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THIS PLACE HAS CHARACTER (feature)

THIS PLACE HAS CHARACTER

An exploration of the significance of location in film.

As of this moment, I would describe my personal travel experience as reasonably limited. It is certainly more extensive than some out there, but even though I haven’t been to say, Los Angeles or Hawaii, at least I’ve gotten glimpses of these places in the movies. Besides, thanks to George Clooney in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011), I know that Hawaii may look like paradise on the outside but that very real things still happen there; and I’ve seen David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) so I know that place is plenty messed up without having to visit. For many people, film may be the only way they experience certain cities, and, while a film’s location will undoubtedly inform the viewer about the place itself, in many finer films, it also informs the way the story is told.

In some cases, a film’s location is so intrinsic to the success of the film that it couldn’t really be told anywhere else. For instance, imagine Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013) set pretty much anywhere other than outer space and you would have a fairly standard action film and nothing more. Sandra Bullock’s character could have easily been put through a series of perilous, life threatening situations anywhere on Earth, but the spatial setting is necessary to help define her character as one who is floating aimlessly in her life following the death of her young daughter years earlier. After fighting to survive against seemingly impossible odds in space, she learns that she actually does want to live, and longs from that moment forward to feel the pull of gravity itself to tether her once again to something real and grounded.

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The vast emptiness of the cosmos is perhaps an extreme example so let’s bring this conversation back to Earth and look at what is surely the most popular city in the world to set or shoot a film: New York City. Hundreds upon hundreds of films have been set in and around Manhattan because the city provides so many different backdrops that you can set almost any kind of story there and make it work. Just ask Woody Allen; he’s exacerbated his pseudo intellectual neurosis on the streets of New York City over and over again, and with the exception of his recent gallivanting through Europe, no other filmmaker is as synonymous with NYC as Allen is.

Allen’s 1979 film, Manhattan, is the obvious choice to further explore the city through film, and rightfully so. Shot by Gordon Willis in glorious black and white, and set to the swells of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, the film opens with a series of postcard shots of the city, the first of which is its famous skyline. In voiceover, Allen tries to put into words what the city means to him for a book his character is writing. Shot after shot shows us another tiny slice of New York City life; from burly construction workers tearing up a street corner to wealthy patrons enjoying an art gallery opening, cocktails in hand. Allen is, on the one hand, writing his own personal love letter to the city that made him who he is today (or at least who he was in 1979), but on the other hand, he is really giving his audience an impression of the city that they likely already had in their heads to begin with.

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Manhattan is a romantic film, albeit a convoluted and morally ambiguous one, that presents NYC as a place where one can find love walking around all night and watching the sun come up over the Queensboro Bridge. “This is a great city,” Allen’s character says to Diane Keaton as they sit in silhouette in what is the film’s most famous shot. “I don’t care what anyone says; it’s really a knockout.” In that moment, how could anyone disagree with him? But this is just one man’s view of this massive city. Just ask the director most associated with New York after Allen: Martin Scorsese.

I’m sure Scorsese loves the city too, but he certainly sees it through a very different, if not grittier lens. Just two years before Manhattan invited audiences to fall in love with it, Scorsese gave us Taxi Driver (1976) and simultaneously gave us all a very good reason to think twice about visiting.

As opposed to the romantic skyline, the first glimpse of New York we get in Taxi Driver is of smoke coming out of a manhole. From there, Scorsese sets the majority of his groundbreaking film in and around 42nd Street, which is now a popular tourist area just by Time Square and Broadway, but was at the time home to peep shows, prostitutes and dope dealing. As often as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle denounces the behaviour taking place there, this is also where he spends a great deal of his time. He even takes his romantic interest/obsession, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) there on their first (and incidentally, last) date. Scorsese’s Manhattan is dirty and rotten, and not so far a stretch from Travis’s state of mind. A New York City taxi driver probably sees more of the city than most people ever could or should and, while one can easily argue that Travis’s problems stem back to his time in the Vietnam War, one could also question just how much New York City, especially the specific side of it Scorsese shows us, did to worsen his problems.

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Let’s get out of the city, shall we? Albeit not a distinct place in any way, our understanding of the suburbs, while certainly not wholly influenced by its depiction in film, is certainly something we bring to the way we read films that are critical of this universally understood location.

Who can forget all of the men pulling out of their driveways all at once in Tim Burton’s early classic, Edward Scissorhands (1990), leaving their wives in their pastel coloured bungalows for the day as they set off to fulfill their role as breadwinner for the household? Here, art direction becomes a key factor in how we understand the film’s setting. Shot on a real suburban street in Tampa Bay, Florida, it has been meticulously altered to match our exaggerated understanding of the suburbs, as well as to inform us about the uniformity that Edward (Johnny Depp) is about to cut up into tiny, little pieces. Burton, being the ever so subversive film director he is (or at least was) even has Edward chop up the neighbourhood shrubbery into obscure shapes and sizes, which of course the neighbours quickly turn into a competition as to whose shrub sculpture is the best, just as they did with their lawns prior to this.

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While there is no denying the influence of Art Director David Lazan on the outdoor settings of Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), from the usage of the deep pink American Beauty roses in the Burnham family’s garden to the red door on the front of their house (itself a symbol of passion fighting against the dull drums of suburban existence), it is what Lazan, and production designer Naomi Shohan, do on the inside of the homes on this block that truly provides insight into the mind of the family unit.

Neither the Burnham household, nor their neighbours, the Fitz’s, are happy families, but the extent to which that unhappiness is masked is seen in the design choices. The Fitz’s have a dark home, with minimal lighting and with Nazi paraphernalia on full display, showing no shame for what is clearly a prevailing sadness throughout the house; while the Burnham’s home is clean and modern and so perfectly maintained that it can only be to hide the misery that is consuming them from within. From the outside, everything looks perfect but, like the film’s tagline says, Mendes wants us to look closer. When you do, you see that it isn’t just Kevin Spacey’s haunting voice over narration that is giving you information on the story.

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I cannot currently think of a suburban set film where the characters are actually happy and what do we do when we’re unhappy? We run away to exotic lands where a washed up actor going through a midlife crisis can meet a young lady suffering from depression and form an unexpected and life altering bond in a hotel jazz bar, while making the most of their jet lagged insomnia. Granted, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s characters are already going through quite a bit in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) before they arrive in Tokyo, but their displacement and the sheer nature of how starkly different everything in Tokyo is, plays a major part in aggravating their predicaments.

From the moment Murray arrives in Tokyo, it is as if he has awoken to a dream, one with an abundance of flashing lights and many smiling Japanese faces speaking to him in near indistinguishable “Engrish”. Yet amongst all this unfamiliarity, a billboard with his face on it stands tall and prominent for all to see outside his hotel. If anything, as advertising is not what he set out to do originally in his career, this only further serves to make him feel as if he has no real place here.

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Johansson’s character arrived earlier but still has yet to connect with her surroundings or herself for that matter. She is seen staring listlessly out her hotel window at the barrage of buildings in Tokyo, one in particular, the NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building, which was modelled after the Empire State building in New York, where her character, Charlotte, grew up. Her longing for home, or perhaps amidst all the chaos of Tokyo, for simpler times, is represented by her relationship with this building. There is an initial resistance on both characters’ parts to enjoy themselves in this city but eventually, through the safe place they create for each other, they are able to let go somewhat and enjoy some of what Tokyo has to offer, which in Coppola’s mind is exactly what you would expect from Tokyo – bad karaoke and Buddhist temples complete with monks and gardens of serenity. Ultimately though, Tokyo, through no fault of its own, is seen here as a cold place, one that brings foreigners’ loneliness and insecurity to the surface in a very uncomfortable, albeit arguably necessary, fashion.

Some filmmakers use location to make socio-political points about the lives taking place in the films themselves, and to draw our attention to some of the world’s current problems. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel (2006) takes place in three primary places – Morocco, Japan and the United States / Mexico border. While the Japan story focuses more on personal struggle, the Moroccan and Mexican border story lines explore the front line realities of America’s tension with the Middle East and Mexican immigration. Connecting all three stories in such starkly different places promotes unity and humanity and begs for peace and understanding.

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Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 film, District 9, is a less obvious example. Blomkamp sets this film in an alternate version on Johannesburg, South Africa. An alien race has been confined to an area of the city known as District 9, its deplorable living conditions heavily monitored by the government. The fence between the aliens and the humans is a necessary one as tensions between them are mounting just ahead of a massive alien relocation. All of this, particularly given the South African setting, conjures association with Cape Town during the Apartheid era, making the film so much more weighty than the incredibly entertaining alien flick it appears to be on the surface.

One must always account for director bias and the filter through which their story is told and Traffic (2000) director, Steven Soderbergh, has never met a filter he didn’t like. His hyperlink drama tackles many angles of the War on Drugs and differentiates the locations by using different film stocks and colour filters to further widen the divide, as well as inform the viewer on the tone of the action taking place in that particular location.

Michael Douglas’s conservative Ohio judge is surrounded by blues and greys to match the depression of his family situation. Catherine Zeta Jones’s drug lord wife is surrounded by a great deal of red to highlight the glamour of her comfortable San Diego life. And finally, Benicio del Toro’s Mexican drug cartel storyline is grainier than the others and tinted yellow to create a nervous, onerous impression of Mexico. As a result, we are able to assess just how far the drug war stretches from a number of local viewpoints and get a much stronger sense of how all these locations connect to and affect each other.

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All of this and we haven’t even explored locations that don’t actually exist, like say, Middle Earth or Gotham City or that place where the blue people of Avatar (2009) live; we haven’t looked at how location can baffle the viewer while also confusing the characters in the film, just as the vast, snowy terrain of Fargo, Minnesota, did in the Coen Brothers’ 1996 classic, Fargo; or how locations can be shot to come across as cramped and claustrophobic, which would heighten any tense situation, just as the corridors and dressing rooms backstage at the New York City Ballet did in Darren Aronofky’s Black Swan (2010). Heck, I even read recently how increased tourism to Norway is being attributed to the phenomenal global success of last year’s Frozen. This is an animated film that features an imagined version of Norway, circa 1845, but yet people are flocking to the very real Norway of today because of how that film made them feel about it.

Unless a film director draws our attention directly to its grander purpose, location is often the unsung hero of film, usually seen as nothing more than a mere backdrop, albeit often a picturesque one, for people’s problems to take place in. No great, or even halfway decent director takes location for granted though. If there is character to the setting of the film then the odds are that character is likely saying something about the film itself, as well. And until the day when we can all just teleport from one place to the next with ease, we have the movies to thank for taking us to places we may never otherwise see for ourselves.

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