One Screen, Three San Francisco Cinephiles

Johnny Ray Huston May 15, 2006

If you care about movies and San Francisco, you care about — and you’re eagerly awaiting — Christian Bruno’s documentary “STRAND: A Natural History of Cinema,” and Julie Lindow’s and R.A. McBride’s book “Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theaters.”

Bruno’s collaboration with Sam Green on “Pie Fight ’69” proves that he knows how to excavate hidden S.F. histories, his work on a short about Dan McLean’s Ten-O-Win game shows he knows plenty about the late Great White Way, and his cinematography for Natalija Vekic’s SFIFF award-winner “Lost and Found” suggests “STRAND’s” Bolex-and-video look will be handsome. For “Left in the Dark,” editor Lindow has gathered essays by an impressive array of local film names; from what I’ve seen, McBride’s photographs of defunct and extant theaters are fantastic, illustrating just how emotive vacant settings can be.

On the eve of a fundraiser for both projects — Tuesday evening at Foreign Cinema’s Gallery — Bruno, Lindow and McBride discussed their love of San Francisco and its theaters over beers at the Uptown.

SF360: Christian, how did you happen upon the Strand Theatre as a nexus for your movie?

Christian Bruno: I’d gone to $1.99 triple-bills at the Strand, had that sort of seedy downtown experience, and then learned that [the theater] was a great art house in the ’70s and ’80s. People talked about Mike Thomas, the guy who owned and operated the theater, with such reverence. He was a guy who, going back to the late ’60s with the Times and even the Presidio, revolutionized repertory programming and thematic double-bills.

Digging further back, you come to realize that Market Street was a great locus for theaters. Whenever I brought up the Strand — I never went to the Embassy, it was already condemned by the time that I moved here [in the early ’90s] because of the ’89 earthquake — I began to realize that it had lived these interesting lives.

SF360: How many manifestations did it have?

Bruno: It opened in 1917, as the Jewel. Of all the great theaters that were on Market, such as the Fox, the California, even the Warfield, the one that remained a movie theater the longest was the Strand. Looking at its trajectory — for instance, on opening night in 1917, Mary Pickford was there — I thought, ‘This is sort of the history of what happens to movie theaters.’ It’s a little palace that then shows second-run or ‘B’ movies for a while, before it changes to an art house, and then it becomes a porno theater and outlives everything. The fact that it is scrappy and unremarkable and one of the theaters that is hardest to find any real history about makes it even more exciting.

I also like the name Strand — it feels like a strand of history.

SF360: Who have you interviewed thus far for the movie?

Bruno: I’ve talked to people who are specifically involved in film exhibition: Anita Monga, Bill Banning, Gary Meyer, and even Mike Thomas. Also Greg King, who along with Mike [Thomas] ran the Strand for a many years — he’s now at the Elmwood. And Jack Tillmany, who ran the Gateway in the ’70s and has become a historian — he recently came out with a book [‘Theatres of San Francisco’].

I also interviewed people who spoke to larger issues — Walter Murch talks about the dreamlike nature of the movies. This movie is also about the city, and how cities operate, so I’ve brought in people like James Kunstler, who wrote ‘The Geography of Nowhere,’ an expose of suburbs and postwar development, as well as ‘The Long Emergency,’ about the decline of oil and how dependent we are on it. Those are issues when you ask, ‘Why did the downtown movie theaters die?’ Everybody moved to the suburbs.

With the subtitle being ‘A Natural History of Cinema,’ this film is also looking at what happens to these places even after they cease being movie theaters.

SF360: Rebecca, how does this beautiful little card-size photo booklet we’re looking at relate to the finished book you and Julie envision?

R.A. McBride: There’s going to be text. And it’s going to be a bit bigger [laughs].

SF360: Rebecca and Julie, did you start work on ‘Left in the Dark’ around the same time that Christian was beginning his movie? Were you having conversations about the topic?

McBride: I started tagging along with Christian when he’d go on shoots, and soon I’d created this whole body of work. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it.

Julie Lindow: Rebecca and I met at [filmmaker and teacher] Melinda Stone’s ranch and started talking. I said I had this plan to make a book about historic theatres, and Rebecca said, ‘I’ve been photographing them.’

SF360: From looking at these photos, Rebecca, I get the sense that you’ve spent some serious time just seeing how light plays within these theaters and how it feels to be within them.

McBride: Every time we go into these closed spaces, Christian and I separate so he can film and I can photograph. We usually have to set up the lights ourselves. [Pointing at a terrific photo of the Harding’s projection room] We went into the Harding twice.

SF360: In terms of capturing a setting, are there any photographers who are particular inspirations for you?

McBride: Some of my inspiration comes from portrait photographers like Sally Mann and Mary Ellen Mark.

SF360: [Pointing at photo] Which theater is this?

McBride: The Bridge — that spot is right before the ladies room.

SF360: I have to say you make the Bridge’s interior look more splendid than I remember it being. I don’t remember the red on the ceiling. This same photo of the Bridge’s seating also reminds me a bit of ‘Goodbye, Dragon Inn.’

Lindow: I love that movie.

Bruno: That one shot [of the theater’s seats in ‘Goodbye, Dragon Inn’] is metaphysical cinema.

SF360: Julie, I know you and Christian have worked at the Castro, but I’m wondering what else drew you to this book project.

Lindow: What really got me started was Rebecca Solnit’s writing, and thinking about the loss of all these theaters and cultural spaces. She writes about the difference between urban space, where you have this diversity, and the isolation and alienation of the suburbs. One significant thing happening just this week is that A Clean Well-lighted Place for Books on Van Ness is closing. Cody’s on Telegraph is also closing. The owner of Clean Well Lighted is opening a smaller store in West Portal, but both of those closures relate to the WalMart-ization of the United States. These are places where cultural gatherings took place.

I’m also drawn to the subject because of the gorgeous architecture of the buildings, which has not been documented in a detailed, artistic way.

SF360: Can you tell me a bit about the some of the essays in ‘Left in the Dark?’

Lindow: Peaches Christ writes about his personal experiences as a performer and also running the Bridge. Gary Meyer is focusing on his personal story and the economic struggles of independent theaters and rep houses. Anita Monga writes about the differences between programming a theater for profit and actually being a curator. Eddie Muller is writing about growing up going to the theaters in San Francisco.

SF360: Lastly, all of have been involved in political activism, and I’m wondering how that informs your work on these projects.

Lindow: I spent time up in Seattle in 1999 protesting the WTO, and I come from a background of having worked with the Foundation for Deep Ecology. The chapters about privatization in Jerry Mander’s and Edward Goldsmith’s ‘The Case Against the Global Economy’ are important to me in putting together this book.

Bruno: It’s significant that Jane Jacobs died around two weeks ago. It wasn’t until I read her stuff that I thought about the larger implications of movie theaters. We’re all children of Jane Jacobs in a way. She wasn’t formally trained, but she was an observant person, and her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities,’ this 400-page book, has one small chapter only about four pages long called ‘The Need for Old Buildings.’ In it, she talks about how old ideas happen in new buildings, and new ideas happen in old buildings. Reading that made me think about repertory film.