Two weeks ago my travels took me to Baltimore, Maryland, where Roger Corman’s favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe, mysteriously died and was buried. More recently, Baltimore was the site of another mysterious death, that of Freddie Gray, a young African-American who fell into a coma after being transported in a police van. The fact that he was found to have died of spinal cord injuries was, to say the least, suspicious. Fortunately for me, I saw no sign of the civil disturbance that resulted from that episode, though the trials of the six police officers involved still continue.
What I saw instead of public anger was a city proud of its sports teams, its crab cakes, and its distinctive Inner Harbor. Not to mention a few branches of Pitango, which serves the best gelato I’ve ever tasted. (Yum!) Since my visit was brief, I didn’t get to see the famous National Aquarium. Nor did I get more than a glimpse of the spectacularly funky American Visionary Art Museum, with its mirrored exterior walls and oddball exhibits.
But I got to gander at the displays in Baltimore’s Museum of Industry, where the city shows off its role as an industrial pioneer. Baltimore, it turns out, is the home of such standard brands as Domino sugar, Black and Decker tools, Head skis and tennis racquets, and Bromo Seltzer. Way back when, this locale saw the invention (or the major refinement) of the linotype machine, the collapsible umbrella, and the crimped bottle cap.
Then, of course, there’s the role played by Baltimore in showbiz. The city’s quirky reputation has made it a good place to set a drama or a very black comedy. Today it’s best known as the setting of The Wire, the hard-hitting HBO crime drama that unfolded over a period of six years, from 2002 until 2008. Series creator David Simon had been a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun, so he was well acquainted with the city’s darker aspects.
The absolute king of quirk, John Waters, was born in a Baltimore suburb, and still makes the city his home. So did his muse Glenn Milstead, much better known as Divine, who starred in such Baltimore-based Waters flicks as Pink Flamingos. Divine died during an L.A. sojourn, but like Poe he is buried in the place that calls itself Charm City. Though Divine is gone now, Waters sashays on, though it’s been a decade since he’s released a new flick. Every one of the seventeen films he’s directed is set in Baltimore.
Barry Levinson too is a Baltimorean. Though his directing career has been more mainstream and has taken him farther afield, Levinson is responsible for four films set in the Baltimore of his own growing-up years. He made his screen debut with the semi-autobiographical Diner (1982), in which a circle of young males hang out just before one of them is to get married. I remember Diner for its low-key sense of reality, and for introducing me to the talents of Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, and Ellen Barkin. Also Baltimore-based are Levinson’s Tin Men (1987), Avalon (1990), and Liberty Heights (1999). Avalon deals with the assimilation of a Jewish immigrant family, and Liberty Heights adds interracial tension into the mix.
A display at the Museum of Industry notes a number of other films shot in the picturesque city: The Accidental Tourist, Clara’s Heart, Broadcast News, and (unlikely though it may seem) Sleepless in Seattle. But I need to close with one of my favorite Audra McDonald songs. I can’t vouch for its message.