It's a curious fact that the best-known screen depictions of San Francisco have come from outsiders: Erich von Stroheim (Greed) Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo), Peter Yates (Bullitt). David Fincher's Zodiac and Gus Van Sant's Milk exposed the city’s more recent checkered past to a new generation of moviegoers. Vivid touchstones, all, but where is the insider's perspective on this cool, grey city of love?
The biggest names in Bay Area filmmaking have certainly taken advantage of the location from their earliest days here: George Lucas’s THX 1138 used the BART system then under construction as a key setting; Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Philip Kaufman’s sly remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers used Union Square and Civic Center, respectively. Chris Columbus’s Mrs. Doubtfire turned sections of Pacific Heights into coveted snapshot destinations for tourists.
Low-budget independent filmmaking has enabled a slew of emerging local filmmakers to tell distinctive Bay Area stories driven above all by the urge to convey a unique and palpable sense of place. An off-the-cuff list of exemplary narratives, all heartfelt and some quite funny, would include Steal America (Lucy Phillips and Glen Scantlebury), North Beach (Jed Mortenson and Richard Speight, Jr.), Quality of Life (Benjamin Morgan), Mission Movie (Lise Swenson) and La Mission (Peter Bratt), Medicine For Melancholy (Barry Jenkins), Revolution Summer (Miles Montalbano), Everything Strange and New (Frazer Bradshaw) and Sorry, Thanks! (Dia Sokol and Lauren Veloski).
Each of those indies is worthy of inclusion on the shortlist of top Bay Area narrative features. Anyone who cares about this city, and region, should seek out their films. But for my three essential titles explicating San Francisco itself, I’m going to dig a bit further back.
[Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles compiling the key documentaries and narrative features by Bay Area independent filmmakers. Like any pantheon, Hall of Fame, or Best-of list, it is a subjective selection, and invites comment and debate.]
Chan Is Missing (1981)
Wayne Wang’s second feature, made in collaboration with the Asian American Theater Company, is an affectionate shaggy-dog story with tiny, sharp teeth. Shot in 16mm black-and-white on an infinitesimal budget, it’s a memento of an era when shoestring independent filmmakers weren’t “storytellers” so much as creative and resourceful problem solvers. In practice, this meant getting shots without permits, ample set-up time, paid extras, production assistants and other niceties that are standard nowadays. Postproduction, notably sound design and mixing, was a whole other magic trick.
The slender plot revolves around a pair of Chinese American cabbies (played by Wood Moy and Marc Hayashi) looking for a missing pal who’s vanished with some dough they lent him. Their peripatetic search through Chinatown takes us behind the closed doors and “inscrutable” façade of a subculture that Anglos won’t (more than can’t) broach. It doesn’t take long to realize that Wang and his collaborators are less interested in the solution to the mystery of the missing money than in critiquing the narrow niche that Chinese Americans are expected to occupy in American culture.
There are gags about cultural identifiers and stereotypes such as sweet-and-sour pork ribs (though not Chinese laundries—that would be too obvious). Even serious issues within the Chinese community, such as the rivalry between Taiwan and mainland China or the aspirations of assimilated Chinese American yuppies, are treated with humor. But rest assured, every joke has a point.
Chan is Missing launched the exemplary careers of cinematographer Michael Chin (Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple) and sound mixer Curtis Choy (What’s Wrong With Frank Chin?, The Fall of the I-Hotel) as well as Wayne Wang’s. Chan Is Missing resonates nearly 30 years later in no small part because Wang’s commitment to exploring the Chinese American experience extends right up to the present. Although he's embraced risky experiments of all kinds (Smoke, The Center of the World) and dabbled in Hollywood moviemaking (Maid in Manhattan, Last Holiday), a look at Wayne’s filmography reveals an artist who never forgot where he came from. You don’t watch Chan Is Missing to see how far Wang has ventured from his roots, but to discover how deeply his roots inform his entire oeuvre.
Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991)
One gets a powerful sense of the Chinese American experience in its earliest incarnation, in the 1800s, in Nancy Kelly’s adaptation of Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s fact-based novel, and it’s not always a pretty sight. A tale of rough abuse, remarkable will and self-empowerment, Thousand Pieces of Gold gradually sands its rough edges on a slow-burning and deeply satisfying love affair. But there’s nothing sentimental about that romance or the film, which is grounded in the director’s considerable respect for history. The glimpses of rough-and-tumble San Francisco (albeit with Butte, Montana playing the part) are particularly savory.
A young Chinese woman, Lalu (Rosalind Chao) is sold by her father to a trader who brings her (and others) to America’s West Coast, where they’ll be sold as prospective wives—or prostitutes—to Chinese men. Completely powerless, Lalu nonetheless rejects both options and makes her decision stick. Then she’s lucky enough to find a third way, in the form of an easygoing alcoholic played by Chris Cooper, five years before Lone Star. (Another now-familiar face is Will Oldham in a supporting role.)
If there’s a tougher challenge for an independent filmmaker than making a convincing period piece on a slim budget, I can’t think of it. How ambitious, or naïve, of Kelly to think she could pull it off, even with the backing of PBS’ American Playhouse, and even though she was a horsewoman herself (her first film was the 1985 documentary Cowgirls: Portraits of American Ranch Women). But she succeeds beautifully, crafting a real-life feminist parable from a script by Anne Makepeace that doesn’t feel bent or stretched or manipulated either to make an anachronistic point or to be more accessible to contemporary moviegoers.
I seem to recall that Kelly tried to get a couple of other narrative features financed in the '90s without success. She’s gone on to make several fine documentaries in the succeeding years, with Trust: Second Acts in Young Lives receiving its world premiere in the 2010 Mill Valley Film Festival. We can hope that the film gods will smile one day and let her adapt, cast and direct another novel.
Heat and Sunlight (1987)
Over the past 15 years, East Bay filmmaker Rob Nilsson has perfected what he calls Direct Action Cinema, a piercing method of making films that prizes emotional honesty above everything else. Shooting on digital video in gritty locations with nonprofessional actors, Nilsson’s mean-streets aesthetic meshes perfectly with broke and struggling characters clawing for self-respect on the fringes of society. Paradoxically, given the economics of independent film these days, his most prolific decade was the 2000s, highlighted by the demanding and rewarding “Nine@Night” series of dramas.
Nilsson has long claimed John Cassavetes’ mantle of uncompromising intimacy, a badge of honor that still carries weight in Europe yet is met with shrugs and yawns at home. The purest and most artful expression of his unflinching approach to American neorealism predates “Nine@Night” as well as his 1996 tough-love Oakland pool-hall saga Chalk. I’m referring to the Grand Jury Prize Winner of the 1988 U.S. Film Festival (later renamed Sundance), the blistering and beautiful Heat and Sunlight.
In this riveting black-and-white drama, Nilsson plays a San Francisco photojournalist just back from an extended stint in Biafra. Instead of the clichéd cynic or equally clichéd idealist, Nilsson’s Mel is a self-centered bastard. Miserable because his girlfriend (the sultry Consuela Faust) didn’t meet him at the airport and, in fact, is sidling out of their relationship and into a new one, Mel takes a high dive into a shallow pool of jealousy, self-pity and self-loathing. (The only filmmaker I can recall who directed him or herself in a role as remotely unflattering as this is Asia Argento, to give you a reference point.)
The filmmaker audaciously mixes in flashbacks and an explicit sex scene, but his biggest gamble is juxtaposing the suffering in Biafra with the hill-of-beans problems of a well-off Westerner. As a head-on excoriation of liberal privilege and liberal guilt, it works brilliantly. As a matter of fact—and this is the payoff that Cassavetes strove for and often achieved—it’s downright cathartic.
Michael Fox has covered the Bay Area film scene as a critic and journalist since 1987.
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