Earthquakes

The big one is coming. Actually, the big one came a hundred years ago. What’s coming is the big anniversary of the big one. I’m speaking, of course, of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Expect a lot of ink devoted to it in the local press, including sobering discussions of our unprepared conditions, comparisons with Katrina, and nostalgic looks at a simpler time when government and business conspired to cover up the number of fatalities.

At least two local theaters, the Balboa and the Pacific Film Archive, plan to commemorate this anniversary. And for such a solemn event, their plans look like fun.

The PFA’s four-day series, 65 Seconds That Shook the Earth: Commemorating the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, runs from April 6 to April 9, ending well before April 18, the actual anniversary. Among the highlights are Flame of Barbary Coast, a John Wayne western that climaxes with the 1906 quake, a presentation of archival footage of the disaster’s aftermath, and the 1974 disaster movie Earthquake, presented with a recreation of its original Sensurround process. Come and see why only three movies were released in this format.

The series closes Sunday the 9th with a 1957 cheapie called The Night the World Exploded, about a quake whose aftereffects threaten the entire world. Dr. Peggy Hellweg of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory will be on hand to “evaluate the [film’s] scientific veracity.” I’m not sure if she will speak before the movie, after it, or give us a Mystery Science Theater-style presentation. I suspect the film deserves the latter.

But leave it to the Balboa’s Gary Meyer—who’s probably been programming film revivals in the Bay Area longer than anyone—to get the right movie on the right day. He’s kicking off his Reel San Francisco festival with the most famous ’06 earthquake flick of them all, MGM’s 1936 big-budget extravaganza, San Francisco.

A big, silly, melodramatic special effects vehicle (that was unusual in 1936), San Francisco is a classic example of code-era Hollywood trying to have it both ways. It celebrates the non-conformist, hedonistic, open-minded joy that, at least to the screen-writers, symbolized the Barbary Coast. But it covers itself in a thick layer of Christian moralizing that’s as annoying as it is laughable.

These contradictions all come together in the movie’s central character, Blackie Norton (Clark Gable). Saloon-owner Norton represents the City’s dark side, and is described as just about the most evil man in San Francisco. If this honest businessman, making political enemies by fighting for stricter fire regulations (a clever foreshadowing of what we all know is coming), is the worst person in the city, what are all the good Christians in the movie complaining about? Okay, so he’s an atheist. This is definitely a red-state movie.

Still, San Francisco has considerable pleasures, especially in the last half hour when the earth shakes and the fires break out. And let’s not forget the title song—the best ever written about a city.

The Balboa will show San Francisco, on a double-bill with After the Thin Man, on April 16-18. There will be additional presentations on the last night, the actual anniversary.

Nothing earth-shattering, but here are some movies worth seeing this week.

Recommended: King Kong (2005), Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Peter Jackson’s version isn’t as good as the original, but “not as good as a masterpiece” still leaves plenty of room for excellence. Jackson didn’t just improve the special effects; he rethought all of the main characters (human and simian), finding new themes in the old story. But cutting it by half an hour would have made it better still.

Recommended: Swing Time, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. If Top Hat is the perfect Astaire-Rogers movie, Swing Time is a close second, and the only other unqualified masterpiece in the series. Even by Astaire-Rogers standards, the plot is lightweight: Fred is an incredibly lucky gambler who for private reasons has to limit his winnings. It’s just an excuse for Fred and Ginger to fall in love, fight, break up, fall in love again, and repeat the cycle, all the while singing and dancing. The Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern songs (“Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance”) are among the best of that decade, and the dancing more than does them justice. The “Never Gonna Dance” number is one of the saddest, most sublime dances ever. On a double-bill with Song of the Thin Man.

Recommended: The Big Lebowski, Act 1 & 2, Friday and Saturday, midnight; Saturday and Sunday, noon. Critics originally panned this Coen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to the Coen’s previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as Fargo, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie.

Recommended: Munich, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. If your view of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can be summed up with “Our side is virtuous; it’s all their fault,” you’re going to hate Steven Spielberg’s meditation on terrorism and anti-terrorism. By making a potentially conventional thriller into a morally ambiguous and emotionally complex drama, he’s created his best work since Schindler’s List, and his most daring yet. Although Spielberg clearly sides with the Israelis, he’s not ready to let them off the hook.  He understands all too painfully that revenge breeds revenge and violence breeds violence.