You remember Market Street, of course—one of those parts of the city where you never feel at home. Anomalously for San Francisco, Market mostly holds its straight, flat course. The vertical streets collide there, forever confusing tourists looking for Third, Geary and Kearny at one corner. Driving, it’s impossible to take a left; on bicycle, there are many shocks. I remember when you called to tell me that you’d taken a fall after trying to cross the rails…
Those same rails conduct one of my favorite films of cinema’s early period. If San Francisco is a “cinema city,” as per a recent program curated by Rebecca Solnit, then A Trip Down Market Street was its first parade, the answer-film to Muybridge’s photographic panoramas of the city (from on high down into the street). A Trip Down Market Street is simple to describe and complex to behold: a camera is positioned on the front of a trolley en route to the Ferry Building. For about ten minutes, in what seems a continuous take, we survey the clamoring width of Market Street until eventually the Ferry Building terminus fills the screen. The trolley rotates for its reverse route, and the film ends upon first sight of this southwesterly perspective.
Even watching just a few minutes of the film—available online at the Internet Archive thanks to the laudable efforts of the Prelinger Archives—is enough to get the flavor of the chaotic vectors of new street traffic: automobiles, trolleys, horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and, most precariously, pedestrians tangoing for the right-of-way. There are no collisions—amazingly, we think—but for those in our imagination.
The film is from 1906, not 1905 as was previously thought. Introducing the film, and the entire Radical Light series, Steve Anker noted that this correction came of a little photographic sleuthing (not for nothing did the detective become lodged in the literary imagination in the same decades photography was popularized). Apparently, research dated a license plate seen in the film to 1906 (the researcher was David Kiehn; there’s more on this story here). From the stunning print of the film shown at the PFA, I can testify to indeed being able to discern several license numbers, and that, moreover, when the cars are jolted by the unsteady road, these same plates flash bright in the sun. A nice little précis on the documentary image: the same thing that furnishes “proof” might also simply glint as actuality.
Being from 1906, the film runs in even closer anticipation of the Great Earthquake than was earlier assumed. This is only the most obvious account for a city at once recognizable and fundamentally different. Along the film’s trip, we pass by many landmarks unfamiliar to us now, like that same corner of Third, Kearny and Geary: ground zero for the turn-of-the century newspaper war between de Young’s Chronicle, Hearst’s Examiner and the Spreckels’ San Francisco Call. Then there are those landmarks yet to be and now no longer, like the Embarcadero Freeway.
We become dizzy contemplating these interceding specters and so focus instead on the film’s enunciation of the new medium’s curious properties. Cinema still seems something of an “attraction” here, resembling both an amusement-park ride and a moving picture postcard. But A Trip Down Market Street is also most certainly an experimental film, marked by technological ingenuity and a certain self-consciousness of the riddles of motion pictures. The fact that the edges of the frame stay fixed even as the diegetic space to which they refer is constantly changing, for instance; or that the camera is simultaneously still and moving; or that we experience a tremendous liberty to look within a constricted field of vision. And what of the curious intermingling of spontaneous and staged reality? The film is obviously staged in the sense of its predetermined course—but we also see the same cars and pedestrians swoop before the image several times, giving the impression that the filmmakers took pains to guarantee a dynamic frame. From the very start, a certain uncertainty shades the world viewed.
All of these paradoxes seem axiomatic not only of the cinema, but of the modern city. Indeed, insofar as “cinema helped make the complex experience of modern cities more legible,” (see Paul Arthur’s essay, “The Redemption of the City”), A Trip Down Market Street is exemplary cinema. What better illustration might we have of the way in which the city at once standardizes time (the commute hours) and reveals its different subjective modalities (the commuters)? We smoothly move through space along this clear axis of standardized time, the trolley en route, while dozens of different subjects—walking, running, riding—cross our path every which way. The route is defined, the intersections chance encounters. Think of it in terms of our eventual destination: though we are on a scheduled course to the Ferry Building, the scene that greets us there is one of happenstance (a man’s 19th century beard stays in mind).
As such, the film articulates two modes of consciousness often attributed to city living: one hyper-stimulated, the other smoothed out and mechanical. Writing only three years A Trip Down Market, Georg Simmel isolated “the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli” as being emblematic of “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” writing,
Lasting impressions, the slightness in their differences, the habituated regularity of their course and contrasts between them, consume, so to speak, less mental energy than the rapid telescoping of changing images, pronounced differences within what is grasped at a single glance, and the unexpectedness of visual stimuli. To the extent that the metropolis creates these psychological conditions—with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life—it creates in the sensory foundations of mental life, and in the degree of awareness necessitated by our organization as creatures dependent on differences, a deep contrast with the slower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm of the sensory-mental place of small town and rural existence.
While many would surely take issue with Simmel binary of city (requiring intellectual detachment to smother all these stimuli) and country living (“rests more on feelings and emotional relationships”), it nonetheless seems he might as well have consulted with the Miles Brothers before the making of A Trip Down Market Street. The modern city is more than any individual set of eyes can take in; the photograph takes in more visual information than any set of eyes can. Bringing the two into alignment, we strain.
Perhaps no single element is so emblematic of the collapse of space and time we experience watching A Trip Down Market Street as the presence of the Ferry Building. The controlling point of reference for both the street (perspective) and film (duration), it is also the most prominent landmark that remains more than a century later. Now we buy our organic strawberries there. Uncannily, the Ferry Building represents both the literal, spatial destination of the film as well as the present moment from which we watch. It’s a bit like contemplating the distance of stars.
Landmarks are one of the features of urban design that makes the city “legible” according to Kevin Lynch’s 1960 book, The Image of the City. But clearly there are many kinds of landmarks, which register differently according to one’s station in the city (pedestrian, shopper, CEO, tourist, laborer, etc.). Lynch writes, “Distant landmarks, prominent points visible from many positions, were often well known, but only people unfamiliar with Boston seemed to use them to any great extent in organizing the city and selecting routes for trips. It is the novice who guides himself by reference to the John Hancock Building and the Custom House.” Indeed, no one pictured in A Trip Down Market Street seems to orient him or herself according to the Ferry Building; they look at the camera instead. It’s some measure of our remove that no matter how long we’ve lived in or around San Francisco, we need the Ferry Building to locate the scene before us.