Dream State: California in the Movies, with author Mick LaSalle, a Zoom salon | Mechanics' Institute

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Dream State: California in the Movies, with author Mick LaSalle, a Zoom salon
A CinemaLit Author Event, cosponsored by Heyday Books

CinemaLit Film Series/Author Event

June 2021 – Dream State: California in the Movies

Cosponsored by Heyday Books

It hardly needs to be argued: nothing has contributed more to the mythology of California than the movies. Fed by the film industry, the California dream is instantly recognizable to people everywhere yet remains elusive for nearly everyone, including Californians themselves. That paradox is the subject of longtime San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle’s first book in nine years. The opposite of a dry historical primer, Dream State is a freewheeling journey through several dozen big-screen visions of the Golden State, with LaSalle’s unmistakable contrarian humor as the guide. His writing, unerringly perceptive and resistant to cliché, brings clarity to the haze of Hollywood reverie and self-regard. He leaps effortlessly between genres and generations, moving with ease from Double Indemnity to the first two versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Boyz n the Hood to Booksmart. There are natural disasters, heinous crimes, dubious utopias, dangerous romances, and unforgettable nights. Equally entertaining and unsettling, this book is a bold dissection of the California dream and how it shaped the modern world.

Mick LaSalle is the film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. In the late 1990s he was the on-air film critic for the ABC-TV affiliate in San Francisco, KGO. He is the author of three previous books: Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, a history and critical study of the actresses who worked during the pre-censorship era of 1929–1934; Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man; and The Beauty of the Real: What Hollywood Can Learn from Contemporary French Actresses. He wrote and coproduced the Complicated Women documentary for Turner Classic Movies, which was narrated by Jane Fonda. He has written introductions to several books, including The Enduring Star, Peter Cowie’s biography of Joan Crawford.


CinemaLit/Author Event June 2021 – Dream State: California in the Movies -- A Star is Born

A Star is Born will be guest hosted by San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle, author of the new book Dream State: California in the Movies from Heyday Press.

CinemaLit highlights classic films set in California, with the Golden State figuring prominently in plot and ambiance. We start with the first A Star is Born (1937), steeped as it is in the most mythologized of all California industries – moviemaking. From there we venture back to a CinemaLit favorite: film noir. Too Late for Tears (1949) and D.O.A. (1950) are two pulpy, taut crime shockers, both taking great advantage of their settings in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We finish with the great Chinatown (1974), a neo noir so indelible it now flows through our collective movie-watching bloodstream.

Each of these films figure in the new book Dream State: California in the Movies by San Francisco Chronicle's film critic Mick LaSalle. Mr. LaSalle will be on hand for the discussion on June 4 of A Star is Born. Join us for what promises to be a lively dialogue on California, its meanings and symbols to a global audience of filmgoers.

Image used with Permission of Kanopy Inc.

June 4 – A Star is Born (1937) – 111 minutes

The essential story of movie making first appeared as the 1932 film What Price Hollywood?, directed by George Cukor. With a name change to A Star is Born, it has been remade no less than four times, from 1937 to 2018. The story of stars rising and falling simply never loses its punch or relevancy. It's been altered to suit the tastes of whatever era it's in, but the fundamentals are constant.

Esther Blodgett is one of the thousands of naïve hopefuls who descend upon Los Angeles from the hinterlands, determined to be an actress. Luck, timing, and the faith of a powerful man (matinee idol Norman Maine) catapult her to wealth and fame, while he self-destructs by alcohol.

A Star is Born has been told so often, it suffers from predictability, but the 1937 version may hold a few surprises. It is as much a tender love story as it is a stinging expose of Hollywood. It tempers drama and heartache with ample doses of comedy. Unlike later versions that gloried in the preternatural voices of Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Lady Gaga, this one takes the more cynical path to stardom by ambition and makeover rather than talent. One pointed movie caricature after another pours off the screen: spunky wannabes, embittered nobodies, star makers, slick producers, brash publicists, exasperated directors, voracious fans, and fickle audiences.

A Star is Born revels in its sun-kissed location, with "California, Here I Come" riffing on the soundtrack. Filmed in Technicolor --  rare for 1937 --  it sometimes resembles a travelogue or documentary, or even old postcards in live action. It establishes the visual shorthand of swimming pools as status symbols, sets as beehives of technicians and artists, and spacious Hollywood homes in the vanguard of style.

A Star is Born benefits incalculably from William A. Wellman's sharp direction, the chemistry between stars Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and the incisive Oscar-winning screenplay by Wellman and Robert Carson. It's a well-told story, and one that never grows old.


Matthew Kennedy, CinemaLit’s curator, has written biographies of Marie Dressler, Joan Blondell, and Edmund Goulding. His book Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, was the basis of a film series on Turner Classic Movies. 


I don't have a favorite film,” Matthew says. "I find that my relationships to films, actors, genres, and directors change as I change over the years. Some don't hold up. Some look more profound, as though I've caught up with their artistry. I feel that way about Garbo, Cary Grant, director John Cassavetes, and others."

Classic films have historical context, something only time can provide,” Matt observes. “They become these great cultural artifacts, so revealing of tastes, attitudes, and assumptions.”



First watch the selected film on Kanopy. All you will need is either a Mechanics' Institute library card, or a San Francisco Public Library card, which will give you access to Kanopy and its treasure trove of movies. Make a reservation for our CinemaLit Salon as usual via Eventbrite and watch the film on Kanopy at your leisure. You will receive a link to the Friday night CinemaLit salon on Zoom one day in advance, and then an additional reminder roughly two hours in advance. On the night of the salon click the Zoom link and join us.

If you do not receive a Zoom Link by 4:00 PM on the day of the event, contact Pam Troy at [email protected].


Mechanics’ Institute members can now sign up for FREE access to Kanopy, a wonderful film streaming service. To sign up:

1. Click on  THIS LINK.

2. Click on the large orange login button that reads, “Log in to milibrary.”

3. Enter the 14-digit bar code from your MI Library card

4. Set up your account following Kanopy’s instructions, including your email and a password.

5. Kanopy will send verification to your email address.

You’ll be able to choose from a wonderful selection of films, including classics, pre-code, foreign films, and documentaries, including the films we’ve scheduled this month for CinemaLit.

If you are not a Mechanics’ Institute member, consider membership and click  HERE  to join online:

Or, you can check with your public library to see if they are Kanopy members. If so, you may use your public library card to set up a Kanopy account.


Register with Eventbrite below.

If the green TICKET button is not immediately visible, scroll down on the right in the Eventbrite window until it appears.


CinemaLit Films

Members Free
Public Sliding Scale Free to $10
Heyday Books Free
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Information Desk - 415-393-0102
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Jan 12 - 6:00 pm

CinemaLit: Queen of Katwe (2016)
January CinemaLit: Chess in the Movies

Jan 19 - 6:00 pm

CinemaLit: The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
January CinemaLit: Chess in the Movies

Jan 26 - 6:00 pm

CinemaLit: Queen to Play: Joueuse (2009) on ZOOM
January CinemaLit: Chess in the Movies