After reading our note pointing to Shawn Clover’s haunting composite photographs melding image post-1906 earthquake and fireSan 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.
The Sainte Claire, perhaps the least well-known among the grand hotels of the Golden State, still adds a touch of grace to downtown San Jose. Designed by the storied San Francisco architectural firm Weeks & Day, the hexagonal building reflects in its flavor and styling the more storied Mark Hopkins and St. Francis hotels at the top of the peninsula.
The Sainte Claire was once considered the most elegant accommodation between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of its owners, the building’s interiors and exteriors still reflect the original vision of the designers, but there is no slavish devotion to nostalgia here. The owners have managed to walk that fine line between history and modernity, preserving the original when possible, updating when necessary and proper.
The result is a delight, especially for travelers who find that the dependable sameness of chain hotels, like the quite excellent San Jose Marriott across the street, has become wearisome.
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.
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.
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.”
ArtPlace, an organization offering grants and other support to communities that combine art, artists, and venues to encourage creativity and expression, has named the most vibrant art neighborhoods in America. Of the twelve, three are in California, the most of any state.
The top ArtPlaces of the Golden West are Central Hollywood, The Mission District in San Francisco, and, surprising us a bit, downtown Oakland, encompassing Chinatown, Old Oakland, and Jack London Square. The neighborhoods were singled out for criteria including their walkability, for nurturing independent businesses, and for making art and artists a core part of the community.
Downtown Oakland was singled out by the organization as the “true underdog” in the competition, but noted that the transformation that has taken place in the city over the last decade would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. What brought it about was a grassroots effort – Oakland Art Murmur – very unlike the high-minded but doomed postwar urban renewal plans.
The recognition of Central Hollywood echoes one of our own regular themes: a new kind of arts and entertainment industry is growing on the weed patch of Old Hollywood. Moviegoing is an event again, thanks to Mann’s Chinese, the Arclight, and Disney’s stunning El Capitan. Music is coming back, as we noted last year:
But the beat goes on, and a walk down Sunset Boulevard on any given night offers ample evidence – from Amoeba to the Roxy – that American music is as healthy as it has ever been. The problem remains a hidebound industry more interested in defending its business model than in the product itself. The slow, disreputable whittling down of the artists and repertoire (A&R) function within the major labels is testament to as much. The industry is in decline as a result, but we can already see, here in California, the foundations of a new music industry that is rising in its place.
And all of this is taking place in a way that attracts tourists and neighborhood people alike.
When I read about what’s happening in the Mission District, I kick myself for not going there when I was in San Francisco in December. Absorbed in the myriad culinary delights in Chinatown, the Financial District, and North Beach, I never thought to wander south of Market. I won’t make that mistake again. San Francisco is suffused with art, but ArtPlaces notes that the edgier, more affordable art can be found in The Mission, along with antiques, music, and some incredible eats. I won’t be missing it next trip.
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.