In her review of Phil Kaufman’s 1978 remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, legendary film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “The story is set in San Francisco, which is the ideally right setting, because of the city’s traditional hospitality to artists and eccentrics.” This hospitality extends to movie venues. With its wealth of alternative screening spaces, San Francisco is one of the most welcoming cities in the country for non-Hollywood film.
The Bay Area’s openness to ideas and diversity is rooted in its history. In 1849, when the Gold Rush was in full effect, San Francisco was a wild, colorful city that attracted people willing to stake everything on a shot at fortune in the shape of a shiny gold nugget. Many of the Forty-Niners deserted stodgier pasts to strike it rich. This legacy of eccentricity is still evident in the residents of Northern California. Daring artist types continue to flock to the City by the Bay. San Francisco’s heritage of experimentalism remains clear in its residents’ continued patronage of art houses and independent cinemas.
The Roxie is the oldest continually operating movie theater in San Francisco. It has a long and illustrious history. In 1909 it opened its doors as the C.H. Brown Theater, it was The Poppy in 1913, The New 16th Street in 1918, The Rex in 1920, The Gem in 1926, The Gaiety in 1930, and finally became The Roxie Cinema in 1933-34. In 1976, after having spent a brief period as a porn house, the theater was taken over by manager Robert Evans, who began programming the independent, foreign, and domestic art and esoterica which one still finds today, according to the Roxie’s current helmsman, Rick Norris.
In 1983, Bill Banning bought the Roxie. He also created Roxie Releasing as a means to show films that did not have distribution and to create a supplemental income for the theater. Over the years, Roxie Releasing has distributed George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Nick Broomfield’s Kurt and Courtney, Matthew Bright’s Freeway, the Maysles’ Gimme Shelter, John Dahl’s Red Rock West, and the latest Roxie Release, Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy: Working With Time.
Over the years, the Roxie has had to struggle to keep its doors open. At a fundraising event last April, (“thanks to the generosity of the San Francisco filmgoing community,” according to Norris), the theater was able to raise $35,000. This money allowed the Roxie to pay back rent and discover Rivers and Tides, which has proved a box-office success on both coasts.
The Roxie, located in the heart of the Mission, is a 277-seat single-screen independent art house and revival theater with a reputation for showing documentaries and maintaining strong film noir programming. Their colorful, double-sided monthly calendar is sent out to a large mailing list, delivered to businesses all over San Francisco, and available in the theater’s lobby. Films generally screen for one to three days, with occasional weeklong runs. The theater does “four-walling,” playing host to film festivals like this year’s San Francisco Indie Fest, as well as one-night exhibitions and cast and crew screenings.
The Castro Theatre
“Some of the most memorable cultural events of my life have taken place at the Castro,” says Daniel Wohlfeiler, chairman of the board of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. He cites several examples. The sing-along Sound of Music was unforgettable, as was the Jewish Film Festival screening of Trembling Before G-d after which a gay actor who is shown seeking (unsuccessfully) the acceptance of his rabbi several times in the film came onstage with a rabbi and a lively Q&A ensued.
“Everybody I know loves when the organist plays San Francisco Open Your Golden Gates before a screening,” says Wohlfeiler. The pipe organ, an immense Wurlitzer finally assembled in 1982 from parts found far and wide, inspires even the most cynical moviegoers to reverence. As does the Castro’s impressive decor. The theater, which was designated a registered landmark in 1977, is considered one of the best and most well-preserved examples of a 1920’s movie palace.
Timothy L. Pflueger (1894-1946), a celebrated figure in Bay Area architecture whose career began with the commission of the Castro, designed the theater, which was built in 1922. He borrowed fancifully from many styles. The theater seats more than 1,400 under a breathtaking plaster cast, richly painted ceiling that looks like an elaborate oriental cloth canopy. Colorful murals adorn the auditorium walls. The Castro has recently undergone a renovation that included replacing its famously uncomfortable seats and fixing its striking vertical marquee.
The Castro hosts many local film festivals, including the San Francisco International Film Festival and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The theater’s regular programming is a mixture of foreign films, vintage classics, and art and independent films. The Castro’s thoughtful programming offers regular interviews with filmmakers. Recent visitors include independent producer Christine Vachon (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, I Shot Andy Warhol, Boys Don’t Cry, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, The Celluloid Closet).
Pacific Film Archives
The Pacific Film Archives’ (PFA) programming is nothing short of dazzling. In one month the Archives showed selections from the Children’s International Film Festival, the Bay Area High School Film & Video Festival, the Human Rights Watch Festival, a Gus Van Sant tribute featuring films such as Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, and To Die For, and hosted a visit from the director himself. The Archives also screened selections from the Deaf Film Festival, films in a program called Czechoslovakian Gems, and other one-night stands.
Director Edith Kramer, who, together with Kathy Geritz, Steve Seid, and Mona Nagai, programs the PFA, demurs when complimented and asked how the group, which meets weekly to discuss ideas and work out their upcoming programs, manages month after month to present such a broad range of films. “It is our job,” she says. “It begins with an unholy passion for cinema. It is an obsession. Video, art, the technology, the art of the moving image, the endless nonstop viewing of everything you can see. We are constantly consuming.”
The PFA is housed with the Berkeley Art Museum on the southernmost edge of the UC Berkeley campus. The theater is more functional than phenomenal; no match for the PFA’s remarkable programming and beautiful, carefully chosen film prints. But that’s only temporary, as plans for a new museum and theater are underway.
On the PFA’s website, Kelly Vance, associate editor and film critic at the East Bay Express, offers “I Wake Up Screening: An Appreciation of PFA.”
“I’ve often thought my ideal job would be to cover the Pacific Film Archive exclusively, to report on its film programs and no others, perhaps (in my fantasy scenario) to rig up some sort of apartment in the Archive where I could go to sleep and wake up thinking of movies and never, ever miss a showing,” he says.
Says Kramer: “I love our audiences, watching them experience and question and deal with what we’ve presented. It’s a little like the chef coming out of the kitchen to see what people think of the food.” Bon appetit.
Some Other Options
There are so many notable film venues in the Bay Area; it is hard to compile a list, because you are sure to leave out someone’s favorite. In the East Bay, Oakland is home to both the Historic Grand Lake Theater, and the Parkway Theater.
In 1926, the Grand Lake opened as a Vaudeville Show and Silent Movie House. The vaudeville shows were discontinued, as “Talkies” became popular. The theater has an enormous auditorium, with a balcony, massive, sparkling chandelier, and a Wurlitzer organ that is played briefly before selected weekend screenings of first-run Hollywood films.
The Parkway Theater is a community theater that bills itself as a drive-in-like experience indoors, featuring “pizza, pub, and picture.” The theater doubles as a restaurant, with an extensive menu accompanied by premium beer and wine. The Parkway offers two theaters with comfortable loveseat sofas and cocktail tables with chairs convenient for eating and viewing. The Parkway is a popular date destination, but it is also loved for its Baby Night/Cry Room, where parents are encouraged to bring infants less than a year old. Patrons can avoid paying babysitters and don’t have to fear angry groans if their babies let out a wail.
Back across the bay in San Francisco is the worker owned and operated, 140-seat Red Vic Movie House, in the middle of Haight-Ashbury. This theater shows a wide range of second-run Hollywood films, classic, art, independent and documentary films. “It’s a very casual place, with padded church pews. It’s a collective,” says Gary Meyer, cofounder of Landmark Theatres and a local film venue expert.
The Foreign Cinema, is a stylish restaurant and bar that offers three evening shows of one film projected on a large wall in their courtyard. Watching a film outdoors here is most appealing in summer, when the evening temperatures only require a sweater, rather than a down jacket.
Artists’ Television Access, is a dependable venue for true independent film and video in the Mission. ATA is a nonprofit organization run by volunteers since the eighties. It is a resource for artists working in film and video and offers classes and access to low-cost editing equipment as well as screenings of new work.
Microcinema International’s Bay Area homebase is 111 Minna Gallery, 111 Minna Street, between Howard and Mission (ph.: (415) 864-0660). Cofounder and curator Joel S. Bachar offers “Independent Exposure” on the last Monday of every month. It is a 60-to 90-minute program of short film, videos and digital work from around the world. The program is coproduced by the Film Arts Foundation.
The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts offers a screening room where patrons can enjoy independent, ethnically diverse films they are unlikely to find elsewhere.