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.


  1. Baltimore also has Rosie O'Donnell, which is a big minus when compared to the lively conversation at the dinner party in Seattle.
    The fact that Baltimore is, as you suggest, a pretty generic city, as far as they go, makes Annie's choice easier, doesn't it? How much of this is an attempt on her part to 'go west'?
    Philadelphia might have been a better choice.
    But my answer is, in short, Walter. The film's Baltimore is very much like Walter-- fine enough, but totally dull (minus the murders, but again, this is the film's Baltimore) is it good enough for Annie? No. Obviously not. But they are good comparisons, both being port cities without a huge film presence before this one.
    Also, I don't know what the pollen count is like in Baltimore, but it could contribute to Walter's allergies.

  2. I feel kind of stupid for not seeing the Walter connection before. Someone else just brought that up to me, too. We'll call it the "Waltimore" problem. I think you're dead on, though.

    That's what I love about the blog. I get a chance to sort out my thoughts, and other people get to contribute to the dialogue, and we generate something really meaningful.

  3. Could the film industry have anything to do with it? Perhaps during the early nineties Baltimore was making a push to attract Hollywood and film makers in general to use their city by offering tax incentives, etc. Something to look into perhaps.

  4. A definite possibility, Anonymous, one to which I alluded in the last paragraph of the post, but have not bothered examining too closely. It's a frustrating fact of filmmaking: important decisions, like where to set a film or scenes within a film, are often based on a film's budget and not on what they mean to a film's interpretation. So, why I acknowledge that tax incentives and whatnot may ultimately be the only reason to set parts of Sleepless in Baltimore, I'm reluctant to accept it as the only explanation.

  5. You didn't intend it, but the phrase "Sleepless in Baltimore" in your last comment struck me. I think we can all agree... I have no interest in seeing a film called 'Sleepless in Baltimore.'