Volume 45 Number 09

Appetite: Hungry for Change

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“Change the world with everything you buy”. This is the tag line behind the inspiring Trade as One, a Northern California-based organization that promotes sustainable businesses in poor, marginalized communities. Whether you look at it as a way of giving during the holidays or as a new year’s resolution, it’s an ideal time to try a new program that could be habit-forming.

Trade as One recently launched a monthly subscription called Hungry for Change. Delivered to your door every month is a box including 4-5 foods, a recipe, and additional surprise items. The month I tried the box, it included Canaan sun-dried Palestinian couscous, Glorybee comapi honey, Canaan Palestinian za’atar herbs, and Kopali dark chocolate-covered espresso beans. The additional “surprise” gifts? A Divine chocolate candy bar, a greeting card featuring an artistic photo of a fair trade farmer, and a handy little book, The Better World Shopping Guide. The book is full of incredibly helpful lists and company ratings for best and worst offenders in purchasing everyday items from hair care to paper, alongside supermarket or airline choices.

A subscription is $33 a month or $99 for three months. Add on Coffee Club – http://tradeasone.com/get_involved/hungry_for_change/details (choose regular or decaf) and 1-3 bags of fair trade coffee are included with your monthly shipment. A card detailing the story behind one of the producers in the package brings it home, making it personal. Trade as One’s holistic approach urges changing buying habits. As they say on the back of their greeting cards, we can “fix problems instead of perpetuate them” by using our consumer power to positively affect change. I can think of few better food gifts to a friend, yourself and the world.

www.tradeasone.com

–Subscribe to Virgina’s twice monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot: www.theperfectspotsf.com

Appetite: Delicious giving

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FOR THE WINO Secrets of the Sommeliers by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay — Secrets of the Sommeliers, a new book from local SF treasures (sommelier extraordinaire Rajat Parr and drink writer Jordan Mackay is the best wine book to come across my desk in awhile. Stories from a range of the world’s best somms and winemakers stand alongside insights on tasting, purchasing, storing, pairing, ordering and serving wine. Sections “Thinking Like A Sommelier” and “The Wine List” deliver a true insider’s perspective and expertise. This intelligent, understated book is a must for any wine lover, budding or educated.

FOR THE TIKI FANATIC Beachbum Berry Remixed by Jeff Berry — Whether a retro tiki fanatic or one who prefers drinks reminiscent of an island getaway, this book from modern-day master of tropical cocktails, Jeff Berry (aka Beachbum Berry), satiates. Colorful vintage photos and graphics illumine mid-century history and tiki culture. I’ve tried out a number of the recipes on friends, some from top bartenders, many classic, never-before-published or “lost” exotic drink recipes. I have not run across one yet that is less than crowd-pleasing. Remixed combines Berry’s first two books, Grog Log and Intoxica!, adding 107 recipes for one comprehensive collection.

FOR THE CONSCIENTIOUS COOK Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights: Recipes for Every Season, Mood, and Appetite by Sophie Dahl — A cookbook by a famous model is among the last places I’d look to as a cooking inspiration (I’m skeptical enough of ultra-skinny cooks like Giada). But Dahl is no typical model, having written three books and as a self-professed, avid eater. She’s the daughter of brilliant writer Roald Dahl and actress Patricia Neal. Her oft-discussed weight, modeling at real world sizes (like 10), convinces me she understands “voluptuous”. Her recipes may not be the most challenging on the shelf, rather they are approachable as the book’s layout is charming. Dahl she does not eat red meat: there’s plenty here for a vegetarian. Whether you’re making brown rice risotto with pumpkin or something as simple as flapjacks, Dahl’s personable approach draws you in while her seasonal recipes comfort.

FOR THE DRINK AFICIONADO Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits by Jason Wilson — Though Boozehound by Washington Post’s spirits columnist Jason Wilson contains over 50 drink recipes, it is more a study on a range of spirits, history mixed with personal experience. His journeys to distilleries around the globe play as engaging travelogue, with breakthrough moments sipping an unusual liqueur or uncovering hype around others. It’s like reading a food memoir but with drink as the backdrop and instigator. The chapter “Bitter is Bella” made me miss Italy’s fabulously bitter palate; I began craving aquavit and bacalao reading Water of Life. His stories of researching tequila in Jalisco, Mexico, or chatting with Borje Karlsson (Karlsson’s Gold Vodka) rekindle my own memories. He explores sips as far-ranging as bianco vermouth, sloe gin, Barolo Chinato and pisco. There is education here, certainly, but via a pleasurable, relaxing read. Like a fine drink, at its finish, I found myself thirsty for more.

FOR THE COCKTAILIAN Speakeasy: The Employees Only Guide to Classic Cocktails Re-Imagined by Jason Kosmas & Dushan Zaric – An elegant book from bartenders behind Employees Only (http://www.employeesonlynyc.com/) in NYC’s West Village, this book lists a range of recipes from classics (e.g. the Martinez) to new drinks that play like classics, such as the Provencal. We have seen compendiums of classic recipes before, but this one ups the game with thoughtful directions and NY flair. Four sections cover categories like aperitifs, punches, cordials and homemade syrups. Inspired by Prohibition-era speakeasies, these two were doing “speakeasy” long before it became a trend. As they state in the section Mastering the Perfect Cocktail: “Every Cocktail Has A Story.” Speakeasy helps you tell stories through the preparation of a drink.

–Subscribe to Virgina’s twice monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot

Appetite: Coffee’s new shining star? It’s Ma’velous

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Cheesy puns aside, Ma’velous is truly that. Kudos to Phillip Ma and his new coffee and wine bar, which I’d be ecstatic to have in my own neighborhood. This coffee haven on Market Street (near Civic Center) is worth heading out of your way for. No, there is nothing else like it, even in a city of fabulous coffee.

The space is blessedly unique with graffiti artwork, pressed tin ceilings, retro-modern reclaimed furniture, textured floors, nooks with chairs, a couch, tables. The setting inspires but the coffee elevates.

Bean choices included beloveds like Intelligentsia and Ecco but also rare Tim Wendelboe from Norway. Wendelboe’s coffee is huge in Norway and this is the about the only place to get it in the States.

The preparation options are where it gets truly exciting for any coffee geek or the curious. You might want a Kyoto iced coffee or to have it prepared via siphon, V60, Beehouse pour over, French press, or Chemex. Then there’s their custom-made La Marzocco espresso machine. The staff is well-trained to create coffee in all forms.

A favorite already is an exquisite espresso made with Tim Wendelboe beans. I’m delighted by a “palette tasting bar” where you can sample coffees prepared three ways or three different brews. Their hot chocolate, made with local TCHO chocolate, is initially airily dark, becoming more rich and silky as you near the bottom of the cup.

Ma’velous is a shining new star in the coffee firmament, thankfully doing it differently than other greats in town. I love it so much I want to be a regular.

Ma’velous
1408 Market, SF
www.maveloussf.com

–Subscribe to Virgina’s twice monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot

alt.sex.column: The fandango

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Dear Andrea:

I am a 38-year-old man who doesn’t have regular sexual partners (basically my whole life) and as a result am a chronic masturbator. Unfortunately, it seems lately when I am in a sexual situation I turn into a minute-man and come within seconds after sexual contact. Never mind intercourse, I’m talking about getting a blow job and shooting my load before my partner even has a chance to gag on my shaft.

What can one do to increase stamina after training one’s self to ejaculate so quickly (meaning I stopped doing 30-minute jack-off sessions in favor of watching a five- or 10 minute porn scene)?

Love,

Minute Man

Dear Man:

I am trying to answer your question, I really am. First, though, I have to stop hating you. This may prove difficult (OK, “hate” may be a bit heavy). Do you think it may have something to do with your phrase “shooting my load before my partner even has a chance to gag on my shaft?” I do! Even the phrases “squeezing one out” and “shooting my load” are vaguely nauseating, but “gag on my shaft” can trigger my gag reflex from here, at what I hope is a considerable distance.

I feel better now. You, I imagine, feel worse, but that cannot be helped. Now, what’s going on with you, and what can we do about it? You probably put your own finger on it when you referred to “training yourself.” It is indeed common, for men (boys, usually) to train themselves to achieve orgasms efficiently, as opposed to pleasurably, and certainly as opposed to pleasurably for any other person who might happen to find her (or him-) self involved. This usually proves regrettable — even solo artists might find themselves wishing for a little more endurance eventually — but is handy if you’re still living at home or had better finish before the roommate gets back.

Are the effects of such a training regimen reversible? Sure. It’s not easy, but you could get a book (the gold standard is still Bernie Zilbergeld’s The New Male Sexuality) or some DVDs, or pull some “how to last longer” videos off the Web.

These are multistep processes, often meant for couples but adaptable to one-on-one practices. “Couples” in this context means people who know each other, so you probably won’t be able to do it with whatever women those are who are consenting to gag on your shaft now and then.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with you. I think that, yes, you have trained yourself, and yes, the absence of a long-term partner doesn’t help. I do need to ask if you’re doing anything with or to your partners besides receiving their attentions. Attending to a lady’s needs is one of the best strategies for delaying your own gratification I can think of. Everybody wins. If, however, you are paying these gaggers, I feel moved to point out that to them, at least, premature ejaculation (especially during blow jobs, which are hard work) is no sin.

Love,

Andrea

 

Got a question? Email Andrea at andrea@mail.altsexcolumn.com

Volume 45 Number 9 Flip-through Edition

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The face of Cher

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(In the style of Roland Barthes’ The Face of Garbo.) Cher’s face belongs to our current moment in cinema when the female visage represents a kind of absolute non-state of the flesh, which can be reached through a variety of (as-yet-not-entirely-confirmed) nips, tucks, filler injections, makeup and post-production airbrushing.

Cher’s is indeed a formidable face-object. In Burlesque, her makeup is thicker than her costars’ because the paint has been applied atop an increasingly contoured plaster surface. What was once a Byzantine icon — heavy lidded eyes and elongated nose framed by an oval countenance — has become a Noh mask. Her famed mile-long cheekbones are no longer defined by their underlying hollowness, but by the gibbous moon-like protuberances of her cheeks. So too does the plumpness of her lips, the lower line always under-drawn, exhaust the descriptive powers of “bee-stung.” Amid the snow of her foundation, her eyes remain her most expressive feature, narrowing slightly whenever she offers a bemused smile and wetting at the edges (glycerin?) to indicate sadness. This face, with the dark vegetation of its eyes and totem-like countenance, comes to resemble Louise in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) or Dead or Alive singer Pete Burns.

Yet how many actresses have consented to let the crowd see the ominous maturing of their beauty? Not many, unless it’s Oscar season. Their essence is not to be degraded, their faces are not to have any reality except that of their perfection. The face of Cher — whose character Tess, also a showbiz vet, has probably been around the block as many times and could claim as many comebacks as the actress playing her — openly testifies to the existence of this unspoken entertainment industry mandate, “forever young,” and burlesques it into a form of extreme beauty.

Viewed as a transition the face of Cher reconciles two iconographic ages, it assures the passage from actual plasticity to a molded mask. As is well known, we are today at the other pole of this evolution: the face of Heidi Montag, for instance, is homogenized, not only because of its peculiar thematics (woman as child, “real girl” as reality star) but also because her face, which has nothing of an essence left in it, is constituted by an infinite complexity of cosmetic enhancements. Cher’s enhancements only further enhance her “Cher-ness,” whereas Montag’s sundry “improvements” ultimately render her (or say, Madonna) less distinguishable. The face of Cher is an Idea, that of Montag an Afterthought. 

 

More than child’s play

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER Enticing adults with a children’s story shouldn’t be too hard these days, with trails long since blazed by comic-book blockbusters, primetime cartoons, and the like. Still more to the point, the theater has a long tradition of adapting folk and fairy tales to sophisticated, not to say macabre purposes. Witness ACT’s hit run of The Black Rider or — in New York City — the current blood-splattered take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes by Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theater, which last year offered its Brief Encounter to Bay Area audiences.

So what’s the matter with Coraline?

The stage adaptation of creepster fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman’s 2002 children’s story (also a 3-D animated film in 2009) proves a generally drab musical in SF Playhouse and director Bill English’s West Coast premiere, despite sporting an impressive ensemble of collaborators that includes playwright David Greenspan (book) and the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt (music and lyrics). It’s all the more surprising given the inherent attraction of the material, which comes shot through with quirky staging possibilities and rich, dark veins of psychology and existentialism.

The title character is a sharp, gutsy little girl and only child (played by the confident and tuneful if somewhat too flinty Maya Donato, alternating nights with Julia Belanoff) born to a pair of middle class English parents (Jackson Davis and Stacy Ross). Their eccentric neighbors include a pair of aging actresses (Susi Damilano and Maureen McVerry) and a Russian showman (Brian Degan Scott) who carries around a mouse-circus tent.

Coraline and her parents live in one half of a converted old house (a spectral pop-out figure looming in the back of English and Matt Vuolo’s slightly Seuss-ian scenic design). The other half remains empty, supposedly, separated from the inquisitive Coraline by an intriguing door leading immediately onto a brick wall. Naturally, this proves no impasse, soon offering the little girl entrance into a parallel universe where the neighborhood cat (Brian Yates Sharber) suddenly commands the power of speech and her “other” parents (Davis and Ross again) — with black buttons sewn into their eye sockets — eagerly await her arrival.

Coraline at first appreciates this Other World where, for one thing, people seem to get her name right, instead of insisting on calling her Caroline all the time. But the place, which she herself notes is more like “an idea” than a physical reality, also comes to threaten her profoundly. Meeting a group of lost children who’ve become forgetful ghosts, she comes to understand that her Other Mother is in fact a wicked pursuer bent on snatching her soul, and who has meanwhile abducted her real parents. With the help of the independent-minded but sympathetic cat, Coraline will summon the wherewithal to beat back this threat, but the experience — corresponding to a child’s first confrontation with the fact of her own mortality — leaves her changed, more knowing, in touch with her “authentic” self.

Musing on the latent, vaguely Heideggerian content of this “children’s story,” however, turns out to be just one way of passing the time over the course of 90 otherwise-uneventful minutes. Musically, the play begins with a tinkly little overture on toy pianos by the ensemble, before transitioning to off-stage (and somewhat muted) piano accompaniment by music director Robert Moreno. Merritt’s lightly humorous songs seesaw between naïve surface gestures and intimations of roiling depths. But the shrewd charm of the songs themselves can’t carry a show preoccupied with balancing the story’s cuteness and its potential shock value, and leaning too heavily toward the former. (It may have been a shrewd move of the original New York production to have cast an adult, namely actress Jayne Houdyshell, in the title role, thereby holding out the potential for greater subtlety and irony at the center of the story.)

The material and music notwithstanding, the production’s too timid approach to the violence and dread in the story tends to fracture the action into a series of adorable bits and self-consciously “playful” wickedness. The Brothers Grimm or even Hans Christian Andersen it ain’t, though you can’t help feeling it should have been.

CORALINE

Through Jan. 15; $30-50

SF Playhouse

533 Sutter, SF

(415) 677-9596

www.sfplayhouse.org

 

Playlist

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JANE BIRKIN

Di Doo Dah

(Light in the Attic)

Arriving in the wake of Light in the Attic’s reissue of the masterful L’Histoire de Melody Nelson, this, Birkin’s first proper — if such a word can be applied to anything involving Serge Gainsbourg — solo album, is a series of light delights. Jean-Claude Vannier trades his characteristic dark orchestration for a string sound that is agile and brighter. On the title track, Birkin revels — in a melancholy way — in her tomboyish characteristics, setting the stage for more pun-filled escapades in androgynous amorousness. Elsewhere, she’s a hitchhiker, a sidewalk cruiser, a hotel trick, a girl on a motorcycle, and other fantasy figurines. The most audacious song is “Les capotes anglaises,” which begins with her blowing up condoms and letting them float off a balcony. The special treat is “Le décadanse,” not so much a failed attempt at creating a dance craze as a successful erotic mockery of dance crazes. There, Gainsbourg appears for another classic duet.

 

DÂM-FUNK

Adolescent Funk

(Stones Throw)

The album’s name is apt, as these tracks, recorded between 1988 and 1992, capture Dâm-Funk’s sound and outlook in a teenage stage of sonic bumptiousness and lyrical lustiness. The content is spelled out in the titles: songs like “I Like Your Big Azz (Girl),” “Sexy Lady,” and “When I’m With U I Think of Her,” are a world away from the mystic leanings of more recent Dâm-Funk tracks like “Mirrors.” Equally direct are the album’s musings on existence, such as “I Love My Life.” The sound owes a debt to — or is a youthful outgrowth of — the early 1980s electro funk of Prince, Mandre, and others. Dâm-Funk has been honing his use of analog keyboards for a long time — when it comes to Korgs and Casios, he’s no new kid on the block, though he was back when these songs were captured on tape. The homecoming-dance cover art, selected by Peanut Butter Wolf from Dâm’s photo albums, captures the vintage feel perfectly.

 

THE FLYING LIZARDS

The Secret Dub Life of the Flying Lizards

(Staubgold)

Flying Lizards are best known for creating possibly the cheapest British chart-topper in history, a pots-and-pans 1979 cover of “Money (That’s What I Want),” distinguished by Deborah Evans’ hilarious deadpan vocal. As the title hints, Evans isn’t present on The Secret Dub Life of the Flying Lizards, nor are any other traditional vocalists — instead, main Lizard David Cunningham remixes 1978 source material by Jah Lloyd. The catch was that Cunningham only had a mono master tape to work with, rather than the plethora of tracks usually associated with dub. A lost gem from the early days of reggae-punk fusions and collisions, this album — with loops built from tape-splicing — reveals the dub underpinnings of Cunningham’s brash and innovative work on “Money.” An irreverent vanguard producer, he uses ping-pong balls to create ricochet effects on one track, just as “Money” seems to throw everything but the kitchen sink at listeners.

 

GIRLS

Broken Dreams Club EP

(True Panther Sounds)

One of the things that makes Girls so special is Christopher Owens’ ability to write so directly about the unavoidable aspects of life without falling into cliché. So it is on “Heartbreaker,” which begins with the observation, “When I look in the mirror/ I’m not as young as I used to be/ I’m not quite as beautiful as when you were next to me.” A newer addition to Girls’ nascent greatness, as displayed on this six-song collection, is their facility at traversing various genres while always sounding like themselves. The reggae and early rock ‘n’ roll fusion “Oh So Fortunate One,” the bossa nova touches of “Heartbreaker,” and the country lament of the superb title track (complete with pedal steel) sound like … Girls. While the sonic palette shifts from song to song — and sometimes within them — more than one composition evokes the anthemic balladry of their 2009 debut album’s “Hellhole Ratrace.” That’s no small achievement. The outlook, though, is less hopeful and more disillusioned. Who knows what the future holds.

 

GOLD PANDA

Lucky Shiner

(Ghostly International)

There should probably be a moratorium placed on the use of the word panda in group names, but the man known as Gold Panda can be forgiven, based on the sheer zinging energy of this album, which has nothing in common with any Beach Boys-flavored Animal Collective endeavors. One of Gold Panda’s trademarks is a sharply-edited, sped-up approach to vocal samples that makes Kanye West’s sound like screw. Instrumental tracks such as “Vanilla Minus,” “Snow & Taxis,” and the incandescent “Marriage” call the crackling warmth of the Field to mind, but their energy is more hyper, their outlook much more colorful. “Same Dream China” takes the glassy percussion of Pantha Du Prince’s “Stick to My Side” into out there realms — it’s one of a few tracks that maneuvers across a high wire just above exotica and Orientalism. A late contender for techno album of the year.

 

THE MANTLES

Pink Information

(Mexican Summer)

San Francisco’s the Mantles deliver great straightforward rock ‘n’ roll. Dressed in a cover by local artist Michelle Blade, this EP picks up where their debut album left off, as guitarist-singer Michael Olivares leads the charge with vocals that somehow manage to sneer and snarl and seem amiable at the same time. “Situations” is actually kind of harsh, taking a scenester or gold-digger to task for his or her shallow and failure-fated state of being. “Lily Never Married” is more reflective, a portrait of a spinster that opens into thoughts about family within a changing world. “Waiting Out the Storm” finds the group trying on its epic journey boots, and they fit just fine.

 

BRIAN MCBRIDE

The Effective Disconnect

(Kranky)

A disturbing subject yields mournful tone poems on this album by Stars of the Lid’s McBride, which collects elements of his soundtrack for Vanishing of the Bees, a 2009 documentary on colony collapse disorder. (Mercifully, voice over by Ellen Page is left off the album.) There’s no flight-of-the-bumblebee whimsy in McBride’s musical testimony to the spirit of the beehive. In the liner notes, he writes that filmmakers George Langworthy and Maryam Henein suggested he focus on “the gloriousness of the bees, the endurance and hardships of traditional beekeepers, pesticides, and the holistic nature of non-industrial agriculture.” These elements aren’t always clearly distinguished, but they are present in a manner that avoids cliché.

 

ARTHUR RUSSELL AND THE FLYING HEARTS FEATURING ALLEN GINSBERG

Ballad of the Lights

(Presspop Music)

“Ballad of the Lights” was performed by a friend at the late Arthur Russell’s funeral, which is as strong a proof as any that it is an important entry within his vast and diverse songbook. This two-song 10-inch vinyl release couples it with another recording from Russell’s many studio collaborations with Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg’s recitals within “Ballad of the Lights” almost come off superfluous, except that they set the glory of the song’s resurrection-like structure in greater relief. The B-side, “Pacific High Studio Mantras,” is a Buddhist chant accompanied by instrumentation, and perhaps not intended for commercial release. (Ginsberg himself hinged back and forth about whether it should presented in this fashion.) Bob Dylan even figured briefly within Ginsberg’s and Russell’s endeavors, but with so few of them available, it’s hard to discern whether “Ballad of the Lights” is their best work. That it’s pretty great is clear, even if coupled with portraits by Archer Prewitt that play into the more cloying aspects of viewing artists as icons.

 

THE SOFT MOON

The Soft Moon

(Captured Tracks)

It’s no surprise that the debut album by Bay Area musician Luis Vasquez is dark and densely claustrophobic — nor is it a surprise that it’s excellent. It kicks off with one highlight from his earlier EPs, “Breathe the Fire,” where his whispered vocal — dancing over doom-laden bass and guitar worthy of Pornography-era Cure — manifests maximum sinuous menace. The death dance of “Circles” is more Sister of Mercy-like, but really, Vasquez transcends well-known goth and more obscure dark wave poses and influences through sheer intensity of focus. “Sewer Sickness” might be the album’s darkest and most compelling black pit, as Vasquez’s susurrant vocals take on the quality of a malevolent primal incantation.

 

SOLAR BEARS

She Was Coloured In

(Planet Mu)

Like Gold Panda, Solar Bears counter a dodgy name by delivering solid tunes. She Was Coloured In is more melodic than most recordings on Planet Mu. “Children of the Times” mixes Johnny Marr-caliber guitar shimmer with a Vocoder chorus that is sure to evoke comparisons to Air. Likewise, the title composition places Air-y elements up against Aphex Twin-like ambience. Enjoyably ham-fisted prog keyboard flourishes dive in and out of techno terrain on the title track. The chord changes and underpinnings of “Head Supernova” evoke Angelo Badalamenti’s scores for David Lynch. The riddle of Solar Bears is whether all these touchstones or influences add up to an act with its own identity or — perhaps no less an achievement in 2010 — a generically beautiful album.

 

JIM SULLIVAN

UFO

(Light in the Attic)

When an excellent songwriter disappears, his or her voice remains. There is proof of this in the recent issuing of Connie Converse’s priceless previously-private recordings, and now in this reissue of the 1969 debut album by Jim Sullivan, a ten-song collection that fuses orchestral ornamentation and plainspoken brevity. Sullivan vanished into the New Mexico desert one day in 1975, but his musical legacy is being revived, and rightfully so, as the best moments here are reminiscent of better-known contemporaries such as Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. All the doomed young men: there’s something eerie about the funereal string intro of the opening track “Jerome,” yet Sullivan’s music also possesses vitality and good cheer. Best of all is “UFO,” a graceful piece of baroque pop (and quintessential example of a California paranormal mindset), adorned with echo-laden effects that Malibu kinfolk and relative survivor Linda Perhacs might appreciate.

 

WILD NOTHING

Golden Haze EP

(Captured Tracks)

Captured Tracks is home to some of the most beautiful guitar sounds being made today, thanks to Beach Fossils and this group, who see no shame in sheer ’80s-ness. Wild Nothing hail from California, but England meets Australia (and gets along with it better than usual) on “Your Rabbit Feet,” as Slowdive-gone-fast guitar radiates around a vocal that’s equal parts Morrissey and Robert Forster in its offhand debonair delivery. “Take Me In” has another immediate, whirligig guitar melody, and a chorus as big as 100,000 violins. Gorgeous stuff.

Welcome to the Asylum

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC Just one glance at the title of Sic Alps’ forthcoming full-length, Napa Asylum (Drag City), triggers memories of what might have been one of the most infamous (a.k.a. perfect) moments in punk history: the sight of the Cramps’ Lux Interior lurching among the patients at Napa State Hospital in 1978, as captured in The Cramps: Live at Napa State Mental Hospital, by SF’s Target Video. How does a humble assemblage of SF noisemakers live up to those memories and dare to go there?

“I know, right?” says the affable Mike Donovan by phone, on the brink of this year’s turkey gorge. “We didn’t even think of it, though people-in-the-know think of that.” A sketch of the old institution, ages before the Cramps roared through it, actually gave Donovan, Matt Hartman, and newest member Noel Von Harmonson the idea of attempting a concept album about the lost spirits roaming the ultimate wine country getaway. But once the band got into recording, the notion ultimately died and only the title and a song or two about the institution’s spaces and characters survived, among a whopping 22 tracks.

Before the January release of its fifth long-player, and first since U.S. EZ (Siltbreeze, 2008), Sic Alps are revving into action, playing a Dec. 4 benefit to pay the hospital bills of artist Akassia Mann, who is battling ovarian cancer. Mann is also the mother of Big Eagle’s Robyn Miller — Hartman and Harmonson’s housemate. Count on the downbeat new songs to wash up that night, riddled with pop references yet mangled and unique in a way that, say, Ariel Pink would appreciate.

The darkness on the edges of this batch of numbers was something Donovan considered. “I guess that’s one of the first things one of my friends said, ‘There’s a bunch of bummer tunes on this,'” recalls Donovan, whose good-naturedness seems to run counter to the album’s tone. “It peeked through. We didn’t say, ‘Let’s make things that are really down. Let’s temper these snappy numbers and noise tracks with bummers.’ But with 22 songs, there’s more room for it to do its thing.”

Likewise, when it came down to editing and sequencing the recording, and deciding if it would be a single or double album, Sic Alps went with the flow — namely, Hartman’s sequence. “It was a ‘killer and no filler thing’ and then Matt put together that sequence and sent it out with an e-mail header — ‘A fuck-yes double album,'” offers Donovan. Gone were the fights of old over sequencing: “It was done.”

In went the songs roughly concerning reincarnation (“Nathan Livingston Maddox,” based on Donovan’s dream about the late Gang Gang Dance member) and magic ( which is “meant to brush by you — it’s nothing you can describe or talk about”). Simmering in the free-floating, far-flung Exile on Main Street-meets-crushed-metal-Royal Trux stew, witchy connects are made between the so-called discovery of the Golden State and the mortgage crisis (“The First White Man to Touch California”), as well as mythic rock ‘n’ roll departures and Midwestern innocents leaving home (“Zeppo Epp”).

It all sounds like nothing other than Sic Alps. The group had been taking it easy, with Ty Segall in its ranks, until Harmonson joined late last year. Now the group’s pillar-like P.A.-slash-power station — a product of the need to control its dramatically, drastically dense brand of echo and reverb — has been doubled in the form of a second tower.

Further, the band is currently honing that bristling, dense thicket of echo with simpatico sound maestro Eric Bauer, once Donovan’s bandmate in Big Techno Werewolves. Just in time for a new growth spurt, Sic Alps recently bunked down in Bauer’s basement-based Chinatown analog studio, where Segall recorded his last album, the Oh Sees tracked its next full-length, and the Mantles jotted down a 7-inch. “When the iron was hot, we were like, ‘Fuck it,’ ” says Donovan. After doing the 9-to-5, the band is ready for something more, though Donovan amiably confesses, “I want the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle without getting paid for doing rock ‘n’ roll. I only work two days a week, but I have a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle — without the money.”

SIC ALPS

With the Mumlers, Big Eagle, Bart Davenport, and the Moore Brothers

Sat/4, 8 p.m., $10–$15 sliding scale

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF

www.rickshawstop.com

 

Cash and Carrey

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM You had to forgive most of the gay press for getting a little too excited over Brokeback Mountain (2005). Oh, no doubt it’s a great movie, or that the Oscar going to the fraudulent Crash (2004) said less about that film’s virtues than a skittishness that other movie stirred. But its excellence and commercial success induced widespread bouts of wishful thinking in the form of announcing new trends that never came to pass.

Five years later, there hasn’t been another mainstream American film in which a gay relationship is taken seriously and granted central importance. (You could argue for The Kids Are All Right, but that’s mostly a comedy, a big arthouse hit rather than even a modest mainstream one — and the fact remains that lesbians played by attractive actresses aren’t nearly as threatening to the sanity, morality, masculinity, and private parts of many Americans as gay men.) Nor has a single major movie star come out as gay or bi, despite the hilarity induced by excuses for such police-intervention activities as “offering a ride” to transgender sex workers at 4 a.m. or getting mugged while “walking the dog” in a well-known cruising park (also at 4 a.m.). In all these regards, television has leapt well ahead of the big screen.

Given typically imitation-crazed Hollywood’s failure to built on Brokeback‘s success — or see it as anything more than a fluke — the case of I Love You Phillip Morris is interesting for what it is and isn’t. It is, somewhat by default, the biggest onscreen gay romance (not including foreign and indie productions, which are always ahead of the curve) since that earlier film, even if it is (again) primarily a comedy, and one whose true-story basis provides the leavening element of stranger-than-fiction curiosity. (Nobody’s bothered by the gayness of movies like 2005’s Capote because we accept the otherness of real people too famous and/or peculiar to be relatable.)

What Phillip Morris is not, however, is a Hollywood or even American film, all appearances to the contrary. Its financing was primarily French — presumably because there wasn’t enough willing coin on this side of the Atlantic. Yes, not even for a comedy starring Jim Carrey. And for a while it didn’t even look like Phillip Morris would be an American release, even after it had played (and done pretty well) virtually everywhere else, from Europe to Latin America to Southeast Asia to frikkin’ Kazakhstan. The reasons (some legal) are unclear, but it seems pretty certain the aforementioned squeamishness around guys kissing and cuddling and diddling factored in — never mind that those guys are Carrey and Ewan McGregor.

Free at last, albeit without much fanfare, Phillip Morris proves to have a whole lot more in common with Steven Soderburgh’s The Informant! (2009) — true tale turned farcical caper, to diverting if mixed results — than to tragic Brokeback, even if love runs a rather sad, thwarted course here, too. We meet Steven Jay Russell as an uber-perky all-American lad — a nascent Jim Carrey — perhaps permanently warped at age eight by the discovery that he’s adopted. Nonetheless he proceeds along the road of dead-center normality, getting married (Leslie Mann manages to be both very droll and very Christian as Debbie), having kids, being a loveable Mr. Policeman, and fucking guys only on the QT.

A near-fatal accident, however, induces him to merrily chuck it all — he’s so nice the family can’t help wishing him well — and live life to the fullest by moving from Georgia to South Beach and becoming a “big fag.” He soon discovers that “being gay is really expensive,” or at least his chosen A-lister lifestyle is. Having been schooled by his adoption trauma, Steve figures if everything you think you know can so easily turn out to be a lie, why not becoming a fibbing superstar? He begins diverting funds from his corporate employer, amazed at what a chief financial officer position and a golf-playing, polo-shirt-wearing front can get away with. At least to a point — the point that commences several ensuing revolving-door years of cons, captures, prison stints, and ingenious escapes.

It is during one hoosegow stay that he meets the non-tobacco-related Phillip Morris (McGregor), a sweet Southern sissy who got there by sheer haplessness rather than criminal guile. Steven is an ardent, protective lover — if he’s also slippery as an eel, that’s at least partly because he thinks his lies protect those he loves — and Phillip is a slavishly adoring 1950s housewife who just happens to have been born with a penis.

Like The Informant!, Phillip Morris fudges the facts a bit for narrative convenience and strains at times for an antic tone that makes life itself a sort of genre parody. In his genius-IQ mind, does Russell see himself as the hero of a perfect if artificial sitcom-type world? Or does casting Carrey require the same sort of hyperreal gloss routinely applied to gimmick-driven vehicles like Yes Man (2008), Bruce Almighty (2003), and Liar Liar (1997), because he bends any context like a funhouse mirror? (Only once, in 1998’s The Truman Show, did that context meaningfully amplify his cartoonishness; and only once, in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has he calmed down to ordinary human proportions.) Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, making their directorial debut after team-writing a bewildering trio of mainstream comedies (2001’s Cats and Dogs, 2003’s Bad Santa, and 2005’s The Bad News Bears), approach their fascinating material with brashness and some skill, but without the control to balance its steep tonal shifts.

Surprisingly, it’s in the “love” part that they often succeed best. While their comic aspects sometimes tip into shrill, destabilizing caricature — the excess that brilliant but barely-manageable Carrey will always drift toward unless tightly leashed — this movie’s link to Brokeback is that it never makes the love between two men look inherently ridiculous, as nearly all mainstream comedies now do to get a cheap throwaway laugh or three.

Russell’s scenes with AIDS-fallen first boyfriend Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro) are very poignant. And the many more with McGregor, who plays white-trash nelly with an uncondescending delicacy that’s both amusing and wistful, are quite lovely. There’s one scene of them chatting in their prison cell — viewed overhead in bed, Phillip’s head in the crook of Steven’s arm — that’s so affectionately intimate you can see exactly why the movie took two years to get a U.S. release. Even the prior scene of Carrey riding a different man’s ass like a bucking bronco isn’t as half so threatening as this, an utterly unguarded moment with two famous faces that both happen to be male conveying a perfectly synched love.

I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS opens Fri/3 in San Francisco.

 

Dance fever

0

arts@sfbg.com

FILM “Lose yourself,” ballet company head Thomas (Vincent Cassel) whispers to his leading lady, Nina (Natalie Portman), moments before she takes the stage. But Nina is already consumed with trying to find herself. Rarely has a journey of self-discovery been so unsettling.

Set in New York City’s catty, competitive ballet world, Black Swan samples from earlier dance films (notably 1948’s The Red Shoes, but also 1977’s Suspiria, with a smidgen of 1995’s Showgirls), though director Darren Aronofsky is nothing if not his own visionary. Black Swan resembles his 2008 The Wrestler somewhat thematically, with its focus on the anguish of an athlete under ten tons of pressure, but it’s a stylistic 180. Gone is the gritty, stripped-down aesthetic used to depict a sad-sack strongman. Like Dario Argento’s 1977 horror fantasy, the elegantly choreographed Black Swan is set in a hyper-constructed world, with stabbingly obvious color palettes (literally, white = good; black = evil) and dozens of mirrors emphasizing (over and over again) the film’s doppelgänger obsession.

Of course, none of this is out of line: the ballet at the center of Black Swan is, obviously, Swan Lake, in which a single dancer portrays both the White (good) and Black (evil) Swans. And in dance, mirrors are necessarily everywhere. Nina constantly stares at herself, and not just while practicing her steps. “I just want to be perfect,” she blurts out to Thomas, nervously lobbying for the Swan Queen role — made suddenly available due to the reluctant retirement of the company’s prima ballerina (Winona Ryder, feral and fierce in her few scenes).

See, Nina’s been with the company for four years, and though her talent is apparent, she’s made no waves (or friends, it would seem). All she cares about is dance, and she’s tunnel vision-enabled by her mother (a spooky Barbara Hershey), who babies Nina even as she blames her for monkeywrenching her own ballet career. Portman is 29 years old, and though she’s presumably playing younger here, Black Swan doesn’t pretend she’s a teenager. Thomas’ “visceral and real” (ahem) take on Swan Lake is Nina’s last chance to be a star before she’s too old to be in the running.

If you’ve seen Black Swan‘s poster or provocative trailer, you know that Nina gets the part — and it’s no spoiler to say that her already-fragile mental state gets just as much a workout as her muscles. Although: rarely has any film about ballet (an exquisite, graceful art form) so emphasized its day-to-day tortures, or exaggerated them, as Nina’s deterioration takes some unexpectedly gory detours.

Exacerbating Nina’s frustration is Lily (Mila Kunis), a brand-new addition to the company who resembles Nina in passing, but is otherwise everything the rigid, frigid Nina is not: a sexy, rebellious free spirit whose mere presence jams Nina’s brainwaves. (Not rocket science: Lily symbolizes the Black Swan; Nina, the White.) Naturally, they become frenemies. Lily is “imprecise and effortless,” according to Thomas; meanwhile, his loosen-up advice to the prim Nina is “go home and touch yourself.” The emphasis on masturbation is probably Black Swan‘s corniest conceit, though it does fold into the theme of Nina’s long-overdue awakening of her true self, sexual and otherwise.

As Nina, Portman gives her most dynamic performance to date. In addition to the thespian fireworks required while playing a goin’-batshit character, she also nails the role’s considerable athletic demands. (No need to play spot-the-dance-double, a game most thrillingly deployed during 1983’s Flashdance.) Portman’s intelligence and intense beauty can make it hard for her to seem like a real person onscreen, but as Black Swan‘s dread-filled bird, it all fits. It’s a career-elevating turn (and I suppose she’s finally off the hook for participating in those Star Wars prequels). Nina strives for perfection; Portman owns it.

BLACK SWAN opens Fri/3 in Bay Area theaters.

 

Cho tunes

0

superego@sfbg.com

SUPER EGO “You know me, I’m always doing something,” Margaret Cho practically purred over the phone en route to another smash show on the East Coast. Um, understatement of the year much? While the Cho-stess with the Mostest is lately giving off the chill vibes of an edgy comedian and right-on scenester in her prime (she’s not shy about being on the golden side of 40), she’s been more active than ever. “I totally have symbolic flames on the side of my tour bus,” she quipped. “It’s so retro ’90s.”

The San Francisco-born, Korean American, queer-lovin’ smart-mouth may have a fulltime TV job on Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva, but she’s also just released an actually damn good album of “comedy music,” Cho Dependent, with guest helpers like Tegan and Sara, Fiona Apple, Ben Lee, and Ani DiFranco. (Her DIY dancing turd outfit for the “Eat Shit and Die” video is pretty priceless.) Her current “Cho Dependent” tour, however, focuses less on the tunes and more on the stand-up topics she’s polished to raucous perfection. “I talk about immigration, my mother, maybe my new bellydance workout. Also gay rights — I hear they’re really in right now,” she deadpans. High on her agenda when she hits the city? Some more ink at Everlasting Tattoo on Divisadero, “the best tattoo shop in the world.”

“It’s just so awesome to be coming back to SF on this tour,” she continues. “It’s always like coming home to family. A family with a lot of little dogs.”

MARGARET CHO: CHO DEPENDENT Sat/4, 8 p.m., $29.50–$49.50. Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium, 1111 California, SF. www.livenation.com, www.margaretcho.com

 

PHONIC

Thursday night workout time. The weekly Phonic party at Endup is one of my favorite scene treats, and the lineup this time around is too SF techno-tasty to pass up. Dabecy of Electronic Music Bears joins Honey Soundsystem’s Jason Kendig and Pee Play for some distinguished beats in a deeper vein.

Thu/2, 10 p.m.–4 a.m., free before midnight, $10 after. EndUp, 401 Sixth St., SF. www.theendup.com

 

BETTER

This party on Maiden Lane promises to be a fun crush of styles, with wide-ranging dancefloor selections from DJ Deevice (Pirate Cat Radio), Jason Kendig (again!), Sleazemore (Lights Down Low), and Solar (Sunset). “We’re really hoping to save downtown from douchebags and the women who love them,” Deevice told me. “The place is nice, but not chi-chi. I mean, it can’t obviously double as a strip joint like other downtown clubs. Just come and have some fun.”

Check out DJ Deevice’s absolutely lovely “Better” mix:

“Dec 2010 Mix” by DJ Deevice

 

Fri/3, 9:30 p.m.–3 a.m., $5 before 11 p.m./ $10 after. 45 Maiden Lane, SF

 

LAZER SWORD

Finally! Bay natives Lazer Sword, the fab duo who basically broke the future bass scene wide open, are releasing their debut album and it’ll be bonkers. Lazer’s Low Limit and Lando Kal beam in for brain melt, with support from spooktastic up-and-comer OoOoOO, OG atmospheric electro-hopper Machinedrum, and DJ Dials, who always has great hats. It’s all part of Hacksaw Entertainment’s second anniversary blowout.

Sat/4, 9 p.m.–3 a.m., $14.50 advance. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.hacksawent.com

 

SMALLTOWN DJS

One of the highlights of my recent trip up north — this rad-cute duo from Alberta, Canada, pops four turntables and manages to do in Girl Talk types when it comes to mixing electro banger flair with underground house beats, hip-hop and Bmore swagger, and sly pop winks. Somehow it doesn’t come off as Vegas-y mashup as one might supect — maybe it’s vinyl Canadian party magic.

Sat/4, 9 p.m.–3 a.m., $5 before 11 p.m., $10 after. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com

 

TIARA SENSATION PAGEANT

Get ready for glamour and outrage — of a fantastic, ethereal bent, of course. The kids from the Friday weekly Some Thing party blow up with this must-see drag runway fundraiser for the Off Center theater. Contestants: Alotta Boutte, Elijah Minelli, Honey Mahogany, Lil Miss Hot Mess, Mercedez Munro, Monistat, and Turleen. DJs: Stanley Frank and Hoku Mama Swamp. Plus: Juanita More and Miss Rahni. Names!

Sun/5, 8 p.m.–midnight, $35. Temple, 540 Howard, SF. www.templesf.com 

 

Pica Pica Maize Kitchen

0

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE Corn is the theme at Pica Pica, a “maize kitchen,” to drive the point home. Corn is perhaps the greatest of the Americas’ food offerings to the rest of the world, with the potato, tomato, and cocoa bean not too far off the pace. And it’s full of ancient subtlety, a point too easily obscured by the mountainous heaps of American monoculture that helped make the movie King Corn so visually arresting. Corn is to the Americas’ more southerly peoples what wine grapes are to the French.

Pica Pica isn’t that grandiose, of course. It recently moved into a space at the corner of 15th and Valencia streets that, through years of restaurant iterations, reminded me of nothing so much as those sheds ice fishermen huddle in. It is narrow and it is modest. But the lighting has been freshened and clarified, the tabletops are made of a handsome composite, and the interior signage, which explains the menu’s various terms, is bright with primary colors.

That menu is basically Venezuelan, which makes Pica Pica a successor of sorts to Yunza, a lovely little place that had a too-short run over on Fillmore Street about five years ago. (And let’s not forget Mr. Pollo, on Mission, though the name makes me think of Mister Ed, TV’s talking horse.) One difference is that Yunza offered full table service, whereas at Pica Pica you order at the counter and post a number at your table so they can find you when the food is ready.

Another, more important but less obvious, difference is that Pica Pica’s cooking is (apologies in advance for this tiresome cliché) ingredient-driven, even beyond the dexterous use of maize. And I don’t mean “ingredient-driven” merely in the sense of going to the farmers market and fussing about seasonality but of using the wide panoply of possibilities available to kitchens from mighty to modest in this blessed part of the world, and of being aware not merely of flavor but of color and texture too.

A nice example of the kitchen’s attentiveness to the full spectrum of sensual appeal is the bululú salad ($3.99), a jumble of roasted corn kernels, julienne red bell peppers, chunks of jicama and pineapple, quinoa, and daikon sprouts, with a syrupy passion-fruit vinaigrette on the side. The vinaigrette was a bit sweet, but the salad as a whole, in addition to looking like a slightly loopy still-life painting with abstract tendencies, offered more snap, crackle, and pop than even the most antic breakfast cereal.

The chupe soup ($3.99/small) was no match for the visual splendor of the salad — it looked like many another chunky chicken soup — but the chunks, which included chicken shreds, a segment of corn cob, and white rice, were weighty enough to give the soup a low center of gravity.

At the heart of the menu are the corn flatbreads: arepas ($7.99, puffy, savory, made with white corn); cachapas ($8.99, flatter and more crepe-like, yellower, noticeably sweet); and the maize’wiches ($7.99), which combine elements of the first two. These breads can be fitted out as you please, from a broad range of fillings that range from meatless to meaty, with scrambled eggs in between.

Some random tasting notes: la vegetariana, a compendium of tofu slats, avocado slices, plantains, and black beans, was difficult to eat because of the toughness of the tofu. Catira, shreds of chicken sautéed in a sofrito then put to bed under a blanket of melted cheddar cheese, was tasty, but not tasty enough to overcome the sweet interference of encircling cachapa. (There is a reason high-fructose corn syrup comes from corn. You could make a nice crèpe suzette from a cachapa.) Pulled pork, on the other hand, or pernil, was about as good as it gets — and made that much better by the little tub of aioli served on the side. The spicy sauce served with la vegetariana (we guessed some version of chipotle or other hot-chile aioli) was better yet, and a pretty peach color on top of it all.

Like the three tenors, Pica Pica’s three corn flatbreads share obvious similarities and have distinctive virtues, but if I could only choose one, I would choose the arepa, which seemed to me the best balanced and most disciplined of the three: redolent of corn but not cloying, thick and firm enough to hold its contents without becoming competitive. None of the three, though, are finger or ballpark foods, suitable to eat by hand; they’re all too big and unwieldy, and you’ll need a knife and fork so as not to disgrace yourself. Don’t ask how I know.

PICA PICA MAIZE KITCHEN

Daily: 11 a.m.–10 p.m.

401 Valencia, SF

(415) 400-5453

www.picapicakitchen.com

Beer and wine

AE/MC/V

Not too noisy

Wheelchair accessible

 

What the Dickens

5

caitlin@sfbg.com

DAYS OF YORE For some, the holidays mean a frenzied stagger through the mall or a return to the cocoon of familial love. Others simply curl into a fetal position and try to block out consumerism’s bland canned tinkle of bells.

But for many in the Bay Area, the holidays mean donning some crinoline, a corset, or a snappy cravat and traipsing about a maze of freshly built village streets — engaging perfect strangers with a faux Victorian British accent. Such is life at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a nine-day event celebrating its 32nd year of “‘Appy Christmas, guv’nuh!”

In a foul, holiday-incurred blackness of a hangover, I was learning about the intricacies of epochal mass delusion in the Dickens family parlor — a party of cucumber sandwiches and polite conversation in a cozy corner of the Cow Palace, where the fair is set. Kevin Patterson, a beaming dandy of a man, greeted me with a blast of British cheer, although we quickly settled back into Californian when my somewhat reduced energy level and clumsy manhandling of a porcelain teacup became apparent.

Patterson’s parents started the fair, inspired by the sartorial glee of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. “It was a natural shift from Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare to Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens,” he tells me. Three generations of his family are now involved in its production, including his children and wife, Leslie. He says a fair of this kind exists nowhere else, not even in merry olde England.

I’m trying to figure out what makes a person want to be a part of such an involved pantomime. The three acres of Dickensian playground are host to more than 800 performers. There are the can-can girls flashing their bloomers at Mad Sal’s dockside alehouse, Father Christmas, homeless drunks, even the queen herself, who promenades past us to the loud delight of the waitstaff inside the family parlor.

The cast also includes a shriveled Scrooge (who is flown over from England specifically to play the role), dogs, and small children. Here and there dart 10-year-old boys delivering telegrams. Everyone is speaking in some approximation of Victorian dialect, and most seem reluctant to break through their shamming — we run into a belligerent William Sykes, apparently prior to being deported to Australia on charges of manslaughter, in one of the fair’s five (!) bars at one point and are nearly put off our spiced mead by his growlings.

It’s all about the season, Patterson explains. He tells me that the Victorian era, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, was when many of the traditions we celebrate today came about. “It was a simpler time.”

Perhaps, but not if you base your impressions of, say, the costume guidelines for the hundreds of cheery participants (easily seen on the fair’s website), or the dialect instructions, or the weekly e-mail missives that gently remind players that cell phones were not a feature of 1800s England and are not to be brandished, even if it is to take a photo of the live corset models or — gasp! — Dickens himself. “Authenticity is important. Most people in our cast care so much about doing it right,” says Patterson.

The rules of conduct are so expansive that classes are offered at a nearby high school in the weeks leading up to the fair for those hoping to brush up on their speech, improvisation skills (all the better to create the “environmental theater” effect Patterson IS looking for) as well as how to make your own clothing. Most people in those days had to, you know.

But the casual visitor to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair need not adhere to all these strictures, though I did feel très gauche in my jeans and hooded sweatshirt. We spent most of our time in the “unsavory” parts of town where custom dictates glottal stops for words with double t’s, and “anyfink” instead of “anything.” You find the filthiest drunks thereabouts, not to mention the boozy pub songs of Mad Sal’s, and a boudoir photography booth to show off your new spendy corsetry from Hayes Valley’s Dark Garden.

Not to mention an absinthe bar (pouring some local brews), hair-braiding salons, an explorer’s club, steampunk wonder shows, tarot readers, meat pies, crafts galore — and the happenstance magic of coming across a bunch of Dickensians spontaneously acting out some scene of yore-ness, not because they’re being watched by a gawking family but because they really, really like playing out life in Victorian England.

In one such scene, two women were strumming mandolins on the floor, their tiny ankle boots peeking out from voluminous skirts. Around them a perfectly period audience looked on from chairs set against the walls. Even in my slightly dehydrated, deflated state, I could enjoy their dedication to this homey weirdness.

“It’s our family holiday. We look forward to celebrating it every year,” twinkles Patterson, as I bid adieu to the posh environs of the family parlor. Charles Dickens himself sees me out onto the fake street outside, thanking me for attending his fair.

GREAT DICKENS CHRISTMAS FAIR

Sat/4–Sun/5, Dec.11–12, Dec.18–19;

11 a.m.–7 p.m., $12–$25

Cow Palace

2600 Geneva, SF

1-800-510-1558

www.dickensfair.com

 

Olden Days

0

le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS There are however hazards of hanging out with people young enough to be your sister’s best friend’s daughter. I’m not talking about going roller skating in my underwear, riding on the handlebars of a bike in a skirt and heels at night, or even eating at a vegan soul food restaurant in Oakland.

No, my most harrowing moment since falling in with my new adopted family came two nights ago, on a sturdy and all-around stationary bar stool at my friendly neighborhood sports bar, the Phoenix. Where I am generally comfortable and at home, if not drunk.

In this case, Coach was there with her just-graduated-from-sex-school cohorts, and she and one of the “trainers” were talking about a particular practice called sounding, which made me want to either die or order wings and watch football.

I chose the latter. And then, when the wings came, because this is the kind of gal I am, I went around with the plate and offered some to all the vegetarians. We’re supposed to live in the moment, right, so you never know … is my thinking.

Well, here comes the harrowing part, and it has nothing to do with vegetarians or urethras. One of Coach’s friends started talking about some guy she’s sleeping with who won’t put out. And everyone’s like: Wow. Whoa. Imagine that. Dude don’t want sex.

I said, “How old is he?” I don’t know why I said this, I guess because I’ve appreciated older men myself.

“Old,” my friend’s friend said.

“How old?”

“Really old,” she said.

Ostensibly I wanted to get to the bottom of this no-sex situation, because I care, but it’s not like I didn’t know I was, in the process, setting myself up for something truly disastrous. “How old,” I said, “is really old?”

Now it was Coach’s turn to watch TV.

“Really really old,” the young woman said. Then I knew she was going to say the age of really really old, and held my breath. “Forty-eight,” she said.

I exhaled. Forty-eight is older than me. Yay, I would not have to kill myself! I have, in fact, six more months of youthful happy living left before I am really really old, according to her.

Kids can be so careless. I love them, but San Francisco is a tiny town, and I have been steeping in it since this ‘un was seven. Of course I knew her old man! I didn’t realize it at the time, but later figured it out: I have known him since she was 12. Not biblically. We’ve crossed paths. But I considered him a catch in the 1990s, and the last time I saw him, just a month or so ago, I thought the same thing: catch. Then again, he’s a lot younger and way cooler than most of the really really really older men I have dated — one of whom was old enough to be my first cousin’s maid-of-honor’s father.

I got sick. It started that night, and the next morning, yesterday, it had me — by the throat. Usually when I get sick, I simply try to pretend I’m not sick until it’s no longer necessary to pretend, which sometimes takes weeks. This time, however, I decided to act sick, in part because I was house sitting a house with very comfortable beds in it. I saw this once in a movie: You start by calling in sick, then go back to bed.

While I was in bed, I didn’t masturbate. I’m old. I read a book until I fell asleep, and then I woke up and read some more until I slept some more, then I got up and started making chicken soup, which came out great.

The book I read was called The Old Man Who Read Love Stories. I loved it, and I’m sure the soup is even better today, but the truth is that I feel pretty much better too. It worked! Who knew? You can get back in bed and get better quicker than if you go about your business, playing soccer in the rain and so forth.

Not for its dry oven-barbecued ribs, collard greens and cornbread, but for its strangely sweet duck soup.

LAO THAI SOUL FOOD KITCHEN

Lunch: Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.–3 p.m.;

Dinner: daily 5–9:30 p.m.

1406 Solano, Albany

(510) 559-3276

MC,V

Beer and wine

 

Ho-ho-horror

0

arts@sfbg.com

FILM There is probably nowhere in the Christian-majority world where it’s as OK to wax hum-buggy about Christmas and all it entails as San Francisco. Allergies to carols (admit it, they’re horrible), frantically enabled shopaholicism, and forced contact with those people you moved here to get away from are all tolerated, even encouraged here.

In the rakishly Grinch-like spirit such sentiments allow, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is observing “the season” with “Go to Hell for the Holidays: Horror in December.” This series might just as easily have been titled “Grievous Bodily Harm” since it serves up a six-program lineup of film and video features whose common thread is excess of a highly splattery kind. Included are a few variably antiqued golden oldies, as well as newer titles unlikely to get local commercial runs anytime soon (if ever). Some are fun, some deliberately unpleasant, and a couple manage to be both. All provide a sort of palliative effect for those seeking refuge from the suffocation of wholesome holiday cheer.

Because Jesus probably would, let’s approach “Hell”‘s contents tactfully, in ascending order of assault on any delicate sensibilities. The sole double bill on offer is also hands-down winner in terms of camp value, providing unintentional laughs in bulk for every intended scare. In fact, these two underseen gems of bright and shining awfulness comprise one of the more genius programming matches of 2010.

First up is the barely describable, let alone explicable, 1985’s Night Train to Terror, which alongside They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968), Al Adamson’s ouevre, and a handful of other oddities personifies that most secret, least natural of genres: the Frankensteinian film. By which we don’t mean anything directly related to Mary Shelley, but rather movies crudely, grotesquely composed of parts harvested from other movies abandoned as dead.

Few are as triumphantly, energetically, and entertainingly arbitrary as Night Train, which stitches together bits of three features variably orphaned by legal trouble, runaway funding, aborted shooting, or all the above. Linking them — or desperately trying to — are scenes in which “Mr. Satan” and a white-bearded God gamble in a private car for the souls of their fellow train passengers. The latter are an ensemble of ultra-perky “New Wave” youth in Flashdance (1983) garb singing and kinda dancing in a neverending MTV video for synthpop non-hit “Dance With Me.”

Familiar B-flick faces like John Phillip Law and Cameron Mitchell surface sporadically in the wildly condensed “case histories” our biblical antagonists debate, drawn from individual films otherwise known as Cataclysm, Carnival of Fools, and Scream Your Head Off. That this bastard 1985 anthology was assembled, let alone actually shown in theaters, restores your faith in predictable mankind’s ability to occasionally touch the truly, inspirationally senseless.

This feeling one could apply to virtually anything by the late Doris Wishman, whose decades of bottom-rung exploitation work left miraculously intact an approach to such basics as continuity, camera coverage, and synch sound so primitive it achieves a sort of abstract impressionism. Her 1983 A Night to Dismember was stab at the slasher genre after almost a quarter century selling softcore sex. She brought to it exactly the same WTF aesthetic and narrative perversity she had to Nude on the Moon (1961) and Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965). If you’re a Wishman newbie, Dismember is a great place to start since its saga of the compulsively homicidal suburban Kent family is awesomely clumsy without being too dull or claustrophobic.

The mayhem she contrives (no doubt most “gore” was thriftily broiled for stew after each day’s shoot) looks even more laughable alongside the too convincing graphic ugh-liness of Thai cinematographer Tiwa Moeithaisong’s directorial debut Meat Grinder (2009). Its protagonist is a Bangkok noodle shop proprietor whose extremely abused history triggers a Texas Chainsaw style attitude toward fresh victuals, and whose threadbare grip on reality provides our brain-scrambling POV. Starting out like just another exercise in “Asian Extreme” excess, this grows both more outre and controlled as it goes along, balancing jet-black comedy with a certain grotesque pathos.

Charting a reverse trajectory is Red White & Blue, the first U.S. feature by Brit writer-director Simon Rumley, whose 2006 The Living and the Dead is one of the most original films (horror or otherwise) in recent memory. For 80 minutes, it’s a chillingly fine portrait of some well-marginalized characters in Austin, Texas, culminating in possibly the most alarming home invasion since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). But the rest degenerates into rote revenge-fantasy torture porn, further weakened by deliberate story mystifications more enervating than enigmatic.

There are excuses for horror fans who’ve missed Living and Dead — it was barely released in the U.S. — but none for those as yet unbathed in the blood of Wolf Creek. Allegedly based on actual events (a fib), Greg Mclean’s 2005 first feature takes exactly half its length to let nothing happen. Nothing, that is, save our getting to know three young people just ordinary and interesting enough to grow concerned about as they drive across Australia at summer holiday’s end, halted in the middle of nowhere by what at first seems routine bad luck. Several long dread-accruing minutes later, it turns out what’s happening to them is something far, far worse, unrelated to either luck or anything routine. Brilliantly atmospheric and visceral, Creek justifies YBCA’s hyperbolic claim as “possibly the best horror film of the decade.”

Also on “Hell”‘s menu are two films I could say more about, but won’t. Regarding Mladen Djordjevic’s Life and Death of a Porno Gang (2009), that’s because this all-outrages-inclusive tragicomedic mock-doc road flick was only available for preview in its original Serbian language. Still, it’s recommendable. Whereas Marc D. Levitz’s U.S. documentary Feast of the Assumption: BTK and The Otero Family Murders (2008), about a serial killer’s capture and impact on victims’ families 30 years later, would merit further discussion if it didn’t wobble between tabloid TV and home movie — all the while raising serious questions it doesn’t address, or perhaps even notice.

“GO TO HELL FOR THE HOLIDAYS”

Dec. 2–18, $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

www.ybca.org

 

WikiLeaks: demystifying diplomacy

0

OPINION Compared to the kind of secret cables that WikiLeaks just shared with the world, everyday public statements from government officials are exercises in make-believe.

In a democracy, people have a right to know what their government is actually doing. In a pseudo-democracy, a bunch of fairy tales from high places will do the trick.

Diplomatic facades routinely masquerade as realities. But sometimes the mask slips — for all the world to see — and that’s what just happened with the humongous leak of State Department cables.

“Every government is run by liars,” independent journalist I.F. Stone observed, “and nothing they say should be believed.” The extent and gravity of the lying varies from one government to another — but no pronouncements from world capitals should be taken on faith.

By its own account, the U.S. government has been at war for more than nine years now and there’s no end in sight. Like the Pentagon, the State Department is serving the overall priorities of the warfare state. The nation’s military and diplomacy are moving parts of the same vast war machinery.

Such a contraption requires a muscular bodyguard of partial truths, deceptions, and outright lies. With the nation’s ongoing war efforts at full throttle, the contradictions between public rationales and hidden goals — or between lofty rhetoric and grisly human consequences — cannot stand the light of day.

Details of Washington’s transactional alliances with murderous dictators, corrupt tyrants, warlords, and drug traffickers are among its most closely guarded quasi-secrets. Most media accounts can be blown off by officialdom, but smoking-gun diplomatic cables are harder to ignore.

With its massive and unending reliance on military force — with a result of more and more carnage, leaving behind immense grief and rage in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere — the U.S. government has colossal gaps to bridge between its public relations storylines and its war-making realities.

The same government that devotes tremendous resources to inflicting military violence abroad must tout its humane bona fides and laudable priorities to the folks back home. But that essential public relations task becomes more difficult when official documents to the contrary keep leaking.

No government wants to face documentation of actual policies, goals, and priorities that directly contradict its public claims of virtue. In societies with democratic freedoms, the governments that have the most to fear from such disclosures are the ones that have been doing the most lying to their own people.

The recent mega-leaks are especially jarring because of the extreme contrasts between the U.S. government’s public pretenses and real-life actions. But the standard official response is to blame the leaking messengers.

What kind of “national security” can be built on duplicity from a government that is discredited and refuted by its own documents?

Norman Solomon is co-chair of the Healthcare Not Warfare campaign, launched by Progressive Democrats of America.

 

The process begins

0

steve@sfbg.com

The Board of Supervisors has unanimously adopted a set of procedures for choosing a new mayor to replace Gavin Newsom when he becomes California’s lieutenant governor on Jan. 3. The board is scheduled to formally begin the mayoral selection process Dec. 7 with a discussion of what people want in a new mayor and perhaps even the first votes on nominees for the office.

If the process of approving a process was any indicator, choosing a new mayor won’t be easy. Just sorting out how supervisors will vote on nominees, which the board spent hours doing Nov. 23, illustrated the complex political dynamics and potential for parliamentary gamesmanship at play on a body with a deep ideological divide.

Progressives are on the dominant side of that divide, with Sups. John Avalos, David Campos, David Chiu, Chris Daly, Eric Mar, and Ross Mirkarimi sticking together on a pair of 6-5 procedural votes that sought to dilute their voting power, an effort led by Sup. Sean Elsbernd and supported by his moderate colleagues.

Both sides accused the other of playing games with this all-important process, but the greatest complicating factor seems to be the California Political Reform Act and related conflict-of-interests case law. Because the mayor is paid more than supervisors, board members are barred from doing anything to influence the process to become the new mayor.

That means they can’t publicly voice a desire to become mayor or lobby colleagues for votes. And once supervisors have been nominated to be mayor and they accept that nomination, they must immediately leave the room and be sequestered incommunicado until they decide to withdraw their nominations and participate in the process, after which they may not be renominated.

But the newly adopted details of exactly how that process plays out — including when the vote is called on each nominee, how it is taken, and in what order — will determine if any nominees can get the six votes they need to serve as mayor for the final year of Newsom’s term.

If the current board can’t do it, then the newly elected board — which has an ideological breakdown similar to the current board, but with slightly different personal relationships and alliances — will take up the matter when it is sworn in on Jan. 11. And that board’s challenge won’t be any easier.

Board of Supervisors Clerk Angela Calvillo and the Santa Clara County Counsel’s Office (legal counsel in the matter after our own City Attorney’s Office recused itself, largely because City Attorney Dennis Herrera wants to be mayor) proposed procedures whereby all nominees leave the room while the remaining supervisors vote.

But as Daly noted, clearing several supervisors from the room would make it unlikely that those remaining could come up with six votes for anyone. He also said the system would deny too many San Franciscans of a representative in this important decision and allow sabotage by just a few moderate supervisors, who could vote with a majority of supervisors present to adjourn the meeting in order to push the decision back to the next board.

“The process before us is flawed,” Daly said.

So Daly sought to have the board vote on every nomination as it comes up, but Elsbernd argued that under Robert’s Rules of Order, nominations don’t automatically close like that and to modify a board rule that contradicts Robert’s Rules requires a supermajority of eight votes. Calvillo, who serves as the parliamentarian, agreed with that interpretation and Chiu (who serves as chair and is the final word on such questions) ruled that a supermajority was required.

Although some of his progressive colleagues privately grumbled about a ruling that ultimately hurt the progressives’ preferred system, Chiu later told the Guardian, “I gotta play umpire as I see the rules … We need to ensure the process and how we arrive at a process is fair and transparent.”

Nonetheless, Chiu voted with the progressives on the rule change, which failed on a 6-5 vote. But Daly noted that supervisors may still refuse nominations and remain voting until they are ready to be considered themselves, which could practically have the same effect as the rejected rule change. “If we think that’s a better way to do it, we can do it. But we don’t need to fall into the trap and subterfuge of our opponents,” Daly told his colleagues.

Elsbernd then moved to approve the process as developed by Calvillo, but Daly instead made a motion to amend the process by incorporating some elements on his plan that don’t require a supermajority. After a short recess to clarify the motion, the next battleground was over the question of how nominees would be voted on.

Calvillo and Elsbernd preferred a system whereby supervisors would vote on the group of nominees all at once, but Daly argued that would dilute the vote and make it difficult to discern which of the nominees could get to six votes (and conversely, which nominees couldn’t and could thereby withdraw their nominations and participate in the process).

“It is not the only way to put together a process that relies on Robert’s Rules and board rules,” Daly noted, a point that was also confirmed at the meeting by Assistant Santa Clara County Counsel Orry Korb under questioning from Campos. “There are different ways to configure the nomination process,” Korb said. “Legally, there is no prohibition against taking single nominations at a time.”

So Daly made a motion to have each nominee in turn voted up or down by the voting board members, which required only a majority vote because it doesn’t contradict Robert’s Rules of Order. That motion was approved by the progressive supervisors on a 6-5 vote.

After the divisive procedural votes played out, Chiu stepped down from the podium and appealed for unity around the final set of procedures. He said that San Franciscans need to have confidence that the process is fair and accepted by all. So, he said, “It would be great if we have more than a 6-5 vote on this.”

As the role call was taken, Sup. Carmen Chu was the first moderate to vote yes, and her colleagues followed suit on a 11-0 vote to approve the process.

That unity isn’t likely to last long as supervisors fill an office that wields far more power than any other in city government. But both sides voiced an appreciation for what a monumental task they’re undertaking. “This is without a question the most important vote that any of us will take as a member of the Board of Supervisors and one that everyone is watching,” Elsbernd said of choosing a new mayor.

Daly called for supervisors to open the Dec. 7 meeting with a discussion about what qualities they all want to see in a mayor. “We owe it to the public, we owe it to the city, to discuss it and have it out in the open,” he said, going on to criticize the idea of a nonpolitical “caretaker mayor” and say, “I would like to see a mayor that works with the Board of Supervisors.”

But as the parliamentary jousting between Daly and Elsbernd en route to a bare-bones set of procedures shows, such high-minded ideals are likely to be mixed with some tough political brawls, back room deals, and power plays using arcane rules that guide the deliberations of legislative bodies.

In fact, when Korb was asked whether the adopted process precludes new amendments or procedural gambits, he noted that the Nov. 23 vote was probably just the beginning “given the parliamentary skills of this board.”

 

Supreme Court confirms Guardian legal victory

0

The Bay Guardian won a decisive and final legal victory Nov. 23 in our lawsuit against SF Weekly and its chain parent when the California Supreme Court let stand a verdict now worth more than $22 million.

The ruling ends the Weekly’s appeals, which have stretched for more than two years, and confirms a landmark Aug. 11 ruling by the California Court of Appeal that protects small businesses in the state against predatory chains.

The Bay Guardian sued the Weekly and the New Times chain, now known as Village Voice Media, in 2004, charging that the Weekly had systematically sold ads below cost in an effort to harm the local, independent competitor. By taking advantage of the resources of a large company, the Weekly was able to stay in business despite losing money every year, and was using below-cost pricing as a way to take ads away from the Guardian.

“We have before us the case of an ongoing, comprehensive, below-cost pricing scheme,” the Appeals Court concluded. That sort of behavior is specifically barred by California’s Unfair Practices Act, which was designed to protect small business from big chains.

SF Weekly and VVM tried to argue in their appeals that the state law should be consistent with federal antitrust law, which sets a much higher standard for proving predatory pricing. But the Appeals Court and the Supreme Court disagreed. California, the ruling now says, has every right to provide greater protections for small business than the federal government does.

VVM is still trying to avoid paying the judgment, and the Guardian has been aggressively pursuing collection efforts.

The Guardian’s stellar legal team includes trial lawyers Ralph Alldredge, Rich Hill, and Craig Moody, appellate specialist Joseph Hearst, and collection expert Jay Adkisson.

The lawyers who represented VVM in its unsuccessful trial efforts were H. Sinclair Kerr Jr., Ivo Labar and James Wagstaffe of Kerr & Wagstaffe. The appellate lawers were Paul Fogel, Raymond Cardozo, and Dennis Peter Maio of Reed, Smith. VVM was also represented by Don Bennett Moon. 

The America’s Cup rip-off

10

EDITORIAL Gigantic international sporting events tend to be great fun for the people who attend. They make great promotional videos for the host city. They can generate big revenue and profits for some private businesses.

But when the party’s over and the bills come due, these extravaganzas aren’t always a boon to the municipal treasury. And at a time when San Francisco can’t afford to pay for teachers and nurses and recreation directors, the supervisors ought to be giving much greater scrutiny to the deal that could bring the America’s Cup yacht races to the bay.

In 2009, as the city of Chicago was preparing an unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Olympics, the Chicago Tribune took a look at what the 1996 games had meant to another U.S. city, Atlanta. The Trib’s conclusion: lots of private outfits and big institutions did well — the Atlanta Braves got a new baseball stadium and the Georgia Institute of Techology got a new swimming and diving center — but the city itself didn’t get much money at all.

That’s exactly the way the deal that Mayor Gavin Newsom negotiated with Larry Ellison, the multibillionaire database mogul and yachtsman, is shaping up. A shadowy new corporation controlled by Ellison would get control of more than 30 acres of prime waterfront land worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The city could lose $42 million, and possibly as much as $128 million.

We don’t dispute the huge economic impact of holding an event that could attract more than 1 million visitors to the Bay Area. Those people will spend money in bars, restaurants, shops, and hotels. The waterfront improvements and increased tourism will create, according to economic reports, 8,840 jobs.

But as the Board of Supervisors budget analyst points out, those are not permanent, full-time jobs; much of the increased employment needs would be met by increased productivity (bartenders and waiters handling more customers than usual), overtime, and temporary jobs. And again: Most of the benefits will go to the private businesses in the tourist industry. The city’s increased tax revenue won’t be nearly enough to cover the expenses. Even if the America’s Cup group raises $32 million — and that’s not guaranteed in the deal — the city would still be down $10 million.

So in effect, San Francisco is preparing to spend $42 million of taxpayer money (and to forego as much as $86 million more by giving away waterfront land that could be developed) to benefit the sixth-richest person in the world, a new company he’s going to create and control, and the tourist-related businesses in town.

Oh, and to make it even juicier: the city is promising to seek state approval for Ellison to build condos or a hotel on the waterfront — something nobody else can legally do.

This doesn’t strike us as a terribly good deal.

It looks worse when you consider how the negotiations proceeded: The mayor and other city officials insisted they were scrambling to give Ellison everything he wanted to make sure that San Francisco beat out two other competitors. But as Rebecca Bowe reports on page 12, there were no other formal bids; Ellison’s team, based at the Golden Gate Yacht Club, was only negotiating with one city, San Francisco.

There are alternative proposals. The Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association wants to see the race complex moved from the Central Waterfront to the Northern Waterfront, and there may be ways of saving money. And Sup. Ross Mirkarimi points out that if Ellison wins the races in 2013 and comes back again the next time around, San Francisco could become what Newport, R.I., once was: a repeat host to an event that will bring more and more benefits as time goes on. That, however, involves a number of risks and variables that are far from certain at this point.

We’d like to know a lot more about what Ellison’s development plans are. We’d like to know who, exactly, will be running his new corporation that will get development rights for a couple of nice waterfront parcels.

But before the supervisors sign off on any deal, they need to set a bottom line: this can’t cost the city any net revenue. The San Francisco city treasury and local taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing an event created by and for the very wealthy.

 

Editor’s notes

2

Tredmond@sfbg.com

The New York Times, the old established voice of the liberal media elite, ran a piece on Sunday looking for answers to the nation’s persistent economic crisis. Reporter David Segal interviewed prominent economists on the left and right — the likes of John H. Cochrane at the University of Chicago, James K. Galbraith at the University of Texas, even Gar Alperowitz at the University of Maryland, who’s kind of (God help us) a socialist.

The right-wingers talked about the need to cut government, the left-wingers talked about community co-ops and green technology, and all sides agreed that the situation was dire and would probably get worse. But nobody even mentioned wealth inequality.

It’s kind of mind-boggling. It’s as if the entire subject is off the table, taboo, something that doesn’t get discussed in the company of polite economists. And that’s just crazy.

Look: the 400 richest Americans today have combined assets of about $1.5 trillion. Raise that number to 5,000 and you can about double the total wealth. This is a very rich country; our prospects aren’t bleak at all. With a bit of enlightened public policy, we could profoundly improve the economic situation in just a few months.

I have no PhD. I barely escaped Wesleyan University with an economics degree in 1980, squeaking out a D in my last class by promising the (very conservative) professor that if he failed me, I’d be back next year. But it doesn’t take econometric wizardry to add up the figures. They go like this: A one-time 20 percent wealth tax on the 5,000 richest Americans — including many people who have pledged to give away half their wealth anyway — would generate about $600 billion. Nobody would miss any meals; no families would lose their homes, or even their second or third homes, or their personal jets. Expand the pool a little and you could easily reach $1 trillion.

With that money, you could immediately create 7 million jobs (at an average of $50,000 a year) and fund them for three years. That would cut the unemployment rate in half. What would those people do? Plenty. They could rebuild the country’s roads and highways and bridges, and build high-speed rail systems, and work in health care clinics, and teach art and music and writing, and clean up environmental messes … there’s loads of work in this country. And even with a modest estimate of the economic multiplier, those 7 million public sector jobs would create another 3 million private sector jobs, and all of a sudden, the country’s booming again. And a lot of those people who were hired by the government could now transition to private business. (And those very rich people would do well in the boom, as they always do, and might even make most of their money back.)

Raise taxes on the top 5 percent of the nation’s wage earners and corporations and you would generate enough money to keep the program going until the private economy could pick up the slack. Then eliminate the Social Security tax on the first $25,000 of income and expand it to cover all income up to $250,000 and suddenly — a huge incentive for small businesses to hire new workers and a stable retirement system for the next two generations.

It’s not that hard. It’s not a socialist revolution. Nobody really gets hurt, and a lot of people benefit. I mean, it seems to me that it ought to be part of the discussion. Maybe that’s why I was such a lousy economics student.

 

DREAM on

2

sarah@sfbg.com

Spurred by congressional Democratic leaders’ promises to hold a vote on the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act before the end of Congress’ lame-duck session this month, immigrant and civil rights advocates are pushing for the passage of bipartisan legislation that would give undocumented youth a shot at citizenship if they go to college or serve in the military for two years.

On Nov. 29 in San Francisco, several undocumented young people joined members of the Bay Area Coalition for Immigration Reform outside Mission High School — where as much as 20 percent of the student population may be undocumented, according to principal Eric Guthertz — to explain why it makes sense to give youth who grew up in the United States a shot at legal status.

“We are not asking you to give us a green card,” Anna, a student from Guatemala, said at the event. “All we want is a chance to succeed and give back to this country. We live here, we pay taxes, we’re smart, we go to college, but afterward we can’t work and give back.”

Mario, a 22-year-old gay student who was born in Peru to a Chinese father and Peruvian mother, graduated from UC Berkeley with a civil engineering degree. He explained that because of his lack of documentation, he can’t get a job to pay his bills or save up to pursue a master’s degree, and fears being deported to a homophobic country.

“It would be a waste of talent because I’ve learned California-specific engineering rules and the U.S. building code,” Mario said. “Sometimes I wake up from a nightmare about being detained. I came out here, but in Peru, I’d probably be back in the closet.

Joining Anna and Mario was Shing Ma “Steve” Li, a nursing student at City College, who was released Nov. 19 after two months in federal detention, shortly before he was to be deported to Peru. San Francisco Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation to halt his removal, saying it would be “unjust” to deport Li before a DREAM Act vote takes place.

Li, who speaks Cantonese, English, French, and Spanish, grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and dreams of opening a clinic to serve low-income San Franciscans. But recently, federal immigration authorities flew him 800 miles to a jail in Arizona, all because his parents brought him here when he was 12 and he lacks documentation.

“We were handcuffed and shackled to our seats, and I wondered what would happen if the plane went down,” Li recalled.

Li believes the main barriers to the legislation’s passage is lack of accurate information. “People need to know the facts, see the people, and hear their stories,” Li said. “Then they’ll know it is a human rights issue.”

Guthertz said that as principal of Mission High, every year he sees undocumented youth who have great grades and lots of advanced placement classes “hit the wall” of their status. “Over and over, I’ve seen the heartbreaking effect of their situation,” Guthertz said. “The DREAM Act is yet another avenue to help these students.”

Eric Quezada, executive director of Dolores Street Community Services, noted that congressional leaders did not agree to the DREAM Act vote “out of the goodness of their heart — it’s because of the hard work of immigrant advocates.”

Quezada said the push to force a DREAM Act vote in Congress this year began when undocumented youth staged a sit-in in Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) office in May. “And the vote of Latinos saved the Senate from a Republican takeover on Nov. 2,” he said.

“But we understand this window is closing,” Quezada added, referring to the reality that Republicans will take control of the House in January. “So we’re not taking one vote for granted. And this is the first step. If we are able to pass the DREAM Act, it will be a downpayment for comprehensive immigration reform.”

Sup. John Avalos says the DREAM Act recognizes the contribution immigrants make to the community, and to the creation of economic opportunities for everybody. “Immigrants here support themselves and their families across the water, so it makes sense that we make proper investments and support,” Avalos said. “Education is one way to make the world a more stable place.”

Sup. David Campos, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala as an undocumented teenager, sees the DREAM Act as a piece of commonsense legislation.

“It’s so modest,” Campos said. “Even those who are against comprehensive immigration reform should be for something that recognizes that young people, who came here not by choice but because of their parents’ issues, should be given a chance to give back.”

Campos said his father was able to gain legal status for his whole family because of his employment, but that many undocumented youth aren’t so lucky.

“We open the doors to our public schools, we invest in their education, and then, when they are ready to give back to us, we say, ‘No, we don’t want you here,'” Campos said. “The best and brightest, the risk-takers, come here. As a country, we cannot go forward unless we realize that this influx of creativity and entrepreneurship made this country what it is.”

The biggest fish

6

rebeccab@sfbg.com

Shortly after Larry Ellison, the billionaire CEO of Oracle Corp. and owner of the BMW Oracle Racing Team, won the 33rd America’s Cup off the coast of Valencia, Spain, in February 2010, a reception was held in his honor in the rotunda at San Francisco City Hall.

The event drew members of Ellison’s sailing crew, business and political heavyweights such as former Secretary of State George Schultz, and other VIPs. Attendees posed for photographs with the tall, glittering silver trophy at the base of the grand staircase.

As part of the celebration, Ellison helped Mayor Gavin Newsom into an official BMW Oracle Racing Team jacket, and Newsom granted Ellison a key to the city, a symbolic honor usually reserved for heads of state and the San Francisco Giants after they won the World Series. Shortly after, the mayor and the guest of honor, whom Forbes magazine ranked as the sixth-richest person in the world, sat down for a face-to-face.

That meeting marked the beginning of the city’s bid to host the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco in 2013. Since securing the Cup, Ellison has made no secret of his desire to stage the 159-year-old sailing match against the iconic backdrop of the San Francisco Bay, a natural amphitheater that could be ringed with spectators gathered ashore while media images of the stunningly expensive yachts are broadcast internationally.

Newsom and other elected officials have feverishly championed the idea, touting it as an opportunity for a boost to the region’s anemic economy. The city’s Budget & Legislative Analyst projects roughly $1.2 billion in economic activity associated with the event — the real prize, as far as business interests are concerned. It would also create the equivalent of 8,840 jobs, mostly in the form of overtime for city workers and short-term gigs for the private sector.

While the idea has won preliminary support from most members of the Board of Supervisors, serious questions are beginning to arise as the finer details of the agreement emerge and the date for a final decision draws near.

Ellison and the race organizers would be granted control of 35 acres of prime waterfront property in exchange for selecting San Francisco as the venue for the Cup and investing $150 million into Port of San Francisco infrastructure. But the event would result in a negative net impact to city coffers.

Hosting the event and meeting Ellison’s demands for property would cost the city about $128 million, according the Budget & Legislative Analyst, just as city leaders grapple with closing a projected $712 million deficit in the budget cycle spanning 2011 and 2012.

Part of the impact is an estimated $86 million in lost revenue associated with rent-free leases the city would enter into with Ellison’s LLC, the America’s Cup Event Authority (ACEA). In exchange for selecting San Francisco as a venue and investing in port infrastructure, ACEA would win long-term control of Piers 30-32, Pier 50, and Seawall Lot 330 — waterfront real estate owned by the Port of San Francisco, with development rights included. Seawall Lot 330, a 2.5-acre triangular parcel bordered by the Embarcadero at the base of Bryant Street, would either be leased long-term or transferred outright to ACEA.

The most vociferous opponent of the America’s Cup plan is Sup. Chris Daly, who has voiced scathing criticism of the notion that the city would subsidize a billionaire’s yacht race at a time of fiscal instability. “The question is whether or not the package that San Francisco’s putting together is good or bad for the city,” Daly told the Guardian, “and whether or not it’s the best deal the city can get.”

 

THE CREW

According to a Forbes calculation from September 2010, Ellison’s net worth is $27 billion, making him several times wealthier than the City and County of San Francisco, which has a total annual budget of about $6 billion. Ellison reportedly spent $100 million and a decade pursuing the Cup.

As soon as Ellison expressed interest in bringing the Cup to San Francisco, Newsom began charting a course. Park Merced architect and Newsom campaign contributor Craig Hartman of the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was tapped to reimagine the piers south of the Bay Bridge as the central hub for the event, and soon Hartman’s vision for a viewing area beneath a whimsical sail-like canopy was forwarded to the media.

The mayor also issued letters of invitation to form the America’s Cup Organizing Committee (ACOC), a group that would be tasked with soliciting corporate funding for the event. ACOC was convened as a nonprofit corporation, and it’s a powerhouse of wealthy, politically connected, and influential members.

Hollywood mogul Steve Bing, who’s donated millions to the Democratic Party and funded former President Bill Clinton’s 2009 trip to North Korea to rescue two imprisoned American journalists, is on the committee. So is Tom Perkins, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, billionaire, and former mega-yacht owner who was once dubbed “the Captain of Capitalism” by 60 Minutes. George Schultz and his wife, Charlotte, are members. Thomas J. Coates, a powerful San Francisco real estate investor who dumped $1 million into a 2008 California ballot initiative to eliminate rent control, also has a seat. Coates resurfaced in the November 2010 election when he poured $200,000 into local anti-progressive ballot measures and the campaigns of economically conservative supervisorial candidates.

Billionaire Warren Hellman, San Francisco socialite Dede Wilsey, and former Newsom press secretary Peter Ragone are also on ACOC. There are representatives from Wells Fargo, AT&T, and United Airlines. One ACOC member directs a real estate firm that generated $2.5 billion in revenue in 2009. Another is Martin Koffel, CEO of URS Corp., an energy industry heavyweight that made $9.2 billion in revenue in 2009. There’s Richard Kramlich, a cofounder of a Menlo Park venture capital firm that controls $11 billion in “committed capital.” And then there’s Mike Latham, CEO of iShares, which traffics in pooled investment funds worth about $509 billion, according to a BusinessWeek article.

There’s also an honorary branch of ACOC composed of elected officials including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and others. Their role is to help the Cup interface with various governmental agencies to control air space, secure areas of the bay exclusively for the event, set up international broadcasts, and bring foreign crew members and fancy sailboats into the United States without a hassle from immigration authorities.

ACOC is expected to raise $270 million in corporate sponsorships for the America’s Cup. That money will be funneled into the budget for ACEA. It’s unclear whether the $150 million ACEA is required to invest in city piers will be derived from ACOC’s fund drive.

The city also anticipates that ACOC would raise $32 million to help defray municipal costs. “However,” the Budget & Legislative Analyst report cautions, “there is no guarantee that any of the anticipated $32 million in private contributions will be raised.”

A seven-member board, chaired by sports management executive Richard Worth, will direct the ACEA, according to Newsom’s economic advisors, but the other six seats have yet to be filled. ACEA’s newly minted CEO is Craig Thompson, a native Californian who previously worked with a governing body for the Olympics and has helped coordinate major sporting events internationally. In an interview with sports blog Valencia Sailing, Thompson provided some insight on why major corporations might be inspired to donate to the cause. Basically, the Cup is the holy grail of networking events.

“It’s a very difficult economic situation we are going through, and it’s not the best time to be looking for sponsors for a major event,” Thompson acknowledged. “On the other hand, the America’s Cup is one of the very few activities … that offer access to really top-level individuals in terms of education or economic situation. The America’s Cup is a unique platform for a lot of companies that want access to those individuals that are very difficult to reach under normal circumstances. I can tell you for example that Oracle is very pleased with the marketing opportunity the America’s Cup has presented to them. They invite their best customers and are very successful in turning the America’s Cup into a platform for generating business. The same thing can be true for a lot of different companies that need access to wealthy individuals.”

But should San Francisco taxpayers really be subsidizing a networking event for the some of the business world’s richest and most powerful players?

 

TRANSFORMING THE WATERFRONT

Over the past four months, Newsom’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) has been negotiating with race organizers to hash out a Host City Agreement outlining the terms of bringing the America’s Cup to San Francisco.

The proposal will go before the Board of Supervisor’s Budget & Finance Committee on Dec. 8, and to the full board Dec. 14. A final decision on whether San Francisco will host the race is expected by Dec. 31. ACEA and ACOC will each sign onto the agreement with the City and County of San Francisco.

From the beginning, the event was envisioned as “the twin transformation,” according to OEWD — the America’s Cup would be transformed by attracting greater crowds and heightened commercial interest while San Francisco’s crumbling piers would be revitalized through ACEA’s $150 million investment in port infrastructure.

The plan paints downtown San Francisco as the “America’s Cup Village” during the sailing events, and a study produced by Beacon Economics estimates that the financial boost would come primarily from hordes of visitors flocking to the event — more than 500,000 are expected to attend. The city expects a minimum of 45 race days, including one pre regatta in 2011 and one in 2012 (or two in 2012 if the one in 2011 doesn’t happen), a challenger series in 2013, and a final match in 2013.

The transformation of the city’s waterfront would be dramatic. In addition to the rent-free leases for Piers 30-32, 50, and Seawall Lot 330, ACEA would be granted exclusive use of much of the central waterfront, water, and piers around Mission Bay, and water and land near Islais Creek during the course of the event. Under the Host City Agreement, race organizers would have use of water space spanning Piers 14 to 22 ½; Piers 28, 38, 40, 48, and 54, a portion of Seawall Lot 337, and Pier 80, where a temporary heliport would be sited.

Seawall Lot 330, a 2.5-acre parcel valued by the Port at $33 million, lies at the base of Bryant Street along the Embarcadero and has a nice unimpeded view of the bay. Piers 30-32 span 12.5 acres, and Pier 50 is 20 acres.

The Budget & Legislative Analyst’s study predicts that the ACEA could opt to build a 250-unit condo high-rise on Seawall Lot 330, deemed the most lucrative use. Under the Host City Agreement, the city would be obligated to remove Tidelands Trust provisions from Seawall Lot 330, which guarantee under state law that waterfront property is used for maritime functions or public benefit. Tweaking the law for a single deal would require approval from the State Lands Commission, but Newsom, in his new capacity as lieutenant governor, would cast one of the three votes on that body.

The combination of construction, demolition, lost rent revenue, police and transit, environmental analysis, and other event costs would hit the city with a bill totaling around $64 million, according to the Budget & Legislative Analyst study. Since city government would recoup around $22 million in revenue from hosting the Cup, the net impact would be around $42 million. That doesn’t include the potential $32 million assistance from ACOC.

At the same time, the city would stand to lose another $86.2 million by granting long-term development rights to 35 acres of Port property for 66 to 75 years without charging rent, bringing the total cost to $128 million. OEWD representatives played down that loss in potential revenue, saying past attempts to redevelop piers hadn’t been successful because none could handle the upfront investment to revitalize the crumbling piers.

The Host City Agreement has raised skepticism among Port staff and the Budget Analyst that tempered initial enthusiasm for the event. “The terms of the Host City Agreement will require significant city capital investment and will result in substantial lost revenue to the Port,” a Port study determined. Faith in that plan seems to be eroding and it may be scrapped for an alternative plan that’s cheaper for the city.

The Northern Waterfront alternative substitutes Piers 19-29 as the primary location for the event and eliminates the Mission Bay piers from the equation. Under this scenario, ACEA would invest an estimated $55 million, instead of $150 million. In exchange, it would receive long-term development rights to Piers 30-32 and Seawall 330 on “commercially reasonable terms,” according to a Port staff report.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu requested that the Port explore that second option more fully, and the Port report notes that it would reduce the strain on Port revenue. The Northern Waterfront plan would cost the Port a total of $15.8 million, instead of $43 million, the report notes. Port staff recommended in its report that both the original agreement and the alternative be forwarded to the full board for consideration.

 

PHANTOM BIDS?

Under the competition’s official protocol, Ellison, as defender of the Cup, has unilateral power to decide where the next regatta will be held. Race organizers have said it’s a toss-up between San Francisco and an unnamed port in Italy — though it’s anyone’s guess how seriously a European site is being considered by a team headquartered at the Golden Gate Yacht Club, a stone’s throw from the Golden Gate Bridge.

According to a San Francisco Chronicle article published in early September, Newsom issued a memo stating that San Francisco was competing against Spain and Italy to become the chosen venue. Valencia was said to be offering a “generous financial bid,” and a group in Rome was rumored to have offered some $645 million to bring the Cup to Italian shores, the memo noted. It was a call for the city to present Ellison with the most attractive deal possible to compel him to pick San Francisco.

Speaking at an Oct. 4 Land Use Committee hearing, OEWD director Jennifer Matz told supervisors: “San Francisco was designated the only city under consideration back in July. Now we are competing against the prime minister of Italy and the king of Spain.”

However, the veracity of those claims came into question in mid-November. Daly, incensed that the Mayor’s Office never communicated with him about the Cup despite wanting to hold it in his sixth supervisorial district, launched his own personal investigation. He fired off an e-mail to Team Alinghi, a prior America’s Cup winner, and began communicating with other European contacts until he got in touch with someone in Valencia’s municipal government.

“I got a call back from a representative who basically said I should know something,” Daly recounted. Valencia, his source said, never submitted a bid to host the Cup. At a Nov. 13 press conference, Valencia’s mayor Rita Barbera confirmed this claim, according to a Spanish press report, expressing disappointment that the city had been eliminated from consideration as a host venue. “There was no formal bidding process,” she charged. She also denied reports that any money had been offered.

Meanwhile, the Budget Analyst was unable to find any concrete evidence that other host city bids had been submitted. “We have nothing to confirm that other offers have been made,” Fred Brousseau of the Budget Analyst’s office told the Guardian.

In response to Guardian queries about whether the Mayor’s Office had evidence that Italy had indeed submitted a bid, Project Manager Kyri McClellan of the OEWD forwarded a one-page resolution from the Italian prime minister assuring race organizers that there would be tax breaks, accelerated approvals, and other perks guaranteed if the Cup came to Italy. However, an Italian journalist who looked over the resolution told the Guardian that the document didn’t appear to be a formal bid, merely a response to a query from race organizers.

Daly has his doubts that either Valencia or the Italian port were ever seriously considered. “I think they were phantom bids,” he said, “created by either Larry Ellison or the Newsom administration … to place pressure on the Board of Supervisors.”

A representative from OEWD told the Guardian that officials have no reason to doubt that the European bids, and accompanying offers of money, were real. However, the city wasn’t privy to race organizer’s discussions about possible European venues. A final decision is expected before the end of the year.

Daly hasn’t held back in voicing opposition to the America’s Cup and blasted it at an Oct. 5 Board meeting. “This tacking around Sup. Daly will not get you in calmer waters,” Daly said. “I told myself I was not going to make a yachting reference. But I will bring a white squall onto this race and onto this Cup, and I will do everything in my power starting on Jan. 8 to make sure these boats never see that water.”

 

WIND IN WHOSE SAILS?

The America’s Cup would undoubtedly bring economic benefit to the area and create work at a time when jobs are scarce. Police officers would get overtime. Restaurant servers would be scrambling to keep up with demand. Construction workers seeking temporary employment would get gigs. Hotels would rake it in. Pier 39 would be booming. However, the Budget Analyst report cautioned: “It is unlikely that any labor benefits would remain in the years after the America’s Cup event is completed.”

Certain small businesses would catch a windfall. John Caine, owner the Hi Dive bar at Pier 28, didn’t hesitate when asked about his opinion on the city hosting the Cup. “Please come fix our piers. It’s a shout-out to Larry Ellison,” he said. Caine said he supports the America’s Cup bid 100 percent, and is excited about the boost it could give his business. The Hi Dive would not be required to relocate under the proposal, he added.

At the same time, other small business would be negatively affected, particularly those among the 87 Port tenants who would be forced to relocate to make way for the America’s Cup. The Budget Analyst’s report also notes that retail businesses in the area whose services had no appeal to race-goers might suffer from reduced access to their stores, since crowding and street closures would shut out their customers.

The sailing community has rallied in support of the Cup, and Newsom has received hundreds of e-mails from yachting enthusiasts from as far away as Hawaii and Florida promising to travel to San Francisco with all their sailing friends to watch the world-famous vessels compete.

Ariane Paul, commodore of a classic wooden boat club called the Master Mariners Benevolent Association, told the Guardian that she was excited about the opportunity for the America’s Cup to showcase sailing on the bay. “In the long term, it’s a win-win,” Paul said. “It would be great to have that boost.” As for the financial terms of the deal, she remained confident, saying, “I don’t think that the city is going to let Larry Ellison walk all over them.”

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi is often politically aligned with Daly, but not when it comes to the issue of the America’s Cup. As a kid growing up on the island of Jamestown, a tiny blue-collar community located off the coast of Rhode Island, Mirkarimi learned to sail and occasionally spent summers working as a deckhand. Every few years, the America’s Cup would come to nearby Newport, transforming the area into a bustling hub and bringing the locals into contact with famous sailors. It left an everlasting impression. When the BMW Oracle Racing Team secured the 33rd Cup off the coast of Valencia, Mirkarimi did a double-take when he saw a photograph of the winning team — his childhood friend from Rhode Island was on the crew.

Mirkarimi told the Guardian he supports bringing the Cup to San Francisco because of the economic boost the area will receive — if the Cup continues to return to San Francisco as it did for 53 years in Newport, he said, the city could look forward to a free gift in improved revenue associated with the event, and that could help quiet the tired annual debates over painful budget cuts.

At the same time, he acknowledged that the Budget Analyst report had prompted what he called healthy skepticism. “I think the onus is on the city and Cup organizers to make sure the benefits far, far outweigh the investment,” Mirkarimi said. “This effort is not just about making one of the wealthiest men in the United States that much more wealthy … That can’t be the case,” he said. “It has to be about what will the Cup do in order to be a win-win for the people of San Francisco.” Mirkarimi said he expected scrutiny of the details of the agreement at the Dec. 8 Budget and Finance Committee hearing: “Naturally, in this time of economic downturn … people want to know, what’s the outlay of cost, and what are we going to get in return?”