Baltimore's blend of grace and grit reflected in its cinematic mythology

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010; E01

John Waters changed the Washington Monument forever.

Make that my Washington Monument. "Pecker," Waters's 1998 comedy about a guileless young photographer who becomes a subversive art star, starts with a cheerfully vulgar sight gag involving Baltimore's Washington Monument -- a graceful 178-foot tower on top of which the revered general perches nobly -- making the most of its phallic symbolism.

To this day, I can't pass the statue, the physical anchor of Baltimore's genteel Mount Vernon neighborhood, without grinning, a little ashamedly. Soon enough, passing the marble-stepped mansions that line Mount Vernon Place (and where I was lucky enough to live for a few years), I'm reminded of "The Bedroom Window" (1987), Curtis Hanson's Hitchcockian thriller set amid the neighborhood's slightly worn elegance. And then "Twelve Monkeys" (1995), in which Terry Gilliam chose Mount Vernon as the perfect backdrop for a gothically decayed future-as-past.

All three directors, of such wildly divergent sensibilities and styles, understandably found themselves beguiled by Baltimore's evocative built environment, which for residents has become something of a living ruin. Just as I can't walk through Mount Vernon without its cinematic associations, I can't pass the Formstone-clad rowhouses of East Baltimore without thinking of Waters's "Hairspray"-- the original, in which Baltimore was played by itself, not Toronto.

When I find myself on Howard Street, where Baltimore businessmen used to buy their Panama hats and which is now a mecca for connoisseurs of antique porcelain and silver, it's always festooned with the lyrical strands of lights Barry Levinson rapturously re-created in "Avalon" (1990). Driving a few blocks to the east, I can spy the actual diner from Levinson's "Diner" (1982), alone and shining amid the peeling rust and urban detritus beneath Interstate 83. It inhabits a no man's land between "The Block," where the "Diner" guys watched pasties twirl, and the city's castle-like former penitentiary that looms like something out of Dickens.

Victoriana and vulgarity. Deco and decay. Such are the ways that the cinematic mythology of Baltimore infiltrates the imaginations and daily lives of the people who live here, creating a uniquely enchanted experience of the city, even at its grittiest and, sometimes, most hopeless. (It's telling that Washington's most potent cinematic trope is an anonymous parking garage that -- admit it -- could have been anywhere.)

The spell is cinematically inspired but the senses bring it to life: It's the way the morning air sometimes smells like cumin or cinnamon when a nearby seasoning company grinds its spices, or the weird, filmy iridescence (what is that stuff?) that gathers on the piers in the Inner Harbor. It's the cloying sweetness of a Berger cookie, graced by a decadent dollop of fudgy chocolate that, legend has it, started out as a mistake at the bakery. It's the way Old Bay stings the cuts on your hands when you're cracking crabs of an afternoon at Obrycki's. No doubt Baltimore's sensual richness helps explain why it has spawned such an unusually rich sense of itself through fiction, as any fan of Anne Tyler's winsome homebodies or the deceptively complex corner sentinels of TV's "The Wire" will attest. But it's in the movies, whether Levinson's burnished nostalgia or Waters's depraved humanism, that Baltimore has found its most potent and enduring expression, not just as a location or a backdrop but as an idea.

That idea finds focus and energy in a self-reliance born of being stuck between bigger, braggier cities. A DIY spirit infuses nearly every art form in Baltimore, from its vibrant indigenous club music and theater scenes to the tiny galleries and one-off performances that seem to proliferate with every passing year. No one would have thought that from an otherwise featureless corner of North Avenue and Howard, hard by "car warshes" and a decrepit motel, a vibrant cultural center would emerge, anchored by the Maryland Institute College of Art, enlivened by the scrappily resourceful Single Carrot Theatre Company and fed -- literally -- by Joe Squared, an alterna-bistro that has become a prime destination for artistic fellowship, delicious pizza and un-categorizable music performances.

Of course the city has its share of significant institutions: Center Stage, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Museum of Art -- where the city's own Cone sisters deigned to house their collection of Matisses. But rather than top-down largesse, creativity in Baltimore seems always to have been a function of necessity, resulting in a get-on-with it, outlaw ethos that prizes unfussy practicality -- working with the things at hand, even if they're a bit dented or tarnished -- as much as reckless self-expression.

Elsewhere, summer might start on Memorial Day, but in Baltimore the season kicks off with the famously eccentric Kinetic Sculpture Race and winds down in August with Fluid Movement, a community-based synchronized swimming performance in which dozens of performers of every shape, size, age and ability astonish audiences with their grace and chutzpah at pools in public parks. (This year's show: "Jason and the Aquanauts: 20,000 Legs Over the Sea." You don't want to miss it.)

The first time I saw Fluid Movement, it performed "Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile" in the city's rough-and-tumble Patterson Park, with a generously built African American teenager taking on the title role, regally commanding a supporting cast of players she most likely never would have encountered in her day-to-day life. Which gets to the other essential component of the Baltimore idea. This is a city of demarcations, a game of inches where grand mansions on flawlessly manicured lawns exist just a few blocks away from some of the city's most desolate slums. It's a sharply drawn map of invisible lines that have historically kept its jumble of ethnicities -- white mill workers from Appalachia, Italians, Poles, Greeks, Jews, blue-collar and middle-class African Americans -- in tight, intimate communities whose children rarely move away (and often drag someone back).

You've heard it before, but it's true: In Baltimore, "Where did you go to school?" refers to high school, not college. Barbara Mikulski, the daughter of Polish grocers in Highlandtown, went to the Institute of Notre Dame. So did Little Italy native Nancy Pelosi, daughter of Baltimore mayor Tommy D'Alesandro.

Hampden, Fells Point, Highlandtown, Pikesville, Randallstown: Each neighborhood possesses its distinctive ethnic lingua franca -- although every native pronounces "Hon" with the same circuitously elongated "o" that somehow gives one vowel several syllables.

Yet for all its tribalism and pockets of latent mistrust, those set boundaries can be remarkably elastic. Baltimore is still the most integrated city I've ever lived in. And that's not only a question of black and white, but of rich and poor, hipster and hillbilly, North and South -- even past and present.

Relatively few buildings have been torn down to make way for new development; boarded-up rowhouses and defunct textile mills fractiously bump up against the gleaming citadels of biotech and academia. On Falls Road, mills that once housed London Fog and other textile companies shelter yoginis and artisans. Farther south on Brewers Hill, where National Bohemian and Gunther's once waged their "beer wars," monumentalist brick super-structures have been re-purposed for dog groomers, dentists and loft-feathering empty-nesters.

Presumably, Brewers Hill -- or maybe nearby Canton -- is where Jennifer Aniston and Ben Affleck live in "He's Just Not That Into You" (2009), where their apartment offers a spectacular view of the iconic Domino Sugars sign. What filmmaker wouldn't be inspired by that red neon Venus hovering above the Inner Harbor? Or the Bromo-Seltzer Tower across town, which glows blue at night while the Orioles play across the street at Camden Yards, formerly a warehouse for the B&O Railroad and yet another stately example of salvage and reuse?

If past and present find contradictory co-existence in Baltimore's brand of new urbanism, city and country meet farther north, where neighborhoods that were once farmland still bear whiffs of rural quietude. Jodie Foster set her dysfunctional family comedy "Home for the Holidays" (1995) in the northeast community of Hamilton, where you can still spy the odd farmhouse tucked between foursquare brick homes from the 1920s and banal 1960s strip malls.

The decade-upon-decade neighborhood also provided inspiration for the 2006 neo-realist drama "Hamilton," by Matthew Porterfield. In that film, non-professional teenage actors go about their summer days with languid, sometimes inert lack of purpose. Like Levinson and Waters before him, Porterfield captures an essential truth about his home town and its fascinating juxtapositions of races, classes and geography: Through Porterfield's lens, Hamilton looks both as bleak as any corner on "The Wire" and as idyllic as a patch of Iowa acreage.

With "Hamilton" and with his recent film "Putty Hill," another docu-drama hybrid about a northeast Baltimore subculture, Porterfield joins an emerging generation of artists eager to reshape the city's living ruins into ever newer forms. In a city of constantly shifting boundaries, perhaps the most porous of all is between fact and fiction themselves.

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