Sunday, August 10, 2008

Creative Geography in Cinema



The question I've been rolling around in my head all week is: How do real and imaginary geographies interact in the movies? But before we go there, let me back up and set the stage for a second.

There's a fascinating difference between the arts of painting and cinema, specifically the way in which they capture physical reality.

In painting it takes talent, hard work, and craft knowledge in order to reproduce reality with great detail and fidelity. Thus, realism is not something that comes easily or naturally in painting. Instead, what is overtly present in most paintings--all but the most 'realistic' ones--is unmistakable artifice.

In cinema, the opposite is true. The camera has a realistic urge: Capturing physical reality with great, detailed fidelity is easy. Turn on the camera and physical reality rushes in, automatically, with its excess of detail in tact. In this sense, realism comes naturally to cinema. No special talent, hard work and craft are required to turn on a camera. It is this 'automatism', Andre Bazin claimed, that is the reason for cinema's special vocation: that of realism. Bazin felt that in relation to all the other arts, this bestowed upon cinema a special responsibility--to capture reality.

But even if the camera is particularly suited--more so than the paintbrush--to perfectly capturing physical reality in all its detail, not all cinema embraces this vocation of realism and commits itself exclusively to it. Most cinema, as we all know, combines its raw material of images gleaned from physical reality with significant applications of artifice.

So now we can circle back to our starting point with the question: How do reality and artifice interact in one very specific case, that of geography? In other words: How do real and imaginary geographies co-exist in a film?

There's a great story about MGM producer Irving Thalberg who once decided to stage a scene that showed Paris with a moonlit ocean in the background. His art director, the famous Cedric Gibbons, objected. Thalberg replied:

We can't cater to a handful of people who know Paris. Audiences only see about ten percent of what's on screen, anyway, and if they're watching your background instead of my actors, the scene will be useless. Whatever you put there, they'll believe that's how it is. [1]

Whatever you put there, they'll believe that's how it is. Take Monument Valley: a very real place, and an iconic presence in the films of John Ford. He shot seven films there and it's said that filmmakers have shied away from using it as a location because he forged such a personal association with it. Not only its presence but even its absence (e.g. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) draws special attention and comment.

In Ford's The Searchers, Ethan and Marty spend seven years looking for Debbie. They ride through summer and snow, covering vast distances....but without ever leaving Monument Valley! In Stagecoach, the first Ford film to be set there, the coach spends most of the duration of the film traveling from Tonto to Lordsburg. But Monument Valley is clearly visible at both the place of origin and the destination. Finally, in Cheyenne Autumn, the Cheyenne journey a thousand miles, but amazingly, we as viewers never really lose sight of the Valley. [2]

More examples. In S. Ramanathan's Bombay to Goa (1972), real space and diegetic space are brought together in an interesting way (see this old post on rear projections). Most of the film takes place on a bus. When we're inside, we see Bombay and then the countryside speed by on rear projections. But each time the passengers disembark and the narrative events move outdoors, they do so at actual locations along the Bombay-Goa highway.

The subject of Thom Andersen's wonderful documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) is the manner in which that city has been represented in hundreds of films. "Silly geography makes for silly movies," says Andersen, and therein lies my one small complaint about his movie: its overly insistent protestations about how films have played fast and loose with the city's geography. While this is undeniably true, the movie's steady and enduring tone is one of disappointment with a long tradition of films that forsake realism in depicting the city.

Peter Wollen poses a contrasting view in an excellent piece on films about the twentieth-century city called "Delirious Projections". (It was published in Sight & Sound in 1992 but remains, to my knowledge, unanthologized.) In it he tries to show with a broad variety of examples that although it's been argued that films with social relevance and political critique should hew to a realist style (a problematic notion), some of the best 'city films' in history owe as much if not more to studio artifice as they do to the respect they accord the integrity of real urban spaces.

Let me provide one example of creative geography from his article. The 1920s saw a flowering of the 'city symphony' genre with films like Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler's Manhatta, Alberto Cavalcanti's Rien que les heures and Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: A Metropolitan Symphony, the form culminating in Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera. But the Vertov film, I was surprised to learn, actually depicts not a real city but a 'compilation city' made up of urban areas in the Ukraine in addition to parts of Moscow.

So I'm wondering: Can we think of some interesting examples of the way real and imaginary geographies come together in films? Or the varied ways--both realistic and artificial--in which films approach geography? Any thoughts on the subject are welcome.

Notes: [1] The Irving Thalberg story originally appeared in Samuel Marx's Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints (1975). I discovered it through Robert B. Ray's The ABCs of Classic Hollywood (2008). [2] Edward Buscombe's BFI monograph on Stagecoach makes these points about Monument Valley.


* * *

Some links:

-- At Moving Image Source, Andrew Tracy on the films of Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet, which are part of the Cinematheque Ontario retrospective "Memory/Montage/Modernism".

-- Also at the site: Livia Bloom on Malle, Varda, Akerman, Vigo, and the philosophy of the flâneur film; and Martin Rubin on economics and sex in a Depression-era Busby Berkeley musical.

-- Good news: the Notes section at Jonathan Rosenbaum's site has been outfitted with an RSS feed, so we can track those posts in addition to the main, featured writings. Recent posts at the site include: "Potential Perils of the Director's Cut," as well as notes on Ousmane Sembene, Charles Fort and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

-- At Strictly Film School: Acquarello posts a review of Randal Johnson's recent book on the films of Manoel de Oliveira; and a selected list of recent and upcoming DVD releases both US and worldwide.

-- DK Holm at the Vancouver Voice on the films of Powell/Pressburger.

-- At Culturemonkey: The Dark Knight.

-- At Michael J. Anderson's blog Tativille: pieces on "Rossellini and Sainthood" and Renoir's The Southerner.

Square Rock at Monument Valley (The Searchers). Comanche in the background--hugging the landscape--and white men in the foreground.

30 Comments:

Blogger dave said...

When I began this post, I though you'd be discussing the construction of spatial relationships in cinema (geography vs Geography?). Of course these are related, but the topic you've brought up is more about the poetic qualities of Geography as contrasted with realistic presentation thereof. Part of the reason I think this use of geography is so important in cinema is precisely because, as per Bazin, realism is a default position for the photographic image. Painting, which lends itself to artifice, must strive for realism to encompass the confluence of the two to the service of meaning. Cinema is the other side of the coin. Maybe we should distinguish 'realism' from 'reality,' which might be what the photographic image is well-suited to representing. In a strange twist, that leaves artifice with the role of creating realism: that is, expressing reality rather than simply capturing it.

August 10, 2008 7:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, interesting points you make, Dave.

I guess I mean 'reality' in this post to be identical to 'physical geographic reality'--the reality of place that's already out there in the world.

'Realism' would then capture that pre-existing physical reality with maximum fidelity, respecting all of its spatial integrity. Not only individual images but the diegesis itself would have to respect this spatial integrity (unlike the Ford examples I cited above). This would be 'geographic realism'.

Note: I'm not making a case for 'realism' here. In fact, I feel quite the opposite. I like Andersen's film a lot but side with Wollen over him above.

August 10, 2008 7:29 PM  
Blogger dave said...

Yes, but I think 'geographic realism' might in some ways be the enemy of other realisms ('poetic realism,' 'psychological realism,' etc). The moment in Vertigo when the camera tracks around a kiss and the hotel room is no longer a hotel room - that's a form of realism as well.

Spatial realism (for its own sake) is fairly low on my hierarchy of realisms in the cinema, unless it's used to further other realisms I consider more important to the cinematic experience.

August 10, 2008 7:39 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Yes, Dave, those are good points. We're in agreement.

August 10, 2008 7:42 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dave, you've just opened up a Pandora's box: there's material for loads of discussion on all the different 'realisms' that are part of cinema parlance.

PS Like you, a commitment to 'spatial realism' is not high on my list either; thus my desire to seek out examples of creative license that filmmakers take with geography.

August 10, 2008 7:55 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I sometimes had a hard time dealing with some recent films that took place in Miami, particularly Miami Beach, precisely because what the films presented was not the geographic reality. My most personal experience was seeing some second unit filming of Transporter 2, literally at my front door, and then watching the film. It was as if my neighborhood had been re-assembled.

August 11, 2008 12:41 AM  
Anonymous Mike Grost said...

"Providence" (Alain Resnais) constructs an imaginary reality, half out of Providence, Rhode Island in the United Sates, and half out of France. And "Family Plot" (Hitchcock) builds an imaginary city half out of San Francisco, half Los Angeles. It is another of Hitch's film experiments.
Huge numbers of recent films have been shot in Canada (for lower costs) but set in the United States. This leads to odd effects. The recent "Assault on Precinct 13" remake is allegedly set in Detroit, where I live. But it is obviously not really filmed here (made in Canada).
The TV series "Night Heat" was set in an unnamed city, but filmed in Toronto. In one episode, the plot has the cop characters flying to Toronto, to pursue fleeing criminals. We see the cop heroes landing at Toronto Airport, then scooting off to Toronto locations that look just like the settings we've seen through the whole series... Only now, they are labeled "Toronto" in the story-line.
"The Amateur" has a plot set in Prague, but it was filmed in Vienna. "Amadeus" is set in Vienna, but was filmed in Prague.
"Before Sunset" allegedly makes hash of Paris geography. And "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" has the Eiffel Tower across the street from the Louvre. This is a Joe Dante spoof of a tourist's Paris.

August 11, 2008 9:33 AM  
Blogger adam said...

One of the things that I thought was wonderful about both 'Café Lumiere' and 'Flight of the Red Balloon' was the feeling that Hou wasn't concerned with exploiting any residual connotations of the respective cities. It made me realise how rare it is to presented with a cinematic version of Paris which just lets the city breathe. There's no attempt to show us 'romantic Paris' or 'grimy Paris' or 'suburban Paris' or 'bohemian Paris', and although I don't know the city, I had a gut feeling that Hou's approach captured something incredibly true about it. I think the same applied to Tokyo in Café Lumiere.

That said, I certainly don't 'disapprove' of filmmakers riffing on geographical iconography. I suppose there's a distinction between exploiting or relying on a location's identity, and skillfully integrating it. As an example, I'd suggest that 'Lost in Translation' slips into the former, while 'Vertigo' is firmly rooted in the latter...

August 11, 2008 10:25 AM  
Blogger Tucker said...

Girish, this is a fascinating topic and one I have not thought much about. There’s got to be endless possibilities for teasing out interesting ideas. Here my off-the-cuff thoughts:

For how much cinema is a medium suited for depicting reality, it seems to me that the limitations of cinema necessarily require all depictions of space be imaginative creations (visual & psychic) rather than facsimiles. We know this to be true, though we might seek to construct spatial relationships in our minds that correspond to what we know from reality. I think it really depends on the intention of the filmmakers (not that we can read their minds, but that we can infer). When we “enter” a film we enter the “world of the work” which, though it may rely upon previous understandings of realty and its geographic or spatial relationships, is a unique and imaginary world. In a film like Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns we have a film that depicts a version of 1920’s Paris and its environs, though the film was filmed entirely in Montreal in the 1980s. Even if we know this information going in we do not complain for we know any depiction of the Paris of the 1920s will be, in some significant ways, false. We still go alone with it because we sense the intention of Rudolph is not verisimilitude to geography but to emotion. In the same way Ford uses Monument Valley for its evocative connotations as a special psychic reality rather than a real place where real things happened. In fact, we even know that the images of Monument Valley are images (now cinematically iconic images), not reality. One could even say they are not images but icons of emotions, and that, I believe, is often (maybe always) the role of geography and space as elements within narrative film. If this is true then there might not be such a gulf between painting and cinema in that regard.

And yet, there is, as you point out, a realistic impulse in cinema – that of the optical nature of the lens and that of time. We know that “realistic” is different than the various “realisms” when we see, from a distance, the obvious stylizations of what have been taught to be the realisms. But the realistic is still an evocative construct. We know this even as we embrace an artwork for being real or true to the real. In this sense geography is not unlike biography – we judge based on what we know, what we want to know, what we desire, and what we fetishize. In this sense a San Francisco chase scene might include Lombard street or a kiss in Paris might include the Eiffel Tower in the background. Thus geography can provide a realistic backdrop while still being a reduction of reality. Think of the Berlin wall in Wenders’ Wings of Desire, a real place functioning as a backdrop to an entirely imaginary tale of angels. Even then that wall is a truncated image of itself, relying more on what the audience brings to the picture than what is actually seen. One could argue, then, that geography functions as both a kind of denotative shorthand and a connotative longhand. Monument Valley = The West (shorthand), Monument Valley = all that is implied by “The West” (longhand). In this context geography is not needed for the exactness of its spatial relationships, it is needed only to serve the story.

Well, that was more than I planned on writing.

August 11, 2008 4:15 PM  
Blogger blue said...

In RAGING BULL, Scoreses breaks the laws of spatial realism in the boxing ring to achieve a variety of effects on the viewer. The size of the ring changes throughout the film. When La Motta is cornered and feeling a loss of control of his surroundings, the ring is smaller to create a claustrophobic, trapped feeling. At other times he has the upper hand, and the ring is larger and more expansive, giving him (and us) room to breathe. This effect does not represent physical reality, but does accurately represent La Motta’s psychological state of mind.

THE DARK KNIGH represents another, less localized example of a filmmaker taking creative license with geography. Chicago as Gotham City is central to the look and feel of the film, yet there are many instances where the geographic reality of Chicago is broken in service of the film (for example, bridges over the Chicago river are made to represent bridges to the main land from an island).

August 11, 2008 5:59 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

I would disagree with you in why Andersen is pointing out the grossly inaccurate depictions of geographic space in movies set in Los Angeles - it's not that geographic space perse is of primary importance to Andersen. Rather, the avoidance of geographic realism is just one part of the reason that Andersen gives in explaining what ultimately is his point: that Hollywood movies are grossly inaccurate (and, in fact, are an artistic dead-end) about ALL aspects of Los Angeles life (emotional, economic, social, political, architectural, artistic, geographic, natural, sociological, historical, etc). It's not that geographic fidelity in itself is that important to Andersen, it's that it's merely yet another sign (but an immediately obvious one) of intentionally avoiding the real to live in immature fantasies to avoid facing real things.

I believe that Andersen builds his documentary to point us to where he believes the future cinema needs to go. Andersen highlights several films in the documentary as exemplars: Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, Sam Fuller's The Crimson Kimono, Kent Mackenzie's The Exiles, John Cassavetes' Love Streams and, the film which ends the documentary, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep. (Maya Deren's Los Angeles films also get a positive aside). Andersen begins with relatively safe territory: most film fans know Kiss Me Deadly and Samuel Fuller and the film noir genre comparatively well (even if Fuller's Crimson Kimono is an obscurity among Fuller's work, it's safe to say that film noir fans have at least some passing familiarity with Fuller's better-known films). But Andersen is pointing away from such (comparatively) safer films to much more difficult and challenging works.

We should note that many of Andersen's exemplars are either not particularly very geographically accurate or are not realist movies at all (Love Streams' dream sequences and Maya Deren, for instance). But all try to, in many different ways, penetrate "deeper" into life in Los Angeles.

August 11, 2008 6:54 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

This is a rich vein for consideration - if you think about how landscapes and locations and whatnot are used in films, it can start to be very strange. I’m inclined to think of it in Peirce’s terms: there is the “indexical” element (this picture is an object made by the place you see), “iconic” (what you see looks like a landscape, a place, whatever) - and a whole host of “symbolic” elements - all the associations and meanings a place can have; the ways the images of more or less real places are combined to create fictional places, etc. It also reminds me of Pasolini’s notion of film as the “written language of reality” - though I don’t think I can possibly say much coherent about it. But there is a “double-articulation” at work, in combining images of real places to create fictional ones. Pasolini himself made very good use of the multiple registers landscapes and spaces and places can have - taking the “reality” of places - their physical specificity, as well as their significance (what we know about what the place is) - and recombing them into other meanings. The best example might be the way he uses the landscapes and spaces of southern Italyto represent first century Palestine in The Gospel According to Matthew. He uses the land both “iconically” for its resemblance to the landscape of Palestine, and metaphorically, because of the relationship between Southern Italy and Palestine, and their analogical relationships to Rome. Or I think of Teorema, his use of landscapes there - especially the end - whether it’s seen as an impossible connection (train station and volcano) or as an ambiguous shift from a “real” world to a fantastic world, it's a fascinating treatment of space...

August 11, 2008 8:43 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I'm with Alex, here. I think the reason why Andersen's pointing out of geographic inaccuracies might seem to outweigh his more substantive, larger complaint with Hollywood's treatment of its city, is pretty much the same reason why Bazin was so interested in cinema as a realist medium: the geographic inaccuracies are easily captured by the camera and proved with his editing. It takes a little more argument (which he supplies in his narration) to delve into the other aspects of the issue.

I love this topic, though! Since I'm just back from a trip to Costa Rica, where I learned with my own two eyes that, despite what watching the Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993) might have one believe, San Jose is nowhere near the beach, that's my own first instinct for an answer to your final questions. Perhaps it's intended a clue, for those knowledgeable in Central American geography, that what we're about to see in the rest of the film is pure fantasy as well. On the other hand, the decision to set the film in Costa Rica can be read as an intriguing commentary on the way a certain kind of mega-fauna oriented, thrill-seeking eco-tourism looms so large in the local economy of the country. (I had a terrific time by the way.)

August 11, 2008 11:10 PM  
Blogger Matt Zoller Seitz said...

This is a rich topic, Girish. For some reason two very different films spring immediately to mind.

One is Akira Kurosawa's "High and Low" -- which imagines Tokyo as an emblematic space, not a geographically exact replica of a real place, to show how class inequity begets violence; the kidnapper can literally see the tycoon's house on the hill from his own home in the valley, which makes the city feel like a feudal province, a castle keep surrounded by peasant hovels.

The other movie is one I inexplicably keep bringing up here (maybe because it's a stealth candidate for my Desert Island list): the Coen brothers' "The Hudsucker Proxy." It's set in New York in 1957 but the production design is so dreamy and comic-book like that it becomes an ur-city, more Gotham than the Gotham pictured in any Batman film, with generous doses of Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly (directly referencing the "Broadway Melody" sequence of "Singin' in the Rain" with Kelly-as-bumpkin getting off the bus with stickered suitcases and a blade of grass between his teeth) as well as Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and Orson Welles (particularly "The Trial," a huge influence on the visually similar 1989 "Batman" and Terry Gilliam's "Brazil") and splashes of "Metropolis." It's a deliberately unreal space (most of the skyscrapers are models or matte paintings) yet the first time I saw the Manhattan skyline from high up at night during a snowfall, "Hudsucker" was the movie that immediately sprung to mind. I thought, "They were right: this is New York." To this day when I ride the subway over the Manhattan bridge and see the island spread out all around me, I hear that movie's romantic theme, Alexander Gauk's "Great Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia," in my head. Great movie cities are more real than real; they capture the feeling of thinking about a city.

August 12, 2008 12:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for all these stimulating thoughts, all! And for taking the time to set them down.

I'm frantically putting syllabi and course material together for the onrushing new semester, so excuse me if I'm not able to respond individually to these thoughts. I'm sure enjoying reading (and thinking about) them, though.

August 12, 2008 8:21 AM  
Blogger glenntkenny said...

I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned what I'd thought would be an obvious example for discussion: Godard's "Alphaville," in which he constructs the futuristic title city out of actual Paris in 1965.

August 12, 2008 11:18 AM  
Blogger That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Another great case is Orson Welles' The Trial---all the interiors are Paris, all the exteriors are, I think, Zagreb. As a result, you keep moving from lush continental interior spaces to a bleak Soviet outside, and the disjunction does a lot to further the film's surreal mood.

There's a bit in one of Vertov's manifestos where he proposes "kino-architecture"---shoot one wall in an apartment in Moscow, another wall from Paris, a door in Odessa, cut them all together and you have a space that exists only cinematically. Hence the multiple cities in Man With a Movie Camera---in his pursuit of pure cinema, it's only appropriate that he should create a city that is equally pure (not to mention illustrative of the revolution reaching across the world and blah blah blah).

August 12, 2008 12:48 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

For me, the strangest exterior/interior contrast is in the original House on Haunted Hill. The Frank Lloyd Wright house that is seen has no relationship to the more traditional interior of the house (not that having a huge vat of acid in the basement is traditional).

I wish I could come up with a decent joke about a man's William Castle . . .

August 12, 2008 2:53 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Think of mindscapes--Kubrick's Overlook hotel as a fractal maze revealing ever-repeating, ever spiralling versions of itself.

Or in Pangarap ng Puso where the Negros rain forests house waterfalls and ogres, enchantment and terror, depending on who's wandering the forest, how old he is, and what state of mind--innocent, desparing, insane--he happens to be in.

Someone once asked me: how can innocent children know of horror, and I replied (or tried my best anyway) to explain that even the innocent know horror, that there's an entire enchanted forest inside of each child, no matter how naive. You just need to open the closet door and let the creatures out.

August 12, 2008 11:26 PM  
Blogger Lukas Foerster said...

For me, one of the most interesting films in this regard is John McTiernans Remake of Rollerball. It takes place in several countries in central asia -or at least it says so. In fact, all we see are some maps of the region between the scenes. In these maps, the individual countries have different colours (Mongolia, Kazachstan etc), but that's about it. The main location of every "country" is some kind of non-place, that forever looks the same: The Rollerball-Arena and its surrounding buildings, that not once feature even the slightest reference to Central Asia. The whole scenery of the film plays out like an abstract dream of brutal, capitalistic space, devoid of everything local or nonidentical.

August 13, 2008 9:26 AM  
Blogger David said...

"I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned what I'd thought would be an obvious example for discussion: Godard's "Alphaville," in which he constructs the futuristic title city out of actual Paris in 1965."

This one of the many, many fascinating features of Vertov for me too. He's making propaganda--meaning, showing the world as it should be, not as it is--from documentary footage of the world as it is (not that the awesome dissection--in all ways--in the opening 10 minutes of 1/6th of the World isn't as incendiary an attack on capitalism's class divide as there'll ever be). Using whatever his dispatched cinematographers gave him, he's not too far off from, say, Ken Jacobs: the one revealing the shiny possibilities of the future, the other the lies and betrayals of the past.

August 14, 2008 2:22 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks you, everyone.

David, fascinating connection there between Vertov and Ken Jacobs. btw, I really enjoyed your two posts on Westerns at the Auteurs' Notebook.

Some links:

-- Karina Longworth has an extended interview with Whit Stillman.
-- The Siren picks out and writes about several titles that are playing in the Kay Francis series on TCM.
-- Doug Cummings has a couple of new posts, including one on Night of the Hunter:

"The movie is well-deserving of special edition treatment, not only because its original barebones DVD is incorrectly formatted as 1.33×1 open matte (the film was composed for 1.66×1), but also because it is often described as the only classic Hollywood film for which many of its rushes (nearly eight hours worth) still exist; this is in large part due to Laughton’s directorial method, in which he left the camera running for extended periods of time while actively coaching his performers through multiple line readings. Similar to Kiarostami’s working method today, Laughton would effectively play the roles offscreen so that he could personally shape the performances being filmed. Thus, he might intone Harry Powell’s lines while filming Billy Chapin (playing John Harper) and then turn the camera around and recite Harper’s lines while filming Robert Mitchum (playing Powell), and then edit the two together."

August 14, 2008 10:40 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Vertov, Welles, Godard ... yes, yes, but you are all overlooking the greatest cinematic masterpiece of imaginary geography: MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS: THE MOVIE (Bryan Spicer, 1995). I may well by the only reviewer in the world who gave this a positive rap! In that review I said:

"The chief virtue of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie is that it brings fantasies of a similar magnitude [as those visited by cinema upon Paris or New York] to Australia and places them within the familiar landmarks of Sydney. Suddenly, one of those ugly, excavated construction sites becomes the place where an ancient, evil tomb is unearthed; Sydney Tower becomes a plaything for a monster to merrily break off and swing around.

Sydney happens to be renamed Angel Grove to fit the pre-existing world of TV's Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, but for local viewers this magical transformation of familiar places is an absolute delight. By the time an army of kids piled aboard the monorail to reach the final showdown between good and evil, I was in seventh heaven."

And this brings me a point about Thom Anderson. His work and ideas are great, but 'geographical exactitude' - or its surreal obliteration - of course only means something to those who live in or know those places well. I don't have a clue how 'exact' CHINATOWN is, and Thom wouldn't be able to appreciate how ANGEL BABY by Michael Reimer turns Melbourne into a Surreal space.

In general, I cannot hold much to the 'exactitude' argument (being more of a Surrealist myself). Partly because real sites/places NEVER look the same to the living eye as they do to the camera, especially when the cutting starts. I had the experience the other day of realising that a cemetery I have passed several times a week for 5 years is imaged in a film I know very well, from pretty much the same 'angle' I glimpse it from the bus or tram: but the two 'sights' are so different. I think even Hong Sang-soo 'cheats' simple geographic connectives on Paris street corners in his wonderful NIGHT AND DAY, which I just saw: and why not? I am all for creative/imaginary geography.

August 15, 2008 3:51 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Adrian, I've never seen that Mighty Morphin Power Rangers review. I'm hoping it's one of the many hundreds that will be on your website when it launches in a few months!

August 15, 2008 9:35 AM  
Blogger jason sperb said...

Great topic, Girish.

You may be interested in Matt Hills' work in Fan Cultures on how crucial issues of space are to people who develop attachments to a given audio-visual text. Part of the point there--to build off of earlier discussions above regarding geographical and indexical fidelity in the image--is that the film/show co-exists with the locations where it was shot, such that spatial continuity and fragmentation becomes secondary to the unification of the imaginary space which the audience constructs from both image and geography.

I also feel its interesting to think about how physical spaces anticipate and construct conditions of possibilities for films (Adrian's Rangers review speaks to this), and not just the reverse, after the moment of production and reception--which is how it usually gets framed, so to speak.

Thanks for this post. I think physical spaces--both literally and metaphorically--is the one major still unexplored "landscape" of the cinephile, and my work on the subject is slowing crawling in that direction.

August 15, 2008 11:46 AM  
Blogger celinejulie said...

Maybe this is not directly related to your post, but talking about the interesting use of geography/locations in films reminds me of these films:

--WOLF CREEK (2005, Greg McLean), ROGUE (2007, Greg McLean)

These two Australian films present the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen, but these two films are extremely anti-tourist. I love the sense of evil lurking in these extremely beautiful locations.

--PHANTOM LOVE (2007, Nina Menkes)
In this film, the heroine seems to live in American neighbourhood, but the heroine works in a casino full of Chinese people, and the heroine seems to walk in India from time to time. Therefore, I don’t know exactly where the story really takes place.

--Some films can turn its real location into something fantastic: FATA MORGANA (1971, Werner Herzog), VACANCY (1998, Matthias Mueller), BIRTH OF THE SEANEMA (2004, Sasithorn Ariyavicha)

--Some films can turn its mundane location into something adventurous: LE PONT DU NORD (1982, Jacques Rivette), TURTLES SWIM FASTER THAN EXPECTED (2005, Satoshi Miki)

--Some films can turn its location full of junk and debris into something fantastic: 4 (2004, Ilya Khrzhanovsky), SAT WIBAK NAK LOKE (2008, Paisit Panpruegsachat)

--Some filmmakers turn an empty beach in the present day into one in the future world: GLEN AND RANDA (1971, Jim McBride),
THE STRANGERS IN THE SEA (2008, Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa)

--The story of INDIA SONG (1975, Marguerite Duras) takes place in India, but I guess the film was shot in France. The story of THE KUMPANY 2 (2008, Nathan Homsap + Dhan Lhaow) takes place in China, but the film was shot in a university in Bangkok.

August 16, 2008 12:38 PM  
Blogger Chris Cagle said...

Not to take away from your larger query (an interesting one), but creative geography does have a technical definition in cinema studies: the editing of shots from two different geographic spaces to lend the illusion of a unified story space. There are the million uses so banal as to go unnoticed (e.g. the sitcom establishing shot). the impossible geography viewers notice if they've lived in the location (my fave is the pilot of the TV show Providence, where it looks like the cabbie is ripping Syndey off he's going around in such circles! Or Legally Blonde, where Elle is driving into Boston from the East rather than West) , or the modernist examples which exploit difference we are aware of but smoothes them over perceptually. In that latter category, I'd second Resnais' Providence, which one commenter mentioned. My favorite example is Welles' Othello.

Now, if I'm reading your original post correctly, you seem to be asking what other ways cinema cites and manipulates geographic referent - including cinematography and mise-en-scene. I'd recommend Tom Conley's Cartographic Cinema book, but I can barely make heads or tales of his argument.

August 16, 2008 3:25 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi, everyone. Sad news this morning: Manny Farber died over the weekend.

August 18, 2008 11:51 AM  
Blogger Jan said...

Re Farber,

Sad indeed,

The question I ask myself, where the idiosyncratic style of Farber (the cinematic equivalent of Lester Bangs) in today's film writing?

Here is my take on Farber:
http://jahsonic.wordpress.com/2008/08/19/manny-farber-1917-2008/

Jan

August 19, 2008 3:22 PM  
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