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.
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 Expositionis 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.
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.
I grew up enamored with the idea of being a firefighter, inspired by the January 1972 premiere of NBC’sEmergency! I was pretty open about my ambitions for a few years, even attempting to organize my own grade-school version of a volunteer fire department. My parents fretted about my obsession, though, and the fact that it took away from my concentration at school. Worse, perhaps, was that my interest became decidely uncool before I was ten, and given my persistent geeky social awkwardness I needed as few factors as possible working against me. I remained an avid fire buff throughout my teens, but I kept it under wraps.
Then, at seventeen, my firefighter fantasies seemed poised to come true. Working for the summer of 1982 on the rural west end of Catalina Island, I was sitting down for lunch on July 3rd when the fire siren wailed. Looking up to see a growing pall of smoke from the dry hillsides next to Catalina Harbor a scant two miles away. I rushed back to work only to be hurriedly herded with a handful of other locals into the back of the sheriff deputy’s Bronco, then deposited alone, clueless and tool-less minutes later along a road between the fire and the tiny community at the Isthmus.
At that moment, alone on a hillside, a hundred yards from the next nearest person, without a shovel, protective gear, leadership, or training, with a wind-blown fire a mile away and moving in my direction, I engaged in the kind of struggle experienced only by teenaged boys. Hero Complex urged me to “hold the line” against the fire, using my shirt to fight it if I had to. Hero Complex was quickly overruled, however, by the power-team of Common Sense and Fear: “what can I do by myself with no tools?” asked Common Sense. “Let’s get the f*** out of here before we burn and die,” urged Fear.
Down the hill I went, alone as I came up, hating myself every step of the way, even after I saw that the fire chief had decided to set up a perimeter around the structures in the direct path of the fire, leaving to burn the brush I was sent to defend. I spent the rest of the night as spectator and support, never quite forgiving myself for not making the stand, but knowing (hoping?) that somehow I had done the right thing.
Apart from earthquakes, there are probably few things that scare the hell out of your average Californian more than a wildfire. From afar, they are horrifying in an intellectual kind of way. Put yourself in the path of an advancing wall of uncontrolled flame, though, and suddenly something inside your lizard brain starts squeezing your adrenal glands until every cell in your body tries to flee of its own accord.
And well it should. Fighting fires of any kind is not for wannabees. The chemical nexus of heat, fuel, and oxygen is more than just a simple reaction. The best description I have ever heard was Robert DeNiro‘s line as fire marshal Donald ‘Shadow’ Rimgale in Ron Howard’s Backdraft.
“It’s a living thing, Brian. It breathes, it eats, and it hates. The only way to beat it is to think like it. To know that this flame will spread this way across the door and up across the ceiling, not because of the physics of flammable liquids, but because it wants to. Some guys on this job, the fire owns them, makes ’em fight it on it’s level, but the only way to truly kill it is to love it a little.”
Your average professional firefighter has the equivalent of a university education on the science of fire suppression. The National Fire Protection Association suggests a minimum of 110 hours, or three weeks, of intensive training before a physically-fit volunteer firefighter is allowed to join a department, and most departments lay heavy demands for continued on-the-job training for minimum competence.
Yet every year, the roll-call of firefighters killed in the line of duty grows. Fire, that fickle witch, claims for her own even the best trained and most experienced. And the most wicked, unpredictable, terrifying kind of fire is the wildland conflagration, when brush, bush, and entire forests play host to howling walls of burning terror.
Despite the danger, every fire season, over four thousand felons voluntarily place their bodies between those walls of flame and our homes in the state of California. Somehow these convicted felons overcome whatever character flaws they possess and step into some of the most grueling and dangerous work in America.
It is a great untold story of heroism in the Golden West, and James Pogue set out with camping gear, notebooks, and tape recorder in his pickup truck to learn more about California’s convict conservationists. What he describes is at once heartening and unsettling. Most of the convicts come from urban backgrounds, yet they live for weeks, even months, in the rough conditions of a tent camp, away from anything resembling modern conveniences. It’s a hard life: twelve- and even twenty-hour days spent hiking in rough back-country with heavy tools and wearing heavy kit, engaged in the backbreaking and fraught work of cutting fire breaks and setting backfires just ahead of the firestorm.
A sleeping bag and physically draining days clearly beat the scant attractions of life on a cell block in California’s overfull prisons. Having an extra day taken off one’s sentence for each day served on a crew doesn’t hurt, either. The price for release from the perdition of concrete, barbed wire, and brutal social Darwinism is a life facing the embers and flames of California wildfires. Better flaming Hell than seething perdition, it would seem. And on that bitter choice balances the safety of an entire state built on what firefighters call the “wildland interface.” Even a law-and-order conservative with an ounce or two of compassion is troubled by the fact that our lifestyles are ensured in part through the risks taken by men we have all but cast off.
Pogue’s story doesn’t ask us to sympathize with the devil, nor does he imply that these men have anyone but themselves to blame for their predicament. Indeed, given a full-to-bursting penal system that seems bent on cultivating recidivists, a life eating smoke and cutting fire breaks seems to be the closest thing California prisons offers to genuine rehabilitation.
But after reading the story, you will never look at a forest, a prison, a home on a hillside, or a California Department of Forestry truck the same way ever again.
And if you have ever met the orange-yellow monster of a wildfire face-to-face, with your life and your loved ones at your back, you might even be driven to whisper a quiet thanks to a weary band of convicts with shovels and hard-hats.
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.
Despite the inevitable hoots of derision from architectural purists, California is a haven of outstanding architecture. Lost among the strip malls and tract houses are countless examples of everything from subtle brilliance to outlandish provocation, not to mention pure gems of American history.
Los Angeles is no exception, with grand masters like Richard Neutra, Ray Kappe, Victor Gruen, Frank Gehry, George Wyman, and their like dotting the landscape with masterpieces and curiosities. What is too often forgotten, though, is that Los Angeles was also the garden for an early crop of America’s finest non-Anglo architects.
I was fortunate to grow up in a house designed by Paul Williams, who aside from being admitted as the first African-American architect to the American Institute of Architects in 1923, was the co-designer of the LAX Theme building, the first AME Church, the L.A. County Courthouse, the County’s Hahn Hall of Administration, and over a dozen buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That the height of his career preceded the Civil Rights movement is, I believe, testament to both Williams as a man and to California as his base.
Gilmartin and Uyeda also highlight four outstanding Los Angeles-based Chinese-American architects who were Williams’ contemporaries and who left their mark on the city and on mid-century American architecture. Gin Wong co-designed the LAX Theme building with Paul Williams. Gilbert Leong and Eugene Choy built a profitable niche designing homes and workplaces for Los Angeles’ increasingly prosperous Chinese-American population. And Helen Liu Fong was at the core of architects in the Googie movement, a 1950s update of the Streamline Moderne of the 1930s that, though once passe, has become a core part of the Southern California design language. (If you are looking for the quintessential Googie look, think of the original Tomorrowland at Disneyland, or Ship’s Coffee Shop.)
If there is one lesson to be taken from all of these greats, it is this: architecture in Los Angeles has been – and remains – about testing limits, be they aesthetic, ethnic, or seismic. For those reasons, expect the parade of thought-provoking design to continue, and expect it to come from the most unexpected places.
The title track for Waits’s second album (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night confirms his ambition to be true to his vision of himself as a jazz-centric Beat poet. The idea comes straight from Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, in which the protagonist was “hurrying for the big traffic, ever more exciting, all of it pouring into town Saturday night.” Composing the song while literally cruising down Alvarado Street and Hollywood Boulevard, Waits was striving after an elusive epiphany, trying to locate stillness in motion or find a center of innocence in America’s most heartless city.
Los Angeles is not a heartless city. Finding the heart of L.A. (or any city, for that matter) is like finding the heart of a Vulcan: it’s there somewhere, but if you can’t find it, that’s only because you aren’t looking in the right place.