Thursday, January 31, 2008

Butch Women and Open Space at City Hall

The San Francisco Art Commission is sponsoring another art show in City Hall's basement by photographer Ann P. Meredith with the expansive title of "Tall in the Saddle: Cowgirls, Ranch Women and Rodeo Gals." The show reminded me of going to the first local gay rodeo in Hayward during the mid-1980s, which was a fascinating affair on all kinds of levels.

I was attempting to write an article for a gay newspaper which was trying to compete with B.A.R. called "The Sentinel," and the material was amazing. Most of the contestants were from the rural West, had grown up on ranches, and for the most part found the urban gay scene completely flabbergasting. The rodeo was a chance for them to get together for the first time (outside of the military).

The first gay rodeo was held in Reno in 1976, and the winner of the bull-riding competition was one of the people I interviewed on the bus to Hayward in the 1980s. She was a butch old dyke who had grown up on a ranch in Montana but wasn't allowed to compete in rodeos because they were only for guys, with the exception of one event, calf-roping I believe. She didn't care, and ended up doing whatever she wanted as she grew up, which included a stint as Debbie Reynold's stuntwoman on "How The West Was Won." When the 1976 Reno event came around, she was the only female entrant in the bull-riding competition, and they canceled the event, so she insisted that she be allowed to compete in the men's division, where she ended up winning.

There was a wonderful woman photographer who was taking pictures for the Bay Area Reporter newspaper, and we tried to join forces, but the owners of the gay rags were having none of it, and The Sentinel hacked my story to nothing and the B.A.R. only printed one of her great photos. This is unfortunately still how professional journalism works, by the way.

Upstairs, there was a meeting of the Mayor's Open Space Task Force in one of the Light Courts.

Since I don't believe a single word that comes out of the Gavin Newsom administration anymore, I'm sure the meeting was nothing but well-intentioned crap that he can use for his press releases.

Meanwhile, one of San Francisco's premier gangsters, Donald Fisher, is proposing to build a monstrous museum housing his modern art collection smack dab in one of the finest "open spaces" left in San Francisco, the Presidio, but I don't hear a peep out of this administration about what a disgrace it is.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

San Francisco Ballet's Real Opening Night

The first program of San Francisco Ballet's season, which stretches from now until early May, opened on Tuesday night with the 1938 Americana classic, "Filling Station."

The ballet is historic on all kinds of levels. It's an early attempt to break free of Eurocentric subject matter in American ballet, and it's also a convergence of three of the Major Mid-Century American Homos (composer Virgil Thomson; libretto by wealthy impresario and polymath Lincoln Kirsten; decor and costumes by painter Paul Cadmus). The choreography is by Lew Christensen (ironically, he was reportedly a notorious homophobe), who with brothers William and Harold basically created the San Francisco Ballet in the late 1930s after its founding as an offshoot of the San Francisco Opera in 1933.

The company is celebrating their 75th season with an ambitious stretch of five separate programs, followed by a visit from the National Ballet of Canada, the New York City Ballet and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo each bringing a signature piece. The season ends with a "New Works Festival" where the company has commissioned 10 of the most famous choreographers in the world to create new ballets, which should be fascinating.

It was great being back at the opera house, which even after 30 years of hanging out, manages to reveal new, odd cubbyholes.

In fact, I still manage to get lost in the place, which is part of what I love about the building.

"Filling Station" is a funny, sweet and sexy ballet set in a gas station with hunk-a-chunk workers, a bratty family, and an inebriated rich couple all carrying on before an armed robbery gives the piece an excuse for a climax.

I went home for dinner during Helgi Tomasson's "7 for Eight," which is set to a septet of movements from Bach harpsichord concertos, and then returned for Balanchine's "Diamonds," set to Tchaikovsky's "Polish" Symphony No. 3 (with the first movement missing). The music isn't exactly Tchaikovsky's best, but the final movement does give Balanchine an excuse to have 32 dancers on stage performing a stylized version of a Polonaise waltz in movement so dizzying it felt like high-art Busby Berkeley.

The audience, which seemed to have the same ratio of women to men as the Thursday matinees at the San Francsco Symphony, thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Standing room during the week is only $10 and I can't recommend the company right now highly enough.

As my friend Thad Trela put it, "There are not many places in the world where you can have 32 dancers from a single company pulling off that final movement in 'Diamonds,' and not just pulling it off, but dancing so splendidly."

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Who(m) Should You Vote For?

At a Muni shelter on Market and Montgomery Street on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, somebody had taped up a simple piece of homemade campaign literature against the glass.

There was a checklist telling us why we should vote for Obama over Hillary, most of which I agreed with.

The best part of the signage, however, was a handwritten "m" added by a public-spirited grammarian to the "Who."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Hell of a Woman

On Saturday night, one of my favorite living writers, the profane, brilliant, violent crime novelist James Ellroy introduced his favorite Film Noir movie, 1951's "The Prowler," directed by Joseph Losey and written by Dalton Trumbo. "This movie is so dark that after it's done the only way to get it out of your head will be through a night of booze, and drugs, and bleak anonymous sex, all of which can be found easily in this miserable city by the bay," he announced to us from the stage.

Eddie Muller, the host of the Noir City Film Festival, then joined Ellroy onstage and thanked him for putting up money for a 35mm restoration of the film that had been funded by the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA. The last time Ellroy was featured at the festival a couple of years ago, he had just moved to Twin Peaks in San Francisco, "for a woman" (click here to see my fairly extensive account). The woman must not have worked out because he's back in his hometown, "that smog-choked, hellish place to the South known as Los Angeles," as Muller put it to him.

I couldn't stay for the two movies because there was a 30th birthday party for the writer Beth Spotswood to attend (click here for her site), so I went to the mezzanine and bought her a newly published anthology of crime fiction written by women entitled "A Hell of a Woman," and had a half-dozen writers in the book write a few birthday wishes for Miss Spotswood, who is a serious crime afficionado.

Beth's birthday party was being held at a charming dive bar in her neighborhood at 20th and York called Jay 'N Bees that features a backyard, Mexican food, and cool bartenders. Beth was resplendent in a new dress and even had State Assemblyman Mark Leno pop in to give her a very funny proclamation from the State Assembly.

While we were waiting fruitlessly for a cab outside the bar on this wildly rainy night, a large black SUV pulled up and out popped Joe Veronese, who is running for California State Senator against Leno and Carole Migden. I did not see a proclamation in his hand, but it was still impressive that he had shown up. Happy birthday, one-hell-of-a-woman Beth.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Joan Leslie at the Noir City Film Festival

There are various film festivals held over the course of the year at the Castro Theatre for just about every niche group imaginable, from gays and lesbians to Jews to German speakers to Asians.

Probably the coolest of them all is the Noir City Film Festival (click here for the schedule), partly because the beautiful old movie house has the perfectly shaped large screen for Hollywood films from the 30s through the 50s, but also because the audience is so passionate about the movies themselves, with some even dressing up in period clothes.

The sixth annual edition of the festival opened on a perfectly rainy, miserable Friday evening with a party for "passport" holders in the Castro Theatre mezzanine to meet and greet the evening's guest of honor, the movie star Joan Leslie.

Joan, above, was the female ingenue in a number of famous films such as "High Sierra," "Sergeant York" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and in the late 1940s she transitioned into more adult roles in a couple of noirs, including the 1947 rarity being screened on Friday, "Repeat Performance," which was notable for a number of reasons including the debut of the impossibly handsome Richard Basehart, the outre dresses of Oleg Cassini, and a major film score by the great American composer George Antheil.

Eddie Muller, in the middle above, seems to have gained the trust of much of old Hollywood and the surviving members of that era are often featured in person at the festival, including the 82-year-old Joan Leslie above on the left and the 91-year-old Marsha Hunt on the right.

Muller gave a passionate speech to start off the festival, defending the act of watching a flickering film on a large screen in the company of an audience during a period where we are entering a downloadable, digital world. He also explained the difficulties in preserving films through his Film Noir Foundation, "because without naming any names here, the worst caretakers are often the rights holders."

"When we knew Joan Leslie was going to attend, I managed to get a 35 millimeter print of 'Repeat Performance,' but when we put it into the projector, the film literally disintegrated. There was less than two weeks to go before this evening, and out of the blue I received an email from a Bay Area Film Noir fan who said if I had any problems with the print, he had just bought a 16 millimeter copy of the film from a collector in the Midwest. And two days later, a similar offer came in from another Bay Area fan. So that's what you're seeing tonight, and that's why this is the greatest Film Noir festival in the world. It's the audiences. It's frigging miserable out there, and you all came," he said, gesturing at the completely full Castro Theatre.

"I'll accept the Czar of Noir label proudly, but it's really you who make this festival what it is, not to mention all the great programmers in the Bay Area over the decades like Anita Monga with her Noir Mondays at the York Theatre, and the Cento Cedar Cinema, the Surf Cinema, the Richelieu..." It was quite a moving testimonial, and the movie star stories with Joan Leslie were pretty entertaining too.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Messiaen, Mahler and Myung-Whun Chung

The San Francisco Symphony unveiled this week's program at a Thursday matinee, and it was a beauty. The first half was dedicated to an early (1933) Messiaen orchestral piece called "L'Ascension" (as in Jesus ascending to Heaven) which was a perfect warmup for the longer second half devoted to Gustav Mahler's First Symphony.

The guest conductor was one of Korea's most treasured citizens, Myung-Whun Chung, who has spent most of the last thirty years conducting in Europe, including a controversial stint at the Bastille Opera in Paris, and it's been 25 years since he's conducted the San Francisco Symphony. The performance today was an almost complete triumph.

I have to confess that I don't get Olivier Messiaen's music. I've heard the "Turangalila Symphony" live twice, and both times it gave me a headache. I only made it halfway through his five-hour "Saint Francoise d'Assisi" opera, and about an hour through a recital of his complete organ works at Grace Cathedral. He was a Catholic mystic who adored birds and their warbling, and since many people whose taste I respect love his music, I figure my lack of enthusiasm is my fault. In any case, "L'Ascension" was Beginner's Messiaen in that it was short, about 30 minutes, and quite beautiful, with a first movement consisting of brass and woodwinds, two lively middle movements for the entire orchestra, and a long final movement for strings.

My only complaint is that Davies Symphony Hall was sounding like a tuberculosis ward this afternoon. Tickets are admittedly expensive but if you're sick, please stay home in bed. And why is it that the coughers always pick the quietest moments in the music to hack away?

Mahler's First Symphony is a deeply eccentric work, if only for the third movement which features a funeral march to the tune of Frere Jacques that keeps being interrupted by what sounds like a klezmer band. Myung-Whun Chung brought out every bit of strangeness in the piece, and made it sound brand new. It was an absolutely extraordinary performance. Also fun was a miscue at the finale of the first movement where the players didn't come in correctly, either because he forgot to give them a signal or some other mixup. Myung-Whun Chung turned to the audience and made a face, we laughed, he talked to the orchestra, and he replayed the final ten seconds so they got it right. It was very cool.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Olafur Eliasson's Funhouse

The fifth floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art downtown has been redesigned from floor to ceiling by the Icelandic installation artist Olafur Eliasson, and because the reviews have been so interesting (click here and here for Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes gushing intelligently about the show), I finally dragged myself down to see it thanks to an invitation from the brilliant cultural commenter Patrick Vaz (click here to get to his blog, "The Reverberate Hills").

The reason it had taken me so long to get to the show which opened in September and closes in late February is that I hate the new Museum of Modern Art Building. For some reason, it gives me both agoraphobia and claustrophobia, neither one of which is a problem for me usually. In any case, getting off the elevator on the fifth floor Monday afternoon and being plunged into a yellow-lit room which made everyone look like zombies did nothing to assuage my symptoms.

The entire floor consisted of a series of installations, some more successful than others, that played with light and shapes and perception. Probably the most spectacular was the kaleidescope of light and shapes that Eliasson constructed around the "turret bridge" which crosses from the stairwell to the main galleries of the fifth floor, and which has been known to cause serious acrophobia. (Patrick, for instance, refuses to walk on it.)

Because it was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and plenty of people were off work with children who needed something to do, and SF MOMA is the only major museum in town that is open on Monday, the museum was jam-packed, and there were lots of kids running around having a blast. The exhibit has a definite Exploratorium feel and is perfect for children.

I wasn't as enthusiastic, partly because the little rooms got claustrophobic fast, and also because there were some awful smells, possibly from the room with a fine water mist creating rainbows with the water collecting on rubber pads that seemed to be suffering from mold.

Still, it was interesting enough that I might go back when there aren't so many people, and if you do go to the museum don't miss the shockingly fabulous photos of Canadian Jeff Wall on the fourth floor. They use the technology of illuminated advertising kiosks in a totally subversive manner, and made me very happy.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Crunch Time

Concurrent with the "Mundane" art opening in the Veterans Building on Friday evening, a group of very prosperous looking young people were milling about the lobby in front of the Herbst Theatre.

They were there for the first annual "Crunchies" awards given to the best start-up companies by a website about tech start-ups called TechCrunch (click here).

This felt to me like a rather ominous moment for San Francisco, reminding me of Miss Tiffany whatever-her-name-was starting the Webbie Awards back during the Web 1.0 gold rush days, when San Francisco was filling up with arrogant young marketing people, along with the human flotsam and jetsam that is attracted to the possibility of instant wealth.

You don't need to be Nostradamus to realize it's happening all over again in the San Francisco Bay Area, with apartment rents suddenly rising astronomically along with billions of dollars in venture capital flowing in from all over the world (click here for a short Chronicle story confirming just that).

After the Web 1.0 dot-com crash in 2001, thousands of people were ruined and went back where they came from, which was mostly New York City, but many of the real brainiacs who had created the wealth in the first place stayed and continued working in peace away from the market hysteria.

Meanwhile, the rest of the United States economy is about to go into a serious toilet because you can only throw away trillions of dollars of the country's resources to war criminals like Blackwater and Halliburton and Lockheed and General Electric without a few economic repercussions.

Plus, you don't need to be a genius economist to realize that a consumer economy like the United States is going to come to a grinding halt if all the money is in the hands of the wealthy few and not in the hands of the consumers, many of whom were playing the real estate musical houses game, which suddenly stopped last year.

So fasten your seatbelts in your Tesla electric car roadster. It's going to be a very bumpy ride.