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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Friday, May 31, 2013


“Wandering around our America has changed me more than I thought. I am not me any more. At least I’m not the same me I was.”
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna in “Motorcycle Diaries

Hooray for Hollywood!
I have remarked a few times on the impact that the James Bond series of movies and the various television shows I watched as a child had on my development into a person who loves travel. How the visuals and locations excited me as a young boy, and gave me the basis for valuing -- and wanting to go to -- "other places".

Over the years, films have played a large role in not only my life, but the lives of others. Making a list of favorite, best, and most influential travel films is as frequent as the debate over what, exactly, constitutes a "travel film".

For me, the location has to play an important role in the storyline. It cannot simply be the background -- I usually ask myself if the film could have been set anywhere else. If the answer is "no", then it's a travel film in some way. It evokes a sense of place and this somehow reflects in the overall storyline. The list below is far from comprehensive, and ignores other potential inclusions such as Captain Corelli's Mandolin;  The African Queen; Grand Prix (or LeMans for that matter); Romancing the Stone and a multitude of other wonderful films over the years.

Paris, An American in Paris

Another factor has to be that it shows the locale in something of a positive light. It has to, in some way, appeal to your sense of adventure or at the very least make you want to explore the setting(s) in a bit more detail. It does NOT need to be filmed on location, though for obvious reasons it helps. Two of my choices below were filmed on sound stages, but I will explain my thinking in more detail below.

But what these films share is an understanding of their environment and how much that environment can impact ourselves. In some of them the setting is a tapestry against which the action takes place. Would the biplane attack in North by Northwest have been as terrifying in a city or in a forest instead of on the Great Plains? Unlikely. The open space left nowhere to hide, leaving the main character exposed and vulnerable. 

Some of the films concentrate on their setting. Encounters at the End of the World is about Antarctica. As the only documentary in my list -- documentaries being a 'too-easy' category of films for this sort of list because they are exactly about locations and settings...it defies the central idea of film stories which motivate you to travel without being themselves explicitly about the destination -- it differs from the majority of "This is Antarctica" documentaries because it deals with the people who themselves have to contend with the environment and how that environment affects them. Yeah, that also applies to many other documentary-type films, but it's my list and I'll do it my way. (Argue with me about this and I'll trot out In Search of Ancient Astronauts to silence you once and for all!)

New Orleans, Cat People
This list does not contain solely films which had their affect on me as a child. Some of them did, but others served to reinforce my thinking as I grew and as I matured (some would tell you these were not simultaneous events). In a way, some of them have not yet materialized for me. I have not yet been to Antarctica, Wadi Rum, a Venezuelan plateau or the Amazon, though they all feature prominently in films below. They're still targets for the future.

Cortona, Under the Tuscan Sun
Finally, the shots I've used for this blog entry are from places I have been as a result of seeing them in
films. Had I not seen them, had them suggested to me, chances are they would never have been a chosen travel destination. All of the places you see photographed here came to me at some initial moment in a darkened movie theater. I found my way because some way, some how I saw them in a film and when it came time  to plaAnd not for the last time, either. I've cited what I think the inspirational film was, and even if I'm wrong you'll never know the difference. Life is funny like that.

So, all this in mind:

My Top Ten Travel Films, in no order of any kind

Under the Tuscan Sun - Commonly tossed aside as a chick flick, this is actually a pretty inspirational travel film. It features, of course, the town of Cortona in the Tuscan hills. The director of the film chose, rightly, to film the big city scenes in cool, blue gray tones which nicely offset the lively colors of Tuscany. This is a film about a character getting back in touch with her own self, restoring a sense and balance. Finding our own life balances is a task which all too frequently get brushed aside by daily activities which consume us and risk turing our world into that blue gray mess. Cortona, and to a lesser extent Positano (a picturesque town clinging to the side of the steep Amalfi Coast, are lessons in that balance, of taking the time and making the effort to establish connections and appreciate the world around us.

New York, North by Northwest
North by Northwest - A travel film? Really? Yep. New York and the Great Plains are but two of the locations in this film. The third, of course, is Mount Rushmore. Throughout the movie each contributes not only a setting, but a mood. As I noted above, I cannot think of a better spot for the biplane attack than the Plains. New York is shown as a vibrant, energetic place in complete contrast to the isolation of the Plains and the majesty of Rushmore. It typifies the Metropolitan New York of the 'forties, 'fifties and 'sixties. In this film, each setting establishes both the mood and the action.

UP! - Oh, who wouldn't want to pack up the house and move to a South American tepui (plateau) in search of adventure? In this case, the animators relied on their own travels to Mount Roraima as inspiration for the film's second half. The otherworldy landscapes and tremendous waterfalls are real, and the film uses them as the basis for the protagonist's dreams and then his reality. The message of the film is that paradise does exist if you're open to it.

Roman Holiday - The name of the film kid of gives it away, but a good deal of the plot revolves around  a princess who has escaped her overwhelmingly structured life for a chance to stop and appreciate the world around her. There is a good deal of travelogue-style footage of Rome, but also an attempt to show the lifestyle of an American expat/reporter living there. Much is made of the magic of Rome, including its romantic allure.

Rome, Roman Holiday
Aguirre: The Wrath of God - The Amazon is a full-blown character in this film, and I do mean character. The human search for gold, more accurately Eldorado itself, plays out against the jungle and river in a way that reflects badly on the men involved. As their pursuit descends into madness, the river becomes more than a conveyance, it becomes an implacable force demonstrating man's folly. Why, given all that, would it be a good travel film? Because the river and jungle are spectacularly beautiful. One gets the impression that if given the proper respect the region is full of adventure and opportunity -- just don't look for any lost cities of gold...

Raiders of the Lost Ark - I don't think I even need to go into detail on this one. One adventure after another, and all against a series of settings which look all the more romantic in the rose colored historic glasses Spielberg used to make it. From the Himalayas to the desert surrounding Cairo, the world itself is the playground complete with dotted lines on a victorian map as we transition from one exotic locale to another. 
London, Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins
No, I have not lost it. The London depicted in Mary Poppins does not, and never did, exist. I am thoroughly aware of that. But it is a fantasy version, an idealized London not dissimilar to Disney's Main Street as a stand in for the real thing. There is room for the imaginary version of a place to act as a motivator to see the real thing. The Paris of An American in Paris is a comparable setting, and yet both films manage to create such a vivid and three-dimensional fantasy that it inspires the viewer to want to go there. (The expectation that what you will find there is the only variable, of course. If you expect to find an imaginary Victorian London, then it is the expectations which are off, not the motivations.)

Lawrence of Arabia - When it comes to exotic and well-filmed locals, Lawrence of Arabia is perhaps the king of all travel films. David Lean used the desert as both a test of the characters, and a framework by which to define them. Visually he took the time to create the Arabian landscape in such a way as to bring it alive for the viewer. Not just a setting, a world into and of itself. For me it has inspired a desire to get to Wadi Rum and sleep under the stars. Though a demanding land, it also seems quite spiritual for the person who is open to such things. Lawrence was forever changed by the land and its people, and perhaps it can have an echo of the same impact on a modern day traveler.

Encounters at the End of the World - As I mentioned above, this is the only documentary in the list. It isn't a travelogue, however. It's the story of the people there, and how they are impacted and challenged by the frozen continent. In my own mind, it makes me want to go there, to not only visit but experience. Someday...

The Bing Crosby, Bob Hope Road Pictures - No discussion of inspirational travel films would be complete without a nod to the entire "Road to" series of films from Hope and Crosby. Yes, filmed on sound stages, and certainly not much more than recycled gags and plotlines set in different exotic locales around the world, the Road pictures were fun little romps which celebrated other cultures by depicting two everyday guys as stand ins for ourselves. Oftentimes the story would revolve around some sort of intrigue that the boys became innocently involved in -- with Dorothy Lamour somewhere in the mix. In their own way, and in a much more humorous vein, the Road pictures were distant cousins to the much later and far more serious James Bond films. Villains, heists, heroines and attempted murders were usually the order of the day, yet the boys managed to overcome the odds and set the world to right again. All seemingly accomplished while riding camels and singing in the Moroccan desert, and that seemed like just a whole lot of fun all the way around.


So, it's an unusual list in several ways, but if it matched every other kind of list made up by everyone else what would be the point?

We all learned, at some point in our lives, to want to travel. To go find new places to go and new things to do. The inspiration for this comes from a multitude of sources, not the least of which is the Silver Screen.

Positano, Under the Tuscan Sun

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