Get to know Davis, or know it better, through pop culture

By From page C1 | September 20, 2011

Is it possible to get to know Davis not just on the back of a bicycle but through art and pop culture?

We think so. The list of Davis references and the work of current or onetime Davis folks in all manner of books, movies, music, television and more turns out to be mighty long.

So much so that we in Davis can even concede two entries to our neighbor, Winters — Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River,” a song about lazy days on Putah Creek; and the art of former resident R. Crumb — without batting an eye.

With deep apologies to the many, many artists we’re sure to leave off (and for lumping Pulitzer Prize winners with reality television stars), here’s one hurried, humble attempt to make one such list.

So cut yourself a piece of pie or slice of cake in honor of the great painter — and UC Davis professor emeritus — Wayne Thiebaud, and let’s get started.

The bookshelf

Here there’s no better place to start than with Beat Generation poet Gary Snyder, a UCD professor emeritus, who has published 18 books including “Turtle Island,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1975.

From there, turn to another Pulitzer winner: UCD history professor Alan S. Taylor, who earned the 1996 prize for “William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic.”

Davis ‘ current literary “It Girl” is UCD English professor Yiyun Li, a native of Beijing.

Li won the Pen/Hemingway Award for her debut collection, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” and has been named to The New Yorker’s “20 under 40″ list. She’s also one of Granta literary magazine’s 21 best young American novelists under 35. Her novel “The Vagrants” won the California Book Award for fiction.

Snyder, Taylor and Li have plenty of company.

To name but a few local (or formerly local) authors:

* Peter S. Beagle, author of “The Last Unicorn,” “A Fine and Private Place” and “I See By My Outfit.”

* Karen Joy Fowler, best known as the author of the best-seller “The Jane Austen Book Club,” later made into a movie.

* Herbert Gold, author of “Fathers: A Novel in Form of a Memoir.”

* Pam Houston, author of “Cowboys are my Weakness,” “Waltzing the Cat” and “A Little More About Me.”

* William Langewiesche, Vanity Fair correspondent and author of books including “American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center” and “The Outlaw Sea : A World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime.”

* John Lescroart, best known for his thrillers featuring the characters Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitsky.

* Kim Stanley Robinson, best known as the author of the science fiction trilogy “Red Mars,” “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars.”

* Anthony Swofford, author of the Gulf War memoir “Jarhead,” later a film of the same name.

* Joe Wenderoth, once called one of Rolling Stone magazine’s 10 best writers under age 35, is no stranger to poetry anthologies and turned heads with “Letters to Wendy’s.”

* Some others to check out include David Simpson, author of “9/11: The Culture of Commemoration”; Frances E. Dolan, author of “Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy”; Kathryn Olmstead, author of “Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11″; and poet and music critic Joshua Clover, author of “1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About.”

* Any list of books with Davis ties also should include John McPhee’s “Assembling California,” which features — as the author’s guide and traveling companion — UCD professor emeritus of geology Eldridge Moores. With four other books about geology, it was folded into “Annals of the Former World,” which won McPhee the 1999 Pulitzer for nonfiction.

Caught on film

* The 2008 film “Bottle Shock,” about the moment when California wine cemented its legitimacy, not surprisingly includes a scene meant to take place at UC Davis , with Bradley Whitford playing an enology expert.

The movie was co-written and directed by onetime UCD student Randall Miller, whose next project, “The Drummer,” is a bio-pic about Beach Boy Dennis Wilson.

* Speaking of wine, bottles from Fiddlehead Cellars — located in the Santa Ynez Valley, but with an office right here in Davis , run by UCD grad Kathy Joseph — make cameos in both 2004’s “Sideways” and this year’s “The Kids Are All Right.”

* For 2002’s “Teknolust,” starring Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton, writer, director and UCD professor emeritus Lynn Hershman Leeson offers glimpses of our university’s Kemper Hall.

* Davis High School graduate Dylan Brown’s credits include acting as supervising animator of the Academy Award-winning “Ratatouille.” He’s now Pixar Canada’s creative director.

* Novelist Diane Johnson, who taught creative writing at UCD, co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s take on Stephen King’s “The Shining.”

* Richard Attenborough’s 1985 film adaptation of “A Chorus Line” includes a pair of Davisites, Jan Gan Boyd and the late Tony Fields. Fields’ other credits included Michael Jackson’s video for “Thriller.”

* Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck co-directed the Sundance Film Festival entry “Charlie and the Rabbit.” These same creators of the web documentary series “American Nobodies” recently were named to Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 Faces to Watch” list.

* Another to watch: Local Logan Schneider, cinematographer for “America in Primetime,” a documentary look at how we — and the world — see America through television, and a camera operator on both “Waiting for Superman,” a look at education by Oscar-winning documentarian David Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), and “Countdown to Zero,” about the nuclear arm’s race, in 2010.

* Among Davis ‘ more unusual links to film: the way the story of UCD civil engineer David Phillips, who parlayed $3,140 worth of chocolate pudding cups and other Healthy Choice products into 1.25 million frequent-flier miles, was worked into the not-so-stable character played by Adam Sandler in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2003 film, “Punch-Drunk Love.”

Local sounds

Music with Davis roots and ties runs the gamut.

Start with Barry “The Fish” Melton, co-founder of Country Joe and the Fish — the very mention of which puts a smile on the faces of the Woodstock generation — who later became Yolo County ‘s public defender.

He lives in West Sacramento now, but once lived in Davis . So we’re claiming him.

Keeping with the same era, there’s singer-songwriter Gary Lee Yoder, best known as part of several 1960s psychedelic rock bands, including Kak, Oxford Circle and Blue Cheer.

Singer-songwriter Steve Wynn founded the 1980s band Dream Syndicate and has since gone on to produce several solo albums.

Other 1980s vintage bands with local ties include Thin White Rope and Camper Van Beethoven.

Michael Franti, a DHS grad-turned-musician and activist, fuses hip-hop, funk, reggae, folk and more. Having opened for U2 on 1992’s Zoo TV Tour with the group The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Franti has since built a steady following.

His toe-tapping single “Say Hey (I Love You)” has turned up everywhere: from a dance number on the Showtime television series “Weeds” to a Corona beer commercial.

DJ Shadow — aka Josh Davis , who attended DHS and UCD — earned a spot on Time magazine’s list of 100 all-time best albums with 1994’s “Endtroducing…” He’s also featured in the video game “DJ Hero,” the sequel to the smash hit “Guitar Hero.”

Other musical notables include multi-instrumentalists Joe Craven, who played with the likes of Jerry Garcia; and Dave Nachmanoff, frequent sideman for Al Stewart. Mark Inouye, a DHS grad, is principal trumpet in the San Francisco Symphony and a composer.

Hip-hop artists include Lyrics Born and the duo Blackalicious, UCD students all.

In 2004, the Boston alternative rock band The Pixies released a recording of their reunion show at UCD.

Music trivia: The album “The Ride,” by Grammy-winning artists Los Lobos — frequent visitors during the band’s storied career — ends with the recording of a friend of the band on the phone, asking, “Hey, does anybody wanna make a run to Davis and pick up Rita?”

On the tube

Chinese-born celebrity chef Martin Yan stands out as Davis ‘ biggest television star. Yan, who earned a master’s degree in food science from UCD in 1975, made a name for himself with PBS’ “Yan Can Cook” and “Martin Yan — Quick and Easy” on Food Network Canada.

He has opened several restaurants and published more than a dozen cookbooks. Yan also popped up elsewhere on the dial, including judging food on “Iron Chef America” and appearing on the cartoon talk show “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast.”

It’s tough to pick just where to place Emmy Award-winning set designer John Iacovelli, whose work has ranged from theater to television and film. He is a professor in UCD’s department of theater and dance.

Iacovelli has designed for more than 200 productions nationwide, including the Tony-nominated Broadway revival of “Peter Pan.” His art direction for an A&E broadcast of the show earned him his Emmy. Non-theatergoers may have seen his work on shows ranging from “The Cosby Show” to “Babylon 5″ (the latter earning him an Art Directors Guild nomination).

Paul Scheuring, a DHS grad, created “Prison Break,” the Fox series that ran for four seasons. The writer/director has since moved into feature films, directing last year’s “The Experiment,” starring Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker.

And Davis has produced plenty of players in unscripted television.

In 2002, MTV followed members of UCD’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi for “Sorority Life”; a reunion show was filmed the following year. But that’s just scratching the surface. Since then a number of locals have taken a turn on reality television:

* In 2010, UCD student Kevin Wu and his father, Michael, placed seventh out of 11 teams on “The Amazing Race.” As KevJumba, Kevin has become YouTube’s ninth most subscribed-to comedian, started a charity, JumbaFund, to support worthy causes and starred in an online series called “Funemployed.”

* In 2009, UCD grad (and former wrestler) Russell Kairouz joined those under the watchful eye of “Big Brother.”

* In 2008, UCD student Dallas Imbimbo and his mother, Toni, traveled into the final four on “The Amazing Race.”

* In 2007, DHS grad Greg Kaysen, aka John Brown, battled to second place on VH1’s “Ego Trip’s (White) Rapper Show,” while DHS grad Antoinette “Butterscotch” Clinton beatboxed her way to third on “America’s Got Talent.”

* In 2006, UCD law school graduate Michelle Landry searched for love on ABC’s “How to Get the Guy,” while DHS grad Sara Albert strutted her way to fourth on “America’s Next Top Model.”

* In 2005, Davisite Lauren James appeared on “Brat Camp,” an ABC show that followed out-of-control teens during their transformation in the SageWalk wilderness therapy program.

* In 2004, UCD grad James “Chad” Crittenden was the 11th contestant voted out on “Survivor: Vanuatu — Islands of Fire,” and UCD student Amir Ghasri and his twin brother, Omead — then a student at UC Riverside — showed off mind-reading tricks on MTV’s “True Life.”

* In 2003, UCD grad Amanda Scott defended her pink-and-black-only wardrobe on The Style Channel’s “Style Court.”

No discussion of Davis and TV could go by without mention of a 1998 “The Daily Show” segment, featuring then-Mayor Julie Partansky, Enterprise columnist (and Sirius radio host) Bob Dunning and others, all talking about the city’s infamous toad tunnel.

Other “Daily Show” mentions included a talk with professor Darrell Hamamoto, about his foray into all-Asian-American porn.

At the gallery

Here again, we risk leaving a good many talented folks from our list.

Some notable names include sculptors Robert Arneson (he of the campus’ Eggheads), David Gilhooly and Tony Natsoulas, and painters Squeak Carnwath and Roy De Forest, all of whom are linked to UCD.

George Longfish, former professor of Native American art and director of the C.N. Gorman Museum, helped turned preconceived notions of native art on their head with his abstract paintings and sketches.

Malaquias Montoya, a UCD professor of Chicana/Chicano studies and art and art history, is well known for his murals and posters championing farmworkers and opposing the war in Vietnam and the death penalty.

Still another worth checking out: UCD grad Daniel Glendening, an installation artist, abstract painter and writer.

This brings us back to Thiebaud, perhaps best known for his paintings of cakes and pastries. A fall 2010 retrospective of his career, coinciding with his 90th birthday, drew crowds to Sacramento’s Crocker Art Gallery. He was also inducted into the California Hall of Fame last year.

— Reach Cory Golden at [email protected] or (530) 747-8046. Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.com

Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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