Thank you for your patience as I cavorted on the left coast for 11 days. I am now home in Brookline organizing my thoughts, notes, photographs and, of course, data.
This is the first in a series of posts based upon my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco, California. It outlines my experiences with the previous four NOIR CITY festivals.
Regular readers of this blog know that I regularly attend the annual NOIR CITY film festival in San Francisco, if only from this post in which I attempt to answer the deceptively simple question, “Why do I love film noir?”
NOIR CITY 16—24 movies (32 total screenings) over 10 days—was held at the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco from January 24 to February 4, 2018. As he introduced the world premiere of the Film Noir Foundation (FNF) restoration of The Man Who Cheated Himself on the evening of February 3, FNF Founder and President Eddie Muller said, “Even before I woke up this morning, I knew this was going to be the most successful NOIR CITY yet.” With two days remaining, NOIR CITY 16 had already set a record for total box office receipts from a combination of single ticket purchases ($6.25 each) and all-access Passports ($120); Passport holders are invited to attend opening and closing night parties on the Castro Theatre Mezzanine. I do not know how often the 1,400 seat venue was sold out during those 10 days, but it often looked that way (or close to it) from my vantage point in the audience.
This is the view from my preferred seat at the Castro: lower level, left-hand block of seats, five rows down on the aisle (and, at times, the seat to the left—three different San-Francisco-based friends attended at least one screening with me).
Here is the seat itself:
While I cannot “reserve” these seats in advance, I tend to arrive at the Castro up to two hours in advance of the first screening of the day (7:30 PM PST weekdays, 1:00 PM PST weekends) so I can slip in ahead of the crowds—Passports stuck into the right-hand brim of my snap brim gray fedora like a 1930s newspaperman—to plop my gray raincoat, souvenir program, refillable plastic water bottle and other accouterments across the two seats.
Yes, I wrote “Passports.”
There are two ways to acquire a NOIR CITY Passport: purchase them here or make a “Kingpin” donation to the FNF ($500 or more). Each year’s Kingpins are listed on the last page of the souvenir program (a distinct honor, even if my middle initial has been incorrect the last two years). The NOIR CITY 16 program listed 33 Kingpins, including the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and two couples listed on a single line.
The thing is, having gotten the complementary Kingpin swag once (Passport and program recognition plus quarterly e-magazine subscription, previous year’s NOIR CITY poster and souvenir program, latest NOIR CITY Annual and signed copy of Muller’s first novel [The Distance]), each time I renew my Kingpin status swag ante gets upped a bit. So, a few years ago, I started to receive a second Passport.
But to return to what Muller said on the Castro stage that warm Saturday night, this was easily the best NOIR CITY I have attended—eclipsing my first visit in 2014 (NOIR CITY 12), the year the theme was international films, when the novelty was exhilarating and a bit overwhelming.
Incidentally, this video is an excellent introduction to the festival, and it was produced during NOIR CITY 12. If you watch carefully at about 8 minutes and 22 seconds in, you will see a shot of me sitting in my seat, using the flashlight on my cellphone to read about the movie Une Si Jolie Petite Plage (Such a Pretty Little Beach aka Riptide) in my souvenir program.
Have you ever gone somewhere for the first time and thought to yourself “I’m home”? That was precisely how I felt early on the evening of January 24, 2014, when I walked up the stairs from the Castro BART stop (half-asleep following a red-eye flight from Boston plus an adult beverage or two paired with insufficient food), looked to the right across Castro Street and saw its marquee for the first time. Its large black removable plastic letters spelt out “NOIR CITY 12 / Journey Into Fear / The Third Man.” Standing in line to receive my first Passport, dressed in a black button-down shirt, black dress slacks and a brown sport coat, topped off by the fedora I had purchased in Philadelphia the previous May, I was already making friends (one couple in particular essentially “adopted” me).
I had experienced something similar on my first day as a freshman at Yale University, nearly 20 years earlier. And before that was the wicked cool group of inter-high-school friends I joined right before my sophomore year…but that is an entirely different set of posts.
To allow me to see clearly when I needed to be somewhere, and when I was free to spend time with Bay area friends, I had created a color-coded schedule in Excel (see below). It told me the festival lasted for 10 days (January 24-February 2; 27 films—20 of which I had never before seen), the Opening Night Reception for Passport holders was at 6 pm PST, the new NOIR CITY annual would be released at 6 pm PST the following night, the NOIR CITY bus tour (San Francisco film noir locations while watching the relevant scenes from such films as Vertigo, Sudden Fear, Woman on the Run, Dark Passage and The Lady From Shanghai) was Wednesday at noon PST, and there was a book signing on the second Saturday evening.
For example, here is the building used as Lauren Bacall’s apartment building in Dark Passage.
And I loved every minute of it (even if I did inadvertently urinate a little on my jeans just prior to embarking on the bus tour–I don’t THINK anyone noticed), both the festival itself and the time I spent exploring San Francisco with other friends and on my own.
Following the closing night party (and the futile attempt to end the NOIR CITY raffle, memorialized in the photograph below; Muller is standing on a wooden coffee table in the Mezzanine, while Ms. NOIR CITY 12, the ethereal Evie Lovelle, holds the clear glass bowl filled with raffle tickets), I stumbled, exhausted, into the lobby of the Prescott Hotel. It used to be the tradition that this was the “official” NOIR CITY hotel: FNF officers and out-of-town attendees would stay there at least part of the festival, meeting in the lobby for drinks and friendly banter after the last screening.
As I pushed through the lobby doors, Muller and another gentleman were standing there. Muller took one look at my bleary-eyed visage and said (something to the effect of), “Now that’s what we like to see here at NOIR CITY. Folks staggering home at the end of the night.” I then summed up my feelings about the festival by doing my best impression of David Tennant’s 10th Doctor, just before his regeneration:
Suffice to say that this is NOT a Whovian crowd, despite this NOIR CITY 16 attendee:
That excursion was supposed to be a one-time event, a treat I had given myself after Nell and I had come into a little bit of money (donation, round-trip plane fare, 11 nights at a downtown San Francisco hotel, meals, souvenirs and other expenses—it adds up quickly).
Later that year, however, I scheduled my doctoral defense (epidemiology; Boston University School of Public Health) for December, and it struck me that a brilliant way to celebrate would be to return to NOIR CITY in January 2015.
The theme for NOIR CITY 13 was marriage.
That initial excursion was so incomparably good that I tried too hard to make the sequel even better. First, I purchased a quasi-noir suit from Bobby From Boston.
I also brought along suspenders and bowties, planning to convert my newly-minted PhD into “Doctor Noir”: an ill-conceived hybrid of The 11th Doctor and a film noir caricature…
When I posted this photograph on Facebook (January 17, 2015), I wrote, “Still haven’t met anyone who recognizes my sonic screwdriver.”
Even with these preparations, however, I found myself oddly unenthused about the trip. In retrospect, I think I was trying too hard to recreate a past experience rather than simply enjoying the next version of it. Even as my cab pulled up in front of the Prescott Hotel, I was still talking myself into being excited.
Do not get me wrong: it was a solid trip. This time, I flew to San Francisco the day before the festival started, putting the “cushion” day at the beginning instead of the end. The two restorations unveiled that year—Woman on the Run and The Guilty—were revelations. Seeing Victor Sen Yung in the former film led me to chronicle on Facebook all of the actors and actresses from the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films who were showing up in the NOIR CITY 13 films. I found a great little laundromat a few short blocks from the Prescott. And I spent quality time with two great friends.
But my memory of that trip is marred by what happened when I arrived at San Francisco International Airport early on the morning of January 26, 2015.
It had started to snow in the Boston area on January 24, but Winter Storm Juno arrived with a vengeance early on the morning of the 26th, ultimately dumping 24.6 inches of snow on the Boston area in three days. Through March 15, 2015, 108.6 inches of snow fell, with 94.4 inches falling between January 24 and February 22.
Seriously, this is what our back yard looked like when I finally made it home.
I wrote “finally” because all I could see standing in the airport, bedraggled and barely awake, desperately ready to be home, was “CANCELLED” all over the Departures board. Nothing would take off or land in the northeastern United States for the next two days. I had been snowed into places before, but never snowed out.
Despite looming visions of being stuck at SFO indefinitely, I was able to get a room for two nights at a hotel in Burlingame, a short drive from the airport. And I was also able to spend a pleasant evening with a cousin-by-marriage at his club (only a few blocks from the Prescott Hotel, where I had just been staying…ironies abound). So, as endless as those two days felt, they could have been far worse.
After much to-ing and fro-ing, I returned to NOIR CITY in January 2016. The new “official” hotel was the literary-themed Hotel Rex, which aligned neatly with NOIR CITY 14’s “art and artists” theme; this is easily my favorite opening night montage created by the uber-talented Serena Bramble, who first came to the attention of the FNF through this kick-ass video she cobbled together for her own entertainment.
That trip started brilliantly with a small gathering of NOIR CITY insiders to hear Laura Ellis sing at the Hotel Nikko. Before Ms. Ellis’ performance announced that there would be two new satellite festivals that year, one in Detroit and one in…wait for it…Boston.
The first three days of the actual festival were equally terrific (including the first color films I had ever seen at NOIR CITY—the outside-the-noir-box “Photographers” opening night pairing of Rear Window and the underrated The Public Eye), and I was serenely making plans to see Bay area friends over the following week.
Monday morning, however, I awoke to an ominous text message from my wife. That was not in and itself unusual, as I always send Nell a “good night” text when I am traveling, to which she responds with a “good morning” text.
This particular text, though, opened with Nell at the doctor’s office with serious abdominal pains. After a few anxious hours, Nell learned that she needed immediate surgery to have her gall bladder removed (I believe the exact phrasing was “You are not leaving this hospital with your gall bladder.”). Many frustrating hours on the phone with Delta Airlines (or was it Hotels.com?) later, I found myself on a red-eye to Boston.
That was brutal, though Nell’s surgery was a great success and our upstairs neighbors took excellent care of our young daughters. And I made it my mission to find and watch all 13 films I had still never seen when I departed the festival (it took me nearly 18 months to finally track down a copy of the loopy Corridor of Mirrors).
Still, after two less-than-stellar endings to my journeys to NOIR CITY, I was leery of returning. I was still dithering about it early in the fall, when Nell shocked me with a stunningly thoughtful 50th birthday present: she had made my annual Kingpin donation for me, and I was returning to NOIR CITY in January.
The theme for my fourth visit was “heists.”
I have already written about how…off…NOIR CITY 15 felt. This may have been nothing more than recovering from bronchial pneumonia—a 10-day course of antibiotics really takes it out of you. Still, attendance was down, and the attendee mood was palpably subdued. As a whole, and despite opening with the noir classics Criss Cross and The Asphalt Jungle, the 24 films screened (11 released after 1965, 14 in color) were demonstrably less classically “noir” than those screened in previous NOIR CITY festivals. The festival opened on the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, leading Muller to declare to an unsettled crowd of progressive San Franciscans that the Castro would be a “sanctuary theatre,” only partly in jest. The Women’s Marches of January 21, 2017 severely cut into attendance on the first Saturday of the festival, which included the more “traditional” noir films Kansas City Confidential and Violent Saturday. Finally, it rained for much of the first half of the festival, literally dampening attendee spirits (and flooding a few basements).
To be fair, NOIR CITY 14 had also included a number of less “traditionally” noir films. Besides The Public Eye (a color film released in 1992, albeit set in 1940s New York City), these included the lushly-colored Love Me or Leave Me, the non-criminous Young Man with a Horn, 1965’s Mickey One (an entertaining existential oddity), and three films in color: The Red Shoes (whose centerpiece ballet sequence terrified our younger daughter, a ballet student at the time, when I showed it to her), Peeping Tom and 1966’s Blow-Up. Overall, six films were in color that year, including the opening and closing pairings.
But having missed seven days of that festival, I never got the sense that regular attendees had complained loudly about the “noir-ness” of the programming as they were rumored to have done with NOIR CITY 15.
All of which brings me to my recent attendance at NOIR CITY 16.
That I would attend was never really in doubt, especially once I had helped to arrange the first-ever NOIR CITY Boston (to be held at the Brattle Theatre; June 8-10, 2018). It was decided that I would manage the merchandise table, requiring me to be trained at NOIR CITY 16.
Consider my arm twisted.
To be continued…
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 A lavish full-color 250-plus-page compendium of the best articles from the previous calendar year editions of the quarterly e-magazine.
 I can only imagine the impression I made on Eddie Muller, as I attempted to introduce myself in that foggy state, mumbling even more incoherently than usual about how much I had enjoyed his DVD commentaries on such films noir as Crime Wave and Decoy.
 For various reasons, the Boston festival did not materialize that year, but it did spur me to work with Eddie and Daryl Sparks, FNF Promotional Director, to make NOIR CITY Boston a reality.