By Edward McClelland
Imagine we could reopen the great movie palaces of the Rust Belt. Every city has one—or two, or three: monumental auditoriums whose decline owes as much to the disappearance of the cinematic spectacle as of the paying audience. In Detroit, it’s the Michigan Theater. In Chicago, the Uptown. In Cleveland, the Variety. In Gary, the Palace.
If, somehow, we could restore these theaters for one day, what movies would we show? Big screen epics that screened during their heydays, such as Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Gone with the Wind? Nah. How about movies that help tell the stories of why those theaters are empty? How about a Rust Belt Film Festival? Here’s a lineup. Tell us your favorite Rust Belt flicks we missed in the comments.
Blue Collar (Paul Schrader, 1978)
After writing Taxi Driver, Grand Rapids-born Paul Schrader returned home to Michigan to film this story of Detroit autoworkers alienated from both their jobs and their union. Zeke (Richard Pryor) is in so deep with the IRS that he borrows children from the neighbors to fool an agent into granting him more deductions. The ruse doesn’t work, so he hatches a plan to rob a poorly locked safe at union headquarters, enlisting Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto), two co-workers at the Checker Cab plant, as his co-conspirators. They don’t find much money, but they do find documents connecting the union to loan sharking and mob activities, and attempt to blackmail union boss Eddie Johnson, a Jackie Presser lookalike who demonstrates that paunchy, three-piece-suited sellouts are just as common in union halls as corporate suites. After decades in union politics, Eddie is too wily for three mooks off the shop floor, and quickly turns them against each other.
If you’re into shop porn, Blue Collar features some of the best assembly-line footage you’ll ever see. Filmed at Checker Cab in Kalamazoo and Ford’s River Rouge in Dearborn, it’s a document of the pre-automation, pre-LEED auto plant. Loud, greasy, and infernal, the film’s factory is a place where men lose their identities behind welding masks and safety glasses, wear out their bodies by hoisting axles and ruin their lungs by inhaling paint fumes. All to earn just enough money to live on, but not enough to get out of debt.
The film captures the working class alienation known as “blue collar blues,” a shoprat revolt that begin not in Detroit, but 200 miles south, in Lordstown, Ohio. Lordstown built the Vega, Chevy’s crappy attempt to crash the small car market. To rush the heavily-advertised car to dealers, GM doubled the speed of Lordstown’s assembly line. Lordstown’s workers responded by slashing upholstery, keying up paint jobs, denting quarter panels and breaking off keys in locks. Finally, they went on strike. Their rebellion was a “Worker’s Woodstock,” drawing comparisons to the anti-war matches at nearby Kent State University. Blue Collar’s characters confront overbearing institutions—the company, the union, the FBI—and find themselves powerless before all of them.
That Thing You Do! (Tom Hanks, 1996)
Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene, an Ohio native and professional Baby Boom nostalgia monger, called That Thing You Do! “the best movie ever made.”
That Thing You Do! tells the story of a young rock band in Erie during the best American year, 1964,” Greene wrote. “The band forms, gets a record contract, has one hit, then breaks up. The storyline is as simple as that. Yet the movie gets better every time you see it. And Erie begins to take on magical qualities.
Maybe 1964 wasn’t the best American year, but it was as good a year as Erie, Pa., ever had. The city was a major Great Lakes port, and General Electric was still building locomotive engines. That Thing You Do! is a wonderful visual document of how the dying towns of the lower Great Lakes looked before they were emptied out by suburbanization and deindustrialization. It’s a Rust Belt American Graffiti. Downtown Erie has a Woolworth’s, a movie theater, and an appliance store where Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), lead singer of The Wonders, helps his dad sell Philco televisions and Whirlpool washing machines.
Needless to say, those shots of Erie weren’t filmed in 1990s Erie, but on a soundstage in California. But the Mercyhurst College talent show, where we first hear the Beatlesesque title song, was actually filmed at Mercyhurst, and there are a few other regional touches. The band drinks Koehler Beer, brewed by the Erie Brewing Company until 1978. The Wonders first hear their song on the radio during “WJET Hit Time”—a real-life Erie station. Tom Hanks learned his chops at the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, where he won the Cleveland Critics Circle Award for playing Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona, so the actor has a soft spot for struggling Lake Erie cities. (Hanks’s character in Bachelor Party is an Indians fan, as is Hanks.)
It says a lot about Erie’s fortunes that its next appearance in a major motion picture was The Road, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel about a father and son wandering a post-apocalyptic America, scavenging for food. Dreary Erie was an apt setting.
All the Right Moves (Michael Chapman, 1983)
I suppose you could call All the Right Moves the cinematic equivalent of Billy Joel’s “Allentown.” It took place in Pennsylvania steel country—Johnstown was the stand-in for Ampipe, a company town named for the fictional American Pipe and Steel—and was a show business gloss on the factory closings and layoffs of the early 1980s. Tom Cruise plays Stef Djordjevic, a high school quarterback trying to win a college football scholarship so he can escape his dying town—not an unusual aspiration for that time and place. Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Joe Namath and Jim Kelly all used football as a way out of the steel towns of western Pennsylvania. Craig T. Nelson—in a precursor to his TV series—is the coach trying to hold him back. The coach wants to trade Ampipe for a college gig, too, and scapegoats Djordjevic for losing a game against the school’s biggest rival.
If this film had been made 30 years earlier, it would have starred Montgomery Clift and Karl Malden. It also would have been about a football player trying to go to college because he doesn’t want to work in a steel mill. Stef wants out because he can’t work in the mill—his father spent his career there, but Stef’s brother was laid off. The Monogahela Valley lost 30,000 steel jobs in the 1980s. Its unemployment rate peaked at 15.9 percent in January 1983, during the filming of *All the Right Moves.*
“Now you can’t even get a job in that damn mill,” Stef tells an assistant coach.
“You mean that mill where your father works? Where your brother works?”
“Where my brother was laid off!”
“You too good for us or something?” the coach asks.
“No, sir,” Stef replies. “I just want to go to college.”
Does Stef make it out of Ampipe, or does he spend the rest of his life drinking Yuengling at the corner tap, cursing the fumbled snap in the big game against Walnut Hills? All the Right Moves was released two months after Risky Business made Cruise a huge star. Even though he was surrounded by failure and decay, Hollywood wasn’t going to let him suffer the same fate.
The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980)
The Blues Brothers doesn’t deal with work in any way. Jake and Elwood started a band so they wouldn’t have to earn an honest dollar. That aversion to honest labor is also why Jake just got out of Stateville prison. But it’s the greatest Chicago movie because it documents a particular Chicago, now long gone: the gritty industrial metropolis that looked like it was headed toward the same post-industrial ash heap as Detroit and Cleveland, just before the yuppie makeover reflected in About Last Night and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
The film’s opening sequence, as the Bluesmobile navigates industrial South Chicago, is a montage of railroad bridges, fish shacks, run-down two flats, and the smoking, flaming U.S. Steel South Works, which had once employed 20,000, but would be gone by the end of the decade. Elwood demonstrates the car’s class by jumping it over the 95th Street bridge, which is open to make way for a freighter, probably carrying iron ore to a mill up the Calumet River. Wisconsin Steel closed the year The Blues Brothers was released, putting 3,400 steelworkers on the unemployment line, and inspiring this dour prediction from the Chicago Tribune: “Chicago’s basic problem is that it is losing industries, stores and jobs… there is no reason to think it will ever turn around.” Meanwhile, Elwood lives in an L-side flophouse in the Loop, which was then a seedy, windblown district of gin mills and grind houses where no respectable Illinoisan set foot after five o’clock.
The Blues Brothers actually helped Chicago turn around, because it reintroduced the city to moviegoers. Mayor Richard J. Daley had discouraged filmmakers, out of a prudish aversion to sex and nudity, and a concern that filmmakers wanted to tell stories about Prohibition-era gangs or the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Before filming began, actor John Belushi met with Mayor Jane Byrne to ask for permission to shoot a large-scale Hollywood movie in Chicago. Belushi offered to donate $200,000 to local orphanages, but what really seemed to sell Byrne was the proposal to drive the Bluesmobile through the Daley Center, named for the family of her political enemies. Do whatever you want, Byrne told Belushi. Just clean up afterwards. Chicago was back on the cinematic map, and the multiplex of movies that followed—Risky Business, The Color of Money, Running Scared, The Untouchables—helped transform it into the cultural capital it is today.
Roger & Me (Michael Moore, 1989)
Let’s make one thing clear. Roger & Me is a dishonest movie. Its central premise—that Roger Smith refused to grant Michael Moore an interview about the Flint plant closings—is bogus. According to Roger Rapaport’s biography Citizen Moore, Moore conducted a 15-minute interview with Smith at a press luncheon in January 1988, while he was shooting Roger & Me, then pressured one of his collaborators to deny the meeting ever happened.
That doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. It just means that Michael Moore’s definition of journalism is a world apart from the Flint Journal, or even PBS’s Frontline. The mission statement of the Flint Voice, the alternative newspaper Moore co-founded in 1977, was this: “We believe the commonly accepted notion of objective journalism is bullshit.”
Moore began filming Roger & Me after he was fired as editor of Mother Jones magazine. Bouncing back to Flint, he decided to make a documentary about General Motors’ role in his hometown’s economic collapse and “show it at union halls, like on the wall.” In the late 1970s, GM employed 80,000 autoworkers in the Flint area; it now employs less than 6,000.
Roger & Me has less in common with the muckraking of Upton Sinclair than it does with the bitter satire of another Midwestern iconoclast, Sinclair Lewis. Substituting Flint’s Saginaw Street for Gopher Prairie’s Main Street, Moore tried to make fools of the burghers and boosters who had been his enemies when he’d sat on the Davison Board of Education and edited the Voice. Moore sneaked his cameras into a country club where unemployed black people were working as living statues for a Great Gatsby party. When Flint’s smart set dressed as gangsters and paid to spend the night in the new county jail, Moore filmed the event. His interviews with famous folks who dropped in on Flint—Anita Bryant, Pat Boone, Miss America, and native Flintoid Bob Eubanks— all embarrassed their subjects, whose square celebrity dated from the days when GM was still a wealthy enough paterfamilias to support Flint in the manner to which it had become accustomed. The movie was framed as single combat between a fat everyman with a microphone and an arrogant CEO—a dramatic device as old as Theseus vs. the Minotaur—but really, it was Michael Moore vs. a small-minded small town, a role he’d been playing for nearly 20 years.
At the time, it was unheard of for a documentarian to make himself the star. But Moore was an unconventional documentarian, having grown up far from the film capitals of New York and Los Angeles. Moore had gone broke trying to show art house movies in Flint, so he understood that Flintoids wanted to see a morally satisfying comedy, with himself as the protagonist and GM chairman Roger Smith as the antagonist. That’s how a movie about an auto company shutting down factories in a city most Americans couldn’t find on the front of their hand became the highest-grossing documentary of all time, and spawned a genre of first-person documentaries, from Bill Maher’s Religulous to Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me.
Light of Day (Paul Schrader, 1987)
Paul Schrader is the king of Rust Belt kitchen sink cinema. Light of Day finds him in Northeast Ohio, where a rock band called the Barbusters is holding down a residency at the real-life Euclid Tavern, a grotty nightclub with a half-lit neon sign. You can smell the beer, piss and cigarette smoke wafting through the screen.
The Barbusters belong to the school of Heartland Rock, which emerged in the Rust Belt in the early 1980s to write catchy three-minute ditties about layoffs, factory closings, farm foreclosures, and unemployment inspired-murder/suicides. Their closest real-life analogue would be the Michael Stanley Band, who wrote the Cleveland anthem “My Town.” (The Barbusters sport similar mullets.) But the movement also included John Cougar Mellencamp (“Scarecrow”), Bob Seger (“Makin’ Thunderbirds”), Billy Joel (“Allentown”), and, of course, Bruce Springsteen, who wrote Light of Day’s title song. (The movie was originally titled Born in the U.S.A., but when Springsteen wrote a song of that name, he decided it was too good to waste on a soundtrack, and stuck Schrader with a lesser offering.)
The Barbusters are led by the brother-sister team of Joe and Patti Rasnick. Patti (Joan Jett) is a single mom, and Joe (Michael J. Fox) works a meaningless day job in a factory that turns out commemorative royal wedding trays, alongside bass player Bu (Michael McKean). When Joe gets laid off (this is an ’80s Rust Belt movie), the band decides to Go For It.
“We’re goin’ on the road,” Patti says. “We got a rep, man. We can get booked at bars in Erie, Akron, Mansfield. I mean, you got no job, Bu’s got no job. Let’s get serious.”
A four-night stand in Flint nets each member $57, so Patti and her loser-boyfriend of-the-moment shoplift steaks to provide the band a decent meal on the motel hot plate. After that fiasco, Patti and Bu decide to sell out. Patti dons makeup and a skintight dress to front a hair metal act called the Hunzz, and Bu joins a hotel lounge band. That leaves Joe as the last real Heartland Rocker, and he spends the rest of the movie begging his bandmates to sink back into the Euclid Tavern.
Light of Day was shot all over the Rust Belt—in Cleveland Heights, Berwyn, Hammond, Whiting—and has plenty for Northeast Ohio music fans. The Barbusters perform Ian Hunter’s “Cleveland Rocks,” and a pre-Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor makes a cameo appearance as a keyboard player for a douchey New Wave band.
Michael J. Fox isn’t exactly Alex P. Keaton or Marty McFly here, but he isn’t completely convincing as a blue-collar rocker, either, despite his attempts at smoking. (The role was originally offered to Springsteen, who decided to pass on an acting career.) Joan Jett is convincing as a blue-collar rocker, but less so as an actress, delivering a flat, moody performance in what turned out be her only starring role. (Also, Fox is from British Columbia, Jett is from suburban Maryland, and McKean is from Long Island, so it kind of sucks than no one in the band even tries to fake a Midwestern accent. Aykroyd is from Canada, too, and he did it!) The Barbusters never made it as big as Bruce, or even The Michael Stanley Band. Light of Day didn’t make it big, either. It has never been released on DVD in the United States, but you can catch it here on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJl6e2ggpu0
Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008)
There is no better movie about 21st-century race relations than Gran Torino, starring crotchety old white guy Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowlaski, a retired Ford autoworker who finds a family of Hmong immigrants living next door. Walt’s wife is dead, and his children have moved to the suburbs, but he’s still hanging on in the old house in Highland Park, Mich. (The movie was originally set in Minneapolis, but moved to Michigan because the filmmakers got a tax credit. They didn’t alter the screenplay enough, because Walt’s son asks if his dad can get Lions tickets—this during the team’s 0-16 season.) At first, the old Korean War vet reacts to the new immigrants like a Midwestern Archie Bunker, calling them “swamp rats” and “zipper heads.” When teenage son Thao attempts to steal his meticulously preserved 1972 Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation, Walt chases the boy off his lawn with a shotgun. But then sister Sue (played by Lansing actress Anhey Her) lures him over with beer, and he starts hanging out at their house, telling himself, “God, I got more in common with these gooks than I do with my own spoiled-rotten family.”
The movie is about ethnic succession, the phenomenon, especially common in old industrial cities, in which the WASPs are chased out by Jews and Italians and Poles, and then Jews and Italians are Poles are chased out by blacks, Mexicans and Asians. Walt was too stubborn to succeed his way out, so he’s stuck with his new neighbors. Highland Park is 93 percent black, and left unsaid is the fact that Walt might warm up to the Asians because he considers them a less offensive minority group.
Alienated from his own children and grandchildren, Walt treats Thao as a surrogate son, teaching him to crack ethnic insults at the barber shop, and finding him a job on a construction site. When the Hmong gang tries to force Thao to join, burning his face with a cigarette, stealing his tools and raping his sister, Walt again goes for his gun.
Gran Torino is full of auto industry resonances. Highland Park was the site of Henry Ford’s first assembly line. Ford’s grandson closed that plant in the 1950s. Since then, Highland Park has declined even more precipitously than Detroit, the city that surrounds it, losing 80 percent of its population and falling into such a deep fiscal hole it can’t even light its streetlamps. The titular car is emblematic of the pre-Arab Oil Embargo domestic junk that drove American auto buyers to Japanese and German cars.
“You could prowl vintage car shows for years and not find an automobile that, in its malign typicality, better summarizes Detroit’s fall than the 1972 Gran Torino,” wrote Los Angeles Times automotive critic Dan Neil. “The car was tubby and it was awkward. It handled like a block of ice with a steering wheel. It lacked even minimum corrosion proofing and so rusted with relish in northern climates.”
If Walt wanted to understand why his white working class world fell apart, Neil wrote, “[t]he answer is in the garage.”
American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003)
Has there ever been a less likely movie star than Harvey Pekar? Uglier than Ernest Borgnine, balder than Peter Boyle, more abrasive than James Belushi, Pekar translated the success of his self-published autobiographical comic book about la vie boheme in Cleveland into a film that fell somewhere between art house flick and multiplex comedy.
Of course, Pekar’s unlikeliness was the source of his celebrity. As a V.A. hospital clerk in Cleveland, the incongruity between his station in life and his artistic achievement was his artistic achievement. He was a hipster in the nation’s most unhip city. The cover of his comic book—“From Off the Streets of Cleveland: American Splendor!”—was irresistible in its irony, and he knew it.
American Splendor finds Paul Giamatti portraying Pekar as an irritable bachelor schlump, a role he would perfect in the following year’s Sideways. (Pekar complained that Giamatti “don’t look much like me,” but really, who else could have played him? Giamatti pulls off a passable Cleveland accent—no Fred Willard, but not bad for an Ivy Leaguer.) It also finds Cleveland playing Cleveland, a role it still hasn’t perfected. The movie is a pastiche of live action, animated sequences, interviews with the real-life Pekar, and clips of his confrontational appearances on Late Night with David Letterman (when Dave was on at 12:30 a.m., and could afford to invite oddballs onto his show.)
Pekar evolved into the perfect Cleveland mascot because his malaise and lack of self-esteem so closely matched his hometown’s. Divorced twice in the 1970s, he spent the decade under a gray cloud of worthlessness. During that same period, Cleveland was enduring burning river jokes, Dennis Kucinich, and the loss of a quarter of its population. There’s a scene in which Harvey runs into a girl from high school in a bakery. They strike up a conversation about a Theodore Dreiser novel, but his face falls—as only Paul Giamatti’s face can fall—when she mentions she’s married.
In the next scene, Harvey crosses a skywalk, watches the highway traffic, and reflects on his disappointment, while the jazz he loves plays in the background: “I was more alone that weekend than any,” the real-life Pekar narrates. “But hey, man, every day’s a brand-new deal, right? Just keep on workin’, and something’s bound to turn up.”
That something was his self-published comic book, illustrated with the help of underground comix wizard Robert Crumb (a droll James Urbaniak), a record-collecting pal who had worked at Cleveland’s American Greeting Card Co. in the early 1960s, before moving on to San Francisco. In doing so, Pekar communicated what was fascinating about a life—and a city—that looked sad and depressing to outsiders. As he says in the movie, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”
Trespass (Walter Hill, 1992)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre comes to the Rust Belt. Vince (William Sadler) and Don (Bill Paxton), two firefighters from Fort Smith, Ark., go out on a call and hear the confession of a dying man who robbed a Catholic church 50 years before, and hid the gold statuary in an East St. Louis factory, for which he provides a treasure map. The factory was long ago abandoned to derelicts and drug dealers, as the two country boys discover when they start rooting around with a metal detector and a crow bar. The ruins are the turf of drug dealer King James (Ice-T), who uses the place to perform executions and dump bodies. Alarmed and confused by a couple white guys who don’t seem to be cops, King James calls out his henchmen—who definitely don’t need no stinking badges—forcing Vince and Don to choose between their loot and their lives.
Twenty years later, it’s not so unusual to find white folks wandering around empty factories—especially if they’re carrying cameras. They’re not looking for hidden treasure, but indulging in the voyeuristic/journalistic/artistic pastime or Urban Exploration. UrbEx—its shorthand name—was popularized and promoted in the zine Infiltration, which offered tips on scaling barbed wire fences, crawling through windows, disabling alarms and evading security guards.
Besides East St. Louis, the other golden cities for breaking into abandoned buildings are Detroit, Buffalo, and Gary, Ind.—all places where fabulous manufacturing wealth paid for Gothic or Art Deco masterpieces left to rot when the manufacturing disappeared. In Detroit, it’s essential to break into the Michigan Central railroad station and the Packard Motors plant. Buffalo has dozens of grain elevators made obsolete when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened.
Trespass was actually filmed in Memphis, at an International Harvester plant shut down during the 1980s—the older cities of the South are just as rusty as the Midwest. Beyond its inventive use of a factory for a story of buried treasure and gunfights, Trespass is a piercing look at the gang culture of the early 1990s, when the Crack Wars drove big-city murder rates to all-time highs. It’s even better than New Jack City—a Detroit story transposed to New York—because the gangbangers are characters in an action drama with no good guys or bad guys, rather than villains presented for our disapproval. The casting of gangsta rappers Ice T and Ice Cube is also shrewd. The battle for gold between thugs and rednecks gives the movie an opportunity to express the racial estrangement of that era—1992 was also the year of Malcolm X and the Los Angeles riots. When Vince and Don capture a derelict living in the plant, Vince complains that he needs the gold because of “taxes that get higher every year so that people like him can keep eatin’ without doing any work.” And when they capture King James’s brother, Lucky, he tells them, “the only time you white boys ever come down here is to rip us off.”
Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006)
Detroit is one of the world’s great musical cities, and no Detroit musicians were more successful than the Supremes, three girls from the Brewster-Douglass housing project who had 12 number one hits between 1964 and 1969, second only to the Beatles during those years. Their impresario was Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., whose great artistic innovation was sweetening black music for white audiences. Detroit was the ideal setting for that crossover. Gordy had worked on the line at the Ford Motor Co., a destination for white hillbillies and black sharecroppers, who couldn’t help but appreciate each other’s music.
In Dreamgirls, Berry Gordy Jr. is car salesman Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), who finances the Dreamettes by emptying his lot. At first, they’re backup singers for dissolute R&B star James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), but as Early’s career declines, the Dreamettes’ rises. In a subplot that recalls the rivalry between Florence Ballard and Diana Ross, the group’s most talented singer is big-busted, big-hipped, big-voiced Essie Jones (Jennifer Hudson). But its breakout star is wispy Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles). Curtis grooms Deena for fame not because her voice is the most powerful voice, but because it’s the emptiest.
“There’s nothing there,” Curtis tells her, “except what I put there.”
Dreamgirls is a uniquely Detroit movie for another reason: its story arcs are inseparable from Detroit’s own story. After the Dreamettes break up, Curtis moves his record company to Los Angeles, leaving behind his auto business, which falls into dereliction, like much of the city in the 1970s. Essie ends up back in a dreary housing project. James “Thunder” Early develops an addiction to heroin, the drug that contributed even more than the 1967 riot to Detroit’s abandonment and decline. By the mid-1970s, the heroin trade was so violent that the Motor City had a new, unwanted nickname: Murder City.
The movie launched the career of Chicago’s Jennifer Hudson, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Although her debut was compared to Barbra Streisand’s in Funny Girl, she hasn’t lived up to the promise shown here. The actress who played the singer with soul has allowed her image and career to be manipulated just as much as soulless Deena, losing 50 pounds to become a Weight Watchers spokeswoman and recording the bland R&B song “Spotlight.”
Buffalo ’66 (Vincent Gallo, 1998)
Pity the Rust Belt sports fan. On the one hand, he believes his sad-sack city deserves a championship as compensation for losing at everything else. On the other hand, one element of his city’s sad-sackness is its inability to retain great players, or even franchises. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won a title for the Milwaukee Bucks, then demanded a trade because the Midwest didn’t meet his “cultural needs.” The Bucks haven’t made the Finals since. LeBron James took his talents from Cleveland to South Beach. Buffalo lost the NBA Braves to San Diego, where they became the Clippers. (Syracuse and Rochester also had charter NBA franchises, which are now, respectively, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Sacramento Kings.)
Buffalo’s football team, the Bills, went to the Super Bowl four consecutive years in the early 1990s, and lost every time. On that hangs the plot of Buffalo ’66. Billy Brown’s mother (Anjelica Huston) is so obsessed with the Bills she watches the team during family meals and curses Billy’s (Vincent Gallo) existence because he was born on the day the Bills won their only AFL championship, causing her to miss the game. (The Bills actually won in 1965, rendering the title either ironic or inaccurate.) Grown-up Billy bets $10,000 on the Bills to win the Super Bowl. They lose when kicker Scott Wood shanks what would have been the game-winning field goal. (Wood is, obviously, based on Bills kicker Scott Norwood, who blew Super XXV with a kick announcer Al Michaels called “wide right”—a phrase that haunts Buffalo sports fans. Norwood turned down an offer to play himself in this movie.) Billy can’t pay the bookie (Mickey Rourke), so he settles his debt by pleading guilty to another man’s crime and serving his five-year prison sentence. Released on a bleak winter day, Billy immediately kidnaps a girl named Layla (Christina Ricci) from a tap dancing class and takes her home to his parents, demanding she poses as his wife, so he won’t have to explain where he spent the last half-decade.
Gallo is believably skuzzy as a western New York loser—a wild-eyed, jittery intense narcissist who blames all his defeats in life, from his distant mother to his prison sentence, on the Bills. He decides to murder the incompetent placekicker, who now operates Scott Wood’s Solid Gold, a sleazy jiggle joint.
“I’m really sorry about that field goal I missed,” Wood says in a phone message, “but I’ve got some beautiful exotic dancers.”
Shot on 35mm Ektachrome, the movie has a flat, lo-fi look that’s the visual equivalent of a cheaply recorded punk rock album—the Stooges’ Raw Power comes to mind. Filmed on location in Gallo’s hometown, it perfectly captures the bleakness of Buffalo late in football season. The bowling alley scene was shot at Recckio’s Lanes, and the final scene took place in an old Dickie’s Donuts, whose orange and brown booths are recognizable to every Buffalonian.
Buffalo still has not won a major sport championship.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, 2011)
Have you ever wondered what Chicago would look like if it were destroyed by a race of alien robots out to enslave humanity? According to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, it would look like Detroit. This is a big, loud, overlong, over-CGI’d science fiction action film designed to sell toys to 8-year-olds who love explosions. But for sharp-eyed Rust Belters, it’s a ruin porn feast.
The plot: the Decepticons, the bad Transformers, are trying to take over the Earth so they can force humans to rebuild their ruined planet. The Autobots, the good Transformers, ally with the humans to stop them. The movie’s final hour (frankly, the only part worth watching) is a battle royale between the two factions over downtown Chicago. There was just one problem for the filmmakers: not even a $200 million special effects budget could simulate the effects of warfare on the Midwest’s glitziest city. So they had to go to Detroit, where 40 years of neglect has wrought far more damage than an afternoon of rock ’em sock ’em robots. Decepticon-killing hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBoeuf) rolls out of the Packard Motel in the wee hours, then rallies his robot fighters at the nearby Packard Motors plant, where flames shoot from empty windows. Abandoned since the late 1950s, Packard is now a haunting ground for scrappers, Urban Explorers, and an odd pair of auto repairmen who live, work and drink in a Quonset Hut on the grounds. The British graffiti artist Banksy painted a mural on a concrete wall, which was promptly stolen. One building is nicknamed “The Boathouse,” because so many abandoned watercraft have been dumped there by scammers trying to commit insurance fraud. (A Peruvian developer recently purchased Packard for $405,000 in a tax auction, and is promising to restore it to industrial relevance.)
If you’ve spent time in Chicago or Detroit, the combination of the two cities isn’t exactly seamless. Chicago’s skyline is photoshopped behind the Packard plant. One moment, LaBouef is in a parking lot at Griswold and Clifford, in Detroit; the next, he’s running past a ramp at 171 N. Wabash, in Chicago. The heroes plot strategy with the Autobots in the Michigan Central Railway Station, another ruin porn landmark. And in an early scene, Detroit’s Connors DTE Energy Center is meant to stand in for…Chernobyl.
Transformers’ big budget purchased a parade of arty actors collecting a paycheck, including Frances McDormand as a brittle CIA director, John Malkovich as a business titan, and John Turturro as expert on extraterrestrials. But the character who displays the most range is Bumblebee, a Transformer who transforms into a yellow Camaro whenever Sam needs a lift. The Camaro was designed in Detroit, and is now assembled at the Grand River Plant in Lansing, so Bumblebee has the deepest Rust Belt roots of any character, too.
The Director’s Cut
Still need more Rust Belt cinematic satisfaction. We’ve pulled together an extended reel of clips from 21 movies that didn’t make our final cut. Check out our playlist to see snippets of the runners-up, with thumbnails below.
Telling Lies in America (Guy Ferland, 1997): An insecure Hungarian immigrant boy (Brad Renfro) is befriended by a slick DJ (Kevin Bacon) in 1960s Cleveland. Written by Joe Eszterhas, who got into screenwriting after a career at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where he was successfully sued for fabricating an interview.
8 Mile (Curtis Hanson, 2002): At the height of his fame, Eminem starred in this tribute to Detroit’s rap battle scene.
Zebrahead (Antony Drazan, 1992): This drama of interracial romance has some nice scenes of Detroit’s little-photographed middle class neighborhoods.
Major League (David Ward, 1989): The Indians win the pennant! The Indians win the pennant!
Detropia (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2012): Documentary about Detroit as it spiraled into bankruptcy.
Semi-Pro (Kent Alterman, 2008) Calling an ABA team the Flint Tropics was a joke, but the filmmakers did shoot scenes in Flint.
Flashdance (Adrian Lyne, 1983): Jennifer Beals is a steelworker by day, stripper by night, ballet dancer in her dreams.
You Don’t Know Jack (Barry Levinson, 2010): Al Pacino does a Michigan accent as Dr. Jack Kevorkian in this HBO biopic.
Gung Ho (Ron Howard, 1986): What happens when a Japanese company buys an American auto plant? Michael Keaton and Gedde Watanabe each get another stereotypical role, as a blue collar worker and an Asian executive.
Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987): Detroiters love this movie so much a Kickstarter campaign raised $67,000 to build a statue of the hero; it was remade in 2013 to tolerable reviews.
Hoffa (Danny DeVito, 1992): How did Jimmy Hoffa disappear after a meeting at Machus Red Fox restaurant outside Detroit? Danny DeVito and Jack Nicholson, puttied up to look like the blunt-faced Teamsters boss, build this movie around their theory.
The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009): In search of a post-apocalyptic landscape, the filmmakers visited western Pennsylvania, especially Erie and Braddock.
Welcome to Collinwood (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2002): A bunch of clowns try to pilfer a safe on the East Side of Cleveland.
The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978): Vietnam vets (Robert DeNiro and John Cazale) come home to bleak lives in a bleak Pennsylvania mill town.
Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984): Two New York hipsters on a road trip stop in Cleveland, perfectly captured in black and white.
Breaking Away (Peter Yates, 1979): Blue-collar “Cutters” try to win a bike race against Indiana University frat boys. East Chicago’s Steve Tesich won an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
Cooley High (Michael Schultz, 1975): This coming-of-age story set in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green project was written by Eric Monte, the creator of the sitcom Good Times, and went on to inspire the sitcom What’s Happening!
A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983): Jean Shepherd’s 1940s memoir was set in Hohman, Indiana—a fictional version of Hammond, his hometown—and filmed in Cleveland.
Original Gangstas (Larry Cohen, 1996): Blaxploitation heroes Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Pam Grier go back to Indiana—Gary, specifically—to show modern gangbangers how it was done in the ‘70s.
Rudy (David Anspaugh, 1993): Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger (Sean Astin), an undersized kid from a blue-collar background in northwest Indiana dreams of playing football for Notre Dame.
American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999): Documentary about a stoner filmmaker from Milwaukee (Mark Borchardt) attempting to complete a low-budget horror film.
Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012): Oscar-winning documentary about Rodriguez, an early ’70s Detroit musician who spent his life as a manual laborer until the Internet connected him with his passionate South African fan base.
Edward McClelland is the author of Nothin’ but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland.
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