While helping codify psychedelic visuals, Stern was able to avoid over blown narratives and attempts to insert some sort of grand meaning into his films. In contrast to other voyagers at the time, the filmmaker retained a concise, if not floral and sometimes confusing, style which worked towards distilling a mood and time instead of making grand proclamations.
His best known, early effort, 1968’s San Francisco, doesn’t really have a point. It’s an collection of images, set to the Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive,” from the band’s stint with Syd Barrett as leader. The song, as much as the imagery used here, works towards relating what Stern felt and saw during his time in the Bay. The thing is, the film clearly includes a trip to the Guggenheim and a few other art museums in the States, which have absolutely nothing to do with San Francisco.
Even with the obvious oversight, Stern’s film trucks in enough tossed off charm to get the entire endeavor over. It’s accompanying soundtrack, a song recorded countless times by the Cambridge crew, sounds dissimilar to other released versions even as the cut winds up being a completely fulfilling effort. Along with Barrett noodling and leading his band through the workout, Stern’s film takes in full view of his life. There’re ample street scenes with San Fran’s weirdoes milling around the street, occasionally alongside a parade with which the Floyd’s music is synched.
There’re some interiors with Stern’s (assumed) friends eating dinner, playing with a cat – or even getting naked and then donning a tin foil suit. The entire thing reeks of cheap weed and wine. But Stern’s adamance regarding the documentation of a specific place and time seems warranted. Granted, at the time San Francisco was being shot, most of the world was still living in a space mostly occupied by conceptions of life coming from the fifties. It’d be foolhardy to thing this film changed anything, but at least Stern was able to get his ideas across in about fifteen minutes. There’s something about brevity being a sign of artfulness. This is proof.