Last time in Ask a San Francisco Native, I answered a question about the best depiction of San Francisco in a movie, and I decided to go decade by decade, starting with 1940s, and ending with the 1970s. This week will cover the 1980's to now.
Once again, I am picking movies that aren't necessarily the "best" movies set in San Francisco, but movies that were able to capture something about the city better than other films of the era may have. I am sure you will have thoughts, and I look forward to reading them in the comments.
1980s: Chan Is Missing
Now, there were quite a few popular films set in San Francisco during the 1980s. For instance, there's the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte buddy comedy 48 Hours which includes a famous scene in one of the city's many redneck bars, (eyeroll); Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which Kirk, Spock, and the crew are transported back to 1986 San Francisco to rescue some whales (!); and, of course, Big Trouble In Little China, the kung-fu mashup starring Kurt Russell.
Now, I love Big Trouble In Little China. I think it is, like many of John Carpenter's best films, hilarious, ridiculous, and a whole lot of fun. But even though it's supposed to take place in San Francisco's Chinatown, it doesn't use a lot of the actual Chinatown in the movie. There are a few exterior shots, sure, but I hate to break it to everyone: The underground tunnels in the real Chinatown aren't actually filled with beautiful lairs and mythical monsters. (At least, not anymore.)
So my 1980s pick is another Chinatown movie, 1982's Chan Is Missing, the breakout film from local director Wayne Wang. It's a super low-budget, black-and-white, film noir comedy centered on a couple of cabbies who are looking for a mysterious friend who has run off with their savings. Filmed primarily in Chinatown, it gives viewers a glimpse into a culture not usually depicted in mainstream movies. Watch it and see how much Chinatown has changed, (and how much it hasn't).
The film isn't available to via Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, but there is a version available on YouTube, included above.
1990s: Mrs. Doubtfire
The '90s was the decade that brought us a whole slew of thrillers set in San Francisco, like Jade (the movie that did NOT launch David Caruso's big movie career); Pacific Heights (which was actually filmed on Potrero Hill); and The Fan (which did use Candlestick, though most of the movie was shot in LA). But the most famous of the lot was, of course, Basic Instinct, featuring Sharon Stone and her beaver. The film also set off a firestorm of controversy centered on Hollywood's depiction of lesbian and gay characters as crazy, amoral, and duplicitous. Looking back, that was really giving that movie way more credit and attention than it deserved.
But the '90s also brought what has ended up being one of Robin Williams's most beloved films, 1993's Mrs. Doubtfire. Personally, I can't stand the movie. I think Williams' character is an annoying asshole, and I never bought that he and Sally Field's character would have ever been married at all, let alone long enough to produce three kids. I think I'd prefer the horror movie version parodied above. But, I will grant that the film does include an affectionate portrayal of San Francisco. Or, at least, the Pacific Heights version of the city, which makes sense since both Robin Williams and director Chris Columbus called San Francisco home for many years.
Also, the movie gets extra props for the cameo appearance by Buster, of the locally produced children's show, Buster and Me, something many a native San Francisco of a certain age will remember with either fondness, or annoyance.
Early 2000s: Cherish
San Francisco was in the midst of its first dotcom boom in the early aughts, and there were a few movies that used the industry as backdrop. 40 Days and 40 Nights, from Heathers director (and San Francisco native) Michael Lehman, was probably the most cliched, with good looking twentysomethings toiling away on laptops in coffee shops while working for dotcoms with names like CyberNanny. And while there are some location scenes within the movie (including one on a Muni bus) Hawaii was actually used as a stand-in for a lot of the exterior shots.
So, once again, I am going to go with a film from a director with ties to the Bay Area. Cherish, from Oakland born and San Francisco State alum Finn Taylor, is a strange little indie movie, starring Robin Tunney, Tim Blake Nelson, Liz Phair, and Jason Priestley.
Tunney stars a socially awkward computer animator with a fondness for one night stands and classic top 40 radio hits. After she's wrongfully accused of murder, she's forced to live under house arrest in a warehouse loft that's presented as a dump, but would probably get snatched up for a million bucks these days, even if it DID mean never being able to leave it.
Yes, much of the film takes place indoors, but I appreciate the film's peppering of offbeat San Francisco types, and also love the ridiculous run through the city the heroine must make against the clock. Somehow, the film would like us to believe that it would take someone two full hours, running at full speed, to get from Market and Montgomery to Dogpatch. I suppose yes, it could take that long if you choose the route she does in the film, which weaves her past Dolores Park and through the Mission. But I prefer to think the film is just sticking to the honored tradition started in Bullitt, in which our city's actual geography would never trump getting some pretty scenery into a shot. (We'll also pretend we don't see that Oakland Tribune clock tower when she gets back to her "Dog Patch" warehouse.)
2010s: Blue Jasmine
I'll probably be slaughtered for choosing Blue Jasmine, the Woody Allen comedy tries to convince us that the majority of San Franciscans are actually from New York, and that a large Victorian apartment in heart of the Mission would be considered a step down for anyone. But I'm picking it because the decade isn't over yet, and it's really the best that we've been given so far. Plus, it does have some good location shooting, and if that final scene featuring Cate Blanchett's modern day Blanche DuBois talking to herself on a bench in South Park doesn't look remarkably like a scene you pass by on a daily basis, you don't actually live in San Francisco.
Rain Jokinen was born and raised in San Francisco and, miraculously, still calls the city home. Her future plans include becoming a millionaire, buying a condo complex, and then tearing it down to replace it with a dive bar. You can ask this native San Franciscan your questions here.In these Troubled San Francisco Times, there is a lot of talk about who was here when, and what that does (or doesn't) mean. In an effort to both assist newcomers and take long-time residents down memory lane, we present to you Ask a San Francisco Native, a column penned by SF native and longtime SFist contributor Rain Jokinen, which is inspired by a similar one on our sister site Gothamist, and is intended to put to rest all those questions only a native of this city can answer. Send yours here!