Volume 48 Number 20

Volume 48 Number 20 Flip-through Edition

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A feast for the nonsenses

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi is probably better known for its riotous Parisian opening (back in 1896) than for the play itself. The profanity it leveled against the city’s crème de la crème, beginning with its famous opening incantation, “Merdre!” — not exactly a word but dirty-sounding enough to precipitate a violent revolt long before the final curtain — broke open the doors of the WC on so-called polite society. As it turned out, no one was really keen or able to close them again.

Jarry, a papa of Dada, died desperately poor and unknown a decade later, but his work and life remained an inspiration and touchstone to the avant-garde. Indeed, his best known work, Ubu Roi, is an absurdist play avant la lettre, as the French say, anticipating the luminous assaults on convention by Beckett, Ionesco, Dürrenmatt, Albee, Havel, and others. Ultimately, it is surely Ubu‘s willful nonsense — a refusal to accept the strictures not just of traditional drama, or the mores of the time, but of the very sense of reality propagated and regimented by the dominant society — that made the play (and Jarry) so deeply offensive to most, and so deeply exciting to some.

Still, it isn’t clear what the merits of a play like Ubu might be for a contemporary audience, culturally steeped in merdre of all kinds and pretty blasé about it. The Cutting Ball Theater’s current production, based on a new translation by artistic director Rob Melrose, offers some tantalizing suggestions in its detailed take on Jarry’s comical excesses. Helmed by Moscow-born, Baltimore-based director Yury Urnov, the dream world of the play comes slyly refracted through a decidedly contemporary San Francisco lens, in the form of a sleekly stylish modern-day kitchen (designed by Cutting Ball associate Michael Locher), in and from which all the action arises.

Arranged in the semi-round, with the audience on three sides, the kitchen setting makes an immediate sense as the center of the gluttonous bourgeois world, and not least because the playful dialogue, alternately grand and obtuse, suggests it already with its saucy mixing of food and fecal language. Urnov and cast have great fun in exploring the place, manipulating the mobile islands and cabinets, searching out its nooks and corners, and reveling in the foodie possibilities it presents (to the occasional light splattering of those audience members seated nearest).

Played with a robust appetite, devil-may-care insouciance, and artful humor by Cutting Ball’s David Sinaiko, the titular Father Ubu is a scatological rogue, a loving husband, a pitiless plotter, and naturally enough an esteemed state official: high-ranking officer and right hand to Polish King Wenceslas (a duly puffed up William Boynton). In the role of Lady Macbeth to her too contented, weak-livered husband, Mother Ubu (played with a persuasive mix of impetuous greed and voluptuous innocence by Ponder Goddard) convinces him to set his sights a little higher than the refrigerator. Ubu soon obliges, drawing a small band of conspirators (ensemble members Boynton, Nathaniel Justiniano, Marilet Martinez, and Andrew P. Quick) into his gamesmanship — with help from Mother Ubu, who anoints each co-conspirator solemnly with a dash of water from the tip of a toilet brush.

The coup succeeds initially but things soon go awry, as the deposed Queen (a scrappy Martinez) and her intrepid son, the heretofore sulky Bougrelas (a bounding, amusingly campy Justiniano), fight back.

While the kitchen theme develops rather organically (if also in unexpected ways) from the text, it also stands as a kind of stylistic conceit — a small but deliberate dose of realism in a fantastical comedy of outrageous, yet also domestic, proportions. Its surfaces may shine with the absurdity of a geopolitical food fight, but the motivations and details of the plot are very much in sync with an everyday ruthlessness and regret.

Meanwhile, the plot itself fractures by the second half of the play, as things get truly surreal, abandoning all pretense to linear storytelling. This tonal and aesthetic shift comes nicely registered in the flexible playing style, as Father and Mother Ubu discover they have inherited a realm after all — one they would have thought unreal only a short time before. *

UBU ROI

Through March 9

Thu, 7:30pm; Fri-Sat, 8pm (also Sat, 2pm); Sun, 5pm, $10-50

Exit on Taylor

277 Taylor, SF

www.cuttingball.com

 

Pixies 2.0

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There’s something to be said for recording four great, distinctive albums, and quitting while you’re ahead. This live-fast/die-fast approach worked wonders for the Velvet Underground’s legacy and influence, and one might say it served the Pixies’ notoriously frenetic rock explorations equally well.

While the renowned Boston group has been on the reunion circuit for nearly a decade now, coasting on the fumes of its brief, yet potent, back-catalogue, the prospect of new material has always seemed like an improbable dream of overeager fans. (After all, their last record, Trompe Le Monde, saw its release on the same day as Nirvana’s earthshaking Nevermind in 1991.)

But then, out of nowhere, one day last September, came EP-1, a self-released, digitally distributed four-song set that the blogosphere proceeded to pounce on and dissect instantaneously. While Pitchfork, among other tastemakers, complained of dubious quality, it was clear: With one bold move, the Pixies were no longer mere revivalists, but a full-on band once again.

Next Friday, at Oakland’s Fox Theater, will mark the Pixies’ first Bay Area show in support of fresh material in over two decades, in a performance that should test the band’s ability to blend the old and the new convincingly.

Characterized by the erratic vocals and twisty songwriting of bandleader Black Francis, the angular guitar-work of Joey Santiago, the rock-solid drumming of David Lovering, and the alternately sweet and snarly backing vocals of bassist Kim Deal (who left the band last year, without warning, during the EP-1 sessions), the Pixies remain one of the most impactful, singular groups from the transitional period between rock’s punk and indie movements.

From the initial jolt of the Come On Pilgrim EP (1987), to the devastating four-album punch of Surfer Rosa (1988), Doolittle (1989), Bossanova (1990), and Trompe Le Monde (1991), the band’s signature balance of abrasion and tenderness continues to permeate the rock world incalculably. Radiohead has repeatedly admitted their indebtedness to the Pixies’ sound, while Kurt Cobain contended that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” might not have been written without it. As Deerhunter, TV on the Radio, and the end credits to Fight Club continue to prove, the Pixies’ influence remains powerful as ever.

After calling it quits in ’92, the band regrouped in 2004 (to many a fan’s surprise) for a reunion tour that was only to last a year. After one year turned to five, and a front-to-back Doolittle tour stretched the revival to the seven-year mark, the four members came to a realization.

“We all looked at ourselves and said, ‘Wait a minute, hold on. We’ve been a band longer during this reunion than we were initially,'” Lovering told the Bay Guardian from a tour stop in Washington, D.C.

“There was talk of doing new material, but with all this nonstop touring, nothing came to fruition until maybe about two years ago. We stopped touring, started writing stuff, and then we went and did it.”

Just last month, the Pixies landed another sucker punch with EP-2, the band’s second release since last September, while rumors of an impending EP-3 have begun to circulate since then. Produced by Gil Norton, who’s worked on every Pixies release since Surfer Rosa, the newly released EPs bear a fuller, rounder, warmer sound than any of the band’s past work, while leaving Francis’ erratic songwriting and the group’s off-kilter dynamics largely intact.

“Blue Eyed Hexe” strongly recalls the cowbell-addled thump of “U-Mass,” while “Greens and Blues” brings to mind the zigzagging chord progressions of “Where Is My Mind?”. “What Goes Boom” evokes the surfy explorations of Bossanova, while “Indie Cindy” and “Andro Queen” approach the jangly sensibility of “Here Comes Your Man,” before going unpredictably down their respective paths.

“We just like to drop surprises, I guess,” Santiago explains, while on tour in Durham, N.C. “We just try and do something different out there. And I think we might be one of the first ones to do this…you know, doing a series of EPs.”

Speaking of surprises, the band was dealt a serious blow during the sessions for the EP series, when Deal left the band unexpectedly, for reasons she has declined to elaborate on in the months since. The former bandleader of the Breeders, whose bass lines and soft backing vocals proved integral to the Pixies equation in their contrast to Francis’ manic wail, Deal left a sizable void behind upon departing the group.

“When Kim did leave, we didn’t know what to do,” Lovering explains. “We were in a lurch, and we were thinking, should we get a guy bass player? Or should we quit the band? Or whatever. But, what the Pixies is is a masculine/feminine thing. It’s always been that yin and yang, especially with the vocals. That’s just part of the Pixies. So that’s what we had to do. We had to get a female, you know? We’re keeping with that.”

After hiring Kim Shattuck of the Muffs to assume Deal’s spot for a brief European tour, the three core members made the decision to move forward with Paz Lenchantin, the former bassist for A Perfect Circle.

“Paz is fantastic,” Lovering mentions. “She’s so good, she’s making me play better. I really have to watch how I’m playing, and keep it up. But it’s wonderful; it just sounds very powerful and precise. And her vocals are incredible, as well.”

“Not to diminish Kim,” Santiago says. “We miss her very dearly, but after a while, you know, life goes on. The hard reality is, good is good, and Paz is a real bass player. She’s a pro.” So how might Lenchantin approach Deal’s signature tracks like “Gigantic,” “Silver,” and “Havalina”? How keenly will Deal’s absence be felt? Aside from the prospect of hearing new material played live, Lenchantin’s introduction to the Pixies leaves more questions to be answered than any other element surrounding next Friday’s show.

Faced with a lineup change that smacks of uncertainty and transition, and the mixed critical response to their first new music in 22 years, Francis, Lovering, and Santiago have more to prove this time around than ever before. Yet Lovering contends that this unstable territory is just what the Pixies need after a decade of celebrating  past glories.

“I don’t think we could’ve toured anymore, just going on this reunion kind of stuff. We just needed to do something new.”

Fri/21: Pixies

With Best Coast

8pm, $55 (sold out)

Fox Theater

1807 Telegraph, Oak.

(510) 302-2250

www.thefoxoakland.com

A very Indy decade

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esilvers@sfbg.com

LEFT OF THE DIAL If there’s one thing Allen Scott remembers from opening the Independent 10 years ago, it’s the rush. Not the emotional high (though surely that was a factor too), but the literal rushing around that was necessary to open a state-of-the-art live concert space with a capacity of 500 “on a shoestring budget.”

“We barely got open on time,” recalls Scott, the managing owner of the venue at 628 Divisadero — the latest in a long line of storied San Francisco clubs that have shared that address. “We had friends painting it right up until about the day before we opened. We’d moved the sound system in but didn’t have alarms set up, so we were taking turns sleeping on the stage overnight. People would come by and say ‘When are you opening?’ and we’d say ‘In a couple days,’ and they’d laugh, like ‘Good luck with that.’ The night we opened, the fire department signing everything off while the band was sound-checking.”

That band was I Am Spoonbender, and that show was the first of more than 2,500 that have taken place within the Independent’s walls since February 2004. If the space feels like it has a deeper history than that, it’s for good reason: In the late 1960s, it was home to the Half Note, a popular jazz club that saw the likes of Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk; the house band featured George Duke and a young Al Jarreau. In the early ’80s it became the VIS Club, and served as a hub for local punk, new wave, and experimental bands; by the late ’80s it was the Kennel Club, and hosted up-and-comers like Nirvana and Janes Addiction. In the mid-’90s, it was reborn as the Justice League, nurturing burgeoning electronic and hip-hop acts — Fat Boy Slim, Jurassic 5, the Roots, and plenty others all found enthusiastic crowds. To put it mildly, if those walls could talk, they’d tell a lot of good party stories. Next week’s lineup of shows will only add to the vault: From Feb. 19 through Feb. 26, the Independent will host Allen Stone, John Butler Trio, Beats Antique, DJ Shadow, Two Gallants (below), Rebelution, and Girl Talk in a series of special performances to celebrate the club’s 10th anniversary.

Two Gallants play The Indepednent Feb. 23

As the club has changed, San Francisco — as it is wont to do — changed around it. The formerly gritty Western Addition is now shiny NoPa (at least according to real estate agents); what was once a bustling center for the city’s African-American population and jazz scene is now more of a bustling dining destination for the upper-middle-class. Regardless, says Scott, there’s no question that the Independent is “in the heart of the city…being part of this neighborhood, this community, is so important to us.”

Scott was just a young San Francisco promoter with an impressive track record when he was approached in 2003 by Gregg Perloff and Sherry Wasserman — proteges of Bill Graham and owners of the scrappy, barely-year-old concert promotion/marketing team Another Planet Entertainment — to run booking and promotions at the unopened venue.

“The name ‘The Independent’ came up through some discussions with music industry friends,” Scott told SF Weekly at the time of the club’s opening. “The whole idea of the Wal-Marting of America applies to the music industry as well. We wanted to stand alone: independent thinking, independent music. We’re an independent company. Of course, it was also an elbow in the side of the corporate giant out there.” (Perloff had just parted ways with Clear Channel under less-than-friendly circumstances.)

A decade later, of course, APE runs a couple of the biggest festivals in Northern California, and functions as the exclusive promoter for Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, Oakland’s Fox Theater, and the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, among others. And Scott’s now the vice president of APE. But The Independent, now the smallest APE operation, is still his baby.

“We wanted a utilitarian room that had great sound, great lights, and perfect sight lines,” he says. “And because it’s a box, the sight lines there really are perfect — no matter where you’re standing in the room, you can make eye contact with the performers and vice-versa. I think it’s the best-sounding room in the city. And I’d say it has the best lights of any venue underneath the size of the Fillmore.”

Nicki Bluhm is among the local artists who now regularly pack larger venues (see: her sold-out Fillmore show Jan. 25) but maintain a soft spot for the Independent. “[The club] treats their artists with so much respect,” she says, adding that the atmosphere there has led to some of her band’s most memorable shows. Also memorable, says Scott: Obama’s first presidential win, when the club held a free results-viewing party with live music. “When he won, the place erupted, and everyone spilled out into the streets…so there was a band playing inside and people just raging outside,” he recalls. “Very San Francisco.”

 

What does a quintessentially Brooklyn-loft-party-post-punk band sound like when two of its principal members relocate to LA? Judging by VoyAager, the lush, layered, immersively and epically spacey new album from experimental stalwarts Aa (“big A, little a”), it sounds like someone sent an assortment of synthesizers, samplers, and drum sets into the future, and the future is an industrial cityscape full of curiously advanced life forms who don’t communicate in a narrative sense, but they sure have lots of energy, and they like writing melodies (though not the kind you’ll likely hear on the radio anytime soon). Life sounds rough around the edges on this planet, but you kinda don’t ever want to leave. (Give the first track a listen at the end of this story.)

John Atkinson, the drummer-heavy band’s main vocalist and one of said members who relocated to the West Coast about three years ago, said the album — the band’s first in seven years — is actually the culmination of nearly seven years of recording. “We all work on songs together even when we’re not in the same place,” explains Atkinson, who lived (and recorded some of his parts) in France in the mid-aughts. Though Aa’s lineup and instrumentation seem to be constantly in flux (at this point, says Atkinson, there’s something of an East Coast lineup and a West Coast one), the band’s sound is distinctly more cohesive and melodic than on its 2007 debut, gAame.

Aa perform, with Lil B looking on.

“We don’t want to be making straight-ahead pop songs, but at the same time, I’d say the sounds of pop music have broadened our palette, while sticking to the way we like to put songs together,” says Atkinson. The changing lineup has helped the band’s sound evolve, as well: “Everyone listens to different music…dark industrial heavy stuff, electronic stuff, metal, punk, another drummer is into Samba, world music and jazz…everyone brings something different, so it’s great to watch that kind of stew congeal into something that still sounds like us.”

Playing the Hemlock on Feb. 15 will be the second stop on a weeklong West Coast tour that will take the guys up to Seattle, after which Atkinson will be making a point to stop at every basketball stadium he can on the way back down — the Jersey native is a fairly new appreciator (not a bandwagon fan, he wants to be clear) of California basketball.

As for the NYC/LA transition in general: “New York’s always gonna be home to me, but every time I go back, so much has changed about Brooklyn — all these condos, cookie-cutter new restaurants, and the vibe of the city is just not what it used to be,” he says, “LA is a really hard city to get to know, but that also means there’s a ton of interesting new stuff to discover all the time. It’s starting to feel like home.”

Last but definitely not least: Don’t forget to check out the first Bay Area Record Label Fair, (or B.A.R.F., which is funny whether or not you are 12, admit it), at Thee Parkside on Feb. 15, the brainchild of SF promoters Professional Fans and the city’s own Father/Daughter Records. Some 18 different labels will be represented at the daylong affair, plus live performances from Cocktails, Dog Party, and others TBD. Oh yeah, and it’s free — so bite your tongue the next time you find yourself saying that everything in this city has gotten too expensive.

 

The Independent’s 10th Anniversary Celebration
Feb. 19 – Feb. 26, show times and prices vary
Independent
628 Divisadero, SF
www.theindependentsf.com

Aa
With Alan Watts, Wand, and Violent Vickie
Saturday, Feb. 15 9pm, $8
Hemlock Tavern 1131 Polk, SF
www.hemlocktavern.com

B.A.R.F.
Saturday, Feb. 15 12pm – 5pm, free
Thee Parkside
1600 17th Street, SF
www.theeparkside.com

Full steam ahead

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arts@sfbg.com

BEER Just across McCovey Cove from AT&T Park, the San Francisco Giants and Anchor Brewing Company are concocting a beer-filled future for Pier 48. As part of the Mission Rock development project, the new Anchor brewery, slotted to break ground in late 2015, would allow Anchor to quadruple production and remain in San Francisco.

The proposed brewery will eventually contain a restaurant, museum, educational space, and distillery. It’s being designed with giant windows that will offer an unprecedented view of operations. Brewing would be transparent enough to be observed while casually strolling the pier or even from certain seats inside the ballpark.

“As you come in and you look into the brewery, the first thing you’ll see will be one of the cold fermentors,” says architect Olle Lundberg, referring to the large cooling pans or “cool ships” Anchor still uses to chill its boiled beer batches. “The bar for the restaurant will look out over that, so you’ll be looking out over this kind of sea of beer into the brewery. If that doesn’t inspire you to drink, I don’t know what will.”

Anchor has been poised to expand for years. It even has a copper German brewhouse ready to install in the new facility. It’s been sitting in storage since it was purchased in the early 1990s by then-CEO Fritz Maytag. He left the collection of kettles, mash tuns, and fermentors unused when his plans for a new brewery were sidelined by that rarest of business concerns: happiness.

“In 1990 the brewery was doing about 100,000 barrels, which made it the number one craft brewery in the country,” says CEO Keith Greggor in his cheery British accent. “Further expansion was going to be very difficult, very costly. At the same time, [Maytag] got very interested in distilling and he decided, ‘You know what? I’m number one. I don’t need to focus on being the biggest and the baddest. I’m happy with what I’m doing and I’m going to focus on distilling now.’ And he was one of the first in that kind of craft distilling revolution that’s happened.”

This was the second craft revolution that Maytag, the great-grandson of Maytag Appliance founder Frederick Maytag, helped to ignite. In 1965, he was enjoying a “Steam Beer” at a North Beach restaurant when he was told it would be the last he would ever have: the brewery, which had survived Prohibition decades earlier, was closing. Hearing this, he purchased a controlling share of the company, saving from extinction not only a brewery in operation since 1896, but one of the only known styles of beer to have originated in America. “Steam Beer,” technically classified as “California Common Beer,” is a lager fermented at ale temperatures.

But times have changed since 1965. Craft brewing has been revived in America to the point that decorative plastic hops are A Thing. And competition demands more than being the only kid on the block with flavorful barley-pop. So in addition to the new brewery plans, Anchor will be discontinuing its bock beer and Humming Ale, while offering a new saison and an IPA.

“We like to say that we’re resting those beers,” says Greggor of the discontinued lines. “We have to respond to the consumer and retail demand for beer. And the demand for today is: ‘I want new. I want new.'”

And new it will be. Since 2010, when Maytag sold the brewery to the Griffin Group of Novato, most noted for their work with Skyy Vodka, Anchor has introduced several new beers to its regular line, including Brekle’s Brown, California Lager, and Big Leaf Maple. One the most recent is Small Beer, which draws from well-trod brewing techniques, making a lighter, more session-able ale from the mash of Old Foghorn — a more robust, flavorful brew.

And the Mission Rock development hopes to get even more out of those spent grains. As part of a proposed district-wide energy management facility, Anchor’s waste and run-off could be used to create methane for heating, and gray-water for toilets and sprinklers.

“We’re looking at all kinds of crazy, fun ideas for waste recapture,” says Fran Weld, director of real estate for the Giants. (The team, which is partnered with the Port of San Francisco on the project, asked Anchor to be the first tenant.) “The idea of looking at a district-wide solution is you can consolidate all of those chilling towers and boilers that the developers would otherwise build. You can do fewer of them because of the fact that you’re meeting the demands of the site as a whole — so your baseline of required energy is much lower.”

Still awaiting final approval from city agencies, the Mission Rock plan also includes mixed-use office, retail, restaurant, and manufacturing spaces, as well as affordable housing. But perhaps most remarkable is the development will enable San Francisco’s oldest and largest manufacturer to remain within the city, though at no small cost.

“You can imagine there are much, much cheaper places for them to build this facility,” says Lundberg, whose design firm is joint-venturing the project with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. “They could just keep Potrero Hill as a kind of, you know, boutique signature facility and then make most of their product in Chico or somewhere. But instead they’ve decided that they really want to be here and they want to do it all here and there’s a big number attached to that.”

When asked if he has considered a opening an additional brewery elsewhere (as Petaluma-based Lagunitas has done in Chicago), Greggor is almost offended.

“I believe that Anchor belongs in San Francisco. That’s our history, that’s our heritage,” says Greggor. “People have an affinity to us, whether they drink beer or not, they like us being part of the city. They applaud our efforts to stay on in the city and make beer here even though it’s a very expensive environment to do so. And we ourselves are all committed personally and passionately to the city. And we don’t want to go anywhere else! We’ll make less money and live here, please.” *

Thirsty for more? Check out all the sudsy goings-on at SF Beer Week (www.sfbeerweek.org), including events featuring Anchor beers, now through Sun/16.

 

Masterpiece theater

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM “I’m not a painter,” admits Tim Jenison at the start of Tim’s Vermeer. He is, however, an inventor, a technology whiz specializing in video engineering, a self-made multimillionaire, and possessed of astonishing amounts of determination and focus. Add a bone-dry sense of humor and he’s the perfect documentary subject for magicians and noted skeptics Penn & Teller (longtime Jenison pal Penn “hosts,” while Teller directs), who capture his multi-year quest to “paint a Vermeer.”

What now? Yep, you read that right: Inspired by artist David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, Jenison became interested in the theory that 17th century painters used lenses and mirrors, or a camera obscura (a device familiar to anyone who’s ever been to San Francisco’s Cliff House), to help create their remarkably realistic works. He was especially taken with Vermeer, famous for works like Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665), feeling a “geek kinship” with someone who was able to apply paint to canvas and make it look like a video image. It took some trial-and-error (and one great bathtub “Eureka!” moment), but Jenison soon figured out a way that would allow him — someone who barely knew how to hold a brush — to transform an old photograph into a strikingly Vermeer-like oil painting.

From the film’s early moments, it’s apparent that Jenison, who can fix anything and is obsessed with knowing how things work, is of the “go big or go home” school of thought. Witness his comically giant pipe organ — constructed of organs scavenged from multiple churches — which he plays using self-taught skills gleaned from careful study of a player piano he restored during his Iowa childhood. So when he decides to paint a Vermeer, specifically The Music Lesson (1662-65), he refuses to half step in any way, declaring that he’ll only use materials Vermeer would have had access to. He’ll grind his own pigments and glass lenses, and construct an exact replica of the room in Vermeer’s house where the painting was made.

A trip to Delft, Netherlands, is arranged, with time spent studying the light, architecture, layout of Vermeer’s studio, period-appropriate furniture and pottery, and Dutch (he eventually learns to read Dutch). He also jaunts to London to discuss the project with Hockney (“It’s very clever!” the esteemed painter chuckles over Jenison’s technique), and catch a glimpse of the original painting, concealed from public eyes deep within Buckingham Palace.

Back in the San Antonio warehouse he plans to transform into Vermeer 2.0, he chats with Philip Steadman, like-minded author of Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces, a book Steadman says caused “great anguish” among historians. It was controversial, he notes, to suggest that Vermeer didn’t just grab a brush and paint what he saw; this “alternate history” challenges the common perception of how an Old Master worked. But technology creeps into every aspect of Jenison’s project, with both uber-modern sophistication (3D computer modeling to make sure the proportions of his “music room” exactly match the original painting) and 1600s flair, as Jenison stares into the humble mirror that allows him to replicate his subject on canvas.

Jenison’s attention to detail is staggering; a montage compresses the 200-plus days spent assembling each piece of the room by hand. When the actual painting finally begins, the movie is two-thirds over — a smart filmmaking choice, since as Jenison, ever the jokester, admits, “This project is a lot like watching paint dry.” In many of these scenes, Jenison films himself laboring over the work’s many tiny, precise details, including individual stitches on a rug.

Slow moments aside, Tim’s Vermeer is otherwise briskly propelled by the insatiable curiosity of the man at its center. Jenison’s finished work offers more proof than any theory ever could about how 17th century artists were able to “paint with light” so realistically, but it avoids concluding that Vermeer was more machine than artist. Instead, it offers a clear challenge to anyone who subscribes to the modern notion that “art and technology should never meet.” Why shouldn’t they, when the end results are so sublime? *

 

TIM’S VERMEER opens Fri/14 in San Francisco.

England made him

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Swinging London had a brief, faddish life in movies in terms of actual representation, far more fleeting than its influences on music or fashion. But the general cultural shift it signaled did bring some lasting changes to English cinema, notably a new kind of leading man — the period’s celebration of youth and dandyism made it OK for men onscreen to be coltish, vulnerable, androgynously attractive. The prime specimen was Michael York, unabashedly pretty and a bit of a toff — certainly no working-class rough like Angry Young Men Albert Finney or Michael Caine.

The Oxford grad joined Olivier’s National Theatre in 1965, getting cast in a production directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who then put him in his filmed hits The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Romeo and Juliet (1968). But it wasn’t until 1972 that he was seen by everyone as the Christopher Isherwood figure in Bob Fosse’s exceptionally sharp Cabaret, the Broadway musical drawn from that author’s fictionalized memoir. Never mind that he (nor Liza Minnelli, for that matter) would never really be a box-office star; as a name, he was made.

York had a good run through the 1970s. He was D’Artagnan in Richard Lester’s Musketeer films (1973 and ’74), the titular tunic-wearer in 1976’s Logan’s Run, among the stars committing Murder on the Orient Express (1974), John the Baptist in Zeffirelli’s 1977 TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, and straight man in both The Last Remake of Beau Geste and the hardly-last Island of Dr. Moreau remake (both 1977).

But the favorite film he’s chosen for his in-person tribute this Saturday at SF’s Mostly British Film Festival is comparatively little-remembered. You could view 1973’s England Made Me as riding the coattails of Cabaret — after all, here he is again as another affable, genteel but cash-poor temporary English émigré to Germany just as the Weimer era is getting tramped by the stormtrooper boots of National Socialism. But the Graham Greene source material (first published in 1935) is strong stuff, intelligently handled by director and co-adaptor Peter Duffell.

York’s Tony Farrant is a pleasant, callow young failure, hopeless at any endeavor that might pay the bills. Having lost yet another job (this time in the Far East), he blows into Berlin to visit Kate (Hildegard Neil), the sister whose queasily inappropriate affections he’s oblivious enough not to have recognized as such, yet. She’s ensconced herself as mistress and second-in-command to Krogh (Peter Finch), international financial titan skating on thin ice amid Hitler’s increasingly nationalistic economic policies.

Once again in need of employment, Tony looks to get fixed up by big sis — in fact, his pleasing, sociable English manners could be quite useful to a man as brilliant yet uneasy with people as Krogh. Then again, his gabby naiveté could also jinx matters much bigger than he grasps. It’s inevitable in Greene’s universe that cruel fate should choose the least guilty party in a web of corrupt intrigue to fall upon, like an anvil from a rooftop.

The role could hardly fall more squarely in York’s comfort zone. Yet it would be a mistake to take the seeming ease with which he delivers Tony’s very easy personality as anything less than very deft work. No wonder it’s a personal favorite — you can sense his engagement in a hundred fresh, surprising, perfectly in-character touches.

After his Seventies peak, York remained busy. But his type began working against him — an ingenue’s worst enemy (even a male one’s) is the onslaught of age — and he didn’t transition as well as some peers to character roles. He slid down the ranks via such odd stints as a short run on Dynasty knockoff Knots Landing and playing Dario Argento’s Phantom of Death in 1988 (the director saving the word “opera” for a later movie). Eventually he was seldom used save to personify old-school Englishness as a joke or fossil, whether visibly (as Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers series) or as a voice actor (as a Transformer, in Star Wars and Batman cartoons, video games, audio books, etc.) In recent years he’s also written several well-received memoirs and lectured extensively on acting Shakespeare.

England Made Me is not the only older film in Mostly British this year, though it’s the only one that comes with a living star in person. No one will be resuscitating the recently decreased Peter O’Toole, memorialized with a screening of 1982’s My Favorite Year; nor will there be any thawing for Richard Burton as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, 1965’s faithfully bleak adaptation of John le Carré’s breakthrough novel. The latter film plays a “British noir night” with Stephen Frears’ bizarre and rather brilliant 1984 The Hit.

Otherwise the focus, as usual, is on new (or new-ish) films from the UK and beyond. Some have already played theatrically here, like Neil Jordan’s middling vampire opus Byzantium (2012), Beatles-related documentary Good Ol’ Freda (2013), and Michael Winterbottom’s biopic about the UK’s sultan of 1960s and ’70s smut, The Look of Love (2013).

Coming soon to theaters — sooner still if you catch them as part of the festival — are director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi’s excellent seriocomedy Le Week-End, as well as Mumbai-set The Lunchbox. Speaking of the colonies, outback thriller Mystery Road and kidnapping drama Last Dance represent Australia.

If you appreciated Will Forte’s turn in Nebraska (2013), it’s worth seeing Run & Jump, in which he’s equally effective as an American doctor whose emotions unfreeze while doing research in Ireland — also the setting for Stay, a drearier piece distinguished by Aidan Quinn’s fine take on the stereotypical Irish rascally charmer. What Richard Did is a quietly intriguing melodrama about middle-class teenagers shaken by the aftermath of a fight outside a house party. Farther down the socioeconomic scale, Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant offers a portrait of children involved in petty crimes that’s as potent as the best of Ken Loach or the Dardennes. *

MOSTLY BRITISH FILM FESTIVAL

Feb. 13-20

Vogue Theatre

3290 Sacramento, SF

www.mostlybritish.org

 

The layout

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SUPER EGO “A man, a plan, a gram: anal canal!” Why some queen just shrieked this quasi-palindrome in my earhole at 5am outside the 7-Eleven — not the Castro one, I have my pride — absolutely no idea. But the poor, bedraggled dear has a point: BE PREPARED.

Next week is the Guardian’s fab annual Goldies issue, a wall-to-wall celebration of up-and-coming artists. And there’s no room in it for your beloved Super Ego (old). So here’s looking ahead to the next hot fortnight’s-worth of shindigs. Of course, the biggest hoot of all will be the Guardian 25th Annual Goldies party (Fri/21, 8-11pm, $10. Folsom Street Foundry, 1425 Folsom, SF.) DJs Primo and Wam Bam Ashleyanne will do a special soul-groove “golden oldies” set — and it’s $10 for all the beer you can drink. Plus, duh, the coolest people. Stick it in your calendar, already.

 

QBERT

Last week’s SFBG cover star, scratch legend Qbert, joins with Dan The Automator, Del The Funky Homosapien, and more local hip-hop/turntable heroes for a wild time, in support of his crowdsource campaign for his new album, Extraterrestria/Galaxxxian (www.djqbert.com).

Thu/13, 9pm, $10 advance. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. wwww.mezzaninesf.com

 

SLOW HANDS

Talk about heartthrobs, yum. This cutie brought major sexy back to dance floors when he slowed tempos down to a crawl and let everyone stretch out. Now he’s all about crooning live and steaming things up with Tom Croose as the Worst Friends duo — also appearing at this As You Like It lovefest.

Fri/14, 10pm-4am, $10–$20. Beatbox, 314 11th St, SF. www.ayli-sf.com

 

JOHN TALABOT

That thing where a DJ is also a magician, creating a whole new psychedelic-ecstatic universe out of common sounds, rearranging how you hear music forever. He’s also Spanish and wears a lot of tinfoil over his face for photos. At the Icee Hot party.

Sat/15, 10pm-4am, $10 advance. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com

 

DISCO DADDY

There is a thing called Bear Weekend with a long and dramatic history (let’s not get into it) — and here’s this year’s fun-furry climax: DJ Bus Station John turns the Eagle leather biker bar into a glorious old school gay disco evening t-dance. Bring your own chic towel, but no Schick razors, please. “Endorsed by the Tamale Lady,” fyi.

Sun/16, 7pm-midnight, $5. SF Eagle, 398 12th St, SF. www.sf-eagle.com

 

HONEY SOUNSYSTEM PRESIDENTS EVE

Celebrate the presidents with Honey’s lovely residents: P-Play, Kendig, Josh Cheon, and Robot Hustle give the cute queer boys, girls, and others steamy techno all night long. (Hot straight people also eligible.)

Sun/23,10pm-4am, $10 advance. Beatbox, 314 11th St, SF. www.beatboxsf.com

 

GILLES PETERSON

“Rare groove” would be nothing without this absolutely incredible, omnivorous DJ. And neither would Diplo. Experience a Whole Earth Catalog of sounds in his mindblowing sets. I love him.

Fri/21, 10pm-3am, $20. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.mighty119.com

 

CARL CRAIG + FRANCOIS K

If you know anything about dance music, you have probably just wet yourself. If not, let’s be clear: One of Detroit techno’s most poetic innovators and one of the best disco, house, and dub producers of all time will be on the decks, as part of Red Bull Music Academy Bass Camp 2014.

Sat/22, 9:30pm-3:30am, $15–$20. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com

 

KEVIN SAUNDERSON

Happy eighth birthday to the Lights Down Low party. And happier birthday to us dancers! LDL’s bringing in this true legend, basically one of three guys who invented techno — from Detroit, duh — and changed the world forever.

Sat/22, 9pm-3am, $15–$20. Monarch, 101 Sixth St, SF. www.monarchsf.com

 

PUT ON THE BREAKS

I’ve been wondering when this would happen. A breakbeat revival has been hitting the underground rave and techno connoisseur scene for a couple years. Now there’s an official dedicated party. Noice. With Kapt N Kirk, Tamo, Nerd Nate, and more.

Sat/22, 10pm-3am, free before midnight (RSVP at www.mighty119.com). Mighty, 119 Utah, SF.

 

HONEY DIJON

Beloved and classic DJ Nikita is headed off to London. But first he’s counting down eight monthly London Calling parties with incredible special guests, like NYC banging house royalty Honey Dijon and Tedd Patterson.

Sun/23, 2pm-2am, $10 advance. Audio, 316 11th St, SF. www.audiosf.com

 

Charting the flow

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arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Though I missed the beginning of Aszure Barton’s gently appealing Awáa — I have trouble with 7:30pm curtains — it was easy to be drawn into her fluidly changing world, in which invisible currents propelled dancers to either give into or work against them. It’s an intimate work, rich with evocative details, fabulously danced by six men and Lara Barclay. Much appreciated were Barton’s touches of humor, but after a time I longed for a stronger underpinning for all this danced lushness.

In Awáa, water is an element that gives life to the planet — but also, in the form of the female of the species, births its inhabitants. You see primitive creatures slithering at the bottom of the sea, and a minute later a human face stares at you from inside a “womb.” Most ingeniously Barton shows water as a force that affects and shapes the body much the way wind alters vegetation.

Burke Brown’s ingenious lighting and stage design place the dancers in semidarkness, where visibility often is poor yet periodically penetrated by a beam of light. In a gorgeous sunlit solo, William Briscoe has rivulets of movement run through his impressively sculptured torso until he reaches for what could be a tear, plays with it, and gently lets it go.

Awáa also seemed to explore self-definition within an unstable environment. Some of the most intriguing dancing took place close to the floor. Something pulled dancers to the bottom where they let go of each other and appeared to melt back into the earth. Upright, they tried to find balance, were yanked sideways, or sucked into deep pliés. Their knees gave out, and they scooted on their bottoms like babies not yet able to walk. The finely boned Thomas House tried to dive upward; others buoyantly walked on the tips of their toes like would-be ballerinas in a pool.

Unisons provided a sense of stability. A body-slapping Africanist trio swelled and waned. A circle of stretching arms suggested prayer until gravity pulled the torsos backward.

In perhaps Awáa‘s most intricate segment, a separation duet, Barclay and Tobin Del Cuore crawled over each other, desperately trying to stay together. As the eternal mother she had a lot of hugging, carrying, and embracing to do. But Barton’s lightened the concept with a hilarious centipede’s procession of progressively advanced pregnancies. In a tit-for-tat comedy act Barclay asserted herself over two obstreperous “toddlers,” who scooted on their toes like windup toys. Grown up, they grabbed, threw, and dragged her to their hearts content.

 

CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE

At the Garage, fertile ground for much new dance, Hilary Palanza showed Close, a fascinating, well-performed collection of six multiple-choice choreographies. Included were duets, a solo, and two quartets. Before intermission, the pieces — some of them quite short but very different from each other — were performed in silence. After each one, the audience chose what kind of version of this work they would like to see again.

Watching a dance, you always wonder about what you are seeing. What’s happening? Where is this going? How do these people relate to each other? These questions become particularly acute when no helpful clues such as costumes, set, music, lighting are provided.

In this program, intermission was tallying time after which the “winners” returned. What we saw was exactly the same choreography performed to music, indirectly chosen by the audience. Music has this wonderful ability to stand on its own against (or if you like, in conjunction with) dance. The simple idea of adding sound to movement illuminated what we had seen before in sometimes quite unexpected ways.

In two duets, its partners revolving back-to-back, one of the dancers got ceremoniously stripped of layers of clothing while the other tried to put them back on. It could have been foreplay, an act of aggression, or mechanical dolls gone awry. The exuberant marching band score with its regular beat turned the whole thing into a comedy act.

In her solo, a black-clad Angela Mazziotta looked like a widow in mourning who finally had to step away. The sound score of a rainstorm didn’t counteract the dancer’s inner turmoil, but added a potent metaphor that enhanced the choreography.

Not everything worked as well. Two different kinds of athleticisms by Eric Garcia and Colin Epstein elicited a fairly predictable stadium crowd’s cheering. But what if the audience’s choice instead of “athletic” had been “religious, intense” or “outer space, heady?”

Perhaps the most illuminating was a mysterious duet between the eclectically trained Garcia and the ballet-modern dancer Nina Saraceno. She would walk away from him but yet pursue him. What was going on? Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” had one answer. Instead of “honest” we could have chosen “airy, ethereal.” Also performing were Caitlin Hafer and Barb Lankamp. Close will be part of Summer Performance Festival 7, July 16-20 at ODC Theater — perhaps looking and sounding quite differently. *

 

Staying power

68

rebecca@sfbg.com

Despite the rain on Feb. 8, organizers of a citywide tenants’ convention at San Francisco’s Tenderloin Elementary School wound up having to turn people away at the door. The meeting was filled to capacity, even though it had been moved at the last minute to accommodate a larger crowd than initially anticipated.

“Oh. My. God. Look at how many of you there are!” organizer Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee, called out as she greeted the hundreds in attendance. “Tenants in San Francisco, presente!”

The multiracial crowd was representative of neighborhoods from across the city, from elderly folks with canes to parents with small children in tow. Translators had been brought in to accommodate Chinese and Spanish-speaking participants.

Six members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors also made an appearance: Sups. John Avalos, David Campos, Eric Mar, Malia Cohen, Jane Kim, and Board President David Chiu.

In recent weeks, the convention organizers had convened a series of smaller neighborhood gatherings to solicit ideas for new policy measures to stem the tide of evictions and displacement, a problem that has steadily risen to the level of the defining issue of our times in San Francisco.

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Ana Godina, an organizer with the SEIU, went to the convention with her daughter Ella, 5. Godina drove from Sacramento to support her colleagues. Three of her fellow union members have been evicted recently, all of them Tenderloin and Mission residents. Guardian photo by Amanda Rhoades

While several legislative proposals are on track to move forward at the Board of Supervisors, the meetings were called to directly involve impacted communities and give them an opportunity to shape the legislative agenda on their own terms, according to various organizers.

Addressing the crowd, Shortt recalled what she termed “some amazing jiu jitsu” during last year’s tenant campaigns, which resulted in a 10-year moratorium on condo conversions rather than simply allowing a mass bypass of the condo lottery, as originally proposed.

That measure, which won approval at the Board of Supervisors last June, was designed to discourage real estate speculators from evicting tenants to convert buildings to tenancies-in-common, a shared housing arrangement that’s often a precursor to converting rent-controlled apartments into condos.

That effort brought together the founding members of the Anti Displacement Coalition, and momentum has been building ever since. “This is the beginning of a movement today,” Gen Fujioka of the Chinatown Community Development Center, one of the key organizations involved, told the gathering. “We are shaking things up in our city.”

 

MAINTAINING DIVERSITY

Around 160 participants attended the first in a series of neighborhood tenant conventions in the Castro on Jan. 10. The one in the Richmond a week later drew so many participants that organizers had to turn people away to appease the fire marshal.

“The idea of the neighborhood conventions was to solicit ideas,” explained Ted Gullicksen, head of the San Francisco Tenants Union. “The idea of this event is to review existing ideas and ultimately rank them.” From there, the campaign will pursue a ballot initiative or legislative approval at the Board of Supervisors.

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Ted Gullicksen, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, and his dog Falcor. Guardian photo by Amanda Rhoades

But first, a few speakers shared their stories. Gum Gee Lee spoke about being evicted from her Chinatown apartment last year along with her husband and disabled adult daughter, an event that touched off a media frenzy about the affordable housing crisis taking root in San Francisco.

“There were times that were very stressful for me. I would call places only for the owner to say, ‘I’ll get back to you,’ but they never did,” she said of that ordeal.

“To see everyone here, all kinds of people, it makes me really happy,” she later told the Bay Guardian through a translator. “I just hope they don’t get evicted.”

Mike Casey, president of UNITE-HERE Local 2 and an executive committee member of the San Francisco Labor Council, also made a few comments at the forum.

“Having the ability to live and vote in this city makes a difference,” he pointed out, saying workers who have to commute long distances for political actions because they’ve been displaced from San Francisco are less likely to get involved.

“The struggle of our time is the widening gap between the rich and the poor,” Casey added. “That is exactly what this struggle is about: to maintain that diversity. What we need to move forward on is bold, effective, measurable change that makes sure we are able to protect the fabric of this community.”

Maria Zamudio, an organizer with Causa Justa/Just Cause, emphasized the idea that the problem of evictions in San Francisco is less of a market-based problem and more of a threat to the city’s existing, interwoven communities.

“Those are our neighborhoods and our communities,” Zamudio said. “We’re fighting for the heart of San Francisco. Fighting for strong tenant protections is a necessary struggle if we are going to keep working class San Franciscans in their homes.”

 

ELLIS ACT UNDER FIRE

As Gullicksen noted at the start of the convention, San Francisco rents have ballooned in recent years, rising 72 percent since 2011.

“We are seeing the most evictions we have seen in a long, long, long, long time,” Gullicksen said. “Most Ellis evictions are being done by one of 12 real estate speculators — evicting us and selling our apartments, mostly to the tech workers.”

Even though median market-rate rents now hover at around $3,400 per month in San Francisco, low-income tenants can avoid being frozen out by sudden rental spikes because rent-control laws limit the amount rents may be increased annually.

But that protection only applies to a finite number of rental units, those built before 1979. That’s why tenant advocates speak of the city’s “rent-controlled housing stock” as a precious resource in decline. Long-term tenants with rent control — in the worst cases, elderly or disabled residents who might be homeless if not for the low rent — are often the ones on the receiving end of eviction notices.

From 2012 to 2013, according to data compiled by the Anti Eviction Mapping Project, the use of the Ellis Act increased 175 percent in comparison with the previous year. That law allows landlords to evict tenants even if they’ve never violated lease terms. Advocates say real estate speculators frequently abuse Ellis by buying up properties and immediately clearing all tenants.

Concurrently with local efforts agitating for new renter protections, organizers from throughout California are pushing to reform the Ellis Act in Sacramento.

Assemblymember Tom Ammiano has promised to introduce a proposal by the Feb. 21 deadline for submitting new legislation, and Sen. Mark Leno is working in tandem with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee on a parallel track to pursue some legislative tweaks aimed at softening the blow from the Ellis Act.

“Our goal is to change the conversation in Sacramento, where tenants’ concerns are routinely ignored,” said Dean Preston, director of Tenants Together, a statewide organization based in San Francisco.

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Those who didn’t speak English were given head sets so they could listen to each of the speakers comments, which were translated into either Spanish or Chinese. Guardian photo by Amanda Rhoades

On Feb. 18, busloads of protesters will caravan to Sacramento from San Francisco, Oakland, and Fresno for a rally. Preston said they’ve got three demands: reform the Ellis Act, restore a $191 million fund that provides financial assistance for low-income and senior renters, and pass Senate Bill 391, which would provide new funding for the construction of affordable housing.

Even though the law is technically intended to allow property owners to “go out of the business” of being a landlord, Ellis Act evictions in San Francisco are most often carried out by speculators who purchase real estate already occupied by tenants, Gullicksen said.

“Our focus is on the most immediate problem, which is the misuse of the Ellis Act by real estate speculators,” Preston said. “It’s urgent to address that specific use. That’s what Ammiano and Leno are looking at, is ‘what’s the best way to stop speculative use?'”

 

LOCAL POLICY CHANGES SOUGHT

Tyler McMillan of the Eviction Defense Collaborative said his group is often the last resort for tenants threatened with the loss of their rental units. “Too often, we face a losing fight at court,” he said. “We need to write better laws that work better to keep people in their homes.”

The legislative proposals moving forward at the local level seek to attack the problem of evictions and displacement from several angles. On Feb. 3, Sup. David Campos introduced legislation to require landlords who invoke the Ellis Act to pay a higher relocation fee to displaced tenants, equaling two years’ worth of the difference between the tenants’ rent and what would have been considered market rate for that same unit.

“It is time that we recognize that tenants must receive assistance that is commensurate with market increases in rent if we are to truly address our affordability crisis and check the rampant growth of Ellis Act evictions,” Campos said.

As things stand, relocation assistance payments are around $5,261 per tenant, and are capped at $15,783 per unit, with higher payments required for elderly or disabled tenants. But at current market rates, a tenant would not last more than a few months in the city relying solely on the relocation fee to cover rental payments.

Surveying the strong turnout at the tenant convention, Campos said, “There is a movement that’s happening in San Francisco to take our city back, and to make it affordable for all of us.” Yet he noted that he is concerned there will be major pushback from the San Francisco Apartment Association and the real estate industry, formidable interests that oppose the relocation fee increase.

Meanwhile, Sup. Mar has proposed an ordinance that would require the city to track the conversion of rental units to tenancies-in-common, a housing arrangement where multiple parties own shares of a building through a common mortgage. Speculators who buy up properties and immediately evict under the Ellis Act often angle for windfall profits by immediately converting those units to TICs.

Campos is also working on legislation that would regulate landlords’ practice of offering tenants a buyout in lieu of an eviction, a trend advocates say has resulted in far greater displacement than Ellis Act evictions without the same kind of public transparency.

Peter Cohen of the Council on Community Housing Organizations said there’s “no silver bullet” to remedy San Francisco’s affordable housing crisis. “This process is going to come up with another bundle of things,” he said. “All of that is also complimentary to the state campaign. You could have five, six, or seven policy measures going forward — and all of them winnable.”

An idea Cohen said has received traction is the idea of imposing an anti-speculation tax to discourage real estate brokers who abuse the Ellis Act by buying up properties and evicting all tenants soon thereafter (see “Seeking solutions,” for details).

During a breakout session at the tenant convention, longtime LGBT activist Cleve Jones piped up to say, “Harvey Milk proposed the anti-speculation tax back in 1979.”

It wasn’t successful at that time, but Cohen said that given the current level of concern about housing in San Francisco, it’s being talked about in some circles as the most winnable ballot initiative idea.

 

TENANTS FIGHTING BACK

At the Feb. 8 convention, tenants shared stories of challenging orders to vacate their rental properties. “The most important thing that has brought us to the victories we’ve had so far is that tenants have stayed in their homes,” Shortt said. “Tenants have fought, tenants have sought help, tenants have organized.”

Tenants from a North Beach building owned by real estate broker Urban Green shared their story of banding together and successfully challenging an Ellis Act eviction. Chandra Redack, a nine-year resident of 1049 Market St., where tenants continue battling with owners who submitted eviction notices last fall, described to the Bay Guardian how her small group of tenants has continued to organize in the face of ongoing pressure, including the owners’ recent refusal to accept rent checks.

“Our organizations only can support tenants when they stand up and fight,” said Fujioka. “The tenants’ resistance themselves is part of the strategy. If we don’t have rights, we are going to create them.”

Paula Tejeda, a longtime resident of the Mission District originally from Chile, told the Bay Guardian that she’d been threatened with an eviction from her home of 17 years, a Victorian flat on San Carlos Street.

“I thought I was dealing with an Ellis Act, now he’s trying his best for a buyout,” she explained.

Living in that rent-controlled unit made it financially feasible for her to contribute to the Mission community as a small business owner, as well as a poet, author, and active member of the arts community, she said. Tejeda is the proprietor of Chile Lindo, an empanada shop at 16th and Van Ness streets.

“Having the rent control made it possible for me to build Chile Lindo, go back to college and get my MBA,” she said. That in turn gave her the resources to employ one full-time and three part-time staff members, she said.

When she was initially faced with the prospect of moving out, “I wanted to shut down and leave, and go back to Chile,” she said. “We are suffocated, as a society that cares only about the bottom line.”

But surveying the hordes of tenants milling about at the convention, she seemed a bit more optimistic. “The fact that this is happening to everyone at the same time,” she reflected, “is kind of like a mixed blessing.”

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Free lunch, had some vegan options. Guardian photo by Amanda Rhoades

Seeking solutions

A number of policy ideas emerged from the neighborhood tenant conventions, which were held by the San Francisco Anti Displacement Coalition in the Mission, Chinatown, Haight/Richmond, Castro, SoMa, and the Tenderloin.

Here’s a list of what tenants came up with at those forums, which attendees ranked in ballots collected at the event. The ideas will most likely result in a November ballot initiative and one or more legislative proposals, which organizers plan to announce in the near future.

Anti-speculation tax: One idea is to impose a tax on windfall profits garnered by speculators who buy up housing and then sell it off without maintaining ownership for at least six years. The tax would be structured in such a way that the quicker the “flip,” the higher the tax. This would require voter approval.

Eviction moratorium: This proposal is to put a yearlong freeze on certain kinds of “no-fault evictions,” instances where a tenant is ousted regardless of compliance with lease terms. State law would prohibit it from applying to Ellis Act evictions. It might potentially require voter approval.

Department of Rent Control Enforcement and Compliance: This new department, which could be done by local legislation, would create a new city department with the mission and mandate to enforce existing tenant-protection laws and conduct research on eviction trends.

Relocation assistance: While Sup. David Campos is working on legislation to upgrade relocation assistance payments to displaced tenants who face eviction under the Ellis Act, this proposal would do the same for all other forms of “no-fault” evictions. This would require voter approval.

“Excessive rents” tax: While the Costa-Hawkins state law does not allow for cities to control rents in vacant units, this proposal would create a tax on new rental agreements where rents exceed an affordability threshold.

Housing balance requirement: This proposal would make it so that approval of new market-rate housing would be restricted based on whether affordable housing goals were being met. It would create new incentives to build affordable.

Legalize illegal units: This would provide a way to legalize the city’s “illegal” housing units that nevertheless provide a safe and decent source of affordable housing. (Board President David Chiu has already introduced a version of this proposal.)

Sugar fix

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A resolution to place a sugary beverage tax on the November ballot was introduced at the Feb. 4 Board of Supervisors meeting.

The two-cents-per-ounce tax would be levied at the point of distribution, with the ultimate goal of reducing the consumption of sodas and other sugary drinks to combat obesity in San Francisco. The tax, sponsored by Supervisors Scott Wiener, Eric Mar, Malia Cohen, John Avalos, and David Chiu, is similar to a resolution made two years ago in Richmond.

But Richmond voters ultimately voted it down by 66 percent, so how’s San Francisco any different?

In 2012, the American Beverage Association hired Chuck Finnie of San Francisco public relations group BMWL and Partners. The association funded the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, which reached out to Latino communities and others, saying it was a tax on the poor.

Now Finnie is back as spokesperson for Stop Unfair Beverage Taxes — Coalition for an Affordable City, here in San Francisco.

“It’s a shallow argument, that it’s a regressive tax on poor people,” said Cohen, a sponsor of the ordinance. “What is it costing poor people? Literally it’s costing them their lives.”

Jeff Ritterman, a cardiologist and former Richmond City Council member, was a lead proponent of the Measure N campaign in 2012. He’s another actor from that campaign who’s back now too, helping the supervisors craft their new strategy.

Last time around they were outspent, Ritterman admits. But campaign money is only one way San Francisco is taking a different tack in the upcoming sugar battle.

The supervisors are also proposing to dedicate the estimated $30 million in revenue that the tax will generate to a specific purpose. The funding would be divided between the SFUSD, the Department of Public Health, and the Recreation and Park Department for a mix of outdoor activities and nutrition education. In contrast, Measure N left allocation of new funding open-ended.

In Richmond, “they told people on the telephone I’d use it for trips around the world. It got as crazy as that,” Ritterman said. “You get more support when you show you’ll use it for children’s health and physical activity.”

Since the use of tax funds collected was a major concern for Finnie’s group last time around, now that it’s been addressed he should be happy, right?

“No,” Finnie told the Guardian, flatly. “We disagree that singling out sugar sweetened beverages for special taxation has any merit whatsoever.” 

Students suffer from ‘invisible suspensions’

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At the Board of Education meeting on Feb. 4, students rallied against suspensions they see as unfair. Advocates negotiated rule changes. San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education commissioners shook their fists at injustice.

The uproar concerned “willful defiance” suspensions, cited nationwide as problematic because of their subjective nature. Wearing a backwards cap, having a bad day, talking back, all fall under the umbrella of willful defiance.

The suspension ban is monumental, SFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza told the board.

But new data shows that a different form of punishment, which was previously unrecorded, may cause almost as much harm.

Ever been sent to the principal’s office? That’s known as a referral, and in California it’s enshrined in state education code. Students can be sent to a counselor, principal, or even another classroom. But President Sandra Lee Fewer said the numbers of referrals are getting out of hand, and must be addressed.

Fewer amended the controversial resolution to ban suspensions, calling for it to also require a reduction of in-school referrals.

The punishment, she said, deprives students of needed classroom time — and is ineffective.

“We can’t pass a resolution like this without including referrals,” Fewer said. “These are in the thousands. Some schools have three times the amount of black children with referrals.”

She called them “invisible suspensions,” because this school year is the first time they’ve been thoroughly tracked, thanks to a new system called the Counselor Online Referral Form.

The new data shows thousands of middle school students (high school data is still being collected), mostly black and Latino, were sent out of the classroom for “non-compliance” referrals since the last school semester alone. “Non-compliance” referrals are nebulous, advocates allege, a subjective catch-all category for bad behavior. 

Fight for higher minimum wage resumes

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An event at the San Francisco Women’s Building on Feb. 6 marked the 10-year anniversary of San Francisco’s minimum wage ordinance, passed by voters in 2003 with Proposition L. The landmark initiative not only raised the minimum wage in San Francisco to $8.50 per hour, but stipulated that the amount would rise every year to reflect inflation. Thanks to Prop. L, San Francisco now boasts the highest minimum wage in the nation, at $10.74.

But in pricey San Francisco, it still isn’t enough.

“Who thinks living in San Francisco is really expensive?” asked one of the event organizers and staff member of the Chinese Progressive Association, Shaw San Liu. All hands in the room shot up before the Spanish and Mandarin translators even had a chance to repeat the question.

Raising the minimum wage in San Francisco has been a hot topic recently, and Mayor Ed Lee even endorsed a significant increase back in December. While a wage of $15 per hour has been floated, nothing has been set in stone.

In addition to celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the minimum wage ordinance, Thursday’s event was also the official launch of the Campaign for a Fair Economy, a push to support the city’s lowest-paid workers and close the ever-growing wealth gap.

Raising the minimum wage is only part of the campaign, and advocates are also fighting for accountability from large chain businesses, stricter enforcement of existing labor standards, and expanding access to jobs for disadvantaged workers.

“San Francisco has led the way for employment policies in the past,” said Kung Feng, lead organizer for Jobs With Justice, which is helping to lead the campaign. “We need to continue that.”

Despite San Francisco’s long legacy of championing workers’ rights, there is still a tough battle ahead. Currently, the minimum wage in the city automatically goes up every year to match inflation (on Jan. 1, 2014, it rose from $10.55 to $10.74). Any further increase requires voter approval.

While it seems a higher minimum wage does have strong support and has already been endorsed by major political figures, there’s still a powerful lobby against it from some businesses and restaurant associations.

Granny slap

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Lisa Gray-Garcia, aka “Tiny,” led a press conference outside the San Francisco Hall of Justice on Feb. 5 to announce that she and fellow activists were filing elder abuse charges against San Francisco landlords.

Flanked by activists and senior citizens who were facing eviction or had lost housing in San Francisco, the Poor News Network founder condemned landlords who’ve invoked the Ellis Act as “dangerous criminals.”

Gray-Garcia said criminal charges were being filed against the landlords in accordance with California Penal Code 368, which creates a special category for crimes — such as infliction of pain, injury, or endangerment — committed against elders and dependent adults.

The theory is that carrying out an Ellis Act eviction against a senior citizen qualifies as a criminal act under that law, since an elder can suffer physical harm as a result of being turned out of his or her home.

“Seniors who live in houses that they’ve lived in for a really long time are being evicted,” said Erin McElroy, who joined the rally. “That could mean homelessness, that could mean poverty, that could mean death, that could mean losing your access to health care.”

“The real criminals are the ones who use paper, and money, and lawyers to evict us,” Gray-Garcia said. “We at POOR Magazine get five to 10 calls a week from elders — 70, 80, 90 years old — at the point where they’re actually going to be evicted,” she added. “In the elder abuse law, if you willfully or unwillfully cause harm or inflict harm on a body of an elder, you actually can do one year jail time or pay a $6,000 fine.”

The targeted landlords were taken from a list compiled by the San Francisco Anti Eviction Mapping Project, a volunteer-led group that published names, property ownership, and identifying information of 12 landlords who had repeatedly invoked the Ellis Act in San Francisco. Garcia read out their names as part of the press event.

Beyond that, however, the announcement was short on specifics. Gray-Garcia told the Bay Guardian she did not want to share the names of the affected seniors because she did not feel comfortable exposing the elderly tenants to potential backlash.

Joining the group of activists was an 82-year-old woman who used a walker and declined to share her name. She told the Bay Guardian she had lived in her Richmond District flat for more than 30 years, and had recently received a verbal warning from her landlord that if she did not move out, he would invoke the Ellis Act.

When Gray-Garcia and others filed into the San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon’s office inside the Hall of Justice, however, Chief Assistant of Operations Sharon Woo discouraged them from filing the charges.

“We don’t actually initiate investigations,” Woo told the activists, but when attorney Anthony Prince, who had accompanied the activists, pushed back on that point, she responded, “We could, potentially.”

However, she urged them to first “go to the normal channels, which is a law enforcement investigation,” then scheduled a follow-up meeting at a later date to discuss the issue further. She discouraged the activists from bringing a large group to the meeting. “There’s a 98-year-old woman being forced out of her home in April and she has nowhere to go,” McElroy told Woo during that interaction. “And we’re filing criminal charges against the people who are forcing her out.”

Farewell to an ally and union brother

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Pete Seeger played a critical role for labor and all working people. As a labor troubadour, he traveled the world singing out for labor. That is why he came to ILWU [International Longshore and Warehouse Union] Local 10 in the Bay Area in 1941. The US government had tried four times to deport Harry Bridges, the Australian-born leader of the ILWU, in an effort to destroy the union. Together, Seeger and Woody Guthrie sang out to the union’s rank and file strike committee a song called a “Ballad To Harry Bridges.”

The government was unsuccessful in its efforts to deport Bridges, but unfortunately most of the left unions like the Marine Cooks and Stewards were eventually destroyed by the hysterical witch-hunts launched by the government — some with the active support of not only bosses but some union officials. Regardless, affiliations and actions like Seeger’s 1941 appearance in San Francisco were the reason Seeger was brought before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1955, and eventually sentenced to two years in prison. From the HUAC transcript:

Mr. Tavenner: The Committee has information obtained in part from the Daily Worker indicating that, over a period of time, especially since December of 1945, you took part in numerous entertainment features. I have before me a photo static copy of the June 20, 1947, issue of the Daily Worker. In a column entitled “What’s On” appears this advertisement: “Tonight — Bronx, hear Peter Seeger and his guitar, at Allerton Section housewarming.” May I ask you whether or not the Allerton Section was a section of the Communist Party?

Mr. Seeger: Sir, I refuse to answer that question, whether it was a quote from the New York Times or the Vegetarian Journal.

Seeger was accused of singing for functions of the Communist party, and for McCarthy and company, this was a deadly crime. Seeger also fought for integration, and against the segregated workplace, in conjunction with the left-wing unions — like the Marine Cooks and Stewards and even the Painter’s Local 4 in San Francisco, led by Dow Wilson — that were fighting segregation. Ships in the port of San Francisco were prevented by the members of the Marine Cooks and Stewards from sailing until their crews were integrated. This direct action of workers on the waterfront was a very real threat to big business, which wanted to destroy labor power and continue segregation as a tool of the bosses.

ILWU longshore leader Bridges also won the support of the black community by promising them that if they supported the strike, they would get union jobs on the waterfront, and he kept his word; today, ILWU 10 still has a large percentage of African Americans. Racism, as Seeger knew, played a virulent role in US history, and his songs were a powerful cultural counterpoint to the reigning ideology and racism of the time.

This is why he was prevented from going on national television during the blacklist period after the Communist witch-hunts. The corporate-controlled media in the United States had an ax to grind, and keeping Seeger, Paul Robeson, and other singers and intellectuals like Noam Chomsky off the airwaves is something that continues today. It is not surprising that in many network TV depictions of Seeger’s life, they conspicuously fail to point out that these same networks banned his voice from the airwaves for decades. Of course the power of Pete Seeger, his songs, music, and personal magnetism could not be banned, and they broke through despite the government and corporate efforts.

Working people of San Francisco, the Bay Area, and the world have lost a great ally and union brother, but his words will ring out for eons.

This coming year’s LaborFest will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the San Francisco General Strike, bringing this history and culture back for the working people today who face similar attacks on their rights to a union, decent health and safety conditions, and a future for themselves and their families.

Steve Zeltzer is the host of KPFA WorkWeek Radio and a member of the LaborFest organizing committee.

Higher wages and tenants’ rights, for the win

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As we document in this week’s cover story, a citywide coalition has sprung up to fight for tenants’ rights in the face of mounting evictions and soaring rents, and momentum on this issue is steadily growing.

But that isn’t the only sign of a newly invigorated movement that’s beginning to count its victories and advance forward on behalf of tenants, workers, and thousands of San Franciscans who are less focused on turning a quick profit and more concerned with bringing about positive change. Last week brought several high notes on this front.

Citywide legislation that will limit discriminatory practices by employers and housing providers by reforming background check policies won initial approval at the Feb. 4 San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting.

Introduced by Sup. Jane Kim, the Fair Chance Act is part of a “ban the box” movement, backed by local grassroots organizations that came together to champion the rights of individuals who’ve encountered barriers to improving their lives due to past convictions that have left them with a permanent stigma.

At the meeting, Kim mentioned a woman who’d been told she “need not apply” for a job working as a cook — because of a simple shoplifting conviction from when she was in high school. The ordinance will require certain employers and housing providers to refrain from criminal history checks until after an initial job interview, and would make certain kinds of information off-limits, such as arrests that never resulted in a conviction.

Meanwhile, an initiative to curb height limits on waterfront development amassed enough signatures last week to qualify for the June ballot. That effort grew out of a successful referendum last November against the 8 Washington project, a key pushback where San Francisco voters rejected luxury condominiums at the ballot.

The Chinese Progressive Association and Jobs With Justice held a celebration last week to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the passage of the city’s minimum wage ordinance.

While it remains the highest in the nation, San Francisco’s 2014 minimum wage of $10.74 an hour still isn’t enough to make ends meet, so allies of low-wage workers are launching the Campaign for a Fair Economy to push for a higher minimum wage at the ballot and to implement a higher wage standard for major retailers and chain stores.

There remains much to rail against, to be sure. A Craigslist ad for a $10,500-per-month two-bedroom apartment in the Mission generated a barrage of angry commentary from those who read it as doomsday for the historically Latino area, especially since the tone-deaf author used the word caliente to describe the neighborhood.

But the start of 2014 has already delivered some promising victories for progressives, and many have their sights set on even greater horizons.