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Review: My Tale of Two Cities

Pittsburgh doc not Pittsburgh-y enough
By CLIF GARBODEN  |  July 28, 2010
2.0 2.0 Stars


The smoky, solid-iron Pittsburgh that Woody Guthrie sang about faded away after WW2, leaving a vacuum eventually supplanted by a cleaner but still soulful civic iteration. Screenwriter and Pittsburgh native Carl Kurlander left town for Hollywood during the protracted downturn; there he co-wrote St. Elmo's Fire (1985) and a lot of sit-com schlock.

This 2008 vanity documentary sells itself as a POV appreciation of the Steel City's resilience and Steelers-inspired blue-collar esprit. It tires. Kurlander shops for cheese with Teresa Heinz Kerry and chats with Immaculate Receptor Franco Harris, zombiemeister George Romero, and old friends — few of whom offer insights. Mostly he whines about his marriage and his ambivalence over abandoning LA for a teaching post at Pitt.

The film is charming, and involving if you're part of the Three Rivers Diaspora or (probably) Kurlander's friend, but it doesn't capture the self-depreciating pride, trashy underpinnings, parochial resignation, and self-aware eccentricity that make Pittsburgh unique. Call this an opportunity missed.

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"My Tale of Two Cities" has played to sold-out audiences in 16 cities in North America, and has received praise from community leaders around the world, from Mexico City to Cape Town, South Africa. These audiences have found hope in the movie's theme that community transformation can come only through the smarts, guts, laughs and tears of its neighbors.
In the 1980s, Michael Moore's "Roger & Me" was entertaining and thought-provoking. But 25 years late, Detroit is even worse off, which is why this film has stopped looking for people to blame, but has instead, in the vein of a "Mister Rogers & Me," looked for neighbors worth emulating.
During the course of this film, Carl Kurlander becomes one of those neighbors, through a journey that is as "funny as it is revealing" (to quote another reviewer). Kurlanders' "stalking" of famous and not so famous Pittsburghers, as well his effort to jumpstart the entertainment industry in Pittsburgh, were relentless, entertaining, and ultimately, against all odds, successful.
This is not a vanity project. As the movie shows, Kurlander set out to make a documentary about Pittsburgh, but his cameraman and crew quickly realized that his own mid-life crises and redemption was the most personal and entertaining way to show Pittsburgh's amazing comeback between 2003 and 2006.
It's easy in 2011 to say "Pittsburgh is a great subject for a documentary," now that the world, led by President Obama, has called the city a model for struggling communities around the world. But when this project began in 2003, Pittsburgh was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the Pittsburghers shown in this film were the only ones who believed they could turn their city around. And that's why audiences around the world are now looking to Pittsburgh for answers.
Posted: July 30 2010 at 9:12 AM


I grew up in Pittsburgh; I've just returned from an extended visit there. I understood the place then and I understand it now. Kurlander didn't and doesn't. Pittsburgh was able to rebound because 1) there's always been enormous wealth lurking behind the mundane there, and 2) the people value toughness and work and embrace eccentricity. The recovery had nothing to do with some self-absorbed neurotic's career tizzy. Based on this film, my vote is that Kurlander belongs in LA. -- Clif Garboden
Posted: August 01 2010 at 10:30 AM
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