Sunday, March 1, 2009

informed wandering

I'm not sure the exact moment when I connected my first trip to San Francisco to the film Vertigo. My father is a huge Hitchcock buff, perhaps even scholar (he has been published in the Hitchcock Quarterly) and considered the Alfred Hitchcock canon essential to early-childhood education, so I have known the movie since I was quite young. Though The Birds and Psycho were a little too much for the mind of an eight-year-old, most of these films I adored ... Notorious, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest, Rear Window ... but Vertigo was my favorite. I remember watching the climactic scene closely with my father. He must have been writing something on the film, for he was intent on deciphering Kim Novak's hysterical outbursts just before her death. As Jimmy Stewart's character of Scottie drags her up the bell tower, she screams, "You can't, you're afraid!" This was a point of contention at the time, for it was long before one might just google scripts, and my father thought she might be saying something about fate. We watched it again and again to be sure, though today as I watch that scene the dialogue seems fairly clear to me.

In any case, at some point last month I decided to structure my first trip to San Francisco around the movie. I found a dozen or so location shots on, which I scribbled down the night before my departure, deciding that I would visit these spots while my host was at work during the day. Coincidentally, there is an official Vertigo tour that I'm sure is quite comprehensive, but completely out of the budget of high-school teacher. I would have to go at it on my own. I've always hated group tours, anyway.

I arrived in the city in the morning, and after getting settled, I began simply driving ... wandering is a constant theme of the film. It didn't take long before I saw a sign for the Legion of Honor, and I quickly veered onto the drive up to the museum, mentally checking this off the list. I love a project, and take on a good many in my life, but only manage to do so by staying extremely focused. Therefore, I tend to be all business. Though I did see most of the museum, I confess that most of the artwork I looked at was simply being assessed for any similarities to the Carlotta Valdes portrait. I finally found a Renoir that would work , and elicited the help of a patron while I struck a fitting pose.

I stopped by the gift shop on my way out, looking for a present for my host, when I found Footsteps in the Fog: Alfred Hitchcock's San Francisco. This book covers all of Hitchcock's California films, with a 90-page chapter on Vertigo. I purchased it as a gift, but for the next several days I kept it in my bag, studied it over breakfast, navigated with the postage-stamp sized maps, had it autographed, and eventually left it in San Francisco well-worn, even battered.

Now that my wanderings were more informed than serendipitous, I continued on to Nob Hill, where the bulk of the movie takes place. As I drove along the northern bay, I passed a sign for Lombard Street and turned, searching for number 900, Scottie's home address in the film. Lombard Street goes through many phases so dramatic that it almost seems as if sections of the street should have different names. I began on a strip rife with motels and chain stores, but then the street began winding upward. Then winding became an understatement. Changing from pavement to small red brick, Lombard Street began doubling back on itself,
leaving hardly enough room for an oncoming vehicle, and every turnoff led to driveways of homes hovering high above the bay. I later learned this street has been dubbed "the crookedest street in San Francisco." The road began to straighten out, and I saw a house I recognized on the left. 900 Lombard Street is gloriously similar to its 1958 depiction. Using a strategy in which I would become adept in the next few days, I parked, hopped out of the car, took a quick shot, and continued on.

That first day I found the former York Hotel (the Empire Hotel in the film), the site of the now-demolished McKittrick Hotel, the Union Pacific Club, the Brockleback Apartments, and the Fairmont Hotel. The York Hotel, called the Empire Hotel in the film and where Kim Novak is found living after Scottie's breakdown, is now called Hotel Vertigo. It completely caters to fans, as does the cocktail bar Vertigo around the corner. A bellboy gave me a tour of the 5th floor, pointing out the original carpeting, Vertigo-inspired furniture and mirrors, and a vertigo-inducing stairwell that has no real bearing on the movie, but is pretty cool to look down.

The Union Pacific Club is directly across the street from the Brockleback Apartments, where Gavin and Madeleine live, so one assumes that this club holds the lounge where the two men meet. The intimidating building, taking up the bulk of a city block, seems strangely separate from its surroundings - it is gated and guarded, ensuring that only members (and only men) enter. I snuck up to the front door and got a quick shot through the iron gate. At the Brockleback, I elicited the help of a doorman to photograph me leaving the building (reenactment had become appealing to me at this point, as I quickly tire of pictures without people), but he seemed rigid when he said, "I can't do that, ma'am." The Fairmont, across the street, was more accommodating. I was allowed to walk right in and directed to the Venetian Room, where Scottie and Judy ballroom danced in the film, and where Tony Bennett sang "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" in real life. Urban lore says he buried a crystal heart under the floor.

At this point I called it a day and went out with friends. I don't want to lead readers to believe that this was the only thing I did on my first trip to San Francisco, because that would be embarrassing. I'm thorough,
but not obsessed, so I worked on this strange introduction to the city only in the mornings, when I would have been on my own anyway. Just to my credit.

Okay, so Day Two:
I woke up early and it was a crystal-clear day in San Francisco, so I drove for my second viewing of the bridge, this time up close. I parked at an overlook in El Presidio and hiked down to Fort Point, the spot underneath the bridge where Scottie and Madeleine first make contact.I had my photo op, and then began walking back to the car. As I walked along the path in the early morning sun, a van pulled up beside me and a young man offered me a ride. "You know, I'm just sort of driving around the city," he said. "I'm just wandering too!" I replied, marveling at this spontaneous reenactment, and wondering if maybe I should throw caution to the wind and get in a stranger's van in honor of cinematic synchronicity. I thought better of it, and sent him on his way.

After driving back to Nob Hill, I did a particularly miraculous parking job on the 1800 block of Taylor Street, where the opening rooftop chase scene takes place. This is only a few blocks from the Brockleback, and you can actually see the Elsters' apartment building in the background shots of this scene. I began to walk down the block, pondering how I might manage to get up on the roof. I noticed a realty-company sign in front of the corner building, and called, asking if the apartment had rooftop access. "Absolutely not, rooftop access is strictly forbidden."
I was unfazed, and walked in the open front door and made friends with the Mexican man painting the hallway. Happily, he had no problem whatsoever with my going on the roof to enjoy the view. This was my true guerrilla moment of the Vertigo tour, standing on the roof overlooking San Francisco Bay, contemplating making a few jumps over to the roof in the distance that had original shingles. The painter came up to check on me, and I decided a few shapshots would suffice. I thanked him, and continued on my way.

I stopped at a deli across the street and talked with the the older gentleman running the place. It was he who told me that I'd inadvertently crossed paths with another film location shot. It happened that this was the very deli where Steve McQueen had made an appearance in the 1968 film Bullitt.

My next stop was Claude Lane, an alley so small that it does not even appear on detailed maps of downtown San Francisco. This is the alley door through which Scottie follows Madeleine into a flower shop - an incongruous shot geographically, but I decided this was apt since my own reenactment was not in chronological order. The flower shop, which has moved to a strange neighborhood underneath the freeway, did not provide a good shot when I visited it. It is more like a factory today, catering to large wedding orders but probably very few walk-in customers. I scoured the streets for the flower stands for which San Francisco is allegedly well-known. I learned this was because the Italian founder of the Bank of America loved to wear a fresh carnation in his lapel, and created a lenient licensing policy for the flower vendors. The shot of me buying a nosegay is sadly absent from my final product.

I walked down Sutter Street to the Argonaut Book Shop, the basis for the Argosy bookstore in the film. The real Argosy is a New York bookstore, but the current owner swears the film character who owns the bookstore, Pop Liebl, was based on his father. The name Pop Liebl was borrowed from a candy store owner in the Western Addition, whom screenwriter Samuel Taylor fondly remembers from his childhood. The man who runs the Argonaut today is featured in Footsteps in the Fog and humored me with a photograph and a signature, greatly increasing the value of my guidebook. I asked how many Vertigo lovers wandered into his antiquarian shop, and he told me that about a dozen a year showed up.

I drove to the aerie neighborhood of Telegraph Hill, where Midge's house is perched at 296 Union Street. These apartment scenes were shot at Paramount Studios - this is testament to Footsteps in the Fog authors' attention to detail. Of all the apartments on Telegraph Hill, they concluded that this building and only this building could have provided the background shots Hitchcock used. It was a quick walk up to Coit Tower from there, whose view is no more exciting than any other view, but the elevator operator makes it worth the five dollar fee.

I returned to Mission Delores, which we'd driven past the day before. I had more time to enter the Basilica and see the garden cemetery. This was a popular destination after the film was made. Everyone wanted to see Carlotta Valdes' grave, but the Mission requested it be removed out of respect for the real bodies buried there.

I was done for the day, and did some shopping and had some drinks in the Mission District with my friend. We swung by the Portal of the Past on the way home. This is a monument in Golden Gate Park, facing a little pond. It is not a true location shot, but it is referenced in the film. Gavin Elster says that his wife spends all of her time there, staring into the distance in a bewitched sort of way. My photos from the Portal of the Past came out the best, understandably because this was the only time I had assistance from a friend on my tour.

The next day was my final one in San Francisco. I felt that I had covered a huge amount of territory in two days, and felt satisfied. I had only a few more spots to visit before I drove out of town on the coastal highway. I unwittingly drove past Haight Ashbury, a landmark I had completely forgotten about due to my strong focus on Vertigo. A few blocks past was Buena Vista Park, and up on the hill lay the old sanatorium where Scottie has his breakdown. The building is still there but is now, surprise surprise, condos.

My final city stop turned out to be my favorite neighborhood - Dogpatch, the old shipping district where Scottie first visits Gavin Elster. Definitely my first choice for a warehouse apartment were I to move to San Francisco. It reminded me acutely of my own Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook six years ago, with its abandoned piers and waterfront industry buildings. No residents in sight, only a security guard who commented as I walked by, "What do we have here? Annie Liebowitz?"
I made a joke that my pink digital camera must have given me away as a true professional. We talked about cameras for a while, him showing off his Canon G9, when an older man biked up and offered to take me for a sail. I was truly sad to be leaving town and have to pass.

I began my trip south on Route One, my ultimate destination being Los Angeles. There are three scenes in Vertigo shot outside of San Francisco, luckily for me, all to the south. The redwood scene is often mistaken for Muir Forest in the north, but was actually filmed in Big Basin. I drove along the coast for a way, and then began to get the sinking feeling that I'd gone too far. I pulled over and asked two unbelievably fit bicyclists in their 60s if I had missed the forest. "Well, I've hiked there from here but I'm not sure you can drive. What made you think you could get into the forest from the coast [subtext: you silly girl], did you look at a map or anything?" I said, "Kind of ...", omitting the fact that I'd been navigating completely from detail maps in my movie book, and had copied a crude map of the southern scenes into my notebook in order to leave the book as a gift for my friend. I was now guideless, and completely reliant on the help of sometimes judgmental strangers.

The women told me I had gone too far, but gave me excellent directions to the Mission San Juan Bautista. Slightly disappointed, but too eager to get to my hotel in Big Sur by sunset, I drove on. When I passed a sign for Route 9 North into Big Basin, I decided a quick detour might be worth it. I drove on this road for all of ten minutes when I found some (comparatively mediocre) redwoods, but damn big trees just the same.
I got the shot and was back on my way.

The Mission San Juan Bautista was by far the most magical location I visited. It is truly identical to how I remembered it from the film. With the widest church of California's 22 missions, it still holds bilingual masses on the weekends and functions as a museum the rest of the time. The most striking difference is the bell tower. Hitchcock himself was disappointed by this when he arrived to shoot in 1957 and discovered the bell tower had been removed. He created this scene at Paramount, and the belltower there today bears no resemblance but still gave me a chill in my spine.

I ran from the stables looking as anxious as possible ("More anxious!" my photographic assistants yelled), and into the mission, taking a brief break from my flight to buy every type of souvenir they sold. The church was cool and desolate, each of my footsteps echoing throughout the large room. I was humbled, and remained silent.

I had read that Hitchcock and his crew always took their meals at La Casa Rosa, and that Kim Novak had even returned several times after the completion of the film. The restaurant was closed for lunch, but Charlie Shockey, who acquired the eatery from his family in 1973, regaled me with tales of being a teenage waiter deeply in awe of Kim Novak and exhilarated beyond belief at her appearance in his family's restaurant. He saw her there again several years after the filming, at which point he was managing a hotel pub in the city. When she coincidentally came in to dine at his other job, he couldn't resist pointing this out to her, thus speaking to her for the first time. "Weren't you at La Casa Rosa just last week?" he shyly inquired. "Yes," she replied demurely, "yes, I was."

My last stop: Pebble Beach, where Scottie and Madeleine have their first kiss with the waves crashing dramatically behind them and a lone and twisted cypress tree the only landmark. The cypress tree was brought in by Hitchcock, but it was not necessary for me to find the location. Pebble Beach is not, today, the abandoned beach it seems in the film. In fact, I now know that most Americans are familiar with this district. It is a gated community holding one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country as well as a PGA level golf course. But I am not most Americans. I am a school teacher from Brooklyn with an aversion to golf and the wealthy, and I only knew that Pebble Beach was part the "17-Mile Drive" near Carmel, California.
I should have been alerted to the situation when I noticed a resident entrance at the gate, but I instead assumed I was paying $9.25 to enter a national park. I'd covered about twenty yards of the 17-mile loop when I realized that was not at all accurate. I pulled into a parking lot and asked a man where I might find Pebble Beach. "Well, that's easy. Just park here, cut through the lodge, and you can walk straight across the 18th hole, it's not a problem. That's Pebble Beach." So I parked. I cut through the lodge. I marched indignantly through someone's golf game and set up my camera by the not-crashing waves, and took one of the poutiest pictures ever taken. I
used the bathroom on the way out, carefully folding the toilet paper back into a triangle (it was like I was never there!). As I exited the 17 mile drive, I parked and walked up to the gatemen. To my credit, I first asked what the admittance fee was used for. To which they replied, "Why, that pays for us. We run this place, we do everything! Security, maintenance, landscaping ... everything." I told them I wanted my money back. They replied that the gate fee was non-refundable, but why did I want a refund, did I not enjoy myself? "I do not pay maintenance fees for the wealthy." Their response? "I'm terribly sorry ma'am but you are going to have to write to this address about that." "Oh, I will." I did call Pebble Beach the following week and left a message for the head of security. My phone call has not been returned yet. I would have settled for crashing waves anywhere along the Pacific Coast Highway, but at least I was thorough.

So maybe I didn't make it to many of the hip stores, restaurants, clubs, and bars of San Francisco that
I read about in New York Times' travel section articles. Was my first trip to this amazing city compromised by my project? Absolutely not. I live in New York City, and get my fair share of these things. Also, I feel confident that after three days of wandering, you could plop me down anywhere in that city and I could find my way to Vertigo. I met so many charming people and heard so many stories. Finally, I must confess that I am not a true wanderer. A sense of listlessness descends when I don't have a clear purpose. A little structure in wandering around a new city was just what I needed.