Baltimore filmmakers to be spotlighted at New York's Museum of Modern Art

Films of Barry Levinson, John Waters and Matt Porterfield to be shown in MoMA's 'Our Town: Baltimore' exhibition

  • Stephanie Vizzi as "Lena" in "Hamilton."
Stephanie Vizzi as "Lena" in "Hamilton." (Matthew Porterfield, Handout )
December 07, 2013|By Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun

The "Diner" guys, Tracy Turnblad and the moody teens of Hamilton will be basking in the New York spotlight this month, thanks to a Museum of Modern Art exhibition focusing on the works of Baltimore filmmakers Barry Levinson, John Waters and Matt Porterfield.

"Our Town: Baltimore," running through Dec. 24 at the venerable Manhattan art showcase, opens Thursday with Levinson's 1982 "Diner," an ode to '50s-era Colts fanaticism and the shift from the easy answers of adolescence to the complicated relationships of adulthood. Included among the remaining 10 films are Waters' 1988 "Hairspray," a celebration of dancing and desegregation in early 1960s Baltimore, and Porterfield's 2006 debut, "Hamilton," a quiet exercise in the difficulties of connecting in the modern age.

The movies, all set and filmed in Baltimore by writer-directors who grew up here, offer three very different world views. And yet all are distinctly Baltimore, said Anne Morra, who put together the series.

"I think what these directors tell us is that there's a tremendous richness of experience," said Morra, associate curator of MoMA's Department of Film. "While they are all within a certain geographic location, they have very different experiences in the same city.

"Baltimore is obviously a very diverse city — diverse socially, diverse culturally and diverse economically. There seems to be real community that these films illustrate."

Waters and Levinson have long been regarded as Baltimore's two biggest cinema icons; both have been making movies here for more than three decades and have become inextricably linked to the city, at least in most filmgoers' minds (Levinson even named his production arm Baltimore Pictures, while Waters has never made a movie anywhere else). But the MoMa exhibit — the first of what Morra hopes will be a continuing look at movies that share a common locale — welcomes relative newcomer Porterfield to the club.

"To be selected to screen with the films of John and Barry is really cool," said Porterfield, whose third feature, 2013's "I Used to be Darker," will be released on DVD in January. "It's legitimizing. That's the tremendous part, what makes it such an honor."

Porterfield has been a rising star of the independent film scene since "Hamilton," a film set in the Northeast Baltimore community where he grew up. All his works (including 2010's "Putty Hill") are quiet, ruminative studies on communications and connections among millennials, a group he clearly sees as struggling to find an identity.

"He represents a younger generation, where communication is nonverbal," Morra said. "He also speaks to contemporary families that are either broken or put together in ways that are nontraditional."

Levinson's Baltimore-based films, by comparison, are tinged with nostalgia. "Diner," after all, recalls the Colts' heyday, while 1987's "Tin Men" betrays a soft spot for Formstone (even if it's referred to as aluminum siding in the film) and 1990's "Avalon" harks all the way back to the turn of the last century, as a family of Jewish immigrants arrives in Baltimore and tries to assimilate.

"He has this very nostalgic perspective about this city," said Morra. "He looks at Baltimore, I think, very personally."

Levinson, who is deep in the throes of bringing a musical adaptation of "Diner" to Broadway, said he always dreamed of making the world aware of his hometown. "I always loved, as a kid, 'Naked City,' that whole New York thing. And I used to think, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a Baltimore cop show, one that really smacks of Baltimore, just like "Naked City" did of New York?'"

He accomplished some of that, of course, by helping put "Homicide: Life on the Street" on TV screens for seven seasons. But with his films, Levinson brought to movie screens a gentler, less threatening Baltimore — although not one without its issues (remember the anti-Semitism and racism of 1999's "Liberty Heights?").

The Baltimore of John Waters, of course, is an oeuvre all its own — one that celebrates bad taste and unregenerate depravity, while finding its heroes among characters most filmmakers wouldn't touch. Waters made movie stars of his drag-queen childhood friend, Divine (whom he once had eat dog poop on screen), and a snaggle-toothed thrift-store owner, Edith Massey. He's made heroes of the Filthiest Person Alive (1972's "Pink Flamingos"), murderers (1977's "Desperate Living"), even a spoiled teenager who tramples her family's Christmas decorations (1974's "Female Trouble").

Baltimoreans love him for it.

"John is always outrageous, tweaking and pushing the boundaries of what to expect," Morra said. "His viewpoint is just spectacular and outrageous. He kind of likes to get under your skin and poke you a little bit."

Waters, who is in the middle of performing his "A John Waters Christmas" at concert venues across the country, welcomed Porterfield to the fold ("I've been a big fan of his from the beginning"). While acknowledging the obvious — that he, Levinson and Porterfield are very different filmmakers — Waters said they share a love for the city in which they were reared. And bravo to MoMa for recognizing that.

"I think we're very similar," Waters said, "even if the kind of ground we cover is a little different. We all have a fondness and respect for the eccentric neighborhoods of Baltimore. The personality and people of those neighborhoods are what all of our films are about."

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