The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
In 1878, Eadward Muybridge stood atop Nob Hill in San Francisco and took a panoramic picture of the city. It was the same year that he captured a horse in motion, but this was a different type of temporal photograph. He’d developed a new method that mimicked the experience of the human eye rotating 360 degrees, creating a seamless panorama of the city, a still moving picture. This is one place to start a primer on San Francisco on film, at the very beginning. Two decades before the Lumières premiered their first actualities, Muybridge was capturing a portrait of San Francisco in time.
As I began researching this primer, Muybridge seemed like a key precedent for many 20th century Bay Area filmmakers. He was an innovator that developed a new technology parallel to his peers in other cities, but ultimately did his own thing and ended up creating an eccentric body of work rooted in his own methodology. It’s a useful jumping off point, but ultimately limiting. San Francisco’s independent film scene is only one side of the coin. A few hundred miles north of Hollywood, the Bay Area has always been an irresistible alternative. The topography is dramatic; there is elegance and sleaze, sometimes side by side; the light is beautiful; and it has its own unique cultural contexts: the wild west days of the Gold Rush, generations of counterculture, vibrant enclaves like Chinatown and the Mission and the center of big tech. It boasts one of the most recognizable skylines in the world and everything from waterfronts to mountain tops to primordial forests is minutes away.
What makes San Francisco so special is the way these things converge: George Kuchar nods to Hollywood, Bruce Conner redeploys narrative rhythms for his own purposes, Phil Kaufman uses Jordan Belson’s animations in a studio movie about astronauts, and the list goes on. It’s not just a city where films are made, but a city where films are watched and where communities have formed around film culture. It’s the home of the oldest film festival in the Americas and the first regular experimental film screening series in the country. Historically, the cinematheques, microcinemas, and archives of the Bay Area have reflected the dynamism of its approach to film culture. It would be silly to try to encapsulate something as wild and wooly as "San Francisco on Film" in a few thousand words, but in a nod to this history of exhibition and the fruitful juxtapositions good programming can create, here’s a series of double bills spanning 50 films and over 100 years of filmmaking in the Bay.
Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968) + Side/Walk/Shuttle (Ernie Gehr, 1992)
Bullitt earns its reputation as the ultimate celebration of driving around the city’s hills, but Ernie Gehr takes you on a different type of trip altogether. Relieved of gravity, Gehr’s camera creates a vertiginous interplay between the city’s buildings and its topography where you never know which way is up.
Bleu Shut (Robert Nelson, 1971) + The Game (David Fincher, 1997)
Whether it’s guessing boat names or running for your life, it’s all in the game.
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) + Allures (Jordan Belson, 1961)
Both these films and filmmakers need to be included on any list of essential San Francisco films, but they are too singular not to overpower their counterparts. There is a clumsy connection to be drawn between Belson’s pulsating mandalas and Hitchcock's swirling depiction of Scottie’s obsession, but really they are both just iconic San Francisco films of unmatched influence.
One on Top of the Other (Lucio Fulci, 1969) + San soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)
Speaking of Vertigo’s influence, I’d be remiss not to include some of the many homages to Hitchcock's masterpiece. It’s a testament to the source material that it can inspire both seedy giallo like One on Top of the Other and a poetic meditation on time and memory like Chris Marker’s San soleil.
The Devil’s Cleavage (George Kuchar, 1975) + Petulia (Richard Lester, 1968)
You couldn’t find two more different movies about San Francisco women scorned. Both films defy genre and expectation, and both present a fully realized picture of the San Francisco of their characters. Maybe what makes them such a perfect complement is how little one film’s San Francisco resembles the other’s.
Innerspace (Joe Dante, 1987) + Memoirs of An Invisible Man (John Carpenter, 1992)
Would the list be complete without a nod to the magic of Big Tech?
July 1971-In San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon (Hutton, 1971) + All My Life (Bruce Baille, 1966)
Masters of finding the beauty in the mundane, Hutton and Baillie revel in the simple pleasures of living in the Bay Area: a breeze, some flowers, a swim, a bike ride to work.
Threnody (Nathaniel Dorsky, 2004) + The Dragon Is the Frame (Mary Helena Clark, 2014)
It’s difficult to pick just one Dorsky film, no one captures the light in San Francisco or the rhythms of its seasons quite like him. In Threnody, he offers a devotional song to a lost friend. The Dragon is the Frame takes a similar walk through the empty streets of San Francisco, capturing the texture and light of a lonely city as the director mourns someone who has passed.
Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (Trinh T Minh-ha, 1989) + Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, 1989)
Key figures in the emerging field of experimental documentary, Riggs and Mihn-Ha dismantled and decolonized the documentary image, creating a new vernacular. Both Surname Viet, Given Name Nam and Tongues Untied are exceedingly personal portraits of the artists’ own communities and the systems that denied members of those communities their own voices.
Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, 2015) + Sean (Ralph Arlyck, 1969)
Arlyck and Heller present childhood and adolescence in the waning days of San Francisco bohemia.
A Trip Down Market Street (The Miles Brothers, 1906) + Frisco Jenny (William A. Wellman, 1932)
A Trip Down Market Street captures life on the city’s main thoroughfare just days before the 1906 earthquake reduced much of the city to rubble and ash. The “phantom ride” rolls past San Franciscans with no inkling of the looming disaster. Frisco Jenny is one of the few films on this list that was not shot on location in the city or made by a local filmmaker. The film charts the feverish days before the earthquake and its complicated rebirth in the aftermath.
Futility (Greta Snider, 1989) + Blue Diary (Jenni Olson, 1998)
Two different approaches to diary filmmaking: Greta Snider narrates the story of her abortion over a found-footage montage while Jenni Olson pines over a one night stand as her camera rests on workaday San Francisco landscapes.
Report (Bruce Connor, 1963-7) + Media Burn (Ant Farm, 1975) + Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (Craig Baldwin, 1992)
Meditations on the mediation of American History from three different, essential San Francisco artists.
Black Panthers (Agnès Varda, 1968) + San Francisco State: On Strike (California Newsreel, 1969)
Local and global perspectives on Bay Area political struggles: California Newsreels’ San Francisco State: On Strike shows how alternative media provided a ground level, people’s perspective on the news, while Agnes Varda’s Black Panthers gives an international perspective on a movement that had gained the world’s attention.
The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947) + The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) + Experiment in Terror (Blake Edwards, 1962)
The fog, the narrow alleyways, shadows across the hills and valleys of the city, and streets illuminated with neon: is there a better city for Noir than San Francisco?
Confessions (Curt McDowell, 1972) + Eadward Muybridge Zoopraxographer (Thom Anderson, 1975)
McDowell and Muybridge, disparate Bay Area originals, who both dedicated themselves to capturing the naked human form in motion.
Freebie and The Bean (Richard Rush, 1974) + 48 Hrs. (Walter Hill, 1982)
There was a rash of police films shot in San Francisco in the 70s, typified by the gritty, nihilism of Dirty Harry. These two films take a lighter approach, perfecting the buddy cop dynamic.
The Laughing Policeman (Stuart Rosenberg, 1973) + Magnum Force (Ted Post, 1973)
It’s difficult to choose which film from the Dirty Harry franchise to pick. My favorite is Sudden Impact, but that largely decamps to locales south of the city. Magnum Force displays the distaste for authority that Eastwood would later bring to many of his directorial efforts. Harry is no longer hunting down criminals, but rooting out crooked cops. The Laughing Policeman has a similarly bleary view of humanity. Walter Matthau plays a disillusioned police officer trying to unravel the mystery behind a massacre on a city bus.
Foul Play (Colin Higgins, 1978) + What’s Up, Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972)
The 70s brought a vogue for 30s screwball and these two films take the act to San Francisco. Both films feature zany chases through the city and movie stars at the height of their charm.
The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) + Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
Two portraits of paranoia in San Francisco, both helmed by Bay Area residents trying to start a new filmmaking paradigm in their hometown.
Chan Is Missing (Wayne Wang, 1982) + Signal 7 (Rob Nilsson, 1984)
One of the greatest American independent films of the 1980s, Chan Is Missing follows a taxicab driver through the streets of San Francisco as he tries to find a missing friend. Rob Nilsson’s largely improvised Signal 7 also deals with a cabbie in danger but spends most of it’s running time sitting with the drivers over a long night, as they discuss middle age on the margins.
Spying (Joe Gibbons, 1978) + Joe Dimaggio 1, 2, 3 (Anne Maguire, 1991)
Luxuriate in the pleasure of spying on your neighbors with Joe Gibbons and Anne Maguire until you feel like a creep.
The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk, 1952) Dir. Edward Dmytryk + Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992)
There is a psycho on the loose!
Soft Fiction (Chick Strand, 1979) + Schmeerguntz (Gunvor Nelson, 1965)
Pioneering feminist filmmakers Chick Strand and Gunvor Nelson put the lives of women at center, illuminating the difference between how women’s lives are seen and how they see themselves.
Peggy and Fred in Hell: The Prologue (Leslie Thornton, 1985) + The End (Christopher Maclaine, 1953)
We end with The End, and a trip to Hell, with Thornton and Maclaine’s visions of atomic apocalypse.