In 1905 Jack Kuttner placed a 35mm camera on a streetcar at noon one weekday and filmed the chaos and frenetic energy that reigned supreme before stoplights, walkways and rules of the road regulated the movement of traffic and human beings on San Francisco's Market Street. The film, A Trip Down Market Street transcends its simple concept by beautifully capturing the essence of a time and place in San Francisco's history when streetcars, horse drawn wagons, and human beings shared the road without the intrusion of the automobile. To mark the centennial of this historic film, curators Liz Keim and Melinda Stone devised an outdoor screening to celebrate the original footage and to recreate the trip down Market Street with a new film. Historical films and newly commissioned short pieces accompanied by live music, commemorating the history of San Francisco's main thoroughfare, rounded out the evening's program.
As I rode downtown, I braced myself for the frigid wind that whips through San Francisco at night. I had already lost my voice and been afflicted with the usual unexplained cold virus that spreads across the city like a wildfire. So I came prepared with a wool coat, hat, gloves and scarf. These are, in essence, the basic survival tools necessary to make it through any outdoor screening in San Francisco. As I emerged from the underground, I was pleasantly surprised by a beautiful night, with only a gentle breeze in the air. As I walked towards the Ferry Building, I was struck by the magic of downtown San Francisco at night, the glowing streetlamps and the hundreds of lights flickering in the windows of the office buildings. The place loses its homogenous workday feel and gives off a magical glow. In the midst of my downtown reverie, I managed to walk right past a giant screen and hundreds of people gathered at the foot of Market Street.
After reaching the water and gazing out across the bay, I doubled back and located the event. The audience was sprawled on the grass and along the concrete embankment with blankets and picnic baskets in tow. There were about a thousand people of all ages represented, from tiny babies to senior citizens, and everyone else in between. It was great to see a public space transformed into a screening space and to be participating in a community event that was free. The atmosphere invited people passing by to stop and watch, if only for a moment.
As the screen lit up, the audience took a journey down the Market Street of a century ago. Rather than a languid ride down Main Street, A Trip Down Market Street depicts a fast paced, uncontrolled environment with pedestrians darting in front of streetcars and horse drawn wagons moving in all directions at once. The film provides ample evidence that relentless traffic plagued Market Street one hundred years ago, just as it does today. As the streetcar slowly rolled down the street I tried to imagine the sounds and smells and atmosphere of turn-of-the-century San Francisco. The heady days of the Barbary Coast and the Gold Rush were over and the place was transformed from a sailor's outpost into a thriving port city. I realized the footage offered a rare glimpse of San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake would devastate most of the city. Many of the buildings passing before our eyes, would crumble to the ground a year after this footage was shot.
This became all too apparent in the next film, Market Street After the Fire an eerie glimpse of the devastation after the 1906 earthquake and ensuing three-day fire that ravaged the city. Through thick clouds of dust and smoke, the audience was stunned to see a majority of buildings from the earlier footage, decimated to mere rubble. In the distance the only building that seemed to be standing was the Ferry building. The stark black and white images and creepy sound design by Dave Cerf gave the charred turn-of-the-century San Francisco landscape a post-apocalyptic feel.
It's Ten-O-Win offered a different perspective on Market Street by documenting the once popular game of Ten-O-Win, a bingo-inspired wheel of fortune game invented by Dan McLean at the Embassy Theater on Market Street. The game consisted of a huge wheel of fortune that was pulled out onto the stage and spun nightly during the intermissions between films. The film depicts a sultry forerunner to Vanna White clad in a skin-tight leopard print dress calling out winners as she spins the giant Ten-O-Win wheel. Christian Bruno discovered the beautifully shot, super-saturated color footage as he was working on his documentary about single screen theaters in San Francisco.
The last film of the evening was the modern version of A Trip Down Market Street, directed by Melinda Stone and Sprague Anderson, and accompanied by the Beth Custer Ensemble. The film traces the same trip made in 1905, but in contrast the footage today seems far less anarchistic. Traffic lights mediate the flow of traffic and human beings have all but disappeared, residing merely in the edges of the frame. No longer do human beings dare to exist in the midst of the chaos, we are relegated to the sidewalk, as cars dominate the flow and movement down Market Street. The film is beautiful, but also a sad reminder of what we have given up in deference to the automobile, in terms of public space. As the audience watches the train car make its way down Market Street on film, a refurbished F-line trolley car passes behind the screen, disappears momentarily and emerges on the other side, a reminder of how the past and present often converge.
As the night wound to an end, I was reminded how lucky we are in San Francisco to have a vibrant community of people who have the desire and vision to rethink the way we use public space and to do it in creative ways that engage a wide variety of people from different walks of life.