Saturday, April 15, 2006

Ten Decades of Frisco in Film


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In preparation for tomorrow's launch of the Balboa Theatre's Second Annual Reel San Francisco series of films from a diverse range of genres and time periods, all made in and/or about Frisco, as well as the Celluloid San Francisco book event at the Public Library next week, I present a list of some of the titles I think of first when I think of Frisco and film.

The post title is a bit of a misnomer, as Frisco Bay has been a motion picture hotbed for more than ten decades. It all began when Edward Muybridge first successfully photographed a horse's gallop for Leland Stanford in 1878. I've seen interesting Frisco films made in every decade since the Lumiere Brothers invented film exhibition in 1895, starting with 1897's Return of Lifeboat and including 1905's a Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire, which was shown at the PFA last weekend and I suspect might be among the films shown this Tuesday at 7PM as part of the Balboa's "City Quakes" earthquake centennial commemoration program. But I will start this list formally with the decade where films first grew to running times similar to those we expect today:

the 1910s: The Tong Man (William Worthington, 1919)
Japanese-American screen idol Sessue Hayakawa played a Chinese anti-hero in this studio set-bound and somewhat sensationalistic depiction of the Frisco Chinatown underworld. It's no masterpiece and I wonder if there was even a single ethnically Chinese actor or crewman on set (most or all the Chinese parts were played by Japanese or white actors, which was customary for the time period) who could speak up against the film's stereotyping. Still, it's a fascinating curio and Hayakawa gives a typically strong performance.
On my to-see wish list: the Chaplin Essanay film a Jitney Elopement.

the 1920s: Greed (Erich Von Stroheim, 1924)
Von Stroheim gained a reputation as one of the first advocates for film realism in large part through his desire to shoot his version of Frank Norris's novel McTeague in the Frisco where Norris had lived and, as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, "scouted locations" for his story of a love triangle doomed by the sudden appearance of wealth. A masterpiece in its own right, Greed also feels like a primer on making Frisco locations (in this case the corner of Hayes and Laguna, the Cliff House, and dozens more) work to the advantage of a great film, one that surely influenced future directors trying the same trick like Orson Welles (see below). The studio cut (not Stroheim's original 47-reel version now lost, or Rick Schmidlin's digital "recreation") played the Balboa series last year.
On my to-see wish list: Lon Chaney surviving the Great Quake in the Shock.

the 1930s: San Francisco (W.S. Van Dyke, 1936)
I had never seen the most famous film about the 1906 Earthquake until the Balboa played it last April for the 99th anniversary of the event. Now it's being brought back April 16-18 for the 100th, and if you live in the area and have never seen it before you really ought to. Though this film, directed by Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke (aka "One Take Woody"), has a not wholly undeserved reputation for stodgily moralizing, it really is a grand entertainment nonetheless. I like to think of it as the movie that represents to Frisco what Gone With the Wind is for Atlanta: It's a big-budget, star-laden special effects extravaganza that distorts history through a potentially worrying lens, but it also treats The City as the center of the Universe. If you, like me, think of Frisco as a better candidate for that honor than Ted Turner's town, you'll almost certainly like San Francisco better than the even more famous picture Clark Gable made three years later. And perhaps this film's conservative reputation has been overblown too; the Terry Diggs piece I linked to convincingly argues that the film was covertly packed by screenwriter Anita Loos with pro-labor jabs against the MGM hegemony.
On my to-see wish list: the Howard Hawks Barbary Coast, which plays the Balboa on a bill with Pal Joey April 23-24.

the 1940s: the Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)
You may need to be automatically predisposed to Welles to be able to get over his silly brogue and fully enjoy this film, the only one he made with his then-wife Rita Hayworth, but there's no denying the power of the scenes that make use of some of the eeriest Frisco locations imaginable, now all the eerier because these places are no longer with us. I'm speaking particularly of Playland at the Beach, where this loopy noir ends in an especially bizarre fashion, and the murkily-lit halls of the recently demolished Steinhart Aquarium, where the (by this point in the Welles-Hayworth marriage) fictional-only lovers rendezvous and talk about a doubly-impossible future together. If the story doesn't totally hang together it certainly doesn't matter when Welles is making use of such dream-logic images as moray eels and funhouse mirrors to make an end run around the glib symbology often found in Hollywood classicism. I didn't see this film when it played in last year's Balboa series, but I've seen it several times, most memorably a few years ago at an outdoor screening in New York City's Bryant Park; admittedly this film is just as much a New York movie as a Frisco movie, but Frisco gets the last word.
On my to-see wish list: I Remember Mama, based on the book I remember my mama reading to me as a kid.

the 1950s: Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
What to say about this film I often consider the greatest of all time? I've seen it too many times to be surprised by its basic plot structure like I was the first four or five times I saw it, always suckered in by the false first climax. But each time I'm still surprised by another Hitchcockian touch I notice, little things like how Pop Liebel's nostalgia for "the power and the freedom" associated with manhood helps Scottie give himself permission to resist the post-war modernization of gender relations and throw himself into an old-fashioned romantic melodrama. And I'm always struck by another glimpse of the Frisco that existed before I was born but am slowly trying to understand. I've had this site on my sidebar since starting this blog, and if you've never taken the time to lose yourself in it for a while, how about now?
On my to-see wish list: the National Film Registry-selected D.O.A., which plays at the Balboa with another noir, the Bigamist, April 25th.

the 1960s: the White Rose (Bruce Conner, 1967)
I first planned this list to be entirely made of feature films, but once I thought of this experimental documentary short, I had to bump the Birds (at the Balboa April 21-22) or Take the Money and Run (April 26-27) or whatever else I was considering for this decade. It's the first Bruce Conner film I ever saw, back in 1996 at the old DeYoung Museum when it was showcasing art of the Beats. The centerpiece of the exhibit was Jay DeFeo's painting/sculpture the Rose, which she applied 2,300 pounds of oil paint to over the course of eight years before removing it by forklift from her apartment at the Pacific Heights section of Fillmore Street. Conner lived nearby and was on hand to film the extraction, which he edited into this beautiful seven minute piece accompanied by music from Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain.
On my to-see wish list: Experiment in Terror, the classic Blake Edwards thriller I missed when the Balboa showed it last year.

the 1970s: the Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
This is another one of those films that I've seen so many times that it's seemingly seeped into my DNA, but that doesn't mean it's easy to know where to begin to talk about it. I might as well start where the film does, with Union Square, which in a single extended zoom shot morphs from a picturesque cityscape into a paranoia-inducing intrusion. The transformation seems oddly paralleled in the history of the location since Coppola's film was released; gradually the public square has felt more and more encroached upon by the neon-lit signs of the corporations that surround it, culminating in a recent remodel that has shifted the focus of the space toward the Macy's on its South side. I don't know all the locations used in the Conversation but I'm not sure I want to know either; the Cathedral Hill Hotel, which I pass nearly every day on the way to work, has felt just a little creepier since I realized it used to be called the Jack Tar Hotel and was the site of the film's most disturbing scene.
On my to-see wish list: Time After Time starring Malcolm McDowell as HG Wells.

the 1980s: a View to a Kill (John Glen, 1985)
I never said these were "the best" films shot in Frisco, just the ones that for me feel the "Frisco"-est. But honestly the last of the many times I saw this film, probably when I was in ninth grade, I still loved it. I was just the right age for James Bond when it came out in '85, and I can't begin to convey the sense of civic pride I felt when I learned that the international playboy and super-spy was going to be coming to my town, which meant that I obviously lived in a location as exciting and exotic as India or the Bahamas. Opening weekend fell near my twelfth birthday, and my dad took me and a dozen buddies across the Golden Gate to the theatre in Corte Madera he liked to avoid the Frisco crowds at. This was my last birthday party at which I felt no sense of inadequacy for not feeling cool enough to invite girls. I was outwardly resisting my looming teenager-hood as strongly as I could (I didn't even really know who Duran Duran was, but I did like their theme song) and a View to a Kill was the perfect preadolescent fantasy to allow me to do that for another two hours, plus get a glimpse of Grace Jones's naked bum. But probably my favorite scene was the fire engine chase scene culminating in the nail-biter at the "Lefty" O'Doul Drawbridge. The insanity of Christopher Walken's Zorin dueling against Bond on top of the area's most famous bridge was just good gravy. Since my middle-school-age days of intense study of Bondology, I've come to learn that a View to a Kill is considered by most to be one of the worst films in the series. I suspect it's at least in part because it's the film which let Roger Moore beat David Niven in Casino Royale as the oldest actor ever to play James Bond (he turned 57 during filming). One of these days I'd like to revisit it and see what I think, but in the meantime I don't mind reliving the memories.
On my to-see wish list: Chan is Missing, another National Film Registry selection.

the 1990s: Chalk (Rob Nilsson, 1996)
Like the Tong Man and San Francisco, I've only seen this film (actually shot on video) once but it left a powerful impression and turned me into a real Rob Nilsson admirer. Nilsson's Cassavetes-influenced filmmaking style cuts through the extraneous baggage of ego and image that he sees clogging up the independent film scene in this country. Probably his most crucial departure from the norm comes through the way he works with actors to develop their characters and stories. In the case of the Tenderloin-birthed poolhall drama Chalk he brought nonprofessional actors like Earl Watson and Johnny Reese together with local pros like Kelvin Han Yee and longtime Nilsson collaborator Don Bajema. It worked extremely well, and not surprisingly created a story that feels oh-so-Frisco in its composition.
On my to-see wish list: Crumb, another of the titles I missed last year.

the 2000s: In the Bathtub of the World (Caveh Zahedi, 2001)
This week Zahedi's hybridized documentary I Am a Sex Addict is playing the Balboa's other screen, but it would fit right into the series, as it was partially set in Frisco and uses local locations to stand in for Paris and elsewhere. But his earlier In the Bathtub of the World is a Frisco film (video again, really) with an even more radical approach. It proposes that a filmmaker does not need to go out and capture or create a particular story, but can make an important, inspiring film capturing some of the very essence of life just by turning a camera back on himself or herself. If a View to a Kill, Vertigo and even Greed use Frisco as the backdrop of the director's vacation film, In the Bathtub of the World turns the home movie of a Frisco resident into something at least as large and profound. Here's a fascinating thing I found that helps to explain why not everybody's heard of it.
On my to-see wish list: the Bridge, Eric Steele's controversial new doc on the topic of Golden Gate Bridge suicides. Another consideration of the subject, the Joy of Life by Jenni Olson, was a highlight of last year's SFIFF (and plays again at the PFA this Tuesday) I expect Steele's film to be of a completely different sort, but my expectations are still high. It's playing at three screenings in this year's edition of the festival, on April 30-May 2.