Volume 43 Number 49

American hardcore

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X-RATED CLASSICS A sexploitation lifer who reportedly has directed so many features even he doesn’t know how many, Joe Sarno is nonetheless also enough of an idiosyncratic talent to have won a cult following and some high-culture-institution retrospectives. No education in psychotronic cinema is complete without the likes of 1962’s Sin in the Suburbs, a B&W exposé of swinger "bottle parties" that defines just how lurid movies could seem before they were actually allowed to show anything, and 1972’s Young Playthings, the rare erotic film one might — even must — call "Pirandello-esque."

Though he confessed to being shocked at first, Sarno didn’t blink in making the transition from softcore to hardcore, though his output finally slowed in the ’80s. Alternative Cinema has taken on the task of releasing as much of this voluminous oeuvre as possible to DVD, including some films long thought lost. (They also induced his filmmaking return — at age 83! — via 2004’s Suburban Secrets.)

The latest releases represent both his 1960s monochrome melodrama period and a mid-1970s sojourn into goofy sex comedies, the latter often available in "hard" and "soft" versions. Shoestring 1968 production All the Sins of Sodom was shot when "adults only" films could expose breasts, but nothing more beyond a lot of sexy (albeit nonprofane) situations and talk — which fortunately Sarno was most excellent at writing.

Nudes photographer Henning gets involved with several models while obsessively searching for a particular "look." He urges them on, shouting things like "More feeling! More EVIL!" à la Austin Powers. Purportedly shot over a long weekend, its cast names never even recorded, it’s a claustrophobic weirdie recalling such exploitation zeniths as Roger Corman’s Teenage Doll (1957) and Andy Milligan’s Fleshpot on 42nd St (1973).

Its gorgeous widescreen B&W restoration stands opposed to three-color features on the Deep Throat Sex Comedy Collection. Their visual quality (and variably complete edits) underline the ephemeral nature of movies often sporadically released at best originally, and that no one thought to "preserve." The headline attraction, Deep Throat II, was a spectacular 1974 flop inaccessible even to bootleggers until now. It reunited the original "porn chic" smash’s stars Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems — albeit in an aggressively dumb, atypically amateur (for Sarno) espionage spoof nobody liked. Dubious authority Al Goldstein called it "the worst movie ever made" because it committed the ultimate sin of omitting all graphic sex, even Linda’s signature oral party trick. (Rumors persisted for years that hardcore scenes were shot, then lost, in a lab fire.)

The other two Sex Comedy inclusions are equally rare but more rewarding. Likewise featuring a range of famous vintage porn stars, The Switch, Or How To Alter Your Ego and A Touch of Genie (both from 1974) each have their own inimitable softcore charms. Female Jekyll/Hyde spin Switch debuts long-term Sarno fave Mary Mendum as a scientific researcher whose formula turns her from unconvincing Plain Jane into a raving beauty who perpetually arouses others, male and female. Starting out in a burlesque-humor mode, it gets surprisingly darker as it goes along.

Genie is about Melvin Finklefarb, a Woody Allen-like nebbish granted five wishes by a junkshop’s bottled Barbara Eden aspirant. In one "wish," he’s Harry Reems. Evidently video-transferred Switch comes with mysterious (Danish?) subtitles; Genie‘s 35mm source is streaked and spotted. Apparently no better prints exist. Particularly ingratiating are Sarno’s invariably kind recollections in the extras — either he never met a performer he didn’t like, or they all liked him enough to be on their best behavior.

www.alternativecinema.com

Taxi cab confessions

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a&eletters@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER We all have fantasies, and considering the fact that he happily goes to the sick, hilarious places only you and your silliest, closest pals go, comedian Brent Weinbach’s is remarkably simple. He’d love to drive you … no, not insane, but around in a cab. Of course, when the dream sort of came true — he got to tool around with a cabbie-curator for "Where to," a 2007 art show of taxi-related art at the Lab — one bubble was brutally burst, spurring a joke, of sorts.

"Not a lot of people got it," confesses the longtime SF comedian, now based in his native Los Angeles and back in town for his Outside Lands fest performances. In the cab, he says, "I met a wide variety of people: I met two yuppie girls, a yuppie guy, and more yuppies — and a stripper. A yuppie stripper.

"The point was," Weinbach continues, "I thought it was going to be more like New York City, where all kinds of people take cabs. But that’s really what it was — a bunch of yuppies and a stripper. It turns out the only people who ride around in taxis in San Francisco are yuppies."

A disappointingly homogenous experience for a comic who has found plenty of very specific and strange black, queer, Chinese, Russian, Mexican, and just plain twisted voices to filter through his hilariously stiff, straight-guy comic persona — and despite the perk that, as a Travis Bickle manque, one would have a captive audience in the backseat. Still, cabbing it provided a theme of sorts for the wildly diverse array of live performance recordings, studio-recorded skits, and Weinbach-penned tunes and video game-inspired backing sounds making up the comedian’s second album, The Night Shift (Talent Moat), the focus of a release show at the Verdi Club on Sept. 11. Weinbach sib and comedy co-conspirator Laura of Foxtail Brigade opens, along with Moshe Kasher and Alex Koll.

The tunes on Night Shift are a new touch, setting me off on a daydream about Weinbach doing the duelin’ piano (and laughs) routine with Zach Galifianakis. (Weinbach once teased the ivories professionally in the lobby of Union Square hotels like the Mark Hopkins.) "Sometimes I close my set with one of those songs," Weinbach says. "After hearing the word ‘penis’ a bunch of times and talking about poo-poo, it’s kind of funny to end the set with a sweet old-fashioned song." He worries, though, about the track-by-track re-creation of the album at the Verdi Club: "I hope they don’t kill the momentum of the set."

Yet Weinbach is game — the ex-Oakland substitute teacher has had to be (memories of the letter from a student apologizing for calling him a "bitch" ghost-ride by). He dives into a rapid-fire, impassioned discussion of his comedy, which rarely discusses race directly, yet clearly emerges from the mashed-up, pop sensibility of a half-Filipino, half-Jewish Left Coast kid.

"The only time I’ve ever talked about race is right after the presidential election, when I wrote this: ‘On Nov. 4, 2008, history was made’ — I usually get a little applause here — ‘It was a remarkable thing to see so much of the black community come together and deny gay people their civil rights. So now that the black man is keeping the gay man down, that means gay is the new black. And that means suburban teenagers will have to get used to a whole new way of acting cool.’"

Weinbach pauses, then explains heatedly, "I was really upset that 70 percent of black voters in California voted against gay marriage, when this whole election was about getting a black president into office. It just blew my mind." As for the joke itself, well, "It gets a good response, though sometimes people think I’m making fun of gay people or black people. I don’t even know what’s going through their head, actually. I do remember doing the joke once and hearing people hissing. It was like, ‘What are you hissing at? Are you glad gay people were denied their rights or are you a snake?’ And if you’re a snake, that’s OK … ‘" *

BRENT WEINBACH

Sept. 11, 8 p.m., $10–<\d>$12

Verdi Club

2424 Mariposa, SF

www.brownpapertickets.com/event/72659

———–

JONESIN’


The cute couple loves their bubblegum and Casio-pop on Hi, We’re Jonesin’ (Telemarketer’s Worst Nightmare). Thurs/3, 9 p.m., $6. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com

AL GREEN


The rev has his finger on the holy trigger. Wed/2, 8 p.m., $56–<\d>$85. Warfield, 982 Market, SF. www.goldenvoice.com

SF CENTER FOR THE BOOK BENEFIT


Literati party down at a book arts-zine exhibit, with dance sets by Vin Sol, Honey Soundsystem, and Pickpockit. Fri/4, 9 p.m., free before 9 p.m., $7–<\d>$10. 111 Minna Gallery, 111 Minna, SF. www.111minnagallery.com

History today

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a&eletters@sfbg.com

TREATISE If, 20 years from now, recumbent in your easy chair with your slippers and favorite bong, some snot-nosed younger sibling should ask you about the zeitgeist of late ’00s underground metal (apparently the kid took an art history class), you might consider introducing the shaver to San Francisco’s Black Cobra, a two-piece that almost certainly could not exist at any other point in time.

From the tarry primordial soup of Cobra’s cavernous low-end emerge the various slimy, naked hallmarks of an increasingly protean metal scene — unapologetic Sleep worship, reverent nods to punk and hardcore cross-pollination, and a healthy dash of retro-metal swagger inform the band’s gargantuan riffs. Nothing about this approach feels like it’s been calculated for maximum relevance; instead, Black Cobra’s molasses-thick sound comes off as the happy end result of two longtime fans who came to the conclusion that they could, and should, create the music they wanted to hear. And while the band — Jason Landrian on guitar/vox, and Rafael Martinez on drums — has become more professional-sounding over the course of three full-length releases, the same caustic resin hit of recklessness permeates their newer material.

Black Cobra may not be High on Fire-monumental, or as thought provoking as Stephen O’Malley’s latest art-drone opus. But if nothing else, Landrian and Martinez are doing their part to wrestle metal from the clutches of lifeless robo-shredders, and making some damn heavy music in the process.

BLACK COBRA

With 16, Serpent Crown, dj Rob Metal.

Tues/8, 10 p.m. (doors 9 p.m.), free, 21 and over

The Knockout

3223 Mission

(415) 550-6994

www.theknockoutsf.com

We’ve gained control again

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NIGHTDREAM NATION New waves — or should one say Wavves? — of noise pop keep arriving this year. The latest one to splash up against my ears is also undoubtedly one of the best. Night Control’s debut album Death Control (Kill Shaman) is the type of recording that keeps on giving, thanks in part to the fact that its stylistic breadth matches its great length. Over the course of 19 songs and around 75 minutes, Christopher Curtis Smith traverses tremolo-laden terrain, distorted rave-ups, and synth-laden space ballads, with the occasional movie-of-your-mind instrumental passage thrown in for maximum seduction. The result is equally great to listen to on headphones or while shooting the shit with friends.

Listening to Smith’s ultra-vivid scenes, it’s hard not wonder if 2009 has been possessed by the spirit of 1989, as if that year’s pinnacles of youthful dream pop birthed sonic babies coming of age today. The likes of Wavves, Crystal Stilts, Crocodiles, Kurt Vile, and even the more commercially appealing Girls all have obvious ties to 20 years ago, and Night Control is no different. Like Vile in particular, Smith’s project also has the droll, play-it-cool, literally distant vocal and instrumental shadings of Flying Nun bands such as the Chills and the Clean — another vogue revival sound of the moment. Add in the fact that control is a word with currency, thanks to Blues Control, and it all might seem too perfectly with it. The thing is, Smith’s music is more evocative if not downright emotionally potent than all the aforementioned groups. The lore around Death Control is that it’s just a small sample from years of recordings that Smith either kept to himself or self-released under the name Crystal Shards. It’s believable when you hear these obsessive tunes that in turn hypnotize you into obsessive listening.

It’s all a pleasurable puzzle, a bit like Death Control‘s soft focus cover image, a public bathroom mirror self-portrait by Smith that looks as if it was taken with an iPhone held just right to completely block out his facial features. Connected to disposable technology, artfully generic, and yet enigmatic — that’s Night Control.

Cass’ corridors

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SONGWRITING Cass McCombs writes songs that feel like walking into a trap. It’s clear that the quasi-itinerant singer-songwriter — an old-fashioned term that seems to fit him well — is more aware of genre than the average indie troubadour, which makes his songs easy to enter but difficult to penetrate or exit. His music is not of the confessional variety, though it is indirectly personal. String together the titles that make up his discography and you get some sense of how his coded, morphing symbols approximate but never equal the biographical C.M.: A (4AD, 2003), PREfection (2005), Dropping The Writ (Domino, 2007), and Catacombs (2009). And that’s not even getting to his lyrics, which go about the work of making meaning and then suddenly self-cancel or erupt with the real.

"You Saved My Life," from McCombs’ most recent and accomplished record, is a career apogee in this respect. A swooning lap steel and big blunt snare do much of the heavy lifting to make the tune eminently mixtapeable, but the gratitude suggested by the title is troubled by the hard pivoting action of the phrase, "And I can’t blame you enough," and the wobbly delivery of "Blood to gulp and flesh to eat." McCombs’ canniness has little to do with word games or enigma-baiting, though: McCombs may as well have wandered into the singer-songwriter room after a childhood spent listening to mersh rap radio and simply and unfussily picked up on forms he found useful. McCombs’ music may be especially NPR-ready now, with the worn denim elbows of his current queasy Americana overtaking the Smiths/4AD dazzle that held sway over PREfection and surfaced on Dropping The Writ. Yet in comparison to a The Band-ripping band like Deer Tick, everything about McCombs’ music remains to be said.

One of McCombs’ strengths is the ability to modulate through moods over the course of an album while demanding a kind of deep semantic listening unusual in indie rock. Particularly with Catacombs, one gets the sense that Cass is a born Album Artist, the sort of person who understands the virtues of patience and can shear off the highs of his hits while packing filler with unexpected content. Though the quasi-punning Catacombs comes front-loaded with his most affecting tracks and ends with somewhat disposable, self-consciously lighter fare like "Jonesy Boy" and "One Way to Go," the relations between parts makes it difficult to skip over in-between jams like "Harmonia" and "My Sister, My Spouse." It helps, too, that these little coves of patience — a formalist’s trademark — tend to be where he tries out some of his stringier lyrical ideas.

"This is what happens when a leitmotif implodes," McCombs sings on "Lionkiller Got Married," a sequel to Dropping The Writ‘s opening track and personal standard of sorts, "Lionkiller." He could be explaining his own approach to autobiography with the line. It just may be that his subject matter is as much the act of making sense — as much about the point where the line falls off the page — as it is about the sense he’s making. None of it measures up to, say, Dylan-level fibs or automythology, but it serves an important purpose: you never get the feeling that there’s a straight line from McCombs’ intentions to your reception. This is not a dude in your living room relaying earthy, relatable feelings through his acoustic guitar.

It’d be a bit much to call McCombs an antihumanist, though: whatever slipperiness he manifests stems from a healthy distrust of settled meanings rather than a need to assert his control over his audience. Not to discount, either, that some of his contradictions seem to stem from guilelessness. That McCombs is clearly having fun even when he appears to be dead serious — as with "The Executioner’s Song," say — sets his kind of innocence apart from the standard journo narratives of indie rock discovery. As great as Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar, 2007) is, it will never live down the "dude goes into the forest and records awesome bummer breakup album" rap that’s stamped across it, for the foreseeable future, like a "The Nice Price" sticker.

But McCombs’ mercurial self-presentation seems less like the stamp of a "truer" authenticity than Bon Iver’s than a sustained parry of that terrible word. Not to forget, either, that Catacombs has been lauded in Vice and given Pitchfork’s Best New Music designation. Whether or not we’ve fussed our way into being able to describe what makes McCombs’ music so difficult to digest, there’s something tough and unyielding at its center. Partly I wonder whether this is what rock would sound like without Pavement, but mostly I listen. When it hits wrong, the boredom is palpable. But just as often Catacombs conveys the bottom falling out of meaning in gorgeous slow motion.

CASS MCCOMBS

With the Papercuts, Girls

Sept. 9, 9 p.m. (doors 8 p.m.), $14–$16

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750

www.gamh.com

Dreams come true

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DUAL INTERVIEWS Cass McCombs and Karen Black — not exactly Marvin and Tammi, or Elton or Kiki, or Waylon or Tammy, but undeniably classic from the very first listen. "Dreams-Come-True Girl" kicks off McCombs’ new album Catacombs (Domino) in style, immediately staking a claim for song of the year.

The partnership between McCombs and Black seems made in heaven — a strange heaven. It turns out that it was born from friendship: specifically, Black’s friendship with McCombs’ frequent collaborator Aaron Brown, who has created some of McCombs’ cover art and directed his music videos; and Black’s and Brown’s friendship with Bay Area filmmaker Rob Nilsson. "Rob introduced me to Aaron, and we just hit it off," Black relates via phone from Macon, Georgia, where she’s auditioning actors for a play she’s written called Missouri Waltz. "I invited him to have breakfast. Then one day he said, Listen, my friend Cass is cutting a CD next Tuesday, why don’t you come by and sing with him? That’s all I knew. I just did it because of the trust I had in Aaron, and my opinion of Aaron."

Black’s trust is a reward to McCombs and the listener. Beginning in Buddy Holly territory, "Dreams-Come-True Girl" moves handsomely through contemplative passages before Black arrives. It isn’t an overstatement to say that she turns in a country-rock grand dame performance worthy of a Wynette or Loretta Lynn while very much putting her distinct stamp on the song, switching from sublime siren calls to comic dance requests on a dime. "She’s just a gas," McCombs says admiringly from Los Angeles. "Out jaws were on the floor as she was riffing. She was in control. It was amazing to watch, and pretty inspiring."

Anyone lucky enough to have seen Black move from Bessie Smith to Katherine Anne Porter with graceful unease in her one-woman show knows that her musical performances in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces and 1975’s Nashville — two of McCombs’ favorite Black movies — merely hint at her vocal range and interpretive ability. Considering songwriters such as Dean Wareham have covered Black’s compositions, it’s bizarre that there isn’t a full-length Karen Black recording. Fortunately, producer Ariel Rechtshaid and McCombs are looking to remedy that situation next year.

For now, Black is busy with the usual amazing array of projects, ranging from plays (readings of her Mama at Midnight have been put on in L.A. and New York City) to new movies (The Blue Tooth Virgin; a bit part in Alex Cox’s Repo Man sequel Repo Chick) and an HBO pilot (Magical Balloon) by the people behind Tim and Eric Awesome Show.

As for McCombs and Black in "Dream-Come-True Girl," their relationship continues to bloom with each new performance. "The two characters have evolved," says McCombs. "Her character is reaching out to mine and saying C’mon, let’s go! It’s Saturday, let’s go out and have some fun! My character defuses the situation and looks away. It’s easy for both of us to do those roles. It comes naturally" — he laughs — "I suppose."

"You know, I’m no dream girl," Black says coyly. "But he’s so cute. They said, Come and dance for hours in your three-inch heels, and I said, Well, let’s try it. It turned out that I could do what the song was leading us to do, which was sort of flirt with him, sort of think about him, and sort of feel ridiculous because I shouldn’t be thinking about a young man like that. He’s so cute lookin’. He’s just the darlingest boy."

Word on the street

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news@sfbg.com

You see them everywhere. When you’re getting off Muni, when you’re crossing the street, in the corner of your eye: Street Sheets for sale. Behind every Street Sheet is a homeless person trying to legitimately make a buck and provide a voice for these frequently-ignored people and issues.

This month Street Sheet celebrates its 20th anniversary as the nation’s oldest, continuously operating street newspaper. Street Sheet is a newspaper focused solely on homelessness, poverty, and affordable housing issues and is distributed by homeless or formerly homeless vendors for a $1 donation.

The vendors keep the profits as a small source of income and, ideally, as a stepping-stone toward a a better life. Street Sheet, a project of the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homelessness, currently prints 16,000 copies twice a month with more than 200 vendors.

Lydia Ely, Street Sheet‘s editor for its first 10 years, believes that one of the paper’s strengths is the consistency of its mission. Bob Offer-Westort, the current coordinating editor, breaks down the mission into three objectives. The first is to provide supplemental income, in a dignified manner, to homeless men and women. Offer-Westort understands that this income is not a solution to homelessnees, but merely a stopgap measure.

Debbie, a vendor who has been selling the newspaper a couple times a week for eight years, uses the roughly $30 per day she earns to "make ends meet, pay for laundry and shampoo, or to go to the food bank."

The second mission, Offer-Westort says, is to "inform the broader public on issues that don’t make it into mainstream media." Even when homelessness, poverty, or housing issues seep into the news, they often are skewed, misinterpreted, or presented with a tone of judgment.

Andy Freeze, director of North American Street Newspaper Association, says street newspapers are "changing conversations around homelessness. Not everything revolves around drugs and alcohol," and street newspapers are bring the real issues of life on the streets to the forefront of discussion.

Despite pressure over the years to include positive stories for tourists, morality tales, horoscopes, and crosswords, Ely says Street Sheet continues to address serious news.

Last, Offer-Westort says, Street Sheet "creates a forum where an oppressed people get their voices heard." As of 2007, San Francisco’s official homeless count was 6,514; and in such a geographically small city, it is a community that is alternately ignored and vilified.

Even respectable vendors like Debby experience people who don’t understand Street Sheet. Debby says some people will "spit at you and call you names. They tell you to get a job." The irony in this is that the people yelling vulgarities at the vendors are the people in need of the education Street Sheet provides.

What those people don’t understand is that homelessness is not a choice and is not always drug or alcohol-related. In this economic crisis, Debby believes that a lot of the people who yell vulgarities "are just a paycheck away from being on the streets themselves."

But she doesn’t let the negativity get to her. "You learn a lot when you are on the other side of the fence. I have learned a lot about myself." Debby has an established spot to sell Street Sheet, a selling strategy, and has developed friendships with some of her regulars.

Offer-Westort, the coordinating editor for the past four years, says his role in the newspaper is not typical of editors in that he doesn’t write. Most of the stories are produced by homeless people. The Coalition on Homelessness includes three work groups — Civil Rights, Families and Immigration, and Right to a Roof — that work with volunteers and homeless or formerly homeless people to determine the content of each issue. Offer-Westort coordinates and "checks for spelling."

Much of what goes into print in street newspapers is "high quality journalism that is being recognized in their communities and nationally," according to Freeze. And while the mission of the paper hasn’t changed in 20 years, the material, as Ely says, has gotten better because of increased awareness and circulation.

When asked where Offer-Westort wants to see the paper in 20 years, he said he’d like to see it "going out of business because homelessness has ended."

Join Street Sheet‘s anniversary celebration Sept. 10 at 5:30 p.m. at SomArts Gallery, 934 Brannan, SF. Admission is $25 and includes food, drink, and entertainment. For more details visit www.cohsf.org/artauction.

Unbuckling the swashbuckler

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REVIEW Given the phenomenal success of Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, a revival of appreciation for the granddaddy of all cinematic swashbucklers, Douglas Fairbanks, is long overdue. Perfect accompaniment for home entertainment viewing of the silent film star arrives in the form of film historian Jeffrey Vance’s gorgeously laid out biography Douglas Fairbanks (University of California Press, 376 pages, $45).

Douglas Fairbanks was published with the assistance of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so perhaps it’s to be expected that the prose sometimes skirts close to hagiography. But Vance, who has authored studies of Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, knows his silent film history. He provides a wealth of information about the productions of Fairbanks’ major pictures (including 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, 1921’s The Three Musketeers, 1922’s Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad, and 1926’s The Black Pirate). The chapters about the big costume epics are bracketed by discussions of the earlier non-costume silents and the few sound projects Fairbanks worked on. Throughout, the text is complemented by beautiful reproductions of photos of Fairbanks and his friends and family on and off set.

Audiences came to expect incredible displays of acrobatic athleticism from the one-time stage actor. "There was no living man as graceful," says Allan Dwan, who directed several Fairbanks pictures. Upon scouting locations at the Grand Canyon for A Modern Musketeer (1917), Fairbanks commented that he was disappointed because "I couldn’t jump it."

Vance argues that Fairbanks was instrumental in shaping most aspects of his productions, which wielded a major influence on 20th century pop culture. Errol Flynn grew up worshipping Fairbanks and saluted his hero by starring in his own version of the Robin Hood story (1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood). Bob Kane, creator of Batman, tells Vance that Fairbanks’s depiction of Zorro ("a fop by day and a crusader at night") inspired the caped crusader’s costume, secret lair, and dual identity. Vance argues that Superman bore a heavy Fairbanks influence. Fairbanks also receives credit for popularizing the dark suntan, leaving us to wonder where George Hamilton or the Sonny Bono Cocoa Butter Open would have been without the great man’s example.

After he left his first wife for Mary Pickford, the actress dubbed "America’s sweetheart," Fairbanks climbed to heights of celebrity rarely attained by movie actors in the 1920s. Perhaps only Chaplin rivaled his peak fame. When Pickford and Fairbanks arrived in London in 1920, their entourage was mobbed, leaving Pickford briefly in fear for her life. From all indications they adjusted fairly well to this state of affairs, since both relished the limelight (Alexander Woolcott describes their post-marital jaunt as "the most exhausting and conspicuous honeymoon in the history of the marriage institution"). In order to gain more creative and financial control over their work, the couple used their new clout to join Chaplin and D.W. Griffith in founding United Artists.

Eighty-plus years on, the Fairbanks charisma can still wow an audience. And, at the risk of stressing the deadly obvious, DVD viewing really cannot do full justice to spectaculars made for the silver screen. At this year’s Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre, I had the privilege of taking in the 1927 feature Douglas Fairbanks in The Gaucho, which included plenty of leaping — and some tremendous vine-swinging which had the packed house screaming with pleasure. By that point well into his 40s and seemingly attempting to set a record for cinematic chain-smoking, Fairbanks was still near the acme of his physical powers. Portraying a more complex, jaded hero than in his earlier movies, he had put aside his discomfort with love scenes, thanks partly to co-star Lupe Velez, with whom he was having an affair. Ironically, Pickford appears in the film as an apparition of the Virgin Mary.

A dear friend who attended all of the Silent Film Festival responded to a questionnaire asking her to name the highlight of the weekend by writing "Douglas Fairbanks’ ass." Clearly, though he is dead and gone, his star shines on.

See monsters

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a&eletters@sfbg.com

REVIEW Naomi Ophelia Lamar was my cousin, but my big sister. Six years older than me, she ran away from home at 16. Though we stayed in touch, too many years of no contact had changed us both. We tried but could never close the distance. Last year, they found her body in a Dumpster in Birmingham, Ala. She’d been stabbed over 30 times. Her husband had done it. Afterward, he drove to the nearest bridge and threw himself off. She was the grandmother of three. I sat in the bathroom screaming, "We are not garbage!"

Bizarre and horrible things happen. They just do. They happen to us, around us, and because of us. Sometimes the horrible things only become horrible on reflection. We liked them at the time. Sometimes the bizarre things become so commonplace that they stop being bizarre. Both bizarre and horrible things become badges of distinction and honor when we survive. When we answer the call and stagger to daylight.

This is the general premise of Victor LaValle’s Big Machine (Spiegel & Grau, 284 pages, $25), which opens with a look at Ricky Rice, a middle-aged porter in a bus depot in Utica, N.Y. It’s 2005, and the world is about to go broke. Ricky’s a downtrodden sanitation worker with a shady past. He’s never seen better days, and none seem to be forthcoming. That is, until he receives a mysterious note reminding him of The Promise he made: a one-way bus ticket to Vermont’s northeast kingdom. On the bus to the frigid north, we hear LaValle’s refrain from an alcoholic goblin on a tear to his captive audience: "Human beings are no damn good. We even worse than animals. We like …"

The ellipsis just dangles, from the book’s first section on. As the events of Big Machine unfolded, I realized that that very phrase, and that very ellipsis, had been hanging from my lips since last year. It is the jump-off point for Lavalle’s book, and as we travel with Ricky Rice — alongside him, but also inside his mind as it seeks justification and reason — we begin to understand why.

Big Machine is a crafty book. Every page is a precise and illuminating reveal — a large veil playfully lifted from the reader’s initial conceptions of black/white, good/evil, and ultimately, salvation. Each chapter is a possible spoiler. A tough job for the reviewer, to be sure. Especially one who has been anticipating such a novel (and working on such a novel) for years.

Behold the invisible! You shall see unknown worlds: Ricky is recruited, along with six other recovering addicts and petty criminals to become a paranormal investigator. All of them have heard The Voice at the deep bottom of their shoddy existences and answered it with The Promise. Like generations of wretched of the earth before them, they are inducted into a secret society of "negros" ("I won’t say African Americans," says Rice, "it’s too damn long") to find The Voice and figure out what it wants.

From cleaning out bathroom stalls in work boots and T-shirts, Ricky becomes a dandy, wearing the finest clothes that the 1940s and 1950s could provide. Fitted in the best vines, he makes his way to (where else?) the Bay Area to confront a murder-suicide cult, and his own monstrous past.

Far from a standard dry examination of doubt and faith, Lavalle’s allegorical approach is sweeping and swashbuckling. Big Machine takes us from Ricky’s idyllic childhood — sweet as saccharine, with a black tar of burn — to his romantic nadir, dying in a puddle of piss and shit in the basement of a house owned by a man named Murder.

LaValle has named Shirley Jackson and Ambrose Pierce as influences, along with those he calls "the Black Eccentrics": Ishmael Reed, Gayle Jones, Darth Vader. His approach to gothic horror adds black Black humor and a new element of ferocity to the AfroSurreal aesthetic.

There’s a lot of tearing in this book. Flesh is peeled, pried, burned, punctured. Torture plays a prominent role. Children are exploited, souls are gnawed away, and spirits are broken. Bullets fly, bodies are wrenched, mauled, mutilated and discarded — so much so that Lavalle’s main refrain takes on greater weight when it reappears, in extended form, from the mouth of one of Big Machine‘s main characters. "Human beings are no damn good!," the character says. "The despised become the despicable. God Damn! We worse than animals! We’re like monsters."

Monsters. Big Machine has those too. Some wear suits, some wear shawls, some move between the shadows with vise-grip hands. The story is neither miserable nor grotesque, and it is proof of LaValle’s genius that sympathy and forgiveness extends to the whole pitiful lot.

I’ve been following LaValle since I read his 1999 short story collection Slapboxing With Jesus (which takes its title from a Ghostface Killah quote), and followed it up by reading 2003’s The Ecstatic (which in turn inspired Mos Def to title his latest album the same). Mos Def contributed a blurb to Big Machine, and the book’s blurbs are telling: according to them, LaValle is Marquez mixed with Poe, or Marakami mixed with Ellison, or Bosch having a baby with Lenny Bruce. But I feel they all miss the mark — I’m here to tell you that Victor LaValle is a believer in the unseen world. He has been there, and what he has brought back has affirmed my belief too. Yes, there are monsters out there, and what’s an AfroSurrealist supposed to do?

"I guess we could lock ourselves in the bathroom and hide. Let someone else face the fight," says Ricky. "But we’re not going to do that."

Nuclear implosion

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a&eletters@sfbg.com

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 After Life stepped into a bureaucratic beyond. His 2001 Distance probed the aftermath of a religious cult’s mass suicide. Likewise loosely inspired by fact, Nobody Knows (2004) charted the survival of an abandoning mother’s practically feral children in a Tokyo apartment. 2006’s Hana was a splashy samurai story — albeit one atypically resistant to conventional action.

Despite their shared character nuance, these prior features don’t quite prepare one for the very ordinary milieu and domestic dramatics of Still Walking. Kore-eda’s latest recalls no less than Ozu in its seemingly casual yet meticulous dissection of a broken family still awkwardly bound — if just for one last visit — by the onerous traditions and institution of "family" itself. There’s no conceptually hooky lure here. Yet Walking is arguably both Kore-eda’s finest hour so far, and as emotionally rich a movie experience as 2009 has yet afforded.

One day every summer the entire Yokohama clan assembles to commemorate an eldest son’s accidental death 15 years earlier. This duty calls, even if art restorer Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) chafes at retired M.D. dad’s (Yoshio Harada) obvious disappointment over his career choice, at the insensitivity of his chatterbox mum (Kiri Kirin), and at being eternally compared to a retroactively sainted sibling. Even more so now that Ryo now has a bride (Yui Natsukawa) and son (Shohei Tanaka) eager to please their new in-laws — though they’re already damned as widow and another man’s child.

Not subject to such evaluative harshness is many-foibled sole Yokohama daughter Chinami (Nobody Knows‘ oblivious, helium-voiced mum You). Simply because she’s a girl — so dim-bulb husband and running-wild kids get the pass stern grandpa denies prodigal son Ryo and company. Small crises, subtle tensions, the routines of food preparation, and other minutae ghost-drive a narrative whose warm, familiar, pained, touching, and sometimes hilarious progress seldom leaves the small-town parental home interior — yet never feels claustrophobic in the least.

There’s a whiff of compromise in a coda that feels compelled to spell out the reconciliatory note already hard-won through inference. (Gratuitous sentimentality is a habit Japanese non-genre cinema often finds hard to kick.) Nonetheless, this is Kore-eda’s most truly naturalistic, let alone Ozu-like film since his first — the comparatively bleak 1995 Maborosi — as well as a dysfunctional-family seriocomedy uncommonly beautiful inside and out. It’s a quietly funny and insightful two hours capable of inducing one pretty ecstatic afterglow.

STILL WALKING opens Fri/4 in Bay Area theaters.

Baader to the bone

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"The Baader Meinhof gang? Those spoiled, hipster terrorists?" That was the response of one knowledgeable pop watcher when I told her about The Baader Mienhof Complex, the new feature from Uli Edel (1989’s Last Exit to Brooklyn). The violence-prone West German anarchist group, otherwise known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), still inspires both venomous spew and starry-eyed fascination (see Joe Strummer’s RAF T-shirt, Gerhard Richter’s paintings of its dead leaders, and Erin Cosgrove’s 2003 satirical romance paperback, The Baader-Meinhof Affair). Edel’s sober, clear-eyed view of the youthful and sexy yet arrogant and murderous, gun-toting radicals at the center of Baader-Meinhof’s mythology — a complex construct, indeed — manages to do justice to the core of their sprawling chronology, while never overstating their narrative’s obvious post-9/11 relevance.

Based on the nonfiction best-seller by onetime Der Spiegel editor Stefan Aust, The Baader Meinhof Complex finds its still, watchful center in Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck). Aust’s onetime fourth-estate colleague makes the dramatic trajectory from bourgeois wife and mother to underground radical crawling through Mideast dust and toting a machine gun under the tutelage of Fatah. She’s shocked by brutal police crackdowns on the student protests against the visiting shah of Iran and America’s Vietnam War — enacted with a cruelty reminiscent of the one-generation-removed SS and a reminder of a not-so-distant fascist past — and somewhat in awe of Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), who emit rock-star charisma.

Helping to bust Baader out of jail on the pretext of working on a book, Meinhof joins her crushes in life on the lam. The three and their followers declare an urban guerrilla war on West Germany until they are nabbed and stuck in solitary at Stammheim Prison. While their trial descends into bitter, kangaroo court-style comedy, the RAF members outside resort to heightened feats of bloodshed and desperation in the so-called "German Autumn" of 1977, killing the chief federal prosecutor, kidnapping a banker, and finally conspiring in the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet.

Edel has absorbed his share of criticism for his RAF portrayal: the director’s far from sympathetic when it comes to these self-absorbed, smug rebels, who relish offending their Muslim hosts by sunbathing nude, yet he’s not immune to their cocky, idealistic charms. Cool-headed yet fully capable of thrilling to his subjects’ eye-popping audacity, the filmmaker does an admirable job of contextualizing the group within the global student and activist movements and bringing the viewer, authentically, to the still timely question: how does one best (i.e., morally) respond to terrorism?

THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX opens Fri/4 in Bay Area theaters.

Volume 43 Number 49 Flip-through Edition

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Werk

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Things I’m loving so much lately, besides the way your new used shoes go with your new used hair: The awesome trip-disco movement, with the Lamb + Wolf and Soul Clap duos in the lead — dig Soul Clap’s "Great White Hope IV" mix at www.wolflambmusic.com — which fills out classic soul and R&B slabs with subtle, supple laptop hijinks. Young SF queen Chastity Belle wholeheartedly reviving old-school Liza, Sondheim, and Showgirls drag histrionics — frighteningly accurate! The new Spanish-German techno, revealed by the likes of Edu Imbernon, Coyu, and Niconé, which harnesses minimal techno and microhouse knob-tweaks to ethereal samba and salsa beats. And my favorite thing ever? BART runs all night on Labor Day weekend, so we can work it out on both sides of the Bay quickly, tipsily, and conveniently. Tube it, baby.

STUDIO SF

Two of our loveliest parties, Look Out Weekend and Go Bang!, combine their electro and disco spirits to update the future sounds of yesteryear for right now, with White Girl Lust, Ken Vulsion, and the always perky Sergio of KALX.

Thu/3 and every first Thursday, 9 p.m., $5. Triple Crown, 1760 Market, SF. www.triplecrownsf.com

AGNÈS

Swiss decks heartthrob expands his ravenous-eared range from dubby minimal tech to roots house for a set that’s guaranteed to be full of audio Alpine peaks. He’ll be joined by Jan Kreuger of Berlin’s delicious Panoramabar.

Sat/6, 10 p.m.–6 a.m., $15/$20. EndUp, 401 Sixth St., SF. www.theendup.com

BLESSED

A truly spiritual monthly Oakland affair, from the soulful house sounds of residents Rafriki, Discaya, and Kimani — plus special guest (and personal crush) DJ Ellen Ferrato — to the blessed out crowd of get-downers.

Sat/5, 9 p.m., free. Somar, 1727 Telegraph, Oakl. www.somarbar.com

GEMINI DISCO

It’s been three wild years for the beautiful-yet-intellectual disco kids of mad monthly Gemini, and this champagne celebration with DJs Nicky B. and Derek Love should be a real corker. Lovely Le Dinosaur hosts.

Sat/5, 10 p.m., $5. UndergroundSF, 424 Haight, SF. www.geminidisco.com

DUB MISSION

Woah — DJ Sep’s groundbreaking dub and raga weekly is now officially a classic, celebrating 13 years, and untold influence on the current SF sound, by hosting a rad "dub summit" that includes Twilight Circus Dub Soundsystem and Yossi Fine.

Sun/6, 9 p.m., $15. Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, SF. www.elbo.com

LABOR D’AMOUR

Funky house and techno party mainstays Sunset and Stompy get wild in their inimitably sunny style at Cocomo, filling the giant patio with, yes, "all styles and smiles" — plus the sounds of Sascha Funke, David Harness, and a dozen more.

Sun/6, 2 p.m.–2 a.m., $10/$20. Café Cocomo, 650 Indiana, SF. www.pacificsound.net

PARADISE LIVES!

Even more disco! Honey Soundsystem name-checks the mother of them all, Paradise Garage, with this special installment of its weekly party, calling down the spirits with legendary Trocadero Transfer master DJ Steve Fabus.

Sun/6, 10 p.m.-3a.m., $2. Paradise Lounge, 1501 Folsom, SF. www.paradisesf.com

SIXXTEEN

I’m totally wetting my petite BVDs about the glorious return, after a decade’s absence, of DJs Jenny and Omar’s raucous rock debauch. Peaches Christ hosts, FLAWK hands out drink tickets to flashiest thrashers and best-dressed punk ‘n’ roll runaways.

Sun/6, 10 p.m.–3 a.m., $10. Cat Club, 1190 Folsom, SF. www.sfcatclub.com

Corn on the curb

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le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS I pick up my brother at the airport. It might not always be the Oakland airport, but I will always pick up my brother at the airport. Besides love, there’s corn in it for me. Ohio corn. I didn’t know about this angle when I tried to lift his suitcase, while he was busy with a big ragged box with duct tape all over it, situating this in the back of my little car — just so, because that’s the way he is.

Me, I’ve been struggling with the Meaning of Life a little lately, and you never know where you will find a sense of purpose. Why not at the curb outside of baggage claim? I didn’t know, I just thought I would make myself useful.

I got the suitcase about an eighth of an inch off of the ground, then decided to just wait quietly for my hug, and let it back down.

"I’ll get that," he said. After he got it, after the hug, we were driving away and he said, "Do you know what’s in that suitcase?"

"Something really very heavy," I said.

And that was when he said, "Corn."

"Ah," I said, as if corn, all things considered, made perfect sense.

"Ohio corn," he said. "Picked this morning. Four dozen ears of Ohio corn."

"OK then," I said.

He had me go through his old neighborhood, which is West Oakland, because he wanted to leave some on his ex’s steps, and his buddy Ron’s steps, and for all I knew some other people’s steps.

But it was 10:30 at night and I wondered about raccoons and other terrorists. I wondered this out loud.

"You’re right," he said. "I’ll deliver it in the morning." And we got back on the freeway.

We went to my house and started eating the corn in my kitchen, standing up. We didn’t bother to boil it or anything, and it was pretty good, but I still didn’t know about bringing four dozen ears of fresh corn on an airplane to California. It seemed a little illegal, if not — I don’t know — pointless.

"The fact is," I said to my brother, halfway through my first ear, "we do have corn here." To illustrate my point, I opened the refrigerator and showed him an ear. I’d just bought it at the grocery store. It seemed pretty fresh too. This is California.

"Ohio corn," he said. There was a piece of it on his chin, and his eyes looked glazed, maybe because of the time difference.

I’m supposed to be a food writer, and I wasn’t sure I could tell the difference. It was good, yes. I ate another piece, steamed, at my cousin Choo-Choo’s house the next day. It was great.

But sometimes I get a great ear of corn at the farmers market, too. I guess the meaning of life is that corn means different things to different people, and while a lot of people have little brothers, few if any of them arrive at the Oakland airport with a suitcase full of corn. So there’s that.

Grateful, charmed, and educated, I offered him my life. My cabin, the kids, this column. He said he’d take my records, and my car. "It’s all or nothing," I said. And for the next couple days I went around buying ears of corn at all the local markets.

I’d pay 99 cents (in some cases) for one ear of locally grown organic corn, and eat it raw, or in some cases cooked, and of course in other cases barbecued. And you know what? It never tasted as good as my brother’s suitcase-smuggled Ohio corn.

Which is gone. My brother’s still here, for a couple more weeks. I called him and said, "OK, you can have my records."

He deserves them, but mostly I just love to think of one of my sisters picking him up at the airport in Ohio, trying to lift his suitcase, or his big taped-up box, and not getting it more than an eighth of an inch off the ground.

"Do you know what’s in there?" he’ll say. And she’ll never guess. I wrote this while eating a Vietnamese sandwich at:

TAY TAH CAFE

Mon.–Fri.: 8 a.m.–6:30 p.m.;

Sat. 9 a.m.–6:30 p.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m.

1182 Solano, Albany

(510) 527-8104

No alcohol

MC/V

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

Ooo, hard

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andrea@mail.altsexcolumn.com

Andrea is on vacation. This column originally ran 5/21/08.

Dear Andrea:

I’m confused. Are there any guys out there who aren’t at the extremes as far as sex goes? My ex-boyfriend was completely obsessed. Not only did he want it four-plus times a day, he’d want to have phone sex at least twice a day when we were apart. I think of myself as a pretty sexual person, but even I have my limits. Plus phone sex was boring. I like to masturbate, but it’s hard for me to orgasm when I feel the person on the end of the line is waiting. But that’s not why he’s my ex. He was rather immature. He was so obsessed with sex, everything was sexual. If I said it was raining out. He’d say "oooh sounds … wet." If I said something was hard (difficult) he’d say "ooh, hard!" It was like that with everything! He was not some 20-year-old kid, either. He was 48! I’m 31 and I felt I was more mature than he was. So we broke up. Then I fell in love with his polar opposite. We’ve been together a couple years and our sex life has gone downhill rapidly, from two or three times a week to maybe once every three months. I’ve tried to initiate, but I get nowhere. It only happens when he wants it to. I really love this guy and I want to marry him. I just need to figure out how to find a happy medium.

Love,

Opposite Day

Dear Day:

A happy medium in your case would require something like the matter-transporter machine from The Fly — you’d put Mr. "Ooh, Sounds … Wet" in one pod and Mr. Every Three Months in the other and zap them back and forth in space until their DNA was well and truly mixed. Ideally, you’d end up with a guy who wanted to do it about as often as you do, with some room in there for negotiation. Un-ideally, of course, you could make yourself a boyfriend who never wants to have sex but does like to make a whole lot of immature, sniggery jokes about it. On second thought, maybe this isn’t the best plan.

The first guy sounds unbearable. I’m surprised you stuck it out with him as long (ooooh, long) as you did. It must have been hard to … I mean you had to have been open to … I mean on top of — oh, never mind. It must have been like living with Michael Scott with a few drinks in him: "That’s what she said!" Awful. You have my sympathy.

The new guy is a harder nut (oh, shut up) to crack. Are you really as mystified as you sound about where the sex has gone and why, or is there a chance that you do know what’s up (shut up) with him but don’t want to admit it? I don’t think it’s abnormal to experience a drop-off after a few years, particularly, but four times a year is pretty slim pickings. As a mere stripling of 31, I would be very cautious, in your place, about signing any long-term contracts under those conditions. At the very least you ought to know what’s going on with him (and with your relationship) before you agree to marry someone who frankly isn’t going to satisfy you. It would be a different story if you were saying "We only do it every three months and we’re both happy with that." Then I’d dance at your wedding. The way you’re talking about it, though, I’d feel more like I was dancing on your marriage’s grave, and while I’ve always liked Nick Cave, I’m just not that goth. Sorry. It ain’t going to work.

You’re going to have to have one of those sit-downs that nobody wants but nearly everybody needs at some point. This is no time to ask him what’s wrong with him or to suggest that maybe he’s just not man enough for you, not if you actually like him, anyway. It is time to find out what’s going on with him all those times you initiate and you "get nowhere." Is it possible he’s missing your cues? Is there a better time or a better approach? A different act? If the answer is no, no, no, and no, and this is just who he is — a guy who’s interested in sex four times a year and anything extra just seems unnecessary or unappealing — then you’re going to have to figure out if there’s some way you can get your itches scratched. Maybe he’d be happy just holding you while you take care of things for yourself. Maybe he’d be OK if you had a "friend." Maybe he needs a check-up and a meds adjustment and all will be well after that. You’re going to have to find out, is all. I don’t care if it’s hard. And that’s not what she said, or so I hear.

Love,

Andrea

See Andrea’s other column at carnalnation.com.

Desperate measures?

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sarah@sfbg.com

A proposal to open the first desalination plant on the San Francisco Bay inched forward Aug. 18 when the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) board voted 4-0 to build a facility that would convert 5 million gallons of seawater a day into fresh drinking water.

It’s the latest chapter in a saga that has pit environmentalists, who see the plant as too energy intensive, against business and development interests, which fear the district is going to run out of water.

The plant, which is planned for a seven-acre shoreline plot in San Rafael and could be up and running by 2014, would cost an estimated $105 million to build and another $3 million to $4 million a year to operate. MMWD says it will fund the project using bonds and a $3 to $5 increase in monthly water bills.

MMWD Board President David Behar and directors Larry Russell, Cynthia Koehler, and Jack Gibson also approved $400,000 to cover permits and design construction of the new facility

The Aug. 18 vote took place with the five-member MMWD board short a director (former Board President Alex Forman died July 9). And it came after hours of public comment, with opponents arguing that desalination is too expensive, detrimental to marine life, and will release climate-changing gases.

"When you look at the bigger picture, it makes no sense," said Mark Schlosberg, California Director for the Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group.

In June, Food & Water Watch’s James Frye released a report titled "Sustaining Our Water Future," which argues that MMWD could meet its future water needs by intensifying conservation measures and improving reservoir operations. Frye’s report also indicated that the water district overestimated its expected water shortfall because it based its calculations on high-use years.

But MMWD’s general manager Paul Helliker contends the report was not realistic. "They are talking about everyone, business and homeowners, cutting landscape water use by 40 percent. That’s a phenomenal cut," Helliker told the Marin Independent Journal at the time.

Others see desalination as a drought-proof way to satisfy projected population and economic growth.

"We’re concerned about bringing supply and demand into balance," Hal Brown, president of the Marin County Board of Supervisors, said during public comment.

"Under a severe drought, the economy will be impacted tremendously," said Bill Scott, business manager of the Marin Building Trades Council.

When the board ultimately voted to green-light the next steps in the desalination plant building process, they noted that they will explore the use of alternative renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, wave/tidal, or landfill gas, to power the plant. They also pointed out that when the next drought hits, Marin won’t be able to build emergency pipelines and negotiate for more water from the Russian River, which is what the county did during previous droughts.

Today, Marin County relies on seven small local reservoirs. The district contends that the new facility will be insurance against longer dry spells, which are anticipated due to global warming.

"This has been hard," Board member Cynthia Koehler acknowledged, addressing the riled-up crowd and noting that the district still has "a number of off-ramps."

The MMWD is already on the vanguard of conservation statewide, Koehler noted, observing that no water district achieves its conservation goals. "So I don’t think six years is rushing," he said.

"We will not build a desalination plant without the need," MMWD director Larry Russell told the crowd. "We are not fast-tracking this. But if a drought comes, we will."

"I’d be lying if I said I have no concerns about de-sal, starting with the energy," MMWD director Jack Gibson told the agitated crowd. "So, why am I not there with you? I view it as being prepared."

Recalling how attitudes changed overnight when the drought hit in 1976 and 1977, Gibson added, "If we have a serious water crisis, people are going to be clamoring for water. My concern is that the Russian River, as a fish habitat, will be gone."

With four of five seats up for election in November 2010 election, the composition of the board could change dramatically before the desalination plant’s fate is sealed.

I heard a tumor

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a&eletters@sfbg.com

INTERVIEW Sacramento quartet Ganglians daydreams blissed-out harmonies — ones made hazy by distortion. As its sun-kissed psych-pop sounds become garbled, the band creates a prismatic realm, a sonic state of being somewhere between waking and dreaming. This polychromatic province, where myoclonic twitches and hypnotic jerks occur, is conjured by variations between fuzzy, thermal jams and abstract, pensive chants.

Vocalist-guitarist Ryan Grubbs grew up in Bozeman, Mont. In 2006, he moved to Sactown after visiting the state capitol with his grandfather, who was attending a big horn sheep convention. Guitarist Kyle Hoover, drummer Alex Sowles, and bassist Adrian Comenzind all grew up in Sac and jammed together in Comenzind’s attic.

"Ryan worked down the street from that attic and when he’d walk home, he could hear us playing," says Sowles, explaining the band’s serendipitous formation. "Ryan had a show lined up and he asked us if we wanted to play with him. It just kinda worked out." After a pause he adds: "And then there was a car crash right in front of the venue that we played at …" Hoover, Grubbs, and Sowles rally back and forth about the group’s chemistry, which "wasn’t actually all there at first," before concluding that "the chemistry was there, but we weren’t exactly sure how to pull it off."

In biology, clusters of cells perform the same function within a ganglion — for instance, dorsal root ganglia relay sensory information from the skin to the spine. This process is a metaphor for the band’s rapid maturity: progressing from the first show, which was an interpretation of Grubbs’ solo work, to the chemistry-click when the members began writing songs together (and finishing each other’s sentences).

It all makes sense, except: the plural of ganglion is ganglia, and the band’s choice of name has nothing to do with the neurological term. Instead, Ganglians is a haphazard smooshing together of words. "Mostly I just liked aliens, and a gang of aliens, so I thought of ganglians," says Grubbs. "I had never heard of it before, so it sounded really cool, mysterious and iconic. I found out later it was a cyst or something, spelled a little differently, which is cool because that’s kinda weird and it’s like a bundle of nerves, and nerves are all about perceiving things and stuff. It worked out perfectly, I guess."

Ultimately, the randomness of Ganglians’ name, and how it came into being, is probably a much better metaphor for how the band operates. Its two releases to date, a self-titled EP (Woodsist) and Monster Head Room (Woodsist/Weird Force), were released almost simultaneously. The EP came out first, but features many songs written after those on Monster Head Room. The latter "was more of a production thing," says Sowles. Or as Grubbs put it, "It was a labor of love, we really nourished it." Monster Head Room‘s relative polish is illustrated by re-recordings two tracks of "The Void" and "Candy Girl" from Ganglians’ self-titled release.

Ganglians usually build songs around a melody. Grubbs often finds his during a "mindless" and "routine" job as a busser/server at a sushi restaurant. "I just go into this trance, " he says. "Then I’ll run into the bathroom and record a little snippet off of a melody on my phone."

After piecing together Grubbs’ cell phone recordings, the band jams for a while, with each member contributing different ingredients for the song. Most contributions are based upon a theme or an idea, such as sounding like a forest, or like being underwater, or trying to conjure the feeling of a journey.

Grubbs’ lyrics spring forth from themes and sounds, as in "Valient Brave," from Monster Head Room. "From its rhythm-guitar," says Grubbs, "I knew it was going to be a war chant." Grubbs also builds lyrics around vowel sounds, as is evident in his use of slant rhyme: the same album’s "Cryin Smoke," for example, pairs "pasture" with "bathroom."

The idiosyncratic moments in Ganglians’ music express a randomness but also reflect an increasing attention to detail. These particulars are most easily perceived while listening to Monster Head Room on headphones: the back-and-forth thumps that begin "Valient Brave," the UFO blast-off in "The Void" (produced via an oscillator and space echo), and the field recordings of crickets, frogs, and wood crackling that permeate "To June." There is a charm in not knowing whether these moments were fortuitous, like the band’s formation and name, or calculated. The ambiguity only heightens Ganglians’ ability to bring its listener into its half-dream sphere.

GANGLIANS

With Wavves

Sun/6, 7:30 p.m., $10–$12

155 Fell, SF

(415) 861-2011

www.rickshawstop.com

The water wars

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rebeccab@sfbg.com

When arch-conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity decided to weigh in recently on the contentious — and immensely complicated — issue of California water policy, here’s how he summed it up: "Farmers in California are losing their crops, their land, and their livelihood — all because of a two-inch fish!"

Television viewers were treated to scenes of the Central Valley, showing a lush field of crops — followed by a dusty, withered almond orchard that has been cut off from water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. A news anchor informed viewers that the nation’s most productive agricultural lands were "threatened by a small, harmless-looking minnow called the Delta smelt."

Because a federal judge ordered cutbacks in the amount of water shipped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to farms in the valley, a farmer explained on camera, growers have fallen on hard times. After showing a long line stretching around a food bank in the tiny agricultural town of Mendota, the newscasters concluded: "It’s fish versus families, and [the government is] choosing the fish."

It’s a dramatic portrayal, and the poor farm laborers who are out of work are truly struggling. But it isn’t the fault of a fish.

The state Legislature is now struggling with a series of bills to address a problem that sometimes seems to defy political solution, while agricultural interests — which consume the lion’s share of the state’s water supply — are campaigning aggressively to secure even more water for irrigation.
But while the political forces battle, an environmental nightmare is being created in the Delta. Years of massive water diversions are putting the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary at risk. Massive projects that take freshwater from the delta appear linked to declines in bay and delta fisheries, threatening not just endangered species but California’s salmon fishing industry, which lost more than $250 million last year as a result of declining salmon runs.

499-coverchart.jpg
Delta exports (at left) have increased in recent years, while returning Chinook salmon populations have declined at the end of a three-year spawning cycle. Graph created using data from Porgans & Associates

Meanwhile, climate models predict that California’s tug-of-war over water will only get uglier as the state is hit with more frequent droughts. As lawmakers scramble to find a solution to the state’s water woes, the challenge isn’t just to balance the needs of families and fish — it’s to steer an increasingly crowded state toward smarter management of shrinking water resources.
"It all comes down to climate change," Lt. Gov. John Garamendi noted in a recent interview with the Guardian. "Everything we know about water in California is going to dramatically change."

Critics say the bills in Sacramento are, at best, a duct-tape-and-baling-wire solution to a problem that could define the state’s economy and environment in the coming decades. "The bills … have been slapped together in such a slapdash way that it’s reminiscent of energy deregulation," said Nick Di Croce, lead author of "California Water Solutions Now," a report produced by the Environmental Water Caucus.

As things stand, much of the problem is inherent in the system. The pumps that export water out of the delta regularly pulverize federally threatened and endangered fish, yet the government agencies that operate them are rarely held accountable. The agency that is supposed to monitor and protect the health of the San Francisco Bay and the fragile delta ecosystem also gets 80 percent of its budget from water sales. And the state water projects regularly promise more water than they can deliver.

THE GREAT SUCKING SOUND

California’s water wars stem from a tricky dilemma: two-thirds of the precipitation falls in the north, while two-thirds of the people live in the drier south. The delta, located primarily in Sacramento and San Joaquin counties, is the heart of the state’s water supply, where the freshwater flows of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and vein-like tributaries converge. It boasts the largest estuary on the west coast of North and South America, providing critical habitat for at least a dozen threatened or endangered species including salmon, smelt, splittail, sturgeon, and others.

The delta is also like a superhighway interchange of water for the state. Two vast plumbing networks — the Central Valley Project, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the State Water Project, operated by the Department of Water Resources — transport water from delta pumping stations to cities and agricultural operations across the state.

Roughly 5.7 million acre-feet of water was exported annually from the delta in recent years, a high that many environmentalists say is unsustainable. (An acre-foot, or 325,853 gallons, is the amount that covers an acre one-foot deep.) Before the Central Valley Project was constructed in the 1930s, only 4.7 million acres of farmland were irrigated statewide. By 1997, the acres of thirsty cropland had climbed to 8.9 million, converting many areas that were once barren desert into lush green fields. Agribusiness dominates the sector, with some farming operations like agricultural empires, spanning tens of thousands of acres.

As cropland has expanded, so has agriculture’s demand for water. State and federal agencies sell delta water by issuing contracts to water districts, and the water is priced substantially lower for agricultural use. A report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council suggests that delta water allocation has traditionally gone something like this: "Corporate and agricultural interests demanded more and more water, and the state and federal agencies let them have it."

No one can say just how much rain will fall from the sky in a given year, so stipulations were written into the water contracts to deal with allocation during times of water shortage. Depending on a district’s water rights — a status determined by a combination of seniority and a hierarchy of uses — it may get 100 percent of the amount promised on paper during a dry year, or a mere fraction of it.

But the districts continue to promise water to farmers, and the state continues to promise water to the districts.

This latest round of water wars is exacerbated by the drought, which has sapped water supply in California for three years in a row. The dry spell has led to cutbacks in delta water exports, affecting farms throughout the Central Valley and sending unemployment rates up. The drought was responsible for two-thirds of the roughly 1.6 million acre-feet shortfall in water exports, and the remaining third was withheld by federal court order to protect the endangered Delta smelt.

Making matters worse, many growers in water-deprived places like the Westlands Water District, in the Central Valley between Coalinga and San Joaquin, have recently shifted to permanent crops like almonds and pistachios instead of annual crops that might be more adaptable to unpredictable irrigation supply from year to year. It’s a bad time for the San Joaquin Valley to take a hit. The region is already plagued with high rates of unemployment from a loss in construction work, foreclosure, and other effects of the economic downturn.

HELL IN A HANDBASKET

State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) put the dilemma simply: "The question is, how do you ensure that two-thirds of the state has a reliable supply of clean water while at the same time acknowledging and addressing the fact that from an environmental standpoint, the delta’s gone to hell in a handbasket over the last five years?" Simitian has taken a leadership role in crafting legislation to reform the broken system.

"I just think that things have come together at this particular time to suggest that there ought to be a sense of urgency about all of this," Simitian added during a recent conversation with the Guardian. "But I worry that inaction is always the default mechanism, and in a conversation such as this one, I don’t think we can afford inaction very much longer."
Right now five bills are pending in Sacramento. Backers say they strive to meet two "co-equal goals" that in the past have proven to be at odds: more reliable delta water deliveries, and a restored delta ecosystem. Simitian’s bill would create a Delta Stewardship Council, a powerful body authorized to approve spending for a new system for moving water through the delta that could include a new version of the much-maligned peripheral canal, a hydraulic bypass diverting freshwater from the Sacramento River around the brackish delta to ship south.

A bill introduced by Assembly Member Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who heads the water committee, would require a 20 percent reduction in statewide urban per capita water use by 2020. Other objectives in the legislation are to firm up ecological protections for the delta, reevaluate the state’s system of water rights, and establish new water-use reporting requirements.

"Is there a win-win here? I think there is," Simitian told us. "But only if you look at this from sort of a big-picture, comprehensive standpoint, which is why we’ve got five different bills that seek to make sure there’s a balancing of interests. One of the things we’ve talked about was the co-equal goals of a reliable supply of clean water with delta restoration. And that’s going to require not looking at any one of these issues in isolation, but taking it all together."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made it clear that he believes building a peripheral canal is the best plan. Variations of this idea have been proposed since the 1940s, but in 1982, Californians voted it down at the ballot (with an overwhelming majority of Northern Californians voting no).

Some groups perceive this as a water grab for Southern California and agribusiness, and delta interests say it would cripple both delta agriculture and the estuary by increasing salinity levels from seawater and preventing the delta from being flushed out by natural freshwater flows. Cost estimates for that project range from $10 billion to $40 billion.

Schwarzenegger has also threatened to veto any package proposed by the Democrat-controlled Legislature that doesn’t include bonds for new dams (in their current form, the bills do not). A bond bill would require a two-thirds majority, while the proposed water bills would only need a simple majority vote to pass.

"I think it’s helpful for the governor to weigh in and share his opinions," Simitian noted cautiously. "However, I did not think it was helpful for the governor to simply draw a line in the sand."

The proposals are being met with skepticism from all sides. Many environmentalists who’ve gone to battle over water policy issues for years have little faith, saying the proposed Delta Stewardship Council would cater to the governor’s agenda because he would have the power to appoint four out of seven members. They’re concerned that environmental issues will play second fiddle as plans are hatched.

Lloyd Carter, an environmentalist who grew up on a raisin farm in the Central Valley, is suspicious the policy will be weighted toward agricultural interests. "What’s most useful is to think of water as cash," Carter told us. "It starts out as cash in the public treasury, and one little segment goes in and scoops out as much as it can. Agriculture accounts for less than 5 percent of the state’s economy and they use 80 percent of the water."

Agricultural interests and the water districts that serve them, not surprisingly, view water cutbacks as a signal of government failure and are hard-pressed to go along with anything that doesn’t include provisions for new dams and a canal. Rather than recognize limits in the amount of available water, they want new projects that will increase the supply.

The Latino Water Coalition, an organization backed by agribusiness that has put together marches and rallies to protest the water cutbacks, is critical of the proposed package of bills because they say it doesn’t go far enough. "For years there’s been committee after committee, board after board. If the best that the legislature can do is propose a new committee, how can that be a good solution?" asked Mario Santoyo, technical adviser to the coalition. "There are people who don’t have jobs, there’s food that’s not being grown. It’s a human rights issue. There has to be a solution, and it has to be real."

Sarah Woolf, media spokesperson for the Westlands Water District, which is among the most vocal advocates for agricultural water, echoed Santoyo’s view. "If you do not have above-ground and below-ground storage and a peripheral canal, then you don’t have a solution," she told the Guardian. "There’s no point in passing legislation that doesn’t solve the whole problem."

But of course, when there’s not enough water to go around, building more dams and canals isn’t going to solve the whole problem, either.

SELLING WATER THAT ISN’T THERE

Patrick Porgans, a Sacramento-based water policy expert, is critical of the proposed package of bills for a very different reason. "We can’t expect the very government that created the problem to solve the problem, because they are the problem," he says.

Porgans arrived at the Guardian office not long ago dressed in a salmon-colored suit with matching snakeskin belt and shoes. The rail-thin 63-year old walks with a bit of a fragile step, but once he gets talking about water, he’s a bundle of uncontrollable energy. For more than two hours, he held a pair of reporters in thrall as he unpacked and held up big armloads of charts, color-coded graphs, and government documents.

It’s just a sampling from what Porgans calls his "database," and he’s got photos: a storage space piled to the ceiling with file boxes containing thousands of pages of documents. This is his life’s work, and it’s easy to wonder how he even has time to eat and sleep.

In the wake of the 1987-92 drought, his consulting firm, Porgans & Associates, publicized the fact that the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project had pumped more water out of the delta during the dry spell than at any other time in their history of operation. The firm is now suing the government for vioutf8g the Endangered Species Act.

Ask Porgans, and he will tell you that "the peripheral canal is a peripheral issue" because it couldn’t possibly address the underlying shortcomings of the water-policy system itself. He pointed out that 80 percent of DWR’s operating budget is derived from water contracts, and noted that many top officials in water-project agencies arrive through a revolving door from the water districts themselves. There’s a conflict of interest, he said, because the agencies are in charge of both selling off delta water and acting as the stewards of the estuary, a natural resource owned by everyone.

Then there’s the underlying problem of the government having sold off contracts for more water than it could actually deliver, a point Porgans highlighted in his notice of intent to sue. In the years following a drought that struck California in the late 1970s, plans were made to expand water storage for the State Water Project — but they fell through at the last minute. Unfortunately, the limited capacity didn’t slow the sale of water contracts.

From 2001 to 2006 alone, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation signed more than 170 long-term contracts with water districts around the state, promising to increase significantly water deliveries from the Central Valley Project for the next 25 to 40 years.

"Basically, they oversold the project," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. "We had all these contracts to deliver all this water, but nobody looked to see how much water there was. More importantly, they didn’t look at the minimums that would be needed to protect the delta."

"The shortages are inherent in the project," Porgans said. A court opinion issued by California’s third appellate district court in 2000, plucked from his database, underscores this point. "DWR forthrightly admits that ‘the State Water Project (SWP) does not have the storage facilities, delivery capabilities, or the water supplies necessary to deliver full amounts of entitlement water,’" Judge Cecily Bond noted, citing a DWR bulletin. "There is then no question that the SWP cannot deliver all the water to which contractors are entitled under the original contracts. It does not appear that SWP has ever had that ability."

Grader puts the blame directly on the water districts. The growers, he said, are "innocent third parties affected by the actions of water districts that should’ve known better" because the water contracts specified from the beginning that there would be less water available during times of water shortage.

"We have nothing but empathy for farm workers who are unemployed," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, a 501(c)3 nonprofit representing delta farmers, fishermen, and environmentalists. "But their leadership told them, go ahead and do it. We’ll get you the water."

Farmers have organized rallies and marches to protest the water cutbacks, angrily putting the endangered delta smelt at the front and center of its campaign. A band of farmers traveled up to San Francisco in recent months, chanting "turn on the pumps!" outside Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco Federal Building office.

Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican who represents Tulare County and parts of Fresno County, unsuccessfully tried to convince Congress to waive Endangered Species Act requirements to forego protection of the delta smelt and restore irrigation for struggling farmers. (Nunes even attended a Congressional hearing toting a goldfish bowl containing minnows to play up the fish-vs.-families mummery.) The Latino Water Coalition has been particularly vocal, getting airtime on Fox News and publicly appearing with Gov. Schwarzenegger to call for construction of new dams and a canal to ensure a more reliable water supply.

Carter, the environmentalist watching it all unfold from Fresno, shakes his head at the display. If their campaign is successful, he told us, the state will wind up embarking on expensive infrastructure projects that serve an agribusiness agenda at Northern California’s expense. "There’s a sense of entitlement down here," he said. "They say it’s ‘our water.’ But the rivers in California belong to all the people."

DEAD FISH

A series of studies, court decisions, and a Blue Ribbon Delta Vision Task Force convened by the governor have all found that massive water exports out of the delta pose a tremendous environmental problem, and the delta smelt is a mere indicator of the trouble. Failing to ensure adequate freshwater flows through the delta could spell doom for California salmon runs and sound a death knell for the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary. And many contend that building a peripheral canal would be the quickest route to the delta’s demise.

According to data Porgans & Associates has collected, excessive delta water exports are aligned with salmon-population nosedives. The numbers tell a tale: high water exports correlate with dramatic decreases in salmon returns after the fish’s three-year spawning cycle. Conversely, fish populations bounce back following years of reduced pumping.

Delta water exports reached an all-time high of 6.7 million acre-feet in 2005, and three years later, the salmon returns were so low that the commercial salmon harvest was cancelled for the first time. It happened again this year.

While Westlands farmers bemoan what they call a "man-made drought," they’re not the only ones facing job loss due to delta water issues — an estimated $255 million was lost last year as a result of low salmon returns, according to California Department of Fish and Game estimates. A report from the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based environmental research group, estimates puts farm losses due to water shortages at $245 million as of midsummer 2008.

"This closure is among the nation’s worst man-made fisheries disasters," an NRDC report notes. "It is on par with the loss of Atlantic cod fishery, and its economic impact for the fishing industry is comparable to the losses that followed the Exxon Valdez oil spill."

It’s said that California salmon were so plentiful 70 years ago that farmers plucked them from waterways with pitchforks. Now biologists say those salmon runs that haven’t already been listed as threatened or endangered are in a losing battle with worsening water quality and massive water pumps in the Delta.

An estimated 90,000 juvenile salmon die prematurely each year by being sucked into the heavy-duty pumps, according to a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Water Resources study. Sometimes the pumping levels are so high it reverses river flows, causing salmon to swim upstream instead of out to sea. "If you or I go out and shoot an eagle, we’ll go to jail," said Barrigan-Parrilla, from Restore the Delta. "But DWR has no accountability to the Endangered Species Act — they’re grinding up fish."

The salmon also suffer from poor water quality, which environmentalists say is a consequence of the voluminous freshwater diversions. If the freshwater isn’t available to flush out the ecosystem, the negative effects of toxins and pollutants discharged into the Delta are amplified, and the water gets warmer, dirtier, and saltier. The ramifications of salmon decline can ripple along the food chain, putting even southern resident killer whales, which feed heavily on Sacramento River salmon in the ocean, at risk.

The impacts of freshwater diversions aren’t limited to the region’s ecology: delta agriculture is taking a hit, too. The construction of a peripheral canal would "destroy the estuary and shift economic problems from one geographic location to another," said Barrigan-Parrilla. "Agriculture in the southern delta would not make it." South delta farmers have already had to contend with increasing levels of salinity due to the massive freshwater diversions, she says. A homegrown bean festival held every year in Tracy has had to resort to purchasing beans, she told us, because it’s become too salty to grow them.

"The estimates are $10 to $40 billion to build a canal," Barrigan-Parrilla said with a note of disbelief. "We’re going to spend that much money on a project when we have just gutted education and welfare?"

As Sacramento lawmakers pull at the threads of this tightly-wound knot, looming uncertainties are waiting in the wings. For one, the delta’s network of 1,100 miles of earthen levees is under increasing strain due to its age, making it susceptible to failure. In fact, some say a peripheral canal could help prevent levee failure. Meanwhile, climate change is a challenge that can’t be ignored because it will affect overall water supply even as the state’s population continues to climb.

"The science makes it increasingly clear that the current system is unsustainable, Simitian said. The scientists are telling us there’s a two out of three chance that in the next 50 years the whole system will collapse, and that serves neither the delta well nor the two-thirds of the state that relies on delta water." Simitian doesn’t endorse the canal, but told us that the system of water conveyance needs to be changed.

Doug Obegi, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told us that thinking about water supply is just as important as thinking about how to move it around. He pointed out that some Colorado River dams just aren’t filling up anymore. If you build a new dam without managing the water supply, he said, "you have a big hunk of concrete that just isn’t doing anything."

Climate change will reduce the Sierra snowpack, an important natural reservoir, anywhere from 15 percent to 60 percent, according to the Department of Water Resources. The warmer air temperatures will also shift the runoff flows to earlier in the year, making major adjustments necessary. Climate change models also predict worsening drought. Water shortages worse than those caused by the 1977 drought could occur in one out of every six to eight years by 2050, and one out of every three to four years by 2100, according to the department’s study. The change in weather patterns will also increase the likelihood of floods.

Rising sea levels will also bring more saline ocean water into the delta, making it necessary to inject more freshwater into the system to maintain water quality and protect native species.

All told, climate change is expected to reduce overall delta water exports from 7 percent to 10 percent by 2050, and 21 percent to 25 percent by the end of the century — a heavy toll that can’t be managed without smarter water management.

Pending water shortages can be addressed in part with what NRDC calls California’s "virtual river," Obegi said, an aggressive system of water efficiency, waste-water recycling, groundwater cleanup and storm-water management that could yield a potential 7 million acre-feet per year.

As for agriculture, the 800-pound gorilla of water consumption in the state, there’s plenty of room for improvement. A report by the Pacific Institute estimates that annual agricultural water savings — with a combination of strategies like smarter irrigation management, modest crop shifting, and more efficient technology — could save up to 3.4 million acre-feet of water per year. The study strongly recommends avoiding expensive infrastructure projects that will burden taxpayers when the state has more budget-friendly options like targeted conservation and efficiency.

It won’t happen without the political will, however. During a discussion about the bills that are currently being debated in Sacramento, Barrigan-Parrilla said she fears the delta will lose out in the end. It’s hard for her to swallow the whole concept of "co-equal goals," she says, because it amounts to putting the environment, which is owned collectively, on equal footing with the interests of a small group of people who consume the vast amount of the state’s water supply.

"It just doesn’t make sense to me," she says. "You can’t have a reliable water supply unless you take care of the environment first."

Border bender

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a&eletters@sfbg.com

Heading south across the Rio Grande, their pants and shoes raised high over their heads, a 13-year-old Mexican American girl named Romy (Maria Candelaria) and her two sort-of fathers — inveterate bad boy Lupe (Sean San José) and straight-laced new stepdad Ben (Johnny Moreno) — wade into the past as their only way forward. In what you could call a return to the repressed, they find themselves in an in-between world of haunted memories and intersecting fates, devilish plans and sweet, unexpected salvation.

This is Octavio Solis territory par excellence, the playwright who for the last three decades has mapped landscapes personal, psychical, and political at once: this is Dreamlandia, or the coma realm where Lydia communes with her counterpart Ceci across space and multiple other barriers. Here, in lyrical, fiercely funny and sublimely violent El Otro — revived, and revised by Solis, as part of Thick Description’s 20th anniversary season — Texas and Mexico dissolve in peyote-fueled depths of meaning and contradiction along a border never as solid or sure as anyone thinks. Even the tattoo off her dad Lupe’s back (Rhonnie Washington) — a black man in a black cowboy suit riding to the rescue with irrelevant Berlitz Spanish — is anything but two-dimensional.

But back to the setting: it’s the 1980s, it’s a Monday, it’s Reagan’s "Morning in America," which is to say it feels like the start and the end of something big. Romy, having lived with Lupe since her mother Nina (a sharp Presciliana Esparolini) left him for good, is getting the hand-off. Nina’s new love, Ben, pressed and manly in his private’s uniform, has come to pick her up and take her back to her mother. But Lupe isn’t willing to let her go that easy, insisting Ben accompany him to retrieve a present he bought her. Lupe’s behavior — erratic, coy, in no way to be trusted — worries the private everyone insists on calling "Sarge." But he sees no alternative and does his best to be mature, responsible, and agreeable as both Lupe and Romy gradually reduce him to a shattered mess. What emerges afterward is a secret family history just hinted at before, and a strange, almost surreal plot of atonement-revenge devised by Lupe in cahoots with a rancher (Richard Talavera) and his wife (Wilma Bonet).

In what Thick Description announced will be its last production in its Potrero District black box theater, artistic director Tony Kelly stages the play in stark, bare-bones fashion, the play’s moods and settings conveyed largely by the actors, along with choice lighting cues from Rick Martin and flashes of musical coloring courtesy of Vincent Montoya, with Seventy and the Tattooed Love Dogs.

The spare stage gives rein to a fluid pace in sync with the play’s consciousness-slipping style, but Kelly’s normally very sharp eye seemed less trained than usual at times. The music cues could feel cramped and sometimes engulfed a line or two, and opening night’s performances were in some places still gelling. San Jose prowled and shook the stage with a ferocious, concentrated energy and a crisp sardonic wit, but that intensity was matched only part of the time by Moreno’s proudly square and increasingly overwhelmed stepdad, or by Candelaria’s Romy, who felt initially a bit rote and could be difficult to hear. Both actors came much more to the fore in the second act, however. And as a first act closer, it’s hard to beat Rhonnie Washington’s entrance as El Charro Negro, one of Solis’ more fanciful and inspired creations and a consistent treat throughout in Washington’s hands (who is back in the saddle after having originated the role in 1996).

Well-pitched performances came too from Lawrence Radecker as Ross, an increasingly light-headed and blood-bespattered cowboy, and Michael Bellino as the border patrol cop wrestling with his backlogged conscience after he catches Mexicans sneaking the wrong way over the river — a real fuse-blower, the sight acts on him like a nonsense rhyme on one of those Star Trek robots with the smoldering ears.

Solis, enjoying an impressive string of productions of late, including last season’s excellent Bay Area premiere of Lydia at Marin Theatre Company, crafted an enduring work in El Otro for all its pop references and rough edges. At the best moments in this admittedly fitful but worthwhile production, the flow of language — mingling flights of poetic revelry, whimsical and nightmare imagery, casual and colorful vulgarity and deadpan humor — seems to hover and soar just over the stage. At the same time, it never loses sight of the ground, and in fact more than once plunges deep into the mud: playing movingly with life and death in the viscous slime and churning waters of that border-defining river.

EL OTRO

Through Sept. 13

Thurs–Sun, 8 p.m., $15–$30

Thick House, 1695 18th St., SF

www.thickhouse.org

Liberty Cafe

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paulr@sfbg.com

Not all restaurants have authors — central figures that breathe their essence into a place — but the ones that do tend to be special. They are also uniquely vulnerable, for if that central figure disappears, a restaurant can be left adrift without its animating force, like a fully-rigged sailing ship on a breezeless sea.

In January, Cathie Guntli, the founder and guiding light of the Liberty Café, died. She opened the place in Bernal Heights in 1994, in a woody Victorian storefront space along then-backwatery Cortland Avenue, and the restaurant quickly established itself as one of the city’s new neighborhood jewels. It was the Firefly of Bernal.

Since Guntli’s death, Liberty Café has passed into new hands associated with Hard Knox Café and Sally’s. So far the change in ownership is not visible; the restaurant looks the same and the general new-American tenor of the food is familiar. The menu still features the famous chicken pot pie. The real changes can be found outside the restaurant; Bernal Heights was a sleepy little hill town 15 years ago, but it isn’t anymore. The commercial district along Cortland has bloomed with shiny new restaurants in recent years, and Liberty Cafe, which began as an outpost or beacon of sorts, no longer holds that distinction. These days, in fact, its homey Victorian look seems almost quaint.

The restaurant has long adhered to a no-reservations policy. This can complicate patrons’ planning, but it does help keep tables full, particularly if there is a steady stream of passersby on foot and a loyal clientele. Liberty enjoys both advantages, and it isn’t hard to see why: it’s kid-friendly and modestly priced, and it’s in the middle of a walk-friendly zone.

Still, there are signs of stress. The dining room strikes me as slightly understaffed; although Liberty Café is barely bigger than tiny, with 32 seats divided between two rooms, you can almost see the front-of-house staff — a single server, maybe two, aided by a couple of bussers — panting to keep up. People must be met and greeted, summoned from the wait list, and then seated. The no-reservation system is an efficient way of filling tables, but it adds an extra step or two to the service, and that is enough to stretch the staff.

The food is a quirky mix of modesty and elegance, although the balance now tips more toward the former. As if in compensation, portions are quite generous. If you like caesar salad, for instance, you’d have trouble finding a better deal than Liberty’s ($7): a looming plateful of immaculately crisp romaine spears tossed with croutons and tabs of Parmesan cheese under a light fall of grated Parmesan — like the first snow of winter. No anchovies, though, alas.

The house-baked breads and dinner rolls flow out to the tables in a steady stream. While they are tasty and satisfying on their own if smeared with a bit of softened butter, they’re also useful if you happen to have ordered soup. The soup ($7 for a broad bowl) changes daily; it could be of portobello mushroom, a thick pottage tasting intensely of the earth and decorated only with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. I had mixed feelings about this soup; there was no doubting the purity of its flavor, but it looked like mud. A bit of colorful festooning wouldn’t have hurt.

There was plenty of color on a plate of seared ahi ($18): purplish fish in thin slabs, pale-green chunks of ripe avocado, brilliant red pear tomatoes, halved and very ripe. The tuna had been well-coated with cracked pepper for some extra jolt, and the dish as a whole fluently spoke the language of summer. But the tomatoes and avocado didn’t seem quite coherent; they were meant to be a salad, but they behaved like junior-high boys and girls reluctant to mix at a dance.

Impressive coherence was achieved with the vegetarian pot pie ($13), a meatless version of the chicken pot pie. Under a disk of golden pastry (a treat in itself) lurked a potpourri of cauliflower florets, carrots, and lentils in a thick mushroom slurry. The effect was surprisingly autumnal (on a warm night, no less), and at first I hoped for and missed the flavor of curry, but the milder flavor accreted bite by bite in a swelling crescendo. Even so, I couldn’t finish it. Two fairly hungry people could share one and come away happy, and I call that value. They could also probably share — but might end up fighting over — the exceptionally tasty country-fried pork chop ($17), slathered with white gravy and served with cheesy grits and bacon-braised kale.

Given Liberty Café’s bakery chops, the pies — I speak now of the dessert kind — are generally estimable. Cherry ($7), for instance, featured an avalanche of wondrous sour cherries the color of a good red Bordeaux and with just enough sweetness to qualify as a dessert. If not a slice of pie, then perhaps some butterscotch pudding ($7), served in a goblet and deeply tasty despite some feathery remnants of scalded milk. It was good but could have been, should have been better. And for now, that’s the way it is at Liberty Café. *

THE LIBERTY CAFÉ

Dinner: Tues.–Sun., 5:30–9:30 p.m.;

Fri.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.

Lunch: Tues.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m.

Brunch: Sat.–Sun., 10 a.m.–2 p.m.

418 Cortland, SF

(415) 695-8777

www.thelibertycafe.com

Beer and wine

AE/DS/MC/V

Noisy

Wheelchair accessible

Davila 666, Mannequin Men, NoBunny, Bridez

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PREVIEW Working its way through the ranks of punk rock’s prestigious pantheon, Puerto Rico’s Davila 666 is held in the same regard as King Khan and Black Lips, even sounding kinda Ramones-ish at times. Its debut self-titled release is on the label that can do no wrong, In the Red. Expect an onslaught of guitar fuzz, jangle, and theatrics, sung entirely en Español!

Co-headlining for the night is the Midwest’s own Mannequin Men. With a fresh summer release under their belt, Lose Your Illusion (Flameshovel), the boys take time out from "professionally" DJ-ing various Chicago bars and clubs to join the tour. According to the guy who books them, they like to spin in their downtime. Notorious for having an appetite for destruction all their own, the quartet should be in rare form on stage. They have a song called "WTF LOL" dedicated to the kids and their computer lingo. At first I wasn’t sure if I should be annoyed or amused. I’ll let you be the judge.

Not to be outdone, Oakland’s nomadic NoBunny is East Bay garage rock’s answer to the Jim Henson-esque perverse puppets from the 1989 film Meet the Feebles. The sleaze rocker’s mangy Muppet-like mask probably smells as rotten as it looks. But it’s his sound that’s oh so sweet. He’s got a soft spot for oldies and does campy, quirky lo-fi homages. Check out his filthiness, cuz he’ll (probably) sing in his undies. In contrast, SF’s Bridez will add a "lady’s" touch to the evening. It’s hard to imagine the walls of Thee (tiny) Parkside containing all this rawk. Somehow I think it’ll manage.

DAVILA 666, MANNEQUIN MEN, NOBUNNY, BRIDEZ Copresented by Thee Parkisde and KUSF. Wed/2, 8 p.m., $10, 21 and over. Thee Parkside, 1600 17th St., SF. (415) 252-1330. www.theeparkside.com

Bliss

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REVIEW American regional differences and disparities between rural and urban culture have nothing on their Turkish counterparts. Abdullah Oguz’s Bliss (a title that initially seems cruelly ironic) begins in a village in eastern Turkey where Islamic law still dictates that women be killed for breaches of sexual purity, even when they are victims of rape. Young Meryem (Ozgu Namal) shudders in isolation in a shed, receiving food and deprecation from her stepmother. All that is apparent in the beginning is that there has been some sort of transgression which dictates that a young male relative escort her out of the village to be sacrificed in order to restore the honor of the family. That duty falls on Cemal (Murat Han), her seemingly impassive distant cousin who has just returned from military service. What is initially perceived as a simple task by Cemal becomes complicated as he quietly develops affection for Meryem despite his outward hostility. The culture clash becomes evident when they arrive in Istanbul, and Cemal’s task is received with disdain by a family member who declares that Istanbul is no place for his backwoods customs. A military bud is more diplomatic and provides the awkward duo a remote hiding place related to his fishery business, an act of kindness that can hopefully spare Cemal from the rage of the village elder who ordered the honor killing. As the taciturn two — Meryem tremulous and Cemal brooding — befriend a progressive professor (Talat Bulut), on the run from a stiflingly bourgeois existence, who takes them aboard his sailboat, the tone shifts. At once bliss, however improbable, seems possible. Though Meryem and the professor are more readily sympathetic characters, it is Cemal who is the most intriguing and who represents the power of the film — the quiet, conflicted, and gradual revelations that constitute the necessary pains of progress, both psychological and societal.

BLISS opens Fri/4 at the Roxie.

RAWdance presents the Concept Series: 5

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PREVIEW RAWdance’s Concept Series is the brainchild of dancer-choreographers Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein, who needed a lab situation in which to test concept and show works in progress. They invited friends and artists who looked interesting and who had similar concerns. The result is a series of informal presentations that sparkle with fresh ideas, although the individual works are rarely finished. Watching this type of dance is so inviting, despite the tiny, near-impossible performance space. It’s long and narrow, and audiences must be prepared to move the furniture to accommodate a particular artist’s requirements. Concept 5 looks especially intriguing. In addition to Smith and Rein’s latest experiments, you’ll get the inimitable Mary Armentrout; Bob Webb/Bare Bones Butoh — you probably know him better as the ubiquitous stage manager who keeps dance shows on track; improv dancers Christine Cali and Amy Stemstetter, freshly back from the East Coast; Printz Dance Project, who have their own show Nov. 5-7; and Lily Dwyer and Scott Marlowe, LEVY Dance members who are striking out on their own. Parking is tough, so patronize Muni. But the price is right: pay what you can — and the popcorn is free.

RAWDANCE PRESENTS THE CONCEPT SERIES: 5 Sat/5–Sun/6, 8 p.m. (also Sun/6, 3 p.m.), pay what you can James Howell Studio, 66 Sanchez, SF. (415) 686-0728.