29 August, 2009

Afternoon at the Palace of Fine Arts

Bernard Maybeck's Palace of Fine Arts gets more than its share of attention, so I can't really bring much insight into the place by giving it a post.  Still, it's a really lovely place for a stroll.  Built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, it was designed by architect Maybeck to look like a half-forgotten ruin and that's pretty much what it was by the mid '60s when it was completely reconstructed out of concrete (the original structure consisted of a  wood frame, covered with chicken-wire and plaster). The dome and lagoon were recently renovated and work on the rest of the structure begins this fall.  Its an almost impossibly photogenic place which accounts for the steady stream of brides and grooms (and grooms and grooms and brides and brides) tromping to the shores of the lagoon.  The Palace appears in many films and TV shows, most notably VERTIGO and TIME AFTER TIME.  The latter features the dome as the setting for the climactic stand-off between Malcolm McDowell's H.G. Wells and David Warner's Jack the Ripper with Mary Steenburgen's life in the balance.

27 August, 2009

Everyday Film Set

The modern traveler, when visiting great cities, is often struck by how "familiar" a place can seem on a first visit. With exposure to television and movies, we can be walking or driving down streets whose names we've heard hundreds of times, see landmarks that seem slightly unreal because, now, they exist in the third dimension. We can feel at home in places our ancestors would have thought of as being as strange as Mars simply because we already know what the streets look like, the people sound like, the food smells like. Our exposure to images can even distort perceptions of our own city when we come across something that seems a bit too much like a film set. Is it real? Where are the cameras? How did this happen to be here? This can happen surprisingly often in San Francisco, a place that can be a bit too "cute" for its own sake. From sidewalk cafes to flower stands and cable cars, we're always in danger of becoming a larger version of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Thank God for some of the "edgier" parts of town. All of this was brought to mind by a couple of places on a recent stroll. The first is the old Mission Police Station on 17th Street. It looks like it could be in Havana. The funny thing is, the place gets more authentic the closer you get. It has an incredible amount of character. No film set, this. The second "scene" is an alleyway called Harlow Street off of 16th Street near Church. From the gray shingles on the building, to the shop with its seven digit phone number and the ancient Chrysler products parked on the street, this place really makes you look around for the cameras. Someone in this alley likes to collect cars and has worked out some method of keeping them parked in the same place all the time. Both places are like doorways into another place and time and for that I'm very grateful.

20 August, 2009

The Single Screen

I had the opportunity to see a movie at the wonderful Vogue Theatre the other day (no mystery as to the title, see above). It's been a few years since I've ventured up to ol' Sacramento Street just to see a picture. The theatre was built in 1912 as the Rex, was re-opened as the Vogue in 1939 and was recently purchased and renovated by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theatre Foundation. It had been threatened with closure. The experience got me thinking about movie theatres in San Francisco (it's not too difficult to get me to stray onto that subject) and the death of the single screen. I'm sure there are young'uns who have no idea that movie houses, at one time, only had one screen. We're lucky enough to have a few of the old places left; the Vogue, of course, the Castro, Bridge, Clay, Roxie (the Little Roxie is a recent addition, but it's in a building next door to the original)and the Red Vic. With the exception of the Castro, they're all relatively small houses. Still, it's remarkable that they've survived TV, VCRs, DVDs, Netflix, OnDemand, video games and the multiplex. A small miracle occurred this past weekend when a NEW single screen cinema opened as part of the NEW PEOPLE J-Pop center in Japan Town. It's called the Viz Cinema and promises to book a steady schedule of Japanese language films.
Back to the Vogue; in 1984 it had a run of the South African film, "The Gods Must Be Crazy" that lasted 70 weeks! Management and staff were driven insane (I knew several of them and you'd be insane too, having to put up with that film for 5 shows a day, everyday, for well over a year) and the neighborhood rejoiced the day the film closed.

18 August, 2009

Signs of the Week

It's been awhile since I've posted signs in this forum. I encounter quite a few, but I don't want to appear to be having too much fun at the expense of others. As long as they don't become TOO widespread, I'm pretty grateful for them as they lend a bit of a spark to the day... I think. I came across two fine examples in one day this week.
The names have been obscured to protect the illiterate (or merely clumsy). One of these signs was posted on a very prominent building containing, no doubt, some extraordinarily bright people. It's a shame one of them couldn't have been recruited to do the printing. It also seems evident that people WILL shoot at your building if they notice grammatical errors in your signs.

"The Genius of Green Street" and the Birthplace of (electronic) Television

It's one of those topics historians will battle over for centuries to come (it seems appropriate that historians should do battle), but I think if I stick enough qualifiers in front of the word "TV", it'll be OK. Here we see the birthplace of operational, all-electronic television. In this unassuming building (didn't you know that all great inventions are developed in "unassuming" structures?) at 202 Green Street, Philo Taylor Farnsworth transmitted the first electronic television image on September 7 th, 1927.
Scottish inventor John Logie Baird had demonstrated a working MECHANICAL version of television the year before, but San Francisco is indeed the birthplace of, what would become, modern television. I don't know if the world should be TOO grateful for this fact.

14 August, 2009

Fountain of Controversy

The City's residents are still divided in their opinions about the Vaillancourt Fountain in the Embarcadero's Justin Herman Plaza. It's been almost 40 years since this provocative piece was unveiled in the, at the time, deserted plaza at the foot of Market Street. Described by architectural critic Allan Temko as something, "deposited by a concrete dog with square intestines." the fountain is the work of Quebecois sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. The official title of the work is "Quebec libre !". In November of 1987, the fountain was notoriously defaced by U2 singer Bono at a free concert in the plaza. To the horror of then Mayor Dianne Feinstein (and a good number of San Franciscans), he spray-painted the words "Rock & Roll stops the traffic" on the structure.
The fountain has had some ups and downs over the years. There have been several attempts to have it removed and it has gone through periods of neglect when it sat without water due to funding, water-shortage and plumbing issues.
Presently, it's in fine form and seems to have found, if not love, at least acceptance as part of the beautiful and very busy Embarcadero scene.
I've always liked it. It worked very well with the old Embarcadero Freeway behind it, but it still has heaps of character.
Deep trivia note: In the 1968 film "Bullitt", a model of the fountain can be seen, briefly, in the background at Jacqueline Bisset's character's office.

09 August, 2009

Watermelons ?

They LOOK like watermelons, but as we are in San Francisco, the setting for Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", it's probably best to approach this situation with caution (they do look more like the "pods" in the 1956 version, I know). Anyway, I found these, unattended, in a rather deserted, not-very-scenic part of The City. I doubt they were grown on the spot.
I'm somewhat wary of buying produce from itinerant peddlers in industrial districts by freeways, so I walked on. You're next!