Tag Archives: rust belt

‘Burgh on Film: Out of the Furnace

Please welcome Ross to the Eleventh Stack blogger rotation! His quips, tips, and opinions will appear here regularly once a month from now on.

Pittsburgh has a long history with film, and Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, now available on DVD, is a welcome, breathtaking addition to the tradition.

Photo taken from The Nerdist - all rights reserved to same - click through to read an interview with Scott Cooper

Photo taken from The Nerdist – all rights reserved to same – click through to read an interview with Scott Cooper

The movie, which has no relation to Thomas Bell’s Out of This Furnace, opens at a drive-in movie theater. The image projected on the screen is that of a well-dressed businessman, ascending an escalator. As he rises, the camera pans down into the field of parked cars. This particular scene didn’t stick out for me the first time I saw it, but–re-watching it recently–I found it striking. Drive-in movie theaters have all but disappeared–time capsules from a bygone era. The camera’s descent into this relic, juxtaposed with the ascent of a sharp-dressed businessman exemplifies, to me, one of the many themes of the movie: the times are changing, out with the old and in with the new. I find it interesting that it’s at this intersection that we’re introduced to Harlan DeGroat, the movie’s meth-head villain, menacingly played by Woody Harrelson. An angry, frothing evil practically bleeds out of his eyes. He’s not a villain you love to hate; he’s a villain you hate with a passion and hope he gets his comeuppance.

Beyond the theme of change, the central theme is that of choice. The movie’s tagline, “Sometimes your battles choose you” is characterized through the struggles of mill worker Russell Baze, phenomenally played by Christian Bale. A good, decent man by all accounts, we struggle along with him throughout the entire movie as he is constantly put into trying situations. How far will he go to help his brother, Rodney, fresh from his fourth tour in Iraq and played with subtlety by Casey Affleck, get out of debt? How will he be able to care for his ailing father? How is he going to live if the mill he works at does, in fact, close? Bale’s character even says it’s cheaper to get steel from China, as if admitting that is tantamount to him succumbing to the forces he so desperately tries to control.

There’s really nothing new about the narrative here, but the actors infuse such realism into their scenes that, even if Cooper doesn’t use them to their full potential, you have to take notice of what’s unfolding before you, despite the slow-moving pace of the film.

And that’s one of the reasons why I love this film.

These characters seem natural, organic, born from the blast furnaces that forged our city. There isn’t a false note in anyone’s performance. Even relative newcomer Zoë Saldana holds her own against a heavyweight like Bale.

And speaking of Bale, he might as well be giving a masters class on acting in this film. It baffles me that he got his Oscar nomination for American Hustle instead of this. He has a scene on a bridge with Saldana, barely four minutes long, that is better acted than most of American Hustle’s entire runtime. The scene is so real, bubbling over with palpable emotion, you almost feel like a voyeur watching them.

Bale looks so much like a genuine Pittsburgh mill worker, hardworking and worn, that I’ll forgive him for not having a typical yinzer accent. Despite that, he embodies Pittsburgh, complete with Braddock’s zip code tattooed on his neck. He even goes hunting with his uncle, played by Sam Shepard. He wouldn’t look at all out of place at a bar like Jack’s or Dee’s on the Southside.

And speaking of Pittsburgh landmarks, the second reason I love this movie is because there’s so much about it that makes it genuinely feel like Pittsburgh.

I love seeing Pittsburgh on film. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m seeing the places I’ve been and the streets I’ve walked projected onto a twenty-two-foot screen in a darkened theatre. It makes the city seem monumental, almost mythical. Maybe every New Yorker feels this exhilaration upon exiting the theatre. Maybe that’s why they call it movie magic.

It’s not just the scenery—beautifully shot on Kodak film as opposed to captured digitally—that makes the film feel authentically Pittsburgh. Honestly, Braddock has never looked better and during the film’s climax, the Carrie Blast Furnace almost outperforms Bale and Harrelson with its grandness.

It’s not just the music, which features songs by Eddie Vedder. I don’t even care for Vedder’s music and I must admit that putting it on top of scenes of Braddock works splendidly.

It’s something else.

There’s something so honest about seeing the cracked streets, boarded up houses and laboring smokestacks of Braddock on-screen, alongside a movie that is so much about perseverance despite obstacles. Pittsburgh is no longer “hell with the lid taken off.” Even the fish have returned to our rivers (I still wouldn’t swim in them, though). Pittsburgh has pulled itself up out of the furnace and taken matters into its own hands, just like Bale ultimately does in the end. It’s almost as if Cooper captured the driven character of Pittsburgh.

Also starring Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker, Out of the Furnace is a slow-burning revenge film that has stayed with me since I first saw it in the fall of 2013. I’d liken its tone to another one of my favorite films of that year— Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners . I get the urge to watch Prisoners every time it rains, which—as a result of living in Pittsburgh—is roughly three hundred times a year (I realize this probably says more about me than any psychiatric test could, but I digress). I feel like I could always watch Out of the Furnace, though. Despite its somber tone and deliberate pace, there’s an underlying steadfast hopefulness about the whole thing. When we lose everything, we fear nothing and that spurs us on to take action.

If you love seeing Pittsburgh on film and enjoy character-driven movies, then rent, borrow or buy Out of the Furnace.



Filed under Uncategorized

Rust Belt Stories

Fellow Rust Belters, we are having such a winter that I find myself thinking things like: “It’s going to be 19 degrees tomorrow morning for my run?  Fantastic!  That means one less layer than last week’s 6 degree morning run.”  Yes.  At this point in the season, smack in the heart of a cold spell, even the most sturdy-wintered souls may ask themselves why they don’t live somewhere else.  And so I’ve been ruminating on the Rust Belt lately.

The first time I heard the phrase “Rust Belt,” it was concurrent with “Sun Belt,” in 4th grade social studies class – 1980s rural northwest Pennsylvania.  Where we live, I was told (or I interpreted), is old, and sad, and without hope.  People don’t want to stay here. What a wretched thing to learn at 9, that many people are leaving the place you live, the only home you’ve known – rusty, dirty, economically depressed and dreary skies to boot- for glamorous, economically booming, clean, sunny, and bright places.  Raleigh!  Phoenix!  Florida!  I’m sure I went home and asked what exactly we were doing in the Rust Belt, when clearly everyone in their right mind was getting the heck out.

If you’ll fast forward about 20 years, you’ll find me on my first trip to Phoenix to visit friends.  We hit their local, and the bartender asked for our city of origin.  When I said, maybe with a hint of pride, “Pittsburgh,”  he said: “Oh, the old country!  My parents are from there.”  Sigh.  As an adult, I have fallen more (cold winters be darned)  in love with “the old country,” the Rust Belt.  To spell out my reasons as simply as possible:  my family is here,  the job that I love is here, and I  learned early to always root for the underdog.  Also, I’ve lived in other parts of the country, and I can tell you that the four seasons we get in this Belt are the right number of seasons for me. They’re much better than the two seasons found in the Sun Belt – like hot and hotter or humid and more humid.

So for whatever reason you might find yourself here in the Rust Belt, know that you’re in good company.  Many writers have also taken a hard look at where we live. Now that we are in the midst of cold weather and long nights, you have plenty of time to ruminate on where you reside, with some good books.


Detroit, once “The Silicon Valley of the Jazz Age,” has become the poster child for urban decay.  Urban studies majors, writers, and artists, New York Times journalists – they all  look to Detroit for answers to economic busts, racial injustice, and the general decline of America.  Detroit residents bristle at the misguided attention.  This title is a truly honest, thorough, and open exploration of how Detroit came to be what it is today.  The author, Mark Binelli, is a native of the  metro area.  He visits the city in 2009 to report on the seeming collapse of the auto industry, but decides to stay and further uncover just what has happened to his city.  Detroit City is the Place to Be covers Detroit’s history, from economics to race and class issues, and it’s clear that the author’s heart is in this book and in this city.


The Post-Gazette columnist we all know and love, Brian O’Neill, has written a thought-provoking collection of essays that peeks behind the “Most Liveable City” veneer.   The Paris of Appalachia unpacks Pittsburgh in many of the same ways that Detroit City is the Place to Be unpacks Detroit.  As Annie Dillard puts it: “Brian O’Neill is a wonderful writer. He analyzes perfectly Pittsburgh’s unerring habit of screwing itself. He loves all the right stuff. I loved his book.”


While this isn’t the story of the Rust Belt, exactly, this is the story of why the Rust Belt had its heyday. It couldn’t have happened without the massive migration of African Americans from the South.  In The Warmth of Other Suns, Pulitzer prize-winning author Isobel Wilkerson interviewed hundreds of migrants, two of whom were her own parents, and retells their stories with harrowing and heart-wrenching details.  The Great Migration changed the economics of Northern and Midwestern cities during the late 19th and early 2oth centuries, by supplying much of the workforce for the industrial boom.

Pittsburghers, if you can put aside your longstanding hatred for Cleveland for just a moment, it will be worth your time.  Crooked River Burning tells a story that starts before our belt rusted. Ohio native Mark Winegardner weaves the path of two ill-fated lovers with the demise of Cleveland over a period of 20+ years, culminating of course with the infamous flames on the Cuyahoga. This book is part historical fiction, part romance, part urban studies. The author has been compared to Jonathan Frazen and E.L. Doctorow, no small compliment.


American Rust takes place in Fayette County, and has a special place in my heart, as it tells the story of what happens to rural communities when the steel and manufacturing economy tanked in western Pennsylvania.  Our protagonist and his best friend are very different from the outside – Isaac English is small, nerdy, and an outsider. Billy Poe is a hulking quarterback and a town hero. Issac wants nothing more than to escape his dejected home, but on the eve of his departure everything goes awry.


Bonnie Jo Campbell writes another rural examination. She has viscerally put together a collection of short stories set in Michigan.  American Salvage features a cast of blue collar characters in post-industrial America, freezing their way through Michigan winters, Doomsday prepping, cooking meth, farming, stealing, and generally just representing the desperation of small town poverty really, really well.  To write that her characters are gritty would be an understatement.  You’ll love them anyway.

Happy Reading!



Filed under Uncategorized