Film Critic David Thomson on How 'Star Wars' Embraces SF Ethos

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Kim Novak and James Stewart in "Vertigo"

The eminent film critic and resident San Franciscan David Thomson was a guest on KQED Public Radio’s Forum show today, talking about his latest book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, and other explorations in cinephilia. Jan Stuart’s review of the book in the Chronicle puts Thomson’s place in the critical continuum nicely…

Rare is the film critic who accesses a movie through hidden doors, off-the-map passageways that most of us lack the internal GPS, let alone the moxie, to locate. With the loss of Pauline Kael and Manny Farber, that exclusive clubhouse is now dominated by David Thomson, an indefatigable provocateur and the most quotable cineaste you won’t find in the movie quote ads.

After today’s show, I talked to Mr. Thomson about the topic of San Francisco in the movies. One particularly interesting thing he said: he thinks Star Wars is in some way emblematic of the city’s ethos.

Edited transcript…

JON BROOKS: So what films stand out to you as particularly evocative of San Francisco and the Bay Area?

DAVID THOMSON: Vertigo is the obvious answer. It’s a film that not only uses San Francisco as its background, but it sort of understands the way in which San Francisco and its light can also be a dreamy, sinister place. Von Stroheim’s Greed has amazing shots of Polk Street. Everyone in San Francisco loves the car chase in Bullitt not just for the chase but because it’s put together using shots on streets that don’t match. Then there’s the Dirty Harry movies. The Lady From Shanghai has quite a lot of stuff in San Franciso. Point Blank uses Alcatraz and Fort Point very well.


BROOKS: How about films that speak to San Francisco’s culture or character?

THOMSON: Wayne Wang made a couple of early films, Dim Sum and Chan is Missing, which are very good on the Chinatown aspects of the city. Petulia is quite good on the chaos — or liberation — of the 60s. The Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter — filmed in Altamont — is interesting in that era too.

The Conversation is a great San Francisco film. It’s a noir film about people being bugged and spied on and surveilled; it’s a very prescient film in that way.

A film like Milk is very interesting and obviously there have been a lot of important gay films, many of them documentaries. And Woody Allen’s got his San Francisco film coming out. He’s become a sort of movie tourist.

Then there’s the whole ethos of the George Lucas enterprise. Lucas and Coppola both really wanted to get away from LA because they thought there was a more supportive atmosphere up here. So though the Star Wars films don’t use San Francisco, in a way they are about the ethos of the city. They’re about the idea that young people can start making films in a different way so you don’t have to go Hollywood, You can stay at home in San Francisco with its greater liberalism and range of attitudes, so that you can be freer.

Phil Kaufman’s The Right Stuff is also not about San Francisco, but the fact of the matter is that almost all of it was filmed in San Francisco and it’s the fruit of an attitude that says you can make a fllm in your home town. He’s a great lover and exponent of the city. His Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film that uses San Francisco most directly.


You can listen to the complete Forum segment with David Thomson here

And you can read some of Thomson’s The Big Screen at