Cities on Screen: Seattle


‘This Is What Democracy Looks Like’

When looking at the cinematic legacy of cities, Seattle is usually considered an afterthought, best remembered as a backdrop for commercial fare like Sleepless in Seattle and the 1963 Elvis Presley vehicle It Happened at the World’s Fair. Savvy cinephiles, though, have seen the iconic Space Needle and rainy weather provide a perfect backdrop for both fiction and nonfiction films. Here is a highly subjective list of some of cinema’s most notable works filmed in the Emerald City.

Streetwise (1984, dir. Martin Bell)
The absolute flip-side of the candy-coated view of Seattle brought to the world by Nora Ephron a decade later. This heartbreaking documentary takes an unblinking look at the lives of nine underage runaways struggling to survive on the city’s downtown core. It’s not a particularly hopeful film—particularly as several of the kids shown in it didn’t survive to see their twenties—but an absolutely essential record of the issues that plague many metropolitan centers even today. Director Bell and co-producer Mary Ellen Mark used the material gathered for this film and its accompanying book as the basis for their screenplay for another Seattle-based gem: 1993’s American Heart.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like (2002, dir. Jill Friedberg & Rick Rowley)
One of the biggest events to befall the city of Seattle in recent years was the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization and an accompanying arrival of thousands of activists protesting what they saw were shady dealings and aggressive policies that were hurting developing nations across the globe. Culled from dozens of hours of footage filmed by over 100 videographers, this short, potent documentary takes viewers right into the thick of the protests and the aggressive police response. It’s enervating, terrifying and inspiring in equal measure.

House of Games (1987, dir. David Mamet)
The only real indication that Mamet’s directorial debut was made in Seattle is the perpetually rainy streets that its characters inhabit. But, again, it captures a seedier, more claustrophobic side to the city that most directors would forego in place of shots of seaplanes and houseboats. Removing it from its potentially typical settings of, say, Chicago or New York allows for an even deeper exploration of the strange and potentially deadly relationship between Mike (a never-better Joe Mantegna), his gaggle of fellow con men and a psychoanalyst (Lindsey Crouse) caught in the middle of their illegal doings.

Humpday (2009, dir. Lynn Shelton)
Washington State has long been a leader of liberal thought and practice in the U.S., as proven by its recent legalization of gay marriage and recreational pot use. And within its urban center, this type of thinking prevails, as evidenced by the catalyst that drives this plot of this fine comedy/drama: the HUMP! Film Festival, a celebration of amateur erotica and porn. Director Lynn Shelton uses that to set up an exploration of male friendship and maturity as two longtime buddies (played by Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard) decide to attempt to film themselves having sex with each other for including in the fest.

Trouble in Mind (1985, dir. Alan Rudolph)
The setting for this mind-bending neo-noir is a place called “Rain City,” but there’s no mistaking the icons of the film’s real setting: the monorail and the 100-plus-year-old King Street Station, among them. But writer/director Alan Rudolph isn’t concerned with giving you a firm foundation throughout. Instead, he and his game cast aim to bring on unease with strange doppelgangers appearing in the background of scenes, philosophical tangents and a plot that cycles back on itself in ways both bold and subtle. Add in a non-drag Divine playing a mob boss, and you’ve got the makings of a pure cult classic.

The Parallax View (1974, dir. Alan J. Pakula)
One of the bleakest films to come out of the seventies is this stark reflection of the paranoia and fears running through the country during the Nixon administration. And it all kicks off with the assassination of a Presidential hopeful on top of the Space Needle. Things don’t get much cheerier from there as a stalwart reporter attempts to uncover the roots of a corporation hired out to perform politically motivated assassinations. The idyllic backdrop of Seattle (captured perfectly by the recently-passed Gordon Willis) is a perfect contrast to this story’s dark heart.

Singles (1992, dir. Cameron Crowe)
We couldn’t finish a list of Seattle-centric films without this one, now, could we? The quintessential fictional document of the grunge-era (for the non-fiction flipside, check out Doug Pray’s 1996 documentary Hype!), it provides a gentle send-up/tribute to the music and coffee culture that city was known best for, wrapped in the crinkly sentiment of a romantic comedy. Bonus points for casting dudes from Pearl Jam as members of the fictional band Citizen Dick, and packing the soundtrack with NW luminaries like Jimi Hendrix, Screaming Trees and Ann and Nancy Wilson.

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