In the early days of the pandemic, filmmaker Eric Goodfield set out to capture The City as it emptied and grew quiet. Sixteen months later, his filmed work, “San Francisco Covid Days: sights and sounds of the pandemic,” has taken on a life of its own.
“It’s been kind’ve the greatest adventure of my life,” said the Bay Area-born-and-raised Goodfield.
Inspired by famous film clips of San Francisco right after the 1906 earthquake, Goodfield headed for Market Street then fanned out to document the immediate aftermath of the pandemic shutdown.
“The Financial District was abandoned, it felt like ‘Omega Man,’” he said, referring to the 1971 movie starring Charlton Heston as an earthly pandemic survivor. “Fisherman’s Wharf was eerie and kind of beautiful.”
When it became clear the pandemic closures were going to be with us for a good while, Goodfield widened his field to document the cohesion and chaos in other neighborhoods.
“I started dropping pins on a map of where I’d shot and where I hadn’t been,” he said. “It allowed me to explore Glen Park, Portola, West Portal, Excelsior, Ingleside, not the famous neighborhoods, but ones that have a community about them, like Clement and Irving streets.They all seem to have these retail and communal hubs where I met so many nice, curious people,” he said.
Goodfield’s frequent interactions with people citywide were in stark contrast to those who were working indoors or at essential jobs with a specified location or purpose. But his work, though not storyboarded or scripted, was with intent: to create an artistic document of the psycho-geography of our place.
“I’m observing how the environment affects the behavior of people,” said Goodfield of the influence of a concept derived from 20th century theorist and philosopher Guy Debord.
“Debord called it la dérive, the drift, walking out the door without a plan, going where your senses take you. It’s a classic street photography technique,” said Goodfield. His field of inspiration also includes the literature of Charles Baudelaire, who introduced la flâneur, an urban spectator whose role is constantly shifting under the weight of oppressive systems, among other interpretations. The films of Chris Marker and Chantal Ackerman, who he discovered once he was midstream on his own project, seem similarly conceived.
“They aren’t visually like what I’m doing, but conceptually, the interest in the mundane, is similar,” he said. Goodfield’s background as an artist and his experience as a cinematographer and director informed his choices for the camerawork as he developed his style and strategy for “Covid Days.”
“Long, non-operated shots, carefully composed to have balance, and particular things, discovered along the way,” he said. In addition to the visual, the audio track plays a major role in his work.
“The City sounded different,” he said. “The background sound, the hum of The City, eventually falls away without its occupants and just a few cars.”
Human voice and conversation were also caught on the hundreds of hours of film Goodfield shot in the 140 days he spent on the street.
“I met a lot of people who said they were moving, why they were going, most of them because they don’t need to be here,” he said. “Others said they lost their jobs and they needed to go back to where they had come from.”
Though Goodfield and his spouse recently moved from Oakland to Vallejo, he persisted in his vision to capture San Francisco’s pandemic experience, despite the distance and 2020’s political and social climate.
“During the time I was shooting, I met three people who were pro-Trump. One guy complained about the masks, how Trump had been good for his business, but that he was moving to Boise,” said Goodfield.
Following national protests of the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Goodfield headed to Black Lives Matter rallies at City Hall and followed marches throughout The City, including a memorable demonstration at the Vallejo Street police station in the heart of North Beach.
“I heard the most amazing impassioned speakers. The street was packed, it was so moving,” said Goodfield. Later that day, he shared an elevator with Gwendolyn Woods, mother of Mario, who was shot by San Francisco police in 2015.
Goodfield’s experiences with San Franciscans during extreme conditions of the pandemic underscored the interconnectedness of our lives with our small city limits, though not everyone was pleased to see him with his camera in their neighborhood.
“On numerous occasions, people stared uncomfortably at me,” he said. “On my fifth time at a coffee shop in Noe Valley, I had one man looking over at me and eventually he took my picture. I thought that was awesome,” he said. “I don’t hide, I’m in plain sight, sometimes more in view than others. I started collecting clips of people taking my picture.”
And then there were the days he devoted to capturing iconic, only in San Francisco places like Tommy’s Joynt and Tadich Grill, and acknowledging his own appetite come lunchtimes.
“There was a period of time I was checking out sub shops and burgers: Beep’s, Cable Car,” he said.
‘’I caught Whiz Burger opening up one day,” he said, as workers set up the hamburger stand for business. “That was a good day.”
On Valencia Street, the owner of La Cumbre charted the crush of takeout orders and the loss of catering events during the shutdown.
“We didn’t know what was happening when I started, I just went out to shoot some footage maybe for a few weeks because that’s how long we thought it was going to last,” he said. “None of us were alive the last time this happened and if you were, you were an infant.”
Goodfield continues to shoot and compile his reels while seeking finishing funds and venues for screenings. A short clip can be viewed on his website, ericgoodfield.com/sfcoviddays.
As sure as uncertainty is one of the film’s threads, so are the masks we wear.
“The mask was super unique at first but eventually, they’re not unique anymore,” said Goodfield. “At first you saw a few. People didn’t know where to get masks. Remember trying to scrounge a mask and a little bottle of hand sanitizer? But by May and June, people were pretty compliant and certainly by the end of 2020, it was extremely rare to see anyone without one.”
Sifting through hours of collected footage, he came upon some more recent files from the Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park.
“Some people are still wearing masks, but there are more and more without them,” he said.
As case counts in San Francisco are up and indoor mask guidelines return, Goodfield’s tale of our COVID days is evolving, though his artful collection of the sights and sounds of San Francisco exist as a document of our surreal times.
“On a personal level, having an artistic practice was important,” he said. “On days I didn’t feel good, I’d go out and shoot, see something new, get some fresh air. And I would feel good again.”
Denise Sullivan, an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions,” can be reached at denisesullivan.com. Her talk with Goodfield continues Aug. 8 livestreamed at 10 a.m. from birdbeckett.com, part of the bookstore’s second Sunday SF Live Talks.