The Streets of San Francisco, part 1

6 Jul

I’m sitting in an Oakland apartment, the sound of fireworks echoing off the hillsides. It’s the fourth of July. Foothills and house lights hide the fireworks, but I can’t stop staring out at the cascade of manmade stars. I can almost see people inside the enormous houses.

Oakland isn’t what I expected. It’s a mash-up of a thousand different styles. The houses are schizophrenic in their architecture: ranch, box, gothic, squat, ornate, plain, stucco. There’s Spanish influence, French influence, I see some Bauhaus here and there. It’s all here in the green hills. Even the trees—poplars, evergreens, cypress, sycamore, dogwood and even oak—grow side by side in a bizarre amalgamation of our vast country’s shrubs, saplings, and timber. The streets jet up and down hills, stagger in hard curves, as twisty as a German impressionist movie set.

Simone is sleeping. The dog has to go out. It’s midnight. I take a walk. Fireworks reverberate distant rumbling in the clouds. The dog won’t pee. I wind my way through the disparate houses, feeling jumpy, afraid of getting lost, mugged. The streets are empty.

I see inside an empty house with big bay windows. Candles illuminate grotesque portraits of what appear to be American icons, Lincoln, Elvis, Roosevelt. Their faces are all slashed with bright smiles. The eyes in the paintings stare right at me. The house is empty. Someone slams a car door. I move on.

Across the bay, San Francisco. It’s my first visit, but I feel like I’ve been here before. It’s the movies, of course. They percolate in my thoughts, giving the absurd hills an invigorating feeling of déjà vu. Simone likes it here. She’s taken to guffaws of joy. I’ve written a few things about our outings in the city and I’ll post these soon.

In the meantime, here’s a list of the best movies I can think of that take place in this beautiful wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Every city has sins. Some cities have bigger sins than others.

Zodiac. If Jack the Ripper created modern London, then the Zodiac killer shaped contemporary San Francisco. David Fincher understands this, and gets a lot of use out of San Francisco in this docu-drama about the Zodiac killer and the men obsessed with finding him. Fincher moves the camera around the city like a god, in and out of the pathologies of his reporters and detectives. It’s one of the great American films of the last 30 years, about justice and perversion and municipal politics, and also an exploration of how a city can be shaped—strangely, obliquely—by a popular crime. You think the city is shed of the Zodiac ghosts? This headline from today.

San Francisco needs taming. I know just the man for the job.

Dirty Harry. At its heart, San Francisco has always been a sleazy port town. Harry Callahan knows this, and it’s what makes him a great cop; every citizen in a sleazy town wants to be protected, while every criminal needs to be dominated. Don Siegel puts Eastwood through the works in this movie that roams all over the San Francisco nights. It’s a reaction to the Haight-Asbury beatniks, and a hard look at the insanity of the lawless. Yes, it kicked off the vigilante movie craze that did more to ruin the reputation of American cities than two dozen reactionary pundits, but Clint Eastwood is fantastic as the meat-eating, fire-breathing ass kicker and the city is this seething, complicated organism, that is just as likely to house a vicious murderer as a depressed cop.

Burning up the screen.

Play it Again, Sam. San Francisco isn’t all fistfights and gunfire; the city is also an enclave of misfits who can’t make it in L.A. and don’t fit in New York. The city gets the Woody Allen treatment in this hilarious adaptation of his one-man show. Allen plays the same nebbish, self-involved neurotic who can’t figure out dating, women, life, the west coast. He visits Chinatown, walks the hilly streets; it’s enough to make you think he might have chosen a different home than New York. (And imagine how different would his career have been.) My wife and I watched this together on one of our first dates; it’s excellent.

Two beautiful faces but it's the city that catches your eye.

What’s Up, Doc? One of my favorite movies growing up has retained almost all of its wit and charm. Ryan O’Neil and Barbara Streisand co-star in this comedy directed by Peter Bogdonavich, before he fell apart. Buck Henry, who penned the Graduate screenplay, wrote the script. The story involves matching suitcases and spies and diamonds and igneous rocks and it doesn’t really matter. An insane screwball comedy that works.

The coolest of the cool.

Bullitt. Perhaps San Francisco is just about the streets. Drive the city and it makes sense; walk it and you’ll feel like you’re lost in the funhouse. Bullitt, the movie, hasn’t aged well. Steve McQueen’s character is a jerk, and it’s hard to see how all of his rule-breaking is doing anyone any good. The plot is standard stuff, but then the chase scene through the city, with Steve McQueen handling his jet black car with such delicacy, it’s a love letter to the city, and a great tour of the absurd hills and treacherous zipline streets. See the car chase here.

Honorable mention:

Harold and Maude—Maudlin teenager obsessed with suicide falls in love with dying octogenarian. Great movie, but not much city.

Big Trouble in Little China—Truck driver falls into nonsense with Japanese lightning demons and too much kung fu. Goofy and good.

Funny People—Underrated comedy about struggling standup comics. Might make you hate the young.

Ed TV—Reality TV gone awry; not a great movie, but San Francisco looks fantastic.

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