A sense of place

As Baltimore rages, I’m moved to polish up a piece that’s been sitting on my computer for some months, about how the city has been represented over the years, in print, in film, and on television. The city about which F. Scott Fitzgerald (who lived there for five years in the 1930s) said, “I belong here, where everything is civilized and gay and rotted and polite.”

Start with H. L. Mencken. From Wikipedia:

Henry Louis “HL” Mencken (September 12, 1880 – January 29, 1956) was an American journalist, satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English. Known as the “Sage of Baltimore”, he is regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century. As a scholar Mencken is known for The American Language, a multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States. His satirical reporting on the Scopes trial, which he dubbed the “Monkey Trial”, also earned him notoriety.

… In his best-selling memoir Happy Days, he described his childhood in Baltimore as “placid, secure, uneventful and happy.”

Then Anne Tyler. From Wikipedia:

Anne Tyler (born October 25, 1941) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, and literary critic. She has published 20 novels [many set in Baltimore, where she has lived for some time], the best known of which are Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1983), The Accidental Tourist (1985), and Breathing Lessons (1988).

… Her subject in all her novels has been the American family and marriage: the boredom and exasperating irritants endured by partners, children, siblings, parents; the desire for freedom pulling against the tethers of attachments and conflicted love; the evolution over time of familial love and sense of duty.

And Barry Levinson. From Wikipedia:

Barry Levinson (born April 6, 1942) is an American screenwriter, Academy Award winning film director, actor, and producer of film and television. His most notable works include acclaimed films such as the comedy-drama Diner (1982), the sports drama The Natural (1984), the war-comedy Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), the crime drama Bugsy (1991), and the political black comedy Wag the Dog (1997).

Diner was the first of a series of films set in the Baltimore of Levinson’s youth. The others were Tin Men (1987), a story of aluminum-siding salesmen in the 1960s starring Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito; the immigrant family saga Avalon (which featured Elijah Wood in one of his earliest screen appearances), and Liberty Heights (1999).

With Liberty Heights, we begin to see Baltimore as a racially diverse city. And then comes John Waters, with among other films, the racially themed comedy Hairspray. From Wikipedia:

John Samuel Waters Jr. (born April 22, 1946) is an American film director, screenwriter, actor, stand-up comedian, journalist, visual artist, and art collector, who rose to fame in the early 1970s for his transgressive cult films.

… Although he maintains apartments in New York City and San Francisco, and a summer home in Provincetown, Waters still mainly resides in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, where all his films are set.

Some films: Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living, Polyester, Pecker, Serial Mom. Here’s the renovated Senator Theatre in Baltimore at its opening on 10/10/13:

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Finally, David Simon and the television show The Wire, in which black Baltimore is front and center. From Wikipedia:

The Wire is an American crime drama television series set and produced in and around Baltimore, Maryland. Created and primarily written by author and former police reporter David Simon, the series was broadcast by the premium cable network HBO in the United States. The Wire premiered on June 2, 2002, and ended on March 9, 2008, comprising 60 episodes over five seasons.

Each season of The Wire introduces a different institution in the city of Baltimore. In chronological order they are: the illegal drug trade, the seaport system, the city government and bureaucracy, the school system, and the print news media, while continuing on characters/plots from previous seasons. The large cast consists mainly of character actors who are little known for their other roles, as well as numerous guest and recurring appearances by real-life Baltimore and Maryland figures.

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