An early version of the introduction to a chapter on Nashville, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Las Vegas in prestige films between 1980 and 2000.

My mother lived above a grocery store in Lincoln Park, Chicago until 1956. The Giallombardo family apartment was within a half-hour El ride of Oak Street Beach on Lake Michigan, the Magnificent Mile, and the (future site of the) John Hancock Building. A slightly longer El ride would take them to the (future site of the) Willis/Sears Tower and the Art Institute. Their pre-gentrification Lincoln Park neighbourhood was where the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre happened; it’s where Dillenger was killed. That is to say, there are a number of physical locations in Chicago that are immediately recognizable, such as the tallest building in the world (for a while), major pieces of architectural history, public cultural amenities, and a popular history of gangsters. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, there were Chicago-set gangster movies like The Untouchables (1987, De Palma) and Mad Dog and Glory (1993, McNaughton), movies set in the city’s museums, like Ferris Beuller’s Day Off (1986, Hughes) and The Relic (1997, Hyams), films set in its public housing projects like Candyman (1992, Rose) and Judgment Night (1993, Hopkins), and films set in its working- and middle-class African-American community, such as Love Jones (1997, Witcher) and Soul Food (1997, Tillman). Chicago-set romantic comedies like My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997, Hogan) and period pieces like Eight Men Out (1988, Sayles) feature local sports stadiums and teams, an action film like Chain Reaction (1996, Davis) can be set at the birthplace of atomic weaponry, the University of Chicago, and some early (good) David Mamet films are also set in the city. Chicago may not have the cultural cachet of New York or Los Angeles, but its identity is as a major, world, city takes the form of this cinematic variety.

My father, on the other hand, grew up on Rockdale Street in Green Bay, Wisconsin. If you were to sit in the driveway of the house during a Packers home game, you would hear the public address announcer clearly, as the house is a little more than half a mile away from Lambeau Field. For the longest time the tallest building in Green Bay was St. Vincent’s Hospital (not named after Packers coach Vince Lombardi, and a ten minute drive from Rockdale Street) although after a recent upgrade, Lambeau Field is now the tallest building in Green Bay. I mention how close the Long family house is to Lambeau because the Packers are probably the only thing the majority of people in the US know about Green Bay. Two Hollywood films are set in Green Bay: Bingo (1991, Robbins) and Semi-Tough (1977, Ritchie). In Bingo, a family moves to Green Bay because the father, a football player, is traded from the Denver Broncos to the Packers, and in Semi-Tough the fictional football team the Miami Bulls go to Green Bay for a playoff game.* The Green Bay on view in Semi-Tough – snow banks, grey sky above – bears more than a passing resemblance to the Ice Planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Kershner), not only because it is, in the popular imagination, the Frozen Tundra, but also because it represents the single-biome planet written onto a small city.[2] The Star Wars films are full of single-biome planets: Coruscant (city), Dagobah (swamp), Endor (forest), Felucia (jungle), Hoth (ice), Kamino (ocean), and Tatooine (desert), and the United States is full of single-biome-planet cities.

But while Green Bay may have more than one distinguishing trait, American cinema represents smaller cities as almost completely anonymous. For instance, In Terms of Endearment, James L. Brooks introduces Des Moines with a point-of-view shot through the grime of the family station wagon’s windscreen, rather than in a clear high-angle establishing shot, and the first establishing shot for Kearney, Nebraska trades one white, two-storey house for another.Terms of Endearment first view of Des Moines

The only thing that distinguishes Des Moines, the seventy-fourth largest city when the film was made, from small-town Kearney, is the marker on the English department building where Flap works. Both towns’ establishing shots are of houses, not a skyline as when Emma visits New York, or even a downtown street. Which is to say, neither Des Moines, Iowa or Kearney, Nebraska as visually, geographically distinct places. The close similarity of the Des Moines and Kearney houses as formal expressions (establishing shots) and as architecture call attention to the importance of domestic spaces to the film. In sex, lies and videotape (1989, Soderbergh), Graham keeps a map of his wanderings across the US on the wall, but the only indication that the film is set near the twenty-fourth largest city in the US, New Orleans (besides the Kenner registration sticker is visible on Ann’s car) is the Mississippi River meandering through the background of a number of shots from John’s office.

sex lies and videotape map 2sex lies and videotape Kenner LA

The 1970s Portland, Oregon (the thirty-fifth largest city in the US at the time) of Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (1989) gets no more specific than a group of public water fountains and a few extreme long shots of the city’s modest skyline framed by the Columbia River and the Cascade Mountains.

Drugstore Cowboy Portland 1971

Neil LaBute’s adaptation of his own play, In the Company of Men (1997), never declares where it is set, but it was filmed in what was at the time of its release the ninety-ninth-largest city in the United States, Fort Wayne, Indiana. An exterior long shot does not appear as an establishing shot until more than thirty minutes into the film; the first third of the movie pushes the buildings to the rear of the frame, making them barely visible through the blinds on office windows. When the film goes into the city, it marvels at the incongruity of an interesting space: Howard notes with some amazement that the town has such a good zoo – “really nice, for a place like this…a city this size.” While Fort Wayne does not have an extensive skyline, the Art Deco Lincoln Bank Tower and One Summit Square, which looks like a half-finished larger building because it is (the product of Fort Wayne’s faltering 1970s economy), provide the city some visual architectural identity. “Few contemporary films,” Stephen Prince claims, “have given us so ruthless a picture of the connections between personal and economic predation. [then he moves to the chapter’s concluding paragraph] As these films depicting Washington politics, race relations, and social and economic opportunity demonstrate, socially conscious filmmaking was thrived (sic) in the nineties” (Prince 74). The lack of identifiable buildings features or landmarks in In the Company of Men accentuates the (unnamed) city’s generic, anonymous office buildings and public spaces, foregrounding Chad and Howard’s misogyny and misanthropy as something universally white-American-male rather than locationally specific.

In the Company of Men exterior 3In the Company of Men parking garage establishing shot

Whereas films imagine New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago to be diverse, multi-faceted locations, settings appropriate for any film genre, the role of smaller cities like Des Moines and Fort Wayne appears to be much more circumscribed. Hollywood films may not be known for their complexity, and some of this simplicity emerges from the one-note portrayals of most American cities. Prestige films set in medium-sized cities – the twentieth- through seventy-fifth largest cities, places with populations between 175,000 and 500,000 – show a similar tendency to place otherwise “complex” narratives into cities that are simplified to one predominant trait. However, while some cities, like Nashville, resemble single-biome planets, prestige films set in medium-sized cities such as Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Las Vegas begin to conceive of a greater sense of complexity to cities that, in the popular imagination resemble single-biome planets. The complex nature of the medium-sized city takes the form of a clear visual identity, an implicit cultural history and identity, and a narrative that approaches the agreed-upon key traits of the city obliquely, to reveal, often in the film’s background, less-appreciated facets to the city, its identity, and the lives people lead there.

*In the documentary American Movie (1999, Smith), the Packers’ Super Bowl-winning success plays a cruel, ironic counterpoint to Mark Borchardt’s struggles in making his films Cöven and Northwestern.