When writing about the disappearances of Toronto theater magnate Ambrose Small and author Ambrose Bierce, Charles Fort (as in “Fortean”) wondered if someone was “collecting Ambroses.” Maybe they should have looked in Chicago. That is where Daniel Nearing relocates Small (now Greenaway), using his case in much the same way Doctorow employed the Henry K. Thaw-Stanford White murder in Ragtime. In 1919, Prohibition was not yet the law of the land, but Chicago was already a dangerous place. African American police detective DeAndre Son Carter has a unique vantage point on the city’s vice and violence in Daniel Nearing’s Hogtown (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.
Soon after making racist complaints about Chicago’s demographic trends, the missing-presumed dead Greenaway was last seen trudging to points unknown in the snow. Suspicion will logically fall on his wife and the company account, who seem to be surprisingly close. However, the mystery remains unsolved. It would be quite a coup if Carter could deliver the killer. Consequently, he devotes quite a bit of time to the case, but the direction it takes will become awkward for him. Meanwhile, he pursues a romance with a woman who might even be more damaged than himself.
Like Ragtime, the presently and future famous walk in and out of Hogtown, especially the somewhat PTSD-rattled Ernest Hemingway and his soon to be estranged mentor, Sherwood Anderson. The privileged and the marginalized both have their roles to play. In the case of Herman Wilkins, it is the dual role of Carter and homeless Marquis Coleman, an unusual casting strategy that is not exploited in an Adrian Messenger way for novelty’s sake. In both cases, Wilkins is a raw and seething presence, who commands the screen.
Arguably, he is the only one who really has a chance to shine, because most of the supporting women get most of their screen time during stilted sex scenes, while the rest of the men are either decidedly minor players or somewhat caricatured, like Alexander Sharon’s gawky Hemingway.
Frankly, Nearing’s style would overwhelm all but the most forceful thesps, which clearly does not include Wilkins. Somewhat akin to the visions of Guy Maddin, Nearing’s black-and-white fantasia freely blends history with fiction, but it lacks the postmodern playfulness of the Canadian auteur. Nearing also has a tendency towards static tableaux, relying on voiceovers and intertitles to handle much of the heavy lifting exposition and storytelling chores.
Nearing and producer Sanghoon Lee earn high marks for some absolutely arresting cinematography, but the hollowness of their visuals sometimes tries our patience. There are only so many interior monologues a film can offer up, before risking charges of pretentiousness. Hogtown goes well past that point.