Volumes

Volume 49 Number 3 Flip-through Edition

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Volume 49 Number 2 Flip-through Edition

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Return of the messenger

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By Melinda Welsh

news@sfbg.com

This one has all the ingredients of a dreamed-up Hollywood blockbuster: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist uncovers a big story involving drugs, the CIA, and a guerrilla army. Despite threats and intimidation, he writes an explosive exposé and catches national attention. But the fates shift. Our reporter’s story is torn apart by the country’s leading media; he is betrayed by his own newspaper. Though the big story turns out to be true, the writer commits suicide and becomes a cautionary tale.

Hold on, though. The above is not fiction.

Kill the Messenger, an actual film coming soon to a theater near you, is the true story of Sacramento-based investigative reporter Gary Webb, who earned both acclaim and notoriety for his 1996 San Jose Mercury News series that revealed the CIA had turned a blind eye to the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras trafficking crack cocaine in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere in urban America in the 1980s. One of the first-ever newspaper investigations to be published on the Internet, Webb’s story gained a massive readership and stirred up a firestorm of controversy and repudiation.

After being deemed a pariah by media giants like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, and being disowned by his own paper, Webb eventually came to work in August 2004 at Sacramento News & Review. Four months later, he committed suicide at age 49. He left behind a grieving family — and some trenchant questions:

Why did the media giants attack him so aggressively, thereby protecting the government secrets he revealed? Why did he decide to end his own life? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Gary Webb?

Like others working at our newsweekly in the brief time he was here, I knew Webb as a colleague and was terribly saddened by his death. Those of us who attended his unhappy memorial service at the Doubletree Hotel in Sacramento a week after he died thought that day surely marked a conclusion to the tragic tale of Gary Webb.

But no.

Because here comes Kill the Messenger, a Hollywood film starring Jeremy Renner as Webb; Rosemarie DeWitt as Webb’s then wife, Sue Bell (now Stokes); Oliver Platt as Webb’s top editor, Jerry Ceppos; and a litany of other distinguished actors, including Michael K. Williams, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, and Robert Patrick. Directed by Michael Cuesta (executive producer of the TV series Homeland), the film opens in a “soft launch” across the country and in Bay Area theaters on Oct. 10.

Members of Webb’s immediate family—including his son Eric, who lives near Sacramento State and plans a career in journalism—expect to feel a measure of solace upon the release of Kill the Messenger.

“The movie is going to vindicate my dad,” he said.

For Renner — who grew up in Modesto and is best known for his roles in The Bourne Legacy, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, The Avengers and The Hurt Locker — the film was a chance to explore a part unlike any he’d played before. During a break in filming Mission Impossible 5, he spoke to us about his choice to star in and co-produce Kill the Messenger.

“The story is important,” said Renner. “It resonated with me. It has a David and Goliath aspect.

“He was brave, he was flawed. … I fell in love with Gary Webb.”

 

EARLY VIRAL JOURNALISM

There’s a scene in Kill the Messenger that will make every investigative journalist in America break into an insider’s grin. It’s the one where — after a year of tough investigative slogging that had taken him from the halls of power in Washington, D.C., to a moldering jail in Central America to the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles — Renner as Webb begins to write the big story. In an absorbing film montage, Renner is at the keyboard as it all comes together — the facts, the settings, the sources. The truth. The Clash provides the soundtrack, with Joe Strummer howling: Know your rights / these are your rights … You have the right to free speech / as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.

It took the real Gary Webb a long time to get to this point in his career.

His father, a U.S. Marine, moved Webb around a lot in his youth, from California to Indiana to Kentucky to Ohio. He wound up marrying his high school sweetheart, Sue Bell, with whom he had three children. Inspired by the reporting that uncovered Watergate and in need of income, he left college three units shy of a degree and went to work at The Kentucky Post, then The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, where he rose quickly through the ranks of grunt reporters. Dogged in his pursuit of stories, Webb landed a job at the Mercury News in 1988 and became part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for reporting on the Loma Prieta earthquake.

It was the summer of 1996 when the lone-wolf journalist handed his editors a draft of what would become the three-part, 20,000-word exposé “Dark Alliance.” The series was exhaustive and complex. But its nugget put human faces on how CIA operatives had been aware that the Contras (who had been recruited and trained by the CIA to topple the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua) had smuggled cocaine into the United States and, through drug dealers, fueled an inner-city crack-cocaine epidemic.

When “Dark Alliance” was published on Aug. 18 of that year, it was as if a bomb had exploded at the Mercury News. That’s because it was one of the first stories to go globally viral online on the paper’s then state-of-the-art website. It was 1996; the series attracted an unprecedented 1.3 million hits per day. Webb and his editors were flooded with letters and emails. Requests for appearances piled in from national TV news shows.

“Gary’s story was the first Internet-age big journalism exposé,” said Nick Schou, who wrote the book Kill the Messenger, on which the movie is partially based, along with Webb’s own book version of the series, Dark Alliance. “If the series had happened a year earlier it, ‘Dark Alliance’ just would have come and gone,” said Schou.

As word of the story spread, black communities across America — especially in South Central Los Angeles — grew outraged and demanded answers. At the time, crack cocaine was swallowing up neighborhoods whole, fueling an epidemic of addiction and crime. Rocked by the revelations, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, congresswoman for Los Angeles’s urban core to this day, used her bully pulpit to call for official investigations.

But after a six-week honeymoon for Webb and his editors, the winds shifted. The attacks began.

On Oct. 4, The Washington Post stunned the Mercury News by publishing five articles assaulting the veracity of Webb’s story, leading the package from page one. A few weeks later, The New York Times joined with similar intent.

The ultimate injury came when the L.A. Times unleashed a veritable army of 17 journalists (known internally as the “Get Gary Webb Team”) on the case, writing a three-part series demolishing “Dark Alliance.” The L.A. paper — which appeared to onlookers to have missed a giant story in its own backyard — was exhaustive in its deconstruction, claiming the series “was vague” and overreached. “Oliver Stone, check your voice mail,” summed Post media columnist Howard Kurtz.

Now, even some of Webb’s supporters admitted that his series could have benefited from more judicious editing. But why were the “big three” so intent on tearing down Webb’s work rather than attempting to further the story, as competing papers had done back in the day when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal?

Some say it was the long arm of former President Ronald Reagan and his team’s ability to manipulate the gatekeepers of old media to its purposes. (Reagan had, after all, publicly compared the Contras to “our Founding Fathers” and supported the CIA-led attempt to topple the Sandinista government.)

Others say that editors at the “big three” were simply affronted to have a midsize paper like the Mercury News beat them on such a big story. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review claimed some L.A. Times reporters bragged in the office about denying Webb a Pulitzer.

One of their big criticisms was that the story didn’t include a comment from the CIA. When reporters at the big three asked the agency if Webb’s story was true, they were told no. The denial was printed in the mainstream media as if it were golden truth.

Other issues fueled controversy around Webb’s story. For example: It was falsely reported in some media outlets — and proclaimed by many activists in the black community — that Webb had proven the CIA was directly involved in drug trafficking that targeted blacks. He simply did not make this claim.

In some ways, Webb became the first reporter ever to benefit from, and then become the victim of, a story that went viral online.

After triumphing in the early success of the series, Webb’s editors at the Mercury News became unnerved and eventually backed down under the pressure. Jerry Ceppos, the paper’s executive editor, published an unprecedented column on May 11, 1997, that was widely considered an apology for the series, saying it “fell short” in editing and execution.

When contacted by us, Ceppos, now dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, said he was only barely aware of the film coming out and wasn’t familiar with the acting career of Oliver Platt, who plays him in the movie. “I’m the wrong person to ask about popular culture,” he said.

Asked if he would do anything differently today regarding Gary Webb’s series, Ceppos, whose apologia did partially defend the series, responded with an unambiguous “no.”

“It seems to me, 18 years later, that everything still holds up. … Everything is not black and white. If you portrayed it that way, then you need to set the record straight. I’m very proud that we were willing to do that.”

Some find irony in the fact that Ceppos, in the wake of the controversy, was given the 1997 Ethics in Journalism Award by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Webb, once heralded as a groundbreaking investigative reporter, was soon banished to the paper’s Cupertino bureau, a spot he considered “the newspaper’s version of Siberia.” In 1997, after additional run-ins with his editors, including their refusal to run his follow-up reporting on the “Dark Alliance” series, he quit the paper altogether.

But a year later, he was redeemed when CIA’s inspector general, Frederick Hitz, released his 1998 report admitting that the CIA had known all along that the Contras had been trafficking cocaine. Reporter Robert Parry, who covered the Iran-Contra scandal for The Associated Press, called the report “an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA.” But the revelation fell on deaf ears. It went basically unnoticed by the newspapers that had attacked Webb’s series. A later internal investigation by the Justice Department echoed the CIA report.

But no apology was forthcoming to Webb, despite the fact that the central finding of his series had been proven correct after all.

 

‘STAND UP AND RISK IT ALL’

It was eight days after Webb’s death when a few hundred of us gathered in Sacramento Doubletree Hotel’s downstairs conference room for an afternoon memorial service. Photo collages of Webb were posted on tables as mourners filed into the room. There he was featured in an Esquire magazine article recounting his saga. Family members and friends, longtime colleagues, and SN&R staffers packed into the room.

My own distress at Webb’s passing wasn’t fully realized until my eyes lit on his Pulitzer Prize propped on a table just inside the entryway. It was the first one I’d ever seen. I wondered how many more exceptional stories he could have produced if things had gone differently.

“He wanted to write for one of the big three,” said Webb’s brother Kurt. “Unfortunately, the big three turned [on him].”

Praise for the absent journalist — his smarts, guts, and tenacity — flowed from friends, colleagues and VIPs at the event. A statement from now U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then a senator, had been emailed to SN&R: “Because of [Webb]’s work, the CIA launched an Inspector General’s investigation that found dozens of troubling connections to drug-runners. That wouldn’t have happened if Gary Webb hadn’t been willing to stand up and risk it all.”

Renner was hesitant to say if those who watch Kill the Messenger will leave with any particular take-home lesson. “I want the audience to walk away and debate and argue about it all,” he said of his David and Goliath tale. And then, “I do believe [the film] might help create some awareness and accountability in government and newspapers.” And what would the real live protagonist of Kill the Messenger have thought of it all? It’s at least certain he’d have been unrepentant. In the goodbye letter his ex-wife received on the day of his suicide, Gary Webb told her: “Tell them I never regretted anything I wrote.”

Drifting by

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culture@sfbg.com

THE WEEKNIGHTER “It’s all fun and games and whippings until the end when everyone is really drunk. Then it’s just a bunch of wasted people rubbing their penises on things. That’s when I go inside and lock my door.” I was telling this to the bartender and a couple people sitting next to me. We were talking about the Folsom Street Fair.

“Yeah,” the woman on my left replied, “that’s when we got real busy actually, right when the fair started to close down.” She bartends at the Cat Club, which, along with Driftwood (1225 Folsom, SF. www.driftwoodbarsf.com), and my apartment, are all on Folsom Street. Just then “No Diggity” came on over the speakers and we each bobbed to the music in our own way. We were hanging out doing what bartenders do, drinking and talking about the other places we’ve worked and who we know in common. “I’m actually buying all the drinks for this guy tonight,” the lady said, pointing to the dude next to her.

He responded, “Yeah, I was mugged at gunpoint the other night, over in the Lower Haight. They got my wallet and my phone. Luckily they caught the bastards since I ran into someone right after and had them call the cops and tell them the license plate number.”

During the Folsom Street Fair a bunch of us put chairs on the sidewalk and hung out all afternoon watching the spectacle. At one point my friend Lauryn said, “It’s days like this that remind me why I love San Francisco. If this kind of fuckery can still happen, maybe the city isn’t dead after all.” For some reason, the guy telling me about his mugging reminded me of this. He was a bartender, not a startup bro, but still it made me think about how all these people who view San Francisco as a tech utopia seem to forget this is a real-ass city, where nasty things happen. Don’t get me wrong, nobody deserves to be mugged, and certainly not this nice guy I was having a drink with at the bar, but in weird way, hearing about these kinds of shitty things also reminded me that SF isn’t some bland bubble yet. If the “let the free market decide” people had complete reign over this city, eventually there wouldn’t be any muggings at all because the only people left here would be rich. But also, there may not be an entire day of people in leather beating and fellating each other in the streets.

We chatted a little more and had a shot before the two sitting by me went over to Death Guild. That just left me and the bartender. “I moved here three years ago with only $500 to my name,” he told me, “I couldn’t have picked a worse time to come to SF. It took me forever to find a place to live, so I slept on couches and worked a million hours and eventually moved into an SRO until I could afford to move into an apartment. But I did it all because I love this city and I knew I needed to be here.”

Eventually three guys came into the bar. They were all from other countries and were living in Sonoma doing some impressive vintners internship. They finally had a night off and were blowing off steam. After some drinks, the Aussie guy asked where they could meet some girls around there. I thought about it, “It’s a Monday night guys, and you’re in a neighborhood of mostly gay bars.” I told them.

“There’s the EndUp,” the barkeep said. And I laughed out loud. “No really,” he responded, “attractive straight girls actually go there now.” To which I thought, maybe the city is dead after all.

Stuart Schuffman aka Broke-Ass Stuart is a travel writer, poet, and TV host. You can find his online shenanigans at www.brokeassstuart.com

 

Go for Goth

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM On paper, it seems like an odd match: director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett of indie horror hit You’re Next (2011), and British actor Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey‘s erstwhile heir. On screen, however, the trio’s The Guest is the boogeyman movie of the year, weaving a synth-scored tale of a small-town family startled by the sudden appearance of a soldier (Stevens) who claims to have known the son and brother they lost in Afghanistan. David is polite, handsome, and eager to assist in any way — whether it’s carrying kegs into a party with just-out-of-high-school Anna (Maika Monroe), or breaking faces on behalf of bullied teen Luke (Brendan Meyer).

You know what happens when something’s too good to be true, and the filmmakers know you know, enabling them to have a great time teasing out this trick-or-treat of a thriller, which is set during the cell phone era but references films like 1987’s The Stepfather and John Carpenter’s 1980s heyday (which, again, they know you know — and love, just like they do). I spoke with all three during a recent phone interview.

San Francisco Bay Guardian The Guest reminded me of another thriller that came out this year, Cold in July — both tell contemporary stories using 1980s retro style. What inspired that approach?

Simon Barrett After You’re Next, Adam and I wanted to think about what got us making movies in the first place. All three of us came of cinematic awareness during the 1980s, so a lot of the movies that inspired us were genre films of the mid-to-late ’80s. We wanted to do something that had that same fun spirit and aesthetic, but we didn’t just want to do an homage or an imitation, because that’s really easy and lazy. It was about taking that same tone those movies had, and doing something original with it. That was our goal from the very beginning, when Adam started talking about The Terminator (1984) and Halloween (1978).

Adam Wingard I read an article recently about how the most homaged filmmaker of the year is John Carpenter. There’s this weird zeitgeist of filmmakers who are inspired by Carpenter and other ’80s filmmakers. All of us making these movies are around the same age, and we all grew up on movies like Big Trouble in Little China (1986). It seems like that’s what’s in the air.

SB They Live (1988) is one we’ve referenced quite a bit — the humor in that film is so extraordinarily innovative and insane. There’s never any overt jokes, but there’s a fight scene in an alley that keeps going and going, until it becomes hysterical. That’s the humor that we were influenced by and respond to: letting something become ridiculous, and calling attention to the ridiculousness, but still taking your story and characters seriously. Carpenter just nailed that and I don’t think he gets enough credit for it.

SFBG Dan, were you a fan of horror before making The Guest?

Dan Stevens Adam and Simon are far more steeped in that specific genre than I am, but I certainly grew up on a lot of cult 1980s and 1990s American horror films. The Halloween films were huge in the UK. The action thriller genre was also massive, and something we were kind of baptized with in Britain.

AW It’s interesting how these cult 1980s genre films are, pretty much worldwide, a good connecting point. When we first talked, Dan and I had a very easy conversation, because we had those through lines. Beyond that, we both connected on understanding the sense of humor in Simon’s script, and realized we should be working together.

SFBG The soundtrack — which includes Sisters of Mercy, Front 242, and Love and Rockets — plays a huge role in The Guest. What motivated your musical choices?

AW Growing up in Alabama, I knew these pot dealers who were super gothed out. I always thought that was interesting, that even in the smallest towns there are still these weird subcultures. Through people like that I became aware of bands like Death in June and Front 242. I always thought that would be an interesting thing to bring into a movie, because I hadn’t seen somebody take a realistic approach to goth sensibilities.

I had a couple of songs in mind that I thought would be good for the movie, but I didn’t want to just make a film that had a bunch of music that I thought was cool. If it’s gonna be in there, it’s got to be story-oriented and character-motivated. I knew, also, that this wasn’t a straightforward horror film, but that I wanted it to take place during Halloween. So the approach to horror in The Guest isn’t necessarily in terms of it trying to be scary. It was more taking that goth approach to it in general, which is like having fun with the macabre and that type of energy. It’s more like fun-scary imagery than it is actually horrifying. 2

 

THE GUEST opens Fri/10 in Bay Area theaters.

By George

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FILM/LIT It’s anyone’s guess how many films and videos George Kuchar made before his death in 2011 (Portland’s Yale Union is valiantly attempting a comprehensive retrospective, which they estimate will take seven years), but there’s material for at least a hundred more in The George Kuchar Reader (Primary Information, 336 pp., $27.50). Tracing a singular life in movies from the Bronx-bound 8mm melodramas Kuchar made with his twin brother, Mike, on through the boundlessly nutty video conflagrations emerging out of his classroom at the San Francisco Art Institute, the book collects handwritten screenplays, letters, underground comics, meteorological observations, and UFO diaries. Reader editor Andrew Lampert will be in attendance at two special screenings in the coming weeks to report on these deep-sea dives into Kuchar’s self-described cinematic cesspool.

That Kuchar’s literary artifacts should be hilarious and not a little wise is no surprise, but it’s worth pausing to note the extent to which the writing itself illuminates Kuchar’s creative methods. Take the letters of recommendations he wrote for his SFAI students — an obligatory form of writing if there ever was one, but for Kuchar an occasion for uninhibited characterization: “This winged spirit, reared in semitropical heat, can banish the chill that has descended upon your patrons; so turn up the heat and witness what only equatorial nearness can nurture”; “His unbridled lust for livid living endows the fruits of his labor with intoxicating incense. Sniff these works at your own risk as the aroma reeks of secret scents from a Garden of Eden gone mad with flower power”; “He’s a lone figure swimming upstream to a different drumbeat.” No cliché is safe. Kuchar’s persistence in slugging it out with these once familiar figures of speech surely says something about the way he approached a dramatic scene.

Implicitly skewering heroic strains of avant-garde poetics, Kuchar’s accounts of his own filmmaking almost always turn on the body. Take this metabolic account from a 1964 article for Film Culture:

“Many nights I lay awake in my sheets burning with the fever of a new movie script … Sleep only comes when extra sugar is pumped into my body due to the excessive emotional tension that grips me during these celestial periods. The sugar makes my body hot thereby opening its big pores. Then the sweat of my ordeal seeps out in a stink of creativity and new germ has been born. A germ that will grow into the virus of 8mm movies. In the morning I awaken, fresh, vibrant, but constipated with the urge to release a lump of cinematic material.”

So filmmaking is fever, open pores, sweat, stink, germs, and viruses; the film itself, a load of shit. One begins to sense that the many Joycean digressions on “exciting gastric distress” peppering these pages are less a matter of any particular tummy trouble than Kuchar’s underlying conviction that the creative muse is ineluctably bound to more basic drives.

Bodily fixations notwithstanding, Kuchar was plenty canny about film aesthetics, whether pinpointing the underlying motivations for “these gigantic, moving billboards” (“IT WAS LOVE AND OBSESSION”) or situating his own fortuitous ascendancy in the 1960s avant-garde: “You’d develop them [8mm films] cheap at the local camera store and in five or 10 years the emulsion would crack and chip in time for the 1960s, avant-garde film explosion. No need to bake your footage in an oven like so many artists were doing: your home movies had already deteriorated into art.” Not that Kuchar wasn’t grateful: An early letter to Donna Kerness evinces little enthusiasm for his work as a commercial artist but adapts a more familiar exuberance when describing his latest 8mm production about a brawling ménage-a-trois.

The final 50 pages of the Reader are dedicated to a poignant last testament stitched together from the “endless emails of unexpurgated excess” Kuchar sent Kerness in 2010-2011. Even in his teenage letters to Kerness, it’s clear that Kuchar felt unusually at ease writing to the star of his Corruption of the Damned (1965). Describing an earlier melodrama, he writes with unusual candor how “I was very inspired by Arlene and her kin. They are very mixed up and sometimes they are damaging their lives but I like them anyway probably because I’m just like them.” Fifty years later, sick with love and cancer, Kuchar treats Kerness more as a confessor than a confidante. “Anxious to reveal secrets I usually kept under wraps,” Kuchar doesn’t spare any detail in describing his yearning for a long-time “midnight caller” named Larry: “Instead of realizing that he’s just what you call a sex buddy, I turn the whole thing into a live or die, Victorian romance.”

Even in his hour of darkness, Kuchar couldn’t help but seeing his own trials as material for a grand melodrama. “Being the egotistical movie director that I am, I want the motion picture of my life to be an X rated, inspirational saga of the nerdy Bronx kid who walked the red carpets of Hollywood while flirting with the red light districts of Sin City.” In a more reflective mood he writes to Kerness, “Expressing all this in certain chosen words and constructed sentences made the mental and medical troubles take a back seat to creative engineering: an arrangement of letters and punctuations to coalesce the chaos that contaminated my cranium.”

Kuchar writes of depressive anxiety, rampant insecurity, sexual hang-ups, and plenty of confusion in the face of “getting old and dreaming young” — but not a word of boredom. “Since I’m an actor anyway, I see the personal issues I penned (or typed) as emotional motivations in an ongoing (for a time anyway) B-movie.” B-movies aren’t really a wellspring of inspiration; that was all George. A final photograph shows him standing in front of a Denny’s, eyes on the skies like always. 2

 

OFF THE SCREEN: MOVING PICTURES AND WRITTEN WORDS: CELEBRATING THE GEORGE KUCHAR READER

Oct. 15, 7pm, free

Exploratorium

Pier 15, SF

www.exploratorium.edu

A CRIMINAL ACCOUNT OF PLEASURE: THE GEORGE KUCHAR READER

Oct. 18, 7:30pm, $8-10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

www.ybca.org

Con and on

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM There is probably no clinical study proving that a penchant toward being devious, ruthless, or even sociopathic makes a person particularly inclined toward writing crime fiction. But it can’t hurt. Patricia Highsmith has been dead two decades now, and one suspects there are still a few breathing souls who’d enjoy dancing on her grave. A bridge-burning bisexual (at least one ex-lover committed suicide) who openly admitted preferring cats — and, oddly, snails — to people, she was prone even when sober toward rants of variably racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-whatever-else-you-got nature. The Texas-born, Manhattan-raised European émigré frequently seemed to hate her own gender and country. Famous and successful after the publication of Strangers on a Train in 1950 (and the release of Hitchcock’s film version the next year), she didn’t need to be nice. So, that worked out for her.

Abhorrent as she might have been in person, her misanthropy turned golden in print, most famously via the five — yes, just five — novels she wrote about the ingeniously amoral Tom Ripley over a nearly 40-year span. A man who gets away with everything, frequently including murder, fellow expat Ripley invents himself as whatever and whomever he pleases, burying evidence (and any inconvenient bodies) whenever he risks being found out. We root for him even as we recoil at his actions, because he’s simply taking advantage of the wealth and privilege others are too stupidly complacent to protect from people like him.

One shudders to think what Highsmith would have made of the 1999 film Anthony Minghella made of 1955’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (already adapted in 1960 by Rene Clement as Purple Noon). It’s a wonderful movie, but its compassion toward Matt Damon’s Ripley as a closeted gay man only pushed to violence by desperate insecurity is about as far from the author’s icy wit and admiration for the scoundrel as one can get.

Ripley-free The Two Faces of January is presumably much closer to her intentions. The first feature directed by Hossein Amini, who previously wrote screenplays for a rather bewildering array of movies (from Thomas Hardy and Henry James adaptations to 2011 noir abstraction Drive and 2012 fairy tale mall flick Snow White and the Huntsman), it turns her 1964 novel into an elegant wide screen thriller very much of a type that might have been shot by Hitchcock, Clement, or someone else a half-century ago. You could even mistake Alberto Iglesias’ score for Bernard Herrmann at times. (Not the times when he’s lifting motifs whole from Arvo Pärt, though.) And if you still don’t think they make them like they used to, there’s Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac doing a damn good job of acting, and looking, like glamorous movie stars of yore.

Mortensen and Dunst’s Chester and Colette MacFarland meet the Isaac’s Rydal while they’re amid some sort of European grand tour in 1962 Athens — even staying at the Grand Hotel — and he’s a bilingual New Jerseyan of Greek descent eking out a living as a tour guide for Ivy League debutantes. Jaded, adventuresome types, the MacFarlands are intrigued enough to hire this openly gawking wannabe for a tour of the marketplace, then invite him and the Yankee heiress he’s momentarily snagged (Daisy Bevan as Lauren) for dinner.

It’s a pleasant evening they’d all soon file and forget. Or would have, if fate didn’t bring Rydal back alone to the couple’s hotel to return an item Colette carelessly left on the taxi seat. He finds Chester struggling with a man — whom he identifies as some drunk he’s simply wrestling back to his own room. But this fib thinly conceals a rapidly expanding sinkhole of criminality (already including major investment fraud and accidental murder) which Rydal now finds himself an accessory to. Rydal recognizes opportunity as well as risk in his new “friends'” urgent need to evade the authorities. But even as he helps them flee the hotel and city, he worries over the much younger, loyal yet nakedly vulnerable wife being dragged down by a “swindler” spouse. And as the awkwardly twined trio travels to less populous Crete, Chester (or whatever his name really is) worries his second wife — what happened to the first, anyway? — might well be swayed by someone as youthful, handsome, and blameless as Rydal.

At the one-hour point, The Two Faces of January looks, particularly in comparison to Mingella’s rather epic film (interestingly, that late director’s son Max is a producer here), like it might be something delicate yet rather simple — a portrait of a doomed marriage, its faults exposed by the third party the couple must take on amid crisis. But after this leisurely yet never boring buildup, Highsmith and Amini deliver so many harrowing complications you might end up shocked that this ultimately quite expansive seeming tale occupies just 96 trim minutes.

Mortensen, whose looks only grow more eerily, faultlessly chiseled with age, is so excellent-as-usual that one just has to shrug away puzzlement that he isn’t a bigger star — sufficiently occupied with his other creative outlets (painting, poetry, etc.), this actor clearly doesn’t care that he isn’t getting Brad Pitt’s roles, let alone his money. Having been raised in the system, Dunst would probably choose being Sandra or Reese if she could (and she certainly could, ability-wise), but fortunately the cards didn’t fall thataway. Now 34, she has the unfashionable heart-shaped facial prettiness of another generation’s wholesome starlets like Doris Day or Sandra Dee. If this particular role doesn’t begin to plumb the darker depths she’s more than capable of (as 2011 in Melancholia), it draws upon the same bottomless well of empathy she last tapped as another endangered spouse in 2010’s All Good Things. Which is, indeed, a very good thing.

As for Isaac, is this really the same guy from last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis? You can glimpse the same subtle, stage-honed technique in what’s superficially a much easier pretty-male-ingenue role. But yeesh: Looking like a fresh scoop from the same gelato tub that once surrendered young Andy Garcia, he sure cleans up nice. *

 

THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY opens Fri/10 in Bay Area theaters.

The Doctorow is in

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arts@sfbg.com

LIT Like the Internet itself, Cory Doctorow seems to be everywhere all at once.

Novelist, essayist, activist, and co-founder of the influential website Boing Boing, the Canadian-born, London-based writer is having a particularly peripatetic autumn, traveling from the UK to various locations throughout Europe and North America.

October finds Doctorow — author of the science fiction novels Makers, Little Brother, and Homeland — making two stops in the Bay Area. First, he’ll be in Berkeley to sign In Real Life (First Second, 192 pp., $17.99), a graphic novel produced in collaboration with El Cerrito-raised, Los Angeles-based illustrator Jen Wang, then to San Francisco to discuss (with his Boing Boing business partner, David Pescovitz) his forthcoming nonfiction title, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (McSweeney’s, 192 pp., $22).

In Real Life is based on “Anda’s Game,” a 2002 Doctorow short story. While living in the Bay Area in the mid-1990s, Doctorow heard programmers and other techies expressing their anxieties about the trend toward outsourcing jobs to India. Having grown up in Toronto, not far from where the North American auto industry was headquartered, Doctorow was reminded how, in the years after NAFTA, car workers who were losing their jobs felt great animosity toward Mexican workers.

“Which I always thought was tremendously misplaced,” he says. “I mean, it wasn’t Mexican workers who moved the jobs to Mexico; it was the bosses living right around the corner.”

Some of those memories informed “Anda’s Game.” Its comics adaptation, In Real Life, follows a high school student as she learns to navigate Coarsegold Online, a massively multiplayer role-playing game. Anda loves being a hero and a role model in the digital word, but when she befriends a poor Chinese kid who works incredibly long hours on behalf of wealthier players from developed countries, she begins to understand the inequities of the system. When she pushes her new friend to stand up for his rights, Anda can’t foresee the consequences of her actions.

Wang, the author-illustrator of the graphic novel Koko Be Good, says she was introduced to Doctorow by First Second. Her adaptation of his original work required some back-and-forth by e-mail, and she ended up scrapping approximately half the book at one point and starting over.

“We did this all online,” she says. “So this will be the first time I’m meeting him, when he comes to do this book tour.”

Of collaborating with Doctorow, Wang says, “The biggest challenge for me was working with someone so [well-known]. I wanted to capture Cory’s vision, even though I was doing all of the drawing and writing, to produce something he could be proud of.”

In Real Life works well for both teen and adult readers, making its political points amid exciting depictions of digital battles. Wang’s manga-influenced style complements Doctorow’s subject and theme while finding a colorful vitality all its own.

“Jen did all the hard work and such a great job,” Doctorow says. “All the stuff that is less than salutatory in there I’m sure is my fault. Everything that is brilliant is hers.”

A former European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Doctorow plays an entirely different game with his latest book-length nonfiction project, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free. The volume explores the uses and abuses of copyright and presents a manifesto for creators of all stripes who want to succeed in the 21st century.

“It’s the latest incarnation of things I’ve taken a lot of runs at over the years,” he says. “I’ve been involved in information policy for a long time. I’ve written lots of articles and have a couple of collections of essays on the subject, but I really wanted to do something book-like and substantial.”

The inspiration for the book came in the wake of a 2009 O’Reilly Tools of Change Conference. Doctorow spoke at the event about how video game companies, the music industry, and film studios were all trying, through digital rights management and other strategies, to limit the public’s ability to share the information and entertainment they enjoyed. He proposed the following law: Any Time Someone Puts a Lock on Something That Belongs To You and Won’t Give You the Key, That Lock Isn’t There For Your Benefit.

After the speech, Doctorow chatted with his agent, Russell Galen, who also represented Arthur C. Clarke, famous not only for 2001: A Space Odyssey but for his Three Laws of science fiction. Galen told Doctorow, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t just have one law. You have to have three.”

Doctorow was able to complete the triad, and the new rules are part of his new book. They deal with the methods of capturing and holding attention on the Internet and what copyright means (Information Age: Fame Won’t Make You Rich, But You Can’t Get Paid Without It; and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, People Do).

During his appearance with Pescovitz at the JCCSF, Doctorow is likely to address questions from the book, such as whether lesser-known artists can flourish on the Internet and how giant entertainment companies can avoid alienating their customers. In both In Real Life and Information, Doctorow pays much attention to how the present-day Internet, with its ability to connect people while also spying on them, can be used for both liberation and suppression.

“Regardless of our own individual fortunes or needs, our primary allegiance needs to be to a free and fair society,” Doctorow insists. “The arts should always be on the side of freedom and fairness and free speech.” 2

IN REAL LIFE

Oct. 16, 7:30pm, free

Mrs. Dalloway’s

2904 College, Berk

www.mrsdalloways.com

INFORMATION DOESN’T WANT TO BE FREE

Oct. 29, 7pm, $25-35

Jewish Community Center of San Francisco

3200 California, SF

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A joyful noise

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esilvers@sfbg.com

LEFT OF THE DIAL Christopher Owens, San Francisco resident, has a problem.

It’s one of those problems that maybe doesn’t sound like a problem to people who didn’t achieve critical darling status in the artistic industry of their choice by age 30, but it is a problem nonetheless. The problem is that Girls, his old band, was a very, very good band that wrote complex but catchy, rocking but intimate songs, drawing from ’80s power-pop and ’60s doo-wop and orchestral rock to talk about breakups and his escape from a deeply complicated childhood ensconced in the cult-like Children of God sect of Christianity. Girls was instantly, recognizably, good — in a way that seemed, on first listen, to stem from very little effort, though the depth of Owens’ confessional songwriting forced you to understand otherwise if you spent 30 seconds thinking about it.

The Christopher Owens problem is that after two albums of very good music by his very good band, the band broke up and he decided to go it alone, and not everyone was impressed with the result. Lysandre, Owens’ debut solo work, released in January of last year, was a concept album, full of proggy theatrical flair and flute solos. It had moments where it shined, but it was not the seamless work we’d come to expect from the songwriter; Owens himself later admitted he just sort of had to get it out of his system.

Fast-forward about 18 months, and the music press seems almost breathlessly relieved by his second go. A New Testament (Turnstile), released last week, is indeed easier on the ears. It’s a straight-up countrified Owens, an identity he’s hinted at previously but never fully embraced, with clear gospel influences and a renewed appreciation for pop structure and aesthetics; it allows Owens’ first-person lyrics to take center stage again. (He’ll play songs from the new record at Great American Music Hall Sat/11).

Is it a safer record than his previous effort? Sure. Does it follow more conventional Americana-pop rules? Yep. Does he sound like he’s having more fun actually making the music? Hell yes.

It’s that sense, actually, that seems to be confusing and alarming critics left and right (to an amusing degree, if you were to read, say, a dozen reviews in a row.) Christopher Owens seems happy. The Christopher Owens? He of the loaded religious upbringing, who made a name writing incredibly well-crafted songs about doomed relationships? How could he?

“That reaction has definitely surprised me,” the 35-year-old says with a laugh. He’s a little weary from doing press interviews all day from his home in SF when I catch up with him by phone about a week before the record comes out, but otherwise seems like he’s in good spirits.

“For one, the writing spans about four years, so it doesn’t make sense to paint it as a ‘Oh, he’s happy now,’ type of thing. Yes, I’m grateful for a lot in my life right now.” (One can’t help but think his stable, long-term relationship and relatively recent sobriety have played a part, though he doesn’t really want to discuss either topic.)

“I would never set out to make a ‘positive record,’ but I’m glad it’s having that effect on people.” He thinks a moment. “I also think that’s maybe just the sound of a lot of people working together who like each other very much, having fun.”

Those people include producer Doug Boehm, who produced Lysandre, as well as Girls’ acclaimed second record, Father, Son, Holy Ghost; the band also includes a keyboardist, drummer, and guitarist who played on that Girls album. Other people — like gospel singers Skyler Jordan, Traci Nelson, and Makeda Francisco, who provide backup on “Stephen,” a weighty, cathartic elegy of a song for Owens’ brother who died at age two — were instrumental in how Owens selected tracks once he decided this was going to be his country record. (He has hundreds of songs and half-songs to choose from, written and stored away on his computer at home.)

The overwhelming influence of gospel — not to mention the biblical record title — will likely come off as something of a wink to longtime Owens fans; his struggle to reconcile his ultra-religious upbringing and the tumultuous period of his life that followed his leaving the church at age 16 are both well-documented.

But the reference isn’t quite so straightforwardly tongue-in-cheek, says Owens. Gospel, in particular, has come full circle for him.

“I’ve had a long history with spiritual and religious music,” he says. “We weren’t Pentecostal, but it was still about asking God to take away your burdens. There’s a desperation to it, a genuineness and earnestness.

“If you talked to me about gospel music in my teens I would probably have been very disparaging, but as I got older and calmed down more in my 20s, I started appreciating it as music,” he says. “The fact of, we’re going to sit around and sing together, and what that does to the energy in the room.”

It was in his early 20s that someone gave him a record by the singer Mahalia Jackson, known as “the Queen of Gospel,” also known for her contributions to the Civil Rights movement. The gift was almost as a joke, says Owens.

“Knowing my history [with religion], it was ‘Here, Chris, you’ll like this,'” says the singer. “But I remember realizing, this woman is fantastic. So it’s been about coming to a place where I can see the value in the music itself, which I think is part of the point. ‘Let us make a joyful noise unto the Lord.’ And as I started to write and play music myself, it’s been about figuring out a way to do that with a non-religious quality, how to strip the music of its religious associations. I’ve listened to a lot of Elvis’ gospel albums…

“If you’re from the Ukraine and you walk into a gospel church, even if you don’t understand the language, you’re still going to get goosebumps,” he continues. “There’s still power in the sound.”

As for the Christopher Owens problem: Judging by early reviews, he’s appeased some Girls fans who were left cold by his first solo effort. Not that he puts too much stock in other peoples’ opinions of him. He’s happy with the record. And yeah, he admits, he is happy, in general, at the moment. And yet:

“It’s kind of funny that people are thinking of the record like that. Because even when you have these blessings, life always goes both ways. I think life is an uphill climb,” he says. “If you’re climbing the right way.”

CHRISTOPHER OWENS

With The Tyde and Carletta Sue Kay

Sat/11, 9pm, $21

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750

www.slimspresents.com

Still Steppin’

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arts@sfbg.com

The Boogaloo is a dance, descended from the Twist but landing firmly between the Philly Dog and the Skate.

“I like to dance. Always did,” says Oscar Myers, who turns 70 next week, while demonstrating his moves in front of a whooping, sweating, grinning 1am crowd at San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room. Myers knows the Boogaloo because he was there when it happened, and because he plays the melange of funk, soul, jazz, and Latin music that make up its unique sound.

Myers, a trumpet player, percussionist, and singer, has been a Bay Area mainstay for decades, but if you wandered into any of his regular nights here or Madrone Art Bar, you might not immediately realize you were in the presence of a musical forefather.

“Want something slow, something fast, or something half-assed?”

His band, Steppin’, plays tunes by Lou Donaldson, Melvin Sparks, and Ivan “Boogaloo Joe” Jones, alongside classics by James Brown and Michael Jackson. The 30-somethings in Steppin’ are talented, but all eyes are usually on the man up front: It’s Myers who played with James Brown, Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, Lowell Fulson, and R&B icon Jimmy McCracklin. There aren’t many musicians of Myers’ era left — much less playing regular late-night gigs around San Francisco. (His next will be his 70th birthday party, at the Boom Boom Room this Friday, Oct. 10.)

No one ever asks for anything “half-assed.”

Born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 1944, Myers moved to Charleston, South Carolina as a kid. His father worked the graveyard shift at the city water pump station and dug actual graves during the day. His parents weren’t especially musical, but they had a piano, on which Myers began to pick out songs by ear. Through the family’s record player, he got to know the era’s swing greats: Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. He picked up the trumpet as a teenager, which got him into the orchestra and marching band at North Carolina A&T, alongside classmate (and future saxophone legend) Maceo Parker.

oscar
Oscar Myers. Photo by Saroyan Humphrey.

Following college, he joined the military, landing in San Francisco after serving in Vietnam. He doesn’t talk about it much, but he was wounded in the Tet Offensive, and ended up in physical therapy at the Letterman Army Hospital in the Presidio. He ultimately decided to stay: “The Bay Area was humming,” says Myers, with an inimitable, throaty husk in his voice. “There was music coming from everywhere.”

His list of collaborators is an index to the Bay Area’s music history — “The Bishop” Norman Williams, Jackie Ivory, Julian Vaught, Bill Bell, Bill Summers, and Babatunde Lea — and his gigs map out its nearly forgotten musical nervous system: the jazz, funk, and R&B clubs that once hosted the area’s thriving scene.

By the ’90s, Myers was leading a band that included two former bandmates of James Brown: organist Louis Madison and saxophonist C.A. Carr. Madison — a member of the Famous Flames, who were unceremoniously fired by Brown after a gig in San Francisco in 1959, reportedly after asking to be paid fairly — is rumored to have penned such Brown hits as “I Feel Good,” “Try Me,” and “Please, Please, Please.” Sans Brown, the Flames stuck around the Bay for good.

“How many of y’all know who the Godfather of Soul is?”

In the early ’90s, Myers got a call from James Brown’s manager, saying Brown wanted to meet up with Madison and this new bandleader in San Francisco. Myers declined, citing their gig at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland that night. Since two of Brown’s alumni were in the band, Myers added, Brown should actually come to them. Sure enough, during the show, Brown showed up with his wife, and the band broke into “I Feel Good.” After “I’ll Go Crazy,” Brown rushed the stage to hug his old band-members.

Soon after, Brown invited Myers to sit in on trumpet when he played the West Coast. Myers did about eight gigs with Brown, a perfectionist who notoriously fined his musicians for mistakes.

“All that’s true,” says Myers, though he didn’t personally receive any penalties. “He’d go down to the front of the stage and be leaning and crying and singing and then he’d hold up his hand: $5.” Don’t miss a note, was the lesson. “And don’t be late either!”

“I’ve never seen so many dead people breathing in my life!”

It takes a lot to get away with chastising a crowd. “He can tell the audience to shut up and it’s ok, because he has the credibility to do it,” says organist Wil Blades, who’s been playing with Myers for over a decade, since Blades was 20. “Oscar has big ears and he knows how this music should sound, because he came up with it.”

Mentorship is important to Myers, who now lives with his wife off Alamo Square. “Nowadays, you don’t see that stuff happening, where the older cats let the younger ones come and play and test their knowledge,” says the bandleader. Go to any Myers gig, and you’ll see one or two young musicians trying to prove their worth. If Myers likes what he hears, they’ll receive a smile and a handshake at the end of the night.

That said: “If you can’t play I’m not going to let you get up there. If you’re bad, I’ll run your ass off stage.” He’s not kidding.

“He let me up there and gave me an old-school butt-whooping,” remembers Blades. “That’s how you really learn this music, to me. You don’t learn it in school.”

How does it feel to be playing on his 70th birthday? “I did it when I was 69!” says Myers with a laugh. “You’re blessed just to be here this long. You can wake up, open your eyes, wiggle your toes, everything’s working. Everything from here on out is gravy for me.”

Which might explain why, on a typical night, you’ll find him dancing spontaneously during a set break, even when the curtain is down and the audience can’t see a thing.

OSCAR MYERS & STEPPIN
With Bootie Cooler & DJ K-Os
Fri/10, 9pm, $10
Boom Boom Room
1601 Fillmore, SF
www.boomboomblues.com

 

Treasure hunting

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esilvers@sfbg.com

Tuckered out from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass? Yeah, us too.

Thing is, October — that’s San Francisco’s summer, if you’re a newbie — is just getting started. Next up is Treasure Island Music Festival (Oct. 18-19), now in its eighth year, aka your annual opportunity to look out at the bay and the twinkling city in the distance, pull your hoodie tighter around yourself, and say “I should come out here more often.”

Even if it’s the only time of year you find yourself on the isle, it’s a damn good one. TIMF is a beauty of festival, design-wise: Two stages within shouting distance of each other plus staggered performances throughout the day mean you don’t get caught up in festival FOMO. And the visual art and DJs it attracts thanks to the Silent Frisco stage pump it up with a distinctly San Franciscan flair (in case, for example, you ingest so much of something that the temperature and skyline aren’t enough to help you remember where you are).

Here are our picks for the best of the fest.

TV on the Radio
Very few bands can accurately claim to sound like the future and the past at once, but these Brooklyn rockers — who have been teasing singles from their new release Seeds, out this November — zoom pretty effortlessly back and forth, with bass, synths, keys, and horns that come together for a damn good dance party.

Ana Tijoux
We first fell for the French-Chilean artist’s textured, colorful blend of Spanish language hip-hop with jazz and traditional South American instruments in 2006 — when her collaboration with Julieta Venegas was everywhere, and we didn’t even get sick of it. Since then she’s only grown more intriguing, and less like pretty much anything else happening in Latin music. Check out this year’s Vengo if you need convincing.

The Growlers
Psych-y surf-punk from Costa Mesa that can help you visualize beach weather, regardless of that middle-of-the-bay breeze cutting through your clothes.

Ãsgeir
This Icelandic folk-tronica phenom is only 22, but he’s already been buzzy (especially abroad) for a good chunk of his adult life. We’re curious to hear how the lush songs off his debut album translate live.

 

TREASURE ISLAND MUSIC FESTIVAL

Oct. 18-19, $89.50-$295

Treasure Island

www.treasureislandfestival.com

Meta-boredom

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THEATER At the outset of The Late Wedding, actor Kathryn Zdan explains that we are about to be taken on “an anthropological tour of imagined tribes and their marriage customs.” She also explains that the play we’re watching is a play that we’re watching, and that a playwright has written it, under the spell of another author, Italian postmodernist Italo Calvino, whose playfully imaginative style in books like Invisible Cities and If on a winter’s night a traveler… unravels the standard narrative regime in favor of open-ended possibility and self-conscious reflection on art and consciousness. This strategy brought Calvino international acclaim 40 or 50 years ago. But Bay Area playwright Christopher Chen’s latest is too beguiled by its literary inspiration to get very far as a work of its own.

At some level, The Late Wedding wants to explore the nature of human communication and communion through a fourth-wall-scaling ensemble of six actors — alternately playing characters from made-up civilizations and swapping the Narrator hat to address the audience about their experience in the theater — and an offstage “playwright” who can’t keep his banal musings about groceries and whatnot from intruding into his own narrative.

The first of these couples (played in an initially amusing, offhand manner by Lawrence Radecker and Michael Anthony Torres) lounges around remembering the party of the night before, relieved to find they feel the same way about it. They then become extremely agitated, struggling to confirm the details of more distant shared memories on the vacation islands of Calaman — as if this agreed on map of memory were the only bridge between them. The same islands, as some unattainable ideal or some real place or both, come back later as a destination in an intergalactic space hop for another character (played by Zdan) who may be reuniting with her estranged wife (Lauren Spencer). Their estrangement followed Zdan’s character’s strict adherence to the marital customs of her society — namely, maximizing the anticipation and desire of romance by forestalling the wedding night indefinitely, and raising a family with someone else meanwhile. A third couple (played by Michele Leavy and Ogie Zulueta) receives a visit from a scholar (Radecker) intrigued by their view of marriage as a kind of living death. Interlarded with the marriages are lots of direct address, a wayward plot or two, and the intrusive personal thoughts of an increasingly distracted playwright.

For this Crowded Fire premiere, scenic designer Melpomene Katakalos conjures onstage an imposing all-white (later transparent) wall of open cubicles with sundry objects inside. It’s a mash-up of the grand vertical cities of Louise Nevelson’s monochromatic wall pieces and the private, idiosyncratic worlds of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, and it promises some intricate architecture, spanning the subjective and the social realms of reality. But the play only faintly delivers on that promise. It wouldn’t have mattered as much if the dialogue was more compelling, but it tends to strain in pursuit of novelty and humor. Artistic director Marissa Wolf, meanwhile, has her actors deliver their lines in a presentational manner that is fitfully effective at best at striking a rapport with the audience, while the couples mingle flat humor with saccharine sincerity as they limn the contours of their relationships.

Even a leap from fantastical anthropologies to distant space travel can’t save The Late Wedding from a sense of inertia. This might be because it owes too much to its source of inspiration. We’re told about Calvino right away, and Chen’s own imagination seems hobbled from that point on, more concerned with transposition than with pursuing ideas for their own sake. To make matters worse, the play’s meta-narrative and postmodern confusion are already overly familiar as a theatrical strategy, rather pre-postmodern, like ersatz Pirandello. The feigned concern for the audience over the odd non sequitur therefore feels misplaced, quaint, and vaguely patronizing. There may be potential for real mystery and meaning to emerge from the play’s artful dodging, but a way has to be cleared for it through all the pseudo-novelty and rigamarole. 

THE LATE WEDDING

Wed/8-Sat/11, 8pm, $15-35

Thick House

1695 18th St, SF

www.crowdedfire.org

 

Bearing it all

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arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Whatever else Keith Hennessy’s homespun ritual Bear/Skin offered its audience last Wednesday night at the Joe Goode Annex, it brought the rain. One night’s worth fell on the thirsty ground and into a record-making drought, displaying itself marvelously on the clothes and flattened hair of the last audience members to wander in as Hennessy walked about the postindustrial performance space in fuchsia track shorts prepping the show, his first solo since 2008’s Bessie-winning Crotch.

A white teddy bear recognized from that earlier solo sat propped against a far wall of the stage area, beside a white rabbit, though from some angles you’d miss them both thanks to one of two large silvery obelisks that stood nearby — both composed of Mylar sheets hoisted maybe 10 and 14 feet high on wire rigging. More of the material was stuffed into an oversized Mission Street market bag, among other colorful piles and pools of materials around the floor of the white utilitarian box theater, much of it referenced in the single-page program: “Floral tights, inheritance from Remy Charlip; plaid blanket skirt, inheritance from my family; pompom tail, Lisu people in northern Thailand; embroidered neck piece, fabric market in Dakar, Senegal; credit cards, personal collection.”

Personal objects and personal history would soon reverberate with a collective consciousness, a political and animal consciousness, in a sacramental performance that, among other things, seemed to limn the potential for an alternative destiny on an ever more blighted planet. (In an alternately hushed and rustling moment later that night, those extra space blankets covered the audience, almost as if to shield it for a moment, not from space rays, but from all the noxious energy beamed from every orifice of a loud, lurid, snooping, thieving hydra that is entirely local.)

The first incarnation of Bear/Skin was in spring 2013 at Subterranean Art House in Berkeley, during an edition of the roving monthly performance series of East-Bay collective SALTA. It was the centenary of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, an avant-garde assault on convention that became a modernist classic. Hennessy both addressed it and appropriated a key part of it, not reverently but critically and creatively. His partly impromptu and wholly brilliant 40-minute performance was built around a comical bear suit, a feed-backing microphone, intimate direct address, a discussion of three “suicide economies,” and his re-creation of the last section of Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography in that seminal ballet — a series of dozens of jagged leaps that Hennessy’s middle-aged body essayed with remarkable, heaving determination, doubling the ballet’s sacrificial climax with one of his own.

These elements are all retained in the latest iteration, though amid further elaboration, not all of which works equally well. The aforementioned moment with the audience under Mylar blankets acts as a bridge between two rough halves, as Hennessy, donning the personal articles and totems listed in the program, reemerges as a glittery thrift-store shaman amid a Hardkiss track and a scattering of patterned laser light. The piece builds intelligently, shrewdly toward this new climax, with a kind of honesty few artists can manage so well. But it both broadens and dilutes those original components in a progression of movements that feels more rigid, less fluid, while not necessarily adding depth to the themes or experience.

At the same time, Bear/Skin will continue to evolve. It’s slated for more San Francisco and East Bay showings in January, right after it returns from New York, where young but astute maven of contemporary dance-performance Ben Pryor has slotted it into 2015’s American Realness festival. It is a must-see.

Moreover, some of the newer elements are commanding — especially an original poem near the beginning, an inspired response to epidemic police violence. Hennessy speaks with pounding legs and trembling form, in a furious rapid-fire monotone that evokes the banal bullets of Hollywood’s white male machine-gun entertainment. If that sounds didactic, it is and it isn’t — which is to say, it is only in the best sense of a clear, precise blow. Hennessy is not just an inimitable but also a highly skilled performer, and the intersection of his political awareness and his performance “realness” is a purposefully relaxed, open and porous zone in which a genuine sense of moment rises gently but surely, like some measure of the miraculous or of simple joy, some small grace; a little rain maybe for a world on fire. *

www.circozero.org

Cel mates

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MILL VALLEY FILM FESTIVAL One of the Mill Valley Film Festival’s signature if under-celebrated programs is its long-running Children’s FilmFest, which lets families enculturate their offspring with an annual sidebar of movies from around the world — non-English-language ones given live translation for those viewers not yet up to reading text at the speed of subtitles. There’s always some animation in the mix, and this year, in addition to several shorts and the French-Belgian 3D feature Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants (which was unavailable for preview), two titles measure the form’s state-of-the-art across a span of nearly 75 years.

The golden oldie, offered in a free outdoor screening at Old Mill Park Oct. 10, is 1941’s Hoppity Goes to Town — the second and last feature from Fleischer brothers Max and Dave, still best known for their cartoons starring Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman. (The beautifully designed latter remain the movies’ most faithful representation of the original comic books.) Despite those successful series, the siblings were increasingly dogged by bad luck, internal friction, studio inference, corrupt accounting, and other factors. After Walt Disney waded into feature animation with 1937’s spectacularly successful Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the duo followed suit, uprooting their entire organization — and nearly quadrupling its size — to make 1939’s Gulliver’s Travels in the cheaper environs of southern Florida. Nonetheless, that film cost a fortune, ultimately losing money despite its healthy box-office performance. No friendly competitor, Disney purportedly snapped after seeing it, “We can do better than that with our second-string animators.”

Their precarious financial position made worse by a deteriorating personal dynamic, the brothers nonetheless moved forward with Hoppity (originally called Mr. Bug Goes to Town), an original story penned after they failed to win the screen rights to Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Life of the Bee. Its hero is a happy-go-lucky grasshopper who tries his best to relocate the insect residents of “the Lowlands” when their community is threatened by rising foot traffic — a broken fence has made this tiny patch of urban green a destructive shortcut for oblivious human beings. He also battles villainous Mr. Beetle for the hand of bee ingénue Honey.

Partway through production, debt forced the Fleischers to sell their studio whole to distributor Paramount, which kept them on under humiliating circumstances — they could be fired from finishing their own film at any moment. Its release delayed to avoid competing with Disney’s Dumbo (1941), the film finally opened on Dec. 5, 1941, exactly two days before Pearl Harbor threw the nation in a state of shock.

Hoppity never recovered from that ill fortune, falling into the public domain after its copyright was allowed to expire. As a result, it was seen for years mostly in low-quality copies by budget distributors. It’s not a great movie. The Fleischers’ antic strengths were best suited to the short format; the sentimentality and melodrama then required for a family feature came much more naturally to Disney. But it still merits the cult love gradually earned over subsequent decades, notably for then-innovative multiplane “3D” backgrounds that add a vertiginous depth to the contrasts in bug-vs.-human perspective.

One wonders what the Fleischers might have wrought if given the artistic and commercial freedom apparently enjoyed by Brazilian Alê Abreu on The Boy and the World — one of those extremely rare animated features these days that feels entirely handcrafted and personal, no matter how many umpteen illustrators and technicians get credited in the final credit crawl. This dialogue-free adventure finds a stick-figure tot wandering from his rural home in pursuit of the father forced to look for work in the distant city. The closer our wee protagonist gets to “civilization,” the more dehumanizing and nightmarish what he witnesses becomes.

One wonders what the average under-12-year-old would make of a movie that scarcely shrinks from blunt sociopolitical indictment: Its innocent’s journey encompasses militaristic fascism, garbage-foraging poor vs. infinitely privileged rich, empty consumerist distraction, and the death of traditional indigenous life. Nonetheless, this parabolic parade of injustices never feels too didactic because of the dazzlingly varied execution. Alê draws on everything from modernist painting masters to collage and (briefly) live action footage in a visual presentation that grows ever more complex and intoxicating. (Fans of Brazilian roots music will find the soundtrack by Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat equally thrilling.) The term “masterpiece” gets thrown around a little too easily, but it’s hard to think of a recent animated feature more deserving of the term than this imaginatively ambitious yet refreshingly intimate one. *

MILL VALLEY FILM FESTIVAL

Oct 2-12, $8-14

Various North Bay venues

www.mvff.com

 

Bridgeworthy

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Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, US/France/Switzerland/Germany) A cunning backstage drama occupying the middle ground between Olivier Assayas’ naturalistic dramas and reality-bending puzzles, Clouds of Sils Maria is set in the Swiss Alps and more nearly in the charged intimacy between an aging actress (Juliette Binoche) and her young assistant (Kristen Stewart). The grand dame has been cast in the same play in which she made her name decades earlier, only now she’s playing the older half of a Sapphic duo. “The play’s the thing,” and as actress and assistant rehearse lines they are simultaneously testing the bounds of their shared privacy. Further complicating things, Assayas’s brash characterization of the young starlet (Chloë Grace Moretz) cast opposite Binoche in the play invariably recalls Stewart’s own tabloid trials; like any hall of mirrors, entering Clouds of Sils Maria is much simpler than finding your way out. Assayas certainly isn’t the first filmmaker to examine slippages between actor and role, and yet he seems uniquely sensitive to rendering performance as simultaneously being a matter of artifice and absorption — the fact that it’s never entirely one thing or the other is what keeps things interesting. Fri/3, 8:45pm, Sequoia; Mon/6, 1pm, Smith Rafael. (Max Goldberg)

Dracula vs. Frankenstein (Al Adamson, US, 1971) MVFF had the bright idea this year of inviting Metallica to be its artists-in-residence, with each of the four members selecting a new or revival feature for the program. The most eccentric choice by far is guitarist and diehard horror fan Kirk Hammett’s. Drive-in schlock king Al Adamson’s 1971 cult classic is a triumph of lurid incoherence starring genre veterans Lon Chaney Jr. and J. Carrol Naish (both in their last film appearances), the director’s busty peroxided wife, Regina Campbell, Russ Tamblyn of 1961’s West Side Story (and Adamson’s 1969 biker epic Satan’s Sadists), and as Count Dracula, one Zandor Vorkov — aka Roger Engel, a goateed stockbroker who got the part because the filmmakers couldn’t afford forking out $1,200 for their first choice, John Carradine. Cobbled together from stock footage, a prior abandoned feature, and whatever trendy ideas came to mind (LSD, biker gangs, etc.), Dracula vs. Frankenstein is the ultimate exploitation-movie example of make-do disorder so profound it achieves a sort of surrealist genius. Fri/3, 10pm, Smith Rafael. (Dennis Harvey)

 

Imperial Dreams (Malik Vitthal, US) Focused on survival rather than violence, Malik Vitthal’s accomplished first feature offers a strong riposte to those who dismiss crime in African American communities as some kind of pervasive racial characteristic. Released from a prison stint on an assault charge, Bambi (John Boyega) wants nothing more than to keep his nose clean and reconnect with his four-year-old son (played by twins Ethan and Justin Coach). The latter has been raised — if you can call it that — by Bambi’s strung-out mother (Kellita Smith) and drug-dealing uncle (Glenn Plummer); the boy’s own mother (Keke Palmer) is still stuck in prison herself on an unrelated charge. It’s no healthy environment for a kid, or an adult either, since the uncle keeps trying to force Bambi back into illegal doings. Our protagonist can’t get a job without a driver’s license; can’t get a license without paying the back child support his imprisoned ex didn’t even file for; as a parolee, can’t move into government housing with his brother (Rotimi Akinosho); and can’t seem to make a move without local cops suspecting the worst of him. This low-key, Watts-set drama is sobering but not hopeless, and the tenderness between father and son never feels like a sentimental ploy. Sat/4, 5:30pm, Lark; Sun/5, 2pm and Oct 8, 11:30am, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

 

Diplomacy (Volker Schlöndorff, France) Based on Cyril Gely’s play — itself inspired by real-life events — this drama from Volker Schlöndorff (1979’s The Tin Drum) is set during the waning days of World War II and stars the actors who originated the stage roles: Niels Arestrup as weary German military governor von Choltitz, and André Dussollier as crafty Swedish consul-general Nordling. Diplomacy puts a tighter focus on chaotic Paris, circa August 1944, than previous works (like 1966’s similarly-themed Is Paris Burning?), with most of the action confined to a hotel suite as the men discuss von Choltitz’ orders, handed down from a spiteful Hitler, to blow up Paris as the Allies loom. Nordling’s negotiating skills are already known by history, but how he got there, as imagined here, makes for tense, tightly-scripted and -acted viewing. Sat/4, 8pm, Sequoia; Oct. 8, 3:30pm, Smith Rafael. (Cheryl Eddy)

 

Charlie’s Country (Rolf de Heer, Australia, 2013) David Gulpilil memorably made his film debut as the nameless aboriginal youth whose ability to live off the land in harsh Outback terrain saves two lost British children in Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 Walkabout. Forty-three years later he’s an embittered hostage to “civilization” yearning for that near-extinct way of life. Living on a reservation in northern Australia, chafing under the regulations of well-intentioned government overseers (or “thieving white bastards,” as he calls them), he tries to regain some sense of independence and harmony with nature by hunting — only to have his weapons confiscated. Peers who remember traditional ways are dying out or being hauled off to urban hospitals where they feel completely alienated. This latest from ever-idiosyncratic Aussie director Rolf de Heer (2006’s Ten Canoes, 1993’s Bad Boy Bubby) is one of his more conceptually simple efforts, sans elements of fantasy, black humor, or outrageousness. But it’s all the more poignant for its clear-eyed purity of intent. Sun/5, 7:45pm, Lark; Oct. 8, noon, Sequoia. (Harvey)

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz, Israel/France/Germany) Ever felt trapped in a relationship? Odds are what you went through was nothing compared to the maximum-security imprisonment suffered by the titular protagonist in siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz’s Israeli drama. The former plays a middle-aged woman who was married off at age 15, and three decades of incompatibility later has decided the only solution is divorce. (By this point she’s already lived separately with most of their children for several years, supporting them with her own work.) But that can only be granted by a Rabbinical Court whose three members seem to see almost no reason why man should put asunder what God purportedly joined together in matrimonial contract. Seemingly out of sheer spite, the strictly religious (and humorless) husband played by Simon Abkarian further drags the process out for months, even years by refusing to cooperate when he doesn’t flat-out refuse to show up for mandated court sessions. Set entirely in the plain courtroom, this Israeli Oscar submission is claustrophobic both physically and psychologically — the strangling sensation of being in a situation our heroine’s culture and laws won’t permit escape from is excruciating at times. Mon/6, 7:30pm, Sequoia; Oct. 8, 6pm, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

 

What We Do in the Shadows (Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi, US/New Zealand) Before you groan “Oh no, not another mockumentary horror spoof,” be informed that this is THE mockumentary horror spoof, rendering all other past and prospective ones pretty well unnecessary. Vijago (Taika Waititi) is our 379-year-old principal guide as a film crew invades the decrepit Wellington, New Zealand, home he shares with three other undead bloodsuckers: Callow newbie Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who refuses to do his assigned domestic chores; medieval Transylvanian warlord Vladislav (Jermaine Clement), still “a bit of a perv” torture-wise; and Nosferatu-looking mute Petyr (Ben Fransham), who’s scarier than the rest of them combined. When the latter recklessly “turns” local layabout Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), his loose lips — really, you don’t want to go around telling every pub acquaintance “I’m a vampire!” when you really are — threaten this fragile commune of murderous immortals. Though it loses steam a bit toward the end, Shadows is pretty hilarious for the most part, with its determined de-romanticizing of vampire clichés from Bram Stoker to Twilight. Tue/7, 7:45pm, and Oct. 9, 4pm, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, UK/US) It’s instant attraction when Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), though a dark cloud passes over the sweet romance between the Cambridge students when Stephen learns he has motor neuron disease. The odds are against them, but they get married anyway; as Stephen’s fragile condition worsens, his fame as a brilliant physicist grows. Though The Theory of Everything suffers from biopic syndrome (events are simplified for dramatic convenience, etc.), director James Marsh (2008’s Man on Wire), working from Jane Hawking’s memoir, does offer an intimate look at an extraordinary marriage that ultimately failed because of utterly ordinary, ultimately amicable reasons. In the end, the performances are far more memorable than the movie itself, with Redmayne’s astonishingly controlled physical performance matched scene for scene by Jones’ wide-rangingly emotional one. Oct. 9, 7pm, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

In Order of Disappearance (Hans Petter Moland, Norway/Sweden/Denmark) Stellan Skarsgård makes like Liam Neeson in this bloody yet droll revenge saga. His unfortunately named Nils Dickman is a Swedish émigré living in a remote Norwegian community, working as a snow plowman. When their only son is kidnapped and killed — the innocent victim of a co-worker’s stupid plan to steal cocaine from major-league drug traffickers — his wife bitterly assumes he must have been the hapless addict that circumstances paint him as. But Nils refuses to accept that explanation, his own dogged investigations (and heavy fist) soon exposing a complex web of goons responsible, most notably rageaholic vegan racist villain Ole (Pal Sverre Hagen). He triggers full-scale war between local and Serbian crime factions to eliminate those few perps he doesn’t off himself — an ever-rising body count marked by onscreen titles commemorating each latest casualty. Hans Petter Moland’s film has been compared to Tarantino, and indeed there are similarities, but the frozen-north setting and bone-dry humor are Scandinavian as can be. Oct. 10, 5:45pm, Smith Rafael; Oct 12, 2:45, Sequoia. (Harvey)

MILL VALLEY FILM FESTIVAL
Oct 2-12, $8-14
Lark Theater
549 Magnolia, Larkspur
Cinearts@Sequoia
25 Throckmorton, Mill Valley
Smith Rafael Film Center
1118 Fourth St, San Rafael
www.mvff.com

You better recognize

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cheryl@sfbg.com

MILL VALLEY FILM FESTIVAL The Mill Valley Film Festival opens with selections by Oscar nominees (Men, Women & Children director Jason Reitman), winners (The Homesman director Tommy Lee Jones), and multiple winners (Hilary Swank stars in The Homesman). But while MVFF prides itself on star power, it’s also a champion of unsung artists, exemplified by a quartet of documentaries in this year’s lineup.

Robert A. Campos and Donna LoCicero’s 3 Still Standing charts the careers of veteran San Francisco comedians Will Durst, Johnny Steele, and Larry “Bubbles” Brown. All were integral members of SF’s booming stand-up scene in the 1980s, and seemed destined to emulate breakout stars Robin Williams and Dana Carvey (both are interviewed; the film is dedicated to Williams). The giddy energy contained in footage from the Holy City Zoo, where Williams got his start, is undeniable. For a hot minute — Durst won a prestigious comedy contest; Brown brought his self-deprecating digs to The Late Show with David Letterman; Steele scored a big-shot agent — fame, or at least lucrative TV and movie deals, seemed inevitable.

The doc jumps ahead 20 years without ever pinning down why superstardom proved elusive, but there were some obvious factors: The comedy-club scene cooled, and most of the big names moved to Los Angeles’ greener pastures. And one gets the sense that none of the men longed to play a goofy neighbor on some generic sitcom; the paycheck would’ve been nice, sure, but to hear them discuss the joys of stand-up suggests they’ve come to embrace living the dream on a slightly smaller scale. The crisply-edited 3 Still Standing benefits enormously from the fact that everyone interviewed is hilarious — with responses spiraling into riffs — though it might’ve been interesting, as part of the film’s then-and-now structure, to look at SF’s current indie comedy scene, which is livelier than it’s been in years thanks to venues like Lost Weekend’s Cinecave. (Fodder for a future doc, perhaps?) Along with a trio of screenings, 3 Still Standing‘s festivities include a Sat/4 performance with Durst, Brown, and Steele, plus Sun/5’s Robin Williams: A Celebration, a free showing of clips culled from the late great’s many MVFF appearances.

As it happens, Durst turns up in another MVFF doc about an SF artist whose career path has been highly unpredictable. Settling into Plastic Man: The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish knowing nothing about its subject, the viewer might be forgiven for thinking that William Farley’s doc (produced by MVFF programmer Janis Plotkin) is about an elderly sculptor who delights in crafting figures of people and animals from found objects made of plastic.

And it is — but Jerry Ross Barrish also happens to be the son of a professional boxer (who had Mafia connections). He’s been a bail bondsman since 1961 (a staunch progressive, he bailed out Berkeley’s free speech protesters in ’64, San Francisco State rioters in ’68, and multiple Black Panthers). He’s a San Francisco Art Institute-trained filmmaker who acted in a 1974 George Kuchar short before making his first feature, 1982’s Dan’s Motel, which landed him a spot in New York’s prestigious “New Directors/New Films” series. (His final film, 1989’s Shuttlecock, co-starred Durst.) Oh, and there was also that DAAD award he won in 1986, which enabled him to live in Berlin for a time and play a director in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987).

It’s an incredible life story, and Plastic Man — buoyed by Beth Custer’s dynamic score — manages to cram in all of the above, while keeping its focus trained on Barrish’s present artistic passions. He has trouble selling his work or getting gallery representation because “the plastic is holding him back,” according to one art-world observer. In other words, trash ain’t hip. But his work is whimsical and cleverly crafted, and it makes people happy — enough that Barrish scores a huge project at the end of the film that locals just might recognize.

German director Doris Dörrie (2002’s Enlightenment Guaranteed, 2007’s How to Cook Your Life) travels to Mexico City for the meticulously observed Que Caramba es la Vida, about female musicians who’ve added their talents to the male-dominated mariachi world. We meet three segments of this rarefied group. First, there’s a single mother who frequents gritty mariachi hotspot Plaza Garibaldi. “It’s horrible being surrounded by men,” she bitterly reports, but as soon as she croons her first staggeringly soulful note, it’s apparent why she’s pursued such a difficult line of work. Mariachi is less fraught for the other subjects, whose outlook on the culture’s sexism is mitigated by the fact that they perform in groups that are extensions of their own families. There are the housewives who comprise Las Estrellas de Jalisco, singing melodramatic tunes at birthday parties or — in Que Caramba‘s most moving sequence — during a Day of the Dead memorial. Most delightfully, there are the “still standing” members of Mexico’s first all-female mariachi troupe, 50 years on but still full of energy and rousing vocals.

The final film in this gang of four is presented as part of a tribute to its maker, Chuck Workman, the editing wizard behind those rapid-fire montages that pop up on Oscar telecasts. In Magician, Workman takes on Orson Welles, whose 1941 Citizen Kane is often called the greatest film ever made — but who suffered a subsequent career of studio interference, budgetary woes, and general creative frustration. “He was the patron saint of indie filmmaking,” Richard Linklater asserts, a theory amply supported by this essential primer of Welles film and interview footage, expertly stitched together with Workman’s trademark flow. *

MILL VALLEY FILM FESTIVAL

Oct 2-12, $8-14

Various North Bay venues

www.mvff.com

Strictly speaking

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LEFT OF THE DIAL When Slim’s booker Dawn Holliday first met with Warren Hellman in 2001, she had no way of knowing that the quaint little music festival the investor wanted to organize would grow to be one of San Francisco’s most fiercely cherished traditions.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which runs this Friday, Oct. 3 through Sunday, Oct. 5 (featuring this rather impressive lineup of bands, whose music you’ll find in the YouTube playlist below) is special for a number of reasons. It’s free, thanks to an endowment from the late sir Hellman. You can’t buy alcohol. You won’t find huge video screens projecting tweets about the festival in real time. To get distinctly San Francisco on you and use a word I generally avoid, its vibe — yes — is about a solar system away from certain other huge music festivals in Golden Gate Park that shall remain nameless. And it just couldn’t take place anywhere else.

Little story for ya: Four years ago this week, I moved back to the Bay Area from New York. I was unemployed and aimless and temporarily living with my parents again at 26, and the future was terrifying. I was regrouping, but I didn’t know if I was back here for good. The day after I landed — hungover, disoriented by the smells and sounds and lack of sensory overload of not-New York City — I headed to Hardly Strictly with a few old friends. I remember foraging our way into the park, just pushing toward the music, and literally stumbling out of a wall of shrubbery to find Patti Smith just starting her set.

The crowd was insane: people tightly packed in, drinking, passing joints, hollering, bundled in seven layers each, sitting on each other’s shoulders, stepping on each other’s army blankets full of microbrews and organic rice chips and apologizing as they tried to push up closer to the stage.

My eyes darted from the older woman with flowing batik-print pants, eyes closed, swaying joyously by herself, to the young couple with matching dreads who were tripping on god knows what, to the balding-but-ponytailed and potbellied man who seemed to be trying to get a hacky sack game going to the beat of “Because the Night.”

I don’t want to speak for all Bay Area kids, but I’ve always been pretty ambivalent about large groups of hippies — there’s just a saturation point when you grow up here. Unlike so many of my transplant friends, I have never found the remnants of the Summer of Love overly enchanting; this is what happens when you are forced to watch the documentary Berkeley In the Sixties in high school history classes. I am also, for what it’s worth, not the biggest fan of crowds.

I knew I’d been gone a while because I was in love. I’d never been so happy to see ridiculous, stoned, absolutely beside themselves weirdos all doing their own weird things next to each other and nobody caring. Little kids dancing with grandparents; teenagers making out. I felt like I’d stumbled onto some sort of magical island, one where nobody talked about the stock exchange and everyone was incredibly, almost purposefully unfashionable and the thought of waiting in line to get into a club was ludicrous. I wanted to live in this smelly pile of humanity forever, and that was a new one for me. I knew I’d been gone a while because I was seeing SF the way transplants see SF. And I also knew I was home.

That atmosphere, I learned while talking to Holliday last week, is absolutely by design.

“I think of it more as a gathering of music lovers than a festival, really,” says Holliday, who’s booked Hardly Strictly every year since its inception. “I think having no fences — you can walk away at any time — and not selling alcohol makes a huge difference in people’s attitudes.”

As for the task of putting together a lineup each year that appeals to everyone from teenagers to folks in their 70s and 80s — the announcement of Sun Kil Moon, Deltron 3030, the Apache Relay, Sharon Van Etten, and others had many pronouncing this the hippest (read: appealing to folks under 40) lineup in years — Holliday says she actually keeps it relatively simple.

“When it started, and I kind of still do this, it was just with Warren in mind,” she says. “I was thinking about what he hadn’t heard yet. I knew he didn’t start listening to music until later in life, so I wanted to book music that I thought he should be turned on to. As long as there was some kind of roots in it. The Blind Boys of Alabama, Gogol Bordello, all stuff that he would really love to hear, but he’d never go out and see because he went to bed at 9:30. That was my goal for 12 years. ‘What would blow Warren’s mind?'” She laughs, noting that Hellman’s early bedtime is also the reason for the festival ending not long after dark.

“I don’t think [my booking] has changed that much with his passing,” she says. “It’s still music that I feel doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. Nothing’s bigger than the Fillmore. A lot of the bands don’t fill our rooms [Great American Music Hall and Slim’s], so a lot of people get to hear music they’re not normally exposed to. The age range is all over the place. And with bands that usually are a higher ticket, it’s a an opportunity for fans to go see $60, $70 shows for free.”

The park itself also has a lot to do with how she books: “I walk through it and see what I hear,” she says. “The contours of the meadows at different times of the year speak differently to you. Sometimes when I walk down JFK, I still hear Alejandro Escovedo singing, and that was eight years ago now.”

She also has a long-running wish list of artists; Lucinda Williams and Yo La Tengo, both playing this year’s fest, have been on it for some time. And she’s especially looking forward to the annual tribute to those who’ve passed away, which happens Saturday afternoon at the banjo stage — Lou Reed, Pete Seeger, and the Ramones will all be honored this year.

“It’s the best gift,” she says. “I mean if someone were able to give us world peace, I’d say that was the best gift. But since no one’s going to — yep, this is the best.”

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is all day Fri/3 through Sun/5, for free, of course, in Golden Gate Park. Check www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com for set times, and visit our Noise blog at www.sfbg.com/noise for more coverage of the fest. Until then — we’ll see ya in the park.

 

Volume 49 Number 1 Flip-through Edition

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Prop. L puts cars over people

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By Fran Taylor

OPINION Just as climate change most affects people who contributed little or nothing to causing it, pollution and injury from traffic most affect communities least likely to create traffic. Nationally, people of color are four times more likely than whites to rely on public transportation. At the same time, African Americans have a pedestrian fatality rate 60 percent higher than that of whites. For Latinos, that rate is 43 percent higher.

Locally, Chinatown and the Tenderloin have some of the lowest rates of car ownership in San Francisco. Yet these poor neighborhoods suffer some of the highest rates of pedestrian injury and death, including a woman killed in a crosswalk at Stockton just last month.

Instead of acknowledging these inequities, the proponents of Proposition L on the November ballot have cast themselves as victims, claiming that pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements create impediments to their ability to drive fast and park easily.

But streetscape improvements don’t make it impossible to drive. They help make it possible to not drive. And the ability to get around without a car benefits everyone, as a matter of health and fairness.

Fewer speeding cars on the road means fewer injuries and deaths, which in San Francisco disproportionately affect people walking. Of the 19 traffic deaths so far in 2014, 13 have been pedestrians. In the wider Bay Area, these pedestrian deaths are almost twice as likely to occur in poor communities.

The Prop. L campaign claims that streetscape improvements worsen pollution by forcing drivers to idle engines and circle for parking. Free-flowing car movement is the measure’s goal. If fast traffic is so much healthier, freeways must be the healthiest of neighbors. Yet studies show that not only is asthma much more widespread near freeways, but uncontrolled asthma is twice as prevalent within two miles of that ideal zooming traffic. Meanwhile, lack of walkable access to schools and parks contributes to epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes, particularly in low-income populations and communities of color.

Medical costs throughout the city for pedestrian injuries alone amount to about $15 million a year, while the total annual health-related costs of traffic, including asthma and other conditions, come to $564 million, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

The national average annual cost of owning a car is close to $10,000, likely more in San Francisco. Were families more easily able to reduce that cost by having one car instead of two or living car-free entirely, they would free up needed money for food, housing, and education. And that housing would be cheaper without parking requirements. The construction of off-street parking can add costs of up to 20 percent per unit. Prop. L demands more garages, so cars can have homes in a city where so many humans lack them.

The recent transformation of Cesar Chavez Street, led by the community group CC Puede, personifies the type of project Prop. L proponents object to. Changing a six-lane freeway on the ground did indeed slow traffic and remove some parking at intersections to accommodate pedestrian bulbouts and improve visibility, both proven safety fixes. It also made it easier for parents to cross the street with their children to Flynn and St. Anthony’s elementary schools. It made it safer for seniors and pregnant women to reach St. Luke’s Hospital. Bicycle ridership on the street has increased 400 percent. Lately, no cars have crashed into homes, a regular occurrence on the old six-lane speedway.

Prop. L proponents decry the loss of parking, but where are those spaces going? A parking lot at 17th Street between Folsom and Shotwell in the Mission is about to be ripped up to make a park designed in part by children living nearby. In a dense neighborhood with little greenery, half of the parking lot will give families crammed into crowded housing a place to walk to. The other half will eventually be used for affordable housing.

We could hardly have a clearer choice of priorities. Parking lots or parks? Parking lots or affordable housing? Prop. L is a vote for parking over people. Vote No on L.

Fran Taylor is cochair of CC Puede.