Volume 45 Number 29

Volume 45 Number 29 Flip-through Edition

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Speak easy of the theme bar

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virginia@sfbg.com

THE DRINKING LIFE Born as it was into a speakeasy family, Bourbon & Branch’s newest younger sibling is characteristically confusing to locate. Trek to the same scruffy block of Jones Street that B&B calls home, find the barred window labeled “Wilson and Wilson Private Detective Agency.” (Hint: it’s next to a wooden door sporting a peep hole.) Do not enter here. Potential tipplers must detour through Bourbon & Branch be granted audience to The Wilson.

From here, any avid libation fan will know the drill. Yes, this bar is reservation-only. Yes, the host will whisk you through a secret back door after you reveal the password gleaned from your reservation. What’s different about The Wilson compared with its speakeasy kinfolk, you ask?

Compared with B&B, the new bar is even quieter, more mellow — despite being consistently busy — and not as dim due to that large, covered window you see from the sidewalk. And even as The Wilson’s black and white Prohibition-era decor are in keeping with its neighbor’s design scheme, its logo and retro office conceit give it a decidedly noir bent. The spirit of local legend Sam Spade resides here.

Early buzz was all about the $30, three-course cocktail menu, which includes an aperitif, main, and digestif of choice. That’s a lot of cocktail drinking. Ordering the three-course menu would make for a unique date night, particularly if the liquor isn’t enough to severely handicap your conversational abilities. Of course, you can always order à la carte from the inventive, well-crafted menu for $12 a drink.

In the month that the bar has been open, I have yet to be disappointed by a drink, although one stood out above the rest. I shock even myself by saying this winner was the sole vodka cocktail I ventured to order: the Charlie Chan, made from black tea-infused Karlsson’s (as good as vodka can get), heightened by ginger syrup, lemon juice, black pepper and clove tinctures, and coconut marmalade. Yes, coconut marmalade. The last three ingredients are made in-house, making this an atypical cocktail. What delights me about Charlie, besides his peppery-sweet layers, is that I’ve never had a drink like him — which believe me, doesn’t happen very often.

The Wilson’s Phantom is subtle compared to the bold punch of Charlie, but its layers reveal themselves as you sip: clove-infused cognac melding with Glenrothes Alba Reserve, the gentle bitter of Cocchi, plus lemon, cacao, and vanilla syrups, and orange bitters.

A tall, crushed iced Black Mask aperitif is deceptively light, made with Lillet Blanc, grapefruit juice, lime, ginger beer, vanilla angostura bitters, and a Ron Zacapa rum float. Watch out: this generously-portioned drink sneaks up on you. The Pinkerton is a digestif with a smoky bang, but not from scotch (the base spirit is Knob Creek), but from a house tobacco-bourbon tincture. Coffee syrup enriches the drink, and cranberry-infused Angostura orange bitters round it out.

Unlike at Bourbon & Branch, where bartenders are constantly slammed concocting labor-intensive cocktails for double rooms of guests, at The Wilson you get face time with the person making your drinks. Ask questions. The staff sincerely wants to tell you about housemade ingredients and to explain the menu, sharing recipe details as they make your drink. Each time I visited, my bartender was attitude-free, friendly, and eager to talk drink.

Though many claim to be weary of themed speakeasies, I can’t help but fall in love with a place this relaxed and transporting — and one that serves impeccable cocktails from friendly bartenders at that. I’ve found The Wilson to be all of the above, and I won’t be losing directions to its whereabouts anytime soon.

505 Jones, SF. www.thewilsonbar.com

 

Beyond 420

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steve@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY When the clock or the calendar hits 420 — and particularly at that magical moment of 4:20 p.m. on April 20 — the air of Northern California fills with the fragrant smell of green buds being set ablaze. But this year, some longtime cannabis advocates are trying to focus the public’s attention on images other than stoners getting high.

“I hope the house of hemp will replace the six-foot-long burning joint as the symbol of 420,” says Steve DeAngelo, executive director of Harborside Health Center, an Oakland cannabis collective, and one of the organizers of an April 23 festival in Richmond dubbed Deep Green that offers an expanded view of cannabis culture.

In addition to big musical acts, guest speakers, and vendors covering just about every aspect of the cannabis industry, the event will feature a house made almost entirely of industrial hemp. That exhibit and many others will highlight the myriad environmental and economic benefits of legalizing hemp, as California Sen. Mark Leno has been trying to do for years, with his latest effort, SB676, The California Industrial Hemp Farming Act, clearing the Senate Agriculture Committee on a 5–1 vote April 5.

Public opinion polls show overwhelming support for ending the war on drugs, particularly as it pertains to socially benign substances like industrial hemp, a strain of cannabis that doesn’t share the psychoactive qualities of its intoxicating sister plants. Yet DeAngelo said that after 40 years of advocating for legalization, he’s learned to be patient because “unfortunately, our politicians are lagging behind public opinion.”

In San Francisco and many other cities, marijuana dispensaries have become a legitimate and important part of the business community (see “Marijuana goes mainstream,” 1/27/10), spawning offshoots like the edibles industry that provide more safe and effective ways of ingesting marijuana (see “Haute pot,” 1/25/11).

But the proof that the medical marijuana is about more than just getting people high also continues to grow, from the endless touching tales of cancer, AIDS, and other patients who have been saved from suffering by this wonder weed to the lengths that the industry is going to cultivate cannabidiol (CBD), a compound found in marijuana that doesn’t get people high but offers many other benefits, including acting as an antidepressant and antiinflammatory medicine.

CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, generally have an inverse relationship in cannabis plants, so the efforts by generations’ worth of pot cultivators to breed strains with higher THC content have almost completely bred the CBD out of the plants. “In the underground markets, it didn’t have any value,” DeAngelo said.

When Harborside Health Center first started laboratory-testing marijuana many years ago, DeAngelo said that of 2,000 strains tested, only nine had “appreciable quantities of CBD.” In addition to efforts by Harborside and the San Francisco Patient and Resource Center (SPARC) to work with growers on bringing back CBD-heavy strains, modern scientific techniques are allowing CBD to be extracted from the strains that do exist.

“It’s not psychoactive, but let me tell you, it is mood-altering,” says Albert Coles, founder of CBD Sciences in Stinson Beach. “A lot of people, when they smoke pot go inward, but that often isn’t good for social interactions.”

His company makes laboratory-tested cannabis tinctures called Alta California that have been increasingly popular in San Francisco, offering three different varieties: high THC/low CBD, low THC/high CBD, and a 50-50 mix. “It’s good for creative thinking because it just clears out all the noise,” Coles said of CBD.

But even when talking about THC, many in the industry dispute the criticism that most marijuana use is merely recreational drug use. Vapor Room founder Martin Olive has said most pot use isn’t strictly medical or recreational, but a third category he calls “therapeutic,” people who smoke pot to help cope with the stress of modern life.

DeAngelo agrees, although he puts it slightly differently: “The vast majority of cannabis users use it for the purpose of wellness.” 

DEEP GREEN FESTIVAL Saturday, April 23. Performances by The Coup, Heavyweight Dub Champion, and more; speakers include pot cultivation columnist Ed Rosenthal, Steve DeAngelo, and business owner David Bronner. $20 advance/$30 door ($20 for bicyclists and carpoolers, $100 VIP).

Craneway Pavilion, 1414 Harbour Way South, Richmond. www.deepgreenfest.com

 

Why the Eagle is home

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Some people don’t fit in. Anybody who has walked in the margins for any period of time gets this. And anybody who gets this, honestly, understands that within the margins of the outsider, there are narrower margins to inhabit. If you came to San Francisco, or the Bay Area, as an outsider’s outsider, you may have found a home of sorts at the Eagle Tavern.

I came to San Francisco a long time ago. I came out, I did my time in the Castro. I migrated out of there as I migrated out of my 20s and wound up hanging in the SoMa bars, where I felt more comfortable and had more in common with the men who frequented them. The scene down there was edgier for sure, maybe outright crazy at times, but at least it seemed a little more down to earth. The people were interesting and fun. Artists, musicians, addicts, hustlers, drag queens. Home.

Beyond my identity as a queer man, I’ve also worked as a musician for the last three or so decades. I’ve had a reasonable amount of mainstream success. But I also do a lot of smaller projects, which don’t always make me money but are in many ways what I live and breathe for.

About 10 years ago, one of my musical brothers in arms, Doug Hilsinger, who is the talent booker at the Eagle, asked my to play with the Cinnamon Girls, his Neil Young tribute … The catch, well you gotta wear a dress. In fact, well, you get to have a couple of drinks and rock out LOUD (really loud) and play Neil songs … and we do, and if you’ve heard us, you know we do it right, and we do it well. It’s shambolic, drunken, and artful. Awesome fun, the art of the bar band, a stage to play on and an audience to listen.

Do a little cultural deconstruction here: a band of straight and gay musicians get together and play Neil Young songs at a leather bar in San Francisco, simply for fun, to a mixed audience (the Eagle is notoriously mixed straight and gay on music nights). I believe you call this cultural cross-pollination, when groups of people who might not anticipate socializing do so by accident and create some unanticipated unity. It’s not at a scripted event, but it is part of the day-to-day workings of the Eagle Tavern in San Francisco. Could you please tell me, if you happen to know, if there is any other place on the planet (seriously) where something like this happens? People throw around phrases like “unique San Francisco institution” a little to easily sometimes. THIS is the real deal.

And this is, by the way, one of about 100 plus events that may happen at the Eagle in any given year. What else may happen? AIDS fundraisers, political rallies (I’ve seen no fewer than five city supervisors and two state senators plying the crowd at the Sunday beer bust). Hilsinger’s regular Thursday night indie music night has seen a host of great and notable artists for a decade, offering a venue to people who might otherwise have a hard time finding a stage. I’ve been to memorials and wakes there. My partner Troy and I had our reception for our illegal San Francisco gay marriage at the Eagle back in 2004.

The Eagle isn’t really as much a bar as it is an oddball equivalent of the old school public house, the bar that also has become a community center. Add to all of this a history of more than 30 years, far enough back to when leather was really the outsider community within the community, old enough to have lost a lot of clientele and fought hard to stay in business during the AIDS crisis. Old enough to have weathered the shifting demographic of SoMa during the dot-com and Web 2.0 economic tidal shifts. That’s called institutional endurance, and its rare. You can ask any bar owner or restaurant owner about this.

The Eagle Tavern, for all of these reasons and many more, is culturally significant in this town. Should it close so that an owner (who doesn’t live in town and who has shown callously that he doesn’t give a damn about the community) can “clean it up” and make, presumably, a straight bar that caters to the bridge-and-tunnel scene (or even a new, trendy gay bar focused on younger clientele), we as a city are going to lose something that simply cannot be replaced.

Victor Krummenacher is a musician and designer.

 

We who are not as others

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arts@sfbg.com

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL By coincidence there were two Bigfoot movies at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and both are also playing this year’s SFIFF. One was long and serious: Christopher Munch’s Letters from the Big Man, a fantasy drama eco-parable in which a Forest Service water analyst scouting remote parklands acquires a very hairy stalker — though he means well. The other was only five minutes and not remotely serious: Sasquatch Birth Journal 2 (it’s unclear whether there was ever a first), which provided hidden-camera proof of the species’ existence, caught in a state of universal discomfort.

That was the latest dose of absurdism from Zellner Bros., who weren’t strangers to Sundance (they’ve had other shorts and the 2008 feature Goliath premiere there), but remain little-known to all but a small coterie of fans outside their home base of Austin, Texas. That situation will be somewhat rectified with “From A to Zellner,” which brings the brothers to SF for a program of short works.

Considering that they’ve been making films for at least 15 years (and home movies before that), Nathan and David Zellner are something of a mystery pair. Their website bio reveals that “they were born in Greely, Colorado” — and nothing else. (It does, however, provide photographic evidence of them wearing matching, flared-pant crimson jumpsuits somewhere around third grade, and a video where they sing the theme to 1984’s The Neverending Story with tone-deaf bravado.)

Elsewhere David has said he “typically tackles more of the writing-directing, and Nathan more of the editing and producing. That said, it all overlaps.” They’ve occasionally acted in friends’ movies, including ones by mumblecore biggies Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers, plus 2000’s epically great, virtually unknown underground Road WarriorSmokey and the Bandit collision Radio Free Steve. That aside, far be it from us to further spoil the enigma by requesting an interview.

At their best, the Zellners are like Beckett meets Upright Citizens Brigade, or something like that. Existential rudderlessness almost invariably slaps already hapless protagonists in the face like a wet trout, amid distressed circumstances of deadpan ridiculousness.

Sometimes the humor is overly juvenile or the joke just doesn’t stretch far enough. But their commitment to strange ideas — abetted by considerable flexibility as comic actors inhabiting different characters, accents, mustaches — is more often refreshing, distinctive, and delightful.

Shorts that might show up Sunday, April 24 include Redemptitude (2006), a Australian priest-vs.-angry-wheelchair-bound paintballer confrontation that upends sagas of inspirational forgiveness; the next year’s Aftermath on Meadowlark Lane, a hilariously inappropriate debate (just after a possibly fatal car crash) on the circumcision question; 2004’s The Virile Man, in which husband and father Gary (David) literally calls from the closet to whisper sexual-identity fears to an astrology hotline. Then there’s 2005’s Foxy and the Weight of the World, in which David’s Irish ne’er-do-well Hamish, poisoned by a “vengeful rival,” pours out bitterly self-pitying wisdoms to a beloved pet that would clearly rather be anywhere else than clutched in his dying arms.

The Zellners have made three features to date, all relatively obscure but fairly easy to find on Amazon and such. The aforementioned Goliath is about a rather pathetic recent divorcee (David) distraught when his beloved cat vanishes — something he irrationally blames on the way more pathetic local registered sex offender (Nathan). The brothers are excellent but their material just doesn’t have the weight to float its darker tonal shifts.

Better sustained is 2001’s Frontier, based on an alleged surrealist novel (by “Mulnar Typeschtat”), in which military personnel from civil war-torn Bubovia (David with Wiley Wiggins) canoe to a remote island where they try to enslave the locals (Nathan) and fit in with the Sasquatch-y creature populace. The entire script is spoken in subtitled “Bubovian,” delivered with surprising naturalism.

But the Zellners’ best feature might still be their first. Plastic Utopia (1997) — dust off your old VCR if you want to see it — is an uneven but sometimes deliriously inspired alternative-universe purgatory as viewed by failed mime James (David), whose whining at unappreciative spectators has him in trouble with the Mime Union. His utter inability to succeed (a would-be romance with a novice nun being another obvious dead-end) contrasts with the rebel yell of housemate Frank (Nathan), who drinks, drugs, fucks, lies, steals, and even murders sans consequence. Subsidiary characters like Corduroy Boy, Golden White Boy (both highly memorable), Buster Tuffstuff, and Jogger Joe (Wiggins again) add to the surreal hilarity.

Someday the Zellners are going to hit (fairly) big. But for now it’s obvious they enjoy hitting small, for their own amusement as well as any outsiders who’ve peeked into the tent. It’s indulgently weekend-camping musky in there, but private-joke-funny, too.

FROM A TO ZELLNER

Sun/24, 9:45 p.m., $13

Sundance Kabuki

1881 Post, SF

www.sffs.org

 

A bang and a whimper

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arts@sfbg.com

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Science fiction’s open secret is that it has never really been about the future. As William Gibson explained to an interviewer in 2007, echoing earlier genre criticism by writers such as Samuel R. Delany and Joanna Russ, science fiction is, at its heart, “speculative fiction, but you don’t really have the future to work with, so you are always working with history and with the present.”

Gibson’s ecumenical gloss on genre fiction provides a helpful rubric under which to view some of SFIFF’s odder ducks. Although each of the following films slot differently genre-wise — apocalyptic road movie, surrealist fantasy, cybernetic thriller — the “what ifs?” posed by their imaginings of alternate presents (and in one case, an alternate past) certainly qualify them as speculative fictions. To what degree their directors are skilled at telling such stories remains open to speculation.

It’s hard to tell which way the world ends (or if it is ending at all) in Jo Sung-Hee’s dark, head-scratcher of a debut feature, End of Animal. The modest production opens inside a taxi, which a young pregnant woman is taking to her mother’s place in the country. All hell breaks loose when the driver, for reasons left unexplained, picks up a male hitchhiker who within minutes is spouting end times gibberish and, following his prediction of the blinding freak flash that suddenly cuts off all power in the surrounding area, vanishes into thin air.

Much like K in Franz Kafka’s The Castle, the now-stranded and cell phone-less woman spends the next hour and a half unsuccessfully trying find a roadside shelter, alternately befriending and fending off increasingly-hostile locals who are just as confused and frightened as she is. Are we watching those left behind duke it out post-Rapture? Or was the hitchhiker an alien? And why does he want the woman’s baby so badly? Unfortunately, End of Animal drops many tantalizing breadcrumbs but offers no trail to follow.

Unlike other contemporary ruminations on the apocalypse, such as Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf (2003) or Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Charisma (1999) and Pulse (2001), End of Animal‘s explanatory obstinacy does not enhance the drama or emotional intensity of watching its protagonists endure their trials by fire, but rather, leaves viewers feeling just as lost in the woods.

Alejandro Chomsky offers something more transparent in his serviceable adaptation of fellow countryman and frequent Borges collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares’ 1973 novel Asleep in the Sun. Chomsky translates Casare’s strange tale of a humble watchmaker who uncovers a sinister plot in which the souls of the mentally afflicted are siphoned into unknowing canines with plenty of visual relish, thanks to an antiseptic color palette and great 1930s-inspired production design. The film mixes bemusement and dead earnestness to its detriment, dialing down the urgency of its protagonist’s growing realization that he is the lapdog of an all-controlling bureaucracy from “nightmarish” to merely “unpleasant.” Alas, Asleep in the Sun‘s Kafka-esque (there he is again) pretensions are all bark and no bite.

Well, thank your SFIFF programmers for including the recently restored version of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 techno-caper World on a Wire. Originally made as a two-part miniseries for German TV, Fassbinder’s only foray into science fiction finds the uber-prolific director borrowing a page or two from Alphaville (1965) while blowing some air kisses to Stanley Kubrick’s monolith 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and out Matrix-ing 1999’s The Matrix by some 25 years.

When the inventor of a supercomputer responsible for generating an artificial world mysteriously disappears, his handsome predecessor must fight against his corporate bosses to find out what happened, in the process stumbling on a far more shattering secret about the nature of reality itself. Sound crazy? Well, it is. But, between the mirrored and Lucite furniture, chiseled Teutonic women in disco finery, chase sequences, and frenetic zooms, it adds up to some of the most enjoyable hours you can spend at the festival.

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

April 21–May 5, most shows $13

Various Bay Area venues

www.sffs.org

House haunters

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cheryl@sfbg.com

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Remember that episode of The Brady Bunch where Carol and Mike decide to sell the house and the kids fake-haunt it to scare off potential buyers? It’s the pop culture moment I always think of when I hear about an apartment with suspiciously cheap rent. First reaction: “Wow! Is it haunted?”

In real life, low rent usually means the place is the size of a broom closet or has some other easy-to-discover flaw. But in Emily Lou’s The Selling, ghostly squatters — plus bleeding walls, exploding toilets, and other unexplained phenomena — are a legit concern for real estate agent Richard Scarry (“like the children’s book author”), played by the film’s screenwriter, Gabriel Diani.

Richard’s trying to sell the troublesome house quickly to pay for his mother’s medical bills, so he turns to blogger and spirit-world expert Ginger Sparks (Etta Devine) for help. The previous tenant, a serial killer nicknamed “the Sleep Stalker,” could be the root cause — but the supernatural goings-on prove more sinister than Richard and Ginger expect. Mayhem (inspired by haunted-house films past, including 1979’s The Amityville Horror, 1982’s Poltergeist, 1980’s The Shining, 1987’s Evil Dead II, and 1988’s Beetle Juice) inevitably ensues.

The Selling is Lou’s first feature; it’s having its world premiere as part of SFIFF’s “Late Show” program. Her background is in theater directing, which is how she met Diani — they both studied at San Francisco State University, and later collaborated on a play at the San Francisco Fringe Festival. Diani was also a part of Totally False People, a comedy troupe instrumental in founding San Francisco Sketch Comedy Festival (TFP O.G.s Janet Varney and Cole Stratton also have roles in The Selling).

Though the film was shot in Los Angeles (lowbrow comedy fans may recognize the house — it’s the same one used in 2008’s The House Bunny), Lou, who grew up in Yuba City, lives in Oakland. She was inspired to trade the stage for a film set for tangible reasons.

“I did a lot of theater and I’d spend all this time and energy creating this product I was really proud of — and not only my time and energy, but a lot of other people’s too. And at the end of the day, like 50 people would have seen it,” she says. “It struck me that I wanted to create something timeless, something we could keep and contain — and hopefully a greater audience could see it. The idea of this moment in time with theater just passing by didn’t seem like enough. I wanted something longer-lasting, something that gave a little bit more to the people who put their heart and souls into it.”

After getting a camera and shooting “a couple of terrible short films,” Lou contacted Diani, whose writing skills she admired. Ironically, horror isn’t her favorite genre. “I am so easily scared,” she confesses. “But Gabe and I are both drawn to older, classic horror rather than the new, Saw-type horror.”

Though it has spooky elements, The Selling is more comedy than frightfest. Directing two genres at once required a certain amount of flexibility on Lou’s part. “Horror has a lot more to do with the visual components, like the set and makeup — and setting up for the shot, because it’s probably going to be enhanced with some after-effects. With comedy, if it’s funny, it’s funny — let’s just capture the funny.”

The Selling‘s cast is largely unknown (unless you’re a Sketchfest diehard), but it does feature a cameo by Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) royalty Barry Bostwick, playing a daffy exorcist. “We were fans of his, and we approached his agent. Barry read the script, and he really liked it and wanted to do it,” Lou says. “It just kind of went from there, and he worked for less than he normally works for — he’s also a fan of classic horror. He was amazing to work with, just a great guy.”

THE SELLING

April 29, 11:30 p.m.;

May 4, 4:15 p.m., $13

Sundance Kabuki

1881 Post, SF

www.sffs.org

Being Leonard Cohen

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arts@sfbg.com

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL “Is this what you wanted/ To live in a house that is haunted/ By the ghost of you and me?”

Likewise, try as its makers might, the specter of Leonard Cohen looms over the short films by Alex Da Corte, Christian Holstad, and the other artists who try their hand at making 11 new pieces inspired by the 11 tracks comprising New Skin for the Old Ceremony, the 1974 long-player that some consider the songwriter’s most sublime.

There’s no need to breathe life into these tunes, dusted off under the spotlight once more, now that Cohen has been touring his way back to financial solvency. Instead, these shorts — roving from the abstract (Theo Angell’s “video-quilted” Field Commander Cohen) to the narrative (Grouper videographer-collaborator Weston Curry’s barfly-populated Lover Lover Lover) — seemingly hope to engage with the songs themselves with at times thought-provoking, at moments banal results. Courageous, considering these still vital-sounding odes to the flesh and the spirit—songs like “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” and “Who by Fire” simultaneously revel in the tangle of carnal sheets, the bruises of the urban battlefield, and the graceful act of transcending the fires of desire.

The artist-filmmakers got their chance to take on this longing via the singer-songwriter’s daughter, videographer Lorca Cohen, and Hammer Museum programs coordinator Darin Klein, a onetime regular in the SF art-book arts-zine scene and a close friend of Lorca (who recently had a baby daughter with kindred Canadian folk scion Rufus Wainwright, cousin of Anna McGarrigle’s offspring, Sylvan and Lily Lanken, whose whimsical, paper cutout-riddled video for “There Is a War” appears in New Skin). Apparently it’s all in the family — with Lorca urging her father’s publishing company, Unified Hearts, to allow the entire LP’s songs to be used, after initially curating a few shorts.

Co-curator Klein enlisted such artists as Brent Green, Weston Curry, Kelly Sears, and experimental music duo Lucky Dragons. “The amazing thing is that we really got 11 different flavors of filmmaking,” he says from L.A. “That was superexciting and watching them come in, one by one, was like getting presents in the mail for a couple weeks.”

Shining a light directly on a fresh-faced, 30-ish Cohen is Donald Brittain’s and Don Owen’s 1965 documentary, Ladies and Gentlemen … Mr. Leonard Cohen, which screens alongside New Skin. Short, sharp, sweet — and surprisingly snark-ish — Brittain’s voice tussles with Cohen’s, taking quick jabs at what the filmmaker sees as inconsistencies from the already acclaimed poet-novelist, only then emerging as a songwriter: “[Cohen] is fascinated by the violence of the Mediterranean, but has developed a strong dislike for meat,” the narrator notes, in one instance, with amusement and an audibly cocked eyebrow.

Weaving in home movies of the poet as a young pup, Ladies and Gentlemen trails Cohen closely as he pretends to sleep, write, and bathe in his $3-a-night hotel room (“A man has invited a group of strangers to observe him cleaning his body,” muses Cohen later, watching the footage on camera in a proto-meta moment. “I find it sinister, and of course, I find it flattering”), tosses the I Ching at a house party and takes to the stage, mixing poetry with wryly comic spoken word. The bop horn blasts, Cohen’s discomfortingly close resemblance to Dustin Hoffman and the noirishly glamorous B&W camerawork add up to pure beat-era pleasure, as thoughtful and jazzed on life as its subject, as ruminative and passionate as a John Cassavetes clip — and still unaware of the many songs from so many hotel rooms still to come. 

NEW SKIN FOR THE OLD CEREMONY

Tues/26, 9 p.m., $15

Sundance Kabuki

1881 Post, SF

www.sffs.org

 

What to watch

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THURS/21

Beginners (Mike Mills, U.S., 2010) There is nothing conventional about Beginners, a film that starts off with the funeral arrangements for one of its central characters. That man is Hal (Christopher Plummer), who came out to his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) at the ripe age of 75. Through flashbacks, we see the relationship play out — Oliver’s inability to commit tempered by his father’s tremendous late-stage passion for life. Hal himself is a rare character: an elderly gay man, secure in his sexuality and, by his own admission, horny. He even has a much younger boyfriend, played by the handsome Goran Visnjic. While the father-son bond is the heart of Beginners, we also see the charming development of a relationship between Oliver and French actor Anna (Melanie Laurent). It all comes together beautifully in a film that is bittersweet but ultimately satisfying. Beginners deserves praise not only for telling a story too often left untold, but for doing so with grace and a refreshing sense of whimsy. Thurs/21, 7 p.m., Castro. (Louis Peitzman)

 

FRI/22

The Good Life (Eva Mulvad, Denmark, 2010) Portraits of the formerly wealthy are often guilty of peddling secondhand nostalgia for some ancien regime while simultaneously stoking schadenfreude toward the now-deposed (just ask Vanity Fair). Eva Mulvad’s melancholy character study of 50-something Annemette Beckmann and her aged mother, Mette, avoids both traps even as her subjects — formerly wealthy Danish expats living on the dole in a cramped apartment in a coastal Portuguese town — offer few inroads for sympathy. Narcissistic and petulant, Annemette blames the loss of her family’s wealth on the 1974 nationalization of Portugal’s then-Communist government, and claims that her cosseted upbringing has made it hard to find a job (“Work doesn’t become me,” she gratingly protests at one point). Mette, who is more likeable, is a resigned realist whose sole comfort, aside from the pet dog, seems to be her knowledge that she is not long for this world. Comparisons to Grey Gardens (1975) are inevitable here, but the Beckmanns simply aren’t as interesting or possessed by as idiosyncratic a joie de vivre as the Beales, making The Good Life a tough slog. Fri/22, 3:45 p.m.; April 28, 6:45 p.m.; and May 1, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Matt Sussman)

Hahaha (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2010) Do you remember a time you behaved badly (not horribly, but bad enough that you felt ashamed) but you didn’t really think about it until long after the fact, say, when getting drinks with an old friend? If you can’t, than the latest from South Korean director Hong Sang-soo will probably jog your memory. As with many of Hong’s films, Hahaha’s premise is similar to the above scenario: two 30-something buds get together and reminisce about their recent trips to the same seaside town. Shown in episodic flashbacks, we start to realize that the incidents and players in their separate accounts overlap into one story filled with terrible poetry, domineering mothers, stalker-ish behavior, and poorly made choices. Hong’s films are primers in how not to treat your fellow human beings (straight dudes are usually the culprits), so take notes. Fri/22, 9:15 p.m.; Mon/25, 9 p.m.; and Tues/26, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Sussman)

I’m Glad My Mother is Alive (Claude Miller and Nathan Miller, France, 2009) Codirected with his son Nathan, this latest by veteran French director Claude Miller is an about-face from his acclaimed 2007 period epic A Secret. Viscerally up-to-the-moment in content and handheld-camera style, it’s a small story that builds toward an enormous punch. Thomas (played by Maxime Renard as a child, then Vincent Rottiers) is a lifelong malcontent whose troubles are rooted in his abandonment at age five by an irresponsible mother (Sophie Cattani). Neither the attentions of well-meaning adoptive parents or the influence of his better-adjusted younger brother can quell Thomas’ mix of furious resentment and curiosity toward his mere, whom he finally develops a relationship with as a young adult. As usual, Miller doesn’t “explain” his characters or let them explain themselves, yet everything feels emotionally true — right up to a narrative destination both that feels both shocking and inevitable. Fri/22, 6:45 p.m., and Mon/25, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Dennis Harvey)

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, U.S., 2010) After three broke down road movies (1994’s River of Grass, 2006’s Old Joy, 2008’s Wendy and Lucy), Kelly Reichardt’s new frontier story tilts decisively toward socially-minded existentialism. It’s 1845 on the choked plains of Oregon, miles from the fertile valley where a wagon train of three families is headed. They’ve hired the rogue guide Meek to show them the way, but he’s got them lost and low on water. When the group captures a Cayeuse Indian, Solomon proposes they keep him on as a compass; Meek thinks it better to hang him and be done with it. The periodic shots of the men deliberating are filmed from a distance — the earshot range of the three women (Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan, and Shirley Henderson) who set up camp each night. It’s through subtle moves like these that Meek’s Cutoff gives a vivid taste of being subject to fate and, worse still, the likes of Meek. Reichardt winnows away the close-ups, small talk, and music that provided the simple gifts of her earlier work, and the overall effect is suitably austere. Fri/22, 9 p.m., and Mon/25, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Max Goldberg)

Stake Land (Jim Mickle, U.S., 2010) Not gonna lie — the reason I wanted to review this one was because of the film still in the SFIFF catalog. Rotten-faced vampire with a stake through its neck? Yes, please! But while Jim Mickle’s apocalyptic road movie does offer plenty of gore, it’s more introspective than one might expect, following an orphaned teenage boy, Martin (Connor Paolo, Serena’s little bro on Gossip Girl), and his gruff mentor, Mister (Snake Plissken-ish Nick Damici), on their travels through a ravaged America. As books, films, and comics have taught us, whenever a big chunk of the human race is wiped out (thanks to zombies, vampires, an unknown cataclysm, etc.), the remaining population will either be good (heroic, like Mister and Martin, or helpless, like the stragglers they rescue, including a nun played by Kelly McGillis), or evil — cannibals, rapists, religious nuts, militant survivalists, etc. Stake Land doesn’t throw many curveballs into its end-times narrative, but it’s beautifully shot and doesn’t hold back on the brutality. Larry Fessenden (director of 2006’s The Last Winter) produced and has a brief cameo as a helpful bartender. Fri/22, 11:30 p.m., and Mon/25, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki. (Cheryl Eddy)

 

SAT/23

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica, Romania, 2010) Andrei Ujica’s three-hour documentary uses decades of propagandic footage to let the late Romanian dictator — who was overthrown by popular revolt and executed in 1989 — hang himself with his own grandiose image-making. While the populace suffered (off-screen, you might want to bone up on the facts before seeing this ironical, commentary-free portrait), the “great leader” and his wife Elena were constantly seen holding state dances, playing volleyball, hunting bear, and vacationing hither and yon. (We even see them on the Universal Studios tour.) There’s no surprise in seeing them greeted with enormous pageantry in China; but it’s a little shocking to see this tyrant welcome Nixon (in the first-ever U.S. presidential visit to a Communist nation), lauded by Jimmy Cartner, and hobnobbing with Queen Elizabeth. This grotesque parade of self-glorifying public moments has a happy ending, however. Sat/23, 12:45 p.m., Kabuki; Sun/24, 5:15 p.m., New People; May 1, 1:30 p.m., PFA. (Harvey)

Life, Above All (Oliver Schmitz, South Africa/Germany, 2010) It’s tough enough to simply grow up, let alone care for a parent with AIDS and deal with the suspicions and fears of the no-nothing adults all around you. Rising above easy preaching and hand-wringing didacticism, Life, Above All takes as its blueprint the 2004 best-seller by Allan Stratton, Chandra’s Secrets, and makes compelling work of the story of 12-year-old Chandra (Khomotso Manyaka) and her unfortunate family, unable to get effective help amid the thicket of ignorance regarding AIDS in Africa. After her newborn sister dies, Chandra finds her loyalty torn between her bright-eyed best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), who’s rumored to hooking among the truck drivers in their dusty, sun-scorched rural South African hometown, and her mother (Lerato Mvelase), who listens far too closely to her bourgie friend Mrs. Tafa (an OTT Harriet Manamela), for her own good. Cape Town native director Oliver Schmitz sticks close to the action playing across his actors’ faces, and he’s rewarded, particularly by the graceful Manyaka, in this life-affirmer about little girls forced to shoulder heart-breaking responsibility far too soon. Sat/23, 4 p.m., and April 28, 6 p.m., Kabuki. (Kimberly Chun)

The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Poland/Sweden, 2010) One of the clichés often told about art is that it is supposed to speak to us. Polish director Lech Majewski’s gorgeous experiment in bringing Flemish Renaissance painter Peter Bruegel’s sprawling 1564 canvas The Procession to Calvary to life attempts to do just that. Majeswki both re-stages Bruegel’s painting — which draws parallels between its depiction of Christ en route to his crucifixion and the persecution of Flemish citizens by the Spanish inquisition’s militia — in stunning tableaux vivant that combine bluescreen technology and stage backdrops, and gives back stories to a dozen or so of its 500 figures. Periodically, Bruegel himself (Rutger Hauer) addresses the camera mid-sketch to dolefully explain the allegorical nature of his work, but these pedantic asides speak less forcefully than Majeswki’s beautifully lighted vignettes of the small joys and many hardships that comprised everyday life in the 16th century. Beguiling yet wholly absorbing, this portrait of a portrait is like nothing else at the festival. Sat/23, 12:30 p.m., SFMOMA, and April 27, 9 p.m., Kabuki. (Sussman)

Mind the Gap Experimental film fans: come for the big names, but don’t miss out on the newcomers. Locals Jay Rosenblatt (melancholy found-footage bio The D Train), Kerry Laitala (psychedelic 3-D brain-dazzler Chromatastic), and Skye Thorstenson (mannequin-horror music video freak out Tourist Trap, featuring the acting and singing stylings of the Guardian’s Johnny Ray Huston) offer strong entries in an overall excellent program. International bigwigs Peter Tscherkassky (the 25-minute Coming Attractions, a layered study of airplanes, Hollywood, and Hollywood airplanes — not for the crash-phobic) and Jonathan Caouette (“Lynchian” has been used to describe the Chloë Sevigny-starring All Flowers In Time, though it contains a scary-faces contest that’d spook even Frank Booth) are also notable. New names for me were Zachary Drucker, whose Lost Lake introduces a transsexual, pervert-huntin’ vigilante for the ages, and my top pick: Kelly Sears’ Once it started it could not end otherwise, a deliciously sinister hidden-history lesson imagined via 1970s high-school yearbooks. Sat/23, 4:45 p.m., and May 1, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki. (Eddy)

The Troll Hunter (André Ovredal, Norway, 2010) Yes, The Troll Hunter riffs off The Blair Witch Project (1999) with both whimsy and, um, rabidity. Yes, you may gawk at its humongoid, anatomically correct, three-headed trolls, never to be mistaken for grotesquely cute rubber dolls, Orcs, or garden gnomes again. Yes, you may not believe, but you will find this lampoon of reality TV-style journalism, and an affectionate jab at Norway’s favorite mythical creature, very entertaining. Told that a series of strange attacks could be chalked up to marauding bears, three college students (Glenn Erland Tosterud, Tomas Alf Larsen, and Johanna Morck) strap on their gumshoes and choose instead to pursue a mysterious poacher Hans (Otto Jespersen) who repeatedly rebuffs their interview attempts. Little did the young folk realize that their late-night excursions following the hunter into the woods would lead at least one of them to rue his or her christening day. Ornamenting his yarn with beauty shots of majestic mountains, fjords, and waterfalls, Norwegian director-writer André Ovredal takes the viewer beyond horror-fantasy — handheld camera at the ready — and into a semi-goofy wilderness of dark comedy, populated by rock-eating, fart-blowing trolls and overshadowed by a Scandinavian government cover-up sorta-worthy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). Sat/23, 11:30 p.m., Kabuki; Mon/25, 6:15 p.m., New People. (Chun)

World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Germany, 1973) The words “Rainer Werner Fassbinder” and “science fiction film” are enough to get certain film buffs salivating, but the Euro-trashy interior décor is almost reason enough to see this restored print of the New German Cinema master’s cyber thriller. Originally a two-part TV miniseries, World on a Wire is set in an alternate present (then 1973) in which everything seems to be made of concrete, mirror, Lucite, or orange plastic. When the inventor of a supercomputer responsible for generating an artificial world mysteriously disappears, his handsome predecessor must fight against his corporate bosses to find out what really happened, and in the process, stumbles upon a far more shattering secret about the nature of reality itself. Riffing off the understated cool of Godard’s Alphaville (1965) while beating 1999’s The Matrix to the punch by some 25 years, World on a Wire is a stylistically singular entry in Fassbinder’s prolific filmography. Sat/23, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki, and April 30, 2 p.m., PFA. (Sussman) SUN/24

A Cat in Paris (Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, France/Belgium/Netherlands/Switzerland, 2010) Save your pocket poodles, please: Paris, as cities go, is most decidedly feline. From 1917’s silent serial Les Vampires to its uber-cool 1990s update Irma Vep, cat burglars and the Parisian skyline have gone together like café and au lait. Add actual cats and jazz to the mix for good measure (even Disney saw fit to set its jazzy 1970 Aristocats in the City of Light). At just over an hour long, the animated A Cat in Paris is an enjoyable little amuse-bouche that employs all the standards of the cats-in-Paris meme: Billie Holiday warbling on the soundtrack, a dashingly heroic antihero who scales the rooftops as if he studied parkour under Spider-Man, and the titular untamable black cat who serves as his partner in crime. Complete with a climatic Hitchcockian set piece on the rooftops of Notre Dame Cathedral, A Cat in Paris has a refreshingly angular and graphic, almost cubist, feel. Directors Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli’s work certainly doesn’t rank among that of countryman Sylvain Chomet (2010’s The Illusionist), but this family film is worth checking out if kitties up to no good in Purr-ree simply make you want to le squee. Sun/24, 12:30 p.m., Kabuki, and May 1, 12:30 p.m., New People. (Michelle Devereaux)

 

MON/25

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, U.S., 2010) The latest documentary from Werner Herzog once again goes where no filmmaker — or many human beings, for that matter — has gone before: the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, a heavily-guarded cavern in Southern France containing the oldest prehistoric artwork on record. Access is highly restricted, but Herzog’s 3D study is surely the next best thing to an in-person visit. The eerie beauty of the works leads to a typically Herzog-ian quest to learn more about the primitive culture that produced the paintings; as usual, Herzog’s experts have their own quirks (like a circus performer-turned-scientist), and the director’s own wry narration is peppered with random pop culture references and existential ponderings. It’s all interwoven with footage of crude yet beautiful renderings of horses and rhinos, calcified cave-bear skulls, and other time-capsule peeks at life tens of thousands of years ago. The end result is awe-inspiring. Mon/25, 7 p.m., and Tues/26, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Eddy)

 

TUES/26

Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, France/Chile/Germany, 2010) Chile’s Atacama Desert, the setting for Patricio Guzmán’s lyrically haunting and meditative documentary, is supposedly the driest place on earth. As a result, it’s also the most ideal place to study the stars. Here, in this most Mars-like of earthly landscapes, astronomers look to the heavens in an attempt to decode the origins of the universe. Guzmán superimposes images from the world’s most powerful telescopes — effluent, gaseous nebulas, clusters of constellations rendered in 3-D brilliance — over the night sky of Atacama for an even more otherworldly effect, but it’s the film’s terrestrial preoccupations that resonate most. For decades, a small, ever dwindling group of women have scoured the cracked clay of Atacama searching for loved ones who disappeared early in Augusto Pinochet’s regime. They take their tiny, toy-like spades and sift through the dirt, finding a partial jawbone here, an entire mummified corpse there. Guzmán’s attempt through voice-over to make these “architects of memory,” both astronomers and excavators alike, a metaphor for Chile’s reluctance to deal with its past atrocities is only marginally successful. Here, it’s the images that do all the talking — if “memory has a gravitational force,” their emotional weight is as inescapable as a black hole. Tues/26, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki, and April 28, 6:15 p.m., PFA. (Devereaux)

The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, France, 2010) Fairytales are endemically Freudian; perhaps it has something to with their use of subconscious fantasy to mourn — and breathlessly anticipate — the looming loss of childhood. French provocateuse Catherine Breillat’s feminist re-imagining of The Sleeping Beauty carries her hyper-sexualized signature, but now she also has free reign to throw in bizarre and beastly metaphors for feminine and masculine desire in the form of boil-covered, dungeon-dwelling ogres, albino teenage princes, and icy-beautiful snow queens. The story follows Anastasia, a poor little aristocrat, who longs to be a boy (she calls herself “Sir Vladimir”). When her hand is pricked with a yew spindle (more of a phallic impalement, really), Anastasia falls into a 100-year adventurous slumber, eventually awakening as a sexually ripe 16-year-old. It all plays like an anchorless, Brothers Grimm version of Sally Potter’s 1992 Orlando. And while it’s definitely not for the kiddies, it’s hard to believe that many adults would find its overt symbolism and plodding narrative any more than a sporadically entertaining exercise in preciousness. Your own dreams will undoubtedly be more interesting — perhaps you can catch a few zzz’s in a theater screening this movie. Tues/26, 6:15 p.m., and April 27, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Devereaux)

THE 54TH ANNUAL SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL runs April 21–May 5. Venues are the Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Castro, 429 Castro, SF; New People, 1746 Post, SF; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third, SF; and Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, SF. For tickets (most shows $13) and complete schedule visit www.sffs.org>.

Fondue Cowboy

0

paulr@sfbg.com

The word “cowboy” has carried its share of evocative adjectives over the years — midnight, urban, lonesome (yet do we really believe that an urban cowboy would be lonesome at midnight?) — but fondue is unexpected. In part this must be because fondue itself is slightly unexpected in these parts. Our best-known fondue restaurant, Matterhorn, is something of a Swiss period piece, and whatever else Fondue Cowboy might be, it certainly isn’t that. The place, which opened early last summer in a SoMa spot that had been an Extreme Pizza outlet, is surprisingly light on the Wild West kitsch you might expect to find inside. Indeed, there is virtually none, other than the black-and-white cowboy movies playing silently on the flat-screen behind the bar. The crowd is interestingly mixed, if not quite emulsified: groups of shrieking (and apparently heterosexual) 30-ish people, along with dottings of young gay men, heavy of bicep, who look as if they might have just stepped off the set of Cruising, William Friedkin’s dark cinematic ode to life in Manhattan’s meatpacking district circa 1980.

What binds these disparate elements is fondue, whether melted cheese or chocolate. Fondue should probably be more popular than it is; for shareability and participation, it’s hard to beat. And because the dunkables are brought to you almost in mis en place form, you get a good, close look at what you’re about to eat. In these respects, Fondue Cowboy shares some ancestry with Matterhorn — but in the execution, the new place goes its own way. A lot of its distinctiveness has to do with the cheese blends in the savory fondues (all $20 for two). They’re given atmospheric names — Desperado, Quick Draw, Rawhide — and are seasoned accordingly, with real Southwestern verve. For traditionalists, there is the Traditional, of Gruyère and Emmenthaler cheeses, white wine, roasted garlic, and nutmeg. More typical of the Fondue Cowboy experience is the Outlaw, which begins with cheddar cheese and adds beer, roasted tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, and jalapeños.

The presentation turned out to be not entirely unlike that of a queso fundido, with the seasoned cheese bubbling in its little cast-iron chafing pot above a blue Sterno flame. But whereas queso fundido is generally accompanied just by tortillas, the Outlaw turned up with an impressive ensemble of bite-sized items ready for dipping: baguette squares, roasted fingerling potato, broccoli florets, black grapes, black olives, cornichons, and green apple. A modest surcharge of $8 brought a sizable plate of sausage coins, spicy Louisiana edition. The coins were delicious, whether dipped in the melted cheese or eaten straight, and they compared favorably with chorizo, the Mexican sausage that has made many a queso fundido memorable.

The brief menu does offer a few other items, mostly salads, such as white bean ($8), a jumble of mixed baby greens, pickled red onions, red and orange pepper julienne, shredded black olives, and plenty of the advertised white beans. The dressing: an extroverted red-wine vinaigrette that glistened like morning dew on the greens. I would have liked a little more sugar for balance in the dressing, since sourness and saltiness were already strongly represented by the onions and olives. A vinaigrette is a bar stool, and a bar stool needs three legs, the third — and sometimes neglected — leg being sugar in some form.

Speaking of sugar: the marvelous Happy Trails ($18 for two), the dark-chocolate dessert fondue, was notable at least as much for its cayenne kick as for its sweetness. Of sweetness, it had just enough, and of kick, it had .. just enough. I have eaten chili-infused chocolate before, but never did I find it sublime, as I did here. Maybe this had to do with the chocolate being molten. Or maybe it had to do with the supporting cast, a rich array of fruit (kiwi, strawberries, banana), along with baked goods (pieces of madeleine and squares of chocolate-cherry cake) from nearby Pinkie’s, and — for the final festive touch — slivers of marshmallow. Roasting marshmallows over embers in a Weber kettle was one of the great treats of childhood — maybe something that actual cowboys might have done — but dipping them in pepper-charged melted dark chocolate, in a handsome urban restaurant far from midnight, turned out to be a fine alternative.

FONDUE COWBOY

Dinner: Tues.–Sun., 5–10 p.m.

1052 Folsom, SF

(415) 431-5100

www.fonduecowboy.com

Beer and wine

AE/MC/V

Noisy

Wheelchair accessible

 

Laughing and screaming

0

arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Is it desirable to invest time and money in an elaborate dance theater piece about a noncontroversial subject? Are we supposed to walk away from an artistic experience having learned something about ourselves that we didn’t know before? Is it worthwhile to make a work about a common or familiar topic? Those are some of the questions that percolated through my mind watching Amara Tabor-Smith’s rich Our Daily Bread, which runs at CounterPULSE through April 24.

The answers, of course, are yes, yes, and yes. Tabor-Smith and her exceptional collaborators, primarily her fellow dancers Stephanie Bastos, Adriel Eddo, Eyle Moore, Aimee Suzara, and Alicia Walters, took on the complex yet basic topic of food — how we choose, prepare, and consume what we put into our mouths — and kneaded it into shapes that proved both muscular and smooth. Laura Diamondstone’s lobby installation and Lauren Elder’s set transformed CounterPULSE into something akin to a home, even including a small arbor with hanging pots of herbs. Ajayi Lumumba Jackson and Guy de Chalus contributed the music.

With the audience being prepped by the smell of cooking wafting through the theater and performers interacting with people as they entered, the experience felt more like visiting somebody’s house instead of a theater. And sure enough, we were offered palate-cleansing ginger, pieces of cake that we fed to a partner, and tiny portions of collard and black-eyed peas. If these gestures proved nothing else, they showed that the way to the heart goes through the stomach. Bread became a love feast.

But Tabor-Smith is too much of an artist to be satisfied with all of us walking out newly determined to become more responsible in our relationship to food. That would have been easy. She did more than that. Bread is a theatrically cogent, emotionally rich piece of dance theater that made us laugh at ourselves and want to scream at the end. The lens she offered is that of African American women as a feisty, independent, cantankerous, and embracing group of human beings. Seeing her dancers teasing and competing in the kitchen — wearing kerchiefs and stirring the pots — and the next moment as fierce warriors with masked faces and shaking fists, raining terror on anybody standing in their way, was transformational. At one point, the women stood huddled in fear back-to-back, reduced to a tiny space, but not giving an inch.

In addition to the dancers, two ancillary figures observed and participated in the work’s trajectory. Elizabeth Summers, an older woman, was the storyteller, the Griot who wandered in and out of the action. A white-clad Pippa Fleming, silently watching from her rocking chair or with her face pressed against the “kitchen” window, acted as an Orisha of death, but perhaps, when sanctifying the dancers at the end, also of hope.

Bread‘s central metaphor of the gumbo — that wondrous stew that would taste so much better without that vile spice called filé — was turned inside out. Women on stage and on video quarreled about the ingredients and you saw it being made. We got to peek into CounterPULSE’s tiny kitchen. But the traditional dish also became a way of honoring the women who made it over the years, and what it represents within individual families. And perhaps even more poignantly, it stood for the tension and love between generations, for a time when eating together created a bond between people like no other. Too bad they couldn’t serve some of it. Without filé please.

In the second half Bread became much darker as it focused more tightly on the exploitative farming practices that prevent communities with little economic power from accessing wholesome food and allow middle-class Americans to spend less of their food budget. An old news clip described “hard-working” braceros working in the fields. The reporter was so condescending in the way he described the “efficiency” of these farming practices, you wanted to scream. The choreographic response paid tribute to the workers’ physical gestures.

In the beginning, Bread meandered. Its ending — a memorial service honoring a Latino teenager who died of heat exhaustion because of no access to water — came at you with the force of a divine revenge. Imagine a wake in which weeping turns into screaming whose fury quite possibly might awaken the dead.

OUR DAILY BREAD

Thurs/21–Sun/24, 8 p.m.; $15–$22

CounterPULSE

1310 Mission, SF

(415) 626-2060

www.counterpulse.org

 

Wicked, man

7

marke@sfbg.com

RAVE CULTURE Here’s a classic San Francisco rave story for you. First the official legend: “In the spring of 1991, a small, brave crew of acid house seekers set sail from southeast England in search of adventure. San Francisco was the destination. They made their mark under the Golden Gate Bridge at Baker Beach with the first in a six-year run of wild and lawless Full Moon parties.” And now the party reality: the crew set up during heavy fog after touching down from Britain — and at least two of Wicked’s four members, Garth and Jenö, had absolutely no freaking clue that they were beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

“We Brits were virgins to that beach,” Garth told me. “We were all enjoying a psychedelic dance when the sun started to come up, and the fog peeled back to reveal the bridge above our heads, lit up like a spaceship! We were hooked from that moment on. The decks were set up on a blanket on the sand. No table. Walkman speakers made makeshift monitors. One well-prepared gay friend improvised a cardboard dancefloor for himself and went about his vogueing like he was back at the Endup or Paradise Garage.”

The Wicked Brit saucer, launched from the illustrious Tonka Sound System renegade rave base, touched down on our shores at a moment when the Bay Area psychedelic sound and spirit was flagging. The West Coast underground party scene was being commercialized into the kind of slick, infantile, overproduced spectacles that unfortunately came to define rave in many ’90s people’s minds. And the music was veering from true basement soul to Big Bird carnival woo-woo — not that there was anything too awful about that, at the time it was fresh. But a pagan squadron of prog-rocky, deep acid house and baggy beats lovers setting up on a beach was a blast of fresh air.

Update on the Wicked crew: Almost all have benefited from our wonderful current dance music moment that values historical broad-mindedness over genre lockstep. (Really, the era-roving Wicked DJs have never sounded better than right now). Garth now lives in Los Angeles and has been releasing a steady stream of re-edits and remixes on his two labels, and through his King & Hound project with beloved local disco archivist James Glass. Former punk protestor and anarchist bookstore haunter Jenö plays live acid house every first Saturday at 222 Hyde, broadcasts the weekly “Noise from the Void” radio show (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. at www.90hz.org), and is codirecting a documentary on the social implications of San Francisco’s early rave scene, due out this summer. Thomas is in New York City as one-half of the awesome Rub N Tug production team and owns Whatever We Want Records. And Markie? The dude is and always will be Markie, party legend.

On the eve of the full moon Wicked: 20 Years of Disco Glory reunion party (the name is a cheeky play on one of Garth’s already cheeky dance floor hits), I talked to Garth, Jenö, and Thomas over e-mail.

SFBG It seems like a boatload of Brits emigrated here in the ’90s and had a huge impact on the party scene — in fact, they’re still coming. Is there something special about San Francisco that draws you guys? 

Garth I think a lot of Brits followed us here after they heard what was going on in the Bay Area, the freedom. The U.K. party scene was outlawed by Thatcher’s conservative government when it passed the criminal justice bill, which made it illegal for groups of more than 10 people to congregate while listening to repetitive beats. So there was a kind of party exodus: trance heads went to India (specifically Goa), other Brits went to Thailand, Australia, and Spain in search of a more fun life. San Francisco is particularly appealing to Brits because the climate suits us. It’s never too hot or too cold, and there’s a good dose of fog. It’s very liberal, the architecture is Victorian, it’s by the ocean with hills and those trams — plus great food and a strong, self-sustaining music scene.

Thomas It’s poetic, cosmopolitan, and charming without being European: we like that.

SFBG You definitely did bring a pagan spirit with you — not just with the full moon and witchy Wicked angles, but also in the sense of reinfusing the local music scene with a particularly enchanting Northern California-British psychedelic rock sensibility. Is that spirit still alive? After seeing how the West Coast techno scene has progressed in the past 20 years, do you have any thoughts or gripes? 

Garth Life’s too short for gripes. And I don’t consider it a “West Coast techno scene,” really. It’s all just music. We’ve always played the best in disco, acid house, psych rock, and all points in between. It’s the tempo that keeps things moving, and move it always will.

Jenö I wouldn’t consider Wicked as even being a part of the techno scene. Our music was a lot broader than that, dominated more by psychedelic house and soulful disco grooves. But we definitely influenced the West Coast music scene, and that influence can still felt today in the style and sounds of the current crop of local DJ crews, from the Sunset parties to the hipster clubs currently delving into obscure house and disco-driven sounds.

Thomas I’ll tell you this: I live in New York, and there’s too much disco.

SFBG Any good stories from the early days of Burning Man? 

Garth We were the first and only sound system there in 1995, and of the 5,000 or so people out on the playa, we had a few thousand of them all grooving out under the open skies: no marquees, no lightshow, just a kick ass 15K Turbosound system, right out of the box. During the height of my five-hour set on Saturday night, one naked freak (they never seem to be clothed) ran up and flipped the tables on top of me. There was thunder and lightning and a mad electrical hum until we got the gear up and running again. The crowd went apeshit — it’s still the highlight of my DJ career!

Jenö I didn’t make it the Wicked BM camps back then. But I did attend the last-ever Stonehenge Free Festival in the U.K. during summer solstice in 1984, which was the epiphany that drove me to want to create my own anarchic and free-spirited musical gatherings. Very similar to BM in style and substance — art and music-driven with countercultural ideals, but without the dust and ridiculously expensive admission of Black Rock City.

Thomas I didn’t go because I didn’t think I’d get served a proper cocktail. A foolish mistake on many levels.

SFBG Top five quintessential Wicked records?

Wicked DJ Garth & Eti, “20 Minutes of Disco Glory” — all the boys did excellent remixes of this seminal West Coast classic.

!!!, “Hello Is This Thing On? (Rub N Tug Remix)” — this incredible remix really sums up the Wicked sound, and they recorded it on a full moon!

Colm III, “High as a Mountain” — the title of this 1988 release says it all. Jenö brought it with him from England and played it at the first SF Full Moon party.

Marshall Jefferson, “Open Your Eyes” — deep vibes from the master of early Chicago house. More than just good music, it’s a spiritual journey.

The Man Collective, “No Hassle From the Man” — anthem. It’s rock and rave and soul and psych and passion. That’s maybe what we’re all about. 

WICKED: 20 YEARS OF DISCO GLORY

Sat/23, 10 p.m.–7 a.m., $20 advance

Mighty

119 Utah, SF

www.mighty119.com

Facebook: Wicked Disco Glory

 

Green today, gone tomorrow

1

culture@sfbg.com

URBAN FARMING Green thumbs may soon be mourning the partial removal of Hayes Valley Farm. The urban agriculture education project is facing the prospect of condos being built on one of its two sections of city-issued property by Bay Area development company Build Inc., as early as February 2012. The company has been slated to build on the property since before the farm project began in January 2010, but was delayed by the recession of 2008 and its wet-blanket effects on new construction projects.

Today the farm sits on 2.2 shady acres near the heart of the Hayes Valley neighborhood. Visit on a typical day and you’ll find volunteers planting fava beans, school-age kids wandering through crops and trees on a school tour, perhaps a instructor teaching a beekeeping class, and on Sundays, a group of volunteers distributing free produce to anyone who stops by. All the while, plant and animal life buzz amid the fertile urban enclave.

But while volunteers have put hundreds of hours into making the farm what it is today — even going so far as to purify the car exhaust-infused soils to make the land arable — this green space was never intended for long-term use. Hayes Valley Farm is among a handful of ventures around the city — another one is interdisciplinary collective Rebar’s Showplace Triangle, a street at the base of Potrero Hill that has been turned into a pedestrian zone with repurposed benches and planter beds as part of the group’s Pavement to Parks project — that are aimed at making interim public space out of underutilized properties.

The current story of the land that the farm occupies starts with the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The quake’s damage to the Central Freeway resulted in the city acquiring major parcels of land where the thoroughfare once stood. Since then, the city has relied on sales of those properties — which it designated as Parcels A to V — to build Octavia Boulevard and redevelop the Hayes Valley-Market Street neighborhood. Half the land was to be made into affordable housing.

But at one point, the neighborhood noticed that some of the parcels awaiting sale were attracting crime, graffiti, dumping, and otherwise unsavory activities. The Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association teamed up with the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development to go looking for potential projects that could put these spaces to constructive use during the time that they awaiting development.

“We went out and actually sought a user for this. We got in contact with Jay Rosenberg and Chris Burley, who were interested in doing the farm, and we brought them here and asked them if this was doable,” says Rich Hillis of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “We were 100 percent clear that it was going to be for interim use only, and they embraced that.” Hillis and colleague Ken Rich ensured that Hayes Valley Farm received a $50,000 grant from the Mayor’s Office to get started on the work of clearing the property and setting up community programming on the land.

While it’s clear that the farm project was meant from the get-go to be an interim use for Parcels O and P, some members of the community are upset to see Parcel P turned over so soon to Build Inc. “As a citizen, I have the freedom of being able to ask what’s better for the community, this farm or more developments?” says Morgan Fitzgibbons, head of the neighborhood sustainability group the Wigg Party and farm volunteer. “The farm is an anchor of a burgeoning sustainability movement, and after seeing all the good it can do, are we still going to go in there and build? I think the issue is bigger than one city block.”

But Booka Alon, who is part of the 10 core farm volunteers who manage and run the farm, says they will not be putting up a fight. “We are very grateful to the Mayor’s Office and we’re ready to leave when asked. That’s part of our agreement.”

Alon says that the farm gives a sense of hopefulness and accomplishment to many young volunteers who are otherwise underemployed during the economic downturn, but turning Hayes Valley Farm into a long-term career commitment is not something many volunteers are itching to take on. “Planting and farming are hopeful acts, but not very lucrative in an urban setting.”

Many community members who championed the farm in the first place hope that the transition of Parcel P to Build Inc. will go smoothly so that other interim-use projects will be supported in the future. “We love the farm,” says Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association member Jim Warshell. “What they’ve done has been spectacular and wonderful, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t honor your commitment. The way we respond to Parcel P will affect how people trust us with future deals.” And while the farm’s popularity among city residents can’t be denied, some look forward to the fruition of the city’s promise that the area will be converted into homes that residents can afford.

But the sun hasn’t set on the work of Hayes Valley Farm. The group is collaborating with the city on finding another location to continue planting and teaching. And the future of Parcel O appears to be some shade of green. For now, there are no imminent development plans for the space and, unlike Parcel P, Parcel O is under the auspices of the city’s Redevelopment Agency, not a private company.

Alon says that some of the plant beds and flowers on Parcel O might someday be incorporated into the mixed-income housing developments that will eventually stand around — and possibly on — it. As for the permaculture soil that the farm hands have diligently created, she hopes it can be recycled along with the knowledge that was shared through the project. “Maybe we’ll give the soil to neighbors when it’s over. They can use it in their own gardens.”

For more information on how to support the farm, visit www.hayesvalleyfarm.com.

 

Kill your TV

0

le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

Dear Cheap Eats Lady,

Where did you go? New Orleans? That is great.

It is the news. It is the unkind heart of government, our American government, that makes me want to stop what I’m doing, which is watching television, and go to sleep. This is easy, because I am lying on the couch anyway. All it requires is a rollover and the determination to jettison my responsibilities for the day. Students be damned, the government got me so down, I could not grade your papers.

The thing that’s great about me is that, I do roll over and go to bed for the day. It is a habit I’ve had all my life. I didn’t get to use it so much when I worked full time in an office. But those days were, in the scope of all the jobs I’ve had, short-lived.

There was a time, during the Bush eras, when I thought I would simply drop out of society. And I did. It was too much to take. I felt like democracy was over, and nobody cared. So I quit. I quit the whole thing. I am a man of accomplishment and purposefulness. Especially when it comes to not doing anything. The complete quitting. Oh, how I excel.

This has been kind of going on for a few weeks. My job doesn’t seem to notice. But I know I can’t go on like this and maintain any sort of a paycheck. Eventually the work will pile up so much that I will not be able to get it done anymore. I feel like the mailfolks who stash all the mail they don’t feel like delivering in their houses.

I have a tiny bedroom filled knee-deep with research papers about gun control, abortion, global warming, and how cell phones are very convenient. You would think that someone would be interested.

Yers,

Earl

Dear Earl Butter,

Goddamn it, man, deliver that mail! Seriously, you don’t have to worry about the government. David Byrne and I have that taken care of. What you do need to do is put every one of those student papers in its own private individual envelope, address them to as many different mail carriers as you can think of, and: stamp, boom, gone!

The USPS is in fact an evil institution, point taken. But I don’t know why you are letting the TV news roll you over. This is Cheap Eats! Switch to sports. I mean, not that it’s any less depressing than what may or may not be happening in the world of … the world, for all I know. On my way to the basketball game last night, for example, I learned that there might not be a pro football season next season. But wait, shouldn’t you be downstairs playing with my cat?

Yes, New Orleans. Where else is there? The first thing I ate this time was crawfish pieroghi. And it’s so hot here now that Hedgehog and I almost have no choice but to lick Hansen’s satsuma-flavored snow-blizzes off of each other.

Technically, hers may have been coconut-flavored, unless that’s my sunscreen I smell, typing this.

Other than that, it’s pretty kinda weird, living with someone you don’t live with in a town where you don’t live. I mean, in the morning she goes off to make TV (of a very different nature than the kind rolls you over), and I go off to change diapers, and then after work we go eat crawfish pieroghis just like any other northeast Ohio/central Pennsylvania bred couple in New Orleans.

Except some nights last week there was the French Canadian Quarter Festival, where we were not only rocked by brass bands and zydeco, but by Crabby Jack’s boudin sausages, which changed my life, and then Love at First Bite’s cochon du lait po’boys, which changed my life.

And then, as if my life weren’t different enough already, on the weekend we went to the mall. We went to Metarie. That’s like going to San Mateo. Except after we stopped for refreshment at Acme Oyster House, which changed my life.

Earl, I’ll be back next week. Our beloved Bay Area is not exactly unknown for its oysters, either. If you can find me a place that has char-grilled ones as good as this, or even half as good, if not better, then I will take you there.

And grade your papers.

And kill your television.

No you worry,

Your L.E.

 

Obstructions abound

0

Dear Andrea:

My wife and I are both about 41 and have been married 10 years. Our marriage has been satisfying except in one big area: intercourse has become impossible, owing (I suspect)to my wife’s multiple abdominal surgeries. The problem is that initially I can achieve nearly full penetration, but as the action continues, a strange foreshortening seems to occur in her vaginal canal so that eventually I am only able to get in about half as far as when we started, and it is somewhat painful, as if there is something actually obstructing me. Do you have any idea what might be the problem, and could you suggest anything that may help? We are both quite depressed about this.

Love,

 Kicked Out


Dear Out:

I don’ know what procedures your wife has undergone, or what conditions caused her to undergo them, but any abdominal procedure, most certainly including hysterectomy and childbirth vaginal or caesarian, not to mention pregnancy itself, can cause nerve or muscle damage, scar tissue, and unhelpful structural changes. Something, a muscle or suspensory ligament, has been weakened. Something is pushing on something or falling into something — I’d assume uterine prolapse (although I’m not a doctor) and needs to be coaxed back into place. No matter which structure has wandered off where (uterine prolapse does make me think a bit of “hysteria,” the “wandering womb” of yore), something, needs to be done, whether more surgery (one hopes not), physical therapy (exercises or dilators), or the acquisition of an odd little item called a “pessary,” which is worn in the vagina.

These problems can be tricky and even intractable, so I don’t want to promise you that it can be all fixed up in a jiffy, but any progress would be better than where you are now. And I hope you two have good insurance, the kind that allows you to see a specialist when you think you need one, not just when your PCP thinks so, because this is going to require one. Assessments like “Nope, looks normal,” aren’t a diagnosis — they are a dismissal.

This is all putting me much in mind of vulvodynia and vestibulitis, the long-dismissed “all in your head” pelvic pain conditions that, due to the efforts of the National Vulvodynia Association and some recent breakthroughs in diagnosis and treatment, have received quite a lot of press lately. I’d never given persistent pelvic pain enough thought myself until I started teaching classes in keeping your relationship and sex life going after you have kids. After the third class in which one woman raised a hand at the end and asked, reasonably, “But what if it still hurts?” I realized we are dealing with something of a silent epidemic here, the “silent” element of which can still induce feminist rages in “mostly too lazy/busy for feminist rages these day” me.

We must be honest — if men’s balls fell out on a regular basis, or if becoming a father often caused lifelong painful intercourse, you’d better believe we would hear quite a lot about it.

Love,

 Andrea

 

Occupational hazards

0

arts@sfbg.com

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL The drama of the workplace invariably hinges on the frisson of learned and instinctive behaviors. Films that get the workplace right have a special dynamism insofar as a whole social order is at stake: this is the secret connection between Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life “(consider[ing) the way in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others”) and the fine art of office comedies. There’s at least one of these in this year’s SFIFF — the nimble Japanese film Hospitalité along with a few sterner features that make unusual commitments toward reflecting a work environment.

In Hospitalité, Mikio runs a print shop backing up to a cozy domicile. Under the same roof are his young wife, Natsuki; his daughter from a previous marriage, Eriko; and his recently divorced sister, Seiko. Crucially, we still haven’t sorted this web of relations when the balance is disturbed by the arrival of a stranger. A relatively harmless variation of Joseph Cotton’s character in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Kagawa parlays a vague family connection into a job, a room, and more.

Early in the film, Mikio runs into his ex-wife at the market and invites her to take Eriko for a few hours. It’s a mildly puzzling scene since writer-director Koji Fukada has let us believe (along with Kagawa) that Eriko’s mother was dead — but not nearly so baffling as the nonsensical vision of a blonde bombshell in her bathrobe waiting for Mikio and Natsuki at home (Kagawa’s Brazilian wife, it turns out). This is how Hospitalité goes, one uncertainty following another. The difficulty distinguishing what’s threatening from what’s just odd is part of the film’s charm, and Fukada deftly manages the constrained frames of his shop around the corner to unravel his characters’ mannered reactions. The mechanical operation of the printers provides nice comic counterpoint in several scenes; it also seems an almost poignant choice of occupation for a story concerning the pitfalls of self-sufficiency.

The sunken figures of Christoph Hochhäusler’s The City Below also live at work, but there’s nothing domestic about this world of glass and sheer verticality. Actual Frankfurt is made subsidiary to its enveloping high-finance architecture. The visual field is worryingly destabilized in these lofts and offices; Hochhäusler has pulled off the neat trick of realizing expressionistic motifs as translucence rather than shadow. The City Below’s story doesn’t truck with psychological realism, so it’s probably useful knowing that it was inspired by the David and Bathsheba myth. This being late capitalism, our David (the aging venture capitalist Roland) doesn’t need to send the husband to war to have his Bathsheba (maddeningly opaque Svenja). He contrives a transfer to fill a post in Jakarta, where a former colleague was recently kidnapped and murdered.

Hochhäusler gestures toward familiar motifs of betrayal, seduction, and deception, but with the floridness drained away. You can see the difference from something like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) in the film’s gliding camera movements, a flourish typically deployed as shorthand for power’s intoxicating effects. Hochhäusler works from unnerving angles and chops up the glide so as to retrace the same ground like a record needle stuck in a groove — one of the film’s many striking alienation effects. The title takes on a radical redefinition with a sudden exit reminiscent of the one that swallowed up Manoel de Oliveira’s A Talking Picture (2003). But even before then, the meltdowns to come have already blocked the easy flow of time and space.

The Last Buffalo Hunt might seem a leap from here, but listen to Terry Albrecht explaining how burned out he feels from decades of guiding tourist-hunters for a shot at the once-plentiful beasts: “You know how it is … another day at the office.” A documentary pitched uneasily between third-person essay and first-person observation, The Last Buffalo Hunt is the result of more than five years of tracking Albrecht and his patrons in Utah’s choked Henry Mountains. Lee Anne Schmitt and coproducer Lee Lynch do not make this material easy to absorb either at the level of sensory impressions or intellectual understanding. It’s a familiar story by now — that as the West was won, it was made consumable as iconography and fantasy — but rarely has the laboriousness of this task been brought into such close focus as it is here.

In her previous film, California Company Town (2008), Schmitt created a ruminative space by supplementing her landscape surveys with essayistic illuminations of what had been wrought in this or that place. The soundtrack in The Last Buffalo Hunt works similarly, situating the annual hunts in shards of history and variations on the Western theme (ranging from popular song to Frederick Jackson Turner’s discourses). But Schmitt’s foray into this landscape is more precarious for the simple reason that she and Lynch are dependent on Terry and his men. He’s a different kind of guide to them than he is to the hunters, to be sure, but similarly indispensable.

When I saw the film at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, one viewer commented on the Western memorabilia glimpsed in Terry’s home — that it seemed typical of how American individualism devolves into a refusal to see beyond one’s myths. I suppose he’s right, but there’s something sad about how little the myth has done for Terry. At the end of his career, his livelihood is far from triumphal. Early in The Last Buffalo Hunt we see a century-old photograph of a man standing in front of a mountain of skins, and the present-tense hunts seem entirely predicated on such photo-ops. The narration suggests a common link in entitlement, though this hardly feels like a solution. If the protracted death of a single bison is finally as irreducible as Terry’s hard day at the office, they both end up in the animatronic display of history, the Indians long forgotten. 

THE 54TH ANNUAL SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL runs April 21–-May 5. Venues are the Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Castro, 429 Castro, SF; New People, 1746 Post, SF; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third, SF; and Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, SF. For tickets (most shows $13) and complete schedule visit www.sffs.org.

 

Editor’s notes

2

tredmond@sfbg.com

You lose a lot on the left. We all get used to it; we’re fighting against a rich, entrenched power structure and the rules of the game are rigged against us. For people in the labor movement, it’s been a particularly bad year; all over the country, politicians are looking for ways to undermine collective bargaining rights.

So it’s nice to win one every now and then — and it’s nice to be able to say that labor, progressive labor, just won a major victory in San Francisco. But it’s no surprise that the San Francisco Chronicle got the story wrong.

For several years now, the owners of the Fairmont Hotel have wanted to tear down a tower built in the 1960s, eliminate 226 hotel rooms, and build about 160 luxury condos instead. The hotel workers union, not surprisingly, worried about a loss of jobs; condo owners don’t use housekeeping. But it’s a larger issue than that: people who buy hotel condos don’t live there much. Most of the rooms that have been converted nationwide become pieds à terre for very wealthy people. They spend a few nights a year in their units; the rest of the time, the places are empty. Nobody there to shop, eat, or get entertained in SF; nobody spending money here.

So it’s a nice little bit of class warfare: The city loses hotel and restaurant jobs — and part of the city’s tourist infrastructure — so that the owners (including a Saudi prince and Oakland A’s owner Lou Wolff) can make a fast windfall profit. (Think $1 million to $2 million each for 160 condos and you get the picture.)

The owners hired Willie Brown to make their case at City hall; Mayor Ed Lee quickly introduced legislation that would allow the conversion. The Chron picked up the ownership line: only condos can save the Fairmont. “The business has migrated downhill to new hotels near the Moscone Convention Center south of Market,” the paper lamented in an April 17 editorial. Done deal, right?

Well, no. Local 2, the hotel workers union, did an amazing job of organizing, working with Nob Hill neighbors and, by the way, pointing out the facts — the Fairmont has outperformed the SoMa hotels during 10 of the past 11 years, has enviable occupancy rates and stands to reap the benefits of the America’s Cup. Facing a possible strike and a battle royal at City Hall, the Fairmont blinked. The condo plan is dead. Good work, my friends. 

 

Stopping the garbage monopoly

2

A few years back, when Aaron Peskin was president of the Board of Supervisors, he decided that the contract to perform budget and policy analysis ought to go out to bid. Supporters of longtime budget analyst Harvey Rose were aghast — Rose, by all accounts, does a great job watching the city’s dollars and helping the supervisors evaluate proposals. He has more than 30 years of institutional knowledge and memory; the very thought of replacing him seemed insane.

But Rose works as a private contractor, and for decades, he had the equivalent of a no-bid contract — the same sort of deal he and his staff have warned against. So the supervisors took bids — and, to nobody’s surprise, Rose won the contract. That was the right outcome. Except that faced with a competitive bid, he lowered his prices, and the city saved about $500,000.

That’s an important lesson, one the supervisors ought to keep in mind on April 20 when they consider the latest version of a proposal to award the contract for taking the city’s trash to a landfill. Two competing outfits, Recology and Waste Management, are fighting for the lucrative deal. It’s a complex environmental and policy issue: Recology is proposing to haul the trash all the way to Yuba County, and Waste Management would truck it to the existing Altamont landfill. But there’s a critical policy issue hanging in the background.

Since 1932, the company now known as Recology (formerly Sunset Scavenger then Norcal Solid Waste Systems) has had an exclusive, no-bid contract to collect garbage within the San Francisco city limits. The contract to haul the stuff over the bridge and out of town gets put out to bid, but only Recology can pick up residential and commercial garbage. The rates are set by the director of public works. And Recology pays the city nothing — zero — in franchise fees. (The only money the city gets from the garbage company is some $7.5 million a year that goes to the Department of Environment.) Oakland, with about half the number of customers, gets $29 million a year for its general fund from its garbage contractors; by that standard, San Francisco could pull in at least another $14 million a year, maybe more. And it’s not as if Recology is hurting — the company’s San Francisco revenue last year was $275 million.

Both the budget analyst and a private report commissioned by the city’s Local Agency Formation Commission have recommended that San Francisco put its garbage contract out to bid. In fact, the LAFCO report, done by R3 Consulting, notes that San Francisco is the only one of 95 cities surveyed in the Bay Area that had no competitive bidding process for local garbage hauling — and is the only city that has neither a bidding process nor a formal franchise agreement. According to the consultant, “it does not appear that Recology is contractually obligated to 1) negotiate with San Francisco or 2) continue providing service.”

This is utterly unacceptable. Sup. David Campos is absolutely right to be proposing a ballot measure that would mandate competitive bidding. And if he can’t find three more supervisors to sign on (and wouldn’t that be a sad statement), citizen activists are prepared to gather signatures.

We recognize that Recology is a local, worker-owned company with fully unionized employees and good benefits. That should — and will — be a factor in any bidding process. But no $275 million deal should be awarded to anyone in perpetuity, without the city having any leverage to negotiate.

The bid to haul waste to the landfill is directly related: If the board awards Recology that contract too, then the company will have such a monopoly that competitive bidding would be difficult. The committee should continue that item until the board figures out how to handle Recology’s overall contract. Rushing it through now would be a bad mistake.

 

Endangered Eagle may still have hope

4

news@sfbg.com

An important community institution never truly dies. It remains in the hearts and minds of everyone it has touched — a fact that that patrons who have lived and loved (sometimes literally) in the Eagle Tavern understand. But that doesn’t mean they’re ready to loosen their talons and let go.

With the help of San Francisco’s supervisors, some seriously committed community energy — and maybe even a Dallas cowboy who likes his leather — they may not have to.

For the past week, patrons of one of San Francisco’s oldest and boldest gay leather bars have been rallying to save their stomping ground from uncertain fate. It started when they found that rumors swirling since early in the year were true: the Eagle was slated to close at the end of April and faced a May 1 eviction.

Since then, defenders of the 12th Street space have scraped together emergency meetings and impromptu marches, a surprise leather night at the Skylark Bar (owned by a believed-to-be buyer), and a demonstration on the steps of City Hall. Letters were sent to the Board of Supervisors, petitions signed, and pink tent campouts planned as vigils.

Through it all, the message carrying most clearly was that the Eagle Tavern is far more than a swingin’ hot spot. “It’s our history and it’s our culture,” said organizer Kyle DeVries at a rally on the steps of City Hall last Tuesday. “And we’re proud of what we’ve given to this city.”

That “what” includes more than $1 million raised through the years at popular Sunday beer busts supporting everything from breast cancer research to AIDS awareness. But it also includes providing a safe haven and sense of belonging for San Francisco’s queer community for more than three decades.

And now, patrons have learned they will eek out another month. Thanks to the huge outpouring of support from Eagle denizens, and political pressure from three San Francisco supervisors, the end-of-April plan to fly the coop has been delayed at least until the end of May, Eagle manager Ron Hennis said.

But since the issue first exploded April 11, efforts to save the sacred space haven’t slowed down. At press time, supporters were planning an April 19 “Tuesday roost” at the Eagle in hopes of pumping energy and cash back into the tavern on a night known to be quiet.

Sup. Scott Wiener, along with Sups. David Campos and Jane Kim, sent a letter to the San Francisco Police Department that reviews liquor license sales in connection with the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. The letter reviewed the Eagle’s importance in SF’s queer community and stated that its authors are “adamantly opposed to any sale that would result in the Eagle’s destruction.”

The supervisors urged the SFPD to “closely scrutinize, consistent with applicable legal standards, any requested liquor license transfer relating to the Eagle to ensure that any such transfer will not harm the LGBT community by putting an end to the Eagle.”

So far, these efforts have been promising for Eagle patrons. In a phone interview, Wiener told us that Skylark owner Steve Englebrecht has pulled out of negotiations to buy the place. But the situation remains complex.

Eagle manager Ron Hennis explained that current owners John Gardiner and Joe Banks decided to sell the Eagle a year ago to focus on their other SoMa leather bar, Hole in the Wall Saloon, which has been plagued with high-cost property battles of its own.

Gardiner and Banks didn’t respond to our e-mails. But Hennis said they intended to sell the business — which includes the Eagle name, equipment, and liquor license — to people they felt would maintain the existing spirit of the bar: Hennis, Eagle entertainment coordinator Doug Hilsinger, and Lila Thirkield, owner of the Lexington Club.

Hennis and Hilsinger told us a contract was signed and the deal had progressed through an initial set of inspections and into escrow when the property’s owner, John Nikitopoulos, refused to negotiate a new lease with the prospective owners.

Despite successful conversations up to that point, Gardiner and Banks “turned off and didn’t say why,” Hennis said.

Further complicating the matter, Gardiner and Banks’ lease ran out and Nikitopoulos hasn’t renewed it. He’s been renting the property month-to-month and is reportedly raising the monthly price tag, which has remained the same for the past 10 years.

Hennis said the owners were still paying rent when they were threatened with eviction — which would mean a death sentence for the Eagle unless they could sell the business to a party Nikitopoulos would be willing to negotiate a lease with.

In the midst of the stalemate, Nikitopoulos offered to buy the business (and most important, the liquor license) from Gardiner and Banks, who refused saying they’d already agreed to sell to Hennis and his partners. Nikitopoulos then approached Hennis, suggesting Hennis purchase the business as planned and then sell him the liquor license. When Hennis also turned down the landlord’s offer — without the liquor license, Hennis wouldn’t actually own the bar — he disappeared from the conversations.

At the April 12 demonstration, mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty called for the stakeholders involved to recognize that in a city that “values history — indeed, is defined by history,” the lease on the Eagle is “more than just a business transaction.

“The owner of this building needs to come to the table and talk about this,” he urged.

But Nikitopoulos, a resident of Santa Rosa who inherited the property from his father, hasn’t responded to Hennis, reporters, or even to calls from Sup. Wiener. He was, however, reportedly in communication with Englebrecht when the Skylark owner swept in to purchase the space and liquor license — but not the name or the leather culture.

Though Englebrecht withdrew, supporters worry Nikitopoulos could potentially negotiate a lease with a different tenant — leaving the bar a casualty of SoMa’s continued gentrification.

Longtime Eagle patron Mike Talley, who has lived in SoMa for more than two decades, fears the Eagle would fit perfectly into a familiar story of luxury lofts, astronomical rent increases, and — inevitably — mass evictions. He explained that what the Chronicle’s late columnist Herb Caen called the Miracle Mile — a strip of SoMa gay and leather bars that once numbered in the dozens — now consists of just a few properties “hanging in there.”

Mark Kliem, a.k.a Sister Zsa Zsa Glamour of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, echoed Talley’s concern, saying, “The rest of the entire world is family-friendly. Why can’t we have this one little half-mile area to call queer space?”

It’s worth noting that the Eagle is by no means exclusively gay. It is famous for its Thursday-night rock shows where, according to an Eagle DJ, “a melting pot of hipsters, stoners, and rockers mixed with the leather crowd.”

“Everyone was cool,” he said. “Everyone was welcome.”

Still, the bar has become an icon of San Francisco’s queer community.

Kim, who represents the district, presented the Eagle with a letter of commendation recognizing its 30 outstanding years as a “venue, cultural institution, safe haven, and home for the LGBT community” at the April 12 meeting.

“You can’t threaten something as important as this institution,” Campos added.

Wiener, Kim, and California Sen. Mark Leno also praised the Eagle at Sunday’s regularly scheduled beer bust. Leno lauded the efforts of local drag queen/community organizer Anna Conda, and referred to the week’s events as “Stonewall West.”

If anything, the week of demonstrations has drawn San Francisco’s queer community closer. And there is hope that the crowd can stay together in the spot they claimed for themselves. One white-horse possibility is Mark Frazier, owner of a Dallas bar also named the Eagle — and also home to a leather crowd.

Seth Munter of Herth Realty in San Francisco said Frazier has been eyeing the SF Eagle for more than a year, and that he is “interested and able to participate in continuing the Eagle as it has been, either with partners or on his own.”

Reached by phone in Dallas, Frazier told us he’s dreamt of the business since before his own Eagle took flight in 1995. “I think the San Francisco Eagle has a lot of history and a core base of support,” he said. “Any time you go into a business with so much support, it’s going to be successful.”

Frazier stressed that like the SF original, his Eagle has raised substantial sums for charity. Though he acknowledged that the bottom line of all businesses is to make money, “the successful ones continue to give back to the community — and not only monetarily.”

So far, Frazier said he has “exchanged e-mails with the powers that be” and that he is confident the Eagle’s troubles stem from a “communication gap” he could help fix.

Hennis expressed hope about the possibility of working with Frazier in addition to pursuing other options like historical preservation.

Demonstrators have penned more than 100 hand-written letters to the Historic Preservation Commission urging it to assign the Eagle landmark status. Commissioner Alan Martinez said such a process could cost thousands of dollars and would not “grant the right to dictate businesses or tenants.”

Still, he announced publicly that giving the building historic status is not “about turning the city into a museum — it’s about our history.”

Though landmark status protects the physical property, it would also provide legitimacy, an instantaneous way to tell the building’s story and bind the community together. And no matter what happens with the sale of the Eagle, that’s one possibility that flies.

 

Gascon’s futility

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news@sfbg.com

If the April 12, 2011 breakfast meet-and-greet featuring appointed District Attorney George Gascón at a West Portal Avenue eatery constitutes a barometer of the campaign for that important public office, San Franciscans are in for a tepid exercise in municipal futility.

Sponsored by a prolific campaign contributor and restaurant owner, a Board of Permit Appeals appointee of former Mayor Gavin Newsom, and the owner of a new public relations/lobbying firm just awarded the $100,000 dollar public relations contract for Muni, the event attracted some 20 people, including Gascón’s campaign manager and fundraiser, and consisted of a stereotypical candidate presentation and a meager number of audience questions.

Revealing he’s “intrigued” by a chief of police becoming the District Attorney, Gascón described a Saturday afternoon meeting in early January with Newsom supposedly about the transition in local law enforcement arising from relinquishment of the DA’s office by the prior officeholder. According to Gascón, he was “really surprised” when Newsom declared he wanted to appoint him to the office — but Gascón had to accept the offer by 5 p.m. (Not a word did he provide his breakfast audience about Willie Brown-Rose Pak’s participation in promulgating the Newsom offer).

After claiming he “got some very good results” in his first year as police chief, Gascón recited the need for “separation” between his role as former chief and execution of prosecutorial duties. But he failed to specify, even by example, cases in which he has or will recuse himself from prosecuting in favor of the state’s attorney general — at added taxpayer cost, to be sure! (The Attorney General’s Office institutionally lacks trained criminal trial lawyers; the office responsibility pertains to defending the people in appeals from criminal trial court convictions.)

Asserting that the D.A.’s office is “understaffed and underfunded,” the political appointee then tried to describe the three sections of responsibility within the office, concentrating on so-called community courts for “low-level offenses” and “diversion courts.”

He referred to a section for “justice integrity” without defining its nature or scope. He proclaimed as novelty ” a pre-preliminary hearing” proceeding to resolve charges by “offers” for defendants pleading no contest or guilty to lesser crimes, an existing standard practice in Superior Court.

Audience questions involved the mentally ill, capital offenses, the Mental Health Court, domestic violence, and prosecution problems caused by a flawed drug laboratory, search and seizure police errors, and the like. Gascón conveyed his personal “misgivings about the death penalty,” asserted that 60 percent of Death Row prisoners are “minorities,” reminded listeners the death penalty is California law and must be followed and concluded: “I can’t say categorically I’d never seek the death penalty.” (There are currently seven cases in the District Attorney’s Office that qualify for capital punishment.)

Gascón finally stated he “is not a fan of” so-called consent searches and that he has established a 24-hour search warrant office capability for police — and he spoke of an unexplained relationship with Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who has criticized several warrantless Police Department searches.

Strikingly absent from the Gascón dissertation was any reference to attacking public corruption of the genre disclosed by the Guardian and many other sources. One also wonders whether punishment represents an object of this prosecutor’s office or whether social outcomes represent the dominant goal.

Never mentioned was the Special Prosecution Unit of the office (which once handled corruption cases), whether it still exists or, if so, what its current mission is. Never mentioned was the method of selecting judges for his proposed Community Courts.

And, as John Shanley, one-time spokesman for ex-District Attorney Terence Hallinan and a former deputy city attorney observes: “Anybody who thinks public corruption ended in San Francisco with the disgraced Ed Jew needs to reduce their dosage of medicinal marijuana.”

Lacking any questions or information on the candidate’s trial experience, prosecutorial successes, or experience as a lawyer, we still don’t know much about political appointee D.A. Gascón after one West Portal meet and greet.

Retired Superior Court Judge Quentin Kopp — a former San Francisco supervisor and state senator — has been engaged as a special correspondent for the Guardian covering selected political events and issues.

 

Guardian named California’s best weekly newspaper

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The California Newspaper Publishers Association gave the Guardian its coveted General Excellence Award April 16, in effect naming the Guardian the best large weekly newspaper in the state.

The blue-ribbon panel of judges considered entries from across the state, from alternative weeklies, community weeklies, and weeklies published by big daily outfits.

The contest required entrants to submit three consecutive issues from March 2010. In awarding first-place to the Guardian, the judges noted: “The San Francisco Guardian knows itself, knows what it does and does it very well. In-depth reporting, with an attitude yet fully fair, is a real contribution to a democratic society. The FOI awards are a shining diamond in the rough. The arts and culture coverage sparkles in words and design. The listings are endless.”

In his remarks accepting the award at the CNPA convention in Los Angeles, Bruce Brugmann, editor and publisher, noted that the award was timely because “it helps us celebrate 45 years of printing the news and raising hell by an independent, family-owned paper in San Francisco.” He added that the Guardian had an advantage because of the unending scandals in San Francisco: “We have Willie Brown, we have Gavin Newsom, and we have PG&E.”