Now Playing! Traces of San Francisco’s Dark Decade Flicker at YBCA

Natasha Richardson, William Forsythe, Ving Rhames, Frances Fisher and Jodi Long in Paul Schrader's 'Patty Hearst,' 1988. (Courtesy of Park Circus)

Some scenes in movies haunt you forever, especially when encountered at an impressionable age. Very late in Gimme Shelter, Mick Jagger and Keith Richard watch—and re-watch—a gruesome bit of footage that Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin shot at the Rolling Stones/Jefferson Airplane concert at Altamont Speedway in early December, 1969. The documentary spends a lot of time in S.F. lawyer Melvin Belli’s office, eavesdropping on the blunt negotiations leading to the now-infamous free show. But the great, crushing moment of revelation captured in this essential film occurs well after the concert, as Keith and Mick stare silently and helplessly at a small monitor in an editing room.

Mick Jagger in 'Gimme Shelter,' 1970.
Mick Jagger in 'Gimme Shelter,' 1970. (Courtesy of Janus Films)

Gimme Shelter parts the curtain on Please help me I am drownding: San Francisco’s Dark Decade (May 24–27 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), a five-film immersion in the high-profile death and chaos that afflicted the Bay Area in the '70s. The Maysles doc is a certified classic but Patty Hearst, Paul Schrader’s unappreciated 1988 reenactment of the kidnapping and political awakening of the teenage granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst (himself the inspiration for a movie you may have heard of, Citizen Kane) and future muse and pal of John Waters, is nearly forgotten. It deserves a fresh look.

The series includes David Fincher’s grimy 2007 thriller, Zodiac, which devotes a lot of time, money and care to recreating early-'70s San Francisco. Better yet, check out the creepy 1971 quickie The Zodiac Killer, shot on 16mm, which filmmaker Tom Hanson hoped would lure the titular murderer into a theater where he could be caught. It was far from the worst idea anybody had during that jittery, paranoid period.

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