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Slap Shots 

Wednesday, May 15 1996
The Secret of San Francisco
"In just 30 minutes you discover the historical and cultural wonders -- the myth, magic, and beauty -- of one of the world's most captivating cities. History and the present blend, and the Secret of San Francisco is revealed."

You might be curious about where the previous sentence was cribbed. A Herb Caen column about Telegraph Hill? A brochure for Beach Blanket Babylon? A documentary on the crack epidemic? It's actually a breathless teaser for the latest attraction at Pier 39 -- the grand opening of the IMAX thriller San Francisco The Movie.

Let's get a few facts out of the way first. Citibank has its name on the theater -- obviously a bit of an investment there. The epic was lensed by Oscar-winning director Keith Merrill, who apparently was responsible for helping create the concept of "destination theater" way back in 1984. The staff and production credits run for pages, including almost everybody in town who works in film. The brochure quotes the Chronicle: "Only James Bond gets to have this much fun."

Fun is at a premium this morning, grand-opening day. The wind has picked up outside, forcing well-groomed men in suits to hurriedly secure bunches of balloons and slap duct tape on the red carpet. An empty podium stands as a grim reminder of the morning's ribbon-cutting ceremony with Steve Young earlier. The mermaid, sketch artist, and Hunters Point dancers have yet to appear. Shows are running every 45 minutes, and although the theater seats 275, there are approximately 35 of us staking out the best views, a ragtag bunch of Midwest moms, chuckling dads, and kids with baseball caps -- all sweet-talked into the tent to see the geek show. They're eager to "Feel the Earth Quake!" and "Discover the Secret!" I'm already primed to "Blow Up the Wharf!"

The lights dim. A dated travelogue film of the city flickers on the screen and is interrupted by an old coot with an eye-patch in a wheelchair. He speaks in some vague pirate accent, says he's captain something or other, and grouses that this old film isn't cutting the mustard. We should follow him to discover the "Secret of San Francisco." As if we have any other options. Then he wheels his chair out of the theater, off the pier, and suddenly flies away into the air. The camera splooshes into the bay, follows some seals around for a while, swoops a few shots of the coastline and Alcatraz to let us know we're watching an IMAX system, then we're at the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, watching guys repaint the thing with 5-inch barn brushes. The old coot is at the top of the bridge, still in the wheelchair, yakking in his little sailor accent. We see a pelican on one of the towers flap its wings and fly away, and then it turns into a plane and the old coot is now the pilot. His eye-patch is now missing. The flying must have cured the cyst, or whatever it was. OK, so the plane swoops around the city, and we get more breathtaking postcard vistas, accompanied by saccharine Spielberg orchestral music that sounds like outtakes from the Indiana Jones soundtracks.

Now we're in some dingy, rat-infested building that is supposed to be the interior of a lighthouse. It's hard to tell. We're following the coot in his wheelchair again, the eye-patch is back on, and he introduces us to the famous names of yesteryear: Fremont, Sir Francis Drake, Levi Strauss, Brannan, O'Farrell, blah blah, hats off to the period costuming department, and then we see all these historical figures using cell phones and PowerBooks -- kooky! Here's some historic Chinatown fireworks, and, oops, we've suddenly cut to today's Chinese New Year parade, then Japantown's Cherry Blossom Festival, and now the Bay to Breakers. Look at all those crazy costumes, will ya! Then we witness the last legal duel in California, between a judge and a senator. They shoot each other with pistols but don't fall down; they're not injured at all because, you see, death would be too upsetting to us here at Pier 39.

We're introduced to James Marsh, the guy who first discovered all the gold, and a bunch of "miner-49er" types playing cards, who lift up their heads and -- they're actually 49er football players? Is that Steve Young? What the -- ? Is it possi -- ? Cut to heroic footage of 49er games, Jerry Rice catching slo-mo passes, serenaded by screaming heavy-metal guitar. No mention of last year's playoff loss. Then it's on to guys surfing underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, and people sailing boats, and legions of Rollerbladers, which is what all of us do in the city every day. (I'm in fact Rollerblading as this is being written.)

Footage speeds up, and we watch this startling visual technique applied to more Rollerbladers, runners, Financial District traffic, North Beach traffic, shadows on buildings, and clouds moving across the sky. Hey, how the heck did they do that?

It's now time to meet our town's most important feature -- the people. Folks are asked what they like most about the city, and their head-shot responses fly past: the food, the 49ers, skyscrapers, it's not L.A., it's sophisticated, it's zany, I can be me, etc. Not one person is heard to say, "I'm here because my family hates me!" One man pops onto the screen who looks vaguely gay, the only such gay represented in the entire film. He is, of course, a hairdresser. Willie Brown is asked about the city's people, and hollers, "They are fabulous!"

The old coot is wheeling through the rat shack again, and points out one room filled with -- look, hippies! Guys with hair as long as the girls! Granny glasses! Wild music, colors, beads! And not a shred of drugs or that depressing anti-Vietnam stuff. Don't want to piss off any vets. These are harmless tie-dyed hippies, with temperaments of cuddly forest creatures! Aren't they cute? They love sweets, you know.

We inexplicably flash to Black Bart, a stagecoach robber who also happens to be a second-rate poet, and the scene shifts to footage of a horse-drawn coach being held up, filmed in sepia-tone to, you know, look old. The highwayman lowers his rifle, snatches everybody's bags of gold, and disappears into the trees. A distraught young female victim picks up a note he leaves and reads one of his poems:

I've labored long and hard for bread
For honor and for riches,
But on my corns too long you've tread,
You fine-haired sons of --

Bite your tongue, this is Pier 39! The last word is conveniently interrupted by the 1906 earthquake, and the old coot is now introducing us to the fire chief and Lillie Coit, as debris falls around them. The camera pans across some monitors that show the old footage of the quake, those nifty speakers start rumbling in the back of our theater, and -- it's over?

The lights come up, a clean-cut man in a necktie announces there's another ribbon-cutting ceremony at noon, and we obediently file out through a phalanx of colorful balloons and begin browsing the Captain's Treasure Chest gift shop, admiring the pistols, rifles, swords, hatchets, brass clocks shaped like deep-sea diver helmets, stained-glass lighthouses, gold bars that contain bubble gum, and entry forms for the upcoming Bay to Breakers.

Now it's all so easy to back-seat quarterback here and stamp our feet over what was not included -- the gay pride parade, or rather the Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Pre-Op, Post-Op, Still-in-Stitches-Op Freedom Parade. Or the Beat poets, or Mark Twain, or anything having to do with books, for that matter. Or Cinco de Mayo, Carol Doda, the Giants, or the various festivals -- film, blues, the LSD trips at Longshoremen's Hall. Or as a nice final image for tourists to take back home, a shot of piercing pioneer Fakir Musafar hanging by his tits from a tree.

But tourism being our No. 1 industry, it's disturbing to realize your city's economy -- possibly even your job -- hinges in part on sales of greasy junk food, Alcatraz T-shirts, and cutesy illuminated lighthouses. Think about it for a minute. You wouldn't even have a reason to get up in the morning, if it weren't for a chubby guy in a green Windbreaker, pointing his camcorder at a stinky sea lion.

And that is the real Secret of San Francisco.

Address all correspondence to: Slap Shots, c/o SF Weekly, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8152; e-mail:

By Jack Boulware

About The Author

Jack Boulware


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