Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The End of History, Geography, Cinematography...

San Francisco moviegoers, as a rule, love to see their city on screen. Many of us especially enjoy seeing how our streets, shops, and landmarks were captured by filmmakers of bygone eras. Even a glimpse of the stock-footage skyline in a Hollywood studio-shot film like John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon will usually earn a cheer from the assembled crowd when projected on a local theatre screen. At the last edition of Noir City, the double-bill of Frisco-set noirs (Red Light and Walk A Crooked Mile) was almost undoubtedly the weakest pairing of the festival, but it packed the Castro Theatre more thoroughly than perhaps any other program in the series. There’s something about seeing “Old San Francisco”, whether in a great film like Vertigo or Greed, or in a lesser one like House on Telegraph Hill or It Came From Beneath the Sea, that connects us to our collective histories, and many of us frequently seek that kind of connection.

All but the most devoted scholar of Frisco Bay film locations is certain to discover unseen camera perspectives on the region’s past by attending shows in the Radical Light series of independent films, both canonical and obscure, that dominates SF Cinematheque’s fall calendar. So far, in the first three screenings in the series (held at the Pacific Film Archive, at SFMOMA, and in an elementary school’s redwood grove in Canyon, California), we’ve seen Market Street in 1906, North Beach ca. 1958, the Emeryville mudflat ca. 1981, Richmond railyards ca. 1966, Transbay Terminal ca. 1961, Mission Creek ca. 1990, and much more, thanks to filmmakers like the Miles Brothers, Dion Vigne, Chris Marker, Bruce Baillie, Dominic Angerame, etc.

Tonight at 7:30 the Pacific Film Archive kicks off four successive Wednesday evening Radical Light screenings that take a chronological approach to Frisco Bay experimental filmmaking. Those of us lucky enough to attend will see a deep-sea diver dragged onto Ocean Beach in the Lead Shoes tonight. We’ll see a Frisco Bay trash dump accompanied to the music of Carl Orff and the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Have You Sold Your Dozen Roses on October 6th. We’ll see an S.F. Mime Troupe-inspired farce enacted all over town in Oh Dem Watermelons on October 13th. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; in addition to all the other films in these four programs, the chronological screenings are supplemented by thematically-curated programs on October 16-17 and a book launch party October 15th.

I'm particularly excited that tonight’s screening includes Christopher Maclaine’s 35-minute opus The End. This apocalyptic masterpiece incorporates more cuts than many feature-length films, but from even the briefest of its shots flickers a San Francisco quite recognizable to anyone closely familiar with the city, even if we arrived here decades after Maclaine made the film in 1953. I was born here twenty years later, for example, but upon taking an opportunity to see this long-sought rarity three years ago, I was startled to recognize my alma mater George Washington High School as a location in the film. This only served to cement the personal re-calibration of my cinematic senses the film seemed to be achieving. When I later had a chance to speak of the experience with Brecht Andersch, who had introduced the screening in his role as part of the Film On Film Foundation, we determined to tour the film’s many, many San Francisco locations.

This year, we’ve done our best to do just that, tracking down the places where Maclaine and cinematographer Jordan Belson pointed the camera whether in the touristed northeast corner of the city or the wild West sections of Frisco. Brecht has begun posting the initial results of our tour at the SFMOMA Open Space blog; so far there’s an introduction and an initial set of screencaps with description. There’s also a photograph I took of how one of the locations (Alta Plaza Park) looks in 2010; future entries in Brecht’s series will include many more of these.

Research begets research, and when Brecht made unlikely contact with Wilder Bentley II, one of the two heretofore-identified (in any publications we’re aware of, at any rate) actors in The End, we felt compelled and privileged to venture to his residence in Sonoma County to interview him. He is expected to attend tonight’s screening of The End and talk about Maclaine, Frisco’s Bohemian scene in the early 1950s, etc. It promises to be quite an evening; whether you've seen The End before, or not, prepare yourself for re-calibration!

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