In this episode of our podcast, I have a conversation with Sean Axmaker – a prolific film essayist and critic. We explore how some films provide us with a strong sense of place. We not only focus on specific films – but also take a peek at the methods filmmakers use to give us a robust feel for places.
What is it about certain films that provide us with such a powerful, intimate experience of the places they depict? We sit in the dark feeling the cold, damp mist on the screen or the weary, yet resilient, emotional tones of a gritty, war-torn city. The best films do much more than faithfully re-present physical locations with clinical accuracy; they excel at triggering emotional associations that deepen our understanding of places – regardless of whether these places are familiar to us, locales we long to visit, or completely fabricated locations that only exist within the film’s world.
Sean Axmaker and I have a wide-ranging conversation where we bring specific films to the table that have amazed us with memorable and intense presentations of places such as Berlin, New York City, a stylized Paris, and a not-so-futuristic view of Los Angeles. Some of the films we discuss include:
- Wings of Desire (1987)
- Alice in the Cities (1974)
- The American Friend (1977)
- Taxi Driver (1976)
- Manhattan (1979)
- Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
- The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
- Blade Runner (1982)
- Playtime (1967)
- The Conformist (1970)
- Slacker (1991)
Taxi Driver has a mythic, Stygian presentation – shot at night with the camera looking out the window…looking at the steam rising out of the manhole covers…an expressionist, theatrical portrait.
Long takes or jump cuts?
In addition to chatting about specific films, we also evaluate filmmaking methods used to create indelible imprints of actual and fictional locations. Must a filmmaker opt for long, unblinking takes of physical locations and actors for us to absorb the feel of the locales? Are films relying on heavy usage of editing cuts undermining our attempts to get a sense of the place where the action unfolds? Do heavily stylized films stymie our desire to settle into a presentation of place by making the artifice obvious to us?