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: Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Travel Diary: Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Travel Diary: London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jump Cut Series: Movie Travel Diary

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

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

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

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

Movie Travel Diary entries:

Sunday, August 26th: Dublin

Monday, August 27th: London

Tuesday, August 28th: Edinburgh

Thursday, August 30th: Paris

Thursday, August 30th: Los Angeles

Friday, August 31st: New York City

Saturday, September 1st: Washington, DC