Search and Rescue: Or Why I’m Drawn to Films About Surviving Nature, Torture, and Mars

Here is a chronological list of the films I saw in 2015 about people surviving and/or being rescued from harsh physical environments and traumatizing psychological prisons

  • Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014)
  • Black Sea  (Kevin Macdonald, 2014)
  • Unbroken (Angelina Jolie, 2014)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
  • Everest (Baltasar Kormákur, 2015)
  • The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)
  • Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015)
  • Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
  • The 33 (Patricia Riggen, 2015)
  • No Escape (John Erick Dowdle, 2015)
  • In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, 2015)

And in 2016:

  • The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

It’s overwhelmingly apparent that I prefer film stories about people fighting to survive in forbidding natural or socially constructed environments that continuously pound them into submission. Beginning with Black Sea, Kevin Macdonald’s underrated and claustrophobic thriller about a misfit crew of Nazi-treasure hunters aboard a submarine, and continuing straight through to In the Heart of the Sea, director Ron Howard’s ill-fated attempt to bring Melville’s Moby Dick origin story to life, I found myself time and again drawn to films about Nature’s punishing power over all of us and how, in the most extreme of cases, the human spirit and body are put to the ultimate test. Two docudramas came and went this fall, but I couldn’t escape them: Everest, about a deadly tourist expedition to summit the tallest peak in 1996 (you know, the one that writer Jon Krakauer participated in), and The 33, which related the events leading up to the miraculous rescue of the titular Chilean coal-miners trapped inside their workplace for over two months in 2010. As a food film scholar, I was greatly intrigued by a middle sequence in the film, in which the protagonists imagine that their wives, girlfriends, and other loved ones have prepared them a gorgeous feast of home-cooked meals when in reality the miners sit down to tuck in their last heavily rationed “meal” of canned tuna and cookies.

The titular coal-miners sit down for what they believe is their last meal. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
The titular coal-miners sit down for what they believe is their last meal. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

This extreme survival-centered category of film story also indexes other 2015 releases, including post-apocalyptic pictures like George Miller’s instant cult classic actioner Mad Max: Fury Road and the under-seen chamber piece Z for Zachariah. Along with its extreme setting, amidst a community subjugated under one water- and food-controlling dynasty, Fury Road blends in that other narrative thread I love to watch: the rescue film. While the titular character does whatever he can to survive in the desert—even if it means taking the passenger seat and assisting true hero Imperator Furiosa on her quest to save young women from lives spent as sex slaves under her family patriarch—the whole world rallies behind the astronaut Mark Watney, long presumed dead but in actual fact still chugging along as the first pioneer on the Red Planet in Ridley Scott’s crowd-pleasing sci-fi epic The Martian. I wanted to like this film more than I did. Where many saw a hilarious comedy with a captivating lead performance by Matt Damon, I saw a dreadfully unfunny and charmless one-man show starring one of the most overrated actors working today. It didn’t matter, though. I had to see it, as a “hard sci-fi” film fan (more on that in part two) who has dreamed more than once of what life is like elsewhere in the universe.

Of course, I never could have made this observation about my moviegoing preferences and habits if these films hadn’t all appeared at once. What happened this past year (or in the years prior, while these films were in development) that so many films about survival and rescue were released? Are they a response to an underlying fear that this country is turning to shit again, what with the United States entering its fourteenth year of the longest war it has ever waged, the rampant political discord in Congress, the emergence and threat of the Islamic State, and so on? Like the disaster movies of the 1970s, which were so prevalent as to form the genre’s so-called “golden age” as they addressed the anxieties of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and overall distrust of political authority and therefore its inability to keep Americans safe, do the films of 2015 also point to something that is taking place on the national or world stage?

Lone Martian Mark Watney sits on a rock, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Lone Martian Mark Watney sits on a rock, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Dystopias like those depicted in Fury Road and even the effective B-movie thriller No Escape, which is set in an unnamed Southeast Asian country and charts one American family’s fight for survival during a violent coup d’etat, have seemingly always been in fashion. However, this cannot explain 2015’s collective fascination with stories of survival and rescue. Most of the films are not dystopian sci-fi pictures. At this time, I cannot offer any full-fledged theory that may explain this phenomenon, only speculation. Aside from their sometimes flashy special effects, these films represented a more conservative style of film storytelling, harkening back to a bygone age of cinema. Beginning with Angelina Jolie’s bloated endurance test Unbroken (released at the end of 2014), which was probably meant to resemble a John Ford, Frank Capra, or William Wyler WWII war movie but actually recalled a Clint Eastwood picture about the triumph of the (American) spirit in the face of (excessive) adversity, this film story trend is meant to induce spiritual and emotional uplift in audiences. Just look at the raging success of The Martian. At times lauded and scrutinized for its diverse cast and for presenting that up-and-coming economic and political threat, China, as a congenial U.S. collaborator, everyone practically guaranteed that filmgoers would leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy, a little light on their feet. This is a utopian vision of the future of film storytelling, and it is in stark contrast to the cynicism of The Hunger Games and Divergent film franchises and any Avengers or X-Men movie currently showing on a screen near you.

Read the Montage Series, 2015: A Year in Reflection, from the beginning.

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Quick Edit: Spare Parts Builds Something Special

Viewed May 15, 2015

I hate to sound like a broken record, but I’m not one for inspirational teacher/coach movies. For starters, these films usually revolve around a coach searching for redemption, beginning with Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale in Hoosiers (David Anspaugh, 1986). As the Ur-text of this kind of film, Hoosiers popularized the subgenre. Other notable entries in the canon include The Mighty Ducks (Stephen Herek, 1992), Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993), We Are Marshall (McG, 2006), and Glory Road (James Gartner, 2006). There are some exceptions to the trope of the white male savior coach, though: Remember the Titans (Boaz Yakin, 2000), starring Denzel Washington, who later went on to direct himself as an inspirational college professor in The Great Debaters (2007), and Coach Carter (Thomas Carter, 2005) both cast African-American actors as the students’ tough but fair role models. Even though a sports backdrop predominates in this field, there are films that are about teachers effecting change in the classroom, some more successfully than others. Thanks to Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989), we all learned to quote Walt Whitman and seize the day. The Emperor’s Club (Michael Hoffman, 2002), also set at a tony boarding school, is a bit of an outlier, for it exposes how an honorable classics teacher failed to impart the importance of living a life with integrity on one of his most difficult students. Then, of course, there are the two most recognizable woman-centered inspirational teacher films: Dangerous Minds (John N. Smith, 1995) and its apparent remake Freedom Writers (Richard LaGravenese, 2007). Remember “Gangsta’s Paradise”?

Spare Parts movie posterHowever, I’d like to recommend a new and welcome entry in the subgenre: this year’s Spare Parts, directed by Sean McNamara and written by Elissa Matsueda. (Did you think I was going to say McFarland, USA?) Based on Joshua Davis’s 2005 WIRED magazine article, “La Vida Robot,” it tells the story of four Mexican-American teenagers living in Phoenix who, with a little guidance from their teacher, enter a prestigious underwater engineering competition and blow everyone away with their expertly designed ROV (remote-operated vehicle), constructed for only $800—a tenth of their competitors’ average operating budget. Fronted by funnyman George Lopez, Spare Parts resembles Stand and Deliver (Ramón Menéndez, 1988) in that a Mexican-American teacher guides the at-risk students in developing practical STEM-related skills. However, Spare Parts also recalls Race the Sun (Charles T. Kanganis, 1996) and October Sky (Joe Johnston, 1999), simply because of its emphasis on the students’ coming-of-age while learning to work as a team to build mechanical vehicles or rockets. (It is also worth mentioning that in Spare Parts’s closest antecedents, the inspiring teachers were both women.)

Here, the real-life robotics club mentors Allan Cameron and Fredi Lajvardi, both science teachers at Carl Hayden Community High School in West Phoenix, combine to form Dr. Fredi Cameron (George Lopez), an engineer who has difficulty keeping a job longer than three months due to some emotional trauma that he experienced years ago (I won’t spoil what it is, though you can probably already guess). Desperate, he takes a long-term substitute-teaching job, and the persistent Oscar Vazquez (Carlos PenaVega), a member of the local ROTC, convinces him to sponsor the school’s robotics club. Having been denied the opportunity to serve in the armed forces based on his undocumented immigration status, Oscar believes competing in the underwater robotics competition is his ticket to college. Rounding out the group are Cristian Arcega (David Del Rio), the bullied brainiac; Lorenzo Santillan (José Julián), the trouble-making mechanics-whizz; and Luis Aranda (Oscar Javier Gutierrez II), the muscle. Mild-to-major spoilers follow.

Assembling the Spare Parts: Dr. Cameron, Lorenzo, Luis, Oscar, and Cristian. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Assembling the Spare Parts: Dr. Cameron, Lorenzo, Luis, Oscar, and Cristian. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

I didn’t understand much about the technical aspects of their project, but it doesn’t matter. Spare Parts is a winning underdog story because of its characters, whose development eschews caricature and stereotypes. Each member of the group has his own set of challenges that make for compelling drama, especially since there aren’t many films about the lived experiences of undocumented child immigrants. Oscar is so ashamed that his path to serving in the US Armed Forces hasn’t panned out that he keeps his rejection from the program and his participation in the club secrets from his mother (Alessandra Rosaldo). When she learns the truth from Oscar’s math teacher Gwen (Marisa Tomei), she confronts Oscar and rightfully points out that, even if the competition grants him opportunities in engineering, no company will hire him without his “papers.” Throughout the film, Oscar lives in fear that the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) will detain and deport him and his family. After receiving a tip from the recruiter, he avoids returning to his family’s house, afraid that he will never be able to go home again. He also breaks up with his girlfriend, Karla (Alexis PenaVega), believing that his undocumented status is a burden, an impediment to their living peacefully.

Cristian appears to be the only man in his house, and he longs to attend a father-son science program with Dr. Cameron. It’s heartbreaking when Dr. Cameron declines, unsure of himself as a father figure. The greatest obstacle to Cristian achieving success, however, is poverty. His family is dirt poor, and he lives alone in an unheated shed outside of the family’s trailer. We do not glimpse his living situation until halfway through the film, because the home lives of Oscar and Lorenzo take precedence.

As the older brother of a budding juvenile delinquent born in the United States, it is Lorenzo’s responsibility, per his stern father’s request, to always look out for Ramiro (Ray Aguayo) or to take the blame for any of Ramiro’s misdeeds. The message that Señor Santillan (Esai Morales) is sending to his son is that his own life doesn’t matter—he’s not meant for anything else. The father would rather have Lorenzo deported—separated from the family—than an American-born son with a police record. Dr. Cameron steps in to mediate the conflict growing between Lorenzo and his father after Lorenzo stops Ramiro from robbing a convenience store. When he hears of what has happened, Señor Santillan only cares if Ramiro was arrested (he wasn’t) and resents that Dr. Cameron tried to meddle in his family’s affairs. Like Oscar, Lorenzo must now fend for himself, in fear of deportation (cops or ICE agents saw him leave the scene of the attempted crime) and kicked out of the house for not looking after Ramiro properly. Why Señor Santillan never thinks that it is his responsibility to keep his son out of trouble is beyond me, and why doesn’t Ramiro ever consider that his actions have severe consequences on his father and brother?

Luis, the only US citizen of the four, is the least developed character. A gentle giant, the rest of the group admittedly uses his stature and strength to lift and set down their 100-pound rover into the pool. Luis struggles to understand how people perceive him. He asks his mother if he is stupid or just quiet, and she answers that only he can reveal who he is. Her encouraging riddle flummoxes him, but it is apparent that the group project and the competition’s requirement that all members present on the technology that they used to make their ROV certainly lift Luis’s confidence, thereby proving to himself and everyone else that he is a capable team member.

Spare Parts is smart and poignant, dramatizing certain elements of the true story for socio-political effect. For example, while Cristian and Lorenzo design the proof-of-concept model using the spare parts found in Dr. Cameron’s science lab, Oscar sets out to raise money for critical missing pieces. He solicits funds from local businesses and banks and is repeatedly turned down. Upon witnessing the ease with which servicemen receive a loan, Oscar astutely pulls his uniform out of the closet and successfully obtains $100 to help with the project. This demonstrates that, given individual prejudice and institutionalized racism, sometimes people of color are not taken seriously, as citizens deserving of respect, unless he or she is in uniform. Later in the film, the team drives to a motel where they can test the rover in the pool. But before they begin, fun hijinks ensue as they push Dr. Cameron into the pool. Eventually everyone is in the water, splashing away, being the kids that they really don’t have the privilege of being at home. While no character’s life situation is representative of every undocumented immigrant who arrived in this country as a child, Spare Parts effectively draws out the inherent drama of their situations in order to instill empathy in the audience.

It should be no surprise that Spare Parts is also very funny, given George Lopez’s headlining presence. Once the team arrives in Santa Barbara for the competition, where they enter the college-level contest (Dr. Cameron thinks that if they lose, it’ll be a greater accomplishment to come in last among the likes of MIT and Stanford), they discover that their waterproof case leaks and resolve to find a quick, absorbent solution. Lorenzo suggests using tampons, and watching him build up the courage to ask a woman in the grocery store for help in choosing the right one (no applicator!) is hilarious. According to Davis’s article, this really happened, despite its seeming provenance from a teenage sex comedy.

In fact, Spare Parts ends triumphantly, but not without suspense. Like I said, I don’t really understand all of their techno-speak, but watching them complete the rover’s underwater obstacle course was a nail-biting ordeal. The team impresses the judges with their oral presentation, self-evident mastery of the material, and innovative and spendthrift design. I don’t want to spoil everything for you, so I urge you to check out the film. It may have taken some liberties with the original story, but as an inspirational teacher/coach movie, Spare Parts blazes a new trail and winningly focuses on the realistic trials and tribulations of the students.

Quick Edit: A Revealing Portrait of a Photographer

Viewed May 6, 2015

The Salt of the EarthI’m not really one for documentaries, and I almost never run out to see them in the theater. However, this week I made a rare exception for The Salt of the Earth (2014), winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard selection and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In it, German director Wim Wenders explores the life and work of social documentary and environmental photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose haunting black-and-white images have bridged cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic barriers for over four decades. Trained as an economist, Salgado first made the switch to photography after commandeering his wife’s camera. He started as a photojournalist, but The Salt of the Earth focuses on the self-assigned projects Salgado undertakes for years at a time. He’s been a witness to the human condition everywhere: photographing the Rwandan genocide, the end of the Persian Gulf War, Sudan, and all around South America.

The subject’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (who shares the director’s credit with Wenders), shot the scenes of the photographer and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in the field—in the Russian Arctic capturing polar bears and walruses with his camera or in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, getting to know the isolated native people and their way of life. In voiceover, Juliano narrates that journeying with him to the Arctic was the first time that Juliano had ever gone on assignment with his father. Although the color landscape photography is starkly beautiful, the more plentiful sections of Salgado the Elder reflecting on individual photographs from his oeuvre were more engrossing. (It’s also curious that beyond seeing Salgado at work or discussing it in hindsight, we don’t ever learn much about his process, aesthetic choices, or the nature of his collaboration with his wife Lélia. Why does he shoot in B&W? Who are his artistic influences?)

The Salt of the Earth is captivating in the same way that Salgado’s images are similarly evocative, painful, and compassionate. They demand your attention, but they also picture deeply private and traumatic events in the lives of Salgado’s multifaceted subjects. At just under two hours long, the film documents a good chunk of Salgado’s portfolio. His Portuguese-accented French makes it easy to get swept up in the photographer’s stories, which animate a film that is largely a slideshow of the pictures he has made over the years. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then he poetically fills his images with details about the people he met, the horrors he saw, the work of humanitarian aid workers he observed. He confesses that what he witnessed in Rwanda and in the neighboring Congo (where thousands of survivors fled before being forced to return home) affected him so deeply that he began exploring nature and wildlife photography as a way to move on from the trauma.

The photographer Sebastião Salgado.
The photographer Sebastião Salgado.

The documentary, like Salgado’s work, is both very subtle and deeply profound. I had no idea that his greatest achievement may be what he and his family have created in their corner of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. Having grown up on his father’s farm, set in a lush subtropical paradise, Salgado was devastated in the 1990s that his childhood home had turned into a dry wasteland, unable to maintain life due to advanced natural degradation, rampant deforestation, and unchecked exploitation of natural resources such as iron ore. Lélia innocently suggested that they simply plant trees to rejuvenate the land. Seventeen years after establishing the Instituto Terra, the land is green again, populated with millions of trees, numerous animal species once threatened with extinction, and vibrant, free-flowing natural springs. It is remarkable what they accomplished in just fifteen years, and it is extremely touching that the Salgado family gifted the land to Brazil’s national parks service so that everyone may enjoy the family’s Private Natural Heritage Reserve.

I broke out in tears when, at the end of the film, Salgado reminisces about the transformation that his father’s Fazenda Bulcão (or Bulcão Farm) underwent, at peace with the notion that the land has returned to its robust natural state and should remain that way long after he is gone. What a beautiful way to accept the transiency of our existence. And what a legacy.

Lélia and Sebastião Salgado at the Instituto Terra.
Lélia and Sebastião Salgado at the Instituto Terra.

Considering that Salgado has seen—and shown us—the best and worst that people have to offer, The Salt of the Earth ends on a hard-won, optimistic note. The coda is also poignant because it was virtually the only scene in which Salgado speaks his native language. In the beginning, it had puzzled me as to why he was always speaking French. (He and Lélia moved to Paris in the late 60s or early 70s, and they are still based in the city where they raised their sons.) Eventually, it dawned on me that he likely spoke French so that his interviewer, Wim Wenders, could understand him. This delighted me to no end, for I have a tremendous soft spot for scenes and/or whole relationships played out between two or more people who are speaking a language that isn’t the mother tongue to either one of them. So, it was startling but oh-so poetic that Salgado should speak in Portuguese at the end, signaling a homecoming after decades abroad, circumnavigating the globe in search of humanity.

Man, “You Should Be Dancing”: Memorable “WTF” Movie Moments

There are shots and scenes in films that are designed to take your breath away. Sometimes it’s the gorgeous cinematography, dazzling special effects, or a character’s sweeping romantic gesture that does the trick. The filmmakers’ choices, when properly executed, generally advance the narrative and enhance the overall movie-going experience. Think: any scene from Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), with Clint Mansell’s score pushing the spectator through the heavens, or the moment Drs. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler first glimpse the Brachiosaurus on their way into Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993). These scenes are memorable because they are beautiful, intense, imaginative, and poignant.

But what about those scenes that, seemingly out of the blue, disrupt a film’s serious tone? Whether driven by camp, satire, or irony, these scenes are usually shocking and hilarious. I bet each of us has our own collection of these filmic moments. I know that my dad, for one, enjoys it whenever a character is surprisingly killed in the middle of a scene, such as when a shark jumps out of the water and eats Samuel L. Jackson after he gives a rousing, survivalist speech to the members of his team in Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999). However, my collection of favorite “what the fuck?” movie moments revolves around, well, men dancing.

Before I share with you my top five, I need to clarify the criteria by which these dances make the cut. None is from a musical (that’s why his dancing is so jarring for the viewer), but a song–sung live or reproduced through the character’s sound system or radio–does play a part in each case. In all but two instances, the actor spontaneously dances by himself, and his body–clothed or unclothed–is on display. What I like most about these moments is how they individually and collectively represent a direct address to the female gaze. Some are more sexualized than others, and still a few are downright horrific and disgusting. Since these dance scenes are generally the bright spots in a dark (or even frivolous) film, there is no Tobey Maguire strutting down the street in Spider-Man 3 (Sam Raimi, 2007). And as much as I enjoyed the whitewashing effect of the cast singing and dancing to the O’Jays at the end of The Voices (Marjane Satrapi, 2014), their “Sing A Happy Song” routine is actually too big a choreographed set-piece to make the moment seem spontaneous overall.

Without much further ado, I give you my five favorite scenes of men using the power of dance to lighten a deeply disturbing mood:

Number one, with a bullet, comes from Alex Garland’s much celebrated directorial debut Ex Machina (2015), which opened in wide release last Friday. This scene may receive pride of place on this list because of my crush on the actor Oscar Isaac, whose sinister artificial intelligence mastermind Nathan dances with a female android. However, the real reason it lands here is because Nathan turns something as joyful as disco-dancing into a physical threat directed at houseguest Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who disapproves of Nathan’s methods. Trust me, the commitment of the actors in this scene elevates it to high comedy, even when the scene is taken out of context from the whole picture.

Another classic. Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman, the Resident Doofus of Mergers & Acquisitions, takes rival Paul Allen (the beautiful Jared Leto) back to his place in Mary Harron’s brilliant 2000 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, American Psycho. Before chopping his colleague to pieces, Bateman waxes philosophical about the misunderstood meaning behind Huey Lewis and the News’s “Hip to be Square.” Apparently, it’s about the pleasures of conformity, something he knows a lot about. While Bateman doesn’t dance dance, per se, he does emphasize his point with a quick nerd-accented shake of the hips. You stop laughing as soon as he strikes an ax into Allen’s head.

This is not actually my choice! I couldn’t, for the life of me, find the clip from Charlie’s Angels (McG, 2000) wherein client-turned-villain Sam Rockwell dances to “Got to Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye. A relative unknown at this time, Rockwell burned his name into my memory with his sexy shimmying to the song, a way for him to announce to Drew Barrymore’s Dylan, whom he just bedded, that he is in fact the bad guy from whom she’s been assigned to protect him. Yep, long before “Blurred Lines,” the Marvin Gaye classic had been associated with shameful sexual acts.

But it turns out that Sam Rockwell is a regular old Christopher Walken: he dances every chance he gets. Among the video treasures that YouTube has of his moves, is the above scene from Charlie’s Angels. The film never truly adopts a serious tone, and Rockwell’s Eric Knox lampoons earlier James Bond-type villains. He has a secret, coastal hideaway, and technology that goes BOOM! “Revenge is fun,” he says, because he likes to dance it out. Shame the above clip doesn’t run long enough to include his doing the splits.

Reluctant but hungry vampire Louis (Brad Pitt) has just swept young Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) in his arms and fed on her blood. At this turning point in Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan, 1994), Louis is disgusted with himself, whereas Lestat (Tom Cruise, electrifying) is elated that his protege has finally taken the plunge. How does he celebrate what Louis would rather forget? Why, by dancing with the corpse of Claudia’s mother, of course! The jubilant dancing and operetta singing sharply contrasts with the dark, spartan interior of Claudia’s home. It’d been a while since there was much evidence of any life there. Which is why Lestat’s bemused exclamation, “There’s still life in the old lady yet!” is so hilarious. An immortal, death is a joke to him, and for once, he has made the audience laugh with him. But poor Louis and Claudia: forever doomed.

Finally, how about some levity? Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003) isn’t a serious movie, except for maybe some of its apologists. Hands down, the best scene from this syrupy concoction is when Prime Minister Hugh Grant dances around 10 Downing Street to the tune of “Jump (For My Love)” by the Pointer Sisters, celebrating a personal and professional victory. In Curtis’s rewrite of the concurrent War in Iraq, the PM refuses to toe the line set by the lecherous American President (Billy Bob Thornton, never better). All because the Prez hit on the Prime Minister’s assistant/crush (Martine McCutcheon). A moment the country world can be proud of: Hugh Grant shaking his hips.

That’s it. What are some of your most cherished “what the fuck?” moments? Sound it out in the comments section.

Long Take: Hector and the Search for Happiness Finds Nothing to Be Happy About

Viewed March 5, 2015

Movie poster for Hector and the Search for HappinessHector and the Search for Happiness (2014) came and went late last summer in limited release, but I don’t recall it ever coming to a theater near me. Which is just as well, because it is horrible. Ostensibly a comedy, the biggest laugh that the film story elicits occurs when a French woman struggles to pronounce the word “happiness.” The titular character, though embodied by Simon Pegg (one of my favorites), and all those who surround him are so criminally underdeveloped that it is difficult to care much about anyone in the film except in a more theoretical way that the filmmakers don’t support. What’s worse, the representation of the bored British psychiatrist’s journey around the world to find out what makes people happy paints multiple far-flung cultures in broad, caricatured brushstrokes. There is virtually no cultural specificity in any of the places that he visits, and when director and co-writer Peter Chelsom and crew attempt to add critical dissections of serious impediments to people’s general health and well-being in these places, these issues are wiped under the rug, never to be disturbed again. In case you are new to Hector and the Search for Happiness, be warned that I am going to spoil it now. And while you’re at it, take a peek at the film’s trailer to see how much potential the filmmakers wasted.

I have not read the original source novel by French psychiatrist François Lelord, but apparently its raison d’être is to educate a general readership about the psychology of happiness and to offer tips on finding it in everyday life. This explains why, after almost every interaction with someone throughout his international adventure, Hector jots down in his journal maxims such as “Happiness is knowing you’re alive” and “Happiness is not always knowing the full story.” These words are scrawled across the screen in order to keep a running tally of all the lessons learned, as if the film is a PowerPoint lecture. Hector also fills the pages of his notebook, which sexy and domineering girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike) gifted him upon his departure, with cutesy doodles of what his childish imagination encounters abroad. The main lesson he must learn is that losing Clara, even though she smothers him with a routine (always the same breakfast; she clips his toenails and packs his bag), would make him really unhappy. That’s right: he goes on this purportedly life-changing adventure only to realize that he likes his life just as it is. Although the couple’s Skype conversations widen the chasm between them more and more throughout, as the film drags on, there is never any doubt as to the fate of their relationship.

And this is why Hector’s first stop in “China” is so perplexing. He never gives any reason as to why he starts there (and isn’t it the tiny kingdom of Bhutan that is regularly cited as the happiest place on earth?) or what he is going to do once he arrives. But Hector doesn’t need a plan when he has filthy rich businessman Stellan Skarsgård to act as his guide in an unnamed Shanghai. It truly boggles the mind as to why Skarsgård’s Edward, so annoyed by Hector on the plane ride over from London, would take the ridiculous man under his wing and show him a good time. For, unbeknownst to Hector, Edward has secured the services of a prostitute named Ying Li (Ming Zhao) to keep Hector company in the nightclub and beyond. Although Clara gave Hector permission to fool around while on his trip, he winds up falling asleep before Ying Li can even get into the bed. At lunch the next day, believing he’s falling in love, Hector discovers the truth when her pimp whisks her away. Hector tries to do the honorable thing and stand up to him, but, despite calling her john “nice,” Ying Li hits Hector on the head and rides away. She doesn’t want his help. So in one fell swoop, Hector goes from ruminating that perhaps happiness is being in love with two women at the same time to realizing that he’s happier not knowing Ying Li’s full story. I never expected the film to engage the topics of prostitution and sexual tourism in Shanghai, but since the filmmakers did, I find it morally reprehensible that Hector, a psychiatrist, would find it so easy to disengage. It’s not as if Ying Li was happy to see her pimp, to return to her life as a sexually exploited woman. She seemed confused as to how she felt about Hector, as if wondering whether or not he could provide an escape. I wouldn’t have wanted to see a film about a white male tourist “saving” a Chinese prostitute. Nevertheless, I didn’t like how the experience of falling for a woman, no matter her profession, had exactly no consequences on Hector’s outlook other than admitting he rather just be ignorant of the circumstances of her life.

Hector and Ying Li get up close and personal. Photo courtesy of Relativity Media.
Hector (Simon Pegg) and Ying Li (Ming Zhao) get up close and personal. Image courtesy of Relativity Media.

But it only gets worse. From Shanghai, Hector treks through the Himalayas to a remote Buddhist monastery. No one mentions the place by name, but it is easy to assume that he has entered Tibet, to seek the advice of Togo Igawa’s Old Monk (the filmmakers couldn’t even give him a name), who mainly just speaks in rhetorical loop-de-loops to help Hector arrive at the lesson that always avoiding things that make you unhappy is no surefire way to attain long-lasting happiness. He spends all of five minutes there, without ever contemplating how the Chinese government’s suppression of Tibetan statehood might affect the happiness of the people living and working there.

Then he moves on to “Africa.” I found this section the most offensive, beginning with the filmmakers’ failure to name a more specific region or country. Perhaps they left the place intentionally unidentified so as to not incur the wrath of people and governments of a particular place or area. But this lack of cultural specificity effectually purports that Hector’s “Africa” stands in for a whole continent, dominated by warlords foreign-born and native alike, backward villagers who travel with their chickens on prop planes, and “Western” organizations that provide humanitarian aid. In fact, Hector spends two weeks helping his medical school friend Michael (Barry Atsma) at the clinic he runs with his African boyfriend. Embarrassingly, it takes him a full two weeks to recognize that Michael and Marcel (Anthony Oseyemi) are romantically involved, coming to the delightful conclusion that “Happiness is when you are loved for who you are.” Unfortunately, just as Michael’s work is merely the conduit through which Hector can explore “Africa,” the former’s sexual relationship with Marcel exists purely as a way for Hector to learn this widely shared belief. Hector doesn’t seem to care about the challenges that the mixed-race, homosexual couple—his friends—must face in this setting. And nor do the filmmakers.

You wouldn't know it from this photo, but Michael, Hector, and Marcel are cruising in a war-torn
You wouldn’t know it from this photo, but Michael (Barry Atsma), Hector (Pegg), and Marcel (Anthony Oseyemi) are cruising in a war-torn “Africa.” Image courtesy of Relativity Media.

Hector continuously acts the fool, and he even comes to the aid of a local warlord named Diego Baresco (Jean Reno). Despite warnings from Michael and Marcel about warlords in the area, Hector proves his goodness to Baresco, who suspects him of working for an international peace-keeping outfit that swoops in only to leave before seeing their work through. Hector reviews the prescriptions that Baresco’s beloved wife takes and makes revisions to her regime, thereby instilling some peace of mind in Baresco. They get drunk together, and on his ride back to the clinic, Hector fails to recognize that his taxi cab has been hijacked by two armed rebels, because all black men look the same to him. He’s soon taken hostage, destined to rot in a cell with one rat as his friend. It’s unclear as to how long he is held captive, and of course we have no idea what the rebels seek to accomplish with their violent acts. We’re just supposed to accept this, because isn’t that what happens in Africa? According to this film, white European and American tourists go missing all the time and are swept into guerrilla warfare. Hector uses Baresco’s pen to negotiate his release, for his captors fear retribution from Hector’s powerful “friend.” They abandon Hector on a country road, and “Happiness is knowing you’re alive” is emblazoned on the screen. Yes, absolutely, but did we need such an extreme scenario to demonstrate this? Especially since nothing becomes of it? Hector doesn’t suffer any post-traumatic stress, and we never witness Michael’s or Marcel’s worry over Hector’s abduction. Before moving on to Los Angeles to meet his former med school flame Agnes (Toni Collette), Hector experiences the gloriousness of sweet potato stew, which a baby-swaddling woman on the prop plane promised to prepare for him once they landed safely in “Africa.” It’s supposed to be physically and emotionally fulfilling, but we viewers never see it. The filmmakers can’t even commit to showing us a traditional “African” dish.

Having survived being held hostage by an indistinguishable
Having survived being held hostage by an indistinguishable “African” rebel group, Hector celebrates by cooking sweet potato stew with local women. Image courtesy of Relativity Media.

In Los Angeles, Hector takes part in Professor Coreman’s (Christopher Plummer) neuroscience study to map emotions such as happiness, sadness, and fear across different parts of the brain. After breaking up with Clara over the phone because his traveling to Los Angeles has finally signaled for the couple that Hector still longs for Agnes, Hector exhibits all three emotions in the scanner, lighting up Coreman’s screen with a rainbow of colors that the professor has assigned to each emotional state. Is this the payoff we’re supposed to receive from Hector and the Search for Happiness? What makes Hector special is his ability to feel happiness, sadness, and fear at the same time when recalling a wide range of events in his life? Having been rebuffed by Agnes, a happily married psychologist with a third child on the way, Hector determines that he must get back to London to be with Clara. As I said before, they live happily ever after. He’s more emotionally available and compassionate towards his patients, and Clara finally realizes that, yes, she wants to have a baby with Hector.

What and whom they always wanted. Clara (Rosamund Pike) and Hector finally tie the knot. Image courtesy of relativity Media.
What and whom they always wanted. Clara (Rosamund Pike) and Hector finally tie the knot. Image courtesy of Relativity Media and MovieStillsDB.com.

The one bright spot in this mess is the chemistry between Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike. Although their relationship isn’t exactly desirable (she takes great pride in clipping his toe nails!), they have an appealing, silly rapport in scenes where they interact in person. In fact, most of their exchanges occur over video conferencing calls. Notably, Hector and the Search for Happiness may be implying that staying connected through this kind of technology is no substitute for human contact (when Hector tries to tell her that he’d been kidnapped, she fails to register the gravity of the situation). Even phone conversations do not go well between them. There is simply a lack of communication between the lovers, and isn’t that a definite sign of their incompatibility? Clara cannot make up her mind regarding Hector’s up and leaving her for an indeterminate period of time. Hector needs to leave the person he loves in order to realize that happiness lies in a life made with her. This is not an earth-shattering revelation, especially since we watch him come to this conclusion under the most ridiculous of circumstances. As I said before, I am a huge fan of Pegg’s, and it was disappointing to see him attached to such bone-headed and culturally insensitive material. I wonder what attracted him to it in the first place: Hector’s childhood love of The Adventures of Tin Tin, maybe? Then again, shooting a film about happiness around the world does sound really exciting. If only the film wasn’t so concerned with checking off the lessons in the original source novel and instead let the characters interact with each other in more plausible, organic ways.

Behind the Gingham Altar: The Great British Baking Show Whets the Appetite for More Episodes

the Great British Baking Show BannerFor weeks, I have been lamenting the end of The Great British Baking Show. And now here I am, on the other end of the finale. The very deserving Nancy has been crowned champion, even though my sister and I were rooting for Luis. (The teenaged Martha was my favorite all along—so much potential!) I have been so emotionally invested in this reality competition television program that I cried. To put this in perspective, I did not cry during the series finale of Parks and Recreation earlier in the week. Don’t get me wrong: Leslie and co. received the heartwarming send-off we all wanted. The difference is that I wanted Parks to end, whereas I have no idea what I am going to without The Great British Baking Show.

Nancy, the Best British Amateur Baker, from The Great British Baking Show. Image courtesy of PBS.
Nancy, the Best British Amateur Baker, from The Great British Baking Show. Photo courtesy of PBS.

I am not a baker; I don’t really know my way around the kitchen. My domain is restricted to the sink, where I do the washing up while the cook puts his/her feet up after dinner. But I do love bread, cakes, cookies, pastries, donuts, etc. Whenever a judge, whether Paul Hollywood or Mary Berry, gave an amateur baking contestant negative feedback, I liked to say, with a bit of a shrug, “I’d eat it.” When the design of a cake or the flavor of a tart didn’t come off quite as intended: “I’d still eat it.” Every week, I was in awe of the twelve contestants’ talent—well, if I’m being completely honest, it was more like the top six bakers. They were the ones who impressed the most with their skill and creativity.

Richard, Five-Time Star Baker, from The Great British Baking Show. Image courtesy of PBS.
Richard, Five-Time Star Baker, from The Great British Baking Show. Photo courtesy of PBS.

In fact, when you think about it, that’s what this baking competition has been about: balancing skill and creativity in equal proportions. Richard, a builder from London, won the coveted title Star Baker an unprecedented five times throughout the season, mainly because his precision and balance of flavors hit the mark. On the other hand, Luis’s background in graphic design gave our beloved Mancunian an advantage when it came to crafting stunning personal artworks made of food. Sometimes the bakes were bang on; sometimes they were overdone. A retired office manager for a general medical practice, Nancy-of-Lincolnshire won because, as she displayed on the final weekend in the tent, she produced more technically accurate bakes with the right amount of visual flair. As much as I wanted Luis to win, I would have accepted anyone. But it does tickle the belly that the sole woman in the top three triumphed over the men.

Luis, my favorite to win The Great British Baking Show. Image courtesy of PBS.
Luis, my favorite to win The Great British Baking Show. Photo courtesy of PBS.

What made The Great British Baking Show so watchable, so satisfying, was the representation of friendly competition. No one was a diva, a trouble-maker, or a back-stabber. Everyone, at least from how the makers edited it together, seemed to get along. They were supportive of each other in times of doubt or after receiving stinging critiques. There was a kerfuffle midway through, when it was debatable whether or not Diana purposefully forgot to put Iain’s baked Alaska back in the freezer. But it was Iain’s decision to throw away everything that he was working on that cost him a place in the tent the next week. Emotions, I learned, do run high in the kitchen, and if you don’t control them, they can burn you.

That’s another thing. As the hosts for the PBS pledge drive accompanying (or is it obstructing?) the finale made clear, over and over and over again, The Great British Baking Show is very educational. I have learned more about baking than I could ever have imagined. For instance, British English favors “sponge” for what we Americans call “cake,” cake as opposed to frosting. I now have a lot of respect for those brave enough to bake, and I recognize that I have no business messing with the oven nobs or toying with the stand mixer. My place is behind the gingham altar. Next time someone brings me something sweet and doughy to eat, I will try not to eat everything on display before me.

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: 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?