By Steven T. Jones
Kudos for the Chron’s Cecelia Vega for debunking Mayor Gavin Newsom’s pity-party television interview, in which he said he may not run for reelection. Vega punches her story home with some great phrases like “20-year-old Republican girlfriend” and “Washington-size dose of political posturing,” but the real gems come from Bruce Cain and Gerardo Sandoval. Check ’em out. But I once again have to find fault with Vega and other Chron writers continuing to prop up Wade Randlett as if he’s some kind of party insider or astute political observer, rather than the discredited right wing bagman that he is. But for the Chron, this is still mighty fine work.
As for Newsom, suck it out or get out! Geez, talk about letting your sense of overentitlement show. If you want a carefree life of chasing tail in the Marina or playing the rich socialite, go to it. Your job is way too important for you to be as checked out and self-indulgent as you have been lately anyway. Sure, it’s a tough job, but there are lots of competent progressives in this city who would love to trade places with you, even with all the abuse that entails. Call Ross Mirkarimi, I’m sure he’d welcome the news that you’re stepping down and supporting him. Actually, come to think of it, maybe that is the way to go. It is a very tough job that’s only bound to get tougher, and you’re a young man who should be out there enjoying life. Get out while you can, my friend. You don’t need this shit.
By Steven T. Jones
On Oct. 27, l966, my wife, Jean Dibble, and I and some journalist and literary friends published the first issue of the first alternative paper in the country that was designed expressly to compete with the local monopoly daily combine and offer an alternative voice for an urban community.
We called it the San Francisco Bay Guardian, named after the liberal Manchester Guardian of England, and declared in our statement of intent that the Guardian would be a new model for a big-city paper: we would be independent and locally owned and edited, and we would be alternative to and competitive with the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle, which were published under a joint operating agreement that allowed them to fix prices, pool profits, share markets, and avoid competition.
We stated that “the Guardian is proposed, not as a substitute for the daily press, but as a supplement that can do much that the San Francisco and suburban dailies, with their single ownership, visceral appeal and parochial stance, cannot and will not do.” And we played off the name Guardian by stating that we would be “liberal in assessing the present and past (supporting regional government, nuclear weapons control, welfare legislation, rapid transit, tax reform, consumer protection, planning, judicial review, de-escalation and a promptly negotiated settlement in Vietnam.)” But the Guardian would also be “conservative in preserving tradition (civil liberties and minority rights, natural resources, watersheds, our bay, our hills, our air and water).”
It was rather naive to challenge the Ex-Chron JOA with little more than a good idea and not much money and a wing and a prayer. We had almost no idea of what we were getting into in San Francisco, a venue that Warren Hinckle of Ramparts and many other defunct publications would later describe as the Bermuda Triangle of publishing. But we had, I suppose, the key ingredient of the entrepreneur — the power of ignorance and not knowing any better — and somehow thought that if we could just get a good paper going, the time being l966 and the place being San Francisco and the world being full of possibilities, we would make it, come hell or high water.
Well, after going through hell and high water and endless soap operas for four decades, Jean and I and the hundreds of people who have worked for the Guardian through the years have helped realize the paper’s original vision and created something quite extraordinary: an influential new form of independent alternative journalism that works in the marketplace and provides what little real competition there is to the monopoly dailies. And let me emphasize, the alternatives do not require government-sanctioned JOA monopolies and endless chains and clusters of dailies and the other monopolizing devices that dailies claim they need to survive.
Today I am delighted to report that there are alternative papers competing effectively with their local chains throughout the Bay Area (seven, more than any other region), throughout the state from Chico to San Diego (22, more than any other state), and throughout the nation (126 in 42 states, with a total circulation of 7.5 million, and more coming all the time). There are even cities with two and three competing alternatives, and there are cities where the monopoly daily is forced by the real alternatives to create faux alternatives to try to compete (it doesn’t work). And alas, there is now a Village Voice–New Times chain of 17 papers in major markets, including San Francisco and the East Bay, that is abandoning its alternative roots and moving to ape its daily brethren.
Jean and I met at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1957. Two friends and I were driving around Lincoln one fine spring day, drinking gin and tonics, which were drawn from a tub of gin and tonic that we had mixed up and stashed in the trunk of our car. We happened upon Jean and her younger sister, Catherine, who had come from a Theta sorority function and were standing on a street corner waiting for their mother to pick them up and take them to the Dibble family home in nearby Bennet (population: 412). We stopped, convinced them to ride with us, and got them safely home. They declined our offer of gin and tonics, as did their astonished parents and grandmother when we arrived at the Dibble house.
Jean and I made a good team. We both had small-town Midwestern values and roots in family-owned small-business. Her father owned lumberyards in small towns in southeast Nebraska. Her maternal grandfather founded banks in Kansas and Nebraska and was the state-appointed receiver for failed banks in Kansas during the Depression. Her paternal grandfather owned a grocery store in Topeka, Kan. Jean had the business background and the ability to create a solid start-up plan — she was a graduate of the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration and had worked in San Francisco for Matson Navigation as well as Hansell Associates, a personnel firm.
I was the son and grandson of pioneering pharmacists in Rock Rapids, Iowa. (Population: 2,800. Slogan: “Brugmann’s Drugs. Where drugs and gold are fairly sold. Since l902.”) I had the newspaper background, starting at age l2 writing for my hometown Lyon County Reporter (under the third-generation Paul Smith family); going on to the campus paper (which we called the Rag) and then the Lincoln Star (under liberal city editor “Sterl” Earl Dyer and liberal editor Jimmy Lawrence); getting a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York City; and then working at Stars and Stripes in Korea (dateline: Yongdongpo), the Milwaukee Journal (where I got splendid professional training at one of the top 10 daily papers in the country), and the Redwood City Tribune (where I plowed into some of the juicy Peninsula scandals of the mid-l960s in bay fill, dirt hauling, and the classic Pacific Gas and Electric Co.–Stanford University Linear Accelerator battle). To those who ask how Jean and I have worked together for 40 years, I just say we have complementary abilities: she handles the bank, and I handle PG&E.
Not only did I find my partner at the University of Nebraska, but I also got the inspiration for the Guardian. In fact, I can remember the precise moment of truth that illuminated for me the value of an alternative paper in a city with a monopoly daily press (then, in Lincoln, a JOA between the afternoon Lincoln Journal and the morning Lincoln Star) that was tied into the local power structure, then known as the O Street gang (the local business owners along the downtown thoroughfare O Street). The O Street gang was so quietly powerful that it once decided to fire the Nebraska football coach before anyone bothered to notify the chancellor.
As a liberal Rag editor in the spring of 1955, I had just put out an important front-page story on how one of the most controversial professors on campus, C. Clyde Mitchell, who had been under fire for years from the conservative Farm Bureau and others because of his liberal views on farm policy, was being quietly axed as chair of the agricultural economics department.
We had gotten the tip from one of Mitchell’s students and had confirmed it by talking to professors in his department who had attended the meeting where the quiet firing was announced by Mitchell’s dean. Our lead story was headlined “Ag Ex Chairman Mitchell said relieved of post, outside pressures termed cause.” And I wrote a “demand all the facts” editorial arguing in high tones that “any attempt to make professors fair game for irresponsible charges, any attempt by pressure groups unduly to influence the academic position of university personnel … is an abridgment of the spirit of academic freedom and those principles of free communication protected by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” It was a bombshell.
The Lincoln Journal fired back immediately with a classic daily front-page story seeking to “scotch” the nasty rumors started by that pesky Rag on the campus. The story had all the usual recognizable elements: it did not independently investigate, did not quote our story properly, did not call us for comment, took the handout denial from the university public relations office, and put it out without blushing. Bang, that was to be the end of it, on to the next press release from the university.
It made me mad. I knew our story was right, the daily story was wrong, and the story was important and needed to be pursued. And so I stoked up a campaign for the rest of the semester that ultimately emboldened Mitchell to make formal charges that the university had violated his academic freedom. He gave us the scoop for two rousing final editions of the Rag. The proper academic committee investigated and upheld Mitchell but dragged the case out and waited until I graduated to release the report.
Against the power structure and against all odds, Mitchell, the Rag, and I had won the day and an important victory on behalf of academic freedom in a conservative university in a conservative state during the McCarthy era. During this battle I learned how the power structure fights back against aggressive editors. At the height of my campaign defending Mitchell, I was kept out of the Innocents Society, the senior men’s honorary society, although my four subeditors and managers all made it in. The blackball, the campus rumor went, came directly from the regents president, J. Leroy Welch, then president of the Omaha Grain Exchange (known to our readers as the “Old Grain Head”), via the chancellor via the dean of men.
I am forever indebted to them. They taught me at an impressionable age about the power of the alternative press and why it is best exercised by an independent paper on major power structure issues. They also taught me a lot about press freedom, which they were trying to grab from the Rag and me, and how we had to fight back publicly and with gusto.
When Jean and I founded the Guardian, we did so in the spirit of my old Rag campaigns. In fact, we borrowed the line from the old Chicago Times and put it on our masthead: “It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell.” We wanted a paper that would be willing and able to do serious watchdog reporting and take on and pursue the big stories and issues that the monopoly dailies ignored — and then were ignored by the radio, television, and mainstream media that take their news and policy cues from the Ex and Chron. In JOA San Francisco that was a lot of stories, from the PG&E Raker Act scandal to the Manhattanization of the city to the theft of the Presidio to the steady conservative downtown drumbeat on such key issues as taxes, social justice, the homeless, privatization, war and peace, and endorsements.
Significantly, because of our independent position and credibility, we were able to lead tough campaigns on public power, kicking PG&E out of a corrupted City Hall and putting a blast of sunlight on local government with the nation’s first and best Sunshine Ordinance and Sunshine Task Force.
Our first big target in our prototype issue was the Ex-Chron JOA agreement, which we portrayed in an editorial cartoon as two gigantic ostrich heads coming out of a single ostrich body, marked in the belly with a huge dollar sign. Our editorial laid out the argument that we have used ever since in covering the local monopoly and in positioning the Guardian as the independent alternative. “What the public now has in San Francisco, as it does in all 55 or so of 1,461 cities with dailies, is a privately owned utility that is constitutionally exempt from public regulation, which would violate freedom of the press. This is bad for the newspaper business and bad for San Francisco.”
The Guardian prospectus, used to raise money for the paper, bravely put forth our position: “A good metropolitan weekly, starting small but speaking with integrity, can soon have influence in inverse proportion to its size. There is nothing stronger in journalism than the force of a good example.”
It concluded, “The Guardian can succeed, despite the galloping contraction of the press in San Francisco, because there are many of us who feel that the newspaper business is a trade worth fighting for. That is what this newspaper is all about.” And we quoted the famous phrase used by Ralph Ingersoll in the prospectus for his famous PM newspaper in New York: “We are against people who push other people around.”
Our journalistic points were embarrassingly timely. A year before the Guardian was launched, Hearst and the Chronicle had formed the JOA with the Examiner and killed daily newspaper competition in San Francisco. The two papers combined all their business operations — one sales force sold ads for both, one print crew handled both editions, one distribution crew handled subscriptions and got both papers out on the streets. The newsrooms were supposedly separate — but as we pointed out over and over at the time and ever after, the papers lacked any economic incentive to compete.
The San Francisco JOA became the largest and most powerful agreement of its kind in the country, and San Francisco was the only top-10 market in the country without daily competition.
This was all grist for the Guardian editorial mills because the JOAs, most notably the recent SF JOA, were in serious legal trouble. The US attorney general was successfully prosecuting a JOA in Tucson, Ariz., claiming the arrangement was a violation of antitrust laws. Naturally, the local papers were blacking out the story. But if the Tucson deal was found to be illegal, the Chron and Ex merger would be illegal too — and the hundreds of millions of dollars the papers were making off the arrangement would be gone.
The JOA publishers, led by Hearst and the Chronicle, quietly started a major lobbying campaign in Washington for emergency passage of a federal law that would retroactively legalize their illegal JOAs. They called it the Newspaper Preservation Act. Meanwhile, the late Al Kihn, a former camera operator for KRON-TV (which was at the time owned by the Chronicle), had prompted the Federal Communications Commission to hold hearings on whether the station’s license should be renewed. His complaint: his former employer was slanting the news on behalf of its corporate interests. We pounced on these stories with relish.
For example, in our May 22, 1969, story “The Dicks from Superchron,” we disclosed how private detectives under hire by the Chronicle were probing Kihn’s private life and seeking to gather adverse information about him to discredit his complaint and to “harass and intimidate him,” as we put it. Later, I found that the Chronicle-KRON had also hired private detectives to get adverse information on me.
I was a suspicious character, I guess, because I had gone to the KRON building to check the station’s public FCC file on the Kihn complaints, the first journalist ever to do so. The way the story came out at a later hearing was that the station’s deputy director left the room as I was going through the records and called Cooper White and Cooper, then the Chronicle’s law firm. An attorney called their investigators, and four cars of detectives were pulled off other jobs and ordered to circle the building until I came out and then follow me when I left the station to return to my South of Market office. They also surveilled me for several months and even sent a detective into the office posing as a freelance writer. (The head of the detective agency and I later became friends, and he volunteered that I was “clean.” He gave me a pillow with a large eye on it that said “You are being watched.” I displayed it proudly in my office.)
Kihn and I were asked to testify before a Senate committee about the Chronicle-KRON’s use of private detectives at hearings on the Newspaper Preservation Act in Washington in June 1969. I took the occasion to call the legislation “the bill for millionaire crybaby publishers.”
I detailed the subsidies in their special interest legislation: “amnesty, immunity from prosecution, monopoly in perpetuity, the legal right to gun down what few competitors remain, and as the maraschino cherry atop this double-decker sundae, anointment as the preservers and saviors of the newspaper business.” And I summed up, “If you plant a flower on University of California property or loose an expletive on Vietnam, the cops are out of the chutes like broncos. But if you are a big publisher and you violate antitrust laws for years and you emasculate your competition with predatory practices and you drive hundreds of newspapers out of business, then you are treated as one of nature’s noble men. And senators will rise like doves on the floor of the US Senate to proffer billion-dollar subsidies.”
After I finished, Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois) rose as the first dove and characterized my testimony as “quite a dramatic recital” but said that I had not provided a “workable, feasible solution.” Sen. Philip Hart (D-Michigan) recommended that the publishers ought to “read their own editorials and relate them to their business practices.” Morton Mintz, who covered the hearing for the Washington Post, came up and congratulated me. His story, with my picture and much of my testimony, was on the front page of the Post the next day.
Back in San Francisco the Chronicle published a misleading short story in which publisher Charles de Young Thieriot avoided admitting or denying the detective charge and added he had no further comment. Less than a week later, Thieriot wrote the Senate subcommittee and admitted to the charge, saying the use of the detectives was “entirely reasonable and proper.” This statement, which contradicted his statement in his own paper, was not reported in the Chronicle. The “competing” Examiner also reported nothing — neither the original private detective story nor the Washington testimony nor the Thieriot admission.
Nor did either paper report anything about the intensive JOA lobbying campaign headed by Hearst president Richard Berlin, who twice wrote letters to President Richard Nixon threatening the withdrawal of JOA endorsements in the l972 presidential election if he refused to sign the final bill. This episode illustrated in 96-point Tempo Bold the pattern of Ex and Chron suppression and obfuscation they used to advance their corporate agenda at the expense of the public interest and good journalism, all through the years and up to Hearst’s current monopoly maneuvers with Dean Singleton and the Clint Reilly antitrust suit to stop them.
Perhaps the most telling incident came when Nicholas von Hoffman, in his Washington Post column that was regularly run in the Chronicle, called the publishers “as scurvy as the special interests they love to denounce.” He singled out the Examiner and Chronicle publishers, writing that they were “so bad that the best and most reliable periodical in the city is the Bay Guardian, a monthly put out by one man and a bunch of volunteer helpers.” Neither paper would run the column, and neither paper would publish it as an ad, even when we offered cash up front. “The publisher has the right to refuse to run anything he wants, and he doesn’t have to give a reason,” the JOA ad rep told us. The Guardian of course gleefully ran the censored column and the censored ad in our own full-page ad.
On July 25, l970, the day after Nixon signed the Newspaper Preservation Act, the Guardian filed a major antitrust action in San Francisco attacking the constitutionality of the legislation and charging that the Ex-Chron JOA had taken the lion’s share of local print advertising, leaving only crumbs for other print publications in town. We battled on for five years but finally settled because the suit became too expensive. The Examiner and Chronicle continued to black out or marginalize the story, but they and the other JOA papers gave Nixon resounding endorsements in the l972 election even though he was heading toward Watergate and unprecedented disgrace.
Well, in October 2006 the mainstream press is a different creature. Hearst and publisher Dean Singleton are working to destroy daily competition and impose a regional monopoly. The Knight-Ridder chain is no more, and the McClatchy chain has turned the KR remains into what I call Galloping Conglomerati. Even some alternatives, alas, are now getting chained. Craigslist has become a toxic chain. Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft (known as GYM in the online world) are poised to swoop in on San Francisco and other cities throughout the land to scoop up the local advertising dollars and ship them as fast as possible back to corporate headquarters on a conveyor belt.
I am happy to report on our 40th anniversary that the Guardian is aware of the challenge and is gearing up in the paper and online to compete and endure till the end of time, printing the news and raising hell and forcing the daily papers to scotch the rumors coming from our power structure exposés and our watchdog reporting. The future is still with us and with our special community and critical mission, in print and online. See you next year and for 40 more. SFBG
STOP THE PRESSES: As G.W. Schulz discloses in “A Tough Pill to Swallow,” (a) Hearst Corp. was fined $4 million in 200l by the Justice Department for failing to turn over key documents during its monopoly move to purchase a medical publishing subsidiary, the highest premerger antitrust fine in US history, according to a Justice Department press release; (b) Hearst was also forced by the the Federal Trade Commission to unload the subsidiary to break up its monopoly and disgorge $l9 million in profits generated during its ownership; (c) Hearst-owned First DataBank in San Bruno was alleged in the summer of 2005 to have inflated drug costs by upward of $7 billion by wrongly presenting drug prices, according to a lawsuit reported in a damning lead story in the Oct. 6 Wall Street Journal. Hearst blacked out the stories. And the Dean Singleton chain circling the Bay Area hasn’t pounced on the stories as real daily competitors used to do with fervor.
STOP THE PRESSES 2: SOS alert to the city and business desks of the “competing” Hearst and Singleton papers: here are the links to the key documents cited in our stories, including federal court records of the Oct. 6 Boston settlement with the Hearst-owned First DataBank (www.hagens-berman.com/first_data_bank_settlement.htm), the Justice Department’s antitrust fine of Hearst in 200l (www.usdoj.gov/atr/cases/indx330.htm), and the Federal Trade Commission decision requiring Hearst to give up its monopolistic subsidiary, Medi-Span (www.ftc.gov/bc/healthcare/antitrust/commissionactions.htm).
Or you can read the Guardian each week in print or online.
What is war good for? Besides lining the pockets of Dick Cheney’s fun bunch, it’s sure done a lot for the video game industry. Village Voice critic Ed Halter makes two local stops with his new book, From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games. His multimedia lecture explores “war gaming in the new world order.” (Cheryl Eddy)
2575 Bancroft, Berk.
Also Sat/21, 8:30 p.m.
Artists’ Television Access
992 Valencia, SF
There’s a painting from the ’30s by Thomas Hart Benton called The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley, in which a farm town in the American West reveals its ugly underbelly in the form of a drunken man threatening a woman with a knife. The landscape swoops and swirls with a brooding menace. Local country weepers Tarnation write songs for such occasions. Possessing a voice that smokes and drifts, melancholic balladeer Paula Frazer will introduce you to loves gone wrong and lives gone sour while the band dumps you knee-deep in the most forlorn corner of the lonesome desert. (Todd Lavoie)
With Peggy Honeywell and Matt Bauer
1131 Polk, SF
COMEDY DVD/CD When comedian Neil Hamburger appeared in the mid-’90s, he didn’t exactly burst onto the scene. He floundered, groaned, and groveled his way through jokes that have often been deemed intentionally bad. “It’s so bad it’s good!” went the typical assessment of the comedian’s act — an assessment that’s not only insensitive but also a bit simplistic. Hamburger may not have been the smoothest, most polished comedian, but no one tried harder or battled against longer odds, and his willingness to muddle forth in the face of repeated failure and humiliation was at least mildly inspiring.
Based on his early track record, Hamburger’s recent success — appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live, a role in an upcoming Jack Black movie, sold-out shows at the Hemlock Tavern — has been unexpected. Listen to his earliest albums, 1996’s America’s Funnyman and 1998’s Raw Hamburger (both Drag City), and you’ll find there’s not a lot of laughter. Groaning, hissing, clanking silverware, and ringing slot machines, yes. But not many genuine laughs. Since those days, his persistent cough has gotten worse, and his jokes have grown more offensive, yet his audiences have grown bigger. The younger rock ’n’ roll audiences he plays to have been much more receptive to his hard-R-rated humor as well as his Q&A-style delivery (“Why did God invent Gene Simmons? To boost sales of the morning-after pill”) than to the more observational musings of his earlier sets.
The recent Drag City DVD, The World’s Funnyman, offers a window into Hamburger’s evolution. The feature is more or less a typical Hamburger show circa anytime since 2003, featuring off-color jokes about Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and other top stars. The highlights of the DVD, however, are relegated to the special features section: two minidocumentaries, Neil Hamburger in Australia and the Canadian-made America’s Funnyman, along with a video for his song “Seven-Elevens,” from the 2002 album Laugh Out Lord (Drag City). Best of all, though, is the black-and-white cinematic depiction of scenes from Left for Dead in Malaysia (Drag City, 1999), perhaps the darkest and most trying of Hamburger’s albums. Basically, the audience doesn’t understand a word he’s saying, but that doesn’t stop him from treating it like any show. After all, as he notes, “some things transcend the language barrier — like a disinterested audience.” The credits mention that this is a teaser for a feature-length film entitled Funny Guy–itis. If that’s true, then please, someone get this guy a movie deal and finish it, pronto.
There are those who claim that Neil Hamburger is actually the alter ego of former Amarillo Records head Gregg Turkington, but then again, these are the sort of folks who argue that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person, that Batman is really Bruce Wayne. There’s no hard evidence. Still, some of Hamburger’s most harped-upon themes are echoed on Turkington’s most recent efforts, on the Golding Institute’s Final Relaxation (Ipecac). Coproduced with Australian television producer Brendan Walls, the album is billed as “your ticket to death through hypnotic suggestion.” As the extremely creepy narrator, Turkington stresses that certain people are not qualified to participate, including “pregnant or lactating women” and “those who have booked expensive overseas vacations or plane tickets.”
Obviously, Final Relaxation is not 100 percent effective — otherwise I’d be writing this from beyond the grave. Still, the disc casts a disturbing enough pall over the listening environment, with Turkington offering up plenty of negative reinforcements (“You will not be able to cook like a television chef. Your time on earth will be spent failing”) and bizarre commands (“Please, please break some of the teeth in your head — for me”) amid Walls’s sickly electronic noises. It’s not a laugh-a-minute affair, but like many of Hamburger’s albums, it walks a fine line between cringe-inducing ineptitude and head-scratching ridiculousness. And yes, that’s an endorsement. SFBG
Ask Aron Ranen about his filmmaking philosophy, and he won’t pause long. “I’m a reality surfer. Things pop up as I’m quote-unquote traveling around the world with my camera.”
When he says “pop up,” he ain’t kidding. While attempting to uncover the truth about the Apollo 11 moon landing in Did We Go? (which screened in 2000 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), Ranen stumbled upon the fact that the magnetic tapes used to record the 1969 event had gone missing. This peculiar nugget resurfaced in the news lately, generating enough buzz beyond the conspiracy fringes to nudge NASA into a response via its Web site: “Despite the challenges of the search, NASA does not consider the tapes to be lost.”
A month ago Ranen appeared on CNN to discuss the controversy. Host Glenn Beck tried awfully hard to paint the doc maker as a wackjob; the segment ends with a joke likening those who believe the moon landing was faked to those who are “still wondering why Darrin One was mysteriously replaced by Darrin Two.” This kind of reaction doesn’t seem to bother Ranen, who between movies teaches digital filmmaking at DV Workshops, the school he runs out of his Mission District studio.
“My motto is film the obvious,” he explains. (Later in our conversation he expands that motto to include “trust reality … and also don’t fuck it up.”) “I’m just trying to illuminate some of the things that are going on in our culture.” Did We Go? is actually not a wackjob’s manifesto; it features interviews with Apollo 11 flight director Gene Krantz and astronaut Buzz Aldrin — as well as the NASA employee who physically closed the hatch on the rocket before its launch. The film doesn’t try to discredit the moon landing; it tries, with sincerity, to prove that it actually happened. (In other words, there’s a reason it’s not titled We Didn’t Go.)
A filmmaker since he was 13, Ranen has made so many short documentaries that he’s lost count. Over the years the self-funded artist has developed his own approach to shooting. His films are generally unstructured — expecting the unexpected — and are guided by Ranen’s first-person voice-overs, delivered in a tone that hovers between curiosity and amazement.
“Everyone trusts me and talks to me in my films,” he says. It’s a claim backed up by the openness displayed by his diverse array of subjects, many of whom Ranen meets on the fly. His film Power and Control: LSD in the 60s — a tangent-riddled exploration of the drug’s influence on politics and counterculture — features chats with an ex–Stanford University researcher whose simian LSD tests earned him the nickname “Monkey Mike” and a now-elderly professor who was among the Harvard students who participated in Timothy Leary’s 1962 Good Friday experiment. Ranen attributes this kind of access to his lone gunman style.
“I refuse to let anyone go with me. I believe so much of documentary is about the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject. I don’t want a crew or a sound man to mitigate my relationships with these subjects,” he explains. “When I’m talking to someone, you can see their enthusiasm in talking to me.”
Ranen’s go-with-the-flow methodology extends to postproduction. He “edits organically,” subscribing to what he calls “the pinball effect: as you’re watching it, the edit speaks to you and says, no, take that stuff in the middle and put it up front.” He’s also not opposed to altering his films after they are finished. Power and Control screened as a 70-minute feature at the 2005 San Francisco Independent Film Festival; the version at Other Cinema this weekend hovers closer to 40 minutes. Eventually, Ranen hopes to add a chapter exploring the possible LSD-KGB connection.
His most recent film, Black Hair, is also his most widely seen, thanks to a strategy of free distribution via YouTube. The doc, which Ranen says has been viewed some 100,000 times, delves into the racial and economic issues raised by the fact that most of the black hair-care industry’s retail and wholesale markets are controlled by Korean, not African American, businesspeople.
Ranen’s film inspired Bay Area hair-product manufacturer Sam Ennon to found the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association, or BOBSA, now a national organization aimed at what Ennon calls “reorganizing the whole industry in terms of the distribution channel. It’s not that we want to run the Koreans out of business — we just want to share in the business. We want to recirculate the black dollar.”
Ennon says Black Hair gave BOBSA’s cause a major assist. “A picture speaks better than words. The film is really what turned it completely around.”
It’s all in a day’s work for Ranen, who seems to attract unexpected spontaneity and the not-occasional weird coincidence. His DV Workshops was funded with a settlement he received after learning that Nine Inch Nails had sampled one of his films without permission. The dialogue snippet, taken from Ranen’s film Religion in Suburbia, just happened to include this phrase: “do you believe in miracles?” SFBG
POWER AND CONTROL:
LSD IN THE 60S
Sat/30, 8:30 p.m.
Artists’ Television Access
992 Valencia, SF
EDITORIAL KQED, San Francisco’s venerable public radio and television outlet, is trying to summarily abandon internal democracy. The station’s management is sending out letters this week asking its 190,000 members to vote on a bylaws change that would eliminate direct election of board members and shift complete control of the station’s operations to a self-appointed board. The proposal would also strip members of the right to vote on future changes to the bylaws.
This is a horrible idea and KQED members should reject it.
The bylaws change, KQED spokesperson Yoon Lee told us, comes in the wake of a May merger between KQED and San Jose’s public station, KTEH, and is aimed at simplifying operations at the stations. Besides, she said, elections are expensive: KQED spends roughly $250,000 each time it chooses new board members.
Of course, the United States could save huge sums of money by canceling congressional elections and letting the House and Senate choose their own members, but that idea wouldn’t get too far. Neither should the idea of the people — who pay for the programming, pay for the staff, pay for the salaries of the station executives, and pay for the elections — being cut out of the process.
For half a century, KQED has had a tradition of membership participation. It’s been awkward and stilted at times (the board appoints its own slate of candidates, and it’s tough for outside candidates to get on the ballot and get elected). But critics of station management have won seats on the board now and then, and their input has been tremendously healthy for the organization.
KQED has always needed independent watchdogs. For years, the station has poured money into bad projects and wasted cash on overpaid executives — at the expense of its primary mission, which is (and ought to be) to provide quality local programming. There’s no KQED TV news show (although there used to be). Other than Michael Krasny on the radio, there’s precious little in the way of local public affairs shows.
That’s the kind of thing rebel board members like Henry Kroll and Sasha Futran used to bring up and force onto the agenda. They also made the case for letting the members — and the public — have access to the details of KQED’s finances.
Lee says that none of the other big stations in the Public Broadcasting Service system have elected boards, but this is San Francisco, a city that takes its publicly supported institutions seriously and demands accountability. And locally, the direction of member-sponsored broadcasting is just the opposite: KPFA has gone to great lengths to elect a community-based board.
This is the last chance members will ever have to halt the corporatization of KQED. Most members just throw their ballots out; this time, it’s worth taking a minute to vote no on the new bylaws. SFBG
Dick Cheney surveys the teeming white crowds at the 2004 Republican National Convention. With their Cheney Rocks! placards and stars-and-stripes Styrofoam hats, these people worship him, but he still looks like he wants to spray them with buckshot. “You’re all a bunch of fucking assholes!” he sneers. “You know why? You need people like me — so you can point your fucking fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’”
OK, maybe Cheney didn’t use those exact words in his convention speech, but we all know he was thinking them, so bless Bryan Boyce’s short video America’s Biggest Dick for making the vice president really speak his mind — in this case, via Al Pacino’s dialogue in Scarface. The title fits: Boyce’s two-minute movie exposes the gangster mentality of Cheney and the rest of the Bush administration, perhaps giving his subject more charisma than he deserves. Ultimately, Cheney gets around to admitting he’s the bad guy — after he’s compared the convention’s hostile New York setting to “a great big pussy waiting to be fucked” and speculated about how much money is required to buy the Supreme Court. “Fuck you! Who put this thing together? Me — that’s who!” he bellows when a graphic exhibition of his oral sex talents receives some boos.
One might think the man behind America’s Biggest Dick might be boisterous and loud, but Boyce — who lives in San Francisco — is in fact soft-spoken and modest, crediting the movie’s “stunt mouth,” Jonathan Crosby (whose teeth and lips Bryce pastes onto Cheney and other political figures), with the idea of using Brian de Palma’s 1983 film. “I knew I wanted extensive profanity, and Scarface more than delivered,” Boyce says during an interview at the Mission District’s Atlas Café. “But I was also amazed at how well the dialogue fit.”
The dialogue fits because Boyce masterfully tweaks found material, particularly footage from television. It’s a skill he’s honed and a skill that motivates the most recent waves of TV manipulation thriving on YouTube, on DVD (in the case of the Toronto-based TV Carnage), and at film festivals and other venues that have the nerve to program work that ignores the property rights of an oppressive dominant culture. “It is, admittedly, crude,” Boyce says of America’s Biggest Dick, which inspired raves and rage when it played the Sundance Film Festival last year. “It’s a crude technique for a crude movie matched to a very crude vice president.” As for the contortions of Crosby’s mouth, which exaggerate Cheney’s own expressions, Boyce has an apt reference at hand: “The twisted mouth to match his twisted soul — he’s got a Richard III thing going on.”
America’s Biggest Dick isn’t Boyce’s only film to mine horror and hilarity from the hellish realms of Fox News. In 30 Seconds of Hate, for example, he uses a “monosyllabic splicing technique” to puppeteer war criminal (and neocon TV expert) Henry Kissinger into saying, “If we kill all the people in the world, there’ll be no more terrorists…. It’s very probable that I will kill you.” All the while, mock Fox News updates scroll across the bottom of the screen. “That footage came from a time when Fox thought that Saddam [Hussein] had been killed,” Boyce explains. “That’s why Kissinger kept using the word kill. Of course, no one says kill like Henry Kissinger.”
In Boyce’s State of the Union, the smiling baby face within a Teletubbies sun is replaced by the grumpier, more addled visage of George W. Bush. Shortly after issuing a delighted giggle, this Bush sun god commences to bomb rabbits that graze amid the show’s hilly Astroturf landscapes — which mysteriously happen to be littered with oil towers. With uncanny prescience, Boyce made the movie in August 2001, inspiring fellow TV tweak peers such as Rich Bott of the duo Animal Charm to compare him to Nostradamus. “Even before Sept. 11, [Bush] was looking into nuclear weapons and bunker busters,” Boyce says. “His drilling in the [Arctic National Wildlife Reserve] led me to use the oil towers.”
Having grown up in the Bay Area and returned here after a college stint in Santa Cruz, Boyce — like other Bay Area artists with an interest in culture jamming — calls upon Negativland (“I thought their whole Escape from Noise album was great”) and Craig Baldwin (“He’s kind of the godfather of cinema here”) as two major inspirations. In fact, both he and Baldwin have shared a fascination with televangelist Robert Tilton, whose bizarre preaching makes him a perfect lab rat on whom to try out editing experiments. “He speaks in tongues so nicely,” Boyce says with a smile. “He’s just so over-the-top and sad and terrible that he lends himself to all the extremes of the [editing] system, such as playing something backwards.”
Boyce believes that the absurdity of “an abrupt jump cut between incongruous things” can “really be beautiful.” And the TV Carnage DVDs put together by Derrick Beckles might illustrate that observation even better than Boyce’s more minimalist tweaking. In just one of hundreds of uproarious moments within TV Carnage’s most recent DVD, the wonderfully titled Sore for Sighted Eyes, a sheet-clad John Ritter stares in abject disbelief at a TV on which Rosie O’Donnell pretends to have Down syndrome. At least two different movie writers at this paper (yours truly included) have shed tears from laughing at this sequence.
“I just picture a conveyer belt, and there are just so many points at which someone could press a big red stop button, but it doesn’t happen,” Beckles says, discussing the source (an Angelica Huston–helmed TV movie called Riding the Bus with My Sister) for the O’Donnell footage. “There’s this untouchable hubris. It blows my mind that people are paid for some of these ideas. Crispin Glover told me that the actors with Down syndrome in [his movie] What Is It? were offended by [the O’Donnell performance], or that they felt uneasy. It is uneasy to see Rosie O’Donnell do a Pee-wee Herman impersonation and think she’s embodying someone with Down syndrome.”
Beckles’s interest in manipuutf8g TV — or as he puts it, “exorcising my own demons” by exorcising television’s — dates back to childhood. But it took several years in the belly of MGM to really fire a desire that has resulted in five DVDs to date. “TV Carnage is my way of screaming,” he says at one point during a phone conversation that proves he’s as funny as his work. Like Boyce and audio contemporaries such as Gregg Gillis of Girl Talk (see “Gregg the Ripper,” page 69), he filters “mounds and mounds and shelves and shelves” of tapes and other material through his computer.
“It’s not so much that I’m always in front of the TV,” Beckles explains. “I’d just say that I have this divining rod for shit. I have these psychic premonitions when I turn on my TV. I have years and years of footage. I pull all of it into my computer and say, ‘Now what?’ Then I take a swig of whiskey and go, ‘You’ve got yourself into it again.'” On Sore for Sighted Eyes this approach results in eye-defying montages dedicated to subjects such as white rapping. (Believe me, you have not lived until you’ve died inside seeing Mike Ditka and the Grabowskis or the Sealy Roll.)
Overall, mind control is TV Carnage’s main theme. One segment within the release Casual Fridays looks at children who act like adults and adults who act like children — two plagues that run rampant on TV. “Kids are like al-Qaeda,” he says. “They’ll shift their plans every day to keep you wondering. [Meanwhile], you can just feel the adults who host teen shows thinking about their mortgage payments: ‘What are kids doing now? Slitting each other’s throats? Great! Let’s do a show about it!’” An infamous “swearing sandwich” sequence within TV Carnage’s When Television Attacks encapsulates Beckles’s worldview. “People who are into self-help — they might as well be taking advice from a sandwich.”
Breaking from the more free-form nature of TV Carnage — which isn’t afraid of running from Richard Simmons to Mao Zedong in a few seconds — Beckles is working within some self-imposed restrictions to make his next project. The presence of rules has some irony, since the project is titled Cop Movie. “I’m taking 101 cop movies and making a full-length feature from them,” he says. “The same script has been used for hundreds and hundreds of cop movies — they just change the characters’ names, using a name that sounds dangerous or slightly evocative of freedom.”
“The reason I’m using 101 movies stems from this ridiculous mathematical aspect I’ve figured out,” he continues. “If I take a certain number of seconds from each movie, it adds up to 66 minutes and 6 seconds, and the whole construct of 666 makes me laugh. I’ve already cut together a part where a guy gets hit by a car, and he goes from being a blond guy to a black guy to a guy with red hair to a guy with a mullet. It flows seamlessly. It’s a real acid trip — and kind of a psychological experiment. After I finish it, I’ll probably just pick out a casket and sleep for a hundred years.”
The encyclopedic aspect of Beckles’s TV Carnage sucks in more recognizable footage such as American Idol’s Scary Mary and a musical number from The Apple. In contrast, the duo who go by the name Animal Charm tend to work with footage that few, if any, people have seen, such as corporate training videos. “Our interest from the beginning has not been to turn to a video we love or have a nostalgic connection to,” says Jim Fetterley, who along with Rich Bott makes up Animal Charm. “We were looking for things that were empty that could be used to create new meanings.”
Those meanings are often hilarious — the new Animal Charm DVD, Golden Digest, includes shorts such as Stuffing (in which a real-life monkey watches animated dolphins juggle a woman back and forth) and Ashley (which turns an infomercial for a Texas woman’s Amway-like beauty business into a bizarre science fiction story). But if reappropriation brings out the political commentator in Boyce and the comedian in Beckles, for Fetterley it’s more of a philosophical matter. Pledging allegiance to contemporaries such as Los Angeles’s TV Sheriff and the Pittsburgh, Pa., collective Paper Rad, he talks about Animal Charm’s videos as “tinctures” he’s used to “deprogram” himself and friends. “Our videos can make an empty boardroom seem like the jungle or something very natural,” he says when asked about his use of National Geographic–type clips and dated-looking office scenes. “In the videos, the animals are like puppets. You could say it’s like animation but on a more concept-based level.”
While Boyce, TV Carnage, and Animal Charm most often work with found material, their cinematic practice — jump-cut editing, for example — is more imaginative and creative than that of many “original” multimillion dollar productions. “We’re not predetermining any space we want to get into,” Fetterley explains, “other than most often that level of disassociation and absurdity where you are almost feeling something like the rush of a drug.” For him, generating this type of “temporary autonomy” is liberating. “With massive paranoia and war going on, it’s so easy to control a lot of people with fear and paranoia. We like to think if we can sit down and show our videos to our friends and others and have a laugh and talk about it seriously, it might help take everyone out of that mind frame.”
Because of the popularity of YouTube and its ability to create a new type of TV celebrity (and also the recent notoriety of musical efforts such as Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album and Girl Talk’s Night Ripper), reappropriation is reaching the mainstream. But even as Animal Charm’s and Boyce’s clips proliferate on the Internet, a veteran such as Fetterley looks upon such developments with a pointedly critical perspective. “There’s a general tendency right now to get excited about things that are unknown or anonymous,” he says. “Accountability is almost more important than appropriation nowadays. All of a sudden, if something is anonymous, it makes people feel very uncomfortable.”
For artists with names, censorship is still very much an issue. Boyce recently found America’s Biggest Dick (along with Glover’s What Is It?) cited during a campaign to withdraw funding from a long-running film festival in Ann Arbor, Mich. But Fetterley sees a troubling larger picture. “Danger Mouse’s Grey Album is a very solid conceptual project — it’s gray,” he notes. “In comparison, if somebody is doing a New York Times article about something current politically or globally, there are red zones and flags that will be brought to others’ attention whether you or I know it or not. Those are things making this moment dangerous, in terms of not being able to be anonymous. With ideas about evidence dissolving and accountability hung up in legalities, it makes the culture around music or aesthetics or youth culture pale in comparison.” SFBG
LAMPOONS AND EYE-TUNES: BRYAN BOYCE’S CULT JAMS AND MUSIC VIDEOS
With launch party for Animal Charm’s Golden Digest DVD
Oct. 7, 8 p.m.
Artists’ Television Access
992 Valencia, SF
For complete interviews with Derrick Beckles of TV Carnage, Bryan Boyce, and Jim Fetterley of Animal Charm, go to Pixel Vision at www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.
Spencer Day is San Francisco’s own portal to the past: Old Blue Eyes has nothing on this kid. Hailing from a highly musical family in Utah, he commands a microphone and steers a piano into places seldom heard these days. Enchanting audiences, Day spins a room into flickering black and white, conjuring trench coats and pearls, finger weaves and cigar smoke. (K. Tighe)
With Same Shape and Joe Bagale
Cafe du Nord
2170 Market, SF
“Terror? An International Interdisciplinary Project”
Five years on, the lack of localized art events directly responding to Sept. 11 is a little surprising. Count on Intersection for the Arts to weigh in with an exhibition that steers clear of the jingoism currently crowding movie theaters and television screens. Composed of hundreds of works on paper from around the world, “Terror?” takes on the title subject from myriad personal and political angles. The exhibition is augmented by other events at the space later this month, such as a “War on Terror” discussion led by activists Tram Nguyen and Sandip Roy. (Johnny Ray Huston)
6-9 p.m. reception; through Nov. 11
Intersection for the Arts
446 Valencia, SF
This is a colossal week for art openings – and the people behind “Coprophagiology” are out to grab your attention with a photo postcard that proves this tiny exhibition’s title refers to the act of eating your own shit. But the more interesting aspect of Anna Maltz and Haden Nicholl’s double-trouble show (at onetime Guardian critic Clark Bruckner’s gallery) might be its exploration of mental instability. (Johnny Ray Huston)
6-9 p.m. reception; through Oct. 7
2111 Mission, suite 401, SF
Artist’s Television Access welcomes four shorts of the extremely local variety for “Friscophilia: An Exploration of San Francisco Locations and History.” Included are deep cuts of bike messengers in action, SF’s tourist scene, gentrification, and, in the wonderfully titled Mischief at 16th and Florida, history as seen from one grimy street corner. Together, the films constitute a decidedly bottom-up look at the city. (Max Goldberg)
Artist’s Television Access
992 Valencia, SF
Most people, of course, work for a living. They spend at least half their lives working and, in fact, define themselves by their jobs. They obviously would be interested in and obviously need expert information on a regular basis about that most important aspect of their lives.
But the news media in effect censor that vital information. Their primary attention is not focused on those who do society¹s work. With the rare exception of such issues as the attempts to raise the minimum wage, or on special occasions like Labor Day, the media generally are not concerned with workers’ daily efforts to make a living. The media concentrate instead on the corporate interests and other employers like themselves who finance, direct and profit from the work.
Workers’ attempts to get a greater share of the profits and better working conditions by using the only effective tool available to them – collective action – are given only slight and frequently biased media attention. Strikes are an exception, but that coverage is usually concerned mainly with the strikes’ adverse effect on the general public.
Given their complexity and importance, collective bargaining and union activity generally should be among the most thoroughly and fairly covered of all subjects. Once, most newspapers had labor reporters to provide extensive if not always fair coverage. But almost no papers have such specialists today. With a very few exceptions, radio and television stations have never had them.
At most papers, in the Bay Area and elsewhere, labor coverage has been turned over to the business section. Since the material there is meant for readers who have a particular interest in business and a generally negative view of unions, the stories naturally are slanted that way by business reporters, who have little apparent understanding of labor.
The business pages typically downgrade, distort or simply ignore union views. They show little concern for general readers, including those who support unions or might want to if they had the opportunity to read thorough, balanced and expert accounts of their activities.
How about describing the country¹s major labor federation, the AFL-CIO, as a “trade association?” Or referring to democratically elected union leaders as “bosses?” The San Francisco Chronicle business page has made those petty but illustrative gaffes and, like the rest of the Bay Area¹s mainstream media, far more serious gaffes.
The list of important labor issues that have been ignored censored is seemingly endless. To cite just a few examples, the media:
— Frequently note that union membership is declining while failing to report that a principal cause is failure of the federal government to adequately enforce the laws that supposedly guarantee workers the right to unionize without employer interference.
— Fail to report numerous other anti-union actions of the Bush
administration, including its virtual non-enforcement of most other laws designed to protect workers.
— Rarely take notice of the on-the-job hazards that cause 6,000 deaths and more than 2 million serious injuries a year, and the need to strengthen and adequately enforce the job safety laws.
— Ignore labor¹s role as an advocate for the working people, union and non-union alike, who make up the vast bulk of the population, by characterizing labor as a “special interest.”
— Almost never report the views of union members and leaders on the major issues of the day. The views often are voiced at meetings of local labor councils and other union bodies that reporters ignore, while routinely seeking out the views of corporate and business executives.
— Pay little, if any, attention to many major union campaigns. Most recently, that’s notably included a nationwide drive to get McDonald’s to guarantee decent pay and working conditions to the impoverished tomato pickers whose work is essential to the hugely profitable fast-food industry.
So, despite the great importance of labor, despite most people¹s vested interest in it, despite the need to inform them fully about it, the media provide little that’s of real value to them in their working lives, and much that¹s prejudicial to their collective action.
Copyright © 2006 Dick Meister, former labor editor of the Chronicle and of KQED-TV’s Newsroom. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.
11. DANGERS OF GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD CONFIRMED
Sources: “Revealed: Health Fears over Secret Study into GM Food,” Geoffrey Lean, Independent (UK), May 22, 2005; “Monsanto’s GE Corn Experiments on Rats Continue to Generate Global Controversy,” GM Free Cymru, Organic Consumers Association Web site, June 2, 2005; “GM: New Study Shows Unborn Babies Could Be Harmed,” Geoffrey Lean, Independent (UK), Jan. 8, 2006; “New Suspicions About GMOs,” Herve Kempf, le Monde and Truthout, Feb. 9, 2006
12. PENTAGON PLANS TO BUILD NEW LAND MINES
Sources: “After 10-Year Hiatus, Pentagon Eyes New Landmine,” Isaac Baker, Inter Press Service, Aug. 3, 2005; “Development and Production of Landmines,” Human Rights Watch Web site, August 2005
13. NEW EVIDENCE ESTABLISHES DANGERS OF ROUNDUP
Source: “New Evidence of Dangers of Roundup Weedkiller,” Chee Yoke Heong, Third World Resurgence, no. 176, April 2005
14. HOMELAND SECURITY CONTRACTS KBR TO BUILD DETENTION CENTERS IN THE UNITED STATES
Sources: “Homeland Security Contracts for Vast New Detention Camps,” Peter Dale Scott, New America Media, Jan. 31, 2006; “10-Year US Strategic Plan for Detention Camps Revives Proposals from Oliver North,” Peter Dale Scott, New America Media, Feb. 21, 2006; “Bush’s Mysterious ‘New Programs,’” Nat Parry, ConsortiumNews.com, Feb. 21, 2006; “Detention Camp Jitters,” Maureen Farrell, BuzzFlash
15. CHEMICAL INDUSTRY IS THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY’S PRIMARY RESEARCH PARTNER
Sources: “Chemical Industry Is Now EPA’s Main Research Partner,” Jeff Ruch, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Oct. 5, 2005; “EPA Becoming Arm of Corporate R&D,” Jeff Ruch, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Oct. 6, 2005
16. ECUADOR AND MEXICO DEFY UNITED STATES ON INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT
Sources: “Ecuador Refuses to Sign ICC Immunity Deal for US Citizens,” Alexander Martinez, Agence France-Presse (School of the Americas Watch), June 22, 2005; “Mexico Defies Washington on the International Criminal Court,” Katherine Stapp, Inter Press Service, Nov. 2, 2005
17. IRAQ INVASION PROMOTES OPEC AGENDA
Sources: “OPEC and the Economic Conquest of Iraq,” Greg Palast, Harper’s in coordination with BBC Television Newsnight, Oct. 24, 2005; “Bush Didn’t Bungle Iraq, You Fools: The Mission Was Indeed Accomplished,” Greg Palast, Guardian (UK), March 20, 2006
18. PHYSICIST CHALLENGES OFFICIAL 9/11 STORY
Sources: “Y. Professor Thinks Bombs, Not Planes, Toppled WTC,” Elaine Jarvik, Deseret Morning News, Nov. 10, 2005; “Why Indeed Did the WTC Buildings Collapse?,” Steven E. Jones, Brigham Young University Web site, Winter 2005; “BYU Professor’s Group Accuses US Officials of Lying about 9/11,” Elaine Jarvik, Deseret Morning News, Jan. 26, 2006
19. DESTRUCTION OF RAINFORESTS WORST EVER
Source: “Revealed: The True Devastation of the Rainforest,” Steve Connor, Independent (UK), Oct. 21, 2005
20. BOTTLED WATER: A GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEM
Source: “Bottled Water: Nectar of the Frauds?,” Abid Aslam, OneWorld.net, Feb. 5, 2006
21. GOLD MINING THREATENS ANCIENT ANDEAN GLACIERS
Sources: “Barrick Gold Strikes Opposition in South,” Glenn Walker, CorpWatch.com, June 20, 2005; “Chile: ‘Yes’ to Gold Mine, But Don’t Touch the Glaciers,” Daniela Estrada, Inter Press Service, Feb. 15, 2006
22. BILLIONS IN HOMELAND SECURITY SPENDING UNDISCLOSED
Source: “Billions in States’ Homeland Purchases Kept in the Dark,” Eileen Sullivan, Congressional Quarterly, June 22, 2005
23. US OIL TARGETS KYOTO IN EUROPE
Sources: “Oil Industry Targets EU Climate Policy,” David Adam, Guardian (UK), Dec. 8, 2005; “How America Plotted to Stop Kyoto Deal,” Andrew Buncombe, Independent (UK), Dec. 8, 2005
24. CHENEY’S HALLIBURTON STOCK ROSE MORE THAN 3,000 PERCENT LAST YEAR
Sources: “Cheney’s Halliburton Stock Options Rose 3,281 Percent Last Year, Senator Finds,” John Byrne, Raw Story, Oct. 2005; “Cheney’s Halliburton Stock Options Soar to $9.2 Million,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s Web site
25. US MILITARY IN PARAGUAY THREATENS REGION
Sources: “Fears Mount as US Opens New Military Installation in Paraguay,” Benjamin Dangl, Upside Down World, Oct. 5, 2005; “Dark Armies, Secret Bases, and Rummy, Oh My!,” Conn Hallinan, Foreign Policy in Focus, Nov. 21, 2005; “US Military Moves in Paraguay Rattle Regional Relations,” Sam Logan and Matthew Flynn, International Relations Center, Dec. 14, 2005 SFBG
This too may pass, but let it be said that “outrageous” is currently one of Mission District artist Keegan McHargue’s favorite descriptors — applied with equal enthusiasm to the thugs who smoke blunts down the street, his waxy-eyed portrait by Japanese artist Enlightment, Heavy Metal Parking Lot sequel Neil Diamond Parking Lot, and a new art book with a cover font composed of turds — and one that could easily apply to the refreshingly direct, boyish painter himself. Not many young artists are in the position to tell national television to take a cold shower in a couple hot minutes, but that’s just where McHargue is: he isn’t your archetypal stylist-damaged celebutante or attention-ravenous art star. The 2004 Goldies winner — last sighted at that award’s soiree shaking his sharp, narrow suit on the dance floor alongside beat legend Bruce Conner and hip-hop crew Sistaz of the Underground — warily considered this interview and then consented.
“Seriously, it’s crazy. Recently, all sorts of different people have been interested in me for different reasons. It’s pretty strange,” he marvels, leaning back in front of a recent large acrylic ready to be packed off to New York, where it will be exhibited in “Control Group,” McHargue’s solo show at Metro Pictures opening Sept. 21. CBS Sunday Morning was one such caller. “But I just said, ‘Fuck you.’ Kinda. I told ’em straight up, ‘I was, like, y’know, really flattered, but I don’t know if your demographic is exactly who I even want to know who I am.’
“If I’m doing that, I’m probably doing something wrong!”
It may sound like the arrogance of youth on line one — who wants to cater to the crowd who’s even up on Sunday morning? Yet it’s gotten to the point where Devendra Banhart (who described McHargue as his “favorite living artist”), Interview, and even Spin have lined up to lavish praise on the 24-year-old artist, with the last naming him one of the top 25 hottest people under 25, beating out Nicole Richie. “Outrageous!” exclaims McHargue. “Seriously, I swear to god. I don’t know what the general consensus is. It’s weird. It’s strange. I’m just a normal person who makes artwork and just happens to be an artist for a living.”
Perhaps this miniature media frenzy is linked to the fact that the self-taught McHargue is so young and makes such intriguing, increasingly exploratory work: paintings and drawings that swing between clean, Byzantine sophistication and fresh, obsessive energy, bright pop abstraction and darkly foreshadowed storytelling. His latest extravagantly hued, sprawling acrylics — a new series that differs from those in McHargue’s “Air above Mountains” show (named after a Cecil Taylor free-jazz disc) at Galerie Emmanuel Perriton in Paris earlier this year — revolve around true crime and headline news narratives populated by murderous mothers, power plants, dozing or dead kittens, and sinuous streams of toxic runoff. Picture the Yellow Submarine adrift beneath a mushroom-clouded sky.
As ripe and exciting as this week’s tabloids and likely less perishable, the canvases reflect McHargue’s latest ideas and techniques. “I’m just basically trying to constantly be expanding the scope of my practice or something,” he says, puttering around the tidy studios in the top-floor flat he shares with another artist — this despite the fact that his works have landed in such collections as the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. “I guess the long and short of it is now I’ve got tons of time on my hands and all I have to do is make art, so the bottom line is to just continue making better and better pieces.”
Psychedelic is almost too easy an adjective for his enigmatic imagery, the natural product of a childhood steeped in art, courtesy of his watercolorist mother. “That would make me instinctively want to change what I was doing,” says McHargue, who moved to San Francisco from his native Portland, Ore., five years ago. “I understand that people want to belong to cliques. But that’s not where my head’s at right now. I would just like to make some paintings that are insane to look at. Just hurt some people’s brains a little bit.”
Small pieces by Barry McGee, Will Yackulic, and others are clustered on the mantel above a Roland SP808, a drum machine, and an iPod emanating keening noise collaborations between McHargue and fellow artist Ry Fyan — the work of what McHargue describes as a Whitehouse tribute band. Some of the music will probably be released later this year by Tarentel’s Jef Cantu, along with a Japanese book surveying his work. “I’m just a hardcore music fanatic all across the board,” the artist explains. “Luckily, I live close to Aquarius, and I collect records too. That’s where I get inspiration for the work, from listening to music. It’s really, really important to me.”
And it’s an increasingly necessary hobby — preferable, he cracks wise, to “photography or yachting.” After working almost continuously for more than a year on consecutive gallery shows and finding himself on a rotating exhibition schedule stretching to 2012 (2007 will see shows at Jack Hanley Gallery in San Francisco and Hiromi Yoshi Gallery in Tokyo), McHargue is hoping to take it easy at last — following the “Control Group” opening and his partner Tauba Auerbach’s October show at Deitch Projects — and spend his autumn months in New York City. “It’s like all of a sudden I’m totally grown up and doing this all the time,” he says. “I need to cool out. Between now and the fall, I’m just going to kick it.” SFBG
If you think about it, there’s a certain poetry to the dramatic arc of the fall premiere season. As we all know, after fall comes winter, and by December many of these TV shows will be dead, with just a few dried-up blog entries left behind to mark their passing. This painful thought might provoke a zealous couch fan to get carried away — watching every last debut to hit the networks while staying faithful to old favorites from seasons past. And granted, certain shows, like the well-cast Six Degrees, with Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, and Jay Hernandez (premiering Sept. 21 on ABC), or Showtime’s Dexter, starring Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under) as a serial killer with the best of intentions (premiering in October), deserve at least a shot at some viewers.
But even the Guinness record (69 hours and 48 minutes) proves there are limits to how much TV one human being can watch — though apparently there are no limits to how many dramas based on the premise of 24 can be developed in one season. Choices must be made — between, say, the NBC comedy about a late-night sketch comedy show starring SNL’s Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin and the NBC drama about a late-night sketch comedy show starring Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, and Bradley Whitford and created and written by Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night, The West Wing). What follows are notes from a highly subjective decision-making process. Show info is subject to change.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip vs. 30 Rock Aaron Sorkin’s writing is pretty much why I started watching television again, and I’m still not over Sports Night’s 2000 cancellation. Thus, in the face-off between shows about sketch-comedy shows, his creation, Studio 60, will no doubt reign supreme. Bradley Whitford from The West Wing stars alongside Amanda Peet and Matthew Perry — and while the latter actor certainly wasn’t the least annoying of Friends’ friends, a guest spot on The West Wing proved his Chandler mannerisms haven’t completely devoured him. (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: Mon., 10 p.m., NBC; premieres Sept. 18. 30 Rock: Wed., 8:30 p.m., NBC; premieres Oct. 11)
Vanished vs. Veronica Mars Having spent five years watching Gale Harold plug every available male extra in greater Toronto as Queer as Folk’s surly stud Brian Kinney, I’m tempted to get invested in his character’s FBI investigation of a disappeared senator’s daughter. The thing is, even if he does get to play another unapologetic asshole, he will likely have clothes on. So will Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars, but the latter show, about a smart-ass teen private investigator engaged in all kinds of class warfare, was easily the best high school drama since My So-Called Life, while in a vastly different vein. The sleuth is university bound now, and higher education is clearly a death knell for teen dramas, but I’m betting Veronica won’t let her studies get in the way. (Vanished: Mon., 9 p.m., Fox; premiered Aug. 21. Veronica Mars: Tues., 9 p.m., CW; premieres Oct. 3)
The O.C. vs. Dante’s Cove They may seem like an odd couple, but both The O.C. and Dante’s Cove feature melodramatic sexual entanglements, power tripping, drug addiction, and expensive real estate. The O.C. may have a slight advantage in terms of plotlines and thespian talent, but c’mon: Dante’s Cove, part of Here!’s all-queer programming, has real live gay people, a private sex club — and black magic! Also, I get how satisfying it must have been to finally off the waif with suicidal tendencies, but with Marissa in the grave, The O.C. is likely to become so bearable it’s boring. (The O.C.: Thurs., 9 p.m., Fox; premieres Nov. 2. Dante’s Cove: Fri., check for times, Here!; premieres Sept. 1)
One Tree Hill vs. Friday Night Lights The infant love child of UPN and the WB fashioned a glaringly lowest-common-denominator ad campaign whose thought-provoking tagline for One Tree Hill was “Free to be cool.” And yet, I breathed a deep sigh of relief on learning that the show, basically about a small town that loves its basketball and the dramas that ensue, had survived the merger and gained entrance to the freedom-loving land of the CW. Friday Night Lights, based on the movie that’s based on the book, is about a small town that loves its football and the dramas that ensue. A toughie, but I hate football, so for me One Tree has the home court advantage — plus the laser-beam-eyed power-acting of Chad Michael Murray. (One Tree Hill: Wed., 9 p.m., CW; premieres Sept. 27. Friday Night Lights: Tues., 8 p.m., NBC; premieres Oct. 3)
Prison Break vs. Runaway Maybe it all goes back to my deep, abiding love for The Legend of Billie Jean, but dramas about desperate people on the run from the law have a near-endless ability to captivate me. Prison Break has the hot brothers. CW debut Runaway looks to have more of a Running on Empty family dynamic — with New Kids on the Block’s Donnie Wahlberg in the Judd Hirsch role. Both hint vaguely at possible political undertones. Mostly for River Phoenix’s sake, I’m going to go with the latter. (Prison Break: Mon., 8 p.m., Fox; premiered Aug. 21. Runaway: Mon., 9 p.m., CW; premieres Sept. 25)
Jericho vs. Three Moons over Milford Jericho has Skeet Ulrich and a nuclear holocaust on the horizon. Three Moons has, well, three moons — or parts of what used to be one moon — and one or more of them might be heading this way. The end (of the season, that is) will be in sight for the latter sooner, which is good, because how many times a week can a person watch the world teeter on the brink of collapse? (Jericho: Wed., 8 p.m., CBS; premieres Sept. 20. Three Moons over Milford: Sun., 8 p.m., ABC Family; premiered Aug. 6)
Project Runway (reruns) vs. Fashion House The community-minded thing to do, no doubt, would be to support KRON TV’s efforts to add dramatic content to its programming. After all, Fashion House, a six-nights-a-week telenovela-style program about the fashion industry starring Morgan Fairchild and Bo Derek, should just about do the trick. And yet, even after Project Runway’s latest season ends later this fall, I’m probably going to find other uses for those six hours — including renting back episodes of the show that makes it work. (Project Runway: Bravo; your local video store. Fashion House: Mon.–Sat., 10 p.m., KRON; premieres Sept. 5) SFBG
MEXICO CITY, Aug. 24th — The Congress of the country is ringed by two-meter tall grilled metal barriers soldered together, apparently to thwart a suicide car-bomb attack. Behind this metal wall, 3000 vizored, kevlar-wearing robocops — the Federal Preventative Police (PFP, a police force drawn from the army) — and members of the elite Estado Mayor or presidential military command, form a second line of defense. Armed with tear gas launchers, water cannons, and reportedly light tanks, this Praetorian Guard has been assigned to protect law and order and the institutions of the republic against left-wing mobs that threaten to storm the Legislative Palace – or so the president informs his fellow citizens in repeated messages transmitted on national television.
No, the president’s name is not Pinochet and this military tableau is not being mounted in the usual banana republic or some African satrap. This is Mexico, a paragon of democracy (dixit George Bush), Washington’s third trading partner, and the eighth leading petroleum producer on the planet, seven weeks after the fraud-marred July 2nd presidential election of which, at this writing, no winner has been officially declared. One of the elite military units assigned to seal off congress is indeed titled the July 2nd brigade.
“MEXICO ON A KNIFEBLADE” headlines the British Guardian. The typically short-term-memory-loss U.S. print media seems to have forgotten about the imbroglio just south of its borders. Nonetheless, the phone rings and it’s New York telling me they just got a call from their man on the border and Homeland Security is beefing up its forces around Laredo in anticipation of upheaval further south. The phone rings again and it’s California telling me they just heard on Air America that U.S. Navy patrols were being dispatched to safeguard Mexican oil platforms in the Gulf. The left-wing daily La Jornada runs a citizen-snapped photo of army convoys arriving carrying soldiers disguised as farmers and young toughs. Rumors race through the seven mile-long encampment installed by supporters of leftist presidential challenger Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) three weeks ago, who have tied up big city traffic and enraged the motorist class here, that PFP robocops will attack before dawn. The campers stay up all night huddled around bum fires prepared to defend their tent cities.
The moment reminds many Mexicans of the tense weeks in September and October 1968 when, 12 days before the Olympic Games were to be inaugurated here, President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz ordered the military to massacre striking students in a downtown plaza not far from where AMLO’s people are now camped out. Some 300 were killed in the Plaza of Three Cultures, their bodies incinerated at Military Camp #1 in western Mexico City. The Tlatelolco massacre was a watershed in social conflict here and the similarities are sinister– in fact, Lopez Obrador has taken to comparing outgoing President Vicente Fox with Diaz Ordaz.
Fox will go to congress September 1st to deliver his final State of the Union address; the new legislature will be convened the same day. The country may or may not have a new president by that day. In anticipation of this show-down, on August 14th, newly-elected senators and deputies from the three parties that comprise AMLO’s Coalition for the Good of All attempted to encamp on the sidewalk in front of the legislative palace only to be rousted and clobbered bloody by the President’s robocops.
With 160 representatives, the Coalition forms just a quarter of the 628 members of the new congress, but its members will be a loud minority during Fox’s “Informe.” Since the 1988 presidenciales were stolen from Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, founder of AMLO’s Party of the Democratic Revolution, PRD legislators have routinely interrupted the president during this authoritarian ritual in orchestrated outbursts that have sometimes degenerated into partisan fisticuffs.
The first to challenge the Imperial Presidency was Porfirio Munoz Ledo, a hoary political warhorse, who in 1988 thrust a finger at President Miguel De la Madrid, accusing him of overseeing the theft of the election from Cardenas. Munoz Ledo’s J’Acuse stunned the political class; he was slugged and pummeled by members of De la Madrid’s long-ruling PRI when he tried to escape the chamber. Munoz Ledo now stands at AMLO’s side.
But perhaps the most comical moment in the annals of acting out during the Informe came in 1996 when a brash PRI deputy donned a Babe the Valiant Pig mask and positioned himself directly under the podium from which President Ernesto Zedillo was addressing the state of the nation and wiggled insouciant signs with slogans that said things like ‘EAT THE RICH!” Like Munoz Ledo, Marco Rascon was physically attacked, his mask ripped off like he was a losing wrestler by a corrupt railroad union official — who in turn was hammer locked by a pseudo-leftist senator, Irma “La Tigresa” Serrano, a one-time ranchero singers and, in fact, the former mistress of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz.
This September 1st, if martial law is not declared and the new Congress dissolved before it is even installed, the PRD delegation — which will no doubt be strip-searched by the Estado Mayor for incriminating banners — is sworn to create a monumental ruckus, shredding the tarnished decorum of this once-solemn event forever to protest Fox’s endorsement of electoral larceny. Some solons say they may go naked.
But no matter what kind of uproar develops, one can be secure that it will not be shown on national television, as the cameras of Mexico’s two-headed television monstrosity Televisa and TV Azteca will stay trained on the President as he tries to mouth the stereotypical cliches that is always the stuff and fluff of this otherwise stultifying seance. The images of the chaos on the floor of congress will not be passed along to the Great Unwashed.
There is a reptilian feel to Mexico seven weeks after a discredited Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) cemented Lopez Obrador into a second place coffin by awarding the presidency to right-winger Felipe Calderon by a mere 243,000 votes out of a total 42,000,000 cast. Both Calderon and IFE czar Luis Carlos Ugalde (Calderon was best man at Ugalde’s wedding) make these little beady reptile eyes as they slither across national screens.
Those screens have been the scenes of some of the slimiest and most sordid political intrigue of late. One of the lizard kings who is fleetingly featured on Televisa primetime is an imprisoned Argentinean construction tycoon, Carlos Ahumada, who in 2004 conspired with Fox, Calderon’s PAN, and Televisa to frame AMLO on corruption charges and take him out of the presidential election. El Peje” (for a gar-like fish from the swamps of Lopez Obrador’s native Tabasco) was then leading the pack by 18 points.
Charged by Lopez Obrador, then the mayor of this megalopolis, with defrauding Mexico City out of millions, Ahumada had taken his revenge by filming PRD honchos when they came to his office to pick up boodles of political cash for his lover, Rosario Robles, who aspired to be queen of the PRD. Although the filthy lucre was perfectly legal under Mexico’s milquetoast campaign financing laws, the pick-ups looked awful on national television — AMLO’s former personal secretary was caught stuffing wads of low denomination bills into his suit coat pockets as if he were on Saturday Night Live.
Ahumada subsequently turned the tapes over to the leprous, cigar-chomping leader of Fox’s PAN party in the Senate, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos (“El Jefe Diego”) who in turn had them delivered to a green-haired clown, Brozo, who was then reading the morning news on Televisa. Then the Argentine fled to Cuba in a private plane. Televisa would air the incriminating videos day and night for months.
Apprehended in Veradero after his lover Robles was shadowed to the socialist beachfront, Ahumada spilled the beans to Cuban authorities: Interior Secretary Santiago Creel, who was then AMLO’s lead rival for the presidency, had cooked up the plot with the connivance of reviled former president Carlos Salinas, Lopez Obrador’s most venomous foe, the then attorney general, and Fox himself, to remove AMLO from the race.
The Mexican government did not ask for extradition and Ahumada’s deportation from Cuba was not seen as a friendly gesture. Within a month, diplomatic relations between Mexico and that red paradise were broken off and ambassadors summoned home. The construction tycoon has been imprisoned in Mexico City ever since he was booted out of Cuba, and was last heard from when he had his rogue cop chauffer shoot up the family SUV, a charade both Fox and Televisa tried to pin on AMLO — Ahumada had suggested he was about to release two more incriminating videos. These dubious events took place on June 6th, the day of a crucial presidential debate between AMLO and Calderon.
Then last week, Ahumada abruptly resurfaced — or at least his videotaped confession to Cuban authorities did. Filmed through prison bars, he lays out the plot step by step. Yes, he affirms, the deal was fixed up to cut AMLO’s legs out from under him and advance the fortunes of the right-wing candidate who turned out to be Felipe Calderon and not the bumbling Creel. The conspiracy backfired badly as his supporters rallied around him and Lopez Obrador’s ratings soared.
The origins of the confession tape, leaked to top-rung reporter Carmen Aristegui, was obscure. Had Fidel dispatched it from his sick bed to bolster Lopez Obrador’s claims of victory as the PAN and the snake-eyed Televisa evening anchor Joaquin Lopez Dorriga hissed? The air grew serpentine with theories. There was even one school that speculated Calderon himself had been the source in a scheme to distance himself from Fox (there had always been “mala leche” between them) and Creel, now the leader of the PAN faction in congress.
AMLO advanced a variant of this explanation — the specter of Ahumada had been resuscitated to divert attention from the evidence of generalized fraud the Coalition had submitted to the TRIFE and the panel’s impending verdict that Calderon had won the election.
Perhaps the most nagging question in this snakepit of uncertainty is what happened during the partial recount of less than 10% of the 130,000 ballot boxes ordered by the TRIFE to test the legitimacy of the IFE’s results. Although the recount concluded on August 13th, the judges have released no numbers and are not obligated to do so — their only responsibility is to certify the validity of the election.
Although AMLO’s reps in the counting rooms came up with gobs of evidence — violated ballot boxes, stolen or stuffed ballots, altered tally sheets and other bizarre anomalies — only the left-wing daily La Jornada saw fit to mention them. The silence of the Mexican media and their accomplices in the international press in respect to the Great Fraud is deafening — although they manage to fill their rags with ample attacks on Lopez Obrador for tying up Mexico City traffic.
According to AMLO’s people, 119,000 ballots in the sample recount cannot be substantiated — in about 3500 casillas, 58,000 more votes were cast than the number of voters on the voting list. In nearly 4,000 other casillas, 61,000 ballots allocated to election officials cannot be accounted for. The annulment of the casillas in which these alterations occurred would put Lopez Obrador in striking distance of Calderon and in a better world, would obligate the TRIFE to order a total recount.
But given the cheesy state of the Mexican judiciary this is not apt to happen; one of the judges who will decide the fate of democracy in Mexico is a former client of El Jefe Diego for whom the PANista senator won millions from the Mexico City government in a crooked land deal.
Meanwhile, thousands continue to camp out in a hard rain for a third week on the streets of Mexico City awaiting the court’s decision. They have taken to erecting shrines and altars and are praying for divine intervention. Hundreds pilgrimage out to the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, some crawling on their knees, to ask the Brown Madonna to work her mojo. “God doesn’t belong to the PAN!” they chant as they trudge up the great avenue that leads to the Basilica. “AMLO deserves a miracle” Esther Ortiz, a 70 year-old great grandmother comments to a reporter as she kneels to pray before the gilded altar.
At the Metropolitan Cathedral on one flank of the Zocalo, a young worshipper interrupts Cardinal Norberto Rivera with loas to AMLO and is quickly hustled off the premises by the Prelate’s bouncers. The following Sunday, the Cathedral’s great doors are under heavy surveillance, and churchgoers screened for telltale signs of devotion to Lopez Obrador. Hundreds of AMLO’s supporters mill about in front of the ancient temple shouting “voto por voto” and alleging that Cardinal Rivera is a pederast.
AMLO as demi-god is one motif of this religious pageant being played out at what was once the heart of the Aztec theocracy, the island of Tenochtitlan. The ruins of the twin temples of the fierce Aztec war god Huitzilopochtli and Tlahuac, the god of the rain, is adjacent to the National Palace against which AMLO’s stage is set. Lopez Obrador sleeps each night in a tent close by.
Many hearts were ripped out smoking on these old stones and fed to such hungry gods before the Crusaders showed up bearing the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
AMLO is accused by right-wing “intellectuals” (Enrique Krauze and the gringo apologist George Grayson) of entertaining a Messiah complex. Indeed, he is up there every day on the big screen, his craggy features, salt and pepper hair, raspy voice and defiantly jutted jaw bearing more of a passable resemblance to a younger George C. Scott rather The Crucified One. AMLO’s devotees come every evening at seven, shoehorned between the big tents that fill the Zocalo, rain or shine. Last Monday, I stood with a few thousand diehards in a biblical downpour, thunder and lightening shattering the heavens above. “Llueve y llueve y el pueblo no se mueve” they chanted joyously, “it rains and rains and the people do not move.”
The evolution of these incantations is fascinating. At first, the standard slogan of “Voto Por Voto, Casilla por Casilla!” was automatically invoked whenever Lopez Obrador stepped to the microphone. “You are not alone!” and “Presidente!” had their moment. “Fraude!” is still popular but in these last days, “No Pasaran!” — they shall not pass, the cry of the defenders of Madrid as Franco’s fascist hordes banged on the doors of Madrid, 1936 — has flourished.
In this context, “No Pasaran!” means “we will not let Felipe Calderon pass to the presidency.” AMLO, who holds out little hope that the TRIFE will decide in his favor, devotes more time now to organizing the resistance to the imposition of Calderon upon the Aztec nation. Article 39 of the Mexican constitution, he reminds partisans, grants the people the right to change their government if that government does not represent them. To this end, he is summoning a million delegates up to the Zocalo for a National Democratic Convention on Mexican Independence Day September 16th, a date usually reserved for a major military parade.
Aside from the logistical impossibility of putting a million citizens in this Tiananmen-sized plaza, how this gargantuan political extravaganza is going to be financed is cloudy. Right now, it seems like small children donating their piggy banks is the main mode of fund-raising. Because AMLO’s people distrust the banks, all of which financed Calderon’s vicious TV ad campaign, a giant piggy bank has been raised in the Zocalo to receive the contributions of the faithful.
Dreaming is also a fundraiser. Some 10,000 raised their voices in song this past Sunday as part of a huge chorus assembled under the dome of the Monument to the Revolution to perform a cantata based on the words of Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi. This too is a form of civil resistance, Lopez Obrador commended his followers.
The first National Democratic Convention took place behind rebel lines in the state of Aguascalientes in 1914 at the apogee of the Mexican Revolution when the forces of Francisco Villa and his Army of the North first joined forces with Zapata’s Liberating Army of the Southern Revolution. The second National Democratic Revolution took place 80 years later in 1994, in a clearing in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation wedded itself to the civil society in an uprising that rocked Mexico all throughout the ’90s; eclipsed by events, the EZLN and its quixotic spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos have disappeared from the political map in the wake of the fraudulent election.
What this third National Democratic Convention is all about is now being debated in PRD ruling circles and down at the grassroots. Minimally, a plan of organized resistance that will dog Felipe Calderon for the next six years, severely hampering his ability to rule will evolve from this mammoth conclave. The declaration of a government in resistance headed by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is one consideration. The National Democratic Convention could also result in the creation of a new party to replace a worn-out PRD now thoroughly infiltrated by cast-offs from the PRI.
The Party of the Democratic Revolution has always functioned best as an opposition party. With notable exceptions (AMLO was one), when the PRD becomes government, it collapses into corruption, internecine bickering, and behaves just as arrogantly as the PAN and the PRI. No Pasaran?
Seven weeks after the July 2nd electoral debacle, Mexico finds itself at a dangerously combustible conjunction (“coyuntura”) in which the tiny white elite here is about to impose its will upon a largely brown and impoverished populous to whom the political parties and process grow more irrelevant each day. “No Pasaran!” the people cry out but to whom and what they are alluding to remains to be defined.
John Ross’s ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible â€“ Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006 will be published by Nation Books this October. Ross will travel the Left Coast this fall with both ZAPATISTAS! and a new chapbook of poetry BOMBA! and is still looking for possible venues; send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
In Johnette Napolitano’s world, bullets are always aimed at the innocent, ghosts make perfectly acceptable bedfellows, and Russian angels are good inspirations for tattoos. If she were a rose, she’d be tucked behind the ear of legendary river banshee la Llorona. Napolitano is the driving force behind urban gothic rockers Concrete Blonde and coconspirator on projects such as Vowel Movement with Holly Vincent and Pretty and Twisted with Marc Moreland. Join this enduring lady of darkness for an intimate solo performance before she heads off to the inaugural Summer Strummer festival in Santa Monica. (Nicole Gluckstern)
Cafe du Nord
2170 Market, SF
Patton Oswalt is funnier than you are. He’s been booed off a Pittsburgh stage for his critiques of President Bush, but in San Francisco that just gives him street cred. His content is so raunchy, smart, and devastatingly on point that he makes me want to punch things. With an impressive television history – from writing for MadTV to costarring in sitcom King of Queens – Oswalt’s stand-up is of a particular brand of lewd that would have most TV execs turning red. (K. Tighe)
With Brent Weinbach
8 and 10 p.m.
Cobb’s Comedy Club
915 Columbus, SF
Act One: The Middle Class
MEXICO CITY (August 4th) — Jacinto Guzman, an 80 year-old retired oilworker from Veracruz state, plants himself in front of the headquarters of the Halliburton Corporation on the skyscraper-lined Paseo de Reforma here and recalls the great strikes of the 1930s that culminated in the expropriation and nationalization of Mexico’s petroleum reserves.
Dressed in a wrinkled suit and a hard hat, the old worker laments the creeping privatization of PEMEX, the national oil corporation, by non-Mexican subcontractors like Halliburton, which is installing natural gas infrastructure in Chiapas. But he is less agitated about the penetration of the transnationals in the Mexican oil industry, or even Halliburton’s craven role in the obscene Bush-Cheney Iraq war, than he is about the fraud-marred July 2nd presidential election here.
The sign he holds reads “No A Pinche Fraude” (No to Fucking Fraud!), referring to Halliburton’s membership in a business confederation that financed a vicious TV ad campaign against leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who insists that he won the July 2nd election from right-winger Felipe Calderon, to whom the nation’s tarnished electoral authority, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) awarded a razor-thin and much questioned “victory.”
Mr. Guzman’s appearance at Halliburton on a Friday at the end of last month was one of myriad acts of civil resistance invoked by Lopez Obrador at a July 16th Mexico City assembly that drew more than a million participants. The campaign is designed to pressure a seven-judge panel (the “TRIFE”), which must determine a winner by the first week in September, into opening up the ballot boxes and counting out the votes contained therein — “voto por voto.”
Zeroing in on U.S. transnationals that purportedly backed Calderon, AMLO’s people have invaded Wal-Mart, picketed Pepsico (its Sabritas snack brand was a big contributor to the right-winger’s campaign), rented rooms in big chain hotels (Fiesta Americana) and dropped banners from the windows decrying the “pinche fraude,” and blocking all eleven doors at the palatial headquarters of Banamex, once Mexico’s oldest bank and now a wholly owned subsidiary of Citygroup.
“Voto por Voto!” demonstrators chanted as the bankers smoked and fumed and threatened to call the police.
Demonstrators also blocked the doors at the Mexican stock exchange and surrounded the studios of Televisa, the major head of the nation’s two-headed television monopoly, both heads of which shamelessly tilted to Calderon before, during, and after the ballots were cast.
“!Voto por Voto! Casilla por Casilla!” (Vote by Vote, Precinct by Precinct.)
Seated on a tiny folding chair outside of Banamex, Elena Poniatowska, one of Mexico’s most luminous writers and the recent winner of Spain’s coveted Cervantes Prize, reflected on the civil resistance: “We have always seen the workers demonstrate here in the Zocalo, but this is all very new for our middle class. The middle class protests too, but in the privacy of their own homes. Now we are out of the closet.”
Ironically, the concept of peaceful civil resistance by the middle class was pioneered by Felipe Calderon’s own party, the PAN, after it had been cheated out of elections in the 1980s by the then-ruling PRI. The PANistas uncharacteristically blocked highways and went on hunger strikes, and even imported Philippine trainers, veterans of Corazon Aquino’s civil resistance campaign against Ferdinand Marcos, to teach their supporters new tricks.
Recently AMLO’s party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution or PRD, stole a page from the PANista bible by holding a rally at a Mexico City statue of the right-wingers’ father figure, Manuel Clouthier. During the stolen 1988 presidential election, Clouthier demanded a ballot-by-ballot recount and coined the now ubiquitous phrase “voto por voto.” The PRD gathering around the statue of “Saint Maquio” left Calderon and the PAN speechless for once.
The PRD crusade could be labeled “civil resistance lite.” Led by Poniatowska, opera singer Regina Orozco, and comic actress Jesusa Rodriguez, public demonstrations have been more showbiz than eruptions of mass outrage. Nonetheless, Televisa and TV Azteca, Calderon and the PAN relentlessly rag Lopez Obrador for “fomenting violence,” purposefully ignoring the real daily violence that grips Mexico’s cities as brutal narco gangs behead rivals and massacre their enemies in plain public view.
Act Two: Bad Gas
Hundreds of steaming AMLO supporters pack the cavernous Club de Periodistas in the old quarter of the capital, where computer gurus will diagnosis the complexities of the cybernetic fraud Lopez Obrador is positive was perpetrated by IFE technicians this past July 2nd and 5th during both the preliminary count (PREP) and the actual tally of 130,000 precincts in the nation’s 300 electoral districts.
The experts are as convinced as the audience that the vote was stolen on the IFE terminals, but have many theories as to how. They speak of arcane algorithms and corrupted software. Juan Gurria, a computer programmer who has dropped in on his lunch hour to audit the experts, recalls the 1988 election which was stolen from leftist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas by the long-ruling (71 years) PRI in the nation’s first cybernetic computer fraud. “In 1988, they had to shut down the computers and say the system had crashed to fix the vote – but in 2006, the IFE kept the system running and we watched them steal it right before our eyes” Gurria contends, “the difference is they have better computers now.”
18 years ago, with computer fraud still in its infancy, the PRI had to resort to hit men to carry out its larceny. Three nights before the election, Cardenas’s closest aide, Francisco Xavier Ovando, and his assistant, Ramon Gil, were executed blocks away from the Congress of the country after reportedly obtaining the password to the PRI computer system, upon which the results were being cooked in favor of its candidates, the now universally reviled Carlos Salinas de Gortari. So far, Computer Fraud 2006 has been less messy.
Although the subject is dry and technical – at one point excerpts of an abstruse Guardian of London analysis by University of Texas economist James Galbreath (son of John Kenneth) was read into the record in English – AMLO’s supporters mutter and grumble and nod their heads vigorously. “Asi es!” – that’s just the way it happened! “Voto por Voto” they rumble, “Casilla por Casilla!” after each expert scores a point. Whether or not the fix is in, they are convinced that they have been had.
The PRD is trying to keep a lid on the bad gas seeping from down below. A few days after July 2nd, Felipe Calderon, who AMLO’s people have derisively dubbed “Fe-Cal,” came to this same Club de Periodistas to receive the adulation of a gaggle of union bosses. When he tried to leave the club, he was assailed by street venders howling “Voto por Voto!”
Calderon was quickly hustled into a bullet-proof SUV by his military escort, but the angry crowd kept pounding on the tinted windows. One young man obscenely thrust his middle finger at the would-be president, The scene is replayed over and over again on Televisa and Azteca, sometimes five times in a single news broadcast, graphic footage of the kind of violence AMLO is supposed to be inciting.
Act Three: In Defense of the Voto
Lopez Obrador fervently believes he has won the presidency of the United States of Mexico. He says it often on television just to needle Calderon. The proof, he is convinced, is inside 130,000 ballot boxes that he wants recounted, voto por voto.
The ballot boxes are now stored in the Federal Electoral Institute’s 300 district offices under the protection of the Mexican army. Nonetheless, in Veracruz, Tabasco, and Jalisco among other states, IFE operators have broken into the ballot boxes under the pretext of recovering lost electoral documentation. AMLO is suspicious that the officials are monkeying with the ballots, adding and subtracting the number of votos to make them conform to the IFE’s incredible computer count. Hundreds of ballot boxes contain more votes than voters on the registration lists, and more ballots have been judged null and void than the 243,000 margin of Calderon’s as-yet unconfirmed victory.
To this end, Lopez Obrador has strengthened encampments of his supporters outside the 300 electoral districts. In Monterrey, a PANista stronghold, thugs attack the encampment, beating on AMLO’s people and tearing down their tent city. Rocks are thrown at his supporters in Sinaloa; drivers speed by hurling curses and spitting on them.
Outside the Mexico City headquarters of the TRIFE, the seven-judge panel that will have the ultimate word as to whether or not the votos are going to be counted out one by one, a hunger strike has been ongoing since the PRD submitted documentation of anomalies in 53,000 out of the nation’s 130,000 polling places. Each night a different show business personality joins the fasters, eschews dinner and camps out in the guest pup tent overnight.
From Carlos Fuentes and Elena Poniatowska to painters like Jose Luis Cuevas and master designer Vicente Rojo, the arts and entertainment world has lined up behind Lopez Obrador. An exhibition by Cuevas and 50 other top line graphic artists and writers has been installed on the Alameda green strip adjacent to the Palace of Fine Arts here. After midnight, Calderon supporters slash and savage the art work, leaving a broken jumble behind.
The next day brigades of AMLO’s people from the surrounding neighborhoods rescue what they can of the exhibit, reassemble the broken shards, sew the torn art back together, and prop up the display panels. This is what democracy looks like in Mexico in the summer of 2006.
Act Four: Se Busca Por Fraude Electoral
The integrity of the Federal Electoral Commission is in the eye of Hurricane AMLO. Lopez Obrador accuses the IFE of fixing the election for Felipe Calderon and then defending his false victory. The PRD has filed criminal charges against the nine members of the IFE’s ruling council, most prominently its chairman, the gray-faced bureaucrat Luis Carlos Ugalde, for grievous acts of bias against Lopez Obrador, including refusing to halt Calderon’s hate spots in the run-up to July 2nd.
The IFE is mortally offended by the allegations that it has committed fraud and is using its enormously extravagant budget (larger than all of the government’s anti-poverty programs combined) to run spots protesting the slurs on its integrity that are every bit as virulent and ubiquitous as Calderon’s toxic hit pieces. Actors have been hired to impersonate irate citizens who allegedly were chosen at random as polling place workers July 2nd. “The votes have already been counted” they scoff. “We did not commit fraud” they insist. The idea is preposterous, an insult to their patriotism and to one of the pillars of Mexican “democracy,” the IFE.
Luis Carlos Ugalde, the president of the IFE council, has not been seen in public for several weeks except in large Wanted posters pasted to the walls of the inner city – SE BUSCA POR FRAUDE ELECTORAL! Ugalde and two other IFE counselors are protégés of powerful teachers union czar Elba Esther Gordillo, who joined forces with the PAN to take revenge on failed PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo, a mortal enemy. The nine-member council is composed entirely of PRI and PAN nominees – the PRD is, of course, excluded.
Despite rumors that he had fled the country, Ugalde shows up July 27th at the first IFE meeting since the district tallies three weeks previous where he is confronted by the PRD delegate to the Institute (each party has one delegate.) During an acrimonious seven-hour meeting, Horacio Duarte keeps waving 30 partially burnt ballots, most of them marked for AMLO, that he has just been handed by an anonymous source. Duarte wants to know where Ugalde lives so he can nail one of the ballots to his front door to expose the “shame” of the fraud-marred election. The gray-faced bureaucrat grows even grayer and threatens to suspend the session. OK, OK, Duarte concedes, I’ll just hang it on your office door.
Just then a score of protestors push their way past the IFE guards at the auditorium’s portals – the meeting is a public one. They are chanting “Voto por Voto” and carrying bouquets of yellow flowers, AMLO’s colors. A PRD deputy tries to hand one to Luis Carlos Ugalde who turns away in horror. A bodyguard snatches up the blossoms as if they were a terrorist bomb, and disposes of them post-haste.
Act Five: We Shall Not Be Moved
The clock is ticking. The TRIFE must declare a new president by September 5th. The seven judges, all in the final year of their ten-year terms (three will move up to the Supreme Court in the next administration) have just begun to dig their way into the slagheap of legal challenges that impugn the results in about half of the 130,000 polling places in the land, the ham-handed bias of the IFE prior to the election, and the strange behavior of the Federal Electoral Institute’s computers on election day and thereafter.
The TRIFE, which has sometimes struck down corrupted state and local elections and ordered recounts in a handful of electoral districts, can either determine that the legal challenges would not affect enough votes to overturn the IFE’s determination that Calderon won the election, annul the entire election if it adjudges that it was illegitimately conducted, or order a recount. If the judges determine that annulment is the only way to fix the inequities, a new election would be scheduled 18 months down the pike.
In the meantime, the Mexican Congress would name an interim president, an unprecedented resolution in modern political history here – just the fact it is being discussed is, in itself, unprecedented.
Among those mentioned for the post are National Autonomous University rector Juan Ramon de la Fuente, former IFE director Jose Woldenberg, and three-time presidential loser Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of beloved depression-era president Lazaro Cardenas. For Cuauhtemoc, who was defrauded out of the presidency in 1988 by the same kind of flimflam with which the PAN and the IFE seek to despoil Lopez Obrador of victory in 2006, an interim presidency would be a perfect solution. Fixated on fulfilling the destiny of following in his father’s footsteps, moving back into his boyhood home Los Pinos – the Mexican White House – would be sweet revenge against his former protégé and now bitter rival on the left, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
But AMLO does not want the election annulled and an interim appointed. He is obsessed with proving his triumph at the polls and is not going to sit on his hands waiting for the TRIFE to reach its learned conclusions. A gifted leader of street protest, he has summoned his people to the capitol’s Tiananmens-sized Zocalo square three times since July 2nd, each time doubling the numbers of the masses who march through the city: 500,000 on July 8th, 1.1 million on July 16th, and 2.4 million this past Sunday, July 30th (police estimates) – Sunday’s gathering was the largest political demonstration in the nation’s history.
The “informative assemblies” as AMLO tags them, have been festive occasions but underneath there is palpable anger. Lopez Obrador’s people come in family, arm babies and grandpas, often in wheelchairs are on canes. Some come costumed as clowns and pirates. dangling grotesque marionettes, lopsided home-made heads of Fe-Cal, or pushing a replica of the Trojan Horse (“El Cabellito Trojanito.”) They look like they are having fun but their frustrations can well up to the surface in a flash, say when the hated Televisa and TV Azteca appear on the scene. “QUE SE MUERE TELEVISA!” (THAT TELEVISA SHOULD DIE!), the people the color of the earth snarl and scream, pounding fiercely on the television conglomerate’s vehicles.
At the July 30th “informative assembly,” Lopez Obrador ups the ante considerably in his high stakes poker game to pry open the ballot boxes. Now instead of calling for yet another monster gathering in the Zocalo (4.8 million?), he asks all those who had come from the provinces and the lost cities that line this megalopolis to stay where they sre in permanent assembly until the TRIFE renders a decision. 47 encampments will be convened extending from the great plaza, through the old quarter, all the way to the ring road that circles the capital, snarling Mexico City’s already impenetrable traffic, raising the level of greenhouse gases and urban tempers to the point of combustion.
When Lopez Obrador calls for a vote on his proposal, 2,000,000 or so “SI’s” soared from the throats of the gargantuan throng, followed by the now obligatory roars of “No Estas Solo” (“you are not alone”) and “Voto by Voto, Casilla by Casilla.” As if on cue, AMLO’s people began assembling the encampments state by state and Mexico City neighborhood by neighborhood.
For a correspondent who once wrote a novel fictionalizing the stealing of the 1988 election (“Tonatiuh’s People,” Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso, 1999), in which the people the color of the earth march on Mexico City and vote to stay in permanent assembly in the Zocalo, fantasy has turned into the actualities of daily reporting. I am not surprised by this startling turn of events.
When I first arrived here in the old quarter days after the 8.2 earthquake that devastated this capital, the “damnificados” (refugees) were encamped in the streets, demanding relief and replacement housing and liberation from the ruling PRI and their movement from the bottom reinvigorated a civil society that today infuses AMLO’s struggle for electoral democracy. This morning, the damnificados of the PAN and the IFE, Calderon and the fat cats, are again living on these same streets.
On the first evening of the taking of Mexico City, AMLO spoke to thousands crowded into the Zocalo in a driving downpour and invoked Gandhi: “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they beat you, and then you win.” And then Gabino Palomares, a troublemaking troubadour who has been up there on the stage at every watershed event in recent Mexican history from the slaughter of striking students at Tlatelolco (1968) to the Zapatistas’ March of the Those the Color of the Earth (2001) took the mic to lead the mob in that old labor anthem, “We Shall Not Be Moved” and AMLO’s people thundered back in a roar that drowned out the weeping sky, “NO NOS MOVERAN!”
To be continued.
John Ross’s “ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible â€“ Chronicles 2000-2006” will be published by Nation Books this October and Ross is hunting possible venues for presentations. All suggestions will be cheerfully accepted at email@example.com
San Francisco is full of a bunch of pussies. I’m sorry, it’s not that I want to say these things. I feel strongly that a woman’s vagina should never be used to describe something weak or negative. In fact I tend to correct people who use that word in such a way, being that I am shamelessly p.c. San Francisco is the only city in the world where I would have to spend more time defending the use of a single word in a single sentence than the overall meaning of that sentence.
But seriously, San Francisco is made up of a bunch of pussies and nothing could exemplify that more than its long and flamboyant rock history. If you held up the Bay’s rock résumé next to your average Midwestern state’s — Ohio’s, for example — you’d start to get the picture. No one is going to argue that San Francisco doesn’t deliver the goods when it comes to art-damaged, high-concept, performance-focused freak music, made by freaks for freaks, but let’s ask anyone who’s ever heard the Pagans, the Dead Boys, or Rocket from the Tombs if Californians can deliver the kind of ugly-faced raw violence that litters any Ohio rock comp. No, we can’t. Not counting Blue Cheer or Death Angel.
I’m not trying to start a turf war here or even a debate over whether Midwestern ugly rock is better than West Coast weirdo jams, but I am trying to help you understand why an unknown band from Columbus, Ohio, is the most exciting thing to happen to the local music underbelly in a long while. Would a trio of educated and liberated women from Berkeley call their band 16 Bitch Pile-Up? Or would any band from the Yay Area list a cache of instruments that includes a “PVC pipe,” a homemade “vile in,” “television feedback,” “a bag of beer bottles with a mic thrown in,” and “your face”? There is a reason why bands like Comets on Fire, XBXRX, and other non-noise locals are itching to gig with this band. Frankly, the Pile-Up is a needed shock to the system, bringing the kind of attitude, fierceness, and work ethic that grow in places where the rivers are flammable and national elections are stolen in plain sight.
HUNGRY LIKE A WOLF EYE
16BPU achieved a bit of cult status well before descending on the Bay. For the last four years they made Columbus a choice destination on any tour, running the art and music space BLD and offering floor space for all manner of riffraff. What began as studio spaces for fellow art schoolers, dropouts, and friends fast became an epicenter of East-meets-Midwest noise happenings. Yet in spite of their notoriety and a Wolf Eyes–style mile-long discography, there is little recorded evidence of their work readily available — although the long-out-of-print BFF (Gameboy, 2003) and Come Here, Sandy (Gameboy/Cephia’s Treat, 2004), their split 12-inch with brothers in cave-stomp Sword Heaven, are worth seeking out. It was their powerful live performances that engendered such reverence. Early on, one witnessed rituals of unique intuition and deep communal spirit — a group of women truly listening to one another and at the same time losing themselves in the fuck-it-all physicality of harsh electronic mayhem.
The Pile-Up is a satisfyingly lean Moirae-like triad, made up of Parkside sound person Sarah Bernat, Sarah Cathers, and Shannon Walters. The group — which previously existed as a five-piece in Columbus and as a four-piece featuring Angela Edwards of Tarantism for a brief and brutal West Coast tour — has never quite achieved its titular namesake’s size to form what Walters envisioned as a “symphony of terror.” Instead, the women have honed in and formed a unique power trio, capable of pulling off creepy junkyard jams à la the aforementioned Wolf Eyes, subtle vocal exhortations, and beautiful walls of searing white noise.
“It’s alchemy. In our case, the girls and I spend so many living minutes together,” explains Walters over coffee only minutes after having our guts reorganized by Damion Romero at a recent Noise Pancake performance. “We take care of each other. We often want to murder each other. We share virtually all aspects of our lives and with that comes a very developed sense of communication.”
Bernat elaborates, “We share a slightly twisted sense of humor that is fundamental to almost all of what we do and make.” Which is one way to understand a band that has released an album titled Make Like a Fetus and Abort.
When asked over e-mail how she’d respond to an easily offended West Coaster like me, Cathers offers, “I welcome any conversation on the use of language. It is one of my great joys — as I look for sounds that will make the greatest impact, that will send a chill up the collective spine and put your flesh and your psyche in the same presence. I love words that have that impact as well.”
What makes 16BPU fascinating is that beneath the intellectual muscle and blue-collar brawn is a group that is deeply sensitive, passionate, and emotional in their playing. Beyond the obvious (tough) love that they share with each other as friends, there is a seriousness to their music that stares right in the face of pain, anger, and fear with an absolute solidarity of purpose.
“I think what I try to convey through playing can only be expressed as a feeling of mortality,” says Walters. “Being very close to death and vitality simultaneously.”
“I can say we have seen a lot of nasty shit in our lives that can either make you want to leave the planet or create your own utopia out of dysfunction,” Cathers writes.
“All those themes are present,” Bernat concludes, “but they are present alongside equally positive feelings about strength, love, and perceptions of beauty.”
All of which makes me think that perhaps they fit into the Golden State after all. SFBG
16 BITCH PILE-UP
With Hogotogisu and Skaters
Aug. 12, 9:30 p.m.
1131 Polk, SF
With Comets on Fire and Kid 606 and Friends
Aug. 16, 9 p.m.
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
Gabriel Mindel is in Yellow Swans.
MEXICO CITY (July 19th) – The day before Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the peppery Mexican left leader who insists he is the winner of the fraud-marred July 2nd election, summoned more than a million Mexicans to the great central Zocalo plaza to lay out plans for mass civil resistance to prevent right-winger Felipe Calderon from stealing the presidency, this reporter marched down from the neighboring Morelos state with a group of weather-beaten campesinos the color of the earth.
Saul Franco and his companeros farmed plots in the village of Anenecuilco, the hometown of revolutionary martyr Emiliano Zapata who gave his life to defend the community’s land from the big hacienda owners. “It is our obligation to fix this fraud and kick the rich out of power,” Saul explained. “If Zapata was still alive he would be with us today,” the 52 year-old farmer insisted, echoing the sentiment on the hand-lettered cardboard sign he carried.
But although Saul and his companions admired and supported Lopez Obrador, they were not so happy with AMLO’s party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution or PRD. “We had a PRD mayor and things went badly and we lost the next time around,” remembered Pedro, Saul’s cousin. Indeed, many PRD candidates are simply made-over members of the once-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI who have climbed on Lopez Obrador’s coattails to win public office. In 57% of all elections the PRD has won, the party has failed to win reelection.
Yet the farmers drew a clear distinction between AMLO’s “Party of the Aztec Sun” and Lopez Obrador himself. “Andres Manuel will never surrender. He is decided. He will never double-cross us or sell us out.” Saul was adamant.
It is that aura of dedication and combativeness and the belief that, in contrast with other leaders that have risen from the Mexican left, that AMLO cannot be bought or co-opted, that helped draw 1.1 million (police estimates) or 1.5 million (PRD estimates) Mexicans to the Zocalo, the political heart of the nation, July 16th.
The numbers of those in attendance – the line of march extended for 13 kilometers and moved continuously for five hours – are integral to AMLO’s notion that these are historic moments for Mexico. Only if this understanding is impressed upon the seven-judge electoral tribunal (TRIFE) that must decide who won the fiercely-contested July 2nd election will the panel order the opening of all 130,000 ballot boxes and allow a vote-by-vote recount.
Lopez Obrador is convinced that he has won the presidency of Mexico from his right-wing rival, Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN), who was awarded a severely critiqued 243,000-vote margin by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) on the basis of what now appear to be manipulated computer tallies.
The July 16th outpouring may or may not have been the largest political demonstration in Mexican history. AMLO himself set the previous record back in April 2005, when he put 1.2 million citizens into the streets of Mexico City to protest efforts by President Vicente Fox, a PANista like Calderon, to exclude him from the ballot. But what is most important in this numbers game is not how many were turned out at each event but the exponential growth of the gatherings. Back in 2005, AMLO called a rally in the Zocalo that drew 325,000 supporters. Two weeks later, he tripled the size of the turnout, forcing Fox to drop his scheme to prevent Lopez Obrador from running for president.
Six days after the July 2nd election, AMLO summoned a half million to an “informative assembly” in the vast Tienanmen-Square-sized plaza, and once again, if the PRD figures are to be accepted, tripled participation last Sunday. He is now calling for a third “informative assembly” July 30th which, given the statistical trend, should settle the question of which is the largest mass demonstration in Mexican political history.
The PAN and its now-ex-candidate Calderon consider these enormous numbers to be “irrelevant.” That’s how PAN secretary Cesar Nava labeled them.
What AMLO’s enemies – Fox, Calderon, the PAN, the now dilapidated PRI, the Catholic Church, the Media, Mexico’s avaricious business class, and the Bushites in Washington – do not get yet is that every time they level a blow at the scrappy “Peje” (for Pejelagarto, a gar-like fish from the swamps of AMLO’s native Tabasco) his popularity grows by leaps and bounds. The perception that, despite the vicious attacks of his opponents, he will never sell out is Lopez Obrador’s strongest suit – and he is always at the peak of his game when leading massive street protests.
Two weeks after the election that Felipe Calderon continues to claim he won, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is the pivotal figure in Mexican politics, dominating public discourse and even the media, which has so brutally excoriated and excluded him for years. Meanwhile, the PANista spends his days accepting congratulations from the world’s most prominent right-wingers including George Bush, an electoral pickpocket who is popularly thought to have stolen the U.S. presidency in 2000 and 2004, and Bush’s Senate majority leader Bill Frist, in addition to Bush poodle Tony Blair and Spain’s former Francisco-Franco-clone prime minister Jose Maria Aznar.
Calderon also enjoys the approbation of such U.S. right-wingers as Fox News commentator Dick Morris (a campaign consultant), the Miami Herald’s decrepit Latin America “expert” Andres Oppenheimer, and Ginger Thompson, the Condoleezza Rice of The New York Times whose estimates of crowd sizes missed the mark by a million marchers July 16th. Virtually every radio and television outlet in Mexico has endorsed Calderon’s purported victory – Televisa, the largest communication conglomerate in Latin America, which dominates the Mexican dial, refused to provide live coverage of the July 16th rally, perhaps the largest political demonstration in the nation’s history.
Although Felipe Calderon has announced his intentions of touring Mexico to thank voters for his disputed “triumph,” insiders report that the PAN brain trust has strongly advised against it, fearing that such a tour could trigger violent confrontations with AMLO supporters.
At this point, 16 days after the election, it is difficult to imagine how Calderon could govern Mexico if the TRIFE denies a recount and accepts the IFE numbers. A Calderon presidency would inherit a country divided in half geographically between north and south. Both the PAN and the PRD won 16 states a piece although AMLO’s turf contains 54% of the population and most of Mexico’s 70 million poor – an angry majority that will refuse to accept the legitimacy of a Calderon presidency for the next six years. Faced with a similar situation after he stole the 1988 election from leftist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, Carlos Salinas had to call out the army.
Lopez Obrador has encouraged his supporters to reinforce encampments outside the nation’s 300 electoral districts to prevent the IFE from tampering with ballot boxes while the judges sort through the 53,000 allegations of polling place violations filed by AMLO’s legal team. The PRD charges that the IFE has already violated 40% of the boxes in a ploy to match ballot totals to its highly dubious computer count. The leftist’s call for peaceful mass civil resistance is bound to keep this nation’s teeth on edge until a judicial determination is reached in respect to a recount. A new president must be designated by September 6th.
Although tensions are running high, the country has been remarkably violence free since July 2nd — but a decision by the tribunal to uphold the IFE results could well be the point of combustion. Even should a recount be ordered, the question of who will do the counting — given the vehement distrust of the Federal Electoral Institute by AMLO’s supporters — is a potential flashpoint for trouble. Historically, when the electoral option has been canceled as a means of social change by vote fraud, the armed option gains adherents in Mexico.
Despite AMLO’s talents at exciting mass resistance and the number of times he can fill the Zocalo to bursting, the only numbers that really count are those inside the nation’s 130,000 ballot boxes. Will the justices satisfy Lopez Obrador’s demand for a vote-by-vote recount? All seven judges are in their final year on the TRIFE bench and at least three members are candidates to move up to the Supreme Court in the next administration. In the past, the judges, who decide by majority opinion, have been quite independent of political pressures, ordering annulments and recounts in two gubernatorial elections and in whole electoral districts – but have never done so in a presidential election. Forcing that historical precedent is what Lopez Obrador’s call for mass mobilizations is all about.
If AMLO’s foes are counting on a long, drawn-out legal tussle that will discourage the faithful and eventually reduce his support to a handful of diehard losers, they have grievously miscalculated the energy and breadth of the leftist’s crusade to clean up the 2006 election. This past weekend, as this senior citizen trudged the highway down from Zapata country to the big city, two police officers lounging outside the highway tollbooths gently patted me on the back and urged me on. “Animo!” they encouraged, “keep up the spirit!”
When even the cops are in solidarity with Lopez Obrador’s fight for electoral justice, the writing is on the wall for Calderon and his right-wing confederates. Indeed, the wall of the old stone convent around the corner from my rooms here in the old quarter says it quite clearly: “AMLO PRESIDENTE!”
John Ross’s “Zapatistas! Making Another World Possible – Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006” will be published by Nation Books this October.
SFBG So what inspires you?
MICHAEL SHOWALTER You do, you inspire me.
I think about you in the morning. I doodle little pictures of your face and think about you making me a burrito. Sometimes I doodle little pictures of you making me a burrito.
OK, so maybe that isn’t exactly how it goes. Although Showalter is a doodle enthusiast, he is only mildly turned on by baby-size burritos. Being the narcissistic Bay Area dweller that I am, I immediately ask Showalter, who’s on the phone from his home in New York City, about San Francisco.
“I like San Francisco. I like beat poetry. I like gay people…. I don’t like gay beat poets.”
So he doesn’t read Ginsberg?
“My favorite books are Everybody Poops and the Odyssey. They are actually very similar.”
Showalter is a smart guy. He’s one of those smart guys who scared the hell out of his parents by going into comedy. His dad, a Yale-educated French lit professor, and his mom, a literary critic, worried that their little brainiac (680 math, 620 verbal) was going down the wrong path. “It’s not like this is something you go to grad school for,” he says.
I remind him that his buddy Eugene Mirman did design his own comedy major and that he could have done the same.
“I would have designed a doodling major. My thesis would be on doodles.”
Instead, Showalter took the smart-guy route and studied semiotics at Brown. This is the mind fuck of all possible majors. Most people who spend their formative years steeped in the philosophy of language become literary theorists or filmmakers. People who spend this much time reading Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes take a long time to recover.
Showalter used sketch comedy as a catalyst for his recuperation. This might explain why his entire body of work is (a) fanatically devoured, quoted, and forever adored by viewers or (b) dismissed as ridiculous and forgotten promptly.
Personally, I can’t take anyone who didn’t like The State seriously, but Showalter takes it in stride. “I think people that don’t like it might not get it,” he says. “It’s metahumor — a lot of people aren’t into metahumor. A friend once told me that it is better to have nine people think your work is number one than a hundred think your work is number nine.”
After the Showalter- and David Wain–penned Wet Hot American Summer was released in 2001, some critics gave the boys a very hard time for the scene that involved someone slipping on a banana peel. “The joke was that we made a banana peel joke,” explains Showalter.
Still, one has to wonder, how the hell do these guys come up with this stuff? How does the absurdist sketch comedy show Stella get so far out there? Do Michael Ian Black, Wain, and Showalter just sit around a table bouncing ideas off each other?
“Yeah, exactly like that,” says Showalter. “It is that cliché situation with guys sitting in a room with a Nerf basketball. Only we don’t put it into the net. Ever.” All three members of Stella contribute equally to the creative process — “If we all think it’s funny, then it’s funny,” Showalter observes.
Last year’s film The Baxter marked a departure from sketch comedy. As the writer, director, and star of the romantic comedy, Showalter admits it wasn’t all tweed and roses on the set. “There were problems between the director and the star,” he says. “We just didn’t get along. I found it difficult to deal with myself.”
After his experience writing the film, Showalter joined the faculty of the Peoples Improv Theater. He currently teaches a course on writing comedic screenplays. Yeah, he’s a real teacher. He has a syllabus but doesn’t use textbooks. Instead, he shows movies to illustrate his points. “I show bad comedies like Annie Hall and good comedies like Porky’s.”
Showalter plans to continue teaching, possibly adding a sketch comedy class to his schedule. As far as acting goes, he says, “I’m working on a reality show for a major television network. That’s all I can say.”
The tour is also on his mind. Although stand-up is a pretty new thing for Showalter, he doesn’t worry much about people not laughing: “Pretty much everyone who comes to see me already thinks I’m funny, so I don’t really get heckled.”
Good thing. A heckler at a Showalter show would probably throw canned vegetables on stage. The Blue Collar Comedy tour made a movie. The Comedians of Comedy tour made a TV special. The idea of Showalter, Mirman, and Leo Allen traipsing up and down the West Coast in a van makes me nervous.
Will there be groupies? Drugs? Booze? “It will be like that part with the red snapper in the Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods,” he deadpans. “Very Zeppelin-esque. I have already said too much. Let’s just say it has a lot to do with sushi.”
Sure, Showalter gives a good interview, but I don’t think I’d let him near me with a fish. SFBG
MICHAEL SHOWALTER WITH EUGENE MIRMAN AND LEO ALLEN
Tues/25, 9 p.m.
628 Divisadero, SF
Praised be to the gods of fashion and addictive reality television … season three of Project Runway is here.
First challenge: create a look using only materials found in the designers’ apartments (think IKEA … lots of IKEA). Alas, San Francisco’s own Stacy Estrella was OUT. Blame her creation, an ill-fitting shower-curtain gown, or blame her personality, which didn’t seem quite hysterical enough to generate train-wreck television (for that, turn to C.C. DeVille-voiced Vincent Libretti, whose high-drama potential explains why he’s still on the show after making a hat out of a fruit basket).
The early favorite, design-wise, is Barbie doll dress diva Robert Best — but so much of this show is about the characters, not the occasionally alarming garments they turn out. Can’t wait to see who’ll be the Santino of Season 3 — my money’s on snooty Malan Breton. I’m also fond of Kayne Gallaspie, he of the Mommie Dearest -quoting, who makes pageant gowns for Midwestern beauty queens, and Jewel-esque Alison Kelly, the show’s token hipster.
Needless to say, next Wednesday can’t come soon enough. Now, where the hell is my chiffon?
Low-flying Seattle ethnomusic label Sublime Frequencies has been in business for less than three years, but in that time established itself as easily the most happening label around in terms of hard-to-find music from overseas. In fact, it’s created a niche that didn’t even really exist before, steadily churning out kaleidoscopic and often in-your-face CDs and DVDs from places as far flung as Iraq, Java, North Korea, and Nepal, releases that are equally at home in the world music and experimental sections at a record store.
I don’t love everything they’ve put out, but I have listened to every note of the more than 20 CDs released so far — I’ve missed a few DVDs, I admit — and a handful of them have become personal favorites. Another half dozen have landed in heavy rotation on the home stereo at various points. I’ve especially enjoyed the label’s presentation of music from Southeast Asia, including two discs compiled by Bay Area musician Mark Gergis of Porest and Neung Phak — Molam: Thai Country Groove From Isan and Cambodian Cassette Archives: Khmer Folk and Pop Music Vol. 1 — and several more assembled by label head Alan Bishop of the Sun City Girls, including the frantic Radio Phnom Penh and last fall’s unstoppable Guitars of the Golden Triangle: Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar Vol. 2. The massive amount of material the pair cull from radio, vinyl, cassettes, and field recordings is beyond the reach of most file sharers because the majority would have no idea where to start downloading, and Gergis and Bishop put out their findings without much information or regard for sound quality or marketability. What I like about the music on these discs is the blend of familiarity and strangeness, of traditional and modern influences.
The latest batch from Sublime Frequencies unleashes music from Algeria and Northeast Cambodia, as well as a couple of new ones from Thailand: a two-CD set titled Radio Thailand: Transmissions from the Tropical Kingdom and a DVD, Phi Ta Khan: Ghosts of Isan. Radio Thailand was compiled by Gergis and Bishop, who each produced a disc, and like all the label’s Radio titles, it is a fast-paced collage of music, advertisements, and news snippets spliced together from hours of radio broadcast recordings. Segues are abrupt at times, and the fidelity varies wildly. While the experience as a whole is like watching TV while someone else is wielding the remote, at least the content is more interesting than flipping between, say, VH1, Court TV, and lame reality shows.
Listening to Radio Thailand’s second disc, I’m struck by the futility of trying to describe this music in any sort of useful detail. I don’t know the artists’ names, the song titles, or the years any of the music was released. I can’t understand the lyrics and don’t know the names of most of the genres or subgenres represented. Now and then a familiar snippet pops up, like the tune from Ennio Morricone’s theme to For a Few Dollars More — only it’s dressed up in low-budget ’80s synth tones and slapped on top of a disco beat with a guy singing a completely unrelated melody during the verses. There are syrupy ballads, droning a cappella chants, and lots of bouncy ’80s synth pop that sounds absolutely nothing like New Order. Now and then, a voice in English emerges from the wilderness, but it’s inevitably a non sequitur: an announcement for a giant catfish fry, a report on the quality of Thai rubber, a woman announcing, “I have 20 minutes left with you guys, at least. Like, 22 minutes. No, 21 minutes and something.” Unless you’ve been to Thailand and spent hours flipping through the radio dial — and I certainly haven’t — then you probably haven’t heard anything like this.
In contrast to the information onslaught of Radio Thailand, the recent DVD Phi Ta Khan: Ghosts of Isan is far more deliberate in its pacing. Produced by Rob Millis of the Seattle group Climax Golden Twins, the video documents a three-day festival in the northern Thai region of Isan, near the border with Laos. This region is the home of the hypnotic, droning molam style featured on the aforementioned Thai Country Groove CD, and there’s plenty of that music to be heard here. There’s zero narration and Millis doesn’t employ any fancy production tricks, but none of that is needed, as the costumes, dancing, and music are colorful enough on their own. In addition to the religious-occult focus of the festival, there’s also apparently a fertility ritual at work, judging by the vast assortment of phallic symbols on hand: handheld penises, wooden penis puppets with movable parts, you name it. One particularly bizarre scene involves two men trying to repair the damaged member belonging to one of the giant costumed mascots.
The incredible music here ranges from giant percussion ensembles composed of ordinary villagers to full-on electrified combos rolling down the street on the back of flatbed trucks equipped with generators and huge stacks of speakers. At one point, a nasty fuzz-tone keyboard sound surfaces amid the din, but before you can ask, “Where did that come from?” it turns out to be nothing but a Casio being run through a couple of battered PA cones on the back of a moving pickup truck. This scene, like the entire DVD, embodies the sort of low-budget mayhem at the heart of the label’s seat-of-the-pants aesthetic. You won’t find this stuff at Starbucks. SFBG
SUBLIME FREQUENCIES PRESENTS
PHI TA KHAN: GHOSTS OF ISAN AND SUMATRAN FOLK CINEMA
Fri/14, 8 p.m.
Artists’ Television Access
992 Valencia, SF
CLIMAX GOLDEN TWINS WITH
HERB DIAMANTE, POREST (MARK GERGIS), AND SEA DONKEYS
Sat/15, 9:30 p.m.
1131 Polk, SF