Volume 46 Number 13

December 25-31, 2011

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Battling big box



In neighborhood commercial districts, national chains and other formula retail stores such as PETCO, Target, Subway, Walmart, and Starbucks are hot button issues for residents who don’t want to see San Francisco turn into a strip mall or have local money pulled from the community.

Sup. Eric Mar and other city officials want to make sure local small businesses aren’t being unnecessarily hurt by competition from national chains, which is why he called a hearing on Dec. 5 to discuss big box retailers and their impacts on San Francisco’s small businesses, neighborhoods, workers, and economy.

“There is no vehicle to see the impacts of big business on the city,” Mar told us, saying he is contemplating legislation to do just that.

Mar was part of city efforts to keep formula pet stores from locating in the Richmond area, working with a coalition of pet food small businesses concerned about PETCO and Pet Food Express trying to move into the area. But it isn’t just pet stores.

“There is a perception that Walmart might make a move into the city since we already have stores like Fresh n’ Easy,” Mar’s Legislative Aide Nick Pagoulatos told us.

The city doesn’t have a comprehensive analysis on how these companies impact San Francisco. Mar says he wants to “have a clear scale of their influence and see what we need to do to protect small business in San Francisco.”

History of wariness

In 2004, the Board of Supervisors adopted the first Formula Retail Use Control legislation, an ordinance that “prohibited Formula Retail in one district; required Conditional Use Authorization in another; and established notification requirements in all neighborhood commercial districts.”

The Planning Code changed again after a voter ballot initiative in 2007, Proposition G, required any formula retail use in neighborhood commercial districts to obtain a conditional use permit, which gave neighboring businesses a chance to weigh in during a public hearing.

Mar said the intent wasn’t to bar big box retail from entering the city, but to simply give neighborhoods a voice. But now, he said the city needs to take a more comprehensive look at what’s coming and how they will impact the city.

Small Business Commissioner Kathleen Dooley echoed the concern, which extends even beyond city limits. “I’ve heard through the rumor mill that Lowe’s in South San Francisco is going to close and

Walmart is looking to take that space since they know they’d never get into the city,” she told us. “It’s bad enough that Target is opening stores [in San Francisco]. They are the quintessential big box because they sell everything.”

Target is in the process of opening a massive store inside the Metreon in SoMa, and another store at Geary and Masonic. Mar isn’t diametrically opposed to the big box industry, but he thinks those companies should be appropriately situated.

“I’ve seen that people in Richmond are positive toward big box like Target coming into the district, but some are nervous that it will take down business,” he told us. “There are some property spaces that are supposed to be for big box, like the property at Geary and Masonic where the old Sears and Toys”R”Us used to be.”

But it’s not easy to figure out what other big box stores have their sights set on the city. The Planning Department’s list of projects in the pipeline aren’t always filed under the name of the business, making it difficult to stay vigilant.

For example, while application #3710017 at 350 Mission Street describes the project as a “95,000 sq. ft. building of office, retail and accessory uses,” it isn’t clear what businesses are actually setting up shop. And these days, some big box stores are coming in smaller boxes.

Prototype stores such as Unleashed by PETCO are specifically designed to squeeze into smaller property spaces so they can get into neighbor corridors that are typically reserved for small businesses.

More help needed

During the Dec. 5 hearing before the Land Use and Economic Development Committee, Sup. Scott Wiener echoed Mar concerns, commenting that he wants to see how the Planning Commission could “improve the Conditional Use process since we see a pushback of strong neighborhood activity.”

Dooley recalled an issue from 2009 when the Small Business Commission formally asked the Planning Commission not to authorize a PETCO in the Richmond because “the surrounding area was already well served by pet stores.” The board ultimately stopped PETCO, but Pet Food Express did locate a store nearby, which Dooley said has already taken a toll on the locally owned pet food suppliers.

“Big box stores carry a huge number of products that impact other stores,” she said. “Big box is a category killer in the neighborhood…the Planning Commission needs new criteria for formula retail because there are several different types.”

Some superstores require parking lots, taking up additional land, and increasing traffic in certain neighborhoods. Yet one trait that most chain stores have in common is that they extract more money from San Francisco than locally owned businesses, whose revenues tend to circulate locally.

“With every dollar spent at local stores, 65 cents will go back into the community, while only a quarter will be returned from a big box.” Rick Karp, owner of the 50-year-old Cole Hardware, said at the hearing, citing various studies on the issue.

Small business owners are asking for economic impact reports to be included in project applications from chain stores to see just how they measure up to their locally owned counterparts.

When Lowe’s entered his district, Karp says he lost 18 percent of his business and was forced to eliminate six full-time jobs. He appealed to city officials to “keep big box out of San Francisco because it impacts the efficacy of neighborhood shopping.”

Once chain stores puts the locals out of business, the consumer is stuck with set prices and reduced variety. But critics say it isn’t just consumers and small business owners who suffer, but workers as well. They singled out Walmart as notorious for union-busting and poor labor standards.

“We can use our land use ordinances and powers to set a basic minimum labor standard. Big box must abide by that and also include health care if implemented in local government [legislation],” Mar said.

But Steven Pitts, a labor policy specialist at UC Berkeley, told us there is a connection between low prices and low wages.

“People who work at Walmart are poorer than those who shop there,” he told us. “Therefore, if prices were raised to increase wages for employees, the burden wouldn’t be on people of lower income.”
Opposing Walmart

To illustrate how Walmart would adversely affect San Francisco’s workforce, the hearing included two employees of Walmart, Barbara Collins and Ronald Phillips from Placerville, who helped create Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OURWalmart) to push for better benefits and labor standards.

“We want to hold Walmart accountable,” said Collins, whose last annual income from Walmart was $15,000 annually, a salary she realized couldn’t support her four children. “Walmart says they pay living wages. No, they don’t.”

Phillips said that Walmart has “a tendency to fire people for any reason and then does not have to pay for the benefits… I was one of these people, but I was rehired.”

For the past three months, Phillips says she has worked at least six days and 40 hours per week, but that she still qualified for welfare assistance.

Also at the hearing, SF Locally Owned Merchants Alliance unveiled a study showing that formula retail costs nearly as many jobs as it creates. A domino effect occurs when stores close because fewer customers circulate to other nearby stores.

But the group noted that consumer habits are probably even more important than city regulations. The SFLOMA study found that if 10 percent of San Franciscans shifted their spending to locally owned small businesses, consumers would create 1,300 jobs and $190 million in the city.

And that would be good for everyone: owners, consumers, and workers. Steven Cornell, owner of Brownie’s Hardware, said that small business pays good wages, typically above the minimum wage, as well as sick leave, health coverage, and other benefits. As he told the hearing, “Local businesses have been doing this for 20 to 30 years since we are already invested in the community.”

What the new year brings



HERBWISE 2011 was a harsh year for medical marijuana. During its first half, the number of California dispensaries burgeoned. But a federal crackdown in September has left much of the industry shaking in its buds. By bombarding landlords with cease-and-desist letters threatening 40 years of jail time if they continue to let marijuana be sold on their property, the Department of Justice has effectively closed down walk-up operations for many smaller dispensaries.

But as we head into the year of the Mayan overhaul, one thing seems certain: advocates for safe and available access to medical cannabis aren’t going anywhere. How can they? Since Proposition 215 made it legal in 1996, 200,000 Californians have gotten physician recommendations to alleviate health concerns with marijuana. People use it for chronic pain, to make it through chemotherapy, for multiple sclerosis, severe anxiety.

“We can’t wait for the federal government to do the right thing in California,” said the state director of Americans for Safe Access Don Duncan. “As the state of California gets its marijuana house in order there will be less incentive for the feds to come in.”

Duncan and his organization were co-authors of the Medical Marijuana Regulation, Control, and Taxation Act — a unified voter initiative that was turned in to the California Secretary of State’s office last Wednesday, Dec. 21. Other contributors include NORML, the California Cannabis Association, the Humboldt Growers Associations, and the United Food and Commercial Workers — the union that now represents workers across the state, including Oaksterdam University employees.

“We’re hoping that this policy will reassure people that we can have a rational system,” continued Duncan in a phone interview with the Guardian. Duncan is convinced that the recent aggression by the Obama administration can be traced to people’s discomfort with the industry’s wild growth, and that a good faith effort to institute a comprehensive regulation system will assuage people’s confusion and fears about marijuana.

His initiative calls for the establishment of a centralized bureau of medical marijuana enforcement, to be comprised of 21 members from various state government offices, patients, advocates, a physician, a nurse, individuals from the marijuana research and policy fields and six people with experience in dispensary operations.

The bureau would be in charge of cannabis registration, industry regulations, and the use of funds that are generated by administrative fees. The initiative also calls for a sales tax of 2.5 percent on medical marijuana retail sales and states that cities — unless voters approve other guidelines — must follow a minimum zoning restriction of a dispensary for every 50,000 people.

In January, a campaign supporting the initiative will begin to drum up awareness. Backers are hoping that by instituting stricter and more consistent controls of dispensaries and growing operations, 2012 will look a lot brighter for the 200,000 Californians that have relied on their marijuana prescription to live their lives.

“I think this is really going to resonate with voters,” said Duncan. “We just need for officials to be able to step outside the controversy of it all.” It’s a hopeful stance. Let’s see how it holds up in the roiling of the upcoming election year.

Crazy, sexy (?), movies



YEAR IN FILM We ask depressingly little of our romantic comedies, particularly considering that they’re meant, one guesses, to cheer us up. While genres like the action thriller and the disaster film engage in an arms race of catastrophe that, while riddled with clichés, requires some amount of ingenuity to orchestrate, when it comes to the rom-com, the studios display fierce loyalty to a formula of marquee names, charming emotional baggage, foolish misunderstandings, and final-boarding-call epiphanies.

You could say that our relationship with the genre is going nowhere, like the one the perky, anal-retentive heroine is perpetually on the brink of settling for with some handsome, amiable cardboard cutout, too afraid to take a chance on surly, diamond-in-the-rough Mr. Right. You could say that watching these films is an empty transaction, like those the gleaming-toothed protagonist enters into with a parade of leggy, blank-faced bar pickups before recognizing eureka!-style that the best friend who tolerates his slutty superficiality is clearly a soul mate.

We don’t quite buy it, any of it, but back and back and back we go — if often lining up in numbers sustaining the briefest of theater runs, or going no further than the Netflix queue. Which perhaps explains, though just barely, how we (by which, of course, I mean I) happened to be in the theater this year for Just Go with It, staring wearily screenward at the companionable but chemistry-free pairing of Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston; for the tortured, slightly icky mismatch of Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in No Strings Attached; and even for New Year’s Eve, wherein an ungodly hodgepodge of Hollywood brands are desperately flung at the screen in the hopes that something will stick.

Generally compiled from interchangeable parts, the romantic comedy has been manufactured so many times that the players seem exhausted by the effort to find a fresh configuration, something unattempted and captivating. The ghosts of long-ago lighthearted pictures from the golden era of madcap romance, like It Happened One Night (1934) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), hang over the proceedings, sparking wistful visions of some magical cinematic equation that, when X is solved, will result in old-fashioned sensations like a warmed heart and toasty goodwill toward the lip-locked pair over whom the credits are rolling.

On the flip side, suffering near-continuous abuse at the hands of the studios leaves a person highly susceptible to trace amounts of handcraft and invention. Perhaps only in this spirit could I embrace Friends with Benefits, which brashly arms its hero and heroine (Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis) to take potshots at the formula while largely hewing to it. Still, as the two swear on an iPhone Bible app to uphold a vow of friendship previous to taking all their clothes off, and as they skate along on the fine, funny writing and frank talk and roll around in bed, it does seem like something better than usual has been accomplished.

Better by far is Crazy, Stupid, Love., which makes the case that a carefully woven ensemble piece need not jerk you from subplot to subplot, seeking famous-people sightings like an L.A. tourist with a star map. Steve Carell and Julianne Moore’s marriage in quiet paralysis is jarred by infidelity, triggering a badly needed upheaval and bringing one unhappy man (Carell) into the bracing orbit of another (Ryan Gosling). The creepy third-generation subplot involving a kid and his babysitter is hard to forgive, but Gosling and love interest Emma Stone, plus an intelligent script, gamely play with the conventions of the heartless womanizer and the girl who’s too much in her head.

And lastly, Bridesmaids, starring and cowritten by Kristen Wiig, arguably sidesteps both the formula and the genre itself, shifting the focus from “boy meets girl” to “woman’s life spirals wildly downward as she attempts to be happy about her best friend’s engagement.” It’s the kind of funny that makes you sink into your seat in horrified anticipation — and the kind of romance where you find yourself rooting for the inevitable rather than just resigned to it.

The brawn identity



YEAR IN FILM How did the tiger get its stripes? Or, more pertinently, how did the superman get his tights? This has been the thrust of most big-budget superhero movies since the genre’s big boom a decade ago — a strict adherence to monomythic convention, with modern action movie trappings to make the material accessible to newcomers.

But these titans from Marvel and DC’s pages weren’t born yesterday. Indeed, many are inextricable from the historical contexts that birthed them. Recent adaptations often seek contemporary relevance or fresh spins on old characters. Sure, some of these superfolks need an upgrade, but when new interpretations have the integrity to treat the source comics as stories worth telling on their own terms, the results can far surpass convoluted attempts to “improve” upon the originals.

The heroes finally returned to their roots in 2011, with two major productions taking up specific historical periods. Matthew Vaughn’s sleek if slightly smarmy X-Men: First Class flashes back to the merry mutants’ rise during the swingin’ sixties, while Joe Johnston forges a thrilling wartime adventure in Captain America: The First Avenger. But not all period superhero movies are created equal.

First Class is, for all its potential, a mishmash of sub-Mad Men costuming and mortifyingly ham-fisted social messages. Inspired casting doesn’t salvage the film from its central flaw: it’s a standard-issue superhero blockbuster masquerading as something savvier. It plays fast and loose with genre but never to its advantage, and mishandles the source material’s anti-prejudice themes. It also warps real history, revising the Cuban Missile Crisis in order to force a historical context. But its mawkish civil rights rhetoric and Cold War paranoia can’t conceal the fact that the film feels essentially contemporary.

Captain America, conversely, hits all the right beats. Others have noted that Johnston previously helmed 1991’s The Rocketeer, so it’s no surprise he knows how to put on a good pulpy show. But the movie blends Nazi occult weirdness with a grounded, convincing patriotism that reinforces the World War II setting. It has its problems as a historical film — for one thing, it never directly treats the Holocaust. But it doesn’t feel like the same origin story we’ve repeatedly seen; instead it feels like a superhero movie successfully taking on a different genre. It’s just this sort of adventurousness we can hope for as the studios continue to mine the funnybooks for ideas — comics have a rich history, so why not explore it instead of update it?

Zero for conduct



YEAR IN FILM American cinema lost several of its troubadours this past year: genuine independents like Robert Breer, Owen Land, Adolfas Mekas, Richard Leacock, Jordan Belson, and George Kuchar. Critical appraisal of these sui generis filmmakers tends to rest upon masterpieces and technique, but several were also influential as teachers.

Mekas founded the film department at Bard College, which today boasts a remarkable faculty including Peter Hutton and Kelly Reichardt. German filmmaker Helga Fanderl dedicated her San Francisco Cinematheque show earlier this fall to Breer, her mentor at Cooper Union. Leacock used his post at MIT in the 1970s to develop relatively affordable video systems for student filmmaking. Kuchar brought several generations of San Francisco Art Institute kids into moviemaking laboratories flying under banners like “AC/DC Psychotronic Teleplays” and “Electro-graphic Sinema.” After Kuchar’s passing SFAI professor and administrator Jeannene Przyblyski wrote, “I will very much miss waking up at night worrying about what might be going on in Studio 8.”

Teaching remains an underappreciated aspect of the whole adventure of avant-garde filmmaking. The late 2010 release Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000 (University of California Press) lovingly detailed the instructional incubators that have contributed to a long-flourishing Bay Area avant-garde, but one still hungers for more particular chronicles along the lines of “Professor Ken,” Michael Zryd’s contribution to Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs (Oxford University Press). Zryd persuasively links Jacobs’ intensive teaching style at SUNY Binghamton to his thrilling feature-length frame analysis, Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969). The story of the American avant-garde’s alliance with the academy has everything to do with the mid-century college boom and the rise of theory, but this general view doesn’t take into account those outlying autodidact instructors who reoriented the teacher-student exchange in much the same way that they called upon a different kind of spectatorship.

Among the many treasures in the SFAI archive’s George Kuchar file are a couple of his syllabuses: “In this workshop atmosphere we all embark on making a moving picture using the equipment at school and … whatever else falls into our hands.” Class participation is what the class was. It’s also discretionary: “Come as frequently as you wish so that we can showcase your unique talents or specialty acts and help us try to solve the many technical and creative problems involved in making moving pictures.” Asked about his unorthodox teaching materials, Kuchar responded, “Am I going to show the students Potemkin and then talk about our class movies? With the kind of words I use and my accent? It’ll be like sacrilege or something … It’s stupid anyway. Renting movies is expensive as hell, and you can put that money into making a movie.”

Kuchar’s creativity took a liberating form in the classroom. Elsewhere in the SFAI file, the filmmaker reflects upon having to rescue terrible class productions in the editing room. One laughs at first and then is touched that he considered these real movies, imperfect but necessary to see through.





One of the year’s most significant film restorations originated in a comparable workshop environment. Nicholas Ray arrived at SUNY Binghamton in 1971 not having directed since 55 Days at Peking (1963). As in Kuchar’s workshops, he took his students as collaborators: everyone rotated production jobs and worked toward the common ends of We Can’t Go Home Again, an unspooled picture of dissolution spanning the election years of 1968 and 1972. The workshop process became central to the psychodrama itself. As in other films of the era by John Cassavetes, Robert Kramer, and Shirley Clarke, the filmmaking style dives deep into breakdown narratives: he and four students charting out self-destructing versions of themselves.

In Leo Tolstoy’s prescriptive essay “Are the Peasant Children to Learn to Write from Us, or Are We to Learn from the Peasant Children?”, the great Russian author dramatizes his teaching experience to show how an attuned instructor can enrich a student’s intrinsic sense of harmony. Ray evinces a similar degree of trust in his pupils, but towards the ends of drawing out their intrinsic disharmony (this was Nixon time, after all). The composition of the drama and the drama itself bleed into one another; performance is inescapable, the film grasping how the phrase “the personal is political” was reversing itself.

We Can’t Go Home Again — which plays in a restored and reconstructed version along with Susan Ray’s contextualizing documentary Don’t Expect Too Much at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in January 2012 — was long thought unsalvageable for both technical and artistic reasons. Ray conceived the film as a multi-projector performance, with several streams of narration playing simultaneously and various 16 mm/Super 8 mm frames affecting a kind of cinematic Guernica. The limitations of the novice crew are readily apparent, though the amateur acting likely plays differently in our present media environment. Ray continued to tinker long after presenting a version at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, and the present reconstruction doesn’t claim to be definitive. It does, however, make Ray’s vision a feasible if still challenging theatrical proposition.

As always in the director’s work, the characters’ emotions are primary and sharply defined in space. Vulnerable figures reach across their loneliness; improvised family units emerge from the ashes of corruption and betrayal. The thin veneer of middle-class reality that gives 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause and 1956’s Bigger Than Life their magnificent tension is gone, leaving only the characters’ own psychological mirrors and Ray himself clad in James Dean’s red jacket. Student Tom Farrell is the last of Ray’s boy angels, a bewildered innocent suffering moral estrangement from his policeman father (whom he loves). The agonizing close-up in which he shears his beard in front of both a mirror and Ray’s camera is both visceral and symbolically telling, the beating heart of the film.

Though deeply marked by shame and pain, We Can’t Go Home Again also has a comic streak. The counterculture dream is pictured as eating raw cauliflower without any pants on. As he prepares to act out his suicide Ray mutters to himself, “I made ten goddamned westerns, and I can’t even tie a noose.” Of course this kind of flaunted martyrdom requires its own vanity, which might lead one to wonder about the lasting impact of Ray’s teaching — that is, whether his ferocious movie might have superseded the students’ learning.

His colleague Ken Jacobs certainly thought so: “I had the dumb idea that he would balance the little department, teaching from his narrative/Hollywood experience but he was self-aggrandizing BS throughout, with tantalizing glimpses of a former self.” Don’t Expect Too Much justifiably avoids department politics to focus on the film itself, but knowing this acrimonious background colors Ray’s former students’ awed remembrances of the Great Artist. There’s a lot of talk about the director working by instinct, exactly the kind of mystification Jacobs targets when he draws a distinction between “living through the cinema” and “using film to enrich your engagement with life and the real world”: “One is an experience that dominates while the other condemns you to be free.” The irony is that it’s hard to imagine a public university giving either man so much freedom today — if they even hired them at all.

Hey girl



YEAR IN FILM Picture this dreamy, steamy “Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling” Tumblr thought bubble: “Hey girl, sorry my shirt fell off, but at least I’m one of those new EGOTs (i.e., Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony quadruple threats).” You know, the type that’s got actorly chops, talent, personality, and/or good works to boot — plus a chiseled chest that looks “totally Photoshopped.” Yes, we’re talking award-fielding hotties à la Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt, the kinds of golden boys who can easily pass for Oscar, only with full heads of hair and more soulful glances.

This year’s awards-show heartthrob mob comes to you seemingly straight outta the heated imaginations of Sex and the City-fiending hetero ladies and gay connoisseurs of acute cinematic cutie-pie-ness (witness the many, many YouTube re-edits of X-Men: First Class that pump up the erotic undercurrent between Fassbender’s Magneto and James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier). The crowded field of studly talents is sure to be diverting during the inevitable lagging segments of Oscars, Golden Globes, and so forth. (“Reader, I drooled over reaction shots of Mr. Rochester during the technical awards.”)

But hasn’t Hollywood always served up heapin’ platters of hunky man meat? Sure, but you’ll probably have to go back as far as Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s ’70s heyday to find the current crop’s particular combo of art and pulchritude. Ushering in this dear ab-by generation was Brad Pitt, the pretty boy unafraid to spoof vain self-absorption, as a brainless gym-bunny in 2008’s Burn After Reading. Around the same time he bounced on a treadmill for the Coens, Pitt began to consistently hook his star to more ambitious projects than your average loutish, laddish Lautner-esque chisel-head, stretching the skill set while doing his part to further the art and working with Alejandro González Iñárritu, David Fincher, and Quentin Tarantino. None of their Pitt-centric projects were the directors’ best, and that goes double for Bennett Miller’s Moneyball and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (Happy Feet Two, you’re two too much).

Nevertheless, Tree of Life, despite its lack of shirtlessness, proved the least commercial and most ambitious widely released feature film of 2011 (in part thanks to co-producer Pitt), and his punishing pater familias was one of the best things about it, grounding Malick’s inner-outer space opera, earth mama twirls, and dinosaur tricks down to earth with his against-type alpha-male hard glances — likely the most demanding performance Pitt has grappled with to date.

Shades darker, with a side of honest abs, Ryan Gosling added oft-wordless fashion-plate soul to ’11: take a page from his Notebook, up-and-coming chestys, because whether you’re crate-digging old footage of the young Mickey Mouse Club kid warbling in floppy PJs alongside Justin Timberlake on YouTube or marveling over his viral snippet of street-fighting men intervention, you know Gosling’s loved. It’s tough to choose between Gosling’s George Clooney impression and cheese-eating Dirty Dancing (1987) tribute in Crazy, Stupid, Love.; his vintage Steve McQueen-James Dean style in Drive (that scorpion jacket launched a jillion Halloween costumes); and his quickly-devolving presidential campaign manager in The Ides of March.

In Ides, Gosling’s silky, feline, almost femme-y smoothness hardens into a chilly “Blue Steel,” threatening to plunge into nuttiness, as the film progresses. As with these other award-snagging hunks, he’s an adult caught in the cogs of a terrible, soul-shattering machine, and as Drive‘s romantic wheelman, Gosling’s ready to run off the median into an off-roading wilderness of ultraviolence. Of course, the deadliest mechanism lies within, for the driver driven to kill, the ladykiller breaking down the angles, and the political player who grabs his revenge after having his ideals destroyed (and bromantic boss-crush on Clooney’s candidate quashed).

The abs — and twinkling, then blistering, peepers — that truly seemed to be everywhere this year belonged to Michael Fassbender, who soft-opened the year in an archetypal romantic part, Mr. Rochester, in Jane Eyre. Fassbender went on to add a dose of real class to X-Men: First Class with his vengeance-seeking metalhead Magneto — oh, Jane, his emotional investment in the comic-book creation was the best thing about the reboot.

The latter part of 2011 ended with a seismic splash of wish fulfillment for Fassbender fans as his Carl Jung deconstructed — and entangled himself in — sex and the psyche in A Dangerous Method, and as Shame‘s corporate hot-shot by day, sex addict by night. His character, Brandon, attempts to lose himself in naked abandon, unable to sustain intimacy with anyone, including his boundary-less sister (see recurring support gal/fan stand-in Carey Mulligan). Shame director Steve McQueen, not be confused with Drive‘s inspiration, wisely lets his camera rest, unsettled and ambivalent, on Fassbender’s face at the end of one night of hopeless coitus, after a close brush with a real relationship gets clipped short by flaccidity.

Caught in mid-rut, Brandon’s orgasm face is an anguished rictus of painful pleasure, half horrifying tragedy mask, half laughable comedy mask. It’s all there, the sexual fantasy-turned-nightmare, the tears behind the dazzling smiles, pecs, and full-frontal shots, conveying in one look the perils of manhood and the forces these foxes can — and can’t — control.

Reel, reel good



American Teacher (Vanessa Roth and Brian McGinn, U.S.)

The Arbor (Clio Barnard, U.K.)

Buck (Cindy Meehl, U.S.)

The Last Lions (Dereck Joubert, U.S./Botswana)

My Perestroika (Robin Hessman, U.S./U.K./Russia)

Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, France/Germany/Chile)

Pianomania (Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, Austria/Germany)

Pina (Wim Wenders, Germany/France/U.K.)

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (Matthew Bate, Australia)

Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle for Expression (Max Good, U.S.)

We Were Here (David Weissman and Bill Weber, U.S.)



The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France/Belgium)

Ceremony (Max Winkler, U.S.)

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Belgium)

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, U.S.)

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)

Happy, Happy (Anne Sewitsky, Norway)

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, U.S.)

I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive (Claude Miller and Nathan Miller, France)

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, Canada/France)

Machotaildrop (Corey Adams and Alex Craig, U.S./Canada)

The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Sweden/Poland)

The Names of Love (Michel Leclerc, France)

Oka! (Lavinia Currier, U.S.)

Rango (Gore Verbinski, U.S.)

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)

The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/Spain/France/Brazil)

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (Eli Craig, U.S./Canada)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/U.K./France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands)

Weekend (Andrew Haigh, U.K.)

Young Adult (Jason Reitman, U.S.)



1. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France/Belgium)

2. Young Adult (Jason Reitman, U.S.)

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, France/U.K./Germany)

4. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)

5. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany)

6. The Descendants (Alexander Payne, U.S.)

7. Shame (Steve McQueen, U.K.)

8. The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, U.K.)

9. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, Canada/U.S./France/Germany/U.K.)

10. TrollHunter (André Øvredal, Norway)

11. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, U.S.)




Please don’t speak: The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France/Belgium)

Scrappy apocalypse: Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, U.K./France)

Scraps of footage refashioned: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Goran Olsson, Sweden)

Best long-form music video: Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)

Personal apocalypse: The Future (Miranda July, Germany/U.S.)

The lives of others: Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, U.S.)

Feel-good apocalypse: Melancholia (Lars von Trier,


Body Con: Shame (Steve McQueen, U.K.)

Body Con 2: The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)

Two-state evolution: The Time That Remains (Elia Suleiman, U.K./Italy/Belgium/France)



1. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany)

2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/U.K./France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands)

3. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, U.K./U.S.)

4. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)

5. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Belgium)

6. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)

7. Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (Werner Herzog, Germany/Canada)

8. Weekend (Andrew Haigh, U.K.)

9. Shame (Steve McQueen, U.K.)

10. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, U.S.)

11. The Future (Miranda July, Germany/U.S.)





(Updated from the print version)

1. (tie) Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, U.S.)

Even though this was on my list last year, it was released officially this year. Minimalist, transcendental, and more dramatic than any other action film this year. (4)

1. (tie) Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, U.K./France)

Subversive, prophetic, and totally addictive! This is one best films of the decade! Believe, bruv! (6)

2. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, Spain/U.S.)

Just because this is a crowd pleaser should not detract from Allen’s complicated script, shining as bright as ever. Re-watch and be stunned that the ending is much more profound than you may have first noticed. (7)

3. Season two of Louie (FX Network)

Louis C.K. transcended his own brilliant comedy and created 13 genuine existential classics.

4. The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, U.K.)

Steve Coogan finally achieved his art house goal with this pitch-perfect exploration of a man and his own worst enemy. Winterbottom’s six-part mini-series for British television was great, but the edited-down feature film is downright life affirming. (5)

5. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, U.K./U.S.)

Director Ramsay (our modern-day Orson Welles, anyone?) and editor Joe Bini have created an hypnotic ride of poetic cinema. Do we really have to wait 10 more years before her Ramsay’s next show stopper, like we did after 2002’s Morvern Callar?

6. (tie) Hanna (Joe Wright, U.S./U.K./Germany)

A flawless reworking of La Femme Nikita (1991) with crisp dialogue that was light years ahead of anything else this year.

6. (tie) The Woman (Lucky McKee, U.S.)

Audiences were running for the doors at Sundance. This high-concept allegory is one of the most disturbing explorations of misogyny ever put on film. (3)

6. (tie) Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, U.S./Canada)

This fast and furious pseudo-“feminist” flick seemed to be unfairly treated and totally misunderstood by audiences and critics alike. Get the 127-minute director’s cut on Blu-ray, stop letting fanboy nonsense bully you, and revel in Emily Browning’s tour de force performance. (2)

7. Young Adult (Jason Reitman, U.S.)

Diablo Cody’s script is near-perfect in this look at a 37-year-old who has to reassess where her “determination” has led her. (2)

8. Beginners (Mike Mills, U.S.)

Who wants their heart broken? A man confronts the death of his father and realizes his romantic choices might be leading him to no man’s land. Gulp. (3)

9. Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan, Canada)

This 22-year-old writer-director-star’s mash-up of My Own Private Idaho (1991) and In the Mood for Love (1999) captures our era’s hipster insecurities so flawlessly that it’ll take a decade for people to recognize how important this film actually is. (3)

10. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France/Belgium)
This accessible masterpiece proves silent movies are futuristic! Perfect for the whole family and part of the second Golden Age for cinema from the 1920s.

11. The Beaver (Jodie Foster, U.S./United Arab Emirates)
I don’t care what he does offscreen, Mel Gibson is a damn fine actor! And Jodie Foster’s dark and deeply personal directing deserves the mensch of the year award!

12. (tie) Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, U.S.)

Michael Shannon’s performance (as a father who will stop at nothing to “protect” his family) is creepy. Nichols’ ending is even creepier.

12. (tie) Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany)

Von Trier’s “nicest” film is genuine therapy for a neurotic soul.

13. One Day (Lone Scherfig, U.S./U.K.)

Stop telling me the book was so much better! With a Same Time, Next Year (1978) structure, this film’s deep emotions (courtesy of Anne Hathaway) shook me to the core.

14. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Belgium)

This unofficial remake of Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954) still kept me guessing; it also features another jaw-dropping performance by Juliette Binoche.

15. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, U.S.)

This audacious exploration of a 1950s family is absolutely universal and profound. (2)

16. Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, U.K.)

Who wants their stomach punched, ripped open, torn out, and then presented to you? Then check out this love story.

17. (tie) Hugo (Martin Scorsese, U.S.)

Who says 3D isn’t art? Did studios really allow Scorsese to show multiple Georges Méliès’ films in 3D? Plus, Sacha Baron Cohen gives a truly Oscar-worthy supporting performance.

17. (tie) Drive Angry (Patrick Lussier, U.S.)

Lussier, director of 2009’s absolutely brilliant My Bloody Valentine remake, facilitated a priceless Nicolas Cage performance — he drinks from a freakin’ human skull, in 3D — but keeps things so frenetic, I had to sit in the theater for a second viewing as soon as it was over! (2)

17. (tie) Final Destination 5 (Steven Quale, U.S.)

In which the entire franchise of entitled 20-somethings dying gruesome deaths comes full circle by concluding with every single grisly death from all five films in glorious 3D.

18. The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Sweden/Poland)

Rutger Hauer + 143 Digital layers = monumental experimental art for the ages!

19. Rakhta Charitra and Rakhta Charitra 2 (Ram Gopal Varma, India)

Ram Gopal Varma’s films should compete at Cannes. (2)

20. Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press, U.S./France)

This doc’s inspiring message: do what you love every day of your life, and don’t ever slow down.


Actor of the Year: Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Adventures of Tintin)

Actress of the Year: Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids)

Best Future Midnite Movie: The Catechism Cataclysm (Todd Rohal, U.S.)

Shot in less than a week, this abstract, train of thought buddy road trip has the immediacy of sheer brilliance!

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks teaches film history at the Academy of Art University and curates and hosts Midnites for Maniacs, a film series emphasizing dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films.



1. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France/Belgium)

2. Beginners (Mike Mills, U.S.)

3. Tomboy (Céline Sciamma, France)

4. Dirty Girl (Abe Sylvia, U.S.)

5. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, U.S.)

6. Pariah (Dee Rees, U.S.)

7. Young Adult (Jason Reitman, U.S.)

8. Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, U.S.)



1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/U.K./France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands)

2. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, U.S.)

3. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)

4. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, Spain/U.S.)

5. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Belgium)

6. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, U.S.)

7. Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland/Norway/Iceland/Hungary)

8. The Future (Miranda July, U.S.)

9. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, U.S.)

10. Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, U.S.)



The Arbor (Clio Barnard, U.K.)

Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece)

Get Out of the Car (Thom Andersen, U.S.)

The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy)

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, Portugal)

Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, France)

Oki’s Movie (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman, U.S.)

Terri (Azazel Jacobs, U.S.)

Señora con Flores/ Woman with Flowers (Chick Strand, U.S./Mexico)


Pop your cork


Below are our picks to ring in the new. Events are listed alphabetically. Parties end at 2 a..m. except where noted. For more New Year’s parties, see This Week’s Picks. For New Year’s Day parties, click here. Lampshade hats not included.



Light on the Orwellian totalitarianism and heavy on ceaselessly pumping ’80s music, longtime favorite retro night 1984 takes you back to the future once again. And it is free!

9 p.m.-2 a.m., free. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.mighty119.com



Considering we’re about to embark upon another year full of economic gloom and doom, the band names from Eli’s lineup — World of Shit, Short Changed, Society Dog — aren’t too uplifting. But at least they’ll help you rage through.

2 p.m.–12:30 a.m., $10. Eli’s Mile High Club, 3629 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Oakl. www.elismilehigh.com



What could possibly say New Year more than a hunky mass of sweaty, hairy gay bears getting down until the wee hours? You in the middle! DJs Craig Gaibler and Brian Maier keep it steamy.

8 p.m.-3a.m., $25. Club 8, 1151 Folsom, SF. www.bearracuda.com



Elbo Room’s NYE spectacular includes the West Coast’s greatest Black Sabbath cover band* Bobb Saggeth, featuring members of Saviours, Citay, 3 Leafs, Sean Smith. Plus, it’s dark metal lords Black Cobra’s homecoming show. *Note: the “greatest Black Sabbath cover band” descriptor is self-inflicted though accurate. With Black Cobra.

9 p.m., $20. Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, SF. www.elbo.com



Mashup mayhem galore at the original bastard pop party, whose special NYE installment includes mashup band Smash-Up Derby performing live and DJs Adrian and Mysterious D., Mykill, and Dada. Plus: ballon drop!

9 p.m.-3 a.m., $25–$50. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com



With raucous group efforts towards blues, gospel, New Orleans jazz, and R&B, California Honeydrops tend bring the sonic party wherever they play — why should NYE be any different? Admission price gets you live Americana music and a drink of your choosing.

11 p.m., $40. Pizzaiolo, 5008 Telegraph, Oakl. (510) 652-4888, www.pizzaiolooakland.com



A glowing, global party to dive into, with the effervescent Zap Mama, plus Sila, Non Stop Bhangra, Sambaxe Dance, and DJs J-Boogie, Jimmy Love, DJ Jeremiah, and Matt Haze. A real ear-opener for 2012.

8:30-4 a.m., $65. 1290 Fillmore, SF. zapmama.eventbrite.com



We have a soft spot for this weekly throwdown of tuneful styles from Latin America — cumbia, baile funk, reggaeton, and more. This promises be a wild installment with residents El Kool Kyle and DJ Roger Más joined by Ricky Garay, aka Señor Mucho Musica.

9 p.m., $20. Makeout Room, 3225 22nd St., SF. www.makeoutroom.com



The show stars 14-piece Michael Jackson tribute band Foreverland, but there also will be the frisky Kitty Kitty Bang Bang Burlesque, an appearance by “the girl in the fishbowl” (a vintage Bimbo’s tradition), complimentary bubbly, party favors, and a traditional balloon drop at countdown. With Slim Jenkins, the Cottontails.

8 p.m., $65. Bimbo’s, 1025 Columbus, SF. www.bimbos365club.com



This awesome, mixed-crowd monthly disco party has zero attitude but all the glamour. It’s like a Studio 54 you can actually get into. Atlanta’s DJ Osmose will bring his scratching turntable technique to bear on some rare disco tracks this NYE, along with Doc Sleep, Eddie House, and hosts Sergio and Steve Fabus. Good times!

9 p.m.-late, $10. Deco Lounge, 510 Larkin, SF. wwwdecosf.com



The colorful boys behind two of the Bay’s most vital party machines — Honey Soundsystem and Pacific Sound (Sunset) — join forces to bring in hot and heavy Bulgarian techno hero KiNK. He’ll be playing live, with a few melted minds sure to follow. Eight other DJs on two floors will help it all out.

9 p.m.-5 a.m., $15-$30. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com



Yep. The controversial, anti-Gucci mini-rapper in thick black frames is back, playing her biggest SF venue to date. The show is all ages and the event is titled “Never Coming Down.” With Wallpaper, Roach Gigz, Starting Six, DJ Amen.

9pm, $38. , Regency Ballroom, 1300 Van Ness, SF. www.theregencyballroom.com



The much-lauded Broadway star, swingin’ jazz musician, and fabulously blue comedian is back in the town to ring in the new year with peals of laughter. Latest show “Last Butch Standing” promises to be a full-on entertaining eve, topped with some outrageous New Year’s surprises, of course.

7 p.m. and 9 p.m., $30–$35, Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., SF. www.therhino.org



If you can’t remember who you kissed at midnight, does it really count? Find out at SF’s favorite lesbian bar, when rockin’ DJs Andre and Jenna Riot and host Sara Goodman turn out your lights — and turn on the craziness. Oblivion awaits!

9 p.m., free. Lexington Club, 3464 19th St., SF. www.lexingtonclub.com



Presented by Seaweed Sway, Loving Cup Presents, and Song Bird, the show boasts a glut of crunchy local freak-folk and a singular midnight champagne toast. Should be a delightfully analog evening. With Little Wings, Range of Light Wilderness, Au Dunes.

9 p.m., $15–$20. Amnesia, 853 Valencia, SF. www.amnesiathebar.com



Get ready for a blast of warm tropicalia and clouds of fun, as Club Six rocks steady to reggae, dancehall, and global bass sounds, courtesy of the Daddy Rolo, Spicey, Dee Cee Shakedown crews. With DJs Shawn Reynaldo, Jah Warrior Shelter Hi-Fi, Pam the Funkstress, and many more on two floors.

8 p.m.-4 a.m., $20–$30. Club Six, 66 Sixth St., SF. www.clubsix1.com



This party is all about the shimmy-n-shake, soul, surf, and all other 1960s rock’n’roll sounds. There’ll be live music courtesy of the Barbary Coasters, the Ogres, and the TomorrowMen, along with go-go dancing by the Mini Skirt Mob (which features members of the Devile-Ettes. And of course, the requisite champagne and balloons.

9:30 p.m., $10–$15. Starry Plough, 3101 Shattuck, Berk. www.starryploughpub.com.



The damp, strength-sapping chill of midnight on the Embarcadero is still worth the 15 minutes of promised pyrotechnic glory. Thousands of San Franciscans huddled together under the sky = magic.

12 a.m., free. Pier 14, Embarcadero, SF.



A nice little bash on the edge of the Tenderloin with some quality local peeps. DJ Ed Dee Pee will play “down tempo, New neo-soultronica imports, and broken beat-ish styles.”

9 p.m.-3 a.m., $10. Siete Potencias Africanas Gallery, 777 O’Farrell, SF.



The title is a mouthful, but it should be a good one. There’ll be a live performance by the Cuts along with Oldies Night regulars DJ Primo and Daniel spinning that twist-worthy doo-wop, one hit wonders, soul, and scratchy seven-inch rock ‘n roll.

9 p.m.-4 a.m., $10. Knockout, 3223 Mission, SF. www.theknockoutsf.com



The spiritually minded, breaks-oriented underground collective rises to the 2012 occasion with and a mad, possibly fire-twirling free-for-all with the UK’s Lee Coombs, plus members of the Strategik and Ambient Mafia crews.

9 p.m.-4 a.m., $25–$40. Mission Rock, 817 Terry Francois, SF. opelnye.eventbrite.com



Fuzzy local weekly party Sweaterfunk has kept the lights on for soulful boogie — and its more contemporary twists and turns — in this city for a wonderful while. For NYE, special Swedish future-funker guests Opolopo and Amalia should really turn you inside out.

9 p.m.-3 a.m., $20–$30. SOM, 2925 16th St., SF. www.som-bar.com



Get a little swanky at North Beach’s lovely Monroe club, with some pumpin’ house from Italy’s Rufus plus a “family” of DJs, including Stef “The Baron,” Francesco Signorile, and Carol.

10 p.m., $20–$25. Monroe, 473 Broadway, SF. www.monroesf.com



This festive affair gives you a number of reasons to welcome 2012 into Oakland, among them a bang-up lineup of techno and house DJs from the Space Cowboys crew and an awesome onslaught of funk and hip-hop from the likes of Sake One, Platurn, and Joe Quixx. What up, East Bay!

9 p.m., $25–$85. Oakland Metro, 630 Third St., SF. stayeastbay.eventbrite.com



Queens, queens, and more queens — they’ll be gushing out like a waterfall at this annual drag hoo-haw, with performances by Heklina, Suppositori Spelling, Holy McGrail, Honey Mahogany, Matthew Martin and a million more.

9:30 p.m.-3 a.m., $25–$39. DNA Lounge, 375 11th St., SF. www.trannyshack.com



This is your twee, feel-good option, the soaring-sweet vocals and sharp riffs of perennial Bay Area indie rock favorites Velvet Teen will assure a night of arms slung around waists and peachy full body sways. With Happy Body Slow Brain, Fake Your Own Death.

10 p.m., $17. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. www.bottomofthehill.com



And then there are the new local favorites, Wax Idols and Terry Malts — both bands are part of an exciting, classic garage punk rock surge in the Bay Area music scene. And if punks indeed have no future, celebrate the end of times at the Hemlock. The show also includes champagne toast at midnight.

9 p.m., $10. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com



CHEAP EATS What’d I say 50 weeks ago? “More fun in one-one,” or something, and, well, I had it!

But I earned and deserved this, dear reader, after the shit show that was one-oh. This year, my Favorite Year Ever, started on a choo-choo across the country, and ended with a chocolate chip cookie. In between, I re-rocked Boston and took NOLA by storm (January), fell in love with the prickliest li’l softest-centered dyke that ever strapped on a strap-on (February), befriended yet another awesome little baby (March), was carried off a football field on some shoulders (April), turned forty-fucking-eight (May), restormed NOLA (June), co-chicken-farmed France (July), remembered how to write in Mexico (August), drove across the country (September) … and so on and also forth — until that cookie I was trying to tell you about.

What was so special about this chocolate chip cookie, late December, 2011 (my Favorite Year Ever), was that it didn’t have any chocolate chips in it.

I know, right?

What seemed like chocolate chips turned out to be raisins; except then what appeared to be raisins turned out to be dried cranberries. Only they weren’t; they were dried cherries. Give or take the ones that weren’t dried cherries either but chocolate covered pretzels — some of which, upon closer examination were butterscotch chips that were really white chocolate chips.

In other words, I don’t know what the hell was in them, just that they were the magickest chocolate chip cookies I ever ate, and there’s one left.

I’m in love with Hedgehog’s best friend Jellybean over these cookies. The sweetie pie, she let us stay at her apartment while she was out of town, and left a little box of homemade cookies on the kitchen table. When I grow up, I would like to be that thoughtful.

Not to mention substitutive (shall we say) with my cookie ingredients. But so long as we’re on the subject of chocolate chip cookies without chocolate chips in them, let me also direct your attention to a strange Mexican restaurant’s turned up last year or so like a hole in the head of my very own neighborhood (that I won’t be living in for another six months): the Mission.

I’m talking about Reaction, where once I ate with Hedgehog, Coach, and Papa before going out somewheres. The thing to remember about Reaction is: happy hour. Between 5 and 7 you can get five tacos for $5, or a free taco with your fancy-pants drink.

Hedgehog got that. Neverminding the drink, the papas taco came with it did not float her boat — although she admits to holding potato tacos to an unreasonably high standard set by Taqueria El Atacor #11 in Los Angeles.

Coach got something vegetarian, because that’s the way she is, and both me and our center, Papa, being the other way inclined, got five-for-fives.

Strangely — since they open at five and we’d showed up at six — they were out of some of the things on the menu.

There was one waiter, and he had two tables. The rest of the restaurant was empty. Just us, sitting in the front window, quietly discussing relationships and pass blocking, and, in the back of the room, in the opposite corner, as far away from our party as it was possible to be, a table full of loud dudes, hooting and drinking and laughing.

Two more divergent groups would be possible to imagine, and — as it happened — imagination was not our waiterguyperson’s weak suit. Anyway, he somehow kept confusing our order with theirs, bringing the wrong things to the wrong table, and whatnot.

For which I loved him, but … I mean, even I have to admit: come on. The food at my new favorite restaurant was just OK. Super cheap, though. Thanks to the happiness of the hour, all four of us ate for under thirty, so … hard to complain.

Happy New Year, m’dears.

You see? Our 49ers are going to the playoffs for the first time in 10 years! Woo-hoo for one-two. 


Mon.-Sat.: 5 p.m.-midnight; closed Sunday

2183 Mission, SF

(415) 552-8200


Full Bar


Dishes for a winter’s night


APPETITE As we arrive at the end of 2011, here are a few dishes of soothing comfort for a winter’s night from four under-the-radar places.


Bushi-Tei (1638 Post, SF. 415-440-4959, www.bushi-tei.com) has long been one of my underrated restaurant picks. There’s much to love in the two-tiered space lined in rugged Japanese woods, with 18-foot communal table, and ever-sure conversation starter: Japanese toilets in the bathrooms (air dryers and seat warmers!)

When I heard new chef Michael Hung Jardiniere and pastry chef Yuko Fujii of Fifth Floor were coming aboard, I hoped the refined French Japanese cuisine would remain intact. I was delighted after a couple visits to see Hung has married comfort and intricacy, inventiveness and tradition. Tasting menus are $55, or $8-18 starters, $17-27 main courses.

Tak and Keiko Matsuba thankfully still run the restaurant: they’re among the most adorable husband-wife teams I’ve met. They bring a gentle passion to each aspect of the place, including Tak’s thoughtful wine pairings, like an Alsace Riesling with fish or sake with noodles.

There’s a Sunday brunch offering elegant bowls of egg noodles in Sonoma duck ragout or Haiga rice porridge laced with salt-roasted albacore tuna and a poached farm egg. A small serving of grilled Monterey calamari ($8) in a ginger bourride (a stew made with egg yolk and garlic) impresses with nuanced sauce and juicy squid.

Memorable dinner dishes include tataki of Hawaiian albacore ($12), a delicate, sashimi-style starter over black sesame aioli. Handmade egg noodles ($17) steal the show from worthy entrees like roasted Kurobuta pork Nabemono (Japanese stew). Hung makes his egg noodles with egg and soda, and at a recent dinner tossed them in brown butter cauliflower and hatcho miso, a miso from South Central Japan.

Fujii shows her skills in a unique dessert of Kabocha squash and matcha mochi dotting a coconut tapioca broth. Dense and warm, it is thankfully unsweet and richly satisfying, its three lush bean pastes — red bean, green tea, squash — the shining finish.

Post-dinner, Tak offers a pour of Denshin “Yuki” Junmai Ginjo sake brewed by Ippongi Kubohonten Co. He spoke of its cowboy boot, kimono-wearing sake maker whose area of Japan, Fukui, was hit hard by the recent earthquake. Matsuba loves to support such producers, welcoming them when they are in the States. We’re lucky to have this haven of pristine East-West cuisine in our city.


Seven Hills (1550 Hyde, SF. 415-775-1550, www.sevenhillssf.com) is one of those neighborhood favorites many outside the ‘hood aren’t aware of. An Italian spot run by French natives(?), it’s a mellow respite for conversation with caring service. I enjoy the pasta most, especially in the form of a signature ravioli uovo ($9.50) filled with ricotta, spinach, and oozing Full Belly Farm egg yolk. In a light pool of brown butter and white truffle oil, it flirts with decadence. Spaghetti ($9.50/$19) is a heartwarming bowl (conveniently in two sizes) dotted with French Grandpa George’s recipe of plump fennel sausage, caramelized onions, and bell peppers in tomato sauce.


Bouche (603 Bush, SF. 415-956-0396 www.bouchesf.com) has only been open a couple weeks and thus is too new to comment in-depth upon. On a recent visit, I suffered tiny pangs of nostalgia, wishing Bar Crudo, since moved to the Panhandle, was still in this tiny, charming space. But the one dish out of a number of Bouche’s small plates ($6-18) that began to assuage those pangs was a creamy chestnut soup ($6). Its aroma evokes a winter panorama, the soup dotted with sage leaves fried in butter (which I could smell downstairs before the dish arrived to my table upstairs), with a side of crispy root vegetable chips to place on top.


Call it healthy “fast food” for the Peninsula set: LYFE Kitchen (167 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto. 650-325-5933, www.lyfekitchen.com) is a bustling, new eatery in downtown Palo Alto. Draft beers, wines, smoothies, and juices flow, while vegan, vegetarian, and organic foods encourage guilt-free eating. This sort of place would take off in downtown SF: its healthful approach doesn’t leave taste behind, while its connection to celebrity chef Art Smith is a point of interest for foodies.

Alhough not everything worked (I’m afraid fries are ultimately better — and less soggy — when actually fried), two stand-outs are Art’s unfried chicken ($11.99) and a roasted beets and farro salad ($7.79). Chicken is a dish I often brush past for more enticing options, but this tender, “unfried” chicken is pounded flat, textural with breaded crust, on a heartwarming bed of roasted squash, brussels sprouts, dried cranberries, tied together by a drizzle of cashew cream and Dijon vinaigrette. The salad is loaded with roasted red beets over whole-grain farro and field greens, with a melange of fennel, walnuts, dried cranberries, oranges, red onion, and basil in maple-sherry vinaigrette. Every bite packs a flavor punch. Here one can fill up with a clear conscience. *

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


Doom lens



YEAR IN FILM As everyone and John Cusack knows, 2012 is it. And not in a “billboard-buying Alameda radio preacher Harold Camping’s bungled Rapture predictions” kind of way. This is an all-in situation. The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, a complicated and ancient system most enthusiastically explained by conspiracy theorists, winds up its 13th 144,000 day cycle on December 21, 2012. TL; DR: we’re toast.

Though pesky, facts-knowing Latin American archaeology scholars have suggested that this doesn’t actually mean the end of the world is nigh, good luck dissuading zillions of bloggers, survivalists, religious fanatics, super-volcano watchers, and people who lie awake at night, biting their fingernails over the Large Hadron Collider. Imminent catastrophe awaits! Are you ready?

Enter Hollywood, which in its 100-plus year history has never had any qualms about exploiting society’s extant feelings of fear and dread. In 2009, 2012 prophesized global destruction (“Mankind’s earliest civilization warned us this day would come!”) as only a film with a lavish special effects budget could. Yet it offered last-act hope, a preferred tactic of master of disaster Roland Emmerich — who, having ice-aged, Godzilla’d, and alien-invaded the planet in a succession of go-boom films over the past 15 years, switched gears in 2011 with Shakespeare mystery Anonymous. (Last-ditch artistic atonement, perhaps?)

The apocalyptic films of 2011 took a different approach, opting to emphasize existential terror instead of fireballs, with no happy endings in sight. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia inspects the one percent by peering into the lives of two privileged sisters: depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and anxious Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The film’s first half unfolds at Justine’s lavish wedding reception — held at Claire’s horsy estate — which devolves into a mini-disaster movie of its own. The stretch limo carrying the newlyweds is too bulky to navigate the property’s narrow, curving driveway, until the bride slides behind the wheel and gets the tires pointed in the right direction. It’s Justine’s last moment of glee, as her marriage-jinxing erratic behavior soon gives way to crippling malaise.

As it turns out, a newly-discovered planet, conveniently named Melancholia, is heading toward earth. A collision course is not guaranteed, but it’s pretty obvious where things are heading, and this is not the kind of movie that sends Bruce Willis into space with drilling equipment to save the day. As Claire whips herself into a panic, clicking through fear mongering websites (Melancholia‘s only evidence of a world beyond the mansion’s well-manicured grounds), Justine accepts the impending apocalypse with cool detachment. “The earth is evil,” she tells her sister. “We don’t need to grieve for it.”

Though there’s no looming threat from outer space, the sky looks plenty ominous to Curtis (Michael Shannon), troubled protagonist of Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter. Nightmares of the I-wake-up-screaming variety have become a regular thing, and though Curtis desperately needs the health insurance provided by his construction job — his daughter (Tova Stewart) is about to get an operation to restore her hearing — he’s become obsessed with upgrading the storm shelter in his backyard. Friends and neighbors, initially supportive, become angry and confused. A public meltdown is inevitable: “There is a STORM coming like nothing you have ever seen, and not A ONE OF YOU is prepared for it!” he bellows at a community dinner, spewing fire like a small-town Cassandra.

There’s more: Curtis’ mother is schizophrenic. Is history repeating, or are his visions actually prophetic? Is Nichols hinting at Biblical themes, or is he making a statement about mental illness, or the destruction of the American dream? The film’s provocative finale could be interpreted a variety of ways; though there’s no Melancholia-style conclusion, Take Shelter‘s message remains memorably unsettling.

But even if the world doesn’t actually take a buy-out in 2012, it’ll get there someday — as Terrence Malick’s dreamy Tree of Life, which is more or less the story of everything that has ever and will ever happen, points out. For film fans, the signs of a dying planet are all too clear. Just take a look at the top-grossing movies of 2011: all of them are either sequels or part of a series. Transformers: Dark of the Moon relieved ticket buyers of over $352 million, even though previous installment Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) was scientifically proven to have sucked the soul out of anyone who watched it. (True story.)

With the crap economy making even gigant-o-stars nostalgic for their $20 million paydays, the Hollywood-industrial complex concentrated on proven moneymakers, with a few notable exceptions (bless you, Bridesmaids). In 2011, all bets were off. No cult property was too sacred to remake, no “reboot” deemed unnecessary, no superhero with the word “green” in his name unworthy of an entire feature film, no use of 3D too gratuitous. Original ideas were placed on the endangered species list, unless you counted the very small handful of smarter films that somehow managed to break through (look hard; most of them came out in December). Though there’s always a chance that entertainment aimed at the masses will have a brain (2012’s The Dark Knight Rises looks promising), that’s all there is. A chance.

Worse yet: recent news that major film studios plan to stop releasing 35mm prints from their archives. Rep houses will be forced to show films either digitally or not at all. It’s a cost-cutting measure that will deny future generations the irreplaceable delight of watching a movie projected from film, as was intended by the artist who made it. (Somewhere, Stanley Kubrick is seething.) Why bother going to see an old movie at all, if you’re just gonna be watching the equivalent of blown-up DVD? Might as well stay home and watch the Kardashians shop for shoes that cost more than your rent.

Man, maybe I am ready for 2012 after all. At least there’s an alternative end-times scenario to look forward to: the adaptation of Max Brooks’ excellent novel World War Z, about a world rebuilding itself after a zombie holocaust. Its not-so-coincidental release date? December 21, 2012. You’ve been warned. 



All backed up



In February 2004, San Francisco saw an usually strong winter storm. More than an inch and a half of rain fell within 30 minutes, too much to handle for the wastewater system, which in parts of the city is more than 100 years old. In the Mission and Bayview, some homes were flooded with rainwater and raw sewage.

Before adjourning for the year, the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 13 approved payments settling a lawsuit filed in January 2005 by some of the residents affected by the storm. The main plaintiffs in the case were Jane Martin and David Baker, whose home in the Mission district were flooded.

More than 40 individuals and businesses joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs, with San Francisco and its San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) as the sole defendant in the case. The plaintiffs sued for dangerous conditions of public property, failure to maintain public property, negligence, nuisance, and the trespass of water and sewage onto the plaintiff’s properties.

The settlement totaled $624,930 in compensation for property damage, including $50,000 for Martin and Baker, and many of the other plaintiffs getting around $25,000 each.

“Simply put, the city wasn’t doing proactive maintenance,” Baker told us.

Representatives of the SFPUC are trying to change that. There are currently several projects in the works to address issues with the city’s sewers, including flooding. These include Model Block improvement programs, such as green streetscaping meant to soak up rainfall, and a Sewer System Improvement Program that is in its early stages.

According to SFPUC spokesperson Jean Walsh, the SSIP is meant to tackle a number of issues with the sewer system, including flooding. She listed “seismic reliability issues” and a projected increase in major storms due to climate change as pressing reasons for the plan.

Besides the ancient pipes, the city’s network of storage transport boxes is routinely overloaded. These boxes are underground containers that catch water and hold it until it can be processed through the system and through to water treatment plants. Walsh says that they “surround the city like a moat… When those boxes fill up and all our capacity is full, the system overflows.”

This can cause flooding, especially in low-lying areas of the city and natural creek beds. Precita Creek, which once flowed freely along what is now Cesar Chavez Street, has been a site of overflows and flooding since it was first incorporated into the city’s sewer system in 1878. Nearby Islais Creek has also been diverted into sewers in the flooding-prone area.

The SSIP will have a particular focus on green technology. “One way that we’re going to address the flooding issue is by using low-impact design,” Walsh said. “We’re looking at permeable paving, bio-retention swales, and rainwater harvesting as ways to reuse the rainwater.”

Walsh says that the Model Block program has been a pilot for the SSIP. In May, the city and the Environmental Protective Agency unveiled a new green “streetscape,” part of the Model Block program, on the 1700 block of Newcomb Avenue. Areas of the sidewalk were replaced with permeable pavement, trees and gardens, meant to improve beauty and calm traffic as well as soak up rainwater so that it does not flow directly into the sewer system. In 2010, a similar project was completed on Leland Avenue between Bayshore Boulevard and Cora Street.

Neighborhoods in San Francisco’s southeast, particularly the Mission and Bayview, have been disproportionately affected by problems with the sewer system. Olin Webb, a lifelong Bayview resident and member of the group Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates, says that sewer improvements are long overdue.

“Whenever it storms, there’s an overflow here,” Webb said. “Every time it rains, you can smell the raw sewage.”

Bayview community organizations have been campaigning for improvement to the sewer system for decades. Webb said some progress has been made in the past few years, including the installation of a pathway at Yosemite Slough Park, part of an effort to restore the wetlands in the area and turn it into a pleasant community space.

Webb was ambivalent about recent improvements. Bayview Hunters Point, like most of San Francisco, has lost much of its African American population during a recent surge in out-migration. According to a 2010 census, San Francisco’s black population has declined by 22.6 percent in the last decade.

“This took too long,” Webb said of the sewer improvement. “I’ve been here 60-something years, my mother worked on this before me. It’s like a joke to me that now everything’s getting fixed up and most of the people can’t enjoy it.”

Residents may still have a to wait for SSIP projects to begin construction. The program will likely span 15-20 years, and is currently in its early stages. “The project is still in design and planning stages,” Walsh said. “It needs to be validated and budgeted. We know it’s going to cost multiple billions of dollars”

Yet Walsh is optimistic that the project will make real change in a sewer system that’s been inadequate for decades. “It’s going to be an impactful project,” she said. “People are going to notice it happening.”

Occupy and the hostile media


OPINION Every progressive movement in U.S. history was portrayed negatively by mainstream media at the time it was happening. It’s no surprise that the media portray the Occupy Wall Street movement in the same light.

During the Montgomery bus boycott, mainstream media outlets interviewed black folks who were against it and talked about how the boycott was misguided and hurt the local economy. The day after the boycott started, the Montgomery Advertiser ran a story featuring the manager of the bus lines saying that bus drivers were being shot at and rocks were being thrown at them.

During the rest of the civil rights movement, protesters who were fire-hosed and otherwise brutalized were called “violent protesters” in the mainstream media, which again featured interviews with people saying that the protests were wrongheaded.

During the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the mainstream media portrayed protesters as out of touch, violent, and dirty. There was a picture in the San Francisco Chronicle of a guy who was throwing back a tear gas canister that had been shot at the peaceful crowd. This was shown as proof of protesters being wild, out of touch, and violent. The Black Panther Party had free breakfast programs and was beloved worldwide — but every mainstream media outlet that covered it, covered it negatively.

There has never been any strike, work stoppage, or union action that was supported by the mainstream media at the time that it was happening.

The mainstream press didn’t support the Anti-Apartheid movement and doesn’t support the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement for Palestine.

The mainstream press is always on the wrong side of history because it’s always on the side of the status quo, which is capitalist exploitation and oppression.

Here’s an example: Every article about the port shutdown featured a trucker speaking against the shutdown. However, the Occupy movement received and circulated a letter from an organization representing hundreds of port truckers which thanked us all for this action in support of their struggle. None of those folks were interviewed by media.

Another example: In any movement we will make in the U.S. that is multi-racial, there will be real problems to fix around race. These are good problems, because they come from the fact that a lot of different groups of people who normally wouldn’t work together are doing so now.

But the article in the Chronicle that supposedly showed that Occupy Oakland doesn’t connect with black folks was poor and unethical journalism. The paper quoted only two black folks; one said the answer is to tell other Black folks to “Stop The Violence.” Okay. But the Chron didn’t interview any of the folks in the neighborhood around Gayla Newsome who was put back into her foreclosed home. They didn’t interview anyone from the neighborhood around 10th and Mandela, where the Tactical Action Committee has made a foreclosed Fannie Mae home into a community center with workshops for the community. They didn’t interview anyone involved with Occupy Oakland’s November 19th march, which was 2,000 strong and focused on school closures. They didn’t interview any of the many black union members who have worked with us. They didn’t interview anyone in the People Of Color Caucus, or anyone else who is black and works with Occupy Oakland.

Don’t be surprised at the media’s negative portrayal of our movement. It’s happening because we are growing, we are effective, and we are right. *

Boots Riley is a musician and activist.

Money and values



Warren Hellman left a hole in the heart of San Francisco when he died on Dec. 18 at the age of 77. That’s where he existed, right in the city’s heart, keeping the lifeblood of money and values flowing when nobody else seemed up to that task. But as the outpouring of affection and appreciation that followed his death attests, he set an example for others to follow…and maybe they will.

Hellman was born into one of San Francisco’s premier wealthy families, a status he maintained by becoming a rich and famous investment banker. His great-grandfather founded Well Fargo, as well as the Congregation Emanu-El, the spectacular temple where Hellman’s memorial service was held Dec. 21, attended by a huge crowd ranging from Gov. Jerry Brown to young country music fans.

Hellman was more than just a philanthropist who funded key institutions such as the San Francisco Free Clinic, the Bay Citizen newsroom, and a variety of programs and bond measures benefiting local public schools. He was more than the go-to guy for mediating sticky political problems such as this year’s pension reform struggle.

Hellman was the conscience of San Francisco, reminding his rich friends of their obligations to fair play and the common good. And he was the rhythm of the city, single-handedly creating and funding the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, perhaps the greatest free music festival in the country. And he was so much more.

“What do banjos, garages, Levis, 50- and 100-mile runs, ride and tie, investment banking, public policy, ballot measures, free medical clinics, and a zest for women,” U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said at his service, causing the room to erupt in laughter at the misstated last item, “for winning — correction, a zest for winning — have in common? The answer, of course, is simple: Warren Hellman.”

It was a gaffe that Hellman probably would have appreciated as much as anyone. Speaker after speaker attested to his marvelous, and often risqué, sense of humor. It was a theme that ran through the testimonials almost as strongly as two of his other key qualities: his competitiveness and his compassion.

For a charter member the 1 percent, Hellman had a deep appreciation for the average person of goodwill, and he found those people as often on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder as he did on the top. While most of his contemporaries in San Francisco’s uber-wealthy class, such as Don Fisher and Walter Shorenstein, often used their money to wage class warfare on the 99 percent, Hellman used his wealth and influence to bridge the divide.

He generously gave to good causes and advocated for higher taxes on the wealthy to lessen the need for such charity. Hellman understood that we all help make San Francisco great, and that perspective animated his love of bluegrass music, which he called “the conscience of our country.”

As he told me in 2007, “A big passion of mine is to try to help — and people have defined it too narrowly — the kinds of music that I think have a hell of a lot to do with the good parts of our society.”

Hellman may have started the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival because it was music he loved and played, but he turned it into such a major spectacle — booking some of the biggest acts from around the country, going as big as the city and space would allow — because he thought it was important to the soul of his city.

“I’m glad that we have first-rate opera, but it’s equally important that we foster the kind of music, lyrics, etc., that support all this,” Hellman told me. And by “all this,” he was talking about the grand social bargain, the fact that we’re all sharing this planet and we’ve got to understand and nurture one another.

At the memorial service, that attitude came through most strongly in the words — spoken with a country twang — of musician Ron Thomason, who became good friends with Hellman through their shared loves of bluegrass music and horseback riding, including the endurance rides in which they each competed.

“I know I’m amongst all good folks,” Thomason told the packed synagogue. “The plain truth is Warren didn’t tolerate the other kind.”

That was true. No matter your perspective or station in life, Hellman wanted to know and appreciate you if had a good heart and curious mind. And if not, he would let you know — or cut you off, as he did with the political group he helped start, SFSOS, after its director Wade Randlett launched nasty attacks on progressive politicians and advocates.

Thomason joked about how ridiculous much of this country has become. “It’s hard to believe that only half the people are dumber than average,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone ever saw Warren Hellman talk down to anybody.”

He told the story of meeting Hellman backstage at Hardly Strictly. Thomason knew Hellman from equestrian events and didn’t know that he was a wealthy banker or that he created and funded the festival. And Hellman didn’t immediately offer that information, telling his friend that he was just backstage because he knew someone in management.

“He knew everyone in management, and he expected them to do right,” Thomason said, later adding, “In his mind, there should not be any disenfranchised.”

It was a perspective that was echoed by people from all parts of Hellman’s life, from his family members to his business partners.

“He taught us to respect people from all walks of life,” said Philip Hammarskjold, the CEO of Hellman & Friedman and Hellman’s business partner of 17 years, describing how Hellman was as engaged with and curious about the firm’s low-level support staff as he was its top executives, an attitude that infected those around him. “His culture is now our culture. His values are now our values.”

“Money meant noting to Warren,” said his sister, Nancy Bechtle. “But in business, money was the marker that you won and Warren always wanted to win.”

He was a competitive athlete and an investment banker who wanted to give companies the resources they needed to succeed, rather than slicing and dicing them for personal gain. And he used the wealth he accrued in the process to make San Francisco a better place.

“He treated San Francisco as if it were part of his family, nurturing its health and education,” said his granddaughter, Laurel Hellman.

Personally, he was an iconoclast with a lively sense of play.

“He never worried about the things that most parents worried about,” said Frances Hellman, the eldest of Warren’s four children. Rather than getting good grades and staying out of trouble, Hellman wanted his children to be happy, hard-working, respectful of people, and always curious about the world.

She told stories about taking Hellman to his first Burning Man in 2006 (along with Rabbi Sydney Mintz, who led the service), an event he loved and returned to the next two years, and watching his childlike pleasure at leaving his painted footprints on a sail that was headed around the world, or with just sitting on the playa, picking his banjo, watching all the colorful people go by.

“I love him and I miss him more than I can express,” she said.

As Hellman told me in 2007, he just loved people and was genuinely curious about their perspectives.

“I’m so grateful for the friendship of Warren, to know this incredible man,” singer Emmylou Harris — one of Hellman’s favorite musicians — said before singing for a crowd of others who felt just the same way.

PG&E’s system fails — again


EDITORIAL There’s no question that officials from Santa Clara — thrilled to have finalized financing for a new 49ers stadium — were taking full political advantage of the Dec. 19 blackouts at Candlestick Park. There’s no question that the event Mayor Ed Lee called a “national embarrassment” helped guarantee that the team will leave San Francisco after one more season.

But this is about more than football — and the mayor and the supervisors ought to using this latest PG&E screw-up to take a serious look at the company’s reliability and its impact on the city.

This is hardly the first embarrassing PG&E blackout in San Francisco. For the past few years, the private utility’s aging infrastructure has been failing, leaving businesses and residents in the dark. And while PG&E officials are trying to blame the city for the latest snafu, everyone admits that the problem started when a PG&E power line snapped.

Snapping power lines are a dangerous prospect — in this case, nobody was hurt and the arcing electricity didn’t start any fires. But that was largely a matter of luck — the jolt from the broken line lit up TV screens all over the country and if it had happened close to some flammable object (or, worse, some live person), the damage could have been serious.

As it was, millions of people watched San Francisco’s football stadium go dark — twice. The electricians at Candlestick patched things together and the game went on, but the message was clear: PG&E can’t be trusted to keep its equipment in safe, operating condition.

The city of San Bruno is still trying to recover from the natural gas explosion that killed eight people and leveled a neighborhood. And while local and state officials are giving increased scrutiny to PG&E’s underground gas pipes, the electricity system isn’t in much better shape.

Blackouts are more than an embarrassment — they cost the city and its businesses money. And, as the almost certain loss of the 49ers shows, unreliable infrastructure doesn’t help the local business climate. As Santa Clara Mayor Jamie Matthews told the Bay Citizen: “The reason they moved to Santa Clara is the reliability of our services. We have reliability in our electricity system that is unparalleled.”

One reason: Santa Clara has its own municipal power system. Rates are lower, blackouts are unheard of and the equipment is well maintained. Compare that to PG&E, where company executives diverted gas line maintenance money to pay themselves bonuses, and you see why San Francisco, which relies on the private monopoly, has a problem.

The supervisors ought to take this opportunity to hold hearings on the reliability of PG&E’s electric and gas system in the city — looking not just at the Candlestick problem but at the maintenance records, the age of crucial equipment, the company’s replacement plans and the economic impact of a shoddy electrical system. That should be part of Mayor Lee’s investigation, too.

At some point, San Francisco residents are going to have to pay to rebuild this system. They can pay through higher PG&E rates when the utility finally gets around to it — or they can begin the process of creating a municipal utility, which can do the job right, bring down rates and improve the business climate that the mayor so loves to discuss.

Editor’s notes



I’m not good at holidays. When your world is made of deadlines, the holidays are just one more — gotta get the kids presents, gotta get the tree, gotta make plans, gotta do dinner … one more set of hassles. Bah humbug.

And I’ve never been a big fan of New Year’s Eve. Too many people acting like they’ve never been drunk before and will never be drunk again, and everything costs too much. I drink every day; I can miss New Year’s Eve. Party pooper.

So I don’t do my own new year’s resolutions; I do them for other people. This is what I would like everyone else to do in 2012:

I would like the Occupy organizers to put together a massive day of teach-ins and a march on Washington in the spring, to keep the movement alive and bring in a lot more people.

I would like my fellow dog owners to pick up the shit off the sidewalks.

I would like the Department of Parking and Traffic to put up No Left Turn signs on 16th Street at Potrero and Bryant.

I would like Visconti to lower the price on that really cool lava fountain pen.

I would like the transportation whizzes at City Hall to figure out how to put bike lanes on Oak Street so I can ride back from Golden Gate Park as safely as I can ride to the park.

I would like the supervisors to change the rules for Question Time so the mayor doesn’t get all the questions in advance and there’s a chance for real discussion that isn’t stupid and boring.

I would like middle school English teachers in San Francisco to explain to their students that homeless people are not “hobos.”

I would like the Obama Administration to quit hassling pot dispensaries.

I would like the airlines to start serving cocktails before takeoff.

I would like the thriller writers of America to learn how to write decent sex scenes.

I would like Jerry Brown to endorse the initiative to outlaw the death penalty.

I would like everyone in politics to stop saying the words “together” and “shared” since we aren’t together and I don’t want to share with the rich.

Anything else? Happy New Year.