Illustration by MUTI.
Let’s call 1989 the inflection point. Before then Seattle was the sticks. A little backwater. A little rough. Our founding cinematic couple were burly, long-married tugboat owners—played by Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler—in 1933’s Tugboat Annie. This was a region of gold-panning, timber, serial killers, airplanes. Of course we had more going on than that, but in Hollywood’s imagining this was the province mostly of desperate crime films. If there was a romance—Cinderella Liberty (1973), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)—it probably involved a sailor.
Then, in 1989, the loving starts. We get Say Anything (dorky teens) and The Fabulous Baker Boys (smoldering jazz). Quickly, as the city begins to swell with tech money and grunge seekers, we become a city of romance—Singles (1992), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Mad Love (1995), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)—and even the stray erotic thriller, like Disclosure (1994). While there have been plenty of other movies set here, in this batch you’ll find nearly all of the movies that are most associated with this city.
For a while, things quieted. Then Hollywood’s loins started to warm to Seattle again. Perhaps blame Twilight (2008), set out on the peninsula. Shortly after, we got Love Happens (2009) and Weather Girl (2009). Then Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) and its sequels, and a recent spate of rom-coms: Love, Guaranteed (2020) and The Right One (which comes out February 5).
Seattle is famous for its frosty austerity. The Great Love Debate podcast named us “America’s Worst City to Find Love” (for straight singles) in 2018, then ninth worst in 2019, then eighth worst in 2020 (“a mix of aggravated women, socially awkward men, and rainwater”). We have a dating coach for our socially inept coders, and attempts at local dating apps to try to fix the problem. So what’s going on here? Why are we such a big screen locale for love? Is it just our town’s priapic needle that movies love to, ahem, insert into their opening shots?
I think it helps, mostly, to break these romances into two different eras. The 1990s movies fixate on Seattle as a City of the New. They chased youth culture—a mishmash of yuppies, punks, and high school students. Not much to explain there: Hollywood worships youth. People were moving here in droves, too, and other movies—particularly Sleepless in Seattle—invite the Western myth of reinvention. Come to Seattle, they seem to say, you can be different, live in a floating house, fall in love again.
In the second wave of movies, though, we get a shift. In the culture, grunge begets increasingly established indie, and in the economy promising young companies become hubs of multinational power. And this power, perceived from a distance, distorted, seems at the root of Hollywood’s present Seattle affairs.
In Fifty Shades of Grey the city is a sort of fetish object, a pair of leather cuffs for fantasies of influence. Here, Anastasia Steele is a young college student in Vancouver, Washington, who fumbles her way through an interview with the very rich, generically powerful, and typically handsome Christian Grey—Patrick Bateman without the jokes. Then he sort of stalks her. Then he lures her into a dom-sub relationship via a flurry of wealth flexes around the "big city" (Seattle—just go with it): helicopter rides, plane rides, some really tall buildings with big windows. Here sex equals business. There’s even an “erotic” contract signing scene.
In Netflix’s Love, Guaranteed the focus lands differently. The titular dating site guarantees users will find love after 1,000 dates. When Nick (Damon Wayans Jr.) is near that number, he hires a pro bono lawyer to sue. But, uh oh, they start falling for each other and become noble underdogs against the flashy tech company where the CEO (Heather Graham) saunters in a tight sequin dress around a boardroom adorned with waterfalls. Their love, of course, ultimately conquers all.
The weird thing—or fitting thing, given that these recent movies were shot largely in Vancouver, BC—is that none of this power has much to do with Seattle. The wild, venture capital–propelled companies live in the Bay Area. Our vision of influence was built on pragmatism and banality and scale—cloud computing, spreadsheets, data visualization, bulk toilet paper, mediocre (but efficient) coffee, and really fast shipping.
It’s a shame because movies that actually examined the city’s influence would be more interesting, would get at something not only about Seattle but about how power operates in this city in the internet era, but that’d mean less Christian Grey, more Bill Gates, less latex, more Gore-Tex. And what camera loves that?