Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Why Baltimore?

This question has been troubling me for some time: Of all the cities in all the world, why does Annie Reed live in Baltimore? It's a real puzzler.

I've mentioned before (and hope to elaborate on later) the film's preoccupation with a Manifest Destiny–like sweep, a great movement from the Old East to the New West. There's also the dramatic tension provided by placing Tom Hanks's and Meg Ryan's characters on opposite sides of the country, making the film's resolution that much more unlikely and that much more satisfying. Placing Hank's Baldwin in Seattle makes a lot of sense: in addition to placing him at a geographic extreme, the city's identity as a center for youth culture in the early '90s makes it a place of exile for a widowed father. He is a stranger in a strange land. Baltimore, on the other hand, is a much less obvious candidate for inclusion in the film and doesn't have any immediately discernible significance.

Sure, putting Annie in Baltimore places her on the opposite coast from Sam, but if distance were the only consideration in choosing the city, then Miami would be a much better candidate, being at an even greater geographic remove from the Emerald City. And Baltimore is an old city, in contrast to the relative newness and youthfulness of Seattle. But there are older East Coast cities.

What really puzzles me is that Baltimore lacks an immediately identifiable personality. You show New York or Chicago on screen and people have a sense—mostly just formed from other movies, but still—of what those cities are like and what they mean: their "genie-soul" as Walker Percy describes it in The Moviegoer. And Seattle was simply shorthand in the early '90s for everything that was au courant: Seattle was the '90s. But Baltimore? I imagine that when people think Baltimore, they might possibly think of crabs or an airport near D.C. What did people think of Baltimore in the '90s?

Sleepless In Seattle was released in June of 1993. Six months earlier Homicide: Life on the Streets had premiered. Both are set in Baltimore, but they may as well be set in completely different cities. Sleepless In Seattle's Baltimore is a city that means almost nothing; Homicide's Baltimore is a city that represents everything that is wrong with modern, urban America. Three years before Sleepless In Seattle, Barry Levinson's film Avalon was released. The film cast Baltimore in a reasonably favorable light, but it also made it the setting for the disintegration of the traditional American family, the loss of long-held cultural values in the face of middle-class assimilation, White Flight, and the growth of the soulless suburbs. Did anyone know what to think of Baltimore in the '90s? Does anyone now?

I can't make heads or tails of it. Maybe Maryland just has a film-friendly tax code. I hope it's something more, but I can't think of what it is. Any input is appreciated.