say so.

For months now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–San Francisco), who prematurely took impeachment off the table, has been telling her antiwar constituents that she wanted to wait until she heard from Petraeus before taking any action on the war. Now she’s heard. He’s said he doesn’t see any end to the occupation. He’s mouthing platitudes that clearly aren’t true (the violence now is still far worse than it was four years ago) and presenting an image of Iraq that is on its face false (a remarkable new poll by ABC News, the BBC, and Japanese broadcaster NHK concludes that 70 percent of Iraqis think the situation has gotten worse in the past six months and the surge is a failure). And he’s talking about al Qaeda and Iran in tones that suggest that the administration is looking for excuses to expand the conflict even further.

Pelosi should not be allowed any more excuses. She needs to begin moving for an immediate and dramatic troop reduction with an aggressive schedule for complete withdrawal. And if she has to, she should publicly state that the Democrats in Congress are prepared to cut off funding for the war.

This latest report should be a call to arms for the antiwar movement, which needs to be visible and active on every front — including reminding the Democratic presidential candidates that moderate, cautious statements about ending the war simply aren’t good enough. Anyone who wants the nomination for George W. Bush’s job ought to be willing to stand up and say what the clear majority of Americans think: it’s time to bring the troops home, now.

Green City: Gray-water guerillas


› sarah@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY The task sounded simple: help our friend Kristal set up a bathtub in her backyard over the Labor Day weekend so she could soak under the stars and her plants could drink the gray water.

Gray water is water from the sink, shower, bathtub, and washing machine, but not the toilet. And I’ve been inspired by its use since reading gray-water guerrillas Laura Allen, July Oskar Cole, and Cleo Woelfle-Erskine’s book Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground (Soft Skull, 2007).

Allen, Cole, and Woelfle-Erskine describe how to install fairly radical gray-water systems, including dry and composting toilets and rainwater capture zones, as well as ways to recharge groundwater with rain gardens and treat gray water using homemade wetlands.

Installing gray-water systems usually requires government permits, and public health officials caution that flawed systems can spread disease and contamination. But our system was a simple one meant to dispose of clean hot water that cascades from the tub into a lava rock–filled drainage ditch that will hopefully, in time, support a small wetland.

Like many Californians, Kristal can only afford a tiny place, but she has hit the rental jackpot with her latest abode. It’s a barn red, vine-covered cottage behind a bigger house, but it comes with a private yard, thanks to artfully placed trellises and interwoven tree branches.

The only downside of her cottage is the absence of an indoor bathtub, so Kristal decided to set up a cast-iron bath outdoors and fill it with water piped by a hose from her sink. We tried it out July 4, and it was magical looking at the fireworks while sitting in steaming water that wasn’t steeped with hot-tub chemicals.

But when Kristal let out the plug, the gray water splattered out noisily and created an unsightly, muddy hole in the yard. This growing mess got Kristal worried that she would attract mosquitoes, kill her plants, and rot her cottage foundations. So I decided to help, relying on the gray-water guerrillas’ manual and my husband’s years of experience in restoring wetlands. Together, the three of us talked through the science, economics, and aesthetics of the proposed project to come up with a viable plan.

The science was simple but critically important, given that we were contemputf8g creating a homemade wetland near other dwellings and gardens. Water flows downhill and follows the path of least resistance, while wetlands, which are nature’s water purification system, create breeding grounds for native plants, insects, and animals. As such, they are fragile ecosystems that are easily harmed by bleach, bath salts, and any boron-containing products. So it’s critical to use all-natural, biodegradable soaps in a tub whose gray water will flow into homemade wetlands.

We reconciled these principles with Kristal’s need for inexpensive materials, her love of simple designs, and her desire to camouflage unsightly plumbing. In the end, we settled on a cascading system that uses cinder blocks to elevate Kristal’s tub and a wine barrel to hold the gray water, which flows by gravity into the barrel and then into the wetlands.

To control and direct water flow, we linked the barrel by way of a garden hose to a piece of slotted, corrugated drainage pipe. We buried the pipe in a lava rock–filled trench that was dug in a serpentine shape so that the gray water flows away from homes and into the lowest part of the garden, which is filled with sandy, drainage-friendly soil.

After a hard weekend of work, Labor Day found us basking in a freshly painted and elevated aquamarine bathtub, imagining how great Kristal’s wetlands will look once she adds water-loving plants like native cattails, which will attract a host of dragonflies, frogs, and beetles. Then we pulled the plug and waited anxiously for the tub to drain. To our delight, the water swirled smoothly into the barrel, then gurgled quietly underground.

Eureka! We were now bona fide gray-water guerrillas and had experienced, in microcosm, the challenges people grapple with, yard by yard, block by block, as they try to green the concrete jungle, one low-impact development at a time. It was exhilarating, empowering, and addictive. But before we had a chance to fully recover, Kristal was on her feet, talking about installing a solar-powered water heater this Thanksgiving. *

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to news@sfbg.com.

The tragic tale of Tamesha Tobie


› gwschulz@sfbg.com

At first, police believed it was a terrible, self-inflicted mishap.

It happened April 15, just after the funeral held for a San Francisco man who’d succumbed to diabetes. Mourners were gathered in the Western Addition home of Tamesha Tobie’s grandmother, Edna Tobie. Tamesha, a 14-year-old first-year high schooler in town from Stockton for the funeral, was hanging out with two teenage boys, her cousins, in a bedroom — a room where, it turns out, another family member had stashed a powerful .357 Magnum revolver. Suddenly, the house filled with the sound of the gun’s pop.

Tobie’s aunt was cooking in the kitchen. She rushed to find out what was going on. The two boys met her in the hallway and told her there was a gun; she found Tobie on the bed, not moving. Nearby lay the pistol, with five live rounds and a shell still visible in the cylinder under the hammer.

The family dialed 911, and soon the area was packed with uniforms. Paramedics arrived with the police, as did a media flack who expected reporters, a crisis response team from the health department, the local medical examiner, and Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes Edna Tobie’s Oak Street home.

"These are vivid experiences you don’t lose," Mirkarimi said. "The gut-wrenching part is that it was a young girl."

Fox, CBS, the Associated Press, and the San Francisco Chronicle all reported what the cops told them: Tamesha Tobie had accidentally shot herself with the gun.

But it turns out that wasn’t true. In fact, according to an autopsy completed by the medical examiner June 1, Tobie didn’t pull the trigger.

Her death has become another in a long list of unsolved homicides in San Francisco — and another sign that gun violence, both accidental and intentional, is raging out of control.


Months after the killing, the San Francisco Police Department didn’t seem aware that Tobie’s death was anything but an accident.

When we contacted the SFPD’s press office early in September, the staffers weren’t aware that her death had been ruled a homicide, nor was Lt. John Murphy, head of the homicide unit. Department spokesperson Sgt. Neville Gittens even requested that the Guardian fax him a copy of the report.

Now the SFPD acknowledges that Tobie was a homicide victim. "We believe it was done at the hands of someone else," Gittens said a week after receiving the report.

A homicide inspector assigned to the case said he learned of the medical examiner’s final report two weeks ago but explained that he’d already regarded Tobie’s death as suspicious.

Inspector Mike Johnson said he thinks one of the two cousins in the room with Tobie fired the weapon. Police have also concluded that the gun was used in an unrelated San Francisco homicide a few months prior by another young family member before being hidden in the home of Tobie’s grandmother.

Nobody has been arrested in that case either. Despite the fact that this gun has now been used to kill at least two people, Johnson conceded that not enough evidence exists to make an arrest in the first murder, even though a suspect has been identified — an exasperating fact for a city already near last year’s total of 85 murders.

If nothing else, the gun’s owner could possibly be guilty of negligence or child endangerment — but no charges are pending.

"The capacity of government not to do something about this at the pace that it is rocketing is what is absolutely alarming," said Mirkarimi, who’s pushed the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to provide better data on violent crime in the city, "because it’s not going to abate itself…. The way that the number is traveling out of the reach of the Police Department and the district attorney — I think we’re going to need to send red flares up, SOS."


The Tamesha Tobie case is tricky; there were only three people in the room, and one is dead. The boy who police believe accidentally ended Tobie’s life won’t confess, Johnson said. Some relatives dispute the police’s view that one of the boys mistakenly fired the weapon and instead believe the story the pair have stuck to so far — that the gun fired on its own from the bed as they horsed around, the bullet smashing through the right rear of Tobie’s jaw.

"Obviously the one boy who did it doesn’t want to say anything to us," Johnson said. "And the other boy is somewhat traumatized, and his parents are worried about any possible criminal charges against him for associating with the first boy. So right now we’re trying to corroborate the stories and what happened through other people who were in the house…. It’s kind of a sensitive thing at this point."

But either way, Tamisha Tobie is the ultimate victim of gun violence, and while her death likely wasn’t intentional, it’s joined the city’s steadily climbing homicide rate nonetheless.

Attempts to reach Tobie’s family for comment were unsuccessful.

Statewide in 2004, 10 kids were killed after being accidentally shot either by themselves or by someone else, according to figures maintained by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More recent figures won’t be available until later this year. But according to media accounts and calls to local police jurisdictions, over the past 12 months, three children died similarly just in the Bay Area.

In June a five-year-old boy in Oakland shot himself while playing with a relative’s gun, and a 28-year-old man was arrested for child endangerment — in notably less time than it took San Francisco to complete Tobie’s autopsy.

Just days after Tobie was killed, an 18-year-old girl accidentally shot a younger male teen in the city of Richmond with a revolver he’d found in the home where his death occurred. Last November a 16-year-old boy in Contra Costa County was killed after a friend accidentally shot him in the chest while playing with a .22-caliber revolver. Several other accidents occurred during 2006 in San Francisco and the East Bay, including one involving an Alameda toddler who that spring mistakenly shot his 20-year-old cousin with a .38 that belonged to a family friend.

The gun lobby complains that news stories depicting such deaths overstate the problem of accidents among kids and foster hysteria.

But Shawn Richard of the local nonprofit Brothers Against Guns has a response. The volume of deaths, he argues, isn’t the story.

"It could be a low number. It could be a high number," Richard said. "Regardless, it’s still ridiculous to deal with lives that are being taken by a gun."

Richard founded Brothers Against Guns after two of his siblings were shot to death in San Francisco during the 1990s. He joined the Mayor’s Office, District Attorney Kamala Harris, and the Legal Community Against Violence in drafting a batch of local antigun ordinances that passed the Board of Supervisors last month. One requires local firearms dealers to send inventories of their weapons to the police chief every six months, and another requires all handgun owners to disable their weapons with trigger locks.

Richard is also working with Assemblymember Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) to ban gun shows at the Cow Palace, which is located on state property near the Sunnydale housing project, where violent crimes are a frequent occurrence.

But would all of the antigun news releases in the world have saved Tobie? Homicide inspector Johnson wonders aloud whether they would.

"If the gun’s used in a homicide," Johnson said, "and it’s hidden in the house by children, who’s going to put a gun lock on it?"

Do wi-fi right — ourselves


OPINION Although it’s only a "declaration of policy," Proposition J (the mayor’s wi-fi initiative) is garnering a lot of opposition. Taken at face value, the initiative seems like a no-brainer: of course we should have free, high-speed wi-fi for everyone, with adequate privacy and no public money, right now. The initiative makes it sound like all we have to do is bend over and pick up the golden wi-fi network lying in the street. Like other stories about precious paving, though, the reality is considerably less shiny.

Since Mayor Gavin Newsom filed Prop. J to whip up support for his proposed EarthLink network, that company pulled out of the San Francisco deal. EarthLink also pulled out of its agreement with Houston (paying $5 million in penalties) and laid off almost all of its municipal network division staff.

Prop. J was created to rally support for a deal that doesn’t exist anymore. Should we pass it anyway? Well, the problems that Prop. J points out are real. At least a fifth of San Franciscans have no home Internet access, and many more residents have only dial-up access.

Unfortunately, Prop. J is written to make a political point, not to ensure universal Internet access. In order to make that point, it insists on two features that were part of the EarthLink deal but don’t make sense if we’re actually trying to achieve access for everyone.

First, wi-fi is almost certainly not the technology on which to base a citywide network. It’s suited to quick-and-dirty outdoor networks or to extending indoor networks to multiple rooms, but as a network that’s supposed to cover large outdoor areas and reach into buildings, it’s got serious limitations.

A smarter approach would likely use wi-fi only where it makes the most sense as part of a larger network. A truly universal network would likely utilize a combination of wi-fi, the fiber-optic line that San Francisco already owns, and possibly other technologies, like copper wires or fixed-point wireless.

Second, Prop. J specifies that the network be built as a public-private partnership. The fall of the EarthLink deal proves that the fantasy of a company coming into San Francisco and giving everyone free Internet is just that: a fantasy. Simply declaring that we want a public-private partnership is not going to conjure some unknown company out of thin air to build a universal network in San Francisco.

Although the measure is not legally binding, many of its opponents, including several unions and a number of community groups, understandably fear that it’ll be used as an excuse to rush into a bad deal. If we’ve committed to a public-private partnership and "implementing … agreements as quickly as possible," we’re not exactly staking out a great bargaining position.

The mayor seems dead set on finding a private company to build this network, whether or not that makes sense. He’s likely to use Prop. J, if it passes, as a way to ignore the likelihood that we’re better off pursuing a city-run network. If ensuring that every San Franciscan has access to the Internet is something we really feel is important, it’s something that’s worth doing right, and if we want to make sure it’s done right, we should do it ourselves.

Sasha Magee

Sasha Magee is an activist who blogs at leftinsf.com.

Dogs behind bars


› news@sfbg.com

Why would an underfunded, understaffed, volunteer-dependent organization dedicated to taking care of animals institute new policies that prevent volunteers from volunteering and, some say, put the animals at risk?

That’s the question some people are asking about the Alameda city animal shelter, where the director has fired several core volunteers, reduced the number of hours other volunteers can work, and at one point temporarily suspended the volunteer dog-walking program.

After some outcry, the dog walkers are back — but there’s still a lingering battle between director Diana Barrett and the volunteers, and the result is a policy that leaves shelter dogs in conditions that experts say border on inhumane.

Under Barrett’s new rules, laid out in a June volunteer handbook, dogs not yet eligible for adoption are now kept in small kennels 24 hours a day, for as long as 11 days if the dog is a stray and up to 21 days for any dog ever registered to an owner. Barrett’s policy dictates that these "on hold" dogs may no longer be visited, petted, walked, bathed, or allowed to play with toys.

Dogs eligible for adoption are locked in kennels 23 hours a day, with dog walks limited to 20 minutes, at most three times a day.

"I think those conditions border on abuse," behaviorist Bob Gutierrez, who for 10 years was coordinator of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s Animal Behavior Program, told the Guardian when we described the rules to him.

At the SPCA, Gutierrez recounted, "we would encourage people to interact with the dogs as often as possible because socialization is an ongoing process, even with adult dogs."

There’s also a physical health risk. "Dogs will not foul their own space," Gutierrez explained, "and dogs that are confined that long often develop some medical issues from not emptying their bladders at regular intervals."

And the shelter doesn’t routinely vaccinate the dogs in its care.

Deb Campbell, volunteer coordinator at the San Francisco animal-control shelter, said dogs there are generally taken out five or more times a day and are also given a socialization hour in a dog park where volunteers supervise group play.


Barrett, an animal control officer with the Alameda Police Department, which manages the shelter, has been on the job since 2000.

Since the shelter has only limited paid staff — three animal control officers, including Barrett — who also have to go out on calls, much of the work of walking and caring for the animals has been done by volunteers.

But some of those volunteers have clashed with Barrett — in one case, a Barrett memo talks about "foul language" and "argumentative-confrontational stances toward staff members" — and as a result, the entire program has been changed.

Although a half-dozen core volunteers had each previously worked from three to five days a week every week, Barrett’s new rules permit only two volunteers per hour and limit each volunteer to a maximum of 20 hours per month — one half day per week. Anyone who works more than four hours a week "will be given a mandatory break of two weeks," according to the August edition of the shelter’s volunteer handbook, and if the infraction is repeated, the volunteer’s service will be terminated.

At least six volunteers have resigned in protest. As Mary Sutter and her 16-year-old daughter, Kaity Sutter, who were volunteers for four years, explained in a July 25 letter, a copy of which was provided to us, "We left … because we felt that policies were being put in place to control people to the detriment of the dogs."

Alameda city manager Debra Kurita has barred Barrett from speaking to the media, and Lt. Bill Scott, Barrett’s supervisor, serves as her designated spokesperson. Scott defended the changes as allowing "increased efficiency and supervision." Asked about the reduction in the volunteer hours — formerly 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., now 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. — Scott said, "We can do more now in three hours than we could before in five," but he could not explain how, nor which tasks are being accomplished more quickly.

Scott insisted that the volunteers who were most recently let go were dismissed for cumulative histories of infractions. A June 27 memo from Barrett outlined the problems, some of which seem to be a bit of a stretch.

One volunteer, Jim Gotelli, was cited for "tampering with city property" — because, according to Gotelli, he bought and attached a new hose nozzle to replace a broken one.

Gotelli was also given a written reprimand for contacting a law professor at UCLA who is an animal-law expert and asking if the Alameda shelter was complying with the Hayden Bill, a state law that sets minimum standards for care in California animal shelters. Barrett informed Gotelli that as an agent of the city, he was barred from seeking outside legal advice. Gotelli was dismissed in July after writing a letter to the city attorney seeking policy clarification.

Another charge cited by Barrett — "feeding the dogs unauthorized food and causing them gastric distress" — apparently refers to Dan Mosso, who for 18 months paid out of his own pocket for premium-quality food for the dogs, with Barrett’s consent, until she suddenly withdrew permission. Mosso was also terminated in July, for questioning shelter policy.

Scott also made dark hints to us about a "subgroup that needed to be broken up," apparently referring to a group of long-term core volunteers — Gotelli, Mosso, and Donna McCaskey — who suggested to Barrett that the shelter might not be in compliance with the law. Scott suggested that a public organizing campaign by the terminated volunteers — which includes an online petition — is a vendetta against Barrett. But each volunteer we interviewed praised Barrett for some of her work. "It’s not about us, and it’s not really about Diana Barrett — we’re worried about the dogs," Mosso said.

Okorie Okorocha, a lawyer and expert in animal law, wrote an Aug. 17 letter to the city of Alameda charging that the shelter is vioutf8g the Hayden Bill. In the letter, Okorocha stated that several Alameda residents "have first-hand knowledge that animals in your shelter are kept in cages or kennels for periods of 10 to 20 consecutive days without receiving any exercise."

Mohammed Hill, a deputy city attorney, stated in an Aug. 29 response that it’s perfectly legal to keep dogs in their kennels without exercise as long as the cages are big enough for the animals to walk around in. The cages at the shelter are 12 feet long, seven feet wide, and four feet high. But the cages are divided, so that much of the day the dogs are in a six-foot space.

Some animals — those who have been claimed by owners but not yet picked up — are kept caged all the time "for liability reasons," Hill’s letter states.

However, it adds, "The shelter has a current staff level of approximately 40 dedicated volunteers who on average walk each dog for a period of 20 minutes three times a day, six days a week." But the shelter is only open five days a week, and the volunteer statistics Hill cites are almost certainly inflated. Since the volunteers can only work from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., it’s unlikely that the dogs are getting three walks a day.

In fact, that could only happen under perfectly optimal conditions — a factory-line approach to dog walking, with no more than five dogs and two volunteers per hour, the last of which, several observers say, has not been the case. At least one visitor observed that the paperwork showed no walks for any dogs on the day she visited.

Vicky Smith, a 55-year-old schoolteacher, visited the shelter recently to offer her services as a volunteer. She said Barrett told her the shelter needed no more volunteers.

Equally troubling were the conditions that Smith observed in the cat area two weeks ago: empty water bowls, crusted-over remnants of canned food dried in the food bowls, a terrible stench from dirty litter in several cages, all against the background din of a multitude of cats yowling for attention. The one volunteer on duty seemed completely overwhelmed and, Smith said, apologized, saying, "There are hardly any volunteers anymore."


The situation at the Alameda shelter might not have reached this point had there been effective oversight. The city lacks an animal-welfare commission, and Scott told us repeatedly that nobody at the Police Department has specific expertise in animal welfare. Scott is so unfamiliar with the shelter that he was literally unable to answer a single question about its daily operations. He repeated, "That’s animal stuff, that’s beyond me," "I wouldn’t know," "That’s a question of animal law," and variations thereof a total of 11 times.

We asked Scott how, without such knowledge, he could be certain that Barrett was making the wisest possible decisions. "We work closely with the Humane Society of Alameda," he assured us.

While that statement is technically true, it is profoundly misleading. The Police Department does receive grants from the HSA, but the bulk of the funds received do not go to the shelter; instead, for instance, last year the department spent $15,000 in HSA funds to purchase two police dogs and thousands more on bulletproof vests for the dogs.

When asked about Scott’s assertion that the HSA provides the animal knowledge that the police lack, HSA president Carmen Lasar denied it fiercely, repeating several times with increasing agitation, "Our only role is helping them financially."

Discussing the nature of municipal shelters in general, Carl Friedman, director of San Francisco Animal Care and Control, told us, "Most of the successful agencies are independent, not part of any other department, and either report directly to their city administrator or have oversight from a commission that includes members of the public. Politically, the independent departments are usually free to fight for the resources and funding they need."

In response to the recent burst of publicity about the issues at the Alameda Animal Shelter, Police Chief Walter Tibbet publicly pledged to conduct "a full investigation" into those issues. After we made numerous Public Records Act requests of the city of Alameda, the investigation was upgraded and is now being conducted by Internal Affairs. The investigating officer, Sgt. Robert Frankland, is on vacation through Oct. 10 and does not expect to finish his report until early November.

"Volunteering at the shelter is the best thing I’ve ever done, one of the most satisfying things, and I love it, and I miss it," Mosso said. "But if this is my legacy, so be it: that they’ll never let me come back, but at least the dogs will get walked and get proper care."

NASA hippies


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION As annoying as hippies can be, it’s strangely comforting to think that the one bit of junk we shot into deep space is emblazoned with a hippie symbol. I’m talking about the golden records screwed onto the shells of Voyagers I and II, two space probes that completely changed our understanding of the solar system and then shot out into deep space bearing record albums intended for alien consumption.

Last week marked the 30th anniversary of the Voyager II launch. While most people recall the Voyager probes for creating close-up photographs and atmospheric readings from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, these probes were always intended to do more than send messages back home for human consumption. In the mid-1970s, when the Voyager spacecraft were being completed, pop cosmologist Carl Sagan convinced NASA to include a message from Earth on the probes. They were to bring news of us to alien beings in the unknowable reaches of the galaxy and beyond.

In consultation with a bunch of other geeks (including Timothy Ferris, who produced the album), Sagan decided that the delivery mechanism for this message should be a golden record, packaged with a cartridge and needle, as well as abstract mathematical instructions for how fast to spin the disc and at what frequencies it would emit sound. You can listen to the entire recording at goldenrecord.org, and the experience is bittersweet, an auditory glimpse of a very different time in human history.

The tracks include greetings in dozens of languages, including ancient Sumerian, which of course nobody knows how to pronounce anymore. And Gaia help us, there is also a "whale greeting." There is a track devoted to "Earth sounds," all which sound totally cool while remaining unrecognizable as particularly Earthly. There are over a dozen music recordings from around the world, all of which are written (and mostly performed) by men. Most are from the West, with a few Russian numbers thrown in — probably for "diversity." Bach is presented alongside Chuck Berry, Navaho chants beside Beethoven. It’s a Sesame Street notion of pluralism, with an emphasis on music and greetings rather than political speeches or academic treatises on economics.

Also included on these records are directions to Earth, using nearby stars as navigation points.

The golden records imply that music, math and images are universal symbolic systems, the best kind for communicating with beings radically different from ourselves. This is an idea that was popular in the 1970s — Steven Spielberg immortalized it in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which humans meeting aliens establish communication via electronic sounds. But as American historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman has pointed out, the idea that music (and the math underlying it) is a universal form of communication also comes from centuries-old encounters between Europeans and natives in the Americas. Early European explorers recount communicating with natives via music upon first meeting and reaching an understanding on that basis.

Music may be a near-universal form of communication among humans, and there is something glorious and touching about trying to share that with other creatures in space. Of course, the notion that aliens might share the idea of "hearing" with us profoundly silly. What if these are creatures who communicate via molecular manipulation, or chemical signatures? What if they live in vacuum, and therefore cannot "hear" at all?

So yeah, the golden record is species-centric. It’s also naively specific to one culture, for who can think of a golden record full of Western music as anything but the work of hippie liberal white dudes? Still, I’d rather be represented by its naive utopianism than by most of the signals shooting off this planet.

No doubt the golden record will bemuse any alien life that actually bothers to examine the goo on a piece of space junk. But a bemused alien may in fact be the one who comes closest to guessing the true meaning of the golden record, and perhaps the true meaning of human life itself. And so it seems fitting that our one letter to the universe reads something like this: Wish you were here. We have no idea what we’re doing, but we sound good!

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who thinks that perhaps the golden record is really a message to ourselves.

How soon is now?


› johnny@sfbg.com

REVIEW Sixteen minutes with Lars Laumann? Well, I didn’t say no, and discovered that his video Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Diana is as uncanny as its title is ludicrous. This present-day conspiratorial artifact makes a Smiths devotee feel like Jim Garrison during a virgin viewing of the Zapruder film. Laumann weds a looped melody from the Smiths’ instrumental "Oscillate Wildly" to TV news footage, music-video clips, and visions from the ’60s kitchen sink cinema that have inspired (and provided) Morrissey lyrics, using all of the above as a backdrop to a voice-over lecture that links the 1986 album The Queen Is Dead to the Aug. 31, 1997, death of Princess Diana. Even if you have no interest in (or an aversion toward) the title’s pair of late 20th-century British cult figures, the result casts a comic yet eerie spell.

At this point, it’s fair to say that Smiths-inspired art has become a subgenre, a phenomenon flourishing to the degree that it deserves a book-length essay — ironic, since most of the video and visual art projects responding to Morrissey and company are far superior to the shelf of books that have been written off of his name.

Laumann’s video doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of the Istanbul-set karaoke in Phil Collins’s installation dünya dinlemiyor (The world won’t listen), which did time at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last fall. But the Oslo, Norway, artist is exploring something different than is Collins, whose update of Andy Warhol’s screen tests allows for compassionate views and expressions of fandom. Drawing heavily from David Alice’s site www.dianamystery.com, Laumann’s short work reaches for the extraterrestrial stars in presenting the organic quality of conspiracy theory during the Internet era. As in Lutz Dammbeck’s Unabomber documentary The Net, the final conclusion (if there is such a thing) matters less than the numerous revelatory or ludicrous destinations that are part of the narrative’s crazy maze.

Morrissey Foretelling the Death of Diana helps kick off a staggered series of videos showcased over the next two months in "There Is Always a Machine Between Us," at SF Camerawork. Curated by Kate Fowle, Karla Milosevich, Chuck Mobley, and Chuck Orendorff, the overall exhibition toys with Skype, mouse-triggered wall projections, and an orange-hued approximation of living-room DVD viewing. Some viewers might find it inherently problematic for lo-res video to receive bigger-screen treatment. Regardless, the varied combos of form and context here aren’t as provocative as the material gleaned by the select group of Web trolls whose research is on display.

Web trolling as gallery fodder — is this just one more ploy to destruct ye olde sacred art space so it can be mistaken for YouTube or an amusement park? If so, I’m happy that the likes of Cliff Hengst, Matthew Hughes Boyko, and Matt Wolf are doing the handiwork. More than one contributor to the exhibition’s DVD library includes the YouTube mainstay CPDRC Inmates Practice Thriller, yet Hengst’s, Boyko’s, and Wolf’s compilation DVDs also showcase distinctively deranged aesthetics. Hengst gives us Anna Nicole Smith outtakes, Barbra Streisand swearing at a heckler, and an industrial clip he aptly titles Clowns vs. Old People: The Final Battle. Beginning with another YouTube hit, Cobra vs. Baby, Boyko’s DVD moves on to revealing moments when onlookers seize control of imagery from stars, such as an unedited version of Tom Cruise getting sprayed in the face at a War of the Worlds premiere and the aftermath of Tara Reid inadvertently flashing a post-op nipple during her zillionth red carpet stroll.

Wolf’s DVD, featuring moments such as Kerri Strug Olympic Vault (singled out for its revealing masochism) and a clip of Ryan Phillippe playing the first gay teen in daytime soap history, offers only a taste of the imitations of Imitation of Life found on his site, mattwolf.info. More than the research DVDs provided by some of the show’s other videomakers, it adds to the richness of his work on display. In Smalltown Boy, Wolf — who is currently working on a documentary about the late musician Arthur Russell — picks up the baton left by Todd Haynes sometime at the cusp of the ’90s, combining TV-documentary motifs such as voice-over and interview to tease out a link between the late David Wojnarowicz and a teenage girl obsessed with My So-Called Life. The conspiratorial thread that runs through "There Is Always a Machine Between Us" resides within Smalltown Boy as well, in a manner that is all the more effective for being muted.

Fifteen minutes with Markus Linnenbrink? Well, I didn’t say no — and didn’t regret spending that amount of time and a bit more with his wall painting, epoxy resin paintings, and sculpture at Patricia Sweetow Gallery. Though slick on the surface, with a lively sense of color that exposes the rote and drab quality of some Bay Area work, on closer examination the German Linnenbrink’s paintings possess candy cane sickliness. The queasy factor is only magnified by the suspended drops of paint that hang from the bottom of some works, or, in the case of ALLESWIRDWEITERGEHNINEEINPAARSEKUNDEN, by hundreds of pockmarks. (Twisting things inside out once again, these pocks are gorgeous on closer examination, resembling the interiors of porcelain saucers or cups.) The muscularity of Linnenbrink’s process — Clement Greenberg and Jackson Pollock would approve — is counterbalanced by his fondness for bits of glitter and his droll flair. Though he’s understated in comparison with Douglas Gordon when it comes to temporal commentary, his titles sometimes question whether it is the paintings or their viewers who are loitering.


Through Nov. 17

Tues.–Sat., noon–5 p.m., free

SF Camerawork

657 Mission, second floor, SF

(415) 512-2020



Through Oct. 20

Tues.–Sat., 10:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m., free

Patricia Sweetow Gallery

77 Geary, mezzanine, SF

(415) 788-5126


Going topless


› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea: My girlfriend is really into BDSM. At first I tried and played a convincing (I think) top-dom, but it just wasn’t hot for me, so I looked some stuff up to get inspired. As I was reading-watching, I would really get off on it, but the sex with my girlfriend still wasn’t hot. Then I realized that when I was masturbating to all this I was fantasizing about subbing. Oops. I am way in love with my girlfriend, but she is a bottom. Period. She might switch it around if it meant a lot to me, but I would know that it wasn’t really making her happy. I don’t know what to do. Can I become a top? Can I teach myself to like it? I’m going to do it either way but I really want to get into it, so please help! I want us to be good in bed together but two bottoms don’t make a top. Help! Love, Topless

PS We’re lesbians, if that matters.

Dear Tops: It sure doesn’t, but thanks for the info!

I was just thinking about this last night when a friend was catching me up on her latest dating adventures. She was lamenting that some potential dates seem to come equipped with a set of kinks perfectly matching her own, and though that sounds good, it is of course no use at all. As you have discovered to your frustration, one wants a date with a complementary set of kinks, not a matching one. It’s not an uncommon problem, and its most common manifestation is exactly the one that’s driving you nuts: there are too many bottoms in this world and nowhere near enough tops to keep them satisfied. Why this is (beyond the fact that topping is hard work) I couldn’t tell you for sure, but I bet any number of eager grad students are currently proposing theses on the subject to bored advisors who have read enough similar stuff already.

Here’s my theory: There are people for whom BDSM is a core part of their identity, running as deep as, say, homosexuality or monogamy. Some may always have recognized this element in themselves, even before they had the language to express it (these are the kids who always want to play pirates or whatever game involves somebody getting tied to something or intentional infliction-receiving of pain, even when the other kids are long since ready to move on). Others don’t realize it until they’re exposed to S-M in some more adult context, but then it just clicks in, key into lock, and they know. Your girlfriend sounds like one of these BDSM lifers, who tend, in my experience, to be pretty set on their preferred role even if they do switch experimentally on occasion (a good idea, if only to find out how painful-exhausting it is to experience-produce any particular sensation).

Then there are the anything-goes people, who are happy to pick up a flogger or don a dog collar, what the heck, as long as it’s fun. This type of player may not identify as an S-M person per se but may just enjoy a little power exchange on the occasional Friday night, no biggie. You may fall more on this end of the spectrum, but even what-the-heckers will usually discover some sort of preference, as you have. Most people do have a preference: Rare or well-done? Black or with milk? The perfect 50-50 switch is almost certainly as rare as the perfect 50-50 bisexual, but plenty of people find something to like in either role. I do think you can develop an appreciation for topping and get some satisfaction out of a job well done (there are resources like The New Topping Book by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy to help you with this), but you can enjoy and get good at it without every really becoming a top the way both of you are currently bottoms. Be careful about taking on a role that isn’t really you, though. Nobody loves a martyr, and you’re still going to want to bottom sometimes. I worry about you starting to resent your girlfriend for getting to have all the fun.

I have a suggestion that might save your relationship or might strike you as all sort of wrong and make you hate me, but here goes: you guys find a willing top, maybe somewhere in your extant social circle, maybe online or by joining a BDSM social organization, and bottom together sometimes. This kind of shared adventure can be hot, hot, hot and very bonding, sort of like getting lost in the woods together and surviving through mutual trust and interreliance, but a lot more fun. I think if you do that sometimes, and play top sometimes, and stick with the vanilla sometimes, you’ll probably be OK, provided you both take care of getting your itches scratched. Love conquers … much. Love, Andrea

Andrea’s on vacation this week; this column ran previously (7/05/06). But she’s still checking e-mail and eagerly awaiting your questions about love and lust!

Sunrise at 90


› le_chicken_farmer@yahoo.com

CHEAP EATS They said we could stay and eat, but most of the band already had plans for dinner, and loved ones to eat it with, and East Bays to be in, etc. Me and Earl Butter, city dwellers, poor fucks, hungry, looked at each other. We looked at our hostess, and I popped the question: "What’s for dinner?"

By the book, beggars aren’t supposed to be choosers. But did I say we were beggars? No. I said we were poor fucks. We were invitees, and you have to be careful at these places. Sometimes they invite you to stay and eat, and what that means is institutional meatloaf, instant mashed potatoes, over-reheated canned green beans, sliced white bread with margarine, and other things that old people can chew. And that poor fucks like me and Earl Butter eat at home every single day. So what’s the point?

"Hold on. I’ll go ask," our hostess said.

And we finished setting up and played our songs. A sweet woman with black plastic glasses as big around as corn tortillas danced by herself, then with another woman. Then they both danced with a younger guy. Dude with a walker with a small paper plate full of snacks stopped in front of the stage and, oblivious, stood there eating. There were drinks too. A stooped, handsome man with eyes like William Burroughs and maybe Parkinson’s disease was sloshing a glass of red wine all over the white carpet and his white pants.

Rock ‘n’ roll, I thought. Right on! But I still didn’t know what was for dinner, so I got distracted and muffed my solo. It didn’t matter, of course, because nothing does.

When our hostess asked again, afterwards, if we wanted to stay and eat, I said, again, "Um, what’s for dinner?"

"Trout," she said. My eyes must have bugged. "We have a French chef," she explained. "It’s good food."

Goddamn it, now I have to get rich so I can afford to live in one of these places some day when my glasses are as big as tortillas. Just when you think you finally know your place in the world (with the meatloaf) … someone or something (such as trout) bonks you on the head and it’s right back to I-ain’t-good-enough.

I want to eat trout when I’m 90. Slivered almonds, twist of lemon. Side of real mashed potatoes, whipped to perfection, butter butter, and a salad bar. Actually decent coffee …

Forget it, kid. I can barely make my rent. In fact, I can’t. That’s why I had to sublet my place. How am I supposed to sock away savings into my late-life trout account? Forget it!

And Earl Butter’s worse off than I am. We treated this, therefore, like a special occasion. A taste of the good life. Dinner for two on top of Cathedral Hill. At a nursing home, yes — but still it felt almost like a date.

It wasn’t a nursing home. It was the Carlisle Sunrise, an independent-living facility. Meaning the people there can make some choices for themselves. The dining room is more like a restaurant than a cafeteria. Cloth tablecloths.

A man in a suit and tie served us wine. The tomato-basil soup was delicious. And they waited until we had finished our salads before they brought out our trout. Then they showed us a dessert menu.

"I’ll have the mouse," Earl Butter said.

The waitress looked horrified. "Did we misspell it?" she asked, looking over his shoulder at the menu. He’d been flirting with the waitresses all meal long, either ruining the illusion that we were a couple or strengthening it. I can’t decide.

"Kidding!" he said. She laughed. He laughed.

I was disturbed. It had nothing to do with his mice or my cattiness. I was sociologizing. I’d noticed something about the way the old folks were arranged around the room. There was a big, round table in the center, full and boisterous, another cluster of talking, laughing people at one long table, and then a lot of little satellite tables, some with pairs of people, and some with just one.

The woman eating alone at the table closest to ours reminded me of me in high school. And me at camp a couple weeks ago. And I thought that even if I live to be 90, and even if I get rich, and even if I change change change change change … some things just stay a certain way. Probably. And that can be sad. *


Not really a restaurant

Frugal feasts


>>Click here for FEAST, our guide to sexy suppers, classic cocktails, and more hot eats for the season

At Cowgirlpalooza, I ate four bowls of gumbo. I’m not bragging, just setting a scene — a scene featuring the smell of gumbo and the flavor of gumbo, with heart-shaped corn bread and phallic biscuits that were possibly supposed to resemble guitars or banjos or drumsticks but, uh, didn’t. The patio at El Rio, early evening, Outer Mission, lemon trees, blue sky, the chill of oncoming fog, Denise Funiami, five or six twangy bands, and the sticky syncopation of flip-flops on the dance floor …

Every time I made eye contact with Denise, whom I personally consider the queen of San Francisco’s country music scene (although she was conspicuously absent from the stage that day), she would raise her eyebrows questioningly. I would look at the current bowl of gumbo in my left hand, look back at her, and hold up however many fingers. When I got to three, she cursed me loudly, over a sea of cowboy hats, and she cursed my whole family with our hollow legs.

I get bored with drinking. And broke with drinking. There was a $10 cover charge. My family doesn’t have hollow legs so much as empty pockets. This is Gastro-Economy 101: $5 for a beer, and the gumbo’s free. What, are you kidding me?

As usual, I was the soberest person in the place. Afterward I staggered home like everyone else and opened my refrigerator door, like everyone else, and stood there stuffed, with my eyes half open, in a sort of a swoon. Was everyone else looking at what I was looking at? Do you keep a jar of salsa from Papalote Mexican Grill in your fridge? Do you treat it with respect and reverence? Turn to it for solace and support in times of need, boredom … loneliness? I’m talking about the stuff with roasted tomatoes and pumpkin seeds in it.

If you came into a kitchen in a house in the middle of the night and saw me licking this San Francisco delicacy off a stick of celery (in lieu of tortilla chips), my eyes glazed and my lips on fire, my hardly hollow legs already weak with gumbo … I don’t know if you would fall in love with me or not, but you would almost certainly invite me out to eat sometime.

Everybody wants to eat with me. I’m not bragging — just exaggerating. A lot of people want to eat with me. Even vegans, and that’s a journalistic fact. A dude I’ve known for years but have hardly ever eaten with (so for all I know he might be magic) says, in an e-mail, "I would love to make you a salad."

Bam, crash, boom: I’m seduced. No matter which way I take the simple sentiment, I am so there. I love salad and would love to be salad.

Someone else has a new favorite Korean restaurant, ohmigod, the Kim Chee, or a barbecue joint, and they want me in on it. And I want in on it! I’m the luckiest little chicken farmer chick alive, and don’t think I don’t know that. Miraculously, given my two-year campaign to destroy my credibility as a critic, if not a human being, by declaring every single place I eat my new favorite restaurant, people still think I know shit.

Or they want me to. Or something.

Truth is, philosophical fine points aside, as well as semantic silliness (but no way am I giving up hyperbole, so don’t ask), there are certain things at certain restaurants, yes, that I dream about and drool over and want to marry and couldn’t live without. Flavors, textures, smells, memories, fucking feelings that can call out to me even after a burrito or four bowls of gumbo and bring me to my knees. I’m talking about my favorite favorites, if you will, for real and in no particular order. I love each and every one of these dishes more than madly. I love them beyond numbers, alphabets, art, or laws of gravity and with all my hollow heart, until death do us part and then some.


There’s this thing in folk music or blues, right, or … I don’t know where it comes from originally, but you have to have heard at least one take on it: "When I die, don’t bury me at all/ Just pickle my bones in alcohol/ Put bottles of whiskey at my head and feet/ And then I know that I will keep."

My song substitutes butter for alcohol, of course, but in real life, between me and you, I would prefer to be preserved in barbecue sauce. I just couldn’t think of anything that rhymes with it.

Since Cliff’s closed, my go-to rib joint has been Memphis Minnie’s in San Francisco, only I don’t get no ribs. And — surprise — I don’t much care for any of the three kinds of sauce they keep on the tables either. If you mix the so-so vinegar-based one with the so-so tomato-based one, that’ll put you somewhere between North Carolina and Texas, or in other words, Birmingham, Ala., which has fine barbecue, but Christ, Flint’s is just over the bridge in Oakland. If you want ribs or brisket, go to Flint’s.

But if you want chicken wings, and I, for one, do, Memphis Minnie’s not only has you covered, it’s got you covered in the best barbecue sauce I know of right now. It’s sticky, a little bit sweet, and a lot hot, and why it ain’t in bottles on the tables with the so-so ones is for better minds than mine to figure out.

You have to order the Smoky Mountain Wings if you want that particular sauce. If you don’t want the wings, get them anyway and lick and suck them dry. Chicken is hit or miss at barbecue joints, I know. But two out of every three times, you do want the wings. They’re smoked and fried, for crying out loud — on the starters menu for $5.75. Order them twice, if you must, or once, with a side of my favorite slaw (no mayo!) and a big glass of sweet tea.

Who the hell else serves sweet tea around here? That in itself would make Memphis Minnie’s one of my favorite favorite restaurants. The Smoky Mountain flap-flaps just seal the deal. And the tart and tangy slaw sweetens — or sours — it.

576 Haight, SF. (415) 864-7675, www.memphisminnies.com


Now, I’ve been carrying on for years about fried barbecued chicken, or barbecued fried chicken (which is the order I do it in). But actually, my all-time favorite favorite way to cook meat is not to cook it, not even once.

I’m thinking specifically about that raw beef salad you sometimes find at Vietnamese restaurants. At Le Cheval, which is just a great place, period (although not undiscovered), the bò tái chanh ($9) will make you fly out of your seat and zip willy-rip-snort all over the place’s considerable atmosphere like a blown-up-and-let-go balloon. I’m speaking figuratively. Although, if you’re a vegetarian, you might in fact have visions.

Otherwise, expect to be instantly hooked and almost explosively happy when your teeth and tongue hit this thin-sliced, lemon-drenched meat, with 1) cilantro, 2) mint, 3) ginger, and 4) onions. I mean, come on. It’s almost not fair to stack the deck like that. These are, if not the essential elements of our universe, the exact ingredients that make it wacky and wonderful and that cause the people in it to have to sing. Cilantro, mint, ginger, onions, lemons.

Not to mention peanuts and sesame. (I was afraid if I put them all in the same paragraph I might lose my readership.) And not to mention the meat itself, which kind of half seviches and half stays pink, and in any case is wholly succulent and tender.

If they put a bò tái chanh stand at either end of the Golden Gate Bridge, you would never again have to hear or think about the words suicide barrier in connection with the span. I’m convinced of that.

1007 Clay, Oakl. (510) 763-8495, www.lecheval.com


I’m also, of course, a clown. The first time I ate at Penny’s Caribbean Cafe in Berkeley, I was moved to go out to the van and get my steel drum and come back in and serenade the chef and the server and the proprietor, in fact the only person in the place, Penny.

Since then I have been back at least 30 times with at least 30 different people. My mission: to single-handedly or double-handedly or in any case greasy-handedly keep this place in business. Because I’m afraid it’s too good to be true, like those dreams in which your dearly departed loved ones are alive again, in the yard, pecking corn and laying eggs.

I’ll say it: curry goat roti ($8) is my favorite favorite thing to eat, and Penny’s is my favorite favorite restaurant. And Penny is one of those rare people, like Fran of the late Ann’s Cafe, whom I love even beyond her capacity to cook. If bò tái chanh literally did contain all the most fun pieces of the universe, Penny might be the universe itself. I just want to hug her, to disappear into her floury apron and kitchen smells, then decide for myself whether or not to come back.

Know what I mean?

Then maybe you should give this place a try. It’s a dive, in the divine sense: it has two or three tables, and it’s not always exactly all the way clean, or quick (she makes everything to order). Neither efficient nor organized, Penny’s is not a well-oiled machine. But you will be after your roti, which you eat with your hands, like Ethiopian food.

Just so you know, West Indian roti is nothing like East Indian roti. It’s a soft, layered dough with chickpeas crumbled into it and enough flavor to start or stop wars, even before the curry goat touches it. You can also get curry chicken, jerked chicken, or just vegetables. That’s chickpeas, potatoes, and sometimes maybe some other things, like spinach. With or without your meat, it’s ridiculously, eyes-rolling-back-in-the-headedly delicious.

But get the meat. The goat. Trust me on this. Goat is actually smoother and subtler tasting than lamb, if you’re worried about it. In which case you must not have ever had it.

2836 Sacramento, Berk. (510) 486-1202


Here’s a dish, larb, that I had and had and had about a million times, on the East Coast and on this one, not to mention most points in between, since even small towns in Kansas have Thai restaurants now. Why I ordered larb so many times, considering that I never once liked it, is a big fat mystery, even to me. Theories include: 1) it’s just an irresistibly funny word, and 2) maybe I knew, deep down inside (where all the weird, oniony dream images hang), that one day I would find Manora’s Thai Restaurant in San Francisco.

Manora’s is my favorite Thai place now. It looks like it’s going to cost you, because the atmosphere is nice, as in fancy-framed pictures, cloth tablecloths, candles, flowers, chandeliers, and a waitstaff who all have good posture.

But don’t be scared off. The food is great, and it’s really not any more expensive than anywhere else — just nicer. Larb, basically a meat salad, goes for $7.50. However, whereas most places make their larb with ground or minced beef (or chicken or sometimes duck), Manora’s uses chunks of grilled steak. It’s got juice to it, even pinkness, sometimes even redness, and you know how I feel about all that.

Also: lemon, mint, and hot pepper, hoorah, but the distinctive flavor is roasted ground rice. And I think maybe most places overroast the rice or overrice the roast, just to mess with me. The bastards! If you haven’t tried larb, don’t — not until you can try it at Manora’s.

And if you know of another place that uses grilled, not ground, meat in this dish — take me there.

1600 Folsom, SF. (415) 861-6224, www.manorathai.com


My favorite favorite breakfast place is still Just for You. I love the beignets. I love the cornmeal pancakes. I love the chili scramble over corn bread. I love, love, love the Hangtown fry (oysters and bacon together — I rest my case)…. But the thing that I dream about and wake up craving, of course, is longanisa.

That’s those Filipino sausages I affectionately (and foolishly) refer to as sausage donuts. They have nothing to do with dough. They’re just meat. They’re sausages, only absurdly and sweetly and greasily delicious. Like donuts.

Because they are sweet and pork and therefore good for you, they make a perfect, perfectly healthy breakfast sausage. Why don’t more places have them on the menu? I blame the chicken and apple industries. Not even all Filipino restaurants serve longanisa.

Just for You is not a Filipino restaurant. It’s a New Orleans–y, Southern-style joint with some Mexican touches. For going above and beyond the call of duty to bring me longanisa, Just for You will always be for me.

732 22nd St., SF. (415) 647-3033, www.justforyoucafe.com


Everyone, no matter where they live, has to have a favorite breakfast place. If you live in San Francisco, you have to have a favorite burrito place too. This is a burden. For years, for me, it was easy: Taqueria Can-Cún. Then I finally tired of its on-again, off-again carne asada, its stale chips …

For the next few years I didn’t have a favorite taquería and was so embarrassed that I moved to Sonoma County.

Well, I’m back in the city, for now, and so I had to have a favorite taquería again. Right? No-brainer: Papalote! I resisted it for a long time, because it looked so fancy-pants and hipsterish. But then I got over all my snobby prejudices and gave the place half a chance.

Holy shit, the salsa! Last time I tasted such an earth-shaking, mind-blowing, eye-watering condiment, it was the green bread-dip Peruvian potion at Rincon Peruano in 1996. Papalote’s salsa, served with actually warm, fresh tortilla chips, is roasted Roma–based, flourished by cilantro and hot, hot peppers, and the secret ingredient is pumpkin seeds.

You can bring a jar and fill it up to bring home, but what the hell, you may as well suck down a carne asada burrito ($5.49) while you’re there. I’m not sure I can forgive Papalote for not having lard in its beans, but the meat is grilled to order, not sitting in a bin, and that makes a huge difference.

Then too, they could be rolling up dog food with leftover fried rice and hospital cafeteria beans in a stale, store-bought tortilla, and, drenched in my favorite favorite salsa in the history of the whole wide world, ever, it would still be the best burrito in town. I swear.

3409 24th St., SF. (415) 970-8815


Sorry to take you out of town for this one, but get in the car. We’re going to Santa Rosa. And I’m not shuttling you to no wine country froufrou, chichi chateau either. We’re eating at one of the scariest- and sorriest-looking Chinese dives in one of the bluest-collarest parts of a pretty dumb-ass town: China Light Restaurant, where warehouse workers and truck mechanics break for lunch.

I was pretty much zombied into this place, initially, against even my better judgment, by the irresistible allure of a dish called oil-dripped chicken. It was the most appetizing sounding of seven $4.35 lunch specials.

Five, six, seven visits later, and I still haven’t tasted this sure-to-be-spectacular specialty. I was permanently derailed by a sheet of plain white paper under the glass on the table casually mentioning, among other things (but don’t ask me what else), duck noodle soup ($6.15).

I looked up from those three simple promises with tears of hunger forming in the corners of my eyes and a drop of drool on my lip. I remember there was an old guy wearing rubber boots slowly sloshing from the kitchen, across the dining room, to the parking lot in a manner I would describe, retrospeculatively, as plumberesque.

Don’t fret! Get back in the car! Get back in the car! I have saved the best for last, I promise.

Now, I know there is no shortage of duck noodle soup right here in the city. If anyone wanted me to, I would very, very (very, very, very) happily do another one of those detailed investigative reports on just duck soup. A lot of Thai restaurants and noodle houses have it, and it almost always floors me. In a good way.

In the best possible way.

I just love duck noodle soup, and right now my favorite favorite example of it is an hour away. It’s Chinese, not Thai. It’s like a whole half of a roasted duck, bones and skin and all, chopped up on a bed of thick noodles and bok choy in a dark, rich broth. But you can’t even see any of this other stuff for the meat, and by the time you get to it, you are pretty much full and silly and slippery and just juiced.

China Light’s duck noodle soup makes me crazy and makes me do crazy things — like right now, in my mind, in my hollow, insatiable head, I am driving a little tiny car full of every single one of my readers, even vegans, all the way to Santa fucking Rosa. For dinner. Tonight.

Right now.

Close your eyes.

80 College, Santa Rosa. (707) 527-0558

L.E. Leone is a Bay Area writer and musician and the author of The Meaning of Lunch and Eat This, San Francisco. Her next collection of stories, Big Bend, is forthcoming from Sparkle Street Books. She writes the weekly Cheap Eats column in the Guardian.

› le_chicken_farmer@yahoo.com

Parea Wine Bar and Cafe


› paulr@sfbg.com

Just when you thought that Valencia Street couldn’t possibly support another restaurant, you blinked, or sneezed, or took a cell phone call from someone who’d dialed the wrong number, and kazaam! — you looked up to see another restaurant. Let’s say you’re standing at the corner of 19th Street, so it’s probably Paréa Wine Bar and Café, which was opened a little over a year ago by Nicole and Telly Topakas in the space held most recently by Oxygen Bar and Sushi.

One plus for Paréa is that it’s Greek, or semi-Greek, or nominally Greek — Greekish, at least — on a seething restaurant row that’s otherwise devoid of Hellenistic flavors. The wine list includes a large number of bottlings from Greece, and many of them are available by the glass and half-glass. (Three cheers for the half-glass, by the way — or, as it’s known at Paréa, the "taste" — for encouraging experiment without fomenting undue drunkenness.) I have a certain fondness for Greek whites, which manage to be both stony and floral — flowers cut from stone — much like Greece itself. But there are plenty of wines from elsewhere around the Mediterranean, the New World, and for that matter the whole world.

The food reflects a similar Grecocentric globalism. At the core of the menu are the mezes plates, arrays of traditional Greek delicacies. But one wall of the restaurant consists of a huge chalkboard that lists the day’s specials, many of which nod to Greece only slightly or not at all. Whatever the ethnic or cultural slant of the food, it’s likely to be made with organic ingredients obtained locally, and to go well with wine.

Paréa is the Greek term for a gathering of intimates: friends in the truest sense. The group that assembles in Plato’s Symposium would probably qualify. Plato’s paréa might well feel at home at Paréa, clustering around the restaurant’s low tables, sitting on backless stools, making elegantly bawdy remarks about the rest of the clientele (youngish, good-looking, often ambiguous as to team played for) and the service staff (same).

The space isn’t that different from its Oxygen Bar edition — the long bar still runs along one wall at the rear of the dining room — except that the colors have changed from an ethereal combination of blue and white to a sunset-on-Mykonos blend of red and yellow. Also, the strange plastic oxygen tubes that protruded from the walls, as if the restaurant catered to people suffering from emphysema, have vanished. The uncluttered walls now invite leaning, as you sip your wine, nibble your mezes, and exchange deep thoughts with the other members of your paréa.

The mezes platters available from the regular menu are fine, though not remarkable. The vegetarian version ($12) includes — besides triangles of toasted pita bread — hummus, yogurt, black and green marinated olives, carrot and celery sticks, and coils of roasted red bell pepper. The meat and cheese version ($13) consists of salami coins, tissues of prosciutto layered like oriental rugs on a dealer’s floor, and slices of brie and ibérico cheeses. Olives, too.

The small, shareable plates available from the big board offer more alluring possibilities. We were particularly taken by a set of crispy lentil cakes ($5), which looked like molasses cookies and had some of the character of falafel while being distinct from it. The cumin yogurt dabbed on top helped soothe any dryness and seemed slightly Greek in the bargain.

Dryness was of course not an issue with the tomato bisque ($6), a bowl of cream-infused soup with a hint of smoke — for the tomatoes had been roasted — and just a bit chunky. (The puréeing had been done with a food mill, perhaps, and not a mercilessly efficient electric device.) And an excellent pizzetta ($5) was tomatoless if not quite bianco; roasted red bell peppers provided a smear of color, while rounds of pepperoni floated on a small sea of melted mozzarella cheese.

The kitchen offers a nightly entrée for those who need a more sustained experience of nourishment. It might well be some sort of baked pasta — bucatini ($13), maybe, tossed with corn niblets, mushrooms, and fennel in a cream sauce, with gratings of ibérico cheese on top.

"Too much cheese," one of my companions said. Clearly he had not grown up where I did, in the land where there is no such thing as too much cheese.

Panini make a nice alternative to the nightly entrée. A vegetarian version ($9) might include tomatoes, English cheddar cheese, and a pesto made of several varieties of basil, at least one of which had a definitely minty character. Or it might be meatier ($11): bits of smoked duck with a sweetish ensemble of red onion slivers, fig jam, and some dandelion greens.

The dessert menu suggests that a panna cotta nexus is forming in the neighborhood. Excellent versions can be had at nearby Delfina and Farina, and Paréa’s ($6) is comparable, if different. It’s scented with vanilla, barely sweet, roughly the consistency of mascarpone, and served in a shallow dish with raspberry coulis. It’s also incomparably better than a polenta cake ($6), a dried arrangement that even a studding with cherries and lavish scoops of whipped cream could not redeem. It should be banished from the paréa of desserts.


Mon. and Wed.–Sun., 5 p.m.–midnight

795 Valencia, SF

(415) 255-2102


Beer and wine



Wheelchair accessible

Written on the skin


› kimberly@sfbg.com

Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune — legendary screen team-ups betwixt a vision-questing director and his or her alter ego star filter are the stuff of cinematic legend. Wet dreams for reviewers intent on imbuing criticism with the sticky glaze of biography, they’re also seemingly part of a mythical auteur-driven cinematic past that was untouched by the hard-line realities of big-budget, gun-for-hire studio economics.

So it’s remarkable to find a filmmaker like David Cronenberg reteaming with his A History of Violence (2005) star Viggo Mortensen for Eastern Promises — it’s only the second time that Cronenberg has repeated such a collaboration since his work with Jeremy Irons in M. Butterfly (1993) and the director’s masterwork, Dead Ringers (1988). Sure, the feature also revolves around the mob (this time the Russian Vory v Zakone rather than the Irish mafia) and family, of both the biological and the bloodily nonbiological sorts. But there must be something deeper going on here. Talking to an energetic, black-clad Cronenberg, temporarily sprawled on a damask couch at the Ritz-Carlton a few weeks back and preparing to head back to his hometown film festival in Toronto, I wondered what exactly was the nature of his and Mortensen’s obviously tight relationship.

"Oh, we’re in love," the 64-year-old director quipped dryly. Shall we alert the tabloids about forthcoming nuptials, in the scandalous style of Ingrid Bergman running off with Roberto Rossellini?

"Yeah, it’s kind of a brotherly love as well. I feel like he’s the brother I never had. We’re very close. No, we’re very close."

Cronenberg kids you — not a stance expected from the man once associated with a grotesque yet cerebral breed of filmic Grand Guignol. But perhaps it isn’t entirely unprecedented: he famously splattered the prepubescent screens of pop-cult consciousness with his literally mind-blowing Scanners (1981). Punctuating his points with sharp hand gestures and following every flicker of your glance, the man thinks and jests both on and off his feet — and spars and parries just as effortlessly.

For Cronenberg, Eastern Promises‘ attraction lay not in its focus on mafia or family but in the well-crafted, textural script by Dirty Pretty Things‘ Steven Knight. "I was particularly interested in the multicultural aspect, because London, like Toronto, prides itself on being multicultural, which is to say immigrants can come and maintain their national identity and still live within the English context," the filmmaker mused. "That’s a nice concept. Does it really work? There are a lot of frictions, hostilities, and enmities that are brought from the old country."

The multilingual, half-Danish Mortensen has proved the ideal specimen, or Cronenbergian vessel, through which to play out these ideas. In contrast to A History of Violence‘s Tom Stall, whose assimilative veneer of wholesome middle-American respectability is torn away by a sudden, almost sensually shocking outburst of violence to reveal a noirish mafia past, Mortensen’s mysterious Eastern Promises character, Nikolai Luzhin, is all cold and mechanistic as he moves carefully through the alienating turf of a Russian immigrant neighborhood in London. Behind his slick, sexually contained, rockabillyesque shades, suit, and pompadour, Nikolai keeps his past firmly hidden, showing only bodily badges of allegiance, a vividly baroque comic book constellation of Siberian prison tattoos. The mafia narrative has become a way of venturing into the shadow zones of biological and chosen families. In Eastern Promises, Cronenberg juxtaposes the quest of Anna (Naomi Watts) to find the relatives of a dead Russian girl’s infant with Nikolai’s search for acceptance within the family of crime boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl).

On its slick gray and black noirish surface, Eastern Promises doesn’t resemble offerings like 1979’s The Brood, 1983’s Videodrome, 1986’s The Fly, or 1996’s Crash, films that bound Cronenberg’s name to that of the phrase body horror. But one can’t help but glimpse the filmmaker’s themes in the starry ciphers on Mortensen’s form.

So what does Cronenberg think of so-called body horror today? "I think nothing!" he exclaims with a comic snort. "It does seem kind of ridiculous. When you think of it, horror is about mortality, and it’s about mortality seen as a very physical event. That’s what, to me, horror films are about. To me, the genre is about the body, really."


Opens Fri/14 in Bay Area theaters


You go, I go, we all go for Viggo


A painter, poet, jazz musician, and political activist, Viggo Mortensen is a mass of complicated, sometimes conflicting energies and interests. He’s as macho and swarthy as they come, but with a contemplative thirst for truth. He’s shy, but a bit of a motormouth (and can run on in at least six different languages). Mortensen is a matinee idol with a philosopher’s soul — Jean-Jacques Rousseau trapped in the body of Rudolph Valentino.

When I interviewed him last month during his stop in San Francisco to promote the David Cronenberg–directed thriller Eastern Promises, it became clear that the strong-yet-delicate thing isn’t just a clever shtick. Looking tan and lean and sporting an impressive ‘stache, he was soft-spoken and friendly. It didn’t hurt that he came bearing gifts — before I even sat down, he placed a shrink-wrapped copy of Exene Cervenka’s book of collage, 666, on the table in front of me. (Mortensen’s boutique company, Perceval Press, publishes the book by the artist and X frontwoman, who is not so coincidentally his ex-wife and the mother of his teenage son, Henry.)

What sometimes gets lost in the Viggo-induced swoon is that the man is a fine actor. Mortensen is often the best thing in his movies, though in the past that sometimes wasn’t saying much. After delivering what should have been a star-making performance in Sean Penn’s 1991 directorial debut, The Indian Runner, he languished in B-movie hell (American Yakuza) and dud big-budget productions (Boiling Point, Daylight). Peter Jackson might have given him the exposure he was due in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it took a weirdo genre director eager to flex more commercial muscles to give him the roles he was born to play: sensitive, soul-searching, primordial beasts.

In Eastern Promises, his latest collaboration with said weirdo director, Mortensen plays Nikolai Luzhin, a driver and all-around henchman for the notorious Russian organized crime syndicate Vory v Zakone. During its making, Mortensen helped literally and figuratively to flesh out the idea for what became a major thematic refrain — the detailed prison tattoo work found all over Nikolai’s body. "[Tattoos were] mentioned in the original script in passing," he noted. "But like everything else, I wanted to know what that meant. A friend of mine, Alix Lambert, made a great documentary called The Mark of Cain, where she went into maximum-security prisons in Russia and learned about Russians and Ukrainians and Georgians — men and women — who have identified themselves with these symbols. I learned, among other things, that symbols and text — religious or other — that seem to mean one thing on the surface actually mean something quite different. It’s a CV, a résumé, that they have on their bodies."

Mortensen studied Russian for the role and traveled to the country for research. "I checked with people who had backgrounds not dissimilar to the character I was playing. Once they realized I wasn’t trying to mock them or wasn’t going to do yet another clichéd Russian or be critical of them — I was just trying to get it right — then they were very helpful. So the tattoos were correct."

Mortensen acknowledges that his comfort level with Cronenberg has freed him to do things he might normally be hesitant to do — for instance, fend off an attack from two mobsters in a bathhouse while wearing nothing but the aforementioned tattoos. He has done full-frontal nudity before, in The Indian Runner, but never in such a physically demanding, exposed fashion. In an intricately choreographed scene destined to be one of the most talked about of the year, Mortensen brutally yet balletically propels his body through the frame in mostly long shots. Like the climactic (ahem) sex scene in A History of Violence, this is Eastern Promises‘ defining physical act, a turning point that irrevocably alters the emotional predicament of its central character. And it’s a doozy.

"We talked about it long before shooting and as we were working out the choreography," Mortensen said. "And I said, you should just shoot it like you do the rest of the movie — for real. It shouldn’t be limited. You shouldn’t have to try to make the body look glamorous or avoid seeing the whole body as much as possible. Forget about the fact that people are going to do screen grabs. It’s just the way it is." (Michelle Devereaux)

Hispanics go hyphy


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Latinos rarely receive credit for all they’ve brought to the rap game. After all, it was primarily Puerto Ricans who authored those boogaloo break-dance moves in the Bronx. And what would Cali hip-hop be without the laid-back style of Chicano cholos and their "low lows"?

Currently, a contingent of local Latino rap artists is pushing hard for recognition. Its members are on the Thizz Latin label, an imprint of Mac Dre’s Thizz Entertainment group. Only a year old, Thizz Latin is the brainchild of Julio "Gold Toes" Sanchez, a Chicano MC and hip-hop impresario hell-bent on highlighting the diversity of the hyphy movement.

To the Mission District native, San Francisco is practically synonymous with diversity. "I’m a San Franciscan to the heart," Sanchez says. "I’m a melting pot within my mind and in my soul."

On this hot Mission afternoon, he rolls up in his cream-colored Cadillac to tell me the Peruvian joint where we planned to meet is closed. Instead, he takes me to a Chinese restaurant where the Asian immigrant owners greet him by first name. To some, Sanchez could be imposing, with his brawny build, shaved head, and fiery demeanor. To the restaurant’s proprietors, he’s just a neighborhood kid.

Sanchez is using his community-bridging skills and street hustle to build a wide audience for his label’s pan-Latin roster of rappers, including Mr. Kee, Tito B, Freddy Chingaz, and Louie Loc, who are of Cuban, Mexican, Salvadoran, and Nicaraguan descent, respectively. "We can go to Hunters Point and have it rocking. We can go to the Mission and have it rocking. We can go to Union Street, and we can have it crackin’ off the hook. We could go to Chinatown, and they’re gonna love us."

One of Thizz Latin’s premier artists, Chicano MC Jimmy Roses, opened the "Super Hyphy 18" concert recently in Santa Rosa. Minutes into his set, he made the remarkably mixed crowd of more than a thousand move with his feel-good anthem "Who Rock the Party," an ebullient track that received some airplay on local radio and galvanized what Sanchez calls the Latin hyphy movement.

Movement building, however, has been impeded by the peculiar racial politics of local commercial radio. Although Thizz Latin artists have garnered a few spins, radio play in the Bay largely eludes them, despite the fact that several of the imprint’s releases have sold more than 20,000 units. The explanation given by DJs and programmers? They’re not black enough for hip-hop and R&B stations, and they’re not Latin enough for the Hispanic format. In Sanchez’s words, "We’re everywhere but the motherfucking radio!"

The situation mirrors the marginal, neither-here-nor-there position of US Latinos, who comprise the nation’s largest minority yet rarely receive recognition in the mainstream media. The music industry in particular can’t seem to wrap its brain around the biculturalism of urban Latino youth, many of whom grew up listening to traditional Latin sounds yet are utterly immersed in hip-hop.

Thizz Latin beatmaker Ivan "Baby Boss" Martinez, a rising star at 18, is a perfect example of this. The Mexican American college freshman explains, "Whenever we’re with our families, we’re bumpin’ banda. We’re playing mariachi in the car. But when I’m with my clique, it’s just hip-hop and reggaetón."

Martinez’s dexterity in mixing multiple genres impressed "ShoBoy" Edgar, a popular DJ on fledgling KWZ, 100.7 FM ("La Kalle"). The reggaetón-heavy station, which specifically targets urban Latino youths, hired Martinez to produce a few commercials but seldom plays Thizz Latin tracks — ostensibly because they’re in English.

Even more galling to Sanchez is the lack of local hip-hop and R&B radio support, considering that both KMEL, 106.1 FM, and KYLD, 94.9 FM (Wild), regularly sponsor events such as Carnaval in the Mexican American community and even farm their DJs out for private quinceañera parties. Still, they refuse to put Latin rap on regular rotation. At press time, KMEL and KYLD representatives had not responded to requests for comment.

Interestingly, Thizz Latin MCs get more love in other regions, including central California and the Southwest, where they play to crowds as large as 5,000. The hip-hop hotbed of Houston is especially amenable to Latin rap — so much so that local players have begun to migrate there. Vallejo rapper Baby Bash moved to H-Town years ago and subsequently struck gold in record sales. San Jose’s Upstairs Records, home of SoCal Chicano-rap phenom Lil Rob, recently set up shop there.

Even Sanchez, a die-hard San Franciscan, feels the pull southward. He lived in Houston for a time and built strong connections there with top Chicano talent Chingo Bling and South Park Mexican, who both appear on Thizz Latin releases. So does Baby Bash, who recently paired up with Sanchez on "Thick ”N Juicy," a seductive track on Sanchez’s solo debut, Gold Toes Presents: The Gold Rush, set for a Sept. 18 release.

Something of a slow jam, "Thick ‘N Juicy" differs from Thizz Latin’s more hardcore hyphy output. The imprint’s vaguely thuggish brand of rap is offered as another excuse by radio programmers for why it doesn’t get played. But that argument doesn’t hold water considering both KMEL and La Kalle play classic gangsta rap by the likes of Snoop Dogg and 2Pac.

There are obviously racialized assumptions being made about what a real Latino is and what true hip-hop is. This rigid logic pushes Latino rappers into a broadcast border zone as migrant wanderers looking for a place to settle on the radio dial. Hopefully, they’ll find a home once Latinos gain a stronger foothold in the media.


All the rage


Los Angeles two-piece No Age — ex of Wives — ply a grimy, low-tech hybrid of fuzz-prone guitar loops, surfy psych-noise, and ear-shattering skate rock that’s been hell-raising the SoCal music scene since the band’s April 2006 debut.

When they’re not generating a shoegazey yet Ramones-channeled noise punk, vocalist-drummer Dean Spunt and guitarist Randy Randall use the band name as an umbrella under which to display their talents as visual artists. Firmly ingrained within their city’s underground art community alongside punk diehards like I’m a Fucking Gymnast, Abe Vigoda, and Silver Daggers, NA frequently perform at and curate art exhibits for the Smell, the all-ages downtown LA performance space dedicated to promoting DIY art and music. The pair also like to sport their own rainbow-colored T-shirts, and over the phone from LA, Randall recently revealed that they were hard at work silk-screening bandannas for their fall US tour.

"I’ll let you know that Dean just printed an amazing pink bandanna with gold ink on it. It’s metallic gold that’s sparkly," he exclaimed. "It looks fucking awesome."

Sharing their band name with a 1987 SST compilation of instrumentals, NA recently embarked on a similar path — sort of. In March the two dropped five limited, vinyl-only EPs on five different record labels on the same day. NA’s first full-length, Weirdo Rippers (Fat Cat), compiles cuts from those releases — it’s a remarkable documentation of Randall and Spunt’s progress as musicians since Wives went their separate ways in late 2005. Interchanging drumstick-splintering hysteria and seedy feedbacked blasts ("Boy Void") with ambient garage ("Neck Escaper") and Christian Fennesz–styled guitar squalls ("Escarpment"), NA (who recently signed to Sub Pop) sound aggro-driven without coming off as bombastic — something Randall admitted the group has avoided since its birth.

"I think Wives had a bit of a macho-guy complex, and that’s certainly something we didn’t want to work with in No Age. Hence maybe the rainbow T-shirts," he said with a laugh. (Chris Sabbath)


With KIT, Mi Ami, and Party Fowl

Tues/18, 9 p.m., $8

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

(415) 621-4455


Somewhere over the White Rainbow


Adam Forkner’s creativity is now almost entirely unfettered. Performing and recording as White Rainbow, the onetime Yume Bitsu member today experiences few blockages between said creativity and the musical end product, and as a result he’s "finally understanding how to make music that [he’s] proud of." It’s a rather surprising sentiment considering his bang-up musical pedigree: ((((VVRSSNN)))), Dirty Projectors, Jackie-O Motherfucker — none of which are even slightly inhibited in the invention department.

This newfound creative clarity, which Forkner describes over the phone from his home in Portland, Ore., is thankfully not confined to the depths of the White Rainbow DAT machine. His music — a droney assemblage of syncopated rhythms and looped, tripped, and delayed instrumental layers — humbly offers the vibes of its healing ambience to all listeners.

Inspired chiefly by Terry Riley’s delayed keyboard pieces, White Rainbow’s music is mostly flat-out improvised. Live, Forkner employs a guitar, a microphone, a hand drum, and various looping devices and effects pedals to shape wispy, winding riffs and layered rhythmic patterns into wholly organic, psychedelic drone grooves. Earlier recordings, most of which are collected on 2006’s five-CD, single DVD Box (Marriage), reflect this purely improvisatory approach. His upcoming album for Kranky, Prism of Eternal Now, was constructed in a different fashion than before, as Forkner found himself using computers, with which he "deeply went in, sculpted, and added parts" to provide a more precise shape for his pieces.

This week’s beneficiaries of White Rainbow’s sonic balm will unfortunately not be treated to Forkner’s White Rainbow Full Spectrum Vibrational Healing Center, an occasional long-form live format that he cherishes: beneath a canopy, lights and video accompany his live instrumentation over several hours, during which listeners are free to come and go. "The motivation is to create a calming environment for me to be able to explore sound with people," he explains.

Yet isn’t this "healing center" business a bit hippieish for someone so indie rock? Forkner admits to "exploring his place in the New Age continuum," but his affinity for playing in odd outdoor or tented spaces shouldn’t be misconstrued as the sign of an impending Yanni career move à la Live at the Acropolis — dude just feeds off environments other than rock clubs, dig? With its music so deftly constructed and brilliantly serene, White Rainbow’s space is a place many might want to drop in on. (Michael Harkin)


With Dirty Projectors, Yacht, and Sholi

Wed/12, 8 p.m., $10

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

(415) 621-4455


Porno for pop-ettes


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

New Pornographers ringleader A.C. Newman’s life has changed a lot since his 2004 solo debut, The Slow Wonder (Matador), became the secret darling of indie aficionados round the world: he relocated from his native Vancouver to Brooklyn, married the girl of his dreams, and became a morning person.

His music has metamorphosed too. "Some people think that this record is a real departure for us," Newman explained early one recent morning from his Park Slope home. He was talking about Challengers (Matador), the controversial new album from his indie supergroup, which slows the band’s trademark pop hooks to a more cerebral pace. This evolution, rife with organic instrumentals, has elicited the industry tag grower from multiple critics and left legions of fans scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to dance to the strange new tempo.

Newman and his cohorts didn’t set out to shock and awe their fans — the new sound is part of a natural growth. Sick of synths and willing to try something new, the band turned to an old trick of sorts.

"Our records are always made with whatever’s lying around," Newman said. In the past a band member has happened on a Wurlitzer here, a pump organ there, and these influences have informed the shapes of recordings. But this time, he continued, "it just so happened that when we came to Brooklyn, ‘what was lying around’ was a lot more. There’s a great creative feeling, a bigger infrastructure of musicians here. I felt like we had access to these totally amazing A-list people."

The borough treasures gathered for the album included a Broadway cellist, part of Sufjan Stevens’s string section, an extraordinarily gifted flutist, and even a French horn. "It feels like cheating sometimes," Newman said of the last-minute flourishes. "But I’m glad we opened it up to other people’s influences."

Even the idea of New York made its way onto Challengers. Clocking in at just under seven minutes, "Unguided" is a miniepic that chronicles Newman’s flirtations with the city through a cryptic lyricism that shines bright: "You wrote yourself into a corner, safe/ Easy to defend your borders." A contribution by Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, "Myriad Harbor," serves up a Bob Dylan–esque take on urban boredom replete with Brian Wilson–caliber harmonies. Standout tracks include the Newman–Neko Case duet "Adventures in Solitude" and the title track, which discovers Case at her best. The delicate croons of "We are the challengers of the unknown" over fragile strains of banjo give us the opportunity to pretend we’re hearing the alt-country chanteuse for the first time. Porno purists will appreciate "All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth," although the title seems to drip with hubris: the saccharine-pop nod conjures up the band’s early sound, as does "Mutiny, I Promise You," a hook-laden propellant painted with the woodwinds and half bars of ’60s pop.

With both Case and Bejar on the road with the Pornographers, the cosmos has aligned to present Challengers in its true form. Newman confesses that live shows are always bittersweet for him "because of the nature of our band. Sometimes we’re playing, and I’ll think, ‘Is this the last time this lineup is ever going to play like this?’"

As for the camp that insists that any part of the new disc is disposable or disappointing, let’s face it: when it comes to our most cherished artists, we’re all needy little brats. We expect their music to inspire and describe us, infuse meaning into our daily struggles, provide the score to our love affairs, and polish the landscapes of our losses. As far as expectations go, that’s a little steep, don’t ya think? Instead of whining when a group fails to anticipate our desires and mercilessly attacking their forays into unfamiliar territory, we should take Challengers as an opportunity to move with the band.


With Lavender Diamond and Fancey

Mon/17, 8 p.m., $25–$27


982 Market, SF

(415) 775-7722


Let bison be bison


Arguments for choosing bison over beef include the likelihood that bison is, on balance, better for you and is a meat from a once nearly extinct North American species whose prospects for survival are, perhaps ironically, enhanced by its homecoming as a food animal. Arguments against include cost (I paid about $29 per pound recently for some bison strip steaks) and, perhaps ironically, leanness, which complicates cooking. Still, when the numbers were crunched for the Labor Day weekend, the ayes had it.

Lean can mean tough and juiceless, especially if you’re using a dry-heat cooking implement, like a charcoal grill. And on Labor Day weekend, would you be using anything else? As a precaution, I asked the butcher to leave a strip of fat on each steak; as an additional precaution, I pounded each piece lightly with a tenderizing mallet. And I used a marinade — for Florentine-style grilled beef, from Bruce Aidells’s invaluable The Complete Meat Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). The marinade consists of a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, a teaspoon of kosher salt, some cracked black pepper, and some minced garlic, if you like. (I like.) You mix all that together in a broad dish, turn the pieces of meat in it until they’re nicely slicked, and let the ensemble stand, covered, in the refrigerator for several hours or (better) overnight.

Holiday grillers, overcome by enthusiasm and beer, often lay fires that are much too hot. For boneless steaks — and, for that matter, burgers — a moderately hot fire is plenty. You are cooking food, not competing in an inferno Olympics. You know your fire is too hot if the food burns on the outside while remaining rawish inside. By this time, of course, it’s too late.

My modest fire cooked the steaks in about five or six minutes per side and left nice grill marks too. The meat turned out to be a lovely medium rare, with each strip having a band of pink inside, deepening to rose toward the core. The texture was different from beef’s: not the velvet butteriness of filet mignon but not tough either. More like a tri-tip. As for the flavor: superbeefy, I thought, without a hint of gaminess. Others at the table thought the meat had a flavor distinct from beef’s but just as good. A veritable stampede of approval.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

Looks that kill


› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER When does music news boil down to a form of disaster reporting? Behold the universal slagging that accompanied the tepid Sept. 9 Video Music Awards performance by a sluggish, underwear-clad Britney Spears, postpreggers bulgy and freshly toasted from a supposed turn at Burning Man (yet another sign of the event’s apocalyptic death throes, scuttling my long-dreamed-of plans for a Playa Hater’s Camp at Black Rock?). OK, Brit is a mess — the nonstop media slam dance is starting to nauseate me, despite Spears’s unconvincing pleas to give her more.

But maybe in a microfragmented, nano-niched pop universe, we’re all just looking for a few things to agree on, like: Rihanna embodies class (is it the Posh Spice asymmetrical bob?), Justin Timberlake looks good next to his Mickey Mouse Club ex and his Sept. 12 Shark Tank opener Good Charlotte, and Spears needs a handler she can trust so we can cease critically burning her. There is such a thing as too much freedom — as several Mötley Crüe-dites have proved of late. San Jose native Nikki Sixx’s collection of ’80s journal entries The Heroin Diaries — out Sept. 18 — shows that it’s never too late to exploit one’s excesses, while Bret Michaels from Poison’s VH1 series Rock of Love takes The Bachelor‘s formula to a skanksome low, as his prospective mates — coldly self-promoting, sharky rock chicks all — manage to outshine the shameless star with their backbiting, bitchery, and oh so many looks that kill.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Witness, a galaxy away, the communal, mammalian planet Animal Collective. Much has been made in the past five years or so of the collectivist spirit infusing art groups like Hamburger Eyes, Royal Art Lodge, and Space 1026. Music collectives have been overshadowed, although San Francisco’s Thread Productions collective seems to be finding its rhythm via Tartufi, Silian Rail, Low Red Land, Birds and Batteries, and Sky Pilots, and a few art ensembles like Forcefield persist via recordings.

Through it all, though, Animal Collective have continued to fly their fellow-feeling flag high, despite multiple solo outings, loudly thumping the drum for the notion of continual artistic exploration and Strawberry Jam (Domino), their latest, almost poppily upbeat album. All the members possess the freedom to leave anytime they want to — and to combust messily all over blogosphere gossip sites if they care to — but they choose to stay and play with their happily bent song structures.

Panda Bear, né Noah Lennox, has seen his share of success with this year’s solo Person Pitch (Paw Tracks) and has had to struggle with the tug of his Lisbon, Portugal, home, where he’s lived for more than three years with his wife and daughter, and touring with the loose collection of onetime Baltimore schoolmates now scattered between New York City and Washington, D.C. Stuck in traffic with Avey Tare (David Portner), Geologist (Brian Weitz), and Deakin (Josh Dibb) outside Toronto, where they have a show, the 29-year-old Lennox says earnestly, "I hope people show up. I get nervous about performing — it takes over from the worry about whether people are going to be there."

Strawberry Jam‘s title came to him during a dreamy airline encounter. "On the little tray of food was a packet of strawberry jam. I opened it up and looked at that stuff," he explains. "It was futuristic looking, gooey, but it also looked sharp in a way. I thought it would be cool if it we could get the music to sound like that."

The final recording, produced by longtime Sun City Girls producer Scott Colbourn, who also oversaw Feels (FatCat, 2005), drones and shimmers with fewer overdubs than they’ve used in the past, surging with the band’s trademark bell-shaking, ethereal gloss ("#1"), an almost Madchester bounce ("Peacebone"), and infectious, nearly melodic manifestos ("Winter Wonderland"). "I guess we wanted to do something different than anything we’d done before and hopefully different from anything we’d ever heard before," Lennox says. "That’s what we get psyched about overall."

Having only to dread the retread, Lennox even embraces that three-letter word — jam — in reference to the band. "Maybe there’s a bit of a crossover," he says sweetly. "That’s cool. There’s a lot of Grateful Dead fans in our band."


Mon/17, 8 p.m., $25


1805 Geary, SF




Coalition of Aging Rockers just keeps on noisily aging: Charalambides’s Tom Carter and other acolytes pay tribute to the fab space rock fossils of Hawkwind. Wed/12, 6 p.m. $5. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com


The Kindercore survivors play alongside Thread Records collectivists Silian Rail and Sky Pilots. Wed/12, 9 p.m., $8. 12 Galaxies, 2565 Mission, SF. www.12galaxies.com


Sunshine State crunk-punkers promise to pick up where ESG left off. Wed/12, 9 p.m., free with RSVP at going.com. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com


Ex–<\d>SF riot grrrl cellist Madigan Shive joins the local Best Wishes. Thurs/13, 9 p.m., $8. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com


Finland band generates eerie cryptonoise alongside Skaters spin-off project. Fri/14, 9 p.m., $6. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com


The Southern dance rockers bring their comets. Fri/14, 9 p.m., $15. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com


Spaceman 3 alum Sonic Boom helms one of the finest free street-fair experimento lineups ever at the Polk Street Fair. With Triclops!, TITS, Los Llamarada, and Lou Lou and the Guitarfish. Sat/15, noon–7 p.m., free. Polk and Post, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com


Wolf Parader Dan Boeckner breaks out his silky Sub Pop side project. Mon/17, 8 p.m., $10–$12. Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell, SF. www.rickshawstop.com


Death be not proud, the Oakland metallists claim, waving a fierce new Relapse disc, Death Is This Communion. Tues/18, 7 p.m., free. Amoeba Music, 1855 Haight, SF. 12Page 1 of 2