Volume 42 Number 52

Merger on the march

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Originally published August 24, 2005

THE NATION’S TWO largest alternative newspaper publishers have been in intense negotiations over a merger that would create an 18-paper chain controlled to a significant extent by venture capitalists, new documents obtained by the Bay Guardian show.

The documents, which appear to be valid, include a May 27, 2005, draft of a merger agreement between Village Voice Media and New Times. They were provided by a source close to the VVM side of the negotiations.

The draft calls for the creation of a new company controlled by a nine-member board. Five of the members would come from Phoenix-based New Times and its primary venture-capital firm, the Boston-based Alta Communications.

New Times, which owns 11 newspapers including the SF Weekly, would have 62 percent of the equity in the new venture, and VVM, which owns the Village Voice and six other papers, would have 38 percent.

The documents mention a Nov. 30, 2005, date for closing the deal, but suggest that the date may have to be pushed back, in part because of federal regulatory issues.

Rumors of a possible VVM-New Times merger have been swirling for months (see “Chain Gang,” 5/25/05). Neither of the principals has denied the reports, although employees of some VVM papers have attempted to dismiss them.

But the new documents are the first concrete confirmation that talks are indeed going on, and that the two parties are close enough to agreement that they’ve circulated draft bylaws of a new limited liability corporation that would own all of the VVM and New Times papers.

As of late May there were clearly still some issues to be resolved: The documents include a memo from VVM CEO David Schneiderman complaining that New Times wants to “renegotiate the terms of our deal” and arguing that some New Times papers, including the SF Weekly and the East Bay Express, are losing a lot of money.

“In the 2004 Calendar year, SF Weekly, East Bay Express and the Cleveland Scene racked up losses of $4 million,” the memo states. SF Weekly, it says, “is locked in a brutal struggle in SF with no sign of success and the same is true in Cleveland.”

The memo concludes: “In short, they have some real losers and we don’t…. given these facts, I don’t believe a renegotiation is warranted.”

But overall, the shape of the deal appears to be fairly clear. A new Delaware-based LLC would be created, with a nine-member board. Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin, the executive editor and CEO of New Times, would each have a seat on the nine-member board, as would an Alta representative. Lacey, Larkin, and the Alta rep would then choose two more members – one of whom would be New Times chief financial officer Jed Brunst – giving New Times and its banker a 5-4 majority.

Schneiderman (who is slated, the documents show, to receive a $500,000 bonus for his work on the merger) would have a seat on the board, and the final three seats would go to Goldman, Sachs & Co., Trimaran Capital Partners, and Weiss Peck & Greer, all of whom are VVM investors.

So in the end, at least four of the board members – and possibly five – will be venture capitalists

The documents state that all but two of the board members (also called “managers”) can be removed from the board for “cause” – but “the Lacey Manager or the Larkin Manager may not be removed as Managers with or without Cause, it being understood that the sole basis on which either such Manager may be removed as a Manager shall be such Manager’s conviction of a felony.”

The documents suggest that the new company has been set up with the idea of an eventual sale: They state that, for the first three years, the company can only be sold with the consent of six of the nine board members. But over the next two years, five board members could approve a sale, and after five years, three directors could make that decision.

“In the event the Board of Managers approves a Sale of the Company … all Members shall be required and hereby agree to cooperate with and participate in such sale,” they state.

The documents also address the prospect that the SF Weekly, the East Bay Express, and the Cleveland Scene could be sold off or closed if they continue to hemorrhage cash. “[I]f at any time up to and including the Third Anniversary date, the cumulative losses for any of the [East Bay, Cleveland or San Francisco units] (brackets in original document) exceed the cumulative projected losses for such unit … the Company, with the consent of five managers, shall be permitted to dispose of such non-performing unit by merger, consolidation, sale of assets or otherwise,” they state.

The new company would be required to honor the union contracts at the Village Voice – the only paper in either chain that’s fully unionized (the L.A. Weekly has some union workers). But other employees may not fare so well. The new company “may, in its reasonable discretion, transition all employees … to new compensation, benefit plans, programs or arrangements.”

One source in New York said that “as I understand it, Larkin will be the CEO and Schneiderman will run the Internet operations. I believe the rest of the VVM corporate staff (essentially finance people) will be let go.”

A separate document, dated June 1, 2005, is titled “NT/VV Proposed Business Consolidation Agreement Issues List Reutf8g to NT Draft of Contribution and LLC Agreement.” It lists some concerns – apparently from VVM executives – about the deal.

It cites a “drop date of Nov. 30, 2005,” but notes that “[t]his is too short, obtaining HSR approval may take a long time.” That’s a reference to the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act, which requires federal approval of any merger that may have an impact on business competition.

That might not be routine: New Times and VVM have run afoul of federal antitrust laws in the past. The two chains were charged a year and a half ago with conspiring to end alt-weekly competition in Los Angeles and Cleveland (see “New Times Nailed,” 1/29/03). Under a consent decree, the companies are required for five years to give the Justice Department notice before pursuing any merger.

We’ve spoken to several sources close to the negotiations who say it’s likely that process is already under way. But the Justice Department has consistently maintained that any such notice would be confidential.

The two parties are also keeping a tight hold on the information. Staffers at VVM and New Times papers seem unaware of the details of the talks, and top management has refused to answer their questions about the situation. The agreement includes a clause stating, “No press releases or public disclosure, either written or oral, of the transactions contemplated by this agreement, shall be made by a party to the agreement without written consent of VV Media LLC and NT holdings.”

The merger would signal the biggest step so far in the consolidation of ownership in the alternative press. The merged company (which thus far is identified only by the dummy name “Newco”) would represent 14.2 percent of the membership of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and would give one chain operation control of some of the biggest media markets in the country, including New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Denver, Seattle, Phoenix, and Houston (see “SOS: No secret New Times-Village Voice Media deal, sfbg.com).

Schneiderman, Lacey, and Larkin all declined to return messages seeking comment.

The Bay Guardian is suing New Times, charging predatory pricing by the SF Weekly.

They made me realise

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› johnny@sfbg.com

This is an "I remember" groupie story about My Bloody Valentine. But I’ll try to tap into Joe Brainard’s conciseness and make certain my nostalgia has a point.

Two decades ago, when Om was a London three-piece named Loop, and Dave Segal, Michael Segal, and I were writing, typing, photocopying, and stapling a music zine called You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, the Segals and I drove from Detroit to Toronto to join an audience of 20 or 30 Canadians at MBV’s first-ever North American show. We wanted to hear the instrumental bridge of "You Made Me Realise" — the precise recorded moment when MBV rose above C86, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr., thanks to a guitar sound that levitated, compressed, and then shattered.

That night, that portion of that song was something different: a literally dizzying five-minute hurricane of noise.

When MBV played Detroit a week later, we hung out with Kevin Shields, Bilinda J. Butcher, Deb Googe, and Colm Ó Cíosóig upstairs by a piano at Saint Andrew’s Hall and interviewed them about the Lazy days of 1987’s Ecstasy and Strawberry Wine and the studio sleep deprivation that led to the breakthrough of You Made Me Realise (Creation, 1988) and Isn’t Anything (Warner Bros./Sire, 1988). Loveless (Creation, 1991) was still just an idea. Back then, Simon Reynolds, whom I interviewed for the same zine, was the group’s vanguard critical champion. In Melody Maker, he’d cite the French feminist theory of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva, replacing academic jargon with playful alliteration when discussing the soft-focus gender-blur of MBV’s music and the way it even reshaped the phallic sound of the guitar. In imitation of Reynolds and in thrall to MBV, I’d write about the "noisebliss nosebleeds" they could generate, and compare their sound (on Isn’t Anything‘s "All I Need") to a giant heartbeat during a nuclear blast.

Some scoundrel has nicked my copy of Reynolds’s 1990 book Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, but I don’t need him, Cixous, Irigaray, or Kristeva to point out why MBV were ahead of their time in 1988 and perhaps still are. Strip away their awesome sound and you’ll discover that MBV matter-of-factly brought gender equity to rock. This achievement seemed beside the point because the sound that bloomed from their masculine-feminine dynamic was so absolutely, identity-meltingly innovative. Sonic Youth and the Pixies included women playing bass, but MBV had guitarist-vocalist Butcher quietly facing down a life-threateningly abusive relationship in Isn’t Anything‘s mammothly funereal "No More Sorry," and the strapping Googe bringing a more muscular, dyke-in-a-white-T-shirt brand of bass to your face from start to finish of every song. No other band had MBV’s pleasure principle.

The last times I saw MBV were in 1991 and 1992. I went to a concert in wintry Chicago where Babes in Toyland opened, a billing that attested to the onset of riot grrrl and the fact that the United States was about to reach Nirvana — two "revolutions" that in some ways were regressions from MBV. Then I moved by Greyhound from Detroit to San Francisco, where I saw them twice — the more memorable concert taking place at the Kennel Club, now the Independent. There, the instrumental passage of "You Made Me Realise" expanded to hallucinatory dimensions, stretching for five, then 10, then 15, then 20-plus minutes. The shuddering layers of distortion piled one on top of another. A guy next to me went berserk in the maelstrom, screaming himself hoarse until his frayed vocal cords were just another part of the apocalyptic, self-annihiutf8g sound. It was an SF acid freak-out, hold the tab, no drugs necessary (not that I hadn’t done more than my share). The spirit of Comets on Fire probably emerged from that conflagration.

Now My Bloody Valentine has been revived. In fact, the slasher movie from which the group took its name has even been remade, in 3-D, for a February 2009 release. All tomorrow’s parties are composed of yesterday’s influences. I don’t even know if I’m going to see MBV this week. If I don’t, I suspect I’ll still hear their noise, or feel it, from across town. If I can touch that instrumental passage of "You Made Me Realise," I’ll grab on to a point within it. That point will be my nostalgia. It’ll levitate, compress, and then shatter.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE

Tues/30, 8 p.m., $47.50

Concourse

620 Seventh St., SF

www.livenation.com

Formed, but not reformed?

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The long-awaited reunion of My Bloody Valentine may herald another exercise in nostalgia-fueled repetition. The past few years have seen countless underground rock legends re-form for fun and profit. This usually involves an album that approximates the band’s trademarks with none of its original freshness (check Mission of Burma’s overrated Matador albums), followed by a cash-raking international tour (or, in the case of Pixies, several of them). Thankfully, the re-emergence of Portishead and the Breeders upends this hoary tradition. Both their new efforts — particularly Portishead’s Third (Mercury) — radically challenge their respective legacies with brackish, difficult interpretations. It’s difficult to hear Portishead’s metallic "Machine Gun" and think of their sweetly melancholic classic "Sour Times."

So which My Bloody Valentine will reappear this fall when Kevin Shields and company tour the states for the first time since 1992? The feedback scientists who briefly earned the title of "Loudest Band Ever," or the shaggy shoegazers who fans, including myself, know and adore?

My Bloody Valentine’s third album, 1991’s Loveless (Sire), was the apotheosis of years of guitar-noise experiments by Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Spacemen 3, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and countless other bands. In retrospect it sounds like the end of an era, arriving just before Nirvana’s Nevermind (DGC, 1991) heralded the corporatization of alternative rock. In an August 2008 story for Spin, Simon Reynolds cites dozens of promising, newish bands influenced by Loveless, including Deerhunter, No Age, Silversun Pickups, and a Place to Bury Strangers. He overstates his case: these groups aren’t just acolytes of Kevin Shields, but it’s Loveless reputation as a perfect album — from the wispy, dazed vocals of Shields and Bilinda Butcher to Shields’ droning guitars that shift ever-so-slightly, yielding one heartbreaking melodic tone after another — that makes it a touchstone for a now-bygone time that continues to fascinate us.

When great bands reunite, they usually choose to exploit their legacies for all they’re worth or ignore them entirely. Shields’ artistic meanderings — and his fruitless struggle to craft a follow-up to one of the best rock albums of the past two decades — have become the stuff of legend. Even now, with a curatorial assignment for the high-minded music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties NYC, followed by seven North American concert dates, My Bloody Valentine has only hinted at a fourth album. If this current tour is a run at the golden oldies — fuck, the band even has an official MySpace page — then it’s a tormented one.

Perhaps the inability of Shields to deal with My Bloody Valentine’s legacy neatly dovetails with the reunion trend. It’s easier to break up and disappear than stick together and, like Sonic Youth, weather the peaks and valleys of artistic creation. Similarly, it’s tougher to leave the past behind — thank god that drummer-turned-chef Greg Norton has kept Hüsker Dü from mounting a full-scale reunion — than hit the concert circuit and sing the oldies. Maybe the likes of Portishead and the Breeders point to a third way for My Bloody Valentine — though the tracks posted on its MySpace page suggest this will be unlikely. No matter which path they choose, the future is a mist.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE

Tues/30, 8 p.m., $47.50

Concourse

620 Seventh St., SF

www.livenation.com

Industrial strength

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Filmed during their 2004 US tour, Laibach’s Divided States of America DVD (Mute) gives a good idea of the freak show that comes out of the woodwork to see the group’s rare performances.

The DVD focuses on the tense political climate and general ugliness of America during the weeks following George W. Bush’s reelection, and there’s enough sardonic anti-American sentiment in it to satisfy anyone who contemplated moving to Canada on Nov. 3, 2004. Much of the documentary involves interviews with Laibach concertgoers: a motley assortment that includes a self-proclaimed Church of Satan representative, a man who identifies himself as a fascist (Laibach’s "political orientation," he confesses, "is perhaps different than mine"), and an ordinary-looking father with his two young daughters in tow.

"The beat was totally infectious," recounts another interviewee. "My body couldn’t help but move."

Few bands inspire as many different reactions as the Slovenian collective, who are touring the States for the first time since 2004 and have been around since 1980, when Slovenia was, of course, still part of Yugoslavia. Are they fascist sympathizers? Is Laibach communist? Or is it all just a big joke? At one point during the DVD, an interviewer asks the outfit about the apparent Nazi-esque garb in one of their tour posters (a Laibach member replies that it’s actually American dress the person is wearing). Another journalist asks them why they promote Jesus and Christianity (one of their albums is titled Jesus Christ Superstars [Mute, 1996]). And as the fan quoted above proves, some people just like those "infectious" beats.

I imagine Laibach enjoy seeing the confusion they create, although there have been times when it’s caused legitimate problems for them — including a ban against playing in their hometown of Ljubljana in the early 1980s and several bomb threats at concerts during the ’90s.

Just what are Laibach trying to say, though? I don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer, but all you have to do is spend a little time with their back catalog to notice recurring themes: religion, fascism, war, patriotism and nationalism, and pop music itself. They’ve spent their career mocking these institutions and -isms, largely by turning them inward on themselves, exploiting and sullying them at the same time — after all, what could be more totalitarian than those nonstop techno beats? Yet they mock in such a straight-faced manner that many people seem to miss the wit. In the largely humorless landscape of industrial music, that sensibility is perhaps Laibach’s biggest saving grace.

Last year’s Volk (Mute) resurrects many of these themes. The disc consists of electro-symphonic renderings of various national anthems, topped off by Milan Fras’s inimitable spoken-word vocals. (Anyone who thinks it’s a celebration of cultural diversity or patriotism need only refer to the liner notes, where they quote a repugnant passage from a US foreign policy memo titled "In Praise of Cultural Imperialism.") They’ve taken on the Beatles and the Stones before (1988’s Let It Be and 1990’s Sympathy for the Devil, both on Mute), but the sly message here is that these national anthems are our ultimate pop songs. Or something like that.

As usual with Laibach, much of the interest lies in Fras’s ominous-sounding, often darkly funny vocals and lyrics. But the arrangements here are among the most stirring ones they’ve come up with since Opus Dei (Mute, 1987), although admittedly, some of their intervening work suffered from gaudy production and instantly dated electronic sounds. Best of all is "Rossiya (Russia)," with its children’s choir, wiggly synthesizers, and gently sweeping strings. They’ve called themselves wolves in sheep’s clothing, and their ability to cloak their sociopolitical commentaries in such convincing garb is part of the reason they’re so provocative and so hard to figure out. I give up.

LAIBACH

Thurs/25, 9 p.m., $30

Independent

628 Divisadero, SF

www.theindependentsf.com

Another pass

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Distinguished bassist and bandleader Dave Holland plays as much as he wants, which tends to be a lot. Still, he’s catching his breath after an extensive tour with old friend Herbie Hancock following the success of Hancock’s Grammy-winning tribute to Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2007). Tour dates multiplied exponentially after the disc was surprisingly named Album of the Year by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Now after a short break, Holland hits the road again, this time leading a new band of his own. He comes to the Bay Area to perform at both Yoshi’s venues with a new full-length, Pass It On (Emarcy).

Holland’s sextet includes three horns: alto saxophonist Antonio Hart, trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, and trombonist Robin Eubanks. Pianist Mulgrew Miller and drummer Eric Harland make up the rest of the group on record, two musicians Holland specifically wanted to record with. "One of the reasons we put the project together was for me to have a chance to play with Mulgrew Miller," Holland said over the phone from his upstate New York home. "We had done a few things together, but not nearly enough to satisfy me."

Miller won’t be on the tour, though. Longtime Holland colleague and vibraphonist Steve Nelson joins the ensemble instead. Both the record and the band highlight Eubanks, who joined the SFJAZZ Collective last year. "He’s a great asset to have in the band, not only as a trombonist and musician, but also as a composer and arranger," Holland said. Eubanks contributed two originals to Pass It On.

The bandleader reorchestrates several compositions from earlier records, including "Lazy Snake," "Rivers Run," and the haunting ballad "Equality." "The piece originally was written as a musical setting for a wonderful poem by Maya Angelou with Cassandra Wilson singing the words," Holland said. "When I was thinking of music for this band, I thought it would be a nice vehicle for Antonio, and he really plays it with great feeling."

The musicians played Pass It On‘s music live before going into the studio, which Holland thinks might explain the album’s consistently dynamic pulse. "We’re trying," he said, "to record projects that are actually happening."

DAVID HOLLAND SEXTET

Wed/24–Thurs/25, 8 and 10 p.m., $20

Yoshi’s

1330 Fillmore, SF

Also Fri/26–Sat/27, 8 and 10 p.m.; Sun/28, 2 and 7 p.m., $5–$22

Yoshi’s

510 Embarcadero West, Oakl.

www.yoshis.com

Blunt “Force”

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Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

(Lucasarts; XBOX360, PS3, PS2, PSP, Wii, Nintendo DS)

GAMER Star Wars stories should start with yellow-lettered title crawls. This summer’s animated movie Star Wars: The Clone Wars thought it could do without, and it sucked. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed has a title crawl, which is good, because in addition to being a mega-hyped, third-person 3-D action game, it also contains some fascinating revelations about the history of the galaxy far, far away. The game is set between episodes III (Revenge of the Sith) and IV (A New Hope), and you play as Galen Marek, code name "Starkiller," who is Darth Vader’s secret Sith apprentice. Vader rescues Marek as an infant during the Great Jedi Purge; this affecting act of compassion concludes the game’s inspired intro level, which lets players control Vader as he lays waste to the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk.

Starkiller soon grows into a powerful dark jedi. True to the title, the gameplay focuses on the numerous ways that the force can be unleashed to wreak destruction on anyone standing in his way. The game’s Havoc physics engine and Digital Molecular Matter animation system realize a world in which almost everything can bend, break, shatter, or be tossed across the room with the wave of a midichlorian-rich finger. Like any good jedi, Starkiller is a one-person army, and dispatching waves of enemies with lightsaber, lightning, and the power of "force grip" can be immensely entertaining.

When it’s firing on all cylinders, the game is a joy, but it is frequently marred by reprehensible design decisions. Targeting with force grip is infuriatingly finicky, and the boss fights tend to culminate in cheesy "press the correct button when it flashes on the screen" mechanics. Action set pieces, like wrangling a crashing Star Destroyer using the force, might have sounded great on paper, but they end up as exercises in frustration. In contrast to Half-Life 2 and Portal, which gave gamers intuitive tools to transform the game environment before letting their creativity run wild, The Force Unleashed relies on boring, familiar force puzzles.

While most video games shoehorn lackluster plots around top-quality gameplay, The Force Unleashed is the rare game that does the opposite. The story, by project lead Haden Blackman — see our interview with him on the Pixel Vision blog — is engrossing, with cleverly developed characters and real pathos, and Battlestar Galactica vet Sam Witwer brings Starkiller to life with bar-raising motion-capture chops. Unfortunately, playing The Force Unleashed will be an experience familiar to all modern Star Wars fans: one that involves taking the good with the bad.

As the world turns

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

REVIEW American Conservatory Theater’s season opener marks the 40-year anniversary of 1968 with the well-timed if less than well-executed Bay Area premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, which from the dual vantage points of Prague and Cambridge traces revolutionary politics and counterculture between 1968’s Prague Spring and 1989’s Velvet Revolution.

Stoppard’s latest but not greatest is almost a 20th-century coda to his grand three-part saga of 19th-century revolutionaries, The Coast of Utopia, building on the famed playwright’s ongoing interest in politics, media, culture, private vs. public life, and the motor of social change. But it’s also, by his account, a more personal play he’d long been considering, based partly on his own history as a Czech World War II refugee who settled happily into English life at a tender age.

Rock ‘n’ Roll‘s protagonist — and Stoppard’s stand-in — is Jan (a genial Manoel Felciano), a visiting exchange student at Cambridge. Within the familial embrace of hardheaded, hard-line Communist don Max (Jack Willis) and his wife, cancer-racked classics scholar Eleanor (René Augesen), Jan revels wholeheartedly in English life and ’60s counterculture — particularly its music. For Jan — whose LP collection is like a precious extension of his own person — tracks from the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, and the Doors are the stuff of revelation and ecstatic community. But unlike the playwright — and despite his antipathy to stifling Soviet bloc authoritarianism — Jan returns home to Prague in 1968 after Soviet tanks roll in.

The rest of the play cuts back and forth as life goes on, with Max twice fatefully visiting an increasingly cornered Jan in the interim. In Cambridge, the seeds of the ’60s blossom in ways bleak and hopeful, shadowed by the gentle but tragic presence (offstage) of original Pink Floyd frontperson and madcap Cambridge denizen Syd Barrett, here a Pan-like figure inspiring the protective devotion of Max and Eleanor’s flower child daughter, Esmé (Summer Serafin and René Augesen), and later Esmé’s own radical teenage offspring, Alice (Serafin). In Prague, meanwhile, Jan and friends negotiate two distinct realms of opposition: the embattled dissident movement headed by Václav Havel and others, and a countercultural rock underground of disaffected youth that, despite its so-called apolitical stance, is inherently political and threatening to a totalitarian regime bent on monopolizing the social sphere.

Despite a critical edge — brought out, for example, in Max’s admirable rant against the compromises of a supposedly free press — Jan’s and the play’s embrace of Western liberalism casts a vague "end of ideology" tone, as if Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that "there is no alternative" was correct, however crude and ruthless the messenger. But the real problem with the play is its lack of sustained tension. Helmed by artistic director Carey Perloff, the production pursues an impressive visual dimension but often falls dramatically flat. Rare exceptions include a scene in Cambridge in which Max’s crude materialism — and cruder clinging to his CP card and shopworn shibboleths — runs up against the most personal of rebukes: his beloved wife’s diseased, disintegrating body, which she movingly denies can encompass her identity and humanity. Company member Augesen does fine work here, as well as in the role of grown-up daughter Esmé. By contrast, the normally brilliant Willis feels miscast as Max. He’s just not a very convincing Englishman, and the attempt is both disappointing and distracting. Sturdy work from regulars Anthony Fusco, Jud Williford, and Delia MacDougall can’t fully alleviate the overall lethargy.

A damp firecracker of a ’68 tribute, in other words, but the real show is turning out to be in the streets anyway, as the increasingly tumultuous anniversary year rocks and rolls ominously along.

ROCK ‘N’ ROLL

Through Oct. 12

Tues.–Sat., 8 p.m. (also Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.); Sun., 1 and 7 p.m., $20–<\d>$82

American Conservatory Theater

415 Geary, SF

(415) 749-2228

www.act-sf.org

Hang on

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REVIEW Sometimes dance is so dense, so fast-paced, or so convoluted you can’t grasp what the heck the choreographer had in mind. So you throw in the towel and go along for the ride. Such was the case with the Sept. 18 performance by Robert Moses’ Kin at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

The clearest of the three pieces on view, Approaching Thought, showcased most cogently why Moses’ reputation has been growing by leaps and bounds: he creates intriguing ensemble opportunities for individually strong performers. If steroid-pumped dancing shaped into formal cohesion is your cup of chai, Moses is your man. In Thought, Moses first introduced three couples individually, then let them loose into a hurricane of flips, kicks, hops, and rebounding meltdowns. They watched each other or provided backup as if in a ballet — or a rock concert. Newcomers Caitlin Kolb impressed with her integration of gymnastics into dance; Brendan Barthel, with his attack and the softest of feline jumps.

The world premiere, Toward September, could be considered the son of Thought. With nine dancers, volatile connections became more fleeting, but the web they spun was also messier. Circle, line, and star patterns periodically linked the dancers. In the second half, something like lyricism lit up a duet between Kolb and Barthel. But at a half-hour, September couldn’t sustain itself, not even with this talented group. Jokes Like That Can Get You Killed was too subtle for its own good. Dealing with the slippery topic of appropriate and inappropriate language — it’s a Stanford commission — the work was overloaded with visual, aural, and movement information. But Austin Forbord’s visuals — consisting of bobbing heads of every persuasion — were fun.

Moses collaged the program’s music primarily from online sources — which must have felt like browsing a candy shop. But the choreographer grabbed too much and made it into far too little.

magazinester

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How about that Sarah Palin? Dude, she micromassages more target markets than a genetically spliced fusion of Oprah, Dr. Phil, and an octopus Smurf. She’s ready for the covers of Time, People, and every other rag favored by the They Live set. ‘Scuse me while I hurl.

I’m not alone in the vomitorium: pepe, andy, bret, and landwolf all puke in Matt Furie’s boy’s club #2. That’s what a champagne-and-SpaghettiOs diet will do to you. Furie and his fearsome foursome avoid the sophomore slump with face-melting funnies about yoga and Alanis Morissette. They’re an iridescent, not iri-decent, flavor blast.

Elsewhere on the strip, Ed Luce’s Wuvable Oaf #0 is out, and men are lining up to pledge their love. Tips for the smitten: you better like kitties, and you’re doomed unless you have a thing for Morrissey.

The new issue of Fader sports the Tough Alliance — Sweden’s 21st-century answer to the Happy Mondays, albeit cuter — on the cover and an ad for recent cover star Aaliyah’s memorial fund inside. Dazed and Confused says good-bye to Polaroid Instamatic with help from David Lynch and David Armstrong. In the Believer, Franklin Bruno pays homage to Joe Brainard through semi-imitation.

Artforum‘s spring preview issue revealed that, for the love of god or money, the art world was more gaga for skulls than Ed Hardy. No obvious trends leap from the same mag’s brick-thick fall preview. But I like the look of Kent Monkman’s ironically idyllic pastoral paintings and a Michael Jackson sculpture by John Waters called Playdate.

Preacherless choir

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› superego@sfbg.com

REVIEW What’s wrong with anger? Nothing — it’s a perfectly cromulent human emotion. But it sure makes for awful poetry, especially if it’s poured undiluted by humor, hope, or reflection into the "frail vessel" of verse, like hydrochloric acid into Tupperware. The poem may be true, the poem may be honest — but honey, the fumes’ll kill ya. I’ll happily read another righteous anti-Dubya rant, but it better at least make me laugh, dammit.

Which is why I approach a contemporary book like State of the Union: 50 Political Poems (Wave Books) with antsy trepidation. Current events are poetry’s bait and bane — who will write the great 9/11 poem, the great Iraq Occupation poem, the great Bush empire poem? Who cares but the poet who wants to be "great"? Life’s too short for speculative canonical teleology, let alone its correct pronunciation. And then there’s the anger thing. Poems are intrinsically liberal (anybody got a good anti-abortion aubade or Turd Blossom terza rima?). And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past few years, it’s that liberals can certainly sputter with outrage. Besides, what poem isn’t political, anyway? Even a Hallmark card’s sappy innards are mawkish missiles aimed for Granny’s good graces.

So hurray for the folks at Wave Books, whose broadminded selections in State, chosen after an open call for submissions, satisfy the need for like-minded connection but don’t stint on the wry entertainment, subtle engagement, or lyrical expression. Included are some comforting big names (John Ashbery, James Tate, Michael Palmer) as well as many lesser-known but perhaps more appropriate ones. I was tickled to read new shit from Matthew Rohrer, whose electric-fork-filled debut, 1991’s A Hummock in the Malookas (W.W. Norton), still weakens my knees, and Guardian contributor Garrett Caples, whose lethally crisp contribution here, For Thom Gunn, links the great local poet’s sad, meth-addled demise to our political system’s own: "Nightmare of beasthood, snorting, how to wake." No slouching toward either Bethlehem or Gomorrah there. Also great is Tao Lin’s stickily perverse "room night," which intrudes on fragments of airy philosophical rumination with obsessive cravings for 80-cent sesame bagels smeared with peanut butter and "beautiful music created by depressed vegans."

Yes, the greatest political hits of the past eight years are here, Guantánamo and all. Lucille Clifton’s quite-famous "september song: a poem in 7 days" is the ultimate "what were you doing when the towers fell" diary, transported somehow into political heresy by her insistent invocations of "apples and honey / apples and honey." Rohrer’s "Elementary Science for Dick Cheney" and Anselm Berrigan’s "The Autobiography of Donald Rumsfeld" uproariously take those curs on directly, while Dan Bogan’s "A Citizen" is a vertiginous inventory of the twilit ironies common to "great" empires. ("There were the usual cabals / careers to be made among court intrigues / as the wheels of dynasty ground slowly through a calendar of ceremonies.")

And my favorite entry in the volume is, indeed, a rant — "Dear Mister President There Was Egg Shell under Your Desk Last Night in My Dream!" by CAConrad — one of those rambling, touching run-ons that never stops for punctuation and shouts, "HEY we’re all going to be dead in a hundred years so let’s shift the pace let’s forget about war let’s pass a Let’s Get Naked and Crazy Holiday" and then proceeds to offer the president "a good massage maybe we could go to the creek and paint secret mud symbols on our naked bodies like I used to do with my first boyfriend what happens after that will be fine you’ll see." The poem offers love, not clogged indignation.

Speak, memory

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

(1) War demands chronicling as few human endeavors do, with representations spanning from cave drawings to cell phone photographs. German experimental filmmaker Hito Steyerl considers the volatility particular to the filmic war document in her elegant short November (2004), playing in Kino21’s series "How We Fight: Conscripts, Mercenaries, Terrorists, and Peacekeepers" (kicking off Sept. 25 and continuing through October, with the last program screening Nov. 23). Steyerl’s essay-film turns on her reexamination of some spunky "feminist martial arts" footage she shot of her friend Andrea Wolf in light of the woman’s later martyrdom as a Kurdish freedom fighter. Competing renditions of Wolf commingle, each containing elements of documentary and fiction, with the only real truth being Wolf’s sublimation as a "traveling image."

(2) The YouTube hell of the footage captured in Iraq and Afghanistan — as dramatized in Brian de Palma’s angry Redacted (2007) and the damaged fictions of Michael Haneke — was perhaps foreseen by Walter Benjamin in 1936: "The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ." So it is that the crudeness of the digital loops shot by coalition forces and insurgents alike countervails the US military’s computerized advancements. "How We Fight" opens with a compilation of this undigested material: footage from both sides synthesizing an implacable wave of mutilation. Insofar as any war can be said to have a film aesthetic, Iraq’s is that of the surveillance shot — the natural complement of the conflict’s signature weapon, the IED. As if we were watching some perverted version of the Bazinian long take, we observe, in a real time blighted by dirty pixelation and distorting zooms, as a convoy approaches an explosion.

(3) In an expanding field of unprocessed moving images, the documentary increasingly sees its own role shift to that of an interpreter of visual information already at hand. How else to explain all the recent documentaries dedicated to contextualizing id-like streams of footage from the battlefield and newsroom? It remains to be seen which of these works will deliver as lasting an indictment as Winter Soldier (1971), a collectively directed project that counterposes soldiers’ colored 8mm footage from Vietnam with the mauve black-and-white of their testimonies. For "How We Fight," Kino21 screens the rarely seen Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1970), a short film that cuts to the same bone.

(4) The issue of how these films garner testimony is of paramount importance, as evidenced by Errol Morris’ problematic probe of Abu Ghraib’s "bad apples" in Standard Operating Procedure. Exemplary in this regard is Heddy Honigmann’s Crazy (1999). The Dutch filmmaker is a master interviewer who treats her subjects as autonomous beings — Honigmann isn’t afraid to prod, but she’s not after dramatic effect. In Crazy, she stitches together interviews with Dutch veterans of United Nations peacekeeping missions by asking them to share songs they associate with their deployments. The music, which ranges from Cambodian pop to Guns N’ Roses’ take on "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door," opens the channels of memory in unexpected ways and midwifes the guarded soldiers toward reflection and emotion. The passages in which Honigmann holds close-ups of the veterans listening to their songs possess a plaintive mystery unavailable to Morris’s occupied camera.

(5) In the singular, combat films of all kinds often extol the false premises and ideals endemic to war. But taken as a collective enterprise, war documentaries pull back the curtain on the state-sponsored stagecraft and reveal the threads connecting disparate battles. We’re ever reminded that "only the dead have seen the end of war." But if we take Hito Steyerl’s spin through one particular labyrinth of war-scarred images at face value, even they may not be safe.

"HOW WE FIGHT PROGRAM ONE: IRAQI SHORT FILMS"

Thurs/25, 8 p.m., $6

Through Nov. 23

Artists’ Television Access

992 Valencia, SF

www.atasite.org, www.kino21.org

Dirty young man

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The man himself would probably enjoy his artistic evolution being described as ass-backward. After a few years’ absence, Italian director Tinto Brass re-emerged in the late 1970s with two world-class sleaze hits — Nazisploitation opus Salon Kitty (1976) and the notorious Penthouse-produced Caligula (1979), which he and scenarist Gore Vidal disowned (for different reasons). Thereafter he settled into glossy softcore romps whose fetish focus made him cinema’s Trunk-Junk Laureate to Russ Meyer’s Bard of Boob. Now 80-something, Tinto enjoys the long-running dirty-old-man status change of national embarrassment to cultural institution.

Yet before finding his professional-ogler niche, Brass was a young artist of the ’60s — doing that Marx-and-Coca Cola thing like everyone else, stirring together the avant-garde, genre trash, and whatnot. He made not one but two films with the era’s socialist It couple, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero; a spaghetti western called Yankee (1966); and several anarchic movies as distinctively of their countercultural moment as a Peter Max poster.

Two such works get a rare big-screen unearthing in this week’s YBCA mini-retrospective "Psychotic and Erotic: Rare Films by Tinto Brass." They recall a time in which no op-art design, split-screen image, cineast in-joke, or gratuitous Holocaust insert was beyond reach of a wide-open European commercial market where radical capitalists like Brass could cut creative teeth.

The quasi-giallo Deadly Sweet (1967) sets lovebirds Jean-Louis Trintignant and Ewa Aulin (a Miss Teen International who would next incarnate Terry Southern’s porn ingenue Candy and endure costar Marlon Brando’s alleged pawings) in Swinging London, pursued by kidnappers, blackmailers, police, and one mean dwarf. If a fashion-shoot montage doesn’t remind you of the prior year’s Blow Up, that film’s poster is glimpsed for good measure.

Arbitrarily switching from color to black-and-white, this giddy lark remains your sole chance to witness the Conformist (1970) and Z (1969) star delivering a Tarzan yell while playing drums in his underpants, let alone enduring eyebrow torture. Its ending eerily anticipates 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, once intended for Trintignant. (Brando’s buttery costar Maria Schneider later stormed out on more degradation as Caligula’s original female lead.)

Even prankier, 1970’s The Howl arrives at a Hippie Trail internationalism as ideologically pure as it is hindsight-campy. More a trippy lifestyle statement than a coherent political one, it runs Chaplinesque Gigi Proietti and flower-child Tina Aumont through a gauntlet of surreal Bunuel/Jorodowsky/Arrabal–esque horrors, including animal slaughter, historical atrocity clips, and mime. Spoken placards inform "Contemplation is bourgeois attitude" and "Anger must explode. Hate must burst!" Papism is ridiculed, though madonna/whore equations go unexamined. (You can take the artist out of Italy, but … )

This agitprop fantasia eventually wears one out. Still, how can one dislike any movie that "ends" with a giant onscreen question mark that keeps doodling along, just to mess with ya? That’s the Tinto Brass a Vanessa Redgrave could call comrade. The subsequent auteur of Paprika: Life in a Brothel (1991) — not so much.

"PSYCHOTIC AND EROTIC: RARE FILMS BY TINTO BRASS"

The Howl, Wed/24, 7:30 p.m.; Deadly Sweet, Sun/28, 7:30 p.m., $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

www.ybca.org

Pwned

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› superego@sfbg.com

SUPER EGO "I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but I like it!" some hot soul shrieked at me outside the club. That’s totally my new self-affirmation T-shirt because, like, what’s with all the negative exacerbations in the world — not just in the shivery politisphere, but in the Zany Land of Nightlifez, too?

Most of my friends got canned from the Transfer so it could redirect itself, and 222 Club got sold so its fabulous owners could move on to bigger things — both unfortunate events that effectively ended a few of my fave parties and a lot of my free drinks. The Attack of Gargantuan Overpriced Ultralounges from Planet Douchebag Airbrushed Clothing continues, with three slated to open downtown by the end of the year. The great Steve Lady, the first Miss Trannyshack, passed away. And who isn’t packing a teeny pink dildo-shaped spritzer of mace in their Chrome clutch these days, what with all the violence after dark?

Life can sometimes seem like it dropped your bag in the toilet or shot your wolf from a plane. But then it’s time to spin around, put one slender hand on your one slender hip, yell "FAIL, motherfucker," and just own that shit like a kicky hairstyle. Give me back my wolf! Get me a new bag! Then call me a cab! I’m going to these parties.

HOT CHIPS


Now that Trannyshack has ended, the race to fill hostess Heklina’s humongous vacuum is on! (Ew.) In primed pole position is belovedly ditzy Cookie Dough, whose stubblebrity-studded drag implosion Monster Show (www.cookievision.tv) now splats its gender-clown intestines against the walls of Underground SF every Monday night. On Sept. 29, Miz Dough will throw a costume party laced with wrong/wrong performances to celebrate four years of … well … something. Who the hell knows what’s gonna happen, but it’ll be wearing fabric that hurts glaciers when it’s burned.

Fri/29, 9 p.m., $5. Underground SF, 424 Haight, SF. (415) 864-7386, www.undergroundsf.com

ALL THE LOVE


Oh yes, LoveFest comes gloriously upon us Oct. 4 (www.sflovefest.org), but there’ll be some real love going down at Supperclub the Thursday beforehand, when LoveFest pre-party Pendana — Swahili for "to love one another," duh — brings together a massive roster of well-known local DJs to benefit NextAid (www.nextaid.org), an LA joint that helps out African kids. Jenö from Back2Back, Kontrol’s Alland Byallo, Fil Latorre and Javaight from Staple, and a host of others will provide some juicy tech-house tunes. You bring the love and ducats.

Oct. 2, 9:30 p.m., $10 with RSVP to events@nextaid.org. Supperclub, 657 Harrison, SF. (415) 348-0900, www.supperclub.com

KUDUROS TO YOU


Last week in this very publication I wrote a sorta know-it-all article about the underground musical movements that have taken over US dance floors — but I must still be rolling down from that magic cap I chewed in ’02 since I forgot to mention the whole baile funk/electro-cumbia/digi-samba thing. Which is sad, because I adore it. Now it’s time to add kuduro — a faster, blippier, more air-horny version of baile funk originating in Angola — to the go-go global genre stew, as nuevo Latino electro party Tormenta Tropical teams up with disco sweethearts Body Heat to host a live blast from floor-thumping Portuguese kuduro kings Buraka Som Sistema (www.myspace.com/burakasomsistema). Also on tap: local fave-ravers Lemonade, who bring a brainy, rocky Brazilian twist to the bass bins. Muito louco!

Oct. 3, 10 p.m., $10. Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, SF. (415) 552-7788, www.elbo.com

Sunrise, sunset

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› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea,

My boyfriend is 30 years older than me. I am in my late 20s and he is in his late 50s. We are very much in love and the sex is pretty good. (We have both had many partners before each other.) I don’t have a father complex or anything like that. We both come from standard middle-class families. He has never been married and has no children.

We have been together a while and are thinking about getting married. But I have two concerns. How much longer will he be able to get it up? And, if we get married, we would want to have children some time in the future. I have heard that the father’s age counts too when calcuutf8g the risk of birth defects. He is very healthy and youthful. What do you think?

Thanks,

Older and wiser?

Dear Older:

I am far from a hopeless romantic, but I do believe in love, of course, and I cheer on the occasional blind leap of faith as long as I’m not the one who has to do the leaping. I have to admit that I’d tend to wonder why, exactly, a man in his late 50s has never been married, and I’d wonder just how many new tricks such an old dog is going to be willing to learn. Particularly about having children. He knows about the sleep deprivation and the postponement of personal gratification and the mess and the noise, right? And that’s just the baby years. I’m hoping you’ve also discussed the hard part, that is, the possibility that he will not be around or, if around, not up to participating much when your baby is contemputf8g grad school. I’m an older parent myself, and believe me, I have all the sympathy in the world. But 60 is hella older — too old for any of this blind leap of faith business. You’ve got to talk about this stuff.

Assuming you have, and that the built-in risks are A-OK with both of you — and that you’ve worked out your contingency plans — I wouldn’t let visions of future flaccidity stop you. Most men slow down a little as they age (this is probably already in evidence), and nearly all will require more stimulation. A lot of men are going to need some fairly aggressive physical interaction where once a peek or even a thought was enough. But so what? You want to touch him, right? Anyway, he isn’t a cyborg designed for planned obsolescence — i.e., he isn’t going to shut off at 65 and force you to buy the new model. Our declines tend toward the gradual.

I know the expected thing here would be a long discussion on how much better older men are, what with the increased patience and the focus shifting from themselves to you and the fingers and the tongues. And all that is true, but I figure if you were asking specifically about the hard-ons, you had a reason (beyond hoping he can knock you up) and you don’t necessarily want a future of patient, sophisticated fingers and tongues and no penis. Some women like the penis! The penis is good! If he’s in decent health and doesn’t have to take beta-blockers or anything, though, you shouldn’t have to worry about going without for a good long time. Sixty-ish is old for a new dad, but it’s extremely young for an old guy. How’s that?

But what if the inevitable slow down does turn into a total shut down? Luckily, there is really remarkably effective medical intervention available, but you might want to make sure he’d be on board for that. You should both remember that Viagra and friends don’t always work, and there are drugs he could be on that contraindicate them. None of this is pleasant to talk about, but I somehow doubt you’re the only one in this ménage who’s wondering what will happen if (when, really) he can’t get it up. He might like to know that you won’t turn him out to pasture the first time and take up with the next young stud who jumps your fence. You won’t, right?

The worry about the birth defects: well, that’s real. You’ll see different figures, but most articles from reputable sources say that there is a definite rise in the incidence of Down syndrome and other genetic disorders with older fathers, especially when the mothers are older as well, as is frequently the case. The overall incidence of genetic disorders is still really low though, which is easy to forget when you’re reading about the percentage increase in cases of such-and-such. I wouldn’t think it’s high enough to dissuade an otherwise determined couple from having a kid, and I’m certainly not going to attempt to do so. What you do need to do, though, is decide what you will do if you determine that you are carrying a fetus with a genetic disorder. A blind leap of faith is all well and good as long as all the participants are consenting adults. But a baby, even a potential baby, needs a plan.

Love,

Andrea

Got a salacious subject you want Andrea to discuss? Ask her a question!

Also, Andrea is teaching! Contact her if you’re interested in (sex)life after baby classes. Her new blog is at www.gogetyourjacket.com, but don’t look there for the butt sex. There isn’t any.

P is for power grab

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› sarah@sfbg.com

Mayor Gavin Newsom wants voters to believe that Proposition P, which seeks to change the size and composition of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA) board, will lead to more efficiency and accountability.

But Prop. P’s many opponents — who include all 11 supervisors, all four state legislators from San Francisco, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, the Sierra Club, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the San Francisco Democratic Party, and the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club — say that the measure would hand over billions of taxpayer dollars to a group of political appointees, thereby removing critical and independent oversight of local transportation projects.

Currently, the Board of Supervisors serves as the governing body of the TA, a small but powerful voter-created authority that acts as a watchdog for the $80 million in local sales tax revenues annually earmarked for transportation projects and administers state and federal transportation funding for new projects.

As such, the TA holds considerable sway over the capital projects of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA), which operates Muni and has a board composed entirely of mayoral appointees. Prop. P would give the mayor more control over all transportation funding, which critics say could be manipulated for political reasons.

As Assemblymember Mark Leno told the Guardian, "This is a system of checks and balances that seems to be working well." And, as Sen. Carole Migden put it, "if it ain’t broke, don’t mess with it."

But if Newsom gets his way and Prop. P passes, the TA’s board will shrink to five elected officials in February — and Newsom will be one of them.

TA executive director José Luis Moscovich told us it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have the mayor on the agency’s governing board. "But that’s different from taking the board from 11 to five members," Moscovich said. "And how would the districts be represented equally?"

Since the TA has only 30 staff members, compared with the MTA’s 6,000 employees, Moscovich finds it hard to see how overhauling his agency would result in greater efficiency.

"Our overhead is 50 percent less than the MTA’s," Moscovich said. "We are subject to all kinds of oversight. This is a sledgehammer to a problem that doesn’t require it."

Tom Radulovich, an elected BART board member and the director of the nonprofit Livable City, believes that personality and policy questions lie at the heart of Newsom’s unilateral decision to place Prop. P on the ballot.

"The mayor doesn’t get along with the Board of Supervisors," Radulovich told us. "The way things stand, the mayor effectively controls the MTA, and the board effectively controls the TA. The mayor would like not to have to deal with the board."

This isn’t the first time a merger has been suggested, and this isn’t even the first time it’s come up this year.

In February, MTA chief Nathaniel Ford suggested the merger, with the MTA in charge. At the time, Newsom was under intense scrutiny for dipping into a million dollars’ worth of MTA funds to pay his staffers’ salaries. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that taking over the TA was not his idea and not something his office planned to pursue.

But shortly after that, Sup. Jake McGoldrick tried and failed to qualify a measure that would have divided the power to nominate members of the MTA’s board between the mayor, the president of the Board of Supervisors, and the city controller.

Newsom retaliated with Prop. P, which would replace the TA board with the mayor, an elected official chosen by the mayor, the president of the Board of Supervisors, an elected official chosen by the board president, and the city treasurer.

While Newsom was honeymooning in Africa, mayoral spokesperson Nathan Ballard turned up the heat by criticizing the supervisors for spending TA funds on routine travel expenses and office supplies.

"I don’t understand why money that is supposed to go to roads is going to couches and cell phones for members of the Board of Supervisors," Ballard told the San Francisco Examiner. But according to public records, Newsom himself charged $14,555 in expenses to the TA while he was a supervisor and a TA board member, from 1997 through 2003.

Jim Sutton, an attorney who served as treasurer in both of Newsom’s mayoral campaigns, has formed a committee to support Prop. P, ironically called Follow the Money.

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition executive director Leah Shahum, whom Newsom appointed to, then fired from, the MTA board last year, said that the TA has a strong record, not only of tracking dollars and winning matching funds at the state and federal levels, but also of making sure that the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians are represented.

"The system we have now is also the most protective of our dollars," Shahum said, noting that the TA is stringent about recipient agencies’ meeting deadlines and keeping costs in check.

Moscovich warned that it’s important that the city quickly move on from the battle over Prop. P, in light of the ongoing financial meltdown on Wall Street and the federal government’s bailout plan.

"This financial tsunami that hasn’t hit us yet will make it harder to borrow money to complete engineering projects," Moscovich predicted. "So it’s important that we get beyond this and show a unified front, so that our credibility as a city is not in danger."

Capitalizing on science

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› steve@sfbg.com

The new California Academy of Sciences, which opens to the public Sept. 27, combines creatively reimagined old standards such as the Morrison Planetarium and Steinhart Aquarium with a strong new focus on climate change and imminent threats to the planet’s biodiversity.

"That’s why I call it a natural future museum instead of a natural history museum," Greg Farrington, the academy’s executive director, told journalists on Sept. 18 at the start of a press tour of the new facility.

The facility was built with roughly equal amounts of public and private money. Yet when visitors show up for the opening weekend’s festivities, they’ll be told they have Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to thank for the museum’s opening, which includes free admission on the first day.

The central role that PG&E bought for $1.5 million has included lots of signage at the museum, prominent mention in academy press releases, subtle plugs to journalists by museum staffers, and a spot on the five-person panel of academy leaders that addressed the assembled media.

The private utility company’s high-profile opportunity to be associated with science, progress, and environmental concern comes as PG&E is spending many millions of dollars to defeat Proposition H, the Clean Energy Act, and after decades of regularly lobbying against higher environmental standards for utilities.

"I think it’s a perfect example of PG&E greenwashing its image and trying to associate itself with environmentally friendly policies," Aliza Wasserman of the activist group Green Guerillas Against Greenwashing told the Guardian. "PG&E is the very institution that can implement the technology we know we need to deal with this environmental crisis, and they haven’t been doing so."

Ironically, while regular PG&E mailers decry local government’s supposed untrustworthiness and warn against granting the city a "blank check" to issue revenue bonds to pursue public power projects, San Francisco taxpayers and government were the major sponsors of the museum’s rebirth.

In addition to $120 million in revenue from SF-voter-approved general obligation bonds (paid back by all city taxpayers, unlike revenue bonds, which are repaid through an identified revenue source), the Academy of Sciences got $30 million in state and federal grants and receives $4.8 million from the city’s General Fund each year.

"The hypocrisy," Wasserman said, "is striking."

FRAGILE PLANET


From the cutting-edge living roof through the steamy simulated rainforest and down to the rippling walls of the basement aquarium area, this is a truly stunning facility that has earned its many accolades. Yet PG&E’s involvement seems to undercut the academy’s new focus on climate change, which pervades many of the exhibits.

"Altered State: Climate Change in California" is an exhibit that takes up much of the museum’s main floor, including many eye-opening, interactive displays and poignantly featuring the bones of both an endangered blue whale and the extinct Tyrannosaurus rex to drive home the alarming call to action.

"In California, our climate, our way of life, and our economy will all be affected by climate change," Carol Tang, director of visitor interpretive programs, told journalists during the tour, adding, "The T. rex reminds us that mass extinctions have happened and we’re in a mass extinction right now."

Yet as she discussed the academy’s climate change research and advocacy role on the issue, she also noted the important involvement of Bay Area universities, Silicon Valley technology innovators, and PG&E, which contributed some clean technology gizmos to the exhibit.

Next, journalists were ushered into Morrison Planetarium for the debut of "Fragile Planet," an academy-produced show that lets viewers tour the cosmos and includes scary information about global warming and the need to aggressively address the problem by turning our expansive scientific inquiries inward toward saving the planet.

Afterward, journalists were offered a question-and-answer session with a panel of experts that included Farrington; the academy’s chief of public programs, Chris Andrews; architect Kang Kiang; Peter Lassetter, a principal with Arup, which did engineering work on the building; and, incongruously, Hal LaFlash, the director of emerging clean technology policy at PG&E.

I asked about the academy’s new focus on climate change and why the venerable institution had allowed PG&E to play such a central role. I got a nonresponsive answer from Farrington, who said, "PG&E sells power because we all want power" and "The most important wells in the future aren’t going to be oil wells, but wells of the mind."

LaFlash insisted that PG&E is one of the greenest utility companies in the country, an early sponsor of the landmark climate change legislation Assembly Bill 32, and that the utility is currently working on wind and solar projects throughout California. I noted that PG&E is also currently building four new fossil-fuel-powered plants in California, but then decided to avoid turning the session into an argument about PG&E.

Wasserman pointed out that PG&E now gets less than 1 percent of its power from solar and 2 percent from wind, and that the company’s involvement with AB 32 helped water down the bill and protect PG&E’s heavy investment in nuclear power. She also noted that PG&E is failing to meet state mandates of 20 percent renewable power by 2010.

By contrast, the Clean Energy Act would mandate a more rapid switch to renewable energy sources, calling for 51 percent of the energy powering San Francisco to come from renewable sources by 2017 and 100 percent by 2040. PG&E is aggressively opposing the measure, focusing on its call for a study of public power.

Academy spokesperson Blair Shane sought to minimize PG&E’s role when I asked her about how the institution seemed to be helping the utility greenwash its image, saying the company was simply playing a role in the opening festivities and not influencing content at the museum: "We feel really good that our content is being driven by the scientists."

LIVING ROOF


Since its founding back in 1853, the California Academy of Sciences has been a respected research institution, a popular museum, and a political player in the community. With powerful friends, it resisted an effort in the 1990s to move the museum out of the park and successfully fought for a new parking garage and against creating more car-free spaces in the park.

The academy is a living, dynamic institution, much like the building’s signature living roof — and subject to the same kinds of hard choices in coming years about whether to emphasize scientific purity or pursue more pragmatic pathways.

After touring the museum, I did a telephone interview with Paul Kephart, CEO of Rana Creek, which designed the roof and wanted to simulate a local ecosystem of flora and fauna that went through natural life cycles, including periods of death and decay.

"Selling the idea to the academy and the board was one of the most challenging aspects of the project," Kephart said.

He explained that the idea is to maintain the roof using an irrigation system for the first couple years, until it establishes itself, then remove the irrigation and stop actively tending the space, letting nature take over, even if that means weeds.

"I think that’s a good thing," he said. "The roof should be allowed the opportunity for nature to express itself and be less controlled and more adaptive to climate and environment…. I always saw the roof as an experimental design."

Yet it’s also an integral part of the building’s design and aesthetics, and the academy has not yet decided how much of the roof will be allowed to go natural and how much will be managed. Kephart said it has amazing research possibilities because "nature will have the most influence on how the roof will behave."

Similar choices were at play in other parts of the museum, such as the Steinhart Aquarium, which was designed by the New York City firm Thinc.

"The whole idea underlying the aquarium is, this is an institution that studies the natural world," Thinc president Tom Hennes told me at the academy. While the new aquarium is larger than its predecessor, a few of its more ambitious plans — such as an open ocean exhibit and twice as many dive stations as the current five — were scaled back.

"Any exhibit starts with a huge dream," Hennes said. "Then you whittle it down to size."

Newsom’s problem with affordable housing

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OPINION No mayor in modern San Francisco history has opposed more affordable-housing initiatives than Gavin Newsom. It’s time to make him pay the political price.

Newsom is the primary foe of Proposition B, which would create an affordable-housing fund in the city’s budget. At a time when fewer than 1 in 10 San Franciscans can afford the cost of a median-priced home and some 40 percent of all tenants spend 50 percent or more of their income on rent, the mayor’s position is a civic tragedy.

There’s currently only about $3 million permanently budgeted to affordable housing in the city’s $6 billion budget. Proposition B would increase that to about $30 million. Half of the funds would go to the construction of homes of two bedrooms or more for families with dependents, and 40 percent would be earmarked for homes affordable to people earning $18,000 a year or less (including seniors, people with AIDS, people at risk of homelessness, and our neighbors with other special needs).

The measure is supported by the Democratic Party, the Labor Council, the Sierra Club, and more than 50 other neighborhood, community, and environmental organizations.

Newsom’s opposition to Prop. B has to be placed in the context of his opposition to every major affordable-housing initiative proposed by either the Board of Supervisors or neighborhood residents over the past five years. Newsom and his administration opposed affordable-housing mandates for the Hunters Point Shipyard, proposals to increase affordable-housing fees for market-rate developers in the Market/Octavia Plan area, and increased affordable-housing fees for developers of the high-rise luxury condos at Rincon Hill. And, in a stunning display of arrogance and indifference, he refused to allocate some $30 million appropriated for affordable housing by the Board of Supervisors last year — and then held a campaign-style rally in support of that refusal, arguing that the city already spent enough on affordable housing!

Last month, Newsom’s Planning Commission passed on to the Board of Supervisors an Eastern Neighborhood Plan under which less than a quarter of the new units would be affordable to anyone earning less than $120,000. The city’s own General Plan says San Francisco needs nearly two-thirds of all new units to be affordable if the city is to house its own workforce — a key requirement in any green, "smart growth" development policy of the type the mayor says he favors.

Newsom claims his opposition to Prop. B stems from his concern about set-asides in the budget. Yet Newsom, as mayor and supervisor, has supported every other set-aside placed on the ballot. It’s just affordable housing that he opposes — even though Prop. B, which sunsets after 15 years, would account for less than 2 percent of the budget over that period and would leave some $47 billion in discretionary funds on the table.

The fact that Newsom has paid no political price for his continuous opposition to affordable housing is stunning. It’s time to change that — pass Proposition B with a resounding yes vote this November.

Calvin Welch is a member of the campaign for San Francisco Housing Fund — Yes on B and a longtime affordable-housing advocate.

Changing buses

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› news@sfbg.com

It seems as though whatever changes to the Muni system the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency adopts, some people on the buses are bound to be upset. That decision could come as soon as next month, when the agency will consider acting on recommendations from its Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP) studies.

The proposed changes were presented to the SFMTA board of directors Sept. 16, when many riders weighed in with criticisms that their routes were being cut or changed as part of the first major overhaul of Muni since its inception more than 25 years ago.

Depending on whether the recommendations are approved in October or the decision is delayed, the changes to a system that has about 700,000 daily riders won’t happen until summer or fall of next year. At the end of the Sept. 16 hearing, board chair James McCray Jr. requested that a subcommittee be formed to integrate the concerns of the 107 people who made public comments into the final plan.

The stated goal of the TEP is to revamp Muni into a "faster, more reliable, and more efficient public transit system for San Francisco." But with a finite pool of money, improving some lines means taking resources from others, and that means controversy.

"If only 1 percent of our ridership shows up to make a comment, that’s 7,000 people," Julie Kirschbaum, TEP program manager, told us.

One was Evelyn Landahl, a 90-year-old resident of Laguna Honda who was upset about changes to the 36 line. "I know there are students who use this bus to get to City College and San Francisco State as well," Landahl said. "As we older people leave this world, those kids will run out of gas some day. They’ll need buses and services."

Mark Christensen, vice president of the Merced Extension Triangle Neighborhood Association, told the agency that "residents have not had a true voice in determining what is best for our community." He criticized the TEP’s public outreach efforts, saying that the agency didn’t do enough in certain areas, particularly his Merced Heights neighborhood, which would see disrupted service with changes to the M and J lines.

Jim Kirk, who lives in Noe Valley and travels by a combination of car and Muni, decided to attend the Sept. 16 hearing to express support for changes to the 48 line that would eliminate sections of the route. "There are too many buses, at least in my neighborhood," he said. "To me that’s overkill." As a taxpayer, he said, he is concerned about reducing Muni costs.

The proposed modifications to the 36 line have triggered major debate. Some hearing attendees said there is no reason why a bus with such a low ridership should travel an already congested street. They claimed that there are as few as six and no more than nine riders on the 36 at any given time.

Additional route adjustments that have generated concern among riders, residents, and other stakeholders involve the 66 Quintara, the 38 Geary, the 3 Jackson, the 48 Quintara, the 17 Park Merced, the 18 46th Ave., the 26 Valencia, the 27 Bryant, and the 39 Coit.

Kirschbaum said that Proposition A, which voters passed last November, will be the main source of funding for improvements to the Muni system.

From parking to parks

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› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY It’s a typical San Francisco love affair: boy meets boy, they fall in love, and 18 years later, they get married. But not in City Hall, and not in a crowded banquet room with a dance floor and a DJ. Instead they wed in a 9-by-18-foot parking space in front of their home in the Lower Haight. No, they’re not crazy. Just crazy in love — with each other, and with PARK(ing) Day. On Friday, Sept. 19, Jay Bolcik and Michael Borden made both love affairs official.

(PARK)ing Day, a San Francisco–born event now spreading around the world, takes place every September when people transform metered parking spaces into public parks — or in Bolcik and Borden’s case, a marriage locale — for the day, or at least until the meters expire. The point? Event organizers say that more than 70 percent of San Francisco’s downtown area is designated for private parking, and 24,000 metered spaces exist throughout the city. It’s about time we reclaim the streets for the public, clearing more space where folks can gather to chat, make friends, and celebrate community parks. At least this was the thinking behind PARK(ing) Day when Bay Area–based art collective REBAR developed the idea in 2005.

"It was motivated by the spirit of generosity and public service," says director Blaine Merker, thinking back to when the group’s artists stumbled upon a sunny spot that was perfect for a park, but dedicated for a vehicle, in November 2005. They plunked their change into its meter and built a grassy hangout, and as a result expanded the public realm for a whole two hours. "We provided an additional 24,000 square-foot-minutes of public open space that Wednesday afternoon."

The effect was outstanding, and the word about PARK(ing) Day spread to metropolitan areas across the globe. This year thousands of mini-grasslands and lounging areas proliferated in 600 vehicle-inhabited regions worldwide, including first-time participant the Dominican Republic.

San Francisco’s metered spaces were filled with everything from a lemonade stand to a quaint outdoor living room setup, complete with a Scrabble board, a coffee table covered with magazines, and even a dog. "The meter man didn’t know what was going on," says PARK(ing) Day buff Ariane Burwell. She spent the day on a 12-foot hunk of grass she’d purchased at Home Depot and stuffed into a Toyota Camry that morning before settling in Chinatown. Kid-size plastic chairs with the words "have a seat" on them lined her turf. Aware of the going rate for this precious real estate (25¢ for six minutes), some strangers dropped their extra coins into her meter as they passed. One Good Samaritan even went to the bank and brought back an entire roll of quarters.

Since 2005, San Franciscans have honored this unique holiday not only by creating mini–public parks but also by raising awareness about certain societal issues. In 2007, CC Puede, a grassroots coalition dedicated to making Cesar Chavez Street safe, used its PARK(ing) spaces on the corner of Cesar Chavez and Valencia streets to provide free food and health exams.

And this year, in light of the upcoming election, some activists even used their spots as political venues. Bolcik and Borden chose to marry in their PARK(ing) space because — in addition to the fact that City Hall was booked — they think it’s part of a societal evolution that includes acceptance for same-sex marriage, which they hope California voters will affirm in November. Two No on Proposition 8 campaigners stood front and center at the ceremony, and many curious bystanders and media professionals were gathered along the sidewalk, which proved REBAR’s point: (PARK)ing Day has become about more than making an individual statement. It’s about promoting change.

After the ceremony, the two bald, salt-and-pepper-bearded men stood arm in arm in their wedding space and discussed what PARK(ing) Day means to them. Borden’s eyes were glassy with tears. "It’s a great way to bring people together," he said. Later he turned to his new husband and added, "I’m honored to stand here at home, in a city that I love, with my partner of 18 years."

Editor’s Notes

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› tredmond@sfbg.com

District elections changed everything. You can see it in the interviews we’ve been doing with candidates for supervisor. Ten years ago, most of the incumbents were political hacks, bought and paid for by the mayor and downtown. So were most of the serious candidates challenging them.

We didn’t tape the interviews back then, but I remember them well: we spent a lot of time arguing with people, trying desperately to find some reason why people who had raised more than a quarter of a million dollars to run for citywide office might possibly be worth endorsing. We spent hours arguing among ourselves about who was the least awful, trying to count to five or six to fill a slate, knowing that some of the candidates we were backing had no chance of winning — or that they were, at best, marginally acceptable.

Now almost every district has good candidates: people who have roots in the communities they want to serve, people with credible ideas about addressing the city’s problems — people who seem to be more interested in progressive policies than in making the mayor or campaign contributors happy. The problem we have this year, in some districts anyway, is not finding one tolerable candidate — it’s choosing between several very good ones.

Check it out for yourself: all of the interviews this year are on the Web, at our sfbg.com Election Center.

Of course, there are still some people who don’t get it. Sue Lee, who was once an aide to a district-elected supervisor named Nancy Walker, told us she thinks the last at-large board was better than this board, and that she’d support some sort of modification (read: repeal) of district elections.

(Excuse me, Sue: that last board was the group that then–mayor Willie Brown referred to as his "mistresses" who needed to be "serviced.")

And downtown hates the district board, because money can’t control district supervisors. So I think we’ll keep hearing about a repeal effort. I understand there are already focus groups being convened on the subject. I would never support a candidate who wasn’t fully, completely, aggressively committed to district elections — but I think it’s also important to support candidates who are going to make a functioning, as well as activist, board.

Lee also sounded like a Ronald Reagan administration official at an Iran-Contra hearing; she couldn’t remember which Pacific Gas and Electric Co. official had told her to oppose the Clean Energy Act, and she had a hard time taking a stand on anything else. Ron Dudum was even tougher to pin down. We spent an hour asking him to say he was in favor of or against any policy at all — anything — and we got absolutely nowhere. (Oh, he thinks the city has a spending problem, not a revenue problem, but he couldn’t tell us what he would cut.)

Eva Royale, who is running in District 9, told us she supports public power but opposes Proposition H. Huh?

Ahsha Safai, who is running in District 11, sent me an e-mail that said he couldn’t be bothered to come in for an endorsement interview. Joe Alioto, who is running in District 3, never returned my phone calls. That’s just lame; even Mayor Gavin Newsom, whom we criticize almost every week, comes down to talk to us at endorsement time.

We’ll come out with our recommendations Oct. 8. But for a preview of how it’s going, check out the Election Center. Never a dull moment.

Volume 42 Number 52 Flip-through Edition

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An economic locavore policy

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EDITORIAL Local food is all the rage in San Francisco these days. The locavores and the slow-food people held a conference at Fort Mason a couple of weeks ago that drew huge crowds. Mayor Gavin Newsom is on board, and he loves to talk about creating a sustainable San Francisco. There are people in town who talk about energy independence, who talk about shopping locally, about building a city where people can live and work without using private cars.

We’re all for it — but in the wake of the wrenching meltdown in the financial markets, San Francisco needs to take a broad approach to the city economy. It’s time to develop a comprehensive plan to turn San Franciscans (and their government, businesses, and institutions) into economic locavores.

There are three basic reasons why the housing, credit, and financial markets are in the worst crisis since the Great Depression. The first two are related: The complexity of the financial instruments and securities being traded has increased so dramatically that even the heads of big investment banks didn’t know exactly what they were buying and selling. And the regulatory system under the George W. Bush administration has been unable and unwilling to keep up.

There’s not a lot San Franciscans can do locally to fix either of those problems (other than work to elect Barack Obama in November).

But the third factor in the current crisis is the globalization of money — and that’s something San Francisco can address.

For years, most famously in Seattle in 1999, protesters in this country have clashed with major institutions like the World Trade Organization over globalization issues. For the most part, they’ve focused on trade — on America losing jobs to low-wage companies, on big American chain stores selling goods made in third-world sweatshops, and on American money going to multinational corporations that prey on impoverished people and foul the environment. All of those are crucial issues — but so is the globalization of finance, which has received less attention.

And we’re not just talking about the stock market. The money San Franciscans deposit every day in local banks, the payments on mortgages and credit cards, the insurance premiums … all that cash goes into a financial system that instead of reinvesting in communities is buying and selling complex international securities like credit default swaps and derivatives. The traders and top executives who make these markets get colossal paychecks and bonuses — and most of us get nothing. Now that the whole house of cards is starting to topple, the small businesses and the people who need credit to buy cars or washing machines or bicycles or a house — the ordinary residents of cities like San Francisco — are the biggest losers.

The plan the White House has put forward is one of the grossest examples of corporate welfare in a generation — and even the Democrats in Congress are hesitant to oppose it.

But if San Francisco is serious about building a sustainable city, the mayor and the supervisors ought to start working, now, to create a citywide policy for economic localism. Among the elements:

Banks that do business with the city should be required to set aside a significant amount of their loan portfolio for local small-business and housing loans. (The Treasurer’s Office can start with Bank of America, which currently holds the city’s deposit and payroll accounts.) The Community Reinvestment Act is far too weak and rarely enforced; San Francisco, with the leverage of a $6 billion city budget, can do much better.

Most city contracts go to companies outside of San Francisco. Local businesses need to get a strong preference.

The San Francisco controller needs to start looking at the city’s balance of trade — what do we import, what do we export, and how can we use more local products?

The city needs to use tax policy to encourage local enterprise and discourage the out-of-town chains that use San Francisco as a strip mine.

There’s much more on the agenda, and there are plenty of people with good ideas. The crisis will define our political era; the city ought to be moving now to be in the lead.

Kink dreams

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› molly@sfbg.com

When it comes to BDSM porn peddlers Kink.com, apparently size does matter. At least, that’s how it seems now that the steamy studio has purchased the 200,000-square-foot San Francisco Armory. Suddenly, everyone wants to know: What’s the carnal concern going to do with all that space?

The answers are more diverse and ambitious than one might expect — ranging from creating a racy reality show to starting a perfectly PG-13 public community center. And thanks to the lascivious and lucrative imagination of Kink.com founder Peter Acworth, it might all be possible.

CONCEPTION AND CONTROVERSY


Though Kink.com has been producing independent niche fetish sites like Hogtied.com, WiredPussy.com, and FuckingMachines.com for the Folsom Street Fair crowd for more than 10 years — first from Acworth’s rented Marina District apartment and then from the Porn Palace on Fifth and Mission streets — it wasn’t until Acworth purchased the historical landmark in the Mission District, and was met with opposition, that the provocative porn empire really made it onto the public’s radar screen.

The armory, which was a training ground for the National Guard prior to its decommissioning 30 years ago, has been the center of controversy before. But that was mostly in-fighting between potential developers. Stringent zoning requirements and necessary but cost-prohibitive renovations discouraged buyers, leaving the Moorish behemoth on 14th and Mission streets vacant and outside public scrutiny.

But everything changed when Acworth got involved. His intended commercial use, for shooting scenes for all of Kink’s Web sites, complied with planning codes. And he didn’t need to do expensive renovations before he could start using, and profiting from, the building: what could be more perfect for bondage shoots or movies about women fucking machines than dungeons in disrepair? The only thing more ideal than the structure itself, according to Acworth, was its location in the heart of America’s most fetish-friendly city. "You couldn’t have dreamt up a more perfect place than a castle in the middle of San Francisco," says Acworth, who purchased the armory for $14.5 million in 2007 and started operations in January of this year. "It’s like divine intervention."

Acworth had to contend with a different kind of intervention — from a neighborhood group called the Mission Armory Community Collective, which opposed Kink.com as a potential neighbor. Though careful not to condemn porn per se, the group said it feared that the company’s presence in an already troubled neighborhood would introduce more problems. Even the Mayor’s Office, potentially bending to pressure, issued the following statement: "While not wanting to be prudish, the fact that kink.com will be located in the proximity to a number of schools give [sic] us pause."

But the sale quietly went through, and even as protesters stood outside, Kink was already filming new scenes for its subscription sites. Since then, the protests have largely died down. As the company removed graffiti from the brick facade of the armory, fixed windows, and generally improved the appearance of its stretch of Mission Street, neighbors began stopping by to congratulate Acworth — or to ask for a tour. (Incidentally, the public is invited to tour the armory on second Fridays. E-mail info@kink.com for an appointment.)

On a September afternoon, the building — mostly nondescript from the sidewalk except for the castlelike rooftop — seems quiet and innocuous. Three boys skateboard on the steps outside, stopping to talk to a woman walking her dog. The only people entering the doors, which are always locked and manned by a security guard, look as though they could’ve been going to the grocery store or the gym, wearing shorts, T-shirts, and sandals. In fact, on first glance inside, the place is almost disappointingly tame.

Acworth himself hardly looks like a porn kingpin. He’s sweetly attractive in an unmenacing, mainstream way, with an easy smile and casual style. His office, a room near the entrance to the armory, is large and comfortable, but bears no hint of his livelihood save for one tasteful bondage statue. Next to his desk are water and food bowls for the armory’s two live-in cats: Rudy and Lala. His assistant, a young girl in a minidress, leggings, and hoop earrings, looks like she could be working at American Apparel. Even the desktop pattern on Acworth’s Dell computer screen is vanilla: rolling green hills beneath a blue, blue sky. This sense of normalcy seems to be Kink’s main point.

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Van Darkholme, Peter Acworth, and Princess Donna in the Armory boiler room. Photo by Pat Mazzera

Acworth remembers getting turned on as a child in England by scenes in movies where women were tied up — and wondering if this signaled violent tendencies within himself. It wasn’t until adolescence that he discovered the relief (and release) of bondage porn. At the same time, he was already a burgeoning entrepreneur, a child who grew vegetables behind his house and tried to sell them to his parents. By the time he read a magazine article about a man making millions from Internet porn, as a Wall Street–bound doctoral student in a Columbia University finance program, it seemed almost inevitable that Acworth would find a way to marry his two lifelong interests: bondage and business. When he founded Kink.com in 1997, the idea was not only to jump on the dot-com money train, but also to demystify and promote fetish porn as an acceptable form of sexual stimulation.

Now, each of Kink.com’s Web sites is geared toward a particular fetish, run by a Webmaster who’s not only an expert on that particular kink but also has an interest in it, just as Acworth started Hogtied.com, which features women tied up, and Fuckingmachines.com, which showcases women having sex with machinery, because that’s what turned him on. These Webmasters act as director, producer, human resources manager, and often participant as well as Web developer.

"It’s hard to guess what people want," he explains, pointing out that it’s easier to make what you know.

Which means models aren’t actors. Just as directors are expected to be interested in the fetish they’re promoting, so are participants expected to enjoy the scenes they’re in. This isn’t about fake-breasted women pretending to like a face full of come. In fact, Acworth has had trouble in the past working with models from Los Angeles, trying to get them not to act. Kink’s sites feature actual people enjoying a private play party that just happens to be taped. Videos are intimate, personal, and disarmingly real — models talk to each other before, during, and after their sessions, just the way they would in their own bedrooms. They’re encouraged to smile on camera. Whether it’s shocking a woman with electric instruments or forcing a man to eat from a dog bowl, you get the sense that these people would be playing out these scenarios anyway — Kink just provides a salary, benefits, and a really nice location.

THE KINK CASTLE


As for the building itself, Kink has just begun to scratch the surface of its possibilities. The first floor, perhaps the most institutional-looking of the four, houses offices for Acworth, the marketing team, the production team, and the break room, which features a pool table, a disco ball, an espresso machine, a drum set, and a DJ booth (all for parties as well as employee use). Directly opposite the front doors is the Drill Court, a monstrous space that looks something like an airplane hangar crossed with a European train station. This is the space Acworth hopes will become the Mission Armory Community Center (which would unintentionally bear the same acronym as one of the groups that protested Kink.com’s purchase of the armory), a public venue available for sporting events, educational seminars, film festivals, and someday maybe a Folsom Street Fair party. According to MACC coordinator David Klein, a developer who has no affiliation with Kink.com, that dream is a long way off — with plenty of renovations, public meetings, and applications standing between here and there. In the meantime, the Drill Court serves as an occasional event site (such as for the Mission Bazaar craft fair earlier this year) and an employee parking lot. Currently, the most public location is the Ultimate Surrender room, where small numbers of members are invited to sit in bleachers and watch women wrestle each other to the ground on large mats — the winner, of course, gets to fuck the loser.

The armory’s basement is by far the most interesting area. "It’s a wonderland of sets," says Acworth, and it’s hard to argue with him. Some rooms seem perfect as is, such as a former gymnasium whose floor has long since been removed to reveal gothic-looking structural planks punctuated by intimidating bolts. All it took was adding a platform in the center of the expansive room and a pulley above it to make it a perfect bondage set. Next door is an army-style communal bathroom, another favorite as-is set. Other rooms on this floor are a completely furnished 1970s New York loft; a padded cell with an observation room connected by a one-way mirror; a former hermetically sealed gunpowder room that’s been outfitted with all sorts of rings, hooks, and rope pulleys; an office connected by a cage to the "Gimp Room," where ceiling chains hang like some kind of Donkey Kong homage; a hallway storage room chock-full of expected (whips, chains, clamps) and unexpected (mops, long-handled brushes with hard bristles, small boxes with smaller holes in them) toys; the large prop room, where human-shaped cages, monstrous doghouses, and machines like the back breaker and water-torture wheel are kept; the laundry room, where shelves are lined with douches, enemas, latex gloves, and sanitized sex toys; and the former shooting range, which has a Pirates of the Caribbean feel, complete with a river running through it.

And that’s just the start of it. Just when you think every nook and cranny has been used — including an oddly shaped corner off the production gallery that looks like a 19th-century psychiatric ward — you’ll discover a hallway that’s virtually untouched. Hardly any construction has been done on the third or fourth floors, including the officers’ quarters, which occupy one turret. Even the roof, with its castle-y details and flags, seems like a perfect potential shooting location.

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Kink’s porn palace, the San Francisco Armory. Photo by Pat Mazzera

Kink already has plans for several new sets: the military clean room, a stark ’50s-era space, slated for FuckingMachines; an abandoned electrical equipment room for WiredPussy, where dead vintage electrical equipment will line the walls; an Alcatraz-esque prison gallery for BoundGods.com; and an expanded DeviceBondage.com room, which will be clad with cultured stone to look like the basement of an old castle.

Reps won’t say just how much it costs to maintain the armory or to shoot a scene, but Acworth told 7×7 magazine last year that profits were upward of $16 million. And spokesperson Thomas Roche says that the cost of a shoot, including sets, makeup, wardrobe, video and still photo staff, and editing, would be prohibitive if Kink weren’t doing lots of them. Luckily, the armory allows for a volume of shoots that makes it feasible — sometimes four or five in a single day. And it’s good variety for viewers too, who get used to seeing the same sets over and over in various porn films — even ones by different companies.

FLIRTING WITH THE FUTURE


Perhaps the most advantageous thing about moving into the armory, though, has been the increased possibilities for Kink’s growth. With so much space, an almost infinite number of sets can be created without tearing any old ones down. Since multiple shoots can go on at once, multiple sites can be developed and maintained. And buying the building has started attracting directors, models, and Web developers on a scale Acworth hasn’t seen before.

"It was initially difficult to find people," says Acworth, who conjectures that it’s not just the publicity from the building but also the exciting prospect of working there that’s turned the tide. "Now they’ve started to approach us."

One of those who approached Acworth was Van Darkholme, a Shibari rope bondage expert, a porn performer, and the proprietor of fetish film studio Muscle Bound Productions, who was living in LA. Darkholme saw an article about Acworth and the armory in a magazine and contacted him immediately, hoping to get involved. The Vietnam-born Darkholme, who seems almost starstruck by Acworth’s genius, was shocked not only to hear back from Acworth himself, but to be offered a job at the helm of Kink’s new gay bondage site: BoundGods.com.

"What Peter does is so avant-garde and so fresh, I just wanted to come in and mop the floor," says Darkholme, who moved to San Francisco in April and launched his new site Aug. 1.

Darkholme’s BoundGods takes Kink’s principles of intimate, conversational, playful, and mutually enjoyable interactions and applies them to his particular brand of gay sexuality: lean, muscled studs. In one video, a man is tied up in the army-style bathroom at the armory while another fucks him with a large black dildo. In a similar scene, anal beads are gradually pulled from the bound, naked man — much to both participants’ obvious pleasure (though interestingly, neither are hard). Darkholme makes appearances in many of the videos, often as the dominant character — a striking contrast to the camo-shorts-and-T-shirt-wearing, somewhat shy individual I interview at the armory.

He’s clearly proud of the product, not only because it’s well produced but also because there’s almost no competition in the gay market.

"I hate to generalize, but most of what I see out there falls into this trap of gay men putting on leather and grunting and groaning," says Darkholme. "It’s visual, but doesn’t have as much dialogue. What we do is very real and very intimate, with a realness in what they’re saying."

The site marks Kink’s first serious foray into the gay market — a step the company couldn’t quite take while limited by space and resources at the Porn Palace. But set builders are already hard at work constructing an Alcatraz-esque prison gallery for new Boundgods shoots. And the creation of a sub-brand, KinkMen.com, promises more gay-focused fetish sites to come. (Incidentally, Kink tried a gay site several years ago with Butt Machine Boys, which is still online at www.buttmachineboys.com but not listed on the main Web site. Acworth said the site never took off, partly because of lack of budget and partly because, unlike Darkholme, the director wasn’t speaking to his personal interests.)

For now, though, Darkholme has his hands full with BoundGods. His immediate goal is to find and train 12 new dommes for the Web site — a tougher feat than might be expected. "Femme dommes can dish it out and can really take it," he says. "There’s a small percentage of men that can do that." In fact, during some of his first shoots, filmed in Budapest, his bevy of gay models and porn stars were shocked when Darkholme finally opened up his bag of toys.

"They looked at me like the circus had come to town, or like I was going to make one of the Saw movies. Their hands were shaking," he says.

So when Kink sets up its demonstration booth at Folsom Street Fair (Sept. 28, www.folsomstreetfair.com), Darkholme will have two purposes: recruiting talent (both people he can train and experts who have something to teach him) and publicizing his new brand.

"I want to say, ‘We’re here, we’re queer, we want to be part of your community!’" he laughs.

But Darkholme won’t be alone at his booth. Among other popular Kink stars like Isis Love, new director Lochai, expert rigger Lew Rubens, and porn stars LaCherry Spice and Natassia Dream will be WiredPussy.com creator Princess Donna, who’s launching her new pet product, PublicDisgrace.com, next month. The site will feature blatant public bondage, punishment, erotic humiliation, and explicit sex between models and, potentially, passersby.

The veteran domme is filming most scenes in Europe, where attitudes (and therefore laws) about sex are more lax. In fact, while shooting a scene on a public street in Berlin, the crew was stopped by a couple of motorcycle cops who said only, "If you cause an accident, you’ll be liable," before going on their way. In the shoot, a half-naked girl is tied to a park bench, made to carry a dog bowl while on a leash, fondled by her female master, and fucked by a man.

"It’s the adrenaline rush of potentially getting caught," says Acworth, explaining the site’s appeal and recipe for success. The site will also feature a slew of new faces. Plus, it’s the perfect time of year to launch a new fetish site. "Sales pick up when the kids go back to school," Acworth says.

There also plenty of developments in the works that don’t follow the start-a-new-fetish-site model. For starters, Kink is moving to a Flash format, where the delay is only 2 seconds instead of 20. The new technology means that users can actively participate in scenes via chat rooms, where they can give instructions to dommes and watch their demands be carried out. Members of Kink.com can already do this on DeviceBondage.com, but Acworth hopes to switch to a per-minute billing system so even more viewers can participate. At the moment, the site is structured so you must be a member of a particular site in order to watch videos; Acworth would like to move to a single-sign-on system where you can join Kink.com and have access to any of its member sites.

Perhaps the most ambitious technological plan for Kink’s future, though, is the development of an online Web community that will be called Kinky.com. Following the Web 2.0 trend of user-based content, Kinky.com will allow members and models to maintain user profiles, interact with one another on message boards, blog, and even date. Yes, it’s a way to stay up-to-date with Internet trends and to provide an experience that pirated video sites can’t, but Acworth says it’s also a natural outgrowth of the kind of porn he creates.

"In contrast with straight porn, which people want to consume in private, this is a community people want to be a part of," he says.

Which leads us to the project closest to Acworth’s heart: the reality show.

THE REAL WORLD: KINK.COM


In the spirit of community and BDSM as a lifestyle, Acworth wants to transform the armory’s top floor into a series of Victorian/Georgian-inspired rooms where couples will live and fuck on camera 24-7. Participants will be given hierarchical positions — from maid to master of the house — and live according to the rules of domination and submission. Acworth’s already started designing the grand dining room, inspired by the sets in Remains of the Day, including candelabras, elaborate draperies, and, of course, a long, long table. "I consider it the pinnacle of where everything comes together," he says.

The dream is still at least a year off: he’ll have to figure out payment and subscription details, renovate the nearly untouched top floor, and recruit couples who want to live their kinks on camera. But he’s hoping he’ll soon have more time to devote to the project. With more than 100 employees and a huge building to maintain, Acworth’s role has shifted from almost entirely creative to almost entirely administrative. He misses the early days, when he found models on Craigslist, tied them up in his rented Marina apartment, interacted with them himself, and then posted the shoots. (You can still see these early shoots online.) Soon he’ll promote an employee to chief operating officer, which will allow him to back off the business side and devote himself to the reality show.

So did he ever imagine his little project would get so big? Absolutely not, Acworth says. If he’d had any inkling, he adds, "I would’ve been terrified." But it only seems natural that the little English boy who used to try to sell his parents’ own vegetables back to them would eventually have an eye for business — and that his interest in fetish porn would lead his business instincts here.

As for how his parents feel about his chosen profession, Acworth says they’re not exactly vocally supportive, but they don’t condemn him either. His mom, a sculptor, has started creating pieces that feature couples in coital or bondage positions, and may start to sell them on the site. His dad, a former Jesuit preacher, says only, "As long as no one’s getting hurt and there are no animals, I guess it’s all right."