Of all the arts, the cinema has traditionally been the most passive from the audience’s perspective. We stare at the screen, and any reactions we have (burying our faces in pillows, crying, laughing etc) tend to be solitary.
But when it comes to the Lost Landscapes of San Francisco film series, which received its seventh annual screening at The Castro Theatre last night, interactivity rules.
Curated by the archivist and filmmaker Rick Prelinger and produced under the auspices of the Long Now Foundation, Lost Landscapes weaves together footage culled from random home video collections, the public library, local historical groups and other sources to paint a vivid picture of the city between the 1920s and 1960s that inspires spontaneous conversation in the dark from its audience.
The footage is different every year (with the exception of one or two pieces brought back by popular demand) and what’s startling about it is how the mostly grainy, blurry, black-and-white images of San Francisco feel both remote from the present time and also occasionally extremely close.
One of the most fascinating and weird sequences from the 1920s or 30s depicts a “Wild West Festival” in the Polk Gulch neighborhood. Shopfronts are transformed into 1800s saloons and the locals parade around in cowboy hats and chaps, with guns cocked at each other at every photo opportunity. The Polk Gulch of today couldn’t be more seedy and cosmopolitan with its combination of hipster bars and homeless people. Meanwhile, in a fun clip from the post-War era, we see groups of young kids of different ethnic backgrounds skulking around on street corners trying to out cool each other. Plus ca change.
The soundtrack that accompanies most of the movie is provided spontaneously by the audience’s chatter as they happily “crowd source” information about what they’re seeing on screen.
Members of the audience yell out questions to each other, like “what year was that footage taken?” “what street are we seeing?” and others yell out answers. There’s lots of goofing around (at one point someone shouted “Twitter!” as a camera panned the section of Market Street where the tech company currently has its headquarters.) But interesting and serious questions and answers from scattered local history nuts and the otherwise curious are equally prevalent during the 75-minute-long discussion-in-the-dark.
I imagine that it would be odd for a tourist or newcomer to the city to witness Lost Landscapes of San Francisco. It’s an event that’s perfectly geared towards the entrenched citizen. And yet the strong community feeling that’s generated from the interactivity and hyper-local movie footage makes me yearn to bring outsiders in.