THE WEEKNIGHTERWeekends are for amateurs. Weeknights are for pros. That’s why each week Broke-Ass Stuart (www.brokeassstuart.com) will be exploring a different San Francisco bar, bringing you stories about the places and people who make San Francisco one of the most phenomenal cities in the world. Who wants a drink?
I used to hang out at the Noc Noc (557 Haight Street, SF. 415-861-5811) for too many hours in a row just so I could make out with the bartender after she got off work. She’d feed me bottles of powerful sake and I’d sit around bullshitting with the half dozen or so other dudes who’d come by with hopes of getting in her pants.
“This might be the night,” I imagined them telling themselves each evening on the walk over; it was the same thing regulars patrons of hot bartenders have been telling themselves since the day hot bartenders were invented.
I’d convinced myself I wasn’t one of them, since it was me that she made out with after her shift, but more often than not she’d get off and we’d cross Haight Streeet to Molotov’s so I could watch her play pool with all the dudes who hung around fawning over her at the bar. I’m not a competitive person and even more so, hate being forced into vying for someone’s attention, so I got tired of the scene fairly quickly and stopped doing it. Still, she was a really good kisser.
I spent a lot of time at the Noc Noc in my youth though. Many years ago I dated a USF girl who was under 21 and we’d go there because she and her friends could get in. They never carded back in those days (don’t worry ABC, they do now) and we’d sit on the Beetlejuice looking chairs, amongst the psychedelic cave paintings and the black lights, drinking sake and beer. I’d tell those naïve USF kids wild stories about what it was like to be over 21 even though I was just barely so, but it was good enough to impress them and my girlfriend and I would make out and be in love up and down Haight Street. Other people would see us and feel sick or jealous or both. She was also a really good kisser.
The name Noc Noc derives from Nocturnal Nocturne. When Ernest Takai opened the Lower Haight joint in 1986 it was the “first place to play industrial, ambient, dance, acid jazz in San Francisco” or so the website tells me. I didn’t know any of this stuff until right now when I went to the Noc Noc’s website. Anytime I’d ever asked anyone at the bar why the place looked so fucking perfectly unusual I got a bunch of drunk stories that basically amounted to “some crazy ass Japanese dude opened the place and I think he was an artist and liked music or something,” which was good enough for me.
Vagueness makes a bar story good and allows room for mystery, which is something the world is sorely lacking these days. When you can answer any question that’s ever been asked, simply by Googling it, mystery becomes the first casualty of too much information.
One of my favorite Joni Mitchell lines is, “Everything comes and goes, marked by lovers and styles of clothes.” And like always, Joni is right. We keep track of who we were back when, by remembering the people we dated and the silly shit we wore. But the same goes for the places we hung out in. The Noc Noc opened in 1986 and its dark corners and dark beats have been a cornerstone for kissing San Franciscans ever since. Making out with someone is one of the last bits of mystery left in the world. You have no idea where that path will lead but the initial excitement it makes you feel is worth all the Googleable knowledge in the world. Google is a lot of things, but it will never be a really good kisser.
Stuart Schuffman aka Broke-Ass Stuart is a travel writer, poet, and TV host. You can find his online shenanigans at www.brokeassstuart.com
THEATER How we hear — or if we hear — is to some extent a matter of association. We’re inclined to listen to, take seriously, and treat as equal those people with whom we identify and can sympathize, people who seem to share basic things, including certain values, with us. Such is the implication (and provocation) in English playwright Nina Raine’s engaging drama, Tribes, which roots itself in an eccentric London family — one of whose members is deaf — in order to explore wider social questions of affiliation and communication, exclusion and indifference. The play in this way takes on literal and metaphorical deafness, exploring clan-like thinking and behavior in and through the politics of the deaf community.
The serious questions at the heart of the play, however, come agreeably packaged in a very loud and amusing family of cantankerous extraverts headed by a former scholar turned author named Christopher (a gruffly and charmingly expansive Paul Whitworth) and his wife, a novice novelist named Beth (a cheerful yet concerned Anita Carey, in an admirably supple performance). The household has recently expanded to former proportions with the return of grown 20-something children Sylvia (Nell Geisslinger) and Daniel (Dan Clegg), who rejoin their grown and deaf brother, Billy (a sympathetic, impressively complex James Caverly), around the family’s book-lined living room (in Todd Rosenthal’s detailed, naturalistic scenic design, which transforms when necessary into offsite locations or inner spaces via Christopher Akerlind’s mutable lighting and Jake Rodriguez’s evocative sound design).
We meet this dysfunctional, codependent set of oddball overachievers and outcasts around the long table to the left of center stage, where they engage in clearly quotidian bouts of whining and dining. “Why am I surrounded by my children again,” wonders Christopher rhetorically. “When are you going to fuck off?”
Playwright Raine has an ear for the kinds of cruel jabs, off-color remarks, and outrageous propositions that, it seems, only a family can indulge in (let along get away with) without so much as a tremor of trepidation or regret. In this smarty secular Jewish household, that sniping is especially vituperative, colorfully earthy (especially in Dad’s frequent bon mots), and colored over by an intellectual hue: Christopher’s pet theme is the rootedness of feeling and personality in language. Daniel, plagued by a damning superego that has produced condemnatory voices in his head, is writing a thesis more or less arguing the opposite — that language does not determine meaning. His socially awkward sister, meanwhile, has taken up the pursuit of music (where feeling transcends language), singing opera in pubs. Moreover, despite their constant assailing of one another, there’s a collective pride undergirding it all — a satisfied sense of the family’s own positive difference from the rest of the (alternatingly intimidating and pitiable) world.
But, notably, these animated discussions among the family tribe, with which the play begins, rarely include Billy. When he speaks — in the pronounced but muted tones of someone who does not completely hear his own voice — it’s usually to ask what everyone else is talking about. Treated as an equal (with a nonchalance bordering at times on indifference) and yet simultaneously eclipsed by his loudmouthed, self-involved relatives, Billy ironically stands out (to us) by virtue of his quiet remove.
He soon breaks free and into clearer view after meeting a woman named Ruth (a sharp and vital Elizabeth Morton) with whom he falls instantly in love. Ruth is losing her hearing, but coming from deaf parents, she is well acquainted with the community and culture of the deaf. This does not make her transition any easier, however. Indeed, it complicates it in subtle ways. More than any other character, she straddles both worlds: the hearing and the non-hearing. It makes her both threatening and attractive to Billy’s family, who fear Billy’s categorization and cooptation as part of a deaf minority.
Billy, unusually adept at lip reading and emboldened by his love for Ruth and the community she provides access to, takes a job with a law court providing crucial transcriptions from audio-less video for criminal trials. This allows him to move out of the family home for the first time. Ruth teaches him ASL, which he begins to use more and more exclusively. Both he and Ruth meanwhile confront a family that places a premium on the connection between language and feeling. From this constellation of voices and positions, a serious split emerges that throws the family into a tailspin while asking a series of stimulating questions about where, and how, we belong.
Raine’s 2010 play (originally produced by London’s Royal Court Theatre) gets a spirited, involving production from Berkeley Rep and director Jonathan Moscone. Moscone (the artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater who excelled at another contemporary family-social drama when he helmed Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park at ACT) stirs the hornet’s nest of mad, madcap family living with an expert hand, and his fine cast delivers Raine’s witty (albeit sometimes too thematically forceful) dialogue with precision and ease. If the play wraps up a little abruptly, it also leaves much in the ensuing silence to continue listening to. 2
Through May 18
Tue and Thu-Sat, 8pm (also Sat, 2pm); Wed and Sun, 7pm (also Sun, 2pm; no 2pm show May 18), $29-99
Anyone who digs the Vietnamese vittles from the Rice Paper Scissors ladies will be happy to know they have expanded their weekday lunch hours to the weekend, and have launched brunch at Brick & Mortar Music Hall (1710 Mission, SF. www.brickandmortarmusic.com). Come by 11am–2pm Saturdays and Sundays and you’ll find a menu with a bit of Chinese influence too, with dishes like daikon rice cakes with Chinese sausage and dry-fried chicken wings. And why try to resist a fried egg banh mi or banh xeo? Just do it. Like it hot? There’s a mapo scramble, which sounds promising, plus a Sriracha Bloody Mary. Don’t forget your cash! No cards accepted, yo.
Fans of the Lime Tree in the Inner Sunset (and its roti, corn fritters, beef rendang, and martabak) will be pleased to know a second location has opened across the park in the Inner Richmond (836 Clement, SF. 415-831-8811). This popular Southeast Asian restaurant is fired up and ready to serve you Tue–Fri 11am–3pm and 5pm–9:30pm, Sat 12pm–9:30pm, and Sun 12pm–9pm.
Izakaya Roku (1819 Market, SF. www.rokusf.com) has two new chefs in the kitchen — and they’re brothers! Ends up Masaru and Yasu come from owner Jay Hamada’s same hometown in Japan (Miyazaki), and they’re collaborating and putting some country-style dishes from home on the menu. Also available: You’ll now find the Japanese curry that’s served from the JapaCurry food truck at the restaurant. Good stuff.
It’s not easy to be open for 15 years in the restaurant biz, but one place that just seems to keep getting even better is Bernal neighborhood restaurant Blue Plate (3218 Mission, SF. www.blueplatesf.com). It’s been feeding us fried chicken, famed meatloaf, and sell-your-soul-to-the-devil mac and cheese for 15 years, so now it’s time to celebrate!
For three nights, the Plate’s lined up three special winemaker dinners: Thursday May 1, Steve and Chrystal Clifton of Palmina Wines will be in attendance, 5:30pm–10pm, followed by Sean Thackrey Wines Friday May 2, 5:30pm–10:30pm, and John Lancaster of Skylark, Saturday May 3, 5:30pm–10:30pm. The winemakers will mingle with guests, talking about their wines — and here’s the best part: You’ll get a wine flight of five tastes for just $15. Chef Sean Thomas will be cooking up an à la carte menu (here’s hoping the grilled squid will be on there, so good). Make your reservation soon (415-282-6777), tables are filling up. All hail the neighborhood restaurant!
The full-tilt pig-fest that is Cochon 555 returns to San Francisco on Sunday, April 27, when five chefs compete to be crowned the Prince or Princess of Porc, plus there are five pigs (all heritage breeds from small-scale farmers) used for the whole hog menu, and five winemakers to keep you feeling good. This year, Kim Alter (Plum), Mark Liberman (TBD), Michael Rotondo (Parallel 37), Richie Nakano (Hapa Ramen), and David Bazirgan (Dirty Habit) will be competing by creating up to six dishes each, and judges and attendees will determine the winner.
Additional bonuses: a station featuring Goose Island Beer and Hudson Valley Foie Gras; a bourbon bar featuring Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace, Breckenridge Bourbon, Hirsch, Templeton Rye, and Luxardo (pig and bourbon, you do the math); a cheese bar from Mission Cheese; a prosciutto di Parma station; an ice cream social; plus a hog butchering demo. Are you ready for all this? Yeah, it’s pretty debauched. Show up hungry. At the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco, 600 Stockton, SF. 5pm–8pm (4pm entry for VIP). $125 general admission, $200 VIP, www.cochon555.com
Marcia Gagliardi is the founder of the weekly tablehopper e-column; subscribe for more at www.tablehopper.com. Get her app: Tablehopper’s Top Late-Night Eats. On Twitter: @tablehopper.
The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 24-May 8. Screening venues include the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; New People Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post, SF. For tickets (most shows $15) and complete schedule, visit festival.sffs.org.
Harmony Lessons (Emir Baigazin, Kazakhstan/Germany/France, 2013) Darwinian natural selection seems to be the guiding principle at the rural Kazakh school where bright farm boy Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) is sent to further his education. What he learns there is mostly about survival, as he soon discovers the institution is dominated by an elaborate system of bullying and extortion in which a few older students terrorize the younger and weaker. Emir Baigazin’s striking debut feature applies a rigor both aesthetic and intellectual to a familiar theme here, his script as methodical as his minimalist compositions in dissecting the havoc wreaked by (and eventual unraveling of) a corrupt system that’s a microcosm of a societal whole. Fri/25, 3:30pm, Kabuki; May 4, 12:45pm, Kabuki; May 5, 6:15pm, Kabuki. (Dennis Harvey)
When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania/France, 2013) Romanian moviemaker Corneliu Porumboiu (2009’s Police, Adjective) turns his lens around, toward the casting couch and the oh-so-delicate damage done, in his third feature film. An everyday kind of corruption, sex, lies, and video — zipless, tapeless, and forging way beyond the limits of film — is the name of the game when a director (Bogdan Dumitrache) nonchalantly drops a nude scene on his actress (Diana Avramut) and the two try out a few ideas, on-camera for the screen and off-camera in the bedroom. The hardly working relationship plays both ways, as the moviemaker bends in turn to his producer, in this minimalist albeit layered glimpse into the unlovely guts of the last sacred cow: the so-called creative process. Fri/25, 3:45pm, New People; Sat/26, 6:30pm, Kabuki; Mon/28, 8:30pm, PFA. (Kimberly Chun)
Hellion (Kat Candler, US) Beer drinking and metal tees, shit-talking and shit-kicking, boys and their toys and their broken dreams — the signatures of director-writer Kat Candler are familiar even to those unversed in her 2006 Jumping Off Bridges and the short that this extended-play feature is based on. Yet somehow the motocross-fixated Jacob (Josh Wiggins) is finding his own fresh hell amid this testosterone-scape: with the death of his mother, his faded baseball star of a father (Aaron Paul) is struggling to hold the family together and kick his tendency to take refuge at the bottom of a beer can. Meanwhile younger brother Wes (Deke Garner) has been taken away and placed with the boys’ Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis). Candler makes this hell of hurts fresh with her close attention to detail, relishing the whipped cream sandwiches and sofa bounce-offs of home-alone kids as well as the throttled rage of the Metallica and Slayer soundtrack, and charged performances from all, in particular Paul, also an executive producer here, and Lewis, two small-town castaways just a hair less lost than the kids. Fri/25, 6:30pm, Kabuki; Tue/29, 4pm, Kabuki. (Chun)
Blind Dates (Levan Koguashvili, Georgia, 2013) This rather wonderful deadpan comedy from Georgia (the former Soviet territory, not Jimmy Carter’s home) revolves around two best friends, male schoolteachers looking for love on the mutual brink of 40. Doleful-looking history prof Sandro (Andro Sakhvarelidze) and robust soccer coach Iva (Archil Kikodze) seem hapless and thwarted at every turn, yet simultaneously oblivious to scads of available women around them. The gentle, rueful tenor sneaks up on you, delivering some big laughs and narrative surprises as well as a very soulful sum impact. One of this year’s SFIFF sleepers (with no US distribution in sight), this droll yet bighearted gem is not to be missed. Fri/25, 9pm, Kabuki; Sun/27, 8:15pm, PFA; Tue/29, 6:30pm, New People. (Harvey)
Child of God (James Franco, US, 2013) You may not know that SFIFF It Guy James Franco has directed nearly two dozen shorts, documentaries, and features since 2005, in addition to his acting and miscellaneous multimedia dabblings. Don’t worry: You haven’t missed much. But this adaptation of a 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel is a great leap forward from his prior efforts, most of which felt like pretentious grad school thesis films. Scott Haze is startlingly good as Lester Ballard, a Tennessee hillbilly whose lack of conventional home, family, social instincts, or behavioral restraint gets him perpetually in trouble with the law — trouble that takes a macabre turn when he finds a dead woman’s body. The story’s shock value might easily have played as exploitative or ludicrous, but Franco hits the right tenor of mad intensity to reflect Lester’s near-feral state, in which acts that might appall any “civilized” mindset make perfect sense to him. Fri/25, 9:30pm, Kabuki; Mon/28, 3:45pm, New People. (Harvey)
The Double (Richard Ayoade, UK, 2013) Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) is a lowly clerk who gets nothing but indifference and scorn both at work and in his pitiful private life. Things slip even more insidiously beyond his control with the arrival of James (Eisenberg again), his exact doppelgänger — though no one else seems to notice that — and a climber as ruthlessly efficient as Simon is hapless. Not only does he steal his look-alike’s ideas in a rapid rise to the top, he seems to take great pleasure in kicking Simon further downward. Applying a Kafkaesque gloss to Dostoyevsky’s novella, with stylistic hat-tips to the Coens and Terry Gilliam, Richard Ayoade’s second feature is very different from his prior Submarine (2010) in all ways but one: It, too, is both overwhelmed and rendered fascinating by an excess of high directorial “style” whose self-consciousness infuses every frame and puts quote marks around every emotion. As a result, The Double is a striking objet d’art you’ll either love or hate — or enjoy aesthetically while being annoyed by its sacrifice of depth for a showoff surface. Sat/26, 1pm, Kabuki; Tue/29, 9:15pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Tangerines (Zaza Urushadze, Estonia/Georgia, 2013) It’s 1992, and carpenter Ivo (Lemit Ulfsak) and farmer Marcus (Elmo Nuganen) are old neighbors who are practically the only residents left in their rural Abkhazia village — everyone else has fled the approaching war between Georgian and Russia-backed North Caucasian forces that erupted over this disputed land after the USSR’s dissolution. The 60-something men have stayed behind out of habit, and to harvest Marcus’ latest (perhaps last) tangerine crop. When a shootout on Ivo’s doorstep leaves him stuck with one wounded soldier from each side, these uninvited guests must be kept from outside discovery — and from one another’s throats — as they recover. Wry and poignant, Georgian writer-director Zaza Urushadze’s antiwar microcosm is beautifully crafted, particularly in Rein Kotov’s gorgeous photography of the verdant countryside. Sat/26, 9pm, Kabuki; Sun/27, 6:15pm, Kabuki; May 6, 8:30pm, PFA. (Harvey)
The Sacrament (Ti West, US, 2013) This very disappointing latest by Ti West, of flavorful indie horrors The House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011), basically puts a piece of tracing paper over the climactic events at Jonestown, changing the names but otherwise refusing to do anything different — or really anything at all — with that historical model of mass religious cult freak out. Joe Swanberg, A.J. Bowen, and Kentucker Audley play filmmakers who visit a secretive jungle compound in order to figure out if somebody’s sister (Amy Seimetz) is staying there of her own free will or not. She seems to be doing OK, and in fact appears to be the favored apostle of enigmatic leader “Father” (Gene Jones). But once the strangers get a glimpse behind the facade of their carefully stage-managed visit, they glean that not everyone is happy here — indeed, some may be desperate to escape. Despite some good performance moments, there’s little psychological insight or real suspense to this fictionalized take on the 1978 catastrophe at Rev. Jim Jones’ Guyana settlement, and its quasi-“found footage” aesthetic feels very tired. Sat/26, 11:45pm, Kabuki; Mon/28, 9pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, US, 1979) Stage and screen choreographer and director Bob Fosse’s autobiographical phantasmagoria modeled itself on Fellini’s very Italian 1963 8 1/2 (which also inspired the stage/film musical Nine), but its heart is pure, cold American show-biz brass. Roy Scheider is terrific as Fosse alter ego Joe Gideon, a driven workaholic whose decades of numerous excesses (pills, smoking, women, etc.) have put him at serious risk of a fatal heart attack just as he’s simultaneously starting rehearsals for a Broadway musical and finishing up editing on a Hollywood feature. The external pressure is exceeded only by his own compulsive perfectionism. He reviews his life of professional triumphs and failed relationships as it very possibly sputters toward an end. Like Joe’s character (and creator), Jazz is egomaniacal, charming, over-the-top, sexy, sexist, indulgent, and overbearing — a glitzy portrait of a brilliant heel, with dazzling musical numbers. Seldom revived in recent years, it’s being shown in a newly restored print. Sun/27, 12:30pm, Kabuki; May 2, 8:30pm, PFA. (Harvey)
Belle (Amma Asante, UK, 2013) The child of a British naval officer and a Caribbean slave, Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is deposited on the doorstep — well, the estate grounds — of her father’s relatives in 1769 England after her mother dies. Soon she’s entirely orphaned, which makes her a wealthy heiress and aristocratic title holder at the same time that she is something less than human in the eyes of her adopted society. For Belle is black (or more properly, mixed-race), and thus a useless curiosity at best as a well-bred noblewoman of the “wrong” racial makeup. Based on a murky actual historical chapter, Amma Asante’s film is that rare sumptuous costume drama which actually has something on its mind beyond romance and royalty. Not least among its pleasures is a fine supporting cast including Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, and Emily Watson. Sun/27, 6:30pm, Kabuki; Tue/29, 3:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France, 2013) The fate of those left behind — the homeless, the stray dogs — amid the go-go aggression of tiger markets is ostensibly Tsai Ming-liang’s first concern in what he’s said is his last film. But the “Second Wave” Taiwanese director can’t help but leave a mark — those amazing performances, those achingly long, meditative shots — that makes you hungry for more. Ever so loosely knitting together a series of lengthy, gorgeously composed images that resemble still lifes of a metamorphosing Taipei that’s rapidly leaving its cultural core, the family, in the dust, Stray Dogs wanders, hangs, then drifts once more, much like the homeless father (Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng) and two children at its rootless center. Dad holds an advertising sign at an intersection — necessitating what might be the longest urination shot in cinema and a singular burst into poetry and song — while the kids feed themselves with supermarket samples and wash up in public restrooms. Will they be brought together by the missing matriarch, in the form of a grocery store manager, or just a random instance of art or beauty in a crumbling building? Beauty, it seems, is everywhere, Tsai seems to signal, and time — here, spent and bent to new ends — might or might not tell, while this mesmerizing, testing, and ultimately rewarding digital farewell to the movies keeps you hanging on. Mon/28, 6pm, Kabuki; Tue/29, 3:15pm, New People; April 30, 6:30pm, PFA. (Chun)
The Overnighters (Jesse Moss, US) If you’re looking for a movie to affirm the resilient generosity of the American spirit (or economy), this isn’t it. But Bay Area filmmaker Jesse Moss’ new documentary is as engrossing as it is dismaying. When a fracking-related job boom hits low-population North Dakota, close-knit Williston — which had a population of just 12,000 at the millennium’s turn — suddenly becomes a magnet for the unemployed and desperate. That includes a diverse racial mix of men, including some transients, a few felons and ex-cons, plus others whom many locals are willing to skittishly term “trash.” There’s scant housing available to accommodate them; Pastor Jay Reinke of Concordia Lutheran tries to help out by letting some new arrivals sleep on the church (and even his family home’s) floor. But his congregation is increasingly unhappy about that, as is the community in general. The Overnighters grows more complicated, however, than a simple portrait of small-town closed-mindedness and a clergyman acting like Jesus would. Not every charity case is grateful, or honest, or manageable. Meanwhile, Rev. Reinke’s own psychological baggage starts looking pretty dang heavy well before a game changing late revelation that is painful on about 20 different levels. Mon/28, 6:30pm, Kabuki; May 3, 1pm, New People. (Harvey)
The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (Mike Fleiss, US) Bob Weir gets a little of his share of the critical limelight in this doc by Mike Fleiss, which focuses on Weir’s personal life and gives Grateful Dead chronology a light scramble. It kicks off with a cruise across the Golden Gate Bridge with the SF-born musician, who was taught to drive by Neal Cassady and gleans admiration from both expected quarters (Sammy Hagar) and less so (The National, which tries a brief jam with Weir) and drops tidbits about his dyslexia, early hangouts with Palo Alto banjo player Jerry Garcia, his chronic shoulder pain, and songwriting approaches (“There’s no logic to it. It comes through the window when it wants to come though the window”), along with a visit to the famed Dead house at 710 Ashbury with his wife and daughters. Couched amid a bevy of performance snippets, none very long, the road-weathered rhythm guitarist comes off as a bit of tough nut to crack and almost too humdrum in his current downplayed presentation to ever really lead us on a truly “long, strange trip.” Still, this document serves as a decent primer for the rock generalist on the man (though not of his bands apart from the Dead) and goes a little way toward generating gratitude for the man oft dubbed an unsung hero. Tue/29, 8:50pm, PFA; May 2, 9:30pm, Kabuki. (Chun)
Eastern Boys (Robin Campillo, France, 2013) We first meet well-off, middle-aged single gay man Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) as he’s cruising a Paris train station for rough trade in writer-director Robin Campillo’s bravura opening sequence. He settles on impish Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), negotiates an assignation, and goes home. But later on it’s not Marek who turns up on Daniel’s doorstep, but a couple dozen young former-Soviet-bloc illegal émigrés who take over his luxury apartment for an epic party as they cart his possessions out the door. (This unpleasant passage is the most difficult to swallow, as there’s no explanation why our protagonist is so passive about being robbed.) Yet Marek does eventually turn up, and despite all, a relationship develops — always at risk of incurring anger from “Boss” (Danill Vorobyev), the thuggish leader of the immigrant community Marek has aligned himself with. Like the Laurent Cantet films (1999’s Human Resources, 2001’s Time Out, 2008’s The Class) Campillo has edited, Eastern Boys doesn’t fill in all its narrative blanks, but is grounded in recognizable characters we can empathize with as the scenario takes unexpected turns. It’s a provoking movie that’s ultimately well worthwhile. April 30, 9:10pm, PFA; May 2, 6pm, Kabuki; May 4, 8:45pm, New People. (Harvey)
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, US) Fargo (1996), now also an FX series, is having a moment — and as bracingly sweet, tragicomic, and strange as its inspiration, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter sets course from where the Coen Brothers left off. Essential ingredients include another moviemaking team of brothers, David and Nathan Zeller, and a waterlogged VHS tape of the North Dakota micro-epic, the latter leading one woman into white-out lunacy beyond the grinding conformity of Tokyo office work or small-town Minnesota mundanities. Shy, odd, and obsessive Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is the nail that must be pounded down, as the Japanese saying goes; as she trudges through her job at a large, alienating company, her fantasy world is fueled by a video of Fargo she finds buried in a sea cave. Those grainy images set her on a quest among the determinedly kawaii in Japan and the hilariously humane in the States, which she compares to that of the conquistadors’. Even when accompanied by the Octopus Project’s vivid electronic score, which spells out the horror of this journey, Kumiko’s no Aguirre — though, like Fargo, her adventure’s end is based on a true case. A wonderfully weird — and ultimately compassionate — vamp on the power of fantasy and obsession that crosses international datelines. May 1, 8:45pm, Kabuki; May 3, 2:30pm, Kabuki; May 4, 12:30pm, Kabuki. (Chun)
Difret (Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, Ethiopia) Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s film dramatizes a shocking human rights issue in Ethiopia: the continuing acceptance in rural areas of forcibly abducting young women for marriage. Fourteen-year-old Hirut (Tizita Hagere) is walking home from school one day when she’s surrounded by seven armed men, dragged off to a hut, then raped by the suitor whose marriage proposal she’d already rejected. When later she kills him in an escape attempt, tribal law decrees she be executed (and buried alongside him as “wife”). But a city lawyer for a women’s rights organization (Meron Getnet) takes up her cause. This is powerful material, but Difret would be a better film, and even better advocacy, if it didn’t handle its fictive events in such heavy-handed, pedestrian, everything spelled-out-for-you fashion. May 1, 6:30pm, Pacific Film Archive; May 3, 3:15pm, Kabuki; May 7, 3:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat, France/Belgium/Germany, 2013) Those who last saw Isabelle Huppert as a dutiful daughter in 2012’s Amour will be both thrilled and piqued to see the tables turned so remarkably in Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness. Huppert gives an unapologetic, stunning tour de force performance in what appears to be a story torn from the filmmaker’s own life, when Breillat suffered a series of strokes in the ’00s and ended up entangled in a loving and predatory friendship with con man Christophe Rocancourt. Here, moviemaker and writer Maud (Huppert) is particularly vulnerable when she meets celebrity criminal and best-selling writer Vilko (Kool Shen). She is determined to have him star in her next film, despite the protestations of friends and family, and he helps her in return — by simply helping her get around and giving her focus when half her body seems beyond her control, while his constant machinations continue to compel her. Crafting a layered, resonant response to what seems like an otherwise clear-cut case of abuse, Breillat seems to have gotten something close to one of her best films out of the sorry situation, while Huppert reminds us — with the painful precision of this intensely physical role — why she’s one of France’s finest. May 1, 9pm, Kabuki. (Chun)
Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland/Germany, 2013) Benedikt Erlingsson’s astonishing directorial debut weaves together a half dozen disparate stories involving beautiful horses and mostly unlucky humans in and near a modern Icelandic small town. It’s a horsey movie like no other, each surprising tale marked to various degrees by black comedy, cruel fate, very earthy humor, and hints of the fantastical. Nature being a harsh mistress, some events here are rather shocking or tragic — those who automatically despise any film in which animals come to harm (only in dramatic terms, of course) had best stay clear. But less delicate souls may well find this unique equine-themed mix of folk art and fable exhilaratingly original. May 2, 4:30pm, Kabuki; May 3, 8:45pm, Kabuki; May 5, 6pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Salvation Army (Abdellah Taïa, Morocco, 2013) Paris-based Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa adapts his presumably autobiographical 2006 novel in this accomplished feature. Teenaged Abdellah (Said Mrini) is stuck in the middle of a large, rambunctious family where his parents continually fight, sometimes violently, and he has to keep his feelings hidden — not least because they largely revolve around an infatuation with older brother Slimane (Amine Ennaji). While that attraction remains forbidden, Abdellah does find ways to access love or at least sex with other older men, though these sometimes exploitative interludes leave him dissatisfied. Salvation Army would be an effective if unmemorable portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-queer if it didn’t take an abrupt, unexpected jump forward 10 years, to chart the rough early days of a now-adult protagonist (Karim Ait M’Hand) in supposedly more gay-friendly (but not necessarily immigrant-friendly) France. It’s these later scenes that lend this directorial debut by (so far) the only out gay Arab Moroccan scribe its lingering gravity. May 2, 9pm, Kabuki; May 4, 8:30pm, PFA; May 6, 6:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Intruders (Noh Young-seok, South Korea, 2013) Noh Young-seok’s insidiously clever black comedy-thriller takes its time getting to the nasty stuff — although things start getting weird for our protagonist right away, when his bus ride to a remote resort region is interrupted by an overly-friendly local who will figure in his troubles later on. Sang-jin (Jun Kuk-ho) is here to spend some alone time finishing a screenplay. But he’s unlikely to get much work done, given various pesterings from the hitherto mentioned ex-con New Best Friend (Oh Tae-kyung), an obnoxious quartet of skiers, some hostile poachers, and … well, you’ll have to wait until the very end to get the complete list of unwanted guests. As misunderstandings and bodies pile up, Intruders cleverly finds ways to make the worst possible scenario even worse. May 2, 9:45pm, Kabuki; May 7, 9:30pm, Kabuki; May 8, 5:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Palo Alto (Gia Coppola, US) Adapted from the 2010 short story collection by James Franco, first-time director Gia Coppola’s depressive, aimless tale of disaffected youth tracks the ennuis and misadventures of a handful of Palo Alto teenagers: shy, inexperienced April (Emma Roberts), teetering on the edge of an affair with her soccer coach (Franco); naively promiscuous Emily (Zoe Levin); budding head case Fred (Nat Wolff); and his friend Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val, who plays April’s out-to-lunch stepfather), who ambivalently participates in Fred’s mayhem while pining after April. Adult supervision is nearly Peanuts-level sparse — in other Peninsula households, helicopter parents may be fine-tuning the lives of their children down to the last extracurricular; here, the stoned, distracted elders who occasionally wander in front of the camera are more like flaky, absentee roommates. Meanwhile, their young charges fill the empty hours with copious amounts of alcohol consumption, random property destruction, and a round or two of social crucifixion. May 3, 7:30pm, Kabuki. (Lynn Rapoport)
The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, US, 1941) Superficially the most conventional of Preston Sturges’ classics — being a romantic comedy vehicle for two major stars — this 1941 gem is no less great for it. Barbara Stanwyck plays Jean, the feminine lure in a team of wily con artists who spy easy prey in Henry Fonda, a fabulously wealthy “bumble-puppy” more interested in studying Amazonian snakes than inheriting the family brewery fortune. They relieve him of considerable cash at the card table, but when Jean decides she really does love the big dope and comes clean, he thinks she’s still lying. Now a woman scorned — and whatta woman! — Jean hatches a spectacular revenge scheme to teach him the lesson he deserves. As is Sturges’ wont, the film goes over the top a bit toward the end. But who cares, when Eve is so brilliantly written and performed, not to mention consistently hilarious. Film critic David Thomson and journalist-novelist Geoff Dyer will be present for this screening in conjunction with Thomson’s acceptance of the Mel Novikoff Award. May 4, 3pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Ping Pong Summer (Michael Tully, US) Eighties teen flicks of the My Bodyguard (1980), smart-dweebs-beat-the-bullies ilk are paid homage in Michael Tully’s deadpan satire, which is closer in spirit to the Comedy of Lameness school whose patron saint is Napoleon Dynamite. Radley (Marcello Conte) is an average teen so excited to be spending the summer of 1985 in Ocean City, Md., with his family that he renames himself “Rad Miracle.” He acquires a New Best Friend in Teddy (Myles Massey), who as the whitest black kid imaginable might make even Rad look cool by comparison. However, they are both dismayed to discover the local center for video gaming and everything else they like is ruled by bigger, older, cuter, and snottier douchebag Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry) and his sidekick. Only kicking Lyle’s ass at ping pong — with some help from a local weirdo (a miscast Susan Sarandon, apparently here because she’s an offscreen ping pong enthusiast) — can save Rad’s wounded dignity, and the summer in general. A big step up from Tully’s odd but pointless prior Septien (2011), this has all the right stuff (including a soundtrack packed with the likes of Mr. Mister, the Fat Boys, Mary Jane Girls, New Edition, Whodini, and Night Ranger) to hilariously parody the era’s inanities. But it’s just mildly amusing — a droll attitude with lots of period detail but not much bite. May 4, 6:30pm, Kabuki; May 7, 8:45pm, New People. (Harvey)
The One I Love (Charlie McDowell, US) Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass) have hit a speed bump in their relationship — they don’t have fun together like they used to, and even direct attempts to replicate that past magic fall completely flat. Ergo they take the advice of a couples counselor (Ted Danson) and book a weekend at a country getaway he swears has done “wonders” for all his previous clients in relationship trouble. Things get off to a pleasant enough start, but the duo’s delight at recapturing their old mojo becomes complicated when they realize … well, it’s best to know as little as possible going into The One I Love, a first feature for director Charlie McDowell and scenarist Justin Lader that approaches a fantastical narrative idea with a poker face and considerable ingenuity. Duplass and (especially) Moss are terrific in roles that eventually require some very complicated (and subtle) nuances. May 6, 9:15pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, US, 2013) Not to be confused with Arthur Penn’s same-named 1975 Gene Hackman thriller, Kelly Reichardt’s latest film nonetheless is also a memorably quiet, unsettling tale of conspiracy and paranoia. It takes us some time to understand what makes temporary allies of jittery Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Portland, Ore.-style alterna-chick Dena (Dakota Fanning) and genial rural recluse Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), beyond it being a mission of considerable danger and secrecy. When things don’t go exactly as planned, however, the three react very differently to the resulting fallout, becoming possibly greater threats to one another than the police or FBI personnel pursuing them. While still spare by mainstream standard, this is easily Reichardt’s most accessible work, carrying the observational strengths of 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff, 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, and 2006’s Old Joy over to a genuinely tense story that actually goes somewhere. May 7, 9pm, Kabuki; May 8, 7:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
MUSIC Like some bastard love child of Link Wray and Johnny Thunders, Berlin-by-way-of-Israel rock ‘n’ roller Charlie Megira has mastered the art of blending 1950s-style rock guitar and spooky, blood-curdling howls. In his newest incarnation (though not as new as it may seem, but we’ll get to that later), the Bet She’an Valley Hillbillies, he takes those building blocks and adds a vroom-vroom rockabilly twang.
It’s a sound he describes in a typically poetic — and esoteric — word dump: “The beginning of the end of music…dealing with the local in an exotic manner. It don’t mean a thang if it ain’t got that twang…Rings of Fire that burn like love.” Got it.
Bigger news: After a long battle to obtain the proper visa, Megira will head to the United States for his first ever stateside tour, beginning Mon/28 at Vacation SF, then Tue/29 at the Nightlight in Oakland. In a travel loop, he’ll stop by the Austin Psych Festival in Texas and head back to the Bay for a pop in at the Makeout Room on May 14. During the tour, Megira and the Bet She’an Valley Hillbillies will be selling a cassette called The End of Teenage (Guitars and Bongos), a mix of original rockabilly and surf.
That Bet She’an Valley Hillbillies name is a nod to his childhood. He was born and raised in the northern Bet She’an region of Israel, obsessed with Algerian and Moroccan music like Salim Halali and Joe Amar. There was also the excellent record collection of his father, who once upon a time was a musician as well. “They told me that my father used to have a trumpet when he was a kid. I guess he didn’t stick with it,” says Megira. “But he used to play a number on family occasions like weddings. It was great.” Through his father’s vinyl stash, Megira absorbed the likes of Elvis, James Brown, Santana, and 1960s Israeli folk-pop star Esther Ofarim.
Later, a cousin introduced him to “popular music like Rod Stewart,” and hair metal legends White Snake.
“I used to ask him while watching the [White Snake] videos, ‘why are they wearing ripped clothes and torn jeans?’ I thought that they were poor or something,” he says.
He began a succession of his own bands, including perhaps the most well known, at least in Israel: The Modern Dance Club. Before MDC there was the Schneck, Naarey Hahefker, Oley Hagardom, Los Tigres, The Wall of Death, No Hay Banda, The Tralalala Boys; the list goes on.
I first caught on to the Modern Dance Club through its cheeky, perfectly ’60s-aping beach-blanket-bingo encapsulated video for “Dynamite Rock,” off second full-length Rock-n-Roll Fragments. (It was originally released in 2002 and rereleased on Birdman Records in 2009.) The song sounds like a fuzzier, Israeli “Teenager in Love.” It was hard to believe Megira was a modern-day musician, as the Modern Dance Club name hinted at and a quick Google search confirmed. He looked and sounded of another era, a toothy, pompadoured rocker with western motif style and hip-shaking guitar lines. Rock-n-Roll Fragments also contains a song called “Bet She’an Valley Hillbillies,” which informed his next act.
Years later, I learned of Modern Dance Club’s connection to Bay Area-based record label, Guitars and Bongos (Greg Ashley, Dancer), which released its double LP Love Police. It was the small Oakland label’s very first release after forming in 2011. More recently Guitars and Bongos released that tour tape, The End of Teenage.
“I read about [Megira] in an Israeli newspaper and heard him on Israeli radio,” says Guitars and Bongos co-founder Eran Yarkon, who lived in Israel for a year before moving to Oakland. “I never thought I would have a label. But of course I was a big fan, and so is my friend Julie Cohen, so we thought of ways to put out Charlie’s music in the US on vinyl. Julie came out with the name of the label, which is based on a Lou Christie song.”
Others might have found Megira through Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s follow-up to his wildly popular (and Oscar-nominated) film Waltz with Bashir (2008). The film, sci-fi epic The Congress (2013), included music by Megira and also an animated version of the rocker. “It was great seeing my cartoon character alongside Elvis and Yoko Ono.”
Folman had heard Love Police and tracked Megira down to be in his film. In it, Megira’s cartoon performs his own original song — haunting, slow-burning “Tomorrow’s Gone,” off an early release — and also plays guitar on covers of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” and Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will,” sung by actress Robin Wright in the film.
Appearing in Folman’s film was a coup, no doubt, but the move from Israel to Berlin with his wife and young son a few years back was an even bigger milestone, an epic journey north leading to a prime creativity peak. “It all felt a bit like The Flight Into Egypt theme you find in Gothic paintings. Germany is now our Egypt.”
In Berlin, he revived a sound he first visited in his Rock-n-Roll Fragments days and formed a band by the same name as that aforementioned track: Bet She’an Valley Hillbillies, with a bassist who goes by the Dead Girl (also a member of the Modern Dance Club) and bongo player named Corso, whom Megira met while doing integration classes at a college in Berlin.
For the Bet She’an Valley Hillbillies US tour, however, Michael Beach (Electric Jellyfish, Michael Beach, Shovels) and Alexa Pantalone (Pang, Penny Machine) will back Megira. No matter, he’s long been the songwriter and main driving force behind his bands, fronting with cool abandonment and a sweltering connection to vintage rockers of yore.
Like his sonic ancestors, moody rockers with greasy pomps and snarling attitude, he seems to be on the rebellious, rock ‘n’ roll trip — roaring with fuzzed-out ’50s riffs that still pummel like Link Wray, growling like Johnny Thunders — yet bound to family, home life, and even self-improvement.
However serious, Megira claims, “I want to finally learn how to sing and dance like a serious entertainer and to communicate with people like a normal person. Maybe I should take some courses or something.” But then he’d be a so-called normal person, and what fun is that?
I was 12 years old in 1996, which is the year Jawbreaker, the punk band that’s been (somewhat controversially) called “the sound of the Mission,” disbanded for good. I started listening to them about four years later, and really only started listening-listening to them, in the way that Jawbreaker fans listen to Jawbreaker — obsessively, open-veined, with every part of your body engaged — a few years after that, when I was in college in San Diego, 500 miles from the ’90s Bay Area punk scene that I had only just begun to realize was special once it (and I) was all but gone.
I suspect, however, and a few friends’ Jawbreaker-love stories have confirmed this, that it doesn’t matter how old you are when you start listening to Jawbreaker, because Jawbreaker songs — in the universality of their lyrical angst, wedged as they are in that the puzzle-piece-shaped sweet spot between well-crafted pop and sore throat-inducing (in singer Blake Schwarzenbach’s case, throat polyp-causing) punk rock — will make you feel like a teenager. And not in the hopeful, peppy way people usually mean when they say something “made them feel like a teenager.” I mean, really, confused, hormonal, nostalgic, angry, in love, frustrated, drunk, fist-in-air triumphant, wistful about something you can’t quite place, and generally just fucking waterlogged with feeling.
The band’s enduring popularity and the reverence with which it’s still treated among the ’90s punk/emo-loving population — Google image-search “Jawbreaker tattoo” if you don’t believe me — is certainly, in large part, thanks to that: As an adult, that mood gets harder to access; you don’t often stumble onto art which opens a portal into that level of emotion. Jawbreaker picks you up and hurls you down it before you know what’s happening.
Drummer Adam Pfahler, the driving force behind the past few years of remastered re-issues of Jawbreaker’s iconic albums (on his own label, Blackball Records) has been plenty busy since that band met its demise. He opened Lost Weekend Video on Valencia, and still works there a few days a week. He lives in Bernal Heights; he has two teenage daughters. He’s played in at least a dozen other bands, including J Church and Whysall Lane. So does it bug him that people still mainly associate him with Jawbreaker, some 18 years after they broke up?
“Not at all — I’m totally grateful for that band, and the fact that people still feel that strongly about it is insane,” says the drummer, during a phone interview in which he multi-tasks impressively: He has about 20 minutes before it’s time to run to an evening practice with his new band, California, and he’s making pasta for his kids while answering questions.
“I’m definitely not running from that legacy. I love it, and so do Blake [Schwarzenbach] and Chris [Bauermeister, Jawbreaker’s bassist],” he says. “It is a little funny because I’ve been playing all along…it’s just that certain things take hold or get seen better than others.”
Of course, certain things, like this new project, have the benefit of being able to attach the words “Ex-Jawbreaker/Green Day” to a flier or listing, as the Rickshaw Stop has advertised California’s April 24 show — the band’s third official outing — though Pfahler’s a bit uncomfortable with using his star power that way. Hopefully, he says, the band will be earning that buzz on its own soon enough.
After all, California, a three-piece, is something of a Bay Area punk supergroup: On guitar and vocals you have Green Day‘s Jason White, who, despite having played lead guitar on the band’s tours for the past decade or so, only “officially” became a member in 2012; he also shares guitar and vocal duties with Billie Joe Armstrong in the long-running side project (and supergroup of its own, in a way) Pinhead Gunpowder. Bass and backup vocals are courtesy of Dustin Clark of TheInsides; Pfahler is on drums.
“I’d kind of been starting to do stuff under my own name in 2011, just to try writing my own songs again,” says White, noting that Green Day is on an “indefinite break” — though he did just get off the phone with Armstrong, who called to tell him about how crazy it was to play with the Replacements at Coachella the previous night. (White, with a laugh: “I hadn’t wanted to go at all but now I’m super jealous, and bummed that I wasn’t there.”)
White started playing out acoustically about three years ago, at places like the Hotel Utah. When he was asked to play a friend’s 40th birthday party, he invited Clark to play bass; Clark asked Pfahler, whom he’d been playing with (they’re old friends — also SF experimental rockers Erase Errata, featuring Clark’s wife, Bianca Sparta, on drums, used to play in the basement of Lost Weekend). All three are veterans of the scene; all three were excited about trying something new.
“I’m at a place where I just want to try any and everything, stretch out on my own, experiment with some different ideas,” says White, who says he’s also a huge Jawbreaker fan. “And all three of us have pretty distinct individual tastes, which has made for a really nice mix of the three, I think.”
California at the Hemlock Tavern earlier this month. Photo by Greg Schneider.
There’s no music online for fans to listen to or buy just yet — and thanks to a name cribbed from a novella by Pfahler’s friend, the writer Amra Brooks, the band’s virtually un-Googlable — but a handful of demos they’ve recorded suggest a leaning toward the poppier end of the spectrum than you might expect from these three. White’s vocals are clean, earnest, not trying too hard to be too much, reminiscent of the Promise Ring, or of the days (day?) before “emo” became code for whiny and tossed around like a dirty word; tight, punchy, early Green Day-esque bridges and hooks are grounded, kept from being overly sugary by the heft of the rhythm section.
“This is very much a new band, in the garage band sense of the word — I’m happy to pester people with texts and emails to get them to come see our shows, because I’m really proud of this one,” says Pfahler. It’s an especially collaborative band, he says, which tend to be the kind he enjoys — as opposed to “just being the guy back there, being told to count to four.” They have plans to record in the next few months, but right now is the best part, says Pfahler: seeing what works and what doesn’t after hours of practicing, seeing how people react at live shows, when the songs are still malleable. “It’s a little like the early, fun part of a relationship,” is how White puts it. Pfahler: “If you’re fortunate enough to have the opportunity to play them out this early on in the process, once you record it’s almost like the death of those songs.”
Pfahler does feel fortunate, in a number of ways. As a longtime Mission District resident and business owner, he’s had a front-row seat for the neighborhood’s drastic changes over the past two decades. Is he tired of the conversation about gentrification?
“I am a little tired of it, but I’m no less passionate about how I feel,” he says. “It’s harsh. It limits things. We’re feeling that in the shop in a very real way, and certainly people are buying fewer records — but they’re paying for high cuisine, organic wine, you know. There’s no shortage of new bands screaming about this stuff, and they definitely have something to be mad about. It’s good fodder for angry music. When Jawbreaker settled here it was a pretty fertile time; you could get things going back then. I mean, the practice space I use now is shared between 13 people, and it costs more than my first apartment did. And there’s no bathroom! It would definitely be tough to be a kid trying to make music here.”
“At the same time, I think my kids are lucky to be here,” he says, as he beckons one of them to the stove to test the pasta. “Even with this craziness going on. They get around on public transportation, they go to shows. They’re going to be the backlash. They’re smart kids and they have really good bullshit detectors.
“That generation, I have a lot of hope for.”
CALIFORNIA With El Terrible and Vela Eyes Thu/24, 8pm, $10 Rickshaw Stop 155 Fell, SF www.rickshawstop.com
Also: We’d be remiss to not mention the musical offerings the SFIFF has planned this year: Thao and the Get Down Stay Down and Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields will each be performing live original scores during film festival offerings, on Tue/29 and Tue/6, respectively, at the Castro Theatre. Cross-media creative pollination never sounded so sweet. For tickets: http://tinyurl.com/l8srz9j
SFIFF “I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” Elliott Smith admits in Heaven Adores You, Nickolas Rossi’s moving portrait of the late indie musician, who went from regional star to superstar after his Oscar nomination for 1997’s Good Will Hunting. “It was fun … for a day,” Smith reflects — and anyone who saw Smith’s hushed Academy Awards performance, on a night that also included Celine Dion’s chest-thumping rendition of “My Heart Will Go On,” has likely never forgotten it.
But Heaven isn’t overly concerned with Smith’s sudden celebrity and mysterious end (in 2003, he was found with two apparently self-inflicted stab wounds to the chest, but his death was ruled “undetermined,” rather than a suicide). Instead, it’s an artfully crafted study of a unique talent, avoiding music doc clichés in favor of more creative choices, like illustrating college-radio interviews — far more revealing than anything Smith would share with journos seeking Oscar sound bites — with gorgeously composed shots of Smith’s beloved Portland, Ore. Heaven widens to contextualize Smith’s importance within the 1990s Portland scene, with former members of his pre-solo band, Heatmiser, and fellow musician and longtime girlfriend Joanna Bolme among the interviewees. (Unfortunately absent: Hunting director Gus Van Sant.) But Smith’s soulful, eerily timeless songs (described here as “little pictures made of words”) remain Heaven‘s focus — appropriate, since they were always Smith’s focus, too.
A less-tragic tale of reluctant fame unfolds in Jody Shapiro’s Burt’s Buzz, which opens as its subject, Burt’s Bees co-founder Burt Shavitz, arrives in Taiwan to what can only be described as a hero’s welcome. Given the fact that Burt’s Bees products crowd drugstore shelves as ubiquitously as Neutrogena and Cover Girl, you’d be forgiven for assuming THE Burt lives the lavish life of a lip-balm magnate. Which is not the case, since the aging Shavitz prefers an exceedingly spartan life in rural Maine, with a woodstove providing heat and a begrudging acceptance of running water. “A good day is when no one shows up, and you don’t have to go anywhere,” Shavitz opines.
Not that he has any choice. When Burt’s Bees went from homespun to corporate, all the dough went to Shavitz’s former business (and romantic) partner Roxanne Quimby, who’d bought him out when their relationship went sour; most of Shavitz’s income seems to stem from making personal appearances for a company he no longer has much else to do with. (Quimby’s upbeat son is interviewed in her stead, though we do glimpse her in excerpts from a TV program entitled How I Made My Millions.) Still, Shavitz — knowing that Burt’s Bees is stuck with him forever, since his name and bearded visage decorate the brand’s folksy packaging — remains remarkably blasé about his financial situation. He’s not into material possessions, though he’s comfortable enough to have a “majordomo” help him with his affairs, and is enough of a diva to demand rice milk rather than the soy milk proffered by his eager-to-please Taiwanese hosts.
Shapiro’s documentary is a bit overlong (do we really need to see ol’ Burt Skyping with his dog?), but it wisely highlights the most interesting element of Shavitz’s story, which is not “Did he get ripped off?” or “Look at this crazy hippie!” but “Is this guy more self-aware than he’s letting on?” Though his assistant insists “He’s like Colonel Sanders, and he simply does not understand that,” it’s never entirely clear — though Shavitz’s own assertion that “No one has ever accused me of being ambitious” certainly has the ring of truth, rather than bitterness, to it.
Elsewhere in SFIFF’s documentary programming, two films take contrasting approaches to the artistic process. Of local interest, Jeremy Ambers’ Impossible Light, a close-up look at the Bay Lights — the high-tech art installation that illuminates the western span of the Bay Bridge — smartly runs a lean 71 minutes. First, we meet project founder Ben Davis, who had a brain wave one sunny day while idly staring at the bridge, which he’d always appreciated despite its ugly-stepsister status next to the glamorous Golden Gate. After artist and LED wizard Leo Villareal joins up, the ball really gets rolling, and Light tags along as a dedicated group of big thinkers form alliances with Caltrans engineers and other hands-on types who believe in Davis’ “impossible idea.” Nobody who sees this film about what became a truly collaborative process — Bridge workers scale the towers, tinkering with laptops! Creative types scramble to raise eight million bucks from private donors! — will ever take the intricately twinkling end result for granted.
The opposite of straightforward: The Seventh Walk, inspired by the nature-themed art of Indian painter Paramjit Singh. Director Amit Dutta brings Singh’s work to life with his questing camera, floating through the Kangra Valley’s leafy forests and across streams as water rushes, birds squawk, and insects hiss on the soundtrack. We also see Singh himself, dabbing his textured, abstract work onto canvases as the movie around him becomes more surreal. Occasional poetry fragments appear on screen to make the waking-dream vibe even more immersive: “Deep in the forest, the musk deer frantically pursues its own fragrance: laughter!”
Despite its title, it takes awhile for laughter to enter Happiness, Thomas Balmès’ tale of Peyangki, a restless nine-year-old monk living in remote Bhutan — the last pocket of the country, which prizes its “gross national happiness,” to get electricity. Stunningly composed shots (those mountains!) showcase a simple, deeply traditional lifestyle that’s about to completely change, for better and probably worse — ominously, everyone’s conversations already revolve around television. When Peyangki gets the chance to travel to the capital city, he’s fascinated by everything: mannequins, crutches, packaged snacks, aquarium fish, and, at last, TV, where the first thing he glimpses is Wrestlemania (and he’s on to it immediately: “Is it real?”), and you can practically see the innocence melting away.
A more conventionally-structured doc comes from Stanley Nelson, no stranger to powerful material with previous films like 2011’s Freedom Riders, 2006’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple, and 2003’s The Murder of Emmett Till. Nelson returns to the civil rights movement for Freedom Summer, which mixes archival material and contemporary interviews to detail the youth-propelled African American voter drive amid menacing intolerance in 1964 Mississippi.
News reports about the disappearances of workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — “Mickey” to wife Rita, as eloquent and composed today as she is in 1964 footage — weave throughout the film, with the discovery of their bodies recalled by folk legend Pete Seeger, who learned about it while performing on a Mississippi stage. While the events detailed in Freedom Summer have been covered by numerous other documentaries, Nelson’s impressive array of talking heads (not identified by name, though many are recognizable) brings a personal, eyewitness touch to this history lesson. *
The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 24-May 8. Screening venues include the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; New People Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post, SF. For tickets (most shows $15) and complete schedule, visit festival.sffs.org.
SFIFF First things first: Brand-new San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan’s two favorite movies are 1942 Preston Sturges screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story and 1974 disaster drama The Towering Inferno. Appropriately, our first meeting takes place in downtown San Francisco, where that fictional world’s tallest building (containing Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, and O.J. Simpson, among others) went up in flames.
Cowan is very freshly transplanted from his native Toronto, where he worked for years in various roles at the Toronto International Film Festival; his career highlights also include co-founding Cowboy Pictures and the Global Film Initiative. He’s so new in town that his 12-year-old greyhound, Ruckus, has yet to make the move (“He’s gonna come down in the fall, because it’s been so busy, and I’m traveling a lot this summer”); he’s barely had time to find an apartment (home is now the Inner Sunset) and get his bearings.
But the San Francisco International Film Festival, now in its 57th year, waits for no man — not even this man, SFFS’ fourth executive director after the deaths of Graham Leggat in 2011 and Bingham Ray in 2012, and the brief tenure of Ted Hope, who began a new job at Fandor earlier this year. As the fest ramps up to its opening this week, the energetic Cowan — a huge San Francisco fan — gives the impression of someone who plans on going the distance.
SF Bay Guardian So, you started in early March, and the festival begins April 24. You’re plunging right into it!
Noah Cowan Yeah! But I think it’s better that way, because I’m experiencing the key event of the organization. I was able to help out at the very last minute on a few of the bigger films, but [starting right before SFIFF] allowed me to see the tail end of the programming process, and start thinking about ways we want to move things in the future.
SFBG How does this job differ from what you were doing previously?
NC My role in Toronto was really as an artistic leader, as opposed to an executive leader. Obviously there’s artistic-leadership aspects of my current job, but I have the benefit here of three really capable artistic heads: [director of programming] Rachel Rosen, who runs the festival and our other film screening programs; [Filmmaker360 director] Michelle Turnure-Salleo, who runs the filmmaker services and filmmaking area; and Joanne Parsont, who is a gifted director of education. I’m more strategic guidance and day-to-day administration, really learning how to run and expand and change the business.
In my career, I’ve gone back and forth between these two tendencies. I really feel now that I want to be back in the executive director’s seat. I was co-president of my own business for almost 10 years, and I’ve really missed that — the ability to mentor staff and to shape the overall tone of an institution. San Francisco provides unusually interesting opportunities for making a new kind of institution. It’s just a place that loves invention, and the people, including our board, have a real can-do attitude about change. For me, it’s a dream come true! I just need to get through the festival [laughs] to get a breath.
There are certain holdovers from my role in Toronto, where we built a crazy big building, [the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which opened in 2010]. There’s nothing else like it in the world of film, and I had the great honor and privilege of being able to oversee the artistic life of that building. Maybe some things that we did there aren’t going to translate here, but some of them will. We engaged in a lot of pilots in education and film-community outreach that taught me some valuable lessons about how those can and can’t work, and what’s changed about education now that we’re in the digital world.
In addition, I’ve learned the pros and cons of having your own theater space. While I’m highly optimistic that we’ll have alliances in the future where we’ll be able to have a year-round screening presence, I’m going to be pretty cautious about how we go about that from a business perspective.
SFBG SFFS already has several special presentations and mini-festivals throughout the year (Taiwan Film Days, French Cinema Now, etc.) When you say “year-round,” do you mean an increase in programming? Weekly screenings?
NC What would exactly happen in that theater is still a question. Maybe it’s just these small festivals that we have. I think there’s something about being associated with a permanent space, even if you don’t own it, that is really important for a film institution — to really be anchored. Film is kind of a retail business in a funny way, and while festivals are the Black Friday of film going, you need to have a sustainable relationship with your audience to be able to grow it, and to have them trust you to follow different pathways.
SFBG Fortunately, like Toronto, San Francisco has a built-in audience of film fanatics.
NC It’s interesting here — it’s more diffuse environment. While there are a lot of film festivals in Toronto, there are a million in San Francisco and in the Bay Area in general, and there’s positives and negatives about that. When I have a second, after our festival, I’m looking forward to reaching out and understanding the needs of other film organizations in the city, and how we might be able to help. So far, this has felt like a city that really welcomes collaboration, so I hope we’ll be able to have some really exciting conversations.
SFBG What are you most excited about at this year’s SFIFF?
NC I really like this festival. There are a number of terrific films. I really like Rachel Rosen’s taste! Very much like the Toronto festival, the San Francisco festival is really focused on audiences: what kind of audiences are going to be interested in what kinds of films, and in general, an eye to audience enjoyment in the selections, even for films that are on the difficult side. There’s a thoughtfulness to the kinds of responses that the programmers would like to elicit, which really fits in with my own philosophies of why film festivals and film organizations are generally on the planet.
In terms of individual films, there are some films that I’ve championed before that are here, like Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart, or James Franco’s Child of God, which I was the programmer of this past year in Toronto. I’m happy to see them again! And then there’s some new work, particularly in the documentary area, that really impresses me — films like Art and Craft and Burt’s Buzz, which are really strong and really accessible.
And then, of the many elements that drew me to San Francisco, probably the biggest one was the incredible work that we’re doing in making films. So I’ll be paying very special attention to the San Francisco Film Society-supported films — we have seven films that we’ve supported, strictly church and state in terms of being selected for the festival, that are going to be here because they’re just the best films of the year, particularly from an American independent perspective. I’m just so delighted that we can have these deep, family associations with films like Hellion, Little Accidents, and Manos Sucias. These are all films of really high caliber that are going to be among the most talked-about films of the year. *
The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 24-May 8. Screening venues include the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; New People Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post, SF. For tickets (most shows $15) and complete schedule, visit festival.sffs.org.
SUPER EGO Whoever decided to pack Disclosure (charging $50 for a DJ set!), the adorable Martinez Brothers, Easter with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, 420 in the Park, two insane undergrounds, and 200 bottomless mimosa brunches into one blurred weekend deserves to be packed into a giant pastel plastic egg and rolled down Mt. Tam. My head feels like a gargantuan green Bunnyzilla hopped upon a ketchup packet, not cute. So here are some brief items of interest before I lay down for just a minute.
Stylish Portrero-ish club and gallery Project One is no more. Longtime party people Sean and Isabel Manchester of Wish, Mighty, and Chambers have snatched it up, rejiggered it with a chic vibe, programmed lots of Bay-favorite DJs, and christened it Mercer (251 Rhode Island, SF. www.mercer-sf.com), a lounge and “micro-club” named for the famous street in their beloved native Soho, NYC. The space is still bumping the Turbosound system inherited from 222 Hyde (RIP) Check it out.
Time to cue up — the 2014 DMC San Francisco Regional DJ Battle and Scratch Competition (Sat/26, noon-7pm, $15 advance, $20. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.mighty119.com) will fill Mighty all day long with epic pyrotechnics. The Bay Area holds intimate acquaintance with the all-powerful DMC World DJ Championship title: We’ve won it several times in the past 30 years — once, in fact, with this year’s host, DJ Apollo. This is the first time in three decades that there will be “test run” of a separate scratch competition (scratching was introduced to the DMC in 1986), so I’m itching to see who steps up.
Two new killer fancy cocktails for your face. SF’s been exploding with mezcal bars and
classic Negroni cocktails — combine the two for a knockout mescal Negroni ($11) at the awesome Lolo (3230 22nd St, SF. www.lolosf.com). And, at my new favorite Thai spot, downtown’s Kin Khao (55 Cyril Magnin, SF. www.kinkhao.com), grab the zesty, incredible Kathoey Collins, a.k.a. the “ladyboy” ($12). Flavored with traditional Thai blue flowers, it changes color before your very eyes to a lovely lavender, “for something you don’t quite expect,” says jovial owner Pim Techamuanvivit.
Aw, known this LA bass-head darling since he was a wee glitcher, chopping up slabs of raw atmosphere and layering on pretty discombobulations. Now he and his sound are all blown up, coming straight from Coachella for two days at Great American. With Purple, Jim-E Stack, and Chad Salty.
Wed/23 and Thur/24, 8pm doors, 9pm show, $20–$25. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. www.gamh.com
We love our hometown queer hip-hop heroes and their party crowd of radiant children. Rump-pumping duo Double Duchess will take the floor at this throwdown, with Guardian cover star Micahtron motormouthing on the mic.
Fri/25, 10pm, $10. Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, SF. www.elbo.com
FEATHERS AND FEDORAS
The Guardian’s hosting a roaring ’20s evening knees up at the de Young Museum, grab your favorite flapper and hightail it over. With live Parisian speakeasy band Trio Zincalo, Decobelles dance troupe, our very own astrologer Jessica Lanyadoo giving live readings, a full bar, and oodles more.
So excited to hear Edu again. Valencian hero of Spanish techno, he added some much-needed swing to the Berlin sound of the late 2000s with the classic “”El Baile Alema” (along with another Spanish favorite, Coyu). He easily slips crowds under his spell.
Craig Smith and Graeme Clark (a.k.a. The Revenge) are quality re-edit hypnotists from the UK, introducing new audiences to very deep soulful disco, Latin funk, and deliciously strange grooves via their quick-handed cut-and-pastes.
The sweet, eccentric Chicagoan may still be revered here mostly for his sassy electroclash output in the early 2000s, but he really does have banging house running through his veins. With the funky pastiche-master Todd Edwards and Australian Tornado Wallace (whose beard rivals our own Jason Kendig’s).
It was April 20 in Golden Gate Park, the fabled 4/20 in the parlance of pot smokers, and we found Nick and Chris standing under the shade of a tree with a cluster of friends, including Geoff, the proud owner of a five-foot bong.
Nick had done several hits through the supersized smoking device that day. Beside him, Chris took hits from his own handheld bong. “I’m feeling good,” Nick reported. “But I’m also kinda hungry. I could go for some Chinese food. Ohh, and some Sapporo!”
Administering a hit of marijuana through such unwieldy paraphernalia is quite the operation, requiring one person to stand and hold one end, another to light the marijuana once it’s packed into the bowl, and a third to inhale the five-foot column of milky smoke that rises through the chamber. The smokers on the receiving end contorted their faces as they inhaled, inevitably coughing and laughing as they breathed out, seemingly amazed by the experience. The college-age friends were in 420-induced bliss.
The annual 420 celebration in Golden Gate Park is unpermitted, with no official organizers, yet thousands of festivalgoers nevertheless flock to it year after year. It’s a quintessentially San Francisco experience: Young and old congregate for a collective daylong smoke-out, bringing drums, dogs, grills, shade structures, hand-blown glass, tie-dyed tapestries, Hacky Sacks, sound systems, and other picnic paraphernalia along with them.
The area around Hippie Hill — at the eastern end of the park, near Kezar Stadium — was a jumble of humanity crammed elbow to elbow, reeking of pot smoke. The crowd reflected a wide range of ethnicities and brought out many displaying an outlandish sense of fashion, sporting shiny plastic marijuana-leaf necklaces, sleeve tattoos, piercings, face paint, and piles upon piles of dreadlocked hair.
San Francisco maintains an iconic status as a weed-friendly city. While 420 in Golden Gate Park is a lighthearted scene that’s also proved irksome for city agencies plagued by leftover trash and traffic jams, serious year-round marijuana advocacy efforts continue to mark the Bay Area as a hotbed for drug policy reform and thriving, legitimate pot-based entrepreneurship.
The movement to legalize marijuana for medical purposes started in San Francisco, the lovechild of the city’s hippie movement and its caregiving response to the AIDS epidemic. It was Dennis Peron and other activists here who wrote Proposition 215, the statewide legalization measure that California voters approved in 1996.
A decade ago, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a comprehensive set of regulations for its two dozen or so medical marijuana dispensaries, guidelines that have proven to work well and be a model for other jurisdictions to follow, elevating pot purveyors into accepted members of the business community (see “Marijuana goes mainstream,” 1/27/10).
Some have even begun to regard the Bay Area as a model for how to implement a sensible approach to regulating marijuana. On April 16, US Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) traveled to San Francisco on a fact-finding mission after Clark County, Nevada legalized medical marijuana, with Las Vegas and other Nevada cities expected to follow shortly.
“I want the state to learn from someone who’s done it right,” Titus told the Guardian as she toured The Apothecarium on Market Street, an elegant dispensary reputed to be one of San Francisco’s finest.
In addition to helping guide Nevada’s implementation of medical marijuana legalization, Titus said she’s working on federal legislation that would better protect small businesses involved with a marijuana industry that is growing rapidly in the US, thanks to Colorado and Washington taking the next step and legalizing even recreational uses of marijuana.
For example, Titus wants to make sure marijuana businesses have full access to banking services, something that the US Department of Justice has occasionally interfered with. As Titus told us, “The federal government shouldn’t be wasting time and going after people who are abiding their state laws.”
BLISS AND BOUNDARIES
Back at 420 on Hippie Hill, Amber and Charlie lounged on a blanket with Gizmo, an affectionate pooch they’d adopted from “this guy who lives in a tree house” in Santa Cruz. The young couple, ages 18 and 20 respectively, had hitchhiked to California from Washington. Yes, “we may have done some weed,” Charlie said before letting out a peal of laughter.
“It’s been pretty awesome,” Amber said. “Literally, there was smoke coming from everywhere,” the moment 4:20pm arrived. As far as the eye could see, she said, the scene was nothing but “people smoking weed. It was crazy.”
Lilian was at the park with a friend, wearing a crown of daisies she’d woven with flowers plucked from nearby the park entrance. “All day we’ve been doing joints and blunts and pipes,” she explained. “We haven’t had any bong hits yet, but we had a couple vape hits, because they were like giving free test trials here at the park. So we were like, alright, why not?”
Lilian exulted the “positive vibes” of the event, but it wasn’t all weed and roses. A short while later, reports of gunfire sent police cars racing into the park with sirens wailing. While police later reported that they never found evidence of anyone actually discharging a weapon, two different individuals were arrested on charges of possessing a firearm.
Emergency personnel responded to four medical calls, police reported the following day, including one person who had a seizure, someone who suffered an abrasion at Haight and Ashbury streets, and two underaged individuals who experienced problems after becoming overly intoxicated. For a crowd of thousands pushed the boundaries of indulgence, quite a small number suffered harm.
Eight other arrests stemmed from charges of selling marijuana or possessing it for sale, possession or sale of opiates, one warrant arrest, and another on charges of “malicious mischief,” according to police.
A few days before the unpermitted gathering, city officials held a press conference announcing a “comprehensive plan” to crack down on the anticipated debauchery, which included not only the Golden Gate Park marijuana celebration but the “Hunky Jesus” competition, a countercultural hallmark held annually on Easter Sunday in Dolores Park.
“Last year we had a lot of challenges,” said Sup. London Breed, whose District 5 encompasses Golden Gate Park. “We need to make the city and streets safe this year. We want people to come and enjoy San Francisco, but we also want them to respect San Francisco.”
Thus, city agencies ramped up deployment of both plainclothes and uniformed police officers, and sent out more parking and traffic control officers.
The previous year, when massive amounts of debris had been left strewn throughout the park, it took 25 city employees over 12 hours to clean up five tons of trash left by intoxicated visitors, said Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department. The Department of Public Works’ tab for cleanup exceeded $10,000.
But the main draw of the event, in true San Francisco fashion, was behavior Police Chief Greg Suhr hinted in advance would essentially be tolerated. “The sale of marijuana is still a felony,” Suhr emphasized, “but I don’t think [the SFPD is] naive enough to believe that we can stop people from smoking on 4/20.”
CANNABIS AS MEDICINE
Advocates for legalizing even recreational use of marijuana had hoped to make the November ballot this year, but the campaign’s signature-gathering effort has sputtered out.
Sponsored by the California Cannabis Hemp Initiative, the legalization measure was named for Jack Herer, a renowned cannabis advocate who passed away in 2010. The campaign is now ramping up for another try in 2016, when some advocates hope the presidential election will drive younger voters to the polls.
But while efforts to legalize weed in California for recreational use falter for now, the legitimate use of cannabis for medicinal purposes has giving rise to healthy businesses and research on health benefits. At the April 16 event at the Apothecarium, Titus had lots of questions for Allie Butler, an expert in marijuana who has a master’s degree in public health and told Titus, “I want to do cannabis research for the rest of my life.”
Butler introduced Titus to the various strains of marijuana, explaining what ailments each is good for. The CaliWidow can be a cure for headaches, she explained, and Blue Dream is “good for nausea. We prescribe that for cancer patients all day.” She indicated another strain, saying, “this is the Jack Herer, it’s my mom’s favorite.” Fancy, knowledgeable, and above ground, this isn’t your mom’s marijuana business anymore.
Sunday meters will be free starting July 1, a losing proposition for many, including seniors and people with disabilities who advocated for free Muni passes at the same SFMTA meeting.
There’s a dire need. Betty Trainer, board president of Seniors & Disability Action, relayed a senior’s story printed on one of 500 cards collected by her advocacy group.
“I’m often cold and can’t walk like I used to,” Trainer read aloud. “Most days I’m stuck in my room on my own. Help me out. No one should be a recluse for lack of money.”
In increasingly expensive San Francisco, seniors and people with disabilities often can’t afford to take a bus. They asked the SFMTA board to grant them mobility, but were denied.
Tom Nolan, president of the SFMTA Board of Directors, said it would be a matter of “when, not if” the board would revisit funding free Muni for elderly and disabled passengers, and would likely take up the question again in January.
Yet many who spoke out at the meeting hammered home the point that paid Sunday meters could have easily covered the cost of such a program.
Meanwhile, a SFMTA study found that paid Sunday meters also made life easier for drivers and business proprietors. So why would the SFMTA board vote down a measure with so many benefits?
Ultimately, the decision on Sunday meters stemmed from political pressure from the Mayor’s Office. The vote reflects decision-making not predicated on whether the policy worked or not, but whether it could be sacrificed to gain political leverage.
GOOD FOR EVERYBODY
The SFMTA’s December 2013 “Evaluation of Sunday Parking Management” study may not sound like entertaining bedtime reading, but the report identifies surprising biggest winner of the paid Sunday meter program: drivers.
“It is now easier to find parking spaces in commercial and mixed use areas on Sundays,” the report begins. Between 2012 and 2013, the average parking availability on Sunday doubled during metered hours, increasing from 15 percent to 31 percent. Parking search times were lowered as well.
Sunday drivers in 2012 spent an average of 14 minutes circling for a spot; in 2013, the average was dramatically reduced to four minutes.
That created a ripple effect benefiting businesses too, as higher turnover meant more customers cycling through parking spaces, something the business advocates have pointed out.
“You can drive into merchant areas now where you couldn’t before,” Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of public policy at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, told us in an interview for a previous story.
Paid Sunday meters also provided sorely needed funding for Muni.
The SFMTA’s most recent budget projection anticipated that paid Sunday meters would yield as much as $11 million. The already approved Free Muni for Youth program and the stalled free Muni for seniors and people with disabilities program would cost Muni about $9 million, all told.
That nearly direct cost correlation could be the reason why the free Muni issue got wrapped into arguments against repealing paid Sunday meters.
“To some people $23 may not be much, but to [seniors], every penny counts,” Pei Juan Zheng, vice president of the Community Tenants Association, told the board. She spoke in Cantonese, through a interpreter. “I know some senior couples who can only afford one Muni pass and share it, taking turns to go on doctor’s visits.”
So paid parking meters benefit many diverse constituents, and even SFMTA Executive Director Ed Reiskin publicly favored them. Making Sunday meters free again wasn’t Reiskin’s idea, he told us back in February.
That order came straight from Mayor Ed Lee.
Lee’s statement to the press the day after the meters were repealed said it all.
“Repealing Sunday parking meters is about making San Francisco a little more affordable for our families and residents on Sunday, plain and simple,” Lee wrote. “Instead of nickel and diming our residents at the meter on Sunday, let’s work together to support comprehensive transportation funding measures this year and in the future that will invest in our City’s transportation system for pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and drivers alike.”
Lee’s reasoning doesn’t address Sunday meters as policy, but as political fallout.
Two initiatives seeking funds for Muni are headed for the November ballot. In public statements, Lee repeatedly expressed fear that keeping in place Sunday meter fees, which generate revenue for Muni, would dissuade car-bound voters from supporting more funding for Muni at the polls.
The SFMTA board didn’t even pretend to vote against the measure for its policy merits, instead vocalizing what insiders already knew: Mayor Lee wanted the paid meters killed.
“I know Mayor Lee has some of the best political minds in his office,” Cheryl Brinkman, another SFMTA director, chimed in. “Lee is certain this will help us in November and help us with our ballot measures.”
It seems these “best political minds” had greater sway in the end than SFMTA’s own policy reports on funding and benefits brought by Sunday meters.
VOTING FOR THE MAYOR
The SFMTA Board of Directors is appointed solely by the mayor. Efforts in 2010 to reform the body to be a mix of appointments from the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor’s Office went nowhere.
So as things stand, SFMTA directors’ chances of reappointment depend upon the will of the mayor.
After the SFMTA board voted on Sunday meters, we phoned Brinkman to ask if Lee’s appointment power swayed her vote on paid Sunday meters. She dismissed the idea, saying, “I have really strong confidence in this MTA board.”
But Brinkman did say she was told by the Mayor’s Office, though not the mayor himself, that Lee wanted to “kind of give people a break.”
“I don’t know if you’ve heard this about the Mayor’s Office, but they tend to be a little aggressive when they want people to be in line with the mayor,” Oka told StreetsBlog SF.
Notably, Lee opted to not reappoint Oka, instead appointing Cristina Rubke, whose sole political experience beforehand was advocating in public comment for the America’s Cup, according to SF Weekly. Oka was unavailable for comment for this story.
It’s not an unreasonable reach to say Oka’s frequent outspoken opposition to the positions of sitting mayors may have cost him his reappointment.
And Oka’s story raises another question: Does the SFMTA genuflect to the wishes of the Mayor’s Office? A look at past SFMTA board votes shows members’ startling consensus with the mayor, and with each other, for an ostensibly political board.
On smaller projects where one may expect political agreement, it’s there: The SFMTA board voted unanimously in 2011 to convert a portion of Haight Street for two-bus lanes, and in 2012 the board voted unanimously to approve Oak and Fell streets bike lanes.
But the board votes unanimously on more politically divisive matters too. Earlier this year, the commuter shuttle pilot program was greeted with controversy centered on Google buses. The packed SFMTA board meeting was perhaps one of the most contentious in recent memory, with those delivering public comment split between favoring the pilot program, or not.
But despite the fractious debate, the board voted unanimously to enact the commuter shuttle pilot program, a project the mayor had publicly championed.
“I don’t want to give anyone the impression that this mayor pressures the MTA board,” Brinkman told us. “This mayor,” she said, “really doesn’t.”
Before the vote, directors Ramos and Brinkman both acknowledged paid Sunday meters offer many benefits for drivers, but said the SFMTA failed to make the political argument for those benefits.
“We need to regroup and better explain parking management,” Brinkman told us in a phone interview. “Not just to the people who park but the Board of Supervisors, and even up to the Mayor’s Office.”
But even the directors who spoke favorably about paid Sunday meters voted to repeal them.
Hours after the public comment session finally wound to an end, it was time for SFMTA board members to vote on Sunday meters. Rather than discussing pros and cons, they swiftly rejected the program. And, in a move that should surprise no one, they voted unanimously.
The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined Bay Area Rapid Transit for three “willful/serious” safety violations in connection with the death of two transit workers last October, saying BART is at fault due to a lack of safety measures.
“Safety standards are designed to save lives,” acting Cal/OSHA chief Juliann Sum said in a statement, “and they were not followed.”
The transit workers were killed in the final days of the BART strike. The accident claimed the lives of Christopher Sheppard, a BART manager and member of the AFSCME union, and Larry Daniels, a contractor, who had been inspecting a “dip in the rail” before they were hit by an oncoming train.
The workers were required to go through what’s called a Simple Approval process to get permission to work on the track, but the OSHA citation seized on that process as a dangerous underlying factor in the fatal accident.
“Employer’s control method, namely the ‘Simple Approval’ procedure, does not safeguard personnel working on tracks during railcar movement,” the citation reads. “The employer allowed workers to conduct work on the railway tracks where trains were traveling. The employees had no warning that a train moving at more than 65 miles-per-hour was … approaching the location where they were working.”
BART General Manager Grace Crunican quickly issued a statement. “Passenger and employee safety is our top priority at BART,” Crunican said. “BART has fundamentally upgraded its safety procedures with the implementation of an enhanced wayside safety program and a proposed budget investment of over $5 million.” She added that Cal/OSHA considered the safety violations to be “abated” in light of these changes, “meaning that none … pose continuing safety hazards.”
Simple Approval has since been terminated, BART spokesperson Alicia Trost told the Guardian. “BART permanently eliminated Simple Approval immediately following the tragic deaths,” she said. “We are also implementing the extra layers of protection for track workers.”
Notably, the two workers were killed during BART management’s attempt to train managers to operate trains during the strike, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which continues to investigate the incident. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez)
SORRY STATE OF PUBLIC HOUSING
Sup. London Breed has proposed setting aside city funding to renovate vacant and dilapidated public housing units, in an effort to quickly make housing available for homeless families in the face of a dire shortage.
At the April 15 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, Breed cited an anticipated budget surplus and called for the Controller and City Attorney to begin drafting a supplemental budgetary appropriation of $2.6 million, for renovating 172 San Francisco Housing Authority units sitting vacant.
“There are over 40 public housing developments in San Francisco, and given the decades of mismanagement and financial neglect that public housing has endured, many units are currently not available for San Franciscans to live in,” Breed said. “As we grapple with an unprecedented affordability crisis and an acute shortage of housing, particularly affordable housing, these fallow public housing units represent one of our best and cheapest opportunities to make housing available now.” Breed, who represents District 5, previously lived in San Francisco public housing.
The Housing Authority receives its funding through the federal government, but spokesperson Rose Marie Dennis said those federal dollars don’t stretch far enough for the agency to perform routine restoration of vacant units. “We have to work with the resources that we have,” she said.
According to an analysis by Budget & Legislative Analyst Harvey Rose, the city has lost $6.3 million in rent that could have been collected had its empty public housing units been occupied.
The day after Breed floated her proposal for a budgetary supplemental, tragedy struck at Sunnydale, the Housing Authority’s largest housing development, when a deadly fire claimed the lives of a 32-year-old resident and her 3-year-old son. The cause of the fire is under investigation, but a San Francisco Chronicle report noted that the Housing Authority had planned to rebuild Sunnydale for years due to its poor condition.
The following day, April 17, Mayor Ed Lee announced that emergency funding of $5.4 million had been identified through the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, to address serious deferred maintenance needs — such as busted elevators in apartment complexes where disabled seniors rely on wheelchairs and canes to get around. (Rebecca Bowe)
SUPES OUTFOX LANDLORDS
When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors gave final approval April 15 for legislation to substantially increase landlord payments to tenants in the case of Ellis Act evictions, it reflected a key change designed to counter a recent eviction push by landlords.
Winning approval on a 9-2 vote, with Sups. Mark Farrell and Katy Tang opposed, the legislation increases the current required relocation payments of $5,265 per person or $15,795 per unit (plus an additional $3,510 for those with disabilities or over age 62) up to the equivalent of two years’ rent for a comparable unit. That translates to tens of thousands of dollars.
For example, the Controller’s Office calculates that a family evicted from a two-bedroom apartment in the Mission District rented at $909 per month would be entitled to $44,833 in relocation payment.
The legislation was originally scheduled to go into effect 120 days after passage, in order to give city officials enough time to implement it. But when sponsoring Sup. David Campos heard landlords were rushing to evict tenants prior to the fee increase, he checked in with the City Attorney’s Office and other departments to see whether they could be ready sooner. After getting the green light, Campos amended the measure to go into effect 30 days after it’s enacted into law.
The question now is whether Mayor Ed Lee, who has not taken a position on the legislation, will act quickly to sign it. He was initially given 10 days to decide. Since a veto-proof majority approved the legislation, the mayor’s decision is to either grant approval or stall the inevitable, triggering more evictions at lower levels of relocation assistance. (Steven T. Jones)
POLICE TAPES BROUGHT TO LIGHT
Police radio dispatch records from March 21, the night 28-year-old Alejandro Nieto was gunned down in Bernal Heights Park by San Francisco Police Department officers, had been impossible to obtain despite requests from journalists, attorneys, and community members who had ties to Nieto.
Then, incredibly — thanks to a combination of tenacious reporting and the website Broadcastify.com — the radio dispatch audio popped up in a news report on KQED’s website.
Originally captured in real-time by a website works like an automatic police scanner and preserves all files, the recordings offer a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse of what occurred in the moments leading up to the highly controversial officer-involved shooting.
The SFPD’s account of the incident is that officers opened fire in defense of their own lives because Nieto pointed a Taser at them, causing them to believe he was tracking them with a firearm.
But the audio files that have now surfaced reflect no mention of a suspect brandishing a weapon.
The first mention of a “221” — police code for person with a gun — is to relate a 911 caller’s description of a Latino male suspect, who has “got a gun on his hip, and is pacing back and forth on the north side of the park near a chain-linked fence.” Just before the shooting, a voice can be heard saying over the radio, “There’s a guy in a red shirt, way up the hill, walking toward you guys.” Several seconds later, another voice calmly states, “I got a guy right here.”
Twenty-six seconds after that, a person can be heard shouting, “Shots fired! Shots fired!”
“What’s very telling is that none of the people are saying, the guy had a gun, he pointed it at us,” said attorney Adante Pointer of the law office of John Burris, which is preparing to file a complaint on behalf of Nieto’s family against the SFPD. “It begs the question, did [Nieto] do what they said he did?”
“If this was a righteous shooting,” Pointer added, “then [SFPD] … shouldn’t have any fear of public scrutiny.”
Friends and supporters of Nieto have led marches to protest the shooting and set up a website for ongoing events, justice4alexnieto.org. (Rebecca Bowe)
It’s never been easy for progressives to mount a serious campaign for the California governor’s office. The high water mark was in 1934 when famous author/activist Upton Sinclair ran on his End Poverty In California platform and got nearly 38 percent of the vote despite being shut out by the major newspapers at the time.
That campaign was cited by both of this year’s leading leftist challengers to Gov. Jerry Brown — Green Party candidate Luis Rodriguez and Peace and Freedom Party candidate Cindy Sheehan — who say the goal of ending poverty is more important than ever, but who are also having a hard time getting media coverage for that message.
The latest Field Poll from April 9 shows Brown with a 40-point lead on his closest challenger, conservative Republican Tim Donnelly (57 to 17 percent, with 20 percent undecided). Republicans Andrew Blount and Neel Kashkari were at 3 and 2 percent, respectively, while Rodriguez and Sheehan are among the 11 also-rans who shared the support of 1 percent of the California electorate.
Perhaps that’s to be expected given that Brown is a Democrat who pulled the state back from the edge of the fiscal abyss largely by backing the Prop. 30 tax package in 2012, with most of the new revenue coming from increased income taxes on the rich. But to hear Rodriguez and Sheehan tell it, Brown is just another agent of the status quo at a time when the growing gap between rich and poor is the state’s most pressing problem.
“We have to put all our resources into ending poverty,” Rodriguez told us.
The campaigns that Rodriguez and Sheehan are running seem indicative of the state of progressive politics in California these days, with good work being done on individual issues by an array of groups, but little coordination among them or serious work on the kind of organizing and coalition-building needed to win statewide office.
There is still hope, particularly given California’s open primary system, where all Rodriguez or Sheehan need to do is beat the top Republican challenger in June in order to face Brown in a two-person race in November — an outcome that would definitely elevate their progressive message.
“One of our sayings is ‘second place wins the race,'” Sheehan told the Guardian.
But at this point, that seems unlikely, a longshot that points to the need for progressive-minded Californians to rebuild the movement and win over new generations of voters, particularly the young people disconnected from electoral politics and largely behind by the economic system.
When we asked Sheehan how her campaign was going, she replied, “It’s going.” When we pushed for a bit more, she told us, “It’s very, very grassroots and we’ve been trying to get the word out.”
And by “very, very grassroots,” Sheehan seems to mean that it’s not going very well, in terms of fundraising, volunteer support, media exposure, or any of the things a campaign needs to be successful. It’s been a disappointment for a woman who started her public political life as a media darling.
The year after Sheehan’s son Casey died fighting the Iraq War in 2004, she set up an encampment outside then-President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, instantly becoming a high-profile anti-war activist just as public opinion was turning strongly against the war.
Sheehan parlayed that fame into international activism for peace and other progressive causes, writing a pair of autobiographical/political books, and mounting a primary challenge against then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in 2008, finishing in second place with about 16 percent of the vote. Sheehan was also the running mate of presidential candidate Roseanne Barr in 2012, although their Peace and Freedom Party ticket didn’t appear on the ballot in most states.
But these days, Sheehan has found it tougher to recapture the media spotlight she once enjoyed, causing her to sometimes bristle with frustration and a sense of entitlement, as she did with us at the Guardian for failing to help her amplify her message before now.
“Who came in 2nd against Pelosi? Who received well into ‘double digits?’ The campaign can’t get steam if ‘lefties’ put the same criteria as the [San Francisco] Chronicle for example for coverage. If I were truly in this for my ‘ego’ I would have quit a long time ago. You write, I campaign all over the world for the things I care about,” Sheehan wrote in a testy April 3 email exchange with me after a supporter seeking our coverage sent her a message in which I questioned the prospects of her campaign.
But getting progressive support in a race against Pelosi in San Francisco clearly isn’t the same thing as having a progressive campaign gain traction with a statewide audience, particularly because Sheehan doesn’t have many prominent endorsers or organizational allies.
By contrast, Rodriguez seems to be outhustling Sheehan, racing up and the down the state to promote his candidacy and work on rebuilding the progressive movement, with an emphasis on reaching communities of color who feel estranged from politics.
“People like me and others on the left need to step up if we’re not going to just accept the control of the two-party system. We have to fight for that democratic reality, we have to make it real,” Rodriguez told us. “You can’t just say vote, vote, vote. You have to give them something to vote for.”
ON THE ISSUES
Rodriguez is the author of 15 books, including poetry, journalism, novels, and a controversial memoir on gang life, Always Running, winning major writing awards for his work. He lives in the Los Angeles area, where he’s been active in community-building in both the arts and political realms.
Rodriguez is running on a platform that brings together environmental, social justice, and anti-poverty issues, areas addressed separately by progressive groups who have made only halting progress on each, “which is why we need to make them inseparable.”
While he said Brown has improved the “terrible situation he inherited from Schwarzenegger,” Rodriguez said that the fortunes of the average Californian haven’t turned around.
“People are hurting in the state of California. I think Brown has to answer for that,” Rodriguez said, noting that people are frustrated with the economic system and looking for solutions. “I don’t think Gov. Brown has a plan for it. In fact, I think he’s making it worse.”
Sheehan is critical of Brown for his opposition to full marijuana legalization, his resistance to prison reform, for allowing fracking, and for doing little to challenge the consolidation of wealth.
“My main issue is always, of course, peace and justice. But a corollary of that is for the resources of this state to be more fairly distributed to help people’s lives,” Sheehan said, calling that economic justice stand an outgrowth of her anti-war activism. “Since my son was killed, I’ve been starting to connect the dots about the empire we live under.”
When she studied California history at UCLA, Sheehan said, “I was inspired by Upton Sinclair and his End Poverty In California campaign in the ’30s.” She reminisces about the California of her childhood, when college education was free and the social safety net was intact, keeping people from economic desperation.
“It’s been done before and we can do it again,” Sheehan said. “I love this state, I love its potential, and I miss the way it was when I was growing up.”
OBSTACLES TO OVERCOME
Money is a challenge for statewide candidates given the size of California, which has at least a half-dozen major media markets that all need to be tapped repeatedly to reach voters throughout the state.
“I won’t take any corporate dollars and only people with money get heard,” Rodriguez told us.
But he says California has a large and growing number of voters who don’t identify with either major party, as well as a huge number of Latino voters who have yet to really make their voices heard at election time.
“I’m really banking on the people that nobody is counting,” Rodriguez said. “This is the time when people need to come together. We have to unite on these central things.”
That’s always a tough task for third-party candidates. Sheehan has a paltry list of endorsers, owing partly to the left-leaning organizations like labor unions staying with Brown, even though Sheehan claims many of their members support her.
“The rank and file is supportive of our message, but the leadership is still tied in with the Democratic Party,” Sheehan told us. “This state is deeply controlled by the Democratic Party, even more than it was a few years ago.”
But Sheehan considers herself a strong and seasoned candidate. “I’ve run for Congress, I’ve run for vice president, and I think that politics should be local,” Sheehan told us, saying her main strength would be, “I would work with people to create a better state, not against people.”
It was a theme she returned to a few times in our conversation, her main selling point. “It’s about inspiring a movement,” Sheehan said. “My biggest gift is getting out there and talking to people.” But if her strengths are indeed inspiring a movement, working with allies, and building coalitions, then why isn’t her campaign doing those things? Sheehan admits that it’s been difficult, telling us, “I found it easier in San Francisco to get the word out.”
Bay Area Rapid Transit made a deadly miscalculation last year — one that built on years of reckless decisions to value efficiency over safety — and nobody was ever held accountable. That’s not acceptable for a public agency, and it’s time for the people who made these decisions and the elected officials who enabled them to come clean and make amends.
Last year’s contentious contract negotiations between BART management and employees was marked by an ugly union-bashing media strategy and dangerous brinksmanship that forced two strikes. During the second strike in October, two BART workers were killed by a train operated by someone management was training to run replacement service to break the unions.
Whether that driver’s inexperience directly caused the deaths is still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, but we do know that this tragedy was a direct result of the “simple approval process” that made these workers responsible for their own safety even though they couldn’t see or hear a train coming with enough time to safely get out of the way.
California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health has been battling with BART for years to change this dangerous procedure that had killed workers before, but BART chose to aggressively litigate the mandate at every turn instead doing the right thing, finally acceding after these latest avoidable deaths.
DOSH last week concluded its investigation of the October deaths, finding BART guilty of “willful/serious” safety violations and leveling the maximum fine allowed by law, a mere $210,000. Civil wrongful death settlements are likely to reach into the millions of dollars, and the NTSB could soon bring more punishment down on BART.
But real accountability begins at home. This reckless management strategy should be an issue in every one of this year’s reelection races for BART’s Board of Directors, each of whom are culpable and none of whom have challenged the decisions by General Manager Grace Crunican and Assistant Manager of Operations Paul Oversier in any serious public way.
This arrogant agency has abused the public trust and been hostile to reasonable public oversight, whether that involves its trigger-happy Police Department or its callous disregard for the safety of workers and riders, something its unions have been calling out for many years.
The California Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment unveiled damning evidence of BART’s lax safety culture during a hearing in November, and it’s time for the Legislature to follow up and give DOSH the authority and funding it needs to hold BART and other serial safety violators accountable.
Voters should also consider replacing current elected directors this fall (we’ll offer our endorsements then), giving special consideration to those who want to clean house and change a management culture that is hostile to safety and its workers.
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