Nothing beats seeing your city on the big screen in a feature film. It's not so much the thrill of recognition as the swell of civic boosterism in your solar plexus, the thought of briefly showing off your hometown to the rest of the world. See? See? That's where I live!
As it happens, I've only ever lived in three cities (two of them in Montana), and only one of them—Helsinki, Finland—has ever received anything approaching a Hollywood close-up. Missoula, to say nothing of Billings, is off the star map entirely—as evasive and chimerical in the movies as it is in literature. If you see Missoula in a movie, chances are that movie was made by someone who lives here, and other people who live here account for perhaps 90 percent of its total audience.
Still, we've had a few moments in the sun, as you'll learn from this sweeping overview of Missoula movie lore. On film, as in life, Missoula is, after all, a place, sort of, with its own claims on fame, and failure, and a pedigree of homespun weirdness to rival any sister city. The burden of dreams is just as heavy here as in the hinterlands.
Western Montana's scenery has long attracted filmmakers. The first of them may well have been Joseph Maddern, a Hollywood talent scout who breezed through Missoula in June 1921 looking for pretty vistas and pretty girls to film with his enormous boxy camera. Ostensibly scouting for the talent of tomorrow, Maddern spent a few days around town shooting scenic stuff and a few dramatic vignettes enacted onstage at the brand-new Wilma Theatre by a throng of starry-eyed Missoula nymphets keening for a career in the flickers. Maddern developed the footage in his mobile laboratory and showed it to a curious public a few days later. Did he uncover any young starlets? Probably not. Whatever became of this footage? Possibly made into a locket, or perhaps blasted into a flock of real Montana geese the following autumn: old nitrate film was routinely sold by the ton to firms specializing in silver reclamation and munitions manufacture.
The first great era of Hollywood coming to western Montana for its own sake culminated in the early '50s with rugged, manly fare like Red Skies of Montana (1952) and Timberjack (1955), the former of which premiered in Missoula three days before the rest of the world. Other Montanans didn't wait for Hollywood to come knocking: strong, silent Gary Cooper was a Treasure Stater, as was red-haired knockout Myrna Loy, glimpsed as a showgirl in The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Al Jolson, one of the first talkies to play at the Wilma.
Missoula flickered into the moviegoing consciousness again in 1993 with the release of A River Runs Through It, based upon the novel by Norman Maclean which famously declares: "The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana." And lo, overnight our streams and rivers were filled with lawyers and stockbrokers, the shelves of our mercantiles emptied of floppy canvas hats.
What those Hollywood bastards don't want you to know, though, is that A River Runs Through It was filmed mostly around Bozeman and Livingston, not Missoula, just as Legends of the Fall (1994) was filmed in Alberta and British Columbia, not the Montana in which it purportedly takes place. I can kind of see Missoula looking too old, or rather too new, to play itself, but Montana? Whatever. Legends of the Fall is 70 percent Brad Pitt riding a horse with a sunset behind him, blond tresses flapping in the evening breeze. My video dealer claims I am the fourth straight man to rent it from him in the past 10 years.
Up until a couple of years ago, it was still relatively safe to intimate—as many Missoulians have done over the years—that Blue Velvet, Missoula-born director David Lynch's ultra-creepy 1986 breakthrough feature, was based on events that actually took place in the Wilma Theatre. Well, not anymore: Lynch himself demolished this cherished bit of Missoula folklore in an interview for this very newspaper. He was born here, doesn't remember much about it, end of story. But that's just how thirsty for recognition we Missoulians are.
If you want to brag about something, brag how the tranquillized bear bouncing off the trampoline in that virally popular YouTube clip was from Missoula. Totally true. That shit was on "Six Feet Under" and everything. While you're knocking around YouTube, search "Missoula 1969" and watch the interesting (though badly washed-out) Super 8 time-lapse tour of Missoula by car 40 years ago. You'll recognize, like, two things.
Missoula has a strong documentary tradition. Even if you're not a poetry fan, it's worth checking out Kicking the Loose Gravel Home (1976), onetime filmmaker/longtime local writer Annick Smith's profile of the late Richard Hugo, for its fabulous views of downtown Missoula 30 years ago. To do so, you'll have to take out a library card.
For fabulous views of early 21st century Missoula as seen from a Wal-Mart parking lot, rent the High Plains Films doc This Is Nowhere (2002), which examines the mobile community of RV campers who move from one Wal-Mart to the next. To appreciate how much Missoulians like to dress up in funny DIY costumes and party, pick up a VHS copy of Slaves of Missoula, a veritable who's who-who of young Missoula movers and shakers, circa summer 1992.
Crystal Video has a great collection of Missoula miscellany. They also lend, free of charge, DVD copies of Missoula Riots, amateur footage compiled from a sultry weekend of civil disobedience during a Hells Angels visit in 2000. And hello, what's this in the "special interest" section? Why, it's a copy of That's Just Super!, a compilation of my own early Super 8 shorts, including videos for local rock bands and a short musical adaptation of a Charles Bukowski story which prominently features the Circle Square pawn shop and Stella, the mannequin in the window. Eat your hearts out, all you other local filmmakers. It doesn't get any more Missoula than that.