THE BLOG

They Left Their Hearts in San Francisco

07/13/2013 03:16 am ET | Updated Sep 12, 2013

People whose first impressions of San Francisco come from films like 1959's On The Beach, 1968's Bullitt, 1972's What's Up, Doc? and 1974's The Towering Inferno don't always think of the city's cultural charms. Movie fans who loved 1978's Foul Play and 2001's The Princess Diaries may never have seen clips of Jeanette MacDonald singing the title song from 1936's San Francisco or the "Grant Avenue, San Francisco" production number from the film adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1958 musical, Flower Drum Song.

Those who live here have grown accustomed to all kinds of artistic outbursts as they wander around the city. These can vary from Patrick Makuakane's Hawaiian-American dance company (Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu) performing a "Hit and Run Hula" in Dolores Park to the annual Easter Sunday Hunky Jesus Contest (sponsored by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence); from Tony Bennett's recording of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" to the "Crunch Pop" dance video which was recently screened at the Frameline 37 Film Festival.

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The city's natural beauty is a constant source of inspiration for filmmakers like Simon Christen, who posted The Unseen Sea on Vimeo two years ago.

Simon recently followed The Unseen Sea with Adrift, which he describes as:

... a love letter to the fog of the San Francisco Bay area. The weather conditions have to be just right for the fog to glide over the hills and under the bridge. I developed a system for trying to guess when to make the drive out to shoot, which involved checking the weather forecast, satellite images and webcams multiple times a day. For about two years, if the weather looked promising, I would set my alarm to 5:00 a.m., recheck the webcams and then set off on the 45-minute drive to the Marin Headlands.

I chased it for over two years to capture the magical interaction between the soft mist, the ridges of the California coast and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. I spent many mornings hiking in the dark only to find that the fog was too high, too low or already gone by the time I got there. Luckily, once in a while the conditions would be perfect and I was able to capture something really special. Adrift is a collection of my favorite shots from these excursions into the ridges of the Marin Headlands. I am so grateful to Jimmy LaValle, from the band The Album Leaf, for composing a custom score for Adrift. Jimmy's music is fantastically beautiful and captures the mood perfectly.

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Coming up at this month's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is a wonderful new documentary entitled American Jerusalem which details the history of the Jews who helped to build San Francisco (from the days of the California Gold Rush through to the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire and up to the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition).

Many Jews joke about their cultural history by saying "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat." But the story of how Jewish immigrants settled in San Francisco during the second half of the 19th century is remarkable for the simple fact that San Franciscans accepted Jews as just another part of their burgeoning white society.

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Employees of Levi Strauss & Co.

Prior to the discovery of gold along the American River, San Francisco may have been populated by about 500 non-Indians. However, by 1870 the city boasted the largest population of American Jews outside of New York City (more than 10 percent of the area's 150,000 inhabitants were Jews).

  • Imagine a city whose Jews did not feel oppressed!
  • Imagine an American city in which Jews could easily become politicians and civic leaders.
  • Imagine a new home where former peddlers could thrive on the sudden wealth of miners.

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Aaron Fleishhacker founded a paper and box company

As the port nearest to California's gold country continued to grow, Jews arriving from Europe found themselves in a region with no existing power structure. For the first time in Jewish history, the ultimate outsiders were embraced as insiders.

  • Although cognizant of their ethnic identity, more Jews in San Francisco abandoned their religious practices than elsewhere in the nation. Minus the threat of discrimination, they were free to reinvent themselves, opting to self-identify not just as American Jews, but as San Francisco Jews.
  • Some celebrated Thanksgiving with greater enthusiasm than Passover.
  • Some served roast suckling pig at large dinners and had Christmas trees in their parlors.
  • Some hired Christians to sing during religious services.
  • When Russian Jews who had been forced from their homes during the pogroms in Tsarist Russia started to arrive in San Francisco, to their utter amazement they encountered a kind of "New Jew" who was a pillar of the community and lived without fear.

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An interior shot of the famous Sutro Baths

American Jerusalem captures the pioneer spirit which transformed Jews like Adolph Sutro, Herbert Fleishhacker, Levi Strauss and the Haas family into major philanthropists. Using a wealth of archival material, Mark Shaffer's documentary offers a fascinating look into an oft-ignored facet of San Francisco's colorful history. Here's the trailer:

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If you're a fan of gay singer-songwriter Matt Alber, let me recommend his new DVD entitled Matt Alber With Strings Attached. Directed by Greg Sirota, it documents a one-day working session with Alber and members of the Cello Street Quartet (Adam Young, Andres Verra, Gretchen Claassen and Matthew Linamen) that took place on August 30, 2012 on the stage of the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Several clips from the DVD were screened during the recent Frameline 37 Film Festival. What I found fascinating was the fluidity of the camera work and the way Sirota captured the interplay between Alber (a former member of Chanticleer) and the four young cellists.

Chamber music groups often get to know each other over a long period of time. But these musicians (who had only met two months prior to the recording session) quickly bonded over mutual passions. For me, the best part of the session occurs when the musicians discuss what it feels like to work on new arrangements for Nicholas Pavkovic's songs while trying to anticipate each other's take on the music.

This DVD may also become a valuable marketing tool for the Conservatory if it is interested in developing a new revenue stream by renting out its concert hall for future recording sessions.

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape

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