I was watching the very brilliant Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) for the umpteenth time last week, when a joke about the onset of the “perfect food storm” got my gears turning. As anyone who has seen the film knows (and that should be everyone) the food storm follows an unusual pattern in which it hits all of the world’s best known landmarks first, before spreading to the rest of the globe. The most striking element of this is the shorthand used to describe the various affected locales. England, for example is represented by the following:
Big Ben and umbrella-carrying men in bowler hats tell us all we need to know, despite the fact that the scene bears only a passing resemblance to reality, and there’s certainly more to London than a clock tower. The same is true of the entire nation of China, which is invoked through the image of the Great Wall:
And of New York City, which rates two shots including four iconic elements (Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge):
It’s perfectly understandable that filmmakers reduce entire cities (not to mention countries and cultures) to easily invoked icons, but it’s more than a bit troubling as well. It can be even more irksome, however, when you live in a city which isn’t usually reduced to a particular building or landmark, but to a general impression which is about forty years out of date. Pittsburgh is such a place. Over roughly a hundred years (from 1880-1980), any discussion of my beloved hometown demanded the use of words such as “smoky”, “industrial” and “dirty,” and those terms were not inappropriate. For proof, one need only look at some of the early documentary films made by (eventual) D. W. Griffith photographer Billy Bitzer when he came to town in 1904 to shoot footage of the Westinghouse factory in East Pittsburgh.
Taken together, this kind of imagery defined the city. Burly, hard-working men, manhandling steel and machinery in nondescript, ugly work sheds, surrounded by the castoff remnants of industrial production. Fifty years later, that image was STILL defining the city in Gordon Douglas’ I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951):
Work sheds, rail yards and belching smoke, all in the service of a story of communist infiltration into the lives of those very same burly working men (who were sometimes of ethnicities which made their American loyalties suspect). Though we do get a brief shot of an image with the potential to displace (or at least modify) the generic impression of all that smokiness:
The confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela isn’t “The Point” as it would later be known, but at least it’s geographically distinctive in a way that offers some promise of better things. Unfortunately, it remains pretty industrial, and Pittsburgh’s first “Renaissance” was still in the early stages. So let’s fast forward a few years. Surely all that “smoky” business must be a little bit relieved by 1983, right? After all, Pittsburgh was massively cleaned up, and altered by a variety of major building projects, during the Sixties and Seventies. That’s got to be reflected in the city’s public image. Except…not so much. Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance was one of the most successful films ever shot in the city, and is probably the most popular film ever set in Pittsburgh. So how does the city look? Well, here’s the main character at her day job:
And here are a few shots of her place of employment:
Here’s how the city looks on her way to work:
And here’s where she lives:
Not exactly the happiest or friendliest of environments. Clearly no one had yet given up on the image of Pittsburgh as “hell with the lid off.” My point here is that it’s ridiculously difficult to change these entrenched images once they’re established. Whole books have been written about how the city of New York, for example, is used in film, but the operative word here is “used.” New York City is not a glowing paradise where the streets are paved with gold. On the other hand, it isn’t a human cesspool either. It is, however, shorthand for “American urban-ness” and that has made it an iconic beacon for audiences who yearn for life in the “big city.” People who’ve never been there worry about the “scary” subway system, want to experience the “glamour” of Times Square, the “romance” of Grand Central Station and the “exotic” streets of Chinatown. The fact that the connection of each of those adjectives to each of those locales is highly debatable doesn’t alter the fact that they seem to stick for general media usage. But back to the problem of Pittsburgh…
Those of us who live here know that what we see on screen has frequently not reflected reality, but after thirty years things may finally be turning around. The most prominent evidence of this consists of two very entertaining recent films, She’s Out of My League (2010) and (one of my favorites from last year) Jack Reacher (2012). Both take an entirely different view of Pittsburgh as a place, utterly ignoring the “smoky city” tropes of yesteryear, even when they might suit their respective narratives.
She’s Out of My League is a mostly charming, occasionally raunchy, romantic comedy about an airport worker who falls into a relationship with an attractive woman who leaves her phone behind in the security line. It’s not a major work of art, but it redefines what “Pittsburgh” means on screen. Keeping in mind the images from Flashdance, here’s where the main character works:
And here’s where he lives:
The girl’s place (somewhere downtown) is a little more upscale:
While we don’t see either of them on their way to work, there are establishing shots of the city, scattered throughout the film:
There are many more examples (the city couldn’t buy better imagery), but even more surprising is that Jack Reacher, a much darker film, takes a similar approach. Though it begins with a sharpshooter driving to the spot from which he will kill five people, the filmmakers go out of their way to make the city look amazing:
A brief shot in a vaguely industrial space is about as “welcoming” as such a shot could get:
And even shots of the city at night are miles away from the “smoky urban” aesthetic:
Even more significant is that this positive visual approach is factored into the storytelling. When the couple in Flashdance go for a romantic stroll, it looks like this (that’s them behind the smoke):
But in She’s Out of My League, it looks like this:
Jack Reacher may not have a lot of romance, but here’s a shot of the site of the killings that kick off the film:
And here’s Reacher on his way to a home where he’ll almost be killed by thugs:
In both of the Jack Reacher shots, no one would condemn the filmmakers for taking a darker view of the environment, especially in a city defined by gritty industry – but it doesn’t happen.
I’m not suggesting that the transformation of Pittsburgh’s image is complete. The Point has never quite managed to become the visual representative of the city that it could be, and anyone who visits Mount Washington can hear visitors expressing their shock that the view isn’t shrouded in smoke and filled with flaming furnaces. When they take a minute to look around, however, they realize that this dour view up the Monongahela (from Flashdance, with the Jones and Laughlin plant still visible up the river):
Is more properly replaced by this rosily romantic one (from She’s Out of My League):
Same view, world of difference.
The usefulness of stereotyped geographic icons is well-established, and they make perfect sense as a shortcut through narrative exposition. The problem is that (like all stereotypes) they can create and cement expectations which eventually bear little relation to reality (assuming they bore such a relation initially). Pittsburgh is a case study in the pitfalls of this approach. Those of you have been here already know that, but in an ever-shrinking world it’s a useful thing for all of us to keep in mind – preferably while watching She’s Out of My League and Jack Reacher!