Setting the Scene

In another life -- or if I could do this one all over again -- I think I'd go into design work. Of course, then I would have to choose between interior and exterior -- in this case, exterior being

Sep 19, 2007 at 2:06 pm

In another life — or if I could do this one all over again — I think I'd go into design work. Of course, then I would have to choose between interior and exterior — in this case, exterior being more along the lines of urban planning.

The design sense or instinct has factored heavily into my writing process and style. For instance, when I tried my hand at screenplays after having already completed a manuscript for a novel — several drafts over the course of seven years at that point — my scripts were full of intricate spatial details.

I went so far as to purchase a basic design program rather than buying scriptwriting software because I wanted to be able to document and explore these spaces and places my characters would inhabit. Such layout considerations stimulated my storytelling process, and I suppose they continue to intrigue me.

Those interior spaces gave way to large environs as I took to wandering the streets and neighborhoods with my characters, getting a sense of the larger context of their lives. We lived in Philadelphia then, my characters and I, and so our experiences were set in Center City around Rittenhouse Square, which was recently rendered with subtle sophistication in the adaptation of In Her Shoes.

We wandered, much like Toni Collette's character, around the Art Museum and ascended those stairs like everyone else who's ever seen Rocky, bounding upward toward the top, where we celebrated with the triumphant dancing and fist-pumping choreographed to that theme music. It certainly is enduringly iconic, no matter what you think of the Rocky movies.

I wrote a trilogy of screenplays based on the romantic arc. These stories — thematic explorations of the individual components of the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back formula — capture my love of Philadelphia, its interiors and exteriors.

Philly defines itself as a city even down to its neighborhoods. There is Olde City down by the river across from Camden, N.J. There is Center City, the heart of business and culture that's served as a model for investigation by cities (including Cincinnati) seeking to reinvigorate the downtown landscape. And there is University City in West Philly, dominated to a certain extent by the University of Pennsylvania but also embracing Drexel University and the neighborhoods that border the institutions.

There's been strife and friction in each and every one of these separate cities, but never enough to break down the unity of the city of Philadelphia. Quite likely, that's what has gripped my imagination so much over the years.

Even now, as I continue to develop ideas for screenplays, I find that Philly inspires me much more than Cincinnati.

And yet I've lived here in the Queen City now seven years this month and will be here at least 12 more years as I await the high school graduation of my youngest stepdaughter. My wife and I patiently count down the years — it's so easy to do at this stage, as we close in on our first wedding anniversary — dreaming and scheming about that next location, that next stage, that next scene of our lives.

As a New Yorker, she knows a thing or two about cities as scenes. Every year, filmmakers pass out images of New York, whether post-9/11 or pre- (or even pre-Disneyfication, such as Neil Jordan's The Brave One, which purposefully evokes the days when you feared and lashed out at other city dwellers). For every home-grown director like Spike Lee playing the ultimate Inside Man, there's a host of visitors to NYC eager to leave their stamp on that place and character.

You see, the places we inhabit become characters. An as inhabitants or storytellers we seek to give voice to these cities.

For every film critic or moviegoer who finds himself moaning about the latest twisty gimmick from M. Night Shyamalan, there's someone else — besides me, I mean — who recognizes that Philadelphia and the region is his kin and that kinship is fierce and loyal. Shyamalan and Philly, Spike and old-school Woody Allen and New York are friends and family.

And maybe that's what bothers me about Cincinnati. I came here for family and gathered even more to my breast, but not the city, not Cincinnati.

It's not my friend or a part of my family yet. But at least I'm still capable of adding that one simple word: Yet.

Cities are defined by more than their census statistics, of course. Based on mere numbers alone, Cincinnati is a city, but where is the unity among its many far-flung burbs? When, where and how do we become more than the sum of our parts?

Our downtown scene shuts down when other cities are just beginning to come alive. Our urban lifeblood flows out of the central body cavity to the extremities.

It's sad to think that Cincinnati's recent film references feature a quickly cancelled HBO dramatic series and a brief mention in Wild Hogs, the surprise low-brow hit from early spring.

The debut episode of John From Cincinnati failed to hold onto a sizeable lead-in audience of the series finale of The Sopranos. And worse, in the case of Wild Hogs, the main characters of this junky over-the-hill buddy picture were supposed to be from the Cincinnati suburbs, but I'll be damned if I could figure out where exactly these bumblers were. The two establishing shots of their neighborhoods clearly weren't filmed anywhere in this area.

And I wish I could ask, but I can't. There's no need.

If I were the director of Wild Hogs, I likely wouldn't have worried about the location either. The movie was about the characters leaving here — not about where they were but where they were going.

And that would be anywhere but here.

Cincinnati needs to start again building a place that inspires big dreams and attracts scenes that others around the country and the world want to see. A place that inspires screenwriters and ordinary citizens alike.

Let's get a working draft started now.

CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: [email protected]. His column appears here in the third issue of each month.