Movie Travel Diary: New York City

The first photo I ever took in NYC, it’s of the Washington Square Arch in the park of the same name. The fence around it expresses how unwelcoming we found the city to be in May 2008. Just over one year later, I would start studying at New York University, also in Greenwich Village.

Alongside London and Paris, New York City is one of the most cinematic cities in the world. It is such a frequent backdrop for film-stories that you might be tricked into thinking that you know the place from these audiovisual documents alone. Directors such as Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Spike Lee have, until recently, made their names producing movies set there, and in turn, they have vividly shown us what life in the Big Apple is or can be like. Perhaps owing to its density and diversity, New York City is a versatile setting for different kinds of films: police detective stories, romantic comedies, post-apocalyptic sci-fi actioners, period costumes dramas, family melodramas, coming-of-age character studies, and corporate thrillers, to name but a handful. Hell, NYC has even hosted a western: The Cowboy Way (Gregg Champion, 1994). So, you see, there is no one definitive handle on New York City.

That being said, it’s time to take stock of how the city I know from personal experience has been represented on-screen. Before moving there in August 2009 to attend graduate school at New York University, I had only been to New York twice: first in May 2008 (the week-long trip with my sister was a college graduation gift from my father) and later in July 2009 with my dad to find a place to live there. Coming of age, I was embarrassed that I had never been to “The Greatest City in the World,” or so says practically everyone in our society. Eventually, I embraced the irony (for I like to think of myself as an urban rather than suburban person) and learned to laugh at my “cultural handicap.” Although New York’s only 225 miles away from home and Los Angeles is over 3,000 miles west of it, I had been to the latter city first!

Honestly, the only scene on our 2008 trip that I remember being awed during was when the huddle of skyscrapers came into view as our bus slowly approached the Holland Tunnel. Oh, I was so excited to finally set foot in New York City! But for whatever reason, my sister and I were unimpressed with NYC. It probably had to do with the heat and humidity, the horrendous stench that follows you everywhere you go (the one thing I said, upon moving away from NYC, that I would never miss), the exorbitantly high cost of living, and the unfriendly residents. Wait! I take it back; I also don’t miss the appallingly bad customer service. Being un-enamored with NYC came as both a shock and a disappointment to us. My sister and I, fancying ourselves city people, thought we would fit right in. We weren’t going to let the fast-paced lifestyle deter us from making the most of our trip. And it didn’t; if anything, New Yorkers and other tourists don’t move fast enough for us (this observation really dawned on me once I started living, working, and going to school there). To top it all off, the sandwiches at Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side, where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal memorably dine in When Harry Met Sally… (Rob Reiner, 1989), were anything but orgasmic. I don’t even have many photos of that 2008 trip, and I have absolutely zero from all the time that I lived in the city.

I didn’t have what she’s having: Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal dine at Katz’s in When Harry Met Sally…. Image courtesy of http://www.gothamist.com

The following isn’t so much about New York’s on-screen appearance in the film as it is about what the city symbolizes within the movie’s narrative. There is only one scene set in New York in Greg Mottola’s Adventureland (2009): Jesse Eisenberg appears on Kristen Stewart’s East Village doorstep, soaked from the pouring rain. Though his spot at Columbia’s journalism school is no longer guaranteed, he risks the financial security of living at home and leaps toward achieving his dreams of living in the city he’s long romanticized as a bastion of creative independence. It doesn’t hurt that she lives there, too. Anyway, I remember sitting in a movie theater in Burbank, CA, my sister nudging me every time NYU’s name was mentioned in the film. I was generally apprehensive about moving to New York, the cost of the master’s program the greatest deterrent. So the question became, do I have the balls to try to make it in the Big Apple, too? I grappled at answering this for a long time and eventually let my father and sister’s shared enthusiasm for the opportunity given to me influence my decision to try.

The director Woody Allen. Seems about right. Photo courtesy of http://www.waitalia.tripod.com.

But what of the films that are mostly set in New York? Which ones speak to me and how I have lived my life there? Well, for starters, Woody Allen looms large in our house. Not only has his oeuvre informed me throughout the years of what to expect in certain pockets of the city (admittedly rather restricted pockets), it has also shaped who I am as a person. In a word: neurotic. Anyway, upon moving to the Upper East Side in August 2009, I recognized straightaway the cinematic universe of Woody Allen. Everything from the rich old biddies in their fur coats to the quiet, tree- and brownstone-lined streets. Living on the East River, about fifteen minutes from the 77th Street station, I got to know the wide, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks very well (downtown, there really aren’t such luxuries). When I first moved to the city, I hated my commute, but eventually I came to revel in it. It was one of the few times I genuinely savored my loneliness, and I would often reflect on how strange it was that I was living on Woody Allen’s Upper East Side, an old-timey blues score playing in my head. Throughout his filmography, there are many seemingly trivial scenes set on these sidewalks, the characters either entering or leaving ritzy doorman-appointed apartment buildings. But I think of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) whenever I specifically think of the sidewalks of the Upper East Side. An even weirder coincidence emerged between the movies and real-life when I found out that my roommate at the time worked at the school where Woody Allen’s children are enrolled. She had seen him on a few occasions, either picking them up from school or hosting a Q&A there, ostensibly for the benefit of the children but adults crowded the standing-room-only venue.

I only lived on the Upper East Side for about four and a half months, and I barely went out—apart from attending classes in Greenwich Village, grocery shopping at the Trader Joe’s in Union Square, and working and going to the movies in the area around Lexington and 86th Street. Then I moved to Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, where the rents were (somewhat) cheaper and the available space more generous. Regrettably, I barely explored Brooklyn during the roughly two years that I lived there (December 2009 to November 2011). Living on the 2/3 Seventh Avenue express line, however, I soon became very knowledgeable of the city’s west side, which, aside from the couple of times I wanted to show Lincoln Center to my visiting sister or dad, I largely ignored beforehand. In fact, I now spent so much time on the west side—whether working in Tribeca, walking to school from the subway stop in the West Village, or going to the movies on the Upper West Side—that I began telling people, “I eat and sleep in Brooklyn, but I live in Manhattan.” At the risk of sounding like the execrable women of Sex and the City (1998-2004), I loved Manhattan (it made sense to me, culturally and geographically) and thought Brooklyn was overrated.

As you already know, going to the movies is my favorite pastime. I frequented theaters all over Manhattan (if you need further proof of my preference for this borough over Brooklyn: the only theater I ever went to in Brooklyn was BAM Rose Cinemas). They include—but are by no means limited to—Cinema Village, aptly named for Greenwich Village and where the screens are no bigger than most bedroom walls; Village East Cinema, where I took advantage of their $7 student tickets every Tuesday (you get a free small popcorn, too); Film Forum in the West Village, where the programming is superb but the physical layout of the auditoriums are not for the vertically challenged like myself; Landmark Sunshine Cinema on the Bowery/Lower East Side, where I saw Almodóvar’s two latest features; and the IFC Center in the West Village, where I was a member for a period of time (the price of the Red Riding roadshow event convinced me to join). I even braved throngs and throngs of tourists in Times Square to go to the movies. But none of these great and not-so-great theaters was my favorite. That distinction belongs to the AMC Lincoln Square on Broadway at 68th Street, a stone’s throw away from Lincoln Center. I was hooked the first time I attended a show there; it was Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009), and I saw it with my sister in the largest non-IMAX theater. We sat in the balcony. Yes! the balcony! Unlike most multiplexes, this outpost of the national chain doesn’t distinguish its auditoriums by number. It gives them names that recall the golden age of Egyptian- and neoclassical-themed movie palaces (like “Loews,” “Kings,” “Paradise” and “Olympia”), a motif that runs rampant on the entrances to individual screening rooms and on the mural-filled walls in the lobby.

In fact, these exact details helped me identify the AMC Lincoln Square as the theater where Meg Ryan and Greg Kinnear have a confrontation in You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1998). That the filmmakers used this location isn’t so surprising since the Pride and Prejudice-tinged romantic comedy, a more technologically advanced (and now equally quaint) adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch’s Budapest-set The Shop Around the Corner (1940), is basically Ephron’s love letter to the Upper West Side neighborhood. Full disclosure: when my sister and I first came to NYC in May 2008, we made a pilgrimage here, specifically to Zabar’s, the specialty grocery store where the bookstore rivals Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks meet again—awkwardly and with terse words. (Note: If you do a Google images search for “Zabar’s” and “You’ve Got Mail,” you get tons of the movie’s fans standing outside the establishment.) Much later, after I began coming to the area regularly (to see a new film at least once a week), I couldn’t help but notice the irony in the nearby Barnes & Noble permanently closing its doors sometime last year or in late 2010. After all, Tom Hanks’s Fox Books is a thinly veiled stand-in for Barnes & Noble, and Meg Ryan’s children’s bookshop owner goes out of business after mounting an attention-grabbing smear campaign against Tom Hanks’s ruthless businessman. That is, of course, as they fall in love as anonymous online pen pals. It’s funny, but because of You’ve Got Mail, whenever I think about the Upper West Side, I always imagine it as it is during autumn, with colorful leaves strewn about, the scent of “bouquets of sharpened pencils” in the air. When I think about it, I remember that, though I was alone in New York, I wasn’t always lonely. I wrapped myself up in the city’s happening film culture, the one part of the city I truly miss the most.

The entrance to Zabar’s on the Upper West Side, where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan trade passive-aggressive insults in You’ve Got Mail. Photo courtesy of essential-new-york-city-guide.com.

I’ve been all around Manhattan—up and down, east and west—in pursuit of entertaining film-viewing experiences, educational museum exhibitions, and cheap and delicious meals, but the Upper West Side, and to a lesser extent its eastern counterpart, emerges as the section of the city I most associate with my life in New York City. As I stated at the top of this article (and which should come across as a running theme throughout Movie Travel Diary), it is impossible to know a large city through film and travel alone, though this guy aims to traverse every street in the five boroughs and take portraits of the people he meets. Still, you can’t even rely on a combination of film and travel, for we’re limited by what filmmakers choose to put on screen, and I couldn’t visit every block on every street in NYC even if I wanted to. But maybe this is more so the case for some cities than it is for others. For example, while Paris, je t’aime (2006) may have captured so many cultural reaches of the titular city that I experienced myself, New York, I Love You (2009), the second entry in the franchise, barely presents a New York I recognize. It relies too much on stereotypes when establishing place, thereby rendering boundaries ill-defined, the built environment stolidly the same. Then again, I might just be unfairly comparing the films (due to their similar approach to framing a city) because I merely visited Paris as a tourist whereas I lived in New York for over two years. I lived in New York for over two years? You’ll have to pinch me, because I can barely believe it. In fact, this disbelief overcame me often, even as I lived there. It usually hit me while I was on the subway (I felt like I was always on the subway), listening to music and reading a book, in my own world. That reminds me: I love seeing how (in)accurate New York geography is represented in the movies. Off the top of my head, When in Rome (Mark Steven Johnson, 2010) is one of the most egregious in this respect, sending Kristen Bell running from work at the Guggenheim Museum to Columbus Circle, and Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011) has a continuity error that puts Michael Fassbender riding the 6 train through the same station twice in a row. Oops!

By way of conclusion, I’d like to offer another movie-related New York moment. I recently wrote a true memoir about the independent film-going habits that I fostered while living in New York, and I submitted the essay to a humor writing contest (which explains why I haven’t published it on CINE FEEL YEAH). I didn’t specifically mention this episode in the piece, but I can recall that the first film I saw in New York on my own was Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (Uli Edel, 2008) at City Cinemas 1, 2, 3 on Third Avenue between 59th and 60th. Other than in LA, where I relied on my sister to get places (particularly to art-house cinemas), I had never felt so fortunate to see a foreign film in the theater, for they always play about twenty miles away from my hometown. Unfortunately, this one wasn’t any good. But that’s not the point of this anecdote. This is: on my last day of work at a high traffic Starbucks in LA, one of my favorite customers gave me $10 to spend on a movie ticket. She said that when she moved to Paris, someone else had done the same thing for her. Touched that her gesture pays cinephilia forward, I rushed at the chance to use it on Der Baader Meinhof Komplex. Looking at my ticket stub now, I see that I had to shell out an extra $2.50 for the ticket. I hope to one day do the same for a cinephile about to embark on a similar life-changing journey.

Tomorrow: the last entry of Movie Travel Diary. But I’m not ready to leave NYC just yet; tell me about your movie-related experiences in the city. Which film(s) shows off the New York that you know from your own jaunts around the metropolis?

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News Clip: Give Michael Keaton More Comedic Roles

I read today in Vulture that Michael Keaton has been cast as the villain in next year’s RoboCop remake. He will play the head honcho of Omnicorp, the manufacturer of RoboCop. No, I’m not looking forward to another remake, even if it is RoboCop and now has a robust cast that Zach Dionne of Vulture can drool over. No, but I am excited that Michael Keaton is going to be on the big screen again. I just wish he would re-enter our movie-going lives in more comedic roles. I don’t think I really need to remind you that he has a great sense of comedic timing—haven’t you seen Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988) or even the otherwise tedious Multiplicity (Harold Ramis, 1996)? More recently, though, he has stolen The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010) and Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) right out from under their bigger name stars. OK. So all I’m saying is, give the man a juicy comedic role.

Movie Travel Diary: Los Angeles

Is this what you see when you think of LA? A view of the ocean from Santa Monica, without submerging your feet in the sand. Photo by the author.

In Jim Jarmusch’s omnibus film Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Steve Coogan, playing a version of himself (as he is wont to do), says that “Los Angeles is a nice place to visit; it’s an even nicer place to leave.” This sentiment pretty much sums up how I always imagined the city to be, too. Before my sister moved out there in 2005 to begin a PhD in urban history and planning at the University of Southern California, I never wanted to go there. The collage of images plastered in my mind featured stereotypical scenes I couldn’t see myself playing out: hard-bodies sunning themselves on the beach a la Baywatch, snobby Beverly Hills salesgirls turning away Hollywood Boulevard prostitutes from their designer fashion boutiques, and members of warring gangs killing each other and innocent bystanders in drive-by shootings—in John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood (1991), Edward James Olmos’s American Me (1992), and more crucially, on TV news broadcasts. But overall, I thought Los Angeles was teeming with vapid and superficial people; they don’t call it La La Land for nothing. It’s where every aspiring film actor goes to realize his or her dream of becoming famous, and they still won’t admit it’s nowhere near coming true even as they’ve slung espresso drinks at Starbucks or waited tables for years.

Now my idea of the metropolis is (almost) completely changed. Believe it or not, not everyone in Los Angeles works in the film industry or even wants to. And people actually are born and raised in the city; they don’t just disembark from buses that originated in far-flung places. Aside from the year I lived in LA with my sister, I have been to LA on several occasions. The most recent was in May of this year. I have come to know the city as more than just a tourist would, even if I still can’t get my head around the linkages between freeways. You take the 101 to the 405 to the what? Oh, forget it. I leave all of that for my sister to parse, as she knows the freeways and “surface streets” like the back of her hand.

When I first came to LA in June 2005 with my dad and sister to help her find a place to live, we stayed in a budget hotel not far from MacArthur Park so that we could be near the USC campus and within striking distance of the other parts of the city we wanted to see. The area surrounding the park caters mostly to Spanish-speaking residents originally from Mexico and Central America, a reality you know is there but is hardly ever represented in the media. In fact, the movies present a Los Angeles that is overwhelmingly white, and growing up I relied on such pictures as  Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994), Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995), and The Truth About Cats & Dogs (Michael Lehmann, 1996) as well as prime-time TV soap operas like Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000) and Melrose Place (1992-1999) to understand citylife in LA. I’m happy to tell you there’s far more to it than this limited purview would have you witness. That being said, my family could think of nowhere else to go on our first day other than the ocean (pictured above). So we went to Santa Monica, even though none of us likes the beach.

My sister eventually settled at Sunset Junction, where Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards converge in Silver Lake, a one-time street-car suburb (if you can believe it!) and now a happening neighborhood lined with cafes, shops, and gay nightclubs. It’s situated between Hollywood and downtown (if that means anything to you). Yes, hipsters are here, but most of them don’t live here. When she moved in, one of the ways she described her apartment’s location was by saying that the laundromat where Claire Danes meets Jason Schwartzman in Shopgirl (Anand Tucker, 2005) was just across the street on Sunset. That’s all well and good, but I’d never been to that part of the city before. In December of 2005, I visited Silver Lake for the first time, recognizing landmarks such as the laundromat (it’s no longer in business) and marveling at just how real the city became as a result of my sister and best friend now living here. I got rather acquainted with Silver Lake over the course of a few trips west, and suddenly, “my Los Angeles” popped up in movies everywhere. If you look closely, you will also see regular neighborhood businesses featured in The Last Word (Geoffrey Haley, 2008), though the eatery Town and Country is now the eatery Forage; I Love You, Man (John Hamburg, 2009), wherein Paul Rudd drives by a bio-diesel fueling station at Sunset Junction on his way to work (it’s moved since then); and Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010), when the newly out-of-the-closet Christopher Plummer cruises Akbar and hears house music for the first time. Cute.

The LaunderLand where Claire Danes and Jason Schwartzman meet-cute in Shopgirl. It no longer exists, so you can’t expect to find them there anymore. Photo by the author or her sister—I can’t recall exactly who.

Although Silver Lake is someplace very different from Laurel Canyon, I came to associate the bohemian atmosphere on display throughout Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon (2002) with the laid-back attitude of Silver Lake. While living in England, I repeatedly watched the loose rock ‘n’ roll meets uptight intellectualism culture clash drama because at the time it reminded me of home (wherever my sister is). I savored the opening credits sequence set to Mercury Rev’s symphonic song “On a Summer Day” and featuring stunning aerial cinematography of the LA freeways (clearly their entanglements come to symbolize the painful and dysfunctional relationships between and among the film’s characters). Furthermore, whenever I apply a certain daily moisturizing body lotion with a very distinctive scent, I immediately think of the LA I remember from my late 2005 trip because that’s where I first required it. The vision I have, no matter how incongruous it is to my lived experience? Laurel Canyon‘s opening montage.

A few months after this trip, my sister moved to another Silver Lake apartment, one where you can see the Hollywood sign from the window. After graduating from college in May 2008 and with a dour outlook on job prospects, I joined my sister there and didn’t leave until July 2009. So far, it’s probably been one of the best years of my life. When we weren’t at work or school, we spent practically every waking moment together. We walked around the neighborhood as often as we could to gain exercise, and we started the tradition of waving and shouting, “Hi, Steve!” whenever we passed by the 4101 Bar on Santa Monica at Sunset Junction—whether on foot or by car—because that’s exactly where Steve Coogan gets knocked out in the little-seen comedy Lies & Alibis (Matt Checkowski & Kurt Mattila, 2006). We went to the movies religiously, alternating among a national multiplex’s outpost in Burbank, a regional chain’s art-house location in Pasadena, and even ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood. We dined out at our favorite restaurants: Mako in Los Feliz (RIP), California Chicken Cafe in Hollywood, Spitz in Little Tokyo, and The Oinkster in Eagle Rock, to name but a few. What can I say? We got around!

We ventured to the west side less often, mainly just keeping to Century City’s shopping mall or the Hammer Museum in Westwood (near UCLA). You don’t typically see these places on-screen, but Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2012) caught my attention earlier this summer when I saw that Paul Dano’s reclusive author participates in a Q&A at the Hammer that’s hosted by his mentor, who’s played by none other than Steve Coogan. For someone who apparently doesn’t like LA, he sure can’t get enough of it, eh? Anyway, I also recognized Skylight Books on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz as the bookstore where Dano gives a reading from his new book, which is all about his experience with a made-up girlfriend (and that incidentally forms the basis of the film, too). Additionally, Dano meets Alia Shawkat for a meal at Figaro Cafe on the same street. For some strange reason, this section of Vermont is perceived as so indistinctly LA that it doubles for New York in Made of Honor (Paul Weiland, 2008) and Seattle in Grey’s Anatomy (2005-present). I’ll never forget Sandra Oh either giving or receiving directions while standing across the street from the Figaro and the orientation being completely inaccurate. (It may supposed to be Seattle, but couldn’t they at least maintain Vermont’s north-south directional axis?)

No matter how long I lived in LA or how often I’ve visited, before the family’s May 2012 trip out there (to attend my sister’s graduation), I never managed to see the historic Bradbury Building located downtown. On our very last day in the city, I made sure that we made pilgrimage there and paid homage to Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), which you may recall is one of my favorite movies. The Bradbury, one of the oldest, continuously occupied buildings in downtown LA is where J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) squats in the movie’s future dystopic LA. From the photo below, you can easily see that it is far from being the squalid skyscraper on display in Blade Runner. More recently, it has appeared in (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) and The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011), both of which lend it a more romantic varnish. Hey, that’s how I’m going to remember it, too.

Although I have lived here, I have only begun scraping the surface. As my sister would be quick to point out, LA is so goddamn expansive and diverse, it’s impossible to know it inside and out, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying. Unlike with Dublin, London, Edinburgh, and Paris (to an extent), there isn’t even just one or two “LA movies” that best frame my LA experience. They’re all over the place. Speaking of which, I would really like to view Thom Andersen’s approximately three-hour-long documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) some time, preferably in the city. Wouldn’t that make the montage of movie scenes set in LA all the more hyper-real?

The majestic Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles. This is where Rick Deckard never saw natural light, only floating jumbotron screens. Photo by the author.

In roughly 24 hours (hopefully): another entry of Movie Travel Diary. But let’s discuss this city some more; tell me about your movie-related experiences in Los Angeles. Which film(s) shows off the LA that you know from your own wanderings around the metropolis?

Movie Travel Diary: Paris

View of the Eiffel Tower from Montmartre, near the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Photo by the author.

The romanticization of Paris is so much a part of our popular culture that we hardly question it. We decorate our homes with mass produced Eiffel Tower table lamps, hang black-and-white commercial photo prints of the Arc de Triomphe on our walls, and build 3D models of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. People from all over the world make the pilgrimage to the Louvre and stand in line for hours just to get a glimpse of the Mona Lisa (they will probably try to snap a photo of it, too). Known as the City of Love, Paris must also host a dizzying number of newlyweds on their honeymoons. And in what other film setting could American audiences fall in love with Woody Allen’s cinema all over again or root for an animated rat who wants to be a top chef? The movies help perpetuate this romantic notion of Paris, and I am not immune to its evocative power, either.

To mount a comprehensive list of films set in the French capital is damn near impossible and way out of bounds for Movie Travel Diary. But I have to begin somewhere. When I was a kid, my cinema diet kept Forget Paris (Billy Crystal, 1995), French Kiss (Lawrence Kasdan, 1995), and Everyone Says I Love You (Woody Allen, 1996) in heavy rotation. Surely, they weren’t the first and only views of Paris that circulated in our house, but they certainly made an impression (see the comments section of “Tell Me That One About Kenny G Again” for more information). All three of these movies traffic in what I like to refer to as “Paris porn,” travelogue shots of Parisians going about their daily lives in the picture-perfect cityscape, sometimes with landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, or Notre Dame in the background. In both Forget Paris and Everyone Says I Love You, a couple walks along the Seine and talks about the film that made an indelible imprint on their imaginations: Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951), a grand MGM musical shot—of course—on sound-stages in Culver City, CA. For Billy Crystal and Debra Winger in the former and Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn in the latter, the Gershwin-tuned musical represents a romantic ideal, and finding themselves on the Seine offers them the opportunity to, respectively, sing or dance out this fantasy of being “an American in Paris.” In French Kiss, Meg Ryan doesn’t let an intense fear of flying or a prejudice against the French keep her from jetting to Paris to win back her fiance. Things don’t go according to plan, to say the least, and though the history teacher is constantly under duress, she never gets to make a comforting glance at any of the Parisian monuments reflected on glass surfaces or apparent through train windows (mainly for the benefit of the swooning audience).

This is nothing to say of the French-language motion pictures that contributed to my fascination with Paris, everything from À bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) and Subway (Luc Besson, 1985) to Les amants du Pont-Neuf (Leos Carax, 1991) and—dare I say it—Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001). Not long before I visited Paris with my sister in December 2006 and January 2007 (after bashing around London), I saw François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical debut Les 400 coups (1959) for the first time. Riding the Eurostar train to Paris’s Gare du Nord from London’s Waterloo station, I was uncomfortable. Someone in our London hostel room stepped on my eyeglasses and split them in two, right at the bridge, and I feared I wouldn’t be able to read signs for information while we were in France—a logistical problem since only I could read and speak the language. I tried to relax on the train, looking out the window and recalling the opening credits sequence of Truffaut’s film: the camera seemingly takes the vantage point of a child riding in a car, gazing up at the nearby Eiffel Tower, awed (the dreamy score underlines this). Dejection may set in as the sequence draws to a close, by now the Eiffel Tower way out of sight. But like Antoine Doinel, I was going to explore Paris and make it my own, kinda.

My sister and I did do touristy things in Paris, but we also tried to mimic the locals. First we got my eyes examined and outfitted with a new pair of frames at an optical shop on the Champs-Élysées. Talk about shopping for souvenirs. Every morning, we purchased fresh baked goods from the boulangerie, and I walked around with the baguette slung under my arm, to imitate Woody Allen in Everyone Says I Love You. We rode the Métro all around town, becoming so familiar with the different lines and stations we could recite their names along with the automated conductor’s calm female voice. “Châtelet. Châtelet.”

Being cinephiles, we paid homage to Henri Langlois and his efforts to build a film archive with a visit to the Cinémathèque Française. We also went to the movies—twice. First we saw the farce Le grand appartement (Pascal Thomas, 2006) at the MK2 cinema near the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand site. It didn’t matter that the film was in a language neither one of us was fluent in; film connoisseurship being so integral to French popular culture, I suggested we see a movie as the locals do. I recommended Le grand appartement because I knew it wouldn’t get a North American release. Besides, it has one of my favorite actors in it: Mathieu Amalric. Then, to ring in the New Year later in the week, we saw Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006) at an old movie palace. Thankfully, it wasn’t dubbed in French, and I got a kick out of comparing the French subtitle translations with the actual spoken dialogue.

As tourists, we hewed to closely to the beaten path: Notre Dame, the Louvre (no Mona Lisa, though), the Georges Pompidou Centre, the Musée d’Orsay. It was difficult deciding what time of day to climb the Eiffel Tower; eventually, we opted for seeing the city lit up at night, but rain kept us from attempting the elevator ride to the top. (Later, we saw Paris from on high at the Grande Arche de la Défense). We found the place where, in the quirky romance named for its shy heroine, Nino spots a disguised Amélie for the first time through a viewfinder stationed near the summit of Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre. We snapped photos of ourselves together in front of the Arc de Triomphe, managing to get most of our heads in the frame and thus doing one better than the lovers of Forget Paris, who have a passerby act as their portrait photographer. Stopping in at Shakespeare and Company, the famously cramped but cozy English-language bookstore across from the Île de la Cité and incidentally where Celine and Jesse reconnect in Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004), I purchased a French-language daily planner to keep as my 2007 journal. Naturally, the diary carries these cinematic connotations with it. We also made a daytrip to the Château de Versailles. Months later, when I saw Sofia Coppola’s clever biopic Marie Antoinette (2006), which was shot on-location, I had an incredible sense of déjà vu. I must have driven my friend nuts, leaning over and whispering in her ear stuff like “I’ve been there!” and “It really does look like that!”

Now, this last part might sound like a cliche. It wasn’t until almost a year after my journey to Paris that I saw the film that best encapsulates my experience of the city: the omnibus Paris, je t’aime (2006). Featuring five-minute-long shorts set in eighteen of the metropolis’s twenty arrondissements by directors such as Joel and Ethan Coen, Gurinder Chadha, Sylvain Chomet, and Tom Tykwer, Paris, je t’aime is Paris porn par excellence. By virtue of containing almost two dozen love stories, the film definitely presents a hyper-stylized and hyper-real version of the city, but it doesn’t whitewash racial and economic tensions completely.

Many of the Parisian landmarks I have already discussed make appearances in the film, particularly in the transitional montages between shorts, but there are at least two more that specifically echo what we saw on our tour of Paris. I recognized the Marais district straightaway in Gus Van Sant’s contribution, with the area’s characteristic clash of cultures. Set within the historic aristocratic neighborhood are the thriving Orthodox Jewish community and dozens if not hundreds of art galleries and art printing and framing businesses, one of which is where Van Sant’s scene takes place. Given France’s history during World War II, it was pretty powerful to see up-close on our own stroll through the Marais stores proffering goods in Judaica and signs scribbled in Yiddish. Moving on, Wes Craven’s snippet, shot in Père Lachaise Cemetery, also reminded me of the Paris I came away knowing. Like Emily Mortimer’s character, we wanted to find Oscar Wilde’s grave and elaborate tombstone—but not to kiss it! Unfortunately, we weren’t successful, and we settled for Jim Morrison’s instead (which was incredibly busy at the time, of course).

But more than these, Alexander Payne’s short, which memorably concludes the film, best sums up our tourist experience in Paris, and, I suspect, that of many other visitors to the city. For his segment set in the fourteenth arrondissement is about falling in love with Paris. The criminally underrated Margo Martindale plays a mail carrier who recently took a dream vacation to Paris, seule. Payne frames her story as an essay exercise in the character’s off-screen French language course, and as she reads from it in class—with confident fluency, a heavy accent, and a mixture of simple and complex grammatical structures—we see her adventure play out on-screen. I could easily relate to her experience, everything from expecting better food to asking passersby questions in French (only to get responses in English). The ending is like a Fellini film, where she admits to feeling “joy and sadness” at the same time, as she sits on a park bench and reflects on how she came to Paris alone but felt “alive” while there. It’s worth quoting her last lines in full, uttered as the camera outwardly turns from facing her and then pensively scans the park scene from her position: “That was the moment I fell in love with Paris. And I felt Paris fall in love with me.” It really does happen like this. If you just let the city envelope you in its arms. No wonder we romanticize Paris, at once real and imagined.

Coming up: another entry of Movie Travel Diary. But let’s keep busy; tell me about your movie-related experiences in Paris. Which film(s) best sums up the Paris you know from your own adventures?

Movie Travel Diary: Edinburgh

Approaching Edinburgh Castle along High Street (aka the Royal Mile), near sundown, as captured by the author.

Edinburgh. Edinburgh. Edinburgh. Say that three times fast, pronouncing the Scottish capital’s name just as the natives do (nowhere near “burg” and slightly clipped away from the longer “burra”). If only the incantation were like the one in Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988), except it would transport me. When my sister and I came to Edinburgh, after a few days in Glasgow and before making our way to London in December 2006, my expectations were as high as the Castle, which sits above the city as if it were a crown or the cherry atop a hot fudge sundae. In the city center, it’s virtually impossible to look up without seeing Edinburgh Castle. This undoubtedly leaves a rather picturesque impression on the mind, long after you have gone.

Running tangential to my rampant Anglophilia (and the equivalent for Ireland, whatever its name may be), is my even more ravenous hunger for all things Scottish. I cannot pinpoint exactly where and when it began. I’m sure members of my family would tell you that it started consuming me when I first rented on VHS the new, much buzzed-about indie hit Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) at the tender age of ten. (What can I say? I have two of the most permissible parents on the planet when it comes to thematic content in film.) However, I don’t think that is entirely true, for I must have already had an intense interest in Scotland to have even heard of such a film about a cadre of heroin addicts and to seek it out for screening. But truth be told, it lay the groundwork for my passionate exploration of Scotland, through movies, music, history, literature, politics, comedy, etc., which continues unabated to this day. Trainspotting represents for me one of my most formative experiences of cinephilia, and thus warrants its own future post. But suffice it to say that when I arrived in Edinburgh, I wanted to see how it matched up with the hundreds of Trainspotting viewings I had enjoyed already.

I wasn’t expecting much overlap in scenery, actually. Trainspotting had been shot mostly in Glasgow. I remember a Glaswegian telling me in an anonymous online chatroom (remember those? how quaint!) that the Taxi Driver-themed nightclub where Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) meets Diane (Kelly Macdonald) is—or at least, was—located in his city. I’m not sure that the filmmakers even used Irvine Welsh’s inspired setting, Leith, when they shot the picture. And in retrospect, I regret not riding the bus out there, especially after having read much of the Trainspotting author’s oeuvre set in the (once-)depressed municipal port north of the city.

Not being big shoppers, my sister and I knew that we still had to see Princes Street, the main thoroughfare in Edinburgh, which divides New Town from the Old (and vice versa). In the opening scene of Trainspotting, Renton and his best bud Spud (Ewen Bremner) run down this avenue, cops in hot pursuit. Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” provides the propulsive score to the action. Eventually, Renton’s voice-over intones why people “choose life” and why he explicitly hasn’t. These audio and visual ingredients are iconic on their own, but when mixed together, they ensure the film’s cult status right out of the gate. Which is exactly why I had to make a pilgrimage to Princes Street (it’s not hard to do, the train station’s right there). This scene is practically the only one shot in Edinburgh; they couldn’t easily double Glasgow when introducing the city with this kind of iconic shorthand.

The view from Cockburn Street (if memory serves) of Princes Street. The Royal Scottish Academy and National Gallery of Scotland are in the foreground, with Waverley Train Station in the middle, and off in the distance is Calton Hill. Photo by the author.

There aren’t many films set—let alone shot—in Edinburgh, as film industries favor the more populous Glasgow for its urban Scottish stories (don’t get me started on Highland film settings). Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994) and One Day (Lone Scherfig, 2011) are notable exceptions, and they both capture Edinburgh as the beautiful, historic, lived-in city that I dreamily wandered around for days. But 16 Years of Alcohol (Richard Jobson, 2003) and Driving Lessons (Jeremy Brock, 2006) provide more specialized glimpses of the capital city that I recognize from personal experience.

The first, billed on a poster as “Trainspotting Meets A Clockwork Orange” (it’s like neither of those two), has a memorable scene set on Calton Hill, where the reformed skinhead protagonist (played by Kevin McKidd, of Trainspotting fame) seeks redemption. Standing on a hillside walkway, where I snapped the above picture, I remember feeling overjoyed at the sight of Calton Hill in the faraway distance, its unfinished early 19th century Parthenon and Nelson Monument (the tower that looks like an upside down telescope) presiding over the city. I recalled both landmark structures from my viewing of the little-seen 16 Years of Alcohol, which underscores their deeply symbolic position to quiet but melodramatic effect. The film also has many scenes set in closes, or steep streets that connect the Royal Mile to streets down below. Although I remember giddily exploring one or two of these dark passageways, I regret not taking a haunted tour of Edinburgh that used them as occasions to tell macabre stories about the city’s past.

Driving Lessons takes place mostly in England, but the wacky actress Julie Walters dupes her assistant Rupert Grint into chauffeuring her all the way to Edinburgh for a speaking engagement. Much of the Edinburgh action hews closely to the area around Princes Street, but the characters stop in at a pawn shop on the Royal Mile, not far from the chintzy souvenir shop where I purchased a Royal Standard of Scotland (you know, the golden flag with a red lion). I later found out it wasn’t the real thing (the lion on my flag didn’t have a blue tongue, probably because the unauthorized production and display of the royal family’s rampart is punishable by law). Whenever I see Driving Lessons, I’m reminded of this… fact. And until fairly recently, the flag’s inauthenticity always made me feel dejected whenever I looked up at it, hanging on the wall above my bed. So I finally replaced it with the Scottish national flag, the Saltire (or St. Andrew’s Cross), which my sister gifted me for my birthday a few weeks ago. Her message? “Let your Scottish freak flag fly!”

No film could prepare me for Edinburgh. When we first arrived, the air smelled delicious, of smoked hot dogs. Later, when my sister and I sampled different varieties of Scotch whisky at Edinburgh Castle, we realized the city’s aroma was the byproduct of numerous nearby distilleries. To this day, when I think of Edinburgh and inevitably yearn to return there (specifically to live), I can’t help but smell it. Even if the whisky burned my throat.

I woke up one morning in Edinburgh with a sore throat, but it wasn’t because of the whisky. I had stupidly gone to sleep with damp hair the night before. At the time, it spoiled my memory of the previous night, which came to me as an utter surprise. Not knowing how to spend the evening after dinner (my sister and I aren’t big on bars or nightclubs), I allowed her to drag me to see The Holiday (Nancy Meyers, 2006). As you might recall, she’s really into romantic comedies, and I am not. In any case, I rather enjoyed the film and its romantic sense of adventure. It made me wish I could meet a sensitive and sexy Scot while on my travels, just as Cameron Diaz’s unemotional-to-a-fault workaholic falls into bed with the mysterious cad-turned-superdad played by Jude Law. Oh well. Such romantic fantasies are just made for the screen (pun intended). After all, my real love affair was with Edinburgh, who made such a euphoric impact on all of my senses, including, most of all, my sense of self. This is going to sound really cheesy, but it’s true. Since I had romanticized the city for years, I hoped against hope that I would fall in love with the place and never want to leave. This dream did indeed come true, but I also had to make the painful realization that the days I spent in Edinburgh were not nearly sufficient enough for me to really get to know the city. Instead, Edinburgh is like a soul mate you meet all-too-briefly before you go your separate ways. No matter where I am or what I do, I can’t shake the memory of Edinburgh’s cheeky smile, traumatic and triumphant life experiences, and a self-confidence that set me at ease. I can’t wait for us to meet again.

Up next: another entry of Movie Travel Diary. But until then, tell me about your movie-related experiences in Edinburgh. Which film(s) best represents the Edinburgh you know from your own travels?

Movie Travel Diary: London

A view askew of Tower Bridge, from the southbank. Photo by the author.

It wasn’t until about a month after my mini-break weekend in Dublin, once my sister had flown in from Los Angeles to ride the rails all over Britain with me (we were on our winter holidays away from school), that I finally saw London. I’ve been an Anglophile for as long as I can remember. As such, I have always found the movies to be the perfect instrument to satisfy my intense interest in all things British. There are simply too many films set in London to name, but suffice it to say that before arriving in town (after a three-hour-long train ride from Newcastle in the Northeast), I had seen the city of my dreams represented in such classics as Alfie (Lewis Gilbert, 1966) and A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), through to more contemporary fare, like Wonderland (Michael Winterbottom, 1999) and About a Boy (Chris & Paul Weitz, 2002). But none of these films captures the London that I experienced around Christmas in 2006.

Instead, we searched for the blue door of Hugh Grant’s travel book shop in the eponymous neighborhood of Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999), knowing full well the owners had repainted it to prevent passersby from peeking in. We strolled along the titular street of Brick Lane (Sarah Gavron, 2007) and wound up in a McDonald’s rather than a curry palace. We shopped for souvenirs from the open-air market stalls in Camden, which are on display in Mike Leigh’s comedy-drama Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), but the stench of pot and incense drew us away. Opting for the bus only once and using the tube to get everywhere, we did an awful lot of walking around London during our week or so in the city. And on December 25, when all of London—especially these public transportation networks—shut down, we were unable to leave our hostel to perform our yearly ritual: Chinese food and a movie.

You’ve seen this one before: the view from the Tate Modern across the Millennium Bridge. Image courtesy of http://www.wikipedia.org.

My sister and I explicitly chose not to do “touristy” things. (Don’t ask why, we were stupid and cheap and wanted to avoid crowds as much as possible.) We didn’t tour the Tower of London or see Big Ben up-close. We double-backed on hitching a ride aboard the London Eye (that’s really something I regret). No Westminster Abbey, Leicester Square, or Houses of Parliament for us, I’m afraid. We mainly kept to museums, like the British Museum and National Gallery—yes, both of which entice visitors with offers of free admission. The Tate Modern was on the top of our must-see list, and from there we strolled across the Thames on the not-so-new Millennium Bridge, toward St. Paul’s Cathedral. This part of London—Southwark, it’s called—is frequently represented in film: everything from Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001) to Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Lasse Hallström, 2011) features its protagonist on this at one time eye-catching bridge, either making a resolution or having an existential epiphany. Well, nothing as lofty as that happened while I was on it.

Not too far from the Tate, on the south bank, is the reconstruction of William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and even farther down, just east of Tower Bridge is the Design Museum, whose exhibitions focus on 20th and 21st century design across various industries. I remember never having heard of it before my sister suggested we go there, and it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. I can’t remember exactly what we saw, but after days of walking around London and feeling as if we weren’t “seeing” anything, I felt warm and fuzzy, a real sense of accomplishment. Stupidly, I thought we’d visited a place so far off the beaten path that it wasn’t on most international tourists’ radar. After all, it’s not as busy as the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The Design Museum in 2010. Image courtesy of http://www.wikipedia.org.

I’ll never forget our approach to the Design Museum, trekking through a disorienting labyrinth of buildings that all looked the same and climbing a tiny incline right at the end, stepping lightly on the cobblestone street the whole time so as to avoid twisting our ankles. Aside from the Design Museum, which at the time was painted a bright white (I’d be willing to bet that it still is), all of the other buildings at Butler’s Wharf are brick warehouses with arched doorways and, according to Wikipedia, were once considered derelict. Gradually, over the past thirty years or so, the late 19th century shipping district has been home to luxury flats and a happening restaurants and arts corner. (Bridget Jones and her lascivious boss Daniel Cleaver dine here.) I should mention that we could hear the lapping of the river even if we couldn’t see it while walking along Shad Thames, the area’s main street.

Almost one and a half years later, I saw Run Fatboy Run (David Schwimmer, 2007) in the theater with my dad, and early on in the film I recognized one of its shooting locations straightaway: the Butler’s Wharf/Shad Thames warehouse district. “Pathetic excuse for a man” Dennis (the always charming Simon Pegg, who rewrote the script) has his ex-fiancee and mother of his child pick he and the boy up from the police station (he got caught buying scalped theater tickets), and she brings her new handsome, super-successful American boyfriend along with her. After putting Libby (Thandie Newton) and Jake (Matthew Fenton) in a cab, Dennis and his rival Whit (Hank Azaria) walk along Lafone Street, making awkward conversation and being generally passive-aggressive toward one another. Besides Bridget Jones’s Diary, I had never seen this part of London on-screen before (I didn’t even know what it was when I first saw that rom-com), and since “discovering” it on my way to the exemplary Design Museum, it has always felt like “my London.” Thus, despite being set in North London (but mainly shot in the East, according to The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations), Run Fatboy Run memorably takes place in parts of the city that I most identify with.

As you may already know, Run Fatboy Run revolves around Dennis as he trains for the Nike River Run, a fictional stand-in for the London Marathon. He aims to prove to everyone—including Libby, Whit, Jake, his friend and coach (Dylan Moran), and the landlord to whom he owes a lot of back rent—but especially himself that he can commit to finishing something, after having ditched a pregnant Libby at the altar years ago (he has always loved her, though). Of course, there are many obstacles to achieving this goal; the greatest is having to hobble the long distance on a severely sprained ankle. It takes him all day and all night. Notably, the marathon route commences near the financial district in the City of London where Whit works, the Gherkin a stone’s throw away (that, we saw up-close), and finishes just outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. To get there—you guessed it—Dennis must cross the Millennium Bridge from the south side, his entourage of fans and a sports reporter cheering him on as they follow close behind. His journey reminds me of my own. Now, I cannot claim to have completed a marathon as Dennis has done in fourteen hours, but because my sister and I spent a long and tiring but wonderful day in Southwark walking from landmark to landmark, I can claim to have conquered them in my own way as a tourist. After all, the views were free.

Tomorrow: another entry of Movie Travel Diary. But while we’re waiting, tell me about your movie-related experiences in London. Which film(s) best encapsulates the London you know from your own travels?

Movie Travel Diary: Dublin

Look closely: it's the Ha'penny Bridge lit up at night. Photo by the author.
Look closely: it’s the Ha’penny Bridge lit up at night. Photo by the author.

I spent my third year of college studying abroad at Lancaster University in Northwest England. From there, one of my earliest trips was to Dublin with two of my friends. We rode the ferry from Holyhead in North Wales to Ireland’s capital city. I have very fond memories of that weekend, such as my first (half-)pint of Guinness stout, the friendliness of the people, and the sight of the Ha’penny Bridge lit up at night. And although I didn’t see it until after I came home, months after it was released in U.S. theaters, the intimate musical romance Once (John Carney, 2006) reminded me of the place I have come to think of as “my Dublin.”

I had seen countless films set in Dublin before, everything from The Commitments (Alan Parker, 1991) and The General (John Boorman, 1998) to InterMission (John Crowley, 2003) and Rory O’Shea Was Here (Damien O’Donnell, 2004). But by virtue of being about a musician who busks on Grafton Street for pocket change from tourists, Once invariably represents a Dublin that I, as a tourist, came into contact with. Many of the scenes in the film take place on that pedestrian thoroughfare, Dublin’s high street or main shopping district. This was where, after nearly two months in the British Isles, I spotted the first Starbucks, an occasion so momentous—even though I didn’t drink the stuff—that I snapped a photo of it from the cobblestone street (the major coffeehouse chain over there is Costa Coffee).

Once was produced on a shoestring budget, and it has a very improvisational quality to it. From what I understand, it wasn’t so much scripted as it was outlined, and nowhere is this on-the-fly, gritty documentary feel more pronounced than in the scenes on Grafton Street, where the unnamed guitarist (played by The Frames’ bandleader, Glen Hansard) meets the young Eastern European pianist (Markéta Irglová), before they embark on their pseudo-romance and journey toward self-discovery while they collaborate on a few original songs. From what I can remember, director John Carney and his tiny crew shot the unprofessional actors unobtrusively, allowing real passersby to walk in front of the camera. This explains why some of the protagonists’ exchanges aren’t clearly audible. When I was on Grafton Street, I remember feeling claustrophobic, trapped among seeming multitudes of people and their bulky shopping bags, as everyone walked in different directions. The busyness of the area represented on-screen in Once reminded me of my brisk walk down the street. I didn’t know where I was headed, my friend chasing after me in the crowd, but eventually I wound up at the northwest entrance to a city park, St. Stephen’s Green. Similarly, in one scene, Hansard’s character runs after Irglová’s, too, and they take the exact same route as my friend and I had done. Strange how someone else’s art imitates your life. (I should note that Lance Daly’s black-and-white 2008 film-story about a pair of runaways from abusive homes, Kisses, is also partially set in this corner of the city, rendering it even more menacing, full of real terror for children.)

When I watched Once for the first time in late 2007, I recognized straightaway a particular landscape beyond Grafton Street. Since my sojourn in the city, I have associated Dublin with rows and rows of brick townhouses that have brightly colored front doors, alternating among blue, yellow, green, and red. The movie Once merely reinforced this picture of the city for me. Although we see such dwellings throughout the film, I still can’t shake the image of the woman standing outside one of these houses—or poking her head out of her second-story window, I can’t be sure—and gazing up at the sky because she knows her songwriting partner should be in the air, on his way to London. This scene speaks volumes to me, as I would love to return to Ireland someday and spend more time in the city.

But don’t fret; I did much more than feel stifled on Grafton Street and admire the lushly painted doors on houses. Like any well-informed tourist, I frequented Temple Bar, the trendy arts district lined with restaurants and galleries, visited the National Gallery of Ireland for an exhibit on native son Francis Bacon, and stopped by Dublin Castle (which was, to my surprise, a mishmash of architectural styles) and Trinity College. I regret I was too cheap to pay the admittance fee to see the Book of Kells up-close while at the university, especially since an inventive animated movie inspired by the illuminated manuscript, The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, 2009), would come out of nowhere years later and earn an Oscar nomination. When I stop to think about it, I realize that much of my Dublin jaunt has movie-related anecdotes.

For one thing, the weekend I was in Dublin was the weekend that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (remember TomKat?) were wed in Italy. I remember seeing photos of the actress’s demented smile, as she nuzzled her cheek into Tom’s at the altar, splashed across the front pages of the tabloids while walking from the hostel to downtown Dublin.

Furthermore, I can’t think of the film Little Children (Todd Field, 2006) without being reminded of Dublin, because that is where I saw it—with one of my companions, Denise. I’ll never forget the morning—November 18th, it was—that we were walking along O’Connell Street (the Champs-Élysées of Dublin), near the “Stiffy by the River Liffey,” and came across a multiplex that advertised that it was screening the American indie picture about two suburban stay-at-home parents having a hot summer fling. Talk about making playdates.

Later that night, after dinner and during the film, I couldn’t stop thinking about how odd this movie-going experience was at the time. Here I am in Dublin, with my German friend, and we’re watching an American indie movie set in a resolutely American milieu and ennui at a giant multiplex on O’Connell Street. I bet I’m the only American sitting in this theater, I said to myself, as if mentally detached enough from the goings-on in the auditorium and up on the screen that I could see myself sitting in the back row. For all I know, the Cineworld in Dublin may have been the closest theater to where I lived (in Lancaster, England!) that was playing the film. Ever since having this “out-of-body, out-of-mind” experience while watching a movie in another country, I have sought to replicate it everywhere I go.

Stay tuned for a similar episode in a future edition of Movie Travel Diary. But in the meantime, tell me about your movie-related experiences in Dublin. Which film(s) best exemplifies the Dublin you have visited?

Jump Cut Series: Movie Travel Diary

Cinema is transportive. It takes you many places, real and imagined, and acquaints you with characters that are familiar and strange. Films, especially ones shot on-location rather than on a sound-stage, grant you glimpses of people’s everyday lives, their cultures and subcultures, their language, traditions, food, politics, religion, and aspirations—all through a complex storytelling apparatus beyond the camera and what’s in front of it (I’m referring to style choices as well as writing, framing, and editing scenes). In much the same way that reading throughout the centuries has ignited passions and spurred imaginations by providing escapes to faraway lands, movies, in little more than one hundred years, have brought worlds closer, too. As a film historian, I am interested in how place and identity are represented on-screen for audiences at home and abroad. How do these cinematic images inform what we know of others and, perhaps more crucially, of ourselves?

But as anyone will tell you, it is not enough to read books and watch movies to understand the world and your place in it. Travel, so the wisdom goes, is essential to producing a well-rounded individual, particularly someone who can emphasize with others. Although I have lived and traveled abroad and have even lived in this country’s two most populous cities, I don’t have as many stamps in my passport or frequent flyer miles to my name as I would like. And while I don’t have the money to bankroll more excursions in the near future, I can reflect on where I have been already.

So, without further ado, I’d like to present my Movie Travel Diary, a series of Jump Cuts to be published daily from August 26 through September 1, 2012 (if all goes according to plan). Each day, I will write about a film or group of films set in a city that I have spent some amount of time in (whether for a couple of days, a week or so, or even a year or two). Each film discussed presents the city in a way that I recognize from my own personal experience, since cities and films are mutable objects that are what they are because of what each of us brings to them (I’m not talking about toothbrushes and buckets of popcorn).

As always, I invite you to share your impressions of cities that you have visited, first through film and then in person. Once your feet were on the ground, how did the metropolises compare to the expectations you had going in, based your previous viewing of films set in those cities?

Movie Travel Diary entries:

Sunday, August 26th: Dublin

Monday, August 27th: London

Tuesday, August 28th: Edinburgh

Thursday, August 30th: Paris

Thursday, August 30th: Los Angeles

Friday, August 31st: New York City

Saturday, September 1st: Washington, DC

Jump Cut: “Tell Me That One About Kenny G Again”

Some films—good and bad—stick with you long after you’ve seen them, for a variety of reasons. There’s an intricately choreographed five-minute-long tracking shot re-enacting the British evacuation of Dunkirk. The guffaw-inducing sight of a soft mannequin, a stand-in for a bad guy, being dragged along the subway tracks. John Williams’s two-note theme for the mostly unseen underwater villain. But cinema being an audiovisual storytelling medium, it is often what is said that grabs your attention and refuses to let go.

I love collecting movie quotes, but in preparation for this article, I actually had difficulty listing my favorite lines. Watching as many films as I do, dialogue from movies I love and feel disinterest toward inevitably and unconsciously wind up in my idiolect. My movie-mad sister is my best friend, and we often communicate in Movie Talk. But even now, I’m struggling to come up with an example of something that we say to each other—with and without hints of irony. Just as it is for practically all cinephiles, I guess films are just so ingrained in our brains, so tightly knit into the fabric of our everyday lives, that the origins of some movie references we make regularly go unexamined. Let’s attempt to change that.

Then again, there are also memorable movie quotes that don’t fit easily into everyone’s daily conversations. Most of the entries on the following list of my favorite movie lines fall into this category. I should also note that this inventory is by no means comprehensive; I may continually add to it as they come to me. I invite you to tell me your favorites, too, in the comments section below.

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Let’s start with the line that inspired me to post on this topic: in Sydney Pollack’s 1995 remake of the classic romance Sabrina, a charming Julia Ormond stars as the titular daughter of a chauffeur who has loved the younger, commitment-phobic Larrabee brother David (played by Greg Kinnear) all of her life. During the opening credits, which unravel as she narrates her lovelorn situation (he doesn’t know that she exists, that she watches him routinely woo rich women from her perch in the tree outside her apartment above the garage on his family’s estate), Sabrina heavily breathes, with the slightest hesitation, “David… did a GAP ad.” I love the combination of her sincerity and the ridiculousness of her words. It’s as if—at what age? 30?—she is a teenybopper.

To be fair to poor Sabrina, she also makes an astute, perhaps even eloquent, observation later on in the film, after she’s returned from Paris elegant and confident. David’s older, uptight brother Linus (Harrison Ford) whisks her away to Martha’s Vineyard. He pretends to want to sell his house there so as to keep her away from a now-smitten David (but who’s now engaged to the daughter of a tech tycoon Linus is doing business with), so the conniving businessman invites her to take photos of his property. An amateur photographer, Sabrina reflects on her lonely, voyeuristic existence growing up, all while snapping views from the Linus’s house: “Every time I look through a camera, I’m surprised. It’s like finding yourself in the middle of a story… I think I’ve been taking pictures all my life, long before I ever had a camera.” Doesn’t that make up for her simple, pathetic idolization of a smug, rich jerk? Besides, opening up to Linus (and influencing his heart to melt in the process) is just the beginning of her journey to discover of who she really wants.

Sabrina and Linus enjoy the view of the harbor—and then of each other. Image courtesy of http://www.cineplex.com.

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Friends with Money (Nicole Holofcener, 2006) is about a group of four middle-aged women in Los Angeles, three of whom are either extremely wealthy or very well-off. Yeah, yeah, it may be best remembered because Jennifer Aniston plays against type as the fourth friend who has no money—and some questionable taste in men—but the real star of the show is Frances McDormand, who plays a successful clothing designer with anger management issues. In my favorite scene, she waits in line at Old Navy and flips out when a couple jumps in front of her as she walks toward the cash register. During the confrontation, in which neither the cashier nor the manager sympathizes with her passed-over situation, she points her finger in the butting pair’s faces, accusing them of ignoring her and shouting, “Yes, those two people! With their stupid fucking faces!” Why do I love this line? First of all, I should note that I’m biased: McDormand is one of my favorite actresses. I always find her entertaining. But because she lowers her voice as she spits out this line, it sounds as if she’s a monster saying, “stupidfuckingfaces!” Brilliant.

Be warned: if you butt in front of her while she’s waiting in line, Frances McDormand’s gonna come after you! Image courtesy of http://www.hotflick.net.

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If you’ve even just skimmed through the About the Site page on CINE FEEL YEAH, you might have noticed that one of my favorite comfort films (yes, like the food) is The Truth About Cats & Dogs (Michael Lehmann, 1996). A woman-centered adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, it stars Janeane Garofalo and Uma Thurman as neighbors who start spending a lot of time together after insecure veterinarian radio host Garofalo tells an amorous listener that she looks like the “dumb blonde” Thurman when he asks her out on a date. It’s a long story as to how he’s given this impression when he first meets them both at the radio station. More importantly, there are many choice lines in the film, but my absolute favorite is a quick exchange between the two women. Garofalo is sobbing in the department store where she let a cosmetics saleswoman make over her face. Pissed off that society dictates women make themselves attractive to men through cosmetic enhancement, she says, “If I was a guy, I think women would like, line up to go out with me. I’m smart. I have a good sense of humor. I make a great living.” Without missing a beat, Thurman nods, “I’d fuck you.” Garofalo responds, “Thank you, honey. I know you would.” This dialogue effortlessly gets at the root of female friendships. They don’t know each other well at this point, but they support one another in the face of seemingly absurd adversity—especially from the small voices deep within.

Opposites attract: Janeane Garofalo and Uma Thurman are best friends and know just how to comfort one another. Image courtesy of http://www.iluvcinema.com.

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The last two quotes I have for you right now are actually part of my everyday speech. Not only that, they are also the only two lines spoken by men to make the list. The first (or second-to-last, depending on how you look at it), comes courtesy of David Deblinger’s character in the sweet but acerbic and little-seen rom-com/satire of the fashion industry Intern (Michael Lange, 2000). Dominique Swain plays the eponymous gofer at a fashion magazine. During her tenure, she falls for the dreamy deputy art director, rolls her eyes at the shallowness of the industry’s top decision-makers, and even uncovers an editor’s selling insider information to a rival glossy rag. The intern befriends Deblinger’s flamboyant, straight-talking accessories editor, who, in the end, confronts another frustrated co-worker with the immortal line, “What’s with the angry?” Despite his sentence’s despicable lack of grammatical cohesion, I love to repeat it—ironically. You never know, if you use it to ask someone about what is making him or her upset, you might just put a smile on that person’s face.

I apologize: I couldn’t find a photo of Deblinger in Intern during my Google Image search. In its place, I’ll offer that I’m 99.99% certain I saw the actor riding the subway in Brooklyn once while on my way home (I think it was the No. 2 train). He was talking with his female companion, so I didn’t dare interrupt their chat to say anything. And definitely not to ask, “What’s with the angry?”

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24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) is my all-time favorite film, and it is so highly quotable. I know it like the back of my hand, which is why I am usually disappointed in others’ estimations of its quotiness (can I coin that right now?). For example, I’d waited years to meet someone who had ever even heard of it. (Generally, whenever someone asks me for the name of my fave film, I have to repeat the title at least twice.) And when I finally did, while studying abroad in Northwest England, he quoted the movie back to me. How exciting, right?! Well, he chose the least creative line (“There’s a barbed wire fence! There’s a barbed wire fence!”). Well, to each his own, right?

Anyway, my favorite utterance comes early in the film, too. Steve Coogan, as real-life TV personality and Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson, directly addresses the camera following his exhilarating hang gliding experience in the Pennines (director Winterbottom uses mostly real footage of Wilson himself performing the stunt). In doing so, Coogan/Wilson steps outside of the film while remaining fixed in the frame: “You’re gonna be seeing a lot more of that sort of thing in the film. All of that actually did happen. Obviously, it’s symbolic. It works on both levels. I don’t want to tell you too much, don’t want to spoil the film. But I’ll just say, ‘Icarus.’ OK? If you know what I mean, great. If you don’t, doesn’t matter. But you should probably read more.” Obviously, this is a pretty long, context-specific quote (he’s referring to the fame and fortune he and others attached to Manchester’s music scene cyclically gain and lose, by the way), so I don’t use the whole thing. I abridge it (“You should probably read more”) and try to imitate his flippant, condescending tone. Again, I never earnestly deploy the line, and I mainly just say it to my sister, who gets it, about someone else. After all, the movie’s all about irony.

Who is it? Steve Coogan or Tony Wilson tells you what to expect—without spoiling anything.

Contrary to One Man’s Opinion, Hollywood’s Not Killing Opera

I am no expert on opera. Far from it, in fact. But Zachary Woolfe’s editorial in The New York Times with the self-explanatory title, “How Hollywood Films Are Killing Opera,” caught my attention. In it, he argues that films such as Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987), Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990), and even Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011) have “damaged” the art form by perpetuating an ideal experience that audiences have come to expect if and whenever they do attend an actual performance. Although Woolfe rightly recognizes that opera companies around the U.S. have struggled to stay economically viable for decades before the 2008 financial crisis, he misguidedly accuses these films of keeping opera companies from producing lesser known repertory works for the stage, with dynamic direction and innovative set and costume designs to boot. According to Woolfe, “the typical production style is blandly nostalgic escapism rather than vibrancy or relevance.”

Director Kenneth Lonergan behind the scenes of Margaret (2011). Image courtesy of http://www.nytimes.com.

Now, I have never been to the opera, so I cannot speak from personal experience on what a “typical production style” looks like. Even if I had, I wouldn’t pretend to know what a “typical” one is, either. Instead, I would defer to this expert critic, but I find many points in his argument totally unconvincing. Read on if you wish to learn How Hollywood Films Can’t Possibly Be Killing Opera.

First of all, in generalizing about the state of opera today, Woolfe says that it’s all about putting on old favorites by Puccini and Verdi in order to get butts in seats, butts whose owners have come to think of a night at the opera as a special, gown-wearing event (given Julia Roberts’s wardrobe choice). The problem is, Woolfe offers no statistical data to support this claim. He provides no quantitative analysis to measure where and how often the “popular” operas are put on these days. Likewise, he offers neither the bottom lines from box office receipts nor demographic surveys of the audiences. Just who does he think is going to the opera? Only Moonstruck fans? Without the cold, hard numbers to prove that movies such as Pretty Woman have dictated opera companies’ programs and opera-going audiences’ tastes, Woolfe can hardly blame Hollywood for ruining opera.

Woolfe’s polemic appeared online August 16th, and since then The Washington Post‘s Philip Kennicott published a feature story on the wide-ranging, lesser known works that the Santa Fe Opera has selected for production to satisfy the “serious” opera-lover. Understandably, the company is world-famous and attracts big names for starring roles, and thus it probably costs a small fortune to attend one of their productions. Someone who is a season ticket-holder at Santa Fe probably doesn’t care about the scenes in Moonstruck wherein Nicolas Cage and Cher go to the opera. In any case, Kennicott’s piece serves as an in-depth corrective to Woolfe’s foolish generalization that the opera “landscape is overwhelmingly drab.” So, cheer up, Woolfe. It doesn’t look that bad.

Moreover, Woolfe’s implicit definition of Hollywood is also problematic, for Margaret, which he spends the second half of his article lambasting (full disclosure: I haven’t seen it yet), is emphatically not a “Hollywood” picture. If he was going to include films produced outside the American film industrial complex anyway, Woolfe should have taken a look at Mike Leigh’s opulent costume drama Topsy-Turvy (1999), which chronicles the production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1885 comic opera The Mikado. If that film doesn’t give the spectator a deeper appreciation for all the minute decisions that go into making an opera—everything from searching for inspiration and blocking stage movements while dressed in unusual costumes to rehearsing difficult-to-pronounce lyrics—then I don’t know what will. Besides, all the films that Woolfe invokes are not about opera; they merely contain a scene or two depicting the protagonists attending an opera and/or feature operatic leitmotifs on the sound track. So why does he let these film scenes ruin opera for him?

The cast and crew seek the help of some Japanese actresses in rendering Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado in the Mike Leigh film Topsy-Turvy. Image courtesy of http://www.brightlightsfilm.com.

Woolfe doesn’t like that the date nights at the opera featured in Moonstruck, Pretty Woman, and Margaret lead film audiences to assume that opera-going is only an occasion for dressing up to the nines, to escape the everyday. While he doesn’t find the opera performance in 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters “exactly innovative” (it’s Puccini again), he wishes that other filmmakers would follow Woody Allen’s lead in representing opera attendance as “no big deal,” something as banal as going to the movies, say. This seems counter-intuitive to me. Clearly, opera and opera-going are very “big deal[s]” for Woolfe. Shouldn’t he be pushing for more evocative scenes in films that showcase opera in a heretofore different light? Furthermore, if good art should inspire a transcendental experience in those who encounter it, maybe even going so far as to help a person forget she’s had a bad day, then why is Woolfe decrying film’s representation of opera as “escapist”? Why does he want opera and opera-going to appear in film just as any other interest or activity does? How will that make opera an any more relevant or essential experience we should seek out?

Corporate raider Richard Gere takes his low-class prostitute to the opera, which proves to be an emotional experience for the Pretty Woman. Image courtesy of http://www.operafresh.blogspot.com

Besides, don’t tell me it’s socially acceptable to wear jeans and a t-shirt to the opera. Going to the opera isn’t like attending a baseball game or even a musical play. It’s still largely cost-prohibitive, I bet. So going to the opera is a special occasion.

I didn’t grow up in a home that waxes rhapsodic about the virtues of opera, but I can appreciate them from afar, on an intellectual level. I may not know anything about individual operas (I defer to my dad on the subject whenever the category appears on Jeopardy!), but I know enough to know that opera is not as it is portrayed in Moonstruck and Pretty Woman. So don’t be so condescending, Woolfe.

But what do you think? Is Woolfe exaggerating the effect movies have on opera today?