Tim here, rejoicing over the fact that our good host Nathaniel is in my very own Chicago this weekend – we have a movie night planned tomorrow! – and to celebrate, I wanted to showcase some of my city’s best and most dubious moments in the cinematic spotlight. Therefore:
Three Chicago-based movies that truly "get" the city
(no documentaries; that would be cheating, no matter how much Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters are 100% essential Chicago movies)
Mickey One (1965)
The film that Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn made right before Bonnie and Clyde is even more besotted with the French New Wave, but stylistic excess doesn’t get in the way of a really special hyper-naturalistic depiction of the city streets as they existed almost half a century ago. I cannot, of course, speak to the veracity of what’s onscreen, but the film’s documentary aspects shine through even under the sordid thriller aspects of the plot and Penn’s fractured filming style. Of all the classic movies filmed in Chicago – and there are a few – none do such a great job of suggesting what the neighborhoods looked like way back when, before building and gentrification made their mark.
The fault of Chicago cinema is the fault of mainstream American cinema more generally: it’s hard as hell for stories about non-whites to get the kind of financial support it takes to make a high-profile production that can break through into pop culture at large. So while Barbershop probably isn’t the most fixedly honest depiction of life on the largely African-American South Side, it is surely one of the most valuable, simply because it made such a relatively big impact. And certainly, the judiciously-navigated course the film charts between refusing to make itself an Issues Movie on the one hand, but also remaining aware that it’s serving a very particular cultural purpose in its low-key, positive depiction of Chicago African-American community leaves it as one of the 21st Century’s most satisfyingly humanistic depictions of inner city American life as it is lived stripped of melodrama and high concepts.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Seriously. The setting might be a fictitious comic book city, but no popcorn movie filmed in downtown Chicago has come even a little bit close to capturing the essence of that area half as well, from the two-story Wacker Drive (where the first part of the truck and motorcycle chase takes place), never so cunningly filmed as here, to the surprisingly realistic depiction of the main thoroughfares, even down to the level of leaving banners for the Lyric Opera of Chicago prominently in frame. Batman Begins took place in a conceptual version of Chicago just like Superman’s Metropolis is a conceptual version of New York, but the city that appears in The Dark Knight is as much like the one that actually exists as the movies have ever shown, with the very specific feeling of the streets and buildings captured with remarkable accuracy.
Three movies that absolutely do not
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
No two ways about it, John Hughes’s fantasy about a kid from the affluent north suburbs sneaking into the city with his best friend, his girl, and a slick sports car is absolutely saturated with love for Chicago, but it never plays as anything other than a fantasy. The geography is suspicious, but that’s hardly the bothersome part: it’s the way the film depicts everything in such a dislocated manner, all surface level impressions and no real sense of the rhythm of the city. We can, easily, explain this away because of what the film is: the adventure of a bunch of suburban kids experiencing Chicago as a rush of sensations, rather than people who live in the city being part of its fabric. Still, it’s a bit disappointing that Chicagoland’s most beloved cinematic chronicler couldn’t do something a bit more substantial in his one long-term visit to the city.
My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
This is the relative location of O’Hare airport and the downtown area:
This is how characters in the movie travel from one to the other:
And the wedding itself takes place a full 90 minutes north of the city in rush hour traffic.
Eagle Eye (2008)
Hands-down, the worst depiction of Chicago public transit ever put to film. Shia LaBeouf’s action-packed race from the men hunting him at least starts out in the right direction – take that, My Best Friend’s Wedding – but it takes less than two minutes to travel what we mere mortals can only traverse in fully three-quarters of an hour, and two more to end up in rundown neighborhoods on the far opposite side of the city, right before fleeing over marshlands that don’t resemble anything in Illinois, let alone the immediate environs of a major city.
Chicagoans! What’s your favorite cinematic incarnation of the city? Everyone else! What movies shot in your part of the world do you think do the best job of capturing its essence? Share with us in comments!