I need to get out more. Everything I know about the non-Australasian world stems from the cinema and not just documentaries claiming an allegedly objective outlook. I’m thinking about the kind of films that insist on flaunting an environment to manipulate the audience. In the last 10 years I’ve frequented London, Washington D.C., Paris, Los Angeles and New York, and flirted with Moscow, Berlin, Rome, Jerusalem and Miami, without ever walking further than a theater. I’m starting to believe that the real thing might disappoint, considering some of the love letters to location that I’ve seen.
I can usually deduce the tone of a film centering on a city by how much I want to visit the place once the credits roll. Tone usually dictates enjoyment, which naturally affects popularity. If we rightly accept that casual movie going is the pursuit of nothing more than happiness, then the whole structure falls into place. Blockbuster fairytales frequent the centralized metropolis. Family dramas gravitate toward the largely forgettable suburbs. Even artistic, challenging films are relegated to industrial and/or lower class urban areas. It all adds up. Spike Lee wouldn’t lie, would he?
Economics, naturally, play an important role and the reason is relatively straightforward. Locations are like brand names, and familiarity within the biggest urban centers is a necessity in selling product. John Hughes would never have created Home Alone 2: Lost in Albuquerque. Even in his Big Apple backdrop, Kevin wasn’t about to frequent the unknown. He needed tourist attractions to play off of and to spur the audience’s sense of acceptance. Kevin’s camera therefore serves as a mirror of the cinematographer’s lens.
The best recent example of a city as metaphor that I can think of comes is How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. The film itself barely survives on its flimsy premise, but the strongest formulaic sign comes not from the perfect Caucasian leads on the poster, but the decision to slice the film up amongst New York neighborhoods. Manhattanite Kate Hudson only realizes that Matthew McConaughey is Mr. Right when he takes her to visit his Staten Island family. Home is not only where his heart is, but where his romantic comedy desirability lay, as well.
If it sounds like I’m bluffing, you’re right. I’ve been nowhere near the East Coast and my worldview has been so filtered by popular culture that I can do little more than organise rappers by borough and draw a crude orbit map of Central Park. I know what certain places look like, but I’d have troubling placing them into any specific context. When I finally visit New York, I suspect I’ll board the subway and through pure cinematic inspiration, the track will bend to my whim. If I suddenly feel like going to that bench where Woody Allen kissed Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, or Edward Norton sits eternally in the 25th Hour, I will.
Therein lies the danger of presenting a city as anything more than a geographical background. Bricks and mortar will unavoidably symbolize different things to different people and since my filmic instructors have been as diverse as a staunchly black humanist, a Jewish comedian, and an Italian-American empathic to the mob, they are very rarely going to coincide. Since New York as an entity has no tangible beating heart and certainly no degree of consciousness, it remains essentially a blank canvas for those who wish to apply their own interpretation to it.
And it goes well beyond the simple marketing of acquaintance and certainly beyond the confines of the case study. Independent filmmakers walk a thin line between using setting as an extension of character and relying on it as a kind of inverse cliché. I know, for example, that a film in which the Eiffel Tower is a prominent presence is unlikely to end in bloodshed, while a film set in East London will probably feature at least one beating. There are exceptions, of course, and finding the right mix of non-intrusive awareness is a task seldom attempted and even less easily achieved.
Even accuracy has become a burden. While it’s natural for a working class Englishman to live in the northern industrial cities, it doesn’t make it any less repetitive to see examples of kindness abstracted from such rough surroundings. In attempting to marry an inherently fictitious story to a pre-conceived notion of class, inconsistencies are bound to occur. The more that filmmakers insist their vision is a truthful slice of life, the more our own prejudices are evoked.
Perhaps the ideal setting for any film is a blank, generic locale. Babe: Pig in the City seized an opportunity to comment on the city as an extension of perception and approached the concept with a degree of irony that many failed to recognise. Here, in a children’s film off all things, lies the deconstruction of false idols through ridiculous abundance. By stacking the skyline with every conceivable global landmark, the film argues that the realisation of location as allegory or landmark is inconsequential when considered alongside the actual characters that walk their streets. A film about Paris is constricted from the outset; a film about a Parisian is not.
This is why I end up making entirely arbitrary determinations about certain filmmakers. Adoration for one’s surroundings is a noble conceit, but it is also an oblique justification and something the cinematic medium can’t help but betray. The minute you see a shot of a city, the earnestness of the creator is revealed. If the director lingers on a long overhead helicopter shot, you begin to understand his motives and he or she loses me almost immediately. If a character is introduced against a backdrop featuring Big Ben/The Vatican/The Hollywood sign, I won’t be able to identify until the next scene, if at all. An individual that frequents a bar I’ve never seen before, or who walks a route that would be a viable real life option, is someone I’ll accept as real. This is because the filmmaker obviously respects his hometown enough to not feel an obligation to show it off.
This is, in all honesty, a terrible irony. How can I, a New Zealander totally disconnected from the reality of American or European existence, make this judgment? That I feel even slightly capable is a heavy black mark against the films that saturate a frame with landmarks. Imagine having to see the Statue of Liberty in the skyline everyday and then see a film that simply recycles the stock establishing shot. I’m sick of it already and I’ve never seen the real thing.
Regardless of the fickle nature of my whims, I’ll admit there is a certain magic in being introduced to a new experience by someone obviously in love with it. Akin to listening to a friend’s mix tape, spending an hour with Jim Jarmusch in Memphis or strolling through a bittersweet Rome with a despondent Vittorio De Sica, it is all an exercise in transplantation. I may not be in love with these motion picture places until I see them myself, but my appetite has definitely been whet by the sensory nature of cinematic exploration. If I see the same place five more times however, I’ll probably change my mind.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article