Friday, October 23, 2009

Thrills, Chills, Laughs and Hills - San Francisco in the Movies

What's it like, living in San Francisco? It's cold and damp, yes, but although only roughly seven miles in length, the city has several micro-climates, so you you have to dress in layers. The gray, filtered light, the constant jacket required to stay warm, the living in close quarters in uninsulated, uncarpeted, older flats that echo and rattle in the wind--all lead to a sort of protective emotional shell in its citizens. You can't get too friendly with everyone because who knows what they want from you? And they're all too close together, especially on Muni--close enough to be potentially annoying, maybe even at times, threatening.

On the other hand, it's extremely beautiful and balmy, with incredible vistas and walking paths to heavenly, dynamic locations, featuring the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Park, the Marina, Ocean Beach, and Red's Java House, home of the affordable beer and burger lunch. Plus San Francisco is truly urban. Live there long enough and you'll become truly urban as well, with an appreciation of all that implies: film, theater, art--yes; books and writing--sure; major universities--uh huh; pro sports--yup, got 'em; jobs--more than some places; garage bands--hmmm, you might want to check across the Bay in Oakland for that.

Once in a while, a film crew shows up, usually from Los Angeles, and attempts to film a "San Francisco story." They often get it wrong, making a Los Angeles story that happens to be set in San Francisco locations. I'm pretty sure a lot of San Francisco-based movies and television shows are excuses for someone with budgetary clout to vacation in Northern California for a while, under the guise of making a movie. But once in a while, everything comes together and you get a close approximation of not only the look of the place, but the feel of the place. That would be kind of chilly, kind of emotionally armored (maybe even damaged), kind of loopy, kind of one-of-a-kind. Ultimately, San Francisco is built on towering hills that have no business having a densely populated city on top of them. That gives the feeling of other-worldliness, combined with that urban sensibility. These films reflect a bit of that for me.

San Francisco - Clark Gable and Jeanette McDonald cannot breathe life into a tedious back story to the '06 earthquake in this early disaster film. You have to wait a seemingly lo-o-ong time for the buildings to fall, but once they do, you'll be impressed by the deadly chaos and confusion produced by the 1936 effects department.

My mom told me this movie scared the living daylights out of her as a child, which is understandable because she lived in the city. A very impressive scene, not just for the crumbling, rumbling set, but for the dynamic editing, implying death and destruction at every turn. and it's a musical, which is very San Francisco indeed.

Worth noting is that the actual 1906 earthquake took place just after 5 AM, so it's unlikely this swanky affair would be going on during the earthquake's apex, but back then, who knows? People did party hard. Also note that Jeanette McDonald must be carried from of the building AND she faints. She's beyond useless. The damsel-in-distress trope in the movies was already old by the time this was released, but that didn't stop movies and television and video games to continue to use it as a sort of anti-feminist propaganda. That's how I see it.

Vertigo - Everyone from San Francisco loves Vertigo, even those of us who are disturbed and slightly grossed out by it. Alfred Hitchcock threw away detective-story conventions to better concentrate on the twisted obsessions of James Stewart's Scottie, who follows Kim Novak's Madeleine/Judy around like a necrophiliac stalker. And woe to his poor side-kick Midge!

Once Hitch jettisoned the genre specifics of the murder mystery, he could focus solely on the corrupting influences of neurotic obsession, all taking place in the haunting, emotionally stagnant world of the San Francisco Bay Area. Loneliness, masochism, unrequited love, phantom attraction—a vision of San Francisco full of the darkest emotions.

The best way to see Vertigo is at The Castro Theatre during Hitchcock week, which they feature most every year. If you can plan a visit around that, do so.

Bullitt - Take a wild ride with utterly cool Steve McQueen in his 1968 Ford Mustang. Wild not only for the speed around hill and dale, but because this particular chase scene is geographically impossible. If only one could instantly get to John McLaren Park by turning a corner in North Beach. But that's the magic of movie editing and it makes this chilly, deadpan film quite exciting and memorable.

Bullitt: Chase Scene from L87 on Vimeo.

The Conversation - I finally saw this film recently after avoiding it for years because I knew it would be bleak and probably depressing. Sure, it was all those things, but mainly it's a character study of voyeuristic paranoia. Gene Hackman is the unforgettable Harry Caul, best surveillance expert operating on the West Coast. Buckling under bucket-loads of Catholic guilt, he gets too involved in a case involving corporate wife, Cindy Williams, and her illicit lover (Frederic Forest), who are mainly seen walking around Union Square while having a conversation that Harry brilliantly (and impossibly) records.

Lots of San Francisco locations add to the lonely bleakness of living among crowds with very little connection to humanity. Francis Ford Coppola makes excellent use of empty SOMA warehouses, a block of buildings that were being torn down during production, and the water-front along the Embarcadero. Young Harrison Ford as a shady, acrylic-sweater-wearing corporate assistant turns up as well.

What's Up Doc - This way-funny chase scene is all about the hills (and a salute to that ever-present VW Beetle from Bullitt - see clip above). Against all odds, director Peter Bogdanovich, and stars Ryan O'Neal and Barbra Streisand, completely subvert their massive 70s-era egos to pay delightful homage to the screwball comedy. When I was little, I thought Streisand was the perfect adult, based on her zaniness in this movie. But Madeline Kahn as mega-uptight Eunice Burns is so ridiculously funny (always). See it for her.

Living On Tokyo Time - It's a miracle there's any clips of this available at all because it hasn't been out on video (and never has been available on DVD that I know of) for years. It features aimless slacker, Ken, wandering the city, playing his guitar while failing at relationships. When he agrees to marry a Japanese emigre so she can get her green card, deadpan emotional repression and potential heartbreak ensues.

The amateur acting and direction make this a hard watch for some. But this film truly captures a lost moment in time (1987 or so) when regular working Joe's could afford to live in the city (with roommates, using dining rooms, sun-porches and stairwells as extra bedrooms), slag away at low-paying jobs, while playing in ne'er-do-well garage bands on the side.

Medicine for Melancholy - What's it like to be a young African American couple (if only for one night) living in the least proportionately African American-populated city in America? If you watch this low-budget gem, you'll have a very good idea. Director Barry Jenkins would famously go on to win a Best Picture Academy Award in 2016 for his Moonlight.


Also see:
Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
The Maltese Falcon
THX 1138


Ellen Catalina, LCSW said...

What do you think of Woody Allen's "Play it Again Sam?" Do you think he nailed the SF experience or do you think he wrote a New York story and superimposed it on SF?

I've been hearing some good things about the new film called "La Mission" set in, you guessed it, the Mission. Last week and actor from the film was jumped on the number 9 San Bruno bus for wearing red sneakers. he was beaten pretty badly. Little Too close for comfort.

Miss Lisa said...

Yeah, I think "Play It Again Sam" could be set in any city, but it's still a favorite of mine. I've seen it multiple times and often think of the impress-your-date rice-eating scene and the gift he gives Diane Keaton on the beach ("Oh Allan--a plastic skunk!").

My cousin Frankie took photos on set of "La Mission" a few months ago and it looked good--like the Mission in the 80s, although I'm not sure if it's actually set in the 80s. I'll check it out. I read about that poor actor. I hope he's doing better this week. He sounds like a sweet guy.