In Search of the Quintessential San Diego Film

English: Normal Heights, neighborhood of the m...
Normal Heights, San Diego (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

San Diego has long since outgrown its characterization as a “sleepy Navy town on the Mexican border.” We’re planning on doing a deep-dive on the history, architecture, and art of the place later this year in order to help secure its place as a cultural center of consequence, but we wanted to start by looking at some of the best portrayals of San Diego in film.

It is unfortunately not surprising that San Diego has not had many Hollywood Moments worth remembering. Plenty of films have used San Diego locations, often as stand-ins for elsewhere, but few have probed the culture of the city itself, leaving us with the sense of the city as a distinct character.

Top Gun gives us life in San Diego as viewed from Mira Mesa. Maverick’s motorcycle antics near Naval Training Center San Diego (now Liberty Station), his visit to the homes of Kelly McGillis (in Oceanside, actually), Tom Skerrit‘s house on Point Loma, and the brief scene at San Diego airport were the only exposure we get to the town. San Diego is backdrop, not a character.

Almost Famous gets us closer. The San Diego Sports Arena parking lot is there, as is that distinctive view from USD High School and scenes in Balboa Park. Even when Crowe shoots in Santa Monica, it feels like a neighborhood in San Diego, and you can feel the city starting to peek out from behind the actors. But then, all too soon, William is off to Los Angeles, then points beyond, and we lose our chance to get to know the city.

The closest I think we have come to a true San Diego film since 1915’s Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition is probably Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Yes, it’s a goofball comedy, but San Diego is a deliberate character, not just a backdrop. This is California at its California-est, from the parties, to the leisure suit-clad news teams, to the lifestyle, to the two-pound burrito Ron throws out his window. Is much of this caricature? Of course. Yet through it all comes the personality of a city that sits on the far corner of the continent, cut off from the rest of the nation by desert, mountains, and Marines, that uses its isolation as license to find its own identity. And if that isn’t the real nature of San Diego, I’d be glad to know what is.

I keep hoping that Anchorman will drop into the minds of both filmmakers and the rest of America that the city on America’s lower left-hand corner hides stories, beauty, and real character behind the facade of the Navy town on the border. Then, maybe, we can look forward to films that show the city that all of us who have lived there fell in love with, and that we never seem to be able to leave.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

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