Volume 42 Number 43

Bad taste?

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RANT Judging by Google hits alone for "I hate Sandra Lee," Sandra Lee might be the most reviled cooking show host in America second to Rachael Ray. And while Ray’s golly-gee-whiz style is the most frequent target of her detractors, few people would actually dispute that her 30-minute meals are the products of real cooking. Lee, however, tests the very limits of cooking itself. Her Food Network show, Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee, runs on a calculus of deception whereby you get to take all the credit for whipping up gourmet-tasting fare out of 70 percent premade food items and 30 percent fresh ingredients. Lee is the perky, blond antichrist to the gospel of local, sustainable, capital-F Food as proselytized by Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Eric Schlosser. She knows how to package herself, and comes not bearing peace, but Cool Whip. And I love her. What follows is a brief encyclopedic list of what makes Cooking such incredibly addictive and stomach-turning television.

Brands: Lee’s pantry unrepentantly swears brand allegiance to all that is processed, preservative-packed, and additive-filled. Her online recipes name-drop Velveeta, Knorr, and Hormel at the same frequency Kanye West rattles off designer labels. There are no substitutions.

Cocktails: Lee’s menus always call for booze, and she shares her Applebee’s-worthy libations in a regular segment called "Cocktail Time." Remember, anything can be made classier with the suffix -tini — and the bluer the liquor the better.

Diction: In the world of Cooking, food or objects can be "beautiful," "delicious," and/or "easy." These words are frequently modified by the adjective "super."

"Kwanzaa celebration cake": This is Lee at her finest. Nothing screams multicultural sensitivity like stuffing angel food cake with apple pie filling, slathering it in chocolate frosting and sprinkling popcorn, pumpkin seeds, and corn nuts on top. In the words of one Internet reviewer: "An embarrassment to desserts."

Power matching: Lee performs her alchemical transformations of leek soup mix and chicken breast tenders into "chicken scaloppini" on a country kitchen set whose background wall of bric-a-brac not only changes with each show, but is frequently color-coordinated with and thematically matched to Lee’s outfit.

Tablescapes: The cliché is that we eat with our eyes first. Lee’s tablescapes (her neologism for table settings) practically blind you with their baroque density; so intense is the horror vacui of her aesthetic. They are gesamtkunstwerk assembled entirely from craft store bargain bins, with centerpieces often so cumbersome as to transform the entire table into a parade float.
www.semihomemade.com

Between two worlds and then some

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

There have been books, documentaries, feature films, and more than one play about Ishi, the last "wild" California Indian who emerged from the hills of northern California in 1911 and became friend and subject of renowned Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and his colleagues. Purportedly the sole surviving member of the Yahi tribe — just one of many indigenous groups decimated by white settlers’ diseases as well as the state-sanctioned genocidal violence against California’s native populations in the late 19th century — Ishi succumbed after five years in San Francisco to the white man’s disease of tuberculosis, only to rise again years later (thanks in part to a famous biography written by Kroeber’s second wife, Theodora) as a symbol of new age spiritualism and the elevation of naturalism as ennobling.

Ishi has been the subject of many stories, then, though none necessarily entirely or even remotely his own. Ishi: The Last of the Yahi — Bay Area playwright and Theatre Rhinoceros artistic director John Fisher’s own foray into the history, legend, and meaning of Ishi — takes the idea of the native Californian’s true story as its supple (if somewhat overworked) premise, boldly mixing fact and fiction as well as contemporary and early 20th-century mores to tell a tale of deeply rooted systemic violence that, among other things, links the production of scientific knowledge and the construction of difference (especially racial and sexual difference) to the all-out homicidal impulses of a colonial system of conquest.

This bracing scope, however, is only fitfully fulfilled by the play’s uneven characterization and somewhat tortuous plot, which attempts to ground the play’s more abstract and polemical aspects in a set of human relationships that reverberate across the cultural gulf separating Ishi from his white hosts. Bounding across roughly 150 years, three cities, and two continents, Ishi throws up promising ideas throughout, but ends by being too disjointed and dramatically hit-and-miss to adequately sustain them.

The play brackets the principal action, set between 1911 and 1916, with an academic job talk and a university undergraduate course dealing with the history and implications of Ishi’s story, interspersed with loud and violent scenes of bounty hunters running down Ishi’s relatives. Alfred Kroeber (Kevin Clarke), and colleagues Thomas Waterman (Aaron Martinsen) and Dr. Saxton Pope (Matt Weimer), meanwhile, move effortlessly between the early 20th century and the contemporary setting, in which terms like "postcolonial multiculturalism" are confidently bandied about.

Our first glimpse of Kroeber is of a highly ambitious man courting the favor of a rich benefactress — Phoebe Apperson Hearst (Kathryn Wood) — to secure the necessary funds for a world-class anthropology museum. He is also a loving husband whose wife, Henrietta (Jeanette Harrison), is slowly dying of TB. Here, Henrietta is supposedly the daughter of Kroeber’s renowned former teacher, Franz Boas, a problematic father figure Kroeber has broken with. These connections will find echoes in the relationships in Ishi’s own family. The deal brokered between Kroeber and Hearst, meanwhile, ends up turning on Kroeber’s success in extracting the personal history of the last Yahi, who has just been discovered half-starved and rummaging for scraps in Oroville.

Played with an air of abiding confidence, subdued sorrow, and quiet humor by Michael Vega, Fisher’s Ishi must negotiate a world in which everyone wants a figurative or literal piece of him but where human sympathy and the growing bonds of friendship have their own pull, bidding him to reveal more of himself. Solidly crafted performances from Clarke and Harrison help anchor the drama in the complexity and heartache of the death-shrouded Kroeber marriage. Martinsen is a persuasive and sympathetic Waterman, while Wood’s turn as a jocular and surprisingly ribald Hearst lends further pluck to an otherwise uneven cast. But at more than three hours, including back-to-back addresses from three characters driving home a moral-laden and convoluted conclusion, there is a leaner play waiting to come out here.

ISHI: THE LAST OF THE YAHI

Wed/23–Sat/26, 8 p.m.; Sun/27, 3 p.m., $15–$35

Theatre Rhinoceros

2926 16th St., SF

(415) 861-5079, www.therhino.org

No Age ways

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› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER No Age is in dire need of some vulture repellent. The much-acclaimed Los Angeles duo might have been decreed the future of rock by cultural gatekeepers like those yuksters at New Yorker, sailing forth via the freedom-first joys of "Miner" and negativity-bemoaning "Teen Creeps" on their urgent latest, Nouns (Sub Pop), but that doesn’t mean all is peachy keen in No Ageland, says drummer-vocalist Dean Spunt.

"We get e-mails all the time from managers and people who want to make our merch for us — I call them the vultures. Everyone kind of wants a piece of whatever’s going on," explains Spunt, 26, keeping it casual and amiable from LA as he and guitarist Randy Randall, 27, prepare to go on tour. "It’s like, ‘Hey, guys, I can charge you $8 for a shirt.’ I think most bands that aren’t DIY don’t know how much a T-shirt actually costs to make."

No Age happens to print its T’s at a silkscreen shop owned by Spunt’s mother. Making things there — and skate culture — left an impression concerning the hands-on pleasures and tangible economics of doing it yourself. "I really want to keep it fun for us, but it’s also now kind of become our living," Spunt confesses. "I think a lot of the vultures would try to have you not make it so fun. There’s a definite way, a cookie-cutter approach, that people take to music and bands, and I think a lot of people — the vultures I talk about — they just see it as that. It’s, like, ‘Well, hey, this is what bands do.’ But me and Randy don’t really do what bands do."

That goes for everything from taking money from their label to fund tours to renting a bus that costs the same amount a day as a van might per month. "I just like to keep the books clean," Spunt continues. "The whole Minutemen ‘jam econo’ thing — it sort of applies to us, you know."

DIY is far from dead for the band. Spout says he silkscreened No Age’s first seven singles by himself at his mother’s shop, as well as the band’s first "product": a bandanna, which the two ex-Wives members sold along with a DVD-R of art videos during their first tour. As much as any non-self-released album, Nouns reflects those values — born amid punk, fostered by riot grrrl and hardcore, and now nurtured by community at the Smell, in addition to those at like-minded venues like Gilman Project and 21 Grand (the latter is reportedly again under pressure to discontinue regular shows).

"We had an opportunity to record in a nicer studio," Spunt said of Infrasonic in LA and Southern Studios in London. "With Weirdo Rippers [FatCat, 2007] we were limited in terms of what we could do with sound, which is a big part of our band. The reason we’re two people is we kind of like the limitations being put on us so it makes us more creative and stuff, but we wanted to open the sound up a little more with Nouns, and I think we did. The noisier parts got noisier, and the poppier parts got poppier, and it’s a little more direct. The ambient stuff doesn’t run as long, and it just kind of gets you there." Mainly, he adds, they wanted to write songs that were fun to play live.

With Nouns, imagine No Age fingering its predecessors’ punk and post-punk garments longingly when it isn’t generating the larger-than-its-numbers blast of Hüsker Dü or Volcano Suns. The twosome looks directly back to an Alternative Nation for touchstones, while documenting a many-hued spectrum of faces and places in Nouns‘ accompanying booklet, snapping haunts and audiences that look startlingly alike, regardless of whether they were captured in Portland, Ore., or London. You might draw a line from one city, one space, or one gen to the next — from the 60-year-olds Spunt says write them fan e-mails to the 14-year-olds who might materialize at the all-ages shows. "It’s awesome," marvels Spunt. "It sort of goes with the name, I guess."

As for their future as "DIY professionals," as Spunt puts it, the pair simply want to keep making whatever they like. "I’m sure someday that will not be cool," he offers with a chuckle. "I’m waiting for the backlash."

NO AGE

With Mika Miko and Abe Vigoda

Mon/28, 8 p.m., $13

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

www.gamh.com

Also Club Sandwich two-year anniversary

With Mika Miko, Abe Vigoda, and KIT

Tues/29, 9 p.m., $8

Lobot Gallery

1800 Campbell, Oakl.

www.clubsandwichbayarea.com

SIDEBAR 1

A BLAST, FAST

CAROLINER


More unforgettable noise pageantry from underground OG Grux. With Hans Grusel’s Krankenkabinet, Loachfillet, Amphibious Gestures, and Bones. Wed/23, 9 p.m., $10. Café Du Nord, 2170 Market, SF. www.cafedunord.com

THE DUKE SPIRIT


That’s the spirit of UK retro rock with girlish sighs. With Aarrows and Scene of Action. Wed/23, 9 p.m., $10. Bottom of the Hill,1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com

EDGETONE NEW MUSIC SUMMIT


The seventh annual experimental music hoedown gathers such diverse players as No More Twist!, a "sound and light lie detector" No More Twist!, local Chinese American hardcore unit Say Bok Gwai, Moe! Staiano’s Mute Socialite; High Mayhem–ite Carlos Santistevan’s the Late Severa Wires, and Birgit Ulher Trio with Gino Robair and Tim Perkis. Wed/23–Sat/26 at Community Music Center, 544 Capp, SF. See www.edgetonemusicsummit.org for details.

WYCLEF JEAN

The ex-Fugee brings out a full band. Wed/23, 9 p.m., $35–<\d>$50. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com

TOILING MIDGETS


Up from the ashes of Negative Trend and the Sleepers. With Cloud Archive and VIR. Fri/25, 10 p.m., $10–<\d>$12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com

HARVEY MILK


Harvey Milk lives — in the form of his namesake Athens, Ga., art-metal band, which plays live for the first time in SF. Sun/27, 8 p.m., $14. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. www.gamh.com

Sadsters unite over blown speakers

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Who leaves a perfectly good acoustic guitar in the street? Hard to say, but Kevin DeBroux, the fellow behind the elusive downercore of Pink Reason, found one on the sidewalk during his first week living in New York City, where he spoke from by phone earlier this month: "I picked it up and thought, ‘Nobody leaves their guitar on the street like this!’<0x2009>" The forlorn instrument quickly joined the modest guitarsenal with which DeBroux realizes his dirgy, psychedelic visions, ranging from slow-as-folk to blisteringly quick workouts, onto 4- and 8-track cassette machines.

DeBroux’s origins lie in the Brett Favre–frenzied town of Green Bay, Wis., but he also lived in Kurgan, Siberia, as a teenager from 1992 to ’93, where he tuned in to Russian punk bands like Grazhdanskaya Oborona, that, along with the sounds of ’80s American hardcore, had a major bearing on the shape of his eventual band’s bummer buzz. Pink Reason started simply enough after several prior bands, including Hatefuck. "I ended up driving back to Green Bay one night when there was this huge snowstorm, so I stayed with my friend Shaun [Handlen] and we started Pink Reason," DeBroux said. Handlen eventually moved to China, and Pink Reason has since consisted of DeBroux and whatever musicians, instruments, and recording resources are within reach.

His shape-shifting folkstuff was a shade too difficult for Wisconsin. For several years, he released only CD-Rs and had trouble being taken seriously as a musician in his home state. "It was kind of thought of as a joke," he said. "We played shows, but it was sporadic because nobody wanted to book us." When DeBroux sent a copy of his self-released 2006 seven-inch "Throw It Away" to the Siltbreeze Records–associated Siltblog for review, however, excited non-Cheesehead ears quickly got hip to his sensibilities. About a month later he was contacted by Tom Lax, Siltbreeze proprietor, with an offer to put out an album.

That record was last year’s Cleaning the Mirror, a six-song LP of ghostly, depressed low-fi folk moans and mysterious tones: it’s hard to tell whether the high-pitched twinkle that accompanies his exclamation of "It’s all over now!" consists of birds in an arboretum, a ringing phone, or a bizarrely contorted guitar passage. DeBroux put together his 2006-07 releases using older material from the aforementioned CD-Rs, but this year’s singles include new recordings — the flip to "Winona" (Woodsist) and both sides of "Borrowed Time" (Fashionable Idiots) are fresh cuts.

Pink Reason’s continual flux in lineup and style is one of DeBroux’s biggest live selling points: "You can take a song and change it to the point that the audience doesn’t even realize it’s the song that you’re doing," he noted. Still, it’s hard to tell that new single "Borrowed Time" is from the same guy who made Cleaning the Mirror: where that record was slow, stark and drawn-out, "Borrowed Time" is blistering, muddled pop running slightly more than a minute.

Garage-punk aficionados’ ears have lately turned toward Pink Reason and other Midwestern speaker-blown pop bands like Times New Viking and Psychedelic Horseshit, to whose Columbus, Ohio, ‘hood DeBroux moved for a year after a grand night of acid-dropping. He served a tour-long gig as bass player for Psychedelic Horseshit, and now plans an Australian winter tour with Clockcleaner, as well as the release of a split with Hue Blanc’s Joyless Ones and a new LP. Nonetheless, sadsters needn’t worry about all these new friendships, or his description of the new record as "more upbeat": the subterranean, inward-gazing murk will surely assume a form as compelling as those it’s assumed so far. *

PINK REASON

Sat/26, 9:30 p.m., $6

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF

(415) 923-0923

www.hemlocktavern.com

Fishing for hooks

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Jackson, Miss., might not top everyone’s cities-to-see list, but Juan Velazquez of Chino band Abe Vigoda makes it sound like a damn fun place to play a show. "Everyone was really psyched, and there were a bunch of younger people there," raved Velazquez by phone while en route from Atlanta to Athens, Ga. "It was really, really fun." He and the rest of the band are pretty young themselves: they’re currently taking a break from their work and collegiate studies to tour across the states with their cloudy pop homies in No Age, fellow fixtures at the Smell in downtown Los Angeles.

Making time has allowed the four-year-old Abe Vigoda some taking of time, especially with the recording process. They just released their third full-length, Skeleton (PPM), which sharpens their tightly wound, clanging sensibilities into a set of songs more aggressively constructed than anything they’ve committed to tape before.

Various listeners and critics have been trumpeting Abe Vigoda’s racket as "tropical punk/pop," a label that the band sees little reason to complain about, even if it is arbitrary pigeonholing to a certain degree. "People like to make up genres for things, and I’m a little tired of it, especially because a lot of our new songs aren’t like that," Velazquez said. "But nobody’s calling it ‘shit punk’ or ‘shit rock,’ so it’s OK." Shit it is not. The record reveals itself to be a few shades darker than its murky production on repeat listens, but its enthusiasm and refined approach makes Skeleton Abe Vigoda’s first record that allows listeners to dig deeper. Songs like "Cranes" and "Hyacinth Girls" have an Afro-pop beat, care of drummer Reggie Guerrero and corroborated by David Reichart’s bass playing, and the zap-gun guitars of "Endless Sleeper" collide in rousing, unusually anthemic fashion.

To produce their wire-crossed jangle, Velazquez explains that the group’s other singer-guitarist Michael Vidal plays "thick-sounding and full" chords on his guitar in standard tuning, while Velazquez employs an alternate tuning that he’s been using since 2007’s Kid City (Olfactory) and a Ricky Wilson–esque employment of single, finger-picked notes. "It’s more jarring live because we’re playing very high frequencies that are off from each other — harsh, ringing, and kinda kraut rock–sounding."

Although the group has become more traditional in its song structure, it’s not really "pop" that they put together: their cataclysmic, yelping noise of yore has given way to a polyrhythmic pogo twist with opportunities aplenty for fist-shaking and epic metalhead finger-waving.

ABE VIGODA

With No Age and Mika Miko

Mon/28, 8 p.m., $13

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750

www.gamh.com

Also Club Sandwich’s second anniversary with No Age, Mika Miko, and KIT

Tues/29, 7 p.m., $8

Lobot Gallery

1800 Campbell, Oakl.

www.clubsandwichbayarea.com

For more on the show and No Age, see this week’s Sonic Reducer.

At the Gates again

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

There was a time, maybe two decades ago, when a subgenre called melodic death metal would have been considered a ridiculous oxymoron on par with something like smooth industrial or power–New Age. These days it’s possible to look back on this mid-1990s development as the source of that decade’s most enduring metal as well as the unwitting inspiration for some of this decade’s worst.

Ground zero for this unofficial movement was Gothenburg, Sweden, home to In Flames, Dissection, and At the Gates, whose 1995 swan song, Slaughter of the Soul (Earache), is probably the quintessential melodic death metal album and one of the greatest so-called extreme metal albums of all time, period.

It’s not just my opinion: there are also the countless bands — Shadows Fall, Darkest Hour, the Black Dahlia Murder, and seemingly hundreds of others — who have tried to imitate At the Gates in the years since. There was a time several years ago when every other new metal release — especially if it was American and had any sort of hardcore or metalcore slant to it — paid a degree of unspoken homage to the Gothenburg sound that At the Gates helped put on the map. Some of these bands have achieved reasonable commercial success, playing the Ozzfest’s second stage or getting airplay on whatever stations there are that play music videos anymore.

The thing is, none of those other hacks is ever going to match Slaughter, an inspired, magical album made by a bunch of desperate-sounding, beer-gulping Scandinavian twentysomethings.

"We wanted to make a short, intense, and to-the-point kinda album," explains guitarist Anders Björler via e-mail in May. "We had [Slayer’s] Reign in Blood as a reference somehow."

Slaughter was the band’s fourth and final album in a brief career that covered the first half of the 1990s — they broke up in 1996. Their earlier albums were a sometimes-confusing mix of guttural thrash, classical-tinged riffs, lopsided time signatures, and even the occasional violin interlude. By the time of Slaughter, though, they had streamlined their sound into something leaner and more direct. The breakneck thrash tempos and strategically placed tempo shifts may owe a debt to speed-metal bands like Slayer and Kreator, but there’s a heroic classical tinge to their guitar riffs that adds another, more epic dimension.

Then there are Tomas Lindberg’s tortured lyrics and vocals, which further distinguished ATG from their peers. Other bands growled and grunted about Satan, dead bodies, or the evils of multinational corporations. Lindberg’s strangled shriek, on the other hand, conveys a genuine sense of psychological torment. His sudden "aaaoooohhhh" during the intro to "Suicide Nation" is priceless.

"I think some of the hype came after we split up," writes Björler of the album’s reputation. Possibly, but there’s also the fact that they went out on top, without subjecting fans to a slow decline or gradual sellout à la their peers In Flames, who smelled a crossover market in the wake of bands like Slipknot’s success and watered their sound down accordingly.

After ATG split, Björler and his brother, bassist Jonas, went on to form the Haunted — who are still active but currently taking a break in between recording and touring. That partly explains the timing of their current reunion tour. Writes Björler, "We didn’t want to do this reunion when we turn 50 years old."

Instead, he continues, "it feels nice with a short reunion to say farewell in a proper way," aware that they broke up suddenly the first time around. "It’s only this tour, and it’s a sort of ‘farewell, last chance’ to see us thing. I think we ended it with a classic album. It would be hard to top."

AT THE GATES

With Municipal Waste, Darkest Hour, and Repulsion

Fri/25, 8 p.m., $27.50

Fillmore

1805 Geary, SF

(415) 421-TIXS

www.ticketmaster.com

Disco of the Gods

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I use my favorite pair of scissors to cut out photos of dancers and models from the late ’70s and early ’80s. Sometimes the designs and imagery on the other side of the magazine paper are more compelling and attractive than the literal combos of flesh and clothing that produce the silhouette.

The past is the present is what you make it. So Walter Benjamin and Fredric Jameson said, in torturously profound terms. For a sonic illustration, look and listen no further than Hercules and Love Affair’s self-titled debut (Mute), a contender if not outright champion in the 100-point rating realms of metacritic.com and Pitchfork Media.

When critics aren’t running from the phobic fantasies of joining soulless fuck zombies at the Continental Baths that Hercules and Love Affair apparently provokes in fevered, perhaps repressed, imaginations, they’re keyword-searching variants of "gay," "AIDS," and "disco" to provide shorthand blog-banal references for the album’s sound. Thus the usually vaguely defined spirit of Arthur Russell is invoked more often than the influence of living, breathing Kevin Saunderson, even though Hercules and Love Affair‘s "You Belong" is like a whiteface Goth niece-nephew of Inner City’s "Good Life." Thus no one compares Antony Hegarty’s countertenor to Boy George’s and wonders if Hegarty is given more respect and awards simply because he honors pretense over humor. Hercules and Love Affair sports two, maybe three of 2008’s most glorious songs. On "Hercules’ Theme," "Athene," and "Blind," core member and songwriter Andrew Butler crafts superb horn and string arrangements and layers them over a live rhythm section to produce swank, strutting syncopation. The sound is lush and swoony — as unique as the fluorescent pastels of the disc’s cover art — and unlike anything else floating out of speakers and headphones at the moment. I can’t resist comparing the time-lapse vaudevillian blooms at the close of "Hercules’ Theme" to "Doin’ the Do" by Betty Boo — where are you? — if only to add some irreverence to the poker-faced hosannas for the group. But Butler is a rare talent — one who’ll flourish the further he gets from art school.

In theory, Butler’s communal approach to assigning vocalists — which tweaks an earlier landmark club crossover, Massive Attack’s 1991 Virgin effort, Blue Lines — should yield a singing bouquet to match his arrangements. Hegarty is Hercules and Love Affair‘s most florid singer. His strained emoting suits his tunes on the disc better than any Antony and the Johnsons track, yet not once does his falsetto match the sensuality and soul that his antecedent Sylvester brings to a song like "I Need Somebody to Love Tonight." Kim Ann Foxman inhabits Athene in a song of the same name, but stumbles off-key through the plodding "Iris." Butler does a good Russell in "This Is My Love," but no vocalist can rescue the obvious lyric of "True False/Fake Real."

Hercules and Love Affair revive the silhouettes if not always the spirits of disco’s and house’s native New Yorkers. At best, they create their own haunted wonderland. At worst, they host a pose party that’s the musical equivalent of the narcissism that motored Shortbus (2006). Once upon a time, Manhattan was wilder and hungrier.

HERCULES AND LOVE AFFAIR

Sat/26, 9 p.m., $16–$20

Mezzanine

444 Jessie, SF

www.mezzaninesf.com

Speed Reading

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EVERYBODY TALKS ABOUT THE WEATHER … WE DON’T: THE WRITINGS OF ULRIKE MEINHOF

Edited by Karin Bauer

Seven Stories Press

268 pages

$16.95

Will the myriad fragments of Ulrike Meinhof’s life ever make a convincing portrait? This first English publication of her journalism presents the many argumentative voices of Meinhof and those she inspires or infuriates. Editor Karin Bauer couldn’t publish Meinhof without an excoriating afterward by Meinhof’s daughter, Bettina Röhl, that fixates on her mother’s Communist ties. (Röhl may — somewhat predictably — be as conservative as Meinhof was radical, but like mother like daughter, nonetheless: she’ll discard human contradictions for the sake of political argument.) Thankfully, Elfrede Jelinek’s too-brief preface and Bauer’s introduction are more evenhanded.

Meinhof’s enigma is fortified by her writings for the magazine konkret. In 1961’s "Hitler Within You" (which provoked a German defense minister into a libel suit rather than soul-searching), fierce intelligence wrestles with the inheritance of a still-living older generation’s Holocaust crimes. These incantatory and analytical gifts shift toward feminism with 1969’s "Everybody Talks About the Weather." The opening salvo of 1968’s "From Protest to Resistance" is borrowed from the Black Panthers, yet Meinhof’s scathing same-year critique of newspaper columns and columnists, 1968’s "Columnism," should be studied at journalism school. But in contrast to radicals such as Angela Davis and Soha Bechara, isolation and imprisonment doomed Meinhof. Bauer only quotes from Meinhof’s last, agonized writings before she committed suicide in 1976. (Johnny Ray Huston)

LIFE WITH MY SISTER MADONNA

By Christopher Ciccone (with Wendy Leigh)

Simon Spotlight Entertainment

342 pages

$26

Christopher Ciccone’s life with his sister Madonna turns out to be what any reader would expect: that of a gay little brother to a latter-day gay icon — in other words, that of the ultimate lackey, wiping her down after performances and accompanying her to parties where everyone tries too hard to be fabulous. For a reader, the little bit of pleasure resides in trivia: Madonna’s favorite candy was Hot Tamales; she was uncharacteristically weak in the presence of Jean-Michel Basquiat; she met Cher surprisingly early in her career; she didn’t think Andy Warhol was much of a conversationalist. (In contrast, in his diaries, he instantly recognized her business sense.)

According to Life With My Sister Madonna, Warren Beatty looked through Madonna’s trash for evidence of cheating, Courtney Love likes to count her lines of coke, and Jack Nicholson ain’t above a key bump.

Sandra Bernhard’s name is misspelled Bernhardt.

First best-sentence nominee (about a Helmut Newton knockoff photo of Madonna by Stephen Klein): "I think it sad that poor Rocco and Lola have to wake up each morning and come face-to-face with this huge picture of their mother dressed in a blatant S&M outfit, lying on a bed with dead animals all around her." Second best-sentence nominee (gleaned from a fax): "I gave up my fucking life to make you the evil queen you are today … 15 years listening to your bitching egotistical rantings, mediocre talent, and a lack of taste that would stun the ages." (Huston)

Hard as an anvil

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Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, USA, 2008) Screw you if you compare Anvil to Spinal Tap. Yeah, there are moments of eerie similarity (and Anvil’s drummer is named Robb Reiner — how’s that for a coincidence?), but this heartfelt doc at the Jewish Film Festival doesn’t mock. Friends and bandmates since the early 1980s — when Bon Jovi–level success seemed nearly possible — Reiner and vocalist–lead guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow have been chasing the rock god dream their entire adult lives, toiling at day jobs and raising families but leaping at every chance to capture glory, be it a poorly planned European tour or an emotional trip back to the recording studio. Even if you scoff at hair bands, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in this tale of success, failure, and power chords. And with no less than Lars Ulrich calling Anvil "the real deal," there’s no need to, uh, smell the glove. (Cheryl Eddy)

Anvil! The Story of Anvil Castro Sat/26, 10 p.m.; Roda Aug 9, 10:15 p.m.

Testimonies

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Italy seldom figures much in Holocaust studies, as its Jewish population was relatively small (just under 50,000) and only about one-fifth failed to survive the war — even after far more anti-Semitic German occupiers and policies wrested power from Benito Mussolini in 1943.

But statistically limited evil is still evil. Italian (even papal) complicity in crimes against Jewry has weighed more heavily on the national conscience lately, if a recent spate of meditations on the subject in various media is any indication. This year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the 28th, includes a program of films devoted to the subject. Titled "Italian Jews During Fascism," it presents a mix of documentary, historical drama, and contemporary fiction.

As elsewhere, the history of Jews in Italy has run a gamut from bad to worse to tolerable and back again. Propelled by basic racism as well as that "Christ-killer" concept favored by early Biblical-text revisionists and Mel Gibson, sacred and secular powers-that-were targeted Italian Jews (among others) during the Crusades and the Inquisition, then literally walled up their Roman populace in a ghetto for 300 years. By the time the extreme ghettoization was abolished, in the mid-19th century, Italian Jews (at least outside Rome) were fairly well integrated into society. They certainly were by 1938, when Mussolini announced a slew of anti-Semitic laws after years of appearing indifferent to Hitler’s particular racial obsession. ("Il Duce" hadn’t been impressed with the Nazis until his own empire-building ambitions required an alliance.)

Italian Jews were abruptly barred from serving in the military, and from attending or working at schools and universities. Thousands lost their jobs due to knee-jerk reactions from employers anxious to toe the repressive party line. These hard times got much worse when the weakened nation ceded primary control to the Nazis, and "Il Duce" became a mere figurehead for the "Republic of Salo." Mussolini rubber-stamped the mass arrest of Jews, mostly in the occupied north. Nearly 7,000 were shipped off to concentration camps. The question of what ordinary Italians — let alone the Vatican — did to oppose this murderous sweep remains a blot on the country’s 20th-century history.

The Jewish Film Festival’s quartet of related features offer various perspectives on these events. Most direct is Mimmo Calopresti’s 2006 documentary Volevo Solo Vivere (I only wanted to live), a compilation of latter-day testimonies assembled from interviews recorded for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. Focusing on survivors (mostly female) of Auschwitz who were between the ages of four and 30 at the time, it provides first-person stories that range from poignant to hair-raising. Meeting a life love on the train en route to the camp, enduring Mengele’s "medical experiments," being forced to walk one’s father to the gas chamber. These precise recollections are illustrated not just by brutally familiar footage of starved prisoners and piled corpses, but also by earlier photo-album glimpses of family life.

Dubbed "the Italian Schindler" when his deeds first won recognition, Giorgio Perlasca was a Paduan former soldier and disillusioned ex-Fascist working abroad to procure supplies for the Hungarian army in Axis-occupied 1944 Hungary. Posing as a Spanish diplomat, he bullied and bluffed his way into rescuing and hiding thousands of Budapest Jews despite a Nazi policy of deportation and extermination. This extraordinary tale is dramatized in Perlasca: An Italian Hero. With an Ennio Morricone score and Luca Zingaretti in the title role, Alberto Negrin’s 2001 made-for-TV film is compelling. Yet it’s also overworked, painting Perlasca as a one-dimensional superhero — albeit a balding and pudgy one. The result lands somewhere between the harshness of Schindler’s List (1993), the hysterical melodrama of Black Book (2006), and the maudlin treacle of Life Is Beautiful (1997).

A fascinating footnote, the 2007 hour-long documentary Tulip Time: The Rise and Fall of the Trio Lescano tells the story of three Dutch sisters who became enormously popular in Italy as harmonizing swing vocalists. Mussolini was a fan, though even that couldn’t save them from abrupt career termination and poverty once their Jewish background was discovered. The 2003 novelistic drama Facing Windows, which had a theatrical release, finds Turkish Italian director Ferzan Ozpetek departing somewhat from his usual gay themes. Giovanna Mezzogiorno stars as an unhappy working-class Roman woman whose husband brings home a disoriented older man (the late Massimo Girotti, a screen veteran since 1940) who turns out to have concentration camp numbers on his arm. *

SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL

The 28th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs July 24–Aug. 11 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison, Berk.; CineArts @ Palo Alto Square, 3000 El Camino Real, bldg 6, Palo Alto; and the Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. Tickets (most shows $12) and additional information are available at www.sfjff.org

Repulsion!

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"I like young women, as do most men, I think," Roman Polanski confesses in the opening sequence of Marina Zenovich’s fascinating new documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. Few artists could recite such a controversial preamble as convincingly as this infamous auteur, loved and reviled with equal fervor after a 45-year career. While it focuses on the Hollywood rape scandal that enveloped Polanski in the spring of 1977, and his subsequent flight from the law, Wanted and Desired doesn’t portray the oft-demonized director as a villain or a victim. Instead, it renders him as an inscrutable outsider and poète maudit.

Through an excellent assortment of press footage and interviews, including talks with alleged rape victim Samantha Geimer, Zenovich reviews if not reopens California vs. Roman Raymond Polanski. She does so with a meticulous eye toward correcting inconsistencies and misconceptions. Polanski was no stranger to tragedy and controversy. As a young boy, he survived the Holocaust on the streets of Krakow after most of his family was shipped to Auschwitz. After a successful career in London and Hollywood in the 1960s, he was again devastated when his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson’s "family." By the ’70s, Polanski had a licentious reputation, abetted by his dark, often Faustian films.

Enter 13-year-old Geimer, a California innocent pushed by her ambitious mother into a nude photography shoot with Polanski. The events of the night that followed would haunt the director and his young victim for decades.

Some critics will probably deride Wanted and Desired as pure hagiography, or worse yet, a legitimization of Polanski’s crimes and subsequent fugitive status. But Zenovich’s intentions circumnavigate any idol worship, as her refusal to err toward his guilt or exoneration makes clear. Rather, Wanted and Desired‘s stinging invective of Hollywood justice places much of the blame on a starstruck media and judiciary. As if fulfilling Polanski’s dystopic vision, the film leaves us repeating some prophetic words from Chinatown (1974): "I see you like publicity … well, you’re going to get it." Polanski, ever the outsider, remains at large.

ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED

Opens Fri/25

Roxie Film Center

“The Exiles” on Main Street

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TAKE ONE For a sharp perspective on Kent Mackenzie’s neglected 1961 classic The Exiles, push aside most contemporary reviews heralding the film’s rerelease. In the spring of 1962, Benjamin Jackson reviewed Mackenzie’s debut feature for Film Quarterly, and began by noting something no one today seems to think worth mentioning: only 28 years before The Exiles came out, the American Indians who starred in the movie weren’t even considered citizens by the US government.

That basic fact should be at the center of any appraisal of The Exiles, and yet, with the exception of Armond White in the New York Press, most 21st-century critics don’t contextualize the racist history and cultural prejudices the film confronts; forces that have since threatened to erase it. Almost 50 years and countless Sundance Film Festivals after Mackenzie’s look at Native American life in the city and off the rez, it’s still — unfortunately — a one-of-a-kind work. Just as Milestone Films’ successful release of Charles Burnett’s 1977 Killer of Sheep exposed American independent cinema’s lack of artistic imagination and societal insight, the return of The Exiles is partly inspired by the utter failure of American filmmakers to follow Mackenzie’s lead.

In Another Country (Vintage), first published one year before The Exiles‘ release, James Baldwin writes of a New York “so familiar and so public that it became, at last, the most despairingly private of cities,” adding: “One was continually being jostled, yet longed, at the same time, for a human touch; and if one was never — it was the general complaint — left alone in New York, one had, still, to fight very hard in order not to perish of loneliness.” The Exiles tracks a similar fight in Los Angeles, as waged by pregnant Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) while her husband Homer (Homer Nish) goes carousing through bars at Third and Main. Mackenzie follows both with a Weegee-like attention to detail that alights on everything from mechanical monkeys that blow bubbles to boisterous queens at a bar.

This major work of American cinema was created from film stock salvaged from a plane crash and short ends from I Love Lucy. Its potent original score of lip-biting rock ‘n’ roll is by the Revels, whose “Comanche” was exploited by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction. Its restoration is by Ross Lipman, who has also rescued Killer of Sheep and the work of Kenneth Anger. Further credit for The Exiles‘ revival belongs to Thom Andersen, whose 2003 survey Los Angeles Plays Itself first brought the film to the attention of a new generation. One year before Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1963), Mackenzie made an unsentimental movie about a woman who goes to the movies — in fact, The Exiles reaches its midway point just as Yvonne watches an intermission jingle that urges people to raid the concession stand. Both Yvonne’s night and this film’s are far from over. (Johnny Ray Huston)

TAKE TWO One reason we watch film noir is to look at the forgotten city. As American crime pictures got grittier, they stumbled from the plush nightclubs of Gilda (1946) to the sticky bars of Kiss Me Deadly (1955). First shot in 1958, Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles is set in the same dilapidated Bunker Hill neighborhood valorized by John Fante and Charles Bukowski. Mackenzie’s ethnographic focus on a small group of urbanized American Indians would seem to place his film in a different league, but then many noir films open with statements not so different from his voice-over: “What follows is the authentic account of 12 hours in the lives of a group of Indians who have come to Los Angeles, California.”

Noir comparisons only go so far in elucidating The Exiles‘ enduring appeal. By focusing on a sloshed night-in-the-life of this group, Mackenzie locates urban malcontent rather than inventing it. After the first of many exquisite evening shots of a long-extinct LA funicular, we’re introduced to Yvonne: her moony face is inexpressive, and her voice-over amplifies her solitude in a bustling marketplace. She explains she’s pregnant and is glad to be having the baby away from the reservation, but worries about her husband Homer’s commitment. Homer’s boys’ club favors a Keroauc-ish jive-talk — with disenfranchisement for heritage, they adapt the “wherever I may roam” frontiersman-speak of the hipster.

Mackenzie wasn’t a native Angeleno, much less an American Indian, but his outsider perspective enlarges The Exiles. If the location details in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep seem incidental, here they are part of a broader lyrical-documentary design. The fact that we can make out so many prices — mackerel for 21 cents a pound, gas for 27 cents a gallon — is symptomatic of the characters’ hand-to-mouth milieu and Mackenzie’s aesthetic calculus. The filmmaker’s anachronistic tendency to play the peripheries reaches fullest bloom when Homer burns with unnamed anomie, surrounded by the Café Ritz’s unsavory characters. The moody scene is a vivid if intense evocation of the kind of democratic mixing place Mike Davis eulogizes in his 1990 LA history, City of Quartz (Vintage).

If The Exiles anticipates both Jim Jarmusch (the outsider-as-hipster and jukebox soundtrack) and Gus Van Sant (the bender crawl and the combination of voice-over and neorealism), it’s more a sign of Mackenzie’s intuition than his priorities. The bitter irony of the title is that Mackenzie’s characters are exiles from both the past and the future. The director was well aware of City Hall’s redevelopment slate for Bunker Hill when he framed his long-take vistas. “Time is just time to me,” hep-cat Tommy (Tommy Reynolds) muses on voice-over. “I’m doing it outside, so I can do it inside.” Not so for Mackenzie, a true preservationist whose work has now been treated in kind. (Max Goldberg)

THE EXILES

Aug. 1–7

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

www.castrotheatre.com

 

Reliability

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› le_chicken_farmer@yahoo.com

CHEAP EATS Most expensive thing I ever bought was a shiny, concert-quality, made-in-Trinidad steel drum which, in its case at the head of my futon, makes an excellent back rest while I’m reading books. The drum I play and love and cherish is a rusty, junky trash can, hammered out by some white guy with a stutter in Mendocino. He used it as his beach drum for a while, then left it out in the rain for a winter, then gave it to me for $100 and it sounds like butter. Whereas my $1,600 Steel Island special, crafted by Tony Slater and fine-tuned by the great Bertie Marshall himself, sounds like paper clips in the laundry. But, hey, back support is very important. Without it, I would constantly be hitting my head on the floor.

Last fall, for the first time in my life, I started driving a reliable car. It was less than 10 years old (a first for me), had air bags (a first for me), a door lock clicker (a first for me), and three state-of-the-art cupholders. In March, the engine blew up. Cost me $1,649 to fix it, and it’s still not fixed. In the past four months my reliable car has spent more time with my mechanics, Larry, Curly, and Moe, than it has with me.

Luckily, it shit the bed so fast I hadn’t yet got rid of my ’86 3-cylinder pickup truck. So that’s what I’ve been driving, Old Reliable — only when I say reliable in this case I mean it. No tongues, no cheeks. My old truck may take many tries to go into first gear, but it will, eventually, go. And once a month it is going to leave me sitting on the side of the road somewhere, broken down, for exactly 52 minutes.

I know that nice guys in nicer, bigger trucks than mine will stop and noodle around under my hood, try to get it going, give up, tell me I need a new this or a that, and offer to give me a ride somewhere. And I will sit there and smile and say, "No thanks, but thank you though." And sometimes right in front of their disbelieving eyes, if 52 minutes has passed, I will turn the key and it will start and run for exactly another month. That’s what I call reliability.

I’m trying real hard to get legit. I’m a part-time nanny now, and kids and parents are counting on me. So I got a cell phone. My first! Now, for $40 a month, I pretty much always know what time it is. This is a first for me too, since I’ve never been a watch-wearer. And even though I am invariably out-of-signal when my car dies, I can sit there and look at the time on my cell phone and know exactly when 52 minutes is up.

For 10 years I wrote on an old Gateway dinosaur. Then, a year and a month or so ago, I bought a shiny new MacBook with a one-year warranty. As a visual joke, a twist on my farmerly aesthetic, I set up the Gateway outside next to the chicken coop. When it rains, I put a tarp over it. But in any case it is generally covered with dust and feathers and shrouded in salty coastal fog. Every now and then, on a nice day, I turn it on, and am always pleasantly surprised that it boots.

In fact, I’m writing on it right now because my MacBook died — not only mere months out of warranty, but on the exact day the new iPhones came out, assuring I would not be able to see anyone at any Apple store for at least a week.

So I took it to MacMedics. Their estimate: $960. How much I paid for the new computer one year and one month ago: $950. Do they sell new Macs? You bet!

While it’s still Poo-Poo Pride month, I would like to dump a figurative pile of stinky, steamy, corn-dotted, meat-eaterly chicken farmer shit all over Apple Computer, Saturn, Steel Island, and AT&T — only in AT&T’s case I don’t exactly know why yet. Forty dollars a month is more a trickle than an explosion. Still, I hold my cell phone like a hand grenade.

——————————————

My new favorite restaurant is Taqueria La Nueva, and not just ’cause I work right up the block. Although that helps. The al pastor burrito is wonderful, the carnitas less so. And it’s kind of inconspicuously tucked away on an odd corner of Foothill in Oakland. They have to put a sandwich board out in the street — not the sidewalk, in the street. Yes yes yes, we’re open open open. Right here. And still there’s never anyone there. Four-fitty gets your burrito, chips, and some great green salsa. That’s old school, and that rocks, in my opinion.

TAQUERIA LA NUEVA

Daily: 9 a.m.–10 p.m.

5324 Foothill, Oakl.

(510) 698-4036

No alcohol

AE/DISC/MC/V

Volume 42 Number 43 Flip-through Edition

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Adventures in eroscillation

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› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea:

I’m in my 20s, I’ve had a few partners, I masturbate fairly frequently (since childhood), and I have no hang-ups that I can identify. In fact, I enjoy having sex as often as possible (usually more often than my partners can keep up with). However, I don’t think I can orgasm. I have no problems enjoying sex, and I can feel myself building up to an orgasm, but just at the point where it feels like I may reach the peak and crest over, suddenly everything just ebbs away and fizzles out. What gives?

Love,

Going Nowhere

Dear Going:

You too? I had a bunch of these questions this year, but I don’t think there’s any sort of trendy "no orgasms are the new orgasms" thing going on here. I think the orgasmless female sexual experience is with us always. And due to the cosmic joke part wherein our most sensitive bits ended up outside while most of our partners are driven to lodge themselves inside, I don’t expect this phenomenon to go away anytime soon.

You, though — are you saying you don’t come from masturbation either, even though you diligently practice like a good girl? That is frustrating! And it tells me that despite a professed lack of hang-ups, you are likely just not comfortable — sorry for the dismal cliché but there is no better way to say this — "letting go." It’s truly unlikely that you lack the capacity — that just doesn’t happen much with young, healthy women. What does happen is fear, inhibition, and "spectatoring," or allowing oneself to be distracted from the moment by wondering what one looks like or what one’s partner (even imaginary ones) is thinking of one’s performance, and so on. As I mentioned the last time (see "Going solo," 02/20/2008), one of the best sources for exercises aimed at getting one’s inner critic to STFU is Julia Heiman and Joseph LoPiccolo’s Becoming Orgasmic (Prentice Hall, 2003), although there are tons of similar resources out there.

There are also tools available that simply didn’t exist when pioneering works like Becoming Orgasmic‘s original 1980s version were being written — and by "tools" I don’t mean coping skills and so on, as referenced by therapists and therapy geeks. I mean tools that use batteries or alternating current. Some of the stuff out there now is just mind-blowingly efficient, so much the right tools for the job that they practically dare you not to come. Try something in the way of the Rabbit Pearl or one of its many descendants, any of these things that rotate, undulate, buzz, flicker, dice, puree, and frappé. Then see if you’re still having a problem.

Love,

Andrea

Dear Andrea:

My ex-boyfriend was able to give me multiple orgasms, usually using his hands. I mean real, one-after-the-other, sometimes three or four in 60 seconds. I haven’t been able to replicate this myself and I haven’t found anyone else who has quite the same effect on me. I miss it. Do you have any advice? I’m sure there’s no foolproof way to recreate this experience — step one, step two, presto! — but any tips from you or your readers would be welcome.

Love,

Miss the Multiple

Dear Miss:

Foolproof, no, but quite reliable, certainly. Just because you have not shared the above writer’s frustrations does not mean you can’t share her prescription: high-tech sex toys, the kind with something that goes in and something that stays out and various things that go ’round and ’round.

My favorite sex toy vendor, for no real reason other than that it is local to me and staffed with friendly nerdy chicks who can write a decent sentence and test everything before considering carrying it on the site, is Blowfish.com. And while you don’t have to shop there, you should certainly give its Web site a look. The "luxury toys" section is especially fun — even if you don’t want to spend $119, isn’t "The Cone" fascinating? It’s just a pink silicone, well, cone with a 16-function motor, and I suspect it may exude "come to me" pheromones like the similar-looking pink jelly monsters in erotic science fiction are wont to do. (They then enslave you and breed in you and you die, but that’s another story.) It even has an "orgasm button" (isn’t the whole thing an orgasm button?) for the impatient.

Then there’s the Eroscillator, which I love because it sounds and looks like something a bearded, dispassionate 19th-century physician might have used to solicit nervous paroxysm from hysterical housewives.

It also carries less rarified and less expensive options, of course, all of which are rather remarkable examples of modern and mostly Japanese engineering. And I can pretty well promise there was nothing your boyfriend could do with his hands that these can’t do with their … parts. Admittedly, however, they don’t love you. Is that part of the equation necessary, do you think?

Love,

Andrea

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

Manufacturing Frida

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

REVIEW Though overshadowed during her lifetime by her famous muralist husband Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo is one of many examples of driven artists who achieved their icon status posthumously. And, like other historical figures with life stories loaded with tragedy, Kahlo underwent her share of suffering, which makes for great book sales and dramatic film plots. But as anyone who knows a bit of her story beyond her groundbreaking art can attest, she handled the physical and emotional pain with flair: she was a modern, intelligent Mexican woman who, from the 1930s through early ’50s, chose to flamboyantly dress herself in celebration of her cultural ancestry. She was exotic — even among her circles of culture vultures and political activists — and strikingly beautiful, so it’s no wonder that nearly half of her paintings are self-portraits. One thinks she might have wowed herself. Nonetheless, the well-known photographers who caught her on film left more telling documents than her paintings — of someone who radiated charisma and soul.

Before we dismiss a round of would-be Fridamania as an attempt to generate even more profits from Kahlo reproductions on bags and T-shirts, we should remember why she was plucked from history. Currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is the first major American exhibition of Kahlo’s works in nearly 15 years. Last year, for the centennial of Kahlo’s birth, the Palacio De Bellas Artes in Mexico City held a comprehensive show of her artistic accomplishments, along with personal photos and documents. Visitors to SFMOMA’s "Frida Kahlo" — which was organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis — will get a similar experience to the Mexican exhibition: beyond almost 50 Kahlo paintings, there is a trove of documents and photographs. Don’t expect to see just the greatest hits, though those are present.

Strange still-lifes — like the pile of bodylike root vegetables in Still Life: Pitahayas (1938) — are displayed alongside bizarre folkloric conglomerations of Aztec mythology, Mexican jungle life, and political figures merged with events from Kahlo’s life. Her portrayals of other people are as mesmerizing as her self-portraits. Portrait of Luther Burbank (1931) presents the odd scene of the elder Burbank sprouting from the soil of a browned landscape. The area where his feet should be is a mass of roots growing into a decaying corpse. He holds a leafy tropical plant — a reference to his horticultural focus. Another compelling work rarely viewed outside of Japan’s Nagoya City Art Museum is Girl with Death Mask, (1938) in which a skull-masked child in a pink dress stands on a barren, sky-dominated expanse with a mask of a tongue-wagging monster at her feet.

When we enter the last rooms of the show, we are greeted with walls and display cases of family photographs, many with Kahlo’s handwritten notes. Two photos of Rivera, from 1929 and 1940, have her lipstick kiss prints on the back, and several other images are marked with pencil or ballpoint doodles. These funny, poignant bits of reality were not meant for public consumption, and the fan is given a deeper view into the real person. Add the early color photos of Kahlo and a home movie of Kahlo and Rivera fawning over and goofing around with each other, and you could begin to think that you actually know her.

So when one views the photos of Kahlo in traction, her strained face attempting to smile, or the pre-tragic pregnancy photos, subjects explored repeatedly in her art suddenly become even more clearly felt. Icons rarely get to be real after their ascension: we don’t want them to be mortal, perish, and take their magnetism away. When Kahlo died in 1954 at 47, a final diary entry read, "I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope to never return." Yet no one wants her to go.

FRIDA KAHLO

Through Sept. 28

Mon.–Tues. and Fri., 10 a.m.–5:45 p.m.; Thurs. 10 a.m.–9:45 p.m.; Sat.–Sun., 10 a.m.–7:45 p.m.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

www.sfmoma.org

Outside the HRC dinner

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OPINION On July 26, the Bay Area’s gay and lesbian elite will gather at the posh Westin St. Francis to raise money for the Human Rights Campaign in the name of securing and protecting LGB rights. Despite flip-flopping its position on a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which should include protections for gender identity as well as sexual orientation, HRC will rake in money to further advance a version of human rights in the political world of Washington, DC in which transgender and gender-non-conforming people are apparently less than human.

Luckily, there’s a fabulous alternative. Outside the Westin St. Francis we’ll be throwing the "Left Out Party: A Genderful Gay-la" in support of an inclusive ENDA that protects gender identity. Leaders in the city’s progressive community will be partying in the streets in support of our transgender brothers and sisters.

Why outside? The not-so-fabulous truth is that in promoting a noninclusive ENDA, the Human Rights Campaign abandoned the values of equality and inclusion. Transgender Americans need employment nondiscrimination protections at the federal level. Period. A recent study of the transgender community in SF found that 70 percent of transgender women in San Francisco are unemployed. This points to the need for an inclusive ENDA.

When ENDA was being discussed in Congress last autumn, important discussions surrounding political strategy were raised: should we secure legislation that protects all LGBT Americans, or should we compromise the rights of those most vulnerable among us for the gains of many?

A unified front made up of every single prominent LGBT organization nationwide, more than 350 LGBT organizations total, answered in favor of protecting all of us.

Publicly, HRC Executive Director Joe Solomonese promised to transgender activists that the organization would oppose any attempt to introduce a noninclusive ENDA. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the nation’s supposed leading LGBT political organization worked to strip gender identity protections from the bill in the name of "political expediency" and "incrementalism."

Since that decision, trans activists have organized pickets at HRC’s annual dinner in Washington and at subsequent dinners in cities across the country. Here in San Francisco, we are raising the bar.

In our city, prominent local elected officials and political organizations came out in support of an inclusive ENDA. The San Francisco LGBT Pride Committee nominated HRC for its annual "Pink Brick" award. All of the city’s LGBT elected officials, as well as many allies such as City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, are refusing to attend the dinner.

HRC’s failed strategy on ENDA has needlessly divided our community at a time when we are poised to make great gains in civil rights. If any silver lining can be found in this debacle, it’s that a huge majority of queer progressive and even mainstream organizations have come forward to remind everyone that civil rights are not something that can be compromised. That’s a San Francisco value we’re all proud of.

Which is why you’ll find us outside the Westin St. Francis this Saturday — because we want to party with all members of our community. Come join the long list of trannies, queers, gender-fabulous performers, studs, twinks, soft butches, queens, shark femmes, and all fighters for social justice — outside!

SF Pride at Work

SF Pride at Work is an LGBT labor organization.

Letters

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PARTY PROMOTERS


The following two comments appeared with a July 21 posting to SFBG’s Politics blog, "DCCC vote: Does Peskin have it?"

We need a strong leader in our local Democratic Party that will call out our elected leaders on their BS. For example, [Nancy] Pelosi and her continued "do nothing but throw more monies at the war" approach. I have sat by and watched the DCCC leaders do nothing but carry the party line toward the right. It’s time for a change and to bring our party back to the left. Chris Daly would be the best one to make that happen, but unfortunately he is backing Peskin for that. I trust Chris, so I will have to go along with it for now. In 2010 you will have a chance to put your name on the next DCCC race if you don’t like how things are going.

Jerry Jarvis

Sup. Daly, never a fan of your brand of politics. I believe that San Franciscans will for years be harmed if your friend and colleague Sup. Peskin is elected chair of DCCC.

You will see my letter in this week’s Bay Area Reporter quoting both you and Mr. Peskin on your intent to change the way things are done on the DCCC and how you’re being termed off the Board of Supervisors seems to have energized you to find new ways to continue legisutf8g from beyond City Hall.

I fear for everyday San Franciscans, I fear for your children, I fear for businesses (who will pay taxes to support all that you and Sup. Peskin want to do?), and I fear for the survival of a united San Francisco.

Similar to the recent Leno vs. Migden race, I am deeply dismayed at the vitriol and partisan nature this race has taken.

Mark Murphy

WHAT IS JEWISH MUSIC?


The following comment appeared with a July 15 posting to SFBG’s Noise blog, "Shining a light on Diamond Days ’08 music fest."

Heeb magazine repeatedly demonstrates that it is pretty clueless when it comes to Jewish culture outside of a narrow set of tired shticks. When [publisher Josh] Neuman comments that "Jewish music" is "a murky moniker that generally signifies some sort of backwards gaze at a mythical, ‘authentic’ past," he’s demonstrating that he has no idea what’s going on in the Jewish music scene. Jewish music has never been so forward-looking as it is now. There are artists all over the country (and world) exploring what Jewish music can become. They are, with no more lofty goal than making great music, creating a new American Jewish culture that is as vibrant as anything that has come before. But Heeb hasn’t noticed and isn’t interested. In Heeb‘s world, being Jewish is nothing more than wearing a hip "tribe" T-shirt while laughing at your grandparents. Who’s looking backward?

Jack Zaint

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The verdict stands

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› tredmond@sfbg.com

Judge Marla Miller on July 18 rejected attempts by the SF Weekly and its chain owner to overturn the Guardian‘s victory and $16 million jury award in a predatory pricing case.

The ruling marked the end of the first full round of this legal fight and sets the stage for a shift to the California Court of Appeal.

SF Weekly and Village Voice Media had asked Miller to overturn the jury verdict or order a new trial, and the company lawyers spent hours July 8 arguing that the evidence presented in a five-week trial didn’t justify the jury’s decision. They also claimed that Miller had issued improper jury instructions.

Attorneys James Wagstaffe and H. Sinclair Kerr also tried to get the judge to sever the 16-paper chain from the damages part of the case. That would have left the Weekly as the only guilty party. And VVM had admitted that the Weekly has no assets and would be unable to pay the Guardian anywhere near $16 million.

Miller, with little comment, denied both requests.

The defendants have consistently said they plan to appeal.

The case centered around the Guardian‘s charge that the Weekly had for years sold ads below the cost of producing the newspaper for the purpose of injuring the locally owned, independent competitor.

Evidence presented at trial showed that the Weekly had consistently lost money, as much as $2 million a year, since New Times — now known as VVM — bought the paper in 1995.

The evidence also showed that VVM’s executive editor, Michael Lacey, had vowed to put the Guardian out of business, and that Weekly advertising and business staff were instructed to try to take business away from the Guardian, whatever the cost.

And while the VVM lawyers mounted a convoluted legal argument to claim that the parent company wasn’t legally liable for any damages, the trial showed that the senior executives at the Phoenix-based chain were not only aware of the predatory strategy but were active participants in it.

In fact, two senior officers, CFO Jed Brunst and group publisher Scott Tobias, admitted that the SF Weekly would have gone out of business years ago if the chain hadn’t subsidized its operations.

For more details and key documents, go to sfbg.com/lawsuit

Opening the corridor

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› news@sfbg.com

San Francisco is a dangerous town for butterflies. Xerces blue, a species that once thrived in the city’s dunes, suffered a catastrophic demise in 1941, the first butterfly extinction in the United States caused by urban development.

In the years since, local butterflies haven’t fared much better. According to lepidopterist Liam O’Brien, 24 of 58 local species have been wiped out in regional extinctions caused mainly by habitat destruction. Another three or four, he said, will likely be gone within the next five years.

The green hairstreak is one of these on-the-brink butterflies. Boasting brilliantly verdant wings, the nickel-sized hairstreak lives only in the Inner Sunset’s Golden Gate Heights neighborhood and at Battery Crosby in the Presidio. Survival of the species depends on linking two populations on Rocky Outcrop (14th Ave. and Noriega) and Hawk Hill (14th Ave. and Rivera).

Separated by just five blocks — less than a mile but enough concrete to be the edge of the earth for smaller butterflies — the two hilltop populations are islands whose fluttery inhabitants have become genetically threatened by full sibling inbreeding.

Female hairstreaks rely on one of two native plants, coast buckwheat and deer weed — both of which once grew abundantly on natural dunes — as sites for their eggs. As O’Brien told the Guardian, "The females disperse, and they just disperse into oblivion if they don’t have the host plant to keep it going."

The Green Hairstreak Project is O’Brien’s plan to build a botanical bridge. "We could keep this butterfly alive in the city if we just totally bombard that area with these two plants," he said, adding that starters are being grown in preparation for October planting.

The project is a program of Nature in the City, an organization devoted to the ecological stewardship of San Francisco. Founding Director Peter Brastow said the city is full of "reservoirs of indigenous biodiversity," and believes that the whole urban landscape is a potential habitat. "The other piece of the puzzle," he said, "is connecting up wildlands via corridors."

O’Brien is considering various corridor-constructing strategies, from knocking on doors and giving buckwheat and deer weed plants to residents (he’s mapped potentially usable front yards) to professional dune restoration. During this past hairstreak season, between mid-March and the end of May, he led walks to introduce future stewards to the resident butterfly.

"Literally, can we please just put this plant in your front yard? It’s not complicated," O’Brien assured would-be-hosts, adding that he would like San Francisco to be celebrated for what it saved, not just for a species it destroyed. "Here’s a butterfly that flew at the same time Xerces did. Are we going to step up and do something?"

O’Brien’s hairstreak haven is not the only corridor being mapped out. A few neighborhoods east, artist Amber Hasselbring is building a series of native plant plots that zigzag along Mission District sidewalks. "Think about looking down from Dolores Park," she said, "and seeing this whole thing just unfolding in front of you so the park does not have a border anymore, [but] just flows into the next one."

At Mission Playground on 19th Street and Linda, Hasselbring explained her Mission Greenbelt Project, also a Nature in the City program. From her initial, mammoth vision to "daylight" the buried Mission Creek, she wondered instead about connecting the spaces, and people, that are already part of the community. "The Mission is such an incredible hotspot for culture," she said, "and then we have all these natural areas."

The urban wildlife corridor would meander from Dolores Park to Franklin Square at 17th Street and Bryant, a route based on both existing garden-able spaces — among them Alioto Mini Park (16th Street and Capp) and John O’Connell High School (18th Street and Harrison) — and potentially receptive businesses, such as Project Artaud Theater and KQED’s studios.

Hasselbring is eager to remove sections of unused sidewalk and transform them into sidewalk gardens. Mohammed Nuru, deputy director of operations for the Department of Public Works, told us that the city tries to make the permitting process as simple as possible to encourage citizen-built "green highways." He said it generally takes about six weeks, depending on the area’s status and the planting plan. In the two years it’s been available, more than 200 people have applied.

"We strongly support the greening of the city and the removal of asphalt," he said. "The city has a lot of vacant lots that at one time were planned to be streets, but because the city is so hilly, they never happened. Those are huge opportunities also for becoming green spaces."

In May, Hasselbring and 50 volunteers, organized by the Recreation and Park Department, established 200 individual plants in the three-foot-wide border around Mission Playground. Now, a habitat garden of 13 different species thrives where previously only Rugosa roses and ficus trees grew.

Dylan Hayes, a landscape ecologist and neighbor of this first site, selected the native plants for their ability to foster local fauna: creeping manzanita for wintering hummingbirds, pink flowering current for berry-loving thrushes, sticky monkey flower for bumblebees, and so on.

"It’s like the Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come," Hayes said, mantra-like. "People are battling about what it means to be a ‘green city.’ But if you want a green city, you need to simply invite nature in."

What the candidates need to tell us

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EDITORIAL The traditional kick-off date for fall campaigns is Labor Day, but in San Francisco, the candidates for supervisor have been in full campaign mode for months now, and some of the races are beginning to take shape. As political groups start making endorsements, it’s worth looking at what’s at stake here — and what the candidates ought to be talking about.

For starters, it’s going to be a crowded fall ballot, and there’s the potential for a broad progressive coalition to come together around a clear agenda for the future. Among the proposals headed for the ballot are an affordable housing plan, a green energy and public power measure, two new tax plans that focus on bringing in revenue from the wealthy, and a huge bond act to rebuild San Francisco General Hospital. All of the progressive candidates should be backing those measures and working together for their passage.

But the candidates also need to offer long-term solutions to the serious problems facing San Francisco. This is a city under enormous pressure, and unless some dramatic policy changes take place, San Francisco will continue its rapid slide toward becoming a city of and for the very rich.

A few items that ought to be on every progressive candidate’s platform:

<\!s>The city’s energy future. The fall ballot measure, the Clean Energy Act, will lay the groundwork for a sustainable local energy policy, although the supervisors will have to aggressively push the key element: creating a city-run electric utility. As long as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. controls the local grid, San Francisco will never meet its environmental goals. Rates will remain high, conservation will be an afterthought, and PG&E will resist any type of renewable program it doesn’t control. The candidates need to make clear that they’re committed to a full-scale public power system and tell us how they will move the goals of the Clean Energy Act forward.

<\!s>The housing crisis. San Francisco’s housing policy today is utter insanity. If it continues, the city in 10 years will look nothing like it does now. The middle class will be gone. Families with kids will be a vanishing species. Tens of thousands of people who work in this city — and keep its economy going — will be forced to live far away. Fancy new towers filled with millionaires will destroy entire neighborhoods and displace the city’s remaining blue-collar jobs.

The affordable housing ballot measure is a good first step, but much more is needed. Solutions aren’t easy, but they start with one premise: the city doesn’t need any more housing for the rich. Affordable-housing programs that set aside, say, 20 percent of new units for non-millionaires are a losing game because they accept as reality the prospect of a city where 80 percent of the residents are millionaires.

San Francisco needs a comprehensive policy that forces the city to meet its General Plan goals, which call for 64 percent of all new housing to be available at below-market rates. We need to hear how the candidates would make that happen.

**The structural budget deficit. San Francisco is a wealthy city, but there’s never enough money in the budget for the level of services residents want and need. With the exception of the rare boom years, the city has always had a revenue shortfall. Sup. Aaron Peskin’s two tax measures could bring in another $50 million per year — no chump change by any means. But the city needs about $200 million more per year to make the numbers balance. The candidates need to talk about where that will come from.

**The Muni meltdown. You can’t have a transit-first policy without effective transit, and Muni’s in trouble. Budget cuts are a big part of the problem, but the city needs a modern transit program — and that’s barely even on the drawing board. How are the candidates going to fix one of the city’s most important services? Will the candidates support the long-overdue completion of the city’s bicycle network and other bold efforts to decrease reliance on the automobile?

**The war on fun. As the city gets richer, it gets more uptight. Street fairs are under attack. Clubs are facing police crackdowns. Permit fees and red tape are making it almost impossible to hold events in Golden Gate Park. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi has a ballot measure to make some of the permitting easier, but what are the candidates going to do to end the Gavin Newsom–era attack on arts and entertainment?

There’s much more: The police aren’t solving homicides. Small businesses feel utterly ignored by City Hall. The Planning Department is run by developers. The list goes on. And the next Board of Supervisors will need to address all those issues. Over the next few months, the candidates that want the progressive vote need to give us some clear explanations of where they stand.

Editor’s Notes

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› tredmond@sfbg.com

A couple of years before term limits ended her career as a supervisor, the late, great Sue Bierman took out the homeless-bashers one day with a legendary burst of honesty and logic.

It was the late 1990s, when the Board of Supervisors was made up almost entirely of the handpicked mistresses (his word, not mine) of then-Mayor Willie Brown. Substantive debate was rare.

This particular day, the item before the supervisors was a plan to crack down on alcohol consumption in Golden Gate Park. The wealthier and more uptight denizens of the surrounding neighborhoods were all atwitter about homeless people drinking, and the board was prepared to direct the police chief to round up the miscreants and send them to jail.

Then Bierman weighed in. Excuse me, she said, but the park is where these people live; it’s their home. "And when I’m in my home in the evening, I often have a gin and tonic," she said. "Why do we want to tell homeless people that they’re any less than I am?"

Yeah, some people laughed, but she was dead serious. And she was right.

I thought of Bierman when I read the latest screed by C.W. Nevius, the Chron‘s suburbanite columnist, about a civil grand jury report pointing out what astute housing activists have known for some time now — that many of the panhandlers on the street aren’t homeless people.

Walk through the Tenderloin and actually talk to the people hanging out on the street, and you’ll learn that many live in the supportive housing or low-cost units that the city and nonprofit housing agencies have built or renovated in the past few years. Visit one of their tiny, single-room apartments and you’ll realize why they spend a lot of time on the street; nobody wants to be cooped up in a tiny space all day.

But to understand why panhandling — the horrible evil that has Nevius so up in arms all the time — still goes on, you need to understand something else, a point he left out of his columns.

When Gavin Newsom ran for mayor on a program called "Care, Not Cash," he had a plan: give people a place to live — but in exchange, cut their welfare checks to almost nothing. The CNC recipients get a roof over their heads, which is wonderful, but they then have to survive on about $50 a month plus food stamps.

It’s not enough. So they panhandle.

I’m sorry, but I’m with Sue Bierman. When I come home at night, I immediately pop a cold Bud Light. If I lived in an SRO, I’d do the same thing. And if I couldn’t work or couldn’t find work, and my food stamps wouldn’t pay for beer, I’d panhandle for a six-pack. Better believe it.

Not every person who drinks needs treatment, and not every drug user is an addict. Some are, and the city needs to do what it fails to do now, and provide treatment on demand. But some people who line the streets and ask for spare change are just like the rest of us — except that thanks to Newsom’s program, they’re broke all the time.

Want to stop panhandling? It’s easy and fairly cheap. Raise General Assistance to a level that supports a decent, humane life (and yeah, that might include a beer now and then.) Otherwise, quit whining. Because panhandling is going to be a fact of life.

Hunting the lord of war

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› gwschulz@sfbg.com

Accused illegal arms dealer Victor Bout’s long-awaited arrest by Thai police officers March 5 was an important victory against unchecked human rights abuses around the world, and a personal vindication for the San Francisco woman who helped bring Bout to international attention.

Bout arrived at the luxurious Sofitel Hotel in Bangkok believing he was to meet with two senior leaders of the Marxist guerrilla army known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The men, it turned out, were paid informants operating on behalf of US drug enforcement officials.

Through an associate, the 41-year-old Bout allegedly promised to sell the duo large quantities of weapons to continue FARC’s decades-old insurgency against the Colombian government. According to an April federal grand jury indictment filed in New York, the arms included surface-to-air missiles, AK-47s, C-4 explosives, land mines, and even people to help train FARC soldiers in using the weapons.

Among those most relieved — and surprised — at the arrest was a relentlessly determined human rights investigator who lives in San Francisco. Kathi Lynn Austin, 48, has been pursuing the notorious trafficker and war profiteer for more than a decade.

Bout, a former USSR Air Force officer, is widely reputed to be one of the world’s most active criminal arms dealers, perhaps best known for his spectral presence on the African continent. There, he cultivated professional relationships with its litany of brutal dictators and helped fuel some of the most appalling human rights tragedies of the last century.

Austin and other investigators, as well as journalists and law enforcement officials in several countries, say that Bout expertly structured a business empire of shell companies, dubiously licensed cargo planes, and endless arms accumulations from former Soviet stockpiles — all of which were intended to minimize evidence linking his name to illegal weapons dealing.

But the work Austin did to penetrate that shell and expose Bout was so notable and dramatic that Paramount Pictures announced in December 2007 that superstar Angelina Jolie would play her in a drama inspired by Bout’s infamous career.

It’s a stunning achievement for someone who 15 years ago struggled to convince even her colleagues in the human rights community that the end of the Cold War and the globalization of organized crime made nonstate actors like Bout as much of a threat to peace as the tyrannical governments they’d been naming and shaming for years.

"A human rights violation is considered a violation that is carried out by a state actor," Austin told the Guardian. "We were trying to change the whole field of human rights to philosophically say we should be going after these private perpetrators as well."

Austin has helped document Bout’s convoluted network since about 1994, first as a consultant for Human Rights Watch and later as arms and conflict director for the Washington, DC–based Fund for Peace, for which she maintained a San Francisco office, before eventually working for the United Nations.

After returning to San Francisco in June from an 18-month UN mission in East Timor, Austin agreed to talk about her investigations of Bout over several hours of interviews near the North Beach apartment where she’s been holed up writing material for the Paramount script.

Seeing Austin in a crowded coffee shop with clear features and wide, earnest eyes, it’s not easy to imagine her charging through the world’s hellholes: Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and other African conflict zones where the UN has imposed longstanding but ineffective arms embargos.

The work of Austin and others repeatedly helped show that death and destruction could continue indefinitely for the right price paid to savvy arms brokers like Bout, while the United States failed to regard the plight of civilian populations across Africa as vital to its interests.

As the world would learn in 2004, even the US military relied on Bout’s planes to conveniently bring its partially privatized war machine down on Iraq, making this story about more than just Bout and his pursuers.

Following Bout’s arrest in Thailand, federal prosecutors here charged him with conspiring to kill US nationals and attempting to illegally acquire anti-aircraft missiles.

In 1997 the United States designated FARC a terrorist group for kidnapping and murdering American citizens in Colombia. US officials also consider Colombia the globe’s largest supplier of cocaine, a trade that’s kept the leftist rebels afloat.

Bout allegedly told DEA informants that an ongoing, violent campaign by the FARC to counter America’s cocaine fumigation efforts in Colombia was his fight, too, and that he could supply the guerrillas with everything they needed.

Days after this story goes to press, however, he’s due for a court hearing in Bangkok, where a judge will decide whether to extradite him to the United States. That means Bout could face a criminal trial on American soil. To Austin, that’s long overdue. She had lost hope that her country would subdue a top-tier enabler of gross human rights violations. A secret sting operation led by American narcotics agents was the last thing Austin believed would lead to Bout’s capture — and for good reason.

She first became aware of his name in 1994, shortly after witnessing one of the brightest moments in contemporary African history. On April 24 of that year, Austin stood near the polling station as Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner of 27 years, marked his ballot in South Africa’s first fully democratic election. She’d been invited to attend after working as a researcher in the Natal province documenting political violence and the apartheid government’s desperate attempts to preserve decades of white control through upheaval and destabilization. No one was sure Mandela would reach the ballot box.

"We got up at three, four in the morning to load a bus," Austin recalls. "Nobody told us exactly where it was. We had to go under cover of darkness. When we got there, he voted just after the sun came up."

The inauguration party weeks later spilled out everywhere in Johannesburg. Austin mingled with foreign journalists and drank champagne. But one of the greatest parties of the century turned glum as vague reports mounted describing trouble in a nearby country, one smaller than Maryland and at the time unknown to most Americans: Rwanda.

"Nothing was really clear. It was all very ambiguous," Austin remembers. "We just kept hearing these reports that 10 Belgian peacekeepers had been killed and the UN was pulling out and people were dying on a massive scale."

The Rwandan genocide would become one of the greatest human atrocities since the Holocaust as extremists from the ethnic Hutu majority massacred at least 800,000 minority Tutsis and Hutu moderates with gruesome efficiency while the world stood by.

As details emerged, Austin raised money in the United States and worked to get to the beleaguered African nation as soon as possible. Meanwhile, a Tutsi-led military offensive defeated the Hutu Power government in the capital city of Kigali by July 1994 and supposedly ended the genocide. But as Austin and others would learn, the violence was far from over.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed toward the eastern border of neighboring Zaire, among them the perpetrators of the genocide. Hidden inside refugee camps, Hutu militias renewed their strength and began amassing weapon caches with the quiet support of Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Austin fearlessly penetrated the militia encampments, persuading exiled Hutu military leaders to disclose how they had obtained antitank grenades and high-caliber ammunition. The list included Col. Théoneste Bagosora, considered to be a chief architect of the genocide. Her trick? Austin told them she was a researcher for the neutral-sounding Institute of Policy Studies — which was technically true — and simply needed to hear their side of the story.

"It was a really treacherous place to be," Austin said. "At the time I appeared young, nonthreatening. I didn’t often say I was with Human Rights Watch…. In any kind of organization, people are motivated by many different things. You find those sources that for some reason or another want to help out or are so ego-driven they don’t think that any information they give to you is going to be used somehow against them."

She also interviewed members of flight crews who gave her information on cargo companies hired by the Mobutu government to secretly supply its Hutu allies with weapons by falsifying official flight plans and end-user certificates, key legal requisites designed to curtail transnational arms shipments.

According to her later Human Rights Watch report, "The militias in these camps have taken control of food distribution, engage in theft, prevent the repatriation of refugees through attacks and intimidation, carry out vigilante killings and mutilations of persons suspected of crimes or of disloyalty … and actively launch cross-border raids."

What didn’t make sense was how the suspected ringleaders of the genocide could obtain weapons despite the return of peacekeepers to the area and an arms embargo on Rwanda imposed by the UN.

CIA investigators later discovered that planes belonging to Bout were involved in supplying the outlaw Hutus, according to Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun’s definitive book on Bout, Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible (Wiley, 2007).

Austin also came to that conclusion by the end of an eight-month fact-finding trip to the region carried out in 1994 and 1995. Her findings for Human Rights Watch helped propel her to international notoriety as more NGOs focused on illegal arms flows coming from private brokers.

"The Rwandan genocide was really the watershed, for me and for Bout," Austin said. "In the early years, he’s building his empire and I’m beginning to narrow what I want to investigate. I was becoming more and more convinced that in all the wars I was looking at, it was logistics. It was all about who could bring in the guns, the fuel — keep the war going."

Back then, Bout was still a bit player among many weapons suppliers working on the continent, according to Austin. But he soon did something that would significantly boost his career and help make him what another Bout pursuer once described as "the McDonald’s of arms trafficking." He switched sides and helped the new post-genocide Rwandan leadership topple the neighboring Zairian presidency of Mobutu, Bout’s own longtime client.

Zaire is known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bout would make yet more money years later aiding another warlord who attempted a violent coup inside the country, Jean-Pierre Bemba. The International Criminal Court last month charged Bemba with mass brutality and rape committed against civilians between 2002 and 2003.

"He [Bout] has no loyalty," a Bout associate told Merchant of Death authors in 2006. "His loyalty is to his balls, his sweet ass, and maybe his wallet."

Probably Bout’s most cynical move occurred in Afghanistan. At the start of his career, in the early 1990s, he allegedly maintained an intimate business relationship with commanders of the Northern Alliance, the tribal army that fought Taliban extremists for years until gaining power in Afghanistan with US help following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

US officials began openly acknowledging in 2005 that Bout earned as much as $50 million also furnishing the Taliban with military equipment during its reign over the country.

Austin’s upbringing is the antithesis of what one might expect from an international human rights investigator. The oldest of five kids, she played guitar in a country-and-western band with the rest of her siblings, embarking on tours throughout the South from their home in Richmond, Va.

"We would play for people who had no money," she said. "We’d camp out for three days just to give them some music."

In the ’60s , the family of Baptists played at small African American churches during the climax of Southern segregation and against the backdrop of racist terror. They defied the neighbors and invited black friends over for dinner or socialized with them publicly. The Austins were largely apolitical, but Kathi says her parents insisted on human decency and encouraged a basic sense of justice and rebellion.

Her exposure to the destitution of many formerly enslaved black families in the South translated seamlessly in her own mind to Africa, a continent that fascinated her. But her understanding of the continent was limited.

"I just wanted to go save Africa one day. It was what I said I wanted to do with my life when I was really young…. I had this kind of missionary zeal, this very naïve, humane impulse."

Few people in her family considered going to college, but Austin hungered for academic achievement, securing a scholarship to the University of Virginia in the late ’70s.

Civil rights turmoil at the school politicized her and transformed her deeply. A model Organization for African Unity held for college students each year at Howard University in Washington, DC had the greatest impact. She attended it devotedly for several years. After competitive debates, politicians, professors, and other experts would speak to the students about Africa’s colonialist history and the anti-Apartheid movement.

"I really began to understand a lot of the underpinnings of what was going on with the African liberation movement in South Africa," she said. "I became engrossed in it and learned a lot intellectually and got a good sense of what I thought."

Austin began to zero in on the Ronald Reagan administration’s agenda of undermining Soviet communist influence in the region. The United States covertly backed the UNITA rebels in Angola against a communist-led liberation movement there, and continued to support the white-dominated and separatist apartheid regime of South Africa.

She wanted to investigate the unsavory relationships Reagan’s White House had developed on the African continent in its crusade to defeat communism during the Cold War. But Austin was aware of only two think tanks in the capital that examined such issues and had a reputation for attracting left-leaning luminaries. One was the nonprofit National Security Archive, a repository of declassified intelligence and foreign policy documents obtained largely through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Headquartered at George Washington University, lawmakers concerned about US covert activities abroad and some of the nation’s best-known journalists, including New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh, palled around at the independent, nongovernmental research library after it was founded in 1985 by a group of muckracking reporters and scholars.

Austin’s internship there in 1988 created a new realm of possibility — solo investigations — and sparked an interest in following the intricate paper trails that accompanied her growing knowledge of Africa’s geopolitical landscape, frequent outbreaks of low-intensity conflicts, and evasive weapons procurers.

But she still had never been to Africa. "That was my big ambition," she said. "If there’s anything about me it’s that I’ve got to see for myself."

As her ties to Washington expanded, she joined a World Bank urban rehabilitation team, writing political and economic background reports on Angola in 1989, believing she could make a difference inside the ill-reputed lender to developing countries.

She didn’t, but it was enough to give her first contact. After that trip to Angola, Austin used her savings to stay behind, joining a UN mission overseeing the withdrawal of Cuban troops above the 19th parallel, who were there as a result of Angola’s years-long civil war. She later went to Mozambique on a MacArthur Foundation grant and interviewed private mercenaries operating there for a report called "Invisible Crimes" that included a simple investigative formula she would employ for years to come: What’s wrong? And who’s doing it?

"Through the years, you realize just what kind of danger she’s in," her sister, Cindi Adkins, said from Virginia. "We would go days, weeks, months without hearing from her. My mom would say, ‘We have to call the Red Cross and see if we can find out that she’s okay.’<0x2009>"

Wanting to escape Washington culture, she moved to North Beach in 1997 after becoming entranced by San Francisco’s slower pace. Between missions, she’d spend full days at Caffe Sapore on Lombard Street writing a book about arms trafficking she’s still working on today.

Stanford University’s Center for African Studies invited her to become a visiting scholar for a year, researching arms proliferation and lecturing students, while the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, did the same thing shortly afterward.

But the San Francisco–based Ploughshares Fund became one of Austin’s biggest supporters, helping her finance the creation of a local arms and conflict office for the Fund for Peace, an antiwar think tank in Washington.

"At that time, one of the areas we did a lot of funding in was the control of small arms and light weapons," said Deborah Bain, Ploughshares’ communications director. "Kathi was someone who did a lot of very courageous work tracking arms flows around the world. We were very impressed with the work she was doing and the kinds of results she was getting."

By then the UN had grown to understand the need for knowledgeable people on the ground who could travel across various war-torn African countries and gather evidence on who was vioutf8g arms embargos and how they were doing it. In the coming years, Austin served as a consultant and official expert on panels that investigated sanctions violations in Liberia, the Congo, Uganda, Burundi, Sudan, and Sierra Leone with teams of other human rights investigators who’d long followed Bout’s operations.

Her ex-boyfriend, Todd Ewing, a foreign economic development specialist and Bay Area native who began dating her in East Africa during the ’90s, described Austin as intense and ambitious. While his own blonde hair and six-foot frame made him conspicuous in the region, he said Austin’s "big brown eyes" and polite manner enabled her to slyly convince gritty characters to talk.

"Her MO at that time would be to just disappear for months [on fact-finding trips]," Ewing said. "I always liked to describe her as a sort of spy for the good guys."

Observers say that history handed the equally ambitious Victor Bout a perfect storm in 1991 at just 24 — an age when many Americans are looking for their first post-collegiate job.

The Soviet empire dissolved that year, ending the Cold War between Russia and the United States. Economic globalization expanded and gave every creative entrepreneur with good connections, criminal or legit, a chance to make a fortune. Aging Cold Warriors in the Beltway during the Bill Clinton era and later in George W. Bush’s cabinet maintained a stark binary ideological view of the world and failed to take seriously the growing threat posed by transnational criminals who had exchanged ideology for profit.

After the Berlin wall fell, corrupt Russian oligarchs infamously plundered the country’s assets as they were privatized following years of state control. Some robbed Russia’s rich oil reserves. Bout sought its military installations and airfields containing rows of cheaply available and unused commercial planes, all essentially abandoned by the central government.

Profiles of Bout put him in Angola — and possibly Mozambique — working as a translator for Russian peacekeepers when the Soviet Union broke up. US officials say Victor Anatolijevitch Bout was born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, a deeply impoverished former Soviet state, and speaks several languages.

Bout told the New York Times in a rare 2003 interview that he purchased three Antonov aircraft for next to nothing in 1992 and used them to exploit a gap in the transit market, at first ferrying innocuous cargo like flowers from South Africa to the Middle East.

But the mogul quickly fostered connections to old Eastern bloc manufacturing and storage facilities in places like the Ukraine and Bulgaria, which were filled with AK-47s — ubiquitous in the developing world — ammunition, tanks, helicopters, and other military equipment.

Over time, investigators say he erected a complex web of cargo and airline companies designed to throw off suspicion. If one firm faced too much attention from aviation authorities, another was created to hold the assets. Otherwise, bribery, fraud, and forged documents were used, according to a report on Bout created by the US Treasury Department. In many African countries, aviation regulations are weak and international law is rarely enforced.

"Unless confronted with documentary evidence to the contrary, Bout’s associates consistently deny any involvement with Bout himself or playing any role in arms trafficking," the treasury report from 2005 reads.

US officials believed by then that he controlled the largest private fleet of Soviet-era aircraft in the world and employed hundreds of people, overseen partly from a nerve center in the United Arab Emirates, at the time a fast-growing and highly unregulated intercontinental transportation hub east of Saudi Arabia.

The Treasury report and other investigations say Bout became a confidante of the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, supplying him with gunships and missile launchers. Taylor is currently on trial in the Hague for directing horrifying atrocities in neighboring Sierra Leone, ranging from widespread and extreme sexual violence to drugging and forcing children into combat.

When treasury officials here finally moved to seize Bout’s assets and bar Americans from doing business with him in 2004, they concluded that he had received diamonds extracted from Sierra Leone in exchange for supplying arms to Taylor.

That year saw one of Austin’s boldest attempts to confront the trafficking of illicit goods, on an airport tarmac in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at that time under its own arms embargo. A UN team Austin worked with uncovered piles of questionable registration records during a surprise inspection of two dozen planes, some of which fit Bout’s profile, as their Russian crews stood by, annoyed.

"I only told one or two high-ranking UN officials to get their permission, so we could be sure it didn’t get leaked out," Austin said. "None of the people involved in the actual inspection knew about it until that morning…. I’m still surprised it was so effective. I’m not sure it would work again."

International aviation rules require pilots to maintain several different types of documents, but the group found that 21 planes had invalid registration papers, two had false airworthiness certificates, and three had no insurance to speak of — telltale signs of smuggling. The group determined that weapons in the area were being exchanged for illegally mined columbite-tantalite, or coltan, a valuable mineral contained in some modern electronic devices such as cell phones.

The revelation led the UN Security Council to place Douglas Mpamo, a prominent alleged Bout manager in the region, on the DRC sanctions list, along with a pair of well-known Bout subsidiaries. With Austin’s help, another reputed top Bout lieutenant named Dimitri Popov made a similar security watch list in the United States.

Meanwhile lower-level bureaucrats in the US State and Treasury departments collected evidence on Bout for years, assisted by Austin, who occasionally met with them to relay information she had gathered on fact-finding missions. She testified to Congress about the proliferation of small arms, too, but after Sept. 11, the White House drifted away from a growing campaign to stop Bout.

"I don’t think the Bush administration should get any credit for the fact that Victor Bout was arrested," Austin said. "I think it has to do with the DEA being insulated from the policy influences of the administration. They kept the case so secret they were able to succeed. In the past, once it became an interagency issue or problem, bureaucratic inertia and turf wars entered in and always raised some obstacle to the actual pursuit of Bout."

Eventually, that bureaucratic inertia began to look like something far more shameful.

On April 26, 2005, several state and federal law enforcement agencies including the FBI, IRS, and Dallas Police Department, raided two homes and an office in Richardson, Texas, looking for evidence that Bout’s tentacles had reached the United States.

The properties belonged to a Syrian-born American citizen named Richard Chichakli, who had served in an aviation regiment of the US Army during the first Gulf War. After being discharged in 1993, Chichakli helped create a free trade zone in the United Arab Emirates.

That’s where Chichakli likely first met Bout. Chichakli later returned to the US and became licensed as an accountant and an expert in military contracting. Officials found records showing that the 49-year-old Chichakli had created American companies connected to Bout.

Also discovered during the raid were wire transfer statements showing hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time moving from Bout-connected companies in the UAE to Chichakli in Texas, and credit card invoices managed by Chichakli listing Bout’s lavish purchases at businesses serving the nouveau riche of Moscow.

The raids were the result of a July 2004 executive order signed by President Bush — who, facing pressure from the UN, authorized the raids and prohibited Americans from doing business with Bout due to his connections to Taylor in Liberia.

The White House’s action came years after Austin and other investigators compiled their own research on Bout’s role in arming African warlords. Thirty companies and four individuals were added to a blocking order as a result. Federal court records from the case include extensive references to UN reports on Bout, including some Austin worked on, like one citing witnesses who saw a Bout-connected plane transporting large volumes of arms and ammunition through a Congolese airport between February and May 2004. Something was finally being done, or so it seemed.

But Austin and her colleagues were furious to learn that the US Defense Department hired Bout’s vast air armada with taxpayer money nearly 200 times in 2004 alone to ferry supplies and construction materials into Baghdad after the start of the Iraq war.

Merchant of Death co-author Braun, a Los Angeles Times national correspondent, reported for the paper in December 2004 that two well-established Bout companies, Air Bas and Irbis, had contracted with the US Air Force and Army as well as private companies like FedEx and Kellogg Brown & Root, the much-maligned former Halliburton subsidiary. The State Department had circulated a list of Bout companies warning its officials not to use them, Braun wrote, but the Pentagon made no similar effort.

A fuel purchase agreement included in Chichakli’s court file shows that the Defense Department used Air Bas "for official government purposes" just nine days after Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold questioned top defense officials, including then–Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, about such contracts. But Wolfowitz didn’t acknowledge what he eventually characterized as the "inadvertent" use of Bout’s planes for Feingold until months later.

When Austin delved into the issue in 2005 with fellow Merchant of Death author Farah, a former West African bureau chief for the Washington Post, the pair obtained new information for an article in the New Republic showing that the US military also used Bout-controlled companies during a four-month period in 2005, long after the "inadvertent" contracting had first been publicized.

The discoveries were a major letdown for Austin. She’s discussing with some NGOs the possibility of suing the federal government for vioutf8g its own presidential executive order. But Austin knows that even if Bout lands in a US prison for life, there will be someone else to take his place. It’s already happening, she says. As dark as it sounds, Austin will never have to go without a job.

"I’ve seen so much of the same thing go on year after year," Austin said. "You just have to take it in stride and keep coming back punching and hitting. That’s just the nature of the beast, the nature of the work that I do. You just have to keep going."

2008 Bay Area Playwrights Festival

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PREVIEW Even 32 years after the Playwrights Foundation chose a young Sam Shepard for its first Bay Area Playwrights Festival in 1976, the annual celebration of the script still runs below the radar of the larger local theater-going audience. Perhaps that’s because most fans of the stage want to see a full production — with costumes, sets, and lighting design — rather than the bare-bones staged readings at the festival. Over the decades, the event has played an important role in keeping stages across the country full of vital new works and aiding the budding careers of now-established playwrights such as Pulitzer Prize–winner Nilo Cruz and Liz Duffy Adams, who won critical acclaim with 2002’s Dog Act. (SF’s Crowded Fire is currently premiering her latest, The Listener). Venture off to Fort Mason during the 10-day festival and you can check out the up-and-coming talent. Of particular interest to conspiracy theorists will be Dominic Orlando’s Danny Casolaro Died for You. In the thriller, the writer attempts to suss out the circumstances of his brother’s death. A freelance journalist, Casolaro was found dead in a hotel room in 1991 while investigating labyrinthine connections between spy software company Inslaw, US and Israeli governments, and various Islamic organizations. Marcus Gardley is another promising writer worth getting a peek at. The Yalie who made a name for himself here with the East Bay historical drama Love Is a Dream House in Lorin brings a new work, every tongue must confess, about the burning of black Baptist churches in a small Alabama town during the late 1990s. Proving that there is an art to the reading of the play, popular Bay Area director Amy Glazer takes on Whisper from the Book of Etiquette, Claire Chafee’s look into the dynamics of wooing surrogate mothers.

2008 BAY AREA PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL July 25–Aug 3. See Web site for details. Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina and Buchanan, SF. $15–$25. (415) 626-0453, ext. 105, www.playwrightsfoundation.org