It would be most iniquitous to critique a series of books on the relationship between the city and cinema without making more than a passing reference to a film that concerns itself with the relationship between the city and cinema; especially one that so masterfully conflates the medium and the message. In 2003, Thom Andersen, who teaches film theory and history at the California Institute of the Arts, created Los Angeles Plays Itself, a 169-minutelong documentary that offers a blood-and-guts view of the manner in which LA is portrayed in the movies. That work, which was adjudged the best documentary at the 2003 Vancouver International Film Festival, serves a vital purpose: it contextualises the city that is the sacrarium of American cinema not just for someone who might view LA as an abstraction, but even for the homespun Angeleno.
The reason why Andersen’s film succeeds in presenting a series of succinct, concentrated ideas about the things that bind Los Angeles to the movies in which it appears is perhaps because it limits its area of enquiry to one city. Although World Film Locations, a suite of eight books covering as many cities (the next title is about Mumbai), is far more ambitious than Andersen’s film in its scope, it manages to sift through scores of disparate notions about the metropolis and the movies to advance just as penetrating an understanding of the complicated relationship that exists between the two. Each book in the series – anchored to Los Angeles, Tokyo, London, New York City, Dublin, Paris, Madrid and Istanbul respectively – accords the films it explores and their geographical locations equal importance. The city is never an accumulation of architectural features on which to hang a story.
In the short essay on the Paris of Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden), for instance, the French capital is not merely a prop, bland and lifeless. Instead the city is a dark presence in the film, a Paris without its light: foreboding, ominous, unforgiving and even malevolent; anything but benign.
World Film Locations employs a variety of movies to stitch together the portrait of each city – Las Vegas, for example, takes its hues from Rain Man, Casino, Showgirls and Koyaanisqatsi, apart from 42 other cinematic works. Every piece in the series is accompanied by stills from a scene set in a particular neighbourhood, street, building or precinct, with the images serving as a storyboard for the attendant text.
The result is a fascinating addition to two dissimilar forms of literature – film studies and the city guide, which means that if, say, you’re a devotee of Turkish- German director Fatih Akin and plan to visit Istanbul this summer, you’d do well to discard that fusty little travel book and pack a World Film Locations volume instead.
Intellect Books R738 each, Istanbul and Madrid R654 each. Available on www.flipkart.com.
By Jaideep VG on April 27 2012 4.30am