Exhibitions at the Old Mint are always tantalizing, offering just a taste of what could be, were the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society’s operating budget as grand as the building meant to house it. Their new show opening on June 16th, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: San Francisco and the Movies, offers an object lesson.
What the museum does on a shoestring can by turns be marvelous and frustrating, in part because this latest effort only scratches at a a rich historical vein, a fact pointed out by the staff themselves. Yet the cult of film in local culture is so powerful, cineastes ought not feel slighted. The themes of the exhibition range from early days to the present, and include an entire gallery devoted to cars, cops, and cocktails. As of the press preview, the drink recipes hadn’t made it onto the didactic panels, but curator Miguel Pendás promised some good ones.
San Francisco entered the annals of film in the 1880s with Eadweard Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, but the city's golden age arrived in the teens with the California Motion Picture Corporation and Essanay Studios, the latter having produced some of Chaplin's greatest films. Tenderloin historians will recall the film depots on Hyde, where the Miles Brothers established an important precedent by buying reels in bulk and renting them to Market Street's grand movie palaces. MGM's films were housed at the lion-adorned corner of Hyde and Eddy. Just next door, 20th Century's old building is marked by the grotesque comedy and tragedy masks that seem to offer apropos commentary on this particular stretch of Hyde.
Gradually, the business of making movies shifted south to Hollywood, where the weather was more amenable to the industry. But when directors wanted for a little exoticism, they headed north. San Francisco became fixed in the celluloid imagination thanks to film noir, the city's shadowy reputation complementing the ethically ambiguous, sexually charged style. In large part, the unique topography of the city determined the point of view.
“You’re trapped on three sides by the water,” explains Noir City’s nattily dressed Eddie Muller. “Over the period of a weekend outdoor establishing shots could easily be filmed,” which made the city an ideal location for budget-conscious studios. A number of Muller’s excellent posters grace the rough brick walls of one gallery, including his first acquisition, Born to Kill, an exemplar of the genre.
While the studio system colonized Los Angeles, its absence in San Francisco meant underground cinema flourished (R.I.P. George Kuchar), producing an independent scene that persisted despite Hollywood's ultimate return thanks to the likes of Coppola and Lucas. Behind-the-scenes Star Wars stills and Pixar inspirational paintings fill one gallery, while Chinatown cliché argues with reality in another. Casually staged stills could easily be vacation snapshots, were it not for the presence of a luminous Julie Christie.
High rollers have the opportunity to meet Kim Novak at the opening party on Thursday evening, where she will be honored with the San Francisco Cinematic Icon Award. For ordinary joes and twists who can't afford the benefit gala, it's still a treat to see the shy former art student's paintings on view for the first time ever in a mini-exhibition titled "Life is But a Dream." Sadly, none of Novak's works poke fun at Hitchcock.
Rounding out the show are the incandescent works of R.A. McBride and the San Francisco International Film Festival’s official photographer, Pamela Gentile. McBride's photographs of ghostly movie palaces seem even more prescient, as mid-Market's old St. Francis will soon be a JC Penney. Among the portraits and mysterious black and whites, Gentile's most recent image is a large color print of last spring's Paramount screening of Abel Gance’s Napoleon. Shot from the rear of the theatre, the packed house and "special effects" of the tri-color projection manifest the continued relevance of sitting in the dark with strangers.
The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: San Francisco and the Movies
Presented by The San Francisco History Museum and Historical Society
June 16-June 24, 11AM-4PM
admission $10 general, $5 SFMHS members
The Old Mint
88 5th Street (at Mission Street)