Archives for category: maps of cinema

The difference between a shitty rejection and one you can live with boils down to some small amount of kindness. I hereby submit a rejection notice from Anna Sloan at Sussex as evidence of how to be a decent person in a rejection notice. I hope she doesn’t mind my quoting from her email to me:

I hope that you will consider submitting it to the conference committee as a stand-alone paper, and I very much hope that you will have success with it.

That’s all it takes. As far as I’m concerned, Anna Sloan goes to the front of the line.

This was my proposal, which, as per usual, is a pretty great idea that I feel like I don’t explain as well as I ought to:

The Geography of Prestige: Narrative Settings and The Oscars, 1929-1976 (the map of locations)

Where is an Oscar-winner? This presentation will consider the location of Oscar-nominated films to understand the where of prestige in Hollywood. Setting matters in terms of narrative, form, and ideology, and this presentation will locate the narrative, formal and ideological shifts in Hollywood cinema on the map with Hollywood’s autobiographical account of Quality Cinema – the Best Picture nomination – as its metric.

This presentation will begin with a map of the narrative locations of the films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar from 1929 through 1976. A second set of maps based on US Census demographic data will profile the film-going audience on a national, state, and regional scale, for example, the most populous, most affluent and most impoverished areas in relation to narrative locations. Placing these two sets of maps into conversation across three broad periods – 1929-1944, 1946-1960, and 1961-1976 – I will trace the history of the locations of prestige in relation to changing American demographics, and speculate, with close readings of representative films, on how and why their setting signals quality to the contemporary audience. By mapping the locations of Oscar nominees, I will consider the locations that classical Hollywood prestige pictures used to position a particular set of American landscapes to prominence, and the degree of change caused by the breakup of the old system.

My piece on Burt Reynolds and American cinema history showed up today on Post45, here. Everyone I dealt with at Post45 was a joy: Merve Emre, JD Connor, Sean McCann, and an anonymous reader I think may have been Derek Nystrom were all terrifically helpful and their input made the article better.

Post45 screenshot

I take some comfort in the fact that the stuff I’ve had the most success in placing is the most recently-written stuff. The old crud from my dissertation has taken a ton of effort to get up to publication snuff. I think this means that I’ve improved.

Because someone has to win one of the NEH Fellowships, and I didn’t see any NZ/Australia-based winners from the last few years, I put together an application. According to the NEH, applying for the fellowship has an eight percent chance of success. Seeing as how I have lived through a once-in-a-lifetime series of earthquakes and I’m moving to a place that has gone through once-every 100/50/etc floods, I will take comfrot in the gambler’s fallacy. The narrative section of my application:

“The World Atlas of American Cinema, 1927-2000” combines digital cartography with close readings of representative films to write a history of twentieth century American sound narrative cinema at the intersection of the geographies of narrative location, production, consumption and taste. The Atlas project will reorient and redraw the boundaries of film history both literally and figuratively by cataloguing films’ narrative locations on digital maps to examine where we mean when we say “American cinema.” Does American cinema mean a movie set in contemporary suburban Los Angeles, 1970s New York, a mid-century Midwestern small town, a Gilded Age Wild West town, a Civil War plantation, all of the above, or none of the above? Has American cinema meant the same narrative locations throughout its history? Where are the privileged – and invisible – narrative locations in American cinema? Film has from its beginnings been a major part of urban – and increasingly suburban – life, in theatres, nickelodeons, picture palaces, and multiplexes. As film exhibition has migrated, have film settings migrated as well? Do the films that make up the top twenty box office, year-end awards lists, and film studies syllabi describe the same country?

To answer these questions, the Atlas will first approach American narrative cinema as a massive data set. I will use the American Film Institute Catalog indices, and observation, to collect data on the major narrative locations for films found in the yearly top-twenty of domestic box office list, on prestige lists such as the Oscars, and in undergraduate film studies course syllabi. I will then superimpose this cinema-location data onto maps of contemporary demographic, economic, political and industrial data taken from, among other sources, US Census data and the National Association of Theater Owners’ yearly Encyclopedia of Exhibition. The Atlas will expand the work of digital humanities, one of the critical new areas for humanities research in the twenty-first century, by tracing the interactions of American cinema’s narrative locations and the historical-contextual maps of the American century will reveal previously invisible connections – and gaps – in the popular, critical, and academic geography of Hollywood film, will provide the impetus for more focused attention to the particular locations of American identity as reflected in the films that Americans watch, admire, and study.

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The call seemed to imply that it was more a “talk about a theorist and then a text” panel rather than a “talk about a text with a theorist in mind”, which led to a little bit of a pasted-together feel. But I think the sense that action movie heroes, in their evasive maneuvers, treat the lines on maps as facts that are changeable or open to negotiation, is fun enough.

The Bourne Geography

Michel de Certeau “is interested in the relationships of place as a fixed position and space as a realm of practices – counterposing the fixity of the map to the practice of travelling” (Crang 137-8). Jason Bourne, who almost always has a map at hand in the Bourne series, conceives of mapped space in just this way. The CIA, with instant access to every surveillance camera and satellite in operation, as well as global police information-sharing networks, cares only about fixing position. Because of their inability to conceive of the fluidity of space, Bourne eludes them from the Mediterranean to Midtown Manhattan.

For example, in the Figure 1 below, from The Bourne Identity, the CIA want to place Bourne and Marie. They put a yellow pin on the paper map; it’s their best guess of where to find they because “They were in Paris at 2 am. They can’t fly. The train’s too dangerous.” In other words, the CIA did the very same thing the police did in Figure 2, from M, a film released more than seventy years previous to fix a point and an area on the map.

In Figure 3, Bourne tears an emergency exit route placard from the wall, not for the route to escape fire, but for the routes throughout the building. The map places stairwells, fire extinguishers, and fire escapes, but it also reveals paths to travel – both for Bourne and his pursuers. While his pursuers seek out one point on the map – Bourne’s exact position, as relayed through their communication system – Bourne seeks any open path.

In other words, the police wish to affix Bourne to a place, and arrest his travels, whereas Bourne wishes to continue travelling, by whatever means, through the same space. Bourne prevails because he is able quickly to turn the fixity of the map into a practice of travelling. A window is as good as a door; a sheer face is as good as a stairwell. Or, to use a later chase scene example, on the map stairs connect parallel roads, and while it’s not the normal use, but a motorbike can travel on the stairs. The more the fixed information on the map can be used for travel, both within and beyond its planned use, the greater Bourne’s – or anyone’s, really – potential for freedom.

Crang, Mike. “Relics, Places and Unwritten Geographies in the Work of Michel de Certeau (1925-86).” Thinking Space. Mike Crang and Nigel Thrift ed. London: Routledge, 2000. 136-53.

Bourne Identity Marie in France 3

M map 1

Bourne Identity route finding 1

I wasn’t terribly confident that Post45 would be interested in my Burt Reynolds article, since it’s a bit more larkish than what they normally put out. But their promise of fast turnaround meant that I wouldn’t lose much if they turned me down. JD Connor got things moving by telling me to send what I had – he’d have comments and a decision in short order. He wasn’t kidding: in two weeks they came to their accepted-with-revisions verdict.

Now to generate publication-quality maps.

Two people have been brilliant lately.

First off, Peter Goodall, the editor at Journal of Language, Literature and Culture (formerly AUMLA) has been exceptionally understanding. I was under the impression that my article was slated for June, so I had put off securing image rights. When the publication schedule changed, Peter gave me a deadline extension that bought me the time to secure image rights, and for that he deserves recognition as the sort of editor we ought to have in more places.

Second,Nicole Dittrich at the Syracuse University Library Special Collections Research Center, has been exceptionally helpful and forbearing. Every frazzled and panicked email I sent her received a cool and reassuring response in a matter of hours (no small trick with an eighteen hour time difference). I am extremely grateful that she located the materials in Box 49 of the Dorothy Thompson collection for me.

Contagion’s film-closing montage of the progress of a virus from bat to pig to Gwyneth Paltrow is one of those please-teach-me-in-101 moments, but I’d probably go with a different montage if I were to teach the film. Steven Soderberg and Stephen Mirrione’s global supply chain sequence compresses time and space by honing in on shipping containers,

Contagion global supply chain

and since to live in Christchurch is to know shipping containers quite intimately, I’d probably use the shipping container bit to talk up montage (this is next to Alice’s):


Tom Conley’s Cartographic Cinema pays close attention to maps that appear on screen, and the maps in Contagion create a set of boundaries not unlike the world represented in this Risk advert that obscures New Zealand completely and leaves about twenty percent of Australia peeking out:


Adding to the work of the montages in establishing a globalized world, maps fill the edges of Contagion’s mise en scene with reminders that the danger is expanding to every corner. Contagion bases a fair amount of its scariness on the way in which the virus hits the developed world – and its hypermobility – so hard. But that’s not to say that the virus spreads over the entire globe.

Contagion map outbreak 1

Contagion outbreak 5

Contagion outbreak 4

Contagion map outbreak 2

Contagion map outbreak 3

In all of the outbreak map appearances, New Zealand doesn’t even appear, protected by oceans, distance, and a tendency to forget that almost five million of us live down here. However, I see a large swath of red covers southeast Australia. Who’s the lucky country now?

Mucking about in ESRI’s online version of ArcGIS, I’ve whacked together a bunch of maps full of points to start looking for patterns in the narrative settings of the yearly box office top twenty. One thing that jumps out about 1991, even in comparison to the years before and after it, is the way in which film settings move to less-frequently chosen spots like Alabama and southern Georgia (Fried Green Tomatoes) Memphis, Baltimore, and eastern Ohio (Silence of the Lambs), western PA near Pittsburgh (My Girl), Cedar Rapids IA (Sleeping With the Enemy), North Carolina (Cape Fear),  and, to a lesser extent, vacation-spot New Hampshire (What About Bob?) and western Mass. (Prince of Tides).

(click to enlarge)

The next year shows some continued work from keen location scouts – parts of upstate New York (Last of the Mohicans) and a touch of rural Oregon (A League of Their Own) plus some Oklahoma land theft rush (Far and Away). And in spite of Unforgiven returning to some of the Wyoming and Plains settings familiar to westerns, there’s a lot more of a big city orbit for 1992 – plenty of Chicago, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles:

The map that the locations rest on top of represents median household income for the decade. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the films are set in the darker (higher median income) counties. The purple dot in the yellow county is a bit of an outlier, because that’s for the Louisiana prison in JFK.  So even when a 1991 escapes the usual shooting locations, it retains a solidly middle-class grounding. I would also note that the darkest, that is to say most affluent, counties are also quite sparsely represented. Housesitter looks at well-to-do architects and their mentally unbalanced guests, and so takes place in an affluent Boston suburb; but Silence of the Lambs takes place in a rich county only because training center is at Quantico, not because Clarice is loaded (although Biltmore will make an appearance in a sequel, not that Clarice lives there).

Part of me ought to be a little upset about Topkapi, the film version of Eric Ambler’s Light of Day. First of all, the ending is completely different. So different that I thought that it was a fantasy sequence before the “real” ending. Second of all, I don’t see what whitewashing Arthur Abdel Simpson into Arthur Simon Simpson really accomplishes, especially since Arthur’s statelessness as an Egyptian-English living on the edges of legality in Greece still haunts the film. And third of all, I can understand why you’d turn Simpson into a supporting role – he comes on, screws up, gets the laughs, and then exits so we can get back to the caper business that he’ll soon screw up – for a straight ahead caper picture, but why bother with a character as compelling as Arthur Abdel Simpson unless you’re going to do something a little different with the film as a whole? All those changes to a book that does so much interesting shit on its own seems to be the sure way to ruin what good there is in Light of Day.* But formally it’s not a straight ahead caper picture.

It’s hard not to love Peter Ustinov’s performance as Simpson. But I was well and truly won over by the film’s style: the lens flares in the title sequence, the overloaded post-title sequence at the fair, the intensely strange I-can-feel-the-acid-coming-on blotches of colour as Melina Mercouri narrates the opening, and Jules Dassin’s visualization of Simpson’s fear of heights, for example, all frame the film as something other than a simple caper. Which is not to say that Jules Rififi Dassin doesn’t deliver on that score. Topkapi doesn’t go for the self-aware smugness of a caper picture that doesn’t care about the caper. Instead, the visuals repeatedly remind us that there’s something excessive in the caper. Or, perhaps more to the point, The International Caper Big Heist Picture.

The film deploys maps to great effect – they are the province of the security services and the police. Whereas the novel’s endpapers feature a map of the Mediterranean, the first time we see a map in the film, Simpson is undergoing an interrogation shot on the edges of parody (with one interrogator up close, and another few across the room):

At the end of the interrogation, the sunglasses-inside intelligence chief points to the map with a gun in a comically menacing gesture which translates Ambler’s usual approach to police authority fairly well.

When the thieves are caught, once again, a map hovers in the background as testament to the ways in which the police and secret services control space, in spite of what the smugly unified thieves might think:

Finally, the travelogue-style shots of Istanbul feature a number of interesting shots of shanty settlements, which once again places Topkapi outside the 007-style tourist vision of exotic foreign locales. At no point does the film get into overt politics, but Jules Dassin (who has it over Ambler as a committed and active lefty), even in his second-unit establishing shots, places his film in something closer to a lived-in world, rather than the world of the International Location Shoot Picture.

*I have an article (that may some day get published, Karen Elizabeth Bishop I’m rooting for you) about stateless cartography in Light of Day and Dirty Story, Ambler’s Simpson novels. In the article, I see Simpson as a stateless person who sees the future. That is, the solution that Simpson finds to the problem of post-War statelessness is an ironic embrace of the multinational corporate model: establishing a fictional personhood wherever the greatest financial and regulatory advantages are at the moment, through incorpoation documents (passports, forged of course).

While I’m not particularly interested in the geography of Norwegian cinema – unless and until my Fulbright application to University of Bergen is successful – Troll Hunter finds room for three Tom Conley in Cartographic Cinema style scenes featuring maps that drive my reading of the film.

First of all, the film is a wonderful through-the-windscreen travelogue of Norway.

Then there’s the film’s eminently sensible way of explaining why Hans would open up to the student film crew: a troll hunter’s working conditions are for shit. And even the non-dangerous stuff is soul-crushing in a Scandinavian bureaucracy run amok kind of way.

For my purposes, Troll Hunter’s use of maps rhymes nicely with the film’s Cloverfield Troll Project aesthetic. Going back into the fairy-tale past – Troll Hunter frequently returns to questions of fairy tales not matching the real nature of trolls – demands reference to an older sort of map.As Mike Peterson explained to me recently, the vast majority of topographical maps that we use today are the product of hand-tracing in the pre-digital cartography era. Accordingly, in the build up to the film’s final showdown, Hans busts out a standard-issue paper topographical map of Dovre:

On their way to Dovre, Hans and the film crew visit a power station, where they are shown a map of the area the station powers, once again on a paper topographical map:

All of this makes sense, because the maps that Hans has already shown the film crew are similarly paper-based topographical maps:

This may seem hardly worth noting, but Troll Hunter is set in the present day of its release, 2010. Student journalists have digital cameras; Hans texts his supervisor at TSS. It is a world with google earth. For a film with a shady government agency, cross-country tracking of prey, and a bunch of Big Scary Monsters that threaten Our Way of Life, Troll Hunter assiduously avoids the usual Hollywood genre conventions of, most notably, lots of CGI, but also of the high-tech HQ full of digital maps, like in the Bourne movies (which still feel compelled to include a paper map, like a security blanket).

But instead, like the film itself, something more self-consciously “hand-made” appears most powerfully not as the CG trolls, but in Hans’ obsessively annotated troll maps.