Volume 45 Number 46
Many people will pay more for a cup of coffee if a significant amount of that money goes to the people who grew its beans, helping improve their lives and communities. That’s the idea behind Fair Trade Certified coffee.
But Fair Trade may not be as lucrative for coffee farmers as people are led to believe, and uncertified San Francisco roasters such as Four Barrel, Ritual Roasters, and Blue Bottle appear to be making more significant impacts on the growers they buy from.
Fair Trade was once just a name for ethical commerce and an idea to fairly pay the farmers growing our food, but Fair Trade Certified* is now a trademarked term owned by Fair Trade USA*, based here in the Bay Area. To label their coffee with the Fair Trade certification, coffee farmers must buy into the system and abide by strict standards set by the cooperatives that oversee their production.
Although Fair Trade Certified coffee sells at significantly higher prices than generic coffee, the coffee producers often don’t see the majority of the increased profits. That’s because all the parties involved in the system take shares of that increased price.
“The buyer buys the coffee at a hiked price, assuming the price is trickled down to the farmer, but it isn’t,” says Masumi Patzel, a political scientist who made a recent research trip to the coffee farms of Guatemala. “The people who are benefiting from Fair Trade are the exporters.”
The coffee producers only receive a fraction of the final cost of the coffee, says Patzel, and her research has shown it hasn’t done much to improve conditions in coffee-growing communities.
“What are these farmers going do? How are they going to feed their families?” she asks.
Patzel says that in Guatemala, a country of mostly farmers and peasants, more than half of all personal income is spent on food (compared to about 20 percent in the U.S.), food prices have risen 80 percent in the last 10 years, and nearly half the population suffers from malnourishment.
Buying into the Fair Trade system and switching to the monitored system of growing coffee can be costly for the Guatemalan farmers who are struggling to get by. “They are just not making the cut,” she says, noting that on the farms she visited, farmers only drank instant coffee because they couldn’t afford the coffee they grew.
Yet Fair Trade USA spokesperson Stacy Geagan Wagner says Fair Trade has helped farmers. “Fair Trade is essentially an agreement between producers, industry and consumers,” she says. “Fair Trade agrees to pay a fair price for the products.”
At Fair Trade USA, which oversees the label, that “fair price” comes to at least $1.40 per pound of coffee beans, with an added 20-cent community development premium given to the farmers and a possible 30-cent organic incentive.
“Essentially the farmers always get higher then market price,” Wagner says, “because they get the premium, the organic incentive and the minimum price.”
However, the International Coffee Organization’s most recent composite had the average worldwide coffee price at $2.15 per pound, higher than the Fair Trade price. To work with the ever fluctuating coffee market, Fair Trade Certified coffee farmers are either paid the minimum of $1.40, or the current market price, whichever is higher.
“The Fair Trade minimum covers the cost of sustainable production,” says Wagner, “so they don’t starve to death when the market crashes.”
Some of San Francisco’s most popular coffee roasters have chosen to buy their coffee directly from the farms that grow it, bypassing the Fair Trade system and paying the farmers significantly more while forming a strong relationship between producer and roaster. Without the middlemen, there is suddenly a smaller separation between the farmer growing the coffee and the consumer purchasing it.
I saw that illustrated on my recent visit to the Ritual Roasters facility where roasters convert raw beans procured worldwide into aromatic coffee. As I was drinking a cup of very fresh coffee, owner Eileen Hassi showed me pictures of the exact farm where my coffee had been grown.
She had made a recent trip to this Costa Rican coffee farm, and taken pictures of the farm, the processing facilities, and the owners. It is this visible connection, as well as high quality coffee, that contribute to the growing popularity of some San Francisco independent roasters.
Local roasters Ritual, Four Barrel and Blue Bottle Coffee Co. follow this model of buying coffee directly from the producers and forming beneficial relationships. Some roasters call this direct trade.
“For me, it’s the only way to get the best quality coffee and the only way that you can continue to get the best coffee is to pay good money for it,” says Four Barrel owner Jeremy Tooker. “If you pay your pickers better then they pick better coffee.”
Hassi believes that the cost of coffee will continue to increase because of a volatile, heavily fluctuating market, increased consumption, and global warming causing some places to lose their capability of producing coffee.
“If all of us in the developed world want to keep drinking coffee,” she says, “we need to get used to paying a lot more for it.”
James Freeman, owner of Blue Bottle Coffee Co., says he believes there’s a place for Fair Trade. “It’s a certification and, like all certifications, there’s the pluses and the minuses,” he says. Yet his coffee is uncertified and purchased directly from producers and organic cooperatives. “The cheapest we buy coffee for is probably two, two-and-a-half times the fair trade minimum,” he says. “In a way it’s better for fewer farmers, but at least it’s better.”
Wagner disputes several San Francisco roasters’ claims that the $3–<\d>$4 minimum price they pay is double Fair Trade’s. “The market has been over $3 on many occasions in the past year,” she says, reiterating FairTrade’s policy to pay producers either the Fair Trade minimum or the market price. “So to say you’re paying double the fair trade minimum without knowing what is going on that is actually you distorting the information…We love people’s efforts to trade more directly with farmers, but we do not appreciate spreading misinformation about Fair Trade. That doesn’t help anyone.”
Fair Trade’s popularity stems from its altruistic image, and to lose this image through “misinformation” might do damage to its popularity. But challenging people’s assumptions about Fair Trade could help raise its standards, which Patzel says need to be “upgraded and improved”.
“It is my belief,” she says, “that the FTA [Fair Trade Association] and other certifying entities may want to consider how to improve the Fair Trade calculator, ensuring that it is not the exporters that are making the majority of the income and instead, increase the wealth distribution starting at the very base and bottom of the pyramid, not in the middle.”
Even Wagner concedes, “We’ve made significant impact but we can do more.”
Patzel says Fair Trade farmers may not even be treated better than convention coffee farmers. “Just because a farmer is producing Fair Trade coffee does not mean — not at all — that they are being treated better than farmers who are not. It depends on what kind of relationship they have with the producer,” she says. “It really is a case by case basis.”
Gilbert Ramirez has been working to run a cooperative in Costa Rica for 25 years that is 70 percent Fair Trade. For him, the monetary increase between Fair Trade and conventional coffee is 15-20 percent.
“But if we’re taking into account the added value, I’d say that we get 50 percent more in added value when we work through Fair Trade,” says Ramirez. “There’s a long list of things we consider added value, and the largest added value Fair Trade allows us is knowledge.”
Ramirez says he believes that Fair Trade has significantly helped his community. “Farmers are happy in Fair Trade because it’s a model that respects them. And it’s a model that gives farmers a guide on how to develop themselves better.”
In 2010 his cooperative received $8 million in premiums to invest in the community. And yet he says, “The situation is a bit difficult because the cost of living has gone up a lot. In Costa Rica, there’s a higher cost of living than in other countries. We have a really high tax environment in Costa Rica, and also really low production so it doesn’t allow the country to have a lot of economic development.” In the end, consumers can choose to buy a pound of Peet’s Fair Trade Coffee for $15.95, or a pound of Ritual’s Los Crestones coffee for $22.50 and know that it was produced in Costa Rica by Grace Calderón Jiménez before I probably watched it being roasted here in San Francisco.
* This article was changed to correct the name of the organization and its trademark.
The San Francisco mayor’s race went from a lackluster affair to a dynamic match as the Aug. 12 filing deadline drew near and two prominent city officials who had previously said they wouldn’t run tossed their hats into the ring.
Mayor Ed Lee’s Aug. 8 announcement that he’d seek a full term prompted several of his opponents to use their time onstage at candidate forums to decry his reversal and question his ties to the moneyed, influential backers who openly urged him to run. Several days later, Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s last-minute decision to run for mayor signaled more tension yet to come in the debates.
At this point, eight current city officials are running campaigns for higher office, and the dialogue is beginning to take on a tone that is distinctly more biting than civil. Adachi, who had not yet debated onstage with his opponents by press time, told reporters he was running because he wanted “to make sure there’s a voice in there that’s talking about the fiscal realities of the city.”
Adachi authored a pension reform ballot measure that rivals the package crafted by Lee, labor unions, and business interests (see “Awaiting consensus,” May 31, 2011). At an Aug. 11 candidate forum hosted by the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the San Francisco Young Democrats, and the City Democratic Club, all of the top-tier candidates who were present indicated that they would support Lee’s pension reform measure and not Adachi’s.
“The reforms that I have championed are reforms that are absolutely needed, along with action,” Adachi told reporters moments after making his candidacy official. He added that after watching the mayoral debates, “I became convinced that either the candidates don’t get it, or they don’t want to get it.”
Those fighting words will likely spur heated exchanges in the months to come, but until Adachi’s entrance into the race, it was Lee who took the most lumps from opponents. Even Board President David Chiu, a mayoral candidate whose campaign platform is centered on the idea that he’s helped restore civility to local government, had some harsh words for Lee during an Aug. 11 mayoral debate.
“I do regret my decision to take Ed Lee at his word when he said he would not run,” Chiu said in response to a question about whether he regretted any of his votes. He also said his first interaction with Lee after the mayor had announced his candidacy was “a little like meeting an ex-girlfriend after a breakup.”
Lee, whose pitch on the campaign trail features a remarkably similar narrative about transcending political squabbling in City Hall, became the target of boos, hisses, and noisemaker blasts when a boisterous crowd packed the Castro Theater for an Aug. 8 candidate forum. He received one of the most forceful rebukes from Sen. Leland Yee, an opponent whom Lee supporters are especially focused on defeating.
“Had the mayor said that he would in fact run, he may not have gotten the votes for interim mayor,” Yee said. “Will you resign from your post,” he asked, challenging Lee, “in order to then run for mayor?” Days later, Yee had developed a new mantra about throwing power brokers out of City Hall instead of “wining and dining with them.”
Yet Lee said his decision to enter the race wasn’t because of the push from his backers, but because of how well things have gone during his brief tenure in Room 200. “Things have changed at City Hall, particularly in the last seven months,” he told reporters Aug. 8. “And because of that change, I changed my mind.”
In yet another twist, former Mayor Art Agnos — whom progressives had looked to as a potential appointee to the vacant mayor’s seat back in December, before Lee was voted in to replace former mayor and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom — delivered a surprise endorsement of City Attorney Dennis Herrera shortly after Lee declared. The decision was particularly significant since Agnos first hired Lee to serve in city government, and has a long history of working with him.
“[Herrera] is an independent person who will empower neighborhoods … and won’t be beholden to power brokers,” Agnos said. He also told the Guardian he wasn’t surprised that Lee had opted to run, given the role former Mayor Willie Brown and influential business consultant Rose Pak had played in orchestrating Lee’s appointment.
“Anybody who is an astute political observer saw the signs from the very beginning,” Agnos said. In response to a comment about his unique vantage point as a would-be caretaker mayor, he said, “I would’ve kept my word and not run for reelection.”
Intense focus on Lee’s flip-flop, and on the Progress for All-backed “Run, Ed, Run” effort that was the subject of an Ethics Commission discussion that same week, stemmed at least in part from the threat the incumbent mayor represents to other candidates. A CBS 5-SurveyUSA poll suggested he became an instant front-runner.
Yet questions about “Run, Ed, Run” — some raised by observers unaffiliated with any campaigns — also served to spotlight the candidate’s longstanding ties with backers closely connected to powerful business interests that stand to lose big if their links to city government aren’t preserved.
Retired Judge Quentin Kopp issued an open letter to District Attorney George Gascón Aug. 1 urging him to convene a criminal grand jury to investigate whether illegal and corrupt influencing had occurred when Pak — a close friend of Lee’s and a key driver behind the “Run, Ed, Run” effort — reportedly recruited executives of Recology to gather signatures urging Lee to run.
Recology, which handles the city’s waste, was recently awarded a $112 million city contract, and Lee’s scoring of the company and recommendation to raise rates in his previous capacity as city administrator benefited the company. Brown received substantial campaign donations from Recology in previous bids for mayor. Kopp is the coauthor of a ballot initiative asking San Francisco voters if the company’s monopoly on city garbage contracts should be put out to bid.
“A criminal grand jury is vital in order to put people under oath and interrogate them,” Kopp said. “They would put Willie Brown under oath, put Pak under oath, put [Recology President Mike Sangiacomo] under oath, put [Recology spokesperson Sam Singer] under oath … That’s the course of action that should be pursued by this.”
Although Kopp told the Guardian that he hadn’t yet received a response from Gascón, DA candidates Sharmin Bock, Bill Fazio, and David Onek nevertheless seized the opportunity to publicly and jointly call for Gascón to recuse himself from any investigation into Progress for All. Gascón has a conflict of interest, they argued, since he reportedly sought Pak’s advice when deciding whether to accept Newsom’s offer to switch from his previous post as police chief to his current job as top prosecutor.
The Ethics Commission determined unanimously Aug. 8 that the activities of Progress for All, the committee that was formed to encourage Lee to run, had not run afoul of election laws despite director John St. Croix’s opinion that it had filed improperly as a general purpose committee when it ought to have been a candidate committee, which would have placed caps on contribution limits.
“The Ethics Commission has spoken, and they’ve supported our position,” Progress for All consultant Enrique Pearce of Left Coast Communications told the Guardian.
St. Croix did not return Guardian calls seeking comment, but an Ethics Commission press release included a caveat: “Should facts surface that coordination occurred between Mayor Lee and [Progress for All], such allegations will be investigated under the Commission’s enforcement regulations.”
At a Lee support rally organized by his official campaign team on Aug. 11, volunteers who arrived with “Run, Ed, Run” materials produced by Progress for All were told they could not display those signs and T-shirts; the same people were on a first-name basis with one of Lee’s campaign team members.
Pressed on the question of whether there was any coordination between agents of Progress for All and Lee, Pearce said the Ethics Commission discussion had focused on whether Lee had been a candidate. “Whether or not he’s a candidate has nothing to do with whether or not he has dinner with Rose [Pak],” Pearce noted. He insisted that there had not been coordination, and that the efforts to encourage Lee to run and to support Lee as a candidate were totally separate.
Sup. John Avalos, who is running for mayor on a progressive platform, recalled at an Aug. 8 candidate forum how things unfolded when Lee’s name first came up as an appointee for interim mayor.
Avalos reminded people that he had called for postponing the vote back in December because he hadn’t even had a chance to sit down and meet with Lee, who was in Hong Kong at the time. With behind-the-scenes deals orchestrating his appointment, Avalos said, “We saw City Hall turning into one big back room.”
FILM Why do romantic comedies get such a bad rap? Blame it on the lame set-up, the contrived hurdles artificially buttressed by the obligatory chorus of BFFs, the superficial something-for-every-demographic-with-ADD multinarrative, and the implausible resolutions topped by something as simple as a kiss or as conventional as marriage, but often no deeper, more crafted, or heartfelt than an application of lip gloss.
Yet the lite-as-froyo pleasures of the genre don’t daunt Danish director Lone Scherfig, best known for her deft touch with a woman’s story that cuts closer to the bone, with 2009’s An Education. Her new film, One Day, based on the best-selling novel by David Nicholls, flirts with the rom-com form — from the kitsch associations with Same Time, Next Year (1978) to the trailer that hangs its love story on a crush — but musters emotional heft through its accumulation of period details, a latticework of flashbacks, and collection of encounters between its charming protagonists: upper-crusty TV presenter Dexter (Jim Sturgess) and working-class aspiring writer Emma (Anne Hathaway). Their quickie university friendship slowly unfolds, as they meet every St. Swithin’s Day, July 15, over a span of years, into the most important relationship of their lives.
And although One Day‘s story belongs to both characters, the too-easily dashed desires and hopes of a young woman spunkily attempting to surmount age-old class barriers spoke to Scherfig, who immediately thought of her 16-year-old daughter when reading the script. “Emma’s insecurity is an important element for me,” she says now, selecting her words delicately in her interview suite at the Ritz-Carlton. The director hadn’t been outside all day, yet it’s obvious from the way she looks out the long windows before her that she’d love to be free to wander the city.
“There are so many girls who, because of their insecurity, get too little out of life,” Scherfig continues. “You’re so worried about how you look at some family event you almost forget to enjoy looking at everybody else, and what you learn over the years is that people aren’t as critical as you think. The more you get out of whatever surroundings you’re in the happier you become. I think that’s something in your 20s — you sort of have to grow up one more time, which is a major theme of this film.”
In contrast, Dexter is the cute, rumpled brat who can’t be bothered to figure out who he is or what’s truly important to him. “He neglects himself, and he doesn’t try to find out what it is love can be,” says Scherfig. “And it’s meaningful, much more meaningful than your generic romantic comedy where the characters are very much alike, though it’s a different kind of pleasure to see those films because it’s almost like a dance. It’s the variations that you enjoy.”
Despite the blue-collar female lead and UK backdrop that it shares with An Education, One Day feels like a departure for Scherfig, who first found international attention for her award-winning Dogme 95-affiliated Italian for Beginners (2000). From where she’s sitting, she has few preconceptions about rom-coms in general, and how they can sometimes seem like a cashmere-lined ghetto, the cinematic equivalent of a Jane Austen writing corner, for U.S. women directors such as Nicole Holofcener, Nora Ephron, and Nancy Meyers.
“The love itself is what the film’s about, and the facets of it, and where it’s meant to be. Hopefully, [it’s] a classic, emotional love story,” she says. “That, I’ve never done. And this time, it was, let’s go for it. I didn’t feel like I had to fight it at all. Of course, this film has a substance that I felt when I first read the script. But yeah, I wish romantic comedies would attract the best possible directors, the best possible writers because it can be a wonderful genre.”
Her kinship still appears to lie with Dogme moviemakers and their embrace of the unpredictable and dismissal of lighting, props, and costumes (just try to picture a Pretty Woman-style shopping orgy working within those guidelines). “[Dogme] gives me a confidence that I can work on much lower budgets, so I enjoy the luxury of having a higher budget,” she says with a chuckle. “With this film I felt so fortunate that we could get that many period cars and that many music tracks and that caliber of actors in bit parts, so I really feel grateful, because I’m not used to it. This is the biggest budget I’ve ever had.”
Scherfig sounds genuinely humbled, giving off just a glimmer of the young woman that once had to scrape together state funding for her debut, The Birthday Trip (1990). “With [One Day] — even the crew would talk about it as we shot it — we felt privileged to work on a film that had the ambition of being nuanced, in a year when a lot of films had to make money.”
Filming love in the cold climate of the Great Recession has been less of a challenge after An Education, and Scherfig’s not ready to leave Europe yet. She’s set to direct Music and Silence, based on the novel by Rose Tremain, which brings together an English lute player and a Danish servant in the court of Christian IV of Denmark. But after that, America looms in the horizon: namely, a mafia project with Jessica Biel set in New York’s Lower East Side in the ’60s. “I know I’d like to do genre,” she exclaims. “It’ll been great to do something that’s even more cinematic, less character-based, more technical, and more plot-oriented. You won’t be seeing a romantic comedy!”
ONE DAY opens Fri/19 in Bay Area theaters.
CHEAP EATS Beignets have cheese in them. Boudin does not have rice. Andouille is made of tripe. It’s not the least bit spicy. I’m learning a lot in France, and one of the things I’m learning is I can’t wait to be back in New Orleans.
In Rochefort they are building a ship, a more-or-less exact replica of the Hermione, which carried LaFayette from Rochefort to Boston in 1780 with news that yo, the French had our back. According to some Frenchies who I ate with, the new Hermione upon completion will also sail from Rochefort to Boston! You know, for old time’s sake.
I’ve tried more than once to get into the little shipyard there and have a peek at it. I want to know approximately how much time I have to get back home and start a revolution. But alas, I haven’t got a clue.
Yesterday I cooked up one of Farmer Fabienne’s chickens for dinner and we ate it again for lunch today, and I still can’t believe how goddamn awful good it tasted. And juicy! Even the breast. Even warmed over. I’m accustomed to true free-range chickens being a tad too easily overcooked. In fact, until we sunk our teeth into it, I was sure I had overcooked this one and had already started my suicide note while I was waiting for Fabienne and Fred to come in for dinner from the fields.
“You raise you a fine, fine chicken, farmer,” I said to Fabienne.
“And you cooked it perfectly, farmer,” she said to me.
We call each other farmer. Fred, technically, is a carpenter.
The secret from her end, Fabienne said, was in the corn, which (allegedly) “builds lipids.” So her feed, which she grows herself organically, is more corn than wheat or sunflower seeds. And the chickens of course also have access to grass and bugs and sunshine.
Hedgehog is in New York now, working on a movie. When I sent her a picture of our dinner and explained about the lipid-ish juicy excellence of it all, she of course wanted to know if the corn was sweet corn or “ratty yellow stuff.”
“Hold on a second,” I said (but in an email). And I went out into yon cornfield to check.
Yellow. I didn’t see any rats and or rattiness, but I’m guessing it ain’t exactly sweet corn by Hedgehog’s standards. I’m not saying she’s a sweet corn snob, but she is. And she has every right to be, like I’m a snob about butter. And together we shall make the best popcorn in the history of the world, if not cinema.
So, yeah, she’s working on a movie and I’m working on a book. And I send her pictures of the food I’m feeding the French and she sends me baseball reports from the States.
As if I cared. Which I do. Again. Thanks to both her and Baseball Mary. Baseball Mary, you will recall, presides at the Clement Street Bar and Grill, my new favorite bar. And grill, come to think of it.
Hedgehog and I had the honor of house and garden-sitting for my pals Papa and Papi, thanks to which you will be reading about much more avenue-y than usual restaurants over the next few weeks.
The Clement Street Bar and Grill was where we watched our baseball, except for one evening we also ate there, along with the Choo-Choo Train, Ding-a-Ling-a-Ling, Earl Butter, and a couple of visiting beloveds from Ohio.
Me, I got osso buco with garlic mashed potatoes. Hedgehog had the duck breast special. Earl Butter had a steak, and I forget what all else was flying around the table. But for sure, a lot of happy faces and good times, not to mention full bellies.
This is a real gem of an unpretentiously old-school filler-upper, whether you’re eating or drinking.
We bellied up to the bar afterwards to watch the end of the Giants game, and Baseball Mary joined us for a little while, but then the game went into extra innings and we all had to leave.
CLEMENT STREET BAR AND GRILL
Tue.-Thu. 4:30 — 9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 4:30-10 p.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. & 4:30 — 9 p.m.
708 Clement, SF
DINE If food is art (probably not, by the way), then Una Pizza Napoletana is probably the closest thing we have to a food-art installation.
This phrase, “art installation,” isn’t exactly euphonious. You install mufflers and software, and (if you’re the new head coach of the 49ers) the West Coast offense. You install a new dishwasher. Art, whatever it may or may not be, deserves a more supple verb.
Picture a white cube with high walls, mostly bare except for white tile wainscoting (rather restroom-y, I thought, but most likely practical). At the center behind the glass podium, a pizza oven of turquoise tiles like a huge Navajo artifact recovered from an archaeological dig. The space, on a nondescript SoMa corner, looks like one of the art galleries you might find in the western reaches of Chelsea, in the part of New York City where the avenues are a little wider, the buildings less tall, and the city feels not quite so breathlessly compacted.
Una Pizza Napoletana’s crowd fits the space: it’s youthful and knowing, ritualistically peering into smart phones, willing to wait for a table at a place that is so plainly and peculiarly happening. Young people don’t want to miss out, it’s their greatest fear.
What they will find missing here is anything other than pizza. That is the menu: pizza in five versions, no substitutions, no polluting table-side condiments like oregano or chili flakes (but salt and pepper, in demure shakers). That is all. No side dishes, soups or salads, no fritti misti, no pastas or roasts. The pizza isn’t sliced for you either; it’s uncut, we might say. Seinfeld had the Soup Nazi (not to mention that lunatic mohel), and we have this.
The maestro of this remarkable production, Antonio Mangieri, can be observed behind the podium manning the oven, wielding his long-handled peel like a medieval knight with a lance. He could be a mime, a figure of soundless kinesis: he stretches, he thrusts, in goes a pie, out comes another, on goes a drizzle of olive oil from his copper urn and a handful of fresh arugula.
It’s hard not to watch his act, because he’s at the very center of things. Also, you’re likely to be quite hungry and wondering if the pizza he’s lifting from the oven might be headed for your table. If it is, you’ll be happy, because the pies, despite their stark lack of trappings are worth waiting for and even suffering (a little) for.
The heart of any pizza is the crust, and UPN’s crusts deserve the ultimate compliment: they could stand on their own, without any toppings at all. They have a slight thickness and focaccia-like sponginess that cuts against current cracker-crust vogue, and they taste quite distinctly of sourdough. It is rare in my experience that pizza crust, even in good pizzerias contributes flavor. Mostly one is attentive to, and grateful for, texture (chewy? crispy?) and the structural question of whether or not the points droop. UPN’s did droop for us a little, but that was probably because we were hacking our way through them haphazardly, so the pieces weren’t symmetric.
Another factor in the droopiness would likely be that the pies are generously laden with toppings. You don’t get a dusting of this and a few gratings of that. These pizzas are loaded. The bianca ($20) for instance, was fitted out with extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, sea salt, at least a dozen thumbs of buffalo mozzarella, and plenty of basil leaves which interestingly accompanied the rest of the pie into the oven rather than being put on after the pie had baked — and were accordingly blistered. Basil’s flavor can withstand rougher handling than that of most other herbs (you can keep pesto made from your summer surplus frozen for months without having it go flat), but I did think that in this case the high heat had diminished the leaves’ fragrant, peppery bite.
The Ilaria pie ($22) by contrast was strewn with fresh arugula leaves, but these were aftermarket add-ons and had not been asked to face a 900-degree Fahrenheit oven. As a result they retained their fresh, nutty flavor, but they also were not well-integrated with the rest of the toppings. Instead they amounted to a mat laid over their accompaniments — a kind of roof to the crust’s floor. Those other toppings included extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, cherry tomatoes, and smoked mozzarella. I thought the last would be the dominant flavor — smoked anything often asserts itself over other ingredients in the vicinity — but it was mild and muted here.
Service is excellent, and a brief wine list offers several unusual, pizza-friendly Italian bottlings in both red and white by the glass. But I noticed quite a few bottles of Moretti beer on nearby tables, too. If beer matches up with almost any food, then pizza — more than almost any other food — matches up with practically any drink euphoric in nature.
UNA PIZZA NAPOLETANA
Dinner: Wed.-Sat., from 5 p.m.
210 11th St., SF
Beer and wine
EDITORIAL The bizarre move by BART officials Aug. 11 to shut down cell phone service in the underground train stations made headlines around the world — and for good reason. It was, Wired Magazine reported Aug 15, apparently the first time in United States history that a public agency sought to block electronic communications as a way to prevent a political protest.
It came at a time when oppressive governments around the world have been disabling cell phone and internet services to frustrate protest organizers. And it followed months of abysmally bad behavior by the transit agency, which is trying to respond to yet another dubious BART police shooting. Civil liberties activists have issued statements of condemnation and outrage; state Sen. Leland Yee, who is also running for mayor, has called on the BART board to adopt policies preventing future shutoffs.
But the BART board has proven itself unable to properly monitor and oversee its law-enforcement operations. At this point, the state Legislature needs to step in.
It’s not surprising that protesters have been swarming around BART stations this summer. The agency has a history of failing to control its police force, and when an officer shot and killed an apparently drunk man in the Civic Center station July 3, activists were fed up. BART responded badly, refusing to turn over video of the incident — and the more facts that came out, the worse the agency looked.
We understand the frustration that commuters felt when angry activists disrupted service for a brief period during the afternoon rush hour. And we understand BART’s concern that further actions inside the stations could be difficult to control.
But let’s remember: The BART board has never been particularly open to public input and most of its members show little interest in accountability. Over the past two decades, hundreds of people have appeared to speak at board meetings to demand a serious response to police shootings — and nothing ever happened. It took a particularly horrendous incident — a point-blank shooting of an unarmed man that was recorded on video — for the board to create even a modest police oversight program.
BART officials are trying to argue that cell phone service in the underground stations is a new service, something offered at the agency’s discretion — as if BART were some sort of private café that gives its customers free wifi. But that ignores the fact that the Bay Area Rapid Transit District is a government agency, one that has no more business shutting down cell phone service than the White House does blocking a newspaper from publishing embarrassing secrets.
As a practical matter, the decision was foolish: The protesters may have been inconvenienced, but so were hundreds of others who may have been trying to make business calls or connect to family members. In political terms, it was inexcusable. Think about it: A public agency was intentionally disabling communications to prevent a political protest. That’s about as bad as it gets.
We agree with Yee that the BART board ought to set a clear policy against any future attempts to control cell phone service for political purposes. But that’s not likely to happen — and it won’t be enough. The state Legislature needs to pass a measure specifically banning any public agency in California from disabling or interfering with any public communications system for political purposes. We can’t wait to see BART lobbyists show up and try to oppose that one.
August is a bad time to split town. When I left for vacation a couple of weeks ago, Ed Lee was just starting to act like a candidate in a slow-developing mayor’s race. Nobody except my lunatic pal h. brown had any inkling that Public Defender Jeff Adachi would jump into the Room 200 sweepstakes at the last minute. And the Giants were three games up.
Now Lee is the clear front-runner, Adachi — a guy who defends criminals for a living — is the darling of a some anti-government conservatives, there are Avalos signs all over the Mission, and nobody knows exactly how to figure this all out.
Oh, and Arizona — which I hate (yeah, I hate the entire state, including the governor, the baseball team and the newspaper chain that’s based there) — is leading the National League West.
Welcome home, I guess.
The first thing I want to say about the mayor’s race is that none of this would be possible without ranked-choice voting and public financing. Think about it: Five serious Asian candidates, two of them leading in the polls and at least three of them real contenders — and nobody’s complaining that Adachi or Lee will “split” the Asian vote. If anything, several strong Asian candidates help each other; the supporters of Ed Lee and Leland Yee may be trashing the opposition day and night, but in the end, a lot of Chinese voters will probably still rank the incumbent mayor and the man who’s been elected citywide four times as two of their three choices.
And without public financing, the race would be dominated by one or two contenders — the ones who could privately raise $1 million or more to stay in the game. Instead, we have at least four and perhaps as many as five or six candidates who have a real chance of finishing on top. Already, the Chron and the Ex are complaining about the cost of public financing; the cost of closed elections where only those with big-business connections could win was much, much higher.
The other factor that will make this fascinating is that Lee’s job just got much, much harder. He’s not the amiable technocrat who comes to work early and gets the job done anymore; now he’s an ambitious pol who has never had to stand up to the heat of a tough campaign. He’s going to have to be a candidate, and campaign, and answer some hard questions about some of his political allies and supporters. That’s not the gig he wanted in February. And I don’t know how well he’s going to handle it.
FILM Unless you’re between the ages of approximately 8 and 16 (mental as well as actual years applicable), it’s been difficult to avoid a serious case of superhero fatigue at the movies lately. If a particular weekend doesn’t bring yet another comic book to life at several thousand multiplex screens near you, it’s providing the same favor to a toy, video game, or some pre-existing movie franchise that might as well have originated from one of the above.
They’re always pretty much the same: some interchangeable lead actor who’s done a million crunches; some leading lady for whom this is either slumming (Gwyneth Paltrow) or a likely career zenith (Megan Fox); some interesting actors doing some of their least interesting work but still stealing scenes as villains, scientists, police chiefs, etc. The same CGI depicting the impossible so easily (if expensively) that the amazing has thoroughly ceased to amaze one actor doing a back flip sans cutaways is now worth a passel of dinosaurs, morphing thespians, and cities under space attack.
These movies can only be so good or surprising or idiosyncratic (no matter what "unconventional" director gets assigned them) because they cost so much to make and market that no major deviation from formula is allowed. Yes, 2008’s The Dark Knight was very good. But in 50 years, Citizen Kane will still be Citizen Kane. Knight will be the equivalent of Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) a popcorn flick still skillful enough to be enjoyed, but hardly exalted.
Even superhero spoofs have gotten kinda old, not that there’s been one that did the job half as well as, say, Hot Fuzz (2007) sent up Michael Bay-type awesome-but-not-quite-super heroics. (If Edgar Wright himself couldn’t quite nail it with 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, maybe nobody will.) Still, folks keep trying to tweak the formula, searching for ways to ride its coattails while doing something different, deeper, or at least cheaper.
The latest, Griff the Invisible, hails from Australia but unlike most Australian movies, this one could have come from anywhere. In fact, it already has, in that the Woody Harrelson’s underseen 2009 Defendor (from Canada), 2010’s Super (from the U.S.) with Rainn Wilson, and doubtless others already forgotten have previously trod the delusional-loser-thinks-he’s BlahBlahMan concept. None of these are spoofs so much as dramedies. When you’re dealing with insanity and imaginary superpowers in a fairly serious, analyst’s-couch way, being adequate really isn’t good enough. Griff is adequate.
True Blood himbo Ryan Kwanten keeps his shirt on as Griff, a cubicle-working nonentity whose handsome-actor-trying-to-look-dweeby (but not too hard) Clark Kent act practically screams "I’VE GOT A SECRET LIFE NONE OF YOU KNOW ABOUT!!!" Indeed, he moonlights as a mysterious crime fighter in black rubber gear yea more fetishy than the Marvel norm. Trouble is, the victims he rescues seem as scared of him as their attackers, and the police are looking for this vigilante freak. Also concerned is Griff’s brother Tim (Patrick Brammall), who’s moved to Sydney from Adelaide to keep an eye on this sibling with no social skills and a history of acting out grandiose fantasies.
Coping with bad guys by night and one specific dickhead (Toby Schmitz as a smug workplace bully) by day, Griff is reluctantly introduced to Tim’s new possible girlfriend Melody (Maeve Dermody), with whom he has more in common than bro does. He’s working on an invisibility formula; she on something involving atoms and walking through walls. Perceiving a kindred soul, Melody labors to become Griff’s unwanted sidekick and co-conspirator.
Actor turned writer-director Leon Ford’s first feature is professionally executed but not very special, let alone super, in ideas or action. It doesn’t really have a perspective on superherodom at least none you haven’t seen before or mental illness, or even on which condition our protagonists truly suffer from. (The ending kinda fudges the question.) It aims for Sweet and Charming, lands at Sorta Kinda.
The routine bombast of regular superhero movies has been overexposed, but as an alternative flavor so has a certain creepy indie seriocomedy cuteness. Just recently we’ve had the fey, overly pettable likes of Beginners (2010) and The Future, with Gus Van Sant’s even more cloying Restless up next. Griff the Invisible is less irksome for having less overbearing "personality." But it’s still just another self-consciously quirky romance between contrived misfits that congratulates the audience for enjoying a plate of nutmeg chervil Hollandaise sauce rather than the usual overcooked hamburger. Either way, you’re going to wish you’d ordered something else.
GRIFF THE INVISIBLE opens Fri/19 in Bay Area theaters.
FILM Though the visibility of gays and lesbians in cinema remains (largely) confined to independent film, Rashaad Ernesto Green, in his debut feature Gun Hill Road, uses the creative freedom afforded by that closeting to explore issues of race and confused sexuality amid the Latino population of the Bronx.
Esai Morales is Enrique, a former drug dealer returning from prison to his wife Angela (Judy Reyes) and teenage son Michael (Harmony Santana). But everyone seems to have moved on with their lives. Angela is having an affair, and Michael has created a new persona, Vanessa. Green’s film focuses on the relationship between the damaged Enrique and Michael, whose cross-dressing and budding transsexuality puts the family members at odds.
Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and an entry in this year’s Frameline Film Festival, Gun Hill Road is one in a recent spate of films that deals with coming out in an urban setting. Like Green’s film, Peter Bratt’s La Mission (2009) offered a picture of homophobia in the Latino community. But Gun Hill Road, despite its bulging dramatic heft, shirks the after-school-special formula of La Mission by imagining complex characters rather than hewing them from instantly recognizable, sympathetic archetypes.
Yet Gun Hill Road takes many a detour into hokum-town. There’s a lot of yelling and screaming in that tiny Bronx apartment, which makes the proceedings occasionally claustrophobic and tiresome. The film has the subtlety of a slam poetry reading: it has emotional punch, but that punch often feels like its swinging in the dark. Yet the whole thing is handled with such chutzpah and bravery that you have to admire it.
The young Santana is fearless, portraying Michael-Vanessa with a naked-to-the-world earnestness that makes him the emotional center of the film. Enrique’s fist-wielding masculinity makes him a difficult character to like, but the film is well-cast and the performances are on-point. Though the script is flawed, it’s the execution that succeeds.
With a handheld camera in the tradition of gritty social realism, Green sheaths the Bronx cityscape in a muted lacquer of beige and blue, affording visual pleasures while treating Michael’s disoriented sexuality with sensitivity rather than camp. But the film probably could have used a sense of humor. Perhaps it’s because Michael isn’t yet comfortable in his own skin. In the end, Green gives us reason to believe that he’ll get there.
GUN HILL ROAD opens Fri/19 at the Sundance Kabuki.
HAIRY EYEBALL German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) acted as an interpreter for the discards of modern life, or what Alfred Barr, the first curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, tellingly referred to as, “witnesses stolen from the ground.” He listened to what the matchbook covers, torn ticket stubs, crinkled packaging, scrap paper, fabric remnants, and other junk that he took back to his studio had to say about form and color, and in turn, re-presented their testimonies to the world in which they once circulated.
Berkeley Art Museum’s exhibit “Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage,” the first US survey of the artist’s work in 25 years, traces the dialogue between found things and made objects that comprises Schwitters’ remarkable oeuvre. The 30 some-odd works that fill BAM’s sixth floor gallery are densely indeterminate, neither strictly paintings nor collages, but hybrids of both that reflect Schwitters’ association with the Berlin Dadaists — and also his background in painting, which accounts for both the influence Expressionism, and later, Constructivism, would have on his approach to composition.
In some pieces the assembled components have been pushed and flattened into each other, with the paste acting as both fixing agent and mixing medium, giving the work the appearance of having been painted — which in a sense it has been, if you substitute paper scraps for brushes and oils. In other works, bas relief-like effects are created through successively built up and painted-over layers in geometric arrangements that become more precise over time. In every piece, there is a careful attention to the grain of the materials used as well as their color (Schwitters gravitated towards an autumnal palette of reds, blacks, browns, and yellows, with occasional streaks of blue or gray).
As with other artists of his generation, Schwitters’ life and career was to be inevitably shaped by both world wars (his trajectory from Germany to Norway to England was largely determined by where the Nazis weren’t). Schwitters referred to his output interchangeably as Merz, a neologism based on the second half of Kommerz, the German word for “commerce.” The designation reflected his desire for his practice to, in his words, “make connections, if possible, between everything” in a world he saw as increasingly fragmented.
Whereas his Dadaist contemporaries such as John Heartfield and Hannah Höch cut apart newspapers and film rags and reconfigured them as monstrous satires of the noisy, busy society that produced them as spectacular propaganda, Schwitters’ work proposes an engagement with its various found source materials based on assimilation and incorporation rather than harsh juxtaposition. Everywhere in Schwitters’ work there is the glint of the familiar: the postage marks, the trademarks, bits of text, and reproduced images in his skeins of torn pulp and paint identify specific places, times, and events.
The Merzbau — a vast, ongoing architectural assemblage that took over six rooms of Schwitters’ family home in Hannover and which was completely destroyed in a 1943 bombing raid — is perhaps the apotheosis of Schwitters’ vision. Like a beaver building a dam, Schwitters constantly added bits and pieces, inviting friends to build out alcoves within the all-white grotto-like rooms whose square lines had totally given way to myriad angled surfaces and seemingly-impossible proportions.
On BAM’s ground floor sits Peter Bissegger’s meticulous, life-size reconstruction (1981-83) of one of the Hannover rooms. It’s a doozy to walk into, and, once you’re out again, near-impossible to try and square the three dimensional geometric assault just experienced against the three wall-mounted 1933 black and white interior photos on which the reconstruction was based. Save perhaps for the Winchester Mystery House, you will simply not experience another space like it, or have your experience of space so wonderfully warped (even BAM’s interior, which offers a Brutalist response to the Guggenheim’s famous spiraling rotunda, seems positively orderly by comparison).
While undeniably cool as an object, in some respects, the reconstructed Merzbau conceptually cuts against Schwitters’ process of ongoing accumulation that led to its construction in the first place. To have the Merzbau be a wholly transportable thing that can be taken down and re-assembled, jigsaw puzzle-style (as demonstrated in an accompanying time lapse video of the piece’s installation), is to fail to treat it as something that has no final form but is always in the process of becoming. Indeed, it’s telling that Schwitters built other Merz environments wherever he moved, at each location spinning anew another web of form and shape culled from bits and pieces of his surroundings. The task he had set before himself to connect the world anew would prove to be unending.
KURT SCHWITTERS: COLOR AND COLLAGE
Through Nov. 27, $7-$10
Berkeley Art Museum
2626 Bancroft, Berk.
(510) 642-0808 www.bampfa.berkeley.edu
MUSIC Noah “DJ Dials” Bennett Cunningham wants to galvanize your pleasure center.
“You know how you can think back to that one night? That punk show or cool house party or the first time you saw Björk, and it’s just, the night you’ll never forget? I want to do that for other people. I want to make lasting memories,” he says from his perch in Four Barrel Coffee as he grabs Rosamunde french fries from his bag.
A DJ since age 12, the 27-year-old also works as a producer and video artist. His next big gig, in collaboration with Tri Angle Records and 120 Minutes club night, is an event likely to stir brain waves: it’s a showcase of witch house — a controversial genre also known, interchangeably, as grave rave, based goth, drag, or “pop music for the unconscious,” as San Francisco producer oOoOO has been known to describe his own sound.
It’s contentious because it’s all over the map. At its most basic, a combination of hip-hop and goth cultures, many music snobs and bloggers declared it dead on arrival. Even those associated with it seem to at least avoid using the term “witch house” itself. It’s said with an apologetic shoulder shrug.
This may be due to its murky origins. Essentially, it was coined by Denver’s Travis Egedy, a.k.a Pictureplane, sometime around 2009, partially as a joke, to describe his own music. Years later, the name remains and the scene is still burgeoning. There are some skilled musicians and producers creating this sound, including a smattering of national acts, and, locally, oOoOO (pronounced “oh”).
The August 19 showcase at 103 Harriet marks the first local live show (not just DJ set) for oOoOO — newly returned from an international tour — along with Clams Casino, White Ring, Shlohmo, Babe Rainbow, Water Borders, and D33J.
For this particularly significant event, Cunningham is working behind the scenes as the producer and co-host along with Marco De La Vega, the mastermind behind year-old witch house club night 120 Minutes at Elbo Room. Both agree that the biggest misconception about this type of music is that it’s already dead.
“It’s still new, it’s what’s happening right now,” says De La Vega. “The goth scene has a tendency to focus very strongly on the past, so all this music was the first kind of stuff where I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually happening, this makes sense for now. This is contemporary.'”
This much we know: those associated with witch house often make use of darker rhythms with creepy melodies over top, chopped and screwed hip-hop or slowed-down pop music samples, along with hypnotic and dark droning synths and howling, reverberated female vocals.
And yet, many musicians identified with this mutating, nearly indefinable genre wage battle against it. They, understandably, eschew the label for fear of pigeonholing.
“The way we look at it is that there are a few bands that were doing stuff independently and have been grouped by people trying to make it in to one cohesive term,” says Bryan Kurkimilis, one half of New York’s White Ring. “It’s nice and flattering to be part of something like that, but we had no genre in our head when we started. We’re consistently trying to evolve our sound.”
The music itself, of course, varies greatly, especially in this particular showcase. While oOoOO samples sputtering pop vocals, Shlohmo is more associated with L.A’s avant-garde beat scene, and Clams Casino’s repertoire includes making beats for based god Lil B. Toronto’s Babe Rainbow creates dark chopped and screwed hip-hop; White Ring bleeds more toward 80s synth and includes the lush, eerie voice of singer Kendra Malia.
“What motivates me, is putting Shlohmo and Babe Rainbow — who aren’t really considered witch house — next to oOoOO, White Ring, and Water Borders even, to show that it doesn’t really matter what the genre is; it’s that feeling, it’s the mood. It’s the place where it comes from,” Cunningham says. *
TRI ANGLE RECORDS SHOWCASE: 2011 REALITY TOUR
With oOoOO, White Ring, Clams Casino, Shlohmo, Babe Rainbow , Water Borders, D33j
Fri/19, 10 p.m., $15
103 Harriet at 1015 Folsom
1015 Folsom, SF
By Larry Bush
OPINION Proposition F, a measure on the November ballot, is supposed to clean up some provisions of the law that requires political consultants to register and make disclosures about their clients and their work. It was approved by all 11 supervisors.
But Prop. F has some serious problems. For starters, it grants authority to the Ethics Commission to make any other changes it wants in the law.
As the Voter Handbook says:
“A yes vote means: You also want to allow the City to change any of the campaign consultant ordinance’s requirements without further voter approval.”
Why should you oppose that? Because the Ethics Commission can’t be trusted.
The reason San Francisco has a law forcing political consultants to register and make disclosures is because the voters demanded one. City Hall fought against it every step of the way.
Former Supervisor Tom Ammiano introduced the measure in 1996, and it won board approval. Then-Mayor Willie Brown vetoed it. Ammiano rewrote the measure 1997 to meet Mayor Brown’s objections. Brown vetoed it again. And the supervisors who had voted for the law refused to vote for it again and overturn the veto.
So Ammiano and several other supervisors put the measure on the ballot. The political consultants raised a war chest to defeat it and spent more than $100,000 in direct mail, billboards and other voter contacts.
It passed with 61 percent of the vote.
What kind of clean up does Ethics plan now on the political consultant law? You can bet it won’t come down on the side of greater disclosure.
In 2009, two years ago, the Ethics Commission decided to write a clean up of the city lobbyist law. Just like they want to do with the political consultant law now.
And what happened with that law?
It changed one little aspect that didn’t get any real attention. It changed what is defined as a lobbyist — a person or entity who seeks to influence administrative or legislative decisions.
And what is the result?
Now the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce no longer has to file and disclose its lobbying. Neither does Lennar. Neither does the America’s Cup or Larry Ellison.
All those groups had to file under the old rules.
The bottom line is that a sleeping watchdog that can’t be trusted wants the right to change the laws governing political consultants — without any further oversight or public vote.
The former Ethics Commissioners who also are opposing this measure are Paul Melbostad, who served on the commission when the political consultants act was passed; Bob Dockendorff; Joe Julian; Bob Planthold; and Eileen Hansen, who just completed her term and was the only commissioner who voted against the pay-to-play rewrite.
I urge you to join them in opposing this measure.
Larry Bush is the publisher of Citireport.com, a City Hall watchdog.
THEATER In 1934, Broadway hosted its longest-running opera to that time, the serenely unconventional Four Saints in Three Acts. The brainchild of writer Gertrude Stein and composer Virgil Thomson, the production famously featured an all–African American cast (for the first time in roles not geared to depicting African American life), a scenic design covered in cellophane, music that mingled hints of Parisian modernism with a boisterous collage of vernacular American forms, and a libretto of unfathomable if evocative wordplay that merrily eschewed narrative — or even consistency with the title (acts were actually five, saints were many). It was weird. And people liked it.
In deciding upon a topic for the opera, Stein had taken on the lives of saints (especially Theresa and Ignatius, who figure prominently) as representative of the lives of artists. It was a secular work, and apotheosis, that ultimately concerned both her and Thomson, neither of them otherwise religious. As it turned out, the opera not only hailed the arrival of avant-garde ideas into the mainstream, but catapulted Stein into the stratosphere of celebrity.
“In Stein’s personal story the opera was a very large chapter,” explains Frank Smigiel, associate curator of public programs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, currently presenting The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde. “In addition to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, [Four Saints] radically transformed Stein from an experimental writer known for collecting other artists into a popular artist in her own right.”
One good apotheosis deserves another. This weekend SFMOMA, in association with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, presents Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation, as part of The Steins Collect. While the exhibition already includes footage and ephemera from Stein and Thomson’s landmark opera (with even more footage on view in the concurrent Gertrude Stein exhibition at nearby Contemporary Jewish Museum), audiences will now have the chance to see a full staging of the work. Meanwhile, the production’s team of collaborators promises as much a re-envisioning as a revival.
This is as it should be, suggests Smigiel, who spearheaded the idea for the revival about a year ago as he and his colleagues were asking themselves how they might expand on the exhibition.
“If you look at all the other artists in the Steins Collect exhibition, they’re all working not just on canvases,” he says, speaking by phone from his office at SFMOMA. “It was a creative community that was crossing disciplines in ways people might not always know about. One of our aims was to rev up the avant-garde energy of the exhibition. There’s a way, when you go to a show with Matisse and Picasso, they can just look canonical now to us. One of the hopes is that there’s still something about Stein’s language and the opera that’s going to have a bit of shake-up to it. It won’t just appear as a rolling out of a canonical piece, and people wondering, ‘What was this again?'”
To that end, Smigiel approached local company Ensemble Parallèle, acclaimed specialists in contemporary chamber opera, having been impressed by their recent production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, including its shrewd use of visual media. He also sought out Italian-born, San Francisco–based composer, performer, and musicologist Luciano Chessa, an expert in the period whom he had worked with before. Equally inspired was Smigiel’s call to Kalup Linzy, whose video-performance practice mixes soap opera genre with drag, original songs, lip-sync, and themes of family, community, sexuality, and otherness through the prism of his African American Southern upbringing and later Brooklyn milieu.
After a process of deciding how they might re-approach the work, Chessa landed on the idea of resetting the text that Thomson had excised in his own 1950s version of the opera. The result is its own piece, entitled A Heavenly Act, which will immediately precede Four Saints without an intermission (the entire program will run a fleet 90 minutes). Linzy developed video projections as the predominant visual element in the production.
Chessa and Linzy offered further insight into the collaboration, and their respective processes, during a break from a rehearsal last week. Although neither knew the opera very well before embarking on the revival, each found points of contact and familiarity with their own work.
“I knew it mostly because of [Canadian filmmaker] John Greyson’s [2009 operatic documentary] Fig Trees,” explains Chessa. In conceiving A Heavenly Act, Chessa says he wanted to account for both Thomson’s own musical influences as well as the legacy he has left in the work of later composers.
“I couldn’t be approaching the text naively as if I was discovering it for the first time,” he says. “There is a history of setting Stein in the 20th century, which I ended up discovering by analyzing the work and also the development of Thomson’s fortunes in the 20th century. Because Stein’s text is very wordy, Thomson used the technique of having it chanted. So my idea was to bring this element of chant, but do it in a different way, using different lines of text moving at different speeds, creating clusters of textures.”
Adds Linzy, “We kept things very loose and abstract, kind of organic. It didn’t have to be so strict.” Linzy — who in the production also performs a song Chessa wrote for him set to Stein’s words — shot a cast of friends as angels against a green screen, usually with movement informed by music tracks Chessa had forwarded. But in at least one case, Linzy didn’t receive the track for a corresponding scene.
“There’s a dance scene [in A Heavenly Act] where [Chessa] did a waltz, but we danced to Donna Summer’s ‘Bad Girls,'” explains Linzy. “But seeing it against the waltz, really slowed down, it’s almost like the angels got high off LSD and just went too far. But we were moving to Donna Summer, we were discoing. That’s what I like. He had sent the tracks but somehow I didn’t get that particular one. So I was like, ‘Oh, we’ll just disco it out.’ And so that’s what we did, and it’s the most amazing thing.”
FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS: AN OPERA INSTALLATION
Thurs/18, 7:30 p.m. (preview); Fri/19-Sat/20, 8 p.m.; Sun/21, 2 p.m., $10-85.
700 Howard, SF
TRASH One of the longer-running Holy Grail pursuits among a certain type of movie fan finally ended last month with the official DVD release of Otto Preminger’s Skidoo, a legendary 1968 boondoggle that was the veteran Hollywood prestige director’s attempt to tap the new “youth market.” Someone deemed those crazy kids might be magnetized, in the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, and Yellow Submarine, by a gangster farce starring the fossilizing likes of Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Mickey Rooney, and 78-year-old Groucho Marx (as God).
Possibly impressed by the dancing-trash-cans production number, a presumably well-paid Timothy Leary opined “I think this movie’s going to ‘turn on’ the country.” But between the script’s attempted surrealism, Preminger’s cement-block flair for levity, and the cast’s general bewilderment, Skidoo could only become Hollywood’s most grotesquely square attempt to groove with the Now Generation. A major flop, notoriety made it a sought-after curio for later generations who mostly had to dig its bad trip in crappy 10th-generation TV dupes. Now that it’s available through above-ground channels, everyone can experience the satisfaction of finally seeing something they’ve always wondered about, even if Skidoo will always be better in theory than actual viewing.
But how to see such yea more obscure relics of cinema’s most flailingly adventuresome era as Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (1971), The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970), or B.S. I Love You (1971)? What about the umpteen “kinky” pre-porn sexploitation epics and Pop Art-flavored spy spoofs from Europe that never achieved the cult (let alone the budget) of 1968’s Barbarella? Or those early TV movies which scarred late-wave boomer kids’ memories, then were left to gather studio library dust?
Good luck — considered to be of no remaining commercial value, most of the above eluded salvage even at the height of the 1980s VHS craze, when it seemed almost anything shot on celluloid (or not) got shunted out to hungry renters. What is the fan of post-“Golden Age,” pre-mall flick moviegoing to do?
Fortunately, meeting the demands of a discerning, frequently obsessive few have been such variably gray-shaded online market purveyors as Video Search of Miami, Something Weird, Subterranean Cinema, and Modcinema. Modcinema (www.modcinema.com), currently celebrating its third year anniversary of “exploring ’60s/’70s culture through rare and hard to find films,” is run by Los Angeleno Dante Fontana. He blames the no-show of some psychedelic relics and Me Decade titles on music rights issues — before VCRs, soundtracked songs were licensed for very limited use, and can now be very expensive to renew.
Things are looking up, however. Warner Bros. and Sony/Columbia have launched on-demand DVD-R services, Fontana says, noting “we’ll see many rare movies become available over the course of the next several years. Many studios are in debt and they want to make money off of their titles currently being sold on the gray market by people such as myself.”
He’s not worried about the competition, however. “I love these films and want them to become available on an official level. I consider what I do preservation, [selling] titles that are in danger of being completely forgotten about, raising awareness so that the studios will see there is in fact a fanbase of people who’d buy a DVD of a movie like Skidoo if they saw it.” Still, there remain “thousands and thousands of movies out there being neglected. Films that simply don’t have any known stars in them, or experimental-art films, made-for-TV movies, international films that never got any U.S. distribution.”
Among the nuggets Modcinema has unearthed in such categories are vintage telepics like The Feminist and the Fuzz (Barbara Eden as middle America’s then-idea of a Women’s Libber — forever fuming at imaginary sexist offenses, requiring a he-man to settle her down), vanity biker flick J.C. (as in Jesus Christ, which is how producer-writer-director-star William F. McGaha’s character humorlessly sees himself), or leeringly Italian crime caper You Can Do A Lot With Seven Women. And those are just from 1971.
Fontana also has a particular fondness for vintage Franco pop. In his collection you’ll find plenty of showcases for Françoise Hardy, Serge Gainsbourg, etc., plus multiple episodes of the incredible monthly 1965-70 TV program Dim Dam Dom, which made the best use of a go-go dancing ensemble this side of Shindig! while offering musical guests both native and imported (from the Bee Gees to Jimi Hendrix).
Modcinema has also packaged some unique compilations: The “Colorspace” series is a party sampler of movie trailers (“Now you’ll know the thrill of wrapping your legs around a tornado of pounding pistons, like The Girl on a Motorcycle!”), fashion promos, commercials (007 Deodorant), and whatnot. Hearing Nancy Sinatra trill “Shake that cola drag/Try the one that’s really mad!” for RC Cola — well, it can really blow your mind. (Dennis Harvey)
CANNABIS Most marijuana sold in Bay Area dispensaries is grown indoors, where the ability to precisely control conditions creates the kind of buds — strong, dense, crystal-covered, fragrant, beautiful — that consumers have come to expect. But that perfection comes at a high price, both financially and environmentally.
So some local leaders in the medical marijuana movement have begun to nudge the industry to return to its roots, to the days before prohibition and the helicopter raids of the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting chased the pot growers indoors. They say it’s time for California to start growing more of its cannabis outdoors again, in the soil and sunlight, just like the rest of the state’s crops.
Growers have long known how inefficient it is to grow indoors. All they need to do is look at their huge monthly energy bills. Between the powerful grow lights, constantly running air conditioners, elaborate ventilation systems, pumps and water purifiers, and heaters used for drying and curing, this is an energy-intensive endeavor.
But a widely circulated study released in April — “Energy Up in Smoke: The Carbon Footprint of Indoor Cannabis Production” by Evan Mills, a researcher with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — revealed just what a huge cumulative toll the practice was taking on California and the planet.
It found that indoor pot production accounts for about 8 percent of California household energy use, costing about $3 billion annually and producing about 4 millions tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 1 million automobiles. Producing one joint was the equivalent of driving 15 miles in a 44 mpg car.
“The emergent industry of indoor Cannabis production results in prodigious energy use, costs, and greenhouse-gas pollution. Large-scale industrialized and highly energy-intensive indoor cultivation of cannabis is driven by criminalization, pursuit of security, and the desire for greater process control and yields,” Mills wrote in the report’s summary.
Yet while opponents of marijuana seized on the report to condemn the industry, proponents say there’s a very simple solution to the problem: grow it outdoors. And with the artisanship and quality in the fields and greenhouses now rivaling that of indoor buds, the biggest barriers to moving most marijuana production outdoors are federal laws and the biases of pot consumers.
“There’s a misconception out there that indoor is better marijuana than outdoor, but we don’t think that’s true,” Erich Pearson, who runs the San Francisco Patient and Resource Center (SPARC) dispensary and sits on the city’s Medical Cannabis Task Force. “Marijuana is a plant that came from the earth and that’s where we should grow it, just like our food.”
INDOOR VS. OUTDOOR
There are definitely some benefits to growing indoors, beyond just the ability to hide it from the prying eyes of law enforcement. The grow cycles are shorter, allowing for multiple harvests around the year. The generally small operations and precise control over growing conditions also tend to produce the best-looking buds, which command the highest prices and win the top prizes in competitions.
Kevin Reed, who runs Green Cross — a venerable medical marijuana delivery service that works closely with an established group of growers — told us there are several reasons why indoor buds have dominated the marketplace.
“The most important factor is local laws and regulations and the enforcement of those various laws. A second factor is space and climate — obviously outdoor cultivation will flourish is some places better than other. And, a final factor is sustainability of the market; indoor cultivators can produce crops on a year-round basis, providing some stability in the market over the long-term, especially in the event of crop failure or other unforeseen and unexpected disasters,” Reed told us.
Yet he also said, “If cultivated correctly and with care, there should be no difference between the same strain grown in- or outdoors.” And he said that from an environmental standpoint, outdoor is clearly superior: “So far as environmental factors are concerned, there is little doubt in my mind that outdoor cultivation is kinder to Mother Earth.”
Wilson Linker, with Steep Hill Laboratories, Northern California’s largest tester of medical marijuana, said that outdoor plants generally have more vegetative growth because of the longer light cycles, meaning that “indoor tests generally higher in cannabanoids, with THC [marijuana’s main psychoactive compound] in particular.”
But he and other marijuana experts also say that the quality of the buds ultimately depends on a wide variety of factors, from the strain used to the expertise of the cultivators to the time and care taken by the trimmers.
“I’ve seen outdoor that can compete with the best indoor strains,” said David Goldman, who runs San Francisco’s Americans for Safe Access (ASA) chapter, sits on the city’s Medical Marijuana Task Force, and is active in rating the various dispensaries and pot strains in terms of quality, using magnifying glasses to investigate the trichomes and other characteristics. “I would match the best outdoor I know up with anybody’s indoor, any day.”
Even when indoor buds look better, Pearson said, that doesn’t means they are better. Looks can be deceiving, he said, noting how local consumers now accept that those perfect-looking, genetically modified apples and tomatoes in the store aren’t as tasty or good for you as their ugly, organic counterparts.
“It’s not all about appearance,” he said, noting that marijuana grown in the sunshine is more robust and complex than its indoor cousins.
“We’re starting to find [outdoor] strains that were scoring just as high as indoor,” says Rick Pfrommer, the purchasing manager for Oakland’s Harborside Health Center.
And that’s especially true when the cannabis is grown in greenhouses, where it gets natural sunlight but growing conditions can be controlled better than in the fields.
“Greenhouses can attain a level of cosmetic attractiveness that is right up there with indoor,” Pfrommer said.
“There are a lot of products coming out of greenhouses that even trained eyes can’t tell the difference with [compared to indoors],” Linker said. “Greenhouses are the future.”
Or at least they might be the future if there is a change in the federal laws, which still view any marijuana cultivation as a crime — which is why indoor grows flourished in the first place.
Rising demand for medical marijuana has created some regulatory pushback, even in pot-friendly San Francisco, where the Department of Public Health announced earlier this year that it wanted to create a registry of growers that work with the dispensaries in order to weed out the illegal growing operations.
“In the last few years, there’s been a proliferation of both illegal and legal cultivators,” Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, San Francisco’s environmental health director, told us earlier this summer. “We’re asking for this information to try to steer them back toward legal cultivation.”
Reed, Goldman, and other industry representatives strongly condemned the move, mostly on the grounds that creating lists of growers could subject them to federal prosecution, so the idea was shelved for now. But Bhatia said the problem remains, and in San Francisco, it’s a problem created largely by the demand for cannabis grown indoors.
But allowing for a more widespread conversion to sustainably grown marijuana will require a relaxation of the federal enforcement to allow for more land cultivation and the development of high-tech greenhouses.
“A lot of that rests in the hands of law enforcement,” Pearson said.
But it isn’t just the cops. Consumers are also supporting indoor grows.
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Pfrommer said there are many factors that influence whether customers choose indoor or outdoor, or what he calls the “bag appeal” that causes customers to zero in on one strain among the 40 or so that can be offered at one time.
Generally, indoor grows are smaller operations, allowing greater care in the tending and processing of the buds, whereas outdoor grows usually produce large crops harvested all at once, “so frequently people won’t manicure it as well,” Pfrommer said.
Smell is another big factor, Pfrommer said, and that’s one area where he thinks outdoor actually has an advantage. “Outdoor generally has a more pungent smell,” he said. “Cannabis is very sensitive to the environment, so it can pick up elements from the soil, the wind, and the surroundings. It picks up different qualities.”
For that reason, he also said, “I personally find outdoor to taste better when it’s grown well,” comparing it to the subtle qualities that various appellations can give to fine wines.
The final factor is price, and that’s one area where outdoor has a distinct advantage. SPARC is currently selling quarter-ounces of greenhouse-grown Big Buddha Cheese with a THC content of more than 17 percent for just $70. And when the buds from open outdoor fields arrive this fall, they’ll be as low as $50.
“This,” Pearson said, holding up a beautiful bud of greenhouse-grown Green Dragon, “was grown at a fraction of the cost of indoor and it’s outstanding.”
“That’s why indoor sells for so much more,” Goldman said, ” because it costs so much more to grow.”
So if outdoor cannabis is cheaper, better for the environment, less risky for the industry, and just as good, why are the indoor stains still so much more popular?
“You’re looking a 20-plus years of indoor being the standard,” Pfrommer said, noting that the hardest part of creating a more substantial changeover in people’s buying habits is their expectations.
He said Harborside started offering more outdoor strains three years ago, “but the market wasn’t responding as strongly.” In other words, people still preferred indoor.
Yet things are changing, prompted partly by the Mills study. “That was what kicked off this latest round,” Pfrommer said. “There is a small but growing awareness among the regular marijuana consumers about the costs of growing indoors…The consciousness is starting to shift, but it’ll be slow, probably over the next two seasons.”
Harvests usually take place during the full moons in September and October, after which they are cured and processed for about four weeks, finally coming to market around Thanksgiving.
“It’s mostly an education process,” Pfrommer said. “We’re going to have a vigorous push around harvest time this year.”
“We’re trying to transition completely to outdoor because the environmental toll is less, the cost is less, the yield is higher, and our testing is showing that the quality is just as good,” said Nick Smilgys, who has done both marketing and purchasing at SPARC. “It just makes more sense to grow it outdoors.”
HERBWISE There will be things at this weekend’s Street Food Festival that you will want to eat. Oh yes, very much so. And damn if there won’t be things that you will want to look at — and then eat.
One of these things will be Rosa Rodriguez’ Sweets Collection gelatin desserts: small, sweet cups in which three dimensional flowers bloom, taunting you to stick a spoon in them. I will take them over designer cupcakes any day.
Rodriguez, who now lives in the Mission with her two daughters, is from the Mexican state of Durango. There, large gelatin molds traditionally bloom at birthdays, baby showers, and wedding parties; red roses and yellow zinnias made of condensed milk curling prettily around the faces of happy couples and beaming little girls. When I asked her via email about her San Francisco customers’ most common reaction to her wares, she said it is uncertainty. “They ask if they can eat the flower, or if it’s plastic.”
A La Cocina street food incubator program graduate, Rodriguez will be in the heart of the Mission this Saturday, along with the rest of the sweet and savory offerings of the Street Food Festival’s 60-some vendors. She’ll be selling “fanciful jellos shots” at the festival’s bars on 23rd and Folsom streets, and her more family-friendly concoctions at a stand of her own on the same intersection.
Saturday will entail a lot of eating, and a lot of gawking at fanciful jello shots, and for these reasons alone the day will go very well if you are really, really stoned.
But ingesting marijuana before the Street Food Festival is a delicate matter. After all, the third year of the event will be the biggest yet, its girth spanning eight blocks of Folsom Street, plus parts of 23rd, 25th, the Cesar Chavez Elementary School parking lot, and the Parque de los Niños Unidos.
In past years, massive crowds have marred the day for many an avid snacker — the lines, my friend, the lines. This year La Cocina is hopeful that the vast expansion of the event will stem the tide — but nonetheless it would not do to have agoraphobia derail you just as you are reaching the front of the line at the Kasa booth.
Luckily, there are plenty of San Francisco souls that geek out tailor-making THC regimens for situations like these. I placed a call to one such place humans like this congregate: the San Francisco Patient and Resource Center, winningly acronym-ed SPARC. It just received our Best of the Bay reader’s poll award for Best Cannabis Club and it’s well known for having an extensive selection of in-house strains. It seemed like a fine place to start out.
Nick Smilgys, who has served as the club’s marketing director for over a year now, had two words for me: blackberry kush. Then he had some more. The kush — which he says is traditionally cultivated in Pakistan and India, but happens to be one of SPARC’s signature strains — is a deep-green indica that’ll make you hungry as hell, ready to take on all those Indian burritos and handmade huaraches.
Smilgys says the blackberry buds create “good well being” in their ingester, and result in a nice body high. Of course, he cautions, medicines will have differing effects on different patients.
But if you’re not careful with the blackberry, it could keep you from your improbably edible jello flowers. (Smilgys employed the term “couch lock” to describe a potential blackberry kush effect.) If you’re prone to getting paranoid, he counsels medical marijuana patients to look for a sativa-indica hybrid that tilts to the indica side of things for a more tranquil, crowd-ready high.
Be brave friends, eat the flower. *
STREET FOOD FESTIVAL
Sat/20 11 a.m.-7 p.m., free
Folsom between 22nd and 26th sts. and surrounding area, SF