Volume 44 Number 12
SONIC REDUCER “I saw mommy fellating Santa Claus /Under balls so snowy white last night.”
Rude and crude — yes. But outrageous and sacrilegious — and worth stumbling out of the Las Vegas Hilton as fast as your aged legs can take you? Maybe. Though Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider gave us plenty of goofy warning that he was going there, giving us “the real story” — meaning his bawdy, rowdy rock ‘n’ roll story — behind the voyeuristic kicks of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” our last illusions were shattered, sorta, in the spirit of the gently taboo-busting song.
Ah, and so this is Vegas — just the place to use, abuse, and hock that illusion. The land of The Hangover, neon flash, and an expected and cheesy yet palpable air of convivial good cheer in the buffet line and beneath omnipresent the casino cameras, lurking amid the underutilized Millionaire’s Club slot machines.
“Mommy” was definitely one of the many highlights at Twisted Sister’s three-night stand “Twisted Christmas,” a mix of holiday classics with a goofy rock ‘n’ roll twist and yesteryear hits — the live successor to the group’s 2006 yuletide album of the same name. I had to tear myself away from the Kitty Glitter penny-slot amid the dated beige glam of the Hilton Elvis built, lured by post-show free margaritas and the reverently irreverent metal ‘tude promised by the band that hit it big at the Headbanger’s Ball with “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
We took in Dee Snider in full clown makeup (“Sarah Jessica Parker dipped in acid!” proclaimed guitarist-manager Jay Jay French, quoting the British press) and a black-and-hot-pink body suit entering in a sleigh drawn by dancers and vixens in skimpy Suicide Girl-wear, Twisted rewrites of holiday classics like the tweaked new last line of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” (“Christ wa-ah-s a Jew!”), and predictable yuks like the mohawked and pantless Santa Satan who joked about adjusting his sack, or a “12 Heavy Metal Days of Christmas” that naturally included “eight pentagrams” and “five skull earrings.” That’s as satanic as matters got, and though the playing was at times a bit less than tight, the band’s original members were in impassioned form, getting in as many jokes at Ozzy’s expense as Santa’s.
As we watched dozens of likely comped retirees piling into their seats, my companion, Prof. Fluffenheimer, muttered to himself, “I wonder how many of these people will be leaving in the first 15 minutes.”
Lo, our entire row had pretty much cleared halfway into the hour-and-a-half concert — too bad, ’cause they missed the malevolent and very unmerry “Burn in Hell” and a fist-punching sing-along “I Wanna Rock,” which had the remaining metal heads and rockers, 40-something dad-ish fans in polo shirts, wrestling team sprats, Sarah Palin look-alikes, table tennis conventioneers, and sundry other Vegas casino crawlers all hollering “Rock!” in unison. Let’s say it wasn’t the total madhouse the Ramones inspired at the Stone back in the late ’80s. But it brought back those chestnut-toasty, black-leather memories when French and guitarist Eddie Ojeda, now seemingly recovered from his recent back surgery thanks to “massive hallucinogens,” riffed off the Brudders by working “Ho! Ho! Let’s go” into “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
All of which inspired me to fantasize about other Christmas musical extravaganzas that oughta be on every music fan’s list. I’m not talking about Andy Williams and Wynonna, who filled the Hilton theater after Twisted Sister had moved their raucous NYC rawker selves along. And American Idol grads don’t count, being programmed to perform the cheesiest song on hand, on command. How about a little Christmas cheer from these pop types?
Beyonce “Baby Boy” is readymade for a rejiggered “Santa Baby,” or at least a nativity scene featuring “Ave Maria” and “Halo.”
Lady Gaga Her platinum tresses make her a natural Christmas angel. “Boys Boys Boys” must be reappropriated as “Toys Toys Toys.”
Justin Timberlake Picture the Timberlad poking around for a yule log in his “SexySack”.
Kanye West Embracing the chill of West’s last album with songs like “Coldest Winter,” this holiday should look ahead to the New Year by ringing it in KaNYE style. After the graduate gets in a scuffle with Santa, the show ends with a contrite, winged West delivering a bushel of MTV Video Music Awards to a virginal Taylor Swift.
SUPER EGO This time of year, everyone’s showering their Top 10 lists down upon an eager, listless world. I’ll get to mine just as soon as I finish this bottomless pomosa, but I want to give a special shoutout to a couple recent local releases I’ve been digging that may have slipped past your Beatport. (Remember to always use a water-based lubricant with digital. Safety first!)
The first is the absolutely lovely Brick by Brick (Nightlight) by Alland Byallo which sounds excellent either on the dance floor or on a rainy Monday, chilling as you attempt to pour some bottomless pomosa into a giant thermos in your backpack without the waitress seeing, like I am now. As the title suggests, this is a minimal-techish release, building up numbers with a very limited set of elements. Those elements are impeccably produced snatches of sound that propel each track forward with an unfussy chug and even a few flashes of wry humor. Standout tracks like “Bebring” and “Casual Sax” break the minimal mold by giving us some good ol’ funk.
Also yummy: the recently released An-ten-nae Presents Acid Crunk Vol 2 (Muti) acts as a superb compendium of the still intriguing if increasingly in-jokey glitch hop sound. The mysterious An-ten-nae splits his time between L.A. and the Bay, spinning and promoting up a storm, and here he’s gathered a whirl of big names like Marty Party and ill.gates to follow up his first EP. Many seem on their best behavior, but tracks like Akira Kiteshi’s “Ulysses” and Robot Koch’s “Hard to Find” are more than just wobbly punchlines.
OK, my bottomless stocking’s full — let’s go find a party.
CHRISTMAS DAY COSTUME CALAMITY
At first I was going to write “Just try saying ‘Christmas Day Costume Calamity’ real fast three times,” but then I tried it and I could! Yay! The medication still works. A whole bunch of party kids staying in town for the holiday — Richie Panic, Kirin Rider, Willie Maze, Similak Chyld, more — are taking that whole Nightmare Before Christmas mashup seriously and throwing another Halloween for Noel. (Noelloween?) You don’t have to dress as Santa, just dress as something and rock out.
Dec 25, 10 p.m.–4 a.m., free. Som, 2925 16th St., SF. www.som-bar.com
Direct from the past but wholly of the knees-deep-in-disco-revival present — and looking amazing, might I add — Steve Fabus, one of the city’s most admired DJs from some of San Francisco’s most storied clubs (including the Trocadero Transfer) joins the younger generation of groove-heads at the very fun Go Bang!
Sat/26, 9 p.m.–late, $5. Deco Lounge, 510 Larkin, SF. www.decosf.com
FLOW THE FUNK
Vinyl. It is back. And not just in that fetishy backlash way where some people just hate everything new so they pretend nothing after 1995 happened. Avant-techno musicians like the Durian Brothers are wringing crazy textures from “prepared” turntables, much like composer John Cage did from prepared pianos in the 1940s. Underground dance music artists have released a flood of colored-vinyl rarities to increase their PR potential. And, on the more fun side of things, all-vinyl nights have taken off at such DJ-nurturing places as Triple Crown. Appropriate, then, that DJ M3, Triple Crown’s commander-in-chief, would be pulling out an all-vinyl marathon session from his bag of tricks at the new flapper-styley Eve. Five hours, no digital, all free.
Sat/26, 9 p.m., free. Eve, 575 Howard, SF. www.eveloungesf.com
Next week I’ll be laying down some New Year’s Eve party picks — and probably laying down a little myself in preparation. Bring Momma a little cocktail and a big Australian before her nap, sweetie. But not the toothy, manscaped kind. What? Impossible? Sheesh, just make him Italian, then. Somebody please take the clippers away from Down Under. Anyway, everyone knows that it’s actually the ability to party all the way through New Year’s Day that separates the hot wings from the boneless. Dragging yourself across the finish line (resolutions!) won’t be too hard this year, with promoter Ryan Robles’ Floor Score waiting at the front end of 2k10. Although queer-oriented, this party has enough going for all persuasions, including DJ Pee Play from Honey Soundsystem and Gemini Disco’s Nicky B. ringing in the future.
Jan. 1, 10 p.m.–4 a.m., $6. Siberia, 314 11th St., SF.
STOMPY + SUNSET
Another New Year’s Day secret, only for the sexy (and possibly addicted) people — this 12-hour rager from classic SF techno-house crews Stompy and Sunset. The frankly amazing Stanley Frank of Chilidog kicks things off with some sublime rare-cuts wackiness. Charles Webster from the U.K. headlines. Galen, Solar, Taj, and tons more join in. You make sure to carry some concealer in your purse.
Jan. 1, 2 p.m.–2 a.m., $10/$20. Cafe Cocomo, 650 Indiana, SF. www.pacificsound.net
1. SF garage rock goes pop This year saw Bay Area garage rock go pop in style and impact without losing its soul. I’m thinking of the Fresh and Onlys, and of Ty Segall’s second solo effort Lemons (Goner), a lovely one. I’m thinking of Girls’ Album (True Panther/Matador), which threw down the crossover-move gauntlet with no shame in its game: Christopher Owens’ interviews were as entertaining as his music and brasher — his real talk about sex and drugs made good headline fodder for the excitable British press, but contained the kind of truth that honors life over rules or boring definitions. The secret keeper, though, was the Mantles’ self-titled debut on Siltbreeze. Drew Cramer’s lead guitar and Michael Oliveras’ vocals were even better live, the mark of a band in bloom.
2. The AfroSurreal In May, D. Scot Miller helped put together a special AfroSurreal issue of the Guardian, a collection of words and visions journeying beyond the potential of Barack Obama’s presidency. The Kehinde Wiley piece on the cover wasn’t the only AfroSurreal image on this paper’s front pages — just last week, Conrad Ruiz’s Godzilla-size Yes We Can stomped around the city. Musically, AfroSurrealism manifested in the mind- and mirror-bending quality Dam-Funk’s Toeachizown (Stones Throw) and the rehab hallucinations and Dante-like funeral marches of Chelonis R. Jones’s Chatterton (Systematic). It floated in through cracks in the time warp as well: the ghetto opera of 24 Carat Black’s Gone: The Promises of Yesterday (Numero Group); the proto-punk of Death’s For the World to See (Drag City), especially “Politicians in My Eyes”; and weirdest of all, the gothic funk and skronk of Wicked Witch’s Chaos: 1978-1986 (E.M.).
3. 21st century goth From blackness to deathly whiteface — something gothic this way came in 2009, thanks to Cold Cave’s Cremations (Hospital Productions) and Love Comes Close (Matador). Both staked a claim that the genre is as applicable as death metal to a post-Bush presidency globe. But while those albums notched acclaim and attention, the similar yet more audacious Cure and Cabaret Volatire moves of Jones’ months-earlier Chatterton went ignored and unappreciated. Evidence of racism, proof that German techno only gets appreciated years after the fact, or both?
4. Hauntological mutations In 2009’s sonic mansion, ghosts haunted the hallways leading to and from the gothic banquet hall, and hauntology — a Derrida term applied to music by the critic Simon Reynolds — continued to morph, just as any self-respecting specter should, well beyond dubstep. The maze-like passages of Rooj’s The Transactional Dharma of Rooj (Ghost Box) and Broadcast and the Focus Group’s Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (Warp) both suggested that spirits have short attention spans, while Demdike Stare’s Symbiosis (Modern Love) traded seances on wet afternoons for retro-futurist meetings with medieval wicked witches.
5. Library music For evidence that the past resides in and fuels the present, go to the library. Specifically, to the abundant compilations and Web sites dedicated to library music — the scores of incidental music produced and recorded for soundtrack use on film, television, and radio. In the wake of his gorgeous book The Music Library (Fuel Publishing), Jonny Trunk released more albums devoted to library labels. The Parisian DJs Alexis Le-Tan and Jess put out a pair of Space Oddities library collections — one electronic, one psychedelic — on Permanent Vacation. Wax Poetics published a lengthy piece to the subject. In an interview, Trunk noted that his Scrapbook (Trunk) shares the same fast-change aesthetics of Broadcast and the Focus Group’s hauntological recordings, just one example of how library music of the past forms the music of now.
6. The new ambient The new ambient is not afraid of extreme melancholy, or long compositions — no longer only Kompact, it can be epic. One of the form’s peak representatives is San Francisco’s Brock Van Wey, whose White Clouds Drift On and On (Echospace) bravely strived for, and sometimes reached, sublime solitude. Another was Klimek, whose Movies is Magic (Anticipate), on which a track such as “pathetic and dangerous” lives up to its death-knell title. The last was Leyland Kirby. His three-CD contribution sums up the current moment in both its title and the name of its label: Sadly, the Future is No Longer What it Was (History Always Favours the Winners).
7. 2009=1989, synthpop and shoegaze I explored this theme in last week’s Decade in Music issue. See: Atlas Siund (in particular “Shelia,”), Crocodiles, Fuck Buttons, Loop, Night Control, Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Washed Out (responsible for two of this year’s most gorgeous tracks, “Belong” and “Hold Out”), Wavves, and the xx.
8. How old is now? As the music industry continues to fracture, reissues or uncovered old sounds were as vital and revelatory as new releases. In San Francisco, this meant new rereleases by San Francisco Express, the Units, and most excitingly, Honey Soundsystem’s work on behalf of Patrick Cowley and Jorge Socarras’ Catholic project. Beyond SF, it meant a one-of-a-kind treasure like Connie Converse’s How Sad, How Lovely (Lau derette): one woman, one guitar, one tape recorder, and perhaps the best music of this sad, lovely year.
FILM Like many movies to come before it, and surely many to come after, Sherlock Holmes is completely misrepresented by its trailer. The producers were understandably eager to get butts in the seats on Christmas, and for modern audiences, butts in the seats means fists in the face during commercial breaks.
There is some perfunctory ass-kicking in director Guy Ritchie’s big-ticket adaptation of the venerable franchise, but old-school Holmes fans will be pleased to learn that the fisticuffs soon give way to a more traditional detective adventure. For all his foibles, Ritchie is well-versed in the art of free-wheeling, entertaining, London-based crime capers. And though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary characters have been freshened up for a contemporary audience, the film has a comfortingly traditional feel to it.
Ritchie is lucky to have an actor as talented as Robert Downey Jr. in the title role, and the pair make good use of the American’s talents to create a Holmes resplendent in diffident, pipe-smoking, idiosyncratic glory. Though the film takes liberal creative license with the literary character’s offhand reference to martial prowess, it’s all very English, very Victorian (flying bowler hats, walking sticks, and bare-knuckle boxing), and more or less grounded in the century or so of lore that has sprung up around the world’s greatest detective.
Jude Law’s John Watson is a more charismatic character this time around, defying the franchise’s tradition, and the byzantine dynamics of the pair’s close friendship are perfectly calibrated. Holmes and Watson join forces with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a Yankee femme fatale who has also been fleshed out from between the lines, and take on the sinister Lord Blackwood, played menacingly by Ritchie veteran Mark Strong.
The script, by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg, suffers a little by borrowing from other Victorian crime fictions better left untouched, but they get the title character’s inimitable “science of deduction” down pat, and the plot is rife with twists, turns, and inscrutable skullduggery. Holmesians have suffered since the death of Jeremy Brett (whose portrayal of the sleuth Downey can rival, but never outstrip), and it is a pleasure to inform them, along with the rest of the nation’s holiday moviegoers, that the game is once again afoot.
SHERLOCK HOLMES opens Fri/25 in Bay Area theaters.
FILM “Oh, I love Jeff Bridges!” is the usual response when his name comes up every few years for Best Actor consideration, usually via some underdog movie no one saw, and the realization occurs that he’s never won an Oscar. (Unlike, say, Roberto Benigni.) It is often said with a guilty-sigh undertone otherwise reserved for neglected relatives or loyal but inconvenient friends — people you know you shouldn’t keep forgetting about.
The oversight is painful because it could be argued that no leading American actor has been more versatile, consistently good, and true to that elusive concept “artistic integrity” than Bridges over the last 40 years. When you think about more conspicuous “great” screen actors of his generation — DeNiro, Nicholson, Pacino, Hoffman — it’s hard to deny that they’ve long since fallen into shtick, caricature, and somnambulism in mostly unworthy vehicles, occasionally showing a flash of prime alertness.
Whereas Bridges never rested on his laurels, or lack thereof. Of course he had a great ’70s — who didn’t? — in movies widely acclaimed (1972’s Fat City, 1971’s The Last Picture Show), fascinatingly quirky (1976’s Stay Hungry, 1975’s Rancho Deluxe and Hearts of the West, 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1979’s Winter Kills), or just lucky to have him (the ’76 King Kong, 1978 Farrah Fawcett vehicle Somebody Killed Her Husband).
But while other stars caved to the more formulaic commerciality of the 1980s and onward, Jeff Bridges managed his career as before, mixing rare commercial hits (1985’s Jagged Edge, 1991’s The Fisher King, and 1984’s Starman — in which he’s an alien sweeter and surely sexier than E.T.) with mainstream bunts (1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, 1996’s White Squall, 1982’s beloved TRON). Not to mention the many, variably unpopular, cult-accruing smaller films he’s spectacular in: Cutter’s Way (1981), American Heart (1992), Fearless (1993), The Big Lebowski (1998), Simpatico (1999), and The Door in the Floor (2004). All Oscar-worthy performances, but Oscar seldom embraces flops, sleepers, and critics’ case-pleadings — the latest of which would be Crazy Heart.
It’s rumored this movie was slotted for cable or DVD premiere, then thrust into late-year theater release in hopes of attracting Best Actor momentum within a crowded field. (It’s a much more paltry year for actresses, as usual). Lucky for us, this performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Bridges plays “Bad” Blake, a veteran country star reduced to playing bars with local pickup bands. His slide from grace hasn’t been helped by lingering tastes for smoke and drink, let alone five defunct marriages.
In Houston he meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), freelance journalist, fan, and single mother. They spark; though burnt by prior relationships, she’s reluctant to take seriously a famous drunk twice her age — even if he charms both mom and four-year-old tyke (the improbably named Jack Nation). Can Bad handle even this much responsibility?
Meanwhile, he gets his “comeback” break in the semi-humiliating form of opening for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) — a ponytailed, stadium-playing contemporary country superstar who was once Bad’s backup boy. Tommy offers a belated shot at commercial redemption; Jean offers redemption of the strictly personal kind.
Bridges and Farrell can both really sing. (The former has long been a singer-songwriter-guitarist, though a pretty dull one.) Robert Duvall can’t, but then as producer and excellent support player (Bad’s old barkeep friend), he’s allowed some self-indulgence.
There’s nothing too surprising about the ways in which Crazy Heart both follows and finesses formula. You’ve seen this preordained road from wreckage to redemption before. But actor turned first-time director Scott Cooper’s screenplay honors the flies in the windshield inherited from Thomas Cobb’s novel.
As does Bridges, needless to say. Here he’s fleshy, hairy, wheezy — well-intentioned, but charming and untrustworthy at once. He rules an otherwise ordinary film like Mickey Rourke did 2008’s The Wrestler. But here’s guessing the relative lack of flamboyance (or salvation from the skids) won’t do Jeff Bridges similar favors. Again.
CRAZY HEART opens Fri/25 in San Francisco.
DANCE Looking back over a year’s dance performances feels like reading a horoscope backward. Were there surprises, disappointments, new loves, emerging trends, familiar encounters, and reasons for hope and despair? Of course. Perhaps the best part of this yearly exercise is that it allows works to bubble up that for one reason or another — quality, daring, perspective, innovation — stuck in the mind. You want to see them again. Some, you actually will. As for the not-that-again, forget-it, or please-don’t pieces, they already have sunk into the grand pool of oblivion. The following is a baker’s dozen of top picks, chosen roughly in the order in which they were seen.
Sean Dorsey’s dance-theater piece Lou, based on the writings of transgender pioneer Lou Sullivan and danced by Dorsey, Brian Fisher, Juan de la Rosa, and Nol Simonse, was a penetrating portrait of one man’s courage and lust for life. It also highlighted Dorsey’s increasingly fluid skill in fusing language and dance.
San Francisco Ballet’s most recent Swan Lake (to be reprised in January 2010) is an odd mix of traditional (the choreography) and edgy (the production). By using the bold design of a ballet neophyte, Broadway-credited Jonathan Fensom, Helgi Tomasson took a huge risk in offending traditionalists who like their swans pure. Danced fabulously well, this is a Swan Lake for our own time.
Pichet Klunchun and Myself was just a one-night stand, but what a night it was. To watch French super-theorist Jérôme Bel and classical Thai dancer Klunchun play their intellectual ping pong game about life, dance, culture, and everything in between was to watch two master performers at work.
The big deal about Jess Curtis/Gravity’s brainy and sensuous The Symmetry Project was not that Curtis and Maria Francesca Scaroni performed nude, but that they embodied the idea of relationships — physical, intellectual, emotional, erotic — as being constantly in play.
Presented by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with their exhibit on William Kentridge, The Return of Ulysses was Kentridge’s translation of Monteverdi’s jewel into puppet theater. The multiple perspectives on time and place and the exquisite cooperation between puppets and singers were awe-inspiring.
ODC/Dance — just because of who they are. Sometimes we tend to take established hometown companies for granted. Yet these dancers have never looked better. Additionally, both Brenda Way’s In the Memory of the Forest and KT Nelson’s Grassland overflowed with commanding and beautifully shaped ideas.
We know Heidi Schweiker best as an interpreter of other people’s choreography. That’s why it was so gratifying to see her first full evening of work. Dreams of Speaking showed a choreographer of intelligence, imagination, and a fine sense of craft.
Ramón Ramos Alayo’s fifth annual Cuba Caribe Festival packed them in. It’s SoMa’s own ethnic dance festival sporting a highly partisan and knowledgeable audience and performers who compete — in a friendly way. High points were the sassy female Las Que Son Son and Alayo dancing up a storm with Silfredo La O Vigo.
Seen in a drizzly rain on a preview performance, Spirit of Place (to be reprised this spring), Anna Halprin’s tribute to husband Lawrence Halprin’s reimagined Stern Grove Theater, was a gorgeous response to a space where nature and art collaborate. The dancers looked like spirits emanating from this magisterial grass and granite environment.
Togetherness suits artistic and life partners Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton. For their second collaboration, The Illustrated Book of Invisible Stories (which returns in January 2010), they worked with two groups of completely different dancers. The result was mysterious, mesmerizing, and surprisingly fresh.
The big surprise at the San Francisco International Arts Festival was the extraordinarily skilled and theatrically vibrant The Angel and the Woodcutter, South Korea’s Cho-In Theatre’s eloquent retelling in movement of a popular Korean fairy tale. It deserved a larger audience.
Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s lecture-demonstration, The Balanchine Couple, served as a vivid reminder that Balanchine never ran out of ideas for pas de deux. The nine on this program could not have been more different — all of them first-rate. The program also brought home the painful truth that such finely detailed and musically phrased Balanchine interpretations are a rarity.
Sometimes it helps to look beyond the hook. The big deal about South African dancer Gregory Maqoma’s Beautiful Me was that he used material from three other (cooperating) artists for his own choreography. Fair enough, but what left this audience member speechless was the grace, virility, and technical and emotional virtuosity with which Maqoma realized this portrayal of self.
Finally, the Performing Diaspora Festival was an ambitious project “featuring traditional forms as a basis for experimentation and innovation.” It boasted an elaborate support structure of studio time, blogs, workshops, and symposia. In the two programs I saw, the work ranged from first rate to mediocre. Fortunately, this is a two-year project — so let’s toast to 2010.
Some years, you’ve got it all together. You finished your holiday shopping by Thanksgiving, decorated your tree before most people got around to buying one, and finished the prep for your Christmas Eve dinner a full 12 hours before you needed to start cooking. But this is not that year. Whatever the reason — extra-long hours at work (or perhaps extra-tall glasses of nog) — the holidays seem to have crept up on you this season. Now you’re only days away from the big gift-exchange bonanza and you have yet to acquire anything to give. Don’t fret! You don’t have to show up empty-handed or, worse, with a haphazard assortment of “gifts” pulled from the aisles of the 24-hour grocery store on the way to your mom’s house. We’ve compiled a list of shopping destinations that are open Christmas Eve (and, in rare cases, on Christmas Day) with offerings that don’t scream “last resort.” As for not getting so drunk at dinner that you tell your brother what you really think of his wife? For that, you’re on your own.
Nothing says “San Francisco” like a classic beat-era beret, Charles Bukowski poster, or limited-edition Grateful Dead autograph. Get ’em all at this North Beach locale.
540 Broadway, SF. Christmas Eve, 10 am.–7 p.m.; (415) 399-9626, www.kerouac.com
At this Castro District hardware store, you’ll find everything from nuts and bolts to napkin rings and boas.
479 Castro, SF. Christmas Eve, 8:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m.; (415) 431-5365; www.cliffsvariety.com
Delisa Sage is owner and curator of this charming Potrero Hill shop, which features a mix of vintage and locally-made items with a focus on female designers and handmade objects.
1345 18th St., SF. Christmas Eve, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. (415) 282-4401, www.collage-gallery.com
Known for reasonable prices, good organization, and a diverse selection of used and vintage items, this Mission District second-hand store also is beloved for donating proceeds to a roster of more than 200 local nonprofits. Also? The $1 rack. ‘Nuff said. (Rather than regifting, why not donate your castoffs here?)
623 Valencia, SF. Christmas Eve, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.; (415) 861-4910, www.communitythriftsf.org
The perfect spot for soaps, aromatherapy products, and adorable bath-time accessories for adults (novelty hot water bottles shaped like fish!) and kids (terry-cloth slippers shaped like little pigs!), this Valencia boutique also stocks a variety of packaged options for fast, easy selection.
911 Valencia, SF. Christmas Eve, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.; (415) 648-2015, www.currentssf.com
Though we usually try to stay away from anything resembling a mall this time of year, we can’t help but want to support the local businesses that have outposts at Embarcadero Center, especially Ambassador Toys, the SF institution famous for its creative and well-made toys, and On the Fly, where you can spoil the man in your life with T-shirts, shaving sets, and cufflinks.
Possibly the coolest shop in the Mission District, Fabric8 specializes in unusual gifts made and designed by local artists.
3318 22nd St., SF. Christmas Eve, 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; (415) 647-5888, www.fabric8.com
You’ll find just about anything under the exposed beams of this Bernal Heights store: picture frames, stationery, organic cotton baby jumpers, candles, and much more.
436 Cortland, SF. Christmas Eve, call for hours; (415) 648-1380, www.heartfeltsf.com
Delight collectors big and small with limited-edition toys from this hipster enclave in the Haight.
1512 Haight, SF. Christmas Eve, 11 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; (415) 487-9000, www.kidrobot.com
You can’t beat the hours at this emporium of gifts in Chinatown. Many of the store’s bagatelles come in beautiful silks: totes and wallets, lanterns and pillows, kimonos for him and her. It also specializes in iron tea sets and houses a large jewelry section.
826-832 Grant, SF. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 10 a.m.–10 p.m.; (415) 982-9847, www.pekingbazaar.com
The Mission District retailer has cozy sweaters, handsome leather-band watches, and purses in a variety of shapes, sizes, and prices. And though it’s closed Christmas Eve, the shop will be wide open Christmas Day — and hosting a sale with everything starting at 20 percent off.
541 Valencia, SF. Christmas Day, 11 a.m.–8 p.m. (415) 265-9758
THEATER Up to around 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 12, Thrillpeddlers were having a very good year. One of 2009’s Goldie recipients, the city’s connoisseurs of Grand Guignol–style fresh flesh were riding a remarkable wave of success with their inspired revival of Pearls over Shanghai, by San Francisco’s storied Cockettes, when an altogether different current overtook them.
No doubt the vicious cold snap of those days had something to do with it, but sources report that a 100-year-old water main located just outside the front door of the Hypnodrome — Thrillpeddlers’ rumored-to-be-haunted haunt at 10th and Division streets — let loose some 2 million gallons of water, the bulk of which burst into the packed theater in a two-foot high crest that inundated the stage smack in the middle of actor and artistic director Russell Blackwood’s exquisite tap number, “Cruising.” Cast and audience members alike scurried through one of those evacuations they’re always vaguely referring to by law just prior to curtain or takeoff. In this case, escape was made through the back dressing room, where SF firemen heroically carried audience members and heavily tarted-up actors to safety as the power was cut, owing to the very real danger of electric shock. I’m happy to report that the piano was saved, thanks to quick coordination of hands from both sides of the footlights, but clearly there’s a very soggy theater to deal with, so more than ever your prayers, and much better yet your patronage, should be directed toward the intrepid Thrillpeddlers. (Shows resume Jan. 1.)
Now this just goes to show that, one, I’m never there on the best night. And, two, the year ain’t over until it’s over. So let’s say this year-end wrap up, while it tries to take in all sides, is necessarily partial and provisional.
On the bright side:
Skylight at Ashby Stage. David Hare’s play dexterously puts the nuts and bolts of modern politics into modern romance like no other, but it came to life in director Patrick Dooley’s production for Shotgun Players better than I could have hoped were I coughing up three figures for a Broadway ticket. Leads Emily Jordan and John Mercer were startlingly good.
Killing My Lobster’s Pure Shock Value at the Exit. Odds were against them in producing their second full-length play, if only because the first, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers, was so strong. But KML pulled it off.
Jericho Road Improvement Association at Phoenix Theatre. Hella Fresh Theater’s strong debut was a solid production of writer-director John Rosenberg’s West Oakland tale, a neighborhood story that navigated the complexities of history, race, and social roles with intelligence and real dramatic force. Sadly for us, Hella Fresh has freshly relocated east to Philly, but they contributed to a memorable year.
On the dark side:
Thom Pain (based on nothing) at Exit on Taylor. Cutting Ball’s strong local premiere of Will Eno’s broodingly sardonic off-Broadway hit featured an exceptionally fearless and intimidating solo turn by actor Jonathan Bock.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore at Berkeley Rep. Maybe this belongs on the light side. It depends how you take to a stage strewn with sawed off limbs and cat brains, all awash in veritable barrels of blood. I found it amusing.
The Creature at Thick House. Trevor Allen’s appealingly shrewd adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein began as a podcast but, under director Rob Melrose and a great design team, blossomed into a supple, protean piece of live theater. The three-person cast was very strong, but James Carpenter’s beautifully wrought performance in the title role managed to surprise even those who know he’s one of the top actors on Bay Area stages.
The Walworth Farce at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach. Leading Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s darkly hilarious, structurally ingenious, and all-around exhilarating play was more like farcical tragedy, or tragical farcity, which is to say something very fresh and gripping. Druid Ireland matched it perfectly in their incredibly deft and intelligent production.
On the right side:
SF Mime Troupe’s Too Big to Fail. “Right” isn’t the best adjective to stick in front of the Mime Troupe, but as free-theater-in-the-park hell-raisers for 50 years and counting you know whose side they’re on. Anniversary events continue through the New Year (sfmt.org).
On the tight side:
Fat Pig at Aurora Theatre. Aurora’s production of Neil LaBute’s play had a very strong ensemble going for it. There were others too this year, some of the most memorable including casts of Jack Goes Boating (also at Aurora), In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (Berkeley Rep), The Model Apartment (Traveling Jewish Theater), This World in a Woman’s Hands (Shotgun Players); Old Times (TheatreFIRST), and two exceptional ensembles courtesy of Off-Broadway West in The Homecoming and A View from the Bridge, respectively.
On the hype side:
American Idiot at Berkeley Rep. Actual satisfaction with Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening) and Green Day’s Broadway-bound behemoth proved inversely proportional to the hype. (Among new musicals about American 20-somethings, the real McCoy was up the hill at UC Berkeley in the premiere of Joe Goode’s Dead Boys.)
Also, Spamalot. Rhymed with everything but laughed-a-lot.
On the south side:
Ghosts of the River at Brava. The second collaboration between playwright Octavio Solis and director Larry Reed’s Shadowlight Productions, a set of immigrant ghost tales set along the Rio Grande, was as aesthetically unique and engaging as it was humane and thought provoking.
Also from the Mission District: Theatre Rhinoceros vacated its space on 16th Street after god knows how long to wander itinerant for a while. They are still very much around and active, though (therhino.org).
And from Intersection for the Arts came word of the tragic loss of a large and unique talent: actor and Campo Santo cofounder Luis Saguar, gone at 52. Saguar was an integral and always fascinating part of some exceptional theater history, and you never saw another actor quite like him. To help the family he leaves behind, donations are being accepted through Intersection for the Arts (www.theintersection.org/luis/).
DINE Could there be a more enchanted address for a restaurant in San Francisco than 20 Cosmo Place? No. “Cosmo” gives us an urban, even cosmopolitan, glamour, while “place” suggests, at least, a degree of refuge from the maelstrom of city traffic. Cosmo Place does not disappoint; it has something of the air of Shepherd Market, the warren of quaint lanes stashed well off the main thoroughfares in London’s posh Mayfair district, and also of the small plazas ringed with outdoor cafes you might find near the waterfront in Barcelona.
For more than 40 years, until the early 1990s, 20 Cosmo Place was the home of Trader Vic’s, which was probably the most famous restaurant in the city and one of the best-known in the country. Although there were — and remain — other Trader Vic’s restaurants around the country and the globe, none could match Cosmo Place for sheer atmospherics. But the founder and namesake, Vic Bergeron, had died in 1984, and with his passing came a reordering of the empire that included closing the Cosmo Place restaurant. Trader Vic’s reopened some years later in the city, in the old Stars location on Golden Gate Avenue, but that experiment was short-lived.
On Cosmo Place, meanwhile, a new presence arrived in 1998. This was Le Colonial, a high-end Vietnamese spot with (like Trader Vic’s) outposts in several other major U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. There was, for me, a certain sorrow in the passing of Trader Vic’s, which was certainly a San Francisco institution of the first order. But the transition was smooth enough, the newcomer thrived, and now, more than a decade on, Le Colonial seems as permanent as Trader Vic’s once did. Yet one cannot forget the predecessor.
When I crossed the threshold at 20 Cosmo Place recently, it was for the first time in nearly 30 years. One evening early in that long-ago June, a group of us came to the city and to Trader Vic’s as graduating college seniors, got massively blitzed on tropical drinks that came in gigantic tureens, and left … well, I don’t remember leaving. I know only that I must have. Three decades on, the basic layout came as a delightful surprise to me despite (by all accounts) being pretty much the same as before.
The entryway is still a long breezeway set with tables, wicker chairs, and potted plants covered by a roof of ironwork and glass such as you might find in a belle époque rail station. It is reached from the street, or lane, by an impressive set of stairs. At the far end of the breezeway sits a set of heavy wood doors that open to the host’s podium. Beyond, and upstairs, lay three dining areas, one of which was, once upon a time, the coveted Captain’s Cabin.
The mood these days seems a little more relaxed, although the crowd is still stylish and the Captain’s Cabin still exists. The interior design speaks in tones of elegance and, oddly, heat: starched linen table cloths and ceiling fans, plush carpeting and wicker chairs even in the main dining room. These cues might lead you to imagine that you’re sweltering at the edge of a steamy jungle instead of wondering why you forgot to wear a scarf.
As the restaurant’s name reminds us, Vietnam was a French colony for about a century, and executive chef Joseph Villanueva’s fine menu captures glints of the resulting cross-cultural pollination. Among the most compelling examples of his ambidexterity are the pan-fried brussels sprouts ($10), or rau xao — all the dishes bear Vietnamese names — in which the halved sprouts are cooked with portobello mushrooms and plenty of ginger before being liberally slathered with sweet chili sauce. Using such intensely flavorful ingredients to subdue a notoriously uncooperative vegetable is the culinary equivalent of an enhanced interrogation technique, but when a confirmed brussels sprouts-hater takes a tentative taste or two (after much cajoling), then serves himself a big heap, we know all the bother was worth it.
Luckily, most of the menu doesn’t need this kind of strong-arming. Wok-tossed Blue Lake beans ($8) are wonderfully crisp-tender and simply dressed with a garlic-soy sauce. Niman Ranch pork ribs ($14) are rubbed with five-spice powder, given a honey-ginger glaze, and roasted to an aching tenderness. The same glaze ends up on fried quail ($14), which is only marginally less tender. Among the lemongrass-inflected dishes, it would be hard to beat chicken two ways ($25), roasted and sautéed, and served with a warm salad of shiitakes, baby spinach, and micro-cilantro.
There are disappointments. The fresh rolls wrapped in rice paper are a little tough and, tastewise, on the delicate side. On the indelicate side, we have black tiger prawns ($29) in a coconut curry broth that sounds promising but is made with powdered curry, rather than the Thai-style paste, with a certain metallic harshness as a consequence.
But knocking a few points off a dish here and there does nothing to diminish the overall experience in a place as atmospheric as Le Colonial. As with a view restaurant, the temptation must be strong to lean on the enchanted setting and its storied past while letting the food and service discreetly slip. It’s a credit to Le Colonial that if the restaurant served its menu in a setting a tenth as compelling, we would still judge it worthy.
Dinner: Sun.–Wed., 5:30–10 p.m.;
Thurs.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.
20 Cosmo Place, SF
VISUAL ART The global financial crisis continues to impoverish and displace those within reach of its residual tremors. Yet in the art realm, there have been signs of hope. Recent fairs — Frieze Art Fair in October and Art Basel Miami Beach earlier this month — brought reports of strong sales and optimism within the distressed economy. So why are artists everywhere worried about their futures, and more critically, panicking about their present tenses? The squeeze has to do with the work in artwork. More often than not, artists aren’t getting paid for their work.
The general prosperity of the current art market does not reflect the financial success of most artists — it just means that artworks are selling, and many of those works are by artists who are already established or dead. The other artists, the worried ones, the ones scraping by on paint chips and uncreative, menial part-time jobs and unpaid internship after unpaid internship, are starting to organize. And talk. Worried as well, I recently attended two events, one in New York and the other in Oakland, that call for a shift of terrain in art/work.
The New York event, titled, “What Is the Good of Work?” — the second in a four-part series organized by Goethe-Institut New York — was more abstract in its approach, seeking to redefine work through film and literature. For instance, when British novelist Tom McCarthy roused Herman Melville’s character Bartleby in order to express the potentials of “recess” in a “recession” and promote a politics of pause as escapist rather than reactionary, an audience member inquired: “But how can this be implemented in real life?” Here, McCarthy went quiet. The rest of the panel, too, including the nihilist philosopher Simon Critchley, only seemed capable of speculating on a new function of work, as opposed to how this new work would, well, work.
Comparatively, the Oakland event was more concerned with brass tacks. Organized by Sight School, an artist-run storefront newly opened in November, its aim “to create dialogue around new modes of living and being in the world in order to reveal connections between art and life” was actually visualized.
The evening began with local artists and writers reading primarily from a newspaper compiled by the Chicago-based collective Temporary Services. In it, more than 40 artists and writers pinpoint problematic issues and propose a way out. The front page introduction succinctly outlines its motivations:
We can see how the collapse of the economy is affecting everyone. Something must be done. Let’s talk. No, it can’t wait. Things are bad. We have to work things out. We can only do it together. What do we know? What have others tried? What is possible? How do we talk about it? What are the wildest possibilities? What are the pragmatic steps? What can you do? What can we do?
FREE / TAKE A COPY. MAKE AN EXHIBITION.
HOST A DISCUSSION IN YOUR TOWN.
The urgency of this situation was emphasized most strongly by Julian Myers, an assistant professor of curatorial practice at California College of the Arts. He fervently read the group Research and Destroy’s “Communiqué from an Absent Future: On the Terminus of Student Life,” which was drafted in response to the current University of California crises. Myers conveyed the text’s uncomfortably accurate detail of a bankrupt future not just for students, but anyone not already financially secure. The text incensed everyone in the room, as they realized the gravity of student debts and of academia as a new factory — a neverending rabbit hole of false security.
The last reader, Natasha Wheat, decided not to read at all; rather, she turned to the audience and asked, “What does a just art economy looks like?” Immediately, people chimed in. The space turned into a sauna of conjectures, arguments, personal anecdotes, and pleas. A variety of ideas and subjects — everything from emphasizing the importance of guilds and collectives to providing braces for children — were bandied about. These rants often lacked direction. Many were fueled by emotion and gave way to incomprehensible babble about new economies without realizing the previous paths paved by Marx, Adam Smith, and Keynes. But the passion, heretofore dormant, was inspiring.
Interestingly, the only thing missing from all the cries of desperation was a focus on artwork itself. In this small storefront room, everyone — artists, writers, curators, historians, and spectators — was hyper-aware about the lack of funding. But ironically, art had gone missing as well. Not many will disagree with the assertion that workers deserve payment for their labor, but what if their work blows? If I actively paint a canvas for eight hours a day, and no one finds it of value, why should I get paid? If money were a given, we’d all be doodling for dollars.
Zachary Royer Scholz, one of the readers and most intelligent contributors to the discussions, ended the event with a similar concern. He shifted the blame away from the economy and back toward the art. “Canada has strong government and institutional funding for its artists, but look at its art … it sucks!” Just then, a man on the opposite side of the room descended on Scholz, barking in protest. His ass-length dreads swung in tandem with his raised fists. It looked like a fight might break out, but the affront turned out to be performative — the room was filled with artists, after all.
I don’t find it coincidental that Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon: Essays On Beauty (University of Chicago Press, 152 pages, $22) stirred from its coma this year. Its polemics could not be revived at a better time. First released in 1993, the book has been out of print for several years. Hickey originally pulled the plug because the “intensity and icy aggression” of The Invisible Dragon’s provocation was too great. In other words, people were pissed because Hickey insisted on the importance of art’s beauty.
In the collection’s first essay, “Enter The Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty,” Hickey argues that beauty has been replaced by meaning, and laments the art market baton swap from art dealers to institutions. “The institution’s curators hold a public trust,” Hickey writes. “They must look attentively and genuinely care about what artists mean, and what this meaning means in a public context — and, therefore, almost of necessity, they must distrust appearances.”
The problem, according to Hickey, parallels the one in Michel Foucault’s 1975’s Discipline and Punish, wherein punishment shifts from the external, via physical torture as public spectacle, to the internal — torture of the soul and mind via incarceration and criminal psychiatry. In effect, it’s a shift of gaze and surveillance: we now internalize this gaze and monitor ourselves.
But what does this have to do with art? Art limited to meaning loses its subversive potential; it gets too worried and existential. By contrast, allowing art to express itself through appearances also allows it to find new folds within an otherwise predetermined economy of signs — an economy controlled exclusively by arts institutions.
I imagine if Hickey had been in that room that evening, he would have stood up early on to demand that everyone stop acting like economists: You’re artists, dammit. You’re not here to fix the economy, you’re here to create things. Now go out and make shit — but for Christ’s sake, make it beautiful. *
GREEN CITY On a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. conference call in late October, with top PG&E executives and analysts from Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, and other prominent investment firms on the line, PG&E president Chris Johns explained how a company-sponsored ballot initiative could save millions of dollars for the utility.
“We have faced potential takeovers multiple times over the last several years and we have had to expend significant resources to oppose these efforts,” Johns explained, referring to attempts by public agencies to set up independent electricity programs that threaten to compete with PG&E. “The success of this initiative, if placed on the ballot, could significantly reduce the need for taxpayers and utilities to oppose these local government takeover attempts.”
His comments appeared in a transcript from an earnings call posted on a financial Web site called SeekingAlpha.com. When pressed by an analyst about how PG&E had come up with the idea, company CEO Peter Darbee chimed in. “What occurred to us was we were repeatedly faced with this, and we were spending significant amounts of money year after year,” Darbee said, according to the transcript. “So we asked ourselves: what would be something that could discourage this over the longer term?”
What surfaced was a proposal for a statewide ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to require a two-thirds majority vote at the ballot before any local government could develop its own electricity program. With such a high hurdle in place, efforts to move forward with publicly-owned power programs would essentially come to a standstill. But with San Francisco’s own stab at it expected to get underway long before the proposed initiative is placed on the ballot, PG&E is back to its default tactic of pouring millions into an opposition campaign.
San Francisco’s community choice aggregation (CCA) initiative, called CleanPowerSF, took a leap forward last month when a request for proposals (RFPs) went out to potential electricity service providers. The program aims to provide 51 percent renewable electricity by 2017, a meaningful step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But on the heels of this milestone, a wave of mailers bearing PG&E’s name in fine print crashed into San Francisco homes and businesses, screaming “Business Beware” in 1.5-inch type and proclaiming CleanPowerSF to be a “costly energy scheme.” The mailer cites a city controller’s report projecting that customer bills could be 24 percent higher under CCA.
But the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), which is working in partnership with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to craft the emerging power program, responded in a press statement that this claim is misleading, since a fee structure has not yet been nailed down. While the controller’s report also noted that it was too early to say just what the pricing structure would be, it’s been a primary goal of the city’s CCA all along to offer customer billing rates that meet or beat PG&E prices.
Meanwhile, the city appears ready to fight back — and questions have already been raised about whether it was legal to distribute the attack mailer. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who chairs LAFCo, announced at the Dec. 15 Board of Supervisors meeting that he was requesting that the city attorney examine whether PG&E had violated state law by distributing the mailer. According to the state law that laid the groundwork for CCAs to exist, investor-owned utilities are required to “cooperate fully” with the public power efforts of cities. “PG&E has blanketed this city … with mailers that distort and misrepresent what CCA is doing,” Mirkarimi said. “I believe this is a potential violation of California Public Utility Commission law.”
Several days before Mirkarimi’s announcement, the Guardian received confirmation from City Attorney Dennis Herrera that his office is looking into the matter.
The mailer included a link to the Web site CommonSenseSF.com, launched by an entity called the “Coalition for Reliable and Affordable Electricity.” A call to Townsend, Raimundo, Besler & Usher, a Sacramento public-relations firm that has worked with PG&E in the past, revealed that this coalition is one of the firm’s clients, and that the person handling that client is Bob Pence. The proponent listed on the statewide ballot initiative is Robert Lee Pence — evidently the same person. The Guardian left a message for Pence inquiring who, besides PG&E, the coalition members are (the mailer claims there are 50,000), but he did not return the call. Multiple calls to PG&E were not returned either.
Meanwhile, the Guardian has received a handful of anecdotal reports that when clipboard-wielding signature gatherers were out on the streets circulating a petition in support of the PG&E-backed ballot initiative, people were fed some fishy stories about what the proposed constitutional amendment would actually do.
A voter who lives in Bakersfield contacted the Guardian to say she’d signed the petition because she was told that the ballot initiative would limit PG&E expansion — but she later did some research and found that PG&E was the primary force behind it, so she called the Registrar of Voters to have her name struck from the list.
Mark Toney of the Utility Reform Network told the Guardian that he’d also been misinformed. But as someone familiar with the issue, he knew better. “I ran across signature gatherers in Emeryville. They told me that if I signed the petition, I’d be supporting a two-thirds majority vote to raise PG&E rates,” Toney said. “I said, ‘Well that’s interesting. The language here doesn’t say PG&E at all.
John Srebalus of Pasadena wrote in an e-mail that he was also misled by a signature gatherer. After he signed a petition to legalize marijuana, he said the woman with the clipboard flipped a few pages and asked him to sign again, as if in duplicate. But there was a rubber band securing the top half of this second page, hiding the text. When he peeled it back, he found that it was actually PG&E’s ballot initiative, which he had already refused to sign once before.
According to a source familiar with the campaign who asked not to be named, the petition was a particularly hard sell for signature gatherers, many of whom stake their entire livelihoods on earning less than $2 per signature. According to this individual, the erratic sales pitches caught on like wildfire because without a compelling hook, it was nearly impossible to convince random passersby to support something that came off as convoluted and wonky. This person said PG&E became alarmed when it caught wind of all the distorted representations and tried to put a stop to them.
Campaign spokesperson Greg Larsen told the Guardian he hadn’t heard anything about that, but he did emphasize the importance of the signed document, as opposed to the signature gatherers’ pitch. “The hope is that you read what you’re signing,” he said. “That’s really what the issue is — it’s what’s on this piece of paper.” Larsen added that the campaign had submitted 1.1 million signatures, “far in excess of the number of required certified signatures” to have the initiative placed on the ballot.
As a global treaty designed to protect children around the world celebrated its 20th anniversary last month, the United States found itself in the sole company of Somalia as one of just two countries that still has not implemented the most widely ratified human rights treaty in recorded history.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), available for adoption since 1989, has now been ratified by 193 nations around the world and is seen as a universal guide to helping governments ensure that the basic needs of children are met. Although the Reagan administration played a major role in drafting the convention, experts say it has now been “intentionally misinterpreted” by conservative groups, which claim implementation would threaten American sovereignty and diminish family values.
The convention is set out in 54 Articles and two Optional Protocols and covers four main objectives: nondiscrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child. During last year’s presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to review the treaty, saying: “It is embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land. It is important that the U.S. return to its position as a respected global leader and promoter of human rights.”
Yet since Obama has been in office, there has been little movement toward ratifying the convention, which sets international standards in the provision of children’s health care, education, and legal, civil, and social services. For children’s rights advocates, this failure of the U.S. to legitimize the rights of the child has resulted in the country’s loss of credibility in the international community.
“It just undermines us internationally as a leader of children’s issues,” said Jo Becker, Advocacy Director for the Children’s Rights division at Human Rights Watch, one of more than 200 organizations partnered to the volunteer-run Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the CRC. “The U.S. is a country that claims to care a lot about children, both nationally and internationally, but it hasn’t ratified a treaty endorsed by virtually every government in the world. It doesn’t make any sense at all.”
But while Meg Gardiner, current chair of the Campaign for U.S. Ratification, acknowledged that the U.S. customarily takes a long time to consider and ratify a treaty of any sort, she noted that implementing the convention is also being delayed by frequently misdirected and misguided concerns from various individuals and organizations.
The CRC is a legally binding treaty, and once the U.S. ratifies the agreement — by getting two-thirds of the Senate to approve it — it is committed to undertake actions and policies to reach the standards it advises. The government must submit a detailed report to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is made up of 18 members from different countries and legal systems, within two years of ratification and every five years thereafter.
The committee reviews the progress of each country’s government, then sends recommendations back to the country in question. Although U.N. officials claim that this is a collaborative process, not one that is antagonistic in form, opposition groups view this as a risk to U.S. self-governance.
“A forum for dialogue is fine, but we absolutely do not support the notion of world government,” John Schlafly, a lawyer at Eagle Forum, a conservative interest group that is campaigning against U.S ratification of the CRC, told the Guardian. “We think America is a self-governing country and that we should make our own laws. Our courts and officials should not be subject to decisions and viewpoints of those in other countries, but remember that our Constitution is our supreme law.”
Quoting Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution — which says that all treaties made under the authority of the United States shall be “the supreme law of the land” — Schlafly said if the CRC is ratified then the U.S will sign away any authority it has over children’s rights, with federal laws being changed to meet the criteria in the CRC.
But Jonathan Todres, an associate professor of law at Georgia State University and coeditor of a book on the CRC and the possible implications of its ratification, told us that’s a “misunderstanding” of the process involved. He said the CRC would almost certainly be ratified as a “non-self-executing treaty.” That means that although the U.S will have to comply with international law, it would not take effect domestically until the U.S. adopts legislation to fulfill treaty obligations.
He added that the United States also has the right to add reservations to the treaty if there are any articles that might conflict with U.S. law. For example, Article 37 of the CRC indicates that no “life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by persons below 18 years of age,” something that certain states in the U.S still impose.
Despite supporters’ desire for a “magic bullet” that will improve the lives of children in the U.S., they said the treaty will operate as a template for the government to assess how well U.S. law protects children. While Article 24 decrees that “states parties shall strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to … health care services,” ratification will not mean an immediate implementation of universal health care for the 8 million to 9 million children who do not have access to it, campaigners say.
“It in itself can’t change law. It is a road map that informs a dialogue around the way we treat children,” said Vienna Colucci, managing director and senior advisor for policy for Amnesty International. “It is a set of principles for the well-being of children, to help inform national discussions about what they really need to thrive. But any implementation of laws go through the same process any bill would.”
The U.S already has ratified the two Optional Protocols of the Children’s Convention, including the protocol on the sexual exploitation of children and enlisting children as soldiers, strengthening the exploitation protocol by adopting the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Todres said this should be used as an example of what ratifying the entire CRC could do.
Many who oppose the CRC fear it will diminish the rights of the parent, such as when it comes to disciplining children. Article 9, which says children can be separated from their parents against their will when “competent authorities subject to judicial review” determine it is in their best interest, is often cited as a loss of parental freedom.
In March of this year Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) put forward a brief Parental Rights Amendment to the CRC, asserting that “the liberty of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children is a fundamental right,” and deauthorizing the ratification of a treaty that would infringe on such rights.
According to Michael Ramey, spokesman at Parentalrights.org — an organization that claims to “protect children by empowering parents” and an affiliate of the Home School Legal Defense Association — the amendment currently only has six cosponsors in the Senate, a far cry from the two-thirds majority it would need to pass.
“This really is not a question of whether the CRC is all that bad or kind of bad. It is whether it is an improvement for us on what we have now,” he told us. “We already have laws in place against child abuse and neglect in all 50 states and we don’t gain anything by ratifying. None of the good parts of the convention are missing from U.S law.”
However, Todres said the U.S still has child laborers, citing a current bill in Congress that is seeking to strengthen child labor provision related to the agriculture sector. He also reminded opponents that the U.S has a relatively large high school dropout rate, with some U.S children going hungry and hundreds of thousands at risk of sexual exploitation each year.
“Ultimately if one is concerned about the loss of parental authority, then one should look at the text of the CRC itself,” he said, highlighting 19 provisions in the text that stress the role of the parent in the child’s life. “Drafters understood, when ensuring the rights of children, they would be most successful when ensuring the rights of the family too.”
Although there are other articles in the convention that conflict with American law — it prohibits corporal punishment, for example — Linda Elrod, a law professor at Washburn University and supporter of the Campaign for Ratification, said she had not experienced countries receiving “report cards” from the U.N. Committee in the 20 years it had been operating.
“My reason for supporting it is that it is basically a bill of rights for children that says they are people,” she said, stressing how Article 12 in particular gives the child a voice and a way to express it. “We helped draft the U.N. convention and got the rest of the world to adopt that standard. Yes, it gives children rights, but I don’t think this takes away from anyone else’s rights. It just adds a balance.”
CHEAP EATS The guy who runs the ukulele shop suggests I pray before going to Ikea. It works every time for him. He got those big shelves that way, the ones with all the chord-books on them. And the nice wood table. He says he prayed for those things. Then he went to Ikea. And not only did he find them, he found them in the discount aisle!
The god I don’t believe in, turns out, is a loving god. A caring god. A thrifty god, a sexy and strong god, who impresses virgins and moves not only mountains but furniture. Slightly dinged furniture, to boot! With a retail record like that, surely there can be no other god.
Check him out.
I don’t know that I’ll ever muster up the courage to go to Ikea, let alone the piety to pray beforehand, but I sure do like the guy at the ukulele shop. He accidentally insulted my uke, but also bought me an espresso on purpose. I go talk to him as often as possible.
Then there are Romea’s parents, who played ping pong with us, showed us Super 8 footage of my lover as a cute little tomboy, plied us with osso buco for lunch and sausages for dinner, changed my mind about mustard, and sent us on our merry way with a tin of homemade Christmas cookies flaky and delicate enough to make a believer out of Richard Dawkins Himself.
I tell you, if His mom had made those little heart-shaped ones with pointy green pistachio bits stuck into the white icing like tiny Christmas trees poking through the snow, well, He would not today be nearly as famous as He is. They pack a punchy, tangy sort of sweetness that makes me see stars, snowflakes, and angels, these ones, but — alas — there are only two left.
Hold on. Make that one.
Oh, did I mention the head massage? With all due respect to all my ex-ma-and-pa-in-laws, whom I still love like my own parents, I have never felt more immediately welcomed, warmed, and accepted — as was — than I felt with Romea’s folks. And think about it: my previous in-laws only ever had to deal with my weirdness. These ones faced my weirdness and my queerness, and responded with kisses, massages, and sausages, declaring me immediately simpatich.
Happy Hanukkah. And I mean that. I’m not generally Jewish — just at Christmastime. But this year, you know, I kind of mean my Merry Christmases too. And not only because Romea is the biggest Scrooge I’ve ever stomped with.
It’s those cookies. Those insane, divine, little crunches of pure comfort and joy, comfort and joy. And of course the ukulele shop. And Romea’s new coat and shoes, and my new used bike, which with its tight light generator and loose bell makes me sound like a cross between an ambulance and the ice cream truck. Which pretty much sums up what I am, probably.
But did I tell you about my new favorite Thai restaurant? It’s Ruen Pair, on San Pablo in Albany — a friendly little restaurant with friendly little waitressperson people and really really mean-ass cooks. I mean that in the most positive way.
Among lovers of the hot and the spicy, Ruen Pair is no secret. Sweet Baby Jesus is it spicy! Even if you get it medium, it’s almost too hot to handle. It’s just on the edge, which is where I like to eat, if not live.
I ate there once, and had it once to go, so I can vouch for a lot of dishes: the duck salad, green curry, pad prik king … And not only do they have my favorite of favorites, duck noodle soup, which is awesome, they have tom yum noodle soup, which is awesome, and a brilliant idea, because tom yum is so good but never really enough of what it is, as an appetizer.
Whereas with noodles, pork, ground pork, and pork balls …
You get the picture, yes? Everything I had here was great, and spicier than you think it’s going to be. You can leave your hot sauce at home. Where it belongs. For the holidays. Happy.
Daily, 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
1045 San Pablo Ave., Albany
Beer & wine
L.E. Leone’s new book is Big Bend (Sparkle Street Books), a collection of short fiction.