Published in I.T Post, Issue 14 (F/W 2013)
There is a word that is rarely used outside of literary and philosophical circles that encapsulates the intense affection that is attached to a particular place. Based on its Greek etymology, topophilia designates the love of place, suggesting that one can fall in love with the characteristics of a geographical space in a similar fashion to how one falls in love with certain elements of a person. Becoming infatuated with different places has become increasingly easy in a digitised world where access to other cites and cultures is only one click away. However, the ability to travel and experience a remote sense of topophilia has long been epitomised by the film medium. The symbiotic relationship between cinema and cities has existed since the film apparatus was invented with the intention of recording the changing face of the urban landscape. For many of us, we have witnessed some cities cinematically before we have even walked their streets. In the process, we have entered into a long distance relationship via the moving image.
My love affairs with film auteurs have always been inextricably bound up with the cities they capture on film. First it was Woody Allen and New York City. Like the best tour guides, Allen is effusive in his love for his home city. The opening lines of Manhattan (1979), set perfectly to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, do little to conceal his passion: “Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. Eh uh, no, make that he…romanticised it all out of proportion. Better. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.”
Through Allen’s lens New York is all chance encounters with Diane Keaton at the Museum of Modern Art, intellectual conversations over dinner, carriage rides through Central Park, drinking vanilla milkshakes in diners with Mariel Hemingway and a late-night rendezvous overlooking the Queensboro Bridge. And just to make it that bit more enchanting: shot completely in 2.35:1 widescreen and in black and white. Both neurotic and sophisticated, bohemian and bourgeois, if Allen’s depiction of New York does not make you want to immediately jump on a plane to New York than nothing would.
Later I discovered Paris through the French new wave films of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Although I had visited France’s capital as a teenager on a family holiday, it looked and felt nothing like this. Rather than being at centre stage, the Eiffel Tower was mere backdrop to the stories of truant school children (Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows ) and gangsters on the run (Godard’s Breathless ). The new wave’s relationship to the streets of Paris is particularly important, as they were the first French filmmakers to break away from the deeply entrenched studio system to not only capture Haussmann’s iconic architecture, but also a sense of the lived experience of the uurban topography. Breathless, for example, is still celebrated not just for its cinematic experimentation with jump cuts, abrupt editing and rapid montage, but also for its sartorial significance. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s suit and fedora, nonchalantly accessorized with a cigarette, and Jean Seburg’s gamine assembles are still sources of fashion inspiration today. Whether consciously or not, Godard established that the cinematic composition of the city is not only about the locations and sites, but also an entire look.
Then there are the filmmakers who cut a little closer to home. I spent my formative years in Hong Kong, but I didn’t really see the city until I watched Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994). For me, his vision of Hong Kong was simultaneously exhilarating and nostalgic. The opening minutes set in and around Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui feature a blur of colour and kinetics that successfully manage to convey the speed of activity unfolding on Nathan Road. The feeling of nostalgia, on the other hand, undoubtedly stemmed from my own sense of homesickness attached to Hong Kong, from which I had recently departed.
That being said, nostalgia is also woven into the very texture of the film’s images. Many of Wong’s films thematically engage with the ache of romantic onging that is attached to the passage of time; however, Chungking Express locates loss specifically within the disappearing architecture of Hong Kong. In the years since its release a number of the pivotal sites in which the film’s action took place have been removed from the cityscape: Kai Tak airport, the California Bar and the Midnight Express in Lan Kwai Fong and the Bottom’s Up club in Tsim Sha Tsui are just a few examples. While Chungking Express could be interpreted as a melancholic elegy for the impact of progress on the city’s fabric, it more positively sheds light on the capacity for cinema to be an urban archive. Magically recouping what has been lost, film allows us to not only enact physical travel to cities, but also through history and memory.
Naturally, film does not merely show us reimagined vistas of cities we know, but is arguably responsible for motivating wanderlust. There are cities I have seen countless times on celluloid, but have yet to visit beyond the cinematic frame. Viewing Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Taipei-based films have instilled the desire to visit Taiwan, a fleeting obsession with extreme South Korean cinema has secured Seoul as a must-visit destination and Danish Dogma cinema drew my attention to Copenhagen. My most recent infatuation has centred on Norwegian director Joachim Trier. Although Trier has only made two films thus far, his representation of Oslo in Reprise (2006) and Oslo, 31 August (2011) is simply stunning in its ability to position the city as more than a background to the films’ narratives. Trier takes the viewer on intimate journeys through his city, stopping at parks, abandoned swimming pools, crowded bars and parties.
Here, film goes far beyond what any tourist campaign could achieve: it allows us to travel when we may not be physically able to do so and plays a part in mapping dream itineraries that we want to follow in reality.