Baltimore's reel men

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These guys hail from the same city?

Barry Levinson, 61, makes gently pointed comedies about growing up, about camaraderie and family and finding one's foothold in the world. He's a television producer and director of distinction. He's won an Oscar and an Emmy.

John Waters, 57, is a cinematic anarchist, a once-underground filmmaker so notorious you dared not speak his name in respectable company. A cheerful chronicler of life's more deranged manifestations, he's been the bane of censor boards, the man who turned a drag queen from Lutherville and a nearly toothless Fells Point thrift-shop owner into movie stars, the guy who made the dubious cinematic claim that doggie dung is edible. He was this paper's Marylander of the Year for 2002.

And they grew up just a few Beltway exits from one another, Levinson in Park Heights, Waters in Lutherville. Maybe 10 miles, but worlds apart.

"We lived six Beltway exits away from other," Waters says as he plays host to Levinson in the living room of his North Baltimore home, "and you once said you'd never known that everybody wasn't Jewish, and I'd never met a Jewish person until I left high school. Look at the difference, when we were growing up, going from Hampden to Roland Park, which are literally a half-mile away from each other. It was two different worlds completely. Two classes, two social worlds. It was a huge difference."

"It's a radical difference," agrees Levinson, who had returned to Baltimore from his home in Connecticut to help open the 2003 Maryland Film Festival, an annual gathering of Charm City cinephiles in which both men have played major roles. "You'd hear it in the accents, depending on what part of the city you were in. If you came from Northwest Baltimore and you went somewhere, you felt like you were in the South. And if you went into Dundalk, you'd hear a sound down there that's really different."

Levinson and Waters have come together to wax nostalgic about growing up in Baltimore, delineate that ill-defined route that leads from Charm City to Hollywood, and perhaps reveal why they've been unwilling to substantively separate their hometown from their careers. They talk and laugh easily with one another, displaying a level of comfort that suggests old friends more than business acquaintances with a shared geography, which is closer to the truth.

They see each other infrequently, and only really talk when an outside force brings them together, as the film festival has here. In the course of a conversation that lasts nearly an hour, the stories and reminiscences flow easily, the shared experiences proving both many and memorable. Perhaps because he's never left the city, Waters is usually the one to start a sentence with, "Remember when?" But Levinson, who visits the city often but hasn't called Baltimore home since enrolling at American University in the early '60s, is always quick to pick up his cues. Clearly, they respect each other's work and enjoy each other's company. But it's also clear that their real bond is a profound and lingering affection for their hometown.

There are probably dozens of American cities that can claim a pair of famous movie directors as their own; for New York and Los Angeles, the number would probably be in the dozens. But few boast of native sons whose work is so intimately associated with their hometown. Waters has yet to set (or film) one of his movies anywhere else, while Levinson's signature works have all been set and filmed here - as was the TV series on which he served as executive producer, NBC's Homicide: Life On the Street. All that, and he named his production company Baltimore Pictures.

'Why Baltimore?'

Find a film fan anywhere in this country, mention Baltimore, and odds are the first words out of his or her mouth will be John Waters and Barry Levinson. They're like a two-man cinematic chamber of commerce, spreading Baltimore's name far and wide, shining a light on our fair city's follies and foibles. "Wherever I go, even in Norway, people come over to me and say, 'Baltimore,' " says an amused Waters. "It's amazing."

They've even brought in a fair share of business; because of the films Waters and Levinson have made here, Baltimore retains a core of movie-making professionals that serves as a major draw for directors and filmmakers.

"They've gained a lot of experience over the years, between John's movies and Barry's movies," says director Jay Russell, who just finished location shotting for his latest movie, Ladder 49, here in Baltimore. "They're really experienced, and that represents a savings of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars, to be able to use a local crew base."

Still, it's an odd thing, this continuing close identification with Baltimore. With most directors, one would be hard-pressed to identify their hometowns, much less talk about all the films they've set there, or how they've become a part of the local iconography. Doesn't this talk of a Baltimore connection grow old?

"It's a good question and a valid question, you know?" Levinson says to nodding agreement from the other side of the coffee table. "To a filmmaker from New York, they never say, 'Why New York?' We always hear, 'Why Baltimore?' It's like, 'My God, who lives in Baltimore?' But it's the things I know, its whatever - its rhythms, its characters."

"I come back here to be inspired by normal people," says Waters; that is, "regular people who think they're normal, but are still insane.

"In New York, everyone I know thinks they're insane, but they're totally normal. What inspires me always is the people here, I'm fascinated by how they think. I mean, in a good way, I look up to them. They're free of so many constraints that other people have, I find that just inspirational."

And what inspiration we here in Charm City have provided for these guys. In Waters' case, his movies have focused on dueling combatants for the title of Filthiest Person Alive (Pink Flamingos), a murderess traipsing through a fairy-tale land of fellow criminals (Desperate Living), a homicidal mother with a well-defined sense of propriety (Serial Mom), an overweight dancer for social equality (Hairspray, an adaptation of which conquered Broadway last year), a guerrilla filmmaker willing to go all the way for his art (Cecil B. Demented) and a kid from Hampden whose photographs make him the darling of New York high society (Pecker).

Levinson may have mined a more mainstream vein for his films, but the results have been no less idiosyncratic, movies that could only have been made in and about Baltimore. There were the guys coming of age to the tune of the Colts' fight song (Diner), feuding aluminum-siding salesmen everyone in these parts knew were really selling Formstone (Tin Men), turn-of-the-century immigrants looking for a better, gentler place to live (Avalon) and young Jewish guys realizing the world is a much more diverse place than they ever suspected (Liberty Heights).

"We exaggerate, we show the eccentric side, but I think Baltimoreans like that," Waters says. "I think that's what Baltimoreans like about themselves, they like to be shown as eccentric characters in all the good ways.

"I mean, Liberty Heights was a historical movie to me; it was completely true. And people come and look at my movies and say, 'I thought they were exaggerations, now they're documentaries.' You love them or you hate them, but they're very true to the city."

A vanishing landscape

And just what is that truth? What makes Baltimore Baltimore? That's a question both men have been asked repeatedly, and each has had a career in which to figure it out. Both have embraced the city they knew growing up, lovingly chronicled it, warts and all, and turned what some had seen as weaknesses into strengths. If Baltimore once suffered from an inferiority complex when compared to its more cosmopolitan neighbors (such as Washington, Philadelphia and New York), the films of Levinson and Waters helped yank the city and its residents out of it.

"I always use the Colts winning the championship in '58 as us suddenly not being the little town that you went through on the way to go somewhere," Levinson says. "We were World Champions, and we beat the New York team. So I always use that as, 'Now, OK, all bets are off.'

"But there is this regional thing," he admits. "For instance - and I think it still applies - Washington people will come to Baltimore to go to sporting events, etc., but Baltimore people never go to Washington."

Waters nods, and picks up the point, something that each man does often in the course of the conversation.

"Everybody in Baltimore thinks everybody in Washington's boring, and Washington thinks Baltimoreans are hillbillies, and they're both right. But it's generalizing, you know? I used to go to Washington because of the movies, but I almost never go anymore, because we have better movies here now."

Not all the attractions in D.C. were cultural. "It was also that the drinking age was 18, I was 18, and that's why you went up there," Levinson says. (Of course, geographically, Washington is down from Baltimore, but his use of the word "up" here buttresses that point about perceptions.) "You went to Washington because you could drink when you were 18."

"I did, the day I was 18," Waters says. "The Baltimore-Washington Expressway was the most terrifying road in the world, especially if you're 18 and drinking. It's not a good idea."

The two men laugh easily and often, but there's a tinge of sadness in the conversation about their hometown, a sense that they're becoming more cultural historians that documentarians. Maybe sadness isn't the right word; incredulity might be better. The Baltimore they knew, and have so lovingly immortalized on film over the years, is changing. The shift may be welcome, it may be inevitable, but let's shed a tear for what was, and may never be again.

"Don't you think that what we love about Baltimore ... is vanishing?" Waters asks. "It is, in a way. The kind of people I make movies about, those whole neighborhoods have been completely claimed by the upscale. Which is great for the city, I'm not saying it's wrong. But it's vanishing, the kind of things that I make films about."

And here the incredulous part kicks in.

"You know," Waters adds, his eyes growing wide with genuine astonishment, "Tin Men - where you made that, those neighborhoods, yuppies are restoring the Formstone! They're lovingly putting it back on. I mean, that is part of what's happening in this world!"

Levinson laughs heartily at he thought of a Formstone renaissance, the idea that people actually treasure the fake rocks that started afflicting the facades of Baltimore homes back in the 1940s. There's an element of reassurance to the story as well. Even as it changes, Baltimore can't help being itself.

"Do you know, Barry, that we were picked by Travel & Leisure magazine as having the ugliest people in America, in Baltimore, and that Philadelphia was second-to-last?" Waters asks, to rollicking laughter from his fellow director. "And I gave a speech in Philadelphia, I said, 'Isn't that embarrassing, that you're second-to-last?'

"I think that's hilarious, that's the kind of thing Baltimore can really laugh about. That's the difference. When you're saying there used to be an inferiority complex, they'd wear T-shirts now that say, 'We're the ugliest people in the country,' and laugh about it. Which you should do. Twenty years ago, they'd have been mortified by it, but now I think people find it hilarious."

Levinson agrees, both that people's attitudes have changed, and that it's a good thing. He's not ready to claim any credit, however. "I'm not so sure what took place," he says, "but now there's a sense of, 'This is a place.' I think there was a point in time where this city embraced its own idiosyncratic nature, as opposed to being closed about it."

Two muses, hon

Certainly, there must have been plenty right about a Baltimore that could nurture the nascent cinematic muses of both Waters and Levinson. Though roughly of the same generation, they traveled very different roads to get where they are.

For Waters, growing up in a middle-class Baltimore County home, movies were an escape from the mundane, a place where being different was not only OK, but preferable.

"I wanted to make underground films. I never thought that someday I would make a Hollywood film," he says. "I was happiest when I was a teen-ager, right when underground movies first came out ... Kenneth Anger, very early Andy Warhol, the Kuchar Brothers. That was what inspired me at the time. But I went to movies all the time, I liked the nudist films and the [Ingmar] Bergman films. I may be the only person that saw [Bergman's] Hour of the Wolf on LSD. At Goucher College, they had a whole Bergman festival when I was young, and they showed every one. That was great for me."

Levinson's career path wasn't quite as clear, nor as predetermined. "Growing up in Baltimore, you went to movies, but I'd never heard of anybody who was a director. There was nothing to connect to saying, 'That's what I want to do,' for me, I never really thought of it in those terms. I always talked about movies ... but I didn't ever think to say, 'Well, you know, I ought to try to get involved in it.'

"It never occurred to me until I drifted into television, in a sense as an avoidance for taking more serious classes [in college]. They had a course in radio and television, and I thought, 'Well, how hard could that be?' "

Both men spent a lot of their younger years staring at movie screens; a discussion of their early years quickly becomes a tour of Baltimore's long-gone movie venues - drive-ins like the Carlin, Timonium and Edmondson, art houses like the Playhouse, the 7 East and the 5 West, ancient relics like the Crest, Ambassador and Century.

"Baltimore had great movie houses," says Levinson. Waters agrees, but adds an important caveat: "Remember the art houses, how they'd get a movie and play it for a whole year? And we'd see it the first week."

So, yes, these are two very different filmmakers, but with common roots that show through in their work. And while their styles could hardly be more different, each appreciates what the other brings to the party.

"You always hate to talk about favorites or whatever," says Levinson, whose Envy, a comedy starring Jack Black and Ben Stiller, is set to open next month. "But I find it fascinating, because I'm able to watch another part of the city, you know what I mean? It's like saying, 'He's shooting off Eastern Avenue,' and I know that place ... for me, above and beyond the entertainment of it, I'm getting a little tour of another part of town. It's kind of like a kick, in a way."

"Avalon, to me, I think is my favorite of Barry's, because I didn't know all that," says Waters, who plans to start filming his next movie, A Dirty Shame, in Hamilton later this year. "There was a history for me of stuff that I thought was incredibly beautifully told, and it was near to me, and it was right here. Both Barry and I lived in the city, and we knew different things."

"You know," adds Levinson, "Max, my son, is crazed about John's movies, just loves them. He is now 18, but he started watching, he must have been 14 years old, maybe."

Waters, never exactly a director aiming at the younger set, smiles and cocks an eyebrow.

"That's illegal, some of them, Barry," he says, to laughter long, loud and maybe just a little subversive.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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