Why I chose…Naked City and More Than Night

My matriculation at Yale must have been even more formative than I realized because I have referenced my time there in four consecutive posts—five counting this one.

One reason my college years have been so front-of-mind is that my 30-year reunion was held this past weekend (May 24-27, 2018). I put off deciding whether to go until last Wednesday night (May 23), when I looked at reunion website and realized that it was feasible (if not inexpensive) to attend only one day; New Haven, CT is a relatively easy two-and-a-half hour drive southwest from our home. Our youngest daughter was over the moon at the prospect of joining me, while our older daughter was more ambivalent.

On Thursday, we decided that both girls would skip school on Friday and accompany me.

This proved an excellent decision as, despite the heat and swarms of mosquitos (youngest daughter woke up Saturday morning, looked at her legs and thought she had chicken pox), all three of us had a great time. Both girls quickly made friends with other attendees’ children, while I joyfully caught up with friends I may “talk to” on Facebook, but have not actually seen in 30 years.

Another reason my college years are on my mind is how crucial, I am realizing, they were to my long-time love of film noir, my impetus for writing this book.

One element of this influence was that when I attended Yale in the mid-1980s, there were six film societies showing a total of something like two dozen films every Thursday to Sunday. Naturally, I watched a lot of old movies (particularly ones directed by Alfred Hitchcock) during my four years there.

One film society was housed in my residential college, Ezra Stiles. I still have the wall poster from the first semester of my freshman year (Fall 1984).

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This poster has been living in a battered filing cabinet for years. When I pulled it out for book research four or five months ago, the first thing I noticed was the black-and-white photograph of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, presumably a publicity still from The Big Sleep.

Examining the poster more closely, I saw this written under the October 4 entry for Ruthless:

“The ESFS kicks off its 1984 Film Noir Festival with this lurid saga of a total sleazeball and his ugly struggle to doublecross all of his associates and climb to the top of the dung heap we call life. Bring a date.” (italics added)

Unless I had seen them in the context of films I had previously watched on HBO (e.g., The Postman Always Rings Twice [bad 1981 remake], Body Heat), that could easily have been the first time I ever read the words “film noir.”

I did not actually see Ruthless in October 1984, so I found a copy somewhere on-line and watched it in January 2018. It was mildly entertaining, with the best scenes being part of a flashback to the three main characters as children. A nearly unrecognizable Raymond Burr portrayed the main character’s father: a well-meaning gambling ne’er-do-well alienated from the main character’s imperious mother; Burr’s character reminded me more than a little of my late father.

The two-film “festival” concluded on October 6 with The Big Sleep.

I noted another way Yale impacted my love of film noir in this post, in which I began to explain why I chose the titles I did for the seven-day Facebook book challenge (seven covers over seven days, no explanations), describing two detective fiction courses I took there.

One course was a “residential college seminar” (housed in Branford, the central locus for the Class of 1988 this past weekend); the other course, which I took my senior year, was taught within the American Studies department.

Besides the terrific works of fiction, Professor Lowry had us read and discuss two decades-old volumes of black-and-white photographs. More than 30 years later, why we read these works is fuzzy, though I think it had something to do with the movement toward “realism” in the hard-boiled fiction of writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. In many ways, both books are effectively Fodor’s guides to the places (be they in Paris, London, Los Angeles or any other large city) where most of the action in hard-boiled or police procedural fiction takes place.

Pulling out my copy of the first volume—Brassaï’s The Secret Paris of the 30s—I see that it has far more text than I had remembered, making this masterful photographer’s book an illustrated memoir (mem-noir?) of night-time Paris between 1931 and 1934. A sampling of chapter titles tells the story: Lovers, A Night with the Cesspool Cleaners, Ladies of the Evening, In the Wings at the Folies-Bergere, Sodom and Gomorrah, An Opium Den.

As brilliant as Secret Paris was, though, it did not change my life the way this book did:

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Arthur (born “Usher”) Fellig, born in what is now Ukraine in June 1899, emigrated to New York City in 1910. In 1923, he landed his first job as a photographer; 12 years later he became a full-time freelance photographer, selling his dramatic shots of murders, fires…and even teenaged “BobbySoxers” screaming at a Frank Sinatra concert to that city’s tabloid newspapers.

Between 1935 and 1945, Fellig would prowl New York City at night in his sedan, which was equipped with police scanner and portable darkroom (in the capacious trunk), allowing him to take and develop his photographs faster than his competitors. His uncanny ability to anticipate a worthy photographic subject is likely what earned him the name “Weegee,” a variant on the Ouija board used to communicate with…the dead, or something.

In 1945, after years spent collating selected photographs, Naked City was published by Essential Books. Weegee suggests the reason for the title in a two-page introductory chapter called “A Book Is Born”:

“For the pictures in this book I was on the scene; sometimes drawn there by some power I can’t explain, and I caught the New Yorkers with their masks off…not afraid to Laugh, Cry, or make Love. What I felt I photographed, laughing and crying with them. […] The people in these photographs are real. Some from the East Side and Harlem tenements, others are from Park Avenue. In most cases, they weren’t even aware they were being photographed and cared less. People like to be photographed and will always ask ‘What paper are you from, mister, and what day will they appear,’ the jitterbugs and the Sinatra bobby-sock fans even want to know on what page it will appear. To me a photograph is a page from life, and that being the case, it must be real.”[1]

The 1992 film The Public Eye, starring Joe Pesci as The Great Bernzini, is an underrated, albeit highly fictionalized, account of Weegee’s career that faithfully captures his modus operandi.

Still, as compelling as the photographs’ subject matter was, it was their look that riveted me. Working at night with an infrared camera and flash powder, Weegee’s photographs are textbook examples of high-contrast, almost washed-out, chiaroscuro—intensely bright white in a sea of black.

To many film noir aficianados, including me, this look is what makes film noir; it is no coincidence that Naked City was quickly turned into this iconic 1948 film noir. In fact, I could easily define film noir as “black-and-white films whose characters are anything but.” And while valid arguments can be made for the primacy of thematic (world-weary cynicism, fatalism, moral ambiguity, obsession), character (wise-cracking detectives, femmes fatales, ordinary people buffeted by fate and/or who make poor choices) or plot (crime, pursuit) elements, there is no getting around film being a visual medium, one that did not even require sound for nearly four decades. This is why I zero in on cinematography as central to the definition.

Indeed, another (only partly facetious) definition of film noir is a “Cornell Woolrich story, directed by Robert Siodmak for RKO, and filmed by John Alton to look like a Weegee photograph.”

As to why this look—impossibly-dark blacks punctuated by improbably-light whites—so appeals to me, I say, “I have no idea.”

There is, of course, the sense that black-and-white is artistically sophisticated, with the added advantage of being “classic.” A more prosaic explanation is that it is less garish and distracting, and allows you more easily to focus on the subject matter. Finally, there is the fact that my 20-10 vision for most of my life (that accuresed doctoral thesis) conditioned me to prefer more basic color schemes, which created less visual overlaid.

Any (or none) of these explanations may be true, and it would still be beside the point—which is that after reading Naked City, I never looked at the world in the same way again.

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I have already written (and contine to write) thousands of words about my love of film noir, so I will only briefly discuss Naremore’s seminal analysis.

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There are many terrific introductions to film noir, from comprehensive almanacs (Ballinger’s and Graydon’s Rough Guide, Hogan’s Film Noir FAQ) to encyclopedic treaments (Grant, Silver et al., Mayer and McDonnell, Keaney, Selby, Spicer, Lyons) to informal, thematically-grouped overviews (Mueller’s Dark City, Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen) to quasi-academic yet highly-readable analyses (Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night, Dimendberg’s Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, Osteen’s Nightmare Alley) to, finally, the Film Noir Reader series.

But Naremore, to me, does the best job of weaving these strands together while also casting a wide thematic net (international films, neo-noir, technology, censorship, inter alia). In fact, of the 373 films discussed as “noir,”more than half (53.6%) were released outside the “classic” period of 1940-59,[2] nearly half (45.8%) were made entirely in color, and 19.0% were primarily produced outside the United States. Overall, Naremore combines the rigor of an academic with the passion of a fan, producing an introduction to film noir that is both erudite and readable.

Honorable mentions:

New York Noir: Crime Photos From the Daily News Archive by William Hannigan

Weegee was not the only tabloid photographer working her/his magic in nocturnal New York, as this well-annotated and gritty collection reveals, though, I actually sought out this book (i.e., asked for it as a birthday gift) a few years back because it included one particular photograph. On January 12, 1928, Ruth Snyder was electrocuted in Sing Sing Prison (along with her lover Judd Grey) for the murder of her husband Albert, making her the first woman to be electrocuted there since 1899; James M. Cain would fictionalize the story in his 1935 novella Double Indemnity. An enterprising Chicago Tribune reporter named Tom Howard, covering the execution in cooperation with the New York Daily News, strapped a small camera to his left ankle, with a hand-held toggle attached to a wire running down his pant leg. As the switch was thrown on Snyder, Howard was able to snap a photograph, the first ever of an electrocution; this, along with its infamous one word banner headline (“DEAD!”), was what I sought.

A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953 by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton

The term “film noir” most likely orginated with French film critics in the late 1930s, in the context of reviewing “poetic realist” films like La Jour Se Leve (Daybreak) and Pepe Le Moko. However, it was first used in its more familiar context in July 1946, when Parisian film critics Nino Frank and Jean-Paul Chartier (who, thanks to World War II, had not seen any American films since 1941) each wrote an article discussing a new wave of dark American crime films; they were actually piggybacking on  a 1945 New York Times analysis by Lloyd Shearer[3]. But the first truly comprehesive discussion of these films came in 1955, when two French film critics wrote Panorama du Film Noir Americain, 1941-1953. They depicted interlinking cycles of films with a common style, though in their “Chronological index of the main series” they only list 21 as “Film noirs,”with another 58 titles listed as either “Criminal psychology,” “Crime films in period costume,” “Gangsters,” “Police Documentaries” and “Social tendencies.[4]” But while their nomenclature is remarkably confusing, their analysis is incisive and, for many critics, conclusive. As Naremore, who wrote the Introduction to the 2002 City Lights Books edition of Paul Hammond’s English translation, noted in Contexts, “The best way to define film noir, Peter Wollen once remarked to me, is to say that it’s any film listed in…Panorama.”[5] I do not agree with that definition, but Panorama is still the place to start.

To be continued…

[1] Weegee. 1945. Naked City (unabridged republication of original Essential Books edition). New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc., pp. 11-12.

[2] Overall, 2.9% were released between 1931 and 1939, 46.4% between 1940 and 1959, 5.1% between 1960 and 1966, and 45.6% between 1967 and 2006.

[3] All three seminal articles may be found in Silver, Alain and Ursini, James eds. 2003. Film Noir Reader 2. New York, NY: Limelight Editions.

[4] Borde, Raymond and Chaumeton, Etienne. 2002. A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books. Translated from the French by Paul Hammond. pp. 161-63. Overall, Borde and Chaumeton discuss 255 films as “noir.”

[5] Naremore, James. 2008. More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts [Updated and Expanded Edition]. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. pg. 283.

The Smithereens: Film Noir where you least expect it

I have previously described how I manipulate mix tape/CD/iTunes playlist data to generate lists of favorite tracks (a term I prefer to “songs”), albums and artists, organized by year, musical “genre,” etc.

Being a meticulous (obsessive, even) organizer of data, no sooner had I started using my current version of iTunes in January 2013 (when my track play counts start) then I embarked on a massive data cleaning project: guaranteeing every track (n=9,552 as of March 6, 2018) had the correct title and artist name; release mode[1], track number, year and cover art; and musical classification (first-listed “Genre” on its Wikipedia page or “Style” on its AllMusic page).

I completed this project (New Order’s 24 tracks were last to be scrubbed) within a year. Since then, every newly-acquired track has undergone the same treatment.

Periodically, however, iTunes reverts all of an artist’s tracks (e.g., Blondie, n=31) to their original information, requiring me to re-clean them.

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A short drive from our Brookline home is the terrific independent bookstore Newtonville Books.

A small windowless room in the rear of the store houses books (“chapter books” our daughters call them) for tweens and young adults. Hanging on the wall of this room are two wall charts depicting a statistical overview of the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox seasons (they won their first World Series in 86 years in 2004, repeating the feat just three years later). Each chart’s X-axis is day of the season, while its Y-axis features a range of values (player batting averages, pitcher earned run averages, win total, inter alia). The visual effect is stunning.

Inspired by these innovative visuals, I decided to attempt something similar with my iTunes data.

Specifically, I wanted to create a chart using Excel that has year on the X-axis, with artist (≥20 tracks AND ≥100 total plays [76 of 1,311 artists[2]], ≥10 tracks if first release before 1950) and genre (all other tracks) on the Y-axis. Cells would contain the number of tracks released by that artist/in that genre in a given year, with a black border around each value ≥10; the font-size would increase from Palatino Linotype 12 in increments of 10. Artists/genres would be sorted, in ascending order, by year of first release. Color-coded cells on the far left-hand side would contain artist/genre name (e.g., “Progressive Rock” shaded “Aqua, Accent 5, Darker 25%,” writing “White, Background 1, Darker 25%); font size would also increase with track total.

I began this project in May 2014, abandoning it the next month. Recently, though, I worked out a faster way to generate the necessary cell entries using the statistical software program SPSS.

Once I finish the chart (watch this space!) I originally envisioned, I will construct a second chart using total plays, a strongly-related (correlation = +0.81), more valid representation of artist/genre fondness.

Building this SPSS dataset six days ago, I observed two questionable data points.

First, the incorrect year was assigned to Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu.”[3]

Two, I questioned the genre assignment “Rock/Metal” for The Smithereens’ song “Miles From Nowhere.”

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While I first heard The Smithereens listening incessantly to the now-defunct Boston alternative rock station WFNX (101.7 FM) between 1991 and 1996, they did not truly register in my musical consciousness until I bought Sedated in the 80s, No. 3 in the late spring of 1997.

Track 3, the hypnotic “Blood and Roses,” so caught my ear that in July 1997 it became the first Smithereens track to appear on one of my artfully-constructed mixes. By September, I had succumbed[4] by purchasing the 16-trackbest-of CD Blown to Smithereens: Best of the Smithereens—which deserves its status as an AllMusic “Album Pick.” Three more Smithereens tracks debuted on a mix that same month.

But that was that…until 2004, when I began to watch The Alternative.

One Sunday night, members of the Smithereens—likely lead singer Pat DiNizio, drummer Dennis Diken and guitarist Jim Babjak—were the in-studio guests of host Eddie Trunk to promote their just-released box set From Jersey It Came! The Smithereens Anthology.

Trunk and his guests kibitzed between videos, including five or six for Smithereens songs. After watching this episode, I dusted off my Blown to Smithereens CD, and I have not really put it back since.

In the spring of 2009, I acquired a free vinyl copy[5] of their excellent 1988 Green Thoughts. The soul-searing “Especially For You,” the last track on side one, is one of only 27 tracks to have 50 or more plays.

All told, 16 Smithereens songs would earn a spot on a mix between 1997 and 2013.

Color me a fan, even if I did miss an opportunity to see them live in 2013 or 2014, a choice I now regret.

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The Wikipedia page for 1994’s A Date With the Smithereens—the album on which “Miles From Nowhere” first appeared—does, in fact, list “Rock/Metal” as its genre. However, on the page for the song itself, the listed genres are “Power Pop” and “Alternative Rock.”

I opted for “Power Pop” and immediately updated my iTunes data.

The story would have ended there, except—as will happen with Wikipedia—I started clicking around other pages.

One page was for the band itself. Toward the end of the too-brief history of the band was this sentence:

“Lead singer Pat DiNizio died on December 12, 2017.”

The footnote for this sentence linked to this poignant New York Times obituary.

What the bleepity-frick?!? How had I missed this?

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In five trips to NOIR CITY, only in 2016 did I need to leave early.

The very next film I would have seen that late-January Monday was the 1950 Nicholas-Ray-directed masterpiece In a Lonely Place (followed by The Two Mrs. Carrolls—it was “Humphrey Bogart: Artist” night).

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In a key moment, Bogart’s Dixon Steele recites to Gloria Grahame’s apprehensive Laurel Gray some doggerel he wants to include in the screenplay he is writing:

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

One of the first Smithereens tracks I played after learning that the charismatic DiNizio had died was a haunting number (featuring back-up vocals from an up-and-coming singer-songwriter named Suzanne Vega) from their masterful 1986 full-length debut Especially For You.

The song’s name?

In a Lonely Place.”

I had known the song since 1997, so it was a definite “ohhh—that’s where that came from” moment when I first saw the film—and that scene, specifically—about five years later.

Did I mention the song’s refrain is:

I was born the day I met you/

Lived awhile when you loved me/

Died a little when we broke apart.

Twice in the song, the next lyrics are:

Yesterday, it would have mattered/

Now today it doesn’t mean a thing/

All my hopes and dreams are shattered now.

These lines strongly echo dialogue from the film’s climactic scene.

As if to hammer home the point, the video for “Lonely Place”—featuring a beatnik DiNizio and a pixie-like Vega—is photographed in moody black and white, making it, visually at least, a kind of contemporary Greenwich village noir (photograph from here).

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Other, more oblique film noir allusions may be found in the Smithereens’ catalog.

The high-intensity rocker “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” also from Especially For You, includes this pithy encapsulation of the lures of a femme fatale:

She was tall and cool and pretty/

And she dressed as black as coal/

If she asked me to, I’d murder/

I would gladly lose my soul.

Two years later, Green Thoughts would feature the melancholy “Deep Black” (could there be a more noir title?) and the shimmering “Spellbound,” which could easily be a reference to the 1945 film noir directed by Alfred-Hitchcock.

Finally, there is “Top of the Pops” from 1991’s Blow Up which includes the lyrics:

Two-time, two ton hangover king/

The bride wore black/

We were ready to swing.

I cannot hear that lyric without thinking of The Bride Wore Black, the 1946 noir novel written by psychological suspense maven Cornell Woolrich and filmed by Francois Truffaut as La Marieé Etait en Noir in 1968.

The video for “Top of the Pops,” in which the band appears in various Atlantic City locales, has some distinctly noir flourishes, particularly the black-and-white 1940s sequence in which a bathing beauty poses for members of the press nattily attired in trench coats and fedoras.

I freely admit that, beyond the pointed homage to In a Lonely Place, I may simply be imposing my own noir sensibilities onto The Smithereens.

Or there may be even more noir allusions I have missed—yet one more reason to keep playing their music.

Rest in peace, Mr. DiNizio.

Until next time…

[1] Almost always a full-length album or extended play (33 rpm), though it could also be a single (45 rpm) or even simply when the song was written or recorded (as with older classical pieces, or jazz and blues sides).

[2] This is using the exact artist credited to a track. Eventually, I will collapse these artists into meta-artists. For example, “Bob Seger” (8 tracks. 14 plays), “Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band” (23, 106) and “Bob Seger System” (1,5) will all be considered “Bob Seger+”

[3] The movie may be a hot mess, but the soundtrack is worth a listen.

[4] I have a memory of seeing videos for tracks like “A Girl Like You” and “House We Used To Live In”, but I cannot imagine where that would have been.

[5] A DJ friend of a friend gave her a load of 1980’s vintage vinyl, and she passed it on to me.

NOIR CITY: A photographic epilogue

In this follow-up to the chronicling of my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco, I take considerable artistic license with photographs of San Francisco. To read the entire series, please start here (or with this related, more analytic post).

It is an open question whether I would have grown so inordinately fond of this film festival if it were held anywhere but San Francisco, a city I loved long before I attended NOIR CITY 12 in 2014.

In my recent nine-part travelogue I focused primarily on my sojourn in NOIR CITY 16 (January 26 – February 4, 2018). As a result I elided San Francisco locales I visited during prior festivals but not this year.

I will redress that oversight in two parts. First, I will describe specific places not mentioned in the NOIR CITY 16 posts. Second, I will present quasi-artistic photographs of streets and buildings, with a brief digression on the street-facing fire escapes endemic to San Francisco. I then conclude with a haunting question.

Part I: Specific Sites

Following an early-morning flight from Boston that deposited me in San Francisco at 12:30 pm (all times PST) on Friday, January 24, 2014—leaving me so sleepy I watched my brand new, monogrammed suitcase and valet bag ride around the luggage carousel many times before a helpful airport worker pointed them out to me–I met my friend PH at the Prescott Hotel.

The Prescott was the “official” hotel of NOIR CITY (that honor has gone to the Hotel Rex since 2016), and they greeted me in style:

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I quickly made myself comfortable…

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…in this small…

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…albeit unusually decorated room (this painting in the bathroom enthralled me).

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Sir Francis Drake Hotel. PH and I walked the one-and-a-half blocks east on Post to this storied boutique hotel (one block north on Powell from Union Square), where PH’s friend worked in its diverse bars and restaurants.

We found her tending the quiet main lobby bar.

As we sat, drank (unwise given my exhaustion level) and ate surprisingly-unappetizing flatbread pizza, this imposing model of Drake watched over us.

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The hotel did achieve culinary redemption when PH and I ate at the superb Scala’s Bistro my last night there (Monday, February 3, 2014); PH’s friend waited on us with amiable grace.

Aquatic Park/Ghirardelli Square. On Sunday, January 26, 2014, I took my first meandering walk through Nob Hill and Russian Hill. Here, I look south on Kearny at Vallejo…

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…before looking west on Vallejo.

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Here I look north on Mason at Grant…

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…then climbed Lombard Street before arriving in Aquatic Park and Ghirardelli Square.

Sometime before 3 pm, I wandered into the Winery Collective, located in the nautical-themed Argonaut Hotel, in response to a very full bladder.

The rest rooms were located in the connecting lobby of the Argonaut. Returning to the winery, where I had deposited by stuff, I started a long conversation with the charismatic African-American oenophile working behind the counter.

She did require much persuasion for me to sample these wines:

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My view as I sipped:

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You cannot go to San Francisco and not order a sourdough soup bowl. I took this photograph some 20 minutes later, in the Blue Mermaid Restaurant, located in the lobby of the Argonaut.

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It was a chilly, foggy day—which made the view of the Golden Gate Bridge from Aquatic Park even more dramatic

 I actually explored the park—and Ghirardelli Square—when I returned in 2015.

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This park serves as one end of the Powell & Hyde cable car route. After my wine and soup, I waited a long time to board a cable car to return to the Prescott. In fact, I ended up running so late that I needed to take a taxi to the Castro Theatre, arriving just in time to enjoy two films noir from Japan—Yoidore Tenshi (Drunken Angel) and Nora Inu (Stray Dog)—both directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa.

Unique Sweets. My wife Nell and I started regularly watching Food Network and Cooking Channel in the early 2010s. An early Cooking Channel favorite was Unique Sweets.

The third episode from Season 4 (“San Fran Sweet Treats”) highlighted three desert-themed restaurants: Craftsman and Wolves, Dandelion Chocolate and The Ice Cream Bar. Originally airing December 1, 2013, I re-watched it OnDemand before leaving for San Francisco.

On the morning of Monday, January 27, 2014, I set off in search of the first two, conveniently located next to each other on Valencia Street.

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Yes, that is sipping caramel.

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The aromas in Dandelion Chocolate are so enticing they blur your vision.

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I still have that gray fleece.

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As for the Ice Cream Bar, just bear with me.

PH lives near Haight-Ashbury, so on the afternoon of Friday, January 31, 2014, we toured this iconic  neighborhood.

I had been hearing (and seeing) a great deal of Bettie Page vintage clothiers, so we stopped in.

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After lunch at Crepes on Cole, where I took this photograph for our vegetable-chomping younger daughter…

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…we traveled back in time to this vintage ice cream/soda fountain.

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John’s Grill. Towards the end of The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett writes:

Spade went to the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company’s station in Powell Street and called Davenport 2020. “Emergency Hospital, please….Hello, there’s a girl in suite twelve C at the Alexandria Hotel who has been drugged….Yes, you’d better send somebody to take a look at her….This is Mr. Hooper of the Alexandria.”

He put the receiver on its prong and laughed. He called another number and said: “Hello, Frank. This is Sam Spade….Can you let me have a car with a driver who’ll keep his mouth shut?….To go down the peninsula right away….Just a couple of hours….Right. Have him pick me up at John’s, Ellis Street, as soon as he can make it.”

He called another number—his office’s—held the receiver to his ear for a little while without saying anything, and replaced it on its hook.

He went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a tough cheery face came into the Grill and to this table.

“All set, Mr. Spade. She’s full of gas and rearing to go.”

“Swell.” Spade emptied his cup and went out with the thick-set man.

I first visited John’s Grill in November 2003, while in San Francisco for a scientific conference—and of course I ordered “Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops.”

On the evening of Monday, January 27, 2014, I returned.

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This is the actual prop used in the iconic 1941 film noir.

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Almost one year later (Thursday, January 15, 2015), I returned; the novelty had worn off, though.

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The Ferry Building (on The Embarcadero). PH and I caught a ferry to Sausalito from here on the morning of Tuesday, January 28, 2014.

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Sears Fine Food. Lured by the neon sign and its apparent historic importance, I stopped in here for a snack on the late afternoon of Monday, February 3, 2014 (my last day in NOIR CITY 12).

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The place was not exactly hopping.

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As someone who has watched many episodes of Restaurant: Impossible, that made me nervous. I do not recall what I ordered, but it was nothing special.

Part 2: No Particular Place To Go.

Arresting buildings and interesting views. From 2014, in no particular order, we begin with this vista in Haight-Ashbury…

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…before moving to these gorgeous “noir” buildings on Powell between O’Farrell and Ellis.

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Here the street-facing fire escapes are plainly visible.

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Fire escapes are often a visual focal point in films noir. Like Venetian blinds, prison bars and slatted stairwells, they allow light to be broken into jagged shards, mimicking German expressionists.

But these fire escapes were often in the rear of apartment buildings, allowing private ingress and egress (did nobody lock their windows between 1941 and 1959?), perhaps to frame a detective for murder (e.g.¸ The Dark Corner) or simply as part of daily life (e.g., Rear Window). Or a young boy could sleep on them, inadvertently witnessing a murder, as in The Window.

Our Brookline neighborhood’s rabbit warren of alleys, paths and stairways is littered with rear fire escapes—and I love their metallic glint in the muted glow of street lamps and safety lights at night.

But having them front and center the way they are in San Francisco is such a visual contrast to how they are typically seen (or, to be precise, not seen) that they fascinate me.

Here is my 2018 photograph of the Rex, cropped to emphasize its street-facing fire escape:

Rex fire escape

One final shot from 2014, looking up from Powell and Ellis.

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From 2015, again in no particular order, we have this building looming over Chinatown at the intersection of Grant and California.

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This is the Transamerica Pyramid as seen from Kearny, just south of Pacific.

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It is a long descent to Alcatraz from the corner of Green and Taylor.

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Looking toward the Bay Bridge from Broadway and Taylor.

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Looking up on Taylor from Ina Coolbirth Park, between Vallejo and Green.

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I was smitten with this vintage trolley on 17th Street, just around the corner from the Castro.

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Here are additional vistas from 2018.

The Bay Bridge seen from Vallejo, between Mason and Taylor.

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Looking northeast from Vallejo and Taylor:

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Looking south on Mason from Washington.

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This alley off Stockton, between Post and Bush, caught my eye…

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…as did this view looking east on Geary from Powell, at the southern edge of Union Square.

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Daughter-inspired. I took these first two photographs by Dragon’s Gate, at Grant and Bush.

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This now-defunct store on Powell seemed intended for our highly-imaginative younger daughter.

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From 2015, we have this storefront on Grant, between Bush and Sutter.

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 I took this photograph in 2017 for our athletic bookworm eldest daughter.

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Noir-tistry. I achieved these John-Alton-inspired effects by setting “Light” and “Color” to -100 and “Clarity” to 100.

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Look—another street-facing fire escape.

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Oddities. I took this photograph at 535 Valencia, just north of Craftsman and Wolves/ Dandelion Chocolate, in 2014. As far as I know, my mother never made sushi…or mixed particularly interesting drinks.

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One final question (unanswered since 2015): What did John do to deserve this fate—and in what “one way” will it happen?

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Until next time…

NOIR CITY 16: An unexpectedly Super ending!

This is the ninth—and last—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, the festival ends in a Super way, and I fly (like an Eagle) home. You may read the first eight posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

The first thing I recorded in my faithful companion (unfortunately, I had left my small green pencil sharpener in Lori’s Diner the night before) for Sunday, February 4, 2018 was:

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HOT NIGHT IN THE OLD BURG

After 10 days and 22 films, I was getting loopy…and fighting something:

IGNORING NOT FEELING WELL.

But mostly what I was contemplating that final day of NOIR CITY 16 was not Wicked Woman and The Big Heat, it was whether my Philadelphia Eagles could upset Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

[You can take the boy out of Philadelphia…]

I had intended to wear my faded Eagles t-shirt (gifted some years back from a friend’s late father) under my black-and-white-checked shirt, black suit jacket, gray slacks and dark red argyles, but it was too warm.

While enjoying hot cakes, bacon, black coffee and orange juice at Orphan Andy’s, I listened to the man sitting to my right at the counter discourse on the history of NOIR CITY. He noted that it began 16 years ago with a collection of films set in San Francisco, and commented on the debut of Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd as a popular on-screen duo in This Gun For Hire (screened eight days earlier), noting Robert Preston had been intended to be the film’s star.

With The Game scheduled to begin around 3:30 pm (all times PST, unless noted), I opted to watch the 1 pm screening of Wicked Woman and the 7 pm screening of The Big Heat.

At 12:18 pm, I was on the Mezzanine of the Castro Theatre schmoozing with Czar of Noir Eddie Muller about the toll these festivals take (“an accumulation,” I recorded). I also discussed the “challenge of packing” with NOIR CITY veteran Amy Sullivan.

After the slouching grime of Wicked Woman—a textbook example of “fate deals you a bad hand, so you shrug your shoulders and keep moving” film noir—I worked at the merchandise table, preparing to oversee the analogous table at NOIR CITY Boston (June 8-10, 2018; Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA).

[One customer was yours truly; I purchased a copy of Alan K. Rode’s biography of “film noir tough guy” Charles McGraw. Later in the evening, co-Merchandise Manager Elana Meow would say “you are that guy, right” and grant me the staff two-for-one discount on matching NOIR CITY t-shirts for our daughters.]

The next four hours are a blur of television, iPhone screens and updates from home on the 2018 Puppy Bowl.

It was 0-0 in the first quarter when I started watching in Twin Peaks; I did not order anything, I just stood and watched a suspended television. I did let out a muffled cheer when an early Eagles field goal put them ahead 3-0.

Next: Marcello’s, where I had one pepperoni/black olive slice and one Hawaiian slice. They have televisions as well.

There is a television you can watch through the glass window of Slurp Noodle Bar to which I would periodically return.

Clearly I was restless—though these words could also describe a typical night at the Castro:

IN—OUT—UP—DOWN—ON STREET—OFF STREET

Wicked Woman was rescreened at 4:20 pm, so I was able to slip into the upper level of the auditorium to watch a key late scene I had missed earlier (my bladder was VERY insistent): Beverly Michaels grapples with Percy Helton in her squalid rented room, before Richard Egan bursts in and draws all manner of wrong conclusions.

This is how I recorded the rest of The Game (exchanging updates with other folks hawking wares on the Mezzanine) in my little black Moleskine notebook:

15-12 JUST BEFORE HALFTIME. OY. à 22-12.

22-19

29-19

29-26

32-26

Crud—Patriots take a one-point lead, 33-32!

At this point the sports app on my iPhone, which I had kept charged behind the merchandise table, told me it was “End of Regulation.”

Weren’t there just four-plus minutes left?

The evening crowd had started to arrive. I recall standing with Ken and Emily Duffy, trying to absorb what I thought was a painful one-point loss.

But, wait!

The game was NOT over. The Eagles scored a touchdown (no extra point) to take a 38-33 lead with only two-plus minutes left—still time for one more miracle Patriots comeback.

In the meantime, we were gathering in the auditorium to watch the 7:00 pm screening of The Big Heat—my last stint in my favorite aisle seat (left side, five rows from lobby doors), at least for this trip. I discreetly tracked the score on my iPhone (though one patron chastised me for the light)…and read text messages from FF announcing her impending arrival.

A sack of Brady kept the Patriots from scoring…and a final Eagles field goal made the score:

Eagles 41, Patriots 33

My eyes could not comprehend the 00:00 left on the clock—that the Eagles had finally won a Super Bowl (in only their third appearance).

The Big Heat had just begun (I had seen it twice before), so I ducked out into the lobby to cheer[1]…then continued out to Castro Street to meet FF (who had watched the game in a bar down the street).

This Fritz-Lang-directed masterpiece is an essential film noir. According to my “noir-consensus scores,”[2] it ranks 11th (12-way-tie) with 30 LISTS and 20th with 45.5 POINTS. These were the highest scores of all 24 films screened at NOIR CITY 16, topping (by POINTS) This Gun For Hire [tie-#30], The Blue Dahlia [tie-#38], Shadow of a Doubt [tie-#70] and I Wake Up Screaming [tie-#89].

Watching that final NOIR CITY film (The Shanghai Gesture in 2014, The Honeymoon Killers in 2015, Victoria [Einz Zwei Funf Acht] in 2017[3]) is bittersweet, as I imply here:

THEN THE BIG HEAT ENDED…AND THAT WAS THAT.

There was still the final showing of Wicked Woman at 8:45 pm, but for me the films had ended.

And I abandoned my seat to the cleaning crew.

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FF needed to return home, but before she left we sat on one of the plush benches in the lobby and had a fascinating conversation about, inter alia, our respective lives, and both the story and preparation of the book I am writing.

Then I returned—where else?—to the Mezzanine to await the start of the Passport-holders-only “Farewell Bash,” arriving in time to witness co-Show-Runner Manessah Wagner and another woman bring out this cake:

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Mingling while enjoying my last cocktail (Corpse Reviver) from the representative of Stookey’s Club Moderne, I drifted between a few different groups, including Ken Duffy and Imogen Smith (due credit to official NOIR CITY photographer Dennis Hearne)…

Ken, Imogen, me Farewell Bash

…and these three women (L to R: Isabella, Rose, Melissa):

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In a prior post, I noted that Melissa had mistakenly pegged me as “Ben” after meeting me on the Castro MUNI station platform Monday night. This “misnomer” sparked a hysterical round of ever-funnier first names for me, in what was the single funniest conversation I had at NOIR CITY.

The concluding raffle was held.

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The cake was sliced and distributed, prompting me to record: FORCING WAY TO CAKE.

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A complimentary glass of champagne was also offered to each of us to toast the end of a monumentally successful festival.

Finally, it was time for last-minute photographs, like this one of Wagner and me…

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…and this one of Ms. NOIR CITY 2018, Annabelle Zakaluk, and me (credit to Hearne again)…

Annabelle and I Farewell Bash

…and the farewells.

NOIR CITY patrons are one large cinephilic family, and the Castro is where we hold our family reunion every mid-winter. The party lasts for 10 days, and once it concludes, it can be difficult saying goodbye. This is why I made particular note of the warm hugs I shared with Smith, among other, as we parted (until next year).

When Ken and Emily Duffy left, I walked outside with them. A vaping patron named Jeff took this appropriately blurry (I am emotional writing this) photograph of us.

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Not long after, co-Show-Runner Rory O’Connor addressed the remaining hearty few.

“It is now 11:30. All you [something on the order of “gunsels, femme fatales, crooks and cheats”], go home!”

This was my cue to make a farewell tour of the Castro while snagging a fountain Coke from the concessions stand even though they had closed (I put a two dollar bills in the tip jar as payment).

Saying my final farewells, I walked out of the theatre with Isabella and Melissa. The previous night, we had received tickets for a half-priced cocktail at Stookey’s and made a loose plan to go before I left. Isabella opted not to join us after all (something about her car), but Melissa and I took one last MUNI ride to Powell then climbed Mason to Stookey’s.

A Bessie Smith recording was playing quietly on the Victrola when we entered. Melissa ordered a glass of champagne; I ordered a rye Manhattan. Our conversation was stilted until we started talking about various relationships; then the words flowed like water.

Her Lyft home drove me the two blocks to the Hotel Rex.

Over the course of my stay, I had held entertaining late-night conversations with the primary overnight desk clerk at the Rex. She had told me how much she loved the apple pie a la mode at Lori’s; we had agreed to share a piece one night.

This was the night. I dropped off my long gray raincoat and walked the half-block east on Sutter one last time. I bought the pie a la mode for her and a BLT with avocado (on white toast, unfortunately) for me.

We stood at the front desk and ate and chatted for maybe an hour. She tried to reserve a car to the airport for me, but could not reach the service; I crossed my fingers.

Finally, I took the elevator to my sixth floor room to shower, pack and “check in” my Virgin America flight (scheduled to leave at 9:25 am, Monday, February 5, 2018), including reserving a seat (6B—curses, middle again!) in the process.

Following a long “good morning four ladies I love and miss” text to my wife Nell, I turned out the light then tossed and turned for three hours.

**********

I awoke at 6:09 am.

Not only was there no car (I ultimately had to download—and use—the Uber app to my iPhone), but they were unable to print out my final receipt.

Unlike 11 days earlier, I sailed through check-in and security. While eating my “Big Ole Breakfast” (which took a long time to prepare) at Lark Creek Grill, I talked to an older couple from Philadelphia who were also still in shock over the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory.

The flight was relaxingly uneventful, though I needed to use the bathroom enough that I recorded this “explanation”:

NOT ENOUGH SLEEP, TOO MUCH COFFEE, TOO MUCH BAD [i.e, not always healthy] FOOD AND ALCOHOL ON RUN. ERP.

History repeated itself: the women sitting in the aisle seat watched Gifted. I was more excited to stare at a screen one row in front—even without sound, Caddyshack makes me laugh out loud.

Otherwise, I dozed and read through my notes, which conclude:

THIS IS PAGE #102 OF NOTES.

Landing safely in Boston at 6:13 pm EST, I used the rest room one final time before collecting my two checked bags and hailing a taxi.

Exceptional as my sojourn in NOIR CITY had been, a tremor of relief and excitement passed through me as we drove out of Logan Airport and under the green metallic sign reading “I-90 / I-93 / Williams Tunnel.”

Maybe 20 minutes later, we pulled up in front of our Brookline home, the final event checked off of my schedule.

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Until next time…

[1] Much as I had to dash into the alley behind our Brookline home on the evening of October 28, 2008, to jump up and down, fists pumping, when my beloved Philadelphia Phillies won their second-ever World Series. Our eldest was just an infant, and I did not want to wake her.

[2] “Since March 2015, […] I have been compiling a comprehensive Excel database of film noir titles. To date, I have gathered 45 publicly-available lists, both explicit […] and implicit […]. For all 4,825 titles in the database […] I also have […] two “noir-consensus” scores […]:

LISTS: number of times a film was included on one of 32 “official” lists (124-3,253[1] titles). […]  All lists are weighted equally.

POINTS: LISTS plus…1 point for appearing on one of 13 shorter lists (25-119 titles). […] Because each of the three ground-breaking mid-1940s articles by Lloyd Shearer[4], Nino Frank[5] and Jean-Pierre Chartier[6] cite only a handful of titles (14 in total), I assigned 1 point to a film discussed in only one and 2 points discussed in more than one. Up to 2 points for appearing on a sub-list (up to 100 titles) in one of the 32 “official” lists.”

[3] I left NOIR CITY 14 early due to a family medical emergency.

NOIR CITY 16: Listen…to…the…sounds…

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).

Dennis Hearne photo Jan 2018

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:

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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.

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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.

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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)[1]. 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).

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Two more blocks northwest on Minna, we stopped to marvel at the outer shell of the Transbay Transit Center.

Bus station

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.

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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.

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Seriously?

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.

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**********

Before dressing for the evening showings of The Accused and The Threat, I will reflect (inspired by ES—“I love to study sound; music is just a subset”) upon the “many sounds of San Francisco”

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:

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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).

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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.”

“Many times.”

[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.”

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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.”

Sure I was tired—but I was still psyched for the evening program of The Man Who Cheated Himself and Roadblock.

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[2]. 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.

Oops.

I also learned I had a “signature move” upon entering the Passport-holders door[3].

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:

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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…

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] “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.”

NOIR CITY 16: Glamour shots

This is the seventh 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 visit the Golden Gate Bridge, do laundry and spin through a dizzying San Francisco night. You may read the first six posts here, here, here, here, here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

On the morning of Wednesday, January 31, 2018, as I struggled to wake, two things were true.

  1. The festival was half over (12 films screened, 12 to go).
  2. It would have been my mother’s 80th birthday; as I type this, it is the 14th anniversary of her death from ovarian cancer.

With my high school friend “FF” picking me up at 11:45 am (all times PST) for some hardcore sightseeing, I just had time to purchase a slice of banana bread and a 16 ounce cup of black coffee from Café La Taza.

By 4:00 pm, I was back at the Hotel Rex to dress for the evening screenings of The Unsuspected and High Tide at the iconic Castro Theatre.

In the interim (respecting private conversations), here are some of the 51 photographs I took that afternoon.

First: on my seventh visit to San Francisco, I FINALLY saw the Golden Gate Bridge.

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One San Francisco landmark seen from another:

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Fort Point, which figures prominently in a film screened the following Saturday evening:

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This ominous sign greets bridge pedestrians.

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Which would explain this:

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Fort Point from the bridge itself:

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Lest we forget why I was in San Francisco:

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Noir shadows in broad daylight:

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More shadows at Lands End:

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San Francisco landmark viewed from another landmark, round two:

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I visited Cliff House on my first visit to NOIR CITY:

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Shadows return:

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Another ominous sign did not deter us:

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Inside the tunnel at cliff’s base:

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Cliff House from the beach:

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The weather was much better today than four years earlier (photographs 2014):

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Cliff House, no thumbs

IMG_0820Next stop: Golden Gate Park—and the North (Dutch) Windmill

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Who knew bison roamed San Francisco?

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Driving to the Rex, we passed some of San Francisco’s iconic “painted ladies;” I took this photograph while touring nearby Haight-Ashbury with my friend PH in 2014:

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Once in my room, I had FaceTime with Nell and our daughters, having missed the opportunity to do so three days earlier[1].

**********

In my previous post, I wrote that on the evening of Tuesday, January 30, 2018, I had worn a “black suit jacket, white shirt, gray slacks and vintage red-white-and gray palm-tree-patterned silk tie.”

Oops.

Re-examining my notes—and interrogating my memory—I realized I had worn this outfit Wednesday night. On Tuesday night, I donned what I wore to defend my epidemiology doctorate (Boston University School of Public Health; December 2014):

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Record corrected, we return to the Castro.

My notes for this evening are uncharacteristically sparse, but here are some highlights:

  • Film Noir Foundation (FNF) Promotional Director/Associate Producer Daryl Sparks’ husband introduced me to the Yiddish term “landsman.” Surprising, given all the Yiddish I heard as a child.
  • Sparks decided I would sell merchandise the following evening, preparing me to do so at NOIR CITY Boston (June 8-10, 2018; Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA).
  • Czar of Noir Eddie Muller thanked me for “playing dumb” during Monday night’s game of Name That Noir (to which I responded, “well, I’ve had 51 years experience”) and for his holiday card, noting I had a lovely family.
  • I enjoyed another delicious lamb gyro from Gyro Xpress. While eating it, I chatted with fellow NOIR CITY veteran Amy Sullivan in the Passport-holders line, shedding bits of lettuce onto the sidewalk. Sullivan joked that I would walk away, and she would be blamed for the mess. (This did not actually happen).

FF arrived in time to enjoy a drink on the Mezzanine. I ordered a Corpse Reviver from a representative of Stookey’s Club Moderne.

This ended poorly, but not for the reason you might suspect.

While sipping my drink, I held both it and my plastic water bottle in my right hand (not sure what, if anything, was in my left hand). Then, in an act of idiocy I thought only occurred on television shows like Get Smart, I took a drink of water—momentarily forgetting my Corpse Reviver.

Splash!

I dabbed the mess on my jacket with cold water as best I could in the men’s room, but I probably smelled like a distillery the rest of the night.

**********

The evening’s first film was directed by Michael Curtiz. FNF Treasurer Alan Rode—author of a new biography of the renowned director—introduced it.

I had watched The Unsuspected for the first time at home a few months earlier, but I enjoyed it far more (as did FF, seeing it for the first time) that Wednesday night at the Castro—projected onto a giant screen amid a crowd of like-minded enthusiasts.

Forget drinks on the Mezzanine, merchandise tables, stylish patrons, old-fashioned concessions stand or even the vintage beauty of the auditorium itself.

This communal viewing is the single greatest aspect of NOIR CITY. As a group, noir aficionados cheer and applaud favorite performers, directors, screenwriters and cinematographers as they (or their names) appear on screen. We relish the “inside scoop” introductions and on-stage banter. We discuss films in lines inside and outside the theatre: Thursday night, one of three patrons with whom I was kibitzing in the Passport-holders line remarked how “dreamy” he had found High Tide’s Don Castle’s eyes, adding sadly that he was only 47 when he died.

It only gets better when new-to-noir friends like PH, ES and FF join you.

Ken Duffy was scheduled to play Name That Noir that evening until a mix-up prevented it. The replacement contestant (someone Annabelle Zakaluk—Ms. NOIR CITY 2018—knew) did not know the film being queried (Kiss of Death), though she did perform (if memory serves) a quality tap dance. Her prize package included a DVD of the distinctly non-noir The Littlest Hobo[2].

In his introduction to High Tide, Muller remarked on the film’s peculiar framing device (two car crash survivors on a beach recall the events leading up to the crash, as the tide rises inexorably) and observed that co-star Lee Tracy pioneered the iconic fast-talking city reporter of 1930s cinema.

I had wanted to see High Tide since it appeared on the cover of the Summer 2014 edition of the FNF quarterly e-magazine NOIR CITY; it was worth the wait.

Afterward, I ran into Greer Sinclair, Ms. NOIR CITY 2017. I had last seen Sinclair Monday afternoon in the lobby of the Rex, when she stored a travel bag before an appointment at a theatre across the street.

Needing to return to the same theatre that night, she asked if I would ride to the Rex with her. Of course, I said.

As we exited the Castro, however, Muller asked if we wanted to join him, Zakaluk and a few others in Twin Peaks for drinks.

During the short walk north on Castro, Sinclair received a phone call and wandered off by herself. So, besides me, the group that set up camp at the end of the bar was Muller, Zakaluk, official NOIR CITY photographer Dennis Hearne, blogger Odie Henderson and Jello Biafra, former Dead Kennedys lead singer and mayoral candidate; Henderson and Biafra regularly attend NOIR CITY.

After a string of top-notch cocktails, I reverted to form. My order—“Johnny Walker Black, light rocks, club soda on the side”—prompted Muller to quip that there was “at least one real man here.”

We chatted…OK, they chatted, and I absorbed, as I often do. At some point, Sinclair concluded her phone call and joined us.

By the time we left Twin Peaks, the Castro MUNI station had closed. I flagged down a cab. Arriving 10 or 15 minutes later at the Rex, I walked Sinclair across the street to the theatre before ascending to my room to shower and change.

Before walking east on Sutter the half-block to Lori’s Diner, I left my stained suit jacket at the front desk for dry cleaning.

While eating something I neglected to record, Sinclair entered and sat next to me. She ordered a Cobb salad (no cheese or bacon; THAT I recorded) to take to her mother’s place in Burlingame. We chatted sleepily while she waited, including about the two nights I spent in a Burlingame hotel after being “snowed out” of Boston after NOIR CITY 13.

That was the last I saw of Sinclair at NOIR CITY 16.

I got to sleep just after 3 am. After a full bladder woke me two (?) hours later, I had a hard time returning to sleep.

**********

Nonetheless, I awoke 12 minutes before my alarm would ring on Thursday, February 1, 2018.

Following another delicious bowl of seven-grain oatmeal with bananas and berries, plus orange juice and black coffee at Café La Taza, I proved how glamorous a sojourn in NOIR CITY really is.

I did my laundry.

Dirty laundry stuffed into my rolling black suitcase, I walked the short distance west to Mason, right one block to Bush and right the short distance to the coin-operated laundromat situated directly behind the Rex.

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When did Santa leave these?

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One drawback to this facility is its lack of rest rooms. Rather than abandon my clothes, I held it together until I had folded and re-packed my laundry.

The lobby men’s room of the Rex is a red-and-black thing of beauty.

The rest of the afternoon passed quietly. I had FaceTime with our eldest daughter, who had a cold (forcing the sad cancellation of a planned sleepover).

That night, I wore my navy suit jacket, blue shirt, olive slacks and my late father-in-law’s yellow-and-blue tartan bow tie. I sweated “like a pig” in my hotel room trying to tie it, never quite getting it right; I finally “nailed” it in the men’s room at the Castro.

As if I was not sweating enough, I rode a packed L car to Castro station, arriving just after 5 pm. Draping my long gray coat and souvenir program across my favorite aisle seat (left side, five rows from the lobby doors) and its neighbor, I walked across Castro to Rossi’s Deli for a sandwich (tuna salad on whole wheat with everything except mustard).

At 6 pm, I successfully began to sell merchandise.

Less than an hour later, right before meeting FF (elegant in blue dress, matching hat and pearl necklace) in front of the Castro, I hustled to a nearby ATM to replenish my cash.

Speed kills.

It was not until I pulled out my Discover card in a Chinatown store the following afternoon that I realized I had left my ATM card in the machine. No harm, no foul (I had sufficient cash and credit, plus no suspicious transactions)—but it was the second time in two months I needed to replace my ATM card.

FF had not yet eaten, so I sat with her while she ate two slices in Marcello’s.

Following I Walk Alone (another film I enjoyed more on the Castro screen), we walked outside for some fresh air. FF was cold, though, so she went back in and up to the Mezzanine. After chatting with a few other NOIR CITY volunteers, I joined her. At some point, I purchased a rye Manhattan, because my notes tell me that I had not yet finished it after the second film, eventually dumping out the dregs.

While someone (likely Ken Duffy) took photographs of us using our iPhones by the NOIR ALLEY display, Melissa (the consistently dressed-to-the-nines woman I had met on the Castro MUNI platform Monday night) joined us.

Melissa asked if FF was my wife.

No, we responded in comic unison.

FF took some photos of Melissa and me, and we all returned to our seats for Bodyguard.

Before the film began, however, Muller and Zakaluk played a magical version of Name That Noir.

The 81-years-young Linda Martinez—always first in line, her “#1” Passport secured in “the vault”—was that evening’s contestant. While she dazzled in a gold sequined flapper dress, the dress was a bit large for Martinez’s slender frame; Muller had to be vigilant with her shoulder straps to prevent a “wardrobe malfunction.”[3]

It hardly mattered that she did not know the film being queried was The Naked City. She was there to be honored by NOIR CITY. The applause and cheers were long and heartfelt.

I thoroughly enjoyed Bodyguard (FF needed to leave 10 minutes into the film). Lawrence Tierney, for once not playing a psychopath, was surprisingly believable as a righteous lawman. I could even swallow that perky Priscilla Lane would date him.

After its conclusion, Melissa sought me out in the auditorium. We chatted briefly about how much I missed my family, before she went up to the Mezzanine to look at the movie posters. I made one last sweep of the Mezzanine before heading to the subway.

**********

I head a page of notes in my little black Moleskine notebook thus:

URBAN NOCTURNAL ECOSYSTEM.

I have obliquely remarked that a place like Lori’s—a brightly-lit 24-hour haven from the urban darkness, directly descended from every all-night diner, coffee shop and corner drug store (complete with rest room and glass-doored phone booth) in film noir—serves as a kind of Grand Central Station for night-dwellers.

For me personally, Lori’s is one point in a NOIR CITY “home away from home” triangle, along with the Rex and the Castro. It is a place to decompress after the social intensity of NOIR CITY, even if the incessant late 50s-60s-early 70s soundtrack wears thin quickly (Classics IV still play in my head). The food is surprisingly good, even if the coffee is a mite bitter. The wait staff is friendly and efficient, even at 1 am.

This Thursday night, however, was especially revealing.

[Ed. Note: I briefly set aside my self-imposed stricture on reporting conversations. In each instance below, I maintain that making these comments to a relative stranger in a public place mitigates any expectation of privacy. If that is an incorrect assumption, I apologize.]

First are these observations from a disapproving young Latino busser, as I watched the parade of humanity:

“You see these women who come in here showing everything? They’re prostitutes. They stand on the corner out there.”

“I know.”

He expressed his displeasure some more, in a way I failed to record, to which I lamely responded, “They are just trying to make a living.”

Pointing to the stool to my right, he continued.

“The other night I was here. Three in the morning.

“Sitting there. No bra, no underwear, showing everything. There was no one else here.

“They stand [out] there. When the police come, they run away. When the police leave, they come out again.

“You can get arrested,” he concluded.

A short time later, there was a scuffle at the front door. A short round white woman with a child who had been screaming about not getting her check was attempting to leave. I heard her say something about her sister (did she think she had paid the bills?).

My favorite waitress and the young busser, after barring their exit, chased the woman as she pushed her way onto Sutter.

No dice.

My waitress friend (we had previously bonded over our “girls with heart” daughters) later showed me the bills in question, which totaled $82.59 (San Francisco ain’t cheap).

Lori's checks

Soon after, a man with a little boy tried to leave without paying a check. This time, though, he returned immediately to pay; the experience seemed to disorient him.

Next thing I know (again I did not record what I ate—probably their nachos with vegetarian chili), I was talking to the bearded regular in a black cap sitting a few empty stools to my right. He told me he had lost badly on Bitcoin that day, ending with:

“What did you do today?”

My innocuous response led him to express his anger at what had happened to his San Francisco, driving him from liberal concern to reactionary loathing. He openly discussed shooting homeless citizens[4].

Oy.

By now, things had settled down enough that my waitress friend could pour herself a cup of coffee and talk to me.

She described how Mexicans (she was raised in our southern neighbor) used to ask her age, and how her daughter (a hair older than our eldest daughter) cleverly ascertained the truth. I then watched a video of her daughter singing and dancing; the video’s volume further perturbed the bearded regular.

As a parent, I found the video charming.

This was when the 20-something blonde-haired woman at the far end of the counter caught my eye; I freely admit she was stunning. Her single-minded focus, however, was on the good-looking young busser; he did not share her enthusiasm. Nevertheless, she tenaciously peppered him with questions like “What are your goals?”

I doubt she was a sex worker; she did not share their furtive defiance. Rather, to this happily-married middle-aged man from somewhere else, she only seemed lonely (or drunk or high, or some combination) and a bit desperate.

Concluding the drama, a bearded panhandler in a dirty red jacket and blue-tinted sunglasses walked into Lori’s. After swiping bacon from the not-yet-bussed plate to my right, he asked “Can you help me out to get some food?”

He was not the first, or the last, panhandler I would see shooed firmly but kindly out of Lori’s, though he was the only one I saw brazenly eat food off an abandoned plate.

When I finally left Lori’s (sometime after 1 am–and after my favorite waitress politely refused an excessive tip to help cover the cost of the unpaid checks), I opted to walk a few blocks.

As I climbed back up Mason to Sutter, an attractive dark-haired Asian woman in a black SUV was turning left onto Mason. Spotting me, she rolled down her window and asked if she could give me a ride home.

I politely demurred.

Only later did I realize I should have said, “Sure…I live just outside of Boston. How much gas do you have?”

To be continued…

[1] “Our eldest daughter answered when I called our landline; she liked the photos I had texted her. If she sounded tired, it was because she had fallen in her rollerblading debut and hurt her wrist (NOT the one she had broken the previous spring).

She also told me our youngest daughter “really wants to FaceTime with you.” While I waited (and waited—I later learned they tried calling me for 30 minutes, though my iPhone never rang) I chatted about John Denver (“Annie’s Song” had been playing on the outdoor speakers) with the couple at the next table.”

[2] As I understand it, whatever Turner Classic Movies provides is what they can disseminate.

[3] I noted “not wearing underwear,” though I am uncertain if that refers to that night or to her reminiscences about her time as an actress and “muse” for underground filmmaker George Kuchar (“not George Cukor,” she once clarified to me).

[4] While he was not the first San Franciscan I heard express displeasure with changes to their city, he was the only one to advocate homicidal violence.

NOIR CITY 16: Stage Fright?

This is the sixth 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 debut on the Castro stage. You may read the first five posts here, here, here, here and here (and a related, more analytic, post here).

The first thing I recorded in my little black Moleskine notebook for Monday, January 29, 2018 was:

NO MORE MANHATTANS + CHAMPAGNE + MOZZ STICKS + CHICKEN TENDERS BEFORE BED

NO MORE READING UNTIL ALL HOURS

I had slept fitfully the night before, feeling dehydrated and waking often to urinate, so I opted for a quiet morning and afternoon before heading to the Castro Theatre to watch Conflict and Jealousy.

For variety, I ate breakfast at the Pinecrest instead of Lori’s; their once-massive plate of yogurt with granola and fruit (photograph 2014) had shrunk considerably.

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By 2:15 pm (all times PST), I was settled in the lobby of the Hotel Rex to finish The Pictures, get updates from my wife Nell about our eldest daughter’s sore arm (hard fall the day before during her rollerblading debut) and her own flu-like symptoms.

On the analogous Monday two years earlier (anticipating two Humphrey Bogart films[1] that evening—hold that thought), I spent the afternoon conferring with Nell about what turned out to be her emergency gall bladder surgery; I took a red-eye flight home to Boston that night.

Our eldest daughter, a left-handed highly active bookworm, told me she had a “buckle break,” or torus fracture, of her left forearm. The possibility of a second six-week stint in just under a year trapped in a cast (no basketball or swimming, ice skating uncertain) had her feeling blue.

Nell, meanwhile, had a nasty bacterial infection requiring antibiotics…but there was no need to cut short another sojourn in NOIR CITY.

“Oh heavens no. Not for this,” she laughed when I suggested it.

[Ed. Note: our eldest daughter, thus far, has not required a cast, though she will need to wear a brace for two more weeks. Fingers crossed.]

At 2:41 pm, I was still sitting in the lobby. Looking up, I saw Ms. NOIR CITY 2017, Greer Sinclair (resplendent in black jacket, skirt, stockings and ankle boots, carrying a yellow travel bag, black sunglasses perched on her head[2]) walk up to the front desk.

“Yo Sinclair!”

Smiling, she turned to face me. “Fancy seeing you here.”

She was rushing to an audition…or a rehearsal, or something…across the street, allowing her little time to talk. I watched her cross Sutter then sat down to finish The Pictures.

Reading must make me hungry because I next wrote:

COFFEE AND A SANDWICH. THAT’S WHAT I WANT.

After climbing up and down the six flights of stairs (a carpeted stairwell winds around the Rex elevator) to my room to exchange The Pictures for The Art of Mystery, purchased the day before at City Lights Bookstore, I walked outside.

I meandered as follows: East to Powell then north. Two blocks to Pine, then east the half-block to Dashiell Hammett Street. One block down to Bush. West, one-and-a-half blocks to Mason. South two blocks to Post, where I turned west.

Bingo—Café La Taza.

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Rejecting an almond croissant and with none of the sandwiches calling to me, I ordered a 16 ounce cup of fresh brewed coffee.

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Then I noticed the “Soup of the Day” board.

Vine-ripened tomato basil & vegetables.

Bingo again.

Seeking something for after my soup (which I recommend), the young man behind the counter—sporting a cropped near-mohawk and stubble, black-rimmed glasses and gray-patterned black sweater—gave me a tour of the plastic-wrapped pastries on display next to the register.

Is this banana bread?

Yes, and this is pound cake.

And that?

A citrus cake.

Citrus cake please.

He selected a “better” slice from the rear of the display.

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I sat at a small table, with the glass street door just in front of me to the right. Standing on the hard brown floor just outside was a large black plastic trash container. As I ate, a disheveled young man in a long dirty coat started to rummage through the container. What looked like a doorman from a neighboring hotel—elegant in a medium blue jacket—shooed him away. He then gave a pleasant wave inside the café.

“Thank you,” someone behind me said.

Soon after, our eldest daughter texted me about this lobby photograph I had sent her earlier that afternoon.

“Really! I want one.”

It was just past 3:30 pm.

**********

Two hours later—dapper in a navy suit jacket, blue-and-white-striped shirt, olive green chinos, light blue argyle socks and blue and green bow tie (easily tied, for once)—I was standing in front of Castro Coffee Company; a man told me “You look great. Really, you look great.”

I thanked him and walked around the corner to Orphan Andy’s for supper, where I ordered a spinach and feta omelet while a live version of Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless” played over the speakers: a terrific combination.

I posted a photograph of all 12 NOIR CITY 16 marquees on Twitter (@drnoir33). Oddly appealing German synthpop played through the Castro Coffee Company speakers while I posted this (“Day 4. Humphrey Bogart and one of the seven deadly sins. A match made in noir heav…well, somewhere.”).

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As I typed, a young man–dirty army blanket wrapped loosely around his naked black shoulders—approached me for some change. Handing him a dollar bill, I noticed he had breasts. He wanted more money, but I declined.

Back inside the Castro, I checked on my coat, draped over my favorite aisle seat (left-hand side, five rows down from lobby doors). Annabelle Zakaluk, Ms. NOIR CITY 2018, was practicing a song on the Castro stage.

Wandering up to the Mezzanine, I chatted for a time with a younger couple I had befriended the previous year, followed by a brief exchange with Imogen Smith, whose casual mastery of English vocabulary floors me.

And then I was talking to the woman who oversees the Name That Noir sign-up sheet (and raffle table). She grew up in Brookline, where Nell and I are raising our daughters, so we often compare elementary school notes.

Tonight, however, she urged me to sign up for that night’s game (a contestant joins Czar of Noir Eddie Muller and Ms. Zakaluk on stage and is given up to three clues to name a film noir).

I had been hesitant to sign up because I thought I would be rejected as a ringer.

Now, given the opportunity, I had a new fear: that I would walk onto that stage, the eyes of 1,000 fellow film noir aficionados fixed on me, and I would promptly forget every film noir I know.

In fact, I expected to go full Ralph Kramden:

She and Daryl Sparks, Film Noir Foundation (FNF) Promotional Director/Associate Producer, were very persuasive though, with Ms. Sparks wanting someone “reliable, with good stage presence” and both telling me to “do it for your daughters.”

I reluctantly agreed.

Before Muller introduced Conflict (relaying that Bogart, locked in a marriage with Mayo Methot dubbed “The Battling Bogarts,” did not want to make a film about a man killing his wife) Ms. Zakaluk sang “Laura” accompanied by guitarist Nick Rossi.

There was one small hiccup, though. When Muller and Ms. Zakaluk left the stage, the microphone stand, chair and amplifier remained behind. After a few moments, Executive Showrunner Richard Hildreth, a quietly-efficient gray-haired man with mutton chop whiskers, strode onto the stage. As he carried the last of the items off stage, he was greeted with resounding cheers and applause.

He paused and took a gracious bow.

Nervous during Conflict, I needed fresh air once it ended. Walking up to the Mezzanine afterward, I was met by a female volunteer who walked me back down to the auditorium, where Ms. Sparks was sitting, waiting, in the first row of seats, stage right.

We sat and chatted amiably, putting me at ease, and she told me simply to follow Muller’s lead.

Finally, out came Muller and Ms. Zakaluk…and up I went.

I reminded myself: I have given 20 professional talks in my career, and every single time I had been just as nervous—until I started talking. Then I was fine.

Sure enough, once I was actually standing on the stage—seeing nothing but black, with a few white dots (those spotlights are wicked bright)—I was myself again.

It started with Muller asking my name.

“Matt Berger.”

Where are you from?

“Boston.”

And how long have you been coming to NOIR CITY?

“Five years.”

Is your family with you?

“C’mon, this is a vacation.”

(Audience titters)

“That’s what Edmond O’Brien said in D.O.A.: ‘I’m just on vacation.”

“Yes,” I countered, “but this is not The Bigamist.”

Muller vamped on my “pulling out obscure Edmond O’Brien films,” that I was “a guy who knows his stuff.” We mused about how many questions I would need—and how much suspense to build.

Then, with Muller’s hat hiding the sheet of clues from me, Ms. Zakaluk said, “Clue number one. Chicago reporter named P. J. MacNeal.”

I grinned and started to nod my head.

“Do you know what it is?”

Rather than drag it out, I said, “Call Northside 777.”

“That’s right.”

Loud applause and cheering.

I had my own small hiccup when I was handed my prizes, a DVD copy of Conflict and a four-film Bogart collection (on Blu Ray; I never did tell them I do not have a Blu Ray player—excepting this computer, presumably). I fumbled to locate my reading glasses to read the titles on the Blu Ray set.

Exit stage right.

And…exhale.

I remember little of the entertaining Jealousy beyond some excellent point-of-view camera sequences.

Walking down to the men’s room at its conclusion, my 15 seconds of fame began.

“Man are you lucky.”

“You’re the guy that won!”

“Brains!”

“What was that movie again?

Back up on the Mezzanine, I basked in more congratulations. Having explained to a man standing with FNF Director of Communications Anne Hockens that I was a “noir geek” with “a database,” he said that I had “internalized” it.

High praise, indeed.

My favorite encounter, however, came a few moments later, when official NOIR CITY photographer Dennis Hearne looked me in the eyes and said, “Yeah, you don’t know Eddie.” (Muller would later thank me for “playing dumb.” Well, I’ve had 51 years of experience, I replied).

Following Hearne’s good-natured rib, I left the Castro.

As I waited on the Castro station platform for a K, L or M MUNI train, a young woman, dressed to the nines in vintage black (her long black satin gloves were particularly entrancing), walked up to me.

“Hey, you won the contest tonight.”

We introduced ourselves (Melissa) then chatted for a few stops, discovering a mutual love for baseball; her Oakland A’s were once the Philadelphia A’s, though I grew up in a Phillies family.

She disembarked before I did, affirming “I’ll see you around.”

NOIR CITY excels as a place to meet people and make friends. I am selective about who I “friend” on Facebook; fully 23 (9.2%) of my 250 Facebook friends I met through NOIR CITY.

Alighting at the Powell MUNI station, I went directly to Lori’s, where I ate a tasty BLT with avocado on whole wheat and a side of onion rings.

While I ate, a cab pulled up in front of Lori’s. A squat older woman dressed in a loose-fitting pink and orange jacket, white t-shirt and gray sweatpants climbed out, clutching some shopping bags. When she settled into a small table against the wall behind me, I noticed she had very few teeth.

This dental deficiency provoked a lengthy debate with her waitperson over what soft thing to order. Settling on their French toast (which she barely ate), she arrayed some pill bottles on the table, talking to herself the entire time. After a follow-up debate, she ordered a coffee milkshake.

Back in my hotel room, I was asleep within minutes of my goodnight text to Nell.

**********

An unknown iPhone caller from Massachusetts (no message) woke me at 10:03 am on Tuesday, January 30, 2018.  Looking at my phone, I had seven texts, including a conversation between my aunt and her two adult children.

By 11:37 am, I was back at Café La Taza, savoring their seven-grain oatmeal with bananas and berries, plus orange juice and black coffee.

After breakfast, I took Post one-and-a-half blocks to Stockton then walked north two blocks to the entrance to the Stockton Street Tunnel. I climbed the dim stone stairs on the left to Bush.

I followed Bush one block east to Dragon’s Gate (photograph 2014); just inside the gate, on the left-hand side, two women and a man were promoting Falun Dafa.

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The colors and sounds of Chinatown quickly engulf you[3]. Never mind that this unexpected juxtaposition is one of the first things you see.

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This artistic menu and accompanying mural is on Vinton Court, between Pine and California on Grant.

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This is the intersection with California (photographs 2015).

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Many antique stores—and even more tourist-oriented gift shops—line this stretch of Grant. Ever on the lookout for family souvenirs, I spun revolving plastic stands displaying small California license plates with first names embossed on them; no luck finding both daughters’ names.

Then a display of white panda dolls just inside one particularly expansive store (New Peking?) caught my eye; I entered for a closer look. The boxes of “Chinese Health Balls” fascinated me; I almost bought one. The gorgeous silk ties ($19.50, 3 for $50) also called my name. The resigned-looking woman behind the counter, short with center-parted dark hair, assured me “there were more patterns upstairs.”

In the end, I only bought one panda doll, dignified in his blue silk gown.

My photographs chart the rest of my time in Chinatown. This wall mural is at Grant and Clay, two blocks north of California.

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Looking south on Grant, at Clay.

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These window-laundry shots are one block west on Clay, at the intersection with Stockton.

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Same intersection, looking east on Clay.

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I must have followed Clay east to Waverly, then turned north, because this stunning bronze map is embedded into the concrete where Waverly ends at Washington.

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Finally, I walked one-half block east to Grant then followed it three blocks north to Broadway:

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A short walk to the east (right) took me to Columbus.

The need to urinate was growing urgent. Ultimately, despite considering “many trattorias” and the chicken restaurant Il Pollaio, I held out all the way up Columbus to Mason, then down Mason to Washington.

You may ask Nell whether I am stubborn.

Arriving just in time at the eclectic Gallery Café, I “ducked” into the rest room.

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Having recovered my equilibrium, I ordered a tuna melt on whole wheat with a bag of Lay’s potato chips and fresh squeezed orange juice. While I munched contentedly at an indoor table (a conversation table, not one intended for studious folks with books and/or laptops), I enjoyed the music playing in the background—a seamless blend of southern-fried blues, Ike and Tina Turner, and Dixieland jazz[4].

The music provided an incongruous soundtrack for the black-and-white Japanese horror movie playing on a screen behind the ordering counter.

I also watched the young Asian woman who had taken my order bustle around the nearly-empty café with what I later called “efficient friendliness.” She wore a San Francisco sweatshirt (purple, I think, our eldest daughter’s favorite color) and her dark hair was pulled back from her open face.

Speaking of our eldest daughter, I took these contextual photographs for her.

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Looking south on Mason.

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It was 2:25 pm when I bused my table and walked outside. I was meeting Ms. Sparks at the Castro at 5 pm to begin training to run the merchandise table for NOIR CITY Boston (June 8-10, 2018; Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA).

I had just enough time to visit the gift shop of the Cable Car Museum across the street; parenthood duties still beckoned.

The Museum is cable car “ground zero.” You can see where the cars turn into the building (photograph 2017).

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And inside, you see the cables loop continuously around the wheel, pulling the cars.

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I bought a shirt for our youngest daughter; they did not have the right size in purple for our eldest daughter.

**********

I was at the Castro by 4:45, dashing in the outfit I wore to defend my doctorate in epidemiology (Boston University School of Public Health; December 2014):

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The auditorium was completely dark when I deposited my long grey raincoat and books on my favorite seat. The upstairs was eerily quiet; plastic covered the tables.

I filled my water bottle from the ornate green water fountain just outside the women’s rest room before chatted again with super-patron Linda Martinez. Acquiring one of my business cards, she called me her “interesting new contact” in Boston (which she may visit this summer).

Ms. Sparks and her husband (the latter dressed—in his words—in “rabbi gangster”) arrived at 5:18 pm. A key volunteer was sick, so it was some time before she was could start training me. In the meantime, I sat quietly on one of the sofas, scribbling in my little black Moleskine notebook—and witnessed the conversation about how much wine to pour[5].

A short time later I was officially inducted into “Intrepid Audience Members” by the gregarious Jason (a tip of the fedora to special needs teacher and film festival connoisseur Amy Sullivan for arranging this honor).

There are no dues or officers, just a nifty lapel pin.

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I will elide my training session and jump to The Blue Dahlia and Night Editor, which was being screened for the fourth time at NOIR CITY, a new record.

Sloan de Forest’s business card describes her as “Actor/Writer/Film Historian.” She attended NOIR CITY 16 Tuesday and Wednesday nights, researching a book on women in film noir. Her book on science fiction is due out in May.

She also snagged the seat next to mine just in time to catch The Blue Dahlia, though she moved one seat to the left for Night Editor.

Your guess is as good as mine.

While it remains a classic, The Blue Dahlia is now probably best known for inspiring the nickname bestowed upon 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, whose mutilated body was found in an empty lot in Los Angeles on the morning of January 15, 1947.

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I place flowers on this marker in her hometown of Medford, MA every January 15.

Between films, Ms. Hockens and I discussed how upset she was about Ms. Short’s portrayal on American Crime Story. As someone who strives to distinguish Beth Short from her “noir” reputation, I sympathized.

Following the second screening, I met two earlier Name That Noir winners (Saturday and Sunday).

The rest of the night was uneventful. I was craving a banana split, so I ordered one at Lori’s. While I sat there, a man in a pink sweater noticed my Phillies cap (noir-attired by evening, plain-clothes Phillies fan by…well, the rest of the time). A fellow Philadelphian (Cherry Hill, NJ), he now lives in Atlanta.

Inevitably, our conversation turned to our underdog Eagles’ chances in the upcoming Super Bowl against the dynastic New England Patriots.

He was clear about who was going to win.

“The Eagles have all the cards.”

When a Philadelphia sports fan expects one of our teams to win a game, you know something special is brewing.

To be continued…

[1] In a Lonely Place and The Two Mrs. Carrolls.

[2] I happened to have my little black Moleskine notebook with me, so I recorded everything.

[3] Meandering north on Grant, I stood out in two ways: I was a good head taller (5’10”) than nearly everybody around me, and I was a white European.

[4] I would later write JUST LIKE SF ITSELF.

[5] “There was still some free booze—including on January 30, when they poured Purple Pachyderm pinot noir from Claypool Cellars—owned and operated by legendary bassist Les Claypool.

Earlier that Tuesday evening, sitting on those sofas scribbling in my little black Moleskine notebook, I overheard a conversation between Stookey’s Aaron Cole and Daryl Sparks, FNF Promotional Director/Print Production, over how much wine to pour for each patron. Cole was advocating for the alcohol equivalent of a shot of liquor, while Sparks wanted a smaller portion. They eventually settled on a mid-point: roughly one-half of a clear plastic cup.”