John Ur hits the halfway mark for our journey together on the Cinematic Road Trip. And where best to do it but Ohio...
Here we are halfway through our journey together. It seems like just yesterday we set off from the desert in West Texas and circled our way across the Southwest and up the Pacific Coast. We hiked through Canyon Country and Rocky Mountains and danced our way across the Great Plains, nibbling as much corn as our stomachs could hold, as we pulled up to the Great Lakes region. Mark this date. Today is the point of no return. It would be just as long a journey to turn around and go back as it would be to continue on and complete the task. Burn the ships, men! Onward we march!
Before we rush off into the forest and get ourselves lost, maybe we should figure out where we are. We are here, of course, and here happens to be Ohio. According to the US Census Bureau, Ohio is in the East North Central States Division of the Midwest. Say what? Leave it to a government agency to use more words than necessary to make something as confusing as possible. But one thing is certain, or at least widely assumed, and that's the fact that Ohio is the swingiest of swing states. When it comes to presidential politics, the phrase most often proffered by pundits is "as Ohio goes, so goes the nation." (It also cropped up as the title of a documentary about the 2004 election ...So Goes the Nation.) We'll see how it swings come November.
I haven’t spent all that much time in Ohio but I do know that much of the state has been through the same economic downturn felt by other steel manufacturing locations throughout the Rust Belt. Despite that, Ohio has many economic advantages for its various industries, including being within a day’s drive of over 50% of the nation’s population. And being home to King (Lebron) James.
With these ups and downs comes a strange sensibility from the Buckeye State: a sense that “Hey, we may not be the best at something, but we’re better than you might expect.” At least that’s the feeling I get from some of the movies shot there. You can particularly feel that quality in American Splendor, a biopic about Harvey Pekar, a quasi-celebrity comic book writer. I say “quasi” because I didn’t know who he was before the movie… but hey, he’s famous enough to get a Hollywood actor to portray him in film (which is better than you might expect). Harvey is played by Paul Giamatti, who summons up all the wit, anger, neuroticism, and self-deprecating humor that the Pekar character deserves.
The movie was shot in both Lakewood and Cleveland, Ohio. The crumbling industrial skyline of Cleveland plays a big part in the film. Buildings are beaten up and broken down much like Harvey’s character. His attitude reflects the rust in the steel, the gray in the overcast skies, and the scattered, disheveled storefronts, some shuttered or sporting broken windows.
Truth told, Cleveland is not all gloom. On a nice day, the waterfront on Lake Erie is hard to beat. The city is undergoing revitalization thanks in part to Mayor Michael White bringing businesses and landmarks like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Cleveland Rocks! as they say) and the aforementioned Lebron James injecting the downtrodden Cavalier fans with some hope.
Before we crisscross the state to Cincinnati, we should mention another of my favorite movies that shot in Cleveland. Though the timing is a bit off – this being the middle of summer – A Christmas Story can be watched at any time of the year. Much of the story is filmed in Cleveland (with other locations in Ontario, Canada) including Ralphie’s house on West 11th St. and Higbee’s Department Store on Prospect Avenue. True fans can visit the house, which has been completely restored and now offers tours devoted to the film. (This month, they're celebrating Christmas in July.)
We zip down 71 from the second largest city in the state to the third largest, Cincinnati. (Columbus is actually #1, but the metropolitan areas of Cleveland and Cincinnati both stack up a bit higher when you count the suburbs). On the way, we pass by rolling hills. Lots of ‘em. And farms. Lots of those too. Outside the metro areas, the state could be mistaken for Iowa. Flat and farmy – sounds like a description of a cheap wine.
But then we get to Cincinnati (or The Nati as one of my friends affectionately refers to the city on the riverfront). Here, I have to go back to the old reliable Steven Soderbergh who directed the Oscar-winning, multi-threaded Traffic in many locations including Cincinnati (and Columbus and Cleveland). The film has at least three different story lines set in different locations and much like he did in Out of Sight, he uses different film stock and filters to achieve unique colorations for distinction. In Traffic, the Wakefield family lives in Ohio, and the Cincinnati suburbs are cast in a blue, cool light like that of Detroit in Out of Sight. But the purpose here is to reflect the problems that the family has to endure.
Michael Douglas plays Judge Robert Wakefield – recent appointee as the U.S. drug czar and father to a drug-addicted daughter, Caroline, played by Erika Christensen. Writer Stephen Gaughan (Syriana) originally set the family in Louisville, but the neighborhoods in Cincinnati that were used for Caroline’s drug pickups looked worse than those in Louisville so the script was changed.
Traffic is a bit of a downer of a movie – though wonderfully executed and highly recommended. The stories it tells reflect the Ohio aura – It’s broke, it needs fixing, but I don’t know how. I think Ohio might be on the right track towards righting the ship and getting back on course. So don’t let any grumps like Harvey Pekar keep you from checking out the Buckeyes.
Also Recommended: Happy Gilmore
Photo: Teacherholly via the Intelligent Travel Flickr Pool