Volume 45 Number 35

Waggoner for Police Commission


By Harry Britt, Matt Gonzalez, and Aaron Peskin

OPINION Given the escalating scandals in the San Francisco Police Department, the time is ripe to appoint a police commissioner who understands the recurring problems and the need for reform.

The supervisors have the opportunity to appoint such a commissioner: David Waggoner. Waggoner’s extensive background in policy reform, community policing, and criminal justice issues will be a valuable asset to the commission.

Waggoner has worked as a pro bono attorney before the Oakland Civilian Police Review Board and has earned the respect and admiration of people from highly diverse political and social backgrounds. His integrity and sense of justice and fairness inspire trust and confidence — and frankly, we could use a lot more of that in this city.

Credibility with historically marginalized communities — including people of color, new immigrants, the homeless, people with disabilities and the LGBT community — is essential in developing the kind of mutual respect that makes the department’s work effective or even possible. David Waggoner has that credibility.

In 2003, in response to years of strained relations between the SFPD and the community, the voters approved Proposition H. Prop. H gave the Police Commission more authority to adjudicate cases of officer misconduct and changed the makeup of the commission by giving the board three appointments to balance the mayor’s four.

Despite these significant steps toward reform, eight years later we have a Police Department that is under investigation by the Justice Department and the FBI and struggling to overcome serious credibility and morale problems.

Case in point: in the last year alone, the department’s credibility was undermined by a major crime lab scandal, the disclosure of Fourth Amendment violations in SRO hotels, use of excessive force on the mentally ill, and widespread withholding of evidence of officer misconduct from attorneys. These scandals resulted in the dismissal of hundreds of cases.

A number of outstanding policy issues remain in need of serious attention. In 2005, the Civil Grand Jury published a report on compensation in the Police Department, finding that officers receive greater salary increases than other city employees while San Francisco is in a state of fiscal stress. In 2007, the grand jury recommended filling significant numbers of desk jobs with civilians. When the department finally rolled out a pilot program this year, it called for only 15 civilians.

The San Francisco Police Department needs to improve its training of officers, including fostering a respect for the civil liberties that San Franciscans cherish. This should be basic to all police work. However, last year San Francisco paid $11.5 million in lawsuits because of police misconduct.

San Francisco needs police commissioners who understand the challenges of police work but who also are willing to explore the nature of endemic problems that have led to embarrassing scandals. We need commissioners who have a broader understanding of criminal justice policy and how it can be changed to promote public safety.

We join with the San Francisco La Raza Lawyers Association, Community United Against Violence, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, and a host of other elected officials, community activists, attorneys, and local leaders in wholeheartedly supporting the appointment of David Waggoner to the San Francisco Police Commission. It’s about time. 


Harry Britt is a former president of the Board of Supervisors and the author of the landmark 1982 legislation that created the Office of Citizen Complaints. Matt Gonzalez is chief attorney in the Public Defender’s Office, a former president of the Board of Supervisors, and a co-sponsor of Prop. H. Aaron Peskin is chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, a former president of the Board of Supervisors, and a co-sponsor of Prop H.


Editor’s Notes



Three weeks before the June 25-26 Pride Weekend — which is the unofficial opening of the official fall mayoral race — there are two front-runners: state Sen. Leland Yee and Sup. John Avalos.

I’m not saying either is going to win. Things change quickly in this town. We don’t even know for sure if the incumbent, Ed Lee, is going to be in the final scrum.

But here’s what we do know: Yee and Avalos — right now, today — are doing the things they need to do to emerge from a crowded pack. And the others are either hanging back or flailing around.

Avalos had more than 400 people at his kickoff. State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano was there to endorse him. He’s got window signs all over the east side of town. He’s showing momentum, energy; he’s on track to solidify the progressive base and start moving west. He has agreed to cosponsor the mayor’s pension reform plan (but only if SEIU Local 1021 gets the amendments the union wants).

Yee has figured out a very smart strategy: He realizes that he’s already got name recognition and a west-side base, that he’s never going to get the support of the Chinatown establishment (powerbroker Rose Pak hates him), and that he’s one of at least five candidates fighting over the center. So he’s trying to grab a share of the left.

Yee’s people were thrilled that he and Avalos got the Sierra Club. The more groups that endorse the two together (in any order), the more Yee becomes associated with the progressive standard-bearer. And the more second-place votes he gets on the left. (Don’t kid yourself; this race may well come down to who gets second-place votes on the left.)

And Sup. David Chiu just gave Yee a great big gift. Chiu defied every single tenant group in town and became the swing vote in favor of the Parkmerced project. Now the tenants are pissed — and you know Yee is going to try to take advantage of it.

The frustrating part of that scenario is that Yee was never a good tenant vote when he was a supervisor. That’s his Achilles’ heel on the left — but it’s old history, and the anger at Chiu is here today.

Would Chiu be a better mayor for tenants than Yee? Quite possibly. Is any tenant group thinking that right now? No.

Chiu’s in a tricky spot. He’s trying to be the centrist progressive — and that’s a hard thing to sell to either the center (where he’s one of five candidates) or the left (where Yee is edging him out in cozying up to Avalos).

City Attorney Dennis Herrera hasn’t recovered from the political consultant lobbying mess (not a new story, he’s hardly the only, or even remotely, the worst offender, but damn, it makes him look bad). Former Sup. Bevan Dufty’s doing great at the candidate forums but doesn’t have a breakout move. Assessor Phil Ting is awfully quiet.

It’s only June. But it won’t be “only” anything much longer.

Don’t undo ballot measures


EDITORIAL The California initiative process is broken. The state’s too big, and it costs too much to gather signatures and mount a media campaign for or against a ballot measure.

But in San Francisco, the initiative process has traditionally been, and for the most part continues to be, a check on corrupt or ineffective political leaders and a chance for progressive reforms that can’t make it through City Hall. That’s why Sup. Scott Wiener’s proposal to allow the supervisors to amend (or, in theory, abolish) laws passed by the voters is a bad idea.

Since 1968, the San Francisco voters have approved 96 ordinances; that’s an average of about two a year. Obviously the pace has picked up since the 1970s. In 2008, there were eight measures approved; in 2010 there were four. The length and complexity of the ballot makes it appear that the supervisors aren’t doing their work, Wiener says. He notes that when he was campaigning, one of the most common complaints was that the voters were being asked to decide too many things that should have been handled at City Hall.

Some of that is the result of an unwieldy City Charter. Benefits for police and firefighters, for example, are specified in the charter, and any change needs voter approval. Wiener’s measure, aimed only at initiatives and not charter amendments, wouldn’t change that situation.

But some of it relates to the political alignments in San Francisco. For much of the past decade, the supervisors and the mayor were at odds over major issues. The mayor couldn’t get his (bad) proposals, like a ban on sitting on the sidewalks, through the board, and the progressives couldn’t get their proposals past a mayoral veto. So both sides went directly to the voters.

That’s a lot better than the paralysis we’re seeing in Sacramento. At least the issues are getting decided.

And over the years, some of the most important legislation in San Francisco — growth controls, tenant protections, protections for children’s programs, the city’s landmark open-government law — has come through ballot initiatives. The only way public power advocates have been able to get the issue on the agenda has been through ballot initiatives.

Those were issues that generations of supervisors and mayors wouldn’t take on — the developers and landlords and secrecy lobbyists and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had too much power at City Hall. And those protections for the public, the environment, and the most vulnerable residents only survive today because they’re set in law and can’t easily be changed.

If Wiener’s measure has been in effect a decade ago, for example, Proposition M — the 1986 law that set neighborhood planning priorities and limits on office development, would have been summarily scrapped by Mayor Willie Brown and a pro-developer board. Key rent-control laws would have been repealed or amended to death. The ban on buildings that cast shadows on parks would be gone. Killing the Sunshine Ordinance would have been Brown’s first act.

Today’s district-elected board is far more accountable to the voters — but there’s hardly a reliable progressive majority. And the point of ballot initiatives is that you can’t predict who will control City Hall next year, or in 10 years.

We don’t think the initiative process in San Francisco is out of control. Sure, big money wins the day too often — but on balance, it’s a check that the Board of Supervisors should leave alone.

Not in our neighborhood



San Francisco faces an enormous shortage of affordable housing for young people at risk of homelessness, but a pair of projects intended to address the issue are under fire from neighborhood activists in supervisorial District 2, home to the city’s wealthiest residents.

The proposed conversion of the defunct Edward II Hotel and the major overhaul at the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center (BTWCSC) could create a combined 74 units of affordable housing for vulnerable youth, complete with services and support systems to help young people coming from foster or homeless families.

“We are building houses for young people who are getting their start in life,” said Julian Davis, president of the board of BTWCSC. “There was a great need for foster youth housing that has been studied ad nauseam … Our center wanted to contribute.”

But both projects have run into strong neighborhood opposition that appears to have turned D2 Sup. Mark Farrell against the projects as proposed, despite initial support for the BTWCSC project by both Farrell and his predecessor, Michela Alioto-Pier. Farrell’s approach has frustrated project opponents and caused the representative of a neighboring district, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, to sponsor the project.

“The project emanated from Michela Alioto-Pier and she supported the original project, which is why I joined her in support and it initially appeared that Sup. Farrell was joining that support,” Mirkarimi told us, noting that he is continuing to champion the project because it borders his district and because “the Booker T center has a long reach and serves clients from throughout city.”

After hearing from constituents concerned about parking, the size of the five-story building that is proposed, and other issues, Farrell dropped his sponsorship of the project and submitted alternative legislation that cut the building to four stories, presenting it to project proponents without their input as a take-it-or-leave-it proposal.

“The thing I find most puzzling about this is the lack of communication with me personally,” BTWCSC Executive Director Pat Scott said of Farrell, noting how helpful Alioto-Pier and Farrell’s staff had been before opponents convinced him to drop his support for the project. “I was a little taken aback, quite frankly. I would just assume that he’d talk to me.

But Farrell said he was simply trying to heed neighborhood concerns and craft a compromise that would get neighbors to drop their lawsuit threats and appeal of the Planning Commission’s 6-1 vote to approve the project. “I can’t control what happened in the past, I’m only here to make sure everyone is happy now,” Farrell told us. “I absolutely support the project, I think the community center is great … We’re arguing over a story.”

Yet Scott noted that project proponents already had compromised on a project that was initially proposed for eight stories, and she said that even at five stories, it isn’t coming anywhere near what the city actually needs. So while Farrell casts it as a fight over one story, Scott said, “10 units is a big thing in a city that has nothing for these kids.”

That need was outlined in a 2007 report by the Mayor’s Transitional Youth Task Force. The group of city officials and nonprofit providers, convened by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, studied issues affecting at-risk youth between the ages 16 and 24 and one of the major needs identified was housing.

A follow-up study found that 4,500 to 6,800 young people are “homeless or marginally housed each year.” The citywide affordable housing stock for this population sat at meager 314 units at the time.

“We are not doing a good enough job as a city and as a state [to help at-risk youth],” Davis said. “Once they leave the foster care system, there is very little support for them.”

The report called for 400 new affordable housing units for this population to be completed or under construction by 2012. Edward II and BTWCSC are located in the Marina and the Western Addition, respectively, in proximity to affluent neighborhoods in a district with a dearth of affordable housing.

“With supportive housing [going] into neighborhoods that never had affordable housing, there is a certain unknown and it makes people uncomfortable,” said Gail Gilman, Executive Director of Community Housing Partnership, which owns and manages the Edward II project.

Patricia Vaughey, a resident of the Marina-Cow Hollow area since 1976, is perhaps the most vocal critic of the project. She has used the neighborhood associations and every other city forum she can find as platforms to lambaste the plans. “It just kills my soul to see this project,” she told us, voicing a variety of concerns about how the project would be managed. “I am so worried about the kids … We are asking for the best program in the country and we are not getting it.”

Yet Gilman said that considerable energy and many resources have been invested in designing Edward II and that she trusts Larkin Street Youth Service, a respected nonprofit agency, to do the programming. “We chose to partner with Larkin Street because they are the experts in this area,” she said.

Vaughey characterized the stretch of Lombard Street between Divisadero and Van Ness streets, where Edward II will be located, as marred by crime and prostitution and unsuitable for this project. “We have a little Tenderloin down here,” she said.

Gilman disputed that characterization and said the building was chosen after an extensive search and that it met the criteria of having the right sized building in a safe neighborhood with good access to public transit and open space.

But many residents have expressed concern over the pending change to zoning for the building. And if the BTWCSC project couldn’t win Farrell’s support, the Edward II project faces an even more uphill battle because Farrell told us, “There’s an even stronger level of neighborhood concern over that project…. It’s going to be a tough hill to climb.”

The contentious issue under review by the Planning Department is an application to expand the density limit from 16 units to 24.

John Miller, president of the Marina Community Association, said that “from a neighborhood dynamic perspective,” a change to density is problematic. He said changing the density for one building is a slippery slope that could hurt the entire neighborhood. “Higher density is inconsistent with the neighborhood. It could work beautifully at lower density.”

Miller said potential renters in the vicinity would be concerned with “loitering that could occur when people are coming and going … With so many people there is no sense of community”

Yet as with BTWCSC, proponents say simply slashing the project to a smaller size would kill it because then it wouldn’t pencil out financially. Making an issue of density is therefore obstruction of the project because compromise cannot be reached on the issue.

Farrell, a venture capitalist, said he ran the numbers on BTWCSC and believes it would still be a viable project at four stories if the Mayor’s Office of Housing is able to offer some unspecified assistance, as he said the officials there have pledged to him they would. “I know we need more affordable housing,” Farrell said, rejecting suggestions that D2 residents tend to oppose all affordable housing projects. “I don’t think that should be a part of this conversation.”

Farrell criticized the outreach done by Edward II proponents, telling us, “I don’t think it was done in a tactful way.” But Miller said a recent meeting with Gilman and others was positive. “It was an effort on their part to respond to the neighborhood concerns as best they can,” Miller said.

“We are confident we can partner with the community in a proactive way to address the concerns that are addressable,” Gilman said. “If we diligently work with the community, we can have positive project.”

Edward II is on track to come before the Planning Commission in mid-July, while the appeal of the BTWCSC project is scheduled to be heard by the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee on June 6 at 1 p.m. Neither Mirkarimi nor Farrell offered predictions, but both said the issue of whether the project should be four or five stories will likely be a key part of the discussion.

“Coming through the process has made me super supportive of all plans for transition age housing. I was already a supporter but this made me a fervent supporter,” Scott said. “The amount of opposition by people who don’t care what happens to our children — it makes you want to fight.”

Shaking the city



LIT Activist, writer, and fast-talking leftist public intellectual Chris Carlsson, cofounder of the monthly bike happening Critical Mass, spearheads the online local history repository Shaping San Francisco. I recently spoke with Carlsson about Shaping SF and his associated projects, including three collections of cultural and political essays published by City Lights Books, the most recent of which, Ten Years that Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-1978, will be released June 15.

Carlsson began work on Shaping SF — a multimedia digital history project — in 1994 with co-conspirators from his often hilarious dissident magazine Processed World.

Reclaiming San Francisco: History , Politics, Culture, edited by James Brook, Carlsson, and Nancy Peters, was published in conjunction with the first CD and kiosk release of Shaping SF in early 1998. The collection of essays sets the tone for what would become, in Carlsson’s words, “an ongoing series of contrarian history anthologies about San Francisco.”

The second book in the series, The Political Edge (2004), examines cultural and political dynamics behind the popular mobilization to elect Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez, a surprisingly close mayoral race that Gavin Newsom won in part with massive support from the San Francisco Chronicle and the national Democratic Party.

Carlsson says Ten Years that Shook the City continues his work “to counter our amnesiac culture.” More specifically, the book takes on the argument that the 1960s were filled with experiments that didn’t work out. Carlsson told me that evidence to the contrary “has systematically been flushed down the toilet” by mainstream commentators.

The book begins with a remembrance of the 1968 San Francisco State College strike, but in his introduction Carlsson writes: “From today’s organic food and community gardening movements to environmental justice, gay rights, and other social identity movements, neighborhood anti-gentrification efforts, and much more, the 1970s are the years when transformative social values burrowed deeply into society.”

In more than 30 years of activism, he also has crossed paths with many who became contributors to the series. Carlsson recalls when he attended an anti-nuclear rally in 1979 and was handed a flyer from a group called the “Union of Concerned Commies.” The leaflet featured a drawing of the White House with nuclear cooling towers on either wing, done by veteran underground cartoonist Jay Kinney. Kinney contributed one of the most entertaining pieces in Ten Years, a short history of underground comix (in a move below mainstream radar, “comics” became “comix”).

Former Guardian staffer Rachel Brahinsky contributed a heart-wrenching look at the (ongoing) African American exodus from the City by the Bay in the wake of the neighborhood-destroying process officially called “urban renewal.” In the chapter that follows Brahinsky’s, veteran organizer Calvin Welch describes further tenant victories in the creation of what he refers to as “the community housing movement.”

Carlsson’s chapter, “Ecology Emerges,” parallels a series of green history talks of the same name held this year at Counterpulse, Shaping SF’s home base at 1310 Mission St. Carlsson links the 1990s emergence of the environmental justice movement to David Brower, especially the more radical work Brower began when he left the Sierra Club and cofounded Friends of the Earth in 1969. Brower felt Greens should be antiwar, and was keen on making connections between movements. The ecologically-minded individuals and groupings Carlsson highlights also shared a disinterest in becoming a permanent cheering section for Democrats, working instead to keep pressure building from below.

I asked Carlsson for his take on the Obama administration’s announced plans to allow the mining of millions, possibly billions, of tons of coal on public lands.

“Obama was supported from the beginning by Big Finance an Big Coal,” Carlsson responded. He has never shown any indication he is anything but their front man. His lack of imagination on the energy crisis, the economic crisis, the military-empire crisis, and the social crisis is nothing less than remarkable.”


Thurs/2, 7 p.m., free

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus, SF

(415) 362-8193



Vote your vote away

The article has been changed from the print version to correct an error.

In a surprising move that is causing a strong backlash from progressives and other groups that have won important reforms at the ballot box, Sup. Scott Wiener is pushing a charter amendment that would allow the Board of Supervisors to change or repeal voter-approved ballot measures years after they become law.

If voters approve Wiener’s charter amendment, among the most vulnerable reforms may be tenant protections such as limitations on rent increases, relocation assistance for no-fault tenant removal, and owner move-in eviction limits, to name a few.

The Rules Committee heard concerned testimony about the proposal May 19 and opted to hold off on voting to send it to the full board for approval until the next meeting on June 2 to allow for more public comment.

If approved, the amendment will be on the November ballot, although the public may be confused about why such an amendment would be on the ballot in the first place. The measure covers ordinances and resolutions that were placed on the ballot by supervisors, and Wiener has said he plans to amend the measure to exempt those placed on the ballot by voter petition. Changes to taxes or bonds are not a part of the amendment because those are required by state law to go to the ballot box.

Paradoxically, Wiener’s reasoning for the proposal is that he believes voters are bogged down with too many ballot measures with complex issues that need changes, measures he claims the board could deal with more efficiently. But critics say it makes progressive reforms vulnerable to attack by a board that is heavily influenced by big-money interests.

At the committee meeting, about a dozen people spoke in opposition to the amendment, saying it seemed broad in scope and would be a more appropriate change at the state level.

Matthias Mormino, a legislative aide to Sup. Jane Kim, who chairs the Rules Committee, said that his boss is still on the fence. “She has concerns and hasn’t made up her mind yet.”

Currently California is one of the last states where a voter-approved initiative cannot be subject to veto, amendment, or repeal, except by the voters.

“It’s not a radical thing,” Wiener told the Guardian about the proposed amendment. “My thinking is that we should do our jobs. We elect public officials to make decisions every week. I wanted to strike a balance where the voters still have a strong say.”

But how strong of a say will the voting public have in cases where voter-approved initiatives are changed by the decisions of a board of politicians with their own influences and bias?

Wiener stated that he had no specific initiatives in mind when he decided to propose the amendment nor was he targeting any kind of legislation, except ones that are “outdated.” Wiener cited an example of updating campaign consultant reporting from quarterly to monthly as a change that needed to happen but could seemingly be a nuisance at the ballot box.

He is proposing a tiered system in which, for the first three years, an initiative is untouchable. In four years, a two-thirds majority vote by the board could make changes to initiatives; after seven years, a simple majority could do so. That means a raft of tenant measures approved in the 1990s could come under immediate attack.

“Does he not like our sick-leave policy?” Sup. John Avalos told us. “It’s so vague and unclear on what he is trying to do. I’m afraid that he is trying to change laws that are popular with the voters. It’s not a democratic way to resolve policy issues.”

Calvin Welch, a longtime progressive and housing activist, has his own theory on Wiener’s proposal. “Voters don’t have a big problem discerning which ones they agree with and which ones they don’t,” he said about voter-approved initiatives.

He did the number-crunching and concluded that of the 983 policy ordinances on the books, 207 (21 percent) were policy initiatives. Of those, 102 (about 10 percent) were approved by the voters.

“Not quite overwhelming the ballot,” Welch said. “The argument that what is promoting this — the inundation of the initiatives — is not borne of the facts.”

Welch believes Wiener is targeting certain landlord and tenant issues that date back to 1978, when San Francisco voters first started adopting rent control measures. “That is what the agenda is all about — roughly 30 measures that deal with rent control and growth control,” he said.

Wiener denies this is an attack on tenants, and claims he doesn’t have a specific agenda in mind. “This is long-term reform, not immediate gratification reform. To take the big, big step, we would have to change state law. This is just a modest first step.”

Welch also took issue with the idea of “election proportionality,” calling the measure an undemocratic power grab since many initiatives in San Francisco’s history were approved with more than 200,000 votes.

“Mayors don’t get 200,000 votes — these measures do,” Welch said. “That a body can overrule thousands of voters undermines the election process of San Francisco. Why not limit government actors instead of the people? It’s about what Sup. Wiener wants to change.”

Budget set-asides have long been a target for legislators, explained Chelsea Boilard, a budget analyst with Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. Historically in San Francisco, moderate politicians have mostly honed in on social service programs, not those with a lot of clout and political backing, like police and fire budgets. Although the Children’s Fund, which was set up by a charter amendment, would be exempt, other social program priorities set by voters could be eroded.

“The reality is that the police and fire departments don’t have to go to City Hall every year to defend their budgets, but health and human services do,” Boilard said.

While many on the left would love for the California Legislature to have the authority to make changes in the property-tax-limiting Proposition 13 — like by removing commercial property from being taxed at artificially low levels — activists see real danger in Wiener’s measure.

“I think this is bad policy. I know folks are frustrated with Prop. 13, for example, and wish it was easier to amend or repeal. But the way he’s going about this is odd to me,” political activist Karen Babbitt told us. “For one thing, it appears to apply to retroactively to existing ordinances and policy declarations.”

Babbitt also cites legal research indicating that Wiener’s proposal might contradict state law and be subject to legal challenge if it passes. Plus, that challenge could come from any direction since it would allow liberal and conservative reforms to be challenged by the board.

One proposition that would fall under Wiener’s amendment is Proposition L, the sit-lie ordinance approved last year that prohibits sitting or lying on public sidewalks between 7 am and 11 p.m. After a divisive campaign against the measure, police began enforcing it in April. In three years and with enough votes by the board, the board could repeal a law that Wiener supports.

“It’s really interesting,” said Bob-Offer Westort, a civil rights organizer with the San Francisco Coalition of Homelessness. “I have a lot of questions. I guess it cuts both ways. We’d like to see the aggressive panhandling law changed. We’d like to see the sit-lie repealed. There are definitely things, with the right composition of the board, we would benefit from. And there are things that we would not want to see changed.”

Either way, the measure could result in some divisive fights at the board. “One person presenting this as a way to get it done is not the answer,” Avalos said. “I worry that he will use the amendment to dismantle certain voter-approved laws.”

Awaiting consensus



Mayor Ed Lee’s pension reform proposal was unveiled May 24 with support from some of those who helped develop it, including investment banker Warren Hellman, Rebecca Rhine from the Municipal Executives Association, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce head Steve Falk, and San Francisco Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson.

The plan would dramatically alter the way the city manages employee retirement benefits, starting July 2012, while exempting employees who earn less than $50,000. Lee described it as “serious,” “comprehensive,” and a plan that “reflects consensus.”

Already the legislation to place it on the fall ballot has secured the cosponsorship of Board President David Chiu and Sup. John Avalos, rival candidates for mayor. Other mayoral candidates also offered their support, including former Sup. Bevan Dufty and City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

But there is one notable exception to the support for this plan, a party that has been at the negotiating table where it was crafted: Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents about half of the city’s 26,000 employees. The union claims the plan disproportionately affects 500 SEIU members, who are mostly women and people of color and already took large pay cuts last year to avoid layoffs.

Avalos, who described Lee’s proposal as “a sensible approach” and “the right way to go,” has said that if SEIU’s concerns aren’t adequately addressed, he’ll withdraw his sponsorship.

“I’d like to get to a consensus, but if we don’t and 10,000 union workers don’t sign on, I’m going to take my name off as a sponsor,” Avalos said. “We have to find ways to pay for pension benefits without decimating jobs and social services.”

Lee’s measure also didn’t win over Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who claims the proposal won’t make deep enough or fast enough cost savings in the next few years, so he will continue gathering signatures to place a rival measure on the ballot.

So rather than the consensus product Lee hoped the whole city family would be able to convince voters to support, it’s looking like pension reform could again be a divisive issue and one that spills over into this year’s mayor’s race.

Chiu thanked “our brothers and sisters from the labor community” when Lee announced his pension measure, noting that “each city worker that makes more than $50,000 would have to give thousands every year.” He supports the pension deal and hopes SEIU will eventually back it. Avalos and Sen. Leland Yee, another mayoral candidate, seem to be waiting for SEIU to sign on before offering their full support.

Mayoral spokesperson Christine Falvey told us that Lee views SEIU’s concerns as separate from the pension reform proposal. “He appreciates SEIU’s input in the pension reform talks and has committed to sitting down with them and trying to resolve this issue.”

Then there’s Adachi, who helped qualify Measure B, a 2010 pension reform proposal that united labor and city leaders in opposition. He continues to gather signatures to qualify a competing pension measure, needing about 50,000 signatures by early July unless Lee amends his plan to secure greater cost savings in less time.

“My focus is on this issue,” Adachi said, praising Lee’s efforts at achieving consensus. “But is this going to solve this problem so we don’t have to come back within two to three years? It comes down to a math problem.”

Adachi says Lee’s plan doesn’t adequately address the city’s need to save money now.

“The stress period is really in the next four years, so my hope is that the mayor’s proposal could be strengthened,” Adachi said, noting that his proposal yields $90 to $144 million in annual savings, compared to $60 to $90 million annually under Lee’s plan.

“SEIU is right that Mayor Lee’s proposal is inequitable,” Adachi added, noting that Measure B was criticized for being unfair to lower-income workers. “That’s why my new proposal increases pension contribution rates in $10,000 graduations. But under Lee’s plan, a person who earns $100,000 contributes the same rate as someone who makes $50,000.”

He criticized Lee’s plan for requesting only modest increases from safety workers. “Police and fire cost two to three times as much as everyone else’s retirement. They pay 17 percent of what’s in the fund and take out 36 percent. So that means SEIU folks are subsidizing the costs of safety workers’ retirement.”

Adachi acknowledged it would be better to have one measure everyone can support. “But I don’t agree that we should put ineffective reform on the ballot,” he said.

Adachi took a lead role on the issue in 2010 when he qualified Measure B mostly with backing from a few wealthy sponsors, including venture capitalist Michael Moritz, a financial supporter of Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich and the Ohio Republican Party. Adachi took lots of political heat for the move, but he shrugs off the criticisms.

“It comes down to making sure people understand the issue,” he said. “A year ago, no one was acknowledging that it was a problem, but now everyone does. I’m hoping the board strengthens the proposal. It’s going to take supervisors really looking at this to see if works, not just jumping on the bandwagon.”

According to the Department of Human Resources, Lee’s plan would yield an estimated savings of $800 million to $1 billion over 10 years, with the bulk coming from increased employee retirement fund contributions of up to 6 percent for future and current employees. The proposal raises the retirement age from 62 to 65 for most city workers and from 55 to 58 for public safety workers. It also imposes caps on pensions for new employees.

Lee’s proposal must now make its way through the Rules Committee and win the approval of the full board by July 12, the deadline for supervisors to submit charter amendments. According to the Department of Human Resources, 89 percent of San Francisco’s 26,000 city workers earn more than $50,000. That means only 3,000 city workers fall below the $50,000 cut-off that exempt them from paying extra, under Lee’s plan.

But Larry Bradshaw, a bargaining unit member of SEIU 1021, said that members who make slightly more than that threshold will face pay cuts under the plan, on top of the pay cuts they took last year to avoid being laid off by Mayor Gavin Newsom.

For certified nursing assistants, the shift would amount to a roughly $12,000 annual pay cut, Bradshaw said. Security guards would face an estimated $5,000 per year cut, and clerical workers could face anywhere from $1,000 to $11,000 per year.

These workers faced getting fired and rehired at lower-paid classifications to make up for a revenue shortfall, but the union reached an agreement to stave off the worst pay cuts for those “de-skilled” employees by imposing a one percent across-the-board cut for all members in order to restore the salary cuts.

As SEIU workers take the pay cut to fund pensions, he said union members won’t be able to continue subsidizing the salaries of these deskilled workers.

“So we’re not going to have that option of asking our members to keep funding these workers who have taken this 20 percent pay cut,” he said. “And these are primarily women and people of color.”

But Sup. Sean Elsbernd and other supporters of the pension deal say the plight of these workers is an unrelated issue. “They aren’t a pension issue, so wouldn’t it be more appropriate to discuss them in the collective bargaining context?”

Elsbernd believes Lee’s measure is “fair and equitable,” partly because employees’ pension contributions would be reduced in boom years when tax revenue and stock market gains swell the city’s coffers.

“But Jeff Adachi is throwing a big roll of the legal dice,” Elsbernd said. He noted that city employees have long paid 7.5 percent toward their pensions. “But now, along come two pension reform plans that both challenge that notion.

“And every case in California shows you have to provide a commensurate benefit to change that kind of right,” he continued, arguing that Lee’s proposal is more legally sound because it lowers employees’ contributions during boom years. “So the $60 million that our plan would save is a hell of a lot more secure than the $90 million Jeff claims his plan would save.”

Sup. David Campos has yet to take a position on Lee’s plan, but hopes there is a way to address legitimate concerns about lower-income workers. “There’s no question that we have to do something about pension reform,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s a perfect proposal. But I’m especially intrigued by Mayor Lee’s plan. It recognizes that low-wage workers should not be expected to contribute at a higher rate than higher-wage workers. But we have to put the mayor’s proposal in the context of what else is happening, which is why SEIU’s de-skilling concerns are legitimate.” Campos credited Adachi for highlighting pension reform. “My hope is that we can come up with something that we can all be supportive of, where the mayor and Jeff’s proposals are combined. And while we have to be careful that the balance that has been constructed is maintained, this allows for a dialogue at the board, and for Jeff to be involved, so we can come up with a unified proposal. Because if we are going to address pension reform, we need to do so with a united front.”

Phantom menaces


FILM Does anyone actually believe Ghost Adventures is real? Including its hosts? For the uninitiated, this is the Travel Channel show that locks a trio of doucheba — er, paranormal investigators inside an allegedly haunted location overnight, leaving them with an arsenal of high-tech gadgets to record any paranormal happenings.

Inevitably, these goings-on include supernatural “voices” captured by one of their doohickeys (the voice always sounds exactly like garbled static, but is subtitled into meaning — usually a variation of “Get out!”) Main host Zak Bagans employs obnoxious tactics to goad the spirits into responding. Did you see that one where he decided he needed to bare his telegenically pumped-up chest to provoke the phantom that hated tattoos? It was fully necessary, people. For science. Also, it was 24-karat unintentional comedy gold.

Ghost Adventures and similar shows (main ingredient: shaky, sickly-green night vision) are ripe for parody, but they’re also au courant. As anyone with a pair of eyes and a thirst for blood can attest, there’s been a trend in “I am filming myself at all times” horror since ye olden days of The Blair Witch Project (1999), sure to be buoyed along for another decade-plus thanks to the monster success of 2007’s Paranormal Activity. (Last year’s The Last Exorcism being a prime example.) If these films are fake-real, then shows like Ghost Adventures, which follow regular people through actual abandoned prisons, sanitariums, and the like, are real-fake.

Which brings us to Grave Encounters, a fake-real movie that does a number on Zak Bagans types and delivers some pretty decent scares in the process. (Don’t be put off by the directors’ corny nom de screen, “the Vicious Brothers.” Although, dudes — really?) The film, which closes out the 2011 Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, is introduced by a slick production-company type who assures us that what we are about to see is undoctored video from a ghost-hunting reality show. Seems the crew of Grave Encounters, including lead investigator Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), have vanished from the crumbling confines of their latest filming location, a decrepit mental hospital with a sinister past.

With this Blair Witch-y setup, the found footage rolls, including outtakes that let us know Lance and company are skeptics not above manipulating circumstances to get the shots they need. The faux-show apes Ghost Adventures‘ title sequence, low-angle shots, and jumpy editing. There’s even a slightly unhinged caretaker on hand to lock the Grave Encounters folks in for the night. And this wouldn’t be a horror movie (as opposed to a highly questionable reality show) if creepy critters didn’t end up coming out to play. It’s not a spoiler to disclose that once doors start slamming by themselves, full-scale shit-hitting-fannage (shades of 2001’s excellent Session 9) is not far behind.

In a similar vein, but with a more succinct running time and more likeable characters, is Haunted Changi, one of HoleHead’s opening-night films. A group of young filmmakers (portrayed by actors who have the same names as their characters) set out to make a documentary about Singapore’s Old Changi Hospital, a vacant structure troubled by the lingering fragments of World War II-era prisoners of war and their decapitation-happy Japanese captors. Plus, the occasional vampire. Old Changi Hospital is apparently a bona fide ghost-hunting hotspot, which makes the fake-real Haunted Changi a little more real than it probably ought to be.

After the four-person crew’s initial visit to the hospital, director Andrew (Andrew Lau, also credited as Haunted Changi‘s director) becomes obsessed with the place, returning again and again to shoot more footage and hang out with a mysterious woman he encounters there. Meanwhile, uptight producer Sheena (Sheena Chung), dreadlocked sound guy Farid (Farid Azlam), and “I am filming myself at all times” camera guy Audi (Audi Khalis) feel the after-effects in different ways — all of them bad.

Haunted Changi features a scene where a group of paranormal investigators use a little kid as their supernatural-activity barometer, like a canary in a coal mine. Way creepy, and one of the few novel ideas in a film that’s solid without being particularly original. Still, Old Changi Hospital has plenty of built-in atmosphere; a real-real documentary on its history would probably be just as scary as Haunted Changi‘s paranormal fantasy.


June 2–17, $11

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF




Absentia (Mike Flanagan, U.S., 2010) Daniel has been missing for seven years. His wife, Tricia (Courtney Bell), has dutifully done all the right things, distributing missing-person posters, mourning, seeking therapy, and filling out the paperwork to have him declared dead in absentia. But — heavily pregnant by a new suitor — she’s more than ready to move on with her life. In town to help with this task is her younger sister, Callie (Katie Parker), a former drug addict who nudges Tricia to look for new apartments and work on her social life. But is Daniel really dead? Tricia’s been having freaky visions that suggest he’s still … somewhere. And what, exactly, is haunting that tunnel down the block from Tricia’s front door? Absentia is an indie-horror find: Bell and Parker are totally believable as sisters who stick together despite their complicated relationship, and writer-director Mike Flanagan conjures serious menace from a benign suburban streetscape. Mon/6, 9:20 p.m.; June 12, 5:20 p.m. (Cheryl Eddy)

Apocrypha (Michael Fredianelli, U.S., 2011) Vampires are about as ubiquitous and tired a pop cultural fixture as the Kardashians and it’s getting harder and harder to come up with an original twist on such a shopworn staple. That’s all the more reason why I wanted Apocrypha, a modestly-budgeted, locally-made indie premiering at HoleHead, to make good on its promising premise that vampires aren’t just bloodsuckers, they’re also amnesiacs. Unfortunately, director Michael Fredianelli (who also coproduced, edited, cowrote, and stars in the film) makes a hot mess out of this neat idea thanks to weak dialogue, inept direction, lackluster performances, and a virulent misogynistic streak that’s far more unsettling than the inevitable torrents of blood. Fredianelli plays Griffith Townsend, a man at wit’s end to understand his growing compulsion to bite the women he takes home. Eventually, his path crosses with Maggie (cowriter and coproducer Kat Reichmuth) — an equally confused woman trying to find out how she woke up in Golden Gate Park — with whom he shares a dark, and somewhat obvious, connection. When Townsend’s job as a senior editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, rather than all the neck-biting, requires the greatest suspension of audience disbelief, you know it’s time to go back to the drawing board. June 11, 3:20 p.m. (Matt Sussman)

Auschwitz (Uwe Boll, Germany, 2010) It takes serious cojones or at least a healthy dose of self-delusion, for Uwe Boll to decide he’s the one to give us a realistic depiction of Auschwitz. Boll is often considered cinema’s most reviled director, known more for his schlocky video game adaptations than for his sense of morality. But in Auschwitz, he does his best to reflect on a horrific atrocity, bookending his portrayal of the death camp with a short documentary in which he questions German youth about the Holocaust. The mind-boggling ignorance on display is somewhat effective, but these teenagers likely know about as much as most American high schoolers — if not more. And Boll’s gritty Auschwitz isn’t the answer: it’s hard to watch at times, and it’s certainly more to the point than Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). But Boll shows his trademark lack of restraint, and the legitimately stirring moments are undercut by shock value violence. June 10, 9:20 p.m.; June 13, 7:20 p.m. (Louis Peitzman)

Helldriver (Yoshihiro Nishimura, Japan, 2010) Leave it to Japanese director Yoshihiro Nishimura (2008’s Tokyo Gore Police) to give us a joyous, blood-soaked twist on zombies. Helldriver‘s living dead are distinguished by the antlers growing out of their foreheads — antlers that can be removed and ground into powder for use as a popular street drug. There’s more of a plot to Helldriver than the set-up, but it’s admittedly a little tough to make sense of it with body parts and buckets of blood flying in all directions. Short version: Kika (Yumiko Hara) has to take down her evil stepmother, who has become the Zombie Queen. To say there are casualties along the way is an understatement — nearly every character is flayed, decapitated, or torn into pieces, all with gleeful abandon. However gross Helldriver may be, it’s an awful lot of fun, an over-the-top, distinctly Japanese reinvention of the genre. Fri/3 and June 13, 9:20 p.m. (Peitzman)

The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue (Mike Bradecich and John LaFlamboy, U.S., 2010) What happens when a pair of slacker brothers (writers-directors-stars Mike Bradecich and John LaFlamboy) inherit a dilapidated apartment building with a perilously low occupancy rate? What if that building also has a pet-eating monster scrambling between its walls? And what’s that ever-hungry monster gonna eat once all the pets are gone? Dilemmas — all of them absurd, some of them gory, and most of them hilarious — abound in this clever, fast-paced cracker featuring Robert “Freddy Krueger” Englund in a cameo as a cranky, horny tenant. Chicago-bred comedians Bradecich and LaFlamboy have Simon Pegg-Nick Frost levels of chemistry. Is it too much to hope that the dreaded Mole Man will return so there’ll be a sequel? Sun/5, 7:20 p.m.; Tues/7, 9:20 p.m. (Eddy)

The Oregonian (Calvin Lee Reeder, U.S., 2010) More an experiment in tedium than terror, Calvin Lee Reeder’s The Oregonian will look familiar to anyone who has seen their share of David Lynch movies. Only unlike Lynch, Reeder offers little in the way of narrative or structure to counterbalance all the creepy randomness he throws at us. One can truly sympathize with the film’s nameless heroine — a frightened young woman who, upon waking up in a station wagon covered in blood, embarks on a hellish journey through the Oregon countryside — for in watching The Oregonian in its entirety the audience also undergoes a seemingly endless slog, only the succession of borrowed gestures merely exhausts rather than frightens. If you really want some good backwoods scares, watch Gummo (1997) or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) instead. Sat/4, 9:20 p.m.; June 16, 7:20 p.m. (Sussman)

Onward Toilet Bowl



CHEAP EATS The top four teams in the San Francisco Women’s Flag Football League can all beat the 49ers. My team cannot, but we can beat the bottom four teams and have proven it. By winning the biggest game of our storied one-season history, we established ourselves as the top of the bottoms: a solid fifth-place finish.

Yep, last week’s last minute comeback in the playoffs earned us a berth in the Toilet Bowl this week against a team that had shut us out in the regular season. We were losing again, 13-12, with less than five minutes left. Again our defense exploded: three touchdowns in the last three minutes. Final score: 31-13, us. Toilet Bowl MVP: Gene-Genie the Gold Standard, one of our many rugby converts, who spent less time on the ground than usual and scored two of our touchdowns, one receiving and one intercepting.

It was a brilliant performance, and a sweet note to end our first season on. Our goal was to win one game, and we won two, then both of our playoff games. Our goal for next season, in the fall, will be not to lead the league in penalties, and for our offense to outscore our defense. If we don’t and it does, we might have a shot at upper brackethood come next playoffs. Which would be nice. I kind of miss getting my ass kicked.

Unfortunately, there’s no way I can run fast enough to play soccer right now, so — by way of distracting myself from despair — my plans for summer include New Orleans yet again, camping, France, Mexico, New York, camping again, Ohio for a wedding, and the Bloomsburg Fair, where I will be researching a whole different, more Pennsylvania Dutchish take on chicken and waffles.

Who wants to sublet my apartment?

It’s cute. It’s cozy. It comes with the lovingest, lickingest cat in the whole history of felinity, and it smells like me. Come on. You know you want it.

Christ, I still can’t get over that we won. Enough already, you’re thinking, but you don’t understand. We were like the Bad News Bears, except none of us were very bear-like, so maybe we were the Bad News Honey Badgers. Or something.

Anyway, after the game and the champagne and a bowl of old cereal that a dog had been licking on the sideline, I went to eat something real with Hedgehog. We intended to have either sushi or Turkish food, but wound up eating Irishish at the Liberties ’cause it was nice enough to be outside. God bless plan C.

Hedgehog had a Reuben, and I had Irish sausage with eggs on a potato pancake with a red wine reduction gravy. Talk about your breakfast of champions: it was way, way better than dog-licked cereal with warm milk. The potato pancake was perfectly crispy outside and soft and creamy in the middle; the eggs were overeasied just so; and the sliced-lengthwise sausages tucked in-between the pancake and eggs were juicy and delicious.

Not as delicious as at the Phoenix’s Irish sausage, but that’s where wine gravy comes in. Yum. Yum.

Yum. And for less than $10 — I think like $9. And no waiting, even though it was brunch time.

Hedgehog’s Reuben looked good too. I tried her sweet potato fries, and they were pretty good, but I don’t much go for sweet potato anythings, so mostly I just left her alone.

They have regular fries, too, and you can get them with a curry dipping sauce, and more good news is that the kitchen stays open until 1 a.m. I’ve never drank there, but I have walked by a lot at night because Kayday used to live around the corner and it always seems like there’s something fun going on inside.

I think they have a quiz night or something.

QUESTION: Where did the not-very-Dutch Roscoe’s style of fried chicken and waffles originate?

ANSWER: Fuck should I know. Hedgehog says Harlem, not the South. Anyway …

The Liberties Bar & Restaurant

Mon.–Fri.: noon–2 a.m.;

Sat.–Sun.: 10 a.m.–2 a.m.

998 Guerrero, SF

(415) 282-6789

Full bar


Dancing in the light



DANCE The Ka-Ren people, who live on the border between Thailand and Burma and who have never recognized these political divisions, are known for their indigenous jewelry-design traditions. They didn’t get a gemologist in Ledoh, though they did get a dealer in a different kind of jewel — dances — and not because of a well-developed plan. Rather, it was serendipitous.

Performer-choreographer Ledoh — one name only, as is common among the Ka-Ren — came to this country at age 11 when his father realized that the family, although relatively well-off economically, might not have much of future in Burma. (Ledoh’s preferred name for his country; it is also called Myanmar.) The boy found the contrast between “garden parties and embassy events” and “having to take care of my sisters and slug to the Laundromat in the snow” striking, to say the least. But he dove into his American life, focusing his energy on visual arts and athletics. Dance, and butoh in particular, was nowhere near his horizon. But the Ka-Ren culture was ingrained into his DNA.

After college, on his way to Bangkok to study gemology — “I wanted to help my people,” Ledoh explains in a post-rehearsal conversation — his life took an unexpected turn. During a stopover in Kyoto, a friend took him to a butoh concert by one of the Japan’s great practitioners, Katsura Kan. Ledoh was hooked, and an intended three-month stay in Asia turned into three years.

This weekend sees the premiere of another of Ledoh’s full-evening works, Suicide Barrier: secure in our illusion, choreographed and performed by himself and dancers Iu-Hui Chua and Tammy Ho.

Even though he has lived in San Francisco since 1998, Ledoh has stayed on the margins of Bay Area dance. For one thing, he works very slowly. You can expect about one piece every two years; in the swirl of local dance-making, their impact has been low-key until recently. He gets an idea, he explains, “and then I crawl under a rock and come out when it’s time to do so.” The name of his company, Salt Far, says it all. Salt is the result of crystallization when “nothing is left except the essence of what there was.” His most recent work started as Signature Required: Life During Wartime, a response to 9/11 that evolved into ColorMeAmerica, a meditation on a personal journey through a strange land. It took him two-and-a-half years to complete.

While the influence of butoh is unmistakable in the choreographer’s work, the label doesn’t quite stick. Borrowing a definition from film, he calls what he does “butoh vérité.” He wants to pierce the genre’s trappings — glacial speed, bodily distortions, and white body paint — and focus the attention on the reality underlying the external phenomena.

Ledoh also works out his pieces into the smallest details. Nothing is left to chance. They are tightly structured multimedia events evincing a hands-on approach to integrating dance, sound, and visual elements. For Suicide he is again working with composer Matthew Ogaz and videographer-media artist Perry Hallinan.

All these aspects of Ledoh’s artistic temperament have earned him the admiration of ODC Theater director Rob Bailis. ODC Theater, in collaboration with Circuit Network, is producing Suicide. “Frankly, Ledoh is a genius,” Bailis says. “He is extremely diligent, lives a good long time with a subject, and comes to the table with a well-realized and courageous approach to a topic.”

Ledoh lives in Sonoma and San Francisco. His daughters, whom he had to take to their piano lessons between a rehearsal and this interview, live in SF. The eternal commute between the two places may well have sown the seeds for what has become Suicide. The Golden Gate Bridge Authority is considering installing a wall and a net to discourage jumpers. The intent may be to save lives but, in all likelihood, an ancillary purpose may be avoiding lawsuits. It’s a very fractured approach to seeing reality.

For Ledoh, this act of wall-building became an image of a self-deception that inevitably alienates us from full consciousness. For some, that blindness is hubris; for others, it means an inability to see the “other.” In his work, Ledoh tries to penetrate the false sense of reality and security that he observes everywhere in contemporary life. It’s in the dancer whom he sees only as a reflection thrown back by a mirror — and in the shopper who walks the aisles of a supermarket. He finds it even in the Ka-Ren, who, with the advent of ecotourism, “are now stuck in a game reserve of a natural forest.”

In a publicity shot, Ledoh is shown with a white flower stuck in his mouth. Is it a chrysanthemum, a funeral flower in many cultures? “It is a Gerbera daisy, and yes, it is a mourning flower for me,” he explains. The Ka-Ren grow them — for export.

Ledoh is not naïve about our ability to break through the walls we build around ourselves. He calls it “chasing our tail and never biting into it.” In his art, he tries to get as close as he can. Butoh, he says, is the means to “keep it honest, not to stylize,” which would distort the perspective. Working with the exquisite, ballet-trained Ho, he whispers images to her: “brush it away”; “reach for the apple.” These images, he later explains, are grasped by the mind that then has to let them sink inside the body. Gradually, Ho transforms herself into a vessel beyond what she thought she was. Then the choreographer encourages her to open and neutralize her eyes. When she no longer focuses, her eyes have become lenses through which we can look inside.


Fri/3-Sat/4, 8 p.m.; Sun/5, 7 p.m., $15–$18

ODC Theater

3153 17th St., SF (415) 863-9834 www.odctheater.org




DINE It’s a competitive era in restaurant light fixtures, and this must be in part because light fixtures are one of the few levers designers can push to create a flourish. As with men’s clothing (blue suit, gray suit, white shirt, blue shirt, brown shoes, black shoes?), restaurant design is largely a function of restraints and requirements, with few chances to have a bit of fun. Light fixtures, like neckties, offer a chance to add some pizzazz and style while also being useful.

Of all the amusing and witty light fixtures I’ve seen in the past few years, none compare with those at Morph, a pan-Asian spot that opened about a year ago in the outer Richmond. Dangling from long cords under a high ceiling is a line of what look a lot like iPhones, each with a glowing screen that displays a skeletal image of … a light bulb.

The restaurant’s other design cues are similarly up-to-date and clever (Chef/owner, Thiti Tanrapan, is also an architect). High on the rear wall hang several flat panels displaying electronic art, along with an innovative calendar that gives the exact date and time, down to the second, in shifting red words. Other walls are lined with patterns of wafer-like tiles that resemble bits of a Roman ruin reimagined as computer animation. There is an elegant chill to this look, as to a well-made martini; it’s fun without quite being friendly.

Luckily, the food provides considerable cheer. The menu seems to have accepted suggestions from wide swaths of east and south Asia, but its heart lies somewhere along the Bay of Bengal. To emphasize this point, a pair of lovely coconut-milk curries, yellow and green, pop up here and there, in full-fledge main dishes (with salmon, chicken, and tofu) and as dipping sauces for paratha ($6). The yellow is the sweeter and milder-tempered of the two, while the green packs more of a salty heat kick.

Hand rolls are something you often see in sushi bars, but here ($7 for three) the colorful cones (of soy sheets, pink, yellow, and green) enclose cubes of pork, along with beets, carrots, lettuce, mint, egg, and tamarind sauce. They’re like reinvented spring rolls.

Although I’ve long maintained that lobster is overrated and crab gives better value (and might even be preferable), I think soft-shell crab is as overrated in its way as lobster. And it isn’t local, being mainly a product of the Atlantic and gulf coasts. Still, it can be good, especially when, as here ($10), it was given a tempura batter and deep-fried so that, like a french fry, it was golden-crisp on the outside and meltingly tender within. The accompanying salad turned out to be far livelier than it appeared at first glance; beneath a bale of spring mix, we found a colorful trove of cashews, avocado chunks, and a dice of mango and red beets with a spicy vinaigrette. I wished that a little more of that vinaigrette had penetrated to this complex substratum.

A salad called 2-NA ($10) — a vanity license plate name — brought together slats of yellowfin and albacore tuna and arranged them into a disk, like a napoleon except with lateral rather than vertical layers. Eating it was a little like peeling a flattened onion. The dish’s most distinctive supplementary flavor came from rice powder, though there was also fresh mint and a lemon dressing.

Among the larger dishes, one we found especially arresting was the crispy fried rainbow trout ($16), a whole fish split open, lightly crusted, and filled like a piñata with scallops, prawns, and calamari. I hadn’t eaten anything like this since working my way through a plate of acqua pazza at the Beverly Hills Spago at least a decade ago. Morph’s version was far tastier at a fraction of the price. A whole fish often presents a small-bone problem, but here we turned up just a few splinters. To one side of the fish sat a puck of coconut-fried rice, while underneath it lay a heap of baby spinach leaves dressed with a lime vinaigrette.

The dessert menu is less distinctive, though a construction like hazelnut mousse ($6) sandwiched between rounds of chocolate sponge cake didn’t need to be a novelty to be satisfying. And, in a subtle way, struck me as a near relation, of tiramisù, the alcoholic Italian warhorse. There was no detectable alcohol in either the mousse or the sponge cake, and the dessert was the better for it.

Morph sits in the middle of a busy, cluttered block of Geary Street just west of Park Presidio, which means you might have to do some light searching for it. But once inside, you can safely set your watch.


Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.

Lunch: Fri.–Sun., 11:30 a.m.–4 p.m.

5344 Geary, SF

(415) 742-5093


Beer and wine

Can get noisy


Wheelchair accessible


A mother’s touch



FILM The Rome of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s spirited second feature is that of the outer rings, the transitional borgata where ugly high-rise apartments interrupt wild grass and occasional industry. Pasolini, who lived for many years in such an outskirt with his mother, pointedly blurs development and ruin in his fluid camera observations of this liminal zone, much as he blurs the figure of mother and lover in Anna Magnani’s titular heroine. Like Mildred Pierce, Mamma Roma wishes prosperity for her child at any cost. She moves him from what she deems a rural backwater to the borgata for a shot at a “decent life,” which for her means selling vegetables rather than sex. Their new home is cruel in many ways, however. Ettore (Ettore Garofolo) slides toward delinquency, and soon an ex-lover presses Mamma Roma back into prostitution.

The basis of this mustachioed man’s hold on the proud woman is unclear, but it’s enough that we grasp the indentured terms of their relationship. The gaps in time and exposition feed the film’s tonal volatility. Poignant coming-of-age scenes in the grass slide into Magnani’s loud declamations, sociological analysis intermingles with passionate iconoclasm, all too brief glimpses of joy give way to degradation, and startling cuts between scenes set the whole thing aquiver. The basic dilemma is between critical detachment and confessional intimacy (the poet’s taste in men ran to young street kids like Ettore, and he had a worshipful relationship with his own mother, going so far as to cast her as Mary in his 1964 film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew). Mamma Roma is a study of the Italian postwar landscape, to be sure, but one which extends to the realms of desire and emotion.

Much of this comes down to the casting of Magnani, then entering the twilight of her career after a successful stint in Hollywood (where she nabbed the 1955 Oscar for her role in The Rose Tattoo, written expressly for her by a smitten Tennessee Williams). Jean-Luc Godard also made a film about a prostitute with an actress named Anna in 1962 (Vivre Sa Vie), but whereas he needed to make an imaginative leap to place Mlle. Karina in film history (her character goes to see fellow Dane Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc), Magnani requires no such transference: her singular career thread the relative truths of neorealism and the Method. As Pasolini’s chosen symbol of self-sacrifice and Rome itself, perhaps the signal reference is her death scene in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945).

Pasolini documents an economic occupation rather than a military one, and the spiritual malaise that hangs over the picture is more diffuse than in Rossellini’s picture. Nothing illustrates the director’s bending neorealism so well as a pair of recessive tracking shots of Mamma Roma walking the night. The shots are underexposed so that the street lights appears abstracted and the men who emerge from darkness as ghosts — or is she the ghost, persisting in her monologues no matter who’s listening? Done with a poverty of means, these sequences nonetheless conjure a kind of spiritual possession in the grip of material disgrace.

There are glimmers of Pasolini’s later films in Mamma Roma (a stray mention of Dante’s Circle of Shit flashing forward to his notorious 1975 movie, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom), but its most significant innovation may lie in its yoking melodrama to a caustic modernist sensibility, thereby preparing a whole vein of art cinema later epitomized by R.W. Fassbinder. Mamma Roma‘s lessons may well have been absorbed, but it still looks tender and dire as ever. *


Thurs/2 and Sat/4, 7:30 p.m;

Sun/5, 2 p.m.; $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787



The importance of being self-important



FILM Mainstream American films are so rarely adventuresome that overreactive gratitude frequently greets those rare, self-conscious, usually Oscar-baiting stabs at profundity. Terrence Malick has made those gestures so sparingly over four decades that his scarcity is widely taken for genius. Badlands (1973) was the kind of idiosyncratic, near-brilliant commercial nonentity that period’s commercial flailing allowed executives to fund; 1978’s Days of Heaven was pictorially stunning, but dramatically freeze dried, its 19th-century prairie triangle a melodrama sublimated by a director who worshipped landscapes. People? Not so much.

Yet those films’ cool status as commercial failures and artistic treasures fostered a Malick cult, amplified by his elusiveness in subsequent decades. He became the holy grail — one prodigy who checked out before he could disappoint (unlike, say, Michael Cimino), heightening all expectations by staying nearly as inaccessible an artist and celebrity as Thomas Pynchon.

Were those two in cahoots? Because around the same time Pynchon launched his shockingly unexpected literary return, Malick returned with 1998’s The Thin Red Line, a James Jones novel (à la From Here to Eternity) turned metaphysical spectacular, with half the male stars in Hollywood drafted to prove their artistic cred by working for the master. It was a pretentious, uneven, distractingly starry movie — but also frequently transcendent, the horror of World War II military life and death spun into a frequently rapturous lyric meditation on nature, God, and existence. It provided the hitherto unknown, subsequently not-much-less-so Jim Caviezel with a better Jesus part than The Passion of the Christ (2004). It was a film whose tremendous poetry and heart barely triumphed over self-indulgence. Still, it did.

By contrast, 2005’s The New World was a mess no amount of pretty pictures could sculpt into viable shape. It offered the worst of latter-day Malick — New Age coffee-table-book photography, the endless banal stream-of-consciousness voiceovers in search of a screenplay — with scant narrative or thematic spine.

Now there’s The Tree of Life. Famously delayed over and over again from predicted festival debuts while Malick tinkered, it’s at once astonishingly ambitious — insofar as general addressing the origin/meaning of life goes — and a small domestic narrative artificially inflated to a maximally pretentious pressure-point.

Tree starts (after a quote from Job 38) with a 1950s all-American family getting some very bad news — never specified — about one of its sons. Soon we get a lot of gauzy psychedelia, cosmos views, and miscellaneous FX one gradually perceives are meant to be the mind of God, the big bang, and subsequent evolutionary development of earthly life. Malick does not disappoint with the staggering imagery. Some is gorgeous if predictable in his now-familiar staring-through-trees-at-glinting-sunlight fashion, some space-odyssey fantastical (2001: A Space Odyssey‘s VFX wizard Douglas Trumbell is listed as a consultant).

What’s simplistic is the larger meaning — despite the now-usual Malick excess of affected voice-overs ("Father … always you wrestle inside me, always you will" a child intones) — the gender roles (Jessica Chastain’s ’50s wife is part Donna Reed, part angel of mercy) and aesthetic cliches of his prayerful search for significance beyond the underserved norms of narrative and character development.

The thesis here is a conflict between "nature" (the way of striving, dissatisfied, angry humanity) and "grace" (the way of love, femininity, and God). After a while Tree settles into a fairly conventional narrative groove, dissecting — albeit in meandering, often forcedly "lyrical" fashion — the travails of a middle-class Texas household whose patriarch is sternly demanding of his three young sons. Eldest Jack (Hunter McCracken) eventually comes to hate this alternately affectionate and cruel father.

As the father, a solid Brad Pitt gets the best-defined part here, playing a man who invents arbitrary rules simply to punish petty transgressions. Yet he’s no monster but a conflicted, resentful aspirant toward the American dream taking those frustrations out on his loved ones. The specificity of everyday tyranny, most often practiced at family meal times — the movie’s aesthetically simplest, most emotionally potent scenes — suggest Malick is working through autobiographical demons here.

The Tree of Life is thus like The Great Santini or This Boy’s Life meets Tarkovsky (or, worse, Tarsem); something relatably intimate housed in the most ornately overblown package imaginable. It’s like those James Michener novels in which a simple soap opera is backgrounded by 300 pages of historical errata practically going back to the amoeba from which our protagonists descended. Only Malick, bless him, actually depicts the amoeba.

As a modern-day survivor of that household, Malick’s career-reviving ally Sean Penn has little to do but look angst-ridden while wandering about various alien landscapes. The child actors are excellent. But Chastain, in an expansion of the Eternal Woman roles played by Miranda Otto in The Thin Red Line and Q’orianka Kilcher in The New World, plays not a character but an abstract of ethereal, endlessly giving maternity, forever swanning about in gauzy sundresses, at one point so full of grace she literally floats in midair. I doubt Malick realizes he’s put her on a traditional sexist pedestal that reduces while it exalts. She’s a simple creature — all love! — while the menfolk get to be thorny and complicated.

Set in Waco but also shot in Rome, at Versailles, and in Saturn’s orbit (trust me), The Tree of Life is so astonishingly self-important while so undernourished on some basic levels that it would be easy to dismiss as lofty bullshit. (Malick’s soundtrack of Mahler, Smetana, Holst, Górecki, Berlioz, etc. only heightens his grandiosity.) Its Cannes premiere audience booed and cheered — both factions right, to an extent.

Speaking for the middle ground, I’d say this is a cheeringly daft enterprise by turns extraordinary, masturbatory, and banal. Encouraging slightly loony poets to work on a grand scale is always a good thing, even if the results are this mixed. Malick goes way out on a limb, his attempted philosophical weight often nearly crashing the movie to the ground. But by a hair’s breadth he stays on that branch, wobbling and flapping wings — while most major studio-bankrolled American directors never think of climbing the tree in the first place.

THE TREE OF LIFE opens Fri/3 in San Francisco.

Art fair city



HAIRY EYEBALL The booths have been dismantled, countless plastic cups and empty liquor bottles are heading to recycling centers, and the exhibitors have returned to the quiet of their respective white cubes. San Francisco’s big, busy art fair weekend has come and gone. By many accounts it was a success for a city that two years ago hadn’t had an art fair in almost two decades, even if, in retrospect, it doesn’t feel like the lay of the land has been significantly altered.

The buzz generated by the raucous preview parties for SF’s two newest fairs, artMRKT and ArtPadSF, carried on throughout the weekend, no doubt helped by the good weather and ever-present availability of booze. When I arrived at the Phoenix early Saturday afternoon, the young, stylish crowd (which included a few families) milled around the hotel’s patio, awaiting a much-hyped synchronized swimming performance organized by Bean Gilsdorf, a California College of the Arts student. Other visitors popped in and out of the midcentury modern hotel’s rooms, each occupied by a gallery, like excited college students on their first day at the dorms. “It’s been positive so far,” said Patricia Sweetow, one of the first gallerists to sign on with ArtPadSF.”The fairs give the community a focus, a place, a reason to celebrate.”

Wendi Norris, co-owner of Frey Norris gallery, echoed Sweetow’s comments when we chatted at her booth beneath the fluorescent glare of the Concourse’s lights. “Participating in this makes me feel like part of a community, instead of an island,” Norris said, adding, “of course, there’s the business side of things, but that’s not the only reason we’re here.” It was past 5 p.m., and the steady stream of foot traffic throughout the art-covered cubicles slowed as people drifted toward the corner bars. I hoped that they would stop en route at the tables for local arts organizations and nonprofits, which, truer to Norris’ words than she perhaps intended, had been placed at the outer edges of artMRKT’s grid-like layout like outliers in an archipelago.

Still, none of the partnering orgs involved could be said to have suffered from underexposure. Attendance at the fairs was high. ArtMRKT boasted 13,000 visitors over its three days (impressive, considering that incumbent SF Fine Art Fair’s total was 16,600). Meanwhile, ArtPadSF brought in 9,000 visitors (with 2,000 tickets sold), a high number given the Phoenix’s smaller size and the fair’s edgier aesthetic. Certainly, artMRKT and ArtPad’s turnouts were helped by the shuttle service that ran between them on the weekend (something that further underscored Fort Mason’s relative geographic remoteness).

The fairs were also strong fundraisers. UCSF’s Art Program netted $10,000 at artMKRT’s preview benefit, and ArtPad’s party raised $15,000 for its beneficiary nonprofit, the Black Rock Arts Foundation. Additionally, the SF Fine Art Fair raised $2,000 in donations for the SF Art Commission’s ArtCares conservation program, and each of the local arts organizations that participated in artMRKT’s MRKTworks online and mobile auction now has $1,500 more to their name.

Given those numbers, the question isn’t whether San Francisco can support art fairs — clearly it can, although I don’t think a city our size needs three to its name — but rather, What kind of fairs can best support art in San Francisco? ArtMRKT and ArtPadSF’s differing approaches and ambiances complimented each other immensely, and it was heartening to see such a concerted outreach effort to noncommercial spaces as well, even if, as at artMRKT, their presence didn’t really register onsite or in terms of programming.

One criticism I heard from a portion of gallerists, collectors, and attendees was that none of the fairs offered a strong enough curatorial sensibility, and that there weren’t enough prominent names among the non-SF participating galleries (several prominent SF galleries were also notably absent). Art fairs are, to some degree, always going to have to deal with the problem of offering something for everyone and nothing for some. But implicit in this critique is that none of the fairs presented themselves — and by extension San Francisco — as a unique market to be taken seriously by collectors.

To repeat a sentiment expressed in local critic and former Guardian contributor Glen Helfand’s take on the fairs for SFMOMA’s Open Space blog, the presence of art fairs isn’t going to turn San Francisco into a market boom town overnight. And that’s fine. In Helfand’s words, “[the Bay Area’s] market is determined by scale and temperament — we’ve got intimacy and experimentation on our side, but a curiously uncomfortable relationship to conspicuous consumption.” Smaller fairs such as ArtPadSF, at which the art was by and large more affordably priced and modest in scale, are one way perhaps to ease that discomfort, while still allowing local galleries, arts orgs and artists tobuild out their contact networks.

Certainly by late Sunday afternoon, as packing materials emerged, the optimistic skepticism expressed by many in the art community in the weeks leading up to the fairs seemed to have given way to pleasant surprise.

While talking to Kimberly Johannson of Oakland’s Johannson Projects, I witnessed a very happy 20-something purchase her first piece of art: a palm-sized, chirping kinetic sculpture of a bird-like creature by Misako Inaoka. Transactions like this could be taken as a hopeful sign that the future of art collecting in the Bay Area doesn’t rest solely with the established few or with moving units (although sales figures of SF Fine Art Fair, which boasted $6.3 million spent on modern and contemporary artwork, offer a different form of reassurance).

It will be interesting to see if and how these fairs, in particular ArtMRKT and ArtPadSF, grow and expand. “We need to keep in mind that these fairs are in their infancy,” cautions SF Art Commission Gallery director Meg Shiffler, who also attended and participated in the fairs, in an e-mail. “But people showed up. This goes a long way in validating the substantial support for the visual arts that exist in San Francisco.”

For a city that too often portrays itself as the woeful underdog routinely losing its visionaries to New York City and Los Angeles, that validation is critical.

‘AMERICA’ the beautiful



LIT/VISUAL ART Dear Mr. Ligon,

I’d like to begin this letter with an apology.

For years I’ve included your work in my personal pantheon. Since my first encounter with your text-based paintings in the pages of Artforum during your early days at the Whitney Museum, to your critiques of Mapplethorpe, to your contributions to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I have always found your work intriguing, inspiring, and — at times — exasperating. In short, you’ve never failed to impress me. Even more so when I consider your very vocal status as a gay black man in the high-end art world and as a gay black artist in the world at large. Still, I owe you this apology because, though I’ve held you in high esteem, I have underestimated you.

AMERICA, the catalog for your 20-year retrospective show held at the Whitney this year, has given me the opportunity to study the breadth and depth of your body of work. Being able sit with this sturdy black book, this 300-page piece of art in itself has — frankly — put me through some changes, brother.

Scott Rothkopf’s introductory essay talks about your early days as an Abstract Expressionist seeking your voice and how you found “that there was too much of a gap between what I wanted to say and the means I had to say it.” This reminded me of the line, “I’m simply without the means to conduct my own prism” from Will Alexander’s poetry collection Compression and Purity — which is what inspired me to write you this letter instead of some critique or some such. If you haven’t yet, you should read Alexander’s book. You’d like it.

Pulling inspiration from sources like Basquiat, David Hammons, Adrian Piper, Jasper Johns, and Martin Puryear, you began to make literary-based pieces where text is the primary — but not the only — means of communicating your newfound voice. And this, I confess, is where I got all messed up.

Take your dreambook series. As a viewer of painted text, I took it as a given that everyone knew what a dreambook was. That everyone knew what those three stenciled numbers in the middle of each piece meant. I thought everyone knew that you were preserving a magical artifact, and lucky magic at that. Only you knew better. You knew that everyone did not know dreambooks, or magic numbers — and where better to preserve this occult knowledge than in a museum of modern art? You understand curatorial expression, that how and where you say it is just as important as the saying itself. You have created literary-based multimedia narratives. I didn’t see this until AMERICA, and for this, I apologize.

I also apologize for what I can say, in hindsight, was a once-over of many of my favorite text pieces. In my defense, I didn’t get the opportunity to study your work in such great detail as the lush and plentiful plates in AMERICA have allowed me. Perhaps if I had, I wouldn’t be feeling so bad right now. I was so taken by the passages you chose from Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Pryor that I seemingly glossed over the statements the paintings themselves were making.

In one of my favorites, the words, “I’m Turning Into A Specter Before Your Very Eyes and I’m Going to Haunt You,” are painted in bold black stencil that starts at the very top of a large white canvas. And as the phrase repeats again and again, the letters begin to merge and darken, so by the bottom of the piece the letters are so thick, smeared, and obscured that all that remains is the intent of words, the feeling behind them. The effect is eerie and liberating at the same time. Okwui Enwezor’s essay “Text, Subtext, Intertext: Painting Language and Signifying in the Work of Glenn Ligon” shed much light on that.

I guess because of your dry wit and wry observations, I have not given you your “teeth.” Your take on runaway slave posters, placing yourself as described by friends and associates as the runaway, or your tribute to Henry “Box” Brown, the man who mailed himself to freedom, have intrigued me. But it was in the interview with Thelma Golden, where you mention that quoting Richard Pryor was scary, that I found my missing piece. There is something in the way that I laugh when I listen to Pryor that is relieving. His every punch line is like a daredevil outrunning the hell-hounds once again. You’re right, Pryor is scary.

For your part as the impetus to the “post-black” movement, for your haunting texts and textures, for deciding that AMERICA is the best theme for your retrospective — you scare me. I wrote this to say you scare me, Glenn Ligon. And I like it.

The mystery of Terry Malts



MUSIC The shroud of mystery surrounding Terry Malts is no accident. It turns out that all three band members are also core members of another local band (plus a few instrumental switcheroos) that has received some notoriety over the years, even snagging a spot on the soundtrack of one of those beloved television shows about WASP-y rich kids.

But to call it a side project or a spin-off from those-who-shall-remain-nameless — as is often done around town among people in the know — is disingenuous to all that is Terry Malts, a solid, well-conceived musical effort in its own right. Straying from the cliché of the self righteous musician, the band members seem to take little seriously in conversation. They cite poppers and tall cans of beer as influences and joke about having never heard of the aforementioned “other” band. But the music is no joke.

When asked what the real deal was with this seemingly covert operation, guitarist Corey Cunningham replies that the band “wanted a fresh start” and thought it best to “let people reach their own perspective.” Plus, he adds, there is no line where one of their bands begins and another ends. “I see it as though we are different people in a different band.”

Perhaps that’s why people seem to pigeonhole them into a punk corner in an effort to understand who and what the band Terry Malts is. The constant Ramones comparisons — though understandable on a superficial level — should make eyes roll because Terry Malts is so much more than that: carefree bubblegum pop of the 1960s combined with the fuck-you attitude of 1970s punk and a layer of fuzz and feedback enough to please any jaded post-punk-post-indie pop music snob.

These guys tear it up live as well — Nathan Sweatt’s fast-pounding drums are tight enough to incite a dance riot, and Cunningham’s high-driving distorted guitar leads sound like he took a bubble bath with a blender. Phil Benson, towering in stature and personality, seems as if he’s singing love ballads to his bass guitar — hugging his instrument up high and smiling while bopping up and down. But don’t misread that as precious. The boys have ass-kicking spunk that results in live performances and recordings that keep you wanting — no, needing — more.

The band just released a 7-inch on Slumberland Records, the still-relevant Oakland via Washington, D.C., label that released recordings from such college radio chart toppers as Small Factory, Velocity Girl, and 14 Iced Bears in the early 1990s. “I’ve been buying Slumberland records since high school, so it’s a big deal for me,” says Cunningham. Owner Mike Schulman sought them out after hearing this year’s double-A-sided Distracted cassette on Loglady.

Three tracks were chosen for the 7-inch release “I’m Neurotic,” with “Distracted” and “Where is the Weekend” wrapping up the B-side. The title track kicks off with a blast of overdrive and propulsive drum beat and continues on a steady rhythm with intermittent bursts of feedback. The sing-songy “Distracted,” a song about moving on after a heartbreak, is so blissfully poppy and sweet that you could eat it. Perhaps “Where is the Weekend” is the most straightforward and in-your-face — an anthem for the modern proletariat working a crap-ass job for low wages in an overpriced city where the weekend fun can’t come soon enough.

When asked what’s on the horizon for this up-and-coming band, Benson wisecracks: “There’s been talk of a possible LP. Perhaps a series of three flexis, each featuring a different instrument, that while played together on three separate turntables reveal a single masterpiece. We shall see.” Oh yes, we shall. *


W/ Melted Toys and Permanent Collection

June 2, 9 p.m., $3

The Knockout

3223 Mission, SF


Finding the funk



SOUND TO SPARE Every time I’d call Bootzilla Productions, the same sexy-voiced female would intercept the answering machine and say, “You’ve reached the office of Bootsy Collins.” This was after Collins — in his unmistakable, almost cartoon-character voice — doing a weird little recorded skit at the beginning. My last-ditch effort to phone chat was a simple request to talk about “The Funk” with the Ohio-based funkateer, who’s now pushing 60 and coming to the Fillmore Saturday, June 4 for his first Bay Area performance in seven years. I’d have to go elsewhere for answers.

I needed a funk expert, if you will. But my question was: Is there a department for such a thing? It turned out I needed to look no further than Berkeley writer and legitimate funk historian Rickey Vincent. Vincent was able to explain how Collins and his genre-defining space bass is the glue that holds the funk together. It’s easy to get lost in the who’s who of P-Funk All Stars, which saw many incarnations from its roots in the late 1960s — when George Clinton and his doo-wop group the Parliaments found their way to Detroit but ended up as Motown rejects — to the infancy of the 1980s. By then, Parliament-Funkadelic was a full-blown recording and touring enterprise. What I didn’t know was that before he had donned the star shades and outlandish costumes, Collins honed his chops with a man known for running a tight ship when it came to stage performance: it was James Brown himself who would have Collins hold the rhythm down “on the one.”

For your own funkology, the easiest way for me to explain “on the one” is via the chorus to “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker).” We’ve all heard it, and its samples in hip-hop have been well-documented. When the Parliaments sing, “We want the funk,” the emphasis is on the we. This is the same technique Brown already had employed in the mid- to late 1960s when he started crafting infectious beats on songs like “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.” By 1970, after Brown’s back-up band had walked out on him over pay, Collina stepped in for a short time, lending licks to some of Brown’s most notable funk tracks.

“The James Brown Revue had to be replaced,” Vincent says. “[Brown] had a highly disciplined approach that had an impact. But Bootsy was a free spirit.” In a short time, according to Vincent, Collins learned the business, including booking, costumes, and organization. “Later on [Collins] became known for outrageousness, but it was always a polished set,” he says. Collins came from the same Ohio funk tradition that produced the likes of Zapp, Lakeside, Slave, and the Ohio Players — who all demonstrated unity in their sounds and color-coordinated looks.

But for all that Collins learned under Brown as his temporary, bass-playing protégé, he flourished even more under the free-form tutelage of George Clinton, who allowed for creativity and experimentation. On Parliament’s 1975 Chocolate City (Casablanca), the writers updated Brown’s anthem of black pride, expanding the notion into a full-fledged theme of black power in places you wouldn’t normally expect. They ask us to envision a black president, complete with a cabinet consisting of secretaries Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. Fortunately this premonition for Washington hasn’t been completely off-base, but I suspect the cabinet is still a bit vanilla for the Mothership’s tastes. (Side note: Washington’s Smithsonian acquired a replica of the Mothership stage prop, which will be a part of its National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening in 2015.)

Vincent was one of those fortunate enough to have been in attendance at the Oakland Coliseum when the Mothership landed during Parliament-Funkadelic’s 1977 tour. He admires Collins’ longevity, calling him one of the only musicians from the original funk era who is not starving. He attributes Bootzilla’s viability as an artist to having such great teachers and for having kept track of publishing rights and royalties. Now, almost 35 years later, he doesn’t exactly expect to see a return of the iconic space prop on the Fillmore’s relatively small stage, but he did say this: “Bootsy is a spectacle in himself. He doesn’t have to rip the thumpasaurus riffs for four hours. Just one slap will have you hooked.”

Bootsy Collins

Sat/4, 9 p.m., $46


1805 Geary, SF



Stalled out



THEATER Call it one step back in the middle of a big leap forward. Intersection for the Arts and resident theater company Campo Santo marks the organization’s recent move to the Chronicle Building with a hobbled world premiere adaptation of Denis Johnson’s latest novel, Nobody Move. The title for Johnson’s fleet, cool, and witty crime noir comes from a reggae lyric: “Nobody move, nobody get hurt.” A cautionary line that sounds too prescient under the circumstances, but life moves whether we like it or not.

Personally, I don’t like it, at least this week. Watching Campo Santo flail with Denis Johnson material is a bummer that feels like the end of a winning streak. Johnson, a protean American author (and Campo Santo’s playwright in residence), turned midcareer to playwriting after contact with the exceptional San Francisco theater company back in 1999. His close collaboration with Campo Santo led to some of the more vibrant and thrilling productions of the last decade, including Soul of a Whore and Hell Hound on My Trail. Even less successful outings like 2006’s Purvis were more than worthwhile, full of bold ideas and strong take-no-prisoners performances.

No such inspired passion or theatrical muscularity arises from Nobody Move, which centers on the California adventures of one Jimmy Luntz.

Many a first-glance would peg Luntz (Daveed Diggs) as a loser, but this oddball amateur musician and inveterate gambler is sure he was “born lucky.” Luntz, however, has owed a gangster from Alhambra named Juarez (Tommy Shepherd) a little too much for a little too long. He narrowly escapes retribution from Gambol (Donald E. Lacy Jr.), Juarez’s strong arm, by popping him one in the leg and making for the mountains along the Feather River. There he meets a tough, boozy Indian beauty named Anita (Catherine Castellanos) who has been set up to take the fall for an embezzlement scheme by her powerful ex-husband and a corrupt judge. Luntz and Anita form a lopsided marriage of lust and convenience, with Luntz promising to help her steal the stolen money as they hide out together at a sad motorcycle clubhouse operated by former Luntz associate Capra (Michael Torres) and his high-strung lover Sol (Brian Rivera). Meanwhile, a veteran in Juarez’s employ named Mary (Margo Hall) nurses Gambol back to his ugly self and begins a curious romance with the bad man as he plots sadistic, testicle-chomping revenge against lucky Luntz.

Lunching on Luntz’s nuts is just one plot-driver, but a solid one. At the very least, it should have created — as it does in the novel — a wincing degree of suspense. Director-adapter Sean San José assembles a cast of Campo Santo regulars who should be more than up for the job. But an unmoving note is struck from the very first lines. Diggs broadcasts too loudly and manically to allow us much entry or sympathy for our hero. And though Castellanos gets him to cool down a bit, just about everyone else is over-amped too, turning the cool-jazz tone of Johnson’s enjoyable prose into a screechy cacophony.

There are, nevertheless, some choice moments here and there, as you’d expect from the likes of a Margo Hall or Michael Torres, who both provide some much needed ballast. But the actors are also up against a script that never quite stands firmly on its own legs, but rather — like the injured psychopathic gangster Gambol (infused with plenty of bluster and spleen by Lacy) — hops painfully from one place to the next. The dialogue — originally sharp, lean and consistently funny noir-repartee — comes across here as strained and unnecessarily overloaded by detail confined to descriptive passages in the novel. As is, the play moves, but skittishly, in a loud and self-conscious way that prevents any serious engagement with either the characters or the story.

The benefits of Intersection’s move from Valencia Street to previously vacated space on the ground floor of the Chronicle’s longtime headquarters (the newspaper’s offices have retreated to an upper floor) will no doubt show themselves in the coming months. But Campo Santo’s opening bid is a disappointment, even as it shows off a promising new performance space in a large basement-level conference room.


Through June 12

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun, 3 p.m., $20–$35

Intersection for the Arts

925 Mission, SF

(415) 626-2787