Long Take: Jurassic World Devours Itself–And Virtually Everything Else

Viewed June 12, 2015

This is a Special Report from the desk of a Jurassic Park superfan.

Jurassic_World_posterJurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015) is a product of its time. And by that, I mean our time. The age of bloated superhero epics that tell the same origin stories over and over—even when they’re all gathered together to “save” the world again. Because what could be better than having one superhero in a movie? Six of them, that’s what. It’s also the age of flying cars in straightforward action pics, not science fiction fantasies set in the near-to-distant future. Because how could a stunt involving cars rushing through a tower be more awesome? If it blasts through two towers!

If audiences were clamoring for bigger, meaner dinosaurs to rampage through the park, ripping people to shreds or eating them whole, then Jurassic World doesn’t disappoint. (And apparently this is exactly what the spectators wished for; Jurassic World has raked in over $524.4 million worldwide during its opening weekend alone, becoming the largest opening weekend ever.) It is big, loud, and out of control. It is Jurassic Park on steroids, and I can’t imagine that anyone is comparing the reboot of the franchise favorably to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic. Jurassic World, unlike its predecessor, is deeply mired in cynicism and devoid of any sense of wonder. It is horrifically violent but not at all scary. Jurassic Park is a cautionary tale about what you should not wish for. Jurassic World is a war movie. This essay is littered with spoilers, so keep out if you want to stay safe!

The most interesting aspect of Jurassic World is its cynical commentary on today’s movies. But first, some back story: the protagonist, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), is the top executive of the Central American theme park situated on Isla Nublar (the same island off the coast of Costa Rica that once housed John Hammond’s Jurassic Park), and she spends much of her day trying to woo corporate sponsorships for new park attractions. When we first meet her, she is on her way to securing an endorsement from Verizon Wireless. But what is it for? In order to attract more new and repeat visitors, Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, the only actor returning from any of the original three films) and his team of InGen lab scientists have engineered a brand-new dinosaur, Indominus rex, whose full genetic makeup is classified information.

When the beast inevitably escapes its containment barrack by tricking the computer-controlled thermal sensors and guardsmen into believing that the dinosaur has clawed its way out, it is a good thing that raptor whisperer trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is on hand to help Claire contain the escalating situation. A former Navy man, it is unclear how Owen has wound up on the island, and he is incredulous as to why simply having living, breathing dinosaurs on display isn’t enough for Jurassic World’s owner, the oil and telecommunications tycoon Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan). Why would he condone creating an animal no one knows or understands, Owen wonders. Claire tells Owen that people—nay, focus groups—have expressed renewed interest in the park if Jurassic World can produce a bigger, meaner dinosaur, something they haven’t seen before, thereby echoing the movie studios’ persistence to churn out mind-numbing entertainments with high but unremarked upon body counts and copious stunts and explosions.

A typical view of Indominus rex, right into its jaws. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
A typical view of Indominus rex, right into its mouth. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The problem is that Indominus rex (whose ridiculous name, Claire insists, is supposed to be easy for people to pronounce) is too familiar to be genuinely awe-inspiring. Director Steven Spielberg and his team waited more than at least thirty minutes to show the Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park, figuring its appearance was all the more shocking because, like his Jaws (1975) before it, the weight and menace of the so-called “King of All Dinosaurs” had been sensed and all but completely understood by characters and film viewers alike until that crucial set-piece. Indominus rex appears much earlier in the new film, and to give credit where credit is due, it is so big that it hardly fits in most frames. Part T. rex, part tree frog, and part Velociraptor among other unnamed species, Indominus rex mostly resembles the “tyrant lizard” with the shape of its head and its short arms (although it does not always move upright through space). The creature’s long, bumpy back recalls that of Godzilla, and its pinkish gray flesh reminded me of The Blob (Chuck Russell, 1988), only less like Pepto-Bismol. When he sees Indominus rex for the first time, Masrani is stunned at what he calls its “white” skin. Claire senses his disapproval, but he insists that he loves it. Unfortunately, the designer dino isn’t easy to spot amongst all of the green vegetation in the park and eventually rips the under-the-skin homing device out of its flesh.

Alpha and Beta raptors Owen and Blue. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Alpha and Beta raptors Owen and Blue. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Although there is a lot of Jurassic Park in the DNA of Jurassic World, the new film proves that the original never could be made today just as it was over twenty years ago, thereby making Jurassic Park even more special. For starters, in 1993 it was more than acceptable for the action-adventure picture’s heroic star to be a middle-aged scientist, because his understanding of dinosaur anatomy and behavior prepared him to outsmart the prehistoric predators. In today’s movie, we need a muscle bound hunk with Magnum and Blue Steel looks to protect people—and by extension, the audience—from the fierce predators. Owen’s expertise as a man of action, a raptor wrangler, seemingly far outstrips Dr. Alan Grant’s (Sam Neill) paleontology background, even though we (and presumably Owen himself) don’t understand to what end he is training those raptors. In fact, Jurassic World disengages with science almost completely, relegating paleontology as a thing of the past when Claire says to prospective sponsors that the park’s scientists have learned more from advances in genetics in the last twenty years than they have ever learned from hundreds of years of “digging.”

Jurassic Park's skeletal recreation welcomed visitors to explore the past; Jurassic World patrons can glimpse the future. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Jurassic Park’s skeletal recreation welcomed visitors to explore the past; Jurassic World patrons can glimpse the future. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Establishing shots of Jurassic World’s attractions demonstrate how marginalized paleontology, scientific inquiry, and even history have become. Inside the Visitors Center, a hologram of dinosaurs takes center stage, replacing the full skeletal reconstruction of the T. rex from Jurassic Park. Off to the side, children play in what is effectively a sandbox, pretending to unearth dinosaur bones. Even the crackpot science of the 1993 film is only referenced in an updated interactive computer screen showcasing Mr. DNA (the cartoon narrator of the behind-the-scenes lab tour in Jurassic Park) or in the massive amber-laden design of the shops at the park’s entrance. Just as he feared, Dr. Grant and his kind have been forced into extinction.

Those are some oversized raptors, for sure. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Those are some oversized raptors, for sure. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

For fans of the original based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel of the same name, it is easy to recognize that the raptors still sound the same (like geese) in Jurassic World, that they’re still featherless and too big according to the fossil record. The distinctive font for the movie and park logo (what is it called anyway, “Jurassic Park?”) is the same, only it is now Terminator steel in color, highlighting its militaristic narrative that I will come to later. In keeping with early twenty-first century trends to be more environmentally conscious and sustainable, it’s comforting to know that the gates to Jurassic World contain repurposed wood from those of Jurassic Park. Upon entering the control room for the first time, Claire chastises computer security expert Lowery (Jake Johnson, the only source of comedy in the whole picture) to clean up his workstation littered with small dino figurines in much the same way that John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) called out Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) for his slovenliness in Jurassic Park. The narrative conduit through which Jurassic World raises the emotional stakes also concerns the top executive’s relatives. While their parents hash out the details of their divorce, brothers Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) travel to the tropical paradise to be reunited with their aunt, Claire, after seven years or so apart. She is too successful and busy to show them around personally, and so Claire assigns her assistant Zara (Katie McGrath) to look after the boys—before they ditch her in a crowd and subsequently go off-road in the park, to their peril.

Unlike Tim (Joseph Mazello) and Lex (Ariana Richards), John Hammond’s grandchildren who survived a vicious T. rex attack, electrocution by high voltage cables, and a group of raptors’ stealthy predation in Jurassic Park, the moody teenager Zach and his dorky dino-loving younger brother Gray are passive, ill-developed characters. In this day and age, it seems both outdated and highly implausible that parents would even attempt to keep their divorce secret from their teen and pre-teen children. Keeping the boys’ parents off the island until the whole family finally reunites after the big, bad dinosaur has been vanquished oversimplifies the narrative and likely keeps production costs low, as if that is a real concern (the producers of Jurassic World undoubtedly followed Hammond’s maxim to spare no expense). To add insult to injury, the script’s old-fashioned sexist gender politics actually calls for the boys’ mother Karen (Judy Greer, wasted), when accused of sounding like her mother, to point out to her sister Claire that she’ll understand how right their mother was when Claire has her own children. Claire corrects her with, “If I have children.” Karen settles their dispute with, “When.” During this exchange, I leaned over to whisper to my sister that the four screenwriters can’t write dialogue between two women, let alone sisters. Why is Karen/the filmmakers so intent on defining Claire in terms of her willingness and ability to mother children?

Watch where you step, Claire! You might break a heel. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Watch where you step, Claire! You might break a heel. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

In fact, much has been made of Jurassic World’s representation of women, much of it centered on Claire’s outrageous superhuman ability to outrun dinosaurs in high heels. In her New York Times review, film critic Manohla Dargis laments that Claire “mostly just schemes and screams, before Owen melts her like an ice cube on a hot griddle.” More like a Megan Fox character in any of the Transformers movies, with her permanent sheen of attractive sweat, Claire is a far cry from the intelligent, heroic paleo-botanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). Those are some tough shoes to fill: Ellie wasn’t afraid to stick her hands into mounds of dino dung or call out Hammond’s sexism in Jurassic Park. More troublesome than Claire and Owen’s romantic subplot, which Joss Whedon deemed “70’s era sexist” once a clip from the film was released online over two months ago, is how Jurassic World tortures another female character. Sure, Zara may not be that interested in keeping an eye on Claire’s nephews—she’s too attached to her phone and likely believes babysitting is beneath her (is she wrong?)—but does she deserve to die such a violent and traumatic death? About midway through the film, amateur helicopter pilot Masrani fatally crashes into the aviary, thereby inadvertently releasing swarms of Pteranodon and Dimorphodon into the park and allowing them attack visitors. Two or more play a game, passing Zara back and forth before one drops her in the pool of the gigantic Mosasaurus. This act seals her fate to wind up as an even smaller bite-size snack than the shark from Jaws, a feeding demonstration that memorably plays out like a Shamu show at Sea World in the Jurassic World trailer.

The Mosasaurus eats Jaws; it's never safe to go in that water. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
The Mosasaurus eats Jaws; it’s never safe to go in that water. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

But Jaws isn’t the only piece of film history gobbled up in Jurassic World. As part and parcel of the film’s commentary on the outlandish and out-sized spectacle of today’s movie entertainments, Jurassic World also deconstructs its studio’s theme park attractions. Literally. Jimmy Fallon, the star of NBC’s The Tonight Show, makes a cameo appearance as the host of the Gyrosphere off-road experience, thereby reprising his role as the video guide of Universal Studios Hollywood’s Studio Tour. His comic hijinks shot in a studio laboratory and broadcast on the re-envisioned tram’s video screen turn glitchy once Indominus rex attacks Zach and Gray in their Gyrosphere vehicle. Contrary to Fallon’s claims, indestructible this technology is not. This is also how the only truly awe-inspiring sequence in the entire film concludes, with a callback to the T. rex’s attack on Tim and Lex’s electric-powered Jeep. Zach and Gray’s safari adventure, rolling around with stampedes of Apatosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and others, recalls the moment in Jurassic Park where Drs. Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) see the Brachiosaurus for the first time. But the Jurassic World sequence is heavily edited and too closely framed. The sense of wonder so prevalent in Jurassic Park (look! living, breathing dinosaurs!) is completely absent in Jurassic World, and composer Michael Giacchino’s reworking of John Williams’s iconic score even fails to move. It just doesn’t feel earned.

Zach and Gray, just a couple of kids. And some dinosaurs! Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Zach and Gray, just a couple of kids. And some dinosaurs! Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Universal puts more of its properties through the ringer, as well. Whereas the more natural landscape of Jurassic Park was sparsely populated with brutalist concrete buildings, Jurassic World strikingly resembles Universal City Walk by way of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Its Disneyland-like Main Street U.S.A. is lined with shops that anyone would recognize from a standard suburban American mall: Starbucks, Jamba Juice, Pandora, etc. Other than visiting to look at dinosaurs, there is nothing special about this place. The only mention of what I would consider an extraordinary experience on offer at “Downtown Jurassic World” is the quick advertisement on the loudspeaker for a Chilean sea bass dining experience, which references a lunchtime meal in Jurassic Park that no one actually partakes. They’re all too busy discussing whether or not Jurassic Park should exist. There is no such philosophical reflection in Jurassic World.

Main Street of Jurassic World under attack. Maybe opening a franchise of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville restaurants on Isla Nublar wasn't such a good idea, after all. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Main Street of Jurassic World under attack. Maybe opening a franchise of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurants on Isla Nublar wasn’t such a good idea, after all. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Given what I’ve read about Michael Crichton’s literary oeuvre and his political ideology, I imagine that he would gleefully applaud the rampaging dinosaurs’ destruction of this tasteless, highly corporatized place. In its pursuit of dollars and sponsorships, the telecommunications conglomerate that owns Jurassic World (remember, Comcast owns Universal), brings about the end of civilization—the wild animals in the zoo, particularly the little-understood hybrid—fight back! (Control is an illusion, or so said Dr. Ellie Sattler.) The rampant commercialism and excessive consumption on display throughout Jurassic World gets it most exacting and seemingly innocuous indictment not in the very unsubtle product placements strewn throughout (featuring the likes of Mercedes, The IMAX Experience, and Samsung) but in various characters’ drinking soda from oversized Jurassic World paper cups. As such, those film spectators in the theater sipping Coke or shoveling popcorn into their mouths from Jurassic World tie-in merchandise containers are somewhat implicated in Jurassic World’s expensive socio-biological experiment in entertainment gone so horrible wrong. After all, the next best thing to actually being there is feeling immersed in the park’s material culture. The movie’s website outwardly projects a real-life presence for Jurassic World, giving weather forecasts and “real-time” approximations for various attractions’ wait times. Visitors can even refill their souvenir cups for only 99 cents at filling stations throughout the park. The spell is broken, however, once you click “Get Tickets” and you’re rerouted to a Fandango-like website listing movie times in your vicinity.

Contrary to what Claire believes, Lowery, a lifelong Jurassic Park supergeek, doesn't wear his t-shirt ironically. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Contrary to what Claire believes, Lowery, a lifelong Jurassic Park supergeek, doesn’t wear his t-shirt ironically. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

As a Jurassic Park superfan, I admit that I would love to own a t-shirt from the movie (and by that, I am referring to shirts that were featured in Jurassic Park and were subsequently available for purchase in the real world). Jurassic World blurs this line between diegetic and real-world marketing when Claire reprimands computer security expert Lowery for wearing an original Jurassic Park tee, labeling it in poor taste to promote a park where people lost their lives. She therefore negatively judges people’s continued morbid fascination with Jurassic Park. He beams that this collector’s item only set him back $150 on eBay, a steal when they usually go for $300. Of course, this line from Claire comes across as highly hypocritical: is she not profiting now from the disaster of Jurassic Park? As for Lowery, my sister doesn’t understand why a dino-loving guy who ironically wears a Jurassic Park tee would work there, either. My only guess is that he represents the Jurassic Park aficionado that so many of us are and that he wants to prevent a similar disaster from ever happening again. But too bad. He can’t.

Of course, what brings Jurassic World personnel to its knees is another inside job. Whereas computer programmer Dennis Nedry wreaked havoc in Jurassic Park when he shut down the power in order to get away with a canister of dinosaur DNA for personal profit, Dr. Henry Wu and a U.S. military contractor named Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) scheme behind Masrani and Claire’s backs to design Indominus rex with technological advancements that make it imperceptible by all known combat weapons currently used in the field, including thermal sensors and drone radars. In other words, disaster was bound to strike Jurassic World because Wu and Hoskins engineered it just so. As I stated before, when we meet Owen, alpha papa to a gaggle of raptors, it is unclear as to what he wants to achieve with the trained predators who were arguably the principal villains in Jurassic Park. As luck would have it, he fulfills some sort of destiny to rein them in in order to hunt down Indominus rex at Hoskins’s insistence. Besides, only Owen can do it well.

Hoskins is ready for his field test, Mr. Trevorrow. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Hoskins is ready for his field test, Mr. Trevorrow. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Once Indominus rex escapes its ill-suited cage, Jurassic World leadership does everything it can to track the dinosaur down, all while keeping its grave breach in security a secret from thousands of visitors. It is worth noting that most of the beast’s victims are people of color, beginning with a Hispanic park ranger and following through to an Asian-American special forces commander and members of his diverse team. In order to protect their expensive “asset,” leadership only allows the group of deadly operatives to pack tranquilizer guns. What’s worse is that they are barely mourned. In the control room, Claire, Owen, Masrani, Hoskins, and others watch each soldier’s computer-represented lifeline go limp, one at a time. This is in stark contrast to Claire’s tearful reaction to witnessing the death of an Apatosaurus, clawed down by the Indominus rex, while on her way with Owen to the northern section of the island to rescue her nephews. This moment obviously recalls the scene in Jurassic Park wherein Dr. Ellie Sattler investigates which plant likely ails the poisoned Triceratops. But again, it rings so false. Apatosaurus, I hardly knew ye!

The last third of the movie goes beyond the conventions of a traditional monster movie; it becomes a war picture. Despite Wu’s earlier pronouncement to Masrani, who wonders who signed off on Wu’s creation (it was you, Masrani, duh), that Jurassic World and presumably its 1993 antecedent were “never natural,” Hoskins insists that war is a part of nature, as if his field test is a natural progression of the wars in Afghanistan and against ISIS in Syria. In much the same way that a hungry shark interrupts Samuel L. Jackson’s rousing speech in Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999), a raptor charges at Hoskins, allowing Owen, Claire, and her nephews a way out. Eventually, Gray surmises that the surviving raptors simply don’t have enough teeth to take down Indominus rex, which lends Claire her one opportunity to enact a true, heroic gesture: she orders Lowery to open the T. rex’s compound, which, it must be said, resembles a soundstage on a studio backlot. Still in heels, Claire outruns the King of Dinosaurs on her way back to Owen and the boys. According to Manohla Dargis, “the heels are just silly and a distraction given that they’re nowhere near as insulting as the rest of her.” I’m not a Claire apologist (or, more accurately, a defender of the scriptwriters), but it is undeniable that Claire—and not Owen—bravely leads the T. rex to Indominus rex. The dino battle isn’t particularly noteworthy except for the nostalgia-tinged emotions it elicits in the film audience. Our one-time villain T. rex may die? Thankfully, the Mosasaurus emerges from the water, bites Indominus rex, and plunges the dino mutt into its tank. The last shot of the film features the T. rex roaring outside the control room, announcing its return to the top. There will likely be another sequel, because the park leadership still will not have learned its lesson. After all, Dr. Wu got away with the dino DNA.

Claire gets her one moment to shine. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Claire gets her one moment to shine. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Before Jurassic World began, I came to a strange but wonderful observation: unlike other franchise reboots of the year (Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars included), it’s highly probable that everyone in the packed theater—kids, teens, and adults—had seen the original blockbuster on which Jurassic World is based. The new feature may have expanded the universe of the earlier film, completely loping off its two sequels, but it didn’t use Jurassic Park’s intelligence, sense of humor, or incredible imagination. However, it’s still worth visiting in the same way that one should experience a Disney resort from time to time. What new monstrosity will they cook up next to make you long for the awesome theme park experience of your childhood?

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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.

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.

Movie Travel Diary: Washington, DC

A view of the Capitol Building and Pennsylvania Avenue from the Newseum. To the left, there’s the Canadian Embassy, and to the right, the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. Photo by the author’s sister, or so she claims.

The time has come to close the book on Movie Travel Diary—for now. Selecting the last city to round out the week was somewhat difficult. I thought about Chicago, but I couldn’t think of a film that shows off the city that I know. Not even the cult classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986), with its touristy locations, can evoke the place for me. Equally true of San Francisco. What could I have chosen? The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)? Nine Months (Chris Columbus, 1995)? Nah.

So I choose Washington, DC. The thing is, this happens to be the nearest city to where I grew up and where I currently live. Regrettably, I don’t go downtown as often as I would like, and when I do, I usually stick to visiting my favorite museums: the National Building Museum, National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery, all within striking distance of the National Mall. In other words, when I am in DC, I am a tourist. The streets aren’t as easily navigable for me as the ones in Manhattan. Washington is relatively small, but it’s impossible to see even just a few of the diverse neighborhoods throughout the city over the course of a couple of days. Hell, I have lived nearby almost my entire life, and there are still sections I have never been to. Disgraceful, I know, but in my defense, allow me to say that I live thirty minutes by car from the nearest Metro station that will bring me into the city, and not everything within the DC city limits is easily accessible by train.

But when it comes to movies, unfortunately—and I have always felt this way—the District of Columbia, as the capital of the free world, is severely under-represented. Most of the films that take place here are about politics in some way. You have big budget action adventures, like Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996), where the end of the world is signaled by aliens blowing up the White House, and Live Free or Die Hard (Len Wiseman, 2007), which actually uses Baltimore to stand in for much the District. There are innumerable spy movies that are partially set in DC, but to my mind, they generally just feature aerial establishing shots of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia (I’m thinking of the Bourne franchise in particular here). When it comes to films in other genres, notable titles include The American President (Rob Reiner, 1995), a romantic comedy in which Commander-in-Chief Michael Douglas dates environmental lobbyist Annette Bening, Jason Reitman’s satiric debut Thank You for Smoking (2005), about the tobacco industry’s spokesman on Capitol Hill and the trouble he regularly gets into, and Burn After Reading (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2008), a wacky comedy about supposed CIA secrets, stupid and lonely personal trainers, and a horny charlatan played by George Clooney.

I know what you’re thinking. What about Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2001)? That isn’t so much about politics, and it’s a sci-fi police detective thriller. Honestly, I just remember how the filmmakers use the Los Angeles Metro as a double for DC’s, which has a very distinctive design, seen below. Along Came a Spider (Lee Tamahori, 2001), the second adaptation of James Patterson’s Alex Cross book series after Kiss the Girls (Gary Fleder, 1997), hilariously deploys San Francisco’s rapid transit system and has Morgan Freeman running all over town without an eye focused on geographic verisimilitude. Come to think of it, of the major releases set in and around DC, only Thank You For Smoking dares to show the iconic 1970s-built DC Metro, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by the source novel’s author Christopher Buckley, who reads the newspaper while waiting on the station platform at Farragut North.

The Gallery Place – Chinatown Metro stop, just one of the 86 stations that make up Washington, DC’s Metro system. Image courtesy of http://www.transportationnation.org.

Whenever I lament the sorry state of picture-making in Washington (the generic variety is rather limited), I have to remember that one of the best romantic comedy-dramas takes place here: Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987). Sure, it doesn’t show the city in a very evocative light, as most of the action takes place inside the production studio and editing rooms of the TV network’s DC bureau. But one of the ways Brooks’s screenplay aims to establish DC as a lived-in city is by making Holly Hunter’s character an obsessive know-it-all when it comes to the city’s street geography (I don’t remember it enough to grade for accuracy). Memorably, though, the narrative climax takes place at BWI, Baltimore Washington International Airport, which is probably the farthest of the region’s three airports from where Holly Hunter originally is in DC; it would make more sense for her to meet William Hurt at Reagan National or Dulles, both of which are in Virginia. Strangely enough, BWI, with its characteristic red-tiled columns, also appears in Home for the Holidays (Jodie Foster, 1995). In that film, Holly Hunter’s art restorer based in Chicago flies out of BWI to go home for Thanksgiving—in Baltimore! So, you see, we Washingtonians are used to seeing the city’s geography—as well as that of the surrounding area—warped in the movies. Granted, this makes it no different from any other place in the world, but when it is your city that is being misrepresented, fragmented and subordinated, it is natural to feel self-righteously possessive. Feeling offended is not recommended.

James L. Brooks’s most recent film, How Do You Know (2010), returns him to DC. I’m just not sure why, since there’s nothing intrinsically DC about its story. Is it because this is the only place where he could strike a deal with a Major League Baseball team, as Owen Wilson’s character is a pitcher? The only scene set at Nationals Park in Southeast is rendered, to my eyes, with some appallingly bad green screen effects. Unfortunately, this overlong, tedious, and criminally unfunny romantic comedy doesn’t make the most of its capital location, and according to the movie’s filming locations page on the Internet Movie Database, quite a bit of it was shot in Philadelphia.

Cinematography of national monuments and landmarks, such as the Capitol, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, or any one of the Smithsonian museums, do not a “DC-set film” make. Sorry, Shawn Levy and Ben Stiller of Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian (2009) and Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks of Forrest Gump (1994) fame. There simply is more to DC than these structures. There are life-stories beyond those of the President and his Cabinet, Congresspeople and their staffers, CIA managers and their field operatives. Thankfully, there are independent films set in and around DC that promise a different side of the city. These include Paul Schrader’s The Walker (2007), about an escort to politicians’ and other power-brokers’ wives; Kasi Lemmons’s Talk to Me (2007), a biopic about the radio DJ/civil rights activist Petey Greene; Emily Abt’s Toe to Toe (2009), about the rivalry between two students—one poor and black, the other white and rich—at an elite prep school; and Nicholas Panagopulos’s Five Lines (2001), about strangers whose lives converge on the DC Metro (by far the smallest production of the bunch). With the exception of Talk to Me, I haven’t seen any of these motion pictures, so I can’t say whether or not they present a DC that I recognize. I should probably start a marathon of these movies, huh?

So, after going on about how films, when they do take place in DC, are almost always about politics in some shape or form, consistently bend city geography to their every whim, and otherwise stay focused on the movers and shakers of Capitol Hill, let me finish with a personal reflection. Growing up, I loved St. Elmo’s Fire (Joel Schumacher, 1985) and its oddly mixed group of friends all in love with one another. They are recent graduates of Georgetown University, but the filmmakers shot the one scene set on campus at my alma mater, the University of Maryland in College Park. In it, a wistful Rob Lowe returns to his old stomping ground to play football with current undergraduates. This example may get the closest to representing the DC I know—even if it’s emphatically not DC and I only once set foot on Frat Row. But this is, in a nutshell, DC in the movies: ever out of reach.

Well, that’s it: the last entry of Movie Travel Diary. But why don’t we talk about DC some more? Tell me about your movie-related experiences in the capital. Which film(s) shows off the Washington that you know from your own wanderings around the city?

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?

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?