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.

Advertisements

San Francisco, Before and After

After reading our note pointing to Shawn Clover’s haunting composite photographs melding image post-1906 earthquake and fire San Francisco with modern photos, Golden West Review subscriber and graphic artist Bonnie Blacklidge took it up a level by showing us some stunning videos.

The first is a video from a San Francisco streetcar driving down Market Street toward the Ferry Building in 1905, set to Airs’ superb first track off of their with Air’s superb first track off their album Moon Safari, “La Femme d’argent” by cleverb. Nicely done, and mesmerizing.

Once done with that, take a look at a video that juxtaposes what appears to be the same scenes along Market Street with footage taken just days after the 1906 quake, posted by producer John Jones. The music is suitably haunting, almost a dirge, that like the Clover photos makes the 1906 quake much more immediate and personal.

Check out the photos, then watch these two videos in sequence. As a group they make an event of a century ago more powerful, more personal, and much more profound.

Finally, I am pleased to let you know that Mr. Clover is working on a book of his photos with appropriate narrative called Fade to 1906: The Great Quake Meets Modern San Francisco. It doesn’t seem to be available yet, but you can leave an email address to be notified when it will be available for purchase.

And a big thanks to Bonnie for this feedback.

Responsa: The Problem of Flower Drum Song

A watercolor piece by Dong Kingman, from the m...
A watercolor piece by Dong Kingman, from the movie “Flower Drum Song.”  (Photo credit: kaffeinebuzz)

In a comment on my post about the GWR’s favorite San Francisco films, Bay Area pal Will Lee noted that the Chinese community fairly hated Flower Drum Song for its rather ham-handed casting that had Japanese actors playing Chinese roles.

To tell the truth, I don’t care much for the film either. I think it insults the intelligence not just of Asians, but of all viewers who could tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. Part of the problem was almost certainly the studio’s choice of director, the German-born Henry Koster, a fine filmmaker who was in the sunset phase of his career. Had Universal cared to give the helm to a younger, more savvy director, the result might have been better.

But maybe not. Koster wasn’t the only issue. Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, who brought C.Y. Lee‘s original novel to the stage and eventually to film, saw the world – and Asians – through the eyes of their core audience of American moviegoers, few of whom had either knowledge of or regular interaction with Asians, or had ever been to Asia out of uniform. Indeed, I would wager that, in their own eyes, the composer and the librettist felt that, they were offering Americans a glimpse into a subculture of which most were ignorant.

A blatant example of that ignorance shared screens in 1961 with Flower Drum Song. Mickey Rooney’s embarrassing characterization of Holly Golightly’s Japanese-American building superintendent I.Y. Yunioshi in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s was greeted across America with laughter and nodding heads. In that context, in that time, the casting of a Japanese to play a Chinese seems a minor offense.* Thus, to a degree, Flower Drum Song was an artifact of its moment in history.

Step back a quarter century, though, and Hollywood was not even comfortable casting Asians in what were purely Asian leading roles. The top six billings in The Good Earth went to Anglo actors, despite the wishes of novelist Pearl S. Buck and producer Irving Thalberg. The best way to see Flower Drum Song, then, is as a midpoint in the evolution of how Hollywood portrayed Asian characters between The Good Earth and The Joy Luck Club. Koster’s film may be offensive to us today, but at the time, it was a minor breakthrough.

* Today, it seems more of an offense. I have had an earful from Chinese and Japanese offended by Rob Marshall’s choice of three Chinese actresses to play Japanese women in his 2005 adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha. I agree.

Our Favorite San Francisco Films

Cover of "Barbary Coast"
Cover of Barbary Coast

Though born and raised in Los Angeles, my family has deep roots in San Francisco. Most of my father’s family, with the exception of his brother, lived in the Bay Area, so while family reunions with my mother’s kin happened annually at our house in Los Angeles, getting together with the Wolfs meant a trek to San Francisco.

In part because of that anchor, and perhaps in part because my best years in university were spent at UC Davis and Berkeley, I have never felt particularly partial to either Southern or Northern California. I was of both places. I was, and am, simply “Californian.”

That is probably the reason that I feel as strongly about films that use the bay area as a backdrop as I do about those for which Los Angeles is the setting. There are some movies set in San Francisco that could well be set anyplace else, and it is just nice to see the familiar streets and landmarks. The films that move me the most are those others: those movies for which San Francisco is more than just a background, it is a silent character in the story.

Perhaps it comes out in the eclectic nature the characters. Perhaps it is in the way that San Francisco’s unique melange of districts and neighborhoods all compressed together in the confines of the Peninsula has turned every one of its citizens into a character they may not be anyplace else. Above all, perhaps what sets the true San Francisco movie apart is that it captures the always surprising poetry of the city.

So without waxing too lyrical or breaking into song, here are my favorite eleven movies in which San Francisco serves as a supporting actress as well as a setting.

1. San Francisco (1936) –  Too often forgotten by modern movie goers, this Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald love story set against the backdrop of the city before, during, and in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake is the quintessential San Francisco movie. Director W.S. Van Dyke and writer Robert Hopkins capture the feeling of San Francisco prior to the disaster, and through its characters bring to life the moment in time when the city’s past as an overgrown boomtown dissolved, and its future as the cultural capital of the West began.

2. Barbary Coast (1935) – Perhaps the first major Hollywood film where the personality of the work drew heavily on San Francisco. Director Howard Hawks and writing team Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur turned Herbert Asbury’s bestselling noir novel into a love story, but in the process they leave in a host of tidbits that make this a truly San Franciscan film. Hawks’ San Francisco is a frontier town by the Bay, too corrupt even for a jaded gold-digger like Mary Rutledge (played by Miriam Hopkins.) A more wholesome element is trying to fight the local kleptocrats, but in the end the citizenry has to turn to the vigilantism to take on the saloon owners.  The story is as much about the city’s struggle to rise above its boomtown roots as it is about a girl’s effort to rise above the more venal aspects of her nature. Mary is San Francisco, and vice-versa.

3. 48 hrs. (1982) – Walter Hill’s classic buddy cop film was pure comedy noir. I have heard some people say that it could have been set in any of a number of American cities – New York, Chicago, Detroit – but what keeps it from becoming trite was the selection of San Francisco. I have always believed that 48 hrs. is really a western film in disguise – it begins with a shootout jailbreak, and its main characters are a lawman with a girl who works in a saloon, a group of bank robbers, an honorable thief, an renegade, and an Indian. Somehow you needed to be in a western city, a place where anything was possible and that had the feeling of a social frontier if not a real one, to make that formula work. Watch the movie, and you feel San Francisco in the background in every shot.

4. The Joy Luck Club (1993) – More poignantly than Flower Drum Song, Wayne Wang’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel took us behind the Stockton Street storefronts and into the lives, the dreams, and the tragedies of San Francisco’s Chinese community. Although neither Tan nor Wang delve into the deep history of Chinese in the “Old Gold Mountain” (as the city is called in Mandarin,) the film portrays the eternal “otherness” of the Chinese in the Bay Area. Unable to assimilate but nearly stifled by a community knit tightly by its shared tragedies and long rejection by its otherwise liberal milileu, the characters ultimately come to terms with their identities. Arguably each is somehow enabled or tormented by San Francisco’s assumed multiculturalism, making their stories as much about the city as about the women or their shared ancestral home.

5. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) – Will Smith’s Chris Gardener biopic introduces us to a side of the city that few who have never lived there really know exists, and many who do live there have spent their lives ignoring. Even as the film showed us San Francisco’s underbelly, it gave us a plausible setting for Gardener’s dream to become a reality. New York is not a place for such remarkable changes, but somehow we can believe that San Francisco is.

6-10. The Dirty Harry Films – Apologies to Clint Eastwood and the directors that brought these five films to life – they really are a single serial film rather than five separate movies. Harry Callahan is a moral compass with a hand cannon in a city that, perhaps more than any other, has broken free of its moorings and gone adrift on a sea of relativism. Eastwood never meant the films to be the cathartic Neocon paeans to summary justice that the late Roger Ebert thought they were. Resented by many progressives, the Dirty Harry films juxtaposed San Francisco’s ultimate evolution of political correctness to the common sense of the American frontier hero. The films were minimalist meditations on the line between liberty and order set in a town where the former was worshipped and the latter dismissed as dressed-up facism.

11. The Presidio (1988) – Too often dismissed as a second-rate mystery or buddy film, The Presidio works in San Francisco because of the great irony of the venerable Army post. Here was one of the largest and most important installations in the U.S. military, and it was enveloped by a city filled with people that resented its presence and the activities it contained. The uneasy relationship between the post and the city comes to life in the struggle between the protagonists, Sean Connery’s Colonel Caldwell, the post provost marshal, and Mark Harmon’s SFPD inspector Jay Austin.

Honorable Mention – The Towering Inferno (1974) – Whenever I am in San Francisco for business, I often find myself across the street from Fire Station 13 on Sansome Street in the Financial District. I cannot hear the sirens without thinking of The Towering Inferno. San Francisco has a singular relationship with fire and a mixed reaction to the ever-rising towers built on downtown landfill. Somehow the suspense of the film was more poignant because it was in San Francisco. The image from the film that was most memorable was not the action, but the lights of Marin County and Oakland as seen from the 138th floor Promenade Room. It was those reminders of normal life twinkling in the distance as hundreds huddled in fear while flames crept closer that best delivered the film’s meta-message, mocking the hubris that would build such an edifice. “This city is not about glass and steel,” those lights seemed to say, “it is about earth, sea, and sky.”

Our Favorite L.A. Films

Cover of "The Day of the Locust"
Cover of The Day of the Locust

My favorite L.A. films – in fact, my favorite films about anyplace – are those that accomplish one of three things. They either hold up a mirror to the place and the people who live there, hold up a microscope to give you a view of the place that you have never seen before, or capture something about the place that makes it a little magical. The place becomes a living, breathing presence that touches the plot and the characters in a definable way.

Put simply, the best films about a place are those where the setting is a character, not mere backdrop, and they couldn’t happen anywhere else. Wayne Wang’s A Great Wall could not have been made in Shanghai or Hong Kong. It was suffused with the essence of Beijing. New Orleans should have been given an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Big Easy, and location was unquestionably an uncredited character in films like Elizabethtown, Juno, Napoleon Dynamite, and The Shipping News.

When the location becomes backdrop, something disappears from the cast list. One of my favorite L.A. films, strangely, was Clint Eastwood‘s Every Which Way But Loose. But watching it today, L.A. simply becomes a generic backdrop. Philo could have lived in Phoenix or Dallas. They shot at the north end of the San Fernando Valley because it was Western, working-class, and close. Christopher Nolan‘s Batman films happened in a Gotham City that was New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore all rolled into a mash that said “generic Northeast U.S. City,” taking the character of the setting out entirely, a feat I think of as location neutering.

So all of our lists of top films of the Golden West may not necessarily be the best films made in or about their settings, but in each the place is a presence, a character, a device that moves the plot forward in a way nowhere else could.

For Los Angeles, they are, in descending order:

1. Chinatown – Roman Polanski
2. L.A. Story – Steve Martin
3. L.A. Confidential – Curtis Hanson
4. The Big Lebowski – The Coen Brothers – (Honorable Mention: Barton Fink)
5. Magnolia – Paul Thomas Anderson – (Honorable Mention: Boogie Nights)
6. Falling Down – Joel Schumacher
7. Boyz in the Hood – John Singleton
8. The Day of the Locust – John Schlesinger
9. Blast from the Past – Hugh Wilson
10. The Holiday – Nancy Meyers

There were some close calls here, and there are a few omissions that I feel the need to explain. First, I don’t count Blade Runner as a film about L.A. Once you rip out the Chandleresque narration that offended many fans of the movie, the setting feels more like New York, Hong Kong, or Tokyo than Los Angeles. Beverly Hills Cop nearly made it, but the filmmakers lost me when they took serious geographic license in portraying Beverly Hills as encompassing parts of West Hollywood, LAX, Pasadena, and other random chunks of metropolitan Los Angeles. It was a Los Angeles designed to feel real to only those who had never been there.

Let me know what you think I’m missing here.

Coming next: our favorite San Francisco Films.

Los Angeles and The Noir Fiction

“Nothing More American: On James M. Cain”
Steve Erickson

Los Angeles Review of Books
December 10, 2012

In an essay included in the new Folio Society edition of James M. Cain’s classic noir novel of Los Angeles, The Postman Always Rings Twice, film critic Steve Erickson examines the significance of Cain’s novel the context of its time and genre. It was a racy book on a racy shelf, one that common sensibility prevented from being fully translated to film for five decades.

There is good reason behind all of this. As Erickson pithily observes, “Noir was to cinema as punk was to rock and roll.” Noir was where you felt for the ragged edge of literary (and cinematic) tolerance, that point where art was an inch away from becoming pornographic. Postman was the literary Piss Christ of the 1930s.

Unfortunately, an otherwise brilliant review is undermined by an irritant: either knowingly or otherwise, Erickson buys into The Noir Fiction: it wasn’t just people that were bad in the stories of Cain, Chandler, and others. It was the place.

Still just a euphemism for Hollywood, Los Angeles was Cain’s natural habitat more than he knew, teetering between the transcendent and the tawdry, swarming with the forsaken, disenchanted, and besotted, among them fugitives from Hitler’s coming holocaust. Centerless and gravityless, Los Angeles was the Elba of Entropy for exiles like Cain who, writing scripts within a martini’s throw of Faulkner and Fitzgerald, honed self-loathing into an aesthetic.

That reads pretty well, doesn’t it? It should. It could have come out of a Cain story, or a Chandler novel, or an early treatment of the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. There is something wrong with L.A., something fundamental that is missing, and that either screws up the good people who come to the city or attracts all of the nasty elements.

This is the unspoken conceit that underlies noir fiction and film. You read it in Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy. You see it in Chinatown, in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in L.A. Confidential as the two good-but-damaged people leave L.A. for, of all places, the corrupt company mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. Better to live at the whim of the strike-busting Phelps Dodge Corporation, the filmmakers are telling us, than to live in a dysfunctional shit hole like Los Angeles.

Just in case we missed his point, Erickson delivers it at the end, this time in a tighter wad than before.

James M. Cain left Los Angeles in the late 1940s and his fiction was never the same. It wasn’t so much that he belonged in Los Angeles: the whole point of Los Angeles is not belonging there; it’s a city for people who don’t belong anywhere.

I have lived in L.A. long enough – and been away from it long enough – to know that there are people for whom this is profoundly true, and there are Angelenos who know that this is pure slander. For some of us, there are times in our lives where it rings true, and others that prove its falsehood. When I was young, I loved this town and it ripped the guts out of me and spit me out in a way no native son should experience. Now I’m older, and things are different, and the place seems to be returning what was once unrequited. Yet I also know now that it never was the City. It was always me.

The Noir Fiction that L.A. is broken, a silent malevolent force, is an artful projection, a conceit, a device. It is a way of assuring readers that there is nothing wrong with people, really, it is just time, place, and circumstance that screw us all up. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we recognize that this device so freely shared by the guys in the back room at Musso and Frank was less a true description than an artistic tool.

Erickson seems to adopt this hyperbole, this shot-glass of Chandler dripped on one’s shirt, as the truth without reflection or examination. It is fashionable to do so. How could so many of the great L.A. authors have written about the city in that way if it all weren’t true? Conveniently, it serves the purposes of the legion of literary wanna-bes locked up in rent-controlled fifth-floor closets in Manhattan who slip six times on the ice on the way to their miserable day-jobs. L.A. isn’t a place. Manhattan, on the other hand…

The literary trade is most susceptible to the Noir Fiction. After all, its what the elite have told themselves for decades, and to be from L.A. and gain access to the halls of literary respectability, you must repeat the Noir Fiction like the Boy Scout oath, a credo: L.A. is not a real place, and nothing good emerges from it without influence from elsewhere.

Erickson, whether he believes the Noir Fiction or not, is paying his fraternity dues. That doesn’t mean we have to. We can instead recognize Los Angeles for what it is: a neutral place that has brought out the best in some (Cain and Erickson among them) the worst in others, and in the shadow of the long, slow decline of Hollywood has become the heart of a new capital of literature, arts, and culture that rivals Manhattan and Paris.

And, more prosaically, it is a place where a lot of us belong, where we feel an attachment to the people, to the place, to the very earth even when it quivers beneath our feet. We know, to borrow a line from Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that L.A.’s not bad: it’s just written that way.

A View to a Film

San Fran Cinema
by Andrew Moss
Film reviews and film comment

Borrowing an old phrase from my dad, if I had a nickel for every film review website out there, I could retire. All any of us needs to become an ersatz Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael is a pair of eyeballs and a blogging account.

So it was a delight to stumble across a site written by a film lover that is pithy, erudite, and often right on the money. Andrew Moss, a London-born, San Francisco-based writer with deep roots in the movements that wracked the Bay Area from the 1960s forward, has taken time away from meaning-filled pursuits to share his views on film. And it’s a good thing.

Moss has only been at it for a few months, but his Ramparts roots show. Not only is he engaging, he also has a way of gently dismembering a film for egregious failings without being dismissive or seeming to turn red in the face with rage. His scalpel is subtle but firm – deftly juxtaposing Leni Riefenstahl with Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow better underscored Bigelow’s artful avoidance of issues in a political thriller.

The other joy is his scope of interest. He doesn’t feel obliged to review every piece of bubblegum that makes its way into the multiplex. Moss is a discriminating filmgoer, and the list of films he bothers to watch is turning into my filter. I can see things getting to a point where if my spouse, progeny, or id are not dragging me to the theater, I’ll only watch what Moss suggests. His reviews thus far include The Master, Johnny Guitar, Vertigo, Argo, Lincoln, Hitchcock, Life of Pi, and Back to 1942.

Add SanFran Cinema to your movie review lists, Californios.

A Screenwriter, Act Two

Screenwriting
Screenwriting (Photo credit: pietroizzo)

“A Three Act Journey In The Land Of The Screenwriting Gurus
Jonathan Zimmerman
Los Angeles Review of Books
November 21, 2012

For those of us who love movies and fancy ourselves as “writers,” there is something mysteriously alluring about screenwriting. Essays are hard. History is harder. Novels are a stone bitch. But what can be so difficult about the mechanics of plot, dialogue, and stage direction? “Surely,” one thinks, “I could write a better script than half of the idiots doing so for a living.”

Obligingly, a small industry has emerged designed to help the cinephile scribe get his scriptwriting thing on. For those of us hovering on the edge of writing our first treatment, Jonathan Zimmerman offers a warning that is at once delightful and foreboding: don’t even go there.

Leaving aside the possibility that Mr. Zimmerman is simply trying to limit his potential competition, there is something that rings true in his gently recounted frustration with the modest-sized shelf of books he has devoured about the screenwriting craft. This is not a success story – yet. Mr. Zimmerman is still writing “spec” scripts, cranked out in the hopes that someone will buy them or, seeing a talent in the words, hire him for some paid work.

I am pulling for Mr. Zimmerman to succeed. Even though it is a fickle business and the screenwriter is as dumped on by the literary establishment as by everyone else in the Hollywood food chain (from the studio heads all the way down to craft service), the work is underrated. My favorite films are the well-written ones, and I have a gut feeling that Hollywood’s competitive future depends more on great writing than anything else.

What I am not sure is that certificate programs at UCLA, seminars at The Writer’s Store, Final Draft 8, and a shelf of how-to books are going to get us there. We need something more.

The question is “what?”

Meanwhile, I’m back to work on my treatment of a Miami Vice-meets-China pilot.

The Street Screenwriter

“The Cop Whisperer”
Ed Leibowitz
Los Angeles magazine
.

A profile of writer-director David Ayer, a self-taught writer-director who has translated his experiences growing up on the rough side of Los Angeles into a growing oeuvre.

You probably know Ayer for his 2001 film Training Day, starring Denzel Washington. His new End of Watch, shot with big stars on a tiny budget, is in theaters, and his next project is the reinvention of Arnold Schwarzenegger.