Does Within Our Gates "certify" Chicago? | Bleader

Does Within Our Gates "certify" Chicago?

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Within Our Gates, shot partly in Chicago in 1919, played at the Music Box on Saturday.
  • Within Our Gates, shot partly in Chicago in 1919, played at the Music Box on Saturday.
Walker Percy's The Moviegoer (1961) is one of my favorite novels, even though its antihero, Binx Bolling, represents cinephilia at its worst. Cynical, socially detached, and incapable of experiencing deep emotion outside of the cinema, he ought to be studied by every self-proclaimed movie-lover as a model of what not to be. Every few years I reread the book in a sort-of aesthete's Yom Kippur, to remind myself of the bad behavior that chronic moviegoing can ferment but cannot excuse. (I periodically rewatch Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore for the same reason.)

That said, Percy's novel contains some of the best insights into movie watching of any book I know. Consider, for instance, this passage where Bolling describes the pleasure of seeing his neighborhood used as the setting for a major motion picture:

Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

Bolling means this sincerely; clearly Percy does not. (For one thing, the movie that inspires this reassuring thought is Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets.) But Percy's literary irony refracts a key observation about how mass culture can condition people to regard real life. It's no longer novel to note that a place or event doesn't seem significant unless it's been repackaged as an image—it's the guiding logic behind every form of social media—but The Moviegoer remains valuable for considering this phenomenon in terms of emotional need.

Now that any city dweller can look up pictures of his block on Google Maps, certification as Percy described it seems pretty quaint. The local enthusiasm for The Dark Knight and Public Enemies suggested Binx Bolling's private reassurance recast as city-wide rally—despite the fact that neither film was especially flattering in its depiction of Chicago. (I remember a friend enthusing after Dark Knight, "I love that everyone in Gotham City reads the Red Eye," even though he hates the Red Eye.) Maybe the unacknowledged hope was that increased exposure would inspire more people to visit Chicago, which would bring more money to the city and, eventually, improve the standard of daily living. But that sounds unlikely, doesn't it?

Easier to diagnose are those revival screenings that present a city as it existed in the past. The large audience with whom I watched Within Our Gates at the Music Box on Saturday was excited to see images of Chicago's boulevards circa 1919, even when director Oscar Micheaux used them to stand in for downtown Boston. We also felt collective pride in knowing that the oldest surviving film directed by an African-American—and such an impassioned, confrontational one at that—was partially shot here. Screening like these strike me as the opposite of what Binx Bolling sought in movies about his neighborhood: in this case, an audience collectively appropriates a work from the Anywhere of film history as part of the Somewhere they still inhabit.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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