Ben Terrall

Shaking the city


LIT Activist, writer, and fast-talking leftist public intellectual Chris Carlsson, cofounder of the monthly bike happening Critical Mass, spearheads the online local history repository Shaping San Francisco. I recently spoke with Carlsson about Shaping SF and his associated projects, including three collections of cultural and political essays published by City Lights Books, the most recent of which, Ten Years that Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-1978, will be released June 15.

Carlsson began work on Shaping SF — a multimedia digital history project — in 1994 with co-conspirators from his often hilarious dissident magazine Processed World.

Reclaiming San Francisco: History , Politics, Culture, edited by James Brook, Carlsson, and Nancy Peters, was published in conjunction with the first CD and kiosk release of Shaping SF in early 1998. The collection of essays sets the tone for what would become, in Carlsson’s words, “an ongoing series of contrarian history anthologies about San Francisco.”

The second book in the series, The Political Edge (2004), examines cultural and political dynamics behind the popular mobilization to elect Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez, a surprisingly close mayoral race that Gavin Newsom won in part with massive support from the San Francisco Chronicle and the national Democratic Party.

Carlsson says Ten Years that Shook the City continues his work “to counter our amnesiac culture.” More specifically, the book takes on the argument that the 1960s were filled with experiments that didn’t work out. Carlsson told me that evidence to the contrary “has systematically been flushed down the toilet” by mainstream commentators.

The book begins with a remembrance of the 1968 San Francisco State College strike, but in his introduction Carlsson writes: “From today’s organic food and community gardening movements to environmental justice, gay rights, and other social identity movements, neighborhood anti-gentrification efforts, and much more, the 1970s are the years when transformative social values burrowed deeply into society.”

In more than 30 years of activism, he also has crossed paths with many who became contributors to the series. Carlsson recalls when he attended an anti-nuclear rally in 1979 and was handed a flyer from a group called the “Union of Concerned Commies.” The leaflet featured a drawing of the White House with nuclear cooling towers on either wing, done by veteran underground cartoonist Jay Kinney. Kinney contributed one of the most entertaining pieces in Ten Years, a short history of underground comix (in a move below mainstream radar, “comics” became “comix”).

Former Guardian staffer Rachel Brahinsky contributed a heart-wrenching look at the (ongoing) African American exodus from the City by the Bay in the wake of the neighborhood-destroying process officially called “urban renewal.” In the chapter that follows Brahinsky’s, veteran organizer Calvin Welch describes further tenant victories in the creation of what he refers to as “the community housing movement.”

Carlsson’s chapter, “Ecology Emerges,” parallels a series of green history talks of the same name held this year at Counterpulse, Shaping SF’s home base at 1310 Mission St. Carlsson links the 1990s emergence of the environmental justice movement to David Brower, especially the more radical work Brower began when he left the Sierra Club and cofounded Friends of the Earth in 1969. Brower felt Greens should be antiwar, and was keen on making connections between movements. The ecologically-minded individuals and groupings Carlsson highlights also shared a disinterest in becoming a permanent cheering section for Democrats, working instead to keep pressure building from below.

I asked Carlsson for his take on the Obama administration’s announced plans to allow the mining of millions, possibly billions, of tons of coal on public lands.

“Obama was supported from the beginning by Big Finance an Big Coal,” Carlsson responded. He has never shown any indication he is anything but their front man. His lack of imagination on the energy crisis, the economic crisis, the military-empire crisis, and the social crisis is nothing less than remarkable.”


Thurs/2, 7 p.m., free

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus, SF

(415) 362-8193


Call of the grisly


LIT With volumes devoted to numerous U.S. cities and quite a few foreign capitals, it sometimes seems as if Akashic Books’ expanding line of noir story anthologies will wind up covering virtually every major metropolis on earth. Because less gritty burgs like Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and Phoenix all have entries in the crime fiction series, it’s only fair that Mexico City gets a nod.

Akashic must be commended for waiting several years until the great novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II agreed to take on editing duties for Mexico City Noir (Akashic Books, 250 pages, $15.95). Taibo, who was born in Spain but has lived in Mexico since 1958, is the author of wildly entertaining and internationally successful mysteries that push the genre’s boundaries in interesting directions. In addition to a dense biography of Che Guevara, he has written a doorstop-size book about Pancho Villa that should have been translated into English years ago.

In his introduction to Mexico City Noir, Taibo describes the capital city as having “the most corrupt police force on the planet.” (A recent guidebook cites research showing that 13 percent of the megacity’s incarcerated population are veterans of the police corps.) Taibo writes of the corruption and mayhem sewn by members and ex-members of “security” forces: “If you’re lucky, you can stay away from it, you can keep your distance … until, suddenly, without a clear explanation of how, you fall into the web and become trapped.” He concludes, “You wake up in the morning with the uneasy feeling that the law of probabilities is working against you.” If that’s not noir, what the hell is?

The stories Taibo assembles shine a harsh light on systematic injustice and dire poverty amid, as Taibo puts it, “an economic crisis that’s been going on for 25 years.” Among the book’s highlights are a street drunk who may have witnessed a police killing, a demented priest with some unsavory urges, and plenty of street-level contemplation of the violence of everyday life. There’s also enough grisly narco-related mayhem to satisfy fans of the Saw movie franchise (assuming they can read).

But while stateside crime fiction often achieves such levels of violence at the expense of a moral center, and rarely works on more than one fairly obvious (if lucrative) level, these short stories are rooted in rage at the injustice that permeates life in Mexico City. The sometimes experimental narratives lay out the harsh socioeconomic realities of post-NAFTA Mexico, where the less-than-magical realism of the market makes the rich richer and the poor poorer — and the U.S.-backed drug war provides plenty of bad men with more guns. The warped humor here, especially in Taibo’s contribution about the struggle for the soul of an embattled street corner, is part of the survival mechanism of people who have seen too much of life at its worst but must keep laughing anyway.

Akashic is complementing the release of Mexico City Noir by reissuing The Uncomfortable Dead (Akashic Books, 268 pages, $15.95), the novel Taibo wrote in collaboration with Zapatista spokesperson and strategist Subcommandante Marcos. In an interview included as part of the new edition’s supplementary materials, Taibo describes the frenetic pace at which he and Marcos wrote alternate chapters for serialization in Mexican paper La Jornada, for a total of 12 chapters over 12 weeks. That ongoing deadline pressure has produced a giddy read, and if it doesn’t deliver the kind of straightforward narrative and tight plotting that U.S. mystery readers look for, the literary pyrotechnics of these two impressive wordsmiths offer undeniable pleasures that eschew formulaic predictability.

Taibo’s chapters feature his Coca-Cola-and-tobacco-addled, one-eyed detective Hector Belascoarn Shayne on the trail of a murderer named Morales. Marcos in turn writes about a Zapatista investigator named Elias, who is also searching for a man named Morales. The two stories wind up intersecting in a sometimes surreal jumble in Mexico City, where, in Taibo’s words, there are “more movie theatres than Paris, more abortions than London, and more universities than New York.”

The 1968 Mexico City police massacre of student activists is a key reference point in both books. That bloody repression was clearly a watershed period for Taibo and Marcos, profoundly influencing both of them. In the early 1980s, Marcos went south to Chiapas and joined the guerrillas who evolved into Zapatistas. Taibo became a history professor at the Metropolitan University of Mexico City and president of the International Association of Political Writers; He also went on to write ‘68, a memoir of sorts available in English from Seven Stories Press, and the experimental novel Calling All Heroes: A Manual for Taking Power (which features a survivor of the 1968 police massacres who enlists the aid of his childhood heroes Sherlock Holmes, Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and D’Artagnan to help him in a new reform movement) just reprinted by local publisher PM Press.

Both Taibo and Marcos retained their radical politics and commitment to class struggle. They also share a fondness for absurdist humor, and both display an endearing willingness to laugh at themselves. Self-effacing humor is not a trait one usually associates with committed leftists, alas. The writing of Taibo and Marcos is a fine corrective to the unfortunate association of strident humorlessness with radical activism.

Time travel


LIT Sometimes when I’m bored walking around Union Square, I wonder how many of the well-heeled white guys heading toward the Financial District are really criminal types who should be followed. Say, maybe some higher-up at Wells Fargo or Citigroup who helped rip off thousands through subprime loans before getting a nice slice of that sweet Wall Street bailout money.

When I’m feeling that way, I’m under the influence of a seminal 20th century writer who spent his most productive years in San Francisco. Here’s a passage that sends me there:

She walked on down Post Street to Kearny, stopping, stopping every now and then to look — or to pretend to look — in store windows; while I ambled along sometimes beside her, sometimes, almost by her side, and sometimes in front.

She was trying to check the people around her, trying to determine whether she was being followed or not. But here, in the busy part of town, that gave me no cause for worry. On a less crowded street it might have been different, though not necessarily so.

There are four rules for shadowing: Keep behind your subject as much as possible; never try to hide from him; act in a natural manner no matter what happens; and never meet his eye. Obey them, and, except in unusual circumstances, shadowing is the easiest thing that a sleuth has to do.

The narrator so hep to the ways of the tail is Dashiell Hammett’s “Continental Op,” an operative for the fictional Continental Detective Agency, whose adventures in print include some of Hammett’s finest San Francisco tales.

Don Herron’s walking tour of landmarks associated with Hammett’s time in San Francisco is well worth making for anyone curious about the history of the author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, who helped create hardboiled crime fiction and was one its greatest practitioners. At three to four hours of often hilly trekking, it’s a bit of a commitment, but at $10, it’s an affordable way to engage in the next best thing to time travel.

Herron, author of books about pulp actioneer Robert Howard and noir craftsman Charles Willeford, has been informally conducting the tour for three decades. It started in 1977 as part of a “free college” known as Communiversity. The Dashiell Hammett Tour: Thirtieth Anniversary Guidebook (2009), which updates earlier versions, is a nifty package that belongs on the shelf of any self-respecting San Francisco denizen with a passion for our city’s often twisted past. It’s a lively combination of biographical material about Hammett, assorted related trivia that never seems trivial, and Herron’s memories from 30 years of accompanying a broad spectrum of writers, fans, and eccentrics through the former stomping grounds of Hammett and his fictional creations.

The tour starts near the former site of the San Francisco Library Main Branch, now the Asian Art Museum. In an era of economic collapse papered over with massive subsidies to the same financial entities that brought us to collapse in the first place, lessons from earlier belt-tightening eras are useful. Hence it’s only appropriate to tip our fedoras to the memory of an autodidact left-winger who never finished high school but, by devoting years to reading in public libraries, got a better education than most who did. Though Hammett was making good money from writing crime fiction by the late 1920s, when he lived at 620 Eddy St. in the early 1920s, he couldn’t afford books and the library was a lifeline. The 1923 photo on page 66 of the guidebook, of what Heron calls “Hammett’s Reading Room” in the old main library branch at 200 Larkin St., is a beaut.

When Hammett and his family lived at 620 Eddy, their landlady was a bootlegger. Hammett’s wife later recalled cops rousting people in front of their window to the street. As Herron notes, today’s prohibition on hard drugs is about as effective at deterring users as the earlier one on alcohol, and equally effective at creating endless business opportunities for motivated entrepreneurs. If you’re not legally blind and are paying any attention at all, it’s likely you may see one or two such enterprising businesspeople on the streets of the Hammett tour. It’s also a safe bet they might bear a resemblance to the Continental Op’s self-description: “My face doesn’t scare children, but it’s a more or less truthful witness to a life that hasn’t been overburdened with refinement and gentility.”

The 1920s in San Francisco were wild, wide-open years full of fast living and dodgy characters. The late venerable columnist Herb Caen wrote of the period: “The Hall of Justice was dirty and reeked of evil. The City Hall, the D.A., and the cops ran the town as though they owned it, and they did … You could play roulette in the Marina, shoot craps on O’Farrell, play poker on Mason, and get rolled at 4 a.m. in a bar on Eddy.”

Hammett toiled on his used Underwood typewriter late into the night, creating characters and stories based on what he’d seen in that milieu. During World War I, he contracted both Spanish influenza and tuberculosis. When his TB got so bad that it was hazardous to the health of his wife and baby to maintain a family abode, he moved out and lived in a succession of apartments, including one up the hill from Eddy Street at 891 Post St., at the corner of Hyde. In a corner apartment on the fourth floor of that building, Hammett pounded out his first three novels. If you’re lucky, on Herron’s tour you’ll be buzzed in and get to see where Hammett typed, ate, drank, and smoked furiously — and sometimes pulled down the Murphy bed to sleep. The apartment of The Maltese Falcon‘s tough detective Sam Spade was based on the snug little dwelling.

The current occupant is Bill Arney, an architect and Hammett fan. When he showed the tour I was on around the small one-bedroom unit, I noticed a great compilation of “crime jazz,” soundtrack music from black and white crime movies and TV shows, on top of a pile of CDs. Appropriate, since Arney serves as announcer for the Noir City film festival local mover and shaker Eddie Muller puts on at the Castro Theatre every January.

Hammett left a permanent mark on San Francisco. Specifically, on the block-long street that used to be called Monroe, which runs south off Pine in the block between Powell and Stockton. From what is now called Dashiell Hammett Street, walk east on Bush and on the right, at Burritt Street, just before the Stockton tunnel overpass, ponder the plaque that reads: ON APPROXIMATELY THIS SPOT/MILES ARCHER,/PARTNER OF SAM SPADE,/WAS DONE IN BY/BRIGID O’SHAUGHNESSY.

We are lucky to be in a city that commemorates one of its most accomplished past local residents with a plaque honoring a killing that was a product of that writer’s imagination. *

MORE ON SFBG.COM: Johnny Ray Huston’s illustrated look at the Vertigo tour


St. Elvis?


TV BIOPIC The John Carpenter-directed biopic Elvis hit network TV airwaves in 1979, ironically enough in the same time slot as that slice of Deep South Americana Gone With the Wind (1939). The Big E had expired just two years previously, and Elvis worship was in full flower. The TV movie thus squeezed out the Gable-Leigh epic to take top spot in the nation’s hearts, for that night anyway.

Released in March on DVD in its full three-hour glory, Elvis was put together by Dick Clark’s production company, which apparently wanted a fairly by-the-numbers hagiography. Kurt Russell does a credible job of capturing the curled lip and intonation of the humble country boy who wore flashy clothes and mixed white country, black blues, and various pop influences until he hit the big time.

Screenwriter Anthony Lawrence worked on several of Elvis’ less than groundbreaking Hollywood vehicles, including Roustabout (1964) and Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966). Lawrence also penned scripts for both The Outer Limits and Medical Center, which might be even better qualifications for writing about someone who had as many problems with impulse control as Presley.

But, alas, the life we see is oddly squeaky clean. We see nary a caffeine tablet eaten. Lawrence depicts Elvis remaining fairly chaste while waiting to find his true love Priscilla (Season Hubley), not to mention during the additional time spent waiting for her to mature to legal marrying age. (For those jaded souls who need something a bit more salacious, e.g. the skinny on the King’s thing with Tura Satana, check out Alanna Nash’s recent Baby, Let’s Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him.)

We see Elvis the seeker reading a passage from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet aloud to Priscilla, but nowhere is there a shot of his other favorite bedside reading, The Physicians’ Desk Reference. According to Elvis biographer Bobbie Ann Mason, he used said volume “like a shopping catalog.”

We do get Shelley Winters as Elvis’ beloved mother Gladys, surely one of the oddest casting choices in the Carpenter ouevre. The black wig Winters sports made me think of Divine, which in turn reminded me of how much more fun I had watching the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll cutting up in John Waters’ Cry-Baby (1990).

Carpenter’s thumping synthesizer soundtrack tunes, so key to the addictive pleasures of his horror pictures — including They Live (1988) and Halloween (1978) — are sadly absent. There are decent versions of early Sun numbers with some guy named Ronnie McDowell doing credible vocals. Maybe the creepy synth would be more appropriate for a follow-up biopic on the final years (this one ends in 1969; Presley’s ended in 1977), including a recreation of Elvis’ legendary 1970 White House meeting with Richard Nixon.

Dames on the brain


DVD REVIEW Columbia’s new two-volume, eight-film set "Bad Girls of Film Noir" is a delightful addition to any shelf of B-movies, and a damn good excuse to insist on using a friend’s DVD projector.

Two of the films in this package, Women’s Prison (1955) and One Girl’s Confession (1953), had pre-DVD release screenings at this year’s Noir City Film Festival at the Castro Theatre. Though he was not the most charismatic guest speaker in the history of that sublime annual SF movie ritual, Grover Crips, Sony’s vice president of asset management and film preservation, certainly deserved the tribute he received at Noir City. The transfers to DVD from new vault prints that make up this fine package are truly impressive. And while some of the titles included don’t exactly fit snugly in the noir canon, there’s so much here worth watching that for any fan of the array of delirious thrills that constitute "golden age" Hollywood filmmaking, such quibbles are strictly in killjoy territory.

Women’s Prison is a veritable treasure trove of guilty cinematic pleasures, and one of three flicks in the set featuring blonde bombshell Cleo Moore. The rest of the cast includes noir mainstays Audrey Totter (the versatile Swede who was so, so good in 1949’s The Set-Up, Tension, and Alias Nick Beal) and Jan Sterling (the scorching, jaded, less-than-faithful wife in 1951’s Ace in the Hole). Howard Duff and Ida Lupino, married in real life, seem to be having a blast as the good-guy prison doctor and his nemesis, the psycho warden obsessed with escalating levels of discipline.

For their glimpses of mid-20th century New York City, the two on-location thrillers The Killer That Stalked New York (1950, check out Jim Backus as a sleazy club owner) and The Glass Wall (1953) are hard to beat and show that John Huston wasn’t the only Hollywood director influenced by neorealism. These two feature, respectively, Evelyn Keyes and Gloria Grahame. The latter film especially, whose trailer brags that it was "shot secretly by hidden cameras in teeming Times Square and all over exciting New York City," really captures the flavor of midtown Manhattan street life.

And as inept as the story’s framing device is, I praise the gods of Tinsel Town for giving me Night Editor (1946), mostly because of the statuesque, scheming femme fatale played by Janis Carter. It’s a bit of stretch pairing her with the, shall we say, less than charismatic William Gargan, but I can’t imagine any actress putting more sexually-charged zest into a request to gaze at a murder victim.

Divided world


Tamim Ansary is a gifted writer whose 2002 memoir West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story is a must-read for anyone wanting to know more about Afghanistan. In this funny, touching book, Ansary, son of an Afghan father and American mother, recalls growing up in a traditional village and later traveling to the United States, where he wound up at Reed College in Portland, Ore., then moved on to San Francisco.
In his new book Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (PublicAffairs, 416 pages, $26.95), Ansary sets out to fill the noticeable Islamic gap in English-language world histories. Ansary concedes Edward Said’s point that the West’s view of Islam has been highly “Orientalist” — prone to emphasize sinister “otherness.” But, Ansary writes, “more intriguing … is the relative absence of any depictions at all.” While working as an editor on a world history textbook for U.S. high schools, Ansary fought for inclusion of more Islamic history. His colleagues on the project were less than receptive. In the end, Islam was the focus of just one of 30 chapters. Ansary writes: “In short, less than a year before September 11, 2001, the consensus of expert opinion was telling me that Islam was a relatively minor phenomenon whose impact had ended long before the Renaissance. If you went strictly by our table of contents, you would never guess Islam still existed.”
Destiny Disrupted is a one-stop antidote to that problem. The prose is fun to read, often graceful and never dull, and steers clear of academic jargon. If school textbooks aspired to this level of writing, there would be fewer bored, uninspired kids in the world.
Ansary is adept at culling from and distilling dense histories to present an Islamic view of world history that acknowledges and teases out various competing strains of Islamic thought. The book presents Islam not only as a religion, but as a social project that takes on political and economic questions and includes a complete system of civil and criminal law. Ansary doesn’t have one particular ideological ax to grind, and is clearly a secular, cosmopolitan intellectual comfortable with ambiguity, paradox, and nuance. He refrains from excessive editorializing, but is also not afraid to call a spade a spade when he’s discussing massacres, wars, or imperial conquest.
Here’s Ansary on Egypt in the 1930s: “Egypt would get an elected parliament, but this parliament’s decisions must be approved by British authorities in Cairo. Beyond these few points, Egypt was to consider itself sovereign, independent, and free. Egypt quickly developed a full-fledged (secular modernist) independence movement, of course, which offended the British, because why would an independent country need an independence movement? Didn’t they get the memo? Apparently not.”
Ansary doesn’t apologize for the harsher aspects of Islamic fundamentalism. In one of the book’s more depressing passages, he writes that he doesn’t see how the Muslim “divided world view” on separation of the sexes can coexist in a single society with more Western ideas of gender mingling. Ansary doesn’t offer a solution to that conundrum, but calls for Muslim intellectuals to grapple with it. Unfortunately, the thinkers he cites doing such work are Iranians now largely discredited in their own society as the U.S. ratchets up pressure on their homeland, tainting anyone associated with Western ideas.
As President Obama continues George W. Bush’s policies of military occupation in Afghanistan, it’s to be hoped that books such as Destiny Disrupted and thinkers like Ansary inspire Americans to start thinking about the Muslim world in new ways. Ideally, these new approaches won’t include aerial bombing of civilians and other forms of “collateral damage.”

Unbuckling the swashbuckler


REVIEW Given the phenomenal success of Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, a revival of appreciation for the granddaddy of all cinematic swashbucklers, Douglas Fairbanks, is long overdue. Perfect accompaniment for home entertainment viewing of the silent film star arrives in the form of film historian Jeffrey Vance’s gorgeously laid out biography Douglas Fairbanks (University of California Press, 376 pages, $45).

Douglas Fairbanks was published with the assistance of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so perhaps it’s to be expected that the prose sometimes skirts close to hagiography. But Vance, who has authored studies of Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, knows his silent film history. He provides a wealth of information about the productions of Fairbanks’ major pictures (including 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, 1921’s The Three Musketeers, 1922’s Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad, and 1926’s The Black Pirate). The chapters about the big costume epics are bracketed by discussions of the earlier non-costume silents and the few sound projects Fairbanks worked on. Throughout, the text is complemented by beautiful reproductions of photos of Fairbanks and his friends and family on and off set.

Audiences came to expect incredible displays of acrobatic athleticism from the one-time stage actor. "There was no living man as graceful," says Allan Dwan, who directed several Fairbanks pictures. Upon scouting locations at the Grand Canyon for A Modern Musketeer (1917), Fairbanks commented that he was disappointed because "I couldn’t jump it."

Vance argues that Fairbanks was instrumental in shaping most aspects of his productions, which wielded a major influence on 20th century pop culture. Errol Flynn grew up worshipping Fairbanks and saluted his hero by starring in his own version of the Robin Hood story (1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood). Bob Kane, creator of Batman, tells Vance that Fairbanks’s depiction of Zorro ("a fop by day and a crusader at night") inspired the caped crusader’s costume, secret lair, and dual identity. Vance argues that Superman bore a heavy Fairbanks influence. Fairbanks also receives credit for popularizing the dark suntan, leaving us to wonder where George Hamilton or the Sonny Bono Cocoa Butter Open would have been without the great man’s example.

After he left his first wife for Mary Pickford, the actress dubbed "America’s sweetheart," Fairbanks climbed to heights of celebrity rarely attained by movie actors in the 1920s. Perhaps only Chaplin rivaled his peak fame. When Pickford and Fairbanks arrived in London in 1920, their entourage was mobbed, leaving Pickford briefly in fear for her life. From all indications they adjusted fairly well to this state of affairs, since both relished the limelight (Alexander Woolcott describes their post-marital jaunt as "the most exhausting and conspicuous honeymoon in the history of the marriage institution"). In order to gain more creative and financial control over their work, the couple used their new clout to join Chaplin and D.W. Griffith in founding United Artists.

Eighty-plus years on, the Fairbanks charisma can still wow an audience. And, at the risk of stressing the deadly obvious, DVD viewing really cannot do full justice to spectaculars made for the silver screen. At this year’s Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre, I had the privilege of taking in the 1927 feature Douglas Fairbanks in The Gaucho, which included plenty of leaping — and some tremendous vine-swinging which had the packed house screaming with pleasure. By that point well into his 40s and seemingly attempting to set a record for cinematic chain-smoking, Fairbanks was still near the acme of his physical powers. Portraying a more complex, jaded hero than in his earlier movies, he had put aside his discomfort with love scenes, thanks partly to co-star Lupe Velez, with whom he was having an affair. Ironically, Pickford appears in the film as an apparition of the Virgin Mary.

A dear friend who attended all of the Silent Film Festival responded to a questionnaire asking her to name the highlight of the weekend by writing "Douglas Fairbanks’ ass." Clearly, though he is dead and gone, his star shines on.




REVIEW UC Santa Barbara sociology professor William I. Robinson was recently in the news for having the temerity to criticize the Israeli military’s assault on Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Right-wing groups including the ADL orchestrated a campaign attacking Robinson with the implication that any criticism of Israel’s military abuses in the occupied territories somehow equates to anti-Semitism.

It would be nice if Robinson also received some press for the incredibly rich body of work he has produced in his career. His current volume Latin America and Global Capitalism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 440 pages, $55) is an important book for anyone interested in where our imperiled planet is headed. Robinson, author of the brilliant 1996 study of U.S. foreign aid Promoting Polyarchy, is admirably thorough in his overview of the direction capitalism has taken in Latin America since the 1970s. Robinson uses research from years of on-the-ground work, and sifts through rafts of data to map out how neoliberal trade agreements and other mechanisms for greasing the machine of global commerce have increased profits for global elites while deeply disrupting traditional patterns of life and balance with the natural world.

One glaring example Robinson focuses on is the shift toward intensive farming of soy, which has massively displaced small farmers and production of dairy, fruit trees, horticulture, and other grains. Soy production is now much more profitable than food production for local consumption — hence malnutrition is on the rise in soy producing areas.

Plans for expansion of biofuel production, Robinson writes, "could well obliterate small and medium producers and consolidate a new empire of corporate agribusiness, biotechnology, chemical and pharmaceutical TNCs [transnational corporations] in South America. The ecological devastation would undermine any gains in terms of a reduction in carbon-based fuels, and we would face a situation — absolutely absurd from any social logic yet consistent with the logic of capital — in which cars would replace human beings as the main consumers of world cereal output."

In addition to these new agro-exports, Latin America and Global Capitalism analyzes the spread of maquiladoras, the transnational tourist industry, exported labor, and remittances from abroad sent home. Robinson makes no bones about being a politically engaged academic, or of shaping his thorough, rigorous work with the intent of it being useful for popular progressive struggles. His sentiments are clearly with the indigenous resistance movements he chronicles in Latin America, as well as the immigrants’ rights movement in the United States and the continuing Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. The ruling elites have their well-funded, right-marching think tanks churning out public intellectuals cultivated to defend the status quo. Grassroots radicals need more like William Robinson.

And justice for all


TRUMPETING TRUMBO I read Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 masterpiece of antiwar literature Johnny Got His Gun in high school. I went for anything which said that patriotic duty to die for one’s country is bullshit — hence I loved it. Rereading it last year the book hit me harder. The writing is amazing, shot through with brilliance from start to finish — scathing, bitter, funny, righteous. Now lucky Trumbo fans can watch the former blacklistee’s 1971 film adaptation of his novel, just released on DVD.

Actor Timothy Bottoms was 18 when he played (via voiceover and flashbacks) Joe Bonham, who lies in an Army hospital bed pondering his fate. Hit by a mortar shell on the last day of World War I, Bonham is left a blind, deaf, and mute quadruple amputee, with only memories, fantasies, and, for a time, a sympathetic nurse. On a commentary track, Bottoms points to the film’s contemporary relevance given the staggering number of soldiers maimed in the Iraq war but kept alive by sophisticated medical technology.

Trumbo worked with Luis Buñuel on an adaptation of Johnny. Ultimately that project fell through, but by the time Trumbo directed his own script in 1971, the Spanish surrealist’s influence was palpable. At the time, Buñuel responded, "For me, the film has the same power as the novel. It has the same disturbing quality and moments of extremely powerful emotion. The film left an impression on me that is among the strongest I ever experienced."

Marsha Hunt, whose successful film career was cut short by the blacklist, played Bonham’s mother. In a phone interview, the now-91-year-old said, "I liked [Trumbo] enormously. I was so delighted that he wanted me in his film." Hunt emphasized Trumbo’s incredible discipline, which led him, during lean times of underpaid black market work, to write 12 screenplays in 16 months (a helpful doctor who prescribed amphetamines contributed to that productivity).

"It’s hard to believe that the same talent who gave us Spartacus also gave us Roman Holiday," she said. "Just as far from each other as possible in terms of style and period and everything else. He was an impressively versatile man, as well as brilliant."

The 2007 film Trumbo, featuring documentary footage and actors reading from the great man’s letters, should also be released on DVD. And some astute publisher should bring Additional Dialogue, Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962 back into print. Among my favorite passages from that volume is in a 1951 letter to novelist Nelson Algren, who was prepared act as a "front" for Trumbo. Trumbo advised, "If you have any moral compunctions about such a procedure in relation to motion pictures, please forget them. Hollywood is a vast whorehouse, and any scheme by which tolerably honest men can abstract money from it for their own purposes is more than praiseworthy."

State of the movement


As local antiwar activists continue to oppose the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, they are struggling to mobilize popular support under a presidential administration that is less overtly bellicose than the Bush regime.

Antonia Juhasz, author of The Bush Agenda (William Morrow, 2006) and last year’s The Tyranny of Oil (William Morrow), has worked with a number of Bay Area antiwar groups. Over coffee in the Mission District, she said much has changed since President Barack Obama took office.

"It’s an amazing victory for the antiwar movement that we pushed people to elect a president who pledged to end the Iraq war. Now our job is to make that pledge a reality," she said, visibly tired from long work on a report about Chevron Corp.’s profiteering in Iraq and even at home in Richmond, where it’s sued the city to block a voter-approved tax increase.

Juhasz argues that all U.S. troops and contractors should leave Iraq immediately and that all bases be closed. But Obama’s plan includes a slower withdrawal timeline and for some U.S. forces to be left there indefinitely.

Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CodePink and Global Exchange, told the Guardian that Obama supporters need to realize that it’s fine to disagree with our first African American president on some policies. She described, the prominent liberal organization that was a key player in Obama’s campaign, as "very top down," and focused on pro-Obama talking points. "It’s very hard because a lot of groups have become appendages to the administration."

Juhasz feels the antiwar movement needs to better communicate that "the organizing isn’t over when the campaign is over. Even if the leader agrees with you, they still need activists to push them."

But she acknowledges the difficulty of the task. "We want to keep from telling people they’re wrong. They won, which is great. But we need to say ‘You have the responsibility to keep organizing for the issues, not just the individual.’ It’s critically important to see beyond the leader, so it doesn’t become a cult of personality," she said, recalling that "under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, if there wasn’t a mass movement for revolutionary change, there wouldn’t have been a New Deal."

That kind of pressure is clearly not being exerted on Obama. Tom Gallagher, a San Francisco resident active with the Bernal Heights Democratic Club, told us during a March 21 San Francisco demonstration commemorating the sixth anniversary of the Iraq war, "If McCain had been elected there would be many more people here protesting. Obama is using the schedule Bush agreed to on pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq."

Gallagher grew more irked as he said, "Obama has sent 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. He’s getting a pass on it, and McCain wouldn’t."

ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) has continued to agitate against war and for social justice. Richard Becker, ANSWER’s Western Regional Coordinator, told us the relatively low turnout on March 21 was not surprising.

Becker said he sees Obama’s popularity as "elation" over Bush’s exit. But no matter how bad the past or good the intentions of a candidate, once the candidate is elected U.S. president, he said, "the job description is CEO of the Empire." Becker cautioned that it will take time for postelection euphoria to wear off and for people to realize that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are dragging on under Obama.

Local activist David Solnit, a mainstay of Direct Action to Stop the War, works with Courage to Resist, which supports military war resisters. The group also helps recruits fight "stop-loss," which sends soldiers back to Iraq for additional tours of duty without their consent. "Obama said he’s going to change it eventually, but we’re worried about right now," he said.

Courage to Resist organizer Sarah Lazare agrees with Solnit that peace activists should oppose U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. Lazare says it’s important to communicate that "Afghanistan is not a good war" and that "terrorism is a tactic" that cannot be destroyed militarily.

"Measuring the number of people at a demonstration is not the only way to measure what’s going on," she said. Among her examples of ongoing, dynamic organizing is the work of Courage to Resist and Iraq Vets Against the War.

IVAW is directly organizing active-duty members of the military to engage in dissent. SF Bay Area chapter member Peter Schlange told us that their ranks are growing as the Iraq war continues.

IVAW is also challenging the Afghanistan buildup. In a recently passed resolution, the antiwar veterans group "calls for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all occupying forces in Afghanistan and reparations for the Afghan people, and supports all troops and veterans working towards those ends."

Paul Kawika Martin, organizing and policy director for Peace Action, says his group wants all troops out of Iraq by 2010, with no "residual forces" or contractors left behind. Martin also says it’s important for activists to march and to lobby Congress. He stressed that both Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi lobbied for reform, and U.S. peace activists also need to do so.

Martin feels the peace movement will have an important impact on the new administration. "I don’t think he fears being too liberal," Marin told me. "But he wants to get things done, and like any politician he will be more pragmatic than we want him to be."

Martin said the troop escalation in Afghanistan was a concern for Peace Action. Martin is working with a group of 70 activists, think tanks, and aid workers who make up the Afghanistan Policy Working Group. He points to Reps. Raul Grijalva (now the co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus), Lynn Woolsey, Barbara Lee, and Maxine Waters as key allies of antiwar activists in Congress. "We need to support them," he told me.

The antiwar movement itself also needs support, given that many of its top activists have been arrested repeatedly in the last six years.

Organizer Stephanie Tang with the World Can’t Wait dismisses hope for Democrats as a trap. She pointed to Nancy Pelosi’s early knowledge of torture and Obama’s recent announcement that the administration would block release of torture photos in the courts. In March 2008, Tang was arrested for allegedly obstructing police at a Berkeley demonstration opposing a military recruiting center.

Walter Riley, Tang’s lawyer, told the Guardian: "It’s my contention they identified Stephanie as a leader and are vioutf8g her constitutional rights to protest an illegal war."

Berkeley police referred inquiries to the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, which had not returned our call at press time. Riley said a Berkeley policeman "blind-sided her," and, holding his club horizontally, slammed Tang off her feet.

Police later attempted to get a statement from Tang while she was receiving medical treatment for injuries sustained during the incident. Berkeley police only later charged her with obstructing police at the march. Tang faces one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Speed Reading


The Tyranny Of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry — And What We Must Do To Stop It

By Antonia Juhasz

William Morrow

480 pages


In responding to an attack on her book in the Washington Post, Antonia Juhasz explained, "My goal in writing The Tyranny of Oil was to offer an analysis that has been sorely missing in U.S. literature since the 1975 publication of Anthony Sampson’s classic book, The Seven Sisters: an unapologetically and vitally necessary in-depth and serious critique of the current state of the U.S. oil industry which also raises the voices of those not regularly heard on nightly news programs, television commercials, and in books."

Juhasz succeeds in that aim and then some. The Tyranny of Oil is a tightly-written overview of the rise of Big Oil, from its origins in the 19th century power grabs of John D. Rockefeller and his ilk, to the era of the petroleum megacorporations busily destroying what’s left of our biosphere via oil wars and Godzilla-sized carbon footprints.

The book opens with a section on pioneering investigative journalist Ida Tarbell and her early 20th century crusade against Standard Oil. Tarbell’s exposé generated public anger at the Standard trust and contributed to legislation which eventually led to Standard Oil’s breakup in 1911. The separate components of the trust were later reconstituted; nonetheless, Juhasz presents the successful grassroots campaign Tarbell helped spark as an instructive example for today’s activists.

Wrecked park department



On Feb. 13, in a fourth floor hearing room in City Hall, large crowds of San Francisco Recreation and Park Department workers and supporters showed up on short notice to hear how the department was going to be gutted by deep budget cuts.

Overflow crowds of spilled into adjacent rooms to hear interim department director Jared Blumenfeld announce impending cuts to staff and hours. Although the department’s Web site stresses that "all parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, pools, golf courses, gyms, art centers, senior centers, and clubhouses will remain open," the cuts are so deep that all involved knew that the services and facilities will be shadows of their former selves.

Many people told the Guardian that they are also concerned that the process is intended to facilitate privatization of many Rec and Park functions, giving city jobs to contract workers who will not be able to duplicate the experience or connection to communities of the city workers they replace.

The Rec-Park Commission will have another hearing on the cuts at 2 p.m. Feb 19 in City Hall, Room 416, with more time for public comment. Activists working for more equitable cuts will stage a protest rally beforehand across from City Hall at 1 p.m.

At the meeting, numerous youngsters and their parents spoke of recreation directors mentoring kids who have few other positive influences in their lives. Many of these Rec and Park workers will be on the receiving end of pink slips at the end of the month. Blumenfeld announced that 51 full-time equivalent recreation director positions would be cut (the actual number of layoffs will be even higher given than many of the workers are part time).

Blumenfeld explained that $11.4 million needs to be cut from Rec and Park’s budget of the total budget about $140 million. He described some new ways to raise revenue, including charging entrance fees for the Botanical Garden, increasing pool fees, and charging the SF Public Library rent for the 32,000 square feet where local branches operate on public park land.

But even critics of the department say Blumenfeld is more accessible than his predecessor, Yomi Agunbiade, who was forced out last year after he came under fire for some of his privatization schemes and personnel issues. But raiding library funding, which is protected by voter-approved budget set-asides, is likely to create a backlash from the public.

Blumenfeld said he regretted tapping library funds, but said the move is being forced by budgetary realities. "Ultimately, this is a Lord of the Flies situation," he said.

Leah Grant of the group Friends of Potrero Hill told the Guardian at the hearing that the playground near where she lives was recently chained shut, leaving at-risk kids locked out. In an e-mail after the meeting, she wrote that it is "very, very difficult to accept that the programs for the disabled and at-risk children are going to be thrown under the bus while the privatization continues to the advantage of the wealthy and the taxpayers of San Francisco are literally being robbed of our public parks."

Grant also expressed concern that the City Fields Foundation, backed by Gap, Inc. founder Donald Fisher, a controversial funder of conservative causes in San Francisco, has essentially been taking over parks across the city and would further benefit from this year’s restructuring by filling the void with privatized services.

Blumenfeld insisted that "rumors" of privatization were unfounded, but admitted that Mayor Gavin Newsom’s nonprofit public-private partnership Rec Connect model is a key part of the mix in the new budget arrangements. As the Guardian reported ("Connect the connects," Oct. 17, 2007), the Rec Connect model is "private, funded by undisclosed corporate donations, staffed by volunteers who are often city employees or [Newsom’s] campaign donors, and unaccountable to any internal controls or outside scrutiny."

One department employee, who spoke off the record due to concerns about job security, told the Guardian that "there is not the same level of accountability for those in the Rec Connect program. If they leave the building where they are working, there is not necessarily anyone who is watching them."

Sources within the department say there will be 10 new Rec Connect sites opened to offset the budget cuts, a move that comes at a time when Newsom is trying to raise significant money for his nascent gubernatorial campaign.

"I feel like they’re using the financial crisis to push something they’ve been trying to accomplish for a long time," the source said. "And with this model, there are three to four layers of paid bureaucracy before these monies get to the kids. What they aren’t telling the public is that it is actually cheaper to allow Rec and Park workers to do our job than to pay the nonprofits, even though the workers the nonprofits contract out are making a lower hourly wage."

Lorraine Hanks, a recreation director who has worked with Rec and Park for 16 years, shared similar dissatisfaction with the Rec Connect program. In a phone interview, Hanks told us that "Rec Connect was supposed to come in and create innovative programs. They didn’t do that. They wound up doing the same things we were already doing."

Rec Connect spokesperson Jo Mestelle didn’t return Guardian calls for comment by press time.

Hanks also noted that "under Proposition J, 50 percent of funding was supposed to go to Rec and Park, and 50 percent was supposed to go to DCYF [Department of Children, Youth and their Families]. If we had that original 50 percent, we wouldn’t have to lay anyone off."

On the way out of Friday’s meeting, Betty Traynor of Friends of Boeddeker Park told us that many seniors and youngsters in the Tenderloin will have no park or safe public space to go to if the proposed cuts to hours go through, and that important programs for kids and seniors will be eliminated. Traynor added that the cuts "will also reduce hours for adult users of the park who have no other open green space in the Tenderloin."

Rec and Park employee Brando Rogers said the cuts would hurt youth who have developed relationships with employees and value these after school programs. "These are long-term relationships," she told us. "They can’t be replaced by seasonal contract workers. I’m worried that if these precious mentors have their jobs eliminated, the neighborhoods will just be decimated."