Saturday, January 12, 2013

Beyond the Black Maria: In San Francisco

"A Trip Down Market Street" 1906. (Library of Congress)

11."A Trip Down Market Street" (1906) Watch
If you operate similarly to myself, then you can't deny that when you travel down a street in your city or town, you do not notice the details. You don't notice the ebb and flow of all your fellow citizens who are late for work or about to buy some coffee or walking with no purpose at all; you don't notice the great variety of clothes they choose to wear and so you don't wonder about where they acquired the articles or why they selected them for this particular day. You don't notice the unwritten agreement these pedestrians have with their automobile-bound counterparts, and you don't notice the silent ballet between foot traffic and the steely, rubbery river of cars which takes place mostly flawlessly hundreds of times as you move along the thoroughfare. 
"A Trip Down Market Street" was filmed on the eponymous road in San Francisco shortly before the earthquake and fire which almost completely destroyed the city, though just how shortly before is a matter of some debate; one theory puts it in 1905, another says early April of 1906. Whenever the exact date, this one-take film was captured by attaching a camera to the front of a cable car and shooting as it traveled down Market Street for about 10 minutes. The method is simple but the effect is compelling and in fact a little moving for an urbanite like me. It's a hypnotizing look at the pulse of a city, something only cinema can capture in this way. The steady pace of the cable car sets a beat for the shot, while the people and their insane myriad of conveyances, be they feet or hooves or engines, provide a palpitant rhythm which bangs around haphazardly against the canyon of buildings containing the action. 
Many differences are apparent between the world captured here and the one I live in. The clothing all appears very similar in the film, almost like metropolitan uniforms, though my chronological distance from the subject could have less to do with this than the city I reside in and am native to (Seattle), whose citizens I've been told all look like they're in costume. Another difference I notice is that evidently the people of the time had not yet learned an efficient way to manage the convergence of automobiles and people on the street. Several San Franciscans can be seen almost being rundown by cars or trolleys as they leap in front of the machines like frightened deer. 

12. "San Francisco Earthquake and Fire" (1906) Watch
One way I know we are living in a more modern era is that our cities don't burn down quite as much as they used to. On April 18th, 1906, San Francisco was struck by an earthquake which ruptured underground gas lines and precipitated a blaze that destroyed most of the city and killed around 3000 citizens. The rebuilding process began immediately, but was plagued by looting by civilians and United States soldiers sent in to maintain order. 
This film is an incredibly early example of moving news pictures, yet many of the common 'disaster porn' tropes we've come to know and tolerate on CNN can be seen in this primordial example of sensationalist journalism. Narrated with fancy intertitles, the 14 minute piece begins as we land on a smoking shore which appears almost alien. Quickly the camera moves to survey a nightmarish hell scape, full of crumbling ruins and smoldering piles of rubble, which barely resembles the once mighty city by the bay. We're then shown a rather awkward scene of a family dining in a flotsam-strewn street which very well could have been staged to increase the drama.
Are all depictions of real-life catastrophe inherently exploitative? Should a tragedy be left for only the victims to experience? I don't know if the makers of this piece contemplated such questions, but I know they should certainly come to the mind of any journalist who finds themselves running towards the latest disaster ready to get a story. 

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