Movie could be toxic

Staff WriterAugust 14, 2011 

Jim Wise, columnist for our Durham News, offers his take on a new drama filmed in Durham.

Our town has a starring role in a major (?) motion picture coming out next week. The local booster set might want to brush up on its skills in spin control: The Durham it depicts ain't pretty.

Some might see it as downright insulting, not to mention what it does for the image problem.

We're talking about "Main Street," which generated a good bit of buzz when the cast and crew were shooting it in Durham a couple of years ago. It was mentioned at the time that the story would have to do with a Southern town down on its luck and local folk rallying to its redemption.

Now, first, second and third impressions may be deceiving, but to go by what's on screen already (the screen on your telephone or iPad or - if you're 20th century - computer) this Durham's luck is so far down it looks like up. F'rinstance, this bit of dialogue between a Durham cop (Orlando Bloom) and his former high-school honey (Amber Tamblyn):

She: What kind of future is there for you here?

He: You calling me a loser?

She: I'll call you that if you stay here.

"Main Street" became available "on demand" last week, almost a month before it hits the theaters, which tells you something right there.

Clips show a big, pretty house but also a Rust Belt burg of grimy old warehouses and a dark and empty downtown that by general admission is "dying": Durham as NPR and the New York Times described it during the Duke lacrosse unpleasantness.

With the creative class nowhere in sight, hope materializes in the form of a slick-talking Texan (Colin Firth, lately seen as the king of England but here more in the mold of J.R. Ewing, but less lovable) with a deal that will save the town. Of course, the rubes in Durham fall for the scheme, which it turns out is to use the old tobacco warehouses as dumps for toxic waste.

Now, that could make a right good story, but couldn't Magnolia Pictures at least change the names to protect us innocent? We know what's being shown isn't our Where Great Things Happen (still, it does look mighty familiar), but what will the neighbors think? What will the venture capital think, if there is any left?

Thomas Wolfe trashed the place pretty bad in "Look Homeward, Angel," as the "dreary tobacco town" where his protagonist is introduced to the hazards of the flesh, but he had the courtesy to call it "Exeter." (Chapel Hill is "Pulpit Hill," Asheville is "Altamont.") Couldn't "Main Street" have run through Nowhere, Kansas or Podunk, U.S.A.?

Identified or not, Durham on screen - as we Bull Citizens know it or as a Durham in some parallel universe - does have a "billboard effect," former visitors bureau CEO Reyn Bowman said while the crew was in town. "It will go on for years, just like it did in 'Bull Durham.' "

Yeah, that's the trouble. Still, there is hope. Remember, some folks around here were pretty miffed about the "Bull Durham" (original subtitle: "A Major League Love Story In a Minor-League Town") at first. Its Durham wasn't exactly any City of Medicine either, much less a City of Exciting Stores. That, though, was before "Bull Durham" became a classic and spawned a bull market for Durham Bulls merchandise.

We'll hope for a similar result this time. You do have to wonder what kind of a salable souvenir you can make out of toxic waste, but somebody's sure to come up with something. "Main Street" notwithstanding, we've got smart folks around here and they can talk as slick as any Texan.

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