You can tell right off that the sharp curators of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society's move-fast-or-you'll-miss-it tribute to the Bay Area's singular place in motion-picture history know these essential truths: Movies are entertainment, movies are history and movies are personal. Our responses and affections are individual, even if they are shared by many other people. They recognize that movies can also be art, but what's really being honored here is the act of collaboration. And the most important collaborator isn't the star or the director but the audience.
There isn't a profound or novel message to be gleaned from the selective and highly enjoyable array of artifacts, memorabilia and one-sheets (aka posters) on display, other than to remind visitors of the remarkable range of subjects and styles the Bay Area has inspired in a century of moviemaking. From the silent comedies and Westerns produced long ago by the Essanay Studios in the East Bay to Pixar's rambunctious and lucrative feature-length cartoons, from Hollywood's ambivalence toward San Francisco's noirish underbelly to Clint Eastwood's internationally recognized bullets-and-bravado persona, every period is represented.
The bright, airy, high-ceiling Mint is a fine venue for showing off the alluring pleasures promised by a slew of one-sheets of San Francisco-set movies, beginning with the hallway mountings of Petulia, Milk and Vertigo. When you venture into each room you encounter a different theme, whether it's foreign-language posters of S.F. movies, a taste of the San Francisco International Film Festival (featuring a poster for the 1958 fest by the great graphic designer Saul Bass) or a tip of the fedora to San Francisco's avant-garde and independent filmmaking traditions (including a 1953 flyer from the Museum of Modern Art's pioneering Art in Cinema program and a Crumb one-sheet, among other treats).
The Vertigo room, with a replica of the portrait that Kim Novak pondered every morning at the Palace of the Legion of Honor and a bench to facilitate your own meditations, reflects the curators' appreciation for the ways we admire, own and even share a laugh at the movies we love. This room also contains my single favorite "prop" in the show, an elegant ashtray from Ernie's that, better than any time-travel machine, instantly summons the adult-oriented 1950s.
There's some cheesy stuff, too, notably the movie stars on loan from the Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf. The trench-coated Sam Spade in the claustrophobic cul-de-sac saluting The Maltese Falcon looks more like Elisha Cook, Jr. than Humphrey Bogart, an irony that I hope is not lost on too many visitors. It's worth a look-see, though, to check out the black bird that gives the exhibition its name, and which exhibit co-curator Miguel Pendás describes as "an authentic reproduction of a genuine fake."
A lure for many people will be a generous selection of Kim Novak's paintings, on public display for the first time anywhere. Ms. Novak, who receives the San Francisco Cinematic Icon Award at the Historical Society's fundraiser Thursday evening, June 14, 2012, paints nature and states of mind, but you'll find nothing that evokes Hollywood or the silver screen, thank you very much. Her impressionistic artwork is perfectly fine, but it is unlikely that it's what you will remember from The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of hours or days later.
Movies, of course, are about more than one-sheets or artifacts, even if a replica of "Dirty Harry" Callahan's .44 Magnum makes your heart go pitty-pat. An exhibit like this is an opportunity to remember what you felt, and thought, at a moment in time, and to fit it in the ongoing continuum of motion pictures. So, depending on your willingness to wax nostalgic, the depth of your curiosity, the size of the crowds and the speed of your gait, the exhibit can be covered in 75 mood-elevating minutes.
Odds are, though, you'll end up in conversation with a stranger equally fascinated by the Pushover poster (starring Kim Novak, it's the only piece in the show without a direct S.F. connection) or some other bit of deliciousness, and your stay will stretch to the length of a movie. For $10 ($5 for Historical Society members), that's a pretty fair deal.
The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: San Francisco and the Movies runs Saturday, June 16 through Sunday, June 24, 2012 at the Old Mint in San Francisco. For more information visit sfhistory.org.