Five Film Favorites: The Cities of America


"Chinatown" sets the standard for movies about cities.

One of the great joys of watching movies is that sense of place to go along with story and character. For instance, the road is as much a part of Two Lane Blacktop as the plot… or lack of plot. Film noir was often shot on a set, until someone got the dandy idea to hit the streets, and you had Naked City in New York and Night and the City in London, in which the cities, the gritty cities, became as much a part of the movie as anything else. And I love that.

So I apologize for the controversy inherent in this post: yes, it’s damn difficult to figure out what’s the best movie from New York, but it’s even harder to narrow down five cities in this great country of ours. When I think of the top five cities, I think we can all agree on the top three: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. After that?

I’m going with Dallas and Baltimore. Dallas, because I wanted a big, big city in the south, and Baltimore because, well, you’ll see.

1. Los Angeles: Chinatown. I wanted to resist Chinatown, mostly because it seems so obvious and I think between Terry and I we’ve written about it a few times. But that would be akin to making a movie about the newspaper biz and leaving out Citizen Kane. Besides, in this post, about movies about cities, well, this is the movie about cities. Among its many, many virtues.

Chinatown is about the making of Los Angeles, and its story, which is based on historical fact, weaves its way into the heart of this town, making us pause and wonder every time we see water dripping out of the tap. I remember art critic Robert Hughes saying that you cannot see the olive trees of Southern France without imagining van Gogh’s paintings, and the same rings true here: when I’m in L.A., and the light is right, usually late afternoon when the haze is just so and the sun has crept over where it’s not quite sunset but has definitely begun its descent, this city looks like it was shot through John Alonzo’s lens. And then I say to myself, “it’s Chinatown, man…”

2. New York: On the Bowery. There are so many great, great movies about New York, you can take your pick: the acidic Sweet Smell of Success, rip-roaring On the Town, the mob opera in The Godfather, hell, you could say the best movie Gotham ever saw is the one with the giant ape climbing atop  the Empire State Building. And so on. So I get to choose what I want, and that’s a little gem that’s been given rerelease this year: Lionel Rogosin’s 1956 “documentary”, On the Bowery.

I put “documentary” in quotes because this is not really a doc. Rogosin followed around a group of alcoholics in New York’s infamous Bowery, and he created a little story for two of them to follow. It’s a simple story: man gets off a train, lands in the Bowery, gets drunk, tries to redeem himself, can’t, decides to leave the Bowery.

Ray Sayler plays the man in question, and he’s a handsome rock of a man, a bit stiff, but then he was no actor and quite literally drunk (sadly, Wikipedia claims that he was offered contracts in Hollywood but declined, choosing instead to remain on the Bowery–does that mean he chose to stay drunk, or stay to help the men who were drunk?) His cohort, Gorman Hendricks, willed himself to stay alive during the filming and died just days afterwards from alcohol-related maladies.

It’s a heartbreaking, beautiful film. Incredible cinematography, and it makes the city’s seedy underbelly, so romanticized in noir, seem truly desperate.

3. Chicago: Hoop Dreams. Wow. Chicago. City of the Big Shoulders. The Windy City. City on the Make. So much great literature. So few fucking movies!

Seriously, look over anybody’s list of the great movies of Chicago, and you’ll see, ranked high atop every one, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Jesus.

Look over those lists and you’ll also see that Hoop Dreams is woefully absent as well. That means it’s neglected in its own city, just as it was at the 1994 Academy Awards, where it wasn’t even nominated. That was the year they gave Forrest Gump the big prize.

Anyway, Hoop Dreams is the incredible, nearly three hour documentary by Steve James, about high school basketball phenoms William Gates and Arthur Agee. Somehow, James was able to weave himself into the life of these two young men, from the wrong side of Chicago’s many tracks, as they try to survive the college basketball combine and make it to the pros. One of the most heartbreaking films ever made, and yet it is strangely joyous. Chicago’s lucky to have this one.

(NOTE: Please watch this film even though this could literally be one of the worst trailers ever made.)

4. Dallas: The Thin Blue Line. “My mom had a good phrase. She said the first night she pulled into Dallas, it was raining, that it was lightning. And they’re coming into Dallas and she said if there was ever a hell on earth, it’s Dallas County. She’s right. She’s right.”

That’s Randall Adams, the man convicted of murder in Errol Morris’ thrilling, and utterly devastating 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line. Morris was making a movie about Dr. James Grigson, “Dr. Death”, a man whose testimony sent more men to death row than any human in history. While interviewing the men who were waiting for the needle, he came upon Adams, whose story moved Morris to change course and make this movie. This film freed Adams, and has been a blot on Dallas ever since.

Morris has said this is an “everyman” story, and he’s right, but I swear to the god I don’t believe in that every time I think of Dallas, I see that miserable skyline, and imagine those cold, dead courtrooms in The Thin Blue Line.

Here’s Adams, weary, no doubt plagued by an existential dread, trying to explain this maddening case. Honestly, this is one of the most frustrating, sad… terrifying films I’ve ever seen. If you think the justice system can’t reach out with its finger of death and touch the nape of your neck, you’re wrong, and The Thin Blue Line proves that.

“It’s crazy. It’s crazy…” You’re right, Randall. It’s crazy.

5. Baltimore: The Wire. Yes, I know: The Wire’s a TV show. But doesn’t TV utilize the moving image? That’s where I stand. And besides, The Wire, oh God, The Wire is one of the greatest motion pictures I’ve ever seen. This is the film about the death of an American city, perhaps the greatest ever made.

I’m going to link you to a review I wrote ages and ages ago, back when The Wire was still fresh in my head and still hurt. Yes, the Wire hurts, and in many ways it doesn’t hurt so good. It hurts like Detroit hurts me, the major city from the state I still love. The Wire is as exciting as The Godfather, with its crime families, but its examination of poverty, of corruption, of the people who survive, well, it’s amazing, but frankly it’s often too difficult to bear.

At first my wife and I didn’t get into the show. It took two or three episodes, until we hit this scene, a masterpiece of exposition. Everything is communicated here without dialogue, except for one charged word.

Here’s my review of the show. And here’s the clip.

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2 Responses to Five Film Favorites: The Cities of America

  1. Angelica says:

    Okay, I get not *picking* it, but how can you talk about NYC movies and not even mention “Manhattan”? 😛

  2. Peter Schilling says:

    “Manhattan” is a great movie. But as I said, there’s actually a ton of great movies about New York City. Why is “Manhattan” more apropos than “On the Bowery”? It’s not, and vice-versa. New York Magazine, of all things, picked “Sweet Smell of Success” as the quintessential New York film–and he left that mag to write for the New Yorker, so I guess that makes it their pick, too. New York’s the tough one–there’s a good dozen films that could be called “the best” of that city.

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