So often the locale in which a film takes place proves just as vital as the individuals tasked with relaying the story unfolding within its borders. A city can so easily become a character in itself.
A vibrant and dynamic stage; constantly evolving and offering up new opportunities and quite possibly pitfalls for its residents and unsuspecting visitors to face. Whether stood upon the starry-eyed peripheries, peering through the hard black skyscraper silhouettes on the horizon, or immersed beneath the constant waves of sights, sounds and smells which pulse through its urban heart, the colloquial cogs and provincial workings of a city can provide a truly invaluable and thought-provoking tool.
So what better cities to explore than the man-made majesty of America’s metropolises? Municipal sprawls, which, on paper, remain newly settled, yet already boast unfathomable depths of cultural and cinematic significance.
RoboCop (1987) – Detroit, Michigan
Today, Detroit is a sorry sight indeed. With a population that fell by twenty-five percent during the 21st century’s first decade and now responsible for the largest municipal bankruptcy case in U.S. history – the city eventually being declared bankrupt in 2013 – Detroit stands as a wounded titan upon the American landscape. It wasn’t always this way.
The once proud and functional city is known as the Motor City for a reason. Detroit’s industrial core pumped out car, after car, after car – providing a manufacturing nucleus for a nation newly obsessed with gas guzzling automobiles. Unfortunately the fall of Detroit was as sudden as its rise, and a once thriving hub of America’s productive splendour now rests on its knees amongst the literal and metaphorical rubble of the past.
Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop portrayed a soulless dystopian Detroit of the near-future also tormented by the threat of financial collapse. Extreme violence and a narrative rich with moral dilemma and consequence have ensured it remains as one of science fiction’s most enduring genre entries. Both RoboCop and The Crow (another Detroit based, dark-fantasy fable) essentially killed-off their leading men, before offering the city sanctuary through their resurrection.
Perhaps one day Detroit will find its own way back to the petrol stained paths of glory by less extreme means.
Singles – Seattle, Washington
Released in 1992, Singles’ narrative concerns itself with six twenty-somethings sharing an apartment block in the midst of Seattle’s burgeoning grunge movement.
The film’s focus upon the romantic struggles of two Generation X couples amidst the surrounding cultural zeitgeist of grunge further cemented director Cameron Crowe’s credentials as pop culture’s most important record keeper in the wake of 1989’s boombox hoisting Say Anything.
Brandishing miles of flannel, coffee shop culture and numerous cameos from musical icons such as Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell, Singles’ naturalistic depiction of Washington trademarks and one of contemporary culture’s most exciting and memorable artistic periods, earned the love of critics and moviegoers alike.
However, its heavy soundtrack of contemporary classics, including tracks from Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees, is perhaps its most enduring accolade.
Good Will Hunting – Boston, Massachusetts
Boston, Massachusetts has provided fertile ground for movie making in recent history. Pictures such as The Boondock Saints, Mystic River, The Departed, The Fighter, and Ben Affleck’s hard-hitting combo of Gone Baby Gone and The Town, have cast the city that bleeds green in a distinctly uncompromising and harsh light.
A hotbed of contemporary noir inhabited by lyrical hard-men capable of beating a man with both their words and fists, cinema’s Boston is a city of contradictions, a habitat of violent prosperity and working—class poetry. Nonetheless, very few Boston-based movies have striven to fully immerse themselves in the latter of those paradoxical traits. Gus Van Sant’s direction and an Oscar-winning script penned by Boston natives Matt Damon and Ben Affleck crafted Good Will Hunting.
One of American independent cinema’s finest and most affecting offerings, the tale now synonymous with Boston, depicts Matt Damon as Will, a math genius toiling away as a night janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We watch Will go toe-to-toe with his own mind, his therapist (Robin Williams), his friends, and love interest Skylar, as he re-evaluates his troubled life and the great possibilities of his future.
Never before has a question asking one’s opinion on apples, scored to the wistful sounds of Elliot Smith, proved so unquestionably brilliant.
High Fidelity – Chicago, Illinois
The Windy City, Chi-Town, The Second City – Chicago is a city of many names. John Cusack’s dejected musical countdown of past romances gone to pasture is a picture that focuses upon names – specifically female names such as Laura, Penny, Charlie, Sarah and Marie.
Purists may tut at the manner in which Nick Hornby’s novel inspiration was transposed from London’s streets to Chicago’s boulevards, but gradually High Fidelity begins to feel just as comfortable in the Midwest of America as the South of England. Between Cusack’s fourth wall breaking monologues and late-night love-interest reconciliations, we are treated to a whistle-stop tour of some of Chicago’s iconic scenery. From dusk-lit views of the city’s skyline – Sears Tower standing proudly at its centre – to rainy walks through Wicker Park and alongside Lake Michigan, each location holds its own point of romantic origin or end for self-centred hero of the piece, Rob.
The second picture in this list to possess a timeless soundtrack, and John Cusack’s finest performance alongside his turn in Grosse Pointe Blank, High Fidelity taught us that it’s so very easy to lose your heart one day and find love the next in Chicago.
My Winnipeg – Winnipeg, Manitoba
Though not strictly “American” in the monster trucks and apple pie sense, Winnipeg still sits inside North-America (it counts) as Canada’s eighth most populated city and the capital of the province of Manitoba. During the haze of the first year of my film degree, I studied both documentary and experimental cinema. Guy Maddin’s, My Winnipeg, combines both of those filmmaking genres to great effect – draping sheets of dark illusion over this deeply personal portrait of his hometown to rest amongst the omnipresent blankets of snow. My Winnipeg often still dances through my mind.
Its chiaroscuro palette of shadowy blacks and frosty whites is starkly beautiful and striking. The word Winnipeg is derived from the Western Cree (an aboriginal Canadian language) words for “muddy waters” and undoubtedly this fantasy infused documentary is a largely stark and unglamorous affair – content with romanticising every nook, cranny, and vast conduit of backstreets the unforgiving city has to offer. It is one of the most unique and affecting representations of a city you will likely ever experience.