Well, I'll tell you. First: The San Francisco Film Society puts on some good classes. And not just the mind-numbing kind where wannabe filmmakers pay many dollars for the privilege of standing around with strangers, diddling a Panasonic HVX200 HD camera and discussing the finer points of P2 Cards, codecs, and final deliverables, whatever the hell those are.
No, this educational buffet also offers many tender morsels of immediately obvious practical value, like the class called "How To Ask People for Money," which seems like it might be useful not just for the wannabe filmmakers but also for the rest of us. Or, better, the class I attended at the Ninth Street Film Center the other night, called "San Francisco: The Movie." This was billed as the "definitive presentation of what has made our city one of the most intensely filmed and meaningful locations in film history," and presented by SFFS Creative Director Miguel Pendás, who gives tours of San Francisco movie locations and has obviously spent many hours geeking out on this stuff.
Which is great. The evening amounted to a fun few hours with Pendás, about a dozen film buffs, and Chaplin, DeMille, Stroheim, Welles, Hitchcock and the gang.
Yes, I did say DeMille. Who knew that the old epic-monger's first take on The 10 Commandments, from 1923, involved some spectacular and apparently safety-averse photography of the Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach, then still under construction? DeMille used it to punish a wanton commandment-violator by collapsing a shoddily built church wall on the man's mother. Before you click your little secular-hedonist tongue, bear in mind that the same not-so-subtle sort of dramatization later recurred in 1936's San Francisco, in which the quake of '06 brought a rather perverse form of deus ex machina for a wily Barbary Coast heathen played by Clark Gable. If there's one thing to be said for the movies of San Francisco, it's that people get punished in them.
"Chinatown appears in a lot of melodramas," Pendás dryly said, early on. "The association we have is this kind of Twilight Zone of exotic goings on, and when white people go in there, they're in danger." Case in point: 1931's Chinatown After Dark. Or, of course, 1947's The Lady from Shanghai, a noir staple in which Orson Welles plays with those aforementioned associations as only he could. Not to mention Wayne Wang's clever, confounding and raffishly sophisticated 1982 masterpiece Chan is Missing, whose subject is assimilation -- of Chinese-American culture, and of film culture -- and the subversion thereof. Pendás didn't mention Big Trouble in Little China, but maybe that's for the best.
Anyway, he had other things to discuss. Of 1957's Kiss Them For Me, Pendás observed, "Tragic things happen, even though this is billed as a romantic comedy." That has proven true of 1968's Petulia, too -- and, come to think of it, of several other Bay Area movies as well. But Kiss Them For Me is the one in which the Cary Grant character quips, "True love almost always fades, but money stays green forever." Which of course brings me back to the brutally poetic reiteration of same in Eric Von Stroheim's silent 1924 San Francisco classic Greed. Not that money (and how to ask people for it) is the only reason for a San Francisco movie romance to sour -- although Pendás was shrewd to point out, about Jimmy Stewart's character in Hitchcock's Vertigo, that "falling in love with someone from a higher social class makes him dizzy."
Meanwhile, The Maltese Falcon was not neglected, nor even the later, locally set commercial thrillers of the '90s, well assessed by Pendás as "films that borrow from the suspense legacy, but have become very extreme and very cynical." And he even got in a word about So I Married an Axe Murderer, in which the city registers as "a beautiful place, but has nothing to do with the movie."
Actually, I knew a lot of this stuff already, because it's a subject of special interest and research for me. But I didn't want to be that jackass who's always butting in with showoffy, time-squandering tirades about Big Trouble in Little China or what have you. We only had three short hours, after all. What I really learned from "San Francisco: The Movie" is what we all already knew, but enjoy reminding ourselves: This place really is one of the most meaningful locations in film history. It's so full of meaning, in fact, that a single class can only just begin to cover it. Maybe a few more are in order.