Jeff Bridges in still from Fearless © Warner Bros.
Having grown up in San Francisco, I have long yearned to see films that are quintessentially San Franciscan in character.
Most films shot here show off local landmarks as a shortcut to high production value or simply to provide atmosphere to their story. While there's a vibrant and tight-knit film community in the Bay Area, San Francisco has oddly not developed its own film aesthetic. Perhaps it's partly due to its proximity to Hollywood or to the local focus on documentaries rather than narrative films.
SAN FRANCISCO AS BACKDROP
Don't get me wrong. I've enjoyed many films shot and/or set here, like the aptly named San Francisco (1936), Foul Play (1978), Fearless (1993), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), When a Man Loves a Woman (1994) and most recently Steve Jobs (2015), but few of them have fully or accurately captured the character of San Francisco.
Clark Gable in a post-1906 earthquake scene from San Francisco
© MGM , source: Alamy Stock Photos
Burgess Meredith, Brian Dennehy, Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase in her San Francisco apartment in Foul Play
© Paramount Pictures
Jeff Bridges on the Embarcadero in Fearless © Warner Bros.
Sally Field and Robin Williams in their Pacific Heights home in Mrs. Doubtfire © 20th Century Fox
Mike Myers on the roof of his Russian Hill apartment in So I Married and Axe Murderer © Tristar Pictures
Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan at the Buena Vista Cafe in When a Man Loves a Woman
© Touchstone Pictures
Michael Fassbender at the War Memorial Opera House in Steve Jobs
© Universal Pictures, source: Francois Duhamel / Associated Press
Yes, the occasional filmmaker has succeeded in using San Francisco as a backdrop to full effect as with Alfred Hitchcock's iconic use of landmarks in Vertigo (1958) and Peter Yate's famous car chase in Bullitt (1968). But, again, they were not local filmmakers. For them, San Francisco served as a mythical character far from the reality of its complex and ever-evolving daily life.
James Stewart and Kim Novak at Fort Point in Vertigo © Paramount Pictures
The famous car chase scene through the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt © Warner Bros.
SAN FRANCISCO PORTRAYALS
Some have come close to portraying the City with some authenticity: the noir grit of Dark Passage (1947), the urban isolation in The Conversation (1974), the real Chinatown in Chan Is Missing (1982), the complex and often confusing social lives of single people in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (1993 miniseries) and most recently a moving and realistic portrait of San Francisco's own Harvey Milk in Milk (2008).
Humphrey Bogart on a cable car in Dark Passage © Warner Bros.
Gene Hackman in his San Francisco apartment in The Conversation © Paramount Pictures
Marc Hayashi and Wood Moy on the streets of Chinatown in Chan Is Missing, © Photo by Nancy Wong, 1981
Laura Linney in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City © Working Title Films
Sean Penn at City Hall in Milk © Focus Features, source: Laura Morton for the San Francisco Chronicle
Cate Blanchett, Max Casella, Bobby Cannavale and Sally Hawkins on the streets of Chinatown in Blue Jasmine
© Sony Pictures Classics
UNRECOGNIZABLE SAN FRANCISCO
The latest stand-out disappointment was Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine (2013). Though I enjoyed the film for its usual Allenesque neuroses, I did not recognize a single character as being local. Instead, they were all translated versions of New York types. This made for a jarring viewing experience. While Cate Blanchett's character was a Blanche DuBoisesque fish-out-of-water, I felt San Francisco was water-with-strange-fish. While the drama worked, the location's character was completely missed.
San Francisco is just too complex of a city for any non-local to capture. And few locally based filmmakers have made a significant enough body of work set in the City to flesh out a San Francisco aesthetic. Perhaps the day will come when this is no longer true. Until then, I'll continue to be on the look-out for the quintessential San Francisco film.