' ' Cinema Romantico: Requiem for Hollywood's Golden Gate Bridge

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Requiem for Hollywood's Golden Gate Bridge

“(The Golden Gate Bridge) needs neither praise, eulogy nor encomium,” said Joseph Straus in May 1937 the day the 4200 foot suspension span was officially unveiled to the public. “It speaks for itself.” And he’s totally right. It does. To see it is to understand the awesome sway it holds. And yet, to speak is human, and to see The Golden Gate, shining in the sun or shrouded in the fog, one finds him or herself desperate to verbally convey its majesty, like Herb Caen fifty years later: “The mystical structure, with its perfect amalgam of delicacy and power, exerts an uncanny effect. Its efficiency cannot conceal the artistry. There is heart there, and soul. It is an object to be contemplated for hours.”

In August of 2001, during my solo sojourn through the state of California, I contemplated it for hours. I walked up and down it twice. I leaned on the east railing and gazed at the bay. I leaned on the west railing and gazed at the Pacific. I gazed up at it from a beach to the south. I gazed down at it from a vista on the Marin County side. That, I learned several months later, was the same vantage point from where Freddie Prinze Jr. gave his generally undistinguishable “I love you” speech to Claire Forlani in the wholly disposable “Boys and Girls.” Forlani’s eyes are the most alluring in the business but even I struggled to make contact with them when such striking orange vermillion hovered just over her shoulder.

Films favor staggering backdrops and what could be more staggering? When I saw the Golden Gate in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” on Christmas Day 1986 I couldn’t believe how much sense it made that future Starfleet Federation would have made its headquarters in the city by the bay and, specifically, right by the bridge. What, were they gonna put it in the District of Columbia? Pfffffft. The Washington Monument is swell and the Lincoln Monument is peachy keen and Dumbarton Oaks is exorbitantly underrated but the District’s punching out of its sight-seeing weight class against the GG.

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and film directors and movie producers often see the Golden Gate less for its eye-popping visuals and more for its ability to get destroyed. It shows up in the trailer for the forthcoming “San Andreas” as getting wiped away. It showed up in last year’s “Godzilla” so that Godzilla could Godzilla it. It showed up in “Pacific Rim” to get stomped to smithereens. It showed up in “Terminator: Salvation” already destroyed. It showed up in “X Men: The Last Stand” to get destroyed because Brett Ratner has no respect for anything good and decent in this world. It showed up in “The Core” to get ripped in half. Etc. Maybe, like the US Capitol getting blown up by aliens or Lady Liberty’s head left to wither away in the sand, destroying the Golden Gate Bridge is Hollywood’s way. Or maybe it speaks to some deep-seated relationship we all carry with it.

My favorite implementation of her land-spanning majesty is in Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger”, that tepidly received box office failure that is far from perfect but so much more than a Rotten Tomato. It is a story of How the West Was (Actually) Won tucked into something more summer blockbuster-y, an imperfect spectacle, a testament to the excess of both Hollywood and America. And it opens with a shot that will stop your heart – The Golden Gate Bridge under construction. It is CGI’d, of course, because it has to be, but there is something emblematic in that CGI, an unintentional explication of technology betraying the expedient evolution of our society. Look real close and you can essentially see an iPhone cord tethering Silicon Valley to Jamestown.

In discussing The Golden Gate for its seventy-fifth anniversary, California Historical Society executive director Anthea Hartig told The Atlantic: “I've come to see the bridge as a series of moments of remarkable bravery, chutzpah, and hubris. Man over nature, the great crown of the gateway, and the great crown of imperialism after the closing of the American frontier. We are looking to the Pacific. And we are putting a crown at the edge of the continent.” In the context of the colossal movie to come, that’s what this opening shot represents, the crown at the edge of the continent,the architectural exclamation point to a continental colonization. “It seems to be taken from a postapocalyptic political disaster movie,” Richard Brody wrote of the shot, as if its intention was not to herald the future but caution against it.

The film’s chief heavy, Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), outlines his master plan before a banner reading “A Nation United”, a diabolical ribbing of the notion that this land was made for you and me and everybody else. “The Lone Ranger,” as Andrew O’Hehir wrote, “never lets you forget that the Manifest Destiny that drove Anglo-American society across our continent was a thin veneer pasted across a series of genocidal crimes.” And maybe that’s why every filmmaker wants to destroy the bridge. It might be unrivaled for pictorial marvelousness, yet its very presence embodies the excessive cost of the collectivism of westward expansion. By tearing it down, we can dream of starting again.

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