Arts + Culture

Screen Grabs: Disaster Artist, Polish Animation, The Breadwinner….

SCREEN GRABS Not a lot going on this week in the realm of mainstream releases. But there’s no end of interest on the arthouse and rep-house circuit, with the Silent Festival’s annual one-day winter blowout and a couple major treats for grownup animation fans.

Notable openings on Friday include two at the Roxie: Juan Sebastian Mesa’s Venice prize winner The Nobodies aka Los Nadie, a B&W slice of teenage metalhead life in Medellin, and Luke Korem’s Dealt, a documentary about famed card-trick magician Richard Turner, whose prowess is all the more amazing considering that he’s blind. There’s also Jason Headley’s black comedy A Bad Idea Gone Wrong at the Alamo, and Danish auteur Joaquim Trier’s (Reprise, Oslo August 31st) new Thelma, a curious character study-cum-thriller with supernatural elements that opens at Landmark theaters.

But for some of you — and you know who you are — all else will be overshadowed by the arrival of the year’s most eagerly-awaited movie. No, we’re not talking about Star Wars: The Last Jedi, or even the imminent latest Paul Thomas Anderson, but rather…

Even in the annals of stupefying cinematic vanity projects, there is nothing quite like writer-director-producer-star Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 The Room, the midnight-movie sensation of the new millennium. If one learns anything best by making mistakes, there is probably no better book about moviemaking than his friend and co-star Greg Sestero’s The Disaster Artist, which chronicled The Room’s hapless production. 

Now another multi-hyphenate, the more presentable (and explicable) James Franco, has adapted that tome into by far the best and most accessible film of his own directorial career to date. He’s also got arguably his best role since Spring Breakers in playing Tommy, with brother Dave as Greg. Wiseau and Sestero’s path from SF acting classes to big-screen infamy is amusingly retold in a comedy that deftly manages to sidestep ridiculing its principal subject.

Instead, this portrait of an admittedly inexplicable personality achieves a certain open-hearted pathos as he discovers the realization of his heart’s desire only provokes public laughter. With its array of famous faces in small parts (Zac Efron, Megan Mullally, Seth Rogen, Adam Scott, Sharon Stone, et al.), Artist is an accessible crowdpleaser. But for full appreciation, you really, really should see The Room first. At Bay Area theaters. 

San Francisco Silent Fest’s annual winter bash offers one very full day of retro celluloid gold. Many devoted patrons will be familiar with at least a couple of the six features on tap: Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 German The Adventures of Prince Achmed is an exotic fairy tale famous as the oldest surviving animated feature, done in a style redolent of Far Eastern shadow puppetry. Henry King’s 1921 Tol’able David is an enduring US classic with Richard Barthemless as the sweet-natured country boy who must prove himself a man when some criminal relatives turn up to terrorize his family as uninvited “guests.” 

There are plenty of relative rarities and newly restored films as well. For comedy, there’s not just Lubitsch’s 1925 Lady Windermere’s Fan — an improbably successful adaptation of Oscar Wilde sans dialogue — and the prior year’s wacky obscurity Last Man on Earth, which imagines a distant future (1954!) in which women have adopted all the traditional masculine roles after nearly all the menfolk die out. The Rat (1925) is an action-packed intrigue and vehicle for U.K. stage star/composer Ivor Novello that was so popular it generated two sequels. 

Lastly, Sex in Chains from future A-list Hollywood director William Dieterle is a very serious 1928 German drama about an improbable topic: Sexual frustration in prison. While pleading for legalization of conjugal visits as a solution, it does not shrink from implying that convicts will find alternatives among themselves. As usual, all programs will feature live musical accompaniment. Sat/2, Castro Theatre, SF. More info here

Peter and the Wolf

At a time when U.S. cartoonery was considered strictly kid-stuff, numerous Eastern Bloc nations began encouraging artists to use the form in expressing more complex, grownup, even abstract ideas in both style and content. A particular hotbed was Poland, as borne out by this four-part PFA retrospective highlighting work from the late 1950s onward. The “Masters of Animation” bill features such legends (at least to serious animation fans) as Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica; two “Festival Favorites” programs encompass a diverse range of award-winning titles spanning decades; while “Emerging Artists” finds a new wave of talent expanding the terrain yea further. On each program you’ll find caustic views on the eternal battle of the sexes, black comedy, political allegory, diverse techniques, and a notably high percentage of impressive work by women artists. Sun/3-Wed/20, Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley. More info here

American advertising can be clever, but it’s often noted that across the Atlantic, they are cleverer—perhaps because audiences in most EU countries (never mind the “Brexit”) can handle a higher degree of wit and/or envelope-pushing. Now in their 40th year, the British Television Advertising Awards or “Arrows” honor the year’s best UK commercials, with categories that encompass outstanding performances (yes, including by animals), technical achievements, animation, and more. This latest best-of program offers 75 minutes of salesmanship as art. Sundays, Sun/3-Sun/17, YBCA Screening Room, SF. More info here

Irish animator Nora Twomey, who co-directed Gallic fairy tale The Secret of Kells eight years ago, is back with a more naturalistic drama in cartoon form. An already poor Afghan family’s fortunes get drastically worse when the Taliban gains control; the father is dragged off to prison for mouthing off to one young fanatic. The only male left behind is a toddler; his wife and daughters are prevented from working or even venturing outside for water and food, by oppressive Sharia law. Finally Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) begins posing as a boy to save them, a sacrifice that becomes an intoxicating taste of freedom. A straightforward, somewhat familiar tale adapted from Deborah Ellis’ YA novel, this is no Persepolis in artistic terms. Still, it’s an effective exploration of similar themes that would make a good spur for discussion with younger viewers over age 10 or so. Opera Plaza, SF. More info here

A number of older movies have seen their profile leap in the last year or so, as people grasped for screen precedents to the stranger-than-fiction reality of President Trump. Idiocracy aside, none have been more frequently cited than this cynically nasty 1957 update of Meet John Doe, in which a creepy but insinuatingly folksy hick (Andy Griffith as “Lonesome” Rhodes) is promoted by media attention to a position of dangerous power and alleged moral superiority in complete conflict with his true nature. 

Written by Buzz Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, this caustic classic demonstrates you can indeed fool most of the people most of the time. It’s got a dynamic cast including Patricia Neal, Tony Franciosa, Lee Remick and Walter Matthau. Griffith was so skin-crawlingly good as this petty huckster turned homily-spewing national con man, it’s a wonder that the public accepted him as the true-blue protagonist of sitcom The Andy Griffith Show for eight hugely popular seasons starting just three years later.  SF Examiner’s Broke-Ass Stuart hosts a discussion panel to accompany this one-night, 35mm revival screening, presented by the Jewish Film Institute. Thurs/7, Roxie, SF. More info here. 

In his lighter moments, Hitchcock was doing James Bond at the movies before James Bond did—getting dashing heroes into a mess of dangerous, somewhat deliberately outlandish derring-do in films like The 39 Steps and To Catch a Thief. Perhaps his greatest exercise in that vein is this beloved 1959 action-adventure in which an understandably harried Cary Grant is the advertising executive mistaken for a high-level CIA agent. His subsequent perils famously include being chased by crop-dusting plane and dangling from the profiles of Mount Rushmore. Variably helping or hindering him are characters played by Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau and Jessie Royce Landis. Definitely helping Hitch is Bernard Herrmann’s stirring score—which you’ll hear played live (conducted by Richard Kaufman) to accompany these special screenings, which kick off SF Symphony’s 2017-18 Film Series. Fri-Sat/1-2, Davies Symphony Hall, SF. More info here.  

The Doormat Division: Run for the Moldy Carpet

Run for the Moldy Carpet -- we can almost smell it!

The end is in sight, Doormat denizens, and only the hardiest survive to very VERY stale beer end that is the Doormat Division Championship Trophy.

Run for the Moldy Carpet — we can almost smell it!

Teams that once thought they could blow any game, anywhere, find themselves awash in the doldrums of parity, with the threat of playoff relevancy, and an opportunity for fans to witness their gridiron warriors to become this year’s lambs to the slaughter in the first round.

Only the determined and truly gritty will make it through the gantlet of teams giving up on the season, and manage to lose the final five games, and wear the Best of the Worst crown.

Only one team will eventually hold (however briefly before needing to go wash their hands) the Moldy Carpet Trophy, and, at this writing, five teams still have a legitimate shot at the Doormat Championship. With five games remaining, any team with a 5-6 record could still be champs, but let’s be realistic: 5-6 is parity, and don’t wave that banner at me.

It’s the Browns, 49ers, Bears, Giants, Broncos, and Colts.  Let’s take a look at the standings and then call the shots. 



                                  W-L          PF        PA      DIF

SANTA CLARA         1-10         187     284      -97

NY GIANTS               2-9           172     267      -95

CHICAGO                 3-8           177      252      -75

TAMPA BAY              4-7           223      262      -39

GREEN BAY             5-6           232      261      -29



                                  W-L          PF        PA      DIF

CLEVELAND             0-11        166      289      -123

INDIANAPOLIS         3-8          195      300      -105

DENVER                    3-8          197      280      -83

MIAMI                        4-7           174      289     -115

NY JETS                    4-7           228       57      -29



49ers at Bears

Broncos at Dolphins

Brownies at Chargers


CLEVELAND (0-11):  with Sunday’s nail-biter loss against the Bengals, the Turnover Browns showed that, under the right circumstances, they might yet win a game this season. They do try. WR Josh Gordon, who hasn’t played in 3 years, returns next week from purgatory. He will play WR, QB, announce the game and sing the national anthem. Not that expectations are high or anything.

The Brownouts are in the driver’s seat for a perfect season, but they could win their games against the stumbling Packers (12/10) and for sure against the Bears (12/24). Still, they’d only be 2-14, tops, and that leaves only the Giants and 49ers as competition. But they’ve tailed off with the turnovers (leading the league at -17 give/take) lately, and that makes them vulnerable against teams that don’t score. 

Predicted finish:  0-16

SANTA CLARA (1-10):  The 49ers overdid it with the losing thing yesterday, and punching bag QB C.J. Beathard finally got knocked out of a game. Enter “star” backup Jimmy Garoppolo, who promptly throws a TD pass in the waning moments of another grindingly annoying loss to the Seahawks, causing the entire Red and Gold fan base and media in the Bay Area to elect Jimmy G to the Niner Hall of Fame with that one ray-of-hope toss.  Even if only 47 people were actually in the stadium to see it.

This much is true: if Garoppolo starts next week in Chicago against the Bears…look out. The Whiners could win a game, and give the Giants and the Bears an opening to the NFC crown and perhaps the Moldy Carpet. The remaining schedule: Texans (danger), Titans, Jags, Rams (finish season with massive blowout).

Predicted finish:  2-14

NEW YORK GIANTS (2-9):  The Giants gave up so long ago, it was amazing to watch the Chiefs hand them a game two weeks ago. Now they have to run the table for a shot at the Moldy Carpet. But they have a shot, because this team really is mailing it in from so far away, they’re about lap everybody. The last five: Raiders, Cowboys, Eagles, Cardinals, Redskins. Raiders appear to need to get into all-out brawls before they wake up, so the Giants should toss in a couple scuffles early, and get out of Oakland with an L. The Cowboys pose a threat, because they can lose anywhere they like, and the Cardinals prefer to score only one touchdown a game if the competition would only comply.  Giants might beat the Cardinals.

Predicted Finish:  3-14

DENVER (3-8) 

The Broncos have to lose all 5 remaining games. They sure are going after it, with a hard-charging -16 turnover differential and showing little sign of slowing that down. The Raiders got their FIRST interception of the season yesterday, so you know the Broncs are dealing.  But good luck with this schedule: Miami, NY Jets, Indianapolis, Washington and Kansas City. They could win 3 of those games. Still, they managed to be sloppier and more undisciplined than the Raiders yesterday, and lately that’s been hard to top. And they won the Brawl and Lose Your Cool challenge yesterday, so…

Predicted finish: 4-12


A tweak here, a bad game plan there, and the Bears could be 1-10. Interestingly, though, the Bears’ three victories are against the Ravens, Steelers and Jaguars, none of whom have losing records. This is the Upset Team from the Doormat Division this year, and for that alone, we have to be proud of these bums down here in the Basement. Upsets are in extremely short supply this season, and if you ever hear someone say “on any given Sunday”, stuff a cream pie in their face, and rub it in a little. 

daBares amassed 140 total yards against the Eagles on Sunday, and six giant yards of rushing offense. So, uh, they could also lose every single game left. 

They should win this Sunday against the Whiners, Jimmy Garoppolo or not, and the rest of the schedule is this: Bengals, Lions, Browns, Vikings. 

Predicted finish:  4-12. 


The Puntin’ Clots almost upset the Titans on Sunday, but killed off their offense for the second half, and eventually the Titans woke up and scored. The Colts have the Jags, Bills, Broncos, Ravens and Texans to finish up the grind, and they will probably wind down Frank Gore for the last 4 games, to save some wear and tear on him. 

Colts should beat the Broncos….and that’s it. Maybe the Texans, who may give up even more extensively than the Colts.

Predicted finish:  5-11


Upsets don’t happen very often, and, in the Basement, it’s almost never. Like I said above, don’t give me that “On Any Given Sunday” baloney. The worst teams never upset anybody. They just hope another bottom dweller comes to town and somehow they might stumble through to victory. Upsets are usually between middle of the road teams and dubious division leaders. Like this:


Teetering high above their usual perch, Jacksonville gets vertigo and slides down the rigging and hides in the hold and…why am I on a boat?  The Jags aren’t used to leading a division, so pulling off an upset for the Cruds engineers a safe tie with the Titans in the AFC South. Whew. Jags still have a chance to fade and miss the playoffs.

Fake Upsets

The Chiefs are the league’s designated ‘upset’ target, having delivered an upset to the Raiders, Cowboys, Giants and Bills. So, by the time the Flailing Giants beat the Chiefs, it didn’t even count. Just not really satisfying. 

Almost Upsets


This would have counted, had the Pack somehow pulled it off.  Without Aaron Rodgers, Gangrenous Bay plays a solid game, their shaky rookie QB settles down, and…they lose on a FG with 0:00 on the clock. 

We wait…and wait…for a real upset down here in the Basement, but on the other hand, the Moldy Carpet…it’s so close I can almost smell it. Wait. I can smell it. 

aaaAAAAAAnd That’s the View From the Basement!!!!

Screen Grabs: Brewmaster, Franz Fanon, The Divine Order, Pan’s Labyrinth …

The Pale Man is one of the creepy delights of 'Pan's Labyrinth,' playing Wednesday at the Roxie.

SCREEN GRABS Thanksgiving is a big week for movies — much of America rolls downhill toward the multiplex after gorging themselves on the big day, or during the subsequent long weekend. Yet oddly there’s not a lot going on this week in terms of new arrivals. For families, there is some big noise in the form of Pixar’s Coco, an animated dive into Mexican culture (particularly Dia de los Muertes) whose below-the-line talent includes Octavio Solis, the Texas-born playwright who spent a couple recent decades in the Bay Area theater scene. You can also take the kids to a sing-a-long Beauty & the Beast, which plays the Castro on an irregular schedule Nov. 22 through Dec. 3

If you want to leap right past Turkey Day to the next holiday, there’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, a purportedly stale load of Xmas cheer with Dan Stevens as Young Dickens writing that story about Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). Nor have advance reviews stirred great expectations for Roman J. Israel, Esq., which offers Denzel Washington a flashy Oscar-bait role but has been received as a letdown after writer-director Dan Gilroy’s striking 2014 Nightcrawler

Fortunately, there are still good movies lingering around, as well as one new arthouse arrival (see The Divine Order below) and a few one-shot events worth your notice this coming week: 

Julien was a major figure in the New Queer Cinema movement with his features Looking for Langston (1989) and Young Soul Rebels (1991). Since then he’s focused more on gallery and academic work, but remains a significant cultural presence in his native UK. He’ll visit the Pacific Film Archive to screen and discuss (with UC Berkeley professor Butler) his 1995 documentary about Fanon, the Afro-Carribbean intellectual, political activist, psychiatrist and author. Dead at just age 36 in 1961, he is still relevant (and controversial) for his insights on race, colonization and other issues he no doubt hoped we wouldn’t still be dealing with today. Admission to this event is free. Mon/27, BAM/PFA. More info here.

Almost incredibly, Switzerland didn’t grant all women the right to vote until 1971—one small region even kept them out of local elections for another two decades. Petra Volpe’s feature, that nation’s Oscar submission for this year, dramatizes that national struggle in microcosmic terms. A small-town housewife named Nora (Marie Leuenberger) — like Ibsen’s rebellious heroine in A Doll’s House — finds herself in the hot seat as the reluctant local standard-bearer for women’s liberation. 

She’s happy with husband Hans (Maximilian Simonischek) and two sons, but still yearns for some life outside their needs. When she proposes getting a part-time job, however, Hans not only opposes it, he notes that by law she can’t accept the post without his permission. This conflict escalates into a village-wide women’s “strike,” as meanwhile bra-burning feminists take to the streets in Zurich. The Divine Order (its name taken from claims that “equality of the sexes is a sin against nature”) is a somewhat formulaic crowdpleaser whose plot beats seldom surprise. But it is pleasing, with solid performances, direction, and a message that unfortunately needs to be heard just as much today as it did nearly half a century ago. Now playing in SF, Berkeley, and San Rafael. 

A rare director able to straddle both pop mall-flick fantasies and serious adult-themed ones, Guillermo del Toro is said to have hit another career highpoint with The Shape of Water, which won the Golden Lion at Venice. It doesn’t open in SF for a couple weeks, but in the meantime you can refresh your knowledge of the Mexican auteur’s oeuvre with this double bill presented by Midnites for Maniacs. Both Spanish-language features will be shown in 35mm, and both are fantastical approaches to political indictment set in the early days of the oppressive Franco regime. 

In 2001’s Backbone, a rural orphanage becomes a supernaturally-tinged battleground between Republican loyalists and fascists at the end of the Spanish Civil War. The 2006 Labyrinth finds a little girl escaping into a sometimes-perilous mythical world while her mother succumbs to illness, and her new stepfather does Franco’s dirty work as a ruthless military commander. Wed/29, Roxie Theater. More info here.

Other Cinema provides a sure-to-be-lively evening of “communal Trump piñata pounding” with a program highlighting global issues at a particularly dire moment for U.S. international relations. Directly laying siege to the orange-utan himself is Maxim Pozdorovkin’s (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer) archival-clip “biography” Our New President. Citizenfour director Laura Poitras’ Project Xexposes a secret NSA surveillance base smack in the middle of Manhattan, Elizabeth Lo’s Hotel 22 reveals the impoverished fiipside of Silicon Valley wealth, while works by Bochay Drum, Sky Hopinka and others spotlight inequities wrought by corrupt power throughout the Americas. Caitlin Manning will be present to introduce her Dispatches from Mexico, about the revolutionary leftist Zapatista Army of Liberation in Chiapas. Sat/25, Artists Television Access Gallery. More info here

Wondering what them younguns with their video-cameras and whatnot are getting up to these days? Check out this showcase for work from City College of SF’s Cinema and Broadcast Electronic Media Arts department, whose two separate programs tonight feature a wide range of documentary, narrative and experimental shorts crafted by both students and faculty. Thurs/30, Roxie Theater. More info here.

What’s better than being able to drink beer at the movies? Drinking beer while watching a movie about beer-making, of course. This new documentary from Douglas Tirola (who made Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon) focuses on the world of craft beer brewing, and one New York lawyer tempted to abandon his suit-and-tie day job for that rapidly growing industry. En route, he meets a number of its leading personalities. Some of their local representatives will be on hand for a Q and A and after-party during this one-night, over-21-only event at the duly alcohol-licensed Alamo Drafthouse. Wed/29, New Mission Alamo. More info here.

Forget the chains: Shop local with our Best of Bay Shopping winners!

Black Friday, #smallbusinesssaturday, exhaustion Sunday … and then Cyber Monday? That’s a lot! Keep it local this year with the winners of our 2017 Best of the Bay Shopping Readers Poll! For more Best of the Bay, please click here.




347 Hayes, SF



506 Clement, SF



506 Clement, SF



326 Fell, SF



455 Market, SF



1855 Haight, SF



1745 Folsom, SF



Multiple locations



2231 Market, SF




Multiple locations


1523 Irving, SF

(415) 650-3031



1367 Valencia, SF



1605 Haight, SF



619 Sansome, SF


2323 Market, SF



2900 Navy Way, Alameda



623 Valencia, SF



416 Hayes, SF



2391 Mission, SF



Multiple locations



186 W al, SF

2 Embarcadero Center, SF



1077 Valencia, SF



199 Brannan, SF



436 Cortland, SF



280 Sutter, SF



500 Sutter #903, SF




4218 Mission


4811 Geary, SF

33 29th St., SF



1590 Bryant, SF

610 Old Mason, SF



1396 , SF



4069 24th St., SF



321 Linden, SF



Multiple locations



385 Eighth St., SF


Doormat Division: Beyond mid-level bunglers

Just when you thought we were in the mid-season doldrums, and everybody is just a Parity League mid-level bumbler, an inspired determination emerges from the depths of the NFL, and franchises across the land, when finding themselves between a rock and a hard place in the sun, take the bull by the horns of a dilemma and make a silk purse out of a pig in a poke’s silver lining by being just ingeniously flat-out worse than anybody else on the gridiron, and by day’s end land with a spectacular thud in The Basement!  What a weekend!



                                  W-L          PF        PA      DIF

SANTA CLARA         1-9           174      260     -68

NY GIANTS               2-8           162      247     -85

CHICAGO                 3-7            174     221     -47

TAMPA BAY              4-6           203     228      -25

ARIZONA                  4-6            176     254     -78

WASHINGTON          4-6            238     266     -28


                                  W-L          PF        PA      DIF

CLEVELAND             0-9          150      259      -109

INDIANAPOLIS         3-7          179      280      -101

DENVER                    3-7          183      259      -76

MIAMI                        4-6          157       254     -97

RRAIDERS                4-6          204      247      -43

CINCINNATI              4-6          169      199      -30



Faced with the prospect of being in the playoff hunt for several more games, possibly ending their 17-year playoff drought, the Bills pull out secret weapon Nathan Peterman, and obliterate any doubt about what the Bills are trying to accomplish here. Peterman, the 5th round QB pick out of Pitt, stepped into the fray and diced up the Charger defense with 5 interceptions in the first half! The first five possessions were INT (pick-six), TD, INT, INT, INT. That’s the stuff of legend. Every pick, except the first one, was pulled off deep in their own territory, and by the end of the first half the Chargers, the team that blows leads better than any other teams in the NFL, led 37-7, and was just going to have to take a victory like a man. The Chargers find themselves, at 4-6, in 2nd place in the AFC West, and, I’m not kidding, in the playoff hunt.

Peterman, probably in therapy this morning, needed only three more to break the NFL record, but, alas, was yanked in the second half for some guy named Tyrod Taylor. It is true the Bills had lost two in a row, and looked shaky doing it, but…starting a completely inexperienced rookie in a game you could win with your regular guy out there?

Mission accomplished. But the AFC is a dogpile of mediocrity, and, at 5-5, the Bills need to keep getting pulverized for at least 3 more weeks to move out of the danger zone. Up next:  CHIEFS…no gimme


0-10 and looking like 0-16, the Blank Helmets had to get back in the turnover derby late in the second half to pull out this loss, but once they bared down with 3 consecutive turnovers- the final one coughing up the ball in their own end zone to MAKE SURE the stubborn Jags would just score a stupid TD and get off the field- the game was in the bag. 17 punts and 5 turnovers in this Doormat gem. 



Drunk with power from polishing off the 49ers last week (and handing them their first victory), the Giants completely under-prepare for the reeling Chiefs and end up blowing their tie for the Doormat NFC lead, and end up with a victory. Typical. They tried hard to lose the game in regulation, but Chiefs minimal yardage ace QB Alex Smith was having none of that, stalling a drive at the NY 5, and keeping it to a tie, forcing overtime. If the Chiefs can keep this up, the entire AFC West could have a losing record in a couple weeks!



We were calling this Swamp Thing all last week, and wowee what a game. Dolphins QB Jay Cutler whips up three ints in the first half, leaves with a concussion, and was probably surprised to find out later that he is, in fact, still playing football for the Fins. “Didn’t I retire?” 

Seventeen penalties by the Dolphins, 9 for the Bucs, four fumbles for the Fins (two lost), which barely got the Bucs to score…the Fins racked up 448 yards of offense, with the Bucs allowing huge yardage plays from every angle of the field, but, yet, not enough poor defense could get these Dolphins to give it up and win. After the Bucs kicked the go-ahead FG with 00:04 left on the clock, the Floppers pulled off a magnificent multi-lateral play on the ensuing kickoff, which just kept going backwards until they fumbled it right into the end zone, and the Bucs fell on it for the final score. Do that at home, and you are really bringing it.


The question on everyone’s mind this week was, which orange team is worse, the Bungles or the Bunks? HEY, it’s the BRONCOS!  Lowering to the occasion, the Broncos lose it at home, and now ascend into a tie for second with the Colts in the Doormat AFC race. 

Bungles can now be overconfident before their crucial game with the Browns next week.


4-6 and fading fast, we have some trends: Raiders receivers not named Crabtree drop more deliveries than a UPS mail sorter. The Raiders have zero interceptions this season. They have no pass rush. They… well what did they do? They played in Mexico City yesterday, so at least their fans had to travel a really long way to drink cheap beer and witness this trip down memory lane to the bad old days…which were only a couple years ago. The Al Davis flame still burns, and the team is burying themselves. Funny thing about winning- it’s a lot more fleeting than losing.


Keep playing like this, and the Bears (3-7) might win a couple games and fall out of contention for the Moldy Carpet trophy.  But, they still found a way to lose at home to the Kittens, and the Giants won, so anything is possible. It’s just one game. 


Not everybody can make the Ravens look good, but the Porkers pulled out all the stops, including the most hideous throw-back uniforms ever allowed on a football field. Beige pants with blue and yellow tops? The Pack played down to their attire, and flailing rookie QB Matt Hundley hurled 3 interceptions and dropped a fumble, and the Packers offense just got off the field as much as possible, and, eventually, the Ravens found a nearby end zone.

The Packers play the BROWNS in 3 weeks. Whoa. If Aaron Rodgers isn’t back for that one, the Browns are in trouble, as in perfect season is in trouble trouble.


Just when you think some one will pull off an upset, just one, somewhere, the Deadskins can’t do it, and, in phenomenal swirl of inactivity and blowing up, rally the Saints to victory, a 17-point swing in no time, and snatch the ring of defeat off the merry-go-round. Holy Cow.  ANOTHER 4-6 team joins the party.  

It’s getting really 4-6 crowded in the Basement and out on the Patio, and the next two weeks will separate the men from the Moldy Carpet contenders FOR SURE.  We gotta hope.  I’m running out of stale pretzels.

AAAAAAnd That’s the View from the BASEMENT!!!!!!!

Puff: Careful what you wish for (or, the Prop 64 blues)

Photo via leafly

PUFF Everyone, well 74.3% in San Francisco at least, voted to make recreational marijuana legal this year. Yay! Party! Party! Pass the bong. All we have to do is wait until January 1, 2018, and we can all walk hand-in-hand into any dispensary without a card and buy that precious herb. Right?!

Not so quickly! Little did you know that there is still one teeny, tiny little hurdle that has to be cleared — local politics. You see politics doesn’t care how dank the new Platinum Kush OG is or who has the best shatter. It’s not going to come to your party bringing a Pacific Remedy preroll to share with the canna fam. No, it is going to turn the cannabis issue into a blunt tool to use to get what else it wants — power.

So now everyone is meeting at City Hall discussing the pros and cons of weed world, dissecting it, and well, trying to suck as much fun out of it as possible. For such a legendarily lefty town as San Francisco, conservative politics has reared its nasty head to combat the devil’s weed. These forces have trucked in scared locals who are sure once stoners get their way and open dispensaries in playgrounds, they will be shooting up weed, corrupting kids and attacking people with baseball bats. Like any stoner would have the energy for that! Maybe if really good snacks were involved.

Is any of that true? Of course not! It is all a power play by people who are using recreational marijuana as a new tool for political gain. It’s part of the game and pot is the new playing piece.

So what does that mean to Joe Stoner looking for a marijuana deal? Well, first off, don’t let that pot card expire. On January 1, dispensaries can begin to apply for the recreational permit, but as long as politicians spar over the issue, no one knows exactly how long that will take. So you will still need the card to get into a dispensary.

If your card is about to expire, try getting the almighty doctor’s letter in lieu of the “doc in the box” card. When the new regulations do kick in the doctor’s letter will allow you to dodge the pricey 20% (or more) tax the state will charge you.

Remember all those hilarious stories we used to tell each other about how easy it was to get a pot card? “The doctor asked me what I did that made me happy yesterday and then just signed my paperwork” “I got my card at Ameoba Records, that’s so rad!” Well those cards won’t mean bupkis anymore, just a souvenir of days gone by when medical marijuana ruled the state.

The problem is a lot of doctors will not provide the scripts because they are part of some insurance hive mind that does not approve. Well, at least not at your current copay.

In reality, we all knew this kind of stuff was bound to happen. To take a giant step forward, which this is, we are going to have to take a step back, stumble, trip and then catch our balance. These weed wars will end at City Hall. Recreational will go through. Within a few months, we will be able to go to a dispensary and buy any product without a card. Not everything will go perfectly, but we will learn and grow. Some businesses will make it and others will perish.

Never loose sight of the goal though, even right here, right now, precious weed will help us chill throughout this bullshit process and all the bullshit coming down the pike. It is the reason we believe in the outcome of Prop 64. It is marijuana, Mary Jane, grass, reefer. A gift from the Earth. It will be here long after us and politics and pot cards. So pass that doobie and let’s get down to what is really important!

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Small city, Big Oil, upset victories

The pundit-defying results in Virginia’s recent elections happened because of “local, grassroots organizing,” according to Democratic leaders. An intensively researched saga, Steve Early’s Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City is an impressive look at how activists in Richmond, California, figured out how to use the same kind of local clout—and also succeeded.

Early, a longtime journalist and labor organizer, moved from the Boston area to Point Richmond in 2012. In the book’s first chapter, he jokes that his realtor referred to his new home with its sweeping views of the Bay as the “Richmond Riviera.” But six months after the move, his wife was working outside when a panicked neighbor yelled, “Don’t you know there’s a ‘shelter in place’?” The Aug. 6, 2012 Chevron refinery fire was spewing toxic smoke and fumes across the skyline the couple had fallen in love with.

Early was already fascinated with Richmond’s “100-year history of refinery labor struggles and civil rights activity in the black community,” as he says, so the concept for “Refinery Town” easily emerged. But there were challenges. “Without bogging readers down in too much backstory, I had to distill two complex and overlapping threads that shed light on more recent Richmond controversies,” he says.

The result is a very dense, intense read. It draws readers back in time to tell the story of (then) Standard Oil’s establishment in Richmond, drawn by its natural deep-water harbor and the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad, then moves forward through decades of environmental injustice, attempts at labor organizing, and overt racial discrimination to arrive at “The Greening of City Hall.”

As recently as 2003, Early reports, Richmond’s city government was rife with corruption and cronyism, and dominated by what is now Chevron and other industrial special interests. The author expertly delineates the multiple personalities, conflicts and events that led to the emergence of what became the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), which, through the leadership of people like Juan Reardon, Andres Soto, and Gayle McLaughlin, began the uphill slog to transform Richmond and its politics.

Multifaceted battles over the proposed casino at Point Molate, the hiring of openly gay police chief Chris Magnus, and what Early calls “Tuesday Night Cage Fights” (City Council meetings) are all explored in narrative journalism style, allowing the reader access to passionate viewpoints on both sides.

Yet the most compelling section of “Refinery Town” is naturally its re-telling of Chevron’s now-infamous, unsuccessful attempt to buy Richmond’s 2014 elections in the chapter “An Election Not for Sale.” Before few had ever heard the term “fake news,” Chevron spent $3.1 million in negative advertising, direct mail, and “polling” calls, attempting to smear RPA candidates as anarchists and radicals. What happens when a pre-presidential-campaign Bernie Sanders comes to town really deserves a movie of its own. Early himself becomes a cast member, as he describes his encounters with larger-than-life characters such as former city council members Nat Bates and Corky Booze. (“Refinery Town” was submitted for publication prior to the 2016 city council elections, in which the RPA gained a majority for the first time.)

Early moves Richmond’s story further on, noting that the RPA itself has experienced internal controversies, resulting in reorganization, and in an ongoing split between it and former ally, current Mayor Tom Butt. He then turns to that inescapable Bay Area reality: “Gentrification and Its Discontents.” To those who still haven’t caught up with Oakland’s transformation, it may seem implausible that a place long known as crime-ridden and literally toxic could become “the Bay Area’s next hipster haven.” And the collapse of UCB’s plan to build an extension of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, closely documented by Early, has tamped down those rumors—for now.

Ultimately, Early is most interested in what Richmond’s struggles can teach other American “industry towns,” even those that don’t have large progressive elements.“I think organizers in any blue-collar, working-class community, whether predominantly white or majority minority, can learn a lot from the Richmond experience about making progressive politics a viable alternative to corporate domination,” he says.

And as for the refinery in “Refinery Town”?

“Chevron and Richmond could live happier ever after if the city’s damage suit against the company over the 2012 refinery fire was resolved more quickly,” Early says. “High-stakes litigation against the company just keeps piling up, with neighbors like San Francisco and Oakland, and several nearby counties filing lawsuits over Big Oil’s contribution to global warming, a case far more complex than determining liability for a single refinery fire.”

Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City. Steve Early, author, forward by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Beacon Press, 2017, 194 pages, $27.95.

Sunday’s Howard Zinn Book Fair envisions “The World We Want”

LIT The world is flaming on Twitter, your friends are frothing on Facebook, and, well, let’s just say online political discourse in this precarious global moment is a bit… fraught. It’s time to take a breath and gather together — in person, in real life — with several hundred fellow dreamers-into-activists and reach, not for the keyboard, but for a better, more humane society.

“This year has brought many hundreds of thousands of people to the streets to defend immigrants, fight for healthcare for all, defeat a Muslim ban, and provide a powerful voice against the racism, mysoginy and homophobia that brought Trump to office,” the organizers say. “This is the spirit that the Fourth Annual Howard Zinn Book Fair (Sun/19, 10am-6pm. $5 suggested donation. City College, Mission Campus, SF) celebrates as we envision what ‘The World We Want,’ might look like.”

HBZF is inspired by the great peoples’ historian, who described himself as “something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist,” and who passed away in 2010. The Book Fair has grown to more than 60 exhibitors including everyone from Rainbow Cooperative and Social Justice Journal to Jacobin Magazine and the Revolutionary Poets’ Brigade.

There’s also an enormous lineup of speakers and presenters, workshops and other activities whose topics include “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment” (presented by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz), “Development Drowned and Reborn: The Blues and Bourbon Restoration in Post-Katrina New Orleans,” “Narrating the Anthropocene: Storytelling to Rouse Communities Grappling With Planetary Crises,” “Futures of Black Radicalism” and tons more. 

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of the Zinn-inspired ‘An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States’ will speak at the Howard Zinn Book Fair. Photo by Barrie Karp.

I spoke with organizers Joan Bender and James Tracy about the fair’s origins, its importance as a venue of intellectual and social exchange, and this year’s expansive theme “The World We Want.”

48 HILLS The Howard Zinn Book Fair is on its fourth year, and has an astonishing range of speakers and exhibitors. How did it all originally come together? 

JAMES TRACY In 2014, the original organizing committee wanted a place where people from various points on the left could get away from online debates and just share ideas with each other in a little more depth. We started from the assumption that books, theory, and history were all still important and could make our actions more impactful. We also recognized that no one political tradition had all of the answers. Our first Book Fair was held at Mission High attracted about 1300 people, and we had expected about 500!

JOAN BENDER It was an opportunity to reach out to activists, writers, poets, professors, students, community groups, and to bring them together in once place, united by their vision of grassroots struggle from below and fighting for a better world. There wasn’t really another event like this in San Francisco and we are proud that we are making it an annual event.

JAMES TRACY The Fair is organized literally on the floor or the Green Arcade Bookstore. Our current organizing committee includes people from AK Press, Haymarket Books, and the Labor and Community Studies Department of CCSF. We kinda spun out of several different projects — the Voices of the People’s History events, and the Avanti Popolo reading series at City Lights. A lot of the initial conversation and ideas came out of drinking coffee with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

48 Did you personally know Howard? 

JB Most of us organizing the Howard Zinn Book Fair did not know Howard Zinn himself, but knew him through his writings, especially “A People’s History of the United States,” which many people read in high school or college. Also, some of us have participated in or watched Voices of a People’s History which gives public expression to the freedom fighters from our past and present, and seeks to educate and inspire a new generation working for liberation and justice. 

JT I met him once at the National Association of Street Newspaper Conference in Boston. The door to the auditorium he was going to speak at was locked, and he just held court hanging out with a bunch of homeless and formerly homeless activists, not only answering questions but asking a bunch of questions about their activism.

I’ll always remember when one woman shared that she had organized a successful campaign that resulted in free bus passes from families moving from welfare to work. One gentleman in the crowd yelled out that this campaign was just ‘reformist’ and that she needed to fight for socialism. Howard shut that down quickly and said “Son, big revolutions come out of small ones.” With a really stern look. When we finally got into the room he helped set up the chairs and tables. When he finally took the stage, he opened with “I feel really at home here,” and started talking about the history of organizing for housing. 

Poster by Cece Carpio

48H What is particularly new or strikes you as especially interesting this year at the fair?

JB This year’s lineup has sessions covering a wide variety of timely and important topics including the rise of fascism, the fight for healthcare, the economy, the role of the Democratic Party, the relationship between electoral politics, and building the Left. Something that is especially exciting this year are the sessions devoted to celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It’s not every year that we get to commemorate such an incredible exercise in mass democracy! Another notable speaker is Sekou Odinga, a former Black Panther and recently released political prisoner.

JT We’re also really happy that the Center For Political Education is providing the Black Reconstruction in Our Times track — updating the ideas of WEB Dubois for today.

48H This year’s theme is “The World We Want” — why do you feel this is particularly poignant, and how is it reflected in the Fair?  

JT We keep seeing dynamic and powerful moments such as the mobilizations to defeat the Muslim ban, the Women’s March, and the confront the fascist movement. We’re trying to create a space where people can ask what it might look like if the same forces weren’t just playing great defense. That’s going to take gathering those who want to work within and outside of the system to create strategy together. History is a powerful tool. If we use it correctly, we don’t have to start over again every few years. That’s the main lesson of the History From Below tradition. 

JB As Trump passes the one-year mark of his presidency, millions of people are looking for a way to fight back against his all-out assault on the rights of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and the working class as a whole. Now is the time for collaboration and coalition building among those who are committed to turning the tide on Trump’s reactionary political agenda, and the HZBF is the place for us to come together and figure out how to build a better world: the world we want. At the HZBF this year, we’ve  dedicated sessions to this theme like “The Economy We Want,” featuring local activist Alessandro Tinonga and George Lakey, author of Viking Economics. The HZBF is a really important event for the Bay Area left — this year more than ever. And our theme reflects this.

A better world is possible, and talking to each other about what that world might look like is the first step to achieving it.

Sun/19, 10am-6pm, $5 suggested donation (NOTAFLOF)
City College, Mission Campus, SF.
More info here. 

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Screen Grabs: LA 92, My Friend Dahmer, Chinese American Film Festival…

Ann Reinking in 'All That Jazz' from 1979, playing at YBCA

2SCREEN GRABS With as little ado as possible, let’s launch this newcolumn highlighting the week’s film picks — an attempt to provide an easy checklist of highlights for people who might miss the kind of one-stop-entertainment-list service something like the late SF Bay Guardian provided for decades. 

This is not intended to be all-encompassing, even within the realms of arthouse, rep-calendar, and other non-mainstream film openings and events we’ll be highlighting. It will be selective — and I’m doing the selecting, so you’re stuck with my taste. We’ll have room for the occasional wide release of special interest, particularly as we’re now entering in the “awards season” of year-end prestige films. But you can rely on not getting much if any intel on movies like this week’s big guns Justice League (more superheroics), Wonder (Julia Roberts + Owen Wilson = inspirational tearjerker), or animated feature The Star (“A small but brave donkey and his animal friends become the unsung heroes of the first Christmas”) because… er, life is too short. Anyhow, if you’re primarily interested in the latest mall flicks, surely you got here by mistake. That burly man in a tutu will escort you to the exit. 

Hopefully this column will be of some use not just to readers, but also to the many Bay Area film institutions (BAM/PFA, SF Cinematheque, Artists Television Access, the Roxie, et al.) that are still hanging on, but have been hard-hit on myriad fronts—not least the ever-shrinking number of local media outlets that promote or even list their programs. 

Unless otherwise noted, individual films included here are opening regular commercial runs of a week or more on Friday of or immediately following the column’s posting date. Click on the link provided for showtimes, ticket prices etc. If a link is not provided, the film is at multiple theaters in the area, so check Fandango, SFGate, or whatever you normally do. 

Once relatively rare onscreen, black comedies are pretty common these days, as the collective sense of humor has grown more cynical and (you might argue) mean-spirited. But a genuinely creepy comedy is hard to find, a niche amply filled by Marc Meyer’s feature, which in turn is based on the graphic novel memoir by Derf Backderf, an actual former classmate of the titular, late notorious serial killer. It sketches the late 1970s Ohio high school career of teenaged Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch), who’s perceived as a minor weirdo but nothing more — not even by his parents (an excellent Dallas Roberts and somewhat caricaturing Anne Heche), who are too busy fighting their way toward divorce to notice their eldest son’s increasingly strange behavior, including an obsession with dead animal anatomy. When some boys decide Jeff’s odd “spaz” behavior is “hilarious,” they use him to perform pranks — and for a while he’s gratified by the attention, even if on some level he realizes he’s the joke. Meyer gets the midwestern Me Decade vibe just right, and ekes sly humor out of a potentially bad-taste conceit. Nevertheless, the film’s portrait of acute mental illness hiding in plain site eventually arrives at a truly disturbing (but not at all graphic) endpoint. Fri/17-Wed/22, Roxie Theater, SF. More info here

Dhalie Zhang’s ‘Summer’s Gone’

The 4 Star Theatre is hosting a week-long program of recent features from mainland China. Among the half-dozen on tap (some of which will play more than once) are Dalei Zhang’s drama The Summer’s Gone, set in early 1990s Inner Mongolia; The Blood Hound, a tale of blood vengeance between two forest rangers stationed on Western China’s Tianshan Mountain; plus patriotic spectacles The Founding of an Army, Battle of Xiangjian River and A Preacher’s Long March. Fri/17-Thu/23, 4-Star Theater, SF. More info here

Italian suspense master Dario Argento’s masterpiece is this 1977 international horror hit in which an American student (Jessica Harper of fellow cult favorites Phantom of the Paradise and Shock Treatment) at a European ballet school discovers something very sinister—even Satanic—behind the tutus and plies. So out-there that Udo Kier plays the most “normal” character, this surreal nightmare was ideal for its director’s indifference towards niceties of plot logic, while giving full rein to a flamboyant visual imagination that would never be so eye-poppingly well deployed again. The innovative rock score by Gobin has proven influential enough to keep that Italian instrumental band touring on its reputation 40 years later. A new digital restoration of the gory classic’s “uncut, extended version” plays midnights this weekend only at the Clay. (Note: In addition, former Bay Guardian editor Cheryl Eddy will introduce one of Argento’s best later films — 1985’s Phenomena, starring future Oscar winner Jennifer Connolly as a teen with a supernatural link to insects — at the Alamo Drafthouse next Tuesday) Fri/17, Sat/18. Clay Theater, SF. More info here

LA 92 
Hot on the heels of John Ridley’s epic Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 comes another impressive documentary probing events of a quarter-century ago, when the acquittal of four LAPD who’d beaten unarmed, non-resistant speeding driver Rodney King senseless—on videotape, unbeknownst to them—exploded protests against systematic police brutality into the massively destructive, six-day “LA riots.” Though it begins with a flashback to the Watts riots nearly 30 years earlier, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s film otherwise maintains a tight focus on the ’91-92 timeline, with no narration or latterday interviews as outside commentary. The result is a powerful you-are-there chronicle of justified anger boiling over in a way that ultimately was used to simply justify more injustice. Unspoken but unavoidable here is the thought that relations between police and minority (esp. African-American) communities have only grown worse since. Fri/17-Wed/22. Roxie, SF. More info here.  

The PBS educator has turned on generations of kids to science via his 1990s Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Now he uses that celebrity-ambassador status to plea for continued scientific education, research and popularization in an era when climate change has created a global emergency—and its deniers are pouring gas on the fire. This pleasing documentary by David Alverado and Jason Sussberg shows the 60-ish bachelor (he has intimacy issues) interacting with fans, today’s youth, famous allies like Neil deGrasse Tyson, and a few notable foes—such as when he confronts personnel and visitors at a Creationist “museum” spreading the anti-science “gospel” to gullible young minds. Opens Fri/17 at Opera Plaza Cinema, SF. More info here

1979 ended a fascinating cinematic decade with a bang, although now it may seem bizarre to us that the Oscars were swept by nice little drama Kramer vs. Kramer rather than Apocalypse Now—or Bob Fosse’s equally ambitious autobiographical fantasia, which is seldom revived these days yet remains one of the major creative leaps of that Hollywood era. Roy Schneider (a surprising but brilliant choice, cast after Richard Dreyfuss dropped out) plays the womanizing, chain-smoking, perfectionist director-choreographer of stage and screen standing in for Fosse (of Broadway and film triumphs like Cabaret, Chicago and Lenny) himself. This flashy jazz-dance 8 1/2 remains uneven but exhilarating. Its two screenings this weekend conclude YBCA’s Fosse retrospective. Sat/18 and Sun/19. YBCA, SF. More info here

The combination of Michelangelo Antonioni’s arty existentialist mystique, an actual murder-mystery plot, brief nudity and the “Swinging London” setting made his first English-language feature also his first (and last) true popular success. David Hemmings plays the fashion photographer who inadvertently snaps a possible crime scene, getting drawn into a potentially dangerous puzzle involving elusive Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles. In 1966 Blow Up seemed the height of daring, as well as tantalizing insider’s peek at a rarefied scene (complete with actual scenesters like The Yardbirds and supermodel Veruschka) that Antonioni viewed with more skepticism than most audiences recognized. What did it all mean? Today it may be a tad clearer that it doesn’t mean all that much — but it’s still a fabulous objet d’art. The PFA is screening a new digital-restoration print three times through Dec. 1. More info here

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‘The Normal Heart’ still beats ferociously at Theatre Rhino

Jeremy Cole as Felix and John Fisher as Ned in Theatre Rhino's 'The Normal Heart' at The Gateway Theatre. Photo by David Wilson.

ONSTAGE In the opening line of The Normal Heart (through Nov. 25, Theatre Rhinoceros at the Gateway Theater, SF), a young gay man in a hospital waiting room, turns to his friends and says, “I know something’s wrong.”

The line probably drew a different reaction when the play opened at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York in 1985, the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. But at Theatre Rhino’s premier production of the drama, the audience had three decades of heartbreak and death and knew, yes, something was definitely wrong.

Yet after 30 years, Larry Kramer’s groundbreaking play still serves as a searing reminder of how the disease was ignored by public officials, the mainstream media, and the medical establishment even as the death toll climbed higher and higher.

The production is directed by John Fisher, who also plays the protagonist, Ned Weeks, a fictional rendition of Kramer himself.

Weeks, a writer who becomes a ferocious activist trying in every way to draw attention to the disease that is devastating the gay community, is played with just the right balance of braggadocio, compassion and abrasiveness. Early in the drama, Dr. Emma Brookner (Leticia Duarte), modeled on one of the first clinicians to detect that the deadly virus infecting gay males in New York was spread by sexual contact, tells Weeks she’s heard he has a big mouth. Ned counters, “Is a big mouth a symptom?”

“No,” she responds, “a cure.”

Morgan Lange as Tommy Boatwright, John Fisher as Ned Weeks, and Benoît Monin as Bruce Niles in ‘The Normal Heart.’ Photo by David Wilson.

So even those audience members too young to personally remember Kramer’s take-no-prisoners advocacy, his founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, become prepared to hear a lot of loud anger from him.

And Weeks delivers, fiercely denouncing the Mayor for ignoring the “mysterious gay cancer” and the New York Times for burying stories about it on the inside pages, when there are front-page headlines about the Tylenol scare and Legionnaires disease.

What is surprising it that Weeks’ rage is not only directed at his enemies, but his allies as well – especially the seemingly random group that gathers in Weeks’ living room to found an organization dedicated to fighting the disease. The well-calibrated harmony of this ensemble is the beating heart of the production: Bruce (Benoit Monin), a former Green Beret and now a closeted, well-heeled banker, Mickey (Tim Garcia), a health department writer who has fought for gay rights “since Stonewall,” and Tommy (Morgan Lange), a self-described “hospital administrator and Southern bitch.” Even as they send out their first mailing, Bruce worries about using the word “gay” in the return address on the envelope and Ned flies into a rage.

Ned becomes increasingly infuriated at their insistence on an incremental approach, seeking compromise with those who have ignored or betrayed them. He calls himself “the only screamer among them.” After one outburst where Ned excoriates the entire gay movement for its lack of focus on the disease, Mickey asks wryly, “Are you sure you didn’t leave anybody out?” Ned, like Kramer, is accused of being on “a colossal ego trip,” and eventually expelled from the group he founded.

Benoît Monin as Bruce, Tim Garcia as Mickey, Morgan Lange as Tommy and John Fisher as Ned in ‘The Normal Heart.’ Photo by David Wilson.

But Ned’s life takes a turn when he falls in love – for the first time – with the urbane Felix (played with just the right amount of irony and flirtatiousness by Jeremy Cole), a closeted New York Times writer whom he tries to enlist for coverage in the paper. While wooing Felix, Ned’s fierce persona turns awkward and self-conscious; it’s an endearing transition that Fisher accomplishes seamlessly.

Although somewhat overwhelmed by Ned’s outsize personality, Felix reciprocates Ned’s affection and tries to frankly explain why he cannot be of help at his establishment paper. “I just write about gay designers and gay discos and gay chefs and gay rock stars and gay photographers and gay models and gay celebrities and gay everything. I just don’t call them gay.” In other words, he writes about everything “gay” except the lethal disease that is ravaging the community.

But Ned’s anger is contagious. By the second act, a year has passed and Dr. Brookner’s dire predictions of a plague have come true, with a death toll in the hundreds. Ned’s friends – those who have survived – have become increasingly infuriated and demoralized. Tommy reports a sorrowful scene of bringing an estranged mother to her son who was dying in Bellevue Hospital: “There are going to be a lot of mommas flying into town not understanding why their sons have suddenly upped and died from ‘pneumonia.’”

In one of the most gripping scenes, Mickey (Tim Garcia) reaches a tipping point when the phones are ringing off the hook and he can find no more volunteers. The calm, witty activist, grief-stricken by the loss of so many friends, is threatened with losing his city job because of his advocacy. His handsome face crumples into a grimace, his rational voice is choked with sobs. Flailing about, he shouts, “I can’t take any more theories. I’ve written about every single one of them. Repeated infection by a virus, new appearance by a dormant virus, single virus, new virus, old virus, multivirus, partial virus, latent virus, mutant virus, retrovirus…What if it’s something out of the blue? The Great Plague of London was caused by polluted drinking water from a pump nobody noticed!”

Tim Garcia as Mickey, John Fisher as Ned, Benoît Monin as Bruce, Nick Moore as Craig and Leticia Duarte as Emma in ‘The Normal Heart.’ Photo by David Wilson

Mickey’s breakdown is echoed by Dr. Brookner who in the first act deals with the burgeoning health crisis in a detached scientific demeanor. She lashes out at the government funder for rejecting her research proposal, calls him an idiot, and in disgust throws her patients’ carefully organized medical records all over the stage.

Ned’s public anger and private anguish come together, as the handsome, polished Felix is ravaged by the disease, in an unforgettable scene where characters and groceries end up in chaos on the floor.

The scenic design (by Gilbert Johnson) has some effective elements and some bothersome ones. The projections at the beginning of each scene of New York Times headlines and articles are an important reminder of how little was known about HIV, its origins and its impact. But the crudely lettered white panels with statistics about the death toll and media coverage are unnecessary and distracting. Though the information is valuable, it is already available in the actors’ words.

Even more annoying are the actors’ clapping and chanting between scenes, sound effects that add neither meaning nor atmospherics. Is this some kind of male ritual? If it were just a device to cover scene changes, music would suffice.

Jeremy Cole as Felix and Robert Zelenka as Ben in ‘The Normal Heart.’ Photo by David Wilson.

But these shortcomings did not detract from the potency of this highly-charged play, and the passion and compassion that brought many in the audience to tears.

Kramer’s slice of life captures a crucial moment in history, when a mystery disease rapidly besieged the gay community, but was ignored by almost everyone else. As Ned bitterly states, “We’re living through war, but where they’re living it’s peacetime and we’re all in the same country.”

Today’s audiences know well the devastation of the AIDS epidemic – not only to the white male population in New York depicted in this play, but to women, communities of color, and people around the globe. I am not sure why Theatre Rhino, known as the “longest running queer theater in the world,” waited 30 years before staging The Normal Heart. But the power of Kramer’s fury has not diminished and Fisher and the company have staged a memorable version of a play that, sadly, seems to be timeless.

According to the World Health Organization, 35 million people have died of AIDS and an equal number are living with HIV infection, with the greatest prevalence in Africa. There is still no cure for AIDS.

The Normal Heart
Through November 25, $20-$40
Theatre Rhino at The Gateway Theatre (formerly Eureka Theater)

Tickets and more info here. 

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