Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Miscellaneous: Silent in San Francisco

San Francisco is one of the great cities of the world, a metropolis overflowing with treats culinary and cultural. What do I know about the place? Two things: the Castro Theatre and cocktails.

Earlier this year I was in town for Noir City. This trip coincided with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The three screenings I was able to attend made the jaunt worthwhile. Mantrap (1926) is a buoyant comedy with bite, a meringue laced with bourbon. Clara Bow at her sauciest is a big-city manicurist who marries the only trader in the tiny title Canadian town. When a tenderfoot lawyer shows up, Clara sets her sights on him out of equal parts instinct and boredom. A triangle of the more tragic variety plays out in the 1929 German film The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna. Brigitte Helm of Metropolis is the kept woman who falls for a virtuous young lieutenant. Their romance drives her to become a better person while he falls prey to corruption – with his commanding officer, Nina’s former lover, waiting for his opportunity to strike back.

Best of the trio was Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928), co-presented by the Film Noir Foundation. Brawny ship’s stoker George Bancroft and his crewmates have one night in the big city before they push off again; a shot of the six of them anticipating the evening’s pleasures is like a Mount Rushmore of lust. Before the party begins Bancroft saves the life of a suicidal bar girl played by the mesmerizing Betty Compson. He’s drawn to her, she’s amused by his interest in an existence she’s grown weary of, and they play roles for each other as their night together progresses. It’s a simple story told with bracing power. Each film featured live musical accompaniment, but Donald Sosin’s piano score for Docks deserves singular praise for its impact and effortless use of period songs.

The real highlight of the festival? Getting the opportunity to meet Leonard Maltin. Film critic, historian, and one of the great popularizers of motion picture art. His guides are always close at hand at Chez K, and it was a genuine thrill to spend a few moments chatting with him. (All credit is due to Rosemarie. I would have admired him from afar but the missus, an even bigger Maltin fan, walked right over and introduced herself. She’s like that.) Here’s Leonard’s take on the festival.

As for cocktails, we finally were able to bend an elbow at San Francisco’s famed Cliff House, a location in the noir favorite The Lineup. We also stopped by Tradition, the latest in the bar empire from the people behind Bourbon & Branch. It’s only a stone’s throw from B&B, offering a more relaxed atmosphere and a broad array of specialties; I recommend the A La Louisiane, with rye, Benedictine and absinthe. I also recommend the street theater. We arrived several minutes before the doors opened and spent that time watching a man search every inch of his car save the rocker panels with a crystal meth level of determination that rendered him oblivious to the fact that his pants had slipped down far enough to reveal what our genial host Eddie Muller dubbed a “triple Aykroyd” of plumber’s crack. We never learned what he was looking for, or if he found it. We had cocktails to consume.

Hey, we did do something cultural! We saw the exhibit “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier” at the de Young Museum. It highlights ingenuity not only in Gaultier’s ceaselessly inventive work – a dress from the then-impoverished designer’s debut collection employed wicker placemats – but in its staging, with stunning use of mannequins and a closing runway show. The exhibit runs through August 19.