visions of a city: the maltese falcon

The great irony, of course, is that even though The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, USA, 1941) remains one of the most iconic depictions of San Francisco in all of cinema, none of it was actually shot in the city.  Rather, the depiction of the city was constructed through stock footage and sophisticated studio shooting in and around Los Angeles (it has been widely noted, for example, that in the scene of the pier “LAFD” can be clearly seen on the firemen’s helmets).

But what Huston’s film lacks in authenticity is compensated through what Nathaniel Rich characterizes as an “extraordinary, even obsessive, attention to the city’s geography,” and indeed, the film goes to great lengths to always remind the viewer of the narrative’s intimate involvement within the labyrinthine streets, alleyways, and shadowy corners of the city.


introducing visions of a city

Fandor‘s selection of Larry Jordan’s luminous Visions of a City (USA, 1978) as one of its “Featured Films of the Week” reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to start on this blog for a while now: a semi-regular series of posts showcasing cinematic San Francisco.  And what better name could there possibly be for such a series than the title of Jordan’s own film?

As the emphasis is on visual representation, I don’t usually intend these posts to contain reviews, but a few contextual notes seemed called for in this particular case.  Visions of a City is comprised of footage shot in 1957 but not edited until 1978, for in Jordan’s own words: “I found that it was one of those rare films that I have always deplored the scarcity of: documents of how it really looked in a certain place in a certain year.”  It is also serves as what he calls a “filmic portait” of the poet Michael McClure as a young man.

By focusing his camera on reflective surfaces such as windows, mirrors, and even bottles and car bumpers, Jordan captures glimpses of a vibrant cityscape that become layered in complex and strikingly beautiful ways that resemble dissolves.  San Francisco, then, is at once represented as simultaneously a tangible location and a fleeting, dreamlike mirage.  And the screen captures presented below hardly do justice to the film, as it is often in the intricate camera movement that the true wonder of Jordan’s images are revealed, so check out the entire film–it’s a painless and rewarding 6 minutes–either on Fandor or Ubu Web.

dodging definitions

Though overall I didn’t respond to By Hook or By Crook (Harry Dodge and Silas Howard, USA, 2001) nearly as much as I was hoping or expecting to, it’s indeed an important film in its own way and just about the only film I can think of that allows the main characters not only occupy an ambiguous space in regards to both gender and sexuality, but also has a narrative that shows no interest in forcing or demanding distinctions be made.  Which on paper it may not sound particularly notable, but experiencing it through the film often feels nothing less than radical.  One need only think of the other films dealing with transgender characters, such as Boys Don’t Cry, whose “big reveal” to substantiate biological gender for other characters and the audience serve as climactic moments.  By Hook or By Crook interests lie decidedly elsewhere, and the film is all the more interesting because of it.

Also adding to the charm, for me, was its local production which showcases sides of the city that don’t often get glimpsed on film, particularly the Mission District (depicted as some kind of genderqueer oasis) and the Lex (that is, the Lexington Club, the city’s most famous lesbian bar) with nary a glimpse of the stereotypical SF–the Golden Gate Bridge, a streetcar, the Seven Sisters–to be found.  But not only is it an alternative view of the city but practically an alternative universe in and of itself—one of the most insightful observations of the film I’ve come across is how within the film it’s the non-queer world that is depicted as skewed and bizarrely unnatural.

The film is clearly a labor of love for Silas Howard and Harry Dodge, the non-filmmakers who wrote, directed, raised the funds for and then starred in the film, and represents a kind of post-New Queer Cinema return to no-budget independent filmmaking, and it’s ramshackle, “do it yourself” quality is certainly a massive part of its power and its charm.