Is There Such a Thing as a Quintessentially Cleveland Film?

Cleveland’s film resume doesn’t equal even a Toronto or Vancouver, but it’s been hiding in plain sight behind some fairly notable films over the years.

Only Clevelanders would not snigger at a book titled World Film Locations: Cleveland.

Admittedly, my hometown isn’t the most exotic local feature in the World Film Locations series. Most would not list Cleveland in the same tier as New York or Chicago, it’s not as romantically scenic as San Francisco or New Orleans, and it doesn’t have the worldly glamour as any of the non-American cities. But here we are nonetheless. The timing of this slim volume’s publication, in the fall of 2016, added an unexpected coda to an otherwise good year for Cleveland’s long-jittery self-image.

Cleveland is all aglow after having finally shaken the losing-sports-teams monkey from its back, thanks to the NBA champion Cavaliers and the valiant World Series run by the Indians (our football team, the Browns, still lags significantly behind the parade, but that’s another story). Scoff at that all you want, sports haters, but the fortunes of our teams have always been close to our psyches, especially in the 52 years between major league championship celebrations in Cleveland, and with all the heartbreaks we’ve named like hurricanes to remember them (led by that unholy trinity of The Drive, The Fumble, and The Shot).

Toss in all our years of being a national punchline for comics seeking a cheap laugh, and the very real decades of economic decline and racial disparities (the Tamar Rice shooting you probably heard about, the 137 shots police fired into a stopped vehicle a few years back, you probably didn’t), and you might begin to understand why Cleveland clings to any form of outside validation more fervently than other cities.

Landing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum in the ‘90s was one such validation (even if we get to host the induction ceremonies only once every three years). Landing the 2016 Republican National Convention was another. For four days last summer, America got to watch a staunchly Democratic city host the GOP’s coronation of its candidate. This wasn’t about bipartisanship, this was all about the tourism dollars a convention brings, and the chance to showcase the city as a place where others might want to spend their tourism dollars, too.

The city worked for months on an already re-gentrifying downtown: a former bank building rotunda now houses a supermarket, there’s a visitors’ bureau at the end of a block of trendy bars and restaurants, and Public Square was reconfigured to eliminate bus and car traffic through its four quadrants. No matter that most of the visitors never ventured much past downtown to see where efforts to pretty up the place did not extend (and there are many of them, in what was once the foreclosure capital of America). What counted was that Cleveland looked good in the spotlight (and also that anti-Donald Trump protestors didn’t make a total mess of the city).

But only Clevelanders would care about such things, which is perfectly fine by us Clevelanders. Not surprisingly, it took someone with Cleveland ties to make the World Film Locations inclusion happen: Alberto Zambenedetti, who previously taught cinema studies at Oberlin College, about a half-hour west of the city (and who edited the Florence, Italy volume of the series). Most of the contributors have Cleveland and/or Oberlin ties, but this isn’t a piece of rank boosterism. The essays here dissect the local elements of movies filmed in Cleveland, and tell some additional stories about the town’s cinema heritage.

Cleveland’s film resume doesn’t equal even a Toronto or Vancouver, but it’s been hiding in plain sight behind some fairly notable films over the years. The roll call — 44 films in the book, and counting (more on that shortly) — comprise a snapshot of the evolution of Hollywood filmmaking away from Hollywood: from a place specific to a film’s plot; to an under-filmed place with a specific feel dictated by the script; to a place to shoot big-budget features, with a sizeable pool of local supporting workers and a local film commission eager to bring in high-profile projects.

Fittingly, the book kicks off with a sports-themed feature: The Kid from Cleveland (1948), a tale of wayward youth springing from the Indians’ late-‘40s success. Sports figure in again later with 1964’s The Fortune Cookie, starring Jack Lemmon as a photographer injured at a Browns game and Walter Matthau as a cheap lawyer trying to finangle a payday; and 2014’s Draft Day, with Kevin Costner starring in something of a football parallel to Moneyball, topped off with family melodrama. But the most beloved Hollywood sports movie about Cleveland remains Major League (1989), about the Indians finally winning the World Series; Clevelanders proudly claim the film even though little past the opening credits was actually filmed in Cleveland.

Perhaps the two most famous films shot in Cleveland are also mentioned, although one might think they’d have been given more discussion. Michael Cimino shot The Deer Hunter (1979) in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, an ethnic enclave just off downtown, during a time when it represented blue-collar scruffiness more than its current working-class hipsterism (Ohio native Jim Jarmusch’s first feature, 1984’s Stranger than Paradise, was also shot in Tremont).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, in many more ways than one, is the adorable chestnut A Christmas Story (1984), shot in Cleveland and other snowy climes. World Film Locations: Cleveland chronicles several other hits with Cleveland ties, even if those ties range an hour or so out of town (1994’s The Shawshank Redemption and 2010’s Unstoppable).

In recent years, Cleveland has had its share of comic-book movie business (curiously, none from the various Superman incarnations, even though he was born there). Much was made locally of Spider-Man 3 (2007), The Avengers (2012) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) being shot around town, even though none of those scripts set any of the actual action in Cleveland. Preceding all that derring-do was Air Force One (1997), in which Severance Hall, the home of the Cleveland Orchestra, became the Presidential Palace of Kazakhstan.

What World Film Locations: Cleveland doesn’t answer is if there’s any such thing as a quintessentially Cleveland film, and what qualities any such contender might have. One might think it would be one of the rock-themed flicks, One-Trick Pony (1980, starring Paul Simon) or Light of Day (1987, with Joan Jett & Michael A. Fox). One could also nominate coming-of-age-in-Cleveland stories like Antoine Fisher (2002, directed by Denzel Washington) or the too-recent-for-inclusion The Land by native Clevelander Steven Caple Jr (“The Land” being Cleveland’s newest nickname).

Others might point to American Splendor (2002), chronicling the life and times of comic book storyteller / local hero Harvey Pekar. The volume also cites various underground and indie efforts over the years, each of which captures slices of only-in-Cleveland life not found in the mainstream features.

But my nomination for the Clevelandest film of all is Believeland (also not included here), the Andy Billman documentary about Cleveland’s legendary sports futility, which premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival in March 2016 and later on ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. Yes, there’s plenty of sports footage in it, but its framing device is the bond writer Scott Raab, a native Clevelander, formed with his son over sticking it out with the Cleveland teams despite the odds.

The original cut ended with the Cavaliers’ 2015 loss in the NBA Finals, and the sense of wake-up-tomorrow-and-start-grinding-again determination that characterizes life in Cleveland, sports or not. But Billman shot new footage as the Cavaliers advanced through the playoffs in 2016, and over the summer premiered a new cut capturing the Cavs’ amazing run, the massive victory celebration in downtown Cleveland and, in the most Clevelandish of all happy endings, a measure of redemption for a Cleveland sports hero. If you are ever in a screening of the current version of Believeland, the only dry eyes in the house will be the ones that aren’t from here.

RATING 6 / 10