November 08, 2010

In Search of Christopher Maclaine 8: The THE END Tour - A Work in Progress 7: JOHN A

This is the eighth of a multipart series unofficially conjoined to the publication of Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, and the accompanying film series currently being presented by the Pacific Film Archive and San Francisco Cinematheque (in partnership with SFMOMA).

With my friend Brian Darr, proprietor of the great Bay Area cinephilia blog Hell on Frisco Bay, I’ve been scouting out the San Francisco locations used in Christopher Maclaine’s Masterpiece, THE END.  What began as an attempt to identify and document what physically remains of the often mysterious places at which THE END was shot has evolved into a larger project to also analyze the film, and to identify all its many actors and extras, all of whom appear uncredited. To read the full version of these preliminary remarks, including info on how YOU can participate in this project, click here. For further information on Maclaine, check out the intro, which serves as this series’ hub. For the previous post of this Tour, click here.

NEW FEATURE: a Youtube of the JOHN episode is viewable here.

NOTE: portions of Maclaine’s Voice-Over narration are transcribed in italicized sections. The images, for the most part, are stills documenting many (but by no means all) of THE END‘s shots. Those unfamiliar with this film will probably want to watch the video clip found above first, before making their way through the (hopefully enjoyable) notes and explication.

1) We now come to the third of THE END‘s major characters, JOHN. I described the tale of our previous subject, Charles, as “the darkest in Maclaine’s gallery of rogues,” but John’s story is decidedly THE END‘s most chilling. Several seconds before we see the “3” above, as the image remains black, Maclaine introduces JOHN’s musical theme, which will play for the duration of his episode: Béla Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.” Great artists intuit alike: the same portions of Bartók’s piece used by Maclaine were employed by Stanley Kubrick some twenty-seven years later in his own take on a would-be writer’s descent into madness, THE SHINING.

All his life, John had wanted to be a poet.

2) We are first shown this image of John (actor unidentified) sans revolver, as he stands silent, apparently waiting for his cue to perform. After several seconds, Maclaine jump cuts to John reciting (or at least speaking — his poems or other verbal expressions are unheard), the barrel of his revolver placed firmly to his temple. Two observations: the act of performance for John would seem to be indissolubly yoked to theatricalized self-destruction, and the revolver at his temple seems familiar, almost at home. Putting on “The John Suicide Show” has become a compulsion.

Then one day it had come to him that he had nothing to offer poetry …

3) As in commedia dell’arte, or some other ritualized theatrical form, all of THE END‘s characters are distinguished by iconic gestures and facial expressions from their first moments onscreen. Aside from the barrel-to-the-temple routine, John will be known for his smile twisted in wry desperation, and the obsessive fingering of his revolver, a gesture which can be seen here and immediately below. The stained glass backdrop against which he performs suggests the sacred environs of a church: John is a failed priest, or twisted shaman, capable only of self-destruction, or leading a flock astray with his perverse “entertainments.”

that poetry was, in itself, worthy of no offering.

4) John’s strained psyche has worked itself into the blasphemous position of discounting the value and status of the Muse. These gorgeous stained glass windows (seen thus far in pictures 2–4, they will reappear in 13 and 16) would seem to be of a type to grace a private residence. Is it conceivable (except for their possibly being damaged in an earthquake) that they wouldn’t be preserved intact? Brian and I have high hopes for their rapid identification. Any ideas, stained glass lovers? If not, please ask around.

Then he had turned entertainer, clown. And he was brilliant, at first. Where poetry had left him dead, his audience brought him to life …

5) This unidentified actress approaches, staring at the camera in an apparent humorous or mocking attempt to provoke the viewer’s paranoia. This is the first of many such mindscreen POV shots of John’s “friends,” who openly mock John to his face, or in his imagination. We are suddenly immersed in a vision of full-on paranoia.

… and he had learned how to make them laugh, and cry …

6) From the vivid Kodachrome shots we’ve been presented of John’s enclosed, suffocating reality, Maclaine cuts to this b&w image from a Dostoyevskian “Underground Man’s” perspective of the everyday world proceeding along its endless path. The camera is positioned at Powell at Market, facing the south corner of the intersection of Market and Fifth streets. The large building filling the background is a JCPenney department store at 901 Market.

7) A recent photo from a position slightly closer to the south corner of the intersection of Market and Fifth streets than the one seen in picture #6; 901 Market is now the location of a Marshall’s.

But now …

8 ) In a shot similar to that shown in picture #5, another of John’s “friends” approaches the camera in a manner indicating the weirdness of what he sees.

… he could no longer take the pain from his head by talking.

9) The “friend” grows closer … This actor has been identified as Junius Adams by Wilder Bentley II. There will be a savory item or two relating to Junius featuring in Brian’s and my interview with Wilder, to be published subsequent to this Tour.

Nothing meant anything …

10) Another “Underground Man’s” mindscreen image of diurnal futility: a cable car is rotated at the intersections of Market, Powell, and Eddy in preparation for yet another trip. Hale’s department store across the street had, since 1912, been located down the street at 901 Market, but in the previous decade, Hale’s and Penney’s had switched out stores: even the Grand Establishments are engaged in meaningless rounds of musical chairs.

… and anything meant nothing …

11) Shot continued from #10. The cable car continues its rotation, revealing details of the advertisement on its rear: Xavier Cugat, with his sexpot wife Abbe Lane, was to begin a run at the St. Francis Hotel on November 25th (presumably of 1952 — thus indicating the film had been in production from at least the fall of that year). Strangely, there are two tangential future connections to THE END in this shot: after its premiere at the San Francisco Museum of Art’s Art in Cinema series in the fall of 1953, where it met a largely fraught and bitter reception, Art in Cinema, for the remainder of its initial incarnation, reoriented itself to the work and personalities of Hollywood artistry. Among those venturing up from southern climes to make presentations in the spring of ’54 included George Sidney and Vincente Minnelli. Cugat had appeared in two films directed by Sidney, while the chairman of Hale’s, Prentis Cobb Hale, would, in 1971, marry Denise Minnelli shortly after she divorced Vincente.

12) A recent photo. Images of feminine beauty/sexuality continue to exert their lure, and cable cars still must be spun about and returned to their duties. The Emporium (not visible in images 10 and 11, above) and Hale’s, however, have departed the space currently occupied by the Westfield San Francisco Centre.

… and nothing meant nothing.

13) This chilling nihilist litany has never failed to send shivers down my spine — without question, it’s the scariest formulation in the English language I’ve yet encountered. While listening to its conclusion, we are treated to a previously unseen view of a section of the beautiful stained glass from 2–4 as John regales his audience with his theatrics in front of it.

14) The cable car finishes its rotation, its occupants spun around in a manner not quite analogous to, but somehow reminding me, nevertheless, of, a hamster in its exercise wheel. The store immediately behind this cable car on Powell facing east was a Woolworth’s (see not quite legible sign towards top right corner). This store would later feature prominently in Bruce Baillie’s brilliant first film, On Sundays (1961). The Woolworth’s sequence of Baillie’s film can be viewed in the healthy chunk from On Sundays to be found about six minutes into this roughly sixteen-minute YouTube preview of Robert Gardner’s TV show “Screening Room with Bruce Baillie” (1973).

15) A recent photo. Woolworth’s has long since departed the space currently occupied by The Gap. Passengers being spun about within cable cars at this turnaround, an image Maclaine used in 1953 to underscore John’s vision of suicide-inspiring futility, was phased out at some point — no doubt due to safety concerns. Compared to what we see in image 14, above, this empty car seems rather sad — a moderately enjoyable amusement park-esque ride has been lost in the winds of time and “progress.”

So the only thing to do was to achieve sublime joy, and then bow out at its peak before anyone knew he was gone.

16) This will be our final view of the stained glass. It’s evidence of how out on a limb John is that he stands in front of this potential inspirer of “sublime joy” to declaim his desire to “bow out.”

17) You can see why his “friends” might perceive John’s routines as slick comedy. Maclaine himself was, or would come to be, best known for his crazy, theatrical Beat routines performed in coffee houses and bars. Is the wood paneling behind John from the same house as the stained glass?

18) A “friend” (actor unidentified) gives John the “are you puttin’ me on?” stare.

He gave them one more act, his friends …

19) Was the actor playing John a WWII vet? He seems to be displaying the “thousand-yard stare” in this image, and, with the film probably being shot in ’52–’53, would have been just the right age. If so, casting such a man as his John was a brilliant move on Maclaine’s part. If not fulfilling the stereotyped image of a “poet,” he certainly seems to have been to the edge of beyond, and to have never quite found his way back.

… and associates.

20) The second of THE END‘s featured appearances by a “bum” (this one from now on will be designated “Bum #2”). Crashed out on some corner of  Divisadero St. (perhaps at Haight or Geary?), he was likely unconscious for the duration of his shoot. Maclaine arguably employs Bum #2 to radically varying associative purposes, in this first instance linking him to John’s seemingly unthinking, callous “associates.”

Please see ♣ below for a lengthy aside contemplating Maclaine’s possible thoughts and intentions concerning the street name “Divisadero.”


And they watched him go, not daring to question him …

21) Is this sad mannequin in a shop window “lost cause” John? Or one of his unthinking “associates,” “watching him go”?

… lest they interrupt his last words.

22) Does Bum #2 again represent the non-interrupting “associates,” or is he John, with unheard “last words” to deliver, or which maybe have just been delivered before his sinking to the concrete? Are poets bums? Are bums failed poets? Perhaps all these possibilities coexist?

23) Maclaine cuts back to the mannequin in the window, the camera continuing a downward tilt. As with the end of the shot in picture 21, we see its vulnerable-seeming genital bulge encased in somewhat feminized underwear.

24) Shot continued from previous picture. The camera continues its tilt down, revealing more of the situation: the mannequin is covered by bandages. Most likely this tips him to be a stand-in for the wounded John, though all his “friends and associates” no doubt have wounds of their own their callousness towards him helps to cover up. Are the mannequin’s wounds war wounds? Is this character John meant to be a vet suffering shell-shock (now understood as PTSD), and is this why the actor playing him was cast?

25) Maclaine cuts to possibly the eeriest recurring image in THE END: the shadow of a figure (probably John) standing next to a street pole of some kind, dancing in a slow, strange, ritualistic manner. The pole has always struck me as suitable to hang oneself from. Perhaps it’s meant to be, or references, a flagpole, and John’s possible background as a vet? John’s movements have sometimes seemed like those of a crazed baseball pitcher, and Brakhage interestingly described Maclaine at a later stage as being about to “pitch off the earth” (admittedly, he employed a different meaning of the term). At any rate, these movements seem mad, or made by someone taken up with self-harm.

Then he went through the door, and they all said Goodbye, John — this was the greatest act ever.”

26) Or perhaps by one playing monster?

Click here for the startling conclusion to JOHN.

Click as indicated for the previous post of this Tour.  Click as indicated for the intro to this series.

If you have any information or (nonpublic) feedback to contribute to the Tour, please click here.


♣ As an aside, it has long been of interest to me that Bum #2 lies on this street marker written in concrete, as I’ve always lived nearby Divisadero in my years in San Francisco as an adult. The street is named for El Divisadero, which the nearby Lone Mountain was called by the Spanish. There has long been a false idea floating about that divisadero is Spanish for “division,” and that the street or hill divided the City of San Francisco from the Presidio. According to a website devoted to the origins of San Francsico street names, “the word divisadero derives from the verb divisar, which means ‘to see from a distance.’ ” At any rate, when applied to Bum #2, John, and/or his “associates,” notions of external or internal division, or the clear view one “sees from a distance,” produce a smorgasbord of profundities and ironies. Wilder Bentley suggests the shots, here and below, of Bum #2 were the kind of thing Maclaine and Belson snatched on the fly. If so — and this seems by far the most plausible situation to me — could the meaning of “divisadero” really have been a conscious issue for Maclaine? In terms of the word suggesting “division,” it’s impossible to know for certain — according to J. J. Murphy’s research, Maclaine was born in Oklahoma but by 1953 had spent a significant portion of his life in the Bay Area, so it’s possible he knew of this misinterpretation of the word. The ironies of Bum #2 being crashed out on a word derived from divisar, “to see from a distance,” however, were something of which Maclaine almost had to be aware — a word-obsessed poet, Maclaine had taken his degree from UC Berkeley in Spanish, and had spent a good deal of time in Mexico.

Comments (7)

  • Jim Flannery says:

    That website’s generally a treasure trove. For your purposes the 1950s index seems particularly useful.

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    Brian — this short you’ve linked to, “Brooklyn Goes to San Francisco”, is truly great from a Tour perspective. Not only does it have several shots, towards the end, of the International Settlement, it also features a number of shots of the intersection of Eddy, Powell, and Market circa ’56 (tho misidentified on the page as being from ’47). In an early shot, isolated from the others, one can see the view down Market towards the Embarcadero, with the Woolworth’s awning in the top left corner of the frame. Later, there’s a sequence of the proceedings at the cable-car turnaround which wonderfully supplements both Maclaine’s shots, and Bruce Baillie’s similar shots in “On Sundays” (’61, an excerpt of which is linked to above). This very nicely made short couldn’t be a more perfect addition to this post! The only better documentary short I’ve seen dealing with San Francisco in (roughly) the same time period is Frank Stauffacher’s brilliant “Notes on the Port of St. Francis” (’51), but that isn’t nearly so good for Tour purposes.

  • Jim, that’s a terrific photo! Thanks for linking it!

    Since I don’t have the excuse of a home near Divisadero, I feel particularly remiss in not having thought of the other famous ‘adero’ street myself, but I’m glad these posts are reaching a public willing an able to contribute perspectives that Brecht and I may have missed. Jim, you’ve swayed me to thinking that Embarcadero is indeed more likely than Divisadero to be “Bum #2″‘s concrete pillow, between that slight curvature in the curb, and the proximity of the waterfront to Maclaine’s other locations.

    Brecht, I do believe the area Jim’s referring to is indeed close to, but not in fact part of the International Settlement (which can be spotted in this 1956 novelty travelogue, by the way). Narrative films which document some of the streets and buildings of the produce district & rail yard area Jim’s referring to include Jules Dassin’s under-appreciated noir Thieves’ Highway, released in 1949 (four years before The End), and the excellent Lon Chaney Sr. starring vehicle The Penalty, from a much earlier era: 1920. Both available on DVD.

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    Your argument is very persuasive, Jim, especially in the light of John Martini’s identification of Bum #1 as “heading south on Montgomery, just past Pacific. Pacific Street in this area was (part of) the old Barbary Coast, which by the 1950s had devolved into a seedy entertainment area called the International Settlement.” See picture #18:

    I’m not sure of the exact boundary lines of the International Settlement, but the area you’re discussing would certainly have been close, if not an actual part of this district. This is certainly an area for no doubt fascinating future research! Thanks again, and feel free to contact me directly in the future via the button in the wrap-up to the post above.


  • Jim Flannery says:

    Sure, “no evidence” is badly phrased — just meaning that I’m not sure there’s enough evidence in that group of images to identify the location beyond “somewhere along one of two 4-mile-long streets.” 🙂

    My thinking is more along the lines of what the environment on those streets was in 1953, that would make it likely to find a sleeping drunk, unmolested, on the sidewalk … I can see it more in this kind of place (top photo, 1/2 block off Embarcadero and just blocks from North Beach) or the area around the SP yards at the bottom of the Yerba Buena skid row, than a functioning commercial strip like Divis, but I don’t really know how run-down that edge of the WA was at that point. (It’s hard to recognize, these days, just what the flats east of Telegraph Hill were back like before the Freeway, Golden Gateway, Embarcadero Center, etc. went up … even in the 70s the area in that photo (where Levi Plaza is now) was kind of a wasteland of abandoned or barely-operating warehouses.) Don’t think we’ll be finding surviving sidewalk markers on Berry or Filbert Streets, alas!

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    Thanks for this, Jim. This is a very valuable observation. I must admit this never crossed my mind, due to an automatic assumption made by one who lives near Divisadero, and is rarely around the Embarcadero. My critical waxing re. the meaning of “Divisadero”, and Maclaine’s intentions re. this makes me loathe to let go of Divis as the location, but I’m sure I could also make a go of “Embarcadero”, and its meaning: “place of embarkation”.

    I disagree, however, that there’s “no evidence in the film that the street is Divisadero”. We do have the “ADERO”, and Maclaine used several locations in San Francisco’s far west, as shown, for example, in the next JOHN segment, or in the PAUL episode immediately following JOHN:

    Wilder Bentley described to Brian and me how THE END‘s small crew would get to locations via Jordan Belson’s car, making quick stops as opportunities presented themselves for spontaneous shooting. Divisadero would have had to have been crossed at various points (or at least one) to get to locations such as Sutro Heights Park, for instance, so Divis definitely still seems a possibility for Bum #2’s location. But rather than hold on to any cherished assumptions, I’d very much like to get to the truths of these details pertaining to the film’s production. Research might be done through archival photographs of the various possible street corners — something we’ll have to look into in the future. If you come across anything along these lines yourself, please let us know.

    Cheers! -Brecht

  • Jim Flannery says:

    But there’s no evidence in the film that the street is Divisadero. All you can see of the street name is ADERO. In 1953 or today, one would have many more opportunities to photograph sleeping bums on the ADERO of EMBARC than on the ADERO of DIVIS — say, along the edge old Produce District, no? The broad curve of the curbstone and the orientation of the street name in relation to it are also more characteristic of the corners on the Embarcadero than the normal rectilinear intersections along Divis.

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