In late August, the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) debuted the exhibition Above and Below: Stories from Our Changing Bay, which considers the role of humans and nature in shaping the geographic region known widely as the Bay Area. This multidisciplinary exhibition draws from the museum's broad fine art, natural and state history collections and demonstrates one of the institution's great organizational strengths: creating diverse, immersive experiences that successfully marry entertainment and education.
While reviewing an exhibition of Peter Stackpole photographs a few months ago, I made a mental note to come back when Above and Below was fully installed, with particular interest in seeing the two film exhibits now on view. Situated at opposite ends of the museum's Gallery of California Art, Bay Motion: Capturing San Francisco Bay on Film and A Cinematic History of Fog in San Francisco visualize what the region looks like from unconventional points of view, and pay homage to a meteorological event that stirs a mix of responses from area residents.
A Trip Down Market Street
Bay Motion portrays the Bay Area from a decidedly un-Hollywood perspective. Drawn from materials including industrial films, newsreels, and home movies, the selection does not include actors whose dramatic or comedic encounters unfold before the city as backdrop. Instead, the region and its residents take the central role. Children, possibly fueled by the potent mix of sugar and sunshine, are seen running through Playland at the Beach in the 1940s, as are adventurous teens hitch hiking from Alameda to Oakland. We see the light rail that ran parallel to cars on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge just after it opened, and the impermanent structures of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition lined in red lights. We also see jittery footage of streetcars rolling along Market Street in April 1906, eerie views illustrating the prosperity of a growing city captured in the days before it was nearly claimed by disaster.
Rick Prelinger, one of the two founders of San Francisco's Prelinger Archive, curated the selection, and the experience of watching these films isn't unlike wandering through the archive. For those of you not in the know, the archive is organized by subject, not the Dewey Decimal system, as other collections are. Visitors are encouraged to look at books and other materials and allow their imaginations to direct their progress through the stacks. Walking around the X-shape installation at OMCA, it is unknown what imagery will stream on the screen next, and that is part of this installation's charm.
A Cinematic History of Fog in San Francisco
Greeting visitors at the entrance to the gallery is A Cinematic Study of Fog, filmmaker Sam Green's collaboration with cinematographer Andy Black. Previously, the two worked together to produce the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Weather Underground (2002), which profiled the rise and fall of the radical political organization The Weathermen. Clocking in at 10 minutes, this brief film includes interviews with meteorologists, who provide technical knowledge of what fog is and how the particularities of water and land along the Pacific Coast produce this near-daily event.
That's all well and good, and quite informative, but what's more interesting is the commentary offered by San Franciscans who experience firsthand the fog's cool embrace. Some, the majority actually, love and identify the fog as one of their favorite things about the city. Others express annoyance at the need to carry at least a light jacket so as to be prepared for temperature shifts that happen with little warning.
The only downside to an installation situated at the front of the gallery is that the audio portion of the film is difficult to hear over the steady, buoyant noise just outside the main doors. A quiet setting, which is not impossible to find in this generally busy museum, would also allow for contemplation of the fog and how its presence influences the smells and the play of light in the city, and lends even the most solid structures a hint of movement.
When considered together, the film installations of Above and Below the Bay address change; be it incremental, as in changes to the physical and social profile of the Bay Area, or as instantaneous as a weather shift. As poet and northern California devotee George Sterling noted, San Francisco and environs appeal to our intellect and emotions. What better way to realize that evolving love affair than in film?
Bay Motion: Capturing San Francisco Bay on Film and A Cinematic History of Fog in San Francisco are on view at the Oakland Museum of California through June 29, 2014. For more information, visit museumca.org.