Movies, Take Me Away

Cinema that transports

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Not long ago, I asked my friends to divulge their cinematic guilty pleasures, what they watch when no one is watching. I wasn’t sure what kind of response I would get, but I needn’t have worried. They provided me with enough fodder for not just one article, but for an entire still-ongoing series that has been dubbed “Cinema of Shame.”

During these COVID-constrained times, when our lives and geographic footprints are smaller, and exotic travel is not only inadvisable, but also impossible given how many countries have travel restrictions forbidding people from the United States from visiting (thanks, President Trump and your mishandling of the pandemic).

But movies are nothing if not transportive, and since we’re all stuck at home or close to it, traveling via our televisions is the easiest way to make the most of our summer vacations. And while I have my own ideas about the films that really evoke a strong sense of a particular place, I thought it might be far more interesting to poll my knowledgeable and opinionated friends for what they watch when they want to be anywhere but where they are.

I’d expected them to offer up suggestions that are set in well-trod travel destinations, and some of them certainly did that. However, as with the Cinema of Shame, I vastly underestimated their creativity on this particular topic. Sure, there might’ve been a few folks who mentioned such well-loved movies as A Room with a View, which takes viewers to Florence, Italy, as only a Merchant-Ivory production can, and Amelie, which makes both Paris and Audrey Tautou appear to be made of magic, but by and large, most of the suggestions were either closer to home or out of this world. And much like its Cinema of Shame predecessor, my social media post garnered a lot of info on a very short timeline—the thread is closing in on a hundred comments with more movies surely to come.

A side note: Much of the fodder to be found on the internet these days seems determined to divide us—and is doing a pretty good job of it. However, the only thing you’ll find in the long comment threads for my Cinema of Shame and travel movies posts is people, many of them strangers to one another, engaged in a lively and positive discussion about that which they love. Conversations about movies certainly won’t fix the world’s many immediate ills, but they probably don’t hurt anything either.

Digressions aside, let’s get down to it.

My longtime friend Carly Henry, who I would classify as a cinephile, was quick to proffer Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing as a movie that captures the essence of what it’s like to truly live in New York City. Given that’s where Henry currently resides, I’m inclined to believe her. “I loved this movie before I even moved to New York,” she says, “because it captured the feel of the summer in the city so perfectly. I could feel the sweatiness and the humidity through the screen. And also the fact that it amplified everyone’s impatience and crankiness. At the same time, there is more of a sense of community because everyone is outside on their stoop, having a block party or running through open hydrant water together to cool down. It’s a pretty true depiction of New York.” If you haven’t watched the 1989 Oscar-nominated film that made Spike Lee a household name, its story of simmering racial tension set against the heat of a New York summer has never felt more immediate or relevant.

While many people suggested lighthearted fare like Under the Tuscan Sun and Roman Holiday (and I commend each and every one of them for staying far, far away from Eat, Pray, Love), a goodly number of the movies that take people away appear to be darker in subject matter. No film got more mentions than City of God, which details life in Brazil—but we’re not talking beaches and Carnival here. Instead, the movie centers on the rise of organized crime in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. With a tagline of “If you run, the beast catches you; if you stay, the beast eats you,” this is not exactly the stuff of travelogues, but in the hands of director Fernando Meirelles and a cast comprised mostly of nonprofessional actors, it’s an exhilarating slice of life in a brutal and undeniably beautiful place. Well worth a watch, according to my discerning friends.

Australia also was a cinematic destination for a few folks—but no one was talking about Crocodile Dundee as being a classic among travel movies. Instead, a friend from a former book group, Daryl Madill, proffered Rabbit-Proof Fence, about three young aboriginal girls of the “Stolen Generation” who escape from a settlement camp and walk 1,500 miles while being pursued by government officials to return to their aboriginal lands. Meanwhile, Heather Seevers says The Proposition—written by Nick Cave—“really makes you feel like you are in frontier Australia—and it is not a comfortable feeling; you can almost feel the heat and the flies.”

Not to be outdone, longtime Pickford Film Center volunteer Dieter Martin apparently travels to Australia via Wake in Fright—and if you’ve ever seen this deranged flick, you know full well why I am occasionally concerned by how many times Dieter has watched and recommended it. It’s graphic kangaroo-hunt sequence aside, he says, “Wake in Fright really gives me a contradictory sense of claustrophobia in the Australian Outback. There are many wide-open spaces, but it all starts to close in on the main character by the end of his journey.”

As with the Cinema of Shame, this only barely scratches the surface of the many inspired suggestions I received, so look for a future installment of movies that take us to destinations near and far. I’ll try and populate that one with movies that cause slightly less discomfort. But at least I know which of my friends I do not wish to travel with, if ever we’re able to travel again.

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