Here’s some good news for lovers of bookstores.
CESAR CHAVEZ, THE MOVIE
By Byron Spooner
Going to the movies has become more and more like going to the airport in recent years. This is dispiriting trend is no more apparent than at The Metreon, that great foul armpit of capitalism gone mad. Like the airport, it is a revenue engine without a governor; a neon and particle-board marketing platform with no controlling intelligence. It feels as if anyone with any common sense has been blackballed and expelled in the name of unpasteurized profit. Small insults accrue and multiply as you wade through a dehumanizing nightmare. We should resist dehumanization inch-by-inch which is how it is worming its way into our lives.
They don’t even pop their own popcorn anymore but instead bring it in pre-made, in voluminous plastic bags which they disembowel over unclean bins to be sold as fresh. This probably saves the great mother corporation twelve cents or so a kiloton and employs .0001 fewer people per venue. Once entering what the usher solemnly refers to as ‘the auditorium’ you are treated to twenty-five minutes (I timed it) of previews featuring every brain dead movie slated for release in the next six months and admonished by hundreds of insanely animated red balloons about cell phones and texting at a Ramones-level volume. One clip helpfully informs you that in the event of an emergency the exits “may be to the front, or to the rear, or to the left, or the right,” neatly narrowing the possibilities by eliminating the possibility of trap door exits in the floor or helicopter rescues from the roof and at the same time covering the corporation’s ass liability-wise, in ten brief, if ear-splitting, seconds.
So no wonder my wife and I felt a mix of culture shock and relief as the Bosch-ian sensory overload ended and we settled in front of a movie as sweetly well-intentioned as Cesar Chavez which played unobtrusively as the earth-rattlers exploded across neighboring screens. It came as no surprise to us that we were nearly alone; there were maybe twenty-five people, tops, at the Sunday afternoon screening. Nice independent movies don’t generally attract the lunkheads who hang out at the Metreon.
The movie is a low-budget ($10 million) re-telling of Chavez’s life from around 1962 up to his initial gains against the growers in the early seventies. It aims to be inspiring without being insipid. It is concise (101 minutes) and made by a nearly all-Latino crew, if I’m reading the credits right. The story is told straight-forwardly and in chronological order; there isn’t a flashback to be seen anywhere. The low budget nicely suits a movie that sets out to depict the claustrophobic lives of the farm workers; eight kids in a one bedroom house in the Chavez family’s case; workers huddled under the grape vines for what meager shade the leaves can provide and crammed onto flatbeds to go from place to place. When the camera does dolly back from the cramped conditions the audience is almost relieved by the enormity and uniformity of the fields and by the size of the landscape where these stories play out.
Chavez (Michael Pena) is, expectedly, the center of the story and his wife (America Ferrera) is his closest confidant. Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), herself a fireball organizer and historical figure of some note, is a barely developed character, her role in the movement hardly acknowledged. The strained relationship between Chavez and his son, the de rigueur human-interest story screen writers work into the biographies of large figures to give the audience something to relate to, is flat, predictable and pretty much hammered into the ground. Near the end of the movie there is even a scene where tears stream down the son’s face as he reads a letter of attempted reconciliation from his father.
Like many movies that try to deal with real and/or complex situations (recent examples: 42, Mandela, The Company You Keep) Cesar Chavez suffers greatly from oversimplification. At times it is hard to know how or why one event in the picture leads to another. There are some scenes that exist without follow-up, seemingly without reason. At one point Chavez seems to abandon his twenty-five day hunger strike solely because Robert Kennedy shows up and makes a speech. At another he is seen in a paddy wagon with no explanation of why or how he got there.
Director Diego Luna stays focused on the story, but seems to have had trouble getting passion out his actors. The whole affair seems rather bloodless, the kiss of death in a movie that depends on the audience caring about a cause. Throughout Cesar Chavez the word ‘communist’ is tossed at the farm workers repeatedly, an accusation they mostly try to laugh off. But nowhere, not once, is the word ‘capitalism’ uttered. It seems a strange omission since the farm workers’ struggle was always larger than just the union against a few crummy growers. One wonders where in the process of making the film such a failure of nerve took place. It makes the movie smaller in way that has nothing to do with its budget.
What drama exists is driven by the conflict between the farm workers’ demands and the local cops and growers—led by the creepily malevolent John Malkovich—who colluded to thwart them. The film ends with Pena and Malkovich signing an agreement to begin contract negotiations, shaking hands and smiling, if somewhat reluctantly, while the cameras snap; a scene that leaves the impression that the struggle has ended in triumph. But the moment doesn’t ring true; partly because it isn’t factually true, but also because the movie has failed to contextualize the conflict as part of the larger movements of the time and the struggles that continue to this day. Instead the audience leaves the theater feeling good about the movie and, more importantly, itself: Nixon and Reagan (who make appearances in news footage) and all the evil growers have been vanquished and anyway it all happened a long, long time ago and everything is just fine now. Having a handful of local growers stand-in for the worst aspects of monopoly capitalism may make the movie easier to for the audience to follow, and easier to sell, but it diminishes Chavez’s vision and accomplishment.
After the credits, which are part of the movie despite the obligatory stampede for the exits before the last scene has faded, the screen was re-inhabited by the bouncing red balloons, and the dehumanization resumed immediately. “It’s time to go,” they announced cheerfully. The lights had barely come up and we were just taking a couple of seconds, trying to gather our crap and pull the sleeves of my jacket right-side out, when we were castigated—after spending twenty-five clams on tickets and another fifteen or so at the concession counter, by the way—by these idiot balloons for not exiting quickly enough to please them. “Really? Aw, fuck you,” I said without looking up and more loudly than I’d planned.
The only people who heard me were the cleaning crew who, when I finally did look up, were standing and patiently holding brooms and dustpans, waiting to sweep up the popcorn I’d scattered all around my seat while shoving it into my face and to throw away the seventeen gallons of Sprite left over in our cup. They looked a lot like the people we’d just seen in the movie.
He’s in a Picture of a Guitarist in the Forest
reading … through time
or the music everywhere
if it is not here.
listen to the mountain:
signs scrapped from numbers
re-write what happened
from the past to the present
..before words for the numbers
…to make the past what it is…
making eye-contact in the mirror
testing for tenderness in the ear
…the map came before the territory
what were we naming?
ourselves and everywhere…
we make music from the sounds
name the counting
coming from ourselves:
below the mountain.
… 3/4ths time …no mistakes
Michael Lambert is the SFPL’s new Deputy City Librarian. Michael brings an impressive array of experience in several urban libraries across the nation, including his prior role of Deputy Director of Libraries at the San Mateo County Library, Public Service Librarian and Branch Manager at the Foster City Library and Branch Manager at the East Palo Alto Branch. Michael earned both a Bachelor of Arts in History and a Master of Library and Information Science from the University of South Carolina.
Governor Jerry Brown appointed Greg Lucas, a former political reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, to the post of State Librarian. Lucas has been a senior editor for the Sacramento website Capitol Weekly and writes and edits California’s Capitol, a website he created that explores issues of state politics and history. Lucas has been a board member at the Friends of the California State Archives since 2012. He has a Master of Arts degree in professional writing from USC. Lucas will be managing the California State Library, which houses historical books and documents and provides research to the governor and Legislature.
2008 saw the reopening of two very different neighborhood libraries as SFPL’s Branch Library Improvement Program and Friends’ accompanying Neighborhood Library Campaign progressed: Western Addition and Noe Valley. The Western Addition, an incredibly ethnically, economically and culturally diverse neighborhood, has historically been home to a variety of communities, including Japanese, German Jews, African Americans, Filipinos, and Koreans. The popular library in Hamilton Square originally opened on June 27, 1966 and has always reflected this diversity. The renovated neighborhood library opened on February 2, 2008. Despite the pouring rain, hundreds of neighbors and community leaders stopped by to celebrate that day.
Reflecting the history of its neighborhood, the library houses a Japanese collection of more than 16,000 items, the largest public library collection of its kind in Northern California. The total renovation project cost $4.3 million. It features a new and expanded teen area, updated children’s room, a new program room, a landscaped courtyard, more computers and free WiFi access to the Internet. Friends’ fundraising efforts in the neighborhood netted more than $225,000.
The building and its landscaping use a number of “green” features from the “cool” roof and operable windows to the less visible fixtures and internal systems. Visitors and neighbors enjoy a broad range of books, DVDs, and music, including specific collections: Japanese, English language Japanese, Russian and African-American as well as an extensive neighborhood photographic history.
In comparison, the historic Noe Valley Carnegie building originally opened in 1916. Over the years, the Noe Valley community has contributed to the improvement and maintenance of the library. During the 1970s, Noe Valley residents built a deck and a community garden adjacent to the library. During the 1990s, members of the neighborhood groups renovated the community room.
Carey & Co. Architecture of San Francisco managed the renovation project but the community participated fully. All were delighted when the library received the Governor’s Historic Preservation Award. Closed for two years for renovation, Noe Valley neighbors celebrated the grand re-opening of the Noe Valley-Sally Brunn Branch Library on March 8, 2008.
The library received a floor-to-ceiling makeover: accessible restrooms, expanded teen and children’s areas, a new elevator and lighting fixtures, restored furniture, more computers and free wireless Internet access. It has also been hailed for its green features: lighting, low-water plants, and the use of recycled plastic materials.
Friends of the San Francisco Public Library were delighted to work with neighborhood residents and the Noe Valley Library Campaign Committee to raise $200,000 of the $500,000 needed to pay for expenses not covered by the bond, including furnishings, fixtures and equipment. In the words of Noe Valley neighbor Kim Drew, “The Friends make a great library even greater.”
Indeed, whether it is the re-opening of neighborhood libraries to record crowds, a poetry reading that opens a new world for a reader, or a patron enjoying a book or recording at home, the work of the Friends touches every Library user — and by extension, nearly every resident of San Francisco.
PETER MATTHIESSEN, 1927 – 2014
by Byron Spooner
I met Peter Matthiessen once when the Friends of the Library were selling books at the Koret Auditorium in 2001. Matthiessen was featured speaker at a program in the “Writers of the Land” series sponsored by the Trust for Public Lands and the Wallace Stegner Environmental Center at the San Francisco Public Library. He spoke, brilliantly, to a packed house, about our current and ongoing environmental crises and was received with wild applause. Afterward he was seated at a table signing books. I’d brought several of my own for him to sign and he graciously did so. At seventy-six he was still big, strong man, especially up close; leather-faced from a lifetime spent outdoors, lithe and lean. He was more fit than I—then forty-seven—had ever been or ever would be. He seemed to be in repose, nerveless and serene, probably a result of his Zen training, I figured. I was so awed to be in the presence of such a master that when he asked me how I wanted them signed I was quite taken aback and could only mumble ‘Just the signature is fine’ or something like that. My wife interceded and said “Make them out to ‘Byron,’ he’s just too tongue-tied to ask you himself.”
I started reading Matthiessen in the early eighties when someone, I think it was my partner in the bookstore he and I used to own, turned me on to The Snow Leopard (1978). The book was at once an adventure in the Himalayas, a quest for a glimpse of a Snow Leopard, and a meditation on grief, Buddhism and the meaning of just about everything. Typically, the adventure end of it appealed to me more than the spiritual end, but I admired how beautifully he’d pulled off the integration of his inner life (which accounts usually put me promptly to sleep) and the natural world.
After that I knocked off The Tree Where Man was Born (1972) and Sand Rivers (1981), both about his African journeys, and his landmark Wildlife in America (1959). Wildlife… is still the best book written on the history of Americans’ broken relationship with their landscape and one of the first, along with Silent Spring, to raise the alarm over the ongoing decline of our native species that continues to this day. These books stood at the confluence of two of my major obsessions; natural history and literature. They would have to be at the top of any objective list of the best nature writing America has produced. Subsequently I read most of his elegantly-written books—fiction and non-fiction—as they came out, knowing I had a special treat in store each time. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983), Indian Country (1984), Men’s Lives (1988), On the River Styx and other stories (1989), Killing Mr. Watson (1990), African Silences(1991), Tigers in the Snow (2000), Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes (2001), The End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica (2003) and the older books—Under the Mountain Wall (1962), The Cloud Forest (1961), Blue Meridian (1971),—as I encountered them second hand. My respect for The Snow Leopard notwithstanding, my tolerance for the spiritual is very limited so I’ve steadfastly resisted Nine-headed Dragon River (1986), his account of his awakening to Zen.
It was inevitable that I would start collecting Matthiessen’s books and over the years I accumulated nice copies of nearly everything the man had written. When we moved to the city a few years back and had to cut down on the size of our libraries, I kept as much Matthiessen as space would allow. One of my prized possessions, one that I would have kept had we been rendered homeless, is the first edition Wildlife in America he signed on that day back in 2001 when he also signed my first edition of The Tree Where Man Was Born. I also kept a lovely, jacketed copy of his Shorebirds of America (1967), unfortunately a second printing but hard-to-find nonetheless. In my library are signed copies of all three of the Watson Trilogy novels that won a controversial National Book Award when Matthiessen edited them down and reworked them into the one-volume Shadow Country in 2008. I held on to a pretty beaten-up sixth printing of The Snow Leopard that normally wouldn’t warrant shelf space except that it is Jerry Garcia’s copy. I bought it from Caroline Garcia, AKA Mountain Girl, back in the early nineties. It is inscribed to Garcia: “For Jerry Garcia, My son Alex is a great admirer of your music, and I am, too. With many thanks and best regards, Peter Matthiessen.” Laid into the book is a card to Garcia from Zander Matthiessen which says, in part: “Jerry, My father is a naturalist writer who travels to some interesting places some of which you might be interested in. See if you can get 100 pgs thru this. You might like it if you’re at all into Zen…”
Naturalist, novelist, radical, conservationist, Zen master, crusader, editor, citizen of the world, Peter Matthiessen came off in his books as nearly indestructible; running off all over the world at an age where most people were in their second decade of retirement and writing about it with a limitlessly youthful brio. In person at the Koret event he seemed immortal, like some Paul Bunyan of American letters. He will join the other giants of the American literary pantheon, writers who actively and enthusiastically engaged with the world they were reporting on, rather than sitting on sidelines—Mailer, Hemingway, Algren, Thompson, Twain—and made the world accept them on their own terms instead of the other way around.
I thought of Matthiessen a lot when my wife and I finally got to Kenya and Tanzania, the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition, in 2006 and rode some of the same roads and gazed upon some of the same landscapes that had so inspired him. And I remembered his accounts of those travels and how they had inspired us to make the same journey. I thought of his love of Africa and all of the outdoors and of his love of wildlife, birds in particular, and the sense of adventure and wonder that came through those extraordinary books. I also thought of the sadness and anger of his final book on the subject, African Silences, which chronicled the decline of the animals and peoples of the savannah. The trip was definitely in the words of Douglas Adams, a “last chance to see” and I was glad to have Matthiessen along with me, if only in spirit and if only in my head.
It was not just in Africa but closer to home that I’ve thought of him, too. Sometimes when I’m out birding, particularly when I’m standing on some cold, drizzly, windy shore, squinting into my binoculars trying to tease something interesting out of a immense, boring flock of Willets, I think of his persistence, his intrepidity and dedication, and I steel myself to ignore the discomfort for a few more minutes, to take one more look before getting out of the weather. And sometimes it pays off; once in a while patience triumphs and there is some rarity there working the edges of the ocean along with the lowly Willets, something I’ve never seen before, and the thrill off discovery makes me shudder and smile. He is with me then, too, at that eureka! moment, that instant of discovery. He is with me then, definitely and palpably, and that’s about as spiritual as it gets—for me anyway.
They fly, dance, sing and pray – they join the struggle.