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. 
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. 
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:  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).  Edward Buscombe's BFI monograph on Stagecoach makes these points about Monument Valley.
-- 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.