Friday, August 01, 2003
New York Subway map (section)

Poetic License and Geography

New York at the Movies

New York is the setting for more movies than any other city. It also houses more than its fair share of geographreaks. This is a problem for geographically challenged directors. One professional New York geographreak offers cases in point—and a cautionary note to filmmakers.



Ok…so what? :)  I’m not so in love with the city that I give a crap if filmmakers screw up geography for a visually more appealing shot (or for any other reason).  You really think the rest of the world cares? :).  Come on. 

Listen up: I’m not a New Yorker, and I’m proud of it.  I’ve been to New Jersey, I’ve been to the city, and I’d much rather live in Jersey (it’s called The Garden State for a reason) than in that overpriced, self important, concrete outhouse.

I lived in Orlando, FL for 17 years, and the film “Ulee’s Gold” made some similar errors (I saw they were really trying, though).  Yeah, it bothered me, but I’m not going to write an article about it. 

You have a great chance to make a point about where we’re willing to suspend disbelief and where we’re not, though…something readers from places other than New York City (meaning: the rest of the world) might actually care about.  _Big_, for example, uses magic to explain the transformation.  The magic itself isn’t explained.  It’s just magic.  That’s all we need, so we’ll let the unbelievable transformation slip. 

But if we’re from NYC and see the geography screwed up, we’re not willing to accept it. Why?  Because it doesn’t immediately serve any purpose, for one thing.  Because the rules of the film _Big_ tell us we’re living in a contemporary, realist geography (it’s not a science fiction film that’s supposed to take place on another planet).  The film sets boundaries between realism and the surreal, and we expect those boundaries to be respected.  We’re willing to allow Tom Hanks to get big, but we’re not willing to see houses with grass wallpaper.

This is very important to this particular movie because so much of its charm is dependent upon that realism/surrealism boundary being maintained, upon the two remaining in dialectic.  We love Tom Hanks’ character because he _realistically_ acts like a pre-teen kid trapped in an adult body and functioning in an adult world.  Respecting the boundary works so well in other parts of the film that it bothers us when it’s screwed up—like when street names are wrong.

Now, if you wanted to write more about this…that’d really be something.  As it is, being a New Yorker you think the city itself is all important.

Take a moment and let this sink in: not to the rest of us.


Posted by Jim Rovira on 02 Aug 03 at 01:57 AM

Okay, I’m amused by the writer’s NY-centric worldview.

The thing is, he’s right: getting the geography right matters.

Okay, I’m not a New Yorker, I’m from Washington DC, but I will admit there are times when my attention is yanked hard by a film maker’s lapse of geographical good sense.

As a DC resident, I can show you geographical errors in every movie filmed here. And yes, Broadcast News does indeed contain some nonsense about taking the Beltway to Dupont Circle (a physical impossibility on par with, say, taking the Holland Tunnel to Central Park), which bothers me still. How can we believe James L. Brooks knows his way around the human heart when he (or his assistants) can’t be bothered to read a street map?

Watch any John Waters film and you’ll see a geographically accurate Baltimore. I’m sure he’s not the only director who knows his way around a map, but he may be among a shrinking number of directors who know why it matters.

As for “poetic license,” don’t confuse this term with laziness – it’s acceptable only when done on purpose to achieve a particular effect. As at the end of Robert Altman’s dreadful adaptation of Christopher Durrang’s Beyond Therapy, when the camera pulls back from the New York apartment house to reveal the Eiffel Tower on the horizon – we’re to understand that NYC has been poetically transformed into the City of Love, and not that Altman couldn’t find any stock footage of the New York skyline.

The novelist John Gardner said “fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind. We may observe, first, that if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous…”

By misinforming the viewer with bad or erroneous visual cues, the slipshod director interrupts that continuous dream, distracts the viewer’s attention, makes it harder for the viewer to offer up the good will necessary to navigate these, uh, cultural landmarks.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03 Sep 03 at 04:09 PM

Yeah, I can see that.  I was probably being a bit of a Jerk, but that’s only because I identify more with NJ than with NY :). 

It can only be an issue, though, to the relatively limited number of people (as opposed to worldwide moviegoers) who have actually lived in, say, DC or NY or still do.  So is the viewer being meaningfully “misinformed” if he/she has never been to the city being misrepresented geographically?  For example, Sweet Home Alabam depicts places probably neither of us have visited…do we care enough to do the geographical research required to make sure they were being accurate?

No :).  Who cares, it’s Alabama.


Posted by Jim Rovira on 03 Sep 03 at 04:14 PM

Good point raised there about viewers being “meaningfully misinformed.” If i’m not aware of the error, will it spoil my good time?

I guess it’s important to acknowledge that we’re not watching documentaries here. How much accuracy can we demand? I’ll risk this answer: As much as the story needs to make its case to the viewer. Then again, as is suggested in any number of old blues songs, some folks just can’t be satisfied.

Heh, I could go back and forth like this all day, but I’d need more coffee.

As for Sweet Home, Alabama – I’ll have to check with the wife, she’s from just outside Birmingham. But I bet she’ll have more to say about the bad accents that any geographical inconsistency. Hmm. Maybe accents constitute a verbal geography?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 03 Sep 03 at 04:55 PM

I agree with your point overall—if we think the world the filmmaker has created doesn’t ring true where it should, then we won’t like the film.  I think I tried to make this point in my initial reply. 

The problem is this varies from viewer to viewer.  If Tom Hanks in “Big,” for example, had been able to drive perfectly the first time he got into a car, most viewers would have a problem with that.  If geography and accent is wrong (my wife’s the same way about southern accents—she can tell you what part of what state you’re from by your accent, so long as it’s the south), only local viewers won’t like it.

But they won’t like it for the same reasons all viewers wouldn’t like Tom Hank’s character in Big being able to instantaneously drive.


Posted by Jim Rovira on 03 Sep 03 at 05:07 PM

I agree completely. I also think casting directors are guilty of similar crimes of inconsistency. For even a minimally educated audience several problems arise in suspending disbelief when viewing certain groupings cast in film as blood relations. My best example of this is in The Ring (American Version). The estranged couple trying to figure out the deadly haunte dvideo tape played by Naomi Watts and Martin Henderson, both of whom have green/blue eyes. Their child played by David Dorfman on the other hand has brown eyes. On a basic leve of Mendelian genetic traits, this is impossible. Which leads me to think during the whole film that “hey kid, your mom’s been sleeping around.” Now I know this makes me a complete nerd - my friends to whom I have complained on this topic have told me so. I understand casting relationship rolls is incredibly difficult, and on-screen chemistry and acting ability can usually overcome such physical discrepencies, but hey, I’m pretty sure despite resistance to teaching evolution theory anywhere before college, we all had to learn about dominant and recessive genes by the 10th grade, probably using the very example of eye color or the more obtuse model with Medel’s own green and yellow peas. This isn’t going to burden everyone, but for me, it really takes me out of the film, and ruins many a sublime moment . I suppose I have exacting requirements for seemlessness (when I see anything with the beautiful Cate Blanchett, it often takes me half the film just to stoip seeing her has Ms. Blanchett, and realize she is playing roll, simply because she is everywhere. same with Jude Law as of late), but maybe casting directors should take this into consideration, same as directors working in NYC.

Posted by Andy D on 14 Feb 05 at 07:46 PM

Dude, I like the ending part of your article. Yeah, we are New Yorkers and we don’t like movie makers, if not crazy talkers, to mess around with people’s mind about what a city the Big Apple really is. I remember one scene in Pay Back they used a scene of Seattle and told the audience it was in DC, and my wife got so pissed off that she gave a chain of names to John Woo.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 21 Feb 09 at 12:03 AM
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