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.”

Homage to the Gadflies

Late last week I was perusing the pages of a New York opera site, and I discovered an article that was a review of a book about the art and critics of the New York opera scene. What surprised me (but probably shouldn’t have, was the sheer volume and heat of the anger at critics. All the old saws were there: only failures are critics; critics never added any value to anything, and one particularly harsh missive that argued that any critic who was unable to perform at the level of the artist he critiqued had no credibility.

Which, of course, is so much rot.

Now, I can’t paint, draw, sculpt, make a movie, write a song, or design a building. But I do write, and I have taken no shortage of verbal double-ought buckshot for my writing from people who cannot themselves assemble a coherent sentence. What is in question, though, is not their ability to write, but their ability to read, and if someone can read, he can critique a writer. If they could not (or did not) read, they’re disqualified, but only then.

The same, I would argue, applies to any art.

So while some critics can be insufferable (and some artists can be divas,) to suggest that one must be an artist or have an artist’s talent in order to critique art is so much elitist hogwash. It delegitimizes the opinion of everyone but a closed coterie of talented specialists who (I would argue) are more likely to engage in critical back-scratching (“if I go easy on him, he’ll go easy on me”) than someone without that kind of skin in the game.

What is more, that sort of intellectual snobbery seems somewhat antithetical to a democratic nation, one whose society is built on the presumption that everyone’s choice – and by extension, opinion – is of equal value, if not of equal merit. And don’t get me started on the importance of some undefined level of expertise: it was a child that pointed out that the emperor was naked, not a fashion designer.

Finally, I think we need to admit that critics have a great value if we both recognize their strengths and their limits. Critics have been instrumental (pardon the pun) to my musical growth and appreciation – I would be much more of a tyro than I am today without them. If there is one message we must comport to noobs and aficionados alike, it is this: a critic is entitled to his or her opinion, but he is not entitled to yours. Read, learn, then go listen/look/watch with an open mind.

American Letters and New York City

New York City
New York City (Photo credit: kaysha)

One of the great blessings of American literature is that, unlike that of many less diverse nations and cultures, ours benefits from the inspiration offered in the geographic diversity of the land. It is sad, therefore, that so many intelligent champions of American letters would prefer that we have but a single literary Mecca. A nation can only have one intellectual capital. As France has Paris, so must America have New York. To defend such a proposition, and perhaps to justify living in a city that is as likely to brutalize an author as it is to celebrate him or her, some of New York’s most ardent boosters go to great pains to make the case that for the writer or the book-minded, there is no place to be but New York City.

In an article entitled “City Lights,” writer and biographer Stefan Kanfer offers us a notable example of such Metropolitan hyperbole. To support his point, he gives endless examples of writers from Washington Irving to Jonathan Franzen who have made New York their home.

Kanfer is most loquacious when answering the infidel literati who rejected the Big Apple:

Ernest Hemingway found the literary city repulsive; in Green Hills of Africa, he called New York writers “angleworms in a bottle.” And H. L. Mencken demanded, “Have you ever noticed that no American writer of any consequence lives in Manhattan? Dreiser tried it (after many years in the Bronx), but finally fled to California.”

Mencken, notorious for his contrarian screeds, was wrong. So was Hemingway. In addition to Singer, five recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature have found New York’s attractions too powerful to resist: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison. Philip Roth and John Updike took apartments there; Norman Mailer never left town. Along the way, The New Yorker stopped being quite so closed and began to publish the likes of J. D. Salinger, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Munro, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Indeed.

This is exactly the kind of defensive self-justification cum effusive self-congratulation for which New York must own the patent given its frequent use by the city’s fanboyim. A steady flow of this tiresome spew has poured from the pens, typewriters, and laptops of Gotham for over a century, and the sole effect outside of New Amsterdam’s legion of besotted admirers has been a roll of the eyes and a turn of the page.

I submit that there are far simpler and less mystical reasons for New York’s role as a literary gravity-well than Mr. Kanfer’s pean would seem to suggest. Those include:

  • New York is where the publishers are, and most writers find it convenient to be near the largest critical mass of markets for their work, whether they want to be there or not. One of Kanfer’s Nobel Laureates, Toni Morrison, came to New York to be an editor in a publishing house, not because of some mystic magnet.
  • Writing is a lonely profession, and the proximity of a sympathetic support group of peers, both more and less talented, is a comfort to all, especially the struggling and the poseurs, (the latter whom find it much easier to justify their unpublished status to their loved ones and themselves because at least they are in the center of the action.)
  • New York is home to an overlarge community of grossly wealthy idle and nouveau riche, especially from among the financial community, who patronize the belles letters as a means of embellishing their unearned or under earned lucre with a patina of culture.
  • Writers are celebrated, tolerated, and venerated in New York like nowhere else on the planet. Such ego infusions are heady, addictive stuff.

Hardly the stuff of impassioned tributes, I know, but without doubt more reflective of some basic truths that reflect the uglier side of the vocation of letters.

As for me, I side with Mencken, Hemingway, Drieser, Hunter Thompson, Raymond Chandler, and all of the others who had the fortitude and dignity to ply their craft far from the shores of the Hudson. How much greater the triumph of a writer laboring without the support of editors, agents, patrons, and fellows in close proximity.

And, for the record, New York has no especial claim on Nobel Laureates in Literature: Steinbeck did his best work in California, Lewis in Washington, DC, Bellow in the Midwest and Boston; Hemingway, Pearl Buck and Joseph Brodsky avoided the place.

The truth is, America is blessed to have a geographically diverse literary tradition, so much so that one could almost make a lifetime study of the literature of New England (less New York City), of the South, of the West, and California.

Dismount your horses, Tribunes of Gotham. You are all wonderful and do great work. To pretend that literature begins and ends in your precincts does an injustice to literature and an injustice to New York.

Originally published October 17, 2011 in The Peking Review

Woody Allen, Metrpolitan or Philistine?

Woody Allen playing his clarinet in concert in...
Woody Allen playing his clarinet in concert in New York City. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Defending Los Angeles from Woody Allen’s remark that making a right turn on a red light was Los Angeles’ only contribution to culture, Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith retorted:

What about the drive-in bank, the Frisbee, the doggie bag? What about our Hansel and Gretel cottages, our Assyrian rubber factory, our Beaux-Arts-Byzantine-Italian-Classic-Nebraska Modern City Hall? What about the drive-in church?

All joking aside, whatever Woody Allen is, he is also one of the great preachers of the Gospel According to Gotham. Does anything exist for you, Woody, beyond the mid-point of the George Washington Bridge going West?

The only real difference between New York’s cultural contributions and California’s is that our Eastern brethren tend to do a better job at promoting theirs that we do of ours. We here at the GWR would like to change that, of course.