This is the eighth in a series of posts chronicling my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco. I base these posts on 102 pages of notes in my little black Moleskine notebook, 254 photographs and my memory (supplemented as necessary). In this post, I listen. A lot. You may read the first seven posts here, here, here, here, here, here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).
I passed another “wakeful restless” night before waking (again prior to my alarm) on the morning of Friday, February 2, 2018. In my notes I blame “too much caffeine and late night eating.”
Before rising, however, here are two details I neglected in previous posts.
First, while waiting for a J, K or L car on the Castro MUNI station platform Tuesday night, official NOIR CITY photographer Dennis Hearne took this brilliant photograph of me. It is the “inset” photograph on my Twitter home page (@drnoir33).
Second, our eldest daughter had baked cupcakes of which she was very proud, texting this photograph at 2:33 pm (all times PST) on Wednesday:
That Friday, I was meeting ES for lunch (12:30 pm, Super Duper Burger, 721 Market), so I opted against a sit-down breakfast. Clad in bright blue, I ambled east on Sutter.
I stopped for coffee at Posh Bagel. With time to spare, I sat on the small white stone wall in front of the e*Trade building, where Sutter ends at Market, to drink it and call my wife Nell.
Everyone felt better at home. Despite frigid temperatures, our youngest daughter had sailed off the previous evening with a family friend to “skate under the stars.” This same daughter had recently started Girl Scouts, so we discussed the incongruity—and persistence—of Girl Scouts selling cookies just beyond the concrete steps leading down to the Castro station.
A night or two earlier, a young man I befriended last year described one girl’s pitch:
“Only 11 boxes of Thin Mints left! Come and get ‘em! Only 11 boxes!”
Someone must have bought two boxes, because suddenly it was:
“Nine boxes! Come and get ‘em! Only nine boxes of Thin Mints left!”
Nell had her own tale. A short walk from our apartment is a park where she runs our three-year-old golden retriever—this sweet pathetic lump—most mornings.
That morning, she had seen a fox running up and down the steps at the park. Given the wild turkeys that roam our residential streets and alleys, we speculated if they and the foxes would form rival gangs.
ES appeared in front of Super Duper Burger shortly after me, at 12:25 pm. While waiting I had been spellbound by a large 40-something white man standing on the sidewalk playing Michael Jackson songs (“Beat It” among them) on his electric guitar to pre-recorded instrumental backing.
My single patty burger, medium, with “everything” plus cheddar, washed down with a strawberry shake, was immensely satisfying. As we ate, I observed that many San Franciscans—at least near the Hotel Rex—wore black (not inappropriate for a film noir festival). ES (who himself sported a light black coat) ascribed it to a “too cool for school” attitude among San Franciscans. I accepted that, but noted that I had worn bright blue for the contrast.
After lunch, we meandered toward his downtown meeting. Heading southeast on 3rd, we turned left onto Minna, passing The Pink Elephant Alibi. I sent our eldest daughter—who loves elephants—this photograph (alas, it was not purple, her favorite color).
Two more blocks northwest on Minna, we stopped to marvel at the outer shell of the Transbay Transit Center.
Passing the Millennium Tower, ES noted that it was what “what innovation looked like in the 90s,” but now seems passé—and troubled.
“Everything has a half-life,” I mused.
As I walked back to the Rex after parting from ES, the San Francisco Chronicle building caught my eye.
An hour later (2:37 pm), I pulled out my Discover Card in Chinatown’s Sophia’s Choice Gift Shop to purchase this elephant figurine for our eldest daughter—and realized that I had left my debit card in an ATM near the Castro Theatre the night before.
My bank representative was friendly and efficient, however, and the lost card proved only a minor inconvenience.
For the record, this is the stuffed panda I had purchased on Tuesday for our youngest daughter.
Walking to the Powell MUNI station each day, I hear:
- metallic clattering of giant cable-car cables gliding under Powell
- music in the open space before I walk down to the station (g., vigorous rhythms beaten on real AND plastic drums, electronic music booming from stereo speakers as people dance)
- buskers playing just inside the station (saxophone usually, though I had a long conversation with a young female violinist one night in 2015)
Besides the gentleman reimagining Thriller on Market, there was the guitar and bass combo playing in front of Twin Peaks one night. And that time the Green Street Marching Band passed in front of the six men playing traditional Chinese music at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus.
Every night in Lori’s Diner, I was regaled by a selection of late 50s, 60s and early 70s pop songs (I now appreciate the vocal harmonies of Spanky & Our Gang), while anything could pour from the speakers outside Castro Coffee Company (Nirvana? hypnotic German synthpop?). I delighted in hearing Talking Heads playing in Orphan Andy’s. However, none of these can top the young woman singing outher apartment window on California.
David Hegarty’s majestic organ is the ambient backdrop to patrons gathering in the Castro auditorium, a joyful counterpoint to the rumbling din of conversations on the Mezzanine. You can feel the swell of excitement as Hegarty launches into “San Francisco.”
Finally, there is the disembodied female MUNI announcer: “Approaching. Outbound. One car. J. J. Approaching in two minutes.”
This is the soundscape of NOIR CITY.
That night was the last I wore a tie:
My slightly-askew bow tie was no match for Ken Duffy’s, who bowed out of a second attempt to play Name That Noir due to laryngitis (NOIR CITY unfortunately overlaps with “the crud” season).
Clearly our daughters were accustomed to my being away: during out “good night” call (around 5:30 pm), they were far more interested in Hunter Street than their Daddy.
This was a rare evening no friend joined me, so I had time to enjoy a delicious bowl of minestrone (with buttery rye toast) at Orphan Andy’s. (Later that evening, an older patron named Ruby—husband of jazz pianist Dave—would ask me, “Where is your girl of the day?”)
Mingling on the Mezzanine, I heard Annabelle Zakaluk, Ms. NOIR CITY 2018, reveal it took two hours just to “tease the under layer” of her beautifully-sculpted red hair—which needed to last two days.
A short time later, in front of the Castro, I heard the story behind Showrunner Manessah Wagner’s exotic first name; suffice to say it involves 1984 and the Biblical story of Joseph.
As for the films…I am not a Loretta Young fan (her saccharine portrayals put me off), so The Accused did little for me, despite a solid plot (woman kills a rapist—one of her psychology students—in self-defense then struggles to conceal the act). Perhaps tellingly, it was better received by the women I spoke to than the men.
The Threat, with gravel-voiced tough guy Charles McGraw, was more interesting, but still not one of my favorite NOIR CITY 16 films.
Afterward, I joined Melissa (impeccably-dressed young woman I met on the Castro station platform Monday night) and another woman—a local actress—for drinks at Twin Peaks.
At first there were no free tables, so we joined three older men—one of whom engaged me in an intense discussion about the Philadelphia Eagles’ chances in the upcoming Super Bowl.
When a table opened, we took it, and proceeded to have one of those awkward conversations between friendly strangers in a noisy place.
I sought out a rest room at one point. The one downstairs had no lock. As I gently pushed the door open, I saw two young women helping a young man with his head perched in readiness over the porcelain toilet bowl.
“Oh. Excuse me.”
Walking up the short flight of stairs to the narrow overhanging interior balcony, I appreciated the large plastic bowl of condoms on its ledge, having worked as a data analyst for a Philadelphia-based family-planning non-profit for four years.
After our drinks, we were hungry, so we walked across Castro for slices at Marcello’s. Our new friend then needed to find some other friend, somewhere or other, so she departed.
Melissa kindly gave me a lift to the Rex. However, not knowing that area of San Francisco well, we could not discern where to turn left from Market (in retrospect: Van Ness). Thinking we would have better luck on Mission, we turned right on 3rd. No dice. Eventually, we made an illegal left turn into an alley behind a hotel; turning around, we were able to make the two rights to return to Market. However, we had gone too far, and we needed to double back then head towards Chinatown to finally reach Sutter.
Having just had pizza, I only had a mug of black decaf at a quiet Lori’s.
I woke at 9:42 am on Saturday, February 3, 2018. By 10:27, dressed in a brown sport coat, red-and-green plaid shirt, light beige khakis and dark red argyles, I was walking down Powell.
I repeated the previous Saturday’s breakfast (almond muffin, banana, 16 oz medium roast coffee, orange juice).
After that I chatted with Executive Showrunner Richard Hildreth (who had twice received cheers and applause for his graceful removal of a microphone stand, amplifier and stool from the stage) about his journey from Connecticut to the Castro. I learned how the Castro let go Anita Monga, “one of the best film programmers in the country,” and tried to program on its own; that did not end well.
The afternoon program of Southside 1-1000 and The Underworld Story was a knockout. As with The Unsuspected and I Walk Alone, I had recently seen Underworld (the “A” film of the pair; I forget why Eddie Muller reversed them) on Amazon streaming at home, but it was even better at the Castro.
And Southside, a taut B-movie thriller starring the underrated Don DeFore, instantly became my favorite of the 14 films I saw for the first time—though that could simply be watching it with my first bag of hot-buttered popcorn of the festival.
Following Southside, I helped a woman from Boston who had sat behind me find her sunglasses. As I crawled around on the floor, someone said to me,
“You’ve done this before.”
[That someone may have worn a “yellow fleece/ brown horn rimmed glasses”—or this refers to a patron who calls me “Boston” who passed by at that point.]
Following a tuna salad with provolone on whole wheat with everything but mustard from Rossi’s Deli, I walked down Castro to Dog-Eared Books for last-minute souvenir shopping; I bought a beautifully-illustrated book of “in their own words” stories of San Francisco for Nell. Walking back, I photographed this tribute to a literary hero, one of many on the Castro “walk of fame.”
Returning to the Mezzanine, photographer Fred Lyon graciously autographed a copy of his stunning new book, San Francisco Noir, to our daughters. The spry 93-year-old then told me he was jealous of my snap-brim gray fedora.
“I bought it in a store on South Street in Philadelphia,” I said, as though that explained everything.
At 6:15 pm, I joined Ken and Emily Duffy at Osaka Sushi, where I renewed my love affair with sake (plus crispy tempura calamari, a satisfying miso soup and delectable crab roll). Despite how overwhelmed our young waiter was, we made decent time. FF arrived toward the end, provocatively attired in black, opting for a slice of cheese pizza from Marcello’s to save time.
As we sat in the pizza joint, FF looked at me and said, “You look tired. You look really tired.”
I was not the only one who was excited: the Castro was packed.
Still, there was a delay before Muller appeared on stage to introduce Cheated. (My notes: STARTING REALLY LATE). “Where’s Eddie?” somebody asked.
Appearing at last, he proudly announced that he knew even before he woke up that morning this would be the most successful NOIR CITY ever.
Cue thunderous cheers and applause.
Seguing into the film introduction, Muller talked at length about supporting actress Lisa Howard. Married for a time to Cheated director Felix Feist (20 years her senior), she became a highly influential journalist in the early 1960s before overdosing on barbiturates in 1965, at the age of 35, following a miscarriage.
THAT is a noir story.
Quoting from the home page of the Film Noir Foundation (FNF):
It is our mission to find and preserve films in danger of being lost or irreparably damaged, and to ensure that high quality prints of these classic films remain in circulation for theatrical exhibition to future generations.
Three films screened that Saturday (Southside, Underworld, Roadblock) were among the 15 for which the FNF has funded a new 35mm print.
The fourth film—The Man Who Cheated Himself—was the 10th restoration performed by the FNF since 2005. In earlier NOIR CITY festivals, I had seen the gorgeous restorations of Too Late For Tears (2014), Woman on the Run and The Guilty (2015), and Los Tallos Amargos (The Bitter Stems; 2016).
The restored Cheated did not disappoint. As with other films, I had previously enjoyed it on Amazon streaming, but this print was a revelation, with a better story than I had remembered (cop’s married mistress kills her husband, leading said cop to investigate the murder alongside his eager-beaver younger brother—who marries Lisa Howard’s character). Seriously, who casts squeaky-clean Jane Wyatt as a femme fatale?
The final eight-plus-minute, dialogue-free sequence at Fort Point is even more breathtaking on the big screen.
Between screenings, after bidding FF good night, I chatted with Melissa on the Mezzanine. She apparently had thought my name was “Ben,” going so far as to ascribe me that name on her Instagram page.
Having sorted that out, I met another strikingly-dressed young film enthusiast (and former Capitol Hill intern—intriguing this former political science doctoral student) named Isabella.
[Ed. Note: Isabella had won the first Name That Noir eight evenings earlier, correctly naming Laura.]
My notes indicate that we joked heartily (something about setting fires—“that’s why I have my water bottle” and “sneezing money”), but my memories fade, and my notes stare blankly back at me. While schmoozing, we each received a card for a half-priced drink at Stookey’s Club Moderne.
“We should go!” one of us announced. I then observed it would have to be that night or the following night, as I was flying out Monday morning.
Hold that thought.
As I noted above, I thoroughly enjoyed the Charles McGraw vehicle Roadblock.
Film noir lacks a clear universal definition. One element I would propose is the conscious decision that sends an otherwise-“innocent” person down an inexorable path of destruction. The foolish choices made by McGraw’s character in Roadblock are archetypal.
After the film (22 down, 2 to go!), I started to exit with Ken and Emily Duffy, planning to ride MUNI for exercise (sleepiness over socializing). Near a street door, though, I joined a conversation with NOIR CITY volunteer Rachel Barnett. Something about Ida Lupino was the lure.
During this conversation—Barnett knew me as the “guy from Boston” who had won Monday’s Name That Noir—I learned that I had rolled my eyes on stage. I thought I had simply nodded my head upon realizing the film being queried.
I also learned I had a “signature move” upon entering the Passport-holders door.
There was more, but I need to keep some things private (plus, my notes are not ringing the correct bells).
Walking up from Powell station, I was clearly feeling “artistic” with my iPhone camera:
I veered slightly out of my way to pass Stookey’s. As I did so, I heard a voice calling after me. It was Hearne, a real photographer. We chatted briefly on the sidewalk before I walked the final two blocks to the Rex.
Once there, I took a cold shower—those are long sweaty days in dress clothes—then walked the half-block east on Sutter to Lori’s.
Ordering nachos with vegetarian chili, I made notes in my little black Moleskine notebook and watched the goings-on around me.
A “very disoriented” bearded young white man entered. After shuffling around a bit, he asked my favorite waitress how much one of the muffins on display near the register was. Rather than haggle with him, she simply gave him one.
SIMPLE ACT OF HUMANITY, I wrote.
I wrote in previous posts about the parade of humanity—mostly women—who make the long walk from the door to the restrooms and out again without pause or permission.
What I especially noticed that visit was how young they were. There was the thin white girl in a green skirt (“not look like Sat nite reveler”) and too-shiny rouge. There was the woman in yellow shirt and gray pants. There were others—not many, but enough.
I even wrote, “Begin to think every young woman alone using rest room is sex worker.” Or, at least, those who do not stop to ask, as women simply out for the evening might. Rather, the sex workers have an unspoken agreement with places like Lori’s: do what you need to do, no questions asked.
This is the urban nocturnal ecosystem. The women walk the streets, hiding when the police arrive—but they know that Lori’s is a haven. The panhandlers sometimes come inside, but they are moved out with firm politeness and the occasional muffin or slice of bacon from an abandoned plate. Night owls like me pass the time in quiet conversation—participant observers, to use an old political science term.
To be continued…
 This was not unusual in and of itself; the unofficial “uniform” of Philadelphia (especially the Main Line suburbs where I was raised) used to be black over blue jeans, a variation on New York City’s black-on-black.
 Which accounts for why only 323 (6.7%) of the 4,825 titles in my film noir database appear on even half of the 32 “official” published lists I have compiled.
 “I walk in, point to my hat, then spin around to face the street. Kind of like a Passport pirouette, I guess. I think I am simply confirming the gatekeeper saw my Passports, but who am I to argue with a little flair.”