When people tell you they’re going to California to make it in the movies, they never mean San Francisco. Barring catastrophe, or a massive stroke of good luck, the American moviemaking hub will always be Los Angeles. Even New Yorkers have conceded this. Even Woody Allen. And, generally, it’s okay with the residents of San Francisco, because their city will always represent the way to go California without going Hollywood.
It is uncommon and almost unfashionable to have been born in San Fran-cisco; folks claim ownership of the place through the lore of how they wound up here and the vicissitudes of self-reinvention. This is the place that launched the careers of Chaplin and Capra, two great American mythmakers, immigrants both, whose autobiographies are famously more entertaining than they are true. People still migrate here today to slough off old selves, to feel they’ve grown out of some other provincial place, if not to feel grown-up.
Hairsplitting continues on who deserves credit for the invention of movies, but the first literal motion pictures—a series of still photographs of a galloping horse, taken by a succession of cameras, tenths of a second apart—were made in Palo Alto in 1878, by Eadweard Muybridge. When I see that series of images now, and the multi-camera contrivance used to make it, my mind rhymes it with the not dissimilar set-up used for the signature special effect in The Matrix (1999), another moviemaking leap, made more than a century later but only a few miles away.
Much happened in between. The city has some good explanations for losing the business to Los Angeles—like the earthquake of 1906, an irrecoverable setback. But it makes no excuses, confident that its contributions to movie culture are significant precisely for being so provincial and peculiar, as the locals prefer. Or as I do, anyway. Sometimes Los Angeles and San Francisco pretend to be the Rome and Florence of California, and there is even a Ken Burnsian mockumentary about a civil war between them, called In Smog and Thunder. Such an outlook, even in jest, may overstate the cities’ contributions to the world of art, but it seems about right as a measure of their self-importance. Since cinema’s earliest days, it’s essentially come down to the Independents against the System; the indies were ours, and we know what became of the system.
There are characters, for sure. Is there a San Francisco archetype? Charlie Chaplin was discovered in a San Fran-cisco theatre, and his Little Tramp, arguably the most recognizable character the movies have ever known, was reportedly based on a real person he met on the streets here. The Tramp (1915), shot in nearby Niles, gave the metropolitan Bay Area a cherishable self-image: the humbly noble wayfaring hobo, who in spite of hardship always exudes poise. On the other hand, in San Francisco (1936), Clark Gable, getting his charisma in shape for Gone With the Wind, might have been on to an archetype too: a charming and unruly hedonist who can only be humbled by natural disaster—namely, the 1906 earthquake.
Judgements of place-specific cinema too often rely on quotidian criteria, as if the movies might be trying to put something over on us by not being real to life. To my ear, there is no San Francisco accent, so it can’t be gotten wrong. But what about the manners, the metabolism of the place? Was there ever really a redneck bar in the Mission District, for instance, as 48 Hours (1982) would have us believe? There might be one there now, but if so it would have to be, you know, ironic. Certainly the Mission is no “skid row,” as Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge testily implies in Vertigo (1958), but I can absolutely understand how she might see it that way from the high remove of her Telegraph Hill apartment.
This is a city of neighbourhoods. Each is distinct enough that you might never think to try adding them up into a single place, had they not done it on their own, with surreal results. Where Columbus and Grant Avenues intersect with Broadway, to take one of my favourite examples, it’s a riot of non sequiturs: Europe and Asia collide on one axis, neon debauchery and leftist literacy on another. I’m not saying such things are incompatible. It’s just weird, and neat. That corner sits within visual range of the copper-greened wedge of the Sentinel building, in which resides American Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, and atop which the man himself keeps an office—and, presumably, a lookout.
If you make a movie pilgrimage to the City by the Bay, you’ll likely agree with Edward G. Robinson’s assessment: “It looks like it was built by a drugged-out art director.” The majority of the buildings don’t exceed five stories. Downtown is obligingly fiscal for a few blocks, with its aura of cologne and stone and mahogany, its few half-hearted tries at ticker displays. From there, though, it’s not far to Union Square, whose face has sagged and hastily been lifted over the years—would you recognize it, now, from the declarative, peering zoom that opens Coppola’s The Conversation (1974)? Would you believe it was here, in an untamed 1921 soiree, that one of Fatty Arbuckle’s starlets died, prompting the censorious Hays Code?
Movies still matter to San Francisco, and there is more than one way to be a good movie town. Take the Golden Gate Bridge: by simply standing there and looking so handsome, it testifies to a certain kind of distinctly photogenic American prosperity. Natur-ally, many filmmakers have had a go at the Golden Gate. Alfred Hitchcock meant to end The Birds (1963) with his characters en route to it, having barely escaped alive from that little Sonoma Coast town, only to discover the bridge—and, by extension, the city and the world—covered with more birds. That would have been an ending, all right.
What a shame he didn’t have the budget for it. The city’s cinema could have used that image. The Golden Gate is the simplest of San Francisco signifiers, particularly susceptible to the ordeals of dramatization: an octopus ate it in It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955); twenty years later, Superman had to save it from an evil-genius-made disaster; The Core (2003) finally and spectacularly collapsed it. Yet who but Hitchcock has really given the symbol of the bridge a workout, got it to say something original and unsettling about its hometown?
Only Hitchcock could give us Vertigo, the precipitous high tower of San Francisco movies, and perhaps the best of that breed ever made. It embodies the rather San Franciscan hope that from certain kinds of somnolence comes a lucid dream-state, and from that a special awakening. Here James Stewart spirals through the city into self-hypnosis, landing at the bridge’s underside—just in time for Kim Novak, in an affected and affecting daze, to pitch herself into the bay. In the same way Marilyn Monroe’s billowing skirt said “New York,” or Anita Ekberg splashing in the Trevi fountain said “Rome,” that perverse, exquisite moment underneath the Golden Gate said “San Francisco.”
A city’s movie canon becomes its virtual civic space, at once a monument of fixed contours and an open plaza of undeveloped acreage. After World War II, San Francisco missed out on housing the headquarters of the United Nations—but it redressed the loss in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) by becoming the headquarters of the United Feder-ation of Planets. Not too shabby. In the fourth Trek film (1986), when a well-meaning but disruptive alien tears up Earth’s oceans in search of humpback whales to sing with, and finds none, saving civilization becomes a matter of tripping through time and saving the whales. Where but San Francisco?
The thing about civic spaces is that even when bums and bratty kids tend to hang around in them (say, Kuffs or Basic Instinct, both 1992), we’ve still got to leave the gates open. It’s really the only way to keep the reservation worth visiting. Ours is still worth the trip, although it can seem to be a hall of mirrors, like in The Lady From Shanghai (1947), reflecting distorted variations of what we take for typical San Franciscan values. Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) elaborates, at length, on how a money fetish tears people apart. The Conversation elaborates on how a technology fetish tears people apart. D.O.A (1950) cautions that a recreational spree in San Francisco can some-times be poisonous, and The Subterraneans (1960) cautions against letting MGM develop a novel by Kerouac. This is also a place with high standards for a drag show, so I can’t explain Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).
In Dark Passage (1947), Humphrey Bogart is a San Quentin escapee, convicted of murdering his wife. Everybody he meets while on the lam seems to suppose he’s not guilty, or seems willing to forgive him if he is. It’s just far-fetchedly San Franciscan enough to work: around here, we all come off like escaped inmates sometimes, but of course we’re all innocent. (Interestingly, the film contains a violent confrontation, complete with epiphany, relief and a touch of horror, set at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge.)
Only the cops don’t buy Bogey’s story—but as several generations of films have shown, San Francisco movie cops have serious intimacy issues. Vertigo’s poor detective Scottie Ferguson (Stewart) should have known that he picked the wrong city to be afraid of heights and stalk zombie blondes. In The Maltese Falcon (1941), Sam Spade (Bogart again), the abusive father of all film noir anti-heroes, is a man apart, driven into private practice by the corrosion of criminality; he wouldn’t belong to any police force that would have him for a member, and he wouldn’t bet on a happy ending. Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen), burdened with a last name too silly for even the hardest of stone-faced lieutenants, is so jaded, so procedural, that he connects with people only by chasing them through the city’s hills in a growling Mustang at 115 miles an hour. Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood, an Alcatraz escapee in another local movie), whose partners always die and whose bosses never understand, can’t get five minutes alone with a hot dog without some punk disturbing his peace, so he becomes a Magnum-wielding vigilante. In Dirty Harry (1971), Callahan gets the nemesis he deserves in Scorpio (Andy Robinson), still one of the most potent bad-guy movie psychos on the books, and in some chilling, ephemeral way, very plausibly San Franciscan. Jack Cates, of 48 Hours, clearly anticipating the Nick Nolte mug shot, is a bully, a bigot, probably an alcoholic and definitely a plain old mess. Even Eddie Murphy in top form isn’t funny to him.
Allow me to digress. The only conscious pilgrimage I’ve ever made was in the spring of 1996, to the Palais de Justice, on the Île de la Cité in Paris. It is a place of immense historic significance, an epicentre of the revolution, but I went there because I’d seen it in the movies Blue and White, the first two films of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy.
When I saw it for real I was disappointed. I checked to make sure I had the right place, and of course I did. How many Palaces of Justice can there be in Paris? But it just didn’t look or feel as I figured it should. It wasn’t magic enough. I took a few careful photos, but they seem empty now, subjectless. Maybe it would20work if I had Kieslowski’s cinematographers take the pictures for me. And if I could just get Juliette Binoche and Zbigniew Zamachowski to pose for me, and to dress as they did in those films. And I suppose I’d need Zbigniew Preisner to set up an orchestra…
Right, so back to Vertigo, in which James Stewart forces Kim Novak to dress up and act like the woman he’s been duped into obsessing about. Fussily he tries to recreate the experience of entranced spectatorhood. And like a man on a movie pilgrimage, he is bound for disappointment.
“Such beauty, such a trap,” the film writer David Thomson, who lives here, said of Vertigo’s San Francisco. Steinbeck called the place a “golden handcuff with the key thrown away.” It is the essential dichotomy, the city’s competing perfumes of piss and eucalyptus. We have water on three sides here, which can give you the sense of a wide-open world or make you feel cornered. It has long been a forward-looking place, though too often fogged in with preening nostalgia.
For the cinephile, what, then, is left to see? The famous fog itself, of course, most often thin and scrimlike, a permeable barrier on which atmospheric effects are rendered, a silver screen awaiting some projection. When the fog does take hold in earnest, and the gauzy light gives out, the city’s clutter of chalky pastels becomes its own ghost, all ash and pewter. Then fade to black, an ending and a beginning.
The movie pilgrimage is a risky venture. Rarely will it yield the sort of epiphany you have upon seeing a great painting in person instead of in a book. You’re more likely to feel a non-specific disorientation (as it turns out, an authentic San Francisco experience), and a peculiar nostalgia for everything in the movies that’s not real. What makes the great place-pictures great is how bravely they challenge the wisdom of spending less time in the cinema and more in the world. The disappointment at the Palais de Justice didn’t diminish my feelings for Paris, which—as if it weren’t already crowded with other artistic associations—teems with cinematic referents. Nor did it diminish my feelings for the films, for all films, whose magic is oddly reaffirmed by the futility of retracing their steps. Hitchcock spotted something in San Francisco that the city and cinema have always shared: an unspoken knowledge that to chase a fading dream is sometimes even better than dreaming it.