Old war movies were as predictable as war is unpredictable. If one of the soldiers in the platoon was an Italian kid from Brooklyn who just couldn't wait to get back to Bensonhurst to eat his nonna's ravioli — he was gonna die, and right soon. But not as soon as the black guy.
These tropes die hard. It warrants mentioning that the first soldier killed in Saving Private Ryan was played by Vin Diesel — who is both Italian-American and black. It's a miracle he made it out of the credits.
Of late, however, a new character has surged to the head of the mortality column: San Francisco.
Cinematic iterations of our city have been razed since a few scant decades after the Great Quake of '06 provided the genuine article for even non-ticket holders. In much the same way that the earliest music videos were, essentially, rudimentary depictions of the band in question playing the song in question, the first San Francisco disaster movies recounted this city's destruction in the one manner everyone knew San Francisco could be destroyed. In the closing scene of San Francisco (1936), our rattled denizens emerge from the charred rubble, a strangely enthusiastic quake survivor bellows "We'll build a new San Francisco!" and the fade from the smoldering wreckage to the city's 1930s heyday reveals they did just that.
Good thing, too. A new generation of far more creative filmmakers were waiting to wreck this city anew.
In the old days, you needed permission to destroy San Francisco. Perhaps because he didn't hire Willie Brown as a "consultant," Ray Harryhausen was in 1955 denied permission.
In an amazing tale recounted in this paper earlier this year, the stop-motion special effects maven was informed by city fathers that his plan to depict an oversize octopus disassembling the Golden Gate Bridge would strike fear into the hearts of commuters, and was not to be allowed. Harryhausen promptly rented a bakery truck, amassed a trove of clandestine footage, and proceeded to depict a gargantuan cephalopod giving this city the business in It Came From Beneath the Sea.
A litany of citywide screen deaths followed — The Towering Inferno, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, X-Men: The Last Stand. We appear to have eluded the recent trend of shambling zombie movies, but San Francisco dies on film more often than Sean Bean. And, like that decapitated head of the Stark clan, our city has kicked its dying into overdrive. It seems every other film in San Francisco theaters these days depicts the immolation of the land upon which those theaters stand. In the last year alone, San Francisco has been rampaged over by giant monsters and giant robots; trodden upon by Godzilla; terrorized by Khan Noonien Singh; and overrun by damn, dirty apes in an encore performance of apes overruning the city in only 2011 — which was, to be honest, more apes overruning San Francisco than your humble narrator cared to see in the first place.
This month, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has been rolling about town filming an earthquake flick. How cyclical. And how apropos Johnson's nickname for a film about a geological phenomena.
As much as it pains a San Franciscan to say it, maybe we're not that damn special. Ours is a stand-in for any recognizable, destroyable city: Like Paris or London, we have signature bridges and landmarks that look different in one piece and standing than in several pieces and on the ground.
A nuclear bomb was dropped on Houston in Independence Day. But, you know, it was hard to tell.
It's difficult, however, not to feel like the trendy battering of our city means a bit more. When Martians vaporized Los Angeles City Hall in the 1953 version of War of the Worlds, it was hard not to infer deeper meanings behind the destruction of one of the nation's most tangible symbols of order and authority by an invasion force dead-set on wiping out the American way of life. It's similarly difficult not to see both externally directed rage and self-flagellation in the ritualistic postwar cinematic destruction of Japan by atomic-spawned behemoths.
Hollywood's preferred choice of sacrificial city seems to change with the times — New York, Los Angeles, and now us. Perhaps, reiterating the punchline of the filthy old joke, it's merely our turn in the barrel. But this would hardly seem to be a random barrel: New York and L.A. were apt stand-ins for dystopian visions of a prior era. L.A., especially, encapsulates our best and worst: a repository of the nation's most beautiful-looking, ugly-behaving inhabitants.
San Francisco, however, manages to be all things to all people — when it comes to annoying all people. Right-wing troglodytes both in the real world and the Chronicle comments section have a visceral reaction to anything San Francisco does; if this city endorsed water, they'd cease bathing. But this city's unabashed solipsism can sour even sensible types, as can the orgiastic displays of conspicuous consumption and kowtowing to wealthy special interests revealed via a level of national media coverage bordering on obsessive.
San Francisco has been poked and prodded and analyzed — and, now, vivisected.
There is one more group of people who may harbor a surreptitious desire for this city to suffer — San Franciscans. Your humble narrator recalls a gray day in 1998, motoring down Geary Boulevard with a fellow area native. The dot.com boom had gone bust, there would never be a better time to buy a secondhand foosball table, and a "For Rent" sign was affixed to every last apartment building. Our foosball-playing, rent-hiking, tech-enabled interlopers had decamped to whence they came.
"Good! Good! That was bullshit!" barked my passenger in a vehement tone that still rings in my ears. "That was no way to be a millionaire."
He certainly didn't bellow "We'll build a new San Francisco!" And, you know, we didn't.
But that's happening. It has been left to someone else.