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In Which I Greatly Enjoy an Ape Uprising, But Am Bothered By Hollywood Geography

In San Francisco, Science Fiction on October 22, 2011 at 11:15 am

I finally saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes last night, and quite liked it. Much more than I thought, actually. The big climactic battle scene on the Golden Gate Bridge was probably the most entertaining thing I’ve seen on a movie screen in some time. A gorilla totally messes up a helicopter, and it’s spectacular.

Also, Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance as Caesar, the chimp protagonist, was absolutely brilliant. The movie won my respect in that it told a story about a character who communicated almost entirely using facial expressions and body language. Caesar was vivid and well defined in the same way that WALL-E was, in that the filmmakers were forced to show, not tell. RotPotA uses CGI to tell a story, not to simply dazzle the viewer with effects.

That said, I had two small, quibbling issues with the movie. The first was a dumb, tacked-on story about humanity getting wiped out by an artificial supervirus, as opposed to a nuclear war, like in the original movies. This plot element takes place almost entirely after the credits, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was hastily added in post-production as a rushed afterthought.

The other issue, though, was about San Franciscan geography. I enjoyed that the movie took place in a real American city as opposed to Any Town, U.S.A. What’s more, it took place in San Francisco, where I’ve spent a fair amount of time, and the big fight scene was on one of my favorite landmarks.

What bothered, me, though, was that my familiarity with San Franciscan geography kind of impeded my enjoyment of the movie. Towards the climax, Caesar and his gang of simian compatriots break out of a primate holding facility in San Bruno, south of San Fancisco. They climb up a hill and then look over the city.

After that, they’re suddenly breaking apes out of the San Francisco zoo. The zoo is on the western side of SF’s peninsula. According to Google maps it’s about twelve miles away from San Bruno. It sort of strains credibility that a horde of apes could go twelve miles in a big city and not be noticed, but okay…

Then, suddenly, they’re in downtown SF, up in the NE corner of the city. That’s about eight miles away. So, at this point the apes have covered over twenty miles of territory in a single afternoon, and so far not much of a response. As they are messing up downtown, Caesar espies the mighty Golden Gate Bridge.

I want to emphasize that even as I’m picking it apart, I really enjoyed the hell out of this movie. When the Golden Gate comes into the frame, though it’s as if the director is saying “Apes! To the widely recognized national landmark! Let’s have the climax THERE!” Because the climax couldn’t happen on Market Street or something. No one recognizes that.

The Golden Gate isn’t really near Downtown SF, though. The apes have to go another four miles through the Presido to get there. We don’t see that. It’s just downtown San Francisco and then BOOM! Golden Gate.t be on, you know, Market Street or something. It has to be on a landmark. If anyone were to ever bother with filming a movie in South Dakota, you can bet that the ultimate fight scene would take place at Mount Rushmore.

After that the apes are instantly in the Muir Woods, about ten miles away. I know I’m a stickler here, but quite frankly a horde of apes could not successfully cross through over forty miles of a populated area. The movie was so good, though, that I (almost) didn’t care.

I realize that movies and TV compress geography. In RotPatA, San Bruno, the zoo, downtown, and the Golden Gate are all close by because they need to be for the plot to happen. I get that. I also get that people who live in New York or LA are probably annoyed by how Hollywood has crunched and mangled their geography to a weird degree, with characters probably showing up at vastly unrelated locations on a regular basis.

This almost, almost makes me want to watch Zero Effect or Foxfire, just so I can see how movies have similarly cut up and re-edited Portland’s streets. Probably horribly, because no one out side of this city would care where things actually are.

Portland, We Need to Talk About "Chinatown"…

In Portland, Rants, San Francisco on April 15, 2010 at 9:11 am

Dearest Portland,

Over the past year plus that I’ve lived here, I have found new reasons to love you. New areas of weirdness and wonder, new quirks and oddities to marvel at. You, Portland, are a tremendous place, and I routinely feel a swell of irrational pride at you being my native city. However, there is something that we need to talk about. Something that you could be doing better. No, it’s not the lack of bike lanes on Sandy Blvd., though that is annoying. Nor is it the eyesore that is SE Powell. I have every confidence you’ll clean those up eventually. No, what we need to talk about, Portland, is the couple of blocks downtown that you have decided to dub “Chinatown.”

Chinatown sucks, Portland. It’s more than a little embarrassing. I was recently in San Francisco, and took a stroll through that city’s Chinatown. I’d been there before, but it’s a fun neighborhood and I was with people who’d never been. I snapped a few photos. Here’s an example:

That’s not any particular landmark or a significant intersection or anything. That’s just a bit on the street. Nothing too unusual. Here’s another one:

Again, that’s not a famous landmark or anything. I was just walking down the street, snapping away like an obnoxious tourist, and took a picture of that building. Pretty commonplace.

For contrast, here’s the House of Louie, one of Portland Chinatown’s most “Chinese” buildings. It’s kind of decrepit and sort of a sad sight:

And here’s Royal Family Ginseng, right next door, abandoned. Someone papered up the windows, but now those brown sheets are peeling away, the markings of abandonment themselves disintegrating:

And that’s it, really. There are a few other “Chinese” type buildings, but that’s pretty much it in terms of what Portland has. Why the disjunction? Why does San Francisco have a Chinatown where storefronts and apartments are culturally distinctive and Portland has pretty much just a pair of crumbling buildings?

The answer is pretty simple- San Francisco’s Chinatown actually has Chinese people in it. The distinctive cultural flair of the area, the storefronts, tea shops, and restaurants, are all a product of the actual residents. Sure, they play it up for the tourists, but it’s completely possible to go into a dim sum shop and be the only English speaker in the place. San Francisco’s Chinatown actually reflects an immigrant population where they can get together, speak their own language, eat their own food, etc. As someone who’s been a stranger in a foreign country, I can totally see why such a place is necessary.

Portland, on the other hand, has a big gate, a bunch of red street lamps, and some rather dubious buildings. That’s about it. What’s missing from Portland’s Chinatown is, well, Chinese people. The are near Old Town is the official Chinatown, but there are a lot more Chinese people and businesses out on 82nd Ave. In the official Chinatown you can find hipsters, drunks, and homeless, but you won’t hear anyone speaking Mandarin.

So, Portland, here’s what I’m proposing: stop pretending. Stop pretending that we have a Chinatown, because we really don’t. We have a neighborhood with some red lamp posts, and that’s about it. It is a neighborhood that I really like, but it’s not reflective of an immigrant population, it’s not an enclave that Chinese people have made for themselves. I’m not saying we should tear down the big gate or anything, but we should all acknowledge that Portland’s Chinatown is, at the end of the day, complete bullshit.

Preacher Man, or, What I Was Doing in San Francisco

In Relationships, San Francisco on April 13, 2010 at 2:16 pm
“Joe, will you marry us?”

I thought the question rather odd, to say the least. I mean, I’m totally okay with open relationships, polyamory, swinging, etc., but these were my friends and it would be kind of weird to… Suddenly I got it.

“You mean perform the ceremony?”


I thought for several seconds. More than five but less than ten. After that time, I said


That was last August. Two weeks ago I found myself in San Francisco, and suddenly, very suddenly, it was all much more Real. Prior to that, the idea of officiating the wedding of my friends seemed like a fun/quirky enough idea, something that I could do that would add to my overall Resume of Weird Stuff I’ve Done. The fact that can now (in a technical and legal sense) append “Rev.” to my name seemed just sort of charming and odd. That all changed two days prior to the wedding.

Oh shit, I thought to myself, there are going to be grandmas here. Grandmas. Grandmas and uncles and parents and smiling family members who want to see something sincerely beautiful. And it is, really. This was not to be something frivolous and interesting. This had to be something filled with genuine feelings beauty, love, etc.

Starting the ceremony by saying “Mawage! Mawage is what bwings us to-gether today!” would probably be unwise.

My friends, Robin and Greg, had jokingly told me that one of the reasons they’d chosen me to perform the ceremony was because I “don’t believe in marriage.” That’s not quite true, but I am generally not a solemn person, and don’t stand on ceremony very much. I’m completely atheistic, I try not to feel constrained by tradition, am ambivalent about monogamy, and am generally uncomfortable around nice old people who enjoy things like weddings.

While I don’t disbelieve in marriage, or weddings, etc., I did need to shove aside a certain amount of my personal philosophy aside to pull the whole thing off, which was an interesting mental exercise, to say the least. My biggest hang up was the wording that the bride wanted to use for the ring exchange- the words “holy” and “soul” were included, and in a phone conversation beforehand she asked me if I would be okay with intoning such things. I said yes, I would. In fact, I did so happily.

To eject a bunch of unnecessary detail, I ended up freaking out two days before the ceremony, wondering how everything would go, and then eventually everything went great. Robin and Greg got hitched without a hitch.

During the whole thing, I became very cognizant of the importance of ceremony, ritual, and public demonstrations. Not because ceremony does anything supernatural or whatnot, but because it is a public and undeniable demonstration of fact, in this case, how much my two friends loved each other. Doing the whole thing, I realized that I had no philosophical problem with it. At all. None. I was sort of astonished to find that my worldview is consistent with things like wedding ceremonies. In fact, I’m quite in favor of them. What’s more, presiding over it actually is meaningful. Being the guy up in front who presides over it isn’t all that trivial. While I don’t share their philosophy, I think I have a better understanding of how preachers and priests must feel, and I kind of get while judges still wear those robes. Outward expressions of ceremonial authority are (somehow) meaningful.

Anyway, I had a great time. I still wish that I had a teleporter that could zot me between Portland and the Bay Area. That would be awful nice. As for being a sort of new-model preacher man… I could do it again, given the right circumstances. It was a fantastic privilege, and I really did learn that ceremonies, because they are invested with emotional value, can be much more than the sum of their parts.

"It Seems To Be Some Sort of Internationally Recognized Landmark…"

In San Francisco, Travel on August 23, 2009 at 3:51 pm

That Robert Frost poem is really misinterpreted. The Road Not Taken isn’t about rugged individualism or how wonderfully shiny self-expression is. It’s sort of an ironic poem, really, if you bother to read the whole damn thing and not just take the last bit and paste it on a Hallmark card.

Yet, there seems to be a certain breed of snob out there who take that shit literally, who blanch at the idea of seeing a tourist site, who shudder at the thought of going to any place that’s going to swarmed by families with cameras and baseball caps. I’ll cop to having a little bit of this attitude in me. Even as we approached the Golden Gate Bridge, a place I specifically wanted to go, my inner hipster-snob-asshole voice said “Oh god, we’re tourists now.” Once the thing reared up on the skyline, though, once the great orange towers reared up against the sky, I was duly impressed with the thing, and able to shove the annoying inner voice down into a mental oubliette where he belongs. We got out of the car and there were indeed several families with cameras and baseball caps swarming about- khaki shorts, sweatshirts, minivans.

The contemptuous arrogant bastard was safely in his damp little hole, though, and I was determined to be a tourist and enjoy it. I like being a tourist. People who say, “Oh, I love traveling but I hate tourists,” or “I’m a traveler, not a tourist,” are hypocrites. I like the sense of renewed perception that comes from being in a new venue, and I like seeing what the place has to offer. That includes places that are staggeringly famous and overrun with out-of-towners. While I do like wandering about on my own in the non-famous parts of a place (and did plenty of that in SF) there is a certain feeling of niceness that comes from going to a place that is absolutely, unmistakably famous. Iconic and symbolic. Somewhere or something that encapsulates its city, region, or country.

Every time I stood at Hachiko crossing in Shibuya, I sensed that I was somehow taking in an abreviated version of Tokyo, a kind of concentrated, focused bit of the city’s zeitgeist. I felt the same way about the Shanghai’s Pudong skyline, an image that fired rapid development into the the night sky. Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive is like that. Driving down it you think, “Yes, there are the Big Shoulders, right there. There’s the unmistakable something-ness of this place.”

The Golden Gate is, of course, a symbol of San Francisco. It’s also a symbol of everything that San Francisco represents, and that’s saying a lot. It’s also a big damn bridge. I love seeing the functionality of these places, knowing that this thing that’s a symbol of so many amorphous things is also part of someone’s daily commute. That’s great. Walking across the bridge, I loved seeing the road signs. This thing that gets imprinted on so many cheap gifts and duplicated in so much media is a living, workable thing, and you would be an asshole to try a U-turn on it.

I was sort of pleased to see, though, that there really are rather prominent anti-suicide signs on the bridge. I guess that’s one other thing that the bridge is famous for- the dramatic ejection of people and things into the San Francisco Bay. One of my high school English teachers claimed to have angrily thrown her engagement ring from the bridge. Seeing the signs though, I wondered how big a drama queen you’d have to be to kill yourself by jumping from this thing. What a cry for attention. What a final, pathetic “hey, guys- lookit me!” act. You’d have to have a weird alchemy of self-loathing and self-aggrandizement to actually do it.

I loved it, though. I loved that it was crowded and covered with camera flashes, the feeling that somehow we were participating in something significant just by walking across a sizable piece of urban engineering. I loved that it was crowded with bicycles and people shouting, plenty of people walking along and making use of this gigantic, significant and beautiful bit of metal and concrete. Yes, I thought, this is the Golden Fucking Gate Bridge and I’m experiencing it right now. I’m on it. I’m on top of this thing, that whose image I’ve seen, but now my experience is unmediated.

One last thing- I was lucky enough to be with three friends from Japan, people with whom I was very pleased to see again. Six months ago I left, and wondered what my relationships with people there would be like in the future I wondered if the connections would hold. Here, they did. My friendships, it seems, can take a bit of abuse and estrangement, which is an encouraging, when you think about it. We looked across to the Pacific and waved to our erstwhile home. “Hi, Japan!” we said, jumping up and down with utterly appropriate overenthusiasm. Seeing them was excellent and I feel that this picture is utterly representative of them.


In San Francisco on August 23, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Recently got back from a trip to the lovely Bay Area. While walking through downtown with some friends we happened upon a fountain that had been unexpectedly and frothily filled with bubbles.

Foam was pouring out of the thing and bits of it were getting carried all over the square by the winds. Kids were running after bits of it and a nearby outdoor yoga class continued on despite the artificial snow that was pelting them.

I thought for a minute “Is it supposed to do that?” and asked a nearby security guard what the deal with the fountain was. “Someone poured detergent into it,” he said, smiling. He didn’t seem bothered by it at all. Maybe the fountain wasn’t in his security-guard jurisdiction, but he seemed to be enjoying the casual vandalism as much as anyone. I wondered if the perpetrators had been inspired by that one guy who threw red dye into Trevi Fountain a few years ago.

This is why I love the West Coast. From San Francisco to Seattle there seems to be a prevailing feel for this sort of thing, this kind of verve and life. I remember reading Ecotopia in high school and encountering similar ideas in Nine Nations of North America later in college. In both cases, I thought the authors made for too much of regional differences. However, I don’t think their ideas were totally unfounded. There is an identifiable aesthetic and way of things here, one that I love and appreciate. People complain about Portland being overrun by “hipster douchebags” (a phrase anymore that is a collocation) but I know that they’re coming out here for this sort of thing- flurries of mischief and joy, with amused security guards looking on.