The Clay on Fillmore is one of few pieces of Fillmore heritage left since redevelopment razed much of the district south of it. This lobby shot is cropped from an image in 'Left in the Dark.'

'Left in the Dark' Savors the Bay Area's Cinema Past, Present

Susan Gerhard October 4, 2010

Though R.A. McBride's photographs of the ruins of San Francisco cinemas are gorgeously elegaic, the essays that accompany them in the new book on San Francisco, Left in the Dark, offer hope as well as history. We have more film festivals than ever, perhaps more exuberant live cinema events than before, and new ways of gathering to view films—in public parks, parking lots, on the sides of buildings, at urban farms and even through neighbors' windows—all at the same time that film houses themselves are becoming an endangered species. Which may be why, at this particular juncture, there's so much writing about theaters, and so much galvanized community support of those few, like the Clay, that remain: The crisis presents us with opportunity. This month sees the publication of McBride and Julie Lindow's Left in the Dark as well as Pacific Film Archive's Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000 by Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz, and Steve Seid. Later this fall, Rebecca Solnit's much anticipated Infinite City arrives. SF360 got the chance to chat over email with McBride, who's relocated from San Francisco to New York, and SF-based Lindow about their wide-ranging project, which reaches into SF's moviegoing past, from Chinatown to the Fillmore, in order to speak about its future. (Find out about public events in SF360.org Events later this week, and at leftinthedark.info; see more of McBride's work at  ramcbride.com.)

SF360: Rebecca, I know theaters are only one of your many photographic interests. What drew you to them visually, or spiritually? What connection do you feel they have to your other pieces, tonally or otherwise?

Rebecca McBride: I have always loved going to the movies. I rode my bike to see Flashdance five times in five days in the summer of 1983. I grew up in Indianapolis, which wasn’t the most bike friendly place, but I was determined to see that movie.

The experience of watching movies with a room filled with strangers is like nothing else. The energy in a movie theater undeniably affects the experience. It can be magical. I moved to San Francisco in 1994 and as an introduction to the city my brother took me to the Coronet to see a midnight screening of Interview with the Vampire. The line was around the block on Geary Street. It was amazing. The anticipation of not knowing if we’d get in added to the excitement of the experience. Then once inside, the rush to get the ideal seat and saving them for all who you are with. There is order and an unspoken understanding of the rules and etiquette to navigating through a theater. Once the lights go down and the movie begins the experience can be wonderfully unruly. It is always a thrill to sit with others and see what evolves.
Through my work as the associate director of the MadCat Women’s International Film Festival, starting in 1998 I had great access to theaters, microcinemas, converted spaces (El Rio!). I was often able to experience these theaters empty before the events. It’s a special moment before the doors open, too.
I am interested in the decay of public spaces and their transformation and have a new series on Coney Island, which is going through several stages of being closed. And, I have a large body of work that are portraits of people. When photographing people I am interested in those ephemeral intimate moments that are too often gone in a flash. My aim with all the photographs in the 'Left in the Dark' series was to interpret the spaces, offering unseen perspectives of these familiar places, which most of us only experience in the dark. It was important to me to show these theaters empty, in a state they are rarely seen by the public.

SF360: Did the process of finding essayists to cover the depth/breadth and history of cinemas in the city seem daunting at first?

McBride: Both Julie and I found the essayists. For my part I was very interested in having at least some of the essays reveal the intimate and highly personal experience of moviegoing. We knew from the beginning that we wanted certain contributors to be a part of it. Eddie Muller, whose anecdotal introductions at Noir City were an experience in themselves; Liz Keim, who we know from her passionate curating at the Exploratorium; Rebecca Solnit, for her deep knowledge of San Francisco history and her philosophical musings on what means to be in a community. These great people really represent San Francisco, community and appreciation and knowledge of movie going experience. We also wanted to cover the moviegoing from as many perspectives as we could find. We covered an awful a lot, but there’s always more out there.

Julie Lindow: Initially I was inspired to compile the essays because I realized that I knew all these amazing film exhibitors, cultural leaders, and scholars who were perfectly poised to capture the theater histories that were slipping away. However, I did have to search for a few of the chapter authors. And of course, as we researched, we kept discovering more and more histories that I would have loved to include along with more supporting evidence, and an index, but we had to keep to the publisher’s word limit. Also, I made the decision that the book would not attempt to be comprehensive, but rather 'portraits,' as the title suggests, of the theaters, the neighborhoods, and ultimately the city. I think there is a zeitgeist happening right now around the historic theaters and moviegoing with the publication of Left in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit’s new book Infinite City, Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz, and Steve Seid’s book Radical Light, Christian Bruno’s film, Strand: The Natural History of Cinema, and public concern for the fate of the Clay theater; there are several other exciting books poised to be released within the next year or so. Many of us know each other and have been talking about the history of cinemas and moviegoing for years. Solnit and Bruno greatly influenced my thinking. It has been very exciting to see years of the exact kind of community involvement we celebrate in Left in the Dark, bloom into this zeitgeist of works and events, and reinvigorate communal moviegoing, the spirit of cinema.

SF360: If either of you could name your own most poignant cinema memory in this city, what would it be? (I know you share some in the book....)

Lindow: I would go so far as to say that I have had spiritual experiences at Noir City and the Silent Film Festival at the Castro. But what always comes first to my mind is the time I spent working at the Castro, not necessarily watching films there, as I mention in my introduction. It was and still is truly a community hub. One night about 20 years ago there was a peaceful political march and as it approached Castro Street the police formed a line, locked arms, and started to comb the street. Anyone in their way was beaten with a club, tackled to the ground and arrested. We watched from on top of the marquee in horror. Then we heard our manager at the time opening the front doors and yelling to people who were being beaten to come into the theater and demanding that the police leave the front entrance area as it was private property. We had to slam the glass doors of the theater open and closed to let the protesters in and keep the police out.  It was pretty brutal and scary. So you can see, these theaters are so much more than just places to see films together. They embody endless stories of our city, rich layers of meaning and identity.

McBride: Going to the opening night of the Gay and Lesbian film festival at the Castro has always been the most memorable for me. It wasn’t about what was being screened—it was about the warm and grand welcoming of the Castro and just being among our people. Getting dressed up with my girlfriend then riding our bikes down the hill from Western Addition/Lower Haight neighborhood. Searching for bike parking was a challenge as was finding friends we were hoping to sit next to in the center towards the front. All of us in the same room, sharing a camaraderie, it is intoxicating.

SF360: What did each of you find most surprising in your research/ work in these cinemas, or the ruins of these cinemas?

McBride: It was a long and difficult process to gain access to many of the theaters that are included in the book. It was such a journey to find out who to talk to that had the power to let me in and then without explanation sometimes I would be denied access. I had to weave some tales in certain instances to get in. When I finally got it, it was all the more triumphant—I truly appreciated those who allowed me in.

Lindow: When I began thinking about the text, I was very despondent about the state of San Francisco’s historic movie theaters and the loss of communal cinema experiences, and very much wanted to do something to help save the buildings and their histories. Also, despite feeling so nostalgic myself, I did not want the book to be overly nostalgic, but rather to create a continuum from past to present. I asked the contributors to show how historic film exhibition and moviegoing had influenced current cinematic practices, and could inspire future practices. When the contributors sent their first drafts to me, I was absolutely delighted by the entrepreneurial spirit that began our world-famous film culture in San Francisco. The stories revealed such diversity and innovation that my despondency transformed into complete hope and inspiration. That surprised me! I have so much hope now for the future of the theaters, moviegoing, and the future in general. Of course the stories are still nostalgic, but I think we managed to achieve a celebratory and inspiring work that will hopefully empower people to create and seek out more communal cinematic experiences.  When I received Jerry Mander’s review blurb that is on the back of the book, I was elated because he got my intent right away. Mander writes about Left in the Dark, 'It not only evokes the spirit and experiences of another era, but shows that they are definitely alive today, even in these grim alienated times. In that sense, the book is as politically important as it is entertaining, informative, and revelatory.'

SF360: The book offers such a great history of neighborhoods that the theaters existed in. What are some of the most profound neighborhood changes you'd like to highlight?

McBride: The Mission. I did not get the opportunity to see the New Mission when it was an operating theater. Mission Street is a ghost town of theaters yet the street is full of people shopping and eating at the local taqueria. I often wonder what this bustling street was like when the theaters were all open.

Lindow: The Fillmore, the Mission, 'The Miracle Mile,' and Market Street, 'The Great White Way,' stand out the most in my mind because they used to all be so brightly lit by moviehouse neon signs and marquees. They were places to see and be seen, such vibrant hubs of cultural activity. But the Fillmore stands out the most and has the most tragic story as it was so blatantly a victim of corporate developers’ greed, racism and most likely political corruption. The Fillmore was called the 'Harlem of the West' because it was such a vibrant community filled with jazz clubs, dance halls, and movie houses frequented by Billy Holiday and Duke Ellington; all the greats stopped off there. It was also home to Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Jewish, communities; it was unusually diverse. D. Scot Miller the author of the Fillmore chapter, 'Hollywood Meets the Harlem of the West,' told me he was thrilled to learn that at least one movie theater served pickled pigs feet because that told him the theaters were dedicated to serving their African American community.  He was also gravely disappointed by the lack of information about the Fillmore of the 1920s-1970s and the 'Urban Renewal' that destroyed the neighborhood, except for Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts excellent book, Harlem of the West, and KQED’s online historical information. The 'Urban Renewal' program lead by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency claimed to be eliminating unsafe housing, or 'blight' but instead of helping the Fillmore residents renovate dilapidated buildings or return to new ones, the program displaced them and bulldozed blocks at a time. I think the damage to the African American community of the Fillmore is a shameful mark on our city and breaks my heart. There have been valiant attempts to revive it and I love the new clubs on Fillmore, including Yoshi’s, but just imagine what the Fillmore might be like today if we had not destroyed that rich historic area. Also, though the Clay is north of the jazz district, it is one of the last remnants of the Fillmore area heritage and that is another reason to preserve it.

SF360: The opening interview, with Rebecca Solnit, offers interesting ideas about community and density. Are we, do you think, a more private people as even as our media becomes more exhibitionist and social?

McMcBride: As technology and the economy encourages more home viewing this wonderful tradition of group movie watching is fading. We see it as theaters close due to poor attendance and tickets sales. I think the Bay Area is unique in that audiences desire and seek out the wonderful independent movie going and alternative theatrical experiences we are known for. There is a hunger for this and I hope that means the magnificent venues, festivals and music events will continue and thrive for years to come. The Clay recently announced it was closing and in part due to a huge community uproar that closure was staved off. It is our job as artists, city dwellers and lovers of film to be the audiences for these venues. It must incorporate it into our daily lives. We must make it a priority to go out after a long day at work and share a community experience with our neighbors, with fellow movie lovers and strangers.

Lindow: In her interview, Rebecca Solnit makes a very critical point, she says that 'People tend to want unilateral narratives—either everything is getting better or everything is getting worse. What is interesting is that you can see that everything is going in both directions.' I think that looking at private verses public/social is a good place to start but we need to move away from binary thinking and ask what kind of relationships we want with friends, our community, our city, country, and then select technology carefully to benefit those relationships. So I would not say that we are more private, but that we are in danger of losing quality relationships, intimacy and deeper community bonds. Facebook is a great way for large communities of people to stay in touch, but it does not replace or necessarily encourage quality face-to-face time. Online games might be a fun way to connect with people across the globe but staying home all weekend on the computer is not the same as meeting one’s neighbors at the local movie theater or baseball diamond. We are able to be more social in the sense that we can stay in electronic communication with a lot of people, but the quality of our social interactions is diminished if we do not make time for social gatherings in person. Left in the Dark celebrates the theaters, but more so, moviegoing. Sharing a film with hundreds of people forms emotional bonds and gives makes us feel connected and engaged with others in a more complex and indepth way than sitting at one’s computer. We are no longer afraid of the stranger next to us but more willing to accept, or better yet engage with them in a democratic fashion.

SF360: You highlight those working in the trenches to keep the 'live' cinema experience going—Gary Meyer, Joshua Grannell. What do you think are the hot points right now for Bay Area filmgoers?

Lindow: We are fortunate in the Bay Area to have over 50 film festivals because festivals are the hot-points in communal moviegoing of our age. They are a celebration of film and therefore they offer opportunities to gather and converse. My favorites are Noir City, the Silent Film Festival, at the Castro. Also, the International Film Festival, and the San Francisco International Asian American Film Fest, but there are so many others, something for everyone. Also, the Balboa is an amazing little theater that offers a traditional impresario-type movie going experience created by their charismatic manager Roger Paul and owner Gary Meyer. The Castro is close to my heart and the Roxie, Bridge, Vogue and Clay always make a great night out. Sundance Kabuki offers food and drinks and reserved seating. The San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation hosts movie nights in the parks, which I just love. Liz Keim’s film series at the Exploratorium is not to be missed. Melinda Stone produces extraordinary cinematic events that include sing-alongs and bingo games! The Hayes Valley Farm in my neighborhood hosts films at the farm. SFMOMA and of course Pacific Film Archive have excellent cinema series and so do many other museums. Of course, San Francisco Film Society events are golden. At Foreign Cinema restaurant you can watch a film while enjoying a gourmet meal. And then of course it is worth traveling the world to see a film at the Paramount in Oakland, but you only have to take Bart across the bay.  I am very hopeful, because as you can see, there are many hot points. I could go on and on.

McBride: I think live musical accompaniment for films is a great cinema experience. Look at how popular the Silent Film Festival is. And it goes without saying the rare screenings of such films gem. I also think that festivals that allow for interaction with the filmmakers are a great draw. You want to meet these people who can make such magic.

SF360: Like Tsai Ming-Liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn, this book feels, visually, like an elegy, though some of its holds hope for the present day cinema patron. Is there a way forward for those who favor the communal cinema experience?

McBride: I love that you mention this film because watching this film was like witnessing my still images come to life. I saw this film at the Rotterdam film festival on a freezing dark night in the Netherlands. I remember being so riveted by this patient, gorgeous film. It reminds me of what happened to the Coronet. In 2004, I went to see Taking Lives with my brother and contrasting that with my first Coronet experience, from waiting in a long line to see Interview with a Vampire in 1994 to 10 years later being the only two in the theater. The movie was not memorable but being in the cold and empty theater was. It was freezing in the theatre—no warm bodies in the audience and obviously the heating bill was unpaid, which all these things were a foreshadow of the Coronet’s imminent closure.

Lindow: Most definitely, there are so many communal cinematic experiences in the Bay Area, as I mention above and they seem to be growing in popularity. I was completely elated at the Noir City and Silent Film festivals this past year; the Castro was packed and the crowd was so charged and present. Also, Sam Sharkey writes poignantly on this question in the final chapter of Left in the Dark, 'Luminous Possibilities: The Future of Cinema.' One reason I asked Sam Sharkey to write the last chapter is because he is in his twenties and looks to past film exhibition practices for inspiration for his own cinematic work. I think there is a new generation of film practitioners who are making and showing films on their own and in communal ways. There are nonprofits and philanthropists saving old movie theatres, communities embracing them and making them into community spaces in addition to showing films. The irony is that digital projection allows us to stay home with our private entertainment systems, but it also makes it easier than ever before to project film on the walls of buildings, in a garden, or at a community gathering. We can choose to use technology to create communal cinematic experiences and I am certain that we will see more and more creative cinematic communal events in the years to come.

Bay Area Left in the Dark Events
Oct 10: Release Party at Space Gallery
Oct 12: City Lights Books
Oct 13: SF Camerawork
Oct 20: Mechanic's Institute
Oct 21: Balboa
Oct 24: Vogue
Oct 27: Moe's Books
Oct 28: Green Arcade and Walk down “Great White Way”
Oct 30: Pacific Film Archive
Dec 4: Exploratorium

More at leftinthedark.info.

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