another lifetime

by tobymarx

“Curt McDowell and Mark Ellinger, circa 1979”

Not long after my friend Curt McDowell died, I drew this picture from a photograph of the two of us shooting a scene for his film Initiation on King Street. The drawing was a gift for Curt’s older sister Marce, who lives in Indiana where Curt grew up. It’s a shame that Curt never finished King Street. It was, or would have been, one of his best films: dreamlike, dark and moody, unsettling and prophetic,* densely layered with metaphor; it was an allegory of Curt’s self-discovery as an artist. Initiation on King Street was not Curt’s final film, but it was the last film on which I worked with him. It was another lifetime—we were so damn young.

In ’78 and ’79 Curt and I shared a flat near the foot of Utah Street at the bottom of Potrero Hill, when it was still an active industrial district. There were no condos, galleries, or jewelry marts. Our neighbors were companies like Forderer Hollow Metal Products, Best Foods, Kilpatrick’s and Hostess Bakeries, Crown Zellerbach Paper, Lone Star Concrete, Hamilton Hardware, and diners; lots of little diners that fed the factory workers, truckers, and trainmen. Most streets in our part of town were embedded with train tracks, spur lines to the area’s industries, and at night we were often serenaded by the soulful chimes of Western Pacific air horns as switching engines shuttled raw materials and finished products to and from the factories. Much of Initiation on King Street was filmed near the Southern Pacific train depot, within a cobble-stoned labyrinth of low, wooden warehouses between King and Berry Streets, stretching from Fourth Street almost to Seventh.

It was the end of an era and I deplored its passing, so to live amidst the industrial remnants of that era was a little slice of heaven. It breaks my heart to think that nearly all of Curt’s and my documentation—motion pictures, photographs, and sound recordings—has been lost, for it captured the zeitgeist of that too-brief moment in history, of which only my memories now remain.

*The film foretold Curt’s untimely death, and included an eerily prescient scene of my own mourning.