Many everyday things have been notable for their absence during the shutdown, so something that stood out was construction—because it never seemed to stop, even on the residential level where it was supposed to. Now that restrictions have been relaxed, it’s one industry where San Francisco seems back to “business as usual,” with building and road work as ubiquitous as ever. We are, after all, still a boom town, though we’ll see if that remains true once it’s clear what kind of long-term economic damage has been wrought.
Which brings us to 5 Blocks, a new 50-minute documentary by Dan Goldes and the late Robert Cortlandt (to whom it is dedicated) that can be streamed through May 21, with proceeds helping to benefit the Roxie. It begins with a brief history of how Market Street was conceived as early as the 1840s as the extra-wide “Champs-Élysées of San Francisco,” only growing more impressive in the rebuilding push after the 1906 earthquake as a cultural and social hub of extravagant theaters, retail emporiums, and so forth.
But the growth of suburbia dimmed its luster, and the construction of BART tunnels and stations dragged on so long that it killed off many of the businesses whose public access was severely curtailed for years on end. (We’ve experienced a similar situation recently with the digging of the Central Subway.) When that finally ended, porn moved into erstwhile movie palaces, and the mid-Market area grew more conspicuously depressed, with boarded-up storefronts and empty lots sprouting on the city’s premiere avenue.
After providing this backstory, 5 Blocks focuses primarily on the last 10 years, when long-planned attempts at revivifying the area dovetailed with the successful luring of big tech companies to a centrally located area in a hugely desirable city that nonetheless had a 25% office vacancy rate. Once Twitter bit, others followed. But that was largely due to then-Mayor Ed Lee offering them huge tax breaks that, despite eventual “community benefit agreements” (whose weak enforcement isn’t detailed here), meant those wealthy new neighbors didn’t much benefit the pre-existing communities at all. In fact, the two clashed to a large degree.
Aiming for a neutral stance, 5 Blocks doesn’t reprise the bitterness of anti-tech protests a few years ago, or limn how locals felt the moneyed arrivals viewed them as unsightly inconveniences at best and criminal trash at worst. The fact that mid-Market bordered the “containment zones” of the Tenderloin and 6th Street—where drugs, prostitution, homelessness and other “undesirable” elements had long been more or less allowed to flourish, lest they drift to other districts—made the contrast stark. When the area got its first supermarket not long ago, it was a high-end joint unaffordable to the residents of nearby SRO’s and such, who’d hoped to get some benefit from the neighborhood “coming up.”
The documentary has input from those residents as well as tech CEOs, city officials, community advocates, urban planning experts and 48 Hills’ own Tim Redmond, offering different perspectives on the impact of drastic change. While you could argue Lee’s administration (and his successor’s) catered to economic development to a reckless, even callous degree, it’s clear here that many players hoped to arrive at solutions that worked for everyone.
Those solutions would ideally maintain small businesses alongside huge new ones, keep nonprofits and low-income tenants from being displaced amidst skyrocketing rents, and encourage the tech world to rub elbows with a “Mid-Market Arts District” whose flagship was American Conservatory Theater’s refurbishment of the old Strand as a live performance venue. How successful that effort has been can be debated from many different angles, but 5 Blocks fascinates by providing at least a glimpse at most of them. For streaming info click here.
Other streaming newcomers of note:
Those who got their minds blown by 2003’s Capturing the Friedmans may or may not want to risk another mental scalding with this new documentary on the theme of accused child molestation. Director Sasha Joseph Neulinger introduces his childhood via the endless home movies shot by a father for whom a newly-bought, obsessively-used camera “immediately became a wall between Henry Nevison and his family.” But that’s not the disturbing part.
The disturbing part is what we gradually realize these images of seemingly innocuous gatherings and horseplay are hiding. As a psychiatrist Sasha saw for years puts it, “Child sexual abuse is the vile gift that keeps on giving,” and what emerges here is a horrific pattern of physical interference first amongst Henry’s brothers, then visited upon his children. When the truth came out, a near-endless process of interviews by police and consulting experts, then successive criminal trials over numerous years traumatized the victims all over again.
Rewind is undeniably engrossing stuff, with a whole lot of squirm-inducing content. It does offer hope, in that at least what its protagonists went through to attain justice provided a spur for subsequent improvement of how our systems treat young victims with greater care. Available on iTunes, Amazon Prime and other streaming platforms.
On a Magical Night
This latest from French writer-director Christophe Honore is arguably his best as well as most lighthearted movie in years. Maria (his go-to star Chiara Mastroianni, looking more like dad Marcello than mom Catherine Deneuve these days) is a Parisian professor not at all above sleeping with her male students. When she jilts the most recent lover, it unfortunately comes to the attention of the husband (Benjamin Biolay) who hasn’t cheated on her in the entire quarter-century they’ve been together. In the aftermath of their fight, she checks into the hotel across the street from their apartment, where her long evening—and, eventually, his—gets enlivened by a dizzying array of visits from former paramours, dead relatives, and even their own younger selves.
This is sort of like A Christmas Carol (albeit with a lot more nudity), in that the ghosts of the past come back to underline what our heroine has thrown away, and what she still might salvage. Playfully arbitrary even with its own fantasy logic, and goofy enough to incorporate Barry Manilow’s “Could This Be the Magic?” as a climactic element, this is an inventive and delightful comedy for grownups. Streaming rentals can be selected to benefit the Roxie or Alamo Drafthouse.
Another marital dust-biting spurs this considerably less humorous feature by writer-director Hilary Brougher. Lila’s (Talia Balsam) life in upstate New York abruptly grows less tranquil when she discovers her husband Edgar (Scott Cohen) is unfaithful, and not for the first time. Worse, the “work call” he keeps leaving an afternoon dinner party to take is in fact from his current mistress. That mistress is about to give birth to their child, creating a new family unit he promptly leaves Lila for.
The latter is an emancipated woman eager to deal with all this like a responsible grownup, no matter how it pains her—or her and Edgar’s pre-existing daughters. Though it takes place on the other side of the country, South Mountain feels very Bay Arean in the way Lila’s lifestyle and refusal to accept victimhood reflect the legacy of ’60s counterculture trends. Yet she can’t entirely suppress her own rage, which is all too justified. This is a small drama with a lot of recognizable truth to it, as well as fine performances in complexly written character roles.