Volume 42 Number 05

October 31 – November 6, 2007

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Endorsements: Local offices






Let us be perfectly clear: none of the people we are endorsing has any real chance of getting elected mayor of San Francisco. Gavin Newsom is going to win a second term; we know that, he knows that, and whatever they may say on the campaign trail, all of the candidates running against him know that.

It’s a sad state of affairs: San Francisco has been, at best, wallowing helplessly in problems under Newsom, and in many cases things have gotten worse. The murder rate is soaring; young people, particularly African Americans, are getting shot down on the streets in alarming numbers. The mayor has opposed almost every credible effort to do something about it — he fought against putting cops on foot patrol in the most violent areas, he opposed the creation of a violence-prevention fund and blocked implementation of a community policing plan, and he’s allowed the thugs in the Police Officers Association to set policy for a police department that desperately lacks leadership. The public transportation system is in meltdown. The housing crisis is out of control; 90 percent of the people who work in San Francisco can’t afford to buy a house here, and many of them can’t afford to rent either. Meanwhile, the city is allowing developers and speculators to build thousands of new luxury condos, which are turning San Francisco into a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. Newsom only recently seems to have noticed that public housing is in shambles and that the commission he appoints to oversee it has been ignoring the problem.

The mayor is moving aggressively to privatize public services (including turning over the city’s broadband infrastructure to private companies), and he’s done little to promote public power. He’s cracking down on the homeless without offering adequate alternatives to long-term housing. Much of the time, he seems disconnected, out of touch with the city; he won’t show up and take questions from the Board of Supervisors and won’t even comply with the Sunshine Ordinance and release his daily calendar so the voters can see what he’s doing all day. He rarely appears in public, unless his handlers have complete control of the situation.

In fact, almost all of the significant policy discussions and initiatives that are happening in San Francisco today (including the universal health plan that Newsom likes to take credit for) have come from the Board of Supervisors.

There are good things to say about Newsom. We were among the huge number of San Franciscans who applauded when Newsom directed the city to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He did more than make a political statement, more than allow hundreds of couples to get married; he put one of the leading civil rights issues of our time on the center stage of the political agenda. And he made all of us proud to be San Franciscans. We were happy to see him stand up against the big international hotel chains and support striking hotel workers. In some ways, he’s brought modern management to the city — the 311 system, which connects callers directly to the proper city services, actually works, and sometimes works well.

But San Francisco is one of the world’s great cities, and it’s in serious trouble, and the person in charge isn’t offering much in the way of leadership — and he certainly isn’t offering the sort of progressive agenda that this city ought to be showing the nation. Newsom doesn’t deserve another term.

And yet the progressives in the city, who have come so very far since the return of district elections in 2000, were unable to field an electable candidate. We could spend pages dissecting why that happened. Matt Gonzalez should have made a decision much earlier in the process. Ross Mirkarimi should have run. The entire movement needs to be better about developing and promoting candidates for citywide office. But right now the issue on the table is this: who should the progressives, the independents, the neighborhood activists, the tenants, the people who have been dispossessed during the Newsom years, who don’t like the prospect of this mayor waltzing into another term atop a landslide majority, vote for Nov. 6?

We aren’t in the habit of endorsing for a big-league elective office people who haven’t put in their time in the minors. And Newsom’s challengers are not exactly a varsity squad. But many of them are raising important issues that Newsom has ignored, and we commend them all for taking on the difficult task of mounting a campaign against a mayor who most observers say is unbeatable. Our endorsements are, to be honest, protest votes — but we hope they’ll send a message to Newsom that there are issues, communities, and ideas he can’t just ignore after his coronation. The smaller the mayor’s margin of victory and the more votes the candidates who are pushing the progressive agenda collect, the less of a mandate Newsom will take into a second term that could be a truly frightening time.

Quintin Mecke has the strongest progressive credentials and by far the best overall approach to issues facing the city. He’s never held elective office (and had never run before), but he’s been involved in local politics for a decade. A volunteer with Tom Ammiano’s campaigns for supervisor and mayor and with Gonzalez’s mayoral campaign, Mecke went on to serve on the civil grand jury and the task force on redistricting, where he helped stave off attempts to chop up progressive supervisorial districts. He helped organize the South of Market Anti-Displacement Committee and now runs the Safety Network Partnership, a nonprofit that works to fight crime and violence in the city’s neighborhoods. He’s on the committee that monitors the city’s homeless shelters.

Mecke told the Guardian that "it’s hard to find an innovative, non-PR-type initiative out of the Mayor’s Office." He supports community policing, a progressive gross-receipts tax that would exempt small businesses, and a moratorium on market-rate housing until the city can determine how it will build enough affordable units. He complains that there’s no standard of care in Newsom’s homeless shelters. He opposes the privatization of public programs and resources.

Mecke tends a bit to bureaucratspeak; he talked about "horizontal conversations" instead of taking some issues head-on. And we’re concerned that he didn’t seem serious or organized enough to raise the modest amount of money it would have taken to qualify for public financing and mount a more visible campaign. But he’s a solid candidate, and we’re happy to give him the nod.

Ahimsa Porter Sumchai is a remarkable success story, an African American woman who grew up in the housing projects and wound up graduating from UC San Francisco’s medical school. She’s running primarily on the issue of environmental justice for southeast San Francisco — and for years has been one of the loudest voices against the flawed Lennar Corp. redevelopment project at and the reuse plan for the contaminated Hunters Point Shipyard. Sumchai says the shipyard can never be cleaned up to a level that would be safe for housing, and she suggests that much of it should be used for parks and open space and possibly maritime and green-industry uses. She’s highly critical of the low levels of affordable housing in market-rate projects all over the city, arguing that the developers should be forced to provide as many as 25 percent of their units at below-market rates. Sumchai is a physician, and she talks like one; her scientific language and approach sometimes confuse people. She suggested that one of the main causes of the homicide rate in the city is mental illness. "You can medically address people who are violent," she told us, saying the first step is to properly diagnose and treat depression in men. "Just as we looked at AIDS as an epidemic," she said, "we should look at violence as an epidemic." Which is, at the very least, an interesting approach.

Sumchai has some innovative ideas, including a universal child-care program for the city, paid for with a "fat tax" on unhealthy food. She’s a strong supporter of public power and a longtime critic of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

She can be abrasive and temperamental, but she’s talking about critical issues that almost everyone else is ignoring. She deserves support.

Chicken John Rinaldi is the political surprise of the season, an artist and showman who has managed a traveling circus, run a bar in the Mission, put on unusual performances of every kind — and somehow managed to be the only person running for mayor who could qualify for tens of thousands of dollars in public funding. On one level Rinaldi’s campaign is a joke — he told us repeatedly he has no idea what he’s doing, and that if by some wild chance he were elected, he would hire people like Mecke and Sumchai to run the city. He’s the Dada candidate, with his entire run something of a performance art piece.

But Rinaldi has a real constituency. He represents a dying breed in the city: the street artists, the writers, the poets, the unconventional thinkers with economically marginal lifestyles, who were once the heart and soul of San Francisco. It’s hard to pin him down on issues since he seems to disdain any policy talk, but in the end, the very fact that he’s running speaks to the pressure on artists and the lack of support the unconventional side of the art world gets in this increasingly expensive city.

Rinaldi is the protest candidate of all protest candidates, but he’s going to get a lot of votes from people who think San Francisco needs to stop driving some of its most valuable residents out of town — and if that leads to a more serious discussion about artist housing, affordable housing in general, arts funding, and the overall crackdown on fun under Newsom, then it’s worth giving Chicken John a place on the ticket.

There are several other candidates worthy of consideration. Josh Wolf, a video blogger, served 226 days in a federal prison rather than turn over to the authorities tape of a demonstration he was filming. It was a bold and courageous show of principle (anyone who’s ever done time knows that spending even a week, much less month after month, behind bars is no joke), and it speaks to his leadership and character. Wolf is talking about some key issues too: he’s a big supporter of municipal broadband and sees the Web as a place to promote more direct democracy in San Francisco.

Lonnie Holmes, a probation officer, has roots in the African American community and some credible ideas about violent crime. He favors extensive, direct intervention in at-risk communities and would fully fund recreation centers, after-school programs, and antiviolence education in elementary schools. He thinks a network of community resource centers in key neighborhoods could cut the crime rate in half. He’s a little conservative for our taste, but we like his energy, commitment, and ideas.

Harold Hoogasian, a third-generation florist, registered Republican, and small-business activist, is a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative and law-and-order guy who complains that the city budget has skyrocketed while services don’t seem to have improved. Yet somewhat to our surprise, he told us he supports the idea of a moratorium on market-rate housing and a ballot measure that would force developers to build housing more in tune with San Francisco’s real needs (even if he wants to start with ownership housing for cops). He supports public power, wants more sunshine in government, and opposes privatization. He also brings a much-needed critique of the remaining vestiges of machine politics in this one-party town and speaks passionately about the need for outsiders and political independents to have a seat at the table. We’re glad to have him in the race.

In the end, though, our picks in this first ranked-choice vote for San Francisco mayor are Mecke, Sumchai, and Rinaldi — on the issues, as a political statement, and to remind Newsom that his poll numbers don’t reflect the deep sense of distrust and discontent that remains in this city.

District attorney


We’re always nervous about unopposed incumbents. And since Kamala Harris unseated Terence Hallinan four years ago, running as an ally of then-mayor Willie Brown with the backing of a corrupt old machine, we’ve been nervous about her.

In some ways she’s been a pleasant surprise. Harris quickly showed that she has courage and integrity when she refused to seek the death penalty for a cop killer despite the fact that the police rank and file and much of the brass excoriated her for it. She remains one of the few district attorneys in the nation who oppose the death penalty in all situations. She’s created a public integrity unit and aggressively filed charges against Sup. Ed Jew. She’s made clear to the Police Department that she won’t accept sloppy police work. She talks constantly about making crime and criminal justice a progressive issue.

But there are plenty of areas in which we remain nervous. Harris hasn’t been anywhere near as aggressive as she could be in prosecuting political corruption. She doesn’t pursue ethics violations or Sunshine Ordinance violations. The San Francisco DA’s Office could be a national leader in rooting out and prosecuting environmental and political crime, but it isn’t.

Meanwhile, the murder rate continues to rise in San Francisco, and Harris and the police are pointing fingers back and forth without actually finding a workable solution.

And lately, Harris, to her tremendous discredit, has been stepping up the prosecution of so-called quality-of-life crimes — which translates into harassing the homeless. She’s made sure there’s a full-time prosecutor in traffic court, pressing charges for things like public urination, sleeping in the park, and holding an open container of beer. That’s a colossal waste of law enforcement resources.

We expect a lot more from Harris in the next four years. But we’ll back her for another term.



Mike Hennessey has been sheriff for so long that it’s hard to imagine anyone else holding the job. And that’s not a bad thing: Hennessey is one of the most progressive law enforcement officers in the country. He’s turned the county jail into a center for drug rehabilitation, counseling, and education (the first charter high school in America for county prisoners is in the SF jail). He’s hired a remarkably diverse group of deputies and has worked to find alternatives to incarceration. He’s openly critical of the rate at which the San Francisco police are arresting people for small-time drug offenses ("We’re arresting too many people for drugs in the city," he told us). He took a courageous stand last year in opposing a draconian and ineffective state ballot initiative that would have kicked convicted sex offenders out of San Francisco and forced them to live in rural counties without access to support, services, or monitoring.

We’ve had some issues with Hennessey. We wanted a smaller new jail than he ultimately decided to build. And we really wish he’d be more outspoken on local law enforcement issues. Hennessey told us he wants to stick to his own turf, but if he were more visible on police reform, criminal justice, and law enforcement, the city would benefit immensely.

Hennessey’s only opponent is David Wong, a deputy sheriff who was unable to make a case for replacing the incumbent. We’re happy to endorse Hennessey for another term — but since this might be his last before retirement, we urge him to take his progressive views and push them onto a larger stage.

Romania dreamin’


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Programmers in the film festival, cinematheque, and rep-house exhibition worlds are forever hunting for undiscovered cinematic flavors. They are like truffle-sniffing pigs. No offense intended — after all, truffles are valuable for their rarity. During the past few years, such programmers have witnessed a stunning renaissance of native film activity in Romania, which has no business being so exciting onscreen because (a) it’s Romania, for god’s sake, still hobbling out of Nicolae Ceausescu’s 20th-century dark ages, and (b) it only produces six features per year. They can’t all be good, can they?

Oh yes, they can. Romanian movies are sweeping international prizes and have even scored a couple of theatrical releases in a US art-house market resistant to intelligent, complex, starless films in a foreign tongue. Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days reaches US theaters next year, and Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ is likely to follow.

You can catch California Dreamin’ now in the Pacific Film Archive’s "Revolutions in Romanian Cinema" series. The process of severance from the Ceausescu dictatorship — Communist Eastern Europe’s most paranoiac and corrupt — is, naturally, a frequent subject. Catalin Mitulescu’s warmly observed The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006) views the regime’s final chapter in 1989 from a teenage girl’s perspective. Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) is a gritty you-are-there reenactment of the street chaos and random shootings that occurred on the night of the government’s overthrow. Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08: East of Bucharest (2006) ingeniously reexamines the same events as antiheroic satire, with the contradictory recollections of a TV call-in show’s guests making hash of the revolution’s already mythologized story. Another fascinating flashback, Alexandru Solomon’s The Great Communist Bank Robbery (2004), provides documentary scrutiny of an infamous crime in a nation where folks were too terrified to rob anyone, let alone the all-powerful government, suggesting that the case was quite likely a frame-up designed to rid the party of its high-ranking Jewish members.

Other films look beyond Ceausescu to the more recent past and still-problematic present. Cristi Puiu’s acclaimed The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) is like Sicko as directed by Aki Kaurismäki, a deepest-black comedy whose hapless elderly protagonist complains of chest pains — though it’s his endless, Kafkaesque odyssey through a broken-down public health system that kills him. California Dreamin’, subtitled Endless because it will never truly be finished (its 27-year-old writer-director died in a car crash before completing the final edit), is nonetheless a marvelously accomplished, sprawling, affectionate, barbed canvas. Set in 1999, it finds a top-priority NATO mission commanded by gung ho veteran jarhead Cpt. Jones (Armand Assante) waylaid by provincial officials who stubbornly demand paperwork, even if the bureaucratic logjam creates an international incident. Forced to cool heels, the visiting soldiers enjoy free-flowing local booze and celebrations in their honor. This cross-cultural tragicomedy might have been shorter had Nemescu lived to complete postproduction. As is, it’s close to perfection.

These new Romanian films are special for their attentiveness to individual characters and larger social scales, for their balance of rueful humor and genuine sympathy, and for the unpredictable yet organic intricacy of their narrative courses. Technically, they’re all highly polished, without a whiff of the stylistically self-indulgent territorial pissing typical of young filmmakers. The new Romanian cinema isn’t personal in the familiar auteurist sense. It’s populist — a term not to be confused with stupid in this case — storytelling, accessible to anyone willing to brave the Balkan barrier of subtitles. *


Nov. 3–Dec. 9, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way, Berk.

(510) 642-1124


Global chilling


In 1994 an album came out that nearly put a class of DJs out of work. Those manning the decks at so-called chill-out rooms in countless clubs had good reason to fear Global Communication’s 76:14 (Arista), for its lush, emotive melodies and almost infinite attention to detail maintained the excitement that surrounded electronic music at the time while fostering a desultory, languid mood. Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard were the two British producers behind Global Communications, and almost 15 years later Middleton is releasing his first solo album, Lifetracks (Big Chill Recordings/Six Degrees).

Despite the iconic status that 76:14 has achieved, Middleton denies that it has cast any sort of shadow over his ensuing productions or been any kind of burden during his subsequent decade-plus of production, including more work with Pritchard as Jedi Knights (whose nü electro New School Science [Universal, 1996] inspired the likes of the Prodigy) as well as solo remixes for acts as varied as Britpoppers Pulp and New Jersey house legend Kerri Chandler. "I’m very proud of 76:14 — it was a very rewarding experience creating it with Mark," Middleton wrote via e-mail before a live performance for Lifetracks in London. It "has some amazing moments for me personally and is a constant reminder to make music from the heart and not get concerned with the restrictions of markets, tempo, or genre."

Lifetracks reflects its creator’s frank lack of fear when it comes to making beautiful music. My inner jaded hipster might have initially cringed at both the yoga-evoking title and the unabashedly emotional strings of "Prana," but there’s no way I could hate on the subtle production flourishes and the expert arrangement that builds to the expected yet still fulfilling climax. Other songs — like "Sea of Glass," with its pulsing woodwinds, and "Enchanting," with its deliberate repetition and inversion of patterns — point to Middleton’s appreciation of musicians well beyond the boundaries of dance music. "I enjoy many of Steve Reich’s conceptual sound experiments and recordings, particularly from the late 1970s and into the ’80s. Over many of his contemporaries he still manages to produce music that is intrinsically ‘pleasant’ and ‘easy’ from a listening perspective. It might be the slow evolving cyclical nature, or the gentle phase shifting in harmony that really does it for me." At the same time, Middleton professes admiration for composers Sir John Williams and Vangelis, who exist somewhere between the canons of popular and classical music.

While Middleton may be best known for his more introspective work and Lifetracks is not exactly full of cuts headed to the top of the Billboard dance charts, the producer does love a good party and has no shame about using the tools that are needed to get people on the dance floor. When pressed for a few of his recent favorite tracks that go well together, Middleton caught me completely off guard with his recollection of a pair of reedits that fit together nicely for his weekly residency at Manumission on Ibiza: "Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ mashed up with Pink’s ‘Get the Party Started’ [mixed] into a glitchy electro remix of Paul Simon’s ‘You Can Call Me Al’ mashed into Prince’s ‘1999’ — for some reason they just all flowed into each other really well and created the ideal first two tracks to set up the party vibe for the whole night." This from the man who fondly recalls a sunrise over Mount Fuji for the way it reminded him of a Katsushika Hokusai woodblock he studied in art school. It is clear that Middleton is much more than a one-trick pony.


Sat/3, 10 p.m., $15


657 Harrison, SF

(415) 348-0900


Hail “Conqueror”


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"Is that the venue? It looks like a shack!" Justin Broadrick says, and his bandmates laugh uproariously. They’ve just pulled up outside their venue in Austin, Texas, and it’s not looking good. "Sorry," he apologizes to me on his cell phone. "It looks like a shed!" Broadrick is only joking, in surprisingly good spirits for being sick and a man who has a reputation as the king of bombast, the creative force behind the grindcore of Napalm Death in the ’80s and the psychotic industrial blast beats of Godflesh in the ’90s. Instead, he is disturbingly good-natured and genuinely concerned about taking the ethereal doom of his latest musical incarnation, Jesu, on the road while being ill. "It’s infuriating," he confesses. "It’s not like we’re here every six months or anything." His words ring with a touch of wistful evangelism, as though there’s a message that needs delivering.

That new missive is Conqueror (Hydrahead), Jesu’s second full-length and a bleakly epic knight’s tale where melodies spiral upward into ominous gray clouds of static to create ingenious, thundering shoegaze. It’s a rude awakening for anyone expecting the tortured howls and demonic riffage of yore, but in many ways it’s the obvious next step, particularly for someone looking to introduce pop music, his long-harbored love, into previously uncharted terrain. Conqueror, Broadrick explains, was created with an aim of "extreme prettiness and extreme heaviness at the same time. I guess we’re taking melodies that are derived from popular culture and juxtaposing that with a sound which is basically rooted in extreme music." Where Jesu’s last EP, Silver (Hydrahead, 2006), offered a more straightforward dose of anthemic pop crushed under the weight of plodding beats, Conqueror crackles and glows like a low-pressure system, trapping its dirgelike sound before releasing it into crashing cymbals and Broadrick’s low, clear, mournful vocals. As pop music goes, it is nearly impenetrable, with hints of Broadrick’s earlier works readily apparent throughout.

Broadrick’s entry into the annals of music history came early, in the form of an invitation to join Napalm Death as a guitarist in 1985. Only 15 at the time, he would later find himself labeled something of a noise savant — with accolades from John Peel furthering the myth. Andee Connors, one of the owners of Aquarius Records, describes Napalm Death’s work as "intense, furious, forward-thinking heavy music. Short, sharp bursts of ripping, pounding, superpolitical, sort of lo-fi, crusty metallic grind. At the time nothing like it had been heard." It was Godflesh, however, that saw Broadrick truly take the reins as both composer and performer. In the same way that Napalm Death informed noise bands for the next decade, Godflesh were the architects of a now widespread unyielding morass of skull-pounding rhythms and guttural, scraping vocals.

But while Godflesh provided catharsis for a generation of noise-obsessed listeners, Broadrick is quick to point out the central irony of the band’s mythos: "I’m one of those people who are ultrahypersensitive. Godflesh was a defense. My weapon was the sound." Though appreciative of all of his musical accolades, Broadrick is firm in his distinction between past and present, explaining simply, "I don’t want to be confined by the genres that I helped create in some way." He sees Jesu’s marriage of oppressive guitar and sweet melodic loops as "more personal, more indulgent, and more honest" than any music he has composed before. On "Weightless and Horizontal" he ends by chanting, "Try not to lose yourself," repeatedly through an ever-approaching onslaught of beats. It is an impossible combination, a hymn of brutality wrapped with hope. "It’s the type of a song that is filled with despair, but it immerses itself in it so far that you can see the light and you can see the positive," he says. "And it’s your own light, obviously. It’s not man-made. It’s not religious."

Lyrically and personally, Broadrick is clearly on a solitary quest. He left city life behind 15 years ago, opting for the countryside of northern Wales, and laughs as he concedes that even with his grindcore days far behind him, his music is "still rooted in misanthropy." But there’s little or no time for introspection on a tour bus, and even less when you consider how many projects Broadrick has going. In addition to Conqueror, the EP Lifeline (Hydrahead), and a split album with Eluvium (Hydrahead/Temporary Residence), this year also saw Pale Sketches, a skittering electronic treatise of Jesu songs that didn’t fit on any previous discs, by way of Broadrick’s Avalanche label. Misanthrope or no, our errant knight of doom has found himself in a good place, as he explains with a shout-out to our local heroes: "There was a song by Flipper called ‘Life,’ and the chorus was ‘Life is the only thing worth living for.’ I really do feel like that." *


Tues/6, 8 p.m., $15

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF


Raising the barre


Marking National American Indian Heritage Month, the American Indian Film Festival kicks off with a pair of ballet-dancer biographies. Of course, you know one of ’em is gonna be about eternally elegant George Balanchine muse Maria Tallchief — and indeed, Sandra Osawa’s Maria Tallchief will have its world premiere at the fest. Praised as the first American prima ballerina and a standout in an art form that had, until her rise to prominence in the 1940s, been largely European, Tallchief brought audiences to their feet and critics to tears. She married Balanchine, and their creative collaboration continued even after their divorce (she wanted a baby; he didn’t) — a notable result of which was her role as the original Sugar Plum Fairy in his Nutcracker.

Maria Tallchief — bound for PBS after its festival screening, a fact that’s evident in its straightforward style — spends ample time contextualizing its subject’s importance not just as a dancer during one of ballet’s most historically significant periods (stateside, anyway) but also as a Native American woman proud of her Osage heritage. Black-and-white archival footage illustrates her considerable gifts, with testimonials from peers and observers (and Tallchief herself) recalling the thrilling life of a talented artist.

More contemporary is Gwendolen Cates’s Water Flowing Together (also bound for PBS), which focuses on recently retired New York City Ballet star Jock Soto, one of the last dancers to work with Balanchine. Part Navajo Indian, part Puerto Rican, Soto — who also happens to be gay — is shown from his teens through his 40s, earning praise along the way from seemingly every ballerina he ever partnered, as well as from choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon, who saw him as an inspiration. For a guy who was initially told he didn’t have the body of a dancer (and whose dad bought him blue fishnet tights for his first ballet class), Soto’s impact on the dance world is shown to be immeasurable.

The 32nd annual AIFF also features fictional narratives (including a ghostly tale set at South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation), shorts, and the American Indian Film Institute’s American Indian Motion Picture Awards Show, at which the fest awards will be presented and Native musicians and dancers will perform.


Nov. 2–7, $5–$10

Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema

One Embarcadero Center, promenade level, SF

Nov. 8–10, $5–$10

Palace of Fine Arts

3301 Lyon, SF

(415) 554-0525


On the verge


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The title of Barbet Schroeder’s new documentary, Terror’s Advocate, evokes Keanu Reeves’s role as Kevin Lomax, a lawyer seduced by Satan (Al Pacino) in 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate. Reeves’s character crosses the line into evil when he gets a child molester off on a technicality; next thing you know, he’s living in Manhattan, making big bucks, and being seduced by the lesbian minions of Satan in an elevator while his wife (Charlize Theron) has her womb ripped out. In Terror’s Advocate we follow the equally colorful career of lawyer Jacques Vergès, which begins with ideological and erotic clarity — defending gorgeous Algerian bombers during their struggle for independence from France — but spirals into mystery and monstrosity.

The point where Vergès crosses the line that leads him into relationships with dictators, Nazis, and Carlos the Jackal is less distinct than the line crossed by Reeves’s lawyer in The Devil’s Advocate. Schroeder frames Vergès’s story as a mirror of the recent history of terrorism in Europe, with attention to all of the ambiguity that term implies. If one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter and the term itself a strategy to disparage the warfare of those without governments, it doesn’t follow that every act of terror is ethically equivalent. "There’s a magnificent, heroic heart, which is Algeria," Schroeder has said, discussing the film. "This is the matrix, the place where our lead character finds himself, reveals himself, and experiences the most intense moments of his life…. All of this is something very beautiful, very pure: an ideal."

On Armistice Day in 1945, the French massacred 10,000 to 45,000 Algerians for waving their flags. During the years that followed, Algerian attempts to purge their boorish occupiers would include blowing up European establishments in the African capital. In 1957, Djamila Bouhired was found guilty of placing a bomb in the Milk Bar and condemned to death. She became an international sensation, partially through the inspired efforts of her lawyer — Vergès. He developed what became known as the rupture defense — instead of having his clients apologize or plead for mercy, he provoked the opposition and used the trial to redefine the terms of the debate, calling attention to the French use of torture.

His tactics paid off. Bouhired was pardoned and released from prison, after which she returned to Algeria and married Vergès. But in the ’70s he abandoned her and his children and vanished for eight years under circumstances that remain unclear, despite Terror’s Advocate‘s sometimes tedious examination of that narrative gap. By the time Vergès finally reappeared, the lines had begun to blur — between political action and sociopathic adventuring, between terrorism and foreplay. One of Schroeder’s most inspired subtexts is that organized violence, whether state sponsored or revolutionary, offers an arena for unconventional erotic pleasures, such as rape, torture, or simply rescuing sexy women involved in the deaths of others — like Bouhired or Vergès’s other great love, Magdalena Kopp, girlfriend of Carlos the Jackal.

In Reversal of Fortune (1990), Schroeder fictionalized the relationship between Claus von Bülow and Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer who defended him against charges that he’d lethally poisoned his wife. Did von Bülow get away with murder or was he innocent and akin to Frankenstein’s monster at the hands of the lynch mob? Schroeder has always been interested in monsters — his documentary subjects include Idi Amin, Charles Bukowski, and Koko the gorilla — and drawn to moral ambiguity, the seductive power of evil, and the erotic appeal of violence. Combine Before and After (1995), Our Lady of the Assassins (2000) and Murder by Numbers (2002), and you have an oeuvre with more murderous teenage boys than anything this side of William Burroughs. In his Single White Female (1992), Kiss of Death (1994), and Desperate Measures (1997) there is a twinship between monsters and heroes and a surprising sympathy for the violently unhinged. Consistently, Schroeder examines people of conscience who are seduced into doing evil’s bidding, and he lets them speak for themselves. Even Vergès’s defense of Nazi butcher Klaus Barbie is framed as an opportunity to attack French hypocrisy, imperialism, and butchery. Asked if he’d defend Hitler, Vergès says, "I’d even agree to defend [George W.] Bush. But only if he agrees to plead guilty."

Terror’s Advocate is dense with information. Its structure is complex and indirect and requires unfaltering attention. Yet Schroeder succeeds at creating a surprising amount of suspense, especially considering the amount of screen time given over to talking heads. Meanwhile, he quietly explores what must be one of the central enigmas for our tortured planet, the human relationship to violence. Violence and money, violence and sex, violence and political change, senseless violence and goal-oriented violence — Schroeder nimbly navigates all of the above, creating a visceral ethical disquiet. *


Opens Fri/2 in Bay Area theaters

Fellini in Arkansas


"Ahm tired uh yer uppity, citified ways!" leering slob Odis (Gene Ross) tells houseguest Helen (Norma Moore) in S.F. Brownrigg’s Poor White Trash II, a 1974 movie also known by the equally savory title Scum of the Earth. The late Brownrigg’s gasp-producing moonshine swaller of incest-cum-insanity is one of several delights in the new program of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ film curator Joel Shepard, "Red State Cinema: Rural Auteurs," which spans from Harry Revier’s 1938 Child Bride (which was aimed at traveling tent cinemas) to Joe Pickett and Nick Preuher’s new documentary Dirty Country (a profile of factory worker and raunchy composer-performer Larry Pierce). Jennifer Baichal’s terrific 2002 The True Meaning of Pictures looks at the controversy surrounding Shelby Lee Adams, whose memorable photographs of dirt-poor Appalachia residents were accused of artificially heightening hillbilly squalor for a fascinated upscale audience. Then there’s Arkansas auteur Phil Chambliss, who makes films of varying length starring friends, family, and gravel-pit coworkers. Chambliss’s aren’t home movies but eccentric narratives as bizarre, humorous, and strangely familiar as the weirdest relative in your family.


Nov. 1–16, $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening room

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787




› paulr@sfbg.com

For more than a decade, the king of the hill over in Bernal Heights, restaurant-wise, has been Liberty Café, one of those marvelous places that bloomed in the city’s neighborhoods after the 1989 earthquake. The quake, by damaging roads and bridges, made it more difficult for would-be suburban diners to get to the city center and its glittering array of possibilities; it also depressed the real estate market, so that a diaspora of young chefs could afford to open places of their own in the city’s many residential villages.

Given the flow of wealth into Bernal in recent years, it was probably inevitable that a pretender to Liberty Café’s crown would emerge — and now one has, without benefit of earthquake. The restaurant is called Tinderbox, a "freestyle bistro" (per the menu card) opened by Ryan Russell and chef Blair Warsham toward the end of the summer on an easterly, sloping stretch of Cortland Avenue. The snug space is about as un-Liberty as could be; it’s spare and modern rather than neo-quaint: the walls are covered with recycled cork, the ceilings hung with light boxes of frosted glass, and the tables topped with burnished copper. There’s even a private dining room of sorts, a cozy nook (up a half flight of stairs) that resembles the captain’s mess on some clipper ship of yesteryear.

Warsham’s food is also wildly un-Liberty-like. While both kitchens bow to the gods of the local and sustainable, Tinderbox’s ethos is one of bold innovation. Warsham stops short of festooning his dishes with foams and gelées but isn’t at all shy about unlikely combinations — most of which (to perfect our theme of unlikeliness) work.

From the get-go, you are given notice of the restaurant’s bent for artful eccentricity. A basket of bread? Forget it: Your server brings you instead some popcorn, basted with a Thai-ish blend of coconut red curry, lemongrass, and galangal. You are a little wary at first but are quickly won over; the basket is soon emptied, and the server brings you another. (Extreme traditionalists will note that there is bread on the premises, and the staff will probably bring you some if you ask for it or your children insist.)

The menu offers a la carte and prix fixe options, but the latter — $35 for any appetizer, any main course, and any dessert or a glass of house wine — is too good a deal to pass up. The only excluded items are the ribeye steak, T-box tasting (a kind of appetizer sampler), and the lasagnette, a loose sandwich of saffron-chervil pasta leaves plumped out with either sautéed calamari ($15) or zucchini ($13) and dressed with a habit-forming sauce of fresh paprika pepper.

Some of the dishes, it must be said, are exemplars of austere virtue: a trio of whole grilled sardines ($11), say, on a bed of white-bean purée. Preserved Meyer lemon and thyme were said to lurk elsewhere on the plate, but what we noticed was the glistening plumpness of the fish, and that was what mattered. A rabbit hot pocket ($10) wasn’t quite austere, maybe, in its envelope of gold-fried pastry but was otherwise familiar despite the substitution of slightly exotic rabbit meat for something more quotidian, such as chicken. The halved hot pocket was plated with a luxuriantly glossy salsa verde and pitted castelvetrano (i.e. green) olives whose saltiness helped balance the blandness of the underseasoned rabbit meat.

Beets and figs, together on the same plate? A nightmare scenario for the beet-and-fig-hater, but the combination ($9) — beet coins laid atop fig coins and drizzled with beet vinaigrette — turned out to be surprisingly tasty, with an unusual harmony between the sharp sweetness of the figs and the earthy richness of the beets. Was the walnut blue cheese popper, a knobbly golf ball like a leftover from a caterer’s tray at some holiday party, necessary, or just an attempt at comic relief?

The only high-invention dish I came away with doubts about was the grilled avocado cutlet ($17). This turned out to the pitted, peeled halves of a whole avocado, grilled to a light char and filled with lightly caramelized cucumber dice. On the other side of the plate sat a beautifully browned risotto cake whose inner layer consisted of cojita and avocado cream, which lent the cake some creamy weight but made only a tenuous connection to the cutlet itself. As for the cutlet: Why grill a ripe avocado? Perhaps the thinking was that, since the grill benefits many a vegetable — many a fruit too — it would benefit the avocado. But this calculation overlooked the law of unintended consequences. A ripe avocado is already soft and doesn’t need grilling to make it softer, and it has an appealing butteriness that isn’t enhanced by grill char, no matter how pretty such char might be to the eye. A main dish concocted from avocado is a wonderful idea, but this dish isn’t it; the chef is too much with us.

Desserts, on the other hand, tend toward the extraordinary. A trio of fresh-doughnut-like raspberry beignets ($7) was simplicity itself. But a cannolo ($7) dribbled forth almond cream inflected with black pepper, and was plated amid reflecting pools of strawberry and basil oils. And a Kaffir lime panna cotta ($7), presented in what might have been a dog’s water dish as conceived by some designer in Milan, was all the more amazing — an engulfing denseness of cream, a bright muted acidity like filtered sunshine — for being a last-minute replacement to the scheduled star, a basil version. The sole holdover detail was the little chunk of honeycomb on top — the golden king of that particular hill.


Dinner: Mon.–Thurs. and Sun., 5:30–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.

803 Cortland, SF

(415) 285-8269


Beer and wine


Surprisingly not too noisy

Wheelchair accessible *



› le_chicken_farmer@yahoo.com

CHEAP EATS In the picture she is wearing a loose white gown, and her hair is white, and so are her eyebrows. In one hand, in her lap, she is clutching a white handkerchief, and upon the middle finger of her other hand, a monarch butterfly has landed. My grandmother is holding this butterfly to her puckered lips, as if to kiss it.

We didn’t want her to have a heart attack, so I would wear jeans and a loose T-shirt and put my hair in a pony tail. What we talked about was chickens. On the phone, in person … chickens. I considered naming myself after her. I did name one of my chickens after her. But I never "came out" to my Grandma Rubino.

I was thinking about this the other day in a Dumpster.

You do know I’m a Dumpster diva, right? And I say diva not because I tend to be more elegantly dressed than most of my fellow divers — although I do, to the amusement of many a construction worker — but because I tend to sing while I work. If I’m not wrangling out the words to one of my own original, lighthearted compositions, such as "The Absolute Nothing Blues," "I’m Pretty Scared Right Now," or "Agent of Entropy," then I’m mimicking something I halfway remember and in no way understand from Madame Butterfly.

Io credo a lasagna / E la grande soil / Senza chili con carne piangere taaaaaannnnnnto!!! . . . for example. I belt it out.

My new car, by the way, is a pickup truck. I know this to be true, even though it’s shaped like a station wagon, because I have already hauled a load of scrap wood and a lot of garbage in it. I drove it to West Oakland and then took a train to Pittsburgh, Pa. Moonpie was getting married.

She’s my oldest friend in the whole wide world, and a lot of my other oldest friends in the whole wide world would be there, including Shortribs, Bikkets, and Nada. Haywire, who lives in Pittsburgh, was out of town.

It was probably the best-written wedding ever, full of poetry and poets, and held on the top floor of a downtown artist’s studio. Me and Bikkets made the music, on steel drum and violin. The cat who married them was the most qualified marrier I ever heard of: not a minister, nor a priest, nor a justice of the peace, nor a ship’s captain, but a poet. The families just had to deal. And did, quite nicely.

I wear hand-me-downs and shop, if I shop, at thrift stores. I don’t know about fashion, or etiquette, so I called Moonpie a week ago or so, while I was still in the woods, packing, for permission.

"Moonpie," I said, "can I wear all black to your wedding?"

This was before I knew I’d be attending a funeral as well. I didn’t find that out until I was already on the train.

"Whatever makes you feel beautiful," Moonpie said.

Nor did I know that Bikkets would wear all black, and the three writers who read things. Even the Poet of the Peace: all black, even his tie. The bride wore whatever. It didn’t matter. Against a night sky like us, the Moon was going to shine.

After the wedding, after the reception, me and cousin Choo-Choo went to Moonpie’s new house, where we were staying with Nada and Shortribs. Moonpie and her man were off somewhere, so I got to sleep in their bed.

More important, I got to raid their refrigerator. The night before there had been a calzone and pizza party, and all I could think about before, during, and after the wedding dinner, was midnight snacking on last night’s leftovers. There had been a particularly excellent hot sausage calzone, which was for some reason not popular.

I knew there was a lot left, and I scoured their refrigerator but couldn’t find it. Shortribs and Nada had slept there the night before too. I asked and Nada admitted, a little sheepishly (but not sheepishly enough), that she’d thrown it all away that morning. "It sat out overnight," she said.

There was a huge Hefty garbage bag right there, and, in my wedding best, a butterfly in black, I dove in. I am my grandmother’s granddaughter. I have survived the Great Depression — and a lot of littler, not-so-great ones too. Like a lot of my family, I eat compost. I eat garbage.

I hold my grandma’s pretty picture to my own puckered lips and whisper to it. "I lied," I say.

She whispers back, "How are the chickens?"



› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Readers:

Do you remember where we left off last week? I’d wanted to write about the now semirecent research on circumcision and sensitivity, but I spent so much time patting Another Concerned Penis Owner on the, uh, head, about harboring what was probably too much bitterness about having been clipped as a kid that I ran out of space and time. I really wanted to get to the experiment results that were bouncing around the Internet back in the spring, and here’s our chance.

The article was published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in May. You can see it at tinyurl.com/yo32c7 or I can abstract the abstract for you, like this: There has been research done on sexual sensation in circed and uncirced men, but none, the authors say, on men who were aroused at the time of measurement, which they think is pretty important. They had the subjects watch sex flicks and nonsex flicks, and they tested for pain and touch sensitivity on "the penile shaft, the glans penis, and the volar surface of the forearm." They determined levels of sexual arousal by thermal imaging, which is kind of cool and reminds me slightly of the time I bought K a remote-sensing thermometer for his birthday. It looks like a gun and has a laser sight, which are always fun things, and we took it to a bar and annoyed people all night by announcing the temperature of random beverages and body parts. From across the room! Like magic! Perhaps you had to have been there.

The results (straight from the abstract): "In response to the erotic stimulus, both groups evidenced a significant increase in penile temperature, which correlated highly with subjective reports of sexual arousal. Uncircumcised men had significantly lower penile temperature than circumcised men, and evidenced a larger increase in penile temperature with sexual arousal. No differences in genital sensitivity were found between the uncircumcised and circumcised groups. Uncircumcised men were less sensitive to touch on the forearm than circumcised men. A decrease in overall touch sensitivity was observed in both groups with exposure to the erotic film as compared with either baseline or control stimulus film conditions. No significant effect was found for pain sensitivity."

In this study at least (it was small but doesn’t, to be fair, seem to be the kind of research that requires a huge cohort to shake out the noise and find something statistically significant), there was no difference in touch sensitivity on the penis, although there was a marked one in temperature, for whatever that’s worth (the uncut men were cooler and got hotter). I don’t know what to make of the fact that the uncut group was also more sensitive to being tapped on the arm. The most interesting fact to emerge from this particular study, though, is that sensitivity decreases as arousal increases. This is the exact experience that many women report, anecdotally at least, but not something you hear men complaining about nor their partners observing. Here it is, though, straight from the lab.

So what are we to make of the study’s central finding, which would imply that the perceived loss caused by routine circumcision is possibly not worth all the Sturm und Drang and gnashing and wailing, not to mention the freaky little devices for hauling the leftovers up over the tippy-tip like a cowl-neck sweater? Well, this is just one little study, and there are others purporting to reach different conclusions (although the one that shows major loss of sensation in circed men was done following adult circumcision, which is just not at all the same thing). Anyway, an argument can be made (and agreed with, if you are me) that it doesn’t really matter how sensitive the glans (or forearm!) is later; snipping healthy parts off healthy babies for no clear reason is still pretty hard to support and is kind of a spookily primitive habit for a supposedly advanced civilization to be hanging on to. I don’t exempt myself and my peeps from this, in case you’re wondering. In fact, the nonpointless version I put my son through is, if anything, more primitive — it’s a tribal blood rite, for god’s sake — but since he literally belongs to a tribe, it seemed necessary. I do believe that this study shows what it purports to and feel faintly vindicated, since I’ve been ever unimpressed with people who blame everything that’s wrong with their bodies and their relationships on something that doesn’t remotely faze the vast majority of "survivors," and I object to the word intactivist on aesthetic grounds — but finally, again, it doesn’t matter. Routine, nonreligious, nontherapeutic circumcision was a peculiarly American, distinctly 20th-century fixation, and a fairly nasty one at that. So what if it isn’t crippling? It’s still stupid.



Andrea is home with the kids and going stir-crazy. Write her a letter! Ask her a question! Send her your tedious e-mail forwards! On second thought, don’t do that. Just ask her a question.

Vote early and often: yes on A, no on H


OPINION The mainstream media talking heads like to claim that everything changed after Sept. 11. Like most of the slogans of the MSM, this is nonsense; events in Iraq continue to reveal just how stuck on pre– Sept. 11 assumptions the current national political class remains. In that sense, Sept. 11 has changed nothing.

What will really change everything is the expanding awareness of global warming and of the central role played by the automobile in climate change. Yet as with all truly major changes, the politics of global warming lags behind the physical realities imposed by science. That’s especially true at the local level, where large, important issues get translated into policy proposals and programs — programs that people have to vote and pay for if the changes are going to occur.

Nobel Prizes and Academy Awards may demonstrate broad acceptance of the idea of global warming, but it is the passage of local policies and the allocation of local tax dollars that will or will not get Americans out of their cars and into a vastly improved, publicly financed transit system that is the necessary first step in reversing this nation’s major contribution to the production of CO2.

The primary source of San Francisco’s main greenhouse gas is the private automobile. Proposition A on the November ballot seeks to take the first, halting steps toward reducing CO2 emissions by giving transit-first policies some additional local funding and the city the policy power to limit new parking when it interferes with transit. Prop. A is not the gold standard of policy that will eradicate, with one vote, all greenhouse gases in San Francisco. There is no such single measure — and even if there were, the politics around a dramatic reduction of that sort have yet to created. But Prop. A makes the clear connection between reducing dependence on cars and improving public transit — a necessary building block in creating an urban politics around a solution to global warming that would unite local officials, rational developers, labor, transit advocates, environmentalists, and community residents into a single constituency for change.

But this is still the United States, where a majority of us seem to believe that the Constitution grants us the right to park no more than 30 feet from wherever we want to go. Enter billionaire Don Fisher, of child-labor fame, a true believer in the guarantee of private car use. He has placed Proposition H, which sounds like a sure winner, on the ballot, giving us what he thinks we want for free: parking, parking, parking. His measure would amend some 60 pages of the Planning Code and change, in one measure, public policy from transit first to cars first. He’s betting that his money and his pro-parking values will strangle in its cradle the emerging politics of creating a majority for practical solutions to greenhouse gas production in urban America.

And he just might be right: the politics of global warming has yet to be created, while the politics of parking has long held sway in San Francisco. 2

Calvin Welch

Calvin Welch has been fighting for a better San Francisco since the 1960s.

A shot from the Sahel


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Many moons ago, when I moved as a child to Africa, my mother, my sister, and I resided in the Sahel. To be precise: we lived in Bamako, the vibrant capital city of Mali — not to be confused with the medieval empire of the same name. To reside there as a Western black was strange; our Americanness placed us in the novel position of being regarded as de facto aristos, somewhere between such elevated classes as wealthy, regal descendents of the Keita clan and the dispossessed, which included Imazighen exiles. To see beautiful but abject so-called Tuareg women and girls begging in the dusty streets of Bamako from the windows of our funereal Lincoln Town Car — the incongruity of them huddled at roadsides and traffic stops in their indigo or floral clothes, their grace surpassed only by the Wolof women to the northwest in Senegal — was a mind-blowing experience that has stayed with me in the decades since.

The complexities of centuries of intraracial warfare and political mayhem derived from poisonous North African colonial legacies were largely beyond my eight-year-old mind’s grasp. As Madame l’Ambassadeur, my late mother was the one to travel up-country and beyond, nearer the heart of the Sahara, and she worked tirelessly to have any impact on the volatile situation in the country. I was restricted by the quotidian business of school and play, but my far-roving mind began a lifelong romance with Mali’s two most fabled folk of the Western Sudan, the Dogon and the Imazighen. The star-walking Dogon were remote and mysterious at the Bandiagara escarpment, but the grave injustices being done to the proud, rebel Imazighen were plain to see in Bamako rush-hour traffic.

When I listen to the music of Africa’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, Tinariwen (translated from Tamasheq, "the deserts"), from L’Adrar des Iforas, this baggage comes with me, weighted with shame at not following in the career footsteps of my selfless Africanist mother and fear that people of the West will never truly comprehend the vital importance of the many Africas to their own humanity. With or without Tinariwen’s great Amassakoul and current Aman Iman (both World Village; 2004, 2007) on my iPod as I ride the Manhattan subway, when I see disenfranchised people begging down the aisle I am always jolted back to the visceral yet illusory sensation of extending my thin, childish arm through the steel of the Lincoln to help a reddish-brown-skinned Amazigh girl in elegant rags, no different than me in that she was the child of parents who wanted to be free.

Whereas my parents’ generation of young black revolutionaries sought to forge strong pan-Africanist links all the way from DC to Dar es Salaam, and their cult-nat elements experimented in folk, soul, rock, and funk genres to express the hopes and fears of the 1960s era of deliverance from Jim Crow, there in Bamako, as a child at the turn of the ’80s, I was witnessing at a remove the rise of radical culture spawned by Kel Tamasheq ishumaren (unemployed) forced to abandon traditional nomadic ways by poverty and drought. These black folks’ rebel music, tishoumaren, has found its apotheosis in Tinariwen since the group first emerged from a Libyan military camp in 1985, moving from guns to guitars in the process of wresting messages of uplift from chaos. They weave a sound web linking traditional instrumentation (like the tehardant, or lute), Maghrebi music (think Nass el Ghiwane), James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and even rap ("Arawan" on Amassakoul) — superbad, indeed.

The droning, hallucinatory blues of the Blue Men of the Ténéré may have increasingly wowed exogamous audiences since the acclaim Tinariwen’s Kel Tamasheq musicians received from jamming with Robert Plant at the 2003 Festival in the Desert, but there lies a deep source of crisis beneath the band’s international success. Recorded in Bamako, Aman Iman‘s "Soixante Trois" captures guitarist-singer Ibrahim ag Alhabib recalling the brutally suppressed 1963 Imazighen rebellion against the government of newly independent Mali. Tinariwen’s spare sound brings great joy on purely aesthetic grounds, the masterful harnessing of rolling electricity and overlapping ululation indelibly making a mark on the diasporic continuum stretching from Mali’s Ali Farka Touré to Mississippi’s Otha Turner and back again.

Yet it must never be forgotten that the mysteries of Al Baraka, the hardships of desert life and the hardcore realities of war, inform these songs, and such has been the lot of the aboriginal peoples of Tamazgha from the time of Roman and Islamic imperial incursions onto the North African sands up through current attempts to further disenfranchise the Imazighen in order to appropriate their oil-rich ancestral lands. Aman Iman‘s very title — meaning "water is life" — refers not merely to the primal law of the desert but also to the very real, enduring crisis afflicting the region’s ecology and society. As you rightly enjoy Tinariwen on tour, please remember and act on the fact that for the headliners, the fight continues on every front. *


Sun/4, 7 p.m., $20–$55

Palace of Fine Arts theatre

3301 Lyon, SF



Transit or traffic


Click here for the Clean Slate: Our printout guide to the Nov. 6 election

› steve@sfbg.com

San Francisco is at a crossroads. The streets are congested, Muni has slowed to a crawl, greenhouse gas emissions are at all-time highs, and the towers of new housing now being built threaten to make all of these transportation-related problems worse.

The problems are complicated and defy simply sloganeering — but they aren’t unsolvable. In fact, there’s remarkable consensus in San Francisco about what needs to be done. The people with advanced degrees in transportation and city planning, the mayor and almost all of the supervisors, the labor and environmental movements, the urban planning organizations, the radical left and the mainstream Democrats — everyone without an ideological aversion to government is on the same page here.

The city planners and transportation experts, who have the full support of the grass roots on this issue, are pushing a wide range of solutions: administrative and technical changes to make Muni more efficient, innovative congestion management programs, high-tech meters that use market principles to free up needed parking spaces, creative incentives to discourage solo car trips, capital projects from new bike and rapid-transit lanes to the Central Subway and high-speed rail, and many more ideas.

In fact, the coming year promises a plethora of fresh transportation initiatives. The long-awaited Transit Effectiveness Project recommendations come out in early 2008, followed by those from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s Mobility, Access, and Pricing Study (an unprecedented, federally funded effort to reduce congestion here and in four other big cities), an end to the court injunction against new bicycle projects, and a November bond measure that would fund high-speed rail service between downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But first, San Franciscans have to get past a few downtown developers and power brokers who have a simplistic, populist-sounding campaign that could totally undermine smart transportation planning.

On Nov. 6, San Franciscans will vote on propositions A and H, two competing transportation measures that could greatly help or hinder the quest for smart solutions to the current problems. Prop. A would give more money and authority to the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency while demanding it improve Muni and meet climate change goals.

Prop. H, which was placed on the ballot by a few powerful Republicans, most notably Gap founder Don Fisher (who has contributed $180,000 to the Yes on H campaign), would invalidate current city policies to allow essentially unrestricted construction of new parking lots.

New parking turns into more cars, more cars create congestion, congestion slows down bus service, slow buses frustrate riders, who get back into their cars — and the cycle continues. It’s transit against traffic, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

"If we are serious about doing something about global warming, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: people are going to have to drive less and take transit more" was how the issue was framed in a recent editorial cowritten by Sup. Sean Elsbernd, arguably the board’s most conservative member, and Sup. Aaron Peskin, who wrote Prop. A.

Peskin says Prop. H, which Prop. A would invalidate, is the most damaging and regressive initiative he’s seen in his political life. But the battle for hearts and minds won’t be easy, because the downtown forces are taking a viscerally popular approach and running against city hall.

The San Francisco Examiner endorsed Prop. H on Oct. 22, framing the conflict as between the common sense of "your friends and neighbors" and "a social-engineering philosophy driven by an anti-car and anti-business Board of Supervisors." If the Examiner editorialists were being honest, they probably also should have mentioned Mayor Gavin Newsom, who joins the board majority (and every local environmental and urban-planning group) in supporting Prop. A and opposing Prop. H.

The editorial excoriates "most city politicians and planners" for believing the numerous studies that conclude that people who have their own parking spots are more likely to drive and that more parking generally creates more traffic. The Planning Department, for example, estimates Prop. H "could lead to an increase over the next 20 years of up to approximately 8,200–19,000 additional commute cars (mostly at peak hours) over the baseline existing controls."

"Many, many actual residents disagree, believing that — no matter what the social engineers at City Hall tell you — adding more parking spaces would make The City a far more livable place," the Examiner wrote.

That’s why environmentalists and smart-growth advocates say Prop. H is so insidious. It was written to appeal, in a very simplistic way, to people’s real and understandable frustration over finding a parking spot. But the solution it proffers would make all forms of transportation — driving, walking, transit, and bicycling — remarkably less efficient, as even the Examiner has recognized.

You see, the Examiner was opposed to Prop. H just a couple of months ago, a position the paper recently reversed without really explaining why, except to justify it with reactionary rhetoric such as "Let the politicians know you’re tired of being told you’re a second-class citizen if you drive a car in San Francisco."

Examiner executive editor Jim Pimentel denies the flip-flop was a favor that the Republican billionaire who owns the Examiner, Phil Anschutz, paid to the Republican billionaire who is funding Prop. H, Fisher. "We reserve the right to change on positions," Pimentel told me.

Yet it’s worth considering what the Examiner originally wrote in an Aug. 2 editorial, where it acknowledged people’s desire for more parking but took into account what the measure would do to downtown San Francisco.

The paper wrote, "Closer examination reveals this well-intentioned parking measure as a veritable minefield of unintended consequences. It could actually take away parking, harm business, reduce new housing and drive out neighborhood retail. By now, Californians should be wary of unexpected mischief unleashed from propositions that legislate by direct referendum. Like all propositions, Parking For Neighborhoods was entirely written by its backers. As such, it was never vetted by public feedback or legislative debate. If the initiative organizers had faced harder questioning, they might have recognized that merely adding parking to a fast-growing downtown is likely to make already-bad traffic congestion dramatically worse."

The San Francisco Transportation Authority’s Oct. 17 public workshop, which launched the San Francisco Mobility, Access, and Pricing Study, had nothing to do with Props. A and H — at least not directly. But the sobering situation the workshop laid out certainly supports the assessment that drawing more cars downtown "is likely to make already-bad traffic congestion dramatically worse."

City planners and consultants from PBS&J offered some statistics from their initial studies:

San Francisco has the second-most congested downtown in the country, according to traffic analysts and surveys of locals and tourists, about 90 percent of whom say the congestion is unacceptably bad compared to that of other cities.

Traffic congestion cost the San Francisco economy $2.3 billion in 2005 through slowed commerce, commuter delays, wasted fuel, and environmental impacts.

The length of car trips is roughly doubled by traffic congestion — and getting longer every year — exacerbating the fact that 47 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from private cars. Census data also show that more San Franciscans get to work by driving alone in their cars than by any other mode.

Traffic has also steadily slowed Muni, which often shares space with cars, to an average of 8 mph, making it the slowest transit service in the country. Buses now take about twice as long as cars to make the same trip, which discourages their use.

"We want to figure out ways to get people in a more efficient mode of transportation," Zabe Bent, a senior planner with the TA, told the crowd. She added, "We want to make sure congestion is not hindering our growth."

The group is now studying the problem and plans to reveal its preliminary results next spring and recommendations by summer 2008. Among the many tools being contemplated are fees for driving downtown or into other congested parts of the city (similar to programs in London, Rome, and Stockholm, Sweden) and high-tech tools for managing parking (such as the determination of variable rates based on real-time demand, more efficient direction to available spots, and easy ways to feed the meter remotely).

"As a way to manage the scarce resource of parking, we would use pricing as a tool," said Tilly Chang, also a senior planner with the TA, noting that high prices can encourage more turnover at times when demand is high.

Yet there was a visceral backlash at the workshop to such scientifically based plans, which conservatives deride as social engineering. "I don’t understand why we need to spend so much money creating a bureaucracy," one scowling attendee around retirement age said. There were some murmurs of support in the crowd.

Rob Black, the government affairs director for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which is the most significant entity to oppose Prop. A and support Prop. H, was quietly watching the proceedings. I asked what he and the chamber thought of the study and its goals.

"We have mixed feelings, and we don’t know what’s going to happen," Black, who ran unsuccessfully against Sup. Chris Daly last year, told me. "The devil is in the details."

But others don’t even want to wait for the details. Alex Belenson, an advertising consultant and Richmond District resident who primarily uses his car to get around town, chastised the planners for overcomplicating what he sees as a "simple" problem.

Vocally and in a four-page memo he handed out, Belenson blamed congestion on the lack of parking spaces, the city’s transit-first policy, and the failure to build more freeways in the city. Strangely, he supports his point with facts that include "Total commuters into, out of, and within San Francisco have only increased by 206,000 since 1960 — more than 145,000 on public transit."

Some might see those figures, derived from census data, as supporting the need for creative congestion management solutions and the expansion of transit and other alternative transportation options. But Belenson simply sees the need for 60,000 new parking spaces.

As he told the gathering, "If someone wants to build a parking lot and the market will support it, they should be able to."

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) is generally allied with the downtown business community on most issues, but not Props. A and H, which SPUR says could be unmitigated disasters for San Francisco.

"SPUR is a pro-growth organization, and we want a healthy economy. And we think the only way to be pro-business and pro-growth in San Francisco is to be transit reliant instead of car reliant," SPUR executive director Gabriel Metcalf told me in an interview in his downtown office.

He agreed with Belenson that the free market will provide lots of new parking if it’s allowed to do so, particularly because the regulatory restrictions on parking have artificially inflated its value. "But the negative externalities are very large," Metcalf said, employing the language of market economics.

In other words, the costs of all of that new parking won’t be borne just by the developers and the drivers but by all of the people affected by climate change, air pollution, congested commerce, oil wars, slow public transit, and the myriad other hidden by-products of the car culture that we are just now starting to understand fully.

Yet Metcalf doesn’t focus on that broad critique as much as on the simple reality that SPUR knows all too well: downtown San Francisco was designed for transit, not cars, to be the primary mode of transportation.

"Downtown San Francisco is one of the great planning success stories in America," Metcalf said. "But trips to downtown San Francisco can’t use mostly single-occupant vehicles. We could never have had this level of employment or real estate values if we had relied on car-oriented modes for downtown."

Metcalf and other local urban planners tell stories of how San Francisco long ago broke with the country’s dominant post–World War II development patterns, starting with citizen revolts against freeway plans in the 1950s and picking up stream with the environmental and social justice movements of the 1960s, the arrival of BART downtown in 1973, the official declaration of a transit-first policy in the ’80s, and the votes to dismantle the Central and Embarcadero freeways.

"We really led the way for how a modern dynamic city can grow in a way that is sustainable. And that decision has served us well for 30 years," Metcalf said.

Tom Radulovich, a longtime BART board member who serves as director of the nonprofit group Livable City, said San Franciscans now must choose whether they want to plan for growth like Copenhagen, Denmark, Paris, and Portland, Ore., or go with auto-dependent models, like Houston, Atlanta, and San Jose.

"Do we want transit or traffic? That’s really the choice. We have made progress as a city over the last 30 years, particularly with regard to how downtown develops," Radulovich said. "Can downtown and the neighborhoods coexist? Yes, but we need to grow jobs in ways that don’t increase traffic."

City officials acknowledge that some new parking may be needed.

"There may be places where it’s OK to add parking in San Francisco, but we have to be smart about it. We have to make sure it’s in places where it doesn’t create a breakdown in the system. We have to make sure it’s priced correctly, and we have to make sure it doesn’t destroy Muni’s ability to operate," Metcalf said. "The problem with Prop. H is it essentially decontrols parking everywhere. It prevents a smart approach to parking."

Yet the difficulty right now is in conveying such complexities against the "bureaucracy bad" argument against Prop. A and the "parking good" argument for Prop. H.

"We are trying to make complex arguments, and our opponents are making simple arguments, which makes it hard for us to win in a sound-bite culture," Radulovich said.

"Prop. H preys on people’s experience of trying to find a parking space," Metcalf said. "The problem is cities are complex, and this measure completely misunderstands what it takes to be a successful city."

When MTA director Nathaniel Ford arrived in San Francisco from Atlanta two years ago, he said, "it was clear as soon as I walked in the door that there was an underinvestment in the public transit system."

Prop. A would help that by directing more city funds to the MTA, starting with about $26 million per year. "I don’t want to say the situation is dire, but it’s certainly not going to get better without some infusion of cash to get us over the hump," Ford told the Guardian recently from his office above the intersection of Market and Van Ness.

The proposed extra money would barely get this long-underfunded agency up to modern standards, such as the use of a computer routing system. "We actually have circuit boards with a guy in a room with a soldering iron keeping it all together," Ford said with an incredulous smile.

The other thing that struck Ford when he arrived was the cumbersomeness of the MTA’s bureaucracy, from stifling union work rules to Byzantine processes for seemingly simple actions like accepting a grant, which requires action by the Board of Supervisors.

"Coming from an independent authority, I realized there were a lot more steps and procedures to getting anything done [at the MTA]," he said. "Some of the things in Prop. A relax those steps and procedures."

If it passes, Ford would be able to set work rules to maximize the efficiency of his employees, update the outdated transit infrastructure, set fees and fines to encourage the right mix of transportation modes, and issue bonds for new capital projects when the system reaches its limits. These are all things the urban planners say have to happen. "It should be easy to provide great urban transit," Metcalf said. "We’re not Tracy. We’re not Fremont. We’re San Francisco, and we should be able to do this."

Unfortunately, there are political barriers to such a reasonable approach to improving public transit. And the biggest hurdles for those who want better transit are getting Prop. A approved and defeating Prop. H.

"It’s clear to people who have worked on environmental issues that this is a monumental election," said Leah Shahum, director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and an MTA board member. "San Francisco will choose one road or the other in terms of how our transportation system affects the environment. It will really be transit or traffic."

Shahum said the combination of denying the MTA the ability to improve transit and giving out huge new parking entitlements "will start a downward spiral for our transit system that nobody benefits from."

"We are already the slowest-operating system in the country," Ford said, later adding, "More cars on the streets of San Francisco will definitely have a negative impact on Muni."

But even those who believe in putting transit first know cars will still be a big part of the transportation mix.

"All of it needs to be properly managed. There are people who need to drive cars for legitimate reasons," Ford said. "If you do need to drive, you need to know there are costs to that driving. There is congestion. There are quality impacts, climate change, and it hurts transit."

"There are parking needs out there, and the city is starting to think of it in a more responsive way. We don’t need this to create more parking," Shahum said. "If folks can hold out and beat down this initiative, I do think we’re headed in the right direction."

Yet the Yes on A–No on H campaign is worried. Early polling showed a close race on Prop. A and a solid lead for Prop. H.

Fisher and the groups that are pushing Prop. H — the Council of District Merchants, the SF Chamber of Commerce, and the San Francisco Republican Party — chose what they knew would be a low-turnout election and are hoping that drivers’ desires for more parking will beat out more complicated arguments.

"The vast majority of San Franciscans call themselves environmentalists, and they want a better transit system," Shahum said, noting that such positions should cause them to support Prop. A and reject Prop. H. "But they’re at risk of being tricked by a Republican billionaire’s initiative with an attractive name…. Even folks that are well educated and paying attention could be tricked by this."

For Metcalf and the folks at SPUR, who helped write Prop. A, this election wasn’t supposed to be an epic battle between smart growth and car culture.

"For us, in a way, Prop. A is the more important measure," Metcalf said. "We want to focus on making Muni better instead of fighting about parking. We didn’t plan it this way, but the way it worked out, San Francisco is at a fork in the road. We can reinforce our transit-oriented urbanity or we can create a mainly car-dependent city that will look more like the rest of America."

The king of cheap



While PBS-hallowed filmmaker Ken Burns ladles treacle over the American past like hot fudge on the world’s biggest sundae, younger and less sepia-tinted filmmakers are beginning to take a more searching view of the national taste for sweet syrupiness. The goo at the heart of King Corn, for instance, is high-fructose corn syrup, a cheap and ubiquitous sweetener that’s not only a principal ingredient of many of our most obesity- and diabetes-inducing processed "foods," such as soda, but is also a substance, like enriched uranium, that could never exist in nature. It’s manufactured, from inedible kernels industrially farmed and then treated with a host of unpleasant chemicals, so when one of the young principals in King Corn brews up a batch at home and lifts the flask to his lips for a swig, you can’t help but flinch.

At the heart of King Corn (which opens Nov. 2 in the Bay Area) are two young Yalies, Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, who grow curious about corn when an isotope analysis reveals that almost all the carbon in their bodies is derived from that foodstuff. They arrange to farm an acre of corn in Iowa, then follow the harvest as best they can as it flows into the whitewater river of agrocommerce — to cattle feedlots and fast-food hamburger stands, to corn-syrup factories with reeking smokestacks and convenience stores in Brooklyn that sell soda in huge plastic bottles.

The film’s tone is gently comic, at least in the beginning — the boys drive tractors and body-surf down a golden mountain of corn kernels — but the mood darkens as the camera captures the sufferings of cattle whose digestive tracts are destroyed by corn (a grain they’re not suited to eat) and the wistfulness of people whose guzzling of corn syrup–sweetened soda led to diabetes.

Corn is many things — and perhaps, now, nearly everything — in American food production, but above all it is cheap. Cheap is a holy word in the American lexicon; it cannot be gainsaid. Cheap is good, and cheap food is good food, as agriculture secretary Earl Butz suggested during the Nixon years. A geriatric Butz is interviewed near the end of the movie; I only wish he’d been asked — nicely, of course — whether we can exalt inexpensive corn without coming to see life itself as fundamentally cheap.

Eugene Prince Coleman, 1937–2007


› news@sfbg.com

Eugene Prince Coleman died Oct. 26, surrounded by his family, after losing a battle against pancreatic cancer. It was one of the few fights that he lost in his long and memorable life in San Francisco.

Born in Mississippi 70 years ago and raised in Cleveland, Coleman came to San Francisco in 1972 and, like many in that decade, found a home in the city. He never left — and never, ever quit working to make it better.

Coleman was one of the creators of modern, tolerant, progressive San Francisco. His decadelong service to South of Market as director of the Canon Kip Community House (until it was closed as the Episcopal Church turned away from the central city) was a model of dedicated, informed, and effective advocacy and service. He founded the first paratransit service for seniors in San Francisco. He presided over one of the most dynamic and well-attended youth-serving community centers in the city, which provided safe, secure, and supportive space for an entire generation of Filipino youths. He almost single-handedly got the South of Market Health Center up and running, serving seniors and families.

And when urban renewal devastated South of Market, Coleman provided space and support, counsel, know-how, and a patience that bested the saints themselves in helping to create one of the most effective community campaigns against redevelopment in the nation. Some 2,000 low-income senior homes were rebuilt, and a new capacity to develop community-controlled affordable housing was created, in large measure due to Coleman’s wisdom and vision.

Thousands of San Franciscans who never knew his name owe Coleman for the dignity and grace that well-organized substance-abuse, residential-treatment, and food and health programs have provided them at his insistence as he helped build the infrastructure of a substance-abuse policy that is known nationwide as the San Francisco model.

Coleman spent the past decade or so working for the city, bringing to his job the keen judgment and the caring heart that so characterized his service to the community. He demanded that all people — youths and seniors, black, brown, and white, working-class and poor — be treated with respect and courtesy, warmth and love, and that they, in turn, treat one another the same way. Coleman was also an African American who never once gave up on the African American community or the needs of his people, and fought and talked and thought and cried for their continued survival in San Francisco.

He was simply a quintessential late-20th-century San Franciscan who gave back more than he took, cared more than he probably should have, and was one of the finest people to ever walk these sometimes mean and uncaring streets — with a demeanor that was always sweet and caring. *

Calvin Welch worked with Gene Coleman for 30 years and was blessed by his friendship.

A memorial for Coleman is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Nov. 1 at Providence Baptist Church, 1601 McKinnon, SF.



› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER If life is a cabaret, disco, or Costco excursion, then what about the sweet or sucky hereafter? Whether one believes in the interminable after-parties of the afterlife or not, one must get into the spirit of the season as a deathly chill breezes through the bones and the night shadows lengthen; try melting into the 15,000-strong crowd crawling down 24th Street and into Garfield Park during the Day of the Dead procession Nov. 2. The doors of perception are swinging wide — might as well stumble through and over a Burning Man–style performance art project, a random garage studio wine-ing passersby, or a shrine that speaks to you.

And what would the dead (not to be confused with RatDog) say? Would they wonder if that’s Devendra Banhart striding purposefully up 24th Street — or the ghost of luxuriantly locked Cockettes past? Why are the cash boxes of beloved nightspots like Thee Parkside and 111 Minna Gallery being hit by thieving tricksters? People and possessions come and go, but sometimes, mysteriously, they stick around. I was once terminally creeped out by an overnight stay at the Highland Gardens Hotel in Hollywood, where Janis Joplin slipped from this world into the next. Even otherwise sober arena rockers like those in Maroon 5 get the willies, as I found earlier this fall during a gang conference call on the edge of their current tour.

I asked frontperson Adam Levine why he ended up writing most of the songs on this year’s zillion-seller It Won’t Be Soon Before Long (Octone/A&M), and he chalked it up to an overflowing creativity inspired by intense solitude. I suppose alleged hookups with tabloid hotties like Lindsay Lohan and Jessica Simpson equal crap songcraft, so I wondered, "It didn’t have anything to do with the Rick Rubin house [where Maroon 5 recorded their album] or the ghost in it, supposedly?"

"Well, no," Levine replied. "That definitely kept me away from the house when I was wasn’t working, because of the strange spiritual goings-on."

Apparently, guitarist James Valentine, who stayed at the former Harry Houdini residence because he was "homeless at the time," had a solo encounter one night with a female phantom that walked into a room, then vanished. But spookier still is how catchy "Makes Me Wonder," off It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, is. One, two, even three hit pop singles don’t necessarily add up to the ghost of a chance in today’s fickle musical marketplace — and the predictable love-thang lyrical fixations of "This Love" and "She Will Be Loved" don’t necessarily appeal to sardonic souls who want to hear songs about vampires, aliens, and their favorite Suicide Girls. ("We’re certainly not reinventing the wheel or necessarily putting a flag anywhere," Levine confessed.) Still, one must appreciate the band’s attempt at levity with their cover of "Highway to Hell" on 2004’s 1.22.03.Acoustic (Octone/J). And AC/DC-style lasting power seemed to be on the minds of the Grammy-winning, multiputf8um group, which name-checked Prince and the Stones.

"I think that we don’t want to burn out," Levine said, "and there’s definitely this mentality that’s very strong these days about cashing in, and we’re much more interested in longevity. We’re also interested in cashing in to some extent — who wouldn’t be?" Valentine snickered as Levine continued, "We want to be taken seriously as a band, and there’s things that you need to do in order to make that happen.

"I think those artists that you mentioned have done that in order to stay relevant. I think that we just need to try as hard as we can and make sure that we’re not always taking a check just to take a check. I think that at the end of the day, it comes down to one thing, which is writing good music." Waving a lighter and building an altar won’t fly?


With the Hives and Phantom Planet

Tues/6, 7:30 p.m., $39.50–$50.50

HP Pavilion

525 W. Santa Clara, San Jose




I’m high on the massive hand claps and grinding riffage of the Philly-Brooklyn band’s "Mirror on You," from Grass Geysers … Carbon Clouds (Touch and Go). Thurs/1, 9 p.m., $10–$12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com


Zero publisher Larry Trujillo and pals soup up the sound, lighting, and decor to showcase rock acts, live burlesque on Mondays, and electro nights on Saturdays. Birdmonster and the Morning Benders play. Fri/2, 9:30 p.m., $10. Uptown, 1928 Telegraph, Oakl. www.uptownnightclub.com


Making thoughtful prog instrumentals for the 21st century with You, You’re a History in Rust (Constellation). Sat/3, 9 p.m., $15 advance. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com


Fresh from getting fingered by BBC Radio 1’s Steve Lamacq, the SF dream poppers unfurl A New Hope (Take Root). Sat/3, 8:30 p.m., $10. Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell, SF. www.rickshawstop.com


Not to be confused with dung. The London nouveau folk band strum, detune, and jingle something fierce on Good Arrows (Thrill Jockey). Mon/5, 9 p.m., $10–$12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com


WWKT: what would Kurt think? The Load Records combo pens tunes like "Missing Dick," off 2006’s Nevermind. Tues/6, 9:30 p.m., $6. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com

Money and politics


› sarah@sfbg.com

The upcoming election hasn’t generated much voter interest, with only a couple of measures that seem likely to have an impact. But corporate interests in San Francisco and beyond are still spending big money — in ways that are secretive, suspicious, and sometimes contradictory — to influence the election and win the gratitude of elected officials.

Although the final preelection campaign statements were due Oct. 25, the money continues to roll in. And perhaps most ominously, many campaign committees are spending far more than they are taking in, effectively using this accrued debt to hide contributors until after the election.

And almost invariably, the person at the center of such schemes — who facilitates the most creative and unsettling spending by downtown political interests — is notorious campaign finance attorney Jim Sutton, who also serves as Mayor Gavin Newsom’s treasurer (and didn’t return our calls for comment by press time).

Political donations are supposed to be transparent and reflect popular support for some campaign. But once again, this election is showing the disproportionate influence that corporations have on local politics and the difficulties faced in trying to accurately trace that influence.

There are "No on K" billboards all over San Francisco, showing a giant image of a man’s empty pocket alongside the dubious claim that "Proposition K will cut $20 million from Muni." The signs were created and funded by Clear Channel Outdoor.

Prop. K is an advisory measure that the Board of Supervisors placed on the ballot this fall to ask whether voters want to restrict advertising on public spaces like bus stops. But it was aimed at Clear Channel Outdoor’s contract to maintain 1,100 city bus shelters and sell advertising on them, which was approved by the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 23. In exchange, the CCO agreed to pay the Metropolitan Transportation Authority $5 million annually, plus 45 percent of its annual revenues from shelter ad revenues.

Nonetheless, the measure would put city voters on record as opposing the CCO’s basic business model, so the company fought back. The "No on K — Citizens to Protect Muni Services" filing suggests that there is no citizen involvement in the No on K campaign. So far, No on K has only received donations from Clear Channel Outdoor, including $120,000 in cash and $55,750 in in-kind contributions of radio time and ad space.

Maybe Clear Channel really is trying to help Muni get more money, rather than pad its own profits. After all, its parent corporation, Clear Channel International, donated $20,000 to support Muni reform measure Proposition A — authored by Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin — on Oct. 15, just days before Clear Channel Outdoor won its big bus transit deal with the city.

Yet following the corporate money even further makes it clear that altruism isn’t what motivates corporate spending. No on K also benefited from independent expenditures by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce 21st Century Committee, a general-purpose committee created in 1999, which received major funding this year from the Gap ($10,000), Pacific Gas and Electric Co. ($7,500), Bechtel ($5,000), Catholic Healthcare West ($5,000), and Clear Channel Outdoor ($1,000).

The 21st Century Committee also spent $716 for newspaper ads opposing Prop. A, which would net the MTA at least $26 million per year from the city’s General Fund. Sutton — a former chair of the California Republican Party — and his associates effectively control the 21st Century Committee, which is also helping Newsom, his top client, avoid facing the Board of Supervisors in public. The committee has made independent expenditures opposing Proposition E, a charter amendment that would require the mayor to make monthly appearances before the board, something voters approved last year as an advisory measure. According to Newsom spokesperson Nathan Ballard, defeating that measure is the mayor’s top priority this election.

"I think he’s focused on his own race and also Question Time. There’s where he’s spending his resources," Ballard said when asked why Newsom isn’t campaigning or fundraising for the Yes on A and No on H campaigns, even though he supports those positions.

The 21st Century Committee has also made independent expenditures in support of Proposition C (which would require public hearings for measures that the board or the mayor places on the ballot), Proposition H (see "Transit or Traffic," page 18), Proposition I (which would establish an Office of Small Business), and Proposition J (Newsom’s wireless Internet advisory measure).

Each of these ballot measures has a committee dedicated to raising funds, but as of Oct. 25, only the Small Business Campaign (Yes on C) appeared to have no outstanding debts, or accrued funds, as they are called in campaign finance circles. Maybe that’s because the Small Business Campaign got $10,000 from the 21st Century Committee, $5,000 from PG&E, $2,500 from AT&T, $8,500 from the SF Small Business Advocates, and $1,000 from the Building Owners and Manufacturers Association of San Francisco’s political action committee.

Yes on C also got a $7,500 contribution from the Committee on Jobs Government Reform Fund, which has ties to Clear Channel, the MTA, and efforts to influence local transportation policy. Records show that on Nov. 4, 2005 — just before the election — the Committee on Jobs Government Reform Fund reported a $6,900 "loan" for radio airtime and production costs from Clear Channel to help defeat a measure that would have split the MTA appointments between the mayor and the Board of Supervisors.

Fast-forward to Oct. 3 of this year, when the Committee on Jobs, which reported its "loan" as accrued funds for almost two years, reported that this debt has now been forgiven. Which is odd, given that, as of Oct. 25, the Committee on Jobs had a cash balance of $778,000 — and had just received $35,000 from financier and Committee on Jobs board member Warren Hellman, $35,000 from AT&T, and $50,000 from the Charles Schwab Corp.

Equally interesting is the fact that the day after the Oct. 25 preelection filing deadline, the Committee on Jobs gave $25,000 to the Sutton-controlled No on E: Let’s Really Work Together Coalition. Such large late contributions require a notice to Ethics that can often escape notice by the media and voters.

The donation perhaps went to help balance the committee’s books; despite receiving $85,084 in monetary contributions, including $10,000 from attorney Joe Cotchett and society maven Dede Wilsey, No on E spent $110,244 before Oct. 25, leaving it with $26,610 in accrued debt.

No on E isn’t the only Sutton-controlled committee whose spending has outpaced donations received: as of Oct. 25 the Yes on H–No on A pro-parking committee and Newsom’s WiFi for All, Yes on J committee, not to mention the Gavin Newsom for Mayor campaign, were all registering large amounts of accrued debt.

Having these debts isn’t illegal. And it’s not unusual for a campaign to have a pile of unpaid bills at the time of its last preelection finance filing. But as Ethics Commission director John St. Croix told the Guardian, accrued funds "shouldn’t be used to hide who your contributors are. The idea of disclosure is to let voters know ahead of elections who is trying to influence their vote."

St. Croix points to the fact that committees are required to make reports every 24 hours in the 16 days before an election "so you know what they are spending on…. But if committees don’t report campaign contributions and people fundraise after the election, that could be a de facto way to hide who the contributors are."

And while Sutton has been characterized by many, including the Guardian (see "The Political Puppeteer," 2/2/04), as the dark prince of campaign finance, St. Croix says he doesn’t automatically suspect something is wrong just because a campaign has a lot of accrued debt.

"But if people suspect that to be the case and they file a complaint, Ethics investigates," St. Croix said, adding that for him, "really massive accrued funds would be a red flag."

Asked what he meant by massive, St. Croix said, "It depends on the office. You might expect a lot more to accrue in a mayor’s race or large campaigns that tend to do a lot of last-minute spending."

As of Oct. 25, Gavin Newsom for Mayor had received $1.1 million and spent $1.3 million, had a cash balance of $457,994 — and was reporting $97,548 in accrued debt, with $46,500 owed to Storefront Political Media, the company run by Newsom’s campaign manager, Eric Jaye.

Noting that Ethics’ job is "to get people to file on time and chase after those who don’t," St. Croix said that those who don’t file and are making major expenditures right before an election are the ones who will face the biggest fines. "They could face $5,000 per violation, which could be $5,000 for every contribution that was made to finance a smear campaign and wasn’t reported," he said.

The biggest fine the Ethics Commission has ever issued was $100,000 for Sutton’s failure to report until after the 2002 election a late $800,000 contribution from PG&E to help defeat a public power measure.

Compared to other years, the amounts of accrued debt in this election may look small, but former Ethics commissioner Joe Lynn points to a disturbing pattern in which Sutton-controlled committees were insolvent before the election, then raised funds later or, as in the case of the Committee on Jobs, magically saw their debts forgiven.

"If I am a candidate running for mayor, like Gavin Newsom, and I personally rake up $100,000 in debt and have a big financial statement, then that means there’s a creditor willing to advance me those funds," Lynn said. "But if the debt has been raked up by a ballot measure committee, then who is responsible? Why would vendors spend $10,000 for that committee unless they knew that debt was wired from the get-go?"

But the result is the same: voters don’t know who donated to the campaign until after the votes have been cast. A clear historical example of this debt scheme can be seen in the June 2006 No on D Laguna Honda campaign. In its last preelection report, No on D had $59,750 in contributions, $18,664 in expenditures — and $130,224 in debt.

But during the 16 days before the election, No on D suddenly got $110,000 in late contributions from the usual suspects downtown, including $2,500 from Hellman, $15,000 from Turner Construction, $10,000 from Wilsey, $2,000 from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and $2,500 from the Building Owners and Manufacturers Association of San Francisco.

As Lynn explains, campaign finance laws only require disclosure of contributions, not expenditures, made in the 16 days before an election — and only $64,000 worth of the contributions used to pay off No on D’s accrued expenses were disclosed, with $10,000 each from the California Pacific Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente trickling in on or after Election Day.

This year campaign finance watchdogs like Lynn note that the Sutton-controlled Yes on H–No on A committee has been hiding its contributors. In its first preelection report, filed Sept. 22, Yes on H showed $113,750 in contributions, $111,376.18 in expenditures, and $69,806.98 in accrued debt.

A month later it has doubled its contributions, tripled its expenditures — and had increased its accrued debt to $77,509. Lynn predicts that Yes on H’s accrued debt will be paid down by late contributions after the election or forgiven later on.

"The solution to the debt scheme is twofold," Lynn said. "Prosecute people doing the scheme and pass a law prohibiting campaigns from making more expenditures than they have contributions. Technically there is nothing illegal about reporting more debt that you have the cash or contributions to pay, but no businessperson regularly offers services in situations where it isn’t clear that they will be paid."

Since the Oct. 25 filing deadline, late contributions have continued to pour into No on E big-time, for a total of $59,500. That includes $25,000 from the Committee on Jobs, $2,500 from Jonathan Holzman, $6,000 from Elaine Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis, $1,000 from Chris Giouzelis, $1,000 from Nick Kontos, $1,000 from Farrah Makras, $1,000 from Victor Makras, $1,000 from Makras Real Estate, $5,000 from John Pakrais, $1,000 from Mike Silva, $1,000 from Western Apartments, $5,000 from Maurice Kanbar, and $5,000 from the San Francisco Apartment Association PAC.

The Yes on A committee hasn’t used the accrued debt scheme, but it has been the second-largest recipient of late contributions. It received $57,000 in late contributions, with donations from Engeo ($1,000), Singer Associates ($2,500), Trinity Management Services ($10,000), Elysian Hotels and Resorts ($5,000), Luxor Cabs ($1,000), Marriott International ($15,000), the SF Police Officers Association ($2,000), Sprinkler Fitters and Apprentices ($1,500), Barbary Coast Consulting ($2,500), and SEIU International ($3,397.14).

No on H (Neighbors Against Traffic and Pollution) received $4,500 in late contributions, with donations from Norcal Carpenters, Alice and William Russell-Shapiro, and Amandeep Jawa. And in what looks like a classic case of hedging bets, Singer Associates has made a $2,500 late contribution to both Yes on H and No on H.

Steven Mele, who is treasurer for Yes on A and No on H, told the Guardian, "There’s some people that time their contributions, but their names are out there, reported on public sites. A lot of corporate money comes in prior to the last deadline, then some afterwards. If campaigns are running with a lot of accrued debt, then those people must have an idea of what money is going to come in."

Unlike the campaigns controlled by the Sutton Law Firm, Mele’s committees, which work with Stearns Consulting, are not carrying massive loads of unpaid debt. Yes on A had received $302,452 and spent $279,890 and had $17,749 in debt as of Oct. 25. No on H had received $134,458 and spent $124,088 and had no debt as of Oct. 25.
Mele also believes that while campaign finance rules were written to make the money trail more transparent, "They’ve resulted in the public being inundated with so much information that they tend to glaze over."

King of the dance


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet celebrates its 25th anniversary this weekend, but King’s influence on Bay Area dance goes back further than that. Veteran dancers remember his ballet classes for the musical combinations that he gave his students in the ’70s. One of them was Joanna Haigood, artistic director of Zaccho Dance Theatre, who said, "Alonzo was a spirit master who happened to be a dancer." While she loved the challenge of the technique, she was really in his class because "he taught us to live the dance."

Not only local performers knew about King’s poetic approach to ballet. Big stars like Fernando Bujones and Natalia Makarova never missed an opportunity to work with him when they were in town. But eventually, King needed to have his own company. These days, in addition to periodic guest artist Muriel Maffre, Lines Ballet performs with nine dancers. This year it toured from France to Poland, from Austria to Greece, in addition to performing in stateside engagements and two home seasons.

King also founded the SF Dance Center, initially to support his company financially; the now-independent center offers classes for adults in a variety of styles. He then created Lines Ballet School, which teaches according to his principles. Last year, in conjunction with Dominican University, King established a BA program that allows dancers to simultaneously pursue professional and academic studies. In other words, in addition to choreographing 74 works, King has created an institution. "I know now that we have grown so much it will be more difficult to balance humanity and creativity with effective business practices," he said in a recent phone interview. "But if I have my choice, I will go with the humanity."

Aside from his choreography, King’s greatest contribution might turn out to be his challenging of preconceptions about dance, specifically ballet. To question the status quo is perhaps the birthright of this son and grandson of prominent civil rights leaders in Albany, Ga. King grew up participating in civil rights marches. His mother introduced him to dance, while his father, a follower of 19th-century sage Ramakrishna, taught him about meditation.

For King, dance is the appropriate medium for exploring a universe that he perceives to be in flux, where opposites don’t stand against but hold one another in balance. Ballet for him is not a style but a language — one that, he says, would have to be invented if it didn’t exist already. Ballet is abstraction; ballet is science; ballet is geometry. After all, a pirouette is a perfect circle, a tendu (stretched foot) a line that reaches into infinity. To King, ballet is a tool to investigate creativity, which, he insists, is everyone’s birthright. Does he think everyone can become an artist?

"No, that’s not what I mean," he explained. "But just like we all have a brain, we all have creativity. We either tap into it or we don’t. For most people, when they are educated as children it is stripped away from them because they are trained to give the answer which the teacher wants, when there are multifarious choices that could be selected. The government doesn’t really encourage it, because if you give people the ability to ascertain thought, to really deconstruct ideas, that’s dangerous because no longer can they be sheep, but at that point they are discerning lions. And when you have 300 million discerning lions, [you’ve] got a problem."

King’s ballets are nonhierarchical — no predetermined gender roles, no fixed vocabulary — and what looks like balletic distortion is simply an emphasis on a constantly shifting center of gravity instead of a stable focus on the body’s vertical axis. Women can be strong, men tender. Early in his career he paired a tall woman with a much shorter man. It looked odd. Why, King asked, do we always see male-female duets in terms of gender relationships? Couldn’t a dance be about a mother and a child or a sky and a landscape?

He does follow one convention — putting women on pointe — though he noted that this doesn’t have to be a female prerogative. "If you look at most cultures, you see an appreciation of the idea of being elevated, of being above the earth. In Africa dancers use stilts. In Balkan countries men do dance on their toes." He often took barre on pointe, and during his training at Harkness House men took pointe class once a week. If enough training becomes available, one of these days King just might put men into pointe shoes.

For his anniversary premieres, King has choreographed two works, one to a new score by tabla master Zakir Hussein, the other to selections from baroque composers. The connection? Both types of music, to be performed live, allow for improvisation. According to the enthusiastic King, "That’s when the artists can go deep inside themselves and become fully who they are." *


Fri/2, 9 p.m.; Sat/3 and Nov. 7–10, 8 p.m.; Sun/4, 7 p.m.; Nov. 11, 3 p.m.; $25–$65

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts theater

700 Howard, SF

(415) 978-2787


Consumer biotech


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION When will we tire of the endless scandals over bricking iPhones, RSI-causing Wiis, and PlayStation shootings? I think the time is coming soon, my friends. In fact, the whole consumer electronics craze is about to die off and give birth to a new home-tech phenomenon. I refer, of course, to the consumer biotech revolution that’s just on the horizon.

Consumer biotech isn’t a new idea. Home pregnancy tests are a form of consumer biotech, as are Viagra and Prozac. Many diabetics administer insulin using small computers that measure their blood sugar levels and administer appropriate doses when necessary. I call this stuff consumer biotech because it measures and alters biological states for the mass market. And when smart phones become as boring as dumb ones, the lust for cool new biotech will replace the lust for new game consoles. Here are a few ideas about what will happen when consumer biotech goes beyond medical devices and into the realm of entertainment.

DNA Crystal Ball Already people are jumping at the chance to get their genome sequenced using cheapo services like GeneTree.com. Meanwhile, scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology have invented a biosensor for identifying viruses that’s the size of an attaché case. So it shouldn’t be long before a company develops handhelds that identify sections of your DNA that offer hints of your distant parentage as well as what kinds of characteristics you’re likely to develop as you age. Of course, nobody really cares about the science behind this crap — they just want to be told a cool story that predicts what will happen to them based on their allele configuration. Thus Mattel will offer the DNA Crystal Ball, a little computer that will spit out pseudoscientific "predictions" about you based on poorly researched genomics studies. If you have this or that allele, you might become an artist! Or you might be quick to anger. Your ancestors might have been Indian princesses or African warriors! Since the device will be sold purely "for entertainment," it won’t give you, for instance, valuable information about a predilection for breast cancer. But you’ll metastasize happily knowing you’ve got the "gene" for friendliness.

Clonies! Kids love Shrinky Dinks, the plastic toys you color and stick in the oven, shrinking them into hard little plastic ornaments. So why not do the same thing with tissue engineering? Using techniques already perfected by a bunch of Australian tissue artists from a lab called SymbioticA, kids will create wee "clonies," tiny versions of themselves grown from their own skin cells using tissue-engineering edifices. Just culture a bit of your skin and grow it in a petri dish while you build a little model of yourself out of the foamy edifice. Once you’ve got a few inches of skin, drape them on the edifice, let them grow for a few days, and presto! A tiny version of you, made of your own skin! You’ll get days of fun, and then you can dispose of the clonie in a handy biohazard container (sold separately). Try it with your dog, and your friends!

Gene Expression Jam Session Remember how cool Garage Band was back when people thought playing with computer networks was as fun as playing with cellular signaling mechanisms? Jim Munroe has predicted that in the future every kid will have an Easy-Bake Oven for growing new animals, but Gene Expression Jam Session will be way cooler. Mix and match the genes of your choice using an easy user interface and rewrite your biology on the spot. Want to glow green for the evening or sprout hair all over your body? How about growing an extra pair of arms on your torso? Gene Expression Jam Session will produce the genes you need to do it, enclose them in a nifty virus-shell vector for quick delivery to your DNA, and shoot ’em right into your arm for fast-acting fun! Once you’re sick of your newly engineered appearance, you can buy a plug-in that reverses the effects of your newly added genes or adds extra genes to make you look even wilder!

And don’t get me started on the consumer nanotech revolution. You haven’t truly lived until you’ve turned your pet goldfish into a golf ball. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who has this weird growth on her head that won’t stop flashing the Google logo until she pays for a Jam Session upgrade.

Are high-rises green?


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY High-rises are popping up fast in San Francisco, altering the skyline from one month to the next. But are these giants environmentally friendly? Do they make San Francisco more green or less?

One of the major advantages of using tall buildings in city design is the potential to reduce suburban sprawl: building up instead of out lessens the demand for single-family homes, creates dense neighborhoods where cars aren’t needed, and allows for more open spaces to be preserved.

Additionally, the concentration of people in high-rise clusters encourages the creation of acceptable transit systems. "The high density of high-rise neighborhoods — whether residential, office, or mixed-use — creates the necessary population density to support efficient transit service, allowing people to take transit rather than drive," said Lisa M. Feldstein, a local affordable-housing consultant who grew up in a residential high-rise in New York City’s East Harlem. "The reason that bus service is poor in suburbs and rural areas is not that people in those areas don’t like transit. It’s that the population isn’t sufficiently dense to support a fast, frequent, and efficient transit system, so people can’t rely on it."

Density puts demands on transportation, but that doesn’t guarantee public transit use. When people working in city centers like San Francisco can’t afford to live there, that can create cross-commute situations that clog big-city roadways, which may be even more environmentally damaging than suburban-style development. In fact, San Franciscans drive to work alone more than they use public transportation to get there, according to a 2006 US Census Bureau study.

High-density residents tend to use fewer resources than their low-density counterparts. Because walls, pipes, and other materials are shared, it can take less energy, for example, to heat a high-rise unit than a single family home.

But high-rises use energy in ways that single-family homes don’t — for example, in thousands of elevator trips from top to bottom every day. According to a study found on the US Department of Energy’s Web site, elevators consume up to 10 percent of the total energy used to maintain tall buildings. Furthermore, these buildings are usually climate controlled (in part to counteract the heat created by their elevators), whereas opening and closing windows can more effectively regulate temperatures in single-family houses and low-rise units. High-rise buildings also include common areas that often leave lights burning 24 hours a day.

Not having private yards in high-rises reduces the water and the toxic chemicals used to maintain them and forces people into public spaces. But there is another environmental cost to this void, said Lisa Katz, a planner with Design, Community and Environment in Berkeley. "People living in high-rises have less connection to the land; for example, they can’t grow their own food," she said. Raising food sources in agricultural communities and exporting them to cities uses exorbitant amounts of energy in the form of fuel and packaging.

High-rises, however, have the potential to achieve the highest level of green building ratings, according to Maria Ayerdi, executive director of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which on Sept. 20 approved the proposal for the new Transbay Transit tower, which will be the tallest building on the West Coast. "In tall buildings there are creative efficiency, recycling, and energy-generating opportunities that may not be possible in smaller buildings," she said. In fact, several high-rises around the country have been built according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification standards, which demand energy and resource efficiency.

But Calvin Welch, a local housing activist, said it is "virtually impossible to conceive a green-materials building of any sort" that would meet the seismic requirements of high-rises in San Francisco. These include the use of "heroic construction techniques" involving extraenforced foundations to build on "Bay Area mud," high-tinsel steel, which is packed with carbon and takes loads of energy to produce (often using coal or gas ovens), and thousands of gallons of diesel for the transportation of materials to the city center.

"This is one of the most disastrous building techniques of mankind," Welch said of high-rise housing, noting that "the environmental debt, even if compensated by solar panels, etc., is too great." *

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

Editor’s Notes


› tredmond@sfbg.com

The battle over propositions A and H isn’t just about transportation. Sure, Prop. A is about reforming Muni, and Prop. H claims to be about neighborhood parking, but as Steven T. Jones reports on page 18, this is really about whether a Republican billionaire can buy a San Francisco election with a populist-sounding theme.

And it’s about whether this city is mature enough and its residents smart enough to recognize that everything the George W. Bush administration (and the Ronald Reagan administration and the entire Republican establishment over the past quarter century) says is fundamentally wrong: Progress sometimes requires sacrifice. You can’t get something for nothing. And government can be the solution, not just the problem.

Everyone in this town knows that global warming is real and is a problem. Everyone knows that society has to make some changes. And everyone with any sense knows that one of those changes involves reducing the use of private automobiles, particularly in cities.

Transit planners can tell you that the relationship between cars and buses in San Francisco is brutal. Every car on the streets creates traffic, which slows down buses. Every time the buses slow down, more people want to drive their cars. And the further this loop of doom continues, the worse the impact on livability in the city and the viability of the planet will be.

Muni needs a lot of things to make it function better, and Prop. A includes some of them. But one of the biggest things it needs is less traffic downtown — which means fewer cars. That means the city ought to make it inconvenient and expensive to drive into the downtown area.

But Don Fisher, of the Gap fame, wants to give downtown developers the right to build as much parking as they want. That’s what Prop. H would do — and his campaign is deceptively appealing. He’s running against the "social engineers" at City Hall, trying to get everyone who hates looking for a parking space to support him.

That way leads to disaster. I hope we don’t listen.

The Clean Slate




1. Quintin Mecke

2. Ahimsa Sumchai

3. Chicken John Rinaldi

Sheriff: Mike Hennessey

District Attorney: Kamala Harris


Proposition A: YES

Proposition B: YES

Proposition C: NO

Proposition D: YES

Proposition E: YES, YES, YES

Proposition F: YES

Proposition G: YES

Proposition H: NO, NO, NO

Proposition I: YES

Proposition J: NO

Proposition K: YES

This stuff’ll kill ya!


CULT FILM GOD Blood Feast, Color Me Blood Red, The Gruesome Twosome, and The Gore Gore Girls — between 1960 and 1972, Herschell Gordon Lewis ruled the drive-in with a steady stream of exploitation movies, made on the cheap for crowds unafraid to experience the kind of special effects that earned Lewis the nickname "the Godfather of Gore." Nowadays, the 81-year-old is a highly respected authority on direct marketing (check out his column, Curmudgeon at Large, at directmag.com), but he’s proud (if bemused) that his films continue to thrill audiences today. As part of the Clay Theatre’s Late Night Picture Show, Lewis will appear in person with his 1970 surreal magician splatterfest The Wizard of Gore (remade this year, by another director, as a Crispin Glover vehicle). He’ll also appear at Amoeba Music with — saddle up, Two Thousand Maniacs! fans — a jug band. Naturally, I seized on the chance to talk to one of my personal heroes prior to his visit.

SFBG I’m so excited to see The Wizard of Gore on the big screen.

HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS [Laughs] That’s a way to start a conversation.

SFBG Back when you were making your films, did you have any idea that they would still be popular so many years later?

HGL Good heavens, no. All we were trying to do was to stay alive in the film business by making the kind of movies the major companies either couldn’t make or wouldn’t make. I had expected [my films] would simply disappear the way so many major-company pictures do. It’s like Hamlet: they strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then are heard no more. It is astounding to me that this strange … I’ll call it a movement, which we didn’t even think was a movement, has survived all this time.

SFBG What is the lasting impact of your films?

HGL One benefit that we brought to the arena was that a motion picture that attracts attention can be totally outside the orbit of (1) star name value and (2) great production values. I’ve seen critical comments on these movies, and they weren’t critics’ pictures. Good heavens. They were made simply to startle people. This renaissance that’s taken place in the last few years, first with videocassettes and then with DVDs, it astounds me.

SFBG It proves your theory that reaching the audience is the most important thing.

HGL Yes, and in fact, when I was making these things, I reached a point at which other schlock film producers were sending me their movies to do the [advertising] campaigns. They began to recognize that the campaign not only caused people to come into the theater, but it caused theaters to book these pictures all together. Today I see major-company product — they don’t know how to title a movie. It stupefies me. And the campaign is stultifying. It’s bewildering. It’s exasperating. It’s obfuscatory. I’m using all kinds of adjectives here.

SFBG A film’s title is important. Obviously The Wizard of Gore is a brilliant title.

HGL She-Devils on Wheels was [originally] called Man-Eaters on Motorbikes. And in fact, the theme song in She-Devils on Wheels is called "Man-Eaters on Motorbikes." As we were developing the campaign, it occurred to me that She-Devils on Wheels was a more dynamic title, and we switched. If you think in terms of somebody who is looking through a newspaper or a listing of titles, [if you don’t have] your own ego superimposed on everything you do, the response goes up. I’m no auteur, never claimed to be. Somebody said to me, "Did any of your movies ever get two thumbs up?" And my answer was "No, but we got two middle fingers up."

SFBG It depends on who’s reviewing them, I guess.

HGL Critics’ pictures? Not ever. But they don’t lose money, and that’s how you keep score. I was grinding these things out like so much hamburger.

SFBG What’s been the most surprising moment of your film career?

HGL As you may or may not know, I have a totally different career these days. In the film business I was a schmuck with a camera, and in the world of direct marketing I’m regarded as something of an expert, and I’m in the Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame. I was writing a piece of copy — this is [in the middle 1980s] — and the phone rang. The fellow on the phone said, "Mr. Lewis, we are having a screening of The Wizard of Gore on Halloween night, and we would like you to put in a personal appearance." And I said, "Come on, who is this?" Because it had been years since I had heard from anyone about movies. I accepted the invitation, fully expecting the whole thing to be a big joke. It was not a joke at all. I was treated with the reverence I certainly don’t deserve. I couldn’t understand it at the time. I said, "What’s wrong with these people?" I no longer ask dumb questions like that. I figure if they invite me, and I accept, if there’s something wrong, it’s wrong with both of us.

SFBG What’s the best part about meeting your fans?

HGL What’s amazing to me about meeting my fans today is that they remember things from these movies that I don’t. It astounds me that people who weren’t alive when I made these movies still regard them as entertaining. That has to be the ultimate compliment to a film director. After all the time has passed, here are movies that cost nothing to make, with casts of nobodies, and totally primitive effects, and people still go to see them. It’s not surprising to me anymore, but I can tell you, it’s quite gratifying.

SFBG Are you excited to come to San Francisco?

HGL San Francisco is one of my favorite towns in all the world, and I am just very pleased to have been invited to come there. I tell you, somebody there is insane to invite me in the first place, but I admire insanity on that level, and I shall show up with great enthusiasm.


Fri/2–Sat/3, midnight, $9.75

Clay Theatre

2261 Fillmore, SF

(415) 267-4893



Sat/3, 2 p.m., free

Amoeba Music

1855 Haight, SF

(415) 831-1200


Campaign sewer overflows


› amanda@sfbg.com

The flow of election cash is often a filthy river that you wouldn’t want to drink from, and a recent local lawsuit, coupled with a new bit of state legislation, has muddied the waters even more.

On Sept. 20, US District Court Judge Jeffery S. White granted a preliminary injunction preventing the city from enforcing key sections of its Campaign Finance Reform Ordinance.

Two local groups with a sordid history of influencing elections with large chunks of cash — the Building Owners and Managers Association and the Committee on Jobs — argued in court that campaign contribution limits violate the First Amendment by financially curbing the ability to communicate a message (see "Pressing the Scales," 8/22/07). The contribution limits of independent-expenditure committees stumping for candidates were set by the voter-passed Proposition O in 2000 after the 1999 reelection of Mayor Willie Brown, in which deep-pocketed business interests backed the mayor in exchange for preferential treatment by city hall.

Prop. O capped contributions to IEs at $500, and people and corporations are allowed to give no more than $3,000 total (e.g., $500 each to six committees).

Those caps are no longer enforceable.

Similar injunctions have been granted in San Jose and Oakland, also destroying local contribution caps in those cities. San Jose appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and is waiting for a ruling. Ann O’Leary, a lawyer in City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office, told us San Francisco is waiting to see what happens in San Jose before making the next move, though an appeal is planned regardless of that outcome. In the past the Supreme Court has ruled that the appearance of corruption in elections is sufficient grounds for restricting campaign contributions, and San Francisco’s history provides ample examples from which to draw to support that decision.

"We don’t know if it will get back to court before November 2008," O’Leary said of the case, "but it’s certainly something to watch in that election."

Meanwhile, over in Sacramento, legislators on cruise control recently passed a bill that may make it impossible for San Francisco to write its election laws anyway. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger just signed Assembly Bill 1430, and according to the legislative digest, the new law "prohibits local governments from adopting campaign finance ordinances that restrict communications between an organization and its members unless state law similarly restricts such communications, or by regulation by the Fair Political Practices Commission."

Proponents say the new law will resolve conflicting interpretations of campaign finance regulations, but opponents say it preserves wide-open loopholes in the Political Reform Act that local jurisdictions have tried to close. For example, a person may be prohibited by the city from giving more than $500 to support a certain candidate. That person can, however, give as much as $30,200 to the Democratic Party, which can then "communicate" a message of support for that candidate to its members.

A recent and egregious example: in San Diego the county Republican Party spent almost $1 million on local races in 2006.

The bill was authored by Carlsbad Republican Martin Garrick and flew through the State Assembly unopposed. Assemblymember Mark Leno told us it came to the Elections Committee, on which he sits, with no vocal opposition, so he gave it an aye. One of his aides, however, became concerned and started making calls. Eventually, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters rallied against it, but it only hit a speed bump in the State Senate. There was still too much support from the Democrats to kill it. Leno said, "It’s an uncommon situation to have the left and right supporting something that in fact runs counter to local election laws."

Only nine senators opposed the bill, including Carole Migden and Leland Yee. "She thought it was an end around campaign finance laws," Migden aide Eric Potashner told us.

San Francisco’s Ethics Commission also took a look at the bill and gave it a 5–0 thumbs-down, resolving to send a letter to both the mayor and the Board of Supervisors urging them to speak against it. Neither did. "The Mayor supports AB1430," his press secretary, Nathan Ballard, told us by e-mail. "He has some concerns about the local control issue, but ultimately those concerns are overridden by his belief that groups like labor unions and the Democratic Party should be allowed to communicate directly with their members."

The governor’s signature now makes it more difficult to pass future measures like Prop O.

Neither the injunction nor the new law seems to be affecting the Nov. 6 election — the FPPC won’t be ruling on AB 1430 until January, though the commission is holding a hearing for interested people to speak in Sacramento on Nov. 2.

Though BOMA and the Committee on Jobs stated in their filing for the injunction that the law harms their ability to raise and spend money for candidates in this November’s election, nothing on record with the Ethics Commission shows they’ve been putting up a lot of money for Newsom, Kamala Harris, or Michael Hennessey. But there’s always next year.