Saturday, August 14, 2010

Part Nine: That's the Chicago Way

Part Nine: That's the Chicago Way

12:15 PM at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive

Last Tuesday while meandering north along Michigan Avenue during my lunch hour I approached the Michigan Avenue Bridge, which traverses the Chicago River a few hundred yards before the canal locks that lead into Lake Michigan, and I stumbled upon a bizarre scene: smoke and acrid fumes filled the air immediately west of me at the corner of Wacker Drive and Michigan Ave as scenes of Armageddon-like chaos filled the street before me. Burning cars and charred fire trucks littered the road as frenzied crowds ran in every direction. I looked toward the sky and noticed half a dozen base jumpers leaping off the Trump Tower, the Wrigley Building, and other nearby Chicago skyscrapers. Each of these human projectiles above quickly opened white parachutes and descended gracefully into the scorched rubble below. Inexplicably, Wacker Drive—one of the Windy City’s most picturesque boulevards—looked more like Baghdad circa April 2003 than a hot summer day in Chicago in 2010.

I wondered, “What in Sam Houston is going on here? Did Blagojevich get acquitted? Did Daley lose reelection? Did the Cubs win the pennant? 
 Did Oprah move to NYC? Did Congress repeal the 22nd amendment and allow George W. Bush to run for a third term?”

No, it was just a movie production crew filming a scene for Transformers 3. (I’m not sure why we needed Transformers 2, much less Transformers, but apparently there is an appetite—and lots of capital—for a third installment of this mediocre action series, and Chicago is the lucky host.)

As I gazed upon the movie set, hundreds of gawkers (or gapers, as they call them in Chicago) lined up against a rope peering west. I walked a bit farther north to the north bank of the Chicago River at Michigan Avenue and found yet another batch of rubberneckers trying to get a view of Shia Labeouf, John Malkovich (co-founder of Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theater) and other Hollywood movie stars who signed up for this cheesy, CGI-crammed, big-budget, sequel. All I could really see, however, were several hundred gawkers; a bunch of hulking security guards; a handful of fat Chicago Policemen lazily directing traffic; and dozens of skinny, hip productions assistants in matching black Transformer 3 t-shirts running to and fro trying to look busy—all of whom stood in front of the set blocking my view.

Okay, so it was actually pretty cool: burned out cars, trucks, buses, and fire trucks—some of which lay upside down or flipped on their sides—littered the street of downtown Chicago while movie stars and base jumpers plied their unique trades. A few actors several hundred yards away (perhaps Shia himself?) ambled around, each with his/her own designer bottled water with seemingly little or nothing to do. It was hot. In fact it was Texas hot. The heat index approached 100 degrees and all I could think was that at least the visiting Hollywood glitterati were earning their keep working outside in this Godforsaken climate. (Then again, so were the construction workers fixing Lake Shore Drive two miles north of us, and the local construction crew salary is but a scintilla of the compensation for actors skulking around Wacker Drive at this moment.)

I watched the scene for a minute or two then got bored and decided to keep walking north. The throng of rubberneckers—composed mostly of western suburbanites with bad haircuts and tattoos wearing knee-length blue jean shorts and Chicago Bears t-shirts—remained. (Did I mention that I hate the Chicago Bears?) In fact, their numbers continued to grow as I left the scene. Dozens of fans held digital cameras high above their heads and snapped phantom photos of the odd scene trying to capture a bit of Hollywood history-in-the-making in their own backyard. Yet, for most Chicagoans walking to and fro on their lunch hour it was just another day in the Windy City, known in the film industry as The Third Coast.

At The Movies

Chicago is a city that many people around the world know only through TV and movies. In fact, I would argue that, except for New York, Chicago is the most recognizable American city thanks to the magic of moving pictures. Indeed, Chicago has been defined on film for most Americans, and it is often hard to separate the Hollywood-made myth from reality. (Full disclosure: as a lifelong movie fanatic, I will admit that before I moved to Chicago in my mid-20s I watched Ferris Buehler's Day Off, The Blues Brothers, The Fugitive, Risky Business, The Sting, and dozens of ER episodes to prep myself for my new life in the crown jewel—if not the only jewel—of America's Midwest.)

Chicago is not unique in this respect. A handful of American cities have been defined by movies or TV shows during the last few decades. Consider San Francisco in the 1970s: Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry series framed that city during the Nixon, Ford and Carter Administrations for most Americans. For Dallas, my hometown, it was the city’s eponymous TV show that—along with the Dallas Cowboys—finally changed the national perception of Dallas from the city where JFK was assassinated to a modern, semi-urban version of Giant replete with urban cowboys, buxom beauty queens and scheming villains. Lately, Mike Judge’s animated classic King of the Hill more accurately reflects the culture of contemporary Dallas and its sprawling suburbs.

Similarly, many other places may be best known to Americans through film. Consider the following movies and/or TV shows and the respective locales they made famous (or infamous): Happy Days/Milwaukee; The Mary Tyler Moore Show/Minneapolis; Rocky (I-V)/Philadelphia; Cheers/Boston; Mean Streets/Taxi Driver (and almost all Scorsese films)/Seinfeld/Hill Street Blues/Law & Order (and countless others)/NYC, M.A.S.H./picturesque North Korea; etc. You get the picture.

“That’s the Chicago Way”

Yet, few other cities are as well known through film as Chicago thanks to a host of outstanding films and TV shows. In this humble Texpatriate’s opinion, the following represent the most iconic movies and TV shows (for better or worse) filmed in Chicago (in no particular order): The Untouchables; Ferris Buehler’s Day Off; The Blues Brothers; The Fugitive; and ER. These are not necessarily the best or most artful shows filmed in Chicago, but they are the most widely viewed depictions of the Windy City—especially to non-Chicagoans—and are thus more influential in shaping views of the Second City. In particular, two of these iconic films—The Untouchables and The Blues Brothers—are in a separate category.

Elements of The Untouchables and The Blues Brothers, from classic dialogue to classic car chase scenes, have seeped into our collective cultural consciousness and it is nearly impossible to separate the view of Chicago from the hinterlands without understanding these films. From influencing our national political speech to highlighting our unparalleled art and architecture and ethnic cultures to illustrating our city's insidious corruption and violence, these two caricatures on celluloid dramatically represent the culture of Chicago to most non-Chicagoans.

Brian De Palma’s classic The Untouchables may be the most beautifully filmed movie set in the Windy City. While portraying gangsters and G-men, De Palma recreated 1930s prohibition-era Chicago in splendid fashion. De Palma’s Chicago looks almost more authentic than the actual Chicago of the 1930s. Like a photorealist painting by Richard Estes or Chuck Close, De Palma’s Chicago—replete with saturated hues in every scene, period piece automobiles and clothing, and a moving score by Ennio Morricone—is realistic to the point of abstraction. However, perhaps the most enduring element of The Untouchables is the reference to the Chicago style—and I don’t mean architecture of economics professors.

Even more than the classic views of LaSalle Street, dialogue from The Untouchables has seeped into our vernacular and provides a shorthand for various types of behavior. For example, in recent years, political pundits and conspiracy theorists have borrowed a quote from Sean Connery’s character, Irish policeman Jimmy Malone, who suggested (when explaining how to get Capone), “You wanna know how you do it? Here's how, they pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way.”

The so-called “Chicago way” is synonymous with below-the-belt, Windy City fighting style, especially with respect to politics. In particular, political pundits have used this line to describe President Obama’s success in getting elected as well as his style in managing his administration. Whether this is fair or accurate is irrelevant, as the phrase has stuck. And just to illustrate my point, a quick Google search using the phrase, “that's the Chicago way Obama,” yielded 14,600,000 results. (To be fair, I didn’t look at all 14 million links, but I will take Google’s word for it regarding the popularity of the phrase in this context.) Creating a phrase that is immediately recognizable, viral, and illustrative of a particular city’s culture is a very difficult thing to achieve. But Connery’s line—“That’s the Chicago way”—frankly just works because it’s so damn true. This city is a cesspool of pay-to-play political corruption and organized crime.

In addition to influencing our political vernacular, De Palma’s movie has spawned a thriving tourism industry in Chicago. The “Untouchables Tours, Chicago’s Original Gangster Tour,” runs 19 tours weekly during the summer, and it takes patrons on a two-hour drive through “da city’s” most notorious neighborhoods, including Al Capone’s old stomping grounds.

The other classic Chicago film, John Landis’s The Blues Brothers, is in my opinion this city’s favorite depiction of itself. Unlike The Untouchables, it’s far less heavy handed and it’s extremely difficult not to find it enjoyable. Through the darkened shades of Jake and Elwood Blues, Chicago looks gritty, ethnically diverse, culturally rich, and just plain fun. And frankly, it is.

While there is a plot of sorts, albeit rambling and nonsensical, and more cameos than you can shake a stick at, I believe that the City of Chicago is the real star of The Blues Brothers. The movie is essentially a caricature of Chicago’s various ethnic neighborhoods coupled with dynamic post cards of every iconic building in the city. From the Daley Center to Wrigley Field, Jake and Elwood’s tour through the Windy City introduced Chicago’s many neighborhoods to folks all around the world.

In addition to The Untouchables and The Blues Brothers, there are so many good movies filmed in Chicago, each of which portrays the Windy City in a unique, vivid manner. The following are but a few diverse films that expertly captured various elements of the Chicago experience: Risky Business; The Package; Payback; Ordinary People; Planes, Trains & Automobiles; The Sting; North by Northwest; About Last Night; The Breakfast Club; Candyman; National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

South By Southwest

Like Chicago, Texas has its own unique film culture. (N.B.: I realize Chicago is a city and Texas is a state, but there is little to praise about the state of Illinois. When asked where I live, I never say "Illinois," but when I'm asked where I'm from I always say Texas before explaining that I grew up in Big D. Thus I prefer to think of Chicago as a discrete place exclusive of the attendant boringness of downstate Illinois. Texas is different, as I can identify with an urban film set in Dallas just as easily as I identify with Lonesome Dove.) Texas on film is how most non-Texans prefer to think of the Lone Star State. And the culture of Dallas is almost exclusively known around the world for three things: an infamous assassination, America’s Team, and a second-rate ‘80s TV show.

On November 22, 1963—nearly eight years before I was born—my hometown became known as the city where JFK was assasinated. As I mentioned above, that perception began to change in the 1970s thanks to the success and class of Tom Landry and his Dallas Cowboys. It changed even more in 1980 when Big D became the site of TV's most popular evening soap: Dallas.

In the 1980s J.R. became America’s favorite villain, and every non-Texan assumed that all the denizens of Big D lived on ranches, wore cowboy hats and boots to the office, and owned hundreds of oil wells and cattle. (And of course, we all did, right? Didn’t you?) While traveling in British Columbia in the summer of 1980, just about every Canadian I met—upon learning that I was from Dallas—asked me, “who shot J.R., eh?” assuming that as a native Dallasite I must have had inside information. Since I didn’t actually watch Dallas but was vaguely familiar with the cast I made up a different answer each time, e.g. “it was J.R.’s brother Bobby, eh”; “it was Sue Ellen, eh”; “it was Cliff Barnes, eh”; etc. While the depiction of Dallas as portrayed on this soap opera was anything but accurate, at least the perception of my hometown in the 1980s was decidedly more positive than in the ‘60s and early-‘70s.

However, a mediocre 1980s TV soap opera set in Big D only skims the surface. Like Chicago, Texas is a setting that filmmakers employ time after time to examine the larger than life culture of the Lone Star State. In my opinion, the following represent the most iconic--or at least recognizable--movies and TV shows (for better or worse) about Texas: Giant; Lonesome Dove; Dallas, The Alamo; and Walker Texas Ranger (ughh...I know, but WTR was both popular and long-running, and, I am embarrased to say, like Baywatch and the entire Smokey and the Bandit canon, WTR has always been a guilty pleasure of mine; whenever I'm traveling I look for WTR reruns on the hotel room TV, and usually I can find them).

Some of my favorite movies from the Lone Star State include: Friday Night Lights; Lone Star (my favorite movie about Texas, apart from Lonesome Dove, which is in a category unto itself); The Last Picture Show; Bonnie & Clyde; Hud; Dazed & Confused (another personal favorite); Slacker; The Rookie; Office Space; Trip to Bountiful; Tender Mercies; Crazy Heart; Blood Simple; Paris, Texas; Bottle Rocket; Fandango; North Dallas Forty; Texas Chain Saw Massacre; Local Hero (another personal favorite); Terms of Endearment; JFK; What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. If you haven’t seen ‘em, check ‘em out!

In truth, most non-Texans tend to think of Lone Star culture as an amalgam of various cowboy films coupled with the lifestyle of J.R. and the rest of the Ewing clan. And Texans gladly embrace these myths just as they wholeheartedly embrace the myth of the western frontier. On film and television, Texas is almost always bigger than life. And frankly, from the perspective of this Texpatriate living in the Windy City, Texas is indeed bigger than life. After all, behind the myth, there is a kernel of truth. (And if you don’t believe me, just read other parts of The Texpatriate in the Windy City. You’ll get it.)

At Home, in Sweet Home Chicago

Perhaps that’s why I feel almost at home in Chicago. Just like Texans, Chicagoans often see their city as an oversized caricature straight out of Hollywood’s Backlot.

And just as Texans—especially Dallasites—are often insecure about being appreciated and understood by the intelligentsia on the east- and west-coasts, Chicago is an enormously insecure city. After all, we are the Second City, i.e. second to New York, of course. While that rather faded expression primarily refers to the size of Chicago’s population—which is technically inaccurate as we’re now third behind Los Angeles—for years Chicagoans have felt inferior to the folks in New York with respect to culture and sophistication. And since we’ll never have Broadway or Wall Street or The Metropolitan Opera, we prefer to embrace what makes us unique. We proudly and enthusiastically embrace our unique culture, from sleazy gangsters and corrupt politicians to throaty blues singers and gritty, ethnic neighborhoods. And why shouldn’t we…

Thank God and Sam Houston I’m a Texan, and I thank Jake and Elwood I live in Chicago.

1 comment:

  1. For me, if you combine King of the Hill, Office Space and Bottle Rocket, that's pretty much the Dallas I know.