- The Thumbnail Traveler
- 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.
Thursday, March 10, 2016
Film Sites: Location, Location, Location
"Cartagena? Angel, you are hell and gone from Cartagena. Cartagena's over there on the coast."
- Michael Douglas, Romancing the Stone
Because we live in the Los Angeles area, we see a lot of filming for television and movies. Just part of the experience here. Long Beach, my home town, is a hotbed for production given the city's diversity of looks and neighborhoods. You've seen "The LBC", as we are called in rap culture, in many shows and films, playing everything from a midwestern small town to Miami Beach. (Both Dexter and CSI Miami shot the majority of their external scenes here in the LBC.)
But we are exposed to the film industry all over the LA area.
As such I am working, very slowly, on a photography article for the Project Torchwood website, detailing for them the filming sites for the 2011 cable tv show TORCHWOOD: MIRACLE DAY. It's a slow process, and I'm roughly 2/3rds of the way through (though I suspect that much progress will surprise even them!).
In previous columns I have written about the impact films and television have on the public's perception of places, and how, more directly, films (and tv) altered and invigorated my own perceptions of travel and different cultures.
But if I am to be truthful about it, rare are the movies (and tv shows) in which the location of the action is itself a character in the story. As much as I love the Bond films, and as much as they fed my youthful desire to see exotic places, the locations of these films are not really more than window dressing. It's not essential for Bond to be on a particular Caribbean island. Or European city. Or Asian city. They're all there solely to show you how cool Bond is, and how big his world is.
The locations don't drive the stories, they simply are background against which the story evolves.
Some films, however, rely upon the location to itself be a character. It frames the story and is an essential element of it. The story could not be told in another location without significant rewrites.
Taking as our example, the scene in MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE -- GHOST PROTOCOL where Tom Cruise's character of Ethan Hunt dangles precariously from the upper floors of the Burj Khalifa building, currently the world's tallest. The argument could be made that scene HAD to take place in Dubai, given that's the location of the building. But Dubai isn't actually a character, it's a location. Cruise could just as easily been dangling from the Petronas Towers in Singapore; the Eiffel Tower in Paris; or the Seattle Space Needle. Each could have fulfilled the role of location, and the story would be essentially unchanged.
On the other hand, as I have written before, the locations in the movie UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN are essential to the plot. They drive the narrative and are themselves characters in the movie. Simply moving the movie's location to Antigua, Guatemala -- a similarly historic and vibrant location -- isn't possible. The dynamics would change as would the story.
The tv series I mentioned before, TORCHWOOD, takes place to a very large extent in Cardiff, Wales. And that city is very much party of the overall look and feel of the show. Cardiff was itself, over the first three series, very much a character.
For the film side of things, where the budgets are bigger and the production more elaborate, it's the smaller, more intimate movies which allow the location to thrive and become something more than a simple canvas for the story. Batman has his Gotham City, and STAR TREK IV needed San Francisco as their modern day setting. But the Bond films, TRANSFORMERS, the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise, and so many other big budget movies could be transplanted without damage to the plot or visuals.
But the smaller, more intimate stories often rely heavily upon the location to give the audience a view into the characters. PACIFIC RIM doesn't really need Hong Kong to destroy. It could take out Tokyo or San Francisco or New York. All it really needs is a waterfront city with bright shiny lights.
On the other hand, George Clooney's THE DESCENDANTS would be lost without Hawaii, and a completely different story altogether if moved somewhere else. Sherlock Holmes without London wouldn't be Sherlock Holmes in anything more than a name. (A quick comparison of the BBC's SHERLOCK and CBS' ELEMENTARY demonstrates the point perfectly. Elementary's main character is as much Sherlock Holmes as was primary character Dr. House in the tv series HOUSE. A kissing cousin, perhaps, but not Sherlock himself.)
The very best films are models of connectivity. The characters, the locations and the story all have to coalesce into a cohesive and compelling experience for the audience.
Some of my favorite movies -- ignoring television for the moment -- are those in in which the location is as much a character as the people are. Oh, and if you catch that two of the movies feature Kathleen Turner, it's completely coincidental. Completely.
The aforementioned UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN (about which I've already written extensively).
This film, starring George Clooney, takes place on the Hawaiian Islands of O'ahu and Kaua'i. The locations play a fundamental part of the overall storyline, as do the typically Hawaiian characters within the film.
The plot deals with an extended family with a multigenerational history as descendants of Hawaiian royalty. They collectively own a vast area of undeveloped acreage on Kauai, which is the subject of intense intra-family debate. Some relatives want to sell and collect their millions, others want to honor the family tradition.
As such, the location is deeply integral to the storyline, and the islands themselves become aspects of the story, not just background. If you haven't seen this film and have never been to Hawaii, this will give you a taste for the islands like few other movies have managed.
Notting Hill is what Americans would refer to as a suburb of London.It's a wonderful little pocket neighborhood with an artistic side. It's the site of the nearly two-century old Portobello Road Market, while at the same time full of of trendy shops and culinary hot spots.
The film of the same name honors that location and tradition. While Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts emote in the foreground, the Notting Hill district plays more than simply a backdrop. Todays' Portobello Road is both traditional (Hugh Grant's character, a bookseller) and cosmopolitan (Julia Roberts', a Hollywood actress). Notting Hill is the mesh of the old and the new, providing a unique playground for the characters at first seemingly very disparate, but by the edge finding a way to integrate their lives and their values.
Much like Notting Hill itself.
ROMANCING THE STONE
There is no pretending that the Colombia of this film is the Colombia of today. Nor is Cartagena anything like the small city with rough edges.
But the movie relies heavily upon the Colombia which existed at the time, and it would be nearly impossible to relocate the story to another place. There is a danger and mystery to Cartagena, so very intense in the 1980s, that continues to this day, though it's enshrouded by a friendly and cosmopolitan veneer that shows that the city -- and the country -- are stepping into the 21st century.
The film deals with kidnapping, drug deals, nefarious and mysterious strangers, and the theft of a massive emerald. Colombia's countryside, traditions and people are a key element to the story which plays the stereotypical South American drug lord culture against the sleek streets of New York City.
Cartagena of today is vastly different from the city in the movie, but when watching the movie and then comparing it with the modern day, you can still see some of the rough around the edges.
New York has long been the subject of little films which take place in a handful of streets in one neighborhood. Most of Woody Allen's films are that way. There used to be a joke that the humor in his films was really only understandable if you came from a four square block area in midtown.
Crossing Delancey makes full use of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The location of the film is essential. A good portion of the film's story revolves around the clash between classic New York values and what would likely be called "New York intelligentsia". Amy Irving's character isn't interested in a particular man because he seems too traditional, too reserved for her: her world is much more about books and writing and parties in Midtown. She imagines herself attracted to a famous author (Jeroen Krabbe), rather than the humble pickle salesman (Peter Riegert).
But in the same way the two aspects of Notting Hill, above, frame that story, the difference between characters in this film are reflected by the aspects of New York as a whole. The traditional values of the Lower East Side win out over the transitory and shallow world of Midtown.
In that regard, there are few other cities in which this story -- relying upon decades of viewer familiarity with these neighborhoods of New York - could be told.
Okay. The title gives it away. This one is pure L.A. and relies so heavily upon the city's neighborhoods and known stereotypes that to transpose the story to another place would be an impossibility. Whole scenes rely upon "L.A." for their impact. The earthquake. The freeway sign. The freeway shootings. The colonics.
The main character is a weatherman who, unfortunately, relies a bit too heavily upon Southern California's renowned sunny skies. His love interest is a British woman who, sadly, just doesn't understand L.A. at the beginning.
Steve Martin captures the city and the vibe beautifully, allowing those of us who live here to recognize those sillier parts of ourselves without being mean about it.
As a love letter to a one-of-a-kind city, this is second to none.
One of the last truly great film noir movies, Body Heat is a tremendous movie in which Florida's vaunted heat and lifestyles play into the story itself. Evocative of such other great movies such as Key Largo, Body Heat ups the...well, heat. Both from an intensely physical way, to the environment of Florida's oppressive summer months.
Heat. Humidity. Stifling nights, and characters right out of a Sam Spade story, Body Heat captures seductive Florida, allowing the characters of the film to play against an interactive and visceral environment, not just a movie set.