In mid-2016, we wrote about a handful of films set in Chicago. Now, we’re back with a second look. This time, CAF has partnered with ArcLight Cinemas Chicago to bring you a curated film series, ArcLight Presents… Architecture Afternoons with CAF.
ArcLight Presents… Architecture Afternoons with CAF is a monthly film series that runs from January to April 2017. It explores how filmmakers use our city and its architecture to tell stories. The films highlighted below will be shown at ArcLight and be accompanied by a discussion and Q&A with expert panelists selected by CAF. See you at the movies!
The Untouchables (showing January 22)
The Untouchables (1987) is the quintessential Chicago period piece. It uses impeccably accurate Prohibition-era set design as its palette and brush and real Chicago streets and buildings—not backlot trickery—to depict the dark days of 1930 Chicago. The film’s climax involves the stairs of Union Station and a repurposing of perhaps the most famous scene of the silent film era, the Odessa steps sequence in the Battleship Potemkin (1925). Another key scene takes place in the canyon of buildings down LaSalle Street, an area with Art Deco and Beaux-Arts buildings that look much the same today as they did in 1930. For locals watching The Untouchables, it’s clear that the story of Al Capone and Eliot Ness is deeply rooted in Chicago. If the architecture featured in Stranger than Fiction (see below) is meant to use the city as a stand-in for a fictional or intentionally generic large city, The Untouchables’ use of architecture expresses a story that could only have happened in Chicago—a story where the city is a character.
Discussion topics: Chicago’s historic architecture, how filmmakers prepare for period pieces, Art Deco, Beaux-Arts.
Stranger than Fiction (showing February 19)
The comedy Stranger than Fiction (2006) follows a character named Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) on his surreal quest to find out why his life is being narrated by a disembodied voice (Emma Thompson). The film was shot in Chicago but intentionally made to look like any large city through the clever use of the Mid-Century Modern and International Styles of architecture. Observant watchers will notice clear use of well-known Chicago locations such as the CNA Building, River City and multiple locations at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Several neighborhood spots made it into the film as well, including a cafe in Little Village and the Logan Theatre. Near the end of the film, the architecture shifts toward the contextual in a move that makes the film feel less claustrophobic and anonymous. The Wrigley Building, a Chicago icon and certainly not a Mid-Century Modern structure, even shows up at the end of the film after this tonal shift.
Discussion topics: Mid-Century Modern, International Style, creating feelings with architecture, how architecture influences one’s sense of place and identity.
Metropolis (showing March 12)
In the German silent film Metropolis (1927), architecture is used to communicate status. The wealthy elite rule from tall, thin skyscrapers while workers live underground. The director, Fritz Lang, even stated that he came up with the idea for the film after seeing American skyscrapers. The appearance of the fictional city of Metropolis is a blend of Art Deco and other modern architectural movements. The film is relevant to cities today—including Chicago—as residents grapple with the issues of income inequality, booming downtowns and under-resourced neighborhoods. Nearly 90 years after the release of Metropolis, buildings are still used as symbols of power, and construction and development are still important factors in the livelihoods of urban residents.
Discussion topics: Art Deco, architecture and the economy, architectural symbolism, construction and investment.
The Dark Knight (showing April 23)
Quite a few superhero movies have been filmed in Chicago. Batman and Superman are the caped figures seen most often in the city—Batman Begins (2005), Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman (2016) all feature scenes filmed in Chicago. But it’s The Dark Knight (2008) that really uses a variety of the city’s architecture—few films explore more of Chicago than this blockbuster hit. It opens with an intricate sequence filmed at the Old Main Post Office, where the massive Art Deco building stands in for a bank. A chase sequence makes use of lower Wacker Drive and a parade marches down LaSalle Street, terminating at the soaring Chicago Board of Trade Building. The Chicago Theater also gets its moment in the spotlight. Modern buildings get a chance to shine, too—Batman rides his fancy motorcycle through Millennium Station and stands atop Willis (Sears) Tower to survey the city. The black exterior of the skyscraper even matches the caped crusader’s enigmatic look. Though The Dark Knight is set in fictional Gotham City, Chicago’s real-life architecture is instantly recognizable throughout the film.
Discussion topics: Location scouting, modifying architecture to create a mood, what makes Chicago recognizable as itself and what makes it “Gotham”?
View the ArcLight Presents… Architecture Afternoons with CAF event details here.