I’ve recently seen “Mystery Train” and “Night On Earth” by Jim Jarmusch, and I’ve been writhing in Wanderlust for quite some time, never having been anywhere particularly exotic, and I love the way movies can be almost kind of a travelogue, or a tribute to cities. Some films are inextricably linked to their locales (“Manhattan” and “Nashville” are obvious example). They can almost capture the tangibility of being in a place, of taking you there, but not quite, and when the movie is over you are plunked back into your own little modest world. I think most films are inextricably linked to their setting, in a way that books or music might not be, and some films use this to great effect.
I was wondering which cities you think have received the widest variety of celluloid “face time,” or which have been unforgettably captured in only one or two films? I’m thinking of Vienna in “The Third Man” or “Before Sunrise”, the Chicago of John Hughes and “The Blues Brothers”, the San Francisco of “Vertigo” and “So I Married an Axe Murderer.” It’s often said that cities are another character in certain movies. Which are the most memorable uses of a city to you?
Obviously, New York, L.A. and Paris are the three titan-capitals of world film, and have been photographed to death (although they are so interesting they will probably never get stale). Which cities do you think haven’t gotten their deserved “close-up?” I live in Columbus, Ohio, which I think is a beautiful town with a wide variety of landscape and architecture, and no film of any regard has ever been made here (or at least “grown” here. Hollywood came to shoot “Traffic” not too far back, but they were using Columbus as a kind of white-bread-gone-rancid American Hellhole, which is appropriate, because the “Wonder Bread” factory is here.)
Movies can be a kind of Advertisement for a place, in a way. I’ve always wanted to live in New York because that’s where Woody Allen’s films where made, or to visit Paris, because of Truffaut and Godard. Pittsburgh seems like kind of a cool place to me because of the movie “Wonder Boys.” What cities have you been inspired to make your cinematic pilgrimage to?
although so few of the films that take place in Boston are ever about how beautiful the city is—they’re usually about crimes and take place in and around slums—Boston itself seems to be a standout character in films like Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, & The Departed. they all take place in Boston and it seems the city is as important as the action or the story in each film. i’m not sure if Scorcese shot the whole of The Departed there, but I know Eastwood insisted on shooting Mystic in the location the book took place in. I’ve never been to Boston, but these movies give the city a certain personality that are unique to the city that isn’t there in films about other cities.
i have the same feeling for Baltimore in the series Homicide: Life On The Streets; that show had to be shot in Baltimore, using Baltimore natives as much as possible.
Woody Allen always makes me want to be in the location of his movies. New York City for most of them(obviously) and then recently Barcelona and Spain in general for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Your example of The Third Man is a great one. I had no desire to ever visit Vienna in my lifetime, but after seeing The Third Man, it’s near the top of my list of places in Europe to visit.
Something nice about August is the use of non-touristy NYC locations. The little falafel shop made me hungry. Also, the interiors — the lofts and brownstones — seem very idiosyncratic and artsy.
Boston is a good one. And Baltimore reminds me of the New Jersey of the Sopranos. So surreal and yet unmistakably America. A “humiliated landscape” as Herzog would call it. A place where the dignity and promise has all been stripped by capitalism run amok.
I kind of miss the time when studios had to build a miniature set of a city, because of the technical limitations that prevented them from shooting on location. It’s weird to see Gone With the Wind, and kind of impressive that they had to build a huge reproduction of Atlanta and burn it down. That’s a romantic idea to me. I like the sort of off-kilter artificiality of Casablanca and movies from the 30s.
It’s interesting that movies are such an international art form. It’s easy to see a movie from Australia, or India, or China, or Africa and enjoy it. Wheareas literature loses much in translation, and the tonalities and instrumentations of music are so different in different parts of the world that it’s hard to be moved be a piece from say, Southeast Asia or Russian pop music. Perhaps this is because movies were invented not long before the creation of a world wide means of distribution, after the creation of a global popular consciousness.
I love love love this topic, but I’m going to have to think about it some more.
Fellini’s Roma springs immediately to mind, though. I saw it for the first time just after I’d left a 3 month long stint living in Italy (and, confession: my mom is also Italian) and it really caught something about the city and its people that I’d never really articulated to myself.
Also, the scene where the workmen are tunnelling beneath the city to create a new subway line and come across that old buried pallazzo… with all the frescoes that disappear as the air circulates around the chamber… God, I think that’s one of the best scenes in cinema ever.
Great topic! Woody Allen makes me romanticize NYC, but he has never given me unrealistic expectations. Everytime I’m there I realize it’s just as magical as he makes it out to be. I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned the Minnesota in Fargo. It really is a character in that film.
Naked City always makes me think I’m trolling through the dark underbelly of New York. Vertigo is maybe the best elegy to San Fransisco that has ever been made.
As for foreign filmmakers… Still Life is a wonderful portrait of a mainland China I don’t think many of us have seen. It shows a place that’s been left behind by Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and the like, and is being swept away by the expansion of the Government. An area in flux, it’s future in jeopardy, and the people having a hard time adjusting to this change.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan always has some of the best nature photography in his films. Distant is simply gorgeous. I’ve never seen winter look so… almost innocent, until I saw the ending of Climates.
Of course I’ve never been to any of these places, but I feel like I have, which is pretty incredible.
Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder), the city is like an antagonist for the film.
La Notte (Antonioni), in that film the cities are like annoying the characters.
L’eclisse (Antonioni), the shots of the streets of Rome and the famous alien structure in the beginning have important resonance in the film visual structure and also in the ways the characters interact with that space.
Tokyo Story (Ozu), the travels along the city, and the passage of time by shooting scenes of the city itself portrays not only a city with constant change but the entire modernization of Japan.
The Last Laugh (Murnau), the shots of the city are beautiful.
Playtime (Tati) the fictionally modernized Paris serves to the film porposes.
Playtime is another great one. I heard Tati built a set 1/6 the actual size of Paris, which sounds too ridiculous to be true, but who knows?
It’s interesting to see the ways directors and writers bring out certain aspects of a city to accentuate their subject matter. The city as featured in a film is almost a new place, created entirely for the film. In L.A. Story, L.A. is a surreal, shallow place, but also a a magical one. In a movie like Jimmy Hollywood, it’s a graffitti stained land of broken dreams. In Heat it’s a stylish metropolis. Of course, Los Angeles is all of these things and more, and means different things to each person who visits it. There have been countless portraits of LA and New York on film, but I’m just as interested in places like Memphis, or Kansas City, or Cleveland. I would love to see more good films made in and about the lesser storied of American cities.
I’m from Omaha originally, and it doesn’t get much attention in film, unless its an Alexander Payne movie. but even then, i’ve noticed Omaha itself doens’t have much of a personality, at least not in those movies. i’m sure if someone focused on the city’s older parts it could be awesome. but something about a midwest city just doesn’t seem very appealing to me, unless its to protray it in a less-than-ideal light. a movie about Des Moines or Indianapolis just doesn’t seem very exciting to me. Memphis, on the other hand, they should do more with. i haven’t seen Hustle & Flow so i don’t know what the city looks like in that picture, but i do remember seeing Mystery Train years ago. i’d definately need to take a second look at it.
one night, a few months ago, i was watching Die Hard With A Vengence and it occured to me, Boy—the people who made this movie really love New York! although its just an average action film, apart of what makes it more watchable than most is the characters, their language, and how the city of New York looks in the movie. its not just a backdrop there to be a setting, but seems to really show the type of people New Yorkers are, and the general atmosphere of the whole city, from Wall Street, to the Subways, to Central Park, and all the corner shops in Harlem. the first Die Hard really didn’t do much with LA, and for the life of me I’m not even sure when the second one takes place. But there’s no mistaking the New York in the third one, and i think they did a great job with it.
The chilly desolate San Francisco of The Conversation springs to mind. Paris has been done to death, but Agnes Varda’s hall-of-mirrors view of it in Cleo From 5 To 7 is very memorable as well. There’s also Ziad Douieri’s West Beirut, set at the outset of the Lebanese civil war, and if the city is a character, it’s a tragic one.
Closer to my home, many films have been shot in Wilmington, NC (Blue Velvet, The Crow, Hudsucker Proxy and the Dawsons Creek series), but next to none have been set there, which – given the antibellum downtown and coastal scenery is a potentially sizable missed opportunity.
And Asheville – at the other end of the state – has a preserved art-deco downtown at the center of a city ringed by the highest mountains in the eastern half of the US. Being There was filmed (not set) there, ditto for All The Real Girls, but it’s definitely a great cinematic city ripe for discovery.
I live in Des Moines and I think it kicks ass. A movie set in Des Moines could be awesome because Des Moines is a beautiful and very clean city with a diverse population. That being said, I think if Des Moines were a character it would probably be a fat white girl that loves a good giggle and an even better corn dog.
Paris je t’aime
a collection of short films by 21 directors
Dublin, “Once” by John Carney
Interesting topic about which have also been written a couple of books. I´ll just mention some Latin American examples to offer a wider range of cinematic cities:
São Paulo, Sociedade Anônima (Luís Sérgio Person) – São Paulo
Rio 40 Graus (Nelson Pereira dos Santos) – Rio de Janeiro
Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai) – Buenos Aires
Amores Perros (Alejandro G. Iñárritu) – Ciudad de México
Suite Habana (Fernando Pérez) – La Habana
I’ll throw in Tehran; the outskirts portrayed nicely in “Taste of Cherry”, where “Mirror” captured the bustling city streets up close. As for my current town Portland, it’s most famous for Gus Van Sant, of course. Though he’s done some recent work here, it’s his early trilogy of “Male Noche”, “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho” that really captures the almost jovial but at the same time desperate and destitute aspect to a certain element common to this town (drug addicts and bums).
I was about to start a thread on this topic but at the last minute did a quick search and voila!
Interesting discussion so far but what’s more interesting than asking which cities have been widely and/or effectively captured in film, is asking when is a city represented in such a way that it shifts from being merely a well captured setting to a fully fledged ‘character’ in the movie? And what is it that constitutes this difference?
Of the films mentioned above that I’ve seen, none really stand out for me in my mind as having got me as a viewer to engage in a relationship with the city in which they were set – an odd way of putting it, i think, but maybe that’s what makes a city more than just a setting…?
Wong Kar Wai is good at presenting the city as nearly a living breathing individual in his films. Chungking Express is particularly noteworthy for this.
I’d say a lot of Rohmer’s films do this as well. The urban setting of France influence the character’s thoughts and encounters like an extension of their own personalities.
As Liubei mentions above, Chungking Express was fantastic for showing off parts of Hong Kong. And on the New York tip, I really appreciated how Reign Over Me approached the city, especially post-9/11.
“Wings of Desire” starring Berlin
… and thanks for searching first, Ana, and revitalizing this thread.
Don’t Look Now provided such a vivid sense of place and atmosphere, that when it came time for me to actually visit Venice, I could not get the film out of my head and half expected to see a __________ around every corner.
Then there’s my hometown, Chicago, still best epitomized in The Blues Brothers (with About Last Night, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Fugitive deserving honorable mention.)
Robert Altman’s Nashville may not feature many landmarks, but through its storytelling structure, the city literally becomes the main character.
Liverpool in Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City
Rome in Fellini’s Roma
Berlin in Wenders Wings of Desire
Vienna in Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Paris in Before Sunset
More obscurely, Marshall, North Carolina in David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls
For a glimpse of Antwerp, watch Any Way The Wind Blows by belgian Tom Barman (great movie)
please recommend additions
The film KANSAS CITY was not a very good promotion for this city. The movie was set in the 1930’s, where it was known as one of the cradles of the Jazz Age. Robert Altman, the film’s director, and Jazz icon Charlie Parker were both born in Kansas City.
The film itself, using Jazz as a backdrop, displayed the seedy side of the city where mobs, both black and white, controlled various parts of the entertainment, business, and political arenas. This age of corruption, and the Jazz Era itself, all ended with the imprisonment of the political power boss who controlled not only Kansas City but the entire region.
The film was in competition for the Golden Palm, won that year by Mike Leigh’s ‘Secrets & Lies’. Jennifer Jason Leigh was the improbable star of KANSAS CITY, which was received lukewarmly by the public. The two highlights of the film were, not surprisingly, the music, and an outstanding performance by Harry Belafonte. I had seen Mr. Belafonte on stage and his transformation for this role was amazing. Mr. Belafonte played the mob boss for the African-American hoods who shared the city with their white counterparts. He was awarded The New York Film Critics Circle honours for Best Supporting Actor.
I’m so happy I found this topic on MUBI (where else :) ), although I’m kinda sad it’s dead now for 2 years. I’m doing a research on this topic and all this is very useful.
If you want a theoretical (critical) point of view on this subject here’s an idea:
Thom Andersen did a video essay on L.A. – ‘L.A. Plays Itself’ (title taken from a gay porn masterpiece by Fred Halsted). The documentary is 169 minutes long and goes through more than 200 films that have LA as a BACKGROUND, CHARACTER or SUBJECT. The whole film is available on youtube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SNc41zyLJ0
@APURSANSAR – hi, you mentiond a couple of books on this topic. Could you write any of them down please. There are lots of ‘cinematic city’ books, but I’m looking for ‘cities as character’ theme. There’s one that I found ‘L.A. Noir: The City as Character’ but haven’t gone through it yet.
@GPENARANDA – hi, you posted a link to a list (you probably made) and I like to see it but the link is dead :(
glad to see Any WAy The Wind Blows here – one of my favorite movies
The Cinematic City (David Clarke)
Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context (Mark Shiel)
Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real (Nezar Alsayyad)
Cities and Cinema (Barbara Mennel)
Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis (Andrew Webber)
Every time i watch Pedro Almodovar’s films, he shows us his Madrid, his own version, queer, alive, interesting.
Paris’ Monmartre might be romanticised in "Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain " but one cannot blame if Jean Pierre Jeunet overdid/exagerrated, it is really an exciting part of the city. It is pulsating with life. it has its own character unique from other parts of paris.
I cannot separate “Unberable Lightness of Being” and Prague, of course.
many austrians might not be aware of the film “The Sound of Music,” but it did inspire other people to travel to Salzburg because of it.