Aspen Filmfest: a sense of place
September 29, 2009
ASPEN – As much as I enjoyed the recent romantic comedy “(500) Days of Summer,” one thing nagged at me: Where exactly did this story take place? After a while, the sense of dislocation became bothersome: Midwest? Northwest? Somewhere toward the end of the film, it was quietly slipped in that the setting was Los Angeles, though I had seen nothing – no beaches, no Hollywood sign, no landmark building, no references to the local sports team – to indicate where this story was set. Like a lot of genre films, this one seemed mostly to take place in Anywhere, U.S.A.
Filmmakers use a vague sense of place for a variety of reasons. The more generic the setting, the wider the potential audience that can relate to the story. The thinking seems to go: No way a moviegoer in Fresno is going to see a film set in St. Louis, or vice versa. And often (very often) movies are filmed in a place (Toronto, usually) that can’t be made to look like anything other than Toronto. Easier to just delete all references to a specific location.
Those attending Aspen Filmfest 2009 should suffer no such disorientation. In film after film in the program, the sense of place is distinctive, even vital to the narrative. These are stories – like “Casablanca,” “Fargo” or “Manhattan” – that could only be set in one place. As Laura Thielen, executive director of Aspen Filmfest puts it, “Place functions as character” in these films. So, through the 19 films that make up the 30th Filmfest, audiences will meet not only people – mountaineers and would-be terrorists, diplomats and immigrants, athletes and actors – but also places. When Filmfest comes to an end on Sunday, Oct. 4, audiences will have a better idea of the look and the dynamics of Mt. Everest, Harlem, remote villages from Bosnia to Afghanistan, Baghdad, Tel Aviv. And a strange, post-modern space known as Airworld.
Interestingly, two of the strongest depictions of location in Filmfest are in movies where the grasp of place is intentionally slippery and puzzling.
“Snow,” a drama which explores the aftermath of the Bosnian-Serbian war, is set in a tiny mountain village. The men have all been killed; the surviving women try to scratch out a living. In one scene, two women carry jars out to a roadside, where they hope to sell their fruits and jams to passing motorists. Their walk raises the questions: How far are they from civilization? How cut off are they from the rest of the world? Where exactly are they? We see the village with some clarity; what we don’t see is where the village sits in relation to the rest of the world.
“That little village is on the side of a mountain,” George Eldred, Aspen Film’s program director, said. “You could fall off. There’s a precariousness.” Thielen added that that atmosphere of spatial disorientation echoes the movie’s theme: “You get a sense of their complete cluelessness, of ‘What do we do?'”
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Aida Begic, the director and co-writer of “Snow,” goes even further in her examination of place. The primary stand of the plot comes when a pair of outsiders arrive with an offer to buy the entire village for a planned development. The offer divides the inhabitants, but also solidifies their attachment to the land.
“They can’t leave because the mountains are their family, their roots. The mountains are who they are, and the whole film is about how they can’t leave,” said Thielen.
Ryan Bingham, the corporate downsizing expert played by George Clooney in “Up in the Air,” lives not in a town or city that can be found on a map, but in a place familiar to anyone who has traveled the U.S. by plane. It’s Airworld – the term used in Walter Kirn’s novel – an unnervingly sanitized anti-location of airport terminals, jet cabins and efficiency hotels that look, feel and smell the same from coast to coast. Plop Bingham down anywhere in Airworld – a hotel lobby in Vegas, the reservations counter at DIA – and he’s in command, at home.
“He knows exactly what to do, immediately,” Eldred said. “He is in his element – like someone who’s at home in a bar. That is where he likes to be.
“There’s a whole history of romanticizing seaports, that flavor of a seaport town, and then train stations, and how it felt to be on a train. And now we have Airport World.”
Take Ryan out of his comfort zone – as he is threatened with in the film adaptation directed by Jason Reitman – and panic sets in. “You can tell how uncomfortable he is when he gets out of those environments,” Thielen said. “You see the chinking away when he gets out of those places. He becomes destabilized. His apartment – there’s no art work, no character at all.”
“Nomad’s Land” is specifically about place – or make that places. Swiss filmmaker Gael Metroz’s documentary traces the route – from Western Europe through Persia, into Central Asia and to Sri Lanka – explored in the mid-’50s by Nicolas Bouvier. Metroz finds early on that the spots Bouvier wrote about in his travelogue “The Way of the World” have been so drastically altered by politics, war and religion that they could be said to no longer exist. Eventually, and with sadness, Metroz concludes that his journey – any journey – is necessarily personal and of its own time. Wandering with nomads through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, he creates his own view of place and travel.
“After the Storm” and “For My Father” tell site-specific stories. “After the Storm” is a documentary about an effort to stage a musical in post-Katrina New Orleans. Director Hilla Medalia’s reflects the emotional and logistical stumbling blocks on the city’s road to recovery, while the footage reveals the vastness of the devastation. “For My Father,” set in Tel Aviv, captures the tense co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. The film is set largely on one block, where the ancient buildings, the dustiness, the clothing and the bustling Carmel Market all help to capture the distinctive feel and history of the city.
“More Than a Game” and “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” reveal connections between young people, the particular places they live, and their dreams for the future. The former is a documentary of Lebron James and his high school basketball teammates on their quest for a national championship. “They’re in that classic basketball country,” Eldred said. “They go from one basketball court to another in Middle American, medium-sized Midwestern cities. It’s like its own world.”
“Precious,” which earned three top awards at the Sundance Festival, is about an obese young woman trying to escape her Harlem existence. “It’s that urban nightmare world, the poverty-stricken, urban ghetto life that’s really claustrophobic if you know there’s an outside world but don’t know how to get to it.”
Filmfest opens Wednesday with a free community screening of “High Turns,” by Aspenite Mike Marolt. The documentary examines two of the world’s more unique spots: Mt. Everest and Aspen. The film follows Marolt’s expeditions skiing in the “death zone” above 7,000 meters on Everest, and tells of Aspen’s role in skiing history.
“For me, it’s really important to go to different places. It gives me a deeper appreciation of humanity,” Thielen said. Mentioning “Precious” and “Snow,” she said “it’s so much about environment, how environment defines us and how we define environments. These places reflect the characters.”
“And their emotional states, and where they’re going in their lives,” added Eldred.