Quick Edit: What is There to Learn From A Price Above Rubies?

Viewed September 8, 2012

I love movies about women who defy societal expectations, who refuse to conform to the gender role they’re supposed to play without question, and who fight for their own political and financial autonomy. I’ve noticed that an inordinate number of my personal favorites in this subgenre is set in the past and therefore retroactively feminist, including Dangerous Beauty (Marshall Herskovitz, 1998) and Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998). And so I went into Boaz Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies, also from 1998, with pretty high hopes that it would emotionally and intellectually satisfy me just as well. I had wanted to see this film for years, long believing it wasn’t available on DVD (until I recently discovered this isn’t the case), and when I randomly caught on cable a pivotal scene in which the heroine pushes back against her devout husband and a religious leader, I knew two things: first, I must DVR this picture when it airs again, and that if this scene is anything to go by, the rest of A Price Above Rubies has got to be awesome.

The truth is, I wish this were actually the case. The sophomore effort from Yakin, who made a critical splash with his ghetto-based crime debut, Fresh (1994), and has since moved on to write and/or direct action movies such as this year’s Safe (yes, really), A Price Above Rubies is rough around the edges, strange and slightly confusing. More crucially, however, though Renée Zellweger as Sonia is easy to root for, it’s her situation that is poorly developed. Spoilers to follow.

Sonia Horowitz, the daughter of a prominent ultra-Orthodox Jewish jeweler does her parents proud, having married a rising scholar at the Yeshiva named Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald). When we meet her as an adult, she gives birth to a son, whom Mendel insists they name after the rebbe (the leader of their Hasidic community) rather than her deceased brother Yossi. Following the infant’s emotionally traumatic bris (for Sonia, that is), the young family moves into a Hasidic community in Brooklyn to be nearer Mendel’s extended family and the Yeshiva. Stifled by postpartum depression, Mendel’s obsessive study and inattention to her needs, and a crisis of faith that makes her blood boil, Sonia struggles in her role as stay-at-home mom. Then, one day, Mendel’s sinful older brother, Sender (Christopher Eccleston), invites her to run his jewelry shop nearby. The promise of being able to travel, to buy pieces from jewelers all over Manhattan while exercising her exacting eye for evaluating gemstones, is just the kind of liberation she desires. As such, her business dealings bring her into contact with people outside the incredibly insular community, and one liaison in particular wreaks havoc upon her marriage and familial relationships.

From the get-go, the film comes across as amateurish, like a made-for-TV movie, complete with a hokey, melodramatic score. Alarmingly, the first ten minutes or so also traffic in many Jewish stereotypes, which thankfully recede as the narrative marches on. In the prologue scene set when Sonia is a little girl, she listens to her beloved Yossi (Shelton Dane) tell a bedtime story that takes place in—you guessed it—the shtetl. In another early scene, which incidentally introduces the Hasidic community and establishes Sonia’s uneasiness with her religion and culture, she resents having to stand by and watch her son’s ceremonial circumcision from afar. Furthermore, the characters’ identities are laid on thick through their unambiguous and broad New York Jewish accents. We can’t fault the filmmakers for shooting in English, for it is more accessible and infinitely more commercial than Yiddish (which is the language most ultra-Orthodox Jews speak), but the actors do sound ridiculous.

But why is A Price Above Rubies so strange? It’s sexually confused, for one thing, leading me to believe that Yakin can’t empathize with Sonia’s sexual frustration. Sex with Mendel is passionless because he doesn’t want to offend god with any impure thoughts or actions. Then, a little later on, as Sonia suffers from a particularly severe panic attack, she kisses Mendel’s pushy sister Rachel (Julianna Margulies) as she tries to soothe her. In this moment, you might think Sonia is unfulfilled because she is a lesbian. Not so, and it remains a mystery as to why she hit on her sister-in-law.

Moreover, there are elements of magical realism that don’t quite fit. Following their uncomfortable and perplexing sexual encounter, Rachel takes Sonia to meet with Rebbe Moshe (John Randolph), to whom she relates that she’s convinced the intense burning sensations she’s felt all her life indicate her body contains no soul. Later, it’s revealed that her passionate confession caused the rebbe not only to amorously seek out his long-suffering wife but to also die in the midst of their love-making. For igniting this fire in her husband, the rebbe’s widow (Kim Hunter) is eternally grateful to Sonia. I know what you’re thinking, and that’s not all! Sonia hallucinates throughout the film, imagining Yossi is at her side while she eats a non-kosher lunch in a Chinatown park and when Mendel eventually kicks her out of the house for her supposed indiscretion (more on that in a moment). She converses with Yossi as well as with a beggar woman (Kathleen Chalfant) who impossibly follows her all around the city. It’s unclear if she only appears to Sonia, but notwithstanding one interaction with another woman, I believe the beggar lady is supposed to be a figment of Sonia’s imagination. But this isn’t the only instance of narrative confusion. In fact, there’s a lot more.

For instance, Sonia’s motivations are sometimes unclear. She doesn’t so much as embark on a love affair with her brother-in-law/employer, Sender, as she allows him to take advantage of her sexually. It’s clear in their early scene at the family seder that they have a powerful connection (his touch sends her into a tizzy) because they’re both more cynical than their devout family members. And so it’s awesome that Sender rescues her from the doldrums of her everyday existence with a business proposition. But it’s genuinely disturbing that Sender essentially rapes her before he leaves and she allows this behavior to continue long after the fact. At first, I hesitated to call it rape, but as we should all know by now, “rape is rape.” It may appear as if she consents to his sexual aggression willingly (and maybe she does because she wants to feel something that her husband doesn’t provide), but I think it’s more an expression of her subservient position which has been culturally ingrained in her and other ultra-Orthodox women she knows. Anyway, I kept wondering why Sonia, who we’re supposed to believe is strong-willed and desirous, would consent to such an arrangement. Does she honestly believe that it—their affair and the sex itself—will get better? When she finally comes to her senses and realizes, after she’s been ostracized, that she will never be free so long as he demands favors from her for protection, I couldn’t help thinking, This is all too little too late.

But just why is she ostracized, you ask? Well, already alienated by Sonia’s lack of faith in their religious leaders (she says at marriage counseling officiated by a rabbi that he has no right to tell her what she should think or do), Mendel asks Sender to trail her, and so he vindictively spreads the rumor throughout the Hasidic community that Sonia is having an affair with a Puerto Rican in the Bronx. Obviously, this is not the case. Ramon (Allen Payne) is merely a sculptor and jewelry designer whose pieces are among the most beautiful she’s ever seen, especially an intricately carved 22-karat gold band with an open setting for a gemstone. She spends a lot of time in his basement workshop after she commissions and sells his work (which he labels a mere “hobby”). To make a long story short, everyone—starting with her husband—excommunicates Sonia overnight: Mendel changes the locks on the door, and Rachel refuses to hand over her son and warns Sonia that her own mother has disowned her. Sender welcomes her to a Lower East Side apartment where he can keep tabs on her (this is when she finally refuses his form of “freedom”), so she winds up squatting for a few hours with the beggar woman before the vision of Yossi leads her to Ramon’s, where she falls into his arms and into his bed. But even this illicit tryst produces few fireworks. In fact, when Ramon, who was skeptical of Sonia just the other day, confesses that she is his elusive muse and leans in to kiss her, I couldn’t believe it. (I thought Ramon was gay, anyway!)

More problematic, however, is Yakin’s rushing this conclusion. Why is he so hellbent on establishing Sonia’s abject position literally overnight—only for Mendel to undo it the next morning? A Price Above Rubies ends on a more optimistic note because he invites her to visit their son often, even as she figures out her next steps (she’s not staying with Ramon, that much is clearly stated and in its utterance, supposedly breaks Ramon’s heart). This softened resolution leaves the wrong impression: it says that the shunning was only painful for one night and gives false hope that the community will be more accommodating than we’ve been previously led to believe.

The title refers to a biblical quote that Sender recites atop Sonia, post-coitus. The gist is that women of fortitude, who, of course, obey their husbands, are worth more than precious jewels. Through her rebellion, to achieve a sort of personal virtue and integrity that is at odds with ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Sonia pays “a price above rubies” for her freedom, which indexes not only humiliation and excommunication but also the forced abandonment of her child (she never cries over this, mind you). During their reconciliation, Mendel gifts her a ruby, her birthstone, which during the end credits fits neatly into Ramon’s band in extreme closeup. Neat, right?

Although A Price Above Rubies boasts some strong performances, particularly from Renée Zellweger, I had a difficult time understanding just what I am meant to get out of the film. As I stated before, Sonia is a very sympathetic character, but her journey is poorly conceived and realized. I wish she had been led on another path, because it’s too convenient for her to find a fledgling romance with Ramon—and wholly unnecessary. While the script delves into ultra-Orthodox Jewish life, the magical realist element keeps it at a distance, and Sonia’s childhood trauma (the loss of her brother) should have been explored more, for after all it precipitates her crisis of faith and identity. Too bad the feminist struggle I was looking for was just so damn fleeting.

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News Clip: A Quick Primer on Two Upcoming Gyllenhaal Releases

For days, I have been trying to condense the following into a tweet, but I can’t manage to do it. Apologies are in order, too, for it’s not exactly breaking news.

But as you may have noticed, the siblings Gyllenhaal each have a film coming out at the end of the month, just a week apart. First, Jake plays a cocky young LAPD officer who becomes the target of a drug cartel/gang in End of Watch (David Ayer, 2012), and poor single mom Maggie teams up with stoic teacher Viola Davis to found an inner city charter school in Won’t Back Down (Daniel Barnz, 2012)—at least that’s what I think they’re doing to fight the education system that’s failing their kids.

The point is, I can’t help thinking that, though the stories are worlds apart, both of the ridiculous-sounding movie titles are at least somewhat interchangeable. In other words, Jake Gyllenhaal and on-screen partner Michael Peña may as well perform in a movie called Won’t Back Down. After all, the phrase is fit for an actioner, and it does bear a striking resemblance to the mixed martial arts flick for the Step Up set, Never Back Down (Jeff Wadlow, 2008.) End of Watch, on the other hand, is so esoteric as to be vague. Since the fighting mantra “Won’t Back Down” does the mothers-fed-up-with-the-school-system storyline no favors, why not call it End of Watch? As in, “Not on my watch!” The effect won’t be much changed.

Neither one of these films interests me enough to entice me to the theater. Especially End of Watch. Haven’t we seen that one before? When I think of the features that it most recalls, Harsh Times (2005) and Training Day (2001), I realize they were also written (and in the case of the former, directed) by David Ayer. Won’t Back Down is rather simply an inspirational uplift movie I can wait to see on DVD.

News Clip: Before Midnight Can’t Come Soon Enough

The ending of Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004) presents a litmus test, a method for separating the romantics from the skeptics in the audience. Being a logical person, however, I have always thought Jesse’s satisfied smile as he answers, “I know” to Celine’s playful admonishment, “Honey, you’re gonna miss that plane” meant their remaining together—perhaps even in Paris—was a sure thing.

Before Sunset is one of those rare “franchise” films in that it’s actually better than the originator of the series, Before Sunrise (Linklater, 1995). The later film, edited so that Jesse and Celine’s chance reunion over the course of one afternoon unravels in approximate real-time, is wistful in tone and very adult in theme. By virtue of their having a history (and our being privy to it), it’s much more intimate than Sunrise. And who could resist the opportunity to see the idealistic twentysomethings (who, as strangers, once shared a formative romantic night together in Vienna) all grown-up and cynical, processing that rendezvous and how it has shaped their lives since. That’s why, combined with the supposed ambiguity of Before Sunset‘s conclusion, we fans have hoped that director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy would bring these vivid characters back to the big screen again.

Aside from wanting to fulfill their own creative energies and desires to shoot another picture about Jesse and Celine, I would imagine that the creators also want to please the fans who can’t let the characters go. Like many others, I have followed the possibility of a third film coming to fruition, reading everything from an online interview over here to a newspaper profile over there. Recently, everyone involved has kept the details of the (pre)production close to the vest, only ever going so far as to say something to the effect of “we’re working on it, we’re working on the script.” Well, good news, friends: they’ve done us even better by finishing the shoot just yesterday! Mike Fleming of Deadline New York reports that Before Midnight wrapped production in Greece Tuesday night (I guess Hawke’s title suggestion, Before We Go Crazy, didn’t make the cut). Fleming quotes a written statement from the co-writers, which offers nothing in terms of the story or plot of the new film. In other words, it’s still unclear if Jesse and Celine have stayed together since Paris or are reconciling yet again. Hell, they may have even dated and split up in the interim. We have to wait a little bit longer to find out.

But what a coup, huh? How marvelous that everyone managed to fool us all into thinking that the film hadn’t even gone into production yet. Here’s to a swift post-production and not-too-distant release date!

News Clip: What Possessed People to See The Possession?

It’s true, I haven’t been to the movies in over three weeks, since my birthday on August 11th. And even then, just choosing something to see was difficult to do. It’s been a really crappy summer for movies (I don’t care what you say; superhero/comic book movies are boring), so let’s hope the year improves as studios start rolling out their prestige pictures, their awards bait. But that’s not the point of this post. Instead, I would like to comment on the overnight success of The Possession (Ole Bornedal, 2012), which is all set to win the Labor Day weekend box office—with an unimaginative title and poster to boot. According to Pamela McClintock of The Hollywood Reporter, Lionsgate estimates that the exorcism film-story will bring in $21.3 million for the mini major, making the movie the second highest grossing Labor Day weekend box office winner ever recorded on the books (in inflated dollars, of course).

That a horror film, even during summer (or the last days of it), can scrounge up so much money isn’t surprising (McClintock reminds us that 2007’s Halloween, directed by Rob Zombie, currently holds the record for the biggest box office overhaul for any Labor Day weekend with $30.6 million in tickets sold). I’m just wondering why audiences have, for lack of a better word, “flocked” to see this film. Admittedly, I am biased against pictures that revolve around exorcisms (and, while we’re at it, horror films in general) and would never in a million years pay to see this in the theater, but I read Bilge Ebiri’s review of The Possession, anyway. You can click to read it yourself; he doesn’t spoil anything. And that’s exactly the point: you can’t spoil what happens in any of these formulaic movies. As Ebiri notes, “Demon-possession movies are now so ubiquitous that we don’t really expect any dramatically new shocks from them.” Granted, he seems to have liked this one more than he was expecting to, for dramatic reasons that have little to with the scary, climatic scenes.

This being a think piece that aims to ask questions about genre and audience appeal, I still want to know why The Possession is on track to actually exceed studios’ expectations. Is it because there’s really nothing else out there worth seeing? That can’t be, for Mike Birbiglia won’t stop tweeting about all the dozens of Q&As he’s hosting around the country for his directorial debut Sleepwalk with Me (2012). Is it because, for a change, The Possession centers not on a Catholic-tinged Satan overtaking a family’s young daughter but on an ancient Jewish demon entering the same kind of girl? A premise, it should be noted, that isn’t alienating Hispanic viewers as Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo predicted it would. (McClintock reports, “The film also is over-indexing in Hispanic Catholic markets.”) Is it because Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae musician, plays the exorcist? (I know that alone would draw my brother in.) If it’s not quite clear, I am being facetious. I know why horror movies, no matter how generic they are, are so “ubiquitous” (to borrow Ebiri’s term) and wildly popular. In short: they’re cheap to produce (not too many stars demanding hefty paychecks), and they reliably offer the spectator a sort of interactive thrill ride, complete with jumps in seats, shouts at the screen, and peeks at the screen through fingers laced across faces. In fact, it’s these kinds of conventions that ensure the genre’s popularity, and word-of-mouth has a lot to do with it (this is undoubtedly the case for The Possession, too).

Besides, Sam Raimi produced it. For the horror fan, that might lend it some credibility. More pertinently, however, I wonder what the appeal of this particular film is for the young women who went to see it. McClintock writes that the audience this weekend is mostly female: “[Women] made up 59 percent of the audience, while 54 percent of those buying tickets were younger than 25.” Which means the production company’s marketing strategy that McClintock alludes to (ie. targeting girls and young women) has paid off handsomely. Is it typical for exorcism movies to be marketed toward this demographic? I really have no idea what the advertising campaign consists of, and McClintock doesn’t clue me in, but I am curious about this. For horror films have, historically speaking, been either geared toward young men or toward neither sex in particular (once studios realized women like these kinds of scares, too!). Though I haven’t seen it, I understand that Jennifer’s Body (2009), as devised by screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Karyn Kusama, was supposed to be a feminist-inflicted mash-up between demon possession movies and slasher flicks. I guess I should see it to find out why this film tried to reach a diverse audience—but especially women, I would think—and failed. Wait, don’t tell me. It probably has to do with Megan Fox, right?

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?

News Clip: Let the Category for Best Original Song Go Bye-Bye

If, like me, you enjoyed the fact that only two songs were nominated in the Best Original Song category at this year’s Oscars (because you thought that it meant the organizers finally realized that this particular race is irrelevant), well then, I have some sad news for you. Per Vulture, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has changed its bylaws again and dictated that the category is going to be even more competitive starting next year, with at least five nominees. I can’t even name one original song featured in a film this year, let alone five!

Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan points out that we don’t yet know if live performances of the five nominated songs will be incorporated into the telecast. Let’s hope not. They bloat the running time as it is (which is just one reason why the competition should be put out to pasture). They’re usually ballads, too, and I am predisposed to dislike ballads. The one time that the Oscars perhaps should have had live performances, they didn’t. Since there were only two this year, you have to ask, “Whose idea was it to not allow Jason Segel and Peter Linz (as Walter) perform the Bret McKenzie-composed ‘Man or Muppet’ from The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011)?” You might also ask, “And why wasn’t the infinitely superior ‘Life is a Happy Song’ also nominated?” But I digress. I may not have seen Rio (Carlos Saldanha, 2011), but I admit I was kind of looking forward to seeing and hearing the catchy, bombastic samba dance number “Real in Rio.” It certainly would have livened things up a bit.

In any case, this is some really disheartening news. Stop torturing us, AMPAS, and just let Best Original Song die. I doubt many would even miss it.

But what do you think? Should the Academy continue to hand out this award? And how do you feel about the inclusion of live performances of the nominated songs during the TV broadcast?

Movie Travel Diary: New York City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Travel Diary: Los Angeles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Travel Diary: Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Travel Diary: Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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