San Francisco

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 October, 2010, 12:00am

For many, the ease of availability of movies today is a godsend: downloaded new releases that can be watched on a PC or iPod, or streamed directly onto television. But for a clutch of movie buffs in San Francisco, the increasingly isolated nature of movie-watching, as well as the anonymity of big-city multiplexes, was impetus enough to put together a book on the fading glory of old movie houses.

Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres, which was published last month, is one of those literary endeavours that is far less niche than most people might think. It is for anyone who mourns the loss of a simpler, more connected way of life, who harbours fond memories of gathering with friends and families in a high-ceilinged theatre with deep red curtains, the crunch of popcorn replacing the incessant ring of mobile phones.

'In our technological development, with people turning towards personal entertainment technology, there is the loss of beautiful architectural buildings, but also a concern over the loss of communal cultural experiences,' says Julie Lindow, the San Francisco-based editor of the book, her collaboration with photojournalist R.A. McBride and several contributors.

When she was younger, Lindow worked at the Castro Theatre, which, built in 1922, is one of the city's most historic theatres. It retains its old world charm, and is still showing decades-old movies. Lindow's work experience at the Castro instilled in her a love for old theatres and connected her with people with similar tastes and interests.

'I realised that I knew all these amazing people who are perfectly poised to write about these histories that are in danger of slipping away,' she says. 'I saw a great need to capture the stories of the theatres, in particular to examine the movie houses and the roles they played within the culture of the city.'

The 168-page book, which contains 59 lush colour photographs, is essentially a series of essays penned by contributors - a mix of academics, film festival directors and culture critics, people who have an affinity with the art of film, and of film-watching.

One of the contributors, Yang Chi-hui, was until recently the director of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, the largest showcase of Asian and Asian American cinema in the US. (The city is noted for its love of festivals, hosting more than 50 across the Bay area every year.)

Yang delved into a discovery dating back more than a decade, when the Hong Kong-raised but now Beijing-based filmmaker and exhibitor Lambert Yam, who then ran the Great Star Theatre in San Francisco's Chinatown, discovered a cache of Chinese American films from the 1930s and 40s in a dumpster. 'This was the starting point for a rediscovery of a great history of film production and exhibition in San Francisco Chinatown,' says Yang. 'Most of the films which were found were eventually donated to the Hong Kong Film Archive.' Yang's essay focuses on Chinatown theatres.

Yang says said he was drawn to the project because of his interest in 'the changing way in which we interact with urban space... how our built environment shapes who we are. Theatres are gathering points and places which can allow diverse individuals to meet and share ideas.'

Given the visual nature of the book, capturing the right look was essential. McBride, who also once worked in the ticket booth of a Chicago theatre, came from the perspective of being connected to cultures 'beyond my backyard and to possibilities I had not yet known'.

'The experience of watching movies with a room filled with strangers is like nothing else,' says the photographer. 'The energy in a movie theatre undeniably affects the experience. It can be magical.'

That sensibility was translated via her photography, highlighting both the grandeur of the theatres as well as the nooks and crannies. 'Behind the ticket booth, the projection room, even the bathrooms - I think they have a cinematic quality, almost as if a character is about to walk through the frame,' she says.

Lindow says there is much stock to be placed in returning to a more personal and intimate space. At one San Francisco theatre, the Balboa, the manager plays the role of a host, greeting people, giving an introduction to the film, offering a list of restaurants in the area.

'Even though they don't have the latest technological projection system, all these personal touches make it valuable,' she says. 'For those who read the book, I want them to be inspired to seek out communal cinematic experiences, and maybe even create some of their own by putting up a digital projector in a neighbourhood park. I was surprised that I ended up being so hopeful about the future.'


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