Volume 42 Number 33

Driving reign

0

Rockstar Games/Take-Two Interactive (XBOX360, PS3)

GAMER Since its April 29 release, more than 6 million copies of Grand Theft Auto IV have been purchased. While Take-Two Interactive is still taking contractor bids on Scrooge McDuck–style cash swimming pools, the gaming press has worked itself into a frenzy, bestowing five-star reviews and expostuutf8g on how GTA IV will revolutionize gaming, culture, and possibly the world.

This hyperbole exemplifies gaming’s innate pathologies. Since their inception, video games have been portrayed as the puerile inferior to other entertainment media, and game designers, players, and critics have long coveted a seat at the table alongside the realist novel and the feature film. When a game as ambitious as GTA IV is released, advocates are quick to frame it as the "future of the medium," a kind of messianic product that will show those old-media Luddites what they’re missing.

GTA IV is not video Jesus. Still, by any reasonable standard, it’s an incredible game, taking the hallowed legacy of the previous GTA games, striving to be bigger and better, and mostly succeeding. At this late date, weeks after its debut, describing it as "only" the next Grand Theft Auto game can seem like very faint praise. Then again, criticizing the game using the metric of its hype is like getting a Benz for your 16th birthday and complaining that you didn’t get a Batmobile.

The GTA series is credited with inventing the "sandbox" game, which drops the player into a vast interactive world with little or no agenda. Complete the missions that drive the story forward — or don’t. Murder passersby until the police have to call in the National Guard — or don’t. Furnished with the power of today’s consoles, Rockstar Games has created a staggering sandbox, recreating New York City’s five boroughs (and a miniaturized New Jersey) in such loving, exhaustive detail that it’s hard to list all the coolness concisely. There’s a working subway system, multiple hours of fake, satirical television — one could go on forever.

In addition to the huge strides the game makes in environmental design and artificial intelligence, it also delivers the latest in interactive storytelling. You play Niko Bellic, a veteran of Balkan strife who disembarks in Liberty City hoping to escape his past and embrace the American lifestyle his previously arrived cousin Roman has touted as luxuriant and easy. Of course, it is not, and Niko is inexorably drawn into the criminal underworld he tried to leave behind.

While it doesn’t quite deliver the reinvention of the immigrant narrative parsed by some reviewers, the game provides an engrossing tale, full of three-dimensional characters (in both senses of the phrase), magnificent action sequences, and deft plot twists. The voice acting is superb and extensive; many conversations have alternate versions, expecting you to get killed and end up listening to them twice. The character animations — in a sense the game’s other kind of acting — convincingly capture the most esoteric gestures, down to the shudder of a crime boss as a line of Colombia’s finest explodes into his sinus.

The save system is still frustrating, and the prospect of replaying a long, violent confrontation after failing right at its end is often almost too much to bear. Despite GTA IV‘s unfettered gameplay, the missions are still very conventional and leave little room for creative problem-solving. Sure, there are a number of red pill–blue pill dilemmas. But in a game that allows you as much freedom as GTA, having to stick to the plan in each attempt becomes annoying. The new multiplayer mode provides a panoply of game types, ranging from traditional death-match and racing modes to cops-and-robbers high jinks that exploit what’s best about the game. Unfortunately the interface is confusing and finicky, and the online player-base seems to still be enmeshed in the game’s vast single-player story.

Grand Theft Auto IV is not without its faults. It may not establish video games as a serious medium. But if you want to have 300-odd hours of fun, there’s no better way to spend $60.

Body eclectic

0

When Miguel Gutierrez left the Joe Goode Company in 1996, he was a hot dancer. He returned to the Bay Area a mature artist. In Retrospective Exhibitionist and Difficult Bodies, part of ODC Theater’s recent "For the Record: Dancers Debate the Body Politic" at Project Artaud Theater, Gutierrez worked at breaking down the invisible divide between performer and audience. Granted, this idea has been tried before — but few have taken it as far, or developed it as consistently, as Gutierrez has done. The result was an evening of dance theater that at times pushed beyond what I can stomach but nevertheless left me full of admiration for the skill with which he works the material and the audience.

Gutierrez’s focus of attention was the body, his and ours, individually and collectively. He raised questions about performers as narcissists and exhibitionists, and about the audience as voyeurs. He subverted expectations on timing, eliminated divisions of physical space (with brilliant lighting design by Lenore Doxsee), and embraced the authentic with the sentimental. It was manipulation of the first order, and totally autocratic.

In the opening segment when he futzed around, naked between his ankles and neck, assembling props, we learned only that he is well-built and has added a few pounds since his San Francisco days. When he then invited (actually, commanded) the audience to repeat after him, "I am Miguel Gutierrez," my reaction was, "The hell I am." The tone of confrontation wove through the evening like a cry, perhaps indicative of a love-hate relationship with performance.

Retrospective was a rich tapestry of episodes that raised questions about perception. What is more real, an ad lib monologue on video, or its imitation read live from a script? Where does the screaming singer stop and become the man spilling his guts? Do we direct our eyes to Gutierrez as a teen heartthrob in an archival clip downstage, or to the live dancer way off in a corner? Have the women disappeared in the glittering sequins of their gowns in Difficult Bodies?

When a burning candle was moved ever closer to Guiterrez’s naked butt, the performance became voyeurism at its worst. My instinct was to get up and grab the candle, saying "I am Miguel Guiterrez." Unfortunately, I didn’t have the guts.

Kills thrill

0

› Kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER "So … what kind of drugs inspired the record?"

"What kind of drugs?" Allison Mosshart of the Kills has to puzzle only briefly over that question. "Mmm … none. No, we didn’t take any drugs when we were writing the record. None. No, ate a lot of kale, drank a lot of coffee, made cocktails if we were getting bored, but no … "

Mosshart thinks I’m totally high. But I’m not: I’m just going ever so slightly deaf — thanks to all those Marshall stacks I’ve cozied up to over the years and those songs I can’t stop cranking to 13. And it doesn’t help that I’m feeling a wee bit hungover, and that the SF-UK phone connection this way-too-early Sunday morning is somewhat linty. So instead of hearing Mosshart sincerely explain that for the Kills’ latest album, Midnight Boom (Domino), she and bandmate Jamie Hince "didn’t listen to music, so we did things like read books, and watch documentaries, and cut out pictures from magazines, and type on typewriters, and take photographs, and do drawings," I semi-consciously absorb all of the above — as well as a tantalizing " … and do drugs." This is your brain on too many sidecars and Sazeracs.

That’s not Mosshart, though. "You know how when you’re trapped in a building and you don’t ever go outside for a long time?" she says of the CD’s recording. "It’s quite important that you don’t eat like shit so you don’t go mad."

Yet that inspired madness, the classic creative negativity of rock ‘n’ roll romanticism — the kind one might find in the nicotine rasps of Jennifer Herrema, hooked on the Stones as filtered through a jillion crappy boomboxes, or in the tattered valentines of Berlin-era Lou Reed, gloomed-out on jet-set trash — is just what the Kills seem to mainline. I witnessed as much at the sweaty, sizable hotbox of a Domino showcase at this year’s South by Southwest fest, where the pair entered silently and quickly, noisily conjured the outta-hand spirits that most definitely don’t virtuously devour kale or read good books. Hanging on to her mic stand like a lifeline in roiling waters, swaggering with a familiar rock pirate insouciance, and sporting big-cat spots like a lady who wanted less to drink from Keith Richards’ "Loving Cup" than to be the Glitter Twin himself, Mosshart sang, swayed, and spat. Her eyes were hidden behind midnight bangs, as if daring you to gaze at anything else.

So the vocalist-guitarist’s bare-faced honesty and earnest willingness to analyze the Kills’ work comes as a refreshing surprise. For instance, of the press literature that accompanied Midnight Boom, which pointed to Pizza Pizza Daddio, a 1967 documentary about inner-city kids and their playground songs, she complains good-naturedly: "I wish I could rip that press release up because every time I do an interview, every 15 minutes someone brings up that same thing." Mosshart and Hince merely identified with the "simplicity" of the subject matter, saw its similarity to what they were doing, and liked the juxtaposition of "these seven-year-old girls singing with these huge smiles on their faces, and the songs are really dark. They’re about murder and domestic violence and alcoholism."

More than anything, she says, they wanted a third album — which includes beats and additional production by Spank Rock producer Alex Epton — that "sounds like now. The other two records [2002’s Keep on Your Mean Side and 2005’s No Wow (both Domino)] are quite retro, y’know. The first one sounds a bit like a Velvet Underground record, and the second one sounds like a Suicide–Cabaret Voltaire kind of record."

So the Kills hunkered down at the Keyclub studio in Benton Harbor, Mich., far from the distractions of London where the twosome is based. After more than half a year and a getaway to Mexico, they came up with a clutch of songs they were satisfied with.

The scathing "Cheap and Cheerful" revolves around "just being honest with yourself and honest with other people despite hurting other people’s feelings and sometimes making a real big mess of things," Mosshart offers. "But not quite burying your emotions for the good of everybody all the time. Otherwise you’ll completely explode."

Most of the tunes were the pure product of collaboration. UK native Hince, whom the American-born Mosshart met in 2000, is "my best friend," she says. "He’s kind of like the most perfect creative partner I’ve ever had. There are no rules in this band. It’s not even a band — it’s this thing, whatever we do."

It’s something even tabloid attention — now that Hince has been linked to Kate Moss — can’t tear apart. "It’s a different world, isn’t it?" Mosshart says, sounding subdued. "It’s not my world, and it isn’t really Jamie’s world so … it’s nothing I, like, care too much about. I care about him being happy. That’s about it."

Supermodels or no, the Kills will continue to stoke the flames of that chemistry. How do they work themselves into that state? "We just get nervous, y’know," Mosshart says modestly. "There are so many ideas and so few of us. When I’m onstage, I’m, in a way, daydreaming and trying not to think about anything that’s really happening around me. Other than Jamie and not falling over."

THE KILLS

Sat/17, 9 p.m., $16

Slim’s

333 11th St., SF

www.slims-sf.com

BLOW BY BLOWFLY

BLOWFLY


OMG, the OG of dirty way before ODB. Anyone with the chutzpah to turn "What a Diff’rence a Day Makes" into "What a Difference a Lay Makes" can come play by me. Sat/17, 10 p.m., $12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com

SKY SAXON AND THE SEEDS


Marin County garage-rock legend/lurker Sky (a.k.a. Sunlight, a.k.a. Dog) Saxon at the legendary punk palais? Don’t push too hard. With Powell St. John and the Aliens, Kreamy ‘Lectric Santa, and Saything. Sun/18, 5 p.m., $8. 924 Gilman Project, 924 Gilman, Berk. www.924gilman.org

CLINIC


Surgical scrubs on wry. The sly Liverpool quartet continue to keep "funk, celebration, and soft metal" alive with Do It! (Domino) — unbeknownst to Nike. Mon/19, 9 p.m., $17. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. www.theindependentsf.com

Food and the city

0

When we talk about "regional" cuisines or cooking, we often find ourselves talking about some quarter of Italy. For centuries, Italy was a politically fragmented land — a jigsaw puzzle of kingdoms, duchies, principalities, serene republics, and city-states — and did not become a modern nation-state until the 19th century.

Yet what politics could not achieve, food could. As John Dickie demonstrates in his engrossing Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and Their Food (Free Press, $26), trade among the peninsula’s cities in the late Middle Ages became the foundation for the distinctive cuisine we know today as Italian. Cooking in the Italian cities was more similar than not, Dickie suggests, and it was immeasurably better than what was to be found in the impoverished countryside, where peasants were practically boiling weeds for soup. In our time, a love of rustic Italian cooking is just one of many food fetishes — mostly harmless, but maybe not quite, since under the guise of lauding a rural bounty and style that never really existed, it subtly reinforces an American prejudice against cities. We already have Jeffersonian myths about our own countryside — as a redoubt of wisdom, rectitude, health, and happiness — that reach back beyond the founding of the republic.

We have myths about our cities too, but most are of the if-only variety. Urban utopians — the people who think cities would be little paradises if only we could rid them of homeless people or cars or Republicans or loud partiers — would do well to consider Dickie’s portraiture of Italy’s cities across eight centuries. Like all cities, always and everywhere, they are full of dirt, noise, and disease — as well as cruelty, wealth, vanity, status consumption, insecurity, and vicious politicking. They are nasty and exciting, as we would expect from any sort of social experiment that concentrates large numbers of human beings in a small space.

The lesson of cities, then, is that they are marketplaces not only of goods and services, but of ideas. They are messy with conflict among innumerable worlds and subworlds. And much of that conflict is pointless or even counterproductive — but not all of it. Sometimes a random spark will catch and burn brightly, and then we all say huzzah, or buon appetito.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

Flowers for Kathleen Edwards

0

Being of so-called American Indian and African descent, I have never believed in borders. These imperial lines have only wreaked havoc and sealed our fate. Still, I’m always amused by just how much Canadian roots rockers seem to out amber-wave many Americana acts in the Lower 48. From the Band’s part-Mohawk Robbie Robertson penning classic anthems about Southern history ("The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down"), to Neil Young’s prurient praise-songs, to my much-removed kinswoman "Pocahontas" and beyond, there’s an outsider quality shared with my outlaw peoples, a sense of being on the margins that triggers keen lyrical and sonic focus. Add to this lineage Young’s aspiring heiress, Kathleen Edwards: on tracks such as the barroom gothic "Goodnight, California," she certainly makes that skill plain.

Edwards has bubbled under since her 2003 debut Failer (Socan/Factor), widely celebrated by music cognoscenti with reliable ears. But her world-weary folkie moves reminded me of Lucinda Williams and other sepia-tone, anachronist comers of the period. With Asking for Flowers (Zoe/Rounder), her finest album to date, she has finally distinguished herself from much of alt-country’s fringe-fetish ghetto . A cinematic sweep and fine Los Angeles sessioneering frame its road songs ("Buffalo") and polemical tales from the heartland ("Oil Man’s War"). "O Canada" revisits themes of drugs and mayhem from Tonight’s the Night (Reprise, 1975), by Young and his famed, unvarnished backing band Crazy Horse. I reckon we’ll be dancing round the ole maple this spring, crowing "B is for bullshit" from Edwards’ "The Cheapest Key" as it abounds on the ever more absurd campaign trail. Other Edwards lyrics should be reserved for rocker girlfriends and women saddled with tired-ass boyfriends. "I’ve been on the road too long to sympathize / With what you think you’re owed."

Nowhere is Edwards’ inherited Great North gift of odd insight more evident than on the disc’s best song: "I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory." One could almost see Ellen Burstyn’s Alice singing, "You’re cool and cred like Fogerty, I’m Elvis Presley in the ’70s" to Kris Kristofferson in some meta-American vérité — that is, if much current US indie cinema wasn’t vastly inferior to films like Sarah Polley’s Oscar-nominated Away from Her (2006). Just as Polley kicked creative ass and Feist has been anointed the "New Joni" by worshipful black Atlantic male musicians, Edwards looks poised to be this year’s sweetheart of the rodeo — although nowhere nearer to Music Row than before. Happy trails, gal.

KATHLEEN EDWARDS

With the Last Town Chorus

Tues/20, 8 p.m., $18

Independent

628 Divisadero, SF

(415) 771-1422

www.theindependentsf.com

To “Romance,” times two

0

In 2006, Sally Shapiro’s album Disco Romance (Diskokaine) added a cooler shade of pale to the Nordic pop of Annie and a femme counterpoint to the boy’s own space disco zone charted by Lindstrøm and others. Shapiro — not her real name — used an understated, happy-sad vocal approach to navigate the vast, austere Europop soundscapes created by songwriter Johan Agebjörn. Tracks such as "Find My Soul" and "Hold Me So Tight" shimmered with an eerie grace. Agebjörn cited specific warm strains of Italo disco as his inspiration, but a Shapiro song sounds just as home in the Swedish snow.

Disco Romance deservedly received a deluxe North American release on the Paper Bag label last fall, with three additional songs. This year it’s getting the revision treatment through a pair of Remix Romance collections on the same label. The second one, which includes a mix by Europop touchstone Alexander Robotnick, is due next month. The first volume, out now, isn’t as solid as the original recording, but has its unique charms. Annie’s roommate Skatebard strips down one track, and the Cansecos’ version of "Hold Me So Tight" is the best Saint Etienne track that Saint Etienne never recorded. The Junior Boys, whose glacial crooner’s laments might be the masculine counterpart to the Shapiro sound, entreat the vocalist to speak instead of sing on "Jackie Junior." But the spoils go to Holy Fuck, whose take on "Find My Soul" magnifies the source material’s already potent sense of lost-in-space loneliness. Who is Sally Shapiro, and where is Sally Shapiro? I don’t know, but I like how she sounds on my stereo. (Huston)

www.johanagebjorn.info/sally.html, www.myspace.com/shapirosally

That girl

0

› johnny@sfbg.com

The saga or psychodrama of Britney Spears mirrors the crash-and-burn George W. Bush era like a reflective toxic bio-dome. Robyn is that girl on the outside whose story is so vast and smart that it’s been invisible to everyone hypnotized into suffering blackouts.

Back when the Swedish star first kicked her way onto an MTV that played music videos in the summer of 1997 (around when Bill Clinton became a horny lame duck), the writer-producer partly behind the perfectly calibrated beats of her semi-hit "Do You Know (What It Takes)" was none other Max Martin, the man about to bring a little ditty called "(Hit Me Baby) One More Time" to the ears of the world. Spears soon took that abuse victim’s idea of first love to the top of the US pop charts, ushering out the Spice Girls’ version of girl power in the process. As for Robyn, she wound up resonating on a different level.

While reviewing 1997’s Robyn Is Here (RCA/Jive), I joked about a sub-coincidence: vocalists named Robyn and Robin S were both vying for success with tracks called "Show Me Love." Unlike me, the movie director Lukas Moodysson recognized dissent beneath the slick surfaces of Robyn’s music: how else to explain his use of her "Show Me Love" as the signature (and in English-speaking countries, title) theme of perhaps the best teen film of the ’90s, the 1998 girl’s coming-out tale Fucking ?mål? Though Moodysson has since veered toward anti-commercial visions of degradation, he still recognizes a talented woman stuck in conservative surroundings: he recently liberated Jena Malone from Hollywood and indieland for the unseen and just-about-unknown 2006 movie Container.

As for Robyn, a decade after her debut, she’s returning to America sharper than the Knife. The evidence is there on "Who’s That Girl," a standout track from her new — to the US — album, Robyn (Interscope). Coproduced by Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, the song has greater vitality and wit than the duo’s own critic’s-darling recordings as the Knife. After a Jacuzzi-set intro that parodies rap and R&B boasts via claims that Robyn taught moves to Bruce Lee, "Who’s That Girl" kicks off the initial 2005 version of Robyn released on Robyn’s boutique label, Konichiwa, in Sweden. The marketing wizards at Interscope have messed with that sequencing: through some additional tracks and a revised order, their version of Robyn seems out to position her as a blond MIA.

No matter. Regardless of how you shuffle recent songs by Robin Miriam Carlsson, her unpretentious humor, melodicism, and neurotic toughness remain upfront. With its casually careful cataloguing and then rejection of all the things that good girls do, "Who’s That Girl" winds up containing more everyday wisdom than Spears’ entire output. (Ironically, Spears’ team turned to Robyn for a contribution to 2007’s Blackout on Jive.) If that doesn’t seem like much of an achievement, factor in that it’s also twice as good as that old Madonna song called "Who’s That Girl" and exactly the type of effervescent catchy tune that the Material Girl is no longer capable of writing, and you have a better idea of Robyn’s talent. It’s a talent that extends from string-laden stalker confessions ("Be Mine!") to statements of independence ("Handle Me," Chris Crocker’s MySpace anthem for a spell earlier this year), staying honest all the while.

A decade since Robyn Is Here, more people in the States are wise enough to know that Sweden’s honey-dripping groups and tough alliance of solo acts could fill an ark of the world’s best pop music. Robyn is here again to prove it.

ROBYN

Fri/16, 9 p.m., $20

Bimbo’s 365 Club

1025 Columbus, SF

(415) 474-0365

www.bimbos365club.com, www.robyn.com

Speed Reading

0

 

THE TEN CENT PLAGUE: THE GREAT COMIC BOOK SCARE AND HOW IT CHANGED AMERICA

By David Hadju

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

448 pages

$26

David Hajdu is an antidote to ersatz historiographers. He’s unearthed and analyzed formative but forgotten figures (such as Billy Strayhorn) and moments of 20th-century Americana. In The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America, the Columbia University journalism professor turns his attention to Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of the 1940s and early ’50s, when a cadre of young outsiders engendered a new and controversial artistic medium: the comic book.

Hajdu surveys Famous Funnies pioneer Harry Wildenberg, eccentric militant Major Nicholson-Wheeler, Crime Does Not Pay impresario Charles Biro, psychological activist Frederic Wertham, and Superman creator Jerry Siegel. But milquetoast EC Comics owner Bill Gaines, partly responsible for the horror and sci-fi craze that accompanied the atomic age, is at the center of the book’s narrative.

The Ten Cent Plague thoroughly documents the censorship struggles and creative flourishes of a subculture and revolutionary art form, but it lacks the freewheeling energy of earlier histories. For all of his rhapsodizing about the authentic juvenile experience within comics, there is a dearth of playful and existential perspective. Instead, the writing takes on an insipid encyclopedic tone, forcing cohesion on a subject matter renowned for random creativity. Large portions of text come across as just the kind of parental lesson comic book enthusiasts might shun. Nonetheless, Hajdu provides a necessary investigation into the moment when America stepped from a black-and-white past into a Technicolor future. (Erik Morse)

 

UNCREDITED: GRAPHIC DESIGN AND OPENING TITLES IN THE MOVIES

By Gemma Solana and Antonio Boneu

Index Books

313 pages

$55

Initially, Gemma Solana and Antonio Boneu’s survey of credit sequences in movies sported the title The Art of the Title Sequence. But now it is called Uncredited: Graphic Design and Opening Titles in the Movies, a gesture of solidarity toward the legion of graphic artists, particularly in Hollywood, who have designed credits for movies without being acknowledged for their efforts. Early sections of this hardcover slab of imagery and text — which weighs a good five pounds, in case you want to strengthen your biceps — explore the white-on-black and title-as-logo roots of studio movies from the first half of the 20th century. The creators of signature sequences such as the umbrella-twirling opening of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) are praised while remaining anonymous. Even when credits were credited, as with Pacific Title and Art Studio’s splendorous text for Gone with the Wind (1939), it was under a corporate blueprint.

Uncredited‘s latter chapters right those wrongs committed by the film industry by exploring the efforts of Otto Preminger’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s frequent partner-in-design Saul Bass (probably the only credit specialist to receive exhibition and monograph showcases) and his wife Elaine, as well as Jean Fouchet (an influence on Jacques Demy?), Pablo Nuñez (who created the credits for Victor Erice’s 1973 The Spirit of the Beehive), Dan Perri, and others. A climactic section about current trends displays work that uniformly pales in comparison to the work by Arcady, Fernand Léger, and especially Mary Ellen Bute and Jean-Luc Godard in a central chapter devoted to concepts. Uncredited is lavishly, gorgeously illustrated (complete with a DVD) and playfully designed. There are errors galore in the informative text though — a sharper editorial eye was needed. And who exactly is that mysterious “QT” who seems to have provided captions for a number of the illustrations? (Johnny Ray Huston)

 

She sang, he filmed

0

› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Perhaps you’d like a dark date with Mary Wollstonecraft and Percy Bysshe Shelley. If not, you can always opt for a purple romp with Rimbaud and Verlaine, or Gertrude and Alice, or Paul and Jane Bowles. Maybe you have an ear for rock, in which case you can hit the bed or hit a vein with John and Yoko, or Sid and Nancy, or Kurt and Courtney. Really, what doesn’t fascinate us about legendary bohemian couples of various eras? They’re like Brangelina, but with a more thesis-friendly shelf life for anyone aspiring to a liberal arts degree.

We fetishize intersections between artists in any influential boho scene, from the Symbolists and the Dadaists to the Beats. Whether those bohos are hippies or punks, their brief encounters heighten each other’s retrospective glamour. Andy Warhol might be the all-time champ at making every minor contributor into a cult figure. One woman provided a bridge between the Warhol Factory and the fertile Euro boho scenes of the 1960s and ’70s. That woman was Nico (birth name: Christa Päffgen), the ethereally gorgeous model-actor turned avant-chanteuse who could transform anything — a sweet Jackson Browne ballad or one of her own inimitable compositions — into a postapocalyptic dirge.

The camera may have loved Nico, but that sentiment went unrequited. After she appeared in a few films, including 1966’s Chelsea Girls, and onstage as part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable tour, Lou Reed dumped her, the Velvet Underground didn’t want her, and MGM Records realized the record-buying public enjoyed listening to this bleating beauty even less than they did the variably twee, glum, cacophonous, and not yet desert island–ready V.U.

Thus, this Germanic grievous angel slunk back to the continent from whence she came, leaving behind a list of ex-lovers that purportedly included Jim Morrison, John Cale, Brian Jones, Tim Buckley, and Iggy Pop. Once there, she fell in with a heady Parisian counterculture — in particular, with the filmmaker Philippe Garrel.

The film series "I’ll Be Your Mirror: Rare Films by Philippe Garrel" cuts a swath through Nico’s and Garrel’s enduring dual magnetism, a connection that endured long after her 1988 death from a cerebral hemorrhage. Ten years her junior, Garrel was barely out of his teens when he met Nico, yet he was already finishing his fourth feature, La Lit de la Vierge. She contributed the song "The Falconer" to that film’s ripe slice of 1969 Maintenant Génération angst, which was heavily dosed on post–May 1968 disillusionment and LSD.

A look at Morocco through a black-and-white CinemaScope viewfinder, La Lit de la Vierge is characteristic of Garrel’s hard-to-find (and hard to watch, some might say) early films. It’s visually striking, madly pretentious, and a perfect time capsule of a particular cultural moment’s entwined adventure and humorlessness. Scrawny and sporting a Prince Valiant ‘do, Pierre Clémenti is the film’s hippie Jesus, who rides into town on a burro only to be knocked off his humble ride by bullies. This Jesus has some real Oedipal issues, and no wonder — the actress Zouzou (Danièle Ciarlet) plays both Mary and Mary Magdalene. In case you can’t tell by now, there won’t be a Second Coming: when Christ makes an exit, it’s to get the hell away from people.

Nico appeared in virtually all of Garrel’s subsequent movies up until their decisive 1980 split. The fallout from their less-than-healthy relationship resonates through his more conventional later efforts, perhaps most blatantly within 1991’s I Don’t Hear the Guitar Anymore. In that film, Marianne (Johanna ter Steege; cute, but lacking Nico’s goddess quality) is a maddening object of desire who abandons lovers after dragging them into her heroin-addicted spiral. "I love you like a madman," declares Garrel’s stand-in Gerard (Benoît Régent). "That means the day you cease to be crazy, you won’t love me anymore," she snaps. Later, when talking to Gerard’s stable new squeeze, Marianna seems to speak for the director and his late muse when she ponders, "Maybe I didn’t make him happy, but it was a different era. Maybe we didn’t need to be happy. We were seeking something else."

Guitar‘s posthumous portrait is more repellent than alluring. But to help the unconverted fathom Nico’s peak mystique, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts film curator Joel Shepard has also programmed The Velvet Underground and Nico, an hour-long 1966 performance directed by Warhol. Static and chaotic, it features Nico on tambourine, with little Ari (her son by Alain Delon), a noise-jamming V.U., Mary Woronov and Gerard Malanga a-go-go, and a bout of performance interruptus courtesy of the NYPD. At the box office, up until 2005’s Regular Lovers, Philippe Garrel couldn’t get arrested. But outside of it, the types he hung with always could.

I’LL BE YOUR MIRROR: RARE FILMS BY PHILIPPE GARREL

Thurs/15–Sun/18, $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

www.ybca.org

Yo, bangerz

0

Also in this issue:

Rave it tecktonik: Hard electro’s dance du jour

Bang! The clubs, the music, the mixes

Super Ego Must the French rule everything? Is Justice revenge for "freedom fries"?

Anyone who’s recently squeezed themselves into a sliced-up silver Lycra T-shirt, pushed down a pair of Day-Glo Cazals, baby-oiled their coke-spoon anklet charms, and hit the city’s glitzier underground dance floors in the past year knows that the hardcore electro sound of Paris’s laptops — lahptoops? — is everywhere they wanna be. So yeah, this shout-out to the trenchant trend is late, and the French are already being usurped by English, Aussie, and American glam-tech innovators. But I’ve got hungry drag queens at home to feed. Mama can’t afford no glittery off-the-shoulder neon silk-screen slip dry-cleaning bills.

Also, it’s taken a while for the scene to coalesce into something tangible, nightlifewise. "Electro" has always been a catch-all — as long as it emanates from adorably entangled circuitry, the genre’s sound swings wildly from lowdown industrial grind to straight-up booty smack, vocoded howl to shuddering fwump to skittery blizzard of blips. It took French duo Justice, along with a slew of other big-name like-mindeds like MSTRKRFT and Simian Mobile Disco, to crystallize some of electro’s recent, disparate past — amped-up electroclash guitars, nu-rave airhorn screech, Philly and Baltimore cybernetic cartoon sexuality, bubbly London champagne rave, and triple-filtered Daft Punk euro strip-down — into the rock-candy party sound still blowing out woofers all over town, launching a genuine style. At first dismissed as mere Daft Punk knockoffs, these earnest Ableton addicts have transformed electro into this house generation’s gleaming hair metal, complete with fussy headbands, flashing tits, and on occasion, what my bf Hunky Beau terms "the most well-scrubbed mosh pits ever."

The scene is called banger — as in Ed Banger, Justice’s Paris-based label. The sound? Warped arena rock grandeur ripped asunder by fuzzy needles, taut bass arpeggios, pounding 808s with cymbal-crash breakdowns (they’re back!), dirty childlike vocals, and anarchic Prodigy posing to — cover your ears, discriminating queens — pop-rave 2 Unlimited keyboards. Banger kids arrive stripped of quotation marks (excessive goofy accessorizing and ironic retro bombast are out), fronting the tight sheen of perfect online shopping technique, 24-inch waists, Rockstar and rye on tap, wanton pantomimed sex, and a tang of American Apparel ennui. ("I’m on the club soda diet," a model confided matter-of-factly outside one bangin’ banger club. "I need to go to the bathroom and meditate for a minute before I pass out.") If all this sounds more like "da club" then the club, well, that’s the delicious line of tension bangers like to play against.

Banger style has even given rise, in Paris at least, to a dance craze (also back!) called tecktonik. Have you seen this shit? It’s electroclash break dancing — a splash of rave liquid by way of circuit fan–twirling, coupled with random Adderall withdrawal jerks. "Tecktonik" is now a brand-name T-shirt and a haircut, of course.

The above may look iffy on paper, but it works — there’s a blinding energy to the scene, and I’m held positively rapt by some local bangers. My next column will feature a few, as well as some young upstarts taking the bang into fidgety new directions. Let’s riot.

Razzed and dazzled

0

CHEAP EATS My new favorite hair chopper is a magician’s assistant named Dazzle, thanks to whom I accidentally got beautiful. I admit this defies logic, not to mention math. But defying those kinds of disciplines — with the help of elves and pixies with names like Dazzle — turns out to be one of my specialties.

I wish there was a way to use time-lapse photography in Cheap Eats. Hairstylistically speaking, in the past four years, I have gone from a 40-year-old rapidly recedingly hairlined dude, to a 41-year-old piratesexual in hoop earrings and bandanna, to a 42-year-old aging-rock-starsexual with way-too-long greasy locks, to a 43-year-old passable transsexual, to, now, a 39-year-old hot chick.

How I know is because I put one of those personal ads on the Internet one night and the next morning there were eight guys — some in their early 20s — telling me I was beautiful. And by the time I finished writing long, thoughtful, philosophical letters back to each of them, proving them wrong, eight more guys were telling me I was beautiful. I’m learning to leave it at that after two or three days.

"Thank you, dear, that’s sweet," I say. "You don’t look too much like a ham-and-potato-chip sandwich yourself!" They’re not sure how to take that, but we make a date for coffee anyway, and they stand me up.

Which I totally deserve because, as you know, I’m already dating someone. But 74.4 miles is a long way away from the woods where I live. And the woods are dark and cold, and I get pretty lonely between weekends. So I told him, over chicken soup and tortilla chips, that I was going to start dating other people too — find me a little something snuggly a little closer to home.

Last time I tried something like this was a year or so ago, and guys weren’t buying it. But that was before I had bangs. Still, I didn’t expect to have any better luck this time. And, truth be told, I haven’t. Unless by some geographical razzle-dazzle, Truckee, Denver, Florida, New Hampshire, and Belgium are now "closer to home" than Alameda.

If there’s a way to have online sex, I haven’t figured it out yet. And anyway, it doesn’t sound very warm, or snuggly. Guys keep asking for more pictures, more pictures. And I don’t know what else to do, so I take shots of my chickens. Or what’s for dinner. There’s one pic of half a barbecued chicken I find particularly attractive, myself, but, like I said, I tend to get stood up by the local boys.

The ones in Belgium, New Hampshire, and such, they’re all hooked. Packing up their houses, giving notice at work, learning English, scouring their local libraries for books about chickens…

I should probably not be allowed to do this sort of thing. Online dating. I’m serious. Sometimes I feel like a professional boxer about to get into a drunken bar brawl, like … uh-oh, this has got to be unfair, if not illegal.

Then I remember that, in the words of Clint Eastwood, "fair’s got nothing to do with it." Since when did Clint Eastwood become my rabbi? Since he said to Gene Hackman, near the end of Unforgiven, "Fair’s got nothing to do with it."

So, glory be to Dazzle (a.k.a. Karianne) at Peter Thomas in Berkeley, I’ve got all these electronic guys, all over the electrified world, e-coming all over me. Let me rephrase that. Coming on to me. Some are articulate and romantic and want to buy me dinner. Others come right out with their "thick cocks" this and "my clit" that. Don’t fear for my life, dear reader. They know what that word means, in the context that is me. And anyway, those ones go straight to the slush pile.

Someone told me it’s my natural prerogative as a woman to get to choose. That now they have to prove themselves to me. What a novel idea! Can it be true?

Clint? *

Mother’s Day don’t

0

› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Readers:

I recently received a press release saying,

Although moms appreciate flowers and breakfast-in-bed on their special day, this year Dad should try to spice things up and not be so predictable! Booty Parlor offers items to add some fun to Mother’s Day that Mom and Dad can enjoy, together …

It went on, predictably, to hawk a number of chocolatelike items intended to be smeared on bodies (in bed, mind you) and removed in some fashion other than rigorous showering, heavily scented oils and bath bombs, and something which may or may not have been a vibrator but both image and text were too busy being coy to tell me. How do I loathe the idea of a "sexy" Mother’s Day? Let me count the ways.

It isn’t just the seXAY-fication of a faux-holiday properly celebrated by the delivery of adorably botched breakfasts made by pride-puffed seven-year-olds to mothers enjoying a morning off from domestic drudgery; it’s also that "should" sticking out there like a sore thumb that deserved everything it got: "Dad should …." Sez who? And who, we may ask, is "Dad," and what is he doing in that sentence? Either he’s your dad, who has no place in this scenario, or he’s your children’s dad, a role that only exists in relation to the people he is "Dad" to. This is not confusing. Imagine a bath that a male parent takes with his children; now think about a bath that a male partner takes with you. Who is your daddy?

While we’re counting, whose idea of sexy is this anyway? It’s not that it’s meant to appeal to a clumsily imagined male sense of what a clumsy male thinks women think is sexy (that really did make sense, I promise, go back and reread if you don’t believe me) — it’s that it’s nobody in particular’s idea of sexy. It is, as a friend put it, "the sex-related equivalent of the ‘festive hot chocolate assortment’ you give your coworkers at Christmas."

Do mothers even want sex or "sexiness" for Mother’s Day? Some would, sure. Many would welcome a reminder that Beloved Spouse still thinks she’s attractive. Fewer would welcome an additional duty ("being sexy") thrust upon them on what promised to be a day off. And yes, I do know how that sounds. As much as I may hate the popular idea of a mom doing pretty much anything to get out of having sex with her hubby, that’s exactly the sitcom-ish image this thing gives me. I picture an exhausted, vaguely shrewish, newish mom and a horny, sulky husband who’s resorting to ham-handed hinting. "Oh, God," she thinks, "chocolate sex paint and satin undies on a stick. Christ, maybe if I blow him he’ll go away and let me sleep late."

Although this ugly picture contains the usual stereotype’s tiny ring of truth, we don’t need to promulgate it. Parents in this culture hardly need any encouragement to see their roles thus, and I certainly don’t intend to promote this vision of connubial unbliss as either inevitable or permanent. I am all for sexy marriage. I had sympathy for author Ayelet Waldman when she got into that ridiculous brouhaha a few years ago when she meant to say that grown-up love and lust, not children, are the heart of a marriage, but she ended up sticking her foot down her throat and gacking up something about how she loves her husband so much she’d throw one of her children in front of a bullet for him. I didn’t say I agreed with her, mind, but I did think it was about time somebody spoke up for the hot bond that preexisted the children and, one hopes, will burn on long after the children are on their own. Just not on Mother’s Day. I think Mother’s Day is a bit silly, but if you’re going to celebrate it, it ought to have more to do with the family unit and less to do with dad’s. After the family stuff — a lovely evening out and copious oral sex, why not? — but no springing "sexy" surprises and no sticky body paint. Ever, really.

I asked a number of female friends how they’d like a bunch of sex toys (assuming nicer sex stuff than this) for Mother’s Day and only one thought she might. She retracted it, though, when I wrote, "It’s really just a come-on for a blow job by someone who feels he hasn’t been getting enough of those." "I pictured the body paint on the woman!" gasped my correspondent.

Was she right? Was I too cynical? Is it too much to ask that a man who wishes for more blow jobs say something or do something rather than buy something? Nobody loves a gift basket or a tap on the shoulder, and this is both at once.

Love,

Andrea

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.

The Internet dystopia

0

› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION A couple of weeks ago I went to the annual Maker Faire in San Mateo, an event where people from all over the world gather for a giant DIY technology show-and-tell extravaganza. There are robots, kinetic sculptures, rockets, remote-controlled battleship contests, music-controlled light shows, home electronics kits, ill-advised science experiments (like the Mentos–Diet Coke explosions), and even a barn full of people who make their own clothing, pillows, bags, and more. Basically, it’s a weekend celebration of how human freedom combined with technology creates a pleasing but cacophonous symphony of coolness.

And yet the Maker Faire takes place against a backdrop of increasing constraints on our freedom to innovate with technology, as Oxford University researcher Jonathan Zittrain points out in his latest book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (Yale University Press). After spending several years investigating the social and political rules that govern the Internet — and spearheading the Net censorship tracking project OpenNet Initiative — Zittrain looks back on the Net’s development and predicts a dystopian future. What’s chilling is that his dystopia is already coming to pass.

Zittrain traces the Net’s history through three phases. Initially it was composed of what he calls "sterile" technologies: vast mainframes owned by IBM, which companies could rent time on. What made those technologies sterile is that nobody could experiment with them (except IBM), and therefore innovation related to them stagnated.

That’s why the invention of the desktop PC and popularization of the Internet ushered in an era of unprecedented high-tech innovation. Zittrain calls these open-ended technologies "generative." Anybody can build other technologies that work with them. So, for example, people built Skype and the World Wide Web, both software technologies that sit on top of the basic network software infrastructure of the Internet. Similarly, anybody can build a program that runs on Windows.

But Zittrain thinks we’re seeing the end of the freewheeling Internet and PC era. He calls the technologies of today "tethered" technologies. Tethered technologies are items like iPhones or many brands of DVR — they’re sterile to their owners, who aren’t allowed to build software that runs on them. But they’re generative to the companies that make them, in the sense that Comcast can update your DVR remotely, or Apple can brick your iPhone remotely if you try to do something naughty to it (like run your own software program on it).

In some ways, tethered technologies are worse than plain old sterile technologies. They allow for abuses undreamed of in the IBM mainframe era. For example, iPhone tethering could lead to law enforcement going to Apple and saying, "Please activate the microphone on this iPhone that we know is being carried by a suspect." The device turns into an instant bug, without all the fuss of following the suspect around or installing surveillance crap in her apartment. This isn’t idle speculation, by the way. OnStar, the manufacturer of a car emergency system, was asked by law enforcement to activate the mics in certain cars using its system. It refused and went to court.

Zittrain’s solution to the tethering problem is to encourage the existence of communities like the ones who participate in Maker Faire or who edit Wikipedia. These are people who work together to create open, untethered technologies and information repositories. They are the force that pushes back against companies that want to sterilize the Internet and turn it back into something that spits information at you, television-style. I think this is a good start, but there are a lot of problems with depending on communities of DIY enthusiasts to fix a system created by corporate juggernauts. As I mentioned in my column ("User-Generated Censorship," 4/30/08), you can’t always depend on communities of users to do the right thing. In addition, companies can create an incredibly oppressive tethering regime while still allowing users to think they have control. Tune in next week, and I’ll tell you how Zittrain’s solution might lead to an even more dystopian future.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who thinks up dystopias in her spare time.

Renters fight back

0

› gwschulz@sfbg.com

A stream of perturbed tenants living in buildings owned by one of the city’s largest landlords, CitiApartments, Inc., converged on City Hall May 12 to testify that in recent years the company has engaged in an alleged campaign of intimidation and harassment against residents living in rent-controlled units.

Attendees, many wearing stickers that read "Tenants standing together for fair treatment," quickly filled to capacity a committee room used by the Board of Supervisors before the overflow was moved to two other large rooms where televisions airing the meeting were situated.

CitiApartments turned out its own army of supporters in an attempt to offset the impression that it’s unpopular among renters in the city. Dozens of people who claimed to back the company’s business practices attended the meeting wearing shirts that stated, "I support CitiApartments."

But a volunteer with the Queer Youth Organizing Project and organizer against CitiApartments complained to the supervisors that the crowd of supporters had either been paid to attend the meeting or were employees of the company. Few CitiApartments supporters filled out comment cards or spoke publicly in defense of the company.

Some CitiApartments tenants said they endured months of lingering construction work that filled their buildings with debris and garbage after CitiApartments bought its buildings, the upheaval intentionally designed to drive them out in frustration and thus give up their stabilized rent rates.

Others said vulnerable tenants like undocumented immigrants and seniors were specially targeted with intimidation tactics by a private security group working for CitiApartments that appeared at their doors asking for personal information. Utilities were frequently shut off, tenants said, or elevators relied upon by the physically disabled were left inoperable for long periods of time, all part of a campaign to scare them away from their apartments.

"This is not simply about a bad landlord," tenant Debbie Nuñez, who lives in a Lower Nob Hill building purchased by CitiApartments in 2000, told the supervisors. "This is about a well-oiled machine."

Sup. Chris Daly sponsored the hearing by the board’s Land Use and Economic Development Committee to receive an update on the city attorney’s lawsuit against CitiApartments, a.k.a. Skyline Realty. He also wanted to discuss the company’s swift rate of property acquisitions in San Francisco and to hear testimony about mounting alleged building code violations at some of its buildings.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued the company and several of its subsidiaries in August 2006 alleging an "egregious pattern of unlawful and unfair business practices," and a "shocking panoply of corporate lawlessness, intimidation tactics, and retaliation against residents."

Five months prior, the Guardian published a three-part series of stories documenting claims by current and former CitiApartments tenants that they had been the victims of persistent, aggressive attempts to oust them from rent-controlled housing units. If such tenants vacate the apartments for whatever reason, CitiApartments can raise the rent on those units dramatically.

A recent report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office shows CitiApartments today owns nearly 300 properties here, which combined hold from 6,300 to 7,500 units and about 12,000 tenants.

Sup. Aaron Peskin, who sits on the committee with Sups. Gerardo Sandoval and Sophie Maxwell, said at the meeting that his office receives a complaint once a week or at least every 10 days about CitiApartments, a figure that has increased over the last three years.

"I don’t recall ever hearing complaints about Trinity Properties in the city," Peskin said. "They own 6,000 units."

Daly pointed to a May 9 New York Times article that reported on the rising phenomenon of "predatory equity," in which private investment funds bankroll the acquisition of a large number of rent-controlled apartments in New York anticipating higher-than-usual vacancy rates. But tenant advocates say achieving such rates requires a concerted effort, either through offering one-time buyouts, finding nuances in the law that allow for an eviction, or harassing tenants until they grow exasperated and leave.

The significantly higher revenue generated from market-rate rental prices then enable building buyers there to repay the equity firms that gave them the huge loans to buy the properties in the first place. Daly wants to find out if CitiApartments is deploying a similar "business model" in San Francisco.

According to the Times piece, developers backed by private equity firms have purchased nearly 75,000 rent-controlled units over the last four years in New York. One company that bought a group of buildings in Queens subsequently filed around 1,000 cases against tenants in housing court during an 18-month period.

A lawyer for CitiApartments, Tara Condon, promised the committee members that the company would investigate the complaints made by tenants at the May 12 meeting. She added that the company increases tax revenue for the city when it improves the conditions and appearances of buildings it purchases. She also declared that the company makes local charitable contributions and has reached out to financially troubled tenants.

"We are a business, but we try to work with [the tenants,]" Condon said. "We want to make sure they can stay in their apartments."

One former tenant, Donna O’Brien, testified that CitiApartments helped her and her husband find a more affordable apartment after the company bought a previous building she lived in at 516 Ellis St. last year. She said CitiApartments also paid for her moving expenses. "Quite honestly, CitiApartments has been very good to us."

JROTC must go now

0

OPINION In November 2006, San Francisco made history when the school board made this the first big city in the nation to ban JROTC [Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps]. The board’s resolution, which called for phasing out JROTC from high schools this June, stated that “JROTC is a program wholly created and administrated by the United States Department of Defense, whose documents and memoranda clearly identify JROTC as an important recruiting arm.”

A poison pill was added to the resolution at the last minute: it called for a task force to be set up to find an “alternative” program to JROTC. The school district administration, in a particularly despicable move, set up the task force with more than 10 members supporting JROTC, and only one member opposed.

Surprise! After sitting for almost a year, the task force failed to come up with an alternative, so the school board rolled over and, except for two courageous members — Mark Sanchez and Eric Mar — voted last December to extend JROTC for another year.

In 2005, San Franciscans passed Proposition I by almost 60 percent, declaring it “city policy to oppose military recruiting in public schools.” That same year, by the Army’s own report, 42 percent of JROTC graduates across the nation signed up for the military. As this country enters its sixth year of the illegal occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s time for the school board to go back to its original decision to kick the military out of our schools.

The school board must end JROTC — now. JROTC is currently scheduled to be “phased out,” but not until June 2009. By then both Sanchez and Mar will be off the school board, and there will be little to prevent the military from orchestrating a vote to extend JROTC indefinitely. If, on the other hand, the school board votes to end JROTC this June as their original resolution required, JROTC would be gone.

Two progressives on the board must be convinced to send the military packing: Kim-Shree Maufas and Green Party member Jane Kim.

Both received endorsements from progressives. To convince them that they risk such endorsements in the future, the JROTC Must Go! Coalition is circuutf8g the following statement: “We will look very closely at the next school board vote on JROTC and will consider the votes carefully when making any endorsements for future candidates.”

Within a week, the Tenants Union, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, and the San Francisco Bay View newspaper signed the statement. If Maufas and Kim join Sanchez and Mar, we’ll make history again.

Riva Enteen is the former program director for the National Lawyers Guild and the mother of two San Francisco school district graduates. Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a southern Italian queer atheist writer and activist. For more information contact the JROTC Must Go! Coalition: (415) 575-5543 or JROTCmustgo@gmail.com.

 

Volume 42 Number 33 Flip-through Edition

0

Guardian lawsuit moves to the next stage

0

› tredmond@sfbg.com

The news hit the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle Web site (www.sfgate.com) May 9 under a nice, subtle headline: "SF Weekly Loses Big, Again."

And while it’s not exactly a done deal, Judge Marla Miller appeared poised that day to finalize a $15.6 million award to the Guardian and issue an injunction barring SF Weekly from continuing to sell ads below cost.

The decision, expected this week, will bring the lawsuit to its next stage, as the Weekly and its 16-paper chain parent, Village Voice Media, threaten to try to overturn the 1913 California law that protects small businesses against big predatory competitors.

The Guardian‘s lawsuit charged the Weekly and Village Voice Media with vioutf8g the California Unfair Practices Act, which bars companies from selling a product below the cost of producing it with the intent to harm a competitor or reduce competition.

On March 5, a San Francisco jury found that the Weekly had engaged in predatory pricing and awarded the Guardian $6.39 million in damages. The law allows for treble damages.

Judge Miller opened the hearing by stating that, on the basis of legal briefs filed by the two sides, she was inclined to triple $4.6 million of the damages, leaving a final judgment of $15.6 million.

Although Guardian attorney Ralph Alldredge argued that the entire verdict should be tripled, the outcome wasn’t a big surprise: from the day of the verdict, we’ve been reporting that the likely final award would be around $15 million.

Forrest Hainline III, a new lawyer representing the Weekly, argued vociferously against any injunction, claming that the court would be wading into troubling First Amendment territory. He argued that the only way the Weekly could comply with an injunction would be to cut editorial expenses — and that would have an impact on the paper’s right to free speech.

But Alldredge pointed out that courts have always found that newspapers have to pay taxes and obey basic business regulations. What, he asked, would happen if the Weekly were found guilty of dumping toxic printing-press waste into the bay? Would the paper argue that paying the cleanup costs would violate the First Amendment?

The argument wasn’t new — the Weekly tried the same First Amendment claim early in the trial, when the paper filed to have the lawsuit dismissed. Judge Richard Kramer, who handled the first stages of the suit, rejected the argument. The Weekly sought an appeal of Kramer’s ruling, but the appeals court denied that as well.

Judge Miller seemed to imply in her questioning of Hainline that an injunction would only require the Weekly to do what it should be doing anyway: competing fairly. "Would you advise your client to go ahead and violate the law?" she asked.

Among the more interesting parts of Hainline’s argument was the claim that the Weekly would never be able to survive in San Francisco unless it could sell ads below cost. He essentially implied that the Weekly can’t make a profit on its own, and is in business only because its corporate parent is underwriting it.

Hainline said that he didn’t see how the Weekly would be able to sell ads at a price that covered its operating costs.

An injunction that would force the paper to operate like a normal business and live within its means would threaten the Weekly‘s very existence, Hainline argued, proclaiming that Miller was threatening to "silence a First Amendment voice." He implied that the Unfair Practices Act should never apply to newspapers and that the entire verdict ought to be invalidated.

Alldredge pointed out that it was silly to say the Weekly would be forced out of business. After all, he said, the Guardian is selling ads at a price that allows it to cover costs.

Miller took the matter under consideration and will issue a final ruling within 10 days.

The Guardian‘s lawyers are Alldredge, Richard Hill, and E. Craig Moody.

For more details on the case, the latest updates, and the dueling Guardian and Village Voice Media blogs, go to sfbg.com/politics.

The real energy-policy choice

0

EDITORIAL According to City Attorney Dennis Herrera, if San Francisco wants to see the Potrero Hill power plant, which spews pollution over the southeast part of the city, close down next year, the city’s going to have to operate its own fossil fuel plants in the neighborhood. Some environmentalists say that’s not true — that the city could develop enough renewable energy and use existing backup systems to obviate the need for the so-called peaker plants.

Opposition to the plants comes from the Sierra Club, Supervisors Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi — and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Even for people who spend an inordinate amount of time studying energy policy, it’s a confusing mess of a situation — and San Francisco, of all cities, shouldn’t have to be facing it.

The peaker dilemma exists for a reason: San Francisco has allowed private-sector companies like PG&E and Mirant, which owns the existing Potrero plant, to control the city’s energy systems. The good news is that the fight over the power plants is driving a new move for public power — a move that ought to bring together the public interest activists on both sides of the plant divide.

Sups. Ross Mirkarimi, a peaker foe, and Aaron Peskin, a peaker supporter, plan to introduce a Charter Amendment mandating that the city’s Public Utilities Commission create a plan to establish a retail power agency in San Francisco. The amendment would provide the badly needed kick start to get city officials to act on San Francisco’s historic mandate for a municipal electricity system.

Peskin and Mirkarimi may not agree on the three peaker plants the PUC wants to site at the foot of Potrero Hill, but they do agree that PG&E is up to no good here. The giant private utility desperately wants to keep the city from developing its own electric power plants: the city peakers would be competition for PG&E and would open the door for the city to get more directly into the electricity business. Although the fliers put out by the "Close It Coalition," funded by PG&E, talk about environmental issues, that’s just old-fashioned greenwashing. PG&E is building similar combustion turbine gas-fueled generators all over the state.

Why should this be the city’s only choice?

If there’s going to be a fight over energy policy in San Francisco, it ought to focus on the real long-term questions: Who should control the local grid, and the future supply of electricity, and the decision over how much of the local portfolio should be in renewable resources? Should PG&E continue to hold that power, or should the city take it over?

The movement for public power is exploding all over California. In Marin County, a group called Marin Clean Energy is mounting a sophisticated campaign for a community-controlled power agency that would use 100 percent renewable power. The South San Joaquin County Irrigation District is trying aggressively, against a full-scale PG&E political assault, to buy out PG&E’s distribution facilities and create a new public power system. Stockton is looking at becoming a public power city.

San Francisco is pursuing CCA, but needs to do much more. This is, after all, the only city in the nation that has a mandate under federal law to sell retail electricity.

If the city had created a public power agency years ago, the peakers wouldn’t be an issue. San Francisco would have been able to develop more extensive renewable power sources, create a long-term energy plan, and concentrate on shutting down fossil fuel plants instead of building them.

But whatever the outcome of that fight, it’s time to think about the future — and the future is community-owned energy programs. That’s the choice that ought to be on the ballot in November.

PS: Stop the presses — has Newsom buckled to PG&E? The mayor at the last minute May 13 has orchestrated a delay in the peaker vote — at the behest, we hear, of PG&E, which is begging the mayor to do anything to stop public power. Now he wants to retrofit the Mirant plant. That’s an unacceptable option and needs to be rejected.

Editor’s Notes

0

› tredmond@sfbg.com

I was having lunch with an old friend the other day, and, as usual, we got through our lives and kids pretty quickly and wound up talking about tax policy. I’m a great date.

I was explaining to her — well, yeah, I was lecturing, at some volume — about the problem with sales taxes and the value of parcel taxes and income taxes, and somewhere along the line I realized that the progressive leadership in San Francisco needs to think a bit more about small business.

See, my friend’s husband runs a small company, and she isn’t happy about the way the city’s universal health plan is financed. "If this is so important to San Francisco," she asked, "why aren’t we all paying for it, instead of just businesses?" Her idea: finance the program with a new sales tax.

Well, I support Healthy San Francisco and I think that, all things considered, Sup. Tom Ammiano did an amazing job of putting together a plan that is actually working. Ammiano told me last week that more than 20,000 people — formerly uninsured people — have signed up. This is a very big deal.

I realize it’s also a pain for a lot of smaller businesses, in part because the rules — specifically designed to keep unscrupulous employers from cheating — are complicated and hard to follow. And for companies that are barely making it, the tab for insurance can be brutal.

That, of course, is the overall problem with employer-based health insurance. But it’s the system we’re working under, and the complexity of creating a completely different model in one city would be, to say the least, daunting. In fact, there were a lot of employers in this city, many big retail outlets and national chains, that could well afford to pay for employee health insurance but instead dumped their workers on the overburdened public health system.

And restaurants, which are whining the loudest, have managed to stick their customers with the added cost, which frankly isn’t such a terrible thing: people who eat out a lot can afford an extra buck so the kitchen help can see a doctor when they’re sick.

And as I (ever-so-gently and quietly) explained over my $12 sautéed prawns, sales taxes are horribly regressive, even worse than small-business taxes. I’m right; she’s wrong. We had a hell of a lunch.

But I think her frustration ran a bit deeper than this one issue, and I hear it from a lot of others too: small businesses don’t seem to be part of the progressive coalition.

I understand why: a lot of small business people are conservative, particularly on fiscal issues. It’s really annoying how often small merchants side with the Chamber of Commerce and the big downtown forces. You can’t get small business groups to support any new revenue measures.

And the progressive supervisors have done a lot for small businesses — starting with enacting limits on chain stores, which have protected locally owned shops in several commercial districts.

There’s a lot more we can do: I’m still pushing for a progressive business tax (cut taxes on the bottom, raise them on the top). And a city income tax would pay for health insurance and a lot more.

But right now, many community merchants are feeling ignored, and our next progressive candidate for mayor needs to think about that. It’s a potentially powerful constituency — but for all the wrong reasons, it’s going in all the wrong directions.

Cow tipping in Daly City

0

› gwschulz@sfbg.com

Daly City’s desperate campaign to shut down the famous Cow Palace and sell the land it’s located on to developers continues.

In the newest twist, promoters of shows and conventions that have long been held at the Cow Palace are being approached by officials from an expo center in San Mateo County about moving their events, which could increasingly drain the Cow Palace’s income and kill efforts to stop Daly City and its allies in Sacramento from selling it.

Some promoters also contacted the San Mateo County Event Center about a possible move, worried that efforts to demolish the Cow Palace will make it difficult for them to schedule future events. Chris Carpenter, general manager of the San Mateo center, refused to name the shows because the promoters have asked him not to say anything.

"We are very interested in filling as many dates as we can for the Event Center," Carpenter told the Guardian. "We have a very active sales department."

Carpenter denied that Daly City officials encouraged him to steal business from the Cow Palace, saying no one from the city had contacted him. But Daly City manager Pat Martel eagerly promoted the alternative venue on the KQED radio show Forum March 28.

"Today we have state-of-the-art facilities throughout the Bay Area where a number of events currently at the Cow Palace can continue…. The San Mateo County Expo Center would welcome the opportunity to keep that kind of business in the county," Martel said.

The San Francisco Flower and Garden show announced in late April that it was leaving the Cow Palace after 12 years and heading to San Mateo, where flower show proprietor Duane Kelly signed a five-year agreement. Kelly said he made the move because the state had long ago promised certain renovations and improvements would occur at the Cow Palace, but they never happened.

In the meantime, the San Mateo center received a $3 million renovation that included fresh paint and new carpet and draperies. It was simply a better situation for a show that relies on aesthetics, Kelly said.

Kelly added he wasn’t impressed with how Daly City officials and state senator Leland Yee have handled the discussions about the proposed sale by trying to exclude Cow Palace officials from deliberations about the venue’s future. He said it looked more to him like a land grab, and despite the construction of new, glitzy convention centers elsewhere, the Bay Area remains underserved.

"Particularly [San Francisco’s Moscone Center] does not lend itself to public shows because of the parking issue, and it’s a very expensive building to work in," Kelly said.

Following a March public meeting on the Cow Palace’s fate, officials at the San Mateo center approached the organizer of the Great Dickens Christmas Faire about moving that event. Kevin Patterson, who runs the fair and has since helped lead a campaign to save the Cow Palace, said the San Mateo center isn’t suitable because of the amount of space he needs and the cost required to alter his event logistically. Besides, he said, he likes the Cow Palace.

"Daly City just got greedy and pushed too hard and tried to get too much," Patterson said.

In December, Daly City officials voted to dispatch their lobbyist for a chat with Yee about developing the land after complaining that two years of lease negotiations over a 13-acre plot of Cow Palace property had gone nowhere. The lobbyist, Bill Duplissea, is a former Republican member of the State Assembly whose firm, Cline and Duplissea, has earned $266,000 from Daly City since 2001, according to state records, to "monitor budget issues" and hit up lawmakers like Yee.

Weeks after Daly City sent Duplissea after Yee, the senator introduced Senate Bill 1527, originally designating as "surplus" all 67 acres of state-owned property the Cow Palace sits on so that Daly City could purchase it, flip the valuable real estate to a developer, and await the local boost in tax revenue coming from new condos, storefronts, and a retail grocer.

Daly City was so determined to circumvent the Cow Palace on the issue that when the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which oversees the property, tried to convene peace talks between the Cow Palace and Daly City, Duplissea sent a letter to the state declaring that his client would prefer to deal only with Sacramento.

After the bill was introduced, Yee and Daly City officials embarked on a media blitz condemning the Cow Palace as a decrepit relic with event income that couldn’t sustain it. Many of the events Cow Palace hosts, Daly City complains, are offensive to the sensibilities of locals or don’t match the neighborhood fabric, like an annual gun show and the San Francisco–centric Exotic Erotic Ball, "a celebration of flesh, fetish, and fantasy," according to the ball’s Web site.

"Every single neighborhood association surrounding the Cow Palace asked the senator to carry this legislation," Yee spokesperson Adam Keigwin told us. "This was always about revitalizing the neighborhood."

After Cow Palace supporters mounted a resistance campaign, Yee came up with a mid-April "compromise" bill that would result in the sell-off of the 13-acre parking lot adjacent to the Cow Palace while appearing to protect the historic venue for now.

Patterson of the Great Dickens fair said a lease provision in the bill would be preferable so revenue could go toward giving the Cow Palace an earthquake retrofit and other needed improvements. But Keigwin said that’s not something the senator’s interested in.

The California Senate Government Organizational Committee was debating the bill as we went to press. That committee includes Yee and Sens. Jeff Denham and Mark Wyland, two Republican cosponsors of the bill who represent districts that aren’t affected by the Cow Palace at all.

Denham, whose District 12 contains the cities of Modesto and Salinas, tellingly promoted legislation two years ago asking the state to study transferring control over agricultural fairs to local governments, but it died in the assembly’s Appropriations Committee.

Opponents of Yee’s bill are concerned it could set a precedent for the state to declare other agricultural districts "surplus" and sell them to developers without local supporters and promoters of fairs and expos having a say in the matter, not unlike what the Cow Palace faces now.

A capitol insider also told us that because Yee declared SB 1527 "urgent" in hopes of rushing it through the legislature, it requires a two-thirds vote, hence the cosponsorships from two minority GOP lawmakers.

As for the future of the Cow Palace’s clients, we contacted the Grand National Rodeo, the San Francisco Sport and Boat Show, and the Golden Gate Kennel Club Dog Show, but didn’t hear back from representatives of any of these events.

Baba, a tattoo artist in Los Angeles, said San Francisco’s Body Art Expo, held at the Cow Palace, secured an agreement with the venue for another year, but he wouldn’t offer further details. Mega Productions, which hosts the event, didn’t return our call.

Howard Mauskopf, executive producer of the Exotic Erotic Ball, said he recently looked at other possible venues, but he’s keeping them confidential for now. The Moscone Center is big enough, Mauskopf said, "but they wouldn’t touch an event of this ilk." He added that the ball’s coordinators regularly receive letters from law enforcement commending them on the lack of trouble they cause.

"There are things we really like about the Cow Palace, which includes the fact that they kind of let the event happen the way it needs to happen," Mauskopf said. "It’s big enough. That’s the most important thing. And they have a very high-quality ticket office that really knows how to deal with consumers."

The Bike Issue: Getting in gear

0

1. City Hall has a bike room. For a while I thought only a scant number of city employees rode to work because the racks out front are usually pretty barren. Then I came across a storage room in the basement, near the café, full of bikes. What an encouraging sight. It was opened a few years back by the Department of the Environment, which is tasked with many of the city’s greening chores, and is available for all City Hall employees to park their rides safely inside.

2. More than 50 percent of San Francisco’s greenhouse-gas emissions come from transportation. Despite this, 20 percent of San Francisco residents polled in November 2007 by David Binder Research said riding a bike did nothing to curb global warming. Au contraire. Bicycles emit zero greenhouse gases (although the rider emits some carbon monoxide from huffing and puffing). A car produces roughly 20 pounds of CO2 for every gallon of gas burned. Gas stations in San Francisco sell about 953,000 gallons of fuel a day. At $4 a gallon, it would take about five months’ of fill-ups to buy every San Franciscan a $750 bicycle — and that’s a nice bike.

3. Someday when you’re waiting for a BART train, take a good look at a system map. It has almost every East Bay bike trail detailed, and many of the trails connect BART stations with recreation areas. "There are a lot of great ways to get out to nature from BART," said BART board member Tom Radulovich.

4. BART is getting more bike-friendly. About 15 percent of the 580 trains now have removed seats to create special areas for bikes. (Look for the cars marked "Bicycle Priority Area.") Though some riders would like each train to have an entire car dedicated to bikes (Caltrain’s approach), a BART spokesperson told me that it would be difficult because cars are added and dropped throughout the day to handle fluctuating ridership. Soon more stations will be outfitted with bike lockers, for rent at a couple of pennies an hour with a BikeLink pass (for information, go to www.bikelink.org). Later this year, the Embarcadero Station will be getting an entire storage room (like City Hall’s, and again, partially funded by the Dept. of the Environment.)

5. One BART oddity: That groove running beside the stairs at the 16th and Mission station is to wheel your bike up and down rather than carrying it. Who knew? Not me. It’s a pilot project, so if you use it and like it, let BART know by calling (415) 989-2278 and the transit agency might install some more.

6. A San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (www.sfbike.org) membership provides mad discounts, and not just at bike shops. Get 10 percent off at Rainbow Grocery and 50 cents off beers at Hole in the Wall — and that’s just the beginning.

7. Make sure you write down your bike’s serial number so it’s easier for the cops to track your ride if it gets ripped off (see "Chasing My Stolen Bicycle," 2/13/07, for more on bike theft in San Francisco). How do you find these magic digits? Flip your bike over and copy the number stamped on the bottom bracket where the pedals go through the frame.

8. Distant lands like Larkspur, Mill Valley, and Muir Woods are all much closer when you mix the bike with the boat. Marin has an amazing network of bike paths, and the Marin Bicycle Coalition (www.marinbike.org) has a map that one-ups San Francisco’s. (It shows the direction of the hills, not just the grade.) And … the ferries have bars.

9. DIY is the way forward. The three-class series at Box Dog Bikes (www.boxdogbikes.com), which covers flats, replacing cables, and truing wheels, is cheap and goes into enough depth that I no longer feel like there are certain parts of my bike I’m not supposed to touch with an Allen wrench. Follow it up with a membership to the Bike Kitchen (www.bikekitchen.org), a DIY shop with tools, parts, and people on hand to help you tune your spokes. It also regularly hosts "WTF" nights for girls, queers, and transpeople.

10. Need to know how to find the bike lanes and avoid the hills? Get one of those great bike maps (available at City Hall and at bike shops) when you join the SF Bike Coalition through a free download at www.sfbike.org/download/map.pdf. You can also pick them up at the energizer stations all over town on Bike to Work Day. It will help you find the best routes and navigate groovy spots like the Wiggle, which is the best route from mid-Market Street to Golden Gate Park. If you look along the sides of the streets, you’ll even see the green bike route signs that say "Wiggle." If you get lost, just look for a bike lane, which are well-marked all over town. Or follow all the other bikers.

The Bike Issue: Don’t stop

0

In the two miles between my home and office in downtown Boise, there are five stop signs and 10 traffic lights. On a good day, I can make the journey without coming to a complete stop.

That doesn’t happen in my car because, of course, I’m a law-abiding driver. Yet on my bicycle, it’s possible for me to cruise through all five stop signs and effortlessly cruise right on through the downtown corridor without once touching my feet to the pavement.

And in Idaho, it’s completely legal.

Although cycling commuters here often bemoan the city’s ineffective bike lane system and criticize the lack of public bicycle parking, nary a word is spoken about the state’s progressive bicycle traffic laws. Thanks to some forward-thinking state legislators a couple of decades ago, Idaho’s bike laws are the envy of cyclists throughout the country.

The concept is a simple one that allows bicyclists to keep their momentum without ever taking the right-of-way from motorists: basically, stop signs are treated a yield signs, and stop lights as stop signs. Bicycles can legally blow through stop signs as long as it isn’t another driver’s turn. And at red lights, bicycles must stop, but can proceed if the intersection is clear

"There are lots of good reasons for it," said attorney Kurt Holzer, who specializes in bicycle accidents. Aside from the fact that a waiting cyclist won’t trip a traffic light changing mechanism, Holzer said the laws are in place for safety reasons. "If you have a bike on the right side and a car wants to turn right, the law allows the bike through the intersection, through the area of conflict, so the biker can get out of the way."

Newcomers to Boise often muse that people are less defined by what they drive than what’s hanging from their bike racks. Boise’s mayor endorses the bicycle and is a regular bike commuter. Mayor Dave Bieter is often seen pedaling to City Hall on his red 1969 Schwinn Typhoon — the bike he got for his 10th birthday.

Rather than each faction exerting ownership over the pavement, cyclists should know and follow all the laws, while drivers should concede that bicycles are different from cars and should therefore be subject to different laws. Stopping at empty intersections is cumbersome for drivers and cyclists alike — but cyclists aren’t likely to kill pedestrians with their carelessness.

By drawing a legal line in the sand between cars and bikes, allowing them different rules in the same environment, Idaho’s bike laws ultimately foster a mutual respect between drivers and cyclists. In Boise it’s common to see road signs instructing drivers and cyclists to "share the road." It may be common sense advice for cyclists, but to motorists, it’s a subtle reminder that bigger shouldn’t mean better.

Rachael Daigle is a staff writer for Boise Weekly.

Follow that “Balloon”

0

After years of Tarantino twists and shot-for-shot shams, homage has gotten a bad name. Let’s call Flight of the Red Balloon something else: a transportation device in which Paris, Albert Lamorisse’s beloved 1956 slice of magical realism The Red Balloon, and a patchwork family float in and out of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s inscriptive view. At 61, the former Taiwanese new wave pacesetter is on a travel kick. After moving to Tokyo to film 2003’s Café Lumière, his tribute to Yasujiro Ozu, the filmmaker next went to Paris, thanks to a commission by the Musée d’Orsay. Flight of the Red Balloon‘s reception at Cannes was lukewarm, but away from that hothouse it’s plainly a masterwork. Mysterious without being opaque, it is as delightful in its particulars as in its overall musical intelligence.

It starts simply, with a boy and a balloon. The red orb reappears periodically in Hou’s film, like a refrain, but this prologue provides the fullest convergence with Lamorisse’s original. A sleepy-eyed child calls out to the air before descending the Metro steps; the camera pans up, catches a first glimpse of the talisman as it lingers behind wind-brushed trees, and then follows it across the rooftops of an overcast Paris.

The balloon retreats, but Hou’s camera stays alight. We soon find the boy, Simon, living in a jumbled apartment with his mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), a blustery creative type who voices puppet shows. She has engaged a young Chinese filmmaker as Simon’s nanny: Song Fang (playing herself) is first seen entering Suzanne’s puppet theatre, her oval visage shrouded in the richly-toned shades of black typical of Hou’s collaborations with cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin.

The conflicts within this autumnal story world pass at a remove. Hou wryly observes aspects of Parisian life (a downstairs neighbor unable to ask a simple kitchen favor without detailing his mutton stew, for example), but doesn’t tether his film to such observations. Instead he emphasizes resonant textures: the musical interplay between the relaxed camerawork and Binoche’s breathy, bleached-blond performance; the lyrical enfolding of a child’s half-comprehending, absorbed perspective with that of a foreigner’s; and too many paired scenes and visual echoes to count, including a couple of lovely pirouettes up and down a spiral staircase. Throughout, Hou’s inclusive model of filmmaking draws from painting, music, and puppetry. Whenever he ventures into the mother and child’s apartment, currents of light and color are pitched between minimalism and reverie.

Much like some of this season’s other film highlights (In the City of Sylvia, Alexandra, Paranoid Park), Hou’s latest foregoes plot restrictions for acute ambience and sustained portraiture. I didn’t respond to Flight of the Red Balloon as quickly as I did to the others, but it’s the one I most want to revisit. Diffuse yet deep, Hou’s vision erases the boundaries between his film and the worlds that surround it.

The red balloon of The Red Balloon beckons, but Hou’s film also bears a surprising resemblance to Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996) in its skipping ellipticism, its depiction of a detached Asian woman swimming amid unkempt Parisians, its utterly free way of withholding story information and averting linearity, and its double-exposed invocation of a past French film classic. Assayas is no stranger to Hou’s work, having made a documentary about the Taiwanese director in 1997 (HHH), but their unique sensibilities impart common materials with entirely different moods. Where Irma Vep radiates frenetic energy, Hou’s profoundly subdued film lingers in the drowsy quiet of afternoon. In this respect, Flight of the Red Balloon also reminds me of another French film about childhood, stasis, and puppet shows: François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). One new wave shores up another, and an old man’s meditation reflects a precocious debut like so many carefully angled mirrors.

FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON

Opens Fri/16 at Bay Area theaters
www.ifcfilms.com

Sweet “Dreams”

0

› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Words, words, words. You’ve probably noticed how Shakespeare’s plays are full of them. They skip or loll on the tongue; they tickle or bemuse the ear. Sometimes, and not just for the uninitiated or casually acquainted, they come across with more music than meaning. Well, that "Shakespeherian Rag" goes raga in the international production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, now taking its San Francisco bow at the Curran Theatre, where among a cast of exclusively Indian and Sri Lankan actors, Elizabethan English vies with seven languages of the subcontinent.

The words, for a change, are therefore not the most important feature of this production — unless you happen to speak one or more of the Indian and Sri Lankan languages on display, which judging by the pockets of laughter that arose at certain moments, some in the opening-night audience clearly did. This incredibly agile, imaginative, and widely praised 2005-6 production, led by UK director Tim Supple (and making its North American debut courtesy of Best of Broadway), foregrounds the play’s action, passion, physical humor, and erotic energy to such a striking degree that it reminds one persuasively of the full scope of Shakespeare’s potency as a dramatist. And the dialogue — if you don’t speak Hindi, for example — still reveals a surprising dramatic and melodic force all the same.

The words also give a thrilling sense of the vast treasure of cultural and linguistic tradition emanating from the subcontinent. At the same time, this is no museum piece; it is a vital blending of theatrical traditions and ideas. The amazingly athletic, even acrobatic cast effortlessly incorporates everything from traditional song and martial dance to Cirquelike aerial work into the enchanted forest–realm of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Shakespeare’s multilayered story of love’s fickle and darker aspects. As the production’s lone Brit, Supple’s staging is highly original. At the same time, it recalls the use of vertical space in Peter Brook’s legendary 1970 staging. The backdrop is a bamboo scaffold many meters high, initially covered over in a great wavy, ruffled sheet of thick paper that beautifully absorbs and deflects Zuleikha Chaudhari’s rich lighting. Performers come bursting, crawling, and tumbling through this membrane until it’s a mess of tatters.

The acting is physically and emotionally strong. Joy Fernandes, for instance, delivers a particularly memorable turn as the hilariously irrepressible Bottom. Meanwhile, the musicians to the sides of the stage left and right further refine the dazzlingly dynamic action with delicate metallic strains, sweet guitar melodies, or the crashing punctuation of a massive percussion kit.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Through June 1

Tues.–Sat., 8 p.m. (also Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.); Sun., 2 p.m., $35–$80

Curran Theatre

445 Geary, SF

(415) 512-7770, www.shnsf.com