WHAT IS BEING LOST?
Rebecca Solnit interviewed by Julie Lindow
Lindow: Movie theatres used to be at the center of almost every San Francisco main street. Neighborhoods revolved around them, their neon razor signs, beacons in the fog. What is being lost?
Solnit: One of the most important things to always remember about San Francisco is that it is the densest city in the United States after New York. This means that we have the possibility of a public life, a pedestrian life, a life on the boulevards, walking around and living in public, that makes up for the fact that a lot of us live in small places. One of the things that I think is really important to this history of the disappearance of the movie theatres and the ritual of going to the movies is a larger history, what I think of as the privatization of everyday life. We talk about economic privatization, where more and more is done by corporations rather than by the government, and a concomitant transformation of citizens into consumers with the lack of control consumers -- versus citizens -- have over their lives and societies. But we don't talk about the privatization that is psychological, physical, and emotional that happens alongside economic privatization.
PALACES FOR THE PEOPLE: Architecture and the Cinematic Experience
San Francisco's relationship to the film industry, specifically to motion picture venues, is somewhat unique among American cities. Both the early film industry and the city experienced formative eras during post-1906 earthquake reconstruction. The result is a rich legacy of distinctive historic buildings. San Francisco's theaters are visual landmarks, part of the scene, the streetscape, familiar neighborhood anchors, places of shared entertainment and collective experiences over lifetimes that commemorate our personal histories and enrich our sense of community. San Francisco, unlike most other American cities, retains high numbers of historic theaters, many converted to other uses. Despite losses over decades, San Francisco's existing theater buildings, some modest, some grand, all irreplaceable, illustrate the evolving style and scale of film venues in the first part of the 20th century.
THE GREAT WHITE WAY IN NOIR CITY
In truth, motion picture pleasure-domes were a fantastic aberration, built on avarice and illusion and misconceptions — like the fortunes made and lost decades later during Reaganomics and the high-tech boom. These theaters, with their femme fatale facades, began a slow fade into obsolescence less than thirty years after being built. That's about how long it took the public to outgrow its love affair with "going to" the movies, and how long it took the Feds to finally squash the racket the Gang of Eight had perfected.
BEYOND KEARNY AND GRANT: The Chinatown Theatres
On May 25, 1999, San Francisco filmmaker and exhibitor Lambert Yam received a phone call about a mysterious-looking dumpster outside of Oakland's Golden Bull Restaurant that looked as if it was full of film-related materials. Yam, the influential CEO and programmer of Chinatown's World Theater sped across the Bay Bridge with Brian Lau, the then director of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. What they found was an astonishing treasure trove: dumpsters and dumpsters filled with hundreds of 35mm prints of Chinese-language films with titles ranging from MONKEY KING to THE AFTERMATH OF A RED PAGODA FIRE.
HOLLYWOOD MEETS THE HARLEM OF THE WEST: The Fillmore Theatres
D. Scott Miller
The Fillmore District of Paulette and Feysan's childhood, of the 1940s-50s, is in stark contrast to the Fillmore of recent memory. Picture a place where blues and jazz music played from every open door. The businesses were mostly owned either by Japanese or African Americans and the streets remained packed, from dusk to dawn to dusk again, with sharply dressed residents. This Fillmore Street was the hub of a thriving cultural scene. Jazz and supper clubs lined the block and celebrities ranging from Sammy Davis Jr. to Joe Louis didn't land on the west coast without making a stop in "The Harlem of the West."
Even with the still existing Clay (2261 Fillmore), The American, (1226 Fillmore) which closed in 1954, The New Fillmore, The Ellis Street Theater and The Uptown; there remained one - The Class A, known to most in its second and most-enduring incarnation as The Temple - that made the greatest impression on me and the people.
'The Temple had bingo Fridays,' said Paulette, 'and the theater was open twenty-four hours. People would go, pay for their tickets and go and sleep.'
'At the Temple,' Feysan said, 'it was fifteen cents, which was a lot of money, and you could see the movies – a cartoon short, a newsreel and a movie, and get some pickled pigs feet or a giant pickle from one of the jars on the counter.'
MIDNIGHT CARNIVAL: Audiences, Live Performance and the Movies
Elisabeth Houseman with Joshua Grannell
First came the Cockettes with the glitter in the beard and the vintage clothes from down the street, then Rocky Horror with cheap fishnets and crappy make-up and a shitty, teased-out wig, and now you can come to Midnight Mass and you don't have to be flawless, you don't have to be beautiful.
LUMINOUS POSSIBILITIES: The Future of Cinema
In the movie palaces, the single screens, and neighborhood theatres there existed a special shared experience. Friends, neighbors and strangers all came together to collectively participate in the projection on the screen. Like gathering around a campfire, it is an experience that takes us out of the mode of everyday existence and engulfs the viewer in a world that feels bigger than their everyday existence. This feeling of escape is shared with every other body in the house. Our desires and dreams are validated publicly, knowing that our feelings are not isolated in our lives. This Cinema is an engagement with the content on screen, but also with the people surrounding. It is an intimate shared experience facilitated by community. Such engagement is the driving force behind Cinema.