Wednesday, June 16, 2010

My Kind of Cinematic Town

| by Justin Thomas |

A few words about your insufferable know-it-all, not-so-humble narrator...

In 2007, for the first time in my life, I went to Los Angeles to attend a table reading of a screenplay I cowrote. During the flight I had the idea I was entering the fabric of American culture: traveling to Hollywood to pitch an idea and see if it might get made into a movie. It was a cool thought to have, and if I’d known about it and had the time and patience, I would have made the trip on a bus. There’s a slight possibility I’m also a complete idiot because if we learned nothing else from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, it’s that traveling by bus is its own special version of Hell.

And how I had fun in L.A. A meal or two at Mel’s. Seeing the Hollywood sign. The table reading and hearing words I partially had a hand in putting to paper spoken by folks from Battlestar Galactica. Seeing the Pacific so big and blue and without memory. Cruising Sunset Blvd. Watching my friend talk to Cloris Leachman while eating her popcorn without her permission. It’s safe to say I liked L.A. from the start, but I had no problem traveling back to that cowtown on the shores of Lake Michigan when it was over.

You see, I happen to love Chicago, and a 35-year search for something better has yet to return any results.

Of the nine million people in the Chicago metro area I would guess I’m one of a handful who chose it mostly because of movies. The film industry wasn’t embraced by The Boss, mayor Richard J. Daley, and his 21-year reign of terror kept the cameras from rolling anywhere within the city limits. As all things must do, Daley eventually passed and it became easier to get Chicago on screen.

Chicago is where the Blues Brothers decided to cause an insane amount of mayhem and, regardless of how one feels about the movie, one has to say they haven’t seen quite as many car crashes in a movie.

Here is where Tommy Lee Jones chased Harrison Ford and the Harrison Ford Acting Finger™ in The Fugitive, and after more than a decade I haven’t yet found the bar from which Dr. Kimble cased the one-armed man’s house even though I’ve tried. Ford and the Harrison Ford Acting Finger™ were also born here.

John Cusack and his record store in High Fidelity were in Chicago, and Cusack knew there were other things to show than the normal establishing shots of the Sears Tower and Hancock Center.

A night can be spent at the El Rancho Motel up north and you can bring your own chips and travel bottles of booze for the complete Del and Neal experience from the aforementioned Planes, Trains and Automobiles. That instantly makes Chicago better than Madison County, Iowa.

Ordinary People provides the most-authentic snapshot of North Shore life I’ve seen, but the lack of any zombies in the film makes it only authentic, not accurate.

Christopher Nolan uses Chicago as his Gotham City and it no longer feels like the distraction it originally was when I first saw it used as such.

On screen Chicago shines, but things happen off screen, too. The best execution of film criticism, people sitting around doing nothing but talking about movies, came from two Chicago writers. Siskel is dead and Ebert has lost his voice, but if you read his blog and his reviews, his writing is so strong you can still hear it. Now, he’s completely out to lunch with many of his opinions on film, but the man can write. Capone over at Aint It Cool News lives, I believe, within sight of Wrigley Field (1060 West Addison in case you weren’t paying attention in Blues Brothers), and he provides some of the most well thought out opinions about movies I’ve read. The best little theater this side of the Mississippi, the Music Box on Southport Avenue, helps people remember there’s more to movies than just what happens to be in the local megaplex on any given weekend.

Need firmer ties to the film industry? David Mamet is a Chicago guy as are Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Joe Mantegna, Bonnie Hunt and Harold Ramis, and they all embrace it. Charlton Heston honed his ham at Northwestern University north of the city as did Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Two words: John Hughes. Enough said.

“Blah, blah, blah, Chicago is great but that’s, like, your opinion, man. What’s your point?”

A week or so ago I took the train to work at my company’s downtown office. When I arrived at the station I got turned around, found myself in the biggest room I’ve ever seen and stumbled upon the steps from The Untouchables. You know the ones. Costner and Garcia chasing down the bookkeeper. “You got him?” “Yeah, I got him.” “MY BABY!” It was an instant reminder of the fact I’m in the right place, and weirdly, in the right place for the right reasons, even though doubt might creep in from time to time.

Aspiring to be a screenwriter in any place other than where the film industry is, you know, located, is moronic, but now and then I’m reminded where I’m at is due largely to the movies I wouldn’t mind writing if I had the chance.

And all of that somehow makes sense to me.

Here endeth the lesson.

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