Archive for January, 2009

Public Transportation 2.0

The Bay Area is is known as the hub for bleeding edge technology, and now public transportation is taking advantage of it. Bart, Muni and Caltrain have easy to use online services to find your way around the city and keep up-to-date on the latest travel alerts.

Bart is now on Twitter – http://www.twitter.com/sfbart providing the latest train delays and other interesting Bart news from and for commuters. You can get the updates directly to your phone through text messages. In addition, the account also responds to your questions. Recently I was having some problems with my Bart cards de-magnetizing and complained about the process to get a refund. The SFBart Twitter account promptly responded with some advice.

Here’s an example of a useful and timely update from SFBart: “There is a 15-20 minute delay at Embarcadero in the Daly City / SFO /Millbrae direction due to an equipment problem on a train.”

SF Bart is also getting into the community spirit and has a funny and somewhat unofficial blog where you can see what commuters are up to.

Caltrain is taking an even more progressive community approach by allowing its passengers to provide updates to the Caltrain Twitter accounts: http://www.twitter.com/caltrain
and the bicycle car http://twitter.com/bikecar. More information on how you can participate and provide Caltrain updates to the Twitter account is here: http://cow.org/c/about

If you don’t have a Twitter account, maybe now is the time to sign up or you can subscribe to the RSS feed off those pages.

Muni takes advantage of NextBus, a site that tells you when your bus will arrive via the website, Mobile Internet or SMS alerts.

If you want an easy way to plan your trips using public transportation, try out 511.org. Type in your start and ending address and the time you want to depart or arrive, and it will give you options using Bart, Muni and Caltrain.

511.org has a list of other useful services such as Dadnab which is text messaging service that plans your trips on city transit.

With all of these new fangled ways to plan out your trip using public transportation that make getting around the Bay Area that much easier, who needs a car?

Coming Home

Chestnut St

Just returning from a month away from SF & America and it makes me appreciate it all the more.

- Our weather rocks. I love putting on a hoodie, layering, whatever we do here to manage the slight variations in cold.
- First day back I walked up to a cafe, met a friend, and sat down to a long Scrabble game over beer. It’s a pedestrian city! We enjoy our casual cafes and don’t have weird alcohol restrictions. It’s a small, but urban city! Yay.
- A big cup of coffee and a not-too-sweet cinnamon roll for under $5. Our food is so high quality and so well priced!
- Bought a honeydew melon and oranges, in mid winter, for a few dollars. It was perfect. The oranges are sweet and heavy, the melon was ripe and tasty.
- You can eat so many different ethnic foods, at so many places, for so little.
- Just to wax American, for my relatives at least I have a new appreciation for the opportunities we have here, for its class-less society, for the attempt at least not to judge people by where they came from, who they were, what class or occupation they had. The lack of history is refreshing, and freeing, basically. (In Sweden, you were locked into your father’s occupation up until the late 1800s.)
- For our political process that allows for different parties and interests to come in and out, without fundamentally changing the process, but representing different interests. (From Bush to Obama, may seem revolutionary to international friends, but as a seasoned American, is par for the course- Reagan to Clinton, i.e. but really- how many other countries’ processes can see that change, and support it?)
- For our honest attempts at understanding recent history, for the flourishing journalism and blogging, and for our interest in accountability. (In Russia, you could really have a debate over whether Stalin was a monster. Same with Mao in China, his culpability is debatable. As a small example here, but we’re ready to impeach Blagojevich. For some, without flourishing journalist estates, that may seem hasty.)

Disposable Film Festival a Showcase for Experimentation

Not long ago, you could only make a film if you had access to money for expensive equipment and other resources. But today, high-quality digital video cameras are inexpensive enough for almost anybody to purchase, and beyond that, video-capture technology is getting better on devices many people already own, like cell phones and point-and-shoot camera.

In other words, you can be a filmmaker, starting today, with nothing more than your cell phone.

That’s the message that Eric Slatkin and Carlton Evans want to get out with their Disposable Film Festival, which opens tonight at the Roxie with a competitive program of shorts, and continues with a single program each day through the weekend. Each program showcases film made with “disposable media,” which, according to Slatkin, is “video footage captured on these new alternative devices — the cell phone, the web cam, the point-and-shoot camera,” as well as a whole new generation of inexpensive video cameras, such as the Creative Vado, the Flip Video Ultra, and the Kodak Zi6.

All these devices were originally made for personal documentary purposes, but together they have “opened up the floodgates” by enabling anyone to make a film. In a joint phone interview conducted last week, Evans pointed out that now, “everybody has access to these devices. Five years ago, if you had a casual impulse to make a film, you really wouldn’t have been able to do it” for lack of equipment and finances. “It’s getting so cheap,” Evans said. “For example, the Kodak Zi6 [which can record 10 hours of high-definition video] is in the $180 range.” 

However, Slatkin and Evans see more than just a change in the technology of filmmaking; they believe that these technological changes are driving an aesthetic shift. “It’s not just that people are making films with these devices,” Evans said. “They’re actually transforming the way that films are being made. A new aesthetic is emerging.”

Because the media is “disposable” — footage costs nothing more than a little battery power, and can be thrown out instantly — Slatkin and Evans see a strong shift towards experimentation. Filmmakers are doing things one could never do with expensive equipment, such as on-the-fly shooting and kinetic filming. They believe that all this experimentation will inevitably influence mainstream filmmaking. In fact, it already has. Evans cited Cloverfield, which was presented as found footage from a camcorder, as an example of this influence. “This is an aesthetic that everybody understands right away,” he said.

Some people are already masterful in the form, such as Fritz Donnelly, who will have an evening devoted to his work Saturday night at ATA. “He was a disposable filmmaker before it was even a ‘thing,’ ” Evans said. “I first saw his work in the Hi/Lo Festival,” which is a festival devoted to high-concept-low-budget films. Later on, Evans met him at SXSW, and in November Donnelly showed Evans and Slatkin the films he’d recently been making with his cell phone. A lot of Donnelly’s films are quick sketches created on the spot whenever he has an idea. “He had been carrying around this DV cam, but now he just uses his phone,” Evans said.

On Friday night, also at ATA, the festival features Buttons, by Red Bucket Films, which is a feature-length collection of tiny vignettes from real life, a kind of impressionistic sketchbook portrait of New York City. “These guys are true filmmakers,” Slatkin said, “and sometimes there’s a magic poignancy they reach” in these moments.

Tonight’s program, at the Roxie, consists of twenty-five short films shown over an hour and twenty minutes. (The first screening has already sold out, but they have added a screening at 10:00.) These films were selected from about 300 submissions. “The thing that was most amazing about it,” Evans said, “is that about 30 different countries were represented in that.” In the final program, there are films from Poland, Ukraine, Brazil, Portugal, and other countries in addition to the US and Canada.

In case you can’t make it, all the shorts will eventually be featured on the DFF website, but Slatkin says they have continued to put on shows at traditional venues because “there are real limitations in viewing a creative work online.” According to Slatkin, films shown in a theater tend to have more of an emotional impact on the viewer, because of the large screen, the darkened room, and the communal nature of the experience.

Finally, on Sunday at noon, the festival will present a panel hosted at Oddball Films at 275 Capp Street. The panel will discuss how you can get into disposable filmmaking yourself, addressing all the basic details of equipment and editing software.

And if you happen to take that information and make a film you’d like to enter in the festival for next year, submissions will open in March or April. Watch their website for details.

Pets are affected by economic downturn

Due to the economic downturn, many people are no longer able to keep their pets – either because they lost their job or have to move and can’t take their companion with them. For some, it comes down to choosing between feeding their family or their pet.

If you can’t find a way to keep your pet, or can’t find someone to adopt it, San Francisco Animal Care and Control (SFACC) will take it in without judgement and work to find it a home.

SFACC works with local rescues to find a home for your pet so the more information you can provide about your pet, the more likely that it will find a good and suitable home. Lastly, please don’t abandon your pet on the streets of San Francisco hoping someone will pick it up, it’s dangerous to your pet and the residents of the city.

On the flip side, if you are looking for a new pet to join your family, consider visiting SFACC. They are facing a 25% cut in budget and need all of the support they can get through donations and volunteering.

Here are some of the great dogs that are down at SFACC right now and need homes!

GOP jest: move Guantanamo prisoners to Alcatraz

It’s standard Republican operating procedure to call everything they don’t like “liberal” and to consider San Francisco the capital of the loony liberal universe, so this probably shouldn’t be too surprising: at least one Republican congressman has suggested that if Obama wants Guantanamo closed, he knows just where the US should put its dangerous inmates. “Alcatraz would be a good place to put these people,” suggested Florida Rep. C.W. Bill Young. (Courtesy SF Gate)

He’s probably not serious, so don’t go suggesting that you could think up plenty of places, like maybe Disney World or Clearwater (the latter being the world HQ of Scientology), that would be just as good. The people of Florida already suffer enough. They have to live in Florida.

Film: The Owl and the Sparrow

Owl_and_the_Sparrow_01

The Owl and the Sparrow, which opens tonight in San Jose and on February 13th in San Francisco, tells a simple story: Thuy, an orphaned 10-year-old girl, runs away from her overbearing uncle in the countryside and tries to make a new life for herself in Saigon. While selling postcards and flowers, she meets and befriends a zookeeper whose fiance has left him, and a beautiful flight attendant who is about to break off her affair with a married pilot. Eventually she gets the idea of bringing these two lonely hearts together, creating a makeshift family of her own, which will soon collide with the authorities and with her uncle, who has been searching the city for her.

It sounds like a recipe for unbearable sentimentality, but the film has a gritty element: what with the handheld cameras, the naturalistic performances, and the street scenes, the sweetness was offset just enough that hard-boiled cynics like me could enjoy it too. “For me, Saigon is the fourth character in the film,” director Stephane Gauger said, in a joint interview with his executive producer, Timothy Linh Bui, in San Francisco on Monday. “You feel the city, but at the core, it’s really about the kindness of strangers and humanity,” Gauger said. “And I hope that’s the message that a lot of people come away with.”

Bui and Gauger (pronounced GOW-ger) have known one another for many years now, ever since Gauger’s student days at Cal State Fullerton. Since then they’ve worked together on five feature films, but The Owl and the Sparrow is Gauger’s first stint as director. This weekend marks its first theatrical release in the United States, but on the festival circuit it has won about ten awards — including the award for Best Narrative Feature at last year’s International Asian American Film Festival — and it has had a few screenings overseas as well, including in Vietnam. I asked how it played there.

“They liked it,” Gauger said, “but there, it’s more for an art house crowd. The public tends to like things a little more broad, a little glossier, and this one is a little more real. A little more slice of life.”

“It wasn’t escapism for them,” Bui interjected. “Here, you’re transported in a way to a foreign land.”

“You have elephants and third-world street kids in this,” Gauger added, “so it has a little bit of exotic appeal to it.”

There are a lot of kids in Saigon just like Thuy, who are selling things just to survive. Most of them have family in the countryside, often rice farmers, who don’t make much money. It’s common for kids to stay with relatives in the city, and while they sometimes go to school during the day, they always work at night, selling jewelry beads or postcards or flowers, and then send a little money back home when they can, to try and help out.

Of course, a lot of these kids, never end up getting to school. Bui said that it’s not so much that they fall through the cracks as that “school becomes a lot less important when you’re just trying to eat.” He elaborated: “It’s a sad situation. They should be in school, if they’re not, they should be in bed by 9 PM, but you see them at 2 in the morning when you’re at a club. But they have to survive.”

Thuy is played by Pham Thi Han (pictured above at center), who was one of only ten girls that Gauger auditioned. Gauger compared this to his experience with Bui on Three Seasons, where they auditioned about 500 children. “Normally,” Gauger said, “you cast a wide net, but I kind of streamlined everything to meet our guerilla schedule.”

Guerrilla is just the right word to describe it. Gauger only had fifteen days to shoot in thirty locations, and he had five days to do the casting — casting which included an elephant and an orangutan. Gauger said that originally, he had envisioned a tiger instead of an elephant. I asked him whether he made the change because the tiger was too dangerous to work with. Actually, it was just the opposite. The problem with tigers, Gauger said, is that a tiger is really a big cat, “so they just sleep all day. It’s so uncinematic — they’re just laying there. But with elephants, there is a lot of interaction with the zookeepers.” Out of five, they chose the youngest and the tamest. It seems that elephants are very easy to direct: “If you want the elephant to get closer to the camera,” Gauger said, “just wave sugar cane at it. t comes right over!”

Orangutans, on the other hand, are not so simple to work with. “We had three scenes in the script with the monkey, but we shot the first scene and then he didn’t stay still.” That was a problem because of continuity concerns. “If the orangutan is here in one shot, and there in another shot, it’s just a lot harder to get good continuity. You can’t really tell an orangutan to stay out of your shot. So we did one scene and had to let it go.”

The production was guerrilla in other ways, too. With a self-financed budget of $50,000, a minimal crew, and a small cast, they were able to stay mobile and easily move from location to location. There was no need for large vans: all they had to do was grab a couple taxis, load up the gear, and go. And with such a tight shooting schedule, there was never any downtime. “It was liberating,” Gauger said. “The actors have fun, they feel the energy, because they’re never waiting around. They’re always on, always in character. Sometimes we’d just do four takes and move right on to rehearsing the next scene.”

The only actor who was not auditioned at the time was Cat Ly, who plays the flight attendant. Cat Ly is American-Vietnamese, and she’s actually a known singer in the community. Bui said that she acted in his first student film, 15 years ago, and then he lost track of her for ten years until she appeared in Journey from the Fall. “I was a gaffer on that film,” Gauger said, “and we hung out. I liked her acting style in that film.” So, back in Orange County, he asked her out to grab some pho, and he described his project to her: fast, with no time to rehearse, and he couldn’t pay her much, but it would be an adventure. Why did she say yes? Gauger thinks that it was the opportunity to do a “nice role” and work with “somebody who is a little bit not the norm, who’s not going to play it safe,” offering her a chance to express herself. “It’s a good challenge,” he said.

Many of the people who appear in the film were non-pros or first-time actors. Some of them were just people who had noticed that they were shooting a film and joked that Gauger should put them in a film someday. So in many cases, he went ahead and did just that: “a lot of the background, bit-part people were just girls who worked at hotels or restaurants. They would just be hanging out, greeting guests all day, so they’d have time to slip over for an hour and do a scene.” I asked what was it like working with non-pros. “It’s nice, because sometimes you get a little more of a naturalistic performance. They don’t overthink it too much.” He also found that when he placed a non-pro in the frame with a trained actor, “they’d meet in the middle. The pro is more grounded in reality, and the non-pros have to up their game a little.”

Gauger and Bui intend to collaborate on another film once they have finished with The Owl and the Sparrow. It’ll be a film about the Vietnamese national soccer team and their English coach. “Storytelling-wise it will be emotionally in the same line as this, but bigger,” Bui said. By way of explanation, Gauger added that “we’ve got a couple of soccer matches in it, so we’re going to have to fill up a stadium.”

In the meantime, enjoy the Owl and the Sparrow, which opens tonight at the Camera 3 in San Jose, and on February 13th at the Sundance Kabuki.

Yiyun Li’s powerful new novel "The Vagrants"

The Vagrants, the first novel by Chinese-American author Yiyun Li — who lives in Oakland and teaches at UC-Davis, and whose 2005 debut story collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, garnered much critical praise — is set in 1979 in a provincial Chinese town, where a former Red Guard is being executed as a counter-revolutionary. The novel looks at how this event affects a wide range of people in the town, from poor ragpickers to a powerful, popular radio announcer who knew the condemned as a girl.

As the townspeople witness the condemnation of Gu Shan and its aftermath, each reacts differently. Those who knew her suffer breakdowns or plot to overturn her condemnation; others scheme to take advantage of the situation; still others are preoccupied with the barest details of survival. Li’s large cast of characters are drawn with great precision and insight, and she employs a sweeping, omniscient point of view to illuminate their fears, desires, and crushed hopes. Along the way, the lives of all the characters are touched by the brutality of poverty or of the Chinese police state.

The Vagrants is the best literary novel I’ve read in a long time, and I was excited to be able to interview the author, after the jump.

Li will be appearing around the Bay Area in February to promote the book. See her listing of tour events.

Click to read the interview

Hot stove report: Giants past and present

The Giants announced yesterday they have re-signed relief pitcher Jack Taschner to a one-year contract.

As Giants fans know, the team picked up two interesting free agents over the winter: infielder Edgar Renteria and pitcher Randy Johnson. While Renteria is a typical free-agent signing — a well-known player who may have two or three years left in him — Johnson is more intriguing. The 295 game winner may be 45 years old, but he won 11 games last year and, as many have pointed out, just having him on the roster means there are four or five games the Giants won’t lose this year, as he invariably beat them when pitching for the Diamondbacks.

With the addition of Johnson, the team is still looking for a big bat.

Speaking of veterans:

SF: are we dog friendly or not?

One of the reasons I love San Francisco so much is because it is so dog-gone friendly. I am a huge fan of dogs, they have been apart of my family my whole life. I take my chihuahua Funston with me everywhere I can, and when I can’t, I conveniently pop him into a bag.

Funston is hangin out while we are in line for iPhones!

I first discovered that I could take dogs into some bars in SF when I visited one of my favorite establishments, Bender’s Bar & Grill on S Van Ness. A large mastiff Sweet Pea frequents the joint along with other regulars. I took Funston there to meet up with Ridley and they happily hung out as we downed our beer.

Tantek

Funston and Ridley join us at Bender's Bar & Grill

Unfortunately some not so well behaved dogs and their even more misbehaved humans can ruin it for everyone. Just the other day I went to Four Barrel Coffee and noticed this sign:

Four Barrel Coffee

I spoke to barista Jeremy about the sign and he explained that a couple of people complained to the health department and now he can’t even bring his own very well behaved dog in. He lost one of those intrinsic job perks that keeps him motivated.

The Mission is a very walkable part of San Francisco and you see people with their pooches out all the time. Eric and Mark and doggie Karl came by Four Barrel expecting to go right in, but stopped when they saw the new sign. Eric had to wait outside while Mark got them coffee and Karl was left confused.

It seems pretty overboard to complain about people bringing their dogs into grab some coffee. The floor at Four Barrel is cement and the coffee and the donuts being served can’t be accessed by dogs. The only explanations I can think of are that some people are allergic and/or a dog got up in the face of a non-dog friendly patron.

Mark, Karl the dog, Eric

I’m not sure how to resolve this to everyone’s satisfaction. Clearly there are the dog lovers, and the not so much. So we don’t continue with the negative trend, I ask San Francisco dog owners to please keep your dog in check if you are going to take them into food establishments so the rest of us can enjoy this privilege. And for those of you that aren’t so dog friendly, have a heart. Nobody wants to see a sad dog!

Boxer outside Four Barrel

My hope is that we can try and be the friendliest dog city in the world and add more signs like this one at Sidewalk Juice:

Chain stores on Valencia? NFW, says writer-activist

San Francisco writer and activist Stephen Elliott whose Progressive Reading Series raises money for progressive causes and candidates, and who just founded the online magazine The Rumpus, walked up Valencia St. the other day and saw this:

Click for a full-size version

According to the notice, the American Apparel chain of clothing stores wants to open a branch on Valencia St., next to Artists Television Access. Appalled at this prospect, Elliott is organizing people to show up at the February 5 hearing and voice their opposition.

I interview Elliott briefly about his efforts, after the jump.

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