A New Era for Filmmaking in Saudi Arabia

(Published in the March-April 2017 edition of AramcoWorld magazine:

As sunset gilded Los Angeles on November 3, actor Giancarlo Esposito, most recently of Breaking Bad fame, joined a small flock of fellow Hollywood celebrities at Paramount Studios to walk a red carpet in front of an unprecedented backdrop: the logo for Saudi Film Days, the two-day US premiere of seven short movies by seven young directors, all from Saudi Arabia. Esposito, a veteran also of three Spike Lee films who knows a thing or two about new voices in film, was as excited to meet the directors that evening as they were to meet him. “I’m here to support,” he assured them. “I have a feeling I’m going to be blown away by what I see.”

Two hours later, sustained, heartfelt applause from some 150 people inside the plush cave of Paramount’s largest theater seemed to fulfill his prediction.

“Those were the first Saudi Arabian films I have seen,” said actress, writer and producer Karola Raimond. “I was moved. I laughed. I shed some tears. All the films had depth. Honesty.”

Variously dramas, comedies and documentaries, each of the films was set and produced in the Kingdom, and each addresses a subject both culturally specific and universal. Director Ali Alsumayin’s I Can’t Kiss Myself is like a stage drama, a well-acted dialog in which a young man fixated on social media fame is challenged to rethink the consequences of his obsession. Meshal Aljaser’s over-the-top, surreal Is Sumyati Going to Hell? shows a Saudi family treating its Filipina maid, Sumyati, with racist contempt—except for the five-year-old daughter, who loves Sumyati and asks difficult questions. The Bliss of Being No One, produced by Bader Al Homoud, uses long, dialog-oriented shots to portray a grieving man’s chance encounter with an elderly Saudi hitchhiker (played memorably by Ibrahim Al-Hasawi) who turns out to excel at storytelling and deeply candid conversation—or so it seems.

With four additional shorts, Saudi Film Days worked along the lines of Sundance, Cannes and other international film festivals to give the filmmakers a chance to make industry connections and talk publicly about their movies in front of audiences that, in turn, could tell influential colleagues and friends. It was, in Hollywood terms, about buzz.

Arriving in Los Angeles, the filmmakers and actors were supported by Saudi Aramco’s King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, and for many of them, this was their first visit to a major film-production city. Stepping inside Paramount Studios, where generations of acclaimed directors have worked their magic, gave them an up-close look at the tools of success.

“This is a great opportunity for us,” Al Homoud said. “Our main goals are to make connections and to communicate our films. They are pioneers of cinema here. We need to connect with them. We need to learn from them.”

Ali Alkalthami, director of the comedy Wasati, loves the films of Martin Scorsese, who has made five movies at Paramount; Alsumayin admires Woody Allen; Aljaser goes back to Buster Keaton for his inspiration as well to Seth MacFarlane’s television series Family Guy. All aspire to a day when the world knows their works as well. (To date, the best-known international Saudi film may be Haifaa al-Mansour’s 2012 Academy Award-nominated drama Wadjda, about a girl, her family and a bicycle.)

Despite their youth, most of the Saudi filmmakers have been riding the digital video revolution for several years. Worldwide, their country has one of the highest percentages of Internet users—it leads the world in Twitter use and YouTube views per capita—and half its population is under the age of 25.

“Social media helped us a lot as filmmakers because it gave us an opportunity to connect, to find a crew, the actors, and it inspires us to make even better stories,” said Al Homoud.

In addition, the Kingdom has film clubs that screen films in private settings. All this makes for a wide audience for movies despite the absence of commercial theaters. As a co-founder also of the Riyadh-based entertainment company Telfaz11, Alkalthami and his collective of other young directors, technicians and actors produce more than 100 videos a year for an online subscriber base that numbers 12 million. Telfaz11’s popularity is but one example of the Kingdom’s “home-grown” film industry that has to date remained largely invisible to the rest of the world.

“We believe the talent they have is really something that’s worth sharing with the rest of the globe, and we can’t be in a better place than Hollywood,” said Tareq Al Ghamdi, director of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture. “It provides this cultural engagement, through dialog, for people to see what our young Saudis are talking about. And for them, it provides what the rest of the globe is thinking about what we’re doing. It will provide encouragement and support not only to them but to people back home to embrace filmmaking as a career, be it directing or producing or acting.”

The following night, Saudi Film Days screened again a few miles away in downtown Los Angeles, at the historic, baroque-revival Theatre at Ace Hotel. This drew the urban, cosmopolitan crowd, and the lobby beforehand was a chatter of English and Arabic, as well as Spanish and Chinese.

At that evening’s red carpet, as television reporters filmed and interviewed, the directors and actors seemed relaxed and even playful, buoyed by the affirmations of press, peers, celebrities and industry insiders.

“The creative elements of these films were really fantastic,” said Esposito after the Paramount screening. “Each one had its own very specific beauty to it. There were really great messages in these films.” He was particularly taken, he said, with Alkathami’s Wasati, which uses humor to dramatize a serious event decades ago in Riyadh when conservative audience members shut down a theater production in mid-performance; Alkalthami added a fictional character who lends the film both charm and gravitas. “I found it really creative,” Esposito said. “It also made it funny and poignant, and made it more personal.”

Academy Award-winning effects supervisor Craig Barron walked out effusive, too. “I thought they were extremely well-acted and well-designed,” he said. “They make entertaining films that a Westerner can appreciate, and it’s good storytelling.”

“Local but global,” Alkalthami said of his approach to his films. “We’ve been working so much to get our projects out there on the Internet, and now it’s time to make a bit of an adjustment—to try cinema and do cinema. It’s a new platform, a new experience and a chance to get our films seen around the world.”

Raimond echoed him from her point of view. “Watching those films shows how much more we have in common. That’s what art is for. So it’s very important those films are shown in Europe and America.



Fifty Years and Counting: Why John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ Is Still a Musical Revelation

(Published at KQED on Dec. 9, 2014:

Even the album’s cover photo is unforgettable – and a bit jarring. Is John Coltrane angry? In pain? Contemplative? A Love Supreme is one of the most recognizable, most successful and most influential jazz albums in history. Recorded in 1964, it’s Coltrane at his best, a milestone piece of art that set a new standard for jazz language, and is to music what Joyce’s Ulysses is to literature or Scorcese’s Taxi Driver is to film.

In four parts that last 33 minutes, Coltrane’s album ascends scales with verve and intensity, moving from intimate note-making and soulful introspection to, as in the third part called “Pursuance,” all-out explosions of fury and finality. Coltrane devoted the album to God, but A Love Supreme can be understood by any listener, from any culture, as a journey of discovery. The highs are there in abundance, but so too are the stops and starts and transitions – the mesmerizing transitions – that lead to the journey’s end. Salvation doesn’t come without struggle. Beauty is found in dissonant notes. Generations of music-lovers and musicians, including Carlos Santana and U2’s Bono, have embraced A Love Supreme as divine music.

From Wednesday to Sunday (December 10-14), SFJAZZ is celebrating the 50thanniversary of Coltrane’s album with six major events that pay homage to Coltrane’s vision and its continuing influence on the world of jazz. Coltrane’s saxophone-playing son Ravi, named after the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, is featured in the first five events, starting with a Wednesday symposium (Dec. 10, 7:30pm) at the SFJAZZ Center that also features Ashley Kahn, author of the must-read 2002 book, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album. When I interviewed Ravi Shankar in 2002, he remembered meeting Coltrane in the 1960s and finding “turmoil” in Coltrane’s music. The turmoil, Shankar said, was disturbing.

But in re-listening to A Love Supreme for Kahn’s book, Shankar rethought this view and told Kahn he found the album “beautiful, especially the climax in the third movement (“Pursuance”), then the resolution of the whole last piece (“Psalm”).”

“Psalm” does, indeed, resolve A Love Supreme, with drummer Elvin Jonespianist McCoy Tyner, and bassist Jimmy Garrison all joining Coltrane’s saxophone in a sustained and gripping convergence that lasts seven minutes. The intensity of A Love Supreme can be challenging for first-time listeners. Coltrane died in 1967 at age 40, and his last three years of recordings, when he veered into more and more ecstatic music, are Coltrane at his most fervorous. In Live in Seattle, which was recorded in 1965, Coltrane and saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders frequently employed “squawking” – bursts of atonal riffs – that turned off many of Coltrane’s earliest fans. As a bandleader, Coltrane’s most accessible album is My Favorite Things from 1961; the title song plays with the signature tune from The Sound of Music.

Coltrane was always pushing himself in new directions. Where My Favorite Things – like A Love Supreme – sounds as fresh today as it did decades ago, it was a relatively safe creation. A Love Supreme was deeply personal. Coltrane, who was raised in North Carolina with the religious values of the black church, went though a period of heavy drug use in his late 20s and early 30s, and then kicked his habit in 1957. In the liner notes of A Love Supreme, Coltrane said his new compositions were testimony to God’s guidance and of his “richer, fuller, more productive life” and his ability “to make others happy through music.” But Coltrane implied that he still struggled with addictive behavior.

“As time and events moved on,” Coltrane wrote about his post-1957 life, “a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path; but thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE, and of our need for, and dependence on Him. At this time I would like to tell you that NO MATTER WHAT … IT IS WITH GOD. HE IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. HIS WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE. IT IS TRULY – A LOVE SUPREME.”

On the album’s songs, Coltrane keeps the words to a minimum. The album begins with a Chinese gong, transitions to Coltrane’s brief scale-hopping, and settles into a stretch of relative quiet that is ruminative, introducing the four notes that correlate to the syllables and sounds of the words “A Love Supreme.” Then at 1:05, Coltrane takes off. For five minutes, he lets his saxophone wander in arresting directions, riffing, squawking, and improvising until slowing down and reclaiming the four-note bar that began the song. At 6:07, Coltrane chants the words “A Love Supreme” over and over – softly but assuredly – until 6:44, when Garrison, Tyner, and Jones pick up the atmosphere of the opening gambit and continue until the song, called “Acknowledgement,” ends a minute later. Achingly beautiful. That’s how I’d describe the entirety of A Love Supreme.

To interpret A Love Supreme at the SFJAZZ Center, Ravi Coltrane has chosen a mix of collaborators: saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Geri Allen and others on Thursday, Dec. 11, 7:30pm; the Turtle Island String Quartet on Friday, Dec. 12, 7:30pm; trumpeter Nicholas Paytonbassist Matthew Garrison (son of Jimmy Garrison) and others on Saturday, December 13, 7:30pm; and the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars on Sunday, Dec. 14, 1pm. SFJAZZ’s Coltrane celebration reaches its denouement on Sunday, December 14, when saxophonist Steve Coleman and his Five Elements band perform Coltrane’s music at 7pm.

The events are sold out or close to selling out – no surprise given the theme, the names involved, and SFJAZZ’s venue, which is an ideal place to hear music. But year-round, you can hear Coltrane’s music live, at the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church on 1286 Fillmore Street between Turk and Eddy in San Francisco. Archbishop Franzo King, who is officially ordained by the African Orthodox Church, started the church in 1971, six years after seeing Coltrane perform and leaving convinced that God was speaking through his songs. Playing saxophone with other church clergy, King uses Coltrane’s music – especially A Love Supreme – to preach God’s salvation. Attending the Sunday mass at noon is an experience like no other.

In 2000, when the church was located on Divisadero Street, Franzo King told me that Coltrane’s widow, the musician Alice Coltrane, had attended service at the church in the 1980s and blessed his work. “She walked into this building and told us that we were fulfilling John’s highest ideal,” King says. “His music,” King adds, “is still alive.”

It is. This week’s SFJAZZ celebration is further confirmation that A Love Supreme is still a powerful work, still able to inspire people who hear its transportive notes and realize they’ve experienced something much deeper than “jazz music.”

SFJAZZ is celebrating the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme with a symposium and five concerts from Wednesday, December 10 to Sunday, December 14, 2014. For tickets and more information, visit


How to Listen to Songs in a Language You Don’t Understand

(Published at KQED on August 2, 2016:

Many years ago, when I was looking for something to eat and drink on a late night in Hiroshima, Japan, I found the only place that was open. The woman spoke virtually no English. I knew a few phrases in Japanese, including “Eigo Wakari Masuka? (英語分かりますか)” (“Do you understand English?”) and “Watashi wa Amerikahito desu (私 は アメリカ人 です。)” (“I’m an American”). I stayed at the eatery for an hour, “talking” to the woman through gestures, drawings, intonations, and other techniques that academics would call paralanguage. In the end, she gave me a gift — a wooden ornament with my name in Japanese, which she wrote in beautiful calligraphy.

Words are everything. But they can also be completely unnecessary to understanding someone — or a song in a language that’s foreign to your ears. Every day on my computer or my CD player (yes, I still have one), I listen to dozens of Brazilian artists croon on in beautiful Portuguese. I’ve visited Brazil, including the Amazon Rainforest, but the only phrase I still remember to utter is, “Eu não falo Português” (“I don’t speak Portuguese”). I still don’t speak Portuguese, but my lineup of favorite Brazilian songs gets longer every day, and now includes Nara Leao’s “Com Açucar, Com Afeto”, Gilberto Gil’s “Sala do Som”, Vinicius de Moraes’ “Carta ao Tom 74”, Jorge Ben’s “Bebete Vãobora”, Elis Regina’s “Chovendo na Roseira”, and Zeca Pagodinho’s “Maneiras”.

No, I would argue. Absolutely not.What the heck do these songs mean? Am I an absolute dilettante — a pseudo-pretentious but ultimately dumb American — for connecting with lyrics that go over my head (but right to my heart)?

I’m especially convinced of this after speaking with Pat Pattison, a prominent professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he teaches lyric writing and poetry. Pattison has authored such books as Songwriting Without Boundaries, and his students have included Grammy winners Gillian Welch and John Mayer. In Pattison’s view, a song’s lyrics — the words we hear — are just part of the complete (and very complex) sonic package that’s delivered to our aural doors. A myriad of wordless cues, from a tune’s orchestration to the singer’s inflections, give listeners the insight they need to realize what the song is expressing. Maybe not exactly what the song is expressing, but enough to draw important conclusions, even if those conclusions are challenged upon learning the song’s true lyrics.

Pattison himself often listens to opera sung in French, German, and Italian, all of which he has a basic understanding.

“If I don’t understand the lyrics, I’m then able to appreciate the singing itself — I’m able to listen to the vocal quality and so on,” Pattison says, in a phone interview from Boston. “Even more importantly, I think, I’m listening to a human voice. And in terms of language or communication, a small percentage of our communication takes place with the actual meaning of the words. There’s so much more communication that takes place with tone of voice, with body language.

“We can certainly tell,” Pattison adds, “when a singer is singing a passage whether there’s some innuendo going on, or something that’s sexy going on, or whether there’s anger or whether there’s a helplessness. We hear all of that in the tone quality. So there seems to be a level of communication that’s always present, whether or not we actually have the cognitive meaning of those sounds.”
Remember that happy time, oh I miss…Vinicius de Moraes’ “Carta ao Tom 74” is a good example. Hearing it the first few times, I assumed — because of de Moraes’ almost sentimental intonations, the song’s heavenly backup vocals, and the accompanying minimalistic (and at time dissonant) piano playing — that the song was about something sweet but wistful. I knew that de Moraes was a lyricist of the highest order (he wrote the words for Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema”), and that Jobim is frequently referred to as “Tom Jobim.” And I knew, from having listened to so many Brazilian songs, that the concept of “saudade” — a longing for a person or a past — is ever-present in the culture. Eventually I translated the song into English with the help of free lyrics sites and translation programs, and I saw that the song’s English title is “Letter to Tom 74,” and that its words include the lines:

Ipanema was just happiness
It was as if love hurt in peace.
You, my friend, there is only one certainty
We must end this sadness
We must invent new love.

De Moraes first released the song in 1974, six years before his death at age 66, as an homage to his collaboration with Jobim, and it’s a clarion call to move ahead and find love anew. Basically, my musical instincts were right.

But they’re not always right. Not at all. The other day, I was listening to Gilberto Gil’s “Sala do Som,” which I guessed had, like “Carta ao Tom 74,” something to do with reflection and moving on. But after doing a lyrics search, I realized it’s about a singer preparing for a show, and trying to rest and also get inspired.

In many ways, enjoying songs with foreign-language lyrics is about first impressions — about liking a song for whatever reason, and then correcting that impression with actual facts. It’s not unlike dating or seeing a person at a party who grabs your interest. You’re smitten. Your brain starts rewarding you with dopamine and serotonin. Language barriers notwithstanding, you’re transfixed.

Do you remember the opera scene in The Shawshank Redemption, when the Tim Robbins’ character, the jailed banker named Andy Dufresne, mischievously plays Mozart’s Canzonetta sull’aria over the prison’s loudspeakers? The song is about planning a seduction to test the fidelity of a royal figure. Not that it even mattered: “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about,” says Morgan Freeman’s character, Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, in the film. “Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid.”

Which is true. I don’t always want to know the exact lyrics of every foreign-language song that I listen to. I’m content in my ignorance — content to project what I can onto the music, or to just have the music as a happy distraction. Professor Pattison also does that on occasion, telling me: “I purposefully listen to songs with lyrics I don’t understand, simply because I would like to listen without my brain going into overdrive.”

But for me, this “ignorance is bliss” style of listening is really the exception rather than the rule. I ultimately want to know what I’m listening to, in order to test my instincts, and to challenge my intuition. The thing about challenging yourself this way is that your intuition gets better. You learn a few more words in Portuguese (or Arabic, French, Bambara, or another language). You get to know the song better, and you get to know yourself better: what you like in music, and what’s behind your attraction to this work of art that somehow called out to you.

In an episode of my favorite TV comedy series, Britain’s Peep Show, the drug-addled character named Super Hans meets a beautiful Japanese woman who speaks no English. It doesn’t matter. They can’t be separated. “We speak the language of love,” Hans bellows.

With each new foreign-language song I find, I fall a little bit in love, musically speaking. I don’t have to know what the words mean. Not initially. I’m in the early honeymoon phase, and that’s all that matters for now. Without that phase, the other phases won’t arrive.


‘Jon Stewart of Egypt’ Looks for More than Just Laughs in U.S.

(Published at KQED on April 3, 2017:

When he appears on Tuesday, Apr. 4 at the University of California Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, Bassem Youssef promises to be his usual funny self: a guy who, with a wry quip or odd facial expression, can induce laughter about very hard truths.

Millions of Americans know Youssef as “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” a designation that references Youssef’s former Arabic-language TV show Al-Bernameg (البرنامج‎‎), in which the comedian satirized Egyptian society before a weekly audience of 30 million people. During the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions and the turmoil surrounding Mohamed Morsi‘s presidential election and deposition in Egypt, humor made Youssef famous.

It also led to Youssef’s arrest by the Egyptian government and eventual forced exile from his homeland.

Today, Youssef lives in the United States, and he’s experiencing a very American moment — at the center of a giant media spotlight. The comedian’s new memoir, Revolution for Dummies, is getting lots of attention, including from Stephen Colbert. Youssef is also the subject of the new documentary Tickling Giants that’s getting rave reviews (“an ebullient ode to freedom,” said Variety) and drawing crowds around the U.S.

By phone from Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and young daughter, Youssef spoke to KQED about the ups and downs of life in the spotlight, in advance of his appearance in the Bay Area under the auspices of Cal Performances.

Do you miss Egypt and your show Al-Bernameg?

Of course I do. But I’m in a different life now. I’m starting over in a new country with new audiences and new references. I have very realistic expectations. If I have moderate success here – for example having my own foothold in the American media – that will be enough for me. The show in Egypt had its time, and that was it.

In the fall of 2016, you were a visiting scholar at Stanford – with the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at the university’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. Is teaching at a university so different from doing comedy?

Well, in 2015 I was an academic at Harvard, and engaging with students is something beautiful, because you have all these young students who are hungry to know more about politics outside the realm of the books they read. And, of course they sometimes turn to you for answers that the biggest, most veteran political scientists and leaders don’t have the answer for, like, “When are things going to change?” and “Do you think there’s hope?” Of course, we struggle in that. But it’s a great experience. I learned from them as much as they learned from me.

You’re very funny in front of a camera. But you can also be serious. Who is the real Bassem Youssef?

I enjoy more intellectual conversations than just cracking jokes. I’m a much more serious person in real life. Maybe before the show, I was that kind of guy – someone who liked to crack jokes. But after the show happened, it was kind of like my persona was doing the show, and my person was exhausted by that persona. In real life, I’m much more mellow.

Revolution for Dummies reminds readers that you got involved in the Arab Spring protests, and started doing your show, somewhat reluctantly. You were a practicing doctor before all this.

I was only one example of millions of people who, after 30 years of living under a dictator, just thought it doesn’t matter to get involved because nothing will ever change. The revolution came and signified the change, and many people who had left Egypt came back. It changed all of us – I can’t say if it was for better or for worse.

When Jon Stewart visited your show in Egypt, you joked with your audience – in Arabic – that Stewart was “the Bassem Youssef of America.” Do you get tired of being compared to Jon Stewart?

We have this joke going on a lot between Jon and me. I’m honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as Jon Stewart. He’s an idol. I’ve watched him for 10 years. For me, it doesn’t get old. But it serves a practical purpose: It tells people who I am in four words: ‘Jon Stewart of Egypt.’ So people can automatically make a reference instead of trying to explain it to them the history of what I did, and what happened in Egypt.

Bassem Youssef appears on Tuesday, Apr. 4 at the Cal Performances event, “The Joke is Mightier than the Sword.”


Roz Chast and the Influence of Anxiety

(Published in SF Weekly on May 4, 2017:

Roz Chast is very funny. Everyone who reads her New Yorker cartoons knows this. In fact, that’s all they really knew about Chast until 2014, when she published her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, which details her stressful childhood and the demanding years she spent caring for her elderly, health-challenged parents. Suddenly, Chast’s fans got to know entirely different sides of her: Chast the worrier; Chast the crier; Chast the screamer; and even (gasp) Chast the hater!

Humor is the memoir’s driving force, but its pull is in the details of Chast and her parents’ stress and suffering. She vividly depicts their physical and mental deterioration and includes multiple up-close drawings of her mom on the precipice of death at age 97. Her dad died at 95 in the throes of pain and dementia. Taking its title from her parents’ denialism, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? won a National Book Critics Circle Award, was named one of the New York Times’ top 10 books for 2014, and has now spawned a touring art exhibit, “Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs,” currently ensconced at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.

“I don’t think it’s much of a secret that we all have parents who get old and die, but I didn’t share that in my cartoons,” Chast tells SF Weekly.

Still, she says, her New Yorker cartoons, which have appeared in the magazine since 1978, have always hinted at the anxieties of her life, since “my life is material.”

“For some people, their cartoons come out of a completely closed cartoon universe, and that works for them and that’s all they really want to do,” she says. “For me, the boundary between my life and the cartoon universe is a lot more porous. I do things from the cartoon universe. I love the end-of-the-world guys, with sticks, but they flow into one another more.”

As she talks, Chast sits in the middle of the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s second-floor exhibit space — on a bright red couch that’s a fill-in for the kind of furniture Chast would sit on with her parents in their longtime Brooklyn apartment. Nearby, under glass, are decades-old mementos from her parents’ home — some of the scores of books, photos, and memorabilia that her parents hoarded away and that Chast documents so funnily in her memoir.

George and Elizabeth Chast, who stuffed things into what their daughter calls a “Crazy Closet,” were low-grade hoarders, and Elizabeth was prone to fits of rage. She constantly berated her husband and their only child, and she basically beat up Roz when she was just four years old. “Hell” is one way that Chast describes her childhood in Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? But the turmoil and dysfunction had a silver lining: It created Roz Chast’s search for an escape, which she found in drawing, words, and humor. (And, eventually, in a new home life in Connecticut with her partner and their two children.)

Without the ugliness in Chast’s childhood, there would be no cartoons like the one Chast drew and wrote for Worth magazine, called “Dumbest Pacts With the Devil Ever,” which includes a panel of an anguished woman in hell with the text, “Traded soul for front-row seats at Bread concert.” (“What was I thinking?” the woman asks as a red devil laughs it up in the nearby flames.) At the exhibit’s opening night, the first guests couldn’t stop laughing as they went from “Dumbest Pacts With the Devil Ever” to the 200 other cartoons on display, which include most of the panels from Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Concentrated in a single exhibit, in which some images are enlarged to life-size, the cartoons accentuate Chast’s instantly recognizable drawing style — including the crazy expressions on characters’ faces, and their often-askew hair — and the turns of phrase that have prompted New Yorker editor David Remnick to call Chast “the magazine’s only certifiable genius.” That genius is usually filtered through the pages without any need for Chast to interact with readers, so Chast’s appearance at the exhibit’s opening night was a rare chance for people to meet the cartoonist face to face. People wanted to hug her. Chast obliged, though earlier in the day — as she met with journalists — she’d joked that talking about her life in public and revealing so much about herself were like psychotherapy, and that, “I think I should have a couch to lie down on.”

Chast says she inherited her love of words from her father, with whom she felt a close connection. Her mom is another story. Even till the end — even as she took care of all her parents’ needs by staying with them, and shopping for them, and driving them places, and arranging for nursing care, and cleaning up for them (including her mother’s incontinence) — she wrestled with their relationship. In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Chast says she feared her mother, who spent her life commanding people from her perch as a schoolteacher and as a wife and mother.

“When I was growing up,” Chast writes in her book, “one of her favorite argument-enders was: ‘I’m not your friend. I’m your mother.’ If you hear that enough times, it becomes hard to switch gears just because some years have gone by. My mother was no longer my enemy when I grew up, but that didn’t make her my friend.”

Like Iranian-French humorist Marjane Satrapi’s popular graphic memoir Persepolis, which became a 2007 animated movie, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? could easily be turned into a cinematic vehicle. Chast tells SF Weekly that filmmakers have talked about doing that since her book was first published. And she deliberately wrote Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? after her parents’ deaths. Chast didn’t want them to know that their lives — including their foibles — were on display for anyone to see. But her aunt and daughter are still alive, and they have mixed feelings about Chast outing everything about the family. She says those feelings are a sign that the book, and now the touring exhibit, hit a nerve.

“I was on the phone with my mother’s sister shortly after the book came out, and with my cousin — her daughter — and they were kind of upset by some things,” Chast says. “My cousin said that my mother’s mother didn’t wash clothes for other people — that she cooked for other people. And I remembered that my father’s mother was the one who washed clothes for other people and I thought, ‘Oh, man. I suck. I completely screwed that up.’ And then I thought, ‘Well, all right. She cooked. She didn’t wash clothes.’

“She and my cousin said, ‘We cried at the end,’ ” Chast adds. “But it’s a sad story, you know — for everyone. Sometimes you eat a very good grilled-cheese sandwich. And this is the most wonderful thing! Or you see a great movie. But it’s like that New Yorker cartoon with the Grim Reaper. Everyone knows from the time you’re four years on” about the Grim Reaper.

“It’s not really a happy ending, I hate to tell you,” Chast jokes. “It’s not going to end well — any of this.”

A few minutes after Chast spoke with SF Weekly, the exhibit was officially open, and three middle-aged women perused a cartoon called “The World’s Luckiest Woman” that lists five standards, one of them being, “Daughter doesn’t care what you wear.”

“You look clean and comfortable,” the daughter tells the mom in the cartoon. “Ah-ha,” one of the women said, as if she recognized her own life in the drawings. “Oh, my God,” her friend said, “this is spectacular.” Their talk and their laughter filled the room for everyone to hear. The reference to “God” would have humbled Chast’s parents, who were not religiously adherent. It might have even made them laugh.


On the outskirts of Mexico City: Visiting the Past and Present of Teotihuacan

(Published in SF Weekly on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017:

Located on the outskirts of Mexico’s capital, the ancient pyramid city called Teotihuacan is firmly established in the psyches of the Mexican people — and of the millions of tourists who’ve set foot on the stones and pathways that comprise Teotihuacan’s panoramic vistas. UNESCO calls it a “holy city,” and, like other places in that category — including Jerusalem, Mecca, and Rome — it’s been a scene of unrivaled triumphs, peaceful coexistence, woeful neglect, and unspeakable violence.

The site’s two main pyramids, built some 2,000 years ago, climb upward into the Mexican sky, toward the celestial bodies that Teotihuacan’s people viewed as gods who could determine their fate. By themselves, the pyramids are eye-opening marvels of form and architecture that compare to Egypt’s Pharaonic Pyramids at Giza. The biggest Giza pyramid is about twice as tall, and twice as old, as Teotihuacan’s pyramids. But like their counterparts across Egypt’s dusty plains, Teotihuacan’s ancient structures have always contained hidden artifacts — maybe not in the realm of King Tutankhamun’s mask, whose golden, jeweled face has thrilled art-goers for almost a century, but close to it.

In fact, for art scholars who specialize in Teotihuacan, the recent finds that have emerged from excavations of the ancient Mexican city are nothing short of history-making, because the masks, statues, and other objects have revealed secrets that had been hidden for almost two millennia. At its height, Teotihuacan was the largest urban agglomeration in the Americas — a cosmopolitan city of more than 100,000 people that was multicultural, multilingual, and economically advanced. The city’s very layout — with its open streets and lack of a citadel or other major wartime fortifications — suggests that the rulers fully controlled the entire Valley of Mexico, which gave them domain over a large swath of Mesoamerica, centuries before the better-known Aztecs, whose culture they would strongly influence.

A new exhibit at the de Young Museum, “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire,” which opens Sept. 30, puts 200 objects on display, along with photographs, maps, and other renderings that transport the spirit and culture of Teotihuacan to the museum’s large lower-level gallery. It’s the same gallery that just had “The Summer of Love Experience,” and if there’s any overlap between the two exhibits, it’s this: Teotihuacan embodied an epoch where people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds formed a community that held together not despite their differences but because of them.

Each ethnic group had a role to play in Teotihuacan’s survival, and its leaders reframed the city’s philosophies to be inclusive. For example, the Old Fire God, a pre-Teotihuacan deity with different interpretations, became amalgamated into a new, purposeful figure. “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire” features several Old Fire God sculptures, which were likely used for ceremonial purposes throughout the settlement. Fire was an important element at Teotihuacan, though a massive conflagration — it’s still unclear whether it was deliberate or accidental — ultimately led to its demise in the sixth century, C.E. Despite its decline, the Aztecs looked to Teotihuacan for inspiration on how to rule, and UNESCO celebrates Teotihuacan for its “harmonic” architectural layout and “unique artistic achievement.” Many objects at the de Young are being displayed for the first time ever or the first time in the United States, and their striking appearance speaks partly to the geographical position and importance of Teotihuacan, which is situated between mountains.

“If you look at the topography of this part of the valley as it relates to other parts of Mexico, this is the easiest route to get out and down to the Gulf Coast,” Matthew H. Robb, the de Young’s former curator of the art of the Americas, who organized the exhibit, said as he stood atop the Pyramid of the Moon on a recent Wednesday. “Teotihuacan was well-positioned to coordinate and control some of trade from the Gulf Coast coming into the Valley of Mexico.”

That Wednesday, Robb led a contingent of media and de Young staff on a tour of Teotihuacan’s grounds, which upward of 4 million people visit every year. Teotihuacan is an especially important pilgrimage site for those who trace their ancestry to the peoples who founded it. School kids across Mexico City visit the site as a kind of history lesson — to see first-hand the pyramids and structures that are such an integral part of Mexico’s narrative. Images from Teotihuacan, notably the Pyramid of the Sun, have adorned Mexican currency for generations in the same way that the White House and other civic structures appear on the backs of U.S. denominations.

During the 1968 Summer Olympics, held in Mexico City, the Mexican government made sure that the Olympic torch passed through Teotihuacan, where — amid a wave of celebrants, colored lights, and movie cameras — a runner held the flames aloft as he crested the Moon Pyramid at nighttime and lit a fire at the top.

Pomp and pageantry aside, what the spotlights usually gloss over are the continuing excavations at Teotihuacan. Only about 8 percent of the ancient city has been excavated and researched. Archeologists and diggers regularly discover new spaces, and Robb took a contingent wearing hardhats through a recently found tunnel that goes right under the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. The tunnel walls were lined with pyrite — the mineral the Teotihuacan people used for blades and weapons. The tunnel has also revealed beautiful pendants, vases, and masks that were offerings to the gods, gifts they believed would allow the cycles of earthly existence, like the sun’s daily rise, to continue.

“I talk about them as ‘psychic infrastructure,’ that you need to have these things in order for the city to function,” says Robb, who is now the chief curator of UCLA’s Fowler Museum. “We’re not talking about raw blocks of jade. We’re talking about finished objects.”

And the objects — because their stones or jewels originated from neighboring parts of Mesoamerica — showed Teotihuacan’s early economic reach and pull. “

The shells are referencing the Maya world and referencing Oaxaca [south of Teotihuacan],” Robb says, “so already when this tunnel was established, Teotihuacan was on some level in contact with those places, and it’s important to have those visual references as part of the exhibit. The objects are spectacularly well done. They are not Teotihuacan imitations of Maya style.”

Teotihuacan was founded in the first century BCE. As it expanded, and after the pyramids were built, rulers oversaw human sacrifices to the gods. Many of the dead were captured soldiers who were killed in brutal rituals of beheadings and dismemberment. Archeologists continue to find human skulls and bones in the ground that encircles the city.

Standing atop the pyramids, visitors can see a horizon of small green hilltops that are covered with trees and grass. These hills are likely a series of smaller pyramids or other Teotihuacan structures that have been overgrown with the natural environment. At its zenith in the fourth century, Teotihuacan was almost eight miles square — a city-state with 2,000 apartment compounds that was about one-sixth the size of San Francisco. The site that tourists see today is just a small portion of Teotihuacan’s expanse, but it’s still a breathtaking sight (and site), and a reminder of how much more there is to excavate. Mexican only began seriously uncovering and reconstructing Teotihuacan in the early 1960s.

“All of these structures were essentially covered in dirt and plants,” Robb says, standing atop the Pyramid of the Moon. “That mound over there is another structure that hasn’t been excavated yet, so there’s still an enormous amount of urban infrastructure of the site that we don’t know.”

Robb, a fluent Spanish speaker, is one of the world’s foremost experts on Teotihuacan’s art. And the de Young is an ideal exhibition spot because of its long history of collaboration with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, signing an agreement in 1981 that brokered the return of Teotihuacan murals that a U.S. donor had given the de Young. (The murals had been looted in the 1960s.) Robb calls the agreement, which guaranteed the murals’ conservation, a “landmark instance of patrimony practice for U.S. museums. Most repatriations are not necessarily happening due to cooperation but legal actions.”

Because of the ongoing cooperation, the National Institute of Anthropology and History worked closely with the de Young on “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire,” which will be shown at the Los Angeles County of Museum of Art after its San Francisco run. “Teotihuacan” is an Aztec (or Nahuatl) name that has been translated as “The place where the Gods were created” or “Place of those who have the road of the Gods” or “Place where men become Gods.” The Gods on display at the de Young will stare back at visitors from behind glass, but they were originally out in the open — astride pyramids, in people’s homes, on dirt roads, and in tunnels. The people who made these objects and worshipped them didn’t think these Gods lived in the “ancient world.” Their surroundings were new to them. And for all the Teotihuacans knew, their Gods would help them — and Teotihuacan — live forever.

Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, Sept. 30 through Feb. 11 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr. $13-$28; 415-750-3600 or