Volume 42 Number 42

High speed rail on track


› steve@sfbg.com

It’s crunch time for high speed rail in California, a project 12 years in the planning that will finally go before voters in November, following a controversial July 9 vote in San Francisco on the system’s Bay Area alignment and ongoing political struggles in Sacramento.

As envisioned by project proponents, riders would be able to board the sleek blue-and-gold trains in San Francisco’s remodeled Transbay Terminal and travel at speeds of up to 220 mph down the Peninsula, cutting over Pacheco Pass into the Central Valley, and arriving at Union Station in Los Angeles two hours and 38 minutes later — or continuing on to Anaheim and arriving 20 minutes after that.

The $9.95 billion bond measure, Proposition 1, would cover about a third of the costs for this initial phase (the plan would eventually extend the tracks to run from Sacramento to San Diego), with the balance borne almost equally by the federal government and private investors. With around 100 million passenger trips per year, and LA-SF tickets projected to cost around $60, fiscal studies show the project will more than pay for itself in less than 20 years, then generate about $1 billion a year in profits.

Perhaps most important in these times of heightened environmental concern, the system is now proposed to run entirely on renewable energy sources and would use about onethird of the energy of air travel and one-fifth that of driving, eliminating 18 billion pounds of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and reducing California’s oil dependence by 22 million barrels per year.

Yet there are still obstacles that could derail high speed rail, which was set in motion in 1996 by then–state senator Quentin Kopp, a San Franciscan and retired judge who chairs the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA).

Critics of the CHSRA’s unanimous vote choosing Pacheco Pass over Altamont Pass are threatening to sue and now have about 30 days to do so. Union Pacific Railroad has complicated the right-of-way acquisition process by claiming it won’t allow the project on its property. And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his allies have been inconsistent in their support for the project (see "Silver bullet train," 04/17/07).

On top of that, legislation to update the six-year-old language of the bond measure, Assembly Bill 3034, appeared at Guardian press time to have fallen short of winning needed support on the Senate floor before the July 15 deadline set by Secretary of State Debra Bowen. And there was a renewed effort by Republican legislators to try to push the bond measure back to 2010.

Yet for all the challenges the project continues to face, the recent hearings in San Francisco demonstrated that there is a consensus emerging among some of the most powerful political players in the state that California is finally ready to catch up to Europe and Asia and start building the first high speed rail system in the United States.

CHSRA met in San Francisco July 8-9 to take public comment and finalize its last critical decision before the November bond measure — selecting the train’s route through the Bay Area and making the legal and environmental findings to support that decision. The stakes were high as the board weighed whether to select Pacheco Pass or Altamont Pass as the route from the Bay Area to Central Valley.

CHSRA staff and consultants, along with most Bay Area politicians and civic groups, favored Pacheco Pass, which is the faster and cheaper option, and one that doesn’t require a logistically difficult crossing of the San Francisco Bay to reach the Peninsula.

Most environmental groups favored Altamont Pass, which avoids ecologically sensitive Henry Coe State Park and areas where activists feared the rail line might induce urban sprawl or threaten agricultural viability. The conflict seemed intractable just a few months ago, with South Bay politicians threatening to oppose the project if it used Altamont and organizations, including the Sierra Club, threatening litigation if Pacheco was chosen.

But it appears that project proponents have allayed many of the environmentalists’ concerns by eliminating a proposed rail station in Los Banos or Avenal and including strong preservation policies in the project.

"We have worked with as many of these individuals as we could to accommodate their concerns," CHSRA executive director Mehdi Morshed said at the hearing, noting that they’ve done all they could to make changes and still have a sound project. "We can’t deal with the dogma. Some people say you must do this or else, and we can’t deal with that."

After years of studying the options, Morshed said the choice is clear.

"Pacheco is the appropriate corridor for fast intercity rail service," Morshed told the CHSRA board. "Somewhere along the line, we have to decide we’ve studied enough and move on, and this is one of those circumstances."

Most of the dozens of people who spoke at the hearing agreed, including Tim Frank, who represented the Sierra Club of California and praised CHSRA staff for addressing most of the group’s concerns.

"The opportunity to get people out of cars and out of airplanes and get them into steel wheels running on steel track is very important," Frank said, noting that the project was essential to meeting the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet others are still threatening litigation, among them Oakland attorney Stuart Flashman, who addressed the hearing on behalf of clients that include the Planning and Conservation League, the California Rail Foundation, and the Mountain Lion Foundation. He made a number of technical points about the project’s environmental impact reports, such as the use of alignment corridors rather than more specific routes.

"We find your report completely inadequate," Daniel McNamara, project director for the California Rail Foundation (a train users group), told CHSRA.

After the vote didn’t go his way, Flashman told the Guardian that the coalition he represents will meet soon to decide what’s next. They have 30 days from when the notice of decision was entered July 9 to sue unless the Attorney General’s Office waives the statute of limitations. "We’re going to be considering what to do now, but litigation is certainly on the table," Flashman said.

Whether filed by this group or another entity, the CHSRA has been working closely with Deputy Attorney General Christine Sproul to create a project that will withstand a legal challenge.

"We wanted to make sure that if and when there is a lawsuit — and there probably will be a lawsuit — that we are capable of defending it," Morshed told the board, noting how Sproul was brought in because of her expertise in environmental law.

Before the authority voted, Sproul explained that the environmental documents are for the overall program to build the project and are therefore not as detailed as the specific project studies that will be performed after CHSRA secures specific property to build on.

"Today, before you is really a broad policy choice," she said.

Sproul also said that the project is likely to proceed even if a lawsuit is filed, noting that getting an injunction to stop the project would require the litigants to secure a bond against losses to the state as it pursues this high-dollar project, "which could be millions."

But recent CHSRA actions have appeased many of the would-be plaintiffs and created a project that was effusively praised by stakeholders.

Mayor Gavin Newsom said San Francisco is "very supportive" of the project and will work to make it a reality. "We stand behind your efforts to bring high speed rail to the state of California," Newsom told CHSRA, later adding, "We need to connect the state to itself."

Newsom said San Francisco International Airport officials support the project. While it might seem to be a competitor, Newsom said high speed rail will take some of the pressure off SFO, which would otherwise experience congestion at problematic levels by 2020. Current plans call for a high speed rail station at SFO, as well as one near Palo Alto.

"We recognize that we need to have competitive modes of transportation," Newsom said. "Our airport is very supportive of this effort, and that’s very important."

Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin echoed the point, noting that he began his political career as an activist opposed to filling in more of the bay, something an airport expansion would probably require. He told the authority that his board has unanimously endorsed the project.

Jim Lazarus, vice president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, also announced that group’s support for the project, telling the authority that Californians have long been ready for high speed rail: "I think the public is ahead of the politicians in Sacramento on this one."

Many of the speakers spoke knowledgably about high speed rail.

"I’ve ridden on the Japanese Shinkansen and I can’t wait to ride on the first high speed rail system in the United States," said Dean Chu, a commissioner with the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

"I’ve been building high speed rail systems for 15 years in Asia and Europe, and I just want to say, ‘It’s about time’," said Robert Doty, the rail operations manager for Caltrain, who has worked in Germany, England, Taiwan, and China.

Echoing that sentiment was Eugene K. Skoropowski, who also worked on high speed rail projects in Europe before taking his current job as managing director for the Capital Corridor Joint Powers Authority: "It’s about time we bring our American firms that have expertise (on building high speed rail systems) back home to work here."

Enthusiastic supporters of the project urged the authority the move quickly.

"We feel a great deal of urgency over this project," said Emily Rusch, a San Francisco–based advocate with the California Public Interest Research Group.

"Everyone I talk to is very excited about the idea," said San Francisco resident Mary Renner. "It’s embarrassing that we’re so far behind the rest of the world, and I just want to tell you the public is supportive of this project."

"Our priority is to get this thing built and get it built quickly," said Dave Snyder, transportation policy director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. "Let’s get rolling on high speed rail."

The final step in getting high speed rail ready for the November ballot was to be AB 3034, which sought to update the language and financial oversight provisions of Prop. 1, whose language was written for the election of 2004 before changes in the project.

"I feel good and I’ll feel better when AB 3034 is in appropriate condition," Kopp said after the vote on the Bay Area alignment.

Kopp was critical of Sen. Leland Yee for amending the bill to guarantee the bond money went to the San Francisco to Anaheim section, something Yee said he did to protect San Francisco’s interests but that Kopp felt hurt the measure’s statewide chances. Yet that tiff was overshadowed by the bill’s apparent and unexpected failure in the Senate.

Sen. Mike Machado (D-Stockton) was unhappy with the Pacheco choice and decided to oppose the project, meaning that proponents needed three Republican votes to win the two-thirds needed for passage and only Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) was willing to cross party lines, Capitol sources told the Guardian.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen had set a deadline of July 15 for substituting the new language in Prop. 1, so at Guardian press time it appeared the old language would remain in place, which Kopp said was acceptable and probably wouldn’t hurt the project.

Meanwhile, a project opponent, Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield), sought to kill Prop. 1 by doing what’s known as a "gut and amend" to an unrelated bill, SB 298 by Senate Minority Leader Dave Codgill (R-Modesto), in an attempt to push the bond measure back to 2010.

If he can find the two-thirds vote in both houses — which most sources consider unlikely — it would be the fourth time the bond measure has been delayed. So barring any unusual political deals, the high speed bond measure is still up in November.

If a majority of voters approve Prop. 1, the CHSRA would begin negotiating rights-of-way and working on final technical studies. Construction could begin as early as 2010, although completion could take up to 10 years.

In the meantime, CHSRA unanimously voted to work with regional rail agencies such as BART to create a rail system over Altamont. As Morshed said, "We need to immediately start working on the Altamont corridor and find a solution to that."



WINGIN’ IT Veteran filmmaker Lloyd Kaufman spoke to me from Troma Entertainment’s Long Island City, N.Y., headquarters about Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead — a scathing and explosive (as in "explosive diarrhea") look at the fast-food industry. He calls this hilarious, stomach-turning epic "the first chicken-Indian-zombie movie that has singing and dancing." He also had quite a bit to say about the state of the media and cinema today. (Cheryl Eddy)

LLOYD KAUFMAN "The biggest misconception [about Troma films] is that people who haven’t seen them assume that we make these movies formulaically — that we just throw together some gyno-Americans in bikinis, slap some ketchup on ’em, and have ’em run through the woods. Troma is a 35-year-old company, and we wouldn’t be around if that was all we did. The problem is, most people who dismiss us are too busy taking [in] the Burger King advertisement called Iron Man. The Village Voice has a conglomerate — the so-called ‘alternative newspaper,’ the LA Weekly, the New Times — they don’t even have the interest in reviewing [Poultrygeist]. They have some idiot review it in New York who, in my opinion, didn’t even look at the movie, and says that Trey Parker is in Poultrygeist and gives it a cursory review. I can’t imagine how they could have seen the movie if they think Trey Parker is in the movie. Somebody put it up on imdb.com because Trey Parker was discovered by Troma, and because Trey Parker has acted in other Troma movies. Some fan put it [on the Internet]. And this has been repeated by other critics — critics! who are supposed to be reviewing the movie. So if the alternative media is a disgrace like the LA Weekly, if they’re just vomiting out an inaccurate, uninspired reviews, if this is the alternative media that’s supposed to be embracing art and embracing independent art, we don’t have a chance. When Toxic Avenger came out in 1983, Vincent Canby — the lead reviewer for the New York Times — chose to review it when it came out. He cared, he was interested. That’s gone. It’s over.

"All of us independents have got to fight for the future of art. The big hope is that [independent filmmakers] come out swinging: that they be aggressive and not be afraid to whore for their art. I think too many talented directors feel that doing what Lloyd Kaufman does is low-class, going out there and promoting the film — like, ‘I don’t wanna get my hands dirty doing that.’ As long as you don’t compromise your art, as long as you don’t try to remake Pulp Fiction 10 times, as long as you’re doing something you believe in once it’s finished — as long as you’re not breaking any laws or hurting people — what is wrong if I wear a clown suit and go to Cannes and throw blood on people? Why is that wrong?"

POULTRYGEIST: NIGHT OF THE CHICKEN DEAD opens Fri/18 at the Roxie. See Rep Clock for showtimes.

Local Heroes/ Big Picture Week 2


PREVIEW In the second of ODC Theater’s Local Heroes summer series, Yannis Adoniou, Manuelito Biag, and Alex Ketley are taking over Theater Artaud. Over the past decade or so, each has developed a profile of making dances that leave impressive individual footprints. Choreographically speaking, Biag is the youngest. His work is emotionally and physically boiling with the dark, complex currents that swirl inside relationships, yet he manages to create an odd beauty out of these struggles. Ballast, created for SHIFT Physical Theater, is his newest excursion into that thorny territory called home. A former ballet dancer and a cofounder of the Foundry (with Christian Burns), Ketley often works with a small number of dancers. But for the 2006 WestWave Dance Festival, he set Careless on 10 advanced ballet students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. With the premiere of Monument, performed by 14 dancers, he continues his interest in larger-scale ensemble choreography. He also demonstrates his penchant for juxtaposing live and virtual dance. This memorial for a friend incorporates video, movement, and music. In the 2005 Less-Sylphides, Adoniou (a former ballet dancer as well) pays tribute to Michel Fokine’s 1909 pointe-shoes-and-white-tulle Les Sylphides, which is considered the first abstract ballet. It’s a highly creative take and radical in both senses of the term — deeply rooted while still a complete departure from the original.

LOCAL HEROES/BIG PICTURE WEEK 2 Thurs/17–Sat/19, 8 p.m. Theater Artaud, 450 Florida, SF. $18–$25. (415) 863-9834, www.odctheater.org

“Elsa and Fred”


REVIEW Bombshell Anita Ekberg embodies spontaneity as she playfully wades through the Trevi Fountain in that classic moment from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). Inspired by this scene, spry octogenarian Elsa (China Zorilla) has a photo of Ekberg hanging on her wall and confronts each day with the exuberance of a woman a quarter of her age. She speaks her mind and lives with reckless abandon — but not necessarily wreck-less abandon: a fender-bender just outside her apartment building eventually gives her reason to pay a visit to her new neighbor Alfredo (Manuel Alexandre), a recent widower. Aside from focusing on a pair of late-in-life lovers, this Spanish romantic dramedy rarely veers from the expected: Elsa inevitably encourages cautious Alfredo (or "Fred") to make the decision to truly live. Still, you’d be hard pressed to find anything quite as adorable as Elsa and Fred. Whether they’re kissing sweetly or pulling a dine-and-ditch at a swanky restaurant, these elderly lovebirds are an irresistible pair. Both actors deliver delightful performances, but Zorilla in particular is a much appreciated treat as Elsa, breathing life into some of the film’s flatter moments. Director Marcos Carnevale’s recreation of the Trevi Fountain scene is beautiful and heartwarming.

ELSA AND FRED opens Fri/18 in Bay Area theaters.



REVIEW For "3," artist Chris Duncan gathers a trio whose work explores pattern-making — either through the mark itself (Kyle Ranson’s decorated figures and Derrick Snodgrass’ prismatic constellations) or ordering select bits of visual information (Ernesto Burgos’ wall collage).

Bay Area artist Snodgrass’ Easter egg–colorful watercolors on paper from 2000 are refracted architectural shapes dotted with sunspots. Between then and now, Snodgrass loosened his grip and minimized his palette. Untitled, a tapestry in shades of browns and blacks, records the physicality of making the work. An orb at the tapestry’s center anchors a profusion of comet tails — the splattered streams radiate outward to the infinite. Back here on earth, local artist Ranson’s seven-panel The Rape depicts the Romans’ so-called rape or abduction of the Sabine women, a story ultimately about maintaining familial lines. Ranson’s rape is literal and explicit. The main male figure’s deadened eyes stare somewhere over the viewer while his naked conquest’s head tilts backwards, her steady gaze revealing nothing. The action across the panels is disconnected: a sentry stands off to the right, his outsize hands hanging dumbly by his sides, and a woman lounges naked and unaware. And is that God above, grinning slightly?

New York City artist Ernesto Burgos’ The Dumb Are Mostly Intrigued by the Drum offers a surrealistic plane where patterns and figures collide. A wall collage of black-and-white photocopies repeats photographic images of predatory birds, variously shaped atomic bomb clouds, lambs, a wide-eyed man whose mouth has been altered to a ghoulish grin, a naked woman whose wrists are bound in bondage ropes, and swatches of grids, to name a few. It isn’t so much that we are interested in patterns but that patterns are dependent on us: how can we repeat mistakes if they don’t make themselves recognizable?

3 Through Aug. 16. Tues.–Sat., 10:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Gregory Lind Gallery, 49 Geary, fifth floor, SF. (415) 296-9661, www.gregorylindgallery.com

Yosvany Terry


PREVIEW With his new suite of songs, "Ye-dé-gbé and the Afro-Caribbean Legacy," Yosvany Terry puts his audience on a swivel, looking forward while also looking back. The Cuban-born composer-saxophonist-percussionist incorporates elements of Arará rhythms — a style brought to Cuba by slaves taken from Dahomey, now Benin, in West Africa — into his angular modern jazz writing.

"Even though I’m looking back at history, I’m trying to create something which can be combined with the most modern material I’ve been working on," Terry said from his New York City home. Three of Terry’s compositions were recorded on pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s latest album, Avatar (Blue Note), which was released this spring. Though Terry was most recently heard on that disc with Rubalcaba’s brilliant new quintet, the "Ye-dé-gbé" project has a more anthropological genesis. Terry traveled to Matanzas, Cuba, and studied with Mario "Mano" Rodriguez Pedroso, one of the greatest living drummers in the Arará tradition. He even had his own Arará drums made there. "The way the drums are played with sticks is a Dahomey tradition, which I bring up to date," he explained. "You can hear the deep foundation, which is very old, but at the same time, you hear it in a context which sounds very modern."

The music combines percussive layers with call-and-response chants and modern jazz soloing. Terry also gives credit to Bay Area percussionist Sandy Perez as a key element in the development of the suite, which receives its West Coast premiere in a series of Bay Area performances by Perez and his Afro-Caribbean Legacy band. The group includes lead vocalist and percussionist Pedro Martinez, pianist Osmany Paredes, dancer Felix "Pupi" Insua, percussionist Roman Diaz, and Terry’s brother Yunior Terry on bass. (Marcus Crowder)

YOSVANY TERRY AND THE AFRO-CARIBBEAN LEGACY With Jesus Diaz, John Santos, and Michael Spiro. Fri/18, 8 p.m., $12–$15. Lecture-demonstration by Terry, Tues/22, 7 p.m., $10–$12. La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck, Berk. (510) 849-2568, www.lapena.org. Also Sat/19, 1–3 p.m., free. Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, Mission and Third Sts., SF. www.ybgf.org. Also Sun/20, 7:30 p.m., $14–$28, Stanford Jazz Festival, Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford. (650) 725-ARTS, www.stanfordjazz.org

Guilt to the hilt


› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER Watching the chopped and cropped black-and-white promo vid for Beck’s new album, Modern Guilt (DGC) — a study in cut-rate Super 8 ways to make static images of the reedy rocker and cohorts look exciting and fresh — I can’t help but think of Velvet Underground hanger-on/documenter Andy Warhol and his bricolage brethren and kindred experimentalist Bruce Conner, who sadly passed July 7. Memories of the toothpick-thin, turtlenecked Bay Area beat-gen grandpappy shaking and shimmying beside breakdance troupe Sisterz of the Underground on an impromptu dance floor at the Guardian‘s 2005 Goldies bash are burned forever in my olde retina, for sure — right alongside indelible images from Conner’s Ray Charles–driven Cosmic Ray (1962) and his Toni Basil-go-go-happy Breakaway (1966). Where’s the joy in contemputf8g Conner’s fierce life force — one that happily, darkly captured the pure products of America gone mad — finally breaking away and making a run for the ether? And likewise — in an era of diminished expectations, recession-inspired belt-tightening, and exploding oil prices — who cares to question why Beck has got the 21st-century blues but bad?

Readings of Modern Guilt‘s songs as covert Scientology tracts can wait: the overt critical prognosis is that Beck’s latest disc is terminally bummed. "Modern Guilt sounds like an obligation," writes Amy O’Brien of Vancouver Sun. "It sounds like Beck has disengaged from his music." Meanwhile, Greg Kot of Chicago Tribune theorizes that the songwriter and producer Danger Mouse’s collaboration "sounds like it was dashed off between appointments on Danger Mouse’s increasingly stocked calendar." All grouse about the overall darkness of Beck’s mood: there are ruminations on bones, abandonment, and corrosive rain on the gluey exotica-bop "Orphans" and on melting ice caps, hurricanes, and heat waves amid the blissfully brisk, purring pop "Gamma Ray." "Replica" takes on a drum ‘n’ bass face, bright chimes tolling with dread at the age of mechanical reproduction, whereas "Profanity Prayers" invokes a spanking Devo rhythm and inverts "Mr. Soul" motifs to encapsulate soulless urban drift. "You couldn’t help but stare like a creature with the laws of a brothel and the fireproof bones of a preacher with your lingo coined from the sacrament of a casino … ," Beck breathes. "You stare into space trying to discern what to say now and you wait at the light and watch for a sign that you’re breathing." We’ve heard such expressions of ennui before from Beck, but can the weariness of age — he made 38 on July 8, the date of Modern Guilt‘s release — lie at the heart of the album, behind the minimalist bass bumps of "Youthless"? Or is Beck simply saving such crowd-pleasers as last year’s Grammy-nominated digital-only single "Timebomb" — just check the homemade video tributes on YouTube — for some Gallic-inspired megarelease to come?

I doubt it. Modern Guilt is far from giddily upbeat. It’s no Midnite Vultures (DGC, 1999), the larkiest Beck has ever skewed, nor is it as self-consciously crafted as The Information (DGC, 2006). Instead it reads like the man who is in touch, as usual, with the moment — one that would make Philip K. Dick’s skin crawl. My favorite songs emerge when Beck plunges into a Mutations-ish darkness and Sea Change–like doom. Downed jet passengers drown amid viewer paranoia in the dreamy, Gainsbourgian "Chemtrails," which roils in a gorgeous funk, and the fatalistic "Volcano" turns out be one of the most beautiful, beautifully imperfect songs Beck’s ever written. Its trudging beats dissolve like a heavy heart into his weary "I’m tired of evil / And all that it feeds." He continues, "I’m tired of people who only want to be pleased / But I still want to please you / And I heard of that Japanese girl who jumped into the volcano / Was she trying to make it back / Back to the womb of the world," and the melody resolves, ever so briefly, before returning to its sorrowful grind. "I’ve been drinking all these tears so long / All I’ve got left is the taste of salt in my mouth. I don’t know where I’ve been / But know where I’m going / To that volcano." Beck’s protagonist doesn’t want to fall in — nirvana has not been achieved, nor has the promise of Beck and his generation been completely fulfilled — but those uncredited violins make the brief journey out, into silence, a guilty pleasure. *


Aug. 22, 5 p.m., $85–<\d>$225.50

Outside Lands Festival

Golden Gate Park, SF




Really, for reals. Wed/16, 7 p.m., $12. Café Du Nord, 2170 Market, SF. www.cafedunord.com


The K artist and ex–Wolf Colonel joins the aerobics and sock-puppet fun of the Unlimited Enthusiasm Expo ’08. With Harry and the Potters; Math, the Band; and Uncle Monsterface. Fri/18, 9 p.m., $12, and Sat/19, 1 p.m., $14. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com


Chris Martin et al. were recently jumped by Lil Wayne at the top of the US pops, where they were perched with Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (Capitol). Fri/18, 7:30 p.m., $49.50–<\d>$89.50. HP Pavilion, 525 W. Santa Clara, San Jose. www.ticketmaster.com


Bouncing with witchy hooks. With Gravy Train!!!!, the Floating Corpses, and Bridez. Sat/19, 9 p.m., $12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com


The Sounds Are Active label head lets loose his Twilight and Ghost Stories (Asthmatic Kitty). Sat/19, 10 p.m., $7. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com


Feeling horn-y? The Albuquerque, N.M., band recently hacked out a score for a documentary about cultural critic Slavoj Zizek. Mon/21, 8 p.m., $13. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. www.theindependentsf.com

Download festival


PREVIEW If there was an contest for the most cringe-inducing festival name ever, Download would win handily. This is the future, I guess: international corporations sponsoring Wal-Mart-style festivals that pack as many bands as possible into oversize, out-of-the-way suburban locations with deals that are hard to ignore. Aye, there’s the rub.

Scottish noise punk pioneers the Jesus and Mary Chain headline the seductively-priced one-day throwdown. Reformed last year, brothers William and Jim Reid became infamous in the early days for their too-wasted-to-play live shows, standing with their backs to the crowd during their 15-minute sets. But with newfound sobriety and a slew of recent festival dates under their belts, JAMC might have perfected their arena rock charisma by now.

Gang of Four is another UK band that originally broke up before Al Gore invented the Internet. Since re-forming in 2004, the British blowhards have released a remix album, toured hard, and plan to put out a new disc later this year, updating their rhythmic Marxism for a fresh generation of activist dance punks.

Wait — I know what you’re thinking: the members of the headlining acts probably can’t check their e-mail without assistance, let alone download. They probably still, like, tape things. But like any big-box retailer, Download has something for the kids: Yeasayer, which dominates college radio with its groovy world beats; Blitzen Trapper, the Portland-based six-piece with a flair for alt-country and lotsa buzz; and Airborne Toxic Event, who hails from Los Angeles and, just like their muse Don DeLillo, captivate audiences with their melodramatic pretension. And man, that’s just the beginning. With 26 bands slotted to play in one day, that’s only 77 cents a band!

DOWNLOAD FESTIVAL See Web site for complete lineup and set times. Sat/19, 1 p.m., $20. Shoreline Amphitheatre, 1 Amphitheatre Pkwy, Mountain View. (650) 967-3000, www.downloadfestival.com

Dangerous jumpers


"We’re not just late ’90s scientifical backpack revivalists," says Ian "Young God" Taggart, one-half of production duo Blue Sky Black Death.

It’s a reference only a hip-hop head could appreciate. The "super-scientifical" tag comes from a verse in Jeru tha Damaja’s 1994 classic "Can’t Stop the Prophet," a bizarre drama in which the Brooklyn MC battles thugs who represent the seven deadly sins. The term has come to represent an influential wing of ’90s hip-hop culture, evoking yin-yang flights of lyrically ornate action fantasy and pre-millennial dread.

But with its fourth album, Late Night Cinema, Blue Sky Black Death has distilled its essence into something more original than Wu-Tang Clan homage. Released on independent hip-hop label Babygrande this spring, it blends live instruments — by Young God and various musician friends — and samples into a dense tapestry of themes, from the antiwar epic "Ghosts Among Men" to the yearning romance "The Era When We Sang." The disc expertly evokes the group’s namesake, a skydiving term for snatching ecstasy from oblivion.

"Probably the most beautiful thing when you’re jumping out is all the blue sky, but it’s the most dangerous thing you can do at the same time, you know?" explains Taggart by phone from his Upper Haight District home. "That’s the black death. I thought it went well with our music because I thought it could be really dark or really pretty."

The 23-year-old Taggart doesn’t earn a living from music yet. Instead, he lives a journeyman’s existence sustained by a hodgepodge of retail and restaurant gigs. Meanwhile his Seattle musical partner, 30-year-old Kingston Maguire, has more stable employment as an apartment complex manager. "I feel like I’m attracted to bullshit jobs so I can focus on my music," Taggart says.

Since joining forces in 2005, Taggart and Maguire have worked hard to expand their audience beyond a small but appreciative following of hardcore rap fans. Their label has a — sometimes unfair — reputation for issuing angry, conspiracy-obsessed rap epics. Its flagship artist is Jedi Mind Tricks, a Philadelphia group whose ’90s-style beats and verbal assaults against organized religion and the government have become a controversial subgenre unto itself.

Blue Sky Black Death has expertly mined this niche with wintry street dreams such as 2007’s Razah’s Ladder, an album recorded in conjunction with Hell Razah from former Wu-Tang affiliate Sunz of Man. But Taggart’s afraid his group is being dismissed as a JMT acolyte. "Honestly, I don’t want to be lumped in with them," he says. "That’s not a diss towards any of those artists, and it’s probably our fault because of the people we’ve worked with. But we try to drift away from that with our instrumental music because we don’t want to be pigeonholed with our sound."

Blue Sky Black Death wants to break out of the super-scientifical ghetto without forsaking its roots. Upcoming projects range from Slow Burning Lights, a San Francisco downtempo band with Yes Alexander from the Casual Lights, to an album with rappers Ill Bill from Non-Phixion and Crooked I. "As far as when we’re making actual beats and we have rappers in mind, I guess we’re definitely influenced by the ’90s sound," says Taggart. "But we take it a lot farther."

Bittersweet symphonies


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Indie culture tends to romanticize dog-eared production as a sign of authenticity rather than one of limited means. When I interviewed Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang last winter, they emphasized how they strove for professionalism designing Galaxie 500’s epochal album sleeves and then laughed when we talked about how younger bands try to recreate their so-called handmade quality. Phil Wilson suffered an altogether nastier shock when fans of the June Brides rejected his attempts to expand the scope of the band’s singles from tattered nursery rhymes like "Every Conversation" to the more poised pop songsmithery of "Josef’s Gone."

Of all the casualties of indie capriciousness, the Junies seem to have had especially rotten luck. Originally formed in 1983 by Wilson and schoolmate Simon Beesley, the June Brides quickly swelled to accommodate trumpeter Jon Hunter and John Cale–inspired violist Frank Sweeney. The group was a staple of Alan McGee’s Living Room venue, but McGee didn’t sign the Junies to his ascendant Creation Records, purportedly writing the band off as too obvious a choice.

The Junies’ slapdash discography of postcard singles and a mini-album — all collected on Cherry Red’s essential 2005 anthology, Every Conversation: The Story of The June Brides and Phil Wilson — was par for the era, but the outfit had several brushes with something more: an NME cover story, opening slots for the Jesus and Mary Chain at their infamous Ambulance Station shows, and taking Morrissey’s vote as "best band of 1985." But before they could get their footing, the combo got caught in an unenviable snare of nostalgic fans and a press backlash toward the twee bands associated with the C86 (Rough Trade/NME, 1986) compilation.

Alan McGee did invite Wilson to record solo material for Creation after the Junies split up in 1986, but after a couple of tender, country-tinged singles didn’t sell, the singer-songwriter extricated himself to a career in civil service. A new four-song EP, Industrial Strength, released by Oakland indie-pop aficionados Slumberland, picks up the quirky folk-rock vein he left off with on "10 Miles" and "A Jingle." Wilson’s voice is a bit less herky-jerky than it once was, but he sounds refreshed on the jangly opener, "Neon Lights." The best song of the set, a hypnotic swirl of dream-pop called "United," shows he still has a knack for making a ecstatically romantic lyric sound a little anxious.

In the past, Wilson used to work the opposite way, dabbing forlorn verses in his quicksilver melodies and soft-curving arches of verse-chorus-bridge. Bittersweet pop doesn’t come any more delicately folded than the vocalist’s gorgeous goodbye to the ’80s on the Caff Records’ 1989 "Better Days"/"The Written Word" single. The flubbed notes and flat harmonies of the early June Brides singles are endearing, but Wilson’s later efforts with the band — see the glitzy panache of "Just the Same" — show that the singer-songwriter was drawn to Brill Building polish as much as Television Personalities scruff.

This was a solid decade before it became fashionable for indie-rockers to mine baroque pop à la Pulp and Belle and Sebastian — an English association that could easily be expanded to put the Junies in the same league as American melancholy artists like Yo La Tengo and Sebadoh. Wilson won’t be netting a check for his California mini-tour comparable to the one the Jesus and Mary Chain got for headlining Coachella last year, but his songbook remains ripe for rediscovery, this summer or any other.


With Magic Bullets and the Mantles

July 23, 8 p.m., $10

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF

(415) 861-2011


Self-help books


ISBN REAL In a recent, much-discussed Washington Post op-ed, Twelve publisher Jonathan Karp said, "There are thousands of independent publishers and even more self-publishers. These players will soon have the same access to readers as major publishers do, once digital distribution and print-on-demand technology enter the mainstream. When that happens, [major] publishers will lose their greatest competitive advantage: the ability to distribute books widely and effectively."

The "widely" Karp refers to is an advantage that major publishers lost a long time ago. A physical copy of the latest Robert Ludlum novel is far less accessible to the global community than Joe Shmuck’s online prose poem about his first drug experience. It’s the "effectively" that’s taking its sweet-ass time to materialize. After all, thanks to the ease of e-distribution, the Internet has already become a cosmic slush pile.

Karp foresees a time when the glut of options for disposable entertainment will make brand-establishment for "formula fiction" a less successful strategy, leaving attention to quality as the only way for a major publisher to stay relevant. On the contrary, it seems to me that the agoraphobic variety offered by the Internet would make brand-establishment quite successful for a major publisher. Maybe it’s defeatist thinking, but I wonder if the only truly exciting possibility for seekers of uncompromising work in the near future is that smaller enterprises might have a better chance to survive alongside the larger ones. Maybe the practical hope is that the eventual normalization of "digital distribution and print-on-demand technology" might be sufficient to sustain the talented independent writer of modest financial expectations.

One potential beneficiary of this modest revolution is novelist Carl Shuker, who is publishing his brainy horror experiment Three Novellas for a Novel all by his lonesome at www.threenovellasforanovel.com. This month, Shuker — a New Zealander now living in London — has made the second of the three titular installments, ?O Hills Park, available for download. Also available is the first novella, The Depleted Forest, about an editor in an alternate-present Japan who is proofreading the computer-translated memoir of a member of a secret society of rape-tourists. The third installment, Beau Mot Plage, will be uploaded soon. For the PDFs, he’s charging — à la Radiohead — whatever you want to pay.

Since Shuker has already published two well-regarded novels (2005’s award-winning The Method Actors and 2006’s The Lazy Boys), he’s not exactly at the bottom of the slush pile. But he’s not Radiohead, either. More to the point, while The Depleted Forest is a relatively accessible and not unmarketable story, ?O Hills Park is the kind of thing only an Internet could love. It’s the full memoir excerpted in the first novella and presented in the quasi-English of computer translation. Rushed to publication to catch the public’s fleeting interest in the first book’s sex scandal, the text of ?O Hills Park is as much a mesmerizing word puzzle as an intriguing piece of fiction. It’s also a supremely ironic comment on the publishing culture from which the work was spared — the culture whose cathartic rehabilitation Karp is so optimistic about.

It’s doubtful either Karp or Shuker is making that culture hang its head in shame. Back when writers with a taste for food and shelter were at the mercy of those with the exclusive means of wide distribution, they had no choice but to pretend publishers answerable to stockholders had an obligation to publish works with all the mass appeal of a conscript military. It’s always been an honorable delusion, but it may be that such an insistence is now a waste of the energy that should be spent learning how to cut out the middleman.



› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Sex is such an unalloyed force in Catherine Breillat’s films that it actually seems to consume narrative. Among a controversial lot that includes Fat Girl (2001) and Romance (1999), The Last Mistress is unique for its classical trimmings, but its plot points and character development are still no more or less important than the emotional content of a moan. All the French writer-director’s films are anatomies of hell, but this time she’s courting provocations instead of simply imposing them. The thickening of Breillat’s stock may be due to her 2004 stroke, or her decision to adapt an earlier work (the film freely elaborates on an 1851 novel by Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly), or the fact she’s finally snagged an actress who enlarges her take on female appetite-for-destruction.

That actress is Asia Argento. In performances typically labeled raw or animalistic by a mostly male press, the daughter of Dario bottles up the rage simmering underneath every black magic woman and femme fatale in film history. It’s telling that Argento’s daredevil acting style doesn’t conjure other actresses so much as rockers like Diamanda Galás, PJ Harvey, and Courtney Love — women who live on the literal edge of a stage.

In The Last Mistress, Argento isn’t so tongue-in-cheek that she’s willing to slobber a rottweiler (as in a much-discussed moment from Abel Ferrara’s 2007 Go Go Tales). Breillat has given Argento a character who dovetails with her persona. Her Vellini is constantly described as a creature and, in a key moment, as a mutt. Her titular courtesan — rumored to be the illegitimate offspring of an Italian princess and a Spanish matador — is conjured by flashbacks and the looks and idle gossip of others. The film opens with a churlish count and countess plotting to inform Vellini that the object of her longtime amour fou, Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou), is marrying the virginal Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). Our first image of Argento — a double-portrait of actress and character, stretched over a divan in a classic pose of seduction — instantly explodes any element of Merchant-Ivory farce, with the actress already burnishing the angry glow of her character’s typecast destiny.

A moment later, Vellini is relishing Ryno’s porcelain weight, her pleasure-hungry visage adjacent to the glassy eyes and growl of a stuffed tiger head. The shot suggests Breillat is playfully embracing her unsubtle craft. Radical plot offensives aside, she isn’t so different from Joseph Mankiewicz in her camera movements, editing, and composition. Her reactionary feminism might sink into serviceability except for one thing: when it comes to staging and directing her actors’ body language, she’s a master.

Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley (2006) flushed cheeks where Breillat’s dark drama gnashes teeth, but the films are united in loosing their actresses to trammel over history. Ferran crafts an amorous epic; Vellini climaxes only a few minutes into Last Mistress, raising the discomfiting question: what if the enabling (and ennobling) freedom that lets us do as we please only turns us into slaves of desire? The answer might look something like Sofia Coppola’s fizzy tonic of lethargy and shopping, Marie Antoinette (2006), though Argento’s supporting role as Comtesse du Barry in that film practically beggared Breillat’s fleshy rejoinder. Where Sex and the City‘s infantilized Manhattan suggests constant airbrushing, woman directors such as Breillat make Paris drawing rooms, Versailles, and the French countryside shimmer with unsettled agendas.


Opens Fri/18 at Bay Area theaters

See Movie Clock at sfbg.com


Home field advantage


› le_chicken_farmer@yahoo.com

CHEAP EATS Bars are wired for weird times. I know that. The combination of amplified music and vodka makes for surreally truncated, garbled conversation (if any). Which in turn makes for strange looks, nods of unknowingness, flights of fancy, and colorfully elaborate misunderstandings. Then the next day you have to e-mail everyone and say, "Christ, what happened?"

Restaurants are wired for romance. Coffeehouses are wired for wirelessness. That’s why you get coffee on first dates. If they don’t show up, you can check your e-mail. Second date, dinner. Third date, drinks and dinner — then hopefully more drinks, then hopefully breakfast. But you don’t just drink until after you are bored with each other, or are at least married.

I was not on a date. My date, the dumb fuck, cancelled on me. It would have been a second date, so I would have had dinner. As it turned out, I did have dinner with a good friend instead, so it was actually enjoyable — if not romantic — and then we went to see another friend’s band play and everyone was there.

Now, if you’re me, all your friends are in love with all your other friends, with the possible exception of me. And all their relationships are always at various stages of disappointment/dissipation, in which case they may want to confide in you, or else they are on Cloud Nine, in which case they may want you to confide in them.

It might be the same mechanism that makes people rubberneck car crashes or turn into drooling zombies in the glow of the Disaster Channel. They could be safe, held, and accounted for, but some rare, blissless part of them misses loneliness and/or craves the vicarious ache of your dumb fuck dates and serial dicklessness.

And some not-very-rare but raw part of you wants to talk, and tell, and hear, and feel, so this all works out very nicely, or would except that you’re in a loud bar with a lot of strong drinks in your hands. And the next thing you know, if you’re me, all your friends have left, some having said good-bye, some not … and you live an hour and a half away, have keys to several neighborhood couches and crawl spaces, but miss Weirdo the Cat and are in general very, very confused.

It’s late it’s dark you’ve had at least a drink you’re a lightweight you’re afraid to go let yourself in to any of your many oddly departed friends’ apartments because they are probably all in bed with each other, making happy, sexual, slurpy noises.

How did this happen? You trade your unfinished drink for a cup of coffee to go and, replaying the strange night in your head, you drive home on the verge of tears and, more dangerously, sleep. You feel hardly understood, hardly understanding, in broad daylight on solid ground, outside. Let alone at shows.

You remember saying to someone back at the bar: "I think I might try dating younger men, since older ones strike me as disappointingly immature. With younger ones at least I won’t be disappointed. And there will be hope. Insane hope, but hope."

What they heard, between guitar solos and microphone feedback: "I think the fire was in the bedroom, since something something scintilutf8gly immature. With young rum the peaches won’t be disappointing. Something something. I’m insane! Ho ho ho!"

Little wonder they looked at you sideways and left.

Fuck bars. Fuck restaurants. Fuck coffeehouses. From now on I’m going to stay home, in the woods. If my friends want to see me, they are more than welcome here. And I will feed them. Complete strangers too. If they want it to be a date, I have coffee!

We can sit outside, and the only interference to our clear, body-boggling verbal connection will be birds and squirrels, and/or the sizzling of chops and chicken. Inside, the sound of a clock and the smell of bacon. This is called home field advantage.

Which … I think I could use me some.


My new favorite restaurant is Taqueria Guadalajara. You know how I know? I had just bought about 15 pounds of Flint’s barbecue for my band, and Little Him showed up with a Guadalajara burrito. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it, ribs, brisket, and chicken notwithstanding. This burrito was eight-feet long and weighed 420 pounds. Next chance I got, I went to Guadalajara myself for about three solid meals’ worth of al pastor, and was not disappointed. Open late, and pretty nice inside, too.


Sun.–Thurs., 9 a.m.–1 a.m.; Fri.–Sat., 9 a.m.–3 a.m.

3146 24th St., SF

(415) 642-4892

Beer & wine


Belay that


› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea:

Ever since I was nine or so, I’ve had unexplored dominant-role power exchange fantasies. Now they are at odds with my marriage of 20-plus years (my wife isn’t into it) and my worldview/faith. I feel pretty strongly that I’m fooling myself when I think that finding a similarly-situated woman to clandestinely and mutually scratch this itch would somehow be cathartic and result in resolution once and for all, but the fantasy persists. Are these type of fantasies typically lifelong? Do they wane with age?



Dear Hope:

Is it national S-M month or something? Shouldn’t I have been flooded with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transexual, and questioning questions all June instead? I do like a good S-M question, of course. I was just wondering.

I doubt you experienced those childhood urges as "dominant-role power exchange fantasies." I guess, rather, that you really enjoyed playing pirates, but only if you got to tie the prisoners to the mast and do weird stuff to them, and you never wanted to be the prisoner yourself. And eventually your friends got bored or irritated, but you wanted to keep playing. Likewise, I assume that more recently you’ve been doing some reading and now you recognize your youthful leanings for what they may have been: early indicators of later inclinations.

These types of fantasies are fairly likely to be lifelong, but like any other enthusiasm they are apt to wax and wane with the seasons, the hormones, and the circumstances. One of those circumstances may be deprivation, but I have to say that it’s just as likely to be immersion — if sex breeds sex (and it does), then kink no doubt breeds kink as well. Therefore, indulging in online simulacra or other noncorporeal outlets is not necessarily a cure for inappropriate fantasizing. (Hold that thought.)

"Wait," you say. "What’s so inappropriate about S-M fantasies? I thought Andrea was kinda in favor of those?" Maybe I am and maybe I amn’t, but that’s beside the point. It is obvious, given your commitment to your marriage and your wife’s lack of interest, your power-play longings are not doing you any favors, so dwelling on them may not turn out to be very helpful. Individual real-life appropriateness aside, I actually think S-M is morally neutral: great for some people, a bad choice for others, and, as my Hispanophone friend Melissa would say, bla bla y bla.

Now, is it really a bad idea to immerse oneself in S-M fantasies if one will not be indulging them in real life? No, of course it isn’t. If there is one tenet by which all sex educators swear, it is that fantasy is fantasy and reality is reality, and there is no obligation that ever the twain should meet. If, however, the fantasy ignites and will not quiet, and you find yourself spending ever more of your precious waking hours obsessing on it, then cultivating a very rich fantasy life is probably not for you.

Ah, but you didn’t really ask about fantasy. You asked about finding a real person, similarly unfulfilled at home, and embarking on a S-M-only clandestine nonromance. And I say, in the immortal words of Rocky the Flying Squirrel, "That trick never works!"

Is it possible to have a partner with whom one only does S-M, no sex, and with whom one does not fall in love? Emphatically yes. Is it a good idea to do this without one’s spouse’s agreement? Of course not. Add in the special intimacy, false or not, that you and such a partner would likely forge, based largely on the seductive call of "my partner doesn’t understand me," and really, just no. I didn’t miss the part about your worldview and faith being incompatible with acting on any of this, either. Happily you do see that putting yourself through that many uncomfortable and potentially unethical contortions at once can only lead to injury — psychic and possibly otherwise. I think.

I do not believe that acting out a power differential with a fully informed and consenting partner is incompatible with an egalitarian or nonviolent worldview, but if you do, that’s going to be a bad fit. As for not fitting in with your faith, well, I’m unaware of any organized religions except perhaps what a friend once referred to as "Episcopaganism" that expressly embrace kinky sex, but many insist only that you respect your body and your partner’s, an idea that is open to hairsplitting interpretation. You would know best, of course. If what I’m hearing from you is what you meant to present, though, I’d have to say that a moderate amount of (porn-assisted, if you like) fantasy and no real-life contacts will be the healthier choice for you. Finding a girl on the Internet and flogging her? Not gonna help.



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.



› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Biennials, triennials, and whatever other rotation of years, are place-based exhibitions. They obviously happen somewhere, and the place dictates the context. The "Whitney Biennial 2008," for example, focused on "American art," an increasingly ambiguous term — in recent years the show has included growing numbers of artists with hyphenated identities. "Today there are more artists working in more genres, using more varieties of material, and moving among more geographic locations than ever before," reads the blurb on the Web site for this year’s edition. "By exploring the networks that exist among contemporary artists and the work they create, the Biennial characterizes the state of American art today."

That sense of international movement seems to be informing the shape and scope of biennials everywhere, creating curatorial fashions that are almost predictably inventive — and often place structural concepts ahead of visual appeal. The West is riding a surge of art surveys, and you just have to skim the institutional rhetoric to sense how complicated, or perhaps rote, the idea of location has become.

The current Site Santa Fe biennial in a very identifiable New Mexico location is a salient example. It was created by the curator/organizer, Lance Fung, who contacted curators at alternative spaces around the world and asked each to recommend artists. The 22 selected artists and collectives were commissioned to produce ephemeral "site-inspired" projects. As the release notes, "All the works are created on site, and are informed by this specific locale and the surrounding Santa Fe environs…. Much of the show has actually occurred prior to the opening, on the ground in Santa Fe, and prior to that, in virtual space, as ideas, proposals, and thoughts that have been transmitted around the world." The show contains just one collaborative team that lives in Santa Fe.

According to its Web site, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ fifth triennial "Bay Area Now" exhibition, opening Saturday, July 19, "explores questions around how to re-imagine a regional survey in the midst of globalization." The Bay Area is an interesting case in this regard because it is a fairly self-enclosed, self-defined site — and unlike the Santa Fe show, few people will travel to San Francisco just to see "BAN 5." Curators Kate Eilertsen and Berin Golonu tackle this formidable scenario with a cross-generational, cross-disciplinary gallery exhibition and four guest-curated shows that "will diversify ‘Bay Area Now”s curatorial vision and extend the artwork beyond the walls of our galleries and beyond the confines of our region." It remains to be seen how successfully they meet the challenge.

It’s interesting to compare "BAN 5" rhetoric with that surrounding the "2008 California Biennial," which opens in October at the Orange County Museum of Art. (Full disclosure: I contributed a short interview to the catalog.) "How does one approach a regional biennial?" states the promotional literature on the show’s Web site. "In a climate of globalism and transnationalism, how does a regional biennial serve artists and audiences? What is distinctive and different about cultural production at this point in time, in this context? How does one approach contemporary artistic practices based on locational parameters?"

The "CAB," organized by Lauri Firstenberg, will also stage off-site projects at venues such as Estación Tijuana, an independent exhibition space in Tijuana, Mexico, and SF’s Queens Nails Annex, a space that hosts BAN 5 as well. Extending an exhibition’s geographical reach is admirable and interesting, though those efforts may fracture these shows and make them harder to see — one wonders, if you just make it to Queens Nails, will you really see "BAN 5" or "CAB"?

The parallels are distinct and reflective of the zeitgeist. But as much as we’d like to think these exhibitions are about now, they most directly reflect the years in which they were organized. America will be getting a new president, but it’s shrinking from rising fuel costs and economic woes. In such an environment, regional identity — think locavores — most likely will grow stronger. Here’s hoping "BAN 5" captures some of that energy.

You’re going to myth me


You don’t need to pick up all the subtleties of Berkeley-born Iranian American artist Ala Ebtekar’s work to appreciate the resonant beauty of, for instance, The Ascension II (2007), and its angelic, part-griffin, semi-human, quasi-Homa messenger drawn from Persian mythology, winging across reams of Farsi as assorted readers’ delicate notes intricately lace the printed manuscript. But it helps to know that the iconography of that winged messenger reaches back 5,000 years to a pre-Islamic Iran, was eventually appropriated in depictions of Ayatollah Khomeini, and that the angels with keys dangling from their necks, surrounding the wary mythical creature, refer to the child soldiers enlisted during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) to run across battlefields and detect land mines. "They’d give these kids these keys to heaven," explains Ebtekar at his Palo Alto studio near Stanford University, where he received his MFA. "It’s like, ‘Whoa!’ That’s a certain kind of mythology, but it’s tapping into something apocalyptic."

And you don’t need to know the specifics of aerospace design to appreciate the watercolor, acrylic, and ink jets tearing across script in The Breeze of Time (2002): they happen to be the exact ones used in the Iran-Iraq War. Ebtekar is aware that viewers bring their own connections to the work. "Yeah, I was doing this stuff before 9/11, in school, on book pages, and then 9/11 happened and I stopped. I thought, there’s no way I can do this," he recalls. Much of his work tied in directly with the Iran-Iraq War, a part of his own personal mythology, and the reason his activist Iranian parents remained in the States. "I was very much tapped into those older stories and histories. But then they announced the [Iraq] war, and I thought, actually, if there’s any time to do it, it’s more important to do it now than not."

The urgency of the present continues to call to Ebtekar, who draws from his studies in Iran of the refined art of Persian miniature painting and the less-known, more visceral field of coffeehouse painting for his works, which range from the aforementioned pieces that play off rich layers of text and imagery — and Iranian poetry and history — to large-scale graphite drawings that superimpose the outlines of Iranian wrestlers — current street-level mythological heroes — with hip-hop figures culled from Ebtekar’s music-obsessed youth, one spent DJing at parties and interning as a hip-hop DJ at KALX 90.7 FM.

As we listen to classic tracks by his mother’s pop idol, Iranian diva Googoosh, and scope out images of strongmen striking poses in a zurkhaneh (house of strength), juxtaposed with aerodynamic break-dancers in his studio — aptly situated over a downtown Palo Alto coffeehouse and crammed with art supplies, books, cassettes, vinyl, and a Tehrangeles T-shirt Ebtekar made for the 2006 California Biennial — it’s clear the artist’s pop interests still find a way to light: witness the 2004 Intersection for the Arts show that saw Ebtekar pairing a white-washed Iranian coffeehouse installation with shoes sporting fat laces fashioned from ornate Persian textile. "Bay Area Now 5" will find him combining his two approaches with a piece that layers ancient and modern-day warriors in a ghostly epic that looks backward and forward — a gesture familiar to Ebtekar, who rolls his eyes over John McCain’s comment on recent cigarette exports to Iran — "Maybe that’s a way of killing them" — and is currently teaching art at UC Berkeley in preparation for his dream. By 2011, he wants to start an art foundation and school in Iran.

After the US presidential election, Ebtekar hopes he can make it happen. First, he says, "there needs to be more diplomacy. In Iran, there’s this thing about nostalgia. You had such a great empire in the past — how do you move forward?" As a Bay Area 18-year-old who fell in love with Iran when he studied art there in 1997, he’ll be able to synthesize the past and future, bringing his ancestral mythology back to the old country in new forms. "It’s like having these multiple identities and being able to tap into this side of you and that side of you," Ebtekar explains. "They’re not clashing, you know what I mean. They’re rocking it full force."

Doing it naturally


Donald Fortescue and Lawrence LaBianca’s "Bay Area Now 5" work — jokingly referred to earlier this month as the "Top Secret Oyster Project" — is not just about the creation of a well-crafted object. The piece also deals with the current state of San Francisco Bay’s wildlife, tides, and geography. So the two artists decided to let the physical environment affect the work — literally.

After putting in plentiful research, studying ocean survey charts, and talking with local environmental authorities on the work’s impact of their piece, the pair hired a diver to install the steel-table form they built — a muscled-up version of traditional cabriole or animal-legged furniture, as Fortescue describes it — on the floor of Tomales Bay, where it was designed to sit for several months. During the installation, however, their diver told them that the conditions weren’t the best for the hoped-for weathering and oyster- and barnacle-encrusting process, so the table was relocated to Pillar Point. In the meantime, they gathered hydrophone recordings in Bodega Bay to augment the work.

Fortescue, an Adelaide, Australia, expatriate who now heads the California College of the Arts’ furniture department, and LaBianca, who teaches interior architecture at CCA, share more than a keen interest in the physicality of the Bay Area: the two master craftsmen have a history of creating fine-art sculpture. "For me, it’s all just one spectrum — sometimes located more in one area than the other," says Fortescue from Sebastopol. Although this will be the pair’s first manifestation of an object together, it’s not the first time they’ve worked together. The met in Chicago six years ago when they each had work in a retrospective show of recipients of Virginia A. Groot Foundation grants. About two years ago, they collaborated on a proposal to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for an installation based on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Even though that project didn’t get the green light, they learned a great deal about collaboration, an approach that seems suited to the Bay Area art scene. "Unlike New York, with artists jockeying to get into the best galleries, you see a lot less ruthless, cutthroat behavior here," Fortescue says. "This is a much more friendly environment, much more helpful.

"I wouldn’t be surprised if what we are making is the most crafted object" in "BAN 5," Fortescue continues. "We use making as a way to explore new ways of making — crafting as an excuse for crafting." Oh, and it’s a great excuse to spend even more time amid the Bay Area’s natural settings.

Creature feature


› kimberly@sfbg.com

Nature — in its many contrived or bizarrely hybridized forms — has ways of rearing its at-times-grotesque, at-times-seductive heads in Misako Inaoka’s work. Are her cunning mutants little monsters — be they chirping mechanical birds with propeller beaks or flowery pincushion pates, or donkeys or cattle mermaid-merged with John Deere tractor parts? Miniature extras from a lost installment of Ultraman? The petit-four-size stuff of surrealist nightmares? Or bio freaks in search of a new species to call their own?

It’s easy to get carried away by the puckish black humor of these critter creations or simply their kawaii — or cute — qualities, before sinking deeper into Inaoka’s query into the nature of authenticity vs. artifice, an idea that also crops up in her mossy or AstroTurfed environments, one of which will receive prominent placement in the glass-enclosed hall facing Mission Street during "Bay Area Now 5." "I’m interested in the way we mimic nature to create an urban landscape. When we can’t have access to real nature, we have AstroTurf. Or these birds that people purchase for amusement or as a pet," says the deeply tanned, elfin 31-year-old in the sweltering Dogpatch studio she shares with about six other artists. "Even I forget when I go to the park. I think, ‘Oh, this looks beautiful and smells great and looks green.’ But it’s all manicured."

If, in less than four decades, humans are expected to vault beyond pacemakers and merge with machines and some form of artificial intelligence, thereby erasing distinctions between organic, animate beings and inorganic, inanimate objects, as scientists like synth inventor Ray Kurzweil have theorized, then Inaoka’s small sculptures — created by chopping apart dollar- and toy-store creatures and reconfiguring them with resin, toy parts, and flower-store detritus — resemble harbingers of the new hybrids we all might be rushing toward in the quest to adapt to a rapidly shifting environment. "This is my fantasy — what if they can change quickly and if they could adapt easily," says Inaoka, as she shows me another piece she created specifically for "BAN 5" (she also has work in Stephen Wirtz Gallery’s "Summer ’08" group show, through Aug. 23): white birch branches scattered with silver-coated bird-mods sporting jet wings, machine parts, and, in one case, a walker.

The Kyoto, Japan, native received her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and her MFA from Mills College, where, on that beauteous, highly controlled campus, she first began to experiment with making moss-clad environments. Since then her work has received its share of stereotypical responses: comparisons to Zen gardens, ikebana, or bonsai. But Inaoka prefers to find inspiration in common, everyday objects she might find in her Mission District habitat: a tree-shaped cell phone antenna or the little flowers that push through the cracks of the sidewalk. "I try not to think too much," says Inaoka of her process. "I just make and make like I was five years old again. Then the thinking process or research follows. ‘Why did I make this shape? Why did this come up?’ When I have too many concepts, it just kind of kills the energy."

Super Wofler


Super Wofler! That’s as good a nickname as any for artist, curator, teacher, and creative tornado Jenifer K. Wofford. In Denmark, a Super Wofler is a mass-produced ice cream cone — as Wofford discovered during a recent artist-in-residence stint near Copenhagen, where she also tracked down a version of Planters’ elusive and endangered CheezBalls, as well as a school named Wofford College, founded in 1854.

But in the Bay Area and in the Philippines, the Super Wofler of Wofford College is Wofford, whose project Galleon Trade invokes and revises Spanish colonial trade routes to forge new cultural and critical exchange. Sparked by Wofford’s curatorial and organizational acumen, Galleon Trade kicked off one year ago in Manila, the Philippines, where art by 12 Californians — including Michael Arcega and Stephanie Syjuco — landed at two galleries, accompanied by many of the artists. Last year, the Guardian gave Goldie awards to Wofford and Arcega, but many other Galleon Trade participants — such as Jaime Cortez and Gina Osterloh — have made equally striking and impressive work.

Wofford has a large San Francisco installment of Galleon Trade planned for the Luggage Store Gallery next year. For the moment, the "BAN 5" version will spotlight some local Galleon Trade–ers, and some Filipino artists — like Norberto "Peewee" Roldan of Green Papaya Art Projects — who Wofford met last summer. "A couple artists are doing work that is phenomenological as opposed to overtly political," she says, during a phone interview that includes an only half-joking reference to "carpetbaggers" when the touchy topic of including non–Bay Area artists is broached. "I could see people getting pinched about the fact that we’re expanding the idea of what should be included." Who says the Bay Area only resides in the Bay Area, anyway?

GALLEON TRADE Sept. 5–Oct. 19 in the YBCA Terrace Galleries. Opening party, Sept. 4, 5–8 p.m.

Book ’em


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Michael Swaine is contagious. Whether investigating Reap What You Sew/Sewing for the People (2001, ongoing) in the streets of the Tenderloin, using braille to make a Plea for Tenderness (2007) at the Southern Exposure Gallery, or joining forces with Futurefarmers and the interdisciplinary design studio’s founder, Amy Franceschini, with whom Swaine began collaborating in 1998, the San Francisco artist brings a driven curiosity and sense of aesthetic detail to every project he touches. If you experience his work, you can’t help but get involved. He has been dubbed Futurefarmers’ "analog anchor," and his involvement in "BAN 5"’s Ground Scores: Guided Tours of San Francisco Past and Personal, guest-curated by Valerie Imus, is an ideal real-world interactive piece in a city of book lovers.

Swaine hopes his walking tours of individual home libraries, How to Organize a Public Library, elicit new audiences for art. He wants to reach "outsiders who don’t go to museums, who perhaps don’t want to go to museums," he said recently on the phone from his SF studio. "Maybe they just happen to love books." Everyone on the tour will be an "active participant," he said. To sign up, people will fill out a survey and must agree to include their own home library on the tour — if it fits the grid of walkable homes that weekend.

The artist is no stranger to walking tours. When he first moved to the Bay Area, he worked at the Exploratorium and fell in love with Bob Miller’s "light walks." These inspired Swaine’s now-legendary "weed walks" that he co-leads with botanist Archie Wessells, and first developed in the Exploratorium parking lot. For his 30th birthday, Swaine organized a 17-hour walk around San Francisco, meeting a different friend each hour and "connecting the dots."

I could connect with Swaine’s vision: my father, an architect in Santa Cruz, has long dreamed of building a library structurally based on the Iliad. What this means, exactly, neither of us knows, but talking about it has been a great bonding ritual for years. Maybe I can convince my dad to come up to the city and turn my sporadically gathered collection of 1970s poetry books and photography monographs into a Homeric fort. If I can, you are all invited to come by with plastic spears and knock it down. Then, with Swaine’s guidance, we might begin to farm the future, collaborating with the books at our feet.

HOW TO ORGANIZE A PUBLIC LIBRARY Walking tours Aug. 23 and 30 (also Sept. 20 and 27), noon–4 p.m. Locations to be announced. For reservations, call (415) 978-2710, ext. 136, or go to www.apleafortenderness.com

Nailing it


Queens Nails Annex has long had its street-level glam talons on the pulse of the Mission District art scene — one that so often melds visual art, music, film and video, and performance — so it’s fitting that unexpected connections are emerging from its curatorial contribution to "BAN 5": "Estacion Odesia," a four-parter named for a metro stop that will present visual works by artists and musicians at QNA and their audio pieces at YBCA listening stations; produce a limited-edition box set of music and visual artifacts; and throw a music club with downloadable playlists, an opportunity to share tracks, and monthly meetings. One surprise at the QNA show has to be the video piece by Renee Green, the dean of graduate programs at the San Francisco Art Institute, which QNA cofounder Julio César Morales describes as an extremely media-ted portrait of Green’s brother Derrick, the vocalist-guitarist of Sepultura, painted with magazine stories and radio interviews without using any of the metal giants’ actual music. "It’s an interesting mix of documentary and her personal connection to her brother," Morales muses.

ESTACION ODESIA Sat/19–Nov. 16, YBCA, first floor galleries. Also July 25–Aug. 30, Queens Nails Annex, 3191 Mission, SF. (415) 648-4564, www.queensnailsannex.com. Music club happens Aug. 15, Sept. 15, and Oct. 17, 7 p.m.

Nuclear fallout


› sarah@sfbg.com

As the US Navy prepares to deal with its radioactive past at the Hunters Point Shipyard (HPS) — inviting folks to submit comments by July 28 on its proposed cleanup plan for Parcel B — community members are struggling to understand the threat and its implications.

Bayview–Hunters Point residents and environmental and public health advocates gathered July 8 at City College’s Southeast Community Facility to hear from and question Navy officials, but few came away satisfied. Most expressed doubts about the Navy’s credibility, or confusion about the exact risks to human health and the environment from the plan to clean up radiological, soil, and water contamination.

For the past 25 years, this 59-acre property has housed a colony of artists in the site’s Building 103, in studios rented through the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. In September the artists will be ejected, either to portables and buildings on the shipyard or to an offsite location, so the Navy can excavate the building’s storm drains and sewers where low levels of radiological contamination have been found.

HPS Base Realignment and Conversion Environmental Coordinator Keith Forman explained at the meeting that when the Navy first presented a cleanup plan for Parcel B in 1997, it had not surveyed for radionuclides, remnants of the shipyard’s military past.

That 2001 survey revealed that there are 14 sites on Parcel B that may have been exposed to radiation, including Building 103. The Navy’s 2004 Historical Radiological Assessment reveals that while Building 103 began as a non-nuclear submarine barracks, Operation Crossroad personnel subsequently used it as a decontamination center after an atomic test went awry in July 1946 in the South Pacific.

In that test, the Navy detonated two bombs the size used on Nagasaki in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll. One bomb, the HRA notes, was an underwater burst called Shot Baker, which "caused a tremendous bubble of water and steam that broke the ocean’s surface."

"Then a huge wave, over 90 feet high … rolled over target and support vessels as well as the islands of the atoll," the HRA records. "Vast quantities of radioactive debris rained down on the target and support ships, islands and lagoon."

Seventy-nine ships were sent to the Navy’s radiological center at Hunters Point Shipyard for decontamination, a site chosen in part because University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University were nearby to support the radiation studies.

The following year, from April through August 1947, the Navy burned 610,000 gallons of radioactively contaminated ship fuel at HPS. Also, workers sandblasting contamination at the shipyard’s dry docks showered in Parcel B’s Building 103, raising the current concern that cesium-137, cobalt-60, plutonium-239, radium-226 (from radioactive decay of uranium-238) and strontium-90 could be present in underground drains and sewers.

The 2004 HRA also identified two plots on Parcel B, IR07 and IR18, as having been used as dumps for radioluminescent devices and possibly more sandblast debris. It also listed a discharge channel between a pump house and Drydock 3 as radiologically impacted.

Currently the Navy is proposing to excavate soil from IR-07 and IR-18, including known mercury and methane spots, and ship it to dumps in Idaho and Utah; fill and seal the suspect discharge channel; cover potentially radiologically impacted soil; and stipulate that these two areas be used as open space in future plans for the base.

The cost of the Navy’s proposed radiological cleanup is $29.6 million. The Navy also proposes spending $13 million on amended soil and sediment cleanup, and $2.7 million on amended groundwater remediation.

Forman told the crowd that the Navy’s old soil remedy was a "bad fit." Excavations were larger than expected, Forman said, and showed no pattern of release. "There was no end in sight for the Navy," Forman said. "It didn’t look as if we were doing what we were meant to do: namely, find Navy-caused spills."

Forman also criticized the Navy’s old groundwater remedy as being "very passive." He proposed a remedy that includes more monitoring along the shoreline and using contaminant-eating bacteria to cleanup groundwater contaminants.

"The old remedy did not consider risks to wildlife and aquatic organisms at the shoreline, whereas the amended remedy will," Forman noted. "It was silent on this issue, yet we know the area has a shoreline."

Ultimately, amending the Navy’s cleanup plan is "about protecting human health and the environment," Forman said.

Green Action’s Marie Harrison was critical of the Navy’s failure to explain the risks in simple terms. "You talked about risk assessment, but you never told us what the risks were," Harrison said. "What is the risk to human life? How is capping going to stop it going into the bay? I’m not a scientist. I don’t have a PhD. I was hoping you were going to give me some kind of knowledge."

Harrison also worried that the Navy was not factoring in the cumulative risks for people living and working in the surrounding community who visit the shoreline to relax. Told that manganese, nickel, and arsenic are present in risky quantities, Harrison was referred to online information at www.bracpmo.navy.mil and to documents housed at the San Francisco’s Main and Third Street libraries.

Other community members criticized the Navy for not doing enough outreach to the Samoans, Latinos, and Asians in the community, and for having taken too long to acknowledge radiological impacts.

"Do you really want us to believe that no one was aware of nuclear waste and spills, given this was a Superfund site?" said Espanola Jackson, a BVHP resident since 1948.

"What I expect you to believe," Forman replied, "is that until 2002, no one who had technical and scientific expertise had looked at the evidence, sifted through history, and done an analysis to put together a radiological assessment."

Jackson also accused the Navy of "fast-tracking the cleanup in order for Lennar to build houses," referring to the efforts of Mayor Gavin Newsom, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and others to hasten the shipyard’s cleanup and early turnover to the city so the area can be turned into a massive development project pursuant to the voter-approved Prop. G.

"We are not going to accept anything less than total cleanup," Jackson said. "If you have to move that dirty dirt, do it. We need $10 billion. You said $60 million. You can’t even scrape the surface with that amount."

Melanie Kito, the Navy’s lead remedial project manager, replied that the Navy is "chartered to clean up releases of spills from Navy activities. Whatever remedy we put forth, we have to demonstrate that we are protecting human health and the environment."

Kristine Enea, a member of the community-based Restoration Advisory Board, told the Guardian that she felt that the Navy did not do a great job of explaining the risks of contaminants in, say, a major earthquake.

"If there’s an earthquake, would the risk be like getting 10 x-rays at once, or having a three-headed baby?" Enea said.

Pamela Calvert, deputy director of Literacy for Environmental Justice, told the Guardian she’s worried about shipping the contamination elsewhere.

"I’m really concerned that we don’t solve problems in Bayview by creating ones for another community," Calvert said. "It’s best to deal with it here. There is no such thing as ‘away.’ It’s someone else’s backyard."

Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology, which does contract work for the Redevelopment Agency, said that Calvert’s concerns strengthen the argument for simply capping Parcel B so that the contamination can’t escape rather than removing the material.

Bloom said he blames the Navy’s "incompetence" for the city losing the opportunity to transfer Parcel B early and speed development. "If we’d got rid of Parcel B in 2004, we would have been part of the housing boom, not the housing bust," Bloom said.

He believes the Navy’s proposed plan is acceptable, feasible, and protective, but that "whether it’s the best use given the needs of the BVHP is another debate."

While some residents are arguing for a total excavation of the site down to the sea floor, Bloom disagrees: "I think the covering strategy is a protective solution." He criticized the Navy for only having scheduled 11 days between its July 28 public comment deadline and its final draft, due out August 8.

"I’m concerned about the length of time they’ve allotted for the question that comes up and that no one has the answer to," Bloom said. "I don’t think it is adequate or seemly from a ‘we take your comment seriously’ point of view."

Shipyard artist Rebecca Haseltine, who has rented at Building 103 for 18 years, says that she has consistently trusted Arc Ecology’s advice on the shipyard cleanup. "But I also feel that we still don’t know the half of what happened on the shipyard. The Navy denied that any radioactive material had been used at the base, until a reporter with the SF Weekly published a story about it in 2001."

How “Now”?


How to sum up the ever-changing arts scene of the Bay? Yerba Buena Center for the Arts bravely attempts the near-impossible once again with its multidisciplinary triennial, "Bay Area Now 5," sweeping the local visual art scene to present 21 emerging and established makers in addition to four guest-curated off- and on-site exhibitions as well as performing arts, film, and community-engagement components. Behold, a snapshot of a few faces, places, and ideas.


Sat/19 through Nov. 16

Opening party with Port O’Brien, TITS, Bronze, and more, Sat/19, 8 p.m., $12–$15

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-ARTS, www.ybca.org

See Web site for complete schedule

For regional survey exhibitions, it’s location, location, location
By Glen Helfand

>>You’re going to myth me, baby
Ala Ebtekar rises above while tapping into persian and personal mythologies
By Kimberly Chun

>>Doing what comes naturally
Donald Fortescue And Lawrence Labianca take to the tides
By Stacy Martin

>>Creature feature
Misako Inaoka mashes together animal-vegetable-machine hybrids
By Kimberly Chun

>>Super Wofler
Hitching a ride with Galleon Trade
By Johnny Ray Huston

>>Book ’em
Outside the white box with Michael Swaine
By Ari Messer

>>Nailing it
The Queens Nails Annex snares “Estacion Odesia” in its glam talons
By Kimberly Chun

Campaign pain?


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

November’s presidential election already looms on the horizon like a herpes outbreak, promising nothing so much as a painful, shame-filled denouement to a drunken and ill-conceived flirtation with someone you thought you knew. So it’s refreshing that the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s seasonal offering of free, rabble-rousing political theater is an election-year special in which the opposing candidates from the two monopolizing parties are conspicuously absent. Instead, Red State, which opened by tradition July 4 in Dolores Park, focuses on the screwed-if-you-do/screwed-if-you-don’t quandary of voting itself, and does so with populist gusto tinged with a reddish hue — a thematic color imbuing everything from the design scheme to the pointedly funny dialogue’s New Deal–style social-democratic slant. It also reflects the rising blood pressure that results from underlying but palpable frustration and outrage.

Reclaiming red from the dusty color wheel of history, Mime Troupe head writer Michael Gene Sullivan’s smart and consistently funny script — brilliantly delivered by a uniformly sharp and charismatic cast and fueled by composer–band leader Pat Moran’s eclectic set of apt and catchy songs — posits FDR’s small-town America as marooned at Francis Fukuyama’s end of history. Set in a puny Kansas ‘burb named Bluebird, Red State casts November’s "Countdown to Armageddon" (as the play’s CNN reporter colorfully advertises his network’s election coverage) in the screwball style of Depression-era comedies as Bluebird becomes the unlikely tiebreaker in an electoral dead heat.

Suddenly the nation’s eyes are riveted on an otherwise microscopic microcosm of average American life at the beginning of the 21st century. This focus on the lives of the town’s humble and much abused citizens throws everyone for a loop, not least the government’s smarmy and ambitious election official (Velina Brown), who is so obsessed with thoughts of a cush Washington, DC-based promotion that she has difficulty remembering which state she’s even in.

For its part, Bluebird feels like a town under siege, but just who the enemy is remains initially hard for the inhabitants to fathom, or agree on, anyway. Is it the wrath of God? The communists? It all depends on whom you ask among the locals, a population whose representative eccentrics include a God-fearing, Jesus-toting fundamentalist (Noah James Butler, bearing cross and life-size Christ) and a rabid (and equally anachronistic) anticommunist named Eugene (Robert Ernst).

What is clear enough is that jobs have dried up (the local pencil factory — the onetime pride of the town, which liked to promote itself as "the Number 2 pencil capital of North Central Kansas" — just relocated to the cheap labor environs of Uzbekistan), public services have dwindled to nil, and the dilapidated sidewalks and roads are a physical menace (nearly undoing a local soldier, played by Adrian C. Mejia, who’s just returned in one piece from Afghanistan).

If that wasn’t enough, the town’s only electronic voting machine is on the fritz. But this little debacle, in the context of an electoral tie, ends up being an opportunity that gets the town thinking and the earth trembling beneath Washington, DC. Deciding to withhold their votes until the proper share of their tax dollars gets re-diverted back to their community where it belongs, and away from endless war-making and corporate welfare, Bluebird manages (in the most unlikely but coruscating of Capra-esque scenarios) to hold a corrupt and hubristic system at bay, spotlighting the government–big business alliance that for decades has fleeced towns like Bluebird of their taxes, able-bodied military-age youth, and everything else not nailed down. Or so to speak: before the town turns the tables on the system, even Bluebird’s fundamentalist is driven in desperation to ask the Antiques Roadshow host, "How much for Jeezus?"


Through Sept 28, free

Various Northern California locations

Visit www.sfmt.org for schedule