Volume 43 Number 24-

March 11 – March 17, 2009

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Opening up

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› sarah@sfbg.com

Shortly after his election in November 2008, President Barack Obama received a letter from Public Citizen and 59 other nonprofit groups noting that the public’s access to information about the government had been shut down under President George W. Bush.

The groups urged Obama to help "by issuing a presidential memorandum on Day One that makes clear that government information belongs to the people and that directs federal agencies to harness technology and personnel skills to ensure maximum accessibility of government records, consistent with law, regulation, and administrative orders."

Obama responded to these concerns on his second day as president by sending a memo to heads of executive departments and agencies that committed his administration to more transparency and unprecedented disclosures of information.

"In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act, which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government," Obama said, noting that FOIA "should be administered with a clear presumption: in the face of doubt, openness prevails."

Open government advocates warmly welcomed Obama’s announcement. But 50 days later, as they wait for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to issue new FOIA implementation guidelines, some worry that the new administration may still need more prodding.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the San Rafael–based California First Amendment Coalition (one of the letter’s signatories), told the Guardian that it remains to be seen how Obama’s directive will be implemented.

"The directive is good. The spirit is right. But what really matters is whether more information is turned over to the public on a timely basis," said Scheer, who hopes the Obama administration will explore ways to change the FOIA incentive structure so that agencies have a genuine bias in favor of giving out more information, not less.

"Right now, the incentives are all in favor of withholding information," Scheer explained.

Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told the Guardian that she is looking forward to the U.S. Attorney General’s new FOIA guidelines. "I imagine they will say, ‘If you have discretion to disclose information do so, make a greater effort to meet FOIA deadlines, and put an emphasis on proactively posting stuff online,’" Dalglish predicted.

"The difficulty I see lying ahead is a lack of money to help agencies tackle the backlog of FOIA requests," Dalglish said. "But otherwise, I think we’re going to be in pretty good shape."

Scheer was happy about the Obama administration’s March 2 release of nine highly controversial memoranda and legal opinions that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared under Bush in the aftermath of 9/11, purporting to authorize warrantless national security wiretaps on U.S. citizens, extrajudicial detention of US citizens suspected of terrorism, and use of the military to conduct counterterrorist operations in the U.S.

In the last days of the Bush administration, DOJ officials claimed that most of these opinions were withdrawn by 2003, but open-government advocates believe their release helps prove the extent to which the Bush regime violated the constitution.

"Let’s just hope Obama is just as amenable to releasing his own legal memoranda, four years from now, as he is to release the prior administration’s more embarrassing documents," added Scheer.

He would also like to see an acceleration of the process for declassifying older national security materials and Federal Bureau of Investigation materials, and hopes that a review of Bush–era DOJ use of the state secrets privilege will "result in a modification or abandonment of that policy, except where absolutely necessary to protect vital national security interests.

"I think everyone became quite reasonably suspicious during the Bush years, when a privilege that was previously rarely invoked was popping up in literally dozens of cases and clearly being overused," Scheer explained.

Yet Dalglish fears that sunshine gains under Obama could be offset by the demise of mainstream newspapers.

"If the San Francisco Chronicle and Seattle Post-Intelligencer join Denver’s Rocky Mountain News in closing this year, the United States will be in a world of trouble in the future in terms of fighting for greater openness and transparency in government," Dalglish opined. "For the last 50 years, the mainstream media, not the alternative press, has been waging most of these battles pushing for open government."

Pineapple express?

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In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hollywood’s hitherto stereotypical or simply indifferent portrayal of Asians progressed, albeit in one-step-forward-two-steps-back fashion. (Notably horrifying was Mickey Rooney’s 1961 yellowface caricature as Holly Golightly’s "Japanese" neighbor Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.)

South Pacific (1958), Flower Drum Song (1961), The World of Suzie Wong (1960), and several Sam Fuller–directed pulp actioners (like 1959’s The Crimson Kimono) promoted tolerance and understanding, however compromised they might look now. Nor is sincerity an issue in 1963’s Diamond Head, which gets a rare revival screening at this year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. This glossy Panavision soap opera, based on a pulpy novel (Peter Gilman’s Such Sweet Thunder), offers a perfect mixed-message read of Hollywood’s hesitant multiculturalist liberalism at the time.

Charlton Heston, then at the height of box-office stardom (concurrently a significant civil rights activist, before his infamous conservativism later in life) plays the politically aspirational, bullwhip-wielding macho Richard "King" Howland, ruler of a vast Hawaiian pineapple ranch. He’s got a borderline incestuous interest in preventing kid sister Sloane (Yvette Mimieux) from marrying "half-caste" Paul (teen idol James Darren in light-cocoaface). That intervention is intervened by Paul’s big brother Dr. Dean (West Side Story‘s George Chakiris, two years later, again with the dusky "ethnic" makeup). Meanwhile Heston’s "Dick" (ahem) hypocritically keeps mistress Mai Chen (a stilted Frances Nuyen, famed from South Pacific and ridiculously self-serving protests against 1993’s The Joy Luck Club when her big scene was cut). Blackmail, jealousy, arguably accidental death, and provocative Caucasian hula-dancing likewise figure into the contrived melodramatics.

Diamond Head sports the sort of juicy-coarse plotting that used to be called "claptrap." It’s not wholly camp yet. But the widescreen gloss, corny emoting, and sheer presence of über-alpha-male Heston at his Sir Smirksalot peak are getting there, fast. Buried somewhere in these vanilla histrionics are fairly sharp digs against ethnic prejudice. Mimieux even says, "Someday all bloods will be mixed and all races gone. Where’s the loss?" — a remarkably hopeful statement for 1963. Or today. Diamond Head semi-embarrasses now. Yet it also tries admirably hard to get over its inherent miscegenationalist sensationalism, which does count for something.

DIAMOND HEAD

Sun/15, noon, $11

Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF

www.asianamericanmedia.org

THE SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL March 12–22. Main venues are the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets (most shows $11) are available at www.asianamericanmedia.org. For this week’s schedule, see film listings.

Change on the range

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› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER Who’s afraid of growing up in public? Chris Brown and Britney Spears both know the hazards of maturation amid the clatter of public chatter. Still, self-respecting musicmakers such as U2 and Neko Case, who know they must evolve — tax-dodging accusations, IMAX 3-D shrugs, fanboy crushes, and overwhelming side projects aside — are trying, judging from No Line on the Horizon (Universal) and Middle Cyclone (Anti-). Assorted feints and falters may have U2 and Case retro-cringing later, yet they’re in sync with a change year, while critic-proof (meaning critic-ignored) discs by Nickelback linger at the top of the charts alongside recordings by outfits à la Coldplay, which seems to be earnestly doing its best to mime — et tu? — U2.

It helps, if like Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr., you’ve detached yourself from any specific place, denomination, and demographic — though it’s tough to completely shake U2’s associations with Ireland, Christianity, and a certain ’80s-originated optimism. If the combo bumped up against the Berlin Wall for Achtung Baby (Island, 1991), here, at the edge of the Arab world, it brushes against the ancient walls of Fez, Morocco, where they recorded with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.

No Line is a surprisingly measured and subdued recording. Despite Bono’s self-conscious "sexy boots" references in "Get on Your Boots," U2 is older, likely wiser, and less ruffled by a sense of urgency. That’s why the album’s uptempo middle section comes off as somewhat contrived with its familiar arena-ready gestures, though the ensemble finds new ways to squeeze sparks of light and life from a now-hidebound sound, seemingly inspired by the tabula rasa desert. There’s the moaning guitar of "Magnificent," the keyboard runs of "Breathe," the helicopter-like swoop barely limning "Fez — Being Born," the weary journalist’s noir ramblings on "Cedars of Lebanon," and the way the band takes the roundabout way into songs like "Moment of Surrender." Tracks such as "Unknown Caller," which rides on commands like "Restart and re-boot yourself" and "Shout for joy if you get the chance," give the impression that U2 is still attempting to access a global network of fruitful narratives: all it needs to do is quiet its hive-mind to receive new messages.

This isn’t Pop (Island, 1997) — though obviously widescreen pop still has its uses for vital live performers plying their new disc during a weeklong Letterman residency and on a forthcoming world tour. While Achtung Baby ushered in a more electronic U2, No Line draws its connections — with help, no doubt, from Eno — to the contemporary music that touched European pop in the ’80s and today’s synthesized sounds from the north.

In spite of the news of her relocation to Vermont, Case is also searching the dust for enlightenment — the dirt of Tucson, Ariz., along with desert dwellers Calexico and Howe Gelb, and marquee names Garth Hudson of the Band, M. Ward, and A.C. Newman. She’s still a wild child — a quality she so brilliantly trapped in Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-, 2006) — although she’s taking charge with new aggression. Check her cover image brandishing a sword atop the hood of a muscle car and her pseudo-lawyerly liner notes ("I, Neko Case, acted alone in the creation of this album…").

Case’s voice — forever soaring with heady blue-skies power — continues to be a joy, backed by a wealth of indie lady warblers like Sarah Harmer and Nora O’Connor. Tunes like acoustic-guitar-filagreed "Vengeance Is Sleeping" and the loaded fragment "The Next Time You Say Forever" work off the imaginative leaps sprinkled within her stories: "It’s a dirty fallow feeling," she wails in the latter, "to be the dangling ceiling, from when the roof came crashing down. Peeling in the heat. Vanish in the rain." All delivered with her now-trademark wedding of Leonard Bernstein lyrical drama and Loretta Lynn working-class grit.

Much has been said of Case embracing her own force of nature rep with Middle Cyclone — literally as with "This Tornado Loves You" and a cover of Sparks’ "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth." But then we gathered as much after The Tigers Have Spoken (Anti-, 2004). Moreover Case and company’s energy seems to flag with well-meaning but lackluster numbers like "Prison Girls," at which point I found myself wondering when this cyclone would come crashing to an end. Case’s musical palette may be expanding, but can she keep her wits — and her wisdom concerning country/pop concision — about her in the tempest of her imagination? "I do my best," she sings on "I’m an Animal," "but I made a mistake." All is forgiven — there’s much here to chew on — but one hopes Case braves life without her protective critter armour next time around.

NEKO CASE

With Jason Lytle

June 9, 8 p.m., $30-$33

Warfield

982 Market, SF
www.goldenvoice.com

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FARE WEATHER

LAKE

Jump in: oh, the places the Olympia, Wash., easy-listening groove lovers will go. With Half Handed Cloud and Little Wings. Wed/11, 9 p.m., $7. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com

TELEKINESIS

The ethereal Merge indie-ists attempt to move us with their minds again, soon after their Noise Pop turn. With Say Hi…, Built for the Sea, and Anderson. Thurs/12, 8:30 p.m., $12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com

DAN AUERBACH

Keep It Hid (Nonesuch)? The Black Key can do that, but he can’t keep his deep-fried, ‘verb-heavy electric blues vibe under wraps for long. With Hacienda and Those Darlins. Fri/13, 9 p.m., $20. Bimbo’s 365 Club, 1025 Columbus, SF. www.bimbos365club.com

BAY AREA GIRL’S ROCK CAMP AFTER-SCHOOL PROGRAM

Rockin’ ladies close out their first show with a screening of Girls Rock! the Movie. Sat/14, 1:30 p.m., $8. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com

Recreational transmissions

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Ariel Pink’s music has never existed above or apart from the scrambling music critics do to make sense of it. Not that the busted transmissions making up his Haunted Graffiti series could ever be accused of careerism or provocation. The multiyear lapse between the initial release of his tapes and their reissue under Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks imprint is a requirement for so-called outsider cred, though using the term for an art-schooled kid from Los Angeles is dubious. But even viewed cynically, it’s a serious lacuna, one that doesn’t cotton to Internet imperatives of irony, fidelity, or decipherability.

The received wisdom holds that Pink’s hiss-scored no-fi home recordings are a ghostly take on 1970s MOR/AM radio pap. He does spend serious time anchored in Yacht Rock Cove, particularly on HG entry Scared Famous (self-released, 2002; Human Ear Music, 2007). The cramped verses of Scared‘s exemplary "Gopacapulco" open onto a jingle-chorus, a glimpse of cruise ship Thanatos. The album’s other memorable tracks find him slipping through more schizo territory, with Pink mainlining Deniece Williams over the irrepressible pharyngeal keyboards of "Are You Gonna Look After My Boys?" and huffing Scotchgard on the Kinks’ village green via "Beefbud."

This is music that does more than point to other music, though. If there’s a lasting appeal to Pink’s music, it doesn’t have to do with name-dropping or referentiality — it has everything to do with making these connections problematic, suggesting an outside to the music only to bounce the listener back on the artist’s hermetic world. That’s another way of saying that Pink’s deliberately shoddy craftsmanship is the point of his music: his verses, choruses, and bridges can be so nonlinear they make track divisions seem like an arbitrary nicety.

There’s a tossed-off bit of cruise-ship pondering in Vita Sackville-West’s 1961 novel No Signposts in the Sea that can partly clarify the way in which Ariel Pink is not ironic. Narrator Edmund caps a brief description of harbor cranes by imagining one picking up and flinging an automobile, thinking that the car would appear "as foolish as any object deprived of its rightful means of progression." There’s no way Ariel Pink’s music could be unironical, but the kind of built-in irony isn’t automatic or mocking — the traces of pop moments past that make up the uneven surface of his music aren’t floating there to show how ridiculous and impotent the feelings of our parents’ generation were. Like his patrons in Animal Collective, Pink’s music deals in, to paraphrase critic Mike Powell, the terror and murk of firsts.

Not to say there isn’t humor to spare — just that I won’t waste time trying to explain what’s satisfying about misanthropic bursts like "mankind is a Nazi" on the 10-minute prog epic "Trepanated Earth" off Worn Copy (Paw Tracks, 2005). Pink’s inability to recreate his ad hoc recordings live has earned him a special place in the annals of "you get what you pay for" online vitriol. But how can one expect him to be faithful to his recordings when the recordings aren’t even faithful to themselves? *

ARIEL PINK

With Duchess Says and Cryptacize

Tues/17, 9 p.m., $10–$12

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF

(415) 621-4455

www.bottomofthehill.com

Legs that just won’t quit

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Long Legged Woman seemed to come out of left field when it performed at the Eagle Tavern a few months back. The group had the feel of a touring band: freakish energy, precision, and a name I hadn’t heard before. And the self-proclaimed ‘Tardcore trio turned out to be a terrifically raucous opening act for some of San Francisco’s most favored indie bands.

As drummer Justin Flowers informed me months later, Long Legged Woman may be new to SF, but its members certainly aren’t new to the game. In fact, they’re more south field than left field.

The three-year-old, once-Athens, Ga.-based thrash-rock combo was just "ready to get the fuck out of Georgia," Flowers told me as he sucked down Marlboros at a coffee shop. The outfit — which will import a fourth member from Georgia soon — has been reaping the benefits of its integration into the San Francisco underground ever since its move. An upcoming tour with Dark Meat to South by Southwest, accompanied by a 7-inch split, are just some of the big plans Long Legged Woman is optimistically pursuing.

One of the best things about music coming out of the past decade has been the birth of the most killer subgenres in the world. Psych-rock, surf punk, and deathcore — to name a few — are the direct results of the filtered interests of versatile musicians fitting all their favorite filthy influences into one song. Long Legged Woman is one of the finest examples of this. You must see them and own the record to get your fill.

Live, you will get a taste of Mayyors-esque thrash in terms of the vocals, while Nobody Knows This Is Nowhere (Pollen Season, 2008), which was recorded on a 4-track, offers a more psychedelic, garage-pop feeling and an eclectic batch of tunes. "We all write songs for the band," says Flowers with a slight Southern twang. "So they’re always different."

Long Legged Woman finds its own sound by rotating members Gabe Vodicka, Alex Cargile, and Jeff Rahuba on bass, guitar, and vocals. The result is a ratatouille of Neil Young-meets-Death-in-an-opium-bar: it makes you want to light your flannel on fire and throw it onstage. (Jen Snyder)

LONG LEGGED WOMAN

With the Hospitals and Eat Skull

Sat/14, 8 p.m., call for price

Li Po Lounge

916 Grant, SF

(415) 982-0072

Only the hits

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Philly’s Kurt Vile, a self-described homebody and "total record head," has been bashing out one jam after the other ever since his bluegrass-crazed father bought him a banjo for his 14th birthday. Born and raised just outside city limits in a town called Lansdowne, Vile got bitten by the music bug early on, listening to "bluegrass shit like Doc Watson" in his dad’s car while also being "way into acoustic, weird Beck, Pavement, and Sonic Youth and all that" before schooling himself on the likes of Brian Eno, John Fahey, and Neil Young.

"I’ve always been obsessed with a ton of bands — just buying lots of music — and always wanted to play guitar," he explained by phone from the brewery he works at in Fishtown, a section of Philadelphia he characterizes as the "Williamsburg of Philly." "I’m kind of like a sponge and read a lot of rock bios too, so once I get obsessed, I just buy everything by whoever I’m really obsessed with, and it just turns into an influence."

Already seven self-issued CD-Rs deep, Vile’s official debut, Constant Hitmaker (Gulcher), finally came last February, and spent much of the year as a buzz album. A compilation of Vile’s faves among his batch of CD-Rs, the album opens with "Freeway" — a true rock anthem that’s got all of the psych-pop and classic-rock fixings in all the right places. Constant Hitmaker also has neat little rustic-sounding fingerpickers like "Classic Rock in Spring" and "Slower Talkers" and includes plenty of tripped-out fuzz rockers for those who hail Spacemen 3 as godhead.

"There’s definitely a classic rock influence there," Vile said of Hitmaker. "I’m a fan of the song, and certain artists on classic rock radio have that thing where everything they do is great. ‘Freeway,’ for instance, sounds like Tom Petty and has that American pop feeling, but I also like to think that I make it my own, too."

Heading down the coast this week for his first West Coast tour, Vile is looking to having a prolific 2009: he plans to release both solo material and music from his band Kurt Vile and the Violators and unleash a whole stack of wax on banners like Mexican Summer, Skulltones, TestosterTunes, Woodsist, as well as a new full-length he’s currently shopping around to majors.

KURT VILE

With Meg Baird, Sean Smith, and the Jazz Band

Sun/15, 9 p.m., $7–$10

Amnesia

853 Valencia, SF

(415) 970-0012

www.amnesiathebar.com

His royal highness

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

REVIEW Yinka Shonibare’s 1998 photographic essay Diary of a Victorian Dandy, Member of the Order of the British Empire runs like clockwork.

At 11 a.m., Shonibare the nobleman is shown waking and then donning a nightcap in his gilded bedroom; he’s surrounded by four ruddy-cheeked buxom maids and a pale, thin butler, who each cater to his every whim. At 2 p.m., dressed in a three-piece blue-gray suit, he tends to business in his private library. Busts of Greek and Roman conquerors sit atop mahogany bookshelves, observing while high-collared, porcine sycophants with handlebar mustaches congratulate Shonibare on squandering what’s left of his father’s fortune.

By 3 p.m., Shonibare’s nobleman has retired to another bedroom, where — sporting a salmon-pink velvet vest and matching satin tie — he reclines on a chaise lounge with a glass of red wine. An undressed brunette woman on his left caresses the vest, her eyes turned upward as if she’s entranced by his wealth and power. A red-haired girl to his right runs her fingers through his hair. In the background, a woman dressed in a hoop skirt fellates one of Shonibare’s sycophants, another woman lies at the foot of the bed, and still another looks bored as she’s buggered by one of Shonibare’s consorts.

Five p.m. brings a rousing game of billiards in the parlor. The day’s activities end at seven, with white ties, tails, and candelabras in a plush dining room replete with red velvet curtains and gilded framed oil portraits of aristocrats in powdered wigs.

Shonibare is a heavily bearded, 46-year-old Nigerian. This hairy black man, assuming the role of a dandy, places himself at the center of all his photos, reveling in absurd glory. "Historically, the dandy is usually an outsider whose only way through is his wit and style," Shonibare explains, in a text within the monograph Yinka Shonibare MBE (Prestel USA, 208 pages, $55), edited by Rachel Kent. "His apparent lack of seriousness of course belies an absolute seriousness, and that attracts me to the dandy as a figure of mobility who upsets the social order of things."

Shonibare has upset the British social order and gained mobility — including an exquisitely absurd and very real royal appointment — by creating Victorian costumes from Dutch wax print fabrics, then placing them on headless mannequins that strike leisurely poses. Much like the dandified role that he often assumes, his art seems excessive and frivolous at first glance — high fashion in extremis. But it takes on greater dimensions with consideration. The Dutch wax prints that play a prominent role in Shonibare’s work, for example, are usually associated with Africa, though they were first designed in Indonesia, then imported by the Dutch, who brought them to West Africa during the slave trade, making them a symbol of the height of colonization and imperialism.

The actions of Shonibare’s figures: skating (in 2005’s Reverend On Ice), seducing (in 2007’s The Confession) and swinging, both literally (in 2001’s The Swing — after Fragonard) and figuratively (in 2002’s Gallantry and Criminal Conversation), contain surreal, violent, erotic, and decadent connotations. Like his contemporary Kehinde Wiley, or like Ghostface and Prince in the realm of music, Shonibare uses the rococo movement of pre-revolutionary France as a point of departure. Figures of excess and tools of subversion, his headless mannequins take on references to the guillotine.

"Excess is the only legitimate means of subversion, " Shonibare has said. "Hybridization is a form of disobedience … an excessive form of libido, it is joyful sex." An illustration of such ideas, this monograph retrospective of Shonibare’s painting, sculpture, photography, and film work is a must-have piece of Afro-surreal ephemera.

Home suite home

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› cheryl@sfbg.com

How’s this for lowest common denominator? The first sentence of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wikipedia entry explains that he is a "Japanese filmmaker best known for his many contributions to the J-horror genre." With his latest film, family drama Tokyo Sonata, particularly fresh in my mind, I’d nearly forgotten he was even part of that late-1990s trend. It’s inarguable that he made one of the best of the genre — 2001’s cult nugget Pulse, a meditation on the cold, paralyzingly lonely soul of the Internet masquerading as a sublimely creepy ghost story. Pulse is the only one of Kurosawa’s films made widely available to American popcorn-munchers, albeit in the dumbed-down form of a bastardized PG-13 remake starring Kristen Bell (tagline: "You are now infected.")

Fortunately, as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival program notes point out, you’ll soon be getting a chance to see the original Pulse on the big screen, where its sinister sparseness should freak out even those who’ve already watched it on DVD. SFIAAFF’s spotlight on Kurosawa, encompassing seven films (including the local premiere of Tokyo Sonata) and an in-person visit from the man himself, couldn’t have been easy to curate. His filmography stretches back to the 1970s, with pink films and yakuza films and pre-J-horror horror films. His breakthrough, at least to stateside art house patrons and festival attendees, was 1997’s Cure, a serial-killa-thrilla lacking anything resembling Hollywood-style story beats. As the New York Times marveled, "Kurosawa constructs an elaborate psychological maze and then strands us in the middle of it" — a favorite technique that echoes throughout his work.

Though the SFIAAFF program spotlights Kurosawa, in many ways it’s also the Sho Aikawa show, with the actor appearing in paired films The Revenge: A Visit from Fate and The Revenge: The Scar that Never Fades (both 1997), and Eyes of the Spider and Serpent’s Path (both 1998). The stone-faced Aikawa — also a Takashi Miike regular, having triggered the total destruction of Planet Earth at the end of 1999’s Dead or Alive, among other triumphs — is particularly moving in the later films, wherein he plays a same-named character caught up in mirror-image circumstances who is, nonetheless, decidedly not the same dude. A child is snatched and murdered, and vengeance is sought, but Kurosawa focuses on the mundane aspects of gangsterhood, with the crew in Eyes of the Spider, for example, discussing polar bears and fishing strategies during stretches of downtime.

But this ain’t no Tarantino-style crimes-‘n’-chuckles set of films. With Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa does away with the yakuza element, along with the overtly scary stuff, though the film is so timely it’s near-eerily prophetic. The economy is the boogeyman here, as an average Japanese family fractures when Dad is laid off (and doesn’t tell Mom) and the older son decides that joining the U.S. military seems like a pretty good career option. Dinner-table calm is soon replaced by ever-bizarre and sometimes tragic events, but the hidden talents of the younger son suggest all may not be dark in the world. The end result is Kurosawa’s most fulfilling work to date, in a career that’s already delivered quite a few winners. To borrow the title of one of those films, a bright future awaits.

THE SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL March 12–22. Main venues are the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets (most shows $11) are available at www.asianamericanmedia.org. For this week’s schedule, see film listings.

Keeping their cool

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>>Click here for our complete SFIAAFF coverage

Did Asian American hipsters arrive with the cinematic appearance of Mr. Miyagi or Gregg Araki? The moment Hipster Bingo included an "über-hot Asian hipster (female)" square? Face it, we are everywhere — bubbling up from every microniche to make zines, play in bands, draw comics, and chafe against those model-minority, math-geek stereotypes, ready to rage against the Man’s machine.

According to You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story, it all started with the star of Flower Drum Song (1961) and late-1970s TV series Barney Miller. Oakland-raised Goro Suzuki got his start as the life of the Tanforan and Topaz internment camps, evolving into a popular crooner-comedian in the Midwest where he attempted to sidestep prejudice by shortening Suzuki to the more Chinese Soo. He hit the Hollywood big time with his scene-stealing nightclub owner Sammy Fong and his beloved Detective Sgt. Nick Yemana, a role showcasing an understated wit that seems to define Asian cool. Alas, The Slanted Screen (2006) director Jeff Adachi concentrates so hard on Soo’s hipster cred, reinforced by pals like George Takei, that the drumbeat gets a bit deafening in this valuable if flawed doc, which fails to truly reveal the man behind the parts.

That’s the flip side of cool — the more you stress on it, the more elusive it is. On the opposite side of the spectrum: the 1990s-ish iconoclastic, workaholic breed of Asian hip obsessively worked by David Choe in Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe. Exhaustively documenting the Los Angeles-born artist for eight years as he matures before our eyes, director Harry Kim charts the growth spurts: from mischievous tot to shoplifter and graf artist to porn illustrator to street-art superstar to spiritual penitent after a stint in a Tokyo jail. The filmmaker doesn’t seem to know quite when to stop, but then neither does his subject: an obviously intelligent, playful talent who specializes in compulsively analyzing himself and pushing himself to the limits of the law, his work, and his own (r)evolution as a human being. So driven in his pursuit of edge-skating experiences that he comes off as less hipster than haunted, Choe and his Bukowskian tendencies, Vice aesthetics, and "deep" thoughts rivet long after the bodily fluids and sensory overload murals congeal.

YOU DON’T KNOW JACK: THE JACK SOO STORY

Sun/15, 2:30 p.m., and March 18, 7 p.m., Kabuki

DIRTY HANDS: THE ART AND CRIMES OF DAVID CHOE

Sat/14, 9:30 p.m., Castro

Tues/17, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki
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THE SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL March 12–22. Main venues are the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets (most shows $11) are available at www.asianamericanmedia.org. For this week’s schedule, see film listings.

Indie notes

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› a&eletters@sfbg.com

A D.I.Y. movie musical made for all of $15,000, indie popster-turned-scenarist/actor H.P. Mendoza and local cinematographer-turned-feature-director Richard Wong’s Colma: The Musical proved to be the little movie that could after its 2006 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival debut. It won a limited theatrical release and critical praise, including a flattering New York Times review. After collaborating on last year’s unclassifiable (IMDB lists it as "action/drama/musical/thriller") SFIAAFF premiere Option 3, they’re back with Fruit Fly, which isn’t quite a Colma sequel but feels like one. It brings back that film’s Maribel (L.A. Renigen), this time starring as a straight newcomer wading into SF’s theater and gay-nightlife scenes while dealing with some unresolved identity issues. With 19 numbers (including "Fag Hag"), it is once again not your grandma’s (or even ABBA’s) kind of musical.

This time around Mendoza (who also plays a supporting part) is in the director-editor’s chair. But Wong’s brightly colored widescreen HD photography is once again an outstanding element. He spoke with the Guardian before Fruit Fly‘s bow as this year’s SFIAAFF Centerpiece presentation.

SFBG H.P. Mendoza directed this time, but it seems like the two of you are collaborative in most aspects of the movies you’ve made together.

RICHARD WONG I was certainly very involved in a lot of different ways. This is definitely H.P.’s movie, though. We were originally going to do something called On Sundays. Where Colma was kind of H.P.’s story, I wanted to do a movie about my family dynamic, this big, grand musical. But the economy really screwed that. We decided to use our CAAN (Center for Asian American Media) grant just to jump in and do something, [resulting in] both Option 3 and Fruit Fly.

SFBG You must have been really surprised by the exposure Colma got.

RW So much has happened since then, it’s really changed my life. I can attempt to be an actual, serious filmmaker. When we were making it, it was hard to see that as even a possibility. It was so remote. Of course all the timing was wrong with the writer’s strike and the recession, but nonetheless, I honestly still can’t quite believe it.

FRUIT FLY

Sun/15, 6:15 p.m., Castro

March 20, 6:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

March 22, 7 p.m., Camera 12

THE SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL March 12–22. Main venues are the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets (most shows $11) are available at www.asianamericanmedia.org. For this week’s schedule, see film listings.

Alone and ahead

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Amid a persistent backlash against feminism stateside — see: He’s Just Not That Into You — at least two SFIAAFF docs offer compelling reminders that women’s struggle for equality in education, work, property ownership, and their very lives continues to be very relevant: Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority and The Forgotten Woman (both 2008).

Now best known for her coauthorship of Title IX — the 1972 legislation prohibiting sex discrimination in schools that now bears the name the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act and is still being fought by athletic departments — the late Mink was a force of nature in national as well as Hawaiian politics. Growing up in Honolulu, I knew her as the fearsome liberal rabble-rouser who stormed the islands’ oft-complacent consciousness with such fire that she rated a daily newspaper comic strip. Kimberlee Bassford’s documentary reminded me of Mink’s achievements, her battles, and the incontrovertible fact that the Japanese American Maui native, once denied entrance into medical school because of her gender, became the first woman of color to serve in the U.S. Congress in 1965.

Dilip Mehta — a National Geographic photojournalist and the production designer of older sister Deepa’s Water (2005) — turns an equally empathetic lens toward the real-life subjects of his sibling’s feature: the tragically marginalized widows of India. In The Forgotten Woman, they gravitate to the holy city of Vrindavan to live on the streets after being abandoned by families who have claimed their land and property. Mehta doesn’t shy away from questioning the ashrams that dispense some charity but benefit financially from the donations; the men who claim that women are forbidden to remarry; and the upscale city dwellers — so far from the glam exotica purveyed by Slumdog Millionaire (2008) — who pay their alms and then banish the women from their minds. His images of the women themselves — surrendering their stories as monkeys scamper about, their glasses held together by string as he shoots them with the utmost grace, respect, and heartbreaking beauty — genuinely sing.

PATSY MINK: AHEAD OF THE MAJORITY

Sun/15, noon, and March 18, 6:45 p.m., Kabuki

March 21, 12:45 p.m., Camera 12

THE FORGOTTEN WOMAN

Mon/16, 6:45 p.m., and March 18, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki

March 19, 6:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

THE SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL March 12–22. Main venues are the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets (most shows $11) are available at www.asianamericanmedia.org. For this week’s schedule, see film listings.

Colibri

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› paulr@sfbg.com

The biggest shadow hanging over many a pre-theater dinner is anxiety about getting to the show on time. Will the service be prompt, is there time for dessert, where is the check, can we cover four blocks in two minutes? The human element in these sorts of situations is always incalculable, but it does help if your pre-theater restaurant is across the street from the theater. That’s brick-and-mortar reassurance. And if we’re talking the Geary Theater and Colibrí Mexican Bistro, I mean right across street. But don’t jaywalk; the street (Geary) is insanely busy.

"Mexican bistro" is a phrase I would like to see more often. We have plenty of taquerías, a surfeit of them, but, perhaps, not enough restaurants that do justice to the sophistication and variety of Mexican cooking. Mexico is a huge land of deserts, seashores, mountains, plateaus, and tropical jungles, each of which produces a distinct set of ingredients. And, like its huge neighbor to the north, it’s a mishmash of cultures from old world and new. The result is a cuisine not quite like any other in the world, and Colibrí offers a nice sampling of it.

The restaurant (whose name means "hummingbird") opened a little more than four years ago in a space once held by a California Pizza Kitchen. The layout is a little awkward, especially at the front; the entryway is narrow and the huge bar bulges toward the door, so incoming guests must negotiate a series of tight curves before things open up farther back, toward the display kitchen. The look is that of a quietly stylish cantina, with plenty of wood, hand-painted ceramic tiles, and rustic tchotchkes — a water pitcher, say, perched at the edge of a booth.

For a sense of Mexican cooking’s singularity, we need look no further than to the nopales asados ($7.50), strips of young cactus leaf that have been marinated in olive oil, garlic, and herbs, then grilled and served with mushrooms and oregano. There could hardly be a greater symbol of the desert than the cactus, but the grilled leaves have distinctive tartness and plump texture a world removed from sandy desiccation.

Many dishes one has often seen on other menus benefit from little extra touches. Queso fundido ($12), a kind of Mexican cheese fondue, is frequently enlivened with chorizo (the chili sausage that leaks its signature orange grease everywhere) — and so it is at Colibrí, with the added attraction of mushroom slices, for a bit of extra heft without extra fat. Quesadillas ($9) are enhanced with your choice of either strips of fire-roasted poblano peppers or epazote. Even ceviche in the style of Veracruz ($16), a standard combination of cubed white fish, lime juice, cilantro, onion, jalapeño pepper, and olive oil, gets a sly tweak from green olives.

(Fungus-lovers, incidentally, will not only find mushrooms popping up in various dishes but also a canny deployment of huitlacoche, the fungus that grows on corn and is sometimes considered a kind of Mexican truffle, the very breath of the earth. Here it is stuffed into a chicken breast, along with some other savories.)

Several of the larger plates are sauced with a verve and style that would do a good French restaurant proud. Although the pan-seared duck breast in the pato en pipián ($18) was cooked a little more than I would have preferred, the sauce — a green mole of pumpkin seeds and tomatillos, peppery and fruity — was brilliant and singular. So was the tamarind mole, a caramel-colored elixir of dark, tart intensity, pooled around a clutch of sautéed prawns ($17). That plate included, for comic relief, a corn cake, like the last pillow someone forgot to pick up and put away after a sleep-over pillow fight.

The kitchen also offers a regional Mexican specialty that rotates monthly. We probably tend not to think of the Distrito Federal as a region; it’s the capital and center and a sprawling, smoggy megalopolis. But it’s also the home of peneques ($16), batter-fried dough pockets stuffed here with beans, set on a bed of corn kernels and zucchini dice with meanderings of black-bean purée, and topped with a blood-red tomato-chipotle sauce, some chunks of queso fresco, and a large rivulet of crema. The dish simultaneously suggests the bounty of Mexico and the culinary legacy of the Indians (whose agricultural trinity consisted of corn, beans, and squash), while giving vegetarians something to enjoy without having to make do with small plates raked up from the fringes of the menu.

The desserts are more routine but do go beyond flan. Pastel de tres leches ($8) is a little too much like Mexican tiramisù for my comfort, but Colibrí’s version manages not to overdouse the sponge cake while coating it with white meringue frosting and (a nice touch) shavings of white chocolate.

The nearest thing to a contemporary, postmodern dessert is probably negro y blanco ($8), a fine chocolate mousse served with whipped cream in a coffee cup beside what the menu calls a "white chocolate confection": basically a pointed cap of white chocolate filled with ice cream. The confection was tasty and visually striking, but the white chocolate seemed to have been child-proofed and was difficult to crack open and eat gracefully. There is always an element of theater to having dinner out, of course, and even the act of eating itself can offer moments of excitement and visual interest. But when theater becomes spectacle, with white-chocolate shrapnel skittering across the table and ice cream squirting onto neighboring lapels, you know it’s time to make like a hummingbird and whiz gracefully away.

COLIBRÍ

Mon.–Thurs., 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.

Sat., 10 a.m.–11 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.–10 p.m.

438 Geary, SF

(415) 440-2737

www.colibrimexicanbistro.com

Full bar

AE/MC/V

Moderately noisy

Wheelchair accessible

What I’m not

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› le_chicken_farmer@yahoo.com

CHEAP EATS I never should have given away my chickens. I should have bonked their heads off and plucked them and cut them up and put them in the freezer. How unfarmerly of me to give them away! I knew I would regret it, but didn’t know it would hit me like this, right here, right now, in New York City.

Tomorrow night I’m doing a reading here. It’s so cold. I keep clicking my heels together and not going anywhere. It’s so, so, so, so cold, like, zero. I’m wearing everything I brought, including three pairs of panties under my tights and jeans and skirts and dresses, and two coats. And I’m still cold all the time. And then I go into a building and it’s 110 degrees, and I’m stripping down to just poetry.

People keep looking at me, outside and inside, and I want to be able to say, "I’m a chicken farmer."

But I’m not.

Tomorrow night I will stand up in front of a lot of people (I hope) in a place where a lot of great writers have stood and read, and I will want to take off my clothes and say, "I’m a chicken farmer."

But I’m not.

After my reading here I get to go to Pittsburgh and read and then Cleveland and read and then after that I get to be on a train again, to Chicago then Oakland, where there aren’t any chickens waiting in my freezer, because I couldn’t be bothered and gave them away.

My new favorite coffeehouse is in SoHo. It’s called City Girl Café, and it’s better than Joe or Joe’s or any of the other million places where I’ve thawed out over coffee in this cold, slushy city, last couple days.

My new favorite Thai restaurant, in spite of great red curry duck last night, is in Oakland, you’ll be happy to hear. Rockridge, of course. Sabuy Sabuy, a cozy, unpretentious hole-in-the-wall on the corner of College and Broadway. I ate there with Kiz on the night before I left, and it was raining and cold, come to think of it.

Kiz had just come back from St. Louis, where she’d helped her brother, who had had his nose changed by a sidewalk. I have walked on St. Louis sidewalks; they are not nurturing. As a result of which, it didn’t heal right and they had to re-break and reset it, in a slightly happier way.

I know Kiz’s brother, and I like him. His name is Kez. Kiz said he was doing well and wasn’t being all mentally bothered by all this. Which, I would of been. Sidewalks, noses … are you kidding me? But now that I am a city girl and not a chicken farmer, I suppose I should get used to such combinations.

Sabuy Sabuy’s signature "special duck" dish is double-cooked (I’m guessing roasted and fried), and served with spinach and pickled ginger ($11.95). Very, very good. The duck was crispy and juicy and just wonderful. And … pickled ginger! It’s about time people start plopping down pickled ginger next to something other than sushi.

I was even more taken by a soup I’d never seen before on a Thai menu. Soup woonsen, which was a clear broth with glass noodles, napa cabbage, and these great meatballs made out of an unlikely roll-up of marinated pork and chopped prawns ($7.95).

We ate something else too, but I can’t remember what it was.

Someone wrote to me, a fan, and asked how to butcher a chicken. At least I think that’s what they asked. After you sever the head, they said, what next?

OK. You let the blood drip (oh, and stop reading two sentences ago if you don’t want to know), but you dunk your feathered ex-friend into almost boiling water for a half a minute or so. Then, while it’s still pretty warm, you pull out all the feathers, and scald off with a flame what you can’t get with your fingers.

There is more than one way to outside the insides of a chicken. I like to use poultry shears. First I cut around the "vent" (or "butthole"), then … then …

Oh, look it up online, why don’t you. This is not my thing.

SABUY SABUY

Lunch: Mon.–Sat. 11 a.m.–3:30 p.m.

Dinner: Daily 5–9:30 p.m.

5231 College, Oakl.

(510) 653-8587

Beer & wine

MC/V

L.E. Leone’s new book is Big Bend (Sparkle Street Books), a collection of short fiction.

Volume 43 Number 24 Flip-through Edition

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Shokushu Goukan!

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› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Readers:

It’s a dull, drippy week in California and when the weather gets like this a writer’s fancy turns to tentacles.

Manifestly untrue, I know, but mine did. Recently while researching something else (the famous Sybian ride-on sex toy, the one whose dealer claims it will "cause a female to literally explode on it" — I hate it when that happens!) I came upon a repository of tentacle porn, and boy did that take me back. Once upon a time I had somehow managed never to hear of tentacle porn until one night when I was hanging out with my friend Annalee Newitz, the high tech high-weirdness expert and she was all, "Oh, blah blah blah this weird thing and that weird thing and tentacles" and I was all, "Wait, what was that last thing again?"

It’s tentacle porn. It’s Japanese. Extremely Japanese. Innocent schoolgirl types, drawn anime/hentai fashion with giant eyes and giant boobs and teensy little bodies clad in teensy little schoolgirl uniforms, until they’re not, get non-consensually multipenetrated by … tentacles. How did you think that sentence was going to end?

Anyway, I got the idea and I stored it away and brought it out occasionally to amuse or shock people and I totally forgot I’d still never seen any myself until I went looking for something else and somehow stumbled over the tentacles (another "I hate it when that happens" thing) and it all came back to me.

It’s the dullest thing ever. I’d seen enough hentai (anime porn) to expect this (it tends to be weirdly slow and standardized and repetitive and badly dubbed). It’s not the easiest sort of porn to project yourself into, even for a person who likes porn more than I do. And that’s the stuff without tentacles. The odd thing about the tentacles, beyond the fact that they exist at all (they were invented to get around restrictions on depictions of non-tentacular intercourse), is that they are so … uninspired. They never seem to be attached to an interesting monster with any motivations besides rape, and they have a very limited repertoire of sexual acts. They’re very "bad teenage date" — stick it in, stick it in, stick it in, but unlike a bad teenage date, they can do all the sticking-in at the same time. Whoopty-do.

Here’s what I do like about tentacle porn:

1) Making fun of it has turned into a sort of online cottage industry, and if you look around you can find some hilarious examples, like the grumpy beasties at Ghastly’s Ghastly Comic: Tentacle Monsters and the Women Who Love Them (www.ghastlycomic.com) who are offended that anyone might think they’d commit an act of "bestiality." See also "How To Avoid Tentacle Rape" (uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/HowTo:Avoid_tentacle_rape) or Dwight Schrute’s blog (www.nbc.com/The_Office/dwights-blog/2008/05/the-curious-rise-of-tentacle-sex-in-manga).

I think Cthulhu might like it, and whatever keeps Cthulhu happy … It has its own soda (www.tentaclegrape.com).

Love,

Andrea

Dear Andrea:

I found some very weird porn on my boyfriend’s computer (I swear I wasn’t snooping!) It’s bondage stuff with Japanese girls and really, I don’t know what’s going on. He’s never even mentioned an interest in anything like this! Does he want to tie me up? (Not my thing.) Does he wish I was Japanese? Help!
Love,

Tall, blonde, not tied up

Dear Blondie:

Im sorry! I don’t believe you weren’t snooping, mind you, but I’m still sorry. Please don’t take this too much to heart, though. Boys will be boys, and boys will look at bondage porn.

You have two ways to go here. The first is to ask him about it and (probably) feel better when he (probably) insists that he likes you just the way you are, and if he wanted a Japanese bondage girl he would have tried to date them back when he was dating, and he’s sorry he freaked you out. The second is to just shrug and go about your business. I do kind of have a preference for the latter, but I will understand if you can’t let it go and feel like you have to confront.

Just practice telling yourself that fantasy is fantasy and reality is reality and many people harbor fantasies they not only can’t act out, but wouldn’t even want to given the opportunity. Make sure you believe this yourself before you confront him. Otherwise your skepticism is sure to show, and he will get defensive and end up accusing you of not trusting him and going through his stuff — and that is not somewhere you want to be. See why I’d pick the second option, assuming you gave me ultimate power over your decision-making processes?

What? No, I don’t have creepy power fantasies about running your life, but even if I did I wouldn’t tell you about them, and I’d thank you not to go looking for them on my computer.

Love,

Andrea

Don’t forget to read Carnal Nation (carnalnation.com) for more Andrea and other cool stuff.

Copy this

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Do you copy? If people who still like books — rather than people who stare at screens all day — are the zombies, then secret zombie networks are forming and strengthening throughout the Bay Area. An example is "One to Many," a group show at the homey Partisan Gallery: 20 artists — including Tauba Auerbach, Keegan McHargue, Emily Prince, and Leslie Shows — use and abuse toner cartridges to contribute an edition each to a box set of zines, and to create single pieces that are larger than the 11-by-17-inch maximum often associated with photocopying.

A handsome cardboard-encased object, the "One to Many" zine collection has a kinship to Noel Black’s Angry Dog Midget Editions, a 2003 collection I contributed to that Art on Paper caught up with last year. It also shares the folding tactics of Los Angeles artist-curator Darin Klein’s recent book projects. Both in and outside of the book format, the act or art of photocopying is an excuse for many contributors to paint it black — Lindsey White’s standout piece uses the white of the page and darkness of the ink to create misty effects.

Casual visitors to Steven Wolf Fine Arts routinely mistake Molly Springfield’s current show "Translation" for a series of Xeroxes. In fact, Springfield uses graphite on paper to create a handmade version of photocopied pages from the first chapter of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Working from four different editions, Springfield generates 28 drawings, each an uncanny act of meditation and dedication (she’s admitted that the couple-weeks-long process of creating a single piece can be physically painful). She renders the ghost scratches where ink doesn’t take to the page, and the smudges and waves in the center where two pages meet.

To what end? The subject of matter in its literal and figurative forms has been at the fore of Springfield’s past projects. In selecting Proust’s classic memory piece as a source to work from — and upon — she mines a rich vein. Speeding ever-faster into a frenzied post-material future, do we only have time to ingest portions of the very beginning of Proust’s remembrance? By recreating Proust’s text, does Springfield translate it? In the seven-part series "A Brief Note on the Translation," she travels through the editorial stages of an introduction she’s written for a soon-to-be-published book of these drawings. Stories about her work (and about her collaborator Bill Berkson’s connection to Proust’s last maid, Celeste Albaret) linger and transform within, and outside of, the text. (Johnny Ray Huston)

ONE TO MANY

Through March 21

Partisan Gallery

www.partisangallery.blogspot.com

MOLLY SPRINGFIELD: TRANSLATION

Through March 21

Steven Wolf Fine Arts

49 Geary, SF

(415) 263-3677

www.stevenwolffinearts.com

Naked kiss

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› johnny@sfbg.com

One of the things that I appreciate most about Curt McDowell’s art is its shamelessness. It is shameless in a lively, funny, righteous, even virtuous manner that should embarrass prudish American moralists. "An uneven dozen broken hearts," a show of the late filmmaker’s paintings and drawings, is a revelatory pleasure because of how directly it conveys McDowell’s lust for and love of simple revelry. A scrapbook of photos and drawings attests to McDowell’s appetite for asses and fascination with faces, but ultimately, it’s a testimonial to a sexuality that shirked labels as it stripped off clothing. A collaged wall of comics and portraits brings one in close contact with McDowell’s rich sense of community — one that blurred love and friendship, and mixed family members with figures of imagination.

McDowell’s untamed and uncensored spirit couldn’t be more refreshing today, when pornography (whether commodified or autobiographical) is endlessly subcategorized. But while McDowell’s big heart and healthy libido make for predictable discoveries, his serious talent as a painter comes as a surprise. As a filmmaker, McDowell blazed his own path with short works such as 1971’s self-explanatory yet unexpectedly rich Confessions and 1980’s equally direct Loads. (In 1972’s Ronnie, he merges porn and biographical portraiture with unmatched potency.) His most famous work is the two-and-a-half hour pornographic epic Thundercrack! (1975). It turns out he was just as fierce and skillful with a paintbrush or a set of Magic Markers as he was with a camera.

One of the show’s centerpieces is Untitled (the Beatles in autopsy), a nearly life-size oil-on-canvas naked and dead portrait of the Fab Four from 1968 that deserves a spot in the rich museum of cryptic Beatles iconography and perhaps even within the hall of pop art classics. John has his left arm over Paul’s shoulder while a diminutive Ringo, lying on his side, is nestled into Paul in a manner suggestive of a child seeking comfort. George is isolated — he’d be looking off in the other direction from the other three if his eyes were open, but like theirs, his are closed in eternal drowsiness. The languid full-frontal sexuality of the painting is tonally different from the sexual high jinx in McDowell’s movies. Melancholy emanates from the image, as much due to its dark colors as its subject matter. And there’s an eerily prescient element: the late John’s and George’s names are visible on their corpses’ ID tags, while Paul’s and Ringo’s remain obscured.

"[Curt’s] beefcake was hot off the streets and the cheesecake was equally tart and titilutf8g," McDowell’s closest peer George Kuchar writes with quintessential alliterative brio in a note for the show. "All of this was served in a blue plate special that was generously filled with obsessions immune to none." Anyone who has a heart won’t be immune to "an uneven dozen broken hearts," another inspiring act of queer revivalism by curator Margaret Tedesco.

CURT MCDOWELL: AN UNEVEN DOZEN BROKEN HEARTS

Through March 29

[2nd floor projects]

www.projects2ndfloor.blogspot.com

Guardian lawyers win major award

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California’s chief justice presented the Guardian‘s lawyers with a major statewide award March 2, recognizing our predatory-pricing case against SF Weekly as one of the most important cases of 2008.

In a ceremony at the Carnelian Room atop the Bank of America Building, Chief Justice Ron George recognized Ralph Alldredge, Richard Hill, and E. Craig Moody as recipients of California Lawyer magazine’s California Lawyers of the Year Awards. The magazine chose 22 cases from the many thousands filed, litigated, and arbitrated every year in the state, saying the lawyers "made a profound impact."

Alldredge, Hill, and Moody handled the five-week trial that ended with the Guardian winning a $6.4 million judgment against the Weekly and its parent company, New Times (now owned by Village Voice Media). A jury found that the Weekly had sold ads below cost in an effort to drive the Guardian out of business.

Judge Marla Miller later raised the award to more than $18 million. The case is on appeal.

"In a David-and-Goliath face-off between San Francisco’s two man rival alternative weeklies, this legal team deftly made the unfair competition case for the San Francisco Bay Guardian," the award citation read.

Congratulations to Ralph, Rich, and Craig, who fought an uphill battle for years against a bigger and better-financed opponent.

Spin vs. substance

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rebeccab@sfbg.com

Hollywood paparazzi crews are beginning to follow high-profile politicians, such as Mayor Gavin Newsom, the same way they track the likes of Britney Spears, the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently. And when a celebrity gossip photographer surreptitiously aims the lens at a political leader, the picture that emerges isn’t always flattering.

Likewise, the documents that can be extracted through public records laws — including the federal Freedom of Information Act, California Public Records Act, and San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance — don’t always paint political figures in the most favorable light.

Both end products leave the same impression of a glimpse behind the curtain — consumers feel they’re privy to the raw, unpackaged truth. But while photos may show politicians looking silly or meeting with controversial power brokers, documents show how the people’s business is being conducted. So the willingness of officials to promptly comply with requests for documents and information says a great deal about whether their public statements match their private deeds.

Nathan Ballard, Newsom’s press secretary, characterizes (through e-mail, the medium through which he insists on dealing with the Guardian) the mayor’s commitment to open government as being "as strong or stronger than any public official in this country."

But to hear some proponents of open government tell it — and in our experience here at the Guardian — the Newsom administration keeps much of the mayor’s business under wraps, leaving many info-seekers in the dark or reliant on Ballard’s spin. Responses to requests for public records tend to be delayed and incomplete, and queries directed to the mayor’s office of communications are often returned with terse, one-line e-mails that obscure more than illuminate.

Rick Knee, a longtime member of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force — the city body charged with upholding the open-government rule — says Newsom has been in violation of the Sunshine Ordinance on several occasions. "Mayor Newsom’s actual practices regarding Sunshine have been, shall we say, less than what one would desire of him," Knee says. Despite those violations, he adds, the mayor "continues to refuse to provide what remedies the task force calls for on his part."

Under Proposition 59, a state constitutional amendment that won overwhelming voter approval in 2004, the records kept by public officials are considered to be "the people’s business." In practice, however, it doesn’t always pan out that way.

For example, a group of citizens informally known as the Sunshine Posse who have made it a personal quest to improve government transparency by peppering city departments with Sunshine requests, have sounded alarm bells over the mayor’s refusal to release a more detailed daily calendar. One Sunshine Posse member began seeking more fleshed-out mayoral itineraries back in 2006, according to group member Christian Holmer, to gain an understanding of whom the mayor had met with and what had been discussed.

But he quickly ran into a slew of difficulties. "The Mayor’s Office ignored our simple request for 255 days," Holmer told the Guardian. "We sent weekly reminders to most of his staff and key members of the city attorney’s executive and government teams for months and months." After bringing the matter to the attention of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, Holmer says, a new set of problems cropped up. "For the Mayor’s Office, it was an ongoing tale of crashed hard drives, changing office personnel, lost documents, overt/covert confusion, and best intentions."

Nearly three years later, the scrutinizing crew remains frustrated with the results, saying the Mayor’s Office has only come forth with a watered-down schedule, called the Prop. G calendar ("scrubbed" and "virtually useless," in Holmer’s opinion), rather than the more descriptive document known as the working calendar. Many days, Newsom’s Prop. G calendar is blank, and seldom is there more than a few hours worth of activities, each one usually described in just a few words.

The Prop. G calendar seeks to comply with the minimum standards for calendars set forth in the city’s 1999 sunshine law: "The mayor … shall keep or cause to be kept a daily calendar wherein is recorded the time and place of each meeting or event attended by that official…. For meetings not otherwise publicly recorded, the calendar shall include a general statement of issues discussed."

The working calendar is a confidential document, the Mayor’s Office held in a letter responding to the Sunshine Posse’s complaint that the mayor was withholding public information. "The Mayor’s Office prepares a working calendar that is extremely detailed and accounts for his time from departure from home until his return in the evening," the letter states. "The working calendar contains not only the mayor’s meeting schedule, but also confidential information such as the officers assigned to protect him, security contact numbers, the mayor’s private schedule, details of his travel [etc.]. As with past administrations, the mayor’s staff keeps the working calendar and its contents confidential…. The computer system automatically deletes the working calendar after five days."

Despite this defense, the task force determined that the working calendar is in fact a public document that should be provided to the citizens. Doug Comstock was task force chair when the issue was heard. "We made it very clear that they have to turn over those documents," he says. "If there’s a document that’s being created using public monies and public funds, that is a more specific calendar, that’s the document that needs to be provided." Comstock also noted that it is possible for the Mayor’s Office to redact sensitive information that could pose a security risk. Nonetheless, he says, three years have passed and "the real calendar remains hidden from view."

When asked about the complaints regarding the calendar, Ballard responded, "Their criticism is baseless. We exceed far [sic] the requirements of the Sunshine Ordinance with the level of disclosure that we provide."

Erica Craven, an attorney who sits on the task force, believes there’s room for improvement on the mayor’s practices regarding sunshine. "My instinct is that there are a lot of people who work in the Mayor’s Office who are committed to open government," she says. "But there are some troubling things we’ve seen as well, such as complaints where the Mayor’s Office hasn’t sent a representative to respond to allegations. I would like to see a little bit more commitment and leadership on open government from the Mayor’s Office — I think it would set a good tone in City Hall."

In recent weeks, interest in the mayor’s schedule has intensified once again in light of the city’s financial predicament. In the face of a looming budget deficit of unprecedented size and with the economy in shambles and jobs at stake, journalists and affected citizens are seeking details about how the conundrum is being dealt with inside City Hall.

Last month, the Guardian filed a request under the Sunshine Ordinance for details on the mayor’s meetings about the budget, asking for "a list of all the labor and business leaders and supervisors that he’s met with about the budget, the dates of those meetings and how long they lasted, all documents associated with those meetings (including any agendas, communications to set up those meetings and follow-up communications after the meetings), and summaries of what was discussed at those meetings, including any outcomes or agreements."

Under the Sunshine Ordinance, such "immediate disclosure" requests are supposed be honored in two days’ time, but it took five days and a Guardian reminder for the Mayor’s Office to respond via e-mail, saying: "As you know, the Sunshine Ordinance does not require us to create documents. If you can point to a specific document that you’re seeking, I’d be happy to try and locate it for you."

Three days later, the Mayor’s Office forwarded the Prop. G calendar, which revealed that the mayor booked 7.5 hours of meetings about the budget crisis over the course of 17 days, none with labor representatives (whom Ballard said Newsom had met with). It included one-line entries disclosing whom he met with and when, but no information concerning the substance of the discussion. When the Guardian pressed for more information, the Mayor’s Office said there were no other documents associated with those meetings or any other information they were willing to provide.

Similarly, just last week, the Guardian tried to find out what the Mayor’s Office was doing about reports that Caltrain and the California High-Speed Rail Authority were balking at using the Transbay Terminal, citing technical concerns. On March 6, we asked who was working on the issue, what communications there had been with these agencies, and other basic information.

Ballard would say only that "The mayor is fully engaged in finding a comprehensive regional solution that ensures that high speed rail will come to the Transbay Terminal," and denied further requests for more substantive information.

Ballard acknowledges that the Mayor’s Office has "occasionally" been found to be in violation of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance. However, he noted, "I can’t remember a time when the Ethics Commission did not overturn a task force decision against our office. In other words, most if not all task force decisions against us have, upon review, been found to be without merit."

Actually, the chronically under-funded Ethics Commission isn’t charged with judging whether SOTF findings have merit. The SOTF is the arbiter of whether the Sunshine Ordinance was violated, but it has no enforcement authority and therefore must rely on Ethics to pursue violations — if it has the will and resources to do so.

This touches on a trend that Knee says is a fundamental challenge to upholding the Sunshine Ordinance. "If the [task force] finds that there has been a willful violation … we can refer our findings to any or all of four entities: Ethics, the Board of Supervisors, the District Attorney, and the California Attorney General," Knee explains. "At one time or another we have made referrals to any or all of those organizations. And every single time, those entities have thrown out our findings. Not one complaint we have submitted has been upheld."

To remedy this, he says, a package of proposed reforms is in the works. "We want to give the task force some teeth," he says. "We want enforcement power of our own."

Steven T. Jones contributed to this report.

Letters

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THE VICE MAYORS


Thanks so much for the great article on Climate Theater ("Still crazy after all these years," 2/25/09). I’ve lived and worked in SoMa since 1973 and can think of no art venue that has done more to create a vibrant, inspiring community.

If playa types like Suck Up Willie Brown (I’ve seen him at Hollywood parties) and our current mayor, The Talking Haircut, could live in Climate World for six months, they might develop souls.

Joegh Bullock and Marcia Crosby are the co-mayors, or shall I say vice-mayors, of South of Market. Thanks for giving them props.

John LeFan

San Francisco

THE FATE OF THE CHRON


Good riddance to the San Francisco Chronicle and good luck finding a buyer.

I know of one union that has already been cut to the bone — pressmen and prepress workers, Local 4N. As a matter of fact, there will be about 200 press workers out of a job in June when the Canadian Company Transcontinental starts printing the Chronicle at the new printing facility in Fremont. Not one member from the San Francisco Local has been hired.

All production department union jobs are being outsourced. This includes mailers, machinists, and electricians. I wouldn’t count on any of them giving anything up since they are going to be unemployed come June 29th.

Maybe the Hearst Corporation should cancel the 15-year, $1 billion contract it signed with Transcon. I’m sure all the unions that will be out on the street come June would be willing to sign contracts for a lot less.

Bruce Carlton

Local 4N retiree, San Francisco

SF’S SLEEPING GIANT


Paging Matt Gonzalez! If truth is the first casualty of war, what is ceded in total occupation? Calvin Welch’s op-ed ("It’s a recession, let’s get cracking," 2/25/09) reflects the nascent realization that what San Francisco lost in electing Gavin Newsom over Gonzalez, the nation has now lost in validating the pro-corporate centrist DLC (Democratic Leadership Council) wing of the Democratic Party on a grand scale.

The opposition from the right is inarticulate and, as Welch notes, the truly democratic left is hopelessly inarticulate. Sustainability, of our environment, our economies, and our health is the challenge that must be met. It wasn’t that long ago that "a sleeping giant stirred in San Francisco." Can it happen again? Paging Matt Gonzalez!

Poplicola

From sfbg.com

The Guardian welcomes letters commenting on our coverage or other topics of local interest. Letters should be brief (we reserve the right to edit them for length) and signed. Please include a daytime telephone number for verification.

Corrections and clarifications: The Guardian tries to report news fairly and accurately. You are invited to complain to us when you think we have fallen short of that objective. Complaints should be directed to Paula Connelly, the assistant to the publisher. We prefer them in writing, but Connelly can also be reached by phone at (415) 255-3100. If we have published a misstatement, we will endeavor to correct it quickly and in an appropriate place in the newspaper. If you remain dissatisfied, we invite you to contact the Minnesota News Council, an impartial organization that hears and considers complaints against news media. It can be reached at 12 South Sixth St., Suite 1122, Minneapolis MN 55402; (612) 341-9357; fax (612) 341-9358.

Think globally, shop locally

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› culture@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY When we say a product is "eco-friendly," what we really mean is "eco-friendlier," as in "less ecologically damaging to the environment than available alternatives." The manufacturing process always has some negative effect on the environment, and while products may be labeled organic, biodegradable, recycled, acid free, ecospun, fair-trade, unbleached, vegetable-based, cruelty-free, or all-natural — they all require land, unclean energy, and unrenewable resources to produce.

The easiest way to start thinking eco-friendliest is to take into account the enormous amount of energy used in distribution. Sure, it’s unrealistic to expect all of our products to come from California, because certain things, like lifesaving medicine or Belgian ale, don’t have homegrown substitutes. But some items do have nearby equivalents. Here’s a guide to some of our favorite stylish eco-stops for locally manufactured gems.

For eco-friendly home goods, make sure you stop by Russian Hill’s Spring (2162 Polk, SF. 415-673-2065, www.springhome.com), where you can get your Coyuchi organic cotton sheets, Method home care products, Sara Paloma vases, International Orange spa goodies, Erbaviva homeopathic baby products, Naya bath salts, Nectar Essence aromatherapy sprays, and EO bath and body things, all in one trip. Did I mention that all these companies are California-based?

Another favorite on the spendy eco-boutique front is Eco Citizen (1488 Vallejo, SF. 415-614-0100, www.ecocitizenonline.com), which carries sustainable high-end clothing and showcases several talented local designers, including Sara Shepherd, the San Francisco clothier who creates conceptual, modern styles in black and white. While you’re there, be sure to ask about Jules Elin, a designer from Novato who works solely with organic and recycled fabric, and whose feminine, whimsical jackets are perfect for life in a perpetually spring-like city.

If you’re shopping for tomorrow’s green warriors, try Mabuhay‘s (1195 Church, SF. 415-970-0369, www.mabuhaykids.com) eco-friendly children’s clothing, featuring San Franciscan lines like Smallville by Jimin Mannick, who hand-sews lovely little garments for boys and girls. Jasper Hearts Wren play clothes for toddlers are decorated with charming details like rocket ships and birds crafted from felt made entirely from postconsumer recycled plastic bottles, and are made by Oakland’s Heather Jennings and Lisa Schwartz.

And speaking of kids, Ladita‘s (827 Cortland, SF. 415-648-4397, www.shopladita.com) owner, Christine Kay, has been wanting to open a boutique since she was a kid herself. At the sweet little boutique, whose storefront reads "Eco-friendly of course," check out Kim White’s handbags created with vintage fabrics pulled from automobile upholstery, like a clutch made from a 1980s Camaro. Also keep an eye out for regenerated cotton socks by Love & Socks, made here.

Other places to keep on your radar? Eco Boutique (4035 18th St., SF. 415-252-0898, www.shopecoboutique.com) offers glass products by Dharma, a Fort Bragg company — think wonderful little glass straws you can use instead of plastic disposable ones. EcoLogiQue (141 Gough, SF. 415-621-2431, www.ecologiquesf.com) offers 100 percent made-in-California T-shirts by Naked Cotton using organic cotton grown in the San Joaquin Valley. If you want to commission your own messenger bag, contact Rickshaw Bagworks (904 22nd St., SF. 415-904-8368, www.rickshawbags.com) and have a designer make one out of your own material, or choose from the on-hand selection of 100-percent postconsumer waste fabric. Rickshaw Bagworks makes each bag to order, so no unused bags sit around a showroom. Clary Sage Organics (2241 Fillmore, SF. 415-673-7300, www.clarysageorganics.com) offers a staff-designed, locally made line of yoga gear fashioned from ecologically sustainable materials. SF-based online retailer Branch (245 South Van Ness, SF. 415-626-1012, www.branchhome.com) offers plenty of eco-friendly furniture designed and produced in the city, including bamboo lamps by Schmidtt Design, recycled rubber coasters and placemats by JoshJakus, and recycled cork trays by Urbana Designs.

Freeing the press

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Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award

ROBERT PORTERFIELD


Bob Porterfield is a shit-disturber, an old-fashioned investigative reporter who has no favorites, no sacred cows, and no fear of offending anyone. Since his first story — a profile of a YMCA social program published in Eugene, Ore.’s The Register-Guard in 1959, when he was 15 — Porterfield has had ink in his veins. He’s shared two Pulitzer Prizes (first for an Anchorage Daily News report on the Teamsters Union in 1975 and then for a series on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for The Boston Globe), won more than two dozen other prizes and worked on a long list of major investigative projects.

He has become something of an expert in computer-assisted reporting and information systems — but is still a down-to-earth guy who never forgot the value of traditional, hands-on digging. Back in 1986, he was on a team at Newsday looking into the federal Synfuels Corp., a scandal-plagued agency that was shut down in the wake of his stories.

"I remember once we were looking for property records on a Synfuels Corp. project linked to [former CIA Director) Bill Casey," he told me. "I wound up going down to Plymouth, N.C., (population 4,000), and I found this musty old office with two older women sitting there, knitting. There was no index book, nothing computerized. But when I explained what I was looking for, one of the women remembered the parcel of land I was talking about and pulled out the exact documents for me."

Porterfield has devoted a tremendous amount of time to teaching and mentoring, showing young reporters how to use public records to find stories. "I’m glad to see [President Obama’s] new directive on openness, but I hope it trickles down to the independent agencies," he said. "Because there’s been way, way too much secrecy." (Tim Redmond)

Beverly Kees Educator Award

ALAN GIBSON


Alan Gibson is reclaiming the Founding Fathers from conservatives with

his recent book Understanding the Founding: The Crucial Questions (University Press of Kansas, 2007). It examines the progressive ideals that guided early American political thought.

"The Founding Fathers are often captured by conservatives," Gibson told the Guardian. "But there is no clear line of legacy. It is much more complex than that. Conservative restoration politics are dangerous and not historically accurate."

As an undergraduate, Gibson cultivated an interest in issues of separation of church and state, which led to doctoral studies on James Madison, the namesake of the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual Freedom of Information awards. "Madison was the most progressive of all [the Founding Fathers] when it comes to freedom of the press," Gibson said. "He helped develop the idea that American government should be responsive to public opinion, and the role of newspapers was to make sure that an authentic public opinion was set forth." Gibson, a political science professor at California State University-Chico, lectures at various colleges across the country. Understanding the Founding will be published in paperback later this year. (Laura Peach)

Professional Journalists

MARJIE LUNDSTROM


Journalists often get alarming tips about practices within Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies, but it has always been a nearly impossible task to overcome privacy protections and get even basic information about how CPS handles reports of child abuse or neglect.

"It’s a difficult agency to write about, for some good reasons," Sacramento Bee reporter Marjie Lundstrom, who set out in 2007 to investigate complaints about Sacramento’s CPS, told the Guardian. "They operate in such a vacuum with very little public scrutiny."

She had started to piece together some information from coroner’s records and other public documents when Senate Bill 39 went into effect in January 2008, "and it was just amazing what it opened up."

The bill reveals CPS files in cases where the child has died, allowing Lundstrom to expose the negligence of CPS workers in responding to abuse reports, even those from doctors. "I do feel like what we were able to show, because of the law, where workers made flagrant mistakes that costs kids their lives," she said.

But many CPS records are still secret. Next, after writing several stories about CPS that sparked a grand jury investigation, Lundstrom intends to expose problems within the internal accountability procedures at CPS. (Steven T. Jones)

HILARY COSTA AND JOHN SIMERMAN


When the news broke last September that 15-year-old Jazzmin Davis had been murdered by her aunt after suffering months of abuse and neglect in her Antioch home, Bay Area News Group reporters Hilary Costa and John Simerman submitted a public records request about the girl’s case history with the San Francisco Human Services Agency.

The city denied the request for nearly two months, using a privacy claim. Undeterred, the journalists took the step of testing out Senate Bill 39, a relatively new piece of legislation that mandates public disclosure of findings and information about children who have died of abuse or neglect. A judge eventually ordered that the records be released.

Although highly redacted, the nearly 700-page paper trail told the girl’s story in the form of hand-written notes, report cards, medical records, caseworker visits, and other detailed documents. The records led to a package of stories that exposed a series of failures and violations of state regulations by an HSA social worker, raising questions about agency practices and spurring a review of hundreds of other foster care cases.

"This story’s been so important to me," Costa told the Guardian. "It felt like somebody owed it to Jazzmin to find out what happened to her." (Rebecca Bowe)

Interactive Media

AUTUMN CRUZ AND MITCHELL BROOKS


Sacramento Bee photographer Autumn Cruz had been covering the trial of three-year-old K.C. Balbuena’s murder for several months when she came up with the concept of creating an interactive online courtroom. With the help of Bee graphic journalist Mitchell Brooks, Cruz made public the essential pieces of evidence and information to those outside the courtroom doors.

Viewers can take a virtual tour of the exhibits and documents, along with video and audio statements and interrogations. "As a journalist, you’re fighting every day for your right to information," Cruz told the Guardian.

Although Balbuena’s mother and roommate were found guilty of the murder in early 2008, Cruz laments her inability to bring back the child she grew to know so intimately only after his life was cut short. "I think my bringing his plight to the public will hopefully prevent similar things from happening to other children." (Joe Sciareillo)

Citizen

BERT ROBINSON


Journalist Bert Robinson is a longtime journalist who now serves as assistant managing editor for the San Jose Mercury News. But he’s being honored for his work as a citizen serving on San Jose’s Sunshine Reform Task Force.

"We set out on our sunshine ordinance adventure a few years ago. We found we were faring worse in court, and we couldn’t afford increased court costs," Robinson, a member of the California First Amendment Coalition, told the Guardian.

The project received political endorsements across the spectrum, but the initiative has had problems with the city council’s Rules Committee, controlled by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, who has supported sunshine in the past.

"We achieved progress with public meeting requirements, but when you get into public records, city staff argue that rules are ‘too cumbersome’ … They say all sorts of things might happen if they become public, [which is] entirely hypothetical," Robinson said.

Task Force work that was slated to last six months has now dragged on for two years. "The city process grinds you down," Robinson said. But he says he’s committed to seeing it through. (Ben Terrall)

Legal Counsel

JAMES EWERT


James Ewert, an attorney with the California Newspaper Publishers Association, has long battled what he calls widespread secrecy in government. So in 2004, he played an instrumental role in providing greater public access to government meetings and records, resulting in the passage that November of Proposition 59, the Sunshine Amendment of California’s constitution.

Most recently Ewert helped Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) with legislation protecting teachers from retribution from administrators when they defend the First Amendment rights of journalism students. Next Ewert hopes to allow greater scrutiny of public/press partnerships and how tax dollars are used in labor negotiations by the public university systems.

Ewert says the public’s right to know is still severely hampered by public safety concerns, including restrictions on journalists’ rights to interview prisoners and obtain information about police officers. But luckily for the public, Ewert is still on the job. (Andrew Shaw)

Student Journalists — High School

REDWOOD BARK


Before April 2008, Drew Ross had never had to defend the existence of the Eureka High School Redwood Bark, where he was the editor. But after arriving on campus one Monday morning to find that former principal Robert Steffen had removed 450 copies of a 20-page color edition of the paper, Ross and his staff fought back.

Steffen claimed that the nude, dream-like drawing by artist Natalie Gonzalez had ushered in a handful of complaints from students and parents. Steffen justified the action by saying he was "stomping out the flames before they became a forest fire."

"We told him we wanted to hold onto the paper but he recycled them," Ross told the Guardian. "We don’t make the paper for it to be thrown away. And we lost a lot of advertising on this."

Ross complained about censorship and got help from the Student Press Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union. By the next day, the censorship story went front page at newspapers and Internet sites all over the country. Eventually Steffen not only sent out a public apology, he paid for the next 20-page color edition.

"We are now armed with knowledge of our rights," Ross said. "And the community knows the Redwood Bark has rights." (Deia de Brito)

SHASTA HIGH SCHOOL’S THE VOLCANO


Shasta High School student Amanda Cope speaks passionately about freedom of speech after her brush with censorship, telling the Guardian, "We are preserving the validity of the Constitution. Free speech is a protection, a safety, that lets us function normally without fear."

Cope was editor-in-chief of the Shasta High School student paper, The Volcano, when a controversy flared over the paper’s end-of-year issue, which featured a front-page image of a student burning an American flag. Shasta High principal Milan Woollard was already considering shutting down The Volcano when the issue came out and publicly stated: "This cements that decision."

But following a maelstrom of objection from Cope and the rest of The Volcano staff in what looked like a form of censorship in schools, the school district reversed its decision. "I think a lot of students feel they are marginalized in society. They’re teenagers. They don’t have many rights and they feel like they’re squished by adults and people in general," Cope said. "The student paper becomes an outlet for those feelings, and a way for students to explore their world." (Juliette Tang)

THE SCOTS EXPRESS


Last November, the principal of Carlmont High School in Belmont shut down the student paper, The Scots Express. School officials claimed that the paper lacked adequate faculty oversight after it published a satirical article about the writer’s sex appeal.

Editor-in-chief Alex Zhang fought back against what he saw as censorship and rejected school officials’ justifications. "I just wanted my paper back," he told the Guardian.

In response to the uproar over what many saw as a muzzling of the press, the Sequoia Union High School District began training Carlmont staff on First Amendment rights and mandated an overhaul of the school’s freedom of speech policy. The district is planning an expansion of its journalism programs in the school curriculum and a partnership with the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club.

Zhang is working on relaunching the publication in late March under the faculty oversight of English teacher Raphael Kauffmann. "You can’t have a democracy without freedom of information," Zhang said. "And I’m proud to be one of those young journalists who care about the freedom of information." (Joe Sciarrillo)

Advocacy

KATHI AUSTIN


As the Guardian chronicled in a cover story last year ("Hunting the lord of war," June 23, 2008), San Francisco-based human rights investigator Kathi Austin has spent almost two decades tracking down and exposing those who have made a business out of human rights violations.

Most recently, Austin helped bring the notorious Viktor Bout, a Russian entrepreneur accused of illegally trafficking weapons to brutal regimes from Colombia to the Congo.

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

Thanks largely to Austin’s work, Bout was arrested in Thailand in March 2008 and will likely face criminal charges in the United States. Despite working in treacherous places like Angola and Rwanda, doing meticulous and time-consuming research, Austin said her approach is simple: "What’s wrong and who’s doing it?"

Her patience and persistent pursuit of international justice have led Austin to positions at the U.N., the World Bank, the Center for Human Rights, and the Council on Foreign Relations, to name a few. A Paramount picture featuring Angelina Jolie as Austin is reportedly in production — a fittingly karmic return of celebrity for someone who has worked so long under the public radar. (Breena Kerr)

Electronic access

MAPLIGHT.ORG


Once upon a time, before 2005, the only way to connect the dots between the dollars contributed to politicians and the special access and favorable laws they subsequently granted to contributors was to wade through reams of campaign finance filings. While everyone knew that money talked, few knew just how much campaign cash was dictating public policy.

But now, thanks to MAPlight.org, a Berkeley nonprofit that uses sophisticated analytical tools to produce visually pleasing, easy-to-use charts, there is now a fun, simple way to follow the money.

MAPlight began by putting up data connected to the pro-consumer bill informally known as the Car Buyer’s Bill of Rights. "The data showed that car dealers gave twice as much to Sacramento legislators who voted to kill the bill than to those who voted to pass it," executive director David Newman recalled.

Next, MAPlight pioneered the combination of campaign dollars and politicians’ votes when it launched its U.S. Congress site in May 2007. Most recently its research showed that House members who voted for the $700 billion financial bailout bill received 50 percent more money from the financial services industry than those who voted against it.

Newman plans to expand to all 50 states. "Wherever there is journalism to be done, MAPlight can provide support and help promote openness and transparency in government." (Sarah Phelan)


The Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists hosts its annual James Madison Awards dinner March 18 in the New Delhi Restaurant, 160 Ellis St., SF. The no-host reception begins at 5:50 p.m. followed by dinner and the awards programs at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 for SPJ members and $70 for non-members. For reservations or information, contact Freedom of Information Committee chair David Greene at (510) 208-7744 or dgreene@thefirstamendment.org or visit www.spjchapters.org/norcal.

Newsom’s state secrets

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EDITORIAL On January 21st, his second day in office, President Barack Obama announced that he was dramatically changing the rules on federal government secrecy. His statement directly reversed, and repudiated, the paranoia and backroom dealings of the Bush administration.

"The Freedom of Information Act," the new president declared, "should be administered with a clear presumption: in the face of doubt, openness prevails. The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public."

The following day, Jan. 22, we sent an e-mail to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s press secretary, Nathan Ballard. "Now that President Obama has made a dramatic change in federal FOI policy," we asked, "would Mayor Newsom would be willing to issue a similar executive order in San Francisco?"

Ballard’s response:

"We wholeheartedly agree with the President on this issue. The mayor has charged my office with handling sunshine requests for the executive branch of city government, and he has directed us to cooperate swiftly and comprehensively to all sunshine requests, and to err on the side of openness."

That, to put it politely, is horsepucky.

As we report in this issue, it’s difficult, and at times insanely difficult, to get even basic public information out of Newsom’s office. Take his calendar: by law, the mayor is required to make public his appointments calendar. Other public officials manage to do that — in fact, the president of the United States, who has a tad more national and personal security issues than the mayor of San Francisco, lets the press know what he’s doing almost every minute of every day.

Most days, though, what we get from Newsom’s office is a statement like, "The mayor has no public events scheduled today." Or, "The mayor is holding meetings at City Hall." Meetings with whom? What private events is he attending? What’s he do all day? What lobbyists, activists, public officials, or campaign donors is he talking to in his City Hall office? Why is that some huge state secret?

Or take the city’s terrifying budget problems. When Board of Supervisors President David Chiu began holding meetings with key stakeholders to look for a solution, Newsom refused to show up, saying there was no need. The mayor claimed he was holding his own meetings with everyone who needed to be involved.

That was news to many of the people in Chiu’s sessions. So who was the mayor talking to? The mayor’s office won’t tell us — and the limited calendar information he releases doesn’t shed any light, either.

The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force has repeatedly found Newsom directly in violation of the Sunshine Ordinance. Legions of reporters have run across the slammed door, the ducking, the non-responsiveness, and the general hostility of the mayor’s press office. As the White House comes out of the dark ages and starts to set new standards for open and honest government, San Francisco is not only lagging behind — this city’s chief executive is actively resisting.

We’re getting tired of this. The city attorney, district attorney, and Ethics Commission all have the mandate and ability to enforce the Sunshine Ordinance, but none have made that a priority. At this point, the only way the executive branch is going to comply is if the supervisors give the Sunshine Task Force the authority and resources to do its own enforcement.

In the meantime, somebody on the board ought to introduce Obama’s exact policy statement, replacing "Freedom of Information Act" with "San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance." And the Sunshine task force should begin an investigation into how the mayor’s press office is defying, on a regular basis, both the letter and the spirit of the city’s open-government law. *

Editor’s Notes

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› Tredmond@sfbg.com

The historian and political scientist Alan Gibson argues that much of the contemporary discussion the founders of the United States misses the political point. In his new book, Understanding the Founding: The Crucial Questions, Gibson, a professor at California State University, Chico notes that conservatives often claim the framers of the Constitution for their own agenda — a position he calls historically inaccurate.

James Madison in particular was very much a progressive thinker, says Gibson (who is one of the winners of the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists’ freedom of information awards this year, see page 15). The fourth president of the United States particularly believed that a free press was crucial to democracy.

I thought about that this week as I followed the news that the San Francisco Chronicle may shut down — and read stories from the Chauncey Bailey Project and the Chronicle about the murder of the Oakland journalist. On March 7, the project reported that an Oakland homicide inspector had close ties with the head of Your Black Muslim Bakery, Yusef Bey IV, who it now appears may have played a role in the killing. The Chronicle reported March 8 that Bailey was caught up in a power struggle at the bakery (and that the publisher of the Oakland Post was afraid to run Bailey’s stories). These detailed investigative pieces will almost certainly help ensure that Bailey’s killers are brought to justice. Without this press attention, the Oakland cops would have gotten away with bungling the case.

Without full-time, paid reporters on the job, those stories would never have come to light.

I’m as pissed at the Chron as anyone, and I’ve been watching the paper self-destruct for many years. And I’m not sure what sort of financial model will keep a daily paper going in the next decade.

But I know that a model exists — because it has to. Democracy can’t survive without a free press, and a free press can’t survive without staff to do the work. That’s something to remember as we celebrate the James Madison Awards and our annual Freedom of Information issue. * *