This Week's Day-by-Day Picks

Wednesday, February 25, 2004
Mark Twain had it so easy. All around him were pompous, silly rich folks and public figures so puffed up with hot air they were just waiting for someone with a sharp wit to cut them down to size. These days, what's a mordant humorist to do? All the good lines have been taken, mostly by Twain himself ("So I became a newspaperman. I hated to do it, but I couldn't find honest employment"). Today's elected officials are surrounded by PR types, cutting back on the likelihood they'll say something astonishingly stupid in public. And high society is so insulated as to be invisible. Where's our Emperor Norton, damn it? All the more reason, we suppose, to appreciate the new edition of Mark Twain's San Francisco, with its lovely, ponderous subtitle: "Being a Generous and Uninhibited Cornucopia of Reports, Speculations, Satires, Brickbats, Musings, Topical Verse, and Other Observations by Mark Twain on The Liveliest Heartiest Community on Our Continent.'" It remains funny to compare seals to oversized maggots, as the book does, and there's plenty else about the city that hasn't changed. California history buff Richard Reinhart joins editor Bernard Taper to read from Twain's tome starting at 12:30 p.m. at the Mechanics' Institute Library, 57 Post (at Market), S.F. Admission is $5; call 393-0101 or visit www.milibrary.org.

Thursday, February 26, 2004
In a town filled with great movie houses both corporate and indie, there are many reasons to love the Balboa Theater: sizable screens (which dwarf many at the pricey local megaplexes), faded movie-palace fittings, and, most of all, reasonable prices. (While most film tickets hover around $10, the Balboa still offers second-run double features for a mere $5 to $7.50.) Tonight the venerable theater throws itself a "78th Birthday Party" featuring a screening of the first winner of an Academy Award for Best Picture, the Clara Bow vehicle Wings, with a special introduction from the director's son, William Wellman Jr., along with classic shorts. The Sprocket Ensemble's Nik Phelps accompanies with live music, and songstress Kitten on the Keys and magician James Hamilton contribute their talents to the mix. Grab a piece of birthday cake starting at 7 at 3630 Balboa (at 38th Avenue), S.F. Admission is $10; call 221-8184 or visit www.thebalboatheater.com.

Friday, February 27, 2004
How many times have you said this: "Sure, I'd love to read the classics, but with my busy television-watching schedule I just don't have time"? Au contraire, mon frère -- if you have 90 minutes, All the Great Books (abridged) brings you into nodding acquaintance with venerable tomes ranging from The Odyssey to Animal Farm via a comic stage tour through literature. Previously lauded for its other lit- lite shows, the Reduced Shakespeare Company is known for delivering doses of culture with genuine yuks. (We never got all those Bard jokes our English teachers insisted were real Elizabethan side-slappers until we saw Reduced Shakespeare's tweaked take.) Enhance your erudition painlessly tonight at 8 (and through March 7) at the Cowell Theatre, in Fort Mason's Herbst Pavilion, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Admission is $23-28; call 345-7575 or visit www.reducedshakespeare.com.

Saturday, February 28, 2004
We yawned at Faces of Death, Nekromantik, The Last House on the Left -- but not even the grisliest, most blood-soaked features compare to the cautionary highway safety movies of the '50s and '60s. In a bid to spook drivers into toeing the line, industrial film companies produced pictures loaded with wall-to-wall color footage of actual accidents in such classics as Highways of Agony and Red Asphalt. Filmmaker Bret Wood recalls the days when driver's ed students were subjected to these cinematic assaults with Hell's Highway, a full-length documentary on the forgotten masterpieces. San Francisco's own industrial film impresario, Rick Prelinger (of the public, online film repository Prelinger Archives), starts out the evening with an introduction to the genre -- before the screams of agony and dismembered limbs hit the screen. The not-for-the-squeamish event begins at 8:30 at Artists' Television Access, 992 Valencia (at 21st Street), S.F. Admission is $5; call 824-3890.

Sunday, February 29, 2004
Mikhail Bulgakov lived and wrote in Stalin's Russia in the 1930s, a time of state violence and enforced collectivization. The world must not have made much sense to a man of closely focused observation and extreme flights of fantasy. As a result, he wrote a brilliant novel called The Master and Margarita. It involves a dapper Prince of Darkness known as Woland and his friends Azazello, an agreeable fellow with one giant fang, and Behemoth, a 6-foot-tall cat with a taste for vodka and not much concern for human life, who hit Moscow in a Tarantino-esque killing spree. Meanwhile, a writer called the Master ponders his sanity, and his totally hot girlfriend, Margarita, must eventually attend the annual demon's ball on the devil's arm in order to save him and his manuscript. Banned until decades after Bulgakov's death, the novel has inspired scads of other artists, from Salman Rushdie to Mick Jagger to an obscure Uzbek metal band. Now director Adrian Giurgea has adapted it to the stage for ACT's Master of Fine Arts students. "In this age of materialism and commercialism, when everybody seems to think alike, this story is particularly important," Giurgea notes on the company's Web site. The performance begins this afternoon at 2 (and continues through March 13) at the Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), S.F. Admission is $10-15; call 777-2800 or visit www.act-sf.org.

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