DAY FOUR, San Francisco
Visiting my father in Noe Valley, kids in tow. He announces his latest obsession. The founder of the Chinese Film Industry was a jew from Odessa named Benjamin Brodsky. My father’s planning to visit Beijing in October, and has secured permission from the Chinese State Film Archives to look at Brodsky’s papers. Apparently Brodsky lived through the 1906 Earthquake in San Francisco and may have owned a chain of Nickleodeons. If Brodsky hadn’t existed, I wonder if my father might have invented him, as he conveniently embodies all his obsessions: early cinema, China, and Jewish identity. I google Brodsky and discover someone’s just made a documentary about him. Scooped.
On the coffee table, an old issue of Ramparts magazine. In his early, radical days, my father was an editor at Ramparts’ publishing imprint, and edited Richard Boyle’s Vietnam War memoir, Flower of the Dragon. Boyle was a wild-man, the inspiration for Oliver Stone’s Salvador. He used to come stay at our house and play marathon war games with my older brother, elaborate mock battles (The Siege of Khe Sanh was one) with toy soldiers on the living room floor.
It’s the July 13, 1968 issue of Ramparts. I read “Why We Lost the War,” an interview with the French General André Beaufre. The first question is “How do you explain why the most powerful, best armed and supposedly best informed nation in history could not achieve success in ground fighting?” I’ve just seen the Afghan war documentary Restrepo, by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington and read Junger’s companion book, War. The question echoes strongly. Counter-insurgency strategy has come to seem like nothing more than pseudo-science to me, 21st Century phrenology and publishing a manual about it doesn’t mean it works.
I browse an article about little retailers fighting big chain stores, and a piece about the brutality of the Oakland Police Force. All strikingly current subjects for a 42 year-old magazine. The ads however, are pure nostalgia (“Nudism Explained”). I find them oddly compelling, like the ads for strange novelties in old comic books, a window into an alternate universe.
I flip through a catalogue for a 1978 exhibition of Dorothea Lange’s photographs at the Oakland Museum. The photos are beautiful. An alchemy of art and propaganda.
Dinner at the Universal Café, a foodie outpost in the outer Mission. We stare at the menu and talk about food. My wife accuses my father of being a self-hating foodie. On our last visit he proclaimed himself sick of talking about food with his foodie friends. He would eat it, he said, but not talk about it. But of course, like everyone here, he can’t help himself. I hail my wife for coining the phrase.
At Clooney’s Pub, a Lesbian dive-bar in Bernal Heights, we celebrate our friend Eric’s birthday. Eric and his girlfriend Amanda have just seen Dark Passage, the Delmer Daves film noir, with Bogart and Bacall. We talk noir, and Nightfall the Aldo Ray film we saw at the Film Forum.
We drive down to Old Bayshore Road to Silver Crest Donut Shop. It’s Eric’s birthday tradition. In the parking lot, he warns us to expect trouble in the donut shop bar. I think, what donut shop has a bar? It’s a rough place, in a rough part of town. The Greek bartender greets us warmly, and pours six shots of Ouzo. On the jukebox, I put in a quarter and select a track called simply: “Greek Music.” The shots are free. We chase the Ouzo with huge, greasy, delicious donuts. Read More