Movies bequeath a kind of immortality; whatever is captured on film lives forever exactly as it was that day. We can savor Cary Grant in his prime, in Notorious or North by Northwest, and conveniently forget that he went the way of all flesh. It's not as easy, though, to maintain that romantic illusion about cities, for they evolve rather than die. So when we glimpse a cityscape in an old movie, we accept that the past is gone and relinquish the childish notion that it's preserved somewhere in a vault.
In his latest compilation program, San Francisco Top to Bottom: The City Seen by Hollywood and Home Moviemakers, presented by the S.F. Museum and Historical Society at the S.F. Jewish Community Center, the dedicated local film archivist and collector Rick Prelinger compels us to deal with history on its own terms. And yet, interestingly enough, he always has one eye on the future.
Let's consider, first, the panoramas shot in our town by crack (or hack) studio cameramen. Prelinger has obtained material from a number of unidentified, obscure movies from the 1930s, as well as outtakes from more recent titles that may include Good Neighbor Sam (1964), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) and possibly The Lineup (1958), which features Sutro Baths (as well as a young Eli Wallach, but we're focused on the "sets," remember, not the actors).
"We're going to see San Francisco used as a background, because these were mostly process plates, which were used for background projection," Prelinger says. "For a scene that takes place in a car or on a train or people sitting somewhere, film would be projected as a background. Because they were shot as background plates, they present a generic San Francisco."
In the original movie, this background usually looks blurry or out of focus. In fact, it was shot with a razor-sharp focus that reveals incredible detail. What's missing in these sequences, though, is a sense that the person behind the camera connected in any way with what he was filming.
"I'm interested in comparing them to home movies shot by engaged visitors to the city, who stopped at a place that meant something to them," Prelinger explains. "Maybe they inscribed themselves in the picture, or they're present in the picture, but there's an engagement. I'm interested in counterposing an individual, personal view against a mass-media perspective that was shown all around the world."
Another of Prelinger's goals is stripping away the narrative from the images, whether the footage is from a three-act Hollywood drama or an unknown tourist's multi-frame snapshot of living in the moment.
"I'm not terribly focused on conventional story," Prelinger declares. "I don't feel stories are hard-wired [in human beings]. I feel stories are acculturated. I'm really interested to call attention to get people to look at the material itself, to create their own narrative from sequence to sequence."
Of course, Prelinger has had a good deal more practice than you or I at watching old films, and paring away the context that was originally imposed. The way he talks about it, it sounds downright invigorating,
"I'm really interested in looking at unedited footage, footage that has, shall we say, evidential value," he says. "Home movies are quite pure in that way. But purest of all are these process plates, which is nothing but a camera sticking out a window driving on Grant Ave. in Chinatown. Nothing is particularly happening. In this case, this is just documentation. This is just showing what the city looked like. There's not much more to say about the film itself."
Well, not from a storytelling or character standpoint. But, Prelinger points out, San Francisco Top to Bottom: The City Seen by Hollywood and Home Moviemakers presents a blizzard of public spaces occupied by businesses and even edifices that are no longer there. And we have a current relationship with some of those storefronts, or corners, or vista points. Prelinger invites the audience to verbally acknowledge those connections throughout the program.
"I encourage people to talk, to shout identifications, to dispute somebody else's assertion," he says. "I want to make it interactive, to make it different every time. I ask people to be uninhibited and to use their voices."
As entertaining as his programs are -- the annual December Lost Landscapes show has a rabid following -- Prelinger has loftier aims than simple nostalgia. He couches his agenda in a flurry of questions.
"What kind of city do we want? Are we going to spend all of our time just regretting what is no longer here? Or are we going to put energy into what kind of city would we like to live in? Is every building that's thrown down a great loss, or sometimes is it an improvement when the city changes?"
He takes a breath, then delivers the clincher.
"Let's use the footage to get at the future," he declares. "I kind of resist thinking that this is all about the past."
San Francisco Top to Bottom: The City Seen by Hollywood and Home Moviemakers begins at 7:30pm, Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at Kanbar Hall in the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California (at Presidio). For tickets and information visit sfhistory.org.