Liberty Heights," the fourth in Barry Levinson's cycle of films set in his hometown of Baltimore, hews closely to the director's signature style of character-driven drama infused with enough observant humor regarding human foibles to qualify also as a comedy. Set in 1954 Baltimore, when schools were just beginning to integrate, the film deals with race, class and anti-Semitism through the eyes of two young men who are tentatively exploring a world outside their own Jewish neighborhood.
In true Levinsonian manner, their discoveries result in comic misunderstandings as tougher-edged drama. What's more, Levinson manages to make Baltimore universally understandable even while lovingly regarding its singular quirks.
It's a style that has served Levinson well: His Baltimore films -- "Diner," the 1982 movie that marked Levinson's directorial debut, "Tin Men," about two warring aluminum siding salesmen, and "Avalon," a tender look back at his own coming of age during the dawn of television -- were all well-received by critics and a core audience of fans.
But even with such a solid track record behind this installment, Levinson, 57, doesn't see "Liberty Heights" as a risk-free endeavor.
"The second you decide to do any movie about black-white relationships and anti-Semitism, you're already into the zone of danger," Levinson said over tea just hours before the Nov. 7 premiere of "Liberty Heights." The film opens to general audiences in Baltimore and elsewhere tomorrow.
"You know, there are certain places you can't play in the United States in 1999. It's not that they won't accept it, it's just that it won't do any business. That's the reality of it."
Levinson added that his brand of moviemaking in the Baltimore films -- idiosyncratic, dialogue-centric and of no discernible genre -- carries its own risks. "It's a scary place to be," he admitted, recalling the first review he ever read of "Diner." "It said, 'A dark and depressing film.' That was the first thing. I went, 'Gee, my God.' First of all, I thought it was humorous. I mean, isn't there any humor in it? How can it be dark and depressing?"
But Levinson has come to realize that, where his films are concerned, "it almost depends [on] which way you want to come to it. And that, in a sense, scares me because it is so open to interpretation."
As "scary" as it is, though, Levinson admits that it's his style and he's stuck with it. "If I back away from it there's a thing that goes off in the back of my head that goes, 'No, no, no, I can't do that,' " he explained. "I've got to let these characters interact, be inarticulate, be indecisive and not impose certain movie conventions.
"For me, these movies have to live between the spaces," he continued. "It's not what is said, it's what's not said. That's where I think all of these films live. Like in life, if we could say specifically what we want and don't want, and like and feel, et cetera, and we were that clear about it, we wouldn't have the problems personally, in business, in community and certainly in the world. But we're not. We're not that capable."
Although Warner Bros. was eager to distribute modestly scaled "Liberty Heights," studios haven't always responded well to Levinson's between-the-spaces style. He recalled several conversations with executives from United Artists, which released "Rain Man," during which they strongly encouraged him to change the ending, when Dustin Hoffman's character leaves on a train without looking back at his brother.
One of the executives finally explained the studio's trepidation. " 'He just goes and gets on the train and he looks at his Sony Watchman and he leaves,' " Levinson recalled the man saying. " 'He never even looks back at the brother. Can't he just look back for one little second, just a little look back?' I said, 'I might be wrong, but what makes the moment so great is that we desperately want him to look. And the fact that he doesn't is what gets us. That ultimately is what makes it an effective moment, which is that we don't get what we want."
Levinson is currently in Ireland filming "An Everlasting Peace," a comedy about a Roman Catholic and a Protestant who try to become wig salesmen together in Belfast. The director felt at home as soon as he started scouting locations.
"We're on a street with rowhouses that go all the way out to the horizon line, and I went, 'Oh, my God, I'm in Baltimore,' " he recalled. "And not only does it look like it, one of the main roads in the separation of [Belfast] is called the Falls Road." (The Baltimore Falls Road looms large in "Liberty Heights" as a demarcation line between Baltimore's Jewish and gentile neighborhoods.)
Like "Liberty Heights," "An Everlasting Peace" deals with tribal conflict against a comic backdrop. And both films, like Levinson's recent "Wag the Dog," have the director working with a modest budget on a small canvas.
"It wasn't like some plan," he said about working on a more intimate scale than such big-budget movies as "Sphere," "Sleepers" and "Disclosure." "It isn't a 'What do I do with my career and how am I going to be perceived?' kind of thing as opposed to, 'I like that,' " he explained. "I was so taken with [the script of 'An Everlasting Peace'] I thought, 'Oh, the hell with it.' So I'm going to go down that road."
But it's a road fraught with danger, as he constantly reminds himself. "You keep wondering, 'Ooh, I may step on a minefield at any given time,' " he said with a smile. "The criticism can come from 16 different directions. So you're not sure where things will go."