Americans consume more movies than ever, but films (or film, for those of us who esteem the medium more as an art form than as entertainment or commerce) are no longer an especially important part in our culture. You'll be more likely to disagree with that bold assertion, I expect, if you embrace the increasingly common practice of watching movies on your laptop or cell phone or wireless portable tablet. But it's pretty self-evident to me that where we see movies, and the size of the screen, affects their power to lodge themselves in our minds.
"Rebecca Solnit's Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas," SFMOMA's ongoing series inspired by her new book, contemplates the ephemeral and mysterious nature of movies as well as the sacred splendor and status of theaters with this week's focus on "Cinema City." I submit that the world is divided into two groups, those who are endlessly fascinated by the ways in which films work on us (and talk about it at any opportunity with friends and strangers alike) and those who enjoy eating popcorn in the dark. Now, I can accept people who don't get pleasure out of discussing or analyzing movies. But I don't much fancy those who dismiss theaters, and seeing movies with the masses, as an outmoded vestige of an earlier era.
"Housing Shadows and Projecting Fog" (Thursday, September 9 at 9pm at SFMOMA) engages these philosophical and sociological concerns with a pair of works in progress by gifted Bay Area documentary makers. Christian Bruno's long-in-the-works Strand: A Natural History of Cinema revisits the golden age of S.F. movie palaces and rep houses, when the notions of urban living and public spaces were at their peak. Andy Black and Sam Green's Fog City is a geographically specific mood piece that echoes and evokes the experience we've all had of this city on those occasions when it feels like a state of mind -- or a set for a "B" movie -- rather than a real place.
The second stage of SFMOMA's dream inquiry consists of a field trip -- four, actually -- on Saturday, September 11. The sequence of site-specific screenings begins at noon at the Balboa Theater (3630 Balboa St.), a short, brisk breeze from the Cliff House, where avant-garde filmmaker extraordinaire Ernie Gehr documented the Musée Mécanique's curious collection of coin-operated artifacts in Cotton Candy (2001) before it relocated to the Wharf.
The nearby Four Star (2200 Clement) plays host at 3pm to "Mean Streets," a series of short films by Chip Lord, Lourdes Portillo, Konrad Steiner and Graham Connah inspired by Hollywood's action-oriented exploitation of our hills, curves and swerves. (Yes, Bullitt is a favored point of reference.) The neighborhood and the vibe shifts dramatically at 6pm, when Pickup's Tricks, Gregory Pickup's 1973 documentary portrait of the Cockettes' master ringleader, Hibiscus, spooks the horses at the Roxie (3117 16th St.)
The tour of San Francisco's endangered single-screen theaters concludes at midnight at the Vogue (3290 Sacramento) with -- what else -- Vertigo. Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece of manipulation (his of us, and Scottie's of Judy) etched San Francisco forever as a city where beauty was truly skin deep, identity was fungible and corruption thrived like a Venus flytrap in the broad California daylight. We all live in some variation of that movie version of San Francisco, even if you've only seen Vertigo on a computer monitor. And even, or especially, if you'd rather not talk about it.
Infinite City: Cinema City comprises two events: "Housing Shadows and Projecting Fog" screens Thursday, September 9, 2010 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St. "A Few Dream Palaces of San Francisco" unspools at four theaters on Saturday, September 11, 2010. For more information visit sfmoma.org.