Volume 42 Number 34

What the hell


(Capcom; PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

GAMER Video games are often pilloried for expressing a particularly juvenile kind of male fantasy, where chain-mail thongs and Kevlar corsets comprise the latest in bulletproof lingerie and mindless, balletic violence is the order of the day. Despite the efforts of more high-minded game designers, every so often a game comes along that confirms the worst of these stereotypes. Devil May Cry 4 is exactly this game. The latest in the wildly successful Capcom franchise abounds with lovingly rendered cleavage, in which cup size is dwarfed only by the polygon count, huge phallus-substitute swords the size of stepladders, and inanely macho dialogue. Players assume control of Nero, an apprentice slayer who replaces Dante, the hero of the first three installments. The plot is effectively nonsense and its function is identical to that of a porn movie, with the sex swapped out for violence. It establishes who will be fighting, where they will be fighting, and the various configurations they will fight in — and then gets the hell out of the way.

Game play is built around a satisfying beat-’em-up system that harks back to classic arcade side-scrollers. Using his monstrous sword, his trusty pistol, and a magically imbued left arm known as the Devil Bringer, Nero unleashes all sorts of punishment on waves of enemies. Stringing together attacks without taking damage allows you to build "combos," which the game grades on a scale that is undoubtedly familiar to its core player-base: eighth-graders. The most pedestrian pwnage will earn you a "D," for "deadly." More complicated attacking will allow you to garner "C" for "carnage," "B" for "brutal," and "A" for "atomic," all the way up to SSS (higher than A), which stands, of course, for "super sick style."

The combat system is abetted by the game’s purposely cartoonish physics, which are tweaked so that firing your gun or using your sword after jumping actually enables you to stay in the air longer than you otherwise would have. This kind of jumping is escapist fun. Unfortunately the game also relies on another kind of video game acrobatics, the dreaded "jumping puzzle." Occasionally Nero will have to perform a series of choreographed leaps to continue his quest, while the game ratchets up the annoyance level mercilessly by adding time limits and enemies that spawn every time you screw up.

These challenges are further complicated by Devil May Cry 4‘s frustrating camera system. Although a freely roaming perspective has been de rigueur in 3-D games for some time, Capcom decided to stick with a fixed viewpoint during most of the game, obscuring important items and areas in order to pimp the game’s admittedly lush environments. When the angle does change, it is often an infuriating 180-degree shift, so that the joystick direction you were just using to move forward now moves you backward, making basic actions like walking through doors disorienting in the extreme. Devil May Cry veterans disappointed in the new protagonist will be happy to learn that Dante appears as a player character about halfway through the game, along with his arsenal of weapons. Once Dante appears, however, the player is inexplicably forced to play through the same levels he or she just completed as Nero, except in reverse order.

This kind of backward-looking regression sums up Devil May Cry 4‘s flaws. Working in a medium that is getting ever more sophisticated, Capcom has made a game that cloaks yesterday’s tired, game play in today’s fancy graphics and hopes no one notices. I, for one, will not stand for this kind of … hey! Check out the rack on that Dominatrix Ninja from Hell!

Flying the coop?


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY From inside the trailer-size office at Sunrise Farms, one can hear the incessant squawking of 160,000 chickens housed nearby. The Petaluma-based egg producer generates the vast majority of eggs sold in the Bay Area with its seven properties and 1 million hens, one of two large egg operations in a region that used to have thousands of smaller chicken farms.

On one wall of the office a framed aerial black-and-white photograph shows the same property as it appeared more than 70 years ago. The layout of buildings hasn’t changed much over time, still retaining the long, thin structures aligned side-by-side. But in the photograph, little white specks populate the space between buildings — they’re chickens, and all 10,000 were free to wander. Today the birds are kept indoors and, to save space and increase production, are typically confined in small cages. These "battery" cages are stacked in rows four cages high, allowing each bird 67 square inches of room — about the size of a large shoebox.

Although the egg industry says the cage systems are science-based and humane, animal welfare activists say they are cruel and restrict natural behaviors. In November, voters will decide whether to ban the cages in California, thanks to a six-month signature-gathering effort sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States along with other animal welfare groups. As hundreds of veterinarians, businesses, farmers, and politicians — including Assembly member Mark Leno and state senator Carole Migden — continue to endorse the measure, the California egg industry is rallying farmers from across the country against it. If voters approve the law, California’s egg farmers would be required to move the state’s 19 million caged birds into cage-free facilities by 2015.

Since 2002, Florida, Arizona, Oregon, and Colorado have passed similar laws regarding the confinement of pregnant pigs and veal calves in crates — both included in the California measure — but California would be the first state to pass a law regarding the confinement of egg-laying hens. The pork and veal industries have begun voluntarily phasing out confinement practices nationally, and animal welfare groups hope for a similar response from the egg industry if the measure passes in California.

But some consumer groups and egg producers fear the cost of eggs could increase drastically as a result of the new laws. The industry is historically volatile, with prices rising and falling week to week due to disease outbreaks and fluctuating consumer demand. Recently, however, the industry has seen steady growth. The average American now buys around 260 eggs per year, an increase since the 1990s that has resulted in higher profits for the $3 billion-a-year industry.

Although the financial toll the measure would have on farmers and consumers is unclear, the Humane Society touts a study prepared for an industrywide meeting in 2006 as evidence that the cost to switch over to cage-free farming would be minimal. The report claims that the difference between constructing and operating a cage-free facility compared to a caged one amounts to less than one cent per egg. However, the work-up assumes land prices of $10,000 per acre — a fourth of the average land cost in Sonoma County. But even using the higher estimate, the difference is still only slightly more than a penny per egg.

Arnie Riebli, the managing owner of Sunrise Farms, says he disagrees with those figures and doesn’t understand how they were calculated. Indeed, he thinks the cost of cage-free production is closer to double that of caged production. Even so, he says that while initial costs are higher, he receives a higher profit margin on cage-free eggs because of their specialty pricing.

If required to raise only cage-free birds, Riebli says his business will lose its competitive edge to out-of-state producers. One-third of California’s eggs currently come from outside of the state, which means the delivery routes and trucks from the Midwest are established, which means flow could easily be increased. "Every other state is going to sit out there and ship more eggs in here," he says. "They’re not stopping it. They’re just moving it somewhere else."

Riebli’s says he is concerned with his hens’ welfare as much as ever, and has taken trips across the world to research the latest in hen-raising technology. But he stands by his methods. "I use myself as a judge to see what my animals will like," he says. "I go into the building just as I am. If I’m comfortable without a mask, without any protection, then the birds must be too."

The chickens closest to the office are considered cage-free. The 4,000 birds inside the building are fed an all-organic diet and, although quarters are still tight (slightly over a square foot is allotted for each), the birds can dust bathe, perch on posts, and spread their wings. Sunrise Farms reflects the entire industry, since only about 5 percent of its egg-laying hens are raised without cages. In most other buildings, birds are held in battery cages. Ten birds live in each four-foot metal cage.

The eggs are packed on site and distributed through NuCal Foods, the largest egg supplier in the western United States. NuCal also delivers eggs from Gemperle Enterprises, the company whose facility recently came under fire after animal rights activists released undercover footage of severe animal abuse at its farm. Although the farm now claims the video was staged, it showed heinous acts of cruelty, including stomping and throwing hens. More important, it showed the conditions of the hens living in battery cages. Many had excessive feather loss, abnormal growths, and infections.

Riebli says he wants to distance his farm from the cruel treatment shown in the video. Still, he admits that all laying hens are susceptible to cancers, infections, and feather loss, although not usually as severe as what was shown in the video. "There’s a disconnect to where people’s food comes from," Riebli says. "They think it comes from the back of the grocery store, but unfortunately it doesn’t. It has to come from somewhere."

The Riebli family has been in the Petaluma egg business for more than 100 years, and since 1960 his company has grown by joining with other egg producers. The farm survived the Depression, the bird-flu scare, many salmonella outbreaks, and even break-in attempts from animal rights activists. Now that iron bars guard the office windows, Riebli is no longer as worried about criminal attempts against his farm. His main concern these days is that the law, although aimed at protecting chickens, could put him out of business.

"Animals are not human," he says, furrowing his brow and raising his voice slightly. "They don’t have intellect. Chickens probably have brains the size of a pea."

Sara Shields, who holds a doctorate in animal behavior from the University of California, Davis, is among the most vocal American scientists to oppose the use of battery cages. She notes that in Europe, where battery cages were banned in 1999, she’d be considered moderate. She recently released an extensive study comparing the welfare of hens in battery cages to those in cage-free systems. "I would like to see us raise the bar for the treatment of animals," she says. "There’s a limit to how high that bar can be set in cages. I don’t think cages have the potential to be humane."

But most American agricultural scientists disagree and say both systems can be operated humanely, though they grant that poorly-run versions of either type can be disastrous. To prevent mismanagement, United Egg Producers, a lobbying group that represents 85 percent of the country’s egg farms, decided to develop standards for caged production in 1999. They sought out UC Davis poultry scientist Joy Mench to lead a team of scientists in creating these welfare guidelines.

By analyzing the disease, injury, mortality, and productivity rates of birds kept in different systems and spaces, the group developed criteria that the industry subsequently adopted. Among these standards is the 67-square-inch minimum space requirement for each hen. These measures mostly focus on disease and mortality control as well as egg-laying productivity, but have less concern for behavioral welfare.

Although caged birds in modern systems sometimes have lower disease rates than cage-free birds, Shields says the potential for humane treatment in cage-free systems is much higher. Most scientists agree that hens in battery cages cannot engage in many of their natural behaviors, including wing-flapping, nest-building, perching, dust-bathing, scratching, and preening. And although disease control in cage-free systems is more difficult, Shields says, cage-free flocks can be maintained healthfully and successfully.

But Riebli has had problems with one of his younger cage-free flocks at Sunrise Farms. They became startled and piled on top of each other earlier this month, he says, suffocating 20 percent of the birds.

But Shields says this is highly unusual, and points toward newer, aviary-style cage-free systems as a solution for producers who encounter the problem. These methods divide the birds into smaller flocks within the same building, and rely on multiple levels to allow birds to perch and nest. Another potential issue, she says, is the lack of a perfectly-bred hen for cage-free production. After years of breeding hens to produce well in battery cages, breeders only recently have begun breeding for traits that benefit cage-free production. "The bird needs to be suited to the environment, and the environment also needs to be more suited to the birds," she says.

An aviary system costs more to set up than an empty cage-free building, but Shields dismisses these costs. "If we keep racing to the bottom in the name of cheap food, the eventual cost is going to be put on the animals," Shields says. "At some point we have to balance economic costs with moral and ethical considerations."

Over the past two-and-a-half years, a group of 15 politicians, scientists, farmers, and ranchers banded together to do just that. The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released a report last month detailing many troubling issues with the country’s farm animal production. The group specifies that the California ballot measure is a great place to start.

More than 100 cows graze Bill Niman’s 1,000-acre Marin County ranch, but only a couple have ever successfully navigated down the cliffs from the pastures to the beaches. Niman’s home is less than a mile inland, and on clear days he can see across the bay to San Francisco and even Daly City. He founded Niman Ranch on this property in the early 1970s and quickly caused a stir by deciding not to feed antibiotics and hormones to his cows. At first his fellow ranchers didn’t take him seriously, but now nearly all beef producers feed their cattle hormone-free food. More than 30 years later, Niman is determined to use the credibility he has earned to help all farm animals gain better treatment.

Last year, at 63, he gave up his seat on Niman Ranch’s board of directors, effectively ending his involvement with the company he once ran. Now he volunteers with the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. "One of my missions in life is to change the way animals are treated and how food is produced in this country," he says.

As part of the commission’s research, Niman visited one of the nation’s largest caged production houses in Colorado. Despite the state-of-the-art automated system, Niman was not impressed. "It’s pretty hard to put a rosy picture of 1 million chickens living five birds to a cage with no room to move around or stretch their wings," he says. "If I ran the place, I’d have trouble sleeping at night."

Niman believes the public wants to see reform in the food production industry. He says that this measure, and any laws that improve animal welfare, will only expedite what would eventually come naturally due to consumer demand. "I’m not one to advocate more and more legisutf8g, but I also know what’s going on out there," he says. "Change is so critical — and coming — that the sooner that change can begin, and the more orderly and methodical that change can be, the better off everyone will be."

Niman is part of a food movement centered around the Bay Area that includes author and University of California, Berkeley professor Michael Pollan, who also has expressed support for the measure. "The treatment [of hens] is important for reasons for morality, ethics, and sustainability," Pollan tells the Guardian, adding another ulterior motive for changing how hens are kept: "Eggs from hens that live outdoors on grass are a excellent product, even more nutritious and tasty." *

Fly boys


› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER I never swooned over Jemaine Clement when his clueless geek-goon was busily copping quasi-Street Fighter moves in 2007’s Eagle vs. Shark, and I never noticed the spacey Middle Earthly beauty of Bret McKenzie when he was striking sultry elfin poses in The Lord of the Rings. But somehow, two discs of season one of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords and a couple jillion listens to the duo’s new self-titled Sub Pop album later, I’m hooked. I woke up this morning with the cyborg-gut-busting "Robot" roving through my head ("The humans are dead / We used poisonous gases / And we poisoned their asses…. It had to be done / So that we can have fun"), and I silently sang the lusty-nerd verses of "The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)" ("You could be a part-time model / But you’d probably have to keep your normal job") to myself for the rest of the morning. Apart from those lyrics, I’m at a loss for words — for a change. All I can say, doltishly, is "uhhh, they funny." Otherwise I’m considering a leg transplant and dye job so I can become the "Leggy Blonde" of FOC dreams — or at least a Rhys Darby tat.

What have they done to deserve such gushery? The way they sweetly snark at my rock, garbed in the amiable skin of a fumbling indie-rock-folk duo. The manner in which they poke at pop clichés, letting them fly well above the heads of those who don’t grasp the Shabba Ranks and Marvin Gaye references — and somehow those unfortunates still crush out on FOC. The botched trysts and fumbled musical careers of the pair, played by the half-Maori Clement and the sometime reggae musician McKenzie, which make all and sundry adore them that much more. Their humanizing humor, which stems primarily from FOC’s New Zealanders-straight-outta-Middle Earth naïveté.

Much has been made of the rise of so-called indie rock comedians like David Cross and Eugene Mirman — who both, coincidentally or no, are FOC labelmates — but lo, Clement and McKenzie are the real thing. They have the facial hair. They swill water. They hail from the land of the Clean and Tall Dwarfs. They combine pop-savvy wit and wiseacre lyrics, while sending up genres ranging from between-the-sheets R&B swoons ("Business Time") to backpacker hip-hop ("Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros" with Clement trotting out a ringer imitation of Del tha Funkee Homosapien) to art-rock nipple-antenna anthems ("Bowie"). A good deal of FOC’s appeal hinges on the fact that pop is so utterly ripe for lampooning — after all, doesn’t the title of E=MC2 (Island) sound like Mariah Carey is attempting a self-conscious, FOC-style jab at her own intellectual prowess?

It also helps that FOC come so often with the hooks: I can’t stop replaying "Inner City Pressure" — and reveling in its low-budg, pseudo-seedy Pet Shop Boys video tropes — repeatedly in my skull. My only critique of their recently released full-length might be that the songs cry out for a DVD clip or eight: while some tracks sport lyrics with built-in yuks that allow the songs to hold their own, still others like the puzzling opener, "Foux du Fafa," completely lose the original, necessary context — FOC was hitting on patisserie workers while frolicking through a color-coded Scopitone-esque Gallic pop reverie — that justifies, for instance, its litany of French baked goods. Some numbers such as "A Kiss Is Not a Contract" are sweet and strong enough to include on the CD, though you miss the series’ accompanying Serge Gainsbourg video parody even if the tune itself bears little musical resemblance to Sir Serge’s oeuvre. Still, most of FOC’s soaring sonic moves don’t fall too far from the tree shaken during the more larky outings of producer Mickey Petralia’s other client, Beck. And who knows, this high-school-friendship-turned-comedy-act could be the start of a beautiful musical career, considering that the other would-be beautiful "Loser" kicked off his illustrious catalog with what many considered a joke song as well: there have been stranger flights of fantasy. *


Tues/27, 8 p.m., $32.50

Masonic Auditorium

1111 California, SF

Also May 29, 8 p.m., $32.50

Davies Hall

201 Van Ness, SF




Dan Bejar pulls Destroyer out of the garage, while intriguingly minimal nouveau-’80s-popper Devon Williams unleashes Carefree (Ba Da Bing). Wed/21, 8 p.m., $15. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. www.theindependentsf.com


Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel polish their indie-pop to a bright sheen on Re-Arrange Us (Barsuk). Thurs/22, 9 p.m., $17–$19. Slim’s, 333 11th St., SF. www.slims-sf.com


Yes, we’re weirded out that Jimmy McNulty’s spawn dug Dead Meadow on The Wire. The Bay’s Dame Satan cast a spell with the new Beaches and Bridges (Ghost Mansion). Sat/24, 9 p.m., $15. Slim’s, 333 11th St., SF. www.slims-sf.com


The definitive book on awesome atonal negheadedness is fêted by author Marc Masters and no wave authority Weasel Walter. Sat/24, 2 p.m., free. Amoeba Music, 1855 Haight, SF. www.amoeba.com; Sat/24, 9 p.m., pay what you can. 21 Grand, 416 25th St., Oakl., www.21grand.org; Sun/25, 5 p.m., $6. Artists’ Television Access, 992 Valencia, SF. www.atasite.org


The NYC nibblers have been ruling the boroughs since the announcement that they were joining Radiohead on ATO subsidiary TBD. Tues/27, 9 p.m., $12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com

Dancers without borders


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

What do you need to create a first-rate hot product that is of value to others besides yourself? A great idea, a support structure, and money are good places to start. But what if you had no support structure and no money? If you believe in your idea, you’d plow ahead anyway — just like Andrew Wood, executive director of the San Francisco International Arts Festival.

In 2002, Wood began to think about something he felt this city full of artists and tourists needed: an arts festival that would bring the two together. The event would also focus local attention on a large, vibrant arts community that thrives in the shadow of the three big ones — the San Francisco Ballet, the San Francisco Symphony, and the San Francisco Opera.

"Lots of artists here are bursting with ideas," Wood explained during a recent interview. "We need an entity that supports them because they need more opportunities to show their work."

That a similarly ambitious undertaking called Festival 2000 went belly-up in 1990 didn’t deter the string bean–thin Brit, who talks faster than a cattle auctioneer. But Wood wasn’t about to let the fate of another festival stop him. Soon he was everywhere, talking to anyone who was willing to listen — and even to some who weren’t.

Mostly he encountered closed doors. The city had no extra cash. Foundations were already overcommitted. Wood — onetime director of ODC Theater — had no track record when it came to producing a such a large-scale event. Artists were suspicious that already-scarce funds would be siphoned off for a project that might have no room for their work. And another thing: did Wood know how to balance a budget?

He remained undeterred, largely because he had seen something happening in the Bay Area that others had noted as well, even if they hadn’t yet connected the dots. The community was supportive of young artists who were willing to put up with just about anything to get their work out — but once they got to the level where they needed decent rehearsal spaces, performers they could pay, and offices beyond their bedroom floors, the going got tough. Traditionally, local artists at this stage either called it quits or moved away. No longer.


In scouring the local arts scene, Wood noticed what he calls the advent of "journeymen" artists. He named them after the century-old tradition of skilled professionals who traveled long distances and practiced their craft wherever they were hired. Propelled by a desire for adventure and professional improvement, they also managed to support themselves, often handsomely, whether they were roofers, storytellers, or healers.

"Dancers like Janice Garrett, Kim Epifano, Scott Wells, Jess Curtis, Shinichi Iova-Koga, and Stephen Pelton work part-time in Berlin, or London, or Tokyo, or Mexico City. They create work where they are supported and bring it back," Wood explained. In addition, these artists return home with news from abroad about who is doing what, and where.

Despite his admiration for the vitality of the Bay Area arts scene, Wood recognized that "not a lot of artists come through here [on their own]. This place is insular in many ways." As one working artist told him, "You don’t need to see Merce Cunningham for the umpteenth time. You want to see something that resonates within you."

There is a huge pool of artists all over the world whose work has simply not yet hit the radar screens of local presenters. When the San Francisco International Arts Festival launched in September 2003, Wood presented the astounding Quasar Dance Company from Brazil; Indian British dancer Akram Khan (now a megastar); and Compagnie Salia nï Seydou, the first in a succession of contemporary African dance companies that have been seen here since. In 2005 (there was no 2004 festival), the festival showcased extraordinary performances from the AKHE Group (Russia); Fabrik Companie (Germany); Manasku no Kai (Japan); and — one of the wildest of them all — the Moe!kestra, from Manteca.

A focus of SFIAF has become fostering international collaborations that make local artists into journeymen citizens of the world. "We need to support artists here but they also need to realize that there are opportunities somewhere else," Wood said.

This process of cross-fertilization started in 2006 and continued in 2007, when the festival highlighted art from Latin America and the African diaspora. Since the city has yet to commit to any direct funding — Wood called local arts leadership "miserable and petty" — he has become a wizard at patching his budget together, creating cosponsorships, acting as an umbrella organization, and linking artists with individual funding sources. He also has become adept at handling the Department of Homeland Security’s onerous (and expensive) visa process for performers. "They all have visas!" he exclaimed.

A monthlong visual arts exhibit loaned SFIAF 2008 its name: "What Goes Around … The Truth in Knowing/Now." This year’s fest kicks off Wednesday, May 21, and runs until June 8, when it will be capped with a free Yerba Buena Gardens concert by the Omar Sosa Afreecanos Quartet, with local Latin percussionist John Santos.


The festival also includes operatic and theater pieces, as well as choreographers whose work might not be seen locally if not for SFIAF. For example, SFIAF enabled Idris Ackamoor, co-artistic director of Cultural Odyssey, to bring Brazilian dancer-choreographer Cristina Moura to San Francisco. "I was struck by her innovative movements," said Ackamoor, who encountered Moura while scouting for the National Performance Network’s Performing Americas Project, which he co-curated. "She moves like no one else, with a pedestrian and a highly physical vocabulary. She also has a unique way about storytelling." Moura’s solo like an idiot (2007) also resonated with him, as did the title. "Isn’t that the way we all sometimes feel?" he said, speaking of the work, which holds its California premiere at SFIAF.

Wood caught Shlomit Fundaminsky’s emblematic SkidMarks at the 2006 Dublin Fringe Festival and this year SFIAF is copresenting it with SF’s Israel Center. Speaking from Tel Aviv, Fundaminsky describes the work, a duet for herself and Gyula Csakvari, as inspired by "the home life of a man and a woman who live so close to each other — really as one person — that they lost their ability to communicate. They are creating this box for themselves and are unable to break out of it."

The Kate Foley Dance Ensemble may be familiar to Bay Area audiences because of Foley’s 10-year local performance history. In 1998 she moved to Croatia, where she is in residence at a newly constructed arts center. When Wood sent out a call for SFIAF participant proposals, John Daly of the Croatian American Cultural Center suggested her. Yet the Oakland-born Foley’s homecoming has not been without pain. "I have been so ashamed of what I have had to put my dancers through for the visa process," she said on the phone from Rijeka, Croatia. Her US premiere, Angels of Suderac, is a dance theater work using modern dance and what she calls "reconceived" folkloric material. The piece is based on her research into shamanistic practices that connect fairies and herbal medicine women.

By contrast, new to the Bay Area is the young AscenDance Project, which formed in 2006. German-born director Isabel von Rittberg joined Dancers’ Group when she moved to San Francisco, where she heard about SFIAF. The world premiere of Levitate, which combines rock climbing with dance, will be shown as part of "Jewels in the Square," a festival-spanning series of free performances in Union Square. *


May 21–June 8, various venues, most shows $20

For complete schedule, visit www.sfaif.org

With or without you


› paulr@sfbg.com

The ancients had many different gods, though none (that we know of) in charge of restaurant reservations. But they were certainly familiar with fickle and tempestuous deities, and I can’t imagine any god of restaurant reservations being any other way. Despite the heavy infestation of computers into most of our lives, restaurant reservations retain a certain crapshoot, the-gods-must-be-crazy quality. No doubt the lord of restaurant reservations finds this amusing. Whether you’re using OpenTable or trusting to a reservationist on the telephone, you cross your fingers and click your heels together three times, hoping for a wink and a smile from fate and wondering what might happen if someone, somewhere along these finely spun threads of arrangement, screws up.

A prime candidate for the reservation screw-up is the person making the reservation. This is the diner’s equivalent of "pilot error" in airplane crashes. Recently I booked a table at a restaurant through OpenTable, and everything went beautifully until the day before, when the reservationist called to confirm the table … for the wrong day. I would have been pleased to be furious, but the mistake was totally and utterly mine — and an obvious one to boot. I could have averted aggravation and embarrassment if I’d bothered to read the confirmation e-mail sent after I’d booked the table. But gods need their laughs, too.

Not many days later, I booked a table at a less grand but well-regarded neighborhood place, using the trusty old phone and talking to an actual person on the other end. The actual person asked me to confirm my area code, and I took this as evidence that attention was being paid, the right buttons being pushed, and so on. At the appointed hour, we turned up at the host’s station to find that, so far as the restaurant was concerned, we did not exist; the reservation system was managed on a fancy computer, but we weren’t in it. Did I hear a giggle from somewhere overhead?

The lost reservation is an excruciating social moment. The restaurant bungled, yet there is no proof, and you still hope they can find a place for you. If you indulge in a self-righteous huff, you are headed for the nearest taqueria, while making apologies to your companions and praying to the taqueria god. What was that god’s name again?

Motor psyched


› kimberly@sfbg.com

Born too late, on the wrong side of the country, with the wrong rodents hanging from your tail? Considering my abiding love of Elvis Presley, Al Green, Big Star, Shangri-La Records, and Memphis barbecue, I should have perhaps switched lives with Snake Flower 2 vocalist-guitarist Matthew Melton.

The Bay Area transplant from Bluff City still retains the courtly, sweet-tea manners of a Southern gentle-rocker, despite the trouble he’s seen in the name of scorching biker psych, tambourine-bashing vixens named Bunny, and dustups with such garage-rock kin as the Black Lips. When I tell him I have the hots for his native Memphis, Melton’s instantaneous happiness and hometown pride blasts right through the phone line.

"Thank you so much!" he exclaims. "I love Memphis too." He should: Melton’s love of raging garage-rock was honed playing in the city alongside the Memphis Break-Ups and the River City Tanlines, as well as the Lost Sounds’ Jay Reatard and Alicia Trout, whom he performed with in the Bare Wires. No wonder Snake Flower 2’s first full-length, Renegade Daydream (Tic Tac Totally), is so utterly bitchin’: it’s overdriven, romping-in-the-red hot-rod rawk for kids whose minds were forever fractured by dog-eared, rifled copies of Nuggets LPs, Steppenwolf’s gnarlsome guitar tone, Roger Corman cinematic cheapie sleazies, and the Standells’ heightened snot levels. Renegade Daydreams‘ supercharged, fuzz-doused frenzies are the choicest tidbits plucked from, Melton says, "the first batch of songs I wrote after I escaped from the South."

He didn’t intend to end up in Oakland, a town he lovingly describes as comparable to Memphis in its desolation and "blankness." Two years ago, Melton was stranded in San Francisco by his original Snake Flower bandmates, including an ex called Bunny, who, he says, "ended up leaving me for an art school professor who looked like John Lennon. We were touring across country in this Volvo, and by the time we got here, we were at each other’s throats."

After attempting to follow his erstwhile Snake Flowers back to Los Angeles via Greyhound, making it only as far as Santa Cruz, and hitchhiking back to the Bay, Melton decided to simply add "2" to his band name and sally forth, hooking up with and firing various rhythm sections (Paula Frazer filled in as a touring drummer in one early incarnation) until settling on bassist Carlos Bermudez and drummer Johnny Axe.

The supremely "dirty and blown out" sound of the disc, as Melton describes it, comes courtesy of mastering by Weasel Walter and all-analog tracking by Jay Bronzini (the Cuts, the Time Flys) on a Tascam 38. "You get a lo-fi sound that barely meets fidelity standards," says Melton happily. "I’m right there on the cusp. When it sounds too clean, you lose some of the soul and feel of it." In the meantime, Melton is already prepared to make his next long-player, which he’ll record himself on his own Tascam 38 while refining that biker psych tag ("It’s a combination of ’60s garage rock and ’70s motorcycle anthems — like Mad Max meets Alice in Wonderland") that a friend laid on him. He’s even penned a song titled "Biker Psych" for Snake Flower 2’s next seven-inch on German label Red Lounge.

Melton also seems to be finally relaxing into the Bay Area music scene, playing in Photobooth and reforming Bare Wires with the Time Flys’ Erin Emslie. "It took me a long time to assimilate here," he confesses. "Being from the South, I’m very open. Here I feel like I gotta keep my guard up. But I’ve met so many great musicians. I’m not going anywhere." *


Fri/23, call for time and price

Annie’s Social Club

917 Folsom, SF

(415) 974-1585


Weekend warrior


Phil Spector may or may not have been the first to use layers of overdubs to convey the widescreen-aspect ratio of teenage emotion. Nonetheless, he certainly carved a niche. Adolescent euphoria be thy name: Brian Wilson, "Baba O’Riley," Bradford Cox, and now Anthony Gonzalez on his new M83 album, Saturdays=Youth (Mute).

"I have such good memories of my teenage years," Gonzalez confesses over the phone from his native Antibes, France. Saturdays=Youth wraps wasted youth in nostalgia for 1980s pop, and it’s a dangerously fun tonic. "John Hughes was my main influence on this album," Gonzalez said, and the proof’s in the overheated lyrics, the sun-struck portraits, and the quick changes between subgenres, which resemble so many high school cliques. Saturdays=Youth is no less ambient than Brian Eno’s chilliest scores, but instead of Music for Airports, it’s Gonzalez’s "Music for a Molly Ringwald Movie."

When Gonzalez first emerged with his massive, bright synth rainbows on earlier M83 albums like M83 (Mute, 2001) and Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts (Mute, 2003), he came off as a post-shoegaze Enya. The crucial change on Saturdays=Youth is first apparent after the marching chorus opening "Kim and Jessie" drops out, leaving space for Gonzalez’s verse. Instead of coasting on an endless climax-loop, the song makes effective use of a traditional pop structure — choruses, bridge, and masterfully diffused outro — to convey the simple exuberance of two teenage girls sneaking liquor in a patch of woods. Gonzalez downplays revisionist favorites like My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain here in favor of shinier surfaces descending from groups like Simple Minds and Tears for Fears.

M83’s dips into catchy new wave ("Graveyard Girl"), Hot Topic goth ("Skin of the Night") and electro-gospel ("We Own the Sky") are smoothed by the album’s high definition gloss. After only working with sound engineers in the past, Gonzalez opted to collaborate with two different producers on Saturdays=Youth. Ken Thomas’ long résumé makes the album one degree removed from Gonzalez favorites Cocteau Twins, while Ewan Pearson is known for his sleek dance tracks. "The combination of these two producers brings something interesting," Gonzalez muses, and the songs do seem to sway between velvet reverie and intense ear candy.

"My older brother used to lend me his VHS, so I used to watch with my friends," Gonzalez said. "A lot of horror movies and a lot of the teen movies. When I was watching the John Hughes movies, I was 13 or 14. I felt really close to the characters." At its best, Saturdays=Youth slows these generational markings into a ritualized ghost dance. The album is certainly a simpler, less troubled nostalgia piece than something like Donnie Darko (2001). What of the fact that this heavily marketed teenage paradise was borne of American conservatism? Gonzalez doesn’t have the answers, but his transporting music makes you feel silly for asking too many questions.


With Berg Sans Nipple

Wed/21, 9 p.m., $16

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF


Human beat, motorik city


There is probably no more stellar act of connect-four in popular music than Michael Rother’s Flammende Herzen (Radar/Water, 1977), Sterntaler (Skyclad/Water, 1978), Katzenmusik (Skyclad/Water, 1979), and Fernwärme (Polydor/Water, 1982). After a childhood that was equal parts Chopin, Pakistan, and stints as a member of Kraftwerk, Neu!, and — along with Cluster’s Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius — Harmonia, Rother knew how fly solo from the get-go, reaching the realm of the sublime every time.

In the liner notes for Water’s recent reissue of Flammende Herzen, Sam Grawe of San Francisco instrumentalists Hatchback and Windsurf deems the album a "motorik All Things Must Pass," a wise music lover’s comparison that touches on the recording’s status as a glorious debut venture and its all-too-rare (in popular music, at least) quality of blessed warmth. In interviews, Rother has viewed solo music as an isolated creative endeavor along the lines of writing or sculpting, while claiming group efforts involve members collaborating to help one another overcome individual artistic obstacles. But on Flammende Herzen‘s title track, he required help from producer Conny Plank to realize his ideas about the values of simplicity and repetition and turn his love of silence into music. From there, their glorious course was set.

Rother devotees have their favorites among his first four efforts. Mine is Sterntaler, where his love of Jimi Hendrix’s "Star Spangled Banner" might be most apparent. Like a German Hendrix, Rother mines purity from guitar distortion, though in place of Hendrix’s mangled American blues, his guitar forges onward and skyward through introspective yet anthemic tunes such as equally epic "Stromlinieun" and the title track. Others prefer the quieter friend-of-felines touch of Katzenmusik, which pairs a gorgeous Rother cover photo of a plane’s vapor trail with a dozen morphing variations of a melodic theme. The black sheep might be Fernwärme, which finds Rother venturing away from Plank’s production and Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit’s more mathematical and truly motorik take on Neu!’s propulsive heartbeats into darker, lonelier realms not far from the forlorn new world occupied by Joe Meek’s Globbots.

Outside his role in Neu!, many people have primarily known Rother as the guy who, according to legend, turned down an offer from David Bowie to contribute to Bowie’s Heroes (Rykodisc, 1977). (Rother has suggested that Bowie’s management and record label prevented the pairing.) But thanks to Water’s re-releases, the Russian label Lilith’s recent reissues of Harmonia’s fresh and clean Musik von Harmonia (Brain, 1974) and golden-honeyed Deluxe (Brain, 1975) — and Kompakt artist Justus Köhncke’s ambitious all-electronic cover of Flammende Herzen‘s "Feuerland" — Rother’s music is reaching new ears. It sounds as modern now as it did when it was created. Blue rains, flaming hearts, sun wheels, streamlines, and silver linings are timeless.

Cluster luck


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Lünenburg Heath is a vast, moorland-like tract in northwest Germany, between Hamburg, Hanover, and Bremen. Its low-growing vegetation, gnarled shrubs, and dry soil form the scar tissue left by medieval deforestation. SS leader Heinrich Himmler was secretly buried there. And despite its springtime swatches of wildflowers and family-friendly theme parks, it is a landscape whose beauty stems from its air of desolation.

"Don’t get lost on Lünenburg Heath," intones Brian Eno in a nursery rhyme monotone atop a cortège of synth chords. They are the only words sung on Tracks and Traces, a 1997 Rykodisc reissue of a 1976 collaborative recording session between Eno and Harmonia, the veritable ’70s German supergroup composed of Neu! guitarist Michael Rother and kosmiche godfathers Cluster.

I have always pinned Cluster as the dark stars in the krautrock universe, based on the drifting, feverish, synthesizer-rich improvisations of core duo Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius. So I can easily imagine their protean music whistling across Lünenburg at dusk, haunting the ears of daytrippers — a strange and seductive admixture of sprightly pop and forlorn ambient improv reflecting the landscape’s more recent transformations and less-than-sunny history.

Having regrouped in 1997 after a decade-long hiatus from working together, Moebius and Roedelius are once again touching down for a rare series of US dates, including a May 23 trancefest at Henry Miller Library in Big Sur and a May 25 show at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. And despite Eno’s cryptic warning, it’s hard not to lose one’s way amid the hazy vistas and plaintive melodies of Cluster’s music.

Their expansive discography — which includes a recombinant cast of regular, notable collaborators such as Eno, Can bassist Holgar Czukay, and überproducer Conny Plank — provides a few signposts. Roedelius and Moebius initially teamed up with fellow electronic musician Conrad Schnitzler in 1969 as Kluster, releasing three explosive documents of improvisation that rapaciously incorporated elements of 20th-century classical music, jazz, and rock. Important Records’ recent release, Vulcano: Live in Wuppertal 1971, paints a vivid picture of this early period.

Schnitzler left the group in ’71, taking the hard "k" with him. From then on, Cluster recalibrated its keyboards toward a more subdued and, at times, even pretty and poppy aesthetic. Improvisational jams gave way to shorter songs, and the lurking menace of 1972’s Cluster 2 (Brain/Water) was followed by the double about-face of drum machine confections on Zuckerzeit (Brain/Lilith, 1975) and the pastoral miniatures of Soweisoso (Sky/Captain Trip, 1976).

Still, dark patches are a consistent hallmark of Cluster’s terrain, even when they choose to let the sun shine through. The superficial pleasantness of their two collaborations with Eno released at the time, 1977’s Cluster & Eno (Sky/Water) and 1978’s After the Heat (Gyroscope), belies the affective force — what could be described as a low-simmering melancholy — of certain songs. The slow progression of blue notes that form the woozy melody of "Für Luise," from Cluster & Eno, linger long after they have decayed into the Gershwin-like piano of "Mit Simaen." Cluster & Eno‘s cover photo returns us to a field — though not Lünenburg. A lone microphone stands at attention against a faint mother-of-pearl sky, which ends at the smudge of shadowy foliage at the bottom of the frame. It’s near twilight. Cryptic and evocative, meditative and inexplicably sad, the image provides a visual analog to Cluster’s chimerical output. The visual is also suggestive of Moebius and Roedelius’ openness to the chance encounters and unforeseen possibilities that arise from improvisation, as if to say: if you find yourself lost in a dark wood, just stop and listen. *


With Wooden Shjips and Arp

Fri/23, 7:30 p.m., $22

Henry Miller Library

Highway 1, Big Sur

(831) 667-2574


Also with Tussle and White Rainbow

Sun/25, 8 p.m., $19–$22

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750


Dionysian Festival


PREVIEW Mary Sano may have a small performance space, but she sure packs them in. The Tokyo-born Sano is a disciple — so to speak— of Isadora Duncan, one of the most influential yet most underperformed women dance pioneers from the dawn of modern dance. Sano regularly puts on mixed programs in which she and her dancers bring to life Duncan’s repertoire. The 11th Dionysian Festival presents Sano and her five dancers — one flying in from Tokyo — in selections from Duncan’s Brahms Waltzes, Op.39 (1905). Sano also premieres Spring, a tribute to her teacher Mignon, a protégé of Anna and Irma Duncan, who were themselves protégés of the free-spirited choreographer. (Duncan dancers trace their lineage like British aristocracy). Mignon, born a century ago, originally began — but did not complete — this piece set to Franz Schubert’s charming Rosamunde incidental music. Sano finished it in what she hopes would be her mentor’s spirit. An unnamed dance drama in collaboration with koto player Shoko Hikage highlights Sano in her experimental mode. Also performing are G. Hoffman Soto’s improvisational dance group, SotoMotion; two Bharata Natyam dancers, Priya Ravindhran and Rebecca Whittington; and on Saturday only, avant-garde Peruvian violinist Pauchi Sasaki with bamboo flutist Hideo Sekino.

11TH DIONYSIAN FESTIVAL Sat/24, 8 p.m. Sun/25, 5 p.m. Mary Sano Studio of Duncan Dancing, 245 Fifth St., SF. $15–$17. (415) 357-1817



PREVIEW The first time I saw Mike Patton I was 10. It was a sticky July afternoon and here’s this long-haired guy on MTV gesticuutf8g and rapping to distorted guitars. It freaked me out — not the lightning-shooting eyeball embedded in his hand or that flopping fish inciting the ire of PETA activists — but the man himself. He inspired a major uh-oh feeling, and my understanding of the universe was eternally compromised.

But that was 1989. Since those early, badly dressed years with forever-fighting Faith No More, Patton has spearheaded many beloved projects on the noisy melodic fringe, from the haunting Fantômas to his recent pop-wannabe project Peeping Tom. Now with Crudo, he’s teamed up with Dan the Automator, a.k.a. Daniel Nakamura, the Bay Area producer on the forefront of groundbreaking hip-hop, including Gorillaz’s eponymous putf8um-selling debut album (Virgin, 2001) and the Handsome Boy Modeling School with De la Soul’s Prince Paul.

"Crudo" may be Italian for raw, but this isn’t the dynamic duo’s freshest collaboration — in 2001 Patton and Nakumura worked together on Lovage: Songs to Make Love to Your Old Lady By (NicheMusic.com Inc), a fun if challenging listen. Crudo’s MySpace page gives a single one minute, fifty-six second glimpse called "Let’s Go," a poppy tease that makes me dance, but not much else. There’s no official word on a new album release date, but rumor in the blogosphere is 2009.

To bide time, Patton and DTA fans won’t want to miss Crudo’s debut appearance at Great American Music Hall, a practice run for Washington State’s Sasquatch Festival two days later. Fulfill your Crudosity. Personally, I need to see if Patton still creeps me out. I hope so.

CRUDO With San Quinn. Thurs/22, 8 p.m., $21. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. (415) 885-0750, www.gamh.com

Sun City Girls still shine


PREVIEW When Sun City Girls drummer Charles Gocher died of cancer last year, it was a shock to fans of the long-running band. The group hadn’t publicized his illness, and they seemed to be as active as ever during the few years prior to this sad, surprising news. Following Gocher’s death, the remaining members — brothers Alan and Rick Bishop — immediately disbanded the group, which had the same three-piece lineup since 1981. Along with their current nationwide tour, Alan and Richard Bishop’s The Brothers Unconnected: A Tribute to Charles Gocher and Sun City Girls (Abduction) is meant to close the book on this influential, inspiring, and sometimes maddening ensemble.

No one will ever accuse the Sun City Girls of being predictable or easily accessible. They were probably best known for their various fusions of psych-rock with influences from the Middle East (the Bishops are half-Lebanese), India, and Southeast Asia. But part of their charm was their willingness to do anything they felt like: a movie soundtrack, a radio play, or an album of trashy 1970s rock covers. With all that in mind, the tour-only The Brothers Unconnected is the most concise, approachable summary of the vast SCG catalog you’re likely to find. It showcases the Bishops together on acoustic guitar and vocals, live in the studio, doing renditions of some of their "hits." There is plenty of black humor, with Rick doing his best Gocher impression on the ornery "Ballad of (D)anger," and Alan hilariously handling "Six Kids of Mine," a song about strangling a gaggle of crying children in order to get some sleep. There are also moments of unadorned beauty on par with anything they’ve done: the mysterious, gently flowing "Cruel and Thin" and a handful of tunes from 1990’s Torch of the Mystics (Majora), including dramatic spaghetti-western anthem, "The Shining Path," and the sunny, raga-like "Space Prophet Dogon." If this disc is any indication of what their upcoming show at Slim’s will sound like, then it’s a must-see for anyone interested in this legendary group.

ALAN BISHOP AND RICHARD BISHOP PRESENT "THE BROTHERS UNCONNECTED" With Neung Phak. Wed/21, 8 p.m., $16–$18. Slim’s, 333 11th St., SF. (415) 522-0333, www.slims-sf.com



REVIEW Norwegian helmer Joachim Trier may or may not be Lars von Trier’s distant relative. Let me back up a bit: according to several sources, the two directors are kin — but the former’s feature debut, Reprise, pleasantly reassures us that even if Joachim had the misfortune of sharing the same genes with Lars, at least he doesn’t share his bad sense of filmmaking. Nevertheless, the younger Dane did grow up in an environment where cinema was greatly appreciated (he first used an 8mm camera at age 4), which probably explains why his first attempt at full-length moviemaking is governed by such refreshing and refined ideas about the cinematic language. Trier is also a national skateboarding champion — something that might seem unrelated but may, on the other hand, account for Reprise‘s playful, edgy approach. Set in contemporary Oslo, the film follows friends Erik (Espen Klouman-Hoiner) and Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie), who have dreams and aspirations about becoming great cult authors. Casting mainly nonactors and employing a slew of unannounced flashbacks and flash-forwards, Trier creates a fluid chronology where happiness and sadness coexist, and potentials are imagined, shattered, and rediscovered all at once. Like its 20-year-old protagonists, Reprise is disorderly, hazy, adventurous, and inquisitive, thus adequately reutf8g the agony of youth.

REPRISE opens Fri/23 in Bay Area theaters.

Power everywhere and nowhere


REVIEW Arguably the strangest image in the news this year was an Associated Press-circulated pic of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wearing the type of 3-D glasses you’d find packaged with a comic book, examining a map at Tehran’s space center in a state of deep concentration. If you consumed solely mainstream news, you might think Iran consists only of a handful of gruff older men who have lost touch with reality.

"After the Revolution" — a remarkably energetic and intimate photography show at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery on City Hall’s ground floor — brings more subtle realities to light. The young artists — Californians Amir H. Fallah, Shadi Yousefian, Elhum Amjadi, Naciem Nikkhah, and Parisa Taghizadeh, and Tehranians Mahboube Karamli, Parham Taghioff, Morteza Khaki, Meysam Mahfouz, and Mehraneh Atashi — were all born around the time of the Iranian Revolution. They present narrative projects with an eye for individuality, whether in Yousefian’s collaged Self-Portraits (2003) or Khaki’s Purse Snatching (2006), an evocative collection of specimenlike images of people’s wallets.

The exhibit leaves you feeling that power is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. In Atashi’s Bodiless 1 (2004), which presents some of her remarkable photos from inside a Zourkaneh or "power house" — a sort of spiritual workout center for Iranian men — Atashi pops up in hijab, with her camera, in mirrors, while bare-chested men leap and flex their way into another world. Taghizadeh brings a mysterious cinematic quality to Iranian women in the act of applying makeup in Make-Up Iran (2001), while Fallah’s Fort Series (2007) constructs physical versions of his male friends’ inner lives. It’s disconcerting to have to pass through security at City Hall to see this show, but if anyone needs to see these pictures right now, it’s the inhuman bureaucrat in all of us.

AFTER THE REVOLUTION: CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHY FROM TEHRAN AND CALIFORNIA Through June 27. Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Brown-bag lunch discussion on Thurs/22, noon, at 401 Van Ness. San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, SF. Free. (415) 554-6080, www.sfacgallery.org

Strange powers


› johnny@sfbg.com

Witch! The accusation — or is it rallying cry? — that slices through Goblin’s pounding score for Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria is newly pertinent. Witchery reigns within strains of black metal and the long-awaited third chapter in Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy (which began three decades earlier with Suspiria), this summer’s invigoratingly zany naked bloodbath Mother of Tears. It’s tempting to credit film curator Joel Shepard with a sorcerer’s clairvoyance, because the "Witchcraft Weekend" he has programmed for the screening room at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is so damned prescient.

The centerpiece of "Witchcraft Weekend"<0x2009>‘s imaginatively and near-immaculately selected quartet of movies — the dark void or blinding light around which the other three orbit — is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1943 Day of Wrath. I’ll be brazen enough to admit that my first encounter with this masterpiece occurred one evening while flipping channels, when its flaming dramatic core — a harsh counterpoint to the heroic final stakes of his peerless 1927 The Passion of Joan of Arc — flickered before my eyes and basically branded my psyche (and soul?) for eternity. There are few scenes in cinema as bluntly harrowing as the demise of accused witch Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier): her defiance and her fear of death — but not of God — rage as forcefully as the man-made inferno that consumes her.

Day of Wrath might be the most quietly terrifying or suspenseful art film ever made (though it shouldn’t be blamed for the form’s current crimes against patience or intelligence), because Dreyer seamlessly connects realism with a deeply ambiguous understanding of spirituality and fate. That is no small achievement, and one that’s been increasingly rare with the passage of time. The fate of Herlofs Marte is evident from the film’s first scene, where she hands herbs from a gallows garden to another woman, stating, "There is power in evil." Seconds later the bells begin to toll for her and — thinking of a past secret — she flees to seek refuge in the household of Absalon (Thorkild Rose); his bear of a mother, Marte (Sigrid Neiiendam); and his young wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin), who seems to possess strange powers.

In the feline, fiery-eyed Movin, Dreyer finds this lonelier film’s answer to Falconetti from The Passion of Joan of Arc: in other words, an actor whose face becomes (to paraphrase André Bazin quoting Béla Balasz) a timeless and more ambivalently transcendent "document." Critics have pointed out Day of Wrath‘s abundant visual similarities with Italian Renaissance and Flemish painting, particularly the works of Rembrandt (James Agee went so far as to point out one sequence’s resemblance to Rembrandt’s 1632 Lesson in Anatomy), and Bazin is intuitively and perhaps more insightfully correct in invoking the film’s influence on Robert Bresson’s equally classic 1951 Diary of a Country Priest. But it takes Pauline Kael to sympathetically hone in on the feminine "erotic tensions" of what she deems "the most intensely powerful film ever made on the subject of witchcraft." As she puts it, "Dreyer dissolves our terror" as characters are "purified beyond even fear." But the sense of fear and terror he instills is purer than that engendered by the horror genre’s gleeful scare tactics.

"Witchcraft Weekend"<0x2009>‘s trio of other films steer clear of Blair Witch and Harry Potter terrain as well as the easy, if extremely enjoyable, kitsch of Teen Witch (1989) or The Craft (1996) to explore and connect less obvious instances of celluloid sorcery. In a manner that magnifies the resonance of Day of Wrath‘s austere use of black and white, Shepard brings in a pair of contrasting Technicolor sights: the Queen or Witch (spine-chillingly vocalized by Lucille La Verne) from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the scorpio-rising bikini sacrifices of William O. Brown’s 1969 cult obscurity The Witchmaker. The program’s series of spells begins with the wicked Witchcraft Through the Ages, a 1968 abbreviated revision of Benjamin Christensen’s energetically episodic 1922 silent work Häxan, featuring a frenetic and playful jazz score by Jean-Luc Ponty and mordantly misogynist narration by William S. Burroughs. *



Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787


No one likes to be defeated


› cheryl@sfbg.com

Most folks who settle down to watch a Harmony Korine film know not to expect the familiar. Korine is, after all, the guy who wrote Larry Clark’s hot-button Kids (1995), and the writer-director of 1997’s Gummo, one of the head-scratchingest flicks ever to attain cult status. His latest — his first feature since the 1999 Dogme entry Julien Donkey-Boy — is perhaps his most unusual effort to date, but not for the reasons seasoned Korine watchers might expect.

Yeah, Mister Lonely is about a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who falls for a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) while performing in Paris. Though she’s married (to a faux-Charlie Chaplin), he agrees when she asks him to come live with her in the Scottish highlands — on a commune populated by even more impersonators, including a Madonna wannabe and a pseudo-Pope. That said, the film is conventionally structured, with three acts shot in a straightforward manner. (Of course, there’s also a parallel tale involving flying nuns — but more on that later.)

"[Mister Lonely] is probably my most traditional story," agreed the 35-year-old Korine, speaking from his home in Nashville. "[My] other films were about deconstructing the narrative or breaking down the story and images — kind of an assault, or a collage, with images and sound coming from all directions. With this, I felt a little bit more peace about the story and these characters. So I decided early on that I should just go with the image itself."

Korine, who coscripted Mister Lonely with his younger brother, Avi, kept his own particular fascinations in mind while writing. "I’ve always been interested in marginalized or obsessive people in real life," he said. "I just thought it was a strange existence — there’s something odd about living as an icon. And visually I thought it was interesting. I spent time on a hippie commune as a kid, and I always wanted to make a movie that was set somewhere slightly communal. I started toying with this idea of impersonators and icons all being together — what it would be like to see Sammy Davis Jr. cleaning his socks, or Abe Lincoln riding a lawnmower. It just felt right."

The commune dwellers, whose farm-bound activities are indeed surreal, though not always played for comedic effect, were carefully cast. Some, like the Sammy Davis Jr. character, were impersonators by trade in real life; others, like French actor Denis Lavant, who plays Chaplin, were not.

"What was most important was that [the celebrities being impersonated] needed to have a certain kind of mythology about them, where the myth could actually bleed into the narrative of the story," Korine explained. "Plus, they were also just people that I liked — I loved all of those characters. And I knew I would never be able to work with the Three Stooges, or Buckwheat, so it was like my attempt at going back."

When it came to plotting out his Michael Jackson, Korine — who didn’t write with Luna in mind but did offer him the role first — had some specific ideas about how the character-within-a-character should look. He’s patterned after Jackson’s Dangerous era — face masks, military armbands, fedoras, and shoulder-grazing straight hair.

"I just thought he looked the best during that period," Korine noted. Earlier, he’d mentioned that while he finds Jackson interesting, he’s not a fan on the level of, say, buying his new albums. "He’s like the world’s greatest eccentric, and that was when he was on his way to becoming this incredible abstraction."

Interspersed between poignant sequences depicting Michael struggling to fit in, even among others of his kind, are a series of increasingly odd occurrences in the Panamanian jungle. A group of nuns — overseen by a bossy priest (Werner Herzog, who also starred in Julien Donkey-Boy) — are shocked to discover they can skydive without parachutes. It’s a bizarre conceit that allows Mister Lonely its most glorious images: nuns joyfully clasping hands in the air while plummeting safely to the ground. Yo, Harmony, what’s that got to do with Jacko?

"I always want to write a novel with pages missing in the right places," Korine said. "I think it’s best to leave some things undefined, to not complete the circle. To me, it was the same movie. They are the same story. The narratives were parallel to each other. They spoke to each other. They both had this idea of faith of and transcendence, wanting to be other than who you are, being outside the system and creating your own language. I knew there would be a certain kind of person who doesn’t want to try to make that connection, and that’s fine — but there are so many movies being made where you’re told what to think every step of the way. It’s not that important for me."

What is important to Korine is something that goes beyond the usual filmmaking process. Don’t look for him to pull a David Gordon Green, for example, and direct a mainstream stoner comedy.

"What I like is making things. I like to film things and put them together, whether they’re like movies or features or essays or clips. Movies are what I love, but in some ways there’s too much focus on everything being features. Sometimes it’s nice to see things that are just moments. Sometimes, in 30 seconds, I can feel more than I do in 30 hours," he explained. "I always felt like, in movies, they waste so much time getting to the good part, and resolving after the good part. I was just like, why can’t you make movies that consist only of good parts?" *

MISTER LONELY opens Fri/23 in Bay Area theaters.



› paulr@sfbg.com

Spork’s sporks are surprisingly elegant utensils, considering that the word itself is lovably ugly, like a dog with a crumpled face, hopelessly short legs, and/or absurdly wrinkly skin — and considering that the thing itself, a spoon with a clipped mustache of fork tines, is no lovelier. The spork might be the apotheosis of Southern-fried American cheesiness; it’s easy to picture one replacing the pitchfork in a redraw of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, with Homer Simpson as the farmer. But if your spork is made of handsome stainless steel and has a nice weighty feel in your hand, you have probably drifted into Spork, a Mission restaurant that opened about a year ago in a tired Kentucky Fried Chicken space on Valencia, and you are almost certainly not Homer Simpson, though you might be ravenous.

The KFC was incongruous to the point of camp, and I never saw anybody in it despite my frequent visits to Valencia Cyclery across the street to have broken spokes replaced. Like the Days Inn near the symphony hall, it was a remnant of an earlier time and — in the case of KFC, a greasier one. The Sporkers (led by chef-owner Bruce Binn, whose distinguished vita includes stints at Delfina, Postrio, and Bix) are well aware of the past and, in a series of clever moves, have simultaneously embraced and distanced themselves from it. The interior decor of the restaurant incorporates bits of the previous occupant’s design; the stump of an old venting hood has been turned into a handsome light fixture, while refrigerator cooling fans have been repositioned in a transom above an interior door. There are also plenty of booths along the window with a familiar fast-food angularity, but the color scheme — gray paint and blond wood — isn’t one you’d be likely to find in any fast-food restaurant in the country.

Since the restaurant’s mantra is "slow food in a fast food shell," we were not surprised to learn that the kitchen places a heavy emphasis on sustainability and locavorousness. All the seafood is wild and taken from well-managed fisheries; more than two-thirds of the restaurant’s waste is recycled or composted; and used cooking oil gets turned into biodiesel. Like a child determined not to repeat a parent’s mistakes, Spork corrects for the culinary sins of KFC about as much as it possibly can.

Yet Binn’s food isn’t at all precious or fussy. It’s hearty and vivid — a glimpse of what all-American food might look like in a better world, or at least a better America. There’s even a dish that comes with a spork: mussels and pork ($18), basically a plate of mussels steamed in an unnamed (but dark?) Belgian beer and plated with a slab of slow-roasted pork loin, some whole-wheat toasts dabbed with chipotle aïoli, and a substratum of asparagus. The spork in question is rather handsome; it’s a stainless-steel spoon with the fork tines subtly shaved into the far end of the bowl, like a grille, and more decorative than useful.

For deals on a menu, it’s hard to beat an item that costs $0. That’s the charge — right there, in print! — for Spork’s dinner roll, a tripartite, wonderfully soft bun sprinkled with crunchy sea salt and presented with a pat of whipped honey butter. They’ll bring you more than one, too (as many as you want, probably), but one is plenty for two people and more than satisfies the daily white-flour quota. Softness does have its price.

Given the fresh tartness of strawberries, it’s long surprised me that they aren’t used more as tomato substitutes, particularly in the spring, when such tomatoes as we find around here are coming from distant locales we don’t even want to know about. Binn makes a lovely little salad ($9) from organic strawberries; the slices are marinated in aged sherry and plated with effusions of wild arugula, almond slivers, a syrupy balsamic reduction, and a warm goat cheese fritter on top.

As if to offset the white-flour megadosings in the dinner rolls, the kitchen serves an Alaskan halibut fillet (at $24 the priciest dish on the menu) on the slope of a farro hillock. Farro is an ancient wheatberry much used by the Roman legions; it’s quite similar to barley but different enough from both ordinary wheat and barley to be nutritionally valuable, not to mention tasty, especially when cooked with leek. (Although farro is a whole grain, Binn’s grains were plump and fluffy, which mystified and impressed me until I made my own a few nights later, having first soaked the farro overnight, and voilà.) Apart from the fish itself, sautéed to a golden tender-crispness, the plate held a royal flush of red-beet slices whose vivid, Burgundy-colored sweatings added some welcome color to a floe of fiery but wintry-white horseradish cream.

The Spork experience might be at its most quasi-Southern when your swift and friendly server, clothed in black, presents the dessert menu. Beignets and root beer floats? Elvis would like those, but he’d probably like "Elvis has left the building" ($6) even more. Despite its arty deconstructedness, it was a housemade peanut butter cup beside a blob of vanilla gelato beside a chain of banana slices, with caramel sauce underneath and salted peanuts scattered all around. All of it was good and swirled together nicely, but the peanut butter cup was quite spectacular. It had been warmed through in the oven to the point of melting, and its peanut butter filling was granular and (unlike the blindingly sweet commercial kind) not particularly sugary — a close relation of homemade peanut butter, which you can make in a food processor with good quality unsalted peanuts and some neutral vegetable oil as a binder. You could even scoop it out of the bowl with a spork, if you have one. *


Dinner: Mon.–Thurs., 6–10 p.m.

Fri.–Sat., 6–11 p.m.

Lunch: Tues.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.

1058 Valencia, SF

(415) 643-5000


Beer and wine


Loudish but bearable

Wheelchair accessible

Like butter


› le_chicken_farmer@yahoo.com

CHEAP EATS I was eating eggs fried in butter and scratch biscuits made with butter and then slathered with butter, thinking about addiction, and how I don’t have an addictive personality.

I’m addicted to popcorn. But oddly enough, I don’t like butter on my popcorn. That’s how I know I’m not addicted to butter. Just popcorn.

The last time I saw my sweet, good, dear friend what’s-her-name, we were standing in her kitchen at 9 p.m. eating butter with spoons. It wasn’t just any butter. It was fresh-churned, European-style, organic, free-range, home-schooled hippie butter. And it was bringing me back.

See, I grew up on the stuff. My mom used to buy unhomogenized milk from our Amish neighbors, skim the cream off the top, and we kids would take turns cranking the churner and cursing our mother for being such a hippie-ass Amish wannabe.

Probably I complained the loudest. And without doubt I consumed the most butter. To me, butter never was a "spread" as much as a food group. We had this 100-percent whole wheat bread that was heaven hot out of the oven and then cooled into basically lumber. So there was a window of opportunity for bread and butter, and the rest of the time it was just butter. For me. Thanks.

But: I’m not an addict.

This week my mom turns 75. She doesn’t read me, but I’ll say it anyway: happy 3/4 of a stick, you goddamn hippie-ass Amish wannabe! Thank you for giving me butter. And thank you, dear sweet goddamn Juicy Toots, for respoiling me half-a-life later. Because frankly, even though I have spewed prose, poetry, and other art forms in praise of butter, I had kind of forgotten what it tasted like.

It tastes like clouds. Slightly sour, somewhat sweet, seriously salted cumulus clouds formed from the condensed tears of exiled angels, with annatto for coloring.

First I thought she churned it herself, and perhaps milked the cow that morning at some North Oakland happy hippie co-op creamery.

No, she said. She got it at the store.

I was astounded. I shop in stores. Like millions of Americans, I make my weekly grocery list on the back of some junk mail envelope, faithfully magnet it to my refrigerator, forget to bring it to the store with me, come home and stand before the refrigerator, with bags of sweating things around my feet reading my grocery list to see what I forgot, and never once have I forgotten to buy European-style, fresh-churned, cultured and salted butter that tastes like clouds.

I slept on Juicy Toots’ couch that night, with Juicy Toots’ cat, also named Juicy Toots, and I dreamed of slippery and saturated things. We had eaten butter for an appetizer, butter on bread with our spaghetti, and then butter again for dessert.

On my way home in the morning I stopped at the store, any store, listless as usual and with only one thing on my mind (although I’m not an addict). Yes, they had it! A couple different kinds of fancy-pants, top-shelf butter, ranging from like seven to eight bucks. No wonder I never saw it! My mind has a kind of barcode-scanning filter chip that doesn’t even allow me to see things that cost more than $2.89.

What I did: I bought a pint of heavy cream for $2.89, let it sit in the car for a few hours after I got home, cooled it in the fridge, poured it into a glass jar, shook it for 20 minutes until a big yellow lump formed, poured off the buttermilk for future pancake batter, rinsed the solid lump in cold water, pressed it dry, sprinkled it with salt, plopped it on a plate, and stood there looking at it and giggling. I had made my own butter.

You can too, dear reader, unless of course your time, unlike mine, is valuable. Twenty minutes of vigorous shaking, just to make butter? I know, I know. Gotta get to work. Gotta get to the gym and tone those arms, so they stop jiggling. Check it out: www.bunsofbutter.com

My new favorite restaurant is Uncle Willie’s BBQ & Fish, in downtown Oakland. Wings and fishes get fried, and ribs, chickens, and briskets go on the grill. The fried is pretty good, but the ribs are great. Very smoky, tender, and juicy. Whatever Willie’s dry-rubbing … it works. Of the sides I’ve tried, I loved the collard greens and corn bread. The red beans and rice are nothing special. Nice folks, great place. 2


614 14th St., Oakl.

(510) 465-9200

Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.

No alcohol


Starry-eyed and stripped


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

REVIEW More than one witness has reported that Mayor Gavin Newsom, fiancée in tow, dropped by the jam-packed opening reception for photographer Ryan McGinley’s show at Ratio 3. The civic-minded pair joined the fray of cool kids and art world cognoscenti — I heard John Waters and Todd Oldham were there — and in some ways the appearance was apropos: the artist and politician share a lineage of tall, charismatic Irish Catholics who inspire others to action. Noting celebrity, political, and religious connections is admittedly a little suspect in a review of a contemporary art show; still, the youthful but stately mayor’s presence at a gallery on a somewhat gritty Mission side street has meaning as an expression of the widespread appeal of McGinley’s pictures. Who could resist lush images of nubile white boys and girls cavorting naked amid what seem like national parks and roadside America?

McGinley is a particularly American artist. One of the photographs on view is even a dead ringer for an Andrew Wyeth painting. Rather than Christina crouched in the wheat field, McGinley’s Running Field (2007-08) offers a lithe young woman dashing through golden rolling hills wearing only white sneakers. His choreographed vision is a brand of hipster organic purity, a dream of back-to-the-land naturalism and free love.

McGinley also manages to straddle a number of positions and demographics. Among the 16 pictures in this satisfying exhibition, there’s full frontal male nudity, and a wonderful image of a shirtless blond guy embracing a black bear, both of which unabashedly read as queer. A centrally placed picture of a group of hikers in a rocky canyon plays like a still from an update of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970). McGinley’s photograph exudes cineaste hippie-spiritual vibes, as does the acid trippy image titled Blue Falling (2007-08), in which the silhouette of a male figure — the hair on his legs crisply visible in profile — is seemingly suspended in an intensely hued sky. Dakota’s Crack Up (2007-08), visualizing an ebullient male/female couple caught in an active moment of undressed while roller-skating, brims with both clothing-optional resort appeal and fashion photo bravado.

The youth and nakedness of this universe seems to be related to Larry Clark’s kid obsessions, except McGinley is still young himself — he had a solo show at the Whitney five years ago, when he was 24 — and his surprisingly wholesome pictures are more hooked on fresh air and community than the more troubled eroticism of the wizened though still dreamy-eyed elder artist. A cinematic influence also binds these two figures. Most of the photos in McGinley’s show blur the line between naturalism and studio artifice: the hikers on the rocks are positioned in light in such a way that they appear to have been inserted digitally, the woman in Fireworks Hysteric (2007-8) seems to be floating in a glittering, celestial space, as do other subjects who have been catapulted into thin air. And is that a naked dude embracing a stuffed animal or a real live bear?

According to the artist, the animal is a living thing, albeit a trained one. He also admits the colors in his works are achieved through an intense darkroom practice. That gray area between the real and the imagined works in the artist’s favor, lending his images a sense of the uncanny: the activities captured in his photos did happen, though they come across as otherworldly.

There’s also a performance art backbone to McGinley’s process. His photos depict a team of models, cast for their looks as well as their athletic abilities, who travel together for extended periods. The constant contact promotes intimacy and physical fearlessness, and while they are very believable as an actual pack of marauding, hopeful young people, they are in fact a constructed entity — a family of paid actors directed by an artist with a clear vision of a kind of communal lifestyle. McGinley assuredly realizes these images, but they don’t come off without some suspicion. Where can these photographs go from here? The likeability of the pictures — and models — is tinged with envy and perhaps a resentment of the cool high school kids who seem impervious to social or sexual obstacles. That McGinley’s models reportedly sustain their share of photo-shoot injuries only attests to his winning feats of fiction. It all appears so smooth and dreamy. I don’t know what the mayor thought, but in the end, McGinley’s work won me over, and I want the feeling to last. *


Through June 21

Wed.–Sat., 11 a.m.–6 p.m.

Ratio 3

1447 Stevenson, SF

(415) 821-3371




› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea:

I’m confused. Are there any guys out there who aren’t at the extremes as far as sex goes? My ex-boyfriend was completely obsessed. Not only did he want it four or more times a day, he’d want to have phone sex at least twice a day when we were apart. I think of myself as a pretty sexual person, but even I have my limits. (Plus, I think phone sex is boring. Though I like to masturbate, it’s hard for me to orgasm when the person on the other end of the line is waiting for it.) My ex was so obsessed with sex that he saw everything as sexual. If I said it was raining, he’d say, "Oooh, sounds … wet." If I said something was hard (difficult), he’d say "Ooh, hard!" And he wasn’t some 20-year-old kid. He was 48! I’m 31, and since I felt more mature than him, we broke up. Then I fell in love with his polar opposite. I’ve been with the new guy for a couple of years and our sex life has gone downhill rapidly, from two or three times a week to maybe once every three months. I’ve tried to initiate, but I get nowhere. It only happens when he wants to. I really love this guy and I want to marry him. I just need to figure out how to find a happy medium between my sex-obsessed ex and my uninterested current beau.


Opposite Day

Dear Day:

A happy medium in your case would require something like the matter transporter machine from The Fly — you’d put Mr. "Ooh, Sounds … wet" in one pod and Mr. Every Three Months in the other and zap them back and forth in space until their DNA was well and truly mixed. Ideally, you’d end up with a guy who wanted to do it about as often as you do, with room for negotiation. Un-ideally, you’d make a boyfriend who never wants to have sex but does like to make a whole lot of immature, sniggery jokes about it. On second thought, maybe this isn’t the best plan.

The first guy sounds unbearable. I’m surprised you stuck it out with him as long (ooh, long) as you did. It must have been hard to … I mean, you had to have been open to … I mean on top of — oh, never mind. It must have been like living with Michael Scott with a few drinks in him: "That’s what she said!" Awful. You have my sympathy.

The new guy is a harder nut (oh, shut up) to crack. Are you really as mystified as you sound about where the sex has gone and why, or is there a chance that you do know what’s up (shut up) but don’t want to admit it? I don’t think it’s abnormal to experience a drop-off after a few years, but four times a year is slim pickings. As a mere stripling of 31, I would be very cautious, in your place, about signing any long-term contracts under those conditions. At the very least, you ought to know what’s going on with him (and with your relationship) before you marry someone who, frankly, isn’t going to satisfy you. It would be a different story if you were saying, "We only do it every three months and we’re both happy with that." Then I’d dance at your wedding. The way you’re talking, though, I’d feel more like I was dancing on your marriage’s grave. And while I’ve always liked Nick Cave, I’m just not that goth. Sorry. It ain’t going to work.

You’re going to have to have one of those sit-downs nobody wants but nearly everybody needs at some point. This is no time to ask him what’s wrong with him or to suggest that maybe he’s just not man enough for you — not if you actually like him. It is time to find out what’s going on in his head all those times you initiate and "get nowhere." Is it possible he’s missing your cues? Is there a better time or a better approach? A different act? If the answers are all "no" and this is just who he is — a guy who’s interested in sex four times a year and anything more seems unnecessary or unappealing — then you’re going to have to figure out if there’s a way you can get your itches scratched. Maybe he’d be happy just holding you while you take care of things for yourself. Maybe he’d be OK if you had a "friend." Maybe he needs a checkup and a meds adjustment and all will be well after that. In any case, you’re going to have to find out. I don’t care if it’s hard. And that’s not what she said, or so I hear.



It’s not all about the sex! Andrea’s new blog, "Go Get Your Jacket: a blog about begetting and spending," debuts May 19 at gogetyourjacket.typepad.com. Pink or blue? Made in China or made in Vermont at three times the price? What are we buying for our kids, and why?

Andrea is also teaching two classes: "You’ve Really Got Your Hands Full" — a realistic look at having twins — at Birthways in Berkeley, and "Is There Sex After Motherhood?" at Day One Center in San Francisco and other venues.

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.



› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Last week I wrote about the premise of Oxford professor Jonathan Zittrain’s new book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (Yale University Press). He warns about a future of "tethered" technologies like the digital video recorder and smartphones that often are programmed remotely by the companies that make them rather than being programmed by users, as PCs are. As a partial solution, Zittrain offers up the idea of Wikipedia-style communities, where users create their own services without being "tethered" to a company that can change the rules any time.

Unfortunately, crowds of people running Web services or technologies online cannot save us from the problem of tethered technology. Indeed, Zittrain’s crowds might even unwittingly be tightening the stranglehold of tethering by lulling us into a false sense of freedom.

It’s actually in the best interest of companies like Apple, Comcast, or News Corp to encourage democratic, freewheeling enclaves like Wikipedia or MySpace to convince people that their whole lives aren’t defined by tethering. When you get sick of corporate-mandated content and software, you can visit Wikipedia or MySpace. If you want a DVR that can’t be reprogrammed by Comcast at any time, you can look up how to build your own software TV tuner on Wikipedia. See? You have freedom!

Unfortunately, your homemade DVR software doesn’t have the kind of easy-to-use features that make it viable for most consumers. At the same time, it does prove that tethered technologies aren’t your only option. Because there’s this little puddle of freedom in the desert of technology tethering, crowd-loving liberals are placated while the majority of consumers are tied down by corporate-controlled gadgets.

In this way, a democratic project like Wikipedia becomes a kind of theoretical freedom — similar to the way in which the US constitutional right to freedom of speech is theoretical for most people. Sure, you can write almost anything you want. But will you be able to publish it? Will you be able to get a high enough ranking on Google to be findable when people search your topic? Probably not. So your speech is free, but nobody can hear it. Yes, it is a real freedom. Yes, real people participate in it and provide a model to others. And sometimes it can make a huge difference. But most of the time, people whose free speech flies in the face of conventional wisdom or corporate plans don’t have much of an effect on mainstream society.

What I’m trying to say is that Wikipedia and "good crowds" can’t fight the forces of corporate tethering — just as one person’s self-published, free-speechy essay online can’t fix giant, complicated social problems. At best, such efforts can create lively subcultures where a few lucky or smart people will find that they have total control over their gadgets and can do really neat things with them. But if the denizens of that subculture want millions of people to do neat things too, they have to deal with Comcast. And Comcast will probably say, "Hell no, but we’re not taking away your freedom entirely because look, we have this special area for you and 20 other people to do complicated things with your DVRs." If you’re lucky, Comcast will rip off the subculture’s idea and turn it into a tethered application.

So what is the solution, if it isn’t nice crowds of people creating their own content and building their own tether-free DVRs? My honest answer is that we need organized crowds of people systematically and concertedly breaking the tethers on consumer technology. Yes, we need safe spaces like Wikipedia, but we also need to be affirmatively making things uncomfortable for the companies that keep us tethered. We need to build technologies that set Comcast DVRs free, that let people run any applications they want on iPhones, that fool ISPs into running peer-to-peer traffic. We need to hand out easy-to-use tools to everyone so crowds of consumers can control what happens to their technologies. In short, we need to disobey. *

Annalee Newitz (annalee@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd whose
best ideas have all been appropriated and copyrighted by corporations.

Ongoing threat


› amanda@sfbg.com

The debate over city plans to build and own two combustion turbine power plants, a project Mayor Gavin Newsom has made a last minute effort to alter, shows that public power — and Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s fear of it — is still a significant issue at City Hall.

Newsom, a past advocate of the project, pulled the plug on its progress May 13. The proposal for the natural gas–fired power plants to handle peak energy demand (called "peakers") was up for approval at the Board of Supervisors until Newsom requested a one-week continuance.

Christine DeBerry, the mayor’s liaison to the board, told supervisors the mayor would use the time to aggressively pursue better options than the peakers, even though it’s an item that spent eight years on the planning block and was approved by the Newsom-appointed San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

"What can be aggressively pursued in the next week that hasn’t been aggressively pursued in the last few years?" asked Sup. Chris Daly, one of the four supervisors publicly opposed to the plan, questioning DeBerry on why the mayor and his SFPUC hadn’t put forth the best energy project.

"The mayor engaged in a full exploration of the options over the last several years," DeBerry said, but wants to ensure the city is considering all options.

"Are you anticipating there’s going to be a new technological breakthrough in the next several days?" Daly asked before casting the lone vote against granting the continuance. As of the Guardian‘s press time, the plan’s hearing was scheduled for May 20, but sources said June 3 would be more likely. Newsom Press Secretary Nathan Ballard would not confirm whether another continuance would be requested or discuss what alternatives the mayor’s office is pursuing.

But it appears that the new technological breakthrough being pursued by the mayor’s office is actually a retrofit of an older, existing power plant in Potrero Hill, owned by Mirant Corp.

Sam Lauter, representing Mirant on the issue, said the company has been answering questions about a retrofit from diesel to natural gas for its three turbines. Mirant already agreed to close the older natural gas units at its Potrero plant once the $15 million contract, which requires the plant to maintain the reliability of the power grid, is pulled by California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO). Lauter also said Mirant’s redevelopment of the site for commercial use would still happen if the board decides a retrofit of Mirant is a better deal than building city-owned power plants.

As of the Guardian‘s deadline, no sources could provide any solid numbers on what a retrofit would cost and if pollution would be more, less, or equal to what the city anticipates from the peakers. But, Lauter told us, "The cost is considerably less than the cost of the peakers."

The contract with Cal-ISO could mean that the costs of retrofitting the diesels would be passed on to ratepayers. As for the pollution, Lauter said it’s not an easy answer and depends on how often the units have to run: "It’s not exactly correct to say they’d be less polluting, and it’s not exactly correct to say they’d be more polluting."

Barbara Hale, SFPUC’s assistant general manager of power, agreed there are still many uncertainties about retrofitting Mirant, including permits for the plant, restraints on how much it could operate, exactly how much it would pollute, and if it would even meet Cal-ISO’s demand for 150 megawatts of in-city generation. "I’m told by engineers that when generators go through a retrofit, often their megawatt capacity goes down," Hale told us. Each Mirant diesel unit currently puts out 52 megawatts.

As for other options Newsom requested from the agency, Hale said they’re exploring how to get more demand response and efficiency from the existing grid.

That suggestion comes from Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which actively opposes the city’s peaker plan and sent representatives to meet with Newsom’s staff May 5 (while Newsom was in Israel with Lauter, who said the two did not discuss Mirant or the peakers while overseas), shortly before he sought the delay.

PG&E spokesperson Darlene Chiu confirmed the contents of the proposal as presented to the mayor’s staff, which includes ways to eke more from the grid as well as a new transmission line between two substations.

Tony Winnicker, spokesperson from the PUC, said of PG&E’s plan: "We absolutely support each of these projects, think they’re long overdue improvements to the city’s transmission reliability, and hope they are committing the necessary funding to begin and complete them."

He added that there is little in the plan that differs from a past PG&E proposal that Cal-ISO rejected — except the new transmission line. But, he said, its target completion date of 2012-13 was "very ambitious, given that they haven’t even started the permitting."

PG&E’s Chiu, a former spokesperson for Mayor Newsom, didn’t respond to a question about the time frame for such a project, nor did she comment on whether PG&E considers the city’s ownership of the peakers a threat to its jurisdiction.

She didn’t have to. While City Hall scrambled to come up with an alternative that hasn’t been vetted during the last eight years of community meetings, city studies, and negotiations, PG&E was telling its shareholders that the threat of public power is alive and well.

At the May 14 annual meeting of PG&E investors, held at the San Ramon Conference Center, CEO Peter Darbee assured the assembled, "I, too, am concerned about municipalization and community choice aggregation."

He was responding to a criticism from an employee and member of Engineers and Scientists of California Local 20, who said PG&E shouldn’t be contracting outside the company because it created an experienced proxy workforce ripe for employment by another entity, like a municipality, that would be a threat to PG&E’s jurisdiction.

In responding, Darbee recalled the recent efforts in Yolo County, where the county attempted to defect from PG&E and join the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. "Peter, it’s half-time, your team is down, you better get directly involved with this," he said of the potential loss of 70,000 customers. The company mustered 1,000 employees to volunteer their time, walking from house to house and knocking on doors, prior to the November 2006 vote. "I was one of them," he said. "That vote went overwhelmingly in favor of PG&E."

Beyond knocking on doors, PG&E dropped $11 million on the campaign, outspending the competition 10 to 1.

But Darbee said it was a real victory in a state like California. "There’s always been in the water a desire for public power," he said, adding that 30 percent to 40 percent of the population approves of municipally-owned utilities.

Customer service, Darbee went on to say, is the best defense against threats to PG&E. And for the past two years, PG&E’s corporate strategy has been focused on that. To that end, its ranking in an annual JD Power customer satisfaction survey rose from 51 to 43 last year for the residential sector, and from 46 to a lofty second place for business customers.

But the JD Power survey also ranks municipal utilities, and 2007 results show PG&E was outpaced by three municipalities — the Salt River Project, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which also took the highest ranking in the nation. *

Disclosure: Amanda Witherell owns 14 shares of PG&E Co. common stock.

The threat of Proposition 98


OPINION Just as the California Supreme Court finally recognizes queers as full and equal citizens by ruling in favor of gay marriage, a June 3 ballot measure threatens to kill anti-discrimination protections for queers. But that’s not the half of it: Proposition 98 is in fact a savage attack on protections of all kinds for all Californians.

A fraud wrapped within a fraud, Prop. 98 masquerades as eminent domain reform while only semi-covertly legisutf8g the death of rent control. But just as rent control is about far more than price alone, Prop. 98 is about far more than only ending rent control.

All Californians, not only the 14 million who rent, will be trampled under the iron hooves of this Trojan horse. In a detailed analysis, the Western Center on Law and Poverty concludes: "There is nothing in the text that prevents Prop. 98 from being used to prohibit or limit land use decisions, zoning, work place laws, or environmental protections."

Prop. 98 not only bans all state and local residential and mobile-home rent control laws, now and forever, it kills inclusionary housing requirements and ends tenant protections in the Ellis Act. But wait, there’s more! As assessed by the Western Center, other "likely" applications of Prop 98 include the end of just-cause protections for eviction, and the end of most regulation of residential rental property.

The center also rates it "possible" that Prop. 98 will invalidate all anti-discrimination protections below the federal level — including California’s LGBT fair-housing protections.

Given the potential outcome, the nearly $2 million that more than 100 apartment building and mobile home park owners spent to put Prop. 98 on the ballot, and the subsequent $291,000 that the Apartment Owners Association political action committee gave the Yes on 98 campaign represent a shrewd investment.

It would be a bargain for them at twice the price. Being able to charge unlimited amounts for renter screening and credit checks, for instance, and no longer having to provide deadbolt locks, a usable telephone jack, and working wiring means a nice chunk of change for landlords and speculators. But that’s nothing compared to the larger gains to be exploited: a landlord would be free to have you sign a lease without being obligated to disclose that he or she already applied for a demolition permit on the property. Serious defects in the unit? Too bad, the prohibition on landlords collecting rent while substandard conditions exist would fly out the (broken) window.

Unlike the tenant-backed Prop. 99, which truly prevents eminent domain abuse on behalf of renters and owners alike, Prop. 98 only guarantees the domain of the wealthiest over the rest of us. If we let this Trojan horse in, whether actively — by voting for it — or passively — by not voting — June 3 (and that’s a real danger since too many San Francisco voters assume the measure will fail anyway), all Californians will pay the price. *

Mara Math is a writer and tenant organizer.

We do


› steve@sfbg.com

Less than two hours after the California Supreme Court announced its 4–3 decision legalizing same-sex marriage, San Francisco City Hall filled with smiling couples and local politicians of various ideological stripes to celebrate the city’s central role in achieving the most significant civil rights advance in a generation.

The case began four years ago in San Francisco when Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to have the city issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. City Attorney Dennis Herrera and his legal team built the voluminous legal case that won an improbable victory in a court dominated 6 to 1 by Republican appointees.

"In light of the fundamental nature of the substantive rights embodied in the right to marry — and the central importance to an individual’s opportunity to live a happy, meaningful, and satisfying life as a full member of society — the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all individuals and couples, without regard to their sexual orientation," Chief Justice Ronald George wrote in the majority opinion.

Newsom cut short a trip to Chicago to return home and make calls to the national media and join Herrera’s press conference, where hundreds of couples who got married in San Francisco City Hall were assembled on the City Hall staircase as a backdrop to the jubilant parade of speakers that took the podium.

"What a wonderful, wonderful day," a beaming Herrera told the assembled crowd, adding, "California has taken a tremendous leap forward."

Some speakers (as well as the next day’s coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle) emphasized the potential of the issue to embolden conservatives and the possibility that a November ballot measure could nullify the decision by, as a prepared statement by Rep. Nancy Pelosi put it, "writing discrimination into the state constitution."

But for most San Franciscans, it was a day to celebrate a significant victory. Herrera praised "the courageousness of the California Supreme Court." He also commended Deputy City Attorney Terry Stewart, who argued the case, legal partners such as the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the eight other California cities that supported San Francisco’s position with amicus briefs — and Newsom, who clearly soaked up the adulation and gave a fiery speech that could easily become a campaign commercial in his expected run for governor.

"I can’t express enough how proud I am to be a San Franciscan," Newsom said, later saying of the decision, "It’s about human dignity. It’s about human rights. It’s about time."

Newsom also emphasized that "this day is about real people and their lives."

Among those people, standing on the stairs of City Hall, was Emily Drennen, a current candidate for the Democratic County Central Committee and the District 11 seat on the Board of Supervisors, who was the 326th couple to get married in San Francisco, taking her vows with partner Linda Susan Ulrich.

"When it got nullified, something was taken away from us. It really felt like that," Drennen told the Guardian, adding that she was thrilled and relieved by the ruling. "I was just holding my breath this whole time, expecting the worst but hoping for the best."

Herrera spokesperson Matt Dorsey, who is gay, was similarly tense before the ruling, knowing how much work had gone into it but worried the court might not overcome its ideological predisposition to oppose gay marriage.

"For everyone who worked on this, it was the case of their lives," Dorsey told us. "Politically and legally, there was so much work that this office did that I’m so proud of, and I hope people understand that." *