A SAN FRANCISCO ATLAS
By REBECCA SOLNIT
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
Chapter One CINEMA CITY
This is a map about two moments in the history of film and San Francisco: one in which photographer Eadweard Muybridge laid the foundation for a new technology of moving pictures that would evolve into cinema as we know it; and another, eighty years later, when his fellow Englishman Alfred Hitchcock filmed his dark valentine to San Francisco, Vertigo, here. Of course, there are countless other moving picture and media moments of note—movies such as Bullitt, with its lyrical car chases, breakthroughs such as Philo T. Farnsworth's invention of television on Green Street—but maps are always selective, and Muybridge and Hitchcock are a striking pair of imagemakers. The genesis and an apotheosis of cinema are charted on this map, whose last theme is decline—if not of the medium, at least of its dream palaces, the movie houses that once were the exclusive home of cinema. There were over seventy such theaters in San Francisco, many of them in the neighborhoods, when Vertigo debuted in 1958, but only a handful remain open. They were replaced first by television, then by video rentals, and by other digital ways of watching films on small screens, even more than they were by the downtown multiplexes. So there are three eras on this map, the 1870s-1880s, the 1950s, and the present, in which we are heirs to their wealth but makers of a curious imagistic poverty as well.
CARTOGRAPHY: SHIZUE SEIGEL * MAP APPEARS ON PAGES 24-25
THE EYES OF THE GODS BY REBECCA SOLNIT
The Cahuillas of the southeastern California desert tell a story in which the creators of the world argue about death. One of the gods is against it, because it is, after all, sad; and the other one points out that without death, the earth would get very crowded. For historians and people preoccupied with the past, the city as seen and imagined is crowded with ghosts, and the past walks through the present. We are ourselves ghosts of other times, not fully present in our own; and we see what is no longer here and feel the future as a wind through the streets, a wind that is for us who look backward always blowing away what we cherish, the storm of loss. But when solid time melts, the past can be recovered.
Imagine that time does not exist, and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (in San Francisco intermittently from 1855 to 1881) moves through a wavering, foggy city that is also inhabited by another Englishman, Alfred Hitchcock, as he films Vertigo, his 1957 movie about fear, longing, remorse, fantasy, and San Francisco. The fat director is working in the medium for which his lean compatriot laid the foundations during his own restless years in San Francisco and Palo Alto. In that period, Muybridge sped up photography, which hitherto could produce those images the film business calls "stills" but so far had been able to capture only the slow world and the world stopped for the camera. Muybridge made photography fast; he was the fastest camera in the West, the first photographer who could capture horses and men in motion. He shot them in series that could be projected onto a big screen, projected in quick sequences that simulated motion and thereby simulated life. Thus began the road to cinema. It was as though the ice of frozen photographic time had broken free into a river of images. Brought to life, we say, because motion is the essence of life. Muybridge's new medium of photographic motion, moving pictures, was itself ghostly, unearthly, though within the limits of the new medium before flexible celluloid films came along, he made only short looping segments of horses and men in motion, and then of women, children, and other animals.
He had made a medium that blurred past and present, and people in his time saw how haunted it was. As Thomas Edison tinkered to see if sound and image could be harnessed together into a yet more powerful verisimilitude, he proposed, wildly, "that grand opera can be given at the Metropolitan Opera House at New York ... with artists and musicians long since dead." Which suggests what séances they were holding, what grave-robbing we do now, in the medium of movies. In film we see the dead all the time. Watch the movie Vertigo tomorrow and see that Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) as Scottie is still a rangy man in his prime, pacing, scowling, pining, and chasing the phantasm of the young ice goddess Madeleine (Kim Novak, born 1933) through a San Francisco whose downtown is not yet spiky with skyscrapers but whose streets are oddly familiar.
Of course, Vertigo is a story within a story that is a movie that was filmed in reality, the reality of this city, the real that makes the illusion all the more compelling. For San Franciscans, the film features fictional characters but real actors loosed on a real and familiar city, an illusion that exists in the same space as our actualities. And maybe Vertigo is a perfect specimen of film, for it is about uncertain boundaries between reality and illusion, about a passion that can never be fulfilled, about haunting and losing. The fictitious Madeleine—a poor woman paid to impersonate a shipping tycoon's wife—is haunted by her ancestress; the less fictitious Scottie is haunted by her, though she may not exist; and in the film she dies twice. Time does not quite exist, but death does, emphatically. And as in much film noir and several surrealists' books on the city, the beloved is really the eternally elusive, unpossessable city itself, forever slipping through fingers like water, but never entirely gone. Film haunts. And cities are haunted.
Muybridge's own story is a little like Vertigo, or his personal story is, a story of people who might not be who they were supposed to be, of deceptions, betrayals, uncertain identities, and a murder, all threaded through the decade in which he made his technical breakthrough that led to cinema. It is a story in the Hollywood sense, for much of Muybridge's life has no story—no personal drama that we know of, though it has a long arc of self-invention that began with his emigration and was furthered by his name changes (Edward Muggeridge became, in stages, Eadweard Muybridge) and his launch into the medium in which he would do such astounding things.
In 1871, he married a beautiful young blonde divorcée, Flora Stone, sometimes also known as Lily Shallcross, who deceived him with a man who called himself Harry Larkyns. While Muybridge was off chasing landscape images, Larkyns haunted theaters, reviewed shows, and took Flora with him. He was a fiction himself, a confidence man out of nowhere, whose short known past involved cheating a foolish young man out of considerable money, but who told glamorous stories about himself, stories of having fought with Italy's revolutionaries, of being a member of the Foreign Legion and a soldier in the British Army, then of being a rajah in Asia with a trunkful of diamonds, somehow lost, along with various other fortunes. Flora paid the ex-rajah's laundry bills.
They were quintessential San Franciscans, these people who were self-made men and women, and sometimes self-invented, or just made up. The possibility that his son, too, might have a shadowy identity—as Larkyns's son—sent Muybridge on a furious expedition to the mercury mine east of Calistoga where Larkyns was holed up. There, one dark October night in 1874, the photographer shot the drama critic "an inch below the left nipple," as the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The murderer Muybridge was held for trial but was exonerated by a Wild West jury of husbands who thought the punishment suited the crime, whereupon he exiled himself to Central America for several months. He had already begun his great project of turning photography into a faster medium that could apprehend the world in motion, but the murder disrupted the project for a few years.
Aboard a ship on his return from Central America, Muybridge solved, he said, the problem of high-speed photography, one of the technical challenges to be surmounted on the path to cinema. He also made breakthroughs in the chemistry of film, "speeding" it up so that exposures of a fraction of a second were possible. And then came his 360-degree panoramas of San Francisco, visions of space and place as seen by an impossible eye, one that surveys the whole horizon simultaneously, a divine or diabolical gaze. The motion studies, themselves appearing first in a trickle and then, after Muybridge had left the city and set in motion the route to cinema, a flood.
I have been both a ghost and haunted in the city I love, and have been possessed as well by the movies I've seen in its theaters. One of the signs of a good movie is how it lingers after you leave—and this aftertaste of enchantment happens most effectively with films seen in the contemplative zone of a theater. Often, leaving a theater, I enter a night in which the mood, the characters, the spectacles, and the possibilities all seem to continue the movie's sensibility, as though it were an incantation summoning up experiences far beyond the screen.
When Vertigo was released, there were about seventy movie theaters in the city, far more than now when films have moved, at best, to the less ceremonial space of multiplexes—and films are now even shown on airplanes and laptops and cell phones as well as televisions and monitors at home. But the old theaters were sometimes called dream palaces, and dreaming then was done collectively, in the dark, with rituals beforehand, with appointed times and places, and it had another kind of magic.
Anyone who grew up going to movies knows the steps: the arrival in the vicinity; the examination of film schedules or movie posters out front; the purchase of the ticket, often at one of those glassed-in booths facing the street; the ticket torn from a roll and made of a particular kind of soft, fibrous, colored cardboard, red most often, sometimes orange or lavender or gray, to be found later crumpled in pockets; then the taking of the ticket; the promenade past the refreshment stand; the aroma of popcorn; the worn carpet of lobbies; and then the filing down dark aisles to the rows of velvet folding chairs and maybe the argument about an ideal seat. I even love the trailers, which serve as advertisements but also as mad little movies, cramped up like a peony before bloom, a butterfly in chrysalis, everything smashed in together, a burst of what you didn't choose before the launching of what you did.
For a long time, I lived across the street from a building that was for a decade or so an AIDS hospice. Called the House of Love, it was run by white-sari-wearing nuns in Mother Teresa's order—she came by a few times herself. After her death, the nuns left, and the big Victorian building became just another San Francisco collective household, though the residents held onto the name House of Love, threw great rave parties, grew a Rousseau-like jungle in the old storefront downstairs, and showed movies. Or, rather, one of the roommates, whose bay window faced my kitchen window, screened movies for himself with a DVD projector that turned his back wall into a theater of flickering faces and acts. I'd get out of a taxi at midnight and stand mesmerized for ten minutes, key in hand, as huge figures loomed and jumped on that wall, or I'd watch those silent movies for a while from my window.
That little impromptu home theater with its giant faces and careening motion lurching inside the house reminded me how supernatural movies once were and still are, given an arena to exercise their full power of uncanniness. A whole dinner party in my kitchen halted once to try to identify the movie in the window during an episode featuring Nick Cage's lugubrious face about nine feet high. You could picture a body filling up the house to go with that head, a giant folded up inside a wooden box, Alice after one of her Drink Me moments. On that happy strange evening of Nick Cage as apparition, the filmmakers and San Francisco aficionados Sam Green and Chip Lord were at my kitchen table puzzling out his looming, flickering face with me. That was long before Sam had begun his beautiful movie about the city's fog, but Chip had already completed his video splicing the car chase scenes in Vertigo and Bullitt into one dreamy Möbius strip of cars plunging at various speeds through an impossible geography of hills.
In my early teens, when my mother worked in San Francisco, I would take the bus into the city and join her in watching Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies at the Castro Theater. Its broad arcs of seats, its ornamental box-seat balconies, its oxidized gilt, and its great ceiling mural of the zodiac with a pendulumlike ornament dangling from its center are all still there in this theater where I've seen so many westerns, film festival offerings, silent movies, all the classics; seen Milk, the movie about the "Mayor of Castro Street," made doubly magical as the street outside and the theater itself keep showing up on the screen. The gay men in the dark with me educated me over the years about reading the sexual subtexts and preposterous elements of movies, about how to enjoy the homoeroticism of westerns, the spectacle of over-the-top femininity, the endless supply of unlikely plot twists and overwrought emotions. They taught me with sniggers and murmurs and sighs up and down the rows.
It's a big theater with a big screen, and the supernatural splendor I had found in my neighbor's dark room I found in the closeups at the Castro. In Once Upon a Time in the West, the camera comes closer and closer to Charles Bronson's squinting eyes, and you expect the camera, as conventional American cameras would have, to stop when his face fills the screen, a head as big and obdurate as one of those giant Toltec stone heads. But the camera travels inward and further in until the glare of his two staring, narrowed eyes fills the great sail of the screen. It's as though God were looking at you, for if there is one attribute of the medieval divinity that makes sense cinematically, it's that he's gigantic, looming, a force that fills the sky. There's a little twelfth-century church up in the Pyrenees mountains on the pilgrimage route from Paris to Santiago de Compostela, the church of Ste. Foy de Conques, and on its western façade the saint herself is shown, a tiny figure bent in prayer toward a huge hand coming out of the sky, wonderful and terrifying. Charles Bronson's fierce light eyes were that big. They haunt me still; they are what I see when I picture that screen.
In the creation myth of the Cahuilla, the creators argue about death. One of the gods is against it, because it is, after all, sad; and the other one points out that without it, the earth will get very crowded. Film has given us the ghosts who make it crowded and who make us ghosts wandering through time and place, dissolved the solidity of those categories, and set us all free to haunt and be haunted in the city of cinema, the city in which you dwell with Madeleine, with Muybridge, with strangers in the dark, with the ghosts among whom you yourself are a ghost, haunting, your own eyes like those of a god, for, thanks to cinema, you too see the dead now.
Excerpted from INFINITE CITY by REBECCA SOLNIT Copyright © 2010 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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