Can Rahm Emanuel Save the Chicago Film Renaissance?

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Will the new mayor be able to help the city as it becomes a destination for big-budget blockbusters?

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Warner Bros.


Chicago got a slap in the face earlier this year. The team behind Christopher Nolan's Batman movies announced that the third installment was set to film in Pittsburgh—not Chicago, where the first two films were shot. Whether the reasons for the switch were monetary or aesthetic may never be clear, but from Nolan's inventive use of the LaSalle Street corridor to show a semi truck flip, to his reimagining of Lower Wacker as the seedy and literal underbelly of Gotham, Chicago was as much of a character in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight as Michael Caine's Alfred.

Nolan's decision was particularly painful because it was looking like Chicago was experiencing a filmmaking renaissance. Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, descended on the city last summer with its autobots and decepticons, turning Michigan Avenue into a veritable war zone. This summer the downtown area will be taken over by Zack Snyder's (Watchmen, Sucker Punch) Superman film Man of Steel. Also this year, Gus Van Sant will be shooting an 8-episode show for Starz called Boss, where Kelsey Grammer plays mayor of Chicago. Will losing Batman signal the beginning of the end of Chicago's rebirth as a filmmaking destination? Or will it be just a minor setback? The answer could depend on the new mayor the city inaugurated last week, Rahm Emanuel.

Chicago remains insecure about its reputation as inferior in business, industry, and culture, but Emanuel could usher in a new era of political and entertainment power. Considering his brother Ari's status as one of the most influential agents in Hollywood—canonized by Jeremy Piven in the HBO series Entourage—and the fact that a sizable portion of Emanuel's campaign contributions came from Hollywood (Steven Spielberg donated $75,000), it's hard not to wonder whether Batman could have been saved by the new administration.

According to Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office, former mayor Richard Daley recognized the ability of film to help transform the image of a city through glossy productions and storylines that take the focus away from the clichés of Chicago's history like crime, gangsters, Al Capone, and corrupt politicians. Moskal is hopeful that the new mayor will not only continue in Daley's footsteps when it comes to stewarding film in Chicago, but in fact help foster its expansion too. If the momentum slows, however, the city might look to the departure of Nolan's franchise as the first sign that its recent filmmaking success is already on the decline.

Chicago's relationship with film began auspiciously enough—it was home to one of the first studios in the country, Essanay, famous today for producing a series of Charlie Chaplin silent comedies. But only a few years later, the studio opened a California branch and eventually transferred all operations to Los Angeles. By the early 1930s, although Chicago remained a prominent setting in films, it became increasingly evident that few were actually shot on location. Drawing on his real life experiences on the crime beat, journalist-turned-screenwriter Ben Hecht was responsible for solidifying Chicago's pop cultural image as a town of gangsters, floozies, murders, corrupt politicians, journalists, and mayhem in the early days of the industry in films such as Underworld (1927), The Front Page (1931), and Scarface (1932)—none of which were shot in Chicago.

As audiences, we're willing to accept geographic license, especially in the older films when many shoots were confined to a soundstage. But sometimes the films betray us. In The Public Enemy (1931), James Cagney and Jean Harlow go for a ride through "Chicago." Thom Andersen, a Chicago native, notes in his documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2001) that "anyone who knows anything about Chicago might find the cityscape strangely rural," as Cagney and Harlow drive down streets with peculiarly large front yards, passing by Los Angeles landmarks like the Bullocks Wilshire department store.

Despite the fickle weather and overall costs associated with shooting in Chicago, there are some undeniable advantages to shooting on location. Buffered by a lake that gives breathing room to skyline shots, and split in half by a river which allows more fluidity in shooting the deep insides of the city, Chicago gives cinematographers more freedom in capturing a metropolitan setting, especially compared to the claustrophobic Manhattan streets, Toronto, or Los Angeles. The first major Hollywood film shot in Chicago was 1948's Call Northside 777, a Henry Hathaway noir once again about journalists and criminals. The film opens with an extensive shot of the city, the Chicago River, the Tribune building, the downtown streets, and even the L. The narrator describes "a city of brick and brawn, concrete and guts, with a short history of violence beating in its pulse."

It wasn't until the 1980s when productions came back to Chicago in earnest, but instead of cops, criminals, and journalists, we saw the city through the eyes of suburban teens. In movies like Adventures in Babysitting (1987), Risky Business (1983), and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), Chicago became a place of wonder and danger, with hostile blues clubs, fancy restaurants and museums, gang fights on the L, call girls, and the apparently possible danger of sliding out of the Smurfit-Stone building at any moment. Even though the vantage point changed, the image of Chicago as a rough-edged town persisted.

Daley took office in 1989 and ushered in a new era of Chicago filmmaking, taking it away from the teens in the suburbs and refocusing the camera's gaze on the city itself and a more adult experience. An obvious development was the aggressive addition of the romantic comedy. Ranging from the CTA employee who gets a shot at a different tax bracket by falling for a wealthy downtown guy in While You Were Sleeping (1995), to the glamorous world of the daughter of the owner of the White Sox in My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), and even the more recent portrait of Chicago as an aspirational city for Milwaukee girls in this year's Bridesmaids, romantic comedies have helped redefine the city as a place of urban sophistication.

Glossy period pieces also became a mainstay of the Daley era, including Sam Mendes' melodramatic ode to family and professional responsibilities, Road to Perdition (2002), and Michael Mann's attempt to reclaim and redefine the Chicago gangster story as only a native could do with Public Enemies (2009). This distinction was a brilliant one. The modern city, the one of the romantic comedy, was a friendly one with high-powered jobs, luxurious apartments, and the possibility of falling in love. The L was no longer a place of terror, it's just where our heroine worked. The gangsters and the criminals were relegated to a sepia toned depression-era time capsule—all of that danger was in the past and the danger was only allowed to re-emerge in modern times when Chicago assumed a new "other" persona: Gotham.

But the movies of Daley's term that truly capture the spirit of the city don't aren't the standard-issue romcoms or the intricately costumed period pieces. They're the films that showed a modern Chicago that was somewhere in between and didn't whitewash their characters and surroundings into bland oblivion. These movies include Andrew Davis' The Fugitive (1993), Steve James' Hoop Dreams (1994), and Stephen Frears' High Fidelity (2000). The Chicago Reader's J.R. Jones said that although there are a lot of big movies being shot in the city, they rarely venture outside the cozy postcard scenery of The Loop and the skyline. "You don't see much local color. You never see the Southside or the Westside. But that's true of all commercial movies, there's not a lot of regionalism." These three films are the outliers to Jones' rule, showing a Chicago that is often left out of the typical downtown movie. In The Fugitive, we follow Richard Kimble on his journey through the city and its surrounding areas—from his rundown Southside apartment to his sprint through the Daley Plaza, Kimble's intimate knowledge of the expansive metropolitan area is his main benefit in outwitting Tommy Lee Jones' Federal Marshall. Hoop Dreams took viewers into the world of the inner city schools and their NBA hopefuls, and High Fidelity offered a glimpse of the once hip neighborhood Wicker Park and the music-obsessed men in a state of arrested development that inhabited that enclave of record stores and cheap rents.

Near the end of Daley's reign, thanks to the implementation of a 30 percent tax credit in 2009 (partly a response to the fact that the 2002 film Chicago did not shoot a single scene in the city, opting for the more affordable Toronto) and the stunning reinterpretation of the city through Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Chicago became a home for the big-budget blockbuster production. .

For independent productions and filmmaking, however, the local scene isn't as vibrant as it could be. The Chicago Tribune's film critic Michael Phillips said that considering the wealth of resources in talented stage actors he is "surprised that we haven't had more genuinely provocative directors come out of this city." The most notable of the crop of new directors is Joe Swanberg, whose films are mercilessly defined by the limiting term Mumblecore. His most recent film, Uncle Kent, opened recently at the Siskel Theater to mostly unfavorable reviews. J.R. Jones had a somewhat different take, admitting that there is a lot of independent film production here, but that "those who are serious about it end up leaving."

So where are we now? Rahm Emanuel has inherited a city with a rich history of filmmaking but a future called into question by the sudden departure of Nolan and the Batman franchise. Will he be able to regain the positive blockbuster momentum and also steward local talent? He has the connections. Movie fans are eagerly anticipating what he does with those resources.

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Lindsey Bahr is a writer based in Chicago.

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