A Dialogue on Movies, Books and More

Posts tagged ‘Background’

Location, Location, Location

Justin: Top o’ the morning to ya, lassie!

Zoe: Okay, a couple of things with that. First, you aren’t Irish. Second, it is like 8:45 in the evening where you are at the moment and finally… Don’t call me lassie. I am not a dog.

Justin: Top o’ the evening?

Zoe: Still no.

Justin: Fine. How has your St. Patrick ’s Day been?

Zoe: Well, I forgot to wear green but I do have an Irish claddagh for my engagement ring, so on balance, it’s been successful so far.  There will be cake later, for a friend born this very day. Yourself?

Justin: Worked for most of the day and now am watching the Destination Truth live event on Syfy.

Zoe: You are such a dork.

Justin: But they are in Ireland looking for a banshee.

Zoe: As cool as Ireland is, you are still a huge dork.

Justin: Fair enough. So what the heck are we talking about tonight? It feels like it has been forever.

Zoe: Well if you weren’t so lazy…

Justin: Not sure I would call it lazy–more of busy beyond belief at the moment.

Zoe: Speaking of Ireland, since it is St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve been thinking about our strange Americanized bastardization of the Irish holiday.  There’s Mardis Gras down in New Orleans, a crazy parade in Chicago where they literally dye the Chicago River a neon green, and parties everywhere, and they all share the color green, the beer, and the tacky plastic beads in common.  For some reason, this got me thinking about how most movies and TV shows set almost exclusively in only two places: New York and L.A.  We can even narrow that down more to Manhattan and like the Hollywood-related sections of L.A., for the most part.

Justin: Oh I completely agree. For some reason, screenwriters can’t think of anywhere else to place movies. I mean I guess New York and L.A. can be a good cut away of American culture. New York shows the melting pot that the United States is. I am also sure you write what you know. Don’t most screenwriters move to places like New York and L.A. to make it in the business?

Zoe: That sounds logical, definitely for screenwriters, but I’m not sure.  For me, I consider this from the angle of being a writer.  Yes, writing what you know is fairly standard/solid advice, but it’s not like 90% of us live in either New York or L.A.  Thousands of books are published about small towns all over, about small cities, about foreign places, about traveling, all of that; though, it must be admitted, there are an awful lot of [pretentious, neurotic] novels that take place in New York… and that’s for a similar reason to screenwriters being in L.A.: That’s where the best publishers in America are.  But still!  Lazy!

Justin: This is what bugs me about this big city fascination, not all of us live there. I feel at times that movies portray those who live in cities as the people who have “made it.” The characters in the movies are living the American dream or something like that. If not, they are in the slums of said city. But there are plenty of us who live in the suburbs in the middle of the United States who can say we’ve made it. Just because I don’t live in New York doesn’t mean I am not sophisticated. However, that is how my home state at times is portrayed. When they need those podunk towns in the middle of nowhere with all the hicks or “simple people” I feel the story gets placed in Ohio. I mean look at “Glee.”

Zoe: Hey!  I think “Glee” is a good example of choosing a location well and deliberately.  First off, in the arts they always like to portray teenagers who grow up in cities, especially New York, L.A., Chicago, Boston, Miami, as sophisticated and oversexed.  “Glee” is about kids who are more like most kids: half-dumb, three-quarters naive and having enough trouble handling life without the backdrop of a big dangerous city.

Justin: I think that is what I might have been trying to get at. Ohio is seen as the average place to be, live, grow up and so forth. It is like we are this neutral zone that most screen writers see as small town America or something. It is just weird turning on a movie or TV show and seeing it set in Ohio, because in my opinion there are much better places to take a slice of life out of.

Zoe: I have two slightly offensive things to say back to you on that.  One, you’ve never lived in any of the biggest cities in America, so it might be hard for you to judge how differently life really is there than to the big cities.  I’d say, day to day, the only difference is transportation and exposure to other cultures/subcultures.  People in cities choose to conveniently forget that.  And two, why is Ohio a bad place to set a story in?  Unless you’re writing a… political thriller, or something about an actor/director or artist/musician/singer, can’t you set your story anywhere?  I think there’s drama everywhere.  It’s just that movies like to think that sports movies can only take place in small Southern towns; that artists can only fall apart in New York; that sprawling dramas can only happen in L.A.; or that quirky romances only happen on road trips or airplanes or back in New York or L.A.  That’s crazy silliness.

Justin: I can agree to that. It may be living in Ohio my whole life, I just don’t see the appeal. Especially when there is this whole world out there to write about. Also, I have never been a fan of big cities. So that may be part of my bias. But you are correct. I am sure the daily life of someone in Chicago or New York is similar to mine. They just tend to forget they are like us small suburb folk.

Zoe: Hmm.  Food for thought, everyone.  Now I think it’s time to talk about some of our favorite shows and movies that are set outside of the places we’ve been talking about, and why we think the location makes them, or is almost like its own character.  Justin, do you want to go first?

Justin: Sure. Well, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day I will start off with a movie based in Ireland: Leap Year. As you all should know by now, I am a fan of the romantic comedies and watch a good number of them from time to time. Leap Year isn’t really any thing special. It follows the same guidelines that all rom coms do. However, what really makes this movie for me (besides the fact Amy Adams is beautiful) is the location. It is set in Ireland but mostly in the country side and the small towns that they visit or pass through make me long to go there and visit myself. They could have made the whole movie take place in Dublin, but they didn’t. They expanded outside the large city and showed the beauty that is the Irish landscape. Leap Year isn’t a bad movie and just to watch it for the scenery can be worth it.

Zoe: Foreign films are cheating!  But I’ll match your rom com with one cute, average one of my own: Sweet Home Alabama.  It’s about  a girl (Reese Witherspoon) who escaped Alabama and her cranky scruffy husband (Josh Lucas) and moved to NYC to pursue her dreams, only to get engaged to a hunky rich dream (Patrick Dempsey)… at which point she has to go back to Alabama to get a divorce.  Hi-larious!  I like it because it’s about being okay with where you came from and happy with where you are, and appreciating small-town life and big-city excitement, and about figuring out what you need.  Plus, there’s awesome sidekicks, half huge hicks and half over-the-top New Yorkers.  And now, to switch genres, I’m going to go with Grosse Pointe Blank, a movie about an assassin that takes place primarily in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, during the assassin’s high school reunion.  It’s glorious and clever.  Your favorite action movie set someplace random?

Justin: Well because I am a History nerd, I am going to go with the movie Cold Mountain, which if you haven’t seen it is about one man’s journey to get back home. It takes place in the south during the Civil War and mostly in the Appalachian part of North Carolina. The shots for the movie of the small towns in the middle of the mountains were breathtaking. They are just as spectacular in person as well. I think it makes the director’s and cinematographer’s jobs easier when the landscape they are working with is that beautiful. This leads into another movie, and book for that matter, that uses the landscape well. Into The Wild is a fabulous movie as well as a great book (and true story). It is the story of a boy who after college goes out in search of himself and Alaska. He burns all of his money and gets rid of most of his possessions. Then bums around the United States for awhile before making his way up north. What makes the movie so great is that I think it shows the beauty of the American landscape. How is that for keeping it local?

Zoe: There are a couple of journey movies that I really like, partly fort the physical beauty and partly for the story.  The first is Away We Go, starring Maya Rudolph and John Krasinki.  They’re dating and she gets pregnant, and they decide to travel to see family and friends to see where they should settle and raise their baby.  The go to the Southwest, to Canada, and to Florida, learning about themselves and  encountering some wild characters.  It’s very, very sweet. I think this is the perfect balance between themes and stories, and the setting.  Some movies and TV have the setting be this hugely important part of the story–sometimes even a crutch–and some movies ignore setting altogether.  Of course, sometimes all of these tactics work.  But I think Away We Go is the perfect balance of characters to setting, action to stillness, and bigger cinematic wide shots of landscape versus lovely close-ups.

Justin: I would have to agree. Away We Go is a movie, in my opinion, that didn’t get enough recognition. Everything about it just came together in that perfect balance.  You know, I am not sure where to go after that. We could sit here and talk about foreign movies all day. Pieces like Y Tu Mama Tambien and The Motorcycle Diaries that show the beauty of the Mexican and South American landscape. Even movies like Blood Diamond and The Constant Gardener, which aren’t really uplifting movies, show off parts of the world that many of us have never seen before. Heck I would even say that many people haven’t seen places like those portrayed in the movie A River Runs Through It. Which a beautiful film based in Montana. There are so many other places that New York and L.A that make for wonderful settings.

Zoe: I’m always stunned by the Asian landscapes in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Darjeeling Limited; Africa in movies like Cairo Time; and European landscapes in movies like Enchanted April and A Good Year. But then there’s The Last Picture Show, Witness, Death Proof and even shows like “Shameless” (Chicago) that’s about a part of the city that’s never really represented.  I don’t like it when the background takes over the movie so much that you can’t focus on the story–like in Avatar–but, man, a beautiful, stunning or terrifying landscape definitely helps set the mood!

Justin: The background in Avatar was distracting, but then again as long as you know the story of Pocahontas, you really didn’t need to pay attention to the story. But you are right setting of a movie can really make or break it. A horror film set in sunny California isn’t going to scare me as much as one set in the middle of doom and gloom nowhere.

Zoe: Unless it’s IRONIC that the zombies are hanging out in California!  Just kidding, that’s the worst kind of not-really-irony that movies use to try to seem clever…  But I know what you’re saying.  Just like it’s cheesy when it rains when people are sad, it’s best to have a landscape/seascape/cityscape that supports and reinforces your story, whether it’s joy, foreboding or doom.

Justin: With all this talk of locations, I feel it is only fair to mention that there is a very beautiful country at the moment that is in turmoil after devastating earthquakes and a tsunami. Any assistance you may be able to give toward helping Japan recover would mean a lot to those over there who have lost everything. This could mean donating 10 dollars to the Red Cross or even donating some of your time by working in places that are getting stuff ready to ship over there. Anything helps. Hopefully in the coming years we can begin to see Japan rebuild their beautiful country.

Zoe: That’s completely sappy, Justin, but your heart is in the right place.

Justin: I try. I also have a couple of friends who are currently being evacuated from Japan, so this tragedy hit a little closer to home than I like. Even still, this is a horrible situation that people are going to have to work together to help Japan survive.

Zoe: Keep in mind people fighting for their freedom, too.

Justin: Anyway, on a lighter note, Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone. Go out and have a nice pint of Guinness. Just make sure it has a shamrock on top when they pour it because that really is the only proper way to drink one. Although I still feel that Guinness is just liquid bread.

Zoe:It is!  And don’t forget to tip your staff!

Justin: Spoken like someone who has worked in the service industry. But seriously don’t forget. They work hard.

Zoe: Actually I just like saying “tip” and “staff” in the same sentence.  🙂

Justin: Zoe, you dirty dirty girl and on that note I think we shall end.