Pellington's Road

Tackling projects the way his dad did Colts opponents, the music video pioneer takes another film step with 'Arlington Road.'

April 23, 1999

When Baltimore magazine published a story about "Homicide: Life on the Street" in 1997, it ran a couple of photographs of rehearsals. The actors Yaphet Kotto and Andre Braugher were identified. The tall, powerfully built and bespectacled director was not.

The omission was ironic, since the director, Mark Pellington, would have made a pretty good subject for an article in his own right.

The son of Bill Pellington, the Baltimore Colts linebacker who helped his team win the NFL championship in 1958, Mark grew up in Timonium and attended St. Paul's School. After graduating in rhetoric from the University of Virginia, he went on to work at the nascent MTV network, eventually becoming an influential director of music videos. His work has been seen on PBS, in such prestigious series as "Alive From Off-Center" and "The United States of Poetry." His first feature film, "Going All the Way," made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997.

His new movie, "Arlington Road," a psycho-political thriller starring Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins, will be shown at the Maryland Film Festival tomorrow before opening nationwide in May.

But Pellington, 37, is still not claimed by his hometown as a Baltimore filmmaker (or at least Baltimore-bred). Pellington lives with his wife, costume designer Jennifer Barrett Pellington, in Los Angeles.

"Well, Barry [Levinson] and John [Waters], their films are very much about Baltimore," Pellington said in a recent telephone interview. "And I haven't really made a movie that could be called a `Baltimore movie.' If I was to do a Baltimore movie it would probably be about the misadventures of preppie kids in the suburbs. I actually wrote a story with a friend of mine about prep school pranks gone awry. It's about being 15, 16, 17 years old and prep school kids discovering their wild years. Because that's what I knew. The only time I went downtown, I'd go to the Marble Bar and see punk bands."

In fact, Pellington, who was a disc jockey in college, was convinced that when he graduated he would work at a record company. But a new venture called Music Television -- MTV for short -- was just starting and needed young energy. Pellington worked there as an intern, then in 1983 joined the staff, making short promotional pieces.

He made a few music videos while at MTV ("the first hit I ever had was for Information Society"), then helped develop "Buzz," a non-linear magazine show about everything from love to the future to the home, that was ultimately produced by MTV and Channel 4 in Britain. A hyperkinetic example of Pellington's signature use of sound, images and text, the 13-part series sent Pellington to England, where he lived before returning to the United States in 1990.

When Pellington returned, his father was seriously ill with Alzheimer's disease. He began to collect video footage of his father, with an eye toward someday making a feature film based on their relationship. Commuting between Baltimore and New York, where Pellington resumed directing music videos and began making television commercials, he collected video images that would later become "Father's Daze," an intensely personal 30-minute diary of his father's illness.

Pellington showed "Father's Daze" alongside a program of championship game highlights, to a Colts reunion audience at the Senator Theatre in 1993.

"It was very heavy," Pellington recalled of the screening. "There was so much joy and nostalgia, and it really let people reflect on the whole nature of memory. Ex-Colts came out with tears in their eyes, because a lot of them hadn't seen my father [in years]. I felt very strong about that piece. It's still a benchmark for me."

In 1994, Pellington took honors at the MTV Video Music Awards for Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" video, one of the first music videos ever to tell a story -- in this case of an adolescent grappling with alienation. The video was hugely influential, breaking the music video form out of mere performance or illustration (it also brought Pellington under fire for his image of a boy bringing a gun into a classroom). Pellington's name acquired a certain amount of buzz in the industry, and he began pursuing a movie project in earnest.

The first thing he thought of was "Going All the Way," a novel by Dan Wakefield that he had spied on his parents' bookshelf when he was 15. Attracted by the suggestive title, Pellington found that he identified strongly with the book's characters -- Sonny, a bookish, weedy young man, and Gunner, the Adonis-like icon he befriends when they both return from the Korean War.

Pellington would re-read the novel throughout his life. He made the movie, starring Jeremy Davies and Ben Affleck, in Indianapolis in 1995.

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