TECHSPLOITATION I love a good alternate history yarn for the same reason I love science fiction. Both genres analyze present-day trends by projecting them into another reality. That other reality might be the future or simply a transformed version of the present.
In the United States, there are two incredibly popular alternate history scenarios: 1. What if the South had won the Civil War? and 2. What if Germany had won World War II? C.S.A: The Confederate States of America, a fake British documentary made by Kansas filmmaker Kevin Willmott, answers both questions.
After its limited release in the theaters two years ago, the movie achieved cult status in DVD form, which is really its natural medium. It’s fascinating to watch CSA on a television set because the movie is meant to resemble a snippet from a TV station, complete with freaky commercials and news breaks, that is airing a “controversial” British documentary about the history of the CSA.
Blending dark humor with painstakingly researched historical revisionism, Willmott begins the movie with a fake commercial for insurance. The clip looks exactly like something you might see on ABC, including the fact that everyone in it is white. Then the announcer says, “Our insurance protects you and your property,” and the camera pans over to a smiling black boy who is clipping a hedge. This is a present day in which slavery still exists.
The British documentary reveals how this came to pass. After the South wins the Civil War with the help of France and England, the president heals the rift between North and South by offering Northerners slaves to help reconstruct the bombed-out cities of New York and Boston. Deposed president Lincoln flees to Canada, followed by 20,000 abolitionists including Fredrick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau.
Shortly thereafter, Chinese laborers in California are also declared slaves. The CSA annexes South America and becomes entrenched in a Cold War with what politicians call Red Canada. Several African nations collude with the CSA to maintain the slave trade, and we see historical footage of an African leader reassuring his people that only the “inferior tribes” are sold as slaves.
Hitler retains control over Germany when the CSA refuses to intervene in World War II, although the president does say it’s too bad the Germans are killing Jews instead of enslaving them.
What’s sheer genius about this alternate history is how much of it is drawn from actual US history. We hear about Native Americans being rounded up and put into orphanages, which actually happened; and the fake commercials advertising things like “Darkie Toothpaste,” “Niggerhair Cigarettes,” and “Coon Chicken” are all based on real products sold long after the abolition of slavery.
More chilling are ads for anti-depressants aimed at controlling slaves, and for a TV show based on Cops called Runaway. The message may be heavy-handed, but it nevertheless rings true enough to be thought-provoking: US popular culture is only one degree removed from being that of a slave-owning nation.
The same goes for US political culture. Historical figures and events in CSA also remain virtually unchanged. Kennedy is elected president and calls for abolition right before being assassinated, and the Watts Riots are portrayed as a “slave uprising.” Reagan’s presidency heralds a new spike in the slave trade. Experts explain how the Internet has helped rejuvenate interest in the science of slave control, and we see clips from the Slave Shopping Network, where bidders can choose to break up a family or “buy the complete set.”
Willmott has said in several interviews that CSA is not about what could be, but what is. He points out that African Americans and other people of color may not view the film as an alternate history so much as a reflection of a true history that many whites still can’t quite see. Maybe that accounts for why the film, which received an enthusiastic reception at Sundance in 2004 and critical raves, didn’t make it onto DVD until quite recently. Freed from the confines of traditional movie theater distribution, I think this flick will at last find the audience it deserves in online communities, where people can simultaneously watch, discuss, and recommend it.
In fact, I can’t think of a better movie to share in small pieces on
YouTube or MySpace, enticing people to rent or buy it and get the whole story. Its message should be out there, spreading like the world’s most virulent antiracist media virus, infecting the nation one computer screen at a time. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose other favorite alternate history is about what would have happened if Martin Scorsese had directed ET.
The San Francisco Examiner reported last week that enrollment in the local public schools is down by another 1,000 students this year, which means, some school board members say, that more sites will have to be closed.
I understand the economic issues — the state pays for education based on average daily attendance, and if fewer kids show up, the school district gets fewer dollars. And I’ll admit I have a dog in this fight: my son goes to McKinley Elementary, a wonderful school that represents everything that’s right about public education in San Francisco — and McKinley was on the hit list last year. It’s a small school; that makes it vulnerable.
I also understand that there are some things the school board can’t control. Families are leaving San Francisco in droves. That’s largely because of the high cost of housing, which is an issue for the mayor and the supervisors (and one that’s going to take a lot more work and resolve to address). So we’re going to lose some students that way.
But we’re also losing a lot of kids to private schools; I know that because I have good friends who’ve chosen that route, mostly because they don’t think the public schools can offer what they want for their kids. This is a perception problem, and it’s something the school board doesn’t have to sit back and accept.
That, I guess, is what really frustrates me — so many people simply saying that as a matter of strategic planning, we need to assume 1,000 fewer students a year will go to the public schools. The district spent around a quarter of a million dollars last year on a public relations office, and almost all the office seemed to do was hide information from the press and promote the career of then-superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Now Ackerman’s gone, and so is her officious flak, Lorna Ho. It’s time to take district PR seriously.
How hard would it be to have one PR staffer dedicated to creating a major citywide ad campaign promoting the public schools? I suspect it would be relatively easy to find a top-flight local ad firm that would work pro bono and not at all impossible to raise money for media (billboards, bus sides, direct mail, print ads, TV, whatever). Lots of prominent people would do testimonials. Set a goal: no enrollment drop-off next year. Before we close any more schools, it’s worth a try.
Now this: Clear Channel, which owns 10 radio stations in San Francisco and does almost no local public affairs programming at all, recently dropped its only decent San Francisco show, Keepin’ It Real with Will and Willie on KQKE, and replaced it with a syndicated feed out of Los Angeles. To listen to most of Clear Channel radio, you’d never actually know that you’re in San Francisco; the giant Texas chain doesn’t care anything about this community.
If you’re sick of this kind of behavior by an increasingly consolidated monopoly broadcast industry (using, by the way, the public airwaves), you’re not alone: Media Alliance, the Youth Media Council, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will host a hearing on media consolidation in Oakland on Oct. 27, and two Federal Communications Commission members, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, will be there to take public comments.
The hearing’s at the Oakland Marriott Civic Center, 1001 Broadway. For more information, go to www.media-alliance.org. SFBG
Halloween is the season for self-expression in all of its many glorious forms: costumes, music, dance, art, theater, and maybe even a few forms that can’t be classified. Whether you’re a trash-culture junkie or a splatter-movie freak, a pagan ritual follower or a brazen exhibitionist, you’ll definitely find something chilling, somewhere in the Bay Area. Here’s a sampling; for more Halloween and Día de los Muertos events, go to www.sfbg.com.
PARTIES AND BENEFITS
The Enchanted Forest Cellar, 685 Sutter, SF; 441-5678. 10pm-2am. $5-10. Silly Cil presents the seventh annual Enchanted Forest costume ball; woodland nymphs and mythical creatures are welcome. DJs McD and Scotty Fox rock the forest with hip-hop and ’80s sounds.
Hyatt Regency/98.1 KISS FM Halloween Bash Hyatt Regency, 5 Embarcadero Center, SF; 788-1234. 8 pm. $28.50 advance ($30 door). KISS Radio’s Morris Knight MCs an evening of costumed revelry. DJ Michael Erickson brings the dance mix.
Rock ’n’ Roll Horror Show Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell, SF; 820-3907. 7:30pm. $5-10 donation. Rock out and scream loud for a good cause: proceeds go to the ninth SF Independent Film Festival. A screening of 1987 B-movie Street Trash is followed by the sounds of Sik Luv, Wire Graffiti, Charm School Drop Outs, and Madelia.
SambaDa: Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Exotic Halloween Extravaganza Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, SF; 552-7788. 10pm. $8-10. Don’t feel like ghosts and goblins and blood and guts? How about samba and bossa nova grooves to keep your feet busy?
Halloween Madness Speisekammer, 2424 Lincoln, Alameda; (510) 522-1300. 9pm. Free. Skip Henderson and the Starboard Watch offer hard-drinking sailor songs. Come in costume and get a free rum drink, matey.
Exotic Erotic Ball Cow Palace, 2600 Geneva, SF; 567-2255, www.exoticeroticball.com. 8pm-2am. $69. P-Funker George Clinton, ’80s icon Thomas Dolby, and rapper Too Short are among the musical guests at this no-holds-barred celebration. Put on your sexiest, slinkiest number and admire the antics of trapeze artists, fetish performers, and burlesque show-stoppers, as well as those of the attendees.
Fresh/Halloween T-Dance Ruby Skye, 420 Mason, SF; www.freshsf.com. 6pm-midnight. $20. Sassy, slinky, and sexy costumes abound at this Halloween dance party. DJ Manny Lehman spins.
Dead Rock Star Karaoke Cellar, 685 Sutter, SF; 441-5678. 8pm-2am. Free. Elvises, Jim Morrisons, and Kurt Cobains deliver heartrending renditions of favorite songs.
A Nightmare on Fulton Street Poleng Lounge, 1751 Fulton, SF; www.polenglounge.com. 8pm-2am. $5-10. The third annual Holla-ween showcases a rich harvest of fat beats, thanks to the DJ skills of Boozou Bajou.
Scary Halloween Bash 12 Galaxies, 2565 Mission, SF; 970-9777. 8pm. $10. All dressed up but not feeling like heading to the Castro? Want to hear a marching band? No, wait, come back. It’s the Extra Action Marching Band, which specialize in baccanalian freak-shows. Sour Mash Jug Band and livehuman leave you grinning beneath that rubber mask.
Art Hell ARTwork SF Gallery, 49 Geary, suite 215, SF; 673-3080. noon-5:30pm. Free. Bay Area artists render darkness, death, and all things devilishly creepy. Sale proceeds go to the San Francisco Artist Resource Center. Also open Thu/26-Sat/28, same hours.
Babble on Halloween Dog Eared Books, 900 Valencia, SF; 282-1901. 8pm. Free. There’s nothing like shivers up the spine to go with cupcakes and wine! Bucky Sinister, Tony Vaguely, and Shawna Virago creep you out with spooky stories and bizarre performances.
A Second Final Rest: The History of San Francisco’s Lost Cemeteries California Historical Society Library, 678 Mission, SF; 357-1848. 6pm. Free. Trina Lopez’s documentary tells the story of how San Francisco relocated burial grounds in the wake of the 1906 earthquake and fire — ironically sending some of the city’s settlers on a last journey after death.
Shocktoberfest!! 2006: Laboratory of Hallucinations Hypnodrome, 575 10th St, SF; 377-4202. 8pm. $20. The Thrillpeddlers are back with a gross-out lover’s delight: public execution, surgery, and taxidermy in three tales of unspeakable horror. Also Fri/27-Sat/28, 8pm.
BATS Improv/True Fiction Magazine’s Annual Halloween Show Bayfront Theater, 8350 Fort Mason Center, SF; www.improv.org. 8pm. $18 ($15 advance). Madcap improvisational comics of True Fiction Magazine transform audience suggestions into hilariously bizarre pulp fiction–inspired skits. In the spirit of the season, TFM is sure to throw ghoulish horror into the mix. Also Sat/28.
Hallowe’en at Tina’s Café Magnet, 4122 18th St, SF; 581-1600. 9pm. Free. What’s Halloween in San Francisco without any drag? Before you consider the sad possibilities, let Tina’s Café banish those thoughts with a deliciously campy drag queen cabaret show. Mrs. Trauma Flintstone MCs.
Rural Rampage Double Feature Alliance Française de San Francisco, 1345 Bush, SF; www.ham-o-rama.com. 7:30pm. Free. Those midnight movie aficionados at Incredibly Strange Picture Show unreel a shriekingly tasty lineup from the “scary redneck” genre: Two Thousand Maniacs and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
11th Annual Soapbox Pre-Race Party/Halloween Show El Rio, 3158 Mission, SF; 282-3325. 9pm. $7. What better way is there to get revved up for the Oct. 29 Soapbox Derby in Bernal Heights? With a full evening of good ’n’ greasy garage rock and rockabilly, thanks to the All Time Highs, Teenage Harlets, and the Phenomenauts, this party gets you in touch with your inner speed demon.
Pirate Cat Radio Halloween Bash Li Po Cocktail Lounge, 916 Grant, SF; www.piratecatradio.com. 8pm. $5. The community radio station presents an evening of crazy rock mayhem with Desperation Squad, the band now famous for getting shot down on TV’s America’s Got Talent! Wealthy Whore Entertainment, the Skoalkans, and Pillows also perform.
Shadow Circus Vaudeville Theatre Kimo’s, 1351 Polk, SF; firstname.lastname@example.org. 9pm. $5. Shadow Circus Creature Theatre hosts a variety show of ukulele riffs, comedy, burlesque, and filthy-mouthed puppets.
Spiral Dance Kezar Pavilion, Golden Gate Park, 755 Stanyan, SF; www.reclaiming.org. 6pm. Free. Reclaiming, an international group observing pagan traditions, celebrates its 27th annual Spiral Dance with a magical ritual incorporating installations, drama, and a choral performance.
Flamenco Halloween La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck, Berk; (510) 849-2568, ext. 20. 8:30pm. $15. Flametal brings the evil to flamenco with mastermind Benjamin Woods’s fusion of metal and the saddest music in the world.
Murder Ballads Starry Plough, 3101 Shattuck, Berk; (510) 841-0188. 9pm. $8. Murder, misfortune, and love gone really, really wrong — all sung by an impressive array of garage rockers, accordionists, and female folk-metal songstresses. There’s even a duo who specializes in suicide songs! Dress up so no one can recognize you weeping into your beer.
The Elm Street Murders Club Six, 60 Sixth St., SF; www.myspace.com/theelmstmurders. 7:30pm. $20. Loosely based on A Nightmare on Elm Street, this multimedia interactive stage show promises heaping helpings of splatter.
The Creature Magic Theatre, building D, Fort Mason Center, SF; 731-4922. 8pm. Free. Reservations required. Black Box Theatre Company gives a single performance before a studio audience of their new podcast adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankensten. This version tells the story from the monster’s point of view.
Independent Exposure 2006: Halloweird Edition 111 Minna Gallery, 111 Minna, SF; 447-9750. 8pm. $6. Microcinema International assembles a festively creepy collection of short films from around the world, focusing on the spooky, unsettling, and just plain gross.
Bat Boy: The Musical School of the Arts Theater, 555 Portola, SF; 651-4521. 7pm. $20. It’s back: a Halloween preview performance of the trials and tribulations of everyone’s favorite National Enquirer icon, Bat Boy. Camp doesn’t get any better than this.
Cramps Fillmore, 1805 Geary, SF; 346-6000. 8pm. $30. Don’t get caught in the goo-goo muck. The Demolition Doll Rods and the Groovie Ghoulies also whip you up into a rock ’n’ roll frenzy.
One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil) San Francisco Art Institute Lecture Hall, 800 Chestnut, SF; 771-7020. 7:30pm. Free. Before the Rolling Stones became some of the richest people on earth, Mick, Keith, and the boys dabbled on the dark side. At a rare screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One, you get a chance to see them at the height of their flirtation with evil, performing the still-mesmerizing “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Haunted Haight Walking Tour Begins at Coffee to the People, 1206 Masonic, SF; 863-1416. 7pm. $20. How else can you explain all of those supernatural presences drifting between the smoke shops and shoe stores? Here’s a chance to find out about the more lurid chapters in the neighborhood’s history. Also Sat/28-Tues/31, 7pm.
Boo at the Zoo San Francisco Zoo, 1 Zoo, SF; 753-7071. 10am-3pm. Free with zoo admission. Costumed kiddies can check out the Haunted Nature Trail and the Creepy Crawly Critters exhibit. Live music, interactive booths, games, and prizes keep little ghosts and goblins delighted.
Children’s Halloween Hootenanny Stanyan and Waller, SF; www.haightstreetfair.org. 11:30am-5pm. Free. The Haight Ashbury Street Fair folks provide children ages 2 to 10 with games, activities, theater, and food. Costumes are encouraged.
Family Halloween Day Randall Museum, 199 Museum, SF; 554-9600. 10am-2pm. Free. Trick-or-treaters play games, carve pumpkins, create creepy crafts, and take part in the costume parade. Jackie Jones amazes with a musical saw and dancing cat; Brian Scott, a magic show.
Hallo-green Party Crissy Field Center, 603 Mason, SF; 561-7752. 10am-2pm. $8. It’s never too early to teach your children about environmentalism. The party includes a costume contest and a chance to bob for organic apples.
House of Toxic Horrors Crissy Field Center, 603 Mason, SF; 561-7752. 10am-2pm and 4-8pm, $8. Ages 9 and older. No, it’s not a Superfund site, but it should be equally educational: the center’s first haunted house addresses the scary world of environmental horror. Sludge and smog lurk behind every corner.
Boo at the Zoo Oakland Zoo, 9777 Golf Links, Oakl; (510) 632-9525. 10am-3pm. Free with zoo admission. Dress up the kids and bring them over to the zoo for scavenger hunts, crafts, rides on the Boo Choo Choo Train, puppet shows, and musical performances. Also Sun/29, 10am-3pm.
Halloween’s True Meaning Shotwell Studios, 3252-A 19th St., SF; 289-2000. 1-3pm, $5-15 sliding scale. Kids are encouraged to come in costume for this afternoon of interactive theater led by Christina Lewis of the Clown School. Enjoy Halloween history, storytelling, role-playing, and face-painting.
Pet Pride Day Sharon Meadow, Golden Gate Park, SF; 554-9427. 11am-3pm. Free. Dress up your pet in something ridiculous and head down to Golden Gate Park to laugh at all of the other displeased pups! The pet costume contest is always a blast, as is the dog-trick competition.
Haunted Harbor Festival and Parade Jack London Square, Oakl; 1-866-295-9853. 4-8pm. Free. Families can check out live entertainment, games, crafts, activities, and prizes. The extravagantly decked-out boats in the parade are not to be missed.
Rock Paper Scissors’ Annual Street Scare Block Party 23rd Ave. and Telegraph, Oakl; www.rpscollective.com. Noon-5pm. Free. Who doesn’t love block parties? The kid-friendly blowout has something for everyone: fortune-telling, craft-making, pumpkin-carving, and all sorts of wacky games and prizes. And barbecue — witches love a good barbecue.
Halloween Heroes Benefit Exploratorium, Palace of Fine Arts, 3601 Lyon, SF; (650) 321-4142, www.wenderweis.org. 6:30pm. $185 for a parent and child. A benefit for the Exploratorium Children’s Educational Outreach Program and the Junior Giants Baseball Program, this lavish costume party for kids promises to be equally fun for the parents. Many of the exhibits are turned into craft-making and trick-or-treat stations.
Halloween in the Castro Market and Castro, www.halloweeninthecastro.com. 7pm-midnight. $5 suggested donation. You and 250,000 of your new best friends — reveling in the streets and getting down to thumping beats. Don’t even think of driving to get there, and don’t forget: no drinking in the streets.
Vampire Tour of San Francisco Begins at California and Taylor, SF; (650) 279-1840, www.sfvampiretour.com. 8pm. $20. This isn’t Transylvania, but San Francisco has had its share of vampires. Just ask Mina Harker, your fearless leader, if you dare take this tour.
DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS
‘Laughing Bones/ Weeping Hearts’ Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak, Oakl; (510) 238-2200. Wed-Sat, 10am-5pm. $8. Guest curator Carol Marie Garcia has assembled a vibrant collection of installations produced by local artists, schools, and community groups, all celebrating the dead while acknowledging the sorrow of those left behind. Through Dec. 3.
THURSDAY NOV. 2
Death and Rebirth Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center, 2981 24th St, SF; 334-4091. 7-10pm. Free. Precita Eyes Muralists will be celebrating the work of founder Luis Cervantes with a breathtaking mural exhibit and celebration.
Día De Los Muertos Procession and Outdoor Altar Exhibit 24th St and Bryant, SF; www.dayofthedeadsf.org. 7pm. Free. Thousands of families, artists, and activists form a procession to honor the dead and celebrate life, ending at the Festival of Altars in Garfield Park, at 26th Street and Harrison. Local artists have created large community altars at the park; the public is invited to bring candles, flowers, and offerings.
Fiesta De Los Huesos’ Gala Opening Reception Mission Cultural Center for the Latino Arts, 2868 Mission, SF; 643-5001. 6-11pm. $5. Curator Patricia Rodriguez has put together a family-oriented party, with musical performances, mask carving, sugar skull–making, videos, and other tempting creations among the exhibits, altars, and installations. The exhibition opens Oct. 27.
Día De Los Muertos Benefit Concert 2232 MLK, 2232 Martin Luther King Jr., Oakl; www.2232mlk.com. 7pm. $8-20 sliding scale. Hosted by the Chiapas Support Committee, this benefit concert features Fuga, los Nadies, la Plebe, and DJ Rico. Early arrivals get free pan dulce and hot chocolate.
SUNDAY NOV. 5
Dia De Los Muertos Family Festival Randall Museum, 199 Museum, SF; 554-9681. 1-5pm. $100 and up for family of five. The family event benefits the museum’s Toddler Treehouse and other toddler programs. Arts and crafts, food, and entertainment make this a rewarding educational experience for kids. Attendees learn how to make masks and sugar skulls and to decorate an altar. Los Boleros provide festive entertainment.
Día De Los Muertos Fruitvale Festival International Blvd., between Fruitvale Ave and 41st Ave, Oakl; (510) 535-6940. 10am-5pm. Free. With the theme “love, family, memories,” the Unity Council in Oakland has put together a full day of family celebration. Five stages showcase music and dance performances by local and world-renowned artists. More than 150 exhibitors and nonprofits highlight wares and services. Art and altars are on view, and the Children’s Pavilion promises to be a rewarding educational experience for kids of all ages.
THURSDAY NOV. 9
Mole to Die For Mission Cultural Center For Latino Arts, 2868 Mission, SF; 643-5001. 7-10pm. $5. Try it all at this mole feeding-frenzy and vote for your favorite.
When a bumped phone interview with hip-hop legend and putf8um artist Method Man mushroomed into a proposed
backstage post-show encounter, I naturally jumped at the chance.
Being a devotee of the ultimately more funk-based grooves of Bay Area hip-hop, I tend not to pay
attention to the doings of NYC, and I can’t claim to have ever followed the Wu-Tang Clan in general or Meth
in particular, though I have always admired both from afar. Yet one needn’t follow the Big Apple’s scene in
great detail to appreciate its impact, and with Meth’s successful film and TV career, most recently as a recurring character in this season of HBO’s cop drama The Wire, one needn’t even listen to hip-hop anymore
to appreciate his.
This situation is exactly what’s troubling Method Man. His very success in the cultural mainstream, he
feels, has been held against him by the hip hop-industry, a curious situation considering
mainstream success is the perceived goal and direct subject matter of most raps these days. Unlike the
recent fashion among rappers like Andre3000 to pooh-pooh their interest in music in favor of their
“acting career,” Meth wants to be known primarily as an MC. But Hollywood success has proved to be a
slippery slope, paved by Ice-T and Ice Cube — each in his turn the most terrifying, authentic street rapper
imaginable — to the end of your hit-making potential in hip-hop.
Couple this perception with Meth’s vocal challenges of the effect of corporate media consolidation, and it’s
not difficult to imagine why Def Jam released his fourth solo album, 4:21: The Day After, without a peep
at the end of August, as if the label had written him off despite his track record of one gold and two
Still, no one who’s heard the angry, defiantly shitkicking 4:21 (executive produced by the RZA, Erick
Sermon, and Meth himself) or saw the show Meth put on that evening (leaping from the stage to the bar and
running across it by way of introduction, later executing a backwards handspring from the stage into the crowd by way of ending) could possibly doubt his vitality as an MC. He put on a long, exhausting show,
heavy with new material, that utterly rocked the packed house.
Shortly after the show ended, I was brought backstage by Meth’s road manager, 7, to a tiny corridor of a
dressing room crammed with various hangers on. A man in a warm-up suit with a towel over his head was
sitting alone on a short flight of steps in the center of the room.
“That’s him,” 7 said, before disappearing to take care of other business.
It was like being sent to introduce yourself to a boxer who’d just finished a successful but punishing
brawl. The face that looked up at my inquiry was that of a man who’d retreated somewhere far away into
himself, requiring a momentary effort to swim to the surface. Quite suddenly I found myself face to face
with Method Man, whose presence immediately turned all heads in the room our way as he invited me to sit down
for a brief discussion of his new album and his dissatisfaction with his treatment by the music
SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN: I read the statement on your Web site [www.method-man.com] in which you
discuss your problems with the industry. Could you describe the problems you’ve been having?
METHOD MAN: My big problem with the industry is the way they treat hip-hop artists as opposed to artists
in other genres. Hip-hop music, they treat it like it’s fast food. You get about two weeks of promotion
before your album. Then you get the week of your album, then you get the week after, then they just
leave you to the dogs.
Whereas back in the day, you had artists in development, a month ahead of time before you even
started your campaign, to make sure that you got off on the right foot.
Nowadays it’s like there’s nobody in your corner anymore. Everybody’s trying to go into their own
little club, for lack of a better word. Everybody has their own little cliques now. Ain’t no money being
generated so the labels are taking on a lot of artists because of this at once that they don’t even have
enough staff members to take care of every artist, as an individual. Their attention is elsewhere, or only
with certain people.
SFBG: Your new single [“Say,” featuring Lauryn Hill] suggests you’ve had problems with the way critics have
received your recent work and even with the radio playing your records. How can someone of your status
be having trouble getting spins?
MM: You know what it is, man? A lot of people have come around acting like I’m the worst thing that ever
happened to hip-hop, as good as I am.
Hating is hating. I’ve been hated on, but just by the industry, not in the streets. They never liked my crew
[the Wu-Tang Clan] anyway. They think we ain’t together anymore and they try to pick at each and
every individual. Some motherfuckers they pick up. Other people they just shit on. I guess I’m just the
shittee right now, you know what I mean?
SFBG: Do you think it has to do with the age bias in hip-hop? The idea an MC is supposed to be 18 or 20?
MM: You know what I think it is? As our contracts go on, we have stipulations where, if we sell a certain
amount of albums, [the labels] have to raise our stock. A lot of times dudes just want to get out their
contracts so they can go independent and make more money by themselves. There’s a lot of factors that
play into it.
SFBG: Are you not getting enough label support?
MM: A label only does so much anyway. It’s your team inside your team that makes sure that you got a video.
Or that you got that single out there, or that your tour dates are put together correctly. The labels,
they basically just do product placement. They make sure that all your stuff is in the proper place where
it’s supposed to be at. They’re gonna make sure your posters are up. They’re going to make sure that
they’re giving out samples of other artists that are coming out also. [But i]t’s really up to us [the
artists] to make sure our music is going where it’s supposed to.
Right now there’s so many artists people can pick and choose from, don’t nobody like shit no more.
SFBG: Do you think you’re getting squeezed out of radio play as a result of corporate media
MM: Absolutely; this shit ain’t nothing new. It isn’t just happening to me. It’s been going on since dudes
have been doing this hip-hop music. They bleed you dry and then they push you the fuck out.
That’s why I always stress to the fans to take your power back. I always hear people talking about things
like, “Damn, what happened to these dudes? What happened to these guys? I always liked their shit.”
But the fans, not just the industry, tend to turn their backs on dudes. They get fed so much bullshit,
they be like, “Fuck it; I’m not dealing with that shit. I’m going to listen to this.”
SFBG: So what about your acting career? Do you feel like you’ve been overexposed as an actor or that
you’ve been spread too thin and are readjusting your focus?
MM: Fuck Hollywood, B.
SFBG: But I heard you say on the radio today you wanted to play a crackhead and get an Oscar….
MM: I do want to play a crackhead in a movie. I’m going to be a crackhead who dies of an overdose at the
end of the movie, and people cry, and I’m going to get me an Oscar. But fuck Hollywood; tell ‘em to come see
me. Tell ‘em to come to my door.
SFBG: Obviously, from what you said during the show and the lyrics on 4:21: The Day After you haven’t
renounced smoking marijuana, so could you discuss the concept behind “4:21”? Is it about the difficulties
of living the hard-partying lifestyle of the rap artist?
MM: It was just symbolic of a moment of clarity for me. I made a symbol for myself of a moment of
clarity. You know I’ve always been an avid 4:20 person. I like to get out there and smoke with the
best of them. But I picked “4:21” as like, the day after. I got tired of people running up on me and
being like, “You was funny in that movie,” because I was an MC first and foremost. It used to be like, “Yo,
that fuckin’ verse you did on that song, that was hot.” Now it’s like, “My kids love you; they love that
movie, How High.”
It gets to the point when even when I’m having a serious moment, or a serious conversation, people
laugh at the shit like it’s funny. But they laugh cause they thinking of the movie; they thinking of
some sitcom shit.
SFBG: Besides yourself and RZA, Erick Sermon executive produced the album. Can you talka bout your
connection with him?
MM: I’ve been fuckin’ with E ever since I’ve been fuckin’ with Redman. E knows what I like, you know
what I’m saying? The same way he knows what Redman likes. And RZA, that’s a given right there. I’ve been
down with RZA’s shit A1 since day one.
SFBG: 4:21 also features a collaboration with Ol’ Dirty Bastard. When did you guys record this track?
MM: “Dirty Meth” — that’s a posthumous joint with O.D.B. It was after he was gone already. I tell everyone
that so they know.
SFBG: But he seems to permeate the new album.
MM: He does. Good word, too. He permeates it.
SONIC REDUCER Skip the cherries — life at times seems like a big fat bowl of Froot Loops — the type that figure-eight, undulate, and connect in the most unpredictable ways. For instance, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, né Will Oldham, and his ungainly, increasingly ecstatic shadow folk-country — that association’s only right and natural. Oldham and Gen X cinematic hot-spring stoner sagas — it’s altogether plausible. But Oldham and Diddy, the Bad Boy impresario identified in his own PR literature as a “mogul” before proffering the job title “artist” — huh?
What could these two possibly have in common apart from their age, 36? It’s a logical leap if you study Diddy — arriving about two hours late for his recent roundtable interview at the Ritz-Carlton with absolutely zero Burger King Whoppers for yours truly and the other journos who were ready to gnaw their own typing arms off in hunger and antsiness. Instead the mogul packs a makeup artist and hair man (who brandishes a far-from-puffy comb — sorry) and plays us no tracks from his new, still-scarce album, Press Play (Bad Boy/Universal), yet carries it in his bejeweled hand like a salesman. (Perhaps in answer to the inevitable query: with fashion design, artist development, reality TV, label jockeying in his past, and DiddyTV on YouTube currently serving up alleged shots of Sean in the john, why does he even bother making an album? Diddy’s comeback: “It’s a gift and curse, because I do so many things. I’m making sure people know how serious I am about music.”)
Well, Diddy and Oldham name games are the most obvious thread. Like Diddy, a.k.a. Puff Daddy, a.k.a. P. Diddy, a.k.a. Puffy, a.k.a. Sean Combs — Oldham is a man of many hats, personae, songs: a humble troubadour, a rambling tangent-exploring interview, a perpetual touring player, a before-his-time out-folker, a Hollywood-shunning onetime teen star of Matewan. At one point it seemed like he had a recording name for his every sound, if not every album — Bonnie “Prince” Billy was just the latest handle in a line that included Palace Brothers, Palace, Will Oldham, and at least one disc that sported no name at all. It was disorienting, delirious, and hard to track, and at times it just made you want to throw your hamburger mitts up, shave the nearest beard, and beat yourself around the face and neck.
Oldham probably feels much the same after fielding the same question repeatedly, explaining that he once thought of his albums much like films or plays and wanted to label each uniquely. “I thought it would be a way of focusing things on each record,” he says from his native Louisville, Ky. “People would say, ‘I like this record,’ rather than ‘I like the music of …’ I didn’t realize that it was sort of a definitely pointless battle — to see about maybe trying to make people focus on records as independent entities rather than representations of an individual’s or group’s work, and it became sooo energy-expending to always explain this name thing. I was finally just, like, ‘This is just bullshit.’”
And if Diddy and his whirlwind junket offered little apart from the lingering impression that for some reason it was critical for him to leave the scent of power and money (he’s reportedly worth $315 million) on local media — then Oldham is his opposite. On time and generously unearthing the contents of his mind, he’s disarmingly candid and eager to dive into the depths of his past, untangling his feelings and thoughts about acting, recording, and mentoring (he famously championed a solo Joanna Newsom and played her music for their label, Drag City). Yet unlike Diddy, who appears to be jetting around the country in search of the artistic credibility he first found in music as a producer, Oldham has never been more on top of his so-called game.
His new album, The Letting Go (Drag City), is the worthy, relatively full-blown, and outright beauteous studio follow-up to his 2005 stunner Superwolf with Matt Sweeney. This time Dawn McCarthy of the Bay Area’s Faun Fables leaves her imprint — her vocals echoing somewhere in the vicinity of Sandy Denny and Joan Baez. Under the gaze of Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurosson (Björk’s sometime engineer whom Oldham met while touring with the swan queen), The Letting Go is awash with melancholic melodic Southern rock and blues-folk, tunes that revolve around cursed love, child ghosts, and frosty wakes. Captured in Reykjavík and decorated with an image of Makapu’u beach on Oahu, The Letting Go doesn’t sound on the surface like the product of volcanic island ramblings and rumblings — but its lyrics do hint at the tragedy of believing that each man or woman is an island.
That’s why Oldham has gone out of his way to introduce performers like Newsom and McCarthy to his audiences. “Part of it is to reveal how interconnected things could be if you want them to be,” he explains with a soft Southern drawl. “Part of it is also, if the world isn’t going your way and there’s a certain amount always of loneliness to do battle with, sometimes you realize it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to be this solitary figure in the world.” The yearning to connect, this time with an old friend, surfaces in Old Joy, a film by Kelly Reichardt (River of Grass), which has caught praise on the festival circuit for its rapturously, deliberately paced meditation on two men’s slow-growth rambles through old-growth Oregon wilderness. Oldham’s first substantial starring role since Matewan (he most recently appeared in Junebug), his character, Kurt, is a slacker gone to seed, soon to be homeless, and still in search of his next high, his next life lesson, his next brush with grace. After helping Reichardt brainstorm hot-spring locales in Kentucky, the man who could have ended up like Macaulay Culkin or so many Coreys — and instead laid down the blueprint for, one imagines, Jenny Lewis — accepted the part. “I knew Kelly was going to be working in a way I like to work, which is just like a full immersion process,” he says, making the connection much as he pulls together Old Joy, his 1997 album, Joya (Drag City), Madonna, Emily Dickinson, and The Letting Go. “Everybody goes there. Everybody’s basically on call…. The line between tasks is a semipermeable membrane. That’s how I like making records too.” SFBG
BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY
With Dark Hand and Lamplight and Sir Richard Bishop
Oct. 30–31, 8 p.m.
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
For more on Will Oldham and Diddy, go to www.sfbayguardian.com/blogs/music.
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.
New fabulous intern Chris Cooney hit up DJ Bearded Lady’s new Tuesday night shindig, Chilidog (named after the Guardian’s second favorite sex act) at the Transfer in the Castro, and came back covered in buns. Check it out. All pics of cute gay boys by my favorite local artist “the legendary Darwin Bell” a.k.a “grandma with a camera” a.k.a “the Polaroid hemorrhoid” (just kidding, lover!) — Marke B.
Who could have predicted that by fall ‘06, the Transfer Bar would own the freshest lineup of dj nights in the Castro?
Bearded Lady puts on the dog
Most nightspot makeovers in the neighborhood end up a little like bad collagen shots, all shiny and soulless and musically cloned. There are plenty of new choices if you’re looking for a place to throw down cosmo’s and lipsync to the Black Eyed Peas on a video loop, because everyone loves a good pop remix, especially when the lyrics are easy to remember for drunk people. But too many bars packed with tv screens and boys singing about lovely lady lumps can be discouraging.
By Sarah Phelan
Former Biosphere 2 crew member Jane Poynter speaks with a endearing British accent, says “bloody” when she gets excited and believes the two-year-and twenty-minute-long project of which she was part, is “one of the most publicly misunderstood and undervalued projects” of the 20th century.”
Or 21st century, given that the impact of the project—a mini-version of Biosphere 1, or Planet Earth, involving four men and four women isolated in a three-acre glass and steel structure near Tucson—continues to elude people to this very day.
All of which add up to a whole bunch of reasons for heading out to Books Inc, 301 Castro Street, Mountain View at 7:30 pm October 13 or to Cody’s, 1730 4th Street, Berkeley, at 7 pm on October 14 to hear Poynter share what it was like on the inside, when she reads from her new book, The Human Experiment” Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2.
Poynter, who prepared for this two-year long stint by living in the Australian outback for six months and then on a research boat on the open seas, says Biosphere 2 was a seminal experience in which she quickly realized what is true for all of us, (but less obvious when your biosphere happens to be Planet Earth):
“Everything that I did daily affected my life support system, and vice versa. It made me realize how disconnected we are here in Biosphere 1, where technology keeps us comfortable and separate from the ravages of nature. In Biosphere 2, that separateness was broken down. I realized I was a cog in the biospheric wheel.”
One of her first priorities on remerging back into the regular world was to put her energies into a project that was big and positive, recalls Poynter of her decision, along with her crewmember/boyfriend and now husband, to develop an aerospace company.
“I’d done some reading and learned that some people who’ve been in isolation, like in Antarctica, commit suicide upon reentry, because they’ve had this seminal experience that no one else can understand and they’re also left with a ‘Now what?’ feeling,” she explains.
Faced with the specter of global warming, Poynter says it’s “very tragic that Biosphere 2 has been sitting empty without a mission for two years.” She now has fingers crossed that it will soon resume its role as effective research tool in the global climate arena.
As for why she decided to write her book now, Poynter says that for ten years her thoughts and experiences have been stewing inside.
“I wanted to put it all behind me, but when now I see misinformation about the project, out of its historic context. It irritated me. I want people to know that it involved an enormous amount of effort and intellectual prowess. It was a huge undertaking.”
It also led to a split in the crew, an event that, in hindsight, says Poynter, was predictable.
“One of the things that’s been shown to occur when people are in isolation and in small groups is that they split into factions. The folks at NASA say we were a textbook case. After a while, you run out of psychological energy and your inner values come to the surface.”
Those friendship rifts profoundly influenced how she runs her company in the present.
‘Taber, my husband, and I made a vow to make sure that the people we worked with got their fundamental needs met.”
As for comments that Biosphere 2 was Reality TV, before reality TV even existed, Poynter says, “On the surface, we were like Survivor, I guess, but we put hats over the camera lenses, we objected to having our private lives filmed, and we to some degree we were selected to get along with each other. In Reality TV, psychologists select people who won’t get along.”
As for the broken friendships she endured as a result of being on the inside of Biosphere 2, Poynter says she interviewed the crewmembers involved for the book and tried to be “very balanced” about what went down.
“I had a story, there were certain truths to be told, we didn’t all come out smelling like roses.”
As for the future, Poynter believes that Biosphere 2 “came bloody close to recreating Planet Earth. We showed it’s possible.”
She also believes that scaled-down versions will play a role in space exploration in centuries to come.
“It’s not necessarily about human destiny, but about life in general. Life sees a vacuum. Take Planet Mars. Maybe it once had life. Who knows? But now it’s waiting for more life to go fill it. Some people believe that it’s statistically likely that we’re going to destroy ourselves. But it’s probably a good idea to have back-up plan. Great things were learned from Biosphere 2. I really do hope it gets a third chance.”
It’s Friday the 13th — just the very day I like to dust off my hockey mask, hustle to the nearest lake, and start spearin’ feckless teenagers with every sharp object my mitts can grab.
Hooray for carnage! Tonight on Starz, the made-for-TV doc Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film machetes its way through the genre.
REVIEW When it premiered in New York two years ago, Sam Shepard’s latest play was timed to influence the outcome of the presidential election — an enticingly bold agenda. Of course, if you want to influence elections, as everybody understands by now, you need to be more than bold. You need to be Diebold. And anyway, what politician worries about what’s on an Off-Broadway stage? As political theater goes, Hugo Chávez calling George W. Bush the devil and sniffing out his sulfuric farts before the United Nations has much more oomph to it, in addition to getting at least as big a laugh. Chávez also backed up his warm-up zingers with a real political program. And he reads Noam Chomsky!
Two years and another flagrantly stolen election later, The God of Hell remains less interesting for any recyclable reference to the electoral contest between Democrats and Republicans (two packs squaring off again for dominance in the same corporate-owned kennel) than for the reflection in its bleak farce of something larger: an attempt to redraw the psychic and social landscape. Shepard’s ostensibly simple political broadside — whose call to alarm rings more with absurdist resignation than Brechtian defiance — has nonetheless a wily power curled up inside.
The play — sharply directed by Amy Glazer and leading off the 40th anniversary season of the Magic Theatre, Shepard’s old stomping ground — opens on the home of a dying breed: a Wisconsin dairy farmer and his wife. Emma (played with just the right suggestion of guileless good humor and native smarts by Anne Darragh) loves her indoor plants, which she compulsively waters to within an inch of their lives. Frank (John Flanagan), meanwhile, “loves his heifers,” as his affectionate wife readily explains to Frank’s old friend and their current houseguest, the jumpy and radioactive Graig Haynes (Jackson Davis), hiding from some unspecified disaster out west at a mysterious place called, in a name redolent of real-life nuclear disasters, Rocky Buttes. On the one hand, the couple looks primed to live happily heifer after. On the other, they appear stuck in a semiparadisial oasis amid unforgiving winter and a sea of agribusiness, isolated, alone, stoic, lonely, a little loony, and lost without knowing it — yet.
Emma is in the act of coaxing Haynes from the basement with some frying bacon when a stranger at the door interrupts her. As the pork sizzles, the man (Michael Santo), a business suit we later learn goes by the name Welch, appears to be selling a host of patriotic paraphernalia out of his attaché case. But his pushy demeanor quickly goes beyond the usual sales routine, his interest in Emma’s loyalty and her basement growing downright creepy, exuding an unctuousness and a sly arrogance that perfectly suggest the totalitarian turn in what Frank calls a “country of salesmen.” (Santo, whose face stretched into a thin grin bears an eerie resemblance to our real-life torturer-in-chief, is altogether perfect in the part.)
Shepard’s farmers, while purposefully cartoony, aren’t country bumpkins. Nor are they merely atavistic 1950s farmers, existing wholly in the past and detached from the present (as Welch, with telling condescension, likes to imagine them). Locally speaking, they are savvy and sure. (It’s no joke holding your own as an independent dairy farmer amid government-subsidized corporate behemoths.) Emma in particular is rooted to the very house itself, born on a patch of floor Hayes finds himself standing on at one point.
It’s the world beyond the farm and Wisconsin that the main couple find hard to grasp. In the play’s central irony, Frank and Emma tentatively mark the outer world by reference to a standard pop-cultural conspiracy narrative. But significantly, it’s just that laughable (at first) recourse to the formula of a TV thriller or sci-fi movie that points in the direction of the truth, helping Emma and Frank chart the terrain opened up by the arrival of Haynes and Welch. Long before his old friend resurfaces, Frank has already imagined for him, however vaguely, just the kind of intrigue and danger he turns out to have been undergoing. After passing the seeds of this narrative to his wife (who, as it were, dutifully overwaters them), Frank turns around and mocks her paranoia of government vehicles: “Dark cars. Suspicious. Tinted windows. Unmarked Chevies. Black antennas bowed over.” But we already know she’s right. The terrain of conspiracy, like the empire it limns, stretches in all directions, making borders meaningless except as a demagogic strategy in Welch’s fascist, state-centered patriotism.
The play invokes borders mainly to undermine, comically deflate, or cynically manipulate them. The overall and overwhelming implication is their irrelevance to an imperial might that recognizes no boundaries in the exercise of its will (things don’t need to escalate far before Welch threatens to send a bunker buster through Emma’s kitchen window). The vastness of the system confronting Emma and Frank comes across most dramatically in the unstoppable reach of plutonium — named after Pluto, the god of hell — which here serves as both a literal threat of the system and the ideal metaphor for its poisonous, apocalyptic reach. It’s this geography (real, metaphorical, potential) that the play wants us to pay attention to, since survival depends on some grasp of the lay of the land. SFBG
THE GOD OF HELL
Through Oct. 22
Tues.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.
Fort Mason Center, bldg. D, Buchanan at Marina, SF
REVIEW Tired of those battered punk-rock veterans of the hardcore years? You know, the geezers rocking in their thrift-store easy chairs, wheezing, “You had to be there — those were the days. I saw Darby when …” before heading to the acupuncturist? Can you help it that you never saw Flag back before My War? That you never tasted the ostracism that the real punks experienced?
No — and those born too late, after the jocks took over the mosh pit, will be thankful that none of the aforementioned ’tude is present in this exhaustive but not exhausting documentary by Paul Rachman and Steven Blush. The filmmakers’ cred is impeccable (Rachman directed music videos for Bad Brains, and Blush wrote Feral House tome American Hardcore: A Tribal History, upon which the film is based), and their resilience (the two toiled in true DIY style for five years on this sprawling document) allows them to rise above Johnny-slams-lately poseur status. And as historians, journalists, and cat wranglers, they deserve the highest praise meted out to those hoping to encapsulate a fired-up, barely containable, and truly grassroots DIY movement: they get the story mostly right.
The filmmakers conducted more than 100 interviews with key players in the US hardcore scene (as well as sundry head-scratchers like, um, visual artist Matthew Barney). My, does it show. Getting essential punkers like Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye, Bad Brains’ HR, Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris, Cro-Mags’ Harley Flanagan, and Black Flag’s Henry Rollins to party with the camera and to tell their own stories was the best possible move the filmmakers could have made. Their subjects look back with all the intelligence, humor, honesty, urgency, and perhaps surprising to some, subtlety that made them form their own bands, book their own tours, and put out their own music in the first place.
Within the first half hour, Rachman and Blush do the important work of politically contextualizing the 1980–86 wave of hardcore, connecting the dots between the “mourning in America” election of Ronald Reagan; an era that only appeared to offer the alternate balms of disco decadence and shallow sitcom kicks; and the rise of a disgusted and less-than-heard generation that produced more songs, posters, and agitprop railing against a sitting president than the world has seen … until Dubya. Few other recent music docs have been as refreshingly clear-cut — and cutting — about their politics, a direct reaction to an ’80s marked, as one commentator puts it, by a ’50s-style return of the “white man’s order.” In a sense, American Hardcore will be an education not only for kids bred on MTV-appropriated mall punk but for baby boomers convinced of Generation X’s apathy; a far-from-mellowed Vic Bondi (Articles of Faith) offers, “If you’re looking for radicalism in the 1980s, you should look at hardcore.” The film also gives adequate shrift to the pressures that shaped and perhaps ultimately destroyed the genre — for instance, the TV news–making melees between punks and the Los Angeles Police Department — drawing the line from those clashes and band names like, natch, Millions of Dead Cops (MDC).
Bristling with the energy of its music, fans, and grainy shots of men yelling into mics at rec centers, Kiwanis clubs, and random bunkers-turned-venues throughout the country, American Hardcore abounds with great moments. Rachman and Blush rightfully focus on the nexus between DC and LA — Minor Threat–Bad Brains and Black Flag–Circle Jerks — giving Bad Brains in particular, and notably the few black faces in a wash of pasties, their genuine due and eyeballing that straight-outta-an-unwritten-great-American-novel, Apollonian-Dionysian odd couple, MacKaye and Rollins. Though one wishes the filmmakers had snagged more and better live footage, American Hardcore can still claim such incredible, illustrative instances as that of the graying Rollins complaining today of all the crap he’d catch from audiences as Black Flag’s frontperson (remember the halcyon days when being in a punk band meant getting loogied on?) followed by archival images of Rollins onstage getting repeatedly pummeled by an audience member before the vocalist finally loses it and starts wailing back a hundredfold.
But even as the filmmakers display a real affection for their subject, they resist getting too nostalgic. Rachman and Blush don’t pull punches when it comes to fingering the sexism and violence in the scene — and go as far as to name names. Yet the filmmakers talk to too few women and apart from Bad Brains, too few players or observers of color: perhaps there’s no skewing reality, but for a scene that’s this politicized, it looks pretty pale and male.
Perhaps revealing their native predispositions and personal connections, the pair also give the Boston and NYC scenes far too much emphasis and they pointedly neglect the flyover zones. Where are Minneapolis’s Hüsker Dü and Texas’s Big Boys? And while Rachman and Blush get brownie points for their cultural-anthropological leanings and quirky side stories, they eventually fall down on exploring the music itself, its permutations, and its impact outside the rec rooms: do we get any inkling, for instance, of the fact that hardcore started to seep into the MTV mainstream with bands like Suicidal Tendencies?
When the scene finally peters to a close in ’86, Rachman and Blush chalk it up to fickle fans moving on with the trends — wither hair bands? — and stalwarts like MacKaye wearying of the fisticuffs, but there’s just as valid a case to be made for the music changing and artists evolving, as they so often inconveniently do. Black Flag morphed toward heavier, sludgier metal, Bad Brains embraced tradder Rasta sounds, and MacKaye broke it down, post-punk-style, with Fugazi. But perhaps that’s for the next installment: American Hardcore: the Metal/Grunge Years. SFBG
Opens Fri/13 in Bay Area theaters
I get a little nervous when I hear prominent Democratic leaders talking about how important it is to elect John Garamendi lieutenant governor. Republican Tom McClintock, his ugly-right Republican foe, is such bad news that he must be stopped; the checkbooks need to come out and the boots need to hit the ground.
I don’t disagree on one level — but the prospect of a bad lieutenant governor isn’t by any means the scariest thing that could happen in November. In fact, the prospect of another four years of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t the scariest thing. That designation is reserved for Proposition 90.
And the situation with Prop. 90 is pretty damn scary.
This is a measure that would effectively end the ability of state and local government to regulate business. It would prevent any new law reguutf8g rents or condo conversion. It would halt most new zoning (and would allow developers to build almost anything they want in Southeast San Francisco). It’s awful, awful, awful.
And right now, it’s way ahead in the polls.
There’s a reason for that: the right-wing backers have carefully hidden the worst of the measure behind language about halting the abuses of eminent domain. If you ask California voters whether the government should be able to seize someone’s house to hand it over to a private developer who wants to build a Wal-Mart, 90 percent of them will say no. And if we hit Nov. 7 and the majority of the electorate thinks of this proposition as a way to protect homeowners, it’s going to pass.
The No on 90 message is a bit more complicated. That’s the problem with this sort of Trojan horse initiative — it’s hard to explain why it’s bad in a 30-second sound bite. But it’s possible: every single public safety group in the state (cops, firefighters, etc.) is against it, as is every major environmental group and some of the big taxpayer-rights groups, who say it will cost the public a fortune and lead to bogus lawsuits.
Explain it right and the voters will get it — but in California, that’s a very expensive proposition.
The airwaves are choked with political TV ads right now. Schwarzenegger and Phil Angelides are beating each other up, the tobacco companies and the health industry are battling over the cigarette tax (Proposition 86), the oil companies and environmentalists are going at it over Proposition 87 — and needless to say, with all the numerical alphabet soup, the public’s attention is a bit scattered.
Without a really big splash in the next few weeks, it will be hard for No on 90 to be heard above the din.
The campaign isn’t by any means floundering. The two main No on 90 committees have raised more than $3 million and have about half of that still in the bank. But $1.5 million isn’t going to be enough to make the case in a huge state where TV time is really expensive.
Most of the money right now comes from political action committees controlled by the League of California Cities, the State Association of Counties, and a few well-heeled businesses. But everyone needs to step up here; all these Democrats who have big stashes of money (Carole Migden, John Burton, etc.) need to get on the stick before we run out of time. SFBG
Well, this comes as absolutely no surprise. As the Hollywood Reporter noted today, Newmarket Films is running into difficulties with the distribution of Death of a President. The Toronto International Film Festival hit — which imagines the assassination of President George W. Bush, and all the Cheney-led chaos and freedom-crackdowns that follow — will not be playing at the nation’s largest theater chain, Regal Cinemas. Nor will it be opening at any theaters operated by Cinemark USA, the company that just took over the Century chain (including the brand-new SF Centre, so nope, you won’t be slidin’ on their swanky faux-leather seats while you watch the Prez eat a lead sandwich).
Fortunately, the made-for-British-TV faux-doc will be coming to the Bay Area no matter what — look for Death of a President at one of San Francisco’s Landmark Theatres starting Oct 27. Though I had mixed feelings about the film (loved its shocking concept, ehh on its second-act slowdown) I’m glad to see it’s getting attention (although, come on — like this movie is just gonna casually saunter into theaters?) Too bad this smaller release means it might well end up preaching to the choir — as so many politically-themed docs (or faux-docs, as the case may be) do, tending to open only in cities already rollin’ in art-houses and progressive audiences.
Once upon a time, a fair number of people, heartened by the Sexual Revolution and the corresponding collapse of censorship in movies, thought porn was just the preliminary phase to the next obvious step: soon, they assumed, mainstream films would also have real, explicit sex.
The last time anybody thought that was probably 1975 — or if really stoned, 1977. But for a while there, that wild idea seemed not only possible but inevitable. Deep Throat pretty much closed the obscenity conviction book on consenting adults watching adult content in public venues. Hugely successful mainstream films such as Carnal Knowledge and Last Tango in Paris seemed to be tearing down the last “good taste” barriers protecting viewers from having frank discussions about sex and its explicit simulation.
The wide-open ’70s offered a variety of liberated lifestyle choices. Cities had singles bars and sex clubs; the suburbs had hot tubs. Top 40 radio was smirking “Mama’s Got a Squeeze Box” and “More, More, More.” Even network TV had gone raunchy with “jiggle” shows (Charlie’s Angels) and odd one-off leering atrocities like the 1979 Playboy Roller Disco Pajama Party. In the midst of all this sex, sex, sex, it seemed a logical end point would be the total de-shaming of America. Fuck movies would become “real” ones, and “real” movies would include fucking.
Who could imagine how far back the pendulum would swing? Porn would survive, but it and sex would retreat behind closed doors. These days the annual art house succes de scandale, like Brown Bunny and Baise-Moi, is invariably depressing and negative.
Ergo, it is worth all kinds of cheering that somebody has finally made that movie. The one that has talented actors having plot-relevant and unfaked sex, that is beautiful, touching, funny, and artistic enough to be one of the best films of the year. It’s John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, which knows exactly how anomalous it is and where it fits into the current zeitgeist. (The most quotable line occurs when one character surveys an orgiastic scene: “It’s like the ’60s but with less hope.”) Mitchell is defiant enough to create hope, even his own zeitgeist if need be.
Cute New York City gay couple the “two Jamies” (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy) are considering spicing up their routine, so they consult sex therapist Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee). In a frazzled moment, she admits she’s never had an orgasm, something she’s never told her husband (Raphael Barker). These questing characters intersect with others at the sex party held regularly at chez Justin Bond (with the performer playing himself).
Shortbus finds narrative room for stalking, attempted suicide, three-ways, and every numeral on the Kinsey Scale. Yet the film never feels cluttered or sensational. In fact, its openhearted seriocomedy (the script is a collaboration between Hedwig and the Angry Inch writer-director Mitchell and the cast) integrates sex so fully into a plaintive, affirmative call for communality that shock value is only intermittent — and deliberately funny when it occurs.
Will Shortbus occasion new local obscenity challenges? Probably not. But 40 years ago, censorship battles were a constant source of news and box-office draw. Before the United States graduated from softcore to hardcore, with many court decisions en route, the hot spot for all things smutty was several thousand safe yet alluring miles away.
This passing rage for cinematic “sin” from parts North will be chronicled by SF-to-Denmark émigré Jack Stevenson at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this week. He’ll present three programs (a clip show and features Venom and Without a Stitch) during “Swinging Scandinavia: How Nordic Sex Cinema Conquered the World.”
It really did. This “myth of total sexual freedom” — as put forth in Stevenson’s book Totally Uncensored!, due in 2007 — was particularly seductive to uptight Americans. By and large, Sweden and Denmark enjoyed remarkably progressive social attitudes at the time. After preliminary taboo-nudging efforts, one dam broke with I, a Woman, a notorious tell-all turned into a show-all (by 1966 standards) portrait of the sexually restless “new woman.” It grossed an astonishing $4 million in the United States alone. But that was nothing compared to I Am Curious (Yellow), a Godardian “kaleidoscope” of hard-to-separate documentary, improv, and staged elements encompassing all the era’s sexual, political, and intellectual questionings. Finally allowed to screen in America (over 18 months after its late-1967 Stockholm premiere), it was probably the most-seen and most-loathed crossover hit prior to The Blair Witch Project — similarly drawing audiences who expected familiar genre exploitation but got something much rawer and more challenging.
A whole series of Danish porn comedies and angsty Swedish sex dramas continued to be churned out until the mid-’70s. The Scandis had brought down many original barricades: Torgny Wickman’s 1969 Language of Love (which Robert de Niro takes Cybill Shepherd to see in Taxi Driver) might be the first commercial feature to show unobscured intercourse. But they soon found themselves intellectually bored and pushed aside marketwise by the expanded allowance for soft- and hardcore production elsewhere. The yahoos (us folks) had won by simultaneously commercializing and marginalizing the Sex Rev. SFBG
Opens Fri/6 in Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com for showtimes
“SWINGING SCANDINAVIA: HOW NORDIC SEX CINEMA CONQUERED THE WORLD”
Thurs/5, 7:30 p.m.; Sat/7, 7 and 9 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
KGO-TV news reporter Dan Noyes and producer Beth Rimbey have been trying for the last 15 months to acquire copies of San Francisco’s disaster plans from the Office of Emergency Services. Despite firm deadlines set by the city’s Sunshine Ordinance and public promises made by Mayor Gavin Newsom and OES chief Annemarie Conroy, not all of the requested documents have been released.
In fact, OES officials won’t even talk to KGO anymore.
“We’re only allowed to speak to the Mayor’s Office,” Rimbey said at a Sept. 26 Sunshine Ordinance Task Force hearing on the issue. “We’re not allowed to speak to OES. They won’t take our phone calls. They won’t do interviews.”
KGO’s complaints were heard by the task force members but not by OES officials: they failed to send a representative to the meeting because they say they feel threatened by Noyes, according to Jennifer Petrucione of the Mayor’s Office of Communications, who was in attendance.
“Frankly, I think that’s a very specious argument for not coming to address the complaint,” said task force member Rick Knee, citing the open forum of the meeting, public setting, and security of City Hall. “I don’t see that as a valid excuse for not attending.”
“With all due respect, I disagree,” Petrucione responded. According to her, staffers from the OES — the agency charged with responding to terrorist attacks and natural disasters — feel threatened and have filed complaints with the Department of Human Resources, citing a work environment made hostile by Noyes.
“The only thing that could be viewed as hostile was asking them questions they weren’t comfortable answering,” Kevin Keeshan, vice president of KGO, told the Guardian. He said all the incidents of concern were documented on videotape, which he reviewed and invited the complaining parties to watch. He saw no violations and has heard nothing further from the city on the issue.
He, Noyes, and Rimbey haven’t heard anything about the city’s plan in the event of an earthquake or a terrorist attack either. Rimbey said she thinks there is no plan and the city has been stalling until there is one. “It’s frightening. There are people who are deeply disturbed about emergencies in the city,” she said.
Officials have said plans are under internal review and being updated and will be turned over to the media as soon as possible. Over the past few months, KGO has received some copies of disaster plans, but they either appear to be 10 to 15 years old and adorned with new covers or are so heavily redacted that they’re just black pages, according to Noyes.
A prior task force hearing ruled that information had been unnecessarily redacted from several plans. The task force asked the Mayor’s Office to review the documents with a mind toward more openness. Petrucione said it followed new guidelines recommended by the City Attorney’s Office during a long and laborious process spanning several weeks. Those six documents were released Sept. 22 with many redactions still in place.
“I have a lot of problems with the redactions that were made,” said task force member Erica Craven.
Another member, David Pilpel, cited his personal favorite: the name of former governor Pete Wilson, which Pilpel was able to deduce from a subsequent page where it hadn’t been redacted.
“Why redact at all?” asked Noyes at the meeting. “Look at San Jose’s plan. It’s online for everyone to see,” he said. The city of San Jose makes the case that the first responders to an emergency are the citizens, who must be informed. Therefore, its entire emergency plan is posted on the Web.
The task force ruled that the OES was in violation and member Marjorie Ann Williams took a moment to say her concern went beyond the office’s withholding of documents. “This is a very, very serious issue,” she said about the city not having a plan. “We need to get on this and take it to heart.”
The Mayor’s Office and the OES were given five days to release all the documents, although the SOTR has little ability to enforce its rulings. As of Oct. 2, KGO had received nothing. In June, the Guardian made a similar request for documents and has also received nothing. The OES did not return repeated phone calls for comment on this story. (Amanda Witherell)
A poodle-permed Rosie O’Donnell horrifying John Ritter? John Walsh in full effect? It’s all in a day’s tele-trawling for Derrick Beckles, aka Pinky, of TV Carnage. Beckles recently agreed to talk about the madness behind his method for this week’s cover story on pixel piracy.
Pinky, some of us here have a crush.
Guardian: Earlier this week I was showing the Rosie O’Donnell meets John Ritter part of Sore from Sighted Eyes to another writer at the Guardian and she was crying from laughter. How did you fall into making the TV Carnage videos, and how much time goes into crafting one? I’d imagine it takes more than a while to put one of your comps together.
Derrick Beckles: It’s a multi-leveled task of insanity. I moved recently, but I have mounds and mounds and shelves and shelves of tapes. Stuff I’ve been taping off of TV with a VCR. It’s not so much that I’m always in front of the TV set. I’d just say that I have this divining rod for shit. I just have these psychic premonitions when I turn my TV on.
I have years and years of footage, and some stuff that is more subtle. I pull all of it into my computer and have this mountain of footage there and say, “Now what?” Then I take a swig of whiskey and go, “You’ve got yourself into it again.” I’ll start randomly piecing things together. Sometimes I have a bit of theme already decided on, and other times it comes to me as I go. After that, it takes over my life, and I do its bidding as long as it takes. I have no idea how long each compilation is going to take. The process ends up being a good portion of a year at least.
New York City band Grizzly Bear’s gently ambient Yellow House (Warp) manages to delicately conjure bittersweet associations of musty, memory-cluttered childhood homes and reference Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist-modernist novel The Yellow Wall-Paper — but the real household dirt on this band has to remain in one’s imagination.
Vocalist-keyboardist-guitarist-autoharpist Edward Droste is up-front about his own sexuality — saying he’s been in a relationship with one man for most of the band’s existence — but when it comes to the love lives of his straight mates, the sometime journalist and Pro Tools bedroom recordist is the soul of discretion. Grizzly Bear’s tales of random hookups are just “too dirty” to pass along, he explains on the phone from the East Coast college campus where the group is playing before joining the TV on the Radio tour in October. “I usually bond with the girls,” says Droste, 27, miming his role as the band’s father confessor. “It’s cool — we’re leaving town. But it’s totally cool.”
And a certain ethereal cool marks the foursome’s gorgeous soundscapes, now lifted above the tape-hiss fray of their fake-fur-embellished 2004 debut, Horn of Plenty (Kanine; later reissued in 2005 with a CD of remixes by Dntel, the Soft Pink Truth, Final Fantasy, and Solex). Yellow House sounds warm and welcoming, thanks to the production prowess of the band’s brass and woodwinds player Chris Taylor and the recording site: Droste’s mother’s Boston-area home, the yellow house of the disc’s title. The seductive tug of nostalgia takes over as Beach Boys–style harmonies skate over fingerpicked acoustic guitar and strings, bird chirps, and wah-wah pedal flit together on “Little Brother.” Horns lumber alongside busy insectlike electronics and Droste’s and guitarist Daniel Rossen’s cooing vocals during “Plans.” By the time the album breaks into “Marla” — a slowed-down, strings-swathed dusky dirge based on a 1930s-era tune penned by Droste’s great-aunt of the same name, a failed singer who eventually drank herself to death — resistance becomes futile. This is seriously lovely music, a reflection of the group’s recent communal music-making — and far removed from groupie dish.
“Initially, we wanted to record an album before we had a label and didn’t have any money,” recalls Droste, who shares the name of the Hooters cofounder, a distant relation. “My mom was going to be away, it was my old childhood home, and I was, like, ‘Well, we can all have our own bedrooms, record in the living room, and there’s a backyard, and every night we’d have chips and salsa and beer.’”
The laid-back atmosphere and ensuing musical productivity led to a bidding frenzy among indie labels when the recordings emerged, and now Droste is relaxing into a tour schedule that brings him back to San Francisco for the first time since February 2005, when Grizzly Bear — jokingly named after a Droste boyfriend who was anything but — played the Eagle Tavern. How did Droste’s hetero bandmates handle the attentions of SF’s finest bears — and those of the bandleader himself?
“They’re total cock teases. They love attention from boys, but they never do anything,” Droste offers laconically. “Never say never, but I kind of feel like if you’re hanging with me in New York City and there are a million fags everywhere and dozens of opportunities … I’m just gonna drop it and accept the fact.” (Kimberly Chun)
Fri/29, 9 p.m.
628 Divisadero, SF
SONIC REDUCER Which John Lennon did you know? Initially, I was too young to know him as anything more than the moptop behind the chipped bobble-headed garage-sale find — and as one of the songwriters behind my parental units’ token soft-rock gatefold, the Beatles’ Love Songs (Capitol, 1977) (the “White Album”’s “acid rock,” as Moms described it, went way beyond the pale). That’s all the Lennon I could grasp until the Rolling Stone cover pic that accompanied news of his 1980 murder — that coverlineless image picturing a nude Lennon fetally curled around a clothed Yoko Ono. If you dug the raw romanticism of that Annie Leibovitz image and Lennon’s 10-point program to success, excess, then bread-baking, Sean-rearing semiretired rock-star redemption, then you were with us. If you didn’t and you were disgusted, you weren’t — go hang with the Yoko-booing minions at, say, the recent Elvis Costello–Alan Toussaint Paramount show. It was that simple when you were an already media-saturated brat ready to draw battle lines and take pop music dead seriously.
Nowadays, the very undead but still much-pondered Bob Dylan may inspire a higher page count than Lennon when it comes to critical essays, encyclopedias, and that ilk. But I’d venture that Lennon’s influence continues to echo subtly through the culture, starting with the recommended banishing of “Imagine” from Clear Channel airwaves shortly after 9/11 and continuing through to some recent docs, DVDs, and dispatches from his estate.
Ignore the critically mauled 2005 musical Lennon and don’t wait for a Martin Scorsese PBS-approved documentary treatment — though, oh, to glimpse Abel Ferrera’s charred take on Lennon’s Bad Lieutenant–style “lost weekend” with Harry Nilsson. For somewhat unvarnished, intimate footage of Lennon with Ono in their Ascot, England, estate studio and shooting hoops with Miles Davis, check Gimme Some Truth: The Making of John Lennon’s “Imagine” (2000) — the material of Lennon warbling “Jealous Guy” and trianguutf8g in the studio with a very active Ono and a stoic Phil Spector is eye-cleansing.
After sampling Lennon and Ono’s frank BBC interview there, you’ll want even more truth — so turn to last year’s The Dick Cavett Show: John and Yoko Collection DVD, which collects three 1971–72 episodes featuring the gabby couple. It encompasses some of Lennon’s most in-depth US TV interviews, as the relaxed, wise-cracking musician sparred and jabbed with the clearly nervous and very deeply tanned Cavett in between sizable excerpts of Ono’s great Fly and Lennon’s Erection, a cinematic “construct” if there ever was one. Even more astounding than Cavett’s half-baked monologues are the lengthy stretches of airtime devoted to Lennon and Ono explaining their 1972 deportation case — one suspects even Jon Stewart would yelp, “TMI!” — and the pair’s impassioned, controversial performance of “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” (worth it alone to Bay Area–philes when Lennon pulls out a Ron Dellums quote to back up the lyrics) and Ono’s still-nervy, saxed-up “We’re All Water.” The versions of Lennon visible here are familiar and complementary — John as the willful dreamer and the provocative righter of wrongs, be it the plight of American Indians or the lack of consideration given Ono’s art. And one wonders, will network TV ever be quite this maddening — and challenging — again?
Scenes from both The Dick Cavett Show: John and Yoko Collection and Gimme Some Truth surface in The US vs. John Lennon, a new feature film revealing the latest Lennon iteration: the musician as a political animal hounded by the Nixon administration and threatened with deportation. Lennon considered a peace-promoting concert tour following Nixon’s reelection jaunt around the country — and posed a serious enough threat to Tricky Dicky, in the very year millions of 18-year-old Beatles fans were given the vote for the first time, that the US government moved to stop him. Focusing on Lennon’s significance as an activist who devoted his personal life (transforming the Lennon-Ono honeymoon into the peacenik, media-lovin’ bed-in) and considerable platform to antiwar efforts, filmmakers David Leaf and John Scheinfeld (Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of “Smile”) worked with documents released as a result of a Freedom of Information Act suit (aided and abetted by Jon Weiner, who consulted and wrote Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files) to make their film. Supported by commentators ranging from Ono and Noam Chomsky to Angela Davis and G. Gordon Liddy, the two have fashioned a sleek, informative primer on the importance of being Lennon and the historical context he emerged from. The only images they wish they had included but didn’t, Leaf told me, were World War II pictures of a bomb-besieged Liverpool and war-torn Japan.
“What’s important to note is that being for peace meant more than being nonviolent for John and Yoko,” he explained from an office in Century City. “This was in their bones, if you will. John saw firsthand what war caused.”
Leaf and his partner have had the film in mind since the mid-’90s, when Lennon’s FBI file was opened. After the disappointments of 2004, it’s intoxicating to imagine an artist and his listeners changing history, and at the very least The US vs. John Lennon allows one to dream, even briefly. Why was Lennon such a menace? “I think what terrifies power the most is truth,” Leaf says. “When truth is spoken without fear of consequence, it is threatening, and when John and Yoko embarked on their campaign for peace, they weren’t promoting themselves or a record but peace or nonviolence.” SFBG
THE US VS. JOHN LENNON
Opens Fri/29 in Bay Area theaters
See Movie Clock at www.sfbg.com
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.
Dick Fucking Cheney is uncensored and exceptionally ornery in Bryan Boyce’s short video America’s Biggest Dick, which someone other than Boyce posted to YouTube, where it’s gotten 18,000 views and counting. The popularity of the clip isn’t surprising — it’s fucking great. In putting together this week’s cover story about TV tweak tactics, I recently spoke with Boyce — who will be showing new work at Other Cinema soon — about many of his videos. We also talked about the Wiener Dog National Championships.
Guardian: Can you tell me a bit about when you first began working with TV footage?
Bryan Boyce: Back when I was in college the way I would learn a new editing system was with televangelists – Robert Tilton in particular. He just lends himself to all the extremes of the system, such as “How do you make something play backward?”.