Does it matter if a movie set in America is filmed in Romania? Does it matter if the location has been generated by computer? The answer is no, and yesby Mark Cousins / December 18, 2004 / Leave a comment
Think of Taxi Driver and its unforgettable depiction of the teeming nightlife in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen district. Or the Rome of Bicycle Thieves. Or Los Angeles in Michael Mann’s Heat. Or the Iranian villages in the films of Makhmalbaf. In each case the setting is not just the world out of which the characters grow, but also, somehow, the reason why the film exists.
This is not always the case with great movies. The oft-quoted example is Casablanca, not a foot of which was shot on location. Studio filming lent it a seductive veneer. The flaws and accidents of real life were nowhere to be seen.
Conversely, real locations can generate vitality. Our eyes dart around the screen, fixing on the details of street life and real faces. Roland Barthes used the word “punctum” to describe the piercing effect that such unplanned photographic detail can have.
All this is relevant again because of two new trends in mainstream cinema. The first is “runaway” production, where cities like Toronto are used to stand in for Manhattan to save money. In 1990, no Hollywood movies with budgets over $25m were filmed abroad. In 1998, 24 were, and the figure is rising (the number of smaller-budgeted runaway films nearly doubled in the same period). The state of California reckons that nearly $10bn of its $34bn film and television industry is being lost as producers go elsewhere. Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain was a particular bone of contention last year when it used Romania to stand in for North Carolina, thus slashing its $150m budget to around $80m.
The second trend is just as significant. The newest instalment in George Lucas’s Star Wars saga was shot almost entirely against green screens, with computer-generated locations “added in post,” as was the recent Jude Law vehicle Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Neither of these films have radically new content – they derive from serials like Buck Rogers and city movies such as Metropolis – but when you add together the influence of CGI backgrounding and runaway production, you begin to reduce the role that real locations play in the cinema.
The obvious response to this is concern that films are getting less authentic. But it is hard to get worked up about authenticity in cinema. The opening 20 minutes of one of Roman Polanski’s best films illustrates a more interesting issue. In The Tenant…