February 04, 2008

Around the World in 80 Beers

Just a few weeks into 2008 I think I might have already read the most affecting book I'll read all year. Dave Eggers's What Is the What tells the true story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Valentino Achak Deng. Eggers and Deng together made the brilliant decision to let Eggers write the book as a novel, but told in Deng's voice and incorporating the real events he lived through when he was a boy in Sudan and Ethiopia. The result is an incredible narrative that weaves together Deng's experiences in present-day Atlanta with flashbacks to the home he left behind in Africa. I honestly don't know if the book would have been as compelling as a strict autobiography or as a work of nonfiction. It takes someone with as much skill as Eggers to deliver the human impact of Deng's story without reducing it to a mere catalog of tragedies, and at the same time to deftly call into question how the U.S. handles humanitarian aid to Africa. We know Deng survived to make it to the States, but life in America holds its own seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

While I was thinking about war and aggression I went to SFMOMA on my lunch break Thursday to see their new exhibition of An-My L's photographs, Small Wars. The show is divided into two related parts, the first a series of pictures L took of war re-enactors in Virginia who recreate scenes from Vietnam. The black-and-white photos have the realism and grit one expects from documentary photography, but then you are jarred by seeing brambles and leafy trees instead of the expected jungle landscape of southeast Asia. The feeling of disconnect continues in the second set of photos, 29 Palms, taken at the California military base of the same name as soldiers train to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the scenes are obviously "pretend" it's easy to forget the very real horrors these men and women will face overseas, while at other times a jaunty joshua tree serves as grim contrast to the heavy machinery of war rolling through the vast desert.

Downstairs in their theater, SFMOMA continued their series of films by documentarian Emile de Antonio with screenings of America Is Hard to See and Millhouse: A White Comedy on Saturday afternoon. The first film was made two years after the 1968 presidential race and concentrates on Eugene McCarthy's campaign to become the Democratic nominee. Even knowing how things turned out in that election it was thrilling to see how excited voters got about his candidacy, especially the energy that shot through young Americans. I know I wasn't the only audience member who experienced a shiver of deja vu when the movie ended with McCarthy talking about seeking political change in a time of war. In the second film, 1971's Millhouse, de Antonio's gifts as a filmmaker are on full display as he artfully edits together raw footage to create an unsentimental look at the political career of one Richard M. Nixon. Without any additional voice-over or input from talking heads, the Republican does a fine job of making himself look asinine all on his own. The film had me imagining how we will reminisce 40 years from now, looking back on the presidency of George W. Bush. I would wager it will be similarly painful.

Personal taste is perhaps not as weighty a topic as war or politics, but for some people it can be serious enough to make or break relationships. The wonderful French film The Taste of Others gently pokes fun at such snobs and other judgmental types through a number of interlocking stories. Castella, played with compassion by Jean-Pierre Bacri, is a high-ranking barrel salesman who lives in a terrifyingly frilly "candy box" maintained by his interior decorator wife. His world is shaken up when he starts taking English lessons from an actress with whom he falls in love at one of her performances. She thinks he's a dolt, but through her he begins to expand his cultural horizons, discovering things he likes that he didn't even know existed. Castella's bodyguard takes up with Manie, a waitress at the local bar who happens to deal hash and pot on the side. When he finds out about her real source of income it throws a big wrench into their relationship. Manie is played by Agns Jaoui, who directed the film and co-wrote it with Bacri. Seeing it made me want to immediately hunt down everything else they've done together.

To finish off the week I decided to visit The Trappist, a new bar in downtown Oakland that specializes in Belgian beer and other indie brews. One of my favorite parts of my recent trip to Amsterdam was being able to spend considerable time in brown cafes, a Dutch institution. Imagine a cozy drinking establishment where the beer is excellent, conversation flows freely, and no one ever kicks you out. Well, The Trappist has succeeded in creating that exact atmosphere mere steps from the 12th Street BART, authentic right down to the fixtures on the bar. With more than a dozen beers on tap and over 100 bottles to choose from, I will never run out of new varieties to try. I fully intended to sample a few different flavors Saturday night, but after one glass of St. Bernardus I was feeling no pain whatsoever and decided it was wiser to simply plan a return visit. I can easily see myself becoming a regular on one of their barstools.

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What Is the What
An-My L: Small Wars
America Is Hard to See
Millhouse: A White Comedy
The Taste of Others
The Trappist

Posted by nightfall at February 4, 2008 10:03 PM