Behind the Scenes

St. Francis
965 Market (at Sixth Street)
Admission: $6.50, $3.50 matinee
Parking: none

Leaving aside the Mini Adult Theater (see "The Pits"), the St. Francis is now as gritty an urban filmgoing experience as one can get in S.F. While it's likely that the only gunplay the theater sees comes from the innumerable actioners screened here, you might not truly believe it once you're inside. The magnificent downstairs room has a truly impressive screen; the projection is beyond bad, however, and on certain days there's an annoying speaker buzz. Upstairs is very dark, and boasts a unique set of odors. But you don't come to the St. Francis for class, you come for the right crowd and the right film; when they come together, the experience can pack a punch. We still recall fondly a concussive, raucous screening of the original Terminator, lo 12 years ago.

The St. Francis is all that remains of what used to be a glowing string of Market Street movie houses. "I'm the last one," says the owner and manager, who goes by the name Harry and has run the theater for 15 years. The VCR has hurt, of course, but "some people still want to go out and see the town. I'm holding on."

221 University, Palo Alto
Admission: $6, $4 seniors, $3 kids
Parking: area lots
See "Last of the Independents."

19th Avenue & Winston
Admission: $7.50, $4 kids/seniors, $4.50 matinee
Parking: free

The best thing about seeing a movie at the mall is the wide-open expanse of free parking. There are two theaters in the complex, with two sections of seats. The right-side seats in our theater were angled so that they were almost facing the left wall, which was disconcerting. A line of lights above us weren't turned off until halfway through the film.

Total Mobile Home
51 McCoppin
Admission: $3-5
Parking: none

At Total Mobile Home Cinema the screening is just a part of the experience. Enthusiastic proprietors Rebecca Barten and David Sherman put on programs of offbeat and experimental films and live performance in their homey basement theater. In past screenings, John Cassavetes' Faces and a rare documentary about its creation were accompanied by a sheaf of program notes; a Boston filmmaker created a circuslike environment for a showing of his film; and a show featuring Jean Epstein's silent take on Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher was followed by a dramatic reading of a Gothic novel and bizarre film clips. Nutty stuff. Sure, the 30 seats scattered about the theater are notoriously hard, the equipment runs from the just passable to the shoddy (the owners say most of their equipment comes from yard sales or donations), and the 4-foot-by-5-foot screen is tiny, but the experience itself is beyond anything you'd get at either a glitzy multiplex or even a stylish art house.

UA Berkeley
2274 Shattuck
(510) 843-1487
Admission: $7.50, $4 kids/seniors, $4 matinee
Parking: none

Plexing gone mad. The work that put four theaters where there was once a truly impressive auditorium was perfunctorily done: The new screens are set at an angle to the original arced seating. The two rooms in what was once the balcony are even worse; the screens aren't even in the middle of their respective walls. (The three additional theaters squeezed into other parts of the building are cramped.) The technical incompetence of this Benighted Artists operation is legendary; stories abound of film climaxes missed due to projector malfunctions, or workmen coming in to hammer during the movie. Almost every projector has an old or insufficient bulb; some movies are squintingly dark, and it's not unusual to see a noticeable strip of the movie projected off the screen. Minor annoyances are plenty, like tiny aisle lights whose covers are broken and give off unwanted glare as you're trying to watch the screen. Bonus: An utterly indifferent staff makes theater-jumping a breeze for restless teens and movie fans on a limited budget.

Historical footnote: The original duplexing of the theater was the key West Coast battle site in UA's fight with the projectionists' union. The company eventually locked the union out. The East Bay projectionists' local to this day will throw up an occasional picket line at local UA sites. "We just want to let 'em know we're still around," one union member says.

UA Emery Bay
6330 Christie, Emeryville
(510) 420-0107
Admission: $7.50, $4 kids/seniors, $4.50 matinee
Parking: free

This UA nineplex is in busy Emeryville, just north of the Powell Street exit from I-80: Some San Franciscans like it because it's a quick jump over the bridge and has free parking. It's definitely a step up for UA: The staff doesn't radiate fecklessness, and the theaters themselves are decent. But projection problems are many: The rule here is dark projection. At a recent showing of Michael Collins, the screen was too dark, the image was patently out of focus, and the film was being projected about two feet to the side. We dutifully went out and told someone: He actually seemed interested to hear about the problem, and the skewed projection, though not the darkness nor the focus, got fixed relatively speedily. But $7.50 is a lot to pay for a theater that needs that kind of advice.

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