Around this time last year, director Barry Levinson was still filming "Liberty Heights," the fourth installment in a cycle of films inspired by his early life in Baltimore. Throughout the fall, Levinson, his cast and crew had been filming in and around the city, transforming The Block, Pennsylvania Avenue and Park Heights into 1950s versions of themselves.
Like "Diner," "Tin Men" and "Avalon" before it, "Liberty Heights" had all the earmarks of a typical Levinson Baltimore movie. But an early reading of the script and conversations with Levinson's colleagues suggested that there was something different about this one.
For one thing, its subject matter -- race, religion and class and how they interplayed during the era of Brown vs. Board of Education -- was far more pointed than in Levinson's past films, where Jewish culture might have been suggested but was never the subject at hand.
Then too, Levinson had expanded his creative team to bring a new visual sensibility to "Liberty Heights." The cinematographer Chris Doyle, best known for his stylized photography in neon-infused Hong Kong films, and Vincent Peranio, John Waters' production designer, both brought more edge to the project than one associates with the more burnished look of, say, "Avalon."
"Liberty Heights" "will have an immediacy and an energy you don't really associate with period movies," predicted Mark Johnson, who produced Levinson's first three Baltimore films. "And it's an immediacy and energy that is thematically required." Doyle suggested that with "Liberty Heights," Levinson was "trying to give Baltimoreans a different view of themselves. ... I think this movie is a big turning point for him."
But tonight, when Baltimore filmgoers get the first look at "Liberty Heights" at the movie's hometown premiere, they will see a film much more rooted in the Levinson tradition than early talk about immediacy and "edge" suggested. (After premiering at the Senator Theatre tonight, the film opens in New York, Los Angeles and Baltimore Nov. 19.)
"Liberty Heights" is a funny, characteristically observant movie in which Levinson looks at his beloved muse -- the city of Baltimore -- from yet one more angle. It's a vividly textured slice of the city's anthropology and history that combines many of the cardinal elements of his past films. If the movie is a turning point, it's only because Levinson has widened his lens to include more than one of the city's tribes. (This will be the first of his Baltimore movies to feature anyone of color, which may say less about Levinson's myopia than Baltimore's peculiarly intransigent ethnic boundaries.)
Exploring race, religion
"Liberty Heights" was conceived in anger. Levinson began writing the script last year when he read a review of his science fiction clunker "Sphere" in Entertainment Weekly. The reviewer went out of her way to identify a character as Jewish, when no such identification had ever been implied or intended by Levinson.
The slight infuriated him, and he proceeded to sketch out a script -- longhand, on a legal pad -- that would explore the issues of anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance through the lens of his own upbringing in Baltimore, a city famous for its sectarian insularity. Principal photography started eight months later.
Although Jewish culture formed a context in Levinson's previous Baltimore films, it was nearly always unspoken. Characters were never seen grappling with their identity, or enduring the contradictions and conflicts of being a racial or cultural minority. In "Liberty Heights," we see the film's protagonist, Ben (Ben Foster), a high school senior, make a tentative friendship and eventually a tender romance with Sylvia, a black schoolmate (Rebekah Johnson). Their relationship is given an added twist when it turns out that, as the daughter of a prominent physician, she's of a higher economic class than Ben, whose dad runs a burlesque theater on The Block.
Meanwhile, Ben's brother Van (Adrien Brody) pursues an unattainable WASP princess (played by the stunning fashion model Carolyn Murphy), and in the process crosses the invisible ethnic line of Falls Road into a world of Ivy League privilege he barely knew existed. Throughout "Liberty Heights," Ben and Van's mother refers to the goyim as "the other kind," a whispered aside that warns of the gentile world's menace and tantalizing mystery.
There are confrontations in "Liberty Heights." At one point Ben and Van's father, Nate (Joe Mantegna), breaks up a fight between his friends and a black petty criminal, saying, "We've all come too far for this." Later in the film, Ben and his friends take courageous (and, because it's Levinson, very witty) action against a restricted country club.
Focus on male bonding
But more than conflict, "Liberty Heights" is suffused with the friendly banter, inadvertently amusing misunderstandings and romantic yearnings that are much more characteristic of Levinson's earlier movies. The filmmaker's favorite tropes -- the extravagantly finned Cadillacs, the zaftig strippers, an elusive blond riding a horse -- are all here, as is the invisible but unmistakable haze of testosterone.
As in "Diner" and "Tin Men," Ben and Van regularly retire with their respective cliques to the Fells Point Diner (Nate and his colleagues favor Werner's restaurant) to ruminate over the day's events, enveloped in a prophylactic bubble of esprit d'homme.
Women may be the prime motivating force for men's behavior in Levinson's films, but they don't much interest him as characters in their own right. Similarly, it's his characters' actions and quips that captivate him far more deeply than their interior lives. He's more at home with banter -- whether it's about Elvis or anti-Semitism -- than teary confession.
The fact that Levinson hasn't strayed too far from these roots will come as a comfort to his admirers. But it will also no doubt elicit resigned sighs from those who, while never disliking the films outright, still find something arrested in their constant attention to male bonding and sexual obsession. It's possible to enjoy Levinson's movies immensely and still secretly wish that this master of Hollywood competence would take a few more risks with the Baltimore films.
Levinson has never been a director to reveal much of himself, on screen or off. In interviews he is almost maddeningly oblique, answering questions about his feelings or beliefs with half-sentences and anecdotes. This reticence is in itself revealing, of course, and it plays out in his movies, even the most personal of which share an air of detachment.
The sentiments expressed in "Liberty Heights" are worthy and useful and doubtlessly genuine, and they come at a time when filmgoers sorely need them. (Has there been a time when we haven't?) But they are expressed in a series of episodes, each of them closely recalled and observed from Levinson's own youth but none of them terribly felt. There's a sense in all of them that Levinson would rather keep a safe distance from sloppy intimacies.
Of course, what some viewers see as a slightly chilly remove can just as easily be celebrated as admirable restraint. By now the repartee and diner scenes are as much a part of Levinson's sensibility as John Sayles' interlocking narratives and earnest polemics are of his.
Certainly no one could accuse Levinson of bad faith; indeed, bad faith would be to ask a filmmaker to go deeper, darker or more complex when it's simply not in his nature to do so. In that sense, then, "Liberty Heights" is precisely where it should be: far from the edge, planted firmly in the center of Levinson's own singular and diffident psyche.