Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Sleepless" in the Second City

I was in Chicago the other weekend, and I couldn't help (who could?) but consider the city's role in Sleepless In Seattle. The Windy City may be overshadowed in the film by the titular Seattle, or Annie's hometown of Baltimore, or New York City, where everyone gets to live happily ever after. But the story begins in Chicago, and it continually returns to Chicago, checking in regularly lest it get lost. Chicago, that biggest-shouldered of cities, is Sleepless In Seattle's anchor.

The film opens with a shot of Sam and Jonah standing by a casket on a hillside, and an on-screen title tells us they are in Chicago. We hear Sam speaking to Jonah, explaining their loss, encouraging his son not to dwell on it or look for an explanation. When he finishes his speech, the camera draws back, and we are shown a gathered crowd on the other side of the grave and then the Chicago skyline in the background, a visual echo of the gravestones in the foreground. The shot conveys the isolation of Sam and Jonah in their grief, standing alone, separated from the rest of the mourners, a great distance between them and the city of Chicago, the home of their past familial contentment, now turned into nothing but a reminder of their loss.

One could chalk up Chicago's involvement in the film to some personal affection on Norah Ephron's part; she seems to like Chicago and thinks it's a good place to start a movie (When Harry Met Sally, which Ephron wrote, begins at the University of Chicago.). But I think the city has deeper significance that Ephron consciously taps into.

Chicago has historically been a transit hub; trains connecting the old East Coast to the ever-expanding western frontier had to pass through the city. It should come as no surprise, then, that the city plays the same role in Sleepless In Seattle, connecting Annie in the historic Eastern port of Baltimore with Sam in rainy Seattle, the edgy "It" city of the early '90s. The connection is not accomplished through the railroads, but through the radio.

It is through Dr. Marcia Fieldstone's radio show, broadcast live from the top of the Sears Tower, that Annie Reed first "meets" Sam Baldwin. Sam felt he had to leave Chicago after his wife's death because the city was too infused with painful memories of what he had lost. What he had lost was, in a word, love. Sam must return to Chicago, in a sense, if he is to move past his loss and regain love. Talking to Dr. Marcia in Chicago, he is able to finally acknowledge the depth of his grief. When he begins to receive letters from women across the country, including Annie, it is not insignificant that all these letters had to move through Chicago to be forwarded by Dr. Marcia's office.

One last observation about cityscape and architecture, something I may return to in a later post: Seattle is a city of isolation; Chicago is a city of integration. We are shown in the first minutes of the film Sam and Jonah's Chicago home: a charming brick townhouse, set in a row of similar structures along a tree-lined street, Jonah sitting on the front stoop, people coming and going, moving easily from the public world of the street into the private, bereaved world of the home. Contrast this with the Baldwin residence in Seattle: a floating house, clinging to the far end of a dock, jutting out into Lake Union, almost an island unto itself. The home is attractive and offers wonderul views, but it is little more than another expression of Sam Baldwin's grief. Trying to preserve some fragment of the familial bliss he had known in Chicago, Sam has chosen to isolate Jonah and himself as much as possible from anything that might threaten to intrude on his grieving.

For Sleepless In Seattle, Chicago is a sort of paradise; Seattle is little more than a sodden purgatory.

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