Volume 42 Number 30

Area 51


I agree with my cohort Dennis Harvey — it is always cheering to see 1962’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. There’s something so special about the bodiless head trapped under a glass jar in that movie. As Jan Compton, a.k.a. "Jan in the Pan," actress Virginia Leith seethes and cackles, bringing across pure existential pain more forcefully than any French philosopher with a perma-creased brow. The fact that The Brain That Wouldn’t Die figures in local mad magician Craig Baldwin’s new antic investigation Mock Up on Mu is just one of at least 51 reasons why I’m excited to see it premiere at the 51st SF International Film Festival.

The Guardian‘s deluxe coverage of SFIFF 51 kicks off with a portrait of Baldwin. Elsewhere, Cheryl Eddy discusses blood ties with the sickest father-daughter team around, Dario and Asia Argento. Our stories this week also scope out a pair of life-and-death documentaries; a mod, mod, mod war movie; some new Mexican filmic journeys; the merits of festival awardees; and, last but not least, the eternally fatal allure of the late Gene Tierney. So, before you drown in the dark, before hours of unmapped SFIFF excursions have you feeling like the son or daughter of the brain that wouldn’t die, read all about it here. In the words of José-Luis Guerín, director of In the City of Sylvia, "we should see cinema as a separate continent" — and we should be cheered by what we see. (Johnny Ray Huston)

The 51st San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 24-May 8. Venues are the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Clay, 2261 Fillmore, SF; Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; and Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk. For tickets (most shows $12.50) and information call (925) 866-9559 or visit www.sffs.org.

>>For more reviews, previews, news, and daily coverage of SFIFF 51, check out SFBG’s Pixel Vision blog.

>>Highway 51
A road map to SFIFF 51 — films to ride with (and some speed bumps)


>>Explosive stuff!
Craig Baldwin turns space junk into magickal treasure with Mock Up on Mu
By Dennis Harvey


>>Blood ties
Asia and Dario Argento go go for a SFIFF trifecta
By Cheryl Eddy


>>Ashes to ashes
A dance between Dust and Profit motive and the whispering wind
By Matt Sussman


>>On tour
Mod auteur Serge Bozon makes the war go pop in La France
By Kimberly Chun


>>Critic’s choice
In praise of J. Hoberman and In the City of Sylvia
By Max Goldberg


>>Apolitical animal
Mexico’s SFIFF thrillers aren’t thrilling, but Cochochi turns loss into victory
By Jason Shamai


>>Fierce perm
Robert Towne still knows how to give an award-winning Shampoo
By Maria Komodore


>>Color her deadly
Leave Her to Heaven‘s strange allure will pull you under
By Johnny Ray Huston

Feast Spring 2008



“Fox in the Mirror”


REVIEW When artists speak of found objects, they sometimes mean found — in a marketing plan. But Liliana Porter is different. The Argentine artist is the real thing, hopelessly devoted to convincing us that something is missing, not from her impeccable arrangements of miniatures and figurines — or the potent, often-hilarious feelings they invoke — but from our too serious attitudes toward the private parts of our lives.

Porter’s 2007 video Fox in the Mirror, presented in a show of the same name at the Hosfelt Gallery, reveals the artist to be a sculptural Gertrude Stein. Stein gave language body — undressed it, laughed at it, cried for it, and cuddled it. Porter does the same with Fox, manipuutf8g small, signature objects to Sylvia Meyer’s arresting musical score, which varies from lush tangos to symphonic yet anticlimactic movie-trailer music. "Oriental" pentatonic melodies are thrown in ironically to match Porter’s musical and military Chinese figurines.

The video begins with a series of vignettes more powerful than the following narrative sequence, which is eerily conducted by a well-dressed fox. They sparkle with sex and sadness as a white candle resembling a man and woman dancing in formal wear spins into tears, a bright yellow chick encounters an emotional storm, and a duo of Mao wristwatches move one tick forward and a lifetime of ticks back to Meyer’s electro remix of a song from The Sound of Music (1965). Sketches named after types of punctuation stimulate feelings of expectation as a turbaned musician seems about to swallow a bird alive. Javier Marias wrote that the present is a curse because "it allows us to see and appreciate almost nothing." He has a point, but the beauty of the statement outweighs the sadness of its meaning. The same could be said about Porter’s transcendent art.

LILIANA PORTER: FOX IN THE MIRROR Through May 3. Tues.–Sat., 11 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Hosfelt Gallery, 430 Clementina, SF. Free. (415) 495-5454, www.hosfeltgallery.com

Mad jags


› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER "That was just a major experience that I’ll never forget and I never, ever want to have again."

So sayeth 60 Watt Kid’s Kevin Litrow of the mind-render that occurred shortly after he moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles in 2006. "I was contacted — or I might have contacted them. I’m not really sure." He goes on to tell me of being visited one night by a "tornado" of energy that swirled fiercely through his room and knocked him "out of tune," while talking to him in his head. After his guest finally departed, Litrow says he was limping on one side. Finding no corollary for his experience among other UFO reports — "it physically didn’t look like the typically oval-shaped-face kids," he says — he discovered that, nonetheless, the experience "physically and mentally opened some doors." Can the glitch-garnished, knocked-askew psych of Litrow’s band 60 Watt Kid — captured on their intriguing self-titled Absolutely Kosher debut — be partially credited to a brain-tweaking twister from another dimension?

Alien visitations, madness, rehab, and Libya — last week I was lost on a vapor trail, looking down from a star called Planet Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder, and waltzing to a psychogenic fugue only I could hear. But now I’m found. I’m told it’s in the water. One moment you’re staring at the cover of Us Weekly, wondering how onetime pedophile’s-wet-dream Britney Spears came to be transmogrified into Our Lady of Mental Health Issues. The next you’re waking up, kicked to the curb with surgical staples where your kidney once was. The price of gas is high, but tripping — and sometimes falling — through the mind’s eye, gets you even higher. April gusts have blown in a slew of artists, spinning yarns of spirits and out-of-body travels. They lived through this. You will, too.

PROVEN GILTY Free Gold (We Are Free) is the name of Indian Jewelry’s forthcoming recorded game, so surely IJ honcho Tex Kerschen knows how to get baby some bullion. "You’ve got to go and roll the rich," says the Houston experimentalist. "You gotta catch ’em leaving restaurants and saying goodnight to their chauffeurs. Wealth liberation has come to rest in our minds as the answer, since we personally slave for oil barons." Kerschen knows: he says he spent the last year working in a refinery while Indian Jewelry took time off to regroup and record. So Free Gold is simply wishful thinking? "You get pummeled with wealth here in Houston," he explains. "They’re building continuously — literally, gilded fortresses. I’ve had to hang terrible art for terrible people. We decided we’d gild the lily ourselves."

REHABIT IT "It’s nice that people are into it," Kimya Dawson says sweetly about the chart-topping Juno soundtrack that hurled her into the consciousness of the mainstream — or at least that of National Public Radio listeners. "But I’m not really the kind of person who keeps track or cares about numbers and sales. I make music, and it’s just kind of what I have to do. It’s what I’d be doing regardless of who was listening." The Olympia, Wash., artist started crafting tunes as part of Moldy Peaches in 1994, and she’s still writing — albeit with less introspection since the birth of her daughter Panda (she just completed a children’s album). Songwriting has been an outright necessity since she drank herself into a coma and entered rehab more than nine years ago.

"I popped out of rehab, and I was depressed and on medication, and I didn’t know how to function on this planet, and I picked up a guitar, and it made me feel better," Dawson explains. The first Moldy Peaches show happened two weeks after she got out. "It’s always been mutual therapy for me and the people listening to my stuff. I always figured if I stopped doing it I might go crazy."

LIBYA LIBERATION How can a stellar Oakland combo like Heavenly States top their last heroic act as the first US rock band to play in Libya after the lifting of a 30-year travel ban? To start, they spent about a year working on a film about the experience, relying on puppet reenactments and animation, before they woke up and asked themselves, why aren’t we making music? After selling the rights to their Libya adventures (producer Jawal Nga is writing a script tentatively titled Rock the Casbah), the band has come up with their most eclectic and confident recordings to date, Delayer (Rebel Group). The group’s next act? "We got asked to play in Iran at this music festival," vocalist-guitarist Ted Nesseth tells me. "But Genevieve [Gagon] couldn’t sing in public. Then someone e-mailed to say her friend was a journalist living in a North Korean village filled with musicians, so we have to figure out a way to go there and record. There’s absolutely no way any of that crap is going to happen. I think we have a lot of touring to do supporting this album, and then we want to make another one."

SPIRITED "You know," announces Triclops! guitarist Christian Beaulieu, apropos of neither the group’s new CD, Out of Africa (Alternative Tentacles) nor what vocalist John Geek describes as their "bung load of shows," "Sonny [Kay] from GSL recently called me the ghost of Dimebag Darrell."

"It’s really kind of impossible because you were born way before he died," I venture.

"Well, I told my friend I was the ghost of Steve Vai," Beaulieu continues, "and he said, ‘Holy crap! That’s the best news I’ve heard all day: Steve Vai’s dead!’ I’m just trying to figure out how to put a handle on my Telecaster." *

INDIAN JEWELRY Thurs/24, 9:30 p.m., $8. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com

KIMYA DAWSON Fri/25, 8 p.m., $20. Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness, SF. www.ticketmaster.com

TRICLOPS! Fri/25, 6 p.m., free. Amoeba Music, 1855 Haight, SF. www.amoeba.com

HEAVENLY STATES Sat/26, 10 p.m., $10. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com

60 WATT KID Sat/26, 9 p.m., $25. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. www.theindependentsf.com

Fly, read, eat!


Even the best-laid dietary plans can go awry when dieters make pilgrimages. Air travel in America entails many gaudy food horrors, from cold and grudging $8 airport sandwiches (even if sold under such reassuring signage as that of Il Fornaio and Firewood Café) to the minuscule packages of Lorna Doones the flight attendants fling at you, as though they are warders in a dingy, 19th-century French prison and you are a prisoner consigned to the deepest dungeon, which happens to be airborne. I have been reading Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo — a superb potboiler — but the book is too fat to carry comfortably on a plane. Air travelers must give priority to survival rations, not the fate of the honorable Edmond Dantès.

Although the wastefulness of American life is everywhere visible, it is nowhere more apparent than in the infrastructure of people-moving and people-storage: at airports, on planes, in hotels. Even the most miserly crumbs and dribbles are carefully packaged in cellophane or foil, presented with too many napkins and swizzle sticks, or sealed in plastic bottles under plastic caps. Later, the prison guards move up and down the center aisle, holding open their trash bags while we chuck it all in there: recyclables, compostables, authentic trash.

Do the airlines and airport cafés sort through the waste stream? I found myself wondering as I obediently tossed my leavings into the sack, including a spent copy of Artforum magazine. While so much of the waste is generated unnecessarily, so much that is justifiable could be composted or should be compostable. Food-stained paper is an easy case, of course. But what about the bad novels being hawked to a captive and famished public desperate for diversion while their stomachs grumble and their flights are delayed or cancelled? All books are compostable in theory, but why can’t airport books be printed on some kind of cornstarch paper, so they could be flushed down the toilet when we’ve finished them or found them unreadable?

Better yet, make them edible! Print them on paper engineered from polenta, and use flavored soy inks (gorgonzola and balsamic vinegar?) so that when we give up trying to read them, we can just take a bite. A kind of literary Doritos. But not Monte Cristo, of course. That would have to be a nacho platter, party size.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

Do you know the way to Plug?


"Honestly, I’ve found a lot more talent in San Jose than I have up here in the city." Plug Label boss, MC, and producer Kero One (né Mike Kim) isn’t afraid to call it as he sees it from his San Francisco studio. At the top of the list of South Bay talent sits kindred SF transplant King Most, a producer and DJ otherwise known as Patrick Diaz, whose palette ranges from this year’s Genius Music mixtape, built from rare tracks by mainstream producers like Kanye West, Timbaland, and the Neptunes, to his upcoming Kingstrumentals album, which promises to honor influences as diverse as Alex Attias’ broken beats and Donald Byrd’s jazz fusion.

Kero sees the foundation for King Most’s talent in the knowledge gleaned from a ridiculously large record collection. "I remember going to his house and he’d have records in the bathroom, in the hallway, in the garage. You’d open the fridge and a record would fall down from the top. Production-wise, he has all the chops, the samples, and he knows how to work it."

Party people regularly get a chance to hear selections at Uptempo’s How We Keeps It, a monthly gig that finds King Most and Kero One rocking electro, disco, and a little hip-hop at the Madrone Lounge. Some fans of Kero’s debut, Windmills of the Soul (Plug, 2006), which mined a solidly jazzy hip-hop vein, might be surprised to hear a house set when he’s behind the decks. But the sprightlier pace and broader range of genres reflect the direction Plug Label is heading with its upcoming releases.

This year will see albums from Greentea, Kero, and King Most, all designed to cause consternation among record store clerks who have to decide where to file music that swerves between hip-hop, disco, Latin, and electro. Reflecting the listening journey that he and King Most have made over the years, Kero says he wants to blur the lines. "One of my biggest goals is to turn heads and open eyes for people who are not just into hip-hop. I wanted to make an album for someone who used to be into hip-hop and now is into something else to go back and say, "Oh, I can listen to this."


Fri/25, 10 p.m., $10


2925 16th St., SF

(415) 431-8889


Les Savy life lessons


› duncan@sfbg.com

When I call Tim Harrington, he’s in a meeting. It’s 6 p.m. in New York, and for some reason, I guess because he’s Les Savy Fav’s vocalist, I assume this is some kind of band meeting or rehearsal. When I call back in an hour, he’s still in the meeting.

"Do you want me to call back tomorrow?" I ask.

"That’s OK," he says. "I have just declared my professional day over." His professional day, it turns out, ends in a meeting room at VH1 headquarters in Manhattan, not in a practice space in LSF’s native Williamsburg. In addition to doing graphic design at VH1, he’s pushing for "interactive TV-type things," like e-cards you can design online and "schedule times you want them to be on TV so you can tell your friends, ‘Tune in and see that I’m breaking up with you.’"

The job isn’t what I’d expect from a manically animated frontperson, but Harrington, who attended the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design where the band formed in 1995, could give a fuck about giving people what they expect. After three long-players and an EP of dissonant, angular, twin-guitar rock with pop sensibilities and cutting, insightful lyrics — culminating in 2001’s Go Forth on bassist Syd Butler’s French Kiss label — the group took six years to release a new album, last year’s Let’s Stay Friends. The declaration of an official hiatus in 2005 led fans to believe it might be the end.

Instead they opted for restructuring: "It was really hard to explain without sort of tearing the whole thing apart and putting it back together again."

Gone are the incessant van tours; in their place are what he calls "guerilla touring": fly out, play a few select shows, and return to Brooklyn and "real life," which, for Harrington includes a wife and a son, Benji, who’s not yet two. "It’s the best way to tour," he says, "but totally unprofessional."

The outfit’s "unprofessional" attitude, coupled with Harrington’s interactive ideas, led to an online video contest for the Let’s Stay Friends track "The Equestrian," a fetishistic pony-play barnburner: "How many times did you think you could canter past my house / Before I called you to my stable for a little mouth-to-mouth?" In between shots of My Little Pony make-out sessions, the winning video — chosen by YouTube viewers — showcased a pink-haired eight-year-old named Bunny rolling around on the ground and dry-humping a stuffed horse like a prepubescent version of "Like a Virgin"–era Madonna. Was it weird having a little kid lip-synching such an overtly sexual song?

"I love that kind of complicated double energy — the tension of two things competing with each other," Harrington says. "In our live performance that happens a lot." Live, the singer runs around the stage, bearded, bald on top, a little chunky, and manically energetic — often shirtless or changing costumes during a song, perhaps into a sequined cape, while the band plays calmly around him, seemingly oblivious, all the while cranking out fierce squalls of noisy rock that are clearly the force driving the madman in their midst. "I think that people who don’t like us, don’t like us because they’re like, ‘I like one side of it or the other, but I can’t understand how they both can be happening simultaneously.’"

Harrington is not at all the picture of your typical floppy-haired waif of an indie impresario, embarrassed to be on stage and kicking the mic stand. He’s open and enthusiastic on the phone, sounding slightly out of breath, like he just remembered "one more thing" to say. He uses the word "passionate" a lot, and it’s clear that feeling is the key element in his art.

Without taking away from the rest of the group, it’s the cognitive dissonance Harrington creates with his stage presence and lyrics that make Les Savy Fav so powerful. Let’s Stay Friends opens with a track about an only partially fictional band called the Pots and Pans, "who made this noise that people couldn’t stand." Despite their audience’s protests, the unit sticks it out, realizing on some level that they know what’s good for the listeners.

Harrington doesn’t particularly care what you expect, yet he’s not simply adopting a world-weary pose. Instead he’s exhorting you to want more out of music — and out of existence. Nowhere is this idea more apparent than in the album’s final track, "The Lowest Bidder": "We’ve been bought and we’ve been sold / They try but they can’t keep hold / We burn, but we don’t turn to coal / We’re hills all filled with gas and gold / Take the trigger from the lowest bidder / Take the bargain back again." Don’t settle for less.

Listening to Let’s Stay Friends reminds me that there’s more to life than the quotidian world of work meetings, parking tickets, and paying the rent. "Music is the food of love, but reality is waiting for the bus" is a Subhumans lyric I can never seem to forget. For Harrington, reality is passion and waiting for the bus. "An area of interest for me lyrically," he explains, "is to be able to address whatever the harshest and most negative elements are in life and society and defy that, not with a pie-eyed optimism, but with a really cold-hearted optimism.

Don’t expect the world to change. Change yourself. Change your perception of it."


With the Dodos

Sun/27, 8 p.m., $18

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750, www.gamh.com

CC Riders


> a&eletters@sfbg.com

LIT When filmmaker Bruce Baillie founded Canyon Cinema in the early 1960s, it was a backyard bohemia to show artisanal films and drink wine with neighbors. But it quickly took root as a cooperative serving the needs of a movement of underground filmmakers. In scholar Scott MacDonald’s lovingly detailed history, Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor (University of California Press, 480 pages, $29.95), Baillie’s early shambling is halcyon past, a sweet moment of spontaneous invention that then, rather surprisingly, begot a sustainable model for communal eclecticism.

Canyon wasn’t the only game in town — indeed, MacDonald describes the New York Film-Makers’ Cooperative, which preceded Canyon, as "a single instance of an idea whose time had come." But the organization’s underlying West Coast flavor, open channels of communication, and relatively clean distribution record put it at the center of an unwieldy film culture.

Drawing from a wealth of primary materials, MacDonald has woven a compelling narrative of American avant-garde cinema. One hardly needs to be aware of obscure corners of the underground to appreciate the book’s lively mix of voices. MacDonald doles out generous segments of Cinemanews, Canyon’s in-house clearinghouse for letters, critiques, advice, poems, recipes, and — in later years — extended interviews with the anointed giants of the avant-garde.

Among Canyon Cinema‘s five historical "portfolios," we get a full panorama of Canyon’s burning personalities: Baillie’s Zen road correspondences (describing pies that contain grapes and flowers); John Lennon’s zonked fan letter to Bruce Conner; Conner’s fierce riposte to Jonas Mekas’ NY Cinematheque; Saul Landau’s exposé of police pressure on a local Jean Genet screening; a photograph of the board of directors forming a naked pyramid; Stan Brakhage holding forth on etymologies; Robert Pike’s thoughtful report on how programming avant-garde cinema in peep houses could be a profitable venture; a tender letter from Will Hindle worrying over teaching filmmaking in art institutes; George Kuchar comics; and last, a precious line from Commodore Sloat: "Maybe more bits of film history next letter: Hollis Frampton and my junior high astronomy book (which he won’t admit he has and has refused to return)."

Canyon Cinema is wonderful in its particulars. It’s a pleasure to explore the depths of an organization that was emblematic of the counterculture without being beholden to it. Of course, being located in San Francisco and Sausalito, it had a pretty good view. Canyon keeper and former Pacific Film Archive programmer Edith Kramer recalls of the 1967-69 heyday that "The East Coast people were coming out; everybody wanted to come out — for the right reasons and the wrong reasons." Already in 1968, Robert Nelson writes of "the ever-growing dirge of psychedelica that in three years has gone from far-out to ad nauseam." Things dry up a bit with the intellectualization of the ’70s, though there are passionate, nothing-for-granted debates over the currents of the co-op’s milieu.

One suspects this overarching prudence is because, as filmmakers and co-op members, these people were intimately familiar with the economics of personal expression. Canyon is a romantic, idealistic group, but also a utilitarian one. Despite frequent brushes with insolvency, the amazing fact remains: "During the past 40 years, Canyon has evolved into the most dependable distributor of alternative cinema in the United States, and it has done so without betraying the fundamental principles on which it was founded."

SFIFF: Highway 51



The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat, France/Italy, 2007) Catherine Breillat steps back from one of her bluntest provocations — 2006’s Anatomy of Hell — to deliver this barbed, intelligent adaptation of Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly’s 1851 novel. Asia Argento is heroic as the titular courtesan, a seething, powerful woman working outside bourgeoisie bounds. On the eve of his marriage to a suitably chaste maiden, Mick Jagger–lipped Ryno de Maginy (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) narrates his decades-long affair with the magnetic mistress — telling the tale to his fiancée’s grandmother, who is rapt. An intriguing cocktail of classical framing and modern malaise, The Last Mistress is Breillat’s best work in years — not least of all because of her clear affection for the material. (Max Goldberg)

7 p.m., Castro.


Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov, Russia, 2007) Alexandra‘s 70-something title figure (Galina Vishnevskaya) takes the laborious journey to Chechnya, where the grandson (Vasily Shevtsov) she hasn’t seen in seven years is stationed at a large army base. This latest by Russian master Sokurov isn’t exactly narrative-driven, but it’s one of his least abstract, most emotionally direct works. In her first film role, opera veteran Vishnevskaya doesn’t need to sing to etch a character whose long-suffering indomitableness is Mother Courage as Mother Russia. (Dennis Harvey)

7 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sun/27, noon, Kabuki; May 4, 4:15 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

Black Belt (Shunichi Nagasaki, Japan, 2007) Hai karate! Ably armed with authentic martial arts aces in lead roles, auteur Nagasaki transforms his masterful piece of genre filmmaking into a parable, set on the eve of World War II, about the use of power and the wisdom of passive resistance. Black Belt trounces typical CG kung fu: that the actors are karate masters gives the film a texture of authenticity unseen since the days of Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan, lending weight to thoughts and deeds. (Kimberly Chun)

8:45 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sun/27, 1:30 p.m., Kabuki; Tues/29, 1:30 p.m., Kabuki

Brick Lane (Sarah Gavron, England, 2007) Adapted from Monica Ali’s 2003 novel, Brick Lane is a clichéd, romantic, finding-one’s-home story. Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) submits herself to the unexciting life of pre-arranged marriage until she meets Karim (Christopher Simpson), who sweeps her off her feet. One of the most aggravating things about the film is that Nazneen finds the power to take charge of her life through her affair alone. Apparently her daughter’s constant plea for Nazneen to start verbalizing her will was of secondary importance. (Maria Komodore)

7:15 p.m., Kabuki.

The Golem with Black Francis (Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, Germany, 1920) An original score composed and played live by the Pixies’ leader is a mighty enticement, but even without it this classic 1920 German silent would be worth seeing. Drawn from medieval Jewish folklore, it tells of a rabbi’s creation of a clay man to protect the ethnic ghetto from a Christian emperor’s heavy hand. Codirected by Wegener, one of the masters of cinematic German expressionism (who also plays the golem), it’s an impressive, strikingly designed mix of horror, history, and political commentary. (Harvey)

9:30 p.m., Castro.

Just Like Home (Lone Scherfig, Denmark, 2007) Dogme95 filmmaker Scherfig hones her flair for bittersweet comedy with this goofily enjoyable ensemble piece about a misfit small town that falls into chaos. Much of the film’s story is seen through the eyes of a newcomer who has escaped from a bizarre religious cult; in accordance, Scherfig records the earnest bumbling of town folk through a unique lens, sometimes smeared with streaks of overexposed or double-exposed shapes and colors. The result is only as deep as a standard-issue Hollywood romantic comedy, but it’s deftly handled and slyly endearing. (Jeffrey M. Anderson)

6:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sat/26, 1 p.m., Kabuki; Sun/27, 4 p.m., Kabuki; Tues/29, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki

Lady Jane (Robert Guédiguian, France, 2007) Lean and mean as a killer B-movie, Lady Jane shows that the French noir still possesses a powerful measure of chilly fire. Its namesake, played by the 50-ish, formidable, and fierce Ariane Ascaride, perfectly embodies the genre. Roused from bourgeois slumber when her son is suddenly snatched, Lady Jane reconnects with two old partners in crime to raise a ransom. Director Guédiguian is overly fond of his flashbacks but redeems himself with the care he puts into imagery that avoids Bogart-by-way-of-Belmondo clichés. (Chun)

9:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Sun/ 27, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki; Tues/29, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki

You, the Living (Roy Andersson, Sweden/Germany/France/Denmark/Norway, 2007) There is one thing wrong with Swede Roy Andersson’s movies: there aren’t enough of them. His fourth feature in 30 years is another almost indescribable gizmo that strings together absurdist tableaux to increasingly hilarious and elaborate effect. From an incongruous Louisiana brass band to unhappy barflies forever facing last call, the characters here are comic Scandinavian-miserabilist pawns in a cosmic joke told largely through music — and painted a fugly shade of lime green. Bizarre and delightful. (Harvey)

6:15 p.m., Castro. Also Sun/27, 8:30 p.m., PFA; Tues/29, 7 p.m., Kabuki


Fados (Carlos Saura, Portugal/Spain, 2007) Attempting to do for the Portuguese torch song what he once did for Spain’s gypsy blues with Flamenco (1995), Saura soars and stumbles with Fados, presenting wonderful performances and a few unfortunately dated modern-dance treatments. Chico Buarque, Mariza, Lila Downs, and Césaria Évora lend their varied styles and impassioned voices to the form. But one wishes Saura would have stepped aside further for the effervescent, soulful lilt of Caetano Veloso; the plush, liquid tones of Lura; the arch, curled-lip warble of Ana Sofia Varela; and old world narrative grace of Carlos do Carmo. (Chun)

2:45 p.m., Castro. Also Mon/28, 1:30 p.m., Kabuki; Tues/29, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki

Ice People (Anne Aghion, USA/France, 2007) The movies have long made the Antarctic the terrain of terrifying monsters and cute creatures, but the beings discovered by Anne Aghion in this documentary bare fatigue, not fangs, and they are far more prickly than cuddly. Aghion’s portrait of the inhabitants of the McMurdow Research Station spends most of its time with a satellite group of four geologists looking for 20-million-year-old leaf fossils. There’s more depth in the fantastic landscapes, which Aghion lenses far more flatteringly than she does her human subjects. (Sussman)

6:45 p.m., Kabuki. Mon/28, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki; April 30, 1:15 p.m., Kabuki

Mataharis (Icíar Bollaín, Spain, 2007) Charlie’s Angels this ain’t: these investigators and would-be Mata Haris of an all-female Madrid detective agency have the unwashed hair, sensible shoes, and bad marriages of everyday wage slaves. Actress-director Bollaín’s skillful, empathetic knack for capturing the grubby, low-light details of working women’s lives glimmers through the pale haze of this promising film. But she falters with the application of narrative-flattening sentiment, predictably reassuring story arcs, and the occasional cheesy slo-mo effect. (Chun)

4 p.m., Kabuki. Also Mon/28, 7:15 p.m., Kabuki; April 30, 9 p.m., Kabuki; May 2, 1:15 p.m., Clay

Walt & El Grupo (Theodore Thomas, USA, 2007) In 1941, Walt Disney and a band of animators, writers, and other artists — which came to be known as El Grupo — journeyed to South America on a goodwill tour. This documentary, codirected by the son of one voyager, gathers wonderful photos, home movies, and a dazzling collection of drawings and cartoon clips to re-create the trip. The trouble is that there’s no real drama. The cumulative view is as sharply Eurocentric as Disney’s was when he went on to make cartoons such as 1942’s Saludos Amigos. (Anderson)
1:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also Mon/28, 6 p.m., Kabuki; April 30, 12:30 p.m., Kabuki


Forbidden Lie$ (Anna Broinowksi, Australia, 2007) Norma Khouri made headlines and toured the talk show and lecture circuit as a crusading heroine when her 2003 international bestseller Forbidden Love highlighted the phenomenon of honor killings in pockets of the Muslim world. Trouble was, her heartrending story turned out to be a fabrication. As filmmaker Anna Broinowski grows increasingly exasperated with her subject’s fibbing and evasiveness, this documentary develops from an exposé into a portrait of a serial con artist one would be quite happy to see writing her next book from behind bars. (Harvey)

1:30 p.m., PFA. Also April 30, 12:45 p.m., Kabuki; May 2, 6:30 p.m., Clay; May 4, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki

Picking Up the Pieces (various, 2007) The most intriguing piece in this shorts program about things lost and found is Death Valley Superstar, Michael Yaroshevsky’s half-hour documentary focusing on Marc Frechette, who was picked off the street to star in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 Zabriskie Point. Taking his role as a student revolutionary into real life, he subsequently tried robbing a bank, was arrested, and died in prison under suspicious circumstances. Also excellent is Radu Jude’s 25-minute Romanian drama Alexandra and John Magary’s The Second Line, a narrative revolving around a FEMA worker in post-Katrina New Orleans. (Harvey)

11:45 a.m., Kabuki. Also April 30, noon, Kabuki.

A Stray Girlfriend (Ana Katz, Argentina, 2007) Writer-director-actress Katz maps out post-breakup transience with a wandering handheld camera and oblique dialog. As her titular character explores a rural township on Argentina’s coast, each scene teeters between bewilderment and menace. Lynne Ramsay covered similar terrain in her minor masterpiece Morvern Callar (2002), though with a dream-inducing soundtrack and enigmatic ellipticism far beyond Katz’s more vanilla approach. (Goldberg)

9:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also May 1, 7:30 p.m., Kabuki; May 4, 6:15 p.m., PFA


Cachao: Uno Más (Dikayl Rimmasch, USA, 2008) Actor, would-be bongo player, and Cuban music fanatic Andy Garcia does right by his idol, the late Cuban musical great Israel "Cachao" Lopez, in this passionate tribute sprinkled with SF sights and centered around a Bimbo’s 365 Club concert. The show was apparently a hot one — it also showcased Bay Area Latin music scholar John Santos, timbalero Orestes Vilato, and vocalist Lazaro Galarraga — and director Rimmasch does it justice by using the performance as a narrative framework for a history that parallels that of contemporary Cuban music. (Chun)

6:30 p.m., Kabuki. Also May 2, 1:15 p.m., Kabuki.


Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, USA, 2008) After profiling Robert McNamara in 2003’s The Fog of War, Morris jumps down the chain-of-command to summon US soldiers punished for the infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib. Ever the showman, he cuts from burnished interviews and photos to reenactments and slow-motion rumbles — we "see" Saddam’s egg frying, giant prison ants, and an exploding helicopter. Such obsessive visualizations seem misplaced and morally confused. The Abu Ghraib story is, among other things, about the unstable, delicate nature of photographic representation. Yet Morris can’t resist auteur-stamped fireworks — how else to explain the typically nutty (and utterly incongruous) Danny Elfman score? (Goldberg)

Part of "Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award: An Evening With Errol Morris," 7:30 p.m., Kabuki

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SFIFF: Fierce perm


SFIFF Robert Towne has accomplished something rare: in an industry that paradoxically singles out the director of a movie as if he or she were the sole creator of what is actually a collaborative effort, he has tasted fame, received recognition, and secured his place in the history of cinema for writing scripts.

Having started his career penning B-movies like Last Woman on Earth (1960) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), and working as a script doctor for impressive projects such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Drive, He Said (1971), and The Godfather (1972), Towne truly rose to stardom with Chinatown (1974). This dark, pessimistic tale about power struggles and government corruption in Los Angeles, which garnered Towne an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, not only stands up to such noir classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946), but also redefines the whole genre. In J.J. Gittes — as embodied by Jack Nicholson — Towne introduces his own version of a Phillip Marlowe character, tough but hopeless, into a world where crime is hard to detect and impossible to punish, even when committed in broad daylight.

Shampoo (1975) features a Towne screenplay that’s as complex and intriguing as the one he wrote for Chinatown. Yet it takes a secondary role on Towne’s résumé, despite the fact that it yielded an Academy Award nomination. Perhaps this is because Warren Beatty shares Shampoo‘s writing credit with Towne, whereas Chinatown was presented as solely Towne’s creation. (Of course, it’s an open secret today that Towne wrote a different, happy, ending for Chinatown, which director Roman Polanski replaced — fortunately — with a devastating one.) In any case, it’s a pleasant and unexpected surprise that the San Francisco Film Society has chosen to showcase Shampoo while presenting Towne with this year’s Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting.

As the critic and teacher Elaine Lennon points out in a 2005 piece for Senses of Cinema, the true complexity of Shampoo‘s script stems from the same element the film has been derided for — its superficially silly comic spirit. Lennon suggests that the many influences detectable in Shampoo include ancient Greek tragedy, the restoration comedies of 17th- and early 18th-century England, and the plays of Molière. All of the above construct poignant social critiques while providing comic relief.

Indeed, Shampoo uses the sexuality that permeates its turbulent and intricately woven Beverly Hills microcosm to farcically comment on the United States of the late 1960s. George (Beatty), the restless hairdresser with a soft spot for his customers, his girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn), his ex-girlfriend and lover Jackie (Julie Christie), his other lover Felicia (Lee Grant), and Felicia’s husband and Jackie’s sugar daddy Lester (Jack Warden) not only share the same lovers, they share the same anxiety — a feeling produced by an ever-changing, unstable society. To put it differently, their sexual misbehavior is a manifestation of the fluidity and uncertainty of their lives.

In comparing Shampoo to Chinatown, Pauline Kael perceptively wrote, "Towne’s heroes are like the heroes of hard-boiled fiction: they don’t ask much of life, but they are also romantic damn fools who just ask for what they can’t get." As Kael implies, George is the only character in the film who acts out of a desire for sheer pleasure and lives for the moment. All the others amorally float wherever the wind blows, compromising their true desires in a quest for the seemingly safe environment — the peaceful period of supposed law and order — that President Nixon has promised them.

Shampoo also presents some unconventional, multifaceted perspectives concerning gender issues. George is the poor innocent guy stunning rich women exploit for thrills and then promptly dump. Jill, Jackie, and Felicia are visibly weighing their options and waiting for the best offer, while Lester, although adulterous and money-grubbing, is somewhat sympathetic and humane.

Juxtaposed with the questionable career choices Towne has made over the last couple of decades, Shampoo shines like a bright gem. After 1996’s Mission: Impossible, and 2000’s Mission: Impossible II, one can’t help but wonder whether his rewrite of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) — which he also will be directing — marks a return to more intimate projects such as 1973’s The Last Detail, or furthers his spiralling descent into Hollywood blockbuster hell.
AN AFTERNOON WITH ROBERT TOWNE (includes a screening of Shampoo), Sat/3, 4 p.m., Sundance Kabuki

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SFIFF: Apolitical animal


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SFIFF Do we have Francisco Vargas’s The Violin (2005) to blame for the omission of Lake Tahoe — the follow-up to Fernando Eimbcke and screenwriting partner Paula Markovitch’s imperfect and wonderful 2004 debut Duck Season — from this year’s selection of Mexican films at the San Francisco International Film Festival? Did the success of Vargas’s film, which won the New Directors Prize at last year’s fest, give the selection committee too much confidence in the rookies?

There are three Mexican films this year, all first features. Though one manages to be an infield home run, the overall representation of the country is underwhelming and, we hope, less than representative.

Let’s begin with Rodrigo Plá’s La Zona (2007), an alleged thriller that seeks to eviscerate Mexico’s cloistered middle class.

It does not. Nestled within the dirty vibrancy of Mexico City is "La Zona," a gated community of those same ornate houses with the Mediterranean-tile roofs that blight the American suburbs (I lived in one during high school). When a fallen billboard becomes a stairway over the wall, a violent scuffle with intruders puts the community’s zoning charter in peril. For the residents of the enclave, the possibility of losing their ability to live separately just won’t do. The movie’s message — that a tier of Mexican society is sacrificing its soul to divorce itself from its economically ravaged country — may as well have been plastered across that catalytic billboard.

La Zona is the type of idea Eimbcke and Markovitch might have considered and rejected in high school. The Nintendo light guns in Duck Season do a helluva better job evoking the spiritual violence that is so painfully literal in La Zona. It’s strange to me that Eimbcke and Markovitch haven’t made a bigger splash in the United States. Lord knows the majority of people inclined toward reading subtitles don’t like to work too hard, but the American influence on these filmmakers’ first film (it got a lot of Stranger Than Paradise comparisons) is apparent. It’s a wonder they aren’t already riding the same train, albeit in coach, as Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón. They’re minimalists, but the likeable kind.

But enough pining. Back to the reality.

One wants to muster the energy to hope that Alex Rivera’s sci-fi antiglobalization flick Sleep Dealer, which wasn’t available for screening, takes La Zona‘s same drive to filter Mexican political concerns through pop conventions and produces something substantial. The centerpiece concept — site-specific American labor outsourced to Mexico with the help of drones — is certainly intriguing. But judging from the easy political humor of Rivera’s short films (the proxy farm worker idea was already played for laughs in his 1998 short Why Cybraceros?), we should brace for another dour lecture hastily fitted with genre tropes and called subversive.

But even if Sleep Dealer turns out to be a powerhouse, its NAFTA-Tron 3000 robots have to be awfully cool to contend with the quiet power of Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán’s Cochochi. The film, about two preteen brothers from the Raramuri tribe in northwest Mexico, is slightly shy of the visual achievement of The Violin‘s textured grayscale, but it’s also more sincere and less showy in its social awareness. The two boys (real-life brothers Antonio Lerma Batista and Evaristo Lerma Batista), while delivering medicine to family in a neighboring village, promptly lose the horse they "borrowed" from their grandfather. Then they lose one another. Like a bifurcated Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Cochochi is a pleasantly disorienting trek through unfamiliar territory, trailing overburdened children who register their mounting worries with the stony expressiveness kids are brilliant at.

It’s an unassuming naturalist document that, for all its hushed grace, crackles with anxiety and proudly maintains a layer of abrasiveness. In this respect, it reminds me of Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ gorgeous nutso-realist films, minus the impish provocation. Like Reygadas, Cárdenas and Guzmán use local, untrained actors to languorously stilted effect. The filmmakers relied heavily on the brothers for the film’s story and dialogue, which is spoken in the Tarahumaran dialect of Raramuri.

Cochochi is no thriller and there aren’t any robots, but it is the rightful destination of your dollar. Besides, if the current Under the Same Moon is any indication of distribution trends, there’ll be plenty of opportunity for self-flagellation later.

COCHOCHI May 1, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki; May 4, 3:15 p.m., Kabuki; May 5, 6:30 p.m., PFA

SLEEP DEALER Mon/28, 9 p.m., PFA; May 4, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki; May 7, 6:15 p.m., Kabuki

LA ZONA May 3, 9:30 p.m., Clay; May 5, 2 p.m., Kabuki; May 7, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki

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SFIFF: Color her deadly


It’s a mug’s game determining the correct genre of John M. Stahl’s 1945 Leave Her to Heaven — especially since a true shorthand pitch should dodge the question entirely to note instead that it contains at least one, and arguably two, of the most unsettling murder scenes in movie history. Stahl’s adaptation of a million-selling potboiler by Ben Ames Williams is both a film noir and a melodrama. But even those two genres scarcely cover its facets: it’s also a revealing antecedent to some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most esteemed or idiosyncratically baroque suspense films.

Modern-day responses to Leave Her to Heaven often invoke melodrama yet rarely explore the ironic historical relationship between Stahl and Douglas Sirk, the oft-worshipped master of that genre’s ’50s Technicolor peak. It was Stahl who — between 1934 and 1935 — directed the original black-and-white versions of two crucial volumes in the Sirk library, Magnificent Obsession (1954) and Imitation of Life (1959). Because Leave Her to Heaven predates the first of those remakes by close to a decade, it’s safe to assume that Sirk took a look at Stahl’s movies and liked what he saw. Many Sirk trademarks — an uncharacteristically dramatic use of shadow within Technicolor; a fondness for otherworldly shades of blue evening light; staging that heightens the artificiality of mid-20th century American society; set decoration that turns dream homes into prisons — are to the fore of Leave Her to Heaven.

The harsh visual symbolism one associates with Sirk is also present in Stahl’s most famous movie. Disabled young Danny (Darryl Hickman) is first glimpsed by viewers and by Ellen (Gene Tierney) with his eyes closed in slumber. Later in the film, when another character’s offhand remark gives Ellen the idea to become pregnant, a staircase looms behind her. These foreboding touches are the type of morbid rewards that await anyone who returns to Leave Her to Heaven after experiencing the film’s strange mix of slack stretches and stunning moments a first time.

A unique tension stems from one aspect of Leave Her to Heaven that separates Stahl’s movie from the cinema of Sirk: Stahl gives his anti-heroine Ellen an almost mythic power that even infects the film’s nature scenes, which are so eye-piercingly vibrant they verge on surrealism. At one point glimpsed through binoculars like an approaching enemy in a war film, Ellen’s family are too intimidated by her to enforce suffocating social niceties or break free from them. Instead, they alternately resemble statues or nervous animals that sense the presence of a predator. Ellen meets her soon-to-be husband Richard (Cornel Wilde) at high altitudes on that favorite Hitchcock existential vehicle, a train. His (and Stahl’s) love-at-first-sight gaze into her green eyes — and a later scene in which Ellen rises from beneath green waters — has the uncanny doomed allure that Hitchcock somehow sustained throughout 1958’s still-matchless Vertigo. (A notorious scene from 1981’s Mommie Dearest also tips its bathing cap to Ellen’s swim.)

A place in 20th century film history is a rich reward for Leave Her to Heaven. When Ellen rides horseback through New Mexico’s arid landscape at dawn, coldly tossing her father’s ashes to and fro before hurling the urn with true abandon, the wild horses psychodrama of Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) steeplechase-jumps through a film buff’s mind. The symbolism of a high-strung woman riding a horse isn’t unique to those films, but in his adaptation of Winston Graham’s 1961 novel, Hitchcock even goes so far as to echo, with a slight reversal, Leave Her to Heaven‘s competitive relationship between Ellen and her adopted cousin — "not my sister," she makes clear — Ruth (Jeanne Crain).

Leave Her to Heaven is a true downer — and feel free to add an extra r to that description. In the 1967 survey Films and Feelings, critic Raymond Durgnat cites it as an example of its era’s penchant for "tightlipped misogyny," suggesting Durgnat wasn’t a film noir fanatic or a Freudian. The movie’s melodrama is classically cruel in the Joan Crawford tradition, built on a story almost sadistically entwined with the lead actress’s autobiography. A year or two before shooting, Tierney gave birth to a deaf, blind daughter after contracting measles from someone whom, years later, she discovered was a fan. The film’s screenplay grazes this experience with a reference to the mumps — watch Ellen tense up and turn ice-cold when it occurs — and through the character of Danny. If Ellen is one of filmdom’s most tragic characters, aspects of Tierney’s real life miseries are more unsettling. She underwent shock treatment at least 27 times.

Not exactly funny — and yet there is a truly hilarious coda to Leave Her to Heaven‘s story. In 1988, the same scenario was remade as TV movie Too Good to Be True, with a lineup too amazing to be believed: Loni Anderson plays the Ellen role, with Patrick Duffy from Dallas as her long-suffering husband, Neil Patrick Harris from Doogie Howser, M.D. as swim-happy Danny, and Julie Harris, a Baldwin brother (Daniel), and Larry "Dr. Giggles" Drake rounding out the cast. If that weren’t enough, the teleplay goes so far as to exaggerate the original’s most vicious scene by turning what looks like a rescue attempt from above the surface into an act of murder underwater.

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN Sat/26, Castro, and Sun/27, PFA.

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SFIFF: Critic’s choice


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SFIFF J. Hoberman — trenchant weekly critic, book author, programmer, teacher — is celebrating his 30th year at the Village Voice, an unheard-of stretch for a film writer. (Pauline Kael’s famous tenure at the New Yorker lasted 23 years.) Freshly garlanded with a three-week program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and an Anthology Film Archive screening of his early forays in experimental filmmaking, Hoberman continues his prize tour with this year’s Mel Novikoff Award.

The recent programs at BAM and Anthology highlight attributes that made Hoberman an essential buttress against the sycophantic rivalries flowing from Kael’s 1960s showdowns with Andrew Sarris. Over the phone from his New York office, Hoberman told me about his early days at the Voice: "I created a beat of things the other critics weren’t particularly interested in, and that took in a lot of stuff. Originally they had brought me on to write about avant-garde and experimental film, but pretty soon I was writing about documentary, animation, revival series, foreign films that weren’t from France … all kinds of things."

Hoberman’s BAM program was accordingly unwieldy, covering Andrei Rublev (1969) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Ernie Gehr and Martin Scorsese. Cinephilia Hoberman-style seems to be everywhere at once, encompassing Looney Tunes, No Wave New York, Jeanne Dielman (1975) and Yiddish cinema. It’s eclecticism with a program, matched by a willingness to chase the rabbit down its hole — but never at the expense of analytical rigor.

Although Hoberman is a professed admirer of the puzzling jazz in Manny Farber’s criticism, his prose is solidly explicatory and instructive. He knows how to open a discussion: "In its tireless attempts to mean everything to everyone and empirical willingness to try anything once, the American culture industry intermittently generates its own precursors, parallels, and analogues to local or European avant-gardism." He’s an apt profiler: "Pain and Fear — and the convulsive desire for public recognition — are Scorsese’s meat." And he’s not afraid to take a stand, as with a recent rave for David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007): "From Videodrome (1983) through A History of Violence (2005), neither Scorsese nor Spielberg, and not even David Lynch, has enjoyed a comparable run."

He’s also an accomplished facilitator of Jean-Luc Godard’s idea that the history of cinema is synchronous with the history of the 20th century. We can count on Hoberman to connect Terror’s Advocate (2007) with La Chinoise (1967), to draw a line from a prescient film like A Face in the Crowd (1957) to Watergate and Nashville (1975). When his interests come together — as with an appreciation of Southland Tales‘ (2007) avant-gardism, midnight movie appeal, and socio-political currency — sparks still fly. Talking about an upcoming "prequel" he’s penning to his 2005 decoupage of ’60s cinema, The Dream Life (New Press), Hoberman muses, "I think that now, or at least since [Ronald] Reagan, it’s sort of customary to see movies as political scenarios." To the extent that this is true, Hoberman is due significant credit — his meditations on that movie-land president, for one, are as adroit as that of any policy wonk.

Historical markers notwithstanding, Hoberman’s film selection for his special night is likely the most unabashedly sensuous movie not starring Asia Argento to play this year’s festival. Spanish director José Luis Guerín described In the City of Sylvia (2007) as a "simple" film at last fall’s Vancouver International Film Festival, and it certainly does offer a distilled vision of cinematic paradise: gazing and grazing faces, old Strasbourg, and a slow stitch of sound and image.

Our inlet to Sylvia is a whiskered young man, haunting the city at a dreamy remove. He sits in an outdoor café with his notebook, sketching the faces of radiant women while Guerín orchestrates fractal cutting, multilevel staging of faces, and intricately gradated sound design into a sun-dappled symphony. After changing seats, the dreamer recognizes a woman sitting behind a pane of glass. She leaves and he follows, locked in an ambiguous reverie inscribed with resonant detail and sweet ambiguity.

Sylvia fulfills the cinephile’s dream of disembodiment. "It’s a narrative that comes organically from the fact of making the movie rather than dramatizing a story situation," Hoberman opines. "There’s a real love of cinema, the process of it." Each of the film’s handful of extended passages is distinct in its precise design, but this blissful lucidity Hoberman describes is Sylvia‘s central melody and romance.

Late in Guerín’s film, after a yearning bar scene set to Blondie’s "Heart of Glass," the young man sits at a tram stop, considering the waiting women and rushing window reflections for some clue as to his own loss. In a virtuosic eliding glimpse of a passing bus, Guerín dissolves the sounds and images of shots already superimposed by the panes of glass. A quick succession of several more multi-tiered, unexpectedly conversant portraits of women ("Elles," the dreamer notes in his book) finally lands on a mesmerizing rear-angle of a woman’s hair blowing wildly in the wind. The young man can’t put pencil to paper. He’s as enamored as we are with this siren song from what the director calls "the continent of cinema," a place J. Hoberman knows all too well.

AN EVENING WITH J. HOBERMAN (includes screening of In the City of Sylvia), Sun/27, 6 p.m., Sundance Kabuki

IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA Tues/29, 4 p.m., Kabuki; May 2, 9 p.m., Kabuki

>SFBG goes to SFIFF 51: our deluxe guide

SFIFF: On tour


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SFIFF His last letter read, "Forget me" and "I’m never coming back." But instead of crying, waiting, hoping he’ll return, or pleading, "Please, Mr. Postman, look and see, if there’s a letter, a letter for me," she decides she will follow him, wherever he may go, because maybe, just maybe, one fine day, they’ll meet once more, and he’ll want the love he threw away before.

What follows is the sublime La France (2007), a holy union of war movie and love story, consecrated in the same chapel of pop that houses tearful penitent Brian Wilson, radiant nun Anna Karina, and verse-scribbling choir boy Jacques Brel — and stage-set with the mist-swathed romanticism of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

After our heroine and "Dear Jeanne" letter recipient Camille (Sylvie Testud) dons the boyish garb of a wartime Viola to unearth news of her soldier husband, she stumbles on a mysterious military troop slumbering uneasily in the woods. Camille wants to eat like them, march like them, and become one of them, with the sacrificial passion of a lover desperate to wear the garments and walk in the footsteps of her pined-for mate. But in the fall of 1917, all is not-so-quiet far from the Western front as director Serge Bozon’s band of brothers — many played by the actor-auteur’s fellow French film critics — pick up impromptu instruments fashioned from canteens and pots to play the sweetest yet strikingly barbed lovelorn tunes. What better way to meet doom while their country takes some of the heaviest casualties of World War I? What better way to mend a broken heart?

La France is "a war movie but almost in the absence of war and a love movie almost in the absence of love," as Bozon explains via e-mail while attending a Buenos Aires film festival. It turns gracefully on "a quest — just like the war, because we are never in the battlefields. So the war is more a horizon — something outside, always close but almost never reached.

"The unifying impulse is this magnetization, by definition from outside," he continues. "I think here the master of magnetization is Jacques Tourneur, the Henry James of cinema: how to drive la mise en scène by the absence of something at the (double) center of the story."

Balancing the visually sumptuous La France (lensed by the director’s sister Céline) on what he describes as the edge and arrogance of English pop-sike and the narcotic etherealness of California sunshine pop, Bozon has made one of the most unique films in the festival. No joke. He sports only two shortish works — the 84-minute L’Amitie (1998) and the 59-minute Mods (2002) — beneath the belt of his modish slacks: La France is his first feature. It’s also inadvertently launched something of a burgeoning DJ career for the music-obsessed director, who promises to draw from his healthy garage rock and Northern soul singles collection for at least one dance-party during the fest.

SFBG Why did you title the film La France? Does the soldiers’ plight say something about your country in general?

SERGE BOZON To put it in the words of Michel Delahaye, one of my favorite film critics from the ’60s (in Cahiers du Cinéma) who wrote a paper about La France, I’ve tried to tell the story of those men who "got lost in the shadow of victory."

I wanted to deal with desertion, not to tell the story of the deserters who were caught by the French army, not to tell the story of the deserters who managed to reach their goal, but to tell the story of the deserters "in between," because they are the only ones who have left no trace (no trace in France, because they managed to escape France, and no trace in any other country, because they never attained their destination). So it’s like a secret story that only fiction can tell. To sum up, this crucial part of French history can only exist through fiction. That’s why I chose the title.

Just listen to "Going All the Way" by the Squires or "On Tour" by the Chancellors (two garage diamonds found by the mighty Tim Warren of Crypt Records), and you’ll understand the relation of this title to the music. "On Tour" is a song, as you can guess, about the life of a group on tour (the girls, the cities, the trains, boats and planes). But like all the real garage bands, the Chancellors never played even once outside their own city (Potsdam, actually). Now think about the "tour" of my soldiers. You begin by expecting some light pop, but in the end it’s only frustration and anger.

SFBG What do war movies mean to you?

SB It is the only classic American genre that is still alive in France, where a lot of war movies are made each year. The menace of war is unceasing — or even eternal. To be more precise, my movie is more a movie about the menace of war than about the war itself, so I could have done it in a present-day setting. But what I wanted, from a historical point of view, is to deal with the question of desertion, which was huge in France in 1917. I filmed only the menace, and this menace is in our present and desertion is, still, in our present history — "needles and pins," to quote the Ramones covering the Searchers.

SFBG Which war movies have intrigued you or inspired La France specifically?

SB The American and Russian war movies of the ’40s and ’50s. And I must press this point: the movies of [Samuel] Fuller, [John] Ford, [Raoul] Walsh, Tourneur, [Howard] Hawks are not more important for me than the sublime Russian war movies — for example [Ivan] Pyryev’s Tales of the Siberian Land (1947), [Leonid] Lukov’s Two Soldiers (1943), [Yuli] Raizman’s Mashenka (1942), [Alexander] Macheret’s Soldiers of the Swamp (1939).

In all of these movies, contrary to Walsh, Fuller, and company, you have songs in crucial moments and the moods do not have to be hard-boiled all the time. There is a lot of childish tenderness and emotive exuberance among the soldiers, because the relation of men to virility is more naive. You also have beautiful female characters. Mashenka, for example, is a war movie about a woman. You also have a non-American, rural way of filming the landscapes with a romantic touch (in the musical sense, like Berlioz).

For example, A Good Lad from 1943 by Boris Barnet is — in one hour! — a musical with opera singing during the war scenes, a comedy, a love story, and a war movie, and everything is perfectly balanced and free. By the way, Barnet is the best Russian film director ever, far away from the auto-proclaimed Russian geniuses like [Sergei] Eisenstein, [Andrei] Tarkovsky, and [Alexander] Sokurov, whose movies all suffer from a severe grandiloquence and solemnity disease.

In these different aspects, those Russian movies are more like the early ’30s American movies, when the exuberance of the filmmakers was not restricted by the Hays Code, the strict separation of genres, all those narrative and ethical codes. Just think of a typical ’30s masterpiece like Sailor’s Luck (1933) by Walsh. My movie, with some exceptions, is much more Russian than American.

SFBG What do you want those who see La France to come away with?

SB Ninety-six tears.

LA FRANCE May 2, 4:15 p.m., Kabuki; May 4, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki; May 6, 6:45 p.m., Clay

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SFIFF: Ashes to ashes


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

SFIFF One of the greatest pleasures of the 50th SF International Film Festival was Forever, Heddy Honigmann’s 2006 study of the living among the dead at Paris’ Père-Lachese cemetery. Between footage of the sun-dappled necropolis in all its hushed, springtime glory, Honigmann (who received last year’s Persistence of Vision award) profiles several regular visitors, who in the course of discussing an attachment to a particular resident — whether that dweller be Frédéric Chopin or a deceased husband — reveal a great deal about how we commune with memory in our daily lives.

Echoes of Honigmann’s film can be heard on the breezes that float and whip through John Gianvito’s lean and hypnotic Profit motive and the whispering wind (Gianvito’s use of lowercase is intentional). In focusing on a very different kind of memorial landscape, Gianvito uses Howard Zinn’s oft-revised 1980 radical assessment of American history, A People’s History of the United States, as a roadmap. He’s constructed an hour-long pilgrimage to the graves, minor monuments, and commemorative plaques erected to honor America’s freethinkers and radicals.

Static shot after static shot shows names etched in stone, carved on wood, or stamped on metal: Red Jacket, Sacagawea, Thomas Paine, Mary Dyer, John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Daniel Shays, Frederick Douglass, Fannie Lou Hamer (whose eloquent protest, "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired," is now her epitaph), Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, and César Chávez, to name just a dozen. America is a nation of defectors, suffragettes, abolitionists, Wobblies, anarchists, union members, community organizers, and conscientious objectors. We see commemorations of the labor movement’s bloody struggles: the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Mass., the Homestead Strike near Pittsburgh, and the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado. Occasionally we see signs that others have visited these sites: small tokens of solidarity left on graves, graffiti, piled pebbles. But many of the markers exhibit the creep of age and neglect.

Eschewing narration or interviews, Profit motive is near-silent, save for the ambient sounds of each site: chirping birds, the lazy buzz of insects, the occasional whiz of traffic, and most prominent, the whistling wind — though a whisper is only one part of its range. As Honigmann does in Forever, Gianvito periodically turns his camera away from the ground to watch the dance of sighing boughs or rustling plains. These almost animistic sequences remind us that the landscape has borne witness to the people who shaped it long before our time, underscoring the transience of human life and, by extension, political struggle.

The film’s jarring final minutes, however, break its meditative silence in a move that aims to establish affinities between the left’s scattered history and current protest movements. Gianvito’s dedication to Zinn seems to get the better of him, and the closing montage of contemporary protests juxtaposed against McDonald’s and Wal-Mart signs comes off as crudely didactic. The answer — or, at the very least, some incendiary spark out of the past — it seems, was blowing in the wind after all.

If Gianvito’s film is part eulogy and part rallying cry for America’s radical left, then Hartmut Bitomsky’s more conventionally structured documentary Dust (Straub) is a vanitas for late capitalism. Just as Gianvito marshals a certain poetic charge from his footage of rustling branches and swaying grass, Bitomsky’s cold yet compelling study also mines the many-faceted existential resonance of the particulate terrain it surveys.

Bitomsky’s gravelly-voiced narrator is fond of repeating a Raymond Queneau quote: "Dust always leaves a trace, no matter what; then, a trace of the trace. There’s always a trace you’ll never get." Indeed, dust is as ubiquitous as it is unremarkable. It is both the byproduct of human industry and what accretes once our industriousness has stopped. It is a bugaboo for museum preservationists, vacuum cleaner engineers, and clean room custodians. It is the cosmic prima materia from which the universe was born and to which we will all return long after the worms have had their fill. And as we are reminded in the documentary’s opening frames, dust is the very substance of film itself. What we watch are the shadows of dust, shot through with light.

From an industrial paints manufacturer, to a frighteningly OCD housewife, to a sweetly loopy artist who creates sculptural dust taxonomies, to military scientists testing for radioactive fallout from ballistics currently being used in Iraq, Bitomksy lets his unnamed subjects speak with little interruption on their Sisyphean efforts to analyze, sift through, and eradicate dust. At times, the extended and often extremely technical explanations of particle acceleration and filtration assembly can be tryingly dry. But the straightforward and de-personalized presentation of information is fitting with the film’s po-faced tone.

Bitomsky’s deadpan facade is tied on extra-tight. But faint traces of a smirk can be made out whenever he pauses on a particularly cruel irony (for instance, when he quotes military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz over photos of American and Iraqi babies deformed by in utero exposure to depleted uranium dust) or takes note of a pathetic one (a hulking, former GDR housing block imploded to make way for a shopping mall). As entropic as it is constant, dust is indifferent to human life or regime change.

Gianvito’s film clearly seeks to offer a momentary defense against our country’s tendency toward historical amnesia, though it also suggests that history may be one more notch on finitude’s marble bedpost. For Bitomsky, on the other hand, history is a dustbin.

DUST May 3, 1 p.m., PFA; May 5, 6:15 p.m., Kabuki; May 7, 4:15 p.m., Kabuki

>SFBG goes to SFIFF 51: our deluxe guide

SFIFF: Blood ties


› cheryl@sfbg.com

You can keep those classy, highbrow Coppolas. I’ll play the low card with the Argentos any day. This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival is a feast for fans of the father-daughter team: Dario directs Asia in Mother of Tears, his long-awaited final entry in the cultishly beloved "Three Mothers" series, which includes 1977’s Suspiria and 1980’s Inferno. Asia also stars in Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales, as well as the fest’s opening-night film, Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress.

I first encountered the duo under the least relaxing of circumstances at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival. Press interviews for Mother of Tears were held in a hectically crowded hotel restaurant. Waiting for my turn, I watched as team Argento chowed down a quick lunch, chattering together in Italian about who knows what (witches, ancient artifacts, the weather?). I clutched my tape recorder, feeling possibly the same mixture of fear, awe, and excitement that filled Suspiria’s Suzy Bannion when she arrived at a certain cursed ballet school.

Fortunately, my chat with the pair was devoid of ceiling maggots, underwater zombies, or — as featured in Mother of Tears — demonic monkeys. Probably the most frequent question Dario Argento has had to answer is the most obvious: why did he decide to finish the trilogy now, nearly three decades post- Inferno? "We have a time for everything," he told me, because of course that’s exactly what I asked him first off. "You wait until the idea comes."

There’s no doubt Mother of Tears sprang from Argento’s brain; his signature occult themes, glorious violence, and attention to style (instead of, say, plot) are all accounted for. He cowrote the film’s script with a pair of Americans he met while working on Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch (Simona Simonetti and Mother of Tears editor Walter Fasano are also cocredited). The film, which opens theatrically in San Francisco in June, received mixed reviews on the festival circuit. Variety critic Dennis Harvey, who also writes for the Guardian, called it a "hectic pileup of supernatural nonsense." True enough, but I would argue that while Mother of Tears is flawed, it’s enjoyably flawed.

The story revolves around a museum worker named Sarah (Asia Argento) who must summon previously dormant spiritual powers (inherited from her late mother, played by Asia’s real-life mother and Dario’s former partner, Inferno star Daria Nicolodi) to defeat an evil witch’s plot to take over Rome and eventually the world. Eyes are gouged out. Cleavers make short work of necks. Underground pools of muck must be navigated. Udo Kier, playing an exorcist, very nearly reprises his Suspiria role as Exposition Guy. Characters, including witches, take the time to use public transportation. Silly? Yeah, a bit.

Waiting to make Mother of Tears enabled Argento to take advantage of CG, one of his favorite cinematic inventions. His 1996 film The Stendhal Syndrome (which also starred Asia) was reportedly the first Italian release that used CG. In Toronto, Argento told me the film has more than 180 visual effects — including a church on fire — which were created in conjunction with Lee Wilson, another Masters of Horror veteran.

The freedom Argento has enjoyed with CG (now, he says, "it’s possible to fly high!") is matched by another door that has opened since the releases of Suspiria and Inferno: the censorship that plagued his early career is less of an issue in these accustomed-to-gore times.

"I hate censors," Argento assured me in our second interview, conducted over the phone in late March. "For Mother of Tears, I talked to the producer, the distributor, the financier [and told them], ‘I want to be free. I want to show my natural reality after so many years.’ And I did that."

In Rome prepping for his next film, simply titled Giallo (sorry, fellow horror nerds, I couldn’t get him to spill any dirty details), Argento reflected on working with his daughter. Stateside, Asia Argento is known chiefly as an actor (she tangled with Vin Diesel in 2002’s XXX and pissed off corpses in 2005’s Land of the Dead). But she’s also directed a handful of films, including 2000’s Scarlet Diva (which Dario co-produced) and the 2004 J.T. LeRoy adaptation, The Heart Is Deceitful above All Things.

"She understands what it means to be in the project — not just thinking about her character, but the other parts of the film," Argento said. "Since she was a child, she’d follow me on the shooting of many of my films. She grew up on the sets of my films. She’s very comfortable in this world, this show business."

In Toronto, Asia Argento stepped in as translator for both my questions and her father’s answers. She said that when she heard about the Mother of Tears script, she asked to be a part of the film. As in previous Argento-Argento collaborations like The Stendhal Syndrome, the part called for some grueling physical scenes. Still, the pair seem to have an easy rapport, laughing over the aforementioned underground pool of muck ("That was really gross to do," Asia remembered. "He prepared that for three days, this horrible soup. I would watch him prepare that soup, but I wouldn’t say anything!") Later, over the phone, Dario described he and his daughter as "big friends."

Onscreen, Asia Argento has a certain magnetism that few other performers can claim. In Go Go Tales, she appears in only a few scenes, playing a surly dancer who drags her giant Rottweiler with her everywhere, including into her stripper dance routine. Abel Ferrara, who also directed her in 1998’s New Rose Hotel (she directed him in the 1998 short doc Abel/Asia), calls her a "very, very special actress."

"She’s courageous, she gets out there, and she’s not afraid to take chances with the character or with herself," he said, calling from New York, where he’s working on a documentary about the Chelsea Hotel. "When you write a script like [Go Go Tales] obviously you’re looking for the women to bring it to life. We knew we needed people who could really bring something to the table. She’s got that something — it’s indescribable."

Mother of Tears offers Argento a juicier part as a woman who may or may not be totally crazy. But it’s her role as the titular character in The Last Mistress that ranks among her best work to date. It’s a dramatic, passionate period film about an upper-class man’s insurmountable attraction to his moody, impulsive woman on the side (guess who?). Her character pinballs from ecstatic howls to anguished wails, glamorous salon-lolling to beachside pipe-smoking, and dinner table stare-downs to horseback smackdowns. Indeed, it’s a bit over the top, but she pulls it off. As a pair of striking careers can attest, it’s an ability that’s surely imprinted on the Argento genes.

GO GO TALES Sat/26, 11:45 p.m., Kabuki; Mon/28, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki; April 30, 3:15 p.m., Kabuki

THE LAST MISTRESS Thurs/24, 7 p.m., Castro

MOTHER OF TEARS Fri/25, 10:30 p.m., Kabuki

>SFBG goes to SFIFF 51: our deluxe guide

SFIFF: Explosive stuff!


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

SFIFF The pop detritus of today is the archaeological evidence of tomorrow, to be pieced together by future generations — should there be any — who will no doubt want to know what the hell we were thinking. Their conclusions may be bizarre. But will their conjecture be any stranger than our present-tense realities?

Inventing tomorrow’s conspiracy theories today is Mock Up on Mu, the latest pseudodocumentary, sci-fi historical dig, Situationist prank, and thinly veiled fight-the-power rant by San Francisco’s collage king, Craig Baldwin. In the mode of his prior cult faves Tribulation 99 (1992), O No Coronado! (1992) and Spectres of the Spectrum (1999) — albeit with a higher percentage of new staged sequences mixed into the ingeniously assembled archival errata — it again grinds fact and fiction into a tasty genre-defying pulp. For many, Mu‘s world premiere is the most eagerly awaited event in the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival’s goody-laden schedule.

It’s 2019 AD on the Empire of Mu — the Moon — where L. Ron Hubbard (Damon Packard) is building theme parks, selling crater-naming rights, and beaming corporate logos back to "that prison planet called Earth." Having been banished from our planet, he must dispatch "Agent C," a.k.a. Marjorie Cameron (Michelle Silva), back to the blue ball to engage in some espionage involving the seductions of both Ra-worshiping rocket scientist Jack Parsons (Kal Spelletich) and sleazy defense contractor Lockheed Martin (Stoney Burke). Realizing "Commodore" Hubbard’s purposes may be more nefarious than professed, she finds the truth is out there … way out there. It’s naked and shameless, in fact. Those hippies were right: free love will save us all.

As ever, there is a certain investigative method behind the Oakland-born Baldwin’s jigsaw madness. The real Parsons was the founder of the pre-NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an avid occultist. He started a private boat dealership with none other than Hubbard, before Hubbard absconded with some money and Parsons’ girlfriend (whom he married). Soon thereafter, Hubbard wrote the original Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in 1950, which in turn led to that gift to mankind we call Scientology. As for Parsons, he went on to marry painter, author, and psychic Cameron, who, like him (as well as Hubbard) was an early American devotee of Aleister Crowley and a participant in sex magick rituals.

Thus you don’t need six degrees, let alone Kevin Bacon, to connect Wernher von Braun, Kenneth Anger, and Tom Cruise. History is fun! As is Mu, with its antic use of everything from old propagandistic footage to clips spanning eras of cinematic sci-fi: Georges Melies’ 1902 Trip to the Moon, the original Flash Gordon serial and 1936’s H.G. Wells–based Things to Come, drive-in trash (it’s always cheering to see 1962’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die), and Star Trek. The resulting fair-use frolic nonetheless reveals a serious side or three while exploring the dense and slightly demented history of military and aerospace business in sunny California.

Baldwin recently took a break from his numerous other roles — programmer at Other Cinema; teacher at SF Art Institute, California College of the Arts, and Artists Television Access — to sound off on Mu.

SFBG I hate to ask such a blunt question, but what is this movie about?

CRAIG BALDWIN My "Mu-vie" is about how utopian visions of technology and space exploration became compromised by the military in the late 20th century. And [about] how the lives of [technological and space travel] pioneers afford a rich trace of California regional history after World War II: the complex crossing of alternative tech research, personal belief systems, lifestyles, artistic practices, newly organized and newly imported religions, and spiritual institutions. Plus that era brought an explosion of the formerly marginalized sci-fi genre, of which Mu is of course the very latest iteration!

Mu is also about the cult of film, especially experimental film. I’m trying to work though a new model of historiography or storytelling that I am calling collage-narrative. It’s a humble stab at opening up a new space in film practice that is not only of interest to historians but also to aesthetes. And, my dear, I don’t have to tell you that these groups are certainly not mutually exclusive!

SFBG Your father worked for a rocket manufacturer. Has that made you more interested in Cold War and military-industrial complex themes?

CB Yes, my dad worked for Aerojet. He was born the same year as Parsons! And I was born the year Parsons died. I am his reincarnation. But the point is something like 30 percent of Californians were involved in the aerospace biz at its height.

SFBG How much real Scientology material is in Mu?

CB [The film] remains at the level of Swiftian allegory or satire, spinning off of their Genesis story and [acting as] a meta-gloss on Hubbard’s own autobiography.

SFBG I wish Unarius had become the growth religious cult of our time. They’ve certainly made better movies. But regarding yours, the real life connections between Parsons, Hubbard, Crowley, "Mother of the New Age movement" Cameron, occultism, and scientific and military work are stranger than fiction.

CB Everyone has been very influenced by the New Age, uh, belief systems. But more than anything, I identify with postwar bohemians, beats, and hippies. Those days when rocket scientists and sci-fi pulpmeisters and occult conjurers and proto-Wicca ritual carnal orgiastic pagans intermingled may be long gone — though Kenneth Anger is still around.

SFBG Mu uses a lot of excerpts from mainstream and low budget entertainment. But where does the less familiar material — educational, promotional, and so forth — come from? You must spend infinite hours looking for the perfect clip.

CB It comes from my usual source: My basement archive of 2,500 industrial films. I do spend time in there, but could hardly claim to find the perfect clip. Au contraire. I call it "availabilism" — making what I do have work for me, through editing and audio techniques, overwriting it all into an associational stew hopefully akin to the half-memory, half-fantasy, sublinguistic colloid of thought itself.

SFBG What reaction does your work get from students? They presumably grok the pop culture stuff, but do they get the political undercurrents?

CB People can be responsive to the pop-cult clips, or the regional history, or the antiwar sentiments. But methinks [Mock Up on Mu] will be a touchstone for legions of occult or subcult partisans ravenous for these almost mythic tales of the roots of alternative religions.

SFBG Sir, your Thetan level must be off the charts.

MOCK UP ON MU Mon/28, 9:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; April 30, 8:55 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

>SFBG goes to SFIFF 51: our deluxe guide



› paulr@sfbg.com

The French love their chalk, and no wonder. Chalk makes possible some of France’s most prized wines, from the sparkling cuvées of Champagne to the wonderful, minerally whites of the Loire Valley. It’s also useful for writing on chalkboards, which tend to be ubiquitous in French restaurants and on sidewalk sandwich boards outside of same. One of the great pleasures of Paris is scanning these boards while strolling the city, pondering the plats du jour and formules as mealtime approaches.

The French word for "chalkboard" — actually, "the chalkboard" — is l’ardoise, and, in a slight slap of irony, there is no sandwich-style chalkboard on the sidewalk in front of L’Ardoise, which opened late in the winter in the old Los Flamingos space in Duboce Triangle. There are no sandwiches on the menu either, for that matter, which isn’t surprising since the restaurant only serves dinner. There is, however, a sizable chalkboard inside, hanging on a wall not quite opposite the bar. The board lists the day’s specials, and if it’s too awkward to crane your neck so you can read it, you can count on your server to report its offerings with efficiency.

The cheerful starkness of Los Flamingos has given way to the look of a fin de siècle literary salon. The floors are covered in claret-and-gold floral carpeting; the walls are a throbbing red, and the furnishings emphasize dark wood. It would not be difficult to imagine Proust in the next room, scribbling away. Of course, there is no next room. There’s just the kitchen, presided over by Thierry Clement, whose pedigree includes a recent stint at the enduringly fine Fringale. If his first menus at L’Ardoise are more neighborhoody than Fringale’s — which is, after all, a city-center restaurant with a broad and venerable reputation — they do as ably answer the urge to eat.

L’Ardoise, then, is the comfy local bistro this arboreal part of town has been waiting for. Its obvious near relations are Le Zinc (in Noe Valley), Le P’tit Laurent (in Glen Park), and Zazie (in Cole Valley), and it certainly matches up well against any of them. It helps that bistro cooking is a well-established culinary genre, and Clement knows the drill. But I did wonder why there was no pot of Dijon mustard to accompany the otherwise appealing, if mainstream, charcuterie plate ($9): an array of two squares of pâté (one made with liver), a shower of oily, garlicky saucisson coins, and a jumble of green and black olives, cornichons, and caperberries. The lack of mustard wasn’t fatal, but it was noticeable.

Better was a shallow bowl of tiger-prawn ravioli ($10) in an herbed cream sauce. Cream can be a silent killer, like being smothered by soft white pillows, but here the prawns were big, sweet, and juicy enough to assert themselves through both the butterfat and the free-form drapings of pasta.

Seafood gratin ($19) was very much like a seafood stew or even a bouillabaise, only less moist. The oblong serving crock swelled with sea scallops, prawns, halibut cubes, and diced potatoes, all of them toe-deep in a broth of white wine and herbs enlivened by a broad anise hint of Pernod (or some other kind of pastis). A sprinkling of bread crumbs had been baked on top for the gratin effect. What gave pause wasn’t the dryness but the undersalting; Chief Many Phones had to apply several jolts from the table shaker to revive the patient.

Steak frites is a bistro standard, but Clement’s kitchen isn’t above having some fun with it. The steak here turned out to be a chunk of seared Black Angus filet mignon ($27), plated with a heap of confit potatoes (basically homemade chips), a woodpile of steamed green beans (too broad to be proper haricots verts, so Blue Lake, perhaps), and some nicely dressed mésclun. Despite the reassuring nomenclature, I had doubts about the beef before it arrived; "filet mignon" is a grand name but often dry and tasteless in fact. Not this time.

Our side order of sautéed spinach ($5) reached the table in a miniature Le Creuset crock, red enamel on cast iron, complete with top: a nifty flourish in the manner of Fleur de Lys, and the spinach was well-seasoned, although whenever you’re eating low-fat spinach you can’t help but think wistfully about the times you’ve eaten creamed spinach.

Pears: as much as I like them fresh (at least if they’re crisp), I am left disappointed by most pear desserts. Pears poached in red wine? Pass. I would rather have a glass of Poire William (the pear eau de vie), or, better, armagnac. But L’Ardoise’s kitchen has come up with a splendid use for the pear: It’s the star of a tarte tatin ($7), a disk about the size one of those single-serve cheesecakes, with the pear slices caramelized to a voluptuous amber. They’re neatly arranged atop (or, originally, underneath, since tartes tatins are baked pastry side up, then inverted for serving) a layer of pastry we found to be undistinguished even beyond its thinness. Pastry should be flaky, not tough. But at least there wasn’t much of it, and the pears were absolutely winning.

L’Ardoise doesn’t seem to have suffered from the lack of sidewalk sandwich boards. The place is already jammed in the evenings, with well-dressed groups of thirty- and fortysomethings waiting just inside the door for tables. The door has an annoying way of flopping open, so if you’re averse to drafts, ask for a table well inside. It’s nice and toasty under the chalkboard.


Dinner: Tues.–Sun., 5:30–10 p.m.

151 Noe, SF

(415) 437-2600


Beer and wine


Muffled loudness

Wheelchair accessible



› le_chicken_farmer@yahoo.com

CHEAP EATS "Well, sweetie, what did you expect?" my mother said after I came home crying from the beating I took for peeing on my kindergarten teacher’s melted dog. "You can’t piddle a puddle of poodle without getting paddled!"


Oh, Christ. You’re not buying it, are you?

I know because ever since my punch line and I were so heartwarmingly reunited, I’ve been telling that joke — the joke I wrote — to everyone I know, and a lot of people I don’t. The idea: to grind it like so much Cheetos dust into the very fabric of American consciousness, in case I forget again.

The problem: it ain’t funny.

Nobody’s buying it, and the blank stares and exaggerated death bed groans are starting to hurt. Real bad. I literally have gone door-to-door, trying to sell this joke like vacuum cleaners or life insurance, and I have taken a figurative beating. You can’t peddle a puddle of piddled poodle without being paddled, either.

But I mentioned spaghetti-cue. This was a couple weeks ago, and not that anyone’s necessarily wondering, but … it didn’t work. Nothing does the first time you try it. I just don’t want to rule out the possibility that someone, somewhere has better culinary instincts than I do. Far-fetched as that might seem.

I’m not being sarcastic. I’m being immodest. Barbecued pasta is the best idea ever. It just doesn’t work. Key word (only I didn’t say it yet): yet.

And I might yet be the best comedienne ever, even though my first-ever joke kinda shat the bed.

Take the small bright dots that sunlight leaves on a countertop, slanting through the kitchen window, then through a cheese grater, still somewhat carroty from last night’s salad. You see? Those dots, those slanty, imperfect rows and columns. Why do people still sometimes believe in things?

That’s a stupid question. Let me rephrase it: why would anyone wash their dishes at night when they could leave them ’til morning? When the circus of sunlight filtering through a carrot-crusted cheese grater might change the color of your day …

Or turn you into a poet. (Yet.)

Well, for starters, since answering my own rhetorical questions seems to be one of my specialties, maybe your kitchen window faces west. Or north. Life is hard. I could be terrified right now. Instead, I am casually digesting my lunch, which is pretty easy work considering I spilled all but about two spoonfuls of it all over my shirt, lap, and bare feet. Green salsa, homemade chicken soup … I give new meaning to the phrase, "Dinner’s on me!"

Grandma Leone baked the meat for her meat sauce in the oven. I’m not a cook (yet), but I guess that’s how you do it. Key word: you. You bake the pork bones, the oxtails, the ribs, whatever, transfer it grease and all to a sauce pan, garlic, tomatoes, and leave ‘er be.

That’s what you do. I do the same thing, only I cook the meat in a wood stove with smoldering applewood. And that’s how to make spaghetti-cue. Which doesn’t work.

But don’t forget that barbecued eggs didn’t work either until the fourth or fifth try, and now they are generally considered (by four or five people) to be the best thing since cinnamon-swirl raisin bread.

I’m not being immodest. I’m just spinning you in circles. After we pick up speed, I’m going to let go and you’ll be on your own, sailing over tent tops and parked cars, every bit as dizzy as me.


My new favorite restaurant is La Piñata. There are six of them around the Bay Area, but the one I’ve been to is in Alameda. Sockywonk’s been talking this place up for a long time. Chicken soup, she says. Guacamole. We got both those things. And carnitas, beans, rice, tortillas, and of course plenty of fresh, warm tortilla chips and salsa. All good. But the soup … the broth really was something special. I might have dreamed it, but I think there was a tall frosty glass of fresh-squeezed limeade somewhere in the picture, too.


1440 Park, Alameda

(510) 769-9110

Daily, 7 a.m.–3 a.m.

Full bar


Let it go


› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea:

I broke up with my boyfriend when he moved to another city after a short but intense relationship. Since then, we’ve visited each other regularly and continued having a sexual relationship. I’ve been fancying/dating/shagging other people for basically the whole time. But now he’s started expressing interest in another girl and I’m jealous, though I’m trying not to let him know.

I don’t want to get back together. Apart from the long-distance factor, every time I see him I’m reminded of all the ways in which we are incompatible. The sex is good, but not the best ever. Still, I spend a lot of time missing him, thinking about him, and feeling resentful of this new woman! Why can’t I let go of this?



Dear Pout:

Oh, who knows. I think we’re just mammals and once we’ve marked something or someone with our (insert yucky metaphor here), that something must forever remain at least partly ours. Yesterday my daughter claimed an empty kefir bottle and carried it around with her for hours, reclaiming it this morning the minute she saw it in the recycling. OK, she’s a toddler, but I don’t know how much we ever mature past the "Mine! You can’t have it!" stage.

It’s hard to let go, even when what you’re hanging on to is entirely unsuitable. You don’t really want that empty yogurt jug; you just don’t want anyone else to claim it. But someone will, and you’ll be fine. In other words, it’s not that you can’t let go, it’s just that you haven’t yet.

It should be obvious that the best way to get you past this in a hurry is to stop seeing the guy. You don’t really want to be this dude’s booty call, do you? And he doesn’t seem like such a great pick to be your booty call, since he’s only pretty good at the only thing you’re likely to be doing together. It would be different if you were, say, an aspiring singer and he were the only accompanist who understands … oh, never mind. This story is going nowhere, just like what’s left of your relationship with Visit Guy. You miss him because you see him. And you resent the new girl because she’s taking some of what you’ve got left. Give her the whole thing. You don’t need it.



Dear Andrea:

I am confused by my thoughts. I fantasize constantly about my wife having sex with other men. She’s refused, so I quit asking her about it. But now I can’t sleep. I am 36 with three children, and am having three or four wet dreams a week about my wife having sex with other men. Most of the time the men don’t even have faces — it’s just me watching my wife have sex. I love my wife very much and wonder why I have this fantasy.



Dear Sleepy:
Nobody knows why, so don’t look at me. I mean it — nobody knows why anybody fantasizes about or fixates on anything. It’s not just that nobody knows why you, the guy who wrote Andrea a letter, fixates on seeing his wife have sex with another guy. It may help to know that you have a great deal of company; indeed, accessing a little porn on the theme may help take some pressure off. Your search terms are probably "cuckold" (now that‘s a word with some years under its belt) and "hot wife" (although there’s also "troilism" and "candaulism" if you want to get technical). If you do not want to see or read some porn, I suggest you never, under any circumstances, Google any of those terms. Even "wife" alone will get you some things you’d probably never want to tell your spouse that you’ve seen — especially since you’ve asked her, been turned down, and she’d probably prefer not to have that particular discussion again.

While I was waiting for the coffee to kick in this morning and trying to force my brain to cough up the term "troilism" for you, I did a little search myself and found this quite nice article on Nerve that goes into great detail about the culture that has grown up around cuckolding-the-fetish — which is not the sort of thing that could have flourished in the pre-Internet age but has certainly come into its own. And aren’t we proud?

Actually, I have no problem with it, provided it isn’t one of those situations where the man (usually) begs and whines and cajoles and bothers the woman (usually) past the point where it makes sense to do so. Either she won’t change her mind or she’ll agree to it, meet someone else, and leave the first guy. Either way is OK with me. But neither of these things applies in your case. You’re OK. If you can’t sleep, try exercise, melatonin, or masturbation.

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.

Peaker plan afloat


› amanda@sfbg.com

A proposal to build two natural gas–fired power plants is still floating through the city’s planning process, set for approval by the Board of Supervisors as soon as May, but no one seems truly comfortable with the deal.

"It’s not my first choice or my second choice, but it’s the choice I have," Board president Aaron Peskin told the Guardian. The choice seems to be either the city builds newer, potentially cleaner power plants — known as "peakers" because they would be used mainly during times of peak energy demand — or does nothing to shut down the super-polluting Mirant Potrero power plant.

The combination gas- and diesel-burning power plant spews a cocktail of toxins from its stack every year and draws 226 million gallons of water a day from the bay to cool its generators yet it’s mandated by the state to keep operating. The discharge flows back into the bay significantly altered, with microorganisms and fish larvae replaced by mercury, dioxins, and PCBs.

The California Independent System Operator (CAL-ISO), the state agency that oversees electricity reliability, said it would break the Mirant contract if the peakers came online. The city-owned plants would use recycled water and more up-to-date air quality controls, making for cleaner facilities at the two proposed sites — the airport and the intersection of 25th and Maryland in the Bayview.

They also would be city-operated, giving a little more leg to the local public power movement. But they still burn fossil fuel, and at a time when the climate is in crisis and natural gas prices are only rising, many say this isn’t the direction a trend-setting city like San Francisco should be heading.

"This isn’t the progressive way to go," said Sup. Chris Daly. "We need to be more forcefully installing renewables that are municipally owned."

Daly, along with supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Michela Alioto-Pier and the city’s current power provider Pacific Gas and Electric Co., have lined up against building the peakers in what Mirkarimi calls an "unholy alliance."

PG&E, lobbying under the guise of the "Close It! Coalition," states that the peakers "further San Francisco’s reliance on fossil fuels and add to global warming." The $12 billion utility company currently gets 40 percent of its power the same way and is in the process of constructing several similar plants throughout the state. Nevertheless, the company has submitted detailed proposals to the city and state outlining demand response measures and transmission upgrades that would mitigate the need for more energy.

Mayor Gavin Newsom and City Attorney Dennis Herrera support building the peakers in order to close the Mirant plant, and Sups. Sophie Maxwell, Bevan Dufty, and Jake McGoldrick are carrying the legislation that would seal the contract with Cleveland, Ohio-based Industrial Construction Company to start the $252 million project.

That legislation points out that Mirant’s water permit is set to expire Dec. 31, and the Regional Water Quality Board has indicated it has no plans to renew it unless Mirant upgrades to best practices. This has been suggested as an alternative way to close the plant. When asked whether Cal-ISO’s reliability demands trump the Water Board’s requirements, Cal-ISO’s Gregg Fishman wrote in an e-mail, "What happens if the Potrero unit’s water permits expire? Simply put — we’re not sure."

Beyond that, a number of questions remain: Should the requirement for a full feasibility study for city contracts more than $25 million really have been waived for this project? Is it fair to put the new power plant in the neighborhood that has always endured the lion’s share of the city’s pollution? What if they were on movable barges instead? And has the city been forceful enough with CAL-ISO when it comes to planning the city’s energy future?

Alioto-Pier has introduced two resolutions addressing a couple of these issues. One calls for a straight-up feasibility study — which supporters of the peakers have waived. "The city has a policy of conducting a full fiscal analysis of capital projects over $25 million," Alioto-Pier said in a press release. "This should be no exception." Her other resolution asks for an independent analysis of the whole thing and a revised 2008 Energy Action Plan for the city.

For several years, Cal-ISO has said Mirant could stop operating if San Francisco can provide an alternate "firm" power source in its Energy Action Plan. In 2004, San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission proffered the peakers, and that became the city’s power plan before adopting the CCA (community choice aggregation) plan for the city to develop an energy portfolio of at least 51 percent renewables.

Though the SFPUC has continuously asked Cal-ISO if the 2004 Action Plan is still the way to go now that the Trans Bay Cable and other line improvements have come into play, Josh Arce, a lawyer for Brightline Defense, which sued to stop the peaker plan, says they’ve been framing the question all wrong: "The PUC has essentially been saying, ‘Does the Action Plan include all four combustion turbines?’ And Cal-ISO has said, ‘Yes, it includes all four.’ Instead, the PUC needs to come up with a new Action Plan and give it to Cal-ISO and say we’re doing this instead."

Alioto-Pier’s resolution, if passed, could prompt a fresh response from Cal-ISO about what the city really needs — one, two, or three peakers, or maybe none at all. Maxwell’s resolution includes a caveat that the city must determine if needs could be met by building smaller plants with fewer than the four turbines currently proposed.

Peskin, who chairs the city’s Government Audit and Oversight Committee and will hear both Alioto-Pier resolutions on May 5, as well as the Maxwell plan to move to build the peakers, told us, "This is one of the toughest decisions that’s been before me in the eight years that I’ve been on the Board of Supervisors."

No one, it seems, really wants to build two fossil fuel–burning power plants on San Francisco soil. But what if they weren’t on our soil? What if they were floating on barges?

Another resolution pending in the Land Use Committee, brought by Mirkarimi, proposes putting the two power plants on barges, which could be moored alongside the city when needed and dispatched elsewhere when they’re not. What if, a few years from now, citizens are able to cut down their power needs, CCA brings more renewables online, and the city finds it no longer needs the 200 megawatts generated by natural gas power plants?

Proponents say it’s an option worth considering if the city really intends to eventually close the plants. Dismantling a facility if the city decides to sell leaches away 20 to 30 percent of its overall cost. But if it’s on a barge, the natural gas, electricity, and mooring lines are simply cast off. A barge would be steadier in an earthquake and continue to float if the sea level rises — a climate change scenario that could swamp both current bayside power plant sites. Barges also can be dispatched to emergencies, leased down the river to other cities in the Bay Area, or sold for a profit. They’ve been in use around the world since the 1940s and have been called a more regional approach to energy planning.

"It’s 145 MW of portable energy," said Rick Galbreath, Mirkarimi’s aide. "You can pull it up, plug it in, and you’re on the grid. It’s really a dynamic solution."

Paul Fenn, the brain behind the city’s CCA plan, points out that if CAL-ISO still insists the peakers are needed now but not in the future, a power barge is the kind of flexible solution that could pay off in the long run. "It’s making a temporary measure for an urgent situation," he said, adding that such a temporary solution should reflect the city’s long-term goals. "If the city is planning to replace them with renewables, it’s important to get the city to make that commitment. This is one of those strategic decisions that’s going to impact the future."

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission generally opposes building anything in the bay if it can be built on land first. "The proponents would have to do an analysis and convince our commission that this is really a good idea for the region," said Will Travis, a BCDC spokesperson.

But Dave Nickerson, owner of Houston-based Power Barge Corporation, said he’s looked at the city’s peaker plans and thinks it would cost about $100 million to build a three-CT barge. "We would probably build the plant here and ship it up," he said, pointing out that the city’s turbines are already in storage down in Texas and it’s cheaper to build it in a shipyard. To claims of environmental degradation, he says, "It would have the environmental footprint of a state of the art land-based plant."

He also pointed out that there’s a scarcity of these particular turbines now, which are worth about $1 million more every year. This year it’s around $16.5 million apiece, with $18 million as the projected 2008 price.

Emma Lierley contributed to this story.

Newsom’s missing trees


OPINION During his 2003 mayoral campaign, Gavin Newsom circulated a beautifully presented eight-page "policy brief" for "A Green and Clean San Francisco." The first four pages were devoted to a pledge to "grow our urban canopy" — a subject near and dear to my heart.

Newsom announced: "As mayor of San Francisco, I will lead the city government and community organizations to make San Francisco a city we can take pride in — a city with green [emphasis mine], clean, and livable neighborhoods." As his first action, he said, "I will grow our urban canopy by placing a priority on tree planting and care."

For good measure, he tantalized us with some goodies: "Visualize 19th Avenue as a welcoming beautiful gateway to the city, lined with trees and planters." He promised to improve the lack of coordination among city agencies and departments involved in street tree planting, care, and planning by using new technologies such as CitiStat. And, most important, he committed himself to addressing the massive underfunding of the expansion and maintenance of the urban canopy.

These promises were made in the context of the long-standing critical state of the city’s urban forest. The candidate put it this way: San Francisco lags behind other communities in providing a vital, vibrant, and ecologically sustainable urban canopy, as well as open space, in the city. San Francisco has an estimated 90,000 street trees. By comparison, San Jose boasts 231,000 street trees. Our urban canopy is full of holes: Friends of the Urban Forest estimates we have only 75 street trees per mile, compared to the national average of 120 trees per mile. That means San Francisco has a little more than half the street trees of similarly sized cities.

Today, after more four years in office, the mayor’s promises are still just that. Nothing close to what he committed to do has been accomplished or implemented. Instead the mayor has relied on press releases, disinformation, and a newly staffed position with a yet-to-be-defined role to publicize his claimed achievements.

As I speak, the mayor has seven full–time press officers polishing his image, which, coincidentally, is the same number — seven — of filled managerial/administrative positions in the Department of Public Works Bureau of Urban Forestry, the division responsible for managing all the street trees in the city. The Department of the Environment has only two-thirds of one position (out of some 65 full-time positions) devoted to urban trees.

The Office of Greening, established in 2005, has had three directors, with no announced action from the latest one since she took over in February. The Greening Vision Council, chaired by the greening director, has been dormant for more than two years. The April 2006 Urban Forest Plan died in the Planning Department. And no one in the Controller’s Office has any direct knowledge of that new technology, CitiStat.

The mayor’s spinning was at its most inventive when he used creative accounting to claim on Arbor Day last year that more than 15,000 trees were added to the city in the years 2004 to 2006, when actual total was closer to 4,800 trees.

So much for "green and clean."

Allen Grossman

Allen Grossman is executive director of the SF Urban Forest Coalition.

Promises and reality


› sarah@sfbg.com

The Lennar-financed "Yes on G" fliers jammed into mailboxes all across San Francisco this month depict a dark-skinned family strolling along a shoreline trail against a backdrop of blue sky, grassy parkland, a smattering of low-rise buildings, and the vague hint of a nearly transparent high-rise condo tower in the corner.

"After 34 years of neglect, it’s time to clean up the Shipyard for tomorrow," states one flier, which promises to create up to 10,000 new homes, "with as many as 25 percent being entry-level affordable units"; 300 acres of new parks; and 8,000 permanent jobs in the city’s sun-soaked southeast sector.

Add to that the green tech research park, a new 49ers stadium, a permanent home for shipyard artists, and a total rebuild of the dilapidated Alice Griffith public housing project, and the whole project looks and sounds simply idyllic. But as with many big-money political campaigns, the reality is quite different from the sales pitch.

What Proposition G’s glossy fliers don’t tell you is that this initiative would make it possible for a controversial Florida-based megadeveloper to build luxury condos on a California state park, take over federal responsibility for the cleanup of toxic sites, construct a bridge over a slough restoration project, and build a new road so Candlestick Point residents won’t have to venture into the Bayview District.

Nor do these shiny images reveal that Prop. G is actually vaguely-worded, open-ended legislation whose final terms won’t be driven by the jobs, housing, or open-space needs of the low-income and predominantly African American Bayview-Hunters Point community, but by the bottom line of the financially troubled Lennar.

And nowhere does it mention that Lennar already broke trust with the BVHP, failing to control asbestos at its Parcel A shipyard development and reneging on promises to build needed rental units at its Parcel A 1,500-unit condo complex (see "Question of intent," 11/28/07).

The campaign is supported by Mayor Gavin Newsom, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and District 10 Sup. Sophie Maxwell, as well as the Republican and the Democratic parties of San Francisco. But it is funded almost exclusively by Lennar Homes, a statewide independent expenditure committee that typically pours cash into conservative causes like fighting tax hikes and environmental regulations.

In the past six months, Lennar Homes has thrown down more than $1 million to hire Newsom’s chief political strategist, Eric Jaye, and a full spectrum of top lawyers and consultants, from generally progressive campaign manager Jim Stearns to high-powered spinmeister Sam Singer, who recently ran the smear campaign blaming the victims of a fatal Christmas Day tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo.

Together, this political dream team cooked up what it hopes will be an unstoppable campaign full of catchy slogans and irresistible images, distributed by a deep-pocketed corporation that stands to make many millions of dollars off the deal.

But the question for voters is whether this project is good for San Francisco — particularly for residents of the southeast who have been subjected to generations worth of broken promises — or whether it amounts to a risky giveaway of the city’s final frontier for new development.

Standing in front of the Lennar bandwagon is a coalition of community, environmental, and housing activists who this spring launched a last minute, volunteer-based signature-gathering drive that successfully became Proposition F. It would require that 50 percent of the housing built in the BVHP/Candlestick Point project be affordable to those making less than the area median income of $68,000 for a family of four.

Critics such as Lennar executive Kofi Bonner and Michael Cohen of the mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development have called Prop. F a "poison pill" that would doom the Lennar project. But its supporters say the massive scope and vague wording of Prop. G would have exacerbated the city’s affordable housing shortfalls.

Prop. F is endorsed by the Sierra Club, People Organized to Win Employment Rights, the League of Conservation Voters, the Chinese Progressive Association, St. Peter’s Housing Committee, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, the Grace Tabernacle Community Church, Green Action, Nation of Islam Bay Area, the African Orthodox Church, Jim Queen, and Supervisor Chris Daly.

Cohen criticized the coalition for failing to study whether the 50 percent affordability threshold is feasible. But the fact is that neither measure has been exposed to the same rigors that a measure going through the normal city approval process would undergo. Nonetheless, the Guardian unearthed an evaluation on the impact of Prop. F that Lennar consultant CB Richard Ellis prepared for the mayor’s office.

The document, which contains data not included in the Prop. G ballot initiative, helps illuminate the financial assumptions that underpin the public-private partnership the city is contemputf8g with Lennar, ostensibly in an effort to win community benefits for the BVHP.

CBRE’s analysis states that Lennar’s Prop. G calls for "slightly over 9,500 units," with nearly 2,400 affordable units (12 percent at 80 percent of area median income and 8 percent at 50 percent AMI), and with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency "utilizing additional funding to drive these affordability levels even lower."

Noting that Prop. G. yields a "minimally acceptable return" of 17 to 18 percent in profit, CBRE estimates that Prop. F would means "a loss of $500 million in land sales revenue" thanks to the loss of 2,400 market-rate units from the equation. With subsidies of $125,000 allegedly needed to complete each affordable unit, CBRE predicts there would be a further cost of "$300 million to $400 million" to develop the 2,400 additional units of affordable housing prescribed under Prop. F.

Factoring in an additional $500 million loss in tax increments and Mello-Roos bond financing money, CBRE concludes, "the overall impact from [the Prop. F initiative] is a $1.1 to $1.2 billion loss of project revenues … the very same revenues necessary to fund infrastructure and community improvements."

Yet critics of the Lennar project say that just because it pencils out for the developer doesn’t mean it’s good for the community, which would be fundamentally and permanently changed by a project of this magnitude. Coleman’s Advocates’ organizing director Tom Jackson told us his group decided to oppose Prop. G "because we looked at who is living in Bayview-Hunters Point and their income levels.

"Our primary concern isn’t Lennar’s bottom line," Jackson continued. "Could Prop. F cut into Lennar’s profit margin? Yes, absolutely. But our primary concern is the people who already live in the Bayview."

Data from the 2000 US census shows that BVHP has the highest percentage of African Americans compared to the rest of the city — and that African Americans are three times more likely to leave San Francisco than other ethnic groups, a displacement that critics of the Lennar project say it would exacerbate.

The Bayview also has the third-highest population of children, at a time when San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children of any major US city and is struggling to both maintain enrollment and keep its schools open. Add to that the emergence of Latino and Chinese immigrant populations in the Bayview, and Jackson says its clear that it’s the city’s last affordable frontier for low-income folks.

The problem gets even more pronounced when one delves into the definition of the word "affordable" and applies it to the socioeconomic status of southeast San Francisco.

In white households, the annual median income was $65,000 in 2000, compared to $29,000 in black households — with black per capita income at $15,000 and with 14 percent of BVHP residents earning even less than $15,000.

The average two-bedroom apartment rents in San Francisco for $1,821, meaning households need an annual AMI of $74,000 to stay in the game. The average condo sells for $700,000, which means that households need $143,000 per year to even enter the market.

In other words, there’s a strong case for building higher percentages of affordable housing in BVHP (where 94 percent of residents are minorities and 21 percent experience significant poverty) than in most other parts of San Francisco. Yet the needs of southeastern residents appear to be clashing with the area’s potential to become the city’s epicenter for new construction.

San Francisco Republican Party chair Howard Epstein told the Guardian that his group opposed Prop. F, believing it will kill all BVHP redevelopment, and supported Prop. G, believing that it has been in the making for a decade and to have been "vetted up and down."

While a BVHP redevelopment plan has been in the works for a decade, the vaguely defined conceptual framework that helped give birth to Prop. G this year was first discussed in public only last year. In reality, it was hastily cobbled together in the wake of the 49ers surprise November 2006 news that it was rejecting Lennar’s plan to build a new stadium at Monster Park and considering moving to Santa Clara.

As the door slammed shut on one opportunity, Lennar tried to swing open another. As an embarrassed Newsom joined forces with Feinstein to find a last-ditch solution to keep the 49ers in town, Lennar suggested a new stadium on the Hunters Point Shipyard, surrounded by a dual use parking lot perfect for tailgating and lots of new housing on Candlestick Point to pay for it all.

There was just one problem: part of the land around the stadium at Candlestick is a state park. Hence the need for Prop. G, which seeks to authorize this land swap along with a repeal of bonds authorized in 1997 for a stadium rebuild. As Cohen told the Guardian, "The only legal reason we are going to the voters is Monster Park."

As it happens, voters still won’t know whether the 49ers are staying or leaving when they vote on Props. F and G this June, since the team is waiting until November to find out if Santa Clara County voters will support the financing of a new 49er stadium near Great America.

Either way, Patrick Rump of Literacy for Environmental Justice has serious environmental concerns about Prop. G’s proposed land swap.

"Lennar’s schematic, which builds a bridge over the Yosemite Slough, would destroy a major restoration effort we’re in the process of embarking on with the state Parks [and Recreation Department]," Rump said. "The integrity of the state park would easily be compromised, because of extra people and roads. And a lot of the proposed replacement parks, the pocket parks … don’t provide adequate habitat."

Rump also expressed doubts about the wisdom of trading parcels of state park for land on the shipyard, especially Parcel E-2, which contains the landfill. Overall, Rump said, "We think Lennar and the city need to go back to the drawing board and come up with something more environmentally sound."

John Rizzo of the Sierra Club believes Prop. G does nothing to clean up the shipyard — which city officials are seeking to take over before the federal government finishes its cleanup work — and notes that the initiative is full of vague and noncommittal words like "encourages" that make it unclear what benefits city residents will actually receive.

"Prop. G’s supporters are pushing the misleading notion that if we don’t give away all this landincluding a state park — to Lennar, then we won’t get any money for the cleanup," Rizzo said. "But you don’t build first and then get federal dollars for clean up! That’s a really backwards statement."

The "Yes on G" campaign claims its initiative will create "thousands of construction jobs," "offer a new economic engine for the Bayview," and "provide new momentum to win additional federal help to clean up the toxins on the shipyard."

Michael Theriault, head of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades, said his union endorsed the measure and has an agreement with Lennar to have "hire goals," with priority given to union contracts in three local zip codes: 94107, 94124, and 94134.

"There will be a great many construction jobs," Theriault said, though he was less sure about Prop. G’s promise of "8,000 permanent jobs following the completion of the project."

"We endorsed primarily from the jobs aspect," Theriault said. The question of whether the project helps the cleanup effort or turns it into a rush job is also an open question. Even the San Francisco Chronicle, in a January editorial, criticized Newsom, Feinstein, and Pelosi for neglecting the cleanup until "when it seemed likely that the city was about to lose the 49ers."

All three denounced the Chronicle‘s claims, but the truth is that the lion’s share of the $82 million federal allocation would be dedicated to cleaning the 27-acre footprint proposed for the stadium. Meanwhile, the US Navy says it needs at least $500 million to clean the entire shipyard.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi said the city should wait for a full cleanup and criticized the Prop. G plan to simply cap contaminated areas on the shipyard, rather than excavate and remove the toxins from the site.

"That’s like putting a sarcophagus over a toxic wasteland," Mirkarimi told us. "It would be San Francisco’s version of a concrete bunker around Chernobyl."

Cohen of the Mayor’s Office downplays the contamination at the site, telling us that on a scale of one to 10 among the nation’s contaminated Superfund sites, the shipyard "is a three." He said, "the city would assume responsibility for completing the remaining environmental remediation, which would be financed through the Navy."

But those who have watched the city and Lennar bungle development of the asbestos-laden Parcel A (see The corporation that ate San Francisco, 3/14/07) don’t have much confidence in their ability to safely manage a much larger project.

"Who is going to take the liability for any shoddy work and negligence once the project is completed?" Mirkarimi asked.

Lennar has yet to settle with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District over asbestos dust violations at Parcel A, which could add up to $28 million in fines, and investors have been asking questions about the corporation’s mortgage lending operations as the company’s stock value and bond rating have plummeted.

To secure its numerous San Francisco investments, including projects at Hunters and Candlestick points and Treasure Island, Lennar recently got letters of intent from Scala Real Estate Partners, an Irvine-based investment and development group.

Founded by former executives of the Perot Group’s real estate division, Scala plans to invest up to $200 million — and have equal ownership interests — in the projects, which could total at least 17,000 housing units, 700,000 square feet of retail and entertainment, 350 acres of open space, and a new football stadium if the 49ers decide to stay.

Bonner said that, if completed, the agreement satisfies a city requirement that Lennar secure a partner with the financial wherewithal to ensure the estimated $1.4 billion Candlestick Point project moves forward even if the company’s current problems worsen.

Meanwhile, Cohen has cast the vagaries of Prop. G as a positive, referring to its spreadsheet as "a living document, a moving target." Cohen pointed out that if Lennar had to buy the BVHP land, they’d get it with only a 15 percent affordable housing requirement.

"Our objective is to drive the land value to zero by imposing upon the developer as great a burden as possible," Cohen said. "This developer had to invest $500 million of cash, plus financing, and is required to pay for affordable housing, parks, jobs, etc. — the core benefits — without any risk to the city."

But Cohen said the Prop. F alternative means "nothing will be built — until F is repealed." He also refutes claims that without the 49ers stadium, 50 percent affordability is doable.

"Prop G makes it easier to make public funds available by repealing the Prop D bond measure," Cohen explained. "But Prop. G also provides that there will be no general fund financial backing for the stadium, and that the tax increments generated by the development will be used for affordable housing, jobs, and parks."

But for Lennar critics like the Rev. Christopher Mohammad, who has battled the company since the Islamic school he runs was subjected to toxic dust, even the most ambitious promises won’t overcome his distrust for the entity at the center of Prop. G: Lennar.

In a fiery recent sermon at the Grace Tabernacle Community Church, Mohammad recalled the political will that enabled the building of BART in the 1970s. "But when it comes to poor people, you can’t build 50 percent affordable. That will kill the deal," Mohammad observed.

"Lennar is getting 700 prime waterfront acres for free, and then there’ll be tax increment dollars they’ll tap into for the rebuild," he continued. "But you mean you can’t take some of those millions, after all the damages you’ve done? It would be a way to correct the wrong."