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Personal Mythmaking
Cindy Moore

"Barry Levinson’s in Baltimore Series"


Known for its big hair, rhinestone glasses, and plastic pink flamingos, Baltimore is a kitsch heaven for tourists, but for the quirky residents it is a source of great civic pride, where they take their mussels steamed, their crabs cracked and their film seriously. Not one, but two of this country’s most recognized directors, John Waters and Barry Levinson, have memorialized their hometown on celluloid. Waters provides the art-house version, caricaturizing the natives in such films as Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, Pecker, and Cecil B. Demented, while Levinson takes a more personal approach, capturing the passing eras through generations of change.

Levinson’s Baltimore series of films, Diner (1982), Tin Men (1987), Avalon (1990), and Liberty Heights (1999,) serve as biography, not only of his friends and relatives, but of the town itself. Baltimore, for the native writer/director, is not just a location for nostalgia; it is a site for investigation, a place to reflect on the past while anticipating the future.

The films in this series are, in a way, autobiographical collages. The decidedly male and predominantly Jewish lead characters are composite sketches—hovering midway between self-portraits and character studies. Amusing details and colorful personalities are gathered from Levinson’s past—lending their peculiar humor a remarkable believability. Even Eddy’s (Steve Guttenberg) fiancée’s forced, premarital football test in Diner was a part of Levinson family history. His characters, although undoubtedly inspired and informed by their real-life quirky counterparts, owe a large portion of their complexity to the meticulous casting process and collaborative working environment.

Hand-picked by Levinson, actors/actresses are hired not on past experience, but rather on their ability to relate and interact with other cast members and since each of the characters has some basis in real-life, Levinson can more easily judge whether someone is right for the part. His eagerness to take a chance on fresh, young talent has launched a number of successful careers. From Diner alone: Paul Reiser ( Mad About You), Timothy Daly (Wings), and Ellen Barkin (Sea of Love) got their "big break." Not to mention that this film makes it possible to make the connection between Kevin Bacon and Steve Guttenberg without having to wade through the tedious Police Academy movies.

The witty dialogue, although carefully penned, is often enhanced by the working process. The cast is encouraged to improvise and filming occasionally continues after the drafted scene is completed, enhancing the realistic rhythm of the lines (people talking over each other, instead of the ping-pong patter of actors swapping lines back-and-forth.) It is especially effective with comedic actors like Paul Reiser (Diner) and Danny Devito (Tin Men) whose quick wit hasten the pace of the dialogue.

The circular banter between characters seldom focuses on weighty issues. They dispute the fine points of Bonanza (Tin Men) or the merits of Sinatra (Liberty Heights)-despite the life-altering changes going on around them. Rarely do the male characters around whom the films revolve discuss relationships (they are men after all), but their familial repartee and obsessive attention to detail makes the closeness of their bonds apparent. Swapping stats and playfully bickering over minutiae is the type of bonding in which Levinson is well versed.

The importance of the trivial is no more apparent than in the character of Fenwick in Diner, played by Kevin Bacon. Constantly drunk, he can easily answer the most challenging TV trivia or, along with his consort Shrevie (Daniel Stern, "Wonder Years"), recite all of the B-sides to their favorite records, but when confronted by his brother Fenwick is forced to admit to never having actually read a book.

Life, for these characters, is in the details and the comedy is in the particulars. On-going obsessive conversations about the correct way to ask for someone’s sandwich (Diner) and other adamant discussions about nothing are the likely predecessors to contemporary comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, who built an entire series out of that same conceit.

Levinson’s attention to detail extends beyond his carefully crafted dialogue and complex characters. The settings for these period pieces are immaculately constructed, every knick-knack and bauble perfectly placed and mindfully chosen. Besides providing an accurate historical environment for the action, Levinson uses objects as reinforcing signifiers of major thematic points. Transition (through changing times, changing eras, changing relationships) is articulated through material possessions (an apt metaphor for American society.) The Cadillac is more than a car: it represents the changing current of America, the new-found freedom of wealth, the ability to move beyond your neighborhood. It’s a status symbol rife with possibilities. In Tin Men it’s also a point of contention, a display of manhood; in Liberty Heights it becomes a way of marking time, of beckoning in a new year, of proving a rite of passage.

The Cadillac is not the only common object of desire common to Levinson’s Baltimore films—television serves as a gauge of time in both Diner and Avalon. From the initial disappointment of the limitations of television broadcasting, to its constant familial presence, to its eventual foray into color, television plays an active role in these films. Technological advances serve as points of transition along the timeline of recent history.

Recurring themes provide a sense of continuity and connection in Levinson’s series. Even the salesmen in both Tin Men and Avalon begin to feel like familiar friends after a while. As in the films of Whit Stillman (Barcelona, Metropolitan, and The Last Days of Disco), reappearing characters weave the series together, coming and going throughout the divergent stories in an literary fashion.

But the most constant Levinson character is not a person but an inanimate object filled with life: the neighborhood diner. Despite the various time-periods, social classes, and age groups, it seems that the majority of the male population of Baltimore ends up at the diner sooner or later, so that it becomes a kind of caffeineated socialist utopia. It’s birth made a cameo in Avalon and it played the leading lady in the title role of Levinson’s first film.

The diner, and Baltimore itself, becomes universal (or, more accurately, distinctly American) through its specificity. In each of the films, the city, and in turn the people that inhabit it reflect changing social currents that were manifesting themselves all over the country. People were immigrating to America, neighborhoods were changing, family-life was shifting, people were fighting for civil rights, racism and anti-Semitism were unfortunate realities. By examining these forces on the microcosmic level of personal relationships in the petri dish of Baltimore, Levinson managed to take on important issues in a seemingly casual and refreshingly entertaining way.

The storylines are meaningful because they are still relevant; the lessons learned will be repeatedly indefinitely. Much like the recurring themes, this "timeless" aspect of the struggles present time as a cyclical entity - always coming back around to the same thing, only somehow different. Levinson structures his films in a similar fashion: opening scenes are often reflected in closing moments of the films. Diner starts at a dance and ends at a wedding; Liberty Heights begins and ends on Rosh Hashanah; Avalon repeats the same romantic footage of Sam (Armin Meuller-Stahl) entering Baltimore to bookend the film.

The nostalgic quality of that particular scene (the young, handsome immigrant walking starry-eyed under an exploding night-sky full of festive American flags) is a candy-coated example of what memory can and will do over time. It’s a reminder that what Barry Levinson is doing in each of these films is really a form of personal mythmaking. He is taking his memories (and those of his family) and recording them in an epic fashion (hundreds of extras were used in his films: in fact, the running joke is that everyone in Baltimore knows at least one person who has appeared in his films.) And in the more literal translations of his personal history, which are the more familial (and recent) films Avalon and Liberty Heights, this grandiosity can feel overly sympathetic at times. The apparently inborn moral goodness of the young characters like Micheal (Elijah Wood in Avalon) and Ben (Ben Foster, in Liberty Heights) is difficult to swallow as well as the unfailing wisdom of their patriarchs (Joe Mantegna, Aidan Quinn, and Armin Meuller-Stahl.)

The further Barry Levinson gets from his youth the better it seems to him, but within a cinematic context it is a glaring indication of where his sympathies lie. Another sign is in the casting of the pretty gentile youths in Liberty Heights, Dubbie and Trey. Since improvisation is an important part of the process for Levinson films, perhaps the choice of two super-models with little to no acting experience, Carolyn Murphy and Justin Chambers, to play the "other kind" was not necessarily an exercise in fairness. But after all, it is his story and Ms. Murphy did easily fulfill his quota for the beautiful-girl-on-a-horse-scene, a romantic relic of Diner.

Besides, Levinson makes it quite clear that these films are about remembering and recording human processes designed to be imperfect. From both the aged Sam (Avalon) and young Ben (Liberty Heights) we are reminded about the true purpose of these films. As Sam muses poignantly, " If I knew things would no longer be, I would’ve tried to remember better."

In this series of films Barry Levinson has taken on the responsibility for remembering better for Baltimorians; his films are time-capsules of decades gone by, as historically "accurate" as they are compelling. They are prettily wrapped gifts to his family and his community. He is the good son of Baltimore, carefully chronicling his city’s worst moments from the best possible angles, compiling the daily minutia of decades gone by to generously spread before the viewer.

Life may be in the details, but God is in the smorgasbord.


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