Volume 45 Number 37
On June 7, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 11-0 to reject an appeal of the Treasure Island environmental impact report. The appeal was brought by Arc Ecology and our colleagues the Sierra Club, Golden Gate Audubon Society, Wild Equity, former Sup. Aaron Peskin, and Yerba Buena Island resident Ken Masters.
The board will tell you that the Department of City Planning and the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development found the appeal lacking in merit.
In the appeal, we claimed the EIR lacked the specificity to qualify as a project EIR, which means that after it passes, the city will have substantially limited the ability of any future Board of Supervisors to address the project’s actual environmental impacts. But these impacts cannot and will not be known until actual development proposals, none of which presently exist, are made.
Sup. Jane Kim and city planning staffers argued that the EIR had almost too much specificity. For example, without showing a single confirming diagram, project sponsors claimed they could cut as many as 100 stories off the proposed skyscrapers — yet keep the same number of condos without increasing the bulk, height, or number of buildings in the overall project. How? Through the Harry Potter-like magic of “flex buildings and zones.”
The board will tell you that this project presents a vision of a new community unrivaled in the Bay Area and nation — a new Athens. But the supervisors don’t seem to realize that it’s a development with a population larger than Emeryville, about the size of Albany. Indeed, the separate dedicated buildings of affordable homes truly make Treasure Island like Athens of old, with poorer people segregated from the rich.
They don’t see that this is a self-reflecting vision blithely unconcerned about the impacts it will have on the greater Bay Area region, and that it’s a bloated project that will vastly exceed the region’s capacity to support it. It’s a project whose impacts will enslave legions of people to longer commutes as more cars flood the bridge, pushing traffic like rising sea levels into the upper reaches of East Bay freeways. Nor are project proponents particularly concerned about the impacts of air pollution blowing from the bridge and the region’s freeways into Berkeley, Emeryville, and Oakland.
Finally, neither the supervisors, nor the city planners, nor the Office of Economic and Workforce Development seem to be aware that San Francisco currently has 30,000 vacant housing units. It will cost a projected $577,000 to build each Treasure Island unit. But more units could be built on San Francisco’s mainland with almost no impact, simply by allowing rental units in the basements of some of our stock of 130,000 single-family homes.
That kind of housing isn’t as luxurious as a 45-story view of the bay from Treasure Island perhaps — but at a cost of $100,000 to $200,000 per unit, more than half of those in-law apartments could be rented at or below market rate. Infill housing of that sort would also mean greater stability for established home owners, more jobs and business opportunities, and more riders for Muni.
Still, the appellants weren’t trying to halt any project at Treasure Island. The appeal was about was fixing the deficiencies in the EIR and right-sizing the project so it can move forward with its benefits intact.
In the Tarot, the Five of Cups depicts an individual so besotted by that possibilities floating before his eyes that he stands mesmerized, believing they are at hand — of course, in reality he’s fooling himself. In the case of Treasure Island, the supervisors and city officials are intoxicated by the visions floating in the bay — and are thus blinded to the better options of making this city and region more sustainable and affordable.
DANCE Life partners running a dance company together is rare, and when it happens the couple usually keeps responsibilities distinct. In ballet, Gerald Arpino and Robert Joffrey did it for many years; Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary are making a go of it in Los Angeles. In modern dance, it is simply unheard of. Modern dance companies are one-man or one-woman affairs. But no longer: Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton have broken the mold.
A couple for the last 15 years, they plunged into choreographing together in 2007 with the splendidly original String Wreck. In 2009, they raised the ante with The Illustrated Book of Invisible Stories, which used a movement choir — something Moulton had perfected in his Precision Ball Passing works — of student performers and Garrett’s professional dancers. Now they have refined that model.
The exhilarating The Experience of Flight in Dreams was a wondrous meditation on the idea of being liberated from the boundaries and restrictions — physical and intellectual — that tie us down. With Experience, Garrett and Moulton have, in fact, taken flight. This new work tightly integrates the dancers and the choir into a propulsive whole without infringing on the essential identities between the two groups.
The choir was used ingeniously. Their many hands allowed the dancers to fly or float or swoop and dive. With their fingers, they delineated individual portraits. But they also became obstacles to be overcome and roads to be traveled. At one point supine on the floor, they were the dead calling out to dancer Nol Simonse.
The choreography for the five professional dancers was so fragmented and high-pitched that the relative calm of the choir’s activity created balance. Their unisons were also much less regimented; they were alive and filled with breath.
There were dreamers of many kinds in Experience. Dudley Flores was a loner who, encased by supporting arms, periodically woke up and tried to reach for the beyond. He finally succeeded at the end when, carried above the heads of everyone, he became a living image of transcendence — though it wasn’t an image I found convincing.
There was also the petite dynamo Tanya Bello and Yu-Mien Wu in spitfire encounters of kicks, rolls, and lock-steps. When carried aloft by the choir, Bello and Wu looked as if they had sunk into pillows and seemed slightly surprised at what happened to them. Wu is a stunning newcomer with a bravura elevation and leaps that hang in the air forever. He didn’t, however, need such a long solo to prove the point.
Simonse and Carolina Czechowska’s duet had a twitchy but distanced intensity to it as they tried to make contact. Simonse’s dream was a nightmare from which he couldn’t wake up. Like a wounded soldier who comes home, he couldn’t open his fists, no matter how hard he tried. Carried out by the choir, he looked like he had been crucified, or was a carcass. Always an intense artist, he outdid himself in this show.
But not all of Experience‘s dreams were lofty and profound. Some were earthy and simple, like a high-spirited social encounter to some gypsy music. Or Flores and Simonse in a hilarious, gesture-driven meet in which they went at each other, as a friend observed, like two roosters. Or perhaps Bello who, for the heck of it, interrupted a solemn proceeding with a running, screaming fit that, no surprise here, became infectious.
In the penultimate section, the choir hoisted and lowered big panels of fabric that created billowing waves the dancers had to pass through (not unlike the worshippers did in the “Wade in the Water” section of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations). Perhaps it was meant as a transition to the finale. It didn’t seem to make much sense.
Garrett and Moulton work well together; they also choose excellent collaborators. Foremost among them was group of eight top-flight musicians who, under the guidance of Jonathan Russell, played one of the most deliciously appropriate dance scores that has been heard in these parts in a long time (along with the absolute pleasure of having live music). Oana Botez Ban’s red and black palette for the costumes worked well, as did Jacob Petrie’s supportive lighting design.
If last week’s E3 press conferences in Los Angeles are any indication, game consoles are no longer just about games. The Electronic Entertainment Expo, the year’s biggest video game industry event, lavishly presented gamers with a sneak peek at the most-anticipated titles and hardware goodies looking to lighten wallets later this year. But as more blockbuster game franchises are released simultaneously on the Wii, PlayStation, and Xbox, it’s become imperative for their parent companies to differentiate themselves — and traditional gaming has begun to take a back seat to this broad experimentation.
Along those lines, Microsoft attempted to guide itself out of the corner it had painted itself into following the huge sales of Kinect, the camera device that quickly became the fastest-selling consumer electronic of all time. Microsoft has been lacking significant game releases for Kinect owners, making this year’s release slate integral to satisfying the new and unexpectedly large consumer base. An upcoming Xbox interface allowing users to control other entertainment like Netflix and live TV by voice seemed to be a hit, as was the announcement of Kinect controls for traditional games like Mass Effect 3 and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Microsoft undoubtedly launched Kinect to compete with the draw of Nintendo’s family-friendly Wii, and the device’s appeal to the more serious gamer is a delicate maneuver that these franchises could help accomplish.
In the PlayStation camp, Sony made a speedy apology for the PlayStation Network outage that has battered its reputation for the past two months and piggybacked its return with announcements for bundles, deals, and partnerships offering consumers considerable content for their respective price points. Presenting these products as “gifts” to consumers was an interesting approach to mitigating ire over the network snafu. All business, Sony’s presentation was the least titillating but perhaps most solid of the conferences.
No more beating around the bush: the biggest question going into E3 2011 was “What is Nintendo’s new console?” Leaked information that pointed to a new, more powerful console was confirmed when Nintendo announced the Wii U, a console with a touchscreen controller capable of streaming games to your hands — with or without a television screen. Actual game announcements were left to the newly-launched 3DS and surprises were scarce: tried-and-true franchises Mario Kart, Starfox, and The Legend of Zelda. While the possibilities for Wii U initially seem vast, the console’s true nature — and that of its “revolutionary” controller — remains nebulous. There’s the potential for an HD system to recapture Nintendo’s diminishing hardcore audience, but right now the Wii U looks like another stab at cornering families and casual players.
Third-party publishers care less about console revolutions and more about good ol’ fashioned video games. Electronic Arts stuck to its guns, offering concrete gameplay footage and loud (loud!) speakers that shook the Orpheum Theatre with Battlefield 3 explosions. The Battlefield franchise is looking to take Call of Duty head-on this year, and time will tell if players favor authenticity over that series’ scripted bombast. Either way, Battlefield 3 is one pretty game. EA also made a strong go at providing social networking experiences that augment traditional play, and offered them all for free — perhaps a dig at Activision’s recent announcement it will offer paid subscriptions to a similar Call of Duty social experience.
Inside the Los Angeles Convention Center, many newly-announced games were playable or shown in demo form. Highlights: Uncharted 3‘s two gameplay demos both boasted a top-tier knack for exciting set-pieces and storytelling, and it is the first game to truly suggest the power 3-D can add to the gameplay experience. BioShock Infinite was unmatched in attention to detail with its departure to a city-in-the-clouds backdrop. And Mass Effect 3 finally gave gamers a glimpse of Earth’s destruction in a short demo that demonstrated massive carnage and a surprisingly-affecting level finale. There were tears in a few eyes, folks.
E3 2011 was less about this or that game, and more about the process of evolving your traditional game console into an entertainment center where you surf the Web, watch movies, and even take the experience on the go. Nintendo was eager to suggest the new home applications its controller might afford, and Microsoft and Sony focused on expanding new possibilities for their current hardware through Kinect and Sony’s motion device, PlayStation Move. As more and more of the public identify as gamers, this is the playing field expanding to allow for different types of game experiences. Even so, games like Battlefield 3, Uncharted 3, and Mass Effect 3 suggest traditional gaming is more than up to the competition a broader user base might bring.
SOUND TO SPARE The potential closing of Haight Street’s Red Vic Theater has unsettled me. With one less place to go out and enjoy, what’s a shut-in-prone type like me to do?
Fortunately, when I spoke to Sam Sharkey, one of the co-op’s managing partners, he offered a ray of hope by saying that the Red Vic Movie House is here, organized — it just partnered with the Haight Street Fair and the California Jug Band Association for a benefit — and best of all, still screening movies, some of them music-related.
Let me take a breath for a minute to reflect and appreciate some of the carefully curated films I’ve encountered at this fine establishment. I’ve transcended the mundane through Ziggy Stardust’s gender-bending, screwed-up-eyes stage persona in Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Director D.A. Pennebaker, better known for documenting Bob Dylan in the 1960s, tried his hand at capturing the Bowie in full glam garb during a 1973 tour. Mick Ronson shreds on guitar to undeniably comical proportions. I recall the audience cracking up, something you just don’t get when you’ve opted to Netflix at home.
The less acclaimed — but equally gorgeous — somber sounds of a pop-star- turned-recluse proved to be quite a treat. Scott Walker: 30th Century Man (2006) was one of those films I didn’t know I needed to see, until the rainy day someone sent me a YouTube link to his song “It’s Raining Today.” The opening atmospheric sounds alone on this track are enough to captivate, but as it moves forward into Walker’s commanding crooning voice, you realize that he has the ability to convey dread and beauty at once. The film is a concrete testament to his influence on contemporary musicians.
Later I was given the soundtrack to boxing’s “Rumble in the Jungle,” set in early 1970s Zaire, where a showcase of mostly familiar soul artists pulled off a hugely successful stadium concert. Soul Power (2008) sort of serves as a musical counterpart to 1996’s When We Were Kings, which was the cinematic predecessor dealing with the same Ali vs. George fight. The symbolic implications of the event for African and African American pride are brought to the fore, and the concept of power is examined, whether it is achieved physically, politically or even musically.
Sharkey said that declining attendance was the Red Vic’s main obstacle. Single-screen theaters aren’t as much of a sustainable business anymore, as evidenced by the number that have closed in the last 10 to 20 years. The Castro Theatre and the Roxie in the Mission seem to be surviving, though — I wondered why people weren’t coming out for movies in the Haight anymore. Was it a bad rap from all the sit-lie buzz? Sharkey didn’t seem convinced on that argument, trusting that his patrons wouldn’t buy into that hype. He leaned toward more technology, calling this an age of competition and noting that the accessibility of movies via broadband Internet is just too convenient.
If you’re a music fan who wants to help curb the trend against local establishments falling by the wayside, then the no-brainer is to hit the Red Vic for the following music films. Rock out for the cause — or you may end up drowning in a sea of Whole Foods.
June 26-28, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune. The unsung 1960s antiwar folksinger (who doesn’t mind taking a backseat to Dylan) gets the full doc treatment.
July 14, The Hippie Temptation. Vintage 1967 footage of the Haight-Ashbury scene in its glorious heyday as seen through the eyes of CBS News. Originally aired on TV, this “hilariously biased” take on flower power should have you craving the street peddlers’ wares immediately after the show.
July 15-16, Stop Making Sense. Classic Talking Heads circa 1984 at L.A.’s Pantages Theatre. Watching a jittery David Byrne working the crowd in his oversized boxy white suit should be worth the price of admission alone.
July 19-20, The Last Waltz. This one’s cool for a couple of reasons. First, it’s directed by Martin Scorsese and, second, it captures The Band’s final show at San Francisco’s old Winterland Ballroom, a place I’ve often dreamed of seeing a show.
MUSIC Tyler, the Creator makes schizophrenic music. At least four entangled voices riddle his latest effort on XL Recordings, Goblin, the follow-up to his self-produced, rapped, and designed debut, Bastard, which he released on Tumblr.com in late 2009. One of those voices is some sort of inner conscience or demon, a pitched down grumble of bass, that doubles as Tyler’s obsequious therapist. But it also takes on the roll of ethical advisor and spiritual consultant: Tyler, you’re right to feel that way; people do like you; you shouldn’t kill all your friends. Even Tyler’s conscience disintegrates into corroded delusions and anxiety. Meanwhile, Tyler, at 20 years old, is an uncompromising, violent, self-hating, offensive, sexually repressed, obnoxious, yet sometime charming and funny protagonist who growls and spews partially digested rhymes over off-syncopated drum programming and synthetic keyboard washes.
The therapist conscience is a foil for Tyler’s caustic self-reflection in Goblin. This dynamic allows for multiple layers of inner dialogue, which subside only when other members of Los Angeles’ Odd Future collective (short for Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All) give Tyler’s disturbed and heavily claustrophobic mental space some breathing room. Frank Ocean, the only member of the crew above the drinking age, waxes sincere R&B verses in “She,” bringing into contrast how Tyler’s unfulfilled desire for his lust interest degenerates into anger, voyeurism, and eventually, fantasies of possession. With Hodgy Beats, Tyler is hungriest on “Sandwitches.” Who the fuck invited ‘Mr. I Don’t Give a Fuck’/ Who cries about his daddy and a blog because his music sucks, he raps, before flipping the chorus of “Wolf Gang” into a call to arms for all who feel slighted by the establishment, any establishment.
In response to the rapid escalation of media attention circling Odd Future since last winter (which perhaps recently climaxed in a lengthy New Yorker article on the mysterious disappearance of member Earl Sweatshirt), Tyler negates excessively: the hip-hop blogs that gave him no love, kids with comfortable homes and families, music critics, moralists who accuse him of homophobia and misogyny. Tyler stands for defiance and offensiveness, rejection and swag, bastards and goblins, skateboards, skating apparel, and the simple joys of juvenile delinquency.
Another voice in Goblin is a rare appearance: some sort of helium-intoxicated creature. It slightly echoes Madlib’s incarnation of gratuitous violence in the Quasimoto character, culled straight from a Melvin Van Peebles’ film trailing a black man’s escape and redemption from the systematic violence brought to bear on his body in America’s inner city. But there’s not much of a redeeming light in Goblin. And the source of Tyler’s frustration and belligerent lashing out is all the more obscure. The record is thoroughly dystopian, despite its pretensions to comedy — a lonely soul trying to find its way in a desolate and often antagonistic world.
Tyler shares as much in spirit with the paranoid hallucinations of the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” minus the lighthearted melody, as with Eminem’s confessional tirades. Moments of vulnerability seem to, if not justify the violent outrage, then at least make it bearable (and for a certain listener, endearing). The critique in Goblin, if there is any critique, might be one of taking the system more seriously than it takes itself. The record is neither ironic nor detached, but a head-on dive into the gluttony of indulgences that comprise popular culture and much of everyday life today, as well as the psychological pain and alienation that the system manufactures in its wayside.
Goblin is not much of a crossover album, either. There aren’t many hooks to hold onto since much of the schizoid discourse replaces formal pop structures. It’s a sprawling record, some songs inching toward 10 minutes. The most memorable hook is the anarchic anthem of “Radicals” in which “Kill people! Burn shit! Fuck school!” is yelled in a repetitive chant. It’s hackneyed and silly enough to make you cringe. But the chant makes more sense when Odd Future performs live (let me tell you, shit is wild), where a sea of teenagers, and those of teen spirit, tap into the sort of rebellious energy you thought had dispersed into the dust of musical archives. This seduction also comes through in the recording. The beat fumbles sickly and the distorted melodic slime falls away to empty pockets of sound where Tyler calls to the listener: “Odd future, wolf gang. We came together cause we had nobody else. Do you? You just might be one of us. Are you?”
Tues/21, 8 p.m., $20
1300 Van Ness Ave., SF
HAIRY EYEBALL Weaving my way through the groups of slower moving shoppers and tourists ambling out of the Powell Street BART Station, I realized I was already too late.
I had wanted to be present for the June 11 noon kickoff of Market Day — the large-scale public art event tied to Allison Smith’s current Southern Exposure exhibit “The Cries of San Francisco” — but when I reached Mint Plaza and had been handed a schedule I saw that my timing had been off by an hour.
Oh well. The point of Market Day wasn’t to necessarily be at a certain place at a certain hour to see a certain something. The “something” was supposedly happening all around me. The nearly 70 Bay Area artists, performers, and craftspeople Smith had gathered for this ambitious public art project had dispersed throughout Mint Plaza, and up and down Market Street between Fifth and Third streets, to peddle their wares (many homemade), offer more ineffable “services” (such as owning the expletive of your choice or telling you a story), or to simply “perform” in “character.”
The criers were to be like tiny pebbles subtly altering the fast-moving watercourse of weekend foot traffic. Granted, participation is hard to measure for something like “The Cries of San Francisco,” but wherever I turned, people seemed engaged even if the number of folks documenting a given artist seemed to greatly outnumber the members of the public they were interacting with.
I decided I needed a little more intimacy if I was to get my feet wet. I started back toward Market and ran into a woman dressed in steampunk-ish attire. Her name was Jamie Venci, a.k.a. the Questing Choreographer (each participating artist conveniently had a large nametag). She offered me an informative pamphlet about one of three historic buildings in the vicinity that had survived the 1906 earthquake if I promised to carry out the site-specific choreography contained within.
I agreed, and for convenience’s sake, I went with the Mint Building. Not five minutes later, I was on the steps of “the Granite Lady” attempting to convey the shape of its crenellated outline with my arms — per a step in Venci’s cutely drawn instructions — in what must have looked like a particularly inept approximation of tai chi.
Conceptual art requires a suspension of disbelief on the part of its audience. I was not merely being ridiculous in public, but was publicly enacting a new relationship to a space I had not really considered too closely before. I, as much as Venci, was the Questing Choreographer, and together we had collaborated on a piece.
The satisfaction I took in my demonstration of good faith was fleeting, as questions took over. What had passersby thought about what I was doing? And how could they really have anything to think about without some context for my undertaking? If a person dresses up in a colorful manner in San Francisco and carries on in public does anyone raise an eyebrow, let alone pause to consider the host of artistic and economic concerns that “The Cries of San Francisco” aimed to bring to the streets?
Materials for the event cited Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire to protest police harassment, as well as Carol Reed’s 1968 film version of the musical Oliver! as representational precedents. But despite the presence of Art for a Democratic Society’s Class War Store cart full o’ Marxism, the tenor of many of the criers was more playful than revolutionary. Whimsy was the order of the day.
Ha Ha La (Nathaniel Parsons) pushed around an “amusement park,” a steep ladder that participants would gingerly climb up and down while Parsons bellowed a New Age-y chant affirming their bravery and blessedness through a conch shell. After I took my turn on the rickety structure, I chose a souvenir badge that read, “You don’t have to behave you just gotta be brave.”
Also hard to miss was Maria de los Angeles Burr, who, as the Unsellable, had transformed herself into a walking pile of paper bags. “I have become burdened by too many possessions,” she muttered to me, as confused shoppers exiting from the Westfield Centre stopped to take pictures or gawked while hurrying on their way.
I wondered if they got the visual pun, or would simply move on and tune out the other criers much in the same way many of us avoid other solicitors like petitioners or canvassers.
I also wondered what the Market Street regulars — the men who sell cheap earrings, bootleg Giants merchandise, and faux-cashmere scarves from tables or the young hip-hop dancers who busk near the Powell Street cable car turnaround — thought about the criers. Did they view them as competition? As a friendly change-of-scene? Or did they see them at all?
By 4:30 p.m., all the criers had reconvened at Mint Plaza. They seemed tired from their day of art-making and being “on.” Continuing at a full clip, however, were tweens Colin Cooper and Cole Simon, by far the loudest and youngest hawkers, who had set up shop as the Masters of Disguise (one of their parents informed me that their after-school art teacher, a California College of the Arts student, had encouraged them to get involved with the project).
I walked away from our genial encounter $1 poorer but with a pair of plastic pink sunglasses and an orange mustache to my name. I felt braver with them on.
The carnival continues: the gallery installation component of “The Cries of San Francisco” is up until early next month and will host a series of performance events. Future Saturday marketplaces are scheduled for two Saturdays, June 18 and July 2 (noon to 6 p.m.). And on Wednesday, June 15 at 7 p.m., various criers will present a showcase of musical storytelling, speeches, and other forms of public address.
THE CRIES OF SAN FRANCISCO
Through July 2
3030 20th St., SF
FILM Apparently Steve Coogan in no way cares if you think he’s an asshole. Fitting, then, that he has perfected an onscreen persona as vain and insecure as it is vapid and self-indulgent. Playing a fictionalized version of oneself has always been a tricky proposition, but Coogan has taken the gambit of self-portrayal-as-schmuck to the level of masochistic brilliance (Larry David, take note). Why would someone this purportedly insecure want to expose himself for the insecure mess that he is? Who cares? In The Trip, comedy as self-flagellation goes down with the ease of an expertly mixed cocktail at a Michelin-starred eatery.
Eclectic British director Michael Winterbottom, who previously worked with British actor Coogan in 2005’s Brechtian Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and the 2002 cult fave 24 Hour Party People, humiliates Coogan (2008’s Tropic Thunder) on all number of levels in this largely improvised comic romp through England’s Lake District. Well, romp might be the wrong descriptive. Dubbed a “foodie Sideways” but more plaintive and less formulaic than that sun-dappled California affair, this TV-to-film adaptation displays a characteristic English glumness to surprisingly keen emotional effect.
Ironically, the “real” Coogan’s persona is rooted in a fictional character. Alan Partridge, the sniveling talk show host Coogan has embodied in all his vile glory for nearly two decades, has come to virtually define him not only as an actor but also, perversely, as a man. Partridge’s penchant for clueless assholery has reached legendary proportions in the United Kingdom, and the Coogan-is-Partridge attitude is clearly widespread. “Is it true what they say about you?” a young man asks before holding up a copy of the Daily Mail with the screaming headline “Coogan is a Cunt.” Yes, it’s part of the actor’s dream sequence, but it nicely folds his rampant insecurity together with the affirmation that (as seen in The Trip, anyway) he is indeed pretty much just that.
Coogan displays all the characteristically carefree joie de vivre of a colonoscopy patient with hemorrhoids as he sloshes through the gray northern landscape trying to get cell reception in between dining on haute cuisine and being wracked with self-doubt over his stalled movie career. His happily married, happy-go-lucky frenemy, comic actor Rob Brydon (his Tristram Shandy costar, also playing himself here), is subjected to constant denigration during their travels but takes it all in stride. “I’d love to quote your work back at you, but I don’t know any of it,” Coogan jabs after Brydon does a spot-on Partridge. A particular highlight is the much-vaunted scene featuring the pair’s dueling Michael Caine impressions.
While Coogan can’t help but come off like a pathetic middle-aged prick in a puffy coat, somehow his confused narcissism is our perverse panacea. Also be sure to enjoy the snot martinis and scallops, as well as Brydon’s gleeful “small man in a box” routine. Just don’t be put off by the schadenfreude. Coogan insists.
THE TRIP opens Fri/17 in Bay Area theaters.
FILM Hell hath no fury like an enraged Klaus Kinski. The late German actor, who rose to prominence in the 1970s as the combusting supernova at the center of the Wernzer Herzog films Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Cobra Verde (1987), was as famous for his coruscating off-camera temper as for his onscreen intensity. With Kinski, there is always the near-unanswerable question of to what extent is his performance acting and to what extent is he just being himself. Are we watching someone who has totally, obsessively (unhealthily?) committed to his craft, or a petulant diva whose overinflated ego perhaps bruises too easily?
Klaus Kinski: Jesus Christ the Savoir, a recently rediscovered concert film of a 1971 solo performance, makes a riveting case for all of the above. Filmed a year before he headed to the South American jungle with Herzog, Jesus Christ finds Kinski alone on a spot-lit stage before a packed house delivering a monologue that frames Christ as a persecuted outlaw. “Wanted: Jesus Christ,” he purrs, “charged with seduction, anarchistic tendencies, conspiracy against the authority of the state.”
Not five minutes in the catcalls begin, no doubt encouraged by Kinski’s sudden switch to the first person, making overt the already implicit and problematic association of himself with his subject. “I want my 10 marks back!” cries one audience member. “Shut up!” Kinski volleys back. When one particularly bold heckler climbs on stage to chasten Kinski for his un-Christ-like language, the actor has his security guards forcibly remove the young man and storms off stage to the audience’s cries of “fascist.”
Things only get uglier as the evening progresses. Kinksi returns a second time to proselytize for the continued relevance of scripture by drawing comparisons to then-current issues such as Vietnam and the growing counterculture. The audience, both fascinated and repelled by this wealthy actor whose truculent delivery and hostility toward his flock undercuts his message of nonviolence and justified outrage at the world’s horrors, continues to have its say. Many times, in fact. Kinski walks away from the mic twice more in disgust at the “riffraff.” It is only after the film’s credits that the visibly drained thespian finally delivers his sermon in full to the remaining faithful.
What’s surprising is the palpable sincerity beneath Kinski’s vitriol: He seems genuinely exasperated by the unreceptive crowd, even as each successive disciplinary outburst further alienates them. Of course, such naiveté is another symptom of privilege, but rarely are the privileged as hypnotic or as loose a cannon as Kinski. God bless him.
KLAUS KINSKI: JESUS CHRIST THE SAVIOR
Thurs/16, 7:30 p.m.; Sun/19, 2 p.m., $6–$8
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
Once upon a time (1987 to be exact), two young men who were old friends moved to San Francisco from the Midwest to take in all the big city had to offer. Like many 20-somethings, Eddie Lee “Sausage” and Mitchell “Mitch D” Deprey didn’t have a lot of money and wound up living in a somewhat derelict apartment in the Lower Haight with a bright pink exterior they dubbed “the Pepto Bismol Palace.” The paint was peeling and the walls were thin but the rent was cheap.
What Eddie and Mitch didn’t count on was having Peter J. Haskett and Raymond Huffman as their neighbors. “You blind cocksucker. You wanna fuck with me? You try to touch me, and I will kill you in a fucking minute.” “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up, little man!”
The insults, tantrum-throwing, and threats of violence (which sometimes crossed over into actual fisticuffs) coming from next door were constant. When they weren’t drinking like fishes, Peter — acid-tongued, gay — and Ray — the more hotheaded of the two and an unrepentant homophobe — seemingly devoted their every waking hour to mercilessly tearing each other apart.
Weeks went by. Eddie and Mitch started to lose sleep. And after one failed attempt at complaining to Raymond’s face (he threatened death), they started tape-recording Peter and Ray’s endless geyser of vitriol — first, as possible future evidence — but also out of a growing voyeuristic fascination with these two seniors who had to be the world’s oddest and angriest odd couple.
The rest is history. Mitch and Eddie started including snippets of Peter and Ray’s bickering on mixtapes for friends. Somehow, the editor of the now-defunct SF noise music zine Bananafish heard a snippet and approached Mitch and Eddie about distributing compilations of the recordings to a large network of found sound fans. Gradually “Peter and Raymond” became known and much-beloved characters. Their warped repartee — frequently referred to using Raymond’s favorite rejoinder, “Shut up, little man!,” as shorthand — inspired several theatrical adaptations, short animated films, pages of comic book panels by artists such as Daniel Clowes, and even a one-off single from Devo side project the Wipeouters. SF Weekly did a cover story and there were reams of additional press. Hollywood types called wanting to know who owned the rights to Peter and Raymond. Things had gotten big.
“Shut Up Little Man has been an enchanted, messy cultural accident,” reflects Sausage (he’s kept the moniker) over a Skype conference call. “It was a personal obsession and a private joke that in a very curious way became an underground cultural phenomena.” Sausage, a visual artist and musician who supports himself as a rare-book seller, remains, in his words, “the official custodian” of Shut Up Little Man’s (SULM) legacy, which is copiously detailed on its website.
Deprey — who now works as an insurance agent in Wisconsin where he lives with his wife and teenage children — is also on the line. Although Sausage is doing most of the talking, he interjects from time to time to provide clarification. We are discussing Matthew Bate’s documentary Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure — perhaps the squarest peg in Frameline 35’s lineup. As much an attempt to comprehensively recount the above long, strange trip from start to finish, the film is also the newest chapter in the now 20-year saga of Peter, Raymond, Mitch, and Eddie.
Bate is a clever filmmaker who is able to translate a story that has primarily been told through sound into something visually compelling. Goofy animated interludes are woven between interviews with Clowes, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, and the many other SULM fans who have created art inspired by Peter and Raymond. Sausage and Deprey also get plenty of screen time, and Bate goes so far as to have them play their 20-something selves in dramatized reenactments of their early days of interacting with and recording Peter and Raymond, who are played by actors. (Huffman died in 1992 of a heart attack brought on by colon cancer, pancreatitis, and alcoholism; Haskett died four years later of liver problems also due to alcoholism.)
Bate’s film is less successful in presenting a clear account of Sausage and Deprey’s 1994 controversial decision to copyright their recordings — which up to that point had been accompanied only by a note encouraging creative liberties and humbly asking for credit — going so far as to imply that this was an ideological about-face. As Sausage and Deprey tell it, they were simply doing the responsible, professional thing in the face of mounting disputes over who could or couldn’t sell the rights (the current disclaimer on the SULM website notes that “permission and licensing is usually granted, but please ask first”).
“Because this stuff was so viral and so innocuous, it wasn’t clear who owned any of this, ” explains Deprey, “We just didn’t want people wrongfully charging other people to use it. And the truth is, we’ve never gotten a penny from any of the artists [featured in the film].”
Still, Deprey and Sausage have now become the semiofficial executors of Peter and Raymond’s estate, even if it’s a legacy composed of hours and hours of blue streaks captured on tape. No surviving relatives of either Huffman or Haskett have come forward in the time that their infamy has grown, underscoring the fact that these two men — despite the venom they constantly spewed at back and forth — really only had each other.
“In a very real way, I think it’s a nontraditional love story,” says Sausage. “There’s a lot of passion and a lot of intimacy there. I mean, arguing is one of the most intimate things we can do as human beings.”
Indeed, Peter and Raymond’s highly dysfunctional Boston marriage might be the queerest onscreen relationship in the whole festival.
SHUT UP LITTLE MAN! AN AUDIO MISADVENTURE
June 22, 9:30 p.m., $11
2961 16th St., SF
P.S. Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure was recently picked up by a distributor and will be released theatrically Aug. 26.
FRAMELINE It may be summer break for America’s favorite Slushee-barraged show choir, but judging by the array of song-and-dance numbers in this year’s San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, Glee fever continues to spike. Half of the fest’s showcase films celebrate the power of the performing arts, including Mangus!, about a young man’s against-all-odds dream of playing the lead in his high school’s production of Jesus Christ Spectacular. Leading Ladies features a mother-daughter-daughter trio immersed in the world of competitive ballroom dancing. And the shorts roster offers no less than three musicals — the Australian films Slut: The Musical and Cupcake: A Zombie Lesbian Musical hail, naturally, from the program “Zombies, Aussies, Musicals, Oh My!,” while Who’s the Top? explores a relationship’s diminished sexual undercurrents through musical comedy. Directed by Jennie Livingston, Who’s the Top? is paired with Paris Is Burning (1990), Livingston’s acclaimed full-length documentary on the late-1980s ball scene in New York City.
The on-and-off-stage drama continues with Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together, a tale of thespians, best friends, and housemate tension rooted more in unvoiced amour than in chore wheels and whose turn it is to buy toilet paper. As the title’s Chicago-dwelling characters negotiate Jamie’s imminent departure for the Big Apple and (she hopes) Broadway, a few wistful tunes are crooned, accompanied by the occasional step-ball-change, but the songs feel somewhat opportunistically tacked on, and the film’s strength lies more in its exploration of that foggy, foggy gray area between the romance of intimate friendship and the romance of ripping the clothes off of someone you really care about.
The tweens of Spork show slightly more promise, at least when it comes to working the dance floor at a nightclub unaverse to letting in 13-year-olds. Spork — so nicknamed by her burnout but well-meaning brother due to her intersex status — is shy, awkward, and isolated at school — when not being tortured by a clique of tiny, racist mean girls led by a Britney Spears wannabe named Betsy Byotch. The answer, clearly, is to best the Byotch in a high-stakes middle-school dance-off — for if we’ve learned one thing from Glee and every high school musical and dance-ical pumped out by Hollywood in the past few decades, it’s that community can be found through soaring vocal harmonies, choreographed ass-shaking, and following one’s dreams.
This lesson is perhaps best exemplified by Leave It on the Floor, which updates (and fictionalizes) the drag and tranny ball scene of Paris Is Burning, transports it to the warehouses of South Central L.A., and adds some infectious music and lyrics (the song “Justin’s Gonna Call” is particularly likely to stay trapped in your brain for days). Leave It‘s kicked-to-the-curb protagonist, Brad, is equally in need of community and a place to crash, and he finds both (after a fashion) in the House of Eminence, the reigning underdog of the ball scene, proudly populated by outcasts and freaks — as well as a hot dueting partner, queer family, and a closing-number set of runway moves that nearly set a warehouse ballroom on fire and probably won’t be coming to a show choir competition near you anytime soon.
FRAMELINE 35: SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL LGBT FILM FESTIVAL
June 16–26, most films $9–$15
FRAMELINE The eponymous character in Ash Christian’s Mangus! has a simple ambition: to be Jesus. That is, to play Jesus in the local production of Jesus Christ Spectacular. Mangus does get the part, but his dreams are crushed when a freak limo accident lands him in a wheelchair and his neighbors decide he’s no longer cut out to play their Lord and Savior.
“When you’re in a small town and you want to be an actor and you don’t get the lead, it’s the most devastating thing in the whole world,” says Christian (2006’s Fat Girls), who was inspired by his own history in community theater.
Mangus! is an interesting but wise choice for Frameline: while it features queer characters (including Mangus’ sister Jessica Simpson, played by Heather Matarazzo), the film as a whole is subtler than other festival picks. It has what Christian calls a “queer sensibility,” but much of that is subtextual.
“I don’t look at it as a queer film,” offers Matarazzo. “I just look at it as a really great dark comedy.”
Christian’s cast is full of actors who might be considered queer icons — among them Matarazzo, Jennifer Coolidge, and Leslie Jordan. But Matarazzo, who is openly gay, doesn’t want to restrict herself.
“When I’m playing to a specific audience because I want this to be a gay and lesbian film, that’s fine for any filmmaker who desires to do that,” she reflects. “But for me, film is really about unifying on all fronts.”
And Christian has his own ambitions. Mangus! is a dark comedy in the tradition of Christian’s cinematic idols John Waters and Todd Solondz. (It’s worth noting that Waters has a cameo in the film, and Matarazzo made her breakthrough in Solondz’s 1995 Welcome to the Dollhouse.) With this work, Christian tackles the topic of discrimination apart from sexuality.
“I’d never really seen a movie with a young disabled kid who had a dream,” he says. “It deals with discrimination in a small town, which I’ve definitely been a part of — not with a disability, but because of the gay thing.”
Mangus! is both hilarious and poignant because its filmmaker is unafraid to hold anything back. It somehow manages to walk the line between over-the-top and honest, presenting a portrayal of disability and sexuality that will only shock those not in on the joke.
“Ash is the perfect master of getting to bring absolute balance in terms of letting an audience pity a character, but then also cheer for him and go along with the ride,” Matarazzo notes. “There was never any kind of mentality of trying to manipulate the audience.”
For a while, Christian did worry about audiences taking his films the wrong way, but he admits that it’s no longer a concern. Indeed, he takes pleasure in making movies edgy enough to unnerve people.
“It’s just something that’s going to keep happening because I don’t want to tell boring stories for Lifetime,” he says. “It’s not really what I want to do. So it kind of turns me on now to have people actually have a problem with what I’m trying to say.”
Those who take Christian’s film in the intended tone will appreciate that it’s not meant to be mean-spirited. In the tradition of the great queer films that came before it, Mangus! lives outside the box: it’s unconventional, subversive, and yes, not even a little bit PC.
“In my heart, I’m not trying to say anything offensive at all,” Christian explains. “They’re just taking it that way.”
Wed/15, 8:30 p.m., $11
429 Castro, SF
SUPER EGO “I remember the last time I saw Nina Simone, it was just after the Bush-Gore election fiasco. She was maaad,” graciously loquacious jazz chanteuse Kim Nalley told me over the phone when I asked her about the High Priestess of Soul’s relevance today. “Here was this woman who had been there through so many stages of the civil rights struggle, fought for voting rights in Mississippi, been there through all of that — and then to hear about black communities, Jewish communities, where the votes just disappeared …
“Well, she wasn’t having any of that. She told us we had to always keep up the fight, keep the fire going, and never let go. What was gained in one generation could be completely wiped out in the next. And all the while she was playing the most spellbinding music. I think that’s her angle on now”
Golden-voiced and full of fierceness, Ms. Nalley, a longtime (but not too long) Bay Area phenom and former owner of Jazz at Pearl’s in North Beach, intends to keep that message alive for five straight weeks at the Rrazz Room — and sing the sugar out of a Nina Simone set list that runs to 44 songs, augmented with tales of the activist diva’s life and accomplishments. If just thinking about doing all that makes you draw a breath, add in that Nalley is finishing up her Ph.D. in history at UC Berkeley, teaching jazz to grade school kids, and preparing to embark on a string of international tours and recording projects. Plus she’s catching up on all four seasons of Mad Men. Did I mention she’s gorgeous and actually exists?
She’s also well aware of the hold almighty Nina still exerts on the dancefloor imagination — from the famous, or infamous, Verve Remixed series of the early ’00s, to more recent sample-based efforts like those of Massive Attack, Gui Boratto, Ark, and this spring’s rather unfortunate minimal-tech hit “Sinnerman 2011” by Sean Miller and Daniel Dubb, which apparently took two people to make. (Civilization has so far escaped an Auto-Tuned strip-rap version of “See-Line Woman” or Deadmau5’s “Young Gifted and Black” but I could easily see Nicki Minaj as all “Four Women” at once.)
“You hear these newer versions of her, but some can sound so dated so quickly,” Kim said. “The originals never stop being fresh, alive. There’s nothing wrong with introducing her to new audiences in different ways. But Nina has always been with us, right there, so go out and hear her actual music, already.” *
SHE PUT A SPELL ON ME: THE MUSIC OF NINA SIMONE
Through July 17, Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.,
Sundays, 7 p.m., $30–$37.50
Rrazz Room at Hotel Nikko
222 Mason, SF
TRANNYSHACK: HEKLINA’S BIRTHDAY
The highest hog in dragland turns 103, and this night of greatest hits command performances will be an over-the-top trashtacular. Plus: Justin V. Bond from New York City, and probably some light rimming.
Fri/17, 9:30 p.m.–-3 a.m., $12–>$15. DNA Lounge, 375 11th St., SF. www.trannyshack.com
It’s that time, again — time for the Burning Man gear-up and things that sound like this: “We invite you to live out this year’s theme in ways that manifest your personal journey.” I’m gonna be a pizza! Put it on the pizza! Put it on the pizza! It’s all good. With a holy helluva lot of DJs, theme installations, and fun-fur coughs.
Sat/18, 8 p.m.–4 a.m., $15 in “Playa finery,” $20 without. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com
FLYING SAUCER BEACH PARTY
What do you get when you mix big-headed invaders, a slew of hot bodies, a ton of zombie-Martian makeup, and the “Hand Jive”? No, not Weinergate II: Night of the Living Tweets. Culturally invaluable burlesque crew Hubba Hubba Revue and a slew of groovy ghoulies play beach blanket bingo — but with laser guns! — at this ginchy all-day dress-up-and-rock-out bash.
Sun/16, 2 p.m.-8 p.m., $10 before 3 p.m., $12 after. DNA Lounge, 375 11th St., SF. www.hubbahubbarevue.com
DINE “This doesn’t really look like a steakhouse,” a friend said recently while scanning the ambience of Alexander’s Steakhouse, which opened last fall in the fabulous Bacar space. Since Alexander’s isn’t an ordinary steakhouse, it’s probably okay that it doesn’t look like one. It’s probably additionally okay that it still looks more or less like Bacar: old brick, gleaming copper and chrome, a vault-like spaciousness, the wall of translucent glass cells in which bottles of wine are stored as if by giant oenophile bees. Even the lounge below decks is still there; it’s is a peaceful haven from the tumult upstairs, with its noticeable Hooters atmospherics.
The central novelty of Alexander’s (the original is in San Jose) is the sensibility of the chef, Jeffrey Stout, whose culinary poles are Japan and France. In this respect the kitchen’s nearest relation in town is probably 5A5, the splendid Asian-inflected steakhouse in the Barbary Coast. Stout’s wrinkle is to swirl some Gallic seasoning into the pot. And while most of the food’s cues seem to be taken from east Asia, the kitchen does turn out such sly treats as truffled french fries ($12 for a good-sized stack). As someone who’s not wild about truffles, despite or because of their expensive exclusivity, I was surprised to find this was an effective idea, with the earthy taste and scent of the truffles neatly nested in the crunchy, all-American bonhomie of the potatoes. Americanness isn’t a neglected theme here, either, incidentally, from Maine lobster to a credible salad of iceberg lettuce ($10), with Point Reyes blue cheese, a fine dice of smoked bacon, and a tangy buttermilk dressing I thought to describe as “ranch.”
“Please don’t call it ranch,” a voice across the table implored. Well, okay, but that’s what it was. Next to the lettuce wedge sat cubes of candied applewood smoked bacon ($5), like a stack of miniature bricks. In their meatiness they could easily have passed for Canadian bacon.
For a steakhouse, there’s a surprising amount of seafood, including Kusshi oysters ($4 each) and hamachi shots ($4 each), cubes of fish served like ceviche in martini glasses with an electric ensemble of chile coins, ginger, and truffled ponzu sauce. There was also, one evening, a main dish of halibut ($34), a perfectly nice filet that had a length of chicken skin roasted onto it. This wasn’t quite a bad idea, but it wasn’t a good one, either. Chicken skin would in theory provide some chicken fat, which is full of flavor and moistness, important considerations when dealing with fish. But halibut is a hardy fish that stands up well to chefly handling, and the chicken skin turned ornery in the roasting, like gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. Worst of all, the fish seemed to have dried out a bit during its time in the kitchen — not fatally, but still.
Well, you’re thinking, what fool orders fish at a steakhouse? The point of such a place must be the beef, and what grander beef is there than prime rib? Alexander’s offers it in two sizes: 14 ounces ($38) or 20 ounces ($42), the 20-ouncer seeming almost big enough to have been pulled from its own Cryovac pack. The meat, we were told, had been slow-roasted for hours and were presented with jus and a trio of horseradish creams.
(The service, incidentally, must be the among the wordiest in the city. Each item is described at length, with the particulars flying at you like buckshot. Complicating matters is the noisiness of the place, which is like being in the pit of the New York Stock Exchange when full and can make some of the servers hard to understand. I saw lips moving, I heard sounds, but I could not piece together a narrative. Like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, I nodded, smiled, and hoped for the best.)
The beef looked splendid — rather on the purplish, rare side, but that was fine. It was also tough. This was a new prime-rib experience for me; in the past it’s always been tender, if not quite butter-like. Alexander’s meat had a good, rich flavor, but it was hard to separate flavor from texture when texture was calling attention to itself. I’ve often roasted my own prime rib at the holidays, but I’ve never had it show this kind of obstinacy.
Pastry chef Dan Huynh’s dessert menu is littered with French terms (financier, crème brûlée), along with something called “dark dimensions” ($12) that sounded like an episode of The Twilight Zone but turned out to be a miniature playground of chocolate, including logs of malted chocolate ice cream and a small bowl of popcorn. All was tender.
Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.;
Sun., 5:30–9 p.m.
448 Brannan, SF
CHEAP EATS K. Chunk’s favorite restaurant is Caffe Venezia so that’s where we went for her third birthday. She was having a fruitful, productive, and all-around happy day until — just before dinner — she fell off the slide and cut her mouth. Now some things were going to be hard to eat, like crusty bread. Poor little carb loader.
I tried to distract her from her discomfort in the usual way: by talking about mine.
I’m kidding! We talked about love, of course. I had just come back from Nola for the umpteenth time, and was, well, in it. But I’m not going back for the rest of the year, because Hedgehog won’t be there. And Li’l Edible’s fambly already up and moved to Los Angeles, damn em, so I wouldn’t have any kind of babies to squeeze at all. Ergo: what’s the point?
Hedgehog is driving up to Pennsylvania as we speak, stopping to watch Minor League Baseball games along the way. She has work in New York, and then back to Nola, and then back to New York, and then we’re going to go camping a little out here before I leave the country for a couple months, to write.
She keeps score. She sent me a snapshot of the scorecard from last night’s single-A game in Hagerstown, Md., and in a blank square where she’d missed an at-bat she’d written: “BBQ pork.”
So you see?
“I see,” K. Chunk said. “Did she meet your mommy?”
K. Chunk’s ma and pa looked at me like, Yeah, what about that? Are you going to introduce her to your mom?
“Sure, if she wants to meet her,” I said. “I want everyone in the world to meet my mom. Then they’ll finally cut me some slack for being like I am.”
But it’s my dad who’s really going to hit it off with this pokey, spiny, pointy critter of mine when they cross paths at my nephew’s wedding in the fall. I wish I could say he’ll like her ’cause she obviously makes me happy and proud and inspires me to make songs and other things, and treats me with more care and respect than any of my other recent loves. But really it will be because she keeps score at baseball games.
Our food came.
Wagon wheels with butter sauce and lots of cheese for the birthday girl. Her older sister, whose birthday it wasn’t, had ordered wagon wheels too, but seemed to prefer eating all the little seafoods out of my linguine de mare. Her favorite — get this — was calamari. She might just have been trying to impress me, though, like when she sat with me on the couch in the dark, when she was three, and ate raw onions.
I was impressed with Venezia’s fare. I didn’t expect to like it that much, because it seemed at first glance like a place place, where the point was going to be the village square setting, complete with a fountain, muraled store fronts, fake pigeons, and line-hung laundry.
Cheese city, in other words. I loved it!
Mind you, it’s not cheap eats, but it’s good uns. The pasta was great, the tomato cream sauce was perfect, and the calamari, shrimp, clams, and mussels were not only fresh and delicious, but plentiful.
I got to taste some carbonara too. Next time I’m getting that. And I might not even wait for K. Chunk to turn four.
Venezia is a great place for a big group, and, of course, the childerns. They bring out little plates of carrot sticks, celery and olives for them right away, and they get jars of crayons to color on the paper tablecloths.
In this case, the kids were tired, bleeding from the mouth, and whatnot, so perhaps not surprisingly nobody finished their wagon wheels. Still, pennies were tossed into fountains, pigeons were spotted on rooftops, nourishment was achieved, and all-in-all somebody fantastically special to me turned three. So happy birthday to her.
And happy Father’s Day to her dad, and mine. And yours, I guess. Why not?
Mon.–Thu. 5:30–9 p.m.; Fri. 5:30–9:30 p.m.;
Sat. 5–9:30 p.m.; Sun. 5–9 p.m.
1799 University, Berk.
A name like writer James Boice’s no doubt washes up waves of adulation. His partner-in-assonance is a certain modernist master whom Boice, at 29, surely knows something about. The Good and the Ghastly (Scribner, 288 pages, $25), a wicked new novel, is the kind of towering bildungsroman-cum-crime fiction carnival that is both entertaining and well-crafted — something we’ve come to expect from writers like Chuck Palahniuk, but don’t usually get these days.
For all its explosions, the book isn’t mere spectacle for spectacle’s sake. Often contemporary imaginations of literary violence sink into the page-filling, glittery sands of ersatz — but James Boice, quite the contrarian, has conjured a brutal, sharp diamond in the literary rough. The Good feels fresh and urgent while culling themes as old as the Bible and as zeitgeist-y as The Sopranos: the neo-noir crime epic. Boice has certainly eaten his cultural vegetables; at the same time, he isn’t afraid to spew them up to create a pulpy piece of work that is contemporary and allusive. It’s enough to satisfy readers in need of instant gratification as well as those less ravenous who prefer to sip and savor.
The Good and the Ghastly is a mad picaresque, the story of antihero Junior Alvarez’s rise and fall as criminal overlord. It is the 34th century. Seminal cultural artifacts were lost in some kind of nuclear devastation centuries before, so Sarah Palin and Oprah are among this world’s spiritual and intellectual pundits. Someone called Kevin Lithis is the new Jesus Christ. Everybody believes Stephen King wrote the works of Shakespeare. Ikea tables are considered antiques. But down in the underbelly, an implacable race to power wages between the Italians and the Irish as Josefina, a good mother turned hardened revenge-seeker, sets out to avenge the death of her son — one of Junior’s victims — by assassinating Junior and his unctuous underlings. And how far she goes I won’t say, but it does involve, in one scene, a bazooka, a baby, and a priest’s garb. Yeah.
A peak at the epigraphs inaugurating The Good and the Ghastly give a real sense of Boice’s literary antecedents. There are quotes from Faulkner, Shakespeare, Stephen King, and the OJ Simpson trial. With this mixed bag of chestnuts as synecdoche, Boice traverses the furrows of the high- and lowbrow in his novel. At once, The Good deserves the literary fiction crown and yet, it is also, in its own right, a piece of glorious trash. It is ugly and sensational, yet Boice is an evocative writer who knows what he’s up to.
With no degree to speak of, he has made himself something of a literary wunderkind. When Boice began writing, he “purposefully wanted no formal education,” he explained to me in an e-mail. “I did not want to be a proficient and well-executed writer. I wanted to be a writer who writes in blood. I wanted to live on the margins of decency and write things that were dangerous and true.” After dropping out of college, he moved to San Francisco and holed up in a room at the Halcyon Hotel on Jones Street, writing, drinking coffee, listening to Blood on the Tracks. Now, he lives in New York City and “life is good. I’m happy as a pig in shit.” And he should be. He already has two novels — MVP and NoVA — under his belt. This third entry is set in northern Virginia, where Boice is from. “I feel it is a microcosm of America, the quintessential American place,” he said. But here, NoVA is run by gangsters.
“Part of the impetus for the book was to sort of acknowledge our culture’s twisted relationship to gangsters,” Boice said. “We glorify them. We do. We love Scarface and Goodfellas and The Godfather. It’s fucked up that we do, because gangsters are evil motherfuckers.” Boice says the best writing is “the work of the subconscious.” Guy’s got a sick subconscious.
Like The Godfather, Boice creates a kind of ensemble piece, oscillating between a few different characters and third- and first-person while also generating a universe peppered with striking verisimilitude. Pop cultural references abound, and Boice’s prose contains an arsenal of neologisms — “smuck” is the new “fuck,” Visa rules the world, and Bar With Pool Table is Junior’s haunt. Boice’s invocation of particular brand names and coinages — reminiscent of Anthony Burgess, Bret Easton Ellis, or more recently, Junot Díaz — underscores the kind of fully imagined, multifaceted literary universe that would sate science fiction or fantasy nerds. And like those contemporaries, Boice is doing satire here, although it never feels heavy-handed because the mores of this literary world mirror ours. The year 3348 isn’t looking so glamorous after all.
The novel’s balls-to-the-walls violence, in scenes that glide as giddily as Scorsese’s camera, has a point: “Violence is not fun to think about, but it exists and has a way of interrupting your peace and penetrating your isolation out of the blue whether you want it to or not,” Boice said. “I believe in describing violence in a violent way. Otherwise you’re not telling the truth.”
Great works of art are always something of a mystery, and Boice leads us unflinchingly into the dark while cutting believable characters out of cardboard archetypes, right down to their flesh and bone (literally). Boice saves his most packed punches for last, where he rains down a reckoning upon Junior and Josefina. But all the while, Boice sidesteps easy moral punctuations in favor of ambiguity and open questions. In the end, it’s like a brick through a windshield.
A San Francisco-based bus tour operator who relies on the Internet to drum up business has filed a class action suit against Groupon, alleging that the deal-of-the-day website uses false advertising, or bait-and-switch tactics, to get customers to its site.
San Francisco Comprehensive Tours, LLC, which does business as San Francisco Shuttle Tours and Wine Country Tour Shuttle, originally filed suit March 17 in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California “to stop false and misleading business and advertising acts and practices employed on Google.com by Groupon, Inc.”
In essence, the tour company claims that Groupon is dominating Google searches with offerings for discounted local tours — of, say, Alcatraz — that don’t actually exist.
On April 19, SFCT amended its complaint into a class action suit. The amended suit includes “all persons and entities in the United States who purchased Internet ads with Google for the purpose of advertising local tour company business information and whose tour businesses, including the cost of advertising on Google, have been affected by the false advertisements of Groupon which claim to provide discounted offers for tours but actually provide no such offers.”
Attorneys for Groupon have asked for an extension until June 13 to respond to SFCT’s complaint. Representatives for Groupon told the Guardian they can’t comment on the case.
SFCT’s attorneys claim that Groupon is arguing that this shouldn’t be a class action suit because everyone’s complaint is different.
“They’re spamming the Internet with false advertising that affects everyone’s ability to do business, so this is tailor-made for a class action suit,” said SFCT’s attorney Steve Williams of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy in Burlingame. “It’s not easy to take on Groupon now that it has gotten so big and can afford top-notch lawyers.” In other words, it could take a group to take on Groupon.
The suit comes as Groupon, which launched in Chicago in 2008 and now claims to have 70 million subscribers as well as annual revenues of $700 million and an estimated worth of $12.7 billion, prepares to go public. Investors are trying to figure out if Groupon has a sustainable business model.
Last December Groupon fueled speculation that it would offer an initial public offering (IPO) when it rejected Google’s jaw-dropping $5 billion-plus takeover bid. Spurned, Google responded by launching Google Deals, a Groupon clone, in Portland, Ore., this June and announcing plans to expand into San Francisco and other U.S. cities later this year.
But as Forbes magazine noted last August, Groupon founder Andrew Mason has “managed to build the fastest-growing company in Web history.” Groupon’s meteoric rise has been attributed to Mason’s decision to combine a familiar concept with a novel idea: customers only get Groupon’s deeply discounted deals if enough customers pay up in advance for the deal that day.
A BAIT AND SWITCH?
SFCT is accusing Groupon of manipulating ad space that it buys from Google to funnel visitors to its site and collect data about these visitors — while SFCT and other tour companies lose customers and have to spend more money on online advertising.
This isn’t the first time Groupon has been sued since it was launched. But the bulk of those cases revolved around claims that Groupon’s “Daily Deal” gift certificates have illegal expiration dates. By contrast, SFCT’s suit is about Groupon hurting other businesses through manipulating Google’s AdWords program, which is Google’s main advertising program and main source of revenue.
“It’s the means that Groupon uses that is harming legitimate businesses. But they argue that it’s the Internet, it’s all new, and therefore the rules don’t apply,” Williams claimed.
Even though Google has not been sued in this instance, Eric Goldman, an associate professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and director of the school’s High Tech Law Institute, said that much of SCTF’s complaint is as much an indictment of Google’s platform as it is of Groupon’s practices. “Even though Google hasn’t been sued, I wonder if Google has or will make changes to its ad platform in response to the allegations in this complaint,” Goldman said.
Google spokesperson Diana Adair told the Guardian: “Unfortunately, we’re not able to comment.”
Williams claims that Groupon is gaming the algorithm that underpins Google’s AdWords program, which uses a combination of the number of click-throughs to a website, the closeness of an ad’s wording to an Internet user’s search terms, and the amount of money businesses are willing to bid on specific keywords to rank search results on Google.
“Groupon can’t say it’s just an AdWords problem,” Williams said. “It’s a manipulation.”
In its suit, SCTF claims it successfully bid on keywords such as “San Francisco tours,” “Alcatraz tours” and “Napa wine tours” for years. Then, in September 2010, Groupon started bidding on these terms as well — and though it rarely offered any discounted Alcatraz tours, it began to rank high in search results, driving up SFCT’s ad costs.
The suit notes that one time, in response to the keyword “Alcatraz tickets,” Groupon’s ad copy read “Alcatraz tickets — one ridiculously huge coupon a day: Do Alcatraz CA at 50 to 90 percent off.” Groupon’s actual ad that day was for discounted acting lessons.
“But they don’t care because they are trying to direct as many people as they can to their website,” Williams claimed.
Williams said he believes he can show that from the moment Groupon started placing ads for tours it didn’t sell, SFCT has suffered financially. “For someone like the plaintiff who is not about to put out an IPO, the frustration is that Groupon is funneling people into their direct mail campaign to develop huge databases and monitor what people like to buy so Groupon can target those people in future,” he said.
Williams told us he thinks he knows how Groupon will try to defend its strategy. “They’ll probably say that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing because if a business want to attract people to its product, it can talk to them about other products,” he said.
But he doubted they would try to blame it on Google. “Google would say that Groupon is taking advantage of AdWords,” Williams explained.
He sees Groupon’s strategy as a “bait and switch” tactic that’s illegal under the federal Lanham Act and California’s unfair competition and false advertising laws. “If I did this in a newspaper’s classified advertising section, it would be wrong. But the way Groupon looks at it, the normal rules don’t apply because it’s doing this online,” Williams said.
TRUTH IN ADVERTISING
Williams also noted that Groupon hasn’t disclosed all the other lawsuits it’s facing. “They view this as a pesky little thing. But most companies, unless the suits are patently without merit, will err on the side of caution, believing it’s better to disclose than fail to disclose,” he said. “Or maybe they are thinking, ‘Soon we’re going to be making $30 billion, so who cares?'<0x2009>”
Goldman notes that SFCT’s class action adds extra complexity for its lawyers. “Groupon will likely try to prevent the class from forming in addition to attacking the substance of the arguments. This is not a quick-and-easy win for the plaintiffs. In many cases, companies like Groupon decide to settle rather than fight because it’s a costly defense, even if they ultimately win.”
“The starting point of this suit is simple enough, namely that businesses need to tell the truth in advertising,” he said. “The complaint alleges that Groupon wasn’t telling the truth because it says X in its ad but when you get there it says Y, which has nothing to do with X.”
Goldman also predicted that, to the extent that SFCT’s suit is truly about an algorithm problem, it won’t be helpful to Groupon. “But that doesn’t mean the plaintiff will win,” he added, noting that establishing false advertising is tricky.
The plaintiffs will have to establish that their parties are competitive and that their businesses were harmed, Goldman said. He also observed that this particular class action suit points to a broader range of questions about the legitimacy of Groupon’s business practices and problems with Google’s AdWords platform.
Goldman pointed to a lawsuit filed June 7 against Amazon suggesting that Amazon had an algorithmic tool for buying ads and that perhaps the tool had gone awry. In that case, Maxfield, a New York City company that markets and distributes the magnetic desk toys called Buckyballs, alleges that beginning May 5 when people searched online for “Buckyballs,” an ad popped up for Buckyballs at Amazon. But when customers clicked on this ad, they wound up on a website that purports to be a listing for Buckyballs but is actually an ad for Maxfield’s competitors’ products.
Goldman also said there is a growing trend of plaintiff law firms feasting on Internet companies, especially in Silicon Valley. “They are watching for these companies to make a mistake and are pouncing on them. It’s possible that suits are mushrooming into class action suits because someone is looking to get more money,” he said.
But in SFCT’s case, Goldman noted, “the plaintiff’s story makes sense.”
I heard Phil Ginsburg, the head of the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks, on KQED’s Forum June 13, talking about the state of the public parks, and he got the usual angry calls. One person wanted to know why it costs so much to play on the city’s ball fields. Another wanted to know why the city is working with a private foundation to put artificial turf and big lights out at the end of Golden Gate Park. (I still don’t understand why the baseball field at Holly Park is always — always — locked and nobody seems to be allowed to play on it at all. Except the people who jump the fence. Not that my kids and I would know anything about that.)
Ginsburg did his best to duck and weave and answer — and portray this as a tough situation with a lack of public resources. But what he didn’t say is that the overall mission of the department has changed over the past few years. Dramatically. And it follows an alarming national trend that, ironically, started right here in San Francisco, with the Presidio National Park.
When the Sixth Army moved out of the Presidio and the land reverted to the National Park Service, Republicans in Congress threatened to sell it off. The NPS was short of money to develop and maintain the place, so Rep. Nancy Pelosi came up with a plan. She turned the park into a semiprivate enclave run by a board of real-estate developers with a mandate to become economically self-sufficient. Step one: give that notable Marin County pauper George Lucas a $50 million tax break to build a commercial office building in the middle of a national park.
It was a terrible precedent. Public parks aren’t supposed to be money-making enterprises. But it took hold — and now Ginsburg is following the same model.
Rec and Parks these days is all about commercialization. The recreation centers are leased to private operations. More and more park space is going to private food vendors. The Stowe Lake concession is set to become an upscale café (run by an out-of-town outfit). The City Fields Foundation, run by the sons of Gap Inc. founder Don Fisher, is taking over soccer fields. It costs money for tourists to visit the arboretum.
I know: there’s no cash, the city’s broke, and Ginsburg says this is the only way to keep the department running. But it’s really dangerous — because once you treat the public commons as a commodity, you’ve crossed a line. And it’s hard to go back.
The San Francisco City Planning Commission hearing June 9 on California Pacific Medical Center’s expansion plans was remarkable — both in the comments that the commissioners had and in the mind-boggling arrogance of the giant hospital chain.
CPMC wants to build a massive new hospital and medical office building on Van Ness Avenue and rebuild St. Luke’s Hospital in the Mission. The plans aren’t even close to complying with city planning codes — the Sutter Health affiliate will need city approval to exceed height limits on Van Ness (by more than 100 feet); a modification of the housing construction requirement for new offices; permission to demolish existing housing units; permission to take over a part of San Jose Avenue — and a lot more. In other words, CPMC is asking a lot from the city.
And since this nonprofit controls four major hospitals in the city, its future development decisions need to be considered in the context of San Francisco’s overall health care needs.
It’s entirely reasonable that the city ask CPMC for a development agreement that provides benefits to city residents. Mayor Ed Lee has made it clear that the approval of this project will depend on whether CPMC can address affordable housing, healthcare access for low-income people, a secure future for St. Luke’s, workforce development, and transportation impacts. Lee’s proposals are more than reasonable: he’s asking that CPMC pay the standard fee for affordable housing required of any major commercial developer; increase its level of charity care (now an abysmal 0.99 percent) to the average of other regional hospitals (2.3 percent); increase its Medical acceptance rate; and maintain St. Luke’s as an acute care facility with an emergency room. Union nurses are asking that Sutter deal with them in good faith.
But Dr. Warren Browner, CEO of CPMC, showed little interest in working with the city. The demands are way too high, he told the commissioners, insisting that it was unreasonable to ask the hospital to contribute that much to affordable housing. He acted as if CMPC was somehow entitled to move forward — at its own proposed schedule — and that all of these city demands were nonsense.
That’s not going to work.
A clear majority of the commissioners got the point. As Ron Miguel pointed out, Sutter is a nonprofit — and its tax-exempt status mandates a certain level of social responsibility. Every big commercial developer has to pay for housing and transit impacts. Gwyneth Borden and Bill Sugaya noted that hospital officials knew full well what the planning rules were when they bought the Van Ness site.
This is a $2.5 billion project. Community benefits need to be a significant part of the final plan. If anything, Lee’s proposals are too limited (Sutter should agree to protect St. Luke’s for 50 years, not 20). The planning commissioners should stick to their positions — this project is out of control, and if Browner wants to see it built, he needs to come back with a new set of numbers, and a new attitude.
For 10 years — from 2000 to 2010 — progressives controlled the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It was a defining era in city politics, with the left-leaning board not only providing a check on the power of downtown-backed mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom but producing a long list of important reforms that, generally, sought to level the playing field between the haves and have-nots.
It wasn’t the most harmonious decade. Battles between the legislative and executive branches of government often got nasty, particularly when the political and economic stakes were high — and after the national recession and fiscal conservativism left various constituencies fighting over shrinking public resources.
But San Francisco’s modern progressive era was still a decade of unprecedented responsiveness at City Hall to the interests of workers, renters, immigrants, the poor, bicyclists, environmentalists, communities of color, and the other component groups of the city’s progressive movement.
It was a decade in which San Francisco adopted one of the nation’s highest minimum wages, when most employers were required to provide employee health insurance or pay into an expanded city clinic program, when it became far more difficult for landlords to evict their tenants, and when developers knew they wouldn’t get their projects approved without significant concessions to the progressive constituencies.
Then suddenly, just as that decade ended and 2011 began, everything changed. And the person who presided over that change and did more to usher it in than any single individual was Board President David Chiu, who is now running for mayor.
Chiu was elected as a supervisor and then president in 2009 with progressive support, yet he now distances himself from the progressive wing and casts himself as playing the central role in a new political reality.
“Clearly, I’m at the center of the board,” he told the Guardian. “My goal as president of the board is to try to figure out how to bring our colleagues together to coalesce around values that move our city forward with our shared progressive values. And I think I’ve done a good job at that.”
Yet the left-leaning members of the board feel as if they’ve been pushed to the margins, particularly after Chiu created a committee structure that elevated the moderate supervisors who kept Chiu in the president’s seat. To many progressives, Chiu’s shift has allowed powerful interests to move forward while progressive constituencies fall behind.
“There’s been a palpable shift to the middle at City Hall,” said Sup. John Avalos, whose own mayoral campaign has galvanized progressives. “David has shifted to the center. He’s become more comfortable representing himself as a centrist — before, he wouldn’t have done that.”
There’s more to the story. While it is true that Chiu essentially switched sides — elected president by board progressives in 2009 and then reelected by its fiscal conservatives in 2011 — it is also true that there were other powerful players working behind the scenes to help sabotage the progressives and create a new political alignment.
But while Chiu talks constantly about representing the city’s “shared progressive values,” he’s a very different type of politician than the activists who ran the board after the first district elections. Supervisors like Tom Ammiano, Matt Gonzalez, and Aaron Peskin saw themselves as fighters, engaged in an ongoing epic struggle to organize and protect the less powerful against the wealthy, entrenched interests that have controlled the city for decades. That’s not Chiu’s style or inclination; he seems much more interested in making the system work than in changing it.
He’s also in a strange political place right now. He’s alienated a lot of his one-time allies on the left — but downtown and the big city power brokers still don’t fully trust him. And it’s not clear where he’s going find the political base he needs for a citywide campaign.
“In an sense,” Peskin said, “he’s a man without a country.”
On the evening of June 1, Chiu and members of his mayoral campaign team went to the Polk Gulch neighborhood for the first of 29 fundraising and organizing events his campaign was staging in San Francisco living rooms, a grassroots strategy borrowed from President Barack Obama.
Speaking to a small crowd, Chiu gave his well-rehearsed campaign rap. It starts with a nod to his parents, who emigrated from Taiwan to the United States in the 1960s. “I watched my parents sacrifice everything,” he said, adding that his experience was similar to that of many sons and daughters of immigrant parents. “I am motivated to serve because of the sacrifices they made.”
Chiu grew up in Boston, the oldest of three brothers, all of whom attended Harvard. His father was a doctor in private practice; his mother was a substitute teacher who poured everything into raising her sons. During his 2008 campaign for supervisor, Chiu’s parents temporarily relocated to San Francisco to pitch in, and they’ll likely return again once his mayoral bid is in full swing.
When Chiu was reelected board president in January — an outcome he achieved without the support of the most progressive supervisors — his parents watched from the front row. Chiu comes across as someone who grew up with a high expectation for success, something those close to him say is perhaps his strongest motivator.
So far, it’s been borne out in his relatively short political career. He became the first Chinese American politician to represent Chinatown when he was elected in 2008 with the support of predecessor Aaron Peskin and progressive groups. After taking his oath as supervisor, Chiu took advantage of progressive infighting to clinch the board presidency, catapulting to the second-most powerful position in the city just after emerging from his first run for political office.
“It’s a meteoric rise,” said Jon Golinger, who managed Chiu’s campaign in 2008. “He’s inherently talented, smart, friendly, a quick learner, and a hard worker.”
Chiu had excelled in all the positions he previously held, Golinger said — as a student at Harvard Law School; as an aide to Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois in Washington, D.C.; as a prosecutor in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office; as a civil rights lawyer; and as the cofounder with Republican politician Matt Fong of a consulting firm called Grassroots Enterprises.
That company’s work with right-wing clients on campaigns that sometimes demonized liberals made some progressives nervous. Chiu countered by noting that most of its clients were liberal and that he didn’t work on the conservative campaigns. And he won the endorsement of the Guardian and progressive groups.
“My sense is that in all these contexts, people saw him as full of potential and had high hopes for him,” Golinger said.
Diane Chin, an associate dean at Stanford Law School, first met Chiu when he served as a law clerk, fresh out of Harvard. She later recruited him to join the board of Chinese for Affirmative Action. He also joined the board of the Chinatown Community Development Center, a post he was recruited to by his then-housemate Jane Kim, who was elected District 6 supervisor in 2010.
“David is somebody who is really committed to public service and is really thoughtful about governing,” Chin said. “I think of him as a progressive,” she added when asked how she’d describe his political stance. “But I know that is parsed 27,000 different ways in San Francisco.”
Kim echoed Chin’s comments, using the word “genuine” multiple times during an interview to describe Chiu and asserting that she too views him as a progressive. “David’s a genuine person, which is what I really like about him. I find him to be honest.”
She also emphasized how engaged he is with the business of governance. “He takes every decision seriously … he really believes in his vote.”
In a city where coalitions play an important role in governance, Chiu’s tendency to place himself in the swing vote position has increased his power — but some say his failure to cultivate or communicate with potential allies has sometimes turned them into enemies.
“I think David Chiu is a decent person, but he gets a little lost in his ambitions,” Avalos said, noting that Chiu placed himself in the pivotal position on big development projects and by naming himself as the fifth member of the Budget Committee and booting Avalos off a committee he used to chair. “He’s the one everyone wants to communicate with.”
THE PROBLEM WITH CIVILITY
Peskin objects to Chiu’s oft-repeated mantras — “shared progressive values” and “the new tone of civility” — calling them poll-tested platitudes that undermine the difficult struggles progressives must engage in to win support for their reforms against entrenched economic and political powers.
“It really means, in his case, that he’s not wiling to fight for things,” Peskin said. “Our shared progressives values are progressives who fight for change and to make the world more just. But in his case, it’s become code for stasis and not fighting for the little guy. And civility is just another way of being part of the problem and not part of the solution.”
Chiu told us he sees things differently.
“We certainly have a different style at City Hall, a leadership that still believes in our shared progressive values but that also believes we need to figure out how to work better with each other at City Hall and the diverse stakeholders we have in San Francisco,” he said. “So while people will speculate on the direction that we’re moving in, I actually think I am where I’ve always been.
“We can talk about specific decisions I’ve made,” he continued. “But I actually think that every key decision that some of you feel may have moved City Hall one direction or another, I would characterize as both coming from the values I’ve always had as well as reflecting a different style of leadership than what we’ve had at the Board of Supervisors.”
Chiu refuses to be pinned down to any ideological label — another clear difference with the previous three board presidents, who all saw themselves as part of the city’s left.
After discussing his belief in the potential of business tax exemptions to rejuvenate the Tenderloin and Mid-Market area (controversial legislation he championed and progressives opposed), we asked whether he considers himself a fiscal conservative.
“I consider myself to be someone who is fiscally disciplined,” he replied. He also said he is open to considering more revenue measures than he had already supported, and emphasized that the city budget had to be crafted in such a way that the pain of cutting to address a revenue shortfall was shared equally.
Golinger, who helped get Chiu elected, serves as president of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, an influential District 3 neighborhood group that Peskin previously presided over. The difference between Peskin and Chiu, Golinger said, is “like a cup of very strong dark roast versus a mild blend that goes down easy.” Peskin aggressively tackled key land-use issues, he added, whereas Chiu appears hesitant to make waves. “David is far more comfortable pushing the positive than pointing out the flaws,” he said.
Chris Daly — the former supervisor who now owns Buck Tavern, which has become a hub for progressive political strategizing and gossip — doesn’t consider Chiu to be a progressive and says he probably never was. “His position has certainly changed. But I don’t think he’s changed who he is or what he believes.”
It’s a position Daly shares with his old ideological nemesis, Sup. Sean Elsbernd, who told the Guardian: “I don’t think David has changed who he is in any way. How he is, is how he’s always been.”
Instead, Daly said the problem was that progressives had brought Chiu into the fold because he was a far better alternative than downtown-backed Joe Alioto Jr. in the 2008 race for the District 3 seat on the board.
Elsbernd has a different analysis. “All four supervisors who got elected are more moderate than their predecessors,” he said of last supervisorial races, adding that he thinks that ideological difference was clear during the campaigns. “Nothing has happened in the last six months that surprises me.”
And while Daly used his last days as a termed-out supervisor trying to prevent Lee from becoming mayor and Chiu from being reelected board president, he concedes Elsbernd’s point that the battle was probably lost before then. “There’s a lesson we’ve learned — that when we’re bring up new leaders, there has be vetting. They need to be deeply rooted in our community,” Daly said.
END OF THE PROGRESSIVE ERA
Corey Cook, a political science professor at the University of San Francisco, said the rapid rise of Chiu has been a fascinating story, one that’s open to interpretations that vary from Chiu’s claims to constancy to the feeling among many progressives that he used and then betrayed them.
“That’s the $1 million question — whether he adapted to the changing politics, or whether he changed the politics. It’s probably a little of both,” Cook said, raising another question that voters will ponder this year. “Is he viewed as the great compromiser in a positive or negative way?”
Yet Cook said one thing is clear: “The almost decade-long progressive era has come to an end.”
Cook cited a series of Chiu votes — from development deals to the Twitter tax break — and the rare feat of consecutively being elected president with the majority support of the board’s two rival factions. But rather than switching sides, Cook said Chiu has hovered somewhere between them.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who would claim he’s ideologically in one camp or another,” Cook observed, noting how Chiu has opted to play the centrist swing vote. While many progressives might look down on that kind of ideological flexibility, Cook said voters in general won’t necessarily see it that way.
“After the divisive politics practiced by Peskin, Daly, Newsom, and others, perhaps being someone without a political base isn’t a liability at this point,” Cook said. “The sense is we’ve gotten beyond acrimony.”
Cook said it’s notable that even progressive supervisors are praising — or at least declining to criticize — the new era of civility that has settled in at City Hall, and that might feed Chiu’s message that he’s presiding over positive changes in the political system. “Everyone is contributing to the narrative that this is a good and productive kind of politics,” he said. “Even the progressive in this race has reinforced that narrative.”
Daly said it’s difficult and not tactically smart for Avalos to criticize the new tone at City Hall, even though he and other progressives argue that all this talk of consensus and civility is simply a ruse that favors the powerful, particularly given the resources that they can marshal to push their projects and how the history of political progress for the less-fortunate has always come through struggle and conflict.
“There is no inherent problem with civility. The problem is when you give up a principled position,” Daly said.
“If he can do it all with civility and compromise, but he still gets progressive results, more power to politics in San Francisco,” Peskin said.
Instead, they say recent votes show that powerful business interests have been getting their way at City Hall to a degree not seen since the days before the progressive era began — a message that Avalos and his progressive supporters will be delivering to voters this year.
“We are in an era of wealth being consolidated in fewer and fewer hands, and people are upset about that,” Avalos said, noting that City Hall leaders have aided and abetted that consolidation and refused to ask the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes.
But Cook isn’t so sure, at least not without a real change in the city’s dominant political narrative now, arguing that that the still-sluggish economy is crowding out other concerns. “There are a bunch of problems with the progressive narrative right now. The thing that seems to be winning every argument is jobs.”
Political consultant David Latterman, who traditionally worked for downtown-backed candidates but is now consulting on Chiu’s mayoral campaign, agrees that job creation is the top issue. He also believes that voters are tired of the conflicts that have defined City Hall politics. “That model doesn’t really work. We need a more consensus-based approach and he represents that.”
It’s hard to see “consensus” in the series of 6-5 votes on the most divisive issues this year, but Cook said this year’s political realignment has drained the energy out of many of the conflicts. “Not only did the ideology of the board shift, but also the force and energy of the board,” he said.
Elsbernd said the biggest change in the board dynamics has nothing to do with Chiu. “It’s the absence of Chris [Daly]. He played a huge role here,” Elsbernd said of his ideological adversary, someone who defined what it meant to be a progressive and pushed his colleagues to remain true to that ideology. “And no one has filled that void.”
“I was the whip,” Daly agreed, using the legislative term for the enforcer of party or ideological discipline. “I was trying to get John to be that after I left. But with him running for mayor, he can’t really be the bad guy.”
Similarly, Chiu’s replacement of Peskin also drained the chamber of much of its ideological energy, particularly after he and Daly’s successors opted for a centrist governing style after being elected as progressives who promised to fight for tenants and the less powerful.
“The realignment didn’t happen at the ballot box. The realignment happened with people who ran as progressives and lost their way,” Peskin said.
WHERE’S THE CENTER?
Chiu argues that there’s nothing inconsistent between his progressive values and his centrist governing style.
“I think the center of the city shares San Francisco progressive values. It’s what stood up for universal health care, it’s what supported sick leave, it’s what supports a living wage, it’s what supports the opportunity for everyone to be able to live here. And that means that tenants are not being evicted; it means homeowners are not being unfairly or illegally foreclosed upon; it means that immigrants get to have a real opportunity here in an environment where they are respected. I think that is the center of SF values,” Chiu told us.
Nonetheless, there is near-universal agreement that the center of San Francisco politics moved to the right this year. Power has consolidated around Mayor Lee, as well as those who convinced Chiu to put him there, including the powerful players who helped elect District 6 Sup. Jane Kim, who has notably been withholding her mayoral endorsement.
The perception that Chiu switched allegiances was reinforced by his picks for board committees, which gave the board’s most fiscally conservative members the most power, including naming Sup. Carmen Chu as chair of the Budget Committee and placing Sups. Mark Farrell and Elsbernd on the Rules Committee, where they’ve been actively sabotaging progressive appointments and initiatives.
Chiu’s defense for his committee structure was that their decisions could be reversed by the full board. “We have reversed the handful of decisions that have come out of there that may have been problematic,” Chiu said of the Rules Committee recommendations, even though he supported some of the most controversial recommendations, such as voting against the progressive favorites for the Police and Ethics commissions.
When we relayed the progressive criticism of an Ethics Commission that is ineffective at best and corrupt at worst — refusing to enforce any Sunshine Ordinance Task Force decisions, rubber-stamping every ethics waiver it receives, and failing to investigate even clear campaign finance violations that had been exposed by the press — Chiu offered only hollow rhetoric. “The Ethics Commission needs to continue to fight for transparency, fight for accountability, fight to make sure lobbyists, political candidates, folks who work for city government are held to the highest ethical standard.”
“GOVERNMENT WAS DYSFUNCTIONAL”
The kickoff for Chiu’s series of neighborhood campaign events was held in the living room of Ron Case and Carolynn Abst, cofounders of Lower Polk Neighbors (LPN). The room, which looked out over Polk Street, was adorned with elephantine tropical shrubs and a row of birch branches lining the entranceway against a lavender wall.
LPN consists of about 35 people and was formed to clean up the streets, beautify the neighborhood, and promote public safety in partnership with law enforcement. Case and Abst, both architects, purchased and renovated the property 11 years ago. Things didn’t start out smoothly, Case said, since they were accused of gentrifying the neighborhood. The group has come under fire in the past by groups like Gay Shame San Francisco, a radical queer organization, which faults LPN for trying to change the neighborhood by working with police to drive out the homeless, drug addicts, and the down-and-out.
The small crowd was made up of mostly white, middle-aged professionals from Districts 2 and 3 (one introduced herself by saying she was friends with D2 Sup. Farrell). Chiu told the group that he had decided to run for office in 2007 for one reason: “City government was frankly pretty dysfunctional.” Politicians from different political factions bickered with one another, he said, and “they literally couldn’t even sit in the same room.”
Chiu described the challenges he hoped to tackle as mayor. First, San Francisco is doing a poor job “becoming the 21st-century economy” it has the potential to blossom into, he explained, so he wants to look at ways to stimulate job growth. Second, steps have to be taken to protect tenants and working-class residents by ensuring San Francisco does not turn into an exclusive bedroom community for Silicon Valley professionals. Third, the transportation infrastructure needs to be revamped since Muni is always late and pedestrian fatalities are unacceptably high. Fourth, he wants to find ways to streamline the byzantine bureaucracy of city government by cutting through red tape to boost efficiency.
It wasn’t clear if the tenant or transit messages were resonating with this particular crowd, which Chiu later said contained faces that were new to him. One of the questions he got was whether he thinks it is helpful to have a dearth of Republican representation in city politics. To this, he responded that San Francisco’s political factions are split more into progressives vs. moderates “and that gridlock has held us back from finding commonalities.”
Chiu had to cut out of the architects’ home early to make it to the second living room meeting that night in the Outer Sunset. When he slid into the passenger’s seat of a Zipcar (Chiu doesn’t own a car and primarily commutes by what he calls “a really cheap beater bike”), his driver and campaign volunteer handed him dinner in a takeout container. Chiu is constantly eating on the go since he attends up to five meetings and campaign events each night. Dark rings under his eyes suggested a lack of sleep.
The people who came to the second living room meeting represented a different cross-section of San Francisco, mostly Asian professionals in their 20s and 30s. This one was at the home of Ramie Dare, a campaign volunteer and former classmate of Chiu’s from graduate school.
Chiu ran through the campaign rap again. His speech was followed by a presentation from a campaign volunteer who distributed flow charts and tables describing how they would execute the grassroots-level campaign strategy. Using Google Earth, he zoomed in to Dare’s neighborhood. According to the data linked with the map of surrounding turf, “we have 825 registered voters and 435 frequent voters” in the area, he explained. This was clearly going to be a tech-savvy campaign.
But it’s going to be a campaign with serious challenges. While progressives feel betrayed and abandoned by Chiu, their ideological opponents downtown also have yet to embrace him, not trusting him to fight for them because he has sought to assert his independence from their agenda.
Chiu was openly considering a deal with Newsom to be named district attorney — which would have allowed Newsom to appoint his replacement in D3. Chinatown power broker Rose Pak was furious — he hadn’t discussed the move with her.
Even those around Chiu have emphasized his independence from Pak, who has desperately been looking for someone she could count on to back and prevent Yee from winning the mayor’s office. If Chiu can’t trusted to carry water for Pak’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce agenda, she will likely throw her support behind a different candidate.
“David Chiu has no chance of winning the mayor’s race,” Daly flatly declares. “He has no base, there are too many people fighting for the middle, and he has no clear path to victory.”
Chiu cites his record as a champion for tenants’ rights as one of three areas where his progressive credentials are strongest, along with his advocacy for immigrants’ rights and improving Muni.
“Our shared progressive values are very important, and they’re something I’ve been fighting for before I came into office as well as while I’ve been in office,” he said during a Guardian interview. “I am the one major mayoral candidate in this race who is a tenant, and I’ve stood up for tenants’ rights during my time before I was in office,” he said. “I’ve stood with tenants time and again throughout my time in office.”
Yet Chiu was the swing vote that approved the Parkmerced overhaul, an ambitious development project that would substantially increase density at the housing complex while demolishing 1,500 rent-controlled units.
“Chiu reached a back-room deal with the developer and provided the crucial sixth vote to approve the largest demolition of rent-controlled housing in San Francisco since the redevelopment of the Fillmore,” Influential tenant advocate Dean Preston, who heads a statewide organization called Tenants Together, wrote in an editorial on BeyondChron.org (which has generally been supportive of Chiu) the following day. “Despite a good record on tenant rights issues before his work on Parkmerced, Chiu has now earned the distrust of tenants across the city.”
But Chiu insists the Parkmerced deal had to happen.
“Not doing anything was not in the best interest of the city,” Chiu said, reiterating that he had thought it was the best choice for the sake of the city when asked whether he was concerned that his decision had sparked the ire of tenant groups. Despite the criticism and fallout from his choice, Chiu seems to genuinely believe his explanation although opponents of the deal just as strongly believe it speaks ill of Chiu.
“The Parkmerced vote is really a line of demarcation because there are acts that could have been taken by the board that could have insured the tenants will be taken care of — and on a 6-5 vote that didn’t happen,” Peskin said. “This isn’t the politics of compromise; it is just compromised politics,”
A little more than a week after casting the swing vote for Parkmerced, Chiu sought the endorsement of the San Francisco Building & Construction Trades Council.
Sup. Eric Mar, a strong tenant advocate, defended Chiu’s vote. “Though he voted for the Parkmerced development, I think he tried very hard … to listen to the concerns of the tenants and to try to build in stronger protections for the tenants,” Mar told us.
He also rejected the view that Chiu is no longer a progressive. “I’ve always known him to be somebody that has strong progressive values,” he said, noting that Chiu often votes along with left-leaning colleagues.
Peskin said there is a silver lining to the troubling board votes and the political realignment at City Hall. After 10 years with a progressive majority on the board, many leftist activists moved on to other struggles, confident that the board would defend the interests of the poor, renters, and others without much economic or political power.
“This is a wakeup call,” Peskin said. “Now it’s back to the ’80s and ’90s, with San Franciscans realizing that they’re fighting for the soul of their city again.”
Chiu articulates a vision for city government that has things running more smoothly: Political factions work in collaboration with one another rather than being at odds; Muni is upgraded to become an efficient transportation system serving a world-class city; and the way small business interfaces with city agencies is streamlined.
The board president thinks deeply about technical issues in government and how to improve the nuts-and-bolts of the system. What sets Chiu apart from that of his predecessor and the political leaders who have traditionally defined themselves as progressives, however, is that they considered themselves as leaders of the struggle to challenge an entrenched power structure represented by big business, major developers, and moneyed consultants and lobbyists. And — generally speaking, with some exceptions — they took their cues from the activists organizing around key issues.
While Chiu was willing to remove the six-vote roadblock to Parkmerced by securing what he seemed to think were adequate amendments, a substantial group of Parkmerced tenants bitterly opposed the project — and Chiu was not willing to act on their behalf to halt the plan from moving forward.
And while the dynamics of San Francisco’s political realignment may seem like a discussion topic of interest only to a narrow group of wonky insiders sipping beer at Buck Tavern, the consequences of the shift has real-life implications. As commissioners vetted by a more moderate Rules Committee make decisions that favor private over public interests, and as major development projects such as Parkmerced and Treasure Island march forward — bringing with them more wealthy homeowners — the lives of everyday San Franciscans will be changed.
Saving the soul of the city — and protecting the people who suffer when budgets are cut and affordable housing is lost — isn’t just a management job. It’s a fight, sometimes a decidedly uncivil fight, against people who have more money and power. That’s what has defined the progressive movement in this city — and people who walk the line down the center, like Chiu, will eventually have to decide which side they’re on.