Issue 11 : Fall 2006






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Dr Yes and the Mystery of the Mission

by David Cox

2 Sep 2006

Mission Street Dr Yes looks up as he holds the rubber handrail of the BART escalator at 24th street to feel the pinpoints of rainfall upon his face. Water beads his glasses. The thin drizzle falls across old movie-house marquees on Mission. Yes is old enough to remember when these buildings once actually showed films. The last ones closed in the mid 1990s, or for a time, became evangelical religious halls.

He remembered a poster out on the street. It showed the masked hero, arms outstretched, its title blaring: ¡El Santo Contra Assassino Television!

“This film is in Spanish, señor!” the guy selling tickets had told him. Inside the cavernous cinema, 1930s modernist murals showing airships, and aviators leaning into the future dominated the walls. Only about seven groups of people were inside. Kids laughed and played in the aisles.

Today the old cinemas are car parks, or have been hollowed out for five-and-dime emporiums jammed packed with semi-useful junk – five dollars or less. Neon words and sparks from the MUNI bus-line flashes reflect in the puddles underfoot as he crosses the street.

A dull thud sounded and rocked the house. Suddenly a siren wailed. Outside across the street from them a house was fully ablaze, sparks and flames rose a good twenty feet into the dark sky ...

Memories of today’s lecture on Piero De La Francesca mingle in the mind of Dr Alberto Yes, professor of Geometry, Art History and Technology at the San Francisco University of Art and Engineering.

A headline appears inside the metal newspaper vending machine: “San Francisco Sniper Strikes Again.” That story was now four weeks old. Events like this were rare, but when they happened they galvanized the whole city.

Mysteriously, upwardly mobile young men were being picked off one by one by high-power rifle as they sat at their outdoor cafe tables. The murders were happening around the city apparently at random. The shooter was unable to be traced, and left no ransom, no message, and seemed to have no clear motive whatsoever.

According to SFPD statements, one thing the killings had in common was in the choice of their targets; attractive, healthy white men dressed well, and carrying very expensive laptops, cell-phones and other devices. Often the restaurants or cafes had only been in operation for several weeks and the resulting bad publicity had forced some to close altogether. Some kind of anti-yuppie jones was pushing somebody to make like that Bogdonovich B-Grade Targets.

The sentiment had been around for a while. Like that poster campaign back in the mid-1990s urging the locals in the Mission to VANDALIZE YUPPIE CARS. Dr Yes could understand the sentiment. Real estate wars were starting to show up the seams in the city back then, and but for some cosmetic changes in the intervening years, little had changed. His life was precarious enough, and the prospect of buying a house here for him seemed like, say, “democracy” – a great idea, if only the corrupt and the powerful would evaporate long enough for it to happen.

Dr Yes But he is not one to wallow in the mythology of the alienated, educated white middle class. His work and that of his closest collaborators in art, politics and academe could not afford such indulgence.

A shoeshine man looks up and smiles at Yes from beneath his cowboy hat and flashes at him solid row of gold teeth.

Lines of geometry and renaissance paintings from today’s lecture flash and intermingle with the dense flurry of Friday night activity. It’s Friday night in the Mission and the low-rider cars, the skate-punks, the Mexican families, the yuppies, and the homeless are all pushed together in a steady intensification by a sense of entertainment, vice, sex, and energy. It’s a game. A dance. And everyone knows his or her part.

A homeless man reaches up to Yes from his blanket, the skin on his hand has broken into a sliver of blood and the vinyl jacket has caked onto his wrist. He utters one long drunken phrase:

“Internet!! – I saw it on the Internet!!!”

A Piero De La Francesca appears briefly in the window of a one-hour photo shop. Then the pentangle and the triangle intersecting the painting appear floating above a passing Harley Davidson, the throaty roar startling in its arrogant dominance of the social space.

Film strip But Yes now just wants to see the latest cut of his honor student’s film. She doesn’t know it yet, but Yes considers Sharon Paillard’s film Further to be among the finest films ever made on the subject of the interplay and overlap between the cold war, the space race, and the counterculture in the Bay Area. He will buy her some fine tequila, he thinks, and does so at a corner grocery. He also hungers for the psychic space afforded by good Mexican pot, to ease the pain of his headaches, you understand.

In the window of a head shop lie arrangements of pipes, knives, and incense. Yes goes in to buy some rolling papers and once again views the array of switchblades at the back of the store. Peering into the locked glass cabinet, he notices that some have a blade, which flicks out in a deadly fashion, from a horizontal slit in the front. Others have the blade emerge from the side on a hinge. This is the classic ‘stiletto’ switchblade configuration.

Yes knows that these switchblades are cheap knockoffs of largely ceremonial weapons made for mainly Mafiosi in Sardinia which can cost thousands of dollars, and whose very existence embodies the ritual feudalism of gang warfare, in all its brutal, elitist savagery. Like traditional Balinese Kris knife, a well made switchblade can be passed on from generation to generation, an emblem of its family’s honor. Sardinia is also where some of the finest old master paintings ever made have survived the centuries.

Yes remembers a souvenir switchblade for sale in a gift shop in Assisi during his visit in the last century. It had St Francis’s image emblazoned in Technicolor garishness on the plastic handle, a red tassel at its base. He supposed the open knife in some way resembled a crucifix, and that anything emblazoned with St Francis conferred upon it the very essence of peace and tolerance. Even a cheap tourist dagger.

Shotwell Street. Dr Yes approaches the house. In his mind he thinks as he often does at the sign on the street bearing its name: “have you been shot well?’ Latino men congregate around a fenced-in ballpark. The sweet smell of pot wafts past Yes. This is a significant street. Santana once played on the pavement to passers by. Some of Dr Yes’s friends had confided in him that they had enjoyed their first sexual experiences in the wooden houses on this street with trees.

Basement of a large two-story Victorian house.

Mission Street For Sharon Paillard, years had passed and had fallen like leaves from a tree and the leaves were 16mm film cans. These anachronistic objects, relics from another time were talismanic mechanisms for inter-dimensional transit. Watching old 16mm was like being provided with a personal time machine. Those stern male voice-overs in training films. Those carefully set up, staged performances, animations showing phenomena in very clear ways for classrooms and workplaces now gone forever. The cans, dozens of them, lay scattered before her on the ground, their labels peeling:

The Effect of Gravity upon the Earth by the Moon

LSD: What Should I Know?

Keeping the Peace: Vietnam and Today's America

Sharon would smell the vinegary waft of fixer solution from a newly opened can and sometimes pieces of paper were inside. These were usually forms to be filled out by the projectionist indicating any problems with the print. Once she found a dead lizard inside a can, flattened and mummified like a rare biological specimen. In another she had found a yellowing love letter to a woman who had rejected the author, most likely his tears had mixed with the ink to make parts of the letter illegible. It was dated May 19th 1967.

She picked up another large can, one she’d been viewing a lot lately. It was called “On Guard: The Story of SAGE”. Her shotlist, written in pencil on yellow lined paper was on top of the reel.


CU Air Force man at desk

CU of computer data card

CU hand inserting packet of data cards, pushing button

Computer sorts cards

CU model of IBM



MLS Direction Center, square white building, no identification

CU display scope, yellow disk center

VS blurry footage of computer printer in action, woman monitoring it

VS/LS room with SAGE computer

Her assembly is now forty minutes. They flash by like a blur of color and movement: Images of cold war and space race times – spacecraft, men bouncing on the moon spy planes, coastlines, and dots connected by lines. Text appears – then black – then more text.

Sharon slows the film down and a voice-over fills the basement:

The Bay Area had gone through so many changes that locking down any one version of the region was impossible. Like putty, time made the area a moveable feast, a negotiable shifting illusion of strange and vivid things. The bright sun had illuminated 16mm images of everything from the hippies to the punks and every other subculture borne from the meeting point of anti-USSR blank-check funding for technology and aerospace along with the myriad art and film and media cults which had sprung up in their wake.

Sharon kept her basement studio dark on purpose. Spots of light here and there indicated various machines flickering in corners. Posters and found toys, objects and technology filled every available space. On shelves, on chairs. Stacks of papers and books, photocopied articles, phone numbers written on bits of paper. Post-it notes, postcards.

The images flickered up from a screen on the editing bench. It was an ancient Steenbeck six-plate. The moving colors of the films played across the contours of Sharon's face as she scanned them for moments of significance. She rewound the film to its head and the whir of the thing filled the room.

This quiet, yet titanic drama had been going now for four years. The endless filtering of material for the film, the countless searching through online databases, odd finds in thrift stores. The constant thinking of the film, its subject, the way all that filtered into every aspect of life: relationships, food, people, the city.

Material seemed to somehow find its way into her orbit, as if by some strange cultural osmosis. With time her film – a growing, living thing of a film – seemed at times to be making itself, with her as a kind of crazy appendage recruited to merely stitch the bits together.

She answered the door to let Dr Yes in.

“Why, hello Dr Yes” she said, smiling coyly. A cat stroked itself around her calves.

“Hello, Sharon. How’s the movie coming along. Want a drink”?

“Fine. And sure. Care to take a look?”

Yes found some cups and poured neat Tequila as Sharon started the editing bench and the movie began.

A montage of shots unfolded with greater and greater intensity showing images of strategic air command, the hippies, LSD taking, the growth of the internet, inter-cut with these were images of modern day San Francisco, the population of post-internet boom And how it was affecting housing, and life in general. Interviews, close-ups of graffiti, murals, images in a range of formats; super 8 film, hi-8 analog video, miniDV, and that increasingly precious commodity, 16mm film itself, put through a forty year-old clockwork Bolex which Sharon had affectionately named “Debord.”

A dull thud sounded and rocked the house. Suddenly a siren wailed. Outside across the street from them a house was fully ablaze, sparks and flames rose a good twenty feet into the dark sky, some of the flames licked at the leaves of a tree on the sidewalk. A woman screamed from the second floor window. She lunged forward slightly then fell with a crack to the pavement. Dr Yes and Sharon could only look on as, out of nowhere, fire trucks pulled up and ambulances arrived. Police cars screeched to a halt. People milled out in front their houses to see what was going on.

Dr Yes looked up to see Sharon recording the whole event on her cell phone camera, her stern face staring into the tiny screen, illuminated mainly now by the orange and yellow flames which rose up and above the highest of the buildings in on Shotwell.

Then the woman, whose broken legs were twisted screamed – a sound like nothing Yes had heard before. It was a phrase that would haunt him for the rest of his life:

¡Mi esposo! ¡Mi niño!

Dr Yes will return in the next issue of otherzine!

David Cox is a writer, film maker and artist who lives in the Mission District of San Francisco. He is a regular contributor to Otherzine. He is also working on a film version of the Dr Yes story. A trailer for this film can be viewed here: