Pittsburgh, in recent years, has
become a bastion for the film industry, a second Hollywood. Its luring
tax credit has brought hit movies like Fences, The Dark Knight Rises,
The Avengers, and Jack Reacher. Few, however, have been
able to bridge the city’s singular topography to the plot’s
fulcrum, and even fewer have ventured to seize its essence – the
idea of Pittsburgh.
Striking Distance, the critically panned Bruce Willis vehicle
of 1993, attempted it, embracing the city’s three rivers as the
chilling dumping ground of a ruthless serial killer, but its plot ran
shallow with many fans and critics. Then in 2012, came the film adaptation
of Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 debut novel, The Perks of Being
a Wallflower, which captured the spirit of the city. Chbosky, a
Pittsburgh native, had a unique understanding of the experience most
South Hills residents have when entering the Steel City.
To South Hills’ denizens, Pittsburgh could be considered a city
meant to stay secret. To reach it, many citizens travel nearly a mile
through a mountain and then across one of the hundreds of protracted
bridges. Aerial views overlooking Pittsburgh’s Point give the
impossible impression of the city as an island – secluded, separated
by the rivers. And that’s where Chbosky’s adaptation for
the silver screen attempts to define not only the essence of the “City
of Bridges,” but also to link the city uniquely with its introverted
protagonist, Charlie, a character who is seemingly an island unto himself.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, starring Logan Lerman, Emma
Watson, and Ezra Miller, tells the story of Charlie and his meandering
ideas, friendships, and experiences as a high school freshman in 1991-92.
Despite some gripping scenes, the movie’s takeaway continues to
be “the tunnel scene,” where Charlie and two other high
school misfits drive through the Fort Pitt Tunnel to experience the
rapturous entry into the city – first, as Emma Watson’s
character Sam stands in crucifixion pose at the back of a truck while
listening to David Bowie’s “Heroes,” and later similarly
by Charlie as the film ends. The scenes undoubtedly lend credence to
The New York Times’ claim that it is “the best
way to enter an American city.”
Acting as a motif, a recurring idea in a work, the entry into the city
is underscored by almost 1,800 light fixtures posing as a runway before
something magical. That magic is the appearance of the city “the
end of a “vacuum,” as Chbosky describes it in his novel.
The tunnel magically spits out each vehicle into one of the most beautiful
vistas in the nation.
The tunnel of magic motif gives way to Pittsburgh’s stunning skyline,
which was once so polluted it was referred to as the “City of
Smoke.” This “renaissance” proves central to the character
Charlie, a self-proclaimed wallflower. Charlie also has the power to
reinvent himself and surprise others with his beautiful soul.
Like the glowing tunnel, Charlie recalls a similar light formation denying
the darkness as a child -a luminaria arranged in his neighborhood which
his mother, whose death leaves an unfillable void for Charlie, describes
as a “landing strip for Santa” - the magic and moment just
before you believe in the unbelievable.
The film ends with Charlie claiming that he feels “infinite”
exiting the tunnel while sharing the moment with his best friends. Although
it is terse and doesn’t cover the numerous charming corners of
the city, it does capture its essence…the impression of Pittsburgh
that lies beyond a one mile stretch of lights giving way to infinite,
Rarely, if ever, has a film captured its setting so completely. Perhaps
it takes the perks of living just outside the city and never letting
go of the wondrous teenage mind – where everything seems infinite.
Eric Magliocca is a teacher in the Upper St. Clair School District.
He is the author of The Red Triangle, available on amazon.com in paperback
and eBook. It is also available at barnesandnoble.com.