Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Summer Film Score: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Once in a great while, a film score really grabs me from the inside out: It’s not just the beauty of the suite or piece of music alone, but when the sounds are perfectly matched with the mood, look, and feel of the story being told on screen and the elements combine to make one extraordinary whole, the inextricable links between music and movie become entwined with the soul, as if we’ve heard these strains somewhere before. The Last Black Man in San Francisco, directed by Joe Talbot with music by Emile Mosseri,  is the ideal marriage of sound and image for The City right now. It’s melancholy but not maudlin; it’s shimmering but not overwhelmingly bright and it surprises with its subtlety. I have much to say about the film, and its operatic dimensions cut from indie cloth, but I’m not yet done formulating my thoughts (I’m a little stuck in the real life tragedy of it all). For those of us living here, thinking about the state of our city comes second to surviving it. Living in a place of such extreme, rapid and frankly terrifying gentrification is a job in itself; for those of us born here, we live everyday with the specter of something we love being taken from us — again, and again — rendering our home unrecognizable. The grief is ongoing and it feels like it will never end. It’s a daily discipline simply to get up and out of bed to ready one’s self for the day ahead: Who or what will we lose next?  At least now we have a soundtrack to accompany the loss.

Full interview with Emile Mosseri in this month’s Tourworthy.

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Filed under: Arts and Culture, film, gentrification, San Francisco News, , , , , , ,

To Boom or To Bust: The Long Story of San Francisco

Author David Talbot was making the rounds of San Francisco’s booksellers earlier this month during California Independent Bookstore Day, though the author of Season of the Witch and Brothers wasn’t promoting a new book; rather, he was using the community-oriented bookstore scene as a platform for his insider knowledge of City Hall to promote someone’s– anyone’s– significant bid for a mayoral run against Ed Lee in November. Talbot believes the need for new leadership in San Francisco is so dire, he joked he would run himself were it not for the personal and fiscal demands of entering a campaign. “I don’t want my wife to divorce me, which she said she would do if I did,” he laughed. cvr9781439108246_9781439108246_lgOther potential candidates like former Mayor Art Agnos, State Senator Mark Leno, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano have all opted out of the race after being rumored or considered as runners; former Supervisor Aaron Peskin is also nolo contendere since announcing his wish to fill an opening on the Board of Supervisors (as its few remaining progressives term out). Talbot says there may be one more viable candidate out there for mayor, but his sources have made him promise not to drop any hints. Meanwhile, Lee and his chief backer, venture capitalist Ron Conway, will stop at nothing to win the race, so we shall expect the usual vulgarities once/if reasonable opposition appears on the scene before the June 9th nomination filing date.”So what we lack and need is leadership, a media outlet and a progressive think tank,” Talbot concluded from his opening remarks on Saturday at Modern Times Bookstore. Then he opened the floor to the assembled crowd of activists, attorneys, homeowners, and young journalists for comment. One long-time community organizer was near tears as she contemplated the prospect of another four years for Lee. “You think it’s bad now. We’ll all be gone by then,” she said, referring to the drift of long-time San Franciscans and natives away from the city they call home. “I share your pain, but don’t leave!” the author responded. “We need you here as an advocate.” 

Talbot believes an institution devoted to educating future political leaders, as well as voters, would be a longer-term solution, and again he asked the crowd to speculate how such a venture, as well as a much-needed media outlet, could be funded. That question remained largely unanswered, though the one name that consistently comes up in these conversations is Marc Benioff, a tech billionaire and serious philanthropist intent on doing good with his wealth while encouraging others in his business to do the same.

Talbot’s overview of city governance and his depth of understanding of public versus privately funded projects here, as well as of the more general role media plays in democratic society, is owed to his background as a journalist: He’s worked for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and the San Francisco Examiner, and he founded Salon, one of the Web’s earliest full-service magazines/news destinations. He was raised in Los Angeles, and his father, Lyle Talbot, was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild. Talbot’s self-proclaimed obsession with the Kennedys led him to write Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years; he followed with Season of the Witch, a cultural and political history of San Francisco and how it came to be the city it’s known to be versus the city that it is (on Saturday he revealed that Season of the Witch will be this fall’s One City One Book).

In recent years, Talbot has followed the story of changing San Francisco and has delivered a series of talks, including “Don’t Be a Stanford Asshole,” which implores new and future Stanford elite to be mindful of the dehumanizing nature of technology. A transcript made the rounds on the Internet earlier this year when it was picked up by 48 Hills, the one-man operation helmed by former SF Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond, who Talbot believes is creating the kind of deep investigative journal we need in light of the long-insufficient San Francisco Chronicle, and in the absence of SF Bay Guardian, which was abruptly closed last year.

“We are a city, a world, in a boom and bust cycle,” asserts Talbot, and of that there is no doubt, though he notes the strange mood here as most of us await the next bust more fervently than more boom.

Last month even the historically nonpartisan 58th San Francisco International Film Festival got into the spirit of imminent change by hosting a program titled “Boomtown.”  Redmond delivered a PowerPoint presentation providing an overview of the housing crisis in progress, though it was cultural expressions like Vero Majano’s heart-stopping spoken word and found film from the Mission District, Melorra and Melodie Greene’s interactive tribute to the LGBTQ/Black Lives Matter movement, and The Last Black Man In San Francisco, a film in the works by Talbot’s son Joe, which if seen by wider audiences could potentially change hearts and minds. Joe Talbot’s film is based on real events in the life of its co-writer and lead actor, Jimmy Fails (whom Talbot the elder considers an honorary son).

Fails’ African American family experience is the most extreme example of a community’s disproportionate displacement here, and yet the feelings speak for many of us when the character says,  “My grandpa came West…Sometimes I feel there ain’t nothing left of me here. But where am I supposed to go? Ain’t shit west of here but water.” It’s an apt observation for a city lost at sea without a captain, but in these young filmmakers’ art and music (which Joe Talbot also composed) there is also light and hope–things we natives and transplants can all use a bit more of right now.

A version of this post appeared May 5 at Down With Tyranny

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, column, , , , , , ,

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