ConFluence-Film Moves to the San Francisco Bay Area!

I’m moving to San Francisco this week, so on the eve of this momentous relocation, I took a moment to consider my favorite San Francisco-set films and decided to write about them. I am going to bypass the usual titles included on such a list, so please do not kvetch about my neglect of Vertigo, Bullitt, The Conversation, Dirty Harry, Point Blank, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Zodiac or any of the other canonical San Francisco titles. Briefly, I will digress and just say, for the record, that Zodiac is my favorite Fincher film, and beyond that, simply sounds the least “recited” and the least overwritten of Fincher’s films.  I found his most recent offering, Gone Girl, distasteful, far-fetched and flat-out ridiculous, and I felt overly conscious of the actors reciting "precision-timed" dialogue.

1. The Strawberry Statement (1970, Stuart Hagmann) Whenever I think San Francisco and film, I think immediately of this movie, produced by MGM during a troubled era of their history that saw studio head James Aubrey greenlighting unusual projects like this one, then taking power away from the director in final cut.  Nothing much happened to this one in that department, thankfully.  I saw it at the age of twelve or thirteen, and it became what San Francisco and the Bay Area means cinematically to me. Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, it is intriguingly packed with visual gimmicks, some that are of course dated, and others that are ravishing and still original. While its source, James Kunen’s book The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary, covers Columbia’s student activism, the film’s subject, the Berkeley campus riots, is rife with rich Bay Area history, and its soundtrack, by Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Neil Young solo, Thunderclap Newman, Buffy Saint-Marie and others, is out of this world. I had the pleasure back in 2009 of meeting actor Bruce Davison at a DGA screening of a Henry Jaglom film, and speaking with him about making The Strawberry Statement.  Rembering the brouhahas surrounding the shooting of the film on the Berkeley campus put a nostalgic smile on his face. Davison's comments to me about shooting echoed the opening title crawl that coyly thanked the school with a detectable degree of tongue-in-cheek irony. Critics of the time dug it, then, within just a few years, trashed it in retrospect as a faded relic. I love it and have seen it a ton of times and know many of the lines by heart. We are all conditioned by films we see at the youngest of ages, and I find that I am prone to connecting specific early viewing experiences to places, feelings, dreams I had for my own future. Of all movies, Brian De Palma’s Greetings! (1968) exemplified the call of New York City.  The Strawberry Statement is my San Francisco, a San Francisco best defined in my own mind. The film is filled with a line-up of memorable sequences, including its frightening finale, a harrowing, graphically violent police raid during a student sit-in. The supporting cast is something of a who’s-who, including Bud Cort, Jeannie Berlin, Bob Balaban, James Coco, Michael Margotta, Bert Remsen (an Altman and Ashby repertory player), and the film’s screenwriter, playwright Israel Horovitz.  Recently, the Warner Archive Collection of DVD's released the film on a double-disc set, one with the original theatrical cut and the other with an extended international version.  Boy, do I love distributors who care about stuff like that!

2. Signal 7 (1983, Rob Nilsson) One of the earliest film shot in video and then transferred to 35mm, this ensemble film about actors moonlighting as taxi drivers is inspirational to any filmmaker directing flicks on the cheap.  It proves Rob's status as a pioneer and true visionary.  I wrote about the film back in ’09 here.

3. Bushman (1971, David Schickele) I feel grateful that Rob Nilsson was kind enough to get the filmmaker's widow Gail Schickele to send me a video copy of this just a few months ago. Rob, who had been close personal friends with David Schickele (the brother of P.D.Q. Bach creator Peter Schickele), spoke to me of it many times as a masterpiece and as one of his favorite films. He also formally named it as one of the best films ever made in the Bay Area in a Focus Films website showcase. Rob couldn't be more on-point in this case. It's one of the most stellar examples of the fiction-documentary hybrid, much like Robert Kramer’s Milestones (1975), but somewhat less sprawling and more focused towards an engagement with its chief subject. Shot in gritty black and white, Bushman has Schickele following an African student named Gabriel who matriculates into a San Francisco college and struggles to resolve personal and racial issues that have become central to his life after having uprooted himself. It is almost as if Bay Area filmmaker Marlon Riggs’s seminal documentary Black Is, Black Ain’t (1994) picks up where this film leaves off, especially in a scene in which Gabriel’s girlfriend instructs him on the finer points of the black-American street dialect, only to humorously fail. The San Francisco Film Society says it best when they write, “One is immediately struck by the juxtaposition of African outlooks and California urban life, especially in the sudden flashback to Gabriel’s Nigerian village, with its simplicities contrasted to the complex life-hustle of a Fillmore existence. For the first time in American cinema, an educated African elucidates in a no-nonsense manner, the bewildering ineptness of American society to live humanistically, with every opportunity to do this either ignored or thwarted. Because one begins to see black-American life through African eyes, certain revelations occur.” Bushman is an astounding, tragically obscure wonder that should be seen by a much wider audience. Schickele, who saw to editing duties for John Korty’s Funnyman (1967), Corr and Gessner’s Over-Under Sideways-Down (covered below), and Rob Nilsson’s Chalk (also covered below), also directed other deserving but unseen films like Give Me a Riddle (1966) and Tuscarora (1992). Bushman, though, seems his greatest personal contribution to the art, taking home the Chicago International Film Festival's award for Best First Feature.

4. Over-Under Sideways-Down (1977, Eugene Corr) I had the great pleasure of meeting filmmaker Gene Corr through Rob, and Gene was kind enough to procure me a DVD copy of the film a couple years ago. Produced by the Socialist film collective Cine Manifest (of which Rob and Eugene were members, and which also produced the award-winning Northern Lights), this is one of the best depictions of the working class that has ever been committed to screen, with an excellent lead performance by Robert Viharo, a seeming staple performer in San Francisco independent cinema. In terms of American cinema, I'd put it next to Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (1978). I wrote about this in 2013 here.

5. Riverrun (1970, John Korty) Next to Nilsson and Schickele, Korty is certainly my favorite Bay Area filmmaker and this is my favorite of his films. I could just as easily write about and include his films The Crazy-Quilt (1966) and Funnyman (1967) on this list, and in many ways this is more a John Korty entry on the list than it is one that is solely about Riverrun. Shot in Mill Valley, the latter is a simple three-character drama, and exemplifies what good, down and dirty independent filmmaking spirit is all about. And the kicker: this was financed by Columbia Pictures in the immediate aftermath of the success of their own Easy Rider (1969). At that time, they also had a multi-picture deal with BBS Productions (which produced the latter, as well as Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show and others), but gave Riverrun much less heft than those indie-esque enterprises, unceremoniously dumping this unapologetically arty picture. Drop-dead beautiful images play in concert with some interesting performances by three unknowns. The poster had the perspicacity to recognize how the movie considers how the characters assume archetypal roles in nature: “Air, Earth, Fire, Water. Mother, Son, Father, Daughter. All the elements are in Riverrun.” Korty once said in an interview that, “My first thought was, I want to make a film about salt water and grass and earth and wind and old wood, the texture of the farmhouse, and about animals and about flesh. To me, these are the building blocks.” This artistic intent is fulfilled as early as in the film’s opening, which focuses closely on these textures and surfaces, and in later sequences as in the one in which the young man and woman witness in amazement the birth of a new baby sheep. Even in the scene in which the young woman gives birth to her own child, there is a preoccupation with textures that one can feel with everything that surrounds her, because the audience has become so predisposed to noticing such things by that point in the picture. One might call such seeming digressions “still lifes,” but there is something about the way Korty frames all of this, stitches into the very fabric of the film, which makes all this about the environs somehow very much alive.

6. Good Neighbor Sam (David Swift, 1964) I’ll “go Hollywood” for this entry. The underrated and now obscure David Swift was the director of sixties screwball-ish comedies, specifically in the Hawks tradition, with more than a dash of Frank Tashlin…but all with a decidedly different set of vocal cords. How Sarris missed Swift in his otherwise comprehensive 1968 auteurist study, The American Cinema, is a head-scratcher. In this old-fashioned but incongruously irreverent 130-minute romp, adapted from a comic novel by the author of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Swift keenly satirizes the American preoccupation with conservative “wholesome family values” based in quasi-Puritanical morality, the loathsome deception beneath, and the standards and expectations within an obstinate society that holds such rooted things as paramount. Arching over all of this is a simultaneously caustic and zany view of corporate America, and the individual conformists and yes-men within it. The film, then, remarkably, remains relevant and perceptive even today, despite the period trappings themselves having dated -- and, specifically as a self-aware snapshot of sixties suburbia, it also manages to be quite discerning about the essential American delusion. Jack Lemmon plays a San Francisco ad agency man (and Marin suburbanite) whose career takes a turn towards upward mobility when he scores a major account, that of a dairy corporation run by a wholesome, pious family man (played by none other than Edward G. Robinson) who is a notorious and almost Fascistic self-appointed spokesperson for the aforementioned wholesome family values (Anita Bryant, anyone?). When Lemmon’s wife’s old college friend (Romy Schneider) moves next door, and announces that she stands to inherit $15 million from her grandfather’s estate, things look even rosier. However, according to a clause in her grandfather’s will, she must be happily married, and living according to the expectations of conventional western womanhood, before she can even lay her hands on a dime. When Lemmon and his wife agree that he should masquerade as her husband for a percentage of the take, hijinks ensue. The film’s sprawling third act, in which Lemmon goes on a rampage of defacing his company’s billboards, stacks the set pieces, and veers further into becoming a frenetic, high-impact farce. One must, as always, consider the time in which this film was made. America in 1964 was on the very doorstep of the cultural and political breakdown, and a revolution that, for the first time, would call into question the values roasted in this film.  The revolution would attempt to radically subvert these values, and this film does so satirically well before the culture took hold of itself. Apart from that, its use of San Francisco as a location is often unique and, for the time of its release, quite fresh. Corporate satires were, after all, far more prevalent in the New York milieu. And that cast! Lemmon, Robinson, Schneider, Dorothy Provine, and a host of recognizable character actors are all clearly having a good time.

Endnote: Someone should do a study of Swift’s career (not that it would gross any sizable audience, but he should be given a new look somewhere). He is perhaps most known for directing the Disney vehicles Polyanna (1960) and The Parent Trap (1961), but developed into more of an auteur when he broke free of the Disney machine. Other films include: The Interns (1962), Love is a Ball (1963), Under the Yum-Yum Tree (1963) and the big screen adaptation of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967).

7. Chalk (1996, Rob Nilsson) Another great Nilsson film, set in a murky world of pool hustlers and two-bit bikers and barroom denizens, and his longest at 139 minutes. It does feel ambitious and epic and it is, again, inspirational. And no film, with its candy-colored neon smoke and haze, looks like it.  As per standard procedure, Nilsson also directs the action so that we buy that what we are seeing is actually happening in reality, to an extent that even the most able and nimble of directors would flagellate themselves for a lack of.

8. Watched! (1974, John Parsons) An independently produced foray into pre-Watergate paranoia cinema, set in a then-future 1980, starring Stacy Keach as an ex-District Attorney busted on a 1969 drug charge who is now holed up in a rundown loft trying to make sense of his past via old home movies, reel-to-reel audio tapes, diaries, and black-and-white police surveillance footage. Through flashbacks, we as the audience piece everything together. Once Keach’s character gussies himself up as a Mafia kingpin in an effort to exact revenge on his old nemesis, played by Harris Yulin (Keach’s personal friend and co-star in 1970’s equally surreal End of the Road), things get batshit-crazy. A critic at the Atlanta Film Festival called the film “a fantastic cocaine nightmare.” One wonders what Keach was doing with this, slumming it in what appears to be a weird experimental, underground movie. This one, overall, in story and content, is a head-scratcher, but as I see it, a fascinating and worthwhile head-scratcher. Dig it…and dig for it.

9. Nocturnal Jake (2009, Deniz Demirer) I wrote about this film, directed by my good friend Deniz Demirer, in the early part of 2013. You can read that review here.

10. Shoot the Moon (1982, Alan Parker) This MGM-produced chamber drama, about a messy divorce between Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, features one of the most jaw-dropping domestic scenes I can recall. In it, the eldest of Finney and Keaton’s four daughters refuses the birthday gift that Finney has brought to the house after moving out and taking up with mistress Karen Allen. When Keaton also attempts to keep him out of the house, he forces his way in, literally throws Keaton outside on her ass, then charges up the steps to his daughter’s bedroom. When his daughter likewise shuts the door on him, he breaks that one down and proceeds to give her a whipping for disrespecting him and his love. A free-for-all develops between Finney, the victimized daughter and the rest of the girls. The thing of it is, that, up until that point in the movie, Finney’s character has been depicted as a non-violent and quite loving father. This bout of domestic abuse and violence is unusual for him and shocking to us. This flawed film, scripted by Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Melvin and Howard), is full of moments you would never expect from such a studio endeavor. Indeed, in scenes like these, the film almost feels like Cassavetes at his most frantic. Interestingly enough, I saw this at the age of fourteen on my first visit to the Bay Area, staying with longtime friend and documentarian Peter Nicks (The Waiting Room). Pete, do you remember watching this one with me and being equally shocked by the scene I describe? I’ll never forget what I felt when I saw that traumatic scene at that young, tender age.

Honorable Mentions:

The Laughing Policeman (1973, Stuart Rosenberg) Many homophobic slurs are let loose in this decidedly non-progressive detective story/cop thriller, which despite its title has nothing comedic whatsoever to justify its name, even Walter Matthau in the lead role. However, there are many things about it that make it more than just palatable. The descent into the “underworld” of porn theaters, strip clubs and the like of San Francisco that Matthau and his partner Bruce Dern take, makes for memorable detective cinema, as they attempt to find the gunman of a transit-bus massacre through learning as much as they can about the dead victims of it. The final chase sequence is one I’d stack against any other from a filmic era armed to the teeth with chase sequences.

A Christmas Without Snow (1980, John Korty) John Korty directed this made-for-television picture, more promising than its exhibitional fate would indicate, casting John Houseman in a classic Paper Chase-esque role, as a stern church choirmaster who attempts to whip a team of amateur vocalists in shape for a Christmas performance of Handel’s Messiah. It features a memorable monologue by Houseman, about the origin of the word “amateur”: "Mrs. Burns is right, of course; you are amateurs, unlike certain pseudo-professionals like myself who insist on slave wages. Your voluntary and steadfast attendance at these rehearsals fully qualifies you for any definition of the word "amateur". What Mrs. Burns and many others are wrong about is the meaning of the word, which has to do with motivation, not quality. Remember "amo, amat, amas", the Latin verb "to love". The meaning of "amateur" is "he or she who does a thing for the love of it". There is no higher reason for singing than the love of doing it. In that respect, you do qualify as amateurs. And I salute you for it."

Experiment in Terror (1963, Blake Edwards) Edwards took a radical turn away from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Days of Wine and Roses (1962) with this intriguing genre “experiment,” certainly a far cry from his other work. With scenes set all over the San Francisco area, including Twin Peaks and a finale in Candlestick Park, this is a good one to catch on a lonely night. It also features one of Henry Mancini’s greatest scores.

P.S. I don't "get" the love letters and homilies written to Richard Lester's San Francisco-set Petulia (1968) and I feel very alone on this front. I’ve heard the word “masterpiece” bandied about in regard to this film. Far from it, really. Very far from it. It’s interesting in many ways, and has its moments, but is alas incredibly flawed.  I respect Lester and understand his important place in the history of cinema, but I am rather personally immune to many of his charms.  A Hard Day's Night (1964), The Bed-Sitting Room (1969) and Juggernaut (1974) are actually the only films of his I can take seriously, though I grew up with the Superman films and think there is intellectually (yes, intellectually) more to Superman III than meets the eye, despite a considerably larger number of flaws.  If only Petulia had been directed by its cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, then it might have been something more.  Sorry, this is just my personal opinion.  It does use the city well, though.  I'll say that for it.

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