An alderman spoke out against the tentative title of Spike Lee's yet-to-be-filmed movie, "Chiraq," because it implies there is violence in Chicago. While I was whittling the splintery stick I plan to shove up his ass on Monday, I came across this column from 15 years ago, giving Mayor Daley his due for jamming his nose into the movie business. A shame he didn't take my advice in the last paragraph, and give Chicago's actual problems, the tottering pension system, more of his scarce mental energies.
Everybody in the Paramount movie "Hardball" swears. A lot. The boozy baseball coach swears. The inner-city kids on his team swear. Even the saintly, near-nun love interest swears.
Heck (now, I'm doing it!) there's even profanity in the stage directions, which is really out of the ordinary.
I just read the script. This being a family newspaper, I can't tell you what they're saying. In 120 pages, I counted at least 50 "f-words," in various colorful, polysyllabic configurations, as well as 45 "s-words" and maybe another 50 lesser obscenities.
But I may have missed a few.
These words have gotten Mayor Daley so agitated that he lashed out at the movie, currently in production, and wants to somehow deny filmmakers use of the word "Chicago."
"If they want to portray it someplace else, fine, make it someplace else," the mayor said.
This lovely bit of mayoral lunacy falls into a fine Chicago tradition of measuring any creative venture against the rough yardstick of morality. It lands somewhere between the City Council once condemning Wright Junior College for putting James Baldwin on a required reading list and the two weeks it took our local censorship board to deliberate before allowing "The Man With the Golden Arm" to appear on Chicago screens.
It portrayed, after all, heroin addiction.
Seeing the city government in such a lather -- Daley pulled schools CEO Paul Vallas' chain, and now Vallas is snooping around, busting kids who played hooky to act in the film -- itself sends a bad impression. It suggests that, rather than being the "world-class city" we aspire to, we're still the brackish backwater that Nelson Algren so ably mocked.
You can bet that New Jersey isn't trying to quash "The Sopranos."
Yes, the youths portrayed in "Hardball" are crude caricatures of the complex individuals introduced in Dan Coyle's best-selling book. Yes, the umpires and league officials are not portrayed as the kind, decent human beings that I'm sure they really are.
And the kids swear a lot.
But you know what? It's a movie. Movies generally aren't accurate reflections of life. Kermit wasn't a real frog. The Emerald City wasn't a real place. Bruce Willis would have died a dozen times had those "Die Hard" movies taken place outside movieland. I hope I'm not breaking this news to you.
The characters indeed play to our rough, mistaken notions of what inner-city kids are like. A better film would have portrayed them more realistically.
But it's a movie. Most movies do not reflect reality. Streetwalkers do not look like Julia Roberts, nor do they end up with billionaires who look like Richard Gere. In reality, they are hardened harridans from hell who end up beaten to death by drunken sailors. That's reality.
Movies are fantasy. That's why we pay $8 to see them. Nobody wants to sit for 100 minutes and watch Richard Daley's dreamquest of a perfect city. The swearing in "Hardball" is no more a violation of reality than the scene where the female love interest strides into a bar and orders whiskey, neat, or Frank Thomas strolls over to a bunch of kids calling his name and begins happily high-fiving them. But having Thomas send a note to a cute girl in the front row wouldn't quite move the movie along.
What's most important about the script is that you care about the kids. I had tears in my eyes at the end -- cheaply extracted Hollywood tears, true, but tears nevertheless. I cared for the little buggers, and who is to say that part of my concern wasn't because of the constant stream of profanity pouring out of their mouths. (They have to, remember, keep up with the coach).
Mayor Daley should limit his concern for the reputation of Chicago as reflected in the real-life city, which last time I checked still had a number of actual problems to crack. He is not responsible for fantasy depictions of the city or the people in it, and therefore should not waste his precious mental reserves worrying about how many dirty words are uttered by fictional characters located in chimeratic Hollywood Chicagos.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 1, 2000