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The mysteries of Pittsburgh

Christopher Nolan's decision to film his third Batman movie on location in Pittsburgh has a perfectly rational business explanation.

india Updated: Apr 13, 2011 23:47 IST

Christopher Nolan's decision to film his third Batman movie on location in Pittsburgh has a perfectly rational business explanation. Many rustbelt cities, including Pittsburgh, Detroit (Transformers 3), and Cleveland (Spider-Man 3), are cheaper alternatives to New York and Chicago, offering tax-breaks to film companies that, in turn, meld their visually striking downtowns into larger-looking places with post-production wizardry.

Yet this region of America, with its grandly tumbledown cities and postindustrial landscapes, seems a fitting location for Nolanesque creepshows. When searching for locations for The Road, the filmed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel about the end of the world in nuclear winter, the producers felt no need to add much CGI to the area outside Pittsburgh in winter. Of contemporary classics, two notable pictures filmed or set in the Pittsburgh area, The Deer Hunter and The Silence of the Lambs, aren't much more cheery. The premise of a third, Groundhog Day, is sweet, although the salvation of its protagonist, Bill Murray's Pittsburgh weatherman, depends on his inability to return to the city.

Nolan's choice of locations also returns him to the very region of America where the movies began, just at the moment when many critics believe that studio cinema has reached a dead end.

For Pittsburgh, film means jobs in a town that's always looking for ways to reinvent as its population continues to fall (8.6% since the last census), while its hipness quotient remains steady as a tiny but lovely-to-look-at City of Bridges. The riverside area around the Cascade in nearby New Castle has seen better days: the Cascade Centre mall built on the site of the Warner brothers' cinema is now for sale, its website a dead link. Visit town on a Sunday, and you can peek through the glass at the recreated cinema entrance, flanked by vintage movie cameras. As with anywhere in the rustbelt, vacant storefronts, empty houses, and abandoned cinemas lie beyond the reach of boosters and developers. All the more appropriate for Nolan's deep strains of human darkness: his blockbusters, whatever their genre, are rarely uplifting.

Batman was a character designed as a pulp fiction detective at the tail end of the last economic depression. But his split identity as billionaire playboy and traumatised witness to urban collapse resonates with foreclosed America in the wake of the great recession. Batman's original red costume was changed to dark grey to "make it look more ominous". Nolan has done something similar with the Batman cycle. Ominous, dark grey, and staggeringly wonderful to photograph, Pittsburgh makes a far more compelling Gotham than Manhattan. Only dreamers believe that a comic book character can save a city - or that an artist can save an industry singlehandedly - but that never stopped anyone from projecting the Bat-signal into the night sky.