Monday, February 09, 2004

The seduction of place

When Clint Eastwood was getting Mystic River into production, some of the people at Warner Bros wanted him to film the movie in Toronto, because it would be cheaper than filming it in Boston. (Making a film in Canadian or even Australian cities that is set somewhere in the US is quite a common practice these days). Eastwood's response was that the script and the book on which it was based were set in Boston and Toronto is not Boston. Therefore he filmed in Boston. (In dealing with the bean counters, Eastwood had a stronger position than most directors, because he has directed over 20 films and almost all of them have finished filming ahead of schedule and under budget. In Hollywood this is highly unusual, shall we say).

And the film is much better for being filmed in a gritty, working class Boston neighbourhood. You can feel the location and its history in a way that wouldn’t work quite as well if the film was made in Toronto but with a little added second unit work. (Hollywood glossary: "second unit work" is where a second director and film crew goes and films shots that do not require actors, while the main unit is filming the scenes that do require actors). It is not always wrong to film in a different location from the actual setting, and sometimes a different city can be evoked quite well by skilful art direction, but Eastwood is largely right. In such a visual medium, the little hints that you get from filming in the correct location can add a lot to a film.

I say this as someone who travels a lot, and who is extremely conscious of the small details of places. I go to places to look at the small details as much as the large ones, and to get the sense of mood evoked by those small details. As I was saying the other day, and as I have said a few times on this blog, I like William Gibson’s books because he evokes the small details of place in a way that is similar to the way I see them. And many of the best films can capture a place in the same way. Sometimes I have visited cities that I have seen on film because I have seen them on film and I want to see them for real and see if the mood is the same. (Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, as my ongoing discussion of Lost in Traslation explains). I love looking at interesting and clever pieces of urban design which blend well into the urban environment and somehow fit the mood of the city. And it is always fun to recognise places I know on film.

Which is why, looking the other day at a preview of a new film, I was quite taken by these photos.

Seeing the pictures of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, some of my readers will realise instantly what the film it. It is Before Sunset, Richard Linklater's sequel of sorts to Before Sunrise, made in 1995. That film belonged to the same genre as Lost in Translation, actually. A man and a woman who are a long way from home and who don't know each other at all, happen to be in the same place at the same time and spend a relatively short period of time together during which time they discover they like each other, fall under a certain spell, share each other's secrets, have a certain meeting of minds and are able to talk to each other about themselves and about life in ways they cannot talk to their normal acquaintances, a certain amount of sexual tension accumulates and is in some way resolved, and then they part at the end of the fixed amount of time they have together, possibly or probably to never see each other again. I have read a few people in recent months say that Sofia Coppola had obviously seen Before Sunrise before writing the script for Lost in Translation, and I think she probably had - this is the most famous example of this genre that people her (or indeed my) age have seen - but I am not sure you can give many points for originality to Linkater either. This is a very simple idea, and whether it works depends entirely on the chemistry of the two lead actors and on the quality of the dialogue. (Such movies are generally very dialogue heavy). And they depend very much on the place where everything happens. Like Lost in Translation, Before Sunrise has chemistry and dialogue that works, and is set in a physical location that works. In my mind the Vienna location of Before Sunrise actually works better than the Tokyo location of Lost in Translation. (The two characters, Jesse and Celine, meet on a train to Vienna, and then spend 24 hours in the city. What is different about this film is that they are both young twentysomethings, so the romantic potential of the encounter is different).

(Another similarity is that Before Sunrise also has a scene in it where humor is made of the audience's inability to to understand what is being said. In this instance the characters spend some time in one of those over-ornate Vienna coffee houses, and there is some really earnest sounding German spoken that the audience cannot understand, which adds a little to the local charm. As it happens, I saw this film with a group of Cambridge friends, one of who was a German who perhaps takes himself a little too seriously at times. He laughed and laughed at this, saying it was the exact sort of intense quasi-philosophical pofundity that you expect to hear in Vienna coffeehouses, and I think it would be amusing to hear this film with a German speaking audience. Actually, it would be interesting too see how the reaction differed in Berlin, Hamburg and Vienna).

In any event, Richard Linklater has now made a sequel, in which Jesse and Celine apparently meet up again nine years later. That is about all I knew before looking at the photos above. I didn't know where or how or any of the other details at the plot. But looking at the above photos, I now know where. Because, the place where they are walking and sitting happens to be the Promenade Plantee, the disused railway viaduct in Paris that has been converted into a long narrow elevated park, and which I wrote about after visiting Paris last year. I was quite amused to see this. I looked at a couple of pictures of people walking down a path and sitting on a park bench, and I knew instantly exactly where in the world the place was. It isn't a famous landmark, but if you know places well it is the small details and the subtle details that give you the sense of place. I didn't post any pictures of that section of the Promenade Plantee last year, but I can do so now.

So if nothing else, I now know the film is set in Paris. I wonder if I would have recognised the place just from looking at the second picture of them sitting on the park bench. Would the colour and the vegetation and the shape of the surroundings have been enough? (Although to be truthful the colour of vegetation in my photos is slightly different. Perhaps it was a different time of year, or perhaps it is just a photographic effect). I doubt it, but I am not entirely sure. Clearly the giveaway in the first photo is the green arch things. It is the little details of how you recognise things that are interesting. And it is these details that only exist in the actual location. That's what Clint Eastwood understands when he decides to film in Boston. And it is what William Gibson understands when he describes 2002 London in Pattern Recognition, and Parc Guell in Count Zero.

And I suppose it is not too surprising the the thing in Paris that I blog about and the thing in Paris that Richard Linklater films and uses as a location are the same. Presumably he or a location scout did essentially what I did in Paris, which was wander around looking for visually interesting things to photograph. I thought the Prominde Plantee was a stunning piece of design, and I photographed and blogged about it at the time. So, essentially did he. I will be interested to see how the location is actually used in the film. (It would be a fabulous place for a first meeting, actually. You just catch a glimpse of someone you think you recognise vanishing up the steps that lead to it, and then you follow them down it for a minute or two before catching up with them). I will look forward to the film.

And of course, all this leads me to another thought. A few days ago I described putting a playlist together for my MP3 player as being akin to putting together the soundtrack of a movie. I now think that the way I explore cities may be akin to figuring out the locations in which a movie can be filmed. Perhaps I am thinking using the grammar of film too much. Or perhaps this is why I like the grammar of film so much.

And more importantly, why didn't I get to follow Julie Delpy down the Promenade Plantee?

1 comment:

Sara said...

Hello Michael,
Very briefly: I am a West Australian architecture student in my final semester where I find myself designing something somewhat akin to the promenade plantee (which i have also visited) and the yet unfinished highline park in new york. I was searching for precedent images of these two schemes and came across this page of your blog which I found to be a fascinating read. I am a great fan of both those Linklater movies and only recognised the setting of that particular scene after researching the promenade. coincidentally, I was wondering if I could use some of your photos of the gardens to illustrate where I am coming from to my tutors... either way, you gave me a good read and solved that same mystery for me so ta!
regards, Sara

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