Out of the Fog
The landmark Street of the Sardine captures a little-seen Cannery Row to great effect.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Most people know Cannery Row as it stands today: gaudy, light-hearted and lined with tourist attractions and sweet confections by day; glimmering with lights and IMAX movies, and pulsing with music from Sly McFly’s and the revived Blue Fin by night. Fewer know the Cannery Row of actual working canneries, when Sicilian, Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese women packed tins full of the slippery, silvery ocean bounty, of Ed Ricketts and the Boys, of Steinbeck and Kalisa Moore.
Even fewer know the Cannery Row that existed between these two incarnations, after overfishing decimated the bustling industry and before redevelopment propped up a thriving tourist colony atop its storied history. That’s the Cannery Row that Eva Lothar captures in her short film Street of the Sardine, which screens Sunday at Haute Enchilada in Moss Landing, with Lothar in attendance.
Shot in 1968, the 24-minute film shows a Cannery Row abandoned, rickety and decaying, devoid of the industry that had became so efficient at extracting and processing fish that it outpaced the ocean’s ability to replenish it. It wasn’t the place filmmaker Eva Lothar had read about, as a young woman in her native France, in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. But it was real.
“I was amazed to discover Cannery Row existed,” she told a capacity-plus audience at a recent screening and talk at Monterey Museum of Art.
Trained as a photographer, she had only previously filmed on Super 8 for fun. But inspired by Ansel Adams student Geraldine Sharpe, Lothar got hold of a hand-cranked 16mm Bolex camera and began shooting, capturing the atmosphere, the languor, of the place – to what purpose she didn’t yet know.
Quick-cut shots set the tone: fish streaming by on conveyor belts, rusted corrogated warehouses, sun-and-sea-beaten wooden pilings. A Southern Pacific train crawls across what is now the paved Rec Trail, hauling mackerel, anchovies, albacore, squid and sardine. There are creatively blocked shots of women working the line, accompanied by their own narration (“I loved every minute of it,” says one), while Italian fishermen return with the day’s catch. In exterior shots, in place of people, fog and seagulls populate the scenery.
Disembodied voices echo into the film, as if reverberating from the past. Experimentally dissonant sound design and music from harmonica, xylophone and accordion pour melancholy into the rusty gray shots. A younger Lothar, in a charmingly aloof French/British lilt, provides occasional narrative-free poetic commentary: “Prosperity. Affluence. Greed. Plunder. Waste. Scarcity. Extinction.” And later: “At times magical. At times grim.”
It’s been described as a visual poem of film art. MMA Chief Curator Marcelle Polednik likens it to the style of the French Nouveau Roman film movement of the late ’50s and early ’60s, though Lothar says any correlation is coincidental. But it is also historical. Thomas Steinbeck, son of John, wrote a blurb for the DVD jacket: “I loved the old Row… I had the joy of seeing once more in your film.” Leonardo DiCaprio chimes in, too, calling it a “poignant depiction of the delicate balance between man and nature.”
That hints at the film’s role in laying the foundation of today’s environmental movement – by way of 60 Minutes. From a cold call she made from a payphone to sell the film, Lothar was transferred from a CBS affiliate to a producer in New York.
“I didn’t even know what 60 Minutes was,” Lothar told the MMA audience. But 60 Minutes had designs for the film. They incorporated parts of it in an influential story they aired on the early awakening of the environmental movement, narrated by Harry Reasoner.
San Francisco’s Canyon Cinema, which preserves and screens Super 8mm, 16mm and 35mm independent films, wrote of Lothar’s Street of Sardines, “[It] stands as a lonely and desolate testimony of man’s mismanagement of his natural resources.” Lothar describes it as a metaphor for “the sudden collapse of a thriving civilization.” Her own career, however, was rising.
“I got a fellowship from the American Film Institute,” says Lothar. “I got a job with PBS. I wanted to work at AFI but they sent me out on another assignment.” That turned out to be the 1972 short Yesterday’s Shore Tomorrow’s Morning, a companion piece on Moss Landing, focusing on the land, the fishermen and the hulking PG&E power plant, set to Bach’s “Tocata and Fugue.” It, too, will be screened this Sunday.
“I know so many people in [Yesterday’s Shore] that it’s eerie,” says Kim Solano, proprietor of Haute Enchilada. “A lot of those guys I used to serve breakfast to at the Lighthouse Harbor Grill.”
Like Yesterday’s Shore, Street of the Sardine is a document by a young artist who captured a fleeting, portentous time and atmosphere central to local identity. But Sardine also represents a piece of connective tissue between the Monterey Peninsula and the wider world: Both must be taken care of if we expect them to take care of us.