Christian Bruno, like a lot of filmmakers, is alert to the fluidity of urban life. In Strand: A Natural History of Cinema, he pays homage to the pivotal and shifting role of movie theaters—and rep houses in particular—in San Francisco’s cultural life in the second half of the 20th century.
For his first interview back in 2003, Bruno sought out longtime theater manager Jack Tillmany, who ran the Gateway in the ’90s and published Theatres of San Francisco in 2005. The book drew on Tillmany’s sizable collection of photographs, an archive he kindly opened to Bruno.
"This started out as a film about the history of exhibition in a specific place, San Francisco, from the very first inklings of film exhibition," Bruno says. "It was also going to center on Market St. and downtown. It turned out to be a massive undertaking. Part of why the film has taken some time toward completion is I’ve changed my focus."
The documentary now centers on the repertory and revival scene in the years following World War II. Bruno chose this period partly out of pragmatism—many theater vets of that era are still alive—but mostly because Bay Area film buffs were the ones who pioneered innovations such as film societies and rep houses.
Strand: A Natural History of Cinema revives the dimly remembered legacy of Ed Landberg, who operated the Cinema Guild, one of the first repertory cinemas in the country, in Berkeley from 1953-70. You may have heard of his wife in the early years, Pauline Kael, whose Cinema Guild program notes helped launch her career as a critic.
"In the history books," Bruno asserts, "the Golden Era is the movie palaces and the Hollywood blockbusters, but if one were to spend a little bit of time thinking about it, we owe everything to that period after World War II when we were discovering films from the past and films from other countries. There was a passion for cinema that might not have existed before that. People started to think about it in a broader world of art. We accept that now, but it took that period to bring it to the forefront."
Bruno landed interviews with a bevy of key players and insightful observers of the local scene, including Anita Monga (former programmer at the Castro), Mike Thomas (ditto the Strand), Gary Meyer (Balboa), Peter Moore (an early member of the Roxie hierarchy), editor Walter Murch, producer Tom Luddy and filmmakers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. Passionate film lovers and filmgoers all, they infuse their recollections with an energy that takes the film out of the realm of nostalgia.
"‘Elegiac’ is always something that’s hovered around the project," Bruno concedes. "But this was definitely a time of exuberance— celebratory is a great word—for younger people discovering movies and older people creating audiences. You could make an argument that home video would not exist except for this period."
A tactile mix of 16mm and video, the doc touches on classic big-city issues such as urban planning and sociology, all the while evoking the magical, mysterious marriage of public space and personal catharsis that is the core of moviegoing.
The ever-thoughtful Murch, Bruno notes, "raises this question about what does this experience mean to us, and is it lost or something we can still participate in. That’s the metaphysical layer of this film. There’s history—both film exhibition and urban—but there’s a metaphysical layer to it."
Bruno is just starting postproduction, but vows that Strand: A Natural History of Cinema will be finished by the end of 2009. "It’s going to have to be," he says with a pained laugh. "There’s other things I should be doing at this point. I feel like I’m not going to get to the next things until this one’s done."
Incidentally, Bruno and his collaborator and partner Natalija Vekic provide the avant-garde images while Pale Hoarse, Dragging an Ox Through Water and Leyna Noel and the Finer Things serve up the sounds at ATA this Friday night, February 6, 2009, in a program dubbed "Love & Light."
Notes From the Underground
The remodeling of the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley is complete, highlighted by the introduction of two Screening Lounges offering couches and love seats along with trad chairs. The new bar, Lot 68, should be finished by March. … The Trouble With Romance, a sex comedy co-produced by and costarring Jennifer Siebel Newsom (yes, the mayor’s wife) is available on pay-per-view this month on Warner cable outlets ahead of its NYC opening Feb. 27. I know, we don’t have Warner in San Francisco. ‘Tis a pity. … Adam Goldstein and Eric Kutner’s SF-made feature The Snake will have its world premiere at SXSW in mid-March. The edgy comedy boasts a cameo by Margaret Cho and the tagline "the funniest movie about dating a bulimic…possibly ever."
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