Movie Article: American Cities on Film

Written by Ana de Souza September 25, 2013

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Now that we’ve taken a quick cinematic tour through Europe, let’s look at something closer to home – and more easily accessible. As one of the world’s leading countries in film, the US has had more than its fair share of cities molded, transformed, and artistically captured onscreen. Directors of all nationalities and backgrounds have become pros at bestowing life upon these different spaces and rendering American cities in their films as important as any self-absorbed protagonist. So whether you’re feeling a little lazy but still want to travel (and praise yourself for it), or whether you’re in the mood to get in touch with all that is weird and wonderful about the American Dream, here are a few film ideas to get your journey started.

New Orleans, Louisiana: “Easy Rider” (Dennis Hopper, 1969)

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Ok, admittedly “Easy Rider” falls under the category of a road film if there ever was one. And thus technically speaking there is no set ‘city’ that permeates the entire film. Nonetheless, on their wild and reckless motorcycle adventures, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) have the end goal of reaching New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. And what an appropriate ambition; much like “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas”, “Easy Rider” capitalizes on its protagonists’ heavy hallucinogenic drug use to emphasize the surreal atmosphere of the city. From the circus-like people mulling around in half-finished costumes, to the feral festivities that seem almost ritualistic, New Orleans comes alive as a place of mystery, madness, and marijuana, culminating into one hell of a trip.

New York City, New York: “Manhattan” (Woody Allen, 1979)

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Woody Allen’s personal love letter to the most consistent muse and companion of his tempestuous life is a tour de force of poetry, longing, and intoxicating black-and-white photography.  Though New York became a consistent source of inspiration for Allen throughout his career, nowhere is his love for the city that never sleeps more evident than in “Manhattan”. The duotone cinematography instills the image with a simultaneous sense of gritty urbanism and romantic poeticism, rendering the city a space where you’re as likely to run into an angry commuter on the subway as to meet the love of your life. Some filmmakers seem as though they were born to immortalize certain images in film; in pouring his soul (and several intimate, personal details) into “Manhattan”, Allen has crafted an homage to his true soul mate.

Los Angeles, California: “(500) Days of Summer” (Marc Webb, 2009)

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So putting aside the fact that there are an infinite amount of stunning films that capture the essence of Los Angeles, it’s worth looking at one that never explicitly acknowledges its setting, other than a passing comment by Summer that they live in “one of the most beautiful cities in the world”. Much as it has become iconic, Los Angeles – and particularly the downtown area – has often been perceived as a city that has somehow lost its sense of history and beauty in the course of its development. “(500) Days of Summer” proves otherwise, crafting the city into a space of tranquility, art, and culture – with a good dose of karaoke thrown in. From Tom’s observation that the splendor in the streets can be found by simply looking up at the architecture (rather than the street level entrances), to the heart-stopping moment where he captures the Los Angeles skyline on Summer’s arm, “(500) Days of Summer” immortalizes LA in a subtle and discreet manner. Instead of bawdily proclaiming its location, it allows the city to naturally foster a love story that, much like many elements in its make-up, deals predominantly with illusions.

Chicago, Illinois: “The Blues Brothers” (John Landis, 1980)

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If cities had permanent soundtracks, then the Blues would definitively align itself with Chicago. It comes as no surprise that of the greatest examples of the cinematic worship of blues music should be set in the Windy City. “The Blues Brothers” generates an air of authenticity through its notable location shooting, which not only captured the central areas of the city but rather explored its seedy and alluring urban underbelly, depicting everything from back alleys to steel works. As the perfect inspiration for powerful, sustained blues riffs, Chicago evokes an air of alternative culture that “The Blues Brothers” harnesses to maximum effect through its foot-tapping soundtrack and its unforgettable, quirky characters and one-liners. Essentially, the film is one of few that can get away with destroying its setting as an act of love.

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