Brainy: My Newfound Obsession with Artificial Intelligence

A few years ago, I made the startling observation that I am a “hard sci-fi” film buff. Whenever I refer to myself in this way, I always raise eyebrows. What exactly is “hard sci-fi”? I’d taken for granted the meaning of this niche term for any fiction based on actual science and technology. It is why I hated Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012). And as much as I still can’t whole-heartedly embrace Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014), I find it endlessly fascinating. The science and the implications of its use in manipulating the natural world is one of the reasons why I love Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) so much.

I’m not exactly sure what led me to seek out these thought-provoking narratives about life, history, and time. In short, the nature of existence. Is it because my father, a numbers and all-around science geek, would routinely tell us children that he believes in aliens and a multiverse? “Remember, in a parallel universe, you’re my mother, and I’m your son. In another, you are green, and in another blue. Anything and everything is possible.” In much the same way that people find comfort in believing in god, I find the notion of life on other planets, in other universes, so impossible to ignore or rule out that it is almost certainly true. For me, anyway. In any case, perhaps having this open mind and this desire to gaze up at the stars, to imagine different lives and circumstances, all but ensured my eventual identification with hard sci-fi. I may not understand everything, but my determination to make sense of these narratives defines my relationship to the genre. Hell, you could say that my lifelong obsession with cinema influenced this deep-seated belief that anything and everything is possible. For what is cinema if not the exploration of alternate realities defined by space and time? Cinema is still so young, and we’ve only scraped the surface of what is possible.

Icarus Mission psychologist Searle looks out at the nearby sun, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Icarus Mission psychologist Searle looks out at the nearby sun, contemplating his existence in Sunshine. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

My hard sci-fi epiphany may have occurred when, in April 2007, I was one of only a handful of people taking in an afternoon showing of Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007) in Lancaster, England. Sitting in the darkened theater, thousands upon thousands of miles from home, and submitting to a film narrative that runs counter to our current fears about global warming, I had a visceral reaction to everything I watched on the big screen. I’d often thought about the time when the sun will die, over a billion years from now, and how its gaseous explosion will likely swallow up Earth. It was quite another thing to be confronted by a crew of astronauts charting a course to blow up the sun, to bring it back to life so that it may end the terrible Ice Age enveloping all of Earth. The physicist hero Capa can only successfully fulfill his mission by delivering himself with the payload, in the end reviving the sun in death. It seems perfectly logical to me that the film’s screenwriter, Alex Garland, would then go on to make one of the best hard sci-fi films about artificial intelligence. I fell hard for his directorial debut Ex Machina, which came out in April of 2015, and it cemented my new obsession with all things artificial intelligence.

Ava contemplates the nature of her existence in Ex Machina. Image courtesy of A24.
Ava contemplates the nature of her existence in Ex Machina. Image courtesy of A24.

Like Garland (and Stanley Kubrick before him), I believe that the next step in human evolution is the moment when we reach singularity, opening the door to a world where the reasoning of man-made machines supplants that of humankind. In Ex Machina, you root for the android Ava to escape her laboratory/modern home. She is a gothic heroine held captive by her megalomaniacal creator Nathan, and even though she cleverly manipulates and outwits her sympathetic suitor Caleb, leaving him to die on the compound after killing Nathan—even though she is a computer—you relate and identify with her plight. Ava is the future, and her discovery of the outside world suggests that our future, when it is run by machines, will not be without wonderment. It may be a scary thought that our computers will be in control one day, but we’re already headed in that direction (after all, who checks her phone for messages whenever it dings, like Pavlov’s dog?), and by the time scientists reach singularity, I will be long gone. That future doesn’t frighten me one byte bit.

On a high from Ex Machina, I devoured other cultural products about artificial intelligence last year. Chief among them were the novel Speak by Louisa Hall and The Brain with David Eagleman, a six-part documentary series that only touched on A.I. in its last hour. In the former, Hall weaves a compelling intertwining narrative around five different people from disparate times and places, people directly or indirectly involved in the science of artificial intelligence. She presents one of them, Alan Turing, the inventor of the modern computer, through letters he writes to the mother of his childhood friend Christopher, whom he loved all of his short, tragic life. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014) touches on some of Hall’s themes, and I inevitably pictured Cumberbund while reading Turing’s sections of the book, but that prestige picture paled in comparison to Hall’s thought-provoking and evocative language. Here is one of my favorite lines by Hall, writing as Turing, who’s reflecting on the theoretical experiments he was never able to perform with Christopher (because he died while they were still boys at school):

… I can only imagine that our brains must grow in similar patterns: one step backwards, added to the present term, resulting in a subsequent term that combines both. Past and present, contained in the future (191)

I thought of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), too, when reading the book. Another official voice in Speak belongs to an inventor of lifelike companion dolls for children that, upon extensive exposure, inadvertently and progressively transform the children into lifeless robots. Interspersed are the memoirs that the dolls’ creator, Chinn, writes from prison as well as chat transcripts entered as proof that his programming did (or did not) intentionally harm children. Framing each section of the book is a first-person account from one of his dolls, on its way to die in the desert. The bleakness of its fate, its battery dying, its struggle to hold onto language, for that is what it thinks makes it humanlike, reminded me of David, the robot boy in A.I. When I grieve for a fictional humanoid robot—whether on screen or on the page—I must be subconsciously grieving my own mortality.

Kim Suozzi with her cat Mikey. Image courtesy of The New York Times.
Kim Suozzi with her cat Mikey. Image courtesy of The New York Times.

That is why I found the story of budding neuroscientist Kim Suozzi so fascinating (not to mention, we share an almost uncanny resemblance). Recognizing the impossibility of beating cancer (she was twenty-three when she died in 2013), Kim spent the remaining months of her life raising the funds to, essentially, donate her brain to the science of cryonics. She fought alongside her boyfriend to preserve her brain in extremely cold temperatures so that in the future, when the science has finally been developed, her consciousness can be plugged into a computer. In other words, she would reach a singularity that Johnny Depp does in Transcendence (Wally Pfister, 2014)—only without the ability to take over the highly connected digitized world. The New York Times profile of Kim by Amy Harmon is heartbreaking, but it asks a lot of questions—the right questions. When she died, Kim knew that she was making a gamble. We still don’t know if we will ever be able to simulate our connectomes, or the connections in the brain that give us our own unique consciousness. But isn’t it beautiful to dream of that possibility? I don’t see Kim’s wish as selfish (as in, why does she get to cheat death and become immortal through reviving her brain?). I think it’s inspiring that a young woman would devote her life—however short—to science, to figuring out the mystery of whether or not we can bring a person back to life.

In The Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman happens to visit the facility where Kim Suozzi’s brain is being preserved in order to highlight the controversial science guiding organizations like Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Ted Williams is also uniquely interred there. More so than his comments on artificial intelligence, I savored Eagleman’s distillation of complex concepts, such as identity and reality, and how these socially constructed notions first and foremost exist within the brain. They can get distorted there, too. The Brain also made an alternate reality for me all too real: what might have I become had I continued studying linguistics in college? (I checked out when phonology got too challenging.) Back in the day, I’d imagined being a sociolinguist—I still act like one, to an extent—but with my new fascination with the brain, I know for sure that I would have liked to have been a neuroscientist who studies language, memory, and the brain.

In other words, The Brain confirmed what I already believe about life. We are who we are because of what we have in our brains and because of how our brains interact with each other, transcending time and space. That doesn’t mean our brains always work properly, or in the ways that we want them to. Memory is reliably unreliable. Words escape us from time to time. These are but two reasons why I attempt to document my every waking hour, why I write down what I have seen, why I used to write about everything I have seen. I know I cannot store all of that information in my brain. But my brain allows me to create the systems I use to remember, including a coded language. It doesn’t matter; these records will always be incomplete. There are some things I forget to write down, some things I don’t want to commit to paper for fear that another’s eyes may read my words and know my secrets. I may be knowable through what I think, say, and write, but I will never be known. This is the beauty and cruelty of our human consciousness. We’ll never be able to see the world exactly as someone else does. But of all of the art forms, cinema comes the closest to achieving empathy.

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

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

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

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

And in 2016:

  • The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Edit: Spare Parts Builds Something Special

Viewed May 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Edit: A Revealing Portrait of a Photographer

Viewed May 6, 2015

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

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

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

The photographer Sebastião Salgado.
The photographer Sebastião Salgado.

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

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

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

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

To Each Her Own Cinephilia; Or How I Failed to Connect to Silver Screen Fiend

Cover Image of Silver Screen FiendI finished reading Patton Oswalt’s second memoir, Silver Screen Fiend, days ago but I’ve been struggling to find something to say about it ever since. That’s when it hit me: my not having much to say is indicative of how I feel about this book. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s mostly just underwhelming. As a film fanatic myself, I was very excited to read the newly released Fiend, whose subtitle is Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film. I thought it would offer me insights into how I might balance my career ambitions (whatever those are) with my chronic hunger to watch and analyze films and TV shows. Instead, Oswalt leaves it until the last chapter to bestow wisdom on this topic: “Movies—the truly great ones (and sometimes the truly bad)—should be a drop in the overall fuel formula for your life. A fuel that should include sex and love and food and movement and friendships and your own work. All of it, feeding the engine. But the engine of your life should be your life” (161, emphasis in original). I already knew all that. Thanks, Patton. What’s worse, he comes to the realization that the Movies have taken over his life only once The Phantom Menace profoundly disappoints him, and you know how I feel about Star Wars and George Lucas. At least I have never seen a film so terrible that it shook the very foundation upon which my cinephilia is built: I will never stop consuming films, because I want to better understand what effects they have on our lives, on our cultures.

Silver Screen Fiend briefly recounts the four years between 1995 and 1999 when he obsessively attended film screenings at the New Beverly Cinema and other repertory theaters playing classic films, in the hopes that feeding his addiction as much as possible would make him a (great) film director someday. At the same time, he also became a member of the alternative comedy scene in Los Angeles, and he wrote for MADtv for a short spell before the producers finally realized that his lackluster skits just weren’t cutting it. I’m not being harsh. Here is Oswalt himself on the subject of his being fired: “It also didn’t help that my writing at the time was so fashionably half-assed. I hadn’t even developed my distaste for typos, which made all the sketches I turned in look like I’d written them while being chased by Turkish assassins on a drifting steamboat” (133-4). There are amusing if not exactly laugh-out-loud funny scenes sprinkled throughout, such as his experience shooting Down Periscope (his debut film role, which also earned him a SAG card) and the legal trouble he and his friends faced when they tried to stage a table reading of Jerry Lewis’s controversial, never-publicly-shown Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried. What they wound up performing turned out to be a creative collaborative success: a series of sketches about their not being able to perform the screenplay itself due to a producer’s issuance of a cease-and-desist letter.

Although I could relate to his experience as a cinephile—and in particular, a desire to see films in the theater as part of an audience—I couldn’t connect with him in the way that I wanted to (that is, to learn about life through an addiction to film). The book itself starts in an off-putting way: he writes as if he is in conversation with the reader, who is either a friend or an acquaintance, outside the New Beverly, someone he “bulldoze[s] right over… and keep[s] gabbing” away about Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole. I get it; his mind runs sixty miles an hour when you get him started on a film about which he feels really passionate. The problem is that throughout most of the book, he mainly just mentions film titles, ones that appear in the handwritten and poorly duplicated calendar that begins most chapters. Occasionally, he reminds the reader that he uses five film encyclopedias to keep track of what classics he should see, and he marks each entry with a note in the margin describing how and when he saw a particular film. An appendix at the back of the book lists all of the films he saw between May 20, 1995 and May 20, 1999. It’s 33 pages long and quite impressive, but ultimately not very useful. What am I supposed to get out of it? In addition to a decades-old film stub collection, I’ve kept a film journal for almost ten years as well as an alphabetical index of its contents. I can’t imagine that anyone else would ever want to look at such a document or the information it contains. (I started journaling and indexing as a way to keep tabs on what I’ve not only seen but written about as well.) So scanning the wide assortment of titles listed in his appendix, all I could think was, for example, “Ooh! I wonder what he thought of Trainspotting.”

Actor, stand up comic, and author Patton Oswalt.
Actor, stand up comic, and author Patton Oswalt.

Oswalt’s film addiction and comedy scene shenanigans are probably given equal “screen time” in the slim volume, but his stories about the latter were more exuberant, filled with more personalities. I think I know why this is, and it’s not because he’s a lazy writer. (If anything, he may be too energetic, especially when it comes to philosophizing about Vincent van Gogh’s creative genius, from which Oswalt draws great and sometimes confusing inspiration.) It is because, as he implies throughout, it is sometimes difficult for a rabid film fanatic to translate her enthusiasm for a film in a way that someone not as interested in it will understand and appreciate. In the chapter “You Can, Unfortunately, Go Home Again,” he writes about meeting a high school friend for a movie while they were both home for Thanksgiving in 1996. Sitting down to the Bruce Willis western Last Man Standing, he geeks out about how the “movie is based on [Dashiell Hammett’s] Red Harvest, but it got there by way of [A] Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo” (120). This fun fact lodges itself in his companion’s brain so deeply that Oswalt ruins the experience of watching Last Man Standing for the man, because he thinks he’s seen a version of a samurai film. Although I don’t condone binge drinking, this may be the best description Oswalt offers to illuminate the divide between people like us and people like his friend:

Movies, to him [meaning his old high school buddy] and the majority of the planet, are an enhancement to a life. The way a glass of wine complements a dinner. I’m the other way around. I’m the kind of person who eats a few bites of food so that my stomach can handle the full bottle of wine I’m about to drink. (122)

Owing to my gigantic sweet tooth, allow me to paraphrase this treatise using a dessert analogy instead. Some people I know don’t eat dessert or only do so on rare occasions, whereas I always eat dinner in order to have dessert. Since I’m in a confessional mood, I will also admit that sometimes I forgo dinner altogether and dash straight to dessert.

Early on in Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt defines the film subculture he belongs to as one consisting of “sprocket fiends,” those who dwell in the “subterranean dimension” of repertory theaters, who travel through space and time at the will of a director and his/her vision (7-8). I learned on my first or second day in the Cinema Studies department at NYU that the rest of the Tisch School of the Arts referred to us as moles, because once we burrowed in the ground we were content to stay in the dark. Like Oswalt, I love the sound of celluloid passing through a projector. It makes me feel alive. That’s why the “First Epilogue,” written as a tribute to the owner and manager of the New Beverly Cinema, Sherman Torgan (to whom the book is also dedicated), is the best part. In it, Oswalt shows off his classic film knowledge in a highly imaginative and dexterous manner: he curates a 30-day festival of films that were never made but will hopefully entertain Sherman in the great beyond. If only Hal Ashby could have wrangled John Belushi and Richard Pryor for an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I especially love the quick mention that a young Frances McDormand, one of my favorites, costars as Myrna Minkoff and is, in a word, “Sublime” (172).

Adventures in Co-dependent Film-going

The results are in: The Washington Post Magazine has finally published the winners of their Humor Writing Contest, conducted this summer. My little ditty—a 1000-word “true memoir” (the editors’ words)—didn’t make the cut. Having previously alluded to entering the competition, I am now going to make good on my promise to publish it here. Fair warning: the humor is self-deprecating, but the story fills me with pride. It’s also very personal, but as we’re all cinephiles, I think it’s universal, too. Please note that some movie titles may seem “old” or at least not representative of what’s now in theaters because I wrote this in July.

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The auditorium isn’t as cold as it usually is. Many of the seats are filled, pairs of eyes transfixed on the animated ball bouncing across the screen. More people file in, looking up at the rows of chairs laid out stadium-style, trying to spot enough consecutive seats to accommodate the adults and children of their respective parties. From my perch in the back, I observe that most of the families here resemble my own. Like the other children in this theater waiting to see Brave, I have come with my dad. The only difference is that I am almost twenty-six, and my “peers” in this context are twelve and younger. How did I get here?

Well, my dad drove us here. Ever since I moved back home from New York City, I have depended upon him to get places because I never got my driver’s license and, in case you are wondering, I have no plans to get it now, either. So stop nagging. Living in suburban Washington, D.C., about ten miles away from the nearest movie theater, I see so few new releases these days, I get depressed. In fact, giving up the easy access to dozens of multiplexes and art-houses all around New York was the hardest part of my move; in spite of the economic crisis, I gleefully quit my dead-end retail job and toxic living arrangement. I traded them for eight months of unemployment and petty fights with my younger lay-about brother.

Going to the movies has always been my favorite pastime, especially when I lived in NYC on my own. On average, I would see two new films a week, sometimes on days before I was due at work. That’s how I spent my discretionary income. I hardly ever bought clothes or dined out. But I didn’t splash out on these movie-going experiences; I sought bargain matinee prices at a nationwide theater chain and, if permitted, flashed my student ID at the art-houses’s box offices. I went to the movies alone, a practice that I learned at work and school made me strange (my reason for moving to New York in the first place was to get a master’s degree at NYU in film theory and history, of all things). My co-workers would raise their eyebrows when I answered that I had seen Thor and The Tree of Life by myself. For them, going to the movies is an event that doesn’t happen all too often, and when it does, they prefer it to be a social experience that they share with their family, friends, or lovers.

OK. Let’s get this over with: in New York, I didn’t have many friends. And I had absolutely no lovers. (Come to think of it, not much has changed since then.) I loved going to the movies alone simply because I could. Just as I can’t get anywhere alone outside a three-mile radius now, so I couldn’t while growing up. Plus, as someone who likes to plan her activities days ahead of time so that they coincide with a film’s release, going to the movies alone meant I wasn’t beholden to someone else’s schedule. And nothing, aside from a headache or a bout of lethargy, could stop me. For example, on the day I received the essay questions for my comprehensive master’s exam, which I needed to pass in order to graduate, I went early to see the newest version of Jane Eyre. I knew that putting off seeing it for a whole week would distract me from the task at hand. Nor did I let an early morning fire raging next door deter me from my plans to see Beginners. I had waited long enough.

Other than last December’s double bill featuring The Artist and Shame, which I took a bus to see because silent pictures and Michael Fassbender’s penis do very little for my dad, I never go to the movies alone now. Unfortunately, no one I live with shares the same enthusiasm for movies and the movie-going experience. I miss being able to watch a new movie the weekend it premieres. I miss sitting alone in the dark with a bunch of strangers, most of us equally rapt in the shadowplay taking place onscreen. I miss the whir of the celluloid film projector sitting behind me (I prefer to be all the way in the back, left of center). This last gripe has probably less to do with my movie-going frequency and more to do with the fact that theaters are installing digital, 3D-ready projectors at an overwhelmingly rapid rate. Then again, just think of how many films on celluloid I missed the chance to see because I couldn’t get to them in time. I feel like my whole identity is in flux since I’m no longer experiencing the cinema every week.

I love my dad. He puts up with my neuroses, such as my fear of driving and lack of motivation in finding a job. Have you looked at the numbers lately for people my age? My future looks so bleak, I gotta crawl into bed. But my dad isn’t the best movie-going companion. For starters, he almost always falls asleep in the theater, and then he proceeds to judge a film’s worth based on whether or not it kept him awake. Siskel and Ebert we aren’t. Even getting him to agree to see a movie is a feat in and of itself. Originally, he refused to see Brave, citing his last attempt at watching a Pixar movie as reason enough not to go: he—you guessed it—fell asleep during Ratatouille. Recognizing how important it was to me to see Brave, Dad relented. He still fell asleep during it, but I loved the story about a fiery princess whose fairytale trajectory doesn’t track her steps toward the altar but rather her emotionally complex relationships with her mother and kingdom.

Now I’m trying to convince Dad to take me to Magic Mike.

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?