Film/DVD: review

Tales of the City

Tales of the City
Directed by Alastair Reid
 
1993, US/UK — 300 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Comedy / Drama

Inspired performances and filmmaking bring the beloved novel fully to life.

Review

Armistead Maupin and the cast of Tales of the City The six novels in Maupin's series, originally published in serial form in the San Francisco Chronicle from 1976 through the mid '80s, are among the most beloved books in recent decades. This freewheeling saga of the lives and loves of the unforgettable residents of San Francisco's 28 Barbary Lane has been embraced by readers – and viewers – around the world, both gay, lesbian, bi, transgender (GLBT) and straight. The books have sold millions of copies, and been translated into over a dozen languages; and the mini-series (three so far) have been seen by many millions more. Although all three of the adaptations are first-rate (Maupin was directly involved in their production), the original is a truly special work. Its inspired performances and filmmaking bring the novel gloriously to life, while creating a landmark work not only of television but of GLBT film.

Maupin has been compared to Dickens, and the analogy is a good one. Although separated by a century, both wrote serial publications for a popular audience (yet found favor with literary critics), and both critically examined the vast array of their worlds (Dickens' London, Maupin's San Francisco), from the social stratosphere to some of the seediest recesses. Unlike Dickens, Maupin fully includes GLBT characters along with the straight ones, and delights in the ways they all interact. (Who can ever forget the scene when those unlikely friends, gay Michael and womanizing Brian, go out cruising together?) The interwoven stories, with characters whose lives endlessly crisscross, provide a wealth of detail and a range of satire, from gentle to trenchant, which illuminates the whole society. We move from trailer parks to mansions, bath houses (both gay and straight) to celebrity 'fat farms,' but always return to freewheeling 28 Barbary Lane as our center. We come to care deeply about its diverse residents, each of whom gropes to find happiness in their own way: sweet but ambitious Mary Ann (played by Laura Linney, You Can Count on Me), lovelorn Michael (Marcus D'Amico, Full Metal Jacket), spacy Mona (Chloe Webb, Sid & Nancy), complicated Brian (Paul Gross, Due South), and, most beguiling of all, Mrs. Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis, Moonstruck), the landlady and surrogate mother who has more than a few tantalizing secrets.

The mini-series is a superb complement to the novel, but it is also an inspired piece of filmmaking in its own right. Director Alastair Reid (best known for the 1989 British mini-series Traffik, the basis for Steven Soderbergh's Traffic) and screenwriter Richard Kramer (who created the groundbreaking gay storyline in the TV series thirtysomething) not only bring all of the characters and incidents of Maupin's novel to the screen, they bring them to life. The way they juxtapose scenes is strikingly effective, and highlight film's unique strengths. In episode one, look at the cross-cutting between the tense Halcyons and even tenser Days and the performance of the opera they are attending (Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, whose high-and-low romantic intrigues have more than a little in common with Tales), and Mrs. Madrigal's intimate dinner-and-pot party for her new foundling, Mary Ann, and two old friends, nostalgic hippies whose folk singing creates a witty contrast with the opera. Design, sound, and character all combine in provocative, satirical, yet genuinely moving ways, even as they crisply move the story forward.

Tales of the City is filled with authentic details. It filmed at the actual locations of Maupin's novel (and created a stunning 28 Barbary Lane set, with three storeys of winding stairways, apartments, and cubbyholes), used an eclectic range of music – from disco to pop to the aforementioned Mozart, and fleshed out its world with hundreds of just-right period props. To take just one example, at the beginning of episode 2 – when oily Beauchamp Day (Thomas Gibson, Dharma & Greg) whisks Mary Ann off for a tryst at the Bulls Rush Inn – note the quick close-up of the moose head in the dining hall. That's not just a perfunctory cutaway shot, it's a peculiarly Maupinesque detail (notice the moose's funky expression), and a subtle bit of filmmaking, shot wittily from an evocative low angle. We only see it for a moment, but it indicates the amount of care, and imagination, which went into every aspect of this production.

The cinematography by Walt Lloyd, and production design by Victoria Paul, raise Tales of the City far above the level of most television, and film. The results they achieve are extraordinary, especially when you consider that they had a super-tight schedule of just over 50 days to shoot a six-hour mini-series. They give the entire production a warm look, with a golden orange sheen. But coupled with the writing and direction, it feels more real, even gritty, than merely nostalgic. The film makes even makes props serve double duty, both reflecting the era and commenting slyly on the action. Notice the resonant, and playful, use of mirrors, especially when they are reflecting the many sides of duplicitous characters like Beauchamp. Although I do not want to make it sound like a closet art film, you can freeze frames (if you are so inclined) and, unlike most television fare, savor the many striking but subtle compositions. (I should mention that with the superior resolution of DVD grain is noticeable during scenes shot in low light levels, including night exteriors: This is inherent in the original film.)

John E. Keane, who composed all of the original music for Tales of the City, created a perfect main theme (da DAA da DA da), which we hear throughout. It is equally jaunty and plaintive. Once you begin humming it, good luck getting it out of your head. Keane's entire score is very effective, as it moves from romantic to funny to mysterious, and back again.

The mini-series is also filled with many fun cameos, including Don Novello (Father Guido Sarducci from Saturday Night Live), the late director/actor Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul), Sir Ian McKellan (Gods and Monsters; The Lord of the Rings), and Armisead Maupin himself, identified as the "Writer in the Window," who types away furiously while, below, Michael and Brian sunbathe and chat in the courtyard.

The only problem I have with Tales of the City comes in the late subplot revolving around the enigmatic Norman Neal Williams (Stanley DeSantis, Boogie Nights) and his unlikely relationship with Mary Ann. Although this section seemed a little better now than when I first watched the series a decade ago (twice in one week, I might add), I still find the homage to Hitchcock's great San Francisco-set romantic thriller, Vertigo (1958), misguided. Reid not only uses Bernard Herrmann's score, he actually duplicates several of Hitchcock's shots, with Laura Linney filling in for Kim Novak. Reid sets up this device from the very first shot of the entire series – the closeup of Linney, with the Vertigo theme under, mimics Hitchcock's opening. But I can't help feeling that, perhaps with more time, a director otherwise so creative and assured could have found a more original approach to the somewhat creaky Norman subplot. Still, the Norman section is crucial to the overall story, since through him we learn some of Mrs. Madrigal's secrets and, on a larger thematic level, we see a clear example of one of the work's main insights. No one, and nothing, is ever what it seems. And although many characters come to reveal themselves as more humane, and vulnerable, than you would ever suspect at first (Edgar Halcyon and Brian come immediately to mind), there is evil in Maupin's world, whether it is bumbling and wears taped glasses and a cheap plastic rain coat, like Norman, or is urbanity incarnate in the finest designer suits, like Beauchamp.

The achievement of Tales of the City is nothing short of extraordinary, for everyone involved. The creators, cast, and crew have given us a vital and authentic world, as funny as it is moving, as uniquely San Francisco in the late 1970s (before AIDS and the encroaching conservatism of the '80s) as it is universal in its depiction of people learning about who they are, what they want, and what they can be. Television has never been the same since Tales of the City (would there ever have been an Ellen, a Will & Grace, or a Queer as Folk?), and neither have the millions of people who have lived for a time, and maybe even grown up a bit, at 28 Barbary Lane.

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Crew

  • Directed by Alastair Reid
  • Teleplay by Richard Kramer
  • Based on the novel by Armistead Maupin
  • Produced by Alan Poul
  • Executive Producers – Armistead Maupin & Richard Kramer
  • Cinematography by Walt Lloyd
  • Production Design by Victoria Paul
  • Costume Design by Molly Maginnis
  • Edited by David Gamble
  • Original Music by John E. Keane

Cast

  • Olympia Dukakis as Mrs. Anna Madrigal
  • Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton
  • Marcus D'Amico as Michael 'Mouse' Tolliver
  • Donald Moffat as Edgar Warfield Halcyon
  • Chloe Webb as Mona Ramsey
  • Paul Gross as Brian Hawkins
  • Barbara Garrick as Deirdre Denise 'DeDe' Ligon Halcyon Day
  • Billy Campbell as Dr. Jon Philip Fielding
  • Thomas Gibson as Beauchamp Talbot Day
  • Nina Foch as Frances 'Frannie' Alicia Ligon Halcyon
  • Cynda Williams as D'orothea/Dorothy Wilson
  • Stanley DeSantis as Norman Neal Williams
  • Parker Posey as Connie Bradshaw

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DVD

Acorn Media has given Tales of the City a deluxe box-set presentation on three DVDs, each containing two of the six episodes. There is a beautifully designed booklet, with revealing essays by novelist and executive producer Armistead Maupin and producer Alan Poul, which explores the history and impact of the series. The booklet also offers a fun guide to San Francisco locations, since the titular city plays as important a role as any flesh and blood character. Although most of the DVD transfer is pristine, certain scenes shot in low light levels, including some nighttime exteriors, reveal the grain inherent in the original film. The sound is full and vivid.

DVD Details

Reviewed March 14, 2003

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