Like many denizens of Winesburg, Ohio, the fictional town in which the American writer Sherwood Anderson set his eponymous 1919 masterwork, Alice Hindman feels she has missed out on life—or at least an important part of it. After her lover leaves the rural outpost to find work in Chicago, Alice whiles away several years behind the counter of Winney’s Dry Goods Store, saving herself for a reunion she is sure will come. But eventually she sees that “for her the beauty and freshness of youth had passed,” whereas her ex-lover lives in a city where “there is so much going on that they do not have time to grow old.” This disquieting feeling—that life is elsewhere—drives many Winesburg residents.
Chicago Heights, a new film adaptation of Winesburg set in present-day Chicago Heights, a predominantly African-American suburb south of Chicago, repeatedly reimagines the plight of Winesburgians, dropping Anderson’s characters into a world—the depressed postindustrial suburb—nonexistent in the author’s time but inescapable in ours. In 2010 the Brookings Institution reported that, in the preceding decade, “suburbs were home to the largest and fastest growing poor population in the country. … As a result, by 2008 large suburbs were home to 1.5 million more poor than their primary cities and housed almost one-third of the nation’s poor overall.” It also confirmed that for the first time in America’s history, the majority of all racial and ethnic groups in large metro areas now live in the suburbs. Chicago Heights exemplifies these demographic trends. In 2009, an estimated 24 percent of its residents lived below the poverty line, while the suburb’s black and Latino communities made up about 44 and 30 percent of the population, respectively.
Yet Chicago Heights, and the many American enclaves like it, have done little to displace the persistent stereotype of the rich white suburb. They have yet to make their mark on our movies, our TV, our literature—the vehicles we use to tell the story of ourselves. As one of the first artistic attempts to depict a growing cross-section of American society, the film is a welcome entry in the catalogue of portrayals of American life.
In a cycle of 22 tales that cohere more than a short story collection but less than a novel, Winesburg, Ohio recounts Winesburgians’ various attempts to find real life and the inevitable passion, sadness and confusion that result. Throughout the book, different characters yield to inexplicable yet somehow recognizable impulses. Walking through the Winesburg streets one night “in a fervor of emotion,” George Willard, the eighteen-year-old reporter who appears in almost every story, lifts up his hands, “thrusting them into the darkness above his head and muttering words … without meaning.” At the end of “Adventure,” Alice’s story, she runs naked through a rainstorm.
Like Winesburg, Chicago Heights opens with an old writer recounting memories that will unfold in a series of intertwined stories. At the end of the opening vignette of the book, the old man is left alone in his room, and we assume that the stories that follow come from his mind. In the film, however, we never leave the old man for long. He occasionally reappears onscreen and his opening reflections are taken up by various characters, as if to remind us that these very different vignettes bespeak a common set of struggles. It is the town preacher Curtis Hartman who most eloquently delivers the old man’s defining idea, the notion that sets the short-story cycle in motion: “When a man takes a truth and calls it his truth, and tries to live his life by it, he becomes a grotesque and the truth he embraces becomes a falsehood.”
As if attempting to heed Hartman’s advice, director Daniel Nearing steeps his film in contradiction, never fully embracing any single reality. The film’s cinematography, mostly black and white, occasionally switches to color as characters look nostalgically at their past—the bright clothing of Elizabeth Walker’s youthful adventures changing into the simple black dress she wears today. The characters also veer between early-twentieth-century diction, often drawn straight from Winesburg, and contemporary colloquialisms. Elizabeth protests to her would-be lover Dr. Reefy that she’s “not a ho.” Another character refers to God (or is it the old writer?) as “the one who made this shit.” Instead of jotting notes with an ever-ready pen like his Winesburg counterpart George Willard, Elizabeth’s son Nathan writes short stories on an Apple laptop.
These anachronisms, and the split personality they give the film, create an uncertainty that evokes the feel of Chicago Heights. This kind of town has yet to be defined by the kind of visual vocabulary that makes us think of cities when we see skyscrapers, farmhouses when we see cornfields, and suburbs when we see lush green yards. Indeed, driving through Chicago Heights—which looks by turns like a run-down urban ghetto, a strip-malled commuter suburb and a corn-fed small town—engenders a vague feeling of confusion. What exactly is this place? By harnessing the contradiction between the film’s contemporary setting and its decades-older source, Nearing manages to replicate this confusion. The town depicted in Chicago Heights might not always look like its namesake—in a nod to Winesburg, Nearing depicts the suburb as more rural and racially homogenous than it is—but the film perfectly captures the feeling of a place pulled in several directions at once.
Much of the movie is pervaded with a sense of despair and alienation. Chicago Heights resident Wash Williams, whose name is taken straight from Anderson’s book, laments a failed attempt at domestic bliss with his by-then estranged wife: “We got a house and we were going to pay it off after several years.” But whereas in Winesburg the line foreshadows heartbreak, in Chicago Heights such purely romantic troubles remain in the background, reminding us that in today’s America, the saddest love stories are intertwined with subprime mortgages, dreams of building a stable home complicated by variable interest rates.
Wash’s foreclosure evokes anxiety that the world is unfriendly to personal hopes and dreams, a feeling amplified by the film’s cinematography. Characters’ faces are seen from odd angles as if one is peeking into their lives from under a bed or behind a door, creating a sense of alienation no matter how close we get. A vague and oppressive sense of distance from the rest of humanity is one of the thematic threads connecting Winesburg and Chicago Heights, both of which teem with people whose desires and feelings come and go without ever crystallizing into something they can satisfactorily express. After Winesburg loner Elmer Crowley somehow fails to communicate to George Willard his hope that they will become friends, he gives George all the money in his pockets and then, “like one struggling for release from hands that held him,” beats George up, boards a train, and leaves town.
Chicago Heights’ residents also deal with their inchoate feelings of dissatisfactions by trying to move on. Reflecting the demographic reversal that has made the inner city, rather than the suburbs, the playground of the relatively privileged few, the characters in Chicago Heights set their sights on downtown Chicago. In both the book and the film, characters seek to move because they think they will be happier, because they want to make a name for themselves, because they are heartbroken and need a change of scenery, because they have run out of money, because they feel the pull of home. Of course, they arrive in the new place with their same selves, their same struggles. As Elizabeth reminds Nathan, “you don’t have to leave Chicago Heights; you have to make Chicago Heights leave you.”
And yet, from the city to the suburbs and back, people keep moving. (It’s no accident that Chicago Heights residents “live under a constant stream of jets from Midway Airport.”) And our migratory patterns will continue changing, given economic necessity, desire—even climate. We will continue to go elsewhere, to other towns or other continents, impelled by forces that, like the characters of both the movie and the book, we may not fully understand. In Winesburg, George Willard goes one night to a field where the town fair had been held and “ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people” surround him:
Here, during the day just past, have come the people pouring in from the town and the country around. … Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. … One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.
I was born in Chicago Heights and grew up in neighboring suburbs, but I don’t think that’s a prerequisite—south Chicago suburbanites don’t have to be “your people”—for a similar feeling to arise after you watch the film. Many of us worry that our communities are too transient: even when we stay still, old neighbors are moving out, new ones moving in. Yet like George Willard, we may find ourselves at home even amid our restlessness.