Volume 43 Number 08

Let it reign

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Fallout 3

(Bethesda Softworks/Zenimax Media; XBOX360, PS3, PC)

GAMER "War. War never changes." These words have introduced three Fallout games, intoned by narrator Ron Perlman as the camera pulls back to reveal a landscape devastated by nuclear bombardment. The world of Fallout is one steeped in retro-futurism, imagining a history in which the end of World War II was succeeded by rapid technological progress but complete cultural stagnation. In the 21st century, competition for resources leads to the Chinese invasion of Alaska, quickly countered by the American annexation of Canada. The question of who fires first is deliberately elided, but the human race soon witnesses the dawn of the apocalypse.

A small fraction of humanity weathers the mushroom cloud, eking out a living among the rubble. Still others are preserved within vast underground vaults. You begin life in Vault 101, literally emerging from the womb and triggering an inspired character creation sequence in which your father’s delivery room commentary on your sex, name, and future appearance is interrupted by menu screens that allow you to customize these qualities.

Emerging into the outside world, you are thrust into the vast and dangerous Capital Wasteland, which encompasses Washington, DC, and its environs. Bethesda Game Studios, having acquired the Fallout license from Interplay, has designed an enormous, incredibly detailed, and realistic landscape, filled with places to explore and characters to interact with. Danger and fun lurk in every bombed-out building.

The realism has its drawbacks. The first two Fallout games had graphics so simple that they allowed the player to fill in the gaps with his or her own imagination, and the fully realized world of Fallout 3 takes some getting used to if you’ve played the first two games. The series’ trademark dark humor is also somewhat diminished. Bethesda doesn’t have the knack for the pulpy, dystopian treatment of slavery, cannibalism, prostitution, and drug use that the previous installments did.

Gameplay is conducted in either the first or third person. The "V.A.T.S." targeting system is back in fine form, enabling you to aim at limbs and heads RPG-style and generally wreak havoc. It also can be played as a more traditional FPS, although this mode feels rubbery and inferior.

As much as it would have accorded with critical ethics, I have not played the game to completion. There is too much left to explore, to experiment with, before I set the events in motion that will conclude the main narrative. Despite my backwards-looking gripes, Fallout 3 is a masterwork of world creation, an apocalypse too good to leave, and a game almost too good to win.

Wonder as they wander

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

The great Langston Hughes titled a volume of his autobiography I Wonder as I Wander, invoking the notion of the poet in terms entirely personal and inevitably representative of a whole people, violently unsettled by history and restlessly searching for meaning, home, dignity — in short, for themselves. In Hughes’ art, this dovetailed with the image of the poet as blues singer and the blues singer as poet. His writing signaled that vernacular music as secular and sacred verse to a population caught up in forces larger than itself, but marked nevertheless by millions of singular experiences given individual voice in song.

The same themes of displacement and song run compellingly throughout the late August Wilson’s magisterial 10-play cycle of the African American 20th century, and rarely as forcefully as in 1988’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, currently receiving director Delroy Lindo’s fine, impressively cast production at the Berkeley Rep. But Hughes’ title applies readily to another great historical population as treated in another revival this month, making the stories evoked in Joe Turner and Traveling Jewish Theatre’s less successful The Last Yiddish Poet touchstones of broadly but pointedly similar significance.

Set in 1911 during the great migration of African Americans northward, Joe Turner‘s action unfolds in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The setting is a boardinghouse operated by the basically decent but huffy Seth Holly (Barry Shabaka Henley) and his kindhearted wife, Bertha (Kim Staunton). Into this warm, burnished house comes a small assortment of transient borders, all more or less fresh from the South: the headstrong guitar player and manual laborer Jeremy (Don Guillory), the lovelorn Mattie (Tiffany Michelle Thompson), and the fiercely independent beauty Molly (Erica Peeples).

They join a more permanent lodger, pigeon-catching backyard shaman Bynum Walker (Brent Jennings). The Hollys are descendants of Northern freemen, but the others are a mere generation from slavery — possibly excepting Bynum, old enough to have been born a slave, and not counting the play’s lone white character, merchant Rutherford Selig (Dan Hiatt), who, as a descendant of slave catchers, has adapted unselfconsciously as a "people finder" among rootless African American migrants.

The main plot of Wilson’s evocative, earthy, and humor-laden tale of disunion, reunion, and fractured identities takes hold with the arrival of the grimly forlorn, vaguely menacing Herald Loomis (Teagle F. Bougere). Loomis’ story makes bitter sense of the play’s title, a blues lyric repeated throughout by Bynum and fashioned by Southern women whose men were disappeared and forced into labor by the infamous Joe Turner. Since his release from bondage, the anguished and haunted Loomis, a former deacon, has searched with trancelike focus for the mother of his shy daughter (Inglish Amore Hills, alternating with Nia Reneé Warren). The Hollys’ boardinghouse takes on the baleful aspect of Loomis entombed soul as his violent outbursts of protest and revelation — and the mediating, ministering wisdom of the perspicacious, wondering Bynum — edge the play beyond naturalism toward a mythopoesis of half-submerged history.

The resurrection of history and half-buried tradition, as well as the literal voicing of experience and identity, is also at the center of The Last Yiddish Poet, an otherwise very different kind of play from Joe Turner. Originally produced by Traveling Jewish Theatre in 1980 and now revived to lead off its 30th-anniversary season, the production is aptly peripatetic in structure as well as theme: two actors in vaudevillian comic getup (artistic director Aaron Davidman and TJT cofounder Corey Fischer, also the play’s cocreator and half of the original cast) roam about a limbolike white-on-white set scattered with occasional detritus, most particularly and strikingly a pyramidal display at the far left of the stage on which a mound of books lie in disarray. The actors eventually mount a low stage within the stage, behind a row of modest footlights composed of painted tin cans, and amid knowing cornball lines they announce that they are speaking in "Yiddish" accents, despite not knowing Yiddish, so that the audience will recognize their Yankee selves as Jews.

What follows is a reclamation of the language as a search for identity and authenticity, in several dramatic and musical modes and moods and in struggle with manifold forces of history, from assimilation to persecution to the blunt inconstancy of time itself. Director, cocreator, and TJT cofounder Naomi Newman admits in her program notes that reentering the play after many years was not as easy as expected. Much has changed with respect to the place of Yiddish in Jewish lives. There is a quality of hesitation in the updated staging, which undermines some of its poignancy, although the awkwardness disappears at key moments, including Fischer’s hulking, half-masked portrayal of Nakhman — the rebbe known for contributions spiritual and literary in Yiddish — and second-generation TJT artist Davidman’s channeling of formerly unfamiliar Yiddish verses, in what amounts to an act of possession in at least two senses. *

JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE

Through Dec. 14

Tues. and Fri., 8 p.m.; Wed., 7 p.m.; Thurs. (except Nov. 27) and Sat., 2 (except Sat/22 and Dec. 11) and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m.; $13.50–$71

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison, Berk.

www.berkeleyrep.org

THE LAST YIDDISH POET

Through Dec. 14

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; $30–$34

Traveling Jewish Theatre

470 Florida

www.atjt.com

Clean and saber

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› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER All allusions to Guns ‘N Roses much-contemplated, way-overthought, über-delayed ejaculation Chinese Democracy (Interscope) aside — is there such a thing as being too brainy or geeky to rock? Some might have pegged the cerebral, multi-syllable-slinging Decemberists as such: with its Brit-wave and Elephant 6 pop-literati influences, the band seemed to herald an aughtsy-totsy wave of archly smart indie pop (e.g., Arcade Fire) that drew from both stage-y American standards and college-radio playlists — theirs was less college rock than a college-educated rock. Add in the renown surrounding Decemberists’ 2005 San Francisco show, which cut "Chimbley Sweep" with a light saber duel, and eventually touched off playful competition with Stephen Colbert, and you’ve gotta wonder, how nerdy can one band get?

Well, attribute it to roving minds and too much drink, according to ever-cogitating, multi-tasking band leader Colin Meloy, 34. "I try not to be totally static onstage," drawls the songwriter by phone from his Portland, Ore., home as his 2-year-old son freaks out. "Typically if I go see a rock show, I just want to see a rock show and have the songs speak for themselves. But we’ll do gags, audience participation. Stuff born out of boredom and drunkenness."

Meloy and company’s restive imaginations most recently spawned a series of three singles titled Always the Bridesmaid, composed of tunes recorded last March but which weren’t quite right for the group’s March 2009 Capitol album, The Hazards of Love. The first 12-inch included "Valerie Plame," a jubilant shout-out, bustling with feisty accordion and brass, to the all-too-exposed CIA operative. "I would be listing to the radio and making dinner and hearing about Valerie Plame and what struck me was how perfectly the cadence of her name was for a pop song," Meloy explains. "’Valerie’ has been used in a lot of pop songs — there’s something about the first stressed syllable in a three-syllable name and the cadence onward, and the beautiful punctuation of the last name. It was just screaming to have a pop song written around it."

The last single — with the prettily melancholic, banjo-bedecked "Record Year" and the wistful, acoustic guitar-glittered "Raincoat Song" — comes next month. "I think it might be the only thing we ever released in December," quips Meloy.

As for the long-awaited LP, which the combo will likely play in its entirety on tour next spring, Meloy describes it as an "experimental narrative" forged after listening to a lot of old folk songs as filtered through ’60s-era British revivalists. "I noticed common elements were popping up and I thought it would be interesting to take those individual elements and throw them together in an extended song and see what sort of narrative it would create," he says.

"These days, to be a musician and to be constantly immersed in music, your outlook on music changes drastically," continues Meloy. "I find I rarely get the spine-tingling moments from music anymore. I think I’m jaded and immersed — you know how you work in a pizza place and get sick of pizza — and the spine-tingling moments are few and far between, but I find I’m rediscovering those moments in old folk songs. I find it in songs that make me weepy but have been around for centuries." *

THE DECEMBERISTS

Tues/25, 8 p.m., $30

Warfield

982 Market, SF

www.goldenvoice.com

BACK FROM THE JOINT: CHEECH AND CHONG

The comedy duo didn’t go entirely up in smoke with the ’80s: so-called "grumpy old stoners" Cheech and Chong return to the Bay for their first show in SF in, like, forever (Chong said manager Lou Adler’s feud with Bill Graham led to their blackballing), with a concert film in the works. How has the gray matter been, retaining the routines? "It’s all body memory," says the personable Chong, 70, from his Arizona stop. He attributes his skills and timing to writing and playing music. "I got my early comedy training with black jazz musicians. They are, without a doubt, the funniest people on the planet." Meanwhile the pair doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to each other. According to Chong, Marin initially pulled out of their act because "he wanted to play golf and get fat and get invited to parties," whereas Marin, 62, says he visited Chong once in the pen, but never got close to incarceration himself: "I’m smarter than that." So Martha Stewart is paying tribute to the twosome at their forthcoming roast? "She’s an ex-con," Marin wisecracks. "She relates to Tommy because she was in the joint."

Sun/23, 8 p.m., $39.50–$59.50. Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium, 1111 California, SF. www.livenation.com

BEAR WITH ME

MINUS THE BEAR


I like their math, class. Wed/19, 8 p.m., $20–$22. Bimbo’s 365 Club, 1025 Columbus, SF. www.bimbos365club.com

MISHAP SCIENCE FAIR


The Dead Hensons, TopR, the Missing Teens, and others make the chemistry happen. Sat/22, 8 p.m., $12 (free with project). Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. mighty119.com

YOUTUBE LIVE


You like to watch — and watch you will: the only way to catch Akon, Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em, Spinto Band, and other YouTube stars at Fort Mason is online. Sat/22, 5 p.m., free. www.youtube.com/live

BIZARRE BAZAAR


This burner-centric booty-shaker raises moolah for the Hookahdome camp. With Cheb i Sabbah and others. Sun/23, 2 p.m., $20–$30. Kelly’s Mission Rock, 817 China Basin, SF. www.kellysmissionrock.com

EARL GREYHOUND


"S.O.S." — NYC hard rocker alert. Mon/24, 8 p.m., $13–$15. Slim’s, 333 11th St., SF. www.slims-sf.com

THE ROSEBUDS


Dig the moody Life Like (Merge). Mon/24, 8 p.m., $12–$14. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. (415) 771-1422. www.theindependentsf.com

Child’s play

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It can’t be easy, capturing the spirit of childhood and distilling all that wondrous essence into effective, life-affirming art. First, there’s the pile-up of cynicism we tend to amass over the years. Sure, we grown-ups might call this protective shield "realism," but it doesn’t exactly lend itself to fostering the same wide-eyed exuberance we felt as youngsters. On the opposite end of the spectrum: over-sentimentality. Simply put, schmaltz can kill a mood in no time — so let’s keep it away from the kiddies, shall we? There’s the dilemma: how to convey the innocence and excitement of youth without succumbing to corniness. We can’t all be Brian Wilson, after all.

Volker Bertelmann must have had a wonderful childhood. The Dusseldorf pianist and composer — known in the record shops simply as Hauschka — recently released an album’s worth of meditations and reminiscences about growing up in a small, woodsy German town, and I’d be hard-pressed to cite a more touching instrumental recording from this year. Ferndorf (130701/Fat Cat) — named after Bertelmann’s hometown village — glides along in a delicate dance between impish and introspective, evoking images of little boys and girls lost in playtime but also conjuring moments of quiet contemplation.

It’s an enormously engaging listen, made all the more magnetic by its unsentimental depiction of the emotional lives of children. Joined by a string duo, an occasional trombonist, and a grab bag of subtle electronic textures, Bertelmann’s comforting — but challenging — piano minimalism could very well be the new working definition for cinematic music. Ultimately, however, the 12 songs contained here should send listeners back to recreating scenes from their own childhoods. No movie required.

Hauschka live at Mutek 2007, Montreal

A classically trained pianist, Bertelmann has worked largely in the past as an exponent of John Cage’s "prepared piano" technique, in which items such as corks, straps of leather, and scraps of metal are attached to the instrument’s hammers and strings to create an endless array of clicks and rattles. With such a battery of odds and ends set in place, the piano can be transformed into a one-man percussion section of sorts. Earlier Hauschka works such as 2004’s Substantial and 2005’s The Prepared Piano (both Karaoke Kalk) were manifestos celebrating the possibilities of the technique. As one might guess, Cage’s presence could be spotted on both discs, as well as those of several other modern composers: Arvo Part, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich.

Last year’s Room to Expand (130701/Fat Cat) showed Bertelmann broadening his palette and introducing strings and electronics into the mix. Given that the pianist is also a member of synth-tweaking experimentalists Music A.M. and Tonetraeger, the addition of electronics to enhance the piano’s versatility was perhaps a natural extension of lessons learned from Cage.

Much of Ferndorfs playfulness emerges from the prepared-piano technique. "Barfuss Durch Gras" is a sputtering, plonking hydraulics-overdrive containing as many as 10 different piano textures at once, while the twitching waltz of "Heimat" derives much of its spunk from the curious union of a quasi-ragtime melody with a soft-footed pit-er-pat rhythm and disembodied horn sounds, all of which have been somehow generated by the same instrument. The Michael Nyman-esque "Blue Bicycle" has all the breeziness of a spring afternoon, but is pushed along urgently by pulsing circular piano patterns and the rush of two cellos, played marvelously by Insa Schirmer and Donja Djember. The string-drenched autumn tones of "Morgenrot" recall moments of Ryuichi Sakamoto or avant-chamber experimentalists Rachel’s, but also spotlight Bertelmann’s flair for bittersweet nostalgia.

In what might be the disc’s finest moment, "Schones Madchen" — a memory of young, innocent flirtation — imagines Amelie composer Yann Tiersen interpreting Reich. Delicate repetitions of piano flutters curve around lush curls of strings, clock-spring clicks and tics tap away underneath, and the wonders of early infatuation are compressed into less than four minutes.

HAUSCHKA

With Tom Brosseau and Magik*Magik Orchestra

Sun/23, 8:30 p.m., $10

Hotel Utah Saloon

500 Fourth St., SF

(415) 546-6300

www.thehotelutahsaloon.com

Mauled by success!

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> a&eletters@sfbg.com

There’ve been happy coincidences aplenty for the Vivian Girls this year. Two examples: they’ve recorded and played shows with Fucked Up, which wrote a song with the same name as their band before they ever assembled ("Vivian Girls" appeared on 2006’s Hidden World (Jade Tree), and the Vivian Girls began early last year), and, at one of those shows, bass player Kickball Katy found out she wears the same kicks as Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend. "We both have the Sperry boat shoes," she explained, claiming Koenig was more weirded out than she was at this discovery.

At the time of our phone conversation, being in those shoes sounded a bit wearying. It was rainy and cold in the group’s Brooklyn home base, and October had been a busy month for the trio, which includes guitarist Cassie Ramone and drummer Ali. CMJ burned them out on what was supposed to be an October at-home break. As Katy put it, "It was kind like being on tour while being at home." Twelve hometown shows in a month does sound like a bit much, especially alongside several other one-off jaunts along the Eastern seaboard.

I guess these things happen when you set blogger hearts aflutter with a great record. Since their self-titled debut sold out its original 500-copy run on Mauled by Tigers in just 10 days earlier this year — it has since been reissued by In the Red — the attention has snowballed around their rather meek undertaking to, as Katy said, "sound like the Wipers." In truth, they do sorta sound like the Wipers, but this is where another of those coincidences comes in. Without really meaning to, their reverb-heavy pop turned out to have aesthetic forebears in older English bands like Dolly Mixture and Talulah Gosh.

Vivian Girls, “Tell the World”

Little realizing Vivian Girls would earn a place alongside such distinguished bedfellows, Ramone started the group in March 2007 with former drummer Frankie Rose, who left the outfit earlier this year and now drums for kindred Brooklyn group Crystal Stilts. Katy, who knew Ramone from high school, joined in on bass guitar shortly thereafter. Ali took over on drums early this summer, and they’ve since plowed ahead promoting their record and three singles. The entire threesome sings, and their sound is one you’d hardly hear elsewhere, delivered in earnest, these days: informally sweet vocal harmonies, jangled and thrashy guitars, and a hurried rhythmic sense that makes their album’s 21 minutes feel even shorter than they actually are.

Hurried Vivian Girls may sound, but they’re clearly not harried, even with their heavy touring schedule. "We do Vivian Girls everyday," Katy said, "whether it’s touring or other things. There’s a lot to do." The latest to-do is especially impressive. They’re silk-screening 7-inch sleeves because they’ve started their own label, Wild World, and the inaugural release will be a fan club-esque package deal: a 7-inch including new songs "Surfin Away" and "Second Date," a cover of the Beach Boys’ "Girl Don’t Tell Me," along with a T-shirt, button, and postcard. A thousand copies will be up for pre-order soon. Of course they’ll sell out. But as Katy points out, when you make something yourselves, "a thousand of anything is a lot."

Lots of other plans are slated, too. The band is set to tour England shortly after its present West Coast excursion and will be recording a second album with Steve McDonald from Redd Kross in January. It’s all very exciting, and thanks to the lyrics of standout single "Tell the World," it’s easy to succinctly explain the thrill of hearing this trio beat their hearts out and succeed: "Keep it to myself? No way!"

VIVIAN GIRLS

With Love Is All and Nodzzz

Thurs/20, 9 p.m., $12–$14

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

(415) 621-4455

www.bottomofthehill.com

Warming to cold fact

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Now that we’re deep into November, I can safely announce my choice for 2008’s top reissue: Sixto Rodriguez’s scrumptiously echo-rippled psychedelic folk-soul delight Cold Fact (Sussex/Light in the Attic). Originally released in 1970 by Sussex, the album never made a big dent in the American countercultural consciousness. Though it feels like an underground classic on par with the finest from such visionaries as Love, relatively few got a chance to hear it when it first emerged. Based on what I’ve read, Sussex didn’t have much pull with FM underground radio — the try-anything format for which Rodriguez was best suited — and thus the singer-songwriter was never exposed to his greatest potential audience.

Sixto Rodriguez, “Sugarman” (video by Yellowcatz)

That’s a damn shame considering that Cold Fact‘s riveting combination of barbed social commentary, blazing stream-of-consciousness delivery, and shiver-down-the-spine vocal testimonials — often heightened by understated studio freak-out-ery — would have connected with listeners seeking another voice tapping into the darker side of the hippie dream. While very much a product of the ’60s, the recording speaks directly to the rising levels of disillusionment in America at the decade’s turn. For last-name-only Rodriguez, a reconciliation of the bright-eyed optimism of Flower Power with the grim realities of the late ’60s takes place in the form of teeth-gritting folk spiels and soul-stirring calls for social change that barely conceal a seething rage. To seal the deal, he delivers his lyrics with infinite cool, coming across as both aloof and strident within the turn of a phrase.

As for those songs, the immediacy of numbers like "Crucify Your Mind" and "Sugar Man" pulls your ears the quickest. For all of their psychedelic embellishments, these tunes are essentially the sound of one man laying it out over the simple strums of an acoustic guitar. Even decades into the folk-rock phenomenon, many of Rodriguez’s songs will likely hit first-time listeners with that revelatory "Wow, how come I’ve never heard this before?" feeling.


RODRIGUEZ Sun/23, 2 p.m., free. Amoeba Music, 2455 Telegraph, Berk. www.amoeba.com. Sun/23, 8 p.m., $17–$19. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. www.gamh.com

‘Fight’ songs

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

On the night of Nov. 4, while President-elect Barack Obama was giving his victory speech in Chicago, Flobots were performing at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC.

"We ended up performing just after McCain gave his concession speech, and then we stopped when Obama gave his acceptance speech," remembers Jonny 5, the rap band’s lead vocalist, on the road to New Haven, Conn. He calls the moment "full of euphoric disbelief." Outside the club "there were people everywhere in the streets, giving each other hugs, and impromptu parades."

It wasn’t the first time Flobots’ career path had intertwined with that of the president-elect. In September, when the Democratic Party held its convention in the group’s hometown of Denver, they participated in several ancillary events, including a concert with Rage Against the Machine. "The entire event was planned to support the Iraq Veterans Against the War, who had a march immediately after the event," says Jonny 5. "So we used the stage to rally people."

Flobots’ rise from regional upstarts to modern-rock radio stalwarts mirrors Rage’s emergence more than 15 years ago. Just as Zack de la Rocha and company did with their fuzzy emo-punk, Jonny 5 — along with rapper Brer Rabbit — adds rhymes to an exotic mix of jazz horns, funky breaks, and hard-rock guitar. And the six-member crew are equally consumed with progressive politics. Each song on Fight with Tools (Universal Republic/Flobots Music, 2007), the outfit’s second album, overflows with righteous anger and activist fervor.

Flobots, “Handlebars”

"We want money for health care and public welfare! Free Mumia and Leonard Peltier!" Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit offer on "Same Thing." "We say, ‘Yes,’ to grassroots organization, ‘No,’ to neoliberal organization! Bring the troops back to the USA and shut down Guantanamo Bay!"

"Handlebars," of course, was Flobots’ breakout moment. Much of Fight with Tools, which Flobots released independently last year, before Universal Republic signed them and reissued the album this spring, feels overwhelmed by earnest slogans. But on "Handlebars," Jonny 5 weaves a stream-of-consciousness allegory about American exceptionalism while the rest of the band build, like an orchestra, to a cacophonous conclusion.

Jonny 5 says his influences range from hip-hop collectives such as Project Blowed to organic music ensembles like Ozomatli. The unusual chart success of "Handlebars," which soared into the Billboard Top 40 last summer, helped Flobots sell more records than any of their inspirations.

"Personally, I had this obsession or insecurity about whether we were really hip-hop, and whether we were representing the hip-hop community correctly. I don’t know … I was hung up on it," Jonny 5 explains. "[Influential indie rapper] 2Mex was with us for four or five dates on the West Coast, and the minute we would mention any criticism we’d get, he’d say, ‘Fuck that, man. Keep expanding. That’s what hip-hop is.’<0x2009>"

FLOBOTS

Sun/23, 8 p.m., $27.50–<\d>$30

Warfield

982 Market, SF

www.goldenvoice.com

Cinemascope baroque

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> a&eletters@sfbg.com

"You give your body and you keep your soul." This is the Faustian bargain a circus promoter offers Lola Montès (Martine Carol) in Max Ophüls’ reimagining of the Victorian courtesan’s life. Ophüls, himself something of a ringmaster, inscribes his enchantress in a ravishing purgatory; the film skates complex figure-eights of flashback and reenactment, seduction and spectacle, voyeurism and exhibitionism. Ophüls was known for his 19th century élan, but his swan song is the work of a consummate modernist. A spirit of jubilant decay overhangs his taste for shots that simultaneously sensationalize the cinematic apparatus and lay it bare. Unlike Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981), however, Lola Montès (1955) registers the emotional strain of such stylistic excess. A lavish production process and subsequent bowdlerized edits left Lola a dormant dream for decades, but a new restoration by Cinémathèque Française once again looses Ophüls’ picaresque of novelistic depth and ironic artifice.

The plot, later revived in Showgirls (1995) and The Last Mistress (2007), is that of the woman navigating the marketplace. We’re introduced to Lola in spectacle res, exhibited as a circus’ main attraction. The ringmaster crows about her past lovers, moving her through reenactments of former exploits. Lola’s own flashbacks carry the film back to her trysts with composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) and Bavaria’s King Ludwig I (Anton Walbrook), and the circus stage-sets transmogrify into Ophüls’ equally fantastic uses of Technicolor and CinemaScope.

The ringmaster announces Lola as a femme fatale, but Ophüls doesn’t let us off so easily. Like Citizen Kane (1941), Lola Montès deconstructs biographical tropes. But whereas the flashback structure of Orson Welles’ debut fragments the character of power, Lola‘s jigsaw scheme slips us through the looking glass of desire. Ophüls’ camera movements simultaneously imbue the film with realist fluidity and make us more aware of theatrical, painterly aspects of set design and staging. This dynamism, so important to future melodrama artists like R.W. Fassbinder and Todd Haynes, is crucial to Lola’s crumpled beauty. And if Martine Carol’s porcelain performance gets crushed by the double-sided brilliance of Max and his tracks, it’s not at all clear that he intends for us to feel we’ve broken through her façade.

The film’s rude asides about product placement and the profit margins of scandal ("Especially in America!") give Lola continued currency, but it’s Ophüls’ remarkable use of the still nascent CinemaScope technology that makes the restoration a must for the big screen. Lola is one of the few films of its era to express the contradictory potentials of Henri Chétien’s anamorphic process. Ophüls sows his widescreen images with all manner of obstructions, so that Lola simultaneously seems to expand and shrink into the largesse of her role. Roland Barthes might have been thinking of this shattering example of movie portraiture when he wrote of CinemaScope: "The stretched-out frontality becomes almost circular; in other words, the ideal space of great dramaturgies."

LOLA MONTÈS opens Wed/19 in Bay Area theaters.

Taxi merger

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› amanda@sfbg.com

A plan to merge the Taxi Commission with the Municipal Transportation Agency will be heard by the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 25. Most city officials and taxi industry bigwigs support the change, but some drivers fear it could signal the end of the semi-autonomous medallion system that has been in place for 30 years.

The merger legislation by Sup. Aaron Peskin is brief, simply transferring duties from the Taxi Commission to the MTA beginning March 1, 2009. But Peskin also helped write another key piece of legislation — last year’s sweeping MTA reform measure Proposition A — that contains a provision allowing the MTA to wipe out all prior taxi regulations.

Skeptics fear that the real target of the merger is Prop. K, the 1978 law that created the current driver permitting system, which requires taxi medallions that are owned by the city to be in every car. With the MTA in control, the door could be open to privatizing taxi medallions. These permits are currently leased by the city for a fee — $658 a year for most cabs — to longtime drivers, but a scheme to sell or transfer them could mean huge profits for the select group of drivers who now hold medallions, with a potentially high transfer fee kicked back to the city.

Reguutf8g San Francisco’s taxi industry involves ensuring cabs are being properly operated, with medallions held by legitimate drivers, and investigating various complaints. But the Taxi Commission barely has enough money to meet its mandate. Proponents of the merger say the MTA can bring more resources and professional attention to the industry. Mayor Gavin Newsom, who as a supervisor in 1998 pushed for formation of the Taxi Commission, has long supported the merger as a way to have all transportation housed in one agency.

“The benefit of merging is the MTA already regulates all surface transportation,” said Jordanna Thigpen, acting director of the Taxi Commission, who was appointed by Newsom after the Taxi Commission ousted Heidi Machen in 2006. “Most cities in the country do incorporate taxis into the common transportation agency.”

Currently, cab companies, medallion holders, and rank and file drivers essentially function as a feudal system, with the serfs driving San Franciscans around in vehicles usually owned by the lording cab companies and permitted by older drivers who hold the coveted medallions. There are only 1,500 of these permits, which are literally tin medallions that correspond to the numbers printed on the sides of cabs. They are owned and regulated by the city, and leased for life to drivers who wait years to move up the list.

Medallion holders make about $20,000 to $50,000 per year leasing their medallions to cab companies, which then charge drivers daily “gate fees” that are set by the city. Drivers pay an average of $96.50 per day to use a cab, but are allowed to pocket all their fares. Drivers usually clear about $150 a day, but that’s before paying gas, tolls, and tickets, and before even sometimes allegedly slipping bribes to dispatchers to get the best assignments. Drivers have no health insurance and are essentially treated as independent contractors.

Drivers have criticized the newly formed Taxi Advisory Group, which has made recommendations to the MTA and is likely to be expanded after the merger into a 15-member council, which would have only three drivers, but seven medallion holders and cab company representatives. Five members of the public would also be seated and their unanimous support would be required for a driver-led initiative or idea to trump the medallion and cab company bloc.

“We want a much greater and fairer representation on this Taxi Advisory Council,” said driver and United Taxicab Workers chair Bud Hazelkorn. “Without that, all the issues that we bring will not be heard.” Those issues include providing health care for drivers and creating a centralized dispatch system so fares are allocated more equitably. He pointed out that drivers are the only people in the system making all their income directly from fares. Everyone else in the industry gets slices from other pies.

And the existing provisions outlined by Prop. K may soon be a thing of the past.

Prop. A included language that allowed for the Taxi Commission merger and stated that once the MTA was in control, “Agency regulations shall thereafter supersede all previously adopted ordinances governing motor vehicles for hire that conflict with or duplicate such regulations.”

During the 2007 election season, this was interpreted by the UTW and Judge Quentin Kopp, a former supervisor who authored Prop. K, as possibly undermining the current medallion system. “The taxicabs CEOs have tried EIGHT times to undo Prop. K, failing each time as voters upheld this good government measure,” Kopp wrote in a paid ballot argument at the time. “Now encouraged by City Hall, Prop. A slips in a deceptive clause undoing 30 years of voter policy.”

Back in 2007, when seeking the Guardian‘s endorsement for Prop. A, Peskin told us, “I have met with the mayor. The mayor has no desire, as do I, to undermine Prop. K, and what we would do if we ever were to transfer the Taxi Commission to MTA, we would transfer upon the condition that they adhere to and embrace by regulation all of the previously voter approved ordinances, such as Prop. K. So I think we have it handled.”

Peskin said he reaffirmed that commitment in a letter, cosigned by Newsom, but neither office could locate a copy of that letter as of Guardian press time.

But at a Nov. 17 Government Audit and Oversight Committee meeting, Peskin asked MTA executive director Nathaniel Ford if it was his understanding that this merger was not to undermine Prop. K. “That is my understanding,” said Ford. “I think it is important to all stakeholders.”

Yet the interpretation is still correct. “The MTA will now have the authority to enact provisions that supersede Prop. K,” City Attorney’s Office spokesperson Matt Dorsey told the Guardian.

This past summer, the Taxi Commission established a Charter Reform Workgroup with a primary goal of reviewing Prop. K. The group is expected to meet for about six months with any recommendations subject to a citywide vote.

Although the workgroup has yet to release any specific statements regarding Prop. K, chairman Malcolm Heinecke believes it’s already making strides simply by opening up public discourse among citizens, companies, medallion holders, and drivers.

“One of the problems with the taxi industry and discussions of reform is that they are very insular,” said Heinecke, who is also an MTA board member. “I believe we have a balanced group of voices [in the group].”

Heinecke said he thinks varied stakeholders are essential because of broad dissatisfaction with Prop. K. “You hear everyone — both inside and outside the industry — bemoaning some aspect of Prop. K. It’s a system we’ve had in place for 30 years; rather than just say it’s bad and not do anything, [the goal of the workgroup] is to look at where we are and revise.”

While it may be true that no one is satisfied, that hardly means members of the factional workgroup agree on how exactly Prop. K should be changed. For some, the problem begins with issues of representation. Not everyone agrees with Heinecke that this is a “balanced group.” Of 12 members, there are just three drivers and three members of the public, with the rest representatives from the upper echelons of the industry.

Driver and UTW member Thomas George Williams pointed out that “companies and medallion holders often have the same interests — most companies are owned by medallion holders.”

Furthermore, Mark Gruberg, a UTW member, told us, “Everyone would say some things can and possibly should be done to improve provisions of Prop. K. But it’s one thing to work around the edges to reform a law and another thing to throw it out the window.”

He pointed out that one proposal before the workgroup would allow medallions to be sold for profit, something he said “would be a complete reversal of Prop. K.” If other cities are an example, medallions could fetch as much as $500,000 apiece, enough for the holder to retire handsomely. “People that have them would clean up at the expense of the next generation of cab drivers,” Gruberg said. “It would be a completely indefensible windfall.”

“This is public property, these medallions,” Hazelkorn said. “They could be misused as a pension, but that’s not a pension that applies to everyone.”

When questioned, Heinecke was vague about concrete changes the workgroup might instigate. “This is a delicate position for me because the whole purpose of the task force is to hear the views of all the stakeholders,” he said.

Taxi drivers, the serfs of the industry, do not have high hopes about the merger. “If the merger happens, the MTA [officials] will be able to do whatever they please,” Williams said. “Everyone knows MTA is always in need of money … they don’t care about drivers or improving industry, only their budget.”

Williams worries that, under the MTA, the commission will lease medallions to companies instead of individual drivers, which would “totally ruin the concept of Prop. K.” Gruberg agreed. He pointed out that some proposals mention levying a tax on the medallion transfers, a potential revenue source the MTA could be eyeing. “It’s a whole new ball game with MTA and if they’re so desperate for cash and they see the taxi industry as a cash cow, they might go for any scheme.”

MTA spokesperson Judson True told us, “We have no intention of looking to taxi revenue to supplement existing Muni operations.”

Judge Kopp said, “By itself that does not disturb Prop. K, but if that’s a fig leaf for some recommendation from this ersatz Charter Reform Workgroup, then it becomes ominous.” He said dressing the changes in a group with a pithy name like Charter Reform “is not reform, it’s subterfuge.”

And, he added, Prop. K doesn’t need reform as much as it needs enforcement. “They’ve been at this for 30 years. Their revisions are always to start to restore the pre-1978 conditions and enable them to treat these permits as personal possessions for sale.”

Peskin, with the approval of other members of the committee, calendared the full board hearing on the merger for a date after the MTA announces the result, expected sometime this week, of its national search for a director of taxi and accessible services. Solid leadership has been elusive: two years ago the Taxi Commission fired executive director Heidi Machen, reportedly for being too tough on cab companies. Machen was replaced by another Newsom appointee, Jordanna Thigpen, who said she has applied to stay on the job but doesn’t know if she’ll be selected.

When asked if the merger would unnecessarily stretch the MTA’s resources, Thigpen said, “On the one hand you could look at it that way. On the other hand, we’re so chronically understaffed. Trying to add staff is so complicated because we’re funded by the taxi industry.”

The taxi industry brings about $1.6 million in revenue to the city, mostly from fees paid by 1,500 medallion holders and about 7,000 drivers. However, “Fees do not currently meet the city’s cost recovery needs,” according to a Taxi Commission merger report. “Both Taxi Commission and Taxi Detail are understaffed and additional enforcement personnel are needed.”

MTA’s True said, “We expect some cost savings or at least increased efficiencies,” when asked how the merger will affect the MTA’s budget. “When it comes to changing Prop. K, raising fees, or adjusting how medallions are allocated,” True said, “I can’t say that it’s not on the table … In the last several months the focus has been on procedural issues. I think that policy questions will largely come post-merger.”

What will your role be?

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› news@sfbg.com

OPINION Many of us in the Bay Area worked hard to elect Barack Obama. We made phone calls, knocked on doors, made donations — $5, $10, $200. We monitored the polls, gathered and loaded data, and/or otherwise spread the word to friends, relatives, and colleagues. And of course, we all voted.

The good news is we succeeded. We can now believe again in the power of ordinary people to do extraordinary things in this country. That change has come.

But have we done what we really set out to do?

Have we remade our economy so that it is based on a strong core of working Americans who get their fair share of the fruits of economic growth, and not on house-of-cards accounting subterfuge that tends to benefit only those with the most? Have we achieved equal opportunity for everyone, so that CEO’s and other super-wealthy Americans aren’t hoarding tens of millions of dollars they don’t need while the working Americans who generated that income can barely make ends meet? Do we encourage workers to organize so that there’s a more level playing field in negotiations with employers, and real dignity and respect in every workplace?

Do we have affordable health care? Do we have energy independence? Sustainability? A responsible conclusion to a pointless and wasteful war? Enduring peace and diplomacy? Compassion for one another and personal responsibility for our actions?

Needless to say, the answer to all these questions is a resounding no. Not even close. Not yet.

Although he may be our symbol of a change for the better and an inspiration to bring it, Barack Obama is not the change we seek. We are the change we seek.

Which means that if we don’t continue to act and make sacrifices, enduring change will not come.

So what will your role be in bringing about real change in this country?

For what it’s worth, I’ve started making some changes and sacrifices. I left my high-paying job as a big-law attorney protecting the corporate status quo in this country and have committed myself to a different course of serving public and community interests.

I’ll be selling my condo that I love so much because my commitment to public service on the one hand, and the size of my mortgage payment on the other, are inconsistent propositions at this point.

I am doing everything in my power to make sure the Employee Free Choice Act is finally made into law, because my grandfather, who worked on the assembly line at Chevrolet in the 1940s when the Taft-Hartley Act passed over President Truman’s veto, would have wanted it, and would be proud of me for doing it.

What will you change about yourself, your routines, your "comfort zone," so that real change comes to this country for you, your children, and grandchildren? What sacrifice will you make for a cause greater than yourself? Only you can answer these questions. *

Aaron Knapp is a lawyer, writer, and organizer living in San Francisco. He is the founder of the The Post Partisan. He can be reached at aarontknapp@gmail.com.

Green and black

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news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY The 2008 San Francisco Green Festival, held Nov. 14-16 at the Concourse Exhibition Center, is a well-established environmentalist event that featured more 1,000 vendors and was overseen by 1,600 volunteers, all united in promoting a greener future.

Yet the event’s keynote speaker, Cornel West, along with Van Jones of the Oakland-based Green Jobs for All and San Francisco-based Muslim minister the Rev. Christopher Muhammad, all conveyed an expanded definition of environmentalism that emphasized social justice and concerns specific to African American communities.

The idea behind this fusion of black and green is that our traditional view of environmentalism, with its focus on the health of ecosystems, needs to be expanded to social systems as well. In that context, Muhammad’s long fight against Lennar Corp.’s reckless approach to developing Bayview-Hunters Point (see "Question of intent," 11/28/07), in which his Muhammad University of Islam was exposed to toxic asbestos dust, takes on new dimensions.

As the first speaker of the day Nov. 15, Muhammad’s speech was geared toward local issues of concern. Muhammad continued to shed light on the "environmental racism" taking place in the Bay Area communities of Bayview-Hunters Point, North Richmond, and West Oakland, referring to the injustice as San Francisco’s "dirty little secret." Environmental racism ranges from citing polluting industries in poor communities of color to inequities in who has access to healthy food and preventive medical care.

Muhammed brought to light the issue of San Francisco’s declining middle class and minority populations, citing rising crime rates and housing costs as culprits. He also commended the Green Festival for bringing people together to hear about an expanded scope for environmentalism. "It’s a place where people can come and be informed about issues that impact them that have historically been left out in terms of this whole [green] movement," Muhammed said.

The last scheduled speaker of the day was prominent social critic and Princeton professor Cornel West, author of the new book Hope on a Tightrope (Hay House). Muhammad has worked with West in the past and praised him as a fellow advocate for social justice: "I’ve met with him on a number of occasions and worked with him on various projects. He’s an ally."

West stressed the importance of addressing social justice by saying, "There’s a need to target [environmental racism]. You need a coalition in order to bring hard pressure to bear, so it can become more of a national issue."

In many ways, the people are showing signs of resistance to change, as with the passage of Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in California, a result he calls "catastrophic." Still, he said, now, after a historic presidential election, is the moment to begin the transition. "It’s the end of an era. Thirty years of a country sleepwalking is over," West proclaimed to the cheering crowd.

He warned everyone not to believe that change will come overnight, reminding the crowd that it is ultimately up to us to push the change that we so desperately crave. "It’s not just about one messianic figure on his way to the White House," West said.

Green energy is the future of this country, West said, and one of the many ways we can foster positive change. The potential to lift up communities of color as part of the transition to new energy sources has been a big focus for Van Jones of Oakland’s Green for All, who spoke Nov. 16 about his new book, The Green Collar Economy (HarperCollins). He said we must "invent and invest our way" out of our current "gray economy" and into the new "green economy."

West also said the American people are still coming to understand the nature of the problems we face. "America has grown old, we’ve grown wealthy, but we have yet to grow up." But he ended his speech on an upbeat note, saying this age of conservation and greater awareness will create what Sly Stone called the "age of everyday people."

This year’s Green Festival exposed attendees to nontraditional environmental problems that pollute our social environment. The take-away from this new focus was that "going green" involves more than just driving a hybrid car and shifting to compact fluorescent lights — it means truly transforming our communities.

Editor’s Notes

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› tredmond@sfbg.com

Is anyone else appalled that the Obamas are not even considering sending their kids to public schools? Seriously. This may not seem like the most important issue on the president’s agenda, but I think it’s a big deal.

According to The New York Times, Michelle Obama has toured Sidwell Friends, the pricey private school where Chelsea Clinton was educated. She’s also looking at Maret School and Georgetown Day, two institutions that cater to the children of the rich and powerful. There are no public schools on the list.

Adrian Fenty, the mayor of Washington, DC has urged the Obamas to consider the schools that most DC kids attend, but he has little moral suasion: Mayor Fenty’s twin sons go to private school.

I’m a public school parent, and this really bothers me. What the Obamas are saying, in essence, is that there is no public school anywhere in the district good enough for their kids. They’re saying that if you’ve got the money, you should flee for the safety of private academies. Those lowly public places are just for the peasants.

That sort of statement matters. It matters when you think about the new president’s priorities. It matters when you think about the role he wants to play not just as a chief executive but as an agent of change and a moral compass for the nation and the world. In a way, it’s his first test, and he’s flunked it.

I’m sorry: the children of the president should go to public schools. The children of mayors, and city council members, and county supervisors, and city attorneys should go the same schools as the kids of the majority of their constituents. And if those schools aren’t as good as they’d like, well then, join the team. The rest of us are working like hell to make the under-funded, over-stressed public schools better. You can, too.

And by the way, Mr. President-elect, my public school in San Francisco is giving my son and daughter a great education. And they’re growing up with kids who aren’t just like them. That’s worth way more than your fancy $21,000 private school can ever offer.

* * * *

The election of Sup. Ed Jew two years ago gave ranked-choice voting a bad rep. This year, however, I think we saw how the system can work.

I understand the critics who say that old-fashioned runoffs — second-round elections held a few weeks after the general — are more fair and allow for excitement, like Tom Ammiano vs. Willie Brown in 1999 and Matt Gonzalez vs. Gavin Newsom in 2003. But they also create a problem, particularly when one side has a lot more money than the other.

Downtown had almost endless resources to try to defeat Eric Mar, David Chiu, and John Avalos. The Democratic Party, thanks to the progressive takeover this summer, was supporting the three progressives, as was labor, the Sierra Club, and the Tenants Union. And while party chair Aaron Peskin raised a sizeable sum for slate cards and labor spent cash on organizing efforts, that was dwarfed by the landlords and developers.

Mar, Chiu, and Avalos had the advantage of a high-turnout election. If they’d been forced to run again three weeks later, downtown would have again dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the races — and at some point, the good guys would run out of money. Plus, RCV gave the candidates an incentive to make alliances.

Not a perfect system, but better, I think, than the obvious alternative.

Behind “the Twinkie Defense”

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This month marks the 30th anniversary of the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who wanted to decriminalize marijuana, and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay individual to be elected to public office in America. November also marks the release of a film about the case titled Milk. Although a former policeman, homophobic Dan White, had confessed to the murders, he pleaded not guilty. I covered his trial for the Bay Guardian.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I said “Thank you” to the sheriff’s deputy who frisked me before I could enter the courtroom. However, this was a superfluous ritual, since any journalist who wanted to shoot White was prevented from doing so by wall-to-wall bulletproof glass.

Defense attorney Douglas Schmidt did not want any pro-gay sentiment polluting the verdict, but he wasn’t allowed to ask potential jurors if they were gay, so instead he would ask if they had ever supported controversial causes–“like homosexual rights, for instance.” One juror came from a family of cops — ordinarily, Schmidt would have craved for him to be on this jury — but the man mentioned, “I live with a roommate and lover.”

Schmidt phrased his next question: “Where does he or she work?”

The answer began, “He”–and the ball game was already over–“works at Holiday Inn.”

Through it all, White simply sat there as though he had been mainlining epoxy glue. He just stared directly ahead, his eyes focused on the crack between two adjacent boxes on the clerk’s desk, Olde English type identifiying them as “Deft” and “Pltff” for defendant and plaintiff. He did not testify. Rather, he told his story to several psychiatrists hired by the defense, and they repeated those details in court.

At a press conference, Berkeley psychiatrist Lee Coleman denounced the practice of psychiatric testimony, labeling it as “a disguised form of hearsay.”

* * *

J. I. Rodale, health food and publishing magnate, once claimed in an editorial in his magazine, Prevention, that Lee Harvey Oswald had been seen holding a Coca-Cola bottle only minutes after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He concluded that Oswald was not responsible for the killing because his brain was confused. He was a “sugar drunkard.” Rodale, who died of a heart attack during a taping of The Dick Cavett Show — in the midst of explaining how good nutrition guarantees a long life — called for a full-scale investigation of crimes caused by sugar consumption.

In a surprise move, Dan White’s defense team presented a similar bio-chemical explanation of his behavior, blaming it on compulsive gobbling down of sugar-filled junk-food snacks. This was a purely accidental attack. Dale Metcalf, a former member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters who had become a lawyer, told me how he happened to be playing chess with Steven Scheer, an associate of Dan White’s attorney.

Metcalf had just read Orthomolecular Nutrition by Abram Hoffer. He questioned Scherr about White’s diet and learned that, while under stress, White would consume candy bars and soft drinka. Metcalf recommended the book to Scherr, suggesting the author as an expert witness. In his book, Hoffer revealed a personal vendetta against doughnuts, and White had once eaten five doughnuts in a row.

During the trial, one psychiatrist stated that, on the night before the murders, while White was “getting depressed about the fact he would not be reappointed [as supervisor], he just sat there in front of the TV set, bingeing on Twinkies.” In my notebook, I immediately scribbled “the Twinkie defense,” and wrote about it in my next report.

This was the first time that phrase had been used, and it was picked up by the mainstream media.

In court, White just sat there in a state of complete control bordering on catatonia, as he listened to an assembly line of psychiatrists tell the jury how out of control he had been. One even testified that, “If not for the aggravating fact of junk food, the homicides might not have taken place.”

* * *

The Twinkie was invented in 1930 by James Dewar, who described it as “the best darn-tootin’ idea I ever had.” He got the idea of injecting little cakes with sugary cream-like filling and came up with the name while on a business trip, where he saw a billboard for Twinkle Toe Shoes. “I shortened it to make it a little zippier for the kids,” he said.

In the wake of the Twinkie defense, a representative of the ITT-owned Continental Baking Company asserted that the notion that overdosing on the cream-filled goodies could lead to murderous behavior was “poppycock” and “crap” — apparently two of the artificial ingredients in Twinkies, along with sodium pyrophosphate and yellow dye — while another spokesperson for ITT couldn’t believe “that a rational jury paid serious attention to that issue.”

Nevertheless, some jurors did. One remarked after the trial that “It sounded like Dan White had hypoglycemia.”

Doug Schmidt’s closing argument became almost an apologetic parody of his own defense. He told the jury that White did not have to be “slobbering at the mouth” to be subject to diminished capacity. Nor, he said, was this simply a case of “Eat a Twinkie and go crazy.”

When Superior Court Judge Walter Calcagno presented the jury with his instructions, he assured them access to the evidence, except that they would not be allowed to have possession of White’s .38 special and his ammunition at the same time. After all, these deliberations can get pretty heated. The judge was acting like a concerned schoolteacher offering Twinkies to students but witholding the cream-fillng to avoid any possible mess.

Each juror originally had to swear devotion to the criminal justice system. It was that very system that had allowed for a shrewd defense attorney’s transmutation of a double political execution into the mere White Sugar Murders. On the walls of the city, graffiti cautioned, “Eat a Twinkie — Kill a Cop!”

* * *

On the 50th anniversary of the Twinkie, inventor Dewar said, “Some people say Twinkies are the quintessential junk food, but I believe in the things. I fed them to my four kids, and they feed them to my 15 grandchildren. Twinkies never hurt them.” A year later, the world’s largest Twinkie was unveiled in Boston. It was 10 feet long, 3 feet 6 inches high, 3 feet 8 inches wide, and weighed more than a ton.

In January 1984, Dan White was released from prison. He had served a little more than five years. The estimated shelf life of a Twinkie was seven years. That’s two years longer than White spent behind bars. When he was released, that Twinkie in his cupboard was still edible. But perhaps, instead of eating it, he would have it bronzed.

In October 1985, he committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage. He taped a note to the windshield of his car, reading, “I’m sorry for all the pain and trouble I’ve caused.”

I accepted his apology. I had gotten caught in the post-verdict riot and was beaten by a couple of cops. My gait was affected, and ultimately, as a result I now walk with a cane. At the airport, I have to put the cane on the conveyor belt along with my overnight bag and my shoes, but then I’m handed another cane to go through the metal detector. You just never know what could be hidden inside a cane.

Paul Krassner is the author of Who’s to Say What’s Obscene: Politics, Culture and Comedy in America Today, to be published by City Lights Books in July 2009.


Click here
to read Krassner’s original coverage of the Dan White Trial from the Guardian in 1979.

>>Back to the Milk Issue

Hot flash gallery

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> johnny@sfbg.com

It was the summer of 1974, when shy, skinny, cute Daniel Nicoletta first stepped through the doors of Castro Camera into adulthood and history. His parents were snapshot enthusiasts. In his words, he had grown up "surrounded by Instamatic moments." But he was about to enter the time of his life. "I stopped in to determine where I would be developing my Super 8 film," he remembers. "I couldn’t get over how friendly the two guys [Harvey Milk and Scott Smith] were. I was 19 years old — I had no idea what cruising was at that point. Of course, within two months I was completely up to speed."

Nicoletta immediately captured the speed of life. His vérité photos of Milk, Smith, and San Francisco from the mid-1970s onward are often great and sometimes iconic. He soon sold his first photo out of Boys in the Sand (1971)and Bijou (1972), filmmaker Wakefield Poole’s hair salon-toy store-art gallery Hot Flash. A regular "Mr. Multimedia," Nicoletta was as interested in half-inch Portapak video as he was in still photography. In 1977, using Castro Camera as one of his chief meeting spots, he worked with David Waggoner and Marc Huestis to found the Gay Film Festival of Super 8 Films, an event now popularly known as the Frameline festival.

Nicoletta’s role in Milk’s life and role in queer film history provide some of the subtler facets of Gus Van Sant’s new film Milk. Those viewers familiar with Van Sant’s earlier work know of his focus on the photographic process: for example, a significant sequence within his 2003 film Elephant is spent in the darkroom, observing the efforts of a young photographer who may as well be a 21st century version of the young Nicoletta. "Even though I don’t say a lot, Lucas [Grabeel, who plays Nicoletta in the film] is a constant presence throughout Milk," Nicoletta notes, when asked about the interplay between his life and Van Sant’s moviemaking. "Gus keeps me there in the film as a cultural observer. In life, Gus has an eye for the role of still photography in culture, and he used my entity as a way of cross-referencing that."

Some of Nicoletta’s photos of Milk and Smith inform or inspire the look of particular scenes in Milk, such as a pie fight between Smith and Milk. "The art department was immersed in stills of all kinds," says Nicoletta, who switched to digital photography to document the making of the film. "I was impressed with all the things pinned up to their walls — the checkerboard analysis was lovely to look at." Nicoletta also lent his copy of the August 1974 San Francisco issue of the barely-subtextual gay culture magazine After Dark — a publication partly defined by the studio portraiture of East Coast gay photographers such as Ken Duncan and Jack Mitchell — to Milk‘s costume designer, Danny Glicker. "He [Glicker] creamed himself over that," Nicoletta says with an affectionate laugh. "There’s a postage stamp-sized photo of Victor Garber [who plays George Moscone in Milk] in it. I’d never noticed, but it took Danny Glicker a second to zero in on that. It was hilarious."

The Milk crew’s devotion to verisimilitude extended to Nicoletta’s camera — and to one of Milk’s two main cameras, one of the first Nikons ever made, which Nicoletta now owns. "They literally had me take jpgs of my camera and Harvey’s camera so they could cast those instruments to the letter," he says. "Harvey’s camera has his name engraved on the bottom. Scott’s [Smith] mom gave it to me when Scott passed away. It’s a real treasure. I never use it, but I saw him use it. Harvey and Scott also had a second Nikon that was their primary camera, and I did use that one quite a bit. We both passed film through the same camera, which was kind of cool — kind of incestuous."

This radical sense of brotherhood informed both Nicoletta and Milk’s photography. "Harvey took great joy in photographing people," Nicoletta observes, noting that a chance to take aerial photos of Christo’s Running Fence was one of Milk’s artistic and free-spirited moments as his political duties increased. "If you look at Harvey’s body of work, one thing that comes through with political potency is that a presiding aesthetic in his life was male-to-male love. You can then zoom out even further and say that the stimulus for his political activism was the sanctification and preservation of male-to-male love."

It’s characteristically modest of Nicoletta to turn an interview about his photography into a discussion of Milk’s endeavors with a camera — everything he says about Milk’s photos is true of his own work, which captures Milk and Smith’s relationship, for instance, with great warmth. He gives vivid background to some of his best-known Milk photos, such as an image of the inaugural walk to City Hall in January 1978. "We were just arriving at the steps," he remembers. "What’s great about that photo is that it’s just one of so many details of the history of the queer community that have unfolded on those very steps. I think I could do a whole book on the steps of City Hall at this point."

The prospect of a Nicoletta monograph is something to savor, even if he jokes that his friends "all roll their eyes to the back of their head and say, ‘There she goes again about her book’," whenever he mentions the prospect. As a documentarian of history, Nicoletta understands the necessity and gravity of a book of his work. He has other excellent ideas, such as an era-based collection that would bring in stylized images by Steven Arnold — like him, one of the chief people to visually capture queer artistic forces such as the Cockettes and Angels of Light. "I loved working with Reggie [of the Cockettes] because the first photo I ever saw of him was in Gilles Larrain’s [1973] Idols," Nicoletta says. "That book just rocked my world. I thought, ‘Who are these people, and where can I find them?’ And I found them."

Nicoletta found those people — the evidence is in books such as Gay by the Bay and Adrian Brooks’ new Flights of Angels (Arsenal Pulp Press, 224 pages, $24.95), and in the photo collection of the San Francisco Public Library. As a chronicler of gay life, he can be seen as a West Coast public counterpart to East Coast photographers such as Peter Hujar, Mark Morrisroe, and David Armstrong, and Nan Goldin. "In a sense I’ve sort of stayed provincial. That’s a little bit self-preservationist," he says, after mentioning the direct influence of the Bay Area studio photographer Crawford Barton on his work. "It’s so great to have a 30-year arc and be mindful of where you are and grateful for things like the mentorship of people like Harvey Milk and Scott Smith, and the inspiration of people like the Angels of Light. I’m for slow growth."

>>Back to the Milk Issue

Holiday Guide 2008: Think global, shop local

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Think global, shop local

It’s so easy to shop online. And it’s easy to go to a big chain store and pick up all your bargains in one place. And in the end, what does it get you?
Not that much.

San Francisco is full of neighborhoods that are full of locally-owned, independent businesses. They’re part of the flavor of the city, part of the reason we all live here. Their taxes pay for libraries and parks and schools. Their owners are active in the community, hiring local people and keeping the streets alive. And they exist only because people shop there.

When you shop locally, you get a lot more. "When you shop online, your money could be going across the Earth," explained Marc Caposino, managing partner of Fresh Public, a marketing firm that has a city contract to promote local shopping. "The character of our neighborhoods is based on local shopping, and if we don’t pay attention to that, we’ll lose it."

You also do a lot to help the economy in this deepening recession. Every dollar you spend in a locally-owned business circulates through the local economy; the local bookstore owner takes the money and spends it at the local shoe store, where the owner spends it at a local restaurant — and all that helps the recovery. If you spend the same dollar at a chain store or shopping online, the profits are whisked out of town instantly.

The numbers are pretty dramatic. Based on an analysis provided by the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, using a formula created by the consulting firm Civic Economics, if every one of the Guardian‘s 593,000 readers spends $100 of their holiday money shopping at a local business, that would inject $99 million into the San Francisco economy. That’s nearly $15 million more dollars than we would see if that money was spent in chain stores.

The Guardian is part of a national shop-local campaign, coordinated through the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. The city of San Francisco has a shop-local effort too, as does Oakland. Many other cities are picking up the theme.

And it’s not as if you have to give up anything. I learned long ago that most local bookstores can offer the same service as Amazon.com. If you want a book your local independent store doesn’t carry, the folks there can order it for you and get it just as fast as Amazon can — and you won’t even pay shipping charges. "If you’re looking for something specific, you can probably get it somewhere in San Francisco," Caposino said. It’s worth a few minutes to look.

Tell us how and where you shopped this year and enter to win hundreds of dollars in gift certificates from local businesses! Send email to molly@sfbg.com with subject head SHOP LOCAL STORY CONTEST.

More Holiday Guide 2008.

Volume 43 Number 8 Flip-through Edition

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Political Theater

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› kimberly@sfbg.com

Pair an effusive and extroverted, larger-than-life politico like Harvey Milk — complete with community-forging charisma, panoramic outlook, and labyrinthine City Hall machinations — with a reserved, perpetually-outside-looking-in independent, à la director Gus Van Sant? That feature-film odd-coupling might have understandably strained some brains in Hollywood. Making the seldom-seen moments of otherwise-secret or neglected lives visible has seemingly been Van Sant’s calling, and his most memorable films — 1985’s Mala Noche, 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy, 1991’s My Own Private Idaho, 2003’s Elephant, and even the Oscar-gathering 1997 Good Will Hunting — have relied on his coolly unblinking, surprisingly cerebral yet gently empathetic eye, whether focused on Mexican immigrants, ’70s-era oblivion-seekers, Northwestern hustlers, a hidden savant, or disaffected teenagers.

Still, those leitmotifs — entwined with Van Sant’s terrible, tangible sense of romance with his outsiders, artists, and lost souls, as well as the way his camera seems to fall head over heels for his characters — made Van Sant a natural to make Milk, after Oliver Stone’s aborted feature-film attempt to tell the slain San Francisco supervisor’s story. "There is always that question: why I haven’t done a film like this earlier," Van Sant confessed, clearing his throat for the umpteenth time while agreeing that he hasn’t ever quite done a film like Milk. "Yeah, I hadn’t done a big movie, so there were people around who were like, ‘Can you handle it? Can it be done?’ They think that way. Since there was no business model, they were like, ‘No, he can’t, because he makes these scruffy, little movies. Too big a gamble, you know.’

"That’s a part of Hollywood, but it’s kind of like safe bets: it can make bad stuff happen as easily as good stuff, and it has its own closed policies like the old conservative City Hall-type policies. ‘New supervisors who haven’t handled the job before are incapable and they’re screwing things up.’"

Thankfully the gamble paid off and the tale of California’s first openly gay politician has been told with elegance, poetry, and not a little heart-stirring, inspirational grace, by the man whom biographer James Robert Parish describes as "the standard bearer of America’s ‘queer cinema’" — one who fuses extreme close-ups, handheld shots, and found footage in a collaborative, textural approach that lends a Kodachrome pop-culty feel to his films. The process makes for "beautiful pictures every time," as a windblown Sean Penn put it at a Ritz Carlton press conference after Milk‘s Oct. 28 world premiere at the Castro Theatre.

Seated at the middle of a long table between Penn and Josh Brolin, who portrays Milk’s killer Dan White, as they traded friendly jabs, Van Sant remained mostly silent — physically at the center, but an observer apart at the same time. Later in a hotel suite, face to face with a single interviewer, the director seemed equally out of place, folded uncomfortably into a plush chair, arms tightly crossed over a tan jeans jacket sporting a "No on 8" sticker, with a small, nylon, bright-blue dollar-store-style backpack by his side. He more closely resembles a 56-year-old teacher or elder-care worker than a Hollywood insider.

The latter role is evidently still alien to him. His first brush with Milk came in 1978 while he was driving across the country and heard on the radio that the supervisor was shot. Though he later saw the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, it never occurred to him to make a film about the politician. "It seemed like a very big story," Van Sant said. Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy "were stories that were devised to be made with really low budgets, like $20,000. So it was never like, ‘Oh, we can make a story about City Hall with $20,000.’ I guess I was always coming at filmmaking from not really being in the business, but knowing that I could get a hold of or save up my own money to the point where I’d have $20,000 and I could actually make a feature."

In the process of making Milk, the filmmaker admitted that he had to leave out many details that "I really like and things that sort of explain the situation. We suggest things. We explain this new law that enabled people to elect their supervisors from their districts, but we didn’t explain that the people up to that point that had to run city-wide resembled a different and maybe more antiquated type of politician. They were more, I guess, conservative. They were more business-oriented."

If San Francisco is palpable as a character in Milk, then City Hall is that elegantly shambolic figure’s brain, and Van Sant effectively used the Beaux Arts space, which harks back to classical forms, to his own dramatic ends. A down-the-rabbit-hole corridor leading to supervisors’ chambers becomes a pulsing nerve center visually rhyming with the characters’ stratagems. The sweeping staircase and balconies become the backdrop for Milk’s and White’s clashing trajectories, and the building itself becomes the spotless stage for Milk’s political birth and death.

"What I usually try and do, in general, is to connect the characters to a timeless quality, so it’s not necessarily situated in the specific time they’re in," said Van Sant. "So if they’re in City Hall and there’s a beaux-arts classical relief on the ceiling, if you frame it correctly, they can kind of look like Roman senators. You can get this timeless quality of people trading votes and betraying each other for as long as there’s been a forum and a senate.

"There were certain things in the script and in Harvey’s life — the famous line is ‘How do you like my new theater,’ which is what he says to Cleve [Jones, played by Emile Hirsch]: ‘Always take the stairs, never dress up, never blend in, make a show of it, use the whole space.’ I thought of that as a centerpiece of the whole film. That scene is one of my favorites because it was kind of like Harvey, who was a stage manager and was in theater. This was his new forum, his new theater, his new proscenium, with which to create new stuff — in this case, gay rights and other things that he thought were important, like education and help for minorities and seniors."

The question that arises so often among those who care about gay rights is: Why wasn’t Milk released before the Nov. 4 election, when it might have energized voters to shut down Proposition 8, a battle so similar to Milk’s charge against Proposition 6? As Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black said, "I didn’t know this [movie] would be about Prop. 8, but I don’t think this fight is over."

"I don’t really decide when movies should come out," said Van Sant. "The distributors came up with that." He spelled out some of the thoughts behind the Nov. 26 theatrical release: worries included "whether or not the elements of the story were so like the political moment that the film wouldn’t have a life after the election," and "whether people are too busy with the election to go see the movie. Are people overtaxed with politics to go see a political movie?" As a compromise, the late-October Castro Theatre premiere was arranged to get Milk and its overall message into the media eye, while still opening it into November through January, the Academy campaign season.

"Yeah, I didn’t make the call," repeats Van Sant, somewhat regretfully and shedding perhaps a smidge of that cherished detachment. "Harvey would have opened it in October."

Milk opens Wed/26 at the Castro Theatre, with additional Bay Area openings Fri/28 and Dec. 5.


>>Back to the Milk Issue

Sleaze, if you please

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Thanksgiving is a time for wholesome family togetherness. All the more reason, then, to get your sex on "Holiday Heat," a pre-Turkey Day celebration of retro sleaze. First up is freshly deceased Gerard Damiano’s 1972 Devil in Miss Jones, which followed his prior year’s Deep Throat as the second biggest porn movie ever. (Or at least before celebutantes like Paris Hilton and John Wayne Bobbitt crashed the market.) Throat is historic but amateur; Devil is actually kinda good. An impressively berserk Georgia Spelvin plays the suicidal spinster virgin alllowed to experience all the sin she missed out on before goin’ to hell. "I love you! I’ve waited so long for you!" she says to erotic "teacher" Harry Reems — well, actually directly to his cock. Moments later, Miss Jones is doing double penetration, other chicks, butt plugs, bananas, enemas, snakes (actual ones, not "trouser snakes"), et al. What other porn movie ends like Sartre’s No Exit?

The action goes softcore via 1975’s Teenage Hitchhikers, sole feature for director Gerry Sidley and scenarist Rod Whipple. Bird (Sandra Cassel) and Mouse (Chris Jordan) are two awfully mature "teenagers" traveling "the highway of life seeking truth and beauty" — though they’re blithely OK with sex for money, robbery, commune orgies, and numerous other deliberately over-the-top episodes. The endlessly quotable dialogue and full-frontal frolicking make this drive-in obscurity a find. Last, there’s an evening of "Sexy Trailer Trash" from Yerba Buena Center for the Arts film and video curator Joel Shepard’s personal collection. It dangles previews for such tasty vintage R and XXX treats as Hot T-Shirts, Swinging Stewardesses, Rhinestone Cowgirls, and California Gigolo (trailers span 1968-82). Never mind the tofurkey — get your stuffing early here.

"HOLIDAY HEAT"

Devil in Miss Jones, Thurs/20, 7:30 p.m.

Teenage Hitchhikers, Fri/21, 7:30 p.m.

"Sexy Trailer Trash," Sat/22, 7:30 p.m.

All shows $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF

www.ybca.org

Where’s Harry?

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History is written by the winners, the survivors — and sometimes the people who try the hardest. And while Milk hews pretty closely to reality, some of the people who lived through the story say a few key pieces are missing.

On the night Sup. Harvey Milk was assassinated, for example, a crowd gathered in the Castro for a march to City Hall. In the movie, the key protagonists — Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg — pull the spontaneous event together. Sup. Tom Ammiano, who was there, remembers it a bit differently.

"The whole thing started at Harry Britt’s house," Ammiano told us.

Britt, who was appointed as Milk’s successor on the board, "lived at 16th and Castro, and we were all gathered there on his steps" Ammiano said. "I asked what I could do, and he told me to run out and get some black ribbons. So I went to Cliff’s Hardware and bought out every black ribbon in the place.

"Harry was the focal point. It all started with him."

But Britt — one of Milk’s confidants and by any standard one of the most important gay politicians in the city’s history — isn’t mentioned in the movie.

There are, of course, plenty of events and people left out of what could only be, at best, a snapshot of history. Milk isn’t a documentary; it’s a feature film. Jones, who served as a script consultant, told us that "the hardest decision was what to cut…. There were a lot of people close to Harvey who didn’t make it."

It’s no secret that Jones and Britt are not close, and that the former supervisor has been out of the political limelight for years. He told me this week that he doesn’t want to talk about the film. ("I had the privilege to know Harvey myself, and I don’t want to see him through someone else’s eyes," he said.) But still, the absence of Britt, who picked up and carried Milk’s torch for many long years, is striking.

Ammiano, who loved the movie overall, agreed that it was odd not to see Britt depicted in any of the key scenes. "It’s funny when you live through history, when you were there, and then to see how it’s reported," he said. "History is written by he or she who tells it."

And while, to a certain extent, the movie feels like the Cleve Jones Show (and Jones happily told me he feels like he’s becoming "the most famous homosexual you know"), Ammiano credited Jones with pushing to make the film happen.

"Cleve wanted the story told, and for 15 years he’s been pushing it," Ammiano said. "It’s a huge personal accomplishment for him, and this is his reward."

Read states

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ISBN REAL America has just ended its quadrennial psychoanalysis of every state in the union, ultimately prescribing a mood enhancer. I’m glad that appointment is over, of course.

But I have to say I’m gonna miss watching the candidates participate in their grueling dance marathon with vain, neurotic America, a contest that involved gliding from state to state at breakneck speeds in a perversion of the open-road mythology. I’m gonna miss those blow-up maps of the nation, so detailed that CNN will have to team up with Google Earth to outyell the competition again in 2012. I’m gonna miss those tireless attempts to identify regional fears and tickle spots.

Relieved of most of the suspense after election night, I was appreciative of those states in the presidential and congressional races that resisted the biblical swiftness with which most of the country’s decisions were established. I’d clicked on so many interactive maps online in recent months that I still needed something to do with my hands. For a while I could continue to will my candidate that much more of a mandate and try to inoculate him from the threat of the filibuster, but the maps only stuck around for so long.

Luckily, we Americans can buy into our newly minted sense of awkward and ambivalent unity with a collection of essays about the 50 states, gathered by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey from some of the heaviest hitters in American letters. Even if unity isn’t really your thing right now — say you were embittered by the histrionic ironies dealt to civil rights in this election, or you see the inspiring national results as part of a depressing historical cycle that amounts to a giant game of chicken — this book is a good way to start keeping closer tabs on your compatriots. No matter the basis of your newfound interest, State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Ecco, 608 pages, $29.95) provides ample opportunity to either embrace the rest of the country or establish a healthy academic distance from it.

Putting 50 writers to the task of evoking a particular state generates, not surprisingly, some mixed results. Ha Jin’s account of perfecting his written English in Jesus-saturated Georgia (the variety of Bible versions thrust upon him served as a Rosetta Stone of American phraseology) is worth a hundred of Charles Bock’s solicitous recollections of a Vegas-pawnshop childhood. And while Mohammed Naseehu Ali’s take on Michigan is a little pedestrian, I aspire to overwriting as good as Carrie Brownstein’s "Washington."

But the project as a whole is a success — a nice surprise, given the perils of foregrounding the diversity of a country in the grips of corporate metastasis. Not that those corporations will necessarily exist in the near future. Or the states, even. Come to think of it, this book might become quite the collector’s item. 

Past, present, future

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> johnny@sfbg.com

REVIEW As a programming move, the Roxie Theater’s decision to screen Rob Epstein’s classic 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk is both a no-brainer and a bit of casual brilliance. It’s a no-brainer because of Milk mania. It’s a little stroke of genius because this great documentary’s return, one week before the theatrical premiere of Gus Van Sant’s feature at the Castro, provides plentiful compare-and-contrast opportunities for all those wise enough to know that they need to see both. This isn’t the first time that the Roxie — which presented Tsai Ming-liang’s homage to movie theaters Goodbye, Dragon Inn during the Castro’s days of turmoil in 2004 — has chimed in like a smart kid brother.

Epstein’s movie is a classic partly because of its historical contents, but there’s a definite mastery to the way in which he assembles and presents that material — if today’s makers of stylized docs haven’t learned from his command, that command has at least influenced Van Sant. The Times of Harvey Milk doesn’t dig into day-to-day San Francisco politics with the same relish or perhaps even specificity of the Van Sant movie (which recalls Barbet Schroeder’s 1990 Reversal of Fortune in its affection for scenes of creative, energetic groupthink). But journeying through candlelight vigil and through riot, it remains the most dramatically powerful response to Harvey Milk. His life and death were the stuff of great drama as well as of history.

The time for The Times of Harvey Milk is now, once again: more than a number connects and separates Proposition 6 of Milk’s era with Proposition 8 today. Thanks to Epstein’s compassionate documentary eye, his talking heads are fully realized human characters, with a range of personalities: the fervor of Tom Ammiano, the gruff candor of union machinist Jim Elliot (who thought the police raids on gay bars were fine until he met Milk), the contemplative sadness and strength of Sally M. Gearhart. Other touches, such as Harvey Fierstein’s uncharacteristically stoic voice-over, are surprising. And Epstein doesn’t glorify or beatify Milk when presenting the relationship between Milk and Dan White — his look at their interactions shows the sharp, competitive edges of Milk’s humanism.

The 2004 anniversary edition of the Times of Harvey Milk DVD is a treasure trove of material providing greater insight into Dan White. But it’s important to revisit this movie outside of the isolated home box office. There are generations of people who, if they’ve seen it, have only seen The Times of Harvey Milk on video at home. Like the man at the core of its subject, Epstein’s documentary thrives in a public, theatrical setting. The events it collects and captures are still relevant to all the random people who will find themselves united by a decision to watch this movie in a cinema — people who will step outside of the Roxie into a city and a world not that different from the one where Harvey Milk died and lived, one that is demanding collective action, and his spirit, once again.

THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK

Opens Fri/21, $5–$10

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF

(415) 431-3611

www.roxie.com


>>Back to the Milk Issue

The apathy and the ecstacy

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› marke@sfbg.com

“OMG! Marriage is the new AIDS!” a friend screeched to me through her cell phone after witnessing West Hollywood’s cop-clashing response to the passage of Proposition 8. She meant, of course, the unexpected, exhilarating, and somewhat clumsy reemergence of queer protest energy that has overtaken many a civic center and public park since the November election and its attendant LGBT letdown.

Folks are dusting off their framed ACT-UP poster collections, those old-time “When do we want it? Now!” chants are filling gay air space, and former Queer Nation, Gran Fury, and Boy with Arms Akimbo enthusiasts like myself are feeling nostalgic sensations in their radical nether regions that have suddenly freed us, however temporarily, from the tyranny of approaching middle age. The spirit is back! Let’s tear some shit up.

Much has been made of this “Great Gay Awakening” in the homoblogosphere. Is it heading toward long-overdue political organization or a White Night Riots reprise? How can it be effectively harnessed? What the heck should one wear? And some interesting things have already resulted from it. Gay issues have once again taken the national stage, and everyone’s looking for leadership. The “great national conversation on race” has exploded in the gay community, with some prominent hotheads blaming the African American community for Proposition 8’s win, and many queers of color finding their own voice in response.

But let’s hit the snooze on the “awakening” for quick drag minute and consider one of the thorniest questions floating around. Where was all that energy when it could have done some freaking good? “I felt totally apathetic about gay marriage until it was taken away,” another friend said. And at a recent rally I overheard “Why did it take losing something to get us out on the streets? Haven’t we learned anything from the past?”

In terms of past-learning, it’s not as if Harvey Milk and the Milk movie haven’t been the omnipresent topic on everyone’s cocktail-pickled lips all year. Were we too busy ogling Milk actor James Franco’s hip knit neckwear to co-opt Harvey’s winning strategy of inclusivity, outreach, and preemptive rallying against the infamous Briggs Initiative? People have pointed fingers until they’re blue in the wrist at the various perceived missteps of the No on 8 campaign. But a campaign is only as good as its participants — if the queer community can organize a 300-city mass protest around a viral e-mail, as we did Nov. 15, then why didn’t Harvey’s lessons on how to effect political change sink in earlier?

Of course I have a theory. I think we’re obsessed with Harvey’s martyrdom, paralyzing him in the glistening amber of legend rather than the actively engaging him in the now. His tragic mortification makes a great story, an epic drama for us eager drama queens. It sells screenplays in Hollywood. Milk, for all the good that may come of its release, would never have been green-lighted without Dan White. Harvey Milk the haloed icon — the beatified victim whose presence can only be summoned in times of gay grief — has been elevated in queer culture above Harvey Milk the canny tactician, the voluble freak, the erring human with restless hands and solid instincts.

Reflecting on Harvey’s sacrifice is important. “Saint Harvey: The Life and Afterlife of a Modern Gay Martyr” was the title of an extremely moving 2004 display at the GLBT Historical Society, one that presented the supervisor’s personal effects in various reliquaries, the bullet-riddled suit in which he was murdered suspended as if from a crucifix. Inspired by “Saint Harvey,” artist Leo Herrera displayed graphic, impressionistic photographs of the suit in 2007 as part of his “San Francisco: Sex & Icons” series, recontemporizing Harvey the martyr for San Francisco’s young alternaqueer population.

Both those shows were beautiful — and helped keep Harvey’s story in play. Milk, however hagiographic, will probably do the same. That’s great, and if it inspires the community to finally fund the Historical Society enough to establish a queer history museum here — a sickening absence in San Francisco, of all places — we may be able to at last live and learn from the past rather than just light a candle to it.

For most queers now, though, the thought of Harvey Milk brings only grave tears and intimations of tragedy. Maybe the current emergency will finally break the glass around St. Harvey and inspire us to take the practical examples he left us seriously.

>>Read an interview with artist Leo Herrera and view images of Harvey as icon

>>Back to the Milk Issue

Whiskey In The Jar

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› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea:

When my boyfriend has been drinking, sometimes he can’t ejaculate. He says he can still come and all his other physical responses back this up. But he still has an erection after this happens. Is he telling the truth, or maybe just trying to make me feel better when I sometimes don’t make him come?

Love,

Which?

Dear Which:

Lack of erection, delayed orgasm, and delayed ejaculation (not always the same thing, as your question demonstrates) and extremely delayed orgasm and ejaculation (like several days hence) are common side-effects of excessive drinking. Orgasm without ejaculation is usually something prostate-related, causing retrograde (backward) ejaculation, or some sort of nerve damage, or or or … but none of those would create occasional, post-partying lack of ejaculate.

I think there’s a good chance that he is fudging, a.k.a. faking it, but in the benign manner in which a usually-orgasmic woman might fake it, a little, when it did feel pretty good but she’s tired and knows you are too and is graciously offering an out. Is that so wrong?

Sometimes a guy doesn’t come. Very rarely is it his partner’s fault and caused by sudden-onset lack of hotness syndrome. If extra stimulation (adding in a mouth or a hand) doesn’t do it, try cheerfully offering to quit and see if he stops claiming to have come. You can’t "make" someone come (unless he’s a bull and you’re a vet wielding an electro-stimulus device). You can only help. Sometimes there’s just no helping someone.

Love,

Andrea

Dear Andréa: I have a drinking problem that wouldn’t be such a problem if it wasn’t seemingly getting in the way of my sex life. On the other hand, I think it would be reasonable for someone to hear all the details and say that the drinking isn’t the only issue. I think I’m going to go look into "whiskey dick" and see if the Internet can guide me. Failing that, whom do I turn to? I had a shrink when I was little, but I really didn’t think much of it. I believe I’d like to sit across from someone in a nonjudgmental setting and see if they can sort this shit out for me. Any recommendations?

Love,

Drinking Man

Dear Man:

Judging by the somewhat convoluted quality of your opening paragraph, I think you probably already know that "drinking is causing my problem/problem is causing my drinking" is a chicken/egg problem, and not one I’m in a position to solve for you. Since it is a chicken and egg problem, though, I’d venture to say that it both cannot be solved and shouldn’t be solved. In other words, who cares? You have at least three things going on: whatever originally brought you to drinking too much; drinking too much; and the sexual (and quite likely other) sequelae from drinking too much. Go get help!

A therapist one is dragged to as a little boy, for reasons unclear to one at the time and since further fuzzy-fied by time’s crappy Xerox machine, is not to be taken as the model for what a therapist can be or can do for you. You are a grown-up, you’re beating up your body, and you can’t get a hard-on. Get help! Get some names through the local Association of Marriage and Family Therapists or a similar referral resource (I know a ton of therapists but it’s kind of uncool to plug them in the column). Call three or four and book someone for an intro session or phone consult, and don’t hire anyone you don’t think you’ll want to talk to.

That would be that, but I’m a little concerned by what you mean by "whiskey dick." Everyone who drinks will encounter alcohol’s well-known "the spirit is willing, but …" effects from time to time. But if your current difficulty is global, occurring whether or not you’ve been drinking, rather than just the result of a binge-y night, then I’m a little worried. Drinking a whole lot a whole lot can cause long-term damage — it can mess up testosterone production among other ills — so I’d be happier hearing that you can get a hard-on (and that your balls aren’t shrinking), it’s just that you often don’t because you’ve often been drinking. Dude, see a doctor. I cannot guarantee he or she won’t be judgmental (I can pretty much guarantee s/he will, actually). But buck up and find out if there’s something really going wrong.

While you’ve got the doctor’s attention, you’ve got a chance to ask for Viagra or one of its little friends. Getting a hard-on is not going to solve all your problems but at least it would be pleasant while it lasted.

I close with this helpful suggestion from the official Viagra patient information Web site: "To help avoid symptoms of ED, it’s best to avoid drinking large amounts of alcohol before having sex."
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.

Politics behind the picture

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The new Harvey Milk movie, which opens later this month, begins as a love story, a sweet love story about two guys who meet in a subway station and wind up fleeing New York for San Francisco. But after that, the movie gets political — in fact, by Hollywood standards, it’s remarkably political.

The movie raises a lot of issues that are alive and part of San Francisco politics today. The history isn’t perfect (see sidebar), but it is compelling. And while we mourn Milk and watch Milk, we shouldn’t forget what the queer hero stood for.

Milk started out as something of a pot-smoking hippie. “The ’70s were a hotbed of everything,” Sup. Tom Ammiano remembered. “Feminism, civil rights, antiwar.” Milk’s early campaigns grew out of that foment. “Sure, he wanted to be elected,” Ammiano told us. “But the main ingredient was courage. He was fighting with the cops when they raided the bars … what he did was dangerous.”

Milk never would have been elected supervisor without district elections — and the story of district elections, and community power, ran parallel to Milk’s own story, for better and for worse.

Milk tried twice to win a seat on the at-large Board of Supervisors and never made the final cut. But in the mid-1970s, a coalition of community leaders, frustrated that big money controlled city policy, began organizing to change the way supervisors were elected. The shift from an at-large system to a district one in 1976 was a transformational moment for the city.

“I think that San Francisco doesn’t always appreciate the sea change that district elections brought,” Cleve Jones, a queer activist and friend of Milk who helped Dustin Black write the script for Milk, told us. “It wasn’t just important to the various communities that had been locked out of power at City Hall — it was the glue that began to grow the coalitions.”

Milk was elected as part of what became the most diverse board in the city’s history, with Asian, black, and gay representatives who came out of community organizations. The board, of course, also included Dan White, a conservative Irish Catholic and former cop. And it was the assassination of Milk and Mayor George Moscone by Sup. White — and the civic heartbreak, chaos, and confusion that followed — that allowed downtown forces to repeal district elections in 1980. That gave big money and big business control of the board for another 20 years, a reign that ended only when district elections returned in 2000.

Milk was a gay leader, but he was also a tenant activist, public power supporter, advocate for police reform, supporter of commuter taxes on downtown workers, and coalition-builder who helped bring together the labor movement and the queer community. It started, ironically, with the Teamsters.

“Those of us who came out of the antiwar movement remembered that the Teamsters supported Richard Nixon until the very last moment,” Jones said. “And they were seen as one of the most homophobic of all the unions.”

But in the 1970s, the Teamsters were at war with the Coors Brewing Company, and trying to get San Francisco bars to stop serving Coors beer. Allan Baird, a Teamsters leader who lived in the Castro District, saw an opportunity and contacted Milk, who agreed to help — if the Teamsters would start hiring gay truck drivers.

“It wasn’t just San Francisco and California,” Jones recalled. “We got Coors beer out of every gay bar in North America.” And gays started driving beer trucks.

Today, the queer-labor alliance is one of the most powerful, effective, and lasting political forces in San Francisco.

Milk was never popular among the wealthier and more established sectors of the gay community; he believed in a populist brand of politics that wasn’t afraid to take the fight to the streets — and beyond San Francisco. A central theme of the film is the fight against Proposition 6, a 1978 measure by conservative state Sen. John Briggs that would have barred homosexuals from teaching the public schools.

Milk, defying the mainstream political strategists, insisted on debating Briggs in some of the most right-wing parts of the state. He refused to downplay the gay-rights issues. And when Prop. 6 went down, it was the end of that particular homophobic crusade.

Milk was always an outsider, and he ran for office as a foe of the Democratic Party machine. “His campaign for state Assembly was all about Harvey vs. the machine,” former Sup. Harry Britt told us. “His main supporter was [Sup.] Quentin Kopp. He didn’t run as the liberal in the race; he ran against the machine.” And for much of the next 20 years, progressives in San Francisco found themselves fighting what became the Brown-Burton machine, controlled by Willie Brown and John Burton.

It’s too bad the movie wasn’t released early enough to have had an impact on Prop. 8, the anti same-sex marriage measure that just passed in California. Some critics of the No on 8 campaign say the message was far too soft, and that a little Harvey-Milk-style campaigning might have helped.

But for us, one of the most striking things about the movie is the fact that Milk and his lover, Scott Smith, were able to leave New York with very little money, arrive in San Francisco, rent an apartment on their unemployment checks, and open a camera store. That wouldn’t be possible today; the Harvey Milks of 2008 can’t live in the Castro — and many can’t live anywhere in San Francisco. The city is too expensive.

In fact, for all the victories Milk won, for all the successes of the movement he helped to build, much of his agenda is still unfulfilled, even in his hometown.

The first time Harvey Milk gives a public speech in the film, he’s standing on a soapbox … literally. He brings out a box with “soap” written on the side; a funny gag, but a serious and telling moment for him and San Francisco.

The issues that Milk spoke so passionately about in that speech included police reform, ending the war on drugs, protecting tenants and controlling rents, and improving parks and protecting people’s rights to use them liberally — all issues with as much resonance today as they had back then.

The movie leaves us with a painful question. For all the celebration of Milk’s legacy by San Franciscans of various political stripes, why have we made so little progress on some of his signature issues? We celebrate the martyr — but often forget what the man really advocated.

Support for gay rights is de rigueur for anyone who aspires to public office in San Francisco. But a quarter of city residents still voted to take away same-sex marriage rights in this election. Many older gay men today are barely able afford their AIDS medication and rent. And transgender people and other nontraditional types are still ostracized, unable to get good jobs, and sometimes treated contemptuously when they seek help from their government.

Sure, marijuana is supposedly legal for medical uses in California and pot clubs proliferate around San Francisco. But even these sick patients are still targeted by the federal government and its long arms in San Francisco, including former US Attorney Kevin Ryan, whom Mayor Gavin Newsom named his top crime advisor and who is now seeking to crackdown on the pot clubs. Why, 30 years after Milk was shot, does one have to claim an ailment or illness to smoke a joint in this town?

Two-thirds of city residents are renters, a group Milk championed with gusto, but we barely beat a state initiative in June that would have abolished rent control. Housing is getting steadily more expensive. And in this election, Newsom and his downtown allies opposed Proposition B, an affordable housing measure, and Proposition M, a common sense measure to prohibit landlords from harassing their tenants. Such harassment is a common tactic to force tenants from rent-controlled units, even though the City Attorney’s Office is currently suing the city’s biggest landlord, Skyline Realty, for its well-documented history of harassment. Newsom may be the champion of same-sex marriage, but when it comes to issues like tenants’ rights, we suspect that Milk would be appalled at Newsom’s gall.

Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union noted that in the wake of Milk’s death and before the repeal of district elections, San Francisco established rent control and limits on condo conversions. The tenant movement has grown steadily stronger and more sophisticated, he said, as it had to in order to counter increasing economic and political pressures and creative gambits by landlords.

“The city has gentrified phenomenally since that time, and that’s put tremendous pressure on tenants and on condo conversions,” Gullicksen told us. “It continues to be a real struggle.”

Police reform was also a huge issue for Milk and his gay contemporaries, who suffered more than most groups from the behavior of thuggish cops protected by weak oversight rules and a powerful union. And today, the Police Officers Association is stronger and meaner than ever, but the oversight has improved little, as both the Guardian and San Francisco Chronicle have explored with investigations in recent years.

And in our public parks, San Francisco officials in recent years have banned smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, playing amplified music, and even gathering in large numbers without expensive, restrictive permits. Even in the Castro, where Milk and his allies took it as a basic right to gather in the streets, Newsom and the NIMBYs unilaterally cancelled Halloween celebrations and used police to chase away citizens with water trucks.

Is this really the city Harvey Milk was trying to create? In the film, he talks about transforming San Francisco into a vibrant, tolerant beacon that would set an example for the rest of the country, telling his compatriots, “We have got to give them hope.”

Well, with hope now making a comeback, perhaps San Francisco can finally follow Milk’s lead on the issues he cared about most.

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