' ' Cinema Romantico: Cinematically Cataloguing the Recent Past

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Cinematically Cataloguing the Recent Past

This year is my 14th living in Chicago. I’m a transplant, yes, but the city’s become my home. I’ve put in my time. I’ve stared down Rahm and won. I’ve gone to The Waco Brothers’ Holiday Show at Schubas (more than once). I know how to do a Peter Francis Geraci impression. I got married here! So it surprised me that I was so surprised this past weekend, having lunch in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood with My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife, when a black double-decker bus rolled by outside bearing the words Untouchables Tour. “There’s an ‘Untouchables’ tour?” I incredulously asked. Somehow, despite having been here since 2005, I had never seen one of these buses. Turns out, after a little research, this is not a tour of the filming locations for Brian DePalma’s 1987 film but a tour of gangsterland Chicago sites with dudes dressed as Prohibition Era mafiosos for tour guides. Frankly, that sounds a little too Tony n’ Tina for me, and so I preferred imagining the Untouchables Tour as a movie tour, spiriting tourists from the Great Hall at Union Station to the Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica where one by one, just for $5 extra, you can kneel at one of the pews and exclaim “That’s the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone!”

My own hang-ups aside, this Untouchables Tour, the real one, would be about seeing Chicago of the present but imagining Chicago of the past, which is sort of what “The Untouchables” itself is doing, the magic of the movies transforming South LaSalle into a Roaring Twenties recreation. Any movie from that era set in Chicago would have been filmed on a studio backlot, and so this is as close as we’re ever gonna get. Movies, after all, musn’t merely be transportation to another time and/or place but an evocation of the way a place once was, which is why even the Windy City postcard that is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” can be importantly historical. The Sears Tower is cited as “the world’s tallest building” and as the famous 1961 Ferrari 250GT rolls down Michigan Avenue you can spy, over the characters’ shoulders, a pre-Millennium Park Loop.

This visual archive is evident in other films too. “The Fugitive” captures the city’s downtown St. Patrick’s Day Parade along its old route on Dearborn passing the Daley Center. And if, as the Chicago Cubs have transformed from lovable losers into a Nuveen-sponsored monolith, Wrigleyville has gone from odd, uneasy merger between daytime baseball and nighttime punk to bro-infested frat party to burgeoning family-friend theme park, John Candy’s “Only the Lonely” exists to bring that old, faded Wrigleyville back into focus, freezing its less spit and polished self on screen forever.

Almost 10 years later, “High Fidelity” encased Lounge Ax, a famed Lincoln Park music club where every notable indie band performed throughout the nineties, in cinematic carbonite before it was, ahem, axed, ensuring it would live forever in the ether as the low-lit space where Marie de Salle improbably makes magic out of Peter effing Frampton. I always wished I could have seen a show at Lounge Ax. Funny thing is, I did see a show at the Double Door – a lot of ‘em – which was where Jack Black performed as Barry Jive and the Uptown Five for “High Fidelity’s” climax. But Double Door closed when it was evicted after a long, contentious dispute with the city in 2017, leaving Barry Jive’s cover of “Let’s Get It On” as a kind of unintentional eulogy.

Jack Black on stage at Double Door
“The Weather Man”, which intrinsically captured Chicago’s soul-deadening winters better than any movie, froze the Esquire Theater and its vintage, picturesque marquee on Oak Avenue in time before the 1930s movie house was gutted in 2011. Joe Swanberg’s ode to Chicago’s superb craft beer scene, “Drinking Buddies”, was released only in 2013 yet found itself archiving the Black Rock, the bar a couple blocks west from where I used to live, home to a gluttonous mac & cheese burger, and which was demolished in 2017. And in “Princess Cyd” (2017), which intrinsically, lovingly captures my current neighborhood, evincing how Chicago can be just as restoratively leafy green in the summer as it is soul-deadening in the winter, has a scene at Lincoln Square’s Brauhaus, where so many of the faux-fabled, so-called “German Nights” I’ve had with friends tradtionally concluded. The Brauhaus closed at the end of 2017.

The Brauhaus in Princess Cyd
“Princess Cyd”, whether it meant to or not, spiritually preserved the Brauhaus, just as “Drinking Buddies” preserved the Black Rock, “The Weather Man” preserved the Esquire, “High Fidelity” preserved Double Door, and so forth. And I realize: if the Untouchables Tour, or just “The Untouchables”, is about conveying a historical Chicago, I have now lived here long enough to see Chicago places I knew so well become history, perhaps not a symbol of our sped-up society so much as a reminder of the way it’s always been, wrecking, planning, building, breaking, rebuilding.

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